Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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I AM aware that this autobiography differs drastically in many respects from the memoirs which appear from time to time in volumes written by men and women who have been associated with the great and the famous, even as it differs from those recollections which appear in the popular press and have to deal with half-forgotten scandals and the better forgotten transactions of sometime millionaires.
Essentially it is the story of the poor, and of one atom that climbed out of the thick mud which clogs the feet of the battling millions. If it encourages one ambitious child to strive to eminence, if it helps make lighter the lot of one man or one woman and gives hope where there is no hope, it will not have been written in vain.
Incidentally, this little autobiography is in itself a tribute to the system under which we live. There cannot be much wrong with a society which made possible the rise either of J. H. Thomas or Edgar Wallace, that gave "Jamie" Brown the status of a king in Scotland, and put Robertson at the War Office as Chief of the Imperial General Staff.
We were the poor who were not satisfied with our poverty; the lowly who grew to the stature of our faith and are growing still, I hope.
I have sought nothing so illusory as "success"—rather have I found new footholds from which to gain a wider view, new capacities for gratitude towards my fellow-man, and a new and heartfelt sense of humility as, from my little point of vantage on the ever-upward path, I watch the wondrous patience and courage of those who are struggling up behind me.
GENERALLY speaking, there is no mystery about birth, even in the least creditable circumstances. The most mysterious thing that can happen to any man is not to be born at all. Less mystery why, swathed (one presumes) in voluminous shawls, one should be carried from Ashburnham Road to a little court hard by the Deptford Creek which separates the Royal Town of Greenwich from the unsalubrious purlieus of Deptford.
I was adopted at the age of nine days. Otherwise there might have been for me a romantic upbringing in Greenwich Workhouse or one of those institutions whither motherless and fatherless persons of nine days old and having no visible means of support are brought to maturity. Happily, there was a philanthropist who heard of my plight, and having for the workhouse the loathing which is the proper possession of the proud poor, he dispatched Clara to fetch me,
"She's adopted", said Mr. Freeman, an autocrat in his way.
Nor when he discovered that he had been mistaken as to my sex did he vary his humane decision.
In name and fact he was Freeman—a liveryman of the Haberdashers' Company; a Freeman of the City of London—he could trace his ancestry back for five hundred years through family and city records. And he was a fish porter at Billingsgate Market. A stocky, big-featured man, with a powerful nose and a chin beard such as Abraham Lincoln wore.
I never saw him write anything but his name. I never saw him read anything but the New Testament—a big, calf-bound volume with leaves that were yellow from age. He used to "break out" about twice a year and drink brandy. Then was the Testament laid reverently aside, and he would fight any man of any size and beat him. Once he fought for two hours, perilously, on the edge of a deep cutting.
He had the strength of an ox; balanced on the flat leather hat he wore in business hours, he could carry heavy cases of fish, and they were no more to him than such chaplets as the patricians wore.
He never did a crooked thing in his life. His wife was the gentlest mother that ever lived. She could not write, but she could read. Mostly she read aloud the murders in the Sunday newspapers, and we discussed historic criminals—Peace, Palmer (whose trial she remembered) and such moderns as Mrs. Maybrick. I loved them and they loved me. They are dead, and I am the poorer for it.
I remember dimly the sinking of the Princess Alice. Greenwich had a maritime flavour in those days. It was a town of blue-jerseyed men, and in every other house in our neighbourhood was the model of a full-rigged ship. And over most parlour mantelpieces hung a collection of brightly coloured china rolling-pins, the exact significance of which I have never understood, except that they had to do with foreign travel.
My first vivid recollection in life is one of a sort of possessive pride in prison vans. The gloomy "Black Maria" that rumbled up the Greenwich Road every afternoon. I recollect giving the infants' class at St. Peter's School a miss and toddling up Trafalgar Street to see the gloomy tumbril pass in the rain, with a shiny warder sitting on a little knifeboard behind and a top-hatted driver under the tarpaulin apron in front.
I think Young Harry was in the van on his way to Wandsworth. And Young Harry was my adopted "brother." All his life he hated policemen and he had a passion for fighting them. Later, Tom took up this hobby, and they were both in Wandsworth together when, as a very small boy, I walked all the way to Wandsworth Prison to see it with my own eyes. I had a very proud feeling about Wandsworth Prison—I felt that it belonged to me; just as one feels towards the handsome residences which are occupied by rich relations.
Neither Tom nor Harry did anything much worse than assault the constabulary—but they did this so consistently that they were scarcely ever at home. Harry, lean of body and face, with a pair of deep-set dark eyes; Tom, fair and handsome: they have passed over. Drink killed them in the lifetime of their father.
"Young Dick", Harry used to say to me in all solemnity (one of my names is "Richard"), "if you don't eat up your pudden, how d'you expect to hit coppers?"
George Freeman heard of the discreditable exploits of his sons with scarcely a ruffle.
"Father, Harry's got three months."
He would look up from his large-print Testament. "Do him good", was his invariable comment—he was a loud conversationalist; in such moments as these he shouted.
Queer that he and his gentle wife should rear such children as they had. He lived a Christian life, was just to all men, fearless—he could not lie.
At three o'clock every morning, winter and summer, he left his house for Billingsgate Market. When I was old enough I sometimes accompanied him. Our way led through the street along which runs the boundary wall of Guy's. At exactly the same spot every morning he stopped, took off his hat (I must do the same) whilst he prayed shortly for all those who suffered in those long wards. He was an inmate once and brought away the legend of an infallible ointment which cured everything. I went through the early part of my boyhood smeared with it, for he believed that the cure of such inevitable trials as measles, scarlet fever, and indeed any disease, lay in the treatment of the symptoms. There are many earnest and learned social reformers who enjoy the same delusion.
Down Love Lane, off Eastcheap, was a dimly-lit coffee-shop, redolent of fish. Here a man, and even a boy, could feast royally for threepence—wonderful coffee in cone-shaped mugs, and new bread and country butter. How often, wedged between the porters, have I sat, my jaws working, my ears cocked for that flow of language which is Billingsgate's pride. And I heard nothing, for I was a child and your labouring man is a gentleman. I suspect that they choked back many lurid illustrations and comments—I have seen warning glances flash from man to man. And when once a large red-faced porter forgot himself: "There's a child present!" said half a dozen voices in chorus.
How those men worked! Their hobnailed boots rattling over the slippery pavement of the market—along the planks that spanned between wharf and the G.I.C. boats that lay alongside. I have stood on the quay hour after hour in the glory of a summer morning. In the chill of winter, watching the boats. Ice-rimed boats from Grimsby, tubby eelboats from Holland, big ship and little ship. "Collectors" that had come rolling from the Dogger Bank with their holds packed with silvery fish that was officially "alive."
Mrs. Freeman hated the market that she had never seen. She hated it for the toll it had taken of her sons. It was to her a Fagin's kitchen of iniquity.
"Never work in the market, Dick", she warned me.
My career was mapped out. I was to be properly educated—which meant that I was not to leave school at the age of ten, as the others had done.
Billingsgate has for me only one unhappy memory. George Freeman had a weakness for hats. There used to be an old Jewish pedlar—one supposes he died in Park Lane worth his million—who carried hundreds of second-hand hats of all sizes except mine. Old George favoured a Derby hat with a high crown such as Mr. Churchill made unpopular. It was something between a top-hat and a billycock. He used to pay as much as threepence for them. How often have I, with a sinking heart, watched him approach with a look of triumph on his rugged, handsome face, and a newly acquired hat in his hand! How often have I sat in the dimly-lit coffee-shop in Love Lane whilst a committee of porters have folded strips of newspaper to stuff inside the lining that my small head might not be altogether extinguished! Mrs. Freeman invariably thought there was one layer of paper packing too many for my comfort, and took it out.
A new hat meant chapel. With a plaid scarf round my neck and the atrocious dark tower supported on my ears, I must accompany him to the Wesleyan kirk, there to be bored for one hour and forty minutes by a superman I could not hear, probing into mysteries which I could not understand.
Church is a terrible experience for children—a cruel experience. A lecture on Chinese metaphysics or Arch-Masonry, or Einstein's Theory of Relativity, is as intelligible. How bewilderingly painted, enamelled, covered with mystic signs and obscured by smoky vapours, is the simple Jesus to the average poor child who hears of Him through the medium of the grown-up's pulpit!
I slept in the next room to "father" and "mother", and every night brought the inevitable exchange:
"Said yer prayers?"
"You'll go to hell if you don't."
A longer pause.
"I don't know that you will."
School and the promised education came at the age of six. I learnt to sign my name "Dick Freeman." George gave me a penny and carried the scrawl to the market for the admiration of his friends.
School. A big yellow barracks of a place, built (or rumour lied) on an old rubbish-pit into which the building was gradually sinking. We used to put chalk marks on the wall near the ground to check the subsidence. And every morning when I turned the corner of Reddin's Road, Peckham, and saw the Board School still standing where it did, I was filled with a helpless sense of disappointment. And the fires that were never lit, and the evil blackboard where godlike teachers, whose caligraphy is still my envy, wrote words of fearful length. The drone of the class-rooms, the humourless lessons, the agonies of mental arithmetic and the seeming impossibilities of the written variety. There were golden days—poetry days. We learnt the "Inchcape Rock", of that Sir Ralph the Rover who sailed away
"And scoured the seas for many a day.
At last grown rich with plunder's store,
He steered his course for Scotland's shore."
And Casabianca, and Brave Horatius, and so by degrees to the Master. I learnt whole scenes of Macbeth and Julius Caesar and Hamlet, and could—and did—recite them with gusto on every and any excuse.
There was one very bright day indeed. Mr. Newton, the class master, initiated a practice which I hope is still a feature of elementary education: he read to us—and chose the "Arabian Nights." The colour and beauty of the East stole through the foggy windows of Reddin's Road School. Here was a magic carpet indeed that transported forty none too cleanly little boys into the palace of the Caliphs, through the spicy bazaars of Bagdad, hand in hand with the king of kings.
Out of school, life ran normally. Up before breakfast, and with a mat bag ranging the Old Kent Road for the day's provisions. (I did most of the shopping.) A pound of sixpenny "pieces" from Mills the butcher, two-penn'orth of potatoes from the greengrocer's, a parsnip and a penn'orth of carrots—I came to have a violent antipathy to Irish stew. "Pieces" are those odds and ends of meat, the by-products of the butchering business. I was something of a connoisseur in pieces; could tell at a glance the tainted "end", guessed unerringly the depth of fat in a scraggy nob of mutton. One could buy fourpenny pieces, but only the very poor touched these. They were almost low, and one lost caste if detected buying them.
The clean, decent poor! Their women are more wonderful than the daughters of kings. I've shopped with them; stood at their front doors talking to them—they seldom asked you inside for fear you saw their makeshifts. Their lace curtains white as snow, the perennial geraniums behind the polished glass of their front windows, their chicken-houses and pigeon-lofts in the back yard above which on Tuesdays and Wednesdays waved and fluttered the spotless banners of their decency.
You saw their women hanging out the washing: stout women dying of cancer and smiling through it. Gripping their clothes-pegs in their teeth, propping up lines, arresting their labours to wipe wet foreheads with wetter arms and exchange a jest with the woman next door. Working, bearing and dying. The insurance man calls once a week that they may make provision for a decorous burying—their very ambitions are headed towards the grave.
THE value of popular education has so often been discussed by men who are authorities on the subject that I hesitate to put on record my own point of view. But at any rate I can see the subject from another angle. If every boy who came from a Council school were being prepared for a definite career, it would be a simple matter for the hard-working teachers to train him towards perfection; but the truth is that eighty per cent. of the boys who go through Council schools go forth into the world to swell the ranks of unskilled labour. Their seven or eight years of dreary grind has taught them to read, to write an indifferent hand, and to figure. Within a year of leaving school even a public school boy would find it difficult to qualify for a lower certificate. How much harder is it for the poor boy who leaves a Council school, a place more often than not of unpleasant memories, to utilise the knowledge he has acquired during those seven or eight years! The weary hours he spends securing a working knowledge of the capes and bays of England—knowledge that passes in a flash almost as soon as he has taken a joyous farewell of his school!
I was a fairly intelligent boy, and I am trying to remember now just what I did learn. At geography, roughly the shape of England; nothing about the United States, nothing about the railway systems of Europe. I learnt that China had two great rivers, the Yangtse-kiang and Hoangho, but which is which I can't remember. I knew the shape of Africa and that it was an easy map to draw. I knew nothing about France except that Paris was on the Seine. I knew the shape of Italy was like a top-booted leg, and that India was in the shape of a pear; but except that there had been a mutiny in that country, it was terra incognita to me.
History: The ancient Britons smeared themselves with woad and paddled round in basket-shaped boats. William the Conqueror came to England in 1066. Henry VIII had seven—or was it eight?—wives. King Charles was executed for some obscure reason, and at a vague period of English history there was a War of the Roses.
Chemistry: If you put a piece of heated wire in oxygen—or was it hydrogen?—it glowed very brightly. If you blow through a straw into lime water, the water becomes cloudy.
English Literature: Three plays of Shakespeare which especially appealed to me, and knowledge of which was of the greatest service in after life; an acquaintance with the "Arabian Nights", and one or two poets.
Religion: No more than I learnt at Sunday school.
Drawing: Hours of hard work in an attempt to acquire proficiency in an art for which I had no aptitude.
Arithmetic: As far as decimals. In those days book-keeping was not learnt at school. You might say that all the knowledge I acquired from my lessons in arithmetic was the ability to tot columns of figures with great rapidity.
I think I would undertake to teach in a month more geography than I learnt in six years. Not, I hasten to add, because the teachers were deficient, for we had in "Tubby" Gaines one of the finest head masters that ever went to an elementary school, but because the system is as wrong as it can well be, and hour after hour of time is wasted in inculcating into a class of fifty, knowledge which is of no interest whatever except to possibly two or three.
You have to remember to take into account the attitude not only of the boys but of their parents towards school. To the average poor father and mother, school is a place which occupies a boy's time that otherwise would be spent in making himself a nuisance at home. When he gets a little older, school becomes an interference with the liberty of the subject; the boy is being detained when he ought to be earning his living.
To the average boy, school is a horrible duty, and if there are ever any who do not wake on Monday morning and groan at the prospect of another week's grind, then they are hardly normal. In any case, the time given to popular education is ridiculously inadequate. Twenty-seven and a half hours a week compares very unfavourably with the time spent by a boy at a public school. In my day, games were not encouraged; there was little or no drill, and no break in the morning. School was divided into standards, and the teacher took most of the lessons, though occasionally there was an exchange.
The real trouble with the Council school is that there is no machinery by which continuation classes can be made compulsory. No boy should be given a clearance certificate until, say, he has made himself proficient in one of the modern languages. As matters are at present, a boy leaves school more or less illiterate, with no other qualification than that required for a van or errand boy. But mostly, I think, the real deficiency in the system is that he is not taught to speak. Well acquainted as I am with the peculiar intonation of the street boy, I am frequently at a loss to understand what he is talking about. This stricture not only applies to London, but to the provinces. The horrible articulation of the average Council-trained youth is a terrible handicap to him in after life. Indeed, the only difference that exists between the Council boy and the public school boy is his voice. The nasal whine of the Cockney schoolboy is an offence. And there is really no reason in the world why he should be allowed to go into the world under such a disadvantage.
Eleven years of life passed for me—confused years in which sixpenny pieces and half-hundredweights of coal and Caius Cassius and wagonette drives to Sidcup are inextricably mixed up.
George Freeman's breakings-out are more clearly remembered. There was a sort of routine which began with his return from the market in a more jocular frame of mind, and a morning visit to the "Glengall Arms." And then a visit to the Post Office Savings Bank to withdraw fabulous sums, and then the hire of a wagonette and horse which he drove to Sidcup, where tea was to be had under the elms. Then came a period of deep depression and remorse; a certain harshness of temper, and finally the interminable reading of the Old Testament, glasses perched on his thick nose.
Those "on the drink" periods had their joys and sorrows for me. Money was plentiful—pennies to be had for the asking. There were other times when I sat on the doorstep of the hostel waiting for closing-time and cursing all public-houses that kept me out of bed. The bouts lasted less than a week—he was both a frugal and a cautious man. He carried always in his waistcoat pocket a piece of steel umbrella rib hooked at the end to retrieve his false teeth in case he ever swallowed them.
At ten or thereabouts I became a sort of associate member of a gang of burglars. They stole type from a type-founder's. I never took part in the raids carried out under the direction of a desperado very little older than myself, but I received a little of the loot and regretted that it was not more useful. And about now I met a man who asked me to buy him cigarettes—a penn'orth at a time. He gave me nice new florins and I brought him back the change. After I had changed five, I took the sixth to the nearest policeman and said:
"If you please, sir, is this money snide?"
He broke it with his finger and thumb and said that it was snide. So my employer was pinched, and the magistrate said I was a smart little boy. I kept the News of the World cutting for a long time—it was the first time my name ever appeared in print.
Eleven years passed. I made a suggestion to Mrs. Freeman, which she rejected with indignation.
"Only raggity boys sell newspapers on the streets", she said.
And I wasn't a raggity boy. Nevertheless—I had explored the fascinating part of the City. It begins at St. Paul's and ends at Temple Bar. I was a theatre-goer too—the Surrey and the Elephant and Castle gallery was like home to me. Have I not shed tears over the sorrows of Mrs. Bennett, driven from home by cruel parents and dying in the paper snow. Theatre-going was something of an adventure. It involved saving—on less than sixpence the evening was a failure. The gallery cost fourpence at the Surrey (as against threepence at the Elephant); an extra penny was required for a bottle of ginger-beer and a penny for the tram ride home.
And at home trouble began. A knock at the door... a wait... the sound of feet in the passage.
"Is that you, Dick?"
The door was always locked and bolted against the burglar who never came. God knows what he could have stolen, for Mr. Freeman's savings book was locked in the bottom drawer and he kept a policeman's truncheon hanging to the rail of his bed.
The sound of bolts being pulled and a running commentary on my disgraceful behaviour.
"This time of night... you ought to be ashamed of yourself... you young blackguard!"
There was always a gentle slap awaiting me as I darted through, but I was a nimble dodger.
It was during the summer holidays of 1886 that I began my business career. Unknown to the Freemans, I "went to London" and was initiated into the mysteries of "sale or return." The paper I chose was the Echo, a bilious-looking sheet that was remarkable for its high moral tone and the accuracy of its tips.
On a summer afternoon I appeared outside Cook's office at Ludgate Hill beneath the windows of the very club of which I was one day to be chairman, with a bundle of Echos under my arm. It was an enthralling experience. I stood in the very centre of London. Past me rumbled the horse buses, the drays and wagons of the great metropolis. I saw great men, pointed out to me by a queer old gentleman in a frowsy overcoat and top hat who haunted Ludgate Circus. Sala—Mr. Lawson, who owned the Telegraph, the father of the present Viscount Burnham-Toole, who came occasionally to Fleet Street—Henry Irving driving in a hansom cab with a beautiful lady called Ellen Terry (they were coming from St. Paul's). I was very happy and grateful that I had the opportunity of seeing such people.
Winter came. Attendance at my pitch involved "hopping the wag", a mysterious colloquialism which meant playing truant from school. And in the winter trade was slack. All the cold bitter winds of the world circled madly in Ludgate Circus. It was a shivering, nose-nipping business. I found a novel method of generating heat. As I stamped my feet I recited in a mutter the quarrel scene from Julius Caesar.
CASSIUS: That you have wrong'd me doth appear in this:
You have condemn'd and noted Lucius Pella
For taking bribes hereof the Sardians;
Wherein my letters praying on his side
Because I knew the man, were slighted of.
BRUTUS: You wronged yourself to write in such a case.
How I hated Cassius! How I made him whine and cringe, and how wrathful and indignant I, Brutus, was! Before the end of the scene I was glowing with righteous anger.
Only once was I too vehement. A tall policeman suddenly overshadowed me like a tower of blue.
"What's the matter with you, boy?"
"Nothing, sir", I stammered.
"Yes, sir", I said, thinking that this was rather a cunning explanation.
"You better push orf home then", he said.
My earnings averaged (I guess) about three shillings a week, which I spent in dissipation—ginger-beer, theatres and a succulent toffee called "Devona."
There was Sunday school, of course, and Sunday school introduced me to my first fiction. It was a story called "Christie's Old Organ", over which I have shed many tears. The moral of the story was that one ought to be kind to people less fortunate than oneself. The complex introduced into my mental system by "Christie's Old Organ" has cost me thousands of pounds. I have often wished that I had begun my course of reading with "Jack Sheppard."
My periods of piety began usually in the month of April every year and ended in July. Between those two dates is held the annual Sunday school excursion, and for sixpence (if you are a regular scholar) you can get a day in the country with food thrown in. And you are not a regular scholar unless you have been on the books for a month. In the course of the years I worked almost every Sunday school in the neighbourhood, accumulated a working knowledge of the more picturesque miracles, and had seen the world from Epping Forest to Chislehurst, from Richmond Park to Epping Forest.
The last treat of all was that given by Queen Victoria to the Board school children. I went to Hyde Park labelled, drank sweet lemonade, cheered the wrong lady in the royal procession, and was awarded a Jubilee mug shaped like a truncated cone. I won three others coming home in the train by tossing, but I had to surrender them to the enraged parents who were waiting at Peckham Rye Station to welcome the adventurers home.
The serious business of life began soon after. Paper-selling was low; worse, it was unremunerative. For the first time I sallied forth under my own name—I had to get a copy of my birth certificate to secure my first job.
It was very interesting to be called by a name I'd never used in my life; I felt a little more important, as though the Queen had bestowed a title upon me.
There was a big printing firm in Newington Causeway that wanted a "taker off." The wages were five shillings a week from which, during the first three weeks, five shillings was deducted as a guarantee that the employee would not leave without giving due notice.
From eight o'clock in the morning until five-thirty at night, with an hour for dinner, I stood by a lithographic machine and "took off" paper bags as they were printed. It was rather tiring, but I wore a felt apron and in the course of the day my face grew black. Sometimes when we had gold work to do, my boots were covered with "gold" dust. People could see as I walked homeward that I was one of the world's workers.
I learnt a lot. Why do machinists say "Sy up!" instead of "Stop the machine"? I have never solved that riddle. And I learnt something of usury. There were men and boys on every floor who would lend you fourpence if you returned sixpence on Saturdays. The place was rotten with this form of brigandage. Often of my five shillings I took home two—a goodly proportion of my income having gone in the shape of interest. It goes on still, I believe, and the trade unions could kill it dead, if they moved in the matter.
My parting from this house was a violent one. I stayed away for a day, and a few hours after I had returned I was given the money due to me and told to clear out. I asked for the five shillings deposit and was told it was forfeited; was shown the very paper had signed which admitted the right of seizure.
I went to the first policeman I met—I have always had a blind faith in the police. He was a fat man with cheeks that overhung his neck, but he was Harry Curtis-Bennett to me.
"They've got no right to keep your money", he said loudly, "and you can't sign away anything because you're a minor."
I thought my dingy countenance had misled him to the belief that I was a heaver of coal. He explained.
"You're under age", he said.
"I'm twelve last birthday", I said regretfully.
"Take a summons", he said, in his juridical way.
So I went to the police court and sandwiched myself in a queue between a girl who wanted a weekly allowance from the father of her child, and a miserable man who came to complain of his pugnacious wife. In turn I told the magistrate the sad story of the five shillings.
"Take a summons", he said.
It cost me a shilling. I conducted my own case and won my first lawsuit.
As I came out of court, I was approached by a policeman with a broken nose.
"You used to be called Freeman", he accused.
Quakingly I admitted the truth of the charge.
He pointed to his nose.
"Your brother Harry done that", he said.
He seemed to bear no malice. We had tea together in a coffee shop and he paid. I tried another printers—Riddle & Couchmans—and was quite happy. I was in the paper store and it was very interesting. Have you seen electric sparks come from between two sheets of paper after they have been under a hydraulic press? Did you know that you could cut your finger to the bone on the sharp edge of paper? There was a boy there who painted pictures. He was going to exhibit in the Royal Academy one day. I often wonder if he did, or whether he became an artist.
I LEFT Riddles more violently still. It was in the period of strikes. One day all the boys walked out—all except me. When I came out to dinner I was reproached, but went in again. I don't know what it was all about, but in the afternoon I held a meeting with myself and made a dramatic exit from the building by way of the paper chute. The boys were enthusiastic but I was out of work.
I found another printers. I was there a fortnight. It was a soulless kind of place. They printed railway timetables. There was no colour or life in it. I had to carry large parcels of railway printing to very dull offices. After this I went back to my old love—newspapers. W.H. Smith provided me with a peaked cap, and on the wind-swept railway platform at Ludgate Hill and St. Paul's I promoted the sale of newspapers in a perfectly respectable manner. When this palled I found a new job just off the Old Bailey, where, if you went to work early enough, you could see the black flag go up and hear the bell toll to signify the death of picturesque sinners.
In a job and out of a job: I stayed a while with a bootseller marking the virgin soles of balmorals with their selling prices. It was one of those multiple shops with branches in various poor districts. On Saturday nights you could earn an extra shilling by attaching yourself to one of the branches. In a clean, white apron I sold tins of blacking to the ladies of Peckham and tins of dubbin to the horny-handed male saunterers. I drew attention to delightful slippers for women, and hooked down dangling hobnailed boots for the inspection of hardier citizens. It was not very interesting, and I drifted into a rubber factory in Camberwell.
I had got into the habit of standing back and taking a good look at myself.
"Here you are", said I, "making macintosh cloth."
"Here I am", I agreed thankfully. I had got on. I was a "hand" in a factory—I, who had started life as a furtive seller of newspapers, had found my proper place in the industrial scheme.
At the rubber works was a bitter man who taught me something. He was bitter about everything—his home, his work, the beef sandwiches his wife packed for him, my incompetence (I was his assistant), his grinding employer. I sat down one morning in the breakfast hour and puzzled through, without assistance to the genesis of bitterness. And I reduced it to a first cause. I was so full of my unaided discovery that I fell upon him the moment he came in from the yard.
"You're sorry for yourself", I said, with the air of a savant revealing a great discovery.
He was carrying a roll of damask and hit me over the head with it. Thus I learnt two things: never to be sorry for yourself; never to tell people unpalatable truths unless you are in a position to hit them back.
The art of cheap drunkenness was acquired at this factory. Rubber was dissolved in naphtha. By leaning over the vat in which the process was in operation and breathing the naphtha fumes, it was possible to get pleasantly and even hilariously intoxicated. You could also get dead. I had many a pleasant jag until one day it made me very sick.
I wrote the first scene of a little play in rhymed couplets. It was an insulting play about my self-pitying chief. Some time later he complained that I was not as useful an assistant as I might be. I went out of rubber into leather, manufacturing boot heels by pasting scraps of leather together in a mould.
On Friday nights and Saturday afternoons I had a very delicate, indeed an artistic task. One of the Freeman girls had married a flower seller. He was an honest boilermaker when they married, but from what I could gather, boilers went out of fashion soon after the marriage and he had drifted into flowers. I never see a boiler but it suggests nosegays to me. My task in the summer was to "wire" roses, transfix their bases on two sides so that the leaves would neither droop nor fall. In the winter I dipped ivy leaves and hips and haws in sugar and water. They dried glossily.
Every Saturday morning he came back from Covent Garden with a tale of woe.
"Fi'pence a bunch—for them!" He'd shake the unoffending violets savagely. "I never knew flowers so dear!"
The other day I talked with an old lady who sells flowers in Piccadilly Circus. She drew forth from the depths of her basket a shaggy bunch of lilies-of-the-valley.
"Two hog* a bunch for them! I never knew flowers to be so dear!"
[* hog: an old English copper coin.]
There were odd jobs I took, some of which only lasted a fortnight. I was never out of work for more than two or three days.
One day I came home to Mrs. Freeman and told her that I had a job out of London. She was worried at this, because out of London was synonymous with out of the world. So I told her no more, but accompanied the obliging young seaman (I sat next to him in the Surrey gallery) to Grimsby. I brought with me papers signed by my "parent or guardian"—Mr. Freeman's signature was easy to forge—permitting me to ship as a boy on the biggest steam trawler out of Grimsby. I have forgotten the name of it. There is to-day in the Iceland fisheries a Hull trawler called the Edgar Wallace. Remembering my own unhappy experience, I was reluctant even to have my own inanimate name attached to such a craft.
I don't know how long I was at sea. It seemed rather like twenty-eight years. It may have been a month. It was the depth of winter. A gale blew us out and a gale blew us home, and in between whiles it blew an intermittent blizzard. The yards were frozen stiff. The fish were solid as they shovelled them into the hold. I was cook and captain's boy. I boiled cocoa and soup and tea. I made plum puddings and roasted frozen mutton. And I was ill all the time. I was cuffed by the crew for bringing a paper of pins on board—an unpardonable crime on a fishing boat, for pins bring bad luck—and I was cuffed by the captain and the mate for my deficiencies as a chef.
We came into Grimsby one seventh day of February and though I had bound myself for a year I lit out for home with a shilling I had stolen from the captain's cabin and a pair of sea boots that were two sizes too big. Thus equipped, I walked to London. I did odd work on the way but where I couldn't get work I stole bread from bakers' vans. Literally my diet was bread and water. The journey took me the best part of three weeks, and I reached home wearing the shoes of a trustful but wealthy gentleman of St. Albans. His servant had cleaned them and put them on his window-sill. There I found them when I came prowling round in search of food.
For some reason, which I did not discover until years later, Mrs. Freeman regarded this exploit as being a little discreditable. I afterwards learnt that it was the dread word "desertion" which horrified her. I had deserted a ship and apparently there were heavy penalties, even imprisonment, for such nefarious goings on.
"You had better not tell any of the others", she warned me. Mr. Freeman agreed. Generally speaking, he accepted her code as his own.
"You'd better go into milk", said George Freeman; so, after a family consultation, I joined forces with Harry the Milkman.
Harry the Milkman was a sort of relation. A burly, fresh-faced man from Wiltshire with a tiny waxed moustache. He had been in a little trouble with his employers before saving a bit of money, he started forth on his own. I forget whether it was three or six months he got for his embezzlements: I never discussed so trivial a matter.
There never was a more entrancing canvasser than Harry. The lift of his hat to a cook had changed the course of many a dairy account. His hair was parted in the middle and beautifully brushed. He had a way with housemaids which left them with dreams, and when he was not "on the drunk" he was the most passionate abstainer.
Then would he sally forth to Deptford Broadway in a top hat and a frock-coat befitting the importance of the occasion, and address the crowd from a rostrum on the iniquities and evils of intemperance. Harry the Milkman was known far and wide: even to-day Deptford recalls his name and remembers his doings.
He had had one business of his own in the north of London and had allowed that to go smash. Partly drink, partly gallantry. He was all too popular with housemaids. Incidentally, he was married.
We had at least one vice in common: we loved reading. Preferably stories written round the life of that historic character "Deadwood Dick." Often and often on chilly mornings we sat in front of the fire together, each with our slim volume, devouring every line—enthralled by hairbreadth escape, by haughty defiance, by daredevil rescue of innocent maidenhood.
Sometimes Harry would read aloud, his voice quivering with excitement.
"By heavens!" cried Black Pedro. "You shall rue the day you crossed my path, Deadwood!"
Our hero flung his sombrero into the air with a merry laugh.
"Threatened men live long, Black Pedro", he cried. "Adios!"
And, flinging himself upon Starlight, he put spurs to the mustang and disappeared in a cloud of alkali dust.
And all this while, the milk cart was standing outside the door of the shop, a cold horse pawing the macadam, and the maddened customers of Brockley were howling for the breakfast milk that had not come.
In one of his periods of abstinence, he induced me to sign the pledge. As I did not even know the taste of strong drink, I signed readily. He was a member of a lodge, the Rose of Kent, of the Sons of the Phoenix, and in due course became its chief noble. I also became a Son of the Phoenix and was jobbed into the position of lodge secretary—a post which brought me in 2d. per member per quarter. As an officer of the lodge I wore a large scarlet velvet sash, embellished with a tinsel eye of God which should have appeared over my heart, but, owing to my lack of inches, invariably glared on the world from the region of my stomach.
I was ceremoniously addressed as "Worthy Secretary." I wore this sash in public processions—mainly funerals—walking under a large silk banner depicting, if I remember aright, the road to ruin down which The Drinker slowly totters. The banner was borne by two staggering men who, except at funerals, smoked, to show how little they bothered about the burden.
The members were working men—good fellows doing good work. I have nothing but respect and affection for them. The old lodge still stands—I saw its new banner go past the window of my flat in a hospital parade, and I would have gone on to my balcony and saluted it—only I was in my pyjamas.
For years I have kept a souvenir of those days—a daguerreotype showing me with a basket of eggs on my arm, standing in a graceful attitude by a milk barrow. And when my children have grumbled about returning to their expensive schools at the end of term, I have produced the picture.
"It is easier to go to school than to sell eggs", I said, "especially the kind of eggs that I had to sell."
Harry and I quarrelled frequently over the cleaning of milk cans. He said I was a bad cleaner, and I told him loftily that my hands were never intended for the cleaning of milk cans. We parted.
There was a worthy brother of the lodge who was also a worthy plasterer. Also a worthy foreman to a roadmaking firm. He offered me a job. The Victoria Dock Road was being torn up and relaid with granite pitchers. I was appointed timekeeper and mason's labourer. My duties were various. I kept some sort of accounts, I can't remember what, and I carried huge pails of water from a distant standard to the place where the concrete was mixed. I also held the tape when the job was measured up. I relieved the night watchman whilst he had his tea. I helped trim the red lamps that hung on the scaffold poles.
One day when I was helping to hang the lamps on the poles a man came up to me and asked me how much I was earning. I told him, with conscious pride, that I robbed the firm to the extent of fifteen shillings a week.
"Pah!" he said.
He was a man with a beard and talked with an accent. He wore a deer-stalker cap and he had the manner of authority.
"You're doing a man's work", he said. "Ask for more."
I was astonished. I never dreamt that I was worth as much. Here I was—I who had been glad of five shillings a week, and now I was earning fifteen shillings!
The seed of revolt did not take root, and when I joined the night watchman I asked who the old bloke was.
"That's Keir Hardie—he's standing for this district."
I came on the job one morning to learn that he had been elected to Parliament.
Soon after this I was sent to a Silvertown wharf to check the weights of granite that were loaded from barges to carts. Here I met a French inventor who was experimenting with a new kind of brick. He told me there was no God, which was a great relief to me. He believed in reincarnation and had once been a cat. He was a green-eyed, pimply-faced man, terribly thin and full of admiration for Motley the historian. He brought me a copy of The Rise and Fall of the Dutch Republic, which, though I tried hard, I could not read. It was terribly dry after Deadwood Dick.
The job finished. My worthy brother of the Phoenix asked me to go to Clacton with him. Some miscreant was erecting row upon row of attached villas, and my Phoenix man had tendered for the plastering.
It was in the depth of winter. Timekeeper, I was—but usually when the other work was done. From dawn to sunset I lorried lime with a long-handled hoe and filled hods and carried them up steep ladders. The lime worked into my hands till I could not bear water on them. I testify to the health-giving qualities of Clacton air—I was hungry all the time. One day I decided to quit; I could have asked for my money, but I decided it would be useless. I was working for a working man, and a working man, when he gets on in the world, is something of a tyrant.
Instead, I walked to Colchester; pawned my overcoat for six shillings, and came to London with one fixed determination, the result of a long talk I had had with myself.
"Here you are!" I said.
"Where are you?" said I. "You're earning fifteen shillings a week. You have no education, no prospects. Your handwriting is rotten; you're not strong enough for a navvy and not clever enough for a clerk. You're in a rut—how are you going to get out of it?"
On Boxing Day I spent my last shilling to see Fred Leslie in "Cinderella." On the following day, Mrs. Freeman protesting with tears, I borrowed sixpence to pay my fare, and, going down to Woolwich, enlisted myself a private of the Royal West Kent Regiment.
* * * * *
Here, then, was the break, a definite and sharp turn of the road, the first crag in the climb. I had no more definite objective than the man who finds himself at the bottom of a pit into which he has fallen—my one desire was to get out. Somebody had lent me a copy of Smiles's "Self-Help": I think it was the most depressing book I had ever read. All these poor boys who had achieved greatness in various arts and professions had some natural bent. They were mathematicians or artists; the foundation of their fortunes was laid by their inclinations. There were a few patient souls who had worked their way from office-boys to the control of great companies; but it always seemed to me that they did no more than keep themselves in the middle of a great, slow-moving river, and drift towards their elegant harbours.
I had no definite ambitions: I neither burnt the midnight oil in the study of law, nor hoarded my farthings towards a fortune. I never desired enormous monies. Rather, money was cash, to be spent and enjoyed.
If I had a quake at all in the contemplation of my new career, it was the inward shiver that a boy experiences when he enters the fatal train that carries him to his first boarding school. The journey to Maidstone was rather a desolate one—I occupied the same carriage as two convicts being transferred to Maidstone Prison, and on the whole they were more cheerful than I. They had been there before and canvassed the possibility of returning to their old jobs, discussing the advantage of one "ward" over the other.
"Is old So-and-so still on the gate?"
The warder was friendly and informed them that old So-and-so WAS still "on the gate." But there was a new chief warder. One of the prisoners had "met him" in Exeter Jail. He thought he was rather a decent chap, but the warder gave no enthusiastic confirmation of this view.
They asked after old friends. Bill This was "on the Moor" and Harry That was at Portland. They agreed that Portland was worse than Dartmoor but not so cold.
One of the men spoke of prisons in the manner of a virtuoso. He might have been a member of the leisured classes discussing continental hotels. At the journey's end I parted from them with some regret—indeed, I should not have been sorry to have accompanied such agreeable and experienced adventurers. After all, they had only "got" five years, and I was in the army for seven, with no remission for good conduct.
I HAVE read and read and read until I am tired of reading about the poor and their problems. From time to time young Oxford gentlemen descend to what is so picturesquely described as the abyss and grope around in the mud for first causes. They write learnedly about labour and economics and supply and demand, and they produce in high lights such examples and illustrations to support their theories as come to their observation.
To-day they tell us that the sight of so much luxury in the West End, the jewellers' shops, the shining limousines, the delicately nurtured lap-dogs of society women, are creating a feeling of unrest among the labouring poor. I cannot remember when this "proof" of a coming revolution was not adduced. The truth is that, if working people are decently housed and can earn sufficient to supply their families with the comforts to which they are entitled, they care precious little about those who are doing better than themselves. Class hatred is an invention. The British poor are too sentimental to resent the romance of success, too high-principled and too intelligent to find a grievance in the prosperity of their neighbours. They are decent people, cleanspoken, clean-thinking. They hold the sealed patterns of national behaviour.
It is the habit to think of the poor in terms of slumdom, but there is a poor which lives in shabby streets and cleans its windows and whitens its doorsteps. A poor whose horror is charity, and whose haunting fear is that it may be buried by the parish. A proud, self-reliant poor that scorns relief and guards the secret of its poverty most jealously. And these are the vast majority. The writers of theses never meet these people, and, if they met them, would learn nothing, for they do not talk about themselves, and regard with sour suspicion those who come prying in to their affairs. Their men have a best suit for Sundays, their children wear stiff little suits and dresses that have been carefully folded and put away all the week. You can see the little boys sent out on Sunday mornings with nosegays pinned upon their coats. This is the poor that has parlours in which the family may sit on Sundays only, does its washing on Tuesdays or Wednesdays and its shopping on Saturday afternoons.
Remember this, that starvation and dirt are not the hall-mark of poverty: they are the normal condition of thriftlessness. I am referring to the poor who average fifteen shillings per week per member of a household; of women who have to consider every penny they spend and to whom Bank Holidays are events of supreme importance, to be saved up for, to be looked forward to, to be remembered. This is the poor that the Church has lost—because for years the Church has offered nothing but a duty to men and women who needed a day's relief from duty, because it brought a new gloom into lives which were drab enough, God knows.
The Christmas decorations still hung in the barrack-room—a melancholy sight for the raw recruit. There was only one other man in the long bare room when I came in. He sat on the edge of his bed and he was polishing his buttons. The bed was laced with snowy white belts and straps, a tiny knapsack no bigger than a lady's handbag glistened blackly at the foot of the bed.
"Don't touch them straps or I'll gallop your guts out", he said, in a mild, almost friendly, way.
He was "for guard" next morning. The sleeve of the red serge jacket which hung on a peg above the cot was decorated with two conduct stripes. He was, he admitted sort of self-conscious indifference, "an old sweat." He'd "done his seven" and was "taking on" for another five. There was no place like India, the army wasn't like it was—nor the beer either. All "quarter blokes" made enormous sums out of cheating the troops and bought rows of houses; the sergeant-major wasn't a bad feller, but the colour bloke was a reg'lar barstid.
Thus he put all the army ropes in my hands, the scandal and pride of Maidstone Barracks. I asked him where the library was: the corporal who had met me at the station told me that I could get refreshment there.
"Libr'y?" The old sweat tried to believe that his ears had misinformed him. "Libr'y? You mean the canteen, don't you? Don't come into the army an' be a teetotaller or you'll be dead 'n a month. Specially in India. They're always the first to go. Alive to-night an' dead to-morrer! All due to drinkin' lemonade and buns."
He offered to show me the canteen. I was firm to see the library. He offered to show me that, and explained that I would not have found him in the barrack-room at all if he had had any money.
"Coffee's better than nothin'—but don't ask me to have lemonade: it rots the inside."
The library was chiefly distinguished by its innocence of anything that looked like a book. There: were two large volumes on a shelf, but investigation revealed these as draught or chess boards camouflaged as literature. It was a wooden building with two hanging oil lamps, a folding bagatelle table, several tables and a sprinkling of chairs. At one end of the room was a counter, behind which was a smoky oil lamp, a large steaming kettle, a few bottles of lemonade and a plate of sober-looking confectionery. Heat was supplied by a stove, but this I did not immediately notice. I saw a lot of men sitting round something, but I thought they were playing a game.
"The canteen's livelier", pleaded my guide. "Beer does make you sing. Lemonade merely eats away the linin' of the stummick."
I explained that I neither touched, tasted nor handled the accursed enemy that men put into their mouths to steal away their brains. He shook his head gloomily, blowing on his coffee the while.
"You'll die in India", he said ominously. "Every night we have a funeral an' it's gen'rally a lemonade drinker. Beer drinkers never die natural. But Bible-thumpers go orf like the snuff of a candle. It's the climate."
He drank the coffee and thanked me politely. After which he borrowed threepence to buy a tin of blanco, and disappeared, presumably in the direction of the canteen.
He was the first of the many Nobby Clarks I met in the army. Why all Clarks should be "Nobby" I have never discovered. Nor why all Taylors should be "Buck." It is an army mystery.
Maidstone Barracks consisted of two-story wooden hutments of great antiquity; there was a modern block consisting of four large rooms, two in each wing; hutments and brick block formed two sides of a square, which was bounded on the remaining two sides with one-storied married quarters. Old trees fringed the square; behind the barrack block was a large playing field that ran down to the footpath along the Medway.
I was housed in the brick barracks. My bed consisted of three square "biscuits" stuffed with some unresilient matter, three blankets and two sheets of rough unbleached linen which were changed once a month.
The first parade was at 7.30 in the morning, the last parade at 2.30. Generally speaking, the accommodation was inferior to the average workhouse and very much below the standard maintained at Dartmoor Prison. I'm not complaining. I was quite happy about it. It was quite as good as anything I had had.
For days I moved like a man in a dream. I drew my kit, was measured for my scarlet coat, possessed myself of a rifle and bayonet and the Slade-Wallace equipment. I moved hither and thither at the orders of sundry gods with stripes on their arms, and learnt to distinguish bugle calls, the first two of which every soldier learns are "Cookhouse" and "Defaulters." Corporals filled me with awe; sergeants thrilled me. The first officer I saw was to me the most tremendous vision. I welcomed eagerly my first "saluting drill" and once I had mastered that ritual of homage, I lay in wait for officers to practise on. I acquired my nickname very early on. I was named "Nunc", after a famous prize-fighter.
It was intensely interesting. The men were most kind to the raw recruit; but then, Tommy is the everlasting flower of chivalry. There are some people who think that there is a magic atmosphere in the army which translates wasters and blackguards into good fellows—but of course that is rubbish. They were good fellows before they came in. They belong to the cheerfully suffering class. Their mothers have stood at the wash-tub with a horrid pain gripping at their vitals, and have smiled their way through washing day. Their fathers have turned out in the cold mornings and have sweated and grumbled through the long day, and have come home at nights for a sluice at the kitchen sink, a cup of tea and a bloater and a cheery evening pipe. The Tommy is the salt of the earth because the working poor of the Anglo-Saxon race are the salt of the earth. The clean and decent working poor who erected their sons and daughters as perpetual monuments to the memory of their sacrifice and devotion. Some day, when I am a rich man, I will put up a statue of a woman at a wash-tub and I will call her the Core of the Nation.
There were two subjects which you might not discuss in the barrack-room: one was politics and the other was religion. Not that we privates took religion very seriously, but we had a great respect for people who did. You will find exactly the same attitude to-day in any third-class carriage on any race train. You will find it on Epsom Downs during Derby week in the blank, unrecognisable stare with which the text-bearers are greeted. They are there, but men and women of our class are polite enough not to see them.
I only once met a soldier who knelt by his bed to say his prayers. Nobody threw boots at him, as they do in tracts. But then, religious tracts are the most naive form of fiction. We used to shut up until his public supplications were through, and if we felt uncomfortable, old man conscience had nothing to do with the latter—we were simply feeling awkward, as I might feel awkward to-day if I heard a man rise up in church and take exception to a preacher's argument.
Two things you might not do in a barrack-room—fix a bayonet or whistle the "Dead March in Saul" For each such offender the door of the guard-room yawned.
Infantry work is not very interesting. Picket duty was more so. There was a little pub near the barracks called "The Phoenix" (how that word clung to me!) which was patronised by certain turbulent spirits. One night there was a rough house, and I and another were ordered in to throw out a large militiaman in the quarrelsome stages of booze. When I saw the size of him I thought that diplomacy was desirable. I told him that the corporal of the picket wanted him to come out and fight. There were twenty men outside waiting to claim him.
"Ho!" said the militia, and took a sighting shot at me. I lost one tooth, but I had the satisfaction of helping to frog-march him to the guard-room. Twice we had to drop him heavily—he was a sick man the next morning, but bore no malice and was a good fellow really.
The militia was a source of income to some of the lads of Deptford. A few of them belonged to five or six different "crushes." No sooner was their preliminary training over than they left with their bonus and joined another "crush" in a false name. One man told me that he was a deserter from fourteen various militia battalions.
I had to go to hospital to have my tooth attended, and there I saw the comfortable quarters of the Medical Staff Corps. Nice beds, cosy sitting-room and better pay. Also a private held some sort of position. His uniform was quietly blue with red facings; he wore a round cap and chin-strap of cavalry jauntiness. I gave the matter considerable thought. Foot sloggers were to have broad red stripes up their trousers. The news thrilled us, but nothing came of it.
One morning I paraded before my company officer and asked permission to transfer to the Medical Staff Corps. The request was received a little coldly, but the application was forwarded—in quadruplicate, I imagine. My friend, the old soldier, was both indignant and sarcastic. "What do you want to go an' mix poultices for? And you a teetotaller! You'll be dead in a month!"
None the less, on the morning of St. Patrick's Day, 1894, I paraded on the M.S.C. Depot square at Aldershot, and was cordially welcomed by a gaunt staff-sergeant.
"The Corps ain't bad enough but we've got to have a lot of Deptford roughs transferred to us! If you make a good nurse, I'll eat my forage cap!"
I discovered afterwards that he had a grudge against the West Kents, which was indeed mainly recruited from Deptford and Greenwich.
The work at the depot was heavy. Classes in anatomy—of sorts—brought me to a new acquaintance with human beings. They were no longer men, but bits of flesh with bones stuck inside them and certain organs which had the trick of going wonky on the slightest excuse. The discipline was not so strict as in the West Kents, but the drill sergeants were more vivid in the imagery they employed. Their standard of education was higher because it was broader. All the sergeants and most of the corporals added the art of dispensing to their other accomplishments. They were versed in the British Pharmacopoeia and Squire's Companion. From Acacia Gummi to Zingiber (which is ginger) they knew the properties and compatibilities of all listed drugs. Some of them were dentists in so far as tooth-drawing was concerned; not a few had got beyond the bones and organs stage of knowledge and dabbled in nerves and muscles.
We class men grew terribly important as we progressed from knowledge to knowledge. We ceased to be entirely military—we became scientists.
There was a kit inspection on the square every Saturday morning. One man, pinched for time, found he had not packed his blacking brushes. He thrust them into the breast of his jacket. The colonel came round, saw the bulging bosom of the soldier, and tapped it with his cane.
"What have you there, my man?" he asked, and quick came the answer.
"Heart, lungs and thoracic artery, sir!"
I passed out of my class and was ordered for hospital duty—No. 2 hospital, North Camp. With a few other graduates I marched to my new home.
The next morning I came into touch with a malady that one had heard about and discussed in a shamefaced way. I was put in charge of a ward which contained twenty-four cases of syphilis!
I was sick at the thought of it. In those days the disease was viewed as leprosy was once regarded. A sick man was regarded as a criminal. He was told that his case was hopeless—but not by the doctors of the Army Medical Corps. We had a great old colonel who took summary vengeance on a supercilious sister at the Cambridge Hospital who referred to North Camp as "the dirty hospital." We had no women nurses at North Camp, and for this reason were the envy of the other companies; and the work, though hard, was interesting. When I had got over my repugnance to handling the sheets and bed linen, and no longer picked them up with my carbolized finger-tips, when I had taken a few dead men to the mortuary and had learnt to dissect them for post-mortem purposes without the little shed spinning round and round and feeling a hollow sensation in the pit of my stomach, I enjoyed the work. What good chaps they were in No. 2 detachment!
I began to write little verses for their amusement. One of them, Gus Ward (he is a captain now and retired) was a famous elocutionist. For him I wrote a set of verses on the sinking of Admiral Tryon's battleship. They weren't good verses, but they were vigorous, and the lines both scanned and rhymed. We had great sing-songs in our little canteen, and forbidden games—vingt-et-un, anglicised and militarised as "pontoon", kept us up till one in the morning, with blankets over the windows.
Once there was a mild riot and a daring youth with a grievance against the sergeant-major, who lived in the opposite hut, took a large lump of coal and dropped it through the sergeant-major's window under which he slept. I believe it fell upon his stomach and he was naturally annoyed. The doer of this deed was never discovered. All except a few wards were the old-fashioned Crimean hutments. To North Camp came all infectious cases, and in course of time I slept in wards or tents with men suffering from every disease from itch to smallpox. In such cases the orderly was isolated as much as the patient, and none could approach him.
I had not been at North Camp more than a year when there came an incident which was greatly to affect my life. At the time I was detailed for range duty at Ash, and two things happened there. A soldier and his wife had a hutment near the ranges, and one rainy evening, when the medical officer had gone, the woman fell into labour with her first child. Leaving me in charge of her—there was no woman available—he went into North Camp to get a doctor. I was terrified. I tried to get the landlord of a little inn to send his barmaid to the woman, but she refused.
The landlord, a widower, told me there was nothing to be worried about. He produced for me a book on obstetrics filled with ghastly illustrations. This I carried back, and, a crisis arising, I delivered the child, running from the bed to the open book on the table and from the table to the bed. The doctor, a civilian, came with the husband an hour after the birth and was terribly shocked. Three days later the hair at the side of my head went grey.
Ash range duty gave me a lot of time to read and write. Deadwood Dick no longer fascinated me. I began to dip into The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, skipping the long words and the very immense wads of stuff about the growth and development of the Christian religion. And I began to write little songs. Just then Arthur Roberts was at the height of his fame, and, greatly daring, I sent him a lyric called "A Sort of a Kind of a—" I was stunned one morning to hear from him and to learn that my first literary effort was successful. I never met Roberts till years later. When I called at the Prince of Wales' Theatre it was to meet Mr. Lowenthal, who gave me five pounds and a lot of good advice. I believe that Roberts sang the song for years—on one occasion at a party where the late King Edward was a guest. Biarritz was the play for which the song was required. The day I was to go to town to hear it I was made a "prisoner at large" for some military offence. Nevertheless I went, and stayed absent for five days. On my return I was charged with:
"That being a prisoner at large, Private Wallace broke out of barracks and remained absent until apprehended by the military police."
The latter part was a picturesque fiction and was expunged.
Old Colonel Cleary glared at me over his glasses.
"You'll go to prison with hard labour for ninety-six hours", he said.
AT two o'clock that afternoon I was marched off to the military prison, more curious than scared, in spite of dark hints of the fate that awaited me. Here was a new experience—imprisonment without the smear of criminality. As I passed through the grim postern I thought of poor Harry, now dead, and I was glad that I was not going inside for hitting a policeman.
"The Glass House", as the military prison was facetiously called, was like every prison I have seen. A wide hall surrounded by galleries, the walls punctured at intervals with small black doors. I was given a bath and changed into convict attire, ornamented by the conventional broad arrows, and marched up to a cell. It was a bare apartment, with a board bed and a ridiculously inadequate supply of blankets. There was a Bible and a set of rules to read, a window of frosted glass (behind bars) to admit daylight and share of a dim light at night. An hour after I arrived a warder came and cut off my hair. Nowadays such things do not happen. The soldier keeps his own uniform and his own hair, but in those days the military prisoner had a worse time than any convict.
There was no work to do on the first day. I practised standing on my head against the wall and acquired a certain proficiency. After that, I had no time for gymnastics. I think I had skilly and potatoes for tea—unsalted, unsugared oatmeal at which my proud stomach revolted. In the morning breakfast was a repetition of tea.
A warder came and flung me in a piece of rope. I was taught how to turn the rope into oakum. At eleven o'clock I was marched out of the cell to a drill yard and initiated into the art of shot drill, the most damnable and heartbreaking punishment that was ever invented.
You stand in four lines, a heavy iron shot at your feet. At the word of command you lift the shot breast high, turn left, march four paces and put it down. Walking back, you find the shot that the man on your right has deposited. You lift this and follow the same routine, until you have carried four shots to the left. Then you carry them back again to the right.
Two days of this broke me up physically—it was the army chaplain, one of the best men in the world, the Rev. V. C. Hordern, who had me taken off this punishment. Thereafter I picked oakum. A little breeze between a warder and myself did not improve matters. Not realising that the oakum was weighed, I made away with quite a few strands by pushing them through the holes of a ventilator. However, the punishment was not too irksome.
I was glad when my period of imprisonment was ended. I had lived on bread and water and potatoes, and came out with all my curiosity completely satisfied. I took a good look at "The Glass House" as I was marched away, and decided that the Lord had never designed me for a callous criminal.
Yet officers and pals were very nice about it all. My own doctor met me at the door of my ward next morning with a broad smile; the colonel who sentenced me recommended me later as a second-class orderly, which meant twopence a day extra.
Poor Mrs. Freeman got to learn and was terribly upset. She feared that I had "gone on the drink." It was her only explanation for the disasters which overtook her sons.
My song writing went on, but I found no buyer and inspiration languished.
One morning, when I was in the mortuary dealing with a poor boy who had died in the night, my room corporal came in.
"Wallace, you're marked for foreign service—you go to the Depot on Saturday."
The fascinating problem was—whither? Drafts were going to Singapore, Malta, Egypt, Gibraltar, Hong-Kong, Bermuda, Jamaica, Nova Scotia, Mauritius and South Africa. I learnt that my destination was the Cape. I went to London and said good-bye to the Freemans. I never saw "mother" again. I have only one satisfaction, that I was able to make that gentle life a little more easy before the end. She forgot her own children at the last and remembered me. George Freeman survived her by many years.
It was on the Scot, newly lengthened, that I went out of England in August, 1896. There was a party of the corps on board and the accommodation was agreeable. The Scot was not the steadiest of ships, but the weather was good and we made Cape Town without discomfort.
The South African winter is nearing its end in August. The nights are chilly, but the hardier and earlier flowers are beginning to appear. From the sea, standing at the foot of Table Mountain, the town is a beautiful sight. I have always loved Cape Town and the peninsula. There is no spot on earth quite like it. There was still some doubt as to our destination. I hoped to be sent to Natal—I found I was destined for Simons Town.
"You lucky young devil!" said one of the Cape Town crowd.
Simons Town was in those days the greatest "loaf" known to orderlies the wide world over. It was the ideal station—a non-dieted hospital, with four beds and a staff of four, a surgeon, a sergeant, an orderly and a cook. All bad cases that required nursing were transferred at once to Wynberg. The only cases I remember being detained were a lunatic and an unfortunate sergeant who fractured his skull by a fall from a bicycle. And he died.
The officer was a charming gentleman named Greenway. There was a procession of sergeants, and in my time three cooks, the greatest of whom was Private Pinder. He is, I hope, a colonel by now. Pinder was the caterer, and a frugal man. He never bought more milk for tea than was sufficient for one. We played euchre to decide who had the milk. Generally he won. His kitchen was spotlessly clean, he was something of a martinet, and ran the establishment on such economical lines that there was usually something due to us at the end of every month from the grocer who supplied us. Whether it was in the form of rebate or just plain "squeeze" I forget.
There was a compact little surgery, and in the hours when I was alone I experimented on myself with every drug. I took opium, morphia, cocaine (which made me laugh hysterically), ether and Indian hemp. The morphia nearly killed me, but I suffered nothing from the others. And I had no desire to repeat the experiments.
The hospital was situated at the end of a long avenue of eucalyptus trees, and at the mouth of a little kloof, where baboons barked all night and a waterfall provided an endless murmur of sound. At the end of the avenue was the main road and Admiralty House, and beyond that Simons Bay, as blue as the skies and dotted with white cruisers. And when the spring and summer came, the kloof was a treasure-house of arum lily and gladioli, and Admiralty House was encircled by the blue fire of plumbago. There were gardens everywhere. Gardens where narcissus and freesia, heliotrope and roses, grew in their seasons. Geraniums ran wild in thick bushes, and there were traces with great pink blossoms.
You might climb the kloof, or the zigzag path in the face of the hill, and see False Bay stretch out to the Blue Mountains, or take a trip across the plateau and look upon the very spot where the Birkenhead went down. A place of wonder and, unsuspected by me, of most lovable people. The Wesleyan chaplain was the Rev. William Shaw Caldecott, a bearded giant of a man, an autocrat of autocrats, a brilliant scholar and the author of several books on the Temples of Ezekiel and Solomon. He was most kind to me. Mrs. Caldecott was my literary fairy godmother. A very gentle lady of great character and beauty, she was the daughter of Benjamin Hellier, then editing the Agricultural Journal for the Government, a white-bearded, Father-Christmas-looking gentleman, who invariably wore a white top-hat. I remember him as one who never said an ill word—even about snakes. A marvel of erudition, this patriarch is the standard by which I judge good men. Marion Caldecott had written little verses and descriptions, but she had a wide and selective knowledge of the authors.
To her guidance I owe the shaping of my life. She opened out new vistas, showed me new excellences, gave me my first glimpse of the cultured gentlewoman of my dreams. Her age then I do not know; her hair was grey, turning white; she had piercing blue eyes and the most beautiful hands I have ever seen. I became permanently Wesleyan and took a proprietorial interest in religion. I even joined the choir.
There was plenty happening to relieve the monotony of life—if there had been any monotony. The Benin Expedition to the West Coast of Africa under Admiral Rawson was short and sharp. In the details of that little war, most of which I learnt at second hand, was born the germ of an idea which later was to fructify in my series of "Sanders" stories. I had the unique experience of receiving a letter of thanks from the Admiralty for my care of the sick and wounded, which, I presume, embellishes my documents at the War Office to this day.
New books came to me—Maurice Hewlett, Kipling—especially Kipling. I soaked myself in him. One morning I read in the Cape Times that he was coming to South Africa for a holiday. I sat down and wrote a "Welcome" in the Kipling manner and sent it off to the Cape Times. I heard nothing more of the matter, but on the day Kipling landed the "poem" was printed in a conspicuous place and I was summoned to Cape Town to meet the editor—that mercurial genius, Edmund Garrett, alive to his finger tips, though in the inexorable grip of a disease that was wasting him. I see him now with his keen boyish face and wavy hair—a man whose eyes were dancing with life, who bubbled over with the joy of it. His courage was truly wonderful.
I was to meet Kipling. The City Club was giving him a dinner—would I come? I said "Yes", but with misgivings, and consulted Mrs. Caldecott. Should I know which were the right knives to use and the right forks? How many wine glasses were there, and which wine went into which? She was rather hazy about the wine glasses, but put me right over such problems as knives and forks. I had had the same trouble when I dined with her family, but there the courses were few. This City Club dinner began with hors d'oeuvres and ended with ices.
Carrying in my mind's eye the distinguishing marks of fish knives, I attended the club. I was in uniform, of course. When I came into the reception-room Kipling was talking to the Mayor of Cape Town. A round-faced rather ferocious-looking man, with very powerful-looking spectacles, he came half-way to meet me. Lockwood Kipling, his father, gave me as hearty a greeting. I said nothing. My mind was too occupied by cutlery. I could only bask in this new sun. As to the wines, I had made up my mind: I drank everything that was offered to me. Alas! for the noble principles enunciated by Harry the Milkman and adopted en bloc by a past secretary of the Rose of Kent Lodge, most fiery of young Phoenixes—I went back to Simons Town that night rather tight.
Some time later Kipling wrote to me from Newlands—he had not gone into his house that was being built above Groot Schin by Rhodes. It was a charming letter in his most legible handwriting. I was to put "more spit and polish" in to my work. I was to practise journalism.
Kipling has the reputation of being something of a recluse. Journalists say that he is difficult of approach, forgetting that Kipling is at heart a journalist, knowing the weakness of his brethren.
Many years later, when I met Mark Twain, I understood better Kipling's attitude.
"I don't mind your interviewing me", said the great Mark, "but for God's sake don't put my words in quotation marks. I couldn't talk as an interviewer makes me talk."
Nevertheless, I and a dozen reporters clamoured for that interview, and Mark led us forward—we were on the ship which brought him to England at the time—to where there was working the noisiest donkey-engine that it has been my misfortune to hear. He drew the little circle of reporters close up to the clattering pandemonium and spoke. We heard nothing!
My prospects, even with the boost to ambition which the Kipling talk had given to me, were none too rosy. One day I saw Kipling at his bungalow and we had a long talk.
I was very much in awe of him, very gauche and awkward. I blurted out a foolish question.
"How does it feel to be a very great writer?"
He pulled at the pipe he was smoking and scowled at me from under his black eyebrows.
"I probably think less about myself than you think about yourself", he answered, a little crushingly.
I confess I did not feel that I was on the way to greatness.
Edmund Garrett said he would accept more verses—he did, a few. But journalism—!
He shook his head. He was too fine a gentleman to point out my deficiencies. I was just a Cockney soldier, half illiterate, gauche and awkward. Between me and this product of Oxford was a gulf wider than Table Bay. I felt that he could not "see me in the part", as they say in theatreland. Journalism, he said, was a very exacting profession—an ill-paid profession. Should I learn shorthand? I asked him.
"For God's sake, don't do that—you'll become an automaton!"
I had better go on writing verses. His assistant editor, however, had a newspaper mind. I might supply items of interest about Simons Town municipal meetings. I jumped at this suggestion. There was another opening. A wonderful fellow—the most irresponsible devil I've met—started a local newspaper in Simons Town. He collected the advertisements; I began to saw off lengths of prose for the paper. I wrote short items of news and long items. I wrote leading articles denouncing President Kruger. Incidentally, I sent a polite note to Admiralty House asking for ship news. Admirals who get friendly letters from private soldiers may be forgiven if they display a little hauteur. A brief curt note came back—a snappy note.
I stopped denouncing Kruger for one week and denounced Admiral Harris. In forty-eight hours I was en route for Cape Town—a journalistic victim of official tyranny. I had discovered a limitation of journalism. My colonel talked to me very seriously, pointing out certain paragraphs of Queen's Regulations. I was given a ward to look after—thirty medical cases. The dolce far niente of Simons Town became a delightfully remembered dream.
A political consciousness was awakening in my mind. Home politics I understood, of course. There were two parties in England—Conservatives and Liberals. If the Liberals came in you had Home Rule, and if the Conservatives came in you didn't. Had I not cheered Mr. Darling, the eminent Conservative Member for Deptford? And did I not speak disparagingly of Mr. Sidney Webb, the Liberal County Councillor, and Lord Edmund FitzMaurice, the Liberal candidate? The other day I reminded Lord Darling that I had been one of the most vocal of his supporters. He wasn't awfully impressed.
But in South Africa politics were vital because they were racial. On the one hand you had the psalm-singing, coffee-drinking Dutch; on the other hand the true-born Englishman with his inalienable right to do as he damn' pleased in any country at any time. Could there be the slightest doubt in what direction my sentiments leant?
I was under a cloud. Major Hilliard, who had the C.M.G. for his care of the late Prince Henry of Battenberg in his last moments, asked me ironically whether I would go into Parliament or pass my examination for corporal? I elected for the latter as a matter of precaution. The meagre income from the Simons Town newspaper and the correspondence and versifying that my leisure gave to me, was cut off. I considered the matter one night as I was taking my turn to sit by the bedside of a dying sergeant, and decided upon a new plan. In East London, which is on the east coast of Cape Colony, was a bright little paper called the East London Dispatch. I wrote to the editor: told him I was the famous Edgar Wallace who wrote such wonderful poetry in the Cape Times, and offered to write him a weekly causerie in the style of Sims's feature "Mustard and Cress." I chose this because it seemed easy. I told him it would be light and frivolous and possibly witty. I didn't call it a "causerie", because I hadn't met the word then and I shouldn't have been able to spell it if I had.
To my joy he accepted the suggestion. I was to start right away at 30s. an article, and he had no objection to my syndicating the feature. I knew nothing about syndication, but I found out. It meant sending the same stuff to other papers. After I had been writing for a month or two I received an order from the Midland News in Cradock and Grocott's Penny Mail in Grahamstown. From these sources I received £3 12s. a week. The article was written when I was on night duty in the quietness of the waiting-room. Many a bright paragraph, scintillating with calf humour, was interrupted by the arrival of casualties. Once I turned out to resuscitate a half-drowned civilian who had tried to commit suicide on the beach.
VERSIFYING is wonderful training for a writer—even doggerel versifying. I turned up an old army exercise book the other day full of scraps of "poems" written in a sprawling boyish hand. I wasn't ashamed of the stuff I had written—it frightened me a little: suppose I had realised how terribly deficient I was, how heartbreaking it would have been! I wondered how many other young men had thrown up the sponge when a sense of their limitations came to them. Happy was I in my good conceit that this "poetry" of mine was in a fair way to being very good indeed.
I wish I had preserved the scraps of paper on which my earliest paragraphs in the Sims manner had been inscribed. They were written with labour and corrected painfully. I would spend half an hour in the search of the right word—even delved down to the very roots to secure one which expressed the exact shade of meaning. Mrs. Caldecott gave me a Trench's book on "The Study of Words", which was immensely valuable. Trench sometimes jumped to conclusions which were a little fantastic, but I was happy to jump with him, and if there is some doubt that "trivial" is derived from "three roads", and the gossip that is peculiar to idlers who meet at their junction, Trench gave the interpretation a warm and human significance.
Trench helped me very considerably, for he made me examine the tools of my trade with closer attention than I should have done, and he taught me that the English language is a very beautiful inheritance. He taught me that words are keys that will only fit their own locks. It was an easy lesson to learn—a hard one to practise. My vocabulary was a very small one. I discovered this when I found that in leading article of the Cape Time, consisting of 700 words, there were twenty words I did not understand and eleven sentences which conveyed nothing to me. For six months I rewrote the Cape Times leaders, reducing them to understandable terms—it was a very useful exercise. At the same time I practised condensing them to forty words, no more and no less, and that was the best exercise of all. I did the same thing with the more profound of the English reviews. One article in the Quarterly took me three weeks to understand, and involved the reading of some thirty articles in an old encyclopaedia which Mr. Caldecott had in his study. At the end of that time I could have written a Quarterly article on economics, for, incidentally, I had unearthed a flaw in the writer's argument and a gross error in the basis of his calculations. I remember that another article in the Atlantic Monthly brought me to a study of the Chinese Dynasties!
The Owl, a Cape Town weekly, took a weekly verse, and then its more vigorous rival, the South African Review, gave me a standing order for thirty-six inches of political poetry. I discovered "Hiawatha"—the easiest poem in the world to parody. My verses and articles were all about Kruger, "Oom Paul", and the burghers and the downtrodden Uitlanders and Bijwooners and similar exciting subjects. My political fervour grew. Sir William Butler, commander-in-chief, sent word privately that it was not seemly that a soldier should interest himself in politics.
I was in trouble just then from another cause. Having to paint the chest of a bronchial case with liniment of iodine, I had executed a china pattern plate on his chest. The best drawing I have ever made. And the Principal Medical Officer, making an unexpected call, had seen but had not admired my artistry. Also there was the incident of the corporal's bed. He was a very objectionable corporal, and he used to come in late and rather tight. One evening we pulled down his sheets and poured inside two tins of Lyle's Golden Syrup. All that I did was to open the tins and rearrange the bedclothes, but there was considerable trouble at 1 a.m., and worse to follow at orderly room in the morning. Happily, by well-knit perjury, we cleared ourselves.
The colonel spoke to me on the political matter like a father. Wouldn't it be better if I got out of the army? I was earning too much money and demoralising the detachment. Rumours had reached him of wild nights at Bill Scarsons—Bill kept a wine shop near the hospital. I applied for my discharge, borrowing £20 from Mrs. Caldecott's son—a great scientist and as generous as he was clever—and in course of time the order for my discharge was received.
There was a riotous evening the night I left. We had a concert and a presentation—a gold headed cane, which was a noble accompaniment to my new suit. It was queer to find myself free of the army, with a room of my own, people to wait on me at breakfast, with no need for getting up at any hour, and the right to go to bed just when I pleased. The night after my release I walked about Cape Town till three o'clock in the morning for the satisfaction of using my own latchkey. I then discovered that there was no train to Wynberg until six. The experience did not seem worth while.
But there I was in my own room, with a window looking out upon the mountains, and a large, smooth table and pen and ink and paper, a big dictionary, Roget's Thesaurus, and a volume of familiar quotations. I had all the necessary equipment for a successful writer.
There was leisure to read. I remember digesting a book by Flammarion on astronomy and Xenophon's Anabasis and The Dialogues of Socrates, and failing dismally to get beyond page thirteen of Motley's Rise and Fall of the Dutch Republic.
Another man left the corps just about then. He was tired of the army, he said, and had got a job on the sanitary board somewhere up country.
"There's going to be a war, and when you fellows are slogging across the veld you can think of me sitting in civvies outside my hut, with a pint of beer and a big cigar!"
The town to which he went to take up his appointment was—Mafeking! I saw him a few days after the town was relieved. As I rode down the main street I saw a scarecrow eating a banana and recognised him as The Man Who Wanted a Quiet Time.
Out of the army, in a high white collar and a natty grey suit; no blooming reveille, no "Show a leg, will yer? Blimey, some of you fellers'll sleep your brains away!" No parades, no P.M.'s, no orderly room at 10 o'clock.
Eventually I found lodgings in Wynberg and sat me down to enlarge my connections. I could report council meetings to my heart's content.
"MR. COUNCILLOR SMART asked when Little Kloof Road was to have another lamp-post. The state of the road was a disgrace to the municipality.
"MR. SMITH (Borough Engineer) said the matter was under consideration.
"The MAYOR said he hoped there would be no acrimony on the subject (hear, hear). He lived in Little Kloof Road and had to suffer as much as anybody else (hear, hear)."
I was sending Mrs. Freeman a pound a week, which later I increased to £2 10s. I have an idea she never spent a penny of it, but saved it up against my return. Suspecting this I wrote a lordly letter telling her she must use it on herself, that soon I should be worth thousands. She shook her head when she heard this.
"I hope the boy isn't doing anything he oughtn't to do", she said.
I got into the Parliamentary gallery and did a longhand summary of the proceedings. To meet people was easy now, and I made the acquaintance of Cecil Rhodes, a big-framed, reddish-faced man with a curiously squeaky voice. And Willie Schreiner, and the mysterious Jan Hoffman, who, though out of Parliament, was the big power behind the Dutch.
Rhodes's power was on the decline. He had aroused the bitterest enmity amongst the Dutch by the part he had played in organising the Jameson Raid. He never joined in a debate but the atmosphere became electric. John X. Merriman, that lank politician, was his bête noire, and sometimes the exchanges across the floor of the House brought Dr. Berry, the Speaker, to his feet with a stern expostulation.
I saw Rhodes once at Groot Schorn. Possibly Kipling had spoken of me to him, for he was very kindly, took me round his terraced garden, but refused to talk any kind of politics. He did, however, express the opinion that Joseph Chamberlain was the biggest statesman that England possessed, and asked me if I knew Alfred Harmsworth.
Rhodes had a favourite expression. He would ramble on till he reached some baffling expression of opinion.
"That is a thought", he would say impressively. He was always propounding "thoughts"—subject-matter for consideration. His voice alternated between a squeak and a rumble; he himself thought quicker than he could speak, and sometimes he would leave you with the wreckage of a sentence to disentangle as best you could, whilst he went off at a tangent to talk about something altogether different, again to leave it in the middle of an uncompleted sentence.
At the opening of the South African Exhibition in Grahamstown I went up to represent a news agency. There never was a quieter town than Grahamstown. It lies in the fold of the hills, a sweltering hot city, full of churches. When Sir William Butler (Acting High Commissioner) arrived in state to open the exhibition, one man cheered and was silenced by a stern policeman.
"We don't want any of that sort of noise here", he said.
Alfred Milner was High Commissioner, but he was home on leave. Butler, a lover of peace, saw all things working for war, and in his speech uttered a warning:
"South Africa wants peace", he said—a statement which brought about his recall.
I heard the speech, and by some queer instinct recognised its significance. It was almost a gesture of challenge thrown at Milner. My account was the first to reach Cape Town and England. It was my first "beat."
One of the hardest habits for an ex-soldier to drop is the habit of saluting. For years after I left the army I could not meet an officer without my hand mechanically moving upward. I held all officers in awe, and when Sir William saw me later in the day and beckoned me, my knees trembled.
"You're the writing soldier, aren't you, Mr. Wallace? Well, what do you think of my speech?"
"I think, sir, there will be an awful fuss at home about it."
"I think so too", he nodded.
He was rather sad. William Butler was a big man—you will remember his wife's picture, "The Roll Call"—a large-hearted man who felt things very deeply. You can imagine no greater contrast in characters than his and Milner's. Milner had the soulless brilliancy of a lawyer; the conscious superiority of an aristocrat. He worried about petty things and was incautiously dogmatic about big things. I think he came to South Africa with a fixed idea—that there was no solution to the problem which the Dutch states offered but the solution which could be forced by arms. He was honest in this faith—I could not imagine Alfred Milner being guilty of one act of trickery or deception.
My own position just about now was rather comfortable. The output of weekly political verse had increased to a yard and a half! I was a gentleman of leisure, with two suits and a suit of dress clothes. The latter, bought ready to wear, was a little tight, but was rather beautiful to look upon. "Leisure" is, of course, a relative term. I had learnt the habit of early rising and early working, and always I worked at top speed. I read and read and read, "masking" the passages I could not quite understand and returning to them later to puzzle them out. My chief exercise was a book on Logic—Deductive and Inductive. I read this page by page. I have had it for years. I have it now. I still don't understand it.
In this period I published my first book—a collection of verses. It was called "The Mission that Failed", and took its title from the first "poem" which dealt with the Jameson Raid. It had paper covers and was printed locally and sold for a shilling. I have no copy of it and would gladly give a tenner for one.
Life in Cape Town in these days was delightful. I lived on the edge of Constantia, a district Kipling has made famous. It was a place of glorious ranges, of vineyards and pines. I marvel that I do not live there now.
My verses had reached England. The Daily Chronicle published some of the best, the Spectator published one or two. They were, of course, Kiplingesque—just as Robert Service's were. Every young writer imitates somebody, consciously or unconsciously. I was a frank imitator of Kipling.
The South African War came inevitably—one saw the black cloud rising, and there was warning enough before the storm broke.
CURIOUSLY enough, in my travels around the Eastern Province, I had made a layman's reconnaissance of one disastrous battle-ground—Stormberg, though I never dreamt that Gatacre or any other general would attempt a frontal attack against such a position. Cape Town was electrified by the war. Transports. were arriving daily. Train after train laden with artillery passed up the line to a region that had suddenly become a mysterious and terrifying Unknown.
I published a number of war poems in pamphlet form, with the assistance of a gentleman who had a consumptive cure he wished to advertise. He took the back page for advertising purposes and paid half the cost of the printing.
One night when I got back to Wynberg I found a telegram waiting for me. It was from H. A. Gwynne, chief correspondent and manager of Reuter's Capetown. Gwynne is now editor of the Morning Post—a great athlete and a great gentleman. Again I was to come into contact with the officer type. In my opinion, he was the finest correspondent the South African War produced, for not only was a shrewd and knowledgeable news-gatherer, but had a sense of proportion that put him in a different class from the others. He had not, of course, the vivid pen of G. W. Steevens, but then Steevens was rather an impressionist than a news man.
"Would you like to go to the front?" he asked me.
The offer came at a moment when I had decided to re-enlist. It was so horrible sitting in Cape Town writing about things I had not seen. My heart was with the detachment, which was somewhere on the Orange River, and I jumped at the offer. A correspondent's pass was secured, and with a hundred pounds in my pocket I left town one night en route for De Aar.
A hundred pounds! It was all the money in the world. No Rothschild was richer than I, and in order to make the money go as far as possible and to maintain this enormous capital, I lived economically, grudging the £20 I had to pay for a horse.
I left Cape Town at night, feeling rather solemn, if the truth be told. I was going into the blue, to an unknown and ominous beyond, where there was fighting and death and the confusion of war. I sat through that moonlit night as the train crawled up through the Hex River Mountains, wondering whether this was an opening, or whether I was slipping into a dead end. The train thudded on through the next day across the white-hot Karoo, a place of silence and desolation, and we reached De Aar that night. We could not go any farther apparently; the line had been blown up between De Aar and Newport, or possibly a rail had buckled or a culvert had collapsed. Whatever it was, it held us at that arid junction till daylight. The Guards were detraining as I left, huge and stolid men, resting here for a day or two before they joined Methuen on the Orange River.
I went along to Naawport, a ghastly hole of a place, which had its railway officer, armoured train, and a sprinkling of disgruntled and suspicious Dutch farmers. French was holding a line somewhere north of the latter place, and I went up in an armoured train and heard the first boom of the guns. There was little news at Colesberg—but I saw there a very charming Chief Staff Officer. He was a major of cavalry and a very courteous man—a Major Douglas Haig.
"I'm afraid there is very little news for you here", he said. "Would you like to see the General?"
The General received me in the friendliest way. French was a little man, a cheery soul, though worried the morning I saw him. It was a curious experience to have met the two men who in turn commanded the Army in France, within five minutes of one another. French, a whisky-and-soda in his hand, a little talkative; Haig, debonair, very silent and thoughtful; and somewhere in the distance the intermittent "klik-klok" of rifles. Methuen had got to the Orange River and was planning a move towards Kimberley. I arrived at Orange River Station the day he left.
My old detachment of R.A.M.C. men was at Orange River when I arrived, a sunburnt whiskery lot of men, half of whom had grown beards and were unrecognisable. I had had an invitation to dine that night with a swell I had met on the train—I think it was the Earl de la Warr, who was corresponding for some newspaper or other—and I sent a message over telling him that I had been unavoidably detained, and squatted down with the gang around the blackened camp kettle to an over-rich dinner of boiled rabbit, chicken and bully beef. It was a gorgeous evening, somewhat spoilt by a raging thunderstorm which came up the Orange River.
My position was that of second correspondent. My chief—I forget who he was for the moment—was on the other side of the river with the main body of the army, at that moment preparing to advance towards Kimberley. I was happy to learn, however, that the military authorities knew nothing about my subordinate position, and I was allowed to cross the river as and when I wished, not with the idea of doing the other man's job, but because I had that insatiable curiosity which is the chief ingredient in the make-up of the perfect correspondent.
Gwynne himself came up before the advance began. He was very satisfied with the work I had done, but told me it was necessary that I should stay at Orange River, not only to collect any news that was going, but to act as reserve for himself. Orange River was not my idea of a perfect front, and I continued my visits to the army, using a bicycle to get about the country, and keeping well out of sight of my chief.
I can't remember how many times I lost myself in that God-forsaken stretch of no-man's land. I spent two nights sleeping in the wilderness. The second time I was taken prisoner by a small commando of Cape rebels which was trekking eastward to join Kronje. When I say "taken prisoner" I am indulging in heroics. I was questioned by the leader of the party and allowed to go on my way. It is a curious fact that, although this little party crossed the one line of rails which formed the slender line of communication with Methuen's force, they not only made no attempt to blow it up or destroy it in some other way, but actually stopped to remove an obstruction which had accidentally washed down upon the rails!
From a hill I watched the Battle of Belmont, and later saw E. F. Knight, the Morning Post correspondent, with his arm shattered by a rifle bullet.
It was at Orange River that I had my first tussle with the military censor.
But the queer incident that occurred was after the Battle of Modder River. I had written out a story I got from a wounded officer, in the course of which I had mentioned that a certain officer had been killed. I misspelt his name (it was the difference between Ferguson and Fergeson—these are not the real names). The General sent for me, a nice little man with a quiet, gentle manner, and read me a little lecture.
"Be awfully careful about names", he said.
He was General Wauchope, and when, a week or so later, I learnt that he had been killed leading the Highland Brigade into action, I dared not send on the news, though I had it before the correspondents at Modder River, for fear I had confused his name with another.
Between whiles I did a little unofficial hospital work. The wounded were coming down from Modder River and were being accommodated in the field hospital at Orange River Junction. The R.A.M.C. staff was a small one and I was able to help a little, for I was a first-class orderly and surgical work was my speciality. I hasten to add that I did very little, for the hospital staff was reinforced from De Aar almost immediately; but I managed to get around to the tents where some of the badly wounded men were lying, and take down the letters they dictated to their people. The courage of the dying Tommy is beyond belief: I never saw a tear, never heard one regret from these men who were taking farewell of life and all that life held. They fill me with wonder and awe, even to-day, when I remember those death-beds. They were not supermen, they were just true to type, and every Briton should go down on his knees and thank God for his breeding.
Soon after Magersfontein I was sent up to Orange River and found myself herded with the elephants of the newspaper world. Julian Ralph was there, Lionel James of The Times, Carl de la Mere, Percival Landon. Later came Charles Hardy and Gwynne, Bennett Burleigh and Winston Churchill. George Steevens I had met on his way through to Natal. A quiet, watchful man who was rather difficult to know. He gave you the impression of great simplicity and an impatience of trivialities. He had played a bigger part in the world than he knew, or even his friend Alfred Harmsworth had guessed, for he created the illusion of an invincible Kitchener.
Winston I only saw. I had an opportunity of meeting him, but was rather shy about meeting celebrities. A sturdy, red young man, brimming over with life and confidence. An adviser of generals even then, if rumour spoke truly. They might have done better if they had followed his advice, for I am one of the people who believe that he has a large quantity of the military genius of the first Duke of Marlborough, his ancestor. All his life he has comported himself in the field with an absolute disregard for his safety—whether you like his politics or not, you have to acknowledge his personal bravery; he is a man without fear.
Bennett Burleigh I never liked. I have the memory of gratuitous snubs which were unpardonable. He was a bluff, noisy man, very capable at his job and very kind at heart, I believe. Melton Prior, whom I met later, was, with Villiers, one of the old school. He was something of an old soldier too. I met Lord Methuen—they called him "Paul." and he was the easiest man in the world for an ex-Tommy to meet. Throughout the war I thanked God when my work brought me into contact with officers of the Brigade of Guards. They never made me conscious of my social limitations, and that is the highest compliment I can pay to their breeding.
In addition to my cables to London, it was my duty to write short articles, which were forwarded to Reuter's head office in London and distributed to the newspapers. Because of my shocking caligraphy and my curious spelling, I took the precaution of sending my written notes to a typist in Cape Town: a girl who was earning a little money in her spare time after business hours. When the first few of these were printed and came out, I sent copies of the newspapers containing them to almost everybody I could think of. I was tremendously proud of my achievement, and three copies of the Daily News with the article "by Reuter's Special Correspondent" went to the typist. I did not explain to her that other newspapers throughout England were also printing the articles, and my failure to explain this led to amazing results. For subsequent articles (there were not many), instead of going forward to Reuter, were sent direct to the Daily News. All but one notable exception.
The first intimation I had of this was a cable which later came to me in Rhodesia:
Splendid article. Continue. Robinson.
For all I knew, Robinson was Reuter's other name, and I continued! I did not identify Sir John Robinson till months later. After the Battle of Magersfontein I was sent to join Sir Frederick Carrington, who was taking a force through Rhodesia to relieve Mafeking. On a tiny ship, crowded with Queensland bushmen, I made the painful journey to Beira, a place I remember for its sand and its cocktails. At Sixty Mile Peg, where the narrow and the broad gauge lines met, I killed my first lion, before going on to Marandellas to find that Sir Frederick Carrington, who had come out to South Africa much against his will, for he was an old man and rather lethargic, had built himself a house and was looking for a likely fourth at bridge.
Troops were, however, going forward to join Plumer, who was attacking to the north of Mafeking. I travelled up to Salisbury, booked myself a place on the overland coach—the type of conveyance with which my early studies of Bo Dick had made me acquainted—and began the long and painful trek to Buluwayo. I reached Mafeking when, so to speak, the powder of Plumer's attack still hung in the air.
Plumer in those days was a colonel of infantry, a stolid, quiet-spoken, phlegmatic man, very sparing of speech, yet withal possessed of an extraordinarily keen sense of humour. He was by far the most popular of the "little commanders." Baden-Powell was preparing to go home; and the curious fact is that, although I was two days in Mafeking, I never saw him and have never spoken with him in my life!
I had to hurry back to Buluwayo and from Buluwayo by the same painful process to Salisbury. There was talk of a native rising. Chief Linchwe had given trouble along the northern frontiers of the Transvaal; a farm or two had been burnt, and a few unfortunate women had been murdered and worse. Later I was to join an expedition and be a participator rather than a spectator in the grim vengeance which followed.
Apparently it was not intended that I should go east again, and I returned to Buluwayo, travelling with Whigham, who was, I think, acting for the Morning Post, and later became one of the most brilliant editors in America. For years he had charge of the Metropolitan Magazine, a unique performance for an Englishman of Englishmen.
By this time Roberts had driven through to Pretoria, and, officially at any rate, the war was over. Personally, I was rather sick at heart: Mrs. Freeman had died, and much of the zest of life had for the moment gone out. I was weary of the war and South Africa. Going down to Cape Town, I took the first ship to Europe.
It was only when I reached London that I realised the extraordinary work my typist had been doing; for not only had she sent these articles to the Daily News, which I had not seen until I reached London; but she had branched forth and sent one of the "stories" to the Daily Mail! I met Douglas Sladen—I don't know how I got into such a literary atmosphere, but it was Sladen who said that he had seen an article of mine in the Daily Mail. The next morning I went down to the office to search the articles. When I had discovered the article, I sent my name up to the editor, and there began my acquaintance with a man who, more than any other, founded my journalistic fortune.
One has to deal very briefly and delicately with the incident, because Thomas Marlowe is one of the few men I know who genuinely resents this kind of publicity. He was grey, even in those days, with remarkable eyes and a deep, menacing voice that has filled generations of reporters with terror. I told him I was going back to the Cape, that in my opinion the war would last at least for another year, and he commissioned me to write a few articles for the paper. I had only sent a few from Cape Town when I had a cable appointing me correspondent and giving me the freest of hands. I left immediately for the front and had the good luck to attach myself to a column that at that moment was on the point of leaving Magersfontein in search of Hertzog, the present Prime Minister of South Africa.
Although Hertzog's commando was bigger than our little force, he consistently avoided battle. We had with us a detachment of Australians (Victorians, if my memory serves me), Kitchener's Fighting Scouts, a battalion of the Coldstream Guards, and two guns of the Royal Horse Artillery.
The day of days was that when I accompanied a party of the irregular horse on an unofficial sniping expedition, and had the good fortune to bring down a Boer commander, who, I have every reason to believe, was Hertzog. My shot killed the horse, and probably I should have killed the rider, but a loud-mouthed officer demanded what in something we were doing at the moment I was drawing on my prey. I am pretty certain, from what we subsequently learnt, that the gentleman I brought down was Hertzog himself.
WHO will ever forget those days of marching and counter-marching through the driving rain in search of a shadowy enemy, his presence notified occasionally by a desultory exchange of rifle shots; turning out at dawn in the drizzle, with a streak of light between the tops of the hills and the heavy rain-clouds. The stink of wet wood trying to burn; the undertone of blasphemy that chorused up from the men's lines; and the ride into nowhere—a wet man on a wet horse, the rain streaking down, drops dripping from the brim of your broad-brimmed sombrero; the clatter and groan of the mules lugging their burdens over a road that had ceased to be a road, probably never was a road. The everlasting foot-slogging Tommy, his rifle slung over his shoulder, muzzle down, his hands deep in his pockets, a pipe between his teeth. Alone in that column of misery is he cheerful. His voice rises in an unmusical howl as he murders the music of popular songs. Dead mules and dead horses at the side of the road; a swollen drift to cross; and so into camp, weary and aching. And what a camp! Waterproof covers fastened together to shelter the men; tiny tents, hardly as serviceable for the officers; but in ten minutes after camp is reached Mr. Atkins is as cheerful as ever he was. Fires are burning, for each Tommy in a company carries a dry stick of communal wood under his tunic. Sometimes when we were crossing the path of a little column that had trekked laterally before, we came upon evidence of tiny battles, forgotten nowadays.
Once, when was taking a short cut, I found all that remained of a British soldier, and halted to bury him. It is a commentary on our civilisation that I had to borrow the prayer-book from my coloured mule-driver before I could read the service over the pitiable dead.
Once I found a Boer girl walking across the veld completely nude. She was rather difficult to deal with, for she was mad. She told the story in Dutch that she had been maltreated and stripped by some English soldiers, but the Dutch farmer to whom I took her told me that this wandering nakedly was an old and disconcerting habit of hers. I spent the night at the farm, and in the morning the farmer informed me that the girl had hanged herself in the night. He told me this quite calmly at breakfast, and invited me to break off in repast and go in and see her. She was still hanging when I went in and, amazingly enough was alive! She was alive when I left the place. The next time I saw the farm it had been destroyed by fire—I think the man was a loyalist and the Hertzog commando had passed. Hertzog was rather a terrible fellow to loyalists.
I always remember those long hikes after a invisible enemy for one characteristic of the soldier which I would like you to carry in your minds. If one was sleeping in one's d'abri tent and heard a chorus of song in the middle of the night one could be sure that it was raining, and that the sodden men sleeping outside in the open were greeting the dismal weather in their own fashion.
The soldier grumbles because it is part of his British nature to grumble. He grouses and endures. And when he comes out of the army he still grouses, with very good reason, and people stare affrighted at the phenomenon and imagine a new breed of man loosely labelled "revolutionary" and "communist" has grown up in the night, never realising that he is only Tommy without uniform, exercising his right to complain against the corporals and sergeants (very seldom the officers) who are making his life a little more irksome than he deems necessary.
Let this fact sink into your mind—it is the non-commissioned officers of life who hurt, and against whom resentment is felt. The foremen and the petty overseers; the small men with near horizons and no vision beyond; the little go-betweens who have acquired the habit of tyranny—these form the grit in the machinery of industry. Sometimes they are for the bosses and make life hell for the men under them. Sometimes they stand for rebellion against higher direction, but invariably their object is power. They are ready to adopt the shibboleths of either side so long as they gain authority thereby. If they learn the trick of oratory they become leaders on one side or the other, not because they possess the intrinsic qualities of leadership, but because they are pleasingly vocal.
Nor is this phenomenon peculiar to any class. Oratory has passed for statesmanship in every phase and period of our political history, and many a man has risen to the governance of great departments of State with no other qualification than his aptitude for epigram and sonorous peroration.
What magnificent men the Coldstreamers were! Henniker, burly and genial; Marker, the perfect type of clever soldier (he was killed outside Ypres); little Monk, then a junior subaltern, who died in France; Crichton, John Campbell, now commanding the regiment and the gallant fellow who won his V.C. by rallying the Guards with a hunting horn; Claude Willoughby, Crook, Lawless, the Guards doctor, and Beach, the R.A.M.C. doctor, Powell, the horse gunner—these men are among the bright memories of the war.
There are other memories, curious and macabre. Scheepers, for example. Scheepers was a Cape rebel, tried by court martial and sentenced to death. That he would have died, I very much doubt. Unfortunately, a misguided pro-Boer in the House of Commons staged a full-dress debate. Before the agitation was well on its way, a message was transmitted to Pretoria from London. That same night Henniker had a telegram, characteristically brief: "Shoot Scheepers. K." They went to his cell and woke up the rebel leader and told him his fate. The next morning he was shot by a firing party of the Guards; and there the matter would have ended, but it came to the ears of authority that certain sympathisers were seeking the exact place where Scheepers was buried. An attempt had been made to bribe two members of the firing party to convey this information. That night Scheepers was dug up from his new grave, deposited in a Cape cart and moved to a fold of the wild hills, there to be reburied. There is, I believe, a monument over the supposed grave of this not at all admirable leader of Cape marauders. There is, however, no body beneath the marble.
Another night to be remembered was spent in a midland town. A local farmer had turned rebel and was captured in a fight, tried by court martial and sentenced to be hanged. The man whose dreadful duty it was to perform the execution arrived with the ghastly apparatus, fitted it up in the courtyard of the local prison, and spent the rest of the afternoon absorbing strong drink. He was, I believe, in terror of assassination. I woke up at midnight to the sound of a fearful scream, and discovered that friend hangman occupied the adjoining room to me in the hotel and that he was in the most violent stages of delirium tremens. With the aid of a local newspaper man we got him back to bed and tied him down, and for four hours, with ice and cold sponges, we worked on the raving, half-demented hangman. It was a night one will not readily forget. He had very ugly memories and he told us all about them. My companion was physically sick. Eventually we got him to sleep, and he turned up, a little shaky, but quite normal, to perform his nasty job.
This was described as a senseless execution, as also was the killing of Scheepers, and the shooting of five men at De Aar for train wrecking; but it has to be remembered that we had an enormously long line of communications; the country through which the railway passed was peopled generally by sympathisers with the Boer cause. Without these examples, anarchy would have reigned; and if we erred at all it was on the side of leniency. In making examples the mildest of offenders frequently suffer for the sins of their leaders.
Soon after this unpleasant affair I was to meet Kitchener for the first time. I had seen him often enough, and I knew all the rumours that were in circulation about his being "in disgrace with Roberts." Roberts was a sort of hero of mine, and undoubtedly he was a magnificent soldier and a brilliant strategist.
It was while Kitchener's train was waiting at Elandslaagte that I was introduced by a member of his staff. My first sensation was one of disappointment. "K." was a very big, heavy-looking man, with a forbidding, rather repulsive face. He had a slight cast in one eye, and his manner at that interview was a little harsh and overbearing. The Tommy who described him as "Gawd's young brother Alf" was understandable. And yet Kitchener was in truth a very gentle, kindly and simple soul. He was shy and more conscious of his own limitations than any but his best friends knew. It may seem a fantastic suggestion, but I shall always contend that G. W. Steevens ruined Kitchener when he wrote his fanciful pen-picture of the man in that brilliant series of articles afterwards published under the title "With Kitchener to Khartoum." Steevens showed him as a man of ice and blood—one who dressed himself in Arab garb in order learn the secrets of the enemy—a man without bowels of compassion, remorseless, ruthless, relentless. I have the impression that Kitchener spent the greater part of his life in trying to live up to that reputation, and that all his ferocity, his seeming boorishness and his invariable aloofness, were due to another man's estimate which he had all too willingly accepted.
He had already put into execution his plan to end the war: the creation of vast block-house lines, designed to keep the enemy within certain restricted areas. As a protection for the railway lines they were excellent, but as a means of bringing the war to an end, they were, in my humble judgment, futile. Nothing was easier than to break through them in the night, as the Boers proved time and time again.
I first found myself in conflict with Lord Kitchener over the shooting of the British wounded at Vlakfontein. There had been a little fight, in which our men had been driven back, and undoubtedly after the engagement a number of Boers walked round the battle field shooting the wounded Tommies. I had this information at first-hand and put it on the wire. It was, as I subsequently discovered, censored out of existence. Fortunately, I sent at the same time a long written dispatch to the Daily Mail, describing the incident. This was published and created a great sensation. Questions were asked in Parliament, and since the Government had had no information from Lord Kitchener, the story was characterised as an invention. The Under-Secretary of State for War was then Lord Stanley, the present Lord Derby, a man for whom I have the highest regard and affection. Stanley could do no more than say that the Government had no information at all on the subject, to promise inquiry and to award condign punishment to the correspondent who had so lacerated the feelings of the soldiers' relatives.
Kitchener had apparently made no statement about this incident; indeed, until he was cabled by the Government, he furnished no particulars of the Boers' most discreditable exploit, and one which was condemned by Louis Botha in very pregnant words. But "K" was getting very weary of the war, most anxious to bring about its end, still more anxious that the feeling at home should not be further inflamed against his enemy. He was prepared, as I know, to grant the Boers a measure of self-government immediately on the signing of peace. Some time later, Milner told me, with some acerbity, that Lord Kitchener had made an unjustifiable use of the press to further his own views. At the moment, the "unjustifiable use" that "K." was making of the press was to deny news of actual happenings. Under pressure from the Government he admitted that my account was substantially accurate.
In the meantime he was very annoyed with me, and I received a direct hint from the censor in Johannesburg that my presence in the gold city was undesirable and that I had best go to Cape Town. I went down, accompanied by two bright young officer lads, and only discovered as the train was drawing in to Cape Town station that they were acting as escort. I spent three days in Cape Town and went back to Johannesburg, and by this time the truth had come out.
I thought it best to see Kitchener, and went over to Pretoria for the purpose, but he would have none of me. I wanted to see him on another matter. As an excuse for the censorship he had made a statement that the Boers got all their information from English newspapers, and that when he went in to parley with Louis Botha he found the latest copies of all the English journals in Botha's camp. This created a mild sensation when the news was cabled home. It was Gwynne, I believe, who tackled him with this statement of his, and was met by a cool denial that he had ever said anything of the sort! Later he said that the only paper that the Boers got was the one I wrote for, and I never had a chance to discuss the matter with him; and when eventually we met on more or less friendly terms I thought it would be tactless to raise the subject.
The war was drifting to its end; the Boers were sick and tired of being away from their farms year after year, and peace negotiations had begun. I heard that the British and Dutch were to meet at Vereenigen, on the banks of the Vaal River, and conveyed this news in a short telegram. The censor summoned me to his office and, greeting me with a bland smile, handed the telegram back to me.
"Oh, no", he said cheerfully, 'there's no news whatever to go through about the peace negotiations."
"Why not?" I asked in astonishment, thinking that such glad tidings would be the first Kitchener would wish published.
"It is K.'s orders," he told me.
Returning to my hotel, I puzzled the matter out. I had met a very good fellow, the financier Freeman-Cohen, who had a branch office in London conducted by his brother Caesar. Harry Freeman-Cohen was a little man who had the face of a stage comedy Jew, but I never met a straighter, cleaner or whiter man in my life. I count his friendship as one of the happiest I made in South Africa. My first step was to send a wire, with his help, to his brother, saying: "Any message that comes to you, take to Carmelite House." This passed the censor.
My next step was to code my message, which ran:
"Peace negotiations begun. Boer representatives are in Pretoria. Milner gone there to secure basis negotiations."
I tore this up and wrote instead.
"With reference Paxfontein Mines, all parties necessary to contract are now in Pretoria, whither Alfred gone get bottom price."
In this obscure way I was able to send from day to day the progress of the peace negotiations. These had hardly commenced before, to my amazement, Kitchener wired asking me to come over to breakfast. I went expecting to get a kick in the pants for some (journalistic) villainy. In point of fact, I thought that he had discovered my code. I was agreeably surprised to be greeted like an old friend.
I arrived too late for breakfast, and our interview was in his little study, alone; here he explained what he wanted to do.
"Your newspaper has a large influence in England, hasn't it?"
I said it had a tremendous influence, without knowing a great deal about it.
"Well, I'll tell you what I wish you would do, Wallace", he said. "Can't you persuade your people to take this line in regard to concessions to the Boers?"
He then outlined a number of concessions, to some of which I dared demur.
"I can't send this as a news message", I explained, and we agreed that it would have to take the form of a leader. So between us we sat down and constructed a Daily Mail leader (which, I believe, never went into the newspaper) urging the necessity for dealing gently with the Boer, promising him a measure of self-government within a few years, a promise which anticipated Campbell-Bannerman's Act, granting a general amnesty to Cape rebels, and a few other things which I knew must be embodied in any terms of peace between the South African Republic and the British Government.
The wire went off; two days later we wrote another leader, but apparently the news that the first had not appeared in the Mail inhibited any further confidence, and I was not sent for again.
And again I resumed my underground messages. Kitchener had sent word that if he caught me there would be trouble. I didn't want telling.
"But I should like to point out to you that if I don't get news through to England there will also be trouble", I explained to the censor.
To find one's way into the guarded peace camp was of course impossible. One elderly correspondent tried it, but his disguise would not have deceived an amateur detective, and he was unceremoniously booted forth into the cold world.
Fortunately for me, there was a good pal of mine in the camp, a Tommy with whom I had soldiered, and, meeting him, I arranged a code of signals. He was to have three handkerchiefs—one red, one white, one blue. The railway ran within sight of the camp, and every' morning I journeyed down to the Vaal River by train, took the next train back, keeping my eye on the camp for the signal. Red meant "nothing doing", blue "making progress", and the white handkerchief was to signify that the peace treaty had actually been signed. I don't now how many journeys I made on that infernal railway, but never once was the red handkerchief displayed.
Then one morning, when rumour was rife that the negotiations had fallen through, I saw my friend standing on the end of the tent lines, and he was displaying a white handkerchief conspicuously. I did not wait to get back to Pretoria. Instead I sent a wire from Germiston:
I have said that Kitchener knew that I was sending messages in code. Too late he discovered how.
In the course of these long negotiations I had made one or two trips up and down the line—once as far as Cape Town—so that no suspicion should rest upon me, and it was my misfortune that I sent a wire from Beaufort West detailing some developments in the Peace Conference, my language being so unguarded that a man standing by my side, and himself waiting to send a wire, read it, guessed its importance and notified Kitchener. The name of my "betrayer" was General Smuts.
One of Lord Kitchener's staff subsequently stated that I had given him my word that I would not break the censorship regulations; but the truth is, I had made no such promise. I had been warned of the dire consequences to me should I continue sending uncensored messages; but a correspondent's first duty, within the bounds of honour and decency, is to his newspaper. It is the ship for which he is prepared to make any sacrifice, and week after week the Daily Mail published particulars of the negotiations, and I became more and more an object of suspicion. Bennett Burleigh complained to head-quarters that I was getting news through by some underground channel, but he, I think, was the only correspondent who took that step.
When the Daily Mail, which had been accused of getting its news from the Colonial Office by improper means, came out with the story of how the messages had been sent through, I had my big strafe. I was strafed at second-hand by Kitchener, by the Chief of Staff, by the censor, by everybody except my paper. But already the war was finished for me, and a new vista was opening up.
ON the day peace was officially proclaimed, and whilst the church bells were ringing, the churches were filled with thankful citizens of the Transvaal, Freeman-Cohen walked into my room at Heath's Hotel, a large cigar between his white teeth and a twinkle in his eye. He had been riding all the morning and his horse was at the door of the hotel.
"I have bought the Standard and Diggers' News", he said. This was the most important paper in the Transvaal, and had in pre-war days been subsidised by the Kruger Government. "I want you to edit it", he went on. "I'll give you fifteen hundred a year and a share of the profits."
Now to appreciate the situation, you have to remember that I had never been in a newspaper office in my life except to hand in my deathless prose about municipal councils. But I was of the age when all things seem easy. I accepted the appointment, staffed the paper, and produced a new journal in the Rand Daily Mail, which is now one of the two greatest newspapers in South Africa.
Those nine months of service on the Rand Daily Mail were hectic months for me. I was learning all the time, mainly discovering my own deficiencies. Yet it was a bright paper, extravagantly run, but popular from the first. We had the competition of the Transvaal Leader, a loyalist journal which had established itself under the Krugerian regime, but this we eventually killed (not in my time, it is true). We had also an evening paper, the Star, against us, and it was an uphill fight for six months, all the time I was editor. We had a few scoops, and a few that came unstuck. We were instrumental in saving the lives of a number of Tommies sentenced to death for a barrack-room riot on St. Patrick's Day, and we asked for, and got, a good kicking from Milner.
Lord Milner was a gentleman of a peculiar temperament. He was an unhuman man in many respects. You could imagine him as the permanent head of a great Government department, for Milner was the beau-ideal of a Civil Servant. He was consciously superior to common people. I am not saying this unpleasantly. He did nice things and kind things and humane things; the people who worked with him loved him. He was as honest as the day, but he was the world's worst "mixer."
It was his worst handicap that he worried about little matters such as an ordinary man would have hardly noticed, and was so sensitive to criticism that without knowing his past you could have betted that he had been a journalist who wrote leading articles.
There was nothing personal in his little brush with the Rand Daily Mail.
We had a correspondent at Lorenço Marques who sent us a rumour that the British Government were buying that town from Portugal as an entrepôt to the Transvaal. This, if it were true, was a sensational piece of news, and the brief cable was handed over to an imaginative artist to expand. We came out with a splash column in heavily-leaded type, announcing the forthcoming transfer of Lorenço Marques to the British Government.
The story was instantly and violently denied by Milner.
We were a young newspaper, and this was a smack in the eye that was going to leave a mark unless we did something, and did something quick. I was seized with a bright idea. I had the whole column translated into Portuguese and set up. The next morning I printed Milner's denial, and added:
"Whilst of course we accept His Excellency's statement that the British Government contemplate no such purchase, we can only reprint our correspondent's message as we received it, and ask our readers to judge for themselves."
Here followed three-quarters of a column of fluent Portuguese, which I am satisfied not one reader in twenty thousand could understand.
Soon after this little episode I had a row with Freeman-Cohen on a purely personal matter and resigned my editorship. He was in the right and I was in the wrong, but I was just a little bit swollen-headed and rather too satisfied with my own infallibility. Before the resignation came, however, Joseph Chamberlain arrived in Johannesburg, and I had an opportunity of a talk with that remarkable man. If Milner was a bad mixer, Joe was the best mixer that ever sat on the front bench. His frankness was startling.
"Milner is much too touchy", he said, referring to an incident that had happened two nights before.
Pretoria gave a banquet to Joe, and Milner of course attended. In the course of the speeches some bucolic arose and regretted that Lord Milner did not come more often to Pretoria. It needed only this little gibe to set Milner aflame. Instead of delivering the speech that he had ready, he launched forth into a justification of his avoidance of Pretoria.
"He's very sensitive. I wish he wasn't", said Chamberlain.
I asked him something about the policy of the Government, whether it would change in the event of a general election.
"If there is a general election", said Chamberlain with a smile, "the Conservatives will return. There is no doubt of that. I am an infallible judge of the constituencies—I have never made a mistake."
He could not at that period have intended making Tariff Reform an issue, for at the general election which followed our conversation the Tories were driven into the shade, and Campbell-Bannerman came in to give the Boers all that Kitchener had promised—rightly, as I believe.
In those days Johannesburg was a fascinating place to live in. It was arousing slowly from the dusty sleep of war; the mines were beginning to work again—and everybody had money!
I had now a position: I was editor of what promised to be—and the promise was well kept—the most important newspaper in Johannesburg. My salary was roughly £2,000 a year; I had the entree to whatever society there was—it was the most tremendous period of my life.
All the world was drifting into Johannesburg: men and women whose names are household words came and went. Baden-Powell was organising a South African police force, the only thing about which I remember was that it wore green ties and that from its uniform B.P. modelled the kit of the Boy Scouts! Great actors and actresses were appearing on the Johannesburg stage, and well do I remember one dreadful Sunday when Edward Terry, John Le Hay, Leonard Rayne and I carried the body of poor Kate Vaughan through a sandstorm to her last resting place.
Johannesburg thought and talked of nothing but money, of stocks that were rising or falling, of borings in new fields, of assays that produced fabulous results. I plunged into the market with the best of them, made £12,000 in one week and lost £20,000 between eleven in the morning and one o'clock in the afternoon.
There were other adventures. One day a small-part lady in a musical comedy, who had received an unkindly notice from my dramatic critic, stalked into my office with a large whip and informed me she was going to thrash me within an inch of my life! It was a delicate situation, but was saved by timely brutality. I told her I had never been flogged by a woman, and I didn't exactly know what I would do, but I rather thought that I should give her a black eye to start with! After that I took her out to lunch.
One day there came into my office a man who had discovered a diamond mine somewhere up in the bush veld. He was floating it for a million pounds and desired ten pages of the Rand Daily Mail to advertise his prospectus. He offered to pay £500 a page—in share certificates. I pointed out to him very gently that we also had a printing machine downstairs and could turn out share certificates quite as easily as any other printer.
Yet another memory of those tumultuous days: there was a man whose name I will not mention; he was a member of the aristocracy, a charming, cultured, courteous gentleman. During the war he was an officer in a crack regiment, and I had been brought in touch with him. After the war was over he settled in Johannesburg to repair his fortunes. I saw him one day racing and he told me that he had a block of shares which at that time were worth £2,000 each and would, he assured me, be worth £10,000. They were in a gold mine on the East Rand, and already there was doubt as to whether gold in payable quantities existed. The shares sank down and down, and down, and one evening, as he sat in his drawing room, with a smile on his lips he asked a girl who was a member of the party and who was a beautiful pianist, to play him the "Dead March in Saul." He listened until she had finished, and then, with a smile walked across, shook her hand and going out into his own room—shot himself.
What a queer, mad, tragic place Johannesburg was in those days, with its overnight millionaires its tremendous hospitality, its bubbling faith in quick and easy wealth! I left some of my heart and some of my faith in the golden city when I flicked its dust from my boots in the mail train that carried me to Cape Town and went on board the homeward-bound steamer with exactly £80, most of which I lost at poker. I arrived in London with three shillings—much less than I had had in my pocket when I sailed on the Scot as a Tommy six years before.
There are two things which matter in life. One is health: your own health and the health of those you love; and the other is faith. There are few mornings in my life that I have not wakened to thank God I am alive, and to dash instantly at the nearest newspaper and discover what the world has been doing while I wasn't watching. All these wonderful events, from the King opening Parliament to Mrs. Jones being charged with having been drunk and disorderly, have a message for me, which may take years to interpret, but eventually is solidified into one golden speck of usable knowledge. Money doesn't really matter at all. At the worst, you can always do something discreditable and get money.
Three shillings is a very small sum to restart one's life, but at the Daily Mail office that Saturday I had the good luck to find Marlowe, who was most kind, and he sent me on to John Cowley, the manager, who was kind in another way, and I walked out to Tallis Street with a job and £60. And that evening occurred one of those peculiar incidents which I shall never forget.
I had parted from Kitchener more in anger than in sorrow; my name was mud in the official records, my medals had been withdrawn from me for the crime of breaking through the censorship, and I think I had a fairly unbiased view of K.'s peculiar temperament. That night I went to the Gaiety, not knowing that Kitchener was in the house. In the interval between two acts he strolled into the vestibule, where a lot of fellow-me-lads were sitting around smoking. Instantly they came to their feet, and I wondered what all the commotion was about, not realising that K. was a great hero and that these young men were doing him homage. Looking round I saw the big fellow, and my first inclination was to rise. My second was to sit very still and pretend there wasn't such a person in the world as K. of K. He looked round the room with those slumbering eyes of his, and presently they rested on me; and then, to my amazement, he walked over, and of course I got up and shook hands with him. Had I stood with the others, he would have treated me like dirt.
I have referred in a previous article to the sensitiveness of Milner. I had been home a few weeks when I was asked to write an article about him, and in the course of this three-quarters of a column I suggested that he had outlived his period of usefulness, and that it would be an excellent thing both for South Africa and for his own reputation if he came home. Apparently this article was cabled to the Cape, and once more Milner fell for criticism. He had to attend a party to give away prizes, and instead of delivering the address which the occasion called for, he launched forth, in his most bitter terminology, on this unfortunate article of mine. I cannot for the life of me understand why such a man in such a position should care twopence what some little three-shilling journalist wrote about him. I am satisfied that my suggestion was a good one, and soon after he did resign his position as High Commissioner and return to England—probably that was already arranged. But why worry about little people?
I put the question to Lord Northcliffe (Alfred Harmsworth, as he was) and he crushed me.
"You are little, Wallace, but the Daily Mail is big", he said gravely.
I did not think it was a moment to remind him that Milner had not mentioned the paper but he had mentioned me.
I was now a reporter, and, curiously enough I had never been a reporter before! It is true that a war correspondent is a sort of specialised reporter. It is equally true that in the days of my apprenticeship I had jotted down the emotional exchanges peculiar to the meetings of municipal councillors. But here was I, dropped down in Fleet Street, a tyro amongst experts, expected to deal authoritatively and efficiently with every phase of trouble. For news is trouble. Nobody wants to read about pleasant things. Major Armstrong might be the centre of a social life, perform good deeds and contribute to the happiness of his fellow creatures, but until he poisoned his wife, and tried to poison a lawyer, he had no news value.
Happily, Marlowe gave me the star jobs; that is to say, the stories that practically supplied their own story, and required only a certain amount of embellishment in the matter of write up. Of shorthand I knew nothing, and as an interviewer, but for my extraordinary memory, I should have been a hopeless failure, for I possessed the fatal faculty of interesting conversation, and usually after half an hour with a victim I had not given him an opportunity of expressing a single view, whilst I, on the other hand, had expressed many!
I once went to interview a scientist—I think it was Ray Lankester—and at the end of about an hour's animated talk he said, with a touch of that sardonic humour which was a characteristic of his:
"Very interesting indeed—now shall I talk?"
I think it must have been largely nervousness which made me so chatty. After one of the general elections Sir William Grantham was severely criticised for his conduct of certain election trials, and I was sent up to Morpeth to discover whether he intended resigning. The old judge received me with the greatest courtesy, and having heard my views on the South African war, the state of Europe, the new naval programme, the genius of Alfred Harmsworth and the immense superiority of the newspaper I represented over all other newspapers, Sir William remarked, a little wearily:
"I gather you've come up here to try to discover whether I intend resigning—I don't."
It was on this occasion that I saw at the Newcastle Assizes a great, red-faced brute, who stood in a studied attitude of nonchalance, his elbow on the edge of the dock, his other hand resting lightly on his hip, and listening with certain amount of amusement to the most horrible story of assault that has ever been told in a court of law. The unfortunate girl fainted twice in the course of her narrative, and it was a sickening tale to hear. When the evidence had been sifted and the jury returned a verdict of "Guilty", the man still preserved his elegant indifference, and even when Grantham addressed him in the most scathing terms, and told him he was sending him to penal servitude for seven years, the prisoner still smiled. And then there arose in the body of the court a stout woman, her face wet with tears, who turned to the dock and wailed:
"Oh, Bill! Oh, Bill!"
It was the prisoner's wife, and the effect of this interruption was electrical. His face went purple, his neck was swollen with fury, and, shaking his fist at his unfortunate wife, he hissed:
"What do you mean by coming up here—and showing me up!"
My experience of crime reporting taught me a great deal about humanity that has been very useful to me, and, alas! I have seen that indignant prisoner in many guises, for vanity is behind four-fifths of the murders I have reported.
It was soon after my return to London that I began to take a real and intelligent interest in the human race. Indeed, about this time I had my mind the collation of a monumental work which was to be entitled "Motives and Expressions." The book has never been written, although at one time I had collected an immense amount data and had translated the significance over 500 human attitudes and expressions. I have spent whole days watching men, how they stood, how they moved their hands and feet, so that, seeing them from a distance, I could almost put into words what they were saying or feeling or thinking. Some day a much cleverer man than I will undertake this task, for the language of expression and gesture is universal. For example, an English baby of two or three years employs exactly the same gestures as a child of the same age in the most primitive part of Africa, and a man who is telling another that he has been badly treated and will not endure such injustice, moves his hands, his head, his feet, and inclines his body at a similar angle, whether he is a member of the London Stock Exchange or a N'gombi warrior.
Mantegazza wrote a very unsatisfactory treatise on the subject; unsatisfactory because he was more concerned with satirising the ancient authorities on the subject than with contributing any original observations of his own.
I think I was the first reporter to notice the fact that when a jury comes into court to return a verdict of "Guilty" against a murderer, they never look at the prisoner. I once got a two-minute "beat" in a murder case by noticing this fact. And I wonder how many doctors can spot a man with a history of epilepsy by the peculiar shape of his chin? Personally, I have never seen an epileptic who had a normal chin. And why do men with high foreheads and deep-set eyes go bald at an early age?
I discussed this book with Kennedy Jones and he was very interested, until, producing a "sample" description of an abnormal face, he saw such a striking likeness to a public man we both knew—he eventually held a high public office—that he grew sceptical of my sincerity and I was discouraged by his banter. The man in question committed suicide by taking an overdose of veronal. He did this to escape a very serious charge, and though the coroner's jury returned a verdict of accidental death, it was suicide beyond any question.
IN those days there were three forces at Carmelite House. The first of these was Alfred. I shall never forget the day I first met him. The setting was unique: it was his beautiful, boudoir-like office on the first floor; a long, noble room, at which I gaped in awe. The panelled walls, the concealed lights, the Empire furniture, the statue of Napoleon and the pastel portrait of Mrs. Alfred Harmsworth on an easel. And against this background, a youthful, plumpish, smooth-faced man with searching eyes and fair hair that was brushed over his forehead, a glaring tie... Vivid little fragments go to make up the picture.
He talked quickly, earnestly, convincingly. You felt that to argue was to invite the thunder-bolts of Jove. He had a ready laugh and a charm which is beyond description. The Chief remains for me an almost sacred personage. I did not know him in the days when disease had gripped him and he was slipping to death. Then I believe he was very hard with his best friends, a tyrant who spared none. But I knew the normal man, the lovable "Mr. Alfred", generous to a fault. Once he saved me from ruin, and that is a service that I shall never forget.
The second of the triumvirate was "Mr. Harold", a taller, slimmer man, of the officer type: shrewd, a little suspicious, a little sardonic, a much steadier quantity than Alfred, he thought more slowly and saw much farther. He was not the Viscount Rothermere then, but was admitted to be the financial genius of the House of Harmsworth. Much of his work lay on the business side. One never saw him at the news conferences; one seldom heard his suggestions put forward; but he was a power, and he and George Sutton (now Sir George Sutton, Chairman of the Amalgamated Press), were mainly responsible for the upbuilding of the gigantic business which Northcliffe and his brother founded.
The third of the trio was "K. J." Kennedy Jones was responsible for the Harmsworths going into daily journalism. He had persuaded them to buy the Evening News, which he had turned from the wreckage of a fine property into a handsomely paying proposition. It was he who had laid down the lines of the Daily Mail. When I came back to London he was at the height of his power: a difficult man to deal with, a Scotsman without mercy for those who failed him, and the best-hated man at Carmelite House in consequence. Behind that hard mask of his was a very likeable personality, but it took me quite a number of years to sort out his pleasing qualities.
Alfred you knew at once, or thought you did. You melted under the geniality and kindness of him. With Harold you were on your guard, suspecting an understanding of your deficiencies. With K. J. you were in a constant sweat of apprehension. And behind the three was George Sutton, who, I imagined, examined every item of expense in the expense sheet, and Marlowe, very sane, very straight, and very dependable. There was no man more loyal to his staff, or more humane.
From the first day I saw Gwynne in his office in Adderley Street, Capetown, until a long time after I joined the staff of the Daily Mail, I was obsessed by one fear—the fear that somebody would "find me out." That on a fatal day an omnipotent being would confront me and, pointing a scornful finger, would say:
"He isn't a journalist! He's a newspaper boy! He is a slum child—ignorant of the very elements of English grammar. Ask him a few questions and his sham is exposed."
Yet in my life only one man ever made me go cold with that fear of exposure.
He was the writer of bright notes in an evening newspaper—I think it was the Echo. And he reviewed my little book of verse, Writ in Barracks. And he so reviewed it that I felt that I was a hopeless mediocrity. I was stripped of my robes and exposed in all my skinny nakedness.
It was a lesson to me. I have been very careful, in criticising the work of young people never to crush them as I was crushed. Happily I am rather resilient. But I never forgot the scorn of this literary gentleman.
What was it gave me confidence and killed the absurd self-consciousness? It was the comradeship of my brother journalists—the old brotherhood that was so familiar to a soldier; the readiness to cover up faults and forgive errors. The working journalist of "The Street" is the salt of the earth.
And in my early days on the Daily Mail what an amazingly good staff we had! Charlie Hands, Lincoln Springfield, Sidney Dark, Mackenzie, Filson Young, Frank Dilnot, W. H. Wilson, "L. G. M." (Mainland). I was counting up, the other day, that seven out of every nine reporters of those days have since become London editors.
Alfred was fighting Chamberlain over the Stomach Tax. After a little time I was sent to Canada to discover opposition to preferential duties on corn. Happily, the accounts I sent were favourable to tariff reform—"happily" because I had hardly reached Canada before Alfred Harmsworth came to terms with Chamberlain and offered him the strongest support.
I was quite an important person in Canada, partly, indeed mainly, because in South Africa I had been able to show a little hospitality to visiting Canadians. They gave me a dinner or two, and I returned to London with a little of my old arrogance restored.
I returned from New York on the Majestic with as interesting a collection of passengers as one could hope to meet. Lord Denbigh and the late Countess, Mr. Pease (afterwards Lord Gainsboro) and William Jennings Bryan were each in his or her way educative. Lady Denbigh was a very sweet woman. Her simplicity and goodness were allied to a very large, shrewd knowledge of men and affairs. Her brother, Hugh Clifford, had just written an absorbing book on the Head-hunters of Borneo.
Bryan's simplicity was of another kind. It was the studied variety, for he was a great actor as well as a great demagogue. Sincerity is a relative term. He acted sincerity until it became his second nature. Ever he had an instinct for unpopular but profitable causes; his views on all non-parochial affairs were ludicrously wrong. And yet there was much that was likeable about him. He stood as godfather to my boy (who was named Bryan after him) and solemnly presented him with a volume of Tolstoy's Essays, and me with a top-hat that William J. had found too large for him.
The captain of the Majestic was Smith, who afterwards sank in the Titanic.
As I say, I came back to London rather pleased with myself, for I had done fairly well in Canada. Stalking in to the Daily Mail office on the night of my return, I stood in a picturesque attitude by the side of the news editor's desk.
"I'm back", I said simply.
He looked up over his glasses. He was neither surprised nor enthusiastic. He did not rise and shake me warmly by the hand and give me a welcome to the City. Instead, he passed a slip across to me.
"There's an execution at—to-morrow morning. Go down and cover it."
A novelist is allowed only within limit to stretch the long arm of coincidence—in real life the most astonishingly unexpected things may happen, and be accepted without question.
More than two years before, we had had a fight with De Wet in the Cape Colony, and after it was all over I rode into the nearest town to send off my dispatches. As I neared the dorp I became conscious that somebody was shooting at me. Little spurts of dust sprang up in the road, and, looking round, I located on a kopje a soldier taking deliberate aim at me. Though I am not the best of riders, I kicked my horse into a state of liveliness and went at a gallop towards the assassin, and it must be said that he shot steadily until I was within a dozen yards, when, guessing that I was British, he ceased fire and stood up. In a fury I asked him his name and his regiment, and then demanded in the lurid language which I had acquired during my sojourn in the Army, what he meant by shooting at me.
"I thought you were a Boer", he said. "What do you want to wear a hat like that for?"
"My friend", said I (I didn't say "my friend" but something much more picturesque), "if you shoot people because you don't like their hats, you'll end by being hanged!"
I threatened to report him to his colonel, but of course I didn't do anything so unsporting, and he passed out of my mind and had been forgotten, until that grim, grey morning when I stood outside the condemned cell in an eastern county prison and watched the hangman lead forth a weed of a man to his death. And then, to my amazement, I recognised him as the soldier of the kopje! Later, in the Governor's room, when I signed the death certificate or whatever the document is one signs, I saw his name, and all doubt was set at rest.
Of all the executions I have seen, that one remains with me for another reason: the parson lost his place in the book half-way between the condemned cell and the scaffold, and we had to stand for an eternity, it seemed, whilst he found it again.
Ugh! those executions! The crash of the trap as it fell. The hangman with his hand out steadying the rope; the dangling figure curved like a bow that swung at its end. A ghastly thing but most business-like, and all over before you really begin to feel rattled.
My first English execution is memorable another reason—it was the cause of a most remarkable story-dream.
There is a literature of dreams, and one has read and heard much of their significance. But I wonder if my own experience can be paralleled? The dream occurred a few nights after this execution. I dreamt a dream, which was a story complete from start to finish, and was, moreover, a most striking parable.
I have related it many times to my friends, and, generally speaking, they have not believed me, the only persons who ever accepted (or appeared to accept) my assurance that I had not made up this yarn being Michael Arlen and Dulac, that wonder artist. Yet in truth every detail of the dream-story was as I relate it.
I dreamt I was walking on the parapet of heaven. The parapet of heaven was rather like the "parade" of a small seaside town.
There was a wall, a strip of pavement, and a road running parallel. Leaning over the wall and looking down into a void in which, through mists and dimly, one saw a pale green world turning, were a number of old saints. Their robes were rather grimy and ragged, and generally they bore a happy but neglected appearance. With their elbows on the parapet they gazed abstractedly at the world below, and they were smoking short clay pipes; from the rank aroma that came to my nostrils I guessed they were smoking shag.
Presently I saw another and older saint come shuffling in his sandalled feet across the roadway; under one arm he held an immense mortar and in his hand he carried a large porcelain pestle. The abstracted saints scarcely noticed him till he sat down on the kerb, filled his pipe carefully and lit it, and then, depositing the mortar between his feet, took from his robes a large blue diamond that sparkled dazzlingly in the sunlight.
This he put at the bottom of his mortar, and hammered at the diamond until it was crushed into small pieces. Hour after hour he ground away until all that was left of the gem was a mass of white powder. From time to time the saints on the parapet turned their heads and watched him.
When he had finished he laid down the pestle, and, picking up the mortar, deposited it upon the flat top of the parapet. Each of the old saints took a handful of the powder and threw it into space, and, leaning over, I saw the dust of it, like an iridescent cloud, sinking out of sight. And as I looked, the world came nearer, and I saw the dust settling on the face of it. And I saw human men searching, as distinctly as though I were standing by their side. Presently one human found a speck, and his frenzied shouts brought hundreds and thousands of other humans to him, and they put the speck of dust in a large golden box and they built a church around it.
And in another part of the earth another speck was found, and those who discovered it erected a university, masses of red buildings and spires and temples, in honour of its discovery. Where a third speck was found by a searcher a hospital was erected, and a new science grew into being. And this thing went on day after day, year after year, it seemed, for time had no dimension, and as I looked, centuries passed in a flash. But every time a speck was discovered and a church or a synagogue was built about it, the old saints roared with laughter until the tears rolled down their lined faces.
"What is the joke?" I asked one of the saintly men, and as he dried his eyes he explained.
"You saw yon diamond old Harry was grinding? Well, that is THE TRUTH. You saw him grind it up into fine dust?"
"I saw that", I replied, "but what is the joke?"
He was convulsed with laughter and could not speak for a long time, and then he said:
"This is the joke—every man on earth who finds a speck thinks he has the whole!"
I have never told the story in print before.* I put it now without expecting that my assurance of its authenticity will be universally accepted. But that is the dream, almost line for line, word for word, as it was dreamt. It had a profound effect upon my philosophy, shifted all my angles, and, as I believe, brought me nearer to an understanding of the larger tolerance than most unlettered men have reached.
[* The Golden Book Magazine printed the story under the title "A Dream" in April 1933.]
Some time after this I met young Billington, the executioner, and asked him if his grisly job gave him dreams. He told me it kept him awake but did not produce anything phenomenal in the shape of nightmares. His father, who was a more conscientious man, was undisturbed by his horrible experiences. One day a friend of his committed a murder, was duly tried and sentenced to death. Old Billington was taken ill just about this time; he was in truth sick unto death; but the rumour reached him that people were saying he was shamming, so that he should not have the misery of hanging a friend. It needed only this to stimulate the sick man. He rose from his bed, went to Strangways Jail, hanged his sometime friend, and came home to die.
Ellis, the most taciturn of all the hangmen, was terribly worried over some of his "jobs." I was in a provincial jail the other day, talking to the chief warder, and the subject of hangmen arose. He had some interesting views.
"Hangmen are not what they used to be", he said, shaking his head sorrowfully. "In the old days, when a hangman came into the jail, all he wanted for breakfast was a glass of beer and a bit of bread and cheese. Nowadays they want caviare and peaches!"
He told me that the hangman who had officiated at the execution which was immortalised in Oscar Wilde's "Ballad of Reading Gaol" had protested to the Home Office against the suggestion that he wore "gardener's gloves" on that occasion—a rather amusing sidelight on literary history.
One of the people to whom the story of the dream was told was Bryan. "Very interesting", he said; but then he had not listened. Bryan never listened except in matters affecting his own private affairs. He had gone marvellously through life without learning from human experience. The sum of his knowledge was added together from written theories. He had a passionate faith in other people's unpopular views and made them his own. He told me naively enough that he believed in the sour-milk theory for prolonging life, until "everybody began to drink sour milk and I just quit!"
Alfred Harmsworth asked me to bring him down to Sutton Court, and I conducted the big American into Surrey. K.J. was there and Max Pemberton, and when in all gravity K. J. asked the silver-tongued orator of Nevada to make a speech, Bryan instantly obliged! I think it was on the silver question that he grew so thunderously eloquent, and I shall never forget that fantastic situation when Bryan in his innocence "showed off" before the smallest audience he had ever addressed.
Bryan was especially friendly to me, and it was when I dined with him a few days after the visit that in all solemnity he presented me with his useless top-hat. I kept it for years, and where it went eventually I cannot trace. I have just taken down from the shelf the little volume of Tolstoy's letters and essays which he presented through me to my son. Alas, the leaves are mainly uncut!
"I shall one day be President of the United States", he told me, "and on that day wars will cease."
As showing his extraordinary, almost incredible, innocence, I was one day telling him, at his request, about the fighting strength of the British Navy. It was on the Majestic and the subject arose from the fact that we had just passed a British battleship. On the back of a menu card I drew a picture of a torpedo and described as best I could how it worked.
"How large is it?" he asked, and when I told him he gasped.
"Do you ever think", he demanded, "of the poor fellow who has to sit inside and work it?"
I told Lord Denbigh: he was amused, but thought I was lying.
Bryan had an idea of starting a newspaper in London on the lines of one which he was running in Nebraska—a sort of right-all journal which would ensure peace and happiness for all mankind; but Alfred smiled it out of existence.
WORK was not all Bryan and Sutton Court, however. Mine disasters, royal processions, important funerals, religious troubles, riots in France, murders, mysterious disappearances, a procession of trouble... the special correspondent's job is a wonderful school for the budding novelist.
I became quite an expert on Spanish affairs; went to Madrid half a dozen times and to Morocco as many. In South Africa I had had a bad fall from a horse, and to-day I would not mount the meekest charger for a hundred pounds. I overcame my nervousness in Morocco to ride out to meet Raisuli the brigand, and as luck would have it, as I rode through the Sok, the horse slipped and I fell between the weedy animal and an old wall. An aged Jew ran out of the bazaar and gave me help. Incidentally he paid me a real left-handed compliment.
"You fell off because of the saddle", he explained soothingly. "I will send a saddle to your hotel from which you cannot fall."
Thinking it was something new in Moor inventions, I gave him an order for this prince of saddles, and that afternoon there arrived at my hotel—a pair of boots!
One trip to Morocco was remarkable. You will remember that during the Russo-Japanese War the Russian fleet, passing through the North Bank, fired upon and destroyed some English trawlers. This act of nervousness on the part of Rozhestvensky created an immense sensation and nearly led to a very bad international situation.
The Russian fleet was to coal at Vigo, and I was sent post-haste to that port, there to gather, as best I could, particulars from the Russian point of view. The day I reached Vigo the fleet came in, and I had to wait till night before one of my scouts brought me news that a couple of Russian petty officers had come secretly ashore and were carousing at a house of ill-repute.
To this house I repaired, and found, surrounded by ladies curiously attired, two rather drunken sailors, one of whom spoke English. From him I had a good story of the panic that had seized the Russian ships, and this I wired to London. I did not wait for the fleet to sail, but hurried back from Madrid to Algeciras and thence, by way of Gibraltar, to Tangier, in time to see the fleet arrive and witness the reception of the admiral in his gold-laced uniform. I learnt only one thing of importance, namely, that the two men who had informed me about the events in the North Sea (the non-English-speaking Russian had prompted the other) had been detected and had been hanged from the yard-arm between Vigo and Tangier.
Algeciras and Gibraltar were like home towns to me, and when, after the Agadir incident, the Powers called a conference of their representatives to meet at that beautiful little port, I was sent down to represent my paper.
It was the weirdest conference I have ever attended. Here we had the first hint of the coming of the war that was in 1914 to devastate Europe. At the moment neither France nor Germany could afford to go to war—France had not yet re-armed her artillery; Germany, for quite another reason, was unprepared for a long conflict; and the Algeciras Conference was chiefly engaged in face-saving, and ostensibly occupied in the task of defining spheres of influence in Morocco.
At the most tense stages of the meetings, when the French and Germans seemed irreconcilable, the King of Italy made an effort to bring the great protagonists together. We knew that he had cabled to Visconti Visconti instructing him to find a middle way, and all day long there was a coming and going of the harassed Italian minister, now visiting the French, now the German, followed by a small army of correspondents waiting for the result of this attempt at reconciliation. I waited too—near the telegraph office at the hotel.
It was eleven o'clock that night when the Italian secretary brought a huge wad of telegraph forms into the office and passed them to the clerk. They were in code, of course, but I didn't need to read them: I sent a wire to my newspaper saying that the attempt on the part of the Italians to smooth matters over had been a failure. I had no other information than a glimpse of that thick pile of message forms, but I argued this way: if the Italian minister had succeeded, he would have first sent a short and jubilant wire to his master to announce his success. No short wire went to Italy. The long message, I guessed, was an explanation—and one only explains failures.
As it proved, I was right, but the statement made by poor Jules Hedeman, of the Matin (and very hotly made the following morning), that I had obtained a copy of the dispatch and in some mysterious manner decoded it, was of course all moonshine. Poor Hedeman! He died a hero's death before Verdun.
I shall remember Madrid for the royal wedding. I had been sent down to cover this interesting event, and started well by inviting certain important telegraph operators to dinner at the Café Fornos. It is wise, of course, to make friends with ministers of state and ambassadors, but the special correspondent whose reputation rests upon getting news quickly and dispatching it even more quickly, doesn't know his job unless he clears all the avenues to his editor.
To write the story from the inside of the church and get it off was a tedious business. A day before the wedding I went into the little church where the ceremony was to be performed, made a brief word sketch of its architecture, examined the service thoroughly, roughed out and then wrote the account of the ceremony, leaving blank spaces in which unforeseen details might be filled.
I sent the local correspondent into the church to watch, and waited for him to come out, which he did before the royal party left, and together we checked over the account which was already written. As it happened, there were only two or three details to fix in, and those I did sitting in the roadway, to the wonder of thousands of curious spectators, writing in the missing details with a pencil as he dictated them.
My pass allowed me to walk along the line of procession. I made my way back to the Puerta del Sol, handed in the cable, came back to the big, sun-bathed "place" and waited the coming of the royal procession.
I was not exactly "dressed for the party." My kit consisted of a white shirt, a pair of grey flannel trousers, nondescript shoes and a broad sombrero, for it was a poisonously hot day; but Spain is essentially a democratic country, perhaps the most democratic in the world except our own. With my police pass tacked under my shirt, none said "nay" when I fell in with the procession and followed it into the Calle Mayor. Behind me somewhere (and his attention I was most anxious to avoid, lest he inquired as to who was the scarecrow and complained of my deshabille) rode the Prince of Wales, our present King.
Keeping behind the Coach of Respect, I footed it along the hot asphalt roadway. The crowd was frenzied in its joy. Queen Ena, as we called her—Victoria Eugenie, as she is named—looked beautiful. The young King Alfonso was one broad smile. There never was a braver fellow than Alfonso. Nothing ever scared him. His main recreation was driving a motor-car at something between 70 and 90 miles an hour over the uncertain country roads of Spain.
The Calle Mayor is a narrow thoroughfare, but at one point it widens, and the royal coach was reaching the wider space where stands a church. (I am not sure of this, but I have an impression of a church.)
Something made me look up. The windows above both sides of the street were crowded, and, as I raised my eyes, I saw a bunch of flowers hurtling down from an upper window and caught a glimpse of a man's bare head? The moment I saw those flowers, my heart nearly stopped beating. They were dropping at such a rate that there could be no question that they concealed something heavy, something sinister...
The force of the explosion almost lifted me off my feet, and in a second I was in the middle of a confused, screaming throng of people, mad with fear. I had a glimpse of dying horses, of blood lying on the roadway, of a half-fainting queen being assisted from the carriage, her white dress splashed with blood. But more vivid still is the impression of the king, as he stood up, an immovable smile on his long face, his fingers waving encouragement to the crowd—the one calm man in that horrible nightmare of screaming confusion.
I don't know how I managed to get back to the telegraph office, but, quick as I was, officialdom had been quicker. The lines were closed. No news of any kind must go from Madrid concerning the outrage.
There was a more pressing reason why none should come from me—I had no money! I had spent almost my last peseta on the cable describing the wedding, and there began the queerest search that any correspondent has ever made—a search in a strange city for money on a holiday when all the banks were closed and Cook's was barricaded!
Lovell, who was Waring & Gillow's architect and my sheet anchor, was as badly off as I, but I got a little from him; I borrowed some from the Paris Hotel by leaving my watch with the hall porter, I touted the British Lancer officers who had come to the King of Spain's wedding whilst they were at lunch, but alas! they could help me very little, and finally I fell on the neck of a philanthropic American of a trustful disposition who parted with two hundred pesetas.
The only definite news was that a bomb had been thrown at the king. Who had thrown it and why, it was impossible to discover. The thing to do was to send a succession of wires through to London, passing along the most plausible of the rumours, giving London the responsibility of sorting out and amending, from any information the office could get from the Embassy, the obvious truths from the palpable guesses. And this I proceeded to do.
Though the telegraph office was closed, messages were accepted, but those who sent them were warned that nothing about the bomb-throwing would be allowed to pass. Notices to this effect were posted.
I made my way round to the back of the premises, secured an entrance to the instrument-room, and found my friends of the Café Fornos. They shook their heads. The Spanish government, which was at least an efficient instrument of censorship, had placed an embargo on all "bomb" wires. Even the Prince of Wales's message to the late King Edward had been held up. I was told that, when the wires were open, I could send a few short ones at urgent rates—that is to say, at three times the ordinary cost per word. Then one of the clerks gave me a handful of little red labels, one which is stuck on each urgent message to give it precedence over ordinary telegrams.
Sending a long wire at urgent rates was out of the question. I had not sufficient money. This I explained to my Spanish friend; he shrugged his shoulders and turned his back abruptly upon me. At first I thought this was an affront, but then—
I had a sheaf of telegrams in my hand. Rapidly I stuck on every one the magic red labels and placed them in the basket reserved for the more important telegrams of ambassadors and ministers to their governments. My wires got through! Later, when money came from London, I called and liquidated my debt. The first column in the Daily Mail the next morning contained a series of messages which been conveyed free of charge by the Spanish Government, though they were not aware of the fact.
As soon as I had got rid of my wires, I hurried off to the house where a colleague lived. He was not exactly a colleague, but he was a most important person who was writing for a most important newspaper, affiliated at that time with the Daily Mail. I found him in court dress and slippers. He was writing laboriously an account of the wedding. He looked upon my intrusion with no friendly eye.
"I suppose you know somebody's chucked a bomb at the King of Spain?" said I, by way of excusing my presence.
He closed his eyes wearily and his white hand gesticulated towards the door.
"My dear fellow", he said, with infinite patience, "I am in the middle of the wedding. Please don't bother me now."
His paper certainly contained a three-line reference to the bomb- throwing, but it owed its origin to the indefatigable Reuter.
That night I called at the palace, with very little hope of getting in, the more so since the Spanish press with one accord had decided that the assassin was an Englishman. A straw hat had been discovered in the room from which the bomb was thrown, and in the crown was printed the damning inscription "Made in England." On this discovery was founded the police theory that the miscreant was English! When I say that it was impossible to buy a straw hat in Madrid that did not bear a similar label, you will be able to form a fairly just estimate of the intelligence of the Spanish secret service at the time.
To my amazement, I was not only passed through the military cordon which surrounded the palace, but gained admission. I interviewed one who was either a grandee or a court servant, and by him was afforded a peep at the King and Queen of Spain on their wedding night. They were walking slowly along the picture gallery, and he was amusing her with stories of his ancestors!
Alfonso is a sportsman—as white as any Christian in Europe.
It was discovered this same night that the man who threw the bomb was a ne'er-do-well named Morel, from Barcelona. He was arrested the following morning and shot dead the rural guard who took him, and was in turn killed by another guard. His body was conveyed to a little village and carried into a bread-shop, the lower shelves cleared of loaves waiting for sale, and here it was laid until the ambulance came to bring him into Madrid. He was an anarchist, but he had a physical reason for his desperation.
THIS is an appropriate moment to go back a year or two—to 1906, to be exact. I had realised that, whilst journalism was a splendid profession and offered rich prizes to those who were fortunate enough to get into the front rank, it led nowhere. I had had a brief experience of editing. Alfred Harmsworth had placed me in charge of the Evening News. But it was a deadly sort of job, involving, as it did, office work, and I am not so sure that I was a born Delane. Anyway, I very joyously seized the first opportunity of getting out. K.J. arranged to send me down into Macedonia, and to this end I was instructed to get a working knowledge of French. I did more than this; plunged into a study of Turkish Arabic, a study which was interrupted by the urgent need of a special correspondent in Morocco.
What was in my mind, however, was to launch forth as a story-writer. I had written one or two short stories whilst I was in Cape Town, but they were not of any account. My best practice were my "Smithy" articles in the Daily Mail, and the short history of the Russian Tsars which ran serially in the same paper. Collecting the "Smithys", I sought for a publisher, but nobody seemed anxious to put his imprint upon my work, and in a moment of magnificent optimism I founded a little publishing business, which was called "The Tallis Press." It occupied one room in Temple Chambers, and from here I issued "Smithy" at 1s. and sold about 30,000 copies.
Emboldened by this success, I sat down to turn a short story I had written, and which had been rejected by every magazine in London, into a longer one. The story was called "The Four Just Men", in which a Minister was mysteriously killed and a prize was offered for the best explanation of his death. It was published at 3s. 6d. I was determined, believing the story to be good, to make some sort of reputation as a story-writer, even if it broke me to do so. It broke me all right. I advertised in newspapers, on hoardings, on tubes and 'buses, the superlative merits of "The Four Just Men." The result was that, although I sold 38,000 copies, I lost £1,400! There was, I discovered, such a thing as over-advertising.
Lord Northcliffe came to my rescue and pulled me out of the mess I'd got myself into. In disgust, I sold the remaining book rights for £72 to George Newnes. I don't know how many hundreds of thousands of copies George Newnes have sold, but they have always been good people to work for, and I hope they made big money out of my over-boomed romance—which is really a very good story. I read it again the other day and was quite pleased with my handiwork.
At any rate I had established some sort of a name as a writer of mystery stories, and every penny I lost was well lost. The publishers who had told me, with a smile and a shake of their heads: "No, thank you Mr. Wallace. We don't know you as a story writer. We'll be glad to take any volume dealing with your experience in Africa", were confounded, but it took me a long time to get over the result of my experiment in publishing.
It was whilst I was very broke, and judgments were out against me in all directions that a young man newly from Oxford was writing a series of articles on "How the Poor Live." He had done a little slumming, had slept a night in a doss-house, and had had a morning at Covent Garden, and it occurred to him that it would be an excellent idea if he spent twenty-four hours as a broker's man. His father was the proprietor of a chain of provincial newspapers, and he himself, I believe, was fairly wealthy.
By the oddest of chances he must choose my neighbourhood for his broker-man exploit, and one morning I found a distress warrant levied on my house and furniture for £93 (I hadn't ninety-three pence), and an apologetic young man of very good address installed in my drawing-room. When he found that I was in the same profession as himself, he wanted to clear out.
"No, you'd better have the experience", I said, and reluctantly he stayed.
I was quite alone in the place. My people were away in South Africa; I had no servants. After we had cooked a chop for dinner, and he began to find time hanging rather heavily on his hands, he suggested that we should play piquet, at which, he said, he was rather more proficient than the best man he had ever met. It so happened that piquet was also my game. We started at nine o'clock playing piquet at threepence a hundred, and finished at six o'clock in the morning. I won sufficient money from him to pay him out and take £60 to Kempton Park!
It was when the fortunes of the Tallis Press were at their lowest ebb that I had a communication from a Durham schoolmaster, who had a collection of short stories he wished to publish. I met him and made arrangements for their publication, and eventually they came out, but only after a struggle. On the day they should have been delivered I had a printer's bill to pay, and though I am sure the kindly souls who manufactured the book would have given me grace, I was obliged to pawn everything I had to raise £50 to get the book in hand. The young author's name was Ian Hay! Though financially it was not a successful venture for him, the Tallis Press introduced to the world one of the most popular authors of the day.
To revert to my "Four Just Men" publication. I had lost all my money, and in desperation had asked the Chief to help me out. It was in Madrid that I had the joyous news from him that the £1,000 would be forthcoming. He was rather pleased about the bomb story, but I don't think he was very much influenced by that success. He liked me, and I was always a sort of favourite of his.
Following receipt of this letter, I had a wire instructing me to go to Lisbon, and telling me that a letter was awaiting me there. When I reached Lisbon I found a highly confidential document from the news editor, in which he told me that they had news an attempt was to be made to assassinate King Carlos. The Foreign Office knew all about it, and incidentally so did the Lisbon Government.
I saw the king, through the good offices of a friend of an old correspondent of mine in South Africa, a very stout, genial soul, who pooh- poohed the idea of any immediate danger. He knew, however, that there was a plot against his life. The Republican movement was an open one, and some of the best people in Portugal were implicated. I told His Majesty that I would hang on for a week in case anything interesting happened. He seemed amused at the grim and, as it happened, unconscious jest.
Apparently at home they were rather weary of waiting for this belated assassination, for I had orders to proceed at once to Trondhjem, in the north of Norway, to attend the crowning of King Haakon, a journey involving a rush through Portugal, Spain, France, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, to the land of the midnight sun, or, if it was too far south for the midnight sun, at least it was a land of daylight midnight.
The misguided British Government had sent a British cruiser to take part in the coronation festivities, and part of the programme was a firework display! It came off, because sailors obey orders, but the spectacle of fireworks bursting in a blue, sunlit sky was hardly impressive.
The crowning was a homely affair, and there was present the Prince of Wales (his present Majesty), who, like myself, was doing a lot of travelling which he would much rather not have done, one suspects.
I had only seen King George twice in Madrid—he was one of the few visiting royalties who did not disguise his indignation at the slackness which made such an outrage possible. I saw him just after the bomb fell. He and the Queen were most Britishly calm and self possessed in that moment of blind panic which followed the fall of the bomb—and they were most unpleasantly near the scene of the outrage!
Soon after this I found myself in Narbonne. There had been a strike of wine-growers which had developed a little bloodily into riot and disorder. When I arrived in that ancient city there were cairns in the middle of the street "to the memory of—-, murdered by the men of the —th Regiment."
The visit is chiefly memorable because it brought me in touch with Jaures, who was assassinated on the eve of the Great War. The great Socialist was practically in control of the town, and when I reached Narbonne was issuing brassards and passes permitting pressmen to move about at will. He was an important little man, rather striking in appearance and pompous in his manner. Exactly why he should have been issuing passes in a town practically under military government, I never succeeded in finding out. He was a very earnest, honest man, though something of a firebrand. In addition to whatever duties he was performing, he acted as correspondent for a Parisian paper, and was most humanly journalistic when he discovered that some of his choicest periods had been cut by an unsympathetic sub-editor.
Another riot in France was that caused by the terrible colliery disaster at Courrière. There must have been something like a division of infantry guarding the coal-pits; fights with the miners occurred every day, and the cause of the trouble was the contention that the French engineers had shut down the mines, which were burning, and had left the miners to their fate, when they could with a little trouble have saved them. The correspondents were invited to go down one of the still burning mines, an invitation which I did not feel inclined to accept. Indeed, there was only one correspondent who did go down, and that was Albert de Courville, who was representing a London evening newspaper. He made the dangerous journey underground, traversing three or four kilometres of the galleries, and from his description—there were dead men at the very bottom of the shaft—I should say that the miners' complaint was well justified. Over a thousand men were left to death, and for months afterwards the engineers went about under military protection.
De Courville I knew from his early youth, when he was a reporter under me on the Evening News. He was, I think, the most courageous kid I have ever known—nothing daunted him. He went over to report the wreck of the Berlin on a stormy wintry night, leaving London in a dress jacket and thin shoes, and did the best story of that disaster that was received in London. The effort nearly killed him.
The story-writing business languished. There was not, as I had anticipated, a passionate desire, either on the part of serial editors or book publishers, to grab at my work. Nobody pointed me out as a coming author, though one of my only story-writing friends, W. Pett Ridge, whose book A Son of the State had a very big influence on the style of my early tales, never ceased to encourage me. W. W. Jacobs was the second of my "backers"—he was most encouraging. In spite of which, it was a toss up whether or not I should find another outlet for my energies, when E. D. Morel began his storm attack upon the Government of the Belgian Congo. His book Red Rubber ran into several editions, and Northcliffe decided that I must go out to the Congo and see with my own eyes what was happening in the dark interior of Africa.
The true history of that attack upon the Belgian Government, the text of which was Belgium's inability to colonise the Congo Free State is a secret which, in its entirety, died with E. D. Morel. The basis of the charge against the Congo Government was that its officials were guilty of innumerable atrocities on the natives, and undoubtedly crimes of mutilation and of a similar character had been committed by native soldiers in the employ of the Congo Government. There was missionary support for these stories but, beyond question, there was bad blood between the British missionaries and the Belgian officials, and we regarded the missionary angle with a little scepticism.
They are splendid fellows, but twenty years ago they were a pretty unequal lot. I always remembered Mrs. Caldecott's dictum: "There are lots of people you can pray with, but very few you can play with", and though I very humbly acknowledge their earnestness and sincerity, there were some one wouldn't care to have as partners in any intellectual round game.
Very few of the missionaries spoke French, though most of them had acquired the native tongue, and it complicated matters that the majority of them were Protestants, whilst the religion of the Congo Free State, if it had an official religion, was Roman Catholic.
I have nothing to say against missionaries: they treated me royally whilst I was their guest. But I saw no evidence of atrocities that were not fourteen years old. Germany coveted the Congo, and I am perfectly satisfied in my mind that, in so far as Morel was concerned, he was a propaganda agent working on behalf of the German Foreign Office. With him was Roger Casement, British Consul at Boma, a man who in all sincerity hated England and the English, and was, moreover, a decadent of decadents.
Nightingale had succeeded Casement when I arrived—a jolly and cheery Englishman, handicapped by the "discoveries" of his predecessor, and torn between anxiety to support him and the necessity for reporting things as he found them. Casement (who was hanged at Wandsworth during the war for treason) was certainly in the Red Rubber swindle—swindle in so far as it was an attempt to defame the Belgian Government in order to bring about a conference of the Powers that would deprive Belgium of its colony.
It says much for the prescience of Marlowe that he saw through the agitation from the start, and was averse to my being sent to the Congo.
That trip, however, was for me one of fascinating interest. I came closer into contact with aboriginal tribes; I studied their lives, and in a superficial way their language. Brief as was my stay, I secured a knowledge of the natives additional to the understanding I gained in South Africa, which was invaluable. Their folklore, customs, their childlike systems of reasoning, and their biblical simplicity—I absorbed the sights and sounds as blotting-paper absorbs water. The information I acquired made it possible for me to write, later, considerably over a hundred stories in which natives were the principal characters. For this is a fact which must be remembered, that the natives of the African hinterland, whether they are under British, German or French rule, differ very little one from the other.
I had hardly put my foot in the country before I paid the penalty for my temerity in appearing at sundown without mosquito-boots. I awoke the next morning with a swollen ankle, and fourteen days later to the hour I went down with an attack of blackwater fever. The missionaries rushed me to Bongindanga, where there is rising ground; and in connection with this visit I have a vivid recollection of a most unlikely book—Little Dorrit. I have never read Little Dorrit, even to this day. I was half-way through the story, lying in a convalescent chair under an awning, when forty-three forest natives who came out in an iron-barked canoe to board the ship bumped our side, the canoe capsized, and of the forty-three only two were saved. I have the most vivid recollection of watching these drowning people, never dreaming that they could not swim, for the river folk are as much at home in the water as the indigenous crocodile. In fact I was rather amused at their horrified faces, thinking that they were putting up a little stunt for my amusement, since the cannibal has a great sense of fun. I know the page and the line where I left off reading. I never took up the book again.
Bongindanga and the forest around is reputedly the home of the okapi, that shy beast which until a few years ago was regarded a mythical. Armed with a Mannlicher rifle, I went out half a dozen times, but though I found his spoor and once thought I saw the flicker of his hide, I never had the luck to get a specimen. That he is fairly common about Bongindanga is proved by the fact that strips of his skin are readily obtainable. Until quite recently I had an old elephant knife, the leather sling of which was indubitably okapi hide. It was at this little missionary station that I made acquaintance with the soldier ant.
Travelling up and down the coast as I did before I entered the Congo, I met British officials and learnt from them the legends of old administrators: of that official who had hanged three malefactors at Grand Bassam with his own hands; of strange and sinister palavers held in the bush; of witch doctors, jujus, fetishes; of Liberia with its quaint Government and English-speaking negroes; of the strange slave folk of Angola, still bought and sold for a bottle of synthetic gin—indeed, I stored a quantity of knowledge and information which I shall never exhaust.
I came back to England to the shock of discovering that before I left for Africa I had libelled a naval officer, who brought a successful action against the Daily Mail and recovered £5,000 damages. I was entirely in the wrong. I had sent off an account from Portsmouth of a naval "mutiny" without being careful to verify the facts before I wrote the story. I think I am the only man that has ever been "fired" from the Daily Mail. All the other past members of the staff resigned.
I BREAK my narrative here to deal with a matter on which I am regarded as an authority—it is not a claim which I should advance on my own behalf—namely, the criminal. There are practically no books on the criminal which are in any way helpful to those who have a scientific interest in crime. Lombroso only wrote one book that was worth a hoot, and, generally speaking, the Italian school of anthropologists devoted their explorations in this science to meaningless and deceptive measurements and tabulations. It may be interesting to know that the majority of murderers have asymmetrical faces, but then so have quite a number of people who aren't murderers. It is a fact that one seldom sees normal features in the dock of the Old Bailey, but an examination of the well of the court where eminent counsel are sitting reveals the same abnormalities.
To understand the criminal you must know him and have or affect a sympathy with him in his delinquencies. You have to reach a stage of confidence when he is not showing off or lying to impress you. In fact it is necessary that he should believe you to be criminally minded. Criminals will talk very frankly in certain conditions.
Not many years ago a brutal murder was committed in a country town, and it occurred to a sort of journalist who supplied sensations for a certain newspaper that it would be a great idea if he could get a confession as to how the murder was committed. With the help of an unscrupulous person who had access to the prisoner, he conveyed the following offer. He would pay for the man's defence, though the result of the trial was a foregone conclusion, and in addition would supply him with "outside" food whilst he was awaiting trial, if he would smuggle out the story of the deed.
The murderer, a man of low mentality, agreed. The story of the murder was set out piecemeal, and in return counsel was briefed for the defence.
On the day of the trial the horror-hunter had the biggest and most sensational story ever published, and he only had to wait for the verdict to release the confession. But so eloquent was the counsel that the man was acquitted! To-day, in a provincial newspaper office, there exists an unusable murder confession, whilst the scoundrel who committed the murder is at large—I saw him near Marble Arch about two years ago!
Parallel with the events which I have recorded ran rather an interesting acquaintance with the criminal classes. Only during my Army life did I lose touch with these, but during the period of my adolescence, until my enlistment, and from 1902 onwards, I have met, and to some extent studied, the lawbreaker, and have perhaps a better acquaintance with him than any save the "higher command" at Scotland Yard.
There are, roughly speaking, three types of criminals:
(1) Criminals through opportunity.
(2) Criminals through real or imaginary necessity.
(3) Criminals through deliberate intention.
The "good time" motive largely operates with the first two classes; that is to say, people commit criminal acts with the idea of getting money to enjoy themselves. To the second category belong most murders, and it may be noted that very few who come under the first or second headings are criminals in the strictest sense of the word.
To the first belong the pilferers, the people who steal stamps, open letters, and extract their contents, thieve whilst acting as caretakers or in positions of trust. In the second class are those who either seize or make opportunity, with the idea of having a good time.
The first and second classes are peculiar in that the people so classified never imagine that their offences will be detected. They are, as a rule, "safe" stealers; they never suppose or prepare for detection. They have complete faith that the cleverness with which the offence is committed, the absence of all observation, the certainty that suspicion will be distributed over a wide area, affords them the minimum amount of danger. That is one of the reasons why I count most murderers in this category. Men of the Crippen, Seddon, Armstrong type—that is to say, men who are above the average in the matter of education and worldly knowledge—meet inquiry with the greatest self-confidence. They are conscious of their intellectual superiority to those whose business it is to bring them to justice or who will be in charge of the investigations, should they ever be made.
Swindlers on the grand scale have the same mental attitude. But, as I say, these men are not criminals in the strict sense. They have not spent their lives in criminal practices. Only about 10 per cent of convicted murderers have any previous convictions, and the majority of the 90 per cent are men and women who have lived fairly blameless lives except for the offences with which they are charged.
My first acquaintance with the criminal began in Canning Town, in the Star Music Hall. Here I met two young men who, according to their own account, made a fairly good living out of stealing tills from small tradesmen's shops. They asked me if I would join them: they wanted a third member, for they had ambitious plans, which embraced a series of West End robberies. I was to be supplied with swell clobber, and was to "smoodge" various lady cashiers. This offer was made after my third meeting with them. The whole thing was discussed in quite a businesslike way. They bore me no malice when I rejected their offer.
I was curious enough to make a call at the establishment which had been singled out for attack, to look upon the young lady who was to be "smoodged" (in other words, to whom I was to pay flattering attentions). She was a girl of fifteen, and I understood why one of my youthful age had been chosen. Whilst I was still in Canning Town the robbery was committed, and both men arrested. Years afterwards I saw one of them sentenced to death at the Old Bailey for murdering an old woman.
Soon after this, and I think (I am not sure) as a result of this acquaintance, I had the confidence of a leading ladder larcenist, whose home was also in Canning Town. He worked three-handed, and was the best artisan at his game. The ladder larcenist has lately been glorified with the title of "cat-burglar", and there are quite a number of innocent people who believe that this form of crime is something that has grown out of the war. The ladder man's modus operandi is simple. He and two of his confederates watch a country house, and when the family are at dinner he erects a convenient ladder to one of the bedroom windows, shins up, collects all that he can find, after locking the bedroom door to secure himself from observation, and beats a hasty retreat.
None of the ladder larcenists I have met was a burglar in the strict sense of the word. It is a curious fact that burglars generally work from the ground floor, and the ladder larcenist does his job on the first story.
Most of the criminals by intention are specialists at their own job. There may be isolated instances where ladder men are pickpockets, but they have never come under my observation. The gang that goes "on the whizz" (pocket-picking) do little else until they become too old to run or too clumsy to dip. They work in gangs of two or three, and usually one of these is a "minder", whose job is to maltreat the man or woman who discovers her loss and to hinder pursuit.
Most pickpockets on detection assume what they fondly believe to be the diction and style of a gentleman. Their indignation is impressive. They talk about their solicitors and hint darkly at actions for false imprisonment. Bill H., who is an all-round criminal and an exception to the general rule, for he is both a pickpocket, burglar and a luggage thief, once took the watch of an officer as he was riding by his side along Whitehall. Rising to make his exit, the loss was discovered; the bus was stopped and a police constable summoned. Bill's hauteur and wrath so impressed the policeman that he nearly let him go, but at last he took him off to Cannon Row Police Station, which is near, and Bill was searched. Nothing was found on him, and for an excellent reason. In a second when he was free from observation he slipped the watch between his soft collar and his throat; but it was a noisily-ticking watch, and Bill had to talk all the time for fear the "busy" heard this guilty sound. He was known, of course, at the station, and was put into the cells as a suspected person; and although the watch was passed out of the cell, he was eventually convicted.
William is a type of habitual criminal, not in the strictly legal sense, though he has had more than one lagging. The real criminal cannot be reformed. He may get too old for his job, or he may possibly get a violent bout of religion, but during the period of his mental and physical activity it is humanly impossible that he can be directed into thinking straight. Prison is merely a penalty of the game which he accepts philosophically. Nowadays, when imprisonment is lightened by concert parties and wireless concerts, when he is allowed association his kind, and can even smoke in certain prisons, the time passes much more quickly than it used; but the effect upon his moral character is practically nil.
Prison only puts the fear of God into the non-criminal classes: to the intentional criminal it is a home from home. There are judges who are divided in opinion as to whether long or short sentences have the more reformative effect, but the length of the sentence matters very little. The only thing that will halve and quarter the number of men who are in and out of prison year after year is the alteration of prison regime; until prison is a really horrible place, at which the discharged prisoner turns and shakes his fist, you will have little or no diminution of professional crime. A month of the treatment I received in the military prison at Aldershot would break the stoutest heart and make a man think three times before he preferred his old practices to honest labour.
When I was visiting Exeter Prison some five or six years ago I saw a man, under forty, who had been over forty times an inmate of that establishment. There are tramps who make a regular practice every winter of committing an offence which will send them to jail to tide over the colder months. They do this in preference to going into the workhouse—a fact on which it is not necessary to comment.
The most skilful pickpocket was a man I met in Cape Town. He was practically in the employment of Cape Town's biggest receiver, a jeweller and pawnbroker in quite a large way of business. To illustrate his skill, he brushed against me, and in a fraction of a second's time unfastened my watch from a leather guard and at the same time took my pocket-book from my hip pocket. I have never seen his equal. Eventually he relieved a passenger from the incoming mail boat of about £600, and, failing to notify his "find" to his employer, was "shopped" by that gentleman on a trumped-up charge and was sent to the Breakwater, where he died.
Another Cape Town criminal, whose speciality was acting as middleman between uncut diamond stealers and an Antwerp fence, was probably the richest criminal the world has known. I was ignorant of his questionable calling until he made a quick get-away on an Australian ship. He is still alive and, if one may judge by appearances, very prosperous. Another I.D.B. man (illicit diamond-buying) got away from the Cape with a brief-bag full of uncut diamonds, came to London, and hadn't the nerve to sell them. Eventually he had the brilliant idea of going to Amsterdam and learning the business of diamond-cutting. It was seven years after he came by his ill-gotten gains that he marketed the first of the stones, and during that time he nearly starved, with £100,000 worth of sparklers in his trunk!
Illicit diamond-buying is not one of the romantic crimes of the past. It still goes on, and, in spite of the drastic character of the Cape laws, will go on whilst there are diamonds to be stolen.
There is little mystery about the genesis of the continuous criminal (I employ that word rather than "habitual", which has a peculiar legal significance). He is being recruited all the time from Classes (1) and (2), and it is perfectly true that, whilst burglary and the gigantic crimes of the novelist are not planned in prison, the young and accidental offender, finding himself in the company of experts, is attracted to them. He has gone into prison perhaps feeling heartily ashamed of himself, and depressed by a sense of his abominable conduct, dinned into him by the attitude of his relations and friends, and by the shame and disgrace of his conviction. Being human, he is anxious to find excuses for his crime. In prison he is introduced to a class which does not regard his act as crime at all. He will find a sympathetic audience in the old offenders, and gradually his angle of judgment takes an oblique slant. He learns that the only crime he has committed was to be found out. He goes out of prison a ready-made novice for a new and a dangerous game.
They will tell you, the prison reformers, that first offenders do not mix with the old lags. In theory that is a fact. In practice, unless you have the first offenders in a separate prison, nothing will prevent contact.
I must that I have never met a clever criminal. The vast majority are illiterate and have a bad school record. Not a few are on the borderline of imbecility. Nor have I yet met a criminal who was not as vain as a peacock over some quality of his own. Nor have I met criminal who was not an unconscionable liar. The first moral sense that atrophies in a continuous criminal is the sense of truth, and I think, reversing this hypothesis, you can make no mistake in saying that any non-criminal liar you know—that is to say, a man who has not been in the hands of the police but lies for the joy of the lying—is capable of breaking the law, and will break the law sooner or later. The faculty of ready lying is, in my experience, the inevitable stigma of an ineradicable "sense" of dishonesty. I am not speaking of children, who are natural romancers, but of persons who are passing through their adolescence, and I am speaking of course of what we call unnecessary lying.
There is a type of vanity in a criminal which prevents him from committing small offences and urges him to commit greater. Crippen would not steal, but he would murder his wife and pretend she had gone away from him, rather than risk the censure of the world by running away from her. Seddon murdered a woman because he feared the disgrace which would come to his suburban home if it was proved that he had swindled her out of her savings. Mahon was the most amazing instance of criminal vanity. Thorne was another—these were both murders of vanity.
The real criminal classes, by the way, have a horror of murder, and are the stoutest upholders of capital punishment. I have never spoken with an old lag who did not believe in hanging, and if you were to take a census of any great convict establishment you would find an overwhelming majority in favour of capital punishment. Except for women, of whose mentality the criminal has a very low estimate.
Just before I went to Johannesburg a murder was committed in Standerton by the Greek steward of the officers' club. In revenge he shot a Jewish storekeeper who had reported him for selling tobacco out of bond. I was in the club on the night of the murder. The Greek, whose name I think was Poropulos, walked out of the mess-room in the middle of dinner, went down to the store, shot the storekeeper dead, and came back to the dining-room, stopping only to change his boots—an act which brought about his undoing, for a half-tipsy subaltern detected the change, and on his evidence the man was arrested, tried in Johannesburg before the special court and sentenced to death.
I had a chat with Poropulos whilst he was awaiting trial. He claimed to be—and I heard no evidence to the contrary—an honest man, except for this little matter of selling tobacco out of bond; and his chief indignation was directed towards a law which intended punishing him because he had killed "the greatest thief in the Transvaal." Poropulos went to the scaffold smiling, and when asked to admit his guilt promised to do so if they would give him a cigarette. He stood on the trap, the rope round his neck, smoking calmly until he came to the last half-inch of the cigarette. Then he spat out the end.
"Were you guilty, Poropulos?" the chaplain asked him.
He looked calmly from one to the other of the group about him, and then, with a smile:
"You can all go to hell", he said, and with that they dropped him.
Such an end was paralleled by Landru's. After they brought Landru from prison to the foot of the guillotine, the counsel for the defence, who was present, embraced and kissed him. "I have done my best for you, Landru", he said. "Will you not tell me—did you kill these women?"
"Cher maître", he said calmly, "I am going a long journey and have only that little bit of baggage. Let me take it with me!"
The police force of England would never be able to cope with the criminal but for his stupidity and his habit of specialising. Add to this the "nose", or the police informer, who is always ready and willing to give away his best friend for a ten-shilling note, and the chance of the law-breaker to escape detection is a remote one.
Between the police and the continuous criminal there is a very excellent feeling, which almost amounts to camaraderie. The other day a detective-inspector pulled up an old offender.
"There's been a burglary in so-and-so Street", he said. "What do you know about it, Jim?"
The man grew red with anger.
"Why, I'm living in that district myself!" he said indignantly. "Would I take a liberty on your manor?"
"Manor" is the quaint term used by police and thief alike to denote a certain area; and it is a fact that the average known criminal will never commit a crime in the district where he lives, that being regarded as a personal affront to the detective-inspector of the district.
I have seen a detective stroll into a West End bar, cast a quick eye over the company and, beckoning one to him, say reproachfully:
"Get off my manor, Joe", and Joe, being a wise man, obeyed instantly.
There is an idea in the minds of uninformed people that the police hound down the criminal. They do nothing of the kind. A detective will go out of his way to help a man if he is trying the straight game. There is naturally a certain amount of give and take. The police do not arrest every man they believe to be guilty, and a man charged with being a suspected person, and loitering for the purpose of committing a felony, has generally had his first warning and has only himself to thank for the trouble in which he finds himself.
It is equally true that the police will turn a conveniently blind eye upon mild wrongdoing; but woe betide those who, encouraged by this tolerance, enlarge their activities.
An old criminal whom I knew when I lived in Notting Hill, and who once, with the greatest sang-froid, took me a round of fences' shops, told me that the longest imprisonment he had was due to his own folly.
"I was making snide half-dollars in a small way, and planting them round Camden Town", he told me. "A fellow from the Yard come to me and said: 'Bill, I'm warning you.' Of course I said I didn't know what he was talking about and gave him a lot of madam about his interfering with me when I was trying to earn an honest living. They pinched me a month later and they brought every charge in the world against me. The busy that went into the box at the Old Bailey couldn't say anything bad enough about me. They'd have hung me if they could. If I'd taken the warning and been pinched for something else, they'd have said how I'd tried to get work, and have got me off with eighteen moons. Never take liberties!"
I have no sympathy with criminals, not even a sneaking sympathy. They are a little less interesting than lunatics, a little less romantic than sewermen. Their lives are drab and ugly, fuggy and fusty, and the majority "go crook" only because they are too lazy or too unintelligent to earn an honest living. Those who possess some degree of education and intelligence are as a rule unspeakably vile in other respects. Moreover, they are always broke!
I call to mind six of the intelligentsia of crime who are "operating" in London at the time of writing:
1. Card-sharp; held a commission in the pre-war army. A bigamist, but now has a worse record. Heavily in debt. Only once in the hands of the police.
2. An overseas citizen. Two terms of penal servitude. Card-sharper and confidence man. Bad moral record. Is at the moment wanted for passing a dud cheque.
3. Jewel and hotel thief. Several convictions. Bad moral record. Has been convicted of "living on the earnings, etc." Living in obscurity to avoid creditors.
4. Luggage thief. Suspected bigamist; several convictions. Broke.
5. Jewel thief, confidence man and card-sharp. (This man had a university education.) Traffics in dope and lives on the earnings of women. Has a little money.
6. Confidence man and "jargoon" seller. Very bad moral record. Several convictions. Bankrupt.
There is nothing Raffles-ish about these six, and they are typical of the remainder.
A "jargoon" is a white sapphire, usually set in a plain gold ring. The "operator" scrapes acquaintance with a likely victim and shows him a genuine diamond ring which he has bought (he says) for sixty pounds.
"Diamond rings are no good to me: will you buy it?"
The victim is a little shy of buying diamond rings from chance acquaintances.
"Take it home—show it to any jeweller you like—if it isn't worth the money, don't buy it", says the seller, and generally the mug takes the ring and at the first opportunity shows it to a jeweller.
"That is genuine enough", says the jeweller. "The gold is nine carat but the stone is worth a hundred."
Next day an appointment is kept.
"I'll buy this ring", says the innocent.
"You can have it for seventy", says the seller.
"You said sixty."
The crook shakes his head.
"I said seventy—not a penny less."
With this he takes the ring from the buyer and skilfully palms it, substituting the "jargoon." There is a little haggling and the ring changes hands—the operator retiring with £60, the mug carrying off a jargoon worth about seventeen shillings.
But surely, you say, even a tyro could distinguish a white sapphire from a diamond?
Not even a jeweller can at a glance, because the jargoon has been "treated." Packed in silver sand, it has been baked in a gas oven which gives it the brilliancy of a diamond—a brilliancy which lasts two days. Jargoon rings cost twenty-five shillings each in Clerkenwell, and there used to be a master criminal in Islington who financed the sellers and took fifty per cent. of the profits. Without the "fence" the average middle-grade criminal could not live.
It will be news to most people that the fence usually buys the proceeds of a robbery before it is committed.
"I'm going to do a fur shop", says a thief to the receiver. "I wish you'd come along and price it."
The receiver goes to the store which is to be burgled, buys some small article, makes a quick survey of the stock and fixes a price. He pays not on the proceeds of the robbery—which he may not see before it is planted—but on the list of stolen articles published in the police organ Hue and Cry.
It is exactly the same with motor-cars. A receiver will examine a car and price it ten minutes before the thief drives it off. The receiver helps the police, for he is the most unconscionable "nose", providing his own safety is not involved, but sooner or later he himself will be "dragged."
"If the police know that a man is a receiver, why is he not arrested at once?" you ask.
Police work is a delicate and complicated business. There must be, as I have already said, a whole lot of give and take in it, and invariably the criminal is the giver.
I am perfectly satisfied in my mind that crime would be very considerably decreased if a new form of punishment were instituted. There should be disciplinary prisons, where the punishment was short and sharp; where, within the limits of humanity, a prisoner's life should be made so unbearable that he would never risk a repetition of his experience. It is absurd to take an embezzling milkman and deprive his wife and family of the support he could give them for nine months, when you could achieve the same result by a fortnight or three weeks' discipline. A prisoner should never be allowed to get used to jail. In four cases out of five the dietary and the accommodation that a prisoner receives are superior to anything he has previously experienced. He is allowed the pick of a library, concerts are organised for his amusement, visitors appointed for his entertainment. Running by the side of the disciplinary treatment there should be inaugurated a system of suspended sentences. It is absurd to send to prison to associate with criminals, say, a postman with twenty years' service who has been detected stealing some letters. The man's ruin is complete before sentence is passed. A technical conviction is all that is necessary to complete his downfall. There is no sense in sending him to prison and to contact with hardened criminals.
Jail has no terror for the professional thief: it is just an inevitable inconvenience, like the measles of childhood, to be got through as easily as possible before the man is discharged to qualify for a further term. You cannot stamp out smallpox by segregating healthy people in a lazaretto.
Before I leave the subject I will refer to one class of thief who is exceptional in many respects from his fellows: the highly specialised gangs who cross and re-cross the ocean a dozen times a year and make their living by fleecing passengers at cards are in a class by themselves. Generally speaking, they are a respectable lot of men, with wives and families comfortably circumstanced. Their casualties are very few indeed. For some reason the ocean-going lines seldom prosecute, and do not even employ ship's detectives to check their activities. These men are thrifty souls who have reduced thieving to an exact science. Their expenses are heavy, but they are the only thieves I know who systematically save money and eventually retire with a competence. I have known a large number of these, and once, but only once, was "caught" for £80. I accepted the swindle philosophically, wrote a dozen stories based upon that painful episode, and made my experience pay me a handsome dividend.
When they come to London they are generally to be found in the best hotels, and seldom operate in the West End. They are well aware that Scotland Yard knows them and, given the opportunity, will be merciless, and they take no risk, for first and foremost they are business men.
Generally speaking, the British criminal differs from the criminal of every other nation. Thieving is unaccompanied by violence. The professional gunman is unknown, and a burglar of my acquaintance who found his partner carrying a revolver just as they were going on a job, broke off his enterprise to give his reckless companion a good thrashing. If you see in the Hue and Cry an announcement that a wanted man is "dangerous: carries firearms", you can be pretty sure that he is not home-bred.
Flogging blotted out the garrotter, and additional and heavy sentences for the armed burglar have made him an almost extinct species. There is only one effective weapon in the hands of the law for dealing with the criminal, and that is the weapon of terrorisation.
Burglars, by the way, are a very timid class. Their nightmare is the vision of a householder armed with a revolver. There is not one burglar in a hundred who does not go through life with this horror hanging over him.
THE first short story I had published in London was based upon a newspaper experience—the wreck of the American boat train at Salisbury, which I covered. The story was published in the now defunct Pall Mall Magazine; but it was the Windsor which gave me my first real start, and A. M. Hutchinson, who still edits the magazine, who edged me on to the map of short-story writers.
I suppose it is because I have been so interested in human beings that most of my stories have been woven around types. Smithy, Sanders, Bones, Mr. Reeder, Educated Evans, are all real people to me—and were real people before they came to me! The technique of short-story writing is an art not easily acquired. I must have written a hundred stories before I mastered the balance of it.
Curiously enough, on my flying visit to London from South Africa, I had decided that short-story writing was to be my long suit, and I had made up my mind to consult the highest literary on the subject. In my Wesleyan days I was an avid reader of the British Weekly, and it was to Dr. Robertson Nicoll that I determined to go. He was to me a very tremendous person, and with a quaking heart I wrote to him—I think he lived in Hampstead at the time—asking for an appointment. The appointment was granted, and with considerable trepidation I went up to keep it, arriving half an hour before the hour fixed. I walked up and down outside the house to pass the time, and eventually was admitted. I was ushered into the drawing-room and told by his secretary that the doctor was still in bed and that he could not see me for half an hour. I was left alone to bring my scattered thoughts into order.
Looking back, I cannot understand why I was so worried about this interview, or why I attached so much importance to the opinion he would offer. Perhaps it was the fear that, having read some stories which I had sent to him when I asked for the interview, he would tell me that story-writing was not my game, that put me into such a sweat. Five minutes before the half-hour had expired I tiptoed from the room and from the house. I never saw Dr. Robertson Nicoll after that.
My stories, particularly my short stories, were selling better, and I was earning a steady income. A year passed before I joined Edward Hulton, to edit one of his periodicals. "Young Mr. Edward" was a dying man then, and though it was sixteen years before he actually died, something of the gloom of death lay on him all the time I knew him.
It was an amusing association, but it did not last long. Charles Watney, the capable foreign editor of the Daily Mail, had joined the staff of the Standard and invited me to the reporters' room. Incidentally, I found myself again in association with H. A. Gwynne, who was now editor of this solid journal. E. V. Knox was another member of the reportorial staff—so was Andrew Soutar.
I remember distinctly two episodes of my service on the Standard. First, King Edward's funeral, the story of which I wrote in St. George's Chapel; the second, when sent down to Ascot to "cover the Royal Hunt Cup", with a free ticket and a golden sovereign for expenses. I came back with £1,000—so elated by my success as a gambler that I forgot my duty as a journalist, and it was not till nearly midnight when, drinking champagne and stout at the Press Club, I was urgently reminded that I had a column to write.
Watney had already planned the launching of the ill-fated Evening Times, and to the staff of this I was appointed—as racing editor! Racing has always been a hobby of mine, and in whatever other respect we may have failed on the Evening Times, I think I may claim without immodesty that the racing feature was a success.
The paper was financed by two well-known Members of Parliament, one of whom was Sir Samuel Scott. John Cowley from the Daily Mail was manager, and eventually sank the greater portion of his own private fortune in an heroic attempt to keep the paper going. Mr. Mallaby-Deeley was also associated with the Evening Times for a while, but he took very little active part in its management, nor did he make himself responsible for its continuance.
The richer of the two men decided at a very awkward moment to withdraw financial support, and since Sir Samuel could not be expected to bear the burden of carrying the paper to success single-handed, it was decided to hand over the paper to the staff.
What really killed the Evening Times was the Crippen "confession." We had established communication with one who had access to Crippen, then under sentence of death for the murder of Belle Elmore. I do not doubt for one moment that the confession was actually made to this man. We paid £500 for the privilege of printing Crippen's own story, conveyed at third hand, and sold a million copies of the edition in which it was printed. We were hardly on the streets before the Governor of Pentonville denied that Crippen had made any statement whatever, and this was supported at the inquest.
That Crippen did admit his guilt and describe the circumstances of the crime to our informant there is no doubt whatever. We were in the position that we could not explain the source of our information, and for months we struggled on under the shadow of the discredit which came to us. With the reconstruction of the company all salaries were cut, and most of us volunteered to work to save the Evening Times for a wage at which the average labourer would turn up his nose. My salary was £3 a week.
We struggled on month after month, Cowley finding the money. No man in his senses could face the inevitable ruin which would follow the continuance of publication, and one sad day we closed down. I do not know how much John Cowley lost, but if ever I am asked to name the bravest deed I ever saw, I shall endeavour to describe Cowley with a chequebook and a fountain pen striving to hold the fort.
The Sidney Street siege gave us a lift. I came to work every morning at half-past four, and on arriving at the office learnt of the exciting events which were occurring in the East End. I rushed through my work—in my agitation picking five winners out of the six races that were to be decided that day—and, taking a cab, dashed off to Sidney Street. It was rather like old times, though queerly unreal, listening to the klik-klok of rifles in that dingy thoroughfare. By good luck I got into a house almost opposite that where the murderers were at bay, and could, I think, have got one of them if I had had a rifle, for he showed himself for a second at the window.
I left the siege to go to a racing meeting, and returned at night to find the house where the dead murderers lay a smoking ruin.
I have only the faintest memory of how the following two years were filled. It was a period of struggle, but not of any great stress. I have an idea that I had rather a cheery time. It was Kennedy Jones who came to my rescue and gave me the assistant-editorship of Town Topics, a little weekly that he had financed for Arthur Binstead, or, as everybody knew him, "Pitcher." "Pitcher" had been on the Sporting Times, and when John Corlett sold the paper, "Pitcher" and his colleagues, Colonel Newnham Davis, J. H. Booth and Horace Lennard, decided to start, with K. J.'s assistance, a tolerable imitation of the Pink 'Un. Even K.J.'s newspaper genius could not make the paper go, and I was called in as a director of editorial affairs, without, I believe, greatly adding to the circulation.
"Pitcher" belonged to the old school of journalists, and was a splendid wit and a man of great geniality. The world's centre for him was Romano's. One day he was going down the stairs of the Town Topics office and saw the office boy coming up, bearing on a plate a glass of milk and a few biscuits. "Pitcher" stared at the sight.
"Where is that going?" he asked.
"It's for Mr. Wallace", said the boy.
"Isn't he WEANED?" he demanded.
"Pitcher", Newnham Davis, that gallant old gentleman who died in harness, and Horace Lennard have passed: three good men who did excellent work and were well loved in Fleet Street.
My salary was £10 a week when the European War broke on the world, and all my cherished plans were knocked sideways. K.J. cut our salaries in half. Other newspapers to which I was contributing either closed down or restricted the size of their papers. I say that the war "broke", but to me there was ample warning. That fatal Sunday night when I read in the late edition of the News of the World the story of Sarajevo and the assassination of the heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, it was as clear as daylight that war was inevitable. My wanderings in Europe had given me some idea of what we might expect at the first excuse for war. The effect on me was disastrous. Contracts were suspended, a weekly newspaper for which I was working cut its salaries in half, and I was well over the age limit for service.
It was at this moment that Charles Hyde (now a baronet), of the Birmingham Post, decided to appoint me as military correspondent. Kitchener's old ban still hung over me, but I was to write a daily commentary on military events, provided that my article passed the censor. In the four years of war I wrote a million and a half words for the Birmingham Daily Post, but although I have been credited with having done much to keep the Midlands in good heart, I account my best achievement in the war period to the unofficial propaganda I initiated in the United States of America.
In the early stages of the war the possibilities of propaganda were never discussed or considered, and indeed I did not call my efforts by any such pretentious title.
I am a diligent reader of American newspapers, and I saw that the only soldier who got any kind of appreciation in the American press was the French soldier. Poor Tommy was never mentioned. And this, very naturally, touched me on the raw—for the "poor blinking infantry" are the wonder of the world. I wrote some stories about Tommies and sent them out to America, telling my agent that I didn't want paying for them so long as they were published.
This was a foolish thing to do. It stamped the stories as propaganda.
I tried again—changed the style of the stories and had two accepted and paid for: "The Greater Battle" and "The Straightened Angle." Others did not "get past", as they say.
I was certain in my mind that the only medium to show our people in a fair light was the short story, and at last, thank Heaven, I discovered a vehicle. My idea was to convey to America a picture of English soldiers and English effort which would create an atmosphere of sympathy, if not for our cause, for the men who were fighting our battles. I never worked so hard in all my life to bring my stories to perfection.
It was a series called "Tam of the Scouts" which was most effective. This dealt with a little Scottish mechanic who rose to be an officer in the Royal Flying Corps, and the story of his exploits ran without interruption for two years in Everybody's Magazine. "Tam Clubs" were formed in many of the big cities, and I believe he even enjoyed the distinction of having a horse named after him!
I confess that I did not even know that there was such a thing as a Propaganda Department fostered by the British Government, and even if I had known, it is doubtful whether I should have approached the bigwigs of Whitehall, for what help could they possibly have given to me? It was sufficient satisfaction to me to know that my independent efforts were going into 500,000 American homes every month. When I was in New York four years ago, an American editor told me that Tam was the inspirer of the American Flying Corps spirit, and although I would not endorse this extravagant estimate, I feel that I did something to put a branch of the British fighting services "on the map" in the United States.
There is no end to any story, but here I will make the end of mine; for an autobiography should conclude at some decent interval from to-day. I shall be broke again and rich again; but broke or rich, I shall, if the Lord keeps me in good health, be grateful and happy for every new experience, for every novel aspect which the slow-moving circle of life presents to me. I have made many big friends and provoked a few little enmities, which will clear up someday. And I am here! Newspaper-boy, cabin-boy, soldier, journalist, writer—what next? Whatever it is, I'll bet it is interesting.
Non sibi sed omnibus
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