|Links in my life on land and sea |
Birth - Il Gobbo - Queen Victoria at Bonn - Thunderstorm at Brussels - A Waterloo fraud - French Revolution of 1848 - Bellew-Higgins - At Cheltenham College - Dean Close - A missing link - Prospects of the Navy - A providential pickpocket - An echo of Cawnpore.
AS the earliest records of any life are the light by which we read its progress and end, I may be pardoned for briefly recording my own. The most important fact in it, as far as I am concerned, and of far-reaching consequence to others, occurred on June 16, 1841, when, at the Villa Attias, near Leghorn - my father being British Chaplain at that place - I first saw light.
The earliest impression I can evoke is that of Italian sunshine, and I have been a worshipper of Baal ever since - in the sense that sunshine is life to me, whilst gloomy weather becomes often almost insupportable. A tent in the desert, an onion and a handful of dates, have more attraction for me than a palace in Park Lane - simply and solely because, at least, in the first I should see the beloved sun. This instinct has continued in me throughout my life.
The first concise memory I can evoke from the past is seeing our man cook - who we called " Il Gobbo," as he
was hump-backed - writhing on the road outside our villa with a knife sticking in his ribs ; a man running away up the road, my father after him, who, however, did not catch him and was soon out-distanced. But as to the quickly gathered crowd of onlookers no one seemed the least concerned - no others joined in the pursuit - for to stab a man in Italy, then as now, was not considered a very outrageous proceeding, notably in this self-same city of Leghorn, where it is well known that at least five or six assassinations take place daily at the present time without any one being brought to book.
Nor does the resemblance between Italy of the last century and Italy of to-day cease there. This murderer of our cook escaped to his native town, Orvieto, but returned after a little to Leghorn - became a smuggler and corn merchant, rose to wealth and to a seat in the congenial atmosphere of the municipality.
I had many brothers and sisters, and the first language we all spoke was Italian, which I have never forgotten. To my infantine acquaintance with this language I owed the knowledge that there was a man called Plowden - an Englishman of family - hiding in our attic until my father could smuggle him out of the country. For he had killed another man, by name Crooke, in a duel at the Bagni di Lucca, about a Mrs. Norton née Onslow. I overheard my father telling my mother about this.
When I was between four and five we migrated to Boulogne-sur-Mer, but travelling leisurely with long halts - like the Children of Israel - our Sinais, Bonn, on the Ehine and Brussels, with many minor halts at numbers of other places. For we travelled in our own carriages, crossing the length and breadth of Europe, all across Tuscany and the Plains of Lombardy, over the Spiügen and so down through Switzerland, in itself a pleasant record of a bygone system of journey.
A GREAT THUNDERSTORM
At Bonn I remember seeing Queen Victoria for the first time. She had come up the Rhine for a Beethoven Festival in a yacht called the Fairy. Some unfortunate little German princeling did something to offend her and she made herself extremely disagreeable, but how, beyond the fact, I cannot remember. At Brussels the seriousness of life began for us boys in the shape of lessons with my father - an accomplished scholar, but an austere pedagogue. I think it was having a very small income and a family of ten children which soured him in early days. In his old days he was gentleness and kindness itself. Then, too, my mother was always weak with us and indulged us in everything ; and that must have been trying. In these lessons I outstripped all my brothers in everything that was ornamental and useless, for I assimilated Latin and Greek as easily as bread and milk. Drawing, too, came naturally to me, and languages, the last not by patient study, for I never could apply myself to studying anything in the true sense of the word, but by aptitude for mimicry of sound and for lingual gymnastics.
At Brussels I saw another sight, something analogous to the death of II Gobbo. My brother George and I were looking out of our window - which gave on the boulevard, watching a terrific thunderstorm, memorable ever since in Belgian annals, as it did infinite harm all over the land and smashed part of St. Gudule, the cathedral - when we saw a man and woman make for shelter under a tree. Suddenly a blinding flash of lightning swept along amongst the trees, and when we could see again, there were the man and woman lying huddled together on the ground in a weird, contorted embrace, whilst beside them sat and howled, quite unhurt, a poor little mongrel dog. It was two or three hours before the dead were removed. I remember the Field of Waterloo and a blue-nosed old
fraud - a local guide - who swore he was at the battle. But, after all, why should lying be a guide's prerogative? He was but the forerunner of the nation's official liars, who, some years after this, erected the Belgian memorial to record that Belgians won this great victory. And now there is a German one going up, but that will astonish no one !
We left Brussels and went to Boulogne, where we were very happy as children and used to boat on the River Lianne. The ribs of the large, flat-bottomed barges which Napoleon had collected there for the invasion of England were still to be seen under the water at a place called Pont-de-Briques. We were in Boulogne during the Revolution of 1848, and stirring times they were for us boys, for, from our lofty attic windows, we bombarded the gathering mob below with anything we could lay hold of - bits of mortar picked out from under the tiles, and even our own toys and our sisters' dolls. Then some rough looked up, and pointing us out to his friends, they rushed at our porte cochère and began climbing up on the window-sills of the ground-floor, when, fortunately for us, a diversion occurred by some Gardes Mobiles coming round the corner and opening fire on the rabble, when instantly all bolted except four or five who lay dead on the pavement, and a few who staggered away, wounded. But the streets still remained in the hands of the mob for many days ; we, barricaded in our house, where - but for the assistance of an old glazier, Monsieur Guillain, who lived opposite and drew a fair income from my father in the repair of windows which we boys broke - we might have suffered other discomforts of a siege, namely hunger. But old Guillain smuggled food in by night. This lasted about a week.
About this time a man called Higgins appeared above our horizon. My father always believed him to be a
natural son of his old friend MacCready, the famous actor. Later in life this same Higgins blossomed into Bellew, the popular preacher and reciter. He married iny aunt Eva, my mother's sister, who ran away from him and married Sir Ashley Eden, when Governor-General of Bengal.
Higgins certainly bore a striking likeness to MacCready - so much so, that on the occasion of his first visit to us, our old French manservant, who had not caught the name, in answer to my father's question as to who it was who wanted to see him, said, " Je crois que ça doit être un fils de Monsieur Mercredi"! Mercredi being the nearest shot Antoine could make at the name of my father's old friend, the actor.
At this time my two eldest brothers were sent to Eton, but it did them no harm, for in those days Eton boys were still boys - fought out their quarrels with their fists, as became gentlemen, instead of calling each other names or cutting each other, as they do now. I believe that a boy who fights nowadays is considered a "cad." When I was a boy it was the cads who did not. The only unsound note - an echo from Eton - I can recall in these two dearly loved brothers of mine was that they thought any boy at any other school was a kind of social pariah. As to myself and my younger brothers who, later on, went to Cheltenham, we were quite out of the pale : "Chaps one could hardly be seen speaking to." It was our red-tasselled " mortar-boards "that were the especial ridicule of my brothers.
But to return to Boulogne. The Revolution over, and things quieting down, Louis Napoleon visited the place as President of the new Republic. We saw him frequently in the street processions, his flabby, pasty face, large, thick nose, and mean, "squinney" eyes impressing themselves distinctly on my memory. Then we saw him again (1853)
when once more he visited Boulogne, this time with his new wife, Eugenie. I presented her with a bouquet of flowers, and wondered how he had married an English-woman. It is curious I thought this ; for there is little doubt there is not a drop of any other than Scotch and English blood in her veins. However, that history has yet to be written.
Again, a third time, I saw the Emperor at Chislehurst - in 1872, I think - a broken-down old man, stooping terribly, his complexion a ghastly, greenish-white, his cheeks puffy, his nose more prominent than ever, his eyes sunken and withered. A most pathetic spectacle: and what an end ! He died shortly after - unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.
Boulogne society was very pleasant in those days, consisting chiefly of "hard-ups" of good family, with a very fair sprinkling of social rips. But they all had good manners, and the convenances of good breeding were strictly observed. We came into the first category, for it behoved my father to live as economically as possible in order to educate and launch his seven sons.
We all learnt to talk French fluently - Boulogne French, it is true - but in due time the patois got weeded out, and I suppose we talked the pure language as well as it was necessary.
* * * * *
So time rolled on, and we migrated to Ashley Lodge, Leckhampton, close to Cheltenham, which place my father bought with a view to sending the rest of his boys to Cheltenham College. I went first, and did no good there, for I learnt practically nothing that was of the slightest use. I already knew quite enough Latin and Greek for any career short of that at a University ; for I could read both easily, and was familiar with many of the best authors. I may incidentally mention that I could
read and translate the Greek Testament before I was eight. I hated Cheltenham College with all my soul from the day I went there, for it was only a bad form of private school, nothing generous about it - the boys kicked and cuffed by any brute of an usher - Drivers, we called them - or by the boarding-house master. The drivers were instructed to spy on us always. We were locked into the playground, where there was no shelter of any kind, and if a boy felt ill, or not inclined to play, he had to hang about until the driver mustered his lot, and marched them - two and two, like French boys at a Lycée - to the boarding-house.
At most of the boarding-houses the food was bad, and bullying universal. Our Head-master was a pompous old humbug - at least we boys thought so - spoke thickly through his hooked nose, and flogged us with great dignity. The school was governed by a fussy Board of Control, the Vicar of Cheltenham being, I believe, ex-officio chairman. The Head-master, and other old washerwomen of his type, were the rest of the Board.
My friend at the school was James Robertson, late Head Master of Haileybury, a great Alpine climber, and a most erudite, accomplished man, with many others who have made their mark in life. Amongst my school-fellows was an extraordinary monster, who shall be name-less - a missing link ; about 4 ft. 6 in. high, with a lean neck, a flat skull covered with bristles, which continued like a hog's down the nape of his neck, arms abnormally long and immensely strong, covered with hair, legs about a foot long and useless for locomotion, but, being supported by bands of steel and ingeniously contrived springs, enabled him to make a series of baboon-like leaps. A protruding brow overhung cruel, twinkling eyes, and large nostrils lay flat back, showing red inside. He could wrinkle his forehead and twitch his ears after the fashion
of an angry cat. No boy in the school could lick him - in fact, only once did any one really try it, and that was I believe, Machell, cock of the school for a long time - who wished to punish this brute for some exceptional piece of cruelty. But "Monkey," as the monster was called, was too much for him, getting him into his tremendous arms, rolling him on the ground, seizing in his teeth one ear, which he nearly wrenched off, and attempting to gouge out one of his eyes with his powerful claws. Fortunately a gatekeeper and some drivers were at hand, who, rushing in, managed to rescue Machell just in time. After this "Monkey" became an actual terror to the whole school, his malignity and cruelty growing greater as time went on. Strange to say, this hideous atavism of some remote anthropoid ape had, it was reported, a very beautiful sister.
After the freedom and sans géne of Boulogne, with its delightful children's parties - to which we were carried in Sedan chairs - we children found the respectability of Cheltenham most irksome. I do not think any one of us ever liked the place. Nor were my parents any better off - they had no sympathy with the ultra-Evangelical clique who cowered under the moral lash of the priggish vicar; nor did they care a straw about the value of the rupee, the two all-absorbing matters of interest to nine out of ten of the inhabitants of that town. However, I knew very little about all this, and cared less, for I had only been a short time at school when, to my unspeakable delight, an old friend and connection of the family, Admiral Robert Lambert Baynes, offered to take me to sea with him, he having just got command of the Flying Squadron, destined for service in the Baltic in the Russian War.
Never shall I forget the wild delight with which I received this news when coming home one day from school, more
GREEK VERSUS RULE OF THREE
disgusted with it than ever - having been licked in a very unfair fight by a boy called Gethin - my father met me outside the door, and told me about this change in my destiny. The revulsion of feeling was almost too great for me. I can recall to this day the emotion it caused me. It was Murad V. dragged from a dungeon to mount the Ottoman throne. The life for which I had always pined since scrambling about the rigging of dirty little English colliers in Boulogne harbour, was to be mine. Farewell to the hated "play"-ground; farewell to my yellow-faced, beak-nosed class-master ; to all the rigmarole of Second Aorists and Greek gerunds those hideous nightmares of my boy-life - all to be left behind for ever, and in exchange that career which had been the time-honoured pursuit of my family.
But now came the crucial test of my education, which had been conducted by my classic father and the pedants of Cheltenham College precisely as it is to this day in all public schools. Naturally it proved that I was ignorant of anything of the least practical use ; with one exception, however. In the curriculum for passing into the Navy the Pundits who ordain these things had stuffed a quantity of Bible lore. Here I was all right, for I could reel off whole chapters and psalms by the fathom. But I had to learn up the elements of arithmetic and some history, and had only five or six weeks to do it in, so - my father being ill - my mother carried me off to a Southsea crammer, whose father had been sailing-master to my uncle, Lord Gambier. But I only stayed there one night. For, out of consideration of this family association, when bedtime came they put me into a room where I saw two little boys, with very red faces, already in bed, who at once informed me that one of them was just recovering from scarlet fever, and the other was at that moment suffering from that disease.
But there was no help for it, so I went to bed. Next morning, however, my mother returned to the school to borrow some money to get home with, for her pocket had been picked - she had an extraordinary affinity for pick-pockets, many in Cheltenham supporting families on this idiosyncrasy of hers - and, of course, she promptly removed me, not without words between her and the master. Fortunately my mother bethought herself of my father's cousin, Admiral Fitzgerald Gambier, the founder of the Sailors' Home at Portsmouth, and by his recommendation I was handed over to the Rev. Thomas Knight, Vicar of St. Mary's, Portsmouth, who did the cramming right merrily ; so that before I had been there a month I did not know if I was standing on my head or my heels, could eat little or nothing, and lay awake half the night trying to do a simple equation.
Well I remember his preliminary examination of me, to see what I knew, and where to begin. I hated the idea of showing off, and would not let him know that I could read the Odyssey and the Iliad, so I began with an ode of that bibulous old Pagan Anacreon, in which, in spite of his desire to sing about such heroes as Atreus and Cadmon, nothing but love of women would come into his thoughts. I do not think Mr. Knight understood a word of it, but he understood fast enough that I knew nothing of the least use for the Navy, and actually wrote to my father, saying it was ten thousand pities not to send me to a University, adding, "He might become anything in that kind of career."
There was no Britannia, or other training ship, in those days, and immediately we passed we were pitchforked into our ships. If the medical examination had not been a farce, of course I should never have got into the Service, for I was so short-sighted that I knew no one across a dinner-table. But the examining doctor, a beetle-browed.
ECHO OF DELHI AND CAWNPORE
frowsy old Scotchman, satisfied himself in respect of our sight by spreading out his fingers within about ten inches of our noses. Then he jammed a finger alternately into each ear and, roaring in the other, asked if we could hear. I said I could hear quite plainly. After this he banged each boy separately in the back, and then, producing from a cupboard a thing like a fog-horn, listened to our breathing. Finally he started us all racing round the room and skipping over the backs of chairs - an amusing spectacle - all of us naked as we were born. That ended the examination, and we were pronounced fit to serve the Queen.
My uniform, or some of it, was already prepared and I went home for a few days, of course extremely proud of myself, and the admiration of even my Eton brothers. I pass over the final adieux, which, boy-like, I naturally made light of. But it was sadder than I knew, for we never met again, some of us - my eldest brother, two years later, falling at Delhi ; my eldest sister disappearing in the massacre of Cawnpore. I say disappearing advisedly, for it is very generally believed in India that all the unhappy women who vanished in that frightful scene were not killed, and that many were carried off to Indian zenanas. There is reason to suppose my sister suffered this fate, for two separate people of our acquaintance said that in a carriage belonging to some Eajah, being driven rapidly along, they saw a lady, whom they believed to be her, peer out, pull down her veil, and wave her hand in a despairing manner. It may be asked how she never contrived to communicate with the outer world, but those who know India are aware of the inviolability of the Purdah. Moreover, she may have had reasons of her own for never wishing to return ; as my brother-in-law married again in a few years.
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