THE MAKING OF A NOVELIST
An Experiment In Autobiography
By David Christie Murray
CHATTO & WINDUS, PICCADILLY
[Portrait] From a Photograph by Thomas Fall
TO J. M. BARRIE
Every man who writes about himself is, on the face of the matter, obnoxious to the suspicion which haunts the daily pathway of the Bore. To talk of self and not be offensive demands an art which is not always given to man. And yet we are always longing to get near each other and to understand each other; and in default of a closer communion with our living fellows we take to our bosoms the shadows of fiction and the stage. If the real man could be presented to us by any writer of his own history we should all hail him with enthusiasm.
Pepys, of course, came nearer than anybody else; but this is only because he wrote for his own reading and meant to keep himself a secret. Dickens exquisitely veils and unveils his own personality and career in Copperfield, and scores of smaller writers have done the same thing in fiction to our great pleasure. But to set down boldly, openly, and as a fact for general publication the things of one's own doing, saying, and thinking is an impertinence whose only justification can be found in the public approval. If Pepys had written his Diary for publication he would have been left to oblivion as a driveller. But we surprise the man's secret, we see what he never meant to show us, the peering jackdaw instinct is satisfied; and we feel, besides, a certain sense of humorous pity and affectionate disdain which the man himself, had we known him in life as we know him in his book, could never have excited. Rousseau, to me, is flatly intolerable, because he meant to tell the world what every man should have the decency to hide.
The perfect autobiography is yet to seek, and will probably never be written. A partial solution of a difficulty is offered in this experimental booklet. It is offered without diffidence, because it is offered in perfect modesty. I have tried to show how one particular novelist was made; where he got some of his experiences, and in what varying fashions the World and Fate have tried to teach him his business. It has been my effort to do this in the least egotistical and the most straightforward fashion. The narrative is quite informal and wanders where it will; but in its serial publication it received marked favour from an indulgent public, and I like to give it an equal chance of permanence with the rest of my writings, which I trust will not convey the notion that I covet a too-exaggerated longevity. Should the public favour continue, the field of experience is wide; and I may repeat Dick Swiveller's saying to Mr. Quilp—'There is plenty more in the shop this comes from.'
THE MAKING OF A NOVELIST
Only a day or two ago I found myself arrested on my eastward way along the Strand by the hand of a friend upon my shoulder. We chatted for a minute or two, and I found that I was in front of Lipscombe's window. A ball of cork, which has had a restless time of it for many years, was dodging up and down the limits of a glass shade, tossed by a jet of water. The sight of it carried me back twenty years in a flash. 'In the year 1872 I came to London, as many young men had done before me, without funds, without friends, and without employment, trusting, with the happy-go-lucky disposition of youth, to the chapter of accidents. For some time the accidents were all unfavourable, and there came a morning when I owned nothing in the world but the clothes I stood in. I found myself that morning very tired, very hungry, very down in the mouth, staring at the cork ball on the jet of water under the glass shade, and drearily likening it to my own mental condition, flung hither and thither, drenched, rolled over, lifted and dropped by a caprice beyond the power of resistance. It was at this mournful moment that I found my first friend in London. The story of that event shall be told hereafter. What I want to say now is that the sight of that permanent show in Lipscombe's window made me younger for a minute by a score of years, and opened my mind to such a rush of recollections that I determined then and there to put my memories on paper.
I am not such an egotist as to suppose my experiences to be altogether unique; but I know them to be curious and in places surprising. Adventures, as Mr. Disraeli said a good many years ago, are to the adventurous, and in a smallish kind of way I have sought and found enough to stock the lives of a thousand stay-at-homes. At the first blush it would not appear to the outside observer that the literary life is likely to be fruitful in adventure; but in the circle of my own acquaintance there are a good many men who have found it so.
In the city of Prague the most astonishing encounters pass for every-day incidents. In these days of universal enlightenment nobody needs to be told that Prague is the capital of Bohemia. There is a note that rings false in the very name of that happy country now. Its traditions have been vulgarised by people who have never passed its borders. All sorts of charlatans have soiled its history with ignoble use, and the very centre and citadel of its capital has an air of being built of gingerbread. In point of fact, though its inhabitants are sparser than they once were, and its occasional guests of distinction fewer, the place itself is as real as ever it was. I have lived in it for a quarter of a century, and, without vanity, may claim to know it as well as any man alive.
Eight or ten years ago I was sitting in the Savage Club in the company of four distinguished men of letters. One was the editor of a London daily, and he was talking rather too humbly, as I thought, about his own career.
'I do not suppose,' he said, 'that any man in my present position has experienced in London the privations I knew when I first came here. I went hungry for three days, twenty years back, and for three nights I slept in the Park.'
One of the party turned to me. 'You cap that, Christie?'
I answered, 'Four nights on the Embankment. Four days hungry.'
My left-hand neighbour was a poet, and he chimed in laconically, 'Five.'
In effect, it proved that there was not one of us who had not slept in that Hotel of the Beautiful Star which is always open to everybody. We had all been frequent guests there, and now we were all prosperous, and had found other and more comfortable lodgings. There is a gentler brotherhood to be found among men who have put up in that great caravanserai than can be looked for elsewhere. He jests at scars that never felt a wound, and a fellow-feeling makes us wondrous kind.
There are many people still alive who remember the name of George Dawson. There used to be thousands who recognized it with veneration and affection. He was my first chief, editor of the Birmingham Morning News, and had been my idol for years. My red-letter nights were when he came over to my native town of West Bromwich to lecture for the Young Men's Christian Association there on Tennyson, 'Vanity Fair,' Oliver Goldsmith, and kindred themes.
Every Sunday night it was my habit to tramp with a friend of mine, dead long ago, into Birmingham to hear Dawson preach in the Church of the Saviour. The trains ran awkwardly for us, and many scores of times poor Ned and myself walked the five miles out and five miles home in rain and snow and summer weather to listen to the helpful and inspiriting words of the strongest and most helpful man I have ever known.
I am not sure at this time of day what I should think of George Dawson if he still survived; but nothing can now diminish the affection and reverence with which I bless his memory. I had been writing prose and verse for the local journals for a year or two. I was proud and pleased beyond expression to be allowed to write the political leaders for the Wednesday Advertiser. I got no pay, and I dare say the editor was as pleased to find an enthusiast who did his work for nothing as I was to be allowed to do it. In practical journalism I had had no experience whatever; but when Dawson was announced as the editor of the forthcoming Birmingham Morning News I wrote to him, asking to be allowed to join the staff. I had already secured a single meeting with him a year before, and he had spoken not unkindly of some juvenile verses which I had dared to submit to his judgment
He proved to be as well acquainted with practical journalism as myself, for in answer to my application he at once offered me the post of sub-editor. Dr. Langford, who held actual command, set his veto on this rather absurd appointment, and told me that if I wished to join the journalistic guild at all I must begin at the beginning. I asked what the beginning might be, and learned that the lowest grade in journalism in the provinces is filled by the police-court reporter. The salary offered was 25s. a week. The work began at eleven o'clock in the morning and finished at about eleven o'clock at night. I have known many sleepless nights since then; but the first entirely wakeful time I had passed between the sheets was spent in the mental discussion of that offer. There was weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth at home when I decided to accept it. The journal was very loosely conducted—a leader in the Birmingham Daily Post spoke of us once as the people across the street who were playing at journalism—and the junior reporter was permitted to write leaders, theatrical criticisms, and a series of articles on the works of Thomas Carlyle, then first appearing in popular form in a monthly issue.
I have always maintained, and must always continue to believe, that there is no school for a novelist which can equal that of journalism. In the police court, at inquests in the little upper rooms of tenth-rate public-houses, and in the hospitals which it was my business to visit nightly, I began to learn and understand the poor. I began on my own account to investigate their condition, and as a result of one or two articles about the Birmingham slums, was promoted at a bound from the post of police-court reporter to that of Special Correspondent. Six guineas a week, with a guinea a day for expenses, looked like an entry into Eldorado. There was a good deal of heartburning and jealousy amongst the members of the staff; but I dare say all that is forgotten long ago.
The first real chance I got was afforded me by the first election by ballot which took place in England. This was at Pontefract, where the Hon. Hugh Childers was elected in a contest against Lord Pollington. Some barrister-at-law had published a synopsis of the Ballot Act, which I bought for a shilling at New Street Station and studied all the way to Pontefract I sent off five columns of copy by rail in time to catch the morning issue of the paper, and received the first open sign of editorial favour on my return in the form of a cheque for ten pounds over and above my charges. The money was welcome enough; but that it should come from the hands of my hero and man of men, and should be accompanied by words of unqualified approval, was, I think, more inspiriting than anything could possibly be to me now. A very little while later Dawson came to me with a new commission.
'I hate this kind of business,' he said, 'but it has to be done, and we will do it once for all.'
There was an execution to take place at Worcester. One Edward Hughes, a plasterer, I think, had murdered his wife under circumstances of extraordinary provocation. The woman had left him once with a paramour, and when she was deserted he had taken her back again. She left him a second time and was again deserted, and again he condoned her offence. She left him a third time, and he went to look for her. She was living in clover, and she jeered when he begged her to return. It was set forth in evidence that he had told her that he would see her once more. He walked home—a distance of three or four miles—borrowed a razor, returned to the house in which the woman was living, asked for an interview outside in the darkness, and there almost severed her head from her body. He surrendered himself immediately to the police, was tried for his life, and sentenced to be hanged.
Rightly or wrongly, the man's story inspired me with a dreadful sympathy. I cannot help thinking to this day that the tragedy of that man's life went unappreciated, and that his long-suffering devotion and the passion of jealousy which at length overcame him might have furnished Shakspeare himself with a theme as terrible as he found in 'Othello.' Anyway, the man was to be hanged and I was deputed to attend the execution.
At that time I had never been a witness at a death scene. I have seen thousands hurried out of life since then; and though even now I should find an execution ugly and repellant, I recall with some astonishment the agony of horror which this commission cost me. I had an introduction to the sub-sheriff and another to the governor of the gaol; and I presented these at the gaol itself on a night of rainy misery which was in complete accord with my own feelings. I went hoping with all my heart that the permission to attend the awful ceremony of the next morning would be refused. It was accorded, and I left the gaol in a sick whirl of pity and horror.
I shall remember whilst I remember anything my last look at the gloomy building from the fields which lie between it and the town. The flying afterguard of the late storm was hurrying across the sky, the fields were sodden, and rainpools lay here and there reflecting the dull steely hue of the heavens. A single light burned red and baleful in one window, and right over the black bulk of the gaol one star beamed. It seemed to me like a promise of mercy beyond, and I went back to my hotel filled with thoughts which will hardly bear translation.
Next day I had a first lesson in one or two things. I saw death for the first time; for the first time in my life I saw a human creature in the extremity of fear, and I had my first lesson in human stupidity. I have told the story of this execution in another place and have no mind to repeat it here. But I shall never forget the spidery black-painted galleries and staircases and the whitewashed walls of the corridor. I shall never forget the living man who stood trembling and almost unconscious in the very gulf of cowardice and horror. I shall never forget the face of the wretched young chaplain who, like myself, found himself face to face with his first encounter with sudden death, and who, poor soul, had over-primed himself with stimulant. I shall never forget, either, that ghoul of a Calcraft, with his disreputable grey hair, his disreputable undertaker's suit of black, and a million dirty pin-pricks which marked every pore of the skin of his face. Calcraft took the business business-like, and pinioned his man in the cell (with a terror-stricken half-dozen of us looking on) as calmly to all appearance as if he had been a tailor fitting on a coat.
The chaplain read the Burial Service, or such portion of it as is reserved for these occasions, in a thick and indistinct voice. A bell clanged every half-minute or thereabouts, and it seemed to me as if it had always been ringing and would always ring. I have the dimmest notion—indeed, to speak the truth, I have no idea at all—as to how the procession formed and how we found ourselves at the foot of the gallows. The doomed man gabbled a prayer under his breath at galloping speed, the words tumbling one over the other. 'Lord Jesus have mercy upon me and receive my spirit.' The hapless chaplain read the service. Calcraft bustled ahead. The bell boomed. Hughes came to the foot of the gallows, and I counted mechanically nineteen black steps, fresh-tarred and sticky. 'I can't get up,' said the murderer. A genial warder clapped him on the shoulder, for all the world as if there had been no mischief in the business. Judging by look and accent, the one man might have invited the other to mount the stairs of a restaurant. 'You'll get up right enough,' said the warder. He got up, and they hanged him.
Where everything was strange and dreamlike, the oddest thing of all was to see Calcraft take the pinioned fin-like hand of the prisoner and shake it when he had drawn the white cap over the face and arranged the rope. He came creaking in new boots down the sticky steps of the gallows, pulled a rope to free a support which ran on a single wheel in an iron groove, and the man was dead in a second. The white cap fitted close to his face, and the thin white linen took a momentary stain of purple, as if a bag of blackberries had been bruised and had suddenly exuded the juice of the fruit. It sagged away a moment later and assumed its natural hue.
I learned from the evening paper and from the journals of next morning that the prisoner met his fate with equanimity. I think that in that report I bottomed the depths of human stupidity, if such a thing is possible. I had never seen a man afraid before; and, when I found time to think about it, I prayed that I might never see that shameful and awful sight again.
I wrote three small-type columns—three columns of leaded minion—about that execution, describing everything I had seen with a studied minuteness. Dawson was nervous about the whole affair, and, whilst the copy was yet in the hands of the printer, asked two or three times what had been done with the theme. He was kept at bay by the subeditor, who scented a sensation, and was afraid that the editor-in-chief might cut the copy to pieces. Dawson was purposely kept waiting for proofs so long that at last he went home without seeing them; and he often spoke to me afterwards of the rage and anguish he felt when he opened the paper at his breakfast-table and found that great mass of space devoted to the report of an execution. He began, so he told me, by reading the last paragraph first; then he read the paragraph preceding it; and next, beginning resolutely at the beginning, found himself compelled to read the whole ghastly narrative clean through. The machine was at work all day to supply the local demand for this particular horror, and Mr. George Augustus Sala wrote specially to ask who was the author of the narrative. I began to think my fortune made.
The journalist is like the doctor, his services are in requisition mainly in times of trouble. The Black Country which lies north of Birmingham is full of disaster, and the special correspondent has a big field there. Quite early in my career I was sent out to Pelsall Hall, near Walsall, where a mine had been flooded and two-and-thirty men were known to be in the workings. I was born and bred in the mining district, and was familiar with the heroism of the miners. They are not all heroes, and even those who are are not always heroic. But use breeds a curious indifference to danger.
I remember once paying a visit to the Tump Pit at or near Rowley Regis at a time when the men were taking their midday meal. There was a sort of Hall of Eblis there, a roof thirty feet high or thereabouts, and the men sat in a darkness dimly revealed by the light of one or two tallow candles. Down in the midst of them fell a portion of the rocky roof—enough to have filled a wheelbarrow, and enough certainly to have put out the vital spark of any man on whom it might have fallen. One coal-grimed man, at whose feet the mass had fallen, looked up placidly and said, 'That stuck up till it couldn't stick no longer;' and that was all that was said about the matter. I suppose there was a tacit recognition of the fact that the same thing might happen in any part of the mine at any moment, and that it was useless to attempt to run away from it. A passive scorn of danger is an essential element in the miner's life, and when need arises he shows an active scorn of it which is finer than anything I have ever seen in battle.
The Pelsall Hall Colliery disaster was the hinge on which the door of my fate was hung. I wrote an unspeakably bad novel which had that disaster for its central incident, and it was published from Saturday to Saturday in the Morning News, to the great detriment of that journal; and so long as the story ran, angry subscribers wrote to the editor to vilify it and its author. There was some very good work in it none the less; and an eminent critic told me that, though it was capital flesh and blood, it had no bones. It resulted years afterwards in 'Joseph's Coat,' which is, if I may say so, less inchoate and formless than its dead and buried original.
But it was not that exasperating novel which made the Pelsall Hall disaster memorable in my personal history. I made an acquaintance there—an acquaintance curiously begun—which did much for me. I met there the king of all special correspondents, and had an immediate shindy with him. There was only one decent room to be found by way of lodging in the village, and this was in the cottage of one Bailey, a working engineer. Mr. Bailey, without his wife's knowledge, had let that room to me for a week at a rent of one sovereign, and Mrs. Bailey, without her husband's knowledge, had let the room at a similar rent to the great Special. Box and Cox encountered, each determined on his rights and each resolute to oust the other.
I was leaving the cottage at about seven in the morning, when I met a man in a flannel shirt with no collar attached to it, a three days' beard, a suit of homespun, and heavy ankle jack-boots much bemired with the clay of the rain-sodden fields. He smoked a short clay pipe and looked like anything but what he was—the comet of the newspaper firmament.
'What are you doing here?' he asked—The manner was aggressive and dictatorial, and I resented it.
'Is that your business?' I retorted.
'Who are you?' he asked. I told him that I was the representative of the Birmingham Morning News, but questioned his right to the information.
'Look here, young man,' he said; 'there's only one spare room in that cottage, and it belongs to me. I've rented it from the woman of the house for a pound a week.'
'And I have rented it,' I answered, 'from the woman's husband for a pound a week.'
'Well,' said the great man with much composure, 'if I find you there I shall chuck you out of window.'
I told him that that was a game which two might play at; at which he burst into a great laugh and clapped me on the shoulder. We agreed to take bed and sofa on alternate nights, and there the matter ended; but I found out my rival's name, and would have been willing, in the enthusiasm of my hero-worship, to resign anything to him. Anything, that is to say, but my own ambitions as a journalist and the interests of the Morning News.
Here was a chance indeed. Here was a foeman worthy of any man's steel. To beat Archibald Forbes would be, as it seemed then, to crown oneself with everlasting glory, and I was not altogether without hope of doing it. For one thing, I was native to the country-side. I spoke the dialect, and that was a great matter. Forbes was incomprehensible to half the men, and three-fourths of what they said was incomprehensible to him. There was to be a descent and an attempt at rescue on the midnight of the third day after the breaking in of the waters, and I had secured permission to accompany the party.
I hired a horse at a livery-stable at Walsall, and had him kept in readiness in the back yard of a beerhouse. My giant enemy, after maintaining a strict watch on matters for eight-and-forty hours at a stretch, had gone to bed at last, convinced that nothing could be done. It was a dreadful night, and not an easy matter for one unaccustomed to the place to find his way to the pit's mouth. The iron cages of fire that burned there in the windy rain and the dark impeded rather than helped the stranger on his way towards them. The feet of thousands of people, who had visited the spot since the news of the accident was made known, had worn away the last blade of grass from the slippery fields and had left a very Slough of Despond behind them. I was down half a dozen times, and when I reached the hovel where the rescue-party had gathered I was as much like a mud statue as a man. Everything was in readiness, and the descent was made at once.
We were under the command of Mr. Walter Ness, a valiant Scotchman, who afterwards became the manager of her Majesty's mines in Warora, Central India. Five or six of us huddled together on the 'skip,' the word was given, and we shot down into the black shaft, which seemed in the light of the lamps we carried as if its wet and shining walls of brick rushed upwards whilst we kept stationary. In a while we stopped, with a black pool of water three or four fathoms below us.
'This 'll be the place,' said one of the men, and tapped the wall with a pick.
'Yes,' said Mr. Ness, 'that will be about the place; try it.'
The man lay down upon his stomach upon the floor of the skip and worked away a single brick, which fell with a splash into the pool below. Then out came another and another, until there was a hole there big enough for a man to crawl through. We had struck upon an old disused airway which led into the inner workings of the mine. One by one we snaked our way from the skip into the hole; and, whatever the miners thought about it, it was rather a scarey business for me. We all got over safely enough and began a journey on all fours through mud and slush five or six inches deep. Here and there the airway was lofty enough to allow us to walk with bent heads and rounded shoulders. Sometimes it was so low that we had to go snakewise. There was one place where the floor and roof of the passage had sunk so that we actually had to dive for it. This seemed a little comfortless at the time, but it saved our lives afterwards. After a toilsome scramble we came upon the stables, and found there the first dead body.
It was that of a lad named Edward Colman, who had met his death in a curious and dreadful manner. He was sitting on a rocky bench, and at his feet lay a rough hunch of bread and meat and a clasp-knife. He had heard evidently the cry of alarm, had sprung to his feet, and had struck the top of his head with fatal force against a projecting lance of rock immediately above him. There had been a speedy end to his troubles, poor fellow, and he sat there stiff and cold and pallid, staring before him like a figure in an exhibition of waxworks.
The waters barred our further descent into the mine, but there was a belief that by breaking through the earthy wall of the stable a continuation of the old airway would be found. The experiment was tried with an alarming result No sooner was the breach made than a slow stream of choke-damp flowed into the chamber, and the lights began to go out one by one. We scrambled back at once for our lives, and once past the pool were safe; the water effectually blocked the passage of the poisonous gas. I got but one whiff of it; but it gave me a painful sensation at the bridge of the nose which lasted acutely for some days. In all, our expedition had not lasted an hour; but it had proved to demonstration the impossibility of saving a single life.
I was dressed and mounted in another quarter of an hour and scouring hard through the dark and the rain in the direction of Birmingham. When I arrived there the country edition of the News was already on the machine and the compositors were leaving work. Word was given at once, however, the whole contingent detained, and I sat down to write an account of the night's adventure—the printer's devil coming for the copy sheet by sheet as it was written, and each folio being scissored into half a dozen pieces so that as many men as possible might work on it at once. I slept a few hours, and then rode back to Pelsall with a copy of the paper in my pocket. Forbes packed up his belongings an hour later and left the scene.
I had an idea that I had made an enemy, and that Forbes would never forgive me for beating him. I did not know my man, however; for it was he who took me by the hand in London a year afterwards and secured for me the first regular engagements I ever held there. He introduced me to Edmund Yates, who found me a place on the original staff of the World, and to J. R. Robinson, manager of the Daily News, who gave me a seat in the gallery of the House of Commons and a chance to show what I was good for as a descriptive writer. Forbes did more than this; but the matter I have in mind is private and confidential. I have no right to speak of it here, except to say that it was an act of large-hearted generosity performed in a fashion altogether characteristic of the man, and that I shall never cease to be affectionately grateful for it.
There were two instances of escape at the Pelsall Hall disaster which seem worth recording. Every mine has what is known as an 'upcast shaft'—a perpendicular tunnel which runs side by side with the working shaft, and is connected with it at the foot by an airway which serves to ventilate the workings. When the first rush of water, breaking in from some old deserted working, came tearing down, a man and a boy were standing at the bottom of the downcast. They were carried on the crest of the wave clean through the airway, borne some distance upwards in the upcast, and were there floated on to the floor of a skip, where they were found insensible, but living, some hours later. No other creature was brought to bank alive.
One special correspondent turned up at Pelsall on a Sunday, just as the pumping apparatus, which had broken down, was on the point of being repaired, and when everybody concerned was working for the bare life. It had not then been finally established that hope was over, and everybody was inspired with an almost superhuman vigour. The correspondent, who was a mighty person in his own esteem, sent his card to the manager, who sent him back a sufficiently courteous message, saying how busy he was and asking to be excused for an hour or two.
'Take back that card,' said the special (I was a witness of the scene), 'say that I represent' (he named one of the most influential of the London dailies), 'and that I insist upon an interview.'
This time a sufficiently discourteous message came back; and the mighty personage, after loafing about for an hour or two, retired and wrote an article in which he described the people of the Black Country as savages, and revived a foolish old libel or two which at one time had currency concerning them. The old nonsense about the champagne was there, for one thing. I know the Black Country miners pretty well—I ought to do so, at least, for I was born in the thick of them and watched their ways from childhood to manhood—and I never knew a working miner who had so much as heard of champagne. Now and then a prosperous 'butty' (Anglice, chartermaster) may have tried a bottle; but the working collier's beverage is 'pit beer.' The popular recipe for this drink is to 'chuck three grains of malt into the cut, and drink as much as ye like of it.'
I remember the story of one wine party which met at the Scott's Arms at Barr. I dare say Mr. Henry Irving knows the house, for he is President of the Literary Society there. The tale was told me by the landlord. Three chartermasters sat at a table in the bar, and old Pountney overheard their whispered talk.
'Didst iver drink port, Jim?'
'No; what is it?'
'Why, port—port wine; it's a stuff as the gentlefolks is fond on.'
'I reckon it'll be main expensive, then.'
'Oh, we can stand it amongst the three on us. Got any port wine, landlord?'
'Yes, some of the finest in the county.'
'What's it run to?'
'Seven-and-six a bottle.'
'They figured it out,' the landlord told me, 'with a bit of a stump of an ode pencil on the top o' the table, and when they'd made up their minds as siven and sixpence was half a crown apiece amongst the three on 'em they ordered a bottle. I sent my man down the cellar for it, and I went out to look at my pigs. When I come back again there they was sittin' wry-mouthed an' looking at one another, wi' some muddy-lookin' stuff in the glasses afore 'em. "Gentlemen," I says, "ye don't seem to like your liquor." "Like it!" says one on 'em; "if this is the stuff the gentlefolks drinkin', the gentlefolks is welcome to it for we." I turns to my man, and "Bill," says I, "where did ye get this bottle o' port from?" "Why," he says, "I got it from the fust bin on the left-hand side." "Why, you cussid ode idiot," I says, "you've browt 'em mushroom ketchup!"'
It was on May 25, 1865, that I enlisted in her Majesty's Fourth Royal Irish Dragoon Guards. I was just past my eighteenth birthday, and, for reasons not worth specifying nowadays, the world had come to an end. Civil life afforded no appropriate means of exit from this mortal stage, and I was in a condition (theoretically) to march with pleasure against a savage foe. I was ignorant of these little matters, and was not aware of the fact that the Fourth Royal Irish was mainly a stay-at-home regiment.
My ardour for the military life was cooled pretty early. I dare say that things have mended somewhat in the last seven-and-twenty years; but my experience was in the main a record of petty tyrannies and oppressions, at the memory of some of which my blood boils even unto this day. There is a comic side to everything, however, and I can laugh over a good many of my own experiences. I had a dinner engagement that day with a friend in the Haymarket, and finding myself a little too early for it, I stood to watch the fountains playing in Trafalgar Square. My mind was in a state of moody grandeur, which is both comic and affecting to recall at this distance of time. I was quite a misunderstood young person, and was determined to be revenged for it, on all and sundry, myself included. The blue-coated brass-buttoned old spider who came to weave his web around me had no need to be elaborate. I closed with him at once, and he led me with a stealthy seeming of indifference into a back yard, where he put the statutory questions and handed over the statutory shilling.
I had supposed that I should at once enter upon my military career, but, to my surprise, I was ordered to report myself at the depot at St. George's Barracks on the following day at noon. Failing this, I was instructed that I should be held a rogue and vagabond, and should be liable to a period of imprisonment I went on to dinner, and bore myself there with a mysterious gloom, which, as I learned long afterwards, gave rise to a good deal of conjecture. Next day I was sworn in in a frowsy back room behind the Westminster Police Court, and learned that I was now formally bound to the service of her Majesty for a term of twelve years, my sole hope of escape being the payment of a sum of thirty pounds as purchase-money.
My military ardour had been a little cooled already at the medical examination, where, to my horrible embarrassment, I was made to strip stark naked, and was inspected by an elderly gentleman in a pince-nez, with half a dozen uninterested people looking on, amongst them two or three louts in fustian who were awaiting their turn. I was put into a variety of postures, all of which I felt to be ridiculous and humiliating; and when this ordeal was over there came the swearing-in and a visit to the depot canteen, where I received payment of a sum of seven and sixpence and was introduced to some of the raw material of the fighting forces of the nation.
I may say quite frankly that I did not like the raw material. The young men who composed it were without exception vulgar and loutish. Their language was absolutely unreportable, and they were all more or less flushed with beer. I had been almost a total abstainer all my life, and though I drank a little of it out of complaisance I thought the canteen tack the nastiest stuff I had ever tasted The depot barrack-room in which the recruits slept until the time of their deportation echoed morning, noon, and night with unmeaning ribaldries and obscenities, and was stale with the smoke of bad tobacco and the fumes of that most indifferent beer. I learned that I was bound for Ireland, and that the head-quarters of my regiment were at Cahir. One respectable old depot sergeant took some interest in my quiet and isolation. 'You'll be out of this lot soon,' he said, 'and you'll never see anything like it again. These chaps'll learn manners when they join the colours; and you're lucky in the regiment you're going to—there's no smarter in the service.'
I have made one or two uncomfortable journeys in my time, but I can recall nothing quite so comfortless as the march with that ragged and disreputable contingent along Piccadilly, across Hyde Park, down the Edgware Road, and so on to Paddington Station. It was all very well for the sore and rebellious heart to be singing inwardly, 'Yes, let me like a soldier fall,' but this was a sordid beginning for military glory, and I would sooner have been shot outright than I would have encountered anybody I knew on that journey. I reached the station unobserved, so far as I know, and was glad to hide myself in a third-class carriage, into which the sergeant in charge of the party beckoned me. He was very kind and friendly indeed, advising me in a score of ways suggested by his own experience, and talking constantly with his hand upon my shoulder. I had begun to think him quite a genuine good fellow, and my heart was warming to him, when he let the cat out of the bag.
I was handsomely attired, and the morning suit I was wearing was barely a week old. He was good enough to offer me ten shillings and a rig-out for a scarecrow in exchange for it. I declined the friendly offer, and the sergeant cooled. He condescended to accept a drink at Didcot Junction; indeed, he did me the honour to ask for it; but when it was consumed he ordered me into a carriage already fully occupied by half a score of my fellow recruits, and in their society I finished the journey to Bristol.
We put up at the Gloucester Barracks, which, as I understood, had once been an hotel, and the escort sergeant, who had turned spiteful, set me to work to carry coal upstairs.
This was my first experience of fatigue duty, and I was kept at it till I was very fatigued indeed, and my smart summer trousers and spick-and-span shirt-cuffs were a little damaged. This duty over, I met the escort sergeant no more, but was transferred to the care of a quaint old boy who made an astonishing display of learning. He had four or five Latin proverbs at his command. He knew the Greek alphabet, had picked up a bit of Hindostani on Indian service, and a little bit of French and Turkish in the Crimea. All these he aired upon me in a very natural manner, and I was much impressed with his erudition, until a grinning depot man got me into a corner and told me that 'the sergeant had shown me the whole bag o' thricks at wonst,' He paid every well-dressed recruit that compliment, it seemed; and the depot man warned me that he too would make a bid for my clothes, and would offer me a scarecrow rig-out in return.
'If ye'll take my tip,' said the depot man, 'ye'll say neither yes nor no till ye get to barracks. Kape the ould blagyard hangin' on and off till ye get inside the gates, and then tell him to go to blazes. If ye loike to work him properly, ye can kape him as smooth as soft soap all the way. If ye say no too early he'll be on t'ye like a ton o' pig-iron. It's the truth I'm tellin' ye,' he added, 'as sure as God made little apples.'
He thought his advice was worth a drink. I thought so too, and he got it.
We steamed away next day in the Apollo, bound for Cork. We had a rough passage, and the depot sergeant took me into his private cabin and cheered me with a glass of whisky, the first I had ever tasted. He began, when he had thus softened my heart, to try the bargain about the suit of clothes, and produced a set of garments the like of which I do not think I ever saw.
'You'll not be allowed to keep these,' he explained, fingering me all over to test the quality of the cloth I wore. 'You'll be in regimentals in a day or two, and it'll make no difference to you.'
One of the officers of the vessel looked in whilst this business was going on and broke in gruffly, 'You join your regiment looking like a gentleman, young man. Your officers won't think any the worse of you for going in decent. Damn it all, sergeant, what d'ye want to spoil the lad's prospects for?'
So a second time the suit was saved; but it went a week later to an old soldier who was leaving the regiment and whom it fitted to a hair. He was to leave a certain portion of his kit behind for me, which, as he assured me, would be of the utmost use; but he sold such articles as belonged to him to the men in his own barrack-room that evening, and decamped without seeing me again.
The stormy passage ended delightfully amidst the quiet beauties and serene shelter of the Cove of Cork. I have seen a great many of the world's show-places since 1865, and I dare say that my inexperience counted for much; but I cannot recall any natural spectacle which afforded me a more genuine delight. It was the morning of the 30th of May. The sun was just rising, and the roofs and spires of the city were outlined against a lucent belt of sky. Spike Island lay green and smiling in the middle of the cove; and on either side, on the emerald slopes, white villas were dotted here and there. The whole scene looked very sweet and pure and homelike, and there were certain thoughts in my own mind which made the view memorable.
We were all bundled up to the Cat's Hill Barracks, and there held over Sunday. My companions melted away unregarded, and I travelled down to Cahir under the charge of a decent old fellow who did not try to buy my clothes, but spent a good deal of time in exhorting me to write to my friends and beg their pardon for having made a fool of myself.
'Yell be doing it late,' he said, 'and ye may as well be doing it soon.'
I was quite lonely and sore enough to have taken the advice, and military glory looked a long way off; but a silly pride withheld me, and I pretended to feel well satisfied with my prospects and surroundings.
When I came to understand things a little I could see that the regiment was in a splendid state of discipline and efficiency. It had not been so a few years before, when the Lieutenant Robinson episode at Birmingham had brought the command of Colonel Bentinck into grave disrepute. Lieutenant-Colonel Shute, on whom the actual charge of the regiment devolved, set to work to bring cosmos out of chaos; and did it, though it took him a day or two of very uphill work. I know more of what a regiment should be than I did then, and I do not ask a firmer or a more judicious discipline. The men were enthusiastically loyal to their colonel, and believed in him as if he had been a sort of deity. I am persuaded that they would have gone anywhere and have done anything for him. There is nothing the British soldier respects like justice, and he likes it none the less if it is a little stern. We all had a holy dread of the colonel, though he was not a bit more of a martinet than any good officer should be; and his wife, who had a habit of giving autographed Prayer Books to the men, was regarded with a genuine affection.
I found the men, in the main, very good fellows indeed. Of course there were all sorts among them. Many were well bred and well educated, and one or two might have been met without surprise in almost any society. Some, again, were thorough-going blackguards, and others, who were among the most popular and the best soldiers, were incurably rackety and undisciplined. One man, who had thrice won his stripes as full corporal, was for the third time broken and reduced to the ranks during my first month of service. He would keep away from drink for two or three years at a time, and then in a night would undo all the results of hard work and self-denial. Take the men in the main, and it would be difficult to find a better lot; but the petty officers seemed to make it the business of their lives to put the heaviest of burdens on the shoulders of any promising recruit. They were none of them very well educated, and I suppose that it was only natural that they should fear the advancement of a youngster better tutored than themselves, and should do their best to keep him down. One only found this disposition amongst the younger non-coms.—men who had not held their places long enough to grow used to the dignity of rank.
There is, or was in my time, a soldiers' proverb, 'As nasty as a new-made corporal,' With one exception the sergeant-majors were good fellows and popular with their men. I shall not give the name of the exception, for he may be still alive; but he was commonly known as 'The Pig,' and he deserved his title. There was no meanness and no denial of military etiquette of which he would not be guilty to get a man into trouble. One badgered private assaulted him violently with a pitchfork, and suffered two years' imprisonment for that misdemeanour. 'The Pig' was quite uncured by this experience; and one night, prowling round the barrack-rooms after 'lights out' to see if he could find an after-dark smoker, he was assailed with a tremendous shower of highlows from every quarter of the room. The cavalry highlow, well aimed and low, as Count Billy Considine said about the decanter, may be made a very effective missile, and its powers of offence are not diminished by the fact that it pretty often carries a spur in the heel of it This event was spoken of with bated breath about the regiment for a day or two, but nothing came of it 'The Pig' was by no means sure of his popularity with his superiors; and there is an admirable and most trustworthy military tradition to the effect that no good officer is ever assaulted by his men.
The Fourth Royal Irish prided themselves particularly, and not without reason, on the smart and soldierlike aspect of the regiment Recruits were looked on with a jealous eye, and a gawky or loutish fellow was received with open disfavour. While we were at Cahir a couple of young fishermen from the North of Ireland joined. They came in sea-boots, pilot-cloth trousers, and knitted jerseys; and they were for a while objects of derision. I dare say one story is remembered in the regiment still. They were sent into the riding-school before they had had time to get their regimentals. It is no easy business for any unaccustomed person to mount a saddled horse without the aid of stirrups, and the young sailors in their huge sea-boots were at a double disadvantage.
'I can't get aboard this here craft nohow, Captain,' said one of them to old Barron, the riding drill. I shall never forget his expression of contempt and scorn as he saw the young men ignominiously hoisted into the saddle. At the first order to trot the fishermen hung on desperately to saddle and headstall.
'Jack,' said Barron, wrinkling his red nose in disdain, 'look out, or you'll be overboard!'
'Not me,' says Jack; 'not so long as the bloomin' riggin' holds.'
The sea-going brethren turned out very smart soldiers later on; but within a month of their arrival there came about the most hopeless specimen I can remember to have seen. His name was Sullivan, though he pronounced it Soolikan, and he was an embodiment of every awkwardness and stupidity. He was a shambling, flat-footed, weak-kneed, round-shouldered youth, and the Fourth asked with amazement how on earth the doctors had been induced to pass him. So far as I remember, he never learned anything. The various drills laboured at him like galley-slaves, but never succeeded in teaching him the difference between 'port arms' and 'carry arms.' When he had been diligently instructed in the sword exercise, he asked the sergeant what was the use of it all. 'While I was going through that,' says he, 'some bloody-minded Russian 'd be choppin' me head off.' It was his idea that a soldier was supposed to go through the sword exercise in face of the enemy; and the notion that it was simply intended to give dexterity in the use of the weapon never occurred to him.
There was never anything in the world more hopeless than the attempt to teach Soolikan to ride. Of course he was never trusted in the manege; but he tumbled about on the tan of the riding-school in an astonishing manner, breaking no bones and incurring, somehow or other, no sort of damage. Every morning the recruits led their horses into the school and mounted there, and every morning old Barron addressed his bete noire in the same words, 'Pick a soft place, Sullivan.' It was all very well so long as the ride circled at a walk at the lower end of the school But then came the order, 'Go large!' and shortly afterwards the long drawling command, 'Tr-r-o-o-o-t!'
The horses, which were old stagers and knew the words of command far better than their riders, started at the beginning of the note; and before the call had well ended the brisk impressive 'Halt!' would snap across it like a pistol-shot. 'Pick up Sullivan, somebody!' The luckless man, after more than three months' lessons, came to me one morning in triumph and told me with a broad grin, 'I didn't fall, off the day,' He was recognised from the first as incorrigible, and when he had spent but four months in the regiment he disappeared. It was darkly whispered in the barrack-rooms that he had been told to go, and that he had been bribed with a ten-pound note to desert the regiment. I dare not mention names; but I think I could lay my hand on the gallant officer who went to this expense for the credit of the corps.
I suppose the School Boards have done much within the last score of years to minimise the mass of popular ignorance; but in '65 one found here and there an amazing corner of mental darkness amongst the rank-and-file of a dandy regiment like the Fourth. There was a great hulking fellow named Gardiner, who was boasting one day that he could carry twice his own weight He was told that he could not so much as lift his own, and was persuaded into a two-handled hamper, in which he made herculean efforts to lift himself. There was another man who received with perfect gravity the chaffing statement of a comrade, to the effect that he had shot a wood-pigeon at the North Pole, and that the bird had fallen on the needle on the top of the Pole, and had frozen so hard that it was impossible to remove it.
'Ye know the song,' said the humourist, "True as the needle to the pole." There's no gettin' the needle out of the Pole, and now there's no gettin' the pigeon off the needle.'
The man for whose benefit the narrative was told smoked his pipe stolidly, and answered, 'Begorra, but it must be cold up there!'
Some of the men had odd ideas about the uses to which learning should be put. One came to me on a Sunday afternoon bearing a Bible, with a request that I would find for him and read to him all the indelicate passages. I met this proposal with so loud a negative, and heaped such invective on the head of its author, that the corporal of the room, who was smoking a tranquil pipe outside, came in to find out what was the matter, and, being satisfied, fell to beating the man about the head with a boot. From the person thus chastised I heard no more of the matter; but I learned enough from others to know that my refusal had not helped to make me popular. There was a tacit sense to the effect that I was not a friendly fellow—that I was not willing to share the results of my reading with the less favoured.
At this distance of time I can write dispassionately; but for many years I had recollections of petty tyrannies which made my blood boil. There was a lanky youth, four or five months older in the regiment than myself, who was related to one of the sergeant-majors, and who was, of course, booked by his relative for promotion. It was never, so far as I can learn, a part of army etiquette, but it was a common practice at that time, to steal the belongings of a new arrival, and in that way to eke out a deficiency in the kit of the plunderer. My valise had not been served out to me a week before it was denuded of one-half its contents, and I was reduced to a draft of one penny a day for pocket-money until such time as the depredations were made good. The sergeant-major's nephew was found in the act of pipeclaying a pair of gauntlet gloves which bore my number, and the immediate consequence of this was a stand-up fight in the riding-school in the presence of some fifty or sixty of the men and two or three officers who looked on from the gallery. I came out more than conqueror and recovered the stolen property; but the lanky young man was made lance-corporal next week, and it became part of his duty to instruct me in military exercises in which I was far more proficient than himself. It became a regular habit of his to keep me at work while the rest of the squad stood at ease, and he had a vocabulary which, though limited and unoriginal, was as offensive as can easily be conceived.
He applied to me at last so vile an epithet that, in the heat of the moment, I forgot that I had a sabre in my hand, and, hitting out straight from the shoulder, I landed him on the mouth with the guard of the weapon. This, of course, was flat mutiny, and before I knew where I was I was seized from behind, the sabre whirled in the air, and I was lying all abroad with a sprained wrist. Then I was solemnly marched to the guardroom, and there taken in charge to await an interview with the colonel in the morning.
One of the men on guard had borrowed from the regimental library a copy of Charles Reades 'It is Never too Late to Mend,' and I read that masterpiece all the afternoon and as long into the night as the waning light would allow. The guard-room bed, with its sloping board and wooden pillow, made no very luxurious sleeping-place, and I was up at daylight to finish the most absorbing and enchanting story I had ever, until then, encountered. The book retains a great portion of its old charm and power until this day for me, but at that time it shut out everything; and though, for aught I knew to the contrary, I might be sentenced to be flogged or shot, I resigned myself to the spell of the story as completely as if the future had been altogether clear. The colonel was rather dreadful when the time came, and I remember one axiom which I got from him in the first three minutes of our interview.
'Well, what have you to say for yourself?'
'The fact is, sir,' I answered, 'this man has been most abominably insolent.'
'Nonsense,' said the colonel; 'a private can be insolent to his superior; a superior cannot be insolent to a private.'
I doubt whether the gallant colonel would have felt inclined to sustain that thesis in the House of Commons, of which assembly he afterwards became a popular and honoured member; but I dare say it did very well as an orderly-room apothegm. It had to come out, however, that the newly-made lance-corporal and I had had a fight a week or so before the date of his promotion, and that I had come out uppermost. I spoke of the corporal's language, but declined to repeat it One of the squad, who was called in evidence, was less particular, and the colonel, in effect, read the young non-com, a dreadful lesson and committed me to cells for ten days, giving orders that I was not to be disgraced—by which was meant that I was not to receive the prison crop which is made to mark the ordinary turbulent soldier. From that time care was taken that the lanky youth no longer had me in charge; but we used to scowl at each other when we passed, and for a year or two after my return to civil life I cherished a warm hope that I might meet him and repeat in his society the exercise I had so sweetly relished in the riding-school.
After this episode the crowd was down upon me. It was felt that I had triumphed, and it was felt that no recruit had a right to triumph over any officer, however young or however lowly placed. Even a lance-corporal must be respected, or it was clear that the service was going to the devil. A brace of sergeants, with whom I had been none too much of a favourite already, laid themselves out to get me into trouble, and the plan they adopted was delightfully simple and easy. It is the rule on retiring from the manege to make the grooming of one's horse the first duty, though an old soldier will take the precaution on wet or muddy days to run an oily rag rapidly over the burnished portions of the horse's fittings in the first instance. This is a labour-saving practice and is almost universally followed. But I saw one of my enemies with a sidelong eye upon me, and tackled my horse at once. In two minutes his confederate was round.
'What the ——' (any competent person who knows barrack life can fill in the blank) 'do you mean by letting your bridoon and stirrup-irons lie rusting here? Put 'em in oil at once.'
Number Two, having delivered this order, went away, clothed with curses as with a garment, and back came Number One.
'Now, what the —— (break to be filled as before, for these people have no sense of style or invention) 'do you mean by leaving your horse to stand and shiver in that beastly lather? A nice bargain the Queen made when she gave a bob for you!'
This form of insult is traditional, but at first hearing it has power to gall. The discovery that it is no more than a formula takes off its edge. Back to the horse, to be again assailed by Number Two for not having obeyed the order about the bridoon and stirrup-irons. Back to them, and then the last scene in the comedy, in which, under a charge of neglecting to groom my horse in spite of repeated warnings, I was marched straight to the orderly-room, there to appear before the colonel.
I boiled over in his presence and denounced the little conspiracy. The colonel was something of a martinet, but he was justice incarnate. Witnesses were called from the stable; my story was made good; and as I stood in the ante-room adjusting my forage-cap I heard the beginning of a tongue-walking which those non-commissioned officers were not likely to forget.
'If you dare to bully my recruits again,' said the colonel, 'I'll break the pair of you. I won't have my recruits bullied.'
I smiled at this; but I was not allowed to enjoy a further triumph. The orderly sergeant wrathfully ordered me away, and I went back to my duty. From that hour any question of comfort in the regiment was, of course, over, and it would take a volume to tell the history of the shifts and dodges which made life unbearable; though, of course, that history would be worth neither the writing nor the reading. Most of the officers were invariably kind and considerate; but there was one whom I never forgave until I learned, years afterwards, that he was dead. It was my habit to think and believe of him that he was the stupidest person that ever sat upon the magisterial bench in any capacity, civil or military. A wider experience of the world has modified that opinion, but he deserves a place in this record for all that.
He was a pale-faced man, with a slight lisp; and the men despised him because he had not the nerve even to handle them on church parade without priming himself beforehand. I had been vaccinated by virtue of a general order, and in a while my arm became swollen and very painful. I stuck to duty as long as I could, and at last presented myself on hospital parade to ask to be excused. The doctor, for some reason, was absent, and, failing his order, I was compelled to join the ride in the manege. It was a beastly morning, and the field was a mere bog. We were splashed to the very buttons of our forage-caps, and the horses were loaded with mud to the flaps of the saddles. I was tired and faint enough before the ride was over, but my poor beast had to be groomed on the return to stables, and I must needs set to work upon him. It was all no good. I might as well have tried to carry him as to groom him, and I represented my case to a non-commissioned officer, who straightway ran me in. I passed the night in the guardroom, chilled and wet, and now and then light-headed. Had I been at head-quarters the colonel would undoubtedly have sent me to the infirmary, which was the proper place for me. The lisping captain sent me to the cells.
'Ma-an,' he said, in a drawl which half the regiment used to loathe and imitate, 'what have you to tha-ay?'
I explained my case, and whilst I did so he read something which lay on the table before him. When I had done he said, with his finicking lisp, 'Seven days' cells, hard labour.' The old regimental sergeant happened to be there, and for an instant arrested judgment.
'I beg your pardon, sir, the man is really unfit to perform hard labour.'
'Then,' said the Solon, 'in that case let him have forty-eight hours' solitary confinement.'
I ventured as respectfully as I could to protest. I represented that it was hardly just to punish a man for not performing a heavy physical task whilst admitting in the very terms of the sentence that he was unfit to do it. The answer was, 'Right about face, march!' I went to cells. I had my hair cut, and I spent thirty-six delirious hours alone. At the end of that time my condition was reported and I was removed; but from that hour I was sullen and rebellious, and whatever spirit of order and discipline might have lived in me until then vanished completely.
Only four years ago, on a very memorable occasion in my life, I sat side by side with one of my old officers. He assured me, with every appearance of gravity, that if I had stayed much longer I should have disintegrated the regiment. I was sure, on the other hand, that the regiment would have disintegrated me; and though I was smart enough and willing enough to have made a good soldier at the beginning, I was too angry at stupidity and injustice to care to please anybody any longer. I knew one man who, having been gently nurtured, found himself suddenly thrown upon his own resources. He enlisted with a full determination to rise. When I last heard of him, years ago, he held brevet rank in another regiment; but I know what slights he endured, to what numberless insults he submitted, and how harsh and cruel the pathway to success was made for him at the beginning. They tell me things are better now, and I hope with all my heart they may be. As I knew the ranks they were made well-nigh intolerable for any well-educated youngster who showed a disposition to get on.
Thousands of people remember the excitement created five or six years ago by the story of the Missing Journalist. Scores still cherish the memory of poor MacNeill and think of him as amongst the cheeriest, friendliest, and most helpful of men. He was a delightful fellow and a good fellow; but he had a certain boisterous exaggeration of manner which sometimes made his friends laugh at him. So far as I know, he neither had nor deserved an enemy through all his effusive, genial, and blameless life.
He burst into the Savage Club one day when I happened to be there alone. He was unusually radiant and assured, and 'At last, at last,' he said, 'I've got my foot on the neck of this big London!' The triumphant phrase set me thinking at the moment, and has often recalled to me since, the time when this big London had its foot on me: a thing of the two which I am afraid is the much more likely to happen in the experience of any young aspirant to literary honours when he has neither friends nor money to back him, and no reputation to begin with.
I came to London just after the opening of the Parliamentary session of 1872, at a time when every nook and corner of the journalistic work-room was filled, and when the doors were besieged, as they always are at such a season, by scores of outsiders eager for a turn at the good things going. I forget now precisely how it came about, but I went to live at a frowsy caravanserai in Bouverie Street, an astonishingly dirty and disreputable hotel called the 'Sussex.' It is down now, and its site is occupied by the extended offices of the Daily News; but in its day it was the home of as much shabby gentility as could be found under any one roof in London. Beds were to be had there at threepence and sixpence. I remember no arrangement for meals, and certainly never troubled the establishment in that way myself. The linen had a look of having been washed in pea-soup and dried in a chimney, and the whole aspect of the house and its clientele was wo-begone and neglected to the last extreme. Paper and pen and ink are cheap enough, and I used to sit all day long in my bedroom, fireless in the winter weather, wrapped up in an ulster and with a counterpane about my knees, writing for bare life. I wrote verses grave and gay, special articles, leading articles, and leaderettes. These were delivered at all manner of likely and unlikely places, and came back again, like the curses and the chickens and the bad penny in the proverbs.
I lived for weeks on hard-rinded rolls and thick chocolate, procured at an Italian restaurant on the opposite side of Fleet Street, and found myself admirably healthy on that simple diet. I wrote now and then to friends in the country, disguising my estate, and telling them what I was working at without hinting what became of the work when it was finished. One of my correspondents remonstrated with me for taking up my quarters in a hotel in that part of London, and advised me to try cheaper lodgings. Until I had something regular to rely upon, I was told, it was absurd to launch into an extravagance of that sort. I have often had to think how many hundreds of men, better equipped for the intellectual arena than I was, as plucky, as determined, and as full of hope, have gone down in the lonely and bitter sea of poverty in which I floated in those days. My breakfast expenditure of threepence, with a halfpenny to the waiter, secured me a look at the daily papers, and every morning I went back to that beastly bedroom to write at my dressing-table in denunciation of the Ministry, or to hold up to public contumely some unpaid justice of the peace who had given a hungry labourer six months for stealing twopenny-worth of turnips. I redressed countless wrongs on paper in that draughty garret; but nothing came of it There is no use in being too minute in narrating the history of that time. It was bad enough to begin with, and grew at last to be about as bad as it could be. That obliging uncle, who becomes your aunt when you cross the Channel, was useful for a time. But at last there was nothing more for him to take or for me to offer, and I was alone in London with a vengeance.
Thousands of well-to-do people endure privation and discomfort every year for the pure pleasure of it. In my campaigning days I lived on black bread and onions and dirty water for seven weeks, and topped up that agreeable record with four days' absolute starvation, But I had a pocketful of money, though there was nothing to be bought with it, and I had staunch comrades, and we were marching on with the certainty of plenty before us. It was all endured easily enough, and now and then there were outbursts of rollicking jocundity in spite of it The mere physical suffering of privation is not a thousandth part of its pain. The sense of loneliness, of defeat, of unmerited neglect; the blind rebellion against the inequality with which the world's chances are distributed; the impotent sense of power which finds no outlet—these are the things which make poverty bitter. But there was nothing else for it, and I took up la vie en plein air.
My favourite chamber in the Hotel of the Beautiful Star during the hours of darkness was the Thames Embankment. I have passed many years in London since then, and must have heard the boom of Big Ben and the monotonous musical chime which precedes it many thousands of times. They have rarely greeted a conscious ear without bringing back a memory of the stealing river (all dull shine and deep shadow), the lights on the spanning bridges, the dim murmur of distant traffic, the shot-tower glooming up against the sky, the bude-light flaring from the tower of the Palace of Parliament, the sordid homeless folks huddled together on the benches, the solemn tramp of the peeler, and the flash of the bullseye light that awoke the chilled and stiffened sleepers. There is a certain odour of Thames Embankment which I should recognise anywhere. I have encountered it often, and it brings back the scene as suddenly and as vividly as the chimes themselves.
There is plenty of elbow-room in the Hotel de la Belle Etoile, and there is water enough; but in other respects the provision it offers is scanty and comfortless. I spent four days and nights in it, and was on the borders of despair, when what looked like a mere chance saved me. Suppose I had not walked down Fleet Street; suppose I had not stopped to look at the little cork balls in Lipscombe's window, so mournfully emblematic of my own condition; suppose that the unsuspected good-hearted friend had not come by and clapped me on the shoulder, what would have happened? Quien sabe? These are the narrow chances of life which give one pause sometimes. He came, however, the unsuspected helpful friend.
It was John Lovel, then manager of the Press Association. I have since had reason to believe that he deliberately deceived me from the first moment of our encounter, and that later in the day he was guilty of a plagiarism. If deceit were always as kindly and guileless, lying would grow to be the chief of human virtues; and if plagiarism always covered a jest so generous, the plagiarist would be amongst the most popular men alive.
Was I busy? he asked. Was I too busy to undertake for him a very pressing piece of work he had on hand? I made an effort not to seem quite overborne, and told him that I was entirely at his service. He said (I suppose it was the first thing he could think of) that to-morrow was the anniversary of the birthday of Christopher Columbus. He wanted an article about that event for a country paper and had no time to write it He wanted no dates, no historic facts, but simply—'a good, rattling, tarry-breeches, sea-salt column.' The pay was a couple of guineas; and if I could so far oblige him as to let him have the article that morning, he could make it money down.
I wrote the article in the reporters' room at the P.A. and sent it in to the chief. In return I received a pill-box, on the top of which was written, 'The prescription to be taken immediately.' I found within the pillbox two sovereigns and two shillings wrapped in cotton-wool, and I went my way to a square meal with the first money I had ever earned in London. I found out afterwards that the date was nowhere near that of Christopher Columbus's birthday; and, so far as I know, the article I had written was never used. I was telling the story years afterwards, and somebody informed me that the prescription on top of the pill-box was Thackeray's. I was quite content to discover that, and I don't think poor Lovel would have minded it either. He paid the debt of nature some time ago, and when he left this world had the memory of more than one good deed to sweeten his parting moments.
I went back to that gruesome hostelry and wrote an article on 'Impecunious Life in London.' It appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine, then published by Messrs. Grant & Co. and under the editorship of my old friend Richard Gowing. The article was not far from being autobiographical. I think—but I am not quite sure—that I got sixteen guineas for it. I know that it set me on my feet, and that since then any acquaintance I may have had with the Thames Embankment has been purely voluntary.
Poverty makes a man acquainted with strange bedfellows; and I made one or two queer acquaintances on the Thames Embankment and acquired a taste for vagabondising about among the poor which lasted a year or two and has proved to be of no small service since. Slumming had not become a fashion at that time of day; but I have never aimed at being in the fashion, and I did a good deal of it. Through Archibald Forbes's kind offices, I found an introduction to the World journal, and, at Edmund Yates's instigation, wrote a series of articles therein under the title of 'Our Civilisation,' picking up all the quaint and picturesque odds and ends of humanity I could find in London.
I met many people whom it was very difficult to describe and impossible to caricature. Amongst them was a street artist who lived in Gee's Court, off Oxford Street—a worthless, drunken, and pretentious scoundrel, who seriously believed himself to be the most neglected man of genius in London. I employed him to repeat what he called his chief de hover on cardboard, and paid him half a crown for it. He called this work 'The Guard Ship Attacked.' It represented a Dead Sea of Reckitt's Blue with two impossible ships wedged tightly into it, each broadside on to the spectator. From the port-holes of each issued little streaks of vermilion, and puffs of smoke like pills. The artist gloated over this work, and was ready to resent criticism of it like another Pietro Vanucci. He told me he was unappreciated; that he was a man of the supremest talent, and was kept out of the great theatres, where he could have shone as a scene-painter, by nothing but the pettiest and shabbiest jealousies. I don't know where he had picked up the phrase, but he had something to say about the dissipation of the grey matter of the brain, and he returned to it fondly as long as I would allow him to talk to me. His artistic labours and his art invention were dissipating the grey matter of his brain. All he asked for was a fair field and no favour. If I would give him three pound ten he could buy an easel, a canvas, and a set of painting tools, and would at once proceed to show the Royal Academy what was what I was well to do by this time, but yet not quite wealthy enough to venture on such an experiment. The most amusing thing this vagabond said was when he found in my room the painting materials and sketches of an artistic friend of mine with whom I was chumming at the time. His nose wrinkled with an infinite disdain as he turned the sketches over, and he said, with a delightful air of patronage, 'I see, I see. A brother of the brush.' He brought with him on his journey from Gee's Court to the north of London an incredible ghoul of a man, a creature whose face was muffled in a huge beard alive with vermin. He, it seemed, was another neglected man of genius; but I declined to be introduced to him. I looked up the artist's address, however, and got to know his neighbourhood pretty well. Boulter's Rents, in my first novel, 'A Life's Atonement,' were drawn from Gee's Court.
I thought the picture rather like at the time, within limits; but I never had the heart—or the stomach—to be a realist. Feebly as I dared to paint it, I had to re-form it in fancy before the book was finished. The original horror stands there, pretty much unreformed; though I dare say its walls get a coat or two more whitewash than they did when I was intimate with them.
I have kept for this place in a rambling record a story which might have been told in my last paper. When I left the barracks of Ballincollig and said good-bye to her Majesty's service, I had an encounter with one of my non-commissioned enemies. I had my leave of absence in my pocket, and my discharge was to follow me by post I was in civilian dress and was smoking a cigar at the barrack gates. My enemy saluted before he had had time to recognise me, and then, seeing to whom he had done this homage, stood abashed at himself for a minute and then exploded. He could think of nothing better to say than to order me to put out my cigar. I refused to obey, for I was yards beyond the magazine limit, within which it was, of course, forbidden to smoke, and I gave that sergeant a piece of my mind. One is a good deal more vehement at nineteen than one grows to be when creeping on towards the fifties, and I made my sergeant a dreadful promise. I told him that he had acted like an unmitigated brute to me, and I undertook, if ever I should meet him in civil life, to inflict upon him a chastisement which should repay us both amply. I never met him again for thirteen years, and I was slumming when I ran against him. He was acting as commissionaire at a big manufacturing place in the East End, and when I accosted him he had no idea of my identity. I wore a beard and had taken to wearing spectacles, and, if ever I had looked warlike, had lost that aspect long ago. I asked him if he were Sergeant ——. He admitted that at once. He had served in the Fourth Royal Irish?
'Seventeen years, sir; but I don't remember you.'
He had been quartered at Cahir, I reminded him, in the year '65, and in '66 at Ballincollig. He admitted that quite willingly and seemed interested. Did he remember a recruit who was nicknamed 'Oxford?' He thought he remembered that recruit, and paled visibly. He was not the stalwart fellow he had been, but looked bowed down as if by a premature old age. I asked him why he had left his regiment.
'Hernia, sir; hernia and pulmonary consumption,'
I had promised this man a hiding thirteen years ago, and thirteen years ago I am persuaded he had richly merited it, and am quite sure it would have done him good. It is very likely that at that time I might have been unable to give it him; but now, between a florid manhood on my side and hernia and pulmonary consumption on his, the task should have been easy. But the events of '65-66 looked a long way off in '78; and somehow it seemed hardly worth while to reveal one's identity. So the sergeant got half a crown and was left with a bit of a puzzle to occupy his leisure moments.
I have seen a good deal of the working of the English Poor-law, and have learned to have some decisive opinions about it It has always seemed to me, since I had any acquaintance with it at all, that it might have been constructed on purpose to restrict the free action of honest labour and to set a premium on idle vagabondage. I determined, fourteen or fifteen years ago, to put the system to a test in my own person, and for my own sake to start with the odds in favour of the institution. My belief was, and is, that no law-abiding man could travel in search of work through England under the provisions of the Poor-law without danger to health and even life, whilst any worthless and shiftless idler can by its provisions eke out a tolerably comfortable subsistence.
I got me a shabby suit of clothes, sent a portmanteau to the place where I intended to end my journey, and, posting a ten-pound note in advance, carried a money order for that sum in the lining of my hat. Thus provisioned, and with a shilling in my pocket, I started to walk towards the money. I was David Vane, compositor, and it was my object to see if David, with the best will in the world, could live under Poor-law provisions without bringing himself into the mesh of the policeman's net I gave him seven weeks of it, and walked over half the south, midland, and western counties; giving him an occasional rest in a cheap lodging-house when workhouse fare had come to be too much for him.
When; I came to a town where my money lay at a post-office, I drew a shilling or two and sent the bulk on further; but during the whole seven weeks I only trespassed on my hoard to the extent of fifty shillings. Without that hoard, or without a breach of the law, my imaginary compositor would surely have died. I see now and again in the newspapers a sporadic correspondence about the treatment of men on tramp, about the food supplied them, the hours of their imprisonment, and the amount of labour they are compelled to perform. I notice that chairmen of boards of guardians are quite satisfied with the existing condition of things. I encounter, in the newspapers, gentlemen who have tasted workhouse skilly and soup, and who like it, and consider it well made and nourishing. I meet others who account the sleeping accommodation good, the bread excellent, and the labour demanded no more than reasonably adequate. I should ask nothing better than to see these easily contented gentlemen each enjoying a seventh part of my personal experience.
I may say at once that my notes of this journey were destroyed years ago, and that I cannot tell with absolute certainty in what places certain things happened. My experiences were challenged at the time, and the challengers got little good by their denial of my statements. I had hoped that my Quixotic enterprise might have some good result, but the absurd old system has undergone no alteration.
It was in a green lane in Oxfordshire that I came across my first travelling companion. He was a man of about sixty, a decent-looking old fellow, and, as I found out when I got into talk with him, by trade a tailor. He had stopped to bathe his feet in a little brook spanned by a single arch of mossy brickwork, and whilst he cooled his feet in the stream he rubbed his cotton socks with a bit of yellow soap the size of half a crown. He was civil and ready to talk; but he was very downhearted, He showed me his fingers, the tips of which were raw and smeared with tar.
'That's this mornings work,' he said. He named the workhouse he had stayed in. 'That's put me off earning a living for a good week to come. A man can't sew whilst his fingers is in this state. Stone breaking's bad enough; but when it comes to oakum-picking it's all up with work for one while. There was another chap there last night,' he went on, as I should take to be worse off than me. He's a watchmaker. Dressed very nice and tidy he was, and got a job to go to in the town this morning. He begged hard to be let off, and offered to pay for his night's lodgings if they'd let him. They kep' him to it, hows'ever, and he did his work, 'wouldn't ha' done it,' he concluded. 'I'd ha' gone afore the Bench first; though that ain't mostly any good in these 'ere country places.'
This disclosure interested me, for I myself belonged provisionally to one of the light-fingered professions. It would be about as easy for a compositor to earn a living fresh from oakum-picking as for a tailor or a watchmaker; and I determined, if that task were set before me, to plead my trade and see what came of it I had no longer to wait than next morning; but when the work was given out it looked to my ignorant eye so inconsiderable that I forbore to make any complaint about it. A piece of old tarred rope, six or seven inches long and an inch and a half in diameter, had to be picked into fine oakum between seven o'clock in the morning and eleven. The business looked anything but formidable, and I began upon it with a light heart.
The accustomed men began by hammering the ends of their strands upon the stone floor, and I followed their example, and, having secured a hold for the finger-tips, went ahead with the work. I may say that until a man of delicate fingers has tried this occupation he can have no idea of the long-drawn and exasperating misery of it. It is no use to be impatient, for in attempting to go too fast you succeed only in skinning your thumb and fingers. The only chance is patience, and that is not an easy thing. The old stagers, who had had years of it, got along quite comfortably, and were thankful that they were not stone-breaking. The new men swore and grumbled and flayed their fingers. The result of my own experience was that David Vane, compositor, was put beyond the chance of earning a living at his legitimate trade for a good fortnight The accommodation paid for by the labour consisted, all told, in one hunk of dry bread—weight, I should say, about four ounces; one pint of stirabout made of Indian meal and flavoured with soot; and a particularly dirty and uninviting bed. Having bestowed these benefactions on the harmless workman, the British Poor-law in return insists that he shall become a hopeless pauper by stealing from him his handicraft.
I tried stone-breaking pretty often later in the course of my tramp, and found it a much less painful occupation. The handling of cricket-bat and sculls hardens the palm of the hand whilst it leaves the tips of the fingers unprotected. But though at the time of my excursion I was fresh from life on the river, it took me some time to get inured to this new occupation, and stone-breaking alone would, of course, unfit for his work any man who needed lightness and steadiness of hand. Work and accommodation varied very widely. In one or two places we got good bread at night, good broth in the morning, and a bed to sleep in which, as I suppose, the average tramp would find almost luxurious. The bedclothes were coarse, as they had a perfect right to be, but they were clean; and the food, though scanty and of the plainest, was wholesome and nourishing. In one place, I remember, the bread actually stank, and the hungriest of the hungry crowd left it uneaten. The broth served out next morning was nothing more or less than the water in which bacon had been boiled. The beds were kennels. A long wooden bench was divided into compartments by upright boards; a quantity of dirty straw which might, by the look of it, have served already in a stable was spread in each recess, and was covered with foul sacks which bore the name of a local miller. Several of these sacks, cut open and stitched together, served for a counterpane.
'I'd 'eard about this place,' said my neighbour when the able-bodied pauper who superintended us had trooped us into this abominable chamber, 'and I'd a dam good mind to smash a lamp or summat and get run in instead o' comin' here. If I'd ha' knowed the truth about it, I'd ha' done it.'
This was the worst, and by far the worst, of the places I encountered. Indeed, I met nothing else comparable to it. I made a trifling error in my description of it at the time. By a slip of the pen I represented the shed in which the casual paupers were accommodated as being a lean-to against the body of the workhouse, whereas it was in fact a lean-to against the outer wall of the workhouse grounds. This was enough in the minds of the guardians to justify them in denouncing me, through their chairman, as a liar, and was held to be triumphant proof that I had never been there, though I proved 'David Vane, compositor,' upon their books and upon those of the two neighbouring workhouses.
In some country places we went straight to the relieving officer, who gave us our tickets for the night. In other places of more considerable population we were allowed to lounge about the outside of the police station until the hour appointed for distribution. Once inside the workhouse, we were prisoners until at least eleven o'clock next morning whether the tale of stones were broken or no, or the strands of rope were or were not reduced to oakum. In default, men were occasionally detained to be taken before the Bench; but what became of them I never had an opportunity of learning apart from the experiences of my travelling companions, who estimated the punishment at seven or fourteen days. A good many of these had gaol experiences, and I am forced to admit that the decent folk on tramp were few in number. But the occasional honest mechanic or skilled workman in search of employment was hard bestead.
I met two journeymen printers, one of whom, having threepence for a bed outside the workhouse, was able to find employment in the town of Gloucester; whilst the other, being unable to get away from durance before eleven, was left out in the cold. I met other men who, in order to escape this absurd imprisonment, slept in the fields, and so risked liberty on the other side rather than miss the early labour market; for to sleep in the fields is a misdemeanour punishable at law: though why it should be so, if nothing else be provable against a man, Heaven only knows. In the language of the road, to sleep in the open is to 'skipper' and to sleep in the workhouse is to go 'on the spike.' It was a common question in fine weather, 'Skipper or spike to-night?' The habitual loafer invariably chose the spike. The man who had business and wanted to get along elected to skipper, though he lost two meals thereby.
The law, which ruins the hands of the skilled workman, and detains skilled and unskilled alike until the labour market is closed to them, supplies a dietary which would kill anybody but a professional fasting-man in a month, and keeps a keen eye on mendicancy. It is like the sun, with a difference: it looks alike on the just and the unjust The mischief is, it is made for the comfort of the worthless and is the plague of the deserving. There are easy-going boards of guardians, easy-going workhouse masters and labour masters, who do not insist upon the tale of work which is demanded by others. The old stagers know the easy places and give them a natural preference.
The one place of terror on the line I took was Gloucester. The guardians of the Gloucester Union had made up their minds to put down the casual pauper, and, as the means readiest to hand, they determined to make the work too hard for him. I was so persistently warned against Gloucester that I went there to see for myself what it was like. The house itself was orderly and clean, and the discipline as complete as in a gaol. The only thing which distinguished it from other places of its kind was the severity of the labour imposed.
The limits of labour are fixed by law. There is such and such a weight of oakum to be picked, or such a weight of stone to be broken; but the good guardians of Gloucester, without in the least infringing the provisions of the Poor Law Board, made the work twice as severe as it was in other houses than their own. Before every casual pauper was placed the regulation quantity of stone—it was the hardest I tackled on my pilgrimage—and beyond the morning's stint was set a screen through which every atom of the stone had to be passed before the job was finished and the wanderer was allowed out upon his way again. It was no business of mine to be refractory, and I hammered away with such zeal as I could command; but it took me six hours to get through the tale of work. When I had earned my own discharge I left a handful of unfortunates behind me who had theirs yet to finish. They were all unaccustomed and inexperienced, or they would not have been at Gloucester. Whether that charming western city keeps up its reputation until now I do not know; but the guardians found their system succeed so well that they have probably adhered to it I had forgotten to mention one fact which is common to all workhouses. The casual tramp breakfasts when he has done his work, but not before.
Discerning private critics of my novels have noticed how much capital I have made of this odd adventure. In 'A Life's Atonement' Frank Fairholt goes on tramp, seeking to efface himself amidst the offscourings of the poor after an accidental deed of homicide, In 'Joseph's Coat' Young George goes on tramp, slinking from casual ward to casual ward until he meets Ethel Donne at Wreath-dale. In 'Val Strange' Hiram Search on tramp opens the story; and it was by way of spike and skipper that John Jones, of Seven Dials, brought fortune to his sweetheart in 'Skeleton Keys,' I fully admit the impeachment, and, indeed, I am not indisposed to brag about it. Perhaps few writers of fiction have gone as close to nature for their facts.
I met more queer people and found more queer adventures on that tramp than I have ever been able to find a literary use for. One amazing vagabond with a moustache announced himself to me, when I had found a way into his confidence, as a professional deserter. He had enlisted in every militia regiment in the country and in half the regiments of the line. When he had secured the first instalment of his bounty he made a bolt of it, and, by way of securing safety, took immediate refuge in the next military depot. I understood that he had pledged himself to serve her Majesty for a period of something like a thousand years. Wherever I had the chance to test him I found him a most enterprising liar, and I dare say he exaggerated a little here. I asked him what trade he followed or professed between whiles. The rascal grinned with a delightful cunning and said he was a hand comb-maker.
'The trade's dead,' he told me; 'machinery's knocked the bottom out of it. There's only one shop in England where they makes combs by 'and nowadays, and you can bet as I steers clear o' that. It's a lovely lay to go on, matey. "The trade's ruined," you says, "by machinery," you says. "I was brought up to it for a livin'," says you, "an' it's the only thing," you says, "as I've got to yearn my daily bread by the sweat of my brow by," you says. Lord! I've had as much as ninepence in a day out o' that yarn on the very road as we're a travellin' now.'
I had a qualm of conscience; but his artless tale was told, as it were, under the seal of confession, and I never betrayed him.
It was at least as agreeable to starve on the non-proceeds of landscape painting as on those of journalism, and when nothing in the way of meat and drink was to be got out of either, it was only a choice as to the form of euthanasia. I guessed I could make no money out of painting; but I knew by practical experience that there was nothing to be made by journalism.
I was daubing in a friend's chambers when the angel of opportunity came. He appeared in the form of an American gentleman with a fur collar and an astonishing Massachusetts accent. War had been actually declared between Russia and Turkey a week or two before. The Russians were already at Giurgevo, building a bridge of boats with intent to cross the Danube, and the Turks were gathered in force at Rustchuk and Schumla. So much I knew from I the newspapers, but no further intelligence of the opening campaign had reached me.
My visitors card announced him as Colonel ———, and he bore a letter of introduction from the representative of a leading New York journal. He was himself in London as the representative of a newspaper published in Chicago, and in the course of a five minutes' conversation he told me that he was in search of a young, healthy, and enterprising journalist who was willing to risk his life for the honour of his craft, and a rather considerable sum per column for copy delivered at the office of the newspaper of which he made himself the flying herald, The only engagement I had in the world was to breakfast with a man on Sunday morning, and that I waived instantly. An immediate 40L. was put into my hands; an arrangement was made that on calling at the American Embassy at Vienna I should receive more, and that at the bank at Constantinople I should find a sum of two hundred sterling on arrival. With this understanding I started for the seat of war at seven o'clock on the following morning, and in due course found myself at Vienna. There I tried, in pursuance of instructions, for an interview with the Turkish Ambassador, who steadfastly declined to see me. I made certain necessary preparations, and called at the bank half a dozen times over. There was no hint or sign of my Chicago friend; and possibly if I had been more experienced than I was I might have at once taken warning and returned home. As things were at the time no such idea entered my head; and when, after a delay of two days, half the promised money reached me, I took ticket gladly for Trieste, and embarked on a Messageries Maritimes boat for Constantinople.