Indianapolis, New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., Copyright 1953, by H. M. Tomlinson, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 53-6137. Printed in the U.S.A.
--HMT portrait from a drawing by Irene Hawkins
A Mingled Yarn
ONE day, at the beginning of my liberty in the editorial rooms of a daily newspaper, the chief leader writer met me on the stairs, and stopped me. This was an honour. He was a small but lofty person, and of Oxford; and I was still uneasy, feeling the vagrancy of an intruder. "Aren't you H.M.T.? Tell me. I want to be sure I am right. You had a classical education?"
For a moment I was shy, not to say weak, and would have evaded this, but faced him, I hope cheerfully. My education classical? Far from it. He was mistaken. My education was much of chance and change, sporadic and with gaps too wide to conceal, and it came of very unclassical circumstance. What he then said is of no interest here, but his address after that was familiar, and my awe of Balliol changed to confidence and respect.
I told him I had assumed that my predilections had given me away; and that no one should have to be told the distance of Athens and Rome, in time and space, from the Tower Hamlets. Mine was not the Isis, but Blackwall Reach. For my boyish prospect, instead of the old towers of a seat of learning--and in moments of melancholy, after I knew more, especially of the way favours went, I have regretted it--was of topmasts above a dock wall. I did not think them oppressive. They were attractive topmasts, with their house-flags, and the wall itself was a relic of the East India Company, of which I had heard. My maternal grandmother was a daughter of one of its officers, and she eloped from her father's house in Naval Row, Blackwall, to marry a gunner in the Navy, an act thought to be a distressing fall. The table-talk I overheard was, for the most part, not of the things of the mind, but of sea commerce, its polity, methods, rewards, and accidents. The ebb and flow of London River kept all our friends and neighbours meeting its exactions in some way or other, bringing some home again from the foreign at high water, and as the flow turned seaward, taking others away for we seldom knew where, perhaps for years.
Our parish had, for enquiring eyes, some things that were good to look at. In a blind alley near the High Street, Speeding's Gardens, was a row of cottages. And the gardens were there (were there, but are not). I was in them before I could name a flower. Grape vines, with numerous bunches pendant, covered the fronts of all the little houses, and my father's mother filled a cask with the red wine she made each year. Grandfather made the cask for her. He was a cooper. And down our way there were not only ordinary things but excitement. Wonder itself might seize a child. Poplar then was not far from the countryside. If you were small, and holding the hand of a smaller brother among the beeches of Epping Forest, and fancied you were lost, there was a chance to note the immensity of trees, the loss of the sky, the closed vistas, and the silence. Father was hidden by one of the trees, observing how we would act when baffled. Cornfields and cattle were no more strange than the hillocks of coconuts and hogsheads of sugar on the quays of the docks. A striking token of earth's bounty was in the pools of treacle on the flagstones, fed by stove casks. That was an astonishing sight; honey, too, puddles of it, disregarded, wealth abandoned. However restricted the streets of home might be, it seemed as if the world, in which such generous waste could be seen, must be free, careless, and abundant. Nothing was mean about it, except that you were forbidden to touch what it had thrown away.
A tavern was not far away, the Sir John Franklin. Who was he? This we were told, and that his ships had sailed from our river to find a passage by the north-west to Asia, and had never come back. We were prompted to peer distantly into the silent region that held the secret of Franklin and his men. One day, father told us, he had seen two musk oxen walk ashore from a ship out of the Arctic, and he described the fabulous creatures, and the white land in which they were found, in grim humour; for Poplar, we had to know, was more pleasantly situated. The West India Dock was where he worked, wearing a coloured band around his bowler hat to distinguish his rank. His weekly wage by today's standard would not satisfy the keeper of a dogs' home for the brief care of a nice greyhound. He was a small and delicate man, easily moved to laughter, with an inclination to studies he was unable to pursue as he desired; and, as he was excessively conscientious, his work did not take long to kill him.
There was often an occasion to walk the quays of the local docks. In those days you were free to come and go there, unless, when departing, you had bulky pockets. In the South Dock the ships were alongside jetties, and you walked under an arcade of bowsprits, and here and there one had a finial of a shark's tail. Nearly all the ships then were sailing craft, and their men were known to us. A story of strange adventure would come across the table as casually as the gossip of the street. The barque of one man, bound from Hudson's Bay to Poplar, had been caught by early ice, and we heard what it was to be beset, and to drift through an Arctic night till the sun came again to release her. That story was taken with what Hans Andersen had to say. The extent and variety of the earth, and its chanciness, were as ordinary to a dockland child as marbles.
It was in the ordinary way of affairs in our parish that the son of a neighbour, next door but one from us, left Blackwall in a barque for San Francisco; thus remarkable was his good luck so early. She was silent too long, sighted by no other ship, and first was "overdue," and then "missing." That was understood and accepted. In rounding Cape Horn, most likely, for that year the winter season far south was of the sort frequently described as the worst in living memory, she had been overwhelmed. It was not unheard of. Many ships and barques, we were told, had been driven back to the Falklands and the River Plate. Then news came that she had been sighted in the Pacific, and in bad shape. Somewhat later, Lloyd's List told us that, after repairs, she had left San Francisco for home. Six months of further silence followed, and she was "posted" again. There was whispering about her, to the effect that she had a bit of a gibbet post built into her somewhere. Again she was sighted, like a ghost ship, this time off the west coast of Ireland, out of provisions, and her men littered about her, helpless through scurvy. Our neighbour's son, wan after a spell in hospital, and unable to suppress all signs of his importance, told me, in a dry way--for now he was a full man compared with such as I was--the order of events in a ship built in the dark of the moon. I went indoors to think this over. Some day, I thought, I, even I...
Something of first importance in East End life, in the years around 1880, I took in while satisfied with the certainty that all the world invited discovery; it was the lesson that a fellow must either swim, and keep it up full stroke without pause against the stream, or sink. This, I understood, was what you must face, though you might not have the strength for it. It was not impossible, however, if it was not easy. Some got through, and others did not. It was not invariably enjoyable, for the elements did not care what happened to you. And there was no alternative. No help was in sight, wherever you looked, unless safely buoyed up; and in those days I knew of no one, except in books, as fortunate as that. There was, in the latter end, only the Workhouse, a thought so shocking that it was almost bracing. To most of the people in that place it was the last refuge, this side the grave, for such as they were, when down and out, and it was worse, much worse, than the threat of death. Failure we knew, for it was common, then as now, yet one could try again, if alive after downfall; but that other was the penalty for failure absolute, hope gone. It was life's brand of shame, often inflicted on the worthy. Most young people of to-day will not have heard of a threat so dire brooding over London's poorer streets of not so long ago.
Perhaps that is the reason why to me the most singular character of that place of childhood was one as barely perceived as that of Father Time himself, a very spectre after sunset, with an admonition: the nightwatchman. He came to a corner of our street, and chanted aloud into the evening shadows, out of the soul of all things as it sounded to one boy, and does now in my eightieth year, "Par-r-st--nine-o-clock." He ended on a falling note, and was gone. If you had to meet an inexorable tide, you engaged him to give three warning knocks on your door. I can still hear him.
It was his voice, faintly echoing from walls I shall never see again, for the street in which I heard him has gone, that moved me to sort out the mingled yarn for this book. It seemed to be getting late. If one has been inattentive to the passing hours, then the warning comes to startle, is hardly believable, yet there is no help in being deaf to it. One should look round for what remains to be done, if only to satisfy a private notion of tidiness with oddments. Included here, then, are pieces chosen from Out of Soundings, and a little from Gifts of Fortune, books that lapsed beyond revival with the bombing of London. I have a sentimental concern for them because in them I have tried to reflect the light of earth as it was to this witness in intimate moments. There are also pages of more recent years, unpublished till now, taken from the log-book of so long a journey into the century. The full length of the log could not be anything to anyone but the recorder. I cannot see the ordinary occasions of my life as dramatic enough, or sufficiently romantic, for autobiography, though invitations to set all down have not been infrequent.
Still, to justify its title, and to indicate a little of the difference between the world as it was to my young eyes, and the one that is, I have been told I should re-discover a peep or two of the London I knew, while there is still time for it; and while all is not forgotten in the emotions and distractions of three wars, lost beneath the marvellous, occupying and fearful improvements that generated on the wreckage. We must bear in mind that this century was heralded by gun-fire; and the unholy din continues, and is more vehement, more extensive, and more wearisome to the soul than ever. There seems no end to it. Nor does furious battle, once one has had a dose of it, remain as it was to the boy who went, wondering, through the earlier volumes of Kinglake's History of the War in the Crimea. A song, The Midshipmite ('Twas fifty-five on a winter's night) was still sung with feeling at festivals. The man does not today feel the elation of the child who saw a familiar thoroughfare, leading from the East India Dock, suddenly full of splendid tumult and merrily defiant music, with the rumble and clatter of horses and guns, while bronzed soldiers marched home after Tel-el-Kebir, and the moonlit charge at Kasassin. Who now remembers those famous battles?
That is to say, I was a little Londoner when Carlyle was living higher up the river, and I was reading Stevenson when his early tales were appearing serially. It was the day of paraffin lamps, and of the muffin man with a tray covered with green baize balanced on his head, who broke the quiet of Sabbath afternoons with the pealing of a handbell. I have an impression, perhaps mistakenly, that in those years there was more space for meditation, for day-dreaming. I think this because, not many years after I had been stirred by Mayne Reid and Ballantyne (and "the bloods"), and in a way reading never stirs me now, I was going upwards through Sartor Resartus. That was a stiff and exciting climb, giving broad surveys of the familiar as though a new day had come over the scene of life. A few years later still I found warrant for my respect for Carlyle in Emerson and Thoreau, and in Whitman with his "stars at night and the thought of Carlyle dying"; so to-day I learn with grief where the sage is in the opinion of later and better judges; I was misled. I read Stevenson with relish, as an uninformed youth, to learn only this year, from critics who are known as serious, that this was because of my vulgar taste.
The world of letters has improved, and I have grown to be aware of it with the better light for reading given by electricity; but the most powerful electric bulb has no effect on taste, the worse the luck of some of us. Still, I cannot help regretting that I never saw those men, when I could have done so, by going to a street corner and waiting. There they were in my day, some eminent Victorians, and they are now of a Period, and indeed the Queen of it I saw with these eyes; but it never occurs to us that in a day to come there will be curiosity for the appearance of what is commonplace. And now the Victorians are obscure, even lost, behind the Edwardians. All that scene has gone, Gladstone and the muffin man, the hansom cabs and the sailing fleet, and Carlyle and the oil lamps; and the Workhouse. I shall not again watch the lamplighter brisk on his way forming a succession of yellowish cavities in London's autumnal mirk.
The only newspaper in the home was Lloyd's Weekly News, which died long ago, and one issue of it brought about my earliest doubt that the truth may not be in the appearance of things; that a fellow may be mistaken though he be rejoicing. The victory of Tel-el-Kebir was reported, and Sir Garnet Wolseley was the hero of it. I felt, that Sunday morning, wild surmise as from high ground, and was puzzled when father, aside to mother, not only showed no delight, but was sternly critical of something which meant nothing to me. Moonlit charges over the desert, sabres busy, were not in his line. He was one of those who beforehand, and coolly, want to hear the reason why. It was not his heart that was at fault, but his head. He was born in the Hungry Forties, in the period of the Chartists, and in Poplar, and was a radical and nonconformist, even a Brownist. He deferred to authority, but not unless he felt like it, for he was as strict over a matter of principle as another would be over the right inherent in property. This, it could be said, was the easier for him, as he had no property.
It was an odd assortment of books, that in our home, from Cook's voyages to Artemus Ward, but the Bible came first, and was the most read. It was read of an evening, each of us piping up in turn from the chapters under review. While father was reading we were attentive to the spoken word, and the Bible gained in importance. This was more than the credulity of innocence. Though gentle in his manner, he carried himself, despite his meagre body, as if man were more than body--perhaps a necessary carriage in a small house--and this authority was supported by a full chestnut beard. His brow had a notable sweep, high and smooth, by which it could be seen that he knew more than we did, even when silent and apart, smoking his pipe; he favoured a clay, mellowed and dark. His voice was a pleasant tenor, and whether he was relating the trouble King David had with Absalom, or singing of Pretty Polly Perkins of Paddington Green, his face was watched till he came to an end. His light eyes were lenient in their regard, but no easier for that to meet with a subterfuge, though I never tried one on him. It was easy, if distasteful, to tell him the truth. His chosen refuge from toil and domesticity was with music, though he had to be content with a harmonium, a curious instrument now rarely seen; but you had to make your own music then, in such a place, or go without. Our church, Green's Chapel--George Green, of the famous Blackwall Yard, where the East Indian frigates were built--had an organ of full range, to inform a listener that music could do what nothing else could.
I cannot judge of father's ability as a musician. I only know that he compiled, for his own use, a book of instruction with graduated exercises, and with it tried to teach a younger brother and me. With me he failed utterly. I could never bring it down from the score to the keyboard; nor was I envious when young Jim made nothing of the exercises, and quite soon was giving us Winchester Old, Miles Lane, Rockingham, St. Anne--and much else which turns my thoughts backward when I chance to hear it--with the ease of father himself. For me, I was content to sprawl on the parlour hearthrug, and to hear them at it. They could never tire me as a listener. Only in later years did I discover that my introduction to Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Handel, came about early because my instructor, who signally failed to do anything in music for his eldest son, had adapted to his old harmonium from the great ones some measures and harmonies that he loved, Handel's in particular. There was a friend of his, of a stricter sect than his own, who thought a musical instrument in God's house was an intrusion of the devil. Father, to persuade the misguided man to think otherwise, took him to hear The Messiah. When they came out into the night again, majesty still echoing, the stern die-hard was asked what he thought of it. He had been affected, it appears, yet was grudging. He owned that he had been moved, but quickly recovered himself, and decided that, after all, he would wait till he heard the music of Heaven. "You haven't got to wait," father told him, "you have just heard it."
One evening in November, 1886, mother came into the room where her four children were sitting silent and idle. Father had been in bed for a weary time. She bent to whisper to me, confidentially. I was to go upstairs. Father wanted me. I looked up at her, with a question unspoken; but, still bent over me, she only straightly eyed me. Dad lifted himself to rest on his elbow as I sat on the bed beside him, for his voice was weak, and told me, calmly, that he was about to leave us. He gave me some advice. I did not hear it well. He was nearer serenity than his son, by far. He had no concern for himself, yet had anxiety for our welfare. I did not see him again.
After he was buried, there might have been two shillings with us. Most likely there was not. Something had to be done, and soon. But what? I was thirteen and a half. The three others for whom mother was responsible, and no help for it, were years less. She made no tragedy of calamity. We were on the rocks, but nobody would have thought it. She went on, silent and busy, with whatever the hour compelled. She had no complaint to make. She had some capital, a sewing-machine, and skill with it, so she sought work, brought it home, and had the machine running to a vital purpose. While it was still dark one morning I woke, and heard that thing running at express speed, and sought her with reproachful news of the time; the time was three hours after midnight. I was told to go away. Was the time only that? Then she could be finished by daylight, which was all to the good.
I didn't know it then, but I have found since that with women what we call heroism is almost as usual as their recourse to a mirror before leaving the house. They are unaware they have it. What nonsense! Anyhow, they are able to suffer for long, as if it were a common burden in life, what makes some men complain in measured strains to high heaven. They make a great fuss over a lost sixpence, or a stain on a respect-worthy doorstep; and you have no health in you if you forget that to-day is some anniversary or another. A sharp and critical mother, who has never missed remarking a sign she has noticed of a son's selfish unconcern, to make him reflect a little, will overlook any sin in him except cowardice, in the ultimate appeal.
I do not remember that she ever read anything but Dickens, Besant and Rice, and the Family Herald; and I myself used to read the special articles in the latter with application after she put that journal aside. It was she who commended David Copperfield to me, for my special attention. She confided that when the news came of Dickens' death it was a sad blow, and that she could not help weeping. I knew a little of Dickens already, and considered this weakness just what should be expected. No unknown admirers shed tears to-day at news of a favourite author's end. I do not say this is because Victorian novelists came nearer to the heart of the matter; it may be that the Victorians were better readers than we are; were less indiscriminate, and not in so great a hurry to come to another sensational novelty. They were slower, reading by ear as well as by sight. A practice not unusual then in households, and I have mentioned it, was that of accustoming the voice to the rhythm and cadence of Biblical prose; and that may account for the dignity even humble readers in the past accepted as proper to English diction.
The daughter of a master gunner, mother was born at Stonehouse, Devon. She could match stories of the sea with those that came from the merchant seamen we knew. As a child, when her father's ship was ordered to another station, she sailed there with him. It was in a three-decker. She was quartered on the main deck; so I have heard, from one who experienced it, how things were below, as in Nelson's day, with the tumult of waters without, the gale in the rigging, and the wailing and groaning of the gun lashings keeping the double line of monsters in check as she rolled, and as she pitched. You did not sleep. You could not help waiting in the noisy dark for the tethered gun on its carriage beside you to break loose. On the other hand, the full press of canvas in sunlight was noble. I think she must have been a pretty girl, slight and trim. I know she was light of heart and step, though with a temper that quickly flashed, and made her eyes daunting to an offender, but also that what she had of wealth, perhaps half-a-crown at the moment, was unreservedly yours, at need.
If I had anything to report of my school for psychologists to analyse, or to be used, alternatively, as embellishments to a candid narrative, I would be bold and publish it, but I am unable. I know of nothing important of that dubious kind to reveal of the usual little demons. The truth may be, at a guess, that we cannot help seeing in the life around us what we look for. This makes for variety. Falsity is in it, however, when little but dirt and misery is observed as the mind's heritage. After all, as some excuse for my inability, the school I knew was of no social importance at all. I had a poor chance there of coming upon the sophisticated worst. It was of the old London School Board, shortly after the Education Act of 1870, and well before the London County Council took the intellects of little Londoners into its care. I hear that educationists complain that children to-day are passing out of the elementary schools unable to read and write. In my childhood, I never met another youngster who could not read. Some of them could be so excited by the printed page that they passed on the fun they had found, and thus, for one author, I was introduced to Mayne Reid, and again to Harrison Ainsworth, with The Headless Horseman and Rookwood. We had to depend so much on our own wits. There were no Boy Scouts, and games were not organized for us. We made our own, and I do not recall that we found this hard. There is a deal of truth in Tom Sawyer's capers in the years before radio, television, the picture palace and play centres came along to lighten the burden of childhood.
The street was our usual playground. It was not then lethal with swift engines, and if you want to know to what use we put it you will find all recorded in Norman Douglas's London Street Games. Some of them were played in the streets of Londinium, and before that. Where St. Augustine failed to eradicate what did not consort with a new gospel, the motor lorry, when it came along, did extinguish at long last the reminder of unholy pagan rites in not a few innocent capers. When reading what Douglas called his breathless catalogue you should remember that the correct way in each game varied among the parishes of London, and so did the language. London is numerous towns and they have little knowledge of each other. Poplar had never heard of St. John's Wood. Not only that, but one of our streets would not know what the next street did; it might be as sundered as forbidden territory. A boy, before his initiation, would loiter there at his peril. He was a foreigner, though only from round the corner. Here and there in the parish were corners and byways avoided by all except the doctor and the venturesome, where a policeman's helmet might be seen in the gutter on the morning following Saturday night. There it stayed. Nobody would touch it. Meddle with the Law?
There is no doubt about it; there was respect for the Law in us, though some parishioners showed it in fleetness of foot. It is but just to say of my original place that the social misfit and the ugly customer were never heroes, but sad instances, to be passed by on the other side. Despite that battered helmet in the gutter, the local churches and chapels were active social centres, and the quality of a sermon was a subject for debate in many homes. Joseph Parker was at the City Temple, Spurgeon at Newington Butts, and Scott Holland and other Anglicans were showing what sermons should be, and the standard was known. I hear it is not so now. Many of those centres are abandoned and derelict, or turned to secular use.
In the school, discipline to a useful end was accepted as a condition of existence. Truancy was of the nature of treason, an unspeakable crime, and almost unknown. My own teacher was rigorous. He insisted on full measurement to the mark, and no less. Even one's spelling, however amusing, meant not laughter but the stick. It was applied. When worn out, other canes were in reserve.. The man's name was Lord, and he ruled. His severity was not resented, not in the least, for that certainly would not have made it the easier for a rebel. Besides, he was a just beast, and rewarded well-doing, which rejoiced him. A big fellow did strike back at him once, once only, to our joy, which did not show itself at so astonishing a break with ordained routine; and it was not the tyrant who was overthrown. We learned to read, and to write, even to spell correctly when not forgetful in our attempts at what was called English Composition. Freedom of expression was encouraged in those little essays. We were drilled in the elements of grammar, in arithmetic, and geometry, and were introduced to geography, botany, human physiology, and mechanics. No language was taught but one's own, and it does not look as if there were space for another, say Latin, and I have long regretted it. Still, by the age of thirteen we knew Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice by heart, furlongs of Scott's narrative verse, and a number of the Songs of the Psalmist. I have seen those who smiled at a mention of a London Board School, but the staff of the only one I knew were men of parts, and did their best.
I cannot say it was a distressing time, and it follows that if I have any repressions resulting from it I am unable to name them, though I expect that to others they may be not only nameable but woefully plain. The day came, too soon, when I had to leave. My headmaster, Robert Wild, B.A., advised me to wait. He had heard of a chance of a scholarship, and it should not be ignored. He felt he had not done enough for me; yet I have grown to be aware, too late to show gratitude, that some of his unpremeditated lessons have been invaluable. A few weeks after the death of my father a place in the City was found for me, off Leadenhall Street, in the office of a firm of manufacturers and traders. A relative, whose fleet of barges did the lighterage for that house, had spoken for me. Six shillings a week! It was a Scotch house; the Scots have always found their way with ease about the City of London, to its signal advantage and evident growth. The days when foreign lands were only glossy maps on a school wall were now done; the queer and attractive names, Iquique, Bangkok, Brisbane, Algoa Bay, Shanghai, Vancouver, Antananarivo, and so on, had become realities, never to be lightly confused; but I have said enough of those first impressions in London River.
The streets of the City, from Aldgate Pump as far as Milton's church of St. Giles, Cripplegate, and some of their legends, became known to me afoot, as well as all the docks, from St. Katherine's to Tilbury. My place of employ had its own wharf at Saunder's Ness, the south point of the Isle of Dogs, on Greenwich Reach. I suppose the tidal Thames and its ships and men must have been, in a way, a continuation of school. The phenomenal could appear there, and I have seen it. When such a ship as George Thompson's Salamis, full-rigged, deeply laden, her green hull and soaring white spars radiant in the setting sun, came into the stream as the tide turned, bound towards Melbourne, her flags as quick as the sun-points on the water, she was seen in admiration, and not a little awe. It came my way to talk to Captain Simpson, of the same line of ships, and in his cabin, master then of the clipper Samuel Plimsoll, the "merry blue-eyed skipper" of James Anthony Froude's Oceana.
Men of Simpson's stamp were as sound as their ships, and his Samuel Plimsoll was a beauty. She was launched in the year of my birth, and in the presence of Plimsoll himself. She had but one mishap in her career, and Basil Lubbock (he, as usual) records it. In a tropical squall her bob-stay went, and her fore top-mast and main top-gallant mast came down. An American clipper was in her company, and sent off a boat to Simpson's ship with a message that, bound also for Australia, it would be right to tranship the Samuel Plimsoll's passengers. Simpson declined. He rigged new spars, and afterwards, in one week's run in the roaring forties, which must have tried the craftsmanship put into the jury rig, made 2,300 miles, and arrived at Melbourne 82 days out. Some time later the American captain arrived, and reported to Simpson's agent that he had spoken the Samuel Plimsoll dismasted in the Atlantic, and that her foolhardy captain would not have his passengers transhipped. "Are you referring to Captain Simpson?" asked the agent. "If so, you'd better tell him yourself. He's in the next room."
There is no need to make more of that story; it goes with countless others that are unrecorded and is nothing unusual. These stories are not of the heroic. They concern only what was and is still expected of our seamen, and accord with a modest conception of human dignity. There is no more in them than that, except traditional sea-lore. The press, of late, was full, for a week, of the news of the master of the ship Flying Enterprise. A great to-do was made of the affair, with photographs and broadcasts to round off the story. Yes, all that about it, and so soon after the war, when the same, and worse, much worse, happened daily on our behalf for five years somewhere on the seas, and hardly a word said! I have long ceased to be astonished at the little this nation of seafarers knows, or cares to know, of its merchant ships and seamen. Its interest cannot be roused. It will not look that way, even when prompted, unless, strangely, the men concerned are not its own.
May I digress a little? Perhaps it is not a lack of interest. Perhaps it is but our casual acceptance of a vital fact. That our men should act so is our expectation, and there is no surprise. I hope, anyhow, it is only that. I knew an old shipmaster, and knew him well, for I had voyaged with him, and he was as hard and unpolished a character as ever stood at the counter of the Shipping Office grimly watching his mob sign-on. At the age of seventy-five, in the first world war, his ship was torpedoed, and foundered. He was picked up, and presently was at sea again. His charge was again blown up, and again he reached the land, though not quite the man he had been. Nevertheless, he supposed he ought to do what he could, the time being what it was, and once more departed, master of a third ship, for luck. She, too, went down, and he was hauled out of the water for a further voyage in an open boat, but he had ventured too much, and died, worn out, as soon as he reached a bed ashore. I mention William Bennett here, his name in print for the first time, not as a hero, but as an example of the quality that is passing in and out of our shipping offices this day and all the days.
When I hear eloquence, large and loose, on great men and great heroes, I feel as uneasy as when reading of hollow men who end not with a bang but a whimper. Is there not a mistake somewhere? Of what are we made? The years have taught me that our common clay is unpredictable stuff, in the best as in the worst. It gives no more cause for unmeasured hope than for wailing; yet there is in it, at the challenge of fate, a value to lift the least likely nobody above the battle, as a sign that spirit can be superior to all the material universe.
Have we forgotten what happened when the test of all came in 1940? Looking back, I think we may be forgiven some pride in our people. The bearing of our neighbours in that year, threatened with the loss of their "waste land," threatened that even its ancient and honoured name should be dropped into the mud, still astonishes, when we recall it. They were not hollow. They did not falter. They never so much as repined. They accepted the challenge in quietude. No surprise was felt when invasion was expected, and our army was only just landed from Dunkirk without arms, when oldsters were seen strolling out on a summer evening, not to their allotments, but to another duty, with sickles and shotguns, all they had.
There is that other story, older by several centuries, and still sensational as we read it. Elizabeth's captains put out into the Channel one July to meet the ships of an enemy that had come to change our chosen way of living; and between Plymouth and Calais they so handled the matter that a new direction was given to history. Near the scene of it, near Portland one September noon, nearly 400 years later, I saw just such an apocalyptic display, this time in the sky. Invasion of our shores had begun, but masses of nimbus and cumulus hid the battle, which was loud. We saw but an occasional flash, as of slow lightning zig-zagging against a thunder cloud, as something dropped to the sea. Right overhead was a high white continent, and it seemed to shudder with the din it enclosed, and out of the belly of it a plane fell headlong to earth, arms outspread. Then from behind its high coast our own planes emerged into an area of blue, a steady array, a group of silvery moths, flying east in close fellowship, sweeping the enemy away; and to more than one heart, as we looked skywards that day, there the augury was. This time the course of battle was between Ursa Major and Andromeda. The disparagers had been wrong, and their mockery was in ignorance.
I appear to have wandered far from the boy at a desk in his first office; yet what I added to knowledge while there, though of no academic value, was enough to keep me still when an event was unpleasant, to say the least of it, and a choice had to be made with peril in it, however one chose. A choice comes not only of logic, but of the manner iii which we have been built up, though unaware of it. Faith in our fellows is not always easily kept; at times the spectacle of the headless multitude and its movements is horrifying; but, in the final appeal, somehow, and heaven knows whence it comes, indomitable goodwill is found to be present, defiant of calamity; a few cheerful die-hards show themselves, as dependable as sunrise. If divinity of a sort is not secreted somewhere in the multitude, where is it?
That London shipping office was kept for graduates of Scottish universities, so what a northern academy could make of a man I had about me daily, in variety. One of them, to my abasement, had read more of Dickens, and with greater zest, than I could claim, and another admitted no writer but Burns, and declared that Tam o' Shanter was the greatest narrative poem not in Greek. He excited me with the news that the name I was then writing into a shipping document was from that very poem. I remain in debt to that young Scot, for Burns is with Shakespeare as a writer of songs; and I now doubt a genuine love of English speech where no concern is shown for the glossary following a book of Scottish verse, because in it are words that have come from the basic rock.
An Englishman did not find easy acceptance in that Scotch office, and thus my dignity had to be prudently mitigated. Its principals were aristocrats, big men, of a severe and haughty mien. My interest was alert, therefore, when one day the young men about me put down their pens, and declined to do more, and only because that day was not officially declared a holiday. I was unaware till then that Hogmanay was of that importance, but was glad it was, for my elder colleagues won. It was something like intrepidity, of which I had heard, when dutiful young men, who had never complained of the sanctity of law and order, should rise as one, and in London, to keep perennial a happy token. A little later I watched, while it passed along the august fronts of the commercial institutions in Leadenhall Street, a straggling column of rough characters marching west from the east, during the dock strike, of 1889 for sixpence an hour, if work was to be had. Round the corner in Billiter Street was standing then a grim warehouse, a reminder of John Company. I knew already of William Morris, and had heard of Hyndman, and, though very young, felt a qualm, as I watched those fellows go by, as at a portent. At the head of the column was a brisk little man in his shirt sleeves, wearing a straw hat, fierce with a black beard and sharp eyes under shaggy brows, John Burns. Since then, I have been present when a group of the same nameless ones, detached from the multitude, and as part of their day's work, casually averted disaster from a ship; or went down a burning coal mine to rescue others and did not return; and have chanced on their sprawled bodies about an outpost in war, which they had held to the last man. These memories are affecting, irrational, sentimental, and decisive. Somewhere in dark circumstance, when anarchy is at hand, we may be sure of a point of courage and kindness, and it will attract its own; but nothing comes of commanding it to appear. A trifle of cheerful and gallant willingness concealed in the mob will presently outweigh all we know, or need to know, of cruelty, poltroonery, and dross. If it were not so, the churches could all shut, as the original Calvary had no meaning.
I intended not to remain in that office of my first employment longer than I was held to it. Its shining mahogany and frosted glass, its sanctuary quiet for the better reckoning of units of profit, were not fully enjoyable, but, being dutiful, I found pleasure in writing the names of ships, attractive names--the Chocolate Girl, schooner, London to Trinidad--into bills of lading: names, some of them, now historic. It often happened that I had to go down river to board a ship, for proof that an item of cargo was stowed. I met Kipling that way; he was in paper covers, and printed in Calcutta. Thacker, I seem to remember, was the publisher; but it is an age ago, in the Royal Albert Dock. I had to wait in a cabin with a smell that was foreign; teak and cheroots, I suppose. She was from Burma, and returning thither the next day. I picked the book out of a bunk to pass the time, yet that time has not passed, and will not. That man's magic had me in the first page. I still feel it, though he can shock, and even repel. Very many years later I was at a party, and the great man himself was there, and I watched him in respect at a distance. Our hostess wanted to take me over to him, but I could see that would be a mistake. A little distance served well enough. Had we confronted each other, I doubt that sympathy would have flowed between us.
I was always glad to lose myself in a good story, yet my closest attention, when a youth, went to natural history and books of travel. I was aware of deficiency. It was certain that much that was unexplained about me had to be puzzled out. This may have come of Louis Figuier's World Before the Deluge, which was put into my hand at home. I was nine years old, and Alice in Wonderland (I read of her in that place at the same time) saw nothing more marvellous than Figuier had to tell me. I wanted to know more of this, but how to find it? When school was left, and I had to act for myself, the announcements of classes and lectures attracted me more than news of other entertainments even when the enticement on the hoardings, seen daily, was of Jenny Hill, The Vital Spark, at our local music-hall; though I now regret I never went to see that star of the halls when I had the chance.
Buoyant curiosity can keep one going beyond the power of diet, and for many years I gave what hours I could to geology, with botany and zoology to aid the subject, going even to extremes, pursuing mineralogy, and learning the use of a petrological microscope, I don't know why. When commerce claims most of your daylight, ingenuity is required to make the hours for the things one wants to do. Once I had a hope that something would come of this devotion to a fancy, to the fossil remains of an earlier life, and the elements of earth's foundations, just before my marriage I was considered as a possible geologist for the Jackson-Harmsworth expedition to the Arctic; a way out of commerce appeared to be opening. It was thought, however, that I would prove too frail for the hardships of it, and I grieved. The Polar regions, and the opportunity withheld, when I had read nearly all that had been written in English of the magnetic north!
There was an occasion, when I was a journalist, to interview Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society. He received me, but he was aloof. Unknown journalists, where exact knowledge is in question, are not always received as equals by the learned. But I was cunning. I knew his interest in Bolivia, and presently, in an indifferent way, mentioned names in a problem of the Upper Madeira. What, he asked, did I know of that? I said I had been there but recently.
He leaned forward, and asked for particulars. He was no longer distant, but grew confidential. I heard more than I knew of Bates of the Naturalist on the River Amazons, and from an old and close friend of the man; and again of Richard Spruce, who was out there fifteen years as a botanist, from Para to the Andes. It appears that Spruce, that singular Victorian traveller and scholar, who introduced quinine into India, a genius, and with humour, in the tangle of tropical woods--remarking even the lowly mosses there--was a shy and retiring man. Sir Clements had heard that the botanist was home again, but that was all. One day, Martius, the famous German botanist, stood before Sir Clements in his office. Without polite preliminaries he demanded, "Where is Spruce?" This, it was admitted, was not known. "Not know where Spruce is? Then let us go and find him." This they did, and Spruce was come upon in a tiny cottage of his native Yorkshire, ill and in pain, flat on his back, as he found ease only in that position, doing what he could to sort out the harvest of his travels.
The news then was stale that the North Pole had been reached at last, by Peary. I mentioned the end of the long quest for it to Sir Clements, and spoke without enthusiasm. Several things in it I did not understand, and these I told him. The geographer moved in his chair, as if struck by a thought, yet hesitated. I assured him this subject had no part in my visit; that it was my personal inquisitiveness, and had nothing to do with my newspaper. He then told me that when Peary was to relate his adventures and victory to the Society, there were members who wished to question him closely, but that, before the meeting could take place, King Edward, who had heard that doubts were entertained, requested that they should not be made public, since friendship with America was more important than the North Pole. It does not matter now, as aeroplane grease has maculated that virgin solitude, so I may make the disclosure; besides, not many readers will care to go to a reference book to learn who Peary was.
Allow me to go back to my first office stool, and to those two-horse trains that ran between Aldgate and the East India Dock gates; after six in the evening, the workman's fare was one penny. Without a penny, one walked the miles. It was wise to keep that penny, if you had it, intact throughout the day, however insistent temptation might be; most boys are always hungry. It was a long and leisurely ride. There was never hurry in a jog-trot horse-tram. The world looked inviting, too, I thought, from the upper deck of it, in summer, work done. Notes were in one pocket, and a book in the other. The book was never related to the notes; it was for the release of the thoughts, which could wander. One could choose. I read Aurora Leigh, out of a twopenny box, while we trundled along. Is it read now? I went through it again, experimentally, last year, and I think still that the Seventh Book of it is a better avowal of the purpose of art than all the apologetics I have read of art for the bare sake of it; a Victorian avowal, of course, and of no current validity. A common bush is never afire with God, these days, as it used to be for Mrs. Browning, and so is the less ridiculous.
Orders and indents from abroad for a great range of commodities, bills of lading and freight accounts, marine insurance, invoices, and bills of exchange, engaged me, however impatiently I struggled to tear myself loose, till well past marriage. One day there was trouble in my office. The principal was not angry, but flushed with fury, and he was wrong. I answered him in his own sort. If you have never experienced it, then the necessity to explain to your wife, when you arrive home, and she is preparing for her first child, that she is now without the full support she needs, is not lightly faced. I did not face it. I went out to walk Fleet Street, where all the doors were shut--for I had tried them--thinking of the next move. There can be frustration in practising the art of writing for a public journal if one has not come down from Oxford or Cambridge; and it should be expected. What has one to show of the immediately recognized authentic? I could only claim that I had contributed trifles to a halfpenny radical newspaper. Yet what of that? And what did it matter that they were signed, when one's name means nothing? A hope did come to me, but it was forlorn. I idled round to the office of that radical halfpenny paper in Stonecutter Street, the Morning Leader--neither street nor paper exists this day. Would its editor see me? He would, and he did. Ernest Parke looked, as I have said elsewhere, more like a major poet, essentially masculine and leonine with his tawny mane, than poets usually do. He listened to my brief recital with a stony face. There was a pause which seemed unduly long, in which I waited. "When can you come here?" he then asked.
It is possible that freedom, which we want, is as easy, now and then, as walking into it when we did not know it was there. I do not remember how I got home that day. I do remember that next morning my Leyton garden had a strangely extensive aspect, altogether different; the sky had gone up. I was, for the first time, all at sea--I mean literally--in a few weeks. I departed, to be exact about it, from Billingsgate--romance turns out to be like that--to find out what it is to live with a fleet of trawlers on the Dogger Bank, and in December weather. And following that, as F. T. Bullen, he of The Cruise of the Cachalot, was likely to fail our morning paper, Parke risked me for the naval manoeuvres; that year they were to be of more than ordinary scope and importance. This order from the editorial was serious. I had never met the Navy, and I told my editor of my inexpertness. Warships and trawlers were not the same. Parke said he did not care a damn what the Navy thought; it was he who had to be satisfied.
I went, without more words. I went right across England and Ireland to Bantry Bay, to join the cruiser Berwick. There was a small and rickety wharf at Bantry, and stark mountains under a grey sky enclosing a vista of sullen and empty waters. I was the only one on that wharf; nobody was in sight anywhere. It began to rain. It was folly to suppose that the Lords of the Admiralty, with fleets to think about, would remember that forsaken wharf, and me on it. I was going to let down Ernest Parke so soon. When hope had gone, a steam launch shot into desolation at speed, and came straight at me. It rounded and brought-to beneath me. A uniformed boy wearing a dirk rose in the little craft and asked respectfully, "Are you Mr. Tomlinson?" And then, "Will you step aboard, sir?" I stepped aboard. The midshipman called an order to his bearded crew, and we were away, and with celerity. Soon, still incredulous, I looked up at a steel enormity bearing terrible guns, to see bright brass letters spelling Berwick on her stern. There seemed no doubt of it now.
I mounted a gangway, and remembered when the deck was reached that long ago the shrine of the Virgin was under a quarter deck, and therefore paused in memory of an august past, and doffed my hat. A smiling lieutenant with a telescope under his arm saluted me, asked kindly of my welfare, and ordered my disposal. All doubts vanished. I was at home; yet careful always, with each light-hearted expert I met, to be as a little child. Our admiral was Prince Henry of Battenberg, and I was assured that he was a holy terror, much admired by his men.
I thanked my lucky stars, in my hammock that night, after dinner, that I had fallen into the hands of as merry a company of derisive warriors as ever took a ship into action. The decanter of Marsala had been new to me, and I found it pleasant. I had joined loudly in the chorus at the piano.
The cruise came to an end. I put ashore with the Berwick's captain at Portsmouth. If it had happened, he said, that I had not been sufficiently entertained, he was sorry, but there had been so much to do. He hoped, anyhow, that I had learned something; and I had learned much. He warned me, while we stood on Portsmouth Hard, not to suppose his ship was as good as naval architects could do. She was outmoded. "But," he added sadly, "she will be there on the day."
"The day?" I questioned.
"Yes," he said, and was gone.
He went down with his ship and his men, not so long afterwards, Admiral Sir Horace Hood, leading his battle-cruiser squadron into action at Jutland.