The youth who daily farther from the East
Must travel . . .
And, in the autumn of ‘89, I stepped into a sort of waking dream when I took, as a matter of course, the fantastic cards that Fate was pleased to deal me.
The ancient landmarks of my boyhood still stood. There were the beloved Aunt and Uncle, the little house of the Three Old Ladies, and in one corner of it the quiet figure by the fireplace composedly writing her next novel on her knee. It was at the quietest of tea-parties, in this circle, that I first met Mary Kingsley, the bravest woman of all my knowledge. We talked a good deal over the cups, and more while walking home afterwards — she of West African cannibals and the like. At last, the world forgetting, I said ‘Come up to my rooms and we’ll talk it out there.’ She agreed, as a man would, then suddenly remembering said; ‘Oh, I forgot I was a woman. ‘Fraid I mustn’t.’ So I realised that my world was all to explore again.
A few — a very few — people in it had died, but no one expected to do so for another twenty years. White women stood and waited on one behind one’s chair. It was all whirlingly outside my comprehension.
But my small stock-intrade of books had become known in certain quarters; and there was an evident demand for my stuff. I do not recall that I stirred a hand to help myself. Things happened to me. I went, by invitation, to Mowbray Morris the editor of Macmillan’s Magazine, who asked me how old I was and, when I told him I hoped to be twenty-four at the end of the year, said; ‘Good God!’ He took from me an Indian tale and some verses, which latter he wisely edited a little. They were both published in the same number of the Magazine — one signed by my name and the other ‘Yussuf’ All of this confirmed the feeling (which has come back at intervals through my life), ‘Lord ha’ mercy on me, this is none of I.’
Then more tales were asked for, and the editor of the St. James’s Gazette wanted stray articles, signed and unsigned. My ‘turnover’ training on the Civil and Military made this easy for me, and somehow I felt easier with a daily paper under my right elbow.
About this time was an interview in a weekly paper, where I felt myself rather on the wrong side of the counter and that I ought to be questioning my questioner. Shortly after, that same weekly made me a proposition which I could not see my way to accept, and then announced that I was ‘feeling my oats,’ of which, it was careful to point out, it had given me my first sieveful. Since, at that time, I was overwhelmed, not to say scared, by the amazing luck that had come to me, the pronouncement gave me confidence. If that was how I struck the external world — good! For naturally I considered the whole universe was acutely interested in me only — just as a man who strays into a skirmish is persuaded he is the pivot of the action.
Meantime, I had found me quarters in Villiers Street, Strand, which forty-six years ago was primitive and passionate in its habits and population. My rooms were small, not over-clean or well-kept, but from my desk I could look out of my window through the fanlight of Gatti’s Music–Hall entrance, across the street, almost on to its stage. The Charing Cross trains rumbled through my dreams on one side, the boom of the Strand on the other, while, before my windows, Father Thames under the Shot Tower walked up and down with his traffic.
At the outset I had so muddled and mismanaged my affairs that, for a while, I found myself with some money owing me for work done, but no funds in hand. People who ask for money, however justifiably, have it remembered against them. The beloved Aunt, or any one of the Three Old Ladies, would have given to me without question; but that seemed too like confessing failure at the outset. My rent was paid; I had my dress-suit; I had nothing to pawn save a collection of unmarked shirts picked up in all the ports; so I made shift to manage on what small cash I had in pocket.
My rooms were above an establishment of Harris the Sausage King, who, for tuppence, gave as much sausage and mash as would carry one from breakfast to dinner when one dined with nice people who did not eat sausage for a living. Another tuppence found me a filling supper. The excellent tobacco of those days was, unless you sank to threepenny ‘Shag’ or soared to sixpenny ‘Turkish,’ tuppence the half-ounce; and fourpence, which included a pewter of beer or porter, was the price of admission to Gatti’s.
It was here, in the company of an elderly but upright barmaid from a pub near by, that I listened to the observed and compelling songs of the Lion and Mammoth Comiques, and the shriller strains — but equally ‘observed’— of the Bessies and Bellas, whom I could hear arguing beneath my window with their cab-drivers, as they sped from Hall to Hall. One lady sometimes delighted us with viva-voce versions of —‘what ‘as just ‘appened to me outside ’ere, if you’ll believe it.’ Then she would plunge into brilliant improvisations. Oh, we believed! Many of us had, perhaps, taken part in the tail of that argument at the doors, ere she stormed in.
Those monologues I could never hope to rival, but the smoke, the roar, and the good-fellowship of relaxed humanity at Gatti’s ‘set’ the scheme for a certain sort of song. The Private Soldier in India I thought I knew fairly well. His English brother (in the Guards mostly) sat and sang at my elbow any night I chose; and, for Greek chorus, I had the comments of my barmaid — deeply and dispassionately versed in all knowledge of evil as she had watched it across the zinc she was always swabbing off. (Hence, some years later, verses called ‘Mary, pity Women,’ based on what she told me about ‘a friend o’ mine ‘oo was mistook in ‘er man.’) The outcome was the first of some verses called Barrack–Room Ballads which I showed to Henley of the Scots, later National Observer, who wanted more; and I became for a while one of the happy company who used to gather in a little restaurant off Leicester Square and regulate all literature till all hours of the morning.
I had the greatest admiration for Henley’s verse and prose and, if such things be merchandise in the next world, will cheerfully sell a large proportion of what I have written for a single meditation — illumination — inspiration or what you please — that he wrote on the Arabian Nights in a tiny book of Essays and Reviews.
As regards his free verse I— plus some Chianti — once put forward the old notion that free verse was like fishing with barbless hooks. Henley replied volcanically. It was, said he, ‘the cadences that did it.’ That was true; but he alone, to my mind, could handle them aright, being a Master Craftsman who had paid for his apprenticeship.
Henley’s demerits were, of course, explained to the world by loving friends after his death. I had the fortune to know him only as kind, generous, and a jewel of an editor, with the gift of fetching the very best out of his cattle, with words that would astonish oxen. He had, further, an organic loathing of Mr. Gladstone and all Liberalism. A Government Commission of Enquiry was sitting in those days on some unusually blatant traffic in murder among the Irish Land Leaguers; and had whitewashed the whole crowd. Where upon, I wrote some impolite verses called ‘Cleared!’ which at first The Times seemed ready to take but on second thoughts declined. I was recommended to carry them to a monthly review of sorts edited by a Mr. Frank Harris, whom I discovered to be the one human being that I could on no terms get on with. He, too, shied at the verses, which I referred to Henley, who, having no sense of political decency, published them in his Observer, and — after a cautious interval — The Times quoted them in full. This was rather like some of my experiences in India, and gave me yet more confidence.
To my great pride I was elected a Member of the Savile —‘the little Savile’ then in Piccadilly — and, on my introduction, dined with no less than Hardy and Walter Besant. My debts to the latter grew at once, and you may remember that I owed him much indeed. He had his own views on publishers, and was founding, or had just founded, the Authors’ Society. He advised me to entrust my business to an agent and sent me to his own — A. P. Watt, whose son was about my own age. The father took hold of my affairs at once and most sagely; and on his death his son succeeded. In the course of forty odd years I do not recall any difference between us that three minutes’ talk could not clear up. This, also, I owed to Besant.
Nor did his goodness halt there. He would sit behind his big, frosted beard and twinkling spectacles, and deal me out wisdom concerning this new incomprehensible world. One heard very good talk at the Savile. Much of it was the careless give-and-take of the atelier when the models are off their stands, and one throws bread-pellets at one’s betters, and makes hay of all schools save one’s own. But Besant saw deeper. He advised me to ‘keep out of the dog-fight.’ He said that if I were ‘in with one lot’ I would have to be out with another; and that, at last, ‘things would get like a girls’ school where they stick out their tongues at each other when they pass.’ That was true too. One heard men vastly one’s seniors wasting energy and good oaths in recounting ‘intrigues’ against them, and of men who had ‘their knife into’ their work, or whom they themselves wished to ‘knife.’ (This reminded me somehow of the elderly officials who opened their hearts in my old office when they were disappointed over anticipated Honours.) It seemed best to stand clear of it all. For that reason, I have never directly or indirectly criticised any fellow-craftsman’s output, or encouraged any man or woman to do so; nor have I approached any persons that they might be led to comment on my output. My acquaintance with my contemporaries has from first to last been very limited.
At ‘the little Savile’ I remember much kindness and toleration. There was Gosse, of course, sensitive as a cat to all atmospheres, but utterly fearless when it came to questions of good workmanship; Hardy’s grave and bitter humour; Andrew Lang, as detached to all appearances as a cloud, but — one learned to know — never kinder in your behalf than when he seemed least concerned with you; Eustace Balfour, a large, lovable man, and one of the best of talkers, who died too soon; Herbert Stephen, very wise and very funny when he chose; Rider Haggard, to whom I took at once, he being of the stamp adored by children and trusted by men at sight; and he could tell tales, mainly against himself, that broke up the tables; Saintsbury, a solid rock of learning and geniality whom I revered all my days; profoundly a scholar and versed in the art of good living. There was a breakfast with him and Walter Pollock of the Saturday Review in the Albany, when he produced some specially devilish Oriental delicacy which we cooked by the light of our united ignorances. It was splendid! Why those two men took the trouble to notice me, I never knew; but I learned to rely on Saintsbury’s judgment in the weightier matters of the Laws of Literature. At his latter end he gave me inestimable help in a little piece of work called ‘Proofs of Holy Writ,’ which without his books could never have been handled. I found him at Bath, compiling with erudition equal to his earnestness the Cellar-book of the Queen’s Doll’s House. He produced a bottle of real Tokay, which I tasted, and lost my number badly by saying that it reminded me of some medicinal wine. It is true he merely called me a blasphemer of the worst, but what he thought I do not care to think!
There were scores of other good men at the Savile, but the tones and the faces of those I have named come back clearest.
My home life — it was a far cry from Piccadilly to Villiers Street — was otherwise, through the months of amazement which followed my return to England. That period was all, as I have said, a dream, in which it seemed that I could push down walls, walk through ramparts and stride across rivers. Yet I was so ignorant, I never guessed when the great fogs fell that trains could take me to light and sunshine a few miles outside London. Once I faced the reflection of my own face in the jet-black mirror of the window-panes for five days. When the fog thinned, I looked out and saw a man standing opposite the pub where the barmaid lived. Of a sudden his breast turned dull red like a robin’s, and he crumpled, having cut his throat. In a few minutes — seconds it seemed — a hand-ambulance arrived and took up the body. A pot-boy with a bucket of steaming water sluiced the blood off into the gutter, and what little crowd had collected went its way.
One got to know that ambulance (it lived somewhere at the back of St. Clement Danes) as well as the Police of the E. Division, and even as far as Piccadilly Circus, where, any time after 10.30 P.M., the forces might be found at issue with ‘real ladies.’ And through all this shifting, shouting brotheldom the pious British householder and his family bored their way back from the theatres, eyes-front and fixed, as though not seeing.
Among my guests in chambers was a Lion Comique from Gatti’s — an artist with sound views on art. According to him, ‘it was all right to keep on knockin’ ’em’ (‘puttin’ it across’ came later) ‘but, outside o’ that, a man wants something to lay hold of. I’d ha’ got it, I think, but for this dam’ whisky. But, take it from me, life’s all a bloomin’ kick-up.’ Certainly my life was; but, to some extent, my Indian training served to ballast me.
I was plentifully assured, viva voce and in the Press-cuttings — which is a drug that I do not recommend to the young — that ‘nothing since Dickens’ compared with my ‘meteoric rise to fame,’ etc. (But I was more or less inoculated, if not immune, to the coarser sorts of print.) And there was my portrait to be painted for the Royal Academy as a notoriety. (But I had a Muhammedan’s objection to having my face taken, as likely to draw the Evil Eye. So I was not too puffed up.) And there were letters and letters of all sorts of tendencies. (But if I answered them all I might as well be back at my old table.) And there were proposals from ‘certain people of importance,’ insistent and unscrupulous as horse-copers, telling me how ‘the ball was at my feet’ and that I had only to kick it — by repeating the notes I had already struck and trailing characters I had already ‘created’ through impossible scenes — to achieve all sorts of desirable things. But I had seen men as well as horses foundered in my lost world behind me. One thing only stood fast through this welter. I was making money — much more than four hundred rupees a month — and when my Bank-book told me I had one thousand whole pounds saved, the Strand was hardly wide enough for my triumph. I had intended a book ‘to take advantage of the market.’ This I had just sense enough to countermand. What I most needed was that my people should come over and see what had overtaken their son. This they did on a flying visit, and then my ‘kickup’ had some worth.
As always, they seemed to suggest nothing and interfere nowhere. But they were there — my Father with his sage Yorkshire outlook and wisdom; my Mother, all Celt and three-parts fire — both so entirely comprehending that except in trivial matters we had hardly need of words.
I think I can with truth say that those two made for me the only public for whom then I had any regard whatever till their deaths, in my forty-fifth year. Their arrival simplified things, and ‘set’ in my head a notion that had been rising at the back of it. It seemed easy enough to ‘knock ’em’— but to what end beyond the heat of the exercise? (That both my grandfathers had been Wesleyan Ministers did not strike me till I was, familiarly, reminded of it.) I had been at work on the rough of a set of verses called later ‘The English Flag’ and had boggled at a line which had to be a key-line but persisted in going ‘soft.’ As was the custom between us, I asked into the air ‘What am I trying to get at?’ Instantly the Mother, with her quick flutter of the hands ‘You’re trying to say; “What do they know of England who only England know,”’ The Father confirmed. The rest of the rhetoric came away easily; for it was only pictures seen, as it were, from the deck of a long fourteen-footer, a craft that will almost sail herself.
In the talks that followed, I exposed my notion of trying to tell to the English something of the world outside England — not directly but by implication.
They understood. Long before the end the Mother, summarising, said; ‘I see. “Unto them did he discover His swan’s nest among the reeds.” Thank you for telling us, dear.’ That settled that; and when Lord Tennyson (whom alas! I never had the good fortune to meet) expressed his approval of the verses when they appeared, I took it for a lucky sign. Most men properly broke to a trade pick up some sort of workshop facility which gives them an advantage over their untrained fellows. My office-work had taught me to think out a notion in detail, pack it away in my head, and work on it by snatches in any surroundings. The lurch and surge of the old horse-drawn buses made a luxurious cradle for such ruminations. Bit by bit, my original notion grew into a vast, vague conspectus — Army and Navy Stores List if you like — of the whole sweep and meaning of things and effort and origins throughout the Empire. I visualised it, as I do most ideas, in the shape of a semi-circle of buildings and temples projecting into a sea-of dreams. At any rate, after I had got it straight in my head, I felt there need be no more ‘knockin’ ’em’ in the abstract.
Likewise, in my wanderings beyond Villiers Street, I had met several men and an occasional woman, whom I by no means loved. They were overly soft-spoken or blatant, and dealt in pernicious varieties of safe sedition. For the most part they seemed to be purveyors of luxuries to the ‘Aristocracy,’ whose destruction by painful means they loudly professed to desire. They derided my poor little Gods of the East, and asserted that the British in India spent violent lives ‘oppressing’ the Native. (This in a land where white girls of sixteen, at twelve or fourteen pounds per annum, hauled thirty and forty pounds weight of bath-water at a time up four flights of stairs!)
The more subtle among them had plans, which they told me, for ‘snatching away England’s arms when she isn’t looking — just like a naughty child — so that when she wants to fight she’ll find she can’t.’ (We have come far on that road since.) Meantime, their aim was peaceful, intellectual penetration and the formation of what today would be called ‘cells’ in unventilated corners. Collaborating with these gentry was a mixed crowd of wide-minded, wide-mouthed Liberals, who darkened counsel with pious but disintegrating catch-words, and took care to live very well indeed. Somewhere, playing up to them, were various journals, not at all badly written, with a most enviable genius for perverting or mistaking anything that did not suit their bilious doctrine. The general situation, as I saw it, promised an alluring ‘dog-fight,’ in which I had no need to take aggressive part because, as soon as the first bloom had faded off my work, my normal output seemed to have the gift of arriding per se the very people I most disliked. And I had the additional luck not to be taken seriously for some time. People talked, quite reasonably, of rockets and sticks; and that genius, J.K.S., brother to Herbert Stephen, dealt with Haggard and me in some stanzas which I would have given much to have written myself. They breathed a prayer for better days when:—
The world shall cease to wonder
At the genius of an Ass,
And a boy’s eccentric blunder
Shall not bring success to pass:
When there stands a muzzled stripling,
Mute, beside a muzzled bore
When the Rudyards cease from Kipling
And the Haggards Ride no more.
It ran joyously through all the papers. It still hangs faintly in the air and, as I used to warn Haggard, may continue as an aroma when all but our two queer names are forgotten.
Several perfectly good reviewers also helped me by demonstrating how I had arrived at my effects by a series of happy accidents. One kind man even went to some trouble, including a good dinner, to discover personally whether I had ‘ever read much.’ I could not do less than confirm his worst suspicions, for I had been ‘taken on’ in that way at the Punjab Club, till my examiner found out that I was pulling his leg, and chased me all round the compound. (The greatest reverence is due to the young. They have, when irritated, little of their own.)
But in all this jam of work done or devising, demands, distractions, excitements, and promiscuous confusions, my health cracked again. I had broken down twice in India from straight overwork, plus fever and dysentery, but this time the staleness and depression came after a bout of real influenza, when all my Indian microbes joined hands and sang for a month in the darkness of Villiers Street.
So I took ship to Italy, and there chanced to meet Lord Dufferin, our Ambassador, who had been Viceroy of India and had known my people. Also, I had written some verses called ‘The Song of the Women’ about Lady Dufferin’s maternity work for women in India, which both she and he liked. He was kindness itself, and made me his guest at his Villa near Naples where, one evening between lights, he talked — at first to me directly, then sliding into a reverie — of his work in India, Canada, and the world at large. I had seen administrative machinery from beneath, all stripped and overheated. This was the first time I had listened to one who had handled it from above. And unlike the generality of Viceroys, Lord Dufferin knew. Of all his revelations and reminiscences, the sentence that stays with me is ‘And so, you see, there can be no room’ (or was it ‘allowance’?) ‘for good intentions in one’s work.’
Italy, however, was not enough. My need was to get clean away and re-sort myself. Cruises were then unknown; but my dependence was Cook. For the great J.M. himself — the man with the iron mouth and domed brow — had been one of my Father’s guests at Lahore when he was trying to induce the Indian Government to let him take over the annual pilgrimage to Mecca as a business proposition. Had he succeeded some lives, and perhaps a war or two, might have been saved. His home offices took friendly interest in my plans and steamer connections.
I sailed first to Cape Town in a gigantic three-thousand-ton liner called The Moor, not knowing I was in the hands of Fate. Aboard her, I met a Navy Captain going to a new Command at Simon’s Town. At Madeira he desired to lay in wine for his two-year commission. I assisted him through a variegated day and fluctuating evening, which laid the foundations of life-long friendship.
Cape Town in ‘91 was a sleepy, unkempt little place, where the stoeps of some of the older Dutch houses still jutted over the pavement. Occasional cows strolled up the main streets, which were full of coloured people of the sort that my ayah had pointed out to me were curly-haired (hubshees) who slept in such posture as made it easy for the devils to enter their bodies. But there were also many Malays who were Muslims of a sort and had their own Mosques, and whose flamboyantly-attired women sold flowers on the kerb, and took in washing. The dry, spiced smell of the land and the smack of the clean sunshine were health-restoring. My Navy Captain introduced me to the Naval society of Simon’s Town, where the south-easter blows five days a week, and the Admiral of the Cape Station lived in splendour, with at least a brace of live turtles harnessed to the end of a little wooden jetty, swimming about till due to be taken up for turtle soup. The Navy Club there and the tales of the junior officers delighted me beyond words. There I witnessed one of the most comprehensive ‘rags’ I had ever seen. It rose out of a polite suggestion to a newly-appointed Lieutenant–Commander that the fore-topmast of his tiny gunboat ‘wanted staying forward.’ It went on till all the furniture was completely rearranged all over the room. (How was I to guess that in a few years I should know Simon’s Town like the inside of my own pocket, and should give much of my life and love to the glorious land around it?)
We parted, my Captain and I, after a farewell picnic, among white, blowing sand where natives were blasting and where, of a sudden, a wrathful baboon came down the rock-face and halted waistdeep in a bed of arum-lilies. ‘We’ll meet again,’ said my Captain, ‘and if ever you want a cruise, let me know.’
A day or so before my departure for Australia, I lunched at an Adderley Street restaurant next to three men. One of them, I was told, was Cecil Rhodes, who had made the staple of our passengers’ talk on The Moor coming out. It never occurred to me to speak to him; and I have often wondered why . . . .
Her name was The Doric. She was almost empty, and she spent twenty-four consecutive days and nights trying, all but successfully, to fill her boats at one roll and empty them down the saloon skylight the next. Sea and sky were equally grey and naked on that weary run to Melbourne. Then I found myself in a new land with new smells and among people who insisted a little too much that they also were new. But there are no such things as new people in this very old world.
The leading paper offered me the most distinguished honour of describing the Melbourne Cup, but I had reported races before and knew it was not in my line. I was more interested in the middle-aged men who had spent their lives making or managing the land. They were direct of speech among each other, and talked a political slang new to me. One learned, as one always does, more from what they said to each other or took for granted in their talk, than one could have got at from a hundred questions. And on a warm night I attended a Labour Congress, where Labour debated whether some much-needed lifeboats should be allowed to be ordered from England, or whether the order should be postponed till life-boats could be built in Australia under Labour direction at Labour prices.
Hereafter my memories of Australian travel are mixed up with trains transferring me, at unholy hours, from one too-exclusive State gauge to another; of enormous skies and primitive refreshment rooms, where I drank hot tea and ate mutton, while now and then a hot wind, like the loo of the Punjab, boomed out of the emptiness. A hard land, it seemed to me, and made harder for themselves by the action of its inhabitants, who — it may have been the climate — always seemed a bit on edge.
I went also to Sydney, which was populated by leisured multitudes all in their shirt-sleeves and all picnicking all the day. They volunteered that they were new and young, but would do wonderful things some day, which promise they more than kept. Then to Hobart, in Tasmania, to pay my respects to Sir George Grey, who had been Governor at Cape Town in the days of the Mutiny. He was very old, very wise and foreseeing, with the gentleness that accompanies a certain sort of strength.
Then came New Zealand by steamer (one was always taking small and rickety coast-wise craft across those big seas), and at Wellington I was met, precisely where warned to expect him, by ‘Pelorus Jack,’ the big, white-marked dolphin, who held it his duty to escort shipping up the harbour. He enjoyed a special protection of the Legislature proclaiming him sacred, but, years later, some animal shot and wounded him and he was no more seen. Wellington opened another world of kindly people, more homogeneous, it struck me, than the Australian, large, long-eyelashed, and extraordinarily good-looking. Maybe I was prejudiced, because no less than ten beautiful maidens took me for a row in a big canoe by moonlight on the still waters of Wellington Harbour, and everyone generally put aside everything for my behoof, instruction, amusement, and comfort. So, indeed, it has always been. For which reason I deserve no credit when my work happens to be accurate in detail. A friend long ago taxed me with having enjoyed the ‘income of a Prince and the treatment of an Ambassador,’ and with not appreciating it. He even called me, among other things, ‘an ungrateful hound.’ But what, I ask you, could I have done except go on with my work and try to add to the pleasure of those that had found it pleasant? One cannot repay the unrepayable by grins and handshakes.
From Wellington I went north towards Auckland in a buggy with a small grey mare, and a most taciturn driver. It was bush country after rain. We crossed a rising river twenty-three times in one day, and came out on great plains where wild horses stared at us, and caught their feet in long blown manes as they stamped and snorted. At one of our halts I was given for dinner a roast bird with a skin like pork crackling, but it had no wings nor trace of any. It was a kiwi — an apteryx. I ought to have saved its skeleton, for few men have eaten apteryx. Hereabouts my driver — I had seen the like happen in lonely places before — exploded, as sometimes solitaries will. We passed a horse’s skull beside the track, at which he began to swear horribly but without passion. He had, he said, driven and ridden past that skull for a very long time. To him it meant the lock on the chain of his bondage to circumstance, and why the hell did I come along talking about all those foreign, far places I had seen? Yet he made me go on telling him.
I had had some notion of sailing from Auckland to visit Robert Louis Stevenson at Samoa, for he had done me the honour to write me about some of my tales; and moreover I was Eminent Past Master R.L.S. Even today I would back myself to take seventy-five per cent marks in written or viva-voce examination on The Wrong Box which, as the Initiated know, is the Test Volume of that Degree. I read it first in a small hotel in Boston in ‘89, when the negro waiter nearly turned me out of the dining-room for spluttering over my meal.
But Auckland, soft and lovely in the sunshine, seemed the end of organised travel; for the captain of a fruit-boat, which might or might not go to Samoa at some time or other, was so devotedly drunk that I decided to turn south, and work back to India. All I carried away from the magic town of Auckland was the face and voice of a woman who sold me beer at a little hotel there. They stayed at the back of my head till ten years later when, in a local train of the Cape Town suburbs, I heard a petty officer from Simon’s Town telling a companion about a woman in New Zealand who ‘never scrupled to help a lame duck or put her foot on a scorpion.’ Then — precisely as the removal of the key-log in a timber jam starts the whole pile — those words gave me the key to the face and voice at Auckland, and a tale called ‘Mrs. Bathurst’ slid into my mind, smoothly and orderly as floating timber on a bank-high river.
The South Island, mainly populated by Scots, their sheep, and the Devil’s own high winds, I tackled in another small steamer, among colder and increasing seas. We cleared it at the Last Lamp-post in the World — Invercargill — on a boisterous dark evening, when General Booth of the Salvation Army came on board. I saw him walking backward in the dusk over the uneven wharf, his cloak blown upwards, tulip-fashion, over his grey head, while he beat a tambourine in the face of the singing, weeping, praying crowd who had come to see him off.
We stood out, and at once took the South Pacific. For the better part of a week we were swept from end to end, our poop was split, and a foot or two of water smashed through the tiny saloon. I remember no set meals. The General’s cabin was near mine, and in the intervals between crashes overhead and cataracts down below he sounded like a wounded elephant; for he was in every way a big man.
I saw no more of him till I had picked up my P.&0., which also happened to be his, for Colombo at Adelaide. Here all the world came out in paddle-boats and small craft to speed him on his road to India. He spoke to them from our upper deck, and one of his gestures — an imperative, repeated, downward sweep of the arm — puzzled me, till I saw that a woman crouching on the paddle-box of a crowded boat had rucked her petticoats well up to her knees. In those days righteous woman ended at the neck and instep. Presently, she saw what was troubling the General. Her skirts were adjusted and all was peace and piety. I talked much with General Booth during that voyage. Like the young ass I was, I expressed my distaste at his appearance on Invercargill wharf. ‘Young feller,’ he replied, bending great brows at me, ‘if I thought I could win one more soul to the Lord by walking on my head and playing the tambourine with my toes, I’d — I’d learn how.’
He had the right of it (‘if by any means I can save some’) and I had decency enough to apologise. He told me about the beginnings of his mission, and how surely he would be in gaol were his accounts submitted to any sort of official inspection; and how his work must be a one-man despotism with only the Lord for supervisor. (Even so spoke Paul and, I am well sure, Muhammed.)
‘Then why,’ I asked, ‘can’t you stop your Salvation lasses from going out to India and living alone native-fashion among natives?’ I told him something of village conditions in India. The despot’s defence was very human. ‘But what am I to do?’ he demanded. ‘The girls will go, and one can’t stop ’em.’
I think this first flare of enthusiasm was rationalised later, but not before some good lives had been expended. I conceived great respect and admiration for this man with the head of Isaiah and the fire of the Prophet, but, like the latter, rather at sea among women. The next time I met him was at Oxford when Degrees were being conferred. He strode across to me in his Doctor’s robes, which magnificently became him, and, ‘Young feller,’ said he, ‘how’s your soul?’
I have always liked the Salvation Army, of whose work outside England I have seen a little. They are, of course, open to all the objections urged against them by science and the regular creeds; but it seems to me that when a soul conceives itself as being reborn it may go through agonies both unscientific and unregulated. Haggard, who had worked with him and for the Army on several occasions, told me that for sheer luxury of attendance, kindliness, and good-will, nothing compared with travel under their care.
From Colombo I crossed over to the India of the extreme south which I did not know, and for four days and four nights in the belly of the train could not understand one word of the speech around me. Then came the open north and Lahore, where I was snatching a few days’ visit with my people. They were coming ‘Home’ for good soon; so this was my last look round the only real home I had yet known.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52