by SIR OSBERT SITWELL
The victory in 1918 brought to the three young Sitwells, Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell, and to their English contemporaries, a sudden sense of release and the opportunity to pursue activities that the war had suppressed. Within two years Osbert Sitwell stood for Parliament as a Liberal candidate, produced a long book of poems, edited a quarterly devoted to modern art and literature, interviewed D’Annunzio, wrote innumerable newspaper articles, and organized the first large exhibition of French painting that London had seen since 1914.
His friends and acquaintances included Shaw, Mary Webb, Bertrand Russell, T. S. Eliot, the Huxleys, Roger Fry, Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf, Siegfried Sassoon, Isadora Duncan — the seething artistic and literary and fashionable world of a London newly awakened from the long night of the First World War. Osbert Sitwell gives us charming, unconventional portraits of these people, and resumes the account of his intense, almost medieval father, his delightful but impractical mother, and the life at Renishaw, the ancient family residence in Derbyshire. This is the first of four installments to be drawn from the new volume of his autobiography, begun in Left Hand, Right Hand! (1944) and carried on in The Scarlet Tree (1946) and Great Morning! (1947).
IN the past two decades, I have been mistaken, several times in each of the capacities, for an actor — an actor by trade, I mean, and not for any particular star — and for a Russian Grand Duke. Thus, in instance of the first, I remember, when I was traveling up by train from Folkestone to London, a lady suddenly leaned forward and earnestly asked, “Excuse me, but oughtn’t I to know your face? . . . Are you on the boards?” As for the second, one incident was rather strange: I was sitting in a cubicle, at Trumper’s in London, having my hair cut, when a stranger approached me, bowed, and began to talk very rapidly in Russian. When, having listened for a moment, I said, “I don’t understand Russian, I’m afraid,” he regarded me with a look of mingled anger and amusement, and after saying, in broken English, “It may suit you at present, sir, to pretend that,” bowed again and walked away.
Never once, I think, has my trade — in spite of a permanent stain of blue or purple ink on the left inner side of the middle finger of my right hand, surely an occupational symptom, if one were needed — been correctly divined. But then, when I regard my own image, I can see for myself how difficult it must be.
Similarly, it is hard to see oneself as one was, to see oneself from outside, looking back through the dust of a lifetime. Yet we must, my brother, sister, and myself, although we were young, have been already well-known enough for people to turn round and look at us in the street. Indeed, it was hardly a year later, when I first met Ada Leverson, that she had looked up the entry devoted to my family in Burke’s Peerage, and, upon reading at the end of it the technical description of the Sitwell coat-of-arms, “Barry of eight, or and vert, three lions rampant . . . crest, a demi-lion, erased . . . ,”had been struck, she told me afterwards, by its prophetic nature, because, she averred, Edith, Sacheverell, and myself were clearly the three lions rampant, and my father must be the demilion, erased. . . .
And yet if one is to conclude that we were already famous, one of the lions was a boy of only twenty-one at the time. Certainly he — Sacheverell — was the most precocious of us three, for the poems in his first book, The People’s Palace, were written when he was eighteen, and published when he was twenty. And Southern Baroque Art, which revealed a whole new world in a new way, and is, in prose as in aesthetic criticism, a work of the first order, appeared when he was twenty-five. Incidentally, it was written when he was twenty-two, and I may add, for the comfort of young writers, that I hawked about in person this magnificent and now celebrated book, and saw it refused by several eminent publishers; although when finally published, it obtained an immediate and immense success, and set a whole generation chattering for twenty years.
My sister had already published two remarkable books of verse, The Mother and Clown’s Houses, and a third volume, Twentieth Century Harlequinade, in conjunction with me. She was also editing an annual collection of modern verse, Wheels. This yearly anthology, which ran for six years, attracted considerable attention from the critics. One notice, I recall, described the first series as “conceived in morbid eccentricity, and executed in fierce, fictitious gloom”; a sentence I have always liked.
AS FOR myself, though, as will emerge, my father was determined to prevent it, as far as lay within his power, I was resolved to devote my future, my whole life, to writing: that was the urging of my left hand — and of my right: for the years stretching ahead now that the war was over seemed so infinite a time, albeit I always greatly worried in a neurasthenic way about my health — an unpleasant trait which in part I may have inherited — that it seemed there would be time to accomplish everything one could wish. Besides, at that age, one felt oneself to possess enough energy to furnish the whole of the seven careers that Arnold Bennett later declared were mine. And so, I allowed my left hand to encourage me to attempt to effect a compromise with politics and with my father; the claims of political careers, in so many directions, in the past, asserted themselves, and gave me enthusiasm: while, in addition, the brutality and stupidity of a long war, and the muzzle that, during its course, it always clamps on the mouth, had left me and many of my contemporaries as eager now to speak our minds as those older than ourselves were determined not to heed us.
In consequence, I fought an election at Scarborough, where my father had contested seven elections as in the Conservative interest: but I stood, in the service of that most unpopular of political faiths at that time, and ever since; as a Liberal, of the old kind, and without being furnished with the approval of Mr. Lloyd George. At first, I had obtained the promise of Labor support, but later a strong Labor candidate of local origin — a member of the influential Quaker clan, the Rowntrees — came out against me. H. W. Massingham, the editor of the Nation, with his usual courageous directness, urged him, in a telegram — though Rowntrce was a member of the family that owned the Nation — to stand down: for Rowntree was then a man of about seventy, I suppose, I was twenty-five, and Massingham considered that younger men were needed in Parliament, and had a belief in my ability: indeed, in his telegram, he went so far as to say that he would regard my return for the constituency as a guarantee of peace. The Conservative candidate was Sir Gervase Beckett, the sitting member for the division, and brother to my godfather. The old borough of Scarborough had now been merged in an electoral district which included Whitby, Pickering, and the country between.
The Orderly Room, instructed by the War Office, allowed me three weeks’ leave, in which to conduct my campaign (but it was difficult to avoid a feeling that Liberals were not popular in high regimental circles; were, indeed, classed with dangerous revolutionaries). Accordingly, I went to live at Wood End, taking with me Richmond Temple, a dynamic and resourceful friend, of most modern outlook, who had just left the Air Force, and who was capable of acting with great speed and decision as well as being endowed with the gift of infusing energy into those round him.
Immensely I enjoyed being brought into personal contact with the great variety of types to be met with in this area; solicitors and trawler-owners, Wesleyans and Methodists, Quakers and Catholics, tradesmen and fishermen, dry schoolmasters and sly insurance agents. Some of the farmers, living in isolated communities on the moors, spoke so broad a tongue that only occasionally one recognized a word such as “bloody” (pronounced “bludy”) and clung to it as a raft of sense in an unchartable sea of sounds. The old houses of Robin Hood’s Bay, again, were manned by whole crews of sea captains, retired. These old men, at that time, owing to the war boom in shipping, each worth some twenty to fifty thousand pounds, were bulky, bearded, and still spent the day up ladders, which they dwarfed, painting their own houses, and making them shipshape. In Scarborough, in the old town, there were the colonies of fishermen and their wives whom I already knew and on the South Cliff a memorable population of curates.
The life that opened for me, though it lasted in this intense form only for so few weeks, forced me to be adaptable; to be at home at high tea with members of the Low Church and the Sects, at supper with the fishermen, or when reading a play by Bernard Shaw in the appropriate setting of a circle organized in a drawing room by a curate. (I have always remembered the little cough he gave, when, while he was reading, he came suddenly in one scene upon the word “damn!” and substituted for it, in such a jolly voice, the more innocuous word “drat!”) Accompanying me everywhere, on all occasions, was my mastiff, a huge animal, like a lioness of palest gold, and I have always thought that her appearance, steadfastness, and devotion on the platform won me more votes than any speeches that were delivered: for, if the English love — or loved — a lord, how much more do they love a dog.
The meetings varied in interest; but there would always be present, at the back of the hall, wherever it might be, a thin, old gentleman with a bald head, secured by a few thick strands of hair, as though it were a runaway football or melon caught in a thin net. Directly I had finished speaking, he would rise to ask whether I agreed with him in his view that the Pope had been solely and in person responsible for the outbreak of war in 1914, and of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Then, also, there would be sitting in the third or fourth row a lady with white hair, and an expression of sickening kindness, who thought it was cruel to clip or cut trees, and wanted me to promise, if I were returned, to protest to the French Government concerning the gardens, with their pleached alleys, at Versailles, and the pollarded avenues that enclose many French roads. And at every meeting, wherever it might be, I was asked to make sure that the Kaiser was hanged.
DURING the progress of the campaign, indeed after the first two days had gone, my father decided to come over from Renishaw and stay at Wood End, so as to give me the benefit of his experience and advice. It was the same with everything. If he saw a poem of mine, he would rewrite it, or, if he had found out that I was working on one, he would rush in to “help” me, always saying, in explanation, and in the most affable manner possible, “Two brains, dear boy, are better than one!” As for the election, if only I would listen to him! It was quite simple to get in, he said (though he himself had been rejected five times out of seven) if only one knew the right way to set about it!
He was continually spinning into my room like a tornado when I was preparing a speech, with a few new hints. My last had been, to his mind, he said, a mistake, a great mistake. I was quite wrong to talk about what I believed in. Don’t on any account mention the war or the League of Nations. People weren’t interested. The voters did not want to be troubled with problems: but they liked facts. Give them tables of interesting figures, and a little comparison between comparative costs in the reign of Edward III — or Edward the Confessor, only that might be rather too early for them: as a rule he’d found they weren’t very much “up” in anything before the Conqueror — and those of today. (He had been studying the matter, and it was most interesting: Wilhelmus de Killamarshe paid a farthing for two sheep in 1286.) A few more figures after that, and then, just as they weren’t expecting it, swing sonorously into a peroration, culminating in a passage if possible from Byron. For instance, that quatrain from his “Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte.” It would apply to the Kaiser, and the audience would love it.
And armed with Kings to strive —
And now thou art a nameless thing:
So abject — yet alive!
Nobody, I could be sure, would vote for a candidate whose speech did not end with a quotation, and the longer, the better. He was afraid the one he had given me was a bit short. Horace was, however, out of date. . . . My father would, too, waylay supporters, or possible supporters, and point out where I went wrong, and worse, would instruct the agent in his business, and the Committee and Chairman in their duties. In short, it soon became impossible to get anything done at all while he was in the house. . . .
My mother came to my rescue. “Leave it to me, darling!” she said lightly. “I’ll see to it.” She watched the situation closely and when, about ten days before the election, he discovered — as he was often wont to do — a new pain, this time in his back, just at the waist, she allowed it to be seen that, although as a rule she declined to take his illnesses seriously, she regarded this as of the utmost gravity. She advised him to go to bed at once. He allowed himself without much difficulty to be persuaded, for he was frightened by her alarmed expression, and as soon as he was safely ensconced, she sent the footman out to buy a strong mustard plaster, and had it applied to the place. The plaster naturally produced a feeling of heat and a discoloration of the skin.
My mother came in, just after, looked at it, and asked: “Does it burn, George?”
When he admitted that it did, she said, “Then it can only be shingles! It’s a dangerous complaint. You ought to be very careful.”
She told him further, that it was very lucky for him that she had found it out and that it was better not to call in doctors, for they never understood that kind of thing; the only cure was prolonged rest and to keep warm, and never leave his room. It would be madness to get up. He seemed much flattered at her concern, and followed her advice. Thus though there was absolutely nothing the matter with him, he was kept in bed until the very day of the election, when she hired a bath-chair for him and sent him to the booth to vote for me. He had by now really begun to look pale and worn, and his air of pathos, together with his vehicle, and his obvious bravery in coming out, straight from his bed, to record a vote for his son, made a most favorable impression and must have gained many waverers to my cause. . . . However, I did not win. When the result of the poll was declared, Sir Gervase Beckett had obtained some twelve thousand votes to my eight thousand, while the Labor candidate had won a few hundred and had forfeited his deposit.
I nursed the constituency for two or three years afterwards. At first, I had not wanted to do so, because I longed to devote myself entirely to my proper work. Realizing in what direction my inclinations lay, my father at once wrote to me in an opposite sense. (Never be good at one thing. Learn to make up your weak points.) On July 17, 1919, he sent me a letter which included the sentence, “Whether you do or do not intend to take up political life, you should fight the next election.” Four days later, ho was writing, more emphatically, “I think you ought to make good your position as a poet, and am all for your having leisure to bring out a volume. But I don’t think your life should be sacrificed in this. You have mentioned to me [I had never done so] that an ordinary balance sheet is Greek to you, and it is obvious that at present you have no capacity for dealing with business matters. You would do well to try and fit yourself for that and for public-life.”
On September 5, he repeated some of the various pieces of advice he had given me at the election. “As to politics, remember that at the moment people are not interested in them, and (if you are) avoid speaking on directly political subjects. Give them good facts. . . . Be careful of your humor, which is dangerous.” When, however, it became clear that, fortune favoring me, I might win the seat for the Liberals at the next election, he at once became gravely concerned, and advised me to give up politics and turn to farming.
I had grown to like the life I had been obliged to lead, and to love the district, and I relinquished my candidature with a sore heart, forced thereto by an attack of poverty from which my father suddenly perceived himself to be suffering. I had made one discovery, however, which helped to ease the wrench; that though it might have been possible for me to win the friendship and confidence of the electors, and though they possessed their full share of northern idealism, yet nobody else in the neighborhood or elsewhere was in the least curious about the particular new world that I wanted to help build, and which I had thought to be a chief and abiding interest for English people.
In general, the voters contented themselves with repeating either that no new war would come, or else that war was so firmly planted in human nature that it would be wrong to try to uproot it though they were eager, too, that each child should have a better start in life than his father, and thus, through education, be able more easily to assimilate the moral and ethical truths contained in those Sunday papers they patronized. (“At his age, I couldn’t read The News of the World!” a father remarked proudly to me, as he pointed at his son of thirteen.) For the rest, the Germans must pay; the Kaiser must be hanged, and we mustn’t be soft with the French, or truckle to the Americans either.
Only those who were of my generation understood the nature of the recent war, or what it meant. It took me a full lustrum to recover from the state of spiritual and mental fury, misery, and despair into which experience of the war in France and observation of the civilians in England had thrown me. I was still thinking about the last war — and the next, which would inevitably come within a generation unless men made a real effort for earthwide peace, at a time when most people had entirely forgotten it, except for a compulsory two minutes on recurrent November days.
As I had walked home to Swan Walk, however, on that night of November 11, 1918, though my life, as I then saw it, was to be divided between the creation of beauty and giving shape to ideas, and in an effort to improve conditions of life for the workers, and to prevent the recurrence of the slaughter, which, though it temporarily raised the wages of the fathers, massacred half their sons, it was, nevertheless, and though the election was so imminent, not politics that occupied my mind, but writing; how one was to crystallize, refine, condense to the ultimate point, and yet retain nimbleness, wit, above all, energy. It was impossible, it seemed to me: for very often I doubted with a haunting, mingled rage and despair: though it never occurred to me, oddly, to doubt my political abilities. That was my left hand, giving support, I presume, and dispelling incertitudes. . . .
And now I must trace my steps back further, and try to explain the course of my personal life, the things that had happened to me and those round me — or, if not explain, at least record them; what had happened, and why, quite apart from the impact of the war, in itself violent as an earthquake, the world to which I was now returning as a civilian was so greatly altered; why the people reassembled round me, by the force of my left hand, were, though in some respects so much intensified in their character as previously outlined, in others, so greatly changed, why those I collected about me, by the force of my right hand, were so different in kind, and how, in the space of four brief years, the claims of my right hand had asserted themselves, and I had been able to substitute new friends, chosen by myself, for many inherited and tedious associations.
IN Great Morning! I took leave of the reader at the palmist’s, in November, 1914. . . . Even when my father and I were on the worst of terms, he would favor me with his views on the war in talk or by letter. Though, if it were in conversation, the discourse must not be allowed to go on for too long, since he possessed in the highest degree the art of squeezing the life out of an hour and of making it drag its weary length along, nevertheless a short ten minutes on a subject impersonal, and not entirely confined to the errors of his children, was always a delight. The nonconformity of the opinions he aired was exhilarating, though, of course, he was so far carried away by the consciousness of frustration and futility that must haunt all individuals, as opposed to units, caught in an age of democratic wars, that often plainly he trespassed across the borders of common sense in an opposite direction.
Moreover, he was a little prejudiced, by his love of German medieval art, and because the Kaiser, on account of his family pride, his similar interests, and, perhaps, because, too, he claimed to be an authority on nearly every subject, had always been a hero to him. Indeed, the two men bore some resemblance to each other, physically as well as in mind (they had been born on the same day of the same month, though a year divided them in age, the Kaiser having been born on the twenty-seventh of January, 1859, my father on the twenty-seventh of January, 1860), and as they grew older and adopted beards, this likeness emphasized itself: but I do not know if my father was aware of it. . . . Ever since the war broke out, then, he had pursued his own line about its origin and conduct, and had remained firm in his attitude until the end, often falling a victim, as he was wont to do, of his own propaganda (a habit which finally made him liable to the propaganda of others, too; so that, after the war, he changed, and adopted a new bellicose, contemporary-newspaper attitude towards Germany). Thus, as early as the day after war was declared, he wrote to me from Renishaw: —
I don’t blame the Germans. I think the Czar’s want of judgement has brought this upon Europe — unless, indeed, it was Russian statecraft to force Germany into war. . . . I fancy the Kaiser spoke truly when he said the sword was being forced into his hand. . . . However, this reading of the situation will be very unpopular at the present moment.
And, as late as August 8, 1918, before the sudden swelling of the Allied fortunes, he was writing: —
. . . We are told we are fighting for the triumph of democracy, which has so managed the affair that we could hardly expect to get at this moment the status quo ante terms we could have obtained after the first battle of the Marne. But what we have really been fighting for, of course, during these last three years is the triumph of Bolshevik principles in England — bound to come if war continues much longer. Everyone of sound military judgement knew at the beginning of the war that we could not hope to break completely the military strength of Germany: we could, however, without ruining civilization, as we have already done, have made Germany accept peace without spoils, which would have meant popular reforms in Germany, and have kept Russia alive as a counterpoise. Now we have got to the gambler’s last stake, and must go on for a time on the chance that Germany may go Bolshevik first.
“Everyone of sound military judgement” meant, of course, himself, the former Adjutant of the Volunteer Regiment he had commanded, and the omniscient Major Viburne, who was staying at Renishaw, when the war broke out, supposedly to keep an eye on the household expenses. At any rate, from the first moment my father had begun resolutely, and almost with unction, to prepare for the worst. He threw his gothic imagination into this, as formerly into the more decorative aspects of life, with real abandon. But his frame of mind varied. In some moods he would make notes on the various projects he had not yet had time to undertake — life, he noticed, was beginning to sweep him past at a great pace, though I doubt if he or any victim really can estimate fully the speed of his transit — and meant, directly the war was over, to embark upon: in other moods he would allow his forebodings an equally full play.
Personal, no less than national, ruin loomed (that was true, but he did not comprehend the kind or direction). By August 10, 1914, not a week after war had broken out, he had already made certain plans for preserving his family and belongings: —
If the Germans come over, I think of sending your mother and Sachie to the Peak, and shall stay to dismantle Renishaw of tapestry, pictures and china. . . . If the Germans don’t come over, we may let Wood End for several months, and go into lodgings at Scarborough.
THE pattern, however, did not work out quite as he designed it. And the family — that is to say my father and mother, for family and household were both much dispersed — settled itself once more at Wood End in November, 1914. Edith had now established herself in a small top-floor flat in Bayswater (in spite of its size, for many years it became a center in London for painters, musicians, writers, and especially for young poets), Sacheverell was at Eton.
Henry Moat, our butler for many years, had left my father’s service in April, 1913, this constituting the longest of his absences. On leaving he had applied at the agencies for a job, stating, as one of his qualifications, that he spoke “five languages including Yorkshire.” Eventually he had found a very well-paid situation, which he thought would suit him, as butler to a rich, retired fur merchant in Hampstead. His employer, however, proved to have a temper of the most violent Oriental kind, and in reply to furious verbal assaults, accusing him of breaches of the decorum of major-domodom, and sprinkled with inopportune foreign turns of phrase, Henry would remain calm, and then with his immense butler’s dignity, which he could assume like a robe of office, would observe: “You must remember, sir; I’m accustomed to the gentry.” He did not, in truth, ever grow used to the ways of the house, and in consequence, as soon as the war broke out, had joined the Army Service Corps.
Poor Robins, who had replaced him as our butler, had been recalled to his regiment early in August, and had gone abroad with the First Expeditionary Force. At the moment, he was in France, under peculiar circumstances: for, having evaded capture for a month, he was living behind the German lines, with other survivors of the same troop. Eventually, early in December, they were obliged to give themselves up, in order not to compromise those persons who had provided them with food and shelter, chief of whom was the heroic Princess dc Croy. Next, they were taken to Germany, court-martialed, and the majority of them, including Robins, were sentenced to be shot. It was only at the very last moment, when they were lined up for execution in the yard, that a reprieve came, suddenly and without reason.
In the house, then, the old pantryman Pare alone remained, of all my former friends: Pare to whom day and night were the same and brought nothing but work and sadness. He still was not allowed to visit his mad wife, whose condition seemed to worsen every year. The servants who had replaced those who had left were foreign; a Swiss footman, a French maid. But Scarborough itself, the town and the people, were unchanged in most respects, though the town was full, and busy with a military activity new to it. I had a good many letters from my mother and father, Miss Lloyd and Major Viburne, and could, as a result, piece together what was happening there.
Miss Lloyd, a friend of the family, was now growing into a very old lady. She had taken upon herself innumerable labors on behalf of the local young men who had volunteered for service. In addition to these tasks, occupying most of the day — cooking, knitting, sending parcels — she had fallen a little under the spell of the then epidemic spy-mania, which always intoxicates and renders its victims happy by allowing them to exaggerate their own importance in the contemporary scene. And this, in turn, threw more work upon her, for it necessitated her remaining, for at least half an hour at a time, in the bow window of her drawing room, with the brass and shagreen telescope she had inherited from her uncle (to me, though never seen, a figure familiar from my earliest infancy, and legendary in scale albeit slightly misty) — with her telescope, then, clapped to her eye, searching the wide seascape for the periscopes of German submarines, and the convergence of streets below her house for disguised “Huns.”
And she would, indeed, make amazing discoveries; since half-coconuts and bits of fat were still suspended in the window box for hungry beaks to peck at, and in consequence she would sometimes, with the aid of the lens, misinterpret the distance of the scurry of wrings immediately below, and read, instead of it, a distant naval engagement, which would leave her in a temporary vain agony of disquiet. . . . What could they be, a new form of boat, or aircraft, perhaps; real devils, those Huns! But no, it was only the dear little blue tits again! Nor did her duties terminate with the day, for often at two or three in the morning, she would creep to the window to look for Germans (and one never knew now who were or were not Germans), signaling out to sea, giving their chiefs news of the latest Rectory Sale of Work or Scout Jamboree. (They were so methodical and devoted to detail, that nothing, she held, was too trivial for them to notice.)
To Major Viburne, too, now well over eighty years of age, the war had brought new interests, new life. While it was true that he had, together with all the other old gentlemen in clubs, long foreseen the struggle coming, it was equally not to be denied that his own military experience had been limited. Long ago, I had been present in the pantry in Renishaw, when a footman who had been startled during dinner by Major Viburne’s tales of his own martial prowess, had asked Henry: —
“Excuse me, Mr. Moat, sir, but in what war did the Major see service?”
Henry had replied, to the young man’s complete satisfaction, “My lad, the old boy served right through the Canteen Campaign from start to finish!”
And so it was that now, ancient memories stirred in him; memories of other wars— of which he had read in other newspapers. It can be imagined how frequent and how free were the advice and exhortations he lavished upon the somnolent forms of fellow elders in the Gentleman’s Club; sometimes, again, one of them would rouse himself and similarly address the Major, when he, too, was asleep in his armchair, dreaming of the days when he had been Captain Commandant of Scarborough Castle. When awake, or not talking, he was reading Caesar’s Commentaries again, which somehow made the present war seem so much more vivid.
My mother’s troubles with money, brought on by her total ignorance of arithmetic and law, appeared at this moment to have taken a turn for the better, even to have dispersed. First of all my cousin, Irene Denison, had, on her own initiative, and without the advice of her parents or mine, made a most gallant effort, and at a sacrifice of part of her own fortune, to save my mother before it should prove too late: and in November my mother went up to London for a few days, for a lawsuit that Messrs. Lewis & Lewis were conducting on her behalf against the moneylender Julian Field. She won it, was triumphantly vindicated, and exposed his dealings. Yet she was still unhappy and agitated — though perhaps agitated is not the correct word, for in the daytime she averted her mind from her troubles, which returned to haunt her at night.
My father was immersed in his usual interests, and on December 8 wrote to me from Scarborough : —
I don’t think I told you I am turning the Ladies Room at the Renishaw Park Golf Club into a lockerroom. It will be so much better for them to have as a sitting-room the cottage beyond — which will open into the passage. This will make a splendid room, two storeys of windows, a coved plaster roof and a south aspect. I think I shall put up in it the 16th century chimneypiece, as it may as well be there till it is wanted elsewhere, as lying about. . . . I have been busy getting copies of wills for the family history. Mary Revell, who was a Sitwell, in 1670, John Milward, who was Francis Sitwell’s brother-in-law in 1679, Hercules Clay, who was Ann Sitwell’s grandfather in 1685; and Mrs Kent, who was her stepmother, in 1687. . . . Mrs Revell had a table-carpet in her bedroom, but no floor-carpet. John Milward leaves his hawks and spaniels to one friend, except his setter-dog. Lusty, whom he leaves to another. ... I have been working, too, at old costume. The modern coat was only invented about 1670-5: before that it was doublet, waistcoat and breeches. In this way, I think I have been able to date the picture of old Derby. . . .
So things were going, until the morning of my last day in England before I left for the front — the same morning that Germans came over the North Sea and chose to bombard Scarborough!
The noise of the great naval guns thumping and crashing through the mist, which magnified the sound, was enormous. It was about 8.15 A.M.; my father was just dressing, and lost no time in finishing the process, and getting downstairs. A piece of shell went through the front door, pierced a wooden pillar (part of the elaborate Edwardian decoration he had installed) and then buried itself in the smaller hall, while many fragments penetrated the house. The Swiss footman went upstairs, and watched the attack from the roof. My mother, who was in bed when the bombardment took place, refused to move: but half an hour later, after it had just stopped, she rose, dressed, and, in order to see me before I left England the next morning, caught a train, unusually crowded, to London. Her maid supervised the luggage: but my mother personally took charge of a rather heavy piece of shell, which she was anxious to give me as a mascot. She entered my sister’s flat, where I was having tea, and pressed her offering into my hands, saying: —
“Here you are, darling! I’ve brought it with me specially, for you to take to France. I’m sure it’ll bring you luck!”
MY father had taken refuge, with the rest of the household, except my mother and the footman, in the cellar; though, as will appear in a moment, he had found a more dignified name for it. In those days he still possessed no motor, and so when, as soon as the German ships had sheered back into the gray vapor that separated our two countries, he emerged into daylight again — but cautiously, since he feared that the retreat might be a ruse; the object of a new raid, if it occurred, being, in his opinion, the determination of the enemy fleet to secure himself as a hostage — he sent immediately for his medical attendant of many years’ standing. As the doctor entered the room, my father said to him, without preface: —
“Dr. Mallard, if the Germans come back, I shall need your motor to drive me to York.”
“But what will happen if Mrs. Mallard wants it, Sir George?” the poor man asked despairingly.
“I’m afraid I really can’t help that!” my father snapped at him, and allowed a look to show plainly his disgust at other people’s selfishness.
Meanwhile his power of fantasy had set itself to work on another plan for the moment when the emergency he foresaw should arise: an alternative of which he often told me in later years in example of the heroic lengths to which he would have gone and could go. . . . A little way beneath the western, tall, brown-brick wall of our garden, in the depths of The Valley, as it was called, a wooded public pleasance, with a road running through it, lay a small but rather elongated shallow pool, carrying in its center a diminutive island where elegiac trees drooped over the water. In the middle of this rose a rustic thatched hut of the sixties, fashioned of wood that still retained in places its bark as a shelter for earwigs, while the outside — and inside — of the cabin was much discolored by bird-droppings: for it was the home and haunt of many water birds. Hither my father proposed to wade or swim, should he be surprised in Scarborough by the returning Germans and unable to make a getaway in Dr. Mallard’s motor: in this idyllic refuge, he would hide, residing there, a Wild Man of the Weeping Willows, living among — and I suppose upon — the ducks and other decorative fowl to which in more peaceful times it was abandoned.
“I should have been quite happy there, too,” he would comment at the end of a disclosure of his plans in after years, “with a few books down from time to time from the London Library.” And then, he would add the familiar reproof, “I never allow myself to feel bored!”
Of this Red Indian’s dream of his, he did not inform me at once by letter — it might be dangerous to me as well; the Germans were sure to steam open his letters, and by that means would find out that I had gone abroad — but he told Sacheverell of it, during the Christmas holidays. Nor did he allow his fears to prevent him from writing me of other things: for when I reported to the Adjutant in the front-line trenches, only two days after the bombardment of Scarborough, I was at once handed a letter from my father! I read it later, by myself, and was startled out of the dull melancholy that had settled on me when I arrived — at the first sight of the flying fountains of dead earth, the broken trees and mud, and at the first sounds, growing ever more ominous as one drew nearer to the bumping and metallic roaring which resembled a clash of comets — by the sheer fun of its contents.
MY DEAREST OSBERT
As I fear a line sent to Chelsea Barracks may not reach you before you leave tomorrow, I write to you, care of your regiment, B.E.F. so that you may find a letter from me waiting for you when you arrive in the trenches. But I had wanted if possible to give you a word of advice before you left. Though you will not, of course, have to encounter anywhere abroad the same weight of gunfire that your mother and I had to face here — it has been my contention for many years that there were no guns in the world to compare for weight and range with the great German naval guns, and that our own do not come anywhere near them — yet my experience may be useful to you. Directly you hear the first shell, retire, as I did, to the Undercroft, and remain there quietly until all firing has ceased. Even then, a bombardment, especially as one grows older, is a strain upon the nervous system — but the best remedy for that, as always, is to keep warm and have plenty of plain, nourishing food at frequent but regular intervals. And, of course, plenty of rest. I find a nap in the afternoon most helpful, if not unduly prolonged, and I advise you to try it whenever possible.
Ever your loving father
GEORGE R. SITWELL
Undercroft was a word new to me, and it was some time before I discovered with what trisyllabic majesty the simple word cellar had clothed itself.
SO BORED was I with life in France and Flanders and, as I have before had reason to stress, so incompetent in many ways as an officer, that I seldom or never knew where I was, in relation, not to the precise locality, but to the whole map. One or two places, like Ypres, possessed their own fame and history whether in war or peace; the rest was “the front,” a monochromatic geographical entity of its own, floating, cloudlike, across a continent. I felt utterly lost in a world in which all my old friends, with whom I associated regimental life, were dead, and already remembered here by but few: while my new friends, of a few months’ standing, had not yet been passed out from Chelsea Barracks. The very excess of bleak boredom and gray discomfort — albeit that seems an inadequate description for so entire and black a universe of physical sensation, of wet and cold and stench and mud — afforded me a sort of careless courage. Yet it was ever with dismay that I would hear, as alas I often did, a brother officer remark, no doubt with a kindred sentiment in his heart: —
“The Boches won’t get me now! I’ve been out here too long!”
Whether with them it was that many dangers survived had induced a feeling of false security, I do not know, or what the chief cause responsible for it may have been, yet always I noticed that the man who said it would be dead within a space of a few days, or more often of hours. . . . The chance, when one reasoned, of continued existence in this world after the war, seemed as remote as that of life after death to an unbeliever. (My father, however, wrote to me on this matter, and treated it on a basis of computation or assessment. It would be a serious matter, losing an elder son, even if he were not altogether the success he ought to be; and so, it appeared, he had been making inquiries. “According to the Insurance Companies it is eleven to one against an officer being killed in a year’s fighting with the Germans, so I hope we may get you back safe and sound.”)
Even in the depths of spirit, however, to which the monotony of the life reduced me, I did not hate the routine here as I hated it in my private school. At least Bloodsworth had done that for me. I had known worse. At least there were no masters, matrons, nor compulsory games. The discomfort was, at times, perhaps a little greater, the food, though tinned, perhaps a little more palatable. (Indeed, I have been inclined to wonder whether the education of myself and my contemporaries at private and public schools had not been conducted with the idea in view of affording us the ability to make this comparison. . . . Through the long course of Samurai-like discipline to which they were, with few exceptions, obliged to submit in their most impressionable years, the children of the former British governing classes had been taught to bear with composure a high degree of physical hardship and spiritual misery, while enclosed in an atmosphere of utmost frustration: might not this apparent abandoning of children by their parents have been deliberate, in order to prepare them to cut their way out of the catastrophic booby traps which at that very time the politicians were so steadily, and with such elaboration, getting ready for us? But if this were so — and certainly the young of this class could bear bodily suffering and exhaustion, and a sense of the crudest isolation, with a stoical equanimity unknown among those who came from good workingclass homes and had been brought up, right from their earliest years to manhood, in an unaltering atmosphere of domestic affection — would it not have been wiser to have elucidated the position for us at the time?)
No, the front was certainly preferable to “the happiest time of one’s life.” Though my friends were dead, and the sadness of this lay over me — though the abruptness of it still rendered it difficult to grasp — yet, since I was young, new relationships established themselves. And in the Regiment, I found the old tolerance, which had always greatly surprised me, still flourished oddly in this harsh soil.
I must again emphasize — for it cannot be exaggerated — the degree to which, voluntarily and involuntarily, I continually showed myself to be of an unmilitary and even anti-militarist disposition. Not only, as I have said, did I hardly know where, precisely, I was, but so deeply bored was I at this period that, although in some directions my memory is very retentive, an inner censor — perhaps the same who censors nightmares after waking — stepped in to delete certain facts from the record. Thus I am quite unable to recall with what battalions I saw service in France and Flanders, though I can still, on the other hand, quite well recall with what battalions I served in England a year or two earlier. Again, at moments driven desperate by the placid acceptances of conventional minds, I quite often said, in my own way, what I thought. I remember, for example, one very wet day, when out for a route march during a week’s break from the routine of trenches and billets in farms, covering my uniform with copies of The Times. These were soon turned by the weather into a very sodden, dirty gray mess, and in consequence I arrived at the end of the day looking very disreputable. When the Commanding Officer inquired what it meant, I replied: —
“You seem to forget, sir, that it’s very wet and I’ve had a long walk.”
This unmilitary reply would have infuriated many commanders, less sure of themselves, and of the discipline of their officers and men: here, it raised no flicker of rage. So that, in the sense of companionship, I was happy enough, and it was only when all the officers of the Battalion or Battalions were gathered together for a dinner that I found myself ill at ease, disliking then, as now, and as always, the manner in which the coalescent groupsoul, released from a herd, manifests itself. ... At some of these occasions, I would see the very young, slight figure of the Prince of Wales, then an officer in the Grenadiers, with his extreme charm, his melancholy smile, and angry eyes, trying, I suspect like myself, to pretend he was enjoying himself.
FOR the rest, in the trenches, one day was sad, cold, and hopeless as the next. Sleep was the greatest prop and happiness known to any of us, I believe. To me, assuredly, whether dreamless or the reverse, it was, during tins period, peculiarly happy. (Perhaps the sleep of condemned, but innocent, political prisoners, for example, resembles it in this respect.) Though often in ordinary life of a melancholy or terrifying nature, my dreams were now peaceful, and even radiant, in feeling, imbued with the happiest imagining, and this certainly affords an inner psychical strength.
Sometimes I have thought my subconscious mind to be lazy in the background it presents. Seldom, indeed, does it carry me to interesting places, such as when once it transported me for the night to the immense halls and galleries of the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar, and allowed me to look at the flat domes and colonnades, and towers, stepped like Aztec pyramids, to examine at my leisure the detail of the great bas-reliefs in porphyry and basalt which adorned its walls, so sheer and lofty, and to watch the procession of men, with blue-black beards, hook noses, and yellow skins, hurrying through corridors to attend their royal but graminivorous master. For that hour’s entertainment, a whole system of architecture had been improvised, a lost civilization revived.
But this was very rare: as a rule I am rationed in this other life, and usually given distorted variations of the scenes most familiar to me, three in number like the crow’s-foot alleys in perspective of the Renaissance and seventeenth-century stage; Renishaw awry in a vast, flawless summer day or night, with its enormous rooms in the wrong order, or on occasion a new wing, suddenly revealed to me by my father — something he had been keeping secret — but always beautiful and with an atmosphere of curious suspense and beauty, or the rolling winter seas of Scarborough, dashing gigantic wings to batter falling cliffs, under the pounce and glitter of bitter-beaked sea gulls materializing out of a misty nothingness of white foam, and yellow sky, while a voice cries slyly in the hollows under the lull, “Rags and Bones, Rags and Bones!”; or London, with a prim brown-brick street, very neat and orderly, with its shops and railings. . . .
But now, in the trenches, I was granted compensatory dreams, being allowed in them to see the people I wanted to see, and with whom I wanted — or thought I wanted — to spend my life. The background was of no importance: and though one of the chief deprivations I felt in these years was my enforced absence from Renishaw — which I hardly saw during the years of war, never in the summer, and for more than a day or two only when ill or at a moment of very severe personal distress — I seldom dreamed of it, or of Italy, which again would have saddened me when I awoke by the comparison the present offered with the past. The dreams of which I tell, left, on the contrary, no aftertaste. They were, as I have said, concerned with people more than places, and the degree of psychological observation latent, I suppose, in every novelist, whether practicing or still in chrysalis, gave a peculiar sharpness to their doings and sayings: they behaved in this sharp, swift world reflected from their own behavior, in a fashion that was more essentially typical of themselves than themselves were, in everyday life! . . . Or, very often, sleep was dreamless, came on with the force and suddenness of a knockout, and in one instance, after a particularly long and trying period in the trenches, though by nature a reluctant and nervous sleeper, I slumbered for eighteen hours, only waking at six in the evening.
NEXT to sleep, but certainly inferior to it as a pleasure, came reading. ... As a pessimist, and in an effort to make this existence seem more tolerable, in general I avoided works of a cheerful tendency, and once more abandoned myself to the genius of Dostoevsky. To have been Raskolnikov or Mitya Karamazov would constitute a worse destiny than to lead this life until you were killed — lead this life, so dull in spite of its risk, and with the prospect of the humiliation and sadness that threatened us at home, continually under the mind. (It was only, as I have told in Great Morning!, a few days before I left for the front, that my father had written to tell me that the crop of lawsuits, claims and counterclaims, arising out of my mother’s financial entanglements, as the result of Field’s machinations, was beginning all over again, and now with a yet more somber tinge to it. In this way, heroic tragedy proved a comfort.
When after reading The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot, King Lear or Othello, I needed a change of feeling, I turned to the novels of Dickens again: for they were connected with the life of a great city, and I felt a craving for metropolitan interests. For so long as I read, the white winter vapors of Flanders and of France — mists so dull and lifeless, except to our eyes when we were on duty, for then every shape stirred stealthily, and the whole static world assumed movement at a sound — were exchanged for the glorious golden fogs (or such they now seemed to me) of my native city, and I exulted accordingly in the creative force of this great novelist, so dear to me and so familiar from boyhood.
With what certainty he would have comprehended and rendered a night of duty: rats and mud, and the particular horror they hold for human beings; he already understood (think of the opening of Our Mutual Friend on the waters of the Pool of London!), and he would at once have captured, the feeling of these coffin-like ditches, where death brooded in the air after the same manner that some fatal disease, such as malaria, hangs suspended, but ever present, over the deserted marshlands of Italy and Greece. I had always, in so far as I had considered the question, regarded myself as being of both an imaginative and an apprehensive turn of mind: but here the suddenness of death and its sadness, the sense, above all, of waste, transcended any preconceived idea.
The second night after my arrival, I was sent out on duty just behind the line, lightly held at this point, though the enemy was within a hundred yards. Before me, in the white, misty evening, pervaded by vague moonlight, could be seen, just across our trenches, the narrow territory of No Man’s Land, to which the futures of all of us were restricted. Among plantations of barbed wire, whole copses, waiting to be felled one day, to be twisted into crowns of thorns, lay mounds of rags, broken trees, rusty helmets, and the skeletons of animals. This must be, I thought, under my mind, the promised land — promised by that figure, with bearded face and battered top hat, from whose discolored lips I had, in earliest infancy, learned my first words, “Rags and Bones! Rags and Bones!” as he slunk along beneath the nursery window, jerkily trundling his barrow, and insinuating his hoarse cry, full of an ineffable, wheedling guile, upon the frozen air of the northern dawn, so that it was caught up, and carried far and wide by the rage of the wind that swooped down from skies torn at this hour into shreds of light and darkness, but which would soon shed an implacable light, dull as the wings of sea gulls. The town had seemed alone under the sky, abandoned to this one grotesque figure and his chant, “Rags and Bones! Rags and Bones!”
As now, twenty years later, I looked, for the first time clearly, though by night, at No Man’s Land, the cry sounded in my ears again. (Looking back, it seems to me as though sometimes I have been able to catch for an instant, passing before one seizes it, a clue, thus introduced, to life’s rhythm, a glimpse so terrifying in the vast span of the design it discloses, that though it can be intuitively grasped for a moment on a few occasions in a lifetime, it can never, even then, be comprehended; so with an eye applied to a microscope, observing the movement of an ant upon a blade of grass, might we, for a fraction of a second, perceive, revealed to us, the Day of Judgment, and the world-wide dead arising, with arms upstretched, imploring mercy, yet testifying to Heaven, from their tombs of every aeon: but then common sense envelops us again, and we behold the purposeful gesture of the ant within its emerald grove.)
“Rags and Bones!” Here the land was white, too, but with a different, skeletonal whiteness: here everything was silent and still, and white but without light. Everything stirred, but was motionless. . . . Suddenly the fabric of the whole wide night was ripped by a shot, and I had time to see, before he fell, a black flower or star expand upon the temple of a boy of twenty, who was within touching distance of me. There was a gush of blood, black in the grayness, from his mouth; he groaned, stirred, shuddered, and was dead.
I do not think I felt frightened, for the blow was intangible, an act of God, but I was sick with sorrow, with a sense of pathos: he had been in my platoon at Chelsea Barracks. I do not recall to what profession he had formerly belonged — by his appearance he might well have been a garden boy until lately: but I still recall his rustic grace, honest and young, and the burr in his voice when he spoke, like a young, gentle animal that has learned to express simple thoughts. (Who else living remembers him today, I wonder?) . . . It was upon this night that a hatred of moonlight took possession of my mind, and it required a whole subsequent decade of peaceful years to free me of it: for several thousands of nights, every tree or bush that showed in the whiteness, concealed the shape of a sniper, of the death which was everyman’s future, all our future.
EVEN here, in Flanders, cut off though we were by distance and by war, and albeit I was leading an existence the precise opposite of any that a young man could wish and, as a result, my mind was occupied with my own worries and troubles, nevertheless I still could not fail to distinguish the continuance of the two main threads woven into the web of my life at home by the Fates. For those who lived there now the shadow had grown to such dimensions that it stretched across the whole day as well as night. It filled the horizon for all these months. And just as pathos and ominousness had now hardened into something deeper, and more actual, so the humor of the situations had cheapened day by day into less and less realistic farce. To give a little the atmosphere of my home at this time, I will quote a letter from my brother, written from Renishaw at the beginning of the war, when he was aged sixteen.
This letter may bore you, but remember I am writing from the wilds of Derbyshire, surrounded by lunatics and octogenarians. Mother is at present carrying on a quarrel with almost every one of her acquaintance. And Father has been telling me about his system of taking soap out of the eyes when washing. “It really took me twenty years to discover it!” And it seemed like twenty to tell it! I have to pay for my own postage stamps, as he is too poor owing to the war. However, he is still going on with Barber’s Garden, getting further plans from Mallows and altering the Golf Club. He now makes me walk about and carry a book on my head for twenty minutes a day. It’s too infuriating, but exactly like him, isn’t it? . . . That old ninny Aunt Florence has just been in to say how dreadful it is to curse one’s parents. Even Turks and Mohammedans don’t do that! . . .
Only one good thing for me, I believe, had come out of the interplaying forces at work in my home life; they had developed to the highest degree a sense of mutual confidence and interdependence among my brother, my sister, and myself, from earliest years devoted to one another. We formed a closed corporation; whose other members wrote to me while I was at the war with the greatest regularity, so that I knew from them exactly what was happening, and how it was happening. I think no brother could have two more sensitive and percipient correspondents.
My mother also wrote at frequent intervals: as did my father, and for the most part kindly. Yet though primogeniture luckily afforded me, as I have before indicated, my own ex-officio position in the universe, and though undoubtedly he worried about me, yet in a letter written to me at this time, he announced that, finding himself compelled to reduce expenditure, and because, as he said, I was in the trenches and therefore could have no need for money, he had decided as a measure of economy to cut off my allowance. And this despite the fact that he was under the impression — created, I must confess, by myself— that I was receiving no Army pay: for, after he had told me that, when it reached me, he would deduct an equivalent sum from the amount he gave me, and continually snatched from me, I decided to lie, knowing that no lie was too absurd for him to believe — indeed, it had to be ridiculous for him to be taken in by it.
Accordingly I declared that no credits were ever paid in to my account by the authorities, and maintained this deception stoutly to the end of my military career. When he from time to time asked about it, and if all my other brother officers were in the same unfortunate predicament, I said, yes, that it was a current scandal, widely commented on. (I am not trying to justify my attitude or conduct, no doubt both to my discredit, but before passing to the result, which was so disconcerting that I must record it, let me urge on my own behalf that I had been given some provocation, and that to a certain degree a sense of fun inspired me.) I was, however, most acutely embarrassed when, while standing for Parliament in 1918, I learned from my father that he had consulted a cousin, in strict confidence, on what should be done to remedy the shocking state of public affairs I had so innocently revealed, and that, on this man’s advice, he had gone to a firm of private detectives, and employed them to set on sleuths to watch the Army Pay Department and to make inquiries in general of the clerks. The detectives, however, had obtained no satisfaction, and had been received, when in the end they had to become more direct in their questions, with, at first, bewilderment, and then with anger. . . .
I thought it best now to admit the whole of my iniquity; that is, that I had kept the money I had earned, and which, if I had admitted to receiving it, I had realized, would have been taken away from me. And not the least singular part of the story is that my father seemed in no way put out by my confession; if anything, on the contrary, rather pleased. . . . I felt some shame at what I had done, but at times, when I thought of those long months in 1918 during which detectives had been watching the Army Pay Department, laughter would sweep away all other thoughts.
However, we are only in 1914; I am at the front, and though my father sent me, as well as letters, hampers, wading boots, and various necessities of life there, yet he had been as good as his word, and had proceeded to retrench in his favorite and familiar style. I did not know where to turn for money, but at the same time a certain ludicrous side to it, and perhaps a love of adventure, forbade me to take the matter too seriously — although I was resolved to give my father a fright and regain my allowance. Moreover, I had already learned a lesson: always, in any disagreement with my father to be inventive, to view the question in dispute from an altogether novel angle, and whenever possible, to indulge in a high degree of fantasy. (This was a rule by which, more and more, in the coming years I guided my dealings with him, and it proved invaluable by its results.)
Now a year or two before the war my father had started to farm in a small way, and had latterly expanded the scope of his operations, into which he had thrown himself with a kind of fury. Before long the area had amounted to no less than two thousand acres, and he had founded a company, of which, since some of the land it worked belonged to me, I had been made a director. He started, of course, with no knowledge of agriculture, but I was away, he was keen on fault-finding, and this new occupation afforded him the fullest outlet for it. He drove about, balanced on his British Museum air cushion in a pony cart — a tub, smartly painted in green and yellow, and drawn by a skewbald pony — criticizing to the top of his bent.
Fortunately, his agent at Renishaw, Maynard Hollingworth, who made the plans and carried them out, was an expert in farming; and on his advice my father had particularly specialized in pigs and potatoes. Recently, where certain ideas, not political or aesthetic, were concerned, he had, rather unexpectedly, shown himself liable to be very easily influenced by the press. Thus, in the years immediately preceding 1914, he had shown himself an enthusiastic advocate of Standard Bread and paper-bag cookery, when these two objects, or ideals, were written up in rival daily papers.
It happened that lately a correspondence had been published in the Times, concerning the possible benefits to be derived from reviving the medieval habit of payment in kind. My father had thoroughly enjoyed, and pondered on, these letters, and had determined that his approval of ancient ways should find a practical application. He had returned to Renishaw in January, 1915, and late that month or early in February, had sent a letter to my brother’s housemaster at Eton, to intimate that having been particularly hard hit by the war, he could not afford to pay the usual fees at the end of the term in money, but instead would deliver to their value pigs and potatoes. The housemaster was, it can be imagined, perturbed by the novelty of the suggestion and when the story transpired it created much interest. Sachevcrell, whose life had been made by no whit easier as a result, showed himself far from enthusiastic about the scheme when he wrote to tell me of it. His letter reached me at the front, at about the same time as that from my father in which he had cut off my allowance, and from this conjunction an idea came to me. I was shortly due to proceed on leave and, after all, I remembered, I was a director of the Sitwell Farming Company!
I wrote to my father, in the following terms, and without showing any sign of resentment: —
MY DEAREST FATHER
Thank you for your letter. I well understand that your present position forces you to make economies, because I am obliged to do the same. I come home on leave in about a fortnight, and, as I have no allowance now, I have been able to arrange with the guard on the leave-train, I am glad to say, to take potatoes instead of my fare.
Ever your loving son
In his reply to me, my father did not even permit himself to allude to the subject of my letter, and for a while I feared it had fallen flat: but not many more days had passed, before, without a word of explanation, my allowance was restored in full.
On my return, I learned more, and that my ruse had been successful: for Maynard Hollingworth described to me the following scene.
“One day Sir George rushed up to the office, waving a letter in his hand, and shouting, ‘What does the boy mean? They’re not his potatoes: they’re my potatoes! ‘
“I said to him, ‘If you’d let me see the letter, Sir George, perhaps I might be able to help.’ . . . He gave it me and after reading it, I said, ‘It’s nothing, Sir George; it’s Mr. Osbert’s chaff!’ But he tore it out of my hand, and dashed out of the room again, crying, ‘Oh no, it’s not. He would do it!’ ”
In the end it had only been by stressing the improbability of there being guards on trains near the fighting, and the difficulties I should undoubtedly encounter in securing the transport requisite for moving the crop from Renishaw to the front, that Hollingworth had been able to allay, though not to dispel, my father’s fears.
(To be continued)