George Fenn.

George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life





Most of this renowned spectacle was preliminary to the long-expected opening of the canal, and, ignoring the head-shaking of the thoughtful, the great mass of the light-hearted Egyptians, rich and poor alike, went to see and share in the festivity, and took no thought of the future. The world had come to see the opening of the canal, the finish of a stupendous undertaking, the inception of a clever western, but thoroughly Egyptian and Pharaoh-like in its audacity. At last the shovel and basket of the drudging slaves as well as workers for hire, were cast aside, and the waters flowed through what American visitors sardonically styled the ditch, opening nearly a hundred miles of waterway extending from Suez to Timsah, now re-christened, or Mahommedanised into Ismailia. Along this ditch there was a grand procession of state barges, steam launches, and visitor-bearing craft, all made the more imposing by the presence of a squadron of British battleships, whose approach to the entrance with the saluting thunder of their great guns Henty dwells upon, though, apparently with a grim chuckle of British irony, he relates how two of the marine monsters got aground.

The procession, however, seems to have been petty in comparison with the innate grandeur of M. de Lessepss enterprise and what it meant to the future of the civilised world. Later, as if to make up for his words respecting the grounding of the huge iron-clads, which were doomed to flounder like whales in a rivulet before they got off, Henty hastens to paint vividly and evidently with a feeling of pride the aspect of the ships of war of every European nation, the dark line of sailors who manned the yards, cheering vociferously, the clouds of powder smoke mingling with the volumes from the funnels drifting slowly across the water, the lofty lighthouse, and the populous town which had sprung up as if under the wand of a magician. And that magician was M. de Lesseps, the sun of whose greatness sank in sadness years after, when, as if vaulting ambition had overleaped itself, he died half-forgotten and broken-hearted at the temporary failure of his other great venture, the canal to join Pacific and Atlantic, which, these many years after the great mans death, promises to be the accomplished fact of the twentieth century.

George Henty was always a sailor at heart, and never happier than when, hatless in a brisk breeze, he was watching the easing off or the tightening of a sheet, while his hands played with the spokes of the wheel which governed a vessels course. So it is not surprising that in his description of the grand f?tes and rejoicings over the opening of the canal he should find a businesslike corner at the bottom of one of his letters to talk about the chances of a vessel passing easily through the sand-bordered ribbon of water which joined the Mediterranean and Red Seas. He says: I have been favoured with a log of the soundings taken on board the Cambria during her passage through the canal, he speaks like the man in his element and I am bound to say that they are far more favourable than from all other accounts I could have believed possible.

The total number of soundings were seventy-six. They were taken, with the exception of the passage of the Bitter Lakes, during the whole passage at intervals of a nautical mile, and of the seventy-six soundings no fewer than fifty-six gave a depth of twenty-seven feet and over, while of the remaining twenty only four were below twenty-two feet, one only giving as little as nineteen feet of water. This table of soundings shows that the canal is upon the average of a depth of twenty-six feet; and although it is unquestionable that the vessels drawing only eighteen feet did scrape the ground in several places during their passage, the soundings taken by Mr Ashbury showed that these must have been, with the exception of the lump of rock at Serapium, mere accidental mounds and banks which had been left in the process of dredging.

And here, too, it will not be out of place to add a few words written after the inauguration, and finis coronat opus had been added to Hentys descriptions of the great event. Just overleaf it was the sailor speaking upon the achievement and the canals possibilities of carrying out the objects for which it was designed. He is now speaking as the thoughtful leader-writer, and somewhat in these words he begins to count the cost of the entertainment provided by the Khedive. Admitting, he says, that the cost of all this enterprise has been enormous, amounting as they say here to two millions sterling, to what good has this sum been spent? For it is not the viceroys private money, but the national revenue, and one feels in the position of the guests of the directors of some public company, One says, Yes, it is a splendid banquet; but what will the unfortunate shareholders say? I can reply that the shareholders do not like it at all. Why should French journalists, German professors, and English heads of chambers of commerce be taken up the Nile at the expense of the people of Egypt?

But it is only fair to say that this was not written in a grudging spirit, for Henty had found time to praise warmly the admirable management and kindly welcome given to the Khedives guests, and his final remarks were veined with a feeling of sorrow that the hospitality should have been so profuse.

At the dispersal of the crowd of visitors it seems as if it occurred to Henty that this would be a most favourable opportunity, after making himself acquainted with the land of the captivity and the ancient works in Egypt, to take in reverse the journey made of old in the days of famine, and visit the Holy Land. This happy thought he put into execution, and making a tour through the Holy Land, he ended by visiting Jerusalem before his return to England.

Chapter Twenty One.
The Franco-German War

There was very little time for rest in this life of work between the Egyptian festivals, Eastern travel, and the terrible European disaster looming ahead, the crisis which culminated in the declaration of war between France and Germany in the June of the year following his return home. But somehow or other, before starting for Berlin Henty contrived to have one of his first boys books upon the stocks, and this was published at the end of that year 1870 during his absence.

Meanwhile he started for the front, and on his way he writes: We had a break of nearly two hours at Cologne before the departure of the train for Berlin. Here for the first time I had before me the actual preparation for war. In France, in Brussels, and at various stations along this line, soldiers in uniform had been conspicuously absent. Here they were everywhere busy. Baggage wagons moved hither and thither loaded with stores; tumbrels with ammunition rumbled along the streets. Here was a company of soldiers each with two new needle-guns upon his shoulder; there another party was dragging stores in hand carts. Going on to the bridge and looking down on to the river, I saw a steamer with some field-gun carriages packed on her deck, while a gang of men were loading her with countless coils of field-telegraph wire. Upon the walls was a notice that two thousand labourers were required on the following day for work upon the fortifications. Judging by the number of troops I saw about, the garrison of Cologne must at present be very large indeed, and every hour must increase it as the reserves flock in. All the young men are leaving.

The waiter at the hotel where he dined, a delicate-looking young fellow, told him that he was off directly to join the infantry, while a comrade who came in to say good-bye was on the point of starting for the cavalry. There was no brag or pretence of indifference about any of the young fellows. The country required them, and they were perfectly ready to go, and, if necessary, to die for her.

At the station the confusion was tremendous. Trains had come in, and other trains were starting. The one for Berlin was of enormous length, and literally crammed. Cheers and counter cheers were being exchanged by the occupants and the people on the platform. Hands and handkerchiefs waved adieux, which in many cases would be for long indeed. There was but little weeping on the part of the women, of whom only a few were present. No doubt they had wept over the parting ones, and blessed them when they left, remaining behind to pray rather than shake the confidence of their loved ones at the start. As the train moved slowly out of the station, across the bridge, and out into the level country beyond, the darkness was falling and the mist rising; but on through the night they went, stopping occasionally, taking in men and more men, adding carriage after carriage to an already enormous length, until, had not the line been perfectly level, the two powerful locomotives could not have drawn the load. Trains were waiting at the various junctions, all crowded, and at every halt, as daylight came, labourers were seen gathering to work upon the fortifications, showing that Germany meant to be fully prepared for the worst, while side by side with the manifold preparations for war there was smiling peace, with the crops extending as far as eye could reach. The wheat was ripe and ready for the sickle, the oats and barley coming on, while the ground was covered with the blossoms of the poppy and the bright yellow of the lupins. The crops were unusually heavy over the whole of Prussia, and there were to be no hands to gather them, save those of the women and old men, for the whole country was joining the ranks of the able-bodied and marching for the seat of war.

At length he was in the city which the French anticipated entering when in their mad enthusiasm they paraded their own streets, shouting ? Berlin! and from here, now grown to be one of the band of trusted war correspondents, Henty writes to the journal he was again representing of the wild state of confusion and growing excitement connected with the Prussian preparations.

Matters, moreover, did not work easily for the war correspondent, for he had to pass his time in Berlin in a series of attempts to obtain permission to accompany the Prussian army to the front. Delays and promises followed each other, and he was kept eager and fretting with disappointment like a hound in the leash, hoping and yet doubting, till at last all he could get was an official reply to his application, stating that it had been decided to follow the example of the French and refuse permission for correspondents to accompany the army, or even to hover after it to pick up information in the rear.

To hesitate and not take action in some shape Henty felt might prove loss of time, and perhaps the missing of some vastly important piece of news for the journal he represented, and this at a time when rumour was quietly whispering that before long a mandate would be issued from head-quarters that postal as well as travelling communication would be almost entirely cut off.

Henty was a thoughtful man of stern determination, and once he had made up his mind he satisfied himself by making a final application to the authorities. All he could learn though was that his requests were under consideration, and that a decision would be given later. This decision, he felt sure, would be in the negative, and he determined to return to England for the purpose of making a fresh start.

He made for the station at once, to find that the difficulties had already begun. A fierce struggle for tickets was going on among those who wished to leave the city, and he was informed by a clerk that tickets were only issued for a short distance on the way. This, of course, meant that the railways were already in the hands of the government for the conveyance of troops, and pretty evident proofs of this change in the state of affairs were all around him in the shape of piled rifles ornamented with pickelhaubes, the spiked helmets of the Teutons.

It would be of no use, he felt, to wait the pleasure of the stolid, head-shaking Germans, fretting and worrying, while possibly he would be receiving from his own head-quarters, from an angry editor, letters asking what he was about in keeping him waiting for that which is the very life-blood of a newspaper in time of war.

It was all plain enough, that he had come to a wise decision. The great dislocation of the German railway system had begun, and ordinary passengers were having to make way for the movements of troops. In spite of his energy he was stopped again and again, before finally reaching Frankfort, whence he gained England, and in roundabout fashion crossed to France, where after endless difficulties he managed to get pretty close to the French army, and saw what he could of the war.

During his enforced sojourn in Berlin, and while waiting impatiently for his official permit to accompany the German army, the soldier within him was not idle, and, doubtless with a map at hand, he began to make his notes, in the shape of a letter dwelling upon the position, and the possibilities of how the men would fight. He dwelt upon the dash and go of the French in the r?le of invaders, and came to the conclusion that if France took the offensive, crossed the Rhine, and struck first at Stuttgart and then at Munich, the Prussians would be at their best, for they would be fighting in defence of their native soil.

These conclusions were come to at a time when he was still waiting, for he writes: To my application to be allowed to accompany the army I have as yet received no reply. In the event of an acquiescence to his request, he says: I shall have no further difficulty, but shall go where the army goes. In the event of a refusal, my object will be to gain some central point and then wait events.

All these surmises were followed by the stern refusal, as aforesaid, which turned him back, to learn afterwards how futile were the conclusions to which he had come, for, as will be well remembered, the battle-cry of the French, A Berlin! proved to be so much vanity, the Germans themselves assuming the offensive and sweeping everything before them almost from the first.

Afterwards he was one of the lookers-on when maddened France was in the throes of those wild scenes which are history now times of disorder and disorganisation, of brigades being marched here and there in purposeless movements until, when at last they did encounter their foe, defeat followed defeat; the civilised world meanwhile watching with bated breath for the next news of disaster till there came la d?b?cle, the crowning horror of Sedan, and the surrender of the emperor.

Chapter Twenty Two.
The Commune

Early in the year 1871, after the signature of peace, Henty in pursuit of his journalistic duties entered Paris, and during the wild days of its occupation by the Commune he passed a life of adventure of which volumes might be written, for, in brief, he saw all the fighting very closely. It was a wild time, in which no mans life was safe, and in the absence of law and order an Englishman bound to investigate and report upon the proceedings of the ill-governed city dare hardly call his soul his own.

During this period Hentys letters teem with information, all showing his keen observation of minutiae. He describes the gathering and marching down the Rue de Rivoli of one of the first armies of the Commune, an army the more dangerous to the republic through so many trained fighting men of the regular army having joined its ranks. The determination and hatred of the settled government of the motley company made up for their want of uniformity. With respect to their weapons, he describes how a great many in the ranks, numbering in all some ten thousand, were armed with the chassepot rifle, but the majority had old muskets converted into snider breech-loaders, while a certain percentage had nothing better than the old muzzle-loader. It was an armed mob, though mingled with it were battalions of the National Guard in the pay of the Commune. Later, when encountering the forces of the regular army, the solidity of the much-talked-of fraternity was exemplified at the first encounter, for, amidst cries of Vive la R?publique! and patriotic outbursts, one side would appeal to the other with a touching cry: Surely you will not fire on your brethren! The answer to this would be a volley, with the weaker side making a rapid retreat in search of shelter.

Henty was very soon saying to the newspaper he represented: I write my daily letter in doubt as to whether it will ever come to hand. The post has ceased to run, and we are cut off from all news from the provinces. The gates of Paris are closed, we are in a state of siege, and the passengers of such trains as are running are told that they will not be allowed to return. The misery and suffering connected with the great siege were quite forgotten, the fighting began again, and once more the streets of the brilliant city were echoing with the rattle of musketry, a sound punctuated with the sharp thud of the field-pieces that were more and more brought into action, and whose shells in the early days had a startling effect upon the insurgent members of the Commune. For Henty observed the steadiness of the National Guards, who remained at their posts and showed no signs of flinching, while on the other hand the inexperienced, undrilled men of the insurgent ranks were prone to throw themselves down flat in the road at each flash of a cannon and remain there until the shell had burst, perhaps three hundred yards away.

In these early revolutionary days, sometimes a strong body of the Communists, in a state of wild excitement, would be on their way to attack the regulars and carry all before them, when one of the forts would open fire and send shells among them. To use the writers words, the effect was magical. About one-half of the column skedaddled back to Paris. It was not a retreat; the war element had evaporated much more quickly than it had been generated, and doubtless if the leaders of law and order had been more energetic, the Commune would have been crushed in its infancy. Indeed the men of the lower orders from the wildest parts of Paris were so utterly cowed, that they gave up their muskets, refusing to have any more to do with the business. One man was heard to remark na?vely, If you call this fighting, I have had enough of it, while one of the leaders of the mob, a self-dubbed general, an enthusiast and a fanatic, but a man of courage, a rara avis in the party which his mania induced him to join, was seen no more. Presumably he was shot, and died a soldiers death. Throughout his descriptions of the fighting, of the firmness and pluck of the trained men, and of the cowardice and shuffling of the mob, eager for plunder and rapine if they could get the upper hand, and only too ready to escape into shelter, Henty seems to consider the Commune as a thing gone stark-staring mad, while its leaders were incited at this critical juncture by the ill-judged articles that fulminated in the Red Press.

As an example of the state of affairs in these early days of the Commune, and of the way in which he did his duty as a correspondent, whatsoever the risk, Henty once related to a friend a couple of the most exciting incidents in his life, which took place soon after his arrival in Paris on account of the proclamation of the Commune. The first occurred in the Place Vend?me, which was being held by the National Guards, just at the time when the head-quarters of the Insurrection were at the H?tel de ville. The latter had been strongly fortified with barricades and was held by thousands of the Communists, who had strengthened their position by a battery of field-pieces. Matters had arrived at a pass when a strong feeling of bitterness existed between the body of order and those who were in favour of an entirely new form of government, and the general feeling prevailed that unless the insurgents realised the futility of their aims, bloodshed would ensue. In his search for information Henty had learned that the loyalists were about to make the first advances in the shape of a peaceful demonstration in order to point out that matters might be easily settled if the insurgents would listen to reason. But on going into the streets and studying the appearance of the rough-looking mob that had gathered in the neighbourhood of the H?tel de ville, the result of this inspection was so unsatisfactory, that Henty felt full of doubt as to whether the peaceful demonstration would have a peaceful end.

The demonstrators would have to come in procession down the Rue de la Paix, and, wishing to have a good view of what would take place, he chose a position near the Vend?me Column, so as to see whether the body of Communists who held the place in military force would allow them to go by. After a time the head of the procession was seen approaching. It appeared to be a well-dressed crowd selected for the occasion people of repute, in black coats and top hats, many of them even in evening dress, and the most striking point of all, as evidence of their peaceful demonstration, was that they were all unarmed, while in their midst a white flag was carried, bearing the words, Vive lordre!





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