George Fenn.

George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life





As for his soldiers, they are excellent. The soldier is the soldier all the ages through full of strange oaths, and with a particular view of things. In this connection it may be permissible to refer to the cosmopolitan side of Henty, to his intimate acquaintance with the byways of Europe, and to the undeniable grip he possessed of the European way of looking at matters a way which is far more excitable than ours. He could talk of the days before the 70 War which brought the Teuton into Alsace and made of fragmentary Germany a consolidated state; of the times when Bismarck was, comparatively speaking, a young man, and when men were more given to sonorous phrase-making than is the case at present. He had the behind the scenes attitude, and with reason, for a war correspondent, like a diplomatist, is the one who is there. He had met the leading men, the statesmen, the Herzog of the Fatherland, the Gospodar of Holy Russia, and the hysterical agitator of Paris who seized the moment of his countrys downfall venomously to compass further ruin, and in a lighter vein he had, too, all that rare anecdotal interest of the man who has met the bold Bulgar in Sofia and knows him an fond, and who has fraternised with the Serb in the questionable security of Belgrade.

Small wonder, indeed, that Henty, who knew of what the world was capable and what men could accomplish, held in light esteem the narrow but loud-talking cult which condemns patriotism, scoffs at civic merit, and would reduce society to an unsatisfactory incoherent brew. He was one of those whose influence makes for the greatness of England, an England which will fight, if duty really calls, at one of those crises in a nations life which show which is the true worth and which the base.

His stories reflect the man, and their great and enduring success among boys, who are perhaps the most difficult of all to satisfy, must be looked for in part in the great seriousness with which he went to work. There was no difficulty about his style, which was as smooth-running as the Thames, and no parade, while he pleased his readers especially by a simple, unaffected touch of confidence and certainly attractive suggestion of doing his utmost to satisfy the legion who looked to him for literary fare. With such a character, typical of many, as Signor Polani in The Lion of Saint Mark, he showed his really great skill in portraiture; and though season by season his books were reviewed as boys books, there was much that necessarily escaped the notice of the critic, much that was as deeply imaginative and inwardly significant as passages in genre stories which received a larger measure of the critics attention. It could not have come as any particular disappointment to Henty when he found that his m?tier was writing boys books rather than novels. We are told that there are many people who can write novels, and maybe with certain qualifications this is true, but there are comparatively few who can write for, and please, the exacting boy.

The latter severe, if not absolutely erudite, critic may not be able to define precisely what he wants, but he knows enough to be certain that Henty could and did supply the requisite article. He knew, like a great artist, what to leave out, which knowledge is the prime factor in the making of the greatest works. It was the intuitive perception of where the youthful imagination required to come into play. It was grateful, gracious work this, of supplying boys with literature which held them engrossed and helped them to think, and think well. Youth has its troubles, its little ennuis, its griefs, the same as the rest of the world, and despite disparity in years these phases are not to be considered in miniature, for the imagination is larger and more elastic in early days, and trouble assumes a very extended front. The boy who is plagued by a dead tongue, or the perversity of circumstance, or any other worriment of the flying day, as likely as not picks up his favourite author to help him to forget the suggestion of the presence of black care.

The name of Henty became one to refer to in another sort of literature the smart afternoon paper with its flippant dialogues referred to him jocularly as the panacea for boys. It was all correct enough. The boys worshipped him; and for years he went on working, pushing as it were into untouched galleries in his mining after fresh subjects and the simile may be allowed, as even Carlyle speaks of the pursuit of literature as subterranean labour. He never lost a point. No work was too arduous, no preparation too exacting; and as regards many of his books, a vast amount of prep, as students dub their preliminary labours, was entailed. He would have accuracy if history had to be dealt with, and through all the years during which he was delving for new treasures in the lumber rooms or cellars of the past, he kept up his custom of carefully studying each phase or epoch before he commenced his romance or made ready his mould. He imbibed many tomes to make one.

It is a great mistake to place any reliance on the glib statements concerning the length of time that a book takes to write. Henty gave an interviewer certain facts, but it must have been with an inward smile, since all such figures are misleading, though not intentionally so. One man will take five months to write a book, another two, and so on, for there is practically no limit one way or the other; but the lay observer who hears such statements as these generally makes a gross misuse of them, and in his calculations as to how many books a man may write a year, absolutely forgets that in writing time is not a very accurate vehicle for arriving at an estimate. The author lays down his pen and goes to his club to dine, but he takes his work with him; it is keeping him close company in the train, and a new situation, or the germ of an additional complication, is woven into the scenery as he is being borne townwards. He cannot escape. Nothing is more pertinacious than an unfinished character; while in the cab as likely as not one of his creations is sitting by him, insisting on his being allowed a little more elbow-room, or a minor satellite peers at him through the judas in the roof. That is to say, there are no early hours, so-called, for writers, no getting away from work and comfortably shutting up the shop. It is not in the nature of things that this should be so. The writer has never done, and practically every thousand words composed by Henty was the result of long and careful prior work and thought.

As regards many of his stories, he admitted starting them on the go-as-you-please system; that is to say, events and characters were allowed to shape themselves in their own way; but then it must be remembered that Henty had a good store to work upon, and that he had, moreover, accustomed himself, through many years of press work, to quickness of thought and the swift maturing of the line of reasoning, since in writing for newspapers the man who hesitates is lost, for the master printer takes no denial.

In popularity he may be reckoned to have passed W.H.G. Kingston and R.M. Ballantyne, while he was, as it were, quite level with Captain Mayne Reid and Jules Verne; the last-named writers skeleton frameworks rather than romances had deservedly an enormous vogue, partly because of their tremendous scope, and also on account of the fillip they gave to the imagination of the young reader. With such a man as Henty it seems like begging the question to speak of atmosphere; but by whatever name that intangible quality is designated, certain it is that Henty possessed himself of it before he started work. Francis Hammond in his gondola in old-world Venice, or Mademoiselle de Pignerol in the days of the Grand Monarque, are all part and parcel of their respective times, and it is this ring of truth which makes his stories prevail. The neurotic was as far from Henty as are the poles asunder; but in giving to boyhood something more substantial to dream about than the gay castles of the clouds that pass, in the story of the azure main, of Englands greatness, and the whole stirring, many-coloured panorama of ancient days and battles fought on the other side of uncounted sunsets, it is reasonable to imagine that at times he lived and perhaps almost lost himself in the old world which he re-created. The man who knew the byways of history as he did would be graceless and inconsistent if he did not feel the grandeur of all those things, seen for a flying moment down the winding turret stairway as the curtain is drawn aside. It is as good to regard his masterly treatment of historic themes as it is painful to witness the wretched spectacle of feeble handling of subjects vast as these. Life, as Macbeth said, is but a walking shadow; but there is a good deal of reality in it too, and there was nothing visionary about the people Henty created: they were genial, good-humoured, time-serving, sluggish, magnificent, or Boeotian, as circumstance and occasion warranted, while in delineating a soldier of our time his hand was unerring. His sketch of the linesman or the trooper was as true as that of the mediaeval Spaniard in his shabby cloak, the plump landlady of the inn, the bragging mountebank in questionable buskins, the adventurer ready to sell his sword to the highest bidder, or any other of the sometimes brilliant, sometimes lack-lustre company with whom he had to deal on that broad white route of historical romance which it was given to him to traverse that others might appreciate these things. It is not only a question of boys, for many an old stager whose life now is his club, likes these breezy, healthy stories, and enjoys meeting once more the grave signors who managed the political world in the bygone, and saluting yet once again the kings whose weaknesses and whose grandeur filled a world that has vanished. And his treatment of these legends, or facts, as the case may be, is full of charm, just as his writing is simple and sincere and instinct with the insight of a mind which had that greatest of all gifts the gift of keeping young.

Chapter Forty One.
Personal Notes

Hentys study was an ideal room for a writer, with all kinds of suggestive objects around, such as would be useful to a man who wrote about wars alarms; for he did not go upon any of his adventurous journeys without keeping in mind the walls of the study, which was practically a museum. It must be quite five-and-twenty years since, after dining with him one evening, Henty took the writer into his den to show and describe (from out of the cloud emitted by a favourite brier-root pipe which he used steadily) the various weapons hanging from the walls, some of which were very beautiful, in spite of the purpose for which they had been formed. One memorable, clumsy-looking, straight, two-edged sword seemed to be about as unsuitable for causing destruction and death as it could have been made. It was Indian, of considerable length, and peculiar in this way. The armourer who made it had so contrived that the hilt was fused, as it were, into a gauntlet for the protection of the knuckles of the man who wielded it, and the handle was exactly the reverse of that joined to an ordinary sword, for the warrior who grasped it would have to take hold at right angles to the course of the blade, in fact, precisely as a gardener would take hold of a spade. To us this seems a curious clumsy fashion, but it is one which we find repeated in many of the Indian knives or daggers, and to some extent in the Malay creese, which, roughly speaking, bears round towards right angles like the butt of a horse pistol.

On commenting upon the peculiarity of the great Indian sword, and the impossibility of a man using it to thrust, or make an adequate cut, Henty rose from his seat and gave the writer an exemplification of how such a weapon would be used by a native foot-soldier in a m?l?e. Single-handed, he would rush into a crowd with outstretched arm stiffened by the steel gauntlet-like hilt, and would clear a space all round him by the murderous sweep of the blade which he wielded, turning himself into a sort of human windmill. In fact, in the hands of a strong man it was about the most horrible, butcher-like weapon ever invented for the destruction of human life. By comparison, as the great blade was replaced with its fellows, a far preferable death would have been inflicted by a gracefully-curved, razor-edged, exquisitely forged and grained Damascus blade. This had probably been the pride of some Mahratta chief, some keen, dark, aquiline-nosed soldier whose hands must have been as delicate as a womans, for the hilt of this, as well as those of its fellows upon the wall, seemed toy-like in the grip of such a man as Henty.

He possessed quite a museum of such objects as these, and his armoury of trophies went on growing till his death, when he was the possessor of an endless number of choice little treasures. These were considerably added to by his son, Captain C.J. Henty, in the shape of weapons collected during the late Boer War (where he distinguished himself in command of the detachment of volunteers of the London Irish Rifles), and by another son during the latters adventurous life in the Wild West.

A treasure of Hentys own collecting was a beautiful suit of Northern Indian armour, exquisitely damascened and inlaid with gold, the skullcap-like spiked helmet being provided with sliding face-guard and hood of chain mail, while the almost gauze-like steel shirt, with sleeves, breast, and arm-plates of beautiful workmanship, were all perfect. From Abyssinia came a silver shield, massive and brilliantly polished, and trophy after trophy had been garnered in other countries, including weapons from China and Japan. About one and all of these treasures, from the most costly weapons to the spears, arrows, and shields of savage warfare, the owner could discourse eloquently and well, for concerning each he had some history or anecdote to tell.

He was much liked in the little social company he affected, and here his discourse and ways seemed to show how warmly he felt towards his companions; while of his thorough sincerity he unobtrusively gave them most ample proof.

In such coteries of literary and artistic men, workers for the ordinary income as well as for the praise of the world, there are, of course, some who prosper far beyond their highest hopes, and, sad to say, more who, in spite of every effort, only gain disappointment, with its concomitants poverty and despair. It was in such cases as these that, with evident care that his action should not hurt the feelings of a friend, Hentys hand, so to speak, glided unseen towards his pocket, to plunge in pretty deeply, and return far better filled than those of his fellows who had taken similar action. And this was not from the possession of wealth, but from true fellow-feeling and generosity of heart.

He numbered fewer friends, perhaps, than others who were his colleagues and fellow-workers, but those whom he classed as intimates were of the more sterling metal, stamped with the brand of solidity, and the most lasting in their wear; while they on their side, possibly from their being the choice of one who, after the long gatherings of experience, was no mean judge of human nature, were no doubt as staunch as he. Certainly they enjoyed the satisfaction of being numbered among his friends.

Washington Irving, in his Knickerbocker Papers, when describing the sages among the old Dutch settlers in the Hudson region, refers to the way in which they were looked up to for their wisdom and for the character they obtained and kept by much smoking and preserving silence, in addition to never being found out. This comes to mind when thinking over Hentys quiet, stolid way in after-dinner communion at his clubs. He always looked calm, grave, and thoughtful, but, unlike the old Dutch settlers recorded by that charming American writer, he did think; he thought deeply, but spoke little. When he did open his lips though, he was outspoken, plain, straightforward, and to the point.

As a rule he left speaking to those who were gifted, or cursed, with fluency. Debating was a horror to be avoided and denounced; but all the same it was no unusual thing for him to be chosen to preside at a social dinner, or to take the chair at a committee meeting, and when this happened he always distinguished himself.

A fellow-member of one of his clubs supplies the writer with a characteristic anecdote, which carries with it an impression of the downright, straightforward character and outspoken nature of Henty in his utter detestation of sharp practice in every form. The incident occurred during the after-dinner conversation, throughout which the subject of this memoir sat like a modern literary Jupiter in the midst of the clouds of smoke which he had largely helped to evolve. Out of this smoke he could be seen glowering at one of the speakers. This man was a stranger to him, and he had listened to him in silence, quite unaware that he was a city journalist connected with one of the financial papers. The speaker had been making a great and verbose use of his knowledge of his own particular subject, and for a long time Henty had sat and frowned at him. No better term could possibly be found for describing my old friends aspect at the time. It suggested a revival of Samuel Johnson visiting his old haunts, and those who knew Henty became silent listeners too, in the full expectation that he would be moved to show his displeasure, and would make some remark upon the revelations about the peculiar ways of transacting business occasionally carried out in the neighbourhood of Throgmorton Street.

But Jupiter was still silent, and the fluent speaker prattled on about bulls and bears, about the great coups that were made, and about the immense profits of some and the heavy losses and ruin of the weak and foolish who, in the fierce race for wealth, were tempted in their folly into city gambling.

Matters went on, and Henty grew more heated. The smoke of his brier pipe rolled out in increased volume; his eyes grew more fierce; but no interruption came, and as he still remained silent, a feeling of disappointment began to grow among those who knew him best. He was only waiting, however, until the financial discourse died out, not for want of material, since, unfortunately, that is always too plentiful, but more probably on account of weariness on the speakers part. Then, to the great satisfaction of Hentys listeners, he growled out: Well, have you done? Now I will tell you what I think about financial newspapers and their conductors. They are a set of confounded thieves.

It is recorded of him that he was upon one occasion called upon to preside at a meeting in which someone was suspected of having been a defaulter in a case in which full confidence had been placed. It was a serious matter, one which had been fully discussed, and at last it fell to Hentys lot to give something like the casting vote. He had been seated very silently, full of severe earnestness, till with stern, solemn dignity he stood up to speak, his words shaping themselves for some time like those of a prosecuting counsel, till at last he finished by being almost denunciatory in tone, as with grim irony he exclaimed: And then he told us that lie! Now, why should he have told us such a lie as that, when he knew very well that he must be found out? If he wanted to tell a lie, he continued, his voice growing more cutting in his bitter sarcasm, why did he not choose one that we had not a chance of finding out?

Chapter Forty Two.
Club Life

Henty was a man who always enjoyed mixing with his fellows, and being constantly associated with members of the fourth estate, it was quite natural that he should join certain clubs. It followed therefore that, as years rolled by in a long life, he had a pretty good list in the way of membership to his name.

He was, of course, a member of various yachting clubs; but coming to literary gatherings, he early became a member of the world-known Savage, which he joined in its old days, and his was a familiar, quiet, thoughtful face at the weekly dinners, while he was a welcome and trusted chairman at the gatherings of the committee. Later, without giving up his membership, he joined, consequent upon some little tiff, the select band of the oldest members, who formed what, if they had been members of Saint Stephens, would have been called the Cave of Adullam. Here, however, the little branch or lodge was dubbed the Wigwam, whose cognisance, still printed on the circulars which announce the chairman and the date of the next dinner, is a clever sketch of a Red Indians wigwam. This was drawn by a clever artist member, who has passed away almost as these lines are being written namely, Wallis Mackay. The skin lodge is looped back to display a group of occupants in full war paint, feathers, and blanket, seated smoking. These represent in admirable likeness a few familiar members, numbering, among others, Tegetmeier the naturalist, Henry Lee of Brighton Aquarium and of octopus celebrity, and Ravenstein the geographer, while, glass in eye, raising himself like a look-out from the smoke aperture at the top, there are the unmistakable features of the late J.L. Toole. To name one more, there is the subject of this memoir. It is a playful little skit, with a grim caricature in the distance shaped like a skeleton, suspended from a blasted tree, as if suggestive of the fate of an intruder, while plainly written upon one of the folds of the skin tent is No admission except on business.





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