George Fenn.

George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life





For many years also Hentys was a face heartily welcomed as a friend and fellow clubman at the quiet little social tavern club known as the Whitefriars, a club at which in its early days politics was tabooed. But as years passed on times altered, and political and social debate became the rule, much to Hentys annoyance. His idea of a club was that it should be a gathering-place where a few old friends, freed for the time being from quill-driving and thinking out books, leading articles, and other brain-worrying tasks, should meet for a social chat, and where there should be no delivering of speeches, no debates. So soon, therefore, as this debating and speech-delivering became the custom, Henty began to talk to those with whom he was most intimate of withdrawing his name from the club. Such a proceeding, it was pointed out to him, would be depriving his oldest friends of his company. He seemed to see the force of this, and matters went on, and a proposal he had made to a few friends that they should follow the example of the dwellers in the Wigwam and meet together in peace, seemed to have died out. Nevertheless Henty was a man of very strong political feeling, and possessed all the firm attributes of a thoroughly stanch Conservative gentleman, one might say Tory, of the past. If he had taken a motto, his would have been that of the old John Bull newspaper: God, the Sovereign, and the People. Throughout his life, though gentle and kindly by nature, he was, when roused by what he looked upon as injustice or cowardice, a fierce and truculent Briton, ready to defy the whole world.

On the whole, though, perhaps from its propinquity to the newspaper world, Henty was most frequently seen at that centre of which the late Andrew Halliday wrote that the qualification for admission was to be a working-man in literature or art, and a good fellow. Of course the rendezvous meant is the Savage Club that place apart from the chilling splendour of the modern club, the club over which so many disputes have taken place amongst its members as to its title, as to whether it borrows it from poor, improvident Richard Savage, or from its supposed Bohemian savagery. Be that as it may, it is certainly the spot where the bow of everyday warfare is unstrung and set aside.

It has long been the custom here to invite to dine at the social Saturday evening gathering pretty well everyone who has become famous, and whose name is upon the public lips, and these invitations have been accepted by warrior and statesman, by our greatest artists and travellers, whether they have sought to discover the Boreal mysteries or to cross the Torrid Zone. Even those who have become great rulers have not disdained to accept Savage hospitality, and upon such nights some popular or distinguished member of the club is called upon to take the chair. Now it so happens that there is extant a copy of the menu of a dinner, drawn by one of the cleverest members, which depicts in quaint, characteristic, and light-hearted fashion the imaginary proceedings and post-prandial entertainment connected with the aforesaid unstrung bow.

In the case in question Lord Kitchener was the guest, fresh from his victories in the Sudan, and no better chairman could have been chosen than the popular war correspondent, George Henty, whose portrait and that of the famous general occupy the centre of the dinner card represented here.

It would be difficult to over-estimate the interest of such a typical meeting at the club, one which had naturally drawn together a crowded gathering of men who had more or less deeply cut their names upon the column of popularity, if not of fame.

The names of the general and war correspondent attracted to that dinner a distinguished company; the singer possessed of sweet tenor voice or deepest bass; the musician who excelled as pianist or who could bring forth the sweetest tones from the strings; the flautist; the skilful prestidigitator who puzzled the gathering with the latest Egyptian card trick, but who will amuse no more; the clever actor ready to give expression to some recitation, serious or laughable; the delineator of quaint phases of life; the artist whose works have provoked thought and admiration in the picture galleries; the scientist with the secrets of his laboratory gradually developing into life-saving and labour-economising reforms; to say nothing of the keen-visaged diplomatist whose range covers the mysteries of the chancelleries of Europe and cabinets where whispers are sacred and policies are shaped; and the writer to whom the wide world is but the sunning ground of cogitation.

At the clubs improvised concerts and entertainments all are ready to amuse or be amused; even the learned judge and the argumentative counsel who takes his brief from some clever lawyer, now his companion for the evening, meet the eye of physician or surgeon upon common ground.

Later, the deeply-engaged actor, when his part is at an end, comes in straight from the boards, bringing with him the buoyancy and imaginativeness of the strange fantastic realm where he is so popular a realm so different from all others, although merely divided from the commonplace world by a row of lights.

Here all are friends, gathered by the attractions of music, song, and repartee. Men who have striven greatly all their lives and have gained much, and maybe lost something too, are here in good fellowship. Irksome trammels for the time are cast aside, permitting one and all to partake of what seems to be like a whiff of ozone or a breath from the pine-scented Surrey hills, after the contracted arena of the struggle for life.

On the particular occasion referred to above, supported as he was by those who had shared his past and been his companions and the witnesses of many a deadly battle, Henty was thoroughly at home; and it was a happy choice of a chairman which brought him to preside on that November evening when Kitchener was the special guest.

It was only a few short months after Kitcheners crowning victory at Omdurman, which had finally crushed the Dervish power and set Slatin and his fellow captives free, and established law and order at Khartoum and through the immense territories which separate that city from Cairo. It was, therefore, a bright idea that inspired Oliver Paque, to give him his nom de plume, in his merry caricature to depict the gallant general as a beau sabreur leading a charge at full gallop and riding in to the feast. He is seen, as the illustration shows, leaping triumphantly through a circus paper hoop supported by a swarthy Sudanese, and the tatters of the paper ingeniously form the map of Africa. Right through Africa he leaps, as it were, into the fire of cheers and applause that greet him into the smoke of the Savage pipe of peace, started by the chairman.

But that memorable night is not so far back in the Hinterland that one has any need to strain the memory assiduously for the leading details of historic incidents sketched in upon the menu card. The tattered indication of a map recalls Major Marchand and his march across desert and through forest and swamp to Fashoda. There are pleasant suggestions, too, in the tribute paid to the chairman by the artists pencil, which playfully deals with the fame the chairman had reaped by his books. Boys are shown eagerly reading his thrilling tales of history and adventure, a young mother is depicted admonishing a lad who is engrossed in some stirring work, while the list of titles A Dash for Khartoum, True to the Old Flag, Through the Fray, By Right of Conquest, Held Fast for Englandis alone a tribute to the sturdy chairman, for though titles only they illustrate the feelings of a patriotic man.

The pen-painter of the merry scene, indeed, notwithstanding the grotesqueness of the work, has contrived to suggest by many a happy touch little peculiarities in the individualities of his subjects. Thus he gives a wonderful likeness of such a familiar member as Dan Godfrey, the well-known band-master of the Guards, who is shown leading the concert in heroic bearskin what time Handels march of The Conquering Hero is blown by one of the most popular humourists of the club. The name of another member Slaughter seems by the irony of fate to be singularly apposite at a war correspondents banquet, while the drum and cymbals and the tom-tom tell their own tale as beaten by members whose faces are familiar to those behind the scenes. Everything, in short, tended to make this dinner a great success.

Sometimes when taking the chair, however, at one of these club dinners, Henty would fancy that the attendance was not so good as it might have been, and attributing it to a want of popularity, he would turn to the writer and whisper with almost a sigh, Another frost! This quaint bit of dramatic slang is, of course, popularly used in the theatrical world when the British public displays a tendency not to throng the seats, and there is a grim array of empty benches to crush all the spirit out of the actors in some clever piece. It was quite a mistake, though, to use it in connection with Hentys dinners, for he was always surrounded by plenty of warm-hearted friends whose presence and sunshiny aspect were sufficient to set the wintry chill of unsociability at defiance.

Chapter Forty Three.
His Great Hobby

Probably Henty never so much enjoyed release from his workshop study as when he could get on board his yacht, the Egret. He was especially fond of this boat, which was really a most comfortable vessel, not built upon racing lines, but somewhat reminding one of the small cruising schooners which were fashionable at Cowes in the sixties and early seventies.

He had an honest, plain-spoken skipper and crew, who knew their business thoroughly, and they evidently looked upon the owner as more of a friend than a captain. One of his favourite cruising-grounds was the estuary of the Thames. The yacht would sometimes lie off Leigh, and sometimes up the Medway. The locality is not one which many other yachtsmen would choose, for there are shoals and tidal eccentricities that require a watchful eye. Owner and skipper, however, knew every inch of that broad waterway.

Hentys cabin lay aft, and was well lighted from the deck. It was thoroughly roomy, and by an ingenious contrivance the luxury of a bath could at any time be indulged in, through merely lifting a panel from the floor.

To see Henty at his most peaceful stage was to watch him lying back high upon the pillows on the deck of his yacht reading some favourite author. This would generally be an old friend, for like many another, he was fond of renewing his acquaintance with writers who had attracted him in the years gone by.

The galley was in charge of a good substantial sea cook, who could turn out a plain meal that was sufficient for any reasonable mans wants, though it need not be explained in detail that in the appointments of the state rooms and main cabin table there was no affectation of luxury. The yacht would be always well provisioned with joints that not only admitted, but invited a cut-and-come-again principle.

Of course, everybody who knew Henty could, all his life through, testify to his perfect abstemiousness. In fact, one has known many instances in which the serious warning spoken by Henty to young colleagues, who were with him on journalistic expeditions, saved them from much mischief. He would deliver his little lecture on a weakness which he had noticed, and invariably finish with, Pardon me for being so free, old chap, but if you take my advice you will watch it.

Except when he went across the North Sea, the yachting cruises were of fairly long week-end duration, but sooner or later the yacht would be passing in review whatever naval operations were on the way at Sheerness, while a favourite mooring for the night was up towards Chatham at a spot where there was a wood on the northern bank.

Henty always seemed to the manner born when on board his yacht, and an early cup of coffee, in pyjamas on deck, sometimes not a great while after sunrise, was invariably indulged in. This was followed, of course, by the faithful pipe, which, indeed, was in constant action from morning to night.

He was a man who used to attribute his good health and spirits as much to his yacht as to anything in the world, and more than once his friends, in commenting upon his love for the sea, have declared that no better representative of the old sea kings of England could have been seen afloat than George Alfred Henty. No one really saw him at his best who did not see him in rough weather, bare-headed, with the wind whistling through his grey hair, and the foam torn from the waves bedewing his big beard and making his sun-tanned, bronzed visage glisten, as he stood at the wheel, firm of aspect, gazing defiantly before him in a kind of rapture, and thoroughly enjoying life the while he ploughed the waves. If any endorsement of this were needed by the reader who never met the subject face to face, let him turn to the photograph showing Henty reading the proofs of his last book aboard his yacht. The portrait was taken not long before his death, and gives a far better idea to the reader of the big, bluff, sturdy war correspondent than would pages of writing.

For he was born to be a sailor, and the wonder is that he did not develop into being the captain of some great liner, instead of a wielder of the pen. One striking phase in his character that was developed in his yachting pursuits was that, though he thoroughly enjoyed inviting and having the company of some old friend on board, to whom he was the most genial and hospitable of hosts, he was yet perfectly happy when alone with his crew. At such times he would carry out various manoeuvres, and quite contentedly occupy himself with his own thoughts.

One man will make friend and companion of a faithful dog; another is never more content than when he is with his horse. To Henty, from quite early in life, his yacht took the place of some living sentient being his yacht and its movement, whether driven forward under the pressure of a light breeze, or throbbing beneath his feet as it bounded and leaped from wave to wave in a gale. For he was no smooth-water sailor, but had grown into a hardened and masterly mariner, who thoroughly understood the varied caprices of the deep.

He would generally manage to be afloat somewhere about Easter, for a few days each week, cruising, as has been said, about the mouth of the Thames, and once in a way he would shoot across to Heligoland for the Emperors Cup race. He seldom studied much about the weather so long as he could be well afloat; though at times he would encounter a furious gale out in the open sea, and get what he himself termed a thorough good knocking about.

He related to a friend that upon one occasion he passed through a fearful gale, with the force of the wind so great that he and his crew ran two hundred and sixty knots in twenty-seven hours, putting in at Harwich without shipping a bucket of water in the run home.

One of Hentys greatest regrets when the weather was fairly fine was that his literary avocations prevented him from being oftener afloat. This was especially the case at times when there was war or rumour of war, for then he would be on duty at the Standard waiting for the brief telegrams that came in at all hours from Reuters and elsewhere. These were brought to him, as before mentioned, to be expanded from their key-like brevity into plain straightforward reading for the printers to set up.

As already stated, in this favourite pursuit of yachting Henty heartily enjoyed the companionship of friends who liked the sea, but at the same time if men of similar tastes did not present themselves, he was well content to be alone. A thoroughly social man, he had his own strong ideas upon companionship. He set limits to such a means of enjoyment, and he could speak out very strongly against excursion trips in which he was asked to take part. I like to see things, he said. I like to go into the country on a little trip to see some object of interest, or to pay a visit to some historic town, but I dont like these excursion trips, and I wont go! Alluding to the parties of trippers so numerous in summer weather, who make our railway stations unpleasant for those who wish to travel, he denounced them in the most forcible way. I like to go, he said, with a few fellows in a friendly way. What I object to is going in a mob. In plain English, it touched Hentys pride to visit some excursionist haunt where he felt that his party would be classed as bean-feasters, or what is known as the members of a wayzgoose, and he resented the whole position as unworthy of the dignity of a literary man.

Hentys love of yachting began early in life, when he was holding a commission in the army and stationed at Kingstown, where he owned a ten-tonner called The Pet. It was his first craft, and very nearly proved to be his last, for upon one occasion he had been out sailing with his little crew for some distance, and had the misfortune to be caught in a heavy gale, which gave him and his men a very severe lesson in seamanship. There was a tremendous sea, and before they were able to make the harbour, and anchor, their position was so perilous that a huge crowd collected, in momentary expectation of seeing the yacht go down, for it was impossible for her crew to land.

To make matters worse, and to add to the excitement, the officers young wife was one of those who joined the crowd, and she kept appealing in her agony of mind to the seagoing men around to save her husbands life. Finally a boat was manned by a sturdy party, and with great difficulty the little crew were brought ashore in safety. This was early in the sixties, and after that, enthusiastic yachtsman though he was, his avocations and absence from England put a stop to his seagoing till about 1887, when, opportunity serving, he bought an old life-boat and converted her into a yacht. The buoyancy of her build attracted him, and for some years this little thirteen-ton vessel, the Kittiwake as he called her (and well did she deserve her name), afforded him a long series of pleasant runs.

But previous to owning the Kittiwake Henty became possessed of a small half-decked canoe, which afforded him an opportunity of bringing to bear that inventive genius which at different periods of his career had induced him to try his hand at various contrivances, any one of which might have brought him fame and fortune such as came to a fellow-member of his club in connection with a torpedo that was taken over by the British government. At one time he constructed a spar torpedo. This was during the American Civil War, and upon its completion he offered it to the United States authorities. Another of his ideas, also of a warlike character, was an invention the necessity of which he had probably seen practically demonstrated. This was a contrivance for the practice of long-range firing where opportunity did not serve, that is to say, in a limited space of ground. By means of Hentys arrangement, practice up to a thousand or twelve hundred yards range could be indulged in, though only eighty to a hundred yards were available. When finished, he offered the result to our own War Office, but, strange to relate, this outcome of long and careful thought was allowed to join the limbo of thousands of other inventions, good, bad, and indifferent, for it was not accepted. He laid no more of his ideas before boards for consideration, but after this devoted himself to his half-decked canoe, which was tinkered and altered about in a pursuit which always afforded him intense gratification. It filled a gap while he was waiting, and toiling hard, to place himself in a position in which he could, without pinching, purchase for himself an Egreta yacht which he could enter for an emperors cup. Journalists who marry, and have sons to push forward in the world, and who also have to meet ordinary expenses, have not much money to waste, even if they are successful war correspondents. Hentys yachting desires, therefore, for a long time were not wholly gratified, and he had to occupy himself with the pen, which industriously built up the long series of books that made his name so well known to the rising generation. Nevertheless his yachting moved by degrees, and he gave full vent to his inventive powers with this little half-decked canoe. First, after much study, he lengthened her, to find most probably that she was now what a sailor would call crank. To meet this difficulty, he took a lesson from the na?ve and clever notions of the canoe-sailers of the South Seas, and fitted on outriggers with gratings on the outrigger spars. His boat was then a great success when used for sailing about the mouth of the Thames, for the scheme answered admirably, and he was very proud of offering a sail therein to a friend or brother journalist or editor. Still not content with his conversion, and doubtless incited thereto by the leeway his little craft made, he added to it what is known amongst boating men as a centre-board a very unusual addition this to a canoe namely, a deep keel, which acted after the fashion of the lee-boards of a Thames barge.





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