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Chapter 5 — INTERLUDE
1. Home Leave

In those days there was no railway for those ninety miles from Tientsin to Peking. I made that journey in the usual springless cart — Kirk in another — not on a road but on a deep-rutted track across the brown plain. As yet no green except a few early sprouting crops; mud colour everywhere; houses made of mud, trees brown with dust. But on the morning of the third day there was seen rising from that ugly plain the blue and purple of the Western Hills, clean-cut colours which only that clear northern air can give. And in the evening there came, silhouetted against that blue and purple, the great red towers and the crenellated walls of Peking city. There seemed something biblical in this slow approach; thus would ancient travellers have come to Jerusalem. In either case the great cynosure.

Now came the visit to Sir Robert Hart. At the time that visit seemed to me the very acme of misfortune and mistakes; yet in the end nothing perhaps could have better served my purpose. I went with Kirk, not thinking of my deafness and how I ought to have the I.G.'s sole attention. That great little grey-bearded man received us very kindly. He spoke to both of us at first; but I could not hear, and then he addressed himself to Kirk alone, and it was Kirk alone who gave an outline of our experiences. So I sat in that still loneliness of the deaf, fuming with annoyance and cursing myself for being such a fool as to have come with Kirk. Then suddenly Sir Robert turned to me. ` I have no use for deaf men in the Service; but your case is exceptional. You are evidently unfit to go back to the cruisers; but you have done very well in this unfortunate war, and, as a reward for your services, I have placed you in the Indoor Staff and appointed you Fourth Assistant B to Ichang.' A shock — a most palpable shock for me. Reward ! A junior — the most junior — clerkship as a reward to a sailor ! I did not wait to think; doubtless that long still wait whetted my reply, for I blurted out: ` It is very kind of you, sir, and I thank you, but I do not want it. My sailor's knowledge is my stock-in-trade. I can no more afford to lose it than a grocer can his goods.' There was no forming of a conscious judgment in this answer; it just bubbled out — a reaction to the unexpected.

The I.G.'s eyebrows lifted in surprise, then lowered with disapproval, and quite deliberately he moved his chair so as not to have me in his vision. Again a long, still, lonely wait, and he rose to dismiss us. I had shaken hands and was passing through the door, when he called me back. He said a firm of publishers had applied to him to arrange about a history of the war. He wished me to undertake it. Again came my answer pat. I should do it with great reluctance, because I could not partly tell the truth; there must be many personalities that would be objected to in such a history, and I doubted the wisdom of it written by myself. The I.G. thought a moment and then said he would write me a letter on the subject, but he never did.

The nature of that interview was entirely my fault. In the letter approving my joining up he had said the war would make or mar me. I had shown now a lack of faith and showed it very crudely. He would have pushed me on and I should have been a Commissioner at an early age perhaps; and I, in my youthful egotism, was offended because he did not treat me like a curly-headed boy. That great man, that autocrat, who kept his senior Commissioners at arm's-length, whose word was law, had been repulsed in a kind intention by a mere youngster. No wonder he resented it and turned his back on me.

And yet my attitude was very natural. I had been driven to use my independent judgment in that war, to shoulder'some strange responsibilities, to deal with high-placed people as if I were their mental equal. One does not drop that attitude at once; it takes a bit of time to flow back to the lower level.

So I was in no humour to exercise the modest faith expected of me; not even with the great I.G.

But in the end it turned out for the best. He was far too great a man to let it count against me. A career in a new navy proved a myth. I was appointed, when I returned from leave, to the Marine Department — that idea about a grocer's goods had taken root — and in a period of two years my salary increased fourfold.

Let me add here of my great Chief that in after years he always treated me with charming kindness and consideration, and allowed and encouraged a freedom of expression of my views that I believe was exceptional for him.

It was by a French mail steamer that I went home. I badly needed rest and quiet. At Weihaiwei and during its after business my condition did not bother me, but now the pendulum swung back; yet the peace I wanted was not to be had.

At Singapore came reporters, decent enough fellows, but such a nuisance. Refusals to be drawn, warnings of my danger from the law, only produced the statement that they had to write me up, and that, if I refused, there was nothing but invention for them. — ' Invent and be damned; but have a drink and talk of something else '; and so they invented gaily, as I later heard.

Then came quite the most unpleasant episode of intercourse that ever happened to me. There were many Dutch naval officers on board and a Dutch Consul-General — Lavino — who, I believe, had a world reputation for his wit as a raconteur, and who was man of the world to his finger-tips. There were other characters in the play: an English Colonel and his invalid wife and their lady companion — a quite young girl — who tended their children and for that reason lacked friends among the passengers; also a fat French bank manager and his family; and lastly some theatrical people.

The latter were to give an entertainment after dinner. The Colonel and his wife were not going, but they asked me to find the girl a seat, and I did so, alongside a hatchway. Lavino and his officers stood at the back — I with them. Then came an interval, the waiters brought coffee, and I took a cup to the girl, and sat alongside her on the hatchway. The curtain rose and for the moment I thought of staying where I was, but there came the realization that I might be blocking the view of those behind, so I rejoined the Dutchmen. Lavino, I knew, had left some time before for bridge. Now, when I went to bed, I did so with a feeling that the manner of those officers had changed to me; nothing very tangible, yet something; or was it some new development of my complaint that made me feel so?

But I woke up in the morning thinking of it with discomfort; and when, after our petit dejeuner, Lavino button-holed me with an air of seriousness and concern so very unlike his usual self, he said: ` Tyler, what is this my officers are saying about you? ' And then out came the story. It seems that immediately the curtain rose, when I was sitting on the hatch, the banker, sitting two rows behind, told me to get out of it, and, when I did not move, repeated the same thing more emphatically; it was done not merely rudely but insultingly, and I had looked round at his second speech and then cleared out like a lamb.

Lavino accepted, of course, my explanation that owing to my deafness I had not heard a word, and that my looking round was due to the sudden realization that I might be in the way. ` But,' said Lavino, ` the mere acceptance of your story cannot end the matter. Were you on a British vessel or in other circumstances, you might, in your English way, ignore the insult and treat it with contempt; but I want to impress upon you that you cannot do that here. To our officers, an insult is a deadly thing which must be wiped out somehow, or a stigma is Left that sticks through life. To them you are the English officer; they refer to you as such.

To them it is not only the honour of your navy that is at stake and in your hands, but that of naval officers in general.' His earnestness, of course, impressed me. ` Lavino, you know how little we British understand your continental code; advise me, please, what I should do.' — ' No, that is the very thing which at this stage I cannot do. Later I can help you. It is essential that I tell my officers that what you did was quite spontaneous; it is the one thing that we cannot lie about,' and he left me.

So here was I, who wanted peace and quietness, involved in this ridiculous affair, with the eyes of a little world upon me and an absurd responsibility placed vicariously on my shoulders.

It was their idea of honour, not mine, that mattered. It would be so easy to plug the banker on the nose; but my soul rebelled against an unseemly row and the publicity of it; and he had a wife and family, which would make the thing much worse.

And if, in that atmosphere of damaged honour, he challenged me to a duel, what could I do but fight — so much had Lavino's words affected me. I would have the choice of weapons, and I thought of Winchester repeaters under the coconut trees at Colombo — and the size of the banker's paunch.

I walked the deck and tried to rake up what I had read about the code of honour. Then I remembered that nothing drastic or committal was needed for the second step; that after all the code was but a formalizing of a street-boy's quarrel.

' Who are you a-shoving of ' — the blows, if any, come later.

So I sought Lavino, got him to accompany me, told him nothing, and then we found the banker. ` I find it difficult to believe it, but I am told that last night you ordered me to get out of your light and that you did it rudely.' — ' Well, you were in my way and I told you to go.' Then I expressed myself. He knew, I told him, that I was deaf and he had tried to get cheap and filthy credit out of it; he was this and the other kind of coward, and, were it not for the suffering a worse scandal would cause his wife, I would have permanently changed his face. He thought a moment as we stood there facing him, and then he turned away and went below. I looked up questioningly at Lavino. — ' That's excellent; formal, dignified, effective; a most undoubted counter-insult; just what was needed, neither more nor less. I'll tell my officers at once.' Thus that ridiculous affair, with all its very earnest seriousness; but the banker had a rotten time thereafter and became a butt.

At Genoa I was told there were visitors for me. What could it mean? They were representatives of Ansaldo & Company, the great Italian shipbuilders. They had a banquet arranged for me and they trusted that I would give them the pleasure of my company. ` It's most frightfully kind of you, but why should you entertain me? ' — ` Well, you know, it 's quite impossible to keep these things a secret. It 's known, of course, that you are coming home to buy another fleet for China, and naturally we wish to take advantage of our geographical position to have the first shot at you.' So that wretched story had been started. I denied it vigorously, but it made no difference. ` We understand quite well; of course, you must deny it, and may I compliment you on the almost convincing way in which you do so.' And in the end, because of their kindly pressing insistence, I went on shore and dined with them, on condition that they talked none of their imaginary business. I felt an awful fraud, and I wonder how they felt later when they knew — but that was a year or so later.

Arrived at home I consulted specialists about my ears. It was quite hopeless. The drums had ruptured, healed and thickened, and nothing could be done; but I saw one after the other, and they fiddled with me and took my fees until my shell-shock came again; and once more was I very miserable, and all the world looked black. But when I was at my very worst, my mother's doctor told me very seriously to eschew his kind and more particularly the specialists. On that most sensible advice I applied to the Admiralty for gunnery and torpedo short courses, and was ordered at once to Plymouth.

There, in the great interest of the work, that foul complaint fell off me like a cloak; and never came back for five and twenty years.

At Plymouth I had one of the pleasantest times of my life, both socially and otherwise. The work was easy for me. I knew the principles; it was but a matter of new details; and I got my First Class easily and far ahead of all the others.

The staff knew, of course, what I had done and how I was a misdemeanant of the law, but no one ever spoke of it and, of course, I did not; but once a lecturer on warfare said: ' Tyler, it's you who should be here.' I grinned and said nothing. Only to Limpus — now Admiral Sir Arthur — did I speak of the gun-sight I had patented and of my discussion with Yarrow on the inevitableness of submarines. I obtained permission for a special course in battalion work and physical drill, and the Admiralty, of course, knew why I wanted it; and at the end Captain Hammond asked me to dine with him alone. He also never said a word about the war — so strict were we all about that breach of law — but over the wine he told me he had been instructed by the Admiralty to express their willingness to take me fully into the service and appoint me forthwith as gunnery and torpedo officer of a cruiser. It was a great compliment, and it pleased me vastly, but I did not hesitate. I would have accepted like a shot had I not been deaf; but with that disadvantage I felt certain I could not stand a wardroom life; and Hammond said that I was wise.

Now for the last episode of that leave. My ship was sailing on the morrow and I was playing golf at Weston-super-Mare when an urgent telegram arrived. It was from Moberly Bell, the Editor of the Times, saying he had just heard I was returning to China and that he wished to see me. Would I dine with him to-morrow? I replied, ` Impossible. Ship leaves to-morrow night.' I did not know him, and I was not interested. Publicity now would have been fairly safe, but I had no desire for it. But Bell telegraphed again showing how I could dine and catch such and such a train and that I must not dress; so it really looked as if there were some important reason, and I accepted.

There were four or five men and a lady or two, but I did not hear their names and, if I had, could not have placed them.

I was asked my views on Far Eastern politics. France, Russia and Germany had forced Japan to give up the Liaotung Peninsula, which she had conquered. England had refused to act in concert. What did I think about it? My answer was quite definite. What had happened was for the best; it was most desirable to keep the Japanese from the continent; the other powers had picked the chestnut from the fire to our advantage. One of those present held a different view and argued on it. Now, naturally I was a modest and retiring young man, but somehow I got it in my head that these were armchair politicians and that I knew more than they about the Far Eastern situation. I did not dream of their being experts; and so I argued quite vigorously, maintained my point and would have none of the other view. I enjoyed the little flutter of importance, the first of the kind I had ever had. So, owing to my curious self-confidence on that one occasion, I gave a quite fictitious impression of my ability and character, for after dinner and wine, Bell kept me back and forthwith offered me the post of correspondent at Peking. I did not hesitate; I was quite unfitted for the job; there was a certain quality of being an ordinary man's man that was essential for the post, and I had not got it; and my deafness alone would be a serious handicap. So I had to let this most interesting chance pass by; and Dr. Morrison got the post and made a great reputation in it.
My antagonist at dinner was Chirol — now Sir Valentine 1 — the famous expert in foreign politics.
1 — Sir Valentine Chirol allows me to say that his recollection of the incident tallies with my own.