HOW GEORGE, ONCE UPON A TIME, GOT UP EARLY IN THE MORNING. - GEORGE,
HARRIS, AND MONTMORENCY DO NOT LIKE THE LOOK OF THE COLD WATER. - HEROISM
AND DETERMINATION ON THE PART OF J. - GEORGE AND HIS SHIRT: STORY WITH A
MORAL. - HARRIS AS COOK. - HISTORICAL RETROSPECT, SPECIALLY INSERTED FOR
THE USE OF SCHOOLS.
I WOKE at six the next morning; and found George awake too. We both
turned round, and tried to go to sleep again, but we could not. Had
there been any particular reason why we should not have gone to sleep
again, but have got up and dressed then and there, we should have dropped
off while we were looking at our watches, and have slept till ten. As
there was no earthly necessity for our getting up under another two hours
at the very least, and our getting up at that time was an utter
absurdity, it was only in keeping with the natural cussedness of things
in general that we should both feel that lying down for five minutes more
would be death to us.
George said that the same kind of thing, only worse, had happened to him
some eighteen months ago, when he was lodging by himself in the house of
a certain Mrs. Gippings. He said his watch went wrong one evening, and
stopped at a quarter-past eight. He did not know this at the time
because, for some reason or other, he forgot to wind it up when he went
to bed (an unusual occurrence with him), and hung it up over his pillow
without ever looking at the thing.
It was in the winter when this happened, very near the shortest day, and
a week of fog into the bargain, so the fact that it was still very dark
when George woke in the morning was no guide to him as to the time. He
reached up, and hauled down his watch. It was a quarter-past eight.
"Angels and ministers of grace defend us!" exclaimed George; "and here
have I got to be in the City by nine. Why didn't somebody call me? Oh,
this is a shame!" And he flung the watch down, and sprang out of bed,
and had a cold bath, and washed himself, and dressed himself, and shaved
himself in cold water because there was not time to wait for the hot, and
then rushed and had another look at the watch.
Whether the shaking it had received in being thrown down on the bed had
started it, or how it was, George could not say, but certain it was that
from a quarter-past eight it had begun to go, and now pointed to twenty
minutes to nine.
George snatched it up, and rushed downstairs. In the sitting-room, all
was dark and silent: there was no fire, no breakfast. George said it was
a wicked shame of Mrs. G., and he made up his mind to tell her what he
thought of her when he came home in the evening. Then he dashed on his
great-coat and hat, and, seizing his umbrella, made for the front door.
The door was not even unbolted. George anathematized Mrs. G. for a lazy
old woman, and thought it was very strange that people could not get up
at a decent, respectable time, unlocked and unbolted the door, and ran
He ran hard for a quarter of a mile, and at the end of that distance it
began to be borne in upon him as a strange and curious thing that there
were so few people about, and that there were no shops open. It was
certainly a very dark and foggy morning, but still it seemed an unusual
course to stop all business on that account. HE had to go to business:
why should other people stop in bed merely because it was dark and foggy!
At length he reached Holborn. Not a shutter was down! not a bus was
about! There were three men in sight, one of whom was a policeman; a
market-cart full of cabbages, and a dilapidated looking cab. George
pulled out his watch and looked at it: it was five minutes to nine! He
stood still and counted his pulse. He stooped down and felt his legs.
Then, with his watch still in his hand, he went up to the policeman, and
asked him if he knew what the time was.
"What's the time?" said the man, eyeing George up and down with evident
suspicion; "why, if you listen you will hear it strike."
George listened, and a neighbouring clock immediately obliged.
"But it's only gone three!" said George in an injured tone, when it had
"Well, and how many did you want it to go?" replied the constable.
"Why, nine," said George, showing his watch.
"Do you know where you live?" said the guardian of public order,
George thought, and gave the address.
"Oh! that's where it is, is it?" replied the man; "well, you take my
advice and go there quietly, and take that watch of yours with you; and
don't let's have any more of it."
And George went home again, musing as he walked along, and let himself
At first, when he got in, he determined to undress and go to bed again;
but when he thought of the redressing and re-washing, and the having of
another bath, he determined he would not, but would sit up and go to
sleep in the easy-chair.
But he could not get to sleep: he never felt more wakeful in his life; so
he lit the lamp and got out the chess-board, and played himself a game of
chess. But even that did not enliven him: it seemed slow somehow; so he
gave chess up and tried to read. He did not seem able to take any sort
of interest in reading either, so he put on his coat again and went out
for a walk.
It was horribly lonesome and dismal, and all the policemen he met
regarded him with undisguised suspicion, and turned their lanterns on him
and followed him about, and this had such an effect upon him at last that
he began to feel as if he really had done something, and he got to
slinking down the by-streets and hiding in dark doorways when he heard
the regulation flip-flop approaching.
Of course, this conduct made the force only more distrustful of him than
ever, and they would come and rout him out and ask him what he was doing
there; and when he answered, "Nothing," he had merely come out for a
stroll (it was then four o'clock in the morning), they looked as though
they did not believe him, and two plain-clothes constables came home with
him to see if he really did live where he had said he did. They saw him
go in with his key, and then they took up a position opposite and watched
He thought he would light the fire when he got inside, and make himself
some breakfast, just to pass away the time; but he did not seem able to
handle anything from a scuttleful of coals to a teaspoon without dropping
it or falling over it, and making such a noise that he was in mortal fear
that it would wake Mrs. G. up, and that she would think it was burglars
and open the window and call "Police!" and then these two detectives
would rush in and handcuff him, and march him off to the police-court.
He was in a morbidly nervous state by this time, and he pictured the
trial, and his trying to explain the circumstances to the jury, and
nobody believing him, and his being sentenced to twenty years' penal
servitude, and his mother dying of a broken heart. So he gave up trying
to get breakfast, and wrapped himself up in his overcoat and sat in the
easy-chair till Mrs. G came down at half-past seven.
He said he had never got up too early since that morning: it had been
such a warning to him.
We had been sitting huddled up in our rugs while George had been telling
me this true story, and on his finishing it I set to work to wake up
Harris with a scull. The third prod did it: and he turned over on the
other side, and said he would be down in a minute, and that he would have
his lace-up boots. We soon let him know where he was, however, by the
aid of the hitcher, and he sat up suddenly, sending Montmorency, who had
been sleeping the sleep of the just right on the middle of his chest,
sprawling across the boat.
Then we pulled up the canvas, and all four of us poked our heads out over
the off-side, and looked down at the water and shivered. The idea,
overnight, had been that we should get up early in the morning, fling off
our rugs and shawls, and, throwing back the canvas, spring into the river
with a joyous shout, and revel in a long delicious swim. Somehow, now
the morning had come, the notion seemed less tempting. The water looked
damp and chilly: the wind felt cold.
"Well, who's going to be first in?" said Harris at last.
There was no rush for precedence. George settled the matter so far as he
was concerned by retiring into the boat and pulling on his socks.
Montmorency gave vent to an involuntary howl, as if merely thinking of
the thing had given him the horrors; and Harris said it would be so
difficult to get into the boat again, and went back and sorted out his
I did not altogether like to give in, though I did not relish the plunge.
There might be snags about, or weeds, I thought. I meant to compromise
matters by going down to the edge and just throwing the water over
myself; so I took a towel and crept out on the bank and wormed my way
along on to the branch of a tree that dipped down into the water.
It was bitterly cold. The wind cut like a knife. I thought I would not
throw the water over myself after all. I would go back into the boat and
dress; and I turned to do so; and, as I turned, the silly branch gave
way, and I and the towel went in together with a tremendous splash, and I
was out mid-stream with a gallon of Thames water inside me before I knew
what had happened.
"By Jove! old J.'s gone in," I heard Harris say, as I came blowing to the
surface. "I didn't think he'd have the pluck to do it. Did you?"
"Is it all right?" sung out George.
"Lovely," I spluttered back. "You are duffers not to come in. I
wouldn't have missed this for worlds. Why won't you try it? It only
wants a little determination."
But I could not persuade them.
Rather an amusing thing happened while dressing that morning. I was very
cold when I got back into the boat, and, in my hurry to get my shirt on,
I accidentally jerked it into the water. It made me awfully wild,
especially as George burst out laughing. I could not see anything to
laugh at, and I told George so, and he only laughed the more. I never
saw a man laugh so much. I quite lost my temper with him at last, and I
pointed out to him what a drivelling maniac of an imbecile idiot he was;
but he only roared the louder. And then, just as I was landing the
shirt, I noticed that it was not my shirt at all, but George's, which I
had mistaken for mine; whereupon the humour of the thing struck me for
the first time, and I began to laugh. And the more I looked from
George's wet shirt to George, roaring with laughter, the more I was
amused, and I laughed so much that I had to let the shirt fall back into
the water again.
"Ar'n't you - you - going to get it out?" said George, between his
I could not answer him at all for a while, I was laughing so, but, at
last, between my peals I managed to jerk out:
"It isn't my shirt - it's YOURS!"
I never saw a man's face change from lively to severe so suddenly in all
my life before.
"What!" he yelled, springing up. "You silly cuckoo! Why can't you be
more careful what you're doing? Why the deuce don't you go and dress on
the bank? You're not fit to be in a boat, you're not. Gimme the
I tried to make him see the fun of the thing, but he could not. George
is very dense at seeing a joke sometimes.
Harris proposed that we should have scrambled eggs for breakfast. He
said he would cook them. It seemed, from his account, that he was very
good at doing scrambled eggs. He often did them at picnics and when out
on yachts. He was quite famous for them. People who had once tasted his
scrambled eggs, so we gathered from his conversation, never cared for any
other food afterwards, but pined away and died when they could not get
It made our mouths water to hear him talk about the things, and we handed
him out the stove and the frying-pan and all the eggs that had not
smashed and gone over everything in the hamper, and begged him to begin.
He had some trouble in breaking the eggs - or rather not so much trouble
in breaking them exactly as in getting them into the frying-pan when
broken, and keeping them off his trousers, and preventing them from
running up his sleeve; but he fixed some half-a-dozen into the pan at
last, and then squatted down by the side of the stove and chivied them
about with a fork.
It seemed harassing work, so far as George and I could judge. Whenever
he went near the pan he burned himself, and then he would drop everything
and dance round the stove, flicking his fingers about and cursing the
things. Indeed, every time George and I looked round at him he was sure
to be performing this feat. We thought at first that it was a necessary
part of the culinary arrangements.
We did not know what scrambled eggs were, and we fancied that it must be
some Red Indian or Sandwich Islands sort of dish that required dances and
incantations for its proper cooking. Montmorency went and put his nose
over it once, and the fat spluttered up and scalded him, and then he
began dancing and cursing. Altogether it was one of the most interesting
and exciting operations I have ever witnessed. George and I were both
quite sorry when it was over.
The result was not altogether the success that Harris had anticipated.
There seemed so little to show for the business. Six eggs had gone into
the frying-pan, and all that came out was a teaspoonful of burnt and
unappetizing looking mess.
Harris said it was the fault of the frying-pan, and thought it would have
gone better if we had had a fish-kettle and a gas-stove; and we decided
not to attempt the dish again until we had those aids to housekeeping by
The sun had got more powerful by the time we had finished breakfast, and
the wind had dropped, and it was as lovely a morning as one could desire.
Little was in sight to remind us of the nineteenth century; and, as we
looked out upon the river in the morning sunlight, we could almost fancy
that the centuries between us and that ever-to-be-famous June morning of
1215 had been drawn aside, and that we, English yeomen's sons in homespun
cloth, with dirk at belt, were waiting there to witness the writing of
that stupendous page of history, the meaning whereof was to be translated
to the common people some four hundred and odd years later by one Oliver
Cromwell, who had deeply studied it.
It is a fine summer morning - sunny, soft, and still. But through the
air there runs a thrill of coming stir. King John has slept at Duncroft
Hall, and all the day before the little town of Staines has echoed to the
clang of armed men, and the clatter of great horses over its rough
stones, and the shouts of captains, and the grim oaths and surly jests of
bearded bowmen, billmen, pikemen, and strange-speaking foreign spearmen.
Gay-cloaked companies of knights and squires have ridden in, all travel-
stained and dusty. And all the evening long the timid townsmen's doors
have had to be quick opened to let in rough groups of soldiers, for whom
there must be found both board and lodging, and the best of both, or woe
betide the house and all within; for the sword is judge and jury,
plaintiff and executioner, in these tempestuous times, and pays for what
it takes by sparing those from whom it takes it, if it pleases it to do
Round the camp-fire in the market-place gather still more of the Barons'
troops, and eat and drink deep, and bellow forth roystering drinking
songs, and gamble and quarrel as the evening grows and deepens into
night. The firelight sheds quaint shadows on their piled-up arms and on
their uncouth forms. The children of the town steal round to watch them,
wondering; and brawny country wenches, laughing, draw near to bandy ale-
house jest and jibe with the swaggering troopers, so unlike the village
swains, who, now despised, stand apart behind, with vacant grins upon
their broad, peering faces. And out from the fields around, glitter the
faint lights of more distant camps, as here some great lord's followers
lie mustered, and there false John's French mercenaries hover like
crouching wolves without the town.
And so, with sentinel in each dark street, and twinkling watch-fires on
each height around, the night has worn away, and over this fair valley of
old Thame has broken the morning of the great day that is to close so big
with the fate of ages yet unborn.
Ever since grey dawn, in the lower of the two islands, just above where
we are standing, there has been great clamour, and the sound of many
workmen. The great pavilion brought there yester eve is being raised,
and carpenters are busy nailing tiers of seats, while `prentices from
London town are there with many-coloured stuffs and silks and cloth of
gold and silver.
And now, lo! down upon the road that winds along the river's bank from
Staines there come towards us, laughing and talking together in deep
guttural bass, a half-a-score of stalwart halbert-men - Barons' men,
these - and halt at a hundred yards or so above us, on the other bank,
and lean upon their arms, and wait.
And so, from hour to hour, march up along the road ever fresh groups and
bands of armed men, their casques and breastplates flashing back the long
low lines of morning sunlight, until, as far as eye can reach, the way
seems thick with glittering steel and prancing steeds. And shouting
horsemen are galloping from group to group, and little banners are
fluttering lazily in the warm breeze, and every now and then there is a
deeper stir as the ranks make way on either side, and some great Baron on
his war-horse, with his guard of squires around him, passes along to take
his station at the head of his serfs and vassals.
And up the slope of Cooper's Hill, just opposite, are gathered the
wondering rustics and curious townsfolk, who have run from Staines, and
none are quite sure what the bustle is about, but each one has a
different version of the great event that they have come to see; and some
say that much good to all the people will come from this day's work; but
the old men shake their heads, for they have heard such tales before.
And all the river down to Staines is dotted with small craft and boats
and tiny coracles - which last are growing out of favour now, and are
used only by the poorer folk. Over the rapids, where in after years trim
Bell Weir lock will stand, they have been forced or dragged by their
sturdy rowers, and now are crowding up as near as they dare come to the
great covered barges, which lie in readiness to bear King John to where
the fateful Charter waits his signing.
It is noon, and we and all the people have been waiting patient for many
an hour, and the rumour has run round that slippery John has again
escaped from the Barons' grasp, and has stolen away from Duncroft Hall
with his mercenaries at his heels, and will soon be doing other work than
signing charters for his people's liberty.
Not so! This time the grip upon him has been one of iron, and he has
slid and wriggled in vain. Far down the road a little cloud of dust has
risen, and draws nearer and grows larger, and the pattering of many hoofs
grows louder, and in and out between the scattered groups of drawn-up
men, there pushes on its way a brilliant cavalcade of gay-dressed lords
and knights. And front and rear, and either flank, there ride the yeomen
of the Barons, and in the midst King John.
He rides to where the barges lie in readiness, and the great Barons step
forth from their ranks to meet him. He greets them with a smile and
laugh, and pleasant honeyed words, as though it were some feast in his
honour to which he had been invited. But as he rises to dismount, he
casts one hurried glance from his own French mercenaries drawn up in the
rear to the grim ranks of the Barons' men that hem him in.
Is it too late? One fierce blow at the unsuspecting horseman at his
side, one cry to his French troops, one desperate charge upon the unready
lines before him, and these rebellious Barons might rue the day they
dared to thwart his plans! A bolder hand might have turned the game even
at that point. Had it been a Richard there! the cup of liberty might
have been dashed from England's lips, and the taste of freedom held back
for a hundred years.
But the heart of King John sinks before the stern faces of the English
fighting men, and the arm of King John drops back on to his rein, and he
dismounts and takes his seat in the foremost barge. And the Barons
follow in, with each mailed hand upon the sword-hilt, and the word is
given to let go.
Slowly the heavy, bright-decked barges leave the shore of Runningmede.
Slowly against the swift current they work their ponderous way, till,
with a low grumble, they grate against the bank of the little island that
from this day will bear the name of Magna Charta Island. And King John
has stepped upon the shore, and we wait in breathless silence till a
great shout cleaves the air, and the great cornerstone in England's
temple of liberty has, now we know, been firmly laid.