Introduces One Young Man
( Originally Published 1917 )
THE boys in the office were, I fancy, a bit prejudiced against him before he arrived. It wasn't his fault, for he was a stranger to them all, but it got about that the dear old " chief " had decided to engage a real good Sunday-school boy. Someone had heard him say, or, more likely, thought it would be funny to imagine him saying, that the advent of such a boy might " improve the general tone " of the place. That, you'll admit, was pretty rough on Sydney Baxter—the boy in question.
Now Sydney Baxter is not his real name, but this I can vouch is his true story. For the most part it is told exactly in his own words.
You'll admit its truth when you have read it, for there isn't a line in it which will stretch your imagination a hair's breadth. It's the plain unvarnished tale of an average young man who joined the army because he considered it his duty—who fought for many months.
That's why I am trying to record it; for if I tell it truly I shall have written the story of many thousands—I shall have written a page of the nation's history.
And so I need not warn you at the beginning that this book does not end with a V.C. and cheering throngs. It may possibly end with wedding bells, but you will agree there's nothing out of the common about that and a good job too.
I think on the whole I will keep Sydney Baxter's real name to myself. For one thing he is still in the army; for another he is expected back at the same office when he is discharged from hospital. It's rather beginning at the wrong end to mention the hospital at this stage, but, as I've done so, I'd better explain that after going unscathed through Ypres and Hill 6o, and all the trench warfare that followed, Sydney Baxter was wounded in nine places at the first battle of the Somme on that ever-glorious and terrible first of July.
He is, as I write, waiting for a glass eye; he has a silver plate where part of his frontal bone used to be; is minus one whole finger, and the best part of a second. He is deep scarred from his eyelid to his hair. I can tell you he looks as if he had been through it.
Well, he has.
He was nicknamed " Gig-lamps " in the office.
He wore large spectacles and his face was unhealthily lacking in traces of the open air.
He was in demeanour a very typical son of religious parents—well brought up, shielded, shepherded, a little spoiled, a little soft perhaps, and maybe a trifle self-consciously righteous.
A good boy, a home boy. No need for me to pile on the adjectives—you know exactly the kind of chap he was. One more thing, however, and very important—he had a sense of humour and he was uniformly good tempered and willing. That is why, in a short time, the prejudice of the office gave way to open approval.
" Young Baxter may be a pi ' youth, but he's quick at his job, and nothing's too much trouble for him," said his boss. And against their previous judgment the boys liked him. He could see a joke. He was a good sort.
Curiously enough it was the Y.M.C.A. that first introduced Sydney Baxter to what, for want of a better term, we will call the sporting side of life. There's a fine sporting side to every real Englishman's life—don't let there be any mistake about that. " He is a sportsman " is not, as a few excellent people seem to believe, a term of reproach. It is one of the highest honours conferred on an officer by the men he commands. And in the ranks " a good sport " is often another way of spelling " a hero."
It was, as I say, at the Y.M.C.A. that this one young man was first taken out of himself and his quiet home surroundings, first became interested in the convivialities of life. In those days, to be quite frank about it, a certain settled staidness of demeanour, a decided aloofness from the outside world, marked many religious households. A book of unexceptional moral tone, and probably containing what was known as " definite teaching," was the main relaxation after working hours—that, and an occasional meeting and some secretarial work for a religious or charitable society. Companions, if any, were very carefully chosen by the parents. Well, war has changed all that it has even chosen our very bedfellows for us.
And no questions to be asked, either.
It is often assumed by those who know no better that such a home as Sydney Baxter's produces either prigs or profligates. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons of this book is to prove that out of such a home may come, I believe often does come, the best type of Englishman—a Christian sportsman, a man who fights all the better for his country because he has been taught from childhood to fear God and hate iniquity.
But it was well for Sydney Baxter that he prepared for the chances and quick changes of his military life by learning how to make the best of his hitherto hidden gift of companionship.
This is how it came about. He writes:
" One afternoon in early autumn a card was put into the hands of every young man in our office, inviting us to a tea and social evening at the Y.M.C.A. Headquarters. The chaps said to me, Of course you are going, 'Baxter ? ' and I answered, Why not ? ' They, however, seemed to be of the opinion that the tea was, more or less, a bait to a prayer-meeting or something of that kind. However, several went, expecting, and preparing themselves for, the worst. We were welcomed by a group of gentlemen who seemed to be possessors of smiles of permanency; they conducted us to a large room already well filled with others like ourselves, whom we incorrectly judged to be members, as they seemed to be quite at home. In every corner of the room were lounge chairs and on the tables games of all description. Here and there small groups were being entertained by the members, and, judging by the unrestrained merriment, they were proving themselves very capable hosts.
" We were told to make ourselves absolutely at home; and although we entered with zest into all that was going on, I don't think really that we quite lost the feeling that a prayer-meeting was bound to follow. Much to our surprise no one came up and spoke to us about our souls; indeed our hosts led the way into all the fun that was going, and none of them had the milk-and-bun expression of countenance that we had conjured up in our mind's eye. You can see what our conception of Y.M.C.A. members was. We imagined them a narrow-minded set of some mild kind of religious fanatics."
I promised a veracious chronicle, and I am quoting Sydney Baxter word for word. I am inclined to believe that here he is expressing his companions' anxieties rather than his own.
" The tea gong sounded and our hosts led the way to another large room, and upon the tables was a sumptuous spread. Being young men we did full justice to it, and throughout the whole of tea time this same atmosphere of sociability surrounded us.
" After tea we were escorted to the lecture room, and, although it is too long ago to remember who the speakers were, and what the subjects, I do know it was most enjoyable. At the conclusion we were given a hearty welcome to come and use the rooms every evening for reading, writing, or social intercourse and games. The following morning in the office we all agreed that we had had a most enjoyable evening, and that we had badly misjudged the Y.M.C.A. A few of us took advantage of the invitation and went again, and received the same warm welcome and had another enjoyable evening. Shortly afterwards three of us joined the Association. Until this time I had no idea of the magnitude of the Association's work; my idea was that little existed outside of the Headquarters and the smaller branches over the country. This was some eight years ago. Now every one knows the Y.M.C.A. I soon got into the stream and found I was in the midst of a large number of football, cricket, swimming, and rowing enthusiasts. The teams that the Association clubs put into the field and on the river were very strong. The sports side of the Y.M.C.A. was indeed a revelation. "
So it was that Sydney Baxter's evenings and weekends were often spent with his fellows in various Y.M.C.A. organisations. He was anxious to get on, and the Association classes helped him, too, in his business education. Ambitious of advancement in the office, he had noted that his schooling was lacking in certain essentials if he was to be fit when the opportunity arrived.
He rose quickly in the business and was soon doing responsible work. He was one of those fellows who get ready for the time when their chance may come. ft always does come to such as Sydney Baxter.
The Association tackled the holiday problem for this young man too. This is how he describes his first visit to one of the Y.M.C.A. hotels. He calls them hotels himself, and I am not surprised, for such they really are. A " home," though a beautiful word, does not, somehow, in this connection convey the proper idea of these Y.M.C.A. holiday resorts. " A home from home " —well you know.
" I went down entirely on my own. I was at that time a very reserved chap, and I had misgivings as to the probability of making churns. I shared my room with a young Frenchman, who fortunately could speak English quite well, and thus we were saved embarrassing silence and aloofness.
" Tea gong sounded, and as we made our way into the passage we were literally carried along in the stream of young men, newcomers in their lounge suits, the others mostly in flannels. On we swept, down the stairs into the large dining-hall. Sit where you please, act as if you had been here all your life and treat everyone as an old pal, seemed to be the order of the day, and in that atmosphere it was impossible to feel anything but quite at home. Before tea was over we new arrivals were infected with the same spirit of joviality, and were ready for the first ' rag.'
" I was shown the house and grounds by an old boarder. In addition to the lounge, writing and smoking-rooms, there was a dark-room for developing, a fully rigged ' gym,' and billiard-room ; and so, in inclement weather, every amusement was at hand. In the grounds were tennis courts and croquet lawns.
" Every week drives were arranged to the beauty-spots and historical places round about, but I appreciated most the facilities offered by a temporary membership of the boating club for the absurdly small sum of 3s. 6d. per week. For this one could have a skiff or, if a party, a large boat, any day for any length of time, bathing costume and fishing tackle thrown in. I took full advantage of this, and most mornings and afternoons were spent on the water. We used to pull over to the obsolete battleships that lay in the stretch of water between us and the mainland. Here we would tether up and turn the gangway into a diving platform. Happy indeed were these days spent with companions who were in every sense of the word sportsmen and gentlemen."
Sportsmen and gentlemen—a new designation, perhaps, to some who have judged these Y.M.C.A. members by hearsay only. It's Sydney Baxter's not mine. And he ought to know well what the words mean after two years in a line regiment at the front.