V.C. Magazine, July 2, 1903
A Talk with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
One of the reasons why Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books make such delightful reading is the vividness and truth of the outdoor episodes in them. And the reason of this vividness is that he has had personal experience of the thing of which he writes. Like Mr. Squeers’ boys, he “goes out and does it.” And there can be no doubt that, however much such a feeling may be censured by the superior person, the public likes a man to resemble his books. It is grateful when a writer who can describe a fight like those in “Rodney Stone” and “The Croxley Master” is able to use the gloves in fact as well as fiction, and when the author of a story like “The King of the Foxes” or “The Crime of the Brigadier” is not a merely theoretical huntsman.
Immensely powerful in build, and the keenest of sportsmen, he is the very embodiment of the Man in the Field. There is strength behind everything he does. Whether he is riding straight on the hunting-field, or going in in a bad light to stop a rot, or bowling to break up a long stand at cricket, he does it with the air of the man who gets there. The last time I saw him play was down at Chatham for the Authors against the Royal Engineers. He went on to bowl fourth change, when the score was 220 for four wickets, and the wicket playing like a billiard-table. In his third over he had clean bowled the man who had been doing what he liked with the bowling for two hours, and in another seventy minutes the side was out for 290, and he had taken five wickets for forty-four. He was captain that day. A captain who is capable of bowling like that, and yet does not try his hand till fourth change, is no ordinary man.
One of the few things Sir Arthur has not done in the course of his life is to come down from a balloon in a parachute. And he means to try that some day.
Pluck and Parachutes.
“I think the man who first tried coming down in a parachute was the pluckiest man on earth,” he said, “though aeronauts have told me that it is really perfectly safe. I should like to try it, just for the sake of the one great experience. But it must be nervous work stepping over the side of the car for the first time. You must start at least a mile and a half from the earth, and for the first thousand feet I believe you fall like a stone. But I suppose a parachutist gets used to it. Courage is rather a hard thing to judge for that reason. If one sees a man at his own special work for the first time, one is generally impressed by his coolness, especially as, being new to it, one is frightened oneself. The first time I went up in a balloon I was terribly frightened. It was pleasant enough at first, with all the spectators cheering, and so on. But when we had been rising some minutes, and were a mile from the ground, and I looked over the side:—I was never in such a miserable fright in my life. To see people running about, looking the size of dogs, and to feel that there was only a sort of strawberry-basket between me and that! It was a long time before I would let go of the ropes. But after I had been up a little while I became quite used to it, and I suppose that is what happens to everyone. Spencer, the aeronaut, who was with me, struck me as being very brave and cool. I heard one story about him which seemed to me to support this impression. It was while he was in India, in the days before balloons were so common as they are now. Spencer was going to give an exhibition at Calcutta, and thousands of natives had come to see him go up, some of them from a considerable distance. On the day when the ascent was to take place it happened that a tremendous hurricane was blowing. The authorities were in great trouble about it. Word had gone forth that the ascent was to take place on that particular day, and the natives had come in to see him go up. If the ascent was postponed, the faith of the native in the word of an Englishman would be considerably diminished. Spencer saw the point, and up he went, and away he was carried at a hundred miles an hour, and finally came down again in some tiger-haunted spot on the Hoogli, where the people lived up trees to prevent the tigers getting at them. Spencer sat on what was left of his balloon and looked round him, spent the night on the wreck with the tigers, and in the end got help, and came safely back to Calcutta after a journey of a week or more. Yes, he got an ovation when he arrived. That sort of thing is quite different from courage on the field. A soldier is really such a minute atom in such a mighty host that I don’t see how he can be afraid. I have certainly never seen one afraid myself. You see them laughing and cracking jokes all the time that they are under fire. In my experience a man always plays the game as a matter of course. It comes in his day’s work. Cases of cowardice are so rare that one would notice them directly. I must have seen some brave men in the hospitals, but no case in particular stands out in my mind. You expect a doctor to treat a fever-case without thinking of the risk, and the patients are almost without exception equally plucky.”
“Are any of those stories you told in ‘The Surgeon Talks’ in ‘Round the Red Lamp’ true ones?” I asked.
“Some of them. And they are nearly all founded on fact. They are the sort of thing that might happen.”
“When you were in the whaler in the Arctic, did you see anything particularly brave done?”
“I saw a man climb from one boat to another across the body of a living whale. Perhaps it is hardly what you could call brave, but it was certainly cool, and it is a good instance of how lightly a certain class of men treat danger. This man hauled himself on to the whale’s body by means of a fin, walked across it—a distance of a dozen feet—and jumped into the boat on the further side. Another instance of this curious indifference to danger occurred on a steamer on which I was doctor. I was roused up in the middle of the night by one of the mates, and told to go round to all the passengers and tell them that the ship was on fire. I broke it as gently as I could to the women, but I didn’t mince matters with the men. I told them straight out what had happened. One of the last men to be informed was a Swiss. I went to his bunk and woke him. ‘The ship’s on fire,’ I said; ‘get up.’ ‘I vos often on board ships that vos on fire,’ he said in an uninterested voice, and he turned over and went to sleep again. He seemed more bored than anything else by the news.
“People talk a great deal of nonsense,” said Sir Arthur after a pause, “about the degeneration of the race. The race is all right. I will give you an instance. In the hospital in South Africa there were eighteen assistants, who all came, curiously enough, not only from the same town in Lancashire, but from the same mill. You couldn’t have found eighteen men who looked more degenerate at first sight. They were stunted and ruddled, and didn’t look as if they were good for anything. But they worked splendidly. Fourteen of the eighteen were down with enteric at the same time. You might have expected the others to be frightened. Not a bit of it. They went on doing their work as stolidly as if no such thing as enteric had ever been heard of. All that men like that want is good leading. Then they are as good as anybody.”
Apropos of the soundness of the race, I cannot, I think, conclude this article more fitly than by quoting a passage touching on the subject. It comes from “The Surgeon Talks.” It was written some years ago, but apparently Sir Arthur still holds the same views.
“Some people say” (it runs) “that the more one has to do with human nature, and the closer one is brought in contact with it, the less one thinks of it. I don’t believe that those who know most would uphold that view. My own experience is dead against it. I was brought up in the miserable-mortal-clay school of theology, and yet here I am, after thirty years of intimate acquaintance with humanity, filled with respect for it. The evil lies commonly upon the surface. The deeper strata are good.”
The words might be used as a motto for “V.C.” It is exactly these sentiments that we are doing our best to promulgate.
P. G. Wodehouse.