The Times' Red Cross Story Book/Eliza and the Special
Eliza and the Special
Royal Naval Air Service
"Eliza!" I said, after we had retired to the drawing-room, as we almost always do after our late dinner nowadays, unless of course the lighting of an extra fire is involved, "Eliza, I have this afternoon come to rather an important decision. I must ask you to remember the meaning of the word decision. It means that a thing is decided. It may be perfectly natural to you to beg me not to risk the exposure to the weather, and the possible attacks by criminals or German spies, but where my conscience has spoken I am, so to speak, adamant, (if you would kindly cease playing with the cat, you would be able to pay more attention to what I am saying). What I want you to realise is that no entreaties or arguments can possibly move me. This nation is at present plunged——"
"By the way," said Eliza, "you don't mind my interrupting, but I've just thought of it. Miss Lakers says she can't think why you don't offer yourself as a special, and I don't see why you shouldn't, either."
"This, Eliza," I said, "is one of the most extraordinary coincidences that have befallen me in the whole course of my life. If an author were to put such a thing in a book, every reader would remark on its improbability. But the fact remains—at the very moment when you spoke I was on the point of telling you that I had decided to become a special constable."
"That's all right, then," said Eliza. "I'll tell Miss Lakers. Wonder you didn't think of it before. Anything in the evening paper to-night?"
"You are hardly taking my decision in the way that might have been expected," I said. "However, we will let that pass. We must now take the necessary steps."
"What do you mean?" said Eliza. "You just go to the station and——"
"I was not thinking of that. There is this question of exposure to the weather. A warm waistcoat—sufficiently low at the back to give protection to the kidneys—is, I understand, essential. We must also procure a flask."
"Well, I shouldn't if I were you. If you take whiskey when you're on duty, and then anything happens, you only put yourself in the wrong."
"My dear Eliza," I said, "I was not dreaming of taking stimulants while on duty. Afterwards, perhaps, in moderation, but not during. I was referring to one of those flasks which keep soup or cocoa hot for a considerable period. This question of exposure to the weather is rather more serious than you seem to——"
"Oh, that kind of flask! Well, that's different. And do be more careful when you're uncrossing your legs. You as near as possible kicked the cat that time."
As I told her, she had quite failed to grasp the situation or to take a proper interest in it. Her reply, that I was too funny, simply had no bearing on the subject.
I am not a snob. Far from it. But I do think that in the special constabulary a little more regard might be paid to social status. I was required for certain hours of the night to guard a small square building connected with the waterworks. It was in a desperately lonely spot, fully a hundred yards from the main road and approached by a footpath across a desolate field. I make no complaint as to that. Unless a man has pretty good nerves he had better not become a special constable. But I do complain, and with good reason, that in this task I was associated with Hopley.
Hopley is a plumber, in quite a small way. Some ten or twelve years ago, when I was merely an employee of the firm in which I am now a partner, I gave Hopley some work. At the time of taking the order he called me "sir," and was most respectful. Later, he used very coarse language, and said he should not leave my kitchen until the account had been settled. I remember this because it was the last time that I had to pawn my watch.
Fortunately, Hopley seemed to have forgotten the incident and to have forgotten me. On the other hand he seemed quite oblivious of the fact that there was any social barrier between us. He always addressed me as an equal, and even as an intimate friend. Making allowances for the unusual circumstances, the nation being at war, I did not put him back in his place. But after all, I ask myself, was it necessary? With a little more organisation it would not have happened.
I will admit that I found him useful at drill and generally tried to be next him. He seemed to know about drill, and gave me the required pull or push which makes so much difference.
But when we two were guarding that building I found him most depressing. He took a pessimistic view of the situation. He said that any special who was put to guard a waterworks was practically sentenced to death, because the Germans had got the position of every waterworks in the kingdom charted, and the Zeppelins had their instructions. Then he talked over the invasion of England, and the murder of a special constable, and told ghost stories. By day I could see, almost before Eliza pointed it out, that an incendiary bomb would do more active work in a gasometer than in a reservoir. But in the darkness of the small hours I am—well, distinctly less critical.
And I may add that the only mistake we have made yet was entirely due to Hopley. It was a nasty, foggy night and I saw a shadowy form approaching. I immediately went round to the other side of the building to report to Hopley, and he said that this was just the sort of night the Germans would choose for some of their dirty work. It was he who instructed me about taking cover and springing out at the last minute. We sprang simultaneously, Hopley on one side and myself on the other, and if it had been anybody but Eliza we should have made a smart job of it. I had forgotten my cocoa flask and Eliza was bringing it to the place where I was posted. This was unfortunate for Hopley, as she hit him in the face with the flask. I think that I personally must have slipped on a banana-skin, or it may have been due to the sudden surprise at hearing Eliza's voice. Eliza said she was sorry about Hopley's nose, but that we really ought not to play silly jokes like that when on duty, because we might possibly frighten somebody.
The other night I was discussing with Hopley the possibility of my being made a sergeant.
"Not a chance," he said. "No absolute earthly, old sport." And then he passed his hand in a reflective way over his nose. "But if only your missus could have joined," he said, "she'd have been an inspector by now."