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To the first hundred at Eton College
July 7, 1927, the eve of 'Lord's'
This talk with you arises out of a sort of challenge from the Provost.* I was here this year on June 4, and in a speech at luncheon the Provost challenged me to disprove this terrible indictment, ‘James Hook, the pirate captain, was a great Etonian but not a good one.' Now in my opinion Hook was a good Etonian though not a great one, and it is my more or less passionate desire to persuade you of this - to have Hook, so to speak, sent up for good - that brings me here this afternoon in spite or my better judgement.
* Dr. Montague Rhodes James.
To prove my case I have of late been trying to collect facts regarding Hook's early days, and it must be admitted that he is an Old Boy about whom Eton has preserved few traditions. We should not even know that he had been an Etonian but for the statement 'Eton and Balliol' in a work that is probably largely unreliable. On the same doubtful authority we learn that his last words were 'Floreat Etona.'
Concerning Hook at Balliol I have pursued few inquiries, feeling that Eton is more important. He was certainly in residence there for several terms, and we know that he borrowed from the library a number of books, all of them, oddly enough, poetry and mostly of the Lake school. These volumes may still be occasionally picked up at second-hand bookstalls, with the name ‘Jacobus Hook' inserted as the owner. Thus his mind was already turning to the classics. Athletically I find that he was not specially notable at Balliol, but there is a curious record that when hurt on the football field he 'bled yellow.' His best sporting performance seems to have been that he was 12th man in the College 100 yards. Like so many subsequently famous he left Oxford one morning.
At Eton he was a dry bob, contrary to what one might have expected, as his future was to be on the sea, but, boy or man, he hated the touch of water, and he was always the last to leave his ship. He won many colours at Eton - he had many colours. His Aunt Emily, whom I succeeded in tracing, showed me three of his caps hanging very honourably over her mantelshelf. Being an outsider I don't know what they stand for, but you will know — one was red and blue, a second was claret and blue, and the other was all pale blue. She told me that he had got them specially made at a little place in the city. Again, I have proof that in his last year at school he was a member of what is perhaps the most exalted assemblage in the world — the Eton Society, or Pop. This Society consists of the 30 or so leading persons in the school, who are chosen entirely on account of their mental equipment. The Pops are the chief sight of Eton, and parade on great occasions in sock and spat, arms linked, six or eight abreast, and two yards in front of the Sun and Moon. Legend (always untrustworthy) says that Hook's election was a great surprise to the other members, who alone have the right of voting, and that James must have manipulated the ballot-box. But even if so, what ardour to excel, how indomitable is the particle, man! The page in the books of the Society recording his election has been mysteriously destroyed, and for some time I suspected that this could be explained in only one of two ways — either the authorities did it because they thought his subsequent career (meteoric as it was) reflected (on the whole) no credit on the school, or the dilapidations were made by autograph hunters. I have since discovered the true explanation, surely one of the most sombre, yet glorious, tales in the history of Eton. Of that night I will tell you anon and make, in so doing, I hope, a triumphant reply to the Provost, who can hardly grudge this tardy rehabilitation of his old fag-master.
I hear you asking impatiently what were Hook's intellectual attainments. Here we are on firm ground; he was in the First Hundred. He also contributed to one of the journals of original matter known locally (one wonders why) as Ephemerals. His contribution which I have heard is entitled 'A Dissertation upon Roast Pig' and seems to me to have merit, but for some unexplained reason his tutor interfered to prevent his being paid for it. Here is a discovery which must move those of you who have not hearts of flint, if any such there be. After the fatal affair, culminating in James's decease, a search made in the cabin of his floating hulks brought to light that throughout the years of his piracy he had been a faithful subscriber to the Eton Chronicle. Hundreds of copies of it, much thumb-marked, were found littering his bunk.
Of James's personal appearance and manners when at Eton I have contradictory accounts. According to his Aunt Emily he was a sweetly pretty boy and pious, with much of the courtliness that afterwards so struck his victims on the high seas while he was prodding them along the plank. The soul of honour, she said also, and so sensitive that she urged the powers that be not to cane James but to cane some adjacent piece of furniture, which had the same effect on the parts of the impressionable boy. This advice was not followed, and she feels that the harsher treatment fretted his dark spirit.
The few of his contemporaries whom I have had the privilege or consulting were impressed less favourably. They admit an air of cheap distinction, of which he seems to have been pleasantly conscious. But chiefly they recall a gluttonous boy. 'He oozed so unpleasantly through his clothes,' writes one, 'that in the Wall game, if you pushed him against the wall you smeared it with him.' Others dwell on that blood of his, which they describe as 'yellow after the colour has gone out of it.' This blood, I am informed, saved him many lammings from the head of the house, who, though Keeper of the Fives, fainted at first sight of it - as James knew and bragged about it. When in want of funds he used to cut himself slightly for threepence and considerably for a strawberry mess. This shows that he was not without admirers. His piety, say his detractors, was merely that he prayed unctuously not to be found out in certain nefarious transactions. The boy, in short, was temperamental.
I tried in vain to get a photograph of Hook as a boy. Those of you who have been to Eton know that boys there, until they have cheque-books of their own, when their characters entirely change, have themselves so much photographed in their hats that the cost must be equal to the rent of a cottage in the country. I wrote to various masters for a picture of James, saying I knew it was customary for boys on leaving to bequeath a selection of their photographs to their tutor and hazarding the belief that when the time came for the tutor to leave he did not take the photographs with him but left them behind in sacks for his fortunate successor, I was told that this was far from being the case; but unfortunately the news of my quest leaked out among the scugs - the scugs who are the curse of Eton, getting in every person's way - and a number of them – seeking a momentary prominence – sent me their own photographs, signed, 'Yours truly, Jas. Hook.'
We now come to that night which I have been leading up to. It deals with his astounding last visit to Eton, and my chief informant is Mr. G. F. T. Jasparin. Mr. Jasparin is one of those much respected Etonians whom love for their old school has gently paralysed. Instead of adopting some profession when they leave the university they return to the pleasant little town of Windsor, which lies under the shadow of Eton, and settle down there, having no connection with the school except a memory, but trying to believe that they are still happy little scugs. They have a club called The Buttery (formerly Jordan's), and are perhaps one of the most inoffensive of all exclusive coteries.
Mr. Jasparin writes me that on that night he was walking to the club in Keate's Lane from his lodging in Windsor (which he has furnished exactly like an Eton room, with a picture of a huntsman falling into a stream, a folding-bed, and a hat-box for the surreptitious concealment of coal). He was in a dejected mood because it was past the lock-up hour, and he had still, alas! the right to be at large. I shall try to quote his words.
'The street,' he wrote, 'seemed to be deserted, but as I approached the passage leading to the present rooms of the Eton Society I was conscious of a shadowy figure sitting motionless on the college wall, the low wall on which none may sit save Pops. In a moment, incredible as it may seem, I knew that I was in the presence of Jas. Hook. I had never before seen him in the flesh - and, indeed, I know now that "the flesh" is in inadequate term for this man's earthly tenement. He was dressed in modern fashion in the incomparable garb of Pop, and wore a silk hat, from which his long curls (so un-Etonian, but I suppose he had his crew to consider) dripped like black candles about to melt. You may think I knew him from them, but I did not. Instead of a hand an iron hook protruded from the sleeve of his right arm, but it was not even by this that I knew him. His face was of a hue on which blood of the colour said to percolate from him when in conflict would not have been noticeable. I regret to say that I did not actually see him bleed. All these details I observed later in corroboration, but I knew him first as Hook by his extraordinary note of noblesse oblige. I do not merely mean that Etonian was written all over him; there was something even more than that, as it (may I venture) he was two Etonians rolled by the magnanimous Gods into one. In a word, the handsomest man I have ever seen, though, at the same time, perhaps slightly disgusting. The moon, Mr, Jaspann continues, 'paused for a moment (which it often seems to me to do over Eton), as if awaiting some singular transaction. I watched the Solitary from the passage, and never, I say, could I have conceived a Colossus so shrunken. It was mournfully obvious that he was gazing with peeled eyes through the darkness of his present to the innocence of his past, from the monster he had become on the Spanish Main to the person he had been at Eton, and the effect was heightened by the unclean tears that crawled down his face. While I was wondering whether I ought to withdraw, a policeman approached on the college side, and I saw the hook rise as if for some dreadful entertainment. I almost cried out, but my fears show how little even I, who also have quaffed an overdose of Parnassus, know the stuff our persons are made of, even the pirate ones. The policeman flashed his lantern, and this strange colloquy took place.
'"Are you a Pop, Sir?" the policeman asked huskily, for he knew that every stone in the wall was listening.
'The Solitary not only lowered his hook, but, shocking to relate, hid it behind his back. After an agonizing struggle, "No," he said. That is what he said. Once a Pop always a Pop, but for the honour of the Eton Society he denied his proud connection with it.
'"Then you have no right to sit on that wall," the policeman said. "Get off." Every stone in the wall said, "Get off."
'The Solitary had merely to slew round his right arm to end the fellow, but for the honour of the school he humbly got off the wall—his wall.
'"Are you an O.E.?" the policeman asked.
'"No," said Jas. Hook, being thus the first Old Etonian to deny that dear impeachment. But it was all he could do for the honour of the school.'
He had slunk away when next Mr. Jasparin, to whom my thanks are due, was able to look upon the world again, but James was seen later that night by others with whom I have conversed, once seated drearily on Sheeps Bridge and wandering round Dutchman's Farm, and again, climbing into Agar's Plough, which I dare say is so called because those who most distinguish themselves there have sometimes difficulty afterwards in passing their examinations.
Probably the grimmest experience of the night went, as usual, to a creature in his first or second half who was largely unconscious of it until inquiries by Mr. Jasparin woke him to a sense of his peril and his importance. This boy or lad occupied a chamber in what is now, I think, Mr. Headlam's house, which was part of the old meeting-place of Pop (now more splendidly housed), and he woke about midnight to find Hook sitting in his room. Addressed indignantly, the Solitary was meditating too profoundly to hear, and the boy was about to make another remark when he fell asleep again. He will never come nearer to being torn apart like a pair of shorts. How Hook obtained access to this room is not known. It is a difficult room to enter quietly, for as soon as you open the door there are several sudden steps down, and it is therefore a sought-after habitation by boys who await visits from their relatives. James, however, was no stranger to the old Pop room, and he must have come and gone as soft as snow. Perhaps he had an old key to the house; one of his hobbies was to collect keys. Whether thinking that this was still part of the club-room of the giants he sought, because he had a deed of awful renunciation to do, is matter for surmise, but later that night he certainly did break into the present premises of the Eton Society and destroy the evidence in its books that he had once been a member. To obliterate the memory of himself from the tabernacle he had fouled was all this erring son of Eton could do for his beloved. In that one moment was he not a good Etonian? As he stole away had he not earned the right to look back once upon the sleeping school and cry, 'Oh that I were the happy dream that creeps to her soft heart!' Thus he vanishes from the scene, and all its doors close against him for ever. Surely a more tortured revisit to Eton never disturbed her shades than that of the humble pirate, No one saw the Solitary depart, to resume his awful role. I should have liked to think that the Provost was looking out at his window. Strange to think that there is one ghost he knows not of - the Eton ghost - a one-armed apparition, cadaverous and blackavised and wan, who is said to return to Eton to haunt it once every year - on the restless night before the match at Lord's, and to sit on Hook's wall, confidently yet not without tremors, awaiting a morrow he shall never see. To-night those of you whose windows overlook that wall may see in the light of a pale blue moon, with that ghost's yearly message round it, ' May our opponents win some time, but not this time’––
But no, no, let us end on a less poignant note. Hook's decease must have occurred not long after his last visit to Eton. I can find but the baldest references to it in the newspapers of the period, perhaps because obituary notices invariably begin 'We regret to announce,' and I dare say no one quite liked to say that about James's passing. One feared the worst when he ceased to send a greeting to the school, couched in the Latin tongue which had always been his custom on the Fourth of June. Gradually it became known that a little boy - his implacable enemy - had struck Hook from the lists of Man. He had always hated children, and the callous little brutes did for him in the end. This infant was the only person of whom James's aunt could not speak with charity. She always maintained that on securing possession of the pirate ship he dressed in her nephew's clothing (cut down to lit him by the disreputable female of his wanderings), and with a hook in his hand and a cigar-holder in his mouth strutted the deck using disgraceful language, a painful picture of James's conqueror which I have an uncomfortable feeling may be true. Later there came, from a dive in Manaos, a miscellaneous collection of Hook's pirate hoard and other treasures, the accumulation of a life of toll. They were wrapped up in a shirt, and included bags of doubloons and figures of eight, a battered silk hat with some black wax adhering to it, and a flute, an instrument on which he is said to hive been no mean performer. There was also the ship's log-book, containing many cries from the heart that he is alone among uncultured companions, and about the barrenness of fame. Not uninteresting to some here might be a comparison he draws in the log-book between the lives of himself and his former fag, written in the Plutarchian manner. In this he admits that they reached distinction along different paths, and discusses what might have happened to the school and to the ship if he and that other had changed places. In their mournful cadences these entries in the log-book are not untinged by the melancholy of the Greeks in their greatest period. Compare, for instance, one of the noblest passages in Sophocles with this terrible line, 'Better, perhaps, for Hook that he had never been born.'
Of more interest to the vulgar, to whom, after all, this talk must make its chief appeal, is James Hook's last will, which was forwarded to his aunt by a landshark of Rio. By this James left everything to Eton. But the Governors, it appears, had scruples - even about the hat - and so all passed to his Aunt Emily, who told me with a faint flush that not to accept them would have been a slight on James's memory.
These are all the facts I have been able to learn about Hook at Eton, and if you agree that once in his life, that night, he did all that such as he could do for his old school, I seek to draw no other moral, though surely the proud, if detestable, position he attained is another proof that the Etonian is a natural leader of men. Educationally, I gather from the log-book, his sympathies were with the classical rather than the modern side. In politics he was a Conservative. So far as I can learn there never was any woman in his life. His furrow had therefore to be a lonely one. Perhaps if some dear girl - who can tell? or why so bright a morning had to close in such a cataclysm? Perhaps it was just that at Oxford he fell among bad companions - Harrovians.