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My Charge on the Life Guards by Charles L. Norton


Now that our little international troubles about consequential damages and the like are happily settled, and there is no danger that my revelations will augment them in any degree, I think I may venture to give the particulars of an affair of honor which I once had with a gigantic member of Her Britannic Majesty's household troops.

My guardian had a special veneration for England in general and for Oxford in particular, and I was brought up and sent to Yale with the full understanding that St. Bridget's, Oxon., was the place where I was to be "finished." I left Yale at the end of Junior year and crossed the ocean in the crack steamer of the then famous Collins line. I do not believe any young American ever had a more favorable introduction to England than I had, and the wonder is that, considering the philo-Anglican atmosphere in which I was educated, I did not become a thorough-paced renegade. I was, however, blessed with a tolerably independent spirit, and kept my nationality intact throughout my university course.

Like Tom Brown, I felt myself drawn to the sporting set, and, as I was always an adept at athletics, soon won repute as an oarsman, and was well satisfied to be looked upon as the Yankee champion sundry amateur rowing-and boxing-matches, as well as in the lecture-room. Of course, I was the mark for no end of good-natured chaff about my nationality, but was nearly always able, I believe, to sustain the honor of the American name, and so at length graduated in the "firsts" as to scholarship, and enjoyed the distinguished honor of pulling number four in the "'Varsity eight" in our annual match with Cambridge on the Thames. Moreover, I stood six feet in my stockings, had the muscle of a gladiator, and was physically the equal of any man at Oxford.

After the race was over my special cronies hung about London for a few days, usually making that classical "cave" of Evans's a rendezvous in the evening. Two or three young officers of the Guards were often with us, and one night, when the talk had turned, as it often did, on personal prowess, the superb average physique of their regiment was duly lauded by our soldier companions. At length one of them remarked, in that aggravatingly superior tone which some Englishmen assume, that any man in his troop could handle any two of the then present company. This provoked a general laugh of incredulity, and two or three of our college set turned to me with—"What do you say to that, Jonathan?"

"Nonsense!" said I. "I'll put on the gloves with the biggest fellow among them, any day."

This somewhat democratic readiness to spar with a private soldier led to remarks which I chose to consider insular, if not insolent, and I replied, supporting the principle of Yankee equality, until, losing my temper at something which one of the ensigns said, I delivered myself in some such fashion as this: "Well, gentlemen, I'm only one Yankee among many Englishmen, but I will bet a hundred guineas, and put up the money, that I will tumble one of those mighty warriors out of his saddle in front of the Horse Guards, and ride off on his horse before the guard can turn out and stop me."

Of course my bet was instantly taken by the officers, but my friends were so astounded at my rashness that I found no backers. However, my blood was up, and, possibly because Evans's bitter beer was buzzing slightly in my head, I booked several more bets at large odds in my own favor. As the hour was late, we separated with an agreement to meet and arrange details on the following day, keeping the whole affair strictly secret meanwhile.

I confess that my feelings were not of the pleasantest as I sat at my late London breakfast somewhere about noon the next day, and I was fain to admit to my special friend that I had put myself in an awkward, if not an unenviable, position. However, I was in for it, and being naturally of an elastic temperament, began to cast about for a cheerful view of my undertaking. In the course of the day preliminaries were arranged and reduced to writing with all the care which Englishmen practice in such affairs of "honor." I only stipulated that I should be allowed to use a stout walking-stick in my encounter; that I should be kept informed as to the detail for guard; that I should be freely allowed to see the regiment at drill and in quarters; and that I should select my time of attack within a fortnight, giving a few hours' notice to all parties concerned, so as to ensure their presence as witnesses.

Every one who has ever visited London has seen and admired the gigantic horsemen who sit on mighty black steeds, one on either side of the archway facing Whitehall, and who are presumed at once to guard the commander-in-chief's head-quarters and to serve as "specimen bricks" of the finest cavalry corps in the world. Splendid fellows they are! None of them are under six feet high, and many of them are considerably above that mark. They wear polished steel corselets and helmets, white buck-skin trowsers, high jack-boots, and at the time of which I write their arms consisted of a brace of heavy, single-barreled pistols in holsters, a carbine and a sabre. The firearms were, under ordinary circumstances, not loaded, and the sabre was held at a "carry" in the right hand. This last was the weapon against which I must guard, and I accordingly placed a traveling cap and a coat in the hands of a discreet tailor, who sewed steel bands into the crown of one and into the shoulders of the other, in such a way as afforded very efficient protection against a possible downward cut.

Besides attending to these defensive preparations, I at once looked about for a competent horseman with military experience who could give me some practical hints as to encounters between infantry and cavalry, and, singularly enough, was thrown in with that gallant young officer who rode into immortality in front of the Light Brigade at Balaklava a few years afterward. I learned that he was a superb horseman, was down upon the English system of cavalry training, and was using pen and tongue to bring about a change. A sudden inspiration led me to take him into my confidence, as the terms of our agreement permitted me to do. He caught the idea with enthusiasm. What an argument it would be in favor of his new system if a mere civilian unhorsed a Guardsman trained after the old fashion! For a week he drilled me more or less every day in getting him off his horse in various ways, and I speedily became a proficient in the art, he meanwhile gaining some new ideas on the subject, which were duly printed in his well-known book.

Well, to make my story short, I gave notice to interested parties on the tenth day, put on my steel-ribbed cap and my armor-plated coat, and with stick in hand walked over to a hairdresser's with whom I had previously communicated, had my complexion darkened to a Spanish olive, put on a false beard, and was ready for service. I had arranged with this tonsorial artist, whose shop was in the Strand near Northumberland House, that he should be prepared to remove these traces of disguise as speedily as he had put them on, and that I should leave a stylish coat and hat in his charge, to be donned in haste should occasion require. I next engaged two boys to stand opposite Northumberland House, and be ready to hold a horse. These boys I partially paid beforehand, and promised more liberal largess if they did their duty. Preliminaries having been thus arranged, I strolled down Whitehall, feeling very much as I did years afterward when I found myself going into action for the first time in Dixie.

It was early afternoon on a lovely spring day. The Strand was a roaring stream of omnibuses and drays, carriages were beginning to roll along the drives leading to Rotten Row, and all London was in the streets. I was assured that at this hour I should find a big but father clumsy giant on post; and there he was, sure enough, sitting like a colossal statue on his coal-black charger, the crest of his helmet almost touching the keystone of the arch under which he sat, his accoutrements shining like jewels, and he looking every inch a British cavalryman. I walked past on the opposite side of Whitehall, meeting, without being recognized, all my aiders and abettors in this most heinous attack on Her Majesty's Guards. I then crossed the street and took a good look at my man. He and his companion-sentry under the other arch were aware of officers in "mufti" on the opposite sidewalk, and kept their eyes immovably to the front. Evidently nothing much short of an earthquake could cause either to relax a muscle. The little circle of admiring beholders which is always on hand inspecting these splendid horsemen was present, of course, with varying elements, and I had to wait a few minutes until a small number of innocuous spectators coincided with the aphelion of the periodical policeman.

It was not a pleasant thing to contemplate that tower of polished leather, brass and steel, with a man inside of it some forty pounds heavier than I, and think that in a minute or so we two should be engaged in a close grapple, whose termination involved considerable risk for me physically as well as pecuniarily. However, there was, in addition to the feeling of apprehension, a touch of elation at the thought that I, a lone Yankee, was about to beard the British lion in his most formidable shape, almost under the walls of Buckingham Palace.

I looked my antagonist carefully over, deciding several minor points in my mind, and then at a favorable moment stepped quietly within striking distance, and delivered a sharp blow with my stick on his left instep, as far forward as I could without hitting the stirrup. The man seemed to be in a sort of military trance, for he never winced. Quick as thought, I repeated the blow, and this time the fellow fairly yelled with rage, astonishment and pain. I have since made up my mind that his nerve-fibre must have been of that inert sort which transmits waves of sensation but slowly, so that the perception of the first blow reached the interior of his helmet just about as the second descended. At all events, he jerked back his foot, and somehow, between the involuntary contraction of his flexor muscles from pain and the glancing of my stick, his foot slipped from the stirrup. This, as I had learned from my instructor, was a great point gained, and in an instant I had him by the ankle and by the top of his jack-boot, doubling his leg, at the same time heaving mightily upward.

As I gave my whole strength to the effort I was dimly aware of screams and panic among the nursery—maids and children who were but a moment before my fellow-spectators. At the same time I caught the flash of the Guardsman's sabre as he cut down at me after the fashion prescribed in the broadsword exercise. Fortune, however, did not desert me. My antagonist had not enough elbow-room, and his sword-point was shivered against the stone arch overhead, the blade descending flatways and harmlessly upon my well-protected shoulder just as, with a final effort, I tumbled him out his saddle.

The recollection of the ludicrous figure which that Guardsman cut haunts me still. His pipeclayed gloves clutched wildly at holster and cantle as he went over. Down came the gleaming helmet crashing upon the pavement, and with a calamitous rattle and bang the whole complicated structure of corselet, scabbard, carbine, cross-belts, spurs and boots went into the inside corner of the archway, a helpless heap.

That started the horse. The noble animal had stood my assault as steadily as if he had been cast in bronze, but precisely such an emergency as this had never been contemplated in his training, as it had not in that of his master, and he now started forward rather wildly. I had my hand on the bridle before he had moved a foot, and swung myself half over his back as he dashed across the sidewalk and up Whitehall. The Guards' saddles are very easy when once you are in them, and I had reason, temporarily at least, to approve the English style of riding with short stirrups, for I readily found my seat, and ascertained that I could touch bottom with my toes. As I left the scene of my victory behind me I heard the guards turning out, and caught a glimpse as of all London running in my direction, but by the time that I had secured the control of my horse I had distanced the crowd, and as we entered the Strand we attracted comparatively little notice. In driving, the English turn out to the left instead of to the right, as is the custom here, and I was obliged to cross the westward-bound line of vehicles before I could fall in with that which would bring me to my boys. I decided to make a "carom" of it, and nearly took the heads off a pair of horses, and the pole off the omnibus to which they were attached, as I dashed through. Turning to the right, I soon lost the torrent of invective hurled after me by the driver and conductor of the discomfited 'bus, and in less than two minutes—which seemed to me an age, for the pursuit was drawing near—I reached my boys, dropped them a half sov. apiece, which I had ready in my hand, and bolted for my hairdresser's, the boys leading the horse in the opposite direction, as previously ordered.

It was none too soon, for as I ran up stairs I saw three or four policemen running toward the horse, and there was a gleam of dancing plumes and shining helmets toward Whitehall. My false beard and complexion were changed with marvelous rapidity, and, assuming my promenade costume, I sauntered down stairs and out upon the sidewalk in time to see the whole street jammed with a crowd of excited Britons, while the recaptured horse was turned over to the Guardsmen, and the two boys were marched off to Bow street for examination before a magistrate.

A private room and an elaborate dinner at the United Service Club closed the day; and I must admit that my military friends swallowed their evident chagrin with a very good grace. Of course I was told that I could not do it again, which I readily admitted; and that there was not another man in the troop whom I could have unhorsed—an assertion which I as persistently combated. The affair was officially hushed up, and probably not more than a few thousand people ever heard of it outside military circles.

How I escaped arrest and punishment to the extent of the law I did not know for many years, for the duke of Wellington, who was then commander-in-chief, had only to order the officers concerned under arrest, and I should have been in honor bound to come forward with a voluntary confession.

My giant was sent for to the old duke's private room the day after his overthrow, and questioned sharply by the adjutant, who, with pardonable incredulity, suspected that bribery alone could have brought about so direful a catastrophe. The duke was from the first convinced of the soldier's, honesty and bravery, and presently broke in upon the adjutant's examination with—"Well, well! speak to me now. What have you to say for yourself?"

"May it please yer ludship," said the undismayed soldier, "I've never fought a civilian sence I 'listed, an' yer ludship will bear me witness that there's nothing in the cavalry drill about resisting a charge of foot when a mon's on post at the Horse Guards."

This speech was delivered with the most perfect sincerity and sobriety, and although it reflected upon the efficiency of the army under the hero of Waterloo, the Iron Duke was so much impressed by the affair that he sent word to Lieutenant-Colonel Varian, commanding the regiment, not to order the man any punishment whatever, but to see that his command was thereafter trained in view of possible attacks, even when posted in front of army head-quarters.