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After this comes the letter describing a dinner at Walmer
The party at Walmer Castle consisted of Lord and Lady Douro, Lord and Lady Wilton and Lady Elizabeth Egerton, their daughter.
From Walmer there came Major and Mrs. Hoey, of the 30th, and Capt. Watts, the Lieutenant of Walmer Castle. I arrived very punctually just before 7, and found the Duke and Lord Douro only in the drawing-room. He shook hands with me and introduced me to Lord Douro. The rest of the party soon began to arrive. The rooms at Walmer are small, but very comfortable. Furniture plain, but very good. The Duke was dressed in a blue coat with gilt buttons, white waistcoat with some sort of silver studs; the collar of the Golden Fleece and the Blue Ribbon and Star. He does not often speak, unless there is someone who knows how to draw him out. I hear that the two who can do so best are Lord Mahon and Lord de Ros—especially the last—and that he likes to come upon his old recollections. He is very deaf, but his eye is full and clear as possible, and his complexion does not strike me to be so pale. Dinner plain but very good, and wine excellent. An oval sort of table, the Duke and Lord Douro sitting opposite each other in the centre. I sat next to Lady Wilton, who sat on the Duke's left. Lady Douro on his right. The centrepiece on the table was presented to him by the Field Officers of the Army in Portugal, after the battle of Vimeiro. Conversation was agreeable and general, chiefly led by Lord Wilton, who is very pleasant. Lord Douro seems a very good-humoured fellow among strangers, but gives no impression whatever of having inherited more of his great father than the name. Lady Douro is certainly most beautiful: there is a quiet pensive melancholy which is most fascinating. I cannot see that she has such a defective figure. Young as she is, the mark of inward sorrow is already lined upon her features. The Duke seemed to hear her without difficulty when she addressed him, but her voice is very low. The Duke's memory has been said to be going fast; I can only say that he had not forgotten the humble affair which first brought me under his notice. On sitting down to dinner he leaned forward, looking across Lady Wilton to me, and said, ‘Lady Wilton, Major Gordon is the officer who saved so many soldiers and others at the Cape, as I was telling you of." This no doubt with the kind intention of introducing me to Lady W. and making us acquainted. And after the ladies left he made me draw my chair close to him, and began talking to me about the affair. He asked me whether there were many of the men that I saved now at Dover, and described the position of the ship where she was cast away, from his own recollection, most perfectly. We were talking of the Peninsula, and I said ‘Yesterday was the anniversary of Nivelle.” The Duke said ‘No, it was not yesterday, to-day, I think.” I looked to Lord Wilton, and said, “Try the Duke again, for I think it was the 10th.” So he said, “Major G. thinks it was the 10th.” The Duke considered a little, and said, ‘Yes, yes, you are right, it was the 10th.” Talking of the French now, someone said that they seemed very little enthusiastic as a nation. The Duke said, ‘The French have no enthusiasm for anyone; there is no one.” Talking of Lord Nelson, the Duke said that they had met once. He was at the Admiralty, and in the waitingroom when Nelson came in— a man of about my own size.” Lord Wilton asked, “Does that print give a correct likeness, according to your Grace's impression ?? The Duke, looking at it (a fulllength): ‘Yes; about my own height.” Lord W. said, “I remember hearing you say that he talked only of himself.’ Duke : “Well, and so he did. It was all about himself, what he did in the West Indies; he had just come from the West Indies.” Lord W. said ‘Your Grace met Soult once in France 2' ‘Oh, yes; so they told me. I was fast asleep in the carriage, and my servant said that Soult looked in ; and I dare say he said, “Oh, he's asleep, d-n him 1" and turned away.’ This was after Toulouse. Talking of the generals assembled at Paris in 1814, when the Various Austrian and Prussian generals who had been beaten by Napoleon came crowding round the Duke and expressing lots of compliments to him for having never been beaten by the French, the Duke pleased them immensely by saying, “Ah, but you know I never met Bonaparte, and I have always looked on him as being as good as forty thousand men.” There was an extraordinary Frenchman invited to meet the Duke at Madame de Stael's after Waterloo. The Abbé de Pradt—a great intriguer in politics. So he came up to the Duke and began a long speech about Napoleon—his enormous power, great talents, &c., and the Duke, waiting for the end, feeling sure that it was to be the usual compliment to him, when to his unutterable relief the Abbé ended by saying, “Eh bien, ce grand Colossus—a présent emprisonné dans une petite ile—ce grand travail a €té l'ouvrage d’un seul homme— et, Monsieur le Général, cet Homme c’est Moi.” When coffee was announced, the Duke rose, and we all followed him into the drawing-room. I should say that at dessert the letters brought by the evening post were brought in to each person. The Duke had six, all of which he opened and read himself. Arrived in the drawing-room, the servant brought the newspapers, which were “Times,” “Morning Post,” “Herald.’ They were all anxious to see the German news. The Duke sat on a sofa, with a table and candle, and read his newspapers. Lord Douro told me of a curious powder which they have in Bohemia, a specific against hydrophobia. Lord Clanwilliam, who is connected with that country, always keeps some. I heard the Duke arranging for Lady Douro all about her going to Dover on her way to London: the hours, the trains, and how—and all as clear and decisive as possible. At ten o’clock the carriages were announced, and we bid goodbye. The Duke shook hands with me, and asked the Colonel's name and whether he was in Dover.
It was in 1852, ten years after the wreck of the Abercrombie Robinson, that the Birkenhead, of glorious memory, struck upon a rock and went down in Simon's Bay. Both the two wrecked ships were troopships, and in both disasters the conduct of the soldiers on board, mere lads as in both cases they mostly were, was beyond all praise. The dreadful story is well known of how, after the women and children were safely sent off from the wreck, the troops were ordered to stand round upon the quarter-deck, and how as the Birkenhead slowly sank below those dark weedentangled waters where big hungry sharks swarmed watching round, the heroism of their self-sacrifice shone out clear with a larger and more splendid light, relieved against the gloom of inevitable death. Even now at this distance of time—it is over fifty years aro–we are held breathless, as it were, while we read accounts of it and in imagination seem to be present with the whole calm, awful scene. The soldiers lining the deck and, in obedience to the word of command, standing silent and steady as on parade amid the mortal anguish and terror of the hour. They did their duty and were not afraid to die.
In both ships the battalions were chiefly raw and untried, yet they never in the slightest degree lost their courage nor failed in discipline. There was, however, this great contrast : while in the case of the Abercrombie Robinson, in 1842, every life was saved, in the other, the Birkenhead, in 1852, the survivors were few. In reading my brother's narrative of 1842 it is not so easy to keep up the tension of our sympathy during all those seventeen long hours of darkness and storm and deadly peril, with no catastrophe at the last, no tragedy to deplore. With the one wreck—the Birkenhead—from the moment when she struck the rock no human possibility of escape existed. With the other, many hundred soldiers were all saved alive, besides women and sick, children and crew. Their safety was due (under God) to the coolness and courage, the resourcefulness and gentle kindness to the sick, of one man—Bertie Gordon, the young officer in command.
Two years after the Birkenhead tragedy one of the very few survivors, Captain Wright, who commanded a detachment of the 91st at the time, was awarded the Distinguished Service pension, while his promotion was ante-dated. Twenty-six years after the wreck of the Abercrombie Robinson Gordon also received the same honour, the Distinguished Service pension—only about a year before his death. It came too late. In September 1852 the Duke died, and his funeral took place on November 18. That day, for the first time within memory of the oldest veteran, an army in all the pride of war marched through London. The grandeur of the procession, as the sorrowing tribute of a nation to its well-loved hero—the Great Warrior and Peacemaker— made a pageant of military pomp and circumstance worthy of him. My personal recollections of that foggy, dark November morning grow somewhat dim; yet, looking backward, a few slight threads of memory seem still to remain. . . . There was the early breakfast before dawn had scarce begun to break; the excitement, and the hurried start (from Lord Cork's house in Hamilton Place) to take our places on the roof of one of the Clubs—White's or Brooks's, I forget which—in St. James's Street. We were there soon after seven, and the roof was already crowded. Then the long hours of waiting, which were not tedious, but full of interest. I remember the warmth of the grey morning air—or was it youth made it feel so warm —the safe, comfortable chairs on the housetop, and low-toned talk around. It all comes back to me: the quiet gathering of black, silent multitudes in the street below, the whole scene of sombre gloom, with everywhere a sense of loss and of mourning. Strange that I recall not one note of the music that accompanied the funerall Music there surely must have been, but the ceaseless tread of the regiments marching past was the only sound that fell insistently upon the hush of that deep . silence. Then there was the straining to catch a first glimpse of the lofty funeral car; and then when that solemn tower of darkness appeared at last, and was seen rounding the corner of and moving slowly down the street, how every eye turned that way, intently gazing. And then his horse, the great Duke's sorrowful charger—a chief mourner, so closely following after his dead master with drooping head. I know not if the big tears fell from his eyes in mute woe and mingled with the dust, like Rustum’s
old horse in the Persian story; we were set too high up to see, even had we thought at the time. The 91st, whose approach we had eagerly watched for, we somehow missed. But I remember how when the 79th Highlanders came by the sort of murmur of applause that went all round for the splendid precision of their step. Even now I can see the men and hear their step ! The mists of half a century again rise up and all is once more obscure. Yet the keen regret of not being in two places at once is still recalled, with the desire so strongly felt that one could be present there and could witness also the last fine scene—the scene at the grave in St. Paul's.
And the long years came and went, and the gallant company of the 91st Highlanders, whose conduct when their transport was wrecked in Table Bay had won praise from The Duke, grew old and worn or got their discharge, and died and passed away, and their Captain (Gordon) alone survived until 1870, remaining for twelve years the last of the eight hundred who formed the regiment when he first joined. Then he also died. And the years still pass on ; and since the pathos of Life has never been as the pathos of Death, so remembrance of the lost Birkenhead and the men who sacrificed their lives to their duty still endures, while the noble story of the seven hundred rescued from the wreck of the Abercrombie Robinson is forgotten.
E. W. B