THE SHADOW OF DEATH
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Philippians I, 21.
Towards the autumn of 1917, I began to be aware that my internal organs were becoming deranged. I suffered from spasms of extremely severe pain across my middle, as though I was being screwed up in a vice. At first these spasms were separated by fairly long intervals, but gradually they became more and more frequent. They usually came on soon after getting into bed and after a time of the pain fluctuating in cycles between extreme severity and mere discomfort, the attack culminated in a violent turn of vomiting. Although feeling used up, I was then better until the next attack. I recognised the symptoms as those of a congested liver due to an unsuitable diet, the diet in fact containing far too much starch for my particular case and throwing on the liver, more work than it could cope with.
After about twelve months from the first appearance of this trouble, the frequency of the attacks increased rapidly and my appetite began to leave me. I left more and more of my food, until I subsisted on almost nothing. I remember at one time during this period, that I existed on one potato for four days. I simply could not swallow food and naturally it was only to be expected that my strength would fail. Yet the collapse, when it came, was dramatically sudden. When the bell rang first thing in the morning, one day towards the end of October 1918, I was unable to rise. The fact that I was still in bed was however unnoticed by Mr. Butler when he first unlocked my cell at 6.30 a.m. At eight o’clock breakfast was served and when he came round, he saw that I was not up. He came into the cell looking very concerned and I greeted him with a wan and feeble smile as I said, “I think I’m done this time.” “I’m very sorry to here you say that, because you know, when you once go down in these places, the chances are that you’ll never come up again.” “Don’t leave me any breakfast please, I couldn’t eat it.” “Oh, try a little, perhaps you’ll feel better then.” He brought the stool to the bedside and placed the uninviting breakfast on it, with all the solicitude of a father and departed in haste to make up for lost time in this unofficial, but humane action. I managed to rise and straighten the cell, but was unable to eat all day.
The next morning, without any prompt from me, Mr. Butler reported me as sick and the doctor visited me a few hours later. He issued instructions to his attendant ordering a tonic draught for me, which he designated by number, but which I detected to be an acid solution of quinine. As might have been expected, the result of administering a comparatively large dose of quinine to a person in a low state on an empty stomach was to induce the peculiar effect known as quinism, this in fact being a form of poisoning. In a short time my vision became limited, I felt dazed and dizzy, my head ached and my ears buzzed with a noise like a beehive, populated with a particularly busy swarm of bees.
Up to this time, I had been storing my bread and potato allowance on the top shelf in the corner, thinking that when my appetite returned, I would need extra reserves to draw on, to rebuild my strength. But I now gave up that idea as an extreme improbability and so during the day, requested Mr. Butler to remove the unwanted food. On seeing this uneaten food, he was considerably alarmed, as he then understood what a small amount of nutriment I had consumed in the last few days. He must have immediately reported the circumstances, for in a very short time, I was conducted to the doctor’s special department. After a rapid examination, the medical man ordered, “Send him into hospital at once.” The escorting officer returned with me to my cell, where I collected my kit, which scarcely occupied half a minute and then conducted me to the prison hospital, where I was placed in Cell 6 on the ground floor, still in solitary confinement. The hospital cells were furnished with an iron bedstead of the hospital type, which was a real luxury, after the unyielding plank bed board of the ordinary cells.
I felt tired and very cold, but I could only keep from getting excessively cold by walking up and down. However I was too weak to keep that up for long, so I seated myself on the hot water pipes that ran along the end wall of the cell under the window. But this was not restful or comfortable and I looked wistfully at the bed, wondering if objections would be raised to my undressing and lying down. In a short time I was in bed and to my relief no one took any notice. I therefore passed the remainder of that day in quiet contentment.
The following day in the course of his rounds, the doctor came to my cell and expressed satisfaction at finding me in bed and thoroughly examined my stomach and liver regions with sundry slappings and tappings. This done he despatched his attendant to fetch a mustard plaster, which he placed towards my left side over the stomach. I still have vivid recollections of the scorching heat effect of that treatment. For several days I was utterly prostrate, with the most abject weakness. I found myself unable to read and if I opened by Bible, I discovered that the print appeared to execute a mad whirling dance before my eyes. Nor could I, even with the greatest effort of will, induce it to appear stationary and thereby legible.
Slowly my remaining strength seemed to ebb and sink lower and lower. There followed a number of days (I was unable to note how many, but Mr. Saintie told me afterwards that he visited me twice in this condition, so it must have been more than a fortnight) during which I lay in a state of semi-consciousness closely bordering in a coma. The few happenings that came within my close proximity, seemed to drift across the mist enshrouded horizon of my consciousness like spectres, things belonging to another world. I felt that my grip on life was gradually, but surely relaxing and that little by little, I was drifting towards the borderland of the grave. And I was perfectly content that it should be so, I felt a peaceful and happy calm. I experienced a keen satisfaction in the thought that I was about to slip beyond the power and grasp of intolerant persecutors, who had denied me the right to maintain loyalty to the Lord’s Anointed King. The words of Montgomery’s hymn were ever with me and echoed through my mind like the entrancing refrain of a sweetly angelic song.
Forever with the Lord!
Amen, so let it be.
Life from the dead is in that word,
Here in the body pent,
Absent from Him I roam,
Yet nightly pitch my moving tent,
A day’s march nearer home.
Twice during this time of prostration, Mr. Saintie visited me as I lay motionless on the bed in my cell and he has since told me that each time as he left me, he thought that he had seen me for the last time. His was a face that always cheered me and his appearance seemed to shoot a ray of sunshine across the mists of my clouded consciousness. The one happening that does stand out with crystal clearness, against the background of haze, is when he knelt in prayer by my bedside. In a low voice, vibrant with emotion he offered thanks to God for the few who had not ‘bowed the knee to Baal’. He gave thanks for our young friend and prayed that although cut short at an early age, the faithful testimony for Christ might bear fruit in inspiring others. Why I am able to recall this, I am at a loss to understand, unless it is that the pleasure of Mr. Saintie’s visits so energised my mind, that I was able to shake off the lethargy for a few moments. I heard it all as though it was the far away echo of a world I had ceased to be part of and it did not penetrate my understanding, that the speaker’s thoughts were centred on me.
But it was not the will of God that my life should end at that time. Slowly my strength returned and I receded from the edge of the grave. After a time I was able to take quiet exercise and I think the thing that under God, did most to restoring me, was the change in diet that took place when I transferred to the hospital. Breakfast and supper were the same as the ordinary prison diet, but dinner consisted of roast beef, potatoes (without jackets) and haricot beans, followed by rice pudding made with milk, this latter item having always been my favourite dish. Yet so disordered was my digestive system, that it was many weeks before I could manage to consume my whole allowance.
One Sunday afternoon during my convalescence, I was sent upstairs to the large open ward in order to attend the service, under the auspices of the Church Army Captain. While awaiting this gentleman’s arrival, I saw my friend Littlejohn in one of the beds and beside him a siphon of soda water. This looked serious, so I crossed to him, regardless of the rules and asked him how he came to be there. He said that he had been found unconscious on the floor of his cell. During the service, the Chaplain announced the hymn, ‘Now we have come to the sun’s glad hour of rest’, but none of his congregation had the energy or heart to lift his voice in song and the result was that the Chaplain sang a solo.
Armistice day, November 11th 1918, came within my time in hospital. It was almost the first day on which I was allowed out for exercise and in the early afternoon I was able to slowly walk round the gardens by the hospital. Included in this exercise party were a number of hospital patients and a handful of ‘naughty boys’ who disregarded some of the prison rules. While outside, the Chief Warder came bustling up with a great air of importance, called us together and then announced, “An armistice between Germany and the Allies was signed at 11 o’clock this morning.” The ‘naughty boys’ took off their caps and waiving them aloft, gave vent to a rousing cheer. This caused the Chief some little consternation, and raising his hand in rebuke commanded, “Now, no demonstrations.” For my own part, I was feeling too weak and listless to display enthusiasm over anything, but I could not refrain from a smile of pleasure.
When Christmas came, I was still in hospital and in consequence missed the Chaplain’s concert, since hospital inmates were not permitted to attend. The hospital exercise was conversational and when much recovered and able to take a lively interest in affairs, I had an interesting conversation with a man named Hoare. He was a university undergraduate, who had at first undertaken the Home Office Scheme. When he discovered its farcical nature, he refused to carry on. He was so disgusted with the trickery of the authorities that he also refused to accept prison rules and in this way he was included in our exercise group. The intelligence he imparted to me, confirmed me more firmly in my initial assessment of the Home Office Scheme.
Whose Image and Superscription?
The story of a First World War conscientious objector