THE LAST OF PRISON
They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary and they shall walk and not faint.
Isaiah XL, 31.
When I entered the hospital for this second time, I was placed in Cell 4. This immediately awakened a mild excitement, for at long last the multiples of three were broken. Was my release imminent? I had reckoned up my marks and calculated that in about a week’s time my two-year sentence would be expired. Would I leave it to enter no more, or would I again be court martialled and condemned to a further period of incarceration? Only time would show.
I was surprised at being despatched to the hospital. Although I was aware of my weak and emaciated condition, I did not for a moment imagine that I had a serious disorder. However I purposely refrained from making any attempt to discover the cause of the doctor’s action, deeming it wiser and better for my piece of mind to remain ignorant of it. I do not recollect one single thing that happened, beyond the mere fact that the doctor came to examine me every day. On the morning when I had computed that my full compliment of marks would be made up, I expected to be removed to the reception department at 6.30 a.m., according to the usual routine of discharge. But to my disappointment, my cell was not unlocked until an hour later 7.30 a.m., this being the usual hour for the day’s start in the hospital. When the door opened, I met the officer with the query, “I’m going out today, isn’t that so?” “I haven’t heard anything about it. What makes you think that?” “Well it’s just that I’ve got my full number of marks now.” The officer glanced at the marks card hanging in the board outside my cell and then without a word, took the board down and despatched it to the offices to be examined there. The matter was not mentioned when breakfast was served a few minutes later, but in the course of the morning, the doctor came in to examine me and said to the hospital attendant, “I think he’ll be all right for the short journey, but I’ll send him a little draught to steady him, which you can give him just before he leaves.”
It was in this manner therefore that I learned that I was going out that day. As it had been overlooked, the barracks at Mill Hill had not been notified and hence had not sent an escort to take charge of me, although they had been advised to send an escort for three other COs who were discharged that morning. The omission was rectified over the telephone, but it was too late for me to accompany the other three and I had to wait until the afternoon, for my escort.
Shortly after dinner, the military uniform in which I had arrived at Wandsworth Prison, was brought to my cell and I was directed to change there, instead of being taken to the reception department. Now I knew that a suit of my own clothes had been brought to the prison for me and the sight of the khaki uniform aroused every atom of antagonism in me. “But I want my own clothes, I’m not going to put those on.” “They’re all we’ve got for you.” “But I know my own clothes are here.” “We’ve got no others for you. You’ll have to put these on.” Despite my wasted and emaciated frame I sprang up with an accession of vigour and energy and with a firm voice emphatically declared, “No! I’ll go out naked first.” The officer was speechless with amazement at this sudden change from listless in-animation and gazed at me as though he beheld a zoological enigma, wondering how to tame this beast he had roused to fury. He turned away and returned five minutes later bearing my civilian clothes and laid them on the bed. But looking doubtfully at the khaki uniform asked, “What are we going to do with these things, they don’t belong to us?” “Oh, if that’s all the trouble is, I can take them back to the barracks.” “All right, we’ll make ‘em into a parcel.” And with that, he carried the uniform out, while I changed into my own clothes.
At about 3 o’clock my escort arrived (a private soldier) and while he waited just within the entrance gates, the draught, which the doctor had promised, was brought to me. As I swallowed it, I instantly recognised the chief ingredient and realised that I was considered to have a heart problem, which certainly explained the precautions the doctor was taking. With the first slight shock of the discovery over, I kept my calm, but felt my wrist to check the pulse in the radial artery and sure enough, the beat was in a remarkably erratic condition.
As I was handed over to the escort, the prison officer had a short conference with him, in which I heard him give the advice not to hurry. We proceeded to King’s Cross by a different route to that taken by Sergeant Steel in May 1917. Firstly we walked across Wandsworth Common to Wandsworth station and I felt the relief and delight of not having the high walls around me. After that I cannot recall the journey until we were in the train leaving King’s Cross, where I realised the soldier was not familiar with this line, for he omitted to change at Finsbury Park. I was surprised at this, but assumed the train service had been altered, besides which, it was of no concern of mine as the escort was in charge and I was not in the least desirous of reaching the barracks quickly. Furthermore, the soldier displayed no inclination to be affable and so I was not drawn to raise the matter. The train had not proceeded far from Finsbury Park before I was certain that we were on the wrong line, but as I was enjoying the changing scenes from the carriage window, after the months of seeing the same things each day, I still maintained my silence. However he realised his mistake at New Barnet and so we had to return to Finsbury Park to change to a Finchley train. As a result of this error, we were rather late at the barracks, too late in fact for my escort to report my arrival at the orderly room.
Whose Image and Superscription?
The story of a First World War conscientious objector