The Story of Baden-Powell Part 1

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The Story of Baden-Powell is a Webnovel created by Harold Begbie.
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The Story of Baden-Powell.

by Harold Begbie.



If amid the storm and stress of your academic career you find an hour’s relaxation in perusing the pages of this book, all the travail that I have suffered in the making of it will be repaid a thousandfold. Throughout the quiet hours of many nights, when Morpheus has mercifully muzzled my youngest (a fine child, sir, but a female), I have bent over my littered desk driving a jibbing pen, comforted and encouraged simply and solely by the vision of my labour’s object and attainment. I have seen at such moments the brink of a river, warm with the sun’s rays, though sheltered in part by the rustling leaves of an alder, and thereon, sprawling at great ease, chin in the cups of the hand, stomach to earth, and toes tapping the sweet-smelling sod, your ill.u.s.trious self–deep engrossed in my book. For this alone I have written. If, then, it was the prospect of thus pleasing you that sustained me in my task, to whom else can I more fittingly inscribe the fruits of my labour? Accept then, honoured sir, this work of your devoted servant, a.s.sured that, if the book wins your affection and leaves an ideal or two in the mind when you come regretfully upon “Finis,” I shall smoke my pipe o’ nights with greater pleasure and contentment than ever I have done since I ventured the task of sketching my gallant hero’s adventurous career.

I have the honour to be, sir,

Your most humble and obedient servant,


WEYBRIDGE, _April 1900._



You will be the first to grant me, honoured sir, that after earnestness of purpose, that is to say “keenness,” there is no quality of the mind so essential to the even-balance as humour. The schoolmaster without this humanising virtue never yet won your love and admiration, and to miss your affection and loyalty is to lose one of life’s chiefest delights. You are as quick to detect the humbug who hides his mediocrity behind an affectation of dignity as was dear old Yorick, of whom you will read when you have got to know the sweetness of Catullus. This Yorick it was who declared that the Frenchman’s epigram describing gravity as “a mysterious carriage of the body to cover the defects of the mind,” deserved “to be wrote in letters of gold”; and I make no doubt that had there been a greater recognition of the extreme value and importance of humour in the early ages of the world, our history books would record fewer blunders on the part of kings, counsellors, and princes, and the great churches would not have alienated the sympathy of so many goodly people at the most important moment in their existence–the beginning of their proselytism.

This erudite reflection is to prepare you for the introduction of my hero, Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell. I introduce him to you as a hero–and as a humourist. To me he appears the ideal English schoolboy, and the ideal British officer; but if I had blurted this out at the beginning of my story you might perhaps have flung the book into an ink-stained corner, thinking you were in for a dull lecture.

It is the misfortune of goodness to be generally treated with superst.i.tious awe, as though it were a visitant from heaven, instead of being part and parcel of our own composition. So I begin by a.s.suring you that if ever there was a light-hearted, jovial creature it is my hero, and by promising you that he shall not bore you with moral disquisitions, nor shock your natural and untainted mind with impossible precepts.

He is a hero in the best sense of the word, living cleanly, despising viciousness equally with effeminacy, and striving after the development of his talents, just as a wise painter labours at the perfecting of his picture. Permit me here to quote the words of a sagacious Florentine gentleman named Guicciardini: “Men,” says he, “are all by nature more inclined to do good than ill; nor is there anybody who, where he is not by some strong consideration pulled the other way, would not more willingly do good than ill.”

Goodness, then, is a part of our being; therefore when you are behaving yourself like a true man, do not flatter yourself that you are doing any superhuman feat. And do not, as some do, have a sort of stupid contempt for people who respect truth, honesty, and purity, people who work hard at school, never insult their masters, and try to get on in the world without soiling their fingers and draggling their skirts in the mire. But see you cultivate humour as you go along.

Without that there is danger in the other.

It is useful to reflect that no man without the moral idea ever wrought our country lasting service or won himself a place in the hearts of mankind. On the other hand, most of the men whose names are a.s.sociated in your mind with courage and heroism are those who keenly appreciated the value of Conduct, and strove valiantly to keep themselves above the demoralising and vulgarising influences of the world.

Baden-Powell, then, is a hero, but no prodigy. He is a hero, and human. A ripple of laughter runs through his life, the fresh wind blows about him as he comes smiling before our eyes; and if he be too full of fun and good spirits to play the part of King Arthur in your imagination, be sure that no knight of old was ever more chivalrous towards women, more tender to children, and more resolved upon walking cleanly through our difficult world.

Ask those who know him best what manner of man he is, and the immediate answer, made with merry eyes and a deep chuckle, is this: “He’s the funniest beggar on earth.” And then when you have listened to many stories of B.-P.’s pranks, your informant will grow suddenly serious and tell you what a “straight” fellow he is, what a loyal friend, what an enthusiastic soldier. But it is ever his fun first.

One word more. Against such a work as this it is sometimes urged that there is a certain indelicacy in revealing the virtues of a living man to whomsoever has a shilling in his pocket to purchase a book. My answer to such a charge may be given in a few lines. In writing about Baden-Powell your humble servant has hardly considered the feelings of Baden-Powell at all. B.-P. has outlived a goodly number of absurd newspaper biographies, and he will survive this. Of you, and you alone, most honoured sir, has the present historian thought, and so long as you are pleased, it matters little to him if the hypersensitive lift up lean hands, turn pale eyes to Heaven, and squeak “Indecent!” till they are hoa.r.s.e. And now, with as little moralising as possible, and no more cautions, let us get along with our story.



Baden-Powell had certain advantages in birth. We will not violently uproot the family tree, nor will we go trudging over the broad acres of early progenitors. I refer to the fact that his father was a clergyman. To be a parson’s son is the natural beginning of an adventurous career; and, if we owe no greater debt to the Church of our fathers, there is always this argument in favour of the Establishment, that most of the men who have done something for our Empire have first opened eyes on this planet in some sleepy old rectory where roses bloom and rooks are blown about the sky.

[Ill.u.s.tration: Professor Baden Powell.

From a Painting by Hartmann.]

Mr. Baden-Powell, the father of our hero, was a man of great powers.

He was a renowned professor at Oxford, celebrated for his attainments in theology and in physical science. But the peace-loving man of letters died ere his boys had grown to youth, and, alas, the memory of him is blurred and indistinct in their minds. They remember a quiet, soft-voiced, tender-hearted man who was tall and of goodly frame, yet had the scholar’s air, about whose knees they would cl.u.s.ter and hear enchanting tales, the plots of which have long since got tangled in the red tape of life. He had, what all fathers should surely have, a great love of natural history, and on his country walks would beguile his boys with talk of animals, birds, and flowers, implanting in their minds a love of the open and a study of field geology which has since stood them in excellent stead. I like to picture this learned professor, who was attacked by the narrow-minded Hebraists of his day for showing, as one obituary notice remarked, that the progress of modern scientific discovery, although necessitating modifications in many of the still prevailing ideas with which the Christian religion became encrusted in the times of ignorance and superst.i.tion, is in no way incompatible with a sincere and practical acceptance of its great and fundamental truths,–I like, I say, to picture this Oxford professor on one of his walks bending over pebbles, birds’ eggs, and plants, with a troop of bright-eyed boys at his side. One begins to think of the scent of the hedgerow, the shimmering gossamer on the sweet meadows, the song of the invisible lark, the goodly savour of the rich earth, and then to the mind’s eye, in the midst of it all, there springs the picture of the genial parson, tall and spare, surrounded by his olive-branches, and perhaps with our hero, as one of the late shoots, riding triumphant on his shoulder. It was his habit, too, when composing profound papers to read before the Royal Society, to let his children amuse themselves in his book-lined study, and who cannot see the beaming face turned often from the written sheets to look lovingly on his happy children? But, as I say, the memory of this lovable man is blurred for his children, and the clearest of their early memories are a.s.sociated with their mother, into whose hands their training came while our hero was still in frocks.

[Ill.u.s.tration: Mrs. Baden-Powell.

From a Painting by Hartmann.]

Mrs. Baden-Powell’s maiden name was Henrietta Grace Smyth. Her father was a st.u.r.dy seaman, Admiral W.H. Smyth, K.S.F., and fortunately for her children she was trained in a school where neither Murdstone rigour nor sentimental coddling was regarded as an essential. She was the kind of mother that rears brave men and true. For discipline she relied solely on her children’s sense of honour, and for the maintenance of her influence on their character she was content to trust to a never-wavering interest in all their sports, occupations, and hobbies. Her children were encouraged to bear pain manfully, but they were not taught to crush their finer feelings. A simple form of religion was inculcated, while the boys’ natural love for humour was encouraged and developed. In a word, the children were allowed to grow up naturally, and the influence brought to bear upon them by this wise mother was as quiet and as imperceptible as Nature intended it to be.

Dean Stanley, Ruskin, Jowett, Tyndall, and Browning were among those who were wont to come and ply Mrs. Baden-Powell with questions as to how she managed to keep in such excellent control half-a-dozen boys filled to the brim with animal spirits. The truth is, the boys were unconscious of any controlling influence in their lives, and how could they have anything but a huge respect for a mother whose knowledge of science and natural history enabled her to tell them things which they did not know? In those days mothers were not content to commit the formation of their children’s minds to nursemaids and governesses.

The eldest boy became a Chief Judge in India, and lived to write what the _Times_ described as “three monumental volumes on the Land Systems of British India.” The second boy, Warington, of whom we shall have more to say in the next chapter, went into the Navy, but left that gallant Service to practise at the Bar, and now is as breezy a Q.C. as ever brought the smack of salt-water into the Admiralty Court. The third son, Sir George Baden-Powell, sometime member of Parliament for Liverpool, had already entered upon a distinguished career when, to the regret of all who had marked his untiring devotion to Imperial affairs, his early death robbed the country of a loyal son. The other brothers of our hero are Frank Baden-Powell, who took Honours at Balliol, and is a barrister of the Inner Temple, as well as a noted painter, and Baden F.S. Baden-Powell, Major in the Scots Guards, whose war-kites at Modder River enabled Marconi’s staff to establish wireless telegraphy across a hundred miles of South Africa. Among this family of young lions there was one little girl, Agnes, as keen about natural history as the rest, to whom her brothers were as earnestly and as pa.s.sionately devoted as ever was Don Quixote to his Dulcinea.

And now to little Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell in knickerbockers and Holland jerkin.



Baden-Powell is now called either “B.-P.” or “Bathing Towel.” To his family he has always been Ste. This name, a contraction of Stephenson, was found for him by his big brothers in the days when home-made soldiers and birds’-nesting were life’s main business.

Ste, who we must record was born at 6 Stanhope Street, London, on the 22nd February 1857, and had the engineer Robert Stephenson for one of his G.o.dfathers, was educated at home until he was eleven years of age.

His parents had a great dread of overtaxing young brains, and lessons were never made irksome to any of their children. Ste learned to straddle a pony very soon after he had mastered the difficult business of walking, and with long hours spent in the open in the lively companionship of his brothers he grew up in vigorous and healthy boyhood. He had an enquiring mind, and never seemed to look upon lessons as a “f.a.g.” He was always “wanting to know,” and there was almost as much eagerness on the little chap’s part to be able to decline _mensa_ and conjugate _amo_ as he evinced in competing with his brothers in their sports and games. Such was his gentle, placid nature that the tutor who looked after his work loved to talk with people about his charge, never tiring in reciting little instances of the boy’s delicacy of feeling and his intense eagerness to learn. Mark well, Smith minor, that this is no little Paul Dombey of whom you are reading. B.-P., so far as I can discover, never heard in the tumbling of foam-crested waves on the level sands of the sea-sh.o.r.e any mysterious message to his individual soul from the spirit world. He was full of fun, full of the joy of life, and as “keen as mustard” on adventures of any kind. His fun, however, was of the innocent order.

He was not like Cruel Frederick in _Struwwelpeter_, who (the little beast!) delighted in tearing the wings from flies and hurling brickbats at starving cats. Baden-Powell would have kicked Master Frederick rather severely if he had caught him at any such mean business. No, his fun took quite another form. He was fond of what you call “playing the fool,” singing comic songs, learning to play tunes on every odd musical instrument he could find, and delighting his brothers by “taking off” people of their acquaintance. B.-P., you must know, is a first-rate actor, and in his boyhood it was one of his chief delights to write plays for himself and his brothers to act.

Some of these plays were moderately clever, but all of them contained a screamingly funny part for the low comedian of the company–our friend Ste himself.

Another of his amus.e.m.e.nts at this time was sketching. He got into the habit of holding his pencil or paint-brush in the left hand, and his watchful mother was troubled in her mind as to the wisdom of allowing a possible Botticelli to play pranks with his art. One day Ruskin called when this doubt was in her mind, and to him the question was propounded. Without a moment’s reflection he counselled the mother to let the boy draw in whatsoever manner he listed, and together they went to find the young artist at his work. In the play-room they discovered one brother reading hard at astronomy, and Ste with a penny box of water-colours painting for dear life–with his left hand.

“Now I’ll show you how to paint a picture,” said Ruskin, and with a piece of paper on the top of his hat and B.-P.’s penny box of paints at his side he set to work, taking a little china vase for a model.

Both the vase and the picture are now in the drawing-room of Mrs.

Baden-Powell’s London house. The result of Ruskin’s advice was that B.-P. continued to draw with his left hand, and now in making sketches he finds no difficulty in drawing with his left hand and shading in at the same time with his right.

There is an incident of his childhood which I must not forget to record. At a dinner-party at the Baden-Powells’, when Ste was not yet three years old, the guests being all learned and distinguished men, such as Buckle and Whewell, Thackeray was handing Mrs. Baden-Powell into dinner when he noticed that one of the little children was following behind. This was the future scout of the British Army, and the young gentleman, according to his wont, was just scrambling into a chair when Thackeray, fumbling in his pocket, produced a new shilling, and said in his caressing voice, “There, little one, you shall have this shilling if you are good and run away.” Ste quietly looked up at his mother, and not until she told him that he might go up to the nursery did he shift his ground. But he carried that shilling with him, and now it is one of his most treasured possessions.

While he was doing lessons at home Baden-Powell gave evidence of his bent. He was fond of geography, and few things pleased him more than the order to draw a map. His maps, by the way, were always drawn with his left hand, and were astonishingly neat and accurate. Then in his spare hours, with scissors and paper, he would cut out striking resemblances of the most noted animals in the Zoo, and these–elephants and tigers, monkeys and bears–were “hung” by his admiring brothers with due honour on a large looking-gla.s.s in the schoolroom, there to amuse the juvenile friends of the family. He had the knack, too, of closely imitating the various sounds made by animals and birds, and one of his infant jokes was to steal behind a person’s chair and suddenly break forth “with conspuent doodle-doo.”

And, again, when he was a little older, living at Rosenheim, I.W., there was surely the future defender of Mafeking in the little chap in brown Holland on the sands of Bonchurch digging scientific trenches with wooden spade, and demonstrating to his governess the impregnability of his sand fortress. With his sister and brother, little Ste was once out with this governess on a country ramble near Tunbridge Wells, when the governess discovered that she had walked farther than she intended and was in strange country. Ste was elated.

But enquiry elicited the information that the party was not lost, and that they could return home by a shorter route; then was Baden-Powell miserable and cast down. He protested that he wanted the party to get lost so that he could find the way home for them.

[Ill.u.s.tration: B.-P. reflecting on the After-deck of the _Pearl_]

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