"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.
Dr Sutherland recollects how a deplorable insult led to a Garganturan feast aboard the Lysistrata.
One night there was news of local interest. A Russian armed yacht had anchored in the Haven below the dockyard, and twelve of the crew had been ashore in the town. At this time the town was placarded with a Royal Proclamation entitled “Notice to Aliens,” and the police had acted on this notice by arresting the Russian sailors and detaining them for some hours. It was also stated that the admiral in command of the dockyard had not visited the yacht, whose captain was a Russian prince. We all agreed that these incidents were a deplorable insult to an allied nation, and that something must be done to put things right.
Next day I visited the yacht. On the quarter-deck the Officer of the Watch received me, and we conversed in French. I was a surgeon in the British Navy, and had come to visit the surgeon on the Russian yacht. There was no doctor on the yacht, but three of the crew were sick, and would be grateful if I would see them. This I did, and found one poor fellow to be in the final stages of consumption. Afterwards the officer gave me Russian tea in the wardroom and apologised for the absence of the captain who had been called to London. The yacht was palatial, and had belonged to the American millionaire, Gordon Bennett, who had left it on the outbreak of war at Marseilles. It had then been bought by the Russian Government, who sent officers and a crew to bring it to St. Petersburg. It was now a unit in the Czar’s Navy. A two-inch gun was mounted on the fo’c’sle. That evening I scrounged a supply of medicines from the naval hospital and sent them out to the yacht.
A few days later two Russian officers, resplendent in cream and gold, with swords complete, visited the naval hospital. The principal medical officer turned out to meet them, and they courteously explained to him that their business was with me. They found me in the laboratory, and came as envoys from the Prince, who thanked me for my courtesy in calling and for my kindness to his sick. He would be honoured if I would lunch on the yacht next day. A steam pinnace from the yacht would await me alongside the dockyard jetty at noon.
At noon next day I was at the jetty and found that I was not the only guest. In the launch were five soldiers: the colonel, major, captain and two subalterns of an infantry regiment encamped in the neighbourhood. Like myself, the colonel had already paid a courtesy call on the captain. On the way out the colonel said to me: “I have heard these Russian lunches are rather remarkable affairs, and if the Prince wants to take on anybody at drinks you are the senior service and ought to respond!”
On the quarter-deck of the yacht we were received by the Prince and his officers, in cream and gold. In the wardroom we adjourned to a buffet were we had caviare and vodka. Next to absinthe, vodka is the most unpalatable drink I have ever tasted. The wardroom had been the dining-saloon on Gordon Bennett’s yacht, and was one of the most palatial rooms I have ever seen. The walls were of a deep, rich mahogany panelling, and the floor was covered with a deep, rich Turkey carpet. After this prologue we sat down to table and were served by Tartars. Of all races of mankind, the Tartar has the most forbidding appearance, and, to English eyes, looks like a potential Houndsditch murderer.
We began with oysters and drank Chablis. After each course in this Garganturan feast there was an interval of at least ten minutes during which each wine served was finished. Then came hare soup, with which we drank a golden sherry, Oloroso Magnifico; the fish was sole Morny, with which we drank a still Moselle. As an entrée there came a Russian dish—small portions of garnished meat wrapped in pastry, reminding one of miniature Cornish pasties. This was followed by the roast beef of old England—in point of fact, a prime sirloin of Scotch beef—served with Yorkshire pudding and horse-radish sauce. With this we had each a bottle of Bass XX. Then a Russian cigarette and a water ice to pave the way for the game—roast pheasant to the accompaniment of Heidsieck, Dry Monopole 1909. The sweet was a pineapple ice, followed by a mushroom and bacon savoury. With the fruit we drank Cockburn 1892. With the coffee there was offered an amazing selection of liqueurs. Lunch ended at four o’clock, and the Prince then asked: “And now, gentlemen, what will you drink?”
After the royal toasts the Prince rose to propose the toast of the Royal Navy. He spoke in French, and I, being the only representative of the Senior Service, rose in reply in the same language. Never was my French more fluent! In the course of his speech the Prince had referred to that “Deplorable Notice to Aliens,” and had produced a copy of this this Royal Placard, which had been served on his ship by a policeman. This I asked him to hand to me, and amidst tumultuous cheers tore the thing in pieces. I stated that such proclamations were never intended for our allies, and concluded by quoting a verse of doggerel:
“Aux Alliés. A bas le Turque,
A bas l’Autrichien
Et tous les autres chiens.
A basso i Boche.”
This immortal toast brought every man not only to his feet but on to the table!
The Prince was not to be outdone, and made yet another speech. He invited us all to remain to dinner, which was to be served at seven o’clock. As for the “Notice to Aliens,” he knew that such mistakes happened, and on his part wished to offer an apology for the deplorable conduct of the Russian Embassy in London. It was true that the Embassy had arranged for this lunch to be sent by train from the Savoy Hotel, but to his astonishment they had refused his other request that women should be sent from London for the entertainment of his guests.
The colonel and I were the first to go ashore. As I left the wardroom I noticed a flickering flame in front of an ikon of the Virgin. On the journey we said nothing, and I had qualms of conscience. The hospitality I had received was the hospitality of barbarism, and I wondered at whose cost.
I was an ungrateful guest! As we walked through the dockyard the colonel spoke for the first time. “One thing is clear to me. You and I are perfectly alright.”
“Absolutely, sir.” I affirmed.
“Whose house is that?” asked the colonel.
“The admiral’s,” I replied.
“Well, look here, it’s nearly tea-time. What about calling on the old bird to tell him what he’s missed and what we think about his conduct in not calling on the Prince?”
“No, sir, not to-day. He couldn’t touch you, but he could eat me.”
“Well, what are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to my bed. I’ve eaten and drunk enough to last me for a week.”
On reflection the next morning I came to the conclusion that the admiral probably had his own reasons for not calling on the ship.
From: “The Arches of the Years” by Halliday Sutherland. An example of a “Notice to Alien Enemies” is shown below:
For more information and for photographs of the Lysistrata, click here.
Photo credit (ship’s rigging): Sharon Wahrmund.