Thirteen Years After
Soft drink canteens now decorate Hill 6o; German visitors are too noisy; old residents tell odd stories of war days
WILL R. BIRD
THE Memorial on Hill 62 is at the crest of a series of great steps, a unique piece of work. From the top one has a good view all around. Looking down over the bare crest of Observatory Ridge, one sees the remnants of Maple Copse. Zillebeke is beyond, and its church tower is reflected in the placid surface of Zillebeke Lake. Armagh Wood is a thin, grown stretch, and Square Oseems very small.
There is no thick growth around except over at Shrewsbury Forest. On the left, Gheluvelt windmill and church are in plain view. 1 Iouthem is a hilltop of red rixjfs. Zandvixjrde is a small collection of buildings. Just outside the Memorial limits, a farmer has removed all traces of the tunnel mouths that were there, and Hill 61 is but a mound of grain field. Mount Sorrel seems mostly covered with small pines.
Looking over all that area, a series of half-grown wcxxis and hillsides, long brown and green slopes, with only Rudkin House, a long red building, and Armagh House, to interrupt the scenery, it is hard to see it as the front of the Third Division in 1916. It was on this front that General Mercer, divisional commander, was killed on June 2. during a terrific German bombardment on the line between Hill 60 and Hooge.
It was on this front that all the Canadians had their turn at the Sanctuary Wood fighting and covered themselves with glory.
Sanctuary Wood in those days was a ghoulish place, a
shell-wrecked desolation. Among the litter and old wire, the stumps of trees gave an eerie uncertainty in the darkness and a ghostly weirdness in the moonlight. Men hated and feared the place, and no man wished to stand on post alone. The shelling had buried men in a wholesale manner. The deluge of explosions had blown in entire sections of trench, entombing all the sentries, and it is small wonder that to this day they are recovering bodies.
^ I thought of that scene as I looked down at Maple Copse Cemetery, where so many lads who knew it are now resting. A car came to the Memorial and four ladies got out. They were from England and asked many questions. After I had explained the spot they looked at the Memorial and one said : “I should never have made it this way. I would have had a tall tower here, and a high mast óver it. and fly the Canadian flag from it all the time so that those who come to the Salient will know about this Canadian ground.”
It seemed to me that she was right.
Going back to Birr Crossroads and turning toward Zille-
beke, one encounters a British pillbox on the top of the rise, a huge dry-floored spot. Then Zillebeke lies below, with its ugly church tower a blunt nose back of Ypres. The lake is bushhidden from there, and all is a mass of red brick and tiles. Around it, on the outskirts, women have spread their washing on the grass, a white circle around the redness. It was in Zillebeke. after the war. that one of the metal searchers found the body of an English soldier with $600 of Canadian money in his ixickets. Who he was and how he got the money will remain a mystery.
I met a gardener near Zillebeke, and these men are the best-informed persons about the Salient. This man was a major in the British army, and he told me that a Canadian woman fell in love with the Belgian who is host at Sanctuary Wood Inn. He is a handsome man, and speaks good English. The lady had a camera and was taking pictures of the Salient. When a roll was developed, her husband was indignant to find that it consisted solely of the handsome man in various poses atout his trenches. There was a considerable scene, and twice the smitten one returned to visit the Inn.
From Zillebeke the road leads up to Hill 60, one of the most exploited places in the Salient. Even as you reach the few squalid homes of Zwarteleen you meet huge signs telling you of this or that canteen, advertising the sale of souvenirs, postcards and what not. Wooden canteens are there, and
then one meets a fenced-in area. Inside, the proprietor is very cordial and gentlemanly and really has something to show you. He has cleaned out all the trenches on the British side of the hill. The old corrugated iron sides hold position, and duckmats are there. Strewn about is all the debris of war he uncovered in his work—countless steel helmets, gas masks, cartridge clips, rifles, bayonets, a gas alarm, a fixed rifle. There is a tall steel tower with steps, up which you go at your own risk and from its height survey all the Salient and much beyond. The huge electric depot at Comines, in France, is an outstanding landmark.
During the summer season tables are put up around Hill 60, and the canteens have competition from vendors of postcards, fruit, etc., and drinkstea, coffee and chocolate. The memorials there are not impressive. One is erected in memory of fallen of the Queen Victoria Rifles, and the other is a memorial to Australian tunnellers.
All the Hill is a festering sore on the landscape. There is an immense crater next the railroad, that is water-filled in the wet season. When I saw it in December, T8, it was then a slough with the cross of a French soldier leaning over the slimy water. The Hill was so shelled and tunnelled and nined that it is a morass. Go where you will, you find traces af old shafts and cuttings and dugouts, and ruins of pillboxes. All the German ones are sunken beneath the surface and only pieces serve to show you where they lie. The knemorial in front is built on one.
Down by the trenches the enterprising proprietor has cleaned the tunnels he located there. One goes down a flight of steps and into the evil-smelling underground. Long galleries lead in different directions. Supports and braces have been fixed in many places, but the whole seems a risky passage. There one can see where meals were cooked, the charred beams giving mute evidence; and remnants of old gas curtains are still in place. Spades and tools are there. I vent along two turnings and into a very small gallery, low -and narrow. It had water a foot deep and would daunt almost anyone.
Leaving Hill 60 I went down to Verbrandenmolen, a ;mall village clustered about a windmill, with gardens -angled at the rear and savage dogs tethered among them. \t the mill I tried to talk with the old man there, but he
was an unfriendly sort. The war, he said, was nothing to him. He hated such months as August and the country would suffer because the crops were not g(X)d. I told him he was lucky to have a farm after such a war. and he spat at a wall and vanished into his house. All the inhabitants of that place seemed of the same ilk. One notices that the peasants are either small-faced folk with furtive manners, or a stolid ¡íeople with huge, broad faces and unwinking stares. Place a pot helmet on one of these latter kind and you are sure you are peering over the bags again on a bad morning.
Of all the people in the other part of the Salient. I found those in the Langemarck-Poelcapelle districts the most friendly. One old man there has many Canadian letters he is fond of showing. They are from a 16th Battalion man who in '15 rescued him and his mother from their cellar and took them back toward Ypres during the big attack. Afterward they corresponded. At another house there is a small tablet in front. The inscription says that the old couple are the parents of six sons who died in battle. There, too, they visit Canadian graves. And at Poelcapelle they tell you about the tragedy of the members of one burial party. They were working at the cemetery and stopped to heat their dinner and make tea. As they sat around there was a terrible explosion and every man was blown to pieces. Either they had made their fire over a large shell which had been fired by the heat, or they were the victims of a landmine.
GOING on, there is Larchwood Cemetery near the railway. No trace of a wood remains. Farther on is Blauwepoort (Blue Gate) Farm, rebuilt, and then Transport Farm. The farmer there said his new buildings were much more extensive than the original ones, and his farm is well kept. The cemetery walls almost touch his buildings. Looking along the railway embankment for the dugouts that used to be there, I could only see one, a half-hidden concrete entrance to the place they called ‘‘the doctor’s dugout.” Over on the right, on the banks of Zillebeke Lake, there is one surviving shelter, and in the field are two small British pillboxes.
Another tum and you are at Shrapnel Comer, now a
place of roaring traffic, trucks and buses and farm wagons, hauling huge loads of flax to be sent to the River Lys for soaking. It is Saturday night in Ypres and all the women are scrubbing store fronts and sidewalks. Sunday is All Saints Day. and there are the decorations. The cinemas are almost deserted in spite of their flaring signs which remind one of ads in the Wipers Times, such as:
CLOTH HALL, WIPERS The Great Silent Percy (Brings the house down) '
The Hunny Company in their little Song Scena entitled: "Star Shells softly falling on you and Me.”
THE BROTHERS WIZZ BANG (These merry little fellows get there every time) Special performance of the "Queen of the Movies” known as GOOD OLD NUMBER NINE Guaranteed Change of Scenery Every Night This is the best ventilated hall in the city.
In the morning there is a jabber of guttural voices in the Grande Place. Six hundred Germans have arrived by special train and are in the Salient to pay homage to the graves of fallen comrades. They are in organized parties, and are loaded into buses and cars and go away. Then the people of Ypres gather and form a procession extending from the Menin Gate to far beyond St. Martin’s Cathedral. Each society and club and organization is represented, and thirty-one banners of different design are carried. Three thousand people are in the parade and they place wreaths on all the memorials in Ypres. It is the same in other cities and towns.
In the late afternoon the Germans return and gather in the cafés to drink thirstily and to play cards in a noisy, good-humored fashion. The Belgians do not like their noisy manners on this Sabbath of decoration, and when a grand chorus of eighty-five voices attempts to stage an open-air concert in the Grand Place, the chief of police appears and stops it curtly. The Germans resent such action, and declare they will not come again to Ypres.
Going up to Hill 60 again on Monday, I kept on and then Continued on page 1+2
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! turned right on what is marked on the map as the "Damm Strasse Road." It ends, or is broken, at the Ypres-Comines Canal. All the way over from the main highway I came through muddy lands and one old cart trail which is the road. On it a cart was halted, and a glum-looking farmer was washing chicory in a water hole in the ditch, assisted i by a stolid, red-faced woman. They seemed j as lonely as Western settlers.
At the canal one goes down into a chaos ' of destruction. Once engineers tried to build a bridge there, and treacherous soil prevented them. All the masonry and brick work was shattered in the war. The canal has but a few stagnant pools of water, and it runs through the most desolate and tragic
section to be seen in Belgium—the Bluff. Looking about, one feels that no man has j been there for thirteen years. I plunged through a fringe of small trees and clambered in and out of two immense craters, then found myself in a horrible wilderness.
All the ground is cratered and gullied, with great raw crevices seemingly without bottom, and there is a pervading odor of decay. In places one finds iron rods and cement fragments of some pillbox. Again there is corrugated iron, and a shapeless hole that may have been a trench or a dugout entrance. German helmets, dud shells, equipment, water bottles, and old rifles are there, protruding here and there. In some j areas not a weed or blade of grass is to be ¡
seen, the land apparently being poisoned against all growth. Then there are patches of brambles, blackberry bushes hiding holes, pitfalls that almost bar the way. In and out around the worst places there are countless rabbits. They jump from under your feet and often dash into holes. I stumbled into a flock of partridges, then three or four pheasants whirred up from a covert. Never would anyone expect such a wilderness, and from that place you cannot see a trace of human habitation. Only the sky above you seems fit and clean. It is a place of horror, tortured with sinister gullies and gulches, upheaved, blasted, disembowelled, an unsightliness few tourists ever see. No track is there, no path, no way of approach. Two years ago a man came and asked for diggers. He led them into that wretchedness and asked them to dig at a certain spot. They uncovered a portion of trench shelter in which fourteen skeletons were squatted with their mess tins. All had been killed as they awaited their tea, and the place blown in. One is almost afraid to tread that ground, and after nightfall it is a place of ghouls.
Many Canadians of the First and Second Divisions knew the Bluff. New Year Trench, the Crater, Gordon Post, the old International, Bean and Pollock trenches made a front that all detested, a death trap to be avoided.
GOING back to the crossing I climbed the bank and was near the ruins of the Château Hollebeke. The Hollebeke church seemed quite near. Pillboxes dotted the fields there, in which one lone man was working. Several of these pillboxes are dry and as clean as if just vacated.
Going up the slight grade and following a winding road over the crest, one is soon near St. Eloi. Two water-filled craters are on the right, and the ground has sunken where a third was filled when the military made a road there. From their position on a map one would judge that these are numbers 3, 4 and 5, of the craters fought over in April, T6, by the Second Division. Just inside the village there is another huge crater, a mine belonging to the Messines attack of T7. A pretty chalet has been built beside it, a very modem building, and there is a rustic bridge, a statue and a trellis on the grounds. Shelly Farm has been rebuilt, and Piccadilly, and the craters are surrounded by rank grass and a few small trees. A Belgian was digging a ditch across his garden and as I came along he pointed to a limber wheel he had uncovered. Beside it was a steel helmet and the lower half of a mess tin.
The new houses in the village are horribly red, and it will be years before time tones them to the gentle tint of the homes outside the battle area. A few men plod about, and heavy carts rattle down the paved roads, and women clatter about in their clogs and scrub the doorsteps and gossip.
Leaving St. Eloi, I went down the winding road to Voormezeele, and the only break along the way was Bus House Cemetery and a farm at Bus House. Voormezeele is a very pretty village. A line of trees on the left and large yellow stacks on the right make for a pleasant entry to the town, while the homes and shops are not so crowded and ill-placed as in many of the villages. There are several white walls and green shutters, and the church is a handsome structure. It is a most pleasant place and the people there seem unusually cheerful. A red-faced old chap spoke to me in good English and told me about a Canadian’s love affair. The veteran belonged to the first division and wore kilts. He met a lady of Voormezeele at Dickebusch, where she was staying with her mother during the first year of the war, and made love to her. They continued seeing much of each other, and then, after a long session in England, the war over, the Canadian returned and married—the mother! The Canadian, he said, did not seem a particularly happy man. The daughter lived with them, as she had refused to leave.
Turning back, I went through St. Eloi again and up the Wytschaete road, past
Piccadilly Farm. Looking back. Voor-1 mezeele is as pretty as a painting, and the Château Segrand, newly built, rises above the red roofs to complete the picture.
On the left, going toward “White-sheet,” the ground is swampy and poor. As you reach the rise there is a pillbox squatted on a mound, its opening leering like an evil eye. Wytschaete itself is ugly of approach. It is a town without trees or beauty of any sort. Corrugated iron has been freely used about all its outbuildings, and the streets have ditches with slimy water pooled at regular intervals. A huge pillbox is butted against a house and used as a tool shed.
"V/fORE open fields and I was at Messines, LVJ. another village lacking beauty. Even the Grand Place is ugly, with litter strewn about. At a break between shop fronts one gets a glimpse of back gardens, a hopeless mess of weeds and corrugated iron, refuse and goats. On a comer by a café, chicken j wire fronts the two streets and a flock of hens feed there on discarded vegetables and refuse thrown over the fence. The cafés and shops are painted in startling blues and yellows and bright greens, and the only relieving feature is the home of the burgo! master, a really attractive bungalow at the j head of the square. It was noon, and I went into a café to get lunch. Eleven men were in there, toasting each other and having a real celebration. They were farmers of that district and all belonged to the sales organization that so assists the Belgian farmers. They had received good prices for their fall produce and were well satisfied.
In the hotel where I am in Ypres, the Hotel Splendid, a “splendid” hotel in every sense of the word, there is an inscription placed prominently alongside the Ypres coat-of-arms, or rather two inscriptions. They read: “Keep your husband’s beer glass filled and you will be happy,” and “Drink beer as a medicine and you will be long reaching your grave.” But these signs were not aloft at Messines, and these farmers had something better than beer. Soon they discovered that I was a Canadian and seven j of them could speak English.
They were all farmers who had been in that locality before the war, but then they had rented their farms from landlords who lived in the châteaus. Now they all owned their farms. They had earned enough to purchase them through their work of searching for metal after the war. They told me that their average pay when in good territory was $20 per day, and many days they made much more. Then they received fifteen francs for each British soldier they found, and five francs per German. One man found a body on which was a fine gold ring engraved with a name. There were no other means of identification, but this man was honest and he gave in the ring, hoping that it could be used to find the man’s name. It was so, and the widow came from England to attend the burial. She gave the Belgian 5,000 francs for his honesty.
All those men spoke French, not Flemish, and their sons mostly worked in the bigger towns, going in by autos. All were doing well and quite satisfied with the present conditions in Belgium. They had been around when the Canadians were on that Messines-Ploegsteert front and had all the soldier’s slang, such as “Jake-aloo,” “Cushy,” “Blighty,” etc. One jovial chap suggested that they sing for me. As we were not a great distance from Armentieres I expected the chorus of the old favorite. But no. With great vim three of them broke into song:
“When you go up to the farm,
With your rifle on your arm,
You want to watch old Fritz or he will send a whizz bang there,
Send it softly through the air.
The beggar wants you. His memory haunts you.
So keep away from Zillebeke, dear old Zillebeke,
Away from Zillebeke Farm.”
They clashed glasses over my table, spilling much liquid, and madame came with a war whoop and there was a din reminiscent of other days back of the lines. All insisted on shaking hands with me after each drink they had, and many strange things were told, chief of them being the story of a certain sergeant-major of the Third Brigade who fell through a loft with a girl down at “Plugstreet.” They liad been gathering hen eggs.
After a complete round of handshakes and more cries from madame, I made my escape. In ’18, after the war. Messines was a place of craters and brick heaps. There seemed piles of broken brick wherever one looked, and only a few Nissen huts were i about. Now the craters seem no more j numerous than the ponds at St. Eloi.
I Going down from Messines, one enters the delightful farm area about the River Douve. The “river” is a small stream that wanders along the meadow in a most leisurely manner and along its way nurtures many willows. These trees and fresh greens, the farms with their yellow stacks, and the many feeding black and white cattle all remind one of a placid country scene in England, and yet that ground has seen strange adventure and much bloodshed.
I Once that river was lined with barbed wire,
; and bullets snapped and crackled through the willows and shells tore the soft black earth and made of it a swamp. A farmer pointed out to me La Petite Douve Farm, first on the right-hand side, and Stinking I Farm, and Irish Farm, and Gooseberry ! Farm, and, farther over beside a cemetery, i La Plus Douve Farm.
Over on the right the church tower of Wulverghem is prominent, and thinking of the Messines-W’ulverghem road reminded me of an entry on page seventy-one of “The Royal Montreal Regiment, 14th Battalion, C. E. F.”
“On October 26 (1915) a German plane fell in the 14th Battalion lines, and a group of Royal Montrealers found that the pilot ■ had been killed and his observer severely wounded. On closer inspection the Canadians discovered that the plane carried Colt Machine Gun No. 1449, a weapon which the 14th had brought over from Canada and which had been lost during the Second Battle of Y pres. Now, after six months in enemy hands, the gun dropped from the clouds into the trenches of its original owners, who welcomed it and fought to retain it against the unromantic red tape which ordered it into stores. To the men of the machine gun section ‘1449’ was a comrade escaped from captivity, and the idea of yielding the gun to stores none would contemplate. All instructions from distant powers were accordingly ’misundersUxxl’ and the gun remains in the regiment’s possession to this day.”
An Amazing Place
^\N TOWARD Ploegsteert and it seems a short way until one is down Hennessey’s Hill, at the old gates leading to the La Hutte chateau. I went up there and found it only a heap of ruins, as it was in wartime. A well is there, a dark hole in the yard, and, going back a distance, under a growth of bushes I found a network of trenches in very condition. The ground is dry and iron stakes and old rivetting is still in place. They are all so covered by new growth that one cannot get a picture of them.
Down at the road, around the comer, and to Red Lodge. The château up there has not been rebuilt and there were no trendies, but a gardener told me that until last year there were perfect ones, almost as good as the last day they were occupied. Then farmers came and levelled all that territor)-.
It was at La Hutte that men digging shelters about the château ruins suddenly came to a cellar roof. They broke in and discovered the wine store, intact. Bottles by the hundred ringed the place on wide shelves, rare wines and brandies, the best that could be had. In a short time those in that sector did not care a hoot for any enemy or red-capped power. Passers-by seemed to scent the night air, or else heard
something that took them up the hill. At
an)r rate, so the story goes, by the time a frantic transport officer reached the place no men capable of action could be found. They were strewn about in blissful content and gave him no heed at all. Soon a lorry was summoned, and by the aid of limbers the whole stock was transferred to the motor truck, which rumbled away to some destination, either to place the liquor where it could be reached by its rightful owners, or to distribute it among various staffs in the back areas. Each reader has only one guess.
Gazing there from that high ground at La Hutte, Wameton, Neuve Eglise and Wulverghem seem near, and Armentieres looks a large city. Down on the level, all that ridge of La Hutte is a great brown bank, bush-grown. Ploegsteert Wood is an amazing place. It is all such low ground and so marshy that one cannot understand how trenches ever existed there in wartime, nor can he understand how so much of the wood survived. All the oaks have leaved and seem unharmed, and it is as if the largest part of the wood was never harmed. Again, going in among the greenness in those dark silent places, the very' ground is oozing water. How did men live there under shell fire, dig in there? It is beyond me. Passchendaele seems high and dr)' ground in comparison.
When in that area after the war, I could not get into Ploegsteert Wood at all without risking getting bogged. It is better now, but one must watch his step. One of the gardeners told me that an English gentleman got lost in the wood this summer, fell into a deep, water-filled trench and suffered much from exposure. The willows and alders are almost massed in places, and one has to force his way through them.
“Toronto Avenue Cemetery” sounds Canadian, yet every grave in it is an Australian's. There are two other cemeteries in the wood, all beautiful in such a setting. No other place along the front seems so fitting. There is a quiet, a peacefulness among the trees like the calm of a cathedral. Go in among the trees, and rabbits are everywhere. The authorities are going to construct a moat about the cemeteries in order to keep these brown pests from the flowers. Watch out for ditches and rotting duckboard walks, and where you see glistening dark water, long pools of it, stop and you will see traces of the old trenches. Bits of corrugated iron, rusted stakes, old trench bays still holding their form are there, with a hundred other relics of occupation. And all is mire, squelching sod, reeking dampness. It seems all one vast swamp.
Outside again, and Ploegsteert Memorial seems to fill the landscape. It is a most striking structure. Two huge white lions guard the entrance, and the memorial itself is a large columned, temple-like building, round in shape and without a roof, a most arresting spectacle in that wooded district. It is outstanding, so different that it holds one in wonder and admiration. On its panels are the names of over 11,000 missing men.
Belgium’s Sleepiest Spot
TN EVERY direction Ploegsteert is a fiat
unhealthy country. The town is scattered, long-drawn, its grand place unimpressive, half-grassed, with the usual memorial to Belgian soldiers. There are
many brand new buildings and all the main street is in a state of repair, but the workmen seem affected by sleeping sickness. Three concrete roofs joined, marked “A, B, C” in front, is the old cinema the soldiers used, and at the other end one sees “Entrance Tuppence.”
A Fifth Battalion man was prowling about the town, and showed me a new café which he said was exactly like the old one. an “Estaminet du Commerce,” kept by a madame who used to act as barber for the soldiers. He said that a shell entered the roof of the old building while soldiers were playing cards in the main room. Then we visited two or three other shops where he had renewed old acquaintances. All the madames spoke French and had profuse praise for the Canadians they had known. One had harbored a husky lad who was not feeling well, and when his regimental doctor came in answer to summons from her, he found that the man had a severe case of measles, and madame and her family were “closed.” She had had a bad time of it, two of her own brood having the sickness, yet she was thankful for such good men, for the doctor came regularly and did all he could until all were recovered. She thinks him the hero of all the Canadian Corps.
Turning right at the grand place, I went out past a stretch of newly spaded earth, seeing only one man at work in a distance of more than a mile. “Plugstreet” is the sleepiest spot in Belgium. There was a long strip of marshy land, with long ditches, and trees here and there. Then a strong concrete pillbox just before the turn at Romarin. More low country, and we were upgrade to Neuve Eglise. It is a village of considerable size, with a very large “grand place.” Each home seemed to possess a large black-haired dog, all as alike as if from one litter. The sidewalks were the worst I have seen in Belgium, being but a succession of mud holes and stones, with kitchen drains having openings on them at various places. The church is quite imposing, with the regular cemetery beside it and a memorial, but at one comer there is a small plot of our white stones, a soldiers’ cemetery. No one was stirring except a man with a two-wheeled, covered yellow cart, who alternately blew on a harsh hom and shouted his wares. He was selling fish. In one front yard a bulky woman was backing down the walk, dragging a length of wet cloth along the tiling. She waddled like a duck in sticky mud, and was very red-faced.
Leaving Neuve Eglise on the way to Wulverghem, one meets a landscape that is exceedingly refreshing. On the left, under the dark slopes of Mont Kemmel, are scenes that might belong to Canada. The farmland seems to be in oblongs and squares, divided by hedgerows or lines of trees, and all is a variety of color, browns and greens. Cattle are grazing in one tree-dotted pasture, and in other places horses are drawing loads of vegetables to a distant white road. There are white-walled houses snuggled among yellow stacks and with neat hedges about them, and long dark greens of gardens. No trace is there of sinister pillboxes, corrugated iron or weed-rimmed seep-holes. No one would know that war was ever there, and Wulverghem itself is in harmony with the countryside. Many of its homes have white walls with pretty green shutters, and there are neat hedges and well-kept gardens, and tiled walks. Many of the homes are of modem style, and there are plenty of ornamental trees. It is an attractive village. Most of the people speak French and are friendly.
I talked with an old-timer who sat by a café window, and he told me of a scrap that had taken place there on the street between a Canadian and a British artilleryman who were courting the same girl. The Canadian won, giving his man a bad trimming; then the girl ditched him in favor of the vanquished one. “Women are strange,” commented the old fellow, and I dare not disagree with him.