GENERAL ARTICLES

Beverley Baxter's STRANGE STREET

March 15 1935
GENERAL ARTICLES

Beverley Baxter's STRANGE STREET

March 15 1935

Beverley Baxter's STRANGE STREET

GENERAL ARTICLES

ONE FRIDAY, late in the autumn of 1923, Lord Beaverbrook returned from Paris and asked the editors of the Sunday newspapers to do him the courtesy of meeting him. He had been travelling with his friend Bonar Law, who had been absent from his Government for some weeks on sick leave. Beaverbrook’s own face was grey and his eyes watery and tired. In a few words he explained that the Prime Minister would be coming home on Monday or Tuesday and that his resignation would be issued almost immediately. There would be no question of any newspaper having a scoop as the announcement would be issued through the Press Association as soon as released from Downing Street.

Out of consideration, however, for the Prime Minister, it would be an act of graciousness if none of the newspapers would make anv mention of the actual disease from which the Premier was suffering—cancer of the throat.

Such an appeal has only to be made to receive immediate response. When the stricken man returned to London there was not one word to indicate the dread disease that had struck him down.

It was left to Beaverbrook to issue the resignation announcement and he did so for publication in the evening papers, he being without one of his own at that time. Fleet Street has its cheap and vulgar moments, but there are other times when dignity and a sense of honor take precedence over all else.

A few weeks later Bonar Law lay dying of cancer of the throat. His passing was a cruel torture, and it was almost more than human nature could bear to watch. One man, however, sat by the bedside hour after hour.

He only came to his own house for fleeting moments, and then went back to keep his vigil to the end. It was the urchin, Beaverbrook, from the snowy countryside of New Brunswick, waiting for death in its kindness to end the story of the other New Brunswick boy whom he had made Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Once Bonar Law, who had relapsed into unconsciousness, revived momentarily and saw the haggard face of his friend.

“You are a curious fellow,” he whispered. It was his benediction, for a little later he was dead. An old man with sunken, colorless cheeks and stooped shoulders walked away from the house. The dead man in his bed looked no more lifeless than the “curious fellow” who had kept the death watch.

They had said that Beaverbrook had exploited Law, that he was Svengali to the other’s Trilby, that he had ridden to prominence on Law’s shoulders and intended to discard the steed as soon as he was useless, that he had to have a Hyde to cover his activities as Jekyll. They have said and they say it still.

It may not be friendship to stimulate a man’s belief in himself, to comfort him in adversity, to steel his will in moments of crisis, to clear the way to the heights for him and, when the end comes, to sit by the bed of pain through long hours of agony and touch his hand as the shadows darken and the light fails.

I have fought Beaverbrook and I have seen him possessed of a devil like some figure in the Old Testament, but I say that his relations with Bonar Law not only played a decisive part in British political history but added depth for all time to that word so lightly used and so often misused—friendship. It is the finest thing in Beaverbrook’s life, and all the chattering of the Little Ones and the Lordly Ones cannot make it otherwise.

Beaverbrook and Bonar Law

AS 1922 opened, Lloyd George’s Coalition Government A was tottering. The Welsh Wizard was not dismayed, however. He had never invoked the lightning without the

veil being rent, and he was not afraid of the walrus-mustached Conservatives really breaking away from his com-

mand. The Tories were always discontented in or out of office, but in the end they followed like sheep into the pen. He could bring them to heel any time lie liked.

Besides, who would lead the Tory revolt? Austin Chamberlain, Sir Robert Horne and Birkenhead were tied to him with bands of steel. Curzon was ambitious, but he was a peer and must have some gratitude. The only disturbing human factor was Bonar Law, the leader of the Conservative Party and his right-hand man throughout his war premiership.

Law had gone abroad for a prolonged holiday. He was worn out and badly in need of a rest. He had returned, however, and, to the discomfiture of Lloyd George, had made his now historic speech in the House, when he declared that Britain could not police the world alone. This, of course, was a direct challenge to the Turkish policy of Lloyd George, and produced in that statesman’s breast an understandable irritation.

He decided to force the issue, convinced that the decision could only go one way. Under his pressure a meeting of the Conservatives was arranged for at the Carlton Club, the official Pall Mall social headquarters of the Conservative Party.

The purpose of the meeting was to decide whether or not the Conservative Party should continue to support Lloyd George in the Coalition or break away and, being the largest party, form its own government.

Lloyd George did not doubt how the battle would go. Being a Liberal, he would not of course attend the meeting, but his marshals were strong and he could leave it to them.

Only one man presented any danger and that was Bonar Law, but Lloyd George thought that he knew his man. He might admonish Caesar, but he

would never plunge the dagger home.

Once the issue was joined, Bonar

Law could never be induced to

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overthrow his leader. Thus cogitated the Welsh Wizard and thus the meeting was arranged.

In the days preceding the gathering there developed a fierce scramble for Bonar Law’s I soul. He was still a tired man and did not j respond to the frenzied excitement of the politicians. Above all. the Diehards, pur! suing the favorite Tory joolicy of internal warfare, were insistent that Beaverbrtxik should not take part in the soul scramble. Beaverbrook waited. Step by step he had guided his fellow Canadian in his progress to power. He was not likely to be thrust aside now.

At last they met. Far into the hours of the night they talked. It needs little imagina-1 tion to know what that conversation was. j Bonar Law was fighting for Ins life, BeaverI bnxfic was fighting for Law’s destiny. The Tory leader knew that he was tired out and : that nothing but long months free of office I could restore him to full health again. Beaverbrook’s mind required no elucidation. With his John Knox-Napoleonicmind stimulated to fanaticism by the conjugation of events, his plea could only be that when history beckons to a man he must follow whether the reward be a crown or a cross.

Nor need it be doubted that Bonar Law’s two dead sons who had followed their tragic star unquestioning!y in the war played no small part from their place in the unseen world.

Law Becomes Premier

'"PI IE CONSERVATIVES gathered at the Carlton Club. Lloyd George waited at ^ Downing Street for the news to be brought to him. One by one the big guns of the Tory Party thundered for the continuation of the coalition under Lloyd George. There were counter-attacks, but the Chamberlain-Birkenhead batteries were strong. Then Bonar Law spoke in his soft Scottish-Canadian voice. No man valued Lloyd George’s ser; vices to the nation more than he, for no man j knew better the true extent of those services. But Lloyd George could now best assist the nation by resigning and allowing others to | carry on the heavy task of office.

An unassuming politician almost completely unknown to the public, although he held the post of President of the Board of Trade, supported Bonar Law. He was a man of character, but a poor showman. It is said that in the Cabinet he never spoke. Occasionally he grunted, and according to the temperament of the different Ministers ; his grunt was taken for acquiescence or opposition.

lie had an odd trick of running his tongue over his lips, but his voice was pleasant and sincere. His name was Stanley Baldwin.

The issue was put to the vote. If it went for the coalition, then Bonar Law would have to resign as the party leader. If it went against the coalition... ?

Chamberlain and Birkenhead drove to ¡ Downing Street and broke the news to the Premier. They handed their seals of office to I him, and he in turn drove to Buckingham i Palace and resigned.

In the small hours of that morning Bonar | Law had wrestled with fate. When night fell and the gossiping millions of London were crowding the theatres and restaurants and talking only of politics he sat in his home, Prime Minister of Great Britain.

There was an immediate public revulsion j toward Lloyd George. All at once they ' realized that his gay heart and inflexibility j of purpose had led them to victory in the j war. Even his enemies joined in the tribute which grew to a world-wide chorus of acclamation.

What a situation for the greatest tactician of his generation ! I waited for the announcej ment that I felt would come:

“I have made many mistakes. Perhaps, I though, when my services to this great I nation are considered in their entirety, it will I not be considered that I proved unworthy of.

the people’s trust. I am worn out and weary. Now I can rest, and perhaps by travelling to other nations make some small contribution toward a better understanding between those nations that shed their blood in a common cause. My successor in office takes on a heavy task. I ask both Parliament and the people to help him in the difficult times that lie ahead. He has my respect and my sympathy, even as I hope I had his when we took on our shoulders the cares of war-time government.”

With some such announcement he could have travelled around the world like a conqueror, and in two years time Europe would have been clamoring for his return as dictator of the Western World.

But the toreador could not be kept out of the ring. It was impossible for him to live away from the smell of blood. No one could kill the bull like him, as he would show these picador fellows masquerading in toreadors’ clothes. In brief, Lloyd George’s response to the nation’s acclamation was to seize a peashooter and blow a pea straight at Bonar Law’s nose.

Bonar Law went to the country. He had no big batteries to help him because they had committed themselves to a coalition. Lloyd George mounted the hustings and made his hearers roar with delight at his gibes against the Tories and their Government of second-rate intellects. Then they voted for the second-rate intellects.

Reinforced by the mandate of the people, Bonar Law formed his ministry. The glittering birds of paradise remained aloof. Tories by name, they were in tacit opposition to the Government. What of the all-important post of Chancellor of the Exchequer? In desperation, Bonar Law took a fateful decision. Stanley Baldwin, the Minister who had licked his lips, took charge of the nation’s finances.

The Strain of Government

TT WAS three months after his accession

to office before I met Bonar Law again. Previous to that I had encountered him constantly at Cherkley Court. When he was announced I felt a real curiosity. Can a man become Prime Minister of Great Britain without some noticeable change in his walk, his voice, his choice of language, the use of his hands, his attitude toward his friends? If there was any such change, I could not see it. He was just as diffident, just as gentle as before. I had met Lloyd George in the same room when he was Premier. His eyes danced with vivacity. He would turn to one person and then another so as to embrace them all with his conversation. He loved being Prime Minister, and snapped his fingers at the weary Titan pose so beloved of politicians. As for a national crisis, he took it as a man does a cocktail before dinner.

For a few minutes Bonar Law joined in the general conversation and then drove back to town.

Weeks went by. The strain on the Premier was terrific. Surrounded by a front bench of mediocre debaters, he could hardly afford to leave the House for an hour. All the first-class brains were against him. Already Baldwin had brought the disastrous American Debt settlement to his door, and the future was haunted with spectres.

One Sunday, when Beaverbrook was abroad, I went with a young chap to play tennis at Beaverbrook’s Putney house “The Vineyard.” We were halfway through the second set when Bonar Law, his two daughters and Sir Frederick Sykes arrived in tennis costume. I at once offered the court to the Premier, but he insisted upon our finishing the set and not disturbing our game.

Under the influence of his diffidence I resumed the game with my opponent, while the four sat in the garden and watched. Then suddenly the incredible gaucherie of my conduct came to me. This man was the Prime Minister of Great Britain, free perhaps for an hour, and I was keeping him waiting.

“Let’s get out of this,” I said, and we left the court.

When he was going I ran into Bonar Law

at the gate. He was thinner and his smile had an indefinable wistfulness that sent a sharp stab to the heart. Moved by a quick impulse. I said to him:

“I wonder if you realize how proud we Canadians are of you.”

He smiled again and with obvious pleasure.

“It is good to hear that,” he said.

We both stood there rather awkwardly. In his Scottish blood it was not natural to reveal the soul too nakedly.

“For what it is worth.” 1 stumbled on. “you have the loyalty and affection of every one of your friends.”

He nodded his head and looked beyond me into the garden.

“I need the loyalty of my friends—and I need their prayers.”

Half shyly he shook hands and then walked out to his waiting motor. His private detective saluted smartly.

A few days later the Duchess of York was married in the Abbey. What a scene it was! Two by two they came—jolly old redfaced and red-breasted generals, glittering with orders and accompanied by hawknosed wives reliving for an hour their departed glory. Ministers, ambassadors, dukes, bishops, young Guards officers with narrow chins and brigade mustaches, elegant sixfoot daughters of the aristocracy with wonderful complexions and police-sized shoes, and lean, brown-facedofficers home on leave, reminding us that a great empire is never without a spot of trouble somewhere. Lloyd George came down the aisle to silent cheers and silent hisses. Mustaches bristled like the hairs on a dog’s back.

“That’s the fella that forced us to sell 5,000 acres at Horsham Gimlet with his Socialistic taxes.” The women turned their lorgnettes on him. “He should get his hair cut,” they snapped. Through the stained glass window with its paintings of the Saviour, a mellow sunlight rested on England’s glory.

It was nearly zero hour when Bonar Law arrived from the House. He was dressed in the uniform of a Privy Councillor and as he walked down the aisle, looking neither to right nor left, there was a hush in the chatter of the guests. He was a figure of supreme and simple dignity. He moved like an aristocrat in the presence of fancy dress pretenders. There were peers there who could trace their lineage, with a bar sinister here and there, back to the Conqueror. Bonar Law, like Lincoln, was of the people, and the nobility of his heritage was written in his face and in his bearing.

Death Marks the Premier

THE GOVERNMENT of second-raters went on. It began to be noticed that the Prime Minister, though always at his post, spoke less and less. Instead, he directed his Ministers with consummate skill from day to day, and met the onslaught of all the talents by moving from square to square and sustaining the faltering courage of his followers. When he did speak, the House heard him with increasing difficulty. There was considerable annoyance privately expressed that he would not make an effort to make his voice louder.

Then rumors began to circulate about the Premier’s throat. The wise ones scoffed. All Premiers in difficulties have sore throats, they said. “It gives them an excuse for not answering questions and rouses the sympathy of the dear old B.P.”

One morning Beaverbrook asked me to The Vineyard for tennis. Bonar Law was sitting in the drawing-room in tennis clothes, looking deathly pale. He waved his hand to me but said nothing. We adjourned to the tennis court, where he and I were to take on Beaverbrook.

“Which court will you take, sir?” I asked. He made a reply, but it was only a rumble of phlegm in his throat. He spoke again, but the words were indistinguishable. Then he moved over to the left-hand side.

To have watched the match, one would have thought that Beaverbrook had wagered a fortune. He taunted us. he rushed to the net on every possible occasion, damned us berth with equal heartiness if we passed him

I or put the ball over his head, and played ! with the zest of a novice unexpectedly finding himself in the centre court at Wimbledon.

Only when Bonar Law would turn to walk back would Beaverbrook’s eyes fasten on I him with a look which showed too plainly how much the whole game was a ghastly make-believe.

A few days later it was announced that the Premier would have to go abroad on extended sick leave. Mr. Baldwin became acting Prime Minister. The golden crown which had eluded Churchill, Birkenhead, Chamberlain and Long was tossed to him as il he were a wedding spectator *vho catches the bouquet intended for one of the bridesmaids.

News of the Prime Minister varied, but it i was obvious that he was making a jxior recovery. At last word came that he was on his way to Paris preparatory to coming home to London. Beaverbrook was travelling with him, and when they reached Paris he sent lor Sir Thomas I lorder to come and examine his friend. 1 lorder arrived in the evening, and looked over the Prime Minister without being unduly alarmed. He said that he would do it more thoroughly in the morning, but it did not appear to any of them that it was more than a caseof complete exhaustion, with the throat, as is so often the case, the weakest spot.

I When the morning came, the physician I and the patient were closeted together for I some time. When the consultation was over Holder took Beaverbrook’s arm, and they I walked out into the boulevards.

“How long do you want your friend to remain Prime Minister?” he asked.

Beaverbrook started at the sound of the other man’s voice. “He must remain until after the Imperial Conference,” he said. “It is imperative.”

Horder looked at him.

“He will not be alive in three months,” he j said. “He has cancer of the throat.”

Beaverbrook swayed and almost fell. It was known that these two sons of the outer Empire had hoped to develop a policy of Imperial development which would have become their undying contribution to the Empire which had given them birth. It was the dream of two village boys who had found j their way to the heart of things. They had I become part of each other. Each supplied j what the other lacked. That one should be j taken and the other left was a blow that | could hardly be endured.

The winding path of Bonar Law’s story ended in the Abbey. The “curious fellow,” Beaverbrook, drove his body to Golders Green and had it cremated. He brought back the ashes, and when the funeral procession moved through the streets he walked with colorless eyes and sunken cheeks behind the coffin.

I saw him late that night and thought that the hand of death was on him. too.

iTo be Continued