FORBES RADFORD— GENTLEMAN
J. N. HARRIS
BACK in depression days, which I recall without the faintest tremor of nostalgia, I met a youth who called himself Forbes Radford. I met him in a Toronto rooming house, not far from the hockey gardens. In meeting him, I became party to a felony, or a misdemeanor, I don’t know which. Mrs. Marler, the landlady, was just showing me a second-floor bedroom and had left for a minute to get the electric light bulb, which she removed for reasons of economy whenever the room was vacant.
During this brief pause, Forbes swam into my ken.
“I say,” he said, as he slipped into the room, “the chaps would appreciate it if you’d keep her talking here as long as possible.”
Without another word, he slipped out again.
’ I haggled with Mrs. Marler over every possible detail and kept the good lady away from her housework longer than the rental of a room for two-fifty a week could possibly justify. Just as we were closing the deal, another stranger appeared in the doorway behind Mrs. Marler, holding out an upraised thumb to indicate that I had now detained Mrs. Marler long enough.
A.; soon as Mrs. Marler had waddled out, both
strangers reappeared, with a couple of others.
The reason I had been asked to delay Mrs. Marler, they explained, was that she had impounded a large, locked suitcase belonging to Forbes, for nonpayment of rent. The suitcase contained Forbes’ iron, not permitted in rooms by decree of Mrs. Marler, and an electric plate, also forbidden. For the welfare of the community, it was necessary to break into Mrs. Marler’s private quarters and salvage (hese things, as well as some of Mr. Radford’s most beloved garments, making up the loss of weight with suitable ballast.
Forbes had a wardrobe that would have done credit to a man of distinction. His clothes were conservative and of the finest quality. He spent a great deal of time pressing them, folding them, and generally taking care of them. He usually took part of his wage, when he was in work, in garments at wholesale price or less and he occasionally got a new suit, tailored to measure, by serving as a mannequin at a male fashion show.
Soon after my arrival at Mrs. Marler’s, I had occasion to rent a tuxedo to wear to a dance. On my way downstairs, I told Forbes I was going out to rent a tux.
A look of real pain flitted over his face.
“Old man,” he said, “not for the world would I hurt your feelings, but ‘tux’ and ‘tuxedo’ are provincialisms of the most barbarous sort. I shall be happy to lend you my dinner jacket, so you can save two bucks.”
Two bucks was two bucks. I accepted with pleasure, but I made another mistake in trying to put on a made-up bow tie, the only evening garment I owned.
“Only the veriest bounder would wear a made-up
bow,” Forbes (old me severely. Meekly I let him tie a proper black bow about my throat and held my peace.
DURING the long winter months I got to know Forbes fairly well and was fascinated by the puzzle of piecing his background together.
He was fastidious and correct in all things and was filled with a lot of odd prejudices. He seemed to know all about wines and clothes and the proper way to address the Governor-General. Much of this, I gathered, he had inherited from his father.
“My governor has never dressed for dinner in Canada,” he once tcld me. “He says, ‘when in Rome . .
His governor, it appeared, was conservative, opposed to all swank, side and ostentation and a stickler for just about anything you can be a stickler for.
“In Canada,” Forbes informed me, “my governor has alwa}rs been known as plain Joseph Radford. He wants it that way.”
Quite, I thought. My thoughts, unconsciously, were full of “quites” and “rathers” and other * Forbesian expressions. Of course Radford’s governor, after he’d lost his fortune, would want to live quietly and drop his titles. Simple pride would demand it.
ONE evening, when I was getting into my best blue suit, to attend, on a free ticket, the Bastion Road Church Businessmen’s Monthly Get-Together (any free meal looked good), I saw Forbes across the hall getting into his tux—beg pardon, his dinner jacket.
He caught my eye and I raised my brows inter-
Look at this strange man, tin hero, counterfeit nobleman. Consider him with compassion, for he is, above all — human
rogatively, a trick I had picked up from him.
“A musical evening,” he replied. “Meeting some men who would like to hear a little music.”
This intrigued me and I forgot about the Businessmen.
“Hey, I’d like to hear some music, too,” I said naïvely.
“My dear chap,” he said in a kindly way I didn’t hike, “the sort of music we’ll have tonight would mean nothing to you whatever.”
I was wounded, and extremely annoyed at having walked straight into that, so when I found myself leaving the house with Forbes I didn’t speak. E ven when we both boarded the northbound Yonge streetcar, I didn’t speak. When we both transferred to the westbound Bloor car, a fleeting suspicion entered my mind, which I then dismissed, but after we passed Keele Street, the suspicion returned stronger than ever. I resolved to test it.
I drew the complimentary Get-Together ticket frtom my pocket and pretended to examine it carefully, all the while watching Forbes out of the corner of my eye. It took a little while, but at last I saw that it had hit him.
“I see we are attending the same function,” he said, with all the dignity he could manage at short notice.
Then he started to laugh. I believe it was the only sign he ever gave that there was any humor iru his makeup.
Forbes and I were, indeed, attending the same function. He was furthermore hired, for two dollars plus a meal of ham and peas and scalloped potatoes, to play the piano for the singsong that filled the period between the meal and the speech, in which a hardware merchant was to coin a valuable phrase about every red-blooded Canadian putting his shoulder to the wheel. In addition, he was to play a solo (“Humoresque”) and an encore (“The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers”).
We walked home together, to save carfare, but in all the five miles we never mentioned the Businessmen’s Get-Together.
BY FAR the quietest man in the lodging house was the railway office worker, a husky young fellow called Ken. I don’t think we exchanged more than a score of words all winter. He didn’t seem unfriendly and he joined in all the Catawba parties, but he seemed to be busy most of the time, either studying company law or attending drills at the Spadina Armories.
When the pharmacy students were too noisy he sometimes went in and told them they could learn to make chocolate malted milk shakes without so much row, and when any of the residents started to get tough with Forbes, or guy him too much about his mannerisms, he would say, “Okay, now lay off him, you guys.”
Otherwise, he minded his own business. I know
that once he helped Forbes with his rent, because I could hear Forbes saying, “I’m most frightfully grateful, old chap,” and Ken telling him to forget it and shut up.
ON A day in early spring, the police came for Forbes. Two plain-clothes men called at the house and stood unflinching in the hall while Mrs. Marler kept insisting, shrilly, that Mr. Radford wasn’t home. Ken heard the row and came down.
“What’s he done?” Ken demanded curtly.
The plain-clothes men exchanged a glance.
“He’s forged a cheque, that’s what he’s done,” one of them said.
“Okay, I’ll find him,” Ken told him.
I followed Ken down the cellar and there we found Forbes, huddled behind the furnace. His face was tear-stained. He told us he was sorry and he hadn’t meant to do it.
It came out in court that Forbes, under the influence of early spring, had forged and uttered a cheque, payable to himself, over t he signature of a well-known tycoon. His immaculate dress, his disarmingly offhand manner and the fact that he wanted to open a savings account with half the amount, had deluded the assistant manager of a branch bank into initialing the cheque with only a routine enquiry.
Forbes told the banker
Continued on page 28
Forbes Radford — Gentleman
Continued from page 21
that he had sold his summer place to the wealthy man and this was the down payment to close the deal. Forbes had even given his correct address.
With the money obtained he went on a buying spree, purchasing spring clothing that Solomon in all his glory wouldn’t have sniffed at.
As soon as he could get his lick in, Ken gave the magistrate the relevant facts.
Forbes, he said, was really Alfred Radford. He came from Bannock, a small village, and Ken had gone to school with him there. He had always been a dreamy person and sometimes his dreams got a little out of hand. He had been in the Psychiatric Hospital twice for treatment. The name Forbes was itself part of the dream that Alfred was walking around in. He had found it in a book.
Forbes was remanded for examination by the alienist. Later Ken expressed surprise that I hadn’t seen through the whole thing from the first.
“His mother asked me to keep an eye on him,” he explained, “so I got him a room at Mrs. Marler’s where I could. His old man is a drunken furnace installer and roofer who runs a little hardware store in Bannock. He never was in England in his life. All that stuff comes out of books. His mother was a schoolteacher and since she got married she’s been teaching music. She taught me for a while. But she was always on to Alfie to be a gentleman, I guess because her husband disgraced her. They call him Dirty Joe.”
1WAS transferred to another town a few days later, before the case was finally settled, and, although I meant to write and find out what happened, I kept putting it off until I forgot about it.
The next time I met Forbes was some years later, at the Dorchester Hotel in London, England. It was at a tea dance “for officers,” given by Lady Viola Somebody, and Forbes walked in with an English Guards officer. He was wearing the uniform of a Captain in the Canadian Army and it would be hard to find a better turned-out officer in any army, including the Scandinavian.
“Old man!” he greeted me. “Really, I’m delighted.”
In our few minutes of private conversation, he told me that at last he had found his proper profession. Many of his governor’s people, he said, had been soldiers and he certainly intended to stay in the Permanent Force after the war.
To the Guards officer he expressed his regret at not having got over in peacetime for Hurlingham.
“Oh, do you play polo?” the guardsman beamed. “1 say, what a shame we can’t provide any! But really, you know, there’s plenty of sport. I can give you a decent spot of shooting if you’ll pop up to Scotland after the Twelfth.”
Lady Viola considered Forbes a definite find. She found it her duty as a Christian noblewoman to entertain officers on active service, even “colonial” officers, but she could hardly conceal her feeling that colonial officers were not gentlemen.
Here, at last, was a Canadian officer, tailored to measure by Dornford Yates.
I tried to get Forbes’ address, so I could look him up later, but he was a little evasive.
“We’re on manoeuvres a lot,” he
explained. “Let me know where your squadron is stationed and I’ll make it a point to visit you. I’ve not seen an Air Force station.”
I gave him the address, but he never wrote and he never came.
Instead, quite by accident, I found where he was stationed.
I had occasion to visit an old friend, who was with an infantry unit near Aldershot. On my way in to the adjutant’s office in the Headquarters Building, I bumped into Forbes. He was wearing dungarees and was swishing a mop over the floor with a monumental lack of interest. From time to time he dipped the mop in a gingerly fashion into a bucket of dirty water.
I stood and stared, but when Forbes looked up and saw me he didn’t bat an eye. He merely raised his finger in warning and beckoned me into the latrine.
“I can’t talk here,” he explained in the latrine. “A single word might give the show away. Nobody must know that I’m an officer. The War House sent me down to keep an eye on a certain friend of Herr Hitler’s who has wangled his way into the Canadian Army., It would be funny if it weren’t so serious, but the fellow is actually in command of the battalion! He doesn’t know yet that we’re on to him.”
Promising discretion, I went on my way.
“What was ‘Loopy’ Radford talking to you about?” the adjutant asked me.
“Oh, he’s an old friend from away back,” I said. “What kind of a soldier does he make?”
“Well, now, that depends on what you mean by soldier. On the parade ground he’s perfect, as he ought to be, because he spends a lot of his time there for one thing and another. Also, he’s the best batman we have, except for his habit of borrowing your best tunic to go out to tea on Sunday. In other respects, he’s a trifle clueless.”
“What do you do about the uniform business?” I asked.
“We overlook it completely,” he replied. “He behaves so well when he’s out that he gives the regiment a good name. I’m always being asked by dowagers around here to bring that lovely Captain Radford over for dinner. They say he’s so gentlemanly.
We keep this a deep, dark secret from the Old Man, who, between you and me, is a Sherbrooke Street Englishman from Montreal. He is mystified by rumors that there is a really nice polite officer on the unit, but he hasn’t yet connected them with Radford, who appears before him regularly.”
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when, before lunch, I bumped into Ken in the mess. We exchanged hellos and then were a little stumped for a moment until I remarked, “You’re still keeping an eye on the boy, I see.”
He looked puzzled for a second, then said, “Yeah, sure.
“And, boy, he really needs some watching in the army,” he added. “I got him into this outfit by telling the C.O. he’d make a good batman. It was a blow to Forbes, but I pointed out that he couldn’t be an officer himself, which is what he wanted, because of his illness. At that time I had the idea that insanity was a bar to commissioned rank. As a matter of fact, although he doesn’t know it. one colonel actually put him up for it and for the good of the army and for Forbes’ sake I had to queer the deal.” ^
My final glimpse of the mortal Forbes came as I left the army camp.
Defaulters were lined up at the y guardhouse awaiting inspection by the orderly officer. Forbes could be identified among them at some distance by the smartness of his turnout. All his gear and accoutrements gleamed
and glistened above and beyond the call of army regulations.
The sergeant called his defaulters to attention as 1 came past and swung about to give me a terrifically military salute. While his hack was turned, Forbes took the opportunity to wave to me and give me a Look which indicated that we both Understood.
I NEVER saw Forbes again and the war had been over a couple of years before I saw Ken. The fortunes of peace had thrown us both into Montreal, a large and wealthy city with two languages and no rapid-transit system. We were both employed at the head offices of large firms and were both faced with the difficulty of getting home at night on streetcars packed to the doors, trying to butt through streets jammed with automobiles, most of which kept their horns blowing with Gallic fervor right through the period of heavy traffic.
We both hit on the same sensible expedient, a popular one in downtown Montreal, which is to head for a tavern and there pass the time until the traffic situation is improved. The taverns, like the streetcars, are crowded, but they serve beer.
1 found Ken in a tavern, seated with some of the men from his office. We exchanged greetings and one of his companions moved over and invited me to sit down. Ken was much stouter than before and his hair had thinned a lot. He was beginning to look middleaged. He wore no sort of service button and even when others in the party were violently discussing some phase of the late war he showed no interest. The war, for him, was finished and done with. The fact that he had readied the rank of lieutenant-colonel and had received the Distinguished Service Order for service in it would never he mentioned by Ken, of that 1 felt sure.
The others had all drifted away before 1 brought up the subject J wanted to question Ken about.
“What became of Forbes?” Í queried. “He got the chop.”
“Oh, in ’44?”
“No, in ’43.”
I tried vainly to think how Forbes
could have been killed. in France in 1943, in an infantry unit. Ken didn’t look as if he wanted to talk, hut gradually he relaxed.
‘T never talk about this,” he said at last, “because it’s so incredible. But then you know Forbes. We got torpedoed on our way to Sicily and after we’d drifted around on a raft, four of us, for about four days, we got picked up by a little fishing boat. They landed us on the coast at night and told us how we could contact the Resistance, which we did without much trouble. The Resistance billeted us round in farmhouses, near a small village, gave us civvies and generally treated us well.
“We were allowed to walk about quite freely, because the village was solid Resistance. They were hoping to move us toward the Spanish frontier shortly, as soon as a local panic died down. One day, in the village, I spotted Private Alfred Radford strolling down the road looking like a stage Englishman. He was wearing plus fours, a Fair Isle jumper, a real bookmaker’s sports jacket, and a felt hat full of trout flies. He was also carrying a rough walking stick. On sight, I’d have arrested him as a Belgian traitor trying'to imitate a British agent.
“ ‘What’s all this?’ I asked him.
“He was a bit vague, but later I learned he’d told the Resistance people he was Captain Forbes Radford, of the British Secret Service, and that he’d come to find out about German forces in the district. The Resistance thought all Englishmen were a little loopy anyway, so they believed him and let him go his own sweet way.
“Then one night a couple of the seventeen-year-old Resistance kids got a bit too keen and went beyond their orders. They used to he sent out to blow up railway lines and bridges with gelignite dropped by you RAF types. Spontaneous assassination of German personnel was strictly de fendu. That was a policy matter, to be decided in advance by higher authority. Well, these two kids found a German staff car pulled up by the roadside, while the passenger, a Generalmajor, was relieving himself. They knocked him and the driver off as quick as wink.
“There was quite a fuss at the local Resistance H.Q. when the kids came
in with cases and binoculars and revolvers taken from the staff car. The local chief chewed them up good and proper and then gave orders that we visitors were to push off at the short trail, pronto, into the woods, anywhere.
“One of our boys was a French Canadian, from St. Hyacinthe, so he elected to stay and brazen it out. I didn’t have any choice, because I’d sprained an ankle on an expedition with those fool kids, so they buried me in an empty gas storage tank until the fuss was over.
“About ten o’clock the S.S. Sicherheitsdienst moved into the village in force'. For my money they were the meanest Jerry outfit of all. Their job was security and counterespionage, but with an accent on brute force and bloody ignorance. Nothing subtle or clever about them.”
WHAT took place when the S.S.
ai’rived was witnessed by JeanLouis, the French Canadian. He told Ken that from the outset it had a nasty look about, as if the Germans were about to perpetrate another Lidice. They beat through the houses and rounded up all the men of the village, Jean-Louis included, and herded them into the village square.
Jean-Louis was standing at the edge of the mob of villagers, watching the S.S. men conducting the women and children to some other point and removing certain portable goods from the houses, when to his horror he saw Forbes returning to the village.
Forbes was still wearing the felt hat with the trout flies, the plus fours, le sporting and the Fair Isle jumper, but in addition he had hung the General majot's binoculars about his neck.
He strolled into the square with such an air of insouciance that Jean-Louis half expected to see him stroll right past the preoccupied Germans without being noticed. It was obvious that he had already lunched and only too well. There was the suggestion of a stagger about his gait, as if he were walking on air with pockets in it. Without doubt he had founcj an inn a few kilometres away and had been entertained royally. Under the influence of good food and too much wine he had completely forgotten about the impending crisis, but then again, Ken thought, he might just have lost his way and wandered back by mistake.
At any rate he strolled past several sentries without challenge and was approaching the mob of villagers when an S.S. officer saw him, strode briskly toward him and shouted something in bad French.
Forbes, according to Jean-Louis, nodded politely and raised his rough brier stick in greeting. Then he tried to stroll on past.
“Ein moment, bitte,” the German said, seizing his arm, “Comment vous appelez-vous? Wie heissen Sie? What is your name?”
Forbes had a hazy eye. He seemed to be quite unaware of his surroundings. Floating on a pink cloud of the vin du pays, he was off in some lovely daydream.
“Oh, my name’s Radford,” he replied, according to Jean-Louis. “Captain Forbes Radford, D.S.O.”
Then he smiled knowingly at the simmering German and added, “British Intelligence, you know.”
Outraged by the coolness of the thing, the S.S. officer tore the binoculars from Forbes’ shoulder, opened the case and read the name inside.
Forbes just stood there, with a bewildered look, until the S.S. officer screamed with rage and struck him across the face with the back of his “and. That was too much for poor
Forbes, who came out of it rather suddenly, turned in panic flight and ran like a deer until he was shot down by a dispassionate Posten at the edge of the square.
AFTER his pockets had been emptied . and inventoried, the clothes were removed, the body photographed, and then what was left of Forbes was driven two kilometres out of town and buried by two villagers detailed for the purpose.
So far as the S.S. Sicherheitsdienst was concerned, the crime had been solved and necessary action taken. No further action against the village was needed.
“I saw the grave before I left for the Spanish frontier,” Ken said. “People had planted a few flowers on
it. But just take a look at it now!”
He handed me a snapshot of Forbes’ grave. It was marked by a huge stone cairn, with heroic figures at the corners and a weeping angel bent over a dead British soldier. Occasional cherubim fluttered about and the plaque clearly read, “Captain Forbes Radford, D.S.O., British Secret Service.”
“There was quite an argument between the graves registration people and the mayor of the village about that,” Ken said. “But the graves boys saw they were playing with gelignite, so they let the whole thing drop. It’s a pity his mother never lived to see it.”
I see Ken sometimes in the tavern and now and then at lunch in a hotel. I often wonder how he feels without somebody to keep an eye on. ^