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U3A Writing: Steven

Pauline Sampson tells of an army officer who, after a scandal involving the commanding officer's daughter, had to resign his commission.

But Steven, with his boring tales, was to become a hero in civilian life.

It is many years since that half overheard conversation on the stairs, my first experience of Steven talking about his life. It was in the old family house where we all lived, four generations of us with various degrees of consanguinity. The house was not particularly old, possibly mid-Victorian, and on three floors. We children were relegated to the second floor where there was a warren of tiny rooms, with iron bedsteads and threadbare carpeting on the floor, and no heating whatsoever. In more affluent days the maid-servants had slept there, but now it was for junior members of the family, and that included Steven.

I don’t know how old he was at that time, possibly in his early eighties. He had always considered the house home. He had not always lived there, however. On leaving school he had gone to Sandhurst, and then joined an infantry regiment as a young officer, travelling round the world as the British army did in the heyday of the Empire. It was from this time in his life that the source of so many of Steven’s tales derived.

In fact his military life was pretty uneventful. Bachelors living in an officers’ mess were comfortable. They did not have to make an effort to be sociable; it was laid on for them: dinner-nights, dances, grand balls, parades and ensuing jollities.

Nor was comradeship with one’s fellows too taxing. Friendship was at surface level, continually changing.

So it came as a great shock when it happened . . . the scandal.

Steven was found to be paying court to the commanding officer’s daughter. She was under age, that is she was eighteen, and he was forty. Eighteen was considered to be young in the mid-thirties; in those days you could not marry without parental consent until reaching twenty-one. And though there were marriages with such a discrepancy in age, a middle aged, penniless captain was not considered a fit match for the colonel’s daughter.

She was sent to live with her grandmother and he resigned his commission.

He was welcomed, not with open arms, but disinterest back into the old family home, where he took up residence on the second floor and started perfecting his imitation of the “Ancient Mariner”.

Stories of tiger hunting in India, or being attacked by Pathans on the North West Frontier were mind glazing; as were those of long dark evenings under the Southern Cross, in the Sudan, in East or West Africa, sitting out in the warm night air, listening to the cries of wild life all around. I suppose these tales might have had some point at the start, but their relevance soon wore off.

About one episode in his life he was strangely reticent, however. At the outset of the Second World War Steven joined the local ARP. When in 1944 a flying bomb fell in the next street, demolishing a house full of people, he returned again and again to the burning building to bring out badly hurt victims who would otherwise have been burned alive - this in spite of being injured himself. For his bravery he was awarded a George Medal.

That was a story he never told and for the most part we forgot it too.


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