Australia's Argonauts

Eddy Nurse - A short story

In 1913 Eddy Nurse wrote a short story about a French language lesson at the interim Naval College at Geelong. It perhaps captures the atmosphere of the classroom during those early years. Translation of the French are in brackets. It is published with the kind permission of Eddy Nurse's daughter Mrs Mary Backhouse.

A Classroom Scene

One hot day during the summer fourteen of the cadets were seated at their desks in a classroom, which, on a day like the one in question, was more like an incubator, than for the purpose which it served. They had their studies - I beg your pardon  - "Première Années" (First Years) [textbooks] out, but with sleeves rolled up and the necks of the shirts undone, they served the purpose of fans. When they became tired of this, perhaps they would rest there weary heads on their arms, at which times, warm drops of water found rest on their books.

The sounds of approaching footsteps and the a-humming of some person recalled them to their present surroundings. They sat bolt upright and sat cursing the books within them, but at the same time trying to look studious. The steps sounded nearer and nearer until their entered an officer named Mr Smith [Senior Naval Instructor Stanley Smith BA]. He was a man of rather more than average height and medium build. His head so much smaller in comparison with his body than it ought to have been, carried 'beaucoup de' (a lot of) knowledge. He possessed a well trimmed beard, flourishing moustache, small ears, sharp nose, intelligent eyes, and hair inclined to be curly, and which formed a wide peninsula in the centre where it jutted towards the front. His whole countenance bore an expression of sarcasm. He wore a suit of clothes peculiar to naval officers, and round the neck was a fine cord on the end of which was a pair of spectacles, which he attached to the high bridge of his nose on entering. Opening his book he said,

"Tournez à page soixante-dix" (Turn to page 70)

Upon this they all turned over the leaves of the book, and when the question was asked, "Just est le titre du chapitre? (What is the title of the Chapter) " they all shot up their hands.

"Long" he said.

"C'est porte Saint-Martin (This is Port Saint Martin)"

Mr Smith fell back with a look on his face, as of one who has worked to no purpose. Long seemed to be in difficulties as to the reason of it. Upon recovering he told Gilling, with what breath he had left, to show Long the right place, which Gilling did with as much promptness as he was able to display. All the time Long looked down on his book, wondering what would happen next. He was not long in such a position, when Mr Smith poured forth with renewed energy,

'Long, you don't seem to have a spark of intelligence in you. Does your father even speak to you about it ?' The sound of grinning was plainly audible, but the storm continues

'Do you come from a state school?"

"Well it does not speak well for the way they teach. Your father he's an educated man, its a wonder he has not noticed it; but I suppose you mind what you are saying in his presence. Well, wake up and don't sit there and let everybody else do the work while you sit back and keep yourself cool."

Long looked up with a sigh of relief when the storm passed over. Mr Smith rubbed his hands together and walked up and down in deep meditation, and then said,

"Read MacKenzie"

Thereon, MacKenzie poured forth a jumble of sounds, which, had anyone said they had no meaning, might not have been contradicted as far as Mr Smith was concerned. At last MacKenzie stopped abruptly and Mr Smith said,

"Traduisez ça (translate it) Showers."

Showers began to follow the example of MacKenzie, but much slower. He had not got more than a couple of words when Mr Smith blurted,

"[à tue-tête] arretez-vous ([loudly] stop you)"

Showers increased speed till he was brought to a standstill by a voice like thunder rumbling out,

"Showers, Showers !! If you cannot understand plain French. I must talk plain English."

Showers bewildered and looked inquiringly at the book.

"The book won't tell you Showers. We what does 'arretez-vous' (stop you) mean?"

"It means 'go faster you' "

Mr Smith's face rent with a smile reaching from one ear to the other, and then his eyes became red and he coughed violently.

"What does 'traduisez-ca (translate it) mean?"

"Read next" was the questioning reply. Mr Smith got completely out of control, but tried to conceal it by rubbing his face with his hands, on either side of which might have been seen two glowing cheeks. When he became himself again he asked Showers,

"What is the verb for 'to read' (lire) ?

"Lire, and en Lir 'traduisez' means translate," said Showers in great agitation.

"What does 'arretez-vous' mean?"

Showers looked from floor to ceiling and visa versa.

"If a policeman said 'arretez-vous' to a man on a motor going at 80 miles an hour, what would he mean?"
"Oh sir, stop!"

"I have to force it out of you like a sausage machine or else put so as a baby could answer!"

By the end of the lesson there was not much work in the whole fourteen, who looked up at the clock upwards of ten times in the last five minutes. It was a great relief to hear the bugle sound and know that a bun was waiting for them or perhaps 2 or 3 if they could trick the greedy eyes of the tyrannical Cadet Captain.

Some of the Pioneer Class dressed for a French play.
Some of the Pioneer Class dressed for a French play.