The feud between the Mortens and Durnley’s ran like a taut thread through a tapestry of English history. Its origins were now lost in the borderlands of myth, legend, fact, and fiction. To do justice to the many twists and turns in the saga would require several large volumes but I am a busy man and people have short attention spans in these days of talking pictures, the latest dance crazes, and the motor car. So I will tell my story as briefly as I can.
I arrived at Ivel Minster School in the summer of 1904 at the same time as the youngest scions of those two warring families. Because my name was Thomas Motcombe, son of the Reverend Motcombe, I found myself in the same dormitory as A.H.Morten. We shared similar interests and soon became friends. His opponent in this latest chapter of the saga, James Edward Charles Durnley, second son of the 7th Earl of Boughton, was installed in the dormitory across the hall. Both had older brothers who had recently left Ivel. Christopher Morten went on to Oxford while the Honourable Richard Durnley joined the Guards. In their own time at Ivel both had pursued the feud with considerable energy and now their younger siblings took up the cudgels.
From the start, Durnley Minor made his intentions clear. He quickly acquired a clique of followers who took every opportunity to harass A.H. His textbooks were stolen and then reappeared badly defaced; his bed linen was periodically soaked in water in a bid to condemn him as a bed wetter. His sports kit repeatedly disappeared and on one infamous occasion was discovered behind the pavilion covered in excrement. His family background was mocked and his older brother’s reputation traduced. In response, A.H. chose more subtle tactics. Excelling in classes such as Latin, History and English, disciplines that were beyond the duller abilities of Durnley, he flaunted his superior intellectual talents. When he took over the editorship of the school magazine he seized the opportunity to mercilessly rib his opponent with satirical barbs. In response, Durnley took what revenge he could on the sports field where he had the upper hand.
In the Sixth, matters came to an unexpected head. To Durnley’s fury, A.H. was appointed Head Boy. Shortly after his appointment, he happened to spot Durnley bothering one of the local girls who worked in the kitchen. The girl was distressed and A.H. gallantly intervened. She escaped but her assailant and rescuer became embroiled in a fistfight that soon drew a crowd of noisily excited schoolboy spectators. Eventually, the brawl was brought to a halt by the Games Master who suggested that since neither of the combatants would explain the reason for the fight honour would be satisfied in the boxing ring. To the surprise of all A.H. won the bout by cleverly evading Durnley’s cumbersome angry lunges and securing enough “hits” to win on points. A few days later the girl’s mother arrived at the school to complain about her daughter’s treatment and identified Durnley as her tormentor. She threatened to go to one of the newspapers with the story unless her daughter was recompensed for her ordeal. The school’s Board of Governors persuaded the 7th Earl to pay up and Durnley quietly left Ivel and England to work on his uncle’s cattle ranch in Australia. The scandal was quickly hushed up, the girl’s family placated and the school’s reputation preserved.
Before he left Ivel Minster Durnley aimed one last parting shot at his rival. On his final day he stormed into A.H.’s study room just as he and I were revising for exams and issued a furious warning.
“ Damn you Morten!” he shouted, “We have unfinished business you and me. Next time I see you prepare to meet your Maker. For it will be your last day on Earth.”
After we left school A.H. followed in his brother’s footsteps to Oxford although to study politics rather than medicine. His father had ambitions for him to stand for Parliament in the Liberal interest and a brilliant career awaited. I took a temporary job as an assistant at Ivel and in the process learnt much about the scandal from staffroom chatter before gaining a place at St. Andrew’s to study Divinity. I saw very little of A.H. in those last few years of peace before the Great War broke out. I joined up, became a Naval chaplain, and saw enough of human suffering to challenge my faith in God. A.H. became a junior officer in the West Yorks, his families local regiment and we completely lost touch. I read in The Times that Captain the Honourable Richard Durnley had been killed during the Retreat from Mons only weeks into the war and from another Old Ivilian I learnt that Major Christopher Morten, A.H.’s older brother, had been gassed in the second battle at Ypres and subsequently died. The old enemies at school had found comradeship in death.
Two years after the Armistice I bumped into the younger Durnley of all people in Oxford Street. He recognised my old school tie and insisted I join him for a drink at his club. I was reluctant to spend time in his company but I was intrigued to know what had happened to him since leaving Ivel Minster. The death of his father and brother meant he was now the 8th Earl. He seemed to have lost some of the snarling arrogance that I remembered from our schooldays. The war seemed to have changed him somewhat as it had done so many others. We chatted about schooldays at Ivel and he was surprised to learn that we had been in the same class. He only vaguely remembered me and I was happy to leave it at that. Settling comfortably into a couple of leather chairs with our whiskies, he began to recount his wartime experiences.
“ I was at Gallipoli”, he said, “ With the Anzacs. The campaign was a complete mess from the start. I joined up in a place called Wilcannia out in the middle of nowhere. I was missing England and I saw joining up as a way to get back home. My brother had died and by all accounts the old man was looking shaky. They were great chaps the Aussies you know. Rough as hell but fought like demons. The Turks weren’t bad soldiers either. I was wounded in a trench raid and ended up in a field hospital. All sorts were in there, Anzacs mostly but a few British, French, some Indian fellows and even the odd Turk. When I’d recovered enough to potter about one of the doctors said to me,
‘There’s a British officer in here who’s in a very bad way. It would be a service to him if you could sit with him awhile. I don’t think he’s got long’
Well, I couldn’t say no could I? So I sat with the poor chap and he was in a terrible state, shot to pieces poor fellow. We managed to have a bit of a conversation and it turned out he was at Ivel too. Archibald Morten was his name. I expect you remember him, I certainly did. He was Head Boy there you know. According to the medical chap, he was a captain in the Yorkies and a bit of a hero. Anyway, just before I had to leave Morten asked me to come closer.
“ He said, ‘ Do me a favour Durnley. I’m done for and in agony. It would be a kindness if you could finish me off here and now.”
I tried to conceal my feelings and said, “ What did you do?”
“Well”, replied Durnley draining his glass, “Let’s just say his Maker found a way to spare him any further suffering.”