E-text prepared by Al Haines
"Bartimeus" is the pseudonym of Captain Lewis Ritchie, R.N.
A TALL SHIP
On Other Naval Occasions
Author of "Naval Occasions"
. . . "All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, * * * And a laughing yarn from a merry fellow rover, And a quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over." JOHN MASEFIELD
Cassell and Company, Ltd London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne
First published September 1915. Reprinted September and October 1915.
H. M. S.
It is almost superfluous to observe that the following sketches contain no attempt at the portrait of an individual. The majority are etched in with the ink of pure imagination. A few are "composite" sketches of a large number of originals with whom the Author has been shipmates in the past and whose friendship he is grateful to remember.
Of these, some, alas! have finished "the long trick." To them, at no risk of breaking their quiet sleep—Ave atque vale.
"Crab-Pots," "The Day," and "Chummy-Ships" appeared originally in Blackwood's Magazine, and are reproduced here by kind permission of the Editor.
1. CRAB-POTS 2. THE DRUM 3. A CAPTAIN'S FORENOON 4. THE SEVEN-BELL BOAT 5. THE KING'S PARDON 6. AN OFF-SHORE WIND 7. THE DAY 8. THE MUMMERS 9. CHUMMY-SHIPS 10. THE HIGHER CLAIM
A TALL SHIP
In moments of crisis the disciplined human mind works as a thing detached, refusing to be hurried or flustered by outward circumstance. Time and its artificial divisions it does not acknowledge. It is concerned with preposterous details and with the ludicrous, and it is acutely solicitous of other people's welfare, whilst working at a speed mere electricity could never attain.
Thus with James Thorogood, Lieutenant, Royal Navy, when he—together with his bath, bedding, clothes, and scanty cabin furniture, revolver, first-aid outfit, and all the things that were his—was precipitated through his cabin door across the aft-deck. The ship heeled violently, and the stunning sound of the explosion died away amid the uproar of men's voices along the mess-deck and the tinkle and clatter of broken crockery in the wardroom pantry.
"Torpedoed!" said James, and was in his conjecture entirely correct. He emerged from beneath the debris of his possessions, shaken and bruised, and was aware that the aft-deck (that spacious vestibule giving admittance on either side to officers' cabins, and normally occupied by a solitary Marine sentry) was filled with figures rushing past him towards the hatchway.
It was half-past seven in the morning. The Morning-watch had been relieved and were dressing. The Middle-watch, of which James had been one, were turning out after a brief three-hours' spell of sleep. Officers from the bathroom, girt in towels, wardroom servants who had been laying the table for breakfast, one or two Warrant-officers in sea boots and monkey jackets—the Watch-below, in short—appeared and vanished from his field of vision like figures on a screen. In no sense of the word, however, did the rush resemble a panic. The aft-deck had seen greater haste on all sides in a scramble on deck to cheer a troopship passing the cruiser's escort. But the variety of dress and undress, the expressions of grim anticipation in each man's face as he stumbled over the uneven deck, set Thorogood's reeling mind, as it were, upon its feet.
The Surgeon, pyjama clad, a crimson streak running diagonally across the lather on his cheek, suddenly appeared crawling on all-fours through the doorway of his shattered cabin. "I always said those safety-razors were rotten things," he observed ruefully. "I've just carved my initials on my face. And my ankle's broken. Have we been torpedoed, or what, at all? An' what game is it you're playing under that bath, James? Are you pretending to be an oyster?"
Thorogood pulled himself together and stood up. "I think one of their submarines must have bagged us." He nodded across the flat to where, beyond the wrecked debris of three cabins, the cruiser's side gaped open to a clear sky and a line of splashing waves. Overhead on deck the twelve-pounders were barking out a series of ear-splitting reports—much as a terrier might yap defiance at a cobra over the stricken body of its master.
"I think our number's up, old thing." Thorogood bent and slipped his arms under the surgeon's body. "Shove your arms round my neck. . . . Steady!—hurt you? Heave! Up we go!" A Midshipman, ascending the hatchway, paused and turned back. Then he ran towards them, spattering through the water that had already invaded the flat.
"Still!" sang a bugle on deck. There was an instant's lull in the stampede of feet overhead. The voices of the officers calling orders were silent. The only sounds were the lapping of the waves along the riven hull and the intermittent reports of the quick-firers. Then came the shrill squeal of the pipes.
"Fall in!" roared a voice down the hatchway. "Clear lower deck! Every soul on deck!" The bugle rang out again.
Thorogood staggered with his burden across the buckled plating of the flat, and reached the hatchway. The Midshipman who had turned back passed him, his face white and set. "Here!" called the Lieutenant from the bottom of the ladder. "This way, my son! Fall in's the order!" For a moment the boy glanced back irresolute across the flat, now ankle deep in water. The electric light had been extinguished, and in the greenish gloom between decks he looked a small and very forlorn figure. He pointed towards the wreckage of the after-cabin, called something inaudible, and, turning, was lost to view aft.
"That's the 'Pay's' cabin," said the Doctor between his teeth. "He was a good friend to that little lad. I suppose the boy's gone to look for him, and the 'Pay' as dead as a haddock, likely as not."
Thorogood deposited the Surgeon on the upper deck, fetched a lifebuoy, and rammed it over the injured man's shoulders. "God forgive me for taking it," said the latter gratefully, "but my fibula's cracked to blazes, an' I love my wife . . ."
All round them men were working furiously with knives and crowbars, casting off lashings from boats and baulks of timber on the booms, wrenching doors and woodwork from their fastenings—anything capable of floating and supporting a swimmer. The officers were encouraging the men with words and example, steadying them with cheery catch-words of their Service, ever with an eye on the forebridge, at the extreme end of which the Captain was standing.
On the after shelter-deck the Gunner, bare-headed and clad only in a shirt and trousers, was, single-handed, loading and firing a twelve-pounder as fast as he could snap the breech to and lay the gun. His face was distorted with rage, and his black brows met across his nose in a scowl that at any other time would have suggested acute melodrama. Half a mile away the shots were striking the water with little pillars of white spray.
The figure on the forebridge made a gesture with his arm. "Fall in!" shouted the Commander. "Fall in, facing outboard, and strip! Stand by to swim for it!" Seven hundred men—bluejackets, stokers, and marines—hurriedly formed up and began to divest themselves of their clothes. They were drawn up regardless of class or rating, and a burly Marine Artilleryman, wriggling out of his cholera belt, laughed in the blackened face of a stoker fresh from the furnace door.
"Cheer up, mate!" he said encouragingly. "You'll soon 'ave a chance to wash your bloomin' face!"
The ship gave a sudden lurch, settled deeper in the water, and began to heel slowly over. The Captain, clinging to the bridge rail to maintain his balance, raised the megaphone to his mouth:
"Carry on!" he shouted. "Every man for himself!"—he lowered the megaphone and added between his teeth—"and God for us all!"
The ship was lying over at an angle of sixty degrees, and the men were clustered along the bulwarks and nettings as if loath to leave their stricken home even at the eleventh hour. A muscular Leading Seaman was the first to go—a nude, pink figure, wading reluctantly down the sloping side of the cruiser, for all the world like a child paddling. He stopped when waist deep and looked back. "'Ere!" he shouted, "'ow far is it to Yarmouth? No more'n a 'undred an' fifty miles, is it? I gotter aunt livin' there. . . ."
Then came the rush, together with a roar of voices, shouts and cheers, cries for help, valiant, quickly stifled snatches of "Tipperary," and, over all, the hiss of escaping steam.
"She wouldn't be 'arf pleased to see yer, Nobby!" shouted a voice above the hubbub. "Not 'arf she wouldn't! Nah then, 'oo's for compulsory bathin'. . . . Gawd! ain't it cold! . . ."
* * * * *
How he found himself in the water, Thorogood had no very clear recollection; but by instinct he struck out through the welter of gasping, bobbing heads till he was clear of the clutching menace of the drowning. The Commander, clad simply in his wrist-watch and uniform cap, was standing on the balsa raft, with scores of men hanging to its support. "Get away from the ship!" he was bawling at the full strength of his lungs. "Get clear before she goes——!"
The stern of the cruiser rose high in the air, and she dived with sickening suddenness into the grey vortex of waters. Pitiful cries for help sounded on all sides. Two cutters and a few hastily constructed rafts were piled with survivors; others swam to and fro, looking for floating debris, or floated, reserving their strength.
The cries and shouts grew fewer.
Thorogood had long parted with his support—the broken loom of an oar—and was floating on his back, when he found himself in close proximity to two figures clinging to an empty breaker. One he recognised as a Midshipman, the other was a bearded Chief Stoker. The boy's teeth were chattering and his face was blue with cold.
"W-w-what were you g-g-g-oing to have for b-b-b-breakfast in your m-m-mess?" he was asking his companion in misfortune.
Hang it all, a fellow of fifteen had to show somehow he wasn't afraid of dying.
"Kippers," replied the Chief Stoker, recognising his part and playing up to it manfully. "I'm partial to a kipper, meself—an' fat 'am. . . ."
The Midshipman caught sight of Thorogood, and raised an arm in greeting. As he did so a sudden spasm of cramp twisted his face like a mask. He relaxed his grasp of the breaker and sank instantly.
The two men reappeared half a minute later empty handed, and clung to the barrel exhausted.
"It's all chalked up somewhere, I suppose," spluttered James, gasping for his breath.
"Child murder, sir, I reckon that is," was the tense reply. "That's on their slop ticket all right. . . . 'Kippers,' I sez, skylarkin' like . . . an' 'e sinks like a stone. . . ."
Among the wavetops six hundred yards away a slender, upright object turned in a wide circle and moved slowly northward. To the south a cluster of smoke spirals appeared above the horizon, growing gradually more distinct. The party in one of the cutters raised a wavering cheer.
"Cheer up for Chatham!" shouted a clear voice across the grey waste of water. "Here come the destroyers! . . . Stick it, my hearties!"
* * * * *
After a month's leave James consulted a specialist. He was a very wise man, and his jerky discourse concerned shocked nerve-centres and reflex actions. "That's all right," interrupted the thoroughly startled James (sometime wing three-quarter for the United Services XV.), "but what defeats me is not being able to cross a London street without 'coming over all of a tremble'! An' when I try to light a cigarette"—he extended an unsteady hand—"look! . . . I'm as fit as a fiddle, really. Only the Medical Department won't pass me for service afloat. An' I want to get back, d'you see? There's a super-Dreadnought commissioning soon——"
The specialist wrote cabalistic signs on a piece of paper. "Bracing climate—East Coast for preference. . . . Plenty of exercise. Walk. Fresh air. Early hours. Come and see me again in a fortnight, and get this made up. That's all right"—he waved aside James's proffered guineas. "Don't accept fees from naval or military. . . . Least we can do is to mend you quickly. 'Morning. . . ."
James descended the staircase, and passed a tall, lean figure in soiled khaki ascending, whom the public (together with his wife and family) had every reason to suppose was at that moment in the neighbourhood of Ypres.
"If it weren't for those fellows I couldn't be here," was his greeting to the specialist. He jerked his grey, close-cropped head towards the door through which Thorogood had just passed.
A ramshackle covered cart laden with an assortment of tinware had stopped on the outskirts of the village. The owner, a bent scarecrow of a fellow, was effecting repairs to his nag's harness with a piece of string. Evening was setting in, and the south-east wind swept a grey haze across the coast road and sombre marshes. The tinker completed first-aid to the harness, and stood at the front of the cart to light his lamps. The first match blew out, and he came closer to the body of the vehicle for shelter from the wind.
At that moment a pedestrian passed, humming a little tune to himself, striding along through the November murk with swinging gait. It may have been that his voice, coming suddenly within range of the mare's ears, conveyed a sound of encouragement. Perhaps the lights of the village, twinkling out one by one along the street, suggested stables and a nosebag. Anyhow, the tinker's nag threw her weight suddenly into the collar, the wheel of the cart passed over the tinker's toe, and the tinker uttered a sudden exclamation.
In the circumstances it was a pardonable enough ebullition of feeling and ought not to have caused the passing pedestrian to spin round on his heel, astonishment on every line of his face. The next moment, however, he recovered himself. "Did you call out to me?" he shouted.
The tinker was nursing his toe, apparently unconscious of having given anyone more food for thought than usual. "No," he replied gruffly. "I 'urt myself."
The passer-by turned and pursued his way to the village. The tinker lit his lamps and followed. He was a retiring sort of tinker, and employed no flamboyant methods to advertise his wares. He jingled through the village without attracting any customers—or apparently desiring to attract any—and followed the sandy coast road for some miles.
At length he pulled up, and from his seat on the off-shaft sat motionless for a minute, listening. The horse, as if realising that its dreams of a warm stable were dreams indeed, hung its head dejectedly, and in the faint gleam, of the lamp its breath rose in thin vapour. The man descended from his perch on the shaft and, going to his nag's head, turned the cart off the road.
For some minutes the man and horse stumbled through the darkness; the cart jolted, and the tin merchandise rattled dolefully. The tinker, true to the traditions of his calling, swore again. Then he found what he had been looking for, an uneven track that wound among the sand-dunes towards the shore. The murmur of the sea became suddenly loud and distinct.
With a jerk the horse and cart came to a standstill. In a leisurely fashion the tinker unharnessed his mare, tied a nosebag on her, and tethered her to the tail of the cart. In the same deliberate manner he rummaged about among his wares till he produced a bundle of sticks and some pieces of turf. With these under his arm, he scrambled off across the sand-hills to the sea.
The incoming tide sobbed and gurgled along miniature headlands of rock that stretched out on either side of a little bay. The sand-hills straggled down almost to high-water mark, where the winter storms had piled a barrier of kelp and debris. At one place a rough track down to the shingle had been worn in the sand by the feet of fishermen using the cove in fine weather during the summer.
The tinker selected a site for his fire in a hollow that opened to the sea. He built a hearth with flat stones, fetched a kettle from the cart, kindled the fire, and busied himself with preparations for his evening meal. This concluded, he laid a fresh turf of peat upon the embers, banked the sand up all round till the faint glow was invisible a few yards distant, and lit a pipe.
The night wore on. Every now and again the man rose, climbed a sand-hill, and stood listening, returning each time to his vigil by the fire. At length he leaned forward and held the face of his watch near the fire-glow. Apparently the time had come for action of some sort, for he rose and made off into the darkness. When he reappeared he carried a tin pannikin in his hand, and stood motionless by the fire, staring out to sea.
Ten minutes he waited; then, suddenly, he made an inaudible observation. A light appeared out of the darkness beyond the headland, winked twice, and vanished. The tinker approached his fire and swilled something from his pannikin on to the glowing embers. A flame shot up about three feet, and died down, flickering. The tin contained paraffin, and three times the tinker repeated the strange rite. Then he sat down and waited.
A quarter of an hour passed before something grated on the shingle of the beach, scarcely perceptible above the lap of the waves. The tinker rose to his feet, shovelled the sand over the embers of his fire, and descended the little path to the beach. The night was inky dark, and for a moment he paused irresolute. Then a dark form appeared against the faintly luminous foam, wading knee deep and dragging the bows of a small skiff towards the shore. The tinker gave a low whistle, and the wader paused.
"Fritz!" he said guardedly.
"Ja! Hier!" replied the tinker, advancing.
"Gott sei dank!" said the other. He left the boat and waded ashore. The two men shook hands. "Where's the cart?" asked the low voice in German.
"Among the sand-hills. You will want assistance. Have you more than one with you in the boat?"
"Yes." The new-comer turned and gave a brusque order. Another figure waded ashore and joined the two men, a tall, bearded fellow in duffel overalls. As his feet reached the sand he spat ostentatiously. The tinker led the way to the cart.
"It is dark," said the first man from the sea. "How many cans have you got?"
"Forty-eight. I could get no more without exciting suspicion. They have requisitioned one of my cars as it is."
The other gave a low laugh. "What irony! Well, that will last till Friday. But you must try and get more then. I will be here at the same time; no, the tide will not suit—at 8 a.m. We can come inside then. Did you remember the cigarettes?"
"Yes." The tinker climbed into the cart and handed a petrol tin down to the speaker. "Ein!" he said. "Count them," and lifted out another. "Zwei!" The third man, who had not hitherto spoken, received them with a grunt, and set off down to the boat with his burden.
Eight times the trio made the journey to and from the beach. Three times they waited while the tiny collapsible boat ferried its cargo out to where, in the darkness, a long, black shadow lay, with the water lapping round it, like a partly submerged whale. The last time the tinker remained alone on the beach.
He stood awhile staring out into the darkness, and at length turned to retrace his steps. As he reached the shelter of the sand-dunes a tall shadow rose out of the ground at his feet, and the next instant he was writhing on his face in the grip of an exceedingly effective neck-and-arm lock.
"If you try to kick, my pippin," said the excited voice of James Thorogood, "I shall simply break your arm—so!"
The face in the sand emitted a muffled squark.
"Keep still, then."
The two men breathed heavily for a minute.
"Don't swear, either. That's what got you into this trouble, that deplorable habit of swearing aloud in German. But I will say, for a tinker, you put a very neat West Country whipping on that bit of broken harness. I've been admiring it. Didn't know they taught you that in the German navy—don't wriggle."
James Thorogood, retaining a firm hold on his companion's arm, bent down and gathered a handful of loose earth from a flower-bed at his feet. The moonlight, shining fitfully through flying clouds, illumined the face of the old house and the two road-stained figures standing under its walls. It was a lonely, rambling building, partly sheltered from the prevailing wind by a clump of poplars, and looking out down an avenue bordered by untidy rhododendrons.
"Won't Uncle Bill be pleased!" said James, and flung his handful of earth with relish against one of the window-panes on the first floor. He and his captive waited in silence for some minutes; then he repeated the assault. Soon a light wavered behind the curtains, the sash lifted, and a head and shoulders appeared.
"Hallo!" said a man's voice.
"Uncle Bill!" called James. There was a moment's silence.
"Well?" said the voice again, patiently.
"Uncle Bill! It's me—Jim. Will you come down and open the door? And don't wake Janet, whatever you do." Janet was the housekeeper, stone deaf these fifteen years.
The head and shoulders disappeared. Again the light flickered, grew dim, and vanished. "This way," said James, and led his companion round an angle of the house into the shadow of the square Georgian porch. The bolts were being withdrawn as they reached the steps, and a tall, grey-haired man in a dressing-gown opened the door. He held a candle above his head and surveyed the wayfarers through a rimless monocle.
"Didn't expect you till to-morrow," was his laconic greeting. "Brought a friend?"
"He's not a friend exactly," said James, pushing his companion in through the door, and examining him curiously by the light of the candle. "But I'll tell you all about him later on. His name's Fritz. D'you mind if I lock him in the cellar?"
"Do," replied Uncle Bill dryly. He produced a bunch of keys from the pocket of his dressing-gown. "It's the thin brass key. There's some quite decent brandy in the farthest bin on the right-hand side, if you're thinking of making a night of it down there. Take the candle; I'm going back to bed."
"Don't go to bed," called James from the head of the stairs. "I want to have a yarn with you in a minute. Light the gas in the dining-room."
Five minutes later he reappeared carrying a tray with cold beef, bread, and a jug of beer upon it. Uncle Bill stood in front of the dead ashes of his hearth considering his nephew through his eyeglass. "I hope you made—er—Fritz comfortable? You look as if you had been doing a forced march. Nerves better?"
James set down his empty glass with a sigh and wiped his mouth. "As comfortable as he deserves to be. He's a spy, Uncle Bill. I caught him supplying petrol to a German submarine."
"Really?" said Uncle Bill, without enthusiasm. "That brandy cost me 180s. a dozen. Wouldn't he be better in a police station? Have you informed the Admiralty?"
"I venerate the police," replied James flippantly, "and the Admiralty are as a father and mother to me; but I want to keep this absolutely quiet for a few days—anyhow, till after Friday. I couldn't turn Fritz over to a policeman without attracting a certain amount of attention. Anyhow, it would leak out if I did. I've walked eighteen miles already since midnight, and it's another fifty-nine to the Admiralty from here. Besides, unless I disguise Fritz as a performing bear, people would want to know why I was leading him about on a rope's end——"
"Start at the beginning," interrupted Uncle Bill wearily, "and explain, avoiding all unnecessary detail."
So James, between mouthfuls, gave a brief resume of the night's adventure, while Sir William Thorogood, Professor of Chemistry and Adviser to the Admiralty on Submarine Explosives, stood and shivered on the hearthrug.
"And it just shows," concluded his nephew, "what a three-hours' swim in the North Sea does for a chap's morals." He eyed his Uncle Bill solemnly. "I even chucked the fellow's seamanship in his teeth!"
Sir William polished his eyeglass with a silk handkerchief and replaced it with care.
"Did you!" he said.
A squat tub of a boat, her stern piled high with wicker crab-pots, came round the northern headland and entered the little bay. The elderly fisherman who was rowing rested on his oars and sat contemplating the crab-pots in the stem. A younger man, clad in a jersey and sea boots, was busy coiling down something in the bows. "How about this spot," he said presently, looking up over his shoulder, "for the first one?" The rower fumbled about inside his tattered jacket, produced something that glistened in the sunlight, and screwed it into his eye.
"Uncle Bill!" protested the younger fisherman, "do unship that thing. If there is anyone watching us, it will give the whole show away."
Sir William Thorogood surveyed the harbour with an expressionless countenance. "I consider that having donned these unsavoury garments—did Janet bake them thoroughly, by the way?—I have already forfeited my self-respect quite sufficiently. How much of the circuit have you got off the drum?"
"That's enough for the first, then." The speaker rose, lifted a crab-pot with an effort, and tipped it over the side of the boat. The cable whizzed out over the gunwale for a few seconds and stopped. Uncle Bill resumed paddling for a little distance, and repeated the manoeuvre eight times in a semi-circle round the inside of the bay, across the entrance. "That's enough," he observed at length, as the last crab-pot sank with a splash. "Don't want to break all their windows ashore. These will do all they're intended to." He propelled the boat towards the shore, while James paid out the weighted cable. The bows of the boat grated on the shingle, and the elder man climbed out. "Hand me the battery and the firing key—in that box under the thwart there. Now bring the end of the cable along."
As they toiled up the shifting flank of a sand-dune, James indicated a charred spot in the sand. "That's where he showed the flare, Uncle Bill."
Uncle Bill nodded disinterestedly. Side by side they topped the tufted crest of the dune and vanished among the sand-hills.
* * * * *
Somewhere across the marshes a church clock was striking midnight when a big covered car pulled up at the roadside in the spot where, a few nights before, the tinker's cart had turned off among the sand-hills. The driver switched the engine off and extinguished the lights. Two men emerged from the body of the car; one, a short, thick-set figure muffled in a Naval overcoat, stamped up and down to restore his circulation. "Is this the place?" he asked.
"Part of it," replied the voice of Uncle Bill from the driving seat. "My nephew will show you the rest. I shall stay here, if Jim doesn't mind handing me the Thermos flask and my cigar-case—thanks."
James walked round the rear of the car and began groping about in the dry ditch at the roadside.
"Don't say you can't find it, Jim," said Sir William. He bent forward to light his cigar, and the flare of the match shone on his dress shirt-front and immaculate white tie. He refastened his motoring coat, and leaned back puffing serenely.
"Got it!" said a voice from the ditch, and James reappeared, carrying a small box and trailing something behind him. He held it out to the short man with gold oak leaves round his cap-peak. His hand trembled slightly.
"Here's the firing key, sir!"
"Oh, thanks. Let's put it in the sternsheets of the car till I come back. I'd like to have a look at the spot."
"You'll get your boots full of sand," said Uncle Bill's voice under the hood.
James lifted a small sack and an oil-can out of the motor, and the two figures vanished side by side into the night.
Half an hour later the elder man reappeared. "He's going to blow a whistle," he observed, and climbed into the body of the car, where Sir William was now sitting under a pile of rugs. He made room for the new-comer.
"Have some rug . . . and here's the foot-warmer. . . . I see. And then you—er—do the rest? The box is on the seat beside you."
The other settled down into his seat and tucked the rug round himself. "Thanks," was the grim reply. "Yes, I'll do the rest!" He lit a pipe, and smoked in silence, as if following a train of thought. "My boy would have been sixteen to-morrow. . . ."
"Ah!" said Uncle Bill.
An hour passed. The Naval man refilled and lit another pipe. By the light of the match he examined his watch. "I suppose you tested the contacts?" he asked at length in a low voice.
"Yes," was the reply, and they lapsed into silence again. The other shifted his position slightly and raised his head, staring into the darkness beyond the road whence came the faint, continuous murmur of the sea.
Seaward a faint gleam of light threw into relief for an instant the dark outline of a sand-dune, and sank into obscurity again.
Uncle Bill's eyeglass dropped against the buttons of his coat with a tinkle. The grim, silent man beside him lifted something on to his knees, and there was a faint click like the safety-catch of a gun being released.
A frog in the ditch near by set up a low, meditative croaking. Uncle Bill raised his head abruptly. Their straining ears caught the sound of someone running, stumbling along the uneven track that wound in from the shore. A whistle cut the stillness like a knife.
There was a hoarse rumble seaward that broke into a deafening roar, and was succeeded by a sound like the bursting of a dam. The car rocked with the concussion, and the fragments of the shattered wind-screen tinkled down over the bonnet and footboard.
Then utter, absolute silence.
Ole Jarge put down the baler and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. A few fish scales transferred themselves from the back of his oakum-coloured hand to his venerable brow.
"'Tain't no use," he murmured. "'Er's nigh twenty year' ole—come nex' month. Tar ain't no use neither. 'Tis new strakes 'ers wantin'." He thumbed the seams of the old boat that lay on the shingle, with the outgoing tide still lapping round her stern. "An' new strakes do cost tarrible lot." He sat puffing his clay pipe, and transferred his gaze from the bottom of the boat to the whitewashed cottages huddled under the lee of the cliffs. A tall figure was moving about the nets that festooned the low wall in front of the cottages.
Ole Jarge removed his pipe from his mouth, substituted two fingers of his right hand, and gave a long, shrill whistle. It was a disconcerting performance. For one thing, you associated the trick with irrepressible boyhood, and, for another, the old man squinted slightly as he did it. As a matter of fact, he had learned it on the Dogger Bank fifty years before; fog-bound in a dory, it was a useful accomplishment.
Young Jarge straightened up, raised one hand in acknowledgment of the summons, and came crunching slowly across the shingle towards the boat. Ole Jarge sat smoking in philosophical silence till his son was beside him. Then he removed his pipe and spat over the listed gunwale.
"'Er's daid," he observed laconically.
Young Jarge bent stiffly and tapped the seams, inside and out, much as a veterinary surgeon runs his hand over a horse's legs.
"Ya-a-is," he confirmed, and sat down on the stem of the old boat. "'Er's very nigh's ole 's what us be," he added, after a pause, and began shredding some tobacco into the palm of his hand.
Ole Jarge nodded. Then he lifted his head quickly. "'Er's bound to last 'nother year." For the first time there was concern in his voice. Adversity does not grip the mind of the Cornish fisherfolk suddenly. It filters slowly through the chinks of the armour God has given them. Cornish men (and surely Cornish maids) were kind to the survivors of the wrecked Armada. It may be that they, in their turn, bequeathed a strain of Southern fatalism to many of their benefactors.
"'Er's bound to," repeated Ole Jarge. He got ponderously out of the boat and removed a tattered sou'wester to scratch his head with his thumbnail—another trick that had survived the adventurous days of the Dogger Bank.
The unfamiliar note of anxiety in his father's voice stirred Young Jarge. He rose to his feet with perplexity in his dark eyes, mechanically pulling up the bleached leather thigh-boots he wore afloat and ashore, "rainy-come-fine."
Inspiration had come, as it does to men of the West once the need is realised to the full.
"Du 'ee mind that there li'l' ole copper boiler—what come out o' granfer's house when 'er blawed down—back tu '98?" asked Young Jarge slowly.
Ole Jarge nodded.
"S'pose us was to hammer 'n out flat like an' nail un down to bottom, 'long wi' oakum an' drop o' white lead—what du 'ee say?"
Ole Jarge silently measured the area of the sprunk strakes with the stumpy thumb and little finger of an outstretched hand. Then he puckered his forehead and stared out to sea, apparently making mental calculations connected with the "li'l' ole copper boiler."
"Ya-a-ais." He replaced the piece of perished tarpaulin that had once been a sou'-wester on his head, and set off slowly across the shingle towards the village. Young Jarge followed, staring at his boots as he walked.
"Us 'll hammer 'n out after tea," said Ole Jarge over his shoulder. His great, great, very great grandfather would have said "Manana!"
* * * * *
The setting sun had tipped the dancing wavelets with fire and was glowing red in each pool left by the receding tide when Ole Jarge emerged from his cottage door. In one hand he carried a hammer, and in the other a tin of white lead. Young Jarge joined him with a small, square copper boiler in his arms.
"Where'll us put un tu, feyther?"
Ole Jarge set off across the beach in the direction of the boat. "Bring un along!" he commanded in a manner dimly suggestive of a lord high executioner.
Young Jarge followed, and dumped his burden down alongside the boat.
"Now!" said Ole Jarge grimly. He spat on his hands and prepared to enjoy himself. Bang! bang! bang-a-bang! bang! went the hammer. Young Jarge sat down on the gunwale of the boat and contemplated his parent's exertions.
"It du put Oi in mind of a drum," he said appreciatively.
"Now we can talk!" Margaret settled her back comfortably against a ridge of turf and closed her eyes for a moment.
"Isn't it heavenly up here? The wind smells of seaweed, and there must be some shrub or flower——" She opened her eyes and looked along the cliffs, "There's something smelling divinely. Wild broom, is it?"
Her gaze travelled along the succession of ragged headlands and crescents of sand formed by each little bay of the indented coast. The coastguard track, a brown thread winding adventurously among the clumps of gorse at the very edge of the cliffs, drew her eyes farther and farther to the west. In the far distance the track dipped sharply over a headland where the whitewashed coastguard station stood, and was lost to view. She turned and smiled at her companion. "Now we can talk," she repeated.
Torps, sitting beside her, met her eyes with his grave, gentle smile. "I'm so glad to see you again," he said, "that I can't think of anything else to say. It was nice of you to write and tell me you were here."
As if by common consent, they had discussed nothing but generalities during the half-hour's walk that brought them to this sheltered hollow in the cliffs. The woman was, of the two, the more reluctant to bridge the years that lay between to-day and their last meeting. Yet, womanlike, it was she that spoke first.
"I knew your ship was quite close. I wanted to see you again, Trevor, after all these years. Tell me about yourself. Your letters—yes, I know; but you never talked much about yourself in your letters."
He shook his head quietly. "No, you tell first."
"There isn't much to tell." She interlaced her fingers round her updrawn knees. Her grey eyes were turned to the sea, and Torps watched her profile against the sky wistfully, studying the pure brow, the threads of silver appearing here and there in her soft brown hair, the strong, almost boyish lines of mouth and chin. En profile, thus, she looked very like a handsome boy.
"I've been teaching at one of those training institutes for girls on the East Coast. The principal, Miss Dacre is her name"—Margaret paused as if expecting some comment from her companion: none came—"Pauline Dacre; she was at school with mother: they were great friends; and when mother died she offered me a home. . . . I had a little money—enough to go through a course of training. I learned things——"
"What sort of things?"
"Oh, cooking and laundry, and hygiene—domestic science it's called." Torps nodded. "And then, when I knew enough to teach others, I went to—to this place; I've been there ever since. And that's all. Now it's your turn."
Torps studied the traces of overwork and strain which showed in the faintly accentuated cheekbones and which painted little tired shadows about her eyelids.
"No, it's not all. Why have you come down here?"
"I—I——" She coloured as if accused. "I got a little run down . . . that was all. But I've saved some money; I can afford a rest. I'm what is called 'an independent gentlewoman of leisure' for a while." She laughed, a gay little laugh.
"Do you mean you are going back there again?"
She looked at him with frank surprise. "Of course I am, silly!"
"Don't go back . . . not to that life again. How can you? Shut up in a sort of convent. . . . You can't be a school-marm all your life; you were meant for other things. . . . I suppose you have to sleep on a hard bed, and get up in the dark when a bell rings. There aren't any carpets, and they don't give you enough to eat, as likely as not. Margaret, why should you? It's the sort of work anyone can do-teaching kids to mangle."
"But . . . what do you think I am going to do with the remainder of my days—crochet? embroider slippers for the curate? Trevor, you wouldn't like me to come to that in my old age, would you?" She spoke with gentle banter, as if to fend off something she feared. Had Torps known it, she was fencing for the happiness of them both.
He shook his head gravely.
"I hoped—because you had written to me—that you weren't going back. . . ." His thin, strong hand closed over hers, resting on the turf between them. He bent his head as if considering their fingers. "Margaret, dear——"
"Ah, Trevor, don't—please don't. . . . Not again. I thought all that was dead and buried years ago. And do you really think"—she smiled a little sadly—"if I—if things were different—that I should have written to ask you to meet me to-day? Have you learned so little of women in all these years?" There was something besides sadness in her eyes now: a wistful, half-maternal tenderness. He raised his head.
"I've learned nothing about women, Margaret, but what I learned from you."
She gently withdrew her hand. "Trevor, we're not children any longer. We're older and wiser. We——"
"We're older—yes. But I don't see what that has to do with it, except that my need is greater. . . . I'm a little lonelier. There's never been anyone but you. I've never looked across the road at a woman in my life—except you. I know we're not children, and for that reason we ought to know our own minds. Do you know yours, Margaret?"
Margaret bowed her head, collecting her thoughts and setting them in order, before she answered:
"It isn't easy to say what I have to say. You must be patient—generous, as you can be, Trevor, of all the men I know." She hesitated and coloured again a little. "You say you want me. If there were no one else who I thought had a greater claim, you should—no, hush! listen, dear—I would give you—what you want . . . gladly—oh, gladly! But the children need me—my influence. . . . Miss Dacre said it is doing the highest service one could for the Empire . . . theirs is the higher claim. Can you understand? Oh, can you?"
Torps made no reply, staring out to sea with sombre eyes.
Gaining confidence with his silence, she continued the shy unfolding of her ideals. "Nothing is too good for boys; no training is high enough, because they are to be the builders and upholders of our Empire. Don't you think that little girls, who are destined some day to be the mates of these boys, should be prepared in a way that will make them worthy of their share of the inheritance? They have to be taught ideals of honour and courage and intelligent patriotism, so that they can help and encourage their men in years to come. They must learn to cook and sew, learn the laws of Nature and hygiene, so that they can make the home not 'an habitation enforced'—as it is for so many women—but a place where they may with all honour bring into the world other little girls and boys. . . ." She drew her breath quickly. "Ah, that is not a thing anyone can do, teaching all that! It must be someone who gives all—and who gives herself gladly . . . as I have."
Torps turned his head as if to speak, but checked himself.
"Don't think I am setting myself upon a pedestal. Don't think my heart is too anaemic to—to care for you, and that I am trying to shelter myself behind talk of a life's mission. Oh!" she cried, "be generous. Don't try to make it harder."
She leaned towards him a little as he sat with lowered eyes. "This is a time of grave anxiety, isn't it?" she continued gently, as if explaining something to an impatient child. "You naval men ought to know. There is talk of war everywhere—of war with Germany. They say we are on the brink of it to-day." Torps nodded. "Supposing it came now . . . and you were recalled. How do they recall you? Sound a bugle—beat a drum?"
Torps smiled faintly. "Something of the sort—no, not a drum; a bugle, perhaps."
"Well, we'll suppose it is a drum. One somehow associates it with war and alarms. Would you hesitate to obey?" Torps refrained from the obvious answer and plucked a grass-stem to put between his teeth. "You would obey, wouldn't you, because it is your duty—however much you'd like to sit here with me? Will you try to realise that I shall be only answering the drum, too, when—I go back."
The breeze that strayed about the floor of the Channel fanned their faces and set the bright sea-poppies nodding all along the edge of the cliffs. The sun was low in the west, and a snake-like flotilla of destroyers crept out across the quiet sea from the harbour hidden by a fold in the hills. Torps watched them with absent eyes, and there was a long silence. The wind had loosened a strand of his companion's hair, and she was busy replacing it with deft fingers.
"Margaret," he replied at last, "you said just now that I understood very little about women. I think you are right. Perhaps if I understood more I might know how to muffle the drum so that you wouldn't hear it. I might have learned to pipe a tune that would make you not want to hear it. . . . I don't know. . . . But I accept all you say—although deep down in my heart I know you are wrong. There will come a day when you, too, will know you are wrong. I shall come back then. And till then, since I must"—he smiled in a whimsical, sad way that somehow relaxed the tension—"I lend you to the children."
She returned his smile quite naturally, with relief in her eyes. "Dear Trevor, yes . . . because they need me so. . . . Believe me, I am not wrong: and we keep our friendship still, sweet and sane——" She broke off suddenly and raised a slim forefinger, holding her head sideways to listen, the way women and birds and children seem to hear better. "Hark! Did you hear? How odd! Listen, Trevor!"
Torps brought himself back with an effort. "Hear what?"
"I can hear the waves along the shingle."
"No, no. . . . There—now!"
"Oh! . . . Yes, I can hear. . . . It sounds like a drum."
"Trevor, it is a drum, somewhere out at sea! How odd when we were just talking about drums—hush! Oh, do listen. . . ."
The sound, borne to them on the light wind, seemed to grow nearer; then it waned till they could scarcely catch the beats. Anon it swelled louder: the unmistakable "Dub! dub! rub-a-dub! dub! . . . Dub! dub! dub!" of a far-off drum.
Margaret shook his sleeve. "Of course it's a drum. It can't be anything else, can it?"
"It's Drake's Drum!" he replied, with mock solemnity. "There's a legend in the West Country, you know——"
"I know!" She nodded, bright eyed with interest, and rose to a kneeling position to gaze beneath her palms out towards the west. The sun had set, and a thin grey haze slowly veiled the horizon. Already the warm afterglow was dying out of the sky.
"He has 'quit the Port of Heaven,'" she quoted half-seriously, playing with superstition as only women can, "and he's 'drumming up the Channel'! They say it foretells war . . . that noise. . . ." Margaret gave a little shiver and rose to her graceful height, extending both her ringless hands to him. "It's getting chilly—come!"
Torps rose to his feet, too, and for a moment faced her, with his grave, patient eyes on hers. For the first time she noticed that his hair was going grey about the temples, and, had he known it, Margaret came very near to wavering in that moment. Perhaps he did realise, and with quick, characteristic generosity helped her.
"I think I understand," he said, "something of their need—the need of the children for such as you. It—it——" He turned abruptly towards the sea. The noise that resembled a distant drum had ceased, and there was only the faint surge of the waves on the beaches far below.
It was the only sound in all the land and sea.
* * * * *
In the whitewashed coastguard station a mile away the bearded occupant on duty was finishing his tea. The skeleton of a herring lay on the side of his plate, the centre of which the boatman was scouring with a piece of bread (preparatory to occupying it with damson jam), when the telephone bell rang. A man of economical habits, he put the bread in his mouth, and, rising from the table, picked up the receiver.
". . . Portree Signal Station—Yes."
". . . 'Oo? Yes."
He stood motionless with the receiver to his ear, his jaws moving mechanically about the last of the piece of bread. Outside the little room the wind thrummed in the halliards of the signal-mast. The clock over the desk ticked out the deliberate seconds. A cat, curled up by the window, rose, stretching itself, and yawned.
". . . Prepare to mobilise. All officers and men are recalled from leave. Detailed orders will follow. Right. Good-bye."
He replaced the receiver and rang off. Then, still masticating, he executed a species of solemn war-dance in the middle of the floor.
"Crikey!" he said aloud. "That means war, that do! Bloody war!"
He snatched up a telescope and ran outside, still talking aloud to himself after the manner of men who live much alone. "I see a bloke an' 'is young woman along there this afternoon. I'd ha' said he was a naval orficer if anyone was to ask me." He scanned the hills through his glass for a moment, and then set off along the track that skirted the edge of the cliffs.
Margaret saw him first, a broad, blue-clad figure, threading his way among the furze bushes. "And you won't be unhappy, will you, Trevor?" she was saying. "You will understand, you——" She broke off to watch the coastguard hurrying towards them. "Does that sailor want to speak to us, do you think? He seems in a great hurry."
Torps stood at her side staring.
The coastguard drew near, wiping his face with a vast blue and white spotted handkerchief, for he had been running. "Beg pardon, sir," he called as he came within earshot, "but would you be a naval officer?"
"I am," replied Torps. "Why?"
The man saluted. "There's a telephone message just come through, sir, 'Prepare to mobilise. All officers and men are recalled from leave.'"
Torps stared at him. "Where did it come from—the message?"
"From the port, sir. I was to warn anyone I saw out this way . . ."
"Right; thank you. I'm going back now." He turned towards Margaret. "Did you hear that?" There was a queer note of relief in his voice.
"Yes," she replied quietly. "The Drum."
A CAPTAIN'S FORENOON
The Captain came out of his sleeping-cabin as the last chord of the National Anthem died away on the quarter-deck overhead with the roll of kettledrums.
"Carry on!" sang the bugle; and the ship's company, their animation suspended while the colours crept up the jackstaff, proceeded to "breakfast and clean." The signalman whose duty it was to hoist the Ensign at 8 a.m. turned up the halliards to his satisfaction, and departed forward in the wake of the band.
The Captain had "cleaned" already, and his breakfast was on the table in his fore-cabin. He sat down, glanced at the pile of letters beside his plate, propped the morning paper against the teapot, and commenced his meal. He ate with the deliberate slowness of a man accustomed to having meals in solitude, who has schooled himself not to abuse his digestion.
As he ate his quick eye travelled over the headlines of the paper, occasionally concentrating on a paragraph here and there. Ten minutes sufficed to give him a complete grasp of the day's affairs. The naval appointments he read carefully. His memory for names and individuals was unfailing; he never forgot anyone who had served under his command, and followed the careers of most with interest. His daily private correspondence, which was large, testified to the fact that not many forgot him.
Breakfast over, he laid aside the paper, lit a cigarette, and turned over the little pile of letters, identifying the writers with a glance at the handwriting on each envelope. Only one was unknown to him: that he placed last, and carried them into the after-cabin to read, leaning his shoulder against the mantel of the tiled and brass-bound fireplace.
The first letter he opened was from his wife, and, in consequence, its contents were nobody's affair but his own. He read it twice, and smiled as he returned it to the envelope.
The next, written on thick notepaper stamped with the Admiralty crest, he also read twice, and mused awhile. Apparently this also was nobody's concern but his, for, still deep in thought, he tore it up and put the pieces in the fire before taking up the third. This was an appeal for assistance from a former watch-keeper who aspired to the Flying Corps. The next was also a request for assistance from a young officer, who, having recently taken a wife to his bosom, apparently considered the achievement a qualification for the command of one of H.M. torpedo-boat destroyers.
The Captain rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I sent him a silver photograph frame. . . . He'll want me to be godfather next." He occasionally spoke aloud when alone.
An appeal for funds for a memorial to someone or another followed. Then two advertisements from wine merchants and a statement of his account with his outfitter were consigned in turns into the fire. The last envelope, in the unknown hand, he scrutinised for a moment before opening. The postmark was local, the caligraphy illiterate. He opened the letter and read it with an inscrutable face. Then, with a quick movement as of disgust, he crumpled it up and threw it into the flames. It was anonymous, and was a threat, couched in lurid and ensanguined terms, to murder him.
Judges, and post-captains of the Royal Navy, perhaps as a reminder of their great responsibilities, occasionally receive communications of this nature. Their life insurance policies, however, appear to remain much the same as those of other people.
* * * * *
The after-cabin, where the Captain perused his correspondence, was an airy, chintz-upholstered apartment leading aft through two heavy steel doors on to the stern-walk. The doors were open on that particular morning, and the high, thin cries of seagulls quarrelling under the stern drifted through almost unceasingly.
Forward, the white-enamelled bulkhead was pierced by two entrances. One led from a diminutive sleeping-cabin and bathroom, the other from the fore-cabin, which the Captain had just quitted, and which in turn communicated with a lobby where a marine sentry paced day and night.
The after-cabin was lit by a skylight overhead and scuttles in the ship's side. The sunlight, streaming in through the starboard ones, winked on the butterfly clamps of burnished brass and small rods from which the little chintz curtains hung. A roll-topped desk occupied a corner near the fireplace, and round the bulkheads, affixed to white enamelled battens, hung water-colour paintings of his ships. A sloop of war under full sail; a brig, close-hauled, beating out of Plymouth Sound; a tiny gunboat at anchor in a backwater of the Upper Yangtse. There were spick-and-span cruisers; a quaint, top-heavy looking battleship that in her day had been considered the last word in naval construction, and whose name to-day provokes reminiscences from the older generation and from the younger half-dubious smiles; then, near the door, came modern men-of-war of familiar aspect. They represented the milestones of a long career.
A chart lay folded on a table in the centre of the cabin, with a pair of dividers and a parallel ruler lying on it. Another table stood in a corner near the door—a small, glass-topped table such as collectors of curios gather their treasures in. The contents of this table, however, were not curios in the strict sense of the word. A number of them were very commonplace objects, but each one held its particular associations.
You will find just such a collection of insignificant mysteries in a boy's pocket or a jackdaw's nest. Bits of string, a marble polished by friction, a piece of coloured glass, an old nail—in themselves rubbish, but doubtless linking the possessor to some amiable memory, and cherished for no better reason.
Some men retain this instinct of boyhood. But whereas the boy is secretive and reticent about the particular associations his pocket holds, the man will talk about his hoard.
In the glass-topped table in that corner of the after-cabin were ties with all the seven seas and the shores they wash. Mementoes of folly or friendship, sport or achievement; fragments of the mosaic that is life.
A bit of brick from the Great Wall of China recalled a bag of geese in the clear cold dusk of Northern Asia. Memories, too, of the whaler's beat back to the fleet in the teeth of a rising gale that swept in from the Pacific, when the bravest unlaced his boots and they baled with the empty guncase.
There was a piece of the sacred pavement of Mecca, brought back in the days when few Europeans had brought anything back from there—even their lives. A gold medal in a morocco-leather case, won by an essay that had called for months of unrelaxed study. A copper bangle from the wrist of a Korean dancing-girl (it was somebody else's story, though). A wooden ju-ju from Benin, dark-stained and repulsive; a tiny clay godling that had guarded the mummied heart of an Egyptian queen. A flint arrow-head picked up on Dartmoor during a long summer tramp after the speckled trout. A jewelled cigarette-case, gift of an empress who could give no more than that, however much she may have wanted to.
Rubbish, all rubbish. Yet occasionally, when two or three post-captains, contemporaries and fleet-mates, gathered here to smoke after-dinner cigars, the host would unlock the glass-topped table, select some object from his miscellany, and hold it up with a "D'you remember——?" And one or other of his guests—sometimes all of them—would laugh and nod and blow great clouds of smoke and slide into eager reminiscence. Yesterday is the playground of all men's hearts, but more especially those of sailor men. These odds and ends were only keys that unlocked the gate.
A few photographs stood on the shelf above the hearth. Some books occupied a revolving bookcase within reach of anyone sitting at the desk; not very interesting books: old Navy Lists, a "King's Regulations," a "Manual of Court Martial Procedure," one or two volumes on International Law, and a treatise on so-called 'modern' seamanship—which, by the way, is a misnomer, seamanship, like love, being of all time.
The revolving bookcase supported a bowl of flowers. The Captain's Coxswain had personally arranged them that morning; had, in fact, had a slight difference of opinion with the Captain's valet (conducted sotto voce) over the method of their arrangement. The Coxswain won on the claim of being a married man and understanding mysteries beyond the ken of bachelors. The result in either case would have brought tears to the eyes of any woman.
* * * * *
The Captain finished his cigarette and opened the roll-topped desk, slipped his letters into a pigeon-hole, and closed the desk again. As he did so the Commander entered the cabin, tucking his cap under his arm.
"Nine o'clock, sir; all ready for divisions. The Chaplain is sick—will you read prayers?"
"Sick, is he? What's the matter?"
"He twisted his knee yesterday playing football. The Fleet Surgeon has made him lie up."
The Captain nodded. "All right; I'll read them." As the Commander turned to go he spoke again: "By the way, that fellow I gave ninety days to yesterday—was there a woman in the case, d'you happen to know? There was nothing in the evidence, of course, but I wondered——"
The Commander paused while the busy brain searched among its dockets. The man whose business it is as Executive Officer to control the affairs of close on a thousand of his fellow men must of necessity sometimes learn curiously intimate details of their lives.
"Yes; the Master-at-Arms mentioned to me that a woman was at the bottom of it. She's a wrong 'un, I understand."
The Commander went out, and a moment later the bugle overhead blazed forth "Divisions."
"I thought it was a woman's writing," added the Captain musingly.
"Divisions correct, sir!" The Commander saluted and made his report.
The Captain returned the salute briskly. "Sound the 'Close.'"
The bugle sounded again, the bell began to toll for prayers, and the band on the after shelter-deck struck up a lively march as the men came aft.
Anyone interested in the study called physiognomy might with advantage have taken his stand at this moment on the after part of the quarter-deck, where the shadow of the White Ensign curved and flickered across the planking. Perhaps the Captain, who stood there, was himself a student of the art. At any rate, as the men marched aft through the screen doors his level eyes passed from face to face, reflective, observant, intensely alert.
The last division reached its allotted position on the quarter-deck, turned inboard, and stood easy. The band stopped abruptly. The bell ceased tolling. In the brief ensuing silence the Commander's voice was clearly audible as he made his report.
"Everybody aft, sir."
The Captain slipped a small prayer-book out of a side pocket. The Commander gave a curt order, and five hundred heads bared to the sunlight.
There is much beauty in the sonorous periods of the English Rubric. Read in the strong, clear voice of a man who for thirty years had known calm and tempest, sunset and dawn at sea, the familiar words—of appeal and praise alike—assumed somehow an unwonted significance; and when he closed the book, slipped it back into his pocket, and looked up, the face he raised was the face of one who, whatever else his creed had taught him, found in all success the answer to some prayer, in every disaster a call to courage and high endeavour.
* * * * *
Down in the after-cabin, five minutes later, the Fleet Surgeon handed the sick-list to the Captain, who read it with care. For the first time that day his brow clouded. The two men looked at one another.
"It is heavy," said the Fleet Surgeon; "but——" He made an imperceptible upward movement of the shoulders, for his mother had been French.
For some moments after he had gone the Captain stood staring out through the after doorway. A barge, heavily freighted, was passing slowly down-stream. His eyes followed the brown sail absently as long as it was within his field of vision. The anger had gone from his brow and left a shadow of sadness.
"'Si j'etais Dieu,'" he murmured, following some train of thought and musing aloud as was his habit. Then, still in a brown study, he opened the roll-topped desk and pressed a bell.
"Tell Mr. Gerrard I'll sign papers," he said to the marine sentry who appeared in the doorway.
"Double-O" Gerrard (so called because he wore glasses with circular lenses and his name made you think of telephones) answered the summons, carrying a sheaf of papers. He was the Captain's Clerk: that is to say, the junior accountant officer, detailed by the Captain to conduct his official correspondence and perform secretarial work generally. The position is not one commonly sought after, but Double-O Gerrard appeared to enjoy his duties, and as a badge of office carried a perpetual inkstain on the forefinger-tip of his right hand.
The Captain sat down at his desk with a little sigh. If the truth be known, he had small relish for this business of "papers." He picked up his pen and examined the nib.
"Do you ever use your pen to clean a pipe out?" he asked his Clerk.
"Oh no, sir."
"I suppose it depends on the nib one uses whether it suffers much." With a piece of blotting paper the Captain removed fragments of tobacco ash and nicotine from the nib, and dipped it in the ink. "It doesn't seem to hurt mine. Now then, what have we got here?"
A quarter of an hour later he pushed aside the last of the pile of documents and lit a cigarette with the air of a man who had earned a smoke.
"No, sir, none for you to-day."
"Humph! Tell the Commander I'll buy him a pair of white kid gloves when I go ashore. Request-men?"
His Clerk placed a book upon the desk open at a list of names. The Captain ran down them with a pencil.
"Badges, all entitled? . . . Stop allotment—who does he allot to? Mother? . . . Restoration to first class for leave. . . . To be rated Leading Seaman—Jones. Jones? Oh, yes, I know: youngster in the quarter-deck division with a broken nose. The Commander spoke to me about him." The pencil slowly descended to the bottom of the page, ticking off each man's request as it was gone into and explained. He stopped at the last one. "'To see Captain about private affairs.' What's his trouble?"
"I don't know, sir. He put in his request to see you through the Master-at-Arms. He didn't say what it was about."
The Captain closed the book. "All seamen, eh? No Marine request-men?"
"Right. I'll see 'em at eleven." The Clerk gathered the papers together and departed. As he went out there was a tap at the door. The Captain frowned. The tap was repeated.
"Don't knock," he called out. "If you've got anything to report, come in and report it."
The Chief Yeoman of Signals entered with an embarrassed air. He was new to the ship, and, as everyone knows, all captains have their little peculiarities. Here he was up against one right away. He'd never had much luck.
"I don't want anyone to knock when they come into my cabin on duty. I'm not a young woman in her boudoir."
"Aye, aye, sir," said the Chief Yeoman. "Signal log, sir."
* * * * *
"Don't forget now," counselled the Master-at-Arms to the request-men fallen in on the starboard side of the quarter-deck. "When your names is called out, step smartly up to the table, an' keep your caps on. You salutes when you steps up to the table an' when you leaves it."
The request-men, who had heard all this a good many times before, sucked their teeth in acquiescence.
The Captain was walking up and down the other side of the deck talking to the Commander. They turned together and came towards the table. The Captain's Clerk opened the request-book and laid it before the Captain.
"'Erbert Reynolds," intoned the Master-at-Arms in a stentorian voice. "Able seaman. Requests award of first Good Conduct Badge."
The Captain put his finger on the first name at the top of the page, glanced keenly at the applicant, and nodded. "Granted."
"Granted," echoed the Chief of Police, and Able Seaman Reynolds departed with authority to wear on his left arm the triangular red badge that vouched to his exemplary behaviour for the last three years.
Five others followed in quick succession with similar requests, and trotted forward again at a dignified and amiable gait through the screen door.
"To stop allotment." The Captain raised his head.
"Who do you allot to?"
"Me mother, sir."
"Doesn't she want it?"
The request-man was a young stoker, little more than a boy, and his eyes were troubled.
"She don't deserve it," he replied; "she drinks, sir. I got letters from fr'en's——" He thrust his hand inside the breast of his jumper and produced his sad evidence—a letter from a clergyman, one or two from lay-workers in some north-country slum, and one from his mother herself, an incoherent, abusive scrawl, with liquor stains still upon the creased paper.
"I send 'er my 'arf-pay reg'lar ever since I were in the Navy, sir. But she ain't goin' ter 'ave no more." He made the statement without heat or sorrow.
"Stopped," said the Captain, with a nod.
"Allotment stopped," repeated the Master-at-Arms, and the allotter passed forward out of sight to whatever destiny awaited him.
"To be rated Leading Seaman, sir."
A tall, young Able Seaman stepped forward and fixed eyes of a clear blue on the Captain's face.
The Captain met his gaze, and for a moment threw all the weight of thirty years' experience of men into the scales of judgment. "There is a vacancy for a Leading Seaman's rate in the ship," he said. "The Commander has recommended you for it. You're young. Keep it."
"Rated Leading Seaman. 'Bout turn."
The newly created Leading Seaman, whose nose was a reminder of the vagaries of the main sheet block of a cutter when going about, flushed with pleasure and turned smartly on his heel. The vacant rate was due to a lapse from rectitude on the part of one Biggers, leading hand of the quarter-deck, who had returned from leave with a small flat flask tucked inside his cholera belt. The flask contained whisky, and had been thrust there by a friend ashore in an access of maudlin good-fellowship on parting. The night had been a convivial one, and Leading Seaman Biggers overlooked the gift until, coming on board, the keen-eyed officer of the watch drew his attention to it. He paid for the misplaced generosity of his well-wisher with his "Killick."
He happened, moreover, to be employed in coiling down a rope—in the capacity he had reverted to—while his supplanter received the rating; but he eyed the ceremony stoically and without resentment. He had failed, and, of his less frail brethren, another was raised up in his stead. It was the immutable law.
"To be restored to the first class for leave."
A stout Able Seaman stepped forward, and, from force of a habit engendered by long familiarity with the etiquette of the defaulters' table, removed his cap.
"Put yer cap on," added the Master-at-Arms in a fierce undertone.
The suppliant deftly replaced his cap. As he did so a packet of cigarettes, a skein of darning worsted and a picture postcard (depicting a stout lady in a pink costume surf bathing) fell out on to the deck in the manner of an unexpected conjuring trick. An attendant ship's corporal retrieved them, while the conjurer affected an air of complete detachment.
The Captain glanced at the conduct book. "Clean sheet? Right—restored to the first class. And see if you can't stop in it this time."
The stout one made guttural noises in his throat intended to convey assurances of future piety, and departed with an expression that suggested a halo had not only descended upon his head, but had been crammed inextricably over his ears.
The last request-man—the man with "private affairs"—was a small leading stoker with a face seamed by innumerable tiny wrinkles. His skin resembled a piece of parchment that somebody had crumpled in a fit of petulance and made a half-hearted attempt to smooth out again; even his ears were crumpled. His brown eyes, big and sad, were like the eyes of a suffering monkey.
The Commander interposed with an explanation: "This man wishes to see you about a private matter, sir."
The Captain made a little gesture with his hand, and the small group of officers and ship's police near the table stepped back a few paces out of earshot. The Commander, perhaps the busiest man on board, snatched the moment's respite to confer with the Carpenter, who had been hovering round waiting for his opportunity. The Master-at-Arms was standing by the bollards alternately sucking a stump of pencil and making cryptic notations in his request-book. The two ship's corporals had removed themselves with great delicacy of feeling to the screen door, where in an undertone they settled an argument as to whose turn it was to make out the leave tickets. The Captain's Clerk became interested in the progress of work in an ammunition lighter alongside.
The Captain, with knitted brows, was reading a letter that had been handed to him across the table. He folded it up when read, and handed it back to the recipient; then, holding his chin in his fist and supporting the elbow with the other hand, he listened to the tale the small man with the crumpled ears had to unfold. It was an old tale—old when Helen first met the eyes of Paris. But there was no veil of romance to soften the outline of its crude tragedy. It was just sordid and pitiful.
For five minutes, perhaps, the two men faced each other. At the end of that time the Captain was leaning forward resting both hands on the table, talking in grave, kindly tones. He talked, not as Captains commonly talk to Leading Stokers, but as one man might talk to another who turned to him for advice in the bitter hour of need, drawing on the deep well of his experience, education, and kindly judgment.
"Troubles shared are troubles halved." The Captain had said so, and the tot of rum served out at one-bell to the little man with the crumpled ears went some way to complete the conviction.
* * * * *
Jeremiah Casey, Petty Officer and Captain's Coxswain, hauled himself nimbly up the Jacob's ladder to the quarter-boom and came inboard. The Captain was walking up and down, deep in thought, with his hands linked behind his back. Casey pattered up and saluted.
"I've bent on that noo mainsail, sir. . . . There's a nice li'l sailin' breeze, sir." Casey, hinting at a spin in the galley, somehow reminded one of a spaniel when he sees the gun-case opened. Had he been blessed with a tail, he would most certainly have wagged it.
The Captain walked slowly aft and looked down into the galley lying at the quarter-boom. Few men could have resisted the appeal of that long slim boat with the water lapping invitingly against her clinker-built sides. The brasswork in her gleamed in the sun like jewels set in ivory, for the woodwork was as near the whiteness of ivory as holystone and sharkskin could make it. She had little white mats with blue borders on the thwarts and in the sternsheets, and her yoke, of curious Chinese design, had a history as mysterious and legendary as the diamonds of Marie Antoinette.
"Get her alongside," said the Captain. "I want to try that mainsail."
Five minutes later the galley was spinning across the sparkling waters of the harbour.
Once the Captain spoke, and the bowman moved his weight six inches forward. Then she sailed to his light touch on the helm as a violin gives out sound under the bow of a master.
Casey, sitting motionless on the bottom boards with the mainsheet in his hands, gazed rapturously at the new mainsail, and thence into the stolid countenance of the second stroke.
"Ain't she a witch?" he whispered.
For half an hour the galley skimmed to and fro among the anchored fleet, now running free like a white-winged gull, anon close-hauled, the razor bows cleaving a path through the dancing water in a little sickle of creaming foam.
The Captain brought her alongside the gangway with faultless judgment and stood up. Like Saul, he had taken the cares of high command to a witch, and lo! his brow was clear and his eyes twinkled.
"Yes," he said in even tones as he stepped out of the boat, "that mainsail sets all right," and ran briskly up the ladder two steps at a time.
Casey thumbed the lacing on the yard. "Perfection is finality, and finality is death."
"I don't know but what I wouldn't shift the strop 'arf an inch aft—mebbe a quarter . . ."
Inboard the ship's bell struck eight times, and the boatswain's mate began shrilly piping the hands to dinner.
 Anchor. The distinctive badge of a leading rating.
THE SEVEN-BELL BOAT
The last answering pendant from the Fleet shot up above the bridge rails, and the impatient semaphore on the Flagship's bridge commenced waving its arms.
The Yeoman of the Watch in the second ship of the line steadied his glass against an angle of the chart house. "'Ere y'are! Write down, one 'and." A Signal-boy stepped to his elbow with a pad and pencil in readiness.
"Flag—general: Leave may be granted to officers from 8.30 to 7 p.m. Officers are not to leave the vicinity of the town, and are to be prepared for immediate recall." He lowered the glass sharply. "Finish. Down Answer!"
Obedient to the order, a Signal-man brought the long tail of bunting down hand over hand. He hitched the slack of the halliard to the bridge rail and puckered his eyes, staring across the waters of the harbour to where the roofs of houses showed among the trees. "'Ow I pities orficers!" he observed under his breath, and walked to the end of the bridge.
The advertisement of a cinema theatre occupied a hoarding near the landing place; away to the left the sloping roof of what was unmistakably a brewery bore in huge block letters the exhortation:
DRINK PALE ALE
"Not 'arf," murmured the cynic at the end of the battleship's bridge. He mused darkly and added, "I don't think."
The Yeoman of the Watch took the pad from the boy's hand, scribbled a notation on it, and handed it back: "Commander an' Officer of the Watch, Wardroom, Gunroom, an' Warrant Officers' Mess. Smart!"
The boy flung himself down the ladder, sped aft along the fore-and-aft bridge, turned at the shelter-deck, descended another ladder, and brought up in the battery. Here the Commander came in view, conferring mysteriously with the Boatswain over a length of six-inch wire hawser that lay along the upper deck. The Boatswain, with gloom in his countenance, was indicating a section where the strands were flattened and the hemp "heart" protruded in a manner indicating that all was not well with the six-inch wire hawser. In fact, it rather resembled a snake that had been run over. The Commander was rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
The Signal-boy hovered on the outskirts of the conference. Bitter experience in the past had taught him not to obtrude when deep called thus to deep.
"We must cut it where it's nipped, and put a splice in it, Mr. Cassidy," the Commander was saying, and turned his head.
The boy seized the opportunity to thrust the pad within range of the Commander's vision, one eye cocked on his face to note the effect of this momentous communication. He half expected that the Commander would throw his cap in the air and shout "Hurrah!"
The Commander read it unmoved. "Show it to the Officer of the Watch," he said, and turned again to the wire hawser. Truly a man of iron, reflected the Signal-boy as he saluted and ran aft in search of the Officer of the Watch.
The Officer of the Watch received the intelligence with almost equal unconcern, but when the boy had departed out of earshot he said something in an undertone and added: "Just my blooming luck." Then, raising his voice, he shouted: "Quartermaster! Picket-boat alongside at three-thirty for officers."
A head emerged from the hood of the after turret. The Gunnery Lieutenant, wearing over-alls, a streak of dirt running diagonally down one cheek, emerged and drew off a greasy glove to wipe his face.
"Did I hear you say anything about a seven-bell boat?"
The Officer of the Watch nodded. "There's leave from three-thirty to seven p.m. It's three o'clock now, so I advise you to smack it about and clean if you're going ashore."
The Gunnery Lieutenant slid gracefully down the sloping shield of the turret. Fortunately, the consideration of paint-work vanished with the red dawn of August 5th, 1914.
"My word!" he said, staring towards the distant town. "My missus——" and vanished down the hatchway.
In the meanwhile the Signal-boy had descended to the wardroom, where he swiftly pinned the signal on to the notice board. The occupants of the arm-chairs and settee followed his movements with drowsy interest.
The Young Doctor rose and walked to the notice board.
"Snooks!" he ejaculated. "Leave!" And, with a glance at the clock, hurried out of the mess.
The remainder of his messmates sat up with excitement.
"What about a boat?"
The head of the Officer of the Watch appeared through the open skylight overhead. "Wake up, you Weary Willies. There's a boat to the beach at seven-bells."
"Come along, chaps," snorted the Major of Marines. "Allons nous shifter—let us shift." And he, too, made tracks for his cabin, followed by everybody who could be spared by "the exigencies of the service" to experience for three blessed hours the joys of the land.
The shrill voices of the Midshipmen at their toilet in the after flat proclaimed that the precious moments were flying. Three were simultaneously performing their ablutions in one basin, the supply of water to the bathroom having failed with a suddenness that could only be attributed to the malignant agency of the Captain of the Hold.
Another burrowed feverishly in the depths of his sea-chest, presenting to the flat much the same appearance as a terrier does when busy at a rabbit-hole. He emerged flushed but triumphant with a limp garment in his grasp. "I knew I had a clean shirt," he confided to his neighbour. "I told my servant so a fortnight ago. He swore that every one I possessed had been left behind in the wash at Malta."
His neighbour made no reply, being in the throes of buttoning a collar which fitted him admirably at Osborne College, but which somehow had lately exhibited an obstinate determination to meet no more round his neck. However, physical strength achieved the miracle, and he breathed deeply. "I shouldn't sweat to shift your shirt," he consoled. "It looks all right. Turn the cuffs up."
"I've turned them up three times already," replied the excavator, donning his find. "There are limits."
Another Midshipman came across the crowded flat and calmly rummaged in the open till of the speaker's sea-chest. "Where's your hair juice? All right, I've got it." He anointed himself generously with a mysterious green fluid out of a bottle. "My people are staying at a pub ashore here. Will you come and have tea, Jaggers? Kedgeree's coming, too."
The owner of the green unguent, who was feverishly dusting his boots with a pyjama jacket, signified his pleasure in accepting the invitation.
The sentry on the aft-deck stepped to the head of the ladder with a bellows, on the mouth of which a small fog-horn was fitted, and gave a loud blast. It was the customary warning that the officers' boat would be alongside in five minutes.
The Assistant Clerk ran distractedly for the ladder.
"There's one 'G'! Have I got time to borrow five bob from the messman before the boat shoves off?"
"You might borrow five bob for me while you're about it," shouted a belated Engineroom Watchkeeper, struggling into his clothes.
"And me, too," called another. "Buck up, for the Lord's sake, and we'll have poached eggs for tea."
"And cherry jam," supplemented another visionary voluptuously, "and radishes."
Here a figure, who had been sitting on the lid of his chest swinging his legs, tilted his cap on to the back of his head with a snort that suggested outlawry and defiance to the world at large.
"Hallo!" exclaimed a neighbour, wielding a clothes-brush with energy. "What's up? Aren't you coming ashore? It isn't your First Dog, is it?"
The outlaw shook his head. "No; my leave's jambed. You know that beastly six-inch wire hawser? We were bringing it to the after capstan yesterday, and the Commander——"
The aft-deck sentry gave two blasts on his fog-horn. Chest lids banged, keys rattled.
"Jolly rough luck!" commiserated his friend, and joined the stampede for the quarterdeck.
In thirty seconds the flat was deserted save for the disconsolate figure swinging his legs. Presently he climbed down from his chest and wended his way by devious and stealthy routes to the after conning-tower, where he smoked a surreptitious cigarette in defiance of the King's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions (his age being sixteen) and felt better.
In the meanwhile the picket-boat was driving her way shoreward with the emancipated members of Wardroom and Gunroom clustered on top of the cabin and in the stern sheets.
"Bunje," said the First Lieutenant, "come to the club and have tea and play 'pills' afterwards?"
The Indiarubber Man shook his head. "No, thanks; I'm afraid I—I've got something else to do."
The Paymaster contemplated him thoughtfully. "Bunje, my lad, the darkest suspicions fill my breast. Wherefore these carefully creased trousers, this liberal display of fine linen and flashing cuff-links withal? Our Sunday monkey-jacket, too. Can it be——? No." He appealed to the occupants of the stern sheets: "Don't tell me the lad is going poodle-faking!"
"His hands are warm and moist," confirmed one of the Watchkeepers. "He wipes them furtively on the slack of his trousers in frightened anticipation."
The Indiarubber Man reddened. "You silly asses!"
The Junior Watchkeeper squirmed with delight. "He is—he is! He's going poodle-faking. And in war time, too! You dog, Bunje!"
"Can't a fellow know people ashore without a lot of untutored clowns trying to be funny about it?" demanded the victim.
"It's the spring," said the Young Doctor. "Bunje's young fancy is lightly turning—yes, it is." The Surgeon sniffed the air judicially. "The bay rum upon your hair proclaims it. Ah, me! The heyday of youth!" He sighed. "'Time was when love and I were well acquainted.'"
"That's a fact," retorted the Indiarubber Man bitterly. "But you needn't brag about it. I haven't been shipmates with you for four years for nothing. There's nothing you can tell me about your hideous past that I don't know already."
The picket-boat slid alongside the landing place and went astern.
The Engineer Commander made his way towards the little cabin. As the senior officer of the party, his was the privilege of embarking last and disembarking first. "Don't wait for me," he said. "Unstow! I've got to get my golf-clubs."
The Indiarubber Man took him at his word. "Right. I'll carry on, if I may." He leaped ashore, and set off with long strides in the direction of the town.
The First Lieutenant gazed after him. There was a general feeling that the Indiarubber Man had suddenly assumed an unfamiliar and inexplicable role. "Now, what the devil is he up to, I wonder?"
The others, mystified, shook their heads.
The mothers of Midshipmen have a means of scenting the whereabouts of a fleet that mere censorship of letters cannot balk. There were at least half a dozen mothers in the foyer of the big, garish hotel on the sea-front. Some were tete-a-tete with their sons in snug, upholstered corners, learning aspects of naval warfare that no historian will ever record. Others presided over heavily laden tea-tables at which their sons and their sons' more intimate friends were dealing with eggs and buttered toast, marmalade, watercress, plum-cake, and toasted scones in a manner which convinced their half-alarmed relatives that famine must have stalked the British Navy ever since the War started.
"We shall never have time," said one mother, "to hear all you have to tell, dear."
"There's really nothing very much to tell you about, mother. Can I order some more jam? And Jaggers could scoff some more eggs, couldn't you, Jag? Waiter, two more poached eggs and some more strawberry jam. You see, dear, we haven't done anything exciting yet. That's all been the luck of the battle-cruisers and destroyers. They've had a topping rag—three of our term have been wounded already. But we aren't allowed to gas about what we're going to do—why, that waiter might be a German spy, for all we know."
"Didn't know the Admiral confided his plans for the future to Midshipmen," commented an amused father, who had run down from the War Office for the day.
"He doesn't confide them," admitted another, "but my chest is in the flat outside his steward's cabin, and, of course, he hears an awful lot."
"But, Georgie, tell us about your life. Do you get enough sleep?" queried his mother.
"Rather," replied her son, whose horizon three months before had been bounded by the playing fields of Dartmouth College, where the dormitories are maintained at an even temperature by costly and hygienic methods. "We're in four watches, you know—we get one night in in four. At sea we sleep at our guns. I've got one of the six-inch, and we get up quite a good fug in our casemate at night. Jaggers dosses in the after-control. It's a bit breezy up there, isn't it, Old Bird?"
The Old Bird signified that the rigours of Arctic exploration were as nothing to what he had undergone.
"And your swimming-jacket—the one Aunt Jessie sent you? The outfitter said it was quite comfortable to wear. I hope you always do wear it at sea, in case—in case you should ever need it."
Her son chuckled. "The pneumatic one? Well, we liked it awfully when it came, and we blew it up; and then we thought we'd have a bit of scrum practice one night after dinner, and we rolled it up for a ball, and—and the half wasn't nippy enough in getting it away to the three-quarters, and somehow or another it got punctured. But I wear it all right, mother. It's jolly warm at nights."
"And do you like your officers—is the Captain kind to you all?"
The boy stirred his tea thoughtfully.
"They're a topping lot. One has got the Humane Society's gold medal for jumping on top of a shark at Perim when it was just going to collar a fellow bathing—you'd never think it to look at him. There's another we call the Indiarubber Man, who takes us at physical drill every morning. He's frightfully strong, and they say he licked the Japanese ju-jitsu man they had at the School of Physical Training. And, of course, there's old Beggs. You know, he was captain of England—Rugger—some years ago. He's broken his nose three times. . . ."
"We all skylark together in the dog-watches," added another. "We put a seining-net round the quarter-deck, and play cricket or deck hockey every evening after tea to keep fit."
"And they come into the gun-room when we have a sing-song on guest nights, and kick up a frightful shine. Oh, they're an awful fine lot."
"The Captain is a topper, too. He has us to breakfast in turns."
A third took up the epic. If you have ever heard schoolboys vie with each other to laud and honour the glory of their own particular House among strangers in a strange land, you can imagine much that cannot be conveyed with the pen. There were similar tea parties in various corners of the hotel and in lodgings along the sea-front, but the conversation at all of them ran on much the same lines, and this may be considered a fair sample of the majority.
"He gives a lecture every few days showing what is going on at the front. His brother's a General, and, of course, he gets any amount of tips from him. The brother of one of our Snotties—Karrard—was killed at Mons, and the Captain sent for Karrard (who's rather a kid and felt it awfully) and showed him a letter from the General about Karrard's brother—he had seen him killed—which bucked Karrard up tremendously. In fact, he rather puts on side now, because he's the only one in the gun-room who has lost a brother."
"And you don't wish you were back at Dartmouth again?"
"Dartmouth!" The speaker's voice was almost scornful. "Why, mother. Kedgeree here would have got his First Eleven cap this term if we'd stayed, and even he——"
A small midshipman with remarkable steel-grey eyes, who had not hitherto spoken much, shook his head emphatically and flushed at hearing his nickname pronounced in open conversation ashore. "We were treated like kids there," he explained. "But now——" He jerked his head towards the north with that unfailing sense of the cardinal points of the compass which a seaman acquires in earliest youth, or not at all. Somewhere in that direction the German fleet was presumed to be skulking. "It's different," he ended a little lamely.
Suddenly the son leaned forward and pressed his mother's knee under the table. A tall, sinewy Engineer Commander was walking across the foyer on his way to the billiard room.
"There, mother, that's old Beggs. He had our term at Osborne. Did you see his nose? . . . Captain of England!" . . . The speaker broke off and lifted his head, listening.
Through the doorway opening on to the sea-front there drifted a faint sound, the silvery note of a distant bugle.
"Hush!" said one of the others, raising a warning hand. "Listen!"
At the window of one of the detached houses in the residential part of the town a small Naval Cadet stood with his nose flattened against the window-pane.
"I say, Betty," he ejaculated presently, "they're giving leave to the Fleet. I can see crowds of officers coming ashore."
His sister continued to knit industriously. "Well, I don't suppose any of them are coming here. You needn't get so excited."
Her brother watched the uniformed figures filing along the distant road from the landing place. "I hope this war goes on for another couple of years," he sighed.
"Joe! You mustn't say such dreadful things. You don't know what you're talking about."
"That's all jolly fine, but you haven't got to do another year at Osborne—— I say, Betty, one of them is coming here! How jolly exciting! He's coming up the avenue now. He's got red hair. . . . I believe—yes, it's—what was the name of that Lieutenant at Jack's wedding, d'you remember? The funny man. He made you giggle all the time."
For a moment the knitting appeared to demand his sister's undivided attention; she bent her head over it. "That was a long time ago—before I put my hair up. I'm sure I didn't giggle either. Oh, yes, I think I remember who you mean. Is he coming here? I wonder—come away from the window, Joe!"
The front door bell rang in a distant part of the house; she dropped her knitting on a small side table and walked quietly out of the room. "I'll tell mother," she said as she went out.
"You needn't trouble to do that," said Joe. "She's out—I thought you knew." But the door had closed.
A moment later the Indiarubber Man was ushered in. The two representatives of His Majesty's Navy shook hands. "I recognised you from your photograph," said the host. "D'you remember the wedding group? You were a groomsman when Jack and Milly were married, weren't you?"
"I was," replied the Indiarubber Man. "I performed a number of menial offices that day. But were you there? I don't seem to remember you."
Joe shook his head. "No, I had mumps. Wasn't it rot? It must have been an awful good rag. But I remember about you because Betty told me afterwards—she's my sister, you know. She said you were—oh, here she is."
Betty entered. She cast one swift glance at her brother that might have been intended to convey interrogation or admonition, or both, and then greeted the Indiarubber Man with friendly composure. "How nice of you to come and see us! Mother is out, I'm afraid, but she will probably be in presently. Do sit down. Yes, of course I remember you—Joe, ring the bell, and we'll have tea."
"We were 'opposite numbers' at your brother's wedding," said the Indiarubber Man, taking a seat, and nervously hitching up the legs of his trousers to an unnecessary extent.
"Yes, I remember restraining you with difficulty from going into the garden to eat worms! Nobody——" she broke off abruptly. "What a long time ago that seems!" She laughed quietly and considered him with merriment in her pretty eyes. The Indiarubber Man made a swift mental comparison between the schoolgirl bridesmaid who vied with midshipmen in devouring ices, and his hostess of three years or so later.
"Doesn't it?" he said. For one instant their eyes met, shyly questioning, a little curious. The laughter died out of hers.
"My eldest brother's in the North Sea now. We haven't seen him since the War started."
The Indiarubber Man nodded. "Yes, he's in a battle-cruiser, isn't he? We don't get ashore much either, as a matter of fact. But to-day——" He entered into a lengthy statement of naval policy that led up to his visit and the circumstances connected with it. It was a rather tedious explanation, but it filled in the time till tea arrived, when Betty busied herself among the tea-cups; her brother drew his chair close to their guest, and sat regarding him with breathless expectancy. Was this the side-splitting humorist Betty had talked so much about for months after the wedding—and then abruptly refused to mention again?
Joe experienced a growing sense of disillusionment. There was nothing about the Indiarubber Man's conversation to justify high hopes of laughter-provoking humour. In fact, the guest's general demeanour compared unfavourably with that of the curate—a shy young man, victim (had Joe but known it) of a hopeless and unrequited passion.
Joe handed the Indiarubber Man his cup with the air of one prepared to enjoy at all events the spectacle of a juggling trick with the teaspoon or saucer. The guest's chief concern, however, appeared to be in finding a more secure resting-place for it than his knee, coupled with anxiety not to drop crumbs on the carpet.
Betty, presiding behind the silver tea-tray, had adopted her most grown-up manner. Decidedly it was all Betty's fault, therefore. The most confirmed humorist could hardly be expected to indulge in drolleries in the presence of a girl who stuck her nose in the air and put on enough side for six. It became increasingly obvious that the depressed jester must straightway be removed from this blighting influence or ever the cap and bells would jingle.