As literature, it is beneath contempt. It concerns the endurance, armament, turning-circle, and inner gear of every ship in the British Navy--the whole embellished with profile plates. The Teuton approaches the matter with pagan thoroughness; the Muscovite runs him close; but the Gaul, ever an artist, breaks enclosure to study the morale, at the present day, of the British sailorman.
In this, I conceive, he is from time to time aided by the zealous amateur, though I find very little in his dispositions to show that he relies on that amateur's hard-won information. There exists--unlike some other publication, it is not bound in lead boards--a work by one "M. de C.," based on the absolutely unadorned performances of one of our well-known _Acolyte_ type of cruisers. It contains nothing that did not happen. It covers a period of two days; runs to twenty-seven pages of large type exclusive of appendices; and carries as many exclamation points as the average Dumas novel.
I read it with care, from the adorably finished prologue--it is the disgrace of our Navy that we cannot produce a commissioned officer capable of writing one page of lyric prose--to the eloquent, the joyful, the impassioned end; and my first notion was that I had been cheated. In this sort of book-collecting you will see how entirely the bibliophile lies at the mercy of his agent.
"M. de C.," I read, opened his campaign by stowing away in one of her boats what time H.M.S. _Archimandrite_ lay off Funchal. "M. de C." was, always on behalf of his country, a Madeira Portuguese fleeing from the conscription. They discovered him eighty miles at sea and bade him assist the cook. So far this seemed fairly reasonable. Next day, thanks to his histrionic powers and his ingratiating address, he was promoted to the rank of "supernumerary captain's servant"--a "post which," I give his words, "I flatter myself, was created for me alone, and furnished me with opportunities unequalled for a task in which one word malapropos would have been my destruction."
From this point onward, earth and water between them held no marvels like to those "M. de C." had "envisaged"--if I translate him correctly. It became clear to me that "M. de C." was either a pyramidal liar, or...
I was not acquainted with any officer, seaman, or marine in the _Archimandrite_; but instinct told me I could not go far wrong if I took a third-class ticket to Plymouth.
I gathered information on the way from a leading stoker, two seaman- gunners, and an odd hand in a torpedo factory. They courteously set my feet on the right path, and that led me through the alleys of Devonport to a public-house not fifty yards from the water. We drank with the proprietor, a huge, yellowish man called Tom Wessels; and when my guides had departed, I asked if he could produce any warrant or petty officer of the _Archimandrite_.
"The _Bedlamite_, d'you mean--'er last commission, when they all went crazy?"
"Shouldn't wonder," I replied. "Fetch me a sample and I'll see."
"You'll excuse me, o' course, but--what d'you want 'im _for?_"
"I want to make him drunk. I want to make you drunk--if you like. I want to make him drunk here."
"Spoke very 'andsome. I'll do what I can." He went out towards the water that lapped at the foot of the street. I gathered from the pot-boy that he was a person of influence beyond Admirals.
In a few minutes I heard the noise of an advancing crowd, and the voice of Mr. Wessels.
"'E only wants to make you drunk at 'is expense. Dessay 'e'll stand you all a drink. Come up an' look at 'im. 'E don't bite."
A square man, with remarkable eyes, entered at the head of six large bluejackets. Behind them gathered a contingent of hopeful free-drinkers.
"'E's the only one I could get. Transferred to the _Postulant_ six months back. I found 'im quite accidental." Mr. Wessels beamed.
"I'm in charge o' the cutter. Our wardroom is dinin' on the beach _en masse_. They won't be home till mornin'," said the square man with the remarkable eyes. "Are you an _Archimandrite?_" I demanded.
"That's me. I was, as you might say."
"Hold on. I'm a _Archimandrite._" A Red Marine with moist eyes tried to climb on the table. "Was you lookin' for a _Bedlamite?_ I've--I've been invalided, an' what with that, an' visitin' my family 'ome at Lewes, per'aps I've come late. 'Ave I?"
"You've 'ad all that's good for you," said Tom Wessels, as the Red Marine sat cross-legged on the floor.
"There are those 'oo haven't 'ad a thing yet!" cried a voice by the door.
"I will take this _Archimandrite_" I said, "and this Marine. Will you please give the boat's crew a drink now, and another in half an hour if-- if Mr.----"
"Pyecroft," said the square man. "Emanuel Pyecroft, second-class petty- officer."
"--Mr. Pyecroft doesn't object?"
"He don't. Clear out. Goldin', you picket the hill by yourself, throwin' out a skirmishin'-line in ample time to let me know when Number One's comin' down from his vittles."
The crowd dissolved. We passed into the quiet of the inner bar, the Red Marine zealously leading the way.
"And what do you drink, Mr. Pyecroft?" I said.
"Only water. Warm water, with a little whisky an' sugar an' per'aps a lemon."
"Mine's beer," said the Marine. "It always was."
"Look 'ere, Glass. You take an' go to sleep. The picket'll be comin' for you in a little time, an' per'aps you'll 'ave slep' it off by then. What's your ship, now?" said Mr. Wessels.
"The Ship o' State--most important?" said the Red Marine magnificently, and shut his eyes.
"That's right," said Mr. Pyecroft. "He's safest where he is. An' now-- here's santy to us all!--what d'you want o' me?"
"I want to read you something."
"Tracts, again!" said the Marine, never opening his eyes. "Well. I'm game.... A little more 'ead to it, miss, please."
"He thinks 'e's drinkin'--lucky beggar!" said Mr. Pyecroft. "I'm agreeable to be read to. 'Twon't alter my convictions. I may as well tell you beforehand I'm a Plymouth Brother."
He composed his face with the air of one in the dentist's chair, and I began at the third page of "M. de C."
"'_At the moment of asphyxiation, for I had hidden myself under the boat's cover, I heard footsteps upon the superstructure and coughed with empress_'--coughed loudly, Mr. Pyecroft. '_By this time I judged the vessel to be sufficiently far from land. A number of sailors extricated me amid language appropriate to their national brutality. I responded that I named myself Antonio, and that I sought to save myself from the Portuguese conscription_.'
"Ho!" said Mr. Pyecroft, and the fashion of his countenance changed. Then pensively: "Ther beggar! What might you have in your hand there?"
"It's the story of Antonio--a stowaway in the _Archimandrite's_ cutter. A French spy when he's at home, I fancy. What do _you_ know about it?"
"An' I thought it was tracts! An' yet some'ow I didn't." Mr. Pyecroft nodded his head wonderingly. "Our old man was quite right--so was 'Op--so was I. 'Ere, Glass!" He kicked the Marine. "Here's our Antonio 'as written a impromptu book! He _was_ a spy all right."
The Red Marine turned slightly, speaking with the awful precision of the half-drunk. "'As 'e got any-thin' in about my 'orrible death an' execution? Ex_cuse_ me, but if I open my eyes, I shan't be well. That's where I'm different from _all_ other men. Ahem!"
"What about Glass's execution?" demanded Pyecroft.
"The book's in French," I replied.
"Then it's no good to me."
"Precisely. Now I want you to tell your story just as it happened. I'll check it by this book. Take a cigar. I know about his being dragged out of the cutter. What I want to know is what was the meaning of all the other things, because they're unusual."
"They were," said Mr. Pyecroft with emphasis. "Lookin' back on it as I set here more an' more I see what an 'ighly unusual affair it was. But it happened. It transpired in the _Archimandrite_--the ship you can trust... Antonio! Ther beggar!"
"Take your time, Mr. Pyecroft."
In a few moments we came to it thus--
"The old man was displeased. I don't deny he was quite a little displeased. With the mail-boats trottin' into Madeira every twenty minutes, he didn't see why a lop-eared Portugee had to take liberties with a man-o'-war's first cutter. Any'ow, we couldn't turn ship round for him. We drew him out and took him out to Number One. 'Drown 'im,' 'e says. 'Drown 'im before 'e dirties my fine new decks.' But our owner was tenderhearted. 'Take him to the galley,' 'e says. 'Boil 'im! Skin 'im! Cook 'im! Cut 'is bloomin' hair? Take 'is bloomin' number! We'll have him executed at Ascension.'
"Retallick, our chief cook, an' a Carth'lic, was the on'y one any way near grateful; bein' short-'anded in the galley. He annexes the blighter by the left ear an' right foot an' sets him to work peelin' potatoes. So then, this Antonio that was avoidin' the conscription--"
"_Sub_scription, you pink-eyed matlow!" said the Marine, with the face of a stone Buddha, and whimpered sadly: "Pye don't see any fun in it at all."
"_Con_scription--come to his illegitimate sphere in Her Majesty's Navy, an' it was just then that Old 'Op, our Yeoman of Signals, an' a fastidious joker, made remarks to me about 'is hands.
"'Those 'ands,' says 'Op, 'properly considered, never done a day's honest labour in their life. Tell me those hands belong to a blighted Portugee manual labourist and I won't call you a liar, but I'll say you an' the Admiralty are pretty much unique in your statements.' 'Op was always a fastidious joker--in his language as much as anything else. He pursued 'is investigations with the eye of an 'awk outside the galley. He knew better than to advance line-head against Retallick, so he attacked _ong eshlong_, speakin' his remarks as much as possible into the breech of the starboard four point seven, an' 'ummin' to 'imself. Our chief cook 'ated 'ummin'. 'What's the matter of your bowels?' he says at last, fistin' out the mess- pork agitated like. "'Don't mind me,' says 'Op. 'I'm only a mildewed buntin'-tosser,' 'e says: 'but speakin' for my mess, I do hope,' 'e says, 'you ain't goin' to boil your Portugee friend's boots along o' that pork you're smellin' so gay!'
"'Boots! Boots! Boots!' says Retallick, an' he run round like a earwig in a alder-stalk. 'Boots in the galley,' 'e says. 'Cook's mate, cast out an' abolish this cutter-cuddlin' abori_gine's_ boots!'"
"They was hove overboard in quick time, an' that was what 'Op was lyin' to for. As subsequently transpired.
"'Fine Arab arch to that cutter-cuddler's hinstep,' he says to me. 'Run your eye over it, Pye,' 'e says. 'Nails all present an' correct,' 'e says. 'Bunion on the little toe, too,' 'e says; 'which comes from wearin' a tight boot. What do _you_ think?'
"'Dook in trouble, per'aps,' I says. 'He ain't got the hang of spud- skinnin'.' No more he 'ad. 'E was simply cannibalisin' 'em.
"'I want to know what 'e 'as got the 'ang of,' says 'Op, obstructed-like. 'Watch 'im,' 'e says. 'These shoulders were foreign-drilled somewhere.'
'"When it comes to "Down 'ammicks!" which is our naval way o' goin' to bye-bye, I took particular trouble over Antonio, 'oo had 'is 'ammick 'ove at 'im with general instructions to sling it an' be sugared. In the ensuin' melly I pioneered him to the after-'atch, which is a orifice communicatin' with the after-flat an' similar suites of apartments. He havin' navigated at three fifths power immejit ahead o' me, _I_ wasn't goin' to volunteer any assistance, nor he didn't need it.'
"'Mong Jew!' says 'e, sniffin' round. An' twice more 'Mong Jew!'--which is pure French. Then he slings 'is 'ammick, nips in, an' coils down. 'Not bad for a Portugee conscript,' I says to myself, casts off the tow, abandons him, and reports to 'Op.
"About three minutes later I'm over'auled by our sub-lootenant, navigatin' under forced draught, with his bearin's 'eated. 'E had the temerity to say I'd instructed our Antonio to sling his carcass in the alleyway, an' 'e was peevish about it. O' course, I prevaricated like 'ell. You get to do that in the service. Nevertheless, to oblige Mr. Ducane, I went an' readjusted Antonio. You may not 'ave ascertained that there are two ways o' comin' out of an 'ammick when it's cut down. Antonio came out t'other way--slidin' 'andsome to his feet. That showed me two things. First, 'e had been in an 'ammick before, an' next, he hadn't been asleep. Then I reproached 'im for goin' to bed where 'e'd been told to go, instead o' standin' by till some one gave him entirely contradictory orders. Which is the essence o' naval discipline.
"In the middle o' this argument the gunner protrudes his ram-bow from 'is cabin, an' brings it all to an 'urried conclusion with some remarks suitable to 'is piebald warrant-rank. Navigatin' thence under easy steam, an' leavin' Antonio to re-sling his little foreign self, my large flat foot comes in detonatin' contact with a small objec' on the deck. Not 'altin' for the obstacle, nor changin' step, I shuffles it along under the ball of the big toe to the foot o' the hatchway, when, lightly stoopin', I catch it in my right hand and continue my evolutions in rapid time till I eventuates under 'Op's lee.
"It was a small moroccer-bound pocket-book, full of indelible pencil- writin'--in French, for I could plainly discern the _doodeladays_, which is about as far as my education runs.
"'Op fists it open and peruses. 'E'd known an 'arf-caste Frenchwoman pretty intricate before he was married; when he was trained man in a stinkin' gunboat up the Saigon River. He understood a lot o' French-- domestic brands chiefly--the kind that isn't in print.
"'Pye,' he says to me, 'you're a tattician o' no mean value. I am a trifle shady about the precise bearin' an' import' o' this beggar's private log here,' 'e says, 'but it's evidently a case for the owner. You'll 'ave your share o' the credit,' 'e says.
"'Nay, nay, Pauline,' I says, 'You don't catch Emanuel Pyecroft mine- droppin' under any post-captain's bows,' I says, 'in search of honour,' I says. 'I've been there oft.'
"'Well, if you must, you must,' 'e says, takin' me up quick. 'But I'll speak a good word for you, Pye.'
"'You'll shut your mouth, 'Op,' I says, 'or you an' me'll part brass-rags. The owner has his duties, an' I have mine. We will keep station,' I says, 'nor seek to deviate.'
"'Deviate to blazes!' says 'Op. 'I'm goin' to deviate to the owner's comfortable cabin direct.' So he deviated."
Mr. Pyecroft leaned forward and dealt the Marine a large pattern Navy kick. "'Ere, Glass! You was sentry when 'Op went to the old man--the first time, with Antonio's washin'-book. Tell us what transpired. You're sober. You don't know how sober you are!"
The Marine cautiously raised his head a few inches. As Mr. Pyecroft said, he was sober--after some R.M.L.I. fashion of his own devising. "'Op bounds in like a startled anteloper, carryin' 'is signal-slate at the ready. The old man was settin' down to 'is bountiful platter--not like you an' me, without anythin' more in sight for an 'ole night an' 'arf a day. Talkin' about food--"
"No! No! No!" cried Pyecroft, kicking again. "What about 'Op?" I thought the Marine's ribs would have snapped, but he merely hiccuped.
"Oh, 'im! 'E 'ad it written all down on 'is little slate--I think--an' 'e shoves it under the old man's nose. 'Shut the door,' says 'Op. 'For 'Eavin's sake shut the cabin door!' Then the old man must ha' said somethin' 'bout irons. 'I'll put 'em on, Sir, in your very presence,' says 'Op, 'only 'ear my prayer,' or--words to that 'fect.... It was jus' the same with me when I called our Sergeant a bladder-bellied, lard-'eaded, perspirin' pension-cheater. They on'y put on the charge-sheet 'words to that effect,' Spoiled the 'ole 'fect."
"'Op! 'Op! 'Op! What about 'Op?" thundered Pyecroft.
"'Op? Oh, shame thing. Words t' that 'fect. Door shut. Nushin' more transphired till 'Op comes out--nose exshtreme angle plungin' fire or--or words 'that effect. Proud's parrot. 'Oh, you prou' old parrot,' I says."
Mr. Glass seemed to slumber again.
"Lord! How a little moisture disintegrates, don't it? When we had ship's theatricals off Vigo, Glass 'ere played Dick Deadeye to the moral, though of course the lower deck wasn't pleased to see a leatherneck interpretin' a strictly maritime part, as you might say. It's only his repartees, which 'e can't contain, that conquers him. Shall I resume my narrative?"
Another drink was brought on this hint, and Mr. Pyecroft resumed.
"The essence o' strategy bein' forethought, the essence o' tattics is surprise. Per'aps you didn't know that? My forethought 'avin' secured the initial advantage in attack, it remained for the old man to ladle out the surprise-packets. 'Eavens! What surprises! That night he dines with the wardroom, bein' of the kind--I've told you as we were a 'appy ship?--that likes it, and the wardroom liked it too. This ain't common in the service. They had up the new Madeira--awful undisciplined stuff which gives you a cordite mouth next morning. They told the mess-men to navigate towards the extreme an' remote 'orizon, an' they abrogated the sentry about fifteen paces out of earshot. Then they had in the Gunner, the Bo'sun, an' the Carpenter, an' stood them large round drinks. It all come out later-- wardroom joints bein' lower-deck hash, as the sayin' is--that our Number One stuck to it that 'e couldn't trust the ship for the job. The old man swore 'e could, 'avin' commanded 'er over two years. He was right. There wasn't a ship, I don't care in what fleet, could come near the _Archimandrites_ when we give our mind to a thing. We held the cruiser big-gun records, the sailing-cutter (fancy-rig) championship, an' the challenge-cup row round the fleet. We 'ad the best nigger-minstrels, the best football an' cricket teams, an' the best squee-jee band of anything that ever pushed in front of a brace o' screws. An' _yet_ our Number One mistrusted us! 'E said we'd be a floatin' hell in a week, an' it 'ud take the rest o' the commission to stop our way. They was arguin' it in the wardroom when the bridge reports a light three points off the port bow. We overtakes her, switches on our search-light, an' she discloses herself as a collier o' no mean reputation, makin' about seven knots on 'er lawful occasions--to the Cape most like.
"Then the owner--so we 'eard in good time--broke the boom, springin' all mines together at close interval.
"'Look 'ere, my jokers,' 'e says (I'm givin' the grist of 'is arguments, remember), 'Number One says we can't enlighten this cutter-cuddlin Gaulish lootenant on the manners an' customs o' the Navy without makin' the ship a market-garden. There's a lot in that,' 'e says, 'specially if we kept it up lavish, till we reached Ascension. But,' 'e says, 'the appearance o' this strange sail has put a totally new aspect on the game. We can run to just one day's amusement for our friend, or else what's the good o' discipline? An' then we can turn 'im over to our presumably short-'anded fellow-subject in the small-coal line out yonder. He'll be pleased,' says the old man, 'an' so will Antonio. M'rover,' he says to Number One, 'I'll lay you a dozen o' liquorice an' ink'--it must ha' been that new tawny port--'that I've got a ship I can trust--for one day,' 'e says. 'Wherefore,' he says, 'will you have the extreme goodness to reduce speed as requisite for keepin' a proper distance behind this providential tramp till further orders?' Now, that's what I call tattics.
"The other manoeuvres developed next day, strictly in accordance with the plans as laid down in the wardroom, where they sat long an' steady. 'Op whispers to me that Antonio was a Number One spy when 'e was in commission, and a French lootenant when 'e was paid off, so I navigated at three 'undred and ninety six revolutions to the galley, never 'avin' kicked a lootenant up to date. I may as well say that I did not manoeuvre against 'im as a Frenchman, because I like Frenchmen, but stric'ly on 'is rank an' ratin' in 'is own navy. I inquired after 'is health from Retallick.
"'Don't ask me,' 'e says, sneerin' be'ind his silver spectacles. ''E's promoted to be captain's second supernumerary servant, to be dressed and addressed as such. If 'e does 'is dooties same as he skinned the spuds, _I_ ain't for changin' with the old man.'
"In the balmy dawnin' it was given out, all among the 'olystones, by our sub-lootenant, who was a three-way-discharge devil, that all orders after eight bells was to be executed in inverse ration to the cube o' the velocity. 'The reg'lar routine,' he says, 'was arrogated for reasons o' state an' policy, an' any flat-foot who presumed to exhibit surprise, annoyance, or amusement, would be slightly but firmly reproached.' Then the Gunner mops up a heathenish large detail for some hanky-panky in the magazines, an' led 'em off along with our Gunnery Jack, which is to say, our Gunnery Lootenant.
"That put us on the _viva voce_--particularly when we understood how the owner was navigatin' abroad in his sword-belt trustin' us like brothers. We shifts into the dress o' the day, an' we musters _an'_ we prays _ong reggle_, an' we carries on anticipatory to bafflin' Antonio.
"Then our Sergeant of Marines come to me wringin' his 'ands an' weepin'. 'E'd been talkin' to the sub-lootenant, an' it looked like as if his upper-works were collapsin'.
"'I want a guarantee,' 'e says, wringin' 'is 'ands like this. '_I_ 'aven't 'ad sunstroke slave-dhowin' in Tajurrah Bay, an' been compelled to live on quinine an' chlorodyne ever since. _I_ don't get the horrors off glasses o' brown sherry.'
"'What 'ave you got now?' I says.
"'_I_ ain't an officer,' 'e says. '_My_ sword won't be handed back to me at the end o' the court-martial on account o' my little weaknesses, an' no stain on my character. I'm only a pore beggar of a Red Marine with eighteen years' service, an' why for,' says he, wringin' 'is hands like this all the time, 'must I chuck away my pension, sub-lootenant or no sub-lootenant? Look at 'em,' he says, 'only look at 'em. Marines fallin' in for small-arm drill!'
"The leathernecks was layin' aft at the double, an' a more insanitary set of accidents I never wish to behold. Most of 'em was in their shirts. They had their trousers on, of course--rolled up nearly to the knee, but what I mean is belts over shirts. Three or four 'ad _our_ caps, an' them that had drawn helmets wore their chin-straps like Portugee earrings. Oh, yes; an' three of 'em 'ad only one boot! I knew what our bafflin' tattics was goin' to be, but even I was mildly surprised when this gay fantasia of Brazee drummers halted under the poop, because of an 'ammick in charge of our Navigator, an' a small but 'ighly efficient landin'-party.
"''Ard astern both screws!' says the Navigator. 'Room for the captain's 'ammick!' The captain's servant--Cockburn 'is name was--had one end, an' our newly promoted Antonio, in a blue slop rig, 'ad the other. They slung it from the muzzle of the port poop quick-firer thort-ships to a stanchion. Then the old man flickered up, smokin' a cigarette, an' brought 'is stern to an anchor slow an' oriental.
"'What a blessin' it is, Mr. Ducane,' 'e says to our sub-lootenant, 'to be out o' sight o' the 'ole pack o' blighted admirals! What's an admiral after all?' 'e says. 'Why, 'e's only a post-captain with the pip, Mr. Ducane. The drill will now proceed. What O! Antonio, _descendez_ an' get me a split.'
"When Antonio came back with the whisky-an'-soda, he was told off to swing the 'ammick in slow time, an' that massacritin' small-arm party went on with their oratorio. The Sergeant had been kindly excused from participating an' he was jumpin' round on the poop-ladder, stretchin' 'is leather neck to see the disgustin' exhibition an' cluckin' like a ash- hoist. A lot of us went on the fore an' aft bridge an' watched 'em like 'Listen to the Band in the Park.' All these evolutions, I may as well tell you, are highly unusual in the Navy. After ten minutes o' muckin' about, Glass 'ere--pity 'e's so drunk!--says that 'e'd had enough exercise for 'is simple needs an' he wants to go 'ome. Mr. Ducane catches him a sanakatowzer of a smite over the 'ead with the flat of his sword. Down comes Glass's rifle with language to correspond, and he fiddles with the bolt. Up jumps Maclean--'oo was a Gosport 'ighlander--an' lands on Glass's neck, thus bringin' him to the deck, fully extended.
"The old man makes a great show o' wakin' up from sweet slumbers. 'Mistah Ducane,' he says, 'what is this painful interregnum?' or words to that effect. Ducane takes one step to the front, an' salutes: 'Only 'nother case of attempted assassination, Sir,' he says.
"'Is that all?' says the old man, while Maclean sits on Glass's collar button. 'Take him away,' 'e says, 'he knows the penalty.'"
"Ah! I suppose that is the 'invincible _morgue_ Britannic in the presence of brutally provoked mutiny,'" I muttered, as I turned over the pages of M. de C.
"So, Glass, 'e was led off kickin' an' squealin', an' hove down the ladder into 'is Sergeant's volupshus arms. 'E run Glass forward, an' was all for puttin' 'im in irons as a maniac.
"'You refill your waterjacket and cool off!' says Glass, sittin' down rather winded. 'The trouble with you is you haven't any imagination.'
"'Haven't I? I've got the remnants of a little poor authority though,' 'e says, lookin' pretty vicious.
"'You 'ave?' says Glass. 'Then for pity's sake 'ave some proper feelin' too. I'm goin' to be shot this evenin'. You'll take charge o' the firin'- party.'
"Some'ow or other, that made the Sergeant froth at the mouth. 'E 'ad no more play to his intellects than a spit-kid. 'E just took everything as it come. Well, that was about all, I think.... Unless you'd care to have me resume my narrative."
We resumed on the old terms, but with rather less hot water. The marine on the floor breathed evenly, and Mr. Pyecroft nodded.
"I may have omitted to inform you that our Number One took a general row round the situation while the small-arm party was at work, an' o' course he supplied the outlines; but the details we coloured in by ourselves. These were our tattics to baffle Antonio. It occurs to the Carpenter to 'ave the steam-cutter down for repairs. 'E gets 'is cheero-party together, an' down she comes. You've never seen a steam-cutter let down on the deck, 'ave you? It's not usual, an' she takes a lot o' humourin'. Thus we 'ave the starboard side completely blocked an' the general traffic tricklin' over'ead along the fore-an'-aft bridge. Then Chips gets into her an' begins balin' out a mess o' small reckonin's on the deck. Simultaneous there come up three o' those dirty engine-room objects which we call 'tiffies,' an' a stoker or two with orders to repair her steamin'-gadgets. _They_ get into her an' bale out another young Christmas-treeful of small reckonin's--brass mostly. Simultaneous it hits the Pusser that 'e'd better serve out mess pork for the poor matlow. These things half shifted Retallick, our chief cook, off 'is bed-plate. Yes, you might say they broke 'im wide open. 'E wasn't at all used to 'em.
"Number One tells off five or six prime, able-bodied seamen-gunners to the pork barrels. You never see pork fisted out of its receptacle, 'ave you? Simultaneous, it hits the Gunner that now's the day an' now's the hour for a non-continuous class in Maxim instruction. So they all give way together, and the general effect was _non plus ultra_. There was the cutter's innards spread out like a Fratton pawnbroker's shop; there was the 'tiffies' hammerin' in the stern of 'er, an' _they_ ain't antiseptic; there was the Maxim class in light skirmishin' order among the pork, an' forrard the blacksmith had 'is forge in full blast, makin' 'orse-shoes, I suppose. Well, that accounts for the starboard side. The on'y warrant officer 'oo hadn't a look in so far was the Bosun. So 'e stated, all out of 'is own 'ead, that Chips's reserve o' wood an' timber, which Chips 'ad stole at our last refit, needed restowin'. It was on the port booms--a young an' healthy forest of it, for Charley Peace wasn't to be named 'longside o' Chips for burglary.
"'All right,' says our Number One. 'You can 'ave the whole port watch if you like. Hell's Hell,' 'e says, 'an when there study to improve.'
"Jarvis was our Bosun's name. He hunted up the 'ole of the port watch by hand, as you might say, callin' 'em by name loud an' lovin', which is not precisely Navy makee-pigeon. They 'ad that timber-loft off the booms, an' they dragged it up and down like so many sweatin' little beavers. But Jarvis was jealous o' Chips an' went round the starboard side to envy at him.
"'Tain't enough,' 'e says, when he had climbed back. 'Chips 'as got his bazaar lookin' like a coal-hulk in a cyclone. We must adop' more drastic measures.' Off 'e goes to Number One and communicates with 'im. Number One got the old man's leave, on account of our goin' so slow (we were keepin' be'ind the tramp), to fit the ship with a full set of patent supernumerary sails. Four trysails--yes, you might call 'em trysails--was our Admiralty allowance in the un'eard of event of a cruiser breakin' down, but we had our awnin's as well. They was all extricated from the various flats an' 'oles where they was stored, an' at the end o' two hours' hard work Number One 'e made out eleven sails o' different sorts and sizes. I don't know what exact nature of sail you'd call 'em--pyjama-stun'sles with a touch of Sarah's shimmy, per'aps--but the riggin' of 'em an' all the supernumerary details, as you might say, bein' carried on through an' over an' between the cutter an' the forge an' the pork an' cleanin' guns, an' the Maxim class an' the Bosun's calaboose _and_ the paintwork, was sublime. There's no other word for it. Sub-lime!
"The old man keeps swimmin' up an' down through it all with the faithful Antonio at 'is side, fetchin' him numerous splits. 'E had eight that mornin', an' when Antonio was detached to get 'is spy-glass, or his gloves, or his lily-white 'andkerchief, the old man man would waste 'em down a ventilator. Antonio must ha' learned a lot about our Navy thirst."
"Ah! Would you kindly mind turnin' to the precise page indicated an' givin' me a _resume_ of 'is tattics?" said Mr. Pyecroft, drinking deeply. "I'd like to know 'ow it looked from 'is side o' the deck."
"How will this do?" I said. "'_Once clear of the land, like Voltaire's Habakkuk_------"'
"One o' their new commerce-destroyers, I suppose," Mr. Pyecroft interjected.
"'--_each man seemed veritably capable of all--to do according to his will. The boats, dismantled and forlorn, are lowered upon the planking. One cries "Aid me!" flourishing at the same time the weapons of his business. A dozen launch themselves upon him in the orgasm of zeal misdirected. He beats them off with the howlings of dogs. He has lost a hammer. This ferocious outcry signifies that only. Eight men seek the utensil, colliding on the way with some many others which, seated in the stern of the boat, tear up and scatter upon the planking the ironwork which impedes their brutal efforts. Elsewhere, one detaches from on high wood, canvas, iron bolts, coal-dust--what do I know_?'"
"That's where 'e's comin' the bloomin' _onjeuew_. 'E knows a lot, reely."
"'_They descend thundering upon the planking, and the spectacle cannot reproduce itself. In my capacity of valet to the captain, whom I have well and beautifully plied with drink since the rising of the sun (behold me also, Ganymede!) I pass throughout observing, it may be not a little. They ask orders. There is none to give them. One sits upon the edge of the vessel and chants interminably the lugubrious "Roule Britannia"--to endure how lomg_?'"
"That was me! On'y 'twas 'A Life on the Ocean Wave'--which I hate more than any stinkin' tune I know, havin' dragged too many nasty little guns to it. Yes, Number One told me off to that for ten minutes; an' I ain't musical, you might say."
"_'Then come marines, half-dressed, seeking vainly through this "tohu- bohu_"' (that's one of his names for the _Archimandrite_, Mr. Pyecroft), '_for a place whence they shall not be dislodged. The captain, heavy with drink, rolls himself from his hammock. He would have his people fire the Maxims. They demand which Maxim. That to him is equal. The breech-lock indispensable is not there. They demand it of one who opens a barrel of pork, for this Navy feeds at all hours. He refers them to the cook, yesterday my master_--'"
"Yes, an' Retallick nearly had a fit. What a truthful an' observin' little Antonio we 'ave!"
"'_It is discovered in the hands of a boy who says, and they do not rebuke him, that he has found it by hazard_.' I'm afraid I haven't translated quite correctly, Mr. Pyecroft, but I've done my best."
"Why, it's beautiful--you ought to be a Frenchman--you ought. You don't want anything o' _me_. You've got it all there."
"Yes, but I like your side of it. For instance. Here's a little thing I can't quite see the end of. Listen! '_Of the domain which Britannia rules by sufferance, my gross captain, knew nothing, and his Navigator, if possible, less. From the bestial recriminations and the indeterminate chaos of the grand deck, I ascended--always with a whisky-and-soda in my hands--to a scene truly grotesque. Behold my captain in plain sea, at issue with his Navigator! A crisis of nerves due to the enormous quantity of alcohol which he had swallowed up to then, has filled for him the ocean with dangers, imaginary and fantastic. Incapable of judgment, menaced by the phantasms of his brain inflamed, he envisages islands perhaps of the Hesperides beneath his keel--vigias innumerable.'_ I don't know what a vigia is, Mr. Pyecroft. _'He creates shoals sad and far-reaching of the mid-Atlantic!'_ What was that, now?"
"Oh, I see! That come after dinner, when our Navigator threw 'is cap down an' danced on it. Danby was quartermaster. They 'ad a tea-party on the bridge. It was the old man's contribution. Does he say anything about the leadsmen?"
"Is this it? _'Overborne by his superior's causeless suspicion, the Navigator took off the badges of his rank and cast them at the feet of my captain and sobbed. A disgusting and maudlin reconciliation followed. The argument renewed itself, each grasping the wheel, crapulous'_ (that means drunk, I think, Mr. Pyecroft), _'shouting. It appeared that my captain would chenaler'_ (I don't know what that means, Mr. Pyecroft) _'to the Cape. At the end, he placed a sailor with the sound'_ (that's the lead, I think) _'in his hand, garnished with suet.'_ Was it garnished with suet?"
"He put two leadsmen in the chains, o' course! He didn't know that there mightn't be shoals there, 'e said. Morgan went an' armed his lead, to enter into the spirit o' the thing. They 'eaved it for twenty minutes, but there wasn't any suet--only tallow, o' course."
"'_Garnished with suet at two thousand metres of profundity. Decidedly the Britannic Navy is well guarded_.' Well, that's all right, Mr. Pyecroft. Would you mind telling me anything else of interest that happened?"
"There was a good deal, one way an' another. I'd like to know what this Antonio thought of our sails."
"He merely says that '_the engines having broken down, an officer extemporised a mournful and useless parody of sails_.' Oh, yes! he says that some of them looked like '_bonnets in a needlecase_,' I think."
"Bonnets in a needlecase! They were stun'sles. That shows the beggar's no sailor. That trick was really the one thing we did. Pho! I thought he was a sailorman, an' 'e hasn't sense enough to see what extemporisin' eleven good an' drawin' sails out o' four trys'les an' a few awnin's means. 'E must have been drunk!"
"Never mind, Mr. Pyecroft. I want to hear about your target-practice, and the execution."
"Oh! We had a special target-practice that afternoon all for Antonio. As I told my crew--me bein' captain of the port-bow quick-firer, though I'm a torpedo man now--it just showed how you can work your gun under any discomforts. A shell--twenty six-inch shells--burstin' inboard couldn't 'ave begun to make the varicose collection o' tit-bits which we had spilled on our deck. It was a lather--a rich, creamy lather!
"We took it very easy--that gun-practice. We did it in a complimentary 'Jenny-'ave-another-cup-o' tea' style, an' the crew was strictly ordered not to rupture 'emselves with unnecessary exertion. This isn't our custom in the Navy when we're _in puris naturalibus_, as you might say. But we wasn't so then. We was impromptu. An' Antonio was busy fetchin' splits for the old man, and the old man was wastin' 'em down the ventilators. There must 'ave been four inches in the bilges, I should think--wardroom whisky- an'-soda.
"Then I thought I might as well bear a hand as look pretty. So I let my _bundoop_ go at fifteen 'undred--sightin' very particular. There was a sort of 'appy little belch like--no more, I give you my word--an' the shell trundled out maybe fifty feet an' dropped into the deep Atlantic.
"'Government powder, Sir!' sings out our Gunnery Jack to the bridge, laughin' horrid sarcastic; an' then, of course, we all laughs, which we are not encouraged to do _in puris naturalibus_. Then, of course, I saw what our Gunnery Jack 'ad been after with his subcutaneous details in the magazines all the mornin' watch. He had redooced the charges to a minimum, as you might say. But it made me feel a trifle faint an' sickish notwithstanding this spit-in-the-eye business. Every time such transpired, our Gunnery Lootenant would say somethin' sarcastic about Government stores, an' the old man fair howled. 'Op was on the bridge with 'im, an' 'e told me--'cause 'e's a free-knowledgeist an' reads character--that Antonio's face was sweatin' with pure joy. 'Op wanted to kick him. Does Antonio say anything about that?"
"Not about the kicking, but he is great on the gun-practice, Mr. Pyecroft. He has put all the results into a sort of appendix--a table of shots. He says that the figures will speak more eloquently than words."
"What? Nothin' about the way the crews flinched an' hopped? Nothin' about the little shells rumblin' out o' the guns so casual?"
"There are a few pages of notes, but they only bear out what you say. He says that these things always happen as soon as one of our ships is out of sight of land. Oh, yes! I've forgotten. He says, _'From the conversation of my captain with his inferiors I gathered that no small proportion of the expense of these nominally efficient cartridges finds itself in his pockets. So much, indeed, was signified by an officer on the deck below, who cried in a high voice: "I hope, Sir, you are making something out of it. It is rather monotonous." This insult, so flagrant, albeit well- merited, was received with a smile of drunken bonhommy'_--that's cheerfulness, Mr. Pyecroft. Your glass is empty."
"Resumin' afresh," said Mr. Pyecroft, after a well-watered interval, "I may as well say that the target-practice occupied us two hours, and then we had to dig out after the tramp. Then we half an' three-quarters cleaned up the decks an' mucked about as requisite, haulin' down the patent awnin' stun'sles which Number One 'ad made. The old man was a shade doubtful of his course, 'cause I 'eard him say to Number One, 'You were right. A week o' this would turn the ship into a Hayti bean-feast. But,' he says pathetic, 'haven't they backed the band noble?'
"'Oh! it's a picnic for them,' says Number One.
"'But when do we get rid o' this whisky-peddlin' blighter o' yours, Sir?'
"'That's a cheerful way to speak of a Viscount,' says the old man. "E's the bluest blood o' France when he's at home,'
"'Which is the precise landfall I wish 'im to make,' says Number One.' It'll take all 'ands and the Captain of the Head to clean up after 'im.'
"'They won't grudge it,' says the old man. 'Just as soon as it's dusk we'll overhaul our tramp friend an' waft him over,'
"Then a sno--midshipman--Moorshed was is name--come up an' says somethin' in a low voice. It fetches the old man.
"'You'll oblige me,' 'e says, 'by takin' the wardroom poultry for _that_. I've ear-marked every fowl we've shipped at Madeira, so there can't be any possible mistake. M'rover,' 'e says, 'tell 'em if they spill one drop of blood on the deck,' he says, 'they'll not be extenuated, but hung.'
"Mr. Moorshed goes forward, lookin' unusual 'appy, even for him. The Marines was enjoyin' a committee-meetin' in their own flat.
"After that, it fell dark, with just a little streaky, oily light on the sea--an' any thin' more chronic than the _Archimandrite_ I'd trouble you to behold. She looked like a fancy bazaar and a auction-room--yes, she almost looked like a passenger-steamer. We'd picked up our tramp, an' was about four mile be'ind 'er. I noticed the wardroom as a class, you might say, was manoeuvrin' _en masse_, an' then come the order to cockbill the yards. We hadn't any yards except a couple o' signallin' sticks, but we cock-billed 'em. I hadn't seen that sight, not since thirteen years in the West Indies, when a post-captain died o' yellow jack. It means a sign o' mourning the yards bein' canted opposite ways, to look drunk an' disorderly. They do.
"'An' what might our last giddy-go-round signify?' I asks of 'Op.
"'Good 'Evins!' 'e says, 'Are you in that habit o' permittin' leathernecks to assassinate lootenants every morning at drill without immejitly 'avin' 'em shot on the foc'sle in the horrid crawly-crawly twilight?'"
"'Yes,' I murmured over my dear book, '_the infinitely lugubrious crepuscule. A spectacle of barbarity unparalleled--hideous--cold-blooded, and yet touched with appalling grandeur_.'"
"Ho! Was that the way Antonio looked at it? That shows he 'ad feelin's. To resoom. Without anyone givin' us orders to that effect, we began to creep about an' whisper. Things got stiller and stiller, till they was as still as--mushrooms! Then the bugler let off the 'Dead March' from the upper bridge. He done it to cover the remarks of a cock-bird bein' killed forrard, but it came out paralysin' in its _tout ensemble_. You never heard the 'Dead March' on a bugle? Then the pipes went twitterin' for both watches to attend public execution, an' we came up like so many ghosts, the 'ole ship's company. Why, Mucky 'Arcourt, one o' our boys, was that took in he give tongue like a beagle-pup, an' was properly kicked down the ladder for so doin'. Well, there we lay--engines stopped, rollin' to the swell, all dark, yards cock-billed, an' that merry tune yowlin' from the upper bridge. We fell in on the foc'sle, leavin' a large open space by the capstan, where our sail-maker was sittin' sewin' broken firebars into the foot of an old 'ammick. 'E looked like a corpse, an' Mucky had another fit o' hysterics, an' you could 'ear us breathin' 'ard. It beat anythin' in the theatrical line that even us _Archimandrites_ had done--an' we was the ship you could trust. Then come the doctor an' lit a red lamp which he used for his photographic muckin's, an' chocked it on the capstan. That was finally gashly!
"Then come twelve Marines guardin' Glass 'ere. You wouldn't think to see 'im what a gratooitous an' aboundin' terror he was that evenin'. 'E was in a white shirt 'e'd stole from Cockburn, an' his regulation trousers, barefooted. 'E'd pipe-clayed 'is 'ands an' face an' feet an' as much of his chest as the openin' of his shirt showed. 'E marched under escort with a firm an' undeviatin' step to the capstan, an' came to attention. The old man reinforced by an extra strong split--his seventeenth, an' 'e didn't throw _that_ down the ventilator--come up on the bridge an' stood like a image. 'Op, 'oo was with 'im, says that 'e heard Antonio's teeth singin', not chatterin'--singin' like funnel-stays in a typhoon. Yes, a moanin' aeolian harp, 'Op said.
"'When you are ready, Sir, drop your 'andkerchief,' Number One whispers.
"'Good Lord!' says the old man, with a jump. 'Eh! What? What a sight! What a sight!' an' he stood drinkin' it in, I suppose, for quite two minutes.
"Glass never says a word. 'E shoved aside an 'andkerchief which the sub-lootenant proffered 'im to bind 'is eyes with--quiet an' collected; an' if we 'adn't been feelin' so very much as we did feel, his gestures would 'ave brought down the 'ouse." "I can't open my eyes, or I'll be sick," said the Marine with appalling clearness. "I'm pretty far gone--I know it--but there wasn't anyone could 'ave beaten Edwardo Glass, R.M.L.I., that time. Why, I scared myself nearly into the 'orrors. Go on, Pye. Glass is in support--as ever."
"Then the old man drops 'is 'andkerchief, an' the firin'-party fires like one man. Glass drops forward, twitchin' an' 'eavin' horrid natural, into the shotted 'ammick all spread out before him, and the firin' party closes in to guard the remains of the deceased while Sails is stitchin' it up. An' when they lifted that 'ammick it was one wringin' mess of blood! They on'y expended one wardroom cock-bird, too. Did you know poultry bled that extravagant? _I_ never did.
"The old man--so 'Op told me--stayed on the bridge, brought up on a dead centre. Number One was similarly, though lesser, impressed, but o' course 'is duty was to think of 'is fine white decks an' the blood. 'Arf a mo', Sir,' he says, when the old man was for leavin'. 'We have to wait for the burial, which I am informed takes place immejit.'
"'It's beyond me,' says the owner. 'There was general instructions for an execution, but I never knew I had such a dependable push of mountebanks aboard,' he says. 'I'm all cold up my back, still.'
"The Marines carried the corpse below. Then the bugle give us some more 'Dead March,' Then we 'eard a splash from a bow six-pounder port, an' the bugle struck up a cheerful tune. The whole lower deck was complimentin' Glass, 'oo took it very meek. 'E _is_ a good actor, for all 'e's a leatherneck.
"'Now,' said the old man, 'we must turn over Antonio. He's in what I have 'eard called one perspirin' funk.'
"Of course, I'm tellin' it slow, but it all 'appened much quicker. We run down our trampo--without o' course informin' Antonio of 'is 'appy destiny --an' inquired of 'er if she had any use for a free and gratis stowaway. Oh, yes? she said she'd be highly grateful, but she seemed a shade puzzled at our generosity, as you might put it, an' we lay by till she lowered a boat. Then Antonio--who was un'appy, distinctly un'appy--was politely requested to navigate elsewhere, which I don't think he looked for. 'Op was deputed to convey the information, an' 'Op got in one sixteen-inch kick which 'oisted 'im all up the ladder. 'Op ain't really vindictive, an' 'e's fond of the French, especially the women, but his chances o' kicking lootenants was like the cartridge--reduced to a minimum.
"The boat 'adn't more than shoved off before a change, as you might say, came o'er the spirit of our dream. The old man says, like Elphinstone an' Bruce in the Portsmouth election when I was a boy: 'Gentlemen,' he says, 'for gentlemen you have shown yourselves to be--from the bottom of my heart I thank you. The status an' position of our late lamented shipmate made it obligate,' 'e says, 'to take certain steps not strictly included in the regulations. An' nobly,' says 'e, 'have you assisted me. Now,' 'e says, 'you hold the false and felonious reputation of bein' the smartest ship in the Service. Pigsties,' 'e says,' is plane trigonometry alongside our present disgustin' state. Efface the effects of this indecent orgy,' he says. 'Jump, you lop-eared, flat-footed, butter-backed Amalekites! Dig out, you briny-eyed beggars!'"
"Do captains talk like that in the Navy, Mr. Pyecroft?" I asked.
"I've told you once I only give the grist of his arguments. The Bosun's mate translates it to the lower deck, as you may put it, and the lower deck springs smartly to attention. It took us half the night 'fore we got 'er anyway ship-shape; but by sunrise she was beautiful as ever, and we resoomed. I've thought it over a lot since; yes, an' I've thought a lot of Antonio trimmin' coal in that tramp's bunkers. 'E must 'ave been highly surprised. Wasn't he?"
"He was, Mr. Pyecroft," I responded. "But now we're talking of it, weren't you all a little surprised?"
"It come as a pleasant relief to the regular routine," said Mr. Pyecroft. "We appreciated it as an easy way o' workin' for your country. But--the old man was right--a week o' similar manoeuvres would 'ave knocked our moral double-bottoms bung out. Now, couldn't you oblige with Antonio's account of Glass's execution?"
I obliged for nearly ten minutes. It was at best but a feeble rendering of M. de C.'s magnificent prose, through which the soul of the poet, the eye of the mariner, and the heart of the patriot bore magnificent accord. His account of his descent from the side of the "_infamous vessel consecrated to blood_" in the "_vast and gathering dusk of the trembling ocean_" could only be matched by his description of the dishonoured hammock sinking unnoticed through the depths, while, above, the bugler played music "_of an indefinable brutality_"
"By the way, what did the bugler play after Glass's funeral?" I asked.
"Him? Oh! 'e played 'The Strict Q.T.' It's a very old song. We 'ad it in Fratton nearly fifteen years back," said Mr. Pyecroft sleepily.
I stirred the sugar dregs in my glass. Suddenly entered armed men, wet and discourteous, Tom Wessels smiling nervously in the background.
"Where is that--minutely particularised person--Glass?" said the sergeant of the picket.
"'Ere!" The marine rose to the strictest of attentions. "An' it's no good smelling of my breath, because I'm strictly an' ruinously sober."
"Oh! An' what may you have been doin' with yourself?"
"Listenin' to tracts. You can look! I've had the evenin' of my little life. Lead on to the _Cornucopia's_ midmost dunjing cell. There's a crowd of brass-'atted blighters there which will say I've been absent without leaf. Never mind. I forgive them before'and. _The_ evenin' of my life, an' please don't forget it." Then in a tone of most ingratiating apology to me: "I soaked it all in be'ind my shut eyes. 'I'm"--he jerked a contemptuous thumb towards Mr. Pyecroft--"'e's a flatfoot, a indigo-blue matlow. 'E never saw the fun from first to last. A mournful beggar--most depressin'." Private Glass departed, leaning heavily on the escort's arm.
Mr. Pyecroft wrinkled his brows in thought--the profound and far-reaching meditation that follows five glasses of hot whisky-and-water.
"Well, I don't see anything comical--greatly--except here an' there. Specially about those redooced charges in the guns. Do _you_ see anything funny in it?"
There was that in his eye which warned me the night was too wet for argument.
"No, Mr. Pyecroft, I don't," I replied. "It was a beautiful tale, and I thank you very much."