. . . . .
Lil had been slid into a locker to keep dry till they reached easier water. The others lay aft watching the breadths of the all-coloured seas. Mr. Gallop at the tiller, which had replaced the wheel, said as little as possible, but condescended, before that company, to make his boat show off among the reefs and passages of coral where his business and delight lay.
Mr. Vergil, not for the first time, justified himself to the Commander for his handling of the great Parrot Problem, which has been told elsewhere. The Commander tactfully agreed with the main principle that—man, beast, or bird—discipline must be preserved in the Service; and that, so far, Mr. Vergil had done right in disrating, by cutting off her tail-feathers, Josephine, alias Jemmy Reader, the West African parrot . . . .
He himself had known a dog—his own dog, in fact—almost born, and altogether brought up, in a destroyer, who had not only been rated and disrated, but also re-rated and promoted, completely understanding the while what had happened, and why.
‘Come out and listen,’ said Mr. Randolph, reaching into the locker. ‘This’ll do you good.’ Lil came out, limp over his hand, and braced herself against the snap and jerk of a sudden rip which Mr. Gallop was cutting across. He had stood in to show the Admiral Gallop’s Island whose original grantees had freed their Carib slaves more than a hundred years ago. These had naturally taken their owners’ family name; so that now there were many Gallops—gentle, straight-haired men of substance and ancestry, with manners to match, and instinct, beyond all knowledge, of their home waters—from Panama, that is, to Pernambuco.
The Commander told a tale of an ancient destroyer on the China station which, with three others of equal seniority, had been hurried over to the East Coast of England when the Navy called up her veterans for the War. How Malachi—Michael, Mike, or Mickey—throve aboard the old Makee-do, on whose books he was rated as ‘Pup,’ and learned to climb oily steel ladders by hooking his fore-feet over the rungs. How he was used as a tippet round his master’s neck on the bridge of cold nights. How he had his own special area, on deck by the raft, sacred to his private concerns, and never did anything one hair’s-breadth outside it. How he possessed an officers’ steward of the name of Furze, his devoted champion and trumpeter through the little flotilla which worked together on convoy and escort duties in the North Sea. Then the wastage of war began to tell and . . . The Commander turned to the Admiral.
‘They dished me out a new Volunteer sub for First Lieutenant—a youngster of nineteen—with a hand on him like a ham and a voice like a pneumatic riveter, though he couldn’t pronounce “r” to save himself. I found him sitting on the wardroom table with his cap on, scratching his leg. He said to me, “Well, old top, and what’s the big idea for to-mowwow’s agony?” I told him—and a bit more. He wasn’t upset. He was really grateful for a hint how things were run on “big ships” as he called ’em. (Makee-do was three hundred ton, I think.) He’d served in Coastal Motor Boats retrieving corpses off the Cornish coast. He told me his skipper was a vet who called the swells “fuwwows” and thought he ought to keep between ’em. His name was Eustace Cyril Chidden; and his papa was a sugar-refiner . . . .’
Surprise was here expressed in various quarters; Mr. Winter Vergil adding a few remarks on the decadence of the New Navy.
‘No,’ said the Commander. ‘The “old top” business had nothing to do with it. He just didn’t know—that was all. But Mike took to him at once.
‘Well, we were booted out, one night later, on special duty. No marks or lights of course—raining, and confused seas. As soon as I’d made an offing, I ordered him to take the bridge. Cyril trots up, his boots greased, the complete N.O. Mike and I stood by in the chart-room. Pretty soon, he told off old Shide, our Torpedo Coxswain, for being a quarter-point off his course. (He was, too; but he wasn’t pleased.) A bit later, Cyril ships his steam-riveter voice and tells him he’s all over the card, and if he does it again he’ll be “welieved.” It went on like this the whole trick; Michael and me waiting for Shide to mutiny. When Shide came off, I asked him what he thought we’d drawn. “Either a dud or a diamond,” says Shide. “There’s no middle way with that muster.” That gave me the notion that Cyril might be worth kicking. So we all had a hack at him. He liked it. He did, indeed! He said it was so “intewesting” because Makee-do “steered like a witch,” and no one ever dreamed of trying to steer C.M.B.’s. They must have been bloody pirates in that trade, too. He was used to knocking men about to make ’em attend. He threatened a stay-maker’s apprentice (they were pushing all sorts of shore-muckings at us) for imitating his lisp. It was smoothed over, but the man made the most of it. He was a Bolshie before we knew what to call ’em. He kicked Michael once when he thought no one was looking, but Furze saw, and the blighter got his head cut on a hatch-coaming. That didn’t make him any sweeter.’
A twenty-thousand-ton liner, full of thirsty passengers, passed them on the horizon. Mr. Gallop gave her name and that of the pilot in charge, with some scandal as to her weakness at certain speeds and turns.
‘Not so good a sea-boat as her!’ He pointed at a square-faced tug—or but little larger—punching dazzle-white wedges out of indigo-blue. The Admiral stood up and pronounced her a North Sea mine-sweeper.
‘’Was. ’Ferry-boat now,’ said Mr. Gallop. ‘’Never been stopped by weather since ten years.’
The Commander shuddered aloud, as the old thing shovelled her way along. ‘But she sleeps dry,’ he said. ‘We lived in a foot of water. Our decks leaked like anything. We had to shore our bulkheads with broomsticks practically every other trip. Most of our people weren’t broke to the life, and it made ’em sticky. I had to tighten things up.’
The Admiral and Mr. Vergil nodded.
‘Then, one day, Chidden came to me and said there was some feeling on the lower deck because Mike was still rated as “Pup” after all his sea-time. He thought our people would like him being promoted to Dog. I asked who’d given ’em the notion. “Me,” says Cyril. “I think it’ll help de-louse ’em mowally.” Of course I instructed him to go to Hell and mind his own job. Then I notified that Mike was to be borne on the ship’s books as Able Dog Malachi. I was on the bridge when the watches were told of it. They cheered. Fo’c’sle afloat; galley-fire missing as usual; but they cheered. That’s the Lower Deck.’
Mr. Vergil rubbed hands in assent.
‘Did Mike know, Mr. Randolph? He did. He used to sniff forrard to see what the men’s dinners were going to be. If he approved, he went and patronised ’em. If he didn’t, he came to the wardroom for sharks and Worcester sauce. He was a great free-fooder. But—the day he was promoted Dog—he trotted round all messes and threw his little weight about like an Admiral’s inspection—Uncle. (He wasn’t larger than Lil, there.) Next time we were in for boiler-clean, I got him a brass collar engraved with his name and rating. I swear it was the only bit of bright work in the North Sea all the War. They fought to polish it. Oh, Malachi was a great Able Dog, those days, but he never forgot his decencies . . . .’
Mr. Randolph here drew Lil’s attention to this.
‘Well, and then our Bolshie-bird oozed about saying that a ship where men were treated like dogs and vice versa was no catch. Quite true, if correct; but it spreads despondency and attracts the baser elements. You see?’
‘Anything’s an excuse when they are hanging in the wind,’ said Mr. Vergil. ‘And what might you have had for the standing-part of your tackle?’
‘You know as well as I do, Vergil. The old crowd—Gunner, Chief Engineer, Cook, Chief Stoker, and Torpedo Cox. But, no denyin’, we were hellish uncomfy. Those old thirty-knotters had no bows or freeboard to speak of, and no officers’ quarters. (Sleep with your Gunner’s socks in your mouth, and so on.) You remember ’em, sir?’ The Admiral did—when the century was young—and some pirate-hunting behind muddy islands. Mr. Gallop drank it in. His war experiences had ranged no further than the Falklands, which he had visited as one of the prize-crew of a German sailing-ship picked up Patagonia-way and sent south under charge of a modern sub-lieutenant who had not the haziest notion how to get the canvas off a barque in full career for vertical cliffs. He told the tale. Mr. Randolph, who had heard it before, brought out a meal sent by Mrs. Vergil. Mr. Gallop laid the sloop on a slant where she could look after herself while they ate. Lil earned her share by showing off her few small tricks.
‘Mongrels are always smartest,’ said Mr. Randolph half defiantly.
‘Don’t call ’em mongrels.’ The Commander tweaked Lil’s impudent little ear. ‘Mike was a bit that way. Call ’em “mixed.” There’s a difference.’
The tiger-lily flush inherited from his ancestors on the mainland flared a little through the brown of Mr. Gallop’s cheek. ‘Right,’ said he. ‘There’s a heap differ ’twixt mongrel and mixed.’
And in due time, so far as Time was on those beryl floors, they came back to the Commander’s tale.
It covered increasing discomforts and disgusts, varied by escapes from being blown out of water by their own side in fog; affairs with submarines; arguments with pig-headed convoy-captains, and endless toil to maintain Makee-do abreast of her work which the growing ignorance and lowering morale of the new drafts made harder.
‘The only one of us who kept his tail up was Able Dog Malachi. He was an asset, let alone being my tippet on watch. I used to button his front and hind legs into my coat, with two turns of my comforter over all. Did he like it? He had to. It was his station in action. But he had his enemies. I’ve told you what a refined person he was. Well, one day, a buzz went round that he had defiled His Majesty’s quarterdeck. Furze reported it to me, and, as he said, “Beggin’ your pardon, it might as well have been any of us, sir, as him.” I asked the little fellow what he had to say for himself; confronting him with the circumstantial evidence of course. He was very offended. I knew it by the way he stiffened next time I took him for tippet. Chidden was sure there had been some dirty work somewhere; but he thought a Court of Inquiry might do good and settle one or two other things that were loose in the ship. One party wanted Mike disrated on the evidence. They were the——’
‘I know ’em,’ sighed Mr. Vergil; his eyes piercing the years behind him. ‘The other lot wanted to find out the man who had tampered with the—the circumstantial evidence and pitch him into the ditch. At that particular time, we were escorting mine-sweepers—every one a bit jumpy. I saw what Chidden was driving at, but I wasn’t sure our crowd here were mariners enough to take the inquiry seriously. Chidden swore they were. He’d been through the Crystal Palace training himself. Then I said, “Make it so. I waive my rights as the dog’s owner. Discipline’s discipline, tell ’em; and it may be a counter-irritant.”
‘The trouble was there had been a fog, on the morning of the crime, that you couldn’t spit through; so no one had seen anything. Naturally, Mike sculled about as he pleased; but his regular routine—he slept with me and Chidden in the wardroom—was to take off from our stomachs about three bells in the morning watch (half-past five) and trot up topside to attend to himself in his own place. But the evidence, you see, was found near the bandstand—the after six-pounder; and accused was incapable of testifying on his own behalf . . . . Well, that Court of Inquiry had it up and down and thort-ships all the time we were covering the minesweepers. It was a foul area; rather too close to Fritz’s coast. We only drew seven feet, so we were more or less safe. Our supporting cruisers lay on the edge of the area. Fritz had messed that up months before, and lots of his warts—mines—had broke loose and were bobbing about; and then our specialists had swept it, and laid down areas of their own, and so on. Any other time all hands would have been looking out for loose mines. (They have horns that nod at you in a sickly-friendly-frisky way when they roll.) But, while Mike’s inquiry was on, all hands were too worked-up over it to spare an eye outboard . . . . Oh, Mike knew, Mr. Randolph. Make no mistake. He knew he was in for trouble. The Prosecution were too crafty for him. They stuck to the evidence—the locus in quo and so on . . . . Sentence? Disrating to Pup again, which carried loss of badge-of-rank—his collar. Furze took it off, and Mickey licked his hand and Furze wept like Peter . . . . Then Mickey hoicked himself up to the bridge to tell me about it, and I made much of him. He was a distressed little dog. You know how they snuffle and snuggle up when they feel hurt.’
Though the question was to Mr. Randolph, all hands answered it.
‘Then our people went to dinner with this crime on their consciences. Those who felt that way had got in on me through Michael.’
‘Why did you make ’em the chance?’ the Admiral demanded keenly.
‘To divide the sheep from the goats, sir. It was time. . . . Well, we were second in the line—How-come and Fan-kwai next astern and Hop-hell, our flagship, leading. Withers was our Senior Officer. We called him “Joss” because he was always so infernally lucky. It was flat calm with patches of fog, and our sweepers finished on time. While we were escorting ’em back to our cruisers, Joss picked up some wireless buzz about a submarine spotted from the air, surfacing over to the north-east-probably recharging. He detached How-come and Fan-kwai to go on with our sweepers, while him and me went-look-see. We dodged in and out of fog-patches—two-mile visibility one minute and blind as a bandage the next-then a bit of zincy sun like a photograph—and so on. Well, breaking out of one of these patches we saw a submarine recharging-hatches open, and a man on deck—not a mile off our port quarter. We swung to ram and, as he came broadside on to us, I saw Hop-hell slip a mouldie—fire a torpedo—at him, and my Gunner naturally followed suit. By the mercy o’ God, they both streaked ahead and astern him, because the chap on deck began waving an open brolly at us like an old maid hailing a bus. That fetched us up sliding on our tails, as you might say. Then he said, “What do you silly bastards think you’re doin’?” (He was Conolly, and some of his crowd had told us, ashore, that the brolly was his private code. That’s why we didn’t fire on sight, sir.—“Red” Conolly, not “Black.”) He told us he’d gone pretty close inshore on spec the night before and had been hunted a bit and had to lie doggo, and he’d heard three or four big ships go over him. He told us where that was, and we stood by till he’d finished recharging and we gave him his position and he sculled off. He said it was hellish thick over towards the coast, but there seemed to be something doing there. So we proceeded, on the tip Conolly gave us . . . . Oh, wait a minute! Joss’s Gunner prided himself on carrying all the silhouettes of Fritz’s navy in his fat head, and he had sworn that Conolly’s craft was the duplicate of some dam U-boat. Hence his shot. I believe Joss pretty well skinned him for it, but that didn’t alter the fact we’d only one mouldie apiece left to carry on with . . . .
‘Presently Joss fetched a sharp sheer to port, and I saw his bow-wave throw off something that looked like the horns of a mine; but they were only three or four hock bottles. We don’t drink hock much at sea.’
Mr. Randolph and Mr. Gallop smiled. There are few liquors that the inhabitants of Stephano’s Island do not know—bottled, barrelled, or quite loose.
The Commander continued.
‘Then Joss told me to come alongside and hold his hand, because he felt nervous.’
The Commander here explained how, with a proper arrangement of fenders, a trusty Torpedo Cox at the wheel, and not too much roll on, destroyers of certain types can run side by side close enough for their captains to talk even confidentially to each other. He ended, ‘We used to slam those old dowagers about like sampans.’
‘You youngsters always think you discovered navigation,’ said the Admiral. ‘Where did you steal your fenders from?’
‘That was Chidden’s pigeon in port, sir. He was the biggest thief bar three in the Service. C.M.B.’s are a bad school . . . . So, then, we proceeded—bridge to bridge—chinning all comfy. Joss said those hock bottles and the big ships walking over Conolly interested him strangely. It was shoaling and we more or less made out the set of the tide. We didn’t chuck anything overboard, though; and just about sunset in a clear patch we passed another covey of hock bottles. Mike spotted them first. He used to poke his little nose up under my chin if he thought I was missing anything. Then it got blind-thick, as Conolly said it would, and there was an ungodly amount of gibber on the wireless. Joss said it sounded like a Fritz tip-and-run raid somewhere and we might come in handy if the fog held. (You couldn’t see the deck from the bridge.) He said I’d better hand him over my surviving mouldie because he was going to slip ’em himself hence-forward, and back his own luck. My tubes were nothing to write home about, anyhow. So we passed the thing over, and proceeded. We cut down to bare steerage-way at last (you couldn’t see your hand before your face by then) and we listened. You listen better in fog.’
‘But it doesn’t give you your bearings,’ said Mr. Gallop earnestly.
‘True. Then you fancy you hear things—like we did. Then Mike began poking up under my chin again. He didn’t imagine things. I passed the word to Joss, and a minute or two after, we heard voices—they sounded miles away. Joss said, “That’s the hock-bottler. He’s hunting his home channel. I hope he’s too bothered to worry about us; but if this stuff lifts we’ll wish we were Conolly.” I buttoned Mike well in to me bosom and took an extra turn of my comforter round him, and those ghastly voices started again—up in the air this time, and all down my neck. Then something big went astern, both screws—then ahead dead slow—then shut off. Joss whispered, “He’s atop of us!” I said, “Not yet. Mike’s winding .. him to starboard!” The little chap had his head out of my comforter again, sniffin’ and poking my chin . . . . And then, by God! the blighter slid up behind us to starboard. We couldn’t see him. We felt him take what wind there was, and we smelt him—hot and sour. He was passing soundings to the bridge, by voice. I suppose he thought he was practically at home. Joss whispered, “Go ahead and cuddle him till you hear me yap. Then amuse him. I shall slip my second by the flare of his batteries while he’s trying to strafe you.” So he faded off to port and I went ahead slow—oh, perishing slow! Shide swore afterwards that he made out the loom of the brute’s stern just in time to save his starboard propeller. That was when my heart stopped working. Then I heard my port fenders squeak like wet cork along his side, and there we were cuddling the hock-bottler! If you lie close enough to anything big he can’t theoretically depress his guns enough to get you.’
Mr. Gallop smiled again. He had known that game played in miniature by a motor-launch off the Bahamas under the flaring bows of a foreign preventive boat.
‘. . . ’Funny to lie up against a big ship eaves-dropping that way. We could hear her fans and engine-room bells going, and some poor devil with a deuce of a cough. I don’t know how long it lasted, but, all that awful while, Fritz went on with his housekeeping overhead. I’d sent Shide aft to the relieving tackles—I had an idea the wheel might go—and put Chidden on the twelve-pounder on the bridge. My Gunner had the forward six-pounders, and I kept Makee-do cuddling our friend. Then I heard Joss yap once, and then the devil of a clang. He’d got his first shot home. We got in three rounds of the twelve, and the sixes cut into her naked skin at-oh, fifteen feet it must have been. Then we all dived aft. (My ewe-torpedo wouldn’t have been any use anyhow. The head would have hit her side before the tail was out of the tube.) She woke up and blazed off all starboard batteries, but she couldn’t depress to hit us. The blast of ’em was enough, though. It knocked us deaf and sick and silly. It pushed my bridge and the twelve-pounder over to starboard in a heap, like a set of fire-irons, and it opened up the top of the forward funnel and flared it out like a tulip. She put another salvo over us that winded us again. Mind you, we couldn’t hear that! We felt it. Then we were jarred sideways—a sort of cow-kick, and I thought it was finish. Then there was a sort of ripping woolly feel—not a noise—in the air, and I saw the haze of a big gun’s flash streaking up overhead at abou’ thirty degrees. It occurred to me that she was rolling away from us and it was time to stand clear. So we went astern a bit. And that haze was the only sight I got of her from first to last! . . . After a while, we felt about to take stock of the trouble. Our bridge-wreckage was listing us a good deal to starboard: the funnel spewed smoke all over the shop and some of the stays were cut; wireless smashed; compasses crazy of course; raft and all loose fittings lifted overboard; hatches and such-like strained or jammed and the deck leaking a shade more than usual. But no casualties. A few ratings cut and bruised by being chucked against things, and, of course, general bleeding from the nose and ears. But—funny thing—we all shook like palsy. That lasted longest. We all went about shouting and shaking. Shock, I suppose.’
‘And Mike?’ Mr. Randolph asked.
‘Oh, he was all right. He had his teeth well into my comforter throughout. ’First thing after action, he hopped down to the wardroom and lapped up pints. Then he tried to dig the gas taste out of his mouth with his paws. Then he wanted to attend to himself, but he found all his private area gone west with the other unsecured gadgets. He was very indignant and told Furze about it. Furze bellows into my ear, “That’s proof it couldn’t have been him on the quarterdeck, sir, because, if ever any one was justified in being promiscuous, now would be the time. But ’e’s as dainty as a duchess.” . . . Laugh away!—It wasn’t any laughing matter for Don Miguel.’
‘—I beg his pardon! How did you settle his daintiness?’ said the Admiral.
‘I gave him special leave to be promiscuous, and just because I laughed he growled like a young tiger . . . . You mayn’t believe what comes next, but it’s fact. Five minutes later, the whole ship was going over Mike’s court-martial once again. They were digging out like beavers to repair damage, and chinning at the top of their voices. And a year—no—six months before, half of ’em were Crystal Palace naval exhibits!’
‘Same with shanghaied hands,’ said Mr. Gallop, putting her about with a nudge of his shoulder on the tiller and some almost imperceptible touch on a sheet. The wind was rising.
‘. . . I ran out of that fog at last like running out of a tunnel. I worked my way off shore, more or less by soundings, till I picked up a star to go home by. Arguin’ that Joss ’ud do about the same, I waited for him while we went on cutting away what was left of the bridge and restaying the funnel. It was flat calm still; the coast-fog lying all along like cliffs as far as you could see. ’Dramatic, too, because, when the light came, Joss shot out of the fog three or four miles away and hared down to us clearing his hawsers for a tow. We did look rather a dung-barge. I signalled we were all right and good for thirteen knots, which was one dam lie . . . . Well . . . so then we proceeded line-ahead, and Joss sat on his depth-charge-rack aft, semaphoring all about it to me on my fo’c’sle-head. He had landed the hock-bottler to port with his first shot. His second—it touched off her forward magazine—was my borrowed one; but he reported it as “a torpedo from the deck of my Second in Command!” She was showing a blaze through the fog then, so it was a sitting shot—at about a hundred yards, he thought. He never saw any more of her than I did, but he smelt a lot of burnt cork. She might have been some old craft packed with cork like a life-boat for a tip-and-run raid. We never knew.’
Even in that short time the wind and the purpose of the waves had strengthened.
‘All right,’ said Mr. Gallop. ‘Nothin’ due ’fore to-morrow.’ But Mr. Randolph, under sailing-orders from Mrs. Vergil, had the oilskins out ere the sloop lay down to it in earnest. ‘Then—after that?’ said he.
‘Well, then we proceeded; Joss flag-wagging me his news, and all hands busy on our funnel and minor running-repairs, but all arguin’ Mike’s case hotter than ever. And all of us shaking.’
‘Where was Mike?’ Mr. Randolph asked as a cut wave-top slashed across the deck.
‘Doing tippet for me on the fo’c’sle, and telling me about his great deeds. He never barked, but he could chin like a Peke. Then Joss changed course. I thought it might be mines, but having no bridge I had no command of sight. Then we passed a torpedo-bearded man lolling in a life-belt, with his head on his arms, squinting at us—like a drunk at a pub . . . . Dead? Quite. . . . You never can tell how the lower deck’ll take anything. They stared at it and our Cook said it looked saucy. That was all. Then Furze screeched: “But for the grace o’ God that might be bloody-all of us!” And he carried on with that bit of the Marriage Service—“I ree-quire an’ charge you as ye shall answer at the Day of Judgment, which blinkin’ hound of you tampered with the evidence re Malachi. Remember that beggar out in the wet is listenin’.” ’Sounds silly, but it gave me the creeps at the time. I heard the Bolshie say that a joke was a joke if took in the right spirit. Then there was a bit of a mix-up round the funnel, but of course I was busy swapping yarns with Joss. When I went aft—I didn’t hurry—our Chief Stoker was standing over Furze, while Chidden and Shide were fending off a small crowd who were lusting for the Bolshie’s blood. (He had a punch, too, Cywil.) It looked to me—but I couldn’t have sworn to it—that the Chief Stoker scraped up a knife with his foot and hoofed it overboard.’
‘Knife!’ the shocked Admiral interrupted.
‘A wardroom knife, sir, with a ground edge on it. Furze had been a Leicester Square waiter or pimp or something, for ten years, and he’d contracted foreign habits. By the time I took care to reach the working-party, they were carrying on like marionettes, because they hadn’t got over their shakes, you see . . . . I didn’t do anything. I didn’t expect the two men Chidden had biffed ’ud complain of him as long as the Bolshie was alive; and our Chief Stoker had mopped up any awkward evidence against Furze. All things considered, I felt rather sorry for the Bolshie . . . . Chidden came to me in the wardroom afterwards, and said the man had asked to be “segwegated” for his own safety. Oh yes!—he’d owned up to tampering with the evidence. I said I couldn’t well crime the swine for blackening a dog’s character; but I’d reinstate and promote Michael, and the lower deck might draw their own conclusions. “Then they’ll kill the Bolshie,” says the young ’un. “No,” I said, “C.M.B.’s don’t know everything, Cywil. They’ll put the fear of death on him, but they won’t scupper him. What’s he doing now?” “Weconstwucting Mike’s pwivate awea, with Shide and Furze standing over him gwinding their teeth.” “Then he’s safe,” I said. “I’ll send Mike up to see if it suits him. But what about Dawkins and Pratt?” Those were the two men Cyril had laid out while the Chief Stoker was quenching the engine-room ratings. They didn’t love the Bolshie either. “Full of beans and blackmail!” he says. “I told ’em I’d saved ’em fwom being hung, but they want a sardine-supper for all hands when we get in.”’
‘But what’s a Chief Stoker doin’ on the upper deck?’ said Mr. Vergil peevishly, as he humped his back against a solid douche.
‘Preserving discipline. Ours could mend anything from the wardroom clock to the stove, and he’d make a sailor of anything on legs—same as you used to, Mr. Vergil. . . . Well, and so we proceeded, and when Chidden reported the “awea” fit for use I sent Mike up to test it.’
‘Did Mike know?’ said Mr. Randolph.
‘Don’t ask me what he did or didn’t, or you might call me a liar. The Bolshie apologised to Malachi publicly, after Chidden gave out that I’d promoted him to Warrant Dog “for conspicuous gallantwy in action and giving valuable information as to enemy’s whaiwabouts in course of same.” So Furze put his collar on again, and gave the Bolshie his name and rating.’
The Commander quoted it—self-explanatory indeed, but not such as the meanest in His Majesty’s Service would care to answer to even for one day.
‘It went through the whole flotilla.’ The Commander repeated it, while the others laughed those gross laughs women find so incomprehensible.
‘Did he stay on?’ said Mr. Vergil. ‘Because I knew a stoker in the old Minotaur who cut his throat for half as much as that. It takes ’em funny sometimes.’
‘He stayed with us all right; but he experienced a change of heart, Mr. Vergil.’
‘I’ve seen such in my time,’ said the Ancient.
The Admiral nodded to himself. Mr. Gallop at the tiller half rose as he peered under the foresail, preparatory to taking a short-cut where the coral gives no more second chance than a tiger’s paw. In half an hour they were through that channel. In an hour, they had passed the huge liner tied up and discharging her thirsty passengers opposite the liquor-shops that face the quay. Some, who could not suffer the four and a half minutes’ walk to the nearest hotel, had already run in and come out tearing the wrappings off the whisky bottles they had bought. Mr. Gallop held on to the bottom of the harbour and fetched up with a sliding curtsey beneath the mangroves by the boat-shed . . . .
‘I don’t know whether I’ve given you quite the right idea about my people,’ said the Commander at the end. ‘I used to tell ’em they were the foulest collection of sweeps ever forked up on the beach. In some ways they were. But I don’t want you to make any mistake. When it came to a pinch they were the salt of the earth—the very salt of God’s earth—blast ’em and bless ’em. Not that it matters much now. We’ve got no Navy.’