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 publications, 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 thirdclass ticket to Plymouth.
I gathered information on the way from a leading stoker, two seamen-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 potboy 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 anythin’ in about my ’orrible death an’ execution? Excuse 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 mailboats 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 to our Number One. “Drown ’im,” ’e says. “Drown ’im before ’e dirties my fine new decks.” But our owner was tender-hearted. “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 only 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——’
‘Subscription, 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.’
‘Conscription—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-ahead 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’ aborigine’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 cannibalizin’ ’em.
‘“I want to know what ’e ’as got the ’ang of,” says ’Op, obstructed-like. “Watch ’im,” ’e says. “Them shoulders were foreign-drilled somewhere.”
‘When it comes to “Down ’ammicks!%9