DISREGARDING the inventions of the Marine Captain, whose other name is Gubbins, let a plain statement suffice.H.M.S. Caryatid went to Portland to join Blue Fleet for manœuvres. I travelled overland from London by way of Portsmouth, where I fell among friends. When I reached Portland, H.M.S. Caryatid, whose guest I was to have been, had, with Blue Fleet, already sailed for some secret rendezvous off the west coast of Ireland, and Portland breakwater was filled with Red Fleet, my official enemies and joyous acquaintances, who received me with unstinted hospitality. For example, Lieutenant-Commander A. L. Hignett, in charge of three destroyers, Wraith, Stiletto, and Kobbold, due to depart at 6 p.m. that evening, offered me a berth on his thirty-knot flagship, but I preferred my comforts, and so accepted sleeping-room in H.M.S. Pedantic (15,000 tons), leader of the second line. After dining aboard her I took boat to Weymouth to get my kit aboard, as the battleships would go to war at midnight. In transferring my allegiance from Blue to Red Fleet, whatever the Marine Captain may say, I did no wrong. I truly intended to return to the Pedantic and help to fight Blue Fleet. All I needed was a new toothbrush, which I bought from a chemist in a side street at 9.15 p.m. As I turned to go, one entered seeking alleviation of a gumboil. He was dressed in a checked ulster, a black silk hat three sizes too small, cord-breeches, boots, and pure brass spurs. These he managed painfully, stepping like a prisoner fresh from leg-irons. As he adjusted the pepper-plaster to the gum the light fell on his face, and I recognised Mr. Emanuel Pyecroft, late second-class petty officer of H.M.S. Achimandrite, an unforgettable man, met a year before under Tom Wessels’ roof in Plymouth. It occurred to me that when a petty officer takes to spurs he may conceivably meditate desertion. For that reason I, though a taxpayer, made no sign. Indeed, it was Mr. Pyecroft, following me out of the shop, who said hollowly: ‘What might you be doing here?’
‘I’m going on manœuvres in the Pedantic,’ I replied.
‘Ho!’ said Mr. Pyecroft. ‘An’ what manner o’ manœuvres d’you expect to see in a blighted cathedral like the Pedantic? I know’er. I knew her in Malta, when the Vulcan was her permanent tender, manœuvres ! You won’t see more than “Man an’ arm watertight doors!” in your little woollen undervest.’
‘I’m sorry for that.’
‘Why?’ He lurched heavily as his spurs caught and twanged like tuning-forks. ‘War’s declared at midnight. Pedantics be sugared! Buy an ’am an’ see life!’
For the moment I fancied Mr. Pyecroft, a fugitive from justice, purposed that we two should embrace a Robin Hood career in the uplands of Dorset. The spurs troubled me, and I made bold to say as much. ‘Them!’ he said, coming to an intricate halt. ‘They’re part of the prima facie evidence. But as for me—let me carry your bag—I’m second in command, leadin’-hand, cook, steward, an’ lavatory man, with a few incidentals for sixpence a day extra, on No. 267 torpedo-boat.’
‘They wear spurs there?’
‘Well,’ said Mr. Pyecroft, ‘seein’ that Two Six Seven belongs to Blue Fleet, which left the day before yesterday, disguises are imperative. It transpired thus. The Right Honourable Lord Gawd Almighty Admiral Master Frankie Frobisher, K.C.B., commandin’ Blue Fleet, can’t be bothered with one tin-torpedo-boat more or less ; and what with lyin’ in the Reserve four years, an’ what with the new kind o’ tiffy which cleans dynamos with brick-dust and oil (Blast these spurs! They won’t render!), Two Six Seven’s steam-gadgets was paralytic. Our Mr. Moorshed done his painstakin’ best—it’s his first command of a war-canoe, matoor age nineteen (down that alley-way, please!), but be that as it may, His Holiness Frankie is aware of us crabbin’ ourselves round the breakwater at five knots, an’ steerin’ pari passu, as the French say. (Up this alley-way, please!) If he’d given Mr. Hinchcliffe, our chief engineer, a little time, it would never have transpired, for what Hinch can’t drive he can coax; but the new port bein’ a trifle cloudy, an’ ’is joints tinglin’ after a post-captain dinner, Frankie come on the upper bridge seekin’ for a sacrifice. We, offerin’ a broadside target, got it. He told us what ’is grandmamma, ’oo was a lady an’ went to sea in stick-and-string bateaus, had told him about steam. He throwed in his own prayers for the ’ealth an’ safety of all steam-packets an’ their officers. Then he give us several distinct orders. The first few—I kept tally—was all about going to Hell; the next many was about not evolutin’ in his company, when there; an’ the last all was simply repeatin’ the motions in quick time. Knowin’ Frankie’s groovin’ to be badly eroded by age and lack of attention, I didn’t much panic ; but our Mr. Moorshed, ’e took it a little to heart. Me an’ Mr. Hinchcliffe consoled ’im as well as service conditions permits of, an’ we had a résumé supper at the back o’ the camber—secluded an’ lugubrious! Then one thing leadin’ up to another, an’ our orders, except about anchorin’ where he’s booked for, leavin’ us a clear ’orizon, Number Two Six Seven is now—mind the edge of the wharf—here!’
By mysterious doublings he had brought me out on to the edge of a narrow strip of water crowded with coastwise shipping that runs far up into Weymouth town. A large foreign timber-brig lay at my feet, and under the round of her stern cowered, close to the wharf-edge, a slate coloured, unkempt, two-funnelled craft of a type—but I am no expert—between the first-class torpedo-boat and the full-blooded destroyer. From her archaic torpedo-tubes at the stern, and quick-firers forward and amidships, she must have dated from the early ’nineties. Hammerings and clinkings, with spurts of steam and fumes of hot oil, arose from her inside, and a figure in a striped jersey squatted on the engine-room gratings.
‘She ain’t much of a war-canoe, but you’ll see more life in her than on an whole squadron of bleedin’ Pedantics.’
‘But she’s laid up here—and Blue Fleet have gone,’ I protested.
‘Pre-cisely. Only, in his comprehensive orders Frankie didn’t put us out of action. Thus we’re a non-neglectable fightin’ factor which you mightn’t think from this elevation; an’ m’rover, Red Fleet don’t know we’re ’ere. Most of us’—he glanced proudly at his boots—‘didn’t run to spurs, but we’re disguised pretty devious, as you might say. Morgan, our signaliser, when last seen, was a Dawlish bathing-machine proprietor. Hinchcliffe was naturally a German waiter, and me you behold as a squire of low degree; while yonder Levantine dragoman on the hatch is our Mr. Moorshed. He was the second cutter’s snotty—my snotty—on the Archimandrite—two years—Cape Station. Likewise on the West Coast, mangrove-swampin’, an’ gettin’ the cutter stove in on small an’ unlikely bars, an’ manufacturin’ lies to correspond. What I don’t know about Mr. Moorshed is precisely the same gauge as what Mr. Moorshed don’t know about me—half a millimetre, as you might say. He comes into awful opulence of his own when ’e’s of age; an’ judgin’ from what passed between us when Frankie cursed ’im, I don’t think ’e cares whether he’s broke to-morrow or—the day after. Are you beginnin’ to follow our tattics? They’ll be worth followin’. Or are you goin’ back to your nice little cabin on the Pedantic—which I lay they’ve just dismounted the third engineer out of—to eat four fat meals per diem, an’ smoke in the casement?’
The figure in the jersey lifted its head and mumbled.
‘Yes, Sir,’ was Mr. Pyecroft’s answer. ‘I ’ave ascertained that Stiletto, Wraith, and Kobbold left at 6 p.m. with the first division o’ Red Fleet’s cruisers except Devolution and Cryptic, which are delayed by engine-room defects.’ Then to me: ‘Won’t you go aboard? Mr. Moorshed ’ud like some one to talk to. You buy an ’am an’ see life.’
At this he vanished; and the Demon of Pure Irresponsibility bade me lower myself from the edge of the wharf to the tea-tray plates of No. 267.
‘What ’d’you want?’ said the striped jersey.
‘I want to join Blue Fleet if I can,’ I replied. ‘I’ve been left behind by—an accident.’
‘Mr. Pyecroft told me to buy a ham and see life. About how big a ham do you need?’
‘I don’t want any ham, thank you. That’s the way up the wharf. Good-night.’
‘Good-night!’ I retraced my steps, wandered in the dark till I found a shop, and there purchased, of sardines, canned tongue, lobster, and salmon, not less than half a hundredweight. A belated sausage-shop supplied me with a partially cut ham of pantomime tonnage. These things I, sweating, bore out to the edge of the wharf and set down in the shadow of a crane. It was a clear, dark summer night, and from time to time I laughed happily to myself. The adventure was preordained on the face of it. Pyecroft alone, spurred or barefoot, would have drawn me very far from the paths of circumspection. His advice to buy a ham and see life clinched it. Presently Mr. Pyecroft—I heard spurs clink-passed me. Then the jersey voice said: ‘What the mischief’s that?’
‘’Asn’t the visitor come aboard, Sir? ’E told me he’d purposely abandoned the Pedantic for the pleasure of the trip with us. Told me he was official correspondent for the Times; an’ I know he’s Jittery by the way ’e tries to talk Navy-talk. Haven’t you seen ’im, Sir?’
Slowly and dispassionately the answer drawled long on the night; ‘Pye, you are without exception the biggest liar in the Service!’
‘Then what am I to do with the bag, Sir? It’s marked with his name.’ There was a pause till Mr. Moorshed said ‘Oh!’ in a tone which the listener might construe precisely as he pleased.
‘He was the maniac who wanted to buy a ham and see life—was he? If he goes back to the Pedantic——’
‘Pre-cisely, Sir. Gives us all away, Sir.’
‘Then what possessed you to give it away to him, you owl?’
‘I’ve got his bag. If ’e gives anything away, he’ll have to go naked.’
At this point I thought it best to rattle my tins and step out of the shadow of the crane.
‘I’ve bought the ham,’ I called sweetly. ‘Have you still any objection to my seeing life, Mr. Moorshed?’
‘All right, if you’re insured. Won’t you come down?’
I descended; Pyecroft, by a silent flank movement, possessing himself of all the provisions, which he bore to some hole forward.
‘Have you known Mr. Pyecroft long?’ said my host.
‘Met him once, a year ago, at Devonport. What do you think of him?’
‘What do you think of him?’
‘I’ve left the Pedantic—her boat will be waiting for me at ten o’clock, too—simply because I happened to meet him,’ I replied.
‘That’s all right. If you’ll come down below, we may get some grub.’
We descended a naked steel ladder to a steel-beamed tunnel, perhaps twelve feet long by six high. Leather-topped lockers ran along either side; a swinging table, with tray and lamp above, occupied the centre. Other furniture there was none.
‘You can’t shave here, of course. We don’t wash, and, as a rule, we eat with our fingers when we’re at sea. D’you mind?’
Mr. Moorshed, black-haired, black-browed, sallow-complexioned, looked me over from head to foot and grinned. He was not handsome in any way, but his smile drew the heart. ‘You didn’t happen to hear what Frankie told me from the flagship, did you? His last instructions, and I’ve logged ’em here in shorthand, were’—he opened a neat pocket-book—‘“Get out of this and conduct your own damned manœuvres in your own damned tinker fashion! You’re a disgrace to the Service, and your boat’s offal.”’
‘Awful?’ I said.
‘No—offal—tripes—swipes—ullage.’ Mr. Pyecroft entered, in the costume of his calling, with the ham and an assortment of tin dishes, which he dealt out like cards.
‘I shall take these as my orders,’ said Mr. Moorshed. ‘I’m chucking the Service at the end of the year, so it doesn’t matter.’
We cut into the ham under the ill-trimmed lamp, washed it down with whisky, and then smoked. From the foreside of the bulkhead came an uninterrupted hammering and clinking, and now and then a hiss of steam.
‘That’s Mr. Hinchcliffe,’ said Pyecroft. ‘He’s what is called a first-class engine-room artificer. If you hand ’im a drum of oil an’ leave ’im alone, he can coax a stolen bicycle to do typewritin’.’
Very leisurely, at the end of his first pipe, Mr. Moorshed drew out a folded map, cut from a newspaper, of the area of manœuvres, with the rules that regulate these wonderful things, below.
‘Well, I suppose I know as much as an average stick-and-string admiral,’ he said, yawning. ‘Is our petticoat ready yet, Mr. Pyecroft?’
As a preparation for naval manœuvres these councils seemed inadequate. I followed up the ladder into the gloom cast by the wharf edge and the big lumber-ship’s side. As my eyes stretched to the darkness I saw that No. 267 had miraculously sprouted an extra pair of funnels—soft, for they gave as I touched them.
‘More prima facie evidence. You runs a rope fore an’ aft, an’ you erects perpendick-u-arly two canvas tubes, which you distends with cane hoops, thus ’avin’ as many funnels as a destroyer. At the word o’ command, up they go like a pair of concertinas, an’ consequently collapses equally ’andy when requisite. Comin’ aft we shall doubtless overtake the Dawlish bathin’-machine proprietor fittin’ on her bustle.’
Mr. Pyecroft whispered this in my ear as Moorshed moved toward a group at the stern.
‘None of us who ain’t built that way can be destroyers, but we can look as near it as we can. Let me explain to you, Sir, that the stern of a Thornycroft boat, which we are not, comes out in a pretty bulge, totally different from the Yarrow mark, which again we are not. But, on the other ’and, Dirk, Stiletto, Goblin, Ghoul, Djinn, and A-frite—Red Fleet dee-stroyers, with ’oom we hope to consort later on terms o’ perfect equality—are Thornycrofts, an’ carry that Grecian bend which we are now adjustin’ to our arrière-pensée—as the French would put it—by means of painted canvas an’ iron rods bent as requisite. Between you an’ me an’ Frankie, we are the Gnome, now in the Fleet Reserve at Pompey—Portsmouth, I should say.’
‘The first sea will carry it all away,’ said Moorshed, leaning gloomily outboard, ‘but it will do for the present.’
‘We’ve a lot of prima facie evidence about us,’ Mr. Pyecroft went on. ‘A first-class torpedo-boat sits lower in the water than a destroyer. Hence we artificially raise our sides with a black canvas wash-streak to represent extra freeboard ; at the same time paddin’ out the cover of the forward three-pounder like as if it was a twelvepounder, an’ variously fakin’ up the bows of ’er. As you might say, we’ve took thought an’ added a cubic to our stature. It’s our len’th that sugars us. A ’undred an’ forty feet, which is our len’th, into two ’undred and ten, which is about the Gnome’s, leaves seventy feet over, which we haven’t got.’
‘Is this all your own notion, Mr. Pyecroft?’ I asked.
‘In spots, you might say—yes; though we all contributed to make up deficiencies. But Mr. Moorshed, not much carin’ for further Navy after what Frankie said, certainly threw himself into the part with avidity.’
‘What the dickens are we going to do?’s
‘Speaking as a seaman gunner, I should say we’d wait till the sights came on, an’ then fire. Speakin’ as a torpedo-coxswain, L.T.O., T.I., M.D.) etc., I presume we fall in—Number One in rear of the tube, etc., secure tube to ball or diaphragm, clear away securin’-bar, release safety-pin from lockin’-levers, an’ pray Heaven to look down on us. As second in command o’ 267, I say wait an’ see! ‘
‘What’s happened? We’re off,’ I said. The timber-ship had slid away from us.
‘We are. Stern first, an’ broadside on! If we don’t hit anything too hard, we’ll do.’
‘Come on the bridge,’ said Mr. Moorshed. I saw no bridge, but fell over some sort of conning-tower forward, near which was a wheel. For the next few minutes I was more occupied with cursing my own folly than with the science of navigation. Therefore I cannot say how we got out of Weymouth Harbour, nor why it was necessary to turn sharp to the left and wallow in what appeared to be surf.
‘Excuse me,’ said Mr. Pyecroft behind us, ‘I don’t mind rammin’ a bathin’-machine; but if only one of them week-end Weymouth blighters has thrown his empty baccy-tin into the sea here, we’ll rip our plates open on it; 267 isn’t the Archimandrite’s old cutter.’
‘I am hugging the shore,’ was the answer.
‘There’s no actual ’arm in huggin’, but it can come expensive if pursooed.’
‘Right O!’ said Moorshed, putting down the wheel, and as we left those scant waters I felt 267 move more freely.
A thin cough ran up the speaking-tube.
‘Well, what is it, Mr. Hinchcliffe ?’ said Moorshed.
‘I merely wished to report that she is still continuin’ to go, Sir.’
‘Right O! Can we whack her up to fifteen, d’you think?’
‘I’ll try, Sir; but we’d prefer to have the engine-room hatch open—at first, Sir.’
Whacked up then she was, and for half an hour we careered largely through the night, turning at last with a suddenness that slung us across the narrow deck.
‘This,’ said Mr. Pyecroft, who received me on his chest as a large rock receives a shadow, ‘represents the Gnome arrivin’ cautious from the direction o’ Portsmouth, with Admiralty orders.’
He pointed through the darkness ahead, and after much staring my eyes opened to a dozen destroyers, in two lines, some few hundred yards away.
‘Those are the Red Fleet destroyer flotilla, which is too frail to panic about among the full-blooded cruisers inside Portland breakwater, and several millimetres too excited over the approachin’ war to keep a look-out inshore. Hence our tattics!’
We wailed through our siren—a long, malignant, hyena-like howl—and a voice hailed us as we went astern tumultuously.
‘The Gnome—Carteret-Jones—from Portsmouth, with orders—mm—mm—Stiletto,’ Moorshed answered through the megaphone in a high, whining voice, rather like a chaplain’s.
‘Who?’ was the answer.
There was a pause ; a voice cried to some friend, ‘It’s Podgie, adrift on the high seas in charge of a whole dee-stroyer!’
Another voice echoed, ‘Podgie!’ and from its note I gathered that Mr. Carteret-Jones had a reputation, but not for independent command.
‘Who’s your sub?’ said the first speaker, a shadow on the bridge of the Dirk.
‘A gunner at present, Sir. The Stiletto—broken down—turns over to us.’
‘When did the Stiletto break down?’
‘Off the Start, Sir ; two hours after—after she left here this evening, I believe! My orders are to report to you for the manoeuvre signal-codes, and join Commander Hignett’s flotilla, which is in attendance on Stiletto.’
A smothered chuckle greeted this last. Moorshed’s voice was high and uneasy. Said Pyecroft, with a sigh: ‘The amount o’ trouble me an’ my bright spurs ’ad fishin’ out that information from torpedo-coxswains and similar blighters in pubs, all this afternoon, you would never believe.’
‘But has the Stiletto broken down?’ I asked weakly.
‘How else are we to get Red Fleet’s private signal-code? Anyway, if she ’asn’t now, she will before manœuvres are ended. It’s only executin’ in anticipation.’
‘Go astern and send your coxswain aboard for orders, Mr. Jones.’ Water carries sound well, but I do not know whether we were intended to hear the next sentence: ‘They must have given him one intelligent keeper.’
‘That’s me,’ said Mr. Pyecroft, as a black and coal-stained dinghy—I did not foresee how well I should come to know her—was flung overside by three men. ‘Havin’ bought an ’am, we will now see life.’ He stepped into the boat and was away.
‘I say, Podgie!’—the speaker was in the last of the line of destroyers, as we thumped astern—‘aren’t you lonely out there?’
‘Oh, don’t rag me!’ said Moorshed. ‘Do you suppose I’ll have to manoeuvre with your flo-tilla?’
‘No, Podgie ! I’m pretty sure our commander will see you sifting cinders in Tophet before you come with our flo-tilla.’
‘Thank you! She steers rather wild at high speeds.’
Two men laughed together.
‘By the way, who is Mr. Carteret-Jones when he’s at home?’ I whispered.
‘I was with him in the Britannia. I didn’t like him much, but I’m grateful to him now. I must tell him so some day.’
‘They seemed to know him hereabouts.’
‘He rammed the Caryatid twice with her own steam-pinnace.’
Presently, moved by long strokes, Mr. Pyecroft returned, skimming across the dark. The dinghy swung up behind him, even as his heel spurned it.
‘Commander Fasset’s compliments to Mr. L. Carteret-Jones, and the sooner he digs out in pursuance of Admiralty orders as received at Portsmouth, the better pleased Commander Fasset will be. But there’s a lot more——’
‘Whack her up, Mr. Hinchcliffe! Come on to the bridge. We can settle it as we go. Well?’
Mr. Pyecroft drew an important breath, and slid off his cap.
‘Day an’ night private signals of Red Fleet complete, Sir!’ He handed a little paper to Moorshed. ‘You see, Sir, the trouble was, that Mr. Carteret-Jones bein’, so to say, a little new to his duties, ’ad forgot to give ’is gunner his Admiralty orders in writin’, but, as I told Commander Fasset, Mr. Jones had been repeatin’ ’em to me, nervous-like, most of the way from Portsmouth, so I knew ’em by heart—an’ better. The Commander, recognisin’ in me a man of agility, cautioned me to be a father an’ mother to Mr. Carteret-Jones.’
‘Didn’t he know you?’ I asked, thinking for the moment that there could be no duplicates of Emanuel Pyecroft in the Navy.
‘What’s a torpedo-gunner more or less to a full lootenant commandin’ six thirty-knot destroyers for the first time? ’E seemed to cherish the ’ope that ’e might use the Gnome for ’is own ’orrible purposes; but what I told him about Mr. Jones’s sad lack o’ nerve comin’ from Pompey, an’ going dead slow on account of the dark, short-circuited that connection. “M’rover,” I says to him, “our orders is explicit; Stiletto’s reported broke down somewhere off the Start, an’ we’ve been tryin’ to coil down a new stiff wire hawser all the evenin’, so it looks like towin’ ’er back, don’t it?” I says. That more than ever jams his turrets, an’ makes him keen to get rid of us. ’E even hinted that Mr. Carteret-Jones passin’ hawsers an’ assistin’ the impotent in a sea-way might come pretty expensive on the taxpayer. I agreed in a disciplined way. I ain’t proud. Gawd knows I ain’t proud! But when I’m really diggin’ out in the fancy line, I sometimes think that me in a copper punt, single-’anded, ’ud beat a cutter-full of De Rougemongs in a row round the fleet.’
At this point I reclined without shame on Mr. Pyecroft’s bosom, supported by his quivering arm.
‘Well?’ said Moorshed, scowling into the darkness, as 267’s bows snapped at the shore seas of the broader Channel, and we swayed together.
‘“You’d better go on,” says Commander Fasset, “an’ do what you’re told to do. I don’t envy Hignett if he has to dry-nurse the Gnome’s commander. But what d’you want with signals?” ’e says. “It’s criminal lunacy to trust Mr. Jones with anything that steams.”
‘“May I make an observation, Sir?” I says. “Suppose,” I says, “you was torpedo-gunner on the Gnome, an’ Mr. Carteret-Jones was your commandin’ officer, an’ you had your reputation as a second in command for the first time,” I says, well knowin’ it was his first command of a flotilla, “what ’ud you do, Sir?” That gouged ’is unprotected ends open—clear back to the citadel.’
‘What did he say?’ Moorshed jerked over his shoulder.
‘If you were Mr. Carteret-Jones, it might be disrespect for me to repeat it, Sir.’
‘Go ahead,’ I heard the boy chuckle.
‘“Do?”’e says. “I’d rub the young blighter’s nose into it till I made a perishin’ man of him, or a perspirin’ pillow-case,” ’e says, “which,” he adds, “is forty per cent more than he is at present.”
‘Whilst he’s gettin’ the private signals—they’re rather particular ones—I went forrard to see the Dirk’s gunner about borrowin’ a holdin’-down bolt for our twelve-pounder. My open ears, while I was rovin’ over his packet, got the followin’ authentic particulars.’ I heard his voice change and his feet shifted. ‘There’s been a last council o’ war of destroyer-captains at the flagship, an’ a lot o’ things ’as come out. To begin with, Cryptic and Devolution, Captain Panke and Captain Malan——’
‘Cryptic and Devolution, first-class cruisers,’ said Mr. Moorshed dreamily. ‘Go on, Pyecroft.’
‘—bein’ delayed by minor defects in engine-room, did not, as we know, accompany Red Fleet’s first division of scouting cruisers, whose rendezvous is unknown, but presumed to be somewhere off the Lizard. Cryptic an’ Devolution left at 9.30 p.m. still reportin’ copious minor defects in engine-room. Admiral’s final instructions was they was to put in to Torbay, an’ mend themselves there. If they can do it in twenty-four hours, they’re to come on and join the Red battle squadron at the first rendezvous, down Channel somewhere. (I couldn’t get that, Sir.) If they can’t, he’ll think about sendin’ them some destroyers for escort. But his present intention is to go ’ammer and tongs down Channel, usin’ ’is destroyers for all they’re worth, an’ thus keepin’ Blue Fleet too busy off the Irish coast to sniff into any eshtuaries.’
‘But if those cruisers are crocks, why does the Admiral let ’em out of Weymouth at all?’ I asked.
‘The taxpayer,’ said Mr. Moorshed.
‘An’ newspapers,’ added Mr. Pyecroft. ‘In Torbay they’ll look as they was muckin’ about for strategical purposes—hammerin’ like blazes in the engine-room all the weary day, an’ the skipper droppin’ questions down the engine-room hatch every two or three minutes. I’ve been there. Now, Sir?’ I saw the white of his eye turn broad on Mr. Moorshed.
The boy dropped his chin over the speakingtube.
‘Mr. Hinchcliffe, what’s her extreme economical radius? ‘
‘Three hundred and forty knots, down to swept bunkers.’
‘Can do,’ said Moorshed. ‘By the way, have her revolutions any bearing on her speed, Mr. Hinchcliffe ? ‘
‘None that I can make out yet, Sir.’
‘Then slow to eight knots. We’ll jog down to forty-nine, forty-five, or four about, and three east. That puts us say forty miles from Torbay by nine o’clock to-morrow morning. We’ll have to muck about till dusk before we run in and try our luck with the cruisers.’
‘Yes, Sir. Their picket boats will be panickin’ round them all night. It’s considered good for the young gentlemen.’
‘Hallo! War’s declared! They’re off!’ said Moorshed.
He swung 267’s head round to get a better view. A few miles to our right the low horizon was spangled with small balls of fire, while nearer ran a procession of tiny cigar-ends.
‘Red hot! Set ’em alight,’ said Mr. Pyecroft. ‘That’s the second destroyer flotilla diggin’ out for Commander Fasset’s reputation.’
The smaller lights disappeared; the glare of the destroyers’ funnels dwindled even as we watched.
‘They’re going down Channel with lights out, thus showin’ their zeal an’ drivin’ all watch-officers crazy. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll get you your pyjamas, an’ you’ll turn in,’ said Pyecroft.
He piloted me to the steel tunnel, where the ham still swung majestically over the swaying table, and dragged out trousers and a coat with a monk’s hood, all hewn from one hairy inch-thick board.
‘If you fall over in these you’ll be drowned. They’re lammies. I’ll chock you off with a pillow; but sleepin’ in a torpedoboat’s what you might call an acquired habit.’
I coiled down on an iron-hard horse-hair pillow next the quivering steel wall to acquire that habit. The sea, sliding over 267’s skin, worried me with importunate, half-caught confidences. It drummed tackily to gather my attention, coughed, spat, cleared its throat, and, on the eve of that portentous communication, retired up stage as a multitude whispering. Anon, I caught the tramp of armies afoot, the hum of crowded cities awaiting the event, the single sob of a woman, and dry roaring of wild beasts. A dropped shovel clanging on the stokehold floor was, naturally enough, the unbarring of arena gates; our sucking uplift across the crest of some little swell, nothing less than the haling forth of new worlds; our half-turning descent into the hollow of its mate, the abysmal plunge of God-forgotten planets. Through all these phenomena and more—though I ran with wild horses over illimitable plains of rustling grass; though I crouched belly-flat under appalling fires of musketry; though I was Livingstone, painless and incurious in the grip of his lion—my shut eyes saw the lamp swinging in its gimbals, the irregularly gliding patch of light on the steel ladder, and every elastic shadow in the corners of the frail angle-irons; while my body strove to accommodate itself to the infernal vibration of the machine. At the last I rolled limply on the floor, and woke to real life with a bruised nose and a great call to go on deck at once.
‘It’s all right,’ said a voice in my booming ears. ‘Morgan and Laughton are worse than you!’
I was gripping a rail. Mr. Pyecroft pointed with his foot to two bundles beside a torpedo-tube, which at Weymouth had been a signaller and a most able seaman. ‘She’d do better in a bigger sea,’ said Mr. Pyecroft. ‘This lop is what fetches it up.’
The sky behind us whitened as I laboured, and the first dawn drove down the Channel, tipping the wave-tops with a chill glare. To me that round wind which runs before the true day has ever been fortunate and of good omen. It cleared the trouble from my body, and set my soul dancing to 267’s heel and toe across the northerly set of the waves—such waves as I had often watched contemptuously from the deck of a ten-thousand-ton liner. They shouldered our little hull sideways and passed, scalloped, and splayed out, toward the coast, carrying our white wake in loops along their hollow backs. In succession we looked down a lead-gray cutting of water for half a clear mile, were flung up on its ridge, beheld the Channel traffic—full-sailed to that fair breeze—all about us, and swung slantwise, light as a bladder, elastic as a basket, into the next furrow. Then the sun found us, struck the wet gray bows to living, leaping opal, the colourless deep to hard sapphire, the many sails to pearl, and the little steam-plume of our escape to an inconstant rainbow.
‘A fair day and a fair wind for all, thank God!’ said Emanuel Pyecroft, throwing back the cowllike hood of his blanket coat. His face was pitted with coal-dust and grime, pallid for lack of sleep; but his eyes shone like a gull’s.
‘I told you you’d see life. Think o’ the Pedantic now. Think o’ her Number One chasin’ the mobilised gobbles round the lower deck flats. Think o’ the pore little snotties now bein’ washed, fed, and taught, an’ the yeoman o’ signals with a pink eye waken’ bright an’ brisk to another perishin’ day of five-flag hoists. Whereas we shall caulk an’ smoke cigarettes, same as the Spanish destroyers did for three weeks after war was declared.’ He dropped into the wardroom singing:
|‘If you’re going to marry me, marry me, Bill,
It’s no use muckin’ about!’
The man at the wheel, uniformed in what had once been a tam-o’-shanter, a pair of very worn R.M.L.I. trousers rolled up to the knee, and a black sweater, was smoking a cigarette. Moorshed, in a gray Balaclava and a brown mackintosh with a flapping cape, hauled at our supplementary funnel guys, and a thing like a waiter from a Soho restaurant sat at the head of the engine-room ladder exhorting the unseen below. The following wind beat down our smoke and covered all things with an inch-thick layer of stokers, so that eyelids, teeth, and feet gritted in their motions. I began to see that my previous experiences among battleships and cruisers had been altogether beside the mark.