The wind went down with the sunset—|
The fog came up with the tide,
When the Witch of the North took an Egg-shell (bis)
With a little Blue Devil inside.
‘Sink,’ she said, ‘or swim,’ she said,
‘It’s all you will get from me.
And that is the finish of him !’ she said,
And the Egg-shell went to sea.
The wind got up with the morning,
BUT for the small detail that I was a passenger and a civilian, and might not alter her course, torpedo-boat No. 267 was mine to me all that priceless day. Moorshed, after breakfast—frizzled ham and a devil that Pyecroft made out of sardines, anchovies, and French mustard smashed together with a spanner—showed me his few and simple navigating tools, and took an observation. Morgan, the signaller, let me hold the chamois leathers while he cleaned the searchlight (we seemed to be better equipped with electricity than most of our class), that lived under a bulbous umbrella-cover amidships. Then Pyecroft and Morgan, standing easy, talked together of the King’s Service as reformers and revolutionists, so notably, that were I not engaged on this tale I would, for its conclusion, substitute theirs.
I would speak of Hinchcliffe—Henry Salt Hinchcliffe, first-class engine-room artificer, and genius in his line, who was prouder of having taken part in the Hat Crusade in his youth than of all his daring, his skill, and his nickel-steel nerve. I consorted with him for an hour in the packed and dancing engine-room, when Moorshed suggested ‘whacking her up’ to eighteen knots, to see if she would stand it. The floor was ankle-deep in a creamy batter of oil and water; each moving part flicking more oil in zoetrope-circles, and the gauges invisible for their dizzy chattering on the chattering steel bulkhead. Leading Stoker Grant, said to be a bigamist, an ox-eyed man smothered in hair, took me to the stokehold and planted me between a searing white furnace and some hell-hot iron plate for fifteen minutes, while I listened to the drone of fans and the worry of the sea without, striving to wrench all that palpitating firepot wide open.
Then I came on deck and watched Moorshed—revolving in his orbit from the canvas bustle and torpedo-tubes aft, by way of engine-room, conning-tower, and wheel, to the doll’s house of a foc’sle—learned in experience withheld from me, moved by laws beyond my knowledge, authoritative, entirely adequate, and yet, in heart, a child at his play. I could not take ten steps along the crowded deck but I collided with some body or thing; but he and his satellites swung, passed, and returned on their vocations with the freedom and spaciousness of the well-poised stars.
Even now I can at will recall every tone and gesture, with each dissolving picture inboard or overside—Hinchcliffe’s white arm buried to the shoulder in a hornet’s nest of spinning machinery; Moorshed’s halt and jerk to windward as he looked across the water; Pyecroft’s back bent over the Berthon collapsible boat, while he drilled three men in expanding it swiftly; the outflung white water at the foot of a homeward-bound Chinaman not a hundred yards away, and her shadow-slashed, rope-purfled sails bulging sideways like insolent cheeks; the ribbed and pitted coal-dust on our decks, all iridescent under the sun; the first filmy haze that paled the shadows of our funnels about lunch-time; the gradual die-down and dulling over of the short, cheery seas; the sea that changed to a swell; the swell that crumbled up and ran allwhither oilily; the triumphant, almost audible roll inward of wandering fog-walls that had been stalking us for two hours, and—welt upon welt, chill as the grave—the drive of the interminable main fog of the Atlantic. We slowed to little more than steerage-way and lay listening. Presently a hand-bellows foghorn jarred like a corncrake, and there rattled out of the mist a big ship literally above us. We could count the rivets in her plates as we scrooped by, and the little drops of dew gathered below them.
‘Wonder why they’re always barks—always steel—always four-masted—an’ never less than two thousand tons. But they are,’ said Pyecroft. He was out on the turtle-backed bows of her; Moorshed was at the wheel, and another man worked the whistle.
‘This fog is the best thing could ha’ happened to us,’ said Moorshed. ‘It gives us our chance to run in on the quiet . . . . Hal-lo!’
A cracked bell rang. Clean and sharp (beautifully grained, too), a bowsprit surged over our starboard bow, the bobstay confidentially hooking itself into our forward rail.
I saw Pyecroft’s arm fly up; heard at the same moment the severing of the tense rope, the working of the wheel, Moorshed’s voice down the tube saying, ‘Astern a little, please, Mr. Hinchcliffe !’ and Pyecroft’s cry, ‘Trawler with her gear down! Look out for our propeller, Sir, or we’ll be wrapped up in the rope.’
267 surged quickly under my feet, as the pressure of the downward-bearing bobstay was removed. Half-a-dozen men of the foc’sle had already thrown out fenders, and stood by to bear off a just visible bulwark.
Still going astern, we touched slowly, broadside on, to a suggestive crunching of fenders, and I looked into the deck of a Brixham trawler, her crew struck dumb.
‘Any luck?’ said Moorshed politely.
‘Not till we met yeou,’ was the answer. ‘The Lard he saved us from they big ships to be spitted by the little wan. Where be’e gwine to with our fine new bobstay?’
‘Yah ! You’ve had time to splice it by now,’ said Pyecroft with contempt.
‘Aie ; but we’m all crushed to port like aigs. You was runnin’ twenty-seven knots, us reckoned it. Didn’t us, Albert?’
‘Liker twenty-nine, an’ niver no whistle.’
‘Yes, we always do that. Do you want a tow to Brixham?’ said Moorshed.
A great silence fell upon those wet men of the sea.
We lifted a little toward their side, but our silent, quick-breathing crew, braced and strained outboard, bore us off as though we had been a mere picket-boat.
‘What for?’ said a puzzled voice.
‘For love; for nothing. You’ll be abed in Brixham by midnight.’
‘Yiss; but trawls down.’
‘No hurry. I’ll pass you a line and go ahead. Sing out when you’re ready.’ A rope smacked on their deck with the word; they made it fast; we slid forward, and in ten seconds saw nothing save a few feet of the wire rope running into fog over our stern; but we heard the noise of debate.
‘Catch a Brixham trawler letting go of a free tow in a fog,’ said Moorshed, listening.
‘But what in the world do you want him for?’ I asked.
‘Oh, he’ll come in handy later.’
‘Was that your first collision?’
‘Yes.’ I shook hands with him in silence, and our tow hailed us.
‘Aie! yeou little man-o’-war!’ The voice rose muffled and wailing. ‘After us’ve upped trawl, us’ll be glad of a tow. Leave line just slack abaout as ’tis now, and kip a good fine look-out be’ind ’ee.’
‘There’s an accommodatin’ blighter for you !’ said Pyecroft. ‘Where does he expect we’ll be, with these currents evolutin’ like sailormen at the Agricultural Hall?’
I left the bridge to watch the wire-rope at the stern as it drew out and smacked down upon the water. By what instinct or guidance 267 kept it from fouling her languidly flapping propeller, I cannot tell. The fog now thickened and thinned in streaks that bothered the eyes like the glare of intermittent flash-lamps; by turns granting us the vision of a sick sun that leered and fled, or burying all a thousand fathom deep in gulfs of vapours. At no time could we see the trawler though we heard the click of her windlass, the jar of her trawl-beam, and the very flap of the fish on her deck. Forward was Pyecroft with the lead; on the bridge Moorshed pawed a Channel chart; aft sat I, listening to the whole of the British Mercantile Marine (never a keel less) returning to England, and watching the fog-dew run round the bight of the tow back to its motherfog.
‘Aie! yeou little man-o’-war! We’m done with trawl. Yeou can take us home if you know the road.’
‘Right O!’ said Moorshed. ‘We’ll give the fishmonger a run for his money. Whack her up, Mr. Hinchcliffe.’
The next few hours completed my education. I saw that I ought to be afraid, but more clearly (this was when a liner hooted down the back of my neck) that any fear which would begin to do justice to the situation would, if yielded to, incapacitate me for the rest of my days. A shadow of spread sails, deeper than the darkening twilight, brooding over us like the wings of Azrael (Pyecroft said she was a Swede), and, miraculously withdrawn, persuaded me that there was a working chance that I should reach the beach—any beach—alive, if not dry; and (this was when an economical tramp laved our port-rail with her condenser water) were I so spared, I vowed I would tell my tale worthily.
Thus we floated in space as souls drift through raw time. Night added herself to the fog, and I laid hold on my limbs jealously, lest they, too, should melt in the general dissolution.
‘Where’s that prevaricatin’ fishmonger?’ said Pyecroft, turning a lantern on a scant yard of the gleaming wire-rope that pointed like a stick to my left. ‘He’s doin’ some fancy steerin’ on his own. No wonder Mr. Hinchcliffe is blasphemious. The tow’s sheered off to starboard, Sir. He’ll fair pull the stern out of us.’
Moorshed, invisible, cursed through the megaphone into invisibility.
‘Aie! yeou little man-o’-war!’ The voice butted through the fog with the monotonous insistence of a strayed sheep’s. ‘We don’t all like the road you’m takin’. ’Tis no road to Brixham. You’ll be buckled up under Prawle Point by’mbye.’
‘Do you pretend to know where you are?’ the megaphone roared.
‘Iss, I reckon; but there’s no pretence to me!,
‘0 Peter!’ said Pyecroft. ‘Let’s hang him at ’is own gaff.’
I could not see what followed, but Moorshed said: ‘Take another man with you. If you lose the tow, you’re done. I’ll slow her down.’
I heard the dinghy splash overboard ere I could cry ‘Murder!’ Heard the rasp of a boat-hook along the wire-rope, and then, as it had been in my ear, Pyecroft’s enormous and jubilant bellow astern: ‘Why, he’s here! Right atop of us! The blighter ’as pouched half the tow, like a shark!’ A long pause filled with soft Devonian bleatings. Then Pyecroft, solo arpeggio: ‘Rum? Rum? Rum? Is that all? Come an’ try it, uncle.’
I lifted my face to where once God’s sky had been, and besought The Trues I might not die inarticulate, amid these halfworked miracles, but live at least till my fellow-mortals could be made one-millionth as happy as I was happy. I prayed and I waited, and we went slow—slow as the processes of evolution—till the boat-hook rasped again.
‘He’s not what you might call a scientific navigator,’ said Pyecroft, still in the dinghy, but rising like a fairy from a pantomime trap. ‘The lead’s what ’e goes by mostly; rum is what he’s come for; an’ Brixham is ’is ’ome. Lay on, Macduff!’
A white-whiskered man in a frock-coat—as I live by bread, a frock-coat!—sea-boots, and a comforter, crawled over the torpedo-tube into Moorshed’s grip and vanished forward.
‘’E’ll probably ’old three gallon (look sharp with that dinghy!); but ’is nephew, left in charge of the Agatha, wants two bottles command-allowance. You’re a taxpayer, Sir. Do you think that excessive?’
‘Lead there! Lead!’ rang out from forward. ‘Didn’t I say ’e wouldn’ understand compass deviations? Watch him close. It’ll be worth it!’
As I neared the bridge I heard the stranger say: ‘Let me zmell un!’ and to his nose was the lead presented by a trained man of the King’s Navy.
‘I’ll tell ’ee where to goo, if yeou’ll tell your donkey-man what to du. I’m no hand wi’ steam.’ On these lines we proceeded miraculously, and, under Moorshed’s orders—I was the fisherman’s Ganymede, even as ‘M. de C.’ had served the captain—I found both rum and curaçoa in a locker, and mixed them equal bulk in an enamelled iron cup.
‘Now we’m just abeam o’ where we should be,’ he said at last, ‘an’ here we’ll lay till she lifts. I’d take ’e in for another bottle—and wan for my nevvy; but I reckon yeou’m shart-allowanced for rum. That’s nivver no Navy rum yeou’m give me. Knowed ’en by the smack to un. Anchor now!’
I was between Pyecroft and Moorshed on the bridge, and heard them spring to vibrating attention at my side. A man with a lead a few feet to port caught the panic through my body, and checked like a wild boar at gaze, for not far away an unmistakable ship’s bell was ringing. It ceased, and another began.
‘Them!’ said Pyecroft. ‘Anchored!’
‘More!’ said our pilot, passing me the cup, and I filled it. The trawler astern clattered vehemently on her bell. Pyecroft with a jerk of his arm threw loose the forward three-pounder. The bar of the back-sight was heavily Mobbed with dew; the foresight was invisible.
‘No—they wouldn’t have their picket-boats out in this weather, though they ought to.’ He returned the barrel to its crotch slowly.
‘Be yeou gwine to anchor?’ said Macduff, smacking his lips, ‘or be yeou gwine straight on to Livermead Beach?’
‘Tell him what we’re driving at. Get it into his head somehow,’ said Moorshed ; and Pyecroft, snatching the cup from me, enfolded the old man with an arm and a mist of wonderful words.
‘And if you pull it off,’ said Moorshed at the last, ‘I’ll give you a fiver.’
‘Lard! What’s fivers to me, young man? My nevvy, he likes ’em; but I do cherish more on fine drink than filthy lucre any day o’ God’s good weeks. Leave goo my arm, yeou common sailorman! I tall ’ee, gentlemen, I bain’t the ram-faced, ruddle-nosed old fule yeou reckon I be. Before the mast I’ve fared in my time; fisherman I’ve been since I seed the unsense of sea-dangerin’. Baccy and spirits—yiss, an’ cigars too, I’ve run a plenty. I’m no blind harse or boy to be coaxed with your forty-mile free towin’ and rum atop of all. There’s none more sober to Brix’am this tide, I don’t care who ’tis—than me. I know—I know. Yander’m two great King’s ships. Yeou’m wishful to sink, burn, and destroy they while us kips ’em busy sellin’ fish. No need tall me so twanty taime over. Us’ll find they ships! Us’ll find ’em, if us has to break our fine new bowsprit so close as Crump’s bull’s horn!’
‘Good egg!’ quoth Moorshed, and brought his hand down on the wide shoulders with the smack of a beaver’s tail.
‘Us’ll go look for they by hand. Us’ll give they something to play upon; an’ do ’ee deal with them faithfully, an’ may the Lard have mercy on your sowls! Amen. Put I in dinghy again.’
The fog was as dense as ever—we moved in the very womb of night—but I cannot recall that I took the faintest note of it as the dinghy, guided by the tow-rope, disappeared toward the Agatha, Pyecroft rowing. The bell began again on the starboard bow.
‘We’re pretty near,’ said Moorshed, slowing down. ‘Out with the Berthon. (We’ll sell ’em fish, too.) And if any one rows Navy-stroke, I’ll break his jaw with the tiller. Mr. Hinchcliffe’ (this down the tube), ‘you’ll stay here in charge with Gregory and Shergold and the engine-room staff. Morgan stays, too, for signalling purposes.’ A deep groan broke from Morgan’s chest, but he said nothing. ‘If the fog thins and you’re seen by any one, keep ’em quiet with the signals. I can’t think of the precise lie just now, but you can, Morgan.’
‘Suppose their torpedo-nets are down?’ I whispered, shivering with excitement.
‘If they’ve been repairing minor defects all day, they won’t have any one to spare from the engine-room, and “Out nets!” is a job for the whole ship’s company. I expect they’ve trusted to the fog—like us. Well, Pyecroft?’
That great soul had blown up on to the bridge like a feather. ‘’Ad to see the first o’ the rum into the Agathites, Sir. They was a bit jealous o’ their commandin’ officer comin’ ’ome so richly lacquered, and at first the conversazione languished, as you might say. But they sprang to attention ere I left. Six sharp strokes on the bells, if any of ’em are sober enough to keep tally, will be the signal that our consort ’as cast off her tow an’ is manoeuvrin’ on ’er own.’
‘Right O! Take Laughton with you in the dinghy. Put that Berthon over quietly there! Are you all right, Mr. Hinchcliffe?’
I stood back to avoid the rush of half-a-dozen shadows dropping into the Berthon boat. A hand caught me by the slack of my garments, moved me in generous arcs through the night, and I rested on the bottom of the dinghy.
‘I want you for prima facie evidence, in case the vaccination don’t take,’ said Pyecroft in my ear. ‘Push off, Alf!’
The last bell-ringing was high overhead. It was followed by six little tinkles from the Agatha, the roar of her falling anchor, the clash of pans, and loose shouting.
‘Where be gwine to? Port your ’ellum. Aie! you mud-dredger in the fairway, goo astern! Out boats! She’ll sink us!’
A clear-cut Navy voice drawled from the clouds
‘Quiet! you gardeners there. This is the Cryptic at anchor.’
‘Thank you for the range,’ said Pyecroft, and paddled gingerly. ‘Feel well out in front of you, Alf. Remember your fat fist is our only Marconi installation.’
The voices resumed
‘Bournemouth steamer he says she be.’
‘Then where be Brixham Harbour?’
‘Damme, I’m a taxpayer tu. They’ve no right to cruise about this way. I’ll have the laa on ’ee if anything carries away.’
Then the man-of-war
‘Short on your anchor! Heave short, you howling maniacs! You’ll get yourselves smashed in a minute if you drift.’
The air was full of these and other voices as the dinghy, checking, swung. I passed one hand down Laughton’s stretched arm and felt an iron gooseneck and a foot or two of a backward-sloping torpedo-net boom. The other hand I laid on broad, cold iron—even the flank of H.M.S. Cryptic, which is twelve thousand tons.
I heard a scrubby, raspy sound, as though Pyecroft had chosen that hour to shave, and I smelled paint. ‘Drop aft a bit, Alf; we’ll put a stencil under the stern six-inch casements.’
Boom by boom Laughton slid the dinghy along the towering curved wall. Once, twice, and again we stopped, and the keen scrubbing sound was renewed.
‘Umpires are ’ard-’earted blighters, but this ought to convince ’em . . . . Captain Panke’s stern-walk is now above our defenceless ’eads. Repeat the evolution up the starboard side, Alf.’
I was only conscious that we moved around an iron world palpitating with life. Though my knowledge was all by touch—as, for example, when Pyecroft led my surrendered hand to the base of some bulging sponson, or when my palm closed on the knife-edge of the stem and patted it timidly—yet I felt lonely and unprotected as the enormous, helpless ship was withdrawn, and we drifted away into the void where voices sang:
Tom Pearse, Tom Pearse, lend me thy gray mare,|
All along, out along, down along lea!
For I want for to go to Widdicombe Fair
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobbleigh an’ all.
‘That’s old Sinbad an’ ’is little lot from the Agatha! Give way, Alf! You might sing somethin’, too.’
‘I’m no burnin’ Patti. Ain’t there noise enough for you, Pye?’
‘Yes, but it’s only amateurs. Give me the tones of ’earth and ’ome. Ha! List to the blighter on the ’orizon sayin’ his prayers, Navy-fashion. ’Eaven ’elp me argue that way when I’m a warrant-officer!’
We headed with little lapping strokes toward what seemed to be a fair-sized riot.
‘An’ I’ve ’eard the Devolution called a happy ship, too,’ said Pyecroft. ‘Just shows ’ow a man’s misled by prejudice. She’s peevish—that’s what she is—nasty-peevish. Prob’ly all because the Agathites are scratching ’er paint. Well, rub along, Alf. I’ve got the lymph!’
A voice, which Mr. Pyecroft assured me belonged to a chief carpenter, was speaking through an aperture (starboard bow twelve-pounder on the lower deck. He did not wish to purchase any fish, even at grossly reduced rates. Nobody wished to buy any fish. This ship was the Devolution at anchor, and desired no communication with shore boats.
‘Mark how the Navy ’olds its own. He’s sober. The Agathites are not, as you might say, an’ yet they can’t live with ’im. It’s the discipline that does it. ’Ark to the bald an’ unconvincin’ watch-officer chimin’ in. I wonder where Mr. Moorshed has got to?’
We drifted down the Devolution’s side, as we had drifted down her sister’s; and we dealt with her in that dense gloom as we had dealt with her sister.
‘Whai! ’Tis a man-o’-war, after all! I can see the captain’s whisker all gilt at the edges! We took’ee for the Bournemouth steamer. Three cheers for the real man-o’-war!’
That cry came from under the Devolution’s stern. Pyecroft held something in his teeth, for I heard him mumble, ‘Our Mister Moorshed!’
Said a boy’s voice above us, just as we dodged a jet of hot water from some valve: ‘I don’t half like that cheer. If I’d been the old man I’d ha’ turned loose the quick-firers at the first go-off. Aren’t they rowing Navy-stroke, yonder?’
‘True,’ said Pyecroft, listening to retreating oars. ‘It’s time to go ’ome when snotties begin to think. The fog’s thinnin’, too.’
I felt a chill breath on my forehead, and saw a few feet of the steel stand out darker than the darkness, disappear—it was then the dinghy shot away from it—and emerge once more.
‘Hallo! what boat’s that?’ said the voice suspiciously.
‘Why, I do believe it’s a real man-o’-war, after all,’ said Pyecroft, and kicked Laughton.
‘What’s that for?’ Laughton was no dramatist.
‘Answer in character, you blighter! Say somethin’ opposite.’
‘What boat’s thatt?’ The hail was repeated.
‘What do yee say-ay?’ Pyecroft bellowed, and, under his breath to me: ‘Give us a hand.’
‘It’s called the Marietta—F. J. Stokes—Torquay,’ I began, quaveringly. ‘At least that’s the name on the name-board. I’ve been dining—on a yacht.’
‘I see.’ The voice shook a little, and my way opened before me with disgraceful ease.
‘Yesh. Dining private yacht. Eshmesheralda. I belong to Torquay Yacht Club. Are you member Torquay Yacht Club?’
‘You’d better go to bed, Sir. Good-night.’ We slid into the rapidly thinning fog.
‘Dig out, Alf. Put your nix mangiare back into it. The fog’s peelin’ off like a petticoat. Where’s Two Six Seven?’
‘I can’t see her,’ I replied, ‘but there’s a light low down ahead.’
‘The Agatha!’ They rowed desperately through the uneasy dispersal of the fog for ten minutes and ducked round the trawler’s bow.
‘Well, Emanuel means “God with us”—so far.’ Pyecroft wiped his brow, laid a hand on the low rail, and as he boosted me up to the trawler, I saw Moorshed’s face, white as pearl in the thinning dark.
‘Was it all right?’ said he, over the bulwarks.
‘Vaccination ain’t in it. She’s took beautiful. But where’s 267, Sir?’ Pyecroft replied.
‘Gone. We came here as the fog lifted. I gave the Devolution four. Was that you behind us?’
‘Yes, sir; but I only got in three on the Devolution. I gave the Cryptic nine, though. They’re what you might call more or less vaccinated.’
He lifted me inboard, where Moorshed and six pirates lay round the Agatha’s hatch. There was a hint of daylight in the cool air.
‘Where is the old man?’ I asked.
‘Still selling ’em fish, I suppose. He’s a darling! But I wish I could get this filthy paint off my hands. Hallo! What the deuce is the Cryptic signalling?’
A pale masthead light winked through the last of the fog. It was answered by a white pencil to the southward.
‘Destroyer signallin’ with searchlight.’ Pyecroft leaped on the stern-rail. ‘The first part is private signals. Ah! now she’s Morsing against the fog. “ P-O-S-T—yes, postpone”—“D-E-P(go on!) departure—till—further—orders—which—will—be com (he’s dropped the other m) unicated—verbally. End.”’ He swung round. ‘Cryptic is now answering: “Ready—proceed—immediately. What—news—promised—destroyer—flotilla?”’
‘Hallo!’ said Moorshed. ‘Well, never mind. They’ll come too late.’
‘Whew! That’s some ’igh-born suckling on the destroyer. Destroyer signals: “Care not. All will be known later.” What merry beehive’s broken loose now?’
‘What odds! We’ve done our little job.’
‘Why—why—it’s Two Six Seven!’
Here Pyecroft dropped from the rail among the fishy nets and shook the Agatha with heavings. Moorshed cast aside his cigarette, looked over the stern, and fell into his subordinate’s arms. I heard. the guggle of engines, the rattle of a little anchor going over not a hundred yards away, a cough, and Morgan’s subdued hail . . . . So far as I remember, it was Laughton whom I hugged; but the men who hugged me most were Pyecroft and Moorshed, adrift among the fishy nets.
There was no semblance of discipline in our flight over the Agatha’s side, nor, indeed, were ordinary precautions taken for the common safety, because (I was in the Berthon) they held that patent boat open by hand for the most part. We regained our own craft, cackling like wild geese, and crowded round Moorshed and Hinchcliffe. Behind us the Agatha’s boat, returning from her fish-selling cruise, yelled : ‘Have ’ee done the trick? Have ’ee done the trick?’ and we could only shout hoarsely over the stern, guaranteeing them rum by the hold-full.
‘Fog got patchy here at 12.27,’ said Henry Salt Hinchcliffe, growing clearer every instant in the dawn. ‘Went down to Brixham Harbour to keep out of the road. Heard whistles to the south and went to look. I had her up to sixteen good. Morgan kept on shedding private Red Fleet signals out of the signal-book, as the fog cleared, till we was answered by three destroyers. Morgan signalled ’em by searchlight: “Alter course to South Seventeen East, so as not to lose time.” They came round quick. We kept well away—on their port beam—and Morgan gave ’em their orders.’ He looked at Morgan and coughed.
‘The signalman, acting as second in command,’ said Morgan, swelling, ‘then informed destroyer flotilla that Cryptic and Devolution had made good defects, and, in obedience to Admiral’s supplementary orders (I was afraid they might suspect that, but they didn’t), had proceeded at seven knots at 11.23 p.m. to rendezvous near Channel Islands, seven miles N.N.W. the Casquet light. (I’ve rendezvoused there myself, Sir.) Destroyer flotilla would therefore follow cruisers and catch up with them on their course. Destroyer flotilla then dug out on course indicated, all funnels sparking briskly.’
‘Who were the destroyers?’
‘Wraith, Kobbold, Stiletto, Lieutenant-Commander A. L. Hignett, acting under Admiral’s orders to escort cruisers received off the Dodman at 7 p.m. They’d come slow on account of fog.’
‘Then who were you?’
‘We were the Afrite, port engine broke down, put in to Torbay, and there instructed by Cryptic, previous to her departure with Devolution, to inform Commander Hignett of change of plans. Lieutenant-Commander Hignett signalled that our meeting was quite providential. After this we returned to pick up our commanding officer, and being interrogated by Cryptic, marked time signalling as requisite, which you may have seen. The Agatha representing the last known rallying-point—or, as I should say, pivot-ship of the evolution—it was decided to repair to the Agatha at conclusion of manoeuvre.’
We breathed deeply, all of us, but no one spoke a word till Moorshed said: ‘Is there such a thing as one fine big drink aboard this one fine big battleship?’
‘Can do, sir,’ said Pyecroft, and got it. Beginning with Mr. Moorshed and ending with myself, junior to the third firstclass stoker, we drank, and it was as water of the brook, that two and a half inches of stilt, treacly Navy rum. And we looked each in the other’s face, and we nodded, bright-eyed, burning with bliss.
Moorshed walked aft to the torpedo-tubes and paced back and forth, a captain victorious on his own quarter-deck; and the triumphant day broke over the green-bedded villas of Torquay to show us the magnitude of our victory. There lay the cruisers (I have reason to believe that they had made good their defects). They were each four hundred and forty feet long and sixty-six wide; they held close upon eight hundred men apiece, and they had cost, say, a million and a half the pair. And they were ours, and they did not know it. Indeed, the Cryptic, senior ship, was signalling vehement remarks to our address, which we did not notice.
‘If you take these glasses, you’ll get the general run o’ last night’s vaccination,’ said Pyecroft. ‘Each one represents a torpedo got ’ome, as you might say.’
I saw on the Cryptic’s port side, as she lay half a mile away across the glassy water, four neat white squares in outline, a white blur in the centre.
‘There are five more to starboard. ’Ere’s the original!’ He handed me a paint-dappled copper stencil-plate, two feet square, bearing in the centre the six-inch initials, ‘G.M.’
‘Ten minutes ago I’d ha’ eulogised about that little trick of ours, but Morgan’s performance has short-circuited me. Are you happy, Morgan?’
‘Bustin’,’ said the signalman briefly.
‘You may be. Gawd forgive you, Morgan, for as Queen ’Enrietta said to the ’ousemaid, I never will. I’d ha’ given a year’s pay for ten minutes o’ your signallin’ work this mornin’.’
‘I wouldn’t ’ave took it up,’ was the answer. ‘Perishin’ ’Eavens above! Look at the Devolution’s semaphore !’ Two black wooden arms waved from the junior ship’s upper bridge. ‘They’ve seen it.’
‘The mote on their neighbour’s beam, of course,’ said Pyecroft, and read syllable by syllable ‘“ Captain Malan to Captain Panke. Is—sten—cilled—frieze your starboard side new Admiralty regulation, or your Number One’s private expense?” Now Cryptic is saying, “Not understood.” Poor old Crippy, the Devolute’s raggin’ ’er sore. “Who is G.M.?” she says. That’s fetched the Cryptic. She’s answerin’: “You ought to know. Examine own paintwork.” Oh Lord! they’re both on to it now. This is balm. This is beginning to be balm. I forgive you, Morgan!’
Two frantic pipes twittered. From either cruiser a whaler dropped into the water and madly rowed round the ship, as a gay-coloured hoist rose to the Cryptic’s yardarm : ‘Destroyer will close at once. Wish to speak by semaphore.’ Then on the bridge semaphore itself : ‘Have been trying to attract your attention last half-hour. Send commanding officer aboard at once.’
‘Our attention? After all the attention we’ve given ’er, too,’ said Pyecroft. ‘What a greedy old woman!’ To Moorshed : ‘Signal from the Cryptic, Sir.’
‘Never mind that!’ said the boy, peering through his glasses. ‘Out dinghy quick, or they’ll paint our marks out. Come along!’
By this time I was long past even hysteria. I remember Pyecroft’s bending back, the surge of the driven dinghy, a knot of amazed faces as we skimmed the Cryptic’s ram, and the dropped jaw of the midshipman in her whaler when we barged fairly into him.
‘Mind my paint!’ he yelled.
‘You mind mine, snotty,’ said Moorshed. ‘I was all night putting these little ear-marks on you for the umpires to sit on. Leave ’em alone.’
We splashed past him to the Devolution’s boat, where sat no one less than her first lieutenant, a singularly unhandy-looking officer.
‘What the deuce is the meaning of this?’ he roared, with an accusing forefinger.
‘You’re sunk, that’s all. You’ve been dead half a tide.’
‘Dead, am I? I’ll show you whether I’m dead or not, Sir!’
‘Well, you may be a survivor,’ said Moorshed ingratiatingly, ‘though it isn’t at all likely.’
The officer choked for a minute. The midshipman crouched up in the stern said, half aloud
‘Then I was right—last night.’
‘Yesh,’ I gasped from the dinghy’s coal-dust. ‘Are you member Torquay Yacht Club?’
‘Hell!’ said the first lieutenant, and fled away. The Cryptic’s boat was already at that cruiser’s side, and semaphores flicked zealously from ship to ship. We floated, a minute speck, between the two hulls, while the pipes went for the captain’s galley on the Devolution.
‘That’s all right,’ said Moorshed. ‘Wait till the gangway’s down and then board her decently. We oughtn’t to be expected to climb up a ship we’ve sunk.’
Pyecroft lay on his disreputable oars till Captain Malan, full-uniformed, descended the Devolution’s side. With due compliments—not acknowledged, I grieve to say—we fell in behind his sumptuous galley, and at last, upon pressing invitation, climbed, black as sweeps all, the lowered gangway of the Cryptic. At the top stood as fine a constellation of marine stars as ever sang together of a morning on a King’s ship. Every one who could get within earshot found that his work took him aft. I counted eleven able seamen polishing the breech-block of the stern nine-point-two, four marines zealously relieving each other at the lifebuoy, six call-boys, nine midshipmen of the watch, exclusive of naval cadets, and the higher ranks past all census.
‘If I die o’ joy,’ said Pyecroft behind his hand, ‘remember I died forgivin’ Morgan from the bottom of my ’eart, because, like Martha, we ’ave scoffed the better part. You’d better try to come to attention, Sir.’
Moorshed ran his eye voluptuously over the upper deck battery, the huge beam, and the immaculate perspective of power. Captain Panke and Captain Malan stood on the well-browned flash-plates by the dazzling hatch. Precisely over the flagstaff I saw Two Six Seven astern, her black petticoat half hitched up, meekly floating on the still sea. She looked like the pious Abigail who has just spoken her mind, and, with folded hands, sits thanking Heaven among the pieces. I could almost have sworn that she wore black worsted gloves and had a little dry cough. But it was Captain Panke that coughed so austerely. He favoured us with a lecture on uniform, deportment, and the urgent necessity of answering signals from a senior ship. He told us that he disapproved of masquerading, that he loved discipline, and would be obliged by an explanation. And while he delivered himself deeper and more deeply into our hands, I saw Captain Malan wince. He was watching Moorshed’s eye.
‘I belong to Blue Fleet, Sir. I command Number Two Six Seven,’ said Moorshed, and Captain Panke was dumb. ‘Have you such a thing as a frame-plan of the Cryptic aboard?’ He spoke with winning politeness as he opened a small and neatly folded paper.
‘I have, sir.’ The little man’s face was working with passion.
‘Ah! Then I shall be able to show you precisely where you were torpedoed last night in’ he consulted the paper with one finely arched eyebrow—‘in nine places. And since the Devolution is, I understand, a sister ship’—he bowed slightly toward Captain Malan ‘the same plan—’
I had followed the clear precision of each word with a dumb amazement which seemed to leave my mind abnormally clear. I saw Captain Malan’s eye turn from Moorshed and seek that of the Cryptic’s commander. And he telegraphed as clearly as Moorshed was speaking: ‘My dear friend and brother officer, I know Panke; you know Panke; we know Panke—good little Panke! In less than three Greenwich chronometer seconds Panke will make an enormous ass of himself, and I shall have to put things straight, unless you who are a man of tact and discernment—’
‘Carry on.’ The Commander’s order supplied the unspoken word. The cruiser boiled about her business around us; watch and watch-officers together, up to the limit of noise permissible. I saw Captain Malan turn to his senior.
‘Come to my cabin!’ said Panke gratingly, and led the way. Pyecroft and I stayed still.
‘It’s all right,’ said Pyecroft. ‘They daren’t leave us loose aboard for one revolution,’ and I knew that he had seen what I had seen.
‘You, too!’ said Captain Malan, returning suddenly. We passed the sentry between white-enamelled walls of speckless small-arms, and since that Royal Marine Light Infantryman was visibly suffocating from curiosity, I winked at him. We entered the chintz-adorned, photo-speckled, brass-fendered, tile-stowed main cabin. Moorshed, with a ruler, was demonstrating before the frame-plan of H.M.S. Cryptic.
‘—making nine stencils in all of my initials G.M.,’ I heard him say. ‘Further, you will find attached to your rudder, and you, too, Sir’—he bowed to Captain Malan yet again—‘one fourteen-inch Mark IV practice torpedo, as issued to first-class torpedo-boats, properly buoyed. I have sent full particulars by telegraph to the umpires, and have requested them to judge on the facts as they—appear.’ He nodded through the large window to the stencilled Devolution awink with brass-work in the morning sun, and ceased.
Captain Panke faced us. I remembered that this was only play, and caught myself wondering with what keener agony comes the real defeat.
‘Good God, Johnny!’ he said, dropping his lower lip like a child, ‘this young pup says he has put us both out of action. Inconceivable—eh? My first command of one of the class. Eh? What shall we do with him? What shall we do with him—eh?’
‘As far as I can see, there’s no getting over the stencils,’ his companion answered.
‘Why didn’t I have the nets down? Why didn’t I have the nets down?’ The cry tore itself from Captain Panke’s chest as he twisted his hands.
‘I suppose we’d better wait and find out what the umpires will say. The Admiral won’t be exactly pleased.’ Captain Malan spoke very soothingly. Moorshed looked out through the stern door at Two Six Seven. Pyecroft and I, at attention, studied the paintwork opposite. Captain Panke had dropped into his desk chair, and scribbled nervously at a blotting-pad.
Just before the tension became unendurable, he looked at his junior for a lead. ‘What—what are you going to do about it, Johnny—eh?’
‘Well, if you don’t want him, I’m going to ask this young gentleman to breakfast, and then we’ll make and mend clothes till the umpires have decided.’
Captain Panke flung out a hand swiftly.
‘Come with me,’ said Captain Malan. ‘Your men had better go back in the dinghy to—their—own—ship.’
‘Yes, I think so,’ said Moorshed, and passed out behind the captain. We followed at a respectful interval, waiting till they had ascended the ladder.
Said the sentry, rigid as the naked barometer behind him : ‘For Gawd’s sake! ’Ere, come ’ere! For Gawd’s sake! What’s ’appened? Oh! come ’ere an’ tell.’
‘Tell? You?’ said Pyecroft. Neither man’s lips moved, and the words were whispers: ‘Four ultimate illegitimate grandchildren might begin to understand, not you—nor ever will.’
‘Captain Malan’s galley away, Sir,’ cried a voice above; and one replied: ‘Then get those two greasers into their dinghy and hoist the Blue Peter. We’re out of action.’
‘Can you do it, Sir?’ said Pyecroft at the foot of the ladder. ‘Do you think it is in the English language, or do you not?’
‘I don’t think I can, but I’ll try. If it takes me two years, I’ll try.’