D. S. B.
A Galley's Day
A Gunroom Smoking Circle
The Legion on the Wall
A Tithe of Admiralty
The Chosen Four
A Committee of Supply
That Which Remained
Watch There, Watch!
Farewell and Adieu
The Seventh Day
A One-Gun Salute
Concerning the Sailor-Man
The Greater Love
A Picturesque Ceremony
Why the Gunner Went Ashore
“I reckon that’s proper ‘New Navy’” said the coxswain of a duty cutter to the midshipman perched on the “dickey” seat beside him in the stern.
It was 6 A.M.: the boat was returning from the early morning beef trip, and the midshipman in charge of her had seen fit to discuss with his coxswain the subject which at most hours, and particularly at this one, lay nearest to his heart – the subject of Food.
“Proper ‘New Navy,’” repeated the petty officer with contempt. He referred to the recent introduction of marmalade into his scale of rations. He spoke bitterly, yet his quarrel was not with the marmalade, which, in its way, was all that marmalade should have been. His regret was for the “dear dead days” before marmalade was thought of on the Lower-deck.
That was ten years ago, but fondness for the ancient order of things is still a feature of this Navy of ours. There was never a ship like our last ship:, no commission like the one before this one. Gipsies all: yet we would fain linger a little by the ashes of our camp-fire while the caravans move on.
The most indifferent observer of naval affairs during the last decade will admit that it has been one of immense transition. Changes, more momentous even than this business of the marmalade, have followed in the wake of a great wave of progress. “Up and onward” is the accepted order, but at the bottom of the Sailor-man’s conservative heart a certain reluctance still remains. The talk of smoking-room and forecastle concerns the doings of yesterday; the ties that link us in a “common brotherhood” were for the most part forged in the “Old” Navy, so fast yielding place to new.
In ‘Naval Occasions’ the Author has strung together a few sketches of naval life afloat in the past ten years. They relate to ships mainly of the “pre-Dreadnought” era, and officers (those of the Military branch at least) who owe their early training to the old Britannia. At the same time, for all the outward changes, the inner work-a-day life of the Fleet remains unaltered. With this, and not in criticism of things old or new, these Sketches are concerned. Pathos and humour continue to rub elbows on either side of us much as they always have, and there still remains more to laugh about than sigh over when the day’s work is done.
At the last stroke of six bells in the Fore-noon Watch the Marine bugler drew himself up stiffly, as one on whom great issues hung, and raising his bugle sent the imperious summons echoing along the upper deck. Clattering forward along the battery he halted at the break of the forecastle and repeated the blast; then, shaking the moisture from the instrument, he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and strutted aft. He had sounded “Captain’s Defaulters.”
An Able Seaman burnishing a search-light on the boat-deck heard the strident bugle-call and winced. Hurriedly he replaced his cleaning rags, and with a moistened forefinger and thumb adjusted a dank curl that peeped beneath his cap. He shared the belief, not uncommon among sailor-men, that the Captain’s judgment at the defaulter-table is duly swayed by the personal appearance of the delinquent. Eyeing his inverted reflection in the big concave mirror, he screwed his face into an expression of piteous appeal, and, cap in hand, repeated several times in varying notes of regretful surprise: “I ’adn’t ’ad no more’n a drop, sir, w’en I come over all dizzy.” The rehearsal concluded, he flung himself pell-mell down the ladder. On the way he met a messmate ascending, who remonstrated in the brusque parlance of the tar.
“Wha’s up, then?”
The other made a little upward gesture with his elbow and gave a laugh of pleasant retrospection. “’Strewth!” he supplemented. “Wasn’t ’arf blind, neither,” implying that when last ashore he had looked upon the cup when it was very ruddy indeed.
At the screen door to the quarter-deck he overtook a companion in misfortune en route to “toe pitch.” This was a frightened Second-class Stoker, harried aft by one of the Ship’s Police at the shambling gait officially recognised as the “steady double.” Together they saluted and stepped on to the quarter-deck, where, already standing between his escort, a sullen-eyed deserter, captured the previous day, scowled into vacancy. The newcomers took their places in the melancholy line, stood easy, and commenced to preen themselves furtively, after the manner of sailors about to come under the direct eye of authority. Then the Captain’s Clerk arrived with a bundle of papers in his hand.
“All ready, Master-at-Arms?”
“All ready, sir.” The iron-visaged Chief of Police saluted and went to report to the Commander. The Commander ran his eye over the defaulter-sheet and, entering the Captain’s cabin, disappeared from view. For a minute a hush settled over the group as silently they awaited the coming of the man who, to them, represented all that was Omnipotent upon earth. The breeze led the shadow of the White Ensign a fantastic dance across the spotless planking, and rustled the papers on the baize-covered table. Overhead a gull soared, screaming at intervals, and then swooped suddenly to the water. The owner of the cherished curl, who was what is technically known in the Service as a “bird,” sucked his teeth thoughtfully and speculated as to the probable extent of his punishment. The Second-class Stoker fallen-in beside him, who had broken his leave twenty-four hours, and apparently expected to be executed, suddenly sniffled and was reproved in an undertone by the Master-at-Arms. “’Old yer row!” said that dignitary. Then, raising his voice, he shouted, “’Faulters, ’Shun!”
The Captain’s Clerk, who had been abstractedly watching the sea-gull’s antics and thinking about trout-fishing, came to earth with a start: the waiting group stiffened to attention and saluted. The Captain walked to the table and picked up the charge-sheet.
“’Erbert ’Awkins!” snapped the Master-at-Arms. “Orf cap. Absen’over leave twenty-four hours, sir.”
The Second-class Stoker stepped forward; it was his first offence in the Service, and the Adam’s-apple in his throat worked like a piston. Suddenly recollecting, he snatched off his cap and stood, moistening dry lips.
“How long has this man been in the Service?” asked the Captain, grave eyes on the delinquent’s face.
“Four mouths, sir,” replied his Clerk.
Then to the culprit: “Why did you break your leave?” The lad shook his head in obstinate silence. As a matter of fact, he had broken it because a glib-tongued slut ashore kept him too drunk to return till he was penniless. But what was the use of telling all that to a Being with four gold rings on his sleeve, and grey eyes like gimlets in the shadow of the cap-peak. He wouldn’t understand how desperately bad the liquor had been, and the way the women talked…
“Why did you break your leave?” The voice was neither harsh nor impatient. Its tone merely implied that the speaker not only wanted an answer but meant to have one. Rather a kind voice for a Captain. Queer little wrinkles he had round the corners of his mouth and eyes… made a bloke look wise-like… as though after all… Lord! How his head ached… Steady eyes those were…
“It’s like this ’ere, sir—” The gates of sulky reserve opened suddenly and without warning: in a flood of words came the sorry explanation, sordid, incoherent, clothed in half-learned patois of the lower deck. But the figure in the gold-peaked cap seemed to accept it, such as it was, for presently he nodded dismissal.
“Cautioned,” he said curtly.
With a click of the heels the escort and their prisoner wheeled before the table. The Commander made a brief report, and the Captain scanned a few papers. The charge was desertion.
“Anything to say?”
“Why did you desert?”
“I’m fed up with the Navy.”
The Captain’s eyes grew stern, and he nodded as one who comprehends. There had been moments in his own career when he too had been “fed up with the Navy.” But life holds other things than obedience to inclinations.
Now this deserter represented a type that is to be met with in both Services, these days of “piping peace.” Recruited from the slums of a great city, bone-lazy and vicious as a weasel, small wonder he found a life wherein men worked hard and cleanly little to his taste. The immaculate cleanliness and clockwork regularity around him were bad enough, but far worse was the discipline. It astonished him at first; then, half-awed, he hated it with all the sullen savagery of his warped nature. The so-called Socialism of black-garbed orators, idly listened to on Sunday afternoons in bygone days, had hinted at such possibilities – but here he met it face to face at every turn.
For a while – a very little while – he defied it, as he had defied impassive policemen in guttersnipe days, with shrill, meaningless obscenities. Then he strove to elude it, and was clouted grievously by O’Leary, the brawny Chief Stoker, in that he had skulked from his lawfully appointed task. He had meant to drop a fire-bar on O’Leary’s head for that, but hadn’t the courage requisite for murder. Because of his dirty habits and an innate habit for acquiring other men’s gear, he was not beloved of his messmates; and to be unpopular on the mess-deck of a man-of-war means that the sooner you seek another walk of life the better. He strove to seek it, accordingly, burrowing back into the teeming slum-life of yore, until one night, in the flare of a hawker’s barrow, a policeman’s hand closed upon his collar.
“… I think there’s time. I believe we’ll make a man of you yet. I’ll deal with you by warrant.”
The escort swung him on his heel.
The Captain glanced again at the charge-sheet and thence to the third culprit before him.
“You were drunk on leave?”
“But the Officer of the Patrol and the Officer of the Watch and the Surgeon all say you were drunk.”
The “bird” sighed deeply. “I ’adn’t ’ad no more’n a drop, sir” he began.
“Deprived of one day’s pay,” interrupted the Captain;” and get your hair cut.”
“’Air cut – forfeit one day’s pay,” echoed the Master-at-Arms. “Hon cap; ’bout turn, quick march!”
• • • • • •
The day passed as most days do in harbour. In the afternoon the Captain played a game of golf, and in the evening dined with a brother Captain. During the meal they discussed submarine signalling and a new putter. The Commander, who contemplated matrimony, was in a conservatory conducting himself in a manner calculated to reduce his ship’s company – had they been present – to babbling delirium. In the twilight, the Captain’s Clerk, with rod and fly-book, meandered beside a stream twenty miles away. The Master-at-Arms, who had a taste for melodrama, witnessed from a plush-lined box “The Body-Snatcher’s Revenge” in the company of Mrs and Miss Master-at-Arms and a quart of stout. On board, in the foremost cell, sat a recovered deserter under sentence of ninety days’ detention.
“Gawd!” he whined – and in his voice was an exceeding bitterness – “Wotcher want to ’ate me for?”
Now these things were happening at about the same time, so you see the drift of his argument with his Maker.
That Which Remained
Oddly enough, no record exists of the origin of his nickname. “Periwinkle” he had been all through crammer and Britannia days. As senior Signal Midshipman of the Mediterranean Flagship, he was still “The Periwinkle,” small for his years, skinny as a weasel, with straight black hair, and grey eyes set wide apart in a brown face; the eyelashes, black and short, grew very close together, which gave him the perpetual appearance of having recently coaled ship and neglected to clean the dust from his eyes.
The Signal Midshipmen of a fleet, especially the Mediterranean Fleet of those days, were essentially keen on their “job.” The nature of the work and inter-ship rivalry provided for that. But with the Periwinkle, Signals were more than a mere “job.” They formed his creed and recreation: the flag-lockers were tarpaulin-covered shrines; the semaphores spoke oracles by day as did the flashing lamps by night. And the high priest of these mysteries was the Flag-Lieutenant, a Rugby International and right good fellow withal, but, to the Periwinkle, a very god who walked among men.
To understand something of his hero-worship you would need to have been on the bridge when the Fleet put out to sea for tactics. It was sufficient for the Periwinkle to watch this immaculate, imperturbable being snap out a string of signals apparently from memory, as he so often did, while hoist after hoist of flags leaped from the lockers and sped skywards, and the bridge was a whirl of bunting. Even the Admiral, who spoke so little and saw so much, was in danger of becoming a mere puppet in the boy’s sight.
But there was more than this to encourage his ardour. The Flag-Lieutenant, recognising the material of a signalman of unusual promise, would invite the Periwinkle to his cabin after dinner and unfold, with the aid of printed diagrams and little brass oblongs representing ships, the tactical and strategical mysteries of his craft. There was one unforgettable evening, too, when the Periwinkle was bidden to dinner ashore at the Malta Club. The dinner was followed by a dance, whereat, in further token of esteem, the Flag-Lieutenant introduced him to a lady of surpassing loveliness – The Fairest (the Periwinkle was given to understand) of All the Pippins,
The spring gave place to summer, and the island became a glaring wilderness of sun-baked rock. For obscure reasons of policy the Fleet remained at Malta instead of departing on its usual cruise, and week after week the sun blazed pitilessly down on the awnings of the anchored ships. Week by week the Periwinkle grew more brown and angular, and lost a little more of his wiry activity. The frequent stampedes up and down ladders with signals for the Admiral sent him into a lather like a nervous horse; at the end of a watch his hair was wet with perspiration and his whites hung clammily on his meagre limbs. After a while, too, he began to find the glare tell, and to ease the aching of his eyes, had sometimes to shift the telescope from one eye to the other in the middle of a signal. As a matter of fact, there was no necessity for him to read signals at all: that was part of the signalman’s duty. And if he had chosen to be more leisurely in his ascent and descent of ladders, no one would have called him to account. But his zeal was a flame within him, and terror lest he earned a rebuke from the Flag-Lieutenant for lack of smartness, lent wings to his tired heels.
It was August when the Flag-Lieutenant sought out the Fleet Surgeon in the Ward-room after dinner, and broached the subject of the Periwinkle.
“P.M.O., I wish you’d have a look at that shrimp; he’s knocking himself up in this heat. He swears he’s all right, but he looks fit for nothing but hospital.”
So the Periwinkle was summoned to the Fleet Surgeon’s cabin. Vehemently he asserted that he had never felt better in his life, and the most the fatherly old Irishman could extort from him was the admission that he had not been sleeping particularly well. As a matter of fact he had not slept for three nights past; but fear lest he should be “put on the list” forbade his admitting either this or the shooting pain behind his eyes, which by now was almost continual. The outcome of the interview, however, was an order to turn in forthwith. Next morning the Periwinkle was ignominiously hoisted over the side in a cot – loudly protesting at the indignity of not even being allowed to walk – en route for Bighi Hospital as a fever patient.
The news of the world is transmitted to Naval Stations abroad by cable, and promulgated by means of Wireless Telegraphy to ships cruising or out of reach of visual signalling. At Malta the news is distributed to ships present in harbour by semaphore from the Castile, an eminence above the town of Valletta, commanding the Grand Harbour and nearly opposite the Naval Hospital.
One morning a group of convalescents were sunning themselves on the balcony of the hospital, and one, watching the life of the harbour through a telescope, suddenly exclaimed, “Stand by! They’re going to make the Reuter Telegram. I wonder how the Navy got on at Lords.”
“It’s hopeless trying to read it,” said another, “they make it at such a beastly rate.”
The Periwinkle, fuming in bed in an adjacent ward, overheard the speaker. In a second he was on his feet and at the open window, a tousled-haired object in striped pyjamas, crinkling his eyes in the glare. “I can read it, sir; lend me the glass.”
“You ought to be in bed, my son. Haven’t you got Malta Fever?”
“It’s very slight,” replied the Periwinkle – as indeed it was, – “and I’m quite as warm out here as in bed. May I borrow your glass?”
He took the telescope and steadied it against a pillar. The distant semaphore began waving, and the group of convalescents settled down to listen. But no sound came from the boy. He was standing with the eye-piece held to his right eye, motionless as a statue. A light wind fluttered the gaudy pyjamas, and their owner lowered the glass with a little frown, half-puzzled, half-irritated.
“I – it’s – there’s something wrong –” he began, and abruptly put the glass to his left eye. “Ah, that’s better….” He commenced reading, but in a minute or two his voice faltered and trailed off into silence. He changed the glass to his right, and back to his left eye. Then, lowering it, turned a white scared face to the seated group. “I’m afraid I can’t read any more,” he said in a curiously dry voice; “I – it hurts my eyes.”
He returned the glass to its owner and hopped back into bed, where he sat with the clothes drawn up under his chin, sweating lightly.
After a while he closed his left eye and looked cautiously round the room. The tops of objects appeared indistinctly out of a grey mist. It was like looking at a partly fogged negative. He closed his right eye and repeated the process with the other. His field of vision was clear then, except for a speck of grey fog that hung threateningly in the upper left-hand corner.
By dinner-time he could see nothing with the right eye, and the fog had closed on half the left eye’s vision.
At tea-time he called the Sister on duty –
“My eyes – hurt… frightfully.” Thus the Periwinkle, striving to hedge with Destiny.
“Do they?” sympathised the Sister. “I’ll tell the Surgeon when he comes round tonight, and he’ll give you something for them. I shouldn’t read for the present if I were you.
The Periwinkle smiled grimly, as if she had made a joke, and lay back, every nerve in his body strung to breaking-point.
“Can’t see, eh?” The visiting Surgeon who leaned over his bed a few hours later looked at him from under puzzled brows. “Can’t see – d’you mean….” He picked up an illustrated paper, holding it about a yard away, and pointed to a word in block type: “What’s this word?”
The Periwinkle stared past him with a face like a flint. “I can’t see the paper. I can’t see you… or the room, or – or – anything. … I’m blind.” His voice trembled.
To the terror by night that followed was added physical pain past anything he had experienced or imagined in his short life. It almost amazed him that anything could hurt so much and not rob him of consciousness. The next room held a sufferer who raved in delirium: cursing, praying, and shrieking alternately. The tortured voice rose in the stillness of the night to a howl, and the Periwinkle set his teeth grimly. He was not alone in torment, but his was still the power to meet it like a man.
By the end of a week the pain had left him. At intervals during this period he was guided to a dark room – for the matter of that, all rooms were dark to him – and unseen beings bandied strange technicalities about his ears. “Optic neuritis… retrobulbar… atrophy.” The words meant nothing to the boy, and their meaning mattered less. For nothing, they told him, could give him back his sight. After that they left him alone, to wait with what patience he might until the next P.&O. steamer passed through.
His first visitor was the Chaplain, the most well-meaning of men, whose voice quavered with pity as he spoke at some length of resignation and the beauty of cheerfulness in affliction. On his departure, the Periwinkle caught the rustle of the Sister’s dress.
“Sister,” said the boy, “will you please go away for a few minutes. I’m afraid I have to swear – out loud.”
“But you mustn’t,” she expostulated, slightly taken aback. “It’s – it’s very wicked.”
“Can’t help that,” replied the Periwinkle austerely. “Please go at once; I’m going to begin.”
Scandalised and offended – as well she might be – she left the Periwinkle to his godless self, and he swore aloud – satisfying, unintelligible, senseless lower-deckese. But when she brought him his tea an hour later she found he had the grace to look ashamed of himself, and forgave him. They subsequently became great friends, and at the Periwinkle’s dictation she wrote long cheerful letters that began: “My dear Mother,” and generally ended in suspicious-looking smudges.
Every one visited the Periwinkle. His brethren from the Fleet arrived, bearing as gifts strange and awful delicacies that usually had to be confiscated, sympathising with the queer, clumsy tenderness of boyhood. The Flag-Lieutenant came often, always cheerful and optimistic, forbearing to voice a word of pity: for this the Periwinkle was inexpressibly grateful. He even brought the Fairest of All the Pippins, but the boy shrank a little from the tell-tale tremor she could never quite keep out of her voice. Her parting gift was an armful of roses, and on leaving she bent over till he could smell the faint scent of her hair. “Good-bye,” she whispered; “go on being brave,” and, to his wrathful astonishment, kissed him lightly on the mouth.
There was the Admiral’s wife too – childless herself – who, from long dealings with men, had acquired a brusque, almost masculine manner. As soon as he had satisfied himself that she evinced no outward desire to “slobber,” the Periwinkle admitted her to his friendship. He subsequently confessed to the Sister that, for a woman, she read aloud extremely well. “Well, I must be goin’,” she said one day at parting. “I’ll bring John up to see you to-morrow.” When she had gone, the Periwinkle smote his pillow. “John!” he gasped.
“John” was the Admiral.
Even the crew of his cutter – just the ordinary rapscallion duty-crew of the boat he had commanded – trudged up one sweltering Sunday afternoon, and were ushered with creaking boots and moist, shiny faces into his ward.
“Bein’ as we ’ad an arfternoon orf, sir,” began the spokesman, who was also the Coxswain of the boat. But at the sight of the wavering, sightless eyes, although prompted by nudges and husky whispers, he forgot his carefully-prepared sentences.
“We reckoned we’d come an’ give you a chuck-up, like, sir,” concluded another, and instead of the elaborate speech they had deemed the occasion demanded, they told him of their victory in a three-mile race over a rival cutter. How afterwards they had generously fraternised with the vanquished crew, – so generously that the port stroke – “’im as we calls ‘Nobby’ Clark, sir, if you remembers” – was at that moment languishing in a cell, as a result of the lavish hospitality that had prevailed. Finally, the Periwinkle extended a thin hand to the darkness, to be gripped in turn by fourteen leathery fists, ere their owners tiptoed out of the room and out of his life.
The Periwinkle found blindness an easier matter to bear in the ward of a hospital than on board the P.&O. Liner by which he was invalided home. A Naval Sick-berth Steward attended to his wants, helped him to dress, and looked after him generally. But every familiar smell and sound of ship-life awoke poignant memories of the ship-life of former days, and filled him with bitter woe. He was morbidly sensitive of his blindness, too, and for days moped in his cabin alone, fiercely repelling any attempt at sympathy or companionship. Then, by degrees, the ship’s doctor coaxed him up into a deck-chair, and sat beside him, warding off intruders and telling stories with the inimitable drollery that is the heritage of the surgeons of P.&O. Liners. And at night, when the decks were clear, and every throb of the propellers was a reminder of the home they were drawing near to, he would link his arm loosely within the boy’s and together they would walk to and fro. During these promenades he invariably treated the Periwinkle as a man of advanced years and experience, whereby was no little balm in Gilead.
Many people tried to make a fuss of the boy with the sullen mouth, whose cheek-bones looked as if they were coming through the skin, and who had such a sad story. Wealthy globe-trotters, Anglo-Indians, missionaries, and ladies of singular charm and beauty, all strove according to their lights to comfort him. But by degrees they realised he never wanted to play cat’s-cradle or even discuss his mother, and so left him in peace.
But the boy had a friend beside the doctor, a grizzled major from an Indian Frontier regiment, returning home on furlough with a V.C. tacked on to his unpretentious name. At first the Periwinkle rather shrank from a fresh acquaintance – it is a terrible thing to have to shake hands with an unknown voice. But he was an incorrigible little hero-worshipper, and this man with the deep steady voice had done and seen wonderful things. Further, he didn’t mind talking about them – to the Periwinkle; so that the boy, as he sat clasping his ankles and staring out to sea with sightless eyes, was told stories which, a week later, the newspaper reporters of the Kingdom desired to hear in vain.
He was a philosopher too, this bronzed, grey-haired warrior with the sun-puckered eyes: teaching how, if you only take the trouble to look for it, a golden thread of humour runs through all the sombre warp and woof of life; and of “Hope which… outwears the accidents of life and reaches with tremulous hand beyond the grave and death.”
This is the nicest sort of philosophy.
But for all that it was a weary voyage, and the Periwinkle was a brown-faced ghost, all knees and elbows and angularities by the time Tilbury was reached. The first to board the ship was a lady, pale and sweetly dignified, whom the doctor met at the gangway and piloted to the Periwinkle’s cabin. He opened the door before he turned and fled, and so heard, in her greeting of the Periwinkle, the infinite love and compassion that can thrill a woman’s voice.
• • • • • •
In a corner of the railway carriage that carried them home, the Periwinkle – that maimed and battered knight – still clung to the haft of his broken sword. “I meant to do so jolly well. Oh, mother, I meant you to be so jolly proud of me. The Flag-Lieutenant said I might have been… if only it had been an arm or a leg – deaf or dumb… but there’s nothing left in all the world,… it’s empty – nothing remains.”
She waited till the storms of self-pity and rebellion passed, leaving him biting his fingers and breathing hard. Then little by little, with mysterious tenderness, she drew out the iron that had entered the boyish soul. And, at the last, he turned to her with a little fluttering sigh, as a very tired child abandons a puzzle. She bent her head low –
“This remains,” she whispered.