A Tale of ‘15
THE head-waiter of the Carvoitz almost ran to meet Portson and his guests as they came up the steps from the palmcourt where the string band plays.
‘Not seen you since — oh, ever so long,’ he began. ‘So glad to get your wire. Quite well — eh?’
‘Fair to middling, Henri.’ Portson shook hands with him. ‘You’re looking all right, too. Have you got us our table?’
Henri nodded toward a pink alcove, kept for mixed doubles, which discreetly commanded the main dining-room’s glitter and blaze.
‘Good man!’ said Portson. ‘Now, this is serious, Henri. We put ourselves unreservedly in your hands. We’re weather-beaten mariners — though we don’t look it, and we haven’t eaten a Chrihristian meal in months. Have you thought of all that, Henri, mon ami?’
‘The menu, I have compose it myself,’ Henri answered with the gravity of a high priest.
It was more than a year since Portson — of Portson, Peake and Ensell, Stock and Share Brokers — had drawn Henri’s attention to an apparently extinct Oil Company which, a little later, erupted profitably; and it may be that Henri prided himself on paying all debts in full.
The most recent foreign millionaire and the even more recent foreign actress at a table near the entrance clamoured for his attention while he convoyed the party to the pink alcove. With his own hands he turned out some befrilled electrics and lit four pale rose-candles.
‘Bridal!’ some one murmured. ‘Quite bridal!’
‘So glad you like. There is nothing too good.’ Henri slid away, and the four men sat down. They had the coarse-grained complexions of men who habitually did themselves well, and an air, too, of recent, red-eyed dissipation. Maddingham, the eldest, was a thick-set middle-aged presence, with crisped grizzled hair, of the type that one associates with Board Meetings. He limped slightly. Tegg, who followed him, blinking, was neat, small, and sandy, of unmistakable Navy cut, but sheepish aspect. Winchmore, the youngest, was more on the lines of the conventional prewar ‘nut,’ but his eyes were sunk in his head and his hands black-nailed and roughened. Portson, their host, with Vandyke beard and a comfortable little stomach, beamed upon them as they settled to their oysters.
‘That’s what I mean,’ said the carrying voice of the foreign actress, whom Henri had just disabused of the idea that she had been promised the pink alcove. ‘They ain’t alive to the war yet. Now, what’s the matter with those four dubs yonder joining the British Army or — or doing something?’
‘Who’s your friend?’ Maddingham asked.
‘I’ve forgotten her name for the minute,’ Portson replied, ‘but she’s the latest thing in imported patriotic piece-goods. She sings “Sons of the Empire, Go Forward!” at the Palemseum. It makes the aunties weep.’
‘That’s Sidney Latter. She’s not half bad.’ Tegg reached for the vinegar. ‘We ought to see her some night.’
‘Yes. We’ve a lot of time for that sort of thing,’ Maddingham grunted. ‘I’ll take your oysters, Portson, if you don’t want ’em.’
‘Cheer up, Papa Maddingham! ‘Soon be dead!’ Winchmore suggested.
Maddingham glared at him. ‘If I’d had you with me for one week, Master Winchmore —’
‘Not the least use,’ the boy retorted. ‘I’ve just been made a full-lootenant. I have indeed. I couldn’t reconcile it with my conscience to take Etheldreda out any more as a plain sub. She’s too flat in the floor.’
‘Did you get those new washboards of yours fixed?’ Tegg cut in.
‘Don’t talk shop already,’ Portson protested. ‘This is Vesiga soup. I don’t know what he’s arranged in the way of drinks.’
‘Pol Roger ‘04,’ said the waiter.
‘Sound man, Henri,’ said Winchmore. ‘But,’ he eyed the waiter doubtfully, ‘I don’t quite like . . . What’s your alleged nationality?’
‘‘Henri’s nephew, monsieur,’ the smiling waiter replied, and laid a gloved hand on the table. It creaked corkily at the wrist. ‘Bethisy-sur-Oise,’ he explained. ‘My uncle he buy me all the hand for Christmas. It is good to hold plates only.’
‘Oh! Sorry I spoke,’ said Winchmore.
‘Monsieur is right. But my uncle is very careful, even with neutrals.’ He poured the champagne.
‘Hold a minute,’ Maddingham cried. ‘First toast of obligation: For what we are going to receive, thank God and the British Navy.’
‘Amen!’ said the others with a nod toward Lieutenant Tegg, of the Royal Navy afloat, and, occasionally, of the Admiralty ashore.
‘Next! “Damnation to all neutrals!”’ Maddingham went on.
‘Amen! Amen!’ they answered between gulps that heralded the sole a la Colbert. Maddingham picked up the menu. ‘Supreame of chicken,’ he read loudly. ‘Filet bearnaise, Woodcock and Richebourg ‘74, Peaches Melba, Croutes Baron. I couldn’t have improved on it myself; though one might,’ he went on —‘one might have substituted quail en casserole for the woodcock.’
‘Then there would have been no reason for the Burgundy,’ said Tegg with equal gravity.
‘You’re right,’ Maddingham replied.
The foreign actress shrugged her shoulders. ‘What can you do with people like that?’ she said to her companion. ‘And yet I’ve been singing to ’em for a fortnight.’
‘I left it all to Henri,’ said Portson.
‘My Gord!’ the eavesdropping woman whispered. ‘Get on to that! Ain’t it typical? They leave everything to Henri in this country.’
‘By the way,’ Tegg asked Winchmore after the fish, ‘where did you mount that one-pounder of yours after all?’
‘Midships. Etheldreda won’t carry more weight forward. She’s wet enough as it is.’
‘Why don’t you apply for another craft?’ Portson put in. ‘There’s a chap at Southampton just now, down with pneumonia and —’
‘No, thank you. I know Etheldreda. She’s nothing to write home about, but when she feels well she can shift a bit.’
Maddingham leaned across the table. ‘If she does more than eleven in a flat calm,’ said he, ‘I’ll — I’ll give you Hilarity.’
‘‘Wouldn’t be found dead in Hilarity,’ was Winchmore’s grateful reply. ‘You don’t mean to say you’ve taken her into real wet water, Papa? Where did it happen?’
The other laughed. Maddingham’s red face turned brick colour, and the veins on the cheekbones showed blue through a blurr of short bristles.
‘He’s been convoying neutrals — in a tactful manner,’ Tegg chuckled.
Maddingham filled his glass and scowled at Tegg. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and here’s special damnation to me Lords of the Admiralty. A more muddle-headed set of brass-bound apes —’
‘My! My! My!’ Winchmore chirruped soothingly. ‘It don’t seem to have done you any good, Papa. Who were you conveyancing?’
Maddingham snapped out a ship’s name and some details of her build.
‘Oh, but that chap’s a friend of mine!’ cried Winchmore. ‘I ran across him — the — not so long ago, hugging the Scotch coast-out of his course, he said, owing to foul weather and a new type of engine — a Diesel. That’s him, ain’t it — the complete neutral?’ He mentioned an outstanding peculiarity of the ship’s rig.
‘Yes,’ said Portson. ‘Did you board him, Winchmore?’
‘No. There’d been a bit of a blow the day before and old Ethel’s only dinghy had dropped off the hooks. But he signalled me all his symptoms. He was as communicative as — as a lady in the Promenade. (Hold on, Nephew of my Uncle! I’m going to have some more of that Bearnaise fillet.) His smell attracted me. I chaperoned him for a couple of days.’
‘Only two days. You hadn’t anything to complain of,’ said Maddingham wrathfully.
‘I didn’t complain. If he chose to hug things, ‘twasn’t any of my business. I’m not a Purity League. ‘Didn’t care what he hugged, so long as I could lie behind him and give him first chop at any mines that were going. I steered in his wake (I really can steer a bit now, Portson) and let him stink up the whole of the North Sea. I thought he might come in useful for bait. No Burgundy, thanks, Nephew of my Uncle. I’m sticking to the Jolly Roger.’
‘Go on, then — before you’re speechless. Was he any use as bait?’ Tegg demanded.
‘We never got a fair chance. As I told you, he hugged the coast till dark, and then he scraped round Gilarra Head and went up the bay nearly to the beach.’
‘‘Lights out?’ Maddingham asked.
Winchmore nodded. ‘But I didn’t worry about that. I was under his stern. As luck ‘ud have it, there was a fishing-party in the bay, and we walked slam into the middle of ’em — a most ungodly collection of local talent. ‘First thing I knew a steam-launch fell aboard us, and a boya nasty little Navy boy, Tegg — wanted to know what I was doing. I told him, and he cursed me for putting the fish down just as they were rising. Then the two of us (he was hanging on to my quarter with a boat-hook) drifted on to a steam trawler and our friend the Neutral and a ten-oared cutter full of the military, all mixed up. They were subs from the garrison out for a lark. Uncle Newt explained over the rail about the weather and his engine-troubles, but they were all so keen to carry on with their fishing, they didn’t fuss. They told him to clear off.’
‘Was there anything on the move round Gilarra at that time?’ Tegg inquired.
‘Oh, they spun me the usual yarns about the water being thick with ’em, and asked me to help; but I couldn’t stop. The cutter’s stern-sheets were piled up with mines, like lobster-pots, and from the way the soldiers handled ’em I thought I’d better get out. So did Uncle Newt. He didn’t like it a bit. There were a couple of shots fired at something just as we cleared the Head, and one dropped rather close to him. (These duck-shoots in the dark are dam’ dangerous, y ‘know.) He lit up at once — tail-light, head-light, and side-lights. I had no more trouble with him the rest of the night.’
‘But what about the report that you sawed off the steam-launch’s boat-hook?’ Tegg demanded suddenly.
‘What! You don’t mean to say that little beast of a snotty reported it? He was scratchin’ poor old Ethel’s paint to pieces. I never reported what he said to me. And he called me a damned amateur, too! Well! Well! War’s war. I missed all that fishing-party that time. My orders were to follow Uncle Newt. So I followed — and poor Ethel without a dry rag on her.’
Winchmore refilled his glass.
‘Well, don’t get poetical,’ said Portson. ‘Let’s have the rest of your trip.’
‘There wasn’t any rest,’ Winchmore insisted pathetically. ‘There was just good old Ethel with her engines missing like sin, and Uncle Newt thumping and stinking half a mile ahead of us, and me eating bread and Worcester sauce. I do when I feel that way. Besides, I wanted to go back and join the fishing-party. Just before dark I made out Cordeilia — that Southampton ketch that old Jarrott fitted with oil auxiliaries for a family cruiser last summer. She’s a beamy bus, but she can roll, and she was doing an honest thirty degrees each way when I overhauled her. I asked Jarrott if he was busy. He said he wasn’t. But he was. He’s like me and Nelson when there’s any sea on.’
‘But Jarrott’s a Quaker. ‘Has been for generations. Why does he go to war?’ said Maddingham.
‘If it comes to that,’ Portson said, ‘why do any of us?’
‘Jarrott’s a mine-sweeper,’ Winchmore replied with deep feeling. ‘The Quaker religion (I’m not a Quaker, but I’m much more religious than any of you chaps give me credit for) has decided that mine-sweeping is life-saving. Consequently’— he dwelt a little on the word —‘the profession is crowded with Quakers — specially off Scarborough. ‘See? Owin’ to the purity of their lives, they “all go to Heaven when they die — Roll, Jordan, Roll! “’
‘Disgustin’,’ said the actress audibly as she drew on her gloves. Winchmore looked at her with delight. ‘That’s a peach-Melba, too,’ he said.
‘And David Jarrott’s a mine-sweeper,’ Maddingham mused aloud. ‘So you turned our Neutral over to him, Winchmore, did you?’
‘Yes, I did. It was the end of my beat — I wish I didn’t feel so sleepy — and I explained the whole situation to Jarrott, over the rail. ‘Gave him all my silly instructions — those latest ones, y’know. I told him to do nothing to imperil existing political relations. I told him to exercise tact. I— I told him that in my capac’ty as Actin’ Lootenant, you see. Jarrott’s only a Lootenant–Commander — at fifty-four, too! Yes, I handed my Uncle Newt over to Jarrott to chaperone, and I went back to my — I can say it perfectly — pis-ca-to-rial party in the bay. Now I’m going to have a nap. In ten minutes I shall be on deck again. This is my first civilised dinner in nine weeks, so I don’t apologise.’
He pushed his plate away, dropped his chin on his palm and closed his eyes.
‘Lyndnoch and Jarrott’s Bank, established 1793,’ said Maddingham half to himself. ‘I’ve seen old Jarrott in Cowes week bullied by his skipper and steward till he had to sneak ashore to sleep. And now he’s out mine-sweeping with Cordelia! What’s happened to his — I shall forget my own name next — Belfast-built two-hundred tonner?’
‘Goneril,’ said Portson. ‘He turned her over to the Service in October. She’s — she was Culana.’
‘She was Culana, was she? My God! I never knew that. Where did it happen?’
‘Off the same old Irish corner I was watching last month. My young cousin was in her; so was one of the Raikes boys. A whole nest of mines, laid between patrols.’
‘I’ve heard there’s some dirty work going on there now,’ Maddingham half whispered.
‘You needn’t tell me that,’ Portson returned. ‘But one gets a little back now and again.’
‘What are you two talking about?’ said Tegg, who seemed to be dozing too.
‘Culana,’ Portson answered as he lit a cigarette.
‘Yes, that was rather a pity. But . . . What about this Newt of ours?’
‘I took her over from Jarrott next day — off Margate,’ said Portson. ‘Jarrott wanted to get back to his mine-sweeping.’
‘Every man to his taste,’ said Maddingham. ‘That never appealed to me. Had they detailed you specially to look after the Newt?’
‘Me among others,’ Portson admitted. ‘I was going down Channel when I got my orders, and so I went on with him. Jarrott had been tremendously interested in his course up to date — specially off the Wash. He’d charted it very carefully and he said he was going back to find out what some of the kinks and curves meant. Has he found out, Tegg?’
Tegg thought for a moment. ‘Cordelia was all right up to six o’clock yesterday evening,’ he said.
‘‘Glad of that. Then I did what Winchmore did. I lay behind this stout fellow and saw him well into the open.’
‘Did you say anything to him?’ Tegg asked.
‘Not a thing. He kept moving all the time.’
‘‘See anything?’ Tegg continued.
‘No. He didn’t seem to be in demand anywhere in the Channel, and, when I’d got him on the edge of soundings, I dropped him — as per your esteemed orders.’
Tegg nodded again and murmured some apology.
‘Where did you pick him up, Maddingham?’ Portson went on.
‘Well north and west of where you left him heading up the Irish Channel and stinking like a taxi. I hadn’t had my breakfast. My cook was seasick; so were four of my hands.’
‘I can see that meeting. Did you give him a gun across the bows?’ Tegg asked.
‘No, no. Not that time. I signalled him to heave to. He had his papers ready before I came over the side. You see,’ Maddingham said pleadingly, ‘I’m new to this business. Perhaps I wasn’t as polite to him as I should have been if I’d had my breakfast.’
‘He deposed that Maddingham came alongside swearing like a bargee,’ said Tegg.
‘Not in the least. This is what happened.’ Maddingham turned to Portson. ‘I asked him where he was bound for and he told me — Antigua.’
‘Hi! Wake up, Winchmore. You’re missing something.’ Portson nudged Winchmore, who was slanting sideways in his chair.
‘Right! All right! I’m awake,’ said Winchmore stickily. ‘I heard every word.’
Maddingham went on. ‘I told him that this wasn’t his way to Antigua —’
‘Antigua. Antigua!’ Winchmore finished rubbing his eyes. ‘“There was a young bride of Antigua —”’
‘Hsh! Hsh!’ said Portson and Tegg warningly.
‘Why? It’s the proper one. “Who said to her spouse, ‘What a pig you are!’”’
‘Ass!’ Maddingham growled and continued: ‘He told me that he’d been knocked out of his reckoning by foul weather and engine-trouble, owing to experimenting with a new type of Diesel engine. He was perfectly frank about it.’
‘So he was with me,’ said Winchmore. ‘Just like a real lady. I hope you were a real gentleman, Papa.’
‘I asked him what he’d got. He didn’t object. He had some fifty thousand gallon of oil for his new Diesel engine, and the rest was coal. He said he needed the oil to get to Antigua with, he was taking the coal as ballast, and he was coming back, so he told me, with coconuts. When he’d quite finished, I said: “What sort of damned idiot do you take me for?” He said: “I haven’t decided yet!” Then I said he’d better come into port with me, and we’d arrive at a decision. He said that his papers were in perfect order and that my instructions — mine, please! — were not to imperil political relations. I hadn’t received these asinine instructions, so I took the liberty of contradicting him — perfectly politely, as I told them at the Inquiry afterward. He was a small-boned man with a grey beard, in a glengarry, and he picked his teeth a lot. He said: “The last time I met you, Mister Maddingham, you were going to Carlsbad, and you told me all about your blood-pressures in the wagon-lit before we tossed for upper berth. Don’t you think you are a little old to buccaneer about the sea this way?” I couldn’t recall his face — he must have been some fellow that I’d travelled with some time or other. I told him I wasn’t doing this for amusement — it was business. Then I ordered him into port. He said: “S’pose I don’t go?” I said: “Then I’ll sink you.” Isn’t it extraordinary how natural it all seems after a few weeks? If any one had told me when I commissioned Hilarity last summer what I’d be doing this spring I’d — I’d . . . God! It is mad, isn’t it?’
‘Quite,’ said Portson. ‘But not bad fun.’
‘Not at all, but that’s what makes it all the madder. Well, he didn’t argue any more. He warned me I’d be hauled over the coals for what I’d done, and I warned him to keep two cables ahead of me and not to yaw.’
‘Jaw?’ said Winchmore sleepily.
‘No. Yaw;’ Maddingham snarled. ‘Not to look as if he even wanted to yaw. I warned him that, if he did, I’d loose off into him, end-on. But I was absolutely polite about it. ‘Give you my word, Tegg.’
‘I believe you. Oh, I believe you,’ Tegg replied.
‘Well, so I took him into port — and that was where I first ran across our Master Tegg. He represented the Admiralty on that beach.’
The small blinking man nodded. ‘The Admiralty had that honour,’ he said graciously.
Maddingham turned to the others angrily. ‘I’d been rather patting myself on the back for what I’d done, you know. Instead of which, they held a court-martial —’
‘We called it an Inquiry,’ Tegg interjected.
‘You weren’t in the dock. They held a court-martial on me to find out how often I’d sworn at the poor injured Neutral, and whether I’d given him hot-water bottles and tucked him up at night. It’s all very fine to laugh, but they treated me like a pickpocket. There were two fat-headed civilian judges and that blackguard Tegg in the conspiracy. A cursed lawyer defended my Neutral and he made fun of me. He dragged in everything the Neutral had told him about my blood-pressures on the Carlsbad trip. And that’s what you get for trying to serve your country in your old age!’ Maddingham emptied and refilled his glass.
‘We did give you rather a grilling,’ said Tegg placidly. ‘It’s the national sense of fair play.’
‘I could have stood it all if it hadn’t been for the Neutral. We dined at the same hotel while this court-martial was going on, and he used to come over to my table and sympathise with me! He told me that I was fighting for his ideals and the uplift of democracy, but I must respect the Law of Nations!’
‘And we respected ’em,’ said Tegg. ‘His papers were perfectly correct; the Court discharged him. We had to consider existing political relations. I told Maddingham so at the hotel and he —’
Again Maddingham turned to the others. ‘I couldn’t make up my mind about Tegg at the Inquiry,’ he explained. ‘He had the air of a decent sailor-man, but he talked like a poisonous politician.’
‘I was,’ Tegg returned. ‘I had been ordered to change into that rig. So I changed.’
Maddingham ran one fat square hand through his crisped hair and looked up under his eyebrows like a shy child, while the others lay back and laughed.
‘I suppose I ought to have been on to the joke,’ he stammered, ‘but I’d blacked myself all over for the part of Lootenant–Commander R.N.V.R. in time of war, and I’d given up thinking as a banker. If it had been put before me as a business proposition I might have done better.’
‘I thought you were playing up to me and the judges all the time,’ said Tegg. ‘I never dreamed you took it seriously.’
‘Well, I’ve been trained to look on the law as serious. I’ve had to pay for some of it in my time, you know.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Tegg. ‘We were obliged to let that oily beggar go — for reasons, but, as I told Maddingham, the night the award was given, his duty was to see that he was properly directed to Antigua.’
‘Naturally,’ Portson observed. ‘That being the Neutral’s declared destination. And what did Maddingham do? Shut up, Maddingham!’
Said Tegg, with downcast eyes: ‘Maddingham took my hand and squeezed it; he looked lovingly into my eyes (he did!); he turned plumcolour, and he said: “I will” just like a bride groom at the altar. It makes me feel shy to think of it even now. I didn’t see him after that till the evening when Hilarity was pulling out of the Basin, and Maddingham was cursing the tug-master.’
‘I was in a hurry,’ said Maddingham. ‘I wanted to get to the Narrows and wait for my Neutral there. I dropped down to Biller and Grove’s yard that tide (they’ve done all my work for years) and I jammed Hilarity into the creek behind their slip, so the Newt didn’t spot me when he came down the river. Then I pulled out and followed him over the Bar. He stood nor-west at once. I let him go till we were well out of sight of land. Then I overhauled him, gave him a gun across the bows and ran alongside. I’d just had my lunch, and I wasn’t going to lose my temper this time. I said: “Excuse me, but I understand you are bound for Antigua?” He was, he said, and as he seemed a little nervous about my falling aboard him in that swell, I gave Hilarity another sheer inshe’s as handy as a launch — and I said: “May I suggest that this is not the course for Antigua?” By that time he had his fenders overside, and all hands yelling at me to keep away. I snatched Hilarity out and began edging in again. He said: “I’m trying a sample of inferior oil that I have my doubts about. If it works all right I shall lay my course for Antigua, but it will take some time to test the stuff and adjust the engines to it.” I said: “Very good, let me know if I can be of any service,” and I offered him Hilarity again once or twice — he didn’t want her — and then I dropped behind and let him go on. Wasn’t that proper, Portson?’
Portson nodded. ‘I know that game of yours with Hilarity,’ he said. ‘How the deuce do you do it? My nerve always goes at close quarters in any sea.’
‘It’s only a little trick of steering,’ Maddingham replied with a simper of vanity. ‘You can almost shave with her when she feels like it. I had to do it again that same evening, to establish a moral ascendancy. He wasn’t showing any lights, and I nearly tripped over him. He was a scared Neutral for three minutes, but I got a little of my own back for that damned court-martial. But I was perfectly polite. I apologised profusely. I didn’t even ask him to show his lights.’
‘But did he?’ said Winchmore.
‘He did — every one; and a flare now and then,’ Maddingham replied. ‘He held north all that night, with a falling barometer and a rising wind and all the other filthy things. Gad, how I hated him! Next morning we got it, good and tight from the nor-nor-west out of the Atlantic, off Carso Head. He dodged into a squall, and then he went about. We weren’t a mile behind, but it was as thick as a wall. When it cleared, and I couldn’t see him ahead of me, I went about too, and followed the rain. I picked him up five miles down wind, legging it for all he was worth to the south’ard — nine knots, I should think. Hilarity doesn’t like a following sea. We got pooped a bit, too, but by noon we’d struggled back to where we ought to have been — two cables astern of him. Then he began to signal, but his flags being end-on to us, of course, we had to creep up on his beam — well abeam — to read ’em. That didn’t restore his morale either. He made out he’d been compelled to put back by stress of weather before completing his oil tests. I made back I was sorry to hear it, but would be greatly interested in the results. Then I turned in (I’d been up all night) and my lootenant took on. He was a widower (by the way) of the name of Sherrin, aged forty-seven. He’d run a girls’ school at Weston-super-Mare after he’d left the Service in ‘ninety-five, and he believed the English were the Lost Tribes.’
‘What about the Germans?’ said Portson.
‘Oh, they’d been misled by Austria, who was the Beast with Horns in Revelations. Otherwise he was rather a dull dog. He set the tops’ls in his watch. Hilarity won’t steer under any canvas, so we rather sported round our friend that afternoon, I believe. When I came up after dinner, she was biting his behind, first one side, then the other. Let’s see — that would be about thirty miles east-sou-east of Harry Island. We were running as near as nothing south. The wind had dropped, and there was a useful cross-rip coming up from the south-east. I took the wheel and, the way I nursed him from starboard, he had to take the sea over his port bow. I had my sciatica on me — buccaneering’s no game for a middleaged man — but I gave that fellow sprudel! By Jove; I washed him out! He stood it as long as he could, and then he made a bolt for Harry Island. I had to ride in his pocket most of the way there because I didn’t know that coast. We had charts, but Sherrin never understood ’em, and I couldn’t leave the wheel. So we rubbed along together, and about midnight this Newt dodged in over the tail of Harry Shoals and anchored, if you please, in the lee of the Double Ricks. It was dead calm there, except for the swell, but there wasn’t much room to manoeuvre in, and I wasn’t going to anchor. It looked too like a submarine rendezvous. But first, I came alongside and asked him what his trouble was. He told me he had overheated his something-or-other bulb. I’ve never been shipmates with Diesel engines, but I took his word for it, and I said I ‘ud stand by till it cooled. Then he told me to go to hell.’
‘If you were inside the Double Ricks in the dark, you were practically there,’ said Portson.
‘That’s what I thought. I was on the bridge, rabid with sciatica, going round and round like a circus-horse in about three acres of water, and wondering when I’d hit something. Ridiculous position. Sherrin saw it. He saved me. He said it was an ideal place for submarine attacks, and we’d better begin to repel ’em at once. As I said, I couldn’t leave the wheel, so Sherrin fought the ship — both quick-firers and the maxims. He tipped ’em well down into the sea or well up at the Ricks as we went round and round. We made rather a row; and the row the gulls made when we woke ’em was absolutely terrifying. ‘Give you my word!’
‘And then?’ said Winchmore.
‘I kept on running in circles through this ghastly din. I took one sheer over toward his stern — I thought I’d cut it too fine, but we missed it by inches. Then I heard his capstan busy, and in another three minutes his anchor was up. He didn’t wait to stow. He hustled out as he was — bulb or no bulb. He passed within ten feet of us (I was waiting to fall in behind him) and he shouted over the rail: “You think you’ve got patriotism. All you’ve got is uric acid and rotten spite!” I expect he was a little bored. I waited till we had cleared Harry Shoals before I went below, and then I slept till 9 a.m. He was heading north this time, and after I’d had breakfast and a smoke I ran alongside and asked him where he was bound for now. He was wrapped in a comforter, evidently suffering from a bad cold. I couldn’t quite catch what he said, but I let him croak for a few minutes and fell back. At 9 a.m. he turned round and headed south (I was getting to know the Irish Channel by then) and I followed. There was no particular sea on. It was a little chilly, but as he didn’t hug the coast I hadn’t to take the wheel. I stayed below most of the night and let Sherrin suffer. Well, Mr. Newt kept up this game all the next day, dodging up and down the Irish Channel. And it was infernally dull. He threw up the sponge off Cloone Harbour. That was on Friday morning. He signalled: “Developed defects in engine-room. Antigua trip abandoned.” Then he ran into Cloone and tied up at Brady’s Wharf. You know you can’t repair a dinghy at Cloone! I followed, of course, and berthed behind him. After lunch I thought I’d pay him a call. I wanted to look at his engines. I don’t understand Diesels, but Hyslop, my engineer, said they must have gone round ’em with a hammer, for they were pretty badly smashed up. Besides that, they had offered all their oil to the Admiralty agent there, and it was being shifted to a tug when I went aboard him. So I’d done my job. I was just going back to Hilarity when his steward said he’d like to see me. He was lying in his cabin breathing pretty loud — wrapped up in rugs and his eyes sticking out like a rabbit’s. He offered me drinks. I couldn’t accept ’em, of course. Then he said: “Well, Mr. Maddingham, I’m all in.” I said I was glad to hear it. Then he told me he was seriously ill with a sudden attack of bronchial pneumonia, and he asked me to run him across to England to see his doctor in town. I said, of course, that was out of the question, Hilarity being a man-of-war in commission. He couldn’t see it. He asked what had that to do with it? He thought this war was some sort of joke, and I had to repeat it all over again. He seemed rather afraid of dying (it’s no game for a middle-aged man, of course) and he hoisted himself up on one elbow and began calling me a murderer. I explained to him — perfectly politely — that I wasn’t in this job for fun. It was business. My orders were to see that he went to Antigua, and now that he wasn’t going to Antigua, and had sold his oil to us, that finished it as far as I was concerned. (Wasn’t that perfectly correct?) He said: “But that finishes me, too. I can’t get any doctor in this Godforsaken hole. I made sure you’d treat me properly as soon as I surrendered.” I said there wasn’t any question of surrender. If he’d been a wounded belligerent, I might have taken him aboard, though I certainly shouldn’t have gone a yard out of my course to land him anywhere; but as it was, he was a neutral — altogether outside the game. You see my point? I tried awfully hard to make him understand it. He went on about his affairs all being at loose ends. He was a rich man — a million and a quarter, he said — and he wanted to redraft his will before he died. I told him a good many people were in his position just now — only they weren’t rich. He changed his tack then and appealed to me on the grounds of our common humanity. “Why, if you leave me now, Mr. Maddingham,” he said, “you condemn me to death, just as surely as if you hanged me.”’
‘This is interesting,’ Portson murmured. ‘I never imagined you in this light before, Maddingham.’
‘I was surprised at myself —‘give you my word. But I was perfectly polite. I said to him: “Try to be reasonable, sir. If you had got rid of your oil where it was wanted, you’d have condemned lots of people to death just as surely as if you’d drowned ’em.” “Ah, but I didn’t,” he said. “That ought to count in my favour.” “That was no thanks to you,” I said. “You weren’t given the chance. This is war, sir. If you make up your mind to that, you’ll see that the rest follows.” “I didn’t imagine you’d take it as seriously as all that,” he said — and he said it quite seriously, too. “Show a little consideration. Your side’s bound to win anyway.” I said: “Look here! I’m a middle-aged man, and I don’t suppose my conscience is any clearer than yours in many respects, but this is business. I can do nothing for you.”’
‘You got that a bit mixed, I think,’ said Tegg critically.
‘He saw what I was driving at,’ Maddingham replied, ‘and he was the only one that mattered for the moment. “Then I’m a dead man, Mr. Maddingham,” he said. “That’s your business,” I said. “Good afternoon.” And I went out.’
‘And?’ said Winchmore, after some silence.
‘He died. I saw his flag half-masted next morning.’
There was another silence. Henri looked in at the alcove and smiled. Maddingham beckoned to him.
‘But why didn’t you lend him a hand to settle his private affairs?’ said Portson.
‘Because I wasn’t acting in my private capacity. I’d been on the bridge for three nights and —’ Maddingham pulled out his watch —‘this time tomorrow I shall be there again — confound it! Has my car come, Henri?’
‘Yes, Sare Francis. I am sorry.’ They all complimented Henri on the dinner, and when the compliments were paid he expressed himself still their debtor. So did the nephew.
‘Are you coming with me, Portson?’ said Maddingham as he rose heavily.
‘No. I’m for Southampton, worse luck! My car ought to be here, too.’
‘I’m for Euston and the frigid calculating North,’ said Winchmore with a shudder. ‘One common taxi, please, Henri.’
Tegg smiled. ‘I’m supposed to sleep in just now, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to come with you as far as Gravesend, Maddingham.’
‘Delighted. There’s a glass all round left still,’ said Maddingham. ‘Here’s luck! The usual, I suppose? “Damnation to all neutrals!”’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10