WHAT bronchitis had spared of him came, by medical advice, to Stephano’s Island, that gem of sub-tropical seas, set at a height above the Line where parrots do not breed.
Yet there were undoubtedly three of them, squawking through the cedars. He asked a young lady, who knew the Island by descent, how this came. ‘Two are ours,’ she replied. ‘We used to feed them in the veranda, but they got away, and set up housekeeping and had a baby.’
‘What does a baby parrot look like?’
‘Oh, just like a little Jew baby. I expect there will be some more soon.’ She smiled prophetically.
. . . . .
He watched H.M.S. Florealia work her way into the harbour. She moored, and sent a gig ashore. The bull-terrier, who is de facto Chief Superintendent of the Island Police, was explaining Port Regulations to the dog in charge of a Florida lumber schooner at the quay. His Policeman stood beside him. The gig, after landing her officer, lay off. The Policeman said in a clear voice to the dog ‘Come on, then, Polly! Pretty Polly! Come on, Polly, Polly, Polly!’ The gig’s crew seemed to grind their teeth a little as man and dog moved off. The invalid exchanged a few sentences with the Policeman and limped along the front street to the far and shallow end of the harbour, where Randolph’s boat-repairing yard stands, just off the main road, near the mangrove clump by the poinsettias. A small mongrel fox-terrier pup, recovering from distemper, lay in the path of two men, who wanted to haul in a forty-foot craft, known to have been in the West India trade for a century, and now needing a new barrel to her steering-wheel.
‘Let Lil lay,’ Mr. Randolph called. ‘Bring the boat in broadside, and run a plank to her.’ Then he greeted the visitor. ‘Mornin’, Mr. Heatleigh. How’s the cough? Our climate suitin’ you? That’s fine. Lil’s fine too. The milk’s helpin’ her. You ain’t the only one of her admirers. Winter Vergil’s fetchin’ her milk now. He ought to be here.’
‘Winter Vergil! What the — who’s he?’
‘He hasn’t been around the last week. He’s had trouble.’ Mr. Randolph laughed softly. ‘He’s a Navy Bo’sun — any age you please. He took his pension on the Island when I was a boy. ‘Married on the Island too — a widow out of Cornwall Parish. That ‘ud make her a Gallop or a Mewett. Hold a minute! It was Mewett. Her first man was a Gallop. He left her five acres of good onion-ground, that a Hotel wanted for golf-development. So-o, that way, an’ Vergil havin’ saved, he has his house an’ garden handy to the Dockyard. ‘No more keepin’ Daddy away from there than land-crabs off a dead nigger. I’m expectin’ him any time now.’
Mr. Heatleigh unbuttoned his light coat, for the sun was beginning to work deliciously. Behind the old boat lay a scarlet hydroplane crowded with nickel fitments and reeking of new enamels.
‘That’s Rembrandt Casalis’s latest,’ Mr. Randolph explained. ‘He’s Glucose Utilities — wuth fifteen million they say. But no boatman. He took her alongside a wharf last week. That don’t worry me. His estate can pay my repair-bills. I’m doo to deliver her back this morning . . . . Now! Now! Don’t get movin’ jest as you’re come. Set in the shed awhile. Vergil’s bound to be along with Lil’s milk. Lay-to an’ meet him. I’d not go, ‘lest I had to. But Lil ‘ll keep you company.’
He splashed out to the hydroplane, which he woke to outrageous howlings, and departed in one splitting crack. The dead-water-rubbish swirled in under the mangrove-stems as the sound of her flight up-harbour faded. Mr. Heatleigh watched the two hands on the West Indiaman. They laid a gang-plank up to her counter, bore away the rusty scarred wheel-barrel, and went elsewhere. Lil slept, and along the white coral road behind passed a procession of horse-drawn vehicles; for another tripper-steamer had arrived, and her passengers were being dealt out to the various hotels. An old, spare, clean-shaven man, in spotless tussore silk, stepped off the road into the yard. He bore left-handedly (his right was bandaged) a sealed bottle of sterilised milk. Lil ran to him, and he asked where her master might be. Mr. Heatleigh told him, and they exchanged names. Mr. Vergil rummaged a clean saucer out of the shed, but found he could not pour single-handed. Mr. Heatleigh helped him.
‘She may be worth seventy-five cents,’ Mr. Vergil observed as Lil lapped. ‘She’s cost more’n four dollars a week the last six weeks. Well, she’s Randolph’s dam’ dog, anyhow.’
‘‘Not fond of dogs?’ Mr. Heatleigh asked.
‘Not of any pets you might say, just now.’
Mr. Heatleigh glanced at the neatly-bandaged hand and nodded.
‘No — not dogs,’ said Mr. Vergil.. ‘Parrots. The medical officer at the Dockyard said it was more like the works of vulshures.’
‘I don’t know much about parrots.’
‘You get to know about most things in the Navy — sooner or later. Burst-a-Frog, you do!’
‘Mr. Randolph told me you had been in the Ser — Navy.’
‘Boy and man — forty odd years. I took my pension here in Nineteen Ten when Jacky’s dam’ first silly Dreadnought came in. All this so-called noo Navy has hove up since my time. I was boy, for example, in the old Black Fleet — Warrior, Minotaur, Hercules, an’ those. In the Hungry Six too, if that means anything . . . Are ye going away?’ Mr. Heatleigh had moved out from the shed.
‘Oh no! I was only thinking of bringing my — sitting up there for a bit.’ Mr. Heatleigh turned towards the boat, but seemed to wait for Mr. Vergil to precede him up the gang-plank. The old man ran up it and dropped inboard little less nimbly than Mr. Heatleigh, who followed. They settled themselves at the stern, by the wheel. All forward of her mast was the naked hold of black rock-hard timbers. Mr. Vergil’s glance, under frosty eyebrows, swept his companion’s long visage as a searchlight sweeps a half-guessed foreshore. ‘‘Tourist?’ he demanded suddenly.
‘Yes, for a bit. I’ve got a motor-boat at Southampton.’
‘‘Don’t believe in ’em — never did. This beats ’em all!’
He pointed to the bleached and cracked mast. There was silence while the two sunned themselves. Mr. Heatleigh joined hands across one knee to help lift a rather stiff leg, as he lolled against the low stern-rail. The action drew his coat-cuff more than half-way up his wrist, which was tattooed. Mr. Vergil, backed against the sun, dug out his pipe-bowl. A breath of warmed cedar came across a patch of gladioli. ‘Think o’ Southampton Water now!’ said Mr. Vergil. ‘Thick — an’ cold!’
The three parrots screamed and whirled across the tip of the harbour. Mr. Vergil shook his bandaged hand at them.
‘How did it happen?’ Mr. Heatleigh asked.
‘‘Obligin’ a friend. ‘No surer way.’
‘How? — If you don’t mind.’ But there was command in the voice.
Once more Mr. Vergil’s eyes raked the lean figure. ‘It’s due,’ he said, ‘to the Navy keepin’ pets. Battleships an’ armoured cruisers carry bears till they start huggin’ senior ranks. Smaller craft, monkeys and parrots where allowed. There was a man in the old Audacious — Go-ood Lord, an’ how she steered! — kep’ chameleons in the engine-room, but they interfered with the movin’ parts. Parrots are best. People pay high for well-spoken parrots.’
‘Who teaches ’em?’
‘Parrots are like women. They pick up where they shouldn’t. I’ve heard it’s the tone that attracts ’em. Now we’ve two cruisers — sloops I call ’em — on the Station. One’s Bulleana, and t’other’s the Florealia. Both of ’em stinkin’ with parrots. Every dam’ kind o’ green — an’ those pink-tailed greys like we used to get on the West Coast. Go-ood Lord! Burst-a-Frog! When was I in the Bight last? An’ what in? Theseus — St. George, was it? Benin Expedition, was it? When we found those four hundred sovereigns and the four dozen champagne left in the King’s Royal Canoe? An’ no one noticed the cash till after! . . . But parrots. There’s a man called Mowlsey, a sort of Dockyard makee-do on the Stores side. He came to see me, knowin’ Mrs. Vergil had a parrot. My house is handy to the Dockyard, because that way I can gratify my tastes. What I mean is what I’ve worked at forty years is good enough for me to stay by. That bein’ so, I am often asked to bear a hand at delicate jobs.’
‘Quite so,’ said Mr. Heatleigh, still further extending himself to toast his lizard-like stomach. His coat-cuff was well above the wrist now.
‘An’— that evenin’ I’m speakin’ of — this Mowlsey wanted me for special dooties. Owin’ to approachin’ target-practice for both ships, all Squadron parrots was to be handed in to the Riggin’ Loft. There would be an O.C. Parrots, authorised to charge per diem for food an’ maintenance. On return of Squadron, parrots would be returned to respective owners. He showed me the Orders — typed; an’ Mrs. Vergil havin’ a parrot, an’ Mowlsey saying I had the requisite prestige, made me take on. The Riggin’ Loft ain’t a bad place, too, to sit in. Go-ood Lord! I remember when it used to be chock-a-block with spars, an’ now — who’d know a stuns’le-boom from a wash-pole if they was crucified on ’em?’
‘Why do they send parrots ashore for target-practice?’
‘On account of the concussion strikin’ ’em dumb. They don’t like it themselves either. We had a big dog-baboon in the old Penelope (she with that stern) never could stummick big gun-practice even with black powder. He used to betake himself to the Head an’ gnash his teeth against all an’ sundry. Now that was a noosance — because the Head —’
Mr. Heatleigh coughed. ‘Bronchitis,’ he explained swiftly. ‘Car — go ahead.’
‘My instructions was to prepare to receive parrots at five bells. I daresay they told you in your passenger-steamer comin’ out what time that is aboardship.’
‘It’s on the back of the passenger-list, I think,’ Mr. Heatleigh answered meekly.
Mr. Vergil drew an impatient breath and went on.
‘There was a bin full of parrot-rations inside. I put it down to Dockyard waste as usual. I had no notion what it’ud mean for me. Now a Riggin’ Loft, I may tell you, is mostly windows, an’ along beneath ’em was spare awnin’-stretchers and sailin’-boat spars stacked on booms. I shifted some to make a shelving for the cages. I didn’t see myself squattin’ on the deck to attend to ’em. ‘Takes too long to get up again, these days. (Go-ood Lord! Burst-a-Frog! An’ I was an upper-yard-man for six years — leadin’ hand, fore cross-trees, in the Resistance.) While I was busy, it sounded like our Marines landing in Crete — an’ how long ago was that, now? They marched up from the boat-steps, Bulleanas leadin’, Florealias in the rear, each man swingin’ a cage to keep his bird quiet. When they halted an’ the motion ceased they all began to rejoice — the birds, I mean — at findin’ themselves together. A Petty Officer wraps his hands round my ear an’ megaphones: “Look sharp, Daddy. ‘Tain’t a cargo that’ll keep.”
‘Nor was it. I could only walk backwards, semaphorin’ Bulleanas to stack cages to port, an’ Florealias to starboard o’ the Loft. They marched in an’ stacked accordin’— forty-three Bulleana birds, an’ twenty-nine Florealias, makin’ seventy-two in all.’
‘Why didn’t you say a hundred?’ Mr. Heatleigh asked.
‘Because there weren’t that many. The landin’ parties then proceeded to the far doors, an’, turnin’ port or starboard, accordin’ to their ships, navigated back again along outside the premises to say good-bye. Seventy-two birds, and seventy-two lower-deck ratin’s leanin’ through the windows, tellin’ ’em to be good an’ true till they returned. An’ that had to be done in dumb-crambo too! A Petty Officer towed me into the offing before we could communicate. But he only said:—“Gawd help you, Daddy!” an’ marched ’em aboard again. That broke the birds’ hearts . . . Do? If you can’t do anything, don’t make yourself a laughing-stock. I hung on an’ off outside waitin’ for a lull in the typhoon. Go-ood Lord–Burst-a-Frog! How many have I seen of ’em? But, look you —‘wasn’t any typhoon scuppered the Serpent! She was overgunned forrard, an’ couldn’t shake her head clear of a ripple. Sister-ship to Viper an’ Cobra, was she? No! No! They were destroyers. But all unlucky sampans! . . . An about my parrots. I went into the Loft an’ said:—“Hush!” like Mrs. Vergil. They detailed a coverin’- party to keep up the fire, but most of ’em slued their heads round, and took stock of me — sizin’ me up, the same as the watches do their Warrants and Bo’suns before the ship’s shaken down. I took stock o’ them, to spot the funny-men an’ trouble makers for the ensuin’ commission. Burst-a-Frog! How often have I done that! The screechers didn’t worry me. Most men can’t live, let alone work, unless they’re chewin’ the rag. It was the noocleus — the on-the-knee parties — that I wanted to identify. Why? If a man knows one job properly, don’t matter what it is, he ought to know ’em all. For example. I had spent twenty odd years headin’ off bad hats layin’ to aggravate me; and liars and sea-lawyers tryin’ to trip me on Admiralty Regulations; not to mention the usual cheap muckin’s, eatin’ into the wind. An’ there they was — every man I’d ever logged or got twisted at seven bells — all there, metamorfused into those dam’ birds, an’ o’ course, havin’ been Navy trained, talkin’ lowerdeck.’
As Mr. Vergil paused, Mr. Heatleigh nodded with apparent understanding.
‘There was a pink-tail grey — a West Coast ju-ju-wallah — squatting on the floor of his cage. I’d ha’ put him in the bowse on his general tally if he’d been a regular ratin’. He waited till me eye travelled past him, as I was lookin’ ’em over. Then he called me It out of his belly, ventriloquial. Now there was an upper-yard-man in-now which one of those old bitch-cruisers was it? No! No! Resistance — five masts. Yes — who had the very same gift, and other men got the blame. Jemmy Reader was his name — a sour dog with a broken mouth. I said to him, the bird I mean: “The anchor ain’t fairly stowed yet; so I didn’t hear you. But I won’t forget it, Jemmy.” And Burst-a-Frog! I hadn’t thought of Jemmy Reader in thirty odd years.
‘An’ there was a sulphur-crested cockatoo, swearin’ like poison. He reminded me o’ someone I couldn’t fit, but I saw he was good for trouble. One way an’ another, I spotted half-a-dozen proper jokers, an’ a dozen, maybe, that ‘ud follow ’em if things went well. The rest was ord’nary seamen, ready to haul with any crowd that promised a kick-up. (I’d seen it all before, when I had to know seven hundred men by name and station within the first week. ‘Never allowed meself or anyone else any longer.)
‘Then Mrs. Vergil came down with me luncheon. We had to go a long way outside the Loft to talk. They weren’t ladies’ birds. But she said, quick as cordite:—“Our Polly’s cage-cover’s the thing.” And I said:— “The heart of her husband shall safely trust in her. Send it down now. One of ’em’s overdue for it already.” She sent it, an’ my Presentation Whistle which they had presented to me on leaving the Raleigh. Burst-a-Frog! She was a ship. Ten knots on a bowline, comin’ out o’ Simonstown, draggin’ her blasted screw.’
‘What did you want your Call for?’ Once more Mr. Vergil’s eyes pierced Mr. Heatleigh through at the question.
‘If the game was workin’ out on lower-deck lines, how could I do without it? Next time that cockatoo-bird began cursin’ me, I piped down. It fetched him up with a round turn. He squatted an’ said, “Lord love a Duck!” He hadn’t Jemmy’s guts. An’ just that, mark you, hove him up in my mind for the man which he’d been. It was Number Three at the port six-pounder — she hadn’t much else — in the old Polyphemus — ram, that broke the boom at Berehaven — how long back? He was a beefy beggar, with a greasy lollopin’ lovelock on his forehead — but I can’t remember his tally. There were some other duplicates o’ men I had known, but Jemmy and the Polyphemus bird were the ringleaders. Bye and bye those green screechers cooled off a bit — creakin’ an’ mutterin’ like hens on a hot day; an’ I did a caulk by the open door, where the boat-rollers are. Then Jemmy sprung it on me, an’ I heard what I haven’t in a long day! “Hand-of-a-Mess for biscuits!” They feed ’em on French rolls in the so-called New Navy; but it used to be, when a boy heard that, he sculled off an’ drew what was on issue for his mess, or got kicked. An’ just then I was a boy bringin’ a boat alongside the old Squirrel training-brig in slow time. (Dreamin’ I mean.) So I was halfway down the Loft ‘fore I woke, an’ they all scoffed at me! Jemmy leadin’. But there was somethin’ at the back o’ the noise (you can always tell), an’ while I was rubbin’ my eyes open, I saw the bin o’ parrot-food. Seven bells in the afternoon-watch, it was, an’ what they wanted, an’ what by Admiralty Regulations, d’ye see, they were entitled to, was their food-pans refillin’. That’s where Jemmy showed his cunnin’! Lots o’ food was still unexpended, but they were within their rights; an’ he had disrated me to Hand-of-a-Mess in his birdshop!’
‘What did you do?’
‘Nothin’. It was a lower-deck try-on. ‘Question was should I treat ’em as birds or blue jackets. I gave ’em the benefit o’ the doubt. Navy-pattern they was, an’ Navy tack they should get. I filled pans and renewed water where requisite, an’ they mocked me. They mocked me all the time. That took me through the first dog-watch. Jemmy waited till I had finished, an’ then he called me It again. (Jemmy Reader out on a weather-earrin’ to the life!) An’ that started Polyphemus. I dowsed Jemmy’s glim with our Polly s cage-cover. That short-circuited the quiff bird too; provin’ they was workin’ off the same lead. I carried on cleanin’ their cages, with a putty-knife. It gratified ’em highly to see me Captain of the Head as well as Mess Boy. Jemmy o’ course couldn’t see, but Polyphemus told him, an’ he said what he shouldn’t in the dark. He had guts. I give him that. I then locked up the Loft and went home.
‘Mrs. Vergil said that I had done well, but I knew that, so far, it had only been ranging on the target. Mut’ny an’ conspiracy was their game, an’ the question was how they’d work it. Go-ood Lord–Burst-a-Frog! I’ve seen three years’ continuous mut’ny, slave-dhowing in the Red Sea, under single awnin’s, with “Looney Dick” in the old Petruchio corvette — the one that dropped her bottom out off The Minicoys. By the end of the commission, all Officers not under open arrest was demandin’ court-martials, an’ the lower-deck was prowlin’ murder.’
‘How did it finish?’ Mr. Heatleigh asked.
‘Navy-fashion. We came home. When our cockroaches had died — off Gozo that would be — Dick piped all hands to look at a kit-bag full of evidence, in the waist, under the Ensign. “There’s enough bile an’ spite an’ perjury there,” he says, “to scupper all hands — an’ me first. If you want it taken home, say so.” We didn’t. “Then we’ll give it Christian burial,” he says. We did; our Doctor actin’ Chaplain . . . . But about my parrots. I went back to ’em at sunrise — you could have heard ’em off the Bahamas since dawn — but that was the bird in ’em. I gave them room to swing till it crossed my mind they were mockin’ me again. (The nastiest rux I ever saw, when a boy, began with “All hands to skylark.” I don’t hold with it.) When I took our Polly’s cage-cover off Jemmy, he didn’t call me anything. He sat an’ scoffed at me. I couldn’t tell what traverse he was workin’ till he cocked one eye up — Jemmy Reader workin’ some dirty game to the life! — an’ there, in the roof, was a little green beggar skimmin’ up an’ down. He’d broke out of his cage. Next minute, there was another promenadin’ along a spar, looking back at me like a Gosport lady to see how I took it. I shut doors an’ windows before they had made up their minds to run. Then I inspected cages. They’d been busy since light unpickin’ the wire granny-knots this so-called Noo Navy had tied ’em in with. At sea, o’ course, there was nowhere to break out to, an’ they knew it. Ashore, they had me pawled as responsible for ’em if run or dead. An’ that was why Jemmy had scoffed. They’d been actin’ under his orders.’
‘But couldn’t it have been Polyphemus?’ Mr. Heatleigh suggested.
‘He may have passed on Jemmy’s orders, but he hadn’t Jemmy’s mind. All I heard out of him was mockin’s an’ curses. Any way, I couldn’t round up those common greens, hoppin’ out their cages by dozens, an’ when you can’t exercise authority — don’t. So I slipped out o’ the door, and listened outside. ‘Reg’lar lower-deck palaver. Jemmy damned ’em all for bitchin’ the evolution. The first deserters ought to ha’ run as units, d’ye see, instead o’ waitin’ to make up a boatload. Polyphemus damned back at Jemmy like a Chatham matey, an’ the rest made noises because they liked listenin’-in to themselves. If it wasn’t for chin-wagging, there’d be serious trouble in lots of families. But I thought it was time this was being put a stop to. So I went to the house for a pair o’ scissors.’
‘I don’t quite see what —’
‘I told you that that gunner in the Polyphemus had a quiff an’ fancied himself the whole watch an’ a half till — Go-ood Lord, how it all came back watchin’ those poultry — he was run round to the barber an’ Dartmoor-clipped for wearin’ oily and indecent appendages. It tamed him. Only I can’t remember his name.’
Mr. Vergil wrinkled his brows, and it seemed as though Mr. Heatleigh did the like. But there was no result.
‘When I went to ’em again, there must ha’ been twenty small greens loose. But they couldn’t break out o’ the ship, so I disregarded ’em, an’ struck at the root o’ the matter. I tried to get Polyphemus to let me scratch his head — the sweep! He bit like a bloodhound on the snap of the scissors.’ Mr. Vergil waved his right hand. ‘I had to drag an’ scrag him ‘fore I offed it — his quiff — crest, I mean. An’ then — Go-ood Lord–Burst-a-Frog! — he keeled over on his side in a dead faint like a Christian! The barberin’ had worked livin’ wonders with — with the man he was, but, even so, I was surprised at that pore bald fowl! “That’s for you, you yellow dog,” I said. “The rest’s for Jemmy Reader.” Jemmy hadn’t missed a stroke of my operations. He knew what was comin’. He turned on his back like a shark, an’ began to fight tooth an’ nail. It must ha’ meant as much to him as pigtails used to — his tail, I mean.
‘I said:—“Jemmy, there’s never been more than one Bo’sun in any ship I’ve served in. Dead or alive, you’re for disratin’, so you can say what you please. It won’t go in the report.”’
‘And did he?’
‘Yes — oh yes! But I didn’t log it against him, the charge being strictly mut’ny. I got him at last — torn to ribbons twice over — an’ I sheared off his red tail-feathers level with his bare behind. He’d been askin’ for it the whole Commission.’
‘And what did he do?’
‘He stopped. I’ve never heard anyone chat much after disratin’. They can’t manage the voice, dye see? He tried to squat, but his backstays were carried away. Then he climbed up the wires to his ring, like an old, old man; an’ there he sat bobbin’ an’ balancin’, all down by the head like a collier-brig. Pore beggar!’
Mr. Heatleigh echoed him. ‘And that finished the business?’ he said.
‘I had struck at the root of the matter,’ Mr. Vergil replied simply. ‘There was only those common greens flyin’ loose. When they found I didn’t notice ’em, they began going back to their cages, two an’ three together for company’s sake, an’ arguin’ about it. I hurried ’em up by throwin’ my cap (the Loft was gettin’ warmish through bein’ shut up), an’ ‘fore sundown they were all back, an’ I fastened up behind ’em with the same spun-yarn tricks as their silly owners had. Don’t anyone teach anything in this Noo Navy nowadays?’
‘What about Jemmy and Polyphemus?’ Mr. Heatleigh asked.
‘Jemmy was busy gettin’ used to his new trim, an’ Polyphemus squatted, croakin’ like a frog an’ sayin’, “Lord love a Duck!” No guts! That’s how it was till the Squadron returned.’
‘But wasn’t there some sort of fuss then between ships? A Policeman on the wharf told me — and the Florealia’s gig —’
‘They’ve been rubbin’ it in to ’em on the Island; that’s why. Yes. The banzai-parties came ashore, all hats and hosannas like a taxpayers’ treat. The Petty Officer checked my seventy-two cages — one bird per cage — an’ that finished my watch. But, then he gave the party time to talk to their sweethearts instead o’ marchin’ off at once. Some oily-wad of a Bulleana struck up about not having got his proper bird. I heard a P.O. say:—“Settle it among yourselves.” (Democratic, I suppose he thought it.) The man naturally started across the Loft to do so. He met a Florealia with the same complaint. They began settlin’ it. That let everything go by the run. They were holdin’ up their cages, and lookin’ at ’em in the light like glasses o’ port. Wonderful thing — the eye o’ Love! Yes, they began settlin’ in pairs.’
‘But what about Jemmy Reader and Polyphemus?’
‘There was a good deal o’ talk over them too. A torpedo-midwife, or some such ratin’, sculled about lookin’ for the beggar who had cut off his poor Josie’s tail. (It never hit me till then that Jemmy might have been a lady.) He fell foul of Polyphemus (the owner, I mean) moaning over his quiff; an’, not bein’ shipmates, they began settlin’ too. Then such as had drawn their proper true-loves naturally cut in for their ship or mess. I’ve seen worse ruxes in my time, but a quicker breeze-up — never! As usual there was something behind it. I heard one of the ships had been dished out prewar cordite for target practice, and so her shooting was like the old Superb’s at Alexandria, till we touched off the magazine. The other ship had stood by condoling with five-flag hoists. So both parties landed more or less horstile. When the noise was gettin’ noticeable outside, a P.O. says to me:—“They won’t listen to us, Daddy. They say we ain’t impartial!” I said:—“God knows what you ain’t. But I know what you are! You’re less use than ten mines in a Portuguee pig-knot. Close doors an’ windows, an’ let me take charge.” So they did, an’ what with the noise bein’ bottled up inside, an’ the Loft gettin’ red-hot, an’ no one interferin’, which was what I recommended, the lower-deck broke away from the clinch, and began to pick up bashed cage-work an’ argue.
‘Then I piped “Clear Lower Deck,” an’ I told ’em how I’d disrated Jemmy an’ Polyphemus for doin’ what they did. (Jemmy was a lady, after all. He laid an egg next day aboard ship, an’ his owner sent me a kodak picture.) That took their minds off. I told ’em how I’d sweated in the Loft, guardin’ their treasures for ’em, an’ they had no right to complain if the poor little lonely beggars had mixed hammicks in their absence. When I had ’em laughing, I told ’em they was all gas an’ gaspers an’ hair-oil, like the rest of the so-called Noo Navy, an’ they were marched off. Otherwise — even if some fool wouldn’t ha’ sent for the Marines, and spilled some silly mess into the papers — those two ships ‘ud ha’ been sortin’ parrots out of each other the rest of the commission. You know what that means in the way of ruxes ashore! As it is, they are actin’ as a unit when they’re chipped about “pretty Pollies” all over the Island. The worse they’ll do now is to kill a Policeman or two. An’, if I may say so, my handlin’ of ’em — birds an’ lower-deck — shows what comes of a man knowing his profession, Sir Richard.’
Mr. Heatleigh’s countenance and bearing changed as they expanded. He held out his hand. Mr. Vergil rose to his feet and shook it. The two beamed on each other.
‘I can testify to that, Vergil, since my first commission. You knew me all along?’
‘I thought it was you, sir, when you signalled me to go into this boat ahead of you. But I wasn’t certain till I saw that bit of work I put on you.’ Mr. Vergil pointed to the bared wrist, where the still deep blue foul-anchor showed under red hairs.
‘In the foretop of the Resistance, off Port Royal,’ Mr. Heatleigh said.
Mr. Vergil nodded and smiled. ‘It’s held,’ said he. ‘But — what’s happened to your proper tally, Sir Richard?’
‘That was because better men than me died in the War. I inherited, you see.’
‘Meanin’ you’re a Lord now?’
The other nodded. Then he slapped his knee. ‘‘Got it at last,’ he cried. ‘That Polyphemus gunner! It was Harris — Chatty, not Bugs. He was with me in the Comus and Euryalus after. ‘Nov 20, 2002;Used to lend money.’
‘That’s him,’ Mr. Vergil cried. ‘I always thought he was a bit of a Jew. Who commanded the Comus then? I mean that time in the Adriatic, when she was pooped an’ dam-near drowned the owner in his cabin.’
Mr. Heatleigh fished up that name also from his memory; and backwards and forwards through time they roved, recovering ships and men of ancient and forgotten ages. For, as the old know, the dead draw the dead, as iron does iron. The Admiral sat in the curve of the stern-timbers, his hands clenched on his knees, as though tiller-lines might still be there. Mr. Vergil, erect for the honour of great days and names, faced him across the battered disconnected wheel, swaying a shade in the rush of the memories that flooded past him. Victorias and phaetons began to come back from the filled hotels. One of them held a perspiring officer of the Bulleana, who had been instructed to find by all means Admiral (Retired) Lord Heatleigh, somehow mis-registered in some boarding-house, and to convey to him his Captain’s invitation to do them the honour of lunching with them. And it was already perilously near cocktail time! . . .
Later, over those same cocktails, Lord Heatleigh gathered that the opinion of His Majesty’s Squadron on the station was that ‘Daddy’ Vergil merited hanging at the yard-arm.
‘‘Glad you haven’t got one between you,’ was the answer. ‘He taught me most of my seamanship when I was a Snotty. The best Bo’sun and — off duty — the biggest liar in the Service.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56