A Fog-horn Conclusion by Fox Russell

The Story of a Gramophone

The Saucy Sally was a vessel of renown. No blustering liner, no fussy tug, no squattering steamer, she; but a bluff-bowed, smartly painted, trim-built sailing barge, plying chiefly from the lower reaches of the Thames to ports west of Dover. She had no equal of her class, at any point of sailing, and certainly her Master, Mr. Joseph Pigg, was not the man to let her fair fame suffer for want of seamanship.

"Cap'n Pigg," as he insisted upon being called, was a great, hairy-faced man, with brawny muscles and a blood-shot eye. And in these respects, his mate, Bob Topper, greatly favored him—in fact, their physical resemblance was rather marked; but their tastes were in no way similar; 'the Cap'n' was fond of his glass, whilst the mate was a blue-ribbon man; Joseph Pigg couldn't bear music, in any form, whilst the total abstainer had a weakness for the flute and would not infrequently burst into song; the Skipper hated women, whereas the mate was, what he himself called "a bit of a gay Lathero." But notwithstanding these dissimilarities of tastes and disposition, they got along fairly well together, and both met on the common ground of getting as much work out of the two "hands" as was ordinarily possible. The Skipper didn't drink alcoholic liquors before the mate, and the mate returned the compliment by refraining from any musical outrage in the hearing of his superior officer.

One hot summer afternoon, when the Saucy Sally was taking in cargo and the Skipper was ashore, Mr. Topper, seated on the coamings of the hatchway, abandoned himself to the melancholy pleasures of Haydn's "Surprise," the tune being wrung out of a tarnished German-silver flute. "Kittiwake Jack," one of the crew, was seated as far as possible for'ard, vainly trying to absorb his tea and stop his ears, at one and the same time, whilst his fellow-sufferer, Bill Brown, having hastily dived below, lay in his bunk, striving to deaden the weird, wailing sounds that filled the ship. And just as Haydn's "Surprise" was half way through, for the seventh time, the Skipper walked on board.

The flutist stopped short, and stared up at him.

"Didn't expect you back so soon, Cap'n," he said in confused tones.

"No. What's that 'owlin' row you're making?"

"I dunno about no 'owlin' row, but——"

"Well, I do. I s'pose, accordin' to you, I ain't got no musical h'ear," sneered Cap'n Pigg.

"This—this here tune——"

"Yes. This disgustin' noise—what is it?"

The mate looked sulky.

"This is Haydn's 'Surprise,'" he growled.

"So I should think. I dunno who the bloke was, but it must have given Haydn quite a turn! Don't let's 'ave no more of it."

"Well, I don't see as there's no 'arm in music. And I didn't loose it off when you was about. I know you don't like it, so I studied your pecooliarities. Fact is, I studies yer too much," and the mate looked mutinous.

Cap'n Pigg scowled.

"You shet yer 'ead," he grunted as he stamped off below. He went to a small cupboard in the corner of the cabin, and mixed himself a stiff "go" of gin and water, which he tossed off at one gulp, saying:

"Haydn's 'S'prise,' eh? Haydn's S'prise be d—dished! 'E don't come no s'prises 'ere while I'm master of the Saucy Sally!"

After this slight breeze, things quickly settled down again on the old lines between master and mate, and the voyage to Chichester Harbor was entirely uneventful, the barge bringing up at a snug anchorage near Emsworth.

The next day Mr. Topper had undressed and gone overboard for a swim. After this, climbing up the bobstay, he regained the deck, and proceeded to dry his hairy frame on an ancient flannel shirt. In the midst of this occupation, temporarily forgetful of his superior officer's prejudices, he broke into song.

Thirty seconds after he had let go the first howl, the Skipper's head was thrust up the companion-way.

"Wodjer want to make all that row about? Anything disagreed with yer? If so, why don't yer take something for it?"

"It's a funny thing yer carn't let a man alone, when all 'e's a doin' is making a bit of 'armony on board," replied the mate, pausing in the act of drying his shock head.

"'Armony be d—driven overboard!" cried Mr. Pigg, wrathfully. "Now, look 'ere, Bob Topper, I ain't a onreasonable man in my likes and dislikes, but it ain't fair to sing at a feller creature with the voice nature fitted you out with! I never done you no 'arm."

Next day the Saucy Sally shipped some shingle ballast, got under weigh on the first of the ebb tide, and safely threading her way past the shallows and through the narrow channels of the harbor, emerged into the open sea, and turned her bluff-bowed stem eastwards.

The following afternoon, as Bob Topper took his trick at the wheel, he ruminated on the mutability of human affairs in general, and the "contraryness" of skippers in particular.

"Won't 'ave no music, won't he? Well, I reckon it's like religion when the missionaries is a shovin' of it into the African niggers—they just jolly well got to 'ave it! An' so it'll be with the ole man. I'll jest fix up a scheme as'll do 'im a treat."

He smiled broadly; and when Bob Topper smiled, the corners of his mouth seemed to almost meet at the back of his head.

And as soon as the Saucy Sally had pitched and tossed her way up channel—for she was light as a cork in ballast—and dropped anchor a little way off Gravesend, Bob Topper sculled himself ashore. Twenty minutes after stepping out of the boat, he was seated in the back-parlor of a friend, a musical-instrument maker.

When Mr. Topper went aboard again, he carried under his arm a large brown paper package, which he smuggled below, without encountering the Skipper, who was in his cabin at the time, communing with a bill of lading and a glass of Hollands neat. And, soon after the mate had come aboard, "the Cap'n" went ashore.

And then Mr. Topper laid himself out for some tranquil enjoyment, on quite an unusual scale. He unfastened the package, produced a gramophone, brought it on to the deck, and started "The Washington Post."

"Kittiwake Jack" and Bill Brown immediately fled below.

The mate sat on the edge of the hatch and gazed lovingly at the new instrument of torture, as he beat time to the inspiring strains, with a belaying pin. When the "Washington Post," was finished, he laid on "Jacksonville," with a chorus of human laughter, which sounded quite eerie. And so intent was he on this occupation, that he never even noticed the approach of Cap'n Pigg's boat until it was almost alongside.

The Skipper clambered aboard, looking black as thunder. This new outrage was not to be borne. Just as his foot touched the deck the instrument gave forth its unholy cachinnation of "Ha! Ha! Ha!" in the high nasal tones peculiar to its kind.

Cap'n Pigg was not easily disconcerted, but this ghostly "Ha! Ha! Ha!" was a distinct trial to his nerves; he thrust his hands deep into his coat pockets, glared at the mate, and then growled:

"Wodjer got there? More 'armony?"

"Grammarphone," was the mate's brief reply. He was getting sulky.

"Grammar be blowed! Worst grammar I ever 'eard," returned Pigg. "Turn the bloomin' thing off—and turn it off at the main. Enough to give any respectable, law-abidin' sailor-man the 'ump!"

He proceeded two steps down the companion; then hurled this parting shot at the offending mate:

"You oughter be 'ead of a laundry where the 'andle of the mangle turns a pianer-horgan as well—work and play!" he concluded scornfully, as he disappeared from the musician's sight below.

The mate whistled softly; then he stopped the offending instrument and conveyed it below.

"P'raps the old man'll be glad of it, one o' these days," he muttered mysteriously.

The next trip of the Saucy Sally was a more eventful one. She left Tilbury in a light haze, which first thickened into a pale-colored fog, and then, aided by the smoke from the tall chimneys, to a regular "pea-souper." The mate, taking advantage of the Captain's spell below, brought up a long yard of tin, which looked remarkably like the Saucy Sally's fog-horn, and quietly slipped it overboard.

As they got lower and lower down the river, the fog increased, and both Cap'n Pigg and Topper experienced a certain amount of anxiety as, first another barge, then a tramp steamer, and finally, a huge liner, all sounding their fog-horns loudly, passed them considerably too close for comfort. The Skipper himself was at the wheel and, coughing the raw, damp fog out of his throat, he shouted hoarsely to Topper:

"Better get our fog-horn goin', mate."

"Aye, aye, Skipper. It's in your cabin, ain't it?"

"Yes, in the first locker."

The mate descended the companion-steps, with a mysterious smile on his face, and his dexter optic closed. The casual observer might have thought that Mr. Topper was actually indulging in a wink.

After a time, he reappeared on deck, walked aft, and said:

"Fog-horn don't seem nowheres about, Skipper. Thought you always kept her in your charge."

Cap'n Pigg whisked the wheel round just in time to escape a tug, fussing up-stream, and feeling her way through the fog at half-speed, and then he grunted sourly:

"So I do. What the d—delay in findin' it is, I can't understand. 'Ere, ketch 'old o' the spokes, and I'll go; always got to do everything myself on this old tank, seems to me."

And thus grumbling, Cap'n Pigg went below—not altogether unwillingly, as, being a man who understood the importance of economizing time, he combined his search for the fog-horn with the quenching of a highly useful thirst. But when he came on deck again, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he was unaccompanied by the fog-horn.

"Where the blamed thing's got to, I dunno, more'n the dead. I see it there, myself, not two days ago, but it ain't nowheres to be found now."

"Rather orkard, Skipper, ain't it, in all this maze o' shippin'?" returned Mr. Topper with a half turn at the wheel.

"Yes, I don't more'n 'arf like it," returned the Cap'n uneasily. "My nerves arn't quite what they was. An' a fog's a thing as I never could abide."

On glided the Saucy Sally, almost the only one on the great water way which spoke not, in the midst of a babel of confusing sounds. Syrens whooped, steam whistles shrieked hoarsely; the raucous voices of fog-horns proclaimed the whereabouts of scores of craft, passing up and down the river; but the trim-built barge slid noiselessly along, ghost-like, in the dun-colored "smother," giving no intimation of her proximity.

Then it was that Mr. Bob Topper's moment for action arrived. In casual tones, he observed to the Skipper:

"Pity, we ain't got something as'll make a sound o' some kind, so's to let people know as we 're a-comin'."

Cap'n Pigg said nothing: but the anxiety deepened perceptibly in his face.

"Where the blank blank are yer comin' to?" roared the voice of another bargeman, as, tooting loudly on a fog-horn, one of the "Medway flyers," shaved past them.

"Near thing, that," observed the mate, calmly.

Cap'n Pigg went a shade paler beneath the tan on his weather-beaten face.

"Cuss 'im! careless 'ound!" he muttered. "Might a' sunk us."

"'Ad no proper lookout, I expect," returned Mr. Topper, "even if 'e 'ad, 'e couldn't see anything, and we got no fog-'orn to show 'em where we was, yer see."

"No. An' p'raps we shall go to the bottom, all along o' our 'aving lost our ole bit o' tin. It's a orful thing to think of, ain't it?" said Cap'n Pigg solemnly.

The mate appeared to be in a brown study. Then, as though he had suddenly been inspired, he exclaimed:

"What about the grammarphone, Skipper?"

Even in the midst of his perturbation, Cap'n Pigg looked askance at mention of the hated instrument. But it was a case of 'any port in a storm,' and, with a grim nod, he relieved the mate at the wheel, and said:

"Fetch the bloomin' consarn up."

Mr. Topper obeyed, with alacrity in his step, and a wink in his eye. The 'consarn' was quickly brought on deck, and the 'Washington Post' let loose on the astonished ears of fog-smothered mariners, right and left of them.

One old shell-back, coming up river on a Gravesend shrimper, listened in blank astonishment for a minute, and then confided huskily to his mate that he thought their time had come.

"'Eavenly, strains! It's wot they calls 'the music o' the spears,'" he said mysteriously, "Hangels' music wot comes just before a bloke's time's up. We better prepare for the wust."

His mate, less superstitious and with more common sense, rejoined:

"Garn! 'Music o' the spears' be blowed! It's more like a pianer-horgan or a 'urdy-gurdy."

The shrimper glided on, and a tramp steamer, going dead slow, just shaved past the musical barge. Its master roared derisively from the bridge:

"'Ullo, barge, ahoy! Wot yer got there? Punch and Judy show aboard?"

Which cost Cap'n Pigg a nasty twinge. He had always prided himself on his seaman-like ways, and to proceed thus, down the great river, like a mountebank, or a Cockney out on a Bank Holiday, hurt his feelings more than he could say.

Yet another insult was to be hurled at the Saucy Sally, for "Jacksonville," with its weird human chorus, having been turned on—when the "Ha! Ha! Ha!" rang out on the ears of a passing tug's captain, that outraged gentleman, thinking he was being personally derided, shouted, as the tide swept them out of sight:

"Yah! 'Oo yer larfin' at? Set o' bloomin' monkeys!"

But the gramophone was certainly playing a useful part in warning others off the Saucy Sally, down that fog-laden river. And, when, at the end of their day's slow journey, they let go their anchor, the "Washington Post" was again nasally shrieking out its march-time glories.

The mate stopped the machine and carried it tenderly below, then, returning to the deck, he observed.

"Good job as we 'ad the grammarphone aboard, Cap'n."

Cap'n Pigg swallowed a lump in his throat, and looked like a child confronted with a dose of nauseous medicine, as he gruffly replied:

"It's better n' nothin' when yer wants a row made."

A pause ensued, and then the Skipper went on:

"In future, I don't object—not very much—to the dammarphone—grammarphone, I mean—If you can stand music, well, so can I. But you can't contrarst the beauty o' the two instruments, and I'm goin' ashore, straight away, to buy myself a good, old-fashioned fog-'orn. The tone of that is altogether more 'armonious and more soothin' to the hear, than that there beastly grammarphone ever could be!"

The mate heaved a deep sigh and sorrowfully went below. In the effort to ram music into his superior officer he had to admit himself defeated.