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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"Wodjer got there? More 'armony?"
"Grammarphone," was the mate's brief reply. He was
"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
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
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
"Cuss 'im! careless 'ound!" he muttered. "Might a'
"'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
"'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,
"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
"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.