Crab Pots, by Bartimeus

1

In moments of crisis the disciplined human mind works as a thing detached, refusing to be hurried or flustered by outward circumstance. Time and its artificial divisions it does not acknowledge. It is concerned with preposterous details and with the ludicrous, and it is acutely solicitous of other people's welfare, whilst working at a speed mere electricity could never attain.

Thus with James Thorogood, Lieutenant, Royal Navy, when he—together with his bath, bedding, clothes, and scanty cabin furniture, revolver, first-aid outfit, and all the things that were his—was precipitated through his cabin door across the aft-deck. The ship heeled violently, and the stunning sound of the explosion died away amid the uproar of men's voices along the mess-deck and the tinkle and clatter of broken crockery in the wardroom pantry.

"Torpedoed!" said James, and was in his conjecture entirely correct. He emerged from beneath the debris of his possessions, shaken and bruised, and was aware that the aft-deck (that spacious vestibule giving admittance on either side to officers' cabins, and normally occupied by a solitary Marine sentry) was filled with figures rushing past him towards the hatchway.

It was half-past seven in the morning. The Morning-watch had been relieved and were dressing. The Middle-watch, of which James had been one, were turning out after a brief three-hours' spell of sleep. Officers from the bathroom, girt in towels, wardroom servants who had been laying the table for breakfast, one or two Warrant-officers in sea boots and monkey jackets—the Watch-below, in short—appeared and vanished from his field of vision like figures on a screen. In no sense of the word, however, did the rush resemble a panic. The aft-deck had seen greater haste on all sides in a scramble on deck to cheer a troopship passing the cruiser's escort. But the variety of dress and undress, the expressions of grim anticipation in each man's face as he stumbled over the uneven deck, set Thorogood's reeling mind, as it were, upon its feet.

The Surgeon, pyjama clad, a crimson streak running diagonally across the lather on his cheek, suddenly appeared crawling on all-fours through the doorway of his shattered cabin. "I always said those safety-razors were rotten things," he observed ruefully. "I've just carved my initials on my face. And my ankle's broken. Have we been torpedoed, or what, at all? An' what game is it you're playing under that bath, James? Are you pretending to be an oyster?"

Thorogood pulled himself together and stood up. "I think one of their submarines must have bagged us." He nodded across the flat to where, beyond the wrecked debris of three cabins, the cruiser's side gaped open to a clear sky and a line of splashing waves. Overhead on deck the twelve-pounders were barking out a series of ear-splitting reports—much as a terrier might yap defiance at a cobra over the stricken body of its master.

"I think our number's up, old thing." Thorogood bent and slipped his arms under the surgeon's body. "Shove your arms round my neck. . . . Steady!—hurt you? Heave! Up we go!" A Midshipman, ascending the hatchway, paused and turned back. Then he ran towards them, spattering through the water that had already invaded the flat.

"Still!" sang a bugle on deck. There was an instant's lull in the stampede of feet overhead. The voices of the officers calling orders were silent. The only sounds were the lapping of the waves along the riven hull and the intermittent reports of the quick-firers. Then came the shrill squeal of the pipes.

"Fall in!" roared a voice down the hatchway. "Clear lower deck! Every soul on deck!" The bugle rang out again.

Thorogood staggered with his burden across the buckled plating of the flat, and reached the hatchway. The Midshipman who had turned back passed him, his face white and set. "Here!" called the Lieutenant from the bottom of the ladder. "This way, my son! Fall in's the order!" For a moment the boy glanced back irresolute across the flat, now ankle deep in water. The electric light had been extinguished, and in the greenish gloom between decks he looked a small and very forlorn figure. He pointed towards the wreckage of the after-cabin, called something inaudible, and, turning, was lost to view aft.

"That's the 'Pay's' cabin," said the Doctor between his teeth. "He was a good friend to that little lad. I suppose the boy's gone to look for him, and the 'Pay' as dead as a haddock, likely as not."

Thorogood deposited the Surgeon on the upper deck, fetched a lifebuoy, and rammed it over the injured man's shoulders. "God forgive me for taking it," said the latter gratefully, "but my fibula's cracked to blazes, an' I love my wife . . ."

All round them men were working furiously with knives and crowbars, casting off lashings from boats and baulks of timber on the booms, wrenching doors and woodwork from their fastenings—anything capable of floating and supporting a swimmer. The officers were encouraging the men with words and example, steadying them with cheery catch-words of their Service, ever with an eye on the forebridge, at the extreme end of which the Captain was standing.

On the after shelter-deck the Gunner, bare-headed and clad only in a shirt and trousers, was, single-handed, loading and firing a twelve-pounder as fast as he could snap the breech to and lay the gun. His face was distorted with rage, and his black brows met across his nose in a scowl that at any other time would have suggested acute melodrama. Half a mile away the shots were striking the water with little pillars of white spray.

The figure on the forebridge made a gesture with his arm. "Fall in!" shouted the Commander. "Fall in, facing outboard, and strip! Stand by to swim for it!" Seven hundred men—bluejackets, stokers, and marines—hurriedly formed up and began to divest themselves of their clothes. They were drawn up regardless of class or rating, and a burly Marine Artilleryman, wriggling out of his cholera belt, laughed in the blackened face of a stoker fresh from the furnace door.

"Cheer up, mate!" he said encouragingly. "You'll soon 'ave a chance to wash your bloomin' face!"

The ship gave a sudden lurch, settled deeper in the water, and began to heel slowly over. The Captain, clinging to the bridge rail to maintain his balance, raised the megaphone to his mouth:

"Carry on!" he shouted. "Every man for himself!"—he lowered the megaphone and added between his teeth—"and God for us all!"

The ship was lying over at an angle of sixty degrees, and the men were clustered along the bulwarks and nettings as if loath to leave their stricken home even at the eleventh hour. A muscular Leading Seaman was the first to go—a nude, pink figure, wading reluctantly down the sloping side of the cruiser, for all the world like a child paddling. He stopped when waist deep and looked back. "'Ere!" he shouted, "'ow far is it to Yarmouth? No more'n a 'undred an' fifty miles, is it? I gotter aunt livin' there. . . ."

Then came the rush, together with a roar of voices, shouts and cheers, cries for help, valiant, quickly stifled snatches of "Tipperary," and, over all, the hiss of escaping steam.

"She wouldn't be 'arf pleased to see yer, Nobby!" shouted a voice above the hubbub. "Not 'arf she wouldn't! Nah then, 'oo's for compulsory bathin'. . . . Gawd! ain't it cold! . . ."

* * * * *

How he found himself in the water, Thorogood had no very clear recollection; but by instinct he struck out through the welter of gasping, bobbing heads till he was clear of the clutching menace of the drowning. The Commander, clad simply in his wrist-watch and uniform cap, was standing on the balsa raft, with scores of men hanging to its support. "Get away from the ship!" he was bawling at the full strength of his lungs. "Get clear before she goes——!"

The stern of the cruiser rose high in the air, and she dived with sickening suddenness into the grey vortex of waters. Pitiful cries for help sounded on all sides. Two cutters and a few hastily constructed rafts were piled with survivors; others swam to and fro, looking for floating debris, or floated, reserving their strength.

The cries and shouts grew fewer.

Thorogood had long parted with his support—the broken loom of an oar—and was floating on his back, when he found himself in close proximity to two figures clinging to an empty breaker. One he recognised as a Midshipman, the other was a bearded Chief Stoker. The boy's teeth were chattering and his face was blue with cold.

"W-w-what were you g-g-g-oing to have for b-b-b-breakfast in your m-m-mess?" he was asking his companion in misfortune.

Hang it all, a fellow of fifteen had to show somehow he wasn't afraid of dying.

"Kippers," replied the Chief Stoker, recognising his part and playing up to it manfully. "I'm partial to a kipper, meself—an' fat 'am. . . ."

The Midshipman caught sight of Thorogood, and raised an arm in greeting. As he did so a sudden spasm of cramp twisted his face like a mask. He relaxed his grasp of the breaker and sank instantly.

The two men reappeared half a minute later empty handed, and clung to the barrel exhausted.

"It's all chalked up somewhere, I suppose," spluttered James, gasping for his breath.

"Child murder, sir, I reckon that is," was the tense reply. "That's on their slop ticket all right. . . . 'Kippers,' I sez, skylarkin' like . . . an' 'e sinks like a stone. . . ."

Among the wavetops six hundred yards away a slender, upright object turned in a wide circle and moved slowly northward. To the south a cluster of smoke spirals appeared above the horizon, growing gradually more distinct. The party in one of the cutters raised a wavering cheer.

"Cheer up for Chatham!" shouted a clear voice across the grey waste of water. "Here come the destroyers! . . . Stick it, my hearties!"

* * * * *

After a month's leave James consulted a specialist. He was a very wise man, and his jerky discourse concerned shocked nerve-centres and reflex actions. "That's all right," interrupted the thoroughly startled James (sometime wing three-quarter for the United Services XV.), "but what defeats me is not being able to cross a London street without 'coming over all of a tremble'! An' when I try to light a cigarette"—he extended an unsteady hand—"look! . . . I'm as fit as a fiddle, really. Only the Medical Department won't pass me for service afloat. An' I want to get back, d'you see? There's a super-Dreadnought commissioning soon——"

The specialist wrote cabalistic signs on a piece of paper. "Bracing climate—East Coast for preference. . . . Plenty of exercise. Walk. Fresh air. Early hours. Come and see me again in a fortnight, and get this made up. That's all right"—he waved aside James's proffered guineas. "Don't accept fees from naval or military. . . . Least we can do is to mend you quickly. 'Morning. . . ."

James descended the staircase, and passed a tall, lean figure in soiled khaki ascending, whom the public (together with his wife and family) had every reason to suppose was at that moment in the neighbourhood of Ypres.

"If it weren't for those fellows I couldn't be here," was his greeting to the specialist. He jerked his grey, close-cropped head towards the door through which Thorogood had just passed.

2

A ramshackle covered cart laden with an assortment of tinware had stopped on the outskirts of the village. The owner, a bent scarecrow of a fellow, was effecting repairs to his nag's harness with a piece of string. Evening was setting in, and the south-east wind swept a grey haze across the coast road and sombre marshes. The tinker completed first-aid to the harness, and stood at the front of the cart to light his lamps. The first match blew out, and he came closer to the body of the vehicle for shelter from the wind.

At that moment a pedestrian passed, humming a little tune to himself, striding along through the November murk with swinging gait. It may have been that his voice, coming suddenly within range of the mare's ears, conveyed a sound of encouragement. Perhaps the lights of the village, twinkling out one by one along the street, suggested stables and a nosebag. Anyhow, the tinker's nag threw her weight suddenly into the collar, the wheel of the cart passed over the tinker's toe, and the tinker uttered a sudden exclamation.

In the circumstances it was a pardonable enough ebullition of feeling and ought not to have caused the passing pedestrian to spin round on his heel, astonishment on every line of his face. The next moment, however, he recovered himself. "Did you call out to me?" he shouted.

The tinker was nursing his toe, apparently unconscious of having given anyone more food for thought than usual. "No," he replied gruffly. "I 'urt myself."

The passer-by turned and pursued his way to the village. The tinker lit his lamps and followed. He was a retiring sort of tinker, and employed no flamboyant methods to advertise his wares. He jingled through the village without attracting any customers—or apparently desiring to attract any—and followed the sandy coast road for some miles.

At length he pulled up, and from his seat on the off-shaft sat motionless for a minute, listening. The horse, as if realising that its dreams of a warm stable were dreams indeed, hung its head dejectedly, and in the faint gleam, of the lamp its breath rose in thin vapour. The man descended from his perch on the shaft and, going to his nag's head, turned the cart off the road.

For some minutes the man and horse stumbled through the darkness; the cart jolted, and the tin merchandise rattled dolefully. The tinker, true to the traditions of his calling, swore again. Then he found what he had been looking for, an uneven track that wound among the sand-dunes towards the shore. The murmur of the sea became suddenly loud and distinct.

With a jerk the horse and cart came to a standstill. In a leisurely fashion the tinker unharnessed his mare, tied a nosebag on her, and tethered her to the tail of the cart. In the same deliberate manner he rummaged about among his wares till he produced a bundle of sticks and some pieces of turf. With these under his arm, he scrambled off across the sand-hills to the sea.

The incoming tide sobbed and gurgled along miniature headlands of rock that stretched out on either side of a little bay. The sand-hills straggled down almost to high-water mark, where the winter storms had piled a barrier of kelp and debris. At one place a rough track down to the shingle had been worn in the sand by the feet of fishermen using the cove in fine weather during the summer.

The tinker selected a site for his fire in a hollow that opened to the sea. He built a hearth with flat stones, fetched a kettle from the cart, kindled the fire, and busied himself with preparations for his evening meal. This concluded, he laid a fresh turf of peat upon the embers, banked the sand up all round till the faint glow was invisible a few yards distant, and lit a pipe.

The night wore on. Every now and again the man rose, climbed a sand-hill, and stood listening, returning each time to his vigil by the fire. At length he leaned forward and held the face of his watch near the fire-glow. Apparently the time had come for action of some sort, for he rose and made off into the darkness. When he reappeared he carried a tin pannikin in his hand, and stood motionless by the fire, staring out to sea.

Ten minutes he waited; then, suddenly, he made an inaudible observation. A light appeared out of the darkness beyond the headland, winked twice, and vanished. The tinker approached his fire and swilled something from his pannikin on to the glowing embers. A flame shot up about three feet, and died down, flickering. The tin contained paraffin, and three times the tinker repeated the strange rite. Then he sat down and waited.

A quarter of an hour passed before something grated on the shingle of the beach, scarcely perceptible above the lap of the waves. The tinker rose to his feet, shovelled the sand over the embers of his fire, and descended the little path to the beach. The night was inky dark, and for a moment he paused irresolute. Then a dark form appeared against the faintly luminous foam, wading knee deep and dragging the bows of a small skiff towards the shore. The tinker gave a low whistle, and the wader paused.

"Fritz!" he said guardedly.

"Ja! Hier!" replied the tinker, advancing.

"Gott sei dank!" said the other. He left the boat and waded ashore. The two men shook hands. "Where's the cart?" asked the low voice in German.

"Among the sand-hills. You will want assistance. Have you more than one with you in the boat?"

"Yes." The new-comer turned and gave a brusque order. Another figure waded ashore and joined the two men, a tall, bearded fellow in duffel overalls. As his feet reached the sand he spat ostentatiously. The tinker led the way to the cart.

"It is dark," said the first man from the sea. "How many cans have you got?"

"Forty-eight. I could get no more without exciting suspicion. They have requisitioned one of my cars as it is."

The other gave a low laugh. "What irony! Well, that will last till Friday. But you must try and get more then. I will be here at the same time; no, the tide will not suit—at 8 a.m. We can come inside then. Did you remember the cigarettes?"

"Yes." The tinker climbed into the cart and handed a petrol tin down to the speaker. "Ein!" he said. "Count them," and lifted out another. "Zwei!" The third man, who had not hitherto spoken, received them with a grunt, and set off down to the boat with his burden.

Eight times the trio made the journey to and from the beach. Three times they waited while the tiny collapsible boat ferried its cargo out to where, in the darkness, a long, black shadow lay, with the water lapping round it, like a partly submerged whale. The last time the tinker remained alone on the beach.

He stood awhile staring out into the darkness, and at length turned to retrace his steps. As he reached the shelter of the sand-dunes a tall shadow rose out of the ground at his feet, and the next instant he was writhing on his face in the grip of an exceedingly effective neck-and-arm lock.

"If you try to kick, my pippin," said the excited voice of James
Thorogood, "I shall simply break your arm—so!"

The face in the sand emitted a muffled squark.

"Keep still, then."

The two men breathed heavily for a minute.

"Don't swear, either. That's what got you into this trouble, that deplorable habit of swearing aloud in German. But I will say, for a tinker, you put a very neat West Country whipping on that bit of broken harness. I've been admiring it. Didn't know they taught you that in the German navy—don't wriggle."

3

James Thorogood, retaining a firm hold on his companion's arm, bent down and gathered a handful of loose earth from a flower-bed at his feet. The moonlight, shining fitfully through flying clouds, illumined the face of the old house and the two road-stained figures standing under its walls. It was a lonely, rambling building, partly sheltered from the prevailing wind by a clump of poplars, and looking out down an avenue bordered by untidy rhododendrons.

"Won't Uncle Bill be pleased!" said James, and flung his handful of earth with relish against one of the window-panes on the first floor. He and his captive waited in silence for some minutes; then he repeated the assault. Soon a light wavered behind the curtains, the sash lifted, and a head and shoulders appeared.

"Hallo!" said a man's voice.

"Uncle Bill!" called James. There was a moment's silence.

"Well?" said the voice again, patiently.

"Uncle Bill! It's me—Jim. Will you come down and open the door? And don't wake Janet, whatever you do." Janet was the housekeeper, stone deaf these fifteen years.

The head and shoulders disappeared. Again the light flickered, grew dim, and vanished. "This way," said James, and led his companion round an angle of the house into the shadow of the square Georgian porch. The bolts were being withdrawn as they reached the steps, and a tall, grey-haired man in a dressing-gown opened the door. He held a candle above his head and surveyed the wayfarers through a rimless monocle.

"Didn't expect you till to-morrow," was his laconic greeting. "Brought a friend?"

"He's not a friend exactly," said James, pushing his companion in through the door, and examining him curiously by the light of the candle. "But I'll tell you all about him later on. His name's Fritz. D'you mind if I lock him in the cellar?"

"Do," replied Uncle Bill dryly. He produced a bunch of keys from the pocket of his dressing-gown. "It's the thin brass key. There's some quite decent brandy in the farthest bin on the right-hand side, if you're thinking of making a night of it down there. Take the candle; I'm going back to bed."

"Don't go to bed," called James from the head of the stairs. "I want to have a yarn with you in a minute. Light the gas in the dining-room."

Five minutes later he reappeared carrying a tray with cold beef, bread, and a jug of beer upon it. Uncle Bill stood in front of the dead ashes of his hearth considering his nephew through his eyeglass. "I hope you made—er—Fritz comfortable? You look as if you had been doing a forced march. Nerves better?"

James set down his empty glass with a sigh and wiped his mouth. "As comfortable as he deserves to be. He's a spy, Uncle Bill. I caught him supplying petrol to a German submarine."

"Really?" said Uncle Bill, without enthusiasm. "That brandy cost me 180s. a dozen. Wouldn't he be better in a police station? Have you informed the Admiralty?"

"I venerate the police," replied James flippantly, "and the Admiralty are as a father and mother to me; but I want to keep this absolutely quiet for a few days—anyhow, till after Friday. I couldn't turn Fritz over to a policeman without attracting a certain amount of attention. Anyhow, it would leak out if I did. I've walked eighteen miles already since midnight, and it's another fifty-nine to the Admiralty from here. Besides, unless I disguise Fritz as a performing bear, people would want to know why I was leading him about on a rope's end——"

"Start at the beginning," interrupted Uncle Bill wearily, "and explain, avoiding all unnecessary detail."

So James, between mouthfuls, gave a brief résumé of the night's adventure, while Sir William Thorogood, Professor of Chemistry and Adviser to the Admiralty on Submarine Explosives, stood and shivered on the hearthrug.

"And it just shows," concluded his nephew, "what a three-hours' swim in the North Sea does for a chap's morals." He eyed his Uncle Bill solemnly. "I even chucked the fellow's seamanship in his teeth!"

Sir William polished his eyeglass with a silk handkerchief and replaced it with care.

"Did you!" he said.

4

A squat tub of a boat, her stern piled high with wicker crab-pots, came round the northern headland and entered the little bay. The elderly fisherman who was rowing rested on his oars and sat contemplating the crab-pots in the stem. A younger man, clad in a jersey and sea boots, was busy coiling down something in the bows. "How about this spot," he said presently, looking up over his shoulder, "for the first one?" The rower fumbled about inside his tattered jacket, produced something that glistened in the sunlight, and screwed it into his eye.

"Uncle Bill!" protested the younger fisherman, "do unship that thing.
If there is anyone watching us, it will give the whole show away."

Sir William Thorogood surveyed the harbour with an expressionless countenance. "I consider that having donned these unsavoury garments—did Janet bake them thoroughly, by the way?—I have already forfeited my self-respect quite sufficiently. How much of the circuit have you got off the drum?"

"Six fathoms."

"That's enough for the first, then." The speaker rose, lifted a crab-pot with an effort, and tipped it over the side of the boat. The cable whizzed out over the gunwale for a few seconds and stopped. Uncle Bill resumed paddling for a little distance, and repeated the manoeuvre eight times in a semi-circle round the inside of the bay, across the entrance. "That's enough," he observed at length, as the last crab-pot sank with a splash. "Don't want to break all their windows ashore. These will do all they're intended to." He propelled the boat towards the shore, while James paid out the weighted cable. The bows of the boat grated on the shingle, and the elder man climbed out. "Hand me the battery and the firing key—in that box under the thwart there. Now bring the end of the cable along."

As they toiled up the shifting flank of a sand-dune, James indicated a charred spot in the sand. "That's where he showed the flare, Uncle Bill."

Uncle Bill nodded disinterestedly. Side by side they topped the tufted crest of the dune and vanished among the sand-hills.

* * * * *

Somewhere across the marshes a church clock was striking midnight when a big covered car pulled up at the roadside in the spot where, a few nights before, the tinker's cart had turned off among the sand-hills. The driver switched the engine off and extinguished the lights. Two men emerged from the body of the car; one, a short, thick-set figure muffled in a Naval overcoat, stamped up and down to restore his circulation. "Is this the place?" he asked.

"Part of it," replied the voice of Uncle Bill from the driving seat. "My nephew will show you the rest. I shall stay here, if Jim doesn't mind handing me the Thermos flask and my cigar-case—thanks."

James walked round the rear of the car and began groping about in the dry ditch at the roadside.

"Don't say you can't find it, Jim," said Sir William. He bent forward to light his cigar, and the flare of the match shone on his dress shirt-front and immaculate white tie. He refastened his motoring coat, and leaned back puffing serenely.

"Got it!" said a voice from the ditch, and James reappeared, carrying a small box and trailing something behind him. He held it out to the short man with gold oak leaves round his cap-peak. His hand trembled slightly.

"Here's the firing key, sir!"

"Oh, thanks. Let's put it in the sternsheets of the car till I come back. I'd like to have a look at the spot."

"You'll get your boots full of sand," said Uncle Bill's voice under the hood.

James lifted a small sack and an oil-can out of the motor, and the two figures vanished side by side into the night.

Half an hour later the elder man reappeared. "He's going to blow a whistle," he observed, and climbed into the body of the car, where Sir William was now sitting under a pile of rugs. He made room for the new-comer.

"Have some rug . . . and here's the foot-warmer. . . . I see. And then you—er—do the rest? The box is on the seat beside you."

The other settled down into his seat and tucked the rug round himself. "Thanks," was the grim reply. "Yes, I'll do the rest!" He lit a pipe, and smoked in silence, as if following a train of thought. "My boy would have been sixteen to-morrow. . . ."

"Ah!" said Uncle Bill.

An hour passed. The Naval man refilled and lit another pipe. By the light of the match he examined his watch. "I suppose you tested the contacts?" he asked at length in a low voice.

"Yes," was the reply, and they lapsed into silence again. The other shifted his position slightly and raised his head, staring into the darkness beyond the road whence came the faint, continuous murmur of the sea.

Seaward a faint gleam of light threw into relief for an instant the dark outline of a sand-dune, and sank into obscurity again.

Uncle Bill's eyeglass dropped against the buttons of his coat with a tinkle. The grim, silent man beside him lifted something on to his knees, and there was a faint click like the safety-catch of a gun being released.

A frog in the ditch near by set up a low, meditative croaking. Uncle Bill raised his head abruptly. Their straining ears caught the sound of someone running, stumbling along the uneven track that wound in from the shore. A whistle cut the stillness like a knife.

There was a hoarse rumble seaward that broke into a deafening roar, and was succeeded by a sound like the bursting of a dam. The car rocked with the concussion, and the fragments of the shattered wind-screen tinkled down over the bonnet and footboard.

Then utter, absolute silence.