The Drum, by Bartimeus


Ole Jarge put down the baler and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. A few fish scales transferred themselves from the back of his oakum-coloured hand to his venerable brow.

"'Tain't no use," he murmured. "'Er's nigh twenty year' ole—come nex' month. Tar ain't no use neither. 'Tis new strakes 'ers wantin'." He thumbed the seams of the old boat that lay on the shingle, with the outgoing tide still lapping round her stern. "An' new strakes do cost tarrible lot." He sat puffing his clay pipe, and transferred his gaze from the bottom of the boat to the whitewashed cottages huddled under the lee of the cliffs. A tall figure was moving about the nets that festooned the low wall in front of the cottages.

Ole Jarge removed his pipe from his mouth, substituted two fingers of his right hand, and gave a long, shrill whistle. It was a disconcerting performance. For one thing, you associated the trick with irrepressible boyhood, and, for another, the old man squinted slightly as he did it. As a matter of fact, he had learned it on the Dogger Bank fifty years before; fog-bound in a dory, it was a useful accomplishment.

Young Jarge straightened up, raised one hand in acknowledgment of the summons, and came crunching slowly across the shingle towards the boat. Ole Jarge sat smoking in philosophical silence till his son was beside him. Then he removed his pipe and spat over the listed gunwale.

"'Er's daid," he observed laconically.

Young Jarge bent stiffly and tapped the seams, inside and out, much as a veterinary surgeon runs his hand over a horse's legs.

"Ya-a-is," he confirmed, and sat down on the stem of the old boat. "'Er's very nigh's ole 's what us be," he added, after a pause, and began shredding some tobacco into the palm of his hand.

Ole Jarge nodded. Then he lifted his head quickly. "'Er's bound to last 'nother year." For the first time there was concern in his voice. Adversity does not grip the mind of the Cornish fisherfolk suddenly. It filters slowly through the chinks of the armour God has given them. Cornish men (and surely Cornish maids) were kind to the survivors of the wrecked Armada. It may be that they, in their turn, bequeathed a strain of Southern fatalism to many of their benefactors.

"'Er's bound to," repeated Ole Jarge. He got ponderously out of the boat and removed a tattered sou'wester to scratch his head with his thumbnail—another trick that had survived the adventurous days of the Dogger Bank.

The unfamiliar note of anxiety in his father's voice stirred Young Jarge. He rose to his feet with perplexity in his dark eyes, mechanically pulling up the bleached leather thigh-boots he wore afloat and ashore, "rainy-come-fine."

Inspiration had come, as it does to men of the West once the need is realised to the full.

"Du 'ee mind that there li'l' ole copper boiler—what come out o' granfer's house when 'er blawed down—back tu '98?" asked Young Jarge slowly.

Ole Jarge nodded.

"S'pose us was to hammer 'n out flat like an' nail un down to bottom, 'long wi' oakum an' drop o' white lead—what du 'ee say?"

Ole Jarge silently measured the area of the sprunk strakes with the stumpy thumb and little finger of an outstretched hand. Then he puckered his forehead and stared out to sea, apparently making mental calculations connected with the "li'l' ole copper boiler."

"Ya-a-ais." He replaced the piece of perished tarpaulin that had once been a sou'-wester on his head, and set off slowly across the shingle towards the village. Young Jarge followed, staring at his boots as he walked.

"Us 'll hammer 'n out after tea," said Ole Jarge over his shoulder.
His great, great, very great grandfather would have said "Mañana!"

* * * * *

The setting sun had tipped the dancing wavelets with fire and was glowing red in each pool left by the receding tide when Ole Jarge emerged from his cottage door. In one hand he carried a hammer, and in the other a tin of white lead. Young Jarge joined him with a small, square copper boiler in his arms.

"Where'll us put un tu, feyther?"

Ole Jarge set off across the beach in the direction of the boat. "Bring un along!" he commanded in a manner dimly suggestive of a lord high executioner.

Young Jarge followed, and dumped his burden down alongside the boat.

"Now!" said Ole Jarge grimly. He spat on his hands and prepared to enjoy himself. Bang! bang! bang-a-bang! bang! went the hammer. Young Jarge sat down on the gunwale of the boat and contemplated his parent's exertions.

"It du put Oi in mind of a drum," he said appreciatively.


"Now we can talk!" Margaret settled her back comfortably against a ridge of turf and closed her eyes for a moment.

"Isn't it heavenly up here? The wind smells of seaweed, and there must be some shrub or flower——" She opened her eyes and looked along the cliffs, "There's something smelling divinely. Wild broom, is it?"

Her gaze travelled along the succession of ragged headlands and crescents of sand formed by each little bay of the indented coast. The coastguard track, a brown thread winding adventurously among the clumps of gorse at the very edge of the cliffs, drew her eyes farther and farther to the west. In the far distance the track dipped sharply over a headland where the whitewashed coastguard station stood, and was lost to view. She turned and smiled at her companion. "Now we can talk," she repeated.

Torps, sitting beside her, met her eyes with his grave, gentle smile. "I'm so glad to see you again," he said, "that I can't think of anything else to say. It was nice of you to write and tell me you were here."

As if by common consent, they had discussed nothing but generalities during the half-hour's walk that brought them to this sheltered hollow in the cliffs. The woman was, of the two, the more reluctant to bridge the years that lay between to-day and their last meeting. Yet, womanlike, it was she that spoke first.

"I knew your ship was quite close. I wanted to see you again, Trevor, after all these years. Tell me about yourself. Your letters—yes, I know; but you never talked much about yourself in your letters."

He shook his head quietly. "No, you tell first."

"There isn't much to tell." She interlaced her fingers round her updrawn knees. Her grey eyes were turned to the sea, and Torps watched her profile against the sky wistfully, studying the pure brow, the threads of silver appearing here and there in her soft brown hair, the strong, almost boyish lines of mouth and chin. En profile, thus, she looked very like a handsome boy.

"I've been teaching at one of those training institutes for girls on the East Coast. The principal, Miss Dacre is her name"—Margaret paused as if expecting some comment from her companion: none came—"Pauline Dacre; she was at school with mother: they were great friends; and when mother died she offered me a home. . . . I had a little money—enough to go through a course of training. I learned things——"

"What sort of things?"

"Oh, cooking and laundry, and hygiene—domestic science it's called." Torps nodded. "And then, when I knew enough to teach others, I went to—to this place; I've been there ever since. And that's all. Now it's your turn."

Torps studied the traces of overwork and strain which showed in the faintly accentuated cheekbones and which painted little tired shadows about her eyelids.

"No, it's not all. Why have you come down here?"

"I—I——" She coloured as if accused. "I got a little run down . . . that was all. But I've saved some money; I can afford a rest. I'm what is called 'an independent gentlewoman of leisure' for a while." She laughed, a gay little laugh.

"Do you mean you are going back there again?"

She looked at him with frank surprise. "Of course I am, silly!"

"Don't go back . . . not to that life again. How can you? Shut up in a sort of convent. . . . You can't be a school-marm all your life; you were meant for other things. . . . I suppose you have to sleep on a hard bed, and get up in the dark when a bell rings. There aren't any carpets, and they don't give you enough to eat, as likely as not. Margaret, why should you? It's the sort of work anyone can do-teaching kids to mangle."

"But . . . what do you think I am going to do with the remainder of my days—crochet? embroider slippers for the curate? Trevor, you wouldn't like me to come to that in my old age, would you?" She spoke with gentle banter, as if to fend off something she feared. Had Torps known it, she was fencing for the happiness of them both.

He shook his head gravely.

"I hoped—because you had written to me—that you weren't going back. . . ." His thin, strong hand closed over hers, resting on the turf between them. He bent his head as if considering their fingers. "Margaret, dear——"

"Ah, Trevor, don't—please don't. . . . Not again. I thought all that was dead and buried years ago. And do you really think"—she smiled a little sadly—"if I—if things were different—that I should have written to ask you to meet me to-day? Have you learned so little of women in all these years?" There was something besides sadness in her eyes now: a wistful, half-maternal tenderness. He raised his head.

"I've learned nothing about women, Margaret, but what I learned from you."

She gently withdrew her hand. "Trevor, we're not children any longer.
We're older and wiser. We——"

"We're older—yes. But I don't see what that has to do with it, except that my need is greater. . . . I'm a little lonelier. There's never been anyone but you. I've never looked across the road at a woman in my life—except you. I know we're not children, and for that reason we ought to know our own minds. Do you know yours, Margaret?"

Margaret bowed her head, collecting her thoughts and setting them in order, before she answered:

"It isn't easy to say what I have to say. You must be patient—generous, as you can be, Trevor, of all the men I know." She hesitated and coloured again a little. "You say you want me. If there were no one else who I thought had a greater claim, you should—no, hush! listen, dear—I would give you—what you want . . . gladly—oh, gladly! But the children need me—my influence. . . . Miss Dacre said it is doing the highest service one could for the Empire . . . theirs is the higher claim. Can you understand? Oh, can you?"

Torps made no reply, staring out to sea with sombre eyes.

Gaining confidence with his silence, she continued the shy unfolding of her ideals. "Nothing is too good for boys; no training is high enough, because they are to be the builders and upholders of our Empire. Don't you think that little girls, who are destined some day to be the mates of these boys, should be prepared in a way that will make them worthy of their share of the inheritance? They have to be taught ideals of honour and courage and intelligent patriotism, so that they can help and encourage their men in years to come. They must learn to cook and sew, learn the laws of Nature and hygiene, so that they can make the home not 'an habitation enforced'—as it is for so many women—but a place where they may with all honour bring into the world other little girls and boys. . . ." She drew her breath quickly. "Ah, that is not a thing anyone can do, teaching all that! It must be someone who gives all—and who gives herself gladly . . . as I have."

Torps turned his head as if to speak, but checked himself.

"Don't think I am setting myself upon a pedestal. Don't think my heart is too anaemic to—to care for you, and that I am trying to shelter myself behind talk of a life's mission. Oh!" she cried, "be generous. Don't try to make it harder."

She leaned towards him a little as he sat with lowered eyes. "This is a time of grave anxiety, isn't it?" she continued gently, as if explaining something to an impatient child. "You naval men ought to know. There is talk of war everywhere—of war with Germany. They say we are on the brink of it to-day." Torps nodded. "Supposing it came now . . . and you were recalled. How do they recall you? Sound a bugle—beat a drum?"

Torps smiled faintly. "Something of the sort—no, not a drum; a bugle, perhaps."

"Well, we'll suppose it is a drum. One somehow associates it with war and alarms. Would you hesitate to obey?" Torps refrained from the obvious answer and plucked a grass-stem to put between his teeth. "You would obey, wouldn't you, because it is your duty—however much you'd like to sit here with me? Will you try to realise that I shall be only answering the drum, too, when—I go back."

The breeze that strayed about the floor of the Channel fanned their faces and set the bright sea-poppies nodding all along the edge of the cliffs. The sun was low in the west, and a snake-like flotilla of destroyers crept out across the quiet sea from the harbour hidden by a fold in the hills. Torps watched them with absent eyes, and there was a long silence. The wind had loosened a strand of his companion's hair, and she was busy replacing it with deft fingers.

"Margaret," he replied at last, "you said just now that I understood very little about women. I think you are right. Perhaps if I understood more I might know how to muffle the drum so that you wouldn't hear it. I might have learned to pipe a tune that would make you not want to hear it. . . . I don't know. . . . But I accept all you say—although deep down in my heart I know you are wrong. There will come a day when you, too, will know you are wrong. I shall come back then. And till then, since I must"—he smiled in a whimsical, sad way that somehow relaxed the tension—"I lend you to the children."

She returned his smile quite naturally, with relief in her eyes. "Dear Trevor, yes . . . because they need me so. . . . Believe me, I am not wrong: and we keep our friendship still, sweet and sane——" She broke off suddenly and raised a slim forefinger, holding her head sideways to listen, the way women and birds and children seem to hear better. "Hark! Did you hear? How odd! Listen, Trevor!"

Torps brought himself back with an effort. "Hear what?"


He listened.

"I can hear the waves along the shingle."

"No, no. . . . There—now!"

"Oh! . . . Yes, I can hear. . . . It sounds like a drum."

"Trevor, it is a drum, somewhere out at sea! How odd when we were just talking about drums—hush! Oh, do listen. . . ."

The sound, borne to them on the light wind, seemed to grow nearer; then it waned till they could scarcely catch the beats. Anon it swelled louder: the unmistakable "Dub! dub! rub-a-dub! dub! . . . Dub! dub! dub!" of a far-off drum.

Margaret shook his sleeve. "Of course it's a drum. It can't be anything else, can it?"

"It's Drake's Drum!" he replied, with mock solemnity. "There's a legend in the West Country, you know——"

"I know!" She nodded, bright eyed with interest, and rose to a kneeling position to gaze beneath her palms out towards the west. The sun had set, and a thin grey haze slowly veiled the horizon. Already the warm afterglow was dying out of the sky.

"He has 'quit the Port of Heaven,'" she quoted half-seriously, playing with superstition as only women can, "and he's 'drumming up the Channel'! They say it foretells war . . . that noise. . . ." Margaret gave a little shiver and rose to her graceful height, extending both her ringless hands to him. "It's getting chilly—come!"

Torps rose to his feet, too, and for a moment faced her, with his grave, patient eyes on hers. For the first time she noticed that his hair was going grey about the temples, and, had he known it, Margaret came very near to wavering in that moment. Perhaps he did realise, and with quick, characteristic generosity helped her.

"I think I understand," he said, "something of their need—the need of the children for such as you. It—it——" He turned abruptly towards the sea. The noise that resembled a distant drum had ceased, and there was only the faint surge of the waves on the beaches far below.

It was the only sound in all the land and sea.

* * * * *

In the whitewashed coastguard station a mile away the bearded occupant on duty was finishing his tea. The skeleton of a herring lay on the side of his plate, the centre of which the boatman was scouring with a piece of bread (preparatory to occupying it with damson jam), when the telephone bell rang. A man of economical habits, he put the bread in his mouth, and, rising from the table, picked up the receiver.

". . . Portree Signal Station—Yes."

". . . 'Oo? Yes."

He stood motionless with the receiver to his ear, his jaws moving mechanically about the last of the piece of bread. Outside the little room the wind thrummed in the halliards of the signal-mast. The clock over the desk ticked out the deliberate seconds. A cat, curled up by the window, rose, stretching itself, and yawned.

". . . Prepare to mobilise. All officers and men are recalled from leave. Detailed orders will follow. Right. Good-bye."

He replaced the receiver and rang off. Then, still masticating, he executed a species of solemn war-dance in the middle of the floor.

"Crikey!" he said aloud. "That means war, that do! Bloody war!"

He snatched up a telescope and ran outside, still talking aloud to himself after the manner of men who live much alone. "I see a bloke an' 'is young woman along there this afternoon. I'd ha' said he was a naval orficer if anyone was to ask me." He scanned the hills through his glass for a moment, and then set off along the track that skirted the edge of the cliffs.

Margaret saw him first, a broad, blue-clad figure, threading his way among the furze bushes. "And you won't be unhappy, will you, Trevor?" she was saying. "You will understand, you——" She broke off to watch the coastguard hurrying towards them. "Does that sailor want to speak to us, do you think? He seems in a great hurry."

Torps stood at her side staring.

The coastguard drew near, wiping his face with a vast blue and white spotted handkerchief, for he had been running. "Beg pardon, sir," he called as he came within earshot, "but would you be a naval officer?"

"I am," replied Torps. "Why?"

The man saluted. "There's a telephone message just come through, sir,
'Prepare to mobilise. All officers and men are recalled from leave.'"

Torps stared at him. "Where did it come from—the message?"

"From the port, sir. I was to warn anyone I saw out this way . . ."

"Right; thank you. I'm going back now." He turned towards Margaret.
"Did you hear that?" There was a queer note of relief in his voice.

"Yes," she replied quietly. "The Drum."