A Captain's Forenoon, by Bartimeus

The Captain came out of his sleeping-cabin as the last chord of the National Anthem died away on the quarter-deck overhead with the roll of kettledrums.

"Carry on!" sang the bugle; and the ship's company, their animation suspended while the colours crept up the jackstaff, proceeded to "breakfast and clean." The signalman whose duty it was to hoist the Ensign at 8 a.m. turned up the halliards to his satisfaction, and departed forward in the wake of the band.

The Captain had "cleaned" already, and his breakfast was on the table in his fore-cabin. He sat down, glanced at the pile of letters beside his plate, propped the morning paper against the teapot, and commenced his meal. He ate with the deliberate slowness of a man accustomed to having meals in solitude, who has schooled himself not to abuse his digestion.

As he ate his quick eye travelled over the headlines of the paper, occasionally concentrating on a paragraph here and there. Ten minutes sufficed to give him a complete grasp of the day's affairs. The naval appointments he read carefully. His memory for names and individuals was unfailing; he never forgot anyone who had served under his command, and followed the careers of most with interest. His daily private correspondence, which was large, testified to the fact that not many forgot him.

Breakfast over, he laid aside the paper, lit a cigarette, and turned over the little pile of letters, identifying the writers with a glance at the handwriting on each envelope. Only one was unknown to him: that he placed last, and carried them into the after-cabin to read, leaning his shoulder against the mantel of the tiled and brass-bound fireplace.

The first letter he opened was from his wife, and, in consequence, its contents were nobody's affair but his own. He read it twice, and smiled as he returned it to the envelope.

The next, written on thick notepaper stamped with the Admiralty crest, he also read twice, and mused awhile. Apparently this also was nobody's concern but his, for, still deep in thought, he tore it up and put the pieces in the fire before taking up the third. This was an appeal for assistance from a former watch-keeper who aspired to the Flying Corps. The next was also a request for assistance from a young officer, who, having recently taken a wife to his bosom, apparently considered the achievement a qualification for the command of one of H.M. torpedo-boat destroyers.

The Captain rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I sent him a silver photograph frame. . . . He'll want me to be godfather next." He occasionally spoke aloud when alone.

An appeal for funds for a memorial to someone or another followed. Then two advertisements from wine merchants and a statement of his account with his outfitter were consigned in turns into the fire. The last envelope, in the unknown hand, he scrutinised for a moment before opening. The postmark was local, the caligraphy illiterate. He opened the letter and read it with an inscrutable face. Then, with a quick movement as of disgust, he crumpled it up and threw it into the flames. It was anonymous, and was a threat, couched in lurid and ensanguined terms, to murder him.

Judges, and post-captains of the Royal Navy, perhaps as a reminder of their great responsibilities, occasionally receive communications of this nature. Their life insurance policies, however, appear to remain much the same as those of other people.

* * * * *

The after-cabin, where the Captain perused his correspondence, was an airy, chintz-upholstered apartment leading aft through two heavy steel doors on to the stern-walk. The doors were open on that particular morning, and the high, thin cries of seagulls quarrelling under the stern drifted through almost unceasingly.

Forward, the white-enamelled bulkhead was pierced by two entrances. One led from a diminutive sleeping-cabin and bathroom, the other from the fore-cabin, which the Captain had just quitted, and which in turn communicated with a lobby where a marine sentry paced day and night.

The after-cabin was lit by a skylight overhead and scuttles in the ship's side. The sunlight, streaming in through the starboard ones, winked on the butterfly clamps of burnished brass and small rods from which the little chintz curtains hung. A roll-topped desk occupied a corner near the fireplace, and round the bulkheads, affixed to white enamelled battens, hung water-colour paintings of his ships. A sloop of war under full sail; a brig, close-hauled, beating out of Plymouth Sound; a tiny gunboat at anchor in a backwater of the Upper Yangtse. There were spick-and-span cruisers; a quaint, top-heavy looking battleship that in her day had been considered the last word in naval construction, and whose name to-day provokes reminiscences from the older generation and from the younger half-dubious smiles; then, near the door, came modern men-of-war of familiar aspect. They represented the milestones of a long career.

A chart lay folded on a table in the centre of the cabin, with a pair of dividers and a parallel ruler lying on it. Another table stood in a corner near the door—a small, glass-topped table such as collectors of curios gather their treasures in. The contents of this table, however, were not curios in the strict sense of the word. A number of them were very commonplace objects, but each one held its particular associations.

You will find just such a collection of insignificant mysteries in a boy's pocket or a jackdaw's nest. Bits of string, a marble polished by friction, a piece of coloured glass, an old nail—in themselves rubbish, but doubtless linking the possessor to some amiable memory, and cherished for no better reason.

Some men retain this instinct of boyhood. But whereas the boy is secretive and reticent about the particular associations his pocket holds, the man will talk about his hoard.

In the glass-topped table in that corner of the after-cabin were ties with all the seven seas and the shores they wash. Mementoes of folly or friendship, sport or achievement; fragments of the mosaic that is life.

A bit of brick from the Great Wall of China recalled a bag of geese in the clear cold dusk of Northern Asia. Memories, too, of the whaler's beat back to the fleet in the teeth of a rising gale that swept in from the Pacific, when the bravest unlaced his boots and they baled with the empty guncase.

There was a piece of the sacred pavement of Mecca, brought back in the days when few Europeans had brought anything back from there—even their lives. A gold medal in a morocco-leather case, won by an essay that had called for months of unrelaxed study. A copper bangle from the wrist of a Korean dancing-girl (it was somebody else's story, though). A wooden ju-ju from Benin, dark-stained and repulsive; a tiny clay godling that had guarded the mummied heart of an Egyptian queen. A flint arrow-head picked up on Dartmoor during a long summer tramp after the speckled trout. A jewelled cigarette-case, gift of an empress who could give no more than that, however much she may have wanted to.

Rubbish, all rubbish. Yet occasionally, when two or three post-captains, contemporaries and fleet-mates, gathered here to smoke after-dinner cigars, the host would unlock the glass-topped table, select some object from his miscellany, and hold it up with a "D'you remember——?" And one or other of his guests—sometimes all of them—would laugh and nod and blow great clouds of smoke and slide into eager reminiscence. Yesterday is the playground of all men's hearts, but more especially those of sailor men. These odds and ends were only keys that unlocked the gate.

A few photographs stood on the shelf above the hearth. Some books occupied a revolving bookcase within reach of anyone sitting at the desk; not very interesting books: old Navy Lists, a "King's Regulations," a "Manual of Court Martial Procedure," one or two volumes on International Law, and a treatise on so-called 'modern' seamanship—which, by the way, is a misnomer, seamanship, like love, being of all time.

The revolving bookcase supported a bowl of flowers. The Captain's Coxswain had personally arranged them that morning; had, in fact, had a slight difference of opinion with the Captain's valet (conducted sotto voce) over the method of their arrangement. The Coxswain won on the claim of being a married man and understanding mysteries beyond the ken of bachelors. The result in either case would have brought tears to the eyes of any woman.

* * * * *

The Captain finished his cigarette and opened the roll-topped desk, slipped his letters into a pigeon-hole, and closed the desk again. As he did so the Commander entered the cabin, tucking his cap under his arm.

"Nine o'clock, sir; all ready for divisions. The Chaplain is sick—will you read prayers?"

"Sick, is he? What's the matter?"

"He twisted his knee yesterday playing football. The Fleet Surgeon has made him lie up."

The Captain nodded. "All right; I'll read them." As the Commander turned to go he spoke again: "By the way, that fellow I gave ninety days to yesterday—was there a woman in the case, d'you happen to know? There was nothing in the evidence, of course, but I wondered——"

The Commander paused while the busy brain searched among its dockets. The man whose business it is as Executive Officer to control the affairs of close on a thousand of his fellow men must of necessity sometimes learn curiously intimate details of their lives.

"Yes; the Master-at-Arms mentioned to me that a woman was at the bottom of it. She's a wrong 'un, I understand."

"Thank you."

The Commander went out, and a moment later the bugle overhead blazed forth "Divisions."

"I thought it was a woman's writing," added the Captain musingly.

"Divisions correct, sir!" The Commander saluted and made his report.

The Captain returned the salute briskly. "Sound the 'Close.'"

The bugle sounded again, the bell began to toll for prayers, and the band on the after shelter-deck struck up a lively march as the men came aft.

Anyone interested in the study called physiognomy might with advantage have taken his stand at this moment on the after part of the quarter-deck, where the shadow of the White Ensign curved and flickered across the planking. Perhaps the Captain, who stood there, was himself a student of the art. At any rate, as the men marched aft through the screen doors his level eyes passed from face to face, reflective, observant, intensely alert.

The last division reached its allotted position on the quarter-deck, turned inboard, and stood easy. The band stopped abruptly. The bell ceased tolling. In the brief ensuing silence the Commander's voice was clearly audible as he made his report.

"Everybody aft, sir."

The Captain slipped a small prayer-book out of a side pocket. The Commander gave a curt order, and five hundred heads bared to the sunlight.

"Stand easy!"

There is much beauty in the sonorous periods of the English Rubric. Read in the strong, clear voice of a man who for thirty years had known calm and tempest, sunset and dawn at sea, the familiar words—of appeal and praise alike—assumed somehow an unwonted significance; and when he closed the book, slipped it back into his pocket, and looked up, the face he raised was the face of one who, whatever else his creed had taught him, found in all success the answer to some prayer, in every disaster a call to courage and high endeavour.

* * * * *

Down in the after-cabin, five minutes later, the Fleet Surgeon handed the sick-list to the Captain, who read it with care. For the first time that day his brow clouded. The two men looked at one another.

"It is heavy," said the Fleet Surgeon; "but——" He made an imperceptible upward movement of the shoulders, for his mother had been French.

For some moments after he had gone the Captain stood staring out through the after doorway. A barge, heavily freighted, was passing slowly down-stream. His eyes followed the brown sail absently as long as it was within his field of vision. The anger had gone from his brow and left a shadow of sadness.

"'Si j'etais Dieu,'" he murmured, following some train of thought and musing aloud as was his habit. Then, still in a brown study, he opened the roll-topped desk and pressed a bell.

"Tell Mr. Gerrard I'll sign papers," he said to the marine sentry who appeared in the doorway.

"Double-O" Gerrard (so called because he wore glasses with circular lenses and his name made you think of telephones) answered the summons, carrying a sheaf of papers. He was the Captain's Clerk: that is to say, the junior accountant officer, detailed by the Captain to conduct his official correspondence and perform secretarial work generally. The position is not one commonly sought after, but Double-O Gerrard appeared to enjoy his duties, and as a badge of office carried a perpetual inkstain on the forefinger-tip of his right hand.

The Captain sat down at his desk with a little sigh. If the truth be known, he had small relish for this business of "papers." He picked up his pen and examined the nib.

"Do you ever use your pen to clean a pipe out?" he asked his Clerk.

"Oh no, sir."

"I suppose it depends on the nib one uses whether it suffers much." With a piece of blotting paper the Captain removed fragments of tobacco ash and nicotine from the nib, and dipped it in the ink. "It doesn't seem to hurt mine. Now then, what have we got here?"

A quarter of an hour later he pushed aside the last of the pile of documents and lit a cigarette with the air of a man who had earned a smoke.

"Any defaulters?"

"No, sir, none for you to-day."

"Humph! Tell the Commander I'll buy him a pair of white kid gloves when I go ashore. Request-men?"

His Clerk placed a book upon the desk open at a list of names. The
Captain ran down them with a pencil.

"Badges, all entitled? . . . Stop allotment—who does he allot to? Mother? . . . Restoration to first class for leave. . . . To be rated Leading Seaman—Jones. Jones? Oh, yes, I know: youngster in the quarter-deck division with a broken nose. The Commander spoke to me about him." The pencil slowly descended to the bottom of the page, ticking off each man's request as it was gone into and explained. He stopped at the last one. "'To see Captain about private affairs.' What's his trouble?"

"I don't know, sir. He put in his request to see you through the
Master-at-Arms. He didn't say what it was about."

The Captain closed the book. "All seamen, eh? No Marine request-men?"

"No, sir."

"Right. I'll see 'em at eleven." The Clerk gathered the papers together and departed. As he went out there was a tap at the door. The Captain frowned. The tap was repeated.

"Don't knock," he called out. "If you've got anything to report, come in and report it."

The Chief Yeoman of Signals entered with an embarrassed air. He was new to the ship, and, as everyone knows, all captains have their little peculiarities. Here he was up against one right away. He'd never had much luck.

"I don't want anyone to knock when they come into my cabin on duty.
I'm not a young woman in her boudoir."

"Aye, aye, sir," said the Chief Yeoman. "Signal log, sir."

* * * * *

"Don't forget now," counselled the Master-at-Arms to the request-men fallen in on the starboard side of the quarter-deck. "When your names is called out, step smartly up to the table, an' keep your caps on. You salutes when you steps up to the table an' when you leaves it."

The request-men, who had heard all this a good many times before, sucked their teeth in acquiescence.

The Captain was walking up and down the other side of the deck talking
to the Commander. They turned together and came towards the table.
The Captain's Clerk opened the request-book and laid it before the
Captain.

"'Erbert Reynolds," intoned the Master-at-Arms in a stentorian voice.
"Able seaman. Requests award of first Good Conduct Badge."

The Captain put his finger on the first name at the top of the page, glanced keenly at the applicant, and nodded. "Granted."

"Granted," echoed the Chief of Police, and Able Seaman Reynolds departed with authority to wear on his left arm the triangular red badge that vouched to his exemplary behaviour for the last three years.

Five others followed in quick succession with similar requests, and trotted forward again at a dignified and amiable gait through the screen door.

"To stop allotment." The Captain raised his head.

"Who do you allot to?"

"Me mother, sir."

"Doesn't she want it?"

The request-man was a young stoker, little more than a boy, and his eyes were troubled.

"She don't deserve it," he replied; "she drinks, sir. I got letters from fr'en's——" He thrust his hand inside the breast of his jumper and produced his sad evidence—a letter from a clergyman, one or two from lay-workers in some north-country slum, and one from his mother herself, an incoherent, abusive scrawl, with liquor stains still upon the creased paper.

"I send 'er my 'arf-pay reg'lar ever since I were in the Navy, sir. But she ain't goin' ter 'ave no more." He made the statement without heat or sorrow.

"Stopped," said the Captain, with a nod.

"Allotment stopped," repeated the Master-at-Arms, and the allotter passed forward out of sight to whatever destiny awaited him.

"To be rated Leading Seaman, sir."

A tall, young Able Seaman stepped forward and fixed eyes of a clear blue on the Captain's face.

The Captain met his gaze, and for a moment threw all the weight of thirty years' experience of men into the scales of judgment. "There is a vacancy for a Leading Seaman's rate in the ship," he said. "The Commander has recommended you for it. You're young. Keep it."

"Rated Leading Seaman. 'Bout turn."

The newly created Leading Seaman, whose nose was a reminder of the vagaries of the main sheet block of a cutter when going about, flushed with pleasure and turned smartly on his heel. The vacant rate was due to a lapse from rectitude on the part of one Biggers, leading hand of the quarter-deck, who had returned from leave with a small flat flask tucked inside his cholera belt. The flask contained whisky, and had been thrust there by a friend ashore in an access of maudlin good-fellowship on parting. The night had been a convivial one, and Leading Seaman Biggers overlooked the gift until, coming on board, the keen-eyed officer of the watch drew his attention to it. He paid for the misplaced generosity of his well-wisher with his "Killick."[1]

He happened, moreover, to be employed in coiling down a rope—in the capacity he had reverted to—while his supplanter received the rating; but he eyed the ceremony stoically and without resentment. He had failed, and, of his less frail brethren, another was raised up in his stead. It was the immutable law.

"To be restored to the first class for leave."

A stout Able Seaman stepped forward, and, from force of a habit engendered by long familiarity with the etiquette of the defaulters' table, removed his cap.

"Put yer cap on," added the Master-at-Arms in a fierce undertone.

The suppliant deftly replaced his cap. As he did so a packet of cigarettes, a skein of darning worsted and a picture postcard (depicting a stout lady in a pink costume surf bathing) fell out on to the deck in the manner of an unexpected conjuring trick. An attendant ship's corporal retrieved them, while the conjurer affected an air of complete detachment.

The Captain glanced at the conduct book. "Clean sheet? Right—restored to the first class. And see if you can't stop in it this time."

The stout one made guttural noises in his throat intended to convey assurances of future piety, and departed with an expression that suggested a halo had not only descended upon his head, but had been crammed inextricably over his ears.

The last request-man—the man with "private affairs"—was a small leading stoker with a face seamed by innumerable tiny wrinkles. His skin resembled a piece of parchment that somebody had crumpled in a fit of petulance and made a half-hearted attempt to smooth out again; even his ears were crumpled. His brown eyes, big and sad, were like the eyes of a suffering monkey.

The Commander interposed with an explanation: "This man wishes to see you about a private matter, sir."

The Captain made a little gesture with his hand, and the small group of officers and ship's police near the table stepped back a few paces out of earshot. The Commander, perhaps the busiest man on board, snatched the moment's respite to confer with the Carpenter, who had been hovering round waiting for his opportunity. The Master-at-Arms was standing by the bollards alternately sucking a stump of pencil and making cryptic notations in his request-book. The two ship's corporals had removed themselves with great delicacy of feeling to the screen door, where in an undertone they settled an argument as to whose turn it was to make out the leave tickets. The Captain's Clerk became interested in the progress of work in an ammunition lighter alongside.

The Captain, with knitted brows, was reading a letter that had been handed to him across the table. He folded it up when read, and handed it back to the recipient; then, holding his chin in his fist and supporting the elbow with the other hand, he listened to the tale the small man with the crumpled ears had to unfold. It was an old tale—old when Helen first met the eyes of Paris. But there was no veil of romance to soften the outline of its crude tragedy. It was just sordid and pitiful.

For five minutes, perhaps, the two men faced each other. At the end of that time the Captain was leaning forward resting both hands on the table, talking in grave, kindly tones. He talked, not as Captains commonly talk to Leading Stokers, but as one man might talk to another who turned to him for advice in the bitter hour of need, drawing on the deep well of his experience, education, and kindly judgment.

"Troubles shared are troubles halved." The Captain had said so, and the tot of rum served out at one-bell to the little man with the crumpled ears went some way to complete the conviction.

* * * * *

Jeremiah Casey, Petty Officer and Captain's Coxswain, hauled himself nimbly up the Jacob's ladder to the quarter-boom and came inboard. The Captain was walking up and down, deep in thought, with his hands linked behind his back. Casey pattered up and saluted.

"I've bent on that noo mainsail, sir. . . . There's a nice li'l sailin' breeze, sir." Casey, hinting at a spin in the galley, somehow reminded one of a spaniel when he sees the gun-case opened. Had he been blessed with a tail, he would most certainly have wagged it.

The Captain walked slowly aft and looked down into the galley lying at the quarter-boom. Few men could have resisted the appeal of that long slim boat with the water lapping invitingly against her clinker-built sides. The brasswork in her gleamed in the sun like jewels set in ivory, for the woodwork was as near the whiteness of ivory as holystone and sharkskin could make it. She had little white mats with blue borders on the thwarts and in the sternsheets, and her yoke, of curious Chinese design, had a history as mysterious and legendary as the diamonds of Marie Antoinette.

"Get her alongside," said the Captain. "I want to try that mainsail."

Five minutes later the galley was spinning across the sparkling waters of the harbour.

Once the Captain spoke, and the bowman moved his weight six inches forward. Then she sailed to his light touch on the helm as a violin gives out sound under the bow of a master.

Casey, sitting motionless on the bottom boards with the mainsheet in his hands, gazed rapturously at the new mainsail, and thence into the stolid countenance of the second stroke.

"Ain't she a witch?" he whispered.

For half an hour the galley skimmed to and fro among the anchored fleet, now running free like a white-winged gull, anon close-hauled, the razor bows cleaving a path through the dancing water in a little sickle of creaming foam.

The Captain brought her alongside the gangway with faultless judgment and stood up. Like Saul, he had taken the cares of high command to a witch, and lo! his brow was clear and his eyes twinkled.

"Yes," he said in even tones as he stepped out of the boat, "that mainsail sets all right," and ran briskly up the ladder two steps at a time.

Casey thumbed the lacing on the yard. "Perfection is finality, and finality is death."

"I don't know but what I wouldn't shift the strop 'arf an inch aft—mebbe a quarter . . ."

Inboard the ship's bell struck eight times, and the boatswain's mate began shrilly piping the hands to dinner.

[1] Anchor. The distinctive badge of a leading rating.