The Seven Bell Boat, by Bartimeus

The last answering pendant from the Fleet shot up above the bridge rails, and the impatient semaphore on the Flagship's bridge commenced waving its arms.

The Yeoman of the Watch in the second ship of the line steadied his glass against an angle of the chart house. "'Ere y'are! Write down, one 'and." A Signal-boy stepped to his elbow with a pad and pencil in readiness.

"Flag—general: Leave may be granted to officers from 8.30 to 7 p.m.
Officers are not to leave the vicinity of the town, and are to be
prepared for immediate recall." He lowered the glass sharply.
"Finish. Down Answer!"

Obedient to the order, a Signal-man brought the long tail of bunting down hand over hand. He hitched the slack of the halliard to the bridge rail and puckered his eyes, staring across the waters of the harbour to where the roofs of houses showed among the trees. "'Ow I pities orficers!" he observed under his breath, and walked to the end of the bridge.

The advertisement of a cinema theatre occupied a hoarding near the landing place; away to the left the sloping roof of what was unmistakably a brewery bore in huge block letters the exhortation:

DRINK PALE ALE

"Not 'arf," murmured the cynic at the end of the battleship's bridge.
He mused darkly and added, "I don't think."

The Yeoman of the Watch took the pad from the boy's hand, scribbled a notation on it, and handed it back: "Commander an' Officer of the Watch, Wardroom, Gunroom, an' Warrant Officers' Mess. Smart!"

The boy flung himself down the ladder, sped aft along the fore-and-aft bridge, turned at the shelter-deck, descended another ladder, and brought up in the battery. Here the Commander came in view, conferring mysteriously with the Boatswain over a length of six-inch wire hawser that lay along the upper deck. The Boatswain, with gloom in his countenance, was indicating a section where the strands were flattened and the hemp "heart" protruded in a manner indicating that all was not well with the six-inch wire hawser. In fact, it rather resembled a snake that had been run over. The Commander was rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

The Signal-boy hovered on the outskirts of the conference. Bitter experience in the past had taught him not to obtrude when deep called thus to deep.

"We must cut it where it's nipped, and put a splice in it, Mr.
Cassidy," the Commander was saying, and turned his head.

The boy seized the opportunity to thrust the pad within range of the Commander's vision, one eye cocked on his face to note the effect of this momentous communication. He half expected that the Commander would throw his cap in the air and shout "Hurrah!"

The Commander read it unmoved. "Show it to the Officer of the Watch," he said, and turned again to the wire hawser. Truly a man of iron, reflected the Signal-boy as he saluted and ran aft in search of the Officer of the Watch.

The Officer of the Watch received the intelligence with almost equal unconcern, but when the boy had departed out of earshot he said something in an undertone and added: "Just my blooming luck." Then, raising his voice, he shouted: "Quartermaster! Picket-boat alongside at three-thirty for officers."

A head emerged from the hood of the after turret. The Gunnery Lieutenant, wearing over-alls, a streak of dirt running diagonally down one cheek, emerged and drew off a greasy glove to wipe his face.

"Did I hear you say anything about a seven-bell boat?"

The Officer of the Watch nodded. "There's leave from three-thirty to seven p.m. It's three o'clock now, so I advise you to smack it about and clean if you're going ashore."

The Gunnery Lieutenant slid gracefully down the sloping shield of the turret. Fortunately, the consideration of paint-work vanished with the red dawn of August 5th, 1914.

"My word!" he said, staring towards the distant town. "My missus——" and vanished down the hatchway.

In the meanwhile the Signal-boy had descended to the wardroom, where he swiftly pinned the signal on to the notice board. The occupants of the arm-chairs and settee followed his movements with drowsy interest.

The Young Doctor rose and walked to the notice board.

"Snooks!" he ejaculated. "Leave!" And, with a glance at the clock, hurried out of the mess.

The remainder of his messmates sat up with excitement.

"What time?"

"When till?"

"What about a boat?"

The head of the Officer of the Watch appeared through the open skylight overhead. "Wake up, you Weary Willies. There's a boat to the beach at seven-bells."

"Come along, chaps," snorted the Major of Marines. "Allons nous shifter—let us shift." And he, too, made tracks for his cabin, followed by everybody who could be spared by "the exigencies of the service" to experience for three blessed hours the joys of the land.

The shrill voices of the Midshipmen at their toilet in the after flat proclaimed that the precious moments were flying. Three were simultaneously performing their ablutions in one basin, the supply of water to the bathroom having failed with a suddenness that could only be attributed to the malignant agency of the Captain of the Hold.

Another burrowed feverishly in the depths of his sea-chest, presenting to the flat much the same appearance as a terrier does when busy at a rabbit-hole. He emerged flushed but triumphant with a limp garment in his grasp. "I knew I had a clean shirt," he confided to his neighbour. "I told my servant so a fortnight ago. He swore that every one I possessed had been left behind in the wash at Malta."

His neighbour made no reply, being in the throes of buttoning a collar which fitted him admirably at Osborne College, but which somehow had lately exhibited an obstinate determination to meet no more round his neck. However, physical strength achieved the miracle, and he breathed deeply. "I shouldn't sweat to shift your shirt," he consoled. "It looks all right. Turn the cuffs up."

"I've turned them up three times already," replied the excavator, donning his find. "There are limits."

Another Midshipman came across the crowded flat and calmly rummaged in the open till of the speaker's sea-chest. "Where's your hair juice? All right, I've got it." He anointed himself generously with a mysterious green fluid out of a bottle. "My people are staying at a pub ashore here. Will you come and have tea, Jaggers? Kedgeree's coming, too."

The owner of the green unguent, who was feverishly dusting his boots with a pyjama jacket, signified his pleasure in accepting the invitation.

The sentry on the aft-deck stepped to the head of the ladder with a bellows, on the mouth of which a small fog-horn was fitted, and gave a loud blast. It was the customary warning that the officers' boat would be alongside in five minutes.

The Assistant Clerk ran distractedly for the ladder.

"There's one 'G'! Have I got time to borrow five bob from the messman before the boat shoves off?"

"You might borrow five bob for me while you're about it," shouted a belated Engineroom Watchkeeper, struggling into his clothes.

"And me, too," called another. "Buck up, for the Lord's sake, and we'll have poached eggs for tea."

"And cherry jam," supplemented another visionary voluptuously, "and radishes."

Here a figure, who had been sitting on the lid of his chest swinging his legs, tilted his cap on to the back of his head with a snort that suggested outlawry and defiance to the world at large.

"Hallo!" exclaimed a neighbour, wielding a clothes-brush with energy.
"What's up? Aren't you coming ashore? It isn't your First Dog, is it?"

The outlaw shook his head. "No; my leave's jambed. You know that beastly six-inch wire hawser? We were bringing it to the after capstan yesterday, and the Commander——"

The aft-deck sentry gave two blasts on his fog-horn. Chest lids banged, keys rattled.

"Jolly rough luck!" commiserated his friend, and joined the stampede for the quarterdeck.

In thirty seconds the flat was deserted save for the disconsolate figure swinging his legs. Presently he climbed down from his chest and wended his way by devious and stealthy routes to the after conning-tower, where he smoked a surreptitious cigarette in defiance of the King's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions (his age being sixteen) and felt better.

In the meanwhile the picket-boat was driving her way shoreward with the emancipated members of Wardroom and Gunroom clustered on top of the cabin and in the stern sheets.

"Bunje," said the First Lieutenant, "come to the club and have tea and play 'pills' afterwards?"

The Indiarubber Man shook his head. "No, thanks; I'm afraid I—I've got something else to do."

The Paymaster contemplated him thoughtfully. "Bunje, my lad, the darkest suspicions fill my breast. Wherefore these carefully creased trousers, this liberal display of fine linen and flashing cuff-links withal? Our Sunday monkey-jacket, too. Can it be——? No." He appealed to the occupants of the stern sheets: "Don't tell me the lad is going poodle-faking!"[1]

"His hands are warm and moist," confirmed one of the Watchkeepers. "He wipes them furtively on the slack of his trousers in frightened anticipation."

The Indiarubber Man reddened. "You silly asses!"

The Junior Watchkeeper squirmed with delight. "He is—he is! He's going poodle-faking. And in war time, too! You dog, Bunje!"

"Can't a fellow know people ashore without a lot of untutored clowns trying to be funny about it?" demanded the victim.

"It's the spring," said the Young Doctor. "Bunje's young fancy is lightly turning—yes, it is." The Surgeon sniffed the air judicially. "The bay rum upon your hair proclaims it. Ah, me! The heyday of youth!" He sighed. "'Time was when love and I were well acquainted.'"

"That's a fact," retorted the Indiarubber Man bitterly. "But you needn't brag about it. I haven't been shipmates with you for four years for nothing. There's nothing you can tell me about your hideous past that I don't know already."

The picket-boat slid alongside the landing place and went astern.

The Engineer Commander made his way towards the little cabin. As the senior officer of the party, his was the privilege of embarking last and disembarking first. "Don't wait for me," he said. "Unstow! I've got to get my golf-clubs."

The Indiarubber Man took him at his word. "Right. I'll carry on, if I may." He leaped ashore, and set off with long strides in the direction of the town.

The First Lieutenant gazed after him. There was a general feeling that the Indiarubber Man had suddenly assumed an unfamiliar and inexplicable role. "Now, what the devil is he up to, I wonder?"

The others, mystified, shook their heads.

2

The mothers of Midshipmen have a means of scenting the whereabouts of a fleet that mere censorship of letters cannot balk. There were at least half a dozen mothers in the foyer of the big, garish hotel on the sea-front. Some were tête-à-tête with their sons in snug, upholstered corners, learning aspects of naval warfare that no historian will ever record. Others presided over heavily laden tea-tables at which their sons and their sons' more intimate friends were dealing with eggs and buttered toast, marmalade, watercress, plum-cake, and toasted scones in a manner which convinced their half-alarmed relatives that famine must have stalked the British Navy ever since the War started.

"We shall never have time," said one mother, "to hear all you have to tell, dear."

"There's really nothing very much to tell you about, mother. Can I order some more jam? And Jaggers could scoff some more eggs, couldn't you, Jag? Waiter, two more poached eggs and some more strawberry jam. You see, dear, we haven't done anything exciting yet. That's all been the luck of the battle-cruisers and destroyers. They've had a topping rag—three of our term have been wounded already. But we aren't allowed to gas about what we're going to do—why, that waiter might be a German spy, for all we know."

"Didn't know the Admiral confided his plans for the future to
Midshipmen," commented an amused father, who had run down from the War
Office for the day.

"He doesn't confide them," admitted another, "but my chest is in the flat outside his steward's cabin, and, of course, he hears an awful lot."

"But, Georgie, tell us about your life. Do you get enough sleep?" queried his mother.

"Rather," replied her son, whose horizon three months before had been bounded by the playing fields of Dartmouth College, where the dormitories are maintained at an even temperature by costly and hygienic methods. "We're in four watches, you know—we get one night in in four. At sea we sleep at our guns. I've got one of the six-inch, and we get up quite a good fug in our casemate at night. Jaggers dosses in the after-control. It's a bit breezy up there, isn't it, Old Bird?"

The Old Bird signified that the rigours of Arctic exploration were as nothing to what he had undergone.

"And your swimming-jacket—the one Aunt Jessie sent you? The outfitter said it was quite comfortable to wear. I hope you always do wear it at sea, in case—in case you should ever need it."

Her son chuckled. "The pneumatic one? Well, we liked it awfully when it came, and we blew it up; and then we thought we'd have a bit of scrum practice one night after dinner, and we rolled it up for a ball, and—and the half wasn't nippy enough in getting it away to the three-quarters, and somehow or another it got punctured. But I wear it all right, mother. It's jolly warm at nights."

"And do you like your officers—is the Captain kind to you all?"

The boy stirred his tea thoughtfully.

"They're a topping lot. One has got the Humane Society's gold medal for jumping on top of a shark at Perim when it was just going to collar a fellow bathing—you'd never think it to look at him. There's another we call the Indiarubber Man, who takes us at physical drill every morning. He's frightfully strong, and they say he licked the Japanese ju-jitsu man they had at the School of Physical Training. And, of course, there's old Beggs. You know, he was captain of England—Rugger—some years ago. He's broken his nose three times. . . ."

"We all skylark together in the dog-watches," added another. "We put a seining-net round the quarter-deck, and play cricket or deck hockey every evening after tea to keep fit."

"And they come into the gun-room when we have a sing-song on guest nights, and kick up a frightful shine. Oh, they're an awful fine lot."

"The Captain is a topper, too. He has us to breakfast in turns."

A third took up the epic. If you have ever heard schoolboys vie with each other to laud and honour the glory of their own particular House among strangers in a strange land, you can imagine much that cannot be conveyed with the pen. There were similar tea parties in various corners of the hotel and in lodgings along the sea-front, but the conversation at all of them ran on much the same lines, and this may be considered a fair sample of the majority.

"He gives a lecture every few days showing what is going on at the front. His brother's a General, and, of course, he gets any amount of tips from him. The brother of one of our Snotties—Karrard—was killed at Mons, and the Captain sent for Karrard (who's rather a kid and felt it awfully) and showed him a letter from the General about Karrard's brother—he had seen him killed—which bucked Karrard up tremendously. In fact, he rather puts on side now, because he's the only one in the gun-room who has lost a brother."

"And you don't wish you were back at Dartmouth again?"

"Dartmouth!" The speaker's voice was almost scornful. "Why, mother. Kedgeree here would have got his First Eleven cap this term if we'd stayed, and even he——"

A small midshipman with remarkable steel-grey eyes, who had not hitherto spoken much, shook his head emphatically and flushed at hearing his nickname pronounced in open conversation ashore. "We were treated like kids there," he explained. "But now——" He jerked his head towards the north with that unfailing sense of the cardinal points of the compass which a seaman acquires in earliest youth, or not at all. Somewhere in that direction the German fleet was presumed to be skulking. "It's different," he ended a little lamely.

Suddenly the son leaned forward and pressed his mother's knee under the table. A tall, sinewy Engineer Commander was walking across the foyer on his way to the billiard room.

"There, mother, that's old Beggs. He had our term at Osborne. Did you see his nose? . . . Captain of England!" . . . The speaker broke off and lifted his head, listening.

Through the doorway opening on to the sea-front there drifted a faint sound, the silvery note of a distant bugle.

"Hush!" said one of the others, raising a warning hand. "Listen!"

3

At the window of one of the detached houses in the residential part of the town a small Naval Cadet stood with his nose flattened against the window-pane.

"I say, Betty," he ejaculated presently, "they're giving leave to the
Fleet. I can see crowds of officers coming ashore."

His sister continued to knit industriously. "Well, I don't suppose any of them are coming here. You needn't get so excited."

Her brother watched the uniformed figures filing along the distant road from the landing place. "I hope this war goes on for another couple of years," he sighed.

"Joe! You mustn't say such dreadful things. You don't know what you're talking about."

"That's all jolly fine, but you haven't got to do another year at Osborne—— I say, Betty, one of them is coming here! How jolly exciting! He's coming up the avenue now. He's got red hair. . . . I believe—yes, it's—what was the name of that Lieutenant at Jack's wedding, d'you remember? The funny man. He made you giggle all the time."

For a moment the knitting appeared to demand his sister's undivided attention; she bent her head over it. "That was a long time ago—before I put my hair up. I'm sure I didn't giggle either. Oh, yes, I think I remember who you mean. Is he coming here? I wonder—come away from the window, Joe!"

The front door bell rang in a distant part of the house; she dropped her knitting on a small side table and walked quietly out of the room. "I'll tell mother," she said as she went out.

"You needn't trouble to do that," said Joe. "She's out—I thought you knew." But the door had closed.

A moment later the Indiarubber Man was ushered in. The two representatives of His Majesty's Navy shook hands. "I recognised you from your photograph," said the host. "D'you remember the wedding group? You were a groomsman when Jack and Milly were married, weren't you?"

"I was," replied the Indiarubber Man. "I performed a number of menial offices that day. But were you there? I don't seem to remember you."

Joe shook his head. "No, I had mumps. Wasn't it rot? It must have been an awful good rag. But I remember about you because Betty told me afterwards—she's my sister, you know. She said you were—oh, here she is."

Betty entered. She cast one swift glance at her brother that might have been intended to convey interrogation or admonition, or both, and then greeted the Indiarubber Man with friendly composure. "How nice of you to come and see us! Mother is out, I'm afraid, but she will probably be in presently. Do sit down. Yes, of course I remember you—Joe, ring the bell, and we'll have tea."

"We were 'opposite numbers' at your brother's wedding," said the Indiarubber Man, taking a seat, and nervously hitching up the legs of his trousers to an unnecessary extent.

"Yes, I remember restraining you with difficulty from going into the garden to eat worms! Nobody——" she broke off abruptly. "What a long time ago that seems!" She laughed quietly and considered him with merriment in her pretty eyes. The Indiarubber Man made a swift mental comparison between the schoolgirl bridesmaid who vied with midshipmen in devouring ices, and his hostess of three years or so later.

"Doesn't it?" he said. For one instant their eyes met, shyly questioning, a little curious. The laughter died out of hers.

"My eldest brother's in the North Sea now. We haven't seen him since the War started."

The Indiarubber Man nodded. "Yes, he's in a battle-cruiser, isn't he? We don't get ashore much either, as a matter of fact. But to-day——" He entered into a lengthy statement of naval policy that led up to his visit and the circumstances connected with it. It was a rather tedious explanation, but it filled in the time till tea arrived, when Betty busied herself among the tea-cups; her brother drew his chair close to their guest, and sat regarding him with breathless expectancy. Was this the side-splitting humorist Betty had talked so much about for months after the wedding—and then abruptly refused to mention again?

Joe experienced a growing sense of disillusionment. There was nothing about the Indiarubber Man's conversation to justify high hopes of laughter-provoking humour. In fact, the guest's general demeanour compared unfavourably with that of the curate—a shy young man, victim (had Joe but known it) of a hopeless and unrequited passion.

Joe handed the Indiarubber Man his cup with the air of one prepared to enjoy at all events the spectacle of a juggling trick with the teaspoon or saucer. The guest's chief concern, however, appeared to be in finding a more secure resting-place for it than his knee, coupled with anxiety not to drop crumbs on the carpet.

Betty, presiding behind the silver tea-tray, had adopted her most grown-up manner. Decidedly it was all Betty's fault, therefore. The most confirmed humorist could hardly be expected to indulge in drolleries in the presence of a girl who stuck her nose in the air and put on enough side for six. It became increasingly obvious that the depressed jester must straightway be removed from this blighting influence or ever the cap and bells would jingle.

No sooner was tea over, therefore, than Joe sprang to his feet. "I say, would you like to go for a walk?" Once outside, the flower of wit would expand without a doubt.

The Indiarubber Man appeared nonplussed at the proposal. "I—it's very kind of you——" Then he turned to Betty. "Shall we all three go for a walk?"

"Oh, it's no use asking her to go for a proper walk," interposed the alarmed Joe. "Her skirts are too narrow; she can't keep step, or jump ditches, or anything."

Betty laughed. "Are you anxious to jump ditches, Mr. Standish? Because, if not, I think I might be able to keep up with you both." She rose to her feet, a slim, gracefully modelled young woman who looked perfectly capable of keeping up with anyone—or of jumping ditches, too, for that matter. "I'll get my things if you will wait a second." Joe, unseen by their guest, made a face at her of unfeigned brotherly disgust.

In the open air, however, the guest's spirits gave no more evidence of an upward tendency than they had indoors. The trio walked, via the sea front, to the gardens on top of the cliffs that overlooked the harbour. Joe directed the conversation; it was largely concerned with battle and bloodshed.

"Mr. Standish, what do you do in action?" he asked presently.

"Nothing," was the reply. "I just put my fingers in my ears and shut my eyes—I'm the officer of the after turret. But when it's all over I put on overalls and crawl about the works on my stomach and get a dirty face with the best of them. A wit once defined a turret as a bundle of tricks done up in armour."

"Is it thick armour?" asked Betty.

"They tell me it is—fellows on board who pretend to know everything.
But I suspect that to be a mere ruse to get me to stay inside it."

Joe sighed. "I do envy you," he said. "Everyone seems to have something to do, 'cept me. Even Betty here——"

The Indiarubber Man turned his head sharply. "Why, what——"

Betty turned pink. "I'm going to nurse—on the East Coast. My old school has been turned into a hospital. And the other day Miss Dacre—she was the principal, you know, and she is nursing there now—wrote to mother and said they would take me."

"But," said the Indiarubber Man, "d'you think you could stick it—hacking off fellows' legs, and that sort of thing? Blessed if I could do it."

"Oh, yes," was the calm reply. "I passed all my exams, a long time ago—in fact, I've been working down here at this hospital for the last six months. We learned a good deal at school, you see. Home nursing, and so on."

"Did you, by Jove! Simple dishes for the sick-room and spica bandages, and all the rest of it?"

Betty laughed. "Oh, yes, all that."

The Indiarubber Man glanced at her small, capable hands, and from them to the dainty profile beside him. "Well," he said, "if I get bent by an eight-inch shell I shall know where to come."

Betty laughed again; "I should have to look that up in a book, then, before I nursed you. It might mean complications!"

"It might," replied the Indiarubber Man.

From the town below, where here and there a window went suddenly aflare with the reflection of the sunset-light, there drifted up to them the faint, clear call of a bugle. Another took it up along the front, and yet another. The Indiarubber Man raised his head abruptly.

"That's the recall!" he said, and turned towards the ships. "Yes, they've hoisted the Blue Peter. I wonder—the boats are coming in, too."

"Does that mean you must go at once?"

He nodded soberly. "I'm afraid so," and held out his hand. "Good-bye."

"Hallo!" said Joe. "I say, you're not off, are you? What's up?"

"That's what I'm going to find out," was the reply. "I believe it's another of their dodges to lure me inside my turret. Good-bye, Miss Betty. Don't forget to read up the book of the words—in case of complications. . . . Good-bye!" The Indiarubber Man departed down one of the steep paths that led to the lower road and the landing-place. The brother and sister turned and walked slowly back to the house.

Their conversation on the way was confined to speculation on the part of Joe as to the reason for this sudden recall. His theories covered a wide range of possibilities. Only when they reached the house did Betty volunteer a remark, and then in the privacy of her own room, whose window looked out across the harbour and the sea.

"Oh, I hate the War," she said. "I hate it, I hate it. . . ."

[1] Paying calls.