The King's Pardon, by Bartimeus

Ask the first thousand bluejackets you meet ashore, any afternoon the Fleet is giving leave, why they joined the navy. Nine hundred and ninety-nine will eye you suspiciously, awaiting the inevitable tract. If none is forthcoming they will give a short, grim laugh, shake their heads, and, as likely as not, expectorate. These portents may be taken to imply that they really do not know themselves, or are too shy to say so, if they do.

The thousandth does not laugh. He may shake his head; spit he certainly will. And then, scenting silent sympathy, he guides you to a quiet bar-parlour where you can pay for his beer while he talks.

This is the man with a past and a grievance.

* * * * *

Nosey Baines, Stoker Second-class, was a man with a past. He also owned a grievance when he presented himself for entry into His Majesty's Navy. They were about his only possessions.

"Nosey" was not, of course, his strict baptismal name. That was Orson—no less. Therein lay the past. "Nosey" was the result of facial peculiarities quite beyond his control. His nose was out of proportion to the remainder of his features. This system of nomenclature survives from the Stone Age, and, sailors being conservative folk, still finds favour on the lower-decks of H.M. Ships and Vessels.

The Writer in the Certificate Office at the Naval Depot, where Nosey Baines was entered for service as a Second-class Stoker under training, had had a busy morning. There had been a rush of new entries owing to the conclusion of the hop-picking season, the insolvency of a local ginger-beer bottling factory, and other mysterious influences. Nosey's parchment certificate (that document which accompanies a man from ship to ship, and, containing all particulars relating to him, is said to be a man's passport through life) was the nineteenth he had made out that morning.

"Name?"

Nosey spelt it patiently.

"Religion?"

Nosey looked sheepish and rather flattered—as a Hottentot might if you asked him for the address of his tailor. The Writer gave the surface of the parchment a preparatory rub with a piece of indiarubber. "Well, come on—R. C., Church of England, Methodist . . . ?"

Nosey selected the second alternative. It sounded patriotic at all events.

"Next o' kin? Nearest relative?"

"Never 'ad none," replied Nosey haughtily. "I'm a norfun."

"Ain't you got no one?" asked the weary Writer. He had been doing this sort of thing for the last eighteen months, and it rather bored him. "S'pose you was to die—wouldn't you like no one to be told?"

Nosey brought his black brows together with a scowl and shook his head. This was what he wanted, an opportunity to declare his antagonism to all the gentler influences of the land. . . . If he were to die, even . . .

The Ship's Corporal, waiting to guide him to the New Entry Mess, touched him on the elbow. The Writer was gathering his papers together. A sudden wave of forlornness swept over Nosey. He wanted his dinner, and was filled with emptiness and self-pity. The world was vast and disinterested in him. There were evidences on all sides of an unfamiliar and terrifying discipline. . . .

"You come allonger me," said the voice of the Ship's Corporal, a deep, alarming voice, calculated to inspire awe and reverence in the breast of a new entry. Nosey turned, and then stopped irresolutely. If he were to die——

"'Ere," he said, relenting. "Nex' o' kin—I ain't got none. But I gotter fren'." He coloured hotly. "Miss Abel's 'er name; 14 Golder's Square, Bloomsbury, London. Miss J. Abel."

This was Janie—the Grievance. It was to punish Janie that Nosey had flung in his lot with those who go down to the sea in ships.

Prior to this drastic step Nosey had been an errand-boy, a rather superior kind of errandboy, who went his rounds on a ramshackle bicycle with a carrier fixed in front. Painted in large letters on the carrier was the legend:

    J. HOLMES & SON,
    FISHMONGER ICE, ETC.,

and below, in much smaller letters, "Cash on delivery."

Janie was a general servant in a Bloomsbury boarding-house. She it was who answered the area door when Nosey called to deliver such kippers and smoked haddock as were destined by the gods and Mr. Holmes for the boarding-house breakfast table.

It is hard to say in what respect Janie lit the flame of love within Nosey's breast. She was diminutive and flat-chested; her skin was sallow from life-long confinement in basement sculleries and the atmosphere of the Bloomsbury boarding-house. She had little beady black eyes, and a print dress that didn't fit her at all well. One stocking was generally coming down in folds over her ankle. Her hands were chapped and nubbly—pathetic as the toil-worn hands of a woman alone can be. Altogether she was just the little unlovely slavey of fiction and the drama and everyday life in boarding-house-land.

Yet the fishmonger's errand-boy—Orson Baines, by your leave, and captain of his soul—loved her as not even Antony loved Cleopatra.

Janie met him every other Sunday as near three o'clock as she could get away. The Sunday boarding-house luncheon included soup on its menu, which meant more plates to wash up than usual. They met under the third lamp-post on the left-hand side going towards the British Museum.

Once a fortnight, from 8 p.m. till 10 p.m., Janie tasted the penultimate triumph of womanhood. She was courted. Poor Janie!

No daughter of Eve had less of the coquette in her composition. Not for a moment did she realise the furrows that she was ploughing in Nosey's amiable soul. Other girls walked out on their Sundays. The possession of a young man—even a fishmonger's errand-boy on twelve bob a week—was a necessary adjunct to life itself. Of all that "walking out" implied: of love, even as it was understood in Bloomsbury basements, Janie's anaemic little heart suspected very little; but romance was there, fluttering tattered ribbons, luring her on through the drab fog of her workaday existence.

It was otherwise with Nosey. His love for Janie was a very real affair, although what sowed the seeds was not apparent, and although the soil in which they took root and thrived—the daily interviews at the area door and these fortnightly strolls—seemed, on the face of it, inadequate. Perhaps he owed his queer gift of constancy to the mysterious past that gave him his baptismal name. They were both unusual.

A certain Sunday afternoon in early autumn found them sitting side by side on a seat in a grubby London square. Janie, gripping the handle of cook's borrowed umbrella, which she held perpendicularly before her, the toes of her large boots turned a little inwards, was sucking a peppermint bull's-eye.

To Nosey the hour and the place seemed propitious, and he proposed heroic marriage.

"Lor!" gasped Janie, staring before her at the autumn tints that were powdering the dingy elms with gold-dust. There was mingled pride and perplexity in her tones; slowly she savoured the romantic moment to the full, turning it over in her mind as the bull's-eye revolved in her cheek, before finally putting it from her. Then:

"I couldn't marry you," she said gently. "You ain't got no prospecks." Walking out with twelve bob a week was one thing; marriage quite a different matter.

In the Orphanage where she had been reared from infancy the far-seeing Sisters had, perhaps, not been unmindful of the possibility of this moment. A single life of drudgery and hardship, even as a boarding-house slavey, meant, if nothing more, meals and a roof over her head. Improvident marriage demanded, sooner or later, starvation. This one star remained to guide her when all else of the good Sisters' teaching grew dim in her memory.

Prospecks—marry without and you were done. So ran Janie's philosophy.
The remains of the bull's-eye faded into dissolution.

Nosey was aghast. The perfidy of women! "You led me on!" he cried. "You bin carry in' on wiv me. . . . 'Ow could you? Pictur' palaces an' fried fish suppers an' all." He referred to the sweets of their courtship. "'Ow, Janie!"

Janie wept.

After that the daily meetings at the area door were not to be thought of. Nosey flung himself off in a rage, and for two successive nights contemplated suicide from the parapet of Westminster Bridge. The irksome round of duties on the ramshackle bicycle became impossible. The very traffic murmured the name of Janie in his ears. London stifled him; he wanted to get away and bury himself and his grief in new surroundings. Then his eye was caught by one of the Admiralty recruiting posters in the window of a Whitehall post office. It conjured up a vision of a roving, care-free life . . . of illimitable spaces and great healing winds. . . . A life of hard living and hard drinking, when a man could forget.

But somehow Nosey didn't forget.

* * * * *

The Navy received him without emotion. They cut his hair and pulled out his teeth. They washed and clothed and fed him generously. He was taught in a vast echoing drill-shed to recognise and respect authority, and after six months' preliminary training informed that he was a Second-class Stoker, and as such drafted to sea in the Battle-Cruiser Squadron.

Here Nosey found himself an insignificant unit among nearly a thousand barefooted, free-fisted, cursing, clean-shaven men, who smelt perpetually of soap and damp serge, and comprised the lower-deck complement of a British battle-cruiser.

He worked in an electric-lit, steel tunnel, with red-hot furnaces on one side, and the gaping mouths of coal caverns on the other. You reached it by perpendicular steel ladders descending through a web of hissing steam pipes and machinery; once across greasy deck-plates and through a maze of dimly lit alleys, you would find Nosey shovelling coal into the furnaces under the direction of a hairy-chested individual afflicted, men said, by religious mania, who sucked pieces of coal as an antidote to chronic thirst, and spat about him indiscriminately.

There were eight-hour intervals in this work, during which Nosey slept or ate his meals or played a mouth-organ in the lee of one of the turret-guns on deck, according to the hour of the day. He slept in a hammock slung in an electric-lit passage far below the water-line; the passage was ten feet wide, and there were six hammocks slung abreast along the entire length of it.

He ate his meals in a mess with twenty other men, the mess consisting of a deal plank covered with oilcloth for a table, and two narrower planks on either side as seats; there were shelves for crockery against the ship's side. All this woodwork was scrubbed and scoured till it was almost as white as ivory. Other messes, identical in every respect, situated three feet apart, ranged parallel to each other as far as the steel, enamelled bulkheads. There were twenty men in each mess, and seventeen messes on that particular mess-deck, and here the members simultaneously ate, slept, sang, washed their clothes, cursed and laughed, skylarked or quarrelled all round during the waking hours of their watch-off.

Still Nosey did not forget.

* * * * *

Then came Janie's letter from the Middlesex Hospital. Janie was in a "decline."

The men who go down into trenches in the firing-line are, if anything, less heroic than the army of cooks and Janies who descend to spend their lives in the basement "domestic offices" of Bloomsbury. Dark and ill-ventilated in summer, gas-lit and airless throughout the foggy winter. Flight upon flight of stairs up which Janie daily toiled a hundred times before she was suffered to seek the attic she shared with cook under the slates. Overwork, lack of fresh air and recreation—all these had told at last.

Nosey availed himself of week-end leave from Portsmouth to journey up to London, and was permitted an interview with her in the big airy ward. Neither spoke much; at no time had they been great conversationalists, and now Janie, more diminutive and angular than ever, lost in the folds of a flannel nightgown, was content to hold his hand as long as he was allowed to remain.

The past was ignored, or nearly so. "You didn't orter gone off like that," said Janie reproachfully. "But I'm glad you're a sailor. You looks beautiful in them clothes. An' there's prospecks in the Navy." Poor little Janie: she had "prospecks" herself at last.

He left the few flowers he had brought with the sister of the ward when the time came to leave. The nurse followed him into the corridor. "Come and see her every visiting day you can," she said. "It does her good and cheers her. She often speaks of you."

Nosey returned to Portsmouth and his ship. His mess—the mess-deck itself—was agog with rumours. Had he heard the "buzz"? Nosey had not. "I bin to London to see a fren'," he explained.

Then they told him.

The battle-cruiser to which he belonged had been ordered to join the
Mediterranean Fleet. That was Monday; they were to sail for Malta on
Thursday.

And Janie was dying in the Middlesex Hospital.

* * * * *

The next visiting day found him at Janie's bedside. But, instead of his spick-and-span serge suit of "Number Ones" and carefully ironed blue collar, Nosey wore a rusty suit of "civvies" (civilian clothes). Instead of being clean-shaven, an inconsiderable moustache was feeling its way through his upper lip.

"Where's your sailor clothes?" asked Janie weakly.

Nosey looked round to reassure himself that they were not overheard. "I done a bunk!" he whispered.

Janie gazed at him with dismayed eyes. "Not—not deserted?"

Nosey nodded. "Don't you take on, Janie. 'S only so's I can stay near you." He pressed her dry hand. "I got a barrer—whelks an' periwinkles. I've saved a bit o' money. An' now I can stay near you an' come 'ere visiting days."

Janie was too weak to argue or expostulate. It may have been that she was conscious of a certain amount of pride in Nosey's voluntary outlawry for her sake; and she was glad enough to have someone to sit with her on visiting days and tell her about the outside world she was never to see again. She even went back in spirit to the proud days when they walked out together. . . . It brought balm to the cough-racked nights and the weary passage of the days.

Then the streets echoed with the cries of paper-boys. The nurses whispered together excitedly in their leisure moments; the doctors seemed to acquire an added briskness. Once or twice she heard the measured tramp of feet in the streets below, as a regiment was moved from one quarters to another.

England was at war with Germany, they told her. But the intelligence did not interest Janie much at first. That empires should battle for supremacy concerned her very little—till she remembered Nosey's late calling.

It was two days before she saw him again, and he still wore his "civvy" suit. Janie smiled as he approached the bed, and fumbled with the halfpenny daily paper that somebody had given her to look at.

'"Ere," she whispered, "read that."

Nosey bent over and read the lines indicated by the thin forefinger.

His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve of pardons being granted to all deserters from the Royal Navy and Marines who surrender themselves forthwith.

There was silence in the ward for a moment. Far below in the street outside a transport wagon rumbled by. Janie braced herself for the supreme act of her life.

"You gotter go," said she.

Nosey stared at her and then back at the newspaper. "Not me!" he retorted, and took possession of her hand.

"That's the King's pardon," said Janie, touching the halfpenny news-sheet with transparent fingers. "'Tain't no use you comin' 'ere no more, 'cos I won't see you. I'll ask 'em at the door not to let you in."

Nosey knew that note of indomitable obstinacy in the weak voice. He knew, as he sat looking down upon the fragile atom in the bed, that he could kill her with the pressure of a finger.

But there was no way of making Janie go back on her decision once her mind was made up. "If there's a war, you orter be fightin'," she added. "There's prospecks . . ." Her weak voice was almost inaudible, and the nurse was coming down the ward towards them.

Nosey lifted the hot, dry little claw to his lips. "If you sez I gotter go, I'll go," and rose to his feet.

"'Course you gotter go. The King sez so, an' I sez so. Don't you get worritin' about me; I'll be all right when you comes 'ome wiv yer medals. . . ."

Nosey caught the nurse's eye and tiptoed out of the ward. Janie turned her face to the Valley of the Shadow.