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
Nosey spelt it patiently.
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
"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
"'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
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
To Nosey the hour and the place seemed propitious, and he proposed heroic
"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
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!"
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
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
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
Still Nosey did not forget.
* * * * *
Then came Janie's letter from the Middlesex Hospital. Janie was in a
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
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
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
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.