The Mummers, by Bartimeus

The sun had not long set, and its afterglow bathed the bay in pink light. It was a land-locked harbour, and the surface of the water held the reflections of the anchored Battle-fleet mirrored to its smallest detail. So still was the evening that sounds travelled across the water with peculiar acute distinctness.

On the quarter-deck of the end ship of the lee line a thousand men were trying to talk in undertones, lighting and relighting pipes, rallying their friends on distant points of vantage, and humming tunes under their breath. The resultant sound was very much like what you would hear if you placed your ear against a beehive on a summer day, only magnified a million-fold.

The ship's company of a super-Dreadnought, and as many men from other ships as could be accommodated on board, were gathered on the foremost part of the quarter-deck, facing aft. They sat in rows on mess stools, they were perched astride the after-turret guns, on the shields of the turrets, clinging to rails, stanchions and superstructure, tier above tier of men clad in night-clothing—that is to say, in blue jumper and trousers, with the white V of the flannel showing up each seaman's bronzed neck and face. Seamen and marines all wore their caps tilted comfortably on the backs of their heads, as is the custom of men of H.M. Navy enjoying their leisure. Above them all the smoke from a thousand pipes and cigarettes trembled in a blue haze on the still air of a summer evening.

They were there to witness an impromptu sing-song—a scratch affair organised at short notice to provide mirth and recreation for a ship's company badly in need of both. It was a ship's company hungry for laughter after endless months of watching and waiting for an enemy that was biding his time. Their lungs ached for a rousing, full-throated chorus ("All together, lads!"). They were simply spoiling to be the most appreciative audience in the world.

On the after-part of the quarter-deck a stage had been hurriedly constructed—a rude affair of planks and spars that could be disposed of in a very few moments if necessity arose—that supported a piano. A canvas screen, stretched between two stanchions behind the stage, did duty as scenery, and afforded the performers a "green-room"—for, of all the ritual connected with appearing upon a stage, the business of "making-up" lies nearest to the sailor's heart. Provide him with a lavish supply of grease-paint, wigs, and the contents of the chaplain's or the officer of his division's wardrobe, and the success or otherwise of his turn, when it ultimately comes, matters little to the sailor-man. He has had his hour.

In front of the stage, a little in advance of the men, rows of chairs and benches provided sitting accommodation for the officers. They came up from dinner, lighting pipes and cigars, a full muster from Wardroom, Gunroom and Warrant Officers' Mess. The Captain came last, and his appearance was the signal for a great outburst of cheering from the closely packed audience. They had been waiting for this moment. It gave them an opportunity of relieving their pent-up feelings; it also gave them a chance to show the rest of the Fleet their attitude towards this Captain of theirs.

It was something they were rather proud that the rest of the Fleet should see.

Moreover, the rest of the Fleet, leaning over the forecastle rails and smoking its evening pipe, did see, and was none the worse for it.

A man might have been excused if he betrayed some self-consciousness at finding himself thus suddenly the cynosure of a thousand-odd pair of eyes whose owners were doing their best to show him, after their fashion, that they thought him an uncommonly fine fellow. The atmosphere was electrical with this abrupt, boyish ebullition of feeling. Yet the Captain's face, as he took his seat, was as composed as if he were alone in the middle of his own wide moors. He lit a pipe and nodded to the Commander beside him to signify that as far as he was concerned the show could start as soon as they liked.

All happy ships own a sing-song party of some sort or another. It may be that the singers are content to sit pipe in mouth in the lee of a gunshield and croon in harmony as the dusk settles down on a day's work done. Other ships' companies are more ambitious; the canteen provides a property-box, and from a flag-decked stage the chosen performers declaim and clog-dance with all the circumstance of the drama.

In days of piping peace, the Operatic and Dramatic Company of this particular ship had known many vicissitudes. Under the guidance of a musically inclined Ship's Steward, it had faced audiences across impromptu footlights as "The Pale Pink Pierrots," and, as such, had achieved a meteoric distinction. But unhappily the Ship's Steward was partial to oysters, and bought a barrelful at an auction sale ashore. On the face of things, it appeared a bargain; but the Ship's Steward neglected to inquire too closely into the antecedents of its contents, and was duly wafted to other spheres of usefulness.

The Chaplain, an earnest man but tone-deaf, rallied the leaderless troupe of musicians. During the period of his directorship they were known to fame as "The Musical Coons." Musical in that each one wielded a musical instrument with which he made bold to claim acquaintance, Coons because they blacked their faces with burnt cork and had "corner-men." The corner-men were the weak spots in an otherwise well-planned organisation.

A sailor can be trusted with the integrity of a messmate's honour or the resources of the mint, conceivably with the key of a brewery cellar, and justify the confidence reposed in him. But he cannot be trusted to be a corner-man, "gagging" with a black face and a pair of bones. The Musical Coons dissolved after one performance, during which the Captain's brow grew black and the Chaplain turned faint, and an ecstatic ship's company shouted itself hoarse with delirious enjoyment.

Thereafter, for a period, the breath of rebuke and disrepute clung to the songsters; but a ship without a sing-song party is like a dog without a tail. A committee of Petty Officers waited upon the First Lieutenant, as men once proffered Cromwell the Protectorship of England, lest a worse thing befell them. The First Lieutenant, with a reluctance and a full sense of the responsibilities involved, that was also Cromwellian, finally consented to become the titular head of the sing-song party.

He it was, then, who rose from his chair, holding a slip of paper, and faced the great bank of faces with one hand raised to enjoin silence. The cheering redoubled.

For perhaps fifteen seconds he stood with raised hand, then he lowered it and the smile left his eyes. His brows lowered too. The cheering wavered, faltered, died away. They knew what Number One meant when he looked like that.

"The first item on the programme," he said in his clear voice, "is a song by Petty Officer Dawson, entitled, 'The Fireman's Daughter,'" and sat down again amid loud applause.

The A.P. rose, hopped on to the stage, and sat down at the piano that occupied one wing of the stage. Petty Officer Dawson, who was also the ship's painter, emerged from behind the canvas screen, coyly wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. The piano tinkled out the opening bars of the song, and the concert began.

It was a sad song; the very first verse found the fireman's daughter on her death-bed. But the tune was familiar and pleasantly mournful, and, as the piano thumped the opening bars of the refrain for the second time, the hundreds of waiting men took it up readily. The melody swelled and rose, till the sadness of the theme was somehow overwhelmed by the sadness that is in the harmony of men's voices singing in the open air.

Petty Officer Dawson was a stout man addicted in daily life to the inexplicable habit of drying his gold-leaf brush in the few wisps of hair Nature had left him with. His role on the occasion of a concert was usually confined to painting the scenery. The nation being at war, and this particular concert held during the effective blockade of an enemy's empire, scenery was out of the question. So, as one of the recognised members of the sing-song party, he sang—with, be it added, considerable effect.

"The next item," announced the First Lieutenant (who knew his audience better even than they knew him), "is a comic song entitled, 'Hold tight, Emma!' by Stoker Williams."

This was "Taff" Williams, Stoker First-class, comedian tenth-class, and master of patter unintelligible (mercifully so, perhaps) to any but a bluejacket audience. He was a wisp of a man with a pale, beardless face and small features; incidentally, too, the scrum half of the ship's Rugby team and the referee's terror.

But he was more than this: he was the ship's wag, and so was greeted with shouts and whistles of approval as he stepped on to the stage attired in the burlesque counterfeit of an airman's costume.

Perhaps you might not have thought his song so very funny after all. It might even have struck you as vulgar, since it depended for its humour upon gorgonzola cheese, the eldest son of the German Emperor, mal-de-mer, and a number of other things not considered amusing in polite society. But the sailor's susceptibilities are peculiar: they were there to enjoy themselves, and again and again a great gust of laughter swept over the audience as an autumn gale convulses the trees on the outskirts of a forest. The singer's topical allusions, sly incomprehensibilities, he flung about him like bombs that burst in an unfailing roar of delight among his shipmates. No wonder they liked him; and even the padre, who perforce had to knit his brows once or twice, looked regretful when the last encore was over.

Taff Williams's song was succeeded by a duet. The singers were also comedians, but of a different calibre. Some odd freak of Nature had fashioned them both astoundingly alike in face and frame. They were baldish men, short and sturdy, with sandy eyebrows and lashes of so light a colour as to be almost invisible. Their countenances were round and expressionless, and their song, which was called "We are the Brothers Boo-Hoo!" contained little beyond reiterations of the fact, interspersed with "steps" of a solemn and intricate nature.

Ordinarily their avocations and walks in life were separated by a wide gulf. One was a Petty Officer and L.T.O., the other a stoker. But Fame recognises no distinctions of class or calling, and circumstances over which they had little control, the universal decree of the ship's company in short, drove them on to the stage to face successive audiences side by side as The Brothers Boo-Hoo. Neither dreamed of appearing there without the other, although off it, save for a few grave rehearsals, they rarely met. They were not vocalists, but they bowed to popular demand, preserving their stolid, immobile demeanours, and sang in accents sternly and unintelligibly Gaelic.

Their turn over, the First Lieutenant announced a juggling display by Boy Buggins. Boy Buggins appeared, very spick and span in a brand new suit of Number Threes, and proceeded to juggle with canteen eggs, Indian clubs and mess crockery (while the caterer of his mess held his breath to the verge of apoplexy) in a manner quite bewildering.

The Captain took his pipe out of his mouth and leaned towards the Commander. "Where did the lad pick up these antics?" he inquired, smiling.

The Commander shook his head. "I don't know, sir. Probably in a circus."

As a matter of fact, Boy Buggins did start life (as far as his memory carried him) in grubby pink tights and spangles. But he followed in the train of no circus; it was in front of public-houses in a district of London where such pitches recurred with dreary frequency that he cut capers on a strip of carpet. He visited them nightly in the company of a stalwart individual who also wore pink tights. After each performance the stalwart one ordained an interval for refreshment. On good days he used to reach home very much refreshed indeed.

They called it home (it was a cellar) because they slept there; and as often as not a thin woman with tragic eyes was there waiting for them. She used to hold out her hand with a timid, shamed gesture, and there was money in it which the man took. If he had had a good day or she a bad one—it was always one or the other—the stalwart one beat the woman, or, in his own phraseology, "put it acrost" her. But ultimately he had one good day too many, or else he felt unusually stalwart, for the woman lay motionless in the corner of the cellar where she was flung, and wouldn't answer when he had finished kicking her.

The police took the stalwart one away to swing for it, and "the parish" took the thin woman away in a deal box. Boy Buggins passed, via an industrial training ship, into the Royal Navy, and earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal before this particular sing-song had passed out of the minds of those who were present at it.

One must conclude that all these things were, as the Arabs say, on his forehead.

"Private Mason, R.M.L.I.—Concertina Solo!"

A great burst of laughter and cheering broke out from the sailors, and redoubled as a private of Marines, holding a concertina in his gnarled fists, walked on to the stage. Even the officers put their hands up to smile behind them; one or two nearest the First Lieutenant leaned over and patted him on the back as if he had achieved something.

The whole audience, officers and men, were evidently revelling in some tremendous secret reminiscence conjured up by the appearance of this private of Marines. Yet, as he stood there, fingering the keys of his instrument, waiting for the uproar to subside, there was little about him to suggest high humour. He was just a thin, rather delicate-looking man with a grizzled moustache and dreamy eyes fixed on vacancy. His claim to notoriety, alas, lay in more than his incomparable music. Human nature at its best is a frail thing. But human nature, as typified by Private Mason, was very frail. Apart from his failing he was a valuable asset to the sing-song party; but, unhappily, it required all the resources and ingenuity of its promoters to keep Private Mason sober on the night of an entertainment.

When and how he acquired the wherewithal to wreck the high hopes of the reigning stage manager was a mystery known to him alone. His messmates drained their tots at dinner with conscientious thoroughness, and his into the bargain, striving together less in the cause of temperance than from a desire that he should for once do himself and his concertina (of which he was a master) justice.

Yet, his turn announced, on the last occasion of a concert before the war, the curtain rose upon an empty stage. The Carpenter's party happened upon him, as archaeologists might excavate a Sleeping Bacchus or a recumbent Budda, in the process of dismantling the stage. Private Mason was underneath it, breathing stertorously, a smile of beatific contentment on his worn features, his head pillowed on his concertina.

The Fleet Surgeon subsequently missed a large-sized bottle of eau-de-Cologne from his cabin, which he was bringing home from Gibraltar as a present for his wife. The discovery of the loss assisted him in his diagnosis of the case.

Silence fell on the audience at length, and the concertina solo began. As has been indicated, Private Mason could play the concertina. In his rather tremulous hands it was no longer an affair of leather and wood (or of whatever material concertinas are constructed), but a living thing that laughed and sobbed, and shook your soul like the Keening. It became a yearning, passionate, exultant daughter of Music that somehow wasn't quite respectable.

And when he had finished, and passed his hand across his moist forehead preparatory to retiring from the stage, they shouted for more.

"Church bells, Nobby!" cried a hundred voices. "Garn, do the church bells!" So he did the church bells, as the wind brings the sound across the valley on a summer evening at home, wringing his shipmates' sentimental heartstrings to the limit of their enjoyment.

"Strewth!" ejaculated a bearded member of the audience when the turn was over, relighting his pipe with a hand that shook. "I 'ear Nobby play that at the Canteen at Malta, time Comman'er-in-Chief an' 'is Staff was there—Comman'er-in-Chief, so 'elp me, 'e sob' like a woman. . . ."

The reminiscence may not have been in strict accordance with the truth, but, even considered in the light of fiction, it was a pretty testimony to Private Mason's art.

The last turn of the evening came an hour later when the slightly embarrassed Junior Watchkeeper stepped on to the stage. His appearance was the signal for another great outburst of enthusiasm from the men. He was not perhaps more of a favourite with them than any of his brethren seated on the chairs below; but he was an officer, obviously not at ease on a concert stage, only anxious to do his bit towards making the evening a success. They realised it on the instant, with the readiness of seamen to meet their officers half-way when the latter are doing something they evidently dislike to help the common weal. They knew the Junior Watchkeeper didn't want to sing, and they cared little what he sang about, but they cheered him with full-throated affection as he stood gravely facing them, waiting for a lull.

It is just this spirit, of which so much has been imperfectly conveyed to the layman—is, in fact, not comprehended in its entity by outsiders—which is called for want of a better term "sympathy between officers and men." It is a bond of mutual generosity and loyalty, strong as steel, more formidable to an enemy than armaments; strengthened by monotony and a common vigil, it thrives on hardships shared, and endures triumphant, as countless tales shall tell, down to the gates of Death.

The Junior Watchkeeper's song was an old one—one that had stirred the hearts of sailors no longer even memories with his audience. He sang simply and tunefully in the strong voice of one who knew how to pitch an order in the open air. When it was finished, he acknowledged the tumultuous applause by a stiff little bow and retreated, flushing slightly. The sing-song was over.

The officers were rising from their chairs, the A.P. at the piano was looking towards the Commander for permission to crash out the opening bars of the Anthem that would swing the audience as one man to its feet. At that moment a Signalman threaded his way through the chairs and saluted the Captain.

The latter took the signal-pad extended to him, and read the message. Then he turned abruptly to the audience, his hand raised to command silence. The last of the warm glow that lingered long in the northern summer twilight lit his strong, fine face as he faced his men. There was a great hush of expectancy.

"Before we pipe down," he said, "I want to read you a message that has just come from the Commander-in-Chief. 'One of our destroyers engaged and sank by gunfire two of the enemy's destroyers this afternoon.'"

A great roar of cheering greeted the curt message. The listening fleet took it up, and in the stillness of the land-locked harbour the volume of sound reverberated, savagely and triumphantly exultant.

The hills ashore caught the echo and tossed it sleepily to and fro.

Then, flushed with excitement and hoarse with shouting, they sang the
National Anthem to a close.

Altogether, it was a very noisy evening.