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