Chummy Ships, by Bartimeus

The Lieutenant for Physical Training Duties came down into the Wardroom and sank into the one remaining arm-chair.

"I must say," he ejaculated, "the sailor is a cheerful animal. Umpteen days steaming on end without seeing any enemy—just trailing the tail of our coat about the North Sea—we come into harbour and we invite the matelots to lie on their backs on the upper-deck (minus cap and jumper) and wave their legs in the air by way of recreation. They comply with the utmost good humour. They don't believe that it does them the smallest good, but they know I get half-a-crown a day for watching them do it, and they go through with it like a lot of portly gentlemen playing 'bears' to amuse their nephews."

The Indiarubber Man broke off and surveyed his messmates with a whimsical grey eye. The majority were assimilating the contents of illustrated weeklies over a fortnight old; two in opposite corners of the settee were asleep with their caps tilted over their noses, sleeping the sleep of profound exhaustion. One member of the mess was amusing himself with a dice-box at the table, murmuring to himself as he rattled and threw.

The Indiarubber Man, in no wise irritated at the general lack of interest in his conversation, wriggled lower in his arm-chair till he appeared to be resting on the flat of his shoulder-blades, with his chin buried in the lappels of his monkey-jacket. "I maintain," his amiable monologue continued, "that there's something rather touching about the way they flap their arms about and hop backwards and forwards, and 'span-bend' and agonise themselves with such unfailing good humour—don't you think so, Pills?"

The Young Doctor gathered the dice again, knitting his brows. ". . . Seventy-seven, seventy-eight—that's seventy-eight times I've thrown these infernal dice without five aces turning up. And twenty-three times before breakfast. How much is seventy-eight and twenty-three? Three and eight's eleven, put down one and carry one—I beg pardon, I wasn't listening to you. Did you ask me a question?"

"I was telling you about the sailors chucking stunts on the quarter-deck."

"I don't want to hear about the sailors: they make me tired. There isn't a sick man on board except one I've persuaded to malinger to keep me out of mischief. They're the healthiest collection of human beings I've ever met in my life."

"That's me," retorted the Indiarubber Man modestly. "I am responsible for their glowing health. They haven't been ashore for—how long is it?"

"Ten years it feels like," said someone who was examining the pictorial advertisements of an illustrated paper with absorbed interest.

"Quite. They haven't had a run ashore for ten years—ever since the war started, in fact; and yet, thanks to the beneficial effects of physical training, as laid down in the book of the words, and administered by the underpaid Lieutenant for Physical Training Duties, the Young Doctor is enabled to sit in the mess all day and see how often he can throw five aces. In short, he becomes a world's worker."

"It's just because they haven't been ashore for weeks and months, and in spite of the Lieutenant for Physical Training—och! No, Bunje, don't start scrapping—it's too early in the morning, and we'll wake . . . those . . . poor devils——Eugh! Poof! There! What did I tell you!"

The two swaying figures, after a few preliminary cannons off sideboard, arm-chair and deck stanchion, finally collapsed on to the settee. The sleepers awakened with disgust.

"Confound you, Bunje, you clumsy clown!" roared one. Between them they seized the Young Doctor, who was a small man, and deposited him on the deck. "Couldn't you see I was asleep, Pills?" demanded the other hotly. "You've woken Peter, too. He's had—how many is it, Peter?—eight morning watches running. I've brooded over him like a Providence from the fore-top through each weary dawning, so I ought to know." He yawned drowsily. "Peter saw a horn of the crescent moon sticking out of a cloud this morning, and turned out the anti-aircraft guns' crews. Thought it was the bows of a Zeppelin. Skipper was rather peevish, wasn't he, Peter?"

The Junior Watchkeeper grunted and turned over on to his other side. "Well, you nearly opened fire on a northern diver in that flat calm at dawn the other morning." The speaker cocked a drowsy eye on the mess from under his cap-peak. "Silly ass vowed it was the periscope of an enemy's submarine coming to the surface."

"Truth is," said the Indiarubber Man, "your nerves are shattered. Pills, here's a job for you. Give the lads two-penn'orth of bromide and stop their wine and extras. In the meanwhile," he pulled a small book out of his pocket, "I have here a dainty brochure, entitled, 'Vox Humana—Its Ascendancy over Mere Noise'—otherwise, 'Handbook for Physical Training.' I may say I was partly responsible for its production."

"I believe you, faith!" said the Fleet Surgeon bitterly, over the top of the B.M.J.

The Indiarubber Man wheeled round. "P.M.O.! That's not the tone in which to speak to your Little Ray of Sunshine. It lacked joie de vivre." The speaker beamed on the mess. "I think we are all getting a little mouldy, if you ask me. In short, we are not the bright boys we were when war broke out. Supposing now—I say supposing—we celebrated our return to harbour, and the fact that we haven't bumped a mine-field, by asking our chummy-ship to dinner to-night, and giving them a bit of a chuck-up! Which is our chummy-ship, by the way? Where's the What Ho! lying?" He walked to the scuttle and stuck his head out. "Blessed if I can tell t'other from which now we're all so beautifully disguised."

"We haven't got a chummy-ship," replied the A.P. "We don't want a chummy-ship. Nobody loves us. We hate each other with malignant hatred by reason of hobnailed livers."

"And if we had," interposed another Lieutenant gloomily, "they'd far rather stay on board their own rotten ship. They're probably getting used to their messman by now. The sudden change of diet might be fatal." The speaker turned to the Young Doctor. "Pills, what d'you get when you change your diet sudden-like—scurvy, or something awful, don't you?"

"Hiccoughs." The Surgeon dragged his soul from the depths of a frayed Winning Post and looked up. His face brightened. "Why? Anyone here——"

"No, no, that's all right, my merry leech. Only Bunje wants to ask the What Ho's to dinner."

"Yes," interposed the Gunnery Lieutenant, with a sudden access of enthusiasm. "Let's ask 'em. Where's the Navy List?" He flung a tattered Navy List on the table and pored over it.

"Hear, hear!" chimed in the Engineer Lieutenant-Commander. "Let's be a band of brothers, an' all drinks down to the mess the whole evening."

The mess generally began to consider the project.

"Here's the Commander," said someone. "Casting-vote from him! D'you mind if we ask the What Ho's to dinner, sir? We all feel we should be better, nobler men after a heart-to-heart talk with our chummy-ships."

"Ask anyone you like," replied the Commander, "as long as they don't ask me to dine with them in their ship by way of revenge."

"Carried!" exclaimed the Indiarubber Man. "'Commander, 'e sez, spoke very 'andsome!' I will now indite a brief note of invitation. Bring me pens, ink and paper. Apportez-moi l'encre de mon cousin, aussi du poivre, du moutard et des legumes—point à la ligne! I got a prize for French in the Britannia."

Here the Fleet Surgeon said something in an undertone about a village idiot, and left the mess. As he went out the First Lieutenant entered with an apologetic mien which everyone appeared to recognise instinctively.

The Torpedo Lieutenant looked up from his book. "Oh, no, Number One, spare us for just one morning. I've got a headache already from listening to Bunje."

The A.P. threw himself into an attitude of supplication. "Number One, consider the awful consequences of your act before it's too late. Consider what it means. If you make the wardroom untenable, I shall have to sit in the office all the morning. I might even have to do some work!"

The First Lieutenant shook his head dourly. "The chipping party is going to start in the wardroom this morning. Paint's inches thick on the bulkheads, and a shell in here would start fires all over the place. Bunje, if you want to write letters you'd better go somewhere else and do it."

The Indiarubber Man thumped the blotting-paper on his freshly written sheets and looked up with his penholder between his teeth. "I've finished, Number One. Admit your hired bravoes."

As he spoke an ear-splitting fusillade of hammering commenced outside. The steel bulkheads reverberated with blows that settled down to a persistent rain of sound, deafening, nerve-shattering.

"They've started outside," shouted the First Lieutenant.

A general exodus ensued, and the Indiarubber Man gathered his writing materials preparatory to departure. "I guessed they had," he was heard to say. "I thought I heard a sound as it might have been someone tapping on the bulkhead."

The watchkeepers asleep on the settee stirred in their sleep, frowned, and sank again into fathomless oblivion.

* * * * *

The Indiarubber Man entered the wardroom in company with the Paymaster as the corporal of the ward-room servants was putting the finishing touches to the dinner-table. They surveyed the apartment without enthusiasm.

"Considered as a banquet hall, I confess it does lack something," observed the former.

"There's a good deal of paint lacking from the bulkheads. Number One has had a field day and a half."

The other nodded. "In the words of the song:

  'There's no carpet on the floor,
  And no knocker on the door,
  Oh, ours is a happy little home . . .'

Phillips, bring me the menu, and let's see the messman has succeeded in being funny without being vulgar."

Corporal Phillips brought the menu with the air of one who connives at a felony. "Messman says, sir, it ain't all 'e'd like it to be, what with guests comin' and that. But I says to 'im, 'war is war,' I says, 'an' we can't expect eggs-on-meat entrées, same's if it was peace time.'"

"To-day's beautiful thought!" remarked the Indiarubber Man when the corporal had withdrawn. "Really, Phillips has a knack of disclosing great truths as if they were the lightest gossip."

The Engineer Commander came in, glancing at the clock. "Five minutes more and the What Ho's will be here. Bunje, my lad, you were responsible for this entente—have you any idea what we are going to do with them after dinner?"

"None," replied the Indiarubber Man; "none whatever. It will come to me sudden-like. I might dress up as a bogey, and frighten you all—or shall we try table-turning? Or we could dope their liquor and send them all back insensible. Wouldn't that be true Oriental hospitality! They'd wake up to-morrow morning under the impression that they'd had the night of their lives."

The members of the mess began to collect round the fireplace with the funereal expressions customary whenever a mess-dinner is impending.

"Which of the What Ho's are coming?"

"Where're they going to sit?"

"Who asked them?"

"Why?"

"Are drinks going down to the mess?"

And then the door opened and the guests arrived, smiling, a little shy, as the naval officer is wont to be when he finds himself in a strange mess.

They were relieved of caps and cloaks, and, under the mellowing influence of sherry and bitters, began to settle down.

"Jolly good of you fellows to ask us to dinner," said the First Lieutenant, an officer with a smiling cherubic visage and a choleric blue eye. "We were getting a bit bored with our hooker. A fortnight of looking for Der Tag gets a bit wearisome. D'you think the devils are ever coming out?"

"We didn't want to ask you a bit, really," explained one of the hosts (the advantage of having a chummy-ship is that you can insult them in your own mess). "It's only a scheme of Bunje's for drinking intoxicating liquor to excess at the expense of his messmates."

The guests grinned sympathetically. As a matter of fact, most of the company drank little else than water during those days of strain and vigil. Frequent references to indulgence might, therefore, be regarded as comic, in a sense.

"We thought of bringing our own chairs," added one, "in case you'd landed all your spare ones."

"Yes," chimed in a third politely. "We didn't expect to find such a wealth of furniture—it's like a Model Homes Exhibition. You should see our mess!"

The Gunnery Lieutenant made a gesture of deprecation. "The watchkeepers insist on keeping the settee to caulk on in the intervals of hogging in their cabins. The piano was retained for the benefit of the Young Doctor. He can play Die Wacht am Rhein with one finger—can't you, Pills?"

The Young Doctor beamed with simple pride. "My sister's German governess taught me when I was a kid," he explained. "We have it every night—it's the only tune I know."

"The sideboard is to support the empty glasses of the bridge-players after the Padre has put down one of his celebrated 'no-trumps' hands—we had to keep the sideboard. The arm-chair is for Number One to sit in and beat time while his funny party chip paint off the bulkheads." The Gunnery Lieutenant looked round. "And so on, and so on—oh, the gramophone? Bunje bu'st all the records except three, and we're getting to know those rather well. But as you're a guest, old thing, would you like 'Tipperary,' Tosti's 'Good-bye,' or 'A Little Grey Home in the West'?"

The corporal of the ward-room servants interrupted these amenities with the announcement that dinner was ready, and a general move was made to the table.

Thereafter the conversation flowed evenly and generally. It was not confined to war. The men who make war, either afloat or ashore, do not talk about it over-much. There are others—even in this England of ours—by tradition better qualified to do the talking, in that they see most of the game. . . . On the whole, perhaps, more "shop" was discussed than would have been the case in peace-time, but for the most part it eddied round much the same subjects as Wardroom conversation always does, with the Indiarubber Man's Puck-like humour and gay mock-cynicism running through it like a whimsical pattern in an otherwise conventional design.

War had been their trade in theory from earliest youth. They were all on nodding terms with Death. Indeed, most of the men round the long table had looked him between the eyes already, and the obituary pages in the Navy List had been a reminder, month by month, of others who had looked there too—and blinked, and closed their eyes—shipmates and fleetmates and familiar friends.

War was the Real Thing, that was all. There was nothing about it to obsess men's minds. You might say it was the manoeuvres of 19— all over again, with the chance of "bumping a mine" thrown in, and also the glorious certainty of ultimately seeing a twelve-inch salvo pitch exactly where the long years of preparation ordained that it should.

A submarine specialist, whom the war caught doing exile in a "big ship," dominated the conversation for a while with lamentations that he was constrained to dwell in the Tents of Kedah. Two minutes of his talk having nearly convinced everyone that the sole raison d'être of the big ship was to be sunk by submarine attack, he and his theories passed into a conversational siding. The watchkeepers exchanged mutual condolences on the exasperating tactics of drift-net trawlers, notes on atmospheric conditions prevalent in the North Sea, methods of removing nocturnal cocoa-stains from the more vital portions of a chart, and other matters of interest to watchkeepers.

The Commander and the First Lieutenant of the What Ho's discussed the training of setters. The Young Doctor and his opposite number, and those near them found interest in morphia syringes, ventilation of distributing stations, and—a section of the talk whirling into a curious backwater—the smell of cooking prevalent in the entrance halls of Sheerness lodging-houses. . . .

The dinner went its course: they drank, sitting (as was their privilege and tradition), the King's health. Then the cigarettes went round, chairs turned a little sideways, the port circulated a second time. The conversation was no longer general. In pairs or by threes, according to taste, temperament or individual calling, the members of the mess and their guests settled down to a complacent enjoyment of the most pleasant half-hour in a battleship's long day.

Presently, while the bridge-table was being set out, the Indiarubber Man rose from the table, and, crossing to the piano, began to vamp lightly on the keys, humming under his breath. A chorus quickly gathered round. A battered Naval Song Book was propped up on the music-rest—more from habit than necessity, since the Indiarubber Man could not read a note of music and everybody knew the words of the time-honoured chanties. The pianist's repertoire was limited: half a dozen ding-dong chords did duty as accompaniment to "Bantry Bay," "John Peel," and "The Chinese Bumboatman" alike; but a dozen lusty voices supplied melody enough, the singers packed like herrings round the piano, leaning over each other's shoulders, and singing with all the strength of their lungs.

They exhausted the favourites at length, and the player wheeled round on his stool.

"What about one of the guests for a song?"

"Yes, yes!" cried several voices. "Where's Number One? He's our Madame Patti. You ought to hear him sing 'We don't serve bread with one fish-ball!' It's really worth it. But it takes a lot of port to get him started. How d'you feel about it, Number One?" They spoke with indulgent affection, as a nurse might persuade a bashful child to show off before company.

He of the choleric blue eye was still sitting at the table with one of his hosts. He turned in his chair, smiling grimly.

"What's that about me? I don't want to start scrapping in a strange mess, Snatcher, but if you really are looking for trouble——!"

"Don't mind us!" shouted the Indiarubber Man delightedly. "We'll put up a scrap for you in half a jiffy if you feel like a crumpled shirt-front!" He looked round the mess. "Wait till Flags and the Secretary come in from dinner with the Old Man, and we'll out the gilded Staff. They're good 'uns to scrap."

As he spoke the door opened, and the Flag Lieutenant came in, to be met by a volley of greetings.

"We of the cuddy," he began in a tone of mincing severity, "are not pleased at the raucous uproar said to be coming from a mess of officers and gentlemen. We are pained. We come to lend our presence to what might otherwise develop into an unseemly brawl——" He helped himself to a walnut out of a dish on the sideboard. "Here comes my colleague the Secretary-bird. He, too, is more grieved than angry."

The Secretary entered warily, and intending combatants girded their loins for battle.

"Pouf!" he exclaimed. "What a fug!" And elevated his nose with a sniff. The Fiery Cross was out.

"Out Staff!" said the Indiarubber Man in a low voice. "Dogs of war!
Out gilded popinjays!"

With a promptitude that hinted at long experience of internecine warfare, the newcomers embraced the first maxim of war: "If you must hit, hit first, hit hard, and keep on hitting."

Like a flash, the two members of the Personal Staff were on the Indiarubber Man. A chair went crashing, a broken glass tinkled on to the deck, to the accompaniment of protests from the Paymaster, and, before the mess could join battle, the Indiarubber Man hurtled through the doorway on to the aft-deck, to pitch at the feet of a delighted Marine sentry. By the rules of the game, once through the portals of the mess there was no return until a truce was declared. The younger members of the mess rose to a man; for a moment the guests hung back. It is not in the best of form to scrap in a strange mess, except by express invitation.

"Come on!" shouted the Junior Watchkeeper. "Bite 'em in the stomach!" and flung himself upon the Secretary.

The guests waited for no second invitation. It was a battle royal, and the Indiarubber Man, interned on the aft-deck, yelped encouragement to his erstwhile conquerors because they were fighting valiantly against hopeless odds.

A Rugby International and a middle-weight boxer of some pretensions, although hampered by aiguilettes and outnumbered six to one, were not easily disposed of. But they were ultimately overpowered, and carried, puffing with exhaustion and helpless with laughter, over the debris of the bridge-table, gramophone and paper-rack, out through the doorway.

The mess, breathing heavily, adjusted its ties and collars and smoothed its dishevelled hair. The Flag Lieutenant and Secretary retired to their cabins for more extensive repairs. The bridge-table was set upon its legs once more, the scattered cards collected.

"Polo!" said the Indiarubber Man. "Let's play polo!"

"How d'you do that?" asked one of the ecstatic guests. At the bottom of his heart he was also wondering why the greybeards of the mess stood all this tomfoolery without protest. He had never been shipmates with the Indiarubber Man.

The Indiarubber Man took an orange off the sideboard, a dessert-spoon out of a drawer, and straddled over the back of a chair. "Like this, d'you see? We generally play three a-side, but as there are six of you we'll play double sides." He tossed the orange on to the deck, and hopped his chair in pursuit, brandishing the dessert-spoon.

"That's a great game," said the First Lieutenant of the What Ho! and got him to horse. "Come on, our side, boot and saddle!"

As the game was about to start the door opened, and the Flag Lieutenant entered hurriedly. He carried a signal-pad in his hand, and there was that in his face that silenced the polo players and caused the bridge players to lay down their hands.

"Signal," he said curtly. "Raise steam for full speed. Prepare for immediate action on leaving harbour." And was gone.

Those who had immediate duties elsewhere stampeded out of the mess. Overhead there was a thud of feet and ropes ends and the shrilling of pipes as the watch fell in. A Midshipman thrust his head inside the door of the Wardroom. "Boat's alongside, sir!" he said, and vanished.

The First Lieutenant of the visitors flung his boat-cloak over his shoulders. "Well," he said, "we've had a topping evening. S'long, and thanks very much."

Their hosts helped the departing ones into their great-coats. "Not 't all," they murmured politely in return. "Sorry to break up a cheery evening. Let's hope they've really come out this time!"

The Indiarubber Man slid on to the music-stool again, put his foot on the soft pedal, lightly touched the familiar chords, and began humming under his breath:

  "We don't want to lose you——
  But we think you ought to go . . ."

There are many ways of saying Moriturus te saluto.