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