A Diversity of Creatures/The Horse Marines
The Horse Marines
My instructions to Mr. Leggatt, my engineer, had been accurately obeyed. He was to bring my car on completion of annual overhaul, from Coventry via London, to Southampton Docks to await my arrival; and very pretty she looked, under the steamer's side among the railway lines, at six in the morning. Next to her new paint and varnish I was most impressed by her four brand-new tyres.
'But I didn't order new tyres,' I said as we moved away. 'These are Irresilients, too.'
'Treble-ribbed,' said Leggatt. 'Diamond-stud sheathing.'
'Then there has been a mistake.'
'Oh no, sir; they're gratis.'
The number of motor manufacturers who give away complete sets of treble-ribbed Irresilient tyres is so limited that I believe I asked Leggatt for an explanation.
'I don't know that I could very well explain, sir,' was the answer. 'It 'ud come better from Mr. Pyecroft. He's on leaf at Portsmouth—staying with his uncle. His uncle 'ad the body all night. I'd defy you to find a scratch on her even with a microscope.'
'Then we will go home by the Portsmouth road,' I said.
And we went at those speeds which are allowed before the working-day begins or the police are thawed out. We were blocked near Portsmouth by a battalion of Regulars on the move.
'Whitsuntide manœuvres just ending,' said Leggatt. 'They've had a fortnight in the Downs.'
He said no more until we were in a narrow street somewhere behind Portsmouth Town Railway Station, where he slowed at a green-grocery shop. The door was open, and a small old man sat on three potato-baskets swinging his feet over a stooping blue back.
'You call that shinin' 'em?' he piped. 'Can you see your face in 'em yet? No! Then shine 'em, or I'll give you a beltin' you'll remember!'
'If you stop kickin' me in the mouth perhaps I'd do better,' said Pyecroft's voice meekly.
We blew the horn.
Pyecroft arose, put away the brushes, and received us not otherwise than as a king in his own country.
'Are you going to leave me up here all day?' said the old man.
Pyecroft lifted him down and he hobbled into the back room.
'It's his corns,' Pyecroft explained. 'You can't shine corny feet—and he hasn't had his breakfast.'
'I haven't had mine either,' I said.
'Breakfast for two more, uncle,' Pyecroft sang out.
'Go out an' buy it then,' was the answer, 'or else it's half-rations.'
Pyecroft turned to Leggatt, gave him his marketing orders, and despatched him with the coppers.
'I have got four new tyres on my car,' I began impressively.
'Yes,' said Mr. Pyecroft. 'You have, and I will say'—he patted my car's bonnet—'you earned 'em.'
'I want to know why——,' I went on.
'Quite justifiable. You haven't noticed anything in the papers, have you?'
'I've only just landed. I haven't seen a paper for weeks.'
'Then you can lend me a virgin ear. There's been a scandal in the Junior Service—the Army, I believe they call 'em.'
A bag of coffee-beans pitched on the counter. 'Roast that,' said the uncle from within.
Pyecroft rigged a small coffee-roaster, while I took down the shutters, and sold a young lady in curl-papers two bunches of mixed greens and one soft orange.
'Sickly stuff to handle on an empty stomach, ain't it?' said Pyecroft.
'What about my new tyres?' I insisted.
'Oh, any amount. But the question is'—he looked at me steadily—'is this what you might call a court-martial or a post-mortem inquiry?'
'Strictly a post-mortem,' said I.
'That being so,' said Pyecroft, 'we can rapidly arrive at facts. Last Thursday—the shutters go behind those baskets—last Thursday at five bells in the forenoon watch, otherwise ten-thirty a.m., your Mr. Leggatt was discovered on Westminster Bridge laying his course for the Old Kent Road.'
'But that doesn't lead to Southampton,' I interrupted.
'Then perhaps he was swinging the car for compasses. Be that as it may, we found him in that latitude, simultaneous as Jules and me was ong route for Waterloo to rejoin our respective ships—or Navies I should say. Jules was a permissionaire, which meant being on leaf, same as me, from a French cassowary-cruiser at Portsmouth. A party of her trusty and well-beloved petty officers 'ad been seeing London, chaperoned by the R.C. chaplain. Jules 'ad detached himself from the squadron and was cruisin' on his own when I joined him, in company of copious lady-friends. But, mark you, your Mr. Leggatt drew the line at the girls. Loud and long he drew it.'
'I'm glad of that,' I said.
'You may be. He adopted the puristical formation from the first. "Yes," he said, when we was annealing him at—but you wouldn't know the pub—"I am going to Southampton," he says, "and I'll stretch a point to go via Portsmouth; but" says he, "seeing what sort of one hell of a time invariably trarnspires when we cruise together, Mr. Pyecroft, I do not feel myself justified towards my generous and long-suffering employer in takin' on that kind of ballast as well." I assure you he considered your interests.'
'And the girls?' I asked.
'Oh, I left that to Jules. I'm a monogomite by nature. So we embarked strictly ong garçong. But I should tell you, in case he didn't, that your Mr. Leggatt's care for your interests 'ad•extended to sheathing the car in matting and gunny-bags to preserve her paint-work. She was all swathed up like an I-talian baby.'
'He is careful about his paint-work,' I said.
'For a man with no Service experience I should say he was fair homicidal on the subject. If we'd been Marines he couldn't have been more pointed in his allusions to our hob-nailed socks. However, we reduced him to a malleable condition, and embarked for Portsmouth. I'd seldom rejoined my vaisseau ong automobile, avec a fur coat and goggles. Nor 'ad Jules.'
'Did Jules say much?' I asked, helplessly turning the handle of the coffee-roaster.
'That's where I pitied the pore beggar. He 'adn't the language, so to speak. He was confined to heavings and shruggin's and copious Mong Jews! The French are very badly fitted with relief-valves. And then our Mr. Leggatt drove. He drove.'
'Was he in a very malleable condition?'
'Not him! We recognised the value of his cargo from the outset. He hadn't a chance to get more than moist at the edges. After which we went to sleep; and now we'll go to breakfast.'
We entered the back room where everything was in order, and a screeching canary made us welcome. The uncle had added sausages and piles of buttered toast to the kippers. The coffee, cleared with a piece of fish-skin, was a revelation.
Leggatt, who seemed to know the premises, had run the car into the tiny backyard where her mirror-like back almost blocked up the windows. He minded shop while we ate. Pyecroft passed him his rations through a flap in the door. The uncle ordered him in, after breakfast, to wash up, and he jumped in his gaiters at the old man's commands as he has never jumped to mine.
'To resoom the post-mortem,' said Pyecroft, lighting his pipe. 'My slumbers were broken by the propeller ceasing to revolve, and by vile language from your Mr. Leggatt.'
'I—I——' Leggatt began, a blue-checked duster in one hand and a cup in the other.
'When you're wanted aft you'll be sent for, Mr. Leggatt,' said Pyecroft amiably. 'It's clean mess decks for you now. Resooming once more, we was on a lonely and desolate ocean near Portsdown, surrounded by gorse bushes, and a Boy Scout was stirring my stomach with his little copper-stick.'
'"You count ten," he says.
'"Very good, Boy Jones," I says, "count 'em," and I hauled him in over the gunnel, and ten I gave him with my large flat hand. The remarks he passed, lying face down tryin' to bite my leg, would have reflected credit on any Service. Having finished I dropped him overboard again, which was my gross political error. I ought to 'ave killed him; because he began signalling—rapid and accurate—in a sou' westerly direction. Few equatorial calms are to be apprehended when B.P.'s little pets take to signallin'. Make a note o' that! Three minutes later we were stopped and boarded by Scouts—up our backs, down our necks, and in our boots! The last I heard from your Mr. Leggatt as he went under, brushin' 'em off his cap, was thanking Heaven he'd covered up the new paint-work with mats. An 'eroic soul!'
'Not a scratch on her body,' said Leggatt, pouring out the coffee-grounds.
'And Jules?' said I.
'Oh, Jules thought the much advertised Social Revolution had begun, but his mackintosh hampered him.'
'You told me to bring the mackintosh,' Leggatt whispered to me.
'And when I 'ad 'em half convinced he was a French vicomte coming down to visit the Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth, he tried to take it off. Seeing his uniform underneath, some sucking Sherlock Holmes of the Pink Eye Patrol (they called him Eddy) deduced that I wasn't speaking the truth. Eddy said I was tryin' to sneak into Portsmouth unobserved—unobserved mark you!—and join hands with the enemy. It trarnspired that the Scouts was conducting a field-day against opposin' forces, ably assisted by all branches of the Service, and they was so afraid the car wouldn't count ten points to them in the fray, that they'd have scalped us, but for the intervention of an umpire—also in short under-drawers. A fleshy sight!'
Here Mr. Pyecroft shut his eyes and nodded. 'That umpire,' he said suddenly, 'was our Mr. Morshed—a gentleman whose acquaintance you have already made and profited by, if I mistake not.'
'Oh, was the Navy in it too?' I said; for I had read of wild doings occasionally among the Boy Scouts on the Portsmouth Road, in which Navy, Army, and the world at large seemed to have taken part.
'The Navy was in it. I was the only one out of it—for several seconds. Our Mr. Morshed failed to recognise me in my fur boa, and my appealin' winks at 'im behind your goggles didn't arrive. But when Eddy darling had told his story, I saluted, which is difficult in furs, and I stated I was bringin' him dispatches from the North. My Mr. Morshed cohered on the instant. I've never known his ethergram installations out of order yet. "Go and guard your blessed road," he says to the Fratton Orphan Asylum standing at attention all round him, and, when they was removed—"Pyecroft," he says, still sotte voce, "what in Hong-Kong are you doing with this dun-coloured sampan?"
'It was your Mr. Leggatt's paint-protective matting which caught his eye. She did resemble a sampan, especially about the stern-works. At these remarks I naturally threw myself on 'is bosom, so far as Service conditions permitted, and revealed him all, mentioning that the car was yours. You know his way of working his lips like a rabbit? Yes, he was quite pleased. "His car!" he kept murmuring, working his lips like a rabbit. "I owe 'im more than a trifle for things he wrote about me. I'll keep the car."
'Your Mr. Leggatt now injected some semi-mutinous remarks to the effect that he was your chauffeur in charge of your car, and, as such, capable of so acting. Mr. Morshed threw him a glarnce. It sufficed. Didn't it suffice, Mr. Leggatt?'
'I knew if something didn't happen, something worse would,' said Leggatt. 'It never fails when you're aboard.'
'And Jules?' I demanded.
'Jules was, so to speak, panicking in a water-tight flat through his unfortunate lack of language. I had to introduce him as part of the entente cordiale, and he was put under arrest, too. Then we sat on the grass and smoked, while Eddy and Co. violently annoyed the traffic on the Portsmouth Road, till the umpires, all in short panties, conferred on the valuable lessons of the field-day and added up points, same as at target-practice. I didn't hear their conclusions, but our Mr. Morshed delivered a farewell address to Eddy and Co., tellin' 'em they ought to have deduced from a hundred signs about me, that I was a friendly bringin' in dispatches from the North. We left 'em tryin' to find those signs in the Scout book, and we reached Mr. Morshed's hotel at Portsmouth at 6.27 p.m. ong automobile. Here endeth the first chapter.'
'Begin the second,' I said.
The uncle and Leggatt had finished washing up and were seated, smoking, while the damp duster dried at the fire.
'About what time was it,' said Pyecroft to Leggatt, 'when our Mr. Morshed began to talk about uncles?'
'When he came back to the bar, after he'd changed into those rat-catcher clothes,' said Leggatt.
'That's right. "Pye," said he, "have you an uncle?" "I have," I says. "Here's santy to him," and I finished my sherry and bitters to you, uncle.'
'That's right,' said Pyecroft's uncle sternly. 'If you hadn't I'd have belted you worth rememberin', Emmanuel. I had the body all night.'
Pyecroft smiled affectionately. 'So you 'ad, uncle,' an' beautifully you looked after her. But as I was saying, "I have an uncle, too," says Mr. Morshed, dark and lowering. "Yet somehow I can't love him. I want to mortify the beggar. Volunteers to mortify my uncle, one pace to the front."
'I took Jules with me the regulation distance. Jules was getting interested. Your Mr. Leggatt preserved a strictly nootral attitude.
'"You're a pressed man," says our Mr. Morshed. "I owe your late employer much, so to say. The car will manœuvre all night, as requisite."
'Mr. Leggatt come out noble as your employee, and, by 'Eaven's divine grace, instead of arguing, he pleaded his new paint and varnish which was Mr. Morshed's one vital spot (he's lootenant on one of the new catch-'em-alive-o's now). "True," says he, "paint's an 'oly thing. I'll give you one hour to arrange a modus vivendi. Full bunkers and steam ready by 9 p.m. to-night, if you please."
'Even so, Mr. Leggatt was far from content. I 'ad to arrange the details. We run her into the yard here.' Pyecroft nodded through the window at my car's glossy back-panels. 'We took off the body with its mats and put it in the stable, substitooting (and that yard's a tight fit for extensive repairs) the body of uncle's blue delivery cart. It overhung a trifle, but after I'd lashed it I knew it wouldn't fetch loose. Thus, in our composite cruiser, we repaired once more to the hotel, and was immediately dispatched to the toy-shop in the High Street where we took aboard one rocking-horse which was waiting for us.'
'Took aboard what?' I cried.
'One fourteen-hand dapple-grey rocking-horse, with pure green rockers and detachable tail, pair gashly glass eyes, complete set 'orrible grinnin' teeth, and two bloody-red nostrils which, protruding from the brown papers, produced the tout ensemble of a Ju-ju sacrifice in the Benin campaign. Do I make myself comprehensible?'
'Perfectly. Did you say anything?' I asked.
'Only to Jules. To him, I says, wishing to try him, "Allez à voire bateau. Je say mon Lootenong. Eel voo donneray porkwor." To me, says he, "Vous ong ate hurroo! Jamay de la vee!" and I saw by his eye he'd taken on for the full term of the war. Jules was a blue-eyed, brindle-haired beggar of a useful make and inquirin' habits. Your Mr. Leggat he only groaned.'
Leggatt nodded. 'It was like nightmares,' he said. 'It was like nightmares.'
'Once more, then,' Pyecroft swept on, 'we returned to the hotel and partook of a sumptuous repast, under the able and genial chairmanship of our Mr. Morshed, who laid his projecks unreservedly before us. "In the first place," he says, opening out bicycle-maps, "my uncle, who, I regret to say, is a brigadier-general, has sold his alleged soul to Dicky Bridoon for a feathery hat and a pair o' gilt spurs. Jules, conspuez l'oncle!" So Jules, you'll be glad to hear——'
'One minute, Pye,' I said. 'Who is Dicky Bridoon?'
'I don't usually mingle myself up with the bickerings of the Junior Service, but it trarnspired that he was Secretary o' State for Civil War, an' he'd been issuing mechanical leather-belly gee-gees which doctors recommend for tumour—to the British cavalry in loo of real meat horses, to learn to ride on. Don't you remember there was quite a stir in the papers owing to the cavalry not appreciatin' 'em? But that's a minor item. The main point was that our uncle, in his capacity of brigadier-general, mark you, had wrote to the papers highly approvin' o' Dicky Bridoon's mechanical substitutes an 'ad thus obtained promotion—all same as a agnosticle stoker psalm-singin' 'imself up the Service under a pious captain. At that point of the narrative we caught a phosphorescent glimmer why the rocking-horse might have been issued; but none the less the navigation was intricate. Omitting the fact it was dark and cloudy, our brigadier-uncle lay somewhere in the South Downs with his brigade, which was manœuvrin' at Whitsun manœuvres on a large scale—Red Army versus Blue, et cetera; an' all we 'ad to go by was those flapping bicycle-maps and your Mr. Leggatt's groans.'
'I was thinking what the Downs mean after dark,' said Leggatt angrily.
'They was worth thinkin' of,' said Pyecroft.
'When we had studied the map till it fair spun, we decided to sally forth and creep for uncle by hand in the dark, dark night, an' present 'im with the rocking-horse. So we embarked at 8.57 p.m.'
'One minute again, please. How much did Jules understand by that time?' I asked.
Sufficient unto the day—or night, perhaps I should say. He told our Mr. Morshed he'd follow him more sang frays, which is French for dead, drunk or damned. Barrin' 'is paucity o' language, there wasn't a blemish on Jules. But what I wished to imply was, when we climbed into the back parts of the car, our Lootenant Morshed says to me, "I doubt if I'd flick my cigar-ends about too lavish, Mr. Pyecroft. We ought to be sitting on five pounds' worth of selected fireworks, and I think the rockets are your end." Not being able to smoke with my 'ead over the side I threw it away; and then your Mr. Leggatt, 'aving been as nearly mutinous as it pays to be with my Mr. Morshed, arched his back and drove.'
'Where did he drive to, please?' said I.
'Primerrily, in search of any or either or both armies; seconderrily, of course, in search of our brigadier-uncle. Not finding him on the road, we ran about the grass looking for him. This took us to a great many places in a short time. 'Ow 'eavenly that lilac did smell on top of that first Down—stinkin' its blossomin' little heart out!'
'I 'adn't leesure to notice,' said Mr. Leggatt. 'The Downs were full o' chalk-pits, and we'd no lights.'
'We 'ad the bicycle-lamp to look at the map by. Didn't you notice the old lady at the window where we saw the man in the night-gown? I thought night-gowns as sleepin' rig was extinck, so to speak.'
'I tell you I 'adn't leesure to notice,' Leggatt repeated.
'That's odd. Then what might 'ave made you tell the sentry at the first camp we found that you was the Daily Express delivery-waggon?'
'You can't touch pitch without being defiled,' Leggatt answered. ''Oo told the officer in the bath we were umpires?'
'Well, he asked us. That was when we found the Territorial battalion undressin' in slow time. It lay on the left flank o' the Blue Army, and it cackled as it lay, too. But it gave us our position as regards the respective armies. We wandered a little more, and at 11.7 p.m., not having had a road under us for twenty minutes, we scaled the heights of something or other—which are about six hundred feet high. Here we 'alted to tighten the lashings of the superstructure, and we smelt leather and horses three counties deep all round. We was, as you might say, in the thick of it.'
'"Ah!" says my Mr. Morshed. "My 'orizon has indeed broadened. What a little thing is an uncle, Mr. Pyecroft, in the presence o' these glitterin' constellations! Simply ludicrous!" he says, "to waste a rocking-horse on an individual. We must socialise it. But we must get their 'eads up first. Touch off one rocket, if you please."
'I touched off a green three-pounder which rose several thousand metres, and burst into gorgeous stars. "Reproduce the manœuvre," he says, "at the other end o' this ridge—if it don't end in another cliff." So we steamed down the ridge a mile and a half east, and then I let Jules touch off a pink rocket, or he'd ha' kissed me. That was his only way to express his emotions, so to speak. Their heads come up then all around us to the extent o' thousands. We hears bugles like cocks crowing below, and on the top of it a most impressive sound which I'd never enjoyed before because 'itherto I'd always been an inteegral part of it, so to say—the noise of 'ole armies gettin' under arms. They must 'ave anticipated a night attack, I imagine. Most impressive. Then we 'eard a threshin'-machine. "Tutt! Tutt! This is childish!" says Lootenant Morshed. "We can't wait till they've finished cutting chaff for their horses. We must make 'em understand we're not to be trifled with. Expedite 'em with another rocket, Mr. Pyecroft."
'"It's barely possible, sir," I remarks, "that that's a searchlight churnin' up," and by the time we backed into a providential chalk cutting (which was where our first tyre went pungo) she broke out to the northward, and began searching the ridge. A smart bit o' work.'
''Twasn't a puncture. The inner tube had nipped because we skidded so,' Leggatt interrupted.
'While your Mr. Leggatt was effectin' repairs, another searchlight broke out to the southward, and the two of 'em swept our ridge on both sides. Right at the west end of it they showed us the ground rising into a hill, so to speak, crowned with what looked like a little fort. Morshed saw it before the beams shut off. "That's the key of the position!" he says. "Occupy it at all hazards."
'"I haven't half got occupation for the next twenty minutes," says your Mr. Leggatt, rootin' and blasphemin' in the dark. Mark, now, 'ow Morshed changed his tactics to suit 'is environment. "Right!" says he. "I'll stand by the ship. Mr. Pyecroft and Jules, oblige me by doubling along the ridge to the east with all the maroons and crackers you can carry without spilling. Read the directions careful for the maroons, Mr. Pyecroft, and touch them off at half-minute intervals. Jules represents musketry an' maxim fire under your command. Remember, it's death or Salisbury Gaol! Prob'ly both!"
'By these means and some moderately 'ard runnin', we distracted 'em to the eastward. Maroons, you may not be aware, are same as bombs, with the anarchism left out. In confined spots like chalk-pits, they knock a four-point-seven silly. But you should read the directions before'and. In the intervals of the slow but well-directed fire of my cow-guns, Jules, who had found a sheep-pond in the dark a little lower down, gave what you might call a cinematograph reproduction o' sporadic musketry. They was large size crackers, and he concluded with the dull, sickenin' thud o' blind shells burstin' on soft ground.'
'How did he manage that?' I said.
'You throw a lighted squib into water and you'll see,' said Pyecroft. 'Thus, then, we improvised till supplies was exhausted and the surrounding landscapes fair 'owled and 'ummed at us. The Junior Service might 'ave 'ad their doubts about the rockets, but they couldn't overlook our gunfire. Both sides tumbled out full of initiative. I told Jules no two flat-feet 'ad any right to be as happy as us, and we went back along the ridge to the derelict, and there was our Mr. Morshed apostrophin' his 'andiwork over fifty square mile o' country with "Attend, all ye who list to hear!" out of the Fifth Reader. He'd got as far as "And roused the shepherds o' Stonehenge, the rangers o' Beaulieu" when we come up, and he drew our attention to its truth as well as its beauty. That's rare in poetry, I'm told. He went right on to—"The red glare on Skiddaw roused those beggars at Carlisle"—which he pointed out was poetic licence for Leith Hill. This allowed your Mr. Leggatt time to finish pumpin' up his tyres. I 'eard the sweat 'op off his nose.'
'You know what it is, sir,' said poor Leggatt to me.
'It warfted across my mind, as I listened to what was trarnspirin', that it might be easier to make the mess than to wipe it up, but such considerations weighed not with our valiant leader.'
'"Mr. Pyecroft," he says, "it can't have escaped your notice that we 'ave one angry and 'ighly intelligent army in front of us, an' another 'ighly angry and equally intelligent army in our rear. What 'ud you recommend?"
'Most men would have besought 'im to do a lateral glide while there was yet time, but all I said was: "The rocking-horse isn't expended yet, sir."
'He laid his hand on my shoulder. "Pye," says he, "there's worse men than you in loftier places. They shall 'ave it. None the less," he remarks, "the ice is undeniably packing."
'I may 'ave omitted to point out that at this juncture two large armies, both deprived of their night's sleep, was awake, as you might say, and hurryin' into each other's arms. Here endeth the second chapter.'
He filled his pipe slowly. The uncle had fallen asleep. Leggatt lit another cigarette.
'We then proceeded ong automobile along the ridge in a westerly direction towards the miniature fort which had been so kindly revealed by the searchlight, but which on inspection (your Mr. Leggatt bumped into an outlyin' reef of it) proved to be a wurzel-clump; c est-à-dire, a parallelogrammatic pile of about three million mangold-wurzels, brought up there for the sheep, I suppose. On all sides, excep' the one we'd come by, the ground fell away moderately quick, and down at the bottom there was a large camp lit up an' full of harsh words of command.
'"I said it was the key to the position," Lootenant Morshed remarks. "Trot out Persimmon!" which we rightly took to read, "Un-wrap the rocking-horse."
'"Houp la!" says Jules in a insubordinate tone, an' slaps Persimmon on the flank.
'"Silence!" says the Lootenant. "This is the Royal Navy, not Newmarket"; and we carried Persimmon to the top of the mangel-wurzel clump as directed.
'Owing to the inequalities of the terrain (I do think your Mr. Leggatt might have had a spirit-level in his kit) he wouldn't rock free on the bed-plate, and while adjustin' him, his detachable tail fetched adrift. Our Lootenant was quick to seize the advantage.
'"Remove that transformation," he says. 'Substitute one Roman candle. Gas-power is superior to manual propulsion."
'So we substituted. He arranged the pièce de resistarnce in the shape of large drums—not saucers, mark you—drums of coloured fire, with printed instructions, at proper distances round Persimmon. There was a brief interregnum while we dug ourselves in among the wurzels by hand. Then he touched off the fires, not omitting the Roman candle, and, you may take it from me, all was visible. Persimmon shone out in his naked splendour, red to port, green to starboard, and one white light at his bows, as per Board o' Trade regulations. Only he didn't so much rock, you might say, as shrug himself, in a manner of speaking, every time the candle went off. One can't have everything. But the rest surpassed our highest expectations. I think Persimmon was noblest on the starboard or green side—more like when a man thinks he's seeing mackerel in hell, don't you know? And yet I'd be the last to deprecate the effect of the port light on his teeth, or that bloodshot look in his left eye. He knew there was something going on he didn't approve of. He looked worried.'
'Did you laugh?' I said.
'I'm not much of a wag myself; nor it wasn't as if we 'ad time to allow the spectacle to sink in. The coloured fires was supposed to burn ten minutes, whereas it was obvious to the meanest capacity that the Junior Service would arrive by forced marches in about two and a half. They grarsped our topical allusion as soon as it was across the foot-lights, so to speak. They were quite chafed at it. Of course, 'ad we reflected, we might have known that exposin' illuminated rockin' horses to an army that was learnin' to ride on 'em partook of the nature of a double entender, as the French say—same as waggling the tiller lines at a man who's had a hanging in the family. I knew the cox of the Archimandrite's galley 'arf killed for a similar plaisanteree. But we never anticipated lobsters being so sensitive. That was why we shifted. We could 'ardly tear our commandin' officer away. He put his head on one side, and kept cooin'. The only thing he 'ad neglected to provide was a line of retreat; but your Mr. Leggatt—an 'eroic soul in the last stage of wet prostration—here took command of the van, or, rather, the rear-guard. We walked downhill beside him, holding on to the superstructure to prevent her capsizing. These technical details, 'owever, are beyond me.' He waved his pipe towards Leggatt.
'I saw there was two deepish ruts leadin' down'ill somewhere,' said Leggatt. 'That was when the soldiers stopped laughin', and begun to run uphill.'
'Stroll, lovey, stroll!' Pyecroft corrected. 'The Dervish rush took place later.'
'So I laid her in these ruts. That was where she must 'ave scraped her silencer a bit. Then they turned sharp right—the ruts did—and then she stopped bonnet-high in a manure-heap, sir; but I'll swear it was all of a one in three gradient. I think it was a barnyard. We waited there,' said Leggatt.
'But not for long,' said Pyecroft. 'The lights were towering out of the drums on the position we 'ad so valiantly abandoned; and the Junior Service was escaladin' it en masse. When numerous bodies of 'ighly trained men arrive simultaneous in the same latitude from opposite directions, each remarking briskly, "What the 'ell did you do that for?" detonation, as you might say, is practically assured. They didn't ask for extraneous aids. If we'd come out with sworn affidavits of what we'd done they wouldn't 'ave believed us. They wanted each other's company exclusive. Such was the effect of Persimmon on their clarss feelings. Idol'try, I call it! Events transpired with the utmost velocity and rapidly increasing pressures. There was a few remarks about Dicky Bridoon and mechanical horses, and then some one was smacked—hard by the sound—in the middle of a remark.'
'That was the man who kept calling for the Forty-fifth Dragoons,' said Leggatt. 'He got as far as Drag . . .'
'Was it?' said Pyecroft dreamily. 'Well, he couldn't say they didn't come. They all came, and they all fell to arguin' whether the Infantry should 'ave Persimmon for a regimental pet or the Cavalry should keep him for stud purposes. Hence the issue was soon clouded with mangold-wurzels. Our commander said we 'ad sowed the good seed, and it was bearing abundant fruit. (They weigh between four and seven pounds apiece.) Seein' the children 'ad got over their shyness, and 'ad really begun to play games, we backed out o' the pit and went down, by steps, to the camp below, no man, as you might say, making us afraid. Here we enjoyed a front view of the battle, which rolled with renewed impetus, owing to both sides receiving strong reinforcements every minute. All arms were freely represented; Cavalry, on this occasion only, acting in concert with Artillery. They argued the relative merits of horses versus feet, so to say, but they didn't neglect Persimmon. The wounded rolling downhill with the wurzels informed us that he had long ago been socialised, and the smallest souvenirs were worth a man's life. Speaking broadly, the Junior Service appeared to be a shade out of 'and, if I may venture so far. They did not pay prompt and unhesitating obedience to the "Retires" or the "Cease Fires" or the "For 'Eaven's sake come to bed, ducky" of their officers, who, I regret to say, ere 'otly embroiled at the heads of their respective units.'
'How did you find that out?' I asked.
'On account of Lootenant Morshed going to the Mess tent to call on his uncle and raise a drink; but all hands had gone to the front. We thought we 'eard somebody bathing behind the tent, and we found an oldish gentleman tryin' to drown a boy in knickerbockers in a horse-trough. He kept him under with a bicycle, so to speak. He 'ad nearly accomplished his fell design, when we frustrated him. He was in a highly malleable condition and full o' juice de spree. "Arsk not what I am," he says. "My wife 'll tell me that quite soon enough. Arsk rather what I've been," he says. "I've been dinin' here," he says. "I commanded 'em in the Eighties," he says, "and, Gawd forgive me," he says, sobbin' 'eavily, "I've spent this holy evening telling their Colonel they was a set of educated inefficients. Hark to 'em!" We could, without strainin' ourselves; but how he picked up the gentle murmur of his own corps in that on-the-knee party up the hill I don't know. "They've marched and fought thirty mile to-day," he shouts, "and now they're tearin' the intestines out of the Cavalry up yonder! They won't stop this side the gates o' Delhi," he says. "I commanded their ancestors. There's nothing wrong with the Service," he says, wringing out his trousers on his lap. "'Eaven pardon me for doubtin' 'em! Same old game—same young beggars."
'The boy in the knickerbockers, languishing on a chair, puts in a claim for one drink. "Let him go dry," says our friend in shirt-tails. "He's a reporter. He run into me on his filthy bicycle and he asked me if I could furnish 'im with particulars about the mutiny in the Army. You false-'earted proletarian publicist," he says, shakin' his finger at 'im—for he was reelly annoyed—"I'll teach you to defile what you can't comprehend! When my regiment's in a state o' mutiny, I'll do myself the honour of informing you personally. You particularly ignorant and very narsty little man," he says, "you're no better than a dhobi's donkey! If there wasn't dirty linen to wash, you'd starve," he says, "and why I haven't drowned you will be the lastin' regret of my life."
'Well, we sat with 'em and 'ad drinks for about half-an-hour in front of the Mess tent. He'd ha' killed the reporter if there hadn't been witnesses, and the reporter might have taken notes of the battle; so we acted as two-way buffers, in a sense. I don't hold with the Press mingling up with Service matters. They draw false conclusions. Now, mark you, at a moderate estimate, there were seven thousand men in the fighting line, half of 'em hurt in their professional feelings, an' the other half rubbin' in the liniment, as you might say. All due to Persimmon! If you 'adn't seen it you wouldn't 'ave believed it. And yet, mark you, not one single unit of 'em even resorted to his belt. They confined themselves to natural producks—hands and the wurzels. I thought Jules was havin' fits, till it trarnspired the same thought had impressed him in the French language. He called it incroyable, I believe. Seven thousand men, with seven thousand rifles, belts, and bayonets, in a violently agitated condition, and not a ungenteel blow struck from first to last. The old gentleman drew our attention to it as well. It was quite noticeable.
'Lack of ammunition was the primerry cause of the battle ceasin'. A Brigade-Major came in, wipin' his nose on both cuffs, and sayin' he 'ad 'ad snuff. The brigadier-uncle followed. He was, so to speak, sneezin'. We thought it best to shift our moorings without attractin' attention; so we shifted. They 'ad called the cows 'ome by then. The Junior Service was going to bye-bye all round us, as happy as the ship's monkey when he's been playin' with the paints, and Lootenant Morshed and Jules kept bowin' to port and starboard of the superstructure, acknowledgin' the unstinted applause which the multitude would 'ave given 'em if they'd known the facts. On the other 'and, as your Mr. Leggatt observed, they might 'ave killed us.
'That would have been about five bells in the middle watch, say half-past two. A well-spent evening. There was but little to be gained by entering Portsmouth at that hour, so we turned off on the grass (this was after we had found a road under us), and we cast anchors out at the stern and prayed for the day.
'But your Mr. Leggatt he had to make and mend tyres all our watch below. It trarnspired she had been running on the rim o' two or three wheels, which, very properly, he hadn't reported till the close of the action. And that's the reason of your four new tyres. Mr. Morshed was of opinion you'd earned 'em. Do you dissent?'
I stretched out my hand, which Pyecroft crushed to pulp. 'No, Pye,' I said, deeply moved, 'I agree entirely. But what happened to Jules?'
'We returned him to his own Navy after breakfast. He wouldn't have kept much longer without some one in his own language to tell it to. I don't know any man I ever took more compassion on than Jules. 'Is sufferings swelled him up centimetres, and all he could do on the Hard was to kiss Lootenant Morshed and me, and your Mr. Leggatt. He deserved that much. A cordial beggar.'
Pyecroft looked at the washed cups on the table, and the low sunshine on my car's back in the yard.
''Too early to drink to him,' he said. 'But I feel it just the same.'
The uncle, sunk in his chair, snored a little; the canary answered with a shrill lullaby. Pyecroft picked up the duster, threw it over the cage, put his finger to his lips, and we tiptoed out into the shop, while Leggatt brought the car round.
'I'll look out for the news in the papers,' I said, as I got in.
'Oh, we short-circuited that! Nothing trarnspired excep' a statement to the effect that some Territorial battalions had played about with turnips at the conclusion of the manœuvres. The taxpayer don't know all he gets for his money. Farewell!'
We moved off just in time to be blocked by a regiment coming towards the station to entrain for London.
'Beg your pardon, sir,' said a sergeant in charge of the baggage, 'but would you mind backin' a bit till we get the waggons past?'
'Certainly,' I said. 'You don't happen to have a rocking-horse among your kit, do you?'
The rattle of our reverse drowned his answer, but I saw his eyes. One of them was blackish-green, about four days old.