A Tour of Inspection
Pure vanity took me over to Agg's cottage with my new 18-h.p. Decapod in search of Henry Salt Hinchcliff, E.R.A., who appreciates good machinery.
"He's down the coast with Agg and the cart," said Pyecroft, sitting in the doorway nursing Agg's baby, who in turn nursed the cat. "What's come to your steam-pinnace that we marooned the bobby with?1 Mafeesh? Sold? Well, I pity the buyer, whoever he is; but it don't seem to me, in a manner o' speaking, that this navy-coloured beef-boat with the turtle-back represents what you might technically call lugshury."
"That's only a body that the makers have sent down. The real one's at home : we shall put it on tomorrow. It is all varnish and paint, like a captain's galley."
"Much more my style," said Pyecroft, putting down the baby. "Where are you bound?"
"Just about and about. We're running trials," I replied.
He looked at the dust-covered, lead-painted road-body, with the single tool-box seat where the tonneau should have been; at Leggatt, my engineer, attired like a ratcatcher turned groom, and rested his grave eyes on my disreputable dust-coat, gaiters, and cap. Then he went indoors, to return in a short time clad in blue civilian serge and a black bowler.
"Aren't there regulations?" I said. "You look like a pilot."
"Or a police inspector," murmured Leggatt.
"Decency forbids," said he, climbing into the back seat, "or I might say somethin' about coalin'-rig an' lighters."
Leggatt turned down a lever, and she flung half a mile of road behind her with a silky purr.
"No—not lighters," said Pyecroft. "She's a destroyer. She licked up that last stretch like an Italian eatin' macaroni."
He stood up and steadied himself by a pole in the middle of the front seat which carried the big acetylene lamp.
"Why, this is like the periscope gadget on the Portsmouth sub-marines. Does she dive?" said he.
"No, fly!" I said, and we proved it over a bare upland road (this was in the days before the numbering of the cars) that brought us within sight of the summer sea.
Pyecroft pointed automatically to the far line of silver. "The beach is always a good place," he said. "An' it's goin' to be a warm day."
So we took the fairest of counties to our bosom for an easy hour; rocking through deep-hedged hollows where the morning's coolth still lingered; electrifying the fine dust of a league of untempered main road; bathing in the shadows of overarching park timber; slowing through half-built, liver-coloured suburbs that defiled some exploited hamlet; speculating in front of wonderful houses all fresh from the middle parts of Country Life; or shooting a half-vertical hill from mere delight in the Decapod's power, but always edging away towards the good southerly blue.
Among other things, I remember, we discussed the new naval reforms. Pyecroft's criticisms would have been worth votes to any Government. He desired what he called "a free gangway from the lower deck to the admiral's stern walk "—the career open to the talents.
"An' they'd better begin now," he concluded, "for to this com-plexion will it come at last, 'Oratio. Three weeks after war breaks out, the painstakin' and meritorious admirals will have collapsed, owin' to night work and reflecting on their responsibilities to the taxpayer, takin' with them seventy-five per cent. of the ambitious but aged captains. The junior ranks, not carin' two straws for the taxpayer, an' sleepin' where they can, will survive, in conjunction with the gunner, the boatswain, an' similar petty an' warrant officers, 'oo will thus be seen commandin' first, second, an' third-class cruisers seriatim."
"That's rather a bold prophecy."
"Prophecy be blowed!" said Pyecroft, leaning on the light-pole and sweeping the landscape with my binoculars, which had slung themselves round his neck five minutes after our departure. "It's what's goin' to happen."
"Meaning you'd take the Channel Fleet into action?" I suggested.
"Setteris paribus—the others being out of action, I'd 'ave a try. Hinchcliff, or the engine-room staff, would be where poor Tom Bowling's body was, an' one man's orders down the speakin'-tube is very like another's. Besides, think o' the taxpayer's feelin's. What 'ud you say to me if I came flyin' back to the beach signallin' for a commissioned officer to continue the battle—there bein' two warrants an' one carpenter still survivin'? 'Tain't common-sense—in the Navy. Hullo! Here's the Channel! Bright and beautiful, an' bloomin' 'ard to live with—as usual."
We had swung over a steep, oak-crowned ridge, and overlooked a map-like stretch of marsh ruled with roads, ditches, and canals that ran off into the still noonday haze on either hand. At our feet lay Wapshare, that was once a port, and even now commanded a few dingy keels. Southerly, five or six miles across the levels, the sea whitened faintly on grey-blue shingle spaced with martello-towers. As the car halted for orders, the decent breathing of the Channel was broken by a far-away hiccough out of the heat haze.
"Big guns at Lydd," said Pyecroft. "They'll have some triflin' errors due to mirage this forenoon. Well, I handle such things for a livin'. We needn't go there. What's yonder—three points on the port bow. between those towers?"
He pointed to a batch of tall-chimneyed buildings at the very edge of the wavering beach.
"I believe it has something to do with making concrete blocks for some big Admiralty works down the coast," I answered.
"A thirsty job with the lime flyin' an' the heat strikin' off the shingle. What a lot of 'ard work one misses on leaf! It looks cooler below here," he said, and waved a hand.
We slid into Wapshare, which, where the jerry builder has left it alone, precisely resembles an illustration in a mediaeval missal. Skirting the shade of its grey flint walls, we found ourselves on a wharf above a doubtful-minded tidal river and a Poole schooner—she was called the Esther Grant—surrounded by barges of fireclay for the local potteries.
"All asleep," said Pyecroft, "like a West India port. Let's go down the river. There's a sort of road on one side—out where that barge is lyin'."
We trundled along a line of wooden offices, crackling in the heat, seeing here and there a shirt-sleeved clerk. Then a policeman stopped us.
"Can't come any further," he said. "This is Admiralty ground, and that's an explosives-barge yonder." He glanced curiously at Pyecroft and the severe outlines of my car.
"That nothin'. I know all about the Admiralty—at least, they know all about me."
"Perhaps if you told me—" the policeman began.
"But I don't think I'll inspect stores today." Pyecroft leaned back and folded his arms royally. "What are your instructions? Repeat 'em in a smart and lifelike manner."
"To allow nobody beyond this barrier," the policeman began obediently, "unless certain that he is a duly authorised agent of the Admiralty."
"That's me. I've been one for eighteen years."
"To allow no communication of any kind, wines, spirits, or tobacco, from any quarter to the barge, and to ses that the watchman does not come ashore till properly relieved, after searchin' the relief for wine, tobacco, spirits, dears, or matches."
Pyecroft nodded with slow approval.
"I've heard it come quicker off the tongue in—in other quarters, but that will do. I'm not a martinet, thank 'Eaven. Now let us inspect 'im from a safe distance."
He turned the binoculars on the lonely barge a quarter of a mile away, where a man sat under a coachman's umbrella holding his head in his hands.
"If I was any judge," he said, "I'd say that our friend yonder was recoverin' from the effects of what I've heard called a bosky beano."
"Oh, no, sir," said the policeman hurriedly—"at least, nothing to signify. 'E 'asn't got a drop now. He's only the watchman."
"He's taken two large laps out o' that bucket beside 'im since I've had 'im under observation. It is now," he unshackled a huge watch, "eleven twenty-seven. The prima facie evidence is that 'e got that grievous mouth last night about two a.m. What's in the barge? Shells?" he said, turning to the half-petrified policeman.
"No. No ammunition comes here, sir. It's only the Admiralty dynamite for the works down the coast. Sixteen tons with fuses—waitin' for the Government tug to tow 'em round when the tide makes. He isn't the regular crew. He's one of the watchmen. He's relieved at four."
"But where's his red flags?" said Pyecroft suddenly. "A powder-barge ought to 'ave two."
"Why, they aren't there!" said the policeman, as though he observed the deficiency for the first time.
"H'm," said Pyecroft. "They must 'ave been the banner he fought under last night, or else he pawned 'em for drink." He passed me the binoculars. "There he dives again! One imperial quart o' warmish water an' sixteen ton o' dynamite to sober up on—in this 'eat. Give me cells any day."
"You—you won't report it, sir, will you? He's only the watchman—not a regular 'and," the policeman urged.
I saw Leggatt's shoulders shake. Pyecroft wrapped himself up in his virtue.
"I have not yet been officially informed there's anything to report," he answered ponderously. "The man's present and correct. You've searched 'im?"
"That I assure you I 'ave," said the policeman.
"Then there's no evidence he ain't drinkin' for a cure—or a bet. I don't believe in seein' too much; an' speakin' as one man to another, from the soles o' my feet upwards I pity the beggar!"
The policeman expanded like one blue lotus of the Nile.
"Yes," he said. "You've seen the miserablest man in Wapshare. 'E can't drink nor smoke. I'm the next, because I can't either—on my beat. I was 'opin' when I saw you, you'd exceed the legal limit—"
"That isn't necessary, is it?" I said.
"'Tis with me. I 'ave a conscience. Then I'd 'ave to stop you, and then—so I thought till I saw who you was—you'd 'ave to bribe me."
"What's it like at the 'Fuggle Hop'?" I demanded. We were very hot where we stood. The policeman looked irresolutely at Pyecroft, who naturally echoed the sentiments.
"Not so good as at the Astings Smack', if I might be allowed," and alluring to brighter realms, the policeman himself led the way back.
"He takes you for some sort of inspector," I said.
"Haven't I answered 'is expectations?" Pyecroft retorted. "Where'd you find another Johnty 'ud let 'im drink on 'is beat?"
"It's the boots," said Leggatt. "The boots and those tight blue clothes."
It was very good at the "Hastings Smack." The policeman took his standing, but we withdrew with ours and some lunch (summer pubs are full of flies) to the shade of a deserted coal-wharf by the Poole schooner.
"This is what I call a happy ship an' a good commission," said Pyecroft, brushing away the crumbs. "Last time we motored together, we 'ad zebras an' kangaroos, if I remember right. 'Ere we 'ave, as the poet so truly sings—
'Beef when you are hungry,
Beer when you are dry,
Bed when you are sleepy,
An' 'eaven when you die.'
Three more mugs will just do it."
The potboy brought four, and a mariner with them—a vast and voluminous man all covered with china-clay, whose voice was as the rolling of hogsheads over planking.
"Have you seen my mate?" he thundered.
"No," said Pyecroft above the half-raised mug." What might your Number One have been doin' recently?"
"Drink—desertion—refusal o' lawful orders, an' committin' barratry with a public barge. Put that in your pipe an' smoke it. I see you're a man o' principles. I may as well tell you here an' now—or now an' 'ere, as I should rather say—that I'm a Baptist; but if you was to tell me that God ever made a human man in Cardiff, I'd—I'd— I'd dissent from your principles. Attend to me! The Welsh 'appened at the change of watch when the Devil took charge 'o the West coast. That was when the Welsh 'appened. I hope none o' you gentlemen are Welsh, because I can't dissent from my principles."
None of us were Welsh at that hour.
"He seems a gay bird, your mate," said Pyecroft.
"If I wasn't a Baptist, an' he wasn't my cousin, besides bein' part owner of the Esther Grant (it comes to 'im with a legacy), I'd say he was a red-'eaded, skim-milk-eyed, freckle-jawed, stern-first-talkin', Cardiff booze-hound. That's just what I'd say o' Llewellyn. Attend to me! I paid five pounds for him at Falmouth only last winter for com-pound assault or fracture or whatever it was; an' all 'e can do to show 'is gratitude is to go an' commit barratry with a public barge."
"He would," said Pyecroft, but this crime was new to me, and I asked eagerly for particulars.
"I gave him 'is orders last night when 'e couldn't 'ave been more than moist. Last night I told 'im to take a barge o' clay to the potteries 'ere. Potteries—one barge. 'E might 'ave got drunk afterwards. I'd 'ave said nothing—it's against my principles—but 'e couldn't lay 'is course even that far. They come to me this mornin' from the potteries—look—" he pulled out papers, a dozen, from several pockets and waved them— "they wrote me an' they telephoned me at the wharf askin' where that barge was, because she was missin'. Now, I ask you gentlemen, do I look as if I kept barges up my back? 'E'd committed barratry clear enough, 'adn't 'e?"
"Plain as a pikestaff," said Pyecroft.
"That bein' so, I want to know where my legal liability for the missin' barge comes in?"
"Just what I'd ha' thought," said Pyecroft.
"Besides, 'tisn't as if I used their pottery, either."
There are times when I despair of training Leggatt to my needs. At this point he got up and fled choking.
"When I catch Master Llewellyn, I've my own bill to settle, too. He's broken the 'eart of a baker's dozen of my whisky. You'd never be drinkin' cold beer 'ere if 'e 'adn't. You'd be on the Esther Grant quite 'appy by now. Four bottles 'e went off with! Four bottles for a hymn-singin', 'arp-strummin', passive-resistin' Nonconformist who talks a non-commercial language to 'is wife! But I ain't goin' to pander to 'is family any more. If you run across 'im, tell 'im that I'll knock 'is red 'ead flush with 'is shoulders. Tell 'im I'll pay fifteen pounds for 'im this time. 'E'll know what I mean. A red-'eaded, goat-shanked, saucer-eared, fig-nosed, banana-skinned, Cardiff booze-hound answerin' to the name o' Llewellyn. You can't miss 'im. 'Ave you got it all down?"
"Every word," I said.
The policeman entered the shed, followed by Leggatt, and I closed the notebook I was using so shamelessly.
"Excuse me," said the policeman, addressing the audience at large, "but a gentleman outside wants to speak to the owner of the car."
"I can testify in their behalf," said the mariner. "Blow 'igh, blow low or sugared by his mate, Captain Arthur Dudeney'll testify in your be'alf unless it 'appens to be a Welshman. The Welsh 'appened at the change o' watch when the Devil—"
"Drop it, you fool! It's young Mr. Voss," the policeman murmured.
"Be it so. So be it. But remember barratry's the offence, which must be brought 'ome to Master Llewellyn." Captain Dudeney sat down, and we went out to face a tall young man in grey trousers, frock-coat with gardenia in buttonhole, and a new top-hat, furiously biting his nails.
"I beg your pardon, but I'm Mr. Voss, of Norden and Voss—the cement-works. They've telephoned me that the works have stopped. I can't make out why. I sent for a cab, but it would take me nearly an hour—and I'm in a particular hurry—so, seein' your motor—I thought perhaps—"
"Certainly," i said." Won't you get in and tell us where you want to go?"
"Those big works on the beach have stopped since nine o'clock. It's only five miles away—but it's very inconvenient for me," He pointed across the shimmering levels of the marsh as Leggatt wound her up.
"It's no good," said Pyecroft, climbing in beside me on the narrow back seat. "We two go out 'and in 'and, like the Babes in the Wood, both funnels smoking gently, for a coastwise cruise of inspection, an' sooner or later we find ourselves manœvrin' with strange an' 'ostile fleets, till our bearin's are red 'ot an' our superstructure's shot away. There's a ju-ju on us somewhere. Well, it won't be zebras this time!"
We jumped out on a dead-level, dead-straight road, flanked by a canal on one side and a deep marsh ditch on the other, whose perspective ended in the cement-works and the shingle ridge behind.
"Oh, be quick! I want to get back," said Mr. Voss, and that was an unfortunate remark to make to Leggatt, who has records.
Conversation was blown out of our mouths; Mr. Voss had just time to save his hat. Pyecroft stood up (he was used to destroyers) by the lamp-pole and raked the landscape with my binoculars. The marsh cattle fled from us with stiff tails. The canal streaked past like blue tape, the inshore landmarks—coast-house and church-spire—opened, closed, and stepped aside on the low hills, and the cement works enlarged themselves as under a nearing lens. Leggatt slowed at last, for the latter end of the road was badly loosed by traffic.
"The steam-mixer has stopped!" panted Mr. Voss. "We ought to hear it from here." There was certainly no sound of working machinery.
"And where are all the men?" he cried.
A few hundred yards further on, the canal broadened into a little basin immediately on the front of the machinery-shed. The road, worse at each revolution, ran on between two tin sheds, and ended, so far as we could see, in the shingle of the beach.
"Slow! Dead slow!" said Pyecroft to Leggatt, "we don't yet know the accommodation of the port nor the disposition of the natives."
The machine-shed doors were wide open. We could see a vista of boiler-furnaces, each with a pile of fuming ashes in front of it, and the outlines of arrested wheels and belting. A man on a barge in the middle of the basin waved a friendly hand.
I felt Pyecroft start and recover himself.
"Come on," said the man, taking the pipe out of his teeth. "Don't you be shy."
"What's the matter?" said Mr. Voss, standing up. "Where are my men?"
"Playing. I've ordered a general strike in Europe, Asia, Africa and America."
He relit his pipe composedly with a fusee.
"Who the deuce are you?" Mr. Voss was angry.
"Johannes Stephanus Paulus Kruger," was the answer. Pyecroft chuckled.
"Man's mad." Mr. Voss bit his lip.
A breath of hot wind off the corrugated iron rippled the face of the basin and lifted out two very dingy but perfectly distinct red flags, one at each end of the barge.
"Go on! It's a powder-barge," said Mr. Voss, sitting down heavily.
Leggatt asserts that he acted automatically. All I know is that he must have whirled the car forward between the two sheds and up the shingle ridge behind; for when I had cleared my dry throat, we had topped the bank, hung for a fraction on the crest, and amid a roar of pebbles (the seaward side was steep) slid down on to hard sand in the face of the untroubled Channel and a mob of acutely interested men. They looked like a bathing-party. Most of them were barefoot and wore dripping shirts tied round their necks. All were very, very red over as much of them as I could see.
"What's the matter?" cried Mr. Voss, while they surged round the car.
This was a general invitation, accepted as such, and Mr. Voss waved his white hands.
"Why were you so unusual bloomin' precipitate?" said Pyecroft to Leggatt under cover of the riot. "You very nearly threw us out."
"I'm not fond o' powder. Besides, it's a new car," Leggatt replied.
"Didn't you see 'oo the joker was, then?" Pyecroft asked.
"Friend o' yours?" Leggatt asked. The clamour round us grew.
"No—but a friend of Captain Dudeney's, if I'm not mistook. 'E 'ad all the marks of it. But, to please you, we'll take soundings. Mr. Voss seems to be sufferin' from 'is mutinous crew, so to put it."
At that moment Mr. Voss turned an anxious glance on the tight-buttoned blue coat and the hard, squarish hat.
"Stop!" said Pyecroft. The voice was new to me and to the others. It checked the tumult as the bottom checks the roaring anchor-chain.
"You with the stiff neck, two paces to the front and begin!"
"It's an Inspector," someone whispered. "Mr. Voss 'as brought the Police." And the mob came to hand like cooing doves.
"Look at my blisters!" said Pyecroft's chosen. He stood up in coaly trousers, the towel that should have supported them waving wet round his peeled shoulders. "You'd 'ave a neck, too, if you'd been lying out on the shingle since nine like a bloomin' dotterel. An' I'm a fair man by nature."
"Stow your nature!" said Pyecroft. "Make your report, or I'll disrate you!"
The man rubbed his neck uneasily. "We found 'im 'ere when we come. We 'eard what 'e 'ad : we saw 'ow 'e was : an' we bloomin' well 'ooked it," he said.
Now, I consider that almost perfect art; but the crowd growled at the baldness thereof, and the blistered man went on.
"So'd you, if a beggar called 'imself Mabon an' lit all 'is pipes with fusees settin' on top o' sixteen tons of Admiralty dynamite. Ain't that what he done ever since nine? It's all very well for you, but why didn't you come sooner an' 'elp us?"
"Stop!" said Pyecroft. "We don't want any of your antitheseses. Where's the chief petty—where's the fireman?"
A black-bearded giant stood forth. He, too, was stripped to the waist, and it had done him little good.
"Now, what about the dynamite?" Pyecroft's throne was the back seat of my car. Mr. Voss, the gardenia already wilted in the heat, made no attempt to interfere : we could see that his soul leaned heavily on the stranger. The giant lifted shy eyes.
"We found him here when we came to work. He said he had sixteen tons of dynamite with fuses; and when he wasn't drinkin', he was lightin' his pipe with fusees and throwin' 'em about."
"Continuous?" said Pyecroft.
"All the time." This with the indescribable rising inflection of the county.
Leggatt and I exchanged glances with Pyecroft.
"That sort o' stuff ain't issued in duplicate," he said to me.
"Any more than petrol. You have to have a receipt," Leggatt assented. "An' I do think 'is hair was red, but I didn't look long.' '
"Which only bears out my original argument when you slung us over the ridge, Mr. Leggatt. You've been too precipitous," said Pyecroft.
"What's the good o' talkin'?" said the blistered man. "We saw 'om 'e was : we 'eard what 'e 'ad; an' we 'ooked it. I've told you once."
"Go on," said Pyecroft to the giant. "Sixteen tons with fuses. Most upsettin', you might say."
"When he said he was going to blow a corner off England, I ordered the men out of the works while we drew fires. Jernigan drew the fires, Mr. Voss."
"Yes, I did," the blistered man cried. "We 'ad ninety pounds steam, an' I know Number Four boiler; but Duncan 'ere 'e got me the time to draw 'em." The crowd clapped.
"'E 'asn't told you 'arf. 'E put 'is 'ands behind 'is back an' 'e sung 'ymns to that beggar in the barge all through breakfast-time. It's as true as I'm standing 'ere. 'E sung 'A Few More Years Shall Roll' right on the edge of the basin, with the beggar throwin' live fusees about regard-less all the time. Else I couldn't 'ave drawn the fires, Mr. Voss."
"'Ighly commendable, Mr. Duncan," said Pyecroft, as though it were his right to praise or blame, and the crowd clapped again.
"How did you get to the telephone to send me the message?" said Mr. Voss.
"On 'is 'ands an' knees over the shingle." There was no suppressing the blistered man. "While Mr. Mabon was 'oldin 'an I-Stifford by 'imself."
"I—what?" said Pyecroft.
"'Stifford. They 'ave 'em in Bethesda. I've worked there. A Welsh concert like."
"Oh, 'e's Welsh, then?"
Pyecroft fixed Leggatt with an accusing left eyeball.
"You've only to listen to 'im. 'E's seldom quiet. 'Ark now." The blistered man held up his hand.
The tide crept lazily in little flashes over the sand. A becalmed fishing-boat's crew stood up to look at our assembly, and certain gulls wheeled and made mock of us. East and west the ridge shook in the heat; the martello-towers flatting into buns or shooting into spires as the oily streaks of air shifted. We stood about the car as shipwrecked, mariners in the illustration gather round the long-boat, and seldom were any sailors more peeled and puffed and salt-scurfed.
A thin voice floated over the ridge in high falsetto quavers. It was certainly not English.
"That's 'ow they sing at Bethesda on a Sunday," said the blistered man. "I wish 'e was there now. This'll all come off in frills-like, to-morrow," he pulled at his whitening nose.
"And the more you go into the water, the more it seems to sting you coming out," said another drearily. "You'd better 'ave a wet 'andkerchief round your 'ead, Mr. Voss."
"Hark the tramp of Saxon foemen,
Saxon spearmen, Saxon bowmen—
Be they knight or be they yeomen—"
the unseen voice went on, in clipped English.
"If I had a cousin like that, I'd have drowned 'im long ago," said Pyecroft half to himself.
"Drownin's too good for 'im. We've been 'ere since nine cookin' like ostrich eggs. Baines, run an' wet a 'andkerchief for Mr. Voss." It was the blistered man again. Duncan stood moodily apart chewing his beard.
"Thank you. Oh, thank you!" said Mr. Voss. "The machinery cost thirty thousand, and it's a quarter of a million contract." He turned to Pyecroft as he knotted the dripping handkerchief round his brows under the radiant hat.
"Tactically, Mr. Mabon Kruger's position is irreproachable," Pyecroft replied. "Or, to put it coarsely, there's no getting at the beggar with a brick for instance?"
"I ain't goin' to 'eave bricks at a dynamite barge, for one," said the blistered man, and this seemed the general opinion.
"Nonsense!" I began. "Why, there's no earthly chance—"
"Not if you want it to go off," said Pyecroft hurriedly. "You can fair chew dynamite then; but if it's any object with you to delay ignition, a friendly nod will fetch her smilin'. I ought to know somethin' about it."
"Presently," said Duncan, the foreman, with great simplicity, "he'll have to sleep, an' I'll go out to him. I'll wait till then."
"No, you don't!" cried many voices. "Not till you've 'ad a drink an' a feed an' a sleep . . . Don't talk fulish, Duncan. Go an' wet yer 'ead."
"He made me sing hymns," Duncan went on in the same flat voice.
"That won't 'elp you when you're bein' 'ung at Lewes. . . Don't be fulish, Duncan," the voices replied, and a man behind me muttered : "I've seen 'im take an' throw a fireman from the furnace door to the canal—eight yards. We measured it. No, no, Duncan.
I thanked fortune that my little plan of dramatically revealing all to the crowd had been dismissed on a nod from Pyecroft, the reader of souls, who had seen it in my silly eye.
"No," he said aloud, answering me and none other. "I ain't slept with a few thousand men in hammocks for twenty years without knowin' their nature. Mr. Mabon Kruger is in the fairway and has to be shifted; but whatever 'e's done, let us remember that 'e's given us a day off."
"Off be sugared!" said the blistered man. "On—on a bloomin' gridiron! If you'd come to the beach when we did, you wouldn't be so nasty just to the beggar. You talk a lot, but what we want to know is what you're going to do?"
"'Ear! 'ear!" said the crowd, "that's what we want to know. Go and shift 'im yourself."
Pyecroft bit back a weighty reproof.
"Wind her up, Mr. Leggatt," he said, "and ram 'er at the first lowest place in the ridge. You men fall in an' push behind if she checks."
"What's that for? You ain't never—"
"We're goin' to shift 'im. All you've got to do is to 'elp the car over the ridge an' then take cover. You talk too much." He swung out of the car, and Leggatt mounted. The churn of the machinery drowned Mr. Voss's protests, but as the car drew away along the sands westerly, followed by the men, he said to Pyecroft : ' But—but suppose you annoy him? He may blow up the works. Ha—hadn't we better wait?"
"With him chuckin' fusees about every minute? Certainly not. Come along!" He started at a trot towards the shingle ridge which Leggatt was already charging.
"Would you mind," Mr. Voss panted, "telling me who you are?" Pyecroft looked at him reproachfully and he continued : "I can see that you're in a responsible position, but ... I'd like to know."
"You're right. I hold a position of some responsibility under the Admiralty. That's Admiralty dynamite, ain't it?"
"Yes, but I don't understand how it came here."
"Nor I. But someone will be hung for it. You can make your mind quite easy about that. That explains everything, don't it? The plain facts of the case is that someone has blundered, an' ' ence there's not a minute to be lost. Don't you see?" He edged towards the car on the top of the ridge, Mr. Voss clinging to his manly hand.
"But, suppose—" said Mr. Voss. "The risks are frightful."
"They are. You know 'ow it is with the horrors. If he catches sight o' one o' your men, 'e's as like as not to touch off all the fireworks, under the impression that 'e's bein' bombarded. Keep 'em down on the beach well under cover while we try to coax 'im. You know 'ow it is with the horrors."
"No, I don't," said Mr. Voss with a sudden fury. "Confound it all, I'm going to be married to-day!"
"I'd postpone it if I was you," Pyecroft returned. "But that explains much, as you might say."
"We want to say—" the blistered man clutched Pyecroft's leg as he mounted. I took the back seat, none regarding.
"I'll 'ear all the evidence pro and con to-morrow. Go back to the beach! Don't you move for an hour! We may 'ave to coax 'im!" he shouted. "Get back and wait! Let 'er go, Leggatt!"
We plunged down the shingle to the pebble-speckled turf at the back of the sheds. Leggatt doubled with mirth, steering most vilely. The crowd retired behind the ridge.
"Whew!" said Pyecroft, unbuttoning his jacket. "Another minute and that bridegroom in the four-point-seven hat would have made me almost a liar."
"Stop!" I said, as Leggatt leaned forward helpless on the tiller; but Pyecroft continued : "'Ere's three solitary unknown strangers com-mittin' a piece of blindin' heroism besides which Casablanca is obsolete; an' all the cement-mixer can think o' saying is : ' 'Oo are you? ' Or words to that effect. He must 'ave wanted me to give 'im my card."
"I wonder what he thinks," I said, as we ran between the sheds to the basin.
"The machinery cost thirty thousand pounds, 'e says. 'E's sweatin' blood to that amount every minute. He ain't thinkin' of his bride."
An empty whisky-bottle broke like a shell before our wheels. We had come between the sheds within effective range of the man on the barge.
"Good hand at description, Captain Dudeney is," said Pyecroft critically, never moving a muscle. "Fig-nose—saucer-ear, freckle-jaw—all present an' correct. What a cousin! Perishin' 'Eavens Above! What a cousin! Good afternoon, Mr. Llewellyn! So here's where you've 'id after stealing Captain Dudeney's whisky, is it?"
"What? What?" the man capered the full length of the barge, a bottle in either hand. "The old ram! Me hide? Me? No. indeed—what for? What have I done to be ashamed of?" He rubbed his broken nose furiously.
"If that's what the Captain paid five pounds for, he got the value of his money, so to speak," said Pyecroft, and raising his voice : "All right. Good-bye. I'll tell your cousin I've seen you, but you're afraid to come back."
The answer I take it was in Welsh.
"He told me to tell you that next time he'll pay fifteen pounds for you, besides knocking your red head flush with your shoulders. Good-bye, Llewellyn."
I had barely time to avoid a hissing coil of rope hurled at my feet.
"He said thatt!" the man screamed. "Catch! Pull! Haul! The old ram! No. indeed. You shall not go away. I will have him preached of in chapel. I will bring the bottles. I will show him how! My hair red! Fetch me away! My cousin!"
"Unmoor, then, and we'll tow you!" Pyecroft hauled on the rope. "It's easier than I thought," he said to me. "I remember a Welsh fire-man in the Sycophant 'oo got drunk on Boaz Island, an' the only way we could coax 'im off the reef, where numerous sharks were anticipatin' 'im, was by urgin' 'im to fight the captain."
The barge bumped at our feet, and Pyecroft leaped aboard.
I seemed to see some sort of demonstrative greeting between the two—a hug or a pat on the back, perhaps. And then Llewellyn sat in the stern, lacking only the label for despatch as a neatly corded mummy.
"Quacks like a duck. All that's pure Welsh," said Pyecroft. "But I don't think it 'ud do you an' me any good in a manner o' Speakin' even if translated."
"'Ere! Look out!" said Leggatt. "You'll pull the rear-axle out o' her."
"You don't know anythin' about movin' bodies. I don't know much—yet. We can but essay." Pyecroft was on his knees tying expert knots round the rear-axle. I had never seen motor-cars applied to canal traffic before, and so stood deaf to Leggatt's highly technical appeals.
"Go ahead slow and take care the tow don't foul the port tyre. A towin' piece an' bollards is what we really need. One never knows what one'll pick up on inspection tours like ours."
"Why, she goes!" said Leggatt over his shoulder, as the barge drew after the car.
"Like a roseleaf on a stream," said Pyecroft at the tiller. "Jump in! Kindly increase speed to fifty-seven revolutions, an' the barge an' its lethal cargo will show you what she can do. Look 'ere, Mr. Llewellyn, you ain't with your wife now, an' your non-commercial language don't appeal. If you've anything on your mind, sing it in a low voice. We're runnin' trials. Sixty-seven revolutions, if you please, Mr. Leggatt."
I have the honour to report here that an 18-h.p. Decapod petrol motor can haul a barge of x tons capacity down a straight canal at the rate of knots; but that the wash and consequent erosion of the banks is somewhat marked. The Welshman lay still. Pyecroft was at the tiller, the delighted Leggatt was stealing extra knots out of her. Our wash roared behind us—a foot high from bank to bank. I sat in the bows crying "Port!" or "Starboard!" as guileless fancy led, and rejoiced in this my one life.
The cement works grew small behind us—small and very still.
"They have not yet resoomed," said Pyecroft. "I take it they hardly anticipated such prompt action on the part o' the relievin' column. A little more, Mr. Leggatt, if you please."
"It's all very, very beautiful," I cooed, for the heat of the day was past and Llewellyn had fallen asleep; "but aren't we making rather a wash? There's a lump as big as Beachy Head just fallen in behind us."
"We 'ave, so to speak, dragged the bowels out of three miles of 'er," Pyecroft admitted. "Let's hope it's Mr. Voss's canal. That bakin' bridegroom owes us a lot. A little more, Mr. Hinchcliff—or Leggatt, I should say. We're creepin' up to twelve."
"People—comin' from Wapshare—four of 'em!" cried Leggatt who from the high car-seat could see along the road.
Pyecroft passed me the tiller as he unslung the binoculars to look. None but Pyecrofts should steer barges at P. and O. speeds. In that brief second, just as he said "Captain Dudeney!" the barge's nose ran with ferocity feet deep into the mud; and as I hopefully waggled the tiller, her stern flourished across the water and stuck even deeper on the opposite bank. Our wash bottled up by this sudden barricade leaped aboard in a low, muddy wave that broke all over our Mr. Llewellyn.
"Who's that dish-washer at the wheel?" he gurgled.
"You may well ask," said Pyecroft, with professional sympathy.
"Relieve him at once. I'll show him how." He sat up in his bonds rolling blinded eyes.
Pyecroft lifted him, laid his two hands, freed as far as the elbows, on the tiller, to which he clung fervently, and bellowed in his ear : "Down! Hard down for your life. You'll be ashore in a minute. Don't abandon the ship!"
We withdrew over the bows to dry land. I felt I need not apologise to Leggatt, for, after all, it was my own car that I had brought up with so round a turn. The barge seemed well at rest.
"They'll 'ave to dig 'er out—unless they care to blow 'er up," said Pyecroft, climbing into the seat. "But all the same, that Man of 'Arlech 'as the feelin's of a sailor. Meet 'er! Meet 'er as she scends! You'll roll the sticks out of her if you don't!" he shouted in farewell.
We left Mr. Llewellyn clawing off a verdant lee shore, and this the more readily because Captain Dudeney and three friends were running towards us. But they passed us, with eyes only for the barge, as though we had been ghosts. Captain Dudeney roared like all the bulls of the marshes. I will never allow Leggatt to drive for any distance with his chin over his shoulder, so we stopped anew.
The Welshman still steered, but when his cousin's challenge came down the wind, he forsook all and, with fettered feet, crawled like a parrot on a perch to meet him. Like a parrot, too, he screamed and pointed at us.
We saw the five faces all pink in the westering sun; the Welshman was urging them to the chase.
"Ungrateful blighter! After we've saved 'im from being killed at the cement works," said Pyecroft. "Home's the port for me. There's too much intricate explanation necessary on this coast. Let's navigate." . . .
Ten minutes later we were three miles from Wapshare and two hundred feet above it, commanding the map-like stretch of marsh ruled with roads, ditches, and canals that, etc.
One canal seemed to be blocked by a barge drawn across it, and here five dots clustered, separated, rejoined, and gyrated for a full twenty minutes ere they seemed satisfied to go home. Anon (we were all fighting for the binoculars) a stream of dots poured from the cement works and moved—oh, so slowly!—along the white road till they reached the barge. Here they scattered and did not rejoin for a great space upon the other side; resembling in this respect a column of ants whose march has been broken by a drop of spilt kerosene.
"Amen! Amen!" said Emanuel Pyecroft, bareheaded in the gloom of an oak hangar. "This day hasn't been one of the worst of 'em, either, in a manner o' speakin'. I'll come to-morrow incognito an' 'elp pick up the pieces. Because there will be lots of 'em, as one might anticipate."
The morrow sent me visitors—young, fair, and infernally curious. They had heard much of the beauties of Wapshare, which, where the suburban builder has left it alone, precisely resembles, etc. And though I praised half the rest of England, Wapshare they would see. The car's new, mirror-like body—scarlet and claret with gold lines—looked as spruce as Leggatt in his French smock, and I flatter myself that my own costume, also Parisian, which included nickel-plated goggles with flesh-coloured flaps on the cheek-bones and a severely classic leather hat, was completely of the road.
My guests were delighted with their trip.
"We had such a perfect day," they explained at tea. "There was a delightful wedding coming out of that old church up that cobbled street—don't you remember? And just below it by that place where the ships anchored there was quite a riot. We saw it all from that upper road by that old tower—hundreds and hundreds of men throwing coal at a little ship that was trying to go to sea. Oh, yes, and a most fascinating man with the wonderful eyes who touched his hat so respectfully (all sailors are dears)—he told us all about it."
"What did he say?" someone asked.
"He said it wasn't anything to what it had been. He said we ought to have been there at noon when he came—before the poor little ship got away from the wharf. He said they nearly called out the Militia. I should like to have seen that. Oh, and do you remember that big, black-bearded man at the very edge of the wharf who kept on throwing coal at the ship and shouting all the time we watched?"
"What had the little ship done?"
"The coastguard said that he was a stranger in these parts and didn't quite know. Oh, yes, and then the chauffeur swallowed a fly and choked. But it was a simply perfect day."