Little Grey Ships/Nerves on the North Sea

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pp. 137–142.


“Them two hours, 'twixt two an' four in the mornin', is the worst o' all,” abruptly remarked Young Thomas to Old Bill, who had relieved him ten minutes previously—ten minutes passed in silence.

Bill continued to peer into the foggy, drizzly blackness brooding over the North Sea. At last—“'Ow so? he inquired.

“Why, ye gets seein' things—things which isn't there, Bill.”

“I don't.”

“Bet ye does, sometimes.”

Bill deliberately spat over the side—his way of introducing an impressive utterance. “Not oncet in forty years 'ave me eyes done that.”

”'Tisn't eyes, Bill, so much as 'imagination.”

“An' wot the juice do ye want wi' 'magination on a patrol boat?”

“Don't want it, but 'tis there.”

“Wot you wants, my lad, is a bucket o' something tasty from the medicine-chest.”

“What I don't want is rotten chaff.” Thomas paused for a moment or two. “I tell ye, Bill,” he resumed awkwardly, “'tis serious enough for me. 'Twas only two nights ago, just afore ye came, I had me mouth open to yell at the bridge...”

“Wot?” Bill's gaze did not move.

“Ye'll laugh, but I—I don't care. 'Twas a Zeppelin.”


Thomas sighed and proceeded. “Ay, there she was—right ahead—not so very high in the air, neither—goin' sou'-west or thereabouts—travellin' fast, too. Like a great shadow she was.”

“Showin' lights?”

“One little spot, just like the hot end o' a cigarette.”

“Wot sorter noise?”

“No noise, Bill. That didn't strike me till afterwards; but it proves I hadn't seen the—the real thing.”

Bill wiped the rain from his face. “It don't prove so much as all that,” he said, reflectively. “I s'pose them Zeppelins can stop their engines for a spell wi'out comin' to grief. Or she might ha' been damaged an' blowed away.... Lemme see. 'Twas a night same as this, almost—thickish, but not rainin'.” Suddenly—“Why didn't ye report to the bridge, Tommy?”

“I've told ye there was nothin' to report.” The young man cleared his throat. “'Twas like this. I sees, as I thinks, a Zeppelin. I opens me mouth an' is about to turn around an' shout—an' then I hears yer foot on the deck behind me. 'Twas gone! the whole thing—like a flame blowed out!”

Bill took a bite from his tobacco, and chewed in silence for a full minute.

“O' course ye wasn't snoozin', Tommy. I knows that much. But, tell me, 'ad ye been thinkin' 'ard o' Zeppelins afore this?”

Thomas wagged his head. “Mostly o' submarines.”

“H'm!... An' 'ow's yer inside? ”

“Tolerable good. How's yours?”

“Wasn't askin' for fun, Tommy,” said Bill, “an' I'm sorter vexed 'cause we can't blame it on the inside. 'Ave ye lately been observin' things which—which wasn't there?”

”Now and then,” Thomas admitted with reluctance. “But never so surely as the Zeppelin.” He waited for a response, but none coming, exclaimed irritably: “I tells ye, 'twas only 'imagination! Nothin' wrong wi' me eyes.”

“An' I tells you, my lad,” said Bill, gravely, ” that there ain't any room for 'magination on a patrol boat, nor any sorter boat in these 'ere times. There's only one thing for ye to do, an' I'm sorry 'tis so. Take a longish spell on shore.”


“An', in the meantime, turn in.”

“Can't sleep. What d'ye mean by a longish spell on shore? ”

“Why,” Bill unwillingly replied, “if ye sees things which ain't there, stands to reason ye'll miss things which is. An' so——

“That don't follow.”

“Ask the lootenant; ask a doctor.”

Thomas rapped out an oath. “Man, are ye sayin' I'm—unfit?”

“Just that, lad,” Bill answered softly.

The other took a long breath. “Would ye report me?”

“Sure, Tommy. But ye knows yer own dooty.... I 'lows 'tis 'ard.”

“So ye thinks I got the nerves?”

Bill did not reply.

Thomas moved away, and came back.

“Look here, Bill! D'ye call it fair, takin' advantage o' what I told ye friendly-like?”

“'Tis war-time, Tommy. Wot 'ud ye do if ye made a mistake as mattered?”

After a while—“Gimme a week to see what happens.”

“Give ye till dinner-time. Ye won't really be wantin' longer, once ye comes to think it out.”

But Thomas flared up. “So ye fancy ye can put me off the North Sea—out o' the Patrol Service?” he cried, then turned and went.

Bill's unblinking eyes continued to search the darkness, but his lips moved. “Wish to God it 'ad been a genuwine Zeppelin.”

Towards noon, however, he observed the young man come from the lieutenant's quarters, and, to his surprise, Thomas made straight for him, with a bit of a swagger, too.

“Well, I told him.”

Bill's nod was worth a dozen spoken compliments.

“But I'm not leavin' the Patrol Service.”

“Ho! 'Ow's that?”

“One o' the firemen hurt hissel' last night. I'm takin' on his job. Sold again, Bill!”