" Men's evil manners live in brass; their virtues
We write in water."
KING HENRY VIII.
TALLOCK had been an unmistakeable success from the very beginning. From his first month at sea his career had been a series of short triumphal processions, and now he stands on the brink of fame with a reputation which many a Cabinet Minister might envy. If a ship commissions, the Captain moves heaven and earth and sundry permanent officials to get Tallock as his Commander for since the date of this story Tallock is a commander, having been promoted over the heads of several seniors, and branded as a favourite by several minor newspapers. Which was all good for him professionally, and now enables him to say yes or no to the various offers which reach him quite easily, and go his way with the solid assurance of a made man. Everybody knows him. He dines out every night in harbour, and is always included in the Admiral's shooting parties. Further than this, he isn't married, and stands in great favour with the ladies of the station, by reason, mainly, so I am told, of his peculiarly innocent and child-like expression. He looks, they say, so honest and sincere.
This is very likely. Socially speaking, he does. Outwardly he is a straightforward, pleasant-spoken gentleman of the kind one can never mistake. Inwardly - behold !
I met him - the first time for many years - in the ferry-boat which used to ply across the bay between the island and the club steps. He was leaning over the engine-room hatch admiring the Plato. She was a little, perky, snub-nosed bugtrap - his first command - and had long been the mystery of the station. Whenever she appeared there were long discussions about her in the club smoking-room and across the billiard tables. For Tallock was a poor man, living on his pay, and while most people maintained that no man on his pay alone could keep a ship as Tallock kept the Plato, some - usually younger men, unsoured - held that, with care and saving, the thing might be done; and on this they used to talk far into the night and watch the anchor-lights bobbing in the bay.
No doubt the Plato was a wonder. No one had ever seen her dirty, inside or out ; and bug-traps are none too easy to keep clean. Her side shone like fresh enamel, and the snowy whiteness of her davits and upper works was a thing to see. More over, she was a very jungle of brasswork - brass rails, brass stanchions, foot-plates, mottoes in brass, brazen platings and mouldings. Her boats, too, freshly painted always, were full of the sounding metal tillers, yokes, tips at rudder and mast-heads, strips along the gunwales at bow and stern, pretty little brass-bound barricos - at once the envy and the hatred of every Boat-Midshipman who saw them. Even the little 20-foot steamboat carried a huge brass funnel about ten feet high, which shimmered in the sun like a golden column, half hiding the boat and seriously impairing her metacentric height. This funnel was the pride of Tallock's heart. It had been entrusted to him to take out to a Flagship who wanted it for the Admiral's Barge. Unfortunately it got mixed up with an old funnel from the dockyard scrap-heap the night before sailing, and it was not until the case arrived on board the Flagship that the mistake was discovered. Tallock saw the Admiral, and with profuse apology, and to the intense joy of the Flag-lieutenant, explained how, in utter blindness of heart, his carpenters had cut the barge's splendid funnel down to fit a ship's steamboat. And there, perforce, the matter ended. But not entirely, for soon after this adventure Tallock shifted stations, and appeared among us in sole notorious command of Her Majesty's gun-boat Plato.
As he was the only naval officer crossing that night with me, we soon began to talk. He told me many interesting things and some new ones, and - since we had been shipmates together for two and a half years as midshipmen - recalled also many old things long forgotten. I remembered I used to think then that he knew a good deal; and I have since found that in knowledge of the Service - the real thing, with the lath and plaster off - he is absolutely unmatched. But all that knowledge he has had to buy. And pay for.
Two days after, while I was standing on the dockyard steps just before sunset, he suddenly pulled round the corner in his patent non-capsizable dinghy. She was a curious thing, all air-cupboards, and when Tallock saw me he swung her stern round and motioned to me to get in. I did so, and we pulled away out of the Camber and got clear into the bay just as the sunset bugles went from the Fleet at anchor. Soon, well away, half a mile from anything, Tallock stopped pulling and laid in his oars. I smoked silently. The night was coming down, and conversation had flagged. Presently - and I knew it was coming - he asked me whether I was doing anything that night. I replied that I was not. Then we talked for over half an hour, and the stars came out and winked, and the little boat rocked gently at the awful things we said. When it was finished, Tallock took the oars and pulled gently for the shore. We found a man on a little point some way past the club steps and took him in. This was Keish, captain of the Plato's side, and Tallock's real First Lieutenant. Probably, also, the finest thief in the Navy. Then we went on towards the Camber, pulling slowly. The Fleet was soon lying all round us, and when we were hailed for the first time, I knocked my pipe out and put it away. We were bound on a piratical expedition, and no pirate ever smokes. It interferes.
Tallock pulled steadily on, and eventually ran her gently alongside the dockyard steps. Then he and Keish got out, leaving me to manage the boat. I sat in the stern and ruminated. There is always something depressing about a dockyard even in the daytime, but at night its effect is awful. The great machinery-shops lying idle, the cold foundries, the smithies all still, the huge docks like monster prehistoric amphitheatres neglected by the builders, and the gaunt grey shears pointing grimly to the sky, all remind one that the day is done, that the Brain is sleeping, and that we too must sleep if we would work another day. Unfortunately, sleep for me was impossible, and I could only sit and watch the moon rise over the edge of the dock and curse myself for being a fool.
After a bit a sea-breeze sprang up, and light clouds of gravel spun downwards from the top of the wall. Buttoning up my coat, I shifted the boat closer in. After waiting about an hour I was getting tired, when suddenly a low voice above me whispered my name. It was now quite dark, but by the light of the lantern which overhangs the steps I could just make out Keish's jovial face drawn somewhat tighter, perhaps, but still jovial, enjoining silence, while behind the lamp a grubby hand appeared, beckoning.
I ran up the steps two at a time and stumbled heavily at the top over some dark object, which rolled as I fell sprawling on the gravel, Keish grunted in my ear, " I shud ha' told you; you came so fast ; it's paint."
I got up brushing my knees.
"The finest drum in the yard," said Keish excitedly. " Sh ! come on ; it's worth a bloomin' Jew's eye; under the chine ; there you are, sir ! "
We lifted the thing down the steps, two and two, and dumped it into the boat. Then Keish opened the foremost air-compartment, and we dropped it carefully in, shutting the lid over. These compartments were Tallock's invention; he said they added enormously to the value of the boat in a seaway. He used to tell the Admiral this, and it pleased him immensely, though the idea, perhaps, was hardly new.
Presently he came strolling up to the steps with Sweeney, the big dockyard policeman, who says he has never been fooled. Tallock was talking to him and making him laugh immoderately, which, for Sweeney, is a serious matter. He stands six foot two, and on night duty is a splendid object. I trembled as I watched him. However, he seemed very affable, and walked with Tallock to the head of the steps, talking gently. Keish brought the boat nicely up ready to step into.
"All ready?" said Tallock, with one eye on the foremost air-compartment.
" Ready, sir," replied Keish gaily, fending her well off. Then Tallock very politely bade " Goodnight " to the policeman and walked down the steps. And in another minute we were out of the Camber again, pulling towards the Plato's lights.
When the drum was safely stowed away in the captain's cabin, we had time to talk. It was a five hundredweight drum, and would last, Tallock said, several months. Therefore, he was very pleased, and over the whisky went so far as to unbutton his coat and show me how to bend up sheets of brass so that they shall not show through the cloth, He said this was a very great art, and was, in fact, a secret of success. And when, at last, I came away, I believe I could have euchred the combined Custom Houses of Europe.
For two years after this I lost sight of Tallock, Fate and the Civil Lords keeping us employed on different parts of the station, and rumours of the Plato's shining paint-work alone reminded us of his continued existence. Certain strange stories gathered round the ship, and the messes began to say things ; but the Plato continued through it all, and was held up constantly as a model to her betters. And notoriously in the matter of paint and brass-work no one could touch her.
At last the time drew near for her turn to go home, and just before leaving she came south for the last time. Great men's exits are often more striking than their entrances, and Tallock was no exception to the rule.
Two days before he left there was a fearful uproar in the dockyard. Two large tins of Priceless composition, which had been sent out to be experimented with and could never be replaced, had disappeared from the store between twelve and two in the morning. The place was searched high and low, every corner in the dockyard was uncovered and sounded, but with no result. The storekeeper swore that the stuff was there in its two tins when he had left that night ; the police knew nothing. But since an Authority was clearly responsible, the matter spread and quickly became a public scandal, accompanied by the usual talk and infinite correspondence.
Walking across the Dockyard Green I met Tallock coming back from the Court of Inquiry with a bland smile on his face, and followed at a respectful distance by Keish, wheeling a hand-cart full of useful objects newly labelled Plato, and with the top of a wet paste-brush secreted in his cap.
As I passed he dropped the hand-cart and saluted very respectfully. I thought he looked humbled somehow, and the reason was not far to seek. Tallock, in a low voice explained that Keish had taken those two tins by mistake on the last expedition they had made, that they had had fearful trouble to get them on board, and that he had had to drop them overboard with a small cork float to mark the place for fear of blowing up the ship. The stuff, he understood, was horribly explosive. And now it was all under his bottom, out there in the bay, ready to explode at any moment. He couldn't call his soul his own. And then he added some uncomplimentary remarks about the culprit Keish which he didn't mean in the least, but which hurt Keish terribly; so that he stood there by the hand-cart thoroughly miserable, with the paste working into his hair.
That day I lunched aboard the Plato, and heard of Tallock's doings at the Court. How with infinite trouble he had convinced his fellow judges of the innocence of each successive suspect, and how even the policeman had been got off clear, though he was no friend of Tallock's, but rather an enemy. Tallock worked in that stuffy cabin till the sweat rolled off his face, and each man was steered safely through. People who saw this say that it was very wonderful. Eventually, of course, no conclusion was arrived at ; the stuff, they said, was gone, and that was all. Keish was waiting outside ready for the verdict, and when he heard it he walked straight into the carpenters' shop and stole four pounds of gold leaf from under the foreman's nose to mark his gratitude. This was the best he could do.
Next day the Admiral inspected the ship before leaving. Tallock had had a whole week to prepare in, and when the fateful morning broke he awoke with the consciousness of one who has something to show for his trouble. From truck to stern-post the Plato shone like an Empire bar. Nothing was forgotten. She had been scraped and painted, and burnished and polished, and cleansed and soaped into something as far beyond the ordinary gun-boat as the earth is beyond the farthest star. No such triumph had ever been seen afloat. And Tallock walked the quarter-deck and knew it.
The inspection lasted two and a half hours, and Tallock showed the Admiral everything, down even to the paint-room, which no mortal eye had seen before the whole commission through. So that when at last the great man left he said something to Tallock which caused that gentleman and his youthful First Lieutenant to prance three times round the wardroom hatch in their sword-belts before going below, to the intense disablement of Keish, who, in his only respectable white suit, as Quartermaster of the Watch, was vainly endeavouring to pipe the side.
And then, as Tallock reached the bottom of the ward-room hatch there happened an awful thing. The engines of the Barge heaved, lurched, gave a despairing throw, and stopped dead. The Admiral, in the midst of an eulogistic account of the Plato's beauties, stopped dead also ; and the Flag-lieutenant looked over the side and reported that the float of a lobster-pot had fouled the screw. Instantly, by the Admiral's order, it was hauled up, and in ten seconds a fearful infamy lay bare to sight in the stern of the Barge. For there were the tins of secret composition, fastened together by a length of service rope, and on their dripping edges appeared the skilful stencil " Plato " !
Keish, alas ! had done his work too well. Oh ! luckless day! Never before had British Admiral seen such sight. The thing was plain as day. The Flag-lieutenant turned sorrowfully away; the gilded Secretary blew his clerkly nose; the Admiral's coxswain shed the silent tear. He felt that life was bare indeed; the game he had admired was up; his favourite cat was out. And Keish, author of all the evil, was at that moment drinking Tallock's whisky in the ward-room pantry, blissfully, horribly, utterly oblivious.
Yet that night at dinner the Admiral told his guests of the Plato's cleanliness, together with many other things redounding to her credit. But not one word of the fateful tins escaped him. For this reason Tallock still considers him the one great man in the Navy.
Only, just before leaving, he spoke to Tallock in the after-cabin, gently, telling him all.
Next day the Plato left while the Admiral was at luncheon in the fore-cabin. She went with all good wishes, the broaching of many wines, and " Auld Lang Syne " in several different keys. She flew a brand-new ensign at the peak, and her side, as ever, shone like polished glass. And as she swung round opposite the Flag and ran her little jib up at the first gun of the salute, the Admiral came out to the stern-walk and watched her. The smoke rolled sullenly from alternate sides and lay gently round her over the water. He watched until she had quite disappeared, and then turned to the Flag-Captain.
"I'm sorry to lose Tallock," said he. "I think he's a good man."
" He is," said the Flag-Captain, who had never heard the true story of the tins, and who went, therefore, only on suspicion.
" He is," remarked the Flag-lieutenant carefully.
Was he ?
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