Bunting



He was a short, thick-set, ruddy-faced, shrewd-eyed little person, who

wore on the left sleeve of his blue jumper two good-conduct badges and

the single anchor denoting his "Leading" rate, and on his right the

crossed flags denoting his calling, together with a star above and

below which signified that he was something of an expert at his job.

In short, he was a Leading Signalman of His Majesty's Navy. His name I

need not mention. To his friends he sometimes answered to "Nutty," but

more often to "Buntin'."



It was always a mystery to me why he had not come to wear the crossed

anchors and crown of a Yeoman of Signals, for his qualifications

certainly seemed to fit him for promotion to petty-officer's rank,

while his habits and character in the last ship in which I knew him

were all that could be desired.



It was on board a destroyer that I came to know him really well, and

here his work was onerous and responsible. He had his mate, a callow

youth who was usually sea-sick in bad weather, and at sea they took 4

hours' turn and turn about on the bridge, each keeping 12 hours' watch

out of the twenty-four. But the elder man always seemed to be within

sight and hearing, even in his watch below; and the moment anything

unusual happened, the moment flags started flapping in the breeze,

semaphores started to talk, the younger man became rattled and

helpless, and things generally started to go wrong, all at the same

moment, "Nutty" came clambering up the ladder to the assistance of his

bewildered colleague.



"Call yerself a signalman!" he would growl ferociously. "Give us the

glass, an' look sharp an' 'oist the answerin' pendant. You ain't fit

to be trusted up 'ere!"



It is to be feared that the youthful one sometimes found his life a

misery and a burden, for his mentor was a strict disciplinarian and did

not hesitate to bully and goad him into a state of proper activity.

But the youngster needed it badly.



"Nutty" seemed to be blessed with the eyes of a lynx, the dexterity of

a conjurer, and the tentacles of a decapod. He invariably saw a

floating mine, a buoy, or a lightship long before the man whose proper

work it was to see it, and at sea, with a telescope to his eye, I often

saw him apparently taking in two signals from opposite points of the

compass at one and the same moment, with the ship rolling heavily and

sheets of spray flying over the bridge.



Somewhere at Portsmouth he had a wife and two children, whom he saw, if

he was lucky, for perhaps seven days every six months. Of his domestic

affairs I knew little; but, judging from his letters, which were

frequent and voluminous and had to pass through the hands of the ship's

censor, he was devoted to his wife and family. I hope they loved him.



Why he was not a Yeoman of Signals I never discovered. Perhaps he had

a lurid past. But conjecture is useless. Promotion now would come too

late to be of any use to him.



* * * * *



"Butter, Monkey, Nuts," he rattled off as a light cruiser two miles

away suddenly wreathed herself in flags. "Zebra, Charlie,

Fanny--Ethel, Donkey, Tommy--Ginger, Percy, Lizzie---- Got that, Bill?"



An Able Seaman, busy with a pencil and a signal pad, signified that he

had.



"'Arf a mo', though," resumed the expert, re-levelling his telescope.

"I ain't quite certain about that first 'oist. Why on earth they can't

'oist the things clear I dunno!" he grumbled bitterly, for some of the

distant flags, as is often the case when the wind is light and

uncertain, had coyly wrapped themselves round the halliards and refused

to be seen.



Someone on the bridge of the distant cruiser might almost have heard

his remark, for as he spoke the halliards began agitatedly to jerk up

and down to allow the bunting to flutter clear.



"Ah!" he murmured. "Now we'll get 'em.... Lord!" in a piercing

undertone as some misguided humorist in the cruiser's stokehold

inconsiderately allowed a puff of black smoke to issue forth from the

foremost funnel, completely to obliterate the strings of flags.



The Leading Signalman, not being a thought reader as well as a

conjurer, put down his telescope with a grunt until the pall cleared

away. "In the first 'oist," he said when the atmosphere had cleared,

"in the first 'oist, 'stead o' Fanny put 'Arry.' 'H' for 'Arry."



The A.B. sucked his pencil and acquiesced, while his friend, darting to

the after side of the small bridge, hoisted the white and red

"Answering Pendant" to show that the signal had been seen and read. He

then handed the pad across, on which, in large sprawling capital

letters, he had laboriously traced "BMN--ZCF--EDT--GPL."



The "Butter, Monkey, Nuts" business, incomprehensible and startling as

it might have been to any outsider, merely emphasised the difference in

sound between various letters. B, C, D, E, P, and T; J and K; M and N,

among others, are very much alike when pronounced by themselves; but

"butter" could not well be mistaken for "Charlie," neither could

"monkey" be confounded with "nuts."



The Leading Signalman looked out the meaning of the different groups of

letters in the book provided for the purpose and showed the result to

his commanding officer. Its purport was comparatively unimportant,

something about oil-fuel on arrival in harbour.



* * * * *



But finding out the meaning of those flag signals which he did not know

by heart--and he knew most of them--was only a tithe of his duty. He

was equally expert at taking in a message spelt out by the whirling

arms of a semaphore, arms which waved so rapidly, and whose giddy

gyrations were so often well-nigh invisible against a bad background,

that his performance savoured of the miraculous. At night, too, he was

just as good, for then the frenzied winking of a dim light would convey

its meaning just the same. It was a point of honour with him always to

get a signal correctly the first time it was made. I never saw him ask

for a repetition.



Only twice did I know him to laugh on the bridge, and the first time

that occurred was when, through a series of circumstances which need

not be entered into here, we nearly came into contact with the next

ahead. Such things do happen.



Then it was that the next ahead--he was several years senior to us and

a humorist--turned in his wrath and quoted the Bible. "Your

attention," his semaphore said, "is drawn to the Gospel according to

St. Matthew, chapter 16, verse 23."



We sent for the Bible, looked up the reference, and read: "But he

turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an

offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but

those that be of men."



The quotation was apt and the Leading Signalman's eyes twinkled. Then

I noticed his mouth expanding into a grin, and presently he laughed, a

short, explosive sort of laugh rather like the bark of a dog.



But we had our revenge a week later, when our next ahead--he was our

friend as well as our senior--nearly collided with a buoy at the

entrance to a certain harbour.



"What about the Book of Proverbs?" our semaphore asked. "Chapter 22,

verse 28."



"Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set," he must

have read. I cannot remember the reply, but the Leading Signalman had

laughed once more.



* * * * *



But "Bunting" will never smile again. He went down with his ship on

May 31, 1916. The North Sea is his grave and the curling whitecap his

tombstone. His epitaph may be written across the sky in a trail of

smoke from some passing steamer.





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