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Sea StoriesLoss Of The Catharine Venus And Piedmont Transports And Three Merchant Ships
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Our Happy Home
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Potvin Of The Puffin
"Well, I'm damned!" ejaculated the first lieutenant, looking up from
his breakfast as a barefooted signalman held a slate under his nose.
"Just as I'm in the middle of painting ship!"
The navigator, doctor, and assistant paymaster looked up from their
plates. "What's up, Number One?" queried the former.
"Only that the new skipper's arrived in the English mail," said the
first lieutenant glumly.
"He's coming on board at nine o'clock in the _Spartan's_ steamboat!"
"Good Lord!" protested Cutting, the doctor. "So soon? It was only a
week ago we saw his appointment!"
"Can't help that," No. One growled. "He's arrived, and he'll be on
board in exactly three quarters of an hour's time. Lord help us!
You'd better put on a clean tunic and your best society manners, Doc.
You'll want 'em both."
"Why the deuce can't he leave us in peace a bit longer?" complained
Falland, the lieutenant (N).
"And why the devil does he want to come just at the end of the quarter
when I'm busy with my accounts?" grumbled Augustus Shilling, the
assistant paymaster, blinking behind his spectacles. "I know jolly
well what it'll be. For the next week I shan't be able to call my soul
my own, and he'll be sending for me morning, noon, and night to explain
things. The writer's gone sick, too. Oh, it IS the limit!"
"It is, indeed," echoed the doctor despondently. "Farewell to a quiet
life. By George! I haven't written up the wine books for the last
fortnight. Have I got time to do 'em before he comes?"
The first lieutenant shrugged his shoulders. "You'd better make an
effort, old man," he said. "He's a rabid teetotaler, and he's sure to
ask to see 'em first thing."
"Heaven help us!" cried the medical officer, rising hastily from his
chair and disappearing into his cabin.
"What sort of a chap did you say he was, Number One?" Falland queried,
with traces of anxiety in his voice.
"I only know him by reputation," the first lieutenant answered
lugubriously. "But he's got the name of being rather ... er, peculiar.
At any rate, he hates navigators, so you'd better mind your P's and
Q's, my giddy young friend."
"And I haven't corrected my charts for three weeks or written up the
compass journal for a month!" Falland wailed. "Oh, Lor!"
From all of which it will be understood that the wardroom officers of
H.M. Gunboat _Puffin_ were not overjoyed at the advent of their new
The date was some time during the last five years of the reign of Queen
Victoria; the month, September, and though at this season of the year
the climate of Hong-Kong is far too moist and too steamy to be
pleasant, the _Puffin's_ officers, adapting themselves to
circumstances, had had plenty of shore leave and had managed to enjoy
themselves. So had the men.
Their ship, an ancient, barque-rigged vessel of 1,000 odd tons;
auxiliary engines capable of pushing her along at 9.35 knots with the
safety valves lifting; and armed with I forget how many bottle-nosed,
5-inch, B.-L. guns and a Nordenfeldt or two, was swinging peacefully
round her buoy in the harbour. She had swung there for precisely two
months without raising steam, ever since her late commander had been
promoted and had gone home to England, leaving the ship in temporary
charge of Pardoe, the first lieutenant.
Captain Prato had been an easy-going man of serene disposition who
allowed little or nothing to worry him, not even the Commander-in-Chief
himself. As a consequence the wardroom officers swore by him, and so
did Mr. Tompion, the gunner, and Mr. Slice, the artificer engineer.
The ship's company were of the same opinion, so the little _Puffin_ was
what is generally known as a "happy ship."
But Commander Peter Potvin, R.N., Captain Prato's successor, was the
direct antithesis of the former commanding officer, for he had the
reputation in the Service of being a veritable little firebrand, and an
eccentric little firebrand at that. He was small and thin, and
possessed a pair of fierce blue eyes and a short, aggressive red beard,
and was even reputed to insist on naval discipline being carried on in
his own house ashore. At any rate, it is quite certain that his wife
frequently appeared at church with red eyes after her lord and master
had held his usual Sunday forenoon inspection of the house, and had
discovered a cockroach in the kitchen or a dish-clout in the scullery,
while it was true that he permitted his three children to wear good
conduct badges, each carrying with them the sum of 1d. per week, after
three months' exemplary behaviour. But only one of them, Tony, aged 18
months, had ever worn a badge for more than a fortnight.
It was also said, with what truth I do not know, that his servants
frequently had their leave stopped for not being "dressed in the rig of
the day," and for omitting to wear hideous caps and aprons of an
uniform pattern designed by Commander Potvin himself without the
assistance of his wife. It was bruited about that the cook, housemaid,
and parlourmaid,--the nurse alone being excused,--were turned out of
their beds at the unearthly hour of 5.30 a.m. and that, as a punishment
for "being found asleep in their hammocks after the hands had been
called," they were rousted out at 4 a.m. to chop firewood.
The Potvin menage was not a happy one, and as a consequence his
retainers usually gave notice en masse directly they heard the gallant
commander was about to come home on leave. Even the gardener and boot
boy followed the general example, so it was lucky for Mrs. Potvin that
she had an uncle at the Admiralty who generally managed to send, "dear
Peter" to a foreign station. He was rarely at home, or his wife would
have been wrought to the verge of lunacy.
No wonder the _Puffin's_ were not pleased at their future prospects,
for the milk of human kindness evidently did not enter into the
composition of their new commanding officer.
For twenty-four hours after his arrival on board Commander Potvin was
too busy paying official calls and unpacking his belongings to make his
presence really felt. The fun began the next morning, when, after
divisions, he sent for Pardoe to come and see him in his cabin.
"You may have heard, First Lieutenant," he began, very pompously, "that
I am a very observant man, and that I notice everything that goes on
board my ship?"
"Indeed, sir," said Pardoe politely, wondering what on earth was coming
"Yes," said the commander. "I am unnaturally observant, and though
some people may think I am a faddist, there is very little that escapes
my notice. To start with, I always insist that my officers shall wear
strict uniform, and at the present moment I am grieved to see that you
are wearing white socks."
"I'm sorry, sir. I didn't know you would mind. The officers in the
flagship wear them with white clothing."
"I was not aware that I had asked you a question, Lieutenant Pardoe,"
interrupted the skipper, his beard bristling. "Moreover, what they do
or do not do in the flagship is no affair of mine. The uniform
regulations lay down that socks are to be black or dark blue, and I
expect my officers to wear them. I also observed just now that the
Surgeon was wearing a watch strap across the front of his tunic, which
is in strict defiance of the regulation which says that watch chains
and trinkets are not to be worn outside the coat. I do not wish to
have to take steps in the matter, but kindly bear it in mind yourself,
and inform your messmates, that I insist on strict uniform."
"Aye, aye, sir."
"There are several more matters I wish to discuss," the captain
resumed, twiddling his moustaches. "You will doubtless have heard that
I like to keep my ship's companies happy and contented, eh?" He looked
"Er--yes, sir. Of course, sir," said the first lieutenant lamely,
having heard precisely the opposite.
"Very good. To keep the men happy and contented one has to keep them
employed, so in future there will be no leave to either officers or men
until four o'clock in the afternoon. We shall doubtless be able to
find plenty for them to do on board."
Number One opened his mouth to expostulate, but thought better of it.
"I like the men to feel that their ship is their home," continued the
skipper, "and to encourage them to stay on board in the afternoons and
evenings instead of spending their money and their substance in these
terrible grog shops ashore, these low and vicious haunts of iniquity,"
he rolled his tongue round the words, "I propose that the officers
shall prepare and deliver a series of lectures on interesting topics.
I have," he added, "brought a magic lantern and a good stock of slides
out from England, and some evening next week I propose to deliver the
first lecture myself. The subject is a most instructive one, 'The
effects of alcohol on the human body and mind,' and to illustrate it I
have prepared a number of most excellent charts showing the increase in
the consumption of spirits and malt liquor between 1873 and the present
time. The charts, compiled from the most reliable data, are drawn up
for most of the best known professions, sailors, soldiers, labourers,
policemen, clergymen, and so on, and I can safely promise you a most
Pardoe, quite convinced that he had to deal with a lunatic, gasped and
began to wonder how on earth he could leave the ship unostentatiously
without damaging his subsequent career. "I'm afraid I'm not much of a
hand at lecturing, sir," he said with a forced smile. "In fact there's
hardly a subject I know enough about to----."
"Pooh, pooh," laughed the commander. "With due diligence in your spare
time you will be able to learn up quite a lot of subjects, and as for
the actual lecturing," he shrugged his shoulders, "practice makes
perfect, and I have no doubt that before very long we shall find you
quite an orator." He smiled benignly.
"We will have the lectures once a week, at 8 p.m., say on Thursdays,"
he went on, "and on Sundays I will conduct an evening service at 6.0.,
at which, of course, all officers will attend. You will read the
lessons and collect the offertory, Mr. Pardoe. That will leave us five
clear evenings a week for other harmless occupations, and I propose
that on one of them we have readings for the men from the works of
well-known authors. Something light and amusing from Dickens or Dumas
to start with, and then, as we get on, we might try the more learned
writers like Darwin, or--er--Confucius."
The wretched first lieutenant grew red about the face and started to
"Then on another evening we might encourage the men to play progressive
games like draughts, halma, picture lotto, spillikins, ping-pong, and
beggar-my-neighbour. My sole object in doing all this, you will
understand, is to keep the men amused and instructed, to divert their
minds and, therefore, to keep them happy and contented. After a few
weeks or so they will all be so anxious to come to our entertainments,
that they will have lost all desire to go ashore at all. It is a good
idea, is it not?"
The first lieutenant nodded grimly. The idea may have been excellent,
but he could hardly imagine Petty Officer Timothy Carey, the horny
captain of the forecastle, listening to Confucius; nor Baxter, the
Sergeant of Marines, sitting down to a quiet game of spillikins with
Scully, the cook's mate. In fact, he foresaw that when he informed the
men of the arrangements about to be made for their welfare, he would
have all his work cut out to repress the inevitable rebellion. Darwin,
Confucius, picture lotto, and beggar-my-neighbour for the hardened
ship's company of the _Puffin_! The _Police Gazette_, _Reynolds'
Weekly_, pots of beer, and the games known as "Shove ha'penny" and
"Crown and Anchor" were far more to their liking.
"Well," said Commander Potvin, "that is all I have to say at present;
but I am gratified, very gratified indeed, that you agree with my
ideas. I will draw up and issue detailed rules for our evening
entertainments, but, meanwhile, I should be obliged if you would cause
these to be distributed amongst the men. They will pave the way," he
added, smiling as pleasantly as he was able, and handing Pardoe a neat
brown paper parcel. "They will pave the way with good intentions, and
I have no doubt that within a few weeks we shall have the happiest
ship's company in the whole of the British Navy."
The first lieutenant, too astonished to reply, clutched the parcel and
retired to the wardroom, where, flinging his cap on to the settee, he
relapsed into the one armchair. "Lord!" he muttered, holding his head,
"I believe the man's as mad as a hatter!"
He opened the package to find therein a quantity of bound sheets. He
selected one of the pamphlets at random and examined it with a sigh.
"Drink and Depravity," he read. "Pots of beer cost many a tear. Be
warned in time or you'll repine."
"Great Caesar's ghost!" he ejaculated. "The man IS mad! To think that
it should come to this. Poor, poor old _Puffin_!"
A few minutes later Falland, on his way aft to visit the captain,
glanced into the wardroom. Pardoe still sat in the armchair muttering
softly to himself with his head bowed down between his hands. The
floor, the table, and the chair were littered with tracts of all the
colours of the rainbow. "Saints preserve us!" the navigator murmured.
The next really interesting incidents occurred on Sunday morning, when
the commanding officer made his usual rounds of the ship and inspected
the men. So far nothing had officially been said about the new
_regime_; but, in some mysterious way, the ship's company had an
inkling of the happy days in store for them, while, through a lavish
distribution of tracts, literature which, I am sorry to relate, they
solemnly burnt in the galley fire, they were fully aware of their new
captain's notions on the engrossing subject of drink. Accordingly, to
please him, and to show that they were not the hardened sinners,
seasoned reprobates, and generally idle and dissolute characters he
perhaps might take them for, they fell in at divisions on that Sabbath
morn wearing their most cherubic and innocent expressions, and their
newest and most immaculate raiment.
The _Puffin_ had always been a clean ship, but on this particular
occasion she surpassed herself, for all hands and the cook had done
their very utmost to uphold her reputation. Her burnished guns and
freshly scoured brass-work shone dazzingly in the sun; her topmasts and
blocks had been newly scraped and varnished, while the running rigging,
boat's falls, and other ropes about the deck were neatly coiled down
and flemished. The decks themselves were as white as holystones, sand,
and much elbow grease could make them, and, with her white hull with
its encircling green riband and cherry-red waterline, her yellow lower
masts and funnel, and a brand-new pendant flying from the main-truck
and large White Ensign flapping lazily from its staff on the poop, the
_Puffin_ looked more like a yacht than a man-o'-war. But Commander
Potvin also had a reputation to keep up, and he would not be Commander
Potvin if he could not find fault somewhere.
"Seaman's division--'shun!" shouted Falland, the officer in charge, as
the commander and first lieutenant made their appearance from under the
The men clicked their heels punctiliously and removed their headgear,
and the captain, passing down the front rank with his sword trailing on
the deck behind him, began his inspection.
"What is your name, my man?" he inquired condescendingly, halting
opposite to a burly bearded able seaman.
"Joseph Smith, sir."
"I seem to remember your face," said the commander.
"Yes, sir. I served along 'o you in th' _Bulldorg_ five year ago."
"Indeed. That is most interesting. Well, Smith," eyeing him up and
down, "I am always most pleased to see my old shipmates again."
"Yes, sir," answered the burly one, trying hard to look pleased
himself, and turning rather red in the effort. As a matter of fact he
was wondering if his commanding officer was blessed, or cursed, with a
good memory, and if, by any chance, he remembered the occasion when
he--Joseph Smith--had last stood before him on the quarterdeck of
H.M.S. _Bulldog_. He had stood there as a defaulter, to be punished
with ten days' cells and the loss of a hardly-earned good conduct
badge, for returning from leave in a state of partial insobriety, and
for having indulged in a heated and more than acrimonious discussion
with the local constabulary. It had happened several years before, and
since then he had turned over a new leaf, but he grew quite nervous at
But the skipper, apparently, had quite forgotten it, for he went on
speaking. "I am sorry to see, Smith, that, although you have served
with me before, you have forgotten what I must have taken the greatest
pains to teach you. Your hair is too long, and your beard is not
trimmed in the proper service manner. Your trousers are at least two
inches too tight round the knee, and six inches too slack round the
ankle, while the rows of tape on your collar are too close together.
It will not do," he added, glaring unpleasantly. "The uniform
regulations are made to be strictly adhered to. Mr. Falland!"
"Have this man's bag inspected in the dinner hour every day for a
fortnight. See that his hair is properly cut by next Sunday, and see
that he either shaves himself clean, or that he does not use a razor at
all, according to the regulations. I am surprised that you should have
allowed him to come to divisions in this condition."
"Very good, sir."
The Commander passed on, leaving the delinquent with his mouth wide
open in astonishment and righteous indignation. Smith was firmly of
the opinion that his beard was everything that a beard should be,
while, quite rightly, he had always prided himself on being one of the
best dressed men in the ship. Any little irregularities in his attire,
irregularities not countenanced by the regulations, were merely
introduced for the purpose of making himself smarter than ever. It was
a sad blow to his pride.
But many others suffered in the same way, for hardly a man in the
division was dressed according to the strict letter of the law. Some
had the tapes on their jumpers too high or too low; others had the
V-shaped openings in front a trifle too deep; many, in their endeavours
to make their loose trousers still more rakish, wore them in too
flowing a manner over their feet, and still more, in their anxiety not
to spoil the set of their jumpers, carried no 'pusser's daggers,' or
knives, attached to their lanyards. Altogether the first Sunday was a
regular debacle for the _Puffin's_ but an undoubted triumph for
"Mr. Falland," he said, having walked round the ranks. "I am sorry to
find all this laxity in the important matter of dress, and I rely upon
you to take immediate steps to have it rectified."
"Aye, aye, sir."
"And," the skipper continued, "I notice that you fall your men in
according to size. I know that some commanding officers like to
inspect the men in this way, but personally I prefer to have them
grouped according to appearance. For instance, tall men together,
short men together, and the same thing with the fat and the thin, the
bearded and the clean-shaven."
"Very good, sir. But--" the navigator hesitated.
"But what, Mr. Falland?"
"Suppose a man is tall, thin, and bearded, sir?" asked Falland, in
"Seize upon his predominant feature, Mr. Falland, and use your own
discretion in the matter," said the Captain, half suspecting that his
subordinate was trying to make fun of him, but knowing full well that,
whatever the navigator did, he could always find fault with it.
He marched forward to continue his rounds, leaving the astonished
divisional officer wondering if he was also to form special detachments
of red-faced sailors, white-faced sailors, snub-nosed sailors, and
The inspection of the upper-deck and mess-deck passed without much
comment, the Captain even saying that he was glad to see that the ship
was 'quite clean,' a term which made the zealous Pardoe writhe with
annoyance; but the next thing which caught his attention was a small
hencoop containing eight or nine miserable, bedraggled-looking fowls.
"Bless my soul, First Lieutenant!" said he. "Look at these fowls!"
They were sorry looking birds, it is true, but Chinese chickens are not
renowned for their beauty and sprightliness of appearance at the best
"They seem quite healthy, sir," the First Lieutenant answered, putting
his head on one side in a most judicial manner.
"Yes, yes," murmured the Commander. "But they are all the colours of
the rainbow. White, yellow, brown, grey, and black."
"So they are, sir," said Pardoe, as if he had observed the astounding
fact for the first time.
"Who do they belong to?"
"They're yours, sir. Your steward looks after them."
"Does he, indeed?" said the skipper, rather nonplussed. "Well, send
for my steward."
The portly and dignified Ah Fong presently appeared.
"Is it not possible for you to buy fowls of all the same colour?" the
"Owner" wanted to know.
Ah Fong stared in hopeless bewilderment, trying to grasp his master's
meaning. "My no savvy, sah," he said, shaking his head.
"Can you not buy your chickens, or my chickens, rather, all one colour?
White, for preference, as the weather is hot."
"I savvy, sah," exclaimed the Chinaman, with a beatific smile slowly
spreading over his countenance. "You no likee black piecee hen, sah?"
"No, no, that's not what I mean at all," said Potvin, going off into a
At last Ah Fong began to understand what was wanted. "No can do, sah!"
he expostulated. "S'pose I go 'shore catch piecee hen. I say to one
man, I wanchee plentee fat piecee hen, no wanchee olo piecee, wanchee
young plenty big piecee hen for capten...."
"I really cannot waste my time listening to this senseless
conversation!" interrupted the Captain, with some petulance. "Mr.
Pardoe, you will kindly explain to him that in future all the fowls on
board are to be white in the summer, and blue... 'er, I mean black, in
the winter. I will have them in the proper dress of the day like the
ship's company, do you understand?"
"I do, sir," said the wretched Pardoe with an inaudible sigh, as the
little procession moved on.
He did explain to the steward what was required, and Ah Fong was
confronted with a dilemma. However, he had his wits about him, and the
next Sunday morning, to Number One's intense astonishment, every
wretched fowl in the coop, black, grey, or brown, had been freshly
whitewashed. Their feathers were all plastered together, and they
looked supremely unhappy and more bedraggled than ever, but the
captain's aesthetic eye was apparently satisfied, for he passed them by
with a glance and made no adverse remarks.
After the ordeal of divisions the mess-stools, chairs for the officers,
and reading desk were brought up and placed on desk under the awnings,
and at 10.30, when church had been "rigged," the tolling of the bell
summoned the officers and ship's company to divine service. Pardoe,
after satisfying himself that everything was ready, went aft to report
to the Captain, and, somewhat to the surprise of everyone, Commander
Potvin presently appeared without his tunic, advanced to the reading
desk, and started the service.
At first people thought that he had discarded his jacket merely for the
sake of coolness, and, as the day was unusually hot, some of the other
officers were half inclined to follow his sensible example. But when
at last church was over and Pardoe had occasion to see the Captain
again, he discovered the real reason for the "Owner's" removal of his
"You may have noticed, Lieutenant Pardoe, that I took the precaution to
remove my tunic before reading the Church service," said the skipper.
"I did, sir," answered the First Lieutenant. "In fact, it was so hot,
that I nearly followed your example."
Potvin glared. "I hardly understand what you mean, Mr. Pardoe?" he
said with asperity. "The fact of its being hot or cold does not effect
my religious ideas."
"I beg your pardon, sir. I thought that..."
"Kindly do not impute these motives to me," the Commander went on to
say. "I consider that we should all attend divine service in a state
of the utmost humility, and I removed my tunic so that I should appear
before the Almighty in the same simple garb as the men, not as their
commanding officer!" He puffed out his chest with importance.
Pardoe merely gasped, for the idea that the Almighty might be unduly
influenced by the sight of the three gold stripes and curl on his
captain's shoulder-straps was quite beyond his comprehension.
Nevertheless, Commander Potvin was quite serious, and on leaving his
presence Pardoe repaired to his cabin, and wrote a fervent appeal to a
former captain of his, asking that officer to use his influence to have
him removed from his present appointment. He loved his little
_Puffin_, it is true. He would be very sorry to leave her; but
anything was better than serving in a ship commanded by a lunatic.
For a week the gunboat's officers and men endured the new routine with
what fortitude they could muster. On Monday they had their progressive
games, when the watch on board,--the watch whose turn it was to go on
leave had gone ashore to a man,--were compelled, much to their disgust,
to squat round on the upper deck with draughts, halma, and
picture-lotto boards spread out before them. The proceedings were not
exactly jovial, for the men looked, and were, frankly bored, while a
party of four able seamen, finding the innocent attractions of Happy
Families hardly exciting enough, were subsequently brought up before
the First Lieutenant on a charge of gambling.
Half an hour after the games started, moreover, two other men, one a
marine and the other the ship's steward's assistant, fell in to see him.
"What is the matter?" he asked.
"Well, sir," the marine explained. "It's like this 'ere. I was told
off to play draughts along o' this man, an' all goes well until I makes
two o' my men kings an' starts takin' all 'is. Then 'e says as 'ow
I've been cheatin', so I says to 'im, polite like, as 'ow I 'adn't done
no such thing, an' wi' that 'e ups an' 'its me in the eye, sir, which
"He hit you in the eye?" asked Number One.
"Yes, sir," said the sea-soldier, exhibiting a rapidly swelling cheek.
"What have you to say?" the First Lieutenant asked the alleged
"What he says isn't true, sir. I did say he had been cheatin', becos
he had, becos he was movin' all his other pieces over the board how he
liked. I says he mustn't do that, becos it isn't the game, but he says
that as he's been told off to play, he'll play how he bloomin' well
likes. I says it's cheatin', and he hits me on the nose, so I hits him
back, and we has a bit of a dust up." He exhibited a gory handkerchief
as proof of his injuries.
"Do either of you men bear any grudge against the other?" asked Pardoe,
knowing that they had often been ashore together.
"No, sir," came the immediate reply.
"Well, go away, and don't make such fools of yourselves again. We
can't have all this bickering and fighting over a simple game of
The two combatants retired grinning, and Pardoe, sighing deeply, walked
up and down the deck wrapped in thought. One fact was quite patent,
and that was that if the innocent amusements for the ship's company
were suffered to continue, he would require the wisdom and patience of
a Solomon to arbitrate between the disputants.
On Tuesday they had a reading from Shakespeare, conducted by the
Captain, and, to judge from the _sotto-voce_ remarks of the audience,
they were neither amused nor instructed.
"'E must be wet if 'e thinks we liken listenin' to this 'ere stuff!"
muttered Able Seaman McSweeny dismally. "'E talks abart 'is ruddy
merchant o' Venice, but I doesn't want to 'ear nothin' abart a....
Eyetalian shopkeeper. I expec's 'e was one o' these 'ere blokes wot
wheeled an ice-cream barrer. S'welp me I do!"
A loud titter greeted his utterance, and Commander Potvin stopped
reading for a moment, and glanced round with a fierce expression,
without being able to see whence the sounds of merriment emanated.
No, judging from the trite remarks from the men, the reading from the
works of England's most famous poet and playwright was not an
On Thursday came the Captain's lecture on the effects of alcohol, at
which, to Pardoe's great astonishment, there was an unusually full
attendance. Even men belonging to the watch ashore were present, some
of them bringing friends from other ships with them.
The audience, suspicious at first, eventually became strangely
enthusiastic, loud cheering, much stamping on the deck, and even
shrieks and cat-calls completely drowning the lecturer's voice for
moments at a time. The applause became more vociferous still when the
man attending the magic lantern inadvertently placed his hand on its
almost red-hot top, and interrupted the proceedings with a loud and
very startled: "Ow! The bloomin' thing's burnt me!"
Anyone but the Commander might have detected something sarcastic and
ironical in the excessive applause, but he, the possessor of a skin
like unto that of an armadillo, was very pleased with the reception of
"I told you I had an interesting subject," he said afterwards to the
First Lieutenant. "The hearty applause was very gratifying, and it is
wonderful how a little straight talk goes down with the men."
"I only hope my lecture will be an equal success, sir," answered
Pardoe, rather at a loss what to say.
His subject was "Cities of Ancient Greece."
But at last came the time when the _Puffin_ was ordered to sea, and at
8.30 on that fateful morning the gunboat, with her gallant commander
standing on the poop in the attitude of Sir Francis Drake starting on
his circumnavigation of the world, paddled gently down the crowded
harbour and out through the Lye-mun pass. It was in this narrow
passage that they had their altercation with a lumbering Chinese junk
tacking slowly to and fro against the tide.
"Hard a-port!" ordered Falland, who was conning the ship.
"Hard a-starboard!" contradicted the Commander excitedly. "What are
you thinking about, Mr. Falland?"
The Navigator's order would have taken the ship well clear, but the
helmsman, perplexed by having two diametrically opposite commands
hurled at his head simultaneously, and not knowing which to obey, did
There came a howl from the gunboat's forecastle and a frantic,
blasphemous yelling from a party of Chinamen clustered on the junk's
"Full speed astern!" roared Potvin.
But it was too late, for a moment afterwards the _Puffin's_ flying
jib-boom slid neatly through the very centre of the matting sail on the
junk's mizzen mast. More shrill cursing and strident execration from
the junk, followed by a series of bumps and crashes as the two vessels
collided, bow to stern. A large pig, suspended, according to the
pleasant habit of the Chinese, in a wicker-work basket over the junk's
quarter, also two similar baskets filled with fowls, became detached
from their moorings and fell overboard. Then the junk's mizzen-mast
began to bend ominously, and before long, amidst more shrieks and
yells, it snapped off short and collapsed on the poop, knocking one
elderly Chinaman and two children into the water as it fell. It was
followed almost immediately afterwards by the _Puffin's_ flying
The gunboat's engines were stopped and the two vessels drifted together
side by side, while a party with axes set to work to clear away the
"Why on earth don't you look where you're going?" the Commander bawled
at the junkmaster.
"Yah me ping wi taow!" howled the Chinaman, which, being interpreted,
means, "You tailless son of a devil," the greatest possible insult.
It was followed by more mutual abuse and recrimination, but the
gentleman in the junk, since Commander Potvin could not understand a
word he said, was popularly supposed to have got the best of the wordy
But the skipper was quite determined to have somebody's blood, and
seeing he could make no impression on the junk, vented his spleen on
"Mr. Falland!" he exclaimed, his eyes flashing and his heart full of
rage. "The collision was entirely your fault. I shall report the
matter to the Admiral, and meanwhile you will remain in your cabin
"But, sir. I really----"
"I require no explanations, sir. You are guilty of gross neglect and
Falland left the poop.
The damage was not sufficiently serious to delay the ship, and, having
chopped herself free, she proceeded on her journey, her Commander
taking upon himself the duties of the deposed Navigator.
It was unfortunate that, in calculating the course to be steered, he
applied 3 deg. deviation the wrong way. It was equally unfortunate that he
miscalculated the set of the current, since it was these two things
which, at 11.53 a.m. precisely, caused the gunboat to come into violent
contact with a ledge of rocks with barely six feet of water over them
at high water.
"Good heavens! What's that?" shouted the skipper, as there came a
series of muffled, grinding crashes under water and the ship stopped
"We've hit something, sir," said Pardoe, who was on the poop. They
had, and for some hours remained stuck fast. In fact, the _Puffin's_
bones would have been there to this day if she had not been steaming at
her leisurely, economical speed of 7 1/2 knots, and it was only by
sheer good luck, and with the assistance of salvage tugs and appliances
from Hong-Kong, that she was ever got off at all. As it was she was
merely badly damaged, and came back into harbour in tow of one tug,
while a couple of others, with their pumps working at full speed and
gushing forth streams of water, were lashed alongside her.
Falland was not court-martialled, but a week later Commander Potvin,
after an interview with the Admiral and certain medical officers, found
that the climate of Hong-Kong was too rigorous for his constitution,
and embarked on board a P. and O. steamer for passage home to England
_en route_ for Yarmouth.
The gunboat's officers watched her until she was out of sight, and then
repaired to the wardroom and indulged in cocktails.
"I'm sorry for him," said No. One, lifting his glass with a grin.
"Here's luck to him, and to us."
"Salve," nodded the doctor, swallowing his potion at a gulp.
The Royal Naval Hospital for mental cases is situated at Yarmouth.
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