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Story of a battle engaged in by a British light cruiser in the Mediterranean. HMS Artemis is part of an escort task force protecting a convoy of supplies desperately needed by the British forces in Malta. It follows the life of a Royal Navy light cruiser for a single action, including a detailed analysis of many of the men on board and the contribution they made.
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C. S. FORESTER
CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER
Originally published in the three volumes starred below
*THE HAPPY RETURN
*A SHIP OF THE LINE
TO THE INDIES
THE CAPTAIN FROM CONNECTICUT
WITH THE DEEPEST RESPECT
TO THE OFFICERS
AND SHIP’S COMPANY
With half a million men in the Royal Navy it is inevitable that there should be some coincidence of names and ranks between characters in this book and officers and ratings now serving. That is so inevitable that the author has made no attempt to avoid any such coincidence; all he can do is to assure the reader that he has attempted neither portrait nor caricature of any living person.
FROM THE CAPTAIN’S REPORT
. . .
and at 11:30 hours the attacks ceased although enemy aircraft were still occasionally visible
At 12:05 hours smoke was sighted
. . .
and a signal to this effect was immediately made
Action was taken in accordance with the orders previously issued
. . .
an Italian force of two heavy cruisers of the
type and four light cruisers of the
type and the
At 13:10 hours the enemy opened fire
The enemy withdrew
The enemy’s cruisers were then joined by a fresh force consisting of two battleships of the
class and another cruiser of the
The behaviour of the ship’s company was most satisfactory
. . .
increasing speed and at the same time making smoke
I found the smoke screen to be extremely effective
Fire was opened
. . .
and hits were observed
. . .
until I turned back again into the smoke screen
I then returned to continue the action
Further hits were observed until
. . .
a hit started a small fire
. . .
without serious damage
. . .
so that the ship was ready to attack again
. . .
and the attack was made
. . .
in support of the attack made by the destroyers
The ship sustained another hit
. . .
with moderate damage
. . .
but firing was maintained
. . .
until the enemy turned away
. . .
and the action terminated
. . . and at 11:30 hours the attacks ceased although enemy aircraft were still occasionally visible . . .
PAYMASTER Commander George Brown put his fountain pen back into his pocket, put on his cap and got up from the table where he had been ciphering.
“I’m going for a prowl,” he told the petty officer beside him.
He slid his rather rotund bulk out through the narrow door and down three successive ladders, turning each corner and making each steep descent with the careless facility of long practice, even in the darkness that prevailed with the doors all shut. Emerging on the deck he stood and blinked for a moment in the sunshine—clear, sparkling sunshine which gave less warmth than might be expected in the Mediterranean in March. The sky was blue and the tossing sea was grey, the two colours blending exquisitely, the whitecaps and the white stretch of the wake completing the colour scheme to an artist’s satisfaction.
The Paymaster Commander took a step or two farther into the waist, and stood and blinked again. He was not wasting time, nor idly taking the air; he was, as he might have expressed it himself, engaged in outthinking Mussolini. The guns’ crews at the four-inch guns, at the pom-poms and at the .50-calibre machine guns, were standing at their stations; as Artemis rolled in the heavy sea the brass cases of the ammunition expended in beating off the last attack jangled on the iron decks on which they lay heaped like autumn leaves.
The men at the guns were vigilant and yet relaxed, they would lose no time, not one tenth of a second, in opening fire should another attack be launched; but they were not wasting their strength in staying keyed-up unnecessarily. These men were veterans of nearly three years of war, three years during which at any moment death might swoop at them from the skies, and every movement they made showed it. The weapons they handled were part of their lives by now; not toys for formal parade, nor wearisome nuisances to be kept cleaned and polished in accordance with a meaningless convention; those cannons were of the very essence of life, as was the long rifle to the frontier pioneer, the brush to the artist, the bow to the violinist. In a world where the law was “kill or be killed” they were determined to be the killers and not the killed—the tiger stalking his prey lived under the same law.
The Paymaster Commander had finished outguessing Mussolini; his experience of aerial attacks told him that another was unlikely in the immediate future. And at the same time what he knew from the signals he had been deciphering made him quite certain that the respite was only a respite, and that more desperate work lay ahead even than beating off Italian dive bombers. He turned into the galley, where the Chief Petty Officer Cook, burly and competent, stood waiting for orders—apparently the only man in the ship (until the Paymaster Commander decided to take his stroll) not engaged in the business of making the ship the complete fighting machine; and yet he, too, had his part to play.
“Half an hour to send food round,” said the Paymaster Commander. He picked up the telephone. “Wardroom.”
In the wardroom the telephone squealed plaintively and the Surgeon Lieutenant-commander answered it.
“Hullo, P.M.O. Purser here. Let’s have some of my boys back. You can spare ’em.”
The Surgeon Lieutenant-commander looked round him. When H.M.S. Artemis was at action stations the wardroom ceased to be the officers’ mess and became the Medical Distributing Station. Here the wounded were brought for treatment—the sick-bay, forward under the bridge, was both too small and too exposed to be used as anything other than a dressing station. The two casualties were quiet now, and the stretcher-bearer force was squatting on the deck. The Surgeon Lieutenant-commander carried grave responsibility in yielding to the Paymaster Commander’s request. A sudden attack might leave twenty—fifty—wounded on the decks; a score of lives might depend on prompt collection and treatment. Wounded left lying were bad for discipline, bad for morale, apart from the guilty conscience which would torment the Surgeon Lieutenant-commander if his job were not properly done. But he had been shipmates for two years with the Paymaster Commander, and could appreciate his cool judgment and sober common sense. Pay was not the kind of man who would make a frivolous or unnecessary or ill-timed request. He could trust him.
“Right-o, Pay. I’ll send ’em along.”
He looked along the row of squatting forms.
“You eight. You’re all galley’s crew? Report to the Paymaster Commander at the galley.”
The eight queerly dressed men—between them all they hardly bore a single trace of uniform clothing—scrambled to their feet, and doubled aft into the sunshine which illuminated the waist, and halted at the galley. The Surgeon Lieutenant-commander watched them go. Perhaps it was the sight of the ragged group running which started a train of subconscious memory, starting with the recollection of an Inter-Hospital cross-country race; the Surgeon Lieutenant-commander suddenly found before his mind’s eye a picture of the interior courtyard at Guy’s—the green grass; the dribbling fountain where pigeons tried to wash off London grime; the nurses, white-aproned, in blue or lilac uniforms; first-year students carrying microscopes, third-year men lounging, pipe in mouth and comically manly, out from the gloomy entrance to the dissecting room; the youthfulness and eager anticipation of the best in life. All bombed to hell now, he had heard. The Surgeon Lieutenant-commander shook the vision from him as though it were water out of his eyes when he was swimming; he turned back to take a fresh look at the rating with the head wound. There was a chance that the wounded man might live and be none the worse for his experience.
In the galley the Paymaster Commander was ready with the scheme he had long mapped out, had tested in a dozen engagements. He had six hundred men to feed, and none of them had eaten for six hours. The Paymaster Commander thought of the hungry six hundred with a queer tenderness. He was a man born for parenthood, for self-sacrifice, to think for others. If fate had made him a millionaire, he might have been a notable philanthropist; if fate had given him children, he might have been the much-loved father of a family, but fate had ruled that he should be a childless man and a poor one. And as the senior officer of the paymaster branch in a light cruiser, his inborn instincts had play in other directions. At present his thoughts were queerly paralleling those of the housewife planning what would be best for her men-folk getting in the harvest or working at the mill—it was only common sense that they should be given the best available, and it was pleasant that that should be what he liked doing anyway.
There was no flame in the range by which cooking could be done—the oil fuel for the range had all been safely drained away below, where it was less likely to start a fire—but there was a steam jet; and super-heated steam—not the flabby vapour that issues from a kettle’s spout, but steam at four hundred degrees, live, active steam—can do remarkable things in the quickest time. The cook was already putting the ingredients into the cauldron. No economy soup this, but the best the ship could provide, the best the limited imagination of the Admiralty could encompass for the men who fought the battles. To make the forty gallons of soup necessary the cook was ripping open four dozen vast tins of tomatoes; stacked round him were the sixteen tins of corned beef which would go in next. The Paymaster Commander, without wasting time, took the fourteen pounds of corn flour and began to mix it into a paste with water, so as to make it smooth for admixture with the soup. While he was doing so he issued his instructions to the men who came panting up to the galley at the Surgeon Lieutenant-commander’s orders.
“Get going on those sandwiches,” he said. “Hopkins, open the tins. Clarke and Stanton, cut the meat. The rest of you see to the spreading.”
The men fell naturally into the parts they had to play, like actors in a well-rehearsed performance. The long loaves which the Cook’s crew had made and baked during the night were run through the slicer, the slabs of corned beef were slapped on the buttered slices, and the completed sandwiches were stacked aside; the knives flickered with the speed at which they worked, and they had no time for speech except for brief sentences: “Let’s have another tin here, Nobby.” “More butter here!”
Corn flour, meat, vegetables, all had gone into the soup cauldron, and now the Chief Petty Officer Cook dropped in the three pounds of sugar and the handfuls of herbs which were his own contribution to the formula for producing appetizing soup. He stirred with his vast ladle, and then moved the lever of the steam valve round its pipe. Only a slight crackling and tremor indicated that steam from the ship’s boilers—steam as hot as red-hot iron—was heating up the cauldron.
The Canteen Manager and his assistant came to attention before the Paymaster Commander.
“We’ve been sent to report to you from the wardroom, sir,” said the Canteen Manager.
“Very good. Start on the cocoa. Murchie, get those pickles opened.”
The Paymaster Commander swept his gaze round the galley. The soup was nearly hot, the forty gallons of cocoa were preparing, the mass of sandwiches nearly completed. He checked the other tubs—they were full of fresh water, in accordance with his standing orders. The Paymaster Commander had fought in another battle, once, in a cruiser which had filled with water nearly to the level of her main-deck. Desperate determination and brilliant seamanship had brought her in tow back to harbour after forty-eight hours of struggle against wind and sea, submarines and aircraft; but those forty-eight hours had been spent without drinking water, thanks to the holing of some tanks and the submersion of the others. The Paymaster Commander remembered the insanity of thirst and fatigue, and never again would he allow his men to suffer that agony as far as it was in his power to mitigate it. These tubs held half a gallon for each man of the ship’s company—men could go for days on two pints of water if necessary.
His final inspection completed, the Paymaster Commander stepped out again on deck, balancing against the roll and heave of the sea. The horizon was still clear; there were no planes in the sky. On the starboard quarter the convoy still rolled along over the grey surface. Mussolini, the Paymaster Commander decided, was not going to cause any more trouble immediately; so he took up the telephone again and said “Commander.” The Commander answered from his Damage Control Station on the boat deck.
“Pay here, Commander. Dinner’s ready to serve. May I pipe to that effect?”
“Yes, carry on,” said the Commander.
The Paymaster Commander made his way forward and heaved himself up over the prodigiously high coaming to the foot of the ladder leading to the bridge.
“Bosun’s mate,” he ordered, “pipe ‘Cooks to the galley.’ ”
The bosun’s mate switched on the loud speaker, and the eerie squeal of his pipe went echoing through every corner of the ship. He was a North-countryman, and his years in the Navy had not eliminated the North-country tang of his speech. He drew out the double o of the word “cooks” until it was a treble or quadruple o, and he made no attempt to pronounce the th sound in the “the.”
“Coo-ooks to t’galley,” he said into the loud speaker, “Coo-ooks to t’galley.”
The Paymaster Commander went back to the galley. In the hundreds of years of the history of the British Navy this meaning of the word “cooks” had suffered a change. They were no longer the men who actually cooked the food of their respective messes; they were merely the men who, each on his appointed day, carried the food from the galley to the mess. Already they were assembling there; men from the six-inch turrets and men from the four-inch H.A. guns; men from the magazines and men from the engine-room—in every quarter of the ship one man knew that it was his duty, as soon as he heard “Cooks to the galley” piped, to come and fetch food for his mates who could not leave their stations. The Paymaster Commander watched the food being served out, from A mess right through the alphabet to Z mess; from AA to ZZ, and then from AAA to EEE—food for five men, food for seven men, food for nine men, according to the number in each quarter; for each mess the food was ready stacked, and the Paymaster Commander nodded in faint self-approval as he saw how smoothly the arrangements were working over which he had sat up late on so many evenings. This was his own special plan and he thought it improved on the system prevailing in other ships. It called for forethought and organization to feed six hundred men in half an hour, men who could not leave their guns, their gauges, or their instruments even for a moment while death lay only just beyond the horizon.
“I want those mess-traps brought back,” said the Paymaster Commander sharply, “don’t leave them sculling about on the decks.”
It was his duty to fill the bellies of his men, but at the same time it was his duty to safeguard Navy property. Just because a battle was being fought was no excuse for exposing crockery—even crockery of enamelled iron—to needless damage. The cooks had all left, and the Paymaster Commander picked up a sandwich and stood eating it, looking down at the galley’s crew squatting on the decks spooning up soup into their mouths. Five minutes more of this let-up in the battle and everyone in the ship would have food inside him, and be fit and ready to go on fighting until nightfall or later.
He finished his sandwich and pulled out his cigarette case, and then stood with it unopened as a further thought struck him. He looked down fixedly at the Canteen Manager and his assistant.
“The boys’ll want cigarettes,” he said. “I expect half of ’em are short already.”
The Paymaster Commander was of the type that could use the word “boys” instead of “men” without being suspected of sentimentality.
“I expect so, sir,” said the Canteen Manager.
“Better take some round,” said the Paymaster Commander. “You and Murchie see to it.”
“Aye aye, sir,” said the Canteen Manager, and then he hesitated. “Shall I issue them, sir?”
“Issue them? Good God, no.”
The Paymaster Commander had visions of the endless reports and explanations he would have to make if he gave cigarettes away free to the Navy on the mere excuse that they were in action. And he had been in the service long enough to see nothing incongruous in the idea of sailors having to pay for their cigarettes in a ship which might during the next ten minutes be battered into a shapeless wreck.
“Half of ’em’ll have no money, not after Alex, sir,” said the Canteen Manager.
“Well,” said the Paymaster Commander, the struggle between regulations and expediency evident in his face, “let ’em have credit. See that every man has what he wants. And some of the boys’ll like chocolate, I expect—take some round as well.”
The Paymaster Commander really meant “boys” and not “men” when he said “boys” this time—there were plenty of boys on board, boys under eighteen, each with a sweet tooth and a growing frame which would clamor for sweetmeats, especially after the nervous strain of beating off aerial attack for four hours.
The “mess-traps” about which he had worried—the “fannies” of soup, the mugs and the plates—were already being returned to the galley. Things were going well. The Canteen Manager and his assistant filled mess-cans with packets of cigarettes and packets of chocolate, and began to make their way from action station to action station, selling their wares as though at a football match. Like the Paymaster Commander, neither the Canteen Manager nor the men saw anything incongruous in their having to put their hands into their pockets to find the pennies for their cigarettes and their bars of chocolate. It was a right and proper thing that they should do so, in fact.
“You men return to your action stations,” said the Paymaster Commander to the galley’s crew.
He looked round the galley once more, and then turned away. He walked forward, stepped over the coaming, took one last glance backward at the blue sky and the grey sea, and then set himself to climb the dark ladders again back to the coding room. Even if he did nothing else in the battle he had supplied the food and the strength to keep the men going during a moment in the future when history would balance on a knife-edge—his forethought and his training and his rapid decision had played their part.
At 12:05 hours smoke was sighted . . .
ORDINARY Seaman Harold Quimsby sucked a hollow tooth in which a shred of corned beef had stuck apparently inextricably. He ought to have reported that hollow tooth at least a month ago, but Quimsby was of the type of man who crosses no bridges until he comes to them. He did not let anything worry him very much, for he was of a philosophical nature, filled with the steady fatalism to be expected of a veteran of so much service, even though Quimsby was merely an “enlistment for hostilities only.” Some men would be uncomfortable up here in the crow’s nest—not so Quimsby, whose ideal existence was one something like this, with a full belly and nothing particular to do. As H.M.S. Artemis rolled and corkscrewed over the quartering sea, the crow’s nest swung round and round in prodigious circles against the sky, but Quimsby’s seasoned stomach positively enjoyed the motion and untroubled went on with the process of digestion.
Cold meat and pickles—that made a meal fit for a king. Quimsby liked nothing better than that. His portion of pickles had included no fewer than four onions, and Quimsby breathed out reminiscently, conscious of, and delighting in, his flavored breath. He had swallowed down his soup and his cocoa, but they were only slop, unworthy of the name of food. Cold meat and pickles were the food for a man. He sucked at his tooth again, and breathed out again, sublimely contented with the world.
Everything seemed to be designed for his comfort. The chair in which he sat certainly was—the padded seat and back held him in exactly the right position for keeping the horizon under continuous observation through the binoculars laid upon the direction finder before his eyes. As Quimsby rolled and circled round in the crow’s nest he automatically kept the horizon swept by the binoculars; long practice had accustomed him to do so. A thrust of his feet one way or the other kept his stool rotating from port to starboard and back again, while his right hand on the lever kept the elevation in constant adjustment to correspond with the roll of the ship. Thanks to many hours of practice Quimsby was able to watch the whole horizon forward of the beam without allowing any of his automatic movements to break into his internal chain of thought, from the shred of beef in his tooth to the comfortable state of his insides and from that to unholy memories of that little bint at Alex who had made his last shore leave so lively.
And from there his memories went back to his first arrival at Alex, his first glimpse of the East, and from there to his first voyage to sea back in the almost unbelievably distant days of 1939. He had been up in the crow’s nest then too, he remembered, and his forehead wrinkled in faint bewilderment at the certainty that the scared, seasick, self-conscious youth at the direction finder in those days was, unbelievably but beyond all doubt, the same man who sat there so self-assured and competent now. That first report he had to make, when his binoculars picked up the dot on the distant surface and he had rung down to the bridge, his stomach heaving with excitement and seasickness . . .
“Something over on the left!” he had spluttered, all his previous instruction forgotten.
The unhurried voice of the First Lieutenant had steadied him.
“Where are you speaking from?”
“Headmast—I mean masthead, sir.”
“Then that’s what you say first, so that we know down here. And you don’t say ‘over on the left,’ do you? What do you say?”
“On—on the port bow, sir.”
“That’s right. But it’s better to give a bearing. What does your bearing indicator read?”
“And how do you say it?”
“I—I’ve forgotten, sir.”
“Port is red, and starboard is green,” said the First Lieutenant patiently. “Remember that port wine is red, and then you won’t forget. And twenty-one isn’t plain enough, is it?”
“No, sir—yes, sir.”
“Now let’s have your report. Remember to say where you’re speaking from first.”
“M-masthead, sir. Object in sight. Red two-one.”
“Very good, Quimsby. But you must say it twice over. You remember being told that? If the guns are firing we might not hear you the first time.”
“Yes, sir. I mean aye aye, sir.”
He had been a very green hand at that time, decided Quimsby. He felt self-conscious all over again at the thought of how Number One had coaxed him into making his report in the proper form so that it could be instantly understood. The subject was almost unsavoury to him, and his thoughts began to drift farther back still, to the time when he was selling newspapers in Holborn—the evening rush, the coppers thrust into the one hand as with the other he whipped the copies out from under his arm.
Then he looked more attentively at the horizon, blinked, and looked again with his hand on the buzzer of the voice tube. Then he rang.
“Forebridge,” came the reply up the voice tube.
“Masthead. Smoke on the starboard bow. Green one-nine. Masthead. Smoke on the starboard bow. Green one-nine,” said Quimsby; ungratefully, all memory of that early training passed from his mind as he said the words.
. . . and a signal to this effect was immediately made . . .
IN H.M.S. Artemis a high proportion of the brains of the ship was massed together on the bridge: Captain and Torpedo Officer, Navigating Lieutenant and Officer of the Watch, Asdic cabinet and signalmen. They stood there unprotected even from the weather, nothing over their heads, and, less than shoulder-high round them, only the thin plating which served merely to keep out the seas when the ship was taking green water in over her bows. Death could strike unhindered anywhere on that bridge; but then death could strike anywhere in the whole ship, for the plating of which she was constructed was hardly thicker than paper. Even a machine-gun bullet could penetrate if it struck square. The brains might as well be exposed on the bridge as anywhere else—even the imposing-looking turrets which housed the six-inch guns served no better purpose than to keep out the rain. The ship was an eggshell armed with sledge-hammers, and her mission in life was to give without receiving.
Was it Voltaire who said that first? No, it was Molière, of course. Paymaster Sub-lieutenant James Jerningham, the Captain’s secretary, was sometimes able to project himself out of the ship and look down on the whole organization objectively. It was he who was thinking about Voltaire and Molière as he squatted on the deck of the bridge eating his sandwich. Even after three years in the Navy he still had not learned to spend several hours consecutively on his feet the way these others did—they had learned the trick young (for that matter, save for the Captain he was at twenty-seven the oldest officer on the bridge) and could stand all day long without fatigue. In the delirious days before the war he had written advertising copy, spending most of his time with his heels on his desk, and to this day he felt really comfortable only with his feet higher than his head.
One way of thinking of the ship was as of some huge marine animal. Here on the bridge was the animal’s brain, and radiating from it ran the nerves—the telephones and voice tubes—which carried the brain’s decisions to the parts which were to execute them. The engine-room formed the muscles which actuated the tail—the propellers; and the guns were the teeth and claws of the animal. Up in the crow’s nest above, and all round the bridge where the lookouts sat raking sea and sky with their binoculars, were the animal’s eyes, seeking everywhere for enemies or prey, while the signal flags and the wireless transmitter were the animal’s voice, with which it could cry a warning to its fellows or scream for help.
It was a nice conceit, all this; Jerningham summoned up all his knowledge of anatomy and physiology (he had spent hours with a medical dictionary when he wrote advertising copy for patent medicines) to continue it in greater detail. The ratings, detailed as telephone numbers on the bridge and scattered through the ship, with their instruments over their ears, were the ganglia which acted as relay stations in the animal’s nervous system. The rating who had just brought him his sandwich was like the blood vessel which carried food material from the galley—stomach and liver in one—to the unimportant part of the brain which he represented, to enable it to recuperate from fatigue and continue its functions.
The lower animals had important parts of their nervous systems dotted along their spinal cords—large expansions in the dorsal and lumbar regions to control the limbs. The Chief Engineer down in the engine-room would represent the lumbar expansion; the Gunnery Lieutenant in the Director Control Tower would be the dorsal expansion—the one managing the hind limbs with which the animal swam, and the other the fore limbs with which it fought. Even if the brain were to be destroyed the animal would still move and fight for a time, just as a headless chicken runs round the yard; and, like the very lowest animals, like the earthworm or the hydra, if the head were cut off it could painfully grow itself a new one if given time—the Commander could come forward from his station aft and take command, the Torpedo Gunner take the place of the Torpedo Lieutenant. And, presumably, young Clare would come forward to take his place if he, Jerningham, were killed.
Jerningham shuddered suddenly, and, hoping that no one had noticed it, he pulled out a cigarette and lit it so as to disguise his feelings. For Jerningham was afraid. He knew himself to be a coward, and the knowledge was bitter. He could think of himself as lazy, he could think of himself as an unscrupulous seducer of women, he could tell himself that it was only because of the absence of need that he had never robbed the blind or the helpless, and it did not disturb his equanimity. That was how he was made, and he could even smile at it. But it was far otherwise with cowardice. He was ashamed of that.
He attributed to his brother officers a kindly contemptuous tolerance for the fear that turned his face the colour of clay and set his lips trembling. He could not understand their stolid courage which ignored the dangers around them. He could see things only too clearly, imagine them only too vividly. A bomb could scream down from the sky—he had heard plenty that morning. Or from a shadowy ship on the horizon could be seen the bright orange flare that heralded a salvo; and then, racing ahead of the sound they made, would come the shells. Bomb or shell, one would burst on the bridge, smashing and rending. Officers and ratings would fall dead like dolls, and he, the Jerningham he knew so well, the handsome smiling Jerningham whose good looks were only faintly marred by having a nose too big for the distance between his eyes, would be dead, too, that body of his torn into fragments of red warm flesh hanging in streamers on the battered steel of the bridge.
Closing his eyes only made the vision more clear to Jerningham. He drew desperately on his cigarette although it was hard to close his lips round the end. He felt a spasm of bitter envy for the other officers, so stolid and impassive on the bridge—the Captain perched on his stool (he was a man of sense, and had had the stool made and clamped to the deck to save himself from standing through the days and nights at sea when he never left the bridge); Torps and Lightfoot, the Officer of the Watch, chatting together and actually smiling. They had been unmoved even during the hell of this morning, when planes had come shrieking down to the attack from every point of the compass, and the ship had rocked to the explosion of near-misses and the eardrums had been battered into fatigue by the unremitting din of the guns.
Part of the explanation—but only part, as Jerningham told himself with bitter self-contempt—was that they were so wrapped up in their professional interests that their personal interests became merely secondary. They had spent their lives, from the age of twelve, preparing to be naval officers, preparing for action, tackling all the problems of naval warfare—it was only natural that they should be interested in seeing whether their solutions were correct. And Jerningham had spent his years rioting round town, drinking and gossiping and making love with a gang of men and women whose every reaction he had come to be able to anticipate infallibly, spending first a handsome allowance from his father and then a handsome salary for writing nonsense about patent medicines. He had always felt pleasantly superior to those men and women: he had felt his abilities to be superior to those of any of the men; and he had taken to his bed any of the women he had felt a fancy for, and they, poor creatures, had been flattered by his attentions and had mostly fallen inconveniently in love with him. It was humiliating to feel now so utterly inferior to these officers round him, even though war was their trade while he was merely a temporary officer, drifted into the rank of Paymaster Sub-lieutenant and the position of Captain’s secretary because for his own convenience he had once studied shorthand and typewriting. Those were happy years in which he had never felt this abasement and fear.
Jerningham remembered that in his pocket was a letter, unopened as yet, which he had picked up the day before when they left “Alex,” and which he had thrust away in the flurry of departure without bothering to open. It was a letter from that other world—it might as well be a letter from Mars, from that point of view—which ought to do something to restore his self-respect. It was in Dora Darby’s writing, and Dora was nearly the prettiest, certainly the cleverest, and probably the woman who had been most in love with him of all that gang. She had written him heartbroken letters when he had first joined the Navy, telling how much she missed him and how she longed for his return—clever though she was she had no idea that Dorothy Clough and Cicely French were receiving from him the same attentions as he was paying her. It would help to bolster up his ego to read what she had written this time, and to think that there were plenty of other women as well who would as eagerly take him into their arms. Only a partial compensation for this fear that rotted him, but compensation and distraction nevertheless. He opened the letter and read it—nearly six months old, of course, now that all mail save that by air was being routed via the Cape.
Dearest J. J.,
I expect you will laugh at what I have to tell you. In fact I can just picture you doing so, but someone has to break the horrid news to you and I think I am the right person. The fact is that I am married!! To Bill Hunt!!! I suppose it will seem odd to you, especially after what I’ve always said, but marriage is in the air here in England, and Bill (he is a First Lieutenant now) had a spot of leave coming to him, and we didn’t see why we shouldn’t. What will make you laugh even more is that Bill has been doing his best to get me with child, and I have been aiding and abetting him all I can. That is in the air too. And honestly it means something to me after all these years of doing the other thing. And another thing is I shouldn’t be surprised if Bill’s efforts have been successful, although I can’t be sure yet. . . .
Dora’s letter trailed off after that into inconsequential gossip which Jerningham made no effort to read. That opening paragraph was quite enough for him; was far too much, in fact. He felt a wave of hot anger that he should have lost his hold over Dora, even though that hold was of no practical use to him at the moment. It touched his pride most bitterly that Dora should have even thought of marrying a brainless lout like Bill Hunt, and that she should never have expressed a moment’s regret at having to accept Bill as a poor sort of substitute for himself.
But this sort of jealousy was very mild compared with the other kind that he felt at the thought of Dora becoming pregnant. This simply infuriated him. He could not, he felt, bear the thought of it. And the brutal phrase Dora used—“to get me with child”—why in hell couldn’t she have worded it more gently? He knew that he had always coached Dora to call a spade a spade—not that she needed much coaching—but she might have had a little regard for his feelings, all the same. Those pointed words conjured up in Jerningham’s mind mental pictures as vivid as those of bombs dropping on the bridge. Dora and he and the others of his set—Bill among them, for that matter—had always assumed an attitude of lofty superiority towards people who were foolish enough to burden themselves with children and slack-fibred enough to lapse into domesticity; and in moments of high altruism they had always thought it selfish and unkind to bring a child into the sort of world they had to live in. And yet if anyone were going to “get Dora with child” he wanted to do the job himself, and not have Bill Hunt do it. Up to this minute he had hardly even thought of marrying, far less of becoming the father of a family; and yet now he found himself bitterly regretting that he had not married Dora before Artemis left for the Mediterranean, and not merely married her but made her pregnant so that there would be a young Jerningham in England today.
He had never been jealous in his life before, and it hardly occurred to him that he had had almost no cause to be. He had always thought that he would smile a tolerant smile if one of his women before he had quite done with her should transfer her affections to someone else. But this was not the case, very much not the case. He was hot with anger about it, and yet the anger about this was merely nothing compared with his anger at the thought of Dora being made pregnant by Bill Hunt. His jealousy about this was something extraordinary. Jerningham found time even in the heat of his rage to note with surprise the intensity of his feelings on the subject; he had never thought for a moment, during those blasé twenties of his, that he would ever feel the emotions of uncultured humanity. For a harrowing moment he even began to wonder whether all his early cynicism had been quite natural to him. This was certainly the third instance of primitive emotion’s overcoming him—the first was away back in 1939 when he suddenly realized that Hitler was aiming at the enslavement of the world and he had found himself suddenly determined to fight, willing to risk even death and discomfort sooner than be enslaved; the second was when he had known physical fear; and this was the third time, this frightfully painful jealousy, this mad rage at being helpless here at sea while Bill Hunt enjoyed all the privileges of domesticity with Dora Darby. Self-analysis ceased abruptly as a fresh wave of bitter feeling swamped his reason.
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