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Private Clothes
by [?]

At half-past nine the crew of the Merman were buried in slumber, at nine thirty-two three of the members were awake with heads protruding out of their bunks, trying to peer through the gloom, while the fourth dreamt that a tea-tray was falling down a never-ending staircase. On the floor of the forecastle something was cursing prettily and rubbing itself.

“Did you ‘ear anything, Ted?” inquired a voice in an interval of silence.

“Who is it?” demanded Ted, ignoring the question. “Wot d’yer want?”

“I’ll let you know who I am,” said a thick and angry voice. “I’ve broke my blarsted back.”

“Light the lamp, Bill,” said Ted.

Bill struck a tandsticker match, and carefully nursing the tiny sulphurous flame with his hand, saw dimly some high-coloured object on the floor.

He got out of his bunk and lit the lamp, and an angry and very drunken member of Her Majesty’s foot forces became visible.

“Wot are you doin’ ‘ere?” inquired Ted, sharply, “this ain’t the guard-room.”

“Who knocked me over?” demanded the soldier sternly; “take your co–coat off lik’ a man.”

He rose to his feet and swayed unsteadily to and fro.

“If you keep your li’l’ ‘eads still,” he said gravely, to Bill, “I’ll punch ’em.”

By a stroke of good fortune he selected the real head, and gave it a blow which sent it crashing against the woodwork. For a moment the seaman stood gathering his scattered senses, then with an oath he sprang forward, and in the lightest of fighting trim waited until his adversary, who was by this time on the floor again, should have regained his feet.

“He’s drunk, Bill,” said another voice, “don’t ‘urt ‘im. He’s a chap wot said ‘e was coming aboard to see me–I met ‘im in the Green Man this evening. You was coming to see me, mate, wasn’t you?”

The soldier looked up stupidly, and gripping hold of the injured Bill by the shirt, staggered to his feet again, and advancing towards the last speaker let fly suddenly in his face.

“Sort man I am,” he said, autobiographically. “Feel my arm.”

The indignant Bill took him by both, and throwing himself upon him suddenly fell with him to the floor. The intruder’s head met the boards with a loud crash, and then there was silence.

“You ain’t killed ‘im, Bill?” said an old seaman, stooping over him anxiously.

“Course not,” was the reply; “give us some water.”

He threw some in the soldier’s face, and then poured some down his neck, but with no result. Then he stood upright, and exchanged glances of consternation with his friends.

“I don’t like the way he’s breathing,” he said, in a trembling voice.

“You always was pertikler, Bill,” said the cook, who had thankfully got to the bottom of his staircase. “If I was you–“

He was not allowed to proceed any further; footsteps and a voice were heard above, and as old Thomas hastily extinguished the lamp, the mate’s head was thrust down the scuttle, and the mate’s voice sounded a profane reveille.

“Wot are we goin’ to do with it?” inquired Ted, as the mate walked away.

I’m, Ted,” said Bill, nervously. “He’s alive all right.”

“If we put ‘im ashore an’ ‘e’s dead,” said old Thomas, “there’ll be trouble for somebody. Better let ‘im be, and if ‘e’s dead, why we don’t none of us know nothing about it.”

The men ran up on deck, and Bill, being the last to leave, put a boot under the soldier’s head before he left. Ten minutes later they were under way, and standing about the deck, discussed the situation in thrilling whispers as opportunity offered.

At breakfast, by which time they were in a dirty tumbling sea, with the Nore lightship, a brown, forlorn-looking object on their beam, the soldier, who had been breathing stertorously, raised his heavy head from the boot, and with glassy eyes and tightly compressed lips gazed wonderingly about him.

“Wot cheer, mate?” said the delighted Bill. “‘Ow goes it?”