“‘Erbert ‘Enery Bates!”
It was the morning of Speech-day on board the Industrial Training Ship Egeria–July the 31st, to be precise. At 3 p.m. Sir Felix Felix-Williams, Baronet, would arrive to distribute the prizes. He would be attended by a crowd of ladies and gentlemen; and the speeches, delivered beneath an awning on the upper deck, would be fully reported next day in the local newspapers. The weather was propitious.
Just now (11 a.m.) some half a dozen of the elder boys, attired in dirty white dungaree and barefooted, were engaged in swabbing out what, in her sea-going days, had been the Egeria’s ward-room, making ready to set out tables for an afternoon tea to follow the ceremony. They were nominally under supervision of the ship’s Schoolmaster, who, however, had gone off to unpack a hamper of flowers–the gift of an enthusiastic subscriber.
“Step this way, ‘Erbert ‘Enery Bates.”
“You go to hell, Link Andrew!” But the boy stopped his work and faced about, nevertheless.
“See this flag?” Link Andrew dived his long arms into a pile of bunting that lay ready for decorating the tea-room. “Wot is it?”
“Union Jack o’ course, you silly rotter!”
“Oh, you good, good boy! . . . Yes, dear lads,” went on Link Andrew, in a mimicking voice, “it is indeed the meet-your-flag of our ‘oly Motherland, and ‘Erbert ‘Enery Bates, our Good Conduck Medallist, will now oblige by going down on his knees and kissing it. Else I’ll put an eye on him!”
Master Bates–“Good Conduct Bates”–stepped forward, with his fists up. He was something of a sneak and a sucker-up, yet by no means a coward. He advanced bravely enough, although he knew that Link Andrew–the best boxer in the ship–was provoking him of set purpose.
The rest of the boys liked Link and disliked Bates; yet their sense of fair play told them that Link was putting himself in the wrong; and yet again, despite their natural eagerness to see a fight, they wanted to save Link from what could but end in folly. He was playing for a fall.
“Here comes Schoolmaster!” shouted one, at a venture.
At that moment, indeed, the Schoolmaster appeared in the doorway.
“What’s this noise about?” he demanded. “You, Link Andrew? I thought your interest was to avoid trouble for twenty-four hours.”
By the Industrial Schools Act of 1866, 29 & 30 Vict. c. 118, it is ordained that any youngster apparently under the age of fourteen found begging, or wandering destitute, or consorting with thieves, or obstinately playing truant from school, or guilty of being neglected by his parents, or of defying his parents, or of having a parent who has incurred a sentence of penal servitude–may by any two justices be committed to a certified Industrial School, there to be detained until he reaches the age of sixteen, or for a shorter term if the Justices shall so direct. Such an Industrial School was the ex-battleship Egeria.
She had carried seventy-four guns in her time; and though gunless now and jury-masted, was redolent still of the Nelson period from her white-and-gold figure-head to the beautiful stern galleries which Commander Headworthy had adorned with window-boxes of Henry Jacoby geraniums. The Committee in the first flush of funds had spared no pains to reproduce the right atmosphere, and in that atmosphere Commander Headworthy laudably endeavoured to train up his crew of graceless urchins, and to pass them out at sixteen, preferably into the Navy or the Merchant Service, but at any rate as decent members of society. Nor were the boys’ nautical experiences entirely stationary, since a wealthy sympathiser (lately deceased) had bequeathed his fine brigantine yacht to serve the ship as a tender and take a few score of the elder or more privileged lads on an annual summer cruise, that they might learn something of practical seamanship.