I have this, at any rate, to say of sea-life: a man is pre-eminently conscious of a Soul. I feel, remembering the blithe positivism of my early note, that I am here scarcely consistent. As I stood by the rail this morning at four o'clock—the icy fingers of the wind ruffled my hair so that the roots tingled deliciously, and a low, greenish cloud-bank, which was Ireland, lay nebulously against our port bow—I felt a change take place. It was almost physical, organic. The dawn grew whiter, and the rose-pink banners of the coming sun reached out across the grey wastes of the St. George's Channel. I am loth to use the trite metaphor of "a spiritual dawn." By a strange twist of things, my barest hint of a soul within me, that is to say, the faintest glimmer of the ever-increasing purpose of my being—the moment it showed through, the outer world, including my own self, had always greeted it with inextinguishable laughter. Perhaps because the purpose was always so very immature, so very uncertain. I wanted—I hardly knew what. My ideas of morality were so terrible that I left it alone, on one side, for a time, and charged full tilt at art. I shouted that I thought music a disease, and musicians crushed me. I did not mean that; but I could get no nearer to what I did mean in any other phrase. I told hard, practical business men that they were dreamers and visionaries; and they are still dreaming.
But the Angel of the Spirit does not move in any prescribed path, or make his visits to any time-table. I think I heard the far-off beating of his wings this morning, as we swept up-channel towards the Clyde, and I think I was promised deeper knowledge of Love and Life than heretofore. I know that with the dawn came a sense of infinite power and vision, as though the cool wind were the rushing music of the spheres, and the rosy cloudland the outer portals of the Kingdom of God.
And, indeed, I have had my reward. I had come from Italy, where I had wandered through churches and galleries, and had seen the supreme excellence of a generation whose like we shall not see again, and as we came up that stately firth and discovered a generation as supreme in their art as the Italians of the sixteenth century were in theirs, I held my breath.
From Greenock to Glasgow resounded the clangour of hammers and the thunder of mechanism. Plate by plate, rivet by rivet, and beam by beam, there grew before my very eyes the shapes of half a hundred ships. I see more clearly still, now, what I meant by insisting on the conservation of intellectual energy. My friend points piteously to past periods, and says, "They can't do it now, old man." And I smile and point to those steel steamships, growing in grace and beauty as I watch, and I say, "They couldn't do that then, old man!" Just as the physical energy in this universe is a definite totality, so is the intellectual or spiritual energy. The Da Vinci of to-day leaves his Last Supper undepicted; but he drives a Tube through the London clay. Cellini no longer casts a Perseus and alternates a murder with a Trattato; he builds engines and railroads and ships. Michael Angelo smites no sibyls from the living stone, but he has carved the face of the very earth to his design. And though no fair youth steps forth to paint the unearthly nimbus-light around the brows of his beloved madonna, I count it fair exchange that from every reef and point of this our sea-girt isle there shines a radiance none can watch without a catching of the breath.
It is a far call from such musings to the Skipper, whom I encountered as I was in the midst of them. It is only the bald truth to say that I had not then considered him to be a human being. Even now I am uncertain how to describe him, for we do not meet often. He is a tall, powerfully built, slow-moving man, strong with the strength of those who live continually at sea. Something apart from temporary bias made me look distastefully upon his personality. I resolved to fasten it upon my dissecting board, and analyse it, relegating it if possible to its order, genus, and species. Let me try.
A single glance at the specimen before us, gentlemen, tells us that we have to deal with a remarkable case of arrested development. Although inexperienced observers might imagine traces of the British colonel, as found in Pall Mall, in the bristling white moustache, swollen neck, and red gills, we find neither public school education nor inefficiency much in evidence anywhere. On the contrary, education is in a rudimentary condition, though with slightly protuberent mathematical and fictional glands. Inefficiency, too, is quite absent, the organ having had but small opportunity to perform its functions. The subject, we may conclude, gentlemen, has been accustomed to a sort of mathematical progression and having to ascertain its whereabouts in the water by "taking the sun." It has been fed chiefly on novels, food which requires no digestive organs. It has a horror of land generally, and should never be looked for "on the rocks." You observe this accumulation of yellow tissue round the heart. The subject is particularly fond of gold, which metal eventually strangles the heart and renders its action ineffective and unreliable.
Longfellow, if I remember rightly, drew a very spirited comparison between the building and launching of a ship and the building and launching of a state. The state, said he, is a ship. M-yes, in a poetical way. But no poetry is needed to say that a ship is a state. I maintain that it is the most perfect state yet conceived; and it is almost startling to think that so perfect an institution as a ship can be run successfully without morality, without honesty, without religion, without even ceremonial—without, in fact, any of those props usually considered by Tories and Nonconformists to be so vital to the body-politic.
For, observe, here on this ship we have some forty human beings, each of whom has certain clearly defined duties to perform, each of whom owes instant and absolute obedience to his superior officer; each of whom receives a definite amount of food, drink, tobacco, and sleep per day; each of whom is bound for a certain period to remain in the state, but is free to go or stay when that period terminates; each of whom is at liberty to be of any persuasion he please, of any political party he please, to be of any nationality he please, provided he speak the language of the state; each of whom is medically attended by the state; and, finally, each of whom can snap his fingers at every Utopia-monger since Plato, and call him a fool who makes paradises for other fools to dwell in. So, I say, the ship is a perfect state, its very perfection being attested by the desire of its inhabitants to end their days elsewhere.
Joking aside, though, I fear my notions of sailor-men have been sadly jarred since I began to study them. Writing with one eye on this master-mariner of ours, I call to mind certain conceptions of the sailor-man which my youthful mind gathered from books and relations. He was an honest, God-fearing man; slightly superstitious certainly, slightly forcible in his language at times, slightly garrulous when telling you about the Sarah Sands; but all these were as spots on the sun. He was just and upright towards all men, never dreamed of making money "on his own," and read prayers aloud on Sunday morning to the assembled seamen.
Humph! I own I cannot imagine this skipper reading anything aloud to his crew except the Riot Act, and he would not get more than half-way through that if his cartridges were dry. There is a brutal, edge-of-civilization look in his cold blue eye which harmonizes ill with the Brixton address on the letters he sends to his wife.
Ah, well! Sometimes, when I think of this man and his like, when I think of my puny attempts to creep into their skins, I must need laugh, lest, like Beaumarchais, I should weep. What, after all, do I know of him? What is there in my armoury to pierce this impenetrable outer-man? Once, when I was Browning-mad, I began an epic. Yes, I, an epic! I pictured the hordes of civilisation sweeping over an immense and beautiful mountain, crushing, destroying, manufacturing, and the burden of their cry was a scornful text of Ruskin's—"We do not come here to look at the mountain"; and they shouted, "Stand aside." And then, when the mountain lay blackened, and dead, and disembowelled, out of the hordes of slaves came a youth who would not work and thereby lose his soul; so he set out on a pilgrimage. And the burden of his song was "the hearts of men."
"And the cry went up to the roofs again, Show me the way to the hearts of men."
But, alas! by the time I had got back into blank verse again, he had fallen in love, and as far as I know he lived happy ever after. But I often think of his clear, boyish voice singing, "Show me the way to the hearts of men."
Gilbert Chesterton, whose genius I hope my friend will some day appreciate, once wrote a strange "crazy tale," in which he meets a madman who had stood in a field; and this seemingly silent pasture had presented to his ears an unspeakable uproar. And he says, "I could hear the daisies grow!" Well, I have sometimes thought of that when in some roaring street of London. Could I but hear men and women think as they pass along! To what a tiny hum would the traffic fall when that titanic clangour met my ears! I imagine Walter Pater had this thought in mind when he says, so finely, of young Gaston de Latour: "He became aware, suddenly, of the great stream of human tears, falling always through the shadows of the world."
How good that is! But, alas! So few read Pater. It is true men cannot possibly read everything. To quote another exquisite thinker, who I fear drops more and more into oblivion: "A man would die in the first cloisters" if he tried to read all the books of the world. But it is strange so few read those eight or nine volumes, so beautifully printed, which are Pater's legacy to us. How they would be repaid by the delicate dexterity of his art, the wonderful music of his style! But I digress.
I have no doubt that many monarchs would envy the life of a steamship captain at sea. Indeed, his duties are non-existent, his XXXX responsibility enormous. He bears the same relation to his company that a Viceroy of India bears to the Home Government. So extended were his powers that he could take the steamer into a port, sell her cargo, sell the vessel herself, discharge her crew, and disappear for ever. It is a sad pill for us sentimentalists that those who live by and on the sea have less sentiment than any others. These masters are wholly intent on the things of which money is the exchange. They have never yet seen "the light that never was, on sea or land." Their utmost flight above "pickings" and "store commissions" is a morose evangelicalism, a sort of ill-breeding illumined by the smoky light of the Apocalypse. But they never relax their iron grasp on this world. Perhaps because they feel the supernal tugging at them so persistently they hold the tighter to the tangible. They are ashamed, I think, to let any divinity show through. "And ye shall be as gods" was not uttered of them. The romance—that is the word!—the romance of their lives is never mirrored in their souls. And the realisation of this has sometimes led me to imagine that—it was always so! I mean that there was nothing poetic to Hercules about the Augean task, when the pungent smell of ammonia filled his nostrils, and he bent a sweat-dewed face to that mighty scavenging once more: that there was nothing poetic to Caesar about the Rubicon: nothing poetic to Clive about India. The world seems to have an invincible prejudice against men who see the romance in the work they are doing. The footballing, cigarette-smoking clerk, who lives at Hornsey or Tufnell Park, works in an office in Queen Victoria Street, lunches at Lyons's, and plays football at Shepherd's Bush, sees no romance in his own life, which is in reality thrilling with adventure, but thinks Captain Kettle the hero of an ideal existence. Captain Kettle, bringing coal from Dunston Staiths to Genoa, suffers day after day of boredom, and reads Marie Corelli and Hall Caine with a relish only equalled by the girl typewriters in the second-class carriages of the eight-fifteen up from Croydon or Hampstead Heath. These people cannot see the sunlight of romance shining on their own faces! I observe in myself a frantic resentment when I fail to convince the other officers that they are heroes. They regard such crazy notions as dangerous and scarcely decent. You can now perceive why religion occasionally gains such a hold upon these men. To be uplifted about work, or nature, or love, is derogatory to their dignity as bond-slaves of the industrial world; but in the realms of the infinite future, in the Kingdom of God, where "there shall be no more sea," their souls break away from the harbour-mud, and they put out on the illimitable ocean of belief.
It is so long since I set my hand to paper that I am grown rusty! I did not write you from Madeira—that is true. One cannot write from Madeira when "Madeira" means a plunging vortex of coal-dust, a blazing sun, and the unending roar of the winches as they fish up ton after ton of coal. Moreover, I was boarded by a battalion of fleas from the Spanish labourers in my vicinity—fleas that had evidently been apprenticed to their trade, and had been allowed free scope for the development of their ubiquitous genius. I looked at the old rascal who tallied the bags with me, envisaged in parchment, and clothed in picturesque remnants, and heard his croaking "Cincuo saco, Senor," or "Cuarro saco, Senor," as he bade me note the varying numbers on the hook, and I wondered inwardly whether the Holy Office had experimented during the sixteenth century with Spanish fleas, and so brought them to such an astonishing perfection in the administration of slow torture. Breeding, I take it, holds good with fleas as with horses, dogs, etc. Those born of parents with thicker mail, longer springs, harder proboscis, and greater daring in initiative, would doubtless be selected and encouraged, if I may say so, to go farther. It is possible that many famous recantations could be accounted for by this hypothesis. Galileo, for instance, probably had a sensitive epidermis which afforded an unlimited field for the exploitation of Spanish fleas, which formed, according to my theory, an indispensable item in the torture chest carried by the fraternity in Tuscany. Giordano Bruno, on the other hand, I imagine to have been a XXXX dark-skinned heretic, tanned by travel and hardship, and regarding the aphanipterous insect with the sardonic contempt of one who had lived in England in the sixteenth century. His own gown probably contained....
I was roused from these musings by observing four bags come up on the hook, and hearing them saluted by my picturesque vis-a vis with "Cincuo saco, Senor!" I deserted my theory and hastened to point out the error of fact. He bowed his head in submission with all the haughty grace of Old Castile. When out at sea once more, I looked back along his ancestral line; I saw him in the days of old, marching through Italy with the Great Emperor, taking part in some murderous deed that cried to the law for vengeance, flying from Spain in a tall galleon to still more desperate work upon the high seas, settling in these pleasant islands with bloody booty in pieces of eight, drifting down and down to an adobe hut, and an occasional job as sub-deputy assistant stevedore to a British coal factor. Then he faded from my sight, and the life of an ocean tramp closed round me once more.
Sailcloth and coal-dust being our equivalent for sackcloth and ashes, the steamer looks mournful indeed as she drives southward towards the Cape. But with lower latitudes comes warmer weather, and a sea so unutterably smooth that one loses faith in the agony of the Bay or the Gulf of Lyons, while the hellish frenzy of the North Atlantic in winter is a distemper of the brain. It is in such halcyon days that we begin to believe in paint. The decks are methodically chipped and scraped of their corroding rust, ventilators are washed and painted, and all the deck-houses are cleansed of a coating of coal-dust which seems appalling. As the days drone by the filth disappears; pots of red, white, brown, and black paint come out of the Mate's secret store in the "fore-peak," and one hears satirical approval from those below. "Like a little yacht, she is," says one, and the Second Mate is asked if he has a R. Y. S. flag in the chart-room. I fear the wit who called the engine-room a whited sepulchre had some smack of truth in him. The Mate had given it an external coating of paint as white as the driven snow, and it needed no heaven-sent seer to perceive that within it was full of all uncleanness. But what would you? The engines do not run of themselves, though to say so is one of the navigator's few joys in a world of woe. The ship herself knows better, I think, though perchance she is like us other mortals, and thinks her heart best unattended, and sees no connection between the twenty-five tons of coal she eats per day and the tiny clink which the speed recorder gives every quarter of a mile on the poop. We below, at any rate, know all this, for therein is the justification of our existence. And so our decorations must needs wait till we reach port, when the holds are in travail and the winches scream out their agony to the bare brown hills beyond the town and mingle with the deep, dull roar of the surf on the barrier reef.
And now let me describe my day at sea, as well as I am able. Different indeed from those I was wont to spend at home. No delicious hours in our pet hostelries; no Sundays with music and an open window looking out upon the river; no rollicking evenings in some dear old tumble-down studio; no midnight rambles towards home down the Fulham Road, where the ghostly women walk; no cosy talks round the fire when the fog lies white against the glass, while the candle-light glows on the tall, warm rose-wood book-case, and all is well with us. Nay, as eight-bells strikes ting-ting-ting-ting-ting-ting-ting-ting, and the hands of the clocks point to twelve midnight, I awake. Ten minutes before, George the Fourth, of whom I may tell more anon, switches on the light and punches me in the ribs. I turn over to sleep again, while he rummages in his berth for soap, towel, and clean shirt, and goes below. A gay, likeable lad is George the Fourth, with bonnie brown hair and steady blue eyes.
Mechanically I rise at twelve, hustle on my "dungarees," and, sweat-rag in my teeth, I pass along the deck beneath the stars which dust the midnight dome. My friend the Mate is just ahead, as I vanish through a low-arched doorway which shows black against his white paint. Careful now; these stairs are steep, and the upward-rising air is like a gust of the "stormy blast of hell." Round the low-pressure cylinder, then down again—and we are "below."
The steady beat and kick has become a thunderous uproar; by the yellow light of the electrics you can see the engines—my engines for the next four hours. George is round by the pumps, stripped to the waist, washing. He has finished; on the black-board he has recorded his steam-pressure, his vacuum, his speed per minute, the temperature of his sea water, his discharge water, and feed water; but he cannot leave till I have thumbed all bearings, noted all water levels, tried the gauges, and see that bilges, pumps, thrust-block, tunnel-shaft, and stern-gland are all right. And while I do all this I try to make out the orchestration of the uproar as my friend would some tremendous Wagnerian clangour. Ah, what would he think of this, the very heart of things, if he were but here?
Does George the Fourth feel the romance of it? Not a bit. George the Fourth was pitch-forked into a marine engineering shop at the ripe age of thirteen. He is twenty-two now, and carnal minded. He wants "siller" for—well, not for the Broomielaw. He wants to go "east" again to Singapore, where the ladies of Japan are so charming and so cheap. The only hope for him is that he may fall in love. I pray without ceasing that he may fall in love. See the young pagan lounging round by the stokehold door. Now you will perceive what I argued as to the heroic nature of their lives.
"L.P. Top end is warm," I observe reproachfully.
"'Twas red-hot when it came to me," he exaggerates genially, putting a clay "gun" in his mouth, and adding:
"Chief says, clean Number Four smoke-boxes fore and aft yoore watch, an' ta trimmers to tak' nowt fra' th' thwart-ship boonkers."
Then he swings away, climbing the stairs with one eye on the engine. A goodly youth, such as we admire; a magnificent young animal with possibilities.
And then the firemen. I stand under the ventilator—it is cooler—and I watch them toil. Think well upon it, my friend. These were men doing this while you were at your German University, while you were travelling over Europe and storing your mind with the best of all times. They are doing it now, will do it while you are at your work at the Institute. They have their business in the great waters. That little man there, with two fingers of his left hand gone, is Joe, a Welshman from his beloved Abertawe. Beyond him, again, the huge gaunt frame and battered deep-sea cap, the draggled military moustache surmounted by high cheek-bones, the long, thin, sinewy arms tattooed with French dancing-girls—where shall our knowledge of the nations place him? That is Androwsky, from Novorossisk, in South Russia. A vast, silent man, uttering but three or four words a day. His story? I cannot tell it, for he never speaks. In my poor way I have tried to get it in German, but it is no good. In the meantime he is almost the best fireman in the ship. Indeed, all my men are good. Scarcely ever do we have less than full steam at the end of the watch.
And now, my engines! To the uninitiated it is, I suppose, a tiresome, bewildering uproar. And yet every component, every note of this great harmony, has a special meaning for the engineer; moreover, the smallest dissonance is detected at once, even though he be almost ready to doze. So finely attuned to the music does the ear become that the dropping of a hammer in the stokehold, the rattling of a chain on deck, the rocking of a barrel in the stores, makes one jump. It is the same with the eye. It is even the same with the hand. We can tell in an instant if a bearing has warmed ever so slightly beyond its legitimate temperature. And so it is difficult to know "who is the potter and who the pot." The man and the machine are inextricably associated, and their reflex actions, one upon the other, are infinite. It is this extraordinary intimacy, this ceaseless vigilance and proximity, that gives the marine engineer such a pull over all others where endurance and resource accompany responsibility. In all big power-stations you will find many men with long sea service in charge of the engines.
I remember arguing once with a matter-of-fact apprentice in the shop concerning the suburbs as suitable localities for such as he. He was not convinced. "There!" he said, slapping the shelf above his bench. "That's where I'd like ter sleep. All yer gotter do at six o'clock is roll off and turn to!" Well, that is just what he would get at sea. In most steamers the engineer walks out of the mess-room, bathroom, or berth, into an alley-way on either side of the engine platform. The beat of the engines becomes part of his environment. He sleeps with it pulsing in his ears, so that if she slows or stops he opens his eyes. When I go up at four o'clock and call the Second Engineer, he will stretch, yawn, half open one eye, and mutter, "What's the steam?"
To keep him awake I retail some piece of current engine gossip. "After-bilge pump jibbed at three o'clock," I say. "Aw ri' now?" he asks. "Yes, aw ri' now," I answer. "You'll have to watch the M.P. guide though—she's warm." Then, remarking that the after-well is dry, and that I've got plenty of water in the boilers for him, I leave him and go below till he relieves me. It is a point of honour among us to know every kink and crotchet of day-to-day working. If a joint starts "blowing" ever so little away up in some obscure corner of our kingdom, we know of it within an hour or two. One would think we were a mothers' meeting discussing our babies, to hear the grave tittle-tattle concerning the inevitable weakness of babies and engines which passes over the mess-room table.
Now come with me along the tunnel, then, to the end of the world. A narrow, sliding water-tight door in the bulkhead here, under the shadow of the thrust-block—elegance in design, you will observe, being strictly subordinated to use. Follow carefully now, and leave that shaft alone. It will not help you at all if you slip. The music has died away, only a solemn clonk-clonk—clonk-clonk reverberates through this narrow, Norman-arched catacomb. At length we emerge into a larger vaulted chamber, where the air is singularly fresh—but I forgot. I am not writing a smugglers' cave story. We are under an air-shaft running up to the poop-deck, and we may go no further. The fourteen-inch shaft disappears through a gland, and, just beyond that is the eighteen-foot propeller whirling in the blue ocean water. Here, for us, is the great First Cause. Of the illimitable worlds of marine flora and fauna outside these riveted steel walls the sailor-man knows nothing and cares less. What are called "the wonders of the deep" have no part in the life of the greatest wonder of the deep—the seaman.
And when the propeller drops away, as it does sometimes—drops "down to the dark, to the utter dark, where the blind white sea-snakes are"—there goes out from that ship all life, all motion. Even as the mass of metal plunges downward and as the frenzied engineer rushes through blinding steam and water to stop the engines in their panic rush, the spirit of the vessel goes out of her in a great sigh. With dampered ash-pits her fires blacken and go out, the idle steering-engine clanks and rattles as the useless rudder tugs at her chains, and the crew tell in whispers how it happened just like that on the Gipsy Queen, out of Sunderland, or the Gerard Dow, out of Antwerp. All of which is not to be learned in the study at home. Let us get back to the engine-room.
I am curious to know how all this would strike my friend at home. Would it not, as Henley used to say, give him much to perpend? I hear him mutter that phrase we talked out once, at the tea-table—"The Age of Mechanism." But why not an Age of Heroism? Mind, I use this latter word in its true sense as I use the word Hero. For some occult reason, known only to Brixton and Peckham Rye, a hero is the person who jumps into the Thames and pulls a woman out, or the interesting inanity of a popular serial. There is nothing essentially heroic in life-saving. Indeed, all the old heroes of Norseland, Rome, and Greece regarded the saving of life with a contempt that was only natural when we consider the utter lack of board schools and their frantic belief in a hereafter. I imagine the Norse Sea-kings who pushed out to Vine-land—aye, even down to Cape Cod—would have been puzzled to hear an undersized clerk who had saved a man from a watery grave described as a hero. Their method was to pull the drowning wretch out with a boat-hook, and curse him for being so clumsy as to fall in. Eric the Red never worried about a sailor who had the bad judgment to be washed overside during the night. Hercules would have felt outraged had the Royal Humane Society of the period loaded him down with their medals. Achilles would as soon have thought of committing the interminable catalogue of the Grecian Ships to memory as of associating the saving of life with the heroic. I am not suggesting that these heroes are more worthy of emulation than a life-saver; I only want to explain that there is, in our day, a race of beings, half-man, half-god, who correspond, in all broad characteristics, to those rather indecent heroes of early imaginative literature. They do with ease those deeds which would have appalled the mailed monsters of chivalry; they regard the other sex as being created solely for their use in port; they love life dearly, but they leave the saving of it, like the heroes of old, to the gods.
One has only to listen (in the galley) to their nonchalantly narrated tales of mystery and horror to realize the truth of that argument. A steady monotone is the key of their telling, their voices rising only to hammer home some particularly horrific detail. Sometimes, in the clangour of the engine-room, they will relate perilous misadventures at sea, or ludicrous entanglements in sunny southern ports. But they never waste breath in elaboration or "atmosphere." They leave that to the nervous listener. They know nothing of the artistic values of their virile tales. They do not know they are only carrying on the tradition of the men of all time since Homer. They fling you the fine gold of their own lives, and wallow in the tittle-tattle of lady-novelists and Reynolds's. They seethe with admiration for Captain Kettle's amazing manoeuvres, while the shipping offices are papered with lists of those who are too indolent or too forgetful to claim their service medals from the Government.
I remember, in the grey dawn one day last week, my relief sang in my ear as he wiped his hands after "feeling round," "Deutschland's astern, goin' like fury." "Sure?" I asked. "Only boat with four funnels in the line," he said. Four funnels! I raced up and aft, and saw her. Some three miles astern going westward, going grandly. From each of her enormous funnels belched vast clouds of black smoke till she looked like some Yorkshire township afloat. Through glasses I could see the dome of the immense dining saloon, and the myriad port-holes in her wall-like side. I could see her moving fast, though so far away. As the head sea caught the massive bows, she never waited. Her 35,000 h.p. drove her crashing through them, and they broke high in air in clouds of foam. Splendid! I thought. But my heart was with those "below." Think of the toil! Six or seven hundred tons of coal per day is flung into her dozens of furnaces, against our twenty-five tons. Think of the twenty-odd engineers who scarcely see their bunks from the Elbe to the Hudson. And, in that cool, grey, pearly dawn, think of those passengers sleeping in their palatial state-rooms, with never a thought of the slaves who drive that monstrous ship across the Atlantic at such an appalling speed. I say "appalling" because I know. The smoking-room nuisance will say, "Pooh! My dear fellow, the Lusitania licks us clean with her twenty-five knots." He is coldly critical because he does not know.
But I digress.
Look around now. You observe we lose very little space in gangways. Even in front of the engines, where we are walking to and fro, the space is perilously narrow between the fly-wheel of the reversing engine and the lathe. Some thirty feet long, this engine-room, bulkhead to bulkhead, and, save for a recess or two extending to the ship's skin, penned in between bunkers. Twelve hundred tons of coal, distributed like a thick wall round us, make the place warm in the tropics. Forward, the stokeholds, dimly enough lit save when a furnace door opens and a fiery glow illuminates the bent back and soot-blurred face of some cosmopolitan fireman. Overhead, each lit by a single lamp, are the water-gauges—green glass tubes in which the water ebbs and flows with the motion of the ship.
Well, the time is going fast—'twill soon be four o'clock, eight bells, and I am relieved. What do I think of on "watch"? That's a question! The engines chiefly, with an under-current of "other things." Often and often, in the dark nooks of my dominions, will I see the glimmering, phantom light-o'-love. Sometimes it will come and sit beside me if all runs smooth, and then I fly across the broad blue floors of the tropic night sky towards England. Not that my fairy elf is a fair-weather friend. Through blinding oil and sweat I have seen grey eyes smile and a white hand beckon. In times of trial and sore need I have turned desperately towards that faery glimmer, and never have I come back unencouraged or unrefreshed.
Of my friend, too, I think often, as I know he thinks of me. Of our dear old rooms on the Walk; of our cosy evenings alone; of our rambles in search of the Perfect Pub (where, he told me, they sold hot rum up to 3 a.m.); of the Chelsea Freaks, who add so unconsciously to the gaiety of the nations—how I have laughed incontinently, and how some fireman's face would brighten when I laughed, though he knew not the reason!
Of books, too, I have many thoughts; which reminds me that one cannot imagine how different are the "values" of books, out here at sea, to their values at home in the metropolis. To steal a phrase from chemistry, their "valency" alters. Their relative "combining weights" seem to vary; by which I mean, their applicability to life, their vital importance to me as a man, changes. This change, moreover, is all in favour of the classics. One sees through shams more quickly—at least, I think so. Books which I could always respect, yet never touch, now come forth and show their glories to me. My own past work, too, drops pathetically into its own place. And that is? Spare me this confession!
One night, one star-light night, when the dark blue heaven, slashed across with the pale immensity of the Milky Way, watched me with its million winking eyes, I stole out on the poop with some stories in my hand, and dropped them into the creamy rush of the wake. As the poor little bits of paper swayed and eddied and drowned in the foaming vortex, I felt, deep down in that heart which some say I do not possess, a vague tremor of unrest. I felt, somehow, close to Eternity. And then, as I went below once more, I wondered, "Will they all go like that?" "Shall I live to do any good work?" Oh, the terrible sadness of Noble Attempts! How I toiled at those stories! And all for nothing. Flung, like the ashes from our furnaces, like the rubbish from our larders, into the cruel oblivion of the unheeding sea.
Such is the mood which comes over me at times when the pettiness of the past starts up in the presence of these immensities of sea and sky. M., you know, when he would come back to his studio from some yachting cruise in the Channel, and find me in his armchair, would drag me out to look at the ceaselessly changing glories of the river at sunset, and tell me how the vastness of the sea always communicated to him an overwhelming sense of the Power of God.
"You can't get away from it, old man," he would say. "Out there alone, man is nothing, God is everything." Why could I never assent to that? Why, when people ask me if I love the sea, am I silent? Well, have you ever heard the sudden yapping of a puppy at night? Imagine it, then, at sea. The two Immensities between which we creep: the sea flashing with her own secret glory of phosphorescent fire, the sky emblazoned with her countless diadems, and then—yap-yap-yap! That is how the pestilent cackle of many people affects me when they rave about the sea. Why do they not keep silent, like the stars? God! These fools, I think, would clatter up the steps of the Great White Throne, talking, talking, talking! When the pearly gates swing wide to let us in, when we pace the burnished vistas towards the Presence, when the measureless music of the Most High God fills our hearts—yap-yap-yap!
Music, I said! I think I stand towards music as I stand towards sea and sky. Oh, I could squirm when I think of the bickerings I have had with music-lovers. And yet with you, my friend, prince of music-lovers, I have had no quarrel. Because, I think, you let me alone. When you feel in the mood, when the moon is on the river, and the warm breeze gently sways the curtains by the open window, you will sit down and improvise, and I will lie in my deep chair, and smoke and dream. You cease, and say "Do you like it?" and I am silent.
Then you laugh and go on again. You understand. But what maniacal frenzy is this which demands a vociferous "passionate love of music" from everyone? Watch the current dish-water fiction. Every character, male and female, is "passionately fond of music." Which means? That the readers of this stuff consider a passionate love of music to be fashionable. It is so easy, you see, to possess it. There is no need to study either musical theory, practice, history, or biography. An inane expression of vacuous content when music is being rendered, a quantity of rhapsodical rubbish about Chopin and Beethoven without any knowledge of either, and behold! a lover of music. Yap-yap-yap!
With all this, I know, you agree, but you ask yourself, as you read, what has this to do with a marine engineer's working day? It has everything to do with it. It has everything to do with the working day of every man. For this indiscriminate belauding of the love of music leads to an almost unimaginable hypocrisy among those who do not think. Certainly, Music is the highest of the Arts, and the oldest, just (I presume) as Astronomy is the highest and most ancient science. One is pure form, the other pure mathematics. And so, I may conclude, the "Music of the Spheres" comprises all that is highest and purest and truest within our comprehension. But this fashionable, open-mouthed delirium is no more a worship of music than star-gazing is serious astronomy. These hypocrites are sailing under false colours. I noticed, when I once suggested at a dinner-table the cultivation of the tin whistle, amusement among the men, and titters among the women. When I asked why old Pan's instrument should be so bespattered with ridicule, they were instantly serious, as is their habit when you mention any one who has passed away. You see my point? I protest against this nasty slime of hypocrisy which is befouling every part of our intellectual and national life. We love the sea, we old sea-dogs, descendants (we proudly think) of the mighty Norsemen—we love it from Brighton Beach. We love Sport, do we who sneer at Frenchmen because they cannot play football—we love it from the closely packed amphitheatres of the race-course and footer-field, as spectators. We love War—with a penny flag and a yell in front of the Mansion House. We love Children, for we leave them to dwell in slums. And we love Music with all our hearts, because we were told that we did, and the wise repeat that it elevates and refines the soul.
I am disappointed with the meagre letter my friend sends me, "in haste"! Disappointed and surprised withal, inasmuch as he finds time to say, hastily enough, "Give me of your best; describe, toujours, describe!" To which I can only reply, "Humph!" Mon ami, I do not write for the sake of showing off my penmanship, nor my authorship. When I have time, I lie down, on my stuffed-seaweed bed, and write my thoughts leisurely and enjoyably. A letter is something which would not be set down if the two persons concerned were within speaking distance. The mere fact that I endeavour to give my jottings some rude literary finish proves nothing to the contrary. When we are gathered together round the fire or the tea-table, the same thing obtains. The difference between conversation and tittle-tattle lies in the participants of the former giving a finish to their contributions, watching for points, keeping the main channel of conversation clear of the lumber of extraneous witticism and personalities, gradually leading the timid to think and, later, to express their thoughts, using the learning which they have acquired in secret for the edification or building-up of us all.
I remember how, when young H—— visited our anchorage, he sat silent and abashed while we thundered and declaimed about his bewildered head. And then, when the conversation moved, naturally enough, from education to religion, from religion to science, and from science to evolution, I noticed how, so to speak, he pricked up his ears. He was thinking then, trying to realize, however faintly, that inside him was something different to anything inside us. His Catholic training, his sequestered up-bringing, his entomological studies, his intellectual resiliency, so deftly utilized by the Society of Jesus—all these came gradually into view, and we found truth, which is perfected praise, emanating from the babe by whom, I had been assured, we were to be bored to distraction.
We realize only too little what has been lost through the decay of conversation. "Come, let us reason together." And "letters" are only a form of reasoning together adapted to our special needs, gaining perhaps some added pathos from the implied separation of kindred souls, and a further value from the permanence and potential artistry of the form itself. It is not incumbent upon us to be very deep in the eighteenth century to remark that, with conversation, letter-writing dwindles and dies before the rush of mechanism and trade. It is easy to see the reason of this. Mechanism and trade are expressions of dissatisfaction with one's circumstances. Men used machines to make and carry commodities, not because they felt the exquisite joy of making, or the still higher joy of giving, but because they, or their wives, wanted larger houses, more splendid equipages, more sumptuous provender. Conversation, on the other hand, implies leisure and contentment of mind. I do not mean idlers and persons of no ambition. Neither of these classes ever wrote letters or shone in conversations.
So, musing upon my friend's hasty screed, I wonder how I am, in very truth, to give him of my best. True, I know from that hint that he is fighting with beasts at Ephesus to get his play into working, or rather playing order. This is sufficient to make me forgive my friend. But consider in future, mon ami, that your letters are the only conversation I can enjoy out here, for the heroes with whom I toil know not the art.
The transition of a great nation from barbarism to an elementary form of culture is always interesting. So, too, is the same transition in the case of a "great profession." In 1840, when the propulsion of ships by means of a steam-driven screw opened a new era in maritime history, the "practical man" in the engineering trade was an uneducated savage. Possessing no trade union, no voice in Parliament, no means of educating himself in the intricate theory of the machinery he helped to build, the mechanic of sixty years ago was regarded by those above him in the social scale merely as a "hand." When, therefore, steamships became common, and men were needed to operate and care for the propelling mechanism, they were naturally drawn from the ranks of mechanics who were employed in the works to construct it. Stokers were enlisted, in a similar way, from those working on land-boilers. Here, then, were two new classes of seamen, corresponding very largely to the officers and sailors of a sailing-ship. To the unbiassed judgment, it went without saying that the engineer on watch would take rank with the navigating officer on watch; but the old school of mariners, the school whose ideas of progress are crystallised for all time in the historic report of certain Admiralty Lords that "steam power would never be of any practical use in Her Majesty's Navy," thought differently. In their opinion, the engineer was the same as a stoker, and from that day almost to this the deck-officer who served his time in a sailing-ship secretly regards the engineers of his steamer as upstarts more or less, whose position and pay are a gross encroachment upon his own more ancient privileges.
A little consideration will show that there was some reason for this feeling in the beginning. In the case of the Royal Navy, the aggravation was particularly acute. The deck-officers, then as now, were sons of gentlemen, were members of an ancient and honourable service, a service included among that select quaternity, to be outside of which was to be a nonentity—the Navy, the Army, the Church, and the Bar. The naval officer, then as now, did not soil his hands, wore a sword, and was swathed in an inextricable meshwork of red tape, service codes, and High Toryism. He had his own peculiar notions of studying a profession, looked askance at the new-fangled method of driving a ship, honestly thinking, with Ruskin, that a "floating kettle" was a direct contravention of the laws of God. Imagine, then, the aristocratic consternation of these honourable gentlemen when the care and maintenance of propelling machinery, auxiliary mechanism, and also guns and gun-mountings, were gradually transferred to a body of men of low social extraction, uncultured and unpolished land-lubbers and civilians! Only within the last twenty years have naval engineer officers, now drawn from the same social strata as the navigating officers, won official recognition of their importance in the personnel of a ship.
In the case of the engineers of the Mercantile Marine the struggle has been the same, though by no means so bitter or so sustained. The reasons for this are two.
In the first place, the navigating officers of a merchantman are merely the employees of civilians—the shipowners. In the second place, the Board of Trade, by compelling shipowners to carry a certain number of navigators and engineers holding certificates of competency, have placed them on one professional level. Nevertheless, the animosity between the mates and the shrewd, greasy, sea-going engineer was keen enough, sharpened no doubt by the preponderating wages of the latter. Again, the former's habits of deference and mute obedience to the master, at once navigator, agent, and magistrate of the ship, were not readily assimilated by the engineer, whose democratic consciousness was just then rising into being, and whose mechanical instincts were outraged by the sailor's ignorant indifference to the knowledge and unremitting vigilance demanded by the machinery in his care.
It is in this fashion that a class of men like my Chief have developed. Born of the lower middle class, the artisan class, apprenticed to their trade at twelve or thirteen years of age, and, on going to sea, suddenly finding themselves in possession of a definite uniform and rank with a fixed watch and routine, their natural instinct leads them to do their utmost to "live up" to their new dignity. In course of time, after a certain minimum of sea service, and an unbroken record of efficiency and good behaviour, the Board of Trade examiner affixes his stamp on the finished product, and the youth ventures on matrimony and indulges in dreams of rising in the world. His travelling has given his mind a certain shallow breadth of outlook; he will discuss Italian art with you, although his knowledge of Italy is confined to the low parts of Genoa and Naples, with perhaps a visit to the Campo Santo of the former. He has acquired the reading habit, perforce, at sea, though his authors would be considered dubious by the educated; and a smattering of some other language, generally Spanish, is, in his own opinion, good reason for holding himself above the common mechanic ashore. His salary as a chief engineer enables his wife to keep a servant and buy superior garments; he puts money by, and in the course of time solidifies his position as a genuine bourgeois. In the meantime he exhales Smiles. He believes in Rising in the World. He would blot out a perfectly inoffensive, if ignoble, ancestry, and he would also, if he could, make friends with English Grammar. But how can I hope for his success in the latter struggle when the books he borrows from my little store are returned uncut. Possibly the colourless eyes, which survey me over the retrousse nose and deceptive moustache, are capable of gathering wisdom from the uncut fields of learning. And yet, and yet, have I not unintentionally surprised him in his cabin devouring "The Unwritten Commandment" or "The Lady's Realm," while my Aristophanes is on the settee? I do not blame a sea-going engineer for disliking Aristophanes. Many agricultural labourers would find him uninforming. But why borrow him and simulate a cultured interest in his plays?
My friend, I think, abhors blatant uxoriousness. So do I. And I fear the Most Wonderful Man on Earth is blatantly uxorious. I honour him for a certain sadness in his voice when he speaks of unrequited love. But his constant reference to Ibsen's motif in the "Wild Duck," though it fails in its primary object of convincing me that he is familiar with Ibsen's plays, does in truth tell me that some fair one gave him sleepless nights.
Of course, this amusing assumption would not stand a single hour in a cultured circle. Some periodicals of the day foster the fallacy in many an unfortunate mind that to read about a book is really quite as good as actually to read it. Their readers are led to infer that learning is quite a spare-time affair. I once assured a victim of this delusion that in true culture there was no threepence-in-the-shilling discount; and he wrinkles his brows yet, I believe, wondering what I meant. How many years of close study, my friend, are required to enable one to stroll through a second-hand book-shop, pick up the one treasure from the shelves, and walk out again?
It may be, perchance, that I labour this trait in the character of one who would be great but for his disabilities. Which thought recalls to my mind a suspicion that intermittently haunts me—that, living as we do here on this ocean tramp, "thrown together," as the phrase goes, so constantly, faults in another man grow more and more apparent; social abrasions which would be smoothed down and forgotten ashore are roughened at each fresh encounter, until the man is hidden behind one flaming sin. Especially is this to be expected when mind and body are worn, the one with responsibility, the other with rough toil. Who am I that I should claim cultured intercourse from these heroes? Have I not shared their agony and bloody sweat in times of storm and stress? Have I not seen this same wearer of elevators in his engine-room, a blood-stained handkerchief across his head where he has been "smashed," the sweat running from his blackened features, watching his engines with an agony no young mother ever knew?
What of the time when our main steam pipe burst in the Irish Sea in a fog? Read in the Chief Mate's log an entry, "Delayed 2 hrs. 40 min., break-down in engine-room." Simple, isn't it? But behind those brief words lies a small hell for the Chief Engineer. Behind them lies two hours and forty minutes' frenzied toil in the heat of the boiler-tops, where the arched bunkers keep the air stifling; two hours and forty minutes' work with tools that race and slither to the rolling of the ship, with bolts that burn and blister, with steam that knows no master when she's loose. Literature? Art? Old friend, these gods seem very impotent sometimes. They seem impotent, as when, for instance, my first gauge-glass burst. Pacing up and down in front of my engines, there is a hiss and a roar, and one of my firemen rushes into the engine-room, his right hand clasping the left shoulder convulsively. He has been cut to the bone with a piece of the flying glass. Men of thirty years' sea-time tell me they never have got used to a glass failing. And then the fight with the water and steam in the darkness, the frenzied groping for the wires to shut the cocks, the ceaseless roar of water and steam! A look at the engines, an adjustment of the feed-valves, lest the water get low while I am fitting a new glass, and then to work. How glad one is when one sees that luminous ring, which denotes the water-level, rise "two-thirds glass" once more! And how far from the fine arts is he whose life is one long succession of incidents like these? Can they blame us if we look indulgently upon mere writers and painters? Surely, when the books are opened and the last log is read, when the overlooker calls our names and reads out the indictment "Lacking culture," we may stand up manfully and answer as clearly as we can, "Lord, we had our business in great waters."
In such wise, I imagine, will George the Fourth reply. He is an admirable foil to the Most Wonderful Man on Earth. He regales you with no false sentiment; he is five feet ten in his socks, and he is clamorously indignant when you suggest that he will one day "get married." He considers love to be "damned foolishness," and despises "womanisers." He likes "tarts," has one in most ports of the Atlantic sea-board, and even writes to a certain Mexican enchantress, who lives in a nice little room over a nice little shop in a nice little street in the nice little town of Vera Cruz. What does he write? Frankly I don't know. What does he say, when he has dressed himself in dazzling white raiment and goes ashore in Surabaya or Singapore, and sits down to tea with Japanese girls whose eyes are swollen with belladonna and whose touch communicates fire? How can I answer?
"George," I say, "what would your mother think?"
George is not communicative. He flicks ash from his cigarette and picks up a month-old Reynolds's. And that is a sufficient answer to my accusations, though he does not realize it. I, at any rate, have not the face to upbraid a lonely youth, without home or girl friends from one year's end to another, when in that same Reynolds's I see page after page of "cases." If these people swerve, if they break the tables of the law every week, surely George the Fourth may hold up his head. You see, in Geordie-land, in the ports of Tyne and Wear, where George the Fourth was bred, there are many engineers who have been out in steamers working up and down the China coast, who have had nice little homes in Hankow, Hong-Kong, or Shanghai, with Japanese wives all complete. Then when the charter was up, and the steamer came home, these practical men left homes and wives behind them, and all was just as before. That is George's dream. "China or Burma coast-trade. That's the job for me when I get ma tickut." It is useless for a stern moralist like me to argue, because I feel certain that, being what he is, he would be entirely wise and right.
What an utter futility is marriage to a sea-going engineer! Here is my friend McGorren, a hard-working and Christian man. He is chief of a boat in the Burmese oil trade. His wife is dead; he has three children, who are being brought up with their cousins in North London. McGorren has been out East two years. It will be another two years before he can come home. Where is the morality of this? He has no home. His little ones grow up strangers to him; they are mothered by a stranger. He is voteless, yet subject to income tax. He can have no friendships, no society, no rational enjoyment save reading. Nothing! And what is his return? Four hundred a year and all found. I look into the frank eyes of George the Fourth and I am mute. In no philosophy, in no "Conduct of Life," in no "Lesson for the Day" which I have read can I discover any consolation or sane rule of living for such as he. Is not this a terrible gap in Ruskin, Emerson, and Co.? I take up the first and I ask George to listen. He is perfectly willing, because, he says with reverence, I am "a scholar," and I have read to him before.
"... There must be work done by the arms, or none of us could live. There must be work done by the brains, or the life we get would not be worth having. And the same men cannot do both. There is rough work to be done, and rough men must do it; there is gentle work to be done, and gentlemen must do it; and it is physically impossible that one class should do, or divide, the work of the other. And it is of no use to try to conceal this sorrowful fact by fine words, and to talk to the workman about the honourableness of manual labour and the dignity of humanity. Rough work, honourable or not, takes the life out of us; and the man who has been heaving clay out of a ditch all day, or driving an express train against the north wind all night, or holding a collier's helm in a gale on a lee shore, or whirling white-hot metal at a furnace mouth, is not the same man at the end of his day, or night, as one who has been sitting in a quiet room, with everything comfortable about him, reading books, or classing butterflies, or painting pictures."
George nods. He understands exactly what is meant. His father is skipper of a collier, his brother is in a steel works. Probably he and I know, better than John Ruskin, how rough work "takes the life out of us." But when I continue, and read to him what the wise man teaches concerning justice to men, and never-failing knight-errantry towards women, and love for natural beauty, even awe-struck George becomes slightly sardonic, and his mouth comes down at the corners. Let me formulate his thoughts. He is asking how can one be just when the work's got to be done, and blame must fall on somebody's shoulders? How can one feel and act rightly towards women when one is young, yet compelled to live a life of alternate celibacy and licence? How can one love nature, even the sea, when the engine-room temperature is normally 90 deg. F., and often 120 deg. F., when the soul cries out against the endless rolling miles? Wise of the world, give answer! We two poor rough toilers sit at your feet and wait upon your words.
You will see, now, why I want George the Fourth to fall in love. But with whom is he to fall in love? Who courts the society of a sailor in a foreign port? Seamen's bethels? Ah, yes! The gentle English ladies in foreign ports are very sympathetic, very kind, very pleasant, at the Wednesday evening concert in the rebuilt Genoese palace or the deserted Neapolitan hotel, or the tin tabernacle amid the white sand and scrub; but they take good care to keep together at the upper end of the room, and the audience is railed off from them if possible, while the merry girls outside, who live shameful lives, and whose existence is ignored by the missionary, link their arms in George's and take him to their cosy little boxes high up behind those beautiful green blinds....
"It's a hell of a life, but we've just got to mak' the best of it," says George, and he lounges off to join the talk in the Second's room.
I, too, sigh when he is gone. The best of it! Are these heroes of mine right after all?
"Then wherefore sully the entrusted gem Of high and noble life with thoughts so sick? Why pierce high-fronted honour to the quick For nothing but a dream?"
It is an hour since George the Fourth left me, and I have been discussing the matter with the Mate. It is a habit of mine to discuss matters with the Mate. Here is a man with no theories of life, no culture, as we understand the term, no touch of modern life at all; a man of apostolic simplicity, having gone down to the sea in ships since 1867. You can depend on the practicability of his conclusions, because he has dealt with facts—since 1867. "For," to quote Carlyle, "you are in contact with verities, to an unexampled degree, when you get upon the ocean, with intent to sail on it ... bottomless destruction raging beneath you and on all hands of you, if you neglect, for any reason, the methods of keeping it down and making it float you to your aim!"
"'Tis a hard life, Mr. McAlnwick, an' we've just got to make the best of it."
"But, Mr. Honna, what is the best of it?"
"This! Give us your glass. One more, an' Nicholas is makin' a Stonewall Jackson in the panthry. He'll be in in a minute."
In a minute Nicholas arrives with a jug. Nicholas is the Steward, at sea since '69, a bronzed Greek from Salonika, a believer in dreams and sound investments at six per cent. He brings in a Lloyd's News, arrived by the last mail.
"Ah!" The Mate is certainly making the best of it. What are the exact components of the drink I cannot determine, but the resultant is without blemish; eggs, milk, brandy, rum—all these are in it, and the Mate's tongue loosens.
"Have you seen this about ze Lorenzo, mister?" asks Nicholas.
Nicholas (reading): "'Ze Lorenzo, bound from New Yawk to Cuba with coke, met with heavy gales off Cape Hatteras, and has put back into Norfolk in a disabled condition. Two blades of her propeller are broken, and she is leaking badly amidships. She is to undergo a special survey before proceeding further.'"
The Mate's visage is wrinkled, his mouth is pursed up as he sets down his glass and adjusts his spectacles to read, and he nods his head.
"See, now, 'tis two years, two years an' a half, since I left her. Nicholas, you were there then, were ye not?"
"Ess, mister. She was on the Western Ocean trade then, too."
"Aye! Lumber out o' St. John's to Liverpool." He lays down the paper. "Mr. McAlnwick, now wait while I tell ye. Ye talk of honesty at sea? I joined that ship in Glasgow, an' we signed on for the voy'ge, winter North Atlantic. General cargo for St. John's, Newf'unlan', with deals to bring back to Liverpool. And, though you may consider me superstitious, not havin' been long at sea" (Nicholas stands, legs apart, glass in hand, head nodding sagely), "not havin' been long at sea, I say, 'twas the Second and Fourth engineers who brought us black luck!"
"How, Mr. Honna?"
"This way. Nicholas, sit ye down and listen. I was Mate, as I am here. I went up from London and joined her, an' the Chief, who's here now, was thick as thieves with the old man, an' was courtin' the youngest daughter, tho' he never married her—he came to lay down the law to me. There was a spare stateroom for'ard of the alley-way, port side. The door was locked, an' I wanted it open. Ses he, ''Tis locked.' Ses I, 'I want it open.' Ses he, 'Who are you?' Ye know his way, Mr. McAlnwick? Ses I, 'I'm the Mate o' this ship, an', by Gawd, if that door isn't opened smart, ye're a better man than I am.' And I took off me coat. 'Oh,' ses he, ''tis all right, mister, I'll have it opened.' Ye see, there was women aboard, an' the Second and Fourth were responsible."
"They were inside!" snickers Nicholas, looking at his cigar reminiscently.
"They was, Mr. McAlnwick. 'Twas scandalous—that Chief, too, trapesin' away out to Scotstoun Hill every evenin' to play cards an' shilly-shally, while his juniors had loose females aboard the ship. Well, we put out, made St. John's in sixteen days, and discharged in a fortn't. 'Twas there the Second an' Fourth began again, but they took me in. I came on deck one Saturday afternoon, the old man being ashore, and saw two females, with sealskin muffs and furred spats, lookin' roun' the poop an' liftin' their skirts over the ropes, for all the world like real ladies. An' I treated them as such, never thinkin' what they were, for to me a lady's a lady, an' I know how to behave to them. But the Second Mate stopped me as I was showin' 'em over all, and ses he, 'D'yer know what she is, Mr. Honna?' pointin' to the one with a heliatrope blouse under her jacket."
There is another snicker from Nicholas, and the Mate goes on:
"I would not believe it, Mr. McAlnwick. I've had my weaknesses, I have some now, or I would not be Mate of this ship. But I've never insulted my employers by makin' a—a bloomin' seraglio o' the ship, nor have I ever seen it done without bringin' black luck. Now, wait till I tell ye. The nex' mornin', being on deck at seven o'clock, I saw the Second and Fourth racin' up the dock. Their collars were loose at the back, an' their waistcoats were all out o' gear, an' they'd made hat-bands o' their ties. Mr. McAlnwick, ye may laugh, but they were a disgrace to the ship!
"Well, we put out o' St. John, deck-loaded with deals, in a fog, and we stayed in a fog for three days. We were all among the ice, too, an' that afternoon I came on deck to relieve Mr. Bruce, the Second Mate. The old man had her in an ice-lane, goin' full speed. Ses I, 'She's goin' fast, sir.' 'Oh,' ses he, 'she steers better so.' 'Ay,' ses I, 'but if she hits anything, she will—hit it.' A minute after, he come up out o' the fog, an' ses he, 'Stop her, Mr. Honna, stop her!' I'd me hand on the telegraph and me eye on the foc'sle head when she struck—bang! An' all the canvas caps on the foc'sle ventilators blew up an' went overboard. We'd hit a cake. The Second Mate ran out of his berth in his shirt-sleeves, and went for'ard, an' I followed him. There she was, her nose crunched into a low-lyin' cake not two feet above the waterline. I kept all my spare gear in the fore-peak, an' the Second Mate went down to—to reconnoitre. ''Tis all right, mister,' ses he. ''Tis all right here.' Ses I, 'I don't think, Mr. Bruce, I don't think!' An' when I went down an' put me foot on those piles of rope an' bolts of canvas, they went down, all soft, under me. Ye understand? Oh, I knew there was somethin', rememberin' those flighty women, an' the foc'sle bonnets blowin' off. The water had rushed into the fore-peak, an' had driven the air up, ye see.
"Well, we put her full astern and drew away, and then we put back into St. John, slow, dead slow, all the way. An' there the Second Engineer saw a doctor, an' the one in the heliatrope blouse saw a ghost!"
"Ess, 'e come up be'ind 'er, an'——"
"Now, hold yer horses, Nicholas, hold yer horses! Ye see, Mr. McAlnwick, when a woman has seen a man aboard of a ship, an' she's seen that ship hull down, or, what's the same thing, swallowed up in the fog, she writes him off, so to speak. 'Poor feller,' ses she, 'he's at sea,' just as we say, 'Poor feller, he's in the churchyard.' An' so, when that woman felt someone touch her on the arm in Main Street, and turned an' found it was the Second Engineer, she gave a shriek like a lost soul, an' fainted on the sidewalk. So it happened. Now listen. Help yourself, Nicholas.
"We had a wooden bow put on, which took a week, an' we started again. Two days out it fell off, and we went back into St. John for the third time, an' had another fitted. I took the opportunity then of havin' a word with the Second, while we were makin' her fast. 'Mr. Carson,' ses I, 'air ye satisfied?' He knew what I meant, for he came from Carrickfergus, an' the Lady's Fever had him hard. 'Aye, mister,' ses he. ''Tis all right; I'll see her no more,' ses he. An' our luck turned. We had another bow fitted, an' we came across the Western Ocean, half-speed, an' made her fast in the Canada Dock."
"Is that all, Mr. Honna?"
"No, no," says Nicholas, with another reminiscent giggle. "No, mister, the Super, 'e comes down, an' 'e——"
"Hold yer horses, now, Nicholas; hold yer horses, and let Jack Honna tell this yarn. Mr. McAlnwick, I said I'd show ye honesty as practised in the Mercantile Marine. Now listen. The Super—that's Mr. Fallon, as ye know—came down into my berth. 'Mornin', Honna'—ye know his way; but he seemed anxious an' fidgety. Of course, I knew without tellin' how she was insured. Ye see, mister, the Lorenzo an' the Julio an' the Niccolo an' the Benvenuto here are insured against total loss, an' if we went on that reef to-night, Messrs. Crubred, Orr, and Glasswell 'ud drink champagne to it an' book our half-pay in tobacco and stamps. But then—ah, Mr. McAlnwick, then it was different. The Lorenzo was insured against accidents to the tune o' three thousand pound sterling, provided—provided, ye understand, that repairs came up to that figure. An' that was why Mr. Fallon looked worried."
"Why, Mr. Honna?" The Mate's voice drops to a whisper.
"Why, don't ye see, mister? But ye've not been long at sea. Because he'd totted up all the indents, an' added all he reasonably could on the bow plates an' stringers plus a new double bottom to the forehold, an' then he could only make it come to about twenty-four hundred pound. 'What's to be done, Honna?' ses he, rappin' it out. 'What's to be done?' ses I, as if I was astonished. 'What d'ye mean, Mr. Fallon?' Ses he, ''Tis a dead loss—a dead loss, Honna.' Ses I, 'I don't understand, sir.' And I looked him in the eye. 'She's not hurt,' ses he, snappin'. 'She's not hurt at all.' 'Oh,' ses I, 'is that all? Why not hurt her, then—hurt her?' An' I got up to go out. 'Oh,' ses he, 'we can't have that—we can't have that. Where's that indent?' And we went on deck. Well, I went up to the office that afternoon he came over, an' he ses in a hurry, 'Honna, yer wife's comin' up to-night, ye said?' (The little man never forgets anythin', as perhaps ye've noticed.) 'Yes,' ses I, 'she is.' 'Then go an' meet her,' ses he. 'Go an' meet her.' 'What?' ses I. 'Leave the ship, with her goin' into dry-dock to-morrer an' no cap'en aboard?' 'Damn the ship,' ses he. 'Damn the ship! I'll look after the ship. Go an' see yer wife.' Mr. McAlnwick, when I got outside I laughed. An' when I got to Lime Street, and told my girl about Fallon damnin' the ship, she laughed too. It must have been eleven o'clock when I left the hotel an' went down to the docks. When I got there she was in dry-dock. The Super had issued orders that s.s. Lorenzo was to be dry-docked after dark, an' I saw that our luck was in. The Second Engineer was standin' by the ladder as I climbed over the side, an' ses he, solemn-like, 'Mr. Honna, I've been to see a doctor this night, an' I'm all right now. I'll see her no more.' 'Of course ye're all right!' ses I, chucklin', 'an' so's the Lorenzo. Come down an' have somethin'.' 'What are they doin'?' ses he. 'I was below this five minutes, an' I thought the bottom was comin' in.' 'Repairs,' ses I, wavin' me hand. 'Repairs. Come down.' An' we went. 'Twas half-past one when we got down on the dock side an' peeped under. An' when we'd done laughin' we turned in.
"Well, I went down into the dock nex' mornin', an' the Surveyor was there with Mr. Fallon. He was a youngish man, an' probably he's learnt a good deal since that day, but he was just the feller for us. The Super introduced us, an' ses he, 'Mr. Honna will corroborate what I say, Mr. Blythe.' The Surveyor turned to look at the ship's bottom, and it was lucky he did, for me jaw was hangin'. Mr. McAlnwick, they'd had the hydraulic jacks under her, an' they'd pushed her to kingdom come! She was bent to the very keelson. Not a straight plate from stem to stern. 'It's marvellous, Mr. Honna!' ses the Surveyor. 'It's marvellous! How in the worrld did ye come home?' 'How?' ses I, laughin'. 'On our hands and knees, to be sure, mister.' 'Dear me!' he ses. 'Dear me!' 'Aye,' ses I. 'An' she steered to a hair, too!' And I went for'ard to look at her bows. He was a young man, an' I felt sorry for him, but our luck was in. Mr. Fallon came down into my room that afternoon, as I was puttin' on me shore clothes, an' ses he, 'Honna, did ye see yer wife?' 'I did, sir,' ses I. 'Is she all right?' ses he. 'No,' ses I; 'she's frettin'.' 'What's the matter wi' her?' he snaps, sittin' down where you are now. 'What?' ses I, an' I stopped as I was fixin' me collar. 'She thinks I ought to have a new hat, Mister Fallon.' An' I looked him in the eye. 'Oh!' ses he in his sharp way. 'Get five new hats—get five new hats. Have the ship ready to be moved to-morrow night. She will be discharged, and redocked for—extended repairs. Good-day,' ses he, an' he went out. An' when I looked where he'd been sittin' there was a five-poun' note in an envelope, stickin' in the cushion."
"Did you see your wife again, Mr. Honna?"
"I did, Mr. McAlnwick, an' she pinched me black an' blue! An' when we were walkin' through the city that evenin' I saw the Second Engineer followin' a sealskin jacket along Paradise Street, and I felt glad he was leavin' to go up for his ticket."
"Is that all, Mr. Honna?" The Chief Officer's face is screwed up, his glasses are on the end of his nose (how like my old Headmaster he looks now!), and he scrutinizes the Steward's newspaper once more.
"All, Mr. McAlnwick? Apparently not, by this. Mr. Fallon'll be down to see her, for he's goin' across to see the Giacopo, I know, an', by thunder, he'll fix her! Never seen him in a fix yet. Eh, Nicholas?"
"Ah, he's a sharpun, by God!" This from the fervent Nicholas.
"Ses he, first thing when he put his fut on the deck when we brought the Ludovico into Shields from Nikolaeff, ses he, 'Honna, look at them slack funnel stays; Honna, look at that spare propeller shaft, not painted; Honna, don't keep pigs on the saddle-back bunker-hatch—'tis insanitary.' Honna this, that, and the other all in one breath. And we'd had the blessed stern torn out of her, runnin' foul o' the breakwater, to say nothin' of pickin' up the telegraph cable with our anchor outside Constant!"
"Mr. Honna, tell me——"
"To-morrow, mister, to-morrow. 'Tis late, and I would turn in."
And so we end our day.
To-day's shipping news has it thus:—
Swansea.—Entered inwards, s.s. Benvenuto. From S. Africa. P. W. D.
Which cryptic item covers much joy, much money, and an irrepressible consumption of strong drink. O ye rabid total-abstinence mongers! If I could only lure you away on a six-thousand-mile voyage, make you work twelve hours a day, turn you out on the middle watch, feed you on bully beef and tinned milk! Where would your blue ribbons be then? My faith, gentlemen, when once you had been paid off at the bottom of Wind Street, I warrant me we should not see your backs for dust as you sprinted into the nearest hostelry!
And the joy, moreover, of receiving three months' pay in one lump sum! Ah! one is rich as he pushes past the green baize swing-door, and through the crowd of seamen and sharks who cluster like flies round that same green door. To the married sailor, however, that joy is chastened by the knowledge that his "judy" has been drawing half-pay all the time, and to say nothing of the advance note of two-pound-ten which he drew on joining, to buy clothes. But Jack Tar or Jack Trimmer knows well how to drown such worries. He possesses an infinite capacity for taking liquor, which inevitably goes, not to his head, but to his feet. Six of the Benvenuto's sailor-men, two firemen, and the carpenter enter our private bar as we sit drinking. An indescribable uproar invades the room immediately. They are in their best clothes—decent boots, ready-made blue serge, red tie with green spots over a six-penny-halfpenny "dickey," and a cap that would make even Newmarket "stare and gasp." Nothing will pacify them short of drinks at their expense. A sailor with yellow hair and moustache curled and oiled insufferably, insists on providing me with a pint of rum. The carpenter, a radical and Fenian when sober, sports a bowler with a decided "list." He embraces my yellow-haired benefactor, and now, to the music of "Remember Me to Mother Dear," rendered by the electric piano behind the bar, they waltz slowly and solemnly around. The landlady implores them to stop, and the carpenter bursts into tears. It really is very much like the "Hunting of the Snark." They are so unaffectedly wealthy, so ridiculously happy, so unspeakably vulgar! They batter their silver and gold upon the bar; they command inoffensive strangers to drink monstrous potations; they ply their feet in unconscious single-steps; they forget they have not touched the last glass, and order more; they put cataclysmal questions to the blushing lassie who serves them; they embrace one another repeatedly with maudlin affection, and are finally ejected by main force from the premises. All the world—below Wind Street—knows that the Benvenuto has been paid off.
And we? We drink soberly to England, home, and beauty, bank our surpluses, and scuttle back to the ship. Past interminable rows of huge hydraulic cranes, over lock-gates, under gigantic coal-shoots which hurl twenty tons of coal at once into the gaping holds of filthy colliers, we stumble and hurry along to where our own steamer is berthed. That is one of the hardships of our exalted position as officers. We begin again as soon as we have been paid off; they depart, inebriated and uxorious, to their homes. They enjoy what the political economists call "the rewards of abstinence"; we put on our boiler suits and crawl about in noisome bilges, soot-choked smoke-boxes, and salt-scarred evaporators.
Nevertheless, when five o'clock strikes and work is done for the day, we put on our "shore clothes" (the inevitable blue serge of the seamen), light our pipes, and go into the town again. Ah! How good it is to see people, people, people! To see cars, and shops, and girls again! How wondrously, how ineffably beautiful a barmaid appears to us, who have seen no white woman for nearly four months! And book-shops! Dear God! I was in the High Street for half an hour to-night, and I have already bagged a genuine "Galignani" Byron, calf binding, yellow paper, and suppressed poems, all complete, for three shillings. It will go well in our book-case beside our Guiccioli Recollections. For myself I have a dear little "Grammont" with notes, a fine edition of Bandello's "Novelle," and a weird paper-covered copy of "Joseph Andrews," designed, presumably, to corrupt the youthful errantry of Swansea, and secreted by the vendor of Welsh devotional literature at the very bottom of the tuppenny box. In spite of Borrow's enthusiasm for Ab Gwilym, I have no craving for Welsh Theology, mostly by Jones and Williams, which is to be had by the cubic ton. No one buys it, I fear. The little lass who sold me the Fielding and the "Novelle" looked pale and hungry behind the stacks of books, and I am shamed, speaking merely as a thorough-paced buyer of second-hand books, that I paid more for the latter than she would have asked. But the blue-grey eyes, the nervous poise of the head, the pride in the sensitive nostrils, reminded me of someone.... A horrible life for a young girl, my friend, a horrible life.
I took my treasures along the brilliantly lighted streets. I walked on air, happy with a mysterious happiness. I looked at myself as I passed a shop mirror, and saw a face with a cold, cynical expression, the soul intrenched behind inscrutable, searching eyes. "You do not look happy," I said to myself as I passed on, and I smiled. I thought again of those gaudily dressed sailors; I thought of their inane felicity, and smiled again. "De chacun selon que son habillete, a chacun selon que ses besoins," I muttered as I turned into an iridescent music-hall.
And now I reached the summit of experience. All the morning I was toiling in the engine-room as we ploughed across the Channel, past Lundy, and up to the Mumbles Head. I had played my part in that strange comedy of "paying off." I had toiled again in the afternoon in a dry-docked steamer, making all safe after shutting down. I had scoured the shelves of a tiny shop for books. And now I sat in the fauteuils of a modern music-hall, beholding the amazing drama of "The Road to Ruin."
Verily, as Sainte-Beuve says, "Au theatre on exagere toujours." Not that I would accuse the constructors of the piece of any lack of skill. Indeed, Scribe himself never displayed more consummate stage-craft or a greater sense of "situation," than they. As one gazes upon the spectacle of the impossible undergraduate's downfall, he loses all confidence in the impossibility; he believes that here indeed lies the road to ruin; he feels inexpressibly relieved when the young man thanks Heaven for his terrible dream of the future, and sits down to Conic Sections, his head between his hands. You notice this latter touch. The playwright knows his audience. He knows they think that an influx of Conic Sections strains the cerebral centres, and that study is always carried on with the head compressed between the hands. Thus the sermon reaches the hearts of those who still have occasional nightmares of the time when they conned "Parallel lines are those which, if produced ever so far both ways, will not meet." Alas! I fear our conceptions of art are in the same predicament.
Is it not strange, though, how customs vary? In the Middle Ages one went to church to see the mystery play; now one goes to the music-hall to hear a sermon. "Pronounced by clergymen and others to be the most powerful sermon ever preached from the stage," etc. I wonder, as I scan my programme, whether the monastic playwrights of old ever published encomiums on their weird productions by prominent highwaymen. I say highwaymen because I can think of none who had a better right to criticise dramatic performances from the practical and moral standpoints. But the noise of the undergraduate as he goes crashing through his ruinous nightmare recalls me. I proceed to examine my companions in distress. All are engaged in the Road to Ruin. I think they like stage ruin—it is so thrilling. Moreover, it leaves out all that is at all middle class. Even our wicked undergraduate never falls as low as the middle class. He starts as a university man, and ends in a slum, but he is saved from the second-class season ticket. I am still puzzling with this question of the middle class as I quit the theatre and make my way down to the docks. There is a mild, misty rain falling, and I turn into my favourite tavern in Wind Street for a glass of ale. The Middle Class! Why, I ask myself, are they so strange in their intellectual tastes? The wealthy I understand; the workmen I understand; but O this terrible Middle Class! I sit musing, and four men come in upon my solitude. Obviously they are actors, rushing in for a "smile" between the acts. Obviously, I say, for their easy manners, savoir faire, and good breeding stamp them men of the world, and their evening dress does the rest.
"Ah, you read the Clarion?" observes one. I start guiltily. Yes, I had bought a copy, and I have unconsciously spread it on the table by my side. "Will you drink with us, sir?" adds another. He is not of the Middle Class.
"Thank you, I will," I answer, and my first interlocutor glances over the paper.
"Are you a Socialist?" he inquires. "Yes," I reply. "So am I." I rise, and we shake hands. This, my friend, was beyond all my imagining. It is, moreover, not middle class. I have ridden in a suburban train day after day for years, with people who lived in the same street, without exchanging a word. Here, in this tavern, convention dares not to show her head. And I am warmed as with the cheerful sun.
"Have you been in?" asks the man who hands me my beer, and he flings his head back to indicate the theatre.
"Not yet," I answer. "What have you on this week?"
"A Sister's Sin. You should see it. Come to-morrow."
* * * * *
"A Sister's Sin!"
I shall not go to see it. I dare not. I had intended to ask my Socialist whether he could solve the problem of the Middle Class for me, but he has done it. "Au theatre on exagere toujours." I hardly know which are the more baffling—the Middle Ages or the Middle Classes.
I have just been looking through an old, old note-book of mine, the sort of book compiled, I suppose, by every man who really sets out on the long road. I remember buying the thing, a stout volume with commercially marbled covers, at a stationer's shop in the Goswell Road. I wonder if the salesman dreamed that it would be used by the grimy apprentice to transcribe extracts from such writers as Kant and Lotze, Swinburne and Taine, Emerson and Schopenhauer? How strong, how dear to me, was all that pertained to Metaphysic in that long ago! Often, too, I see original speculations, naive dogmatism, sandwiched between the contextual excerpts.
Worthless, of course—it should be hardly necessary to say so. And yet, as I turn the leaves, I get occasional glimpses of real thought shining through the overstrained self-consciousness, illuminating my youthful priggishness of demeanour. For instance, how could I have been so prescient to have coupled Emerson and Schopenhauer together so persistently? Here, smudged and corrected to distraction, is a passionate defence of the former, occasioned by some academical trifler dubbing him a mere echo of Carlyle and Coleridge. I almost lived on Emerson in those days, to such good purpose, indeed, that I know him by heart. And, if I mistake not, he will come to his own again in the near future, when there will be no talk of Carlylean echoes.
All alone, sharing its page with no other thought, is this, to me, characteristic phrase: "Mental Parabolism, N. B." It was like a shock to see it once more after all these years, and I have been trying to understand it. It was born, I think, of my frenzy for analogizing. I wanted some analogy, in physical phenomena, for everything in my mental experience. Professor Drummond was to be left infinitely in the rear. And by parabolism, it seems according to a later note, I meant that a man's intellectual career is a curve, and that curve is a parabola, being the resultant of his mental mass into his intellectual force. The importance of this notion impresses me more now than then. It will explain how men of indubitable genius stop at certain points along the road. They can get no further, because their mental parabola is complete. All that has happened since is to them unreal and unimportant. One man I know exemplifies this to a remarkable degree. His parabola starts at the seventeenth century, rises to its maximum somewhere about the Johnsonian period, continues with scarcely abated vigour as far as Thackeray and Carlyle, declines towards Trollope and—ends. To speak of Meredith and Tolstoi, Ibsen and Maeterlinck, is to beat the air. The energy is exhausted, the mind has completed its curve; the rest is a quiet reminiscence of what has been.
It pleases me to think that there may be some grain of truth in all this, though I am not unmindful of the inevitable conclusion, that my own parabola will some day take its downward course, and I shall sit, quiescent, while the younger men around will demand stormily why I cannot see the grandeur, the profundity, of their newer gods. There lies the tragedy. Those gods, quite possibly, will be greater than mine—must be, if my belief in man be worth anything. Yes, that is the tragedy. I shall be at rest, and the youths of the golden future will be seeing visions and dreaming dreams of which I have not even the faintest hint.
I feel this most keenly, when reading Nietzsche, that volcanic stammerer of the thing to come. I feel, "inside," as children say, that my parabola will be finished before I can win to the burning heart of the man. It frightens me (a sign of coming fatigue) to launch out on one of his torrents of thought—veritable rushing rivers of vitriol, burning up all that is decaying and fleshly, casting away the refined, exhausted, yet exultant spirit on some lonely point of the future, where he can see the illimitable ocean of race-possibilities.
"Oh, noon of life! Delightful garden land! Fair summer Station!"
So, writing (steadying myself against the Atlantic roll) one fresh thought in the blank left for it in the long ago, I close the book, and take up my present life once more.