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Title: A Port Said miscellany: Atlantic Readings Number 6
Author: McFee, William
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A Port Said miscellany: Atlantic Readings Number 6" ***


                           ATLANTIC READINGS,
                                NUMBER 6

                         A PORT SAID MISCELLANY

                                   BY
                             WILLIAM McFEE



[Illustration]



                       The Atlantic Monthly Press
                                 BOSTON


------------------------------------------------------------------------



                          _Copyright, 1918, by_
                       THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY COMPANY



 (This paper was originally published in THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY for March,
                                  1918)


------------------------------------------------------------------------


                         A PORT SAID MISCELLANY

                            BY WILLIAM McFEE



                                   I


THERE has come upon us, suddenly, one of those inexplicable lulls which
make the experienced seafarer in the Mediterranean recall bygone voyages
out East. It is as if the ship had run abruptly into some sultry and
airless chamber of the ocean, a chamber whose cobalt roof has shut down
tight, and through which not a breath is moving. The smoke from the
funnel, of a sulphurous bronze color, even while our trail yet lies
somnolent in a long smear on the horizon, now goes straight to the
zenith. The iron bulwarks are as hot as hand can bear, as the westering
sun glows full upon the beam. Under the awnings the troops lie gasping
on their rubber sheets, enduring silently and uncomprehendingly, like
dumb animals.

Far ahead, the escort crosses and recrosses our course. Still farther
ahead, a keen eye can detect a slight fraying of the taut blue line of
the horizon. Signals break from the escort and are answered from our
bridge. I turn to a sergeant who is shambling to and fro by the
machine-room door, and inform him that Port Said is in sight, and that
he will be in harbor in an hour or so.

And then, just as suddenly as we entered, the door of that heated
chamber of the sea opens and we pass out into a warm humid wind. The
wind and the news wake everybody. The soldiers, who have encamped on our
after-deck during the voyage, suddenly display a feverish activity.
Rations are packed, rifles are cleaned, and I am in the full tide of
popular favor because I permit oil-reservoirs to be replenished in the
machine-room and furnish those priceless fragments of old emery cloth
which give such a delectable and silvery gloss to the bolts. Later, I am
so popular that I could almost stand for Parliament, for I tell the
sergeant that each man can fill his waterbottle with iced water. Which
they proceed to do at once, so that said water gets red-hot before the
moment of disembarkation!

But take a look at these men on our after-deck while we are coming up to
Port Said. You have never seen them before and you will not see them
again, for they are bound for Bagdad and beyond. They are very
representative, for they are of all ages, races, and regiments. They are
going to join units which have been transferred. Three were hours in the
water when their ship was torpedoed. Several have come overland across
France and Italy, and got most pleasantly hung up at entrancing cities
on the way. Others have come out of hospitals and trenches in Macedonia
and France and Flanders. They are Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and English.
The sergeant, now thumbing a worn pocket-book, has seen service in
India, China, Egypt, and France.

Behind him, on the hatch, is a boy of eighteen who wears the uniform of
the most famous regiment in the British Army. He is small for his age,
and he has a most engaging smile. When I asked him how on earth he got
into the Army he explained that he had ‘misriprisinted his age.’ He has
a chum, a gaunt Highlander, who scarcely opened his lips all the voyage,
and who sat on the hatch sewing buttons on their clothes, darning their
stockings, and reading a religious pamphlet entitled _Doing it Now_.

There is another sergeant, too, a young gentleman going home to get a
commission. He is almost to be described as one apart, for he holds no
converse with the others. He walks in a mincing way, he has a gold watch
with a curb-chain on one wrist, a silver identification plate and a
silver slave-bangle from Saloniki on the other, and an amethyst ring on
one of his fingers. As the Chief Engineer said to me one day, he needed
only a spear and a ring through his nose to be a complete fighting man.
However, in this war it is unwise to make snap judgments. I understand
that this young gentleman has an aptitude for certain esoteric
brain-work of vast use in artillery. He never goes near the firing-line
at all. Our young friend Angus MacFadden has that job. When the young
gentleman with the slave-bangle and gold-mounted fountain-pen and
expensive Kodak has figured out certain calculations in his dug-out
office, Angus, who resembles an extremely warlike bellhop, with his
gaunt Highland chum beside him, will scramble up out of his trench, make
a most determined rush toward a given point, and, in short, complete the
job, whatever it may be.

Now it is all very well to talk about the triumphs of mind over matter,
but my interest is not with the young gentleman at all. He may carry
Omar Khayyam in his kit. He may call the ‘Shropshire Lad’ ‘topping
poetry.’ He may (as he does) borrow Swinburne from my bookshelf. My
interest is with Angus and his chums. I look out of my machine-room
window and watch them getting ready to disembark. They are very amusing,
with their collapsible aluminium pannikins, their canvas washbasins and
buckets, their fold-up shaving tackle and telescopic tooth-brushes.

There is one tough old private of the Old Army among them. He has the
Egyptian and two South African medals. He never seems to have any kit to
bother him. I see him in the galley, peeling potatoes for their dinner,
deep in conversation with the pantryman and smoking an Irish clay. He
knows all the twenty-one moves, as we say. Then there is a very young
man who reads love stories all the time, a rosy-cheeked lad with the
Distinguished Service Order ribbon on his tunic.

Another, almost as young, is tremendously interested in refrigeration.
He comes into my engine-room and stares in rapt incredulity at the snow
on the machine. ‘I don’t see why it doesn’t melt!’ he complains, as if
he had a grievance. ‘How _do_ you freeze? if it isn’t a rude question.’

I explain briefly how we utilize the latent heat of re-evaporation
peculiar to certain gaseous media, in order to reduce the temperature.
He turns on me with a rush of frankness and bursts out, ‘But, you know,
that’s all Greek to me!’ Well, I suggest, his soldiering’s all Greek to
me, come to that. He laughs shortly, with his eyes on the ever-moving
engines, and says he supposes so. By and by he begins to talk of his
experiences in Macedonia. He thinks the sea is beautiful, after the bare
hot gulches and ravines. He is so fair that the sun has burned his face
and knees pink instead of brown. I asked him what he was doing before
the war, and he said his father had a seed-farm in Essex and he himself
was learning the business.

Meanwhile we have arrived at Port Said. The engines stop and go astern
violently, and the pilot comes alongside in a boat and climbs the
rope-ladder. Just ahead is the breakwater, with a couple of motor
patrols keeping guard over the fairway. Our escort puts on speed and
goes in, for her job with us is done. She has gone in to coal, and she
will be ready in a few hours to take another transport out. She and her
sisters are like us—they are never through. The big ships may lie for
days, or even weeks, in harbor. We small fry have to hurry. Back and
forth we ply without ceasing. Sometimes we run ashore in our haste, and
so make less speed. Sometimes we smash into each other in the dark, and
have to stagger back to port and refit with all possible expedition.
Sometimes, too, we go out and never come back, and nobody save the
authorities and our relatives hears anything about it. To what end?
Well—and herein lies my interest in those soldiers of the King on the
after-deck—the one ultimate object we have in view is to get Master
Angus MacFadden and his chums into that front-line trench, to keep them
there, warm and fed, and fully supplied with every possible assistance
when they climb over the parapet to make the aforesaid rush. Everything
else, when you come to think of it, is subordinate to that.

The ship goes at half-speed now past the breakwater, a long gray finger
pointing northwards from the beach. Half-way along we pass the De
Lesseps statue on its high pedestal, the right hand flung out in a
grandiose gesture toward the supreme achievement of his life. The warm
wind from the westward is sending up the sea to break in dazzling white
foam on the yellow sand below the pink and blue and brown bathing-huts.
The breakwater is crowded with citizens taking the air, for the walks of
Port Said are restricted and flavored with the odors of Arabian
domesticity. We pass on, and the hotels and custom-house buildings come
into view. All around are the transients of the ocean, anchored and for
a moment at rest. Past the Canal building we steam, a pretentious stucco
affair with three green-tiled domes and deep Byzantine galleries. Past
also Navy House, a comely white building in the Venetian style,
recalling the Doge’s Palace—an illusion heightened by the fleet of
patrols anchored in front, busily getting ready to go out to work.

And then we stop, and manœuvre, and go astern; tugs whistle imperiously,
motor-boats buzz around us, ropes are hurriedly ferried across to buoys
and quays, and we are made fast and pulled into our berth alongside of
an immense vessel which has come from the other side of the world with
frozen meat to feed Master Angus and his chums. But by this time it is
dark. The ochreous sheen on the sky behind Port Said is darkening to
purple and violet, the stars are shining peacefully over us, and the
sergeant comes to ask for a lantern by which to finish packing his kit.

It has been warm during the day, but now it is stifling. We are, as I
said, close alongside a great ship. She extends beyond us and towers
above us, and even the warm humid breeze of Port Said in August is shut
out from us. Up from below comes a suffocating stench of hot bilge. The
ship is invaded by a swarm of Arab cargo-men, who begin immediately to
load us from our neighbor. Cargo lights, of a ghastly blue color, appear
at the hatchways. Angus and his chums take up their kits and fall in on
the bridge-deck. Officers hurry to and fro. Hatches are taken off, and
the cold air of the holds comes up in thin wisps of fog into the tropic
night. Winches rattle. Harsh words of French and Arabic commingle with
the more intelligible shouts of the ship’s officers. All night this goes
on. All night proceeds this preposterous traffic in frozen corpses amid
the dim blue radiance of the cargo-clusters. Hundreds upon hundreds of
frozen corpses!

I go off watch at eight and, seated in a room like a Turkish bath, I try
to concentrate on the letters which have come over the sea. I am seized
with a profound depression, arising, I suppose, from the bizarre
discrepancy between the moods communicated by the letters and my own
weariness. Most letters are so optimistic in tone. They clap one on the
back and give one breezy news of the flowers in New Jersey gardens, of
the heat in New Orleans, of bombs in London and reunions in English
houses. All very nice; but I have to get up at two, and the thermometer
over my bunk is now registering a hundred Fahrenheit. An electric fan
buzzes and snaps in the corner and seems only to make the air hotter. An
Arab passes in the alleyway outside and calls to some one named Achmet
in an unmelodious howl. (All male Arabs are named Achmet apparently.)

I sit in my pajamas, with the letters in my hand, and wonder how long it
is going to last. Another week or so and we shall have had two years of
it. Most of us have gone home on leave. Counting the commander, there
are—let me see—four of us left of the original crowd. It is over a year
since I applied for leave. Nothing will come of it. I look into the
future and see myself, a gray elderly failure, still keeping a six-hour
shift on a Mediterranean transport, my life spent, my friends and
relatives all dead, Angus and his chums gone west, and a new generation
coming out, with vigorous appetites for fresh provisions.

And then the door opens and lets in a slight uniformed figure with a
grip in his hand and a familiar smile on his face. Lets in also liberty,
freedom, pay-day, England, Home and Beauty.

It is my relief, arrived at last!



                                   II


We greet each other shyly, for the chief and some of the others are
standing in the alleyway, with broad grins on their faces at my look of
flabbergasted bewilderment. An Arab porter comes along with a big canvas
bag of dunnage, which he dumps at our feet.

‘Why—what—how—when—did you get here?’ I ask weakly.

‘Train from Alexandria,’ he replies, sitting down on the settee.

My kitten, a sandy little savage known as O’Henry, jumps up and begins
to make friends. O’Henry is stroked and tickled, and Tommy looks up at
me with his old tolerant, bland, imperturbable smile.

‘You, of all people!’ I remark, looking at him inanely.

‘Aye, they sent me out,’ he affirms. ‘They told me you were here. How’s
things?’

The others go away, still smiling, and I shut the door. For this young
chap, who has come across Europe to relieve me, is an old shipmate. We
were on the Merovingian. We have been many voyages to Rio and the
Plates. We were always chums. In some obscure fashion, we got on. Tommy
is North Country—dry, taciturn, reticent, slow to make friends. A
hot-air merchant makes him restive and he goes away. He abhors bluffers.
I like him. We have never written, though, for it is a fact that some
friendships do not ‘carry’ in a letter. They are like some wines—they do
not travel. For all I knew, I was never to see him again. What of that?
We had been chums and we understood each other. I had often thought of
him since I’d been out here—a good little shipmate. And now here he was,
on my settee, smiling and tickling O’Henry just where he likes to be
tickled, and asking me to come ashore with him.

Will I come ashore with him? Will I not? I drag open drawers, fling out
a white-drill suit, and begin to dress. I open the door and shout to the
messman to go and get a boat and bring my shoes and some hot water.
While I shave, Tommy relates his adventures in a sketchy way. He has no
gift of tongues, but now and again he strikes out a phrase that brings
the picture before me. He has been torpedoed. He was in the Malthusian
when she was ‘plugged.’ He was on watch, of course,—Thirds always are on
watch when anything happens. I used to tell him that he was the original
of Browning’s ‘Shadowy Third,’ he is so small, with delicate hands and
that charming, elusive, shadowy smile.

Oh, I remark, as I reach for the talcum powder, he was torpedoed, was
he? He nods and smiles at O’Henry’s trick of falling off the settee head
over heels. And the poor old Malthusian too,—what a box of tricks she
was, with her prehistoric pumps and effervescent old dynamo,—gone at
last, eh? Tommy says nothing about the catastrophe save that he lost his
gear. Then, he observes, he joined the Polynesian as Third, having, of
course, got himself fresh gear. Ah, and had I heard about the
Polynesian? She’s gone too, he said, letting O’Henry down to the floor
by his tail. What? Torpedoed too? It must be a sort of habit with him.
Good Heavens! But no, says Tommy, she was attacked, but she got away,
and—

‘It was a funny thing,’ he adds meditatively; and looks at me as though
he couldn’t make it out.

‘What,’ I ask, ‘what happened?’ as I look around for my stick and
cigar-case.

‘Oh, I’ll tell you when we get ashore,’ he says; and he rolls O’Henry
into a ball and drops him on my bunk.

‘Come on, then.—Sam! Got that boat?’

A negro voice howls, ‘Yes, sah,’ and we go out and down the ladder.

A three-quarter moon is coming up, hangs now over Palestine, and Port
Said, the ancient Pelusium, takes on a serene splendor inconceivable to
those who have seen her only in the hard dusty glare of noon-day. The
harsh outlines of the ships soften to vague shadows touched with silver;
the profound gloom within the colonnades of the Canal building, the
sheen of the moonlight on green domes and gray stucco walls make of it a
fairy palace of mist and emerald. Each motor-launch speeding past leaves
a broadening, heaving furrow of phosphorescence. Each dip of our oars
breaks the dark water into an incredible swirl of boiling greenish-white
radiance.

Tommy and I sit side by side in the stern in silence as the Arab
boatman, in blue gown and round white cap, pulls us up to the
Custom-House quay. We pass out at a side gate and find ourselves in
Egyptian darkness. Whether this is due to military exigencies or to a
shortage of fuel, nobody seems to know. The hotel buildings along the
front throw their shadows right across the Sharia el Legera, down which
we pass until we reach the broad dusty Rue el Nil, a boulevard running
straight down to the sea. We are bound for the Eastern Exchange Hotel,
familiarly known as ‘The Eastern.’ It is the grand rallying-point of
mariners east and west of Suez. It is a huge gaunt structure of glass
and iron, built over to the curb of the street and the arcade under it
is full of green chairs and tables, green shrubs in enormous tubs, and
climbing plants twined about the iron stanchions. The lights are
shrouded in green petroleum cans, and one has the illusion of sitting in
the glade of some artificial forest. Hotel waiters, in long white robes
cut across with brilliant scarlet sashes, and surmounted by scarlet
fezes, move noiselessly to and fro with trays of drinks. An orchestra,
somewhere beyond, plays a plaintive air.

All around are uniforms naval and military, British, French, Italian,
and so forth. It is here, I say, that East and West do meet. Here the
skipper from Nagasaki finds an old shipmate just in from New Orleans.
Here a chief engineer, burned brown and worn thin by a summer at Basra,
drinks with a friend bound East from Glasgow to Rangoon. Here the gossip
of all the ports of the Seven Seas changes hands over the little tables
under the dim green-shaded lights. Outside, beyond the screen of
verdure, a carriage will go by stealthily in the dust, a cigar glowing
under the hood. Itinerant salesmen of peanuts in glass boxes, beads,
Turkish delight, postals, cigarettes, news-sheets, postage-stamps, and
all the other passenger junk, pass to and fro. A native conjuror halts
as we sit down, sadly produces a dozen lizards from an apparently empty
fez, and passes on as I look coldly upon his peripatetic legerdemain.
Here and there parties of residents sit round a table—a French family,
perhaps, or Italian, or Maltese, or Greek, or Hebrew, or Syrian—for they
are all to be found here in Pelusium, the latter making money out of
their conquerors, just as, I dare say, they did in Roman times. Papa is
smoking a cigarette; Mamma is sitting back surveying the other denizens
of the artificial forest through her lorgnon; the young ladies converse
with a couple of youthful ‘subs’ in khaki, and a bare-legged boy, in an
enormous pith hat like an inverted bath, is haggling over half a piastre
with a vender of peanuts. Tommy and I sit in the shadow of a shrub and I
order gin and lime-juice. He wants beer, but there is no beer—only some
detestable carbonated bilge-water at half a dollar (ten piastres) the
bottle.

And soldiers go by continually to and from the cafés and canteens. Many
are Colonials, and their wide-brimmed hats decorated with feathers give
them an extraordinarily dissipated air. There is something very
un-English about these enormous, loose-limbed, rolling fighting-men,
with their cheeks the color of raw beef and their truculent eyes under
their wide hats. They remind me at times of the professional soldiers of
my school-days, who dressed in scarlet and gold and were a race apart.
As they pass us, in twos and threes and singly, slouching and jingling
their spurs, and roll off into darkness again, I think of Master Angus
MacFadden and his chums, and I wonder what the future holds for us all.
Then I hear Tommy talking and I begin to listen.

No use trying to tell the story as he told it. Whoever thinks he can, is
the victim of an illusion. Tommy’s style, like his personality, is not
literary. I often wonder, when I think of the sort of life he has led,
how he comes to express himself at all. For he often startles me with
some queer semi-articulate flash of intuition. A direct challenge to
Life! As when he said, looking up at me as we leaned over the bulwarks
and watched the sun rise one morning in the Caribbean, ‘Yo’ know, I
haven’t _had_ any life.’

Well, as I said, he and I are chums on some mysteriously taciturn, North
Country principle that won’t bear talking about! And I must tell the
story in my own way, merely quoting a phrase now and then. I owe him
that much because, you see, he was there.



                                  III


That voyage he made in the Polynesian was her usual London to South
American ports. And nothing happened until they were homeward bound and
making Ushant. It was a glorious day, as clear as it ever is in northern
waters, and the Third Mate was astonished to see through his glasses
what he took to be land. Ushant already! As he looked, he saw a flash
and his wonder deepened. He told himself, well, he’d be blowed! A
tremendous bang a hundred yards abeam of the Polynesian nearly shook him
overboard. It has come at last, then!

The Old Man came from his room, running sideways, his face set in a kind
of spasm, and stood by the rail, clutching it as if petrified. The Third
Mate, a friend of Tommy’s, pointed and handed the binocular just in time
for the Old Man to see another flash. The morning telegraph clanged and
jangled. The Third Mate ran to the telephone and was listening, when the
second shell, close to the bows, exploded on the water and made him drop
the receiver. Then he heard the Old Man order the helm over—over—over,
whirling his arm to emphasize the vital need of putting it hard over. A
few moments of tense silence, and then, with a roar that nearly split
all their ear-drums, the Polynesian’s six-inch anti-raider gun loosed
off at nine thousand yards.

So you must envisage this obscure naval engagement on that brilliant
summer day in the green Atlantic. Not a ripple to spoil the aim, not a
cloud in the sky, as the two gunners, their sleeves rolled to the
shoulders, their bodies heaving, thrust a fresh shell and cartridge into
the breech, shoved in the cap, and swung the block into place with the
soft ‘cluck’ of steel smeared with vaseline. As the ship veers, the gun
is trained steady on the gray dot. Nine thousand and fifty, no
deflection—‘Stand away!’ There is another roar, and the gunner, who has
stood away, now stands with his feet apart, his elbows out, staring with
intense concentration through his glasses.

Down below, the engine-room staff, which included Tommy doing a
field-day on the spare generator, were clustered on the starting
platform. The expansion links had been opened out full,—any locomotive
driver will show you what I mean,—and the Polynesian’s engines, four
thousand seven hundred horse-power indicated, driven by steam at two
hundred pounds to the square inch from her four Scotch boilers, were
turning eighty-nine revolutions per minute and making very good going
for her, but nothing to write home about, when a modern submersible
cruiser doing sixteen knots on the surface was pelting after her. The
tremendous explosions of the six-inch gun discouraged conversation.

The Chief Engineer, a tall man with a full chestnut moustache and a
stern contemptuous expression born of his hatred of sea-life, was
striding up and down the plates. The Second appeared, like Ariel,
around, above, below, intent on sundry fidgets of his own, and
whistling—nobody knew why. The Fourth was in the stokehold and back in
the engine-room every ten minutes. The Fifth, as though he had been
naughty and was being punished by that stern man with the four
gold-and-purple wings on his sleeve, was standing with his face to the
wall, big rubber navy-phone receivers on his ears and his eyes fixed in
a rapt saintly way on two ground-glass discs above him, one of which was
aglow and bore the legend _More Revolutions_. The other, _Less
Revolutions_, was dull and out of use. So he stood, waiting for verbal
orders.

All the revolutions possible were being supplied, for the safety-valves
were lifting with an occasional throaty flutter. Unexpectedly the Second
would appear from the tunnel, where he had been feeling the stern gland,
and would hover lovingly over the thrust-block, whistling, amid the
clangor of four thousand seven hundred horse-power, ‘Love me, and the
world is mine.’

Suddenly all was swallowed up, engulfed, in one heart-shattering
explosion on deck. It was so tremendous that the Fifth’s head
involuntarily darted out from the receivers and he looked sharply at the
Chief, who was standing stock-still with his long legs apart, his hands
in his coat pockets, staring over his shoulder with stern intentness
into vacancy. The telephone bell brayed out a call and the Fifth fitted
his head once again to the receiver. ‘Yes, sir!’ he sang out; and then,
to the others, ‘We’re gainin’ on her! We’re gainin’ on her!’ Tommy goes
on methodically with his dynamo. He is close at hand when wanted, ready,
resourceful, devoid of panic. The excitement is on deck, where the shell
has struck the house amidships, blowing the galley ranges and bakehouse
ovens overboard, killed three men outright, and left two more mere
moving horrors on the slaughter-house floor. Another, a scullion, with
his hand cut off at the wrist, is running round and round, falling over
the wreckage, and pursued by a couple of stewards with bandages and
friar’s balsam.

And on that gray dot, now nine thousand five hundred yards astern, there
is excitement too, no doubt, for it seems authentic that the
Polynesian’s third shot hit the forward gun-mounting, and the list
caused by this, heavy things slewing over, the damage to the deck, the
rupture of certain vital oil-pipes, and the wounds of the crew, would
account for the Polynesian, with her fourteen-point-seven knots, gaining
on U 999, supposed to have sixteen knots on the surface.

On the bridge of the Polynesian, too, there is excitement of sorts. The
Chief Mate, who has been rushing about, helping the ammunition carriers,
then assisting the stewards with their rough surgery, then up on the
bridge again, has come up and is prancing up and down, every now and
then looking hard at the Old Man, who stares through the telescope at
the gray dot.

Something awful had happened. When that shell hit the ship, the Old Man
had called out hoarsely, ‘That’s enough—oh, enough—boats!’ and the Chief
Mate, to the horror of the young Third Mate, who told Tommy about it,
grabbed the Old Man round the waist, whirled him into the chart-room,
and slammed the door upon them both. The Third Mate says he saw, through
the window, the Chief Mate’s fist half-an-inch from the Old Man’s nose,
the Old Man looking at it in gloomy silence, and the Chief Mate’s eyes
nearly jumping out of his head as he argued and threatened and implored.
‘... Gainin’ on her,’ was all the Third Mate could hear, and ‘... For
God’s sake, sir!’ and such-like strong phrases. So the Third Mate says.
And then they came out again, and the Mate telephoned to the
engine-room.



                                   IV


The company is dwindling now, for, as Tommy gulps his drink and orders
two more, it is on the stroke of nine, when the bars close, and folks
are melting group by group into the darkness. Some are bound for home,
some for ‘Eldorado,’ a dusty barn where one watches dreadful
melodramatic films and faints with the heat. The lights are turned still
lower. The few shops which have been open in a stealthy way now shut up
close. The moonlight throws sharp blue-black shadows on the white dust
of the Rue el Nil. The orchestra fades away; chairs are stacked between
the tubs, and reproachful glances are cast upon the dozen or so of us
who still linger in the gloom.

I become aware that Tommy, in his own odd little semi-articulate
fashion, is regarding me as though he had some extraordinary anxiety on
his mind. That is the way his expression strikes me. As though he had
had some tremendous experience and didn’t know what to make of it. I
remember seeing something like it in the face of a youth, religiously
brought up, who was listening for the first time to an atheist
attempting to shake the foundations of his faith. And while I ruminate
upon this unusual portent in Tommy’s physiognomy, he plunges into the
second part of his story. It has its own appeal to those who love and
understand the sea.

For the rest of the day the Polynesian’s course was a series of
intricate convolutions on the face of the Atlantic. As the Third Mate
put it in his lively way, you could have played it on a piano. Owing to
the wireless room having been partially demolished, they were out of
touch with the world, and the commander felt lonely. He even regretted
for a while that he had not retired. Was just going to, when the War
came. He was sixty years old, and had been an easygoing skipper for
twenty years now. This,—and he wiped his moist face with his
handkerchief,—this wasn’t at all what he had bargained for when he had
volunteered to carry on ‘for the duration of the War.’ Men dead and
dying and mutilated, ship torn asunder—He sat on his settee and stared
hard at the head and shoulders of the man at the wheel, adumbrated on
the ground-glass window in front of him. He had turned sick at the sight
down there—

But the Polynesian was still going. Not a bolt, rivet, plate, or rod of
her steering and propelling mechanism had been touched, and she was
galloping northwest by west at thirteen knots. The commander hoped for a
dark night, for in his present perturbed state the idea of being
torpedoed at night was positively horrible. The Brobdingnagian, now, was
hit at midnight and sunk in three minutes with all hands but two. He
wiped his face again. He felt that he wasn’t equal to it.

It was dark. All night it was dark and moonless. All night they galloped
along up-Channel. All night the Old Man walked the bridge, watching the
blackness ahead. At four o’clock the Mate came on watch and the Old Man
felt that he must lie down. He was over sixty years old, remember, and
he had been on his feet for eighteen hours. The Chief Mate, who had been
strangely shy since his outrageous behavior, merely remarked that it
looked as if it might be thick presently, and began to pace to and fro.

What happened,—if anything did happen,—nobody seemed to know; but Tommy,
who came off at four, and was enjoying a pipe, a cup of cocoa, and a
game of patience in his room, was suddenly flung endways against his
wardrobe, and a series of grinding crashes, one of which sent his
porthole glass in a burst of fragments over his bed-place, buckled the
plates of the ship’s side. He remembered that the wardrobe door flew
open as he sprang up, and his derby hat bounced to the floor.

He at once skipped down below, where he found the Second and Chief
trying to carry out a number of rapid contradictory orders from the
telegraph. And as he joined them the telegraph whirled from _Full
astern_ to _Stand by_, and stopped. They stood by. Tommy was told to go
and finish ‘changing over,’ which involves opening and shutting several
mysterious valves. Having achieved this, he took up his station by the
telegraph.

The Chief, clad in a suit of rumpled but elegant
pink-and-saffron-striped pajamas, prowled to and fro in front of the
engines like one of the larger carnivora in front of his cage. The
Second, with the sleeves of his coat rolled up, as if he were a conjuror
and wished to show there was no deception, produced a cigarette from his
ear, a match from an invisible ledge under the log-desk, and then caused
himself to disappear into the stokehold, whistling a tune at one time
very popular in Dublin called ‘Mick McGilligan’s Daughter Mary Ann.’ He
returned in some mysterious fashion, smoking with much enjoyment, and
reporting greaser, firemen, and Tommies all gone up on deck.

And so they waited, those three, and waited, and waited; and the dawn
came up, ineffably tender, and far up above them through the skylights
they saw the stars through the fog turn pale, and still there was no
sign, the telegraph finger pointing, in its mute peremptory way, at
_Stand by_. They were standing by.

And at length it grew to be past endurance. The Chief spoke sharply into
the telephone. Nothing. Suddenly he turned and ordered Tommy to go up
and see what was doing. The Second, coming in from the stokehold,
reported water in the cross-bunker, but the doors were down. So Tommy
went up the long ladders and out on deck and stood stock-still before
the great experience of his life. For they were alone on the ship, those
three. The boats were gone. There was no sound, save the banging of the
empty blocks and the gurgle and slap of the sea against her sides.

For a moment, Tommy said, he ‘had no heart.’ The sheer simplicity of the
thing unmanned him, as well it might. He hadn’t words—Gone! Behind the
horror lay another horror, and it was the reminiscence of this ultimate
apprehension that I saw in his face to-night. And then he threw himself
backward (a North Country football trick), turned, and rushed for the
ladder. The other two, down below, saw him there, his eyes feverish, his
face dark and anxious, his usually low voice harsh and strident, as he
prayed them to drop everything and come up quick—come on—and his voice
trailed off into huskiness and heavy breathing.

When they came up, which happened immediately, four steps at a time,
they found him sprawled against the bulwarks, his chin on his hands,
looking as though to fix the scene forever on his brain. And they looked
too, and turned faint, for there, far across the darkling sparkle of the
sea, were the boats, and on the sky-line a smear of smoke. So they
stood, each in a characteristic attitude—Tommy asprawl on the rail, the
Second halfway up the bridge-deck ladder, one hand on his hip, the Chief
with his hands behind him, his long legs widely planted, his head well
forward, scowling. They were as Tommy put it, ‘in a state.’ It wasn’t,
you know, the actual danger; it was the carrying away of their faith in
the world of living men. Good God! And I imagine the prevailing emotion
in their hearts at this moment was instinct in the lad’s query to
me—‘What was the use of goin’ back, or making a fight of it, if _that_
was all they thought of us?’ And then the Polynesian recalled them from
speculations as to the ultimate probity of the human soul by giving a
sudden lunge forward. She was sinking.

For a moment, Tommy says, they were ‘in a state.’ I should imagine they
were. They began running round and round the deck, picking up pieces of
wood and dropping them in a shamefaced manner. Suddenly the Chief
remembered the raft—an unfortunate structure of oil-barrels and hatches.
It was on the foredeck, a frowsy incumbrance devised by the Mate in a
burst of ingenuity against the fatal day. When the three of them arrived
on the foredeck their hopes sank again. A single glance showed the
impossibility of lifting it without steam on the winches. They stood
round it and deliberated in silence, tying on life-belts which they had
picked up on the bridge-deck. The Polynesian gave another lunge, and
they climbed on the raft and held tight.

The Polynesian was in her death-throes. She had been cut through below
the bridge, and the water was filling the cross-bunker and pressing the
air in Number 2 hold up against the hatches. While they sat there
waiting, the tarpaulins on the hatch ballooned up and burst like a
gunshot, releasing the air improvised within. She plunged again, and the
sea poured over her bulwarks and cascaded around them. The raft slid
forward against a winch, skinning the Second’s leg against a wheelguard.
They held on.

Now, it is perfectly simple in theory to sit on a raft and allow a ship
to sink under you. The ship sinks, and the raft, retaining its buoyancy,
floats. Quite simple, in theory. In practice, however, many factors tend
to vitiate the simplicity of it. Indeed, it becomes so difficult that
only by the mercy of God could anybody attempt it and survive. The
foredeck of the Polynesian was like the foredeck of most ships,
cluttered up with hatch-combings, winches, ventilator-cowls, steampipes,
masts, derricks, bollards, snatch-blocks, dead-eyes, ladders, and
wire-rope drums. Look forward from the promenade next time you make a
trip, and conceive it. As the Polynesian subsided, she wallowed. Her
centre of gravity was changing every second, and the raft, with its
three serious passengers, was charging to and fro as if it were alive
and trying to escape. It carried away a ventilator, and then, for one
horrible instant, was caught in the standing rigging and canted over. A
rush to starboard released it, and the next moment it was free. Only the
windlass on the forecastlehead was now above water forward.

They saw nothing more of her. Not that she vanished all at once, but the
sucking whirlpools in which the raft was turning over and reeling back
on them kept them fully occupied. And when at last they had coughed up
the seawater and wiped their eyes and looked at each other as they
floated in the gentle swell of a smiling summer sea, she was gone. Only
one thing destroyed their peace and stood up before them like a spectre:
she was lying at the bottom, with her telegraph at _Stand by_. The
deathless sporting spirit of the race was expressed in these words: ‘You
know, if it hadn’t been for _that_, it was a joke, man!’

The moon rides high over Pelusium as we go back to the ship. Tommy and I
will keep the morning watch together for once and talk over old times.
Tomorrow I shall go through the hot white dust of the Rue el Nil and be
paid off in the consul’s office for my two years’ labor. There is a
mail-boat next week, and perhaps I shall board her, passenger-fashion,
and go across the blue Mediterranean, through sunny France, across the
English Channel, where the Polynesian stands by forever, up through
Sussex orchards and over Surrey downs. And perhaps, as I idle away the
autumn in the dim beauty of the Essex fenland, and as we drive in the
pony-cart through the lanes, we shall stop and the children will say,
‘If you stand up, you can see the sea.’

Perhaps. Who knows?



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 ● Transcriber’s Notes:
    ○ Missing or obscured punctuation was silently corrected.
    ○ Typographical errors were silently corrected.
    ○ Inconsistent spelling and hyphenation were made consistent only
      when a predominant form was found in this book.
    ○ Text that:
      was in italics is enclosed by underscores (_italics_);
      was in bold by is enclosed by “equal” signs (=bold=).





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