William McFee.

A six-hour shift online

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I LIE still, with eyes closed, for a
few moments before rising,
listening to the drumming of the
rain on the deck overhead, and the
gurgle of the scupper-pipes outside
in the alleyway. I sort out drowsily
the familiar vibrations: the faint,
delicate rhythm of the dynamo, the
hammer of a pump, the leisurely
rumble and hiss of the refrigerator.
Suddenly a hideous jar close at hand:
the Fourth Engineer is making tea in
the galley, and has dropped the
poker. I look sideways at my watch.
It is now five minutes to two. I
decide to get up and dress.

I reflect on the fact that to-day is


the anniversary of our departure
from a home port. For a year, with
but one or two days of rest, we have
been dressing at five minutes to two.
For a year the Armee d'Orient has
been fed with frozen meat from our
insulated holds. I recall a sentence
in a recent letter from an officer on
the Western front. It seems to put
the matter succinctly. "War," he
says, "is like trade; only indirectly in-
teresting.'* And again, lower down,
he remarks, "It isn't the horror of
war that makes a man tired, or even
the danger and bloodshed; it is the
infernal monotony of it."

So I suppose we have no corner in
monotony! I finish dressing (it is
now five minutes past two, but no
matter), and go into the mess-room
for a cup of tea. The Fourth Engi-
neer is there, also my colleague whom
I am relieving, and the Third Officer


in pajamas. This last person is
suffering from insomnia, which is
not surprising, since he drinks strong
tea at 10:30 p. m. He is now drink-
ing strong tea at 2 a. m., on the
principle of poison counteracting poi-
son, I suppose. Anyhow, he does
nothing all day, so it doesn*t matter.
The Fourth Engineer is a hospit-
able soul and makes me toast. He
is on duty all night in the main
engine-room. He is a lanky, im-
mature, good-tempered youth, with
nice eyes. He knows I like toast.
In return, I am looking the other
way when the cook gives him a
pocketful of eggs out of the cold-
storage rooms. I like him. He
laughs easily and bears no malice.
Like most East Anglians, he has a
subtle refinement of mind that will
stand him in good stead through life.
Among the dour north countrymen



who throng the ship, he is almost

While I eat my toast, I listen to
their conversation. It does not
amount to much. How could it?
We have been together a year. We
are, occasionally, rather tired of each
other. We are each painfully con-
scious of the other's faults. Most
subjects of which we know anything
have been bled white of all interest.
There are neither mysteries to attract
nor revelations to anticipate. "The
End of the War" and "When the
Ship will go Home " are taboo. Most
of us take refuge in light badinage.
Others, like the Third Officer and his
colleagues, play bridge for three hours
every night. Some study languages
and musical instruments; but there
are not many of these. Some drink
secretly, and are reported later as
"sick." Most of us, however, do sim-



ply nothing. We sit, or stand, or walk
or lie, with one dull thought in our
minds, one vague image before our eyes
— the thought, the image, of Release.
It is an unusual state of mind. I
had almost written ^"^a curious psy-
chological phenomenon," but I am
anxious to make the reader under-
stand, and plain words are best. It
is, I say, an unusual state of mind.
From the Commander to the scullion,
from the Chief Engineer to the coal-
passer, we have all gradually ar-
rived at a mood which is all the more
passionate because it is inarticulate.
With every other outlet dammed, our
whole spiritual life is forced along one
narrow channel of intense desire. We
want to go home. It sounds childish,
but that is because the reader does
not understand. When he has read
through this essay, I hope he will
understand. I mean him to.


I drink my tea and eat my toast,
and having given Thomas a saucer of
milk, I go on duty. Thomas is a
large black cat, who shares my vigil.
Allons done!

I go aft to the refrigerating-room
along a covered alleyway, which none
the less leaks; and Thomas, who
follows, makes little runs to avoid the
drips. It is raining as it can rain
only in the Balkans. There is some-
thing Scottish about this rain, some-
thing dour, persistent, and irritating;
and this old obsolete banana boat,
converted into a cold-storage, leaks
in every seam of her boat-deck,
which is all warped by the blazing
suns of a Balkan summer. We skip
in, Thomas and I, in where there is
light and warmth and comfortable
noises, and, in our various fashions,
carry on.

It is no part of these reflections to


treat of refrigeration. That, being
part of modern war, is uninteresting.
My oiler, a faded Irishman with a bad
leg, does most of the work. I note
the log on the desk, thumb the com-
pressor rods, take a few thermometer
readings, feel the crank bearings of
the engine, and feel bored. Thomas,
after watching a couple of cock-
roaches who persist in risking their
lives along the edge of the evapo-
rator-casing, settles down to snooze on
the vise-bench. For a time I envy
him. I want to sleep again myself.
I sit down near the desk, and,
sharply alert as to the machine, I
permit the rest of me, my soul and
body let us say, to take forty winks.
I leave the explanation to competent
psychologists. It can be done. I
need no Psychical Research Society
to tell me that my soul and my
intellect are differentiate entities. I


know it, because I have kept six-hour
watches, because I have been on
night duty, because — because of
many private reasons, of which it is
not seemly that I should speak.
Suffice it.

For an hour I sit with folded arms,
while the machine pursues its
leisurely never-ending race; while the
brine-pump lifts first one leg and
then the other, gingerly, as though in
deep snow; while the electric fans
revolve noiselessly in their corners;
while the faded Irishman moves un-
easily from side to side as he ministers
to the needs of the machine. Sub-
consciously I am aware of all that
goes on. So much for the experience
^.nd. flair born of a dozen years at sea.

And, to tell the truth, this is the
most hopeless time of the day. I
once saw a picture, well known, no
doubt: A Hopeless Dawn. My ex-



perience is, that all dawns are hope-
less, to those who have to witness
them. The legend of the early palse-
oHthic ancestor who spent a night of
terror after seeing the sun sink out of
sight, and who leaped for joy at the
dawning, is too thin. He is no
ancestor of mine. For me the peri-
od comprised between the hour of
two and four is one of unrelieved
vacuity. The minutes, the very
seconds, seem to deliberate. When,
after what seems a long quarter of an
hour, I look again at the clock, that
white-faced, impassive umpire has
registered exactly three minutes.
Well, it is three minutes past three.
I get up abruptly, startling the faded
Irishman who is standing near me,
smoking a dirty pipe and thinking of
Heaven knows what, and go outside
into the open air. And outside in the
open air is Salonika.



THE rain, in an inconclusive
way, has ceased, though the
scupper-pipes still gurgle and
cluck with the water running from
above. I walk along the after deck,
climb up the heap of sandbags built
round the gun-platform, and take
refuge in a sort of canvas sentry-box
which the gunners have improvised
out of ammunition cases, a spring
mattress, and some old tarpaulins.
Here I am more than ever solitary at
this hour. The gun, looking like a
gaunt cab-horse in its gray canvas
shroud, droops its muzzle slightly, as
though dispirited because we go so
rarely to sea. Nothing else can I



see of the ship, save the flagpole, a
ghostly outpost of humanity, for
beyond it the world has dissolved
into a sad chaos of water and sky.
There is no wind. The waters of the
Gulf lie placid and obscure. The
sky-line has vanished, and one has
the illusion of floating in infinite
space, in a sort of aerial Xoah's Ark
without any animals. The patches
of white in the cloud-canopy are
reflected with eerie accuracy in the
lifeless and invisible mirror below.
One feels a slight vertigo, for all
things seem to have been swallowed
up, and even Time, that last refuge
of saints and sinners, seems to have

The rain comes as a relief, as
though the works of the universe
were getting under way again. My
knees being exposed, I decide that I
have had enough of nature in solu-



tion and climb down from the gun-
platform. The moon, which is shin-
ing behind the dense clouds,
brightens the patches of white, and
these are reflected on the wet deck.
Picking my way carefully, for all
scuttles are screened, I reach the
machine-room. Nothing is changed
save the hands of the clock: it is
now half-past three. The faded
Irishman has become a shade more
brisk in his movements. From now
on he will become more and more
active and intelligent in carrying out
his duties, until he reaches a climax
of senseless energy at four by break-
ing into speech with a "Well, good-
night, sir,'' and vanishing into his
kennel. His place is taken by a
somnolent negro.

At four the rain is pouring down
with all its old violence, and I make
my way along to the mess-room for


more tea. I bump into a damp
silent man, a Greek sailor, on night
duty. He is supposed to keep a
lookout at the gangway and tend the
galley-fires. He does both very well.
Some sailors are poor hands at stok-
ing. The Russian, who occasionally
acts as night-watchman, is no good.
They say Russians understand tea.
Our Russian understands nothing.

The Japanese second cook, on
being called by the Greek mariner,
is furious with the fire. The Greek
and Arab firemen do not understand
that coal-dust is unsuitable for galley
fires. There are, at times, inter-
national complications.

The Fourth Engineer and I once
more foregather in the mess-room. I
make the tea, and I do it this way.
The tea-pot, of white china, is rinsed
and scalded with boiling water. I
then put in the correct quantity of


tea, which is an art acquired only in
the school of experience. Then I
pour on the correct quantity of fresh-
boiling water— another art. The tea
is left to steep on the hob for as long
as it takes to cut, toast, and butter
two slices of bread. The tea is now
ready. I pour it. Its colour is
superb. Having done all this, I
cast a look of triumph on the Fourth
Engineer, who informs me that there
is no milk; very much as a silly young
staff officer might tell his general that
the army has no ammunition. I
retire to my room and return with a
cream-jug full of condensed milk of
an age so vague that only boiling
water can reduce it to a liquid form.
Thereupon we sit down, and having
exhausted every conceivable subject
of conversation six months ago, we
drink and munch in silence.

The militarists say that war is


necessary to develop the soul of a
nation; without war men would sink
into stupidity and sloth.

Having eaten and drunk in silence,
we light cigarettes and go away, he
down below to pump the boilers up,
I to my machine-room to see how the
somnolent negro is going on. He is
going on very much as I expected.
He wanders like a sleep-walker
among the machinery, attending to
his duties after his own fashion. I
make up the log to four o'clock,
examine certain things that may go
wrong, but never do, and go out into
the alleyway again.

The hopeless dawn is approaching.
A ghastly pallor now faintly out-
lines a mountain which I indolently
call Ben Lomond. The Gulf of
Salonika is almost entirely sur-
rounded by land, and the city is
built on the slopes of a mountain.



Ben Lomond is farther off to the
eastward; other mountains form ram-
parts to the west and north, while the
Vardar River delta insinuates itself
among the more rugged features in a
most curious way. Southward, be-
yond the headland that marks the
entrance, the horizon is closed by the
sublime peak of Olympos. The Gulf,
therefore, is a kind of bowl, against
the rim of which the clouds are
condensed and held. Under their
caps of cotton-woolly clouds the
mountains are white with snow.

We have come out of the void, and
dark blobs are now recognizable as
ships. Lights glitter along the shore.
A motor-lighter passes, her engine
exhaust beating the still air like a
pulse. The silence is no longer pro-
found or tragic. The world of men,
the world of living men, is coming
back, and I am glad. I have a


weakness for the world of living men.
A steamer, weighing her anchor with
much puffing of steam from her
windlass-exhaust, blows her whistle.
It is a trumpet-blast, completing the
rout of the powers of darkness.

There is a crash from our galley.
Someone, most probably the Japanese
second cook, has dropped the poker.
The Japanese second cook is a
creature of moods, often passionate.
He is, so they say, a student of
philosophy at Tokyo University. He
has come to sea to earn more money
to complete his courses — of philos-
ophy, I suppose. The chief cook,
who is a Chinaman, has presumably
completed his studies in philosophy,
while the third cook, who is an
Italian, has never studied philosophy
at all. Anyhow, various noises com-
bine to inform me that all three are
now in the galley engaged in making



bread and preparing breakfast for the
crew in a more or less philosophical

Other sounds assert themselves,
too. Weird moans from below an-
nounce the Fourth Engineer's success
with his boilers. A small dog in the
firemen's house aft yelps tediously
at an imaginary enemy. He pre-
sumes upon his rating as a mascot.
A sleepy Greek boy, with weak eyes
and legs, appears from the forecastle
with a tin tea-pot. He is reported to
be a Venizelist. Venizelists, I ob-
serve, make poor sailors. The night
watchman, who answers to the name
of Papa Gregovis, but whose political
tendencies are obscure, fades away
forward. The oiler in the main
engine-room, a one-eyed mulatto,
carries his tea-can along.

So an hour passes.

Once again the rain has ceased and



I go out on the after deck and walk to
and fro. I discover the crowded
roadstead of Salonika. Black blobs
have become transports, misty phan-
toms have changed into hospital
ships, gray shadows into men-of-war.
One hospital ship is preparing to
move — does move, as I watch her.
She is girdled with a necklace of
emerald lights. On her rail is a red
cross of electric lights. She is very
beautiful, a jewelled wraith moving
noiselessly across our bows. Several
Greek schooners, with all sails set,
float near us on the glassy water,
waiting for a wind. Time is no ob-
ject with them. One appears close
to our quarter, like a ghost of some
past age, a fabulous blue galleon with
silver sails. She is part of the ridicu-
lous unreality of the whole business.



I DECIDE suddenly to have a
pipe, and go in to get tobacco
and matches. However, the
mess-room steward is bringing in tea
and toast for two, so I postpone the
pipe. As I sit down on the stool by
the desk, the Fourth Engineer comes
in, wiping his hands on a piece of
waste. He is gay. It is nearly six.
The boilers, sanitary, and fresh-
water tanks are all full. Everything
is in order. xAt seven he will dive
into his room and be no more seen.
He sits down beside me and partakes
of his seventh cup of tea and piece of
toast since nine o'clock last night.
He wants to go up for an examina-



tion. He has been away fifteen
months as Fourth. He will probably
be away another fifteen. He is los-
ing his chances. And they need
young men at home.

One of the great advantages of
war, the militarists tell us, is that
young men get their chance. War
gives us scope, provokes initiative,
stimulates the soul, quickens the

With my pipe alight, I take up my
walk on the after deck. The setting
moon is a mere pool of radiance, like
an electric lamp swathed in muslin.
A rift in the clouds over Ben Lomond
shows a pale blue patch of sky with
the morning star shining in the
middle of it. The lights of the port
shine like stars, too, in the rain-
washed air. Men move about the
ship, launches begin to cross and
recross the harbour. A steamer near



us suddenly wakes into life. Electric
clusters and arc-lights blaze about
her decks, derricks swing and winches
rattle. Another ship, a collier, hauls
up her anchor and very cautiously,
very stealthily, approaches a cruiser,
as though she were about to pounce
upon her without warning. But the
cruiser is in full possession of all her
faculties apparently, for hundreds of
men appear on deck, whistles are
blown, fenders are lowered, ropes are
thrown out, and at length the two lie
in a close embrace, and the cruiser's
Morse light winks rapidly several
times to inform the world that all is
as it should be.

As I turn from this fascinating
spectacle I behold the French lighter
approaching. The French lighter is
a cumbrous old Turkish sailing ship
propelled by a minute French tug
lashed to her side. She seems to




have her arm round the tug's shoul- m

ders. Loud hammering announces

the steam making its way along our

water-logged deck-pipes. A shrill ^

whistle from the French tug elicits a '|

similar whistle from someone on our

upper deck. Several soldiers in

khaki make their appearance about

the ship. The French tug and *^

lighter come alongside and are made

fast. A swarm of dirty Greeks climb

up and begin to remove the hatches.

You cannot honestly say the day
has broken. It is much more as
though the blank opacity of the night
had worn thin. That blue rent in
the dirty tarpaulin of the sky over
Ben Lomond has closed up, and a fine
misty drizzle begins to fall.

I retire to the door of the machine-
room, where I encounter my friend
the French sergeant-major. He is a
handsome Marseillais, by profession



a dealer in antique furniture and objets
d 'art. For two years he has been
supervising the transportation of beef
and mutton from ship to shore. He
is of the opinion that war develops
our higher faculties to the utmost,
and that without war civilized man
would degenerate into a gross pre-
occupation with material needs.
However, just now he is good-hum-
ouredly frantic because there is no
steam. I inquire what it is that it
is. He waves his arms. I say,
"P^j de vapeurV Ah! he nods and
waves his arms again. I wave mine.
In a species of utilitarian French
which I find that French men — and
women — understand, I inform him
that the vapeur is on its way, but that
it is being retarded by the condensa-
tion in the pipes, due to the odious
weather. He agrees, and waves his
arms. I nod vigorously and wave


mine. We are brothers. We shake |

hands. He hands me a copy of
LOpinion or Llndependant^ diminu-
tive news-sheets dear to the heart of
the Armee d*Orient. I deluge him ||

with thanks and he returns to the
hatch to load the Greeks with op-
probrious epithets.

While perusing the little French
paper, I am accosted by the philoso-
phical second cook, the dark-eyed
gentleman from Tokyo, and the very
human third cook, a dark-eyed
gentleman from Naples, who wish to .

enter the cold storage. I give them
the keys and they vanish into a
cupboard-like cavity where they blow
on their fingers and proceed to quarrel
over legs of beef, corpses of sheep, or
other less desirable provender.

The French paper tells me a great
deal that I wish to know. I rejoice
particularly in the very cavalier


attitude it takes up with regard to
neutrals. It trounces Constantine
very much as the French sergeant-
major trounces the Greek cargo-men.
I pass half an hour very pleasantly
with L 'Opinion or L 'Independant.
I find it is seven o'clock. The
decks are being washed. Firemen
and engine-room men, a variegated
crowd of British, Greek, Arab, and
negro, pass along and go below.
Carpets are being shaken, scuttle-
brasses polished, floors scrubbed.
The city of Salonika becomes dimly
visible, a gray smudge picked out
with white columns and red domes.
A battleship is going out to practise,
and presently you hear the heavy
bang-bang of her big guns reverberat-
ing against the bluffs of the Kara-
burnou. Stone quarries behind the
town take up the tale, and for an
hour or so you will hear the explo-


sions sullenly booming in the still, |

damp air.

The hours drag on. It is a quarter
to eight. My somnolent negro sud- [

denly becomes wide awake and \

hurries along the deck to call his
rehef. I make a general and par-
ticular examination of everything in
my care, and, rubbing my chin,
decide to shave. There is a tendency
to grow slack and slovenly in cir-
cumstances like these. One says,
"\Yho cares?" and ''What does it
matter?" A slow poison of indolence i

is in the air. I must shave. As a
rule I am negligent, but this morning
I make a hasty decision that this
must end. I will, I announce to my-
self, shave, breakfast, and go ashore.
As a rule I turn in as soon as I have
eaten. I will go ashore.

I tell my mate I am going and seek
information concerning a convey-


ance. I inquire of the Second Officer
which lighter is going away first. He
does not know. He never does know.
He is the most complete agnostic I
have ever met. I ask one of the
soldiers, whose king and country
have taken him away from his job on
a farm and set him to tally meat.
He says he thinks the extra British
lighter will finish first. I then dis-
cover the extra British contingent
loading twenty tons of canned goods
— sardines, salmon, and cling peaches;
why cling peaches, I cannot say. Sol
dropdown the rope ladder to the light-
er*s deck and discover the two naval
stokers getting the engines ready
for starting. They are Bolinder en-

If the reader does not know what a
Bolinder engine is, he is a happy man.
A Bolinder engine is the devil. I once
worked on a ship whose launch had a



Bolinder engine, and it nearly killed


By the time the bulbs are hot
enough to start, the senior artificer
catches sight of me and we fraternize.
He is a pale blond middle-aged man
with the expression of mingled
humility and efficiency common to
lower-deck ratings in the Navy. This
lighter, he tells me, was under fire at
Gallipoli. He shows me a patch on
either side of the engine-room plat-
ing: the entry and exit of a twelve-
pounder shell. It must have passed
within a few inches of his neck. With
this exception he has led a humdrum
parcels-delivery sort of life. Sud-
denly, as his assistant opens a valve,
the engine starts with a roar and then
settles down to the fluttery beat and
cough of an oil engine with the clutch

We discuss the merits and demerits



of Bolinder engines. I hazard the
remark that personally I prefer
steam. The man's face lights up for
a moment as he answers: "Ah, me,
too!" You know where you are with
steam. Steam is the friend of man.
Steam engines are very human.
Their very weaknesses are under-
standable. Steam engines do not
flash back and blow your face in.
They do not short-circuit and rive
your heart with imponderable electric
force. They have arms and legs and
warm hearts and veins full of warm
vapour. We all say that. Give us
steam every time. You know where
you are with steam.

So much for the trip ashore — one
meets a stranger with the knowledge
of the craft. x'\s we climb up out of
the tiny engine-room, I observe that
we are now inside the stone jetty of
the Greek harbour. Several large



transports are discharging men,
mules, horses, guns, locomotives, and
so on. We slip gently alongside, and
with a cheery word and a shake of the
hand I quit my friend with his cargo
of cling peaches and the rest, and
jump ashore. It occurs to me in
passing that the letters from the front
never mention cling peaches and

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Online LibraryWilliam McFeeA six-hour shift → online text (page 1 of 3)