A Six-Hour Shift: The Log of a Transport Engineer

I

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 Armée de l’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 interesting.’ And again, lower down, he remarks, ‘ It is n’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 Engineer 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 drinking strong tea at 2 A.M., on the principle of poison counteracting poison, I suppose. Anyhow, he does nothing all day, so it does n’t matter.

The Fourth Engineer is a hospitable soul and makes me toast. He is on duty all night in the main engine-room. He is a lanky, immature, 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 feminine.

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 conscious 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 wall 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 simply 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 psychological phenomenon,’ but I am anxious to make the reader understand, 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 arrived 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 article, 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, Allans done !

I go aft to the refrige rating-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 something Scottish about this rain, something 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 this article to treat of refrigeration. That, being part of modern war, is uninteresting. My greaser, a faded Irishman with a bad leg, does most of the work. I note the log on the desk, thumb the compressor rods, take a few thermometer readings, feel the crank bearings of the engine, and feel bored. Thomas, after watching a couple of cockroaches who persist in risking their lives along the edge of the evaporator-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 brinepump 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 uneasily from side to side as he ministers to the needs of the machine. Subconsciously I am aware of all that goes on. So much for the experience and 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 experience is, that all dawns are hopeless, to those who have to witness them. The legend of the early palaeolithic 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 period 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.

II

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 cabhorse 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 Noah’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, to have stopped.

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 solution and climb down from the gun-platform. The moon, which is shining 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 machineroom. 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 breaking 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 stoking. 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 Russian 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, international 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 color 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 creamjug 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 outlines a mountain which I indolently call Ben Lomond. The Gulf of Salonika is almost ent irely surrounded by land, and the city is built on the slopes of a mountain. Ben Lomond is farther off to the eastward; other mountains form ramparts to the west and north, while the Vardar River delta insinuates itself among the more rugged features in a most curious way. Southward, beyond the headland that marks the entrance, the horizon is closed by the sublime peak of Olympus. The Gulf, therefore, is a kind of bowl, against the rim of which the clouds arc 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 profound 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: some one, 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 philosophy, 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 combine 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 manner.

Other sounds assert themselves, too. Weird moans from below announce the Fourth Engineer’s success with his boilers. A small dog in the firemen’s house aft yelps tediously at an imaginary enemy. He presumes 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 observe, make poor sailors. The night watchman, who answers to the name of Papa Gregovis, but whose political tendencies are obscure, fades away forward. The greaser in the main engineroom, 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 phantoms 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 jeweled 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 object 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 ridiculous unreality of the whole business.

III

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. At 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 examination. He has been away fifteen months as Fourth. He will probably be away another fifteen. He is losing 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 brain.

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 harbor. 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 shoulders. Loud hammering announces the steam making its way along our water-logged deckpipes. A shrill whistle from the French tug elicits a similar whistle from some one 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 machineroom, 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 preoccupation with material needs. However, just now he is good-humoredly frantic because there is no steam. I inquire what it is that it is. He waves his arms. I say, ‘Pas de vapeur?’ 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 condensation 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 L’Opinion or L’Indépendant, diminutive news-sheets dear to the heart of the Armee de l’Orient. I deluge him with thanks and he returns to the hatch to load the Greeks with opprobrious epithets.

While perusing the little French paper, I am accosted by the philosophical 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 coldstorage. 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’Indépendant.

I find it is seven o’clock. The decks are being washed. Firemen and engineroom 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 practice, and presently you hear the heavy bang-bang of her big guns reverberating against the bluffs of the Karaburnou. Stone quarries behind the town take up the tale, and for an hour or so you will hear the explosions sullenly booming in the still damp air.

The hours drag on. It is a quarter to eight. My somnolent negro suddenly becomes wide awake and hurries along the deck to call his relief. I make a general and particular examination of everything in my care, and, rubbing my chin, decide to shave. There is a tendency to grow slack and slovenly in circumstances like these. One says, ‘Who cares?’ and ‘What does it matter?’ A slow poison of indolence 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 myself, 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 conveyance. 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 discover the extra British contingent loading twenty tons of canned goods — sardines, salmon, and cling peaches; why cling peaches, I cannot say. So I drop down the rope-ladder to the lighter’s deck and discover the two naval engineers getting the engines ready for starting. They are Bolinder engines.

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 me.

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 engineroom plating: 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 parecls-delivery sort of life. Suddenly, 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 out.

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 understandable. 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 vapor. 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. As we climb up out of the tiny engine-room, I observe that we are now inside the stone jetty of the Greek harbor. Several large transports arc 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 fresh mutton. No, the burden of their song is always ‘ bully beef’ and ‘ skilly,’ whatever that may be. They also speak disparagingly of ‘tinned stuff.’

I cannot get those cling peaches and sardines out of my head.

IV

And here I am ashore in Salonika! I feel absurdly shy amid so much busy life. It is almost as busy as a provincial town in England on market days. I feel something like an escaped prisoner. They say that convicts, when they are liberated, wander aimlessly about, not knowing what to do with their liberty.

I feel just like that. I wander about among huge piles of hardware, stared at critically by sentries of all nations. I make for the Custom House Gate, and I become suddenly aware that the sun is shining through a jagged rent in the white clouds over Ben Lomond, and that I am very warm indeed.

There is something tragic about Salonika. I have visited many goodly states and cities, and I doubt if there be one other on the globe to compare with Salonika in her ingenious combination of splendor and squalor. She is a dirty queen, sitting in filthy rags, with gems about her noisome girdle, and a diadem upon her scrofulous brow. She babbles in all the tongues of Europe and speaks none of them aright. She has no native language, no native air. She is all things to all men, Jew and Gentile, Moslem and Frank. She is everything and nothing. The winds of heaven blow among the ruined turrets of her citadel, while the mosquitoes from the Vardar swamps sing ten million strong in the purlieus of the port. She is very proud. She has nothing left, to give but death, yet the nations fling themselves upon her and quarrel for the honor of her embrace.

I was thinking all this as I picked my way in the mud along the road to the Place de la Liberte, because I had thought of it often before. It is all true. Quitting the custom house, which is a building of French design, I pass the Olympos Palace Hotel, an edifice of Berlin architecture, all curls and whirls and involute swirls. At this point is the Place de la Liberte, facing the landing place known as Venizelos Steps. The square is not worthy of the name, being a mere wide strip of Venizelos Street, and consisting exclusively of cafes. The steps are flanked by two kiosks which contain bunks for the night watch. This is the heart of the city. Past this point there rushes a neverending tide of tram-cars, pedestrians of all nations, ambulance wagons, motor lorries, cavalry and artillery, donkey carts and mule teams, staff motor-cars and dispatch-riders on motor-cycles — good men, bad men, beggar-men, thieves.

Along the front Greek schooners are discharging charcoal, paraffine, stone, fish, vegetables, and peanuts. Around the steps crowd many launches — British, French, Italian, Greek, and Serbian; row-boats, sail-boats, ships’ cutters awaiting vegetables, and ships’ dinghies awaiting their commanders. Old ladies in native costume, caricatures of Queen Victoria as a widow, move to and fro gossiping. Shoe-shine boys almost trip up the unwary stranger in their endeavors to clean his boots by main force. And then, half a dozen strong, come the newsgirls with their loads of twenty-two different newspapers in six different languages.

They are not very clean little girls, but I regard them with tolerance as they press up to sell me a Balkan News. They never by any chance mistake one’s nationality. I suppose the English character is noticeable in Salonika. Moreover, the Englishman is a fool about money. I know, because I am a fool about, money; yet I am not such a fool as some. The French, Italian, Russian officer, counts his change with meticulous care and gives a very very small tip. The Britisher, officer or man, grasps the coins, looks at t hem without really knowing whether he is being cheated or not, bestows munificent largesse, and strides out, leaving the Greek waiter full of contempt for the burly fool who parts from his money so easily.

This is by the way. We are learning so many things in this war, that quite possibly the Englishman abroad may learn to keep his money in his pocket.

Personally, I have not much to spend, and each drachma must produce its utmost value. But I can gratify my native craving to be thought a philanthropist when I buy a paper. I give all those dirty little girls a penny each.

Do not misunderstand me. I do not say they are ugly little girls. Their noses do not run in the embarrassing way common among the street-children of a northern clime. They are all different. One is dark, with long thick brows over black eyes, her hair in a thick plait. Another is blond and has a red nose. Another is quite tall and will probably become a dancer, she has such neat, little legs and feet. Her stockings, by the way, are not a pair. Another has a pair but no garters, and she looks very untidy. Yet another has garters but no stockings, and her legs are very dirty. A very tiny little person has only one forlorn copy of a Greek paper, and she is thrust away by her more muscular rivals. I give her a penny, too. I am popular.

When all are recompensed they sidle away, looking back wistfully for a moment. I dare say they are wondering if I am a millionaire in disguise. Then the whirling vortex of Venizelos Steps sucks them in again; they spy another sailor coming ashore, and they collect and fling themselves upon him, a compact, yelling Macedonian phalanx of youthful amazons.

Turning eastward, one sees the cityfront curving very gently as far as the White Tower, nearly a mile away. Beyond that superb landmark the new suburban town spreads out indefinitely amid shabby foliage. The view up Venizelos Street is closed by a covered-in bazaar. The yellow buildings of the front are a confusing medley of cafes, cigarette shops, hotel-entrances, paper shops, hardware shops, barbers’ shops, cinema theatres, Turkish baths, a fish-market., farriers’ shops, cafes chantants, charcoal stores, more cigarette shops, more cafes, a few immense private houses with interest ing courtyards and discontented-looking sentries in battered boxes, one or two small houses with tremendous walnut doors and black iron hinges, bolts, and window-bars; and finally, just as the heat and acrid smells from motors and horses begin to parch the throat, and the devilish cobbles to tire the unaccustomed feet, there is a cafe in a covered garden, with the White Tower standing alone in a grass plot at the waterside.

(To be concluded)