An Engineer at Salonika
SALONIKA makes her own beer, but it is not of uniform quality. Sometimes the litre will be very palatable. Often the best thing to do is to leave it. Dutch beer is drunk, and is very good. I am afraid saccharine takes the place of malt in the local product. At the worst, one can get passable coffee and good brandy. Seated among the uniforms at the little tables, you may regard Salonika in a characteristic mood.
The sun shines strongly now through immense piled-up masses of white clouds, and there is sufficient wind to sail a boat across the Gulf. The Greek standard waves gently from the top of the White Tower. The White Tower, let it be said, is a perfectly round cylinder of whitewashed stone, surmounted by a smaller turret and a flag-staff. There is one small door over which is an inscription in Turkish, very beautiful to look at, utterly incomprehensible unless you know Turkish. One or two small windows and a small ledge halfway up are the only breaks in the vast smooth surface. The Turks used it for some purpose, I suppose, or they would not have built it. The legend has it that it was called at one time The Bloody Tower, but that may have been only a manner of speaking. I have been shipmates with a Turk only once or twice in my life, and so far as I know them they are competent, orderly, wellbred people. I very much regret that fate has made us enemies in this War.
As I was saying, the blue-and-white Greek Standard floats from the battlements of the White Tower. All around you float officers of the Greek army in blue-and-silver full uniforms. They look slightly theatrical, because all the other armies are in service clothes. The ends of their silver-plated scabbards are muddy. So are their spurs. Many of them are handsome in a fashionplate way: dead-white skin, deadblack moustaches, long legs, thin noses, dark eyes, empty foreheads. One in particular attracts one’s attention. He is wearing blue and white cocks’ feathers in his hat, white kid gloves on his hands, and immense Hessian boots with silver spurs on his feet. His sword is across his knees and he is explaining something with great energy to his companions.
A French air-man, who has skinned his nose (possibly in a sudden descent) and who wears the Military Cross, sits behind a glass of vermouth. Several Russian lieutenants, in their beautiful green tunics and soft-leather boots, are conversing with a French major. An Italian captain is reading a book. An English captain is talking to a lady. Some Serbian officers appear to be talking to themselves. Not one of them seems to have anything to do. Perhaps they think the same of me. Let us take the car back. The tail and handsome Greek officers cram into one poor little Ford runabout and rattle off up the road. Let us take the car. A Salonika tram-car is interesting, believe me.
They nearly always haul a secondclass trailer behind them. We go second class. It is a very small car, and it is very full. The fare is a penny. A Greek penny is a nickel coin with a hole in the centre, so that it looks like an aluminum washer. The occupants of the car are of all ages. Boys and girls and priests are in the majority. The children are going to school, as may be seen by the books in their hands. The priests are going — wherever priests go in the morning. If they were going to the barber’s it would do them no harm. I admit that their flowing black gowns and extraordinary top hats are picturesque; but why should the picturesque persist in being insanitary?
I like the children better. They are clean and wholesome. Most of them, I observe, have ticket-books, from which the conductor removes a coupon. This arrangement, I suspect, is favored by the parents, because the children might save the fare and go to the pictures instead. The car passes the doors of several cinema theatres, and the youngsters babble excitedly as they discuss the vivid posters that are stuck up outside.
One lad of twelve is deep in a penny dreadful. I look over his shoulder and wish I could decipher the story. He wears a low-necked suit with sailor collar and French tie, blue corduroy shorts, patent-leather button-boots, and silk socks. His brown legs are bare. The whole look of him is Byronic, save that instead of a slouch hat he wears a peaked naval cap on one side of a dark head. Byronic, too, are the illustrations to his dreadful. A girl is tied to a railway line and two desperadoes struggle with daggers. I peep farther over his shoulder. He is so absorbed in the story that he notices nothing. I muse upon his future. What will he be, when he grows up? Is his father a Venizelist? Of what race is he? How does this Grecian sprig, who reads penny-dreadfuls in an electric tram-car, regard us Britishers who have come over the sea, like the Romans and Normans and Franks of old, to leave our bones on the Balkan ranges? Out in the Gulf ride his country’s warships with a foreign flag on their gaffs. Does he care? I doubt it. He turns over the page without looking up.
But of a sudden there is a blare of martial music. The car has stopped. We are in the midst of a procession. Let us get out. We reach the sidewalk with a run and find that the procession is wheeling round the corner, just beyond, into the Place, and up Venizelos Street. It is the new Greek Nationalist Army — new uniforms, new rifles, new mountain-batteries, new officers — all very new. They march in fifties, and cries of ‘Venizelos!’ ‘Viva!’ and other less articulate noises mingle with much clapping of hands and clinking of scabbards. Our glorious friend with the cocks’ feathers and white kid gloves is in all his glory now, directing the procession. He salutes continually. After the soldiers come motor-cars with generals and admirals. Some of the generals are, in the words of the penny novelette, a blaze of decorations. No mortal man could live long enough or have valor enough to earn all the medals these gentlemen wear in tiers on their padded bosoms. However, everybody claps, so I clap, too. They are all going to the front to-morrow, they say, so let us bury criticism. So they pass. I stand near a large-sized sergeantmajor of the R.F.A. and I observe a peculiar expression of astonishment on his bronzed face as he salutes. If I read it aright he is thinking, ‘Well, I’m blowed! What a circus!’
After the uniforms come the civilian members of the new Greek government. There is a good deal of the theatrical star about their appearance, due, I suppose, to the silk hats and opera-cloaks and lavender gloves they affect. They wear their hair rather longer than our politicians, too. My sergeant-major salutes, but I catch his eye. He throws up his chin and grins, as though to say, ‘ I ’m doin’ this by orders, so don’t blame me.’
Presently the motor-cars change to pair-horse carriages. Some are clapped, some are hissed by the crowd on sidewalk and balcony. The pair-horse carriages change to one-horse and the sergeant-major ceases to salute. Several political gentlemen in one-horse vehicles lift their silk hats. As no one claps they put them on again, and sit back with expressions of rigid ill temper on their faces.
One does not believe in this sort of thing for a moment. It is all too unreal. The superficial reason for this doubt in a spectator’s mind is that the public never knows what is actually going on. One of the great advantages of war, they tell us, is that it clears the air. We learn who are our real enemies and who are our real friends. War is that something, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness. War abolishes sham and pretense.
But there is another reason. You cannot impose liberty upon a people any more than you can make them good by legislation. Rousseau, whose prescience in this matter is almost uncanny, asserts this. ‘ Every people,’ he says, ‘to which its situation gives no choice save that between commerce and war, is weak in itself: it depends on its neighbors, and on circumstances; its existence can never be more than short and uncertain.’ And he quotes with approval this maxim: ‘Liberty may be gained, but it can never be recovered.’
Well, they are gone, and General Sarrail, who has been standing on Venizelos Steps with Colonel Christodoulos, shakes hands with that gentleman and hurries back to his office. I remark as he passes that he carries no sword and wears no decorations whatever.
It is now eleven o’clock and I decide on a walk up Venizelos Street before going aboard.
Venizelos Street is the Bond Street of Salonika. All the great stores of the city are here. I don’t suppose an American or a Londoner would call them great stores. They are no counterparts of Wanamaker’s or Harrods’, of Greenhut Cooper’s or Whiteley’s. But they are great in comparison with the aboriginal hole in the wall which the oriental calls a shop. Here in Venizelos Street, you can buy everything you want and many hundreds of things you don’t. There is a good bookshop, if you read French. Dutch and American goods predominate at present. There is a bank with formidable sentries marching to and fro, possibly to intimidate withdrawals. There is a tailor who will undertake every conceivable uniform.
We pass all these and come to smaller establishments — the inevitable postcard and cigarette shops, shops with figs hung in festoons and vegetable marrows blocking the tiny entrance. At length we cross Jean Tsimiski Street, which is the Fleet Street of Salonika. Here are forged the thunderbolts of the press. Here, high up in a yellow barrack, is conceived and executed the daily issue of the Balkan News, the only paper of its kind. If you are a poet, go upstairs and see the editor. So long as you do not mention Mount Olympus or the Red Light District, the editor will be glad to publish your works in daily installments.
I am no poet, so Jean Tsimiski Street is passed and we enter the covered bazaar. Here we are in the Orient. Here are no fixed prices, but a battle royal over every deal. Here the merchant stands outside and uses all the eloquence of which he is capable to lure you into his tiny fastness. If he happens to be inside and he sees your eye flicker ever so slightly toward his wares, he is out in a flash and implores you to inspect his stock. Sooner or later you will fall. You see some gimcrack or other which takes your fancy. You are dragged within. You ask the price. Having appraised your position in life, he names a figure, about two hundred per cent above what he expects. You laugh in his face and walk out. He pursues you, abating a hundred per cent. You walk on, and he offers it on your own terms. You return and agree to take it. Then, instead of concluding the deal, this exasperating person will probably show you something else and offer to throw it in for another ten francs!
And it is all rubbish. Turkish slippers and fezes made in Austria, daggers made in Germany, Japanese silks and fans, black amber ornaments advertised as from Erzerum, but probably from Germany, ancient coins and vases, ikons and charms — all the junk of the foolish traveler, is here. I observe smart British nurses buying souvenirs for friends in Balham and Birmingham, smart, subalterns purchasing cigarette-cases and walkingstick handles, daggers and silly old Turkish pistols. But, after all, they are young, and quite probably they do not know the East. I recall my first trip to the Orient in a tramp steamer, when I too bought
Fillin’ my bunk wi’ rubbishry the Chief put over-side.
After all, this is the time of their lives, these foolish young people with their curios and their wrist-watches and the stars on their shoulders and in their eyes.
So, walking through the bazaar, one sees another phase of the only thing worth looking at — humanity. One sees the little Turkish boy being fitted with a suit in an outfitter’s, or the little Turkish maiden buying a comb. One meets the Jewishy tout, who speaks all languages — ' Oh, yes. Engleesh, all right, Johnny’; the fatuous humbug! One sees French soldiers buying buttons and needles and thread, the canny creatures! One sees solemn bearded Israelites, in flowing gabardines, stalking to and fro, conversing, strangely enough, in Spanish. One sees these things or one does not, according to one’s temperament and training. Personally, I would like to see more of them. I feel there is something in this Babel for me, if I could but stay and catch the subtle cosmopolitan spirit of it. But that may not be. It is time to return. I go on at two!
To depict a monotony is a difficult and precarious art, and needs for its justification a grand ulterior aim. Such an aim would be out of place in these simple papers. I merely wish to make the reader see, as well as I can, how the glory of war throws a certain sombre shadow over the lives of some obscure seafarers — a shadow in which little save the unrewarded virtues of patience and vigilance can grow.
But even in such conditions there are gleams in the dark. Even to phlegmatic Britishers the astonishing phantasmagoria of Balkan life presents occasional phases of comedy and interest. As for example.
Before going aboard I decide to have another drink. At first I think of going into Floca’s. Floca’s is the Ritz-Carlton of Salonika; but it is not Salonika. It is merely a small replica of Walker’s at Alexandria, the Eastern Exchange at Port Said, the Verdi at Genoa, or Florian’s at Venice. The British officer has popularized Floca’s, and so has made Floca, if such a person exist, rich. The uniforms of five nations mingle at the marble-topped tables. It is the only place where you can get tea in a city which never drinks tea. Here the nurses and the subalterns can eat chocolate éclairs and Sally Lunns under the very noses of brigadiers. Floca’s reeks of wealth and Occidental refinement. I stand in the Place de la Liberté and contemplate the glittering throng within the great doors. And I turn away. I decide against Floca’s. I know a less reputable place, where it will be quiet, and where the beer is a penny a litre cheaper. Allons donc.
It is round the corner, on the sea front, between the market for fish and an unfortunate alley where mendicants eat fish with their fingers and quarrel over stray lepta. It is what is known as a café-chantant, a large lofty barn of a room, with a plush balcony for customers, a small stage, and a piano. There are but one or two customers, for this sort of establishment does its profitable business at night, when I am in bed. Nevertheless, I imagine that it can never be more amusing than when I see it, its harsh decrepitude revealed in the clear dancing sunlight reflected from the sea, and the gloom of its corners alive with bizarre forms.
I order my beer from a Greek gentleman who reluctantly leaves a political conversation to attend to me. Although I am almost the only customer, there are quite a dozen people engaged round the piano and in front of a camera. For this is rehearsal-time for the artists who grace the stage in the evening. A weary pianist in Greek khaki strums the air of a song, and a rouged and jeweled lady leans over him, singing and beating time with her hands and feet. Another young lady sits near me, her feet on the table in front of her, showing much stocking, humming a song, and pretending to study the sheet of music she holds before her. Her hat is on one side. So, for that matter, is her nose. Suddenly she rises and begins to walk aimlessly among the tables, still humming her song. I don’t think it is a very good song, to judge by the hum. Suddenly she emits a squall, which is answered by another squall behind the curtains of the little stage, and a bony female, in green silk and spangles, thrusts her frizzed head and stringy neck through the opening. They talk, and when each has elicited from the other a wild gust of laughter, the spangled one vanishes, only to appear immediately at the side.
My attention is now attracted to a dark corner where strangely garbed forms are writhing in an apparently interminable embrace. The photographer, an itinerant of the streets, fusses methodically with his prehistoric camera. Several Jewesses, their eyes flashing on either side of large powdered noses, sit round, drinking vermouth and gin, and watching the dim performance with tolerant smiles. At length, by moving several tables nearer, I can make out a couple of acrobats engaged in tying themselves into a sort of human clove-hitch. They seem to me to be attempting the impossible. Perhaps they are. Perhaps they are idealists, like the brothers in the Goncourts’ novel, Les Frères Zemganno. I am, in this matter, par excellence a detached spectator. One is short and thick, the other slim and athletic. I see the face of the latter peering up from between the legs of his colleague — a thin distorted face, with strained, unseeing, yet strangely watchful-looking eyes, the cheeks smeared with rivulets of perspiration, the brow damp and pallid. Suddenly they collapse and fall apart. Another failure. They hold their wrists, regarding each other with expressions of pain and malevolence. The photographer continues to potter about, ignoring their futile antics until he is given the word.
They elect to take a breathing spell, and the spangled lady assumes her position on the carpet, keeping up all the while a torrent of conversation with the student of song, who is now seated on a table near by. Another figure emerges from the wings of the stage, a dreadful travesty of a hero, a hero with bandy legs, yellow whiskers, and a false nose of heroic dimensions. He is dressed in yellow and red. He and the spangled lady strike a love-attitude, he registering dignity, she hopeless passion. The photographer bestirs himself, dives under his black cloth, and waves a mesmerizing hand back and forth, to lend emphasis to his own muffled commands. With an abrupt gesture he snatches the cap from the lens, beats time in the air slowly, — one, two, three, — claps it on again, and the group smile foolishly at each other.
It is amusing, yet I see a good deal of pathos in these poor strolling players. They are doing their best. No doubt, in the evening, when the tables are thronged, and the music strives with the babel of voices and the clink of glass, they have their reward.
I confess, however, to a sporting interest in the acrobats who are unable to attain the position in which they desire to be photographed. I order a fresh beer. Several shoe-blacks, paper-boys, peanut-venders, and itinerant chocolate-merchants have come in, and regard me with chastened expectancy. I am persona non grata to these infernal pests of the Levant. By instinct, when I turn to look at them, they recognize my antipathy. Each in his turn examines my expression with shrewd skill, and fades away into the dazzling clangor of the street. At length our protagonists, emerging from a thicket of stacked chairs where they have been secluded during the last scene, take their stand once more upon the dingy carpet and look round with a morituri te salutamus expression. They grasp hands. The tall one pulls sharply. The short one makes a miraculous ascent into the air. For an instant his curved body and bent limbs are poised in unstable equilibrium, and one might imagine him but that moment descended from above. For me he is foreshortened. I see him as one sees the angel who is hurling the thunderbolt in Tintoretto’s never-to-be-forgotten masterpiece. The piano is hushed. Now he is poised on the other’s hands, on one hand. Enfin! In tense silence the photographer removes his lens-cap; there is a quiver of the out-flung hand and the tall athlete flutters his eyelids as he looks up with awful anxiety — pouf! It is finished, and we all breathe again as the short athlete comes down with a jump. I feel very glad indeed that they have succeeded. I like to see human beings succeed.
Over at the piano, however, I can detect nothing that resembles success. The peripatetic student of song and the musical reservist are not having a very happy time. She has not even a vaudeville voice. From the manner in which the accompanist slaps the music and snarls over his shoulder at her, I gather that she has not yet mastered the notes. Every minute or so she turns her back on him and feigns a passionate withdrawal. He, poor wight, with a Balkan winter in the trenches in front of him, pays not the slightest attention to her tantrums. Then, after a perfectly furious altercation, they find a basis of agreement. She is to go on the stage and sing the song without words. Bon ! She skips up, shows a great deal of stocking as she adjusts her garters and pulls down her cheap little jacket. But it appears that she cannot sing the song, even without words. She begins, —
La-la . . .'
and stops, looking at me, of all people, with profound suspicion, as though I had stolen the rest of her lahs.
A Jewess interjects a sentence, and both the accompanist and the young lady, to my astonishment, shriek with laughter. I laugh, too. It is infectious if bewildering. I realize how hopeless it would be for me to try to comprehend their intricate pscyhology. I am a mere spectator from an alien planet, watching for a brief instant the antics of inexplicable shadows on a screen. I drink my beer and drift out into the noise and dazzle. I must go aboard.
I skip across the road, dodging a trolley-car, an ambulance wagon, a donkey with silver-plated harness and a raw red chasm on his rump, a mad boy on a pink bicycle, and a cart drawn by two enormous oxen, their heads bowed beneath a massive yoke. I gain the seawall and follow it until I reach the kiosks that flank the dirty marble steps of the Venizelos landing. A boy in a boat immediately weaves his arms and beckons to me as if I were the one person in Salonika who could rescue him from life-long indigence. A lustros, the cynical name given to the home-grown shoe-shine boy, flings himself at my feet and endeavors gently to lift one of them to his box.
I resist this infamous proposal. I ignore the demented youth in the boat. I walk out on the marble jetty and look calmly about for our own dinghy. It occasionally happens that I am in time to join the captain as he returns. I do not think that he likes the idea very much, but he makes no audible protest when an engineer sits beside him. However, there is no sign of either skipper or dinghy, so I turn again to the youth in the boat. He rows hastily to the steps, and motions me to get in and recline on his scarlet cushions. But I am not to be cozened. I demand a tariff. According to the guide-book he may charge me one drachma (about twenty cents) for a trip, without luggage, to the outer harbor. I am prepared to give two, since it is war-time and bread is dear. We begin to haggle. It is a phase of human folly very distasteful to an Englishman, this stupid enthronement of cunning and knavish bluff in the forefront of all levantine transactions. The Anglo-Saxon is torn with the conflict of disparate desires. He wishes to show his unutterable scorn for the whole performance by flinging a triple fare in the huckster’s face, and he has also a profound moral conviction that he ought ‘on principle’ to pay the exact legal demand. I have done both. There is a certain amount of pleasure in each. I weigh their merits as I stand on Venizelos steps and haggle with the boatman. Thus: —
Boatman.—Boat! Boat! You want boat? Ail right. Fare. — How much to beef-ship. Boatman. —T’ree shillin,’ yes. You want boat! Fare. — Yes, I want a boat, but only for hire to go to the beef-ship. How much? Boatman. — T’ree shillin’. Fare. — Too much.
(He turns away and fills his pipe with great care, and, sitting on the marble parapet, contemplates the harbor. This is very disconcerting to the Boatman. He ties up and steps ashore, to follow the matter up. He approaches the Fare, who smokes stolidly.)
Boatman. — You want boat?
Fare. — Ah! How much to the beefship?
Boatman. — How mooch? T’ree shillin’. Fare. — No. Two francs. Boatman. — Come on. T’ree francs, eh? Yaas. Fare (stolidly). — I will give you two francs. Boatman. — Yaas. All raight. ’Alfa-crown eh? Fare. —Half-a-crown is three francs. I will give you two. Boatman. — Two shillin’? Fare (patiently). — No. You see, it’s this way: if you take me to the beefship, I will give you two francs. Do you get that right? Two! One and one. Two. Boatman. — All raight. Come on. (He goes down the steps.) Fare. — You understand then: two francs. No more. Boatman (blankly). — No more? Fare (blandly). — No more. What did you think? Boatman. — T’ree shillin’. Fare (getting into the boat and taking the tiller lines). — I should n’t be surprised if some Englishman killed you for saying ‘three shillings,’ my friend.
If he were not so dirty he would be a nice-looking lad of the 1917 class. He is dressed in the usual composite rags of the Greek proletariat, part khaki, part European, part Turkish. He does not look as if he belonged to a conquering race. Neither, I suppose, do I; but the cases are not similar. My young boatman does not regard Janina as I regard the capture of Quebec, for example. Goodness only knows what he does regard, or how. He may be one of the conquered race. I ask him, with large gestures to illustrate my meaning, if he is going to enlist, soldier — fight — gun — bang! — beat Bulgar — eh? He is puzzled, and perseveres with his oars. I reflect that he may be an anti-Venizelist. Presently, as we clear the inside shipping, he asks, as every Greek boatman asks, —
‘When your ship go away, eh?’
And I tell him a deliberate, coldblooded lie! We do not inform Greek boatmen when our ships are going away.
About this time my attention is held by the appearance of the sky. It is a sky I have learned to regard with a certain amount of interest. As my young boatman steps his mast and hoists his sail, I observe, high above the rolling banks and islets of cumulous vapor in the bowl of the Gulf, a film of transparent dapple-gray clouds assembling. The whole of the upper air is mottled with their confusing texture. A delightful sky in peace-times, a sky veiling the sun and making high noon agreeable. A sky to watch through the open window in spring-time. A sky to paint, with a foreground of yellow crocuses and green grass and brown girls. A sky to look up at, from where one lies on the heather, and dream a boy’s strange and delicate dreams.
One of the advantages of war is the deeper and more intense interpretation one learns to give to the common phenomena. This gay romantic sky used to be nothing more than gay and romantic. Now I watch it with an experienced apprehension. And as I pass a man-of-war, I observe that the antiaircraft crew are at drill. There is something curiously affectionate in the aspect of an anti-aircraft crew at work. The gunner is seated and his assistants are all grouped about him, heads together, as though whispering to each other the most delightful secrets. Perhaps they are.
We come leisurely alongside. Standing on the grating at the foot of the accommodation ladder, I pay my young friend his two francs with a bonus of twopence. For a single moment he stands, from life-long habit, in an attitude eloquent of despair. I go up the ladder, smiling blandly at his outflung hands and upraised indignant eyes. Then he recovers himself, makes a gesture consigning the whole race of Englishmen to perdition, pockets the money, and rows away. Once more I am on board, and it is nearly two o’clock.
It should never be forgotten, in a review of the seafaring life, that these casual and irrelevant encounters with the offscourings of hybrid races, though priceless to the philosopher and the artist, are of no human value to the sailor at all. The jaded landsman imagines that we seamen ' see the world ’ and view ‘mankind from China to Peru.’ He romantically conceives us extracting the fine essences from the crude masses of humanity with whom we are thrown in contact in the seething ports of the Orient. He figures us ecstatically savoring the ‘unchanging East’ and beholding ‘strange lands from under the arched white sails of ships.’ It must be confessed that popular fiction confirms these illusions. We who work in ships are supposed to be prototypes of Mr. Kipling’s ‘Tramp Royal ’ — a flattering but untrue assumption.
But while an intelligent person can see readily that, to the unimaginative seafarer, this continual procession of detached images will have no positive significance, very few observers realize how such an environment tends also to indurate the soul. Yet so it is. In our rough, homely way, we are fatigued with distinctions, and reduce the Unknown to common denominators. We call Hindoos ‘coolies,’ Chinamen ‘Chinks,’ Americans ‘Yanks,’ Spaniards ‘Dagoes,’ Italians ‘Spaghettis,’ and we let it go at that. We are majestically incurious about them all. There is no British type so narrow, so dogmatic, so ignorant, so impervious to criticism, so parochial in its outlook, as the seafaring man or officer. You would imagine, from our ideas, that we had remained all our days in our home towns. Indeed most of us have. Our real life beats in the little houses in Penarth, Swansea, Seaforth, White Inch, or South Shields. We have very little passion for the bizarre. We become callous to the impact of the stray alien, and feed our narrow hearts with wistful visions of an idealized suburban existence.
Going on at two is quite a different thing from the ghastly affair of the small hours. Each period of the day has its own subtle quality, which no arbitrary rearrangement of our own hours of work and rest can destroy. And two o’clock in the afternoon is a time of disillusion, a time when a man has neither great faith nor profound convictions. The morning is gone, the evening too far away. Even tea-time seems at an immense and tragic distance. It is the slack-water period of the day. And it is the period when a man may perhaps experience, in the space of a flash, a peculiar sensation of being an impostor! It is, I suppose, in such moments that generals, commanders, chief engineers, and the like jump overboard. It is a sensation extraordinarily vivid and brief. No external evidence is of any avail to neutralize its dire and dreadful omniscience. No personal written record, no esteem of lifelong friends, no permanent and visible accomplishment can shield the sensitive human soul, thus suddenly stripped bare by some devilish cantrip of its own mechanism. One feels a hollow sham.
And the ship, at this hour, is strangely deserted. Those who have work are gone to it, those who are off duty are resting after a hot lunch. The day’s ration of meat is gone; the soldiers are on an upper deck, out of sight. Thomas, stretched to an incredible length on the deck steam-guard, snoozes in gross comfort. Ibrahim-el-Din, an Arab coal-passer, is smoking a meditative cigarette by the after-rail. The faded Irishman is perambulating in his stiff way round the machine, and I take charge for another six hours. A Greek sailor, no doubt a Venizelist, is painting a bulkhead in an amateur fashion. As I look through one of the after window-scuttlers I observe our agnostic Second Officer drift past. He is probably going to resume his erotic novel, a species of fiction for which he has a strange passion.
For an hour or so I look out of my machine-room window upon an untidy after-deck, and reflect upon the vicissitudes of War. Visible through the crystalline atmosphere, Salonika, floored with a jade-green sea and domed with dappled azure, resembles the painted curtain of some titanic theatre. It is in fact one of those monstrous ‘ theatres of war ’ which are now giving a continuous performance to the whole world. But for us on transports that painted curtain is never lifted. We see nothing of the performance. We are mere stage-carpenters, or caterers, or perhaps only stray freightwagons which bring some homely necessary material to the grand display.
Such are my thoughts, more or less, when I catch sight suddenly of my friend Tubby, the fat marine, standing on the gun-platform and excitedly waving his arms toward the Vardar Marshes. I run out on deck. Tubby comes hurrying along, shouting in the hoarse voice that goes with immense girth and a short neck, —
‘See ’im, sir? A Tawb! A Tawb!’
And so it is a Taube. After a momentary search of the upper reaches of the air, I spot him, a far-distant dot. And as we gather in a tense little knot on the after-deck, straining our eyes, clawing tentatively for a peep through the binoculars, the enemy monoplane sails serenely toward us, and the guns begin to go. From the men-of-war near by, from invisible batteries concealed ashore, the sharp cracks echo, and we watch the oncoming dot ten thousand feet above the sea. Tubby says ten thousand feet, and although I don’t believe he knows anything about it, he has been in the Navy and possesses the prestige of the Senior Service. He certainly knows more about it than we do.
And observe how greedily we make the most of this little bit of war which has come to us. Now he is right over us, sailing across a broad shield of speckless blue, and we see the small white plumes of shrapnel suddenly appear, above, below, and around him. He sails on. He must be doing seventy miles an hour. Somebody doubts this. We ignore him, and push the speed up to eighty miles. Say eighty miles an hour. Golly! That was a close one. A white plume appears right in front of him. He sails on. Evidently he has no bombs. Tubby says, ‘Tawbs don’t carry no bombs.’ What a mine of information he is! Again a hit, a palpable hit. But he sails on. There is something sublime about this. Of course he is a German and therefore damnable. But — but — well, he is damnably adventurous. I wonder what he is doing. Has he a sweetheart, a German Mädchen? I am supposed to believe she would not have the wit to love him for this dare-devil eagle-swoop over Salonika. I don’t think, however, that patriotism compels me to hate that air-man up there. Crack-crack! go the guns. He sails on. He is, so far, supreme. A dim sporting instinct, which used to have free rein at school, shoots through my mind and I discover in myself no passionate desire to see him hit. He himself seems to have no anxieties whatever.
And laughs to hear the fireballs roar behind.
Now he is over Ben Lomond and is turning toward Monastir, whence we suppose he has come. Other batteries behind the town welcome him and the navy resigns itself, for once, to frustration. Crack after crack, plume after plume. Now he is behind a cloud, and our attention is taken up for a moment by the sight of our own machines manœuvring for position in the offing. And the next time we see him he is coming down. Tubby says so. Personally, I imagined him to be going up; but I never contradict a navy man. Somebody else says he is hit. Our lieutenant, on the upper deck with the commander, looking through his prismatic glasses, says it looks like it. I glance at our group, all eyes raised to the sky, mouths open, emblems of receptive vacuity.
Reluctantly we abandon our precious ‘Tawb’ to the inland ranges and return to the mundane life once more. Tubby walks to and fro, a short man of enormous size, discoursing of ‘Tawbs.’ I call him my mythological monster, for he has served in the ' ’Ercles,’ the ‘ ’Ecuba,’ the ‘You roper,’ the ‘Endymion’ and the ‘Amfi-trite.’ When we go to sea, Tubby stands or sits by his gun and keeps a lookout for submarines. He is one of Hardy’s Wessex yokels. When the war came, he was malting at Malmesbury, and doing a small delivery-wagon business for a local hardware store. He looks it. He could pose for John Bull, a beef-eating, ale-drinking, Saxon John Bull. Now he is also an expert on ‘ Tawbs.’ What tales he will tell by the malt-house fires in the winters to come! Tales, perhaps, of ‘Tawbs!’
And so, in idle talk and modest vigilance, the day wears on, until the sun is setting in turbulent reds and purples beyond the Vardar, and the peak of Olympus, showing for a brief moment above the billows of vapor, is flushed an exquisite pale-rose color. Lights begin to twinkle on the shore. Those on day work begin to appear after their wash, loafing about until dinner, smoking cigarettes, arguing after the foolish dogmatic way of sailors, getting heated over nothing, condemning a nation in a thoughtless phrase. Some are writing home, for a mail goes soon. Some come into the machine-room for a drink of water, or for a chat.
The Fourth Engineer, who had viewed the aeroplane dressed in blue serge trousers and an unbuttoned pajamajacket, now appears in his uniform, still a little drowsy after his day’s sleep, but smiling in his pleasant boyish way. Our conversation is not intellectual. We really have not much to say. It would not bear writing down. Nor would a comic paper take our jokes. Nevertheless, we talk and laugh and pass the time. For myself, I talk to everybody: I talk to the nigger firemen and the Chinese cook, to the dog and the cat, to the canary in my room and the parrot who blasphemes so bitterly on the fore-deck.
So I keep in practice. For some day we shall have Peace, and we shall go home, over the well-remembered road to Malta and Gib, and over the mountainous western-ocean swell that is forever charging across the bay. Some day this will happen, and we shall speak the Tuskar once again, tie up in the old dock, and step ashore. And we shall take our way, some of us, through the quiet countryside, where friends await us, friends who will bid us tarry a while and tell them our tales of foreign parts, as mariners have done and always will do, while ships come home from sea.
- An earlier paper by Mr. McFee appeared in the April Atlantic. — THE EDITORS.↩