A Fleet in Being/Chapter 4
It was the Captain's coxswain (see Note II.)—precise, immaculate, and adequate as ever—who met the returning guest at Devonport a year later—September, 1898. This time my cruiser was not with the Fleet, but on urgent private affairs. A misguided collier had seen fit to sit on her ram for a minute or so in Milford Haven, a few days before, and had twisted it thirteen inches to starboard. The collier was beached as soon as possible, and the Admiral he said to us (this I got from the coxswain as we drove to North Corner, by night, through blue-jacketed Devonport): 'Can you go round to Plymouth with your nose in that state?' 'Lord love you, yes,' said we, or words to that effect. 'Very good,' said the Admiral, 'then you go.' This we did at an average speed of sixteen knots, through a head-sea, with a collision-mat over our nose ('Same mat we used when we tied up the Thrasher, sir'), and we ran her up to eighteen point two for a few hours to see how the bulkhead would stand it. The carpenter and the carpenter's mate ('Yes, they're the same as last year, sir') sat up to watch, but nothing happened.
'An' now we're under orders to go back and join the Fleet at Bantry. We've been cruising all round England since August.'
THE RECORD OF A YEAR
Once aboard the lugger the past twelve months rolled up like a chart that one needs no longer. The 'commodious coffee-grinder' welcomed me as a brother, for by good luck no one had been changed; the same faces greeted me in the little ward-room, and we fell to chattering like children. Had I seen the new fore and aft bridge that we had managed to screw out of the Dockyard? A great contraption—a superior contraption. We had worked in a little extra deck under the forebridge, so that now the signalman had a place to stand in, which I would remember was not the case last year. Had I heard of our new coaling record? Nearly fifty tons per hour, which for a third-class cruiser represented four times that amount for a battleship. Had I heard of the zephyr that blew at Funchal; of unrecorded evolutions in Minorca Bay; of the First Lieutenant's great haul of paint; of a recent target-practice when nothing was left of the target; of the influenza that overtook the steam-whistle; and a hundred other vital matters?
The record of a year with the Channel Fleet is not to be told in two hours, but I gathered a good deal ere I dropped into my well-remembered berth that joyous night. We departed at noon the next day, unhampered by signals. A liner leaves Plymouth in one style; a cruiser snakes out from Devonport in quite another, which was explained to me on the "igh an' lofty bridge' as we skated round buoy after buoy, courteously pulled out a little not to interfere with a yacht race, and ran through the brown-sailed Plymouth fishing fleet. It was divine weather—still, cloudless, and blue—and the bridge was of opinion that he who had a farm should sell it and forthwith go to sea.
OUR NOBLE SELVES
The Cornwall coast slid past us in great grey-blue shadows, laid out beyond the little strip of sail-dotted blue; but my eyes were all inboard considering our noble selves. We had accumulated all sorts of small improvements since last year. She had shaken into shape, as a new house does when one has decided where to put the furniture. The First Lieutenant, as usual, explained that we were in no sense clean; that twenty ton at least of the four hundred we had just taken in lay about the deck in dust, and that it would cost a fortnight to put any appearance on her.
'We're supposed to be burning No. 2 Welsh. It's road sweepings and soot really. That's on account of the Welsh Coal Strike. Isn't it filthy? We smoked out the whole of the Fleet and the Rock of Gibraltar the other day. But wait till you see some of the others. They're worse. Isn't she a pukka pigsty?'
From the landsman's point of view she seemed offensively clean, but it is hard to please a First Lieutenant. Ours utilised the delay at Devonport to touch her up outside; and the perfect weather at Bantry to paint her thoroughly inside. The only time he left her was to pull round her in a boat and see how she looked from various points of view. Then I think he was satisfied—for nearly half a day.
RASH INTEREST IN GUN PRACTICE
Over against Falmouth we found the sea sufficiently empty for gun practice, and went to work at two thousand six hundred yards on the little, triangular, canvas target, all splintered and bepatched from past trials. This year the three-pounders were using up some black powder ammunition, and with the wind behind us we were villainously wrapped in smoke. But for all that the shots were very efficiently placed on and about the tiny mark. One shrapnel burst immediately above the thing, and the deep was peppered with iron from above. It looked like the cloud-wristed hand of a god (as they draw it in the Dutch picture-books) dropping pebbles into a pond. The more one sees of big gun practice the less one likes it; but a big yacht of the R.Y.S. thought otherwise, streaming down on us of a sudden with all the rash interest of a boy in next-door's fireworks.
'She thinks the target is a derelict,' said the bridge. 'She's coming for salvage. She'll be right in the middle of it in a minute.'
'No, she won't. Starboard bow Maxim there—thirteen hundred yards.'
The little demon set up the 'irritating stammer' that the nine point two gun found so objectionable, and spattered up the blue all about the canvas, as a swizzle-stick works up a cocktail.
Our friend turned on her heel with immense promptitude and scuttled to windward.
Later on I heard some interesting tales of craft—excursion steamers for choice—anchoring between a man-of-war and her target because their captains had heard that there would be gun practice, and the passengers, at a shilling a head, wished to see the fun.
'But they didn't think,' said my informant, 'that I was the man who'd have been hung, drawn, and quartered if a life was lost. They anchored slap behind the Island I was firing at—experimental firing at a dummy gun, if you please, with six-inchers, twelve-pounders, and Maxims all turned loose together. They were angry when we told 'em to go away!'
Out of the strong-shouldered Atlantic swell—bluer than sapphires—rose the double-fanged rock of the Fastnet. We were close enough to see its steps and derricks and each wave as it shot thirty feet up the rocks—the Fastnet in fair weather. It was like meeting a policeman in evening dress. One does not think of the Fastnet save as a blessed welcoming wink of light through storm and thick weather.
BIG ATLANTIC ROLLERS
The Irish coast is a never-failing surprise to the big Atlantic rollers. They trip and ground—you can see them check—on the shallows; fling up a scornful eyebrow and then lose their temper and shape in great lashings of creamy foam.
'That's Berehaven,' said the bridge, indicating an obscure aperture in the jagged coast-line. 'We shall find the Fleet round the corner. The tide's setting us up a little. Did you ever read "The Two Chiefs of Dunboy?" We shall open Dunboy House in a minute round the corner.'
'And a half-nine!' sang the leadsman, cursing the long-stocked port-anchor under his breath, for he had to cast to one side of it and it stuck out like a cat's whiskers.
We were between two rocky beaches, split and weathered by all the gales of the Atlantic, black boulders embroidered with golden weed, and beryl bays where the rollers had lost their way and were running in rings. Behind them the green, tiny-fielded land, dotted with white cottages, climbed up to the barren purple hills.
'Ah! The Arrogant's here anyhow. See her puff!'
THE STRONGEST FLEET IN THE WORLD.
A monstrous plume of black, heavy smoke went up to the sky. We whipped round a buoy and came on the Fleet. There were eight battleships alike as peas to the outsider; and four big cruisers. They were not cruising or manœuvring just then; but practising their various arts and crafts.
The Marines fell in on the poop, and with bugles and all proper observances we paid our compliments as we ran past the sterns of the cruisers, waiting the Admiral's word to moor.
'He's given us a billet of our own. Under his wing too.' An officer shot down on to the foc'sle, while the yeoman of signals, whose nose is that of a hawk, kept an unshut eye on the Flag.
'Isn't there a four-foot patch somewhere about here?' said a calm and disinterested voice. The Navigator having brought her in did not need to wrestle with cables; and our anchors with their low, cramped davits are no treat.
'We told 'em about our anchors in the Dockyard,' said the bridge. 'We told 'em so distinctly, and they said: "We're very much obliged to you for the information, and we'll make the changes you recommend—in the next boat of your class." That's what I call generosity.'
'Does that ship always behave like that?' I asked. From all three funnels of a high, stubby cruiser the smoke of a London factory insulted the clean air.
'Oh, no; she's only burning muckings like the rest of us. She's our "chummy" ship. She's a new type—she and the Furious. Fleet rams they call 'em. Rather like porcupines, aren't they?'
The two had an air of bristling, hog-backed ferocity, strangely out of keeping with the normal reserve of a man-of-war.
The Blake, long and low, looked meek and polite beside them, but I was assured that she could blow them out of the water. Their own Captains, of course, thought otherwise.
ASHORE IN IRELAND
All Ireland was new to me, and I went ashore to investigate Castletown's street of white houses, to smell peat smoke and find Dan Murphy, owner of a jaunting car and ancient friend of the ward-room. In this quest me and the Navigator mustered not less than half the male population of Cork County, the remainder being O'Sullivan's; but we found Dan at last —old, grizzled, with an untameable eye, voluble and beautifully Celtic.
'Will I meet ye to-morrow at Mill Cove at nine-thirty? I will. Here's my hand an' word on it. Will I dhrive ye to Glenbeg for the fishing? I will. There's my hand an' word on it. Do I mean it? Don't I know the whole livin' fleet, man an' boy, for years?'
He appeared at the appointed hour with a raw-boned horse and wonderful yarns of trout taken by 'the other gentlemen' in Glenbeg, the lough of our desire, fourteen miles across the hills. It was a cloudless day with a high wind—bad for trout but good for the mere joy of life; and the united ages of my companions reached forty-five. We were quite respectable till we cleared Castletown, and such liberty-men as might have been corrupted by our example. Then we sang and hung on to the car at impossible angles, and swore eternal fidelity to the bare-footed damosels on the road, they being no wise backward to return our vows; and behaved ourselves much as all junior officers do when they escape on holiday. It was a land of blue and grey mountains, of raw green fields, stone-fenced, ribbed with black lines of peat, and studded with clumps of gorse and heather and the porter-coloured pools of bog water. Great island-dotted bays ran very far inland, and bounding all to Westward hung the unswerving line of Atlantic. Such a country it was as, without much imagination, one could perceive its children in exile would sicken for—a land of small holdings and pleasant green ways where nobody did more work than was urgent.
ROARING DAY OF SUN AND WIND
At last we came on an inky-black tarn, shut in by mountains, locked and lonely and lashed into angry waves by a downward-smiting blast.
There was no special point in the fishing; not even when the Sub-Lieutenant tried to drown himself; but the animal delight of that roaring day of sun and wind will live long in one memory. We had it all to ourselves—the rifted purple flank of Lackawee, the long vista of the lough darkening as the shadows fell; the smell of a new country, and the tearing wind that brought down mysterious voices of men from somewhere high above us.
None but the Irish can properly explain away failure. We left with our dozen fingerlings, under the impression—Mister Cornelius Crowley gave it—that we had caught ten-pounders.