In the terms of the street, you make for Madeira from the Needles as straight as Ushant and Finisterre will permit, keep to the left until you catch the flare of the solitary light on Cape Verde, go on past that for about ten days, and Cape Town is the last place on the left. In the terms of the sea, your course is west-south-west until the Bay is open, then south-south-west, then south, and then south by east a half-east for the long stretch. But for most of us the way to the war lay through a stranger region than that. Years ago (as it seems) on a rainy winter evening, we watched the buoys of the Solent Channel streaming past us all aslope on the strong ebb-tide, and as the Trinity Brothers began to open their eyes for an all-night watch on the south coast, we closed ours to the world behind.
A day and night of dust and tumble in the Bay, and we awoke on a summer morning to find the wind blowing softly through the open ports and the water chiming on the ship's side. After that we lived in a world all our own; ourselves the sum and centre of it; a blue world that slid through degrees of latitude and longitude, but held us, its inhabitants, at ever the same distance from realities. The past was miles away at the end of the white path astern; the future did not yet so much as smudge the forward horizon; we were adrift, lost in the present.
Since we were, for the most part, Englishmen, we played games. At first we had walked about eyeing one another mistrustfully; but Time, the surest of teachers, soon convinced us of the essential harmlessness of our fellows. And then we played quoits, and danced and listened to the band, forgetting the things which were behind and disregarding (for the moment) the things which were before. Disregarding, but not quite forgetting. When the last game was over and the last pipe lighted, and the good, cool hours drew on, men used to sit in little groups watching the flash of waves tripping and spilling over smooth black furrows; and then they talked. The C.I.V. officers talked of Lee-Enfields, trajectories, mass and volley firing; the Indian Staff Corps men, who were going out on special service, spoke of commissariat and transport, of standing patrols and Cossack posts, of bivouacks, entrenchments, vedettes, contact squadrons, tactical sub-units, demolitions and entanglements. In those dark hours, while alien stars were rising and swinging westward over the masthead, hard, fit, clear-headed young men talked coolly and with common sense of the big business before them. The evening consultations were all that we gave to the future. The past was even less openly recognised; but it proclaimed itself eloquently in the withered bunches of flowers on this and that cabin table, in the demand for the ship's notepaper, in the women's trinkets worn by men who, under ordinary circumstances, would rather wear sack-cloth than jewellery: emblems, all of them, of thoughts that travelled the white road between the rudder and the horizon.
In that strange detached world of ours, energy alone was unsuspended. It was even stimulated, and in a race and class of men not accustomed to look inward for recreative resources manifested itself in a violent and unresting pursuit of artificial amusements. In this pursuit all our days were passed. The morning sun streams into the port-cabins, the diligent quartermaster brings our toys on deck and gravely arranges them; throughout the day we play with them until we are tired, when they are flung aside untidily; again the quartermaster returns, and, like a kind nurse, puts them away. The sun slants through the starboard windows and is quenched in the waters; a little talking, a little dancing, a little music, and we are all asleep. Such were our days. And ever before, behind, around and beneath us the moving, mysterious sea, wrinkled and old as the world, but blowing airs of eternal youth from its crumbling ridges. Down below iron floors stokers and trimmers were sweating, engineers were watching and nursing and feeding the great steel bondagers that drove us along; but how many of the light-hearted passengers ever thought of them? They were out of sight and mind, hidden away in their stifling holes, where in their relation to us they completed the satire of our miniature society.
I might give you a dozen pictures of our life, and yet mislead you as to its uncommonness; it was really commonplace life in strange and unfamiliar circumstances. Here is an example. At the first concert it was noticed, not without surprise, that the Captain's name was down for a song. Now for days the Captain had tramped alone up and down the deck—a large man, with a heavy face and drooping eye, and a head set forward on the shoulders by reason of long hours of staring into the sea dust; a man past middle-age, silent and (as we thought) surly. Therefore something like a sensation was produced when it was announced that the Captain would sing "Mary." I think I see and hear it now. The saloon filled with people; the windows framing faces of deck hands and firemen, with a background of moving blue; the heavy central figure, the kindly (we saw that now) Scotch face; the worn voice, unused to sustained utterance, gasping for breath in the middle of a line, and sometimes failing to be ready in time ("I lost the run of it," he explained to us in the middle of a temporary breakdown); the quaint simplicity of the words, "Kind, kind and gentle is she, kind is ma Ma-ary"; the thunder of applause that greeted the close; the immediate and unassailable popularity of the Captain. If I have described it as I saw it, you will understand why I shall always like to remember that scene. Here is another glimpse.
On a Sunday, when the church bells at home were jangling and the streets were (for a guess) streaming with rain and mud, it was Sunday with us also, three thousand miles away. The sun was lighting the lazy sea until it shone like a big blue diamond, the whales were spouting, the porpoises plunging and blowing, and here and there a shark lay basking near the surface with a wicked, wriggling, black fin exposed. It was very hot and still; the great sea people seemed to be revelling in some sort of Sabbath of their own, and the waters lay quiet and shining under the eye of Heaven. Here and there a drove of small flying-fishes rose and skimmed over the surface like swallows, but they too soon plunged into the blue and sought below that the cool green depths. Into this tranquil scene steamed the Kinfauns Castle in a triangle of snow, a big porpoise rolling and rollicking along beside her, now rising on this side, now on that. When he came very close he could see into the saloon windows, and presently he saw the Captain standing at the end of a table spread with the Union Jack and a great crowd of people sitting round the tables.
"Dearly beloved brethren," began the Captain, and then the porpoise's tail came up and his head went down with a "pflough!"
When he came up again near enough to see, all the people were muttering and gobbling over the Psalms, the Captain rolling out his short alternate verses as though he were directing his own quartermaster on a course. While the porpoise was very close to the ship and listening hard the ash-shoot was emptied almost on his head, which scared him so badly that he dived deep, and did not come up again for a long time. When he did rise the people were singing, "On, then, Christian soldiers, on to victory"; again he dived, and again came up with a snort, to hear them singing with equal vigour, "Make wars to cease and give us peace." But just then the third engineer opened the exhaust of the waste condenser water, and my black friend got such a shock when the cloud of steam and hot water burst from the ship's side that he altered his course three points, and I saw him plunging and rolling away to the west of south. One thing the porpoise did not hear, for he was below at the time. In his course through the Liturgy the Captain had reached the Collect for the day. I will warrant he was trained in a sterner school of theology than the Anglican; his voice and tones were never meant for the smooth diction of the Prayer-book; but that is neither here nor there. The "Coallect for the fourth Sunday after 'Pithany" rolled from his tongue. I never hope to hear it in a more appropriate time or place; there was something almost startling in the coincidence that brought it round on such a day, and there was significance in the words—"O God, Who knowest us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright; grant to us such strength and protection as may support us in all dangers and carry us through, all temptations." Thus prayed the Captain, the Chief Officer standing beside him; and none knew so well as those two how many and great were the dangers that lurked in our smiling environment.
As we drew nearer to our journey's end the desire for news became acute. At Madeira, on the 24th of January, we heard that the situation in Natal was practically unchanged, and up to February 3rd we had not seen another ship pass nearer than five miles. But then it was thought probable that we should meet the Dunottar Castle on her way home, and a bright look-out was kept. In the afternoon I was up on the bridge discussing celestial angles with the Chief Officer; we were snoring into the south-east trade, and the strong sun-warmed wind was a thing to bathe in; the bridge binoculars diligently swept the sharp blue line of horizon. Presently the Third Officer put his glass down. "There she is," said he, "two points on the starboard bow." We all looked, and we saw the tiny smear of smoke on the line. How strange it was; both of us coming up from nowhere and meeting on this roadless waste! In a quarter of an hour we raised her masts and funnel, and then we perceived it was not the Dunottar. Our course was altered two points, and the three of us stood up there in the wind and sun watching the growing speck. Down below they had just seen her, and glasses were levelled by the hundred. In a little while we could see a red cross on her bow, and we made her out to be a hospital ship carrying home wounded—Buller's wounded, we said, from the Tugela fight.
"BWF, HLF, WBQ," fluttered out our signal flags in a bravery of scarlet and blue and white, which is, being interpreted, "What news since the 24th?"
She was abeam now, a mile away; how slow they were in running up an answer! We pictured their signal quartermaster racking the pigeon-holes to spell "Ladysmith," and expected a gaudy display. Presently the coloured stream blew out from her main topmast stay. Only four flags!
"DFPC," reported the Third Officer, and there was a scramble for the Code-book. "Nothing important since last accounts."
Could anything be more exasperating? We ran up another question, I do not know what, but we waited in vain for the answering flutter, and the hospital ship Princess of Wales rolled along on the blue swell.
"South by east-a-half-east," snapped the Chief Officer; the wheel spun and the steering engine hissed, and the Kinfauns Castle drove her stem into it again, while from the promenade deck rose the sound of many voices.
And so we went driving along again through a wonderful sea of deep blue rollers jousting on a grey ground. It did not yet appear where we should go or what would be our lot; to-night or to-morrow we should know; but to-day it was enough that the sun shone and that the waters were wide.