Can't you 'ear the bugles soundin' ?
Can't you 'ear the tune they play ?
Can't you 'ear the breech-blocks groundin' as the quarters clears away ?
Ho! The killick's up and catted,
And we're goin' to fight to-day,
An' you'll 'ave to turn your trousers up this-mo-o-rnin' !
LOWER DECK BALLAD.
HE is a little, thick-set man, with a twinkle in his eye and a piece of spun-yarn round his toe. He knows much, thinks little, and is generally uninformed. Belgravia knows him not, or Mayfair. Society would not admit him to her outer doorsteps. His chief ambition is to own a public-house on Portsea Hard. Nevertheless, he holds the balance of Europe in his hands, and is more generally feared than a Cook's tourist.
London, we say, does not know him; although sometimes, it is true, he may be found there, sitting idly on the top of a 'bus, or waiting at a terminus for the next train to his port. At such times, however, his soul is sick within him. He is out of his element, and is tired of seeing sights which he may not understand. He has twice been taken for a sandwich-man, and the world seems very stale. He perceives clearly how that, after all, London is but an overgrown Portsmouth, where friends are few and things are monstrous dear. No one understands him here, and he is not properly treated. The very place itself offends him ; the dirt and clamour shake his root ideas; the paint-work is filthy beyond words. He wonders who is responsible. He is a fish out of water in very truth, and sitting there among the hurrying white faces - so different from the faces of his own people - his soul sinks within him. The fear of cities gathers at his breast, and he flies to the nearest railway which will return him to the sea - that dear, grim mistress whom once to have embraced is never to deny - where, at any rate, he is at home, where things at least are kept in order, and where men who do good work are always treated with respect. No, London sees him at his worst, and may not, therefore, judge him.
For this is a strange creature, and belonging to a race quite apart. Life for him centres in his turret or barbette; in " her " alone he really lives, and all else is vain. Only to her tremendous pulses does his spirit truly bend; within her ponderous walls alone he lives his proper life. And this is not quite strange, for, call him what you like outside, here he is a king, and that of no small kingdom.
Let us come and see his rule. Come when the rammers are jambing in the helpless pistons ; when the lights go out and the place is a living hell; when, with the engines roaring beneath him and the deep wind singing overhead, he strains in the sighting-hood to keep his mighty charges steady while the targets fly past him in clouds of smoke and spray. Or come again harbour, and watch him, astraddle in the shining rammer-room, working laboriously on mats to lay across his guns, or glueing gilded anchors on to sky-blue boards for the further glory of his kingdom. Then you shall see that this is no mean man of whom we speak. Home he has given up, family he has denied, pleasures and comforts he has quite foregone. Only his work remains, and here his lost affections rise and stand him in good stead. Strange though he seem to outsiders, rough and uncultured though he be, this is a man on whom many empires depend, a man of whom Europe herself does well to be afraid.
For himself, he knows nothing of this. His training, subtle with long experience, fits him for the duties, but hides from him the real nature, of his position. He thinks himself very small indeed. He knows three things. Firstly, that his kingdom must be clean - and ah ! how clean it is! So clean that you may see your face in every nut and key ; far and away cleaner than any other kingdom in the fleet. So clean, perhaps, that even the eagle-eyed Gunnery-Lieutenant can find no fault at all
And, secondly, he knows that he must always bow to superior authority, and will jump to the order of the little Midshipman, who can walk so easily where he can barely crawl! And, thirdly, he has found that if anything goes wrong in the kingdom someone must assuredly " go in," and this necessitates reserve in dealing with his subjects. Otherwise, things will unaccountably disappear, and he, the king, most certainly will pay. Such are his beliefs - simple, straight, and few. Beyond them he knows nothing - nor cares. By them he has risen; by them let him stand or fall. There is no middle path even for the King. And very well he knows it.
To see the Captain of a Barbette at work is one of the most beautiful things in the world. Because he is working in his own home and knows his barbette as a lady knows her boudoir. Every pipe and valve, every rod and key, rack, tooth, and pinion in that mighty maze he knows by name and reputation - strain and buckle, flaw and crack, what will stand and what may go. Every place and corner is his own, and from the broad, shining floor-plates up to that dark and wondrous chamber where he stows his cleaning-rags, he knows them all, clearly and separately. So he goes to work with great confidence, and has all the power that belongs to confidence.
Observe the ease with which he lowers the 70-ton chases, and see the monster loading-trays slide into position at his touch. Does he wish to fire the gun ? - he moves his hand, and the great rammers start to life behind their deadly burdens. He nods - the breech is closed, and half a ton of steel goes home with a mighty clang. He locks it with a turn of his wrist, and bids us watch his rammers ; back and forth he moves them, back and forth they slide - hissing, groaning, trembling, and complaining, obedient to his touch.
A strange being, truly; of great knowledge and but few ideas - whose very existence is barely suspected - whose aims and thoughts are utterly unknown; whose day is yet to come. Indeed, we hope, not soon.
But if (which God forfend) that day be not far off when England's majesty once more must sweep the seas against a world in arms, we'll look to him indeed. And right in the middle of the dreadful din, deep in the deafening horror of that fight - ay, in the very belching mouth of Hell herself - shall be found our little King, bare of foot and strong of arm, eager, swift, and keen, standing very still beside the levers, with the twinkle - who knows? - still upon his eyes and the little piece of aged spun-yarn still upon his toe !
^ back to top ^