Swearin' is a great help."
- MAXIMS OF CAREY, G. I.
"PEE-EE-WIT-WIT-WIT-WIT, pee -ee-wit ! Clear lower deck, cro-oss royal yards ! Pee-ee-wit-witwit ! "
The hands shoot through the lower-deck hatches like madmen, pushed by the panting crowds behind. Huge bull-necked men, full of beef and sap, stopping to turn their rolled-up trousers down as they reach the quarter-deck; marines in heavy ammunition-boots, buttoning their tunics as they run ; stokers from the lowest hell, black and sweating, join the rushing throng. " Pee-wit-wit-wit," call the pipes in the cool air of the fresh West Indian morning. " Clee-eear lower deck! " bawl the boatswain's mates in their mighty chest-notes. " Cro-oss royal yards!" yell the lower-deck call-boys, in answer, all along the messes; and up from the depths, from hold and store-room, from galley and mess-kettle, from rifle-rack and furnace-bar, from every hole and passage in the little ship, up-up-up pour the hands. And woe betide anyone in the way of those great rushing men when the flags are flying and a British ship-of-war is going to stations !
A crowd of midshipmen, fresh from school in the captain's cabin, burst out with set and earnest faces, jambing their cap-bands down behind their heads. They slip sideways through the flying crowds, swing into the rigging, and disappear aloft. The upper-yardmen crowd and push in the rigging below the nettings, invisible from the flagship, but waiting only the word to fly after them. Men are gathered about the bitts, where silent Petty Officers are handing out ropes to be tailed on to in good earnest. Every pound in the ship must tell to-day, for three other corvettes are in harbour, and these must be beaten and utterly left behind to show what we can do. The First Lieutenant says so, standing squarely on the poop.
Now the men are quite quiet, each in his place. Little knots stand all along the decks, and long double lines mark the longer and heavier-work ropes. No word or sound is heard throughout the ship. From the engine-rooms below comes the sound - the faint clatter of hammering iron ; but soon even that stops, and leaves a dead, utter silence. High up in the fore-crosstrees a Midshipman is cursing softly to himself-the freshly-tarred rigging has spoilt his whites, and his brethren on the opposite mast are laughing consumedly across the huge abyss.
" Pee-ee-ew ! " sing the pipes again, and our upper-yardmen grasp the ratlines together and fly upwards - a solid mass of backs and feet. For one second they hang over the futtocks, heave, and drop silently into the top, sixty feet above. Their places are instantly taken by the top-men, ready for their turn to follow, with one eye on the First Lieutenant and the other on the two blotches at the flagship's main. Those blotches are flags, conducting the whole affair. Seven hundred men are watching them desperately, waiting and watching for the word. Those two shaking specks are the whole present interest of the Fleet. The knots of men lengthen a little and tug impatiently at their ropes. Down-the flags dip in a splendid curve against the sky and stop to climb again, and the top-men of four corvettes are skimming aloft like one. The upper-yardmen leave the tops and swing up to their giddy stations on the crosstrees-now stunted lumps at the top of everything, but soon to be pleasant landings for the eye in the great tracery of masts and spars. Our two topgallantmasts rear from the deck and wobble gently in front of their respective masts. " Cross royal yards " is the order ; but masts must go up too, on which to cross them.
The men close back on the mast-ropes, fore and main, and measure distances, spitting on their hands. Aloft, the Midshipmen in charge are giving low orders in stealthy voices, balancing is their giddy places. The Officers below unroll their flags and clear their lungs to yell if need be. A little breeze rolls gently off the hills and ruffles the waters. The ships are watching now, second by second, waiting the instant, absolutely ready.
A bugle on the poop blares a frightened " G " and the First Lieutenant bounds like a monkey to the rail. "Sway away! " he yells, and the two double lines of men tear like thunder down the decks ; the mast-ropes shake with a sudden fearful strain, and up go our two topgallant masts, swaying, thumping, blundering on and up towards their goal. Up they go, banging against the lower yards, bumping into men trying to bear them off, rolling this way, heaving that, but being watched and tended all the time-up and up and up. The ship is on her mettle now and every pound must tell. Their points ground, scraping, at the crosstrees, and the captain of that dizzy height-a mere speck in the sky to us below-balancing on his stomach directly over the rushing mast, waves his tiny hand; the men on the mast-rope heave and strain, and heaven and earth move from under him. Up goes the mast with a new-found burden of rigging and iron, and up goes he, clinging, holding, straining, biting. Ah! the funnel is on the wrong slue! Down again. The mast drops back with a sounding thump, and four of those men of the air fly at it like demons, pulling, twisting, kicking, straining, cursing the delay. The little sky-bound platform squeaks and rattles with the work. Right! Even now we seem ahead. Up again, and the men on the mast-rope, turning for the last few standing pulls, jerk it clean into place with sturdy arms and bent backs. Well ! An arm appears from the struggling mass at the mast-head, holding a cap. The mast is right up now, a hundred feet above us, fully rigged and stayed, pointing calmly to the sky. Yards next-" Yard-ropes ! "
In two seconds more a topgallant yard leaves the deck, with its sail neatly furled along it. Halfway on its airy journey stands a man waiting, with an iron ring in his hand. He slips this over the lower end as it passes, and stands by to bear that end out. The little royal yards swing out of their places in the top-mast rigging and crawl gingerly to their dizzy homes high above all else. The yards hang thus before their masts for a second, lengthways, pointing down, and the lifts and braces which shall steady them across are on those small iron rings.
A flag is lifted on the foc'sle. All ready for'ard. A Lieutenant by the gangway raises his. Ready aft. 11 Sway across! " yells the First Lieutenant, and the hanging yards give a sudden heave, turn up on their centres, and land, quivering, in place across their masts. The royal-yardmen, a hundred and twenty feet above us, on a two-foot iron bar, jump like monkeys on their charge, kick and stamp it into place, pass the little parrel which holds it to the mast, and lay out in the reeling sky, one each side of the still-quivering yard. The other ships have hardly finished with their masts, and we are clean ahead. Time, three minutes and twenty-five seconds.
The royal-yardmen smile at their mess-mates on the yard below, lay in, wipe their hands twice across their trousers, and lay down into the tops. Ahead of the ship a man in a boat is waving flags
this is the Boatswain squaring yards, and men are gently working ropes now to move them according to his orders. But no one pays much real attention to him-the work is over, and we are first shipThe Captain looks at the other ships still working, and smiles almost as much as his dignity will allow; asks the time for our evolution, looks aloft, and goes majestically down to breakfast. The First Lieutenant, beaming with delight, calls a boat away and rows round the ship. And the Midshipmen, observing these signs, come stealthily down from aloft to write their names in the leave-book, ready for the afternoon. The morning evolution is over. In the little sick-bay below a Bluejacket is being " dished up." A sodden finger-top bleeds gently through his pocket, jambed off in a whirring sheave high at the fore-masthead. He put it there for safety in coming down. The skilful bandages close over the aching stump as he jerks his free thumb scornfully towards the Fleet. " D'you 'ear 'em ? " he asks, in utter scorn, as the sounds of swearing come gently through the little port, "d'you 'ear 'em ? The bloomin' dairy-maids-the bloomin' blasted dairy-maids : they aint not finished yet! "
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