If Cæsar's bloomin' squares o' war
Wot 'ad no fear to die
Wos standin' on the Pompey shore
An' seed us comin' by,
You'd 'ear them bloomin' legions roar
Enough to split the sky!
MAXIMS OF CAREY, G. I.
" SLATE ! " - A scuffle of bare feet, a flash of white forms, a stamp and a turn down two ladders …… Sir ! "
The Signalman of the Watch stops in the middle of a pace, snaps his glass under his arm, swings round on one heel, and winks across the bridge at the Leading Hand. The latter is mending flags in the signal-house - officially. Really, he is making himself a new cloth suit for the special benefit of an unusually coy parlourmaid at Gosport. A torn white ensign is flung over his legs and half conceals the infamy from view. Now, however, he stops sewing, and leaning back against the great copper flashing-lamp in the corner, stares out of the door at the white decks below. Far away under the stern some gulls are fighting for a piece of condemned beef - splashing and screaming hoarsely. The water is quite calm ; from this height also it looks strangely blue. We are high up here on the flagship's signal-bridge. The ships in harbour lie at their anchors like huge, solid-sunk forts. We note the shine of their paint-work, the sparkle of their polished rails. It is Thursday afternoon, and the Fleet is very still. The men are making and mending clothes ; the liberty-men have long since landed ; the decks are deserted. Each ship cuts her reflection deep and clear into the water. The Fleet is resting ; apparently sleeping. Not so. The Fleet never sleeps. Take your glass and look. High on the upper bridges, where the big semaphores stand, two or three white figures move silently to and fro, crossing, pausing, and re-crossing. The Fleet, indeed, is resting ; but it never sleeps. Night closes in - the figures are still there. Morning breaks - they are still there. Days become months, and months years ; a King rises, a Kingdom falls - it affects them not a whit. Consols may jump to 110 or a penny may be added to the Income Tax - still they keep their solemn watch, high on the upper bridges. Who are these men, and what is their business ? They are the ears and the eyes and the ultimate tongue of the Empire. They are Signalman of the Watch. Let us observe.
On the Quarter-Deck below the Officer of the Watch writes quickly on a slate. By his side stands a little boy. That boy has only been out of a training-ship three months, but now he represents the flagship's signal staff and bears himself accordingly. He stands very straightly, his bare toes tapping the deck. Suddenly he glances up at the signal-house door. The eye of the Leading Hand is upon him. His toes stop tapping. Another instant and he is on the bridge again, slate in hand. A glance from the Signalman of the Watch, a sharp order, five seconds, and a hoist of bunting flies at the lower yard-arm. There is no wind, and it is impossible to see the flags; they are curling gently round their halliards. But they made a little wind going up, and already, a mile away, a little red splotch climbs to its place in answer; this across two lines of ships. Then the big semaphore begins to talk, waving its arms, for thirty seconds. It closes with a smack; the red splotch across the lines disappears; our hoist of bunting drops softly to the deck. The Officer of the Watch walks to the wardroom skylight, looks at the clock, yawns, and resumes his pace. He has asked a friend to dinner. The invitation has just gone. He hopes there will be something to eat. To-day he is twenty-one.
On the lower bridge a Signalman is looking up the line and smiling. Presently, stepping to the rail and keeping his elbows still, he begins to throw his hands about in front of him with quick movements of the wrist. He is recounting his last shore experience to a chum in the next ship. It doesn't take long, and as he nears the end he quickens pace and the movements become like lightning.
He waves his hand past his face; there is an answering wave from the other bridge, and the story is told. The men turn away laughing.
But now the long, steady walk has ceased; the men are in knots about the halliards; also, there are more of them. Above us these signs are plain. The Fleet is to sail to-morrow morning, and orders have to be given. The Flag-lieutenant's white slate is in the signal-house with the message; the Signal Boatswain is on the admiral's bridge, ready to send it; the staff are bending on flags leisurely, seeing all clear. The Signal Boatswain walks to the centre, leans over the bridge rail, and says, " Hoist." Five hoists of a "general signal" fly at the flagship's main, and to at each masthead flies large a flag in answer. The Signal Boatswain glances up and down the Fleet, and orders, " Down." In forty seconds the thing is done. The masts and yards are bare as winter trees. The Fleet will sail to-morrow.
Presently another hoist leaves the flagship's bridge, and two masted ships in harbour jump and fly to stations. All along the lower decks the callboys halloa, " Down topgallant masts." A hundred eyes are watching those few flags; a hundred men are waiting for the hoist to drop. On our bridge the Yeoman of Signals nods his head; the hoist comes half-way down, and a hundred hands fly aloft. They crowd into the tops; we see them plainly. The Yeoman nods again - again. The upper mast and yards have vanished, and men are hurrying down from aloft.
Night closes in and a little breeze springs up. The bands are not playing to-night, and the ships lie very still, with their thousand lights reflected in the water. The moon has not yet risen, and the night is very dark. Over the middle of the Fleet a big white light hangs and winks in a great hurry. It wants to know whether anyone has seen its captain's overcoat, left carelessly at a dance. The Signal Midshipmen of the lee line smile darkly when the signal is brought to them ; otherwise no one seems to know much about it. The lamps answer all round us, one in each great ship, clicking quickly. Nothing is known.
The breeze increases; next morning the ships are tugging gently at their cables. The time has come. In the early twilight two dark shapes flutter at the flagship's main, two more, and another two. The six-ton anchors leave the mud together and dangle at the cat-heads. Then the engines move stretching after their long rest. The speed is set, the Flagship leads the way, and with enormous, certain strength the Fleet files out, quite silently, ship by ship, two cables apart, in perfect, splendid order. All done by our friends. See them now. In truth they earn their pay. Every ship must be watched as a cat watches a mouse ; nothing escapes ; every signal to be logged, reported, and attended to ; a mistake may lose the ship. The lower bridge swarms with men ; hoists are going up; more are dropping from the skies ; the place is in a whirl of bunting. And over all the voice of the Signal Boatswain on the admiral's bridge : " Hoist the main-hoist yard-arm ; down ! " the click of clips disengaging ; the rush for the new hoist; the ceaseless scuffle of bare feet. We are in the Brain of the Fleet.
And so from day to day and year by year the mighty watch goes on. On the banks of Newfoundland, by the South Pacific rollers, in sight of the shrieking Horn, or back of the sulky China Seas; in fog or mist, in rain or hail or snow ; wherever the pennants fly. Sea or harbour, broken up for independent cruising or drilling - wondrous sight upon her own high seas, the Fleet is wide awake. The Signalmen are there ; the Ears and Eyes are ready; the trade comes safely to the London docks the Outer Watch is kept.
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