THUS the Cæsars and their fortunes put out to sea with their subs and their sad-eyed engineers, and their long-suffering signallers. I do not even know the technical name of the sin which causes a man to be born a destroyer-signaller in this life, and the little yellow shells stuck all about where they can be easiest reached. The rest of their acts is written for the information of the proper authorities. It reads like a page of Todhunter. But the masters of merchant-ships could tell more of eyeless shapes, barely outlined on the foam of their own arrest, who shout orders through the thick gloom alongside. The strayed and anxious neutral knows them when their searchlights pin him across the deep, or their syrens answer the last yelp of his as steam goes out of his torpedoed boilers, They stand by to catch and soothe him in his pyjamas at the gangway, collect his scattered lifeboats, and see a warm drink into him before they turn to hunt the slayer. The drifters, punching and reeling up and down their ten-mile line of traps; the outer trawlers, drawing the very teeth of Death with watersodden fingers, are grateful for their low, guarded signals; and when the Zeppelin’s revealing star-shell cracks darkness open above him the answering crack of the invincible destroyers” guns comforts the busy mine-layers. Big cruisers talk to them, too; and, what is more, they talk back to the cruisers. Sometimes they draw fire—pinkish spurts of light—a long way off, where Fritz is trying to coax them over a minefield he has just laid; or they steal on Fritz in the midst of his job, and the horizon rings with barking, which the inevitable neutral who saw it all reports as “a heavy fleet action in the North Sea.” The sea after dark can be as alive as the woods of summer nights. Everything is exactly where you don’t expect it, and the shyest creatures are the farthest away from their holes. Things boom overhead like bitterns, or scutter alongside like hares, or arise dripping and hissing from below like otters. It is the destroyers” business to find out what their business may be through all the long night, and to help or hinder accordingly. Dawn sees them pitch-poling insanely between head-seas, or hanging on to bridges that sweep like scythes from one forlorn horizon to the other. A homeward-bound submarine chooses this hour to rise, very ostentatiously, and signals by hand to a lieutenant in command. (They were the same term at Dartmouth, and same first ship.)
“What’s he sayin’? Secure that gun, will you? Can’t hear oneself speak.” The gun is a bit noisy on its cone, but that isn’t the reason for the destroyer-lieutenant’s short temper.
“’Says he’s goin’ down, sir,” the signaller replies. What the submarine had spelt out, and everybody knows it, was: “Cannot approve of this extremely frightful weather. Am going to bye-bye.”
“Well!”, snaps the lieutenant to his signaller, “what are you grinning at?” The submarine has hung on to ask if the destroyer will “kiss her and whisper good-night.” A breaking sea smacks her tower in the middle of the insult. She closes like an oyster, but—just too late, Habet! There must be a quarter of a ton of water somewhere down below, on its way to her ticklish batteries.
“What a wag!’, says the signaller, dreamily. “Well, ’e can’t say ’e didn’t get ’is little kiss.”
The lieutenant in command smiles. The sea is a beast, but a just beast.