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   Chapter 7 MEDITERRANEAN NIGHTS

At Suvla Bay By John Hargrave Characters: 6876

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Intricate and vivid detail leave a more startling imprint on the memory-film than the main purport of any great adventure, whether it be a polar expedition, a new discovery, or such a stupendous undertaking as that in which we were now involved.

The fact of our departure had been carefully kept quiet, and our destination was unknown. It might have been a secret expedition in search of buried treasure. Yet, in spite of all precaution, we might be torpedoed at any moment and go down with all hands, or strike a mine and be blown up. We knew that victory or defeat were hanging in the balance, and perhaps the destiny of nations. But while the magnitude of the venture has left no impression-I cannot recall that we ever spoke about it-commonplace details remain.

The pitch bubbling in the seams under a Mediterranean sun; the queer iridescent shapes of glowing, greenish phosphorus in the nighttime sea; the butter melting into yellow oil on the plate on the saloon table; the sickly smell of steam and grease and oil from the engine-room; the machine gun fixed at the stern with its waterproof hood; the increasing brilliance of the stars, and the rapid descent of evening upon the splendid colour-prism of a Mediterranean sunset-these, and thousands of other intimate commonplaces, are inlaid for ever in my mind.

We went about in our shirts and drill "slacks," and the scorching boards of the deck blistered our naked feet. In a few days we became sun-tanned. Each one of us had a sunburnt V-shaped triangle on the chest where we left our shirts open.

The voyage was uneventful. The food was poor. There was very little fresh water to drink. It was July. The heat was fatiguing, and the sun-glare blinding.

The coast of Algeria on our right looked bare and terribly forsaken. It had an awfulness about it-a mystery look; it looked like a "juju" country, with its sandy spit running like a narrow ribbon to the blue sea, and its hazy, craggy mountains quivering in the noonday heat.

Hawk and I were in the habit of coming up from our bunks in the evening. We used to lean over the handrail and watch the wonder of a Mediterranean sunset transform in schemes of peacock-blue and beetle-green, down and down, through emerald, pale gold and lemon yellow, and so to the horizon of the inland sea, in bands of deep chrome and orange, scarlet, mauve and purple.

Hawk was the only man I discovered in all those hundreds of apparently commonplace souls who could really appreciate and never tire of watching and discussing these things.

I had often heard of the blue of the Mediterranean. But I must confess that I rather thought it had been exaggerated by authors, artists and poets as a fruitful and beautiful source of inspiration.

I never saw such blues before: electric-blue and deep, seething navy blue, flecked with foam and silver spray; calm lapis-lazuli blue; a sort of greeny, mummy-case blue; flashing, silk-shot blue, like a kingfisher's feathers. Sometimes the sea was as calm as a mill-pond, and you could see down and down and down.

There is a certain milky look in the waters of the Mediterranean which I never saw anywhere else. What it is I do not know, but it hangs in the water like a cloud. Once there was a shoal of porpoises playing round us, and they curled and dived and flopped in the warm blue seas.

At night Hawk and I stood for hours watching first one constellation "light up,"

and then another, till the whole purple-velvet of the Mediterranean night sky was pinholed with the old familiar star-designs.

It struck me as most extraordinary, and almost uncanny, to see the same old stars we knew in England, still above us, so many hundred miles from home.

Phosphorescent fragments went floating along beneath us like bits of broken moonlight.

In watching and talking of these things, I quickly perceived in Hawk a man who not only noticed small detail and took a real interest in Nature, but one who had a sound, natural philosophy and a good idea of the reasonable and scientific explanation of things which so many people either ignore or look upon as "atheistic."

We did not yet know whither we were sailing. We knew we were part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, and that was all.

One day we put in at Malta.

Here the fruit-boats, all painted green and red and white and blue, came rowing out to meet us. The Maltese who manned them stood upto row their oars-and rowed the right way forwards, instead of facing the wrong way, as we do in England. They were selling tomatoes and pears, apples, chocolate, cigars, cigarettes, Turkish delight, and lace.

Continually they cried their goods-

"Cee-gar-ette!"

"Cee-gar-ette!"

"Tomart! Tomart!"

One man recognised us as the Irish Division, and shouted-

"Irish! Irish! My father Irish-from Dundee!"

Here were diving-boys in their own tiny boats, diving for pennies. They were wonderfully lithe and graceful, with sun-tanned limbs and dripping black hair.

Here, too, was a huge old man, who was also diving for pennies and tins of bully-beef. He was fat and sun-browned, and his muscles and chest were well developed.

"Me dive for bully-beef!" he shouted. "Me dive for bully-beef!"

Never once did he fail to retrieve these tins when they were chucked overboard.

The tomatoes were very large and ripe, and the tobacco and cigarettes exceedingly cheap and good. Most of the men got a stock.

The next day we put to sea again.

It was a real voyage of adventure, for here we were, on an unknown course, sailing under sealed orders, no one knew whither, nor did we know what would be the climax to this great enterprise.

Would any of us ever return across those blue-green waters?... Or would our bones lie, a few days hence, bleaching on the yellow sands? ... Mystery and adventure sailed with us-and each day the heat increased. The sun blazed from a brazen sky, the shadow of the halyards and the great ventilators were clear-cut black silhouettes upon the baking decks.

The decks were crammed with that same khaki crowd of civilians who had cursed and sworn and drilled and growled for ten long months in the Old Country. You imagine what desperate adventurers they had suddenly become. Some had never been out of Ireland, others had been as far as Portsmouth, and taken a return voyage to the Isle of Wight. And each day we zigzagged across the blue seas towards some unknown Fate... death, perhaps... victory or failure-who could tell?

Until one day a thin, yellowish-white streak appeared upon the sea-line; little groups of palms huddled together, and here and there a white dome or a needle-minaret. And so we warped into harbour, through the boom and past the lightships, to join the crowd of transports and battle cruisers lying off this muddled city-the city of wonderful colour, Alexandria.

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