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He was an old man with that indefinable courtliness of bearing that is of a past generation; tall and spare he was, his white head bowed a little by weight of years, but almost with my first glance I seemed to recognise him instinctively for that “worthy Master Builder of goodly vessels staunch and strong!” So the Master Builder I will call him.
He stood beside me at the window with one in the uniform of a naval captain, and we looked, all three of us, at that which few might behold unmoved.
“She’s a beauty!” said the Captain. “She’s all speed and grace from cutwater to sternpost.”
“I’ve been building ships for sixty-odd years and we never launched a better!” said the Master Builder.
As for me I was dumb.
She lay within a stone’s throw, a mighty vessel, huge of beam and length, her superstructure towering proudly aloft, her massive armoured sides sweeping up in noble curves, a Super-Dreadnought complete from trucks to keelson. Yacht-like she sat the water all buoyant grace from lofty prow to tapering counter, and to me there was something sublime in the grim and latent power, the strength and beauty of her.
“But she’s not so very—big, is she?” enquired a voice behind me.
The Captain stared; the Master Builder smiled.
“Fairly!” he nodded. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, I usually reckon the size of a ship from the number of her funnels, and—”
“Ha!” exclaimed the Captain explosively.
“Humph!” said the Master Builder gently. “After luncheon you shall measure her if you like, but now I think we will go and eat.”
During a most excellent luncheon the talk ranged from ships and books and guns to submarines and seaplanes, with stories of battle and sudden death, tales of risk and hardship, of noble courage and heroic deeds, so that I almost forgot to eat and was sorry when at last we rose from table.
Once outside I had the good fortune to find myself between the Captain and the venerable figure of the Master Builder, in whose company I spent a never-to-be-forgotten afternoon. With them I stood alongside this noble ship which, seen thus near, seemed mightier than ever.
“Will she be fast?” I enquired.
“Very fast—for a Dreadnought!” said the Captain.
“And at top speed she’ll show no bow wave to speak of,” added the veteran. “See how fine her lines are fore and aft.”
“And her gun power will be enormous!” said the Captain.
Hard by I espied a solitary being, who stood, chin in hand, lost in contemplation of this large vessel.
“Funnels or not, she’s bigger than you thought?” I enquired of him.
He glanced at me, shook his head, sighed, and took himself by the chin again.
“Holy smoke!” said he.
“And you have been building ships for sixty years?” I asked of the venerable figure beside me.
“And more!” he answered; “and my father built ships hereabouts so long ago as 1820, and his grandfather before him.”
“Back to the times of Nelson and Rodney and Anson,” said I, “great seamen all, who fought great ships! What would they think of this one, I wonder?”
“That she was a worthy successor,” replied the Master Builder, letting his eyes, so old and wise in ships, wander up and over the mighty fabric before us. “Yes,” he nodded decisively, “she’s worthy—like the men who will fight her one of these days.”
“But our enemies and some of our friends rather thought we had degenerated these latter days,” I suggested.
“Ah, well!” said he very quietly, “they know better now, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” said I, and again, “Yes.”
“Slow starters always,” continued he musingly; “but the nation that can match us in staying power has yet to be born!”
So walking between these two I listened and looked and asked questions, and of what I heard, and of what I saw I could write much; but for the censor I might tell of armour-belts of enormous thickness, of guns of stupendous calibre, of new methods of defence against sneaking submarine and torpedo attack, and of devices new and strange; but of these I may neither write nor speak, because of the aforesaid censor. Suffice it that as the sun sank, we came, all three, to a jetty whereto a steamboat lay moored, on whose limited deck were numerous figures, divers of whom beckoned me on.
So with hearty farewells, I stepped aboard the steamboat, whereupon she snorted and fell suddenly a-quiver as she nosed out into the broad stream while I stood to wave my hat in farewell.
Side by side they stood, the Captain tall and broad and sailor-like in his blue and gold—a man of action, bold of eye, hearty of voice, free of gesture; the other, his silver hair agleam in the setting sun, a man wise with years, gentle and calm-eyed, my Master Builder. Thus, as the distance lengthened, I stood watching until presently they turned, side by side, and so were gone.
Slowly we steamed down the river, a drab, unlovely waterway, but a wonderful river none the less, whose banks teem with workers where ships are building—ships by the mile, by the league; ships of all shapes and of all sizes, ships of all sorts and for many different purposes. Here are great cargo boats growing hour by hour with liners great and small; here I saw mile on mile of battleships, cruisers, destroyers and submarines of strange design with torpedo boats of uncanny shape; tramp steamers, windjammers, squat colliers and squatter tugs, these last surely the ugliest craft that ever wallowed in water. Mine layers were here with mine sweepers and hospital ships—a heterogeneous collection of well-nigh every kind of ship that floats.
Some lay finished and ready for launching, others, just begun, were only a sketch—a hint of what soon would be a ship.
On our right were ships, on our left were ships and more ships, a long perspective; ships by the million tons—until my eyes grew a-weary of ships and I went below.
Truly a wonderful river, this, surely in its way the most wonderful river eyes may see, a sight I shall never forget, a sight I shall always associate with the stalwart figure of the Captain and the white hair and venerable form of the Master Builder as they stood side by side to wave adieu.
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