THEY THAT GO DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS

A knock came at the prison door.

“Is Mrs. Alec Tweedie here?”

Yes, Mrs. Alec Tweedie was having her tea, and heard the question.
Truly a nice situation! To be enquired for at a gaol.

But even that is capable of explanation. The man on the doorstep held a
letter in his hand addressed to me by name, but only vaguely “Glasgow”
otherwise. With the usual brilliancy of the postal authorities,
they had found the rest of the address and pinned me to the prison,
for I was staying with the Governor, who had married a friend of my
kindergarten days.

The letter was an invitation to christen a “P. & O.” steamer on the
Clyde at Greenock: to be godmother to an infant of twelve thousand
six hundred tons, that, lying in her cradle, was four hundred and
fifty feet long and fifty-four feet wide. When she sailed out to sea
on January 6th of 1900, this mighty goddaughter of mine carried two
thousand three hundred troops between her ample decks.

Needless to say, the sponsorial honour thus offered—the responsibility
being light—was duly accepted.

It was a most glorious day when the Governor of the prison escorted me
to Greenock. The P. & O. has become one of the most important factors
in the commerce of the nation, under Sir Thomas Sutherland, so the
christening was not only impressive to “those who go down to the sea
in ships,” but to all onlookers. Those great yards on the Clyde employ
several thousand men, all of whom, with their wives and children, were
spectators of the ceremony, to say nothing of an invited public.

How enormous that ship looked, her great iron sides standing out from
what shipwrights are pleased to call the “permanent ways”. She owned
as yet no masts or funnels, or indeed any _et ceteras_, only there
loomed her enormous iron carcase. One felt a fly on the wall standing
beneath the shadow of her massive frame. She literally towered above
us, a monster of steel and bolts and rivets. At the stern a wooden
erection had been made, with a little staircase leading to a platform,
and on this the builder of the vessel, Mr. Patrick Caird, and I stood
alone.

It was a most exciting moment. The sun shone, there resounded a dull
thud, thud, thud, for the men below were hammering her sides loose from
the wood in which she had been embedded for about two years. Then came
an almost breathless silence among the vast audience, when Mr. Caird
turned to me and said:

“_Be sure and break the bottle._”

I had never thought of doing anything else, knowing the importance
to the superstitious sailor-man that the glass should be shattered
to atoms, but his serious tones sent a shiver through me, and I
recognised, as in a flash, the gravity of the moment.

There was, as usual, a bottle of champagne, decked with ribbons and
flowers, hanging from the top of the vessel to a level with the place
on which we stood.

“Remember,” he continued, in an undertone of adjuration, “that once
the ship starts to move, she will run; so you must waste no time in
throwing the wine.”

I did not really feel nervous until this, but on being suddenly told
that the boat might be out of reach before one had time to execute the
critical deed, and also being reminded of the importance of scattering
the fluid, I felt a cold douche down my back.

We waited breathless—it seemed ages of suspense, and yet it was
probably only a few minutes. Suddenly the vast bulk began to tremble,
next gave herself little shakes like a dog, then she appeared to pause
and shiver again. It was a breathless moment. Then the mighty carcase
started. What a grand sight! There was something awe-inspiring as that
vast thing slid slowly, majestically, and then more and more rapidly,
down to the sea. I seized the flagon, and with might and main flung it
against the side of the ship, determined that it should be broken more
completely than bottle had ever been broken before.

“With this I wish all luck and prosperity to the _Assaye_,” I cried,
with a strange sensation of chokiness in my throat, while I flung the
ribbon-decked flagon towards her. Truly a thrilling scene.

Whether the heat of the day or the strength of my fling was the cause,
I know not, but the amount of froth that came out of that bottle of
champagne was quite impossible to believe. I was drowned in it. The
quart bottle seemed to contain gallons of froth. It effervesced over
my hat, ran in rivers down my nose, and scattered white foam all over
my shoulders. Mr. Caird, having recovered from his bath, produced a
handkerchief, and kindly began to mop my dripping face and dry my
watery eyes. It was a funny scene, rendered all the more funny, as
it turned out, because some of the cinematograph people were behind
us (those were the early days of cinematographs), and that night in
the music-halls of Glasgow and Edinburgh the _Launching of a P. & O.
Steamer_ caused much amusement to the audience. Only my back view
showed, I believe, but the black of my dress and the white champagne
froth made an interesting production.

Having slid down the permanent ways, the ship’s pace became quicker
and quicker, she really did run, and then she appeared to literally
duck as if to make a bow when she entered the Clyde. For a moment, to
my uninitiated eyes, it seemed as if she would turn a somersault. Not
a bit of it. She righted herself, while the great chain anchors fixed
to her sides were dragging mother-earth along with them, holding her
sufficiently in check, or else she would have run up the opposite bank
before the tugs had time to make her fast and tow her down-stream.

There was a rumour in the air that war was imminent in South Africa,
and Mr. Caird murmured in my ear that it was possible they would
receive a command to have her ready for transport as quickly as
possible. And although, as I have said, she had nothing whatever inside
her on October 7th, 1899, six weeks from that date the _Assaye_ left
Southampton fully equipped for the seat of war, and during the next two
or three years she made so many voyages with troops, that she conveyed
more soldiers to and from the Cape than any other boat afloat.

As a memento of the occasion, Mr. Caird gave me a charming brooch
representing the three crescents of the Orient in diamonds. It was a
pleasant, happy, and interesting experience.

Some years later it was my good fortune to go for the trial trip, as
the guest of the Chairman of the Cunard Company, in the greatest ship
and wonder of her day, the _Lusitania_ (July, 1907), and lastly, to
have been to the inaugural luncheon on one of the five new (1909) ships
of the Orient Line, fitted with all the latest modern improvements,
from electric plate-washers to electric potato-peelers and egg-boilers.
This last was truly a little history in shipping. Where will wondrous
labour-saving inventions end? It is these magnificent boats which do
so much to cement the friendship and foster family ties between us and
our Colonies, and when one sees that in an Orient steamer third-class
passengers can travel twenty-six thousand miles for eighteen pounds,
one opens one’s eyes at the comfort and marvels. These travellers have
even a third-class music-room, and never more than six people in a
cabin. Children can visit their parents, husbands their wives, in fact,
the East and West become as one. Sir Frederick Green, the Chairman of
the Orient Company, is not only a delightful man, but is extremely
enterprising, and has achieved wonderful things. Even the amateur band,
composed of stewards, has been abolished, and proper professional music
is provided for the passengers. Those terrible days when one packed up
sufficient underlinen for six weeks’ use have gone by, and everything
can now be sent to the laundry on board on Monday morning, as regularly
as it is done at home.

The christening of the proud P. & O. _Assaye_ amused me the more
at the time because of its sharp contrast with a humble Highland
“baptisement,” at which it had also been my lot to assist a few years
earlier. This last committal of a boat to the sea was the subject a
year or two after of one of my sketches in words, and may be here given
again, for who amongst us, on watching a fishing-smack going out from
harbour, does not feel a stir of interest, and wish that “weel may the
boatie row”?

At that time we—my husband was alive—had a little house in Sutherland,
and became much interested in the simple fisher-folk near by.

“Can you speak to Mrs. Murray, the fishwife, for a minute. Very
particular, she says, ma’am,” said the parlourmaid one morning.

“All right,” and, leaving the steaming herrings on the breakfast-table,
I went to the door to see Mrs. Murray.

“Good morning, Mrs. Murray. Did you want to see me?”

“’Deed, mem, yes, mem,” and the old body in short serge skirt, so full
at the waist that her creel of fish literally rested on the pleats,
beamed all over inside her nice, clean, white “mutch” cap.

“Maybe ye ken, mistress, we have got a new haddie boatie [haddock
boat], and we want to have the baptisement whatever.”

“Well?”

“And maybe, mem, ye would be sae guid as to humble yersel’, mistress,
and come down—the laddies want ye to come down and do the baptisement
yersel’.”

“Me?”

“Yes, mem, if we might make sae bold in the asking,” and the old body
looked quite shy at having asked, and actually the colour mounted to
her weather-worn cheeks.

“But what do you want me to do?” I enquired, really interested in what
a baptisement could be.

“Jist the baptisement, whatever.”

“Yes, but how do you do it?” I persisted.




“Law, mem, ye jist break the bottlie, whatever.”

“Oh; all right, I know all about that, and I’ll do it with the greatest
possible pleasure; but which day?”

“If ye’ll jist please to name the dee yersel’.”

“High tide would be nicest, I think. It would not be so wet and sloppy,
would it?”

“Weel, weel. I near forgot the laddies want ye to come pertikeler
Tuesday at three or Wednesday at four, for the tide be high then; and
they’ll bait some hooks, and ye can go out and catch the first haddie
yersel’ for luck, mem.”

“All right, then, Tuesday, at three.”

So on Tuesday we hurried over luncheon and drove in the dogcart to the
fishing village of Haddon, for the official ceremony, carefully armed
with a bottle of red wine to sprinkle the sides of the boat, and a
bottle of whisky for the family to drink the boat’s health; both being
suggestions of the dear old fishwife herself—the one for the cold, the
other for the boat, as she wisely remarked.

All our friends, the minister among them, refused to believe I—a
stranger—had actually been asked to perform such a ceremony: the Haddon
folk being usually so exclusive. They marry amongst themselves and do
everything amongst themselves, no outsider ever being asked to partake
in any of their functions.

Arrived at the quaint little village, driving with difficulty between
the pigs, the babies, and the chickens, we sought the heather-thatched,
whitewashed house of the Murrays.

“Good dee to ye, mem—good dee to ye au,” and out of the kitchen
tumbled the mother, father, sons, and daughters, pigs, chickens, and
grandchildren.

Carefully carrying a bottle in each arm, I marched to the beach,
followed by the Murray family, our numbers being swelled by other
villagers at every step.

There, on the sand, reposed the haddie boatie—a fine big boat, capable
of taking a dozen or twenty men to sea. She was lying on rollers, ready
to be put in the water—but, oh! what water. Great white horses lashed
the shore; Neptune truly was riding fiery steeds. We were admiring the
majestic crested waves breaking over the rocks when Mr. Murray said,
“The hooks is baited, and ye shall catch the first haddie for luck
yersel’, mem.”

Should I, or should I not, disgrace myself on that turbulent water,
over which the seagulls screeched and whirled and flapped their wings?

By this time fifty or sixty of the villagers had arrived to help launch
the boat, and my heart trembled when I remembered the one bottle of
whisky brought for the Murray family to drink to the boat’s success.
How far would it go amongst so many?

But my cogitations were interrupted by Willie Murray exclaiming, “Will
ye please to gie the name?”

“Yes; what do you want it called?”

“Your own name, mem, if ye will please to humble yersel’ to gie it.”

“Mrs. Tweedie.”

“Na, na, na, mistress, whatever, jist yer surname.”

“Well, Tweedie is my surname.”

“Na, na, no’ that surname. Yer other surname, mistress.”

“Do you mean Ethel?”

“Oi, oi, Essel—Essel.” (There is no “th” in Gaelic, and their tongues
cannot frame it.) “Oi, oi, that be it, mem—Essel Tweedie, whatever,”
and he took off his hat as though he hoped the wind would blow such an
extraordinary name into his cranium.

By this time men and women had put their shoulders to the boat, and had
got her down to the water’s edge. Just as she touched the sea I threw
the bottle with all my might, nearly upsetting myself in the endeavour,
for, if the bottle should not shatter to atoms, these superstitious
fisher-folk would think that their new boat was cursed.

As she touched the water the red wine ran down her side, and I cried,
“I name her Ethel Tweedie, and wish her all luck.”

“May the evil eye ne’er take upon her,” called Mrs. Murray, as the red
wine mingled with the crested waves.

Into the water with a cheer both men and women went, right up to their
waists, the waves breaking over their shoulders; but every time they
got the _Ethel Tweedie_ launched, a huge wave brought her back again.

“Come and drink her health before you put her into the sea,” I called.
“Has anyone a glass?”

“Oi, oi,” replied Mrs. Murray; and unfastening the front of her blue
cotton blouse, she brought forth a wine-glass, evidently brought down
in anticipation. The chief members of the party drank the health of the
boat and her namesake in Gaelic, and then one lad replied, when the
glass was offered to him, “I’m no’ for the tasting the dee.”

Had he a cold, or why couldn’t he taste? So I offered the glass to his
neighbour.

“I’m no’ for the tasting the dee,” he likewise replied; and we
afterwards learnt they were teetotallers, and that was their way of
expressing the fact.

“The hooks is baited, and ye shall catch the first haddie for luck
yersel’, mem,” resounded in our ears; and the roar of the sea kept
up a strange accompaniment, as a seagull shrieked in triumph at our
discomfiture.

I dare not say no; I must risk disgracing myself, endure any agony of
mind or body, but I must for the honour of Old England go and catch
that first haddie.

How the wretched folk struggled to get that boat into the sea! I
remonstrated at the women going into the water and working so hard on
my account, feeling particularly sympathetic when I thought of the
rough sea awaiting us outside, but all to no avail. I assured them I
should _not_ be disappointed if I could not catch the haddie to-day,
I could easily come again; but no, they would struggle on, a few feet
only at a time, always to be rebuffed again and again by the waves.

At last Mr. Murray took off his cap, scratched his head, talked Gaelic
to everyone in turn, and, after his consultation, came over to me and
said, “I’m right sad, mem, but the haddie boatie can no’ go in the
water the dee; she’d jist go to pieces on the rocks, whatever.”

“Oh, I am so sorry, but don’t mind me,” I replied as graciously as I
could, thankful for the deliverance.

“Na, na, but the haddie for luck! We au wanted ye to catch the haddie
for luck yersel’, mem.”

“Oh, I’ll come another day and catch the haddie for luck,” and I
inwardly thanked Heaven I had been saved the terrors of the deep.

“To-morrow I will come again and catch the haddie, and paint the name
on the boat, if you like.”

“Oi, oi, paint the name yersel’, that’ll be fine; but ye’ll do it nice,
now, won’t you? I want it weel done.”

Who could be offended at such a remark, made without the slightest
idea of rudeness? A little such honest, straight-forward speaking is
a treat, not an offence, in these days of gilded sayings and leaden
thoughts.

I never caught that haddie, but I took my palette and painted the name
in oils upon her sides, and happily the _Ethel Tweedie_ has proved one
of the luckiest boats in the herring fleet.

What a contrast those two launches were—the wealth of the one ship, the
wealth of the onlookers, the wealth of the prospective passengers and
cargo, the power and strength and value of it all.

On the other side—the simplicity of the humble little craft, the
simplicity of the fisher-folk, the simplicity of the life of the
fishing village.

Both were ships to go down to the sea, and yet how different.

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