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Alexander Bell Filson Young (1876–1938) was a journalist, who published the first book about the sinking of the RMS Titanic, called Titanic, published in 1912 only 37 days after the sinking. He was also an essayist, war correspondent in the Boer War and World War I, a programmes advisor to the BBC, and the author of two novels. Beside his literary work, he was an organist and composer, and a pioneer of motoring and aviation.
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Arcadia Ebooks 2016
Copyright © 1912 Filson Young
I will not conceal his parts, nor his power, nor his comely proportion. His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal. One is so near to another, that no air can come between them. They are joined one to another, they stick together, that they cannot be sundered. Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out. Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or caldron. His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth. The flakes of his flesh are joined together; they are firm in themselves; they cannot be moved. He maketh the deep to boil like a pot; he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment. He maketh a path to shine after him; one would think the deep to be hoary. Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear. He beholdeth all high things; he is a king over all the children of pride.
If you enter Belfast Harbour early in the morning on the mail steamer from Fleetwood you will see far ahead of you a smudge of smoke. At first it is nothing but the apex of a great triangle formed by the heights on one side, the green wooded shores on the other, and the horizon astern. As you go on the triangle becomes narrower, the blue waters smoother, and the ship glides on in a triangle of her own—a triangle of white foam that is parallel to the green triangle of the shore. Behind you the Copeland Lighthouse keeps guard over the sunrise and the tumbling surges of the Channel, before you is the cloud of smoke that joins the narrowing shores like a gray canopy; and there is no sound but the rush of foam past the ship’s side.
You seem to be making straight for a gray mud flat; but as you approach you see a narrow lane of water opening in the mud and shingle. Two low banks, like the banks of a canal, thrust out their ends into the waters of the lough; and presently, her speed reduced to dead slow, the ship enters between these low mud banks, which are called the Twin Islands. So narrow is the lane that as she enters the water rises on the shingle banks and flows in waves on either side of her like two gray horses with white manes that canter slowly along, a solemn escort, until the channel between the islands is passed. Day and night, winter and summer, these two gray horses are always waiting; no ship ever surprises them asleep; no ship enters but they rise up and shake their manes and accompany her with their flowing, cantering motion along the confines of their territory. And when you have passed the gates that they guard you are in Belfast Harbour, in still and muddy water that smells of the land and not of the sea; for you seem already to be far from the things of the sea.
As you have entered the narrow channel a new sound, also far different from the liquid sounds of the sea, falls on your ear; at first a low sonorous murmuring like the sound of bees in a giant hive, that rises to a ringing continuous music—the multitudinous clamour of thousands of blows of metal on metal. And turning to look whence the sound arises you seem indeed to have left the last of the things of the sea behind you; for on your left, on the flattest of the mud flats, arises a veritable forest of iron; a leafless forest, of thousands upon thousands of bare rusty trunks and branches that tower higher than any forest trees in our land, and look like the ruins of some giant grove submerged by the sea in the brown autumn of its life, stripped of its leaves and laid bare again, the dead and rusty remnants of a forest. There is nothing with any broad or continuous surface—only thousands and thousands of iron branches with the gray sky and the smoke showing through them everywhere, giant cobwebs hanging between earth and the sky, intricate, meaningless networks of trunks and branches and sticks and twigs of iron.
But as you glide nearer still you see that the forest is not lifeless, nor its branches deserted. From the bottom to the topmost boughs it is crowded with a life that at first seems like that of mites in the interstices of some rotting fabric, and then like birds crowding the branches of the leafless forest, and finally appears as a multitude of pigmy men swarming and toiling amid the skeleton iron structures that are as vast as cathedrals and seem as frail as gossamer. It is from them that the clamour arises, the clamour that seemed so gentle and musical a mile away, and that now, as you come closer, grows strident and deafening. Of all the sounds produced by man’s labour in the world this sound of a great shipbuilding yard is the most painful. Only the harshest materials and the harshest actions are engaged in producing it: iron struck upon iron, or steel smitten upon steel, or steel upon iron, or iron upon steel—that and nothing else, day in, day out, year in and year out, a million times a minute. It is an endless, continuous birth-agony, that should herald the appearance of some giant soul. And great indeed should be the overture to such an agony; for it is here that of fire and steel, and the sweat and pain of millions of hours of strong men’s labour, were born those two giant children that were destined by man finally to conquer the sea.
In this awful womb the Titanic took shape. For months and months in that monstrous iron enclosure there was nothing that had the faintest likeness to a ship; only something that might have been the iron scaffolding for the naves of half-a-dozen cathedrals laid end to end. Far away, furnaces were smelting thousands and thousands of tons of raw material that finally came to this place in the form of great girders and vast lumps of metal, huge framings, hundreds of miles of stays and rods and straps of steel, thousands of plates, not one of which twenty men could lift unaided; millions of rivets and bolts—all the heaviest and most sinkable things in the world. And still nothing in the shape of a ship that could float upon the sea. The seasons followed each other, the sun rose now behind the heights of Carrickfergus and now behind the Copeland Islands; daily the ships came in from fighting with the boisterous seas, and the two gray horses cantered beside them as they slid between the islands; daily the endless uproar went on, and the tangle of metal beneath the cathedral scaffolding grew denser. A great road of steel, nearly a quarter of a mile long, was laid at last—a road so heavy and so enduring that it might have been built for the triumphal progress of some giant railway train. Men said that this roadway was the keel of a ship; but you could not look at it and believe them.
The scaffolding grew higher; and as it grew the iron branches multiplied and grew with it, higher and higher towards the sky, until it seemed as though man were rearing a temple which would express all he knew of grandeur and sublimity, and all he knew of solidity and permanence—something that should endure there, rooted to the soil of Queen’s Island for ever. The uproar and the agony increased. In quiet studios and offices clear brains were busy with drawings and calculations and subtle elaborate mathematical processes, sifting and applying the tabulated results of years of experience. The drawings came in time to the place of uproar; were magnified and subdivided and taken into grimy workshops; and steam-hammers and steam-saws smote and ripped at the brute metal, to shape it in accordance with the shapes on the paper. And still the ships, big and little, came nosing in from the high seas—little dusty colliers from the Tyne, and battered schooners from the coast, and timber ships from the Baltic, and trim mail steamers, and giants of the ocean creeping in wounded for succour—all solemnly received by the twin gray horses and escorted to their stations in the harbour. But the greatest giant of all that came in, which dwarfed everything else visible to the eye, was itself dwarfed to insignificance by the great cathedral building on the island.
The seasons passed; the creatures who wrought and clambered among the iron branches, and sang their endless song of labour there, felt the steel chill beneath the frosts of winter, and burning hot beneath the sun’s rays in summer, until at last the skeleton within the scaffolding began to take a shape, at the sight of which men held their breaths. It was the shape of a ship, a ship so monstrous and unthinkable that it towered high over the buildings and dwarfed the very mountains beside the water. It seemed like some impious blasphemy that man should fashion this most monstrous and ponderable of all his creations into the likeness of a thing that could float upon the yielding waters. And still the arms swung and the hammers rang, the thunder and din continued, and the gray horses shook their manes and cantered along beneath the shadow, and led the little ships in from the sea and out again as though no miracle were about to happen.
A little more than its own length of water lay between the iron forest and the opposite shore, in which to loose this tremendous structure from its foundations and slide it into the sea. The thought that it should ever be moved from its place, except by an earthquake, was a thought that the mind could not conceive, nor could anyone looking at it accept the possibility that by any method this vast tonnage of metal could be borne upon the surface of the waters. Yet, like an evil dream, as it took the shape of a giant ship, all the properties of a ship began to appear and increase in hideous exaggeration. A rudder as big as a giant elm tree, bosses and bearings of propellers the size of a windmill—everything was on a nightmare scale; and underneath the iron foundations of the cathedral floor men were laying on concrete beds pavements of oak and great cradles of timber and iron, and sliding ways of pitch pine to support the bulk of the monster when she was moved, every square inch of the pavement surface bearing a weight of more than two tons. Twenty tons of tallow were spread upon the ways, and hydraulic rams and triggers built and fixed against the bulk of the ship so that, when the moment came, the waters she was to conquer should thrust her finally from earth.
And the time did come. The branching forest became clothed and thick with leaves of steel. Within the scaffoldings now towered the walls of the cathedral, and what had been a network of girders and cantilevers and gantries and bridges became a building with floors, a ship with decks. The skeleton ribs became covered with skins of wood, the metal decks clothed with planks smooth as a ball-room floor. What had been a building of iron became a town, with miles of streets and hundreds of separate houses and buildings in it. The streets were laid out; the houses were decorated and furnished with luxuries such as no palace ever knew.
And then, while men held their breath, the whole thing moved, moved bodily, obedient to the tap of the imprisoned waters in the ram. There was no christening ceremony such as celebrates the launching of lesser ships. Only the waters themselves dared to give the impulse that should set this monster afloat. The waters touched the cradle, and the cradle moved on the ways, carrying the ship down towards the waters. And when the cradle stopped the ship moved on; slowly at first, then with a movement that grew quicker until it increased to the speed of a fast-trotting horse, touching the waters, dipping into them, cleaving them, forcing them asunder in waves and ripples that fled astonished to the surrounding shores; finally resting and floating upon them, while thousands of the pigmy men who had roosted in the bare iron branches, who had raised the hideous clamour amid which the giant was born, greeted their handiwork, dropped their tools, and raised their hoarse voices in a cheer.
The miracle had happened. And the day came when the two gray horses were summoned to their greatest task; when, with necks proudly arched and their white manes flung higher than ever, they escorted the Titanic between the islands out to sea.
At noon on Wednesday, 10th April 1912, the Titanic started from Southampton on her maiden voyage. Small enough was her experience of the sea before that day. Many hands had handled her; many tugs had fussed about her, pulling and pushing her this way and that as she was manœuvred in the waters of Belfast Lough and taken out to the entrance to smell the sea. There she had been swung and her compasses adjusted. Three or four hours had sufficed for her trial trip, and she had first felt her own power in the Irish Sea, when all her new machinery working together, at first with a certain reserve and diffidence, had tested and tried its various functions, and she had come down through St. George’s Channel and round by the Lizard, and past the Eddystone and up the Solent to Southampton Water, feeling a little hustled and strange, no doubt, but finding this business of ploughing the seas surprisingly easy after all. And now, on the day of sailing, amid the cheers of a crowd unusually vast even for Southampton Docks, the largest ship in the world slid away from the deep-water jetty to begin her sea life in earnest.
In the first few minutes her giant powers made themselves felt. As she was slowly gathering way she passed the liner New York, another ocean monarch, which was lying like a rock moored by seven great hawsers of iron and steel. As the Titanic passed, some mysterious compelling influence of the water displaced by her vast bulk drew the New York towards her; snapped one by one the great steel hawsers and pulled the liner from the quayside as though she had been a cork. Not until she was within fifteen feet of the Titanic, when a collision seemed imminent, did the ever-present tugs lay hold of her and haul her back to captivity.
Even to the most experienced traveller the first few hours on a new ship are very confusing; in the case of a ship like this, containing the population of a village, they are bewildering. So the eight hours spent by the Titanic in crossing from Southampton to Cherbourg would be spent by most of her passengers in taking their bearings, trying to find their way about and looking into all the wonders of which the voyage made them free. There were luxuries enough in the second class, and comforts enough in the third to make the ship a wonder on that account alone; but it was the first-class passengers, used as they were to all the extravagant luxuries of modern civilized life, on whom the discoveries of that first day of sun and wind in the Channel must have come with the greatest surprise. They had heard the ship described as a floating hotel; but as they began to explore her they must have found that she contained resources of a perfection unattained by any hotel, and luxuries of a kind unknown in palaces. The beauties of French chateaux and of English country-houses of the great period had been dexterously combined with that supreme form of comfort which the modern English and Americans have raised to the dignity of a fine art. Such a palace as a great artist, a great epicure, a great poet and the most spoilt and pampered woman in the world might have conjured up from their imagination in an idle hour was here materialized and set, not in a fixed landscape of park and woodland, but on the dustless road of the sea, with the sunshine of an English April pouring in on every side, and the fresh salt airs of the Channel filling every corner with tonic oxygen.
Catalogues of marvels and mere descriptions of wonders are tiresome reading, and produce little effect on the mind; yet if we are to realize the full significance of this story of the Titanic, we must begin as her passengers began, with an impression of the lavish luxury and beauty which was the setting of life on board. And we can do no better than follow in imagination the footsteps of one ideal voyager as he must have discovered, piece by piece, the wonders of this floating pleasure house.
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