The modest tug cabin was crowded to twice normal capacity by the time the last skiff load of men came onboard. The new arrivals were giddy with the revived hope of going home. Although the two crews spoke different languages, the presence of new faces after 18 months of isolation proved to be tirelessly fascinating for the rescued party. The tug’s crew was thrilled yet stood off somewhat from the new arrivals. Living in harsh elements, unwashed for almost a year, these men, unshaved in their greasy clothes looked more savage than civilized. Ultimately their unfettered joy was irresistible and the steamer crew pleasantly accepted the rescued men’s stares and senseless chatter as they set about their jobs in getting the cutter away from impending danger and back to Chile.
Those crew not immediately engaged either kept watch at the prow or politely stood by leaving all the galley tables and chairs that this ill suited boat could offer for use by the rescued men. They watched in silent amusement as many of the ragged, emaciated men cradled a lit cigarette in one hand while drinking and eating with the other, these being their first tobacco and spirits for 10 months. Their elation was only mitigated by the news of the madness in Europe and the continuing war with its millions of dead. Wolsley was on the bridge with Captain Pardo, binoculars at hand, watching for ice, while The Boss, after watching the men eat slipped off to the captain’s quarters to write a letter to his wife.
For the rescued men, it all happed very fast. A couple hours earlier they were routinely listless and despondent, doubtful if a living soul knew they were still alive. Now they had eaten their first good food in months and were reading mail and recent newspapers. Rickinson sat at the table with his comrades, cigarette and empty glass in hand. The unfamiliarity of the enclosure with its painted industrial walls, hung with kerosene lamps, was numbingly welcome. More dream-like than real. Even this simple workplace décor was cognitive overload after the oppressive bleakness and unrelenting cold of that barren rocky Antarctic island. Here was sanctuary among the common products of civilization inside the relative luxury of the Chillan cutter.
Yet it all seemed almost too familiar, like the dreams he had often had after the loss of the Endurance. But this was finally real, though possibly not. By some horror he might be startled awake by the thunderous crack of splitting sea ice to find he was again in the hut, with the merciless wind blowing pebbles and ice into his sleeping bag through chinks in the shelter’s rock wall. Would he ever be able to sleep again without nightmares of the howling gales that lasted for days or the monotonous sound of the waves lapping the rocky spit.
He looked around. Some of his crew were now helping the cook, Charlie Green, prepare their meal of lamb, potatoes, and dumplings with onion. Rickinson had washed his face and hands but was ordered by The Boss, along with the others, not to cut his hair or beard, which were still matted and black with seal and penguin grease. Something about publicity.
He moved to the stern now, standing alone he watched the receding ocean, still clear of pack ice, flow ice or bergs. But the sea was getting heavy and a change in the wind could bring the ice back with vengeance. He lit another cigarette and was quickly mesmerized by the trailing wake. Still something unsettling stirred in his brain. Something previously important that was now immediate and real. The deck vibrated under his shoes. There was music playing somewhere. A regular bass note and numerous sympathetic notes spinning within. It slowly filled his being with a yet undefined awareness. A familiar ubiquitous vibration beckoning from a past existence. He looked up to see the stars and noticed a trail of gray smoke that tracked nearly opposite their motion, dissipating over the water’s white foam wake.
Abruptly he turned away leaving his empty glass, a half-consumed cigarette protruded from his tangle of whiskers. He stepped knowingly toward his destination, walking toward the bow, along the narrow planking which passed between the cabin and the gunwale. The moon was gibbous and lit the foam tops of the rising sea. He continued forward until he found a door penetrating the cabin side. He opened it looking down into the dimly lit bowels of the cutter. Even without light the atmosphere was unmistakable. The smell of sulfur, the grating rhythm of the shovels, the perfume of steam and hot oil all blended to form a wonderful familiarity. He climbed down the steel companionway and moved past the firemen who paused, leaning on their shovels in the firebox glow to curiously note his presence before resuming their subterranean task.
The engine room, aft the boiler, was impressively clean. A testament to the discipline of the chief engineer who stood carefully tapping the governor control lever with an open end wrench while noting the rpm’s before recording the boiler level and steam pressure. His duties tonight were more pressing than usual. Far from safe harbor he had over 500 miles of treacherous ocean to steam in order to attain the safe landing of the renowned crew of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
Rickinson found the engine room to be gloriously warm and soothing. He removed his Burberry and knitted navy cap for the first time in recent memory. The engine, he noted, was running at top speed but not under full power. He noted the valve action, closing early in the piston stroke, conserving the steam entering the cylinders yet maintaining rated speed. His trained eye swept the scene. There was nothing unusual, the occasional drip of hot water from gate valve stems, the periodic whiffs of steam from the valve boxes, and a faint mist of pressure and lubricating oil escaping from the high pressure cylinder packing glands. Brass oilers dripped their amber contents on precise joints while oiled wicks meticulously doled protective lubricant to constantly moving parts. The Corliss valve gear clicked the rhythm like a maniacal orchestra conductor. It was a carnival of motion and sound. The steel and brass crossheads silently tracked on their oily guides, the polished piston rods extending powerfully and precisely through their bushings, then retracting the full stroke length and repeating this every second like monstrous clockwork. The massive segmented flywheels with radiating spokes each nearly as tall as Rickinson spun with silent authority from the combined effort of this orchestrated system.
He ran his fingers across the raised letters on the cast iron frame “Muir & Houston, Glasgow”. He now knew with certainty that this was no dream, as this was more detail then even his engineer’s mind could conjure. Precision beyond his recollection, thoughtful, calculated design beyond his ken. This was real. The culmination of generations of inspired genius, building one improvement upon the other. This was the crowning achievement of enlightened civilization, the hearth of the industrial revolution. He basked in its radiance and the spirit of its powerful breath filled his soul, as victuals alone could not.
Just as medieval cathedrals prominently announced the engineering achievements of their day so this pulsing and breathing creature no less majestically heralded the achievements of modern man. He stood by the heat of the compound cylinders and swore he would never forsake it again. He humbly appreciated that this engine alone, this hulking savior, conceived and built in Glasgow, twisting this propeller shaft with more force and tireless dependability than three hundred straining oarsmen, was delivering him home. Back home to the Great Britain from where they both originated. “If you believe this to be the Devils work, let my soul be damned. After this bitter campaign some time in Hell mightn’t be that undesirable” he spoke to the straining clamor of machinery.
Manuel Blackwood, one of the engineers, saw Rickinson standing, transfixed near the compound cylinders. Even if they had had a common language, the steel hull amplified the operating engine noise enough to discourage casual conversation. Yet conversation proved unnecessary. Manuel handed him his long necked oilcan and rag then followed Rickinson around the engine as he pumped the thumb lever filling each oiler until it was topped off. Then, without provocation, Rickinson’s hand began shaking uncontrollably. Manuel took the oilcan then deftly pulled a clean rag from his coveralls pocket, wiping the spilled oil from the brass and glass oiler housing. He then helped Rickinson to a nearby wooden chair along the bulkhead. The rush of sea water directly beyond the hull was ominously palpable. After sitting him down Manuel stooped and moved in and with an affectionate tone spoke something close to his ear in Spanish. Rickinson was calmed by his words as if he understood and he smiled back and nodded at his companion’s kindness. The meaning, at that moment, did not matter, as they each knew what both understood.