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It was the reverend gentleman of whom I have before spoken a little, fidgety man, an intriguing Yankee; one of those ministers who exercise such a powerful influence over the States of New England. His sermon was already prepared, the occasion was good, and he intended to make use of it. Would not the good Yorrick have done the same? I looked at Dean Pitferge; the Doctor did not frown, but seemed inclined to try the preacher's zeal.
The 'Great Eastern' was freighted to the amount of 25,000 francs a month. Two contracts were arranged with G. Forrester and Co., of Liverpool, the first to the amount of 538,750 francs, for making new boilers for the screw; the second to the amount of 662,500 francs for general repairs, and fixings on board.
The sea was magnificent and resplendent beneath the first rays of a spring sun; not a sail in sight. The 'Great Eastern' occupied alone the centre of the immense expanse. At ten o'clock the bell on deck tolled slowly and at regular intervals; the ringer, who was a steersman, dressed in his best, managed to obtain from this bell a kind of solemn, religious tone, instead of the metallic peals with which it accompanied the whistling of the boilers, when the ship was surrounded by fog. Involuntarily one looked for the village steeple which was calling to prayer.
Thus the reason for rearranging the ship to this purpose, and the consequent necessity of filling up the tanks and replacing the boilers, of enlarging the saloons in which so many people were to live during the voyage, and of building extra dining saloons, finally the arrangement of a thousand berths in the sides of the gigantic hull.
The lines of the 'Great Eastern' are very elongated; her straight stem is pierced with hawse-holes, through which the anchor-chains pass; no signs of dents or protuberances are to be seen on her finely-cut bows, but the slight sweep of her rounded stern somewhat mars the general effect.
All the crew were in full uniform, and dressed with extreme propriety. I should not have been surprised to see the stokers working in black clothes; the officers and engineers wore their finest uniforms, with gilt buttons; their shoes shone with a British lustre, and rivalled their glazed hats with an intense irradiation. All these good people seemed to have hats and boots of a dazzling brightness. The Captain and the first officer set the example, and with new gloves and military attire, glittering and perfumed, they paced up and down the bridges awaiting the hour for service.
The engine-rooms were full of steam; leaning over the hatchway, enveloped in a hot mist, I could see nothing, but I heard the long pistons groaning, and the huge cylinders noisily swaying to and fro on their solid swing blocks. The muddy waters of the Mersey were lashed into foam by the slowly revolving paddle-wheels; at the stern, the screw beat the waves with its four blades; the two engines, entirely independent of each other, were in complete working order.
It is an immense depression of the land filled with water, in fact nothing more than a hole, the depth of which allows it to receive ships of the heaviest tonnage, such as the 'Great Eastern,' to which almost every other port in the world is closed. Thanks to this natural condition, the streams of the Thames and the Mersey have seen two immense commercial cities, London and Liverpool, built almost at their mouths, and from a similar cause has Glasgow arisen on the Clyde.
The steamer's course had been slightly altered in the night, three times the ship, being in water twenty-seven degrees Fahrenheit that is to say, five degrees below zero, had been turned towards the south. There was no longer any doubt of icebergs being very near, for the sky that morning had a peculiarly brilliant aspect; the atmosphere was misty, and the northern sky glittered with an intense reverberation, evidently produced by the powerful reflection from the icebergs.
In four days, at the latest, the 'Great Eastern' must reach New York harbour; therefore we might hope that accident would not dally with our watchfulness, and that Fabian would not discover Ellen during this time; but we made our calculations without thinking of events.
At half-past ten the Captain rose, and the service began; he read a chapter from the Old Testament. After each verse the congregation murmured the one following; the shrill soprano voices of the women and children distinctly separate from the baritone of the men. This Biblical dialogue lasted for about half-an-hour, and the simple, at the same time impressive ceremony, was performed with a puritanical gravity.
The spectators hurried towards the unfortunate men, the wounded were taken to the hospital at the stern; as for the four already dead, preparations were immediately made to send them on shore: so lightly do Anglo-Saxons regard death, that this event made very little impression on board. These unhappy men, killed and wounded, were only tools, which could be replaced at very little expense. The tender, already some distance off, was hailed, and in a few minutes she was alongside.
But my imagination carried me no farther; all these things I did indeed see during the passage, and many others which do not exclusively belong to the maritime domain. If the 'Great Eastern' is not merely a nautical engine, but rather a microcosm, and carries a small world with it, an observer will not be astonished to meet here, as on a larger theatre, all the instincts, follies, and passions of human nature.
On Wednesday night the weather was very bad, my balance was strangely variable, and I was obliged to lean with my knees and elbows against the sideboard, to prevent myself from falling. Portmanteaus and bags came in and out of my cabin; an unusual hubbub reigned in the adjoining saloon, in which two or three hundred packages were making expeditions from one end to the other, knocking the tables and chairs with loud crashes; doors slammed, the boards creaked, the partitions made that groaning noise peculiar to pine wood; bottles and glasses jingled together in their racks, and a cataract of plates and dishes rolled about on the pantry floors.
At Prince's Landing-Stage, a small tug in the service of the 'Great Eastern' was getting up steam. I went on board and found it already crowded with workmen and mechanics. As the clock in Victoria Tower struck seven, the tender left her moorings and quickly ascended the Mersey with the rising tide.