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Life on a cable-ship would be a lotus-eating dream were it not for the cable. But the cable, like the Commissariat cam-u-el in Mr. Kipling’s “Oonts,” is—
“—a devil an’ a ostrich an’ a orphan child in one.”
Whether we are picking it up, or paying it out; whether it is lying inert, coil upon coil, in the tanks like some great gorged anaconda, or gliding along the propelling machinery into some other tank, or off into the sea at our bow or stern; whether the dynamometer shows its tension to be great or small; whether we are grappling for it, or underrunning it; whether it is a shore
end to be landed, or a deep-sea splice to be made, the cable is sure to develop most alarming symptoms, and some learned doctor must constantly sit in the testing-room, his finger on the cable’s pulse, taking its temperature from time to time as if it were a fractious child with a bad attack of measles, the eruption in this case being faults or breaks or leakages or kinks.
The difficulty discovered, it must be localized. A hush falls over the ship. Down to the testing room go the experts. Seconds, minutes, hours crawl by. At last some one leaves the consultation for a brief space, frowning heavily and apparently deep in thought. No one dares address him, or ask the questions all are longing to have answered, and when his lips move silently we know that he is muttering over galvanometer readings to himself. During this time everyone talks in whispers, and not always intelligently, of the electrostatic capacity of the cable, absolute resistances, and the coefficients of correction, while the youngest member of the expedition neglects her beloved poodle, sonorously yclept “Snobbles,” and no longer hangs him head downward over the ship’s rail.
At last the fault is discovered, cut out, and a splice made, the tests showing the cable as good as new, whereupon the women return to their chiffons, the child to her games, and the men, not on duty, to their cigars, until the cessation of noise from the cable machinery, or the engine-room bell signalling “full speed astern” warns us something else may be amiss.
In the testing room, that Holy of Holies on board a cable-ship, the fate of the Burnside hangs upon a tiny, quivering spark of light thrown upon the scale by the galvanometer’s mirror. If this light jumps from side to side, or trembles nervously, or perhaps disappears entirely from the scale, our experts know the cable needs attention, and perhaps the ship will have to stop for hours at a time until the fault is located. If the trouble is not in the tanks, the paying-out machinery must be metamorphosed into a picking-up apparatus, and the cable already laid will be coiled back into the hold until the fault appears, when it will be cut out and the two ends of cable spliced. After this splice grows quite cool, tests are taken, and if they prove satisfactory, we again resume our paying out, knowing that while the spot
of light on the galvanometer remains quietly in one position, the cable being laid is electrically sound, and we can proceed without interruption.