Greece - Over The Aegean Sea
( Originally Published 1936 )
From the Messageries Maritime had not changed a sailing date I should have missed the interesting experience of a voyage to Constantinople on the so Abassieh. When I learned that the French boat was no longer available and that we had been transferred to the Egyptian Khedivial Line I had misgivings. My friend, Mr. C. H. Cuno, of Meriden, had lately returned from these waters and he had told me that first class in the Near East was equivalent to a poor third else-where. I wondered, too, whether the Egyptians were as careful about cleanliness and sanitation as their competitors. In almost everything I was happily surprised. The Abassieh is old and a little shabby, but her hospitable British officers and her cosmopolitan passenger list made the voyage amusing.
We went down to the Pirxus on the electric rail-way and there was a considerable drive through the crowded town before we reached the docks. Our ship lay out a few hundred feet, but the intervening waters were crowded with boats which had to be separated by mingled force and persuasion. Amid the garrulous, excited Levantines on the quay stood a solitary Indian, wearing a scarlet puggree, a blue blouse and tight white breeches. The ends of his black beard were tucked under a rubber band that ran across his chin. There he stood, detached and inscrutable, unmoved by the clamor around him.
This man was the personal servant of the Rajah of Mandi, who traveled with us to Constantinople. I first saw the young prince in the smoking room, surrounded by his entourage, which included the Major and Mrs. Percy Toulman and an accomplished British aide. I really heard the Rajah before I saw him, for his voice is pitched rather high and he has the Christ Church accent. " I shall have to go by the P. and O.," he was saying, " for I must be in Bombay by Christmas." Inasmuch as Christmas was then nine months distant it was apparent that he was not in haste.
My curiosity was mildly stimulated and I asked Mr. Cavaghan, the first officer, if he knew the traveler.
"Only that he is some Indian prince," he answered. " I do not know what state he is from, but I can say that he travels in good style. He has seven of the best rooms on the ship and nearly canceled because we could not give him nine. No doubt you have noticed his valet standing around. He keeps a good eye on his master, and I believe he stands before his door all night."
The object of these attentions was a small, pock-marked young man of brown complexion and modestly dressed. He came from the Punjab, not far from Kashmir, whence a fellow Rajah had journeyed forth a couple of years before to be blackmailed out of a half million dollars and to figure as the mysterious " Mr. A." in one of the most notable criminal cases ever before the London courts.
It was obvious that precautions were taken to see that no such misfortune befell this young man, though his superior instincts probably made them unnecessary. He was an agreeable and intelligent companion and he was taking his travel seriously. After dinner he brought his large collection of photographs into the smoking room and explained them to us. The pictures were made in Egypt, Jerusalem and Baalbek. They were more than one hundred in number and there were no inscriptions on their backs. He instantly identified every scene and was familiar with its history. As we turned over the pictures the Indian stood at the door, immobile and expressionless as the Sphinx.
We should have sailed at 5:30 P. M., but when that hour arrived two big lighters were still tied to our side and the process of loading twenty-seven Willys motor cars was not half concluded. An Egyptian in a red fez was running the donkey engine, and his work was difficult. The hatch was only a few inches longer than the crates and half-way down the hold bags of flour projected. When the corner of a crate touched a bag it let loose a powdery shower on the men working below.
As each crate was lifted water poured from the top. The cars had been left standing on the dock during a heavy rain and the tar paper that covered them contained miniature lakes. Mr. Cavaghan was overseeing the loading. "Those cars came all the way from America without damage," he said, "and now see what has happened here. We are taking no responsibility, for we would accept them only on a bad condition receipt. I don't know why they are sending any more American cars up to Bucharest. During the last three trips I have seen more than a hundred Fords standing out in the rain on the docks at Constanza. I understand that the agent in Rumania got into some financial trouble and that the cars I speak of are tied up by litigation. One thing is certain. If they stay where they are much longer they won't be worth much to anybody."
We relieved the tedium by inspecting the ships around us. The United States Destroyer Sharkey lay near-by, looking smart and capable, the careless young jackies lounging about her deck. The sound of the bagpipes floated across the water. On a British freighter the piper was parading the deck, followed by his dog. I heard this man again as we were leaving Constantinople. He.must be a well-known figure in the harbors of the Near East.
Darkness came on and we went to dinner. There were more than one hundred passengers in the first class and they represented many nations. Bluff old Captain Finlay presided at the largest table, and he was as the father of a large and congenial family. His ruddy face emanated good cheer and no ship ever had a more genial skipper. He kept his end of the table entertained with many yarns. At the other end MacDonald, the chief engineer, proved the most loquacious of Scotsmen. Around him was a company of young girls, who proved good listeners, and he had them in a continuous uproar.
After dinner I said to him:
"Mr. MacDonald, you had a nice audience this evening."
"Oh, that is nothing. We get all classes here. Why, the last trip I had two ladies beside me, and we chatted as f ree and lively as you please. And who do you suppose they turned out to be? One of them was the sister-in-law of the Princess Mary and the other was the sister of Lord Balfour."
From the manner in which Mr. MacDonald brought up the subject I thought he was going to tell me that they were two adventuresses just out of Pentonville.
I think as many as twenty nations must have been represented in the dining saloon. As for ourselves we had only Germans and French, but I saw around me Italians, Spaniards, Swedes, Egyptians, Turks, Syrians and the inevitable party of Japanese. The German family sitting next spoke little English, but tried to be agreeable. The daughter was one of the largest, most heroic looking girls I ever saw—a veritable Brunnehilde. At every entrance and departure we exchanged most ceremonious bows, but in the interval conversation lagged.
There was a scarcity of public rooms on the old-fashioned ship, and the really industrious passengers passed the evening in the dining room, where the tables were cleared for reading and writing. Preferring the company of the frivolous we went to the crowded smoke room. There was excellent chess in progress. Time sometimes drags in sailing the eastern seas and the Captain and the Greek ship doctor had become quite expert. The Rajah's military aide played a strong game, too, always to the accompaniment of ejaculations in alternate French and English, or the humming of " We have no bananas." The real master was the Syrian merchant, from Alexandria, who though a small man, carried with him a wife of unthinkable fatness who wore jewels that weighed almost as much as her husband. He was well-known on the boat, which he frequently used in going back and forth from his summer home on Prince's Island. Perhaps this is why he took so many liberties.
Every chess player knows how hard it is to keep silent while others play. The Syrian could not control his inhibitions when mistakes were made and was free with suggestions while the Captain played. Finally the seaman could endure it no longer. Rising from his chair he tendered it to the intruder. "You play the game. Please take my place. You are playing it anyhow, so why not make yourself comfort-able? " The static then subsided and play was resumed without further interruption. This same merchant was skilled in many games. From chess he would change to bridge and from bridge to back-gammon, and all he did remarkably well.
The evening was well on when we got under way and meantime the weather had changed for the worse. The rain fell slowly and there was a dense fog. We nosed slowly into the fairway, for it was a ticklish business. The waters were crowded and whistles were sounding on every quarter. A few miles out the fog lifted and the stars shone. Captain Fin-lay then told me of a nautical joke he had just played:
" It was a little tight back there. I counted the signals of twelve ships around us. One Greek was very close and he was careless with his signals, so I thought I would give him a scare. We have a steam whistle and an air siren on the ship and I ordered them to be sounded alternately. The fellow thought he had two ships right on top of him, and after that he made plenty of noise."
As the evening wore on the Rajah sent down for his phonograph and we all went on deck. While " M " and Mrs. Toulman taught the young potentate Charleston steps, Major Toulman and I talked things over. He was a typical Anglo-Indian officer, with twenty years of Indian experience and seventeen trips out to his credit.
"The last time I came through the Red Sea I was comfortable for the first time. I have gone back and forth at all seasons and never before did I find it anything but red hot. Usually there is no such thing as sleep in one's room. A blanket on a hatch is the best bed. I remember one afternoon when I went down to my room for something. Accidentally I put my hand on the frame of my port hole and it raised a blister.
"I have never been in the States," he continued reflectively, " though I always thought I would like to see them. But you have prohibition over there now and I don't know if I will ever go. They tell me that you can't even get a whiskey and soda. Why, if I couldn't get a whiskey and soda I'd die. Yes, by God, I'd die." Thereupon the Major called a deck steward and prolonged his life another day.
"India is a great country, and her only enemies are the native politicians. These agitators are always at work; but the fact remains that everything worth while that they have out there they owe to the British. Our presence is the only thing that keeps the Hindus and Mohammedans from flying at one an-other's throats and plunging the whole show into blood. Furthermore, if the people only knew it, we are all that stand between the common people and oppression. It is our political agents who keep the native princes in order and I have straightened out more than one myself. The extravagance and heartlessness of some of them is beyond belief. I have known one who was spending a half million pounds a year on his own pleasures, but had not paid his army, his civil staff and even his household servants for two years. It is that sort of thing that we will not tolerate. One thing I can tell you for a certainty. If the day ever comes when our troops leave India, on that same day every ruling prince, like our young friend here, will see his throne fall and his estates confiscated. Nothing would be easier than to throw all India into chaos, and the greatest sufferers of all would be the great mass of more than three hundred million illiterate people whom the agitators now seek to lead to their own destruction. For their sake I hope the day I speak of never comes."
Next morning there' was opportunity to learn something of the old ship and her staff. The Abassieh was nearing the end of her career in this trade and was to retire, full of years and honors. A plate in the companionway told the story of her war service-98,882 miles steamed and 192,876 troops transported without the loss of a single man. In other respects than her immunity from German submarines and Turkish torpedoes she was a lucky boat. She had come out from many scrapes in which, by all the laws of chance, she should have been lost.
"I was on her once when she grounded in the Straits of Messina," said Mr. Cavaghan. " The sea was high and she would soon have pounded to pieces. We sent a wireless for help, but before a half-hour had passed a French destroyer came along and pulled us off. All it cost us was a gift of three hundred pounds to the crew, as warships cannot accept salvage money. We were a hundred miles away when we met the salvage boat coming out to us. If she had put a line over our side it would have cost the P. and 0. Company at least eighty thousand pounds. It was just another case of the luck that was always with us on this ship."
Coming out of Constantinople a few days later we saw a British freighter aground on the Marmora side of the Stamboul headland. She had gone in too close in the mists of early morning and jammed her nose into a mud bank. A British tug was beside her, and a Turkish salvage boat was coming up. We heard later that there was a great row over the salvage money, the Turks contending that the ship was still in harbor waters, where only Turkish boats have the privilege of salvaging. I suppose the issue is still being fought out in some admiralty court.
"I have been trading in these waters a good many years now," said Captain Finlay. " I began as a very young man, and once I thought I was going to live in your state. I had just been married and a rich American woman, who was traveling on my ship, took a fancy to me. She lived in Cleveland and her husband had recently died, leaving her the owner of a fleet of lake boats. She offered me three times the money I was making if I would come to Cleveland and operate them. My wife and I talked it all over and I decided to accept. She went back to America and I never heard of her again. My son had a similar experience not long ago. A passenger offered him a fine berth in New York and he agreed to take it. That was all that came of the affair and it was a keen disappointment to the boy. People make many promises when they travel, and I find that it is well not to take them too seriously.
"The cargo we get in the Black Sea consists mainly of oil, wheat, tobacco and potatoes, and we carry in a general line of manufactured goods. There is no manufacturing worth mentioning in the east and all the merchandise used comes by sea. The railroads are both few and bad, and they give us little competition.
" Look at that, for example," he continued. " Do you recognize that ship? It is from the Great Lakes of America. You can always spot them from the fact that they have the bridge so far forward. Quite a number of them were brought over here during the war, and they never returned, but remained here in the coastwise trade. They are fairly seaworthy and they stand up in our bad winters, for we have plenty of gales and ice in midwinter.
"Trading here is not so pleasant as it was before the war. The Turks are the worst to do business with. Monopolies are the curse of the country. They have a monopoly in sugar, a monopoly in oil, a monopoly in tobacco, a monopoly in matches, a monopoly in spirits and now they have granted a monopoly in gambling. Monopolies and taxes will be their ruin if they keep on their present path. I now hear that the Dutch syndicate that bought the spirits monopoly is nearly bankrupt. The Koran forbids alcohol, but the people are not so religious as they used to be, particularly around Constantinople. Still the Dutchmen overestimated the demand and paid too much. I understand that they did not meet their last payment to the Government."
The voyage from Athens -to Constantinople re-quires thirty-six hours. We had passed Chios and steamed through the straits between Andros and Eubcoa early in the night. In the early afternoon we skirted Lemnos, Tenedos and the small Rabbit Islands and saw in the distance the heights of Samothrace. Far to the northwest was the dim outline of Mount Athos, the site of the most remarkable monastery of the world. Here three thousand monks live suspended over the sea in a community that shelters no female thing.
The entrance of the Dardanelles is marked by the cross of Gallipoli, erected in memory of the English and Australasian soldiers who perished in that unhappy undertaking. Perhaps in the whole war there was no greater combination of heroism and mismanagement. Shortly after the failure of the campaign the Rev. Dr. Aked told me a remarkable story, which he said he had from the lips of a member of the British Cabinet. When the first expedition went out it was intended to be a surprise, and the plan was so well concealed that the Turks had no suspicion until the first ships were in sight. It was then discovered that all the ladders and landing equipment had been stored under other cargo in the bottom of the holds. Nothing remained but to return to Alexandria and remove all the material. Two weeks were lost and when the expedition returned the Turks and Germans were ready. It is a story that seems in-credible and I would not repeat it except that I had it from sources so authoritative."
Several members of our crew had served in the campaign, and from one of them I heard another story of this great tragedy of errors.
"While I was out here Lord Kitchener came on. It was a critical stage of the operations and he wanted to decide on the ground what course to pursue. He remained only two days, and I well re-member to have seen him on the afternoon of the second day, standing with a group of high officers on the shore. With his stick he was tracing a sketch in the sand. He had decided that from a military point of view the situation was hopeless and he ordered the campaign abandoned. We later learned that at the very time he was making this decision the Turks were preparing to evacuate. They were reduced to one day's supply of ammunition, and if Kitchener had been but a single day later we would have taken Gallipoli without an effort. I suppose it was just one of the ` breaks of the game' ; but think what a difference it would have made. Turkey would have been out of the war and it would have ended much sooner."
We sailed under the high, bare shores of Gallipoli. Some French warships, torpedoed in trying to force the passage, are rusting away in a cove. On the Asia shore is a ruined village that had been within range of the Allied ships. But these melancholy reminders of the war are far less impressive than the ancient associations in which the waters abound.
There, to the right, but a few hundred yards away, is the mouth of a small creek. It is the landing place of the Greeks come out for the siege of Troy. There is little to distinguish the site of the city.
The plain of Troy terminates in some low hills just beyond, and in the background the white slopes of Mount Ida looked down upon the scene. I was engrossed in the spectacle when two Americans approached. With the utmost courtesy one inquired:
"Can you tell me, please, which shore is called the Hellespont? "
We approached Chanak, where the waters are narrowest, and a skiff came out carrying a Turkish officer. It was my first glimpse of Turkey and I expected the unusual. Perhaps I was a little disappointed when the officer called out in perfect English: " Captain, blow your whistle, please."
The captain promptly obliged and a large launch left the shore. The formalities of " taking pratique " were soon completed, and having thus paid tribute we went our way.
A mile farther on there is a second narrow opposite ancient Abydos. This is the most famous spot on the Hellespont, the site of the bridge of Xerxes and of Byron's conquest of the channel. There was the very hill on which the Persian King sat on his throne of gold and watched his hordes pour into Europe for seven consecutive days. There is an old tradition that in his pride he was tortured by the melancholy reflection that with the passing of one hundred years no man in that multitude would be alive.
Life is much changed since those distant days, but in nothing more than communications. I now sit in my home and hear voices two thousand miles away while the lips are framing the words. Yet it took the Greeks more than a year to learn that the bridge of Xerxes had been destroyed by a storm.
We passed a meadow through which a creek meandered. By its waters grazed the finest herd of cattle I saw in the east. It was Aegospotami, where the Empire of Athens went out in a bloody massacre, and this was the same " goat river " that ran red with the best blood of Greece. Next morning when I awoke we lay beside Galata quay.