On Board the Paudreuil
( Originally Published 1934 )
At sea (at the mouth of the Amazon), August, 1871.
TONIGHT, as I began my watch, a phrase of music came to my memory and it was with the greatest difficulty that I could determine in what corner of the globe and at what part of my life I could have heard it. There is no tune which does not awaken thousands of memories in us. This one confusedly brought back choruses of human voices in the distance, something like a procession winding by with chants and musk. And until three o'clock in the morning I unsuccessfully racked my brain, I dug down into my memories (which, at any rate, is a very pleasant occupation during a night watch) All kinds of people passed before me, ceremonies in all sorts of cities spread over the world's surface. Was it some religious hymn heard at night in passing a mosque ?--or maybe some group of white burnoose wearers winding through the crooked streets of some Arabian city? Some sad song of Nubian women, under the hot sun of the equator ?—or possibly a patriotic hymn of the people of the North, of Denmark or of Canada? It may have been an Indian feast song —Polynesian or Chinese? A. fantastic nocturnal Negro dance? . Unless it was just the chorus of an opera? But still it seems to carry with it a vague remembrance of guitars and mandolins, with a bit of warm wind from Spain or Portugal.
The Straits of Magellan have become a very important thoroughfare for steamers; but nowhere as yet do the two dark shores of this wide strait bear any traces of civilization, and those sailors who, in passing, land there, can expect no help from such an inhospitable country.
On coming from the Atlantic, when one enters the narrow channels which separate Patagonia from Tierra del Fuego, one is struck at once with the desolate aspect of nature. The first part of the voyage is between two vast plains, absolutely bare and deserted, especially at this time of year, which is the austral winter; frozen swamps everywhere, with their monotony broken only here and there by splotches of snow. They are enormous hunting areas used from time to time by bands of Patagonian nomads.
As one gets farther south, however, the country gradually changes its aspect and takes on another kind of desolation. Hills begin to rise and to be covered with a dark and cold-looking growth; groups of resinous trees, with black evergreen foliage, become more numerous and end by forming an impenetrable whole. One is soon surrounded by thick forests, above which snow-covered peaks or glacier edges stand out against a dark sky.
The horizon lengthens and the vistas show a striking grandeur; the ship continues its quiet course amid a veritable maze of mountains, of deep bays, of tiny green islands; clouds, which seem blacker than those of our French sky, spread their great shadows over the land, to which fog banks give an infinite variety.
A shapeless ruin, which is the only vestige of human building on this coast of Patagonia, serves as a landmark for the passing ships; it is what is left to-day of Port Famine, a long-since abandoned attempt at European occupation, the name of which was scarcely attractive!
Cape Forward, the very end of the American continent, is a little farther south. It was in the shelter of this cape, in big Saint Nicholas Bay, that we lowered anchor and landed for the first time.
The surrounding country was entirely untouched, covered all over with an unbelievable tangle of forests, whose beautiful growth was half hidden by snow.
In the midst of this solitude, however, a thin curl of smoke showed the presence of human beings, and we went over toward it.
We found curious savages who live in the large island of the south and who are radically different from the Indian people of the continent. These ichthyophagous Fuegians are, from every aspect, on the lowest round of the human ladder and the Patagonians treat them like harmful animals when they come upon them.
We found them grouped about their huts made of branches in an exquisite site on the shore of a clear river: piles of shells and remnants of fish showed that the group had been comfortable and had made a long stay there.
These people were very much afraid of us. Aroused from their shelter, they first reaction was to flee; their second, to ask for food, and a gift of some crackers made them mad with joy.
Small, frail, stiff with cold and uglier than would seem possible, they nevertheless promptly became not only friendly but even humorous!
Our trust in them was very limited, however, and we soon left them, taking with us as a remembrance some knives made of human bones with which to open shells, their only industrial product.
Tierra del Fuego, September, 1871.
The whole western part of that mountainous island, Tierra del Fuego, is covered with virgin forests, practically impenetrable. The sky is overcast and its climate compares with that of the coldest parts of Europe.
One can barely get about by holding on to the branches, through these ageless forests encumbered with dead trees ; the ground is covered with rotten vegetation piled up for centuries in which one sinks almost out of sight. In this perpetual forest darkness the lichens have achieved an enormous growth, and everything is swamped under thick layers of these mournful grey mosses.
A singularly sinister atmosphere reigns in this inanimate place during the sombre winter days. One's heart fails him amid this silence and solitude.
After having hunted with difficulty and at length in this country, we came one day upon something for which we were not looking-a hand of natives in a state the primitiveness of which far surpassed anything we had so far seen a state of complete wildness. It occurred one winter's morning, in the woods at the end of a hidden bay, where probably no European had ever penetrated before. The presence of these people was indicated to us by the sound of voices in an unknown key; advancing quietly through the thick underbrush, we presently came upon them, beholding a scene of hideous novelty.
These savages, either sitting or perched on branches, were eating their morning meal with the voraciousness of starved beasts, their dreadful dogs, who were eating with them, had not perceived us and so we could look at them for an instant without being seen.
The main feature of this breakfast consisted of mussels and various shell fish from the bay; but we also saw fragments of two penguins which these hungry people had not felt the necessity of cooking; repulsive young women were even biting into the unplucked wings.
Our arrival produced a terrific effect upon this family, which manifested itself at first by wild gestures and loud cries; then they all, in the wink of an eyelash, slipped and disappeared into the surrounding brush, and one heard nothing but a jerky noise from their throats, not unlike the noise made by furious monkeys.
We easily pacified them, as we had pacified others like them in Saint Nicholas Bay, by offering them crackers and bread.
We were promptly surrounded, examined, and touched with a great deal of curiosity; these people found us extraordinary and ridiculous to be dressed; they exchanged comments with an inimitably comic expression. Their hideous thin square heads were all cut from the same pattern, as happens with inferior unmixed ram; their reddish brown hair—a colour frequently found in these Indian people—was long about their necks, short and bristly over their fore-heads and on the crowns of their heads. Their entire costume consisted of long-haired coats of skins ; neither the sharp cold nor any thought of modesty urged them to cover their ugly bodies, which were oiled with fish fat.
The canoes which had brought them there were made of several boards roughly made and joined; we found nets of braided reeds, knives made of bones, as in the Stone Age, arrows and penguin eggs.
Our curiosity was aroused by a bundle of furs which they had hidden, but when we wanted to touch these, the women fell upon us with threats and cries. It turned out to be two tiny children, asleep in fox skins. We perceived that these mothers possessed the same amount of love for their young as do animals, and this raised them considerably in our estimation.
The southern coasts of Tierra del Fuego, swept by great snowdrifts and terrible winds, are completely barren ; and on the most austral islands of the group, among them being the one which bounds Cape Horn, there is nothing but naked rock, given over to penguins and seals. These are highly dangerous seas, constantly whipped by huge waves and greatly feared by sailors.
Among these lands, Desolation Island seems to present an especially heart-rending waste and justifies in every particular the name which was given it. Vegetation is meagre and scarce, and one walks among doleful solitudes beset with lichens; in the far distance one sees a few decayed forests or even dead trees whose skeletons assume queer shapes blanched and twisted by the wind and one always feels a damp and depressing cold. More than that, there is no life, and everywhere there is the same dreadful silence.
Cape Horn, October, 1871.
A young seal was joyfully gambolling along-side the ship, but nothing seemed to justify such gaiety. We were at anchor between bare grey cliffs; Cape Horn's terrible wind whistled over-head, rapidly driving before it large black clouds in an already dark sky, and behind the dreary rocks which sheltered us from the open sea one could hear the waves roaring as always in bad weather. We were lifted by the swell even at the extremity of this dismal bay in which the water, icy cold and dark green, was striped with long streaks of white foam.
Everything seemed sinister and exiled about us, even the families of white-bellied penguins who formed ranks on each little island.
And still the young seal played joyously in the freezing water, and its happiness was touching in such surroundings.
He had a pretty, brown plump body, shining like polished agate. Between dives one saw his sly little head emerge, decorated with the hand-some moustaches of a large cat; then he would puff and sneeze like children who shake the little drops of water from their noses when they bathe.
The sailors began throwing him bits of fish, which he caught on the fly with the skill of a young clown. Then, as though thanking them, he gave them a 'little comedy, performing many leaps and graceful turns .on the waves: one almost felt as though he were doing it for his audience, to amuse his benefactors.
Surely the poor little thing had never seen a ship ; he came nearer and nearer, full of confidence, and the men were thinking of catching him, which would surely not have been difficult. But a shot rang out, the young seal gave one surprised look and performed his last twirl.
We watched' him beat the water, reddened by his blood, with his little flippers, and then he was nothing but a poor lifeless thing cradled by the swell.
There was a quickly suppressed murmur of anger, for the lucky hunter, who had just bagged such a fine specimen, was a midshipman.
I wanted to avoid a scene, and so I waited until I was alone with my mate to tell him what I thought of him, and an explication followed which nearly ended in a fist fight.
Some important, but very little known, channels start from the Straits of Magellan, and after going north, between the eastern coast of Patagonia and several unexplored islands, emerge in the Gulf of Penas, about 6 of latitude below their point of departure. We were kept a month in these seas in order to explore them.
For a hundred and fifty miles we passed huge deserted countries; an uninterrupted forest stretched along the two shores, a forest in which surely nothing had changed since the beginning of the world.
The first channels into which our ship plunged were narrow and difficult; there were winding passages, squeezed between high mountains, so close that sometimes the masts, brushing against the branches of the ancient tree, shook down the snow upon our heads in passing.
But the horizon gradually widened, and with the silence of death we saw new chains of lakes and mountains, glaciers and high waterfalls, solitary and nameless streams of water, glide past us.
Nature seems to lose some of her bitter melancholy as one leaves Magellan and approaches the temperate countries of the North ; the green becomes less dark and less monotonous in colour and the woods begin to show patches of light. Under the arches of the old trees, all dripping with rain, the shadows are so thick in the deep valleys that it is almost night and down there one finds a great abundance of moss and unknown ferns of the most exquisite fineness.
Some small transitory birds begin to be heard in the branches and a beautiful green-crested kingfisher abounds in the rivers.
Water fowl also appear in great numbers; in passing we disturb numerous loons, wild ducks and geese with gorgeous plumage; all animals that taste very bad but which we are very glad to see, nevertheless. Gigantic mussels, which furnish food for the natives, also do us a great service ; their shells all contain pearls, tinted pink or blue, which doubtless no one has as yet thought of using for ornament.
Landings and expeditions are very difficult things down here ; one can never proceed, in these countries, without hanging on to the branches and one tires quickly of these sombre walks, of the silence and complete isolation.
The sailors spend their days in the woods, cutting trees, for lack of coal, in order to maintain the fires of the engine. They come back in the evenings, in the darkness of winter, wet and frozen through, satisfied, nevertheless, if they can bring back some penguins or some shell fish for their dinner.
Every once in a while we find some natives, generally an unpleasant meeting and one which leads nowhere. The sailors have a kind of superstitious fear mixed with disgust of these men, and amuse themselves with them very cautiously, as though they were curious but destructive animals. As a matter of fact, it would be very unpleasant to fall into their yellow hands without weapons; although their customs are not yet well known, I believe that one would promptly be cut to pieces and eaten, with a great noise and shouting. Fortunately the smoke of their wood fires betrays them at a great distance and one is not afraid of an unexpected encounter.
Their camps, which are littered with piles of shells, bones, and much filth, give off an offensive odour, and everything about them is disgusting and repulsive. They show no sign of industry nor of any kind of organization; more often they live in families like orang-outangs, feed them-selves by hunting and fishing, and pass a large part of their lives on the water.
Their canoes generally hold four or five persons, an equal number of dogs, and a fire which burns carelessly, among some ashes, on the bottom of the craft.
Up at Queen Adelaide Island, we were disturbed one day by a canoe thus equipped, which was approaching us making signs of distress, The people, as well as the dogs, were madly howling, showing us huge gaping mouths and faces of another world; with a complete obliviousness of the danger, they threw themselves upon our ship at the risk of being knocked to pieces.
We thought them mad or possessed ; they were simply starving, and in an instant the sailors filled their canoe with crackers and bread, which they devoured.
Several times after that our ship gave charity to the Fuegians, who often became sufficiently courageous to come on board to beg for food, There was once a great panic among them. One day a large group of them was on the deck, voraciously eating the remnants of the crew's soup, quite ignorant of the fact that the diver had descended to examine the keel of the frigate. When they saw the huge round head of this unknown monster emerge from the water, their terror was indescribable ; in a second they had flung themselves overboard, leaving their canoes and dogs, and we watched them regain the shore with rapid strokes.
People like these fit perfectly into their curiously wild environment, and when one is with them one can well believe himself transported back to the far-distant days of prehistoric man. Other kinds of men would be far less effective and appropriate under these black skies and in these primitive forests.
The first beautiful October days—the April of austral spring—give to these surroundings a much less sombre charm.
Gorgeous scenery is mirrored in the calm water. All the birds of the southern seas, the big albatross and the petrels, follow the ship on its quiet course in flocks and circle madly about her.
Our last port was Eden Harbour, an exquisite bay which lies before the Gulf of Penas —and then, our mission being over, we steamed out to sea toward Peru.
A REPLY TO A YOUNG GENTLEMAN ABOUT TO TRAVEL
MY DEAR SIR: Your letter, courteously requesting a certain amount of counsel and information concerning your projected journey to Europe, has reached me as I am returning from a journey myself, and I am sensible of the honour and responsibility involved in any attempt on my part to direct your wanderings.
The problem, as I deduce it from your letter, is this. You are a newspaper man in a large city in the Middle West. You are about thirty years old and you have given no hostages to fortune. You have saved a reasonable number of dollars, and your managing editor, who seems to be rather a shrewd as well as human sort of man, has given you six months' leave of absence. You have never been to Europe, and your reading has led you to believe that Europe has something for you which cannot be obtained in your home city. So you ask me, as one who has knocked about somewhat in those foreign parts, how you can make your money last long enough, and how to go about your voyage of discovery along the legendary shores of the Ancient Sea.
It is quite unnecessary for me to waste words commending 'such a resolution to one who has already made it, but it will do no harm to record the gratification it has engendered, to be invited to participate in the adventure by plan ning the itinerary. And it will be impossible, I am afraid, to avoid a certain degree of envy creeping in, when I consider how you are about to have that thrill, never again to be recaptured, attending the first glimpse of the Mediterranean littoral.
The importance of such a journey is not to be over-estimated for those who have any connection whatsoever with literature and the arts. Some may object that newspaper work is neither one nor the other. On the contrary, in my opinion, newspaper work can be a very fine art in-deed; and the celerity of execution, coupled with the variety of information involved in appraising the value of events, makes it advisable to seek inspiration from the origins of our national culture. And it is a shrewd criticism of the basic value of money, that the cheaper you do it the better it will avail you in the future.
The reason for this last-mentioned paradox is that travel is expensive only in so far as it renders you immune from the difficulties and peculiarities of foreign places. It is expensive because it carries you in the environment to which you are accustomed. And so, if you are prepared to forego all those trivial accessories of modern life, all the comforts and conveniences which threaten to abolish the local characteristics of our modern world, you need not pay very much for your passage.
Assuming, then, that you are ready to cross the Atlantic upon some humble vessel, it will not cost you very much. Once in London or Liver-pool, you will find steamers sailing weekly on cruises that include nearly every port in the Mediterranean. They are what we call cargo-liners and under British regulations they are provided with accommodation for not more than a dozen passengers. Under this rule they are not obliged to incur heavy expenses for extravagant and luxurious travel, and their charges are suited to modest resources.
Such a voyage, including Lisbon, Gibraltar, Marseilles, Genoa, Naples, Venice, Athens, and the ports of the Levant, would take no more than a couple of months, which, allowing for your journey to and from the Middle nest, would leave you three months' leeway. Moreover, it would not be possible, since you arrive, say, at Spezia in the morning and leave for Civita Vecchia the next day, to acquire those romantic impressions which are the meat and nourishment of travel, and which afford you those complex and delightful memories in the coming years.
And so, bearing all these considerations in mind, I am moved to suggest that you might be wise if you shipped as we say, as one of the crew. I confess I gave this problem much thought before I decided to propose such a course, because some men find it difficult to shed the white collar and accept the limitations imposed by a ship's articles. Yet, from my own experience I derive the conviction that nothing but profit comes of such a course. You move at one step into a different world. You are an integral part of the ship's company and of the voyage, instead of a mere accidental encumbrance.
Let us suppose, then, that, having reached Liverpool and having compressed your belongings into a sea bag instead of a wardrobe trunk, you seek employment and commence what to you, as a newspaper man, will be a liberal education.
As regards what you are to do, I offer no hard-and-fast directions. The higher offices on a ship, of course, are not for the occasional wanderer, not merely because years are required for the certificated qualifications, but because the responsibilities of such posts preclude that easy shedding of cares, when you go ashore, which enables you to savour to the full the essential spirit of vagabondage.
Because being a vagabond, or as nearly a vagabond as you can manage, is the secret key to what you seem to seek. In that capacity you abandon those heavy social obligations that prevent so many first-class passengers ever seeing a foreign land. You will not, when visiting Cairo, for ex-ample, confine yourself to the terrace and dance hall of Shepheard's Hotel, and so you may see Cairo. At Naples you are free to go your own road in the evening along the front and behold in all its piquant innocence the life of the sea-port.
Returning from this pleasant digression, let me repeat that, for your purpose, being a wiper or an ordinary seaman, so long as it conflicts with no insuperable dignity in your character, will be as serviceable as being a brassbound officer. Nowadays, the hardships of seagoing in the forecastle are largely mythical. Compared, I mean, with those of a former day. Reading a recent issue of a professional seaman's magazine, I noticed an article describing, with considerable bitterness, a new Scandinavian vessel with elevators to the engine room and hot and cold water faucets in the crew's quarters. I have no doubt batik curtains and fine old hook rugs and rosewood gramophones were also included. The tone of the article in question was that American ships should have the same conveniences, the inference being that American ships are poor affairs. This is a mistake. Any vessel built in the last ten years is comfortable enough for anybody. I have served on a ship for a three-hundred-and-twenty-day voyage, with one stretch of ninety days at sea and another of seventy-three days from port to port, and nearly all of that time we lived, crew and cabin, on salt meat and preserved potatoes, on peas and beans and biscuit with dried apples and an occasional orgy of fresh fruit that made us sick.
So, with regard to your rating, so long as you are sound in wind and limb and are willing, which is the most important quality of all at sea, it does not matter very much for a few short months what position you hold on the articles. I can remember a young man, who confided to us one evening in the mess room that he came of good family and had been to college. He signed on as mess-room steward, but we discovered he had no talent for that arduous and complex calling, so he was transferred to the saloon as cabin boy. This proved even more disastrous, and we got him back again, this time as a coal-passer. The ship crossed the Equator on the long Indian Ocean slant from Cape Town to Singapore,, and that young man had a stiff job in the bunkers. Yet he managed, in spite of his fine education, and by the time we reached Port Said on the homeward run, he was a fireman standing his watch with the best of them. It was a memorable experience to see him go into the dark, dirty forecastle, black to the eyes and shining with sweat, and come out a couple of hours later in a natty, suit with a stripe, an extremely high collar, straw hat and cane, to go ashore in Malta, where he had a brother who was a doctor. And this reminiscence reminds 'me that Richard Mathews Ballet, who is a good example to offer a newspaper man, once told one, as we voyaged down to Cuba one day a few years ago, that he could get a job as fireman or able seaman anywhere, having worked his way across the world in liners and sailing ships more than once.
I am the more encouraged to suggest some-thing of this nature to you since I suspect, though you make no definite confession of it, that you would not be averse to accumulating some experiences with what is called "copy" value, which you could turn to account later on. If this reading between the lines of your letter is correct, the less you travel as a passenger the better. The tendency of passenger traffic, as I have already implied, is to maintain you as nearly as possible within the walls of conventional comfort and luxury. That is what most people desire and pay for, and the liners know their business perfectly, and supply what is demanded. What you want is something quite diffrerenti which you can find on the same ship but in an-ether part of it.
You may ask here, however, when you have arrived at some port in the Mediterranean that has taken your fancy, and you would like to wander afoot awhile, how are you going to achieve the liberty you crave?
That is a problem to be solved as circumstances shall direct. If you have accepted my delicate suggestion that the vagabond has access to unconventional and unstandardized resources of aesthetic enjoyment, you will have no difficulty in effecting a release whenever it suits your plans. The procedure may be left to the spur of the moment. You may rest assured that you will be only one member of a secret and joyous band of bohemians who haunt for a transient season the forecastles of British ships and who vanish like morning dew when the irresistible urge seizes their souls. They are even more adventurous and idyllic than you, since they have no comforting letter of credit awaiting them when they have reached their destined city.
I am reminded, in speaking of "this, of an experience one May evening on the hills above Savona, where I sat with my dog looking out across the Gulf of Genoa. The sun was gone down in a great lake of red fire beyond San Remo, and in the blue dusk to the eastward the high lanterna of Genoa was sending out its slow-moving beam. Jack had explored a number of fascinating holes thereabouts on the brow of the cliffs and was now reposing, tongue out, waiting for the pleasant downhill jaunt into the town, where he would have a trencher of spaghetti, of which he was phenomenally fond, though he was a very English bull terrier and scornful of foreign ways. And then suddenly he growled and sat up. There was a sound of shuffling footsteps on the dusty road behind us, and a clear thin trickle of music from a pipe. As the dog barked, the sounds stopped. I looked over my shoulder with some interest. A gentleman, very dusty and way-worn indeed, was standing there, regarding us bashfully yet acutely as he wiped a tin whistle on the leg of his deplorable trousers.
"Sit down, Jack," I remarked, severely, and hooked on the chain. Jack was, as I have said, English. It was his theory that shabby trousers should be at once attacked, halfway up the calf.
"Is his name Jack ?" remarked the dim object in the twilight advancing over the turf. "Correct me if I'm rnakin' a mistake, but I reckon you're English yerself."
"You are too, I take it ?" I said, rather curiously.
"That's right," he returned, sitting down, not too close, but at a friendly distance. "That's what you might call me. Not that the blinkin' consuls are ever very glad to see me." And he laughed without malice, holding his whistle with his fingers on the stops. He was a very disreputable-looking person, about forty, I should say, and it was quite time he had a shave. There was a queer elfin glint in his blue-grey eyes beneath the shaggy yellow brows and matted hair, that made me want to know what he was doing. So l asked him, and after he had coughed a good deal and regarded jack's disdainful expression with humorous comprehension, he told me.
And the gist of it was that, quite apart from a game lung, as he called it, he had to be on the move. Now and again, as he talked, his elbows on his knees, he played a bar or perhaps a whole air, on his whistle. Very sweet in the still of the evening, with the lazy waves climbing over the black rocks below, and gurgling back again in white foam. Yes, he came down hereabouts every winter. "I travel for me 'ealth," he explained, with a sidelong elfin smile. "The doctor up in 'Artlepool, 'e ses, `You ought to 'ave a warmer climet eses. Doctor's orders, you see. So I gets a ship in the Tyne an' down I comes. The Second, 'e 'as no use for rue. Seconds never do 'ave, 1 may say, 'tween you an' me an' the captain's wife. Seconds are funny blokes, I can tell you."
"Yes," I admit, pensively. "I know they are. I've been one for three years."
"You!" He put his tin whistle on the grass and regarded me with naked wonder. "Well, Gawd Unity! 'Ow was ï to know?" he coming.
"Once," he said, stopping suddenly, "I winters in Egypt!" and he came a little nearer for conversation. "Alexandria! I got pinched there. Big black bobby arrests me. Well, charge me, I ses, charge me. You can't lock me up unless you charge me. Oh, couldn't 'e ? The beak gives me a good talkin' to. Lazy beggar, I am. Well, I ses, I ain't done nothin'. No, but you will, he ses. Well, I ask you, is that justice? Then 'e tells 'em to take me to the consul, and 'e gives me a job on a ship. So I goes on her to Port Said, and I clears out there. But them Gippies don't give nothin' fer music. They's never 'eard of 'Aida.' "
"Have you ?" I asked, startled, and he began to whistle an air of Radames.
"Well," I said, "I must be going. I've got to get up in the morning, you know."
"I do know," he retorted. "I wouldn't 'ave a job like yours, Mister, for a farm. Could you let us 'ave 'alf a dollar without missin' it? You blokes get good money now," he added, whimsically. "You're a toff, Mister, one of the old breed. Give my love to dear old England."
Darkness came clown over the sea as jack and I descended the hill road into Savona. The café lights were cheerful along the streets, and we were sharp-set for food and drink. And while we tarried there, and I smoked a pipe over the last of the Chianti, I saw him again, across the street. He was playing a jiggety tune in front of the little tables, his old tweed cap aslant on his undisciplined head, his legs bowed a little as he swayed to the rhythm, a veritable reincarnation of a mediaeval troubadour.