An Ocean Tramp
By William McFee
Garden City New York Doubleday, Page & Company 1924
COPYRIGHT, 1921, BY DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES AT THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, N.Y.
Books by William McFee
ALIENS AN OCEAN TRAMP CAPTAIN MACEDOINE'S DAUGHTER CASUALS OF THE SEA PORT SAID MISCELLANY
TO A—— R——
"She was lovable, and he loved her. But he was not lovable, and she did not love him."
PREFACE TO THE 1921 EDITION
In the original preface to the First Edition, it will be seen that by a perfectly justifiable stroke of artistic manipulation, the writer of the letters, the Ocean Tramp himself, is drowned at sea. Neither author nor publisher had offered any guarantee that the book was a record of cold facts, and it was not deemed necessary at that time to disillusion any of the public who saw fit to send in condolences upon the tragic end of a promising career. Nevertheless, the book was faithful enough in a larger sense, for the young man who wrote it had undoubtedly died and buried himself in its pages. His place, it appeared presently, was taken by a cynical person who voyaged all over the seven seas in various steamers, accumulating immense stocks of local colour, passing through the divers experiences which befall sailor-men, reading a good many books, and gradually assuming the role of an amused spectator. Of this person, however, there is no need to speak just now, and we must go back to the time when the author, in that condition known to the cloth as "out of a ship," arrived in London, the following pages tied up in a piece of bunting, in his dunnage, and took a small suite of chambers over the ancient gate of Cliffords Inn. Now it would be easy enough, and the temptation is great, to convey the impression that the writer had arrived in the Metropolis to make his name and win fame and fortune with his manuscript. So runs the tale in many a novel issued during the last twenty-five years. It is time, therefore, to invent something new. The penniless law-student who writes a best seller and wins the love of a celebrated actress must make way for a sea-going engineer with a year's wages and a volume of essays in his pocket, and who had not succeeded in winning the love of anybody. Indeed the singular moderation of the demands of this young man will be appreciated by any one who has been afflicted with ambition, for he has never at any time desired either to write a play, edit a magazine, or marry a prima-donna. At the particular juncture when he took over the little suite of furnished chambers from a young newspaper man who had received a sudden invitation to visit a rich uncle, his principal preoccupation was to pass his examination for his certificate of competency as a first-class engineer. To this end he began a mysterious existence possible only to the skilled Londoner. For the benefit of those who are not skilled Londoners, the following description may evoke interest.
In the morning on waking, he saw, through the small bowed window which looked out into the Inn, the sunlight shining upon the gilded gothic roof of the Rolls Building and possibly touching the tops of the trees of the grimy enclosure. Stepping through into the front room he could lean out of a mullioned affair below which he could read the date carved in the stone—1472—and looking up a long narrow court he could watch the morning traffic of the Strand passing the farther end like the film of a cinematograph. Down below, a gentleman who sold studs, shoe-laces, and dying pigs on the curb, and who kept his stock in a cupboard under the arch, was preparing to start out for the day. A dying pig, it may be mentioned, was a toy much in demand among stock-broking clerks and other frivolous young gentlemen in the City, and consisted of a bladder shaped like a pig whose snout contained a whistle which gave out on deflation an almost human note of anguish. Should the hour be before eight, which was probable since the author had contracted the habit, at sea, of rising at four, he would be further exhilarated by seeing his landlord, Mr. Honeyball, in a tightly buttoned frock-coat and wide-awake hat, march with an erect and military air to the end of the passage, dart a piercing glance in either direction, and remain, hands behind back and shoulders squared, taking the air. Which meant that Mrs. Honeyball was engaged in the dark and dungeon-like kitchen below the worn flags of the archway, preparing the coffee and bacon for Mr. Honeyball's breakfast.
Having washed and shaved—and here it may be set down, for the benefit of Americans and others not skilled in metropolitan existence, that when a building bears over its archway the date 1472 the bathing arrangements within will not be of the most modern design—the author then took his pipe, tobacco, and cane and prepared to descend the winding stone stairway which ended in a door of heavy wood. This contrivance opened directly upon the small triangular chamber where Mrs. Honeyball each day laid the meals for herself and husband, transacted her rent-collecting, and received occasional visitors during late afternoon, self-effacing ladies of mature age who seemed to shrink back into the panelling behind them and who assumed the anxious immobility of figures in high relief, if the phrase may be allowed to pass. At this early hour, however, no one is in sight save Mrs. Honeyball herself, a slight elderly person with that look of pink beatification on her face which accompanies some forms of Christianity, emerging from another door which leads down a curved stairway to subterranean regions. Mrs. Honeyball, it may be stated in parenthesis, is of the great family of hero-worshippers, women who are inspired with an indomitable and quite illogical faith in the wisdom and strength of their gentlemen friends. The mere fact of the author being a nautical character is sufficient for Mrs. Honeyball. Beyond going as far as Margate on the Clacton Belle, a fat, squab-shaped side-wheel affair very popular with London folk in that era, Mrs. Honeyball's acquaintance with the sea is purely theoretical. To her all sea-faring men are courageous, simple-hearted stalwarts having their business in great waters, and she has intimated that she always remembers them in her prayers. The modest breakfast, for two, is spread on one side of the round table which is so much too large for the room. She would be only too pleased if she could board me, but it is not allowed. The Inn, I have been given to understand, has been bought outright by some person of great wealth, whose design is to pull it down and erect a block of apartments. Mrs. Honeyball is somewhat afraid of this person. She gets in a great flutter, about the twentieth of the month, over her accounts. Just now, however, she is placidly benevolent and hopes that author has slept well. He has and says so, and opening the outer door, an immense portal of heavy wood studded with big black nails, he steps down into the archway, where Mr. Honeyball is encountered. Mr. Honeyball has been in the army, has retired on a sergeant-major's pension after twenty-three years service and he salutes the author in correct military fashion.
These amenities concluded and watches compared with the great clock of the Law Courts visible from the end of the passage, the author turned westward and set off briskly toward Charing Cross, buying a paper on the way, and noting from time to time the attractively attired young ladies who were hurrying to their various employments. At the risk of evoking a certain conventional incredulity in the readers' bosom, the author is constrained to point out that he harboured only the purest and most abstract sentiments towards these young women. There is a period in the life of the literary artist, unhappily not permanent, when the surface of his mind may be described as absorbent of emotional influences, a period which results in the accumulation of vast quantities of data concerning women without to any degree destroying the authentic simplicity of his heart. And when the point of saturation is reached, to use an engineer's phrase, the artist, still preserving his own innocence, begins to produce. And this, one may remark in passing, is the happiest time of his life! He combines the felicity of youth, the wisdom of age, and the unencumbered vitality of manhood. He knows, even while in love, as he frequently is at such periods, that there are loftier peaks beyond, mountain-ranges of emotion up which some day he is destined to travel, and he disregards the pathetic seductions of those who would bid him settle in their quiet valleys.
Arriving in the neighbourhood of Charing Cross, the author takes an affectionate glimpse into Trafalgar Square, and turns down a steep, narrow street, leading towards the River, where is situated a small eating house. At that time, it should be observed, almost the only way for a stranger to obtain a breakfast in London was to go to a hotel and engage a room. Even at railroad terminals, where the refreshment-rooms were just beginning to be swept and garnished, and the waitresses were yawning behind the big urns, they did not regard the famished traveller with any enthusiasm. It was felt that a stranger wanting food at that hour had been up to no good. The author, being a skilled Londoner, was put to no such inconvenience. It was his habit, at intervals, to write special articles for the London papers, articles which had to be delivered to the night commissionaire on duty in the office of the newspaper. The particular functionary employed by the News was a social being and fond of port, and over a dock-glass at Finches, the celebrated bar in Fleet Street, had recommended a certain chop-house where night-birds ate before retiring to their nests in distant suburbs. To this hostelry the author therefore repairs, down the narrow declivity, in at the door whose brass handles are being vigorously polished by a youth in a green baize apron, and upstairs to a long low chamber furnished with small tables. Here one discovers some half-dozen strays from the millions of Londoners who breakfast in orthodox fashion—in the secrecy and sullen silence of their own homes. And the salient feature of the people in this upstairs room is the inexorable isolation of their souls. No one speaks. One or two look up from their food as the author makes his way to the window from which he commands a glimpse of blue sky, the elevation of an enormous brick wall, and possibly a locomotive having its firebox cleaned on a siding and panting as though afflicted with lung trouble. He takes his seat not far from a young woman who is breakfasting on a bun and a glass of milk. She is reading a book, a fat novel in fine print, the covers soiled with food and the corners grimy with years of friction. She is there every morning eating a bun and drinking a glass of milk. She has a clear, delicate face, blonde hair, and large black eyes. Her hands are fine, too, though they might be better kept. One suspects she does her own washing after she gets home at night.
The reader may possibly wonder why the author should lower himself in the esteem of men by dilating upon the appearance of a stray young woman whom fate had washed up on the shores of time near him and whom the next wave would inevitably bear away again. But the reader must exercise a little patience. Several women appear in this preface, and the author imagines they may reveal to the reader something of the mentality which wrote this book. A mentality somewhat alien to the English, since it was profoundly interested in women without incurring any suspicion of French naughtiness, or endeavouring in any way to make itself pleasing to them. A mentality hampered by an almost hysterical shyness which, however, was capable of swift and complete evaporation in certain circumstances.
So far, let it be premised, the shyness was still in evidence, and the author became as silent and austere as the other members of the company. There was a youth, in trousers obviously pressed under his mattress, and a coat too short for him, whose air of shabby smartness brought tears to the eyes of the author, who had passed through very much the same purgatory years before. Indeed it was very much like a coffee room in purgatory, if the reader can imagine such a thing, for every one of the patrons had this distinguishing trait—they were shackled and tortured and seared by the lack of a little money. The mangy old waif who asked for a cup of tea and furtively fished out of a little black oil-cloth bag a couple of thick sandwiches; the middle-aged person with a fine moustache, frock-coat, and silk-hat, who ordered coffee and bacon and eggs, and forgot to eat while his tired eyes fixed themselves with insane intensity upon a mineral-water advertisement on the opposite wall; the foreign lady (whom the author hastens to record as a virtuous matron) whose bizarre hat and brightly painted cheeks were stowed away in an obscure and lonely corner where she pored over a Greek newspaper; the middle-aged gentleman whose marbled note-book was filled with incredibly fine writing and columns of figures which ought to have meant something substantial, but which were probably only lists of bad debts utterly uncollectable—all these poor people would have been carried up to heaven had they suddenly discovered under their plates a twenty-pound note. And the desire to do this thing, to play the rich uncle for once, was at times so keen that the author felt himself in purgatory, too, in a way, and lost his appetite thinking about it.
The reader may opine that such a meal would be but a poor preliminary for a morning of study, but the fact remains that the contemplation of misery stimulates one's mental perceptions. Once more out in the Strand, having watched the young woman descend the narrow street and fling a swift glance over her shoulder as she turned into Northumberland Avenue, the author mounted a Barking 'bus and settled himself in the front seat, a gay little Union Jack fluttering just above his head, and gave himself up unreservedly to reflections evoked by a return, after some years at sea, to his native air. Every foot of the way eastward brought up memories long dormant beneath the swarms of alien impressions received since going to sea, impressions that ranged from the songs of an octaroon in a blind-tiger back of Oglethorpe Avenue in Savannah, to the mellow Boom-cling-clang of temple-bells heard in the flawless dawn from a verandah above the sampan-cluttered canals of Osaka. Between his nostrils and the ancient odours of creosote blocks and of river mud drying at low tide came the heavy scent of Arab quarters, the reek of Argentine slaughter-houses and the subtle pervasions of Singapore. Since he had read with careless neglect the familiar names over familiar shops where he and his father had dealt in the common things of life, his eyes had ached with the glittering hieroglyphics of Chinatown and the incomprehensible futilities of Armenian and Cyrillic announcements. So it came about that he regarded the cheerful, homely, and sun-lit Strand with extraordinary delight, a delight enhanced by the incorrigible conviction that in a few weeks he would quit it once more for distant shores. Yet the charm, evanescent as it was, laid an authentic hand upon his pulse and made it beat more quickly. Here he had bought his first dress-suit. The tailor's shop was gone and a restaurant with bulging glass windows thrust out a portly stomach into the street. Here again he had lunched in days gone by on Saturdays, and loitered far into the afternoon to flirt with the waitress. Here, where Wellington Street plunged across and flung itself upon Waterloo Bridge, one beheld staggering changes. The mountainous motor bus put on speed and scampered past the churches left like rocky islets in the midst of a swift river of traffic. Once past Temple Bar and in the narrow defile of Fleet Street the author's thoughts darted up Fetter Lane and hovered around a grimy building where he had pursued his studies with the relentless fanaticism of youthful ambition. There, under the lamp-post at the corner, one keen evening in early spring, he had what was for him a tremendous emotional experience. In the German class (for he was all for Wilhelm Meister, Faust, The Robbers, and Dichtung und Wahrheit in those days) was a German girl learning English, a robust, vital, brown-haired wench from Stuttgart. Often when it came to his turn to read from the set piece of literature, he felt this girl's eyes upon him and he would raise his own to find her regarding him with a steady, appraising glance. And yet she seemed to vanish effectively enough in the general confusion of departure. Once she picked up his pencil and asked mutely for the use of it, and he assented with what he knew was a fiery blush. She replaced it with a firm nod of the head and her steady glance. For a few days the thought of her bothered his dreams and then, in the fanatical pursuit of knowledge, the mood evaporated. Perhaps she was aware of this and laid her plans accordingly, for on the last evening of the session, as he came down the steps of the college and turned toward Fetter Lane, he saw her standing under the lamp-post at the corner. A frightful predicament! It was one thing to read about Johann Wolfgang Goethe and his free emotional development, about Arthur Schopenhauer living in Venice with his mistress and writing philosophical works, or to approve the newly translated vapourings of Frederick Nietzsche. It was quite another to walk steadily onward and encounter a robust, vital, brown-haired wench from Stuttgart who stood waiting with unmistakable invitation in her pose. When he arrived at the corner he was in a condition bordering on blind panic and he heard, as through a thick wall, a hoarse, musical voice murmur unintelligible words. He heard himself murmur something which brought a look of angry astonishment into her eyes. He heard the words "Don't you like me?" far off, drowned by a buzzing of the blood in his ear-drums. And then a vicious thrust forward of the blonde head, a show of big white teeth, and the contemptuous phrase "Nassty you are!" as she flung round and hurried down the street.
No doubt she was right. Often, in the night-watches at sea, the author has recalled the vitality of her appeal, the genuine frankness of her character, and wished for an opportunity to express his regret for his gaucherie and offer adequate amends. And as the 'bus lumbers along towards Ludgate Hill he thinks of her and wonders precisely what purpose these fugitive and fortuitous encounters serve. These futile yet fascinating conjectures bring him past Saint Paul's, in whose shadow he has spent many hours reading old books at the stalls in Holywell Street, and the 'bus races along Cannon Street, is brought up almost on its hind wheels at the Mansion House Corner, and the author gets a brief glimpse of Princes Street and Moorgate Street, where he was once "something in the City" as we used to say, before the policeman's hand is lowered and the eastbound traffic roars along Threadneedle Street and so down to Aldgate, where the author descends by the famous Pump, to begin the serious business of the day. For it must not be forgotten that this daily 'bus-ride from Charing Cross to Aldgate Pump is not prosecuted in a spirit of sentimental reverie. The author is going to school. Across the road may be seen a building athwart whose topmost window runs a tarnished gold sign Teague's School of Engineering, only all three ns of the last word are missing, which seems in keeping with the name Teague somehow, and gives the whole affair a touch of Irish dissipation. Nothing, however, could be more misleading. Upstairs, four flights, the last two uncarpeted or linoleumed, one discovers only an austere establishment from which both Teague and his possible dissipation are long since departed. The business is now owned by a dapper young man of pleasing exterior and almost uncanny technical omniscience, who for a lump inclusive fee undertakes to pull the most illiterate of seafarers through the narrow portals of the government examination. He gives that impression as he sits at his desk in his private office, the cuffs of his grey frock-coat and his starched white shirt drawn up out of the way. He has the capable air of a surgeon, the swift, impersonal competence of an experienced accoucheur. His business is to get results. It is not too much to say that he gets them.
In the room beyond, however, in which the author takes his seat in the humble capacity of student, there is the curiously strained atmosphere that is to be found in all companies of disparate personalities intent upon a common end. Seated in rows at a number of pine desks are a score of men whose ages range from twenty-three to forty-five. Some are smoking. Others, with tongue protruding slightly from the corner of the mouth, and head on one side, are slowly and painfully copying the drawing of a pump or a valve-box. Others, again, are in the murky depths of vast arithmetical solutions extracting, with heavy breathings, the cube root from some formidable quantity, and bringing it to the surface exhausted and far from certain as to the ultimate utility of their discoveries. They have come from the far ends of the sea-lanes, these men, from Niger River ports and the coast towns of China, from lordly liners and humble tramps, from the frozen fjords of Aelborg and the crowded tideways of the Hooghley. They are extraordinarily unprepossessing, most of them, for the time was not yet when sea-going was considered, save as a last resource, like selling newspapers or going to America. These men were mostly artisans, thick-fingered mechanics who had gone to sea, driven by some obscure urge or prosaic economic necessity, and the sea had changed them, as it changes everything, fashioning in them a blunt work-a-day fatalism and a strong, coarse-fibred character admirably adapted to their way of life. But that way is far from schools and colleges. They lack that subtle academical atmosphere so essential to genuine culture. They have none of them what the educated classes call an examination brain. They resemble a pack of sheep-dogs in a parlour. They accept with pathetic fidelity the dogmas of their text-books, and they submit humbly to incarceration while their heads are loaded down with formulas and theories, most of which they jettison with relief when they feel the first faint lift of the vessel to the ocean swell outside the breakwater.
But it should on no account be assumed from the above truthful estimate of their mentality that these men are to be dismissed as mere factory hands or negligible land-failures. The sea has her own way of making men, and informs them, as the years and miles go by, with a species of differential intuition, a flexible mental mechanism which calibrates and registers with astonishing accuracy and speed. They become profound judges of human character within the rough walls of their experience, and for women they betray a highly specialized esteem....
For all that, as they sit here in their extremely respectable blue serge suits, which still show the sharp creases where they were laid away in unskillful folds during the voyage, they give one an impression of lugubrious failure. It must be confessed that simple as the examinations are they are beyond the range of many of us. The habits of study are not easily retained during the long stretches of watch-keeping intermitted with hilarious trips ashore. We find a great difficulty in keeping our minds on the problems set down. Outside is a blue sky, the roar of traffic at the confluence of four great thoroughfares, and the call of London, a very siren among cities, when one knows! Over yonder, a cigarette in his mouth, his head on his hand and his elbow asprawl on the desk, making idle marks with a pencil, is a youth who is nursing a grievance against the government. He has been up eight times and failed every time. He is going up again with us next Tuesday. Yet, as it has been whispered to me during lunch hour by my neighbour, a robust individual just home from Rangoon, he is a first-class man; just the chap in a break-down; always on the job; fine record. There is another, between us and the sectional model of a feed pump valve, who never looks up, but figures unceasingly with elbows close to his sides, his toes turned in, the nape of an obstinate, close-cropped neck glistening pale gold and pink in the morning sun. Without having been to sea with this party or even having seen his face, one is aware that he will always be found with his pale eyes wide open when the light is flicked on at One Bell. He has been sometime in tramp-steamers, who carry no oilers, for there is a hard callous on the knuckle of his right forefinger where the oil-feeder handle has been chafing. Whether he would be a tower of strength in a smash-up is not so easily divined. Next to him a young gentleman is sitting sideways smoking, a pair of handsome cuff-buttons of Indian design flashing at his wrists. He is, my neighbour has informed me during lunch, from the P. & O. and he corroborates this by asking a question of the lecturer concerning a broken valve-spindle of enormous dimensions. He stands for class in our community and gives a certain tone to the group who go up on Tuesday. Unhappily he falls out on the second day, owing to certain defects in his arithmetic, and disappears. No doubt he has gone to another sea-port to try a less austere examiner.
And after lunch, the principal of Teague's School of Engineering suddenly emerges from his private office, hangs up a card labelled "No Smoking during Lectures" and proceeds to feed us with the irreducible minimum of information necessary for our ordeal. By long practice, astute contriving, and careful cross-examination of successful pupils he has arrived at such a pass that he seems to know more about the examiner's mind than that gentleman himself. He repeats slowly and deliberately the exact form of answer which is most likely to draw approval from the grand inquisitor, and we copy it down hastily in our notes. The sleeves of his grey frock-coat are pulled back to keep the chalk dust from soiling them as he rapidly sketches on the board for our edification. We listen with respect, for we know he has been through precisely the same mill as ourselves, he has come on watch at midnight with his mouth dry and his eyelids sagging and wishing in his heart he were dead. He has won out and now stands ready to show us the way. We listen to every word. The lecture is short, sharp, apposite, a model of all a lecture should be, stripped to the bare bones of fundamental truth, pared clean of every redundant word. As the clock strikes three he claps his hands to rid them of chalk, pauses for a moment to answer pertinent questions, and vanishes into his office once more.
Most of us go home.
The author now has an assignation with a lady, and the reader who has been patiently waiting for some sort of literary allusions in a preface to a volume of literary essays, is about to be gratified. The scene changes from the vulgar uproar of Aldgate to a flat in Chelsea. Hurrying through Houndsditch, across Leadenhall Street and up St. Mary Axe, the author discovers the right 'bus in Broad Street about to start. They are filling the radiator with water and the conductor is intoning a mysterious incantation which resolves itself into "Benk! Oobun, Benk! Piccadilly, 'Yde Pawk, Sloon Stree', Sloon Square, Kings Road, Chelsea an' Walham Green. Here y' are, lidy." With long practice he can make the vowels reverberate above the roar of the traffic. The words Benk and Pawk come from his diaphragm in sullen booms. To listen to him is a lesson in prosody. He enjoys doing it. He is an artist. He extracts the uttermost from his material, which is the mark of the supreme artist. He unbends when he comes up to collect the fares from the author and a lady who is probably returning to Turnham Green after a visit to her married daughter at Islington, and he leans over the author's shoulder to scan the racing news in the Stop Press Column, a courtesy as little likely to be withheld in London as a light for a cigarette in Alexandria. "Hm!" he murmurs, stoically. "Jes' fancy! An' I had 'im backed for a place, too. That's the larst money I lose on that stable." He clatters down again and one hears his voice lifted once more as he rumbles: "Benk—Ooborn Benk!" with diaphragmatic intensity.
To know London from the top of a 'bus is no doubt a liberal education, but it may be questioned whether the tuition is as extensive and peculiar with a gasoline-driven vehicle as with the old horse-hauled affairs that took all day to jungle along from the North Pole Inn at Wormwood Scrubbs to the Mile End Road, or from the Angel at Islington to Roehampton. Almost before the author has digested a leading article dealing with the Venezuelan Question the 'bus roars down Sloan Street, shoots across the Square, and draws up just where a few people are already collecting by the pit-doors of the Court Theatre for the evening performance of "Man and Superman." This being the end of a stage, if the pleasantry may be pardoned, the author descends and walks onward to his destination, which is a flat down by the River.
There are certain thoroughfares in London which have always avoided any suspicion of respectable regularity either in their reputation or their architecture. The dead monotony of Woburn or Eaton Square, for example, the massive austerity of the Cromwell Road, and the cliff-like cornices of Victoria Street, are the antithesis of the extraordinary variety to be found in Park Lane, High Street Kensington, Maida Vale and Cheyne Walk. This last reveals, between Blantyre and Tite streets, the whole social order of England and the most disconcerting divarications of design. In it meet democracy, plutocracy, and aristocracy, artist and artisan, trade and tradition, philosophy and philistinism, publicans and publicists, connoisseurs and confidence men, sin and sincerity. It is not proposed to introduce the reader to the whole of this goodly company. The Balzac of Chelsea still tarries in obscurity. By some amazing oversight this street, which has sheltered more artists and authors than any other thoroughfare in the world, seems to have evaded their capture. Chelsea is a cosmos. Cheyne Walk is a world, a world abandoned by genius to the cheap purveyors of second-hand clap-trap and imitators of original minds.
Let us go upstairs.
Miss Flaherty is one of those women who appear from time to time in the newspaper world and who seem to embody in their own personalities the essential differences between journalism and literature. Their equipment is trivial and their industry colossal. In a literary sense they are so prolific that they do not beget; they spawn. They present a marvellous combination of unquenchable enthusiasm and slovenly inaccuracy. They needs must love the highest when they see it, but they are congenitally incapable of describing it correctly. Their conception of art consists of writing a book describing their own sexual impulses. This is frequently so ungrammatical and obscure that even publishers' readers balk at it, and it goes the rounds. In the meanwhile, they produce an incredible quantity of daily and weekly matter for the press. They wheedle commissions out of male editors by appealing to their sex, and write sprightly articles on Bachelor Girls and their Ideals, and the Economic Independence of the Married Woman. They become hysterically lachrymose, in print, over a romantic love affair, and relapse into sordid intrigues on the sly. They demand political power without intending for a single moment to assume political responsibility. Their days are about equally divided between catching a husband and achieving what they describe as "a scoop."
To all this Miss Flaherty adds an unusual faculty for spectacular antics. She has dressed in a red sweater and plied her trade, for a day, as a shoe-shine boy. She has dressed in a green cloak and sold shamrock on St. Patrick's day. She has dressed in rags and sung in the streets for charity. She has hired a van and ridden about the suburbs pretending to sell domestic articles. She has attended revival meetings and thrown herself in a spasm of ecstasy upon what she calls the mercy-seat. She has....
But the author is not absolutely sure whether she has ... after all. He is of the opinion that, like most English women, she has no talent for that sort of thing. Like most young women who babble of emancipation she has an unsuspected aptitude for domesticity. She makes tea far better than she writes articles. She is, under a ridiculous assumption of slangy modernity, oppressively conventional.
However, the author's immediate concern is not with Miss Flaherty's destiny at all, but with his manuscript which she has been XXXX commissioned to place with a publisher. A writer of dime novels, on being consulted as to the way to get a book published, said he didn't know, never having had a book to publish save in weekly serial numbers; and that, he hastened to observe, was quite another story. And then suddenly remarked, slapping his thigh and reaching for the makings of a fresh cigarette: "Why not try Imogene Flaherty? She's anxious to start in as author's agent." The author had no objections to raise beyond the fact that he disliked doing business with women and was afraid of anybody named Imogene. The dime-novelist shook his head and said women in business and journalism had come to stay. And seriously, Miss Flaherty might easily be of immense assistance to the author. "Very nice girl, too—h-m—hm!" This reminiscently. "Very decent little woman. Go and see her—take my card—down in Cheyne Walk. She had a flat down there near Church Street. H-m. Yes."
So it happened. And the result had been an explosion. Miss Flaherty had accepted the commission and had read the manuscript and had, in common parlance, gone up in the air. Her enthusiasm literally knew no bounds. She did not actually foam at the mouth, but she displayed all the symptoms of advanced literary hysteria. Now there is this to be said for the sea—it may not furnish one with universal judgments about women but it does provide the solitude and austere discipline which enable a man to coordinate his hitherto chaotic ideas about them. And women, if they only knew how they appear to the imagination of men on the rolling waters, would undoubtedly modify their own conceptions of life, and possibly profit by the change. Imogene, however, had no such moment of illumination. She lived in an enchanted world of imitation emotion and something in the author's manuscript had set her off, had appealed to her rudimentary notions of fine writing, and engendered a flame of enthusiasm. It is not too much to say that she believed in that manuscript much more than the author did. That is the correct attitude for a successful agent. Imogene did not "push" the book, as salesmen say, so much as herald it. She entered publishers' offices like a prophetess or one of the seraphim, panoplied in shining plumage, blinding the poor human eyes with beams of heavenly radiance, the marvellous manuscript, like a roll of lost gospels, held out before her. She blew a blast on her trumpet and the doors of the publishers' readers swung wide. No knowledge of English literature prevented her from uttering her solemn conviction that here was the greatest book since Geoffrey Chaucer laid down his pen. With intrepid resource she warned the hesitating publisher that he would have none save himself to blame if he missed this chance of immortalizing his house, and eventually a publisher was discovered who was willing to issue the book at the author's expense. All this, let it be said with regret, did not bring a blush to the author's sea-tanned cheek. On the contrary, he cherished a secret apprehension that Imogene had gone mad.
The one fly in the ointment at this juncture was the author's unmannerly attitude towards publishers who issued books at the writer's expense. He went so far as to characterize them as crooks and declined to have anything to do with them. He had been writing for a good many years of apprenticeship and had arrived at the conclusion that a man might get along in decent comfort all his life without publishing anything at all, if fate so ordered it; and the suggestion that he pay away his hoarded sea-wages just to have his name on a book, clouded a naturally sunny temper for some time.
Here, however, sitting at tea in the intensely artistic flat on the third floor over a grocery-store, and looking out upon the River and the warehouses of the Surrey Side, the author is rapturously apprised that the book is as good as sold. A publisher's reader, a representative of an important house, has declared that the book has distinction. This is a true record, in the main, and the author is obliged to confess, thirteen years later, that he fell for this. In his simplicity he thought it a fine thing to have distinction. And this is true. It is a fine thing, but the fineness of the bloom is soon licked off by the busy tongues of the Imogenes and their masculine counterparts. The author did not see this so clearly at the time. He felt as a cat feels when stroked. The patrons of distinction were also in a position to make a cash offer for the copyright. In those days, when fifty dollars a month was considered adequate remuneration for his services at sea, the author had modest notions about cash offers. He treated the matter in a sporting spirit and closed.
But it was not consummated in a word and with the gesture of signing one's name. Things are not done that way when dealing with Imogenes. One has to negotiate a continent of emotional hill-climbing and an ocean of talk. A sea-faring person, schooled to deal with men and things with an economy of effort, is moved to amazement before the spectacle of a "bachelor girl" in action. One assumes, of course, that she intends to remain a "bachelor girl." There is the solemn initiation into the ranks of her pals. Palship, as she calls it, is something quite different from friendship, and to a man of normal instincts this is an alarming proposition. It is certainly far more exhausting than an intrigue and far less interesting than a rationally controlled friendship with a person of the same sex. And here it is pertinent to put forward what the author conceives to be the fundamental trouble with the Imogenes of both sides of the Atlantic. It is pertinent because he was, at the time of writing this book, under the influence of a very potent and inspiring friendship for a man now dead, a friendship which moulded his ideas and inspired him to hammer out for himself a characteristic philosophy of life. And one of the most important determinations of that philosophy deals with the common errors concerning friendship and love. The mistake of the bachelor girl and her prototypes lies in their failure to recognize the principle of sex as universal. It is not so much that men and women cannot meet without the problem of sex arising between them as that no two human beings can have any interchange of thoughts at all without involving each other in a complex of which masculine and feminine are the opposite poles. The most fascinating of all friendships are those in which the protagonists alternate, each one, owing to freshly revealed depths or shallows in his character, assuming the masculine or feminine role. The Latin recognises this by instinct. Just as his nouns are always either masculine or feminine, so are his ideas. And his women, who have never heard of "bachelor girls" or "palship," have achieved with consummate skill all and more than the Imogenes have ever imagined. Any one who has ever enjoyed the friendship of such women will recall that subtle aroma of sex which informs the whole affair. The coarse-grained northerner is prone to attribute the abundant vitality, the exquisite graces of body and mind to a deftly concealed vampirism or sensuality. Nothing is further from the truth. If you can play up to it, if your emotions and instincts are under the control of a traditional and finely tempered will, a notable experience is yours. Friendship, in fact, is the divinity whose name must not be uttered or he will vanish. She will not inform you, as Imogene does, that you are not in love with her and she is not in love with you and therefore a palship is under way. On the contrary, she will never let you forget that love is a possibility always just out of sight, where it will always remain. She is economically independent because men cannot do without her. She has more rights than the Imogenes will gain in a thousand years; and she is, moreover, something that men would strive to preserve in a world-cataclysm, whereas no one would give Imogene a single panic thought.
Imogene, however, has no inkling of this. She is under the impression that she is one of the world's cosmic forces. In the rag-bag of her brain whence she fishes out the innumerable formless and gaudy-coloured pilferings from which she fashions her "special articles," she cherishes an extraordinary illusion that she is a sort of modern Hypatia. She says Aspasia, but that is only because she has confused Kingsley's heroine with Pericles' mistress. She talks of "mating with an affinity" of "influencing the lives of the men who do things." She is very worried about the men who do things. It is a proof of her conventional and Victorian mentality that she imagines men who do things are inspired to do them by women; whereas it is rather the other way round, the men who do things having to avoid the majority of women as they would cholera morbus, if they are ever to get anything done.
Springing up on the impulse of this thought the author makes his excuses to the assembled guests and descends the dark stairway to the street. To tell the truth, these glimpses into the society of literary folk do not inspire in his bosom any frantic anxiety to abandon his own way of life. He had a furtive and foolish notion that these people are of no importance whatever. These coteries, these at-homes, and flat philosophies are not the real thing. It sounds unsocial and unconventional, no doubt, but it is a question so far unsettled in the author's mind whether any genuine artist loves his fellows well enough to co-habit with them on a literary basis. For some mysterious reason the real men, the original living forces in literature, do not frequent the salons of the Imogenes. They are more likely to be found in the private bars of taverns in the King's Road, or walking along lonely roads in Essex and Surrey. Indeed, they may be preoccupied with problems quite foreign to the immediate business of literary conversation. They may be building bridges, or sailing ships, or governing principalities. They are unrecognised for the most part. The fact is they are romantic, and it is the hall-mark of the true romantic to do what other men dream of, and say nothing about it.
The motives of the author, however, in deserting the flat in Chelsea, were not entirely due to dreams of lofty achievement, but to the stern necessity to read voraciously on the subject of Heat for his examination. And one of the dominating changes which he discovers in himself after the passage of thirteen years is a sad falling off in brain-power. He is no longer able to read voraciously on the subject of Heat and Heat-engines. His technical library remains packed with grim neatness in his cabin book-case. When his juniors bring problems involving a quadratic equation he is stricken with a horrible fear lest the answer won't come out. He looks through his old examination papers and echoes Swift's melancholy sigh "Gad! What a genius I had when I wrote all that!" Most professional men, one is bound to suppose, become aware at periods of the gradual ossification of their intellects. And it is not always easy to retain a full consciousness of the compensating advantages of seniority in the face of this positive degeneration. One begins to watch carefully for errors where one used to go pounding to a finish with a full-blooded rush. One has a feeling of being overtaken; the young people of the next decade can be heard not far behind, and they seem to be offensively successful in business, in friendship, and in love. One has ceased to be interesting to the women of thirty and the men of forty. The achievement of years shrinks to depressing dimensions, and the real test is on. One becomes uncomfortably aware of the shrewd poke of Degas that "any one can have talent at twenty-five. The great thing is to have talent at forty."
The reader is invited to assume, therefore, that the author, at twenty-five, was sufficiently talented and ambitious to read voraciously on Heat and a great many other subjects. That he did so he calls on Mrs. Honeyball to witness, since that lady was really concerned for his health and urged him not to work too hard "for fear of a break-down." There was never any danger of a break-down, however. London was outside that window with 1472 carved below it, and at the first warning of fatigue the author would take hat and stick and fare forth in search of recreation and adventure. He would apologize to Mrs. Honeyball and her friends gathered in the little room below, where they were discussing what Mr. Honeyball described as "Christian Work." Mr. Honeyball used to bring out this phrase with extraordinary vigour and emphasis, as though the very enunciation were a blow to the designs of Satan. The author heard, during a later voyage, that the Honeyballs did eventually give up the mundane job of supervising apartments and retired to a quiet sea-side town where they devoted themselves entirely to "Christian Work."
It was on one of these evening strolls that the author became on speaking terms with the girl who ate a bun and a glass of milk for breakfast every morning. It is very easy to get acquainted with a virtuous girl in England—so easy that the foreigner is frequently bewildered or inclined to be suspicious of the virtue. It is a facility difficult to reconcile with our heavily advertised frigidity, our disconcerting habit of addressing a stranger as though some invisible third person (an enemy) just behind him were the object of our dignified disapproval. It may be explained by the fact that, from the middle classes downward, and excluding the swarms of immigrants in the large cities, we are a very old race, with a comprehensive knowledge of our own mentalities. One finds blond, blue-eyed Saxon children in East Anglia, and there are black-haired, brown-skinned people in the West Country who have had no foreign admixture to their Phoenician blood since the Norman Conquest. This makes for a certain solidarity of sentiment and a corresponding freedom of intercourse.
Not that Mabel would understand any of this if she heard it. She has a robust and coarse-textured mind curiously contrasted with her pale, delicate features and sombre black eyes. She was one of those people who seem suddenly to transmute themselves into totally different beings the moment one speaks to them. As the author did one evening, after peering absently through the window of a candy-store down near the railroad arch below Charing Cross, and seeing her sitting pensive behind the stacks of merchandise. She was very glad to see a familiar face and recognised the claim of the breakfast-hour with a tolerant smile and a cheerful nod. It is very easy, while talking to Mabel, to understand why there is no native opera in England, and a very powerful native literature. Opera can only prosper where the emotional strain between the sexes is so heavy that it must be relieved by song and gesture. We have nothing of that in England. Women, more even than men, distrust themselves and eschew the outward trappings of romance. But this makes for character, so that our friends and relatives appear to us like the men and women in novels. Mabel was like that. She walked in and out of half a dozen books which the author had recently read. And her importance in this preface lies in the illumination she shed upon this same subject of literature. The author at that time, as will be seen in the following pages, was addicted to fine writing and he held the view that literature was for the cultured and made no direct appeal to the masses. Mabel unconsciously showed that this was a mistaken view. Mabel was as chock full of literature as a Russian novel. She had adventures everywhere. The author coming in and talking to her, after breakfasting in the same coffee-room, was an adventure. It would make a story, she observed with naive candour. Only the other night, she remarked, a strange gentleman came, a foreigner of some sort, and asked for chocolates. A very entertaining gentleman with a bag, which he asked her to keep. No fear, she observed; no bombs or things in her shop—take it to the cloak-room in the station. Well, he must have done so, for they got it out of there after his arrest. Here was his photograph in the Sunday paper. Millions of francs he'd stole. Like a novel, wasn't it? The author said it was, very, and begged for more. He said she ought to write them down. Mabel looked grave at this and said she had a fellow ... splendid education he had had. Was in the Prudential. Her voice grew low and hesitating. He was going to give it up! Give up the Prudential? But that was a job for life, wasn't it? Ah, but he had it in him.... It appeared that he had won five pounds for a story. It was wonderful the way he wrote them off. In his spare time. And poetry. He was really a poet, but poetry didn't pay, the author was given to understand. So he wrote stories. Some people made thousands a year.
This was all very well from Mabel's point of view, but the author did not want to go into the vexed question of royalties. He wanted, on the contrary, to know Mabel's feelings towards the coming Maupassant of North London. Did she love him? Or rather, to put the matter in another way, did he love her? Was he permitted that supreme privilege? Well, they had been going round together, on and off, this nine months now. As for being engaged ... he only got two pound a week as yet, remember. Yes, that was why she wanted him to go in for this writing and make a hit. She'd take it on and make ends meet somehow, if he did that. She could help him. He said she had some good ideas, only they wanted working out. And here was a secret—he'd written a play! Mabel leaned over the candy jars and whispered this dreadful thing in the author's ear. A friend of theirs had seen it—he was at one of the theatres in the electrical department and knew all the stars—and he said it was very good but needed what he called pulling together! If only a reliable person in the play-writing line could be found to do this pulling together, there might be a fortune in it.
The reader may be disturbed at Mabel's insistence upon the financial possibilities of literature, but in this she was only a child of her time. The point worthy of note is not her rapacity but the dexterity with which she utilized literature to further her ambition. She was identifying herself with literature and so fortifying her position. She was really far better fitted to be the wife of a fictionist than Imogene. And she could appreciate poetry addressed to herself. The author eventually saw some of it for a moment, written on sermon paper, but the stanzas shall remain forever vibrating in his own bosom. She is memorable to the author, moreover, in that she brought home to him for the first time the startling fact that every such woman is, in a sense, an adventuress. She never knows what will happen next. She is in the grip of incalculable forces. She has to work with feverish haste to make herself secure and to use even such bizarre instruments as literature in the pursuit of safety. Back in his tiny chambers over the old Gate of Cliffords Inn, the author meditated darkly upon that play that only required "pulling together" to make it the nucleus of a fortune. Evidently, he reflected, there were determined characters about, aided and inspired by equally determined young women, battering upon the gates of Fame, and he felt his own chances of success against such rivals were frail indeed. So he went to sea again.
Here, in one short sentence, is the gist of this book, that the sea is a way of escape from the intolerable burden of life. A cynic once described it as having all the advantages of suicide without any of its inconveniences. To the author it was more than that. It was the means of finding himself in the world, a medium in which he could work out the dreams which beset him and which were the basis of future writings. But ever at the back of the mind will there be the craving to get out beyond the bar, to see the hard, bright glitter of impersonal land-lights die suddenly in the fresh gusts, and to leave behind the importunate demands of business, of friendship, and of love.
"From too much love of living From hope and fear set free."
The words hummed in his brain as he ascended the stone stairs of the gaunt building in Mark Lane to face the final ordeal of a viva voce examination before the Head Examiner. There had been a hurried consultation in whispers in the great examination room. In a far corner was a glazed, portioned-off space where sat the regular examiner with a perspiring candidate in front of him, tongue-tied and weary. And there were a dozen more waiting. So the author was informed in a whisper that he had better step upstairs and the Head Examiner would deal with him. And settle his hash quickly enough, thought the author as he sprang nimbly up behind the assistant examiner. He found himself in a large, imposing office where at an immense desk sat a man with a trim beard, rapidly scanning a mass of papers. The author immediately became absorbed in the contemplation of this person, for he bore an extraordinary resemblance to George Meredith. The head in profile was like a Sicilian antique, with the clear-cut candour of a cameo. Memories of Lord Ormont and His Aminta crowded upon the waiting victim and he found himself almost hysterical with curiosity as to what would happen if he claimed to be a distant connection of Sir Willoughby Patterne, but without the historic leg. What if he led the conversation gently towards Richard Feverel's perfect love-story, or alluded to a lady with whom he will always remain in love—Diana of the Crossways? But nothing of the sort happened. The author was nodded curtly to a seat, the assistant examiner chose another chair close by, cleared his throat, shot his cuffs, and pulled up the knees of his trousers. The Head Examiner, without looking up or desisting from his rapid writing, began to express his deep regret that the author apparently preferred to work an evaporator under a pressure instead of a vacuum. There might possibly be some reason for this which he, the Examiner, had overlooked, and he would appreciate it if the author could so far unbend as to outline his experience in this business. Whereupon the Head Examiner proceeded with his writing and left the author, in a state of coma, facing an expectant assistant examiner, who resembled some predatory bird only waiting for life to be extinct before falling upon the victim. Somewhat to his own surprise, however, the victim showed signs of returning animation, and began to utter strange, semi-articulate noises. The Head Examiner wrote on with increasing speed; the assistant examiner, somewhat disappointed, still preserved an expectant air. The victim became more active, and astounded himself by carrying the war into the enemy's camp. He announced himself as an adherent of the pressure method. He became eloquent, describing his tribulations working an evaporator on a vacuum. But the aim of examiners apparently is not to hear what one knows but to reveal to a shocked world what one does not know. The subject was immediately changed to the advantages of multi-polar generators and the ethics of the single-wire system. The assistant examiner reluctantly resigned any thoughts of an immediate banquet upon the author's remains and assumed an attitude of charitable tolerance, much as one watches an insect's valorous struggles to get out of the molasses. The Head Examiner from time to time interjected a short, sharp question, like a lancet into the discussion, but without looking up or ceasing to write with extreme rapidity. And as time went on and the whole range of knowledge was gone over in the attempt to destroy him, the author began to wonder whether these men thought he had, like Lord Bacon, taken all knowledge for his province, whether tramp steamers carried a crew of technical pundits, and whether there would be so many literary men and women about if they had to go through this sort of thing. And the thought of literature brought back George Meredith to mind again, only to be dismissed. It was much more like being examined by Anthony Trollope or Arnold Bennett, the author decided, than by Meredith. Appearances are misleading. The thin, classical face never roused from its down-cast repose and implacable attention. But at long last the assistant examiner shuffled his papers and remained silent for a moment, as though regretfully admitting that the victim was, within bounds, omniscient, and could not be decently tortured any longer. As an after thought, however, and glancing at the Head Examiner as he did so, he enquired whether the author had experienced any break-downs, accidents, smashes....
The author had. It was a subject upon which he was an authority, having served in a ship twenty-five years old with rotten boilers and perishing frames. And all unwittingly he became reminiscent and drifted into the story of a gale in the Bristol Channel with the empty ship rolling till she showed her bilge keels, the propeller with its boss awash thrashing the sea with lunatic rage, and then the three of us swaying and sweating on the boiler-tops, a broken main-steam pipe lying under our feet. And it had to be done, for the tide and the current were taking us up to Lundy, where half-tide rocks would soon cook our goose, as the saying is. And as he grew absorbed in the tale the author observed out of the corner of his eye that the Head Examiner's pen paused and then was gently laid down, a new expression of alertness, as though about to deliver judgment, came over the finely cut features. And presently, as it was explained how an iron collar was made and clamped about the broken pipe, and long bolts made to pass into the solid flanges of the valve below, to haul the pipe into its socket and hold it there by main force until we could get in, the Head Examiner turned in his chair, and nodded as he touched his beard lightly with one finger. It was about four in the morning when the job was finished, the author recalled, and he came up on to the wet deck, with low clouds flying past and Lundy an ominous shadow behind, while the dawn lifted beyond the Welsh Mountains and the jolly, homely lights of Swansea shone clear ahead. And as he paused and remarked that the repair proved to be effective, he saw something else in the face of the man watching him, something not seen before, something not very easy to describe. But it may be said to have marked another step in his career. Call it character, and the perception of it. Something, as the reader will see, that is only emerging in the pages of this book. Something harsh and strong-fibred, nurtured upon coarse food and the inexorable discipline of the sea. Something that is the enemy of sloth and lies and the soft languors of love. Indeed, what the author has finally to say after all may be comprised in this—that out of his experience, which has been to a certain degree varied, he has come to the conviction that this same character, the achievement and acceptance of it, stands out as the one desirable and indispensable thing in the world, and neither fame nor wealth nor love can furnish any adequate substitute for it.
S. S. Turrialba, August, 1920.
[Footnote A: Preface to the first edition.]
As I sit, this hot July day, by my window on the Walk, while the two streams, of traffic and of Thames, drift past me, I think of the man who was my friend, the man who loved this scene so well.
And he is dead. In my hand, as I write, lie his last written words, a hasty scribble ere the steamer left port on her voyage across the Atlantic. He is busy, as is evident by the greasy thumb-mark on the corner. He sat down in the midst of his work to send a last line to his friend. There is the inevitable joke at the expense of "his friend the Mate," that individual being in a towering passion with a certain pig which had escaped from his enclosure. This same pig, he declares, is some previous First Officer, who had been smitten by Circe for incontinence, and now wanders even from his sty! But I cannot go on in this way, for he is dead, poor lad, and I shall not see him again.
To those men who have wedded early I can never hope to explain the deep-rootedness of such a friendship as ours. It was, to me, as though my own youth were renewed in more perfect design. Never again shall I experience that exquisite delight with which one sees a youth reach post after post along the ways of life and thought, reach out eagerly to field on field of knowledge, through which one has tramped or scampered so many years before. With something of wonder, too, was I inspired to see so young a man lead a life so perfectly balanced, so exquisitely sensitive to every fine masculine influence. Possessing to an unusual degree that rare temperament which we call culture, he entered joyously into all that life offered to him, impatient only of hypocrisy and what he called "the copiously pious." Many misunderstood this phase of his character, mistaking for coarseness what was really a very fine love of honesty in thinking.
Of his antecedents I have often wished to know something, but it was his whim to treat personal details in a very general way. He would maintain obstinately that he himself was the most interesting person he had ever met, because, he would add, he knew so little about himself! When pressed, he would say, "My forefathers plowed the soil, my father plowed the ocean, I myself am the full corn in the ear." As to his childhood, he rarely mentioned it save in a cynical manner, indicating indisputably enough that all had not gone well.
"In the beginning," I heard him tell a religious person, "In the beginning my mother bore me. When I was a child I was wont to bore my mother. Now we bore each other." That this was primarily intended to shock our friend's devotional sensibilities I do not doubt, but I imagine it contained some small truth all the same. I think he rather shrank from personalities, resolutely refusing even to be photographed, hating that process with an unexampled vehemence strange in one so modern and so versed in mechanical and chemical science. "I!" he would rage. "What have I done to merit portraiture? Have I builded a city, or painted a masterpiece, or served my country, or composed an iliad?" Again, "Better a single faulty human effort than the most perfect photograph ever developed."
Scanty indeed, therefore, did I find the materials with which to fashion an introduction to this book. With the exception of one or two pertinent fragments among his manuscripts, fragments more valuable to a critic than a biographer, I was unrewarded. One thing, however, was impressed upon me by my search. Here, at any rate, was a man developed to the full. Here was a man whose culture was deep and broad, whose body was inured to toil, whose hands and brains were employed in doing the world's work. I have read in books vehement denials of such a one's existence. He himself, in citing Ruskin, seemed to be sceptical of any one man becoming a passionate thinker and a manual worker. But I have often heard him in close converse with some old shopmate, passing hour after hour in technical reminiscences and descriptions; then, upon the entrance of some artist or litterateur, plunge into the history of Letters or of Arts, never at a loss for authorities or original ideas, often even illuminating intellectual problems by some happy analogy with the problems of his trade, and rarely grounding on either the Scylla of overbearing conceit or the Charybdis of foolish humility.
I must insist on this fact at all events: he was not merely a clever young man of modern ideas. "London is paved and bastioned with clever young men," he would snarl. His aversion to the impossible type of cultured nonentities was almost too marked. His passion for thinking as an integral part of life placed him beyond these, among a rarer, different class of men, the lovers of solitude. It came to view in various ways, this fine quality of intellectual fibre. And, indeed, he—who had in him so much that drove him towards the fine Arts, yet could go out to earn his bread upon the waters, dwelling among those who had no glimmering of the things he cared for—was no slippered mouther of Pater and Sainte-Beuve but a strong spirit, confident in his own breadth of pinion, courageous to let Fate order his destiny.
Another outcome of my search for light was a conviction of the importance of his theory of art. I might almost say his religion of art, inasmuch as he had no traffic with anything that was not spontaneous, effervescing. To him a hammer and a chisel were actual and very real, and the plastic art appealed especially to him in its character of smiting. To smite from the stone, to finish with all a craftsman's cunning care—there seemed to him real joy in this; and so I think he felt the influence of art dynamically, maintaining always that the life-force is also the art-force, and remains constant throughout the ages. So, I imagine, he reasoned when he wrote the following verses, only to fling them aside to be forgotten:
An Author, Sitting to a Sculptor, Speaks His Mind.
And yet you call yourself a sculptor, sir? You with your tape a-trailing to and fro, Jotting down figures, frowning when I stir, Measuring me across the shoulders, so! And yet you are an artist, they aver, Heir to the crown of Michelangelo?
I cannot think—eh, what? I ought to think? How will you have me? Shall I sit at ease, Staring at nothing thro' the eyelids' chink, Coining new words for old philosophies? Aye, so I sit until the pale stars wink And vanish ere the early morning breeze.
Sculpture is dead, I say! We have no men To match the mighty masters of the past: I've read, I've seen their works; the acumen Of Learning on their triumph I have cast. Divine! Colossal! Tongue nor pen Can tell their beauty, O Iconoclast!
Ah, now you're modelling—in the soft clay! In that prosaic task where is the glow Of genius, as in great Lorenzo's day, When, solitary in his studio, Buonarotti, in his "terrible way," Smote swift and hard the marble, blow on blow?
One moment while I ask you, earnestly, Where is the splendour of the Dorian gone, The genius of him whose mastery Outshines the classic grace of Sicyon, Whose art can show Death lock'd with Life, the cry, The shuddering moan of poor Laocoon?
The Sculptor continues to model swiftly while the sitter remains motionless, watching him.
That's good, sir, good! I'll wait till you have done: We men of letters are a crabbed race; Often we're blind with staring at the sun; And when the evening stars begin their race, We miss their beauty, we, who creep and run Like beetles o'er a buried Greek god's face.
I am reluctant to explain one of the main motifs of this young man's life as "an unfortunate love affair." Indeed, apart from his frank avowal of the wandering fever in his blood, I am grown to believe that it was the very reverse of unfortunate for him. It brought him, as such things do, face to face with Realities, and showed him, sharply enough, that at a certain point in a man's life there is a Gate, guarded by the Fates, whose questions he must answer truthfully, or turn sadly aside into the vague thickets of an aimless existence. And never did there live a youth more sincere in his thought. I know nothing more typical of him than his resolute refusal to sit for his portrait until he had done something memorable. "What!" he would cry. "Why, the milk-man, who, I heard, has just had twins, is more worthy of that high honour than I. He has done something in the world!"
And now he is dead, and doing and not doing are beyond his power. That the sea whereon he was born should bring him his death was fitting. Often he would urge his horror, not of death, but of Christian burial. To be boxed up in the midst of mummeries and lies—he would start up and pace the floor, the sweat standing on his face. Grimly enough, Fate took him at his word, flung him suddenly into eternity, the rushing of the wind his only requiem, the coastwise lights and the morning star the only watchers of his end.
To the orthodox sentiment sudden death may seem a very horrible sort of end to a promising life. But, as I sit by my window on the Walk, while the tides of Thames and traffic flow swiftly by, and the blue evening mist comes down over the river, transforming dingy wharf and factory into fairy palace and phantom battlement, it seems to me that my friend died fitly and well, in the midst of Realities, recking little that the love he thought secure had passed irrevocably from him, but never swerving in fidelity to his mistress or devotion to his friend.
The air grows chilly, and night has fallen over the river.
AN OCEAN TRAMP
This evening, as the Italian boatman rowed me across the harbour of Livorno, and the exquisite loveliness of the night enfolded me, I thought of you. It may be that the long curving line of lights which marked the Molo Nuovo reminded me of the Embankment by our windows, and so carried my mind on to him who waits for his Vanderdecken to return. Around me loomed the hulls of many steamers, their dark sides relieved by glowing port-holes, while across the water came the hoarse calls of the boatmen, the sound of oars, music, and the light laughter of women. Far down the harbour, near the Castello, a steamer's winches rattled and roared in irregular gusts of noise. By the Custom House a steam yacht, gleaming ghostly white in the darkness, lay at rest. And so, as the boat slipped through the buoys, and the molten silver dripped from the oars, I thought of you, my friend at home, and of my promise that I would tell you of the life of men in a cargo-tramp.
I propose, as I go on from sea to sea, to tell, in the simplest language in my power, of the life that is around me, of the men among whom I toil. I shall not tell you of these fair towns of the Southern Sea, for you have travelled in years gone by. I shall not prattle of the beauties of Nature, for the prattle is at your elbow in books. But I shall—nay, must, for it is my use and habit—tell you about myself and the things in my heart. I shall be, not a hero talking about men, but a man talking about heroes, as well as the astonishing beings who go down to the sea in ships, and have their business in great waters.
To you, therefore, these occasional writings will be in somewise addressed. You are my friend, and I know you well. That alone is to me a mystic thread in the skein of my complex life, a thread which may not be severed without peril. You, moreover, know me well, or perhaps better, inasmuch as I am but passing the periods of early manhood, while you are in the placid phases of an unencumbered middle-age. So, in speaking of the deep things of life, I may leave much to be taken for granted, as is fitting between friends.
I offer no apology, moreover, for the form of these Letters from an Ocean Tramp. Even if I unwisely endeavoured to hide their literary character under a disguise of colloquialisms and familiar references to personal intimacies, I should fail, because, as I have just said, you know me well. In your private judgments, I believe, I am allocated among those who are destined to set the Thames on fire. In plainer words, you believe that I have an ambition. This is true, and so I make no attempt to conceal from you the ulterior design of these essays. Ere you have read one of them, you will perceive that I am writing a book.
I shall take no umbrage at the failure of my communications to call forth replies. I know you to be a bad correspondent, but a valuable friend. I know that your attitude toward a letter addressed to you is that of a mediaeval prince toward a recalcitrant prisoner—viz., get all the information possible out of him, and then commit him to the flames. Possibly, when I have attained to a deeper knowledge of the spirit of the Middle Ages, I shall also have discovered the motives for this curious survival of barbarism in your character. I can only hope humbly that these papers, armed with their avowed literary import, will not share the fate of the commoner envoys passing through your hands, but will be treated as noble ambassadors rather than as hapless petitioners, not merely escaping the flames of oblivion, but receiving safe conduct, courteous audience, and honourable lodging.
I suppose we may say of everyone, that he sooner or later falls a victim to the desire to travel, with as much truth as we say, far more often, that he falls a victim to love. However that may be, I claim no special destiny when I say that I have been mastered by both passions, except perhaps that they culminated in my case simultaneously.
I must go back to the time when I was some six years old to find the first faint evidences of the rover in me. At that time we lived almost at the foot of that interminable thoroughfare, the Finsbury Park Road, next door to a childless dame whose sole companion was a pug of surpassing hideousness of aspect, and whose sole recreation was a morning stroll in Finsbury Park with this pug. How I came to form a third person in these walks I cannot quite remember but I can imagine. At the age of six I was a solemn child, unclean in habits, consorting with "grown-ups," and filled with an unsocial hatred for the baby whose matutinal ablutions were consummated at the same hour at which the old lady usually took her walk. I can remember that I was supposed to assist in some way at those ablutions, probably to hold the mottled soap, which curiously resembled the infant's limbs when pinched with cold; and so, I suppose, I would steal out and join the lady and her dog, walking a little to one side as we drifted slowly up the dull suburban street into the park. Sometimes we went as far as the lake, and I have faint memories of a bun, purchased by the dame, and munched by me as we watched the gardeners trimming the beds. I do not wish to suggest that this lady was my first love—I have never carried my senophile proclivities to that extent. She was, to me, the antithesis of mottled soap and cradle-rocking, and as such she lives in my memory. I am also grateful to her for giving me my first glimpse of a world outside the front door; an ugly world, it is true, a world of raucous bargaining and ill-bred enjoyment, but a world nevertheless.
Why should I tell of so trivial an incident? Bear with me a moment.
Since I have been at sea I have often reflected upon the fact that many phases of my life are even now going on, quite heedless of my absence, quite apathetic of my very existence, in fact. How marvellous, it seems to me, to know that life at my old school is proceeding upon exactly the same lines as when I was there! At this moment I can see, in imagination, the whole routine; and I can tell at any time what the school is doing. Again, I know precisely the goings-in and the comings-out of all the staff at my old employer's; picture to myself with ease what is happening at any instant. More wonderful still, I know what my friend is doing at this moment. I know that he is seated in his room at the Institute, talking to our friends (perchance of me), ere they descend to their lectures at seven o'clock. At ten, while I am "turned in," he will be leaving the Institute, and the 'bus will put him down at his favourite hostelry. At this moment he is smoking a cigarette! But then, of course, he is always smoking a cigarette!
It is a far cry from a stealthy stroll with an old woman in Finsbury Park to a twenty-thousand-mile tramp in a freighter, and yet one is the logical outcome of the other, arrived at by unconscious yet inevitable steps. Listen again.
At a later period, when I had discovered that tools were a necessary complement to my intellectual well-being, I brought my insatiable desire to make something to the assistance of my equally insatiable desire to go somewhere. From a sugar-box and a pair of perambulator wheels I fashioned a cart, between the shafts of which I travelled many leagues into the wilds of Middlesex and Essex. "Leagues" must be understood in the sense in which Don Quixote would have used the word. I do not suppose I ever traversed more than eight or ten miles at a time. But never, while the desire to go out and see is living within me, shall I forget how, one breathless August day, when the air was heavy with the aroma of creosoted sleepers, my small brother and I stared through the gates of a level crossing, and saw Epping Forest in the blue distance! O phantoms of Cortes, Balboa, and De Soto, wert thou there? O Sir Francis, hadst thou that thrill when
"Drake went down to the Horn, And England was crowned thereby"?
But I grow magniloquent. My object is attained if I can but show that when my friend took me under his wing at the Institute long years agone, when the innocent-looking lad with the fair hair, that might have had an incipient tonsure superimposed without incongruity, drifted away from text-books of mechanics, and sat down with Schiller, Ducoudray, and Carlyle, he little imagined how adventurous a spirit there boiled under that demure disguise of retiring scholarship—a spirit fired with an untamable passion for looking over the back-garden wall!
Even perambulator wheels give out, however. I forget whether the wheels of my little cart failed before my mother's patience, or the reverse. I was growing away from those tiny journeys; my head bulged with loose heaps of intellectual rubbish acquired during long hours of unsociable communion with a box of books in the lumber room. I knew the date of Evil Merodach's accession to the Assyrian throne, but I did not know who killed Cock Robin. I knew more than Keats about the discovery of the Pacific, but I did not know Keats. I knew exactly how pig-iron was smelted, but I did not know the iron which enters into the soul. I knew how to differentiate between living and non-living matter, but I did not know that I was alive. Then a new heaven and a new hell opened before me; I was sent away to school.
Concerning school and, after school, apprenticeship, I shall not speak. Neither mind nor body can wander far in those humane penitentiaries called schools. I had fed myself with History since I had learned, painfully enough, to read, and here at school I found I knew nothing. What did it matter? The joy of knowing the name of the wife of Darius, of Lucan, of Caesar, was mine alone. I wove stories about Roxana and Polla, but I doubt if any one ever wove stories about the Conventicle Act, or the Petition of Rights, or the Supremacy of the Pope, as told in a school history. I often wonder that boys do not grow up to hate their country, when they are gorged with the horrible trash in those yellow volumes.
I once read of a little boy who killed himself after reading "The Mighty Atom." I believe many people deplored this, and expressed aversion to the book in consequence. That is proper; but suppose the school history had related the story of "The Little Princes in the Tower" with the same power and intensity which Corelli employs in the "Atom," and suppose the little boy had been so overwhelmed with the horror and vividness of the historical perspective that he had hanged himself behind the fourth-form classroom door—well, then, I should say the remainder of the boys would have learned the reign of Richard the Third as it has never been learned before or since, and the unhappy suicide would not have died in vain.
But, as I said, one cannot wander far at school. A schoolmaster once advised his colleagues to take up some literary hobby—essay writing, articles for the press, etc.; for, said he, teaching is a narrowing profession. I wonder if any schoolmaster has ever imagined how narrowing it is for the boys? Have they never seen the look of abject boredom creep over the faces of even clever lads as the "lesson" drones on: "At this period the Gothic style of architecture arose, and was much used in Northern Europe for ecclesiastical buildings." And so on, including dates. Whose spirit would not fail? Why not, oh, my masters, why not use this inborn passion for wandering abroad of which I write? Why not take that jaded band of youths out across yon fields, take them to the village church, and show them grinning gargoyle and curling finial, show them the deep-cut blocks of stone, show them, on your return, a picture of the Rue de la Grosse Horloge at Rouen? Would your trade be narrowing then?
But the sea!
My friend asked me once, of the Mediterranean—Is it really blue? And I replied that I could give him no notion of the colour of it. And that is true. From the real "sea-green" of the shallow North Sea to the turquoise-blue of the Bay; from the grey-white rush of the Irish Sea to the clear-cut emerald of the Clyde Estuary; from the colourless, oily swell of the Equatorial Atlantic to the paraffin-hued rollers of the Tropic of Cancer, the sea varies as human nature itself. To the artist, I imagine, no two square miles are alike, no two sunsets, no two sunrises:
"His sea in no showing the same, His sea, yet the same in all showing."
As I climbed the steep side of the almost-empty steamer, lying at the Tyne-main Buoys, a keen, alert, bearded face looked over the gunwale above me. I stepped aboard and spoke to the owner of this face. I said, "Is the Chief aboard?"
"He is not."
"Is the Captain aboard?"
"He is not."
"Then who is aboard?"
"The Mate's aboard."
"Are you the Mate?"
"I am that."
"My name is McAlnwick. I am signing on with this steamer."
"Ye're welcome." And we shook hands.
He is the very image of my old Headmaster, is this mate of the Benvenuto. The trim beard, the keen, blue, deep-set eyes, the smile—how often have I seen them from my vantage-point at the bottom of the Sixth Form! On his head is an old uniform cap with two gold bands and an obliterated badge. He wears a soiled mess-jacket with brass buttons in the breast-pocket of which I see the mouthpiece of a certain ivory-stemmed pipe. His hands are in his trouser pockets, and he turns from me to howl into the cavernous hold some directions to the cargo-men below. In the gathering gloom of a short January afternoon, with the rush and roar of the winches in my ears, I stumble aft to my quarters, thinking pleasantly of my first acquaintance.
And our friendship grows as we proceed. When we have slipped out of the Tyne one grey evening, when the lights of Shields and Sunderland die away, we are friends. For, as I prophesied, my whiskey would open hearts. It was on a cold, bleak morning, ere we left Newcastle, that I heard a stealthy step down the stairs to my room, and a husky whisper—had I a nip o' whiskey? Yes, I had a nip. The bottle is opened, and I fill two glasses. Evidently the First Officer is no believer in dilution. With a hushed warning of "Ould Maun!" as a dull snoring comes through the partition, he tosses my whiskey "down his neck," rubs his stomach, and vanishes like—like a spirit! Later in the day, as I stare across at some huge ships-of-war (for we are opposite Elswick now), I hear a voice, a hearty voice, at my elbow.
"Thank ye, Mister McAlnwick, for the whiskey. 'Twas good!"
I express my pleasure at hearing this. He touches me on the shoulder.
"Come down to me berth this evening," he says, "an' we'll have a nip." And I promise.
Perhaps it is the sensation of drinking whiskey with my Headmaster's double, but I enjoy creeping down the companion-way to the Mate's room. And I, being of the true line of descent, with my father held in memory still, am welcome. I am taken into this old sea-dog's confidence, and we talk. I have learnt, I think, the delicate art of asking questions of the men who do the world's work. Perhaps because I have dwelt so long with them, because I love them truly, they tell me the deep things of their lives. And so you must picture me in the Mate's room, seated on his settee, while he loads my knees with photographs of his wife and children. This is Jack, son and heir, in his Boys' Brigade uniform. He has a flute, too, which he "plays beautiful, Mr. McAlnwick—beautiful!" Then there is Madge, a sweet little English maid of fourteen, with a violin: "Her mother to the life." "Dot" follows, with only her big six-year-old eyes looking out of curls which are golden. And the Baby on his mother's knee—but I cannot describe babies. To me they are not beautiful creatures. They always seem to me, in photographs, to be stonily demanding why they have been born; and I, wretched man that I am, cannot answer them, for I do not know. Calypso, too, not "eternally aground on the Goodwin Sands of inconsolability," interests me, in that I also was mothered of a sea-wife. A hard life, I imagine, a hard life. I find no delight in the sea in these mariners. "A Life on the Ocean Wave" was not written by one who earned his bread from port to port. My friend the Mate (he has gone on watch now, so I may speak freely) lives for the future. He holds a master's ticket, yes; but commands do not come to all. He lives for the time when the insurance money falls in, when he will sit down in the little house in Penarth where the sun warms the creeper on the back-garden wall. He will keep chickens, and perhaps there will be a cucumber frame between the peas and the vegetable patch, and he will do a little gardening when the weather is fine, and smoke, and read the shipping news. "And there shall be no more sea."
Not that I would give you to think that a Chief Officer's life is one of toil. Indeed, on a steamship, while at sea, he has little to do. His "watch" is a sinecure save in thick weather, and is usually occupied by day with sundry odd jobs, by night with thoughts of home. In port he is busy like everybody else; but at sea, in fine weather, his greatest grievance is the short hours "off" and "on." Our steamer carries but two deck officers, and these two keep alternate "watch and watch" throughout the twenty-four hours. This means that his watch below is all sleep. The Chief Officer comes off at eight p.m., say, washes himself, smokes a pipe, and "turns in." At eleven-forty-five the sailor coming on watch at the wheel calls him, and he "turns out." Nothing can equal the ghastly expression on the faces of men who have been torn from their sleep at an unnaturally premature hour. They move along the iron decks like ghosts, peering into one's face like disembodied spirits seeking their corporeal correlatives, and avoiding stanchions, chains, and other pitfalls in an uncanny fashion. In the meantime, the Second Officer drifts "aft" to his bunk for another four-hour sleep. And so on, day after day, for weeks.