Some Rambling Notes of an Idle Excursion

Part II. Away across the sunny waves one saw a faint dark stripe stretched along under the horizon,—or pretended to see it, for the credit of his eye-sight  

At dinner, six o’clock, the same people assembled whom we had talked with on deck and seen at luncheon and breakfast this second day out, and at dinner the evening before. That is to say, three journeying ship-masters, a Boston merchant, and a returning Bermudian who had been absent from his Bermuda thirteen years; these sat on the starboard side. On the port side sat the Reverend in the seat of honor; the pale young man next to him; I next; next to me an aged Bermudian, returning to his sunny islands after an absence of twenty-seven years. Of course our captain was at the head of the table, the purser at the foot of it. A small company, but small companies are pleasantest.

No racks upon the table; the sky cloudless, the sun brilliant, the blue sea scarcely ruffled: then what had become of the four married couples, the three bachelors, and the active and obliging doctor from the rural districts of Pennsylvania?—for all these were on deck when we sailed down New York harbor. This is the explanation. I quote from my note book:—

Thursday, 3.30 P.M. Under way, passing the Battery. The large party, of four married couples, three bachelors, and a cheery, exhilarating doctor from the wilds of Pennsylvania, are evidently traveling together. All but the doctor grouped in camp-chairs on deck.

Passing principal fort. The doctor is one of those people who has an infallible preventive of sea-sickness; is flitting from friend to friend administering it and saying, “Don’t you be afraid; I know this medicine; absolutely infallible; prepared under my own supervision.” Takes a dose himself, intrepidly.

4.15 P.M. Two of those ladies have struck their colors, notwithstanding the “infallible.” They have gone below. The other two begin to show distress.

5 P.M. Exit one husband and one bachelor. These still had their infallible in cargo when they started, but arrived at the companion way without it.

5.10. Lady No. 3, two bachelors, and one married man have gone below with their own opinion of the infallible.

5.20. Passing Quarantine Hulk. The infallible has done the business for all the party except the Scotchman’s wife and the author of that formidable remedy.

Nearing the Light-Ship. Exit the Scotchman’s wife, head drooped on stewardess’s shoulder.

Entering the open sea. Exit doctor!

The rout seems permanent; hence the smallness of the company at table since the voyage began. Our captain is a grave, handsome Hercules of thirty-five, with a brown hand of such majestic size that one cannot eat for admiring it and wondering if a single kid or calf could furnish material for gloving it.

Conversation not general; drones along between couples. One catches a sentence, here and there. Like this, from Bermudian of thirteen years’ absence: “It is the nature of women to ask trivial, irrelevant, and pursuing questions,—questions that pursue you from a beginning in nothing to a run-to-cover in no-where.“ Reply of Bermudian of twenty-seven years’ absence: “Yes; and to think they have logical, analytical minds and argumentative ability. You see ’em begin to whet up whenever they smell argument in the air.” Plainly these be philosophers.

Twice since we left port our engines have stopped for a couple of minutes at a time. Now they stop again. Says the pale young man, meditatively, “There!—That engineer is sitting down to rest again.”

Grave stare from the captain, whose mighty jaws cease to work, and whose harpooned potato stops in mid-air on its way to his open, paralyzed mouth. Presently says he in measured tones, “Is it your idea that the engineer of this ship propels her by a crank turned by his own hands?”

The pale young man studies over this a moment, then lifts up his guileless eyes and says, “Don’t he?”

Thus gently falls the death-blow to futher conversation, and the dinner drags to its close in a reflective silence, disturbed by no sounds but the murmurous wash of the sea and the subdued clash of teeth. After a smoke and a promenade on deck, where is no motion to discompose our steps, we think of a game of whist. We ask the brisk and capable stewardess from Ireland if there are any cards in the ship.

“Bless your soul, dear, indeed there is. Not a whole pack, true for ye, but not enough missing to signify.”

However, I happened by accident to bethink me of a new pack in a morocco case, in my trunk, which I had placed there by mistake, thinking it to be a flask of something. So a party of us conquered the tedium of the evening with a few games and were ready for bed at six bells, mariner’s time, the signal for putting out the lights.

There was much chat in the smoking-cabin on the upper deck after luncheon to-day, mostly whaler yarns from those old sea-captains. Captain Tom Bowling was garrulous. He had that garrulous attention to minor detail which is born of secluded farm life or life at sea on long voyages, where there is little to do and time no object. He would sail along till he was right in the most exciting part of a yarn, and then say, “Well, as I was saying the rudder was fouled, ship driving before the gale, head-on, straight for the iceberg, all hands holding their breath, turned to stone, top-hamper giving way, sails blown to ribbons, first one stick going, then another, boom! smash! duck your head and stand from under! when up comes Johnny Rogers, capstan bar in hand, eyes a-blazing, hair a-flying . . . no, ’t wan’t Johnny Rogers . . . lemme see . . . seems to me Johnny Rogers wa n’t along, that voyage; he was along one voyage, I know that mighty well, but somehow it seems to me that he signed the articles for this voyage, but—but—whether he come along or not, or got left, or something happened″—

And so on and so on, till the excitement all cooled down and nobody cared whether the ship struck the iceberg or not.

In the course of his talk he rambled into a criticism upon New England degrees of merit in ship-building. Said he, “You get a vessel built away down Maine-way; Bath, for instance; what’s the result? First thing you do, you want to heave her down for repairs, that’s the result! Well, sir, she hain’t been hove down a week till you can heave a dog through her seams. You send that vessel to sea, and what ’s the result? She wets her oakum the first trip! Leave it to any man if ’t ain’t so. Well, you let our folks build you a vessel—down New Bedford-way. What’s the result? Well, sir, you might take that ship and heave her down, and keep her hove down six months, and she ’ll never shed a tear!“

Everybody, landsmen and all, recognized the descriptive neatness of that figure, and applauded, which greatly pleased the old man. A moment later, the meek eyes of the pale young fellow heretofore mentioned came up slowly, rested upon the old man’s face a moment, and the meek mouth began to open.

“Shet your head! ” shouted the old mariner.

It was a rather startling surprise to everybody, but it was effective in the matter of its purpose. So the conversation flowed on instead of perishing.

There was some talk about the perils of the sea, and a landsman delivered himself of the customary nonsense about the poor mariner wandering in far oceans, tempest-tossed, pursued by dangers, every storm blast and thunderbolt in the home skies moving the friends by snug firesides to compassion for that poor mariner, and prayers for his succor. Captain Bowling put up with this for a while, and then burst out with a new view of the matter.

“Come, belay there! I have read this kind of rot all my life in poetry and tales and such like rubbage. Pity for the poor mariner! sympathy for the poor mariner! All right enough, but not in the way the poetry puts it. Pity for the mariner’s wife! all right again, but not in the way the poetry puts it. Look-a-here! whose life ’s the safest in the whole world? The poor mariner’s. You look at the statistics, you ’ll see. So don’t you fool away any sympathy on the poor mariner’s dangers and privations and sufferings. Leave that to the poetry muffs. Now you look at the other side a minute. Here is Captain Brace, forty years old, been at sea thirty. On his way now to take command of his ship and sail south from Bermuda. Next week he ‘ll be under way: easy times; comfortable quarters; passengers, sociable company; just enough to do to keep his mind healthy and not tire him; king over his ship, boss of everything and everybody; thirty years’ safety to learn him that his profession ain’t a dangerous one. Now you look back at his home. His wife’s a feeble woman; she’s a stranger in New York; shut up in blazing hot or freezing cold lodgings, according to the season; don’t know anybody hardly; no company but her lonesomeness and her thoughts; husband gone six months at a time. She has borne eight children; five of them she has buried without her husband ever setting eyes on them. She watched them all the long nights till they died,—he comfortable on the sea; she followed them to the grave, she heard the clods fall that broke her heart,—he comfortable on the sea; she mourned at home, weeks and weeks, missing them every day and every hour,—he cheerful at sea, knowing nothing about it. Now look at it a minute,—turn it over in your mind and size it: five children born, she among strangers, and him not by to hearten her; buried, and him not by to comfort her; think of that! Sympathy for the poor mariner’s perils is rot; give it to his wife’s hard lines, where it belongs! Poetry makes out that all the wife worries about is the husband’s running. She’s substantialer things to worry over, I tell you. Poetry’s always pitying the poor mariner on account of his perils at sea; better a blamed sight pity him for the nights he can’t sleep for thinking of how he had to leave his wife in her very birth pains, lonesome and friendless, in the thick of disease and trouble and death. If there ’s one thing that can make me madder than another, it’s this sappy, damned maritime poetry!”

Captain Brace was a patient, gentle, seldom-speaking man, with a pathetic something in his bronzed face that had been a mystery up to this time, but stood interpreted now, since we had heard his story. He had voyaged eighteen times to the Mediterranean, seven times to India, once to the arctic pole in a discovery-ship, and “between times” had visited all the remote seas and ocean corners of the globe. But he said that twelve years ago, on account of his family, he “settled down,” and ever since then had ceased to roam. And what do you suppose was this simple-hearted, life-long wanderer’s idea of settling down and ceasing to roam? Why, the making of two five-month voyages a year between Surinam and Boston for sugar and molasses!

Among other talk, to-day, it came out that whale-ships carry no doctor. The captain adds the doctorship to his own duties. He not only gives medicines, but sets broken limbs after notions of his own, or saws them off and sears the stump when amputation seems best. The captain is provided with a medicine-chest, with the medicines numbered instead of named. A book of directions goes with this. It describes diseases and symptoms, and says, “Give a teaspoonful of No. 9 once an hour,“ or “Give ten grains of No. 12 every half hour,” etc. One of our sea-captains came across a skipper in the North Pacific who was in a state of great surprise and perplexity. Said he:—

There ’s something rotten about this medicine-chest business. One of my men was sick,—nothing much the matter. I looked in the book: it said, give him a teaspoonful of No. 15. I went to the Medicine-chest, and I see I was out of No.15. I judged I’d got to get up a combination somehow that would fill the bill; so I hove into the fellow half a teaspoonful of No. 8 and half a teaspoonful of No. 7, and I ’ll be hanged if it did n’t kill him in fifteen minutes! There’s something about this medicine-chest system that ’s too many for me!“

There was a good deal of pleasant gossip about old Captain “Hurricane” Jones, of the Pacific Ocean,—peace to his ashes! Two or three of us present had known him; I, particularly well, for I had made four sea-voyages with him. He was a very remarkable man. He was born in a ship; he picked up what little education he had among his shipmates; he began life in the forecastle, and climbed grade by grade to the captaincy: More than fifty years of his sixty-five were spent at sea. He had sailed all oceans, seen all lands, and borrowed a tint from all climates. When a man has been fifty years at sea, he necessarily knows nothing of men, nothing of the world but its surface, nothing of the world’s thought, nothing of the world’s learning but its A B C, and that blurred and distorted by the unfocused lenses of an untrained mind. Such a man is only a gray and bearded child. That is what old Hurricane Jones was,—simply an innocent, lovable old infant. When his spirit was in repose he was as sweet and gentle as a girl; when his wrath was up he was a hurricane that made his nickname seem tamely descriptive. He was formidable in a fight, for he was of powerful build and dauntless courage. He was frescoed from head to heel with pictures and mottoes tattooed in red and blue India ink. I was with him one voyage when he got his last vacant space tattooed; this vacant space was around his left ankle. During three days he stumped about the ship with his ankle bare and swollen, and this legend gleaming red and angry out from a clouding of India ink: “Virtue is its own R’d. “ (There was a lack of room.) He was deeply and sincerely pious, and swore like a fish-woman. He considered swearing blameless, because sailors would not understand an order unillumined by it. He was a profound Biblical scholar,—that is, he thought he was. He believed everything in the Bible, but he had his own methods of arriving at his beliefs. He was of the “advanced” school of thinkers, and applied natural laws to the interpretation of all miracles, somewhat on the plan of the people who make the six days of creation six geological epochs, and so forth. Without being aware of it, he was a rather severe satire on modern scientific religionists. Such a man as I have been describing is rabidly fond of disquisition and argument; one knows that without being told it.

One trip the captain had a clergyman on board, but did not know he was a clergyman, since the passenger list did not betray the fact. He took a great liking to this Rev. Mr. Peters, and talked with him a great deal: told him yarns, gave him toothsome scraps of personal history, and wove a glittering streak of profanity through his garrulous fabric that was refreshing to a spirit weary of the dull neutralities of undecorated speech. One day the captain said, “Peters, do you ever read the Bible?”


I judge it ain’t often, by the way you say it. Now, you tackle it in dead earnest once, and you ’ll find it ’ll pay. Don’t you get discouraged, but hang right on. First, you won’t understand it; but by and by things will begin to clear up, and then you would n’t lay it down to eat.“

“Yes, I have heard that said.”

“And it ’s so, too. There ain’t a book that begins with it. It lays over ’em all, Peters. There ’s some pretty tough things in it,—there ain’t any getting around that,—but you stick to them and think them out, and when once you get on the inside everything ’s plain as day.

“The miracles, too, captain?”

“Yes, sir! the miracles, too. Every one of them. Now, there’s that business with the prophets of Baal; like enough that stumped you?”

“Well, I don’t know but”—

“Own up, now; it stumped you. Well, I don’t wonder. You had n’t had any experience in raveling such things out, and naturally it was too many for you. Would you like to have me explain that thing to you, and show you how to get at the meat of these matters?”

“Indeed, I would, captain, if you don’t mind.”

Then the captain proceeded as follows: “I ’ll do it with pleasure. First, you see, I read and read, and thought and thought, till I got to understand what sort of people they were in the old Bible times, and then after that it was all clear and easy. Now, this was the way I put it up, concerning Isaac [This is the captain’s own mistake] and the prophets of Baal. There was some mighty sharp men amongst the public characters of that old ancient day, and Isaac was one of them. Isaac had his failings,—plenty of them, too; it ain’t for me to apologize for Isaac; he played it on the prophets of Baal, and like enough he was justifiable, considering the odds that was against him. No, all I say is, ‘t wa’ n’t any miracle, and that I ’ll show you so ’s ’t you can see it yourself.

“Well, times had been getting rougher and rougher for prophets,—that is, prophets of Isaac’s denomination.. There was four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal in the community, and only one Presbyterian; that is, if Isaac was a Presbyterian, which I reckon he was, but it don’t say. Naturally, the prophets of Baal took all the trade. Isaac was pretty low-spirited, I reckon, but he was a good deal of a man, and no doubt he went a-prophesying, around, letting on to be doing a land-office business, but ‘t wa’ n’t any use; he could n’t run any opposition to amount to anything. By and by things got desperate with him; he sets his head to work and thinks it all out, and then what does he do? Why, he begins to throw out hints that the other parties are this and that and t’ other,—nothing very definite, may be, but just kind of undermining their reputation in a quiet way. This made talk, of course, and finally got to the king. The king asked Isaac what he meant by his talk. Says Isaac, ’Oh, nothing particular; only, can they pray down fire from heaven on an altar? It ain’t much, may be, your majesty, only can they do it? That’s the idea.′ So the king was a good deal disturbed, and he went to the prophets of Baal, and they said, pretty airy, that if he had an altar ready, they were ready; and they intimated he better get it insured, too.

“So next morning all the children of Israel and their parents and the other people gathered themselves together. Well, here was that great crowd of prophets of Baal packed together on one side, and Isaac walking up and down on the other, putting up his job. When time was called, Isaac let on to be comfortable and indifferent; told the other team to take the first innings. So they went at it, the whole four hundred and fifty, praying around the altar, very hopeful, and doing their level best. They prayed an hour,—two hours,—three hours,—and so on, plumb till noon. It wa’ n’t any use; they had n’t took a trick. Of course they felt kind of ashamed before all those people, and well they might. Now, what would a magnanimous man do? Keep still, would n’t he? Of course. What did Isaac do? He graveled the prophets of Baal every way he could think of. Says he, ’You don’t speak up loud enough; your god ’s asleep, like enough, or maybe he ’s taking a walk; you want to holler, you know,’—or words to that effect; I don’t recollect the exact language. Mind, I don’t apologize for Isaac; he had his faults.

“Well, the prophets of Baal prayed along the best they knew how all the afternoon, and never raised a spark. At last, about sundown, they were all tuckered out, and they owned up and quit.

“What does Isaac do, now? He steps up and says to some friends of his, there, ’Pour four barrels of water on the altar!′ Everybody was astonished; for the other side had prayed at it dry, you know, and got whitewashed. They poured it on. Says he, ’Heave on four more barrels.′ Then he says, ’Heave on four More.′ Twelve barrels, you see, altogether. The water ran all over the altar, and all down the sides, and filled up a trench around it that would hold a couple of hogsheads,—’measures,′ it says; I reckon it means about a hogshead. Some of the people were going to put on their things and go, for they allowed he was crazy. They did n’t know Isaac. Isaac knelt down and began to pray: he strung along, and strung along, about the heathen in distant lands, and about the sister churches, and about the state and the country at large, and about those that ’s in authority in the government, and all the usual programme, you know, till everybody had got tired and gone to thinking about something else, and then, all of a sudden, when nobody was noticing, he outs with a match, and rakes it on the under side of his leg, and pff! up the whole thing blazes like a house afire! Twelve barrels of water? Petroleum, sir, PETROLEUM! that ’s what it was!“

“Petroleum, captain?”

“Yes, sir; the country was full of it. Isaac knew all about that. You read the Bible. Don’t you worry about the tough places. They ain’t tough when you come to think them out and throw light on them. There ain’t a thing in the Bible but what is true; all you want is to go prayerfully to work and cipher out how ’t was done.”

At eight o’clock on the third morning out from New York, land was sighted. Away across the sunny waves one saw a faint dark stripe stretched along under the horizon,—or pretended to see it, for the credit of his eye-sight. Even the Reverend said he saw it, a thing which was manifestly not so. But I never have seen any one who was morally strong enough to confess that he could not see land when others claimed that they could.

By and by the Bermuda Islands were easily visible. The principal one lay upon the water in the distance, a long, dull-colored body, scalloped with slight hills and valleys. We could not go straight at it, but had to travel all the way around it, sixteen miles from shore, because it is fenced with an invisible coral reef. At last we sighted buoys, bobbing here and there, and then we glided into a narrow channel among them, “raised the reef,“ and came upon shoaling blue water that soon further shoaled into pale green, with a surface scarcely rippled. Now came the resurrection hour: the berths gave up their dead. Who are these pale spectres in plug hats and silken flounces that file up the companion-way in melancholy procession and step upon the deck? These are they which took the infallible preventive of sea-sickness in New York harbor and then disappeared and were forgotten. Also there came two or three faces not seen before until this moment. One’s impulse is to ask, “Where did you come aboard?”

We followed the narrow channel a long time, with land on both sides,—low hills that might have been green and grassy, but had a faded look instead. However, the land-locked water was lovely, at any rate, with its glittering belts of blue and green where moderate soundings were, and its broad splotches of rich brown where the rocks lay near the surface. Everybody was feeling so well that even the grave, pale young man (who, by a sort of kindly common consent, had come latterly to be referred to as “the Ass”) received frequent and friendly notice,—which was right enough, for there was no harm in him.

At last we steamed between two island points whose rocky jaws allowed only just enough room for the vessel’s body, and now before us loomed Hamilton on her clustered hill-sides and summits, the whitest mass of terraced architecture that exists in the world, perhaps.

It was Sunday afternoon, and on the pier were gathered one or two hundred Bermudians, half of them black, half of them white, and all of them nobbily dressed, as the poet says.

Several boats came off to the ship, bringing citizens. One of these citizens was a faded, diminutive old gentleman, who approached our most ancient passenger with a childlike joy in his twinkling eyes, halted before him, folded his arms, and said, smiling with all his might and with all the simple delight that was in him, “You don’t know me John! Come, out with it, now; you know you don’t!”

The ancient passenger scanned him perplexedly, scanned the napless, threadbare costume of venerable fashion that had done Sunday-service no man knows how many years, contemplated the marvelous stove-pipe hat of still more ancient and venerable pattern, with its poor pathetic old stiff brim canted up “gallusly” in the wrong places, and said, with a hesitation that indicated strong internal effort to “place” the gentle old apparition, “Why … let me see … plague on it … there ’s something about you that … er … but I ’ve been gone from Bermuda for twenty-seven years, and … hum, hum … I don’t seem to get at it, somehow, but there ’s something about you that is just as familiar to me as″—

“Likely it might be his hat,” murmured the Ass, with innocent, sympathetic interest.