In January , about nine years ago, I climbed on board the Messageries Maritimes steamer Irouaddy, for the purpose of getting to a cattle-station in Queensland. Like many others of the same line, the Irouaddy is a grand boat, clean, well ventilated, very fast, and steady in bad weather.
Three days after leaving Marseilles, we got to Naples. I had been there before, but as I never can be twenty minutes in a steamer without wanting to get out, of course I went ashore. There was nothing fresh to be seen, and certainly nothing fresh to be smelt. In appearance the whole place resembles a very inferior chromo-lithograph; and I cannot help thinking that the saying, "Vede Napoli e poi Mori," [See Naples and then die] has more reference to the asphyxiating nature of its smells than to any overpowering beauty about the place.
... three days after leaving Naples we reached Port Said. This town forms a receptacle for all the scum and dregs of every nation under the sun, and is undoubtedly one of the most villainous dens in existence. Composed almost entirely of casinos, gambling saloons, and houses sacred to the worship of blind Cupid, it is a sink of iniquity whose waters, like those of the Dead Sea, are so dense as to support numbers who would go to the bottom elsewhere. The lighthouse and the coalsheds are probably the only buildings in the place that have not a professional tendency towards the subversion of morals and the encouragement of vice.
Certainly the sea develops the worst qualities of human nature more rapidly and more surely than any other phase of existence. In particular, I remember one man in whose company it was once my misfortune to make a voyage. My previous experience of him as a fellow-traveller, on dry land, had led me to suppose he was rather a pleasant companion than otherwise. Beyond an insane habit of appearing on every possible occasion in a variety of hideous and fantastic caps, he appeared to be unusually free from the vices of travellers. That is to say, he was neither inordinately greedy nor passionately selfish. He had no particular taste either for sight-seeing or for grumbling and when in the presence of strangers, he did not consider it necessary either to insult them with impertinent familiarity or to repel them with churlish incivility. When I say that he was capable of visiting the Alhambra, St. Marc's Cathedral, and the pyramids, without displaying the slightest desire to engrave his name on the walls of any of them with a penknife, it will at once be seen that he had no ordinary claims to respect. Furthermore, his manners were those of a gentleman, and his language remarkable for the absence of anything like expletives. After he had been at sea a week, his own mother would not have recognised him.
For the first few days it was calm, and everything went well enough. My friend justified the sanguine exectations I had formed of him, by reclining all day in a long chair, puffing at a pipe with a head as big as his own, and with twice as much in it. This sort of thing was too good to last. We dropped in for a spell of bad weather. It did not last long, but from the moment that it began he was an altered man. An expression dismal as the latter end of tea-time took permanent possession of his usually cheerful countenance, and even the reappearance of fine weather entirely failed to restore him. He became exceedingly restless, and would indulge for hours at a time in the reprehensible practice of pacing up and down the deck, which is of all performances the most trying to the nerves of the spectators. Suddenly he would flump down into a chair with a violence extremely distracting to anyone who happened to be seeking repose within a radius of five yards. Just as one began to hope that he was settled at last, he would bound up again out of his chair, upsetting it against someone's shins, and, without thinking it necessary to apologise, resume his detestable pastime of patrolling the deck.
But what astonished me more than anything was the bad language that he took to using upon the most trivial provocation. I lived in the next cabin to him, sepaarated only by a partition open at the top. One day, as I was lying on my bunk reading, I heard him fossicking about among the things in his cabin in that spasmodic way which, even when a man is out of sight, never fails to convey an idea of awful passion to the listener. For a while his movements were only illuminated by smothered execrations, which the partition rendered nearly inaudible. Suddenly, however, he broke out into a torrent of oaths so fluent, so comprehensive, and so ornamental, that, shocked as I was at his profanity, I could not help admiring his genius. I have since reason to believe that he borrowed a great deal of it from the form of cursing employed by the Church of Rome against persons who happen to disagree with her doctrines. At the time, however, I thought it was quite original, and, of course, shouted to him to know what was the matter, "Oh! are you there? he replied. "Nothing; only I cannot hang up my towel."
Leaving Aden, we passed one night to the northward of the island of Socotra, and were fortunate enough to come across the phenomenon known as a "milky sea." It was a wonderfully beautiful sight. The sea was deadly calm, and all round as far as the eye could reach it was as white and as transparent as London milk. Out of this the mountains of Socotra, distant eight miles, rose up clear and distinct in the brilliant starlight, and black as ink by contrast with the whiteness of the sea. Several ambitious passengers ladled up some of the water, to try and discover its component parts, but I don't think they found out much, except that if it was allowed to stand some time, a thick sediment was precipitated, leaving the water quite clear again.
Crossing the Indian Ocean, the weather was so monotonously calm, that one day the captain was encouraged to give the order for fire and boat station practice. If intended to display the smart discipline and efficiency of the ship's company, this exhibition had better have been suppressed; but if merely to warn passengers against the incautious use of matches, and the danger of falling overboard, it was invaluable. Whether the crew had been expecting the order or not, I cannot say; but I will do them the justice to affirm that the ringing of the fire-bell was followed by no sort of confusion or hurrry. It was only after an interval had elapsed, sufficient to allow the strongest swimmer to drown, and the smallest spark to become a conflagration, that they began to saunter leisurely aft, dragging after them coils of hose, with the dejected air of men who have seen the same thing done a dozen times before and never known any good to come of it. Far more activity was displayed by a vast army of stewards who swarmed up the companion at the first sound of the bell, headed by the chief steward, or maitre d'hôtel, with a drawn sword in his hand. As these worthies took no part in the subsequent proceedings, they probably only came up to be saved.
After some consultation it was agreed that an attempt should be made to lower one of the quarter-boats, and to this the crew turned their attention. But an unforeseen difficulty presented itself. Who was to undertake the arduous task of climbing into the boat, and removing the canvas cover? An animated discussion took place, the result of which was that one man was singled out, apparently much against his inclination, for the enterprise in hand. With a vast effort he collected his energies, and, scattering a glance of melancholy defiance at his recreant companions, he ascended the bulwarks and climbed cautiously on to the boat. It soon became evident that there was far more cause for his alarm than at first appeared. As long as he was engaged in unlashing the boat's cover, the crew amused themselves by rolling up cigarettes and smoking them. But he had no sooner finished than the men stationed at the after "fall" of the boat suddenly awoke to an enthusiastic sense of duty, and lowered away. Those at the other "fall" were not so alert, and the consequence was the stern of the boat went down with a run, sending oars, stretchers, planks, and everything movable in her except the man, flying into the sea. Fortunately for himself, this hero got mixed up round one of the thwarts and remained there until the boat was once more raised to a horizontal position, when he was extricated, positively gibbering with terror and rage. It having been conclusively proved that in case of emergency one end of the boat at any rate could be lowered, this was considered sufficient, and the fire-hose became the next object of interest to the company. After some minutes of patient toil, one end of this ingenious contrivance was connected with the machinery, and the order to start pumping was given. An ominous pause followed, during which not a drop of water appeared. The men began to look grave and to whisper hurriedly and excitedly together. But a breathless silence fell upon all present when the second lieutenant advanced to the business end of the hose, with the air of a man who knows his duty and is prepared to perform it at all risks. The excitement now became so intense as to be quite painful, but still silence prevailed. Suddenly a terrible gurgle was heard in the pipe, absolutely paralysing the lieutenant, who remained rooted to the spot with countenance transfigured by terror. In a moment a young Niagara burst from the pipe, discharging itself full upon the unfortunate officer, and hurling the hose in convulsions about the deck. The shock at once restored the use of his limbs to the lieutenant. With a loud yell of anguish he turned and fled from a foe, with whom, to judge by appearances, it was some time since he had had an encounter.
This concluded the diversion of fire and boat station practice, and the ship's company returned once more to their ordinary duties. The captain resumed his occupation of walking up and down, spitting frequently and emphatically upon his own quarterdeck. The chief engineer took up his position by the rails of the engine-room, and, with his watch in his hand, counted the revolutions of the propeller. The doctor and the first lieutenant threw quoits into a bucket, and the remainder of the crew, with the exception of a few who still retained sufficient energy to smoke, went fast asleep.
Jim Foley || Email me