A Frenchman in America: Recollections of Men and Things
In the order of things the Teutonic was to have sailed to-day, but the date is the 25th of December, and few people elect to eat their Christmas dinner on the ocean if they can avoid it; so there are only twenty-five saloon passengers, and they have been committed to the brave little Celtic, while that huge floating palace, the Teutonic, remains in harbor.
Little Celtic! Has it come to this with her and her companions, the Germanic, the Britannic, and the rest that were the wonders and the glory of the ship-building craft a few years ago? There is something almost sad in seeing these queens of the Atlantic dethroned, and obliged to rank below newer and grander ships. It was even pathetic to hear the remarks of the sailors, as we passed the Germanic who, in her day, had created even more wondering admiration than the two famous armed cruisers lately added to the “White Star” fleet.
I know nothing more monotonous than a voyage from Liverpool to New York.
Nine times out of ten – not to say ninety-nine times out of a hundred – the passage is bad. The Atlantic Ocean has an ugly temper; it has forever got its back up. Sulky, angry, and terrible by turns, it only takes a few days’ rest out of every year, and this always occurs when you are not crossing.
And then, the wind is invariably against you. When you go to America, it blows from the west; when you come back to Europe, it blows from the east. If the captain steers south to avoid icebergs, it is sure to begin to blow southerly.
Doctors say that sea-sickness emanates from the brain. I can quite believe them. The blood rushes to your head, leaving your extremities cold and helpless. All the vital force flies to the brain, and your legs refuse to carry you. It is with sea-sickness as it is with wine. When people say that a certain wine goes up in the head, it means that it is more likely to go down to the feet.
There you are, on board a huge construction that rears and kicks like a buck-jumper. She lifts you up bodily, and, after well shaking all your members in the air several seconds, lets them down higgledy-piggledy, leaving to Providence the business of picking them up and putting them together again. That is the kind of thing one has to go through about sixty times an hour. And there is no hope for you; nobody dies of it.
Under such conditions, the mental state of the boarders may easily be imagined. They smoke, they play cards, they pace the deck like bruin pacing a cage; or else they read, and forget at the second chapter all they have read in the first. A few presumptuous ones try to think, but without success. The ladies, the American ones more especially, lie on their deck chairs swathed in rugs and shawls like Egyptian mummies in their sarcophagi, and there they pass from ten to twelve hours a day motionless, hopeless, helpless, speechless. Some few incurables keep to their cabins altogether, and only show their wasted faces when it is time to debark. Up they come, with cross, stupefied, pallid, yellow-green-looking physiognomies, and seeming to say: “Speak to me, if you like, but don’t expect me to open my eyes or answer you, and above all, don’t shake me.”
Impossible to fraternize.
The crossing now takes about six days and a half. By the time you have spent two in getting your sea legs on, and three more in reviewing, and being reviewed by your fellow-passengers, you will find yourself at the end of your troubles – and your voyage.
No, people do not fraternize on board ship, during such a short passage, unless a rumor runs from cabin to cabin that there has been some accident to the machinery, or that the boat is in imminent danger. At the least scare of this kind, every one looks at his neighbor with eyes that are alarmed, but amiable, nay, even amicable. But as soon as one can say: “We have come off with a mere scare this time,” all the facial traits stiffen once more, and nobody knows anybody.
Universal grief only will bring about universal brotherhood. We must wait till the Day of Judgment. When the world is passing away, oh! how men will forgive and love one another! What outpourings of good-will and affection there will be! How touching, how edifying will be the sight! The universal republic will be founded in the twinkling of an eye, distinctions of creed and class forgotten. The author will embrace the critic and even the publisher, the socialist open his arms to the capitalist. The married men will be seen “making it up” with their mothers-in-law, begging them to forgive and forget, and admitting that they had not been always quite so-so, in fact, as they might have been. If the Creator of all is a philosopher, or enjoys humor, how he will be amused to see all the various sects of Christians, who have passed their lives in running one another down, throw themselves into one another’s arms. It will be a scene never to be forgotten.
Yes, I repeat it, the voyage from Liverpool to New York is monotonous and wearisome in the extreme. It is an interval in one’s existence, a week more or less lost, decidedly more than less.
One grows gelatinous from head to foot, especially in the upper part of one’s anatomy.
In order to see to what an extent the brain softens, you only need look at the pastimes the poor passengers go in for.
A state of demoralization prevails throughout.
They bet. That is the form the disease takes.
They bet on anything and everything. They bet that the sun will or will not appear next day at eleven precisely, or that rain will fall at noon. They bet that the number of miles made by the boat at twelve o’clock next day will terminate with 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9. Each draws one of these numbers and pays his shilling, half-crown, or even sovereign. Then these numbers are put up at auction. An improvised auctioneer, with the gift of the gab, puts his talent at the service of his fellow-passengers. It is really very funny to see him swaying about the smoking-room table, and using all his eloquence over each number in turn for sale. A good auctioneer will run the bidding so smartly that the winner of the pool next day often pockets as much as thirty and forty pounds. On the eve of arrival in New York harbor, everybody knows that twenty-four pilots are waiting about for the advent of the liner, and that each boat carries her number on her sail. Accordingly, twenty-four numbers are rolled up and thrown into a cap, and betting begins again. He who has drawn the number which happens to be that of the pilot who takes the steamer into harbor pockets the pool.
I, who have never bet on anything in my life, even bet with my traveling companion, when the rolling of the ship sends our portmanteaus from one side of the cabin to the other, that mine will arrive first. Intellectual faculties on board are reduced to this ebb.
The nearest approach to a gay note, in this concert of groans and grumblings, is struck by some humorous and good-tempered American. He will come and ask you the most impossible questions with an ease and impudence perfectly inimitable. These catechisings are all the more droll because they are done with a naïveté which completely disarms you. The phrase is short, without verb, reduced to its most concise expression. The intonation alone marks the interrogation. Here is a specimen.
We have on board the Celtic an American who is not a very shrewd person, for it has actually taken him five days to discover that English is not my native tongue. This morning (December 30) he found it out, and, being seated near me in the smoke-room, has just had the following bit of conversation with me:
“Foreigner?” said he.
“Foreigner,” said I, replying in American.
“German, I guess.”
“Going to America?”
“Yes – evidently.”