The Ways of Men by Eliot Gregory
Chapter 8 - Idling in Mid-Ocean
To those fortunate mortals from whom Poseidon exacts no tribute in crossing his broad domain, a transatlantic voyage must afford each year an ever new delight. The cares and worries of existence fade away and disappear in company with the land, in the deep bosom of the ocean buried. One no longer feels like the bored mortal who has all winter turned the millstone of work and pleasure, but seems to have transmigrated into a new body, endowed with a ravenous appetite and perfectly fresh sensations.
Perhaps it is only the novelty of the surroundings; but as I lie somnolent in my chair, tucked into a corner of the white deck, watching the jade-colored water rush past below, and the sea-gulls circle gayly overhead, the summum bonum of earthly contentment seems attained. The book chosen with care remains uncut; the sense of physical and mental rest is too exquisite to be broken by any effort, even the reading of a favorite author.
Drowsy lapses into unconsciousness obscure the senses, like the transparent clouds that from time to time dim the sunlight. A distant bell in the wheel-house chimes the lazy half-hours. Groups of people come and go like figures on a lantern-slide. A curiously detached reeling makes the scene and the actors in it as unreal as a painted ship manned by a shadowy crew. The inevitable child tumbles on its face and is picked up shrieking by tender parents; energetic youths organize games of skill or discover whales on the horizon, without disturbing one's philosophic calm.
I congratulate myself on having chosen a foreign line. For a week at least no familiar name will be spoken, no accustomed face appear. The galling harness of routine is loosened; one breathes freely again conscious of the unoccupied hours in perspective.
The welcome summons to luncheon comes as a pleasant shock. Is it possible that the morning has passed? It seems to have but commenced. I rouse myself and descend to the cabin. Toward the end of the meal a rubicund Frenchman opposite makes the startling proposition that if I wish to send a message home he will undertake to have it delivered. It is not until I notice the little square of oiled paper he is holding out to me that I understand this reference to the "pigeon post" with which the Compagnie Transatlantique is experimenting. At the invitation of this new acquaintance I ascend to the upper deck and watch his birds depart.
The tiny bits of paper on which we have written (post-card fashion) message and address are rolled two or three together, and inserted into a piece of quill less than two inches long, which, however, they do not entirely fill. While a pigeon is held by one man, another pushes one of the bird's tail- feathers well through the quill, which is then fastened in its place by two minute wooden wedges. A moment later the pigeon is tossed up into the air, and we witness the working of that mysterious instinct which all our modern science leaves unexplained. After a turn or two far up in the clear sky, the bird gets its bearings and darts off on its five-hundred-mile journey across unknown seas to an unseen land - a voyage that no deviation or loitering will lengthen, and only fatigue or accident interrupt, until he alights at his cote.
Five of these willing messengers were started the first day out, and five more will leave to-morrow, poor little aerial postmen, almost predestined to destruction (in the latter case), for we shall then be so far from land that their one chance of life and home must depend on finding some friendly mast where an hour's rest may be taken before the bird starts again on his journey.
In two or three days, according to the weather, we shall begin sending French pigeons on ahead of us toward Havre. The gentleman in charge of them tells me that his wife received all the messages he sent to her during his westward trip, the birds appearing each morning at her window (where she was in the habit feeding them) with their tidings from mid-ocean. He also tells me that the French fleet in the Mediterranean recently received messages from their comrades in the Baltic on the third day by these feathered envoys.
It is hoped that in future ocean steamers will be able to keep up communication with the land at least four out of the seven days of their trips, so that, in case of delay or accident, their exact position and circumstances can be made known at headquarters. It is a pity, the originator of the scheme remarked, that sea-gulls are such hopeless vagabonds, for they can fly much greater distances than pigeons, and are not affected by dampness, which seriously cripples the present messengers.
Later in the day a compatriot, inspired doubtless by the morning's experiment, confided to me that he had hit on "a great scheme," which he intends to develop on arriving. His idea is to domesticate families of porpoises at Havre and New York, as that fish passes for having (like the pigeon) the homing instinct. Ships provided with the parent fish can free one every twenty-four hours, charged with the morning's mail. The inventor of this luminous idea has already designed the letter-boxes that are to be strapped on the fishes' backs, and decided on a neat uniform for his postmen.
It is amusing during the first days "out" to watch the people whom chance has thrown together into such close quarters. The occult power that impels a pigeon to seek its kind is feeble in comparison with the faculty that travellers develop under these circumstances for seeking out congenial spirits. Twelve hours do not pass before affinities draw together; what was apparently a homogeneous mass has by that time grouped and arranged itself into three or four distinct circles.
The "sporty" gentlemen in loud clothes have united in the bonds of friendship with the travelling agents and have chosen the smoking-room as their headquarters. No mellow sunset or serene moonlight will tempt these comrades from the subtleties of poker; the pool on the run is the event of their day.
A portly prima donna is the centre of another circle. Her wraps, her dogs, her admirers, and her brand-new husband (a handsome young Hungarian with a voice like two Bacian bulls) fill the sitting-room, where the piano gets but little rest. Neither sunshine nor soft winds can draw them to the deck. Although too ill for the regular meals, this group eat and drink during fifteen out of the twenty-four hours.
The deck, however, is not deserted; two fashionable dressmakers revel there. These sociable ladies asked the commissaire at the start "to introduce all the young unmarried men to them," as they wanted to be jolly. They have a numerous court around them, and champagne, like the conversation, flows freely. These ladies have already become expert at shuffleboard, but their "sea legs" are not so good as might be expected, and the dames require to be caught and supported by their admirers at each moment to prevent them from tripping - an immense joke, to judge by the peals of laughter that follow.
The American wife of a French ambassador sits on the captain's right. A turn of the diplomatic wheel is taking the lady to Madrid, where her position will call for supreme tact and self-restraint. One feels a thrill of national pride on looking at her high-bred young face and listening as she chats in French and Spanish, and wonders once more at the marvellous faculty our women have of adapting themselves so graciously and so naturally to difficult positions, which the women of other nations rarely fill well unless born to the purple. It is the high opinion I have of my countrywomen that has made me cavil, before now, on seeing them turned into elaborately dressed nullities by foolish and too adoring husbands.
The voyage is wearing itself away. Sunny days are succeeded by gray mornings, as exquisite in their way, when one can feel the ship fight against contending wind and wave, and shiver under the blows received in a struggle which dashes the salt spray high over the decks. There is an aroma in the air then that breathes new life into jaded nerves, and stirs the drop of old Norse blood, dormant in most American veins, into quivering ecstasy. One dreams of throwing off the trammels of civilized existence and returning to the free life of older days.
But here is Havre glittering in the distance against her background of chalk cliffs. People come on deck in strangely conventional clothes and with demure citified airs. Passengers of whose existence you were unaware suddenly make their appearance. Two friends meet near me for the first time. "Hallo, Jones!" says one of them, "are you crossing?"
"Yes," answers Jones, "are you?"
The company's tug has come alongside by this time, bringing its budget of letters and telegrams. The brief holiday is over. With a sigh one comes back to the positive and the present, and patiently resumes the harness of life.