Following the Equator

Chapter LXII.

There are no people who are quite so vulgar as the over-refined ones.
Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar.

Mark Twain

WE sailed from Calcutta toward the end of March; stopped a day at Madras; two or three days in Ceylon; then sailed westward on a long flight for Mauritius. From my diary:

April 7. We are far abroad upon the smooth waters of the Indian Ocean, now; it is shady and pleasant and peaceful under the vast spread of the awnings, and life is perfect again—ideal.

The difference between a river and the sea is, that the river looks fluid, the sea solid—usually looks as if you could step out and walk on it.

The captain has this peculiarity—he cannot tell the truth in a plausible way. In this he is the very opposite of the austere Scot who sits midway of the table; he cannot tell a lie in an unplausible way. When the captain finishes a statement the passengers glance at each other privately, as who should say, “Do you believe that?” When the Scot finishes one, the look says, “How strange and interesting.” The whole secret is in the manner and method of the two men. The captain is a little shy and diffident, and he states the simplest fact as if he were a little afraid of it, while the Scot delivers himself of the most abandoned lie with such an air of stern veracity that one is forced to believe it although one knows it isn’t so. For instance, the Scot told about a pet flying-fish he once owned, that lived in a little fountain in his conservatory, and supported itself by catching birds and frogs and rats in the neighboring fields. It was plain that no one at the table doubted this statement.

By and by, in the course of some talk about custom-house annoyances, the captain brought out the following simple everyday incident, but through his infirmity of style managed to tell it in such a way that it got no credence. He said:

“I went ashore at Naples one voyage when I was in that trade, and stood around helping my passengers, for I could speak a little Italian. Two or three times, at intervals, the officer asked me if I had anything dutiable about me, and seemed more and more put out and disappointed every time I told him no. Finally a passenger whom I had helped through asked me to come out and take something. I thanked him, but excused myself, saying I had taken a whisky just before I came ashore.

“It was a fatal admission. The officer at once made me pay sixpence import-duty on the whisky-just from ship to shore, you see; and he fined me £5 for not declaring the goods, another £5 for falsely denying that I had anything dutiable about me, also £5 for concealing the goods, and £50 for smuggling, which is the maximum penalty for unlawfully bringing in goods under the value of sevenpence ha’penny. Altogether, sixty-five pounds sixpence for a little thing like that.”

The Scot is always believed, yet he never tells anything but lies; whereas the captain is never believed, although he never tells a lie, so far as I can judge. If he should say his uncle was a male person, he would probably say it in such a way that nobody would believe it; at the same time the Scot could claim that he had a female uncle and not stir a doubt in anybody’s mind. My own luck has been curious all my literary life; I never could tell a lie that anybody would doubt, nor a truth that anybody would believe.

Lots of pets on board—birds and things. In these far countries the white people do seem to run remarkably to pets. Our host in Cawnpore had a fine collection of birds—the finest we saw in a private house in India. And in Colombo, Dr. Murray’s great compound and commodious bungalow were well populated with domesticated company from the woods: frisky little squirrels; a Ceylon mina walking sociably about the house; a small green parrot that whistled a single urgent note of call without motion of its beak; also chuckled; a monkey in a cage on the back veranda, and some more out in the trees; also a number of beautiful macaws in the trees; and various and sundry birds and animals of breeds not known to me. But no cat. Yet a cat would have liked that place.

April 9. Tea-planting is the great business in Ceylon, now. A passenger says it often pays 40 per cent. on the investment. Says there is a boom.

April 10. The sea is a Mediterranean blue; and I believe that that is about the divinest color known to nature.

It is strange and fine—Nature’s lavish generosities to her creatures. At least to all of them except man. For those that fly she has provided a home that is nobly spacious—a home which is forty miles deep and envelops the whole globe, and has not an obstruction in it. For those that swim she has provided a more than imperial domain—a domain which is miles deep and covers four-fifths of the globe. But as for man, she has cut him off with the mere odds and ends of the creation. She has given him the thin skin, the meagre skin which is stretched over the remaining one-fifth—the naked bones stick up through it in most places. On the one-half of this domain he can raise snow, ice, sand, rocks, and nothing else. So the valuable part of his inheritance really consists of but a single fifth of the family estate; and out of it he has to grub hard to get enough to keep him alive and provide kings and soldiers and powder to extend the blessings of civilization with. Yet man, in his simplicity and complacency and inability to cipher, thinks Nature regards him as the important member of the family—in fact, her favorite. Surely, it must occur to even his dull head, sometimes, that she has a curious way of showing it.

Afternoon. The captain has been telling how, in one of his Arctic voyages, it was so cold that the mate’s shadow froze fast to the deck and had to be ripped loose by main strength. And even then he got only about two-thirds of it back. Nobody said anything, and the captain went away. I think he is becoming disheartened. . . . Also, to be fair, there is another word of praise due to this ship’s library: it contains no copy of the Vicar of Wakefield, that strange menagerie of complacent hypocrites and idiots, of theatrical cheap-john heroes and heroines, who are always showing off, of bad people who are not interesting, and good people who are fatiguing. A singular book. Not a sincere line in it, and not a character that invites respect; a book which is one long waste-pipe discharge of goody-goody puerilities and dreary moralities; a book which is full of pathos which revolts, and humor which grieves the heart. There are few things in literature that are more piteous, more pathetic, than the celebrated “humorous” incident of Moses and the spectacles. Jane Austen’s books, too, are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.

Customs in tropic seas. At 5 in the morning they pipe to wash down the decks, and at once the ladies who are sleeping there turn out and they and their beds go below. Then one after another the men come up from the bath in their pyjamas, and walk the decks an hour or two with bare legs and bare feet. Coffee and fruit served. The ship cat and her kitten now appear and get about their toilets; next the barber comes and flays us on the breezy deck. Breakfast at 9.30, and the day begins. I do not know how a day could be more reposeful: no motion; a level blue sea; nothing in sight from horizon to horizon; the speed of the ship furnishes a cooling breeze; there is no mail to read and answer; no newspapers to excite you; no telegrams to fret you or fright you—the world is far, far away; it has ceased to exist for you—seemed a fading dream, along in the first days; has dissolved to an unreality now; it is gone from your mind with all its businesses and ambitions, its prosperities and disasters, its exultations and despairs, its joys and griefs and cares and worries. They are no concern of yours any more; they have gone out of your life; they are a storm which has passed and left a deep calm behind. The people group themselves about the decks in their snowy white linen, and read, smoke, sew, play cards, talk, nap, and so on. In other ships the passengers are always ciphering about when they are going to arrive; out in these seas it is rare, very rare, to hear that subject broached. In other ships there is always an eager rush to the bulletin board at noon to find out what the “run” has been; in these seas the bulletin seems to attract no interest; I have seen no one visit it; in thirteen days I have visited it only once. Then I happened to notice the figures of the day’s run. On that day there happened to be talk, at dinner, about the speed of modern ships. I was the only passenger present who knew this ship’s gait. Necessarily, the Atlantic custom of betting on the ship’s run is not a custom here—nobody ever mentions it.

I myself am wholly indifferent as to when we are going to “get in”; if any one else feels interested in the matter he has not indicated it in my hearing. If I had my way we should never get in at all. This sort of sea life is charged with an indestructible charm. There is no weariness, no fatigue, no worry, no responsibility, no work, no depression of spirits. There is nothing like this serenity, this comfort, this peace, this deep contentment, to be found anywhere on land. If I had my way I would sail on for ever and never go to live on the solid ground again.

One of Kipling’s ballads has delivered the aspect and sentiment of this bewitching sea correctly:

“The Injian Ocean sets an’ smiles
    So sof’, so bright, so bloomin’ blue;
There aren’t a wave for miles an’ miles
    Excep’ the jiggle from the screw.”

April 14. It turns out that the astronomical apprentice worked off a section of the Milky Way on me for the Magellan Clouds. A man of more experience in the business showed one of them to me last night. It was small and faint and delicate, and looked like the ghost of a bunch of white smoke left floating in the sky by an exploded bombshell.

Wednesday, April 15. Mauritius. Arrived and anchored off Port Louis 2 A.M. Rugged clusters of crags and peaks, green to their summits; from their bases to the sea a green plain with just tilt enough to it to make the water drain off. I believe it is in 56° E. and 22° S.—a hot tropical country. The green plain has an inviting look; has scattering dwellings nestling among the greenery. Scene of the sentimental adventure of Paul and Virginia.

Island under French control—which means a community which depends upon quarantines, not sanitation, for its health.

Thursday, April 16. Went ashore in the forenoon at Port Louis, a little town, but with the largest variety of nationalities and complexions we have encountered yet. French, English, Chinese, Arabs, Africans with wool, blacks with straight hair, East Indians, half-whites, quadroons—and great varieties in costumes and colors.

Took the train for Curepipe at 1.30—two hours’ run, gradually uphill. What a contrast, this frantic luxuriance of vegetation, with the arid plains of India; these architecturally picturesque crags and knobs and miniature mountains, with the monotony of the Indian dead-levels.

A native pointed out a handsome swarthy man of grave and dignified bearing, and said in an awed tone, “That is so-and-so; has held office of one sort or another under this government for 37 years—he is known all over this whole island and in the other countries of the world perhaps—who knows? One thing is certain; you can speak his name anywhere in this whole island, and you will find not one grown person that has not heard it. It is a wonderful thing to be so celebrated; yet look at him; it makes no change in him; he does not even seem to know it.”

Curepipe (means Pincushion or Pegtown, probably). Sixteen miles (two hours) by rail from Port Louis. At each end of every roof and on the apex of every dormer window a wooden peg two feet high stands up; in some cases its top is blunt, in others the peg is sharp and looks like a toothpick. The passion for this humble ornament is universal.

Apparently, there has been only one prominent event in the history of Mauritius, and that one didn’t happen. I refer to the romantic sojourn of Paul and Virginia here. It was that story that made Mauritius known to the world, made the name familiar to everybody, the geographical position of it to nobody.

A clergyman was asked to guess what was in a box on a table. It was a vellum fan painted with the shipwreck, and was “one of Virginia’s wedding gifts.

April 18. This is the only country in the world where the stranger is not asked “How do you like this place?” This is indeed a large distinction. Here the citizen does the talking about the country himself; the stranger is not asked to help. You get all sorts of information. From one citizen you gather the idea that Mauritius was made first, and then heaven; and that heaven was copied after Mauritius. Another one tells you that this is an exaggeration; that the two chief villages, Port Louis and Curepipe, fall short of heavenly perfection; that nobody lives in Port Louis except upon compulsion, and that Curepipe is the wettest and rainiest place in the world. An English citizen said:

“In the early part of this century Mauritius was used by the French as a basis from which to operate against England’s Indian merchantmen; so England captured the island and also the neighbor, Bourbon, to stop that annoyance. England gave Bourbon back; the government in London did not want any more possessions in the West Indies. If the government had had a better quality of geography in stock it would not have wasted Bourbon in that foolish way. A big war will temporarily shut up the Suez Canal some day and the English ships will have to go to India around the Cape of Good Hope again; then England will have to have Bourbon and will take it.

“Mauritius was a crown colony until 20 years ago, with a governor appointed by the Crown and assisted by a Council appointed by himself; but Pope Hennessey came out as Governor then, and he worked hard to get a part of the council made elective, and succeeded. So now the whole council is French, and in all ordinary matters of legislation they vote together and in the French interest, not the English. The English population is very slender; it has not votes enough to elect a legislator. Half a dozen rich French families elect the legislature. Pope Hennessey was an Irishman, a Catholic, a Home Ruler, M.P., a hater of England and the English, a very troublesome person and a serious incumbrance at Westminster; so it was decided to send him out to govern unhealthy countries, in hope that something would happen to him. But nothing did. The first experiment was not merely a failure, it was more than a failure. He proved to be more of a disease himself than any he was sent to encounter. The next experiment was here. The dark scheme failed again. It was an off-season and there was nothing but measles here at the time. Pope Hennessey’s health was not affected. He worked with the French and for the French and against the English, and he made the English very tired and the French very happy, and lived to have the joy of seeing the flag he served publicly hissed. His memory is held in worshipful reverence and affection by the French.

“It is a land of extraordinary quarantines. They quarantine a ship for anything or for nothing; quarantine her for 20 and even 30 days. They once quarantined a ship because her captain had had the smallpox when he was a boy. That and because he was English.

“The population is very small; small to insignificance. The majority is East Indian; then mongrels; then negroes (descendants of the slaves of the French times); then French; then English. There was an American, but he is dead or mislaid. The mongrels are the result of all kinds of mixtures; black and white, mulatto and white, quadroon and white, octoroon and white. And so there is every shade of complexion; ebony, old mahogany, horsechestnut, sorrel, molasses-candy, clouded amber, clear amber, old-ivory white, new-ivory white, fish-belly white—this latter the leprous complexion frequent with the Anglo-Saxon long resident in tropical climates.

“You wouldn’t expect a person to be proud of being a Mauritian, now would you? But it is so. The most of them have never been out of the island, and haven’t read much or studied much, and they think the world consists of three principal countries—Judaea, France, and Mauritius; so they are very proud of belonging to one of the three grand divisions of the globe. They think that Russia and Germany are in England, and that England does not amount to much. They have heard vaguely about the United States and the equator, but they think both of them are monarchies. They think Mount Peter Botte is the highest mountain in the world, and if you show one of them a picture of Milan Cathedral he will swell up with satisfaction and say that the idea of that jungle of spires was stolen from the forest of peg-tops and toothpicks that makes the roofs of Curepipe look so fine and prickly.

“There is not much trade in books. The newspapers educate and entertain the people. Mainly the latter. They have two pages of large-print reading-matter-one of them English, the other French. The English page is a translation of the French one. The typography is super-extra primitive—in this quality it has not its equal anywhere. There is no proof-reader now; he is dead.

“Where do they get matter to fill up a page in this little island lost in the wastes of the Indian Ocean? Oh, Madagascar. They discuss Madagascar and France. That is the bulk. Then they chock up the rest with advice to the Government. Also, slurs upon the English administration. The papers are all owned and edited by creoles—French.

“The language of the country is French. Everybody speaks it—has to. You have to know French particularly mongrel French, the patois spoken by Tom, Dick, and Harry of the multiform complexions—or you can’t get along.

“This was a flourishing country in former days, for it made then and still makes the best sugar in the world; but first the Suez Canal severed it from the world and left it out in the cold and next the beetroot sugar helped by bounties, captured the European markets. Sugar is the life of Mauritius, and it is losing its grip. Its downward course was checked by the depreciation of the rupee—for the planter pays wages in rupees but sells his crop for gold—and the insurrection in Cuba and paralyzation of the sugar industry there have given our prices here a life-saving lift; but the outlook has nothing permanently favorable about it. It takes a year to mature the canes—on the high ground three and six months longer—and there is always a chance that the annual cyclone will rip the profit out of the crop. In recent times a cyclone took the whole crop, as you may say; and the island never saw a finer one. Some of the noblest sugar estates in the island are in deep difficulties. A dozen of them are investments of English capital; and the companies that own them are at work now, trying to settle up and get out with a saving of half the money they put in. You know, in these days, when a country begins to introduce the tea culture, it means that its own specialty has gone back on it. Look at Bengal; look at Ceylon. Well, they’ve begun to introduce the tea culture, here.

“Many copies of Paul and Virginia are sold every year in Mauritius. No other book is so popular here except the Bible. By many it is supposed to be a part of the Bible. All the missionaries work up their French on it when they come here to pervert the Catholic mongrel. It is the greatest story that was ever written about Mauritius, and the only one.”

Following the Equator - Contents    |     Chapter LXIII.

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