Following the Equator

Chapter LXIV.

When your watch gets out of order you have choice of two things to do: throw it in the fire or take it to the watch-tinker. The former is the quickest.
Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar.

Mark Twain

THE Arundel Castle is the finest boat I have seen in these seas. She is thoroughly modern, and that statement covers a great deal of ground. She has the usual defect, the common defect, the universal defect, the defect that has never been missing from any ship that ever sailed—she has imperfect beds. Many ships have good beds, but no ship has very good ones. In the matter of beds all ships have been badly edited, ignorantly edited, from the beginning. The selection of the beds is given to some hearty, strong-backed, self-made man, when it ought to be given to a frail woman accustomed from girlhood to backaches and insomnia. Nothing is so rare, on either side of the ocean, as a perfect bed; nothing is so difficult to make. Some of the hotels on both sides provide it, but no ship ever does or ever did. In Noah’s Ark the beds were simply scandalous. Noah set the fashion, and it will endure in one degree of modification or another till the next flood.

8 A.M. Passing Isle de Bourbon. Broken-up sky-line of volcanic mountains in the middle. Surely it would not cost much to repair them, and it seems inexcusable neglect to leave them as they are.

It seems stupid to send tired men to Europe to rest. It is no proper rest for the mind to clatter from town to town in the dust and cinders, and examine galleries and architecture, and be always meeting people and lunching and teaing and dining, and receiving worrying cables and letters. And a sea voyage on the Atlantic is of no use—voyage too short, sea too rough. The peaceful Indian and Pacific Oceans and the long stretches of time are the healing thing.

May 2, A.M. A fair, great ship in sight, almost the first we have seen in these weeks of lonely voyaging. We are now in the Mozambique Channel, between Madagascar and South Africa, sailing straight west for Delagoa Bay.

Last night, the burly chief engineer, middle-aged, was standing telling a spirited seafaring tale, and had reached the most exciting place, where a man overboard was washing swiftly astern on the great seas, and uplifting despairing cries, everybody racing aft in a frenzy of excitement and fading hope, when the band, which had been silent a moment, began impressively its closing piece, the English national anthem. As simply as if he was unconscious of what he was doing, he stopped his story, uncovered, laid his laced cap against his breast, and slightly bent his grizzled head. The few bars finished, he put on his cap and took up his tale again, as naturally as if that interjection of music had been a part of it. There was something touching and fine about it, and it was moving to reflect that he was one of a myriad, scattered over every part of the globe, who by turn was doing as he was doing every hour of the twenty-four—those awake doing it while the others slept—those impressive bars forever floating up out of the various climes, never silent and never lacking reverent listeners.

All that I remember about Madagascar is that Thackeray’s little Billie went up to the top of the mast and there knelt him upon his knee, saying, “I see

“Jerusalem and Madagascar,
And North and South Amerikee.”

May 3. Sunday. Fifteen or twenty Africanders who will end their voyage to-day and strike for their several homes from Delagoa Bay to-morrow, sat up singing on the afterdeck in the moonlight till 3 A.M. Good fun and wholesome. And the songs were clean songs, and some of them were hallowed by tender associations. Finally, in a pause, a man asked, “Have you heard about the fellow that kept a diary crossing the Atlantic?” It was a discord, a wet blanket. The men were not in the mood for humorous dirt. The songs had carried them to their homes, and in spirit they sat by those far hearthstones, and saw faces and heard voices other than those that were about them. And so this disposition to drag in an old indecent anecdote got no welcome; nobody answered. The poor man hadn’t wit enough to see that he had blundered, but asked his question again. Again there was no response. It was embarrassing for him. In his confusion he chose the wrong course, did the wrong thing—began the anecdote. Began it in a deep and hostile stillness, where had been such life and stir and warm comradeship before. He delivered himself of the brief details of the diary’s first day, and did it with some confidence and a fair degree of eagerness. It fell flat. There was an awkward pause. The two rows of men sat like statues. There was no movement, no sound. He had to go on; there was no other way, at least none that an animal of his calibre could think of. At the close of each day’s diary, the same dismal silence followed. When at last he finished his tale and sprung the indelicate surprise which is wont to fetch a crash of laughter, not a ripple of sound resulted. It was as if the tale had been told to dead men. After what seemed a long, long time, somebody sighed, somebody else stirred in his seat; presently, the men dropped into a low murmur of confidential talk, each with his neighbor, and the incident was closed. There were indications that that man was fond of his anecdote; that it was his pet, his standby, his shot that never missed, his reputation-maker. But he will never tell it again. No doubt he will think of it sometimes, for that cannot well be helped; and then he will see a picture, and always the same picture—the double rank of dead men; the vacant deck stretching away in dimming perspective beyond them, the wide desert of smooth sea all abroad; the rim of the moon spying from behind a rag of black cloud; the remote top of the mizzenmast shearing a zigzag path through the fields of stars in the deeps of space; and this soft picture will remind him of the time that he sat in the midst of it and told his poor little tale and felt so lonesome when he got through.

Fifty Indians and Chinamen asleep in a big tent in the waist of the ship forward; they lie side by side with no space between; the former wrapped up, head and all, as in the Indian streets, the Chinamen uncovered; the lamp and things for opium smoking in the center.

A passenger said it was ten 2-ton truck loads of dynamite that lately exploded at Johannesburg. Hundreds killed; he doesn’t know how many; limbs picked up for miles around. Glass shattered, and roofs swept away or collapsed 200 yards off; fragment of iron flung three and a half miles.

It occurred at 3 P.M.; at 6, £65,000 had been subscribed. When this passenger left, £35,000 had been voted by city and state governments and £100,000 by citizens and business corporations. When news of the disaster was telephoned to the Exchange £35,000 were subscribed in the first five minutes. Subscribing was still going on when he left; the papers had ceased the names, only the amounts—too many names; not enough room. £100,000 subscribed by companies and citizens; if this is true, it must be what they call in Australia “a record”—the biggest instance of a spontaneous outpour for charity in history, considering the size of the population it was drawn from, $8 or $10 for each white resident, babies at the breast included.

Monday, May 4. Steaming slowly in the stupendous Delagoa Bay, its dim arms stretching far away and disappearing on both sides. It could furnish plenty of room for all the ships in the world, but it is shoal. The lead has given us 3 1/2 fathoms several times and we are drawing that, lacking 6 inches.

A bold headland—precipitous wall, 150 feet high, very strong, red color, stretching a mile or so. A man said it was Portuguese blood—battle fought here with the natives last year. I think this doubtful. Pretty cluster of houses on the tableland above the red—and rolling stretches of grass and groups of trees, like England.

The Portuguese have the railroad (one passenger train a day) to the border—70 miles—then the Netherlands Company have it. Thousands of tons of freight on the shore—no cover. This is Portuguese allover—indolence, piousness, poverty, impotence.

Crews of small boats and tugs, all jet black woolly heads and very muscular.

Winter. The South African winter is just beginning now, but nobody but an expert can tell it from summer. However, I am tired of summer; we have had it unbroken for eleven months. We spent the afternoon on shore, Delagoa Bay. A small town—no sights. No carriages. Three ’rickshas, but we couldn’t get them—apparently private. These Portuguese are a rich brown, like some of the Indians. Some of the blacks have the long horse heads and very long chins of the negroes of the picture books; but most of them are exactly like the negroes of our Southern States round faces, flat noses, good-natured, and easy laughers.

Flocks of black women passed along, carrying outrageously heavy bags of freight on their heads. The quiver of their leg as the foot was planted and the strain exhibited by their bodies showed what a tax upon their strength the load was. They were stevedores and doing full stevedore’s work. They were very erect when unladden—from carrying weights on their heads—just like the Indian women. It gives them a proud fine carriage.

Sometimes one saw a woman carrying on her head a laden and top-heavy basket the shape of an inverted pyramid—its top the size of a soup- plate, its base the diameter of a teacup. It required nice balancing—and got it.

No bright colors; yet there were a good many Hindoos.

The Second Class Passenger came over as usual at “lights out” (11) and we lounged along the spacious vague solitudes of the deck and smoked the peaceful pipe and talked. He told me an incident in Mr. Barnum’s life which was evidently characteristic of that great showman in several ways:

This was Barnum’s purchase of Shakespeare’s birthplace, a quarter of a century ago. The Second Class Passenger was in Jamrach’s employ at the time and knew Barnum well. He said the thing began in this way. One morning Barnum and Jamrach were in Jamrach’s little private snuggery back of the wilderness of caged monkeys and snakes and other commonplaces of Jamrach’s stock in trade, refreshing themselves after an arduous stroke of business, Jamrach with something orthodox, Barnum with something heterodox—for Barnum was a teetotaler. The stroke of business was in the elephant line. Jamrach had contracted to deliver to Barnum in New York 18 elephants for $360,000 in time for the next season’s opening. Then it occurred to Mr. Barnum that he needed a “card.” He suggested Jumbo. Jamrach said he would have to think of something else—Jumbo couldn’t be had; the Zoo wouldn’t part with that elephant. Barnum said he was willing to pay a fortune for Jumbo if he could get him. Jamrach said it was no use to think about it; that Jumbo was as popular as the Prince of Wales and the Zoo wouldn’t dare to sell him; all England would be outraged at the idea; Jumbo was an English institution; he was part of the national glory; one might as well think of buying the Nelson monument. Barnum spoke up with vivacity and said:

“It’s a first-rate idea. I’ll buy the Monument.

Jamrach was speechless for a second. Then he said, like one ashamed—

“You caught me. I was napping. For a moment I thought you were in earnest.”

Barnum said pleasantly—

“I was in earnest. I know they won’t sell it, but no matter, I will not throw away a good idea for all that. All I want is a big advertisement. I will keep the thing in mind, and if nothing better turns up I will offer to buy it. That will answer every purpose. It will furnish me a couple of columns of gratis advertising in every English and American paper for a couple of months, and give my show the biggest boom a show ever had in this world.”

Jamrach started to deliver a burst of admiration, but was interrupted by Barnum, who said:

“Here is a state of things! England ought to blush.”

His eye had fallen upon something in the newspaper. He read it through to himself, then read it aloud. It said that the house that Shakespeare was born in at Stratford-on-Avon was falling gradually to ruin through neglect; that the room where the poet first saw the light was now serving as a butcher’s shop; that all appeals to England to contribute money (the requisite sum stated) to buy and repair the house and place it in the care of salaried and trustworthy keepers had fallen resultless. Then Barnum said:

“There’s my chance. Let Jumbo and the Monument alone for the present—they’ll keep. I’ll buy Shakespeare’s house. I’ll set it up in my Museum in New York and put a glass case around it and make a sacred thing of it; and you’ll see all America flock there to worship; yes, and pilgrims from the whole earth; and I’ll make them take their hats off, too. In America we know how to value anything that Shakespeare’s touch has made holy. You’ll see.”

In conclusion the S. C. P. said:

“That is the way the thing came about. Barnum did buy Shakespeare’s house. He paid the price asked, and received the properly attested documents of sale. Then there was an explosion, I can tell you. England rose! What, the birthplace of the master-genius of all the ages and all the climes—that priceless possession of Britain—to be carted out of the country like so much old lumber and set up for sixpenny desecration in a Yankee show-shop—the idea was not to be tolerated for a moment. England rose in her indignation; and Barnum was glad to relinquish his prize and offer apologies. However, he stood out for a compromise; he claimed a concession—England must let him have Jumbo. And England consented, but not cheerfully.”

It shows how, by help of time, a story can grow—even after Barnum has had the first innings in the telling of it. Mr. Barnum told me the story himself, years ago. He said that the permission to buy Jumbo was not a concession; the purchase was made and the animal delivered before the public knew anything about it. Also, that the securing of Jumbo was all the advertisement he needed. It produced many columns of newspaper talk, free of cost, and he was satisfied. He said that if he had failed to get Jumbo he would have caused his notion of buying the Nelson Monument to be treacherously smuggled into print by some trusty friend, and after he had gotten a few hundred pages of gratuitous advertising out of it, he would have come out with a blundering, obtuse, but warm-hearted letter of apology, and in a postscript to it would have naïvely proposed to let the Monument go, and take Stonehenge in place of it at the same price.

It was his opinion that such a letter, written with well-simulated asinine innocence and gush would have gotten his ignorance and stupidity an amount of newspaper abuse worth six fortunes to him, and not purchasable for twice the money.

I knew Mr. Barnum well, and I placed every confidence in the account which he gave me of the Shakespeare birthplace episode. He said he found the house neglected and going-to decay, and he inquired into the matter and was told that many times earnest efforts had been made to raise money for its proper repair and preservation, but without success. He then proposed to buy it. The proposition was entertained, and a price named—$50,000, I think; but whatever it was, Barnum paid the money down, without remark, and the papers were drawn up and executed. He said that it had been his purpose to set up the house in his Museum, keep it in repair, protect it from name-scribblers and other desecrators, and leave it by bequest to the safe and perpetual guardianship of the Smithsonian Institute at Washington.

But as soon as it was found that Shakespeare’s house had passed into foreign hands and was going to be carried across the ocean, England was stirred as no appeal from the custodians of the relic had ever stirred England before, and protests came flowing in—and money, too, to stop the outrage. Offers of repurchase were made—offers of double the money that Mr. Barnum had paid for the house. He handed the house back, but took only the sum which it had cost him—but on the condition that an endowment sufficient for the future safeguarding and maintenance of the sacred relic should be raised. This condition was fulfilled.

That was Barnum’s account of the episode; and to the end of his days he claimed with pride and satisfaction that not England, but America—represented by him—saved the birthplace of Shakespeare from destruction.

At 3 P.M., May 6th, the ship slowed down, off the land, and thoughtfully and cautiously picked her way into the snug harbor of Durban, South Africa.

Following the Equator - Contents    |     Chapter LXV.

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