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   Chapter 2 My Bonny Lies over the Ocean—Lies and Lies and Lies

Europe Revised By Irvin S. Cobb Characters: 23729

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


Of course, we had a bridal couple and a troupe of professional deep-sea fishermen aboard. We just naturally had to have them. Without them, I doubt whether the ship could have sailed. The bridal couple were from somewhere in the central part of Ohio and they were taking their honeymoon tour; but, if I were a bridal couple from the central part of Ohio and had never been to sea before, as was the case in this particular instance, I should take my honeymoon ashore and keep it there. I most certainly should! This couple of ours came aboard billing and cooing to beat the lovebirds. They made it plain to all that they had just been married and were proud of it. Their baggage was brand-new, and the groom's shoes were shiny with that pristine shininess which, once destroyed, can never be restored; and the bride wore her going-and-giving-away outfit.

Just prior to sailing and on the morning after they were all over the ship. Everywhere you went you seemed to meet them and they were always wrestling. You entered a quiet side passage-there they were, exchanging a kiss-one of the long-drawn, deep-siphoned, sirupy kind. You stepped into the writing room thinking to find it deserted, and at sight of you they broke grips and sprang apart, eyeing you like a pair of startled fawns surprised by the cruel huntsman in a forest glade. At all other times, though, they had eyes but for each other.

A day came, however-and it was the second day out-when they were among the missing. For two days and two nights, while the good ship floundered on the tempestuous bosom of the overwrought ocean, they were gone from human ken. On the afternoon of the third day, the sea being calmer now, but still sufficiently rough to satisfy the most exacting, a few hardy and convalescent souls sat in a shawl-wrapped row on the lee side of the ship.

There came two stewards, bearing with them pillows and blankets and rugs. These articles were disposed to advantage in two steamer chairs. Then the stewards hurried away; but presently they reappeared, dragging the limp and dangling forms of the bridal couple from the central part of Ohio. But oh, my countrymen, what a spectacle! And what a change from what had been!

The going-away gown was wrinkled, as though worn for a period of time by one suddenly and sorely stricken in the midst of health. The bride's once well-coifed hair hung in lank disarray about a face that was the color of prime old sage cheese-yellow, with a fleck of green here and there-and in her wan and rolling eye was the hunted look of one who hears something unpleasant stirring a long way off and fears it is coming this way.

Side by side the stewards stretched them prone on their chairs and tucked them in. Her face was turned from him. For some time both of them lay there without visible signs of life-just two muffled, misery-stricken heaps. Then, slowly and languidly, the youth stretched forth an arm from his wrappings and fingered the swaddling folds that enveloped the form of his beloved.

It may have been he thought it was about time to begin picking the coverlid, or it may have been the promptings of reawakened romance, once more feebly astir within his bosom. At any rate, gently and softly, his hand fell on the rug about where her shoulder ought to be. She still had life enough left in her to shake it off-and she did. Hurt, he waited a moment, then caressed her again. "Stop that!" she cried in a low but venomous tone. "Don't you dare touch me!"

So he touched her no more, but only lay there mute and motionless; and from his look one might plumb the sorrows of his soul and know how shocked he was, and how grieved and heartstricken! Love's young dream was o'er! He had thought she loved him, but now he knew better. Their marriage had been a terrible mistake and he would give her back her freedom; he would give it back to her as soon as he was able to sit up. Thus one interpreted his expression.

On the day we landed, however, they were seen again. We were nosing northward through a dimpled duckpond of a sea, with the Welsh coast on one side and Ireland just over the way. People who had not been seen during the voyage came up to breathe, wearing the air of persons who had just returned from the valley of the shadow and were mighty glad to be back; and with those others came our bridal couple.

I inadvertently stumbled on them in an obscure companionway. Their cheeks again wore the bloom of youth and health, and they were in a tight clinch; it was indeed a pretty sight. Love had returned on roseate pinions and the honeymoon had been resumed at the point where postponed on account of bad weather.

They had not been seasick, though. I heard them say so. They had been indisposed, possibly from something they had eaten; but they had not been seasick. Well, I had my own periods of indisposition going over; and if it had been seasickness I should not hesitate a moment about coming right out and saying so. In these matters I believe in being absolutely frank and aboveboard. For the life of me I cannot understand why people will dissemble and lie about this thing of being seasick. To me their attitude is a source of constant wonderment.

On land the average person is reasonably proud of having been sick-after he begins to get better. It gives him something to talk about. The pale and interesting invalid invariably commands respect ashore. In my own list of acquaintances I number several persons-mainly widowed ladies with satisfactory incomes-who never feel well unless they are ill. In the old days they would have had resort to patent medicines and the family lot at Laurel Grove Cemetery; but now they go in for rest cures and sea voyages, and the baths at Carlsbad and specialists, these same being main contributing causes to the present high cost of living, and also helping to explain what becomes of some of those large life-insurance policies you read about. Possibly you know the type I am describing-the lady who, when planning where she will spend the summer, sends for catalogues from all the leading sanatoriums. We had one such person with us.

She had been surgically remodeled so many times that she dated everything from her last operation. At least six times in her life she had been down with something that was absolutely incurable, and she was now going to Homburg to have one of the newest and most fatal German diseases in its native haunts, where it would be at its best. She herself said that she was but a mere shell; and for the first few meals she ate like one-like a large, empty shell with plenty of curves inside it.

However, when, after a subsequent period of seclusion, she emerged from her stateroom wearing the same disheveled look that Jonah must have worn when he and the whale parted company, do you think she would confess she had been seasick? Not by any means! She said she had had a raging headache. But she could not fool me. She had the stateroom next to mine and I had heard what I had heard. She was from near Boston and she had the near-Boston accent; and she was the only person I ever met who was seasick with the broad A.

Personally I abhor those evasions, which deceive no one. If I had been seasick I should not deny it here or elsewhere. For a time I thought I was seasick. I know now I was wrong-but I thought so. There was something about the sardels served at lunch-their look or their smell or something-which seemed to make them distasteful to me; and I excused myself from the company at the table and went up and out into the open air. But the deck was unpleasantly congested with great burly brutes-beefy, carnivorous, overfed creatures, gorged with victuals and smoking disgustingly strong black cigars, and grinning in an annoying and meaning sort of way every time they passed a body who preferred to lie quiet.

The rail was also moving up and down in a manner that was annoying and wearisome for the eye to watch-first tipping up and up and up until half the sky was hidden, then dipping down and down and down until the gray and heaving sea seemed ready to leap over the side and engulf us. So I decided to go below and jot down a few notes. On arriving at my quarters I changed my mind again. I decided to let the notes wait a while and turn in.

It is my usual custom when turning in to remove the left shoe as well as the right one and to put on my pajamas; but the pajamas were hanging on a hook away over on the opposite side of the stateroom, which had suddenly grown large and wide and full of great distances; and besides, I thought it was just as well to have the left shoe where I could put my hand on it when I needed it again. So I retired practically just as I was and endeavored, as per the admonitions of certain friends, to lie perfectly flat. No doubt this thing of lying flat is all very well for some people-but suppose a fellow has not that kind of a figure?

Nevertheless, I tried. I lay as flat as I could, but the indisposition persisted; in fact, it increased materially. The manner in which my pajamas, limp and pendent from that hook, swayed and swung back and forth became extremely distasteful to me; and if by mental treatment I could have removed them from there I should assuredly have done so. But that was impossible.

Along toward evening I began to think of food. I thought of it not from its gastronomic aspect, but rather in the capacity of ballast. I did not so much desire the taste of it as the feel of it. So I summoned Lubly-he, at least, did not smile at me in that patronizing, significant way-and ordered a dinner that included nearly everything on the dinner card except Lubly's thumb. The dinner was brought to me in relays and I ate it-ate it all! This step I know now was ill-advised. It is true that for a short time I felt as I imagine a python in a zoo feels when he is full of guinea-pigs-sort of gorged, you know, and sluggish, and only tolerably uncomfortable.

Then ensued the frightful denouement. It ensued almost without warning. At the time I felt absolutely positive that I was seasick. I would have sworn to it. If somebody had put a Bible on my chest and held it there I would cheerfully have laid my right hand on it and taken a solemn oath that I was seasick. Indeed, I believed I was so seasick that I feared-hoped, rather-I might never recover from it. All I desired at the moment was to get it over with as quickly and as neatly as possible.

As in the case of drowning persons, there passed in review before my eyes several of the more recent events of my past life-meals mostly. I shall, however, pass hastily over these distressing details, merely stating in parentheses, so to speak, that I did not remember those string-beans at all. I was positive then, and am yet, that I had not eaten string-beans for nearly a week. But enough of this!

I was sure I was seasick; and I am convinced any inexperienced bystander, had there been one there, would have been misled by my demeanor into regarding me as a seasick person-but it was a wrong diagnosis. The steward told me so himself when he called the next morning. He came and found me stretched prone on the bed of affliction; and he asked me how I felt, to which I replied with a low and hollow groan-tolerably low and exceedingly hollow. It could not have been any hollower if I had been a megaphone.

So he looked me over and told me that I had climate fever. We were passing through the Gulf Stream, where the water was warmer than elsewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, and I had a touch of climate fever. It was a very common complaint in that latitude; many persons suffered from it. The symptoms were akin to seasickness, it was true; yet the two maladies were in no way to be confused. As soon as we passed out of the Gulf Stream he felt sure I would be perfe

ctly well. Meantime he would recommend that I get Lubly to take the rest of my things off and then remain perfectly quiet. He was right about it too.

Regardless of what one may think oneself, one is bound to accept the statement of an authority on this subject; and if a steward on a big liner, who has traveled back and forth across the ocean for years, is not an authority on climate fever, who is? I looked at it in that light. And sure enough, when we had passed out of the Gulf Stream and the sea had smoothed itself out, I made a speedy and satisfactory recovery; but if it had been seasickness I should have confessed it in a minute. I have no patience with those who quibble and equivocate in regard to their having been seasick.

I had one relapse-a short one, but painful. In an incautious moment, when I wist not wot I wotted, I accepted an invitation from the chief engineer to go below. We went below-miles and miles, I think-to where, standing on metal runways that were hot to the foot, overalled Scots ministered to the heart and the lungs and the bowels of that ship. Electricity spat cracklingly in our faces, and at our sides steel shafts as big as the pillars of a temple spun in coatings of spumy grease; and through the double skin of her we could hear, over our heads, a mighty Niagaralike churning as the slew-footed screws kicked us forward twenty-odd knots an hour. Someone raised the cover of a vat, and peering down into the opening we saw a small, vicious engine hard at work, entirely enveloped in twisty, coily, stewy depths of black oil, like a devil-fish writhing in sea-ooze and cuttle-juice.

So then we descended another mile or two to an inferno, full of naked, sooty devils forever feeding sulphurous pitfires in the nethermost parlors of the damned; but they said this was the stokehole; and I was in no condition to argue with them, for I had suddenly begun to realize that I was far from being a well person. As one peering through a glass darkly, I saw one of the attendant demons sluice his blistered bare breast with cold water, so that the sweat and grime ran from him in streams like ink; and peering in at a furnace door I saw a great angry sore of coals all scabbed and crusted over. Then another demon, wielding a nine-foot bar daintily as a surgeon wields a scalpel, reached in and stabbed it in the center, so that the fire burst through and gushed up red and rich, like blood from a wound newly lanced.

I had seen enough and to spare; but my guide brought me back by way of the steerage, in order that I might know how the other half lives. There was nothing here, either of smell or sight, to upset the human stomach-third class is better fed and better quartered now on those big ships than first class was in those good old early days-but I had held in as long as I could and now I relapsed. I relapsed in a vigorous manner-a whole-souled, boisterous manner. People halfway up the deck heard me relapsing, and I will warrant some of them were fooled too-they thought I was seasick.

It was due to my attack of climate fever that I missed the most exciting thing which happened on the voyage. I refer to the incident of the professional gamblers and the youth from Jersey City. From the very first there was one passenger who had been picked out by all the knowing passengers as a professional gambler; for he was the very spit-and-image of a professional gambler as we have learned to know him in story books. Did he not dress in plain black, without any jewelry? He certainly did. Did he not have those long, slender, flexible fingers? Such was, indeed, the correct description of those fingers. Was not his eye a keen steely-blue eye that seemed to have the power of looking right through you? Steely-blue was the right word, all right. Well, then, what more could you ask?

Behind his back sinister yet fascinating rumors circulated. He was the brilliant but unscrupulous scion of a haughty house in England. He had taken a first degree at Oxford, over there, and the third one at police headquarters, over here. Women simply could not resist him. Let him make up his mind to win a woman and she was a gone gosling. His picture was to be found in rogues' galleries and ladies' lockets. And sh-h-h! Listen! Everybody knew he was the identical crook who, disguised in woman's clothes, escaped in the last lifeboat that left the sinking Titanic. Who said so? Why-er-everybody said so!

It came as a grievous disappointment to all when we found out the truth, which was that he was the booking agent for a lyceum bureau, going abroad to sign up some foreign talent for next season's Chautauquas; and the only gambling he had ever done was on the chance of whether the Tyrolian Yodelers would draw better than our esteemed secretary of state-or vice versa.

Meantime the real professionals had established themselves cozily and comfortably aboard, had rigged the trap and cheese-baited it, and were waiting for the coming of one of the class that is born so numerously in this country. If you should be traveling this year on one of the large trans-Atlantic ships, and there should come aboard two young well-dressed men and shortly afterward a middle-aged well-dressed man with a flat nose, who was apparently a stranger to the first two; and if on the second night out in the smoking room, while the pool on the next day's run was being auctioned, one of the younger men, whom we will call Mr. Y, should appear to be slightly under the influence of malt, vinous or spirituous liquors-or all three of them at once-and should, without seeming provocation, insist on picking a quarrel with the middle-aged stranger, whom we will call Mr. Z; and if further along in the voyage Mr. Z should introduce himself to you and suggest a little game of auction bridge for small stakes in order to while away the tedium of travel; and if it should so fall out that Mr. Y and his friend Mr. X chanced to be the only available candidates for a foursome at this fascinating pursuit; and if Mr. Z, being still hostile toward the sobered and repentant Mr. Y, should decline to take on either Mr. Y or his friend X as a partner, but chose you instead; and if on the second or third deal you picked up your cards and found you had an apparently unbeatable hand and should bid accordingly; and Mr. X should double you; and Mr. Z, sitting across from you should come gallantly right back and redouble it; and Mr. Y, catching the spirit of the moment, should double again-and so on and so forth until each point, instead of being worth only a paltry cent or two, had accumulated a value of a good many cents-if all these things or most of them should befall in the order enumerated-why, then, if I were you, gentle reader, I would have a care. And I should leave that game and go somewhere else to have it too-lest a worse thing befall you as it befell the guileless young Jerseyman on our ship. After he had paid out a considerable sum on being beaten-by just one card-upon the playing of his seemingly unbeatable hand and after the haunting and elusive odor of eau de rodent had become plainly perceptible all over the ship, he began, as the saying goes, to smell a rat himself, and straightway declined to make good his remaining losses, amounting to quite a tidy amount. Following this there were high words, meaning by that low ones, and accusations and recriminations, and at eventide when the sunset was a welter of purple and gold, there was a sudden smashing of glassware in the smoking room and a flurry of arms and legs in a far corner, and a couple of pained stewards scurrying about saying, "Ow, now, don't do that, sir, if you please, sir, thank you, sir!" And one of the belligerents came forth from the melee wearing a lavender eye with saffron trimmings, as though to match the sunset, and the other with a set of skinned knuckles, emblematic of the skinning operations previously undertaken. And through all the ship ran the hissing tongues of scandal and gossip.

Out of wild rumor and cross-rumor, certain salient facts were eventually precipitated like sediment from a clouded solution. It seemed that the engaging Messrs. X, Y and Z had been induced, practically under false pretenses to book passage, they having read in the public prints that the prodigal and card-foolish son of a cheese-paring millionaire father meant to take the ship too; but he had grievously disappointed them by not coming aboard at all. Then, when in an effort to make their traveling expenses back, they uncorked their newest trick and device for inspiring confidence in gudgeons, the particular gudgeon of their choosing had refused to pay up. Naturally they were fretful and peevish in the extreme. It spoiled the whole trip for them.

Except for this one small affair it was, on the whole, a pleasant voyage. We had only one storm and one ship's concert, and at the finish most of us were strong enough to have stood another storm. And the trip had been worth a lot to us-at least it had been worth a lot to me, for I had crossed the ocean on one of the biggest hotels afloat. I had amassed quite a lot of nautical terms that would come in very handy for stunning the folks at home when I got back. I had had my first thrill at the sight of foreign shores. And just by casual contact with members of the British aristocracy, I had acquired such a heavy load of true British hauteur that in parting on the landing dock I merely bowed distantly toward those of my fellow Americans to whom I had not been introduced; and they, having contracted the same disease, bowed back in the same haughty and distant manner.

When some of us met again, however, in Vienna, the insulation had been entirely rubbed off and we rushed madly into one another's arms and exchanged names and addresses; and, babbling feverishly the while, we told one another what our favorite flower was, and our birthstone and our grandmother's maiden name, and what we thought of a race of people who regarded a cup of ostensible coffee and a dab of honey as constituting a man's-size breakfast. And, being pretty tolerably homesick by that time, we leaned in toward a common center and gave three loud, vehement cheers for the land of the country sausage and the home of the buckwheat cake-and, as giants refreshed, went on our ways rejoicing.

That, though, was to come later. At present we are concerned with the trip over and what we had severally learned from it. I personally had learned, among other things, that the Atlantic Ocean, considered as such, is a considerably overrated body. Having been across it, even on so big and fine and well-ordered a ship as this ship was, the ocean, it seemed to me, was not at all what it had been cracked up to be.

During the first day out it is a novelty and after that a monotony-except when it is rough; and then it is a doggoned nuisance. Poets without end have written of the sea, but I take it they stayed at home to do their writing. They were not on the bounding billow when they praised it; if they had been they might have decorated the billow, but they would never have praised it.

As the old song so happily put it: My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean! And a lot of others have lied over it too; but I will not-at least not just yet. Perhaps later on I may feel moved to do so; but at this moment I am but newly landed from it and my heart is full of rankling resentment toward the ocean and all its works.

I speak but a sober conviction when I say that the chief advantage to be derived from taking an ocean voyage is not that you took it, but that you have it to talk about afterward. And, to my mind, the most inspiring sight to be witnessed on a trip across the Atlantic is the Battery-viewed from the ocean side, coming back.

Do I hear any seconds to that motion?

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