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   Chapter 2 A LIFE ON THE OCEAN WAVE, WITH MODERN VARIATIONS

In Pastures New By George Ade Characters: 21064

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


A month before sailing I visited the floating skyscraper which was to bear us away. It was hitched to a dock in Hoboken, and it reminded me of a St. Bernard dog tied by a silken thread. It was the biggest skiff afloat, with an observatory on the roof and covered porches running all the way around. It was a very large boat.

After inspecting the boat and approving of it, I selected a room with southern exposure. Later on, when we sailed, the noble craft backed into the river and turned round before heading for the Old World, and I found myself on the north side of the ship, with nothing coming in at the porthole except a current of cold air direct from Labrador.

This room was on the starboard or port side of the ship-I forget which. After travelling nearly one million miles, more or less, by steamer, I am still unable to tell which is starboard and which is port. I can tell time by the ship's bell if you let me use a pencil, but "starboard" means nothing to me. In order to make it clear to the reader, I will say that the room was on the "haw" side of the boat. I thought I was getting the "gee" side as the vessel lay at the dock, but I forgot that it had to turn around in order to start for Europe, and I found myself "haw." I complained to one of the officers and said that I had engaged a stateroom with southern exposure. He said they couldn't back up all the way across the Atlantic just to give me the sunny side of the boat. This closed the incident. He did explain, however, that if I remained in the ship and went back with them I would have southern exposure all the way home.

I complained to one of the officers

Our ship was the latest thing out. To say that it was about seven hundred feet long and nearly sixty feet beam and 42,000 tons displacement does not give a graphic idea of its huge proportions. A New Yorker might understand if told that this ship, stood on end, would be about as tall as two Flatiron buildings spliced end to end.

Out in Indiana this comparison was unavailing, as few of the residents have seen the Flatiron Building and only a small percentage of them have any desire to see it. So when a Hoosier acquaintance asked me something about the ship I led him out into Main Street and told him that it would reach from the railroad to the Presbyterian church. He looked down street at the depot and then he looked up street at the distant Presbyterian church, and then he looked at me and walked away. Every statement that I make in my native town is received with doubt. People have mistrusted me ever since I came home years ago and announced that I was working.

Evidently he repeated what I had said, for in a few minutes another resident came up and casually asked me something about the ship and wanted to know how long she was. I repeated the Presbyterian church story. He merely remarked "I thought 'Bill' was lyin' to me," and then went his way.

It is hard to live down a carefully acquired reputation, and therefore the statement as to the length of the vessel was regarded as a specimen outburst of native humour. When I went on to say that the boat would have on board three times as many people as there were in our whole town, that she had seven decks, superimposed like the layers of a jelly cake, that elevators carried passengers from one deck to another, that a daily newspaper was printed on board, and that a brass band gave concerts every day, to say nothing of the telephone exchange and the free bureau of information, then all doubt was dispelled and my local standing as a dealer in morbid fiction was largely fortified.

The chief wonder of our new liner (for all of us had a proprietary interest the moment we came aboard) was the system of elevators. Just think of it! Elevators gliding up and down between decks the same as in a modern office building. Very few passengers used the elevators, but it gave us something to talk about on board ship and it would give us something to blow about after we had returned home.

Outside of the cage stood a young German with a blonde pompadour and a jacket that came just below his shoulder blades. He was so clean he looked as if he had been scrubbed with soap and then rubbed with holystone. Every German menial on board seemed to have two guiding ambitions in life. One was to keep himself immaculate and the other was to grow a U-shaped moustache, the same as the one worn by the Kaiser.

The boy in charge of the elevator would plead with people to get in and ride. Usually, unless he waylaid them, they would forget all about the new improvement and would run up and down stairs in the old-fashioned manner instituted by Noah and imitated by Christopher Columbus.

This boy leads a checkered career on each voyage. When he departs from New York he is the elevator boy. As the vessel approaches Plymouth, England, he becomes the lift attendant. At Cherbourg he is transformed into a gar?on d'ascenseur, and as the ship draws near Hamburg he is the Aufzugsbehueter, which is an awful thing to call a mere child.

Goodness only knows what will be the ultimate result of present competition between ocean liners. As our boat was quite new and extravagantly up-to-date, perhaps some information concerning it will be of interest, even to those old and hardened travellers who have been across so often that they no longer set down the run of the ship and have ceased sending pictorial post-cards to their friends at home.

In the first place, a telephone in every room, connected with a central station. The passenger never uses it, because when he is a thousand miles from shore there is no one to be called up, and if he needs the steward he pushes a button. But it is there-a real German telephone, shaped like a broken pretzel, and anyone who has a telephone in his room feels that he is getting something for his money.

After two or three lessons any American can use a foreign telephone. All he has to learn is which end to put to his ear and how to keep two or three springs pressed down all the time he is talking. In America he takes down the receiver and talks into the 'phone. Elsewhere he takes the entire telephone down from a rack and holds it the same as a slide trombone.

Holds it the same as a slide trombone

In some of the cabins were electric hair curlers. A Cleveland man who wished to call up the adjoining cabin on the 'phone, just to see if the thing would work, put the hair curler to his ear and began talking into the dynamo. There was no response, so he pushed a button and nearly ruined his left ear. It was a natural mistake. In Europe, anything attached to the wall is liable to be a telephone.

On the whole, I think our telephone system is superior to that of any foreign cities. Our telephone girls have larger vocabularies, for one thing. In England the "hello" is never used. When an Englishman gathers up the ponderous contrivance and fits it against his head he asks:-"Are you there?" If the other man answers "No," that stops the whole conversation.

Travellers throughout the world should rise up and unite in a vote of thanks to whoever it was that abolished the upper berth in the newer boats. Mahomet's coffin suspended in mid air must have been a cheery and satisfactory bunk compared with the ordinary upper berth. Only a trained athlete can climb into one of them. The woodwork that you embrace and rub your legs against as you struggle upward is very cold. When you fall into the clammy sheets you are only about six inches from the ceiling. In the early morning the sailors scour the deck just overhead and you feel as if you were getting a shampoo. The a?rial sarcophagus is built deep, like a trough, so that the prisoner cannot roll out during the night. It is narrow, and the man who is addicted to the habit of "spraddling" feels as if he were tied hand and foot.

In nearly all of the staterooms of the new boat there were no upper berths, and the lower ones were wide and springy-they were almost beds, and a bed on board ship is something that for years has been reserved as the special luxury of the millionaire.

I like the democracy of a shipboard community. You take the most staid and awe-inspiring notable in the world, bundle him in a damp storm-coat and pull a baggy travelling cap down over his ears and there is none so humble as to do him reverence. One passenger may say to another as this great man teeters along the deck, squinting against the wind: "Do you know who that man is?"

"No, who is it?"

"That's William Bilker, the millionaire philanthropist. He owns nearly all the coke ovens in the world-has built seven theological seminaries. He's going to Europe to escape a Congressional investigation."

That is the end of it so far as any flattering attentions to Mr. Bilker are concerned. If he goes in the smoking-room some beardless youth will invite him to sit in a game of poker. His confidential friend at the table may be a Montana miner, a Chicago real estate agent or a Kentucky horseman. He may hold himself aloof from the betting crowd and discourage those who would talk with him on deck, but he cannot by any possibility be a man of importance. Compared with the captain, for instance, he is a worm. And the captain draws probably $2500 a year. It must be a lot of fun to stay on board ship all the time. Otherwise the ocean liner could not get so many high class and capable men to work for practically nothing.

On the open sea a baby is much more interesting than a railway president and juveniles in general are a mighty welcome addition to the passenger list. If a child in the house is a wellspring of pleasure, then a child on a boat is nothing less than a waterspout. The sea air, with its cool vapours of salt and iodine, may lull the adult into one continuous and lazy doze, but it is an invigorant to the offspring. We had on board children from Buffalo, Chicago, Jamestown, Poughkeepsie, Worcester, Philadelphia, and other points. These children traded names before the steamer got away from the dock, and as we went down the bay under a bright sunshine they were so full of emotion that they ran madly around the upper decks, shrieking at every step. Nine full laps on the upper deck make a mile, and one man gave the opinion that the children travelled one hundred miles that first afternoon. This was probably an exaggeration.

The older people lay at full length in steamer chairs and drowsed like so many hibernating bears. That is, they slept when

they were not eating. The boat was one of a German line, and on a German boat the passenger's first duty is to gorge. In the smoking-room the last night out there was a dispute as to the number of meals, whole or partial, served every day. One man counted up and made it nine. Another, who was trying to slander the company, made the number as low as five. A count was taken and the following schedule was declared to be accurate and official:

6 a.m.-Coffee and rolls in the dining room.

8 to 10 a.m.-Breakfast in the dining room.

11 a.m.-Sandwiches and bouillon on deck.

12:35 p.m.-Luncheon.

4 p.m.-Cakes and lemonade on deck.

6 p.m.-Dinner.

9 p.m.-Supper (cold) in dining room.

10 to 11:30 p.m.-Sandwiches (Swiss cheese, caviar, tongue, beef, cervelat wurst, etc.) in the smoking-room.

It will be noted that anyone using ordinary diligence is enabled to stay the pangs of hunger at least eight times a day. But the company in order to cover all emergencies, has made the humane provision that articles of food may be obtained at any hour, either in the smoking room or dining room, or by giving the order to a steward. It is said that geese being fattened for the market or encouraged to develop the liver are tied to the ground so that they cannot take any harmful exercise, and large quantities of rich food are then pushed into them by means of a stick. Anyone who has spent a lazy week on a German steamer can sympathise with the geese.

Of course we had wireless messages to give us an occasional throb of excitement. Wireless telegraphy, by the way, is more or less of an irritant to the traveller. The man with stocks purchased and lawsuits pending, and all sorts of deals under way, knows that he can be reached (probably) in some sort of a zig-zag manner by wireless telegraphy, no matter where he may be on the wide ocean, and so, most of the time, he is standing around on one foot waiting for bad news. On shore he doesn't fret so much about possible calamities, but as soon as he gets away from Sandy Hook he begins to draw mental pictures of the mistakes being made by lunk-headed subordinates, and then he hangs around the Marconi station up on the sun deck, waiting for his most horrible fears to be confirmed.

In 1895, during my first voyage to Europe, I wrote the following in one of my letters, intending it as a mild pleasantry:

"Some day, perhaps, there will be invented a device by which ocean steamers may tap the Atlantic cable for news bulletins and stock quotations, or else receive them by special transmission through the water, and then the last refuge will be denied the business slave who is attempting to get away from his work."

And to think that ten years later the miracle of shooting a message through an open window and across five hundred miles of nothing but atmosphere has become a tame and every-day occurrence!

On the steamer I met an old friend-Mr. Peasley, of Iowa. We first collided in Europe in 1895, when both of us were over for the first time and were groping our way about the Continent and pretending to enjoy ourselves. About the time I first encountered Mr. Peasley he had an experience which, in all probability, is without parallel in human history. Some people to whom I have told the story frankly disbelieved it, but then they did not know Mr. Peasley. It is all very true, and it happened as follows:-

Mr. Peasley had been in Rotterdam for two days, and after galloping madly through churches, galleries, and museums for eight hours a day he said that he had seen enough Dutch art to last him a million years, at a very conservative estimate, so he started for Brussels. He asked the proprietor of the hotel at Rotterdam for the name of a good hotel in Brussels and the proprietor told him to go to the Hotel Victoria. He said it was a first-class establishment and was run by his brother-in-law. Every hotel keeper in Europe has a brother-in-law running a hotel in some other town.

Mr. Peasley was loaded into a train by watchful attendants, and as there were no Englishmen in the compartment he succeeded in getting a good seat right by the window and did not have to ride backward. Very soon he became immersed in one of the six best sellers. He read on and on, chapter after chapter, not heeding the flight of time, until the train rolled into a cavernous train shed and was attacked by the usual energetic mob of porters and hotel runners. Mr. Peasley looked out and saw that they had arrived at another large city. On the other side of the platform was a large and beautiful 'bus marked "Hotel Victoria." Mr. Peasley shrieked for a porter and began dumping Gladstone bags, steamer rugs, cameras, and other impedimenta out through the window. The man from the Victoria put these on top of the 'bus and in a few minutes Mr. Peasley was riding through the tidy thoroughfares and throwing mental bouquets at the street-cleaning department.

When he arrived at the Victoria he was met by the proprietor, who wore the frock coat and whiskers which are the world-wide insignia of hospitality.

"Your brother-in-law in Rotterdam told me to come here and put up with you," explained Mr. Peasley. "He said you were running a first-class place, which means, I s'pose, first class for this country. If you fellows over here would put in steam heat and bathrooms and electric lights and then give us something to eat in the bargain your hotels wouldn't be so bad. I admire the stationery in your writing rooms, and the regalia worn by your waiters is certainly all right, but that's about all I can say for you."

The proprietor smiled and bowed and said he hoped his brother-in-law in Rotterdam was in good health and enjoying prosperity, and Mr. Peasley said that he, personally, had left with the brother-in-law enough money to run the hotel for another six months.

After Mr. Peasley had been conducted to his room he dug up his Baedeker and very carefully read the introduction to Brussels. Then he studied the map for a little while. He believed in getting a good general idea of the lay of things before he tackled a new town. He marked on the map a few of the show places which seemed worth while, and then he sallied out, waving aside the smirking guide who attempted to fawn upon him as he paused at the main entrance. Mr. Peasley would have nothing to do with guides. He always said that the man who had to be led around by the halter would do better to stay right at home.

It was a very busy afternoon for Mr. Peasley. At first he had some difficulty in finding the places that were marked in red spots on the map. This was because he had been holding the map upside down. By turning the map the other way and making due allowance for the inaccuracies to be expected in a book written by ignorant foreigners, the whole ground plan of the city straightened itself out, and he boldly went his way. He visited an old cathedral and two art galleries, reading long and scholarly comments on the more celebrated masterpieces. Some of the paintings were not properly labelled, but he knew that slipshod methods prevailed in Europe-that a civilisation which is on the downhill and about to play out cannot be expected to breed a business-like accuracy. He wrote marginal corrections in his guide book and doctored up the map a little, several streets having been omitted, and returned to the hotel at dusk feeling very well repaid. From the beginning of his tour he had maintained that when a man goes out and gets information or impressions of his own unaided efforts he gets something that will abide with him and become a part of his intellectual and artistic fibre. That which is ladled into him by a verbose guide soon evaporates or oozes away.

At the table d'h?te Mr. Peasley had the good fortune to be seated next to an Englishman, to whom he addressed himself. The Englishman was not very communicative, but Mr. Peasley persevered. It was his theory that when one is travelling and meets a fellow Caucasian who is shy or reticent or suspicious the thing to do is to keep on talking to him until he feels quite at ease and the entente cordiale is fully established. So Mr. Peasley told the Englishman all about Iowa and said that it was "God's country." The Englishman fully agreed with him-that is, if silence gives consent. There was a lull in the conversation and Mr. Peasley, seeking to give it a new turn, said to his neighbour, "I like this town best of any I've seen. Is this your first visit to Brussels?"

"I have never been to Brussels," replied the Englishman.

"That is, never until this time," suggested Mr. Peasley. "I'm in the same boat. Just landed here to-day. I've heard of it before, on account of the carpet coming from here, and of course everybody knows about Brussels sprouts, but I had no idea it was such a big place. It's bigger than Rock Island and Davenport put together."

The Englishman began to move away, at the same time regarding the cheerful Peasley with solemn wonderment. Then he said:-

"My dear sir, I am quite unable to follow you. Where do you think you are?"

"Brussels-it's in Belgium-capital, same as Des Moines in Iowa."

"My good man, you are not in Brussels. You are in Antwerp."

"Antwerp!"

"Certainly."

"Why, I've been all over town to-day, with a guide book, and--" He paused and a horrible suspicion settled upon him. Arising from the table he rushed to the outer office and confronted the manager.

"What's the name of this town I'm in?" he demanded.

"Antwerp," replied the astonished manager.

Mr. Peasley leaned against the wall and gasped.

"Well, I'll be --!" he began, and then language failed him.

"You said you had a brother-in-law in Rotterdam," he said, when he recovered his voice.

"That is quite true."

"And the Victoria Hotel-is there one in Brussels and another in Antwerp?"

"There is a Victoria Hotel in every city in the whole world. The Victoria Hotel is universal-the same as Scotch whiskey."

"And I am now in Antwerp?"

"Most assuredly."

Mr. Peasley went to his room. He did not dare to return to face the Englishman. Next day he proceeded to Brussels and found that he could work from the same guide book just as successfully as he had in Antwerp.

When I met him on the steamer he said that during all of his travels since 1895 he never had duplicated the remarkable experience at Antwerp. As soon as he alights from a train he goes right up to someone and asks the name of the town.

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