This continued blog-journey from Part II was inspired by and liberally borrowed from a classic book and well-known 19th century American writer you may recognize. I’ve added some modernized twists.
Pilgrim Life, Amusements, and Opinions At Sea
For a week or so there were no conflicts of jurisdiction between the many various captains onboard, surprisingly on such a pleasure ship at sea. However, there was as much sameness as there was intrigue. Many pilgrims began acquiring sailor terminology:
“Half-past six was no longer half-past six to these pilgrims from New England, the South, and the Mississippi Valley, it was “seven bells”; eight, twelve, and four o’clock were “eight bells”; the captain did not take the longitude at nine o’clock, but at “two bells.” They spoke glibly of the “after cabin,” the “for’rard cabin,” “port and starboard” and the “fo’castle.””
I feared we’d soon have as many Ensigns as we had Captains and most were still miserably seasick. Where is the pleasure in that? Many found various games to play such as dominoes and identifying distant ships through opera-glasses. One very popular game was “Horse-billiards,” though popular I suppose only if winning or as a casual spectator. Horse-billiards “affords good, active exercise, hilarity, and consuming excitement. It is a mixture of “hop-scotch” and shuffleboard played with a crutch.” What makes the game so entertaining is scientific timing and calculations. With a long gangly crutch players vigorously thrust their wooden disks forward — right, not what you’re thinking — for different points in different squares; no points if your disk stops on a line. You must cross the line or stop short of the line. Easy, right?
No. One must account for the reeling of the ship starboard, port, fore, or aft. Many a scientific calculation resulted in a disk going off the entire hopscotch board, down a gangway, or worse slip back to where you thrusted… or apparently not. The ladies seemed to enjoy this mishap the most.
By half-past 7 o’clock when the bell tolled for… prayers, we pilgrims would promenade to the handsome saloon, otherwise known as the “Synagogue” by the unregenerated. Our “hymns were accompanied by parlor-organ music when the sea was smooth enough to allow a performer to sit at the instrument without being lashed to his chair.” Not too unlike those twitchers in front of long-winded ministers I suppose.
“Several times the photographer of the expedition brought out his transparent pictures and gave us a handsome magic-lantern exhibition. His views were nearly all of foreign scenes, but there were one or two home pictures among them. He advertised that he would “open his performance in the after cabin at ‘two bells’ (nine P.M.) and show the passengers where they shall eventually arrive”—which was all very well, but by a funny accident the first picture that flamed out upon the canvas was a view of Greenwood Cemetery!”
On the upper deck we performed what should appear as ballroom dancing underneath the canvas awnings with rows of lanterns hung from the ship’s deck-posts. But with all the brilliant lighting underneath the glittering stars, the dancing was not so brilliant nor graceful.
“Our music consisted of the well-mixed strains of a melodeon which was a little asthmatic and apt to catch its breath where it ought to come out strong, a clarinet which was a little unreliable on the high keys and rather melancholy on the low ones, and a disreputable accordion that had a leak somewhere and breathed louder than it squawked—a more elegant term does not occur to me just now. However, the dancing was infinitely worse than the music. When the ship rolled to starboard the whole platoon of dancers came charging down to starboard with it, and brought up in mass at the rail; and when it rolled to port they went floundering down to port with the same unanimity of sentiment. Waltzers spun around precariously for a matter of fifteen seconds and then went scurrying down to the rail as if they meant to go overboard.”
In order to save some level of dignity, we gave up dancing.
It seemed quite appropriate that what should follow our meager attempts of ballroom music and dancing would be a mock trial. Naval tradition dictates a dummy crime, law-enforcement, an accuser and defendant, a courtroom, a judge, and of course witnesses. Witnesses that are unsure of what they witnessed which makes for gripping amusement onboard a presently mundane pleasure excursion on the high seas. The judge hammers his gavel.
“The purser was accused of stealing an overcoat from stateroom No. 10. A judge was appointed; also clerks, a crier of the court, constables, sheriffs; counsel for the State and for the defendant; witnesses were subpoenaed, and a jury empaneled after much challenging. The witnesses were stupid and unreliable and contradictory, as witnesses always are. The counsel were eloquent, argumentative, and vindictively abusive of each other, as was characteristic and proper. The case was at last submitted and duly finished by the judge with an absurd decision and a ridiculous sentence.”
Shortly after the guilty purser was catapulted overboard for his overcoat crime, a debate club was formed to argue the benefits of human catapults. But it failed. It was no less successful than the evening’s dancing, for there were no oratorical talents to be found anywhere on the ship. Perhaps the fear of being catapulted into the raging sea for lack of oratory skill or grasp of an elementary vocabulary — reminiscent of an American President who can’t read a teleprompter — dashed their ambitions.
Had the debate club been successfully created, the first issue addressed would most certainly be the singing. There are some passengers that question the quality of song, myself included, and its consequences during our precarious voyage. Many a superstitious sailor and unregenerated passengers would attribute our strong head-winds to unhappy muses of Apollo. Should this mockery of song and dance continue, there could be retribution to pay:
“There were those who said openly that it was taking chances enough to have such ghastly music going on, even when it was at its best; and that to exaggerate the crime by letting George help was simply flying in the face of Providence. These said that the choir would keep up their lacerating attempts at melody until they would bring down a storm some day that would sink the ship.
There were even grumblers at the prayers. The executive officer said the pilgrims had no charity: “There they are, down there every night at eight bells, praying for fair winds—when they know as well as I do that this is the only ship going east this time of the year, but there’s a thousand coming west—what’s a fair wind for us is a head wind to them—the Almighty’s blowing a fair wind for a thousand vessels, and this tribe wants him to turn it clear around so as to accommodate one—and she a steamship at that! It ain’t good sense, it ain’t good reason, it ain’t good Christianity, it ain’t common human charity. Avast with such nonsense!””
Land-Hoh, Sketchy Mathematics, and Cheer Restored
The twenty-four hundred nautical miles from New York Harbor to the Azores was in good naval terms: “by and large“ pleasant. Yes, disgruntled sea gods blew unfavorable head-winds upon our vessel and asthmatic singing. Yes, well over half our passenger manifest were seasick from the Quaker City being thrown to and fro — which ironically enough helped with our ballroom dancing. But for the most part, the first leg of our journey had temperate summer days and finer evenings under starlit heavens with a full moon that followed us at the same hour every night. “It was becoming an old moon to the friends we had left behind us, but to us Joshuas it stood still in the same place and remained always the same.” This caused quite the stir to some unknowing gazers as if we had the celestial white balloon tethered to our mast.
Then the trip’s charm ended at a most unfortunate hour.
“At three o’clock on the morning of the twenty-first of June, we were awakened and notified that the Azores islands were in sight. I said I did not take any interest in islands at three o’clock in the morning. But another persecutor came, and then another and another, and finally believing that the general enthusiasm would permit no one to slumber in peace, I got up and went sleepily on deck. It was five and a half o’clock now, and a raw, blustering morning. The passengers were huddled about the smoke-stacks and fortified behind ventilators, and all were wrapped in wintry costumes and looking sleepy and unhappy in the pitiless gale and the drenching spray.”
Why a mound of mud in the water was such a sight to sacrifice sweet slumber, I can only guess. Perhaps the fine entertainment on our tossing and turning ship had been enough to find hope and relief on land? For the unregenerated, sleep can easily serve the same purpose.
We pilgrims soon moved on to the island of San Miguel and Fayal. Mr. Blucher was so overjoyed that we were finally on firm, unmoving ground that he proposed a grand feast with fine food and flowing spirits.
“[Blucher] had heard it was a cheap land, and he was bound to have a grand banquet. He invited nine of us, and we ate an excellent dinner at the principal hotel. In the midst of the jollity produced by good cigars, good wine, and passable anecdotes, the landlord presented his bill. Blucher glanced at it and his countenance fell. He took another look to assure himself that his senses had not deceived him and then read the items aloud, in a faltering voice, while the roses in his cheeks turned to ashes:
“‘Ten dinners, at 600 reis, 6,000 reis!’ Ruin and desolation!
“‘Twenty-five cigars, at 100 reis, 2,500 reis!’ Oh, my sainted mother!
“‘Eleven bottles of wine, at 1,200 reis, 13,200 reis!’ Be with us all!
“‘TOTAL, TWENTY-ONE THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED REIS!’ The suffering Moses! There ain’t money enough in the ship to pay that bill! Go—leave me to my misery, boys, I am a ruined community.””
All seemed lost for the Blucher lad. What prison cell awaits this pilgrim? As the clichés go, a dropped pin could be heard or a mouse sniffing in the corner the silence was so deafening. Blank stares everywhere at one another, wine glasses slowly returned to the table-top, their paletted beauty untasted. Fingers no longer held their cigars dropped into their smoke-trays. There seemed no looks of hope or encouragement about, only thoughts and glances of a quick escape, scatterment through the nearest exits. Blucher stood up and exclaimed loudly:
“Landlord, this is a low, mean swindle, and I’ll never, never stand it. Here’s a hundred and fifty dollars, Sir, and it’s all you’ll get—I’ll swim in blood before I’ll pay a cent more.”
Our spirits rose and the landlord’s fell—at least we thought so; he was confused, at any rate, notwithstanding he had not understood a word that had been said. He glanced from the little pile of gold pieces to Blucher several times and then went out. He must have visited an American, for when he returned, he brought back his bill translated into a language that a Christian could understand—thus:
10 dinners, 6,000 reis, or $6.00
25 cigars, 2,500 reis, or $2.50
11 bottles wine, 13,200 reis, or $13.20
Total 21,700 reis, or $21.70
Though one might wonder in bafflement the mechanisms of Christian mathematics, and that foreign exchange rates serve a particular purpose, and that it is indeed wise to have at least a basic understanding of these global concepts, happiness and frolicking returned to Blucher’s party and another round of drink was ordered!
Three cheers for native math and ignorant travellers! Hip-hip… HOORAY!
Now for my modern version of fine Victorian ballroom dancing as our pilgrims progress to Paris… “Giuchie, Giuchie, ya ya dada.”
To be continued…
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