In the retrospect of a life which had, besides its preliminary stage
of childhood and early youth, two distinct developments, and even two
distinct elements, such as earth and water, for its successive scenes,
a certain amount of naiveness is unavoidable. I am conscious of it in
these pages. This remark is put forward in no apologetic spirit. As
years go by and the number of pages grows steadily, the feeling grows
upon one, too, that one can write only for friends. Then why should one
put them to the necessity of protesting (as a friend would do) that no
apology is necessary, or put, perchance, into their heads the doubt of
one's discretion? So much as to the care due to those friends whom a
word here, a line there, a fortunate page of just feeling in the right
place, some happy simplicity, or even some lucky subtlety, has drawn
from the great multitude of fellow beings even as a fish is drawn from
the depths of the sea. Fishing is notoriously (I am talking now of the
deep sea) a matter of luck. As to one's enemies, they will take care of
There is a gentleman, for instance, who, metaphorically speaking, jumps
upon me with both feet. This image has no grace, but it is exceedingly
apt to the occasion--to the several occasions. I don't know precisely
how long he has been indulging in that intermittent exercise, whose
seasons are ruled by the custom of the publishing trade. Somebody
pointed him out (in printed shape, of course) to my attention some time
ago, and straightway I experienced a sort of reluctant affection for
that robust man. He leaves not a shred of my substance untrodden: for
the writer's substance is his writing; the rest of him is but a vain
shadow, cherished or hated on uncritical grounds. Not a shred! Yet the
sentiment owned to is not a freak of affectation or perversity. It has
a deeper, and, I venture to think, a more estimable origin than the
caprice of emotional lawlessness. It is, indeed, lawful, in so much
that it is given (reluctantly) for a consideration, for several
considerations. There is that robustness, for instance, so often the
sign of good moral balance. That's a consideration. It is not, indeed,
pleasant to be stamped upon, but the very thoroughness of the operation,
implying not only a careful reading, but some real insight into work
whose qualities and defects, whatever they may be, are not so much on
the surface, is something to be thankful for in view of the fact that it
may happen to one's work to be condemned without being read at all. This
is the most fatuous adventure that can well happen to a writer venturing
his soul among criticisms. It can do one no harm, of course, but it
is disagreeable. It is disagreeable in the same way as discovering
a three-card-trick man among a decent lot of folk in a third-class
compartment. The open impudence of the whole transaction, appealing
insidiously to the folly and credulity of man kind, the brazen,
shameless patter, proclaiming the fraud openly while insisting on the
fairness of the game, give one a feeling of sickening disgust. The
honest violence of a plain man playing a fair game fairly--even if he
means to knock you over--may appear shocking, but it remains within the
pale of decency. Damaging as it may be, it is in no sense offensive. One
may well feel some regard for honesty, even if practised upon one's own
vile body. But it is very obvious that an enemy of that sort will not be
stayed by explanations or placated by apologies. Were I to advance the
plea of youth in excuse of the naiveness to be found in these pages, he
would be likely to say "Bosh!" in a column and a half of fierce print.
Yet a writer is no older than his first published book, and, not
withstanding the vain appearances of decay which attend us in this
transitory life, I stand here with the wreath of only fifteen short
summers on my brow.
With the remark, then, that at such tender age some naiveness of feeling
and expression is excusable, I proceed to admit that, upon the whole,
my previous state of existence was not a good equipment for a literary
life. Perhaps I should not have used the word literary. That word
presupposes an intimacy of acquaintance with letters, a turn of mind,
and a manner of feeling to which I dare lay no claim. I only love
letters; but the love of letters does not make a literary man, any more
than the love of the sea makes a seaman. And it is very possible, too,
that I love the letters in the same way a literary man may love the
sea he looks at from the shore--a scene of great endeavour and of great
achievements changing the face of the world, the great open way to all
sorts of undiscovered countries. No, perhaps I had better say that the
life at sea--and I don't mean a mere taste of it, but a good broad span
of years, something that really counts as real service--is not, upon the
whole, a good equipment for a writing life. God forbid, though, that I
should be thought of as denying my masters of the quarter-deck. I am not
capable of that sort of apostasy. I have confessed my attitude of piety
toward their shades in three or four tales, and if any man on earth more
than another needs to be true to himself as he hopes to be saved, it is
certainly the writer of fiction.
What I meant to say, simply, is that the quarter-deck training does not
prepare one sufficiently for the reception of literary criticism. Only
that, and no more. But this defect is not without gravity. If it be
permissible to twist, invert, adapt (and spoil) Mr. Anatole France's
definition of a good critic, then let us say that the good author is he
who contemplates without marked joy or excessive sorrow the adventures
of his soul among criticisms. Far be from me the intention to mislead an
attentive public into the belief that there is no criticism at sea. That
would be dishonest, and even impolite. Ever thing can be found at
sea, according to the spirit of your quest--strife, peace, romance,
naturalism of the most pronounced kind, ideals, boredom, disgust,
inspiration--and every conceivable opportunity, including the
opportunity to make a fool of yourself, exactly as in the pursuit of
literature. But the quarter-deck criticism is somewhat different from
literary criticism. This much they have in common, that before the one
and the other the answering back, as a general rule, does not pay.
Yes, you find criticism at sea, and even appreciation--I tell you
everything is to be found on salt water--criticism generally impromptu,
and always _viva voce_, which is the outward, obvious difference from the
literary operation of that kind, with consequent freshness and vigour
which may be lacking in the printed word. With appreciation, which comes
at the end, when the critic and the criticised are about to part, it
is otherwise. The sea appreciation of one's humble talents has the
permanency of the written word, seldom the charm of variety, is formal
in its phrasing. There the literary master has the superiority, though
he, too, can in effect but say--and often says it in the very phrase--"I
can highly recommend." Only usually he uses the word "We," there being
some occult virtue in the first person plural which makes it specially
fit for critical and royal declarations. I have a small handful of these
sea appreciations, signed by various masters, yellowing slowly in my
writing-table's left hand drawer, rustling under my reverent touch, like
a handful of dry leaves plucked for a tender memento from the tree of
knowledge. Strange! It seems that it is for these few bits of paper,
headed by the names of a few Scots and English shipmasters, that I have
faced the astonished indignations, the mockeries, and the reproaches of
a sort hard to bear for a boy of fifteen; that I have been charged with
the want of patriotism, the want of sense, and the want of heart, too;
that I went through agonies of self-conflict and shed secret tears not
a few, and had the beauties of the Furca Pass spoiled for me, and have
been called an "incorrigible Don Quixote," in allusion to the book-born
madness of the knight. For that spoil! They rustle, those bits of
paper--some dozen of them in all. In that faint, ghostly sound there
live the memories of twenty years, the voices of rough men now no
more, the strong voice of the everlasting winds, and the whisper of a
mysterious spell, the murmur of the great sea, which must have somehow
reached my inland cradle and entered my unconscious ear, like that
formula of Mohammedan faith the Mussulman father whispers into the ear
of his new-born infant, making him one of the faithful almost with his
first breath. I do not know whether I have been a good seaman, but I
know I have been a very faithful one. And, after all, there is that
handful of "characters" from various ships to prove that all these years
have not been altogether a dream. There they are, brief, and monotonous
in tone, but as suggestive bits of writing to me as any inspired page to
be found in literature. But then, you see, I have been called romantic.
Well, that can't be helped. But stay. I seem to remember that I have
been called a realist, also. And as that charge, too, can be made out,
let us try to live up to it, at whatever cost, for a change. With this
end in view, I will confide to you coyly, and only because there is
no one about to see my blushes by the light of the midnight lamp, that
these suggestive bits of quarter-deck appreciation, one and all, contain
the words "strictly sober."
Did I overhear a civil murmur, "That's very gratifying, to be sure?"
Well, yes, it is gratifying--thank you. It is at least as gratifying to
be certified sober as to be certified romantic, though such certificates
would not qualify one for the secretaryship of a temperance association
or for the post of official troubadour to some lordly democratic
institution such as the London County Council, for instance. The above
prosaic reflection is put down here only in order to prove the general
sobriety of my judgment in mundane affairs. I make a point of it because
a couple of years ago, a certain short story of mine being published in
a French translation, a Parisian critic--I am almost certain it was M.
Gustave Kahn in the "Gil Blas"--giving me a short notice, summed up
his rapid impression of the writer's quality in the words _un puissant
reveur_. So be it! Who could cavil at the words of a friendly reader? Yet
perhaps not such an unconditional dreamer as all that. I will make bold
to say that neither at sea nor ashore have I ever lost the sense of
responsibility. There is more than one sort of intoxication. Even before
the most seductive reveries I have remained mindful of that sobriety of
interior life, that asceticism of sentiment, in which alone the naked
form of truth, such as one conceives it, such as one feels it, can be
rendered without shame. It is but a maudlin and indecent verity that
comes out through the strength of wine. I have tried to be a sober
worker all my life--all my two lives. I did so from taste, no doubt,
having an instinctive horror of losing my sense of full self-possession,
but also from artistic conviction. Yet there are so many pitfalls on
each side of the true path that, having gone some way, and feeling a
little battered and weary, as a middle-aged traveller will from the
mere daily difficulties of the march, I ask myself whether I have kept
always, always faithful to that sobriety where in there is power and
truth and peace.
As to my sea sobriety, that is quite properly certified under the
sign-manual of several trustworthy shipmasters of some standing in their
time. I seem to hear your polite murmur that "Surely this might have
been taken for granted." Well, no. It might not have been. That August
academical body, the Marine Department of the Board of Trade, takes
nothing for granted in the granting of its learned degrees. By its
regulations issued under the first Merchant Shipping Act, the very word
_sober_ must be written, or a whole sackful, a ton, a mountain of the
most enthusiastic appreciation will avail you nothing. The door of the
examination rooms shall remain closed to your tears and entreaties.
The most fanatical advocate of temperance could not be more pitilessly
fierce in his rectitude than the Marine Department of the Board of
Trade. As I have been face to face at various times with all the
examiners of the Port of London in my generation, there can be no doubt
as to the force and the continuity of my abstemiousness. Three of them
were examiners in seamanship, and it was my fate to be delivered into
the hands of each of them at proper intervals of sea service. The first
of all, tall, spare, with a perfectly white head and mustache, a quiet,
kindly manner, and an air of benign intelligence, must, I am forced
to conclude, have been unfavourably impressed by something in my
appearance. His old, thin hands loosely clasped resting on his crossed
legs, he began by an elementary question, in a mild voice, and went
on, went on. . . . It lasted for hours, for hours. Had I been a strange
microbe with potentialities of deadly mischief to the Merchant Service I
could not have been submitted to a more microscopic examination. Greatly
reassured by his apparent benevolence, I had been at first very alert in
my answers. But at length the feeling of my brain getting addled crept
upon me. And still the passionless process went on, with a sense of
untold ages having been spent already on mere preliminaries. Then I got
frightened. I was not frightened of being plucked; that eventuality did
not even present itself to my mind. It was something much more serious
and weird. "This ancient person," I said to myself, terrified, "is
so near his grave that he must have lost all notion of time. He is
considering this examination in terms of eternity. It is all very well
for him. His race is run. But I may find myself coming out of this
room into the world of men a stranger, friendless, forgotten by my very
landlady, even were I able after this endless experience to remember
the way to my hired home." This statement is not so much of a verbal
exaggeration as may be supposed. Some very queer thoughts passed through
my head while I was considering my answers; thoughts which had nothing
to do with seamanship, nor yet with anything reasonable known to this
earth. I verily believe that at times I was light-headed in a sort of
languid way. At last there fell a silence, and that, too, seemed to
last for ages, while, bending over his desk, the examiner wrote out my
pass-slip slowly with a noiseless pen. He extended the scrap of paper to
me without a word, inclined his white head gravely to my parting
bow. . . .
When I got out of the room I felt limply flat, like a squeezed lemon,
and the doorkeeper in his glass cage, where I stopped to get my hat and
tip him a shilling, said:
"Well! I thought you were never coming out."
"How long have I been in there?" I asked, faintly.
He pulled out his watch.
"He kept you, sir, just under three hours. I don't think this ever
happened with any of the gentlemen before."
It was only when I got out of the building that I began to walk on
air. And the human animal being averse from change and timid before the
unknown, I said to myself that I really would not mind being examined
by the same man on a future occasion. But when the time of ordeal
came round again the doorkeeper let me into another room, with the
now familiar paraphernalia of models of ships and tackle, a board for
signals on the wall, a big, long table covered with official forms
and having an unrigged mast fixed to the edge. The solitary tenant
was unknown to me by sight, though not by reputation, which was simply
execrable. Short and sturdy, as far as I could judge, clad in an old
brown morning-suit, he sat leaning on his elbow, his hand shading his
eyes, and half averted from the chair I was to occupy on the other side
of the table. He was motionless, mysterious, remote, enigmatical, with
something mournful, too, in the pose, like that statue of Giugliano (I
think) de Medici shading his face on the tomb by Michael Angelo, though,
of course, he was far, far from being beautiful. He began by trying to
make me talk nonsense. But I had been warned of that fiendish trait, and
contradicted him with great assurance. After a while he left off. So
far good. But his immobility, the thick elbow on the table, the
abrupt, unhappy voice, the shaded and averted face grew more and more
impressive. He kept inscrutably silent for a moment, and then, placing
me in a ship of a certain size, at sea, under conditions of weather,
season, locality, etc.--all very clear and precise--ordered me to
execute a certain manoeuvre. Before I was half through with it he did
some material damage to the ship. Directly I had grappled with the
difficulty he caused another to present itself, and when that, too,
was met he stuck another ship before me, creating a very dangerous
situation. I felt slightly outraged by this ingenuity in piling trouble
upon a man.
"I wouldn't have got into that mess," I suggested, mildly. "I could have
seen that ship before."
He never stirred the least bit.
"No, you couldn't. The weather's thick."
"Oh! I didn't know," I apologized blankly.
I suppose that after all I managed to stave off the smash with
sufficient approach to verisimilitude, and the ghastly business went on.
You must understand that the scheme of the test he was applying to me
was, I gathered, a homeward passage--the sort of passage I would not
wish to my bitterest enemy. That imaginary ship seemed to labour under
a most comprehensive curse. It's no use enlarging on these never-ending
misfortunes; suffice it to say that long before the end I would have
welcomed with gratitude an opportunity to exchange into the Flying
Dutchman. Finally he shoved me into the North Sea (I suppose) and
provided me with a lee shore with outlying sand-banks--the Dutch coast,
presumably. Distance, eight miles. The evidence of such implacable
animosity deprived me of speech for quite half a minute.
"Well," he said--for our pace had been very smart, indeed, till then.
"I will have to think a little, sir."
"Doesn't look as if there were much time to think," he muttered,
sardonically, from under his hand.
"No, sir," I said, with some warmth. "Not on board a ship, I could see.
But so many accidents have happened that I really can't remember what
there's left for me to work with."
Still half averted, and with his eyes concealed, he made unexpectedly a
"You've done very well."
"Have I the two anchors at the bow, sir?" I asked.
I prepared myself then, as a last hope for the ship, to let them both
go in the most effectual manner, when his infernal system of testing
resourcefulness came into play again.
"But there's only one cable. You've lost the other."
It was exasperating.
"Then I would back them, if I could, and tail the heaviest hawser on
board on the end of the chain before letting go, and if she parted from
that, which is quite likely, I would just do nothing. She would have to
"Nothing more to do, eh?"
"No, sir. I could do no more."
He gave a bitter half-laugh.
"You could always say your prayers."
He got up, stretched himself, and yawned slightly. It was a sallow,
strong, unamiable face. He put me, in a surly, bored fashion, through
the usual questions as to lights and signals, and I escaped from the
room thank fully--passed! Forty minutes! And again I walked on air
along Tower Hill, where so many good men had lost their heads because, I
suppose, they were not resourceful enough to save them. And in my heart
of hearts I had no objection to meeting that examiner once more when the
third and last ordeal became due in another year or so. I even hoped
I should. I knew the worst of him now, and forty minutes is not an
unreasonable time. Yes, I distinctly hoped. . . .
But not a bit of it. When I presented my self to be examined for master
the examiner who received me was short, plump, with a round, soft face
in gray, fluffy whiskers, and fresh, loquacious lips.
He commenced operations with an easy going "Let's see. H'm. Suppose you
tell me all you know of charter-parties." He kept it up in that style
all through, wandering off in the shape of comment into bits out of his
own life, then pulling himself up short and returning to the business in
hand. It was very interesting. "What's your idea of a jury-rudder now?"
he queried, suddenly, at the end of an instructive anecdote bearing upon
a point of stowage.
I warned him that I had no experience of a lost rudder at sea, and gave
him two classical examples of makeshifts out of a text-book. In exchange
he described to me a jury-rudder he had invented himself years before,
when in command of a three-thousand-ton steamer. It was, I declare, the
cleverest contrivance imaginable. "May be of use to you some day,"
he concluded. "You will go into steam presently. Everybody goes into
There he was wrong. I never went into steam--not really. If I only live
long enough I shall become a bizarre relic of a dead barbarism, a sort
of monstrous antiquity, the only seaman of the dark ages who had never
gone into steam--not really.
Before the examination was over he imparted to me a few interesting
details of the transport service in the time of the Crimean War.
"The use of wire rigging became general about that time, too," he
observed. "I was a very young master then. That was before you were
"Yes, sir. I am of the year of 1857."
"The Mutiny year," he commented, as if to himself, adding in a louder
tone that his ship happened then to be in the Gulf of Bengal, employed
under a government charter.
Clearly the transport service had been the making of this examiner, who
so unexpectedly had given me an insight into his existence, awakening in
me the sense of the continuity of that sea life into which I had stepped
from outside; giving a touch of human intimacy to the machinery of
official relations. I felt adopted. His experience was for me, too, as
though he had been an ancestor.
Writing my long name (it has twelve letters) with laborious care on the
slip of blue paper, he remarked:
"You are of Polish extraction."
"Born there, sir."
He laid down the pen and leaned back to look at me as it were for the
"Not many of your nationality in our service, I should think. I never
remember meeting one either before or after I left the sea. Don't
remember ever hearing of one. An inland people, aren't you?"
I said yes--very much so. We were remote from the sea not only by
situation, but also from a complete absence of indirect association, not
being a commercial nation at all, but purely agricultural. He made then
the quaint reflection that it was "a long way for me to come out to
begin a sea life"; as if sea life were not precisely a life in which one
goes a long way from home.
I told him, smiling, that no doubt I could have found a ship much nearer
my native place, but I had thought to myself that if I was to be a
seaman, then I would be a British seaman and no other. It was a matter
of deliberate choice.
He nodded slightly at that; and, as he kept on looking at me
interrogatively, I enlarged a little, confessing that I had spent a
little time on the way in the Mediterranean and in the West Indies. I
did not want to present myself to the British Merchant Service in an
altogether green state. It was no use telling him that my mysterious
vocation was so strong that my very wild oats had to be sown at sea.
It was the exact truth, but he would not have understood the somewhat
exceptional psychology of my sea-going, I fear.
"I suppose you've never come across one of your countrymen at sea. Have
I admitted I never had. The examiner had given himself up to the spirit
of gossiping idleness. For myself, I was in no haste to leave that room.
Not in the least. The era of examinations was over. I would never
again see that friendly man who was a professional ancestor, a sort of
grandfather in the craft. Moreover, I had to wait till he dismissed me,
and of that there was no sign. As he remained silent, looking at me, I
"But I have heard of one, some years ago. He seems to have been a boy
serving his time on board a Liverpool ship, if I am not mistaken."
"What was his name?"
I told him.
"How did you say that?" he asked, puckering up his eyes at the uncouth
I repeated the name very distinctly.
"How do you spell it?"
I told him. He moved his head at the impracticable nature of that name,
"It's quite as long as your own--isn't it?"
There was no hurry. I had passed for master, and I had all the rest of
my life before me to make the best of it. That seemed a long time. I
went leisurely through a small mental calculation, and said:
"Not quite. Shorter by two letters, sir."
"Is it?" The examiner pushed the signed blue slip across the table to
me, and rose from his chair. Somehow this seemed a very abrupt ending of
our relations, and I felt almost sorry to part from that excellent man,
who was master of a ship before the whisper of the sea had reached my
cradle. He offered me his hand and wished me well. He even made a few
steps toward the door with me, and ended with good-natured advice.
"I don't know what may be your plans, but you ought to go into steam.
When a man has got his master's certificate it's the proper time. If I
were you I would go into steam."
I thanked him, and shut the door behind me definitely on the era of
examinations. But that time I did not walk on air, as on the first two
occasions. I walked across the hill of many beheadings with measured
steps. It was a fact, I said to myself, that I was now a British master
mariner beyond a doubt. It was not that I had an exaggerated sense of
that very modest achievement, with which, however, luck, opportunity,
or any extraneous influence could have had nothing to do. That
fact, satisfactory and obscure in itself, had for me a certain ideal
significance. It was an answer to certain outspoken scepticism and even
to some not very kind aspersions. I had vindicated myself from what had
been cried upon as a stupid obstinacy or a fantastic caprice. I don't
mean to say that a whole country had been convulsed by my desire to go
to sea. But for a boy between fifteen and sixteen, sensitive enough,
in all conscience, the commotion of his little world had seemed a very
considerable thing indeed. So considerable that, absurdly enough, the
echoes of it linger to this day. I catch myself in hours of solitude and
retrospect meeting arguments and charges made thirty-five years ago by
voices now forever still; finding things to say that an assailed boy
could not have found, simply because of the mysteriousness of his
impulses to himself. I understood no more than the people who called
upon me to explain myself. There was no precedent. I verily believe mine
was the only case of a boy of my nationality and antecedents taking
a, so to speak, standing jump out of his racial surroundings and
associations. For you must understand that there was no idea of any sort
of "career" in my call. Of Russia or Germany there could be no question.
The nationality, the antecedents, made it impossible. The feeling
against the Austrian service was not so strong, and I dare say there
would have been no difficulty in finding my way into the Naval School at
Pola. It would have meant six months' extra grinding at German, perhaps;
but I was not past the age of admission, and in other respects I was
well qualified. This expedient to palliate my folly was thought of--but
not by me. I must admit that in that respect my negative was accepted
at once. That order of feeling was comprehensible enough to the most
inimical of my critics. I was not called upon to offer explanations;
but the truth is that what I had in view was not a naval career, but
the sea. There seemed no way open to it but through France. I had the
language, at any rate, and of all the countries in Europe it is with
France that Poland has most connection. There were some facilities for
having me a little looked after, at first. Letters were being written,
answers were being received, arrangements were being made for my
departure for Marseilles, where an excellent fellow called Solary,
got at in a round about fashion through various French channels, had
promised good-naturedly to put le jeune homme in the way of getting a
decent ship for his first start if he really wanted a taste of ce metier
I watched all these preparations gratefully, and kept my own counsel.
But what I told the last of my examiners was perfectly true. Already
the determined resolve that "if a seaman, then an English seaman" was
formulated in my head, though, of course, in the Polish language. I did
not know six words of English, and I was astute enough to understand
that it was much better to say nothing of my purpose. As it was I was
already looked upon as partly insane, at least by the more distant
acquaintances. The principal thing was to get away. I put my trust in
the good-natured Solary's very civil letter to my uncle, though I was
shocked a little by the phrase about the metier de chien.
This Solary (Baptistin), when I beheld him in the flesh, turned out a
quite young man, very good-looking, with a fine black, short beard, a
fresh complexion, and soft, merry black eyes. He was as jovial and good
natured as any boy could desire. I was still asleep in my room in a
modest hotel near the quays of the old port, after the fatigues of
the journey via Vienna, Zurich, Lyons, when he burst in, flinging the
shutters open to the sun of Provence and chiding me boisterously for
lying abed. How pleasantly he startled me by his noisy objurgations to
be up and off instantly for a "three years' campaign in the South Seas!"
O magic words! "_Une campagne de trois ans dans les mers du sud_"--that
is the French for a three years' deep-water voyage.
He gave me a delightful waking, and his friendliness was unwearied;
but I fear he did not enter upon the quest for a ship for me in a very
solemn spirit. He had been at sea himself, but had left off at the age
of twenty-five, finding he could earn his living on shore in a much more
agreeable manner. He was related to an incredible number of Marseilles
well-to-do families of a certain class. One of his uncles was a
ship-broker of good standing, with a large connection among English
ships; other relatives of his dealt in ships' stores, owned sail-lofts,
sold chains and anchors, were master-stevedores, calkers, shipwrights.
His grandfather (I think) was a dignitary of a kind, the Syndic of the
Pilots. I made acquaintances among these people, but mainly among the
pilots. The very first whole day I ever spent on salt water was by
invitation, in a big half-decked pilot-boat, cruising under close reefs
on the lookout, in misty, blowing weather, for the sails of ships and
the smoke of steamers rising out there, beyond the slim and tall Planier
lighthouse cutting the line of the wind-swept horizon with a white
perpendicular stroke. They were hospitable souls, these sturdy Provencal
seamen. Under the general designation of le petit ami de Baptistin I
was made the guest of the corporation of pilots, and had the freedom of
their boats night or day. And many a day and a night, too, did I spend
cruising with these rough, kindly men, under whose auspices my intimacy
with the sea began. Many a time "the little friend of Baptistin" had the
hooded cloak of the Mediterranean sailor thrown over him by their honest
hands while dodging at night under the lee of Chateau daft on the watch
for the lights of ships. Their sea tanned faces, whiskered or shaved,
lean or full, with the intent, wrinkled sea eyes of the pilot breed, and
here and there a thin gold hoop at the lobe of a hairy ear, bent over my
sea infancy. The first operation of seamanship I had an opportunity of
observing was the boarding of ships at sea, at all times, in all states
of the weather. They gave it to me to the full. And I have been invited
to sit in more than one tall, dark house of the old town at their
hospitable board, had the bouillabaisse ladled out into a thick plate
by their high-voiced, broad-browed wives, talked to their
daughters--thick-set girls, with pure profiles, glorious masses of black
hair arranged with complicated art, dark eyes, and dazzlingly white
I had also other acquaintances of quite a different sort. One of them,
Madame Delestang, an imperious, handsome lady in a statuesque style,
would carry me off now and then on the front seat of her carriage to the
Prado, at the hour of fashionable airing. She belonged to one of the old
aristocratic families in the south. In her haughty weariness she used to
make me think of Lady Dedlock in Dickens's "Bleak House," a work of the
master for which I have such an admiration, or rather such an intense
and unreasoning affection, dating from the days of my childhood, that
its very weaknesses are more precious to me than the strength of other
men's work. I have read it innumerable times, both in Polish and
in English; I have read it only the other day, and, by a not very
surprising inversion, the Lady Dedlock of the book reminded me strongly
of the "belle Madame Delestang."
Her husband (as I sat facing them both), with his thin, bony nose and a
perfectly bloodless, narrow physiognomy clamped together, as it were,
by short, formal side whiskers, had nothing of Sir Leicester Dedlock's
"grand air" and courtly solemnity. He belonged to the haute bourgeoisie
only, and was a banker, with whom a modest credit had been opened for my
needs. He was such an ardent--no, such a frozen-up, mummified Royalist
that he used in current conversation turns of speech contemporary,
I should say, with the good Henri Quatre; and when talking of money
matters, reckoned not in francs, like the common, godless herd of
post-Revolutionary Frenchmen, but in obsolete and forgotten ecus--ecus
of all money units in the world!--as though Louis Quatorze were still
promenading in royal splendour the gardens of Versailles, and Monsieur
de Colbert busy with the direction of maritime affairs. You must admit
that in a banker of the nineteenth century it was a quaint idiosyncrasy.
Luckily, in the counting-house (it occupied part of the ground floor of
the Delestang town residence, in a silent, shady street) the accounts
were kept in modern money, so that I never had any difficulty in
making my wants known to the grave, low-voiced, decorous, Legitimist
(I suppose) clerks, sitting in the perpetual gloom of heavily barred
windows behind the sombre, ancient counters, beneath lofty ceilings with
heavily molded cornices. I always felt, on going out, as though I
had been in the temple of some very dignified but completely temporal
religion. And it was generally on these occasions that under the great
carriage gateway Lady Ded--I mean Madame Delestang--catching sight of my
raised hat, would beckon me with an amiable imperiousness to the side of
the carriage, and suggest with an air of amused nonchalance, "_Venez donc
faire un tour avec nous_," to which the husband would add an encouraging
"_C'est ca. Allons, montez, jeune homme_." He questioned me some times,
significantly but with perfect tact and delicacy, as to the way I
employed my time, and never failed to express the hope that I wrote
regularly to my "honoured uncle." I made no secret of the way I employed
my time, and I rather fancy that my artless tales of the pilots and so
on entertained Madame Delestang so far as that ineffable woman could
be entertained by the prattle of a youngster very full of his new
experience among strange men and strange sensations. She expressed no
opinions, and talked to me very little; yet her portrait hangs in the
gallery of my intimate memories, fixed there by a short and fleeting
episode. One day, after putting me down at the corner of a street,
she offered me her hand, and detained me, by a slight pressure, for a
moment. While the husband sat motionless and looking straight before
him, she leaned forward in the carriage to say, with just a shade of
warning in her leisurely tone: "_Il faut, cependant, faire attention a
ne pas gater sa vie_." I had never seen her face so close to mine before.
She made my heart beat and caused me to remain thoughtful for a whole
evening. Certainly one must, after all, take care not to spoil one's
life. But she did not know--nobody could know--how impossible that
danger seemed to me.