“‘Tis True ‘Tis Strange, but Truth Is
Always Strange; Stranger Sometimes
Eastward Ho! Passing through the Suez Canal
Towards the close of my visit to Burmah I was dining one night at a friend’s house in Rangoon, when my neighbour, a noted member of the I. C. S. suddenly turned to me and asked me if it was my intention to write a book. At my prompt reply in the negative he seemed astonished, and asked, what then did I intend to do with my life? I had never looked at the matter in that light before, and felt depressed. It has always been my ambition to do at Rome as the Romans do, and if, as my questioner clearly intimated, it was the custom for every casual visitor to the Land of Pagodas either to write a book or to “do something with his life,” my duty seemed clear. I had no desire at all to undertake either of the tasks, but as there was apparently no third course open to me, I decided to choose the safer of the two, and write a book. So far so good, but what to write about? I have considered the merits of innumerable subjects, from the exploits of the old Greek heroes to green Carnations, but each appears to have been appropriated by some earlier author. The only subject which, so far as I can discover, has never hitherto formed the theme of song or story, is Myself, and as that is a subject about which I ought to know more than most folks and which has always appeared to me to be intensely interesting, I have adopted it as the theme of this, my first plunge into Literature.
“Who spoke of things beyond my knowledge and showed me many things I had never seen before.”
“For to admire, and for to see, and for to behold
the world so wide.” — (Rudyard Kipling.)
“I am not naturally a coward, except when I am afraid; at other times I am as brave as a lion.”
It is an unfortunate state of existence, but such it is. From my babyhood I have been known to my friends and relations as one who might be confidently expected to behave in a most terror-stricken manner on all occasions when no real danger threatened; but for myself, I have always felt convinced that should I ever be brought face to face with real danger, I should behave with a coolness and courage calculated to win the unbounded admiration of all beholders. I say advisedly “of all beholders,” because, possibly, were no witnesses present, I might not feel disposed to show so resolute a front to the danger!
For example, in the case of a shipwreck, I can picture myself presenting my life-belt to any one in distress, in the most self-sacrificing manner, with the neatest little speech, quite worthy of “Sir Philip Sidney” himself, and from some commanding post of vantage in the rigging, haranguing the terrified passengers on the advisability of keeping their heads. I feel sure that no power on earth would prevent me from diving into the raging sea to rescue inexpert swimmers from a watery death, were such an opportunity to present itself to me.
And yet, if I am taken out of my depth, during a morning bathe, I am paralysed with fear. Though a brave and expert swimmer in shallow water, no sooner do I find myself out of reach of dry land, than all my powers forsake me. I swim with short, irregular, and utterly ineffective strokes, I pant, gasp and struggle, and unless promptly rescued, I sink.
Or again, I can in imagination picture myself snatching little children from under the hoofs of maddened horses, or with a plunge at the reins, stopping them in the full force of their desperate career.
But in reality I have never yet had sufficient courage to enter into close intimacy with any horse, maddened or otherwise. Once, when I wished to ingratiate myself in the eyes of the owner, I did venture to pat a horse gingerly on the neck, well out of reach of mouth or heels, but the animal shied away promptly, and I have never repeated the experiment.
Twice indeed, when a small girl, I was induced to mount to the saddle, and then my expectations were not disappointed. Real danger stared me in the face, and I was brave. When the horse, for some unaccountable reason, pricked its ears, tossed its head, and began to trot, I did not scream, I did not call for help, I merely grasped the pummel with one hand, the saddle with the other, shut my eyes and waited for the end. The end was sudden and somewhat painful.
But in this matter-of-fact little England of ours there are few opportunities, outside the yellow backed novel, of meeting with real adventures. Picture then my delight when I received an invitation to spend the winter in Burmah. I knew where Burmah was; that it was bounded by Siam, China, and Tibet; anything was possible in a country with such surroundings. I was charmed to go.
Accordingly, I bought a great many unnecessary things, as is ever the custom with inexperienced travellers, and started from Liverpool early in November, my mind filled with dreams of tiger shooting, cobra killing, dacoit hunting, and other venturesome deeds.
After I had recovered from the effects of homesickness, brought on by my first venture into the unknown world, and sea sickness brought on by the Bay of Biscay, I found the ship a world of hitherto undreamt of delights. I suppose the voyage was much the same as all other voyages, but to me, naturally, it was full of enjoyments, wonders, and new experiences. Everything was delightful, including the “Amusement Committee” and “Baggage Days”; even coaling, I think, for the first five minutes was full of interest.
I have since been told that my fellow passengers were not uncommon types, but to me they appeared the most wonderful and interesting beings who ever lived in this work-a-day world. Certainly, none could have been kinder to a lone, lorn female than were they. There were, of course, on board several other passengers making their first voyage, young Indian Civilians much advised and patronised by seniors of two years standing, but these were of interest only as partners in games and dances. It was in the real seasoned article, the self-satisfied, and immensely kind-hearted Anglo-Indian, in whom I found my real interest.
And they were all very good to me. Finding me young, ignorant, and eager for information, they undertook my education, and taught me many things which I did not know before, shedding new light on all subjects, from “the only way to eat a banana,” to the object of creation.
I learned that India was created that the Indian Civilian might dwell therein; the rest of mankind was created in order to admire the Indian Civilian. Something of this sort I had already heard from my brother-in-law, a member of that service, but one does not pay much attention to what brothers-in-law say.
Burmah, I discovered, is a land where teak grows, in order that the “Bombay Burman” may go there and collect it. I have no very clear idea as to what this “Bombay Burman” may be, but suppose him to be a member of a society of men who uphold the principles of a late Prime Minister; not political, but woodcraft.
There are other dwellers in India and Burmah; indeed, one man proved to me that the welfare of the British Constitution was solely dependent upon the efficient condition of the Burmese police force, of which he was an important member, but his arguments seemed to me a trifle involved. On the whole, the other inhabitants of these countries seem to be of little use or importance, unless perhaps it be to amuse and entertain the Indian Civilian and the “Bombay Burman” in his leisure hours.
Further, I was instructed that Ceylon is a country in which dwell the best (and the noisiest!) fellows in the world. They have innumerable horse races, eat prawn curry, are prodigiously hospitable, and in odd hours grow tea.
My fellow passengers also filled my eager mind with stories of wonderful adventure. Burmah, apparently, is crowded with tigers and wild elephants, of a size and ferocity which filled me with fear. But as every man on board appeared to have slain tigers and captured elephants innumerable, and that under the most surprisingly dangerous circumstances, I felt I should be well protected.
I was also taught how to overcome a wild beast, should I chance to meet with one when weaponless.
A bear should cause but little anxiety; it is only necessary to hit him violently over the nose; he will then stop and cry, and his victim will escape. But beware! one man was so much amused at the bear’s strange cry that he laughed and forgot to run away. The bear killed him.
When chased by an elephant the pursued should, I believe, climb up a clump of feathery bamboos, where the beast cannot reach him. When I saw a clump of feathery bamboos I rather wondered how anyone could climb it; but all things are possible to one pursued.
A tiger presents greater difficulties. If he doesn’t run away when you wave your arms and shout, you should poke your stick through his eye into his brain, or get on his back, out of reach of his claws, and throttle him. If that fails, pretend to be dead; if that even fails, you must die.
All this information I accepted gratefully and stored in my memory for use when opportunity should arise. In the meantime I continued to enjoy my voyage, and turned all my energies to mastering the science of board-ship games.
The one game which I never could play was “Bull.” To me it seemed the most foolish game ever invented. It is played by means of six flat pads, about two inches in diameter, and a large sloping black board, divided by thick white lines into twelve squares. Ten of these squares are marked with numbers, the remaining two with “Bs.” The object of the player is to throw the pads on to the centre of the squares, avoiding the lines, which count nothing, and above all avoiding the “Bs,” which count “minus ten.” At the end of each turn the total of the numbers scored is reckoned, and the highest score wins.
In the “Bull” tournament I was drawn to play with a Mr. Rod, whom I did not know, but who enjoyed the reputation of being an excellent player, and very keen to win. One morning I was practising, and playing, if possible, worse than usual, when I noticed a melancholy-looking man, seated on a camp stool, watching my performance. I was struck by his ever increasing sadness of expression, and enquired his name.
He was Mr. Rod.
In the tournament my score was minus twenty; I did not see him any more during the voyage!
I learned that one or two people had seen a worse “Bull” player than myself. Her first three throws went overboard, the fourth went down an air funnel, and the fifth upset an ink-stand, showering the contents over an innocent spectator of the game. She never attempted to play “Bull” again; it had made her so unpopular.
Great indeed are the attractions of board-ship life on a first voyage. The congenial companionship, the exhilarating outdoor life, the constant succession of games, gaieties, and amusements, the novelty of every thing, all tend to shed a halo over what, to the seasoned traveller, is merely a period of utter boredom, to be dragged through with as little ennui as possible. But the chief charm to me lay in the glimpse, though only distant, of new lands, lands which had hitherto been merely geographical or historical names, but which now acquired a new reality and interest.
The first few days we saw little of the land, but after the Bay was passed, our course lay more inland, and we saw the coast of Spain and Portugal, beautiful in the sunlight, red rocks and green slopes rising up from a sea of deepest blue.
Then appeared on the horizon a vague shadowy cloud, which we learned was Africa. The first glimpse of a new continent, and a continent fraught with such endless possibilities is impressive; and as we drew nearer, and gazed on that dark range of wild, bare hills, I sympathised thoroughly with a wee fellow-passenger who was discovered, full of mingled hope and terror, looking eagerly at the dreary waste of land in search of lions!
Soon again we forgot all else, when, shaping our course round the south of Spain, Gibraltar broke upon our view. What a wonder it is! that great rugged rock, shaped on the northwest like a crouching lion, rising dark, cold and solitary, amid the alien lands around it. Unmoved by the raging seas beneath, it stands calm and defiant, a fit emblem of the nation to which it belongs. Surely no Englishman can behold Gibraltar without feeling proud of his nationality.
We passed close to the north of Corsica, where the hills were covered with snow, though it was still early winter. A dreary inhospitable looking country is this: a fit birthplace for that iron-heart the First Napoleon.
We passed through the Straits of Messina by full moonlight, and never have I beheld a scene of more fairylike beauty. The Sicilian coast seemed (for all was vague and shadowy) to rise in gentle slopes from the dark water, the land looked thickly wooded and well cultivated, and here and there appeared the little white towns, nestling among trees and vineyards, or perched beneath sheltering rocks, a peaceful and beautiful paradise. On the Italian coast the scenery was a complete contrast, the high, fierce hills stood up black and frowning against the clear sky, the country was wild, dreary and desolate. This mingling of peaceful homelike landscape, and weird rugged scenery, with the tender romance of the moon shining on the still dark water, reminded me, somehow, of Wagner’s music; nothing else can so fitly represent the scene.
Our course did not carry us very near to Crete, but we saw Mount Ida rising beautiful and snow-crowned in the centre of a tumultuous land. What scorn and pity this fair Mother Ida must feel for the miserable dwellers at her feet!
We stopped at Port Said for four hours. During the first two hours I was charmed with the place; it seemed just like a big exhibition, everything was so strange and unreal. The donkeys were delightful, the Turkish traders so amusing, and shopping, when one has to bargain twenty minutes over every article, and then toss up about the price, is certainly a new experience.
During the third hour I found that the heat, dust, and endless noise and chatter were far from unreal. I had bought every conceivable thing that I could not possibly want, and paid three times the proper price for it. The Arabs ceased to be amusing; I was bored to tears.
During the fourth hour I grew to hate the place and its inhabitants with a deadly hatred, and could have kissed the ship in my delight at returning to her, had she not been covered with coal dust.
My first experience of the natives of Port Said was a long brown arm coming through my porthole, feeling about for whatsoever valuable it might find; a hearty smack with a hair brush caused it to retire abruptly. The last I saw of them was a pompous trader thrown overboard with all his wares, because he would not leave the ship when ordered. His companions in their boat, I noticed, busily rescued the wares, but seemed quite indifferent to the safety of the poor owner, whom they left to struggle to shore as best he could.
It is said that one would meet everyone sometime at Port Said if one waited long enough; I would rather forego the meeting.
The Canal, I believe, is generally regarded as an unmitigated nuisance, and indeed, the slow progress and constant stoppages make the passage through it a little wearisome, but on a first voyage its shores are most interesting. On one side are several inland seas, and small collections of the most wretched and impossible looking habitations that human beings ever inhabited, with an occasional oasis of tall green palm trees. From the east bank the desert stretches away apparently into infinity.
I was disappointed in the desert, though I hardly know what I expected; I suppose the very emptiness and immensity detract from its impressiveness; the human eye and mind cannot grasp them. We saw several mirages and felt quite pleased with ourselves, though unconvinced that they were not really oases in the desert; they were so very distinct.
Some of the glimpses of native life on the banks were very amusing. At one spot we met a camel, smiling the foolish irritating smile which is a camel’s characteristic, speeding away at an inelegant trot, and distantly pursued by the owner and his friends; alas! we could not see the end of the race. Camels, I was told, are unwearying beasts, so perhaps, like “Charley’s Aunt” this one is still running.
We were greatly excited by one incident. A Dutch steamer passed us, and we noticed on the deck a very pretty girl, evidently very much admired by all the crew, and especially by one tall fine looking fellow who seemed on very good terms with her. Shortly after the boat had passed, a small steam launch hove into sight, on board of which were several men, mostly Turkish officials. As they passed, the skipper of the launch shouted various questions, and we gathered that “Mademoiselle” had run away and they were in pursuit. Whether it was an elopement or merely an escape from justice we never learned, but most of us adopted the former view, and hoped that the guilty steamer would be out of the canal and safe from pursuit, before the fussy little launch overtook it.
We had a gorgeous sunset that night in the canal. The sky, every conceivable shade of yellow, violet and crimson, was reflected in the still waters of the canal and inland seas. The tall palm trees rose darkest green against the brilliant sky, while the sand of the desert glowed golden and salmon pink, fading in the distance to the palest green; and all the colours were softened by a shadowy blue haze. I have never seen more wonderful colouring.