R.M.S. Dunvegan Castle, September 16th, 1899.
A breeze was freshening, tufting the heaving billows with white crests and driving showers of spray and clots of foam upon the decks of the Dunvegan. Passengers stood in strained attitudes about the ship, fidgeting with the desire to be ill and the wish to appear comfortable—even dignified. In the end, however, circumstances were too strong for the passengers, transforming them, from a state of calm despair, into a condition of sickness and temporary dejection. Every one was perturbed, and those delicate attentions which the sea-sick demand were being offered by a much-worried deck steward. Here and there groups of more hardy voyagers were spending their feeble wit in unseasonable jokes; here and there bedraggled people, wet with spray and racked by the anguish of an aching void, were clutching at the possibility of gaining the privacy of their cabins before their feelings quite overpowered them. In this mad rush, not unlike the scramble of a shuttlecock to escape the buffetings of the battledore, I also joined, fetching my berth with much unfortunate sensation. Alas! I am a wretched sailor, and travelling far and near these many years, crossing strange seas to distant lands at oft-recurring periods, has not even tutored me to stand the stress of the ocean wave. I cannot endure the sea.
The Dunvegan Castle was steaming to the Cape, carrying the mails, together with a number of tedious and most tiresome people, whose hours aboard were passed in periods of distracting energy—in deck quoits, in impossible cricket matches, in angry squabbles upon the value of the monies which, day by day, were collected by the crafty from the foolish and pooled in prizes upon the daily run of the steamer. It was said that these were pleasant gambles, but the Gentiles paid and the Hebrews, returning to their diamonds, their stocks and shares, scooped the stakes. It is a way that the people of Israel and Threadneedle Street have made peculiarly their own; and, indeed, the multitude and variety of Jews upon this evil-smelling steamer suggested that she might have held within her walls the nucleus of an over-sea Israelitish colony, such another as the Rothschilds founded.
Time was idle, dreary, and so empty! There was nothing to do, since nothing could be done. The monotony was appalling, and if this were the condition in the saloon, how distressful must have been the lot of the third class, who constituted in themselves, as good a class of people as that contained in the saloon. Surely in these days of systematic philanthropy something more might be done to brighten the lot and welfare of third-class passengers. Is it, for example, quite impossible to supply them with that not uninteresting development of the musical-box—the megaphone? Of course it should be quite possible; but antiquated, even antediluvian, in its arrangements, the Castle Company cannot initiate anything which has not yet been adopted by the other lines of ocean shipping. And yet I have been told by numerous merchant captains that it is the steerage which provides the profits, making lucrative the business of carrying cargoes of goods and human freight from our shores to more distant lands. But that also is the way of the world; yet when a rude prosperity enables the emigrant Jew and Gentile to throng the saloons, making them altogether impossible for the gentler classes, we shall find the economy of the third class appealing to an ever-increasing and ever-superior body of people until these "superior" people will not endure the dirt, unwholesome surroundings, and fetid atmosphere of the steerage accommodation of ocean-going steamers, but will cry to Heaven upon the niggard's policy which controls the vessels.
As the days wore away, and Madeira came and went, even the flying fishes ceased to attract, and the noises of the ship grew more distant, the people less obtrusive. Moreover, I became at rest within myself, and the gaping, aching void which has filled my vitals these many days, became assuaged. It was then we began to inspect the passengers; to consider almost kindly the African Jew millionaire who ate peas with his fingers and mixed honey with his salad, thought not disdainfully of the poor lady his wife, who, suffering the tortures of the damned when at sea, shone at each meal valiantly and heroically until the menu was pierced by her in its entirety, and she made still further happy by the administration of an original preventative against mal de mer of sweet wine biscuits bathed in plentiful and sticky treacle. It was her way of pouring oil on troubled waters. Oh, those were dreadful people, never ill, always eating, ever complaining of a curious dizziness which, nevertheless, occasioned them no loss of appetite. Surely they, of all others, were indeed of the specially select! Then there was Mr. Clarke, a friend of the two Presidents, who, undaunted by the most violent motions of the steamer, kept to the deck in a constant promenade, discoursing amicably the while, and punctuating his utterances, of a somewhat patriarchal order, with brief pauses, in which he stroked, with much dignity, a long white beard. He was a dear old man, and, unlike other Boers, he did not quote from the Scriptures, a concession which, to be properly appreciated, demands the lassitude and extreme prostration of violent nausea. There is something inordinately irritating about the man who proposes to soothe the irruptions attendant upon sea voyages by the assurance that such discomfiture is to be endured, since in Chapter i., verse 1, of a pious writer, the Lord hath there written that the ungodly shall be everlastingly punished. Personally I objected only to the form of punishment.
The friend of the President, a fine specimen of sturdy masculinity, touching eighty-two years of age, was quite the most impressive figure aboard this particular Castle packet. He had been a sojourner in the Orange Free State for forty years, coming to it from Australia shortly after the riots at Ballarat goldfields. The old fellow had fought against the Boers, championed their arms against the Basutos, raided the blacks in Queensland, and tumbled through a variety of enterprises ranging from mining in Australia to successful sheep farming near the Fickersburg. I liked him, taking an intense anxiety in his future movements, and wondering whether this fine old specimen of life would also become our enemy. Who could tell! So much depended upon the situation, so much upon the action of the President and the will of Providence. He stood, as he himself was apt to remark, upon the border of the next world—looking back upon a span of four score years, possessing a knowledge of the affairs of these African Republics which had obtained for him the friendship of President Steyn and President Kruger; indeed, they had been comrades-in-arms, Oom Paul and himself, while he had seen Steyn spring into manhood from a stripling, and when his thoughts dwelt upon those days the voice of the old man became flooded with emotion. These tears of memory were a sidelight to his real character, and I was convinced that if he shouldered arms at all these earlier friendships were held by such ties as were too sacred to be violated. In his heart he hated fighting, yearning merely for the attentions of his children, the cool delights of his mountain home. In his domestic environment he was a happy man, since prosperity had brought him certain cares of office, much as the dignity of his age had brought him the respect of his fellow-burghers. And yet he figured as an illustration of countless hundreds, each one of whom was in close relationship with the crisis in the politics of the country.
Morning, noon and night he strolled, the one figure of interest in the ill-assorted company of passengers which the good ship—to my nostrils an evil-smelling tub—was carrying to the Cape. There were few others of importance upon this journey. There was a colonel of the Royal Engineers, who had a snug billet in the War Office, and who was leaving Pall Mall to inspect the barracks at Cape Town, St. Helena, Ascension, and all those other places to which certain preposterous War Office officials devoted that attention which should so much more properly have been paid to the defenceless condition of the frontiers in South Africa. But then, after all, what is the destiny of the War Office unless to meddle and make muddle? If Colonel Watson might be said to have represented the Imperial Government among the passengers, Mynheer Van der Merure, Commissioner of Mines in Johannesburg, might be considered as representing the Pretorian Government. It seemed to me that these two worthies were quite harmless, representing, each in his own way, the acme of good nature, the gallant—all colonels imagine that they be gallant—colonel by reason of his advanced age; the worthy—all commissioners imagine that they be worthy—commissioner because he lived off the spoil of the mines. But even the spectacle of these three—the grand old man, the War Office attaché, the wealthy Randsman—did not suffice to break the hideous monotony of a most depressing voyage.
With the peace of nature enveloping us in a feeling of security, it was difficult to realise that each day we drew a little nearer to a possible seat of war. There was much rumour aboard; the stewards hinted that the hold was filled with a cargo of munitions of war. The captain flatly denied it, even the War Office pensioner thought it improbable. "You must understand, sir," said he one morning, across the breakfast table, "that it is contrary to the custom of her Majesty's Government, and, if I may say so, sir, especially contrary to the custom of her Majesty's War Office, to squander the finances of our great Empire upon unnecessary munitions of war because the Times and other papers choose to send half a dozen irresponsible individuals to South Africa. Now, sir—pooh!" When Colonel Watson broke out like this the friend of the President would intervene, suggesting in his kindly, paternal fashion that "the War Office—given half a dozen colonels, gallant or otherwise—might well afford to follow the lead of the Times newspaper." "It has been my experience," the Colonel retaliated on one occasion, "that when people begin to interfere they cease to understand." It was always quite delightful to watch these two cross swords; the elder invariably took refuge in his age when the sallies of the War Office could not be directly countered. "Experience! You are only old enough to be my son." The Colonel spluttered—colonels do. By these means the elder man usually carried off the honours, replying, as it were, by a flank movement to the frontal attack of his superior adversary.
The farmer from the Orange Free State talked much to me, giving me, towards the end of the voyage, an invitation to his home. It was a visit in which I should have found much pleasure, since the splendour of his years, his gentleness and nobility of character were attractive. It seemed to me that among all sorts and conditions of men this one was indeed, a man, and I do most sincerely hope that the end of the war may find him still living and enjoying his farm in his usual prosperity. He was so set against the war, and dreaded the consequences of hostile invasion into the Orange Free State, insomuch that he realised, if some immunity were not guaranteed, the ruin and desolation which would spread over the land. In August as we left England there was nothing known about the future action of the Orange Free State. The question was one of debate, altogether confused, almost intangible, and this man, knowing Steyn as he knew Kruger, was convinced that the Orange Free State would alienate itself from the Transvaal difficulty. But who can tell? We look to the sea for our answer, and it throws back to us only the echoes of the sighing waves, the pulsing throbs of the screws pounding the green masses of water in an effort to reach the Cape. Nevertheless, I am inclined to believe that there will be war. I hope that there may be, since it is to be my field of labour.
The journey nears its end, and the weather breaks, for a few hours into grey cold; while the sea, where it laps the bay at Cape Town, darkening into thin ridges of foam, tumbling and tossing amid the eddies of the bleak water, looks menacing. A fog lies off the land, dense and weighty, impeding the navigation and impressing no little conception of the perils of the deep upon the minds of timorous passengers, and folding the surface of the ocean in its expanse. The weather threatens to be wild. All day the sea fog broke and mingled, merging, as the day wore on, into one conglomerate mass of cloud, impenetrable to the mariner and screening the signs of the sea from those who were upon land. Here and there, low down upon the horizon, the storm fiend from the shore had broken into the garland of mist which hung so drearily upon sea as upon moor, detaching parcels of cloud from the main and toying with them with the coy and heartless grace of Zephyr! But as yet the wind only came in minor lapses, and was followed by intervals in which there was no movement in the fog. From the waste of sea came a ceaseless, muffled roar which seemed loudest and most full of mystery when carried upon the wings of the wind. Then these echoes of mighty waters, tumbling upon the rocks off the land, seemed ominous and charged with deadly peril, and, as the fog belts lifted or dispersed before the gusts of the wind, the sea would look as though swept with growing anger, heaving in tremulous passion, until the great reach of quivering waves was flecked with white. Closer and closer lapped the tiny waves, until, under the pressure of the freshening wind they mingled their crests, rising and falling in foam-capped billows of growing volume and increasing majesty. Thus developed the storm; the wind beating on the face of the waters and breaking against the clouds until rain fell, in the end assuaging, by its raging downpour, the tempest of the ocean. Down came the storm in one panting burst of tempestuous deluge. The heaving waves threw sheets of foam from their rain-pierced summits, and the wind whistled and screamed as it swept through the rigging. Flashes of lightning and thunder claps parried one another in quick succession. The rain fell in torrents, the decks, shining in the lightning flashes, roared with rushing water. So that night we rode at anchor, rocking idly at our cables within the shadow of the mountain, and upon the morrow, beneath the light of coming dawn, we drew nearer through the cool greyness of the bounding ocean. At first the figures, the walls of the fort, the cranes, the shipping, and the scarred and crinkled facing of the mountain were silhouetted in black against the grey of early morning, but as the day broke more firmly across its slopes, the finer and more subtle light gave to everything its actual proportion. All kept growing clearer and yet clearer, and more and more thoroughly outlined, until the sun, shooting over the horizon, bestowed upon the coming day its first wink of glory.
And so we landed, passing from a sluggish state of peace into a world where everything was lighted with martial glamour.