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EXILE AND STEAMER
BY JEAN KENYON MACKENZIE
There is moonlight and sunlight, there are the stars and the sea. Some days are gray and ribbed with the white trouble of the surf. Some are white days, full of a sparkle of sunlight like a spray above the water. On some days mountains that have been long lost rise out of the sea; at noon they are faint and far away; but with evening they draw in and cast anchor before the little cabin where you live. They are blue. Thus beauty, in her various fashion, smites with her rod the rock of your monotony, and water does indeed gush forth; you drink and are assuaged. But still you look to the sea; you have a glass at hand, — it is a ship's glass, — and it is not for beauty that you hunt with your glass: it is for excitement. You are hunting for the very heart and flaming core of excitement, and that is a steamer. Living in lonely places like this, you are a prey to obsessions; you are obsessed by certain sleepless thoughts; they stir in your heart while you sleep, and they speak without ceasing of steamers. It is they that drive you in the morning to your glass, and to be looking all day out to sea, and at night to be searching the dark for a little cluster of stars that are low upon the horizon, like the Pleiades in March; but oh, they are not the Pleiades—they shine with a difference: they are the lights of a steamer!
How shall I be telling of steamers to the dwellers in great harbor towns, where the loveliest ladies of the sea come and go without applause? Or to inlanders who never see a mast at all,
unless it is the superstructure of an oilwell? You whose house is on the Hudson, where a steamer is at anchor before your very door — it is eight bells; the hour was struck, and did you hear the bell? The signal stands in the engine-room at 'Full Steam Ahead,' and did you hear that drumming? A week she lay in the river; this morning she is gone, and are you therefore lonely in the world?
In the lost places of the earth a steamer is the great Presence — she furnishes the empty seas. However far out and dim, with her little plume of smoke, she leaves her wake in the heart. There are shores where from every white man's cabin her passing is followed with a sigh; speculation broods upon her all day long. Her ports, her flags, her cargo, her crew, seem a little while to live in the mind after she has gone down the slope of the world. She may be a poor, mean, unkempt cargo-boat, dingy upon a bright sea, but she is the symbol of migration, and a winged flutter in the heart.
As for The Steamer, that is another matter — a matter of Elijah and the ravens. Be sure that Elijah, once he got the ravens' schedule, was not caught napping. He was up and had his glass out before the ravens were overdue. And be sure that there is no steamer so mean, so obscure in her listed sailings, but is The Steamer to prisoners somewhere, behind a barring of cocoanut palms or a grating of ice. Be sure that she will put on airs once she has dropped behind her betters, and will go swelling into little empty harbors where there is only one calendar, and she the only saint written there. Before the anchor falls, white men are off to her between the breaches in the surf. The chain is hardly taut when the little canoes and the surf boats are alongside, and white men are running up the ladder. And suddenly, with the letting go of the anchor, in that great room of the sea and sky, or in that narrow river-room with its forest wall, there are the agitations of traffic and of commerce. The winches fore and aft thrum and clamor; voices of white men and of black men rise from the water level and from the deck; cargo is slung off and on, dripping with the gilt of palm-oil and the dust of ricebags, or reeking of salt fish.
A day is all too short for what must be done with the barber and the steward and the purser and the chief and the captain of The Steamer. All the white men find a day too short. Night comes too soon; the steamer hangs upon the dark like a bouquet of fireworks, arrested. The last load of cargo has gone over the side; the ship's launch has ceased to sob and sleeps in her berth on deck; the second officer has made his last bitter comments and has gone below to wash himself, and the time has come for the white men to go ashore. They hang over the railing calling to their little crews that are asleep; they negotiate the difficult descent into their boats, — for the trade swell is about the ship now, — and they go off into the rain.
There is this about The Steamer — she comes and she goes. You keep your best white ducks for her; you keep all your dates for her; you set your watch by her chronometer and your life by her schedule. Your letters home are full of her worship. But she has such sweethearts in every port; the rush and enthusiasm of her advent is matched by the rush and enthusiasm of her exit; she
carries her garland of lights away into the darkness, or her feather of smoke into the noon; she grows smaller and dimmer; her drums grow fainter, and once again in a silence and a void you are 'ten leagues beyond man's life,' you 'can have no note unless the sun were post.'
You see how, with The Steamer, it is a kiss and a blow. Between the kiss of her coming and the blow of her going is the span of your little day — all the honey of news and of gossip, all the wine of excitement, must be savored now. I think of the many little settlements by the sea waiting to hear of the war from The Steamer, on a day of her days. I think of the first camouflaged steamer staggering up a river on her accustomed schedule, like a fistful of lightning in the hand of Jove. No supernatural visitation could have more astonished her worshipers, all unprepared. I think of her captain shaping her course all through the war, in the dark, unarmed, without convoy — the very idol and providence of the outposts of the earth. And of the captains young and old, whose names you do not know; and some of them, for their service of The Steamer, wear medals, and some of them lie in the waste of the sea. For all you do not know their names, their names are known; living and dead, they are remembered. Exiles remember and bless them—steamer, and captain, and the engineers in the vitals of the ship, and the little cabin-boys who did their little duties when the steamer was under fire.
In my heart I see her now, and she is under fire. She is unarmed; she zigzags before her smoke-screen, trembling with her speed. You lean on the iron wall of the engine-house, under that bright sky where it is morning, and you watch the great fountains play upon the level of the sea where the shells strike the water. You think of the engineers, who will never come on deck if the ship goes down; and you see on the bridge the legs of the little cabin-boy, whose head, inside the pilot-house door, waits on an order. All the life of the ship, under the cover of the smoke-screen and the sob of haste and the scream of the exhaust, waits on an order. That young captain biting on his pipe, his megaphone in his hand, is a symbol of man's will to order. He is enshrined there on the bridge above the trouble of the ship, — an image of ultimate resistance so intense, on so many solitary seas, that his astral — if ever at all there is an astral — must still patrol the course of the steamer he saved, or of the steamer that was lost.
There is nothing stranger than a map — with its understood relation to a place, and the way they do not resemble. You would never guess, to look at a place on a map, what its aspect really is. Often I go to the map-room in the public library, where I ask for the Southern Cameroun. I look and look at that symbol of the African forest, until my secret knowledge unfolds in my heart, and I see again those little mountains under their green cloak; I cross those rivers in canoes, or by the old, old bridges of the fallen trees; those many little ravines are blue again and full of the trouble of drums. Then I laugh at the map, with its colors and its names; and it is as if, in a group of strangers, you have met the eyes of your friend. And so it is with the listed sailings of steamers — so many and so broadcast: their names and their published ports trouble your mind as little as the birds that migrate in the autumn. But oh, let them be but due where you are, and they touch you where you live. And of these there is one that drops her anchor in youf very heart — you call her My Steamer. You name her so, and all your fellow exiles call her yours; your ardor does so su bj ugate your lit tie world. Vol. its—NO. 1
For My Steamer you wait and wait, and you weary waiting. You cease to breathe, lest contrary winds blow upon her. But your ardor has spoked the wheel of time; it slackens. The moons wax and wane with a strange and cruel deliberation. Well I remember my first affair with a steamer, and that the seasons dragged, and then the days. Long after, I came upon a calendar with those days crossed off; and when I saw that record of faint hours, I felt again the sickening arrest and backward swing of time.
An affair with a steamer is not always mutual. There she is at Kribi to the north of you, and you with a glass under the eaves since the dawn asking her by wireless, — the wireless of the heart, — is she yours. And boys running north by the beach to ask the captain, is she yours. And boys running south by the beach to say that she will be down by two o'clock or not at all. And you, packed and ready, on the indigo shade upon the sand at two o'clock, and still on the sand at three o'clock, but driven back by the tide at four o'clock; and by misgivings at five o'clock driven up a path you know too well, to a thatch which you had thought you need not seek again.
And now boys run up the beach to say, 'Steamer live for come'; and she anchors well in. The red of evening grows behind her, her lights blossom on the dark, but no boat comes ashore. You are going to bed, when you are summoned by a lantern — 'Boat live for come'; and you race back to the water's edge, all your zests renewed.
But it is a false alarm. There on the sand you find a black man streaming with sea-water; he has swum ashore from the ship in search of the launch, and under the illusion that this is Powell's trading-post and that you are Powell. With his wet hand he urges upon you a bill of lading, incredibly dry. You dismiss him coldly, waving him south, and hoping that you are never to see him again. You do not know how often and often he is to accost you again in memory, his wet body gilded by the light of the lantern and his bill of lading incredibly dry.
In the morning that steamer is gone! And before the shocking emptiness of the sea your friends say, 'Oh, do let's sit down!' And they tell sad stories of the defections of steamers: of how Mr. Menkel, in a canoe, with bag and baggage, tried to hold up a steamer with a gesture, like a traffic policeman — and failed; of how the Gaults waited weeks and weeks for a steamer that did not come, because she had blown up in the Congo River, as you may see for yourself between Boma and Matadi; of how many a steamer has passed by on pretext of quarantine; of how, off Qui I hi, when the surf is high, the steamer will not so much as call. Until, what with tales of the coldness of steamers and their misadventures, you cannot think how you are to get home at all.
Yes, you wonder that. Many a man has wondered that. Betrayed by some steamer, he has thought of his little cabin, with its million roaches — that he must live there forever; and that he is never to escape the sound of the reiterant surf and its endless pacings. Long after, he will sigh when he thinks of that season, rainy or dry; he will remember dark thoughts that came upon him then, and his sleepless nights. A trader who cut the vein in his wrist with the scissors off his counter told the mission doctor that he knew he was never to go home. He would never live to get home, he said. And he could no longer endure that shanty of his, with its store of cotton print and salt fish and matches and tobacco. So he cut his wrist. And then he sent, as you see, for the doctor. And the doctor, a long time wise in the things of exile, sent him off in a canoe,
with a lantern and a little crew who were to travel with their 'big Massa' until they met the steamer from the south. For it is a great thing, said the doctor, to feel water under the keel.
That is a wonderful feeling. And it is wonderful, when you have lived so long by the light of a lantern, to find a star in your ceiling. For there it is in the ceiling of your cabin — a star. And there, beneath the light of that star, is an apple. Because you look as he had hoped you would look when you see the star shining like this upon the apple, the steward tells you that, yes, he likes to have an apple aboard his steamer. He lets you know at once that he is proud of his steamer, and ashamed where there is cause. He will speak to you often of these things.
I see myself stretched at ease on the deck of My Steamer, sunk in an excess of languor and of calm. It is a night as bright as silver and as clear as glass. We are moored to a great tree beside a bank of the Congo River; a million little voices speak to me from the sedges on the margin, and the steward speaks to me. He has brought me my coffee, and he tells me of the shame he feels. He is ashamed of his knives and forks, of his linen and the bugs in his beds; he is ashamed of his captain, who is tipsy, and he groans there in the moonlight: 'This is no place for you, miss, no place at all!'
But oh, what does he, all ashamed there on his execrable boat, know of the ineffable calm that is the atmosphere of My Steamer, where I am as safe from his knives and forks and the weevils in his oatmeal as a silly silver lamb at the heart of a glass ball! Not the clamor of the winches, or the thunder of the great mahogany logs as* they come aboard, or the clangor of iron rails as they go over the side, can break that insulation. Only the rattle of the anchorchain and the signal to the engine-room can do this; and if we lie off every settlement on the West Coast and go up every stream in the delta of the Niger, for every time the anchor is weighed I will tremble, and will tremble in my heart whenever the ship trembles with that shudder of getting under weigh, which is the initial throe of the ecstasy of going home.
When last I went to Africa, it was in war-time, and I took five steamers. Five steamers I took, and for these five steamers I waited in five several ports, for five aeons of time; until at last I said that, if ever in opening a book I came upon a traveler waiting on a dock, open sea-beach, or river-bank, for a galley, caracul, frigate, clipper, or steamer, I would then close the book. I would never read, I said, of Jason and the Argo, or of Hero and Leander, or even ofEuropa and the Bull. All adventures taking account of transportation by water would be for me forever anathema. And I would forever forget my voyage of the five steamers. But often and often, in a kind of little flock, the odd assorted lot of them comes back to mind; I see them in my heart and I love them.
There is the Montevideo, and she is a lady. There is the Delphin, so little, so rolling, and so dirty, carrying her cargo of flies from the clean, pale alleys of Cadiz to the sea-based mountains of the Canaries. There is the Cataluna,
— not so very neutral, — with her marred romantic beauty, and her bright lacquers in her cabins, and her noble deck, where it is always one o'clock of the afternoon, and we are drawing away from the Canaries. The afternoon clouds are gathering on the Pillars of Hercules; gray gulls are flying; a young priest hangs his little golden bird on the port side, under the awning, and at once and forever that little bird casts a tendril of song out to sea. There is the Burutu; and still I see her come into the harbor of Dakar at dusk, her lights fore and aft the color of primroses, and her signals flat in the wind from Timbuctoo. Still I see her pick her way in the dark down the West Coast, or, in the safety of a river, paint the forest walls with her light. In my heart I save her forever from that betrayal in the English Channel, where she was lost, and her crew. And still I remember that last little steamer of all, whose name I have forgotten, who had no cabins, but suffered her passengers on her bridge, where they idly slept while she hurried all night under the stars upon the errands of exiles. For them she turned the furrow and cast her anchor in their service wherever there was a lamp at night, or a zinc roof to shine in the sun. She was for them, in those irregular war-times, a kind of miracle
— a sweet chariot swinging low and coming for to carry them home. She was Their Steamer.