The Innocents Abroad/Chapter X
WE passed the Fourth of July on board the Quaker City, in mid-ocean. It was in all respects a characteristic Mediterranean day—faultlessly beautiful. A cloudless sky; a refreshing summer wind; a radiant sunshine that glinted cheerily from dancing wavelets instead of crested mountains of water; a sea beneath us that was so wonderfully blue, so richly, brilliantly blue, that it overcame the dullest sensibilities with the spell of its fascination.
They even have fine sunsets on the Mediterranean—a thing that is certainly rare in most quarters of the globe. The evening we sailed away from Gibraltar, that hard-featured rock was swimming in a creamy mist so rich, so soft, so enchantingly vague and dreamy, that even the Oracle, that serene, that inspired, that overpowering humbug, scorned the dinner gong and tarried to worship!
He said: “Well, that’s gorgis, ain’t it! They don’t have none of them things in our parts, do they? I consider that them effects is on account of the superior refragability, as you may say, of the sun’s diramic combination with the lymphatic forces of the perihelion of Jubiter. What should you think?”
“Oh, go to bed!” Dan said that, and went away.
“Oh, yes, it’s all very well to say go to bed when a man makes an argument which another man can’t answer. Dan don’t never stand any chance in an argument with me. And he knows it, too. What should you say, Jack?”
“Now, Doctor, don’t you come bothering around me with that dictionary bosh. I don’t do you any harm, do I? Then you let me alone.” “He’s gone, too. Well, them fellows have all tackled the old Oracle, as they say, but the old man’s most too many for ‘em. Maybe the Poet Lariat ain’t satisfied with them deductions?"
The poet replied with a barbarous rhyme and went below.
“‘Pears that he can’t qualify, neither. Well, I didn’t expect nothing out of him. I never see one of them poets yet that knowed anything. He’ll go down now and grind out about four reams of the awfullest slush about that old rock and give it to a consul, or a pilot, or a nigger, or anybody he comes across first which he can impose on. Pity but somebody’d take that poor old lunatic and dig all that poetry rubbage out of him. Why can’t a man put his intellect onto things that’s some value? Gibbons, and Hippocratus, and Sarcophagus, and all them old ancient philosophers was down on poets—”
“Doctor,” I said, “you are going to invent authorities now and I’ll leave you, too. I always enjoy your conversation, notwithstanding the luxuriance of your syllables, when the philosophy you offer rests on your own responsibility; but when you begin to soar—when you begin to support it with the evidence of authorities who are the creations of your own fancy, I lose confidence.”
That was the way to flatter the doctor. He considered it a sort of acknowledgment on my part of a fear to argue with him. He was always persecuting the passengers with abstruse propositions framed in language that no man could understand, and they endured the exquisite torture a minute or two and then abandoned the field. A triumph like this, over half a dozen antagonists was sufficient for one day; from that time forward he would patrol the decks beaming blandly upon all comers, and so tranquilly, blissfully happy!
But I digress. The thunder of our two brave cannon announced the Fourth of July, at daylight, to all who were awake. But many of us got our information at a later hour, from the almanac. All the flags were sent aloft except half a dozen that were needed to decorate portions of the ship below, and in a short time the vessel assumed a holiday appearance. During the morning, meetings were held and all manner of committees set to work on the celebration ceremonies. In the afternoon the ship’s company assembled aft, on deck, under the awnings; the flute, the asthmatic melodeon, and the consumptive clarinet crippled “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the choir chased it to cover, and George came in with a peculiarly lacerating screech on the final note and slaughtered it. Nobody mourned.
We carried out the corpse on three cheers (that joke was not intentional and I do not endorse it), and then the President, throned behind a cable locker with a national flag spread over it, announced the “Reader,” who rose up and read that same old Declaration of Independence which we have all listened to so often without paying any attention to what it said; and after that the President piped the Orator of the Day to quarters and he made that same old speech about our national greatness which we so religiously believe and so fervently applaud. Now came the choir into court again, with the complaining instruments, and assaulted “Hail Columbia”; and when victory hung wavering in the scale, George returned with his dreadful wild-goose stop turned on and the choir won, of course. A minister pronounced the benediction, and the patriotic little gathering disbanded. The Fourth of July was safe, as far as the Mediterranean was concerned.
At dinner in the evening, a well-written original poem was recited with spirit by one of the ship’s captains, and thirteen regular toasts were washed down with several baskets of champagne. The speeches were bad—execrable almost without exception. In fact, without any exception but one. Captain Duncan made a good speech; he made the only good speech of the evening. He said:
“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN:—May we all live to a green old age and be prosperous and happy. Steward, bring up another basket of champagne.”
It was regarded as a very able effort.
The festivities, so to speak, closed with another of those miraculous balls on the promenade deck. We were not used to dancing on an even keel, though, and it was only a questionable success. But take it all together, it was a bright, cheerful, pleasant Fourth.
Toward nightfall the next evening, we steamed into the great artificial harbor of this noble city of Marseilles, and saw the dying sunlight gild its clustering spires and ramparts, and flood its leagues of environing verdure with a mellow radiance that touched with an added charm the white villas that flecked the landscape far and near. [Copyright secured according to law.]
There were no stages out, and we could not get on the pier from the ship. It was annoying. We were full of enthusiasm—we wanted to see France! Just at nightfall our party of three contracted with a waterman for the privilege of using his boat as a bridge—its stern was at our companion ladder and its bow touched the pier. We got in and the fellow backed out into the harbor. I told him in French that all we wanted was to walk over his thwarts and step ashore, and asked him what he went away out there for. He said he could not understand me. I repeated. Still he could not understand. He appeared to be very ignorant of French. The doctor tried him, but he could not understand the doctor. I asked this boatman to explain his conduct, which he did; and then I couldn’t understand him. Dan said:
“Oh, go to the pier, you old fool—that’s where we want to go!”
We reasoned calmly with Dan that it was useless to speak to this foreigner in English—that he had better let us conduct this business in the French language and not let the stranger see how uncultivated he was. “Well, go on, go on,” he said, “don’t mind me. I don’t wish to interfere. Only, if you go on telling him in your kind of French, he never will find out where we want to go to. That is what I think about it.”
We rebuked him severely for this remark and said we never knew an ignorant person yet but was prejudiced. The Frenchman spoke again, and the doctor said:
“There now, Dan, he says he is going to allez to the douain. Means he is going to the hotel. Oh, certainly—we don’t know the French language.”
This was a crusher, as Jack would say. It silenced further criticism from the disaffected member. We coasted past the sharp bows of a navy of great steamships and stopped at last at a government building on a stone pier. It was easy to remember then that the douain was the customhouse and not the hotel. We did not mention it, however. With winning French politeness the officers merely opened and closed our satchels, declined to examine our passports, and sent us on our way. We stopped at the first cafe we came to and entered. An old woman seated us at a table and waited for orders. The doctor said:
“Avez-vous du vin?”
The dame looked perplexed. The doctor said again, with elaborate distinctness of articulation:
The dame looked more perplexed than before. I said:
“Doctor, there is a flaw in your pronunciation somewhere. Let me try her. Madame, avez-vous du vin?—It isn’t any use, Doctor—take the witness.” “Madame, avez-vous du vin—du fromage—pain—pickled pigs’ feet—beurre—des oeufs—du boeuf—horseradish, sauerkraut, hog and hominy—anything, anything in the world that can stay a Christian stomach!”
“Bless you, why didn’t you speak English before? I don’t know anything about your plagued French!”
The humiliating taunts of the disaffected member spoiled the supper, and we dispatched it in angry silence and got away as soon as we could. Here we were in beautiful France—in a vast stone house of quaint architecture—surrounded by all
manner of curiously worded French signs—stared at by strangely habited, bearded French people—everything gradually and surely forcing upon us the coveted consciousness that at last, and beyond all question, we were in beautiful France and absorbing its nature to the forgetfulness of everything else, and coming to feel the happy romance of the thing in all its enchanting delightfulness—and to think of this skinny veteran intruding with her vile English, at such a moment, to blow the fair vision to the winds! It was exasperating.
We set out to find the centre of the city, inquiring the direction every now and then. We never did succeed in making anybody understand just exactly what we wanted, and neither did we ever succeed in comprehending just exactly what they said in reply, but then they always pointed—they always did that—and we bowed politely and said, “Merci, monsieur,” and so it was a blighting triumph over the disaffected member
anyway. He was restive under these victories and often asked:
“What did that pirate say?”
“Why, he told us which way to go to find the Grand Casino.”
“Yes, but what did he say?”
“Oh, it don’t matter what he said—we understood him. These are educated people—not like that absurd boatman."
“Well, I wish they were educated enough to tell a man a direction that goes some where—for we’ve been going around in a circle for an hour. I’ve passed this same old drugstore seven times.”
We said it was a low, disreputable falsehood (but we knew it was not). It was plain that it would not do to pass that drugstore again, though—we might go on asking directions, but we must cease from following finger-pointings if we hoped to check the suspicions of the disaffected member.
A long walk through smooth, asphaltum-paved streets bordered by blocks of vast new mercantile houses of cream-colored stone every house and every block precisely like all the other houses and all the other blocks for a mile, and all brilliantly lighted—brought us at last to the principal thoroughfare. On every hand were bright colors, flashing constellations of gas burners, gaily dressed men and women thronging the sidewalks—hurry, life, activity, cheerfulness, conversation, and laughter everywhere! We found the Grand Hotel du Louvre et de la Paix, and wrote down who we were, where we were born, what our occupations were, the place we came from last, whether we were married or single, how we liked it, how old we were, where we were bound for and when we expected to get there, and a great deal of information of similar importance—all for the benefit of the landlord and the secret police. We hired a guide and began the business of sightseeing immediately. That first night on French soil was a stirring one. I cannot think of half the places we went to or what we particularly saw; we had no disposition to examine carefully into anything at all—we only wanted to glance and go—to move, keep moving! The spirit of the country was upon us. We sat down, finally, at a late hour, in the great Casino, and called for unstinted champagne. It is so easy to be bloated aristocrats where it costs nothing of consequence! There were about five hundred people in that dazzling place, I suppose, though the walls being papered entirely with mirrors, so to speak, one could not really tell but that there were a hundred thousand. Young, daintily dressed exquisites and young, stylishly dressed women, and also old gentlemen and old ladies, sat in couples and groups about innumerable marble-topped tables and ate fancy suppers, drank wine, and kept up a chattering din of conversation that was dazing to the senses. There was a stage at the far end and a large orchestra; and every now and then actors and actresses in preposterous comic dresses came out and sang the most extravagantly funny songs, to judge by their absurd actions; but that audience merely suspended its chatter, stared cynically, and never once smiled, never once applauded! I had always thought that Frenchmen were ready to laugh at any thing.