CHAPTER II. CROSSING THE NORTH PACIFIC - SEVEN WEEKS IN A RUSSIAN BRIG
"He took great content and exceeding delight in his voyage, as who doth not as shall attempt the like." - BURTON.
AT SEA, 700 MILES N.W. OF SAN FRANCISCO.
Wednesday, July 12, 1865.
Ten days ago, on the eve of our departure for the Asiatic coast, full of high hopes and joyful anticipations of pleasure, I wrote in a fair round hand on this opening page of my journal, the above sentence from Burton; never once doubting, in my enthusiasm, the complete realisation of those "future joys," which to "fancy's eye" lay in such "bright uncertainty," or suspecting that "a life on the ocean wave" was not a state of the highest felicity attainable on earth. The quotation seemed to me an extremely happy one, and I mentally blessed the quaint old Anatomist of Melancholy for providing me with a motto at once so simple and so appropriate. Of course "he took great content and exceeding delight in his voyage"; and the wholly unwarranted assumption that because "he" did, every one else necessarily must, did not strike me as being in the least absurd.
On the contrary, it carried all the weight of the severest logical demonstration, and I would have treated with contempt any suggestion of possible disappointment. My ideas of sea life had been derived principally from glowing poetical descriptions of marine sunsets, of "summer isles of Eden, lying in dark purple spheres of sea," and of those "moonlight nights on lonely waters" with which poets have for ages beguiled ignorant landsmen into ocean voyages. Fogs, storms, and seasickness did not enter at all into my conceptions of marine phenomena; or if I did admit the possibility of a storm, it was only as a picturesque, highly poetical manifestation of wind and water in action, without any of the disagreeable features which attend those elements under more prosaic circumstances. I had, it is true, experienced a little rough weather on my voyage to California, but my memory had long since idealised it into something grand and poetical; and I looked forward even to a storm on the Pacific as an experience not only pleasant, but highly desirable. The illusion was very pleasant while it lasted; but - it is over. Ten days of real sea life have converted the "bright uncertainty of future joys" into a dark and decided certainty of future misery, and left me to mourn the incompatibility of poetry and truth. Burton is a humbug, Tennyson a fraud, I'm a victim, and Byron and Procter are accessories before the fact. Never again will I pin my faith to poets. They may tell the truth nearly enough for poetical consistency, but their judgment is hopelessly perverted, and their imagination is too luxuriantly vivid for a truthful realistic delineation of sea life. Byron's London Packet is a brilliant exception, but I remember no other in the whole range of poetical literature.
Our life since we left port has certainly been anything but poetical.
For nearly a week, we suffered all the indescribable miseries of seasickness, without any alleviating circumstances whatever. Day after day we lay in our narrow berths, too sick to read, too unhappy to talk, watching the cabin lamp as it swung uneasily in its well-oiled gimbals, and listening to the gurgle and swash of the water around the after dead-lights, and the regular clank, clank of the blocks of the try-sail sheet as the rolling of the vessel swung the heavy boom from side to side.
We all professed to be enthusiastic supporters of the Tapleyan philosophy - jollity under all circumstances; but we failed most lamentably in reconciling our practice with our principles. There was not the faintest suggestion of jollity in the appearance of the four motionless, prostrate figures against the wall. Seasickness had triumphed over philosophy! Prospective and retrospective reverie of a decidedly gloomy character was our only occupation. I remember speculating curiously upon the probability of Noah's having ever been seasick; wondering how the sea-going qualities of the Ark would compare with those of our brig, and whether she had our brig's uncomfortable way of pitching about in a heavy swell.
If she had - and I almost smiled at the idea - what an unhappy experience it must have been for the poor animals!
I wondered also if Jason and Ulysses were born with sea-legs, or whether they had to go through the same unpleasant process that we did to get them on.
Concluded finally that sea-legs, like some diseases must be a diabolical invention of modern times, and that the ancients got along in some way without them. Then, looking intently at the fly-specks upon the painted boards ten inches from my eyes, I would recall all the bright anticipations with which I had sailed from San Francisco, and turn over, with a groan of disgust, to the wall.
I wonder if any one has ever written down on paper his seasick reveries. There are "Evening Reveries," "Reveries of a Bachelor," and "Seaside Reveries" in abundance; but no one, so far as I know, has ever even attempted to do his seasick reveries literary justice. It is a strange oversight, and I would respectfully suggest to any aspiring writer who has the reverie faculty, that there is here an unworked field of boundless extent. One trip across the North Pacific in a small brig will furnish an inexhaustible supply of material.