Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
Click here to return to
ONE does not seem really to have got out-of-doors till he goes to sea. On the land he is shut in by the hills, or the forests, or more or less housed by the sharp lines of his horizon. But at sea he finds the roof taken off, the walls taken down; he is no longer in the hollow of the earth's hand, but upon its naked back, with nothing between him and the immensities. He is in the great cosmic out-of-doors, as much so as if voyaging to the moon or to Mars. An astronomic solitude and vacuity surround him; his only guides and landmarks are stellar; the earth has disappeared; the horizon has gone; he has only the sky and its orbs left; this cold, vitreous, blue-black liquid through which the ship plows is not water, but some denser form of the cosmic ether. He can now see the curve of the sphere which the hills hid from him; he can study astronomy under improved conditions. If he was being borne through the interplanetary spaces on an immense shield, his impressions would not perhaps be much different. He would find the same vacuity, the same blank or negative space, the same empty, indefinite, oppressive out-of-doors.
For it must be admitted that a voyage at sea is more impressive to the imagination than to the actual sense. The world is left behind; all standards of size, of magnitude, of distance, are vanished; there is no size, no form, no perspective; the universe has dwindled to a little circle of crumpled water, that journeys with you day after day, and to which you seem bound by some enchantment. The sky becomes a shallow, close-fitting dome, or else a pall of cloud that seems ready to descend upon you. You cannot see or realize the vast and vacant surrounding; there is nothing to define it or set it off. Three thousand miles of ocean space are less impressive than three miles bounded by rugged mountain walls. Indeed, the grandeur of form, of magnitude, of distance, of proportion, are only upon shore. A voyage across the Atlantic is an eight or ten day sail through vacancy. There is no sensible progress; you pass no fixed points. Is it the steamer that is moving, or is it the sea? or is it all a dance and illusion of the troubled brain? Yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow, you are in the same parenthesis of nowhere. The three hundred or more miles the ship daily makes is ideal, not real. Every night the stars dance and reel there in the same place amid the rigging; every morning the sun comes up from behind the same wave, and staggers slowly across the sinister sky. The eye becomes a-hungry for form, for permanent lines, for a horizon wall to lift up and keep off the sky, and give it a sense of room. One understands why sailors become an imaginative and superstitious race; it is the reaction from this narrow horizon in which they are pent, — this ring of fate surrounds and oppresses them. They escape by invoking the aid of the supernatural. In the sea itself there is far less to stimulate the imagination than in the varied forms and colors of the land. How cold, how merciless, how elemental it looks!
The only things that look familiar at sea are the clouds. These are messengers from home, and how weary and disconsolate they appear, stretching out along the horizon, as if looking for a hill or mountain-top to rest upon, — nothing to hold them up, — a roof without walls, a span without piers. One gets the impression that they are grown faint, and must presently, if they reach much farther, fall into the sea. But when the rain came, it seemed like mockery or irony on the part of the clouds. Did one vaguely believe, then, that the clouds would respect the sea, and withhold their needless rain? No, they treated it as if it were a mill-pond, or a spring-run, too insignificant to make any exceptions to.
One bright Sunday, when the surface of the sea was like glass, a long chain of cloud-mountains lay to the south of us all day, while the rest of the sky was clear. How they glowed in the strong sunlight, their summits shining like a bouquet of full moons, and making a broad, white, or golden path upon the water! They came out of the southwest, an endless procession of them, and tapered away in the east. They were the piled, convoluted, indolent clouds of midsummer, — thunder-clouds that had retired from business; the captains of the storm in easy undress. All day they filed along there, keeping the ship company. How the eye reveled in their definite, yet ever-changing, forms! Their under or base line was as straight and continuous as the rim of the ocean. The substratum of air upon which they rested was like a uniform layer of granite rock, invisible, but all-resisting; not one particle of these vast cloud-mountains, so broken and irregular in their summits, sank below this aerial granite boundary. The equilibrium of the air is frequently such that the under-surface of the clouds is like a ceiling. It is a fair-weather sign, whether upon the sea or upon the land. One may frequently see it in a mountainous district, when the fog-clouds settle down, and blot out all the tops of the mountains without one fleck of vapor going below a given line which runs above every valley, as uniform as the sea-level. It is probable that in fair weather the atmosphere always lies in regular strata in this way, and that it is the displacement and mixing up of these by some unknown cause that produces storms.
As the sun neared the horizon these cloud-masses threw great blue shadows athwart each other, which afforded the eye a new pleasure.
Late one afternoon the clouds assumed a still more friendly and welcome shape. A long, purple, irregular range of them rose up from the horizon in the northwest, exactly simulating distant mountains. The sun sank behind them, and threw out great spokes of light as from behind my native Catskills. Then gradually a low, wooded shore came into view along their base. It proved to be a fog-bank lying low upon the water, but it copied exactly, in its forms and outlines, a flat, umbrageous coast. You could see distinctly where it ended, and where the water began. I sat long on that side of the ship, and let my willing eyes deceive themselves. I could not divest myself of the comfortable feeling inspired by the prospect. It was to the outward sense what dreams and reveries are to the inward. That blind, instinctive love of the land, — I did not know how masterful and involuntary the impulse was, till I found myself warming up toward that phantom coast. The empty void of the sea was partly filled, if only with a shadow. The inhuman desolation of the ocean was blotted out for a moment, in that direction at least. What phantom-huggers we are upon sea or upon land! It made no difference that I knew this to be a sham coast. I could feel its friendly influence all the same, even when my back was turned.
In summer, fog seems to lie upon the Atlantic in great shallow fleeces, looking, I dare say, like spots of mould or mildew from an elevation of a few miles. These fog-banks are produced by the deep cold currents rising to the surface, and coming in contact with the warmer air. One may see them far in advance, looking so shallow that it seems as if the great steamer must carry her head above them. But she does not quite do it. When she enters this obscurity, there begins the hoarse bellowing of her great whistle. As one dozes in his berth or sits in the cabin reading, there comes a vague impression that we are entering some port or harbor, the sound is so welcome, and is so suggestive of the proximity of other vessels. But only once did our loud and repeated hallooing awaken any response. Everybody heard the answering whistle out of the thick obscurity ahead, and was on the alert. Our steamer instantly slowed her engines and redoubled her tootings. The two vessels soon got the bearing of each other, and the stranger passed us on the starboard side, the hoarse voice of her whistle alone revealing her course to us.
Late one afternoon, as we neared the Banks, the word spread on deck that the knobs and pinnacles of a thunder-cloud sunk below the horizon, and that deeply and sharply notched the western rim of the sea, were icebergs. The captain was quoted as authority. He probably encouraged the delusion. The jaded passengers wanted a new sensation. Everybody was willing, even anxious, to believe them icebergs, and some persons would have them so, and listened coldly and reluctantly to any proof to the contrary. What we want to believe, what it suits our convenience, or pleasure, or prejudice, to believe, one need not go to sea to learn what slender logic will incline us to believe. To a firm, steady gaze, these icebergs were seen to be momently changing their forms, new chasms opening, new pinnacles rising: but these appearances were easily accounted for by the credulous; the ice mountains were rolling over, or splitting asunder. One of the rarest things in the average cultivated man or woman is the capacity to receive and weigh evidence touching any natural phenomenon, especially at sea. If the captain had deliberately said that the shifting forms there on the horizon were only a school of whales playing at leap-frog, all the women and half the men among the passengers would have believed him.
In going to England in early May, we encountered the fine weather, the warmth and the sunshine as of June, that had been "central" over the British Islands for a week or more, five or six hundred miles from shore. We had come up from lower latitudes, and it was as if we had ascended a hill and found summer at the top, while a cold, backward spring yet lingered in the valley. But on our return in early August, the positions of spring and summer were reversed. Scotland was cold and rainy, and for several days at sea you could in the distance hardly tell the sea from the sky, all was so gray and misty. In mid-Atlantic we ran into the American climate. The great continent, basking there in the western sun, and glowing with midsummer heat, made itself felt to the centre of this briny void. The sea detached itself sharply from the sky, and became like a shield of burnished steel, which the sky surrounded like a dome of glass. For four successive nights the sun sank clear in the wave, sometimes seeming to melt and mingle with the ocean. One night a bank of mist seemed to impede his setting. He lingered a long while partly buried in it, then slowly disappeared as through a slit in the vapor, which glowed red-hot, a mere line of fire, for some moments afterward.
As we neared home the heat became severe. We were going down the hill into a fiery valley. Vast stretches of the sea were like glass bending above the long, slow heaving of the primal ocean. Swordfish lay basking here and there on the surface, too lazy to get out of the way of the ship: —
Occasionally a whale would blow, or show his glistening back, attracting a crowd to the railing. One morning a whale plunged spitefully through the track of the ship but a few hundred yards away.
But the prettiest sight in the way of animated nature was the shoals of dolphins occasionally seen during these brilliant torrid days, leaping and sporting, and apparently racing with the vessel. They would leap in pairs from the glassy surface of one swell of the steamer across the polished chasm into the next swell, frisking their tails and doing their best not to be beaten. They were like fawns or young kine sporting in a summer meadow. It was the only touch of mirth, or youth and jollity, I saw in the grim sea. Savagery and desolation make up the prevailing expression here. The sea-fowls have weird and disconsolate cries, and appear doomed to perpetual solitude. But these dolphins know what companionship is, and are in their own demesne. When one sees them bursting out of the waves, the impression is that school is just out; there come the boys, skipping and laughing, and, seeing us just passing, cry to one another: "Now for a race! Hurrah, boys! We can beat 'em!"
One notices any change in the course of the ship by the stars at night. For nearly a week Venus sank nightly into the sea far to the north of us. Our course coming home is south-southwest. Then, one night, as you promenade the deck, you see, with a keen pleasure, Venus through the rigging dead ahead. The good ship has turned the corner; she has scented New York harbor, and is making straight for it, with New England far away there on her right. Now sails and smoke-funnels begin to appear. All ocean paths converge here: full-rigged ships, piled with canvas, are passed, rocking idly upon the polished surface; sails are seen just dropping below the horizon, phantom ships without hulls, while here and there the black smoke of some steamer tarnishes the sky. Now we pass steamers that left New York but yesterday; the City of Rome — looking, with her three smoke-stacks and her long hull, like two steamers together — creeps along the southern horizon, just ready to vanish behind it. Now she stands in the reflected light of a great white cloud which makes a bright track upon the water like the full moon. Then she slides on into the dim and even dimmer distance, and we slide on over the tropic sea, and, by a splendid run, just catch the tide at the moment of its full, early the next morning, and pass the bar off Sandy Hook without a moment of time or an inch of water to spare.