Story type: Essay
The doctor having been elected a member of the club, a meeting was held to celebrate the event. Bowling Green, Esq., secretary, was instructed to prepare carefully confidential minutes. Weather: fair and tepid. Wind: N.N.E. Course laid: From starting line at a Church Street bookshop, where the doctor bought a copy of “Limbo,” by Aldous Huxley, to Pier 56, N.R. Course made good: the same.
The doctor was in excellent form. On the Fourteenth Street car a human being was arguing fiercely and loudly with the conductor about some controversial matter touching upon fares and destinations. The clamour was great. Said the doctor, adjusting his eye-glass and gazing with rebuke toward the disputants: “I will be gratified when this tumult subsides.” The doctor has been added to the membership of the club in order to add social tone to the gathering. His charm is infinite; his manners are of a delicacy and an aplomb. His speech, when he is of waggish humour, carries a tincture of Queen Anne phraseology that is subtle and droll. A man, indeed! L’extreme de charme, as M. Djer-Kiss loves to say what time he woos the public in the theatre programmes.
The first thrill was when Bowling Green, Esq., secretary, cast an eye upward as the club descended from the Fourteenth Street sharabang, and saw, over the piers, the tall red funnels of the Aquitania. This is going to be great doings, said he to himself. O Cunard Line funnels! What is there that so moves the heart?
Bowling Green, Esq., confesses that it is hard to put these minutes into cold and calculated narrative. Among ships and seafaring concerns his heart is too violently stirred to be quite maitre de soi.
The club moved forward. Welcomed by the suave commissionaire of the Cunard Line, it was invited to rise in the elevator. On the upper floor of the pier the members ran to the windows. There lay the Aquitania at her pier. The members’ hearts were stirred. Even the doctor, himself a hardened man of the sea, showed a brilliant spark of emotion behind his monocular attic window. A ship in dock–and what a ship! A ship at a city pier, strange sight. It is like a lion in a circus cage. She, the beauty, the lovely living creature of open azure and great striding ranges of the sea, she that needs horizons and planets for her fitting perspective, she that asks the snow and silver at her irresistible stern, she that persecutes the sunset across the purple curves of the longitudes–tied up stiff and dead in the dull ditch of a dockway. The upward slope of that great bow, it was never made to stand still against a dusty pier-end.
The club proceeded and found itself in a little eddy of pure Scotland. The Columbia was just in from Glasgow–had docked only an hour before. The doctor became very Scots in a flash. “Aye, bonny!” was his reply to every question asked him by Mr. Green, the diligent secretary. The secretary was addressed as “lad.” A hat now became a “bonnet.” The fine stiff speech of Glasgow was heard on every side, for the passengers were streaming through the customs. Yon were twa bonny wee brithers, aiblins ten years old, that came marching off, with bare knees and ribbed woollen stockings and little tweed jackets. O Scotland, Scotland, said our hairt! The wund blaws snell frae the firth, whispered the secretary to himself, keeking about, but had not the courage to utter it.
Here the secretary pauses on a point of delicacy. It was the purpose of the club to visit Capt. David W. Bone of the Columbia, but the captain is a modest man, and one knows not just how much of our admiration of him and his ship he would care to see spread upon the minutes. Were Mr. Green such a man as the captain, would he be lowering himself to have any truck with journalists and such petty folk? Mr. Green would not. Mark you: Captain Bone is the master of an Atlantic liner, a veteran of the submarine-haunted lanes of sea, a writer of fine books (have you, lovers of sea tales, read “The Brassbounder” and “Broken Stowage”?) a collector of first editions, a man who stood on the bridge of the flagship at Harwich and watched the self-defiled U-boats slink in and come to a halt at the international code signal MN (Stop instantly!)–“Ha,” said Mr. Green, “Were I such a man, I would pass by like shoddy such pitifuls as colyumists.” But he was a glad man no less, for he knew the captain was bigger of heart. Besides, he counted on the exquisite tact of the doctor to see him through. Indeed, even the stern officials of the customs had marked the doctor as a man exceptional. And as the club stood patiently among the outward flux of authentic Glasgow, came the captain himself and welcomed them aboard.
Across immaculate decks, and in the immortal whiff, indefinable, of a fine ship just off the high seas, trod the beatified club. A ship, the last abiding place in a mannerless world of good old-fashioned caste, and respect paid upward with due etiquette and discipline through the grades of rank. The club, for a moment, were guests of the captain; deference was paid to them. They stood in the captain’s cabin (sacred words). “Boy!” cried the captain, in tones of command. Not as one speaks to office boys in a newspaper kennel, in a voice of entreaty. The boy appeared: a curly-headed, respectful stripling. A look of respect: how well it sits upon youth. “Boy!” said the captain–but just what the captain said is not to be put upon vulgar minutes. Remember, pray, the club was upon British soil.
In the saloon sat the club, and their faces were the faces of men at peace, men harmonious and of delicate cheer. The doctor, a seafaring man, talked the lingo of imperial mariners: he knew the right things to say: he carried along the humble secretary, who gazed in melodious mood upon the jar of pickled onions. At sea Mr. Green is of lurking manners: he holds fast to his bunk lest worse befall; but a ship in port is his empire. Scotch broth was before them–pukka Scotch broth, the doctor called it; and also the captain and the doctor had some East Indian name for the chutney. The secretary resolved to travel and see the world. Curried chicken and rice was the word: and, not to exult too cruelly upon you (O excellent friends!), let us move swiftly over the gooseberry tart. There was the gooseberry tart, and again, a few minutes later, it was not there. All things have their appointed end. “Boy!” said the captain. (Must I remind you, we were on imperial soil.) Is it to be said that the club rose to the captain’s cabin once more, and matters of admirable purport were tastefully discussed, as is the habit of us mariners?
“The drastic sanity of the sea”–it is a phrase from a review of one of the captain’s own books, “Merchantmen-at-Arms,” which this club (so it runs upon the minutes), as lovers of sea literature, officially hope may soon be issued on this side also. It is a phrase, if these minutes are correct, from a review written by H.M. Tomlinson, another writer of the sea, of whom we have spoken before, and may, in God’s providence, again. “The drastic sanity of the sea” was the phrase that lingered in our mind as we heard the captain talk of books and of discipline at sea and of the trials imposed upon shipmasters by the La Follette act. (What, the club wondered inwardly, does Mr. La Follette know of seafaring?) “The drastic sanity of the sea!” We thought of other sailors we had known, and how they had found happiness and simplicity in the ordered combat with their friendly enemy. A virtue goes out of a ship (Joseph Conrad said, in effect) when she touches her quay. Her beauty and purpose are, for the moment, dulled and dimmed. But even there, how much she brings us. How much, even though we do not put it into words, the faces and accents of our seafaring friends give us in the way of plain wisdom and idealism. And the secretary, as he stepped aboard the hubbub of a subway train, was still pondering “the drastic sanity of the sea.”