FOLKESTONE TO BOULOGNE

WE waited for the weather a day and a night at Folkestone, which,
though one of the gateways of England, is a poor and primitive place to
lie in. Most of the time we were on the mud, and to get up into England
we had to climb a craggy precipice called the quay-wall. Nevertheless,
the harbor (so styled) is picturesque, and in the less respectable
part of the town, between the big hotels and band-stands and the
mail-steamers; there are agreeable second-hand book shops, in one of
which I bought an early edition of Gray’s poems bound in ancient vellum.

The newspapers were very pessimistic about the weather, and smacks
occasionally crept in for shelter, with wild reports of what was going
on in the channel. At four o’clock in the morning, however, we started,
adventurous, for the far coasts of Brittany, via Boulogne. The channel
was a gray and desolate sight, weary and uneasy after the gale. And I
also was weary and uneasy, for it is impossible for a civilized person
of regular habits to arise at four a. m. without both physical and
psychical suffering, and the pleasure derived from the experience,
though real, is perverse. The last gleams of the Gris-Nez and the Varne
lights were visible across the heaving waste, feebly illuminating the
intense melancholy of the dawn. There was nothing to do except steer
and keep your eyes open, because a favorable and moderate southwest wind
rendered the engine unnecessary. The ship, and the dinghy after her,
pitched and rolled over the heavy swell. The skipper said naught. I said
naught. The lights expired. The dark gray of the sea turned to steel.
The breeze was icy. Vitality was at its lowest. Brittany seemed
exceedingly remote, even unattainable. Great, vital questions presented
themselves to the enfeebled mind, cutting at the very root of all
conduct and all ambitions. What was the use of yachting? What was the
use of anything? Why struggle? Why exist? The universe was too vast, and
the soul homeless therein.

And then the cook, imperfectly attired, came aft, bearing a brass tray,
and on the tray an electro-teapot, sugar-basin, and milk-jug, and a
white cup and saucer with a spoon. Magic paraphernalia! Exquisite and
potent draft, far surpassing champagne drunk amid the bright glances
of beauty! Only the finest China tea is employed aboard the _Velsa_.
I drank, and was healed; and I gave also to the shipper. Earth was
transformed. We began to talk. The wind freshened. The ship, heeling
over, spurted. It was a grand life. We descried the French coast. The
hours flew. Before breakfast-time we were becalmed, in sunshine, between
the piers at Boulogne, and had to go in on the engine. At 8:15 we ran
her on the mud, on a rising tide, next to a pilot-boat, the _Jean et
Marie_, inhabited by three jolly French sailors. We carried a warp to
the Quai Chanzy, and another to a buoy, and considered ourselves fairly
in France.

[Illustration: 0228]

The officials of the French republic on the quay had been driven by
the spectacle of our peculiar Dutch lines and rig to adopt strange,
emotional attitudes; and as soon as we were afloat, the French republic
came aboard in a dinghy manned by two acolytes. The skipper usually
receives the representatives of foreign powers, but as the skipper
speaks no French, and as this was the first time I had entered France
in this style, I thought I would be my own ambassador. I received the
French republic in my saloon; we were ravishingly polite to each other;
we murmured sweet compliments to each other. He gave me a clean bill of
health, and went off with four francs and one half-penny. There is no
nation like the French. A French milliner will make a hat out of a
piece of felt and nothing; and a French official will make a diplomatic
episode out of nothing at all, putting into five minutes of futility all
the Gallic civilization of centuries.

Boulogne Harbor is a very bustling spot, and as its area is narrowly
limited, and its entrance difficult, the amount of signaling that goes
on is extraordinary. A single ship will fill the entrance; hence a flag
flies to warn the surrounding seas when the entrance is occupied or
about to be occupied. The state of the tide is also indicated, and the
expert can read from hieroglyphics slung in the air the exact depth of
water at a particular moment between the piers. In addition, of course,
there is the weather signaling. We had scarcely been in port a couple
of hours before the weather signaling shocked us; nay, we took it as
an affront to ourselves. The south cone went up. We had come in at the
tail-end of one south gale, and now another was predicted! How could
small people like us hope to work our way down to Brittany in the teeth
of the gale! And I had an appointment in the harbor of Carantec, a tiny
village near Morlaix, in a week’s time! The thing was monstrous. But the
south cone was hoisted, and it remained hoisted. And the cone is
never displayed except for a real gale,–not a yachtsman’s gale, but a
sailor’s gale, which is serious.

A tender went forth to meet a Dutch American liner in the roads. We
followed her along the jetty. At the end of the jetty the gale was
already blowing; and rain-squalls were all round the horizon. Soon we
were in the midst of a squall ourselves. The rain hid everything for a
minute. It cleared. The vast stretch of sands glistened wet, with the
variegated bathing-tents, from which even then beautiful creatures were
bathing in a shallow surf. Beyond was the casino, and all the complex
roofs of Boulogne, and to the north a road climbing up to the cliff-top,
and the illimitable dunes that are a feature of this part of the
country. Above all floated thunder-clouds, white in steely blue. The
skipper did not like those thunder-clouds; he said they were the most
dangerous of all clouds, “because anything might come out of them.” He
spoke as if they already contained in their bosoms every conceivable
sort of weather, which they would let loose according to their caprice.

The rain resumed heavily. The wind compelled us to hold tight to the
rail of the pier. A poster announced that in the casino behind the
rain, Suppé’s “Boccaccio” was to be performed that night, and Massenet’s
“Thaïs” the next night. And opera seemed a very artificial and
unnecessary form of activity as we stood out there in the reality of
the storm. The Atlantic liner had now bid good-by to the tender, and was
hugely moving. She found sea-room, and then turned with the solemnity of
her bigness, and headed straight into the gale, pitching like a toy. The
rain soon veiled her, and she was gone. I could not picture the _Velsa_
in such a situation, at any rate with the owner on board. We went back,
rather pensive, to the Quai Chanzy.

[Illustration: 0234]

The men in the pilot-boat alongside the _Velsa_ were not in the least
reassuring as to the chances of the _Velsa_ ever getting to Brittany;
but they were uplifted because the weather was too rough for them to go
out. When the cone is on view, the pilot-service is accomplished by a
powerful steam-vessel. Our friends, in their apparently happy idleness,
sculled forth in a dinghy about fifty yards from where we lay, and
almost immediately rejoined us with three eels that they had caught.
I bought the three eels for two shillings, and the cook cooked them
perfectly, and I ate one of them with ecstasy a few hours later; but
eels are excessively antipathetic to the digestive organs, and may
jaundice the true bright color of the world for days.

The transaction of the eels, strengthened our intimacy with the pilot’s
crew, who imparted to us many secrets; as, for example, that they were
the selfsame men who act as porters at the quay for the transfer of
luggage when the cross-channel steamers arrive and depart. On one day
they are the pilot’s crew, and on the next they are porters to carry
your handbags through the customs. This was a blow to me, because on
the innumerable occasions when I had employed those porters I had always
regarded them as unfortunate beings who could earn money only during
about an hour each day, victims of the unjust social system, etc., and
who were therefore specially deserving of compassion and tips. I now
divined that their activities were multiple, and no doubt dovetailed
together like a Chinese puzzle, and all reasonably remunerative. The
which was very French and admirable. Herein was a valuable lesson to me,
and a clear saving in future of that precious commodity, compassion.

In a day or two the horrid fact emerged that we were imprisoned in
Boulogne. The south cone did not budge. Neither could we. The tide
ebbed; the tide flowed; we sank softly into the mud; we floated again.
A sailor cut our warp because it was in his way, and therefore incurred
our anger and the comminations of the harbor-master. But we were
not released. An aeroplane meeting was announced, and postponed. We
witnessed the preparations for the ceremonial opening of a grand new
dock. We went to the casino and listened to Russian music, which in
other circumstances would have enchanted us.

But none of these high matters could hold our attention. Even when the
cook criticized our water-colors with faint praise, and stated calmly
that he, too, was a water-colorist, and brought proofs of his genius cut
of the forecastle, even then we were not truly interested. We thirsted
to depart, and could not. Our sole solace was to walk round and round
the basini in the rain-squalls, and observe their tremendous vitality,
which, indeed, never ceased, day or night save at low water, when most
craft were aground.

At such periods of tranquillity the trucks of the fishing-smacks were
nearly level with the quay, and we noticed that every masthead was
elaborately finished with gilded sculpture–a cross, a star, or a small
figure of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or an angel. The names, too, of these
smacks were significant: _Resurrection, Jesus-Marie_, and so on. The
ornamentation of the deck-houses and companions of these vessels showed
a great deal of fantasy and brilliant color, though little taste. And
the general effect was not only gay, but agreeable, demonstrating, as it
did, that the boats were beloved. English fishing-boats are beloved by
their owners, but English affection does not disclose itself in the same
way, if it discloses itself at all. On the third afternoon we assisted
at the departure of an important boat for the herring fisheries. It had
a crew of seventeen men, all dressed in brown, young and old, and
an enormous quantity of gear. It bore the air of a noble cooperative
enterprise, and went off on the tide, disdainfully passing the
still-hoisted cone.

Perhaps it was this event that gave us to think. If a herring-boat could
face the gale, why not we? Our ship was very seaworthy, and the coast
was dotted with sheltering ports. Only it was impossible to go south,
since we could not have made headway. Then why not boldly cancel the
rendezvous in Brittany, and run northward before the gale? The skipper
saluted the idea with enthusiasm. He spoke of Ostend. He said that if
the wind held we could easily run to Ostend in a day. He did not care
for Ostend, but it would be a change. I, however, did care for Ostend.
And so it was decided that, unless the wind went right round in the
night, we would clear out of Boulogne at the earliest tidal hour the
next morning. The joy of expectancy filled the ship, and I went into
the town to buy some of the beautiful meat-pies that are offered in its
shops.