TO BELGIUM

AT 6 a. M. we, too, were passing disdainfully the still-hoisted cone.
Rain descended in sheets, in blankets, and in curtains, and when we
did not happen to be in the rain, we could see rain-squalls of the most
theatrical appearance in every quarter of the horizon. The gale had
somewhat moderated, but not the sea; the wind, behind us, was against
the tide, and considerably quarreling therewith. Now we were inclosed in
walls of water, and now we were balanced on the summit of a mountain of
water, and had a momentary view of many leagues of tempest. I
personally had never been out in such weather in anything smaller than a
mail-steamer.

Here I must deal with a distressing subject, which it would be
pleasanter to ignore, but which my training in realism will not allow
me to ignore. A certain shameful crime is often committed on yachts,
merchantmen, and even men-of-war. It is notorious that Nelson committed
this crime again and again, and that other admirals have copied his
iniquity. Sailors, and particularly amateur sailors, would sooner be
accused of any wickedness rather than this. Charge them with cheating at
cards, ruining innocent women, defrauding the Government, and they will
not blench; but charge them with this offense, and they will blush, they
will recriminate, and they will lie disgracefully against all evidence;
they cannot sit still under the mere suspicion of it.

As we slipped out of the harbor that morning the secret preoccupation
of the owner and his friend was that circumstances might tempt them to
perpetrate the sin of sins. Well, I am able to say that they withstood
the awful temptation; but only just! If out of bravado they had
attempted to eat their meals in the saloon, the crime would assuredly
have been committed, but they had the sense to order the meals to be
served in the cockpit, in the rain, in the blast, in the cold. No matter
the conditions! They were saved from turpitude, and they ate heartily
thrice during the day. And possibly nobody was more astonished than
themselves at their success in virtue. I have known a yachtsman, an
expert, a member of an exceedingly crack club, suddenly shift his course
shoreward in circumstances not devoid of danger.

“What are you about?” was the affrighted question. He replied:

“I’m going to beach her. If I don’t, I shall be sick, and I won’t be
sick aboard this yacht.”

Such is the astounding influence of convention, which has transformed
into a crime a misfortune over which the victim has no control whatever.
We did not beach the _Velsa_, nor were our appetites impaired. We were
lucky, and merely lucky; and yet we felt as proud as though we had,
by our own skill and fortitude, done something to be proud of. This is
human nature.

As we rounded Cape Gris-Nez, amid one of the most majestic natural
scenes I have ever witnessed, not a gale, but about half of a gale, was
blowing. The wind continued to moderate. Off Calais the tide was slack,
and between Calais and Dunkirk we had it under our feet, and were able
to dispense with the engine and still do six and a half knots an hour.
Thenceforward the weather grew calm with extraordinary rapidity, while
the barometer continuously fell. At four o’clock the wind had entirely
expired, and we restarted the engine, and crawled past Westend and
Nieuport, resorts very ugly in themselves, but seemingly beautiful from
the sea. By the time we sighted the whiteness of the kursaal at Ostend
the water was as flat as an Inland lake.

[Illustration: 0246]

The sea took on the most delicate purple tints, and the pallor of the
architecture of Belgian hotels became ethereal. While we were yet a mile
and a half from the harbor-mouth, flies with stings wandered out from
the city to meet us.

We passed between the pierheads at Ostend at 6:10 p. m., and the skipper
was free to speak again. When he had done manouvering in the basin, he
leaned over the engine-hatch and said to me:

“I ‘ve had a bit o’ luck this week.”

“With the engine?” I suggested, for the engine had been behaving itself
lately.

“No, sir. My wife presented me with a little boy last Tuesday. I had the
letter last night. I’ve been expecting it.” But he had said nothing to
me before. He blushed, adding, “I should like you to do me a very great
favor, sir–give me two days off soon, so that I can go to the baptism.”
Strange, somehow, that a man should have to ask a favor to be present
at the baptism of his own son! The skipper now has two sons. Both, I was
immediately given to understand, are destined for the sea. He has six
brothers-in-law, and they all follow the sea. On a voyage he will never
willingly leave the wheel, even if he is not steering. He will rush down
to the forecastle for his dinner, swallow it in two minutes and a half,
and rush back. I said to him once:

“I believe you must be fond of this wheel.”

“I am, sir,” he said, and grinned.

We lay nearly opposite the railway station, and our rudder was within
a foot of the street. Next to us lay the _Velsa’s_ sister (occasion for
the historic remark that “the world is very small”), a yacht well known
to the skipper, of exactly the same lines as the _Velsa_, nearly the
same size, and built within four miles of her in the same year! The
next morning, which was a Sunday, the sisters were equally drenched in
tremendous downpours of rain, but made no complaint to each other. I
had the awning rigged, which enabled us, at any rate, to keep the saloon
skylights open.

The rain had no effect on the traditional noisiness of Ostend. Like
sundry other cities, Ostend has two individualities, two souls. All
that fronts the sea and claims kinship with the kursaal is grandiose,
cosmopolitan, insincere, taciturn, blatant, and sterile. It calls
itself the finest sea-promenade in Europe, and it may he, but it is
as factitious as a meringue. All that faces the docks and canals is
Belgian, more than Belgian–Flemish, picturesque, irregular, strident,
simple, unaffected, and swarming with children. Narrow streets are
full of little cafés that are full of little men and fat women. All the
little streets are cobbled, and everything in them produces the maximum
quantity of sound. Even the postmen carry horns, and all the dogs
drawing little carts hark loudly. Add to this the din of the tram-cars
and the whistling of railway engines.

On this Sunday morning there was a band festival of some kind, upon
which the pitiless rain had no effect whatever. Band after band swung
past our rudder, blaring its uttermost. We had some marketing to do, as
the cook declared that he could market neither in French nor Flemish,
and we waited impatiently under umbrellas for the procession of bands
to finish. It would not finish, and we therefore had to join it. All the
way up the Rue de la Chapelle we could not hear ourselves speak in the
brazen uproar; and all the brass instruments and all the dark uniforms
of the puffy instrumentalists were glittering and melting in the rain.
Occasionally at the end of the street, over the sea, lightning feebly
flickered against a dark cloud. At last I could turn off into a
butcher’s shop, where under the eyes of a score of shopping matrons I
purchased a lovely piece of beef for the nominal price of three francs
seventy-five centimes, and bore it off with pride into the rain.

When we got back to the yacht with well-baptized beef and vegetal
des and tarts, we met the deck-hand, who was going alone into the
interesting and romantic city. Asked what he was about, he replied:

“I’m going to buy a curio, sir; that’s all.” He knew the city. He had
been to Ostend before in a cargo-steamer, and he considered it neither
interesting nor romantic. He pointed over the canal toward the
country. “There’s a pretty walk over there,” he said; “but there’s
nothing here,” pointing to the town. I had been coming to Ostend for
twenty years, and enjoying it like a child, but the deck-hand, with one
soft-voiced sentence, took it off the map.

In the afternoon, winding about among the soaked cosmopolitanism of
the promenade, I was ready to agree with him. Nothing will destroy
fashionable affectations more surely than a wet Sunday, and the
promenade seemed to rank first in the forlorn tragedies of the world.
I returned yet again to the yacht, and was met by the skipper with a
disturbed face.

“We can’t get any fresh water, sir. Horse is n’t allowed to work on
Sundays. _Everything’s changed in Belgium._” The skipper was too Dutch
to be fond of Flanders. His mightiest passion was rising in him–the
passion to go somewhere else.

“All right,” I said; “we ‘ll manage with mineral water, and then we ‘ll
move on to Bruges.” In rain it is, after all, better to be moving than
to be standing still.

But to leave Ostend was not easy, because the railway bridge would not
swing for us, nor would it yield, for over an hour, to the song of our
siren. Further, the bridge-man deeply insulted the skipper. He said that
he was not supposed to swing for _canal-boats_.

“Canal-boat!” the skipper cried. “By what canal do you think I brought
this ship across the North Sea?” He was coldly sarcastic, and his
sarcasm forced the bridge open. We passed through, set our sails, and
were presently heeling over and washing a wave of water up the banks of
the canal. I steered, and, as we overtook an enormous barge, I shaved
it as close as I could for the fun of the thing. Whereupon the skipper
became excited, and said that for a yacht to touch a barge was fatal,
because the barges were no stronger than cigar-boxes, having sides
only an inch thick, and would crumble at a touch; and the whole
barge-population of Belgium and Holland, but especially Belgium, was in
a conspiracy to extract damages out of yachts on the slightest pretext.
It seemed to me that the skipper’s alarm was exaggerated. I understood
it a few days later, when he related to me that he had once quite
innocently assisted at the cracking of a cigar-box, for which his
employer had had to pay five thousand francs.

[Illustration: 0251]

The barge which I had failed to sink had two insignificant square-sails
set, like pocket-handkerchiefs, but was depending for most of its motion
on a family of children who were harnessed to its tow-rope in good
order.

Now the barometer began to fall still lower, and simultaneously the
weather improved and brightened. It was a strange summer, was that
summer! The wind fell, the lee-board ceased to hum pleasantly through
the water, and we had to start the engine, which is much less amusing
than the sails. And the towers of Bruges would not appear on the horizon
of the monotonous tree-lined canal, upon whose banks every little
village resembles every other little village. We had to invent something
to pass the time, and we were unwise enough to measure the speed of
the engine on this smooth water in this unusual calm. A speed trial
is nearly always an error of tact, for the reason that it shatters
beautiful illusions. I had the beautiful illusion that under favorable
conditions the engine would drive the yacht at the rate of twelve
kilometers an hour. The canal-bank had small posts at every hundred
meters and large posts at every thousand. The first test gave seven and
a half kilometers an hour. It was unthinkable. The distances must be
wrong. My excellent watch must have become capricious. The next test
gave eight kilometers. The skipper administered a tonic to the engine,
and we rose to nine, only to fall again to eight. Allowing even that the
dinghy took a kilometer an hour off the speed, the result of the test
was very humiliating. We crawled. We scarcely moved.

Then, feeling the need of exercise, I said I would go ashore and walk
along the bank against the yacht until we could see Bruges. I swore it,
and I kept the oath, not with exactitude, but to a few hundred meters;
and by the time my bloodshot eyes sighted the memorable belfry of Bruges
in the distance, I had decided that the engine was perhaps a better
engine than I had fancied. I returned on board, and had to seek my berth
in a collapse. Nevertheless the _Velsa_ had been a most pleasing object
as seen from the bank.

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