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LETTER FROM INDIA. My dear C
Calcutta Of all the miseries of human life, none, I find, are sooner forgotten than those endured on ship-board. The shore is such a healing balsam, that a four-and-twenty hours' application effaces almost every scratch. Though I may be said to be still dripping with the salt spray, and to have the sound of waters still “ringing in my ears," yet all the crosses and accidents of my voyage are fast fading away; or, if they are in part remembered, it is only to hug myself, and think how much more agreeable is my present situation than tumbling in the Bay of Bengal. Besides, there is the satisfaction of recounting these things. In contemplating the dangers and sufferings that are past, we are apt to give ourselves credit for a certain degree of fortitude which makes the recollection of them very delightful; we forget all the wry faces that were made at the time, and look most valiantly upon the perils that are no more. My days at sea passed away in a sort of reverie. I have most imperfect and indistinct recollections of all that was said, or done, or thought, during that period: there was neither mile-stone nor prospect to mark the way, nor incidents to note the time; and really if I were not positively assured by the concurrent testimony of most respectable witnesses, I am inclined to think I should dispute both. A thought, a single thought you know, “is capable of years;" and vice versa, a long life may be lived in a day. Hence some divines have charitably inferred, in their dark metaphysics, that the dying sinner may be actually suffering the torture of ages in his expiring agony. If ask me for
my adventures on my way hither, I can only say, that I have eaten, drunk, and slept—that Ì have sat for hours and days watching the sea and the clouds, and speculating upon porpoises and flying-fish-"et præterea nihil.” If it were possible to give utterance to the wayward fancies that have occupied my attention " thick as the motes that people the sun's beam,” they would sound more like the day-dreams of a feverstricken man than the cogitations of a rational being. Upon turning over the leaves of my journal, (a morocco-bound book of considerable thickness, bought in England expressly for the purpose of noting down strange incidents and useful observations,) í find only one note in these few words: “Crossed the line, Nov. —.” As an exception, however, to the general monotony of this voyage, I have some reason to remember one or two events, the first of which took place at Madeira about twelve days after leaving the Land's End.
It was late in the evening when we made that island; and orders were given for the ship to stand off and on during the night, in order that we might land early on the ensuing morning: Unhappily, these orders were injudiciously obeyed; the wind failed during the night, and at daybreak we found ourselves becalmed within five miles of shore. It was Sunday; the convent bells tolling for mass were distinctly heard, but we waited in vain for a breeze, till at two o'clock our patience being exhausted, the jolly-boat was hoisted out and we crowded into her to the number of sixteen, including the captain and four boys at the oar. Every body who has been at Madeira must recollect the Lew rock, a high craggy point which is
severed from the main land, and is used as a signal-fort; upon reaching which we were met by the custom-house boat with an of. ficer on board, who demanded our “ Bill of Health.” With this we were unfortunately not provided, and in consequence were ordered to remain in our boat close under the Lew rock till our case could be represented on shore, and permission sent off for us to land. Here we staid for some hours in a most disagreeable state of suspense. In the mean time the day was wearing fast away, and no answer arrived. The sky became overcast with clouds that swept across the face of the heavens—the air grew chilly—the wind rose, and instead of the smooth glittering surface over which we had glided in the morning, the sea was broken up into billows that began to show their curling heads. The captain grew impatient to rejoin his ship, having made no arrangements for passing the night on shore; and after venting his discontent in a volley of oaths and grumbling, he gave the order to “shove off.” As we were doing this the sentry from the top of the rock, whose form was half hid in the approaching darkness, was observed waving his hand with violence, and bending his body in the act of calling to us; but his signs were not understood; his voice was drowned in the wind and the roaring of the sea. As I gazed upon this man, a chilling and foreboding anxiety came over me, and his unintelligible sounds fell upon my ear like the mysterious warning voice of the Prophet. His meaning was too soon apparent. From his lofty position he could see the approaching storm, which was hid from us. We had scarcely cleared the rock when we found ourselves in a tumbling sea that was rising every moment with the wind, and soon became formidable to our small and crowded boat. The sun was just sinking amidst a thick bank of clouds (and you will recollect there is no twilight in this latitude) the tops of the hills and back part of the island, which had been shut out from our view while under the lee of the land, now showed themselves covered with clouds, and every thing gave token that the squall would increase into a violent gale. We were at once aware of our danger:-we had no sail—the boys were exhausted with their exertions during the heat of the day, and in such a sea we could not relieve them. We would gladly have put back; but it was impossible. The wind and waves drove us rapidly from the shore. Our ship was tacking about in the distance, halř her mast just visible above water ;-if we missed her-beyond was the ocean -night and storm. We were most of us landsmen; but we should not have felt so much alarm had our captain betrayed less symptoms of apprehension. I sat near him, and could see his counte. nance change as he looked from the sea to the sky. His boisterous uverbearing accent of command sunk into a tone of familiar entreaty, as he encouraged the boys at the oar; and told plainly of the fearful equality to which danger levels all distinctions. His face grew very pale, and he exclaimed—“I would give one hundred guineas, gentlemen, if we were safe at yonder ship!” This was not comforting. In the mean time the sea was every moment rising, and looked tremendous—every wave covered us with spray; but we contrived to break its violence by fastening an oar astern, an expedient commonly resorted to in such cases; and two of our party were sent forward to trim the boat-one of these was my brother, and, as I saw his youthful and delicate form tossed to and fro amid the boisterous element, I could not help thinking for a moment what would have been the sensations of his mother, had she beheld him in such a situation. As it grew darker, we fastened a white pockethandkerchief to the end of the boat-hook, in the hopes of attracting the attention of the ship; and when this miserable scanty flag was suspended aloft, and was scattered in the wind and spray, it looked indeed like a "forlorn hope.” At first we imagined that this expedient had been successful, for the ship seemed bearing down upon us, and we were flushed with expectation. But in a few minutes she tacked, and all possibility of reaching her seemed at an end. If I live to be an old man, I shall never forget the sensations of that moment-it were ridiculous to attempt a description in words; but I am sure it is a terrible thing to meet death with open eyes and the full possession of all one's faculties. Still we did not utterly despair—there was yet a little light left: the ship might possibly change her course; but fear seemed to have paralized our efforts—the oars were almost useless-we made no way, and for many minutes there was no rational expectation of saving our lives. Of what occurred during this horrible interval, I have a very indistinct recollection.I remember, however, being struck with the various forms in which fear displayed itself—some were silent, some talkative, some prayed, some laughed. One young man lamented bitterly his disappointment in not having tasted the Malmsey Madeira, and the grapes he had promised himself; and another, a young officer, seated at my right, was eternally occupied in letting fall and picking up his sword and sash, which his fingers seemed incapable of detaining in their grasp. My own arm was perfectly black, the next morning, from the violence with which it was seized by my companion on the left. These and other such things were hardly noticed at the time, but were recollected upon afterwards comparing notes.
We were roused from a sort of stupor by a sudden squall and shift of wind, accompanied with heavy rain, which obliged our ship to go upon another tack. We emerged from our despair to the wildest exultation; for a few minutes brought us so near to each other that our cries were heard, though it was then too dark to see us till we were close alongside. In a word, we exchanged our frail vessel for an ark of comparative safety: our drenched clothes were put off, and the fried bacon and mutton-chops that were eaten that night (though no very savoury dainties in their way), and the punch that was drunk (which really was very choice), will, I make no doubt, be remembered by all who composed the party to their dying day.-I recollect reading when a schoolboy, in Campbell's Overland Journey to India, an account of a shipwreck, and being much struck with a passage in which he relates, that as the ship was near going down, he saw a little black boy seated on the роор, crying most bitterly, and at the same time voraciously devouring some mangoes that were in a basket beside him. This always appeared to me a most unaccountable story; but I can now perfectly comprehend it. So much for the dangers of the sea; but allow me to add, that it is worth while being a little initiated into these mysteries, if it be only to enjoy Falconer's Poem, which cannot be truly relished but upon the high seas, and may therefore be called a
Water-piece with as much propriety as the compositions of Handel bearing that name.
We were becalmed four weeks in the latitude of two degrees south of the Line. We were scorched under a tropical sun, till
we were become irritable and alive to every foolish impression. Our stock and water were rapidly decreasing. We had been an unusual time without a breath of wind, and the sailors had begun to throw out their superstitious hints that some ill luck was hanging over us: we became infected with their folly. We quarrelled with our captain for not having a steam-engine on board. We did a thousand absurd things, and really began to think we never should stir again, when one morning at daybreak I was awakened from a deep sleep by the noise of men trampling above my head. I thought I could distinguish the cheering voices of the sailors, as if they were bracing the yards, and that hissing sound which a ship makes in going through the water. Was it a dream? No. I started up in ecstasy, and running upon deck, found many of our compagnons de voyage in the same picturesque dress as myself, to wit, en chemise, gazing in stupid astonishment at the sails that were actually filled and bellying with the wind. The glazed surface of the ocean—that dreadful sameness which made the very eye-balls ache to look on it, was gone, and with it went our looks of gloomy despondency. We were really sailing five knots before the wind. There was a tone of bustle and animation from captain to cabin-boy. It was a fresh departure; and from that hour to the time of our landing in India, I do not know that we had half a dozen calm days to complain of. If you ever go to sea, pray to be delivered from a long calm—a gale of wind is nothing to it. Human beings are the worst of all luggage to carry when stowed closely together. If they have nothing wherewith to kill time, they immediately begin to think of killing each other; thanks to the devil, who, to spare us a world of ennui, always occupies a man whom he finds idle. Luckily for us, we had no duelling pistols on board; but there was frequent "note of preparation” heard, and sundry arrangements were made for future bloody combats, which, like the silly petitions addressed to Jupiter, were all dissipated by the wind.
I made some experiments on books which may be interesting to you. It is related in some Life of Fox, that when he was travelling by the Treckshuyte, through the uninteresting flats of Holland, he chose that opportunity for reading aloud every day a portion of Tom Jones; the eternal bustle, life, and variety of which composition was rendered ten times more striking and enjoyable when contrasted with the monotony of such a stirless tour. However, one morning a sail was proclaimed, and all eyes and glasses were put in requisition. Some said it was a cloud-some a sun-beam--some a water-spout; and if old Polonius had been there he might with perfect safety have said it was “a mountain or an elephant.” Long before we could satisfy ourselves upon these points, the sailors had made out her royals, and coursers, and flying jib, &c.; and in a word, a ship it most certainly was. Then we looked at the strange sight with as much agitation as Robinson Crusoe at the print of a footstep in the sand. It might be a pirate :-we had ten guns and plenty of fools to fight, but no ammunition. Whatever she might be “ were her intent wicked or charitable?”-all was uncertainty. There was scarcely any wind, but we gradually neared each other, and at eight o'clock at night (it was a beautiful moonlight night) the stranger had dropped close astern. We waited in breathless expectation. Presently a loud voice sounded along the water, demanding our name, &c. and was immediately answered by our captain. There was something awful in the inanner in which these stately preliminaries were tourished forth in the silent night. It was much above the tone and key of an ordinary address, and well suited to the element and the occasion. I could fancy Neptune trumpeting his orders to the winds in some such fashion.
“ Maturate fugam, regique hæc dicite vestro,
Sed mihi sorte datum Surely one would suppose that a man on going to sea might pack up his hospitality, together with sundry other virtues, and reckon upon no inconvenience for the want of them; but here, at one thousand miles from land, were strangers waiting for an invitation for supper. And supper they had, for she was a Liverpool vessel bound to Madras; and for two days, while the weather continued moderate, we continued interchanging visits with mutual satisfaction.
Before we bid good-bye to the sea, I have one more remark to make: a long voyage is an excellent preparative towards an accurate examination of men, manners, customs, and things. You are so long and so thoroughly abstracted from the business of life, that you come fresh to the task with all old prejudices and points of comparison fading away. You are half way towards the happy condition recommended by Des Cartes, who declares that (if you would attain true wisdom) you must begin by rubbing out all former opinions and principles; and when your brain is a perfect tabula rasa, then philosophy may begin to indite good sound matter thereon.
I shall not trouble you with the delights of landing after a voyage; I might as well talk to you of the delights of eating green cabbage, after having lived six weeks' upon farinaceous matter, when I promise you, you would be more in danger of gluttony than at any venison-feast. My first evening at Calcutta was a sort of fairy-like existence. Transported from a crowded cabin, white faces, and a noisy element, to a spacious and palace-like building (the house of Mrs. — -) with a host of black attendants, and all the magnificence of the gorgeous East, I was for a time fairly bewildered. I envy a Russian his faculties, who can walk from a hot bath to a cold bath and then back again, and perhaps do a hundred other absurdities with equal facility. For my part, I sat after a late and sumptuous dinner, gazing first at the brilliant assemblage of Europeans, my own dear beautiful countrywomen, and then at the tall black forms that flanked this white assemblage, with their turbans, and eyes that flashed light at every moment
“ Each giving each a double charm,