FOUR MONTHS IN A SNEAK BOX

Nathaniel Bishop (1837-1902)

A “Sneak Box” is the colloquial term for a Barnegat duck-boat, commonly built by craftsmen on the New Jersey coast.  It has a flat bottom, with a six-inch draft, and a domed deck with several hatches that allow it to be closed up, creating a sort of a coffin for those boaters who dislike mosquitoes.  Bishop had one made for him for $75.00, including sleeping bag, cooking apparatus, and personal gear.

Bishop was a seasoned traveller and adventurer, having walked across South America from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso at the age of 17.  He began that trip with $45.00 and finished with $50.00, indicating the nature of his New England parsimony.

At any rate, he began this trip on December 2, 1875, at Pittsburg, the confluence of the Monongehela and Allegheny rivers.  His intention was to row down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans and thence along the Gulf Coast to the Suwanee river about half-way down Florida.  When he first set out, there was lots of ice on the river, and he had to pursue a circuitous route to avoid holing his relatively thin-hulled craft.  Initially, he had to stay awake for 36 hours, as he was just ahead of gigantic ice dam that stretched from bank to bank and that was floating along behind him, threatening to crush him and the “Centennial Republic”(the name of his boat) to a pulp.  After about a hundred miles, the ice broke up a bit and his major complaint became smog.  Below Pittsburg lay a country economically dependent on the coal industry, mining and burning it for money and heat.  The fallout was so bad that after a night sleeping in his “coffin”, there was an eighth inch of coal dust on the top of the boat.  Passing Wheeling, he noted that the water was coated with oil;  that, combined with the fires, smoke, and noise from the mills, made the area  resemble a kind of Hades, especially at night.  Later, Bishop commented on the shanty rafts that he frequently met and occasionally visited.  These were pieced together affairs of timber remnants and scrap lumber that held one or more families or groups, and were voyaging down to New Orleans.  The residents hunted along the shores for deer, pigs, and birds, and traded for corn, bread and other necessities with the settlers and farmers along the way.  Some of the travelers were more interested in cards and whiskey than anything else. Some were more ambitious, offering goods and services to each other and the riverside populations..  Bishop talked to one boat that was a sewing machine repair station, and trades from carpentry to shoemaker were proffered by enterprising shantyboat sailors.  He saw one raft that had been made into a photographic gallery.

Approaching Cincinnati, he saw the first suspension bridge on the river , connecting Kentucky with Ohio.  While sleeping in a slough one night, the Box became frozen into the ice and Nathaniel was fortunate enough to find hospitality with a local German farmer for a few days.  They charged him 25 cents per meal and nothing for bed.  The temperature got down to 7 degrees below zero.  Worried about the possibility of thieves, he managed, with local assistance, to free his boat and slide it into the river.  Avoiding  lots of “bob sawyers”(sunken trees whose branches could perforate ship hulls), Nathaniel soon arrived at Big Bone Lick Creek, the site of a very large collection of Pleistocene fossils:  mammoths, mastodons and smaller fauna.  Approaching Cairo, the convergence of the Mississippi and the Ohio, steamboats became numerous:  the first one to ascend this far was the “New Orleans” in 1811.  Passengers were generally quite riotous, and Nathaniel became adept at dodging thrown whiskey bottles and other disposable trash.

Bishop described the meandering Mississippi’s geographical characteristics briefly: the oxbow lakes, and the 1150 miles of sediment composing the river bed and the sandstone cliffs along the banks.  He noted some of the still observable results of the New Madrid earthquakes that had changed the river’s course and fractured many of the local sedimentary formations in 1811-1813.  He also stated, quite vehemently, that the Missouri was the longest river in the world.  Camping at Reed Lake, Carolina Parakeets were much in evidence:  green bodies, yellow heads with red cheeks and forehead, and white bills and eyes.  These birds were extremely gregarious, nesting together in holes and feeding as a flock, and thereby presenting an easy target for hunters with shotguns.  They were declared extinct in 1939.

One night Nathaniel had a dream:  he was talking to Jules Verne who told him about a second moon circling the earth that was 4650 miles distant and orbited the planet in 3 hours and 20 minutes.  The dream stayed with him and turned into a city in the sky, which he observed for several minutes, wondering how it got there, until he realized that he was looking at the city of Vicksburg.  He blamed the mirage on the fog.

Arriving in New Orleans, he was confused about which watercourse to take and finally ended up on the Atchafalaya, the main passageway to the city.  Here he stayed for several days at the local yacht club.  During this time he experienced altercations with local drunk residents who wanted to abuse him because they suspected him of being a government spy.  He was rescued by the yacht club members, but not without a more or less major physical confrontation.  As a result of this event, he agreed to continue his journey in company, with a local boat person whom he called “Saddles”.  Together, with Saddles in a double-ended canoe, the pair paddled and rowed into the Gulf of Mexico and turned eastward.

Their progress was a more or less a hit or miss excursion:  they travelled for the most part behind a series of off-shore islands that decorate the coast all along the way to Florida.  They had to portage some of the time, and occasionally  ran into dead-ends and had to retrace their steps.  Interesting locals they met included light-house keepers, farmers, hermits, hunters, periodic murderers (living outside the law) and even a naturalist compiling a list of indigenous birds.  When they reached Florida, Saddles became sick with swamp fever.  The lack of his medicine (whiskey) threatened to permanently incapacitate him, so Bishop had to continue on alone.  Eventually he arrived at the Suwanee river, at the same location that he had arrived at when engaged in a trip he had taken a year before, in a paper canoe from Quebec.  But that’s another story.

I liked this book quite a bit, in spite of, or maybe because of the erroneous data provided, and because of the grit and determination Bishop displayed in overcoming and dealing with hostile drunks, environmental hazards, and harsh climatic challenges; his  descriptions and opinions of the local cultures he encountered were lucid and periodically acerbic.  His views of history and geography and his opinions on the educational and political practices of the time were enlightening and sometimes amusing.  The prose was easy to follow and I plan on tackling his other two books….  sometime….

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AN ANARCTIC MYSTERY

Jules Verne (1828-1905)

Mr. Jeorling, having been on a three year tour of global attractions, has arrived at the Green Cormorant inn, located in the Kerguelen islands southeast of the Cape of Good Hope.  He’s interested in continuing his travels and queries the innkeeper about the best way to get to the Falkland islands.  The schooner “Halbrane” has been embayed for several days, and Jeorling learns that the Falklands are its next destination.  So he attempts to interview Captain Len Guy when he sees him in the bar-room about traveling with him.  The Captain turns him down rather abruptly, giving the impression of a man preoccupied to the point of distraction.  Determined to board the ship, Jeorling next consults the boatswain, a friendly, gossiping sort of sailor who reassures him that it is entirely possible for him to obtain passage aboard the Haldane.  And so it transpires:  Hurliguerly (the bos’n) does indeed persuade the captain to accept Jeorling as supercargo.

En route to Prince Edward island, one of several islands visited on the way to the Falklands, the captain opens up to his passenger and tells him the story of his brother William’s disappearance on an expedition to Antarctica.  Eleven years ago, William had found a message in a bottle on Kerguelen island from Arthur Gordon Pym, detailing his intention to discover the South Pole.  Becoming interested in Pym’s journey, William found out some more about him by reading an account published by Edgar Allen Poe, which described in some detail the events recorded in Pym’s journal.  William traveled to Vandalia, Illinois and discovered that Pym, together with his friend Dirk Peters, had been captivated by the urge to go to sea;  the two left town precipitously and stowed away on a ship sailing south.  After many adventures, the journal recounted the discovery of Tsalal island, south of the 80th parallel, and how the ship had been destroyed and the crew slain by the perfidious natives.  But Arthur and Dirk had escaped and the end of the journal described them in a small boat, being carried by the current toward the pole in a thick white mist.  The last sentence talked of a giant figure looming above them, shimmering in the fog.

William had been so entranced by Pym’s tale, that he determined to voyage to the south to rescue him or to find out what happened to the pair.  So he and his crew in the ship “Jane”, stocked up on provisions in the Falklands and ventured south.  And no information had ever arisen, in the ensuing eleven years, as to the fate or resolution of the voyage of the Jane.

Len Guy had also become curious, principally about his brother’s fate, and has determined on following the Jane to investigate Tsalal island and to find his brother.  Mr. Jeorling can hardly credit all of this, but he agrees to go along and even pay for part of the trip.  So the Halbrane, after provisioning at the Falklands, carries on south, in pursuit of the lost expeditions.  They reach Tsalal island after many dangers and perilous experiences, only to discover that instead of the trees and vegetation described in Pym’s journal, there was nothing there but vast acres of black, basaltic ash and lava, with not a sign of life anywhere.  Verne, explaining the reason for the desolation, has Jeorling surmise that violent earthquakes have destroyed the island.  The crew is becoming restive, because the antarctic summer is drawing to a close and they are afraid of being trapped in the ice.  But Mr. Jeorling offers them money and they all agree to continue on. They find themselves sailing across a gulf or bay, obstructed with lots of icebergs, and being carried along by a southward current.  A heavy mist sets in, and the travelers postulate that they’re traveling through a channel of some sort;  one night there is gigantic crash, and all the crew and officers are thrown out of their bunks and the ship has assumed a steep angle of some sixty degrees.  They dash outside to find out that while sailing by a berg, it has become topheavy and rotated 180 degrees, catching the Halbrane in a crevasse and stranding it several hundred feet in the air.  Being inventive and capable, the crew sets about the task of righting the ship and digging a trough so as to effect the sliding of the vessel down the ice into the sea.  They are about ready to do so, when, again during the night, there’s another huge crash and jumping up, they realize that one side of the trench in which the ship had been clutched had given way and allowed the Halbrane to fall into the ocean.

As one might expect, mutiny was the next incident.  Part of the crew steals the largest boat and makes off with a large part of the provisions, leaving the rest with a minimal amount of food and a smaller boat.  The malcontents are headed north, hoping to escape the ice before winter, but the captain, Jeorling and a few more continue south in the smaller boat.  Soon they are caught in a swift current that carries them through a channel, apparently penetrating a large island or continent, until by creative use of their navigational tools, they perceive that they have passed through the Pole area and are headed back north.  After many arduous days, fishing and starving, they discover another island, and…

The saga continues, but in aid of evading spoilers, i’ll only add that the wayfarers eventually discover the amazing fate of Arthur Gordon Pym, and find themselves sailing in a sinking boat in the vast, storm-ridden southern ocean.  Whether Captain Guy found his brother, and what was the final fate of the former adventurers, remains to be revealed…  to the inquisitive reader.

This was one of Verne’s more complicated and imaginative adventures, i thought.  The idea of adapting Poe’s tale  and adding on to it was pretty ingenious, imo…  and in spite of the geological and geographical errata, it captured my interest and made for an entertaining reading experience.  After all, Verne used the scientific knowledge of the time quite appropriately, and in spite of a few egregious extrapolations, especially at the end, it all made for a riveting exposition.

AUSTIN ELLIOT

Henry Kingsley (1830-1876)

After graduating from Oxford in 1789, James Elliot and his friend, George Hilton, travel to France and narrowly avoid Madame Le Guillotine.  Returning to England, George enters business, becomes wealthy, and fathers Eleanor and Robert.  Elliot is appointed to the position of Inspector of Shoals and Quicksands and is responsible for the upkeep and repair of the entrances to British ports and rivers.  Also for the collecting of taxes and fines for those vessels that violate some of the obscure laws relating to navigational hazards.  His son is Austin.   James, being crazy about politics, raises him to become a professional politician.  Accompanying the Elliots on a tour of inspection, the Pelican (the official Shoals and Quicksands inspection boat) runs aground while inspecting a buoy and Lord Cecil (one of the seven Lords on board) is precipitated into the scuppers, from which undignified position Austin helps him out.  Appreciative, the Lord invites Elliot to visit him in his castle at Caernarvon.  In transit, Elliot meets a charming lass who he later discovers is Cecil’s daughter and he falls for her, unaware that she and Lord Mewstone, a powerful neighbor of the Cecils, are promised to each other and mutually in love.  Austin has temporarily forgotten that his true sweetheart is Eleanor Hilton, whom he has known since childhood.

The blackguard Captain Hertford is also present and has designs on Fanny (Lord Cecil’s daughter), principally because he loves money and is a habitual gambler.  One of Fanny’s dear friends is Eleanor.  Eleanor is the only inheritor of 9000 lbs. a year, as her father has recently died. Her brother, Robert, is rumored to have committed suicide as a result of being ousted from the army because he stole everything he could get his hands on.

Hertford, stymied over his plans to marry Fanny, sets his sights on Eleanor and finds a complicitress in aunt Maria, the sister of the deceased George, and Eleanor’s governess.  The Captain plans on shooting Austin in a duel so he can marry Maria and have access to Eleanor’s money.  But Austin’s boyhood friend, Charles Barty, is alert to Hertford’s evil plan and communicates his negative opinions of the Captain to his friends, thus ensuring that Hertford will be forced to fight with him instead of Austin.  Austin doesn’t learn about this until it’s too late, and Charles is slain by the evil Captain.

Accused of participating in the illegal duel, Austin is arrested and jailed for a year, thus destroying his position in society and alienating his friends because of his supposedly non-honorable conduct.

Austin pays bail and is free for three weeks.  He follows Hertford to Germany, where the latter has fled in escaping from the law, and finally tracks him down at Ems.  They have another duel and the Captain misses his target due to being drunk.  Austin fires into the air, thereby restoring his honor in his own mind, but not in the general estimation of the London upper-classes.

During one of his tours with his father, Austin had visited the Scottish island of Ronaldsay and became familiar with the inhabitants, one of whom, Gil Macdonald, follows him to London after Austin is jailed.  Gil is his only visitor during Austin’s durance vile, and helps to see him through his dire experiences.  There is a riot in the prison and Austin saves the life of the warden with the help of an inmate named Goatley.  The two are freed in recognition of their bravery.

During his incarceration, Austin wrote to Eleanor but never received an answer and she never visited him, so he thinks that she has married Hertford.  How the two are reconciled and how their plans on emigrating to Canada with Gil are thwarted, and the role played by Goatley, occupy the final section of the book.  No spoilers on this one.  Well, just a little one:  1848 saw one of the periodic failures of the potato crop in Ireland and on some of the islands;  what happens to the Ronaldsayites and how Austin and friends are involved constitute the resolution of the novel.

Henry was the brother of Charles, a well-known author of “Westward Ho”. “The Water-Babies”, “Hypatia”, “Alton Locke”, and many other books.  Henry himself wrote about eighteen works, the most famous being “Ravenshoe”, with “Geoffrey Hamblyn” running a close second.  This latter novel is an exciting story based on Henry’s adventures in the Australian bush.  Other members of the Kingsley clan were writers, also:  Mary, Charlotte, and George.  Charlotte was a botanist and George wrote about his travels.  Mary wrote novels.  Unfortunately none of these works are readily available, unless egregious amounts of money are expended.

I liked this book pretty well, as i have most of the books i’ve read by Henry and Charles.  This one did have an irritating basis which i found rather silly:  none of the events that happened to Austin would have had any importance if the upper classes weren’t so imbued with “honor” as the ultimate mark or possession of the upright gentleman.  Austin’s behavior after the first duel, in deeming himself to have been projected beyond the pale, was directly related to how he felt his peers would judge him.  It’s pretty inconceivable that a person in the present day would have the same reaction that Austin did.  But that’s just one of the differences between today and yesterday.  Henry’s writing style is sort of hit or miss.  Sometimes it’s like he was telling the reader what he was thinking about writing instead of just writing about the next event.  But in a way it was nice, too;  it lent a kind of intimacy to the reader/writer relationship that is not very common:  sort of like reading a letter from an old friend.  I think that’s why i’ve kept reading Henry’s books and liked them overall…

ANTIC HAY

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)

Theodore Gumbril is tired of being a teacher in the English public school by which he’s employed.  Sitting in the cathedral, listening to the Headmaster drone on, he’s only conscious of the hard bench he’s occupying.  A sort of epiphany happens to him as he becomes aware that what church attenders really need are trousers with inflatable pads to sit on so that they’re more comfortable.  The pants could be deflated under ordinary circumstances, but could be blown up during long, tedious sermons.  So he immediately quits his job and moves to London to organize the start-up of his new company.

The first person he meets with is Bojanus, a tailor formerly in service to the Gumbrils, father and son.  They reach an understanding as to the shape and size of the new trousers;  Gumbril pays him a bit in advance and Bojanus gets to work.  Meanwhile, Theodore visits his father in his “rachitic house”, an old four-story edifice decaying at a steady rate, but home to the elder Gumbril’s architectural models, featuring a reworked London and various Italian creations close to his heart.  A flock of starlings inhabiting a nearby tree occupies a large portion of his time.  Their comings and goings en masse, and their conversations, he finds fascinating.  The flock will be silent for a long time, then burst out chattering to each other all at once, and then suddenly fall into silence again.  Somehow, Mr. Gumbril believes, they must be telepathic.

Theodore visits with some of his friends at a local cafe.  Shearwater is a biological researcher, fully occupied in his work to the total disregard of his wife.  Lypiatt is a painter of the grandiose sort, almost a precursor of Gulley Jimson, in Joyce Carey’s “The Horse’s Mouth”, except not as good and more of the arm-waving type.  Coleman is an aggressive negativist, forever riotously contemptuous and amused at ordinary human activities to the point of self-mutilation.  Mercaptan (in addition to being the chemical added to natural gas to make it detectable), is an effete columnist with super-refined tastes and an acid-dipped pen.  Myra Viveash is a belle-about-town, bored with the continual round of dancing, drinking and theater-going, and hoping for something exciting to occur in her life.  Mr. Boldero, an advertising expert, who, in the course of developing a plan for putting Gumbril’s pants up in neon lights, gets thrown down the stairs by Lypiatt because of his mindless offensive and insulting proposals.  These characters, plus some others who are barely mentioned (Piers Cotton, for example, who is only mentioned twice), are the central figures of the book.  They spend their time sleeping with each other,  imbibing strange liquors, and wasting time while participating in destructive and un-helpful activities that penultimately bore them and finally awaken a couple of them.  Lypiatt comes to understand that he’s a bad painter;  Shearwater realizes he has ignored his wife and lost her to others;  Mercaptan becomes locked into his own birdcage without realizing it;  and Gumbril never quite understands what life is, in his weak pursuit of his silly project, but at the end finds some sort of connection with Viveash, when they spend time together and decide to tour the continent.

I should mention Emily,  a young girl Gumbril falls in love with, but inadvertently leaves in the lurch, being caught up in following Viveash around, visiting restaurants, saloons, friends, and theaters instead of catching a train to meet her in the country.

This book was described as “humorous and comic”, but either the definitions of those qualities have changed a lot in the intervening years (it was written in 1922), or it totally misfired.  I suppose it was intended to be representation of the “lost generation” which was written about by many authors:  Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Mansfield, to name a few…  Huxley was interested, i believe, in finding the answers to some questions which many of us have pondered:  what does life mean, how does one lead a meaningful existence, is there another level of consciousness, what does it all mean…?  Many of these quandaries appeared in his subsequent works in different forms:  science fiction, social dramas, individual struggles of different sorts…  And i think his final work, “The Doors of Perception” was his attempt to provide final answers to them in one way or another.  The latter work was undertaken after Huxley’s thorough investigation into the qualities and effects of various drugs, however, and although his conclusions might be illuminating, they are in no way verifiable or even communicable.  I haven’t read “Doors” lately, although i did many years ago, but i don’t recall any memorable or mind altering revelations from the experience.

Anyway, “Antic” was not so much a book as a disorganized collection of anecdotes, tending to point toward what Huxley was thinking about, but not very enlightening in so far as leading into any kind of awareness or expanded understanding on the part of the reader is concerned.

 

HOMAGE TO CATALONIA

George Orwell (1903-1950)

Arriving in Barcelona in 1936, George was looking for political things to write about.  He’d been a democratic socialist for many years and was in sympathy with the Communist side of the Spanish Civil War.  In a spurt of enthusiasm, he enlisted in a Catalonian troop of infantry and spent six weeks training and getting fit.  The poverty of the soldiers was blatant:  no uniforms, no guns, and little food.  Still, the cause was just, so George persevered…  When his squad moved out, he was appointed corporal over ten soldiers, but that didn’t mean very much because the Catalan army was totally socialist:  there was no difference between officers and grunts.  Orwell described the friendly and stressless intermingling of the men at length and seems to have reveled in the classlessness of it.  The brigade was sent to a spot in the mountains near Zaragoza, topographically constructed of limestone ridges separated by V-shaped valleys.  There was little action:  mainly, since the two sides, supposedly the Fascists versus the Communists, occupied the tops of two of the ridges about a half mile apart and spent most of their time lurking in trenches and firing occasional shots at random, since the chances of actually hitting anything were minimal.  The soldiers spent their time gathering firewood (which was hard to find) and fighting the intense cold.  Not to mention the ubiquitous vermin of all types.  After several months the group was moved to a location nearer Zaragoza that was not as mountainous.  Conditions were not much different, with the exception that instead of firing at the enemy, they yelled political slogans at each other through megaphones.

Orwell interspersed his account with two chapters devoted to explanations of the political situation, and later of the denouement of the struggle.

First, he attributed the war’s beginning to a revolution begun by the Catalans over low wages, poor food, and tyrannical behavior by the factory operators and land owners.  The feudal situation, in which most people were poor and starving and a few had all the money and power, led to desperate measures in the form of riots and rebellions, leading to the formation of socialistic organizations and systematic plans to overthrow the government.  Orwell insisted that the Communists and the Fascists were on the side of the capitalists, because that was where all the money was, and that the several democratic and liberal societies were on the side of the oppressed.  This in spite of the erroneous newspaper accounts attributing the war to the Communists against the Fascists.  The papers were owned by the rich and moneyed, and were quite influential, so most of the population got the wrong idea.  Tracing the history of the campaigns, Orwell showed how the anarchistic side gradually came into disfavor with the general public because of the slanted press, and how this operated to increase the role of the police organizations so that by the end of the war, the latter were totally dominated by a Fascist ethic and were jailing thousands of persons without trial in bad conditions and shooting them out of hand:  a telling example of how consistent lying by powerful interests can change the course of history.  In fact, George and Eileen (his wife)  only escaped from the country by the skin of their teeth.

Anyway, after about six months on the front lines, George was shot through the neck and hospitalized.  Recuperating back in Barcelona, he had time to think about his experiences and came to the conclusion that the war was futile and that Spain was doomed to be a Fascist state under Franco.  Which is exactly what happened.  The totalitarian attitudes of the local police made Orwell’s future look pretty grim so he left.  Several of his English friends were arrested and were never heard from again, even ones that had held high office in the army and presumably were influential persons.

Being such a wonderful writer, George penned many quotable lines, but one was:  “such things as individual liberty and a truthful press are simply not compatible with military efficiency”, and so result in tyranny and totalitarianism.

This was, and is, THE definitive work on the Spanish Civil War, in the eyes of many authorities, and it was a great read.  I’ve read The Sun Also Rises, and Laurie Lee’s experiences in the war, and it was pretty evident that Hemingway wasn’t trying to be factual, and that Lee was not very interested in understanding what was actually occurring around him. Orwell is such an easy writer to follow, even when he leads one into the swamp of politics or the miasma of partisan in-fighting, that he is able to convey the impression of what being there was really like, including the dirt and the physical misery.  Even what a great feeling it was to be able to have a bath after six weeks.  Admittedly, it was hard to follow all the various parties and off-shoots of the Anarchists, Communists and Fascists, but perfection was not necessary, as their individual roles were well explicated and the part each played in the national catastrophe was made clear.

Orwell was a rather crusty sort of person, with strong beliefs and little patience for most people;  but his work has lasted, obviously, and will most likely be around as long as the human species is able to avoid self-destruction.

JACK TIER

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)

Captain Stephen Spike of the brigantine Molly Swash paces up and down on an East river dock while supervising the lading of the cargo (800 barrels of flour) into the ship’s hold.  He’s a little anxious about the presence of a government steam ship maneuvering in the vicinity, and is waiting, in addition, for the arrival of passengers:  Rose Bubb with her aunt, and Biddy Noon, retainer and friend.  Mrs. Bubb, Rose’s aunt, has booked a sea tour as she is convinced Rose has a pneumonic problem and because the late Captain Bubb swore on the efficacy of ocean voyages in the treatment of such ailments, she is following her husband’s advice.  Rose loves her aunt and succumbs to her insistence even though she knows nothing is amiss with her lungs.  Behind the trio of passengers, a small, rotund person arrives and boards, an assistant steward who is an experienced sailor and expert at seeing to the needs of finicky travelers.  A valued employee of the ship, Jack Tier and the captain have a long history together.

Sailing down the river toward the ocean, they are followed by the revenue steamer and Spike goes out of his way to evade the boat, trying to make it appear as if he’s just pursuing his usual course.  After a sort of hide and seek progress, the two ships approach Montauk point, the last bit of land before committing themselves to the Atlantic.  A lookout on the Molly espies the steamer lurking behind Blok Island just at sunset;  Spike bides his time until it’s almost dark, then tacks toward the island and escapes by creeping around between the steamer and the island so as not to be seen, then makes full sail as they enter the rolling swells of the ocean.  The Molly is a notoriously fast cruiser, so the captain is unconcerned about being caught.

Their destination is the Caribbean, via Cuba to New Orleans, so the crew and passengers relax into the regular patterns employed on long voyages.  The first mate is Harry Mulford, an experienced seaman and a handsome young man.  Soon Rose and Harry are very aware of each other.  Rose’s aunt often traveled with her husband on his journeys and she picked up much of the terminology used on board ships of the time.  Unfortunately, she misuses her naval vocabulary in such a way as to make herself a fool to the other crew members.  She expresses herself in a series of Spooneristic utterances that are humorous and confusing.  But since Rose loves her aunt dearly, no-one dares to correct her or make fun of her.  For instance, she thinks a dog watch is a sort of  time-piece used to control ship’s pets.  This gets pretty hilarious at times.

Upon arriving at the south Pass between Cuba and Jamaica, the Molly is boarded by a government revenue cruiser keeping tabs on traffic headed for the Gulf of Mexico (the Mexican-American war 1846-48 has been underway for some time).  A Lieutenant Wallace, a cheerful soul, interviews Spike and performs a desultory inspection of the cargo and then departs.  But the captain has a fit of nerves and decides to go all the way down to the Yucatan peninsula to escape further observation.  In fact, it becomes clear at this point that the destination of the Molly is not to New Orleans at all, but instead to the Dry Tortugas (a series of low-lying islets at the end of a chain of reefs extending to the west from Key West).  They arrive there and meet a Don Juan Falderon, a representative of Mexico, who purportedly is there to buy the flour.  About a hundred and fifty barrels are unloaded on the shore when Lieutenant Wallace’s ship appears on the horizon.  Before Spike can invent an excuse for his unusual activities, the Poughkeepsie fires a shell at them and it lands amidst the beached barrels.  A tremendous explosion results and reveals the truth about Spike’s nefarious plans:  he’s selling gunpowder to Mexico.

At this point the plot really gets going.  The Molly, the Poughkeepsie, the Mexican schooner that Don Juan came in, and various jolly boats, yawls, and gigs are all utilized in Spike’s evasions of governmental investigations.  Spike is principally interested in the doubloons that Don Juan has brought to pay for the gunpowder, and in his endeavours to grab the gold, he raises a sunken schooner twice and leads the revenue ship in several chases in and through the very dangerous channels and leads that permeate the reefs.  Harry is stranded on a rock once by Spike, after he’s abandoned the Molly upon discovering Spike’s evil plot, and is only rescued after a series of perilous and adventuresome excursions by Jack Tier and Rose.  At the denouement, the Molly is cornered in a dead end channel and Spike and his crew…  well, i don’t want to spoil things for whoever might read the book.  But the real question that is never answered until the very last is:  WHO IS JACK TIER?  If some curious person out there in Internet Land has the answer, they will receive an official mudpuddle GOLD STAR!

Reading Cooper is often a bit difficult because he wrote in a sort of subjunctive style, with lots of clauses, subordinate and main.  But there’s lots of excitement and involved plotting and frequently humorous characterizations, as well as curious interjections concerning the political situations of the day.  But i’ve read quite a few of his books and enjoyed them and if i did, anyone else can…  If no-one comes up with the answer to the question, i’ll reveal it on the next post…  maybe…

 

CAUGHT BY THE TURKS

Francis Yeats-Brown (1886-1944)

Early in the morning, before the sun came up, Francis and his pilot were out on the runway getting their old Maurice-Farman biplane ready for the mission.  Which was blowing up telephone poles in the Arabian desert during the first World War.  Taking off from the airfield, located near the Tigris river, they flew over to the telegraph line linking Bagdad and Aleppo and made a perfect three-point landing.  It looked like an easy chore:  inserting the fulminate of mercury pencils into the sticks of gun-cotton and running the fuse wire back to the plane to be ignited.  Except the pilot didn’t estimate the distance to the pole correctly and accidentally ran into it, damaging the wing so they couldn’t take off again.  At the same time, a band of native irregulars appeared, firing their rifles and machine guns, seriously annoying Francis while he was rigging up the explosives.  He did notice, out of the corners of his eyes, spurts of sand shooting up out of the ground.  Taking the hint, he ran, igniting the fuse at the same time, and was soon rewarded by hearing explosions behind him.  About the same time he and the pilot were surrounded and quite severely mistreated by alarmed and wild-eyed Bedouins.  Luckily the Arabian gendarme stopped the general enthusiasm, shook hands with Francis and gave him back his revolver.  Shortly after, however, he was felled to the ground by a sword stroke.  Fortunately, only the flat of the blade contacted his neck, so he was bruised but not dead.  And it soon became clear that the native troops were much more interested in robbing them than in killing them.

On arriving in Bagdad, they were marched to the local prison while being abused by hostile crowds of incensed indigenes.  As a result of the mistreatment, they were admitted to a local hospital and soothed with whiskey and food.  Shortly afterward, General Townshend made an abortive attack on the city and provided Francis with an opportunity to observe Turkish military tactics:  they gathered up crowds of citizens men, women, and children, and shoved into the front lines in order to prevent the soldiers from being shot.  Many of the inhabitants were wounded and killed.  Francis wrote:  “only prisoners see the full absurdity of war”.  Some of the jailers were kind, though, mainly the cavalry officers;  and the herds of geese that evidenced great curiosity as to the taste and appearance of the hospitalized officers.

Upon recovery of their health, the two captives were transferred to Mosul which Francis described as a huge garbage dump with every imaginable disease, acres of mud mixed in with substantial amounts of blood.  The officers were incarcerated in two relatively clean and quiet rooms, but they soon discovered that the regular infantry, the enlistees, were all -200 or so- jammed into one nearby cage with not food, water, or health care.  Many of them were beaten and/or died of starvation.  Francis made one of the guards cry by staring at him through his monocle;  apparently the man thought he was being cursed by some sort of wizard.  The officers were permitted to shop in the town, using funds sent to them by relatives, in Francis’s case, his father.  They occupied the time by playing cards, singing, discussing Bergson, or in practicing laughing (they found that this cheered them up).

Spending a period of time in an Armenian church, while plotting escapes and concocting cyphers, they managed to arrange a series of lectures and study groups, utilizing the many educated officers that were fellow prisoners, and acquiring an impressive library of books from the local denizens and from charity groups.  Soon, however, they were all transferred again to Afion-Kara-Hissar, a town closer to Bagdad, where they were confined during the winter of 1917-18 which was bitterly cold.  They all suffered a lot:  there were no windows in the houses they lived in.  Bathing was easier, though, as all the men had to do was take their clothes off and roll around in the snow.

Francis, fed up with the situation, pretended to become an opium addict and had himself transferred to a hospital in Constantinople.  He and his fellow officers made numerous attempts to escape but were not successful until two months before the end of the war.  Basically, they disguised themselves as Greek members of the local ministry and walked out through the gates.  But how Francis survived and at the end of hostilities became the proud possessor of General Liman Von Sanders’ 56 horsepower Mercedes Benz, together with the chauffer’s diary, is another amazing tale.  Not to mention that while garaged, it was looked after by a bear…

Many years ago, i read “Lives of a Bengal Lancer” by Yeats-Brown and i never forgot it.  So when i saw this one by him on “Faded Pages”(the Gutenberg of Canada), i downloaded it and read it.  It’s not as thrilling as “Lives”, but it has the same characteristic style that Y-B was a master of:  he grabs the reader and doesn’t release him until the end of the book. If i was to recommend either of these, i’d favor the “Lives”:  it’s better written and more well known.

I should mention that the photograph above, is a shot of Francis in one of his escape costumes, in this case, as a Hungarian Mechanic…