They are devoted and fearless and have again and again, both in Canada, in South America and in China, been the vanguard of civilization to their own grievous hurt. They are the old guard of the Roman Church. But the tragedy is that they, who would gladly give their lives for the old faith, have in effect helped to ruin it, for it is they, according to Father Tyrrell and the modernists, who have been at the back of all those extreme doctrines of papal infallibility and Immaculate Conception, with a general all-round tightening of dogma, which have made it so difficult for the man with scientific desire for truth or with intellectual self-respect to keep within the Church.
For some years Sir Charles Mivart, the last of Catholic Scientists, tried to do the impossible, and then he also had to leave go his hold, so that there is not, so far as I know, one single man of outstanding fame in science or in general thought who is a practising Catholic. This is the work of the extremists and is deplored by many of the moderates and fiercely condemned by the modernists. It depends also upon the inner Italian directorate who give the orders. Nothing can exceed the uncompromising bigotry of the Jesuit theology, or their apparent ignorance of how it shocks the modern conscience.
I remember that when, as a grown lad, I heard Father Murphy, a great fierce Irish priest, declare that there was sure damnation for every one outside the Church, I looked upon him with horror, and to that moment I trace the first rift which has grown into such a chasm between me and those who were my guides. On my way back to England I stopped at Paris. Through all my life up to this point there had been an unseen grand-uncle, named Michael Conan, to whom I must now devote a paragraph. He came into the family from the fact that my father's father "H. Michael Conan, her brother, had been editor of "The Art Journal" and was a man of distinction, an intellectual Irishman of the type which originally founded the Sinn Fein movement.
He was as keen on heraldry and genealogy as my mother, and he traced his descent in some circuitous way from the Dukes of Brittany, who were all Conans; indeed Arthur Conan was the ill-fated young Duke whose eyes were put out, according to Shakespeare, by King John. This uncle was my godfather, and hence my name Arthur Conan. He lived in Paris and had expressed a wish that his grand-nephew and godson, with whom he had corresponded, should call en passant.
I ran my money affairs so closely, after a rather lively supper at Strasburg, that when I reached Paris I had just twopence in my pocket. As I could not well drive up and ask my uncle to pay the cab I left my trunk at the station and set forth on foot. I remember that I was exhausted with the heat and the walking, and that when at the last gasp I saw a man buy a drink of what seemed to be porter by handing a penny to a man who had a long tin on his back, I therefore halted the man and spent one of my pennies on a duplicate drink.
It proved to be liquorice and water, but it revived me when I badly needed it, and it could not be said that I arrived penniless at my uncle's, for I actually had a penny. So, for some penurious weeks, I was in Paris with this dear old volcanic Irishman, who spent the summer day in his shirt-sleeves, with a little dicky-bird of a wife waiting upon him. I am built rather on his lines of body and mind than on any of the Doyles. We made a true friendship, and then I returned to my home conscious that real life was about to begin. When I returned to Edinburgh, with little to show, either mental or spiritual, for my pleasant school year in Germany, I found that the family affairs were still as straitened as ever.
No promotion had come to my father, and two younger children, Innes, my only brother, and Ida, had arrived to add to the calls upon my mother. Another sister, Julia, followed shortly afterwards. But Annette, the eldest sister, had already gone out to Portugal to earn and send home a fair salary, while Lottie and Connie were about to do the same. My mother had adopted the device of sharing a large house, which may have eased her in some ways, but was disastrous in others. Perhaps it was good for me that the times were hard, for I was wild, full-blooded, and a trifle reckless, but the situation called for energy and application, so that one was bound to try to meet it.
My mother had been so splendid that we could not fail her. It had been determined that I should be a doctor, chiefly, I think, because Edinburgh was so famous a centre for medical learning. It meant another long effort for my mother, but she was very brave and ambitious where her children were concerned, and I was not only to have a medical education, but to take the University degree, which was a larger matter than a mere licence to practise. When I returned from Germany I found that there was a long list of bursaries and scholarships open for competition.
Great were the rejoicings and all shadows seemed to be lifting. But on calling to get the money I was informed that there had been a clerical error, and that this particular bursary was only open to arts students. As there was a long list of prizes I naturally supposed that I would get the next highest, which was available for medicals. The official pulled a long face and said: "Unfortunately the candidate to whom it was allotted has already drawn the money. It was a bitter disappointment and, of course, I had a legal case, but what can a penniless student do, and what sort of college career would he have if he began it by suing his University for money?
I was advised to accept the situation, and there seemed no prospect of accepting anything else. So now behold me, a tall strongly-framed but half-formed young man, fairly entered upon my five years' course of medical study. It can be done with diligence in four years, but there came, as I shall show, a glorious interruption which held me back for one year. Between these two points lies one long weary grind at botany, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, and a whole list of compulsory subjects, many of which have a very indirect bearing upon the art of curing.
The whole system of teaching, as I look back upon it, seems far too oblique and not nearly practical enough for the purpose in view. And yet Edinburgh is, I believe, more practical than most other colleges. It is practical, too, in its preparation for life, since there is none of the atmosphere of an enlarged public school, as is the case in English Universities, but the student lives a free man in his own rooms with no restrictions of any sort.
It ruins some and makes strong men of many. In my own case, of course, this did not apply, since my family lived in the town, and I worked from my own home. There was no attempt at friendship, or even acquaintance, between professors and students at Edinburgh. It was a strictly business arrangement by which you paid, for example, four guineas for Anatomy lectures and received the winter course in exchange, never seeing your professor save behind his desk and never under any circumstances exchanging a word with him.
They were remarkable men, however, some of these professors, and we managed to know them pretty well without any personal acquaintance. There was kindly Crum Brown, the chemist, who sheltered himself carefully before exploding some mixture, which usually failed to ignite, so that the loud "Boom! Brown would emerge from his retreat with a "Really, gentlemen! There was Wyville Thomson, the zoologist, fresh from his Challenger expedition, and Balfour, with the face and manner of John Knox, a hard rugged old man, who harried the students in their exams, and was in consequence harried by them for the rest of the year.
There was Turner, a fine anatomist, but a self-educated man, as was betrayed when he used to "take and put this structure on the handle of this scalpel. His class, of whom I was one, heard the sounds of battle and fidgetted in their seats, on which the Professor said: "I think, gentlemen, your presence may be more useful outside than here," on which we flocked out with a whoop, and soon had the quadrangle clear.
Most vividly of all, however, there stands out in my memory the squat figure of Professor Rutherford with his Assyrian beard, his prodigious voice, his enormous chest and his singular manner. He fascinated and awed us. I have endeavoured to reproduce some of his peculiarities in the fictitious character of Professor Challenger. He would sometimes start his lecture before he reached the classroom, so that we would hear a booming voice saying: "There are valves in the veins," or some other information, when the desk was still empty.
He was, I fear, a rather ruthless vivisector, and though I have always recognized that a minimum of painless vivisection is necessary, and far more justifiable than the eating of meat as a food, I am glad that the law was made more stringent so as to restrain such men as he. I wrote a students' song which is still sung, I understand, in which a curious article is picked up on the Portobello beach and each Professor in turn claims it for his department. Rutherford's verse ran:. Said Rutherford with a smile, "It's a mass of solid bile, And I myself obtained it, what is more, By a stringent cholagogue From a vivisected dog, And I lost it on the Portobello Shore.
If the song is indeed still sung it may be of interest to the present generation to know that I was the author.
Memories and Adventures - The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
But the most notable of the characters whom I met was one Joseph Bell, surgeon at the Edinburgh Infirmary. Bell was a very remarkable man in body and mind. He was thin, wiry, dark, with a high-nosed acute face, penetrating grey eyes, angular shoulders, and a jerky way of walking. His voice was high and discordant. He was a very skilful surgeon, but his strong point was diagnosis, not only of disease, but of occupation and character. For some reason which I have never understood he singled me out from the drove of students who frequented his wards and made me his outpatient clerk, which meant that I had to array his outpatients, make simple notes of their cases, and then show them in, one by one, to the large room in which Bell sat in state surrounded by his dressers and students.
Then I had ample chance of studying his methods and of noticing that he often learned more of the patient by a few quick glances than I had done by my questions. Occasionally the results were very dramatic, though there were times when he blundered. In one of his best cases he said to a civilian patient: "Well, my man, you've served in the army. They do not in the army, but he would have learned civilian ways had he been long discharged. He has an air of authority and he is obviously Scottish.
As to Barbados, his complaint is elephantiasis, which is West Indian and not British. It is no wonder that after the study of such a character I used and amplified his methods when in later life I tried to build up a scientific detective who solved cases on his own merits and not through the folly of the criminal. Bell took a keen interest in these detective tales and even made suggestions which were not, I am bound to say, very practical.
I kept in touch with him for many years and he used to come upon my platform to support me when I contested Edinburgh in When I took over his out-patient work he warned me that a knowledge of Scottish idioms was necessary, and I, with the confidence of youth, declared that I had got it. The sequel was amusing.
Memories and Adventures
On one of the first days an old man came who, in response to my question, declared that he had a "bealin' in his oxter. This fairly beat me, much to Bell's amusement. It seems that the words really mean an abscess in the armpit. Speaking generally of my University career I may say that though I took my fences in my stride and balked at none of them, still I won no distinction in the race. I was always one of the ruck, neither lingering nor gaining—a 60 per cent.
There were, however, some reasons for this which I will now state. It was clearly very needful that I should help financially as quickly as possible, even if my help only took the humble form of providing for my own keep. Therefore I endeavoured almost from the first to compress the classes for a year into half a year, and so to have some months in which to earn a little money as a medical assistant, who would dispense and do odd jobs for a doctor. When I first set forth to do this my services were so obviously worth nothing that I had to put that valuation upon them.
Even then it might have been a hard bargain for the doctor, for I might have proved like the youth in "Pickwick" who had a rooted idea that oxalic acid was Epsom salts. However, I had horse sense enough to save myself and my employer from any absolute catastrophe.
My first venture, in the early summer of '78, was with a Dr. Richardson, running a low-class practice in the poorer quarters of Sheffield.
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I did my best, and I dare say he was patient, but at the end of three weeks we parted by mutual consent. I went on to London, where I renewed my advertisements in the medical papers, and found a refuge for some weeks with my Doyle relatives, then living at Clifton Gardens, Maida Vale. I fear that I was too Bohemian for them and they too conventional for me. However, they were kind to me, and I roamed about London for some time with pockets so empty that there was little chance of idleness breeding its usual mischief.
I remember that there were signs of trouble in the East and that the recruiting sergeants, who were very busy in Trafalgar Square, took my measure in a moment and were very insistent that I should take the shilling. There was a time when I was quite disposed to do so, but my mother's plans held me back. I may say that late in the same year I did volunteer as a dresser for the English ambulances sent to Turkey for the Russian War, and was on the Red Cross list, but the collapse of the Turks prevented my going out.
Elliot living in a townlet in Shropshire which rejoiced in the extraordinary name of "Ruyton-of-the-eleven-towns. There for four months I helped in a country practice. It was a very quiet existence and I had a good deal of time to myself under very pleasant circumstances, so that I really trace some little mental progress to that period, for I read and thought without interruption.
My medical duties were of a routine nature save on a few occasions. One of them still stands out in my memory, for it was the first time in my life that I ever had to test my own nerve in a great sudden emergency. The doctor was out when there came a half-crazed messenger to say that in some rejoicings at a neighbouring great house they had exploded an old cannon which had promptly burst and grievously injured one of the bystanders.
No doctor was available, so I was the last resource. On arriving there I found a man in bed with a lump of iron sticking out of the side of his head. I tried not to show the alarm which I felt, and I did the obvious thing by pulling out the iron. I could see the clean white bone, so I could assure them that the brain had not been injured.
I then pulled the gash together, staunched the bleeding, and finally bound it up, so that when the doctor did at last arrive he had little to add. This incident gave me confidence and, what is more important still, gave others confidence. On the whole I had a happy time at Ruyton, and have a pleasing memory of Dr. Elliot and his wife. After a winter's work at the University my next assistantship was a real money-making proposition to the extent of some two pounds a month.
This was with Dr. Hoare, a well-known Birmingham doctor, who had a five-horse City practice, and every working doctor, before the days of motors, would realize that this meant going from morning to night. He earned some three thousand a year, which takes some doing, when it is collected from 3s. Hoare was a fine fellow, stout, square, red-faced, bushy-whiskered and dark-eyed.
His wife was also a very kindly and gifted woman, and my position in the house was soon rather that of a son than of an assistant. The work, however, was hard and incessant, and the pay very small. I had long lists of prescriptions to make up every day, for we dispensed our own medicine, and one hundred bottles of an evening were not unknown. On the whole I made few mistakes, though I have been known to send out ointment and pill boxes with elaborate directions on the lid and nothing inside. I had my own visiting list, also, the poorest or the most convalescent, and I saw a great deal, for better or worse, of very low life.
Twice I returned to this Birmingham practice and always my relations with the family became closer. At my second visit my knowledge had greatly extended and I did midwifery cases, and the more severe cases in general practice as well as all the dispensing. I had no time to spend any money and it was as well, for every shilling was needed at home.
It was in this year that I first learned that shillings might be earned in other ways than by filling phials. Some friend remarked to me that my letters were very vivid and surely I could write some things to sell. I may say that the general aspiration towards literature was tremendously strong upon me, and that my mind was reaching out in what seemed an aimless way in all sorts of directions.
I used to be allowed twopence for my lunch, that being the price of a mutton pie, but near the pie shop was a second-hand book shop with a barrel full of old books and the legend "Your choice for 2d. Often the price of my luncheon used to be spent on some sample out of this barrel, and I have within reach of my arm as I write these lines, copies of Gordon's Tacitus, Temple's works, Pope's Homer, Addison's Spectator and Swift's works, which all came out of the twopenny box.
Any one observing my actions and tastes would have said that so strong a spring would certainly overflow, but for my own part I never dreamed I could myself produce decent prose, and the remark of my friend, who was by no means given to flattery, took me greatly by surprise. I sat down, however, and wrote a little adventure story which I called "The Mystery of the Sassassa Valley. It mattered not that other attempts failed.
I had done it once and I cheered myself by the thought that I could do it again. But the idea of real success was still far from my mind. During all this time our family affairs had taken no turn for the better, and had it not been for my excursions and for the work of my sisters we could hardly have carried on. My father's health had utterly broken, he had to retire to that Convalescent Home in which the last years of his life were spent, and I, aged twenty, found myself practically the head of a large and struggling family.
My father's life was full of the tragedy of unfulfilled powers and of undeveloped gifts. He had his weaknesses, as all of us have ours, but he had also some very remarkable and outstanding virtues. A tall man, long-bearded, and elegant, he had a charm of manner and a courtesy of bearing which I have seldom seen equalled His wit was quick and playful.
He possessed, also, a remarkable delicacy of mind which would give him moral courage enough to rise and leave any company which talked in a manner which was coarse. When he passed away a few years later I am sure that Charles Doyle had no enemy in the world, and that those who knew him best sympathized most with the hard fate which had thrown him, a man of sensitive genius, into an environment which neither his age nor his nature was fitted to face. He was unworldly and unpractical and his family suffered for it, but even his faults were in some ways the result of his developed spirituality.
He lived and died a fervent son of the Roman Catholic faith. My mother, however, who had never been a very devoted daughter of that great institution, became less so as life progressed, and finally found her chief consolation in the Anglican fold. This brings me to my own spiritual unfolding, if such it may be called, during those years of constant struggle.
I have already in my account of the Jesuits shown how, even as a boy, all that was sanest and most generous in my nature rose up against a narrow theology and an uncharitable outlook upon the other great religions of the world. In the Catholic Church to doubt anything is to doubt everything, for since it Is a vital axiom that doubt is a mortal sin when once it has, unbidden and unappeasable, come upon you, everything is loosened and you look upon the whole wonderful interdependent scheme with other and more critical eyes.
Thus viewed there was much to attract—its traditions, its unbroken and solemn ritual, the beauty and truth of many of its observances, its poetical appeal to the emotions, the sensual charm of music, light and incense, its power as an instrument of law and order. For the guidance of an unthinking and uneducated world it could in many ways hardly be surpassed, as has been shown in Paraguay, and in the former Ireland where, outside agrarian trouble, crime was hardly known. All this I could clearly see, but if I may claim any outstanding characteristic in my life, it is that I have never paltered or compromised with religious matters, that I have always weighed them very seriously, and that there was something in me which made it absolutely impossible, even when my most immediate interests were concerned, to say anything about them save that which I, in the depth of my being, really believed to be true.
Judging it thus by all the new knowledge which came to me both from my reading and from my studies, I found that the foundations not only of Roman Catholicism but of the whole Christian faith, as presented to me in nineteenth century theology, were so weak that my mind could not build upon them. It is to be remembered that these were the years when Huxley, Tyndall, Darwin, Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill were our chief philosophers, and that even the man in the street felt the strong sweeping current of their thought, while to the young student, eager and impressionable, it was overwhelming.
I know now that their negative attitude was even more mistaken, and very much more dangerous, than the positive positions which they attacked with such destructive criticism. A gap had opened between our fathers and ourselves so suddenly and completely that when a Gladstone wrote to uphold the Gadarene swine, or the six days of Creation, the youngest student rightly tittered over his arguments, and it did not need a Huxley to demolish them.
I can see now very clearly how deplorable it is that manifest absurdities should be allowed to continue without even a footnote to soften them in the sacred text, because it has the effect that what is indeed sacred becomes overlaid, and one can easily be persuaded that what is false in parts can have no solid binding force. There are no worse enemies of true religion than those who clamour against all revision or modification of that strange mass of superbly good and questionable matter which we lump all together into a single volume as if there were the same value to all of it.
It is not solid gold, but gold in clay, and if this be understood the earnest seeker will not cast it aside when he comes upon the clay, but will value the gold the more in that he has himself separated it. It was, then, all Christianity, and not Roman Catholicism alone, which had alienated my mind and driven me to an agnosticism, which never for an instant degenerated into atheism, for I had a very keen perception of the wonderful poise of the universe and the tremendous power of conception and sustenance which it implied. I was reverent in all my doubts and never ceased to think upon the matter, but the more I thought the more confirmed became my non-conformity.
In a broad sense I was a Unitarian, save that I regarded the Bible with more criticism than Unitarians usually show. This negative position was so firm that it seemed to me to be a terminus; whereas it proved only a junction on the road of life where I was destined to change from the old well-worn line on to a new one. Every materialist, as I can now clearly see, is a case of arrested development. He has cleared his ruins, but has not begun to build that which would shelter him. As to psychic knowledge, I knew it only by the account of exposures in the police courts and the usual wild and malicious statements in the public press.
Years were to pass before I understood that in that direction might be found the positive proofs which I constantly asserted were the only conditions upon which I could resume any sort of allegiance to the unseen. I must have definite demonstration, for if it were to be a matter of faith then I might as well go back to the faith of my fathers.
Memories and Adventures
The evils of religion have all come from accepting things which cannot be proved. I would not give the impression that my life was gloomy or morbidly thoughtful because it chanced that I had some extra cares and some worrying thoughts. I had an eager nature which missed nothing in the way of fun which could be gathered, and I had a great capacity for enjoyment. I read much.
I played games all I could. I danced, and I sampled the drama whenever I had a sixpence to carry me to the gallery. On one occasion I got into a row which might have been serious. I was waiting on the gallery steps with a great line of people, the shut door still facing us. There were half a dozen soldiers in the crowd and one of these squeezed a girl up against the wall in such a way that she began to scream. As I was near them I asked the man to be more gentle, on which he dug his elbow with all his force into my ribs.
He turned on me as he did so, and I hit him with both hands in the face. He bored into me and pushed me up into the angle of the door, but I had a grip of him and he could not hit me, though he tried to kick me in cowardly fashion with his knee. Several of his comrades threatened me, and one hit me on the head with his cane, cracking my hat. At this moment luckily the door opened and the rush of the crowd carried the soldiers on, one sympathetic corporal saying, "Take your breath, sir! Take your breath! It was a good escape from an awkward business.
And now I come to the first real outstanding adventure in my life, which is worthy of a fresh chapter and of a more elaborate treatment. It was in the Hope, under the command of the well- known whaler, John Gray, that I paid a seven months' visit to the Arctic Seas in the year I went in the capacity of surgeon, but as I was only twenty years of age when I started, and as my knowledge of medicine was that of an average third year's student, I have often thought that it was as well that there was no very serious call upon my services.
It came about in this way. One raw afternoon in Edinburgh, whilst I was sitting reading hard for one of those examinations which blight the life of a medical student, there entered to me one Currie, a fellow-student with whom I had some slight acquaintance. The monstrous question which he asked drove all thought of my studies out of my head. You'll be surgeon, two pound ten a month and three shillings a ton oil money.
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I find at this last moment that I can't go, and I want to get a man to take my place. In an instant the thing was settled, and within a few minutes the current of my life had been deflected into a new channel. In little more than a week I was in Peterhead, and busily engaged, with the help of the steward, in packing away my scanty belongings in the locker beneath my bunk on the good ship Hope. I speedily found that the chief duty of the surgeon was to be the companion of the captain, who is cut off by the etiquette of the trade from anything but very brief and technical talks with his other officers.
I see him now, his ruddy face, his grizzled hair and beard, his very light blue eyes always looking into far spaces, and his erect muscular figure. Taciturn, sardonic, stern on occasion, but always a good just man at bottom. There was one curious thing about the manning of the Hope. The man who signed on as first mate was a little, decrepit, broken fellow, absolutely incapable of performing the duties. The cook's assistant, on the other hand, was a giant of a man, red-bearded, bronzed, with huge limbs, and a voice of thunder.
But the moment that the ship cleared the harbour the little, decrepit mate disappeared into the cook's galley, and acted as scullery-boy for the voyage, while the mighty scullery-boy walked aft and became chief mate. The fact was, that the one had the certificate, but was past sailoring, while the other could neither read nor write, but was as fine a seaman as ever lived; so, by an agreement to which everybody concerned was party, they swapped their berths when they were at sea.
Colin McLean, with his six foot of stature, his erect, stalwart figure, and his fierce, red beard, pouring out from between the flaps of his sealing-cap, was an officer by natural selection, which is a higher title than that of a Board of Trade certificate. His only fault was that he was a very hot-blooded man, and that a little would excite him to a frenzy. I have a vivid recollection of an evening which I spent in dragging him off the steward, who had imprudently made some criticism upon his way of attacking a whale which had escaped. Both men had had some rum, which had made the one argumentative and the other violent, and as we were all three seated in a space of about seven by four, it took some hard work to prevent bloodshed.
Every now and then, just as I thought all danger was past, the steward would begin again with his fatuous, "No offence, Colin, but all I says is that if you had been a bit quicker on the fush—" I don't know how often this sentence was begun, but never once was it ended; for at the word "fush" Colin always seized him by the throat, and I Colin round the waist, and we struggled until we were all panting and exhausted. Then when the steward had recovered a little breath he would start that miserable sentence once more, and the "fush" would be the signal for another encounter.
I really believe that if I had not been there the mate would have hurt him, for he was quite the angriest man that I have ever seen. There were fifty men upon our whaler, of whom half were Scotchmen and half Shetlanders, whom we picked up at Lerwick as we passed. The Shetlanders were the steadier and more tractable, quiet, decent, and soft-spoken; while the Scotch seamen were more likely to give trouble, but also more virile and of stronger character. The officers and harpooners were all Scotch, but as ordinary seamen, and especially as boatmen, the Shetlanders were as good as could be wished.
There was only one man on board who belonged neither to Scotland nor to Shetland, and he was the mystery of the ship. He was a tall, swarthy, dark-eyed man, with blue-black hair and beard, singularly handsome features, and a curious, reckless sling of his shoulders when he walked. It was rumoured that he came from the south of England, and that he had fled thence to avoid the law. He made friends with no one, and spoke very seldom, but he was one of the smartest seamen in the ship.
I could believe from his appearance that his temper was Satanic, and that the crime for which he was hiding may have been a bloody one. Only once he gave us a glimpse of his hidden fires. The cook—a very burly, powerful man—the little mate was only assistant—had a private store of rum, and treated himself so liberally to it that for three successive days the dinner of the crew was ruined. On the third day our silent outlaw approached the cook with a brass saucepan in his hand.
He said nothing, but he struck the man such a frightful blow that his head flew through the bottom and the sides of the pan were left dangling round his neck. The half-drunken, half-stunned cook talked of fighting, but he was soon made to feel that the sympathy of the ship was against him, so he reeled back, grumbling, to his duties while the avenger relapsed into his usual moody indifference. We heard no further complaints of the cooking. I have spoken of the steward, and as I look back at that long voyage, during which for seven months we never set foot on land, the kindly open face of Jack Lamb comes back to me.
He had a beautiful and sympathetic tenor voice, and many an hour have I listened to it with its accompaniment of rattling plates and jingling knives, as he cleaned up the dishes in his pantry. He had a great memory for pathetic and sentimental songs, and it is only when you have not seen a woman's face for six months that you realize what sentiment means. When Jack trilled out "Her bright smile haunts me still," or "Wait for me at Heaven's Gate, sweet Belle Mahone," he filled us all with a vague sweet discontent which comes back to me now as I think of it.
To appreciate a woman one has to be out of sight of one for six months. I can well remember that as we rounded the north of Scotland on our return we dipped our flag to the lighthouse, being only some hundreds of yards from the shore. A figure emerged to answer our salute, and the excited whisper ran through the ship, "It's a wumman! I had the binoculars in the bows. Every one was staring.
She was well over fifty, short skirts and sea boots—but she was a "wumman. However, all this has come before its time. It was, I find by my log, on February 28 at 2 p. The decks were as clean as a yacht, and it was very unlike my idea of a whaler. We ran straight into bad weather and the glass went down at one time to We just got into Lerwick Harbour before the full force of the hurricane broke, which was so great that lying at anchor with bare poles and partly screened we were blown over to an acute angle. If it had taken us a few hours earlier we should certainly have lost our boats—and the boats are the life of a whaler.
It was March 11 before the weather moderated enough to let us get on, and by that time there were twenty whalers in the bay, so that our setting forth was quite an occasion. That night and for a day longer the Hope had to take refuge in the lee of one of the outlying islands. I got ashore and wandered among peat bogs, meeting strange, barbarous, kindly people who knew nothing of the world.
I was led back to the ship by a wild, long-haired girl holding a torch, for the peat holes make it dangerous at night—I can see her now, her tangled black hair, her bare legs, madder-stained petticoat, and wild features under the glare of the torch. I spoke to one old man there who asked me the news. I said, "The Tay bridge is down," which was then a fairly stale item. He said, "Eh, have they built a brig over the Tay?
What surprised me most in the Arctic regions was the rapidity with which you reach them. I had never realized that they lie at our very doors. I think that we were only four days out from Shetland when we were among the drift ice. I awoke one morning to hear the bump, bump of the floating pieces against the side of the ship, and I went on deck to see the whole sea covered with them to the horizon. They were none of them large, but they lay so thick that a man might travel far by springing from one to the other. Their dazzling whiteness made the sea seem bluer by contrast, and with a blue sky above, and that glorious Arctic air in one's nostrils, it was a morning to remember.
Once on one of the swaying, rocking pieces we saw a huge seal, sleek, sleepy, and imperturbable, looking up with the utmost assurance as if it knew that the close time had still three weeks to run. Further on we saw on the ice the long human-like prints of a bear. All this with the snowdrops of Scotland still fresh in our glasses in the cabin. I have spoken about the close time, and I may explain that, by an agreement between the Norwegian and British Governments, the subjects of both nations are forbidden to kill a seal before April 3.
The reason for this is that the breeding season is in March, and if the mothers should be killed before the young are able to take care of themselves, the race would soon become extinct. For breeding purposes the seals all come together at a variable spot, which is evidently prearranged among them, and as this place can be anywhere within many hundreds of square miles of floating ice, it is no easy matter for the fisher to find it.
The means by which he sets about it are simple but ingenious. As the ship makes its way through the loose ice-streams, a school of seals is observed travelling through the water. Their direction is carefully taken by compass and marked upon the chart. An hour afterwards perhaps another school is seen. This is also marked. When these bearings have been taken several times, the various lines upon the chart are prolonged until they intersect.
At this point, or near it, it is likely that the main pack of the seals will be found. When you do come upon it, it is a wonderful sight. I suppose it is the largest assembly of creatures upon the face of the world—and this upon the open icefields hundreds of miles from the Greenland coast. Somewhere between 71 deg. From the crow's nest at the top of the main-mast, one can see no end of them. On the furthest visible ice one can still see that sprinkling of pepper grains. And the young lie everywhere also, snow-white slugs, with a little black nose and large dark eyes.
Their half-human cries fill the air; and when you are sitting in the cabin of a ship which is in the heart of the seal-pack, you would think you were next door to a monstrous nursery. The Hope was one of the first to find the seal-pack that year, but before the day came when hunting was allowed, we had a succession of strong gales, followed by a severe roll, which tilted the floating ice and launched the young seals prematurely into the water. And so, when the law at last allowed us to begin work, Nature had left us with very little work to do.
However, at dawn upon the third, the ship's company took to the ice, and began to gather in its murderous harvest. It is brutal work, though not more brutal than that which goes on to supply every dinner-table in the country. And yet those glaring crimson pools upon the dazzling white of the icefields, under the peaceful silence of a blue Arctic sky, did seem a horrible intrusion.
But an inexorable demand creates an inexorable supply, and the seals, by their death, help to give a living to the long line of seamen, dockers, tanners, curers, triers, chandlers, leather merchants, and oil-sellers, who stand between this annual butchery on the one hand, and the exquisite, with his soft leather boots, or the savant, using a delicate oil for his philosophical instruments, upon the other. I have cause to remember that first day of sealing on account of the adventures which befell me. I have said that a strong swell had arisen, and as this was dashing the floating ice together the captain thought it dangerous for an inexperienced man to venture upon it.
And so, just as I was clambering over the bulwarks with the rest, he ordered me back and told me to remain on board. My remonstrances were useless, and at last, in the blackest of tempers, I seated myself upon the top of the bulwarks, with my feet dangling over the outer side, and there I nursed my wrath, swinging up and down with the roll of the ship. It chanced, however, that I was really seated upon a thin sheet of ice which had formed upon the wood, and so when the swell threw her over to a particularly acute angle, I shot off and vanished into the sea between two ice-blocks.
As I rose, I clawed on to one of these, and soon scrambled on board again. The accident brought about what I wished, however, for the captain remarked that as I was bound to fall into the ocean in any case, I might just as well be on the ice as on the ship. I justified his original caution by falling in twice again during the day, and I finished it ignominiously by having to take to my bed while all my clothes were drying in the engine-room.
I was consoled for my misfortunes by finding that they amused the captain to such an extent that they drove the ill-success of our sealing out of his head, and I had to answer to the name of "the great northern diver" for a long time thereafter. I had a narrow escape once through stepping backwards over the edge of a piece of floating ice while I was engaged in skinning a seal. I had wandered away from the others, and no one saw my misfortune. The face of the ice was so even that I had no purchase by which to pull myself up, and my body was rapidly becoming numb in the freezing water. At last, however, I caught hold of the hind flipper of the dead seal, and there was a kind of nightmare tug-of-war, the question being whether I should pull the seal off or pull myself on.
At last, however, I got my knee over the edge and rolled on to it. I remember that my clothes were as hard as a suit of armour by the time I reached the ship, and that I had to thaw my crackling garments before I could change them. This April sealing is directed against the mothers and young. Then, in May, the sealer goes further north, and about latitude 77 deg. They are wary creatures, and it takes good long-range shooting to bag them. Then, in June, the sealing is over, and the ship bears away further north still, until in the 79th or 80th degree she is in the best Greenland whaling latitudes.
There we stayed for three months or so, with very varying fortunes, for though we pursued many whales, only four were slain. There are eight boats on board a whaler, but it is usual to send out only seven, for it takes six men to man each, so that when seven are out no one is left on board save the so-called "idlers" who have not signed to do seaman's work at all. It happened, however, that aboard the Hope the idlers were rather a hefty crowd, so we volunteered to man the odd boat, and we made it, in our own estimation at least, one of the most efficient, both in sealing and in whaling.
The steward, the second engineer, the donkey-engine man, and I were the oars, with a red-headed Highlander for harpooner and the handsome outlaw to steer. Our tally of seals was high, and in whaling we were once the lancing and once the harpooning boat, so our record was good. So congenial was the work to me that Captain Gray was good enough to offer to make me harpooner as well as surgeon, with the double pay, if I would come with him on a second voyage.
It is well that I refused, for the life is dangerously fascinating. It is exciting work pulling on to a whale. Your own back is turned to him, and all you know about him is what you read upon the face of the boat-steerer. He is staring out over your head, watching the creature as it swims slowly through the water, raising his hand now and again as a signal to stop rowing when he sees that the eye is coming round, and then resuming the stealthy approach when the whale is end on.
There are so many floating pieces of ice, that as long as the oars are quiet the boat alone will not cause the creature to dive. So you creep slowly up, and at last you are so near that the boat-steerer knows that you can get there before the creature has time to dive—for it takes some little time to get that huge body into motion.
You see a sudden gleam in his eyes, and a flush in his cheeks, and it's "Give way, boys! Give way, all Hard! Six strokes, perhaps, and then with a dull greasy squelch the bows run upon something soft, and you and your oars are sent flying in every direction. But little you care for that, for as you touched the whale you have heard the crash of the gun, and know that the harpoon has been fired point-blank into the huge, lead-coloured curve of its side.
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The creature sinks like a stone, the bows of the boat splash down into the water again, but there is the little red Jack flying from the centre thwart to show that you are fast, and there is the line whizzing swiftly under the seats and over the bows between your outstretched feet. And this is the great element of dancer—for it is rarely indeed that the whale has spirit enough to turn upon its enemies. The line is very carefully coiled by a special man named the line-coiler, and it is warranted not to kink.
If it should happen to do so, however, and if the loop catches the limbs of any one of the boat's crew, that man goes to his death so rapidly that his comrades hardly know that he has gone. It is a waste of fish to cut the line, for the victim is already hundreds of fathoms deep. This is the harpooning, and that boat has no more to do. But the lancing, when the weary fish is killed with the cold steel, is a more exciting because it is a more prolonged experience.
You may be for half an hour so near to the creature that you can lay your hand upon its slimy side. The whale appears to have but little sensibility to pain, for it never winces when the long lances are passed through its body. But its instinct urges it to get its tail to work on the boats, and yours urges you to keep poling and boat-hooking along its side, so as to retain your safe position near its shoulder.
Even there, however, we found on one occasion that we were not quite out of danger's way, for the creature in its flurry raised its huge side-flapper and poised it over the boat. One flap would have sent us to the bottom of the sea, and I can never forget how, as we pushed our way from under, each of us held one hand up to stave off that great, threatening fin—as if any strength of ours could have availed if the whale had meant it to descend. But it was spent with loss of blood, and instead of coming down the fin rolled over the other way, and we knew that it was dead.
Who would swap that moment for any other triumph that sport can give? The peculiar other-world feeling of the Arctic regions—a feeling so singular that if you have once been there the thought of it haunts you all your life—is due largely to the perpetual daylight. Night seems more orange-tinted and subdued than day, but there is no great difference. Some captains have been known to turn their hours right round out of caprice, with breakfast at night and supper at ten in the morning. There are your twenty-four hours, and you may carve them as you like.
After a month or two the eyes grow weary of the eternal light, and you appreciate what a soothing thing our darkness is. I can remember as we came abreast of Iceland, on our return, catching our first glimpse of a star, and being unable to take my eyes from it, it seemed such a dainty little twinkling thing.
Half the beauties of Nature are lost through over-familiarity. Your sense of loneliness also heightens the effect of the Arctic Seas. When we were in whaling latitudes it is probable that, with the exception of our consort, there was no vessel within miles of us. For seven long months no letter and no news came to us from the southern world. We had left in exciting times. The Afghan campaign had been undertaken, and war seemed imminent with Russia.
We returned opposite the mouth of the Baltic without any means of knowing whether some cruiser might not treat us as we had treated the whales. When we met a fishing-boat at the north of Shetland our first inquiry was as to peace or war. Great events had happened during those seven months: the defeat of Maiwand and the famous march of Roberts from Cabul to Candahar. But it was all haze to us; and, to this day, I have never been able to get that particular bit of military history straightened out in my own mind.
The perpetual light, the glare of the white ice, the deep blue of the water, these are the things which one remembers most clearly, and the dry, crisp, exhilarating air, which makes mere life the keenest of pleasures. And then there are the innumerable sea-birds, whose call is for ever ringing in your ears—the gulls, the fulmars, the snow-birds, the burgomasters, the looms, and the rotjes.
These fill the air, and below, the waters are for ever giving you a peep of some strange new creature. The commercial whale may not often come your way, but his less valuable brethren abound on every side. The finner shows his 90 feet of worthless tallow, with the absolute conviction that no whaler would condescend to lower a boat for him. The mis-shapen hunchback whale, the ghost-like white whale, the narwhal, with his unicorn horn, the queer-looking bottle-nose, the huge, sluggish, Greenland shark, and the terrible killing grampus, the most formidable of all the monsters of the deep,—these are the creatures who own those unsailed seas.
On the ice are the seals, the saddle-backs, the ground seals and the huge bladdernoses, 12 feet from nose to tail, with the power of blowing up a great blood-red football upon their noses when they are angry, which they usually are. Occasionally one sees a white Arctic fox upon the ice, and everywhere are the bears. The floes in the neighbourhood of the sealing-ground are all criss-crossed with their tracks—poor harmless creatures, with the lurch and roll of a deep-sea mariner.
It is for the sake of the seals that they come out over those hundreds of miles of ice; and they have a very ingenious method of catching them, for they will choose a big icefield with just one blow-hole for seals in the middle of it. Here the bear will squat, with its powerful forearms crooked round the hole. Then, when the seal's head pops up, the great paws snap together, and Bruin has got his luncheon. We used occasionally to burn some of the cook's refuse in the engine-room fires, and the smell would, in a few hours, bring up every bear for many miles to leeward of us.
Though twenty or thirty whales have been taken in a single year in the Greenland seas, it is probable that the great slaughter of last century has diminished their number until there are not more than a few hundreds in existence. I mean, of course, of the right whale, for the others, as I have said, abound.
It is difficult to compute the numbers of a species which comes and goes over great tracts of water and among huge icefields, but the fact that the same whale is often pursued by the same whaler upon successive trips shows how limited their number must be. There was one, I remember, which was conspicuous through having a huge wart, the size and shape of a beehive, upon one of the flukes of its tail.
In '74 we had him fast, but the harpoon drew. In '76 a fog saved him. It's odds that we have him now! I shall never forget my own first sight of a right whale. It had been seen by the look-out on the other side of a small icefield, but had sunk as we all rushed on deck. For ten minutes we awaited its reappearance, and I had taken my eyes from the place, when a general gasp of astonishment made me glance up, and there was the whale in the air.
Its tail was curved just as a trout's is in jumping, and every bit of its glistening lead-coloured body was clear of the water. It was little wonder that I should be astonished, for the captain, after thirty voyages, had never seen such a sight. On catching it we discovered that it was very thickly covered with a red, crab-like parasite, about the size of a shilling, and we conjectured that it was the irritation of these creatures which had driven it wild.
If a man had short, nailless flippers, and a prosperous family of fleas upon his back, he would appreciate the situation. Apart from sport, there is a glamour about those circum-polar regions which must affect everyone who has penetrated to them. My heart goes out to that old, grey-headed whaling captain who, having been left for an instant when at death's door, staggered off in his night gear, and was found by nurses far from his house and still, as he mumbled, "pushing to the norrard.
It was also pushing norrard, though who can say by what strange compass it took its bearings? It is a region of purity, of white ice and of blue water, with no human dwelling within a thousand miles to sully the freshness of the breeze which blows across the icefields. And then it is a region of romance also.
You stand on the very brink of the unknown, and every duck that you shoot bears pebbles in its gizzard which come from a land which the maps know not. It was a strange and fascinating chapter of my life. Look for the Kindle MatchBook icon on print and Kindle book detail pages of qualifying books. Print edition must be purchased new and sold by Amazon.
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