Read CHAPTER XII. of English Pharisees and French Crocodiles, free online book, by Max O'Rell, on


To think that those worthy French and English people, who only live twenty-one miles from each other, should not be able to exchange visits without first making acquaintance with the mal de mer!  To think that this must be the last impression that each one takes home with him!

The mal de mer!  That uninteresting complaint which awakes no pity in the breast of man!

The sky is serene, a light breeze gently fans your cheek, the water in the harbor is as smooth as a sheet of glass.  You timidly ask the first sailor you come across a question or two as to the weather and the outlook for the passage-not for your own reassurance, for you are a pretty good sailor, but ... for a friend, or ... for a lady who is traveling with you, and who suffers dreadfully from seasickness.  The sly fellow sees through your little ruse, and answers, with a serio-comic look:  “The sea, sir! like a lake, sir; like a lake.”

You feel reassured.  You say to yourself:  “Well, this time, at all events, we shall have a good passage;” and you cheerily pace the deck, light of heart and firm of foot, convinced that if anyone is ill, it will not be you.

The illusion is a sweet, but short-lived one.

The whistle sounds, the boat is set in motion, and gently and smoothly glides to the mouth of the harbor.

Everyone seems in the best of spirits, people chatter in groups, and handkerchiefs are waved to the friends who have come down to the quay to see you off.

The end of the pier is passed.  There you are-now for it.  You have hardly rounded the projection which would be for you a little Cape of Good Hope, if you were only arriving instead of departing, when the horrible construction heaves heavily forward, and then seems to sink away from under your feet, making you feel as if it were about to leave you in mid-air, and trust to your intelligence to catch it again.  You would fain make your escape without delay; but everybody is there, so you hold on and look around.  Little by little the faces grow serious; they begin to pale and lengthen visibly; the groups melt and gradually disperse.  Everyone finds a pretext for going below and hiding his shame.

“I am not generally ill on the water,” you remark to your neighbor; “but to-day, I don’t know why, I am not feeling quite up to the mark; I must have eaten something at luncheon that does not agree with me....  Oh! of course, it’s that wretched lobster salad!  I was cautioned not to touch it, too.  Oh! la gourmandise!” Confident of having persuaded your traveling companion that you are a tolerably good sailor, you too disappear below ... and he, not sorry to see you go, is not long in following your example.

You go down to the cabin.  Alas! that is the finishing touch.  The stuffy, heavy, unwholesome atmosphere, charged with a mixed odor of tar, mysterious cookery, and troubled stomachs, brings your digestive apparatus up to your throat.  You feel stifled.  All the vital forces crowd to your head, and your legs are powerless to support you.  You throw yourself on your berth like a log, and instinctively close your eyes, so as not to see that man over there, who is just about to open the ball, or that other who is looking at you with a mixture of amusement and pity, as he calmly eats his chop.  This creature is the most annoying of all your fellow-passengers.  His compassion for you is insulting.  You hate his healthy-looking face, his calm, his good appetite even; and your indignation reaches its climax when you see him coolly filling his pipe and preparing to go on deck and smoke.  Unable to endure the atmosphere of the saloon any longer, you make a grand effort and return to the upper regions.  The first sight that meets your eyes is that man again, now lavishing the most careful attentions upon your wife; he has been to fetch her some brandy and water, or a cup of tea.  You would thank him, but you do not care for your wife to see you in your pitiful condition.  That fellow is unbearable, overpowering.  This is the only reflection suggested by his kindness to your wife; and away you steer, making a semicircle, or rather two or three, on your way to an empty bench, where you once more assume the horizontal.

A friend comes to tell you that your wife is giving up the ghost somewhere in the stern of the ship, but you make believe not to hear, and only murmur through your teeth:  “So am I; what can I do for her?”

You ask the steward to send you some tea, and it comes up in an earthenware basin an inch thick.  You put it to your lips.  Horrible!  What can it possibly be made of, this nauseating decoction?  The smell of the flat, unpalatable stuff makes you feel more qualmish than ever; the remedy is worse than the evil.

Just as, at Monaco, you never fail to come across a gambler who has his system, you rarely take a sea journey without meeting with the good soul who has an infallible preventive for seasickness.  “This succeeds with nine persons out of ten,” she tells you.  Next time you cross, you try it, but only to find that you are evidently the tenth.  However, it is not a failure or two that can shake the blind confidence she has in her remedy, I must say it to her credit.

Though there exists no cure for this strange evil, I think, notwithstanding, that by the exercise of a little self-control, one can retard the catastrophe.  At least such is my experience.

We were one day between Guernsey and Southampton, just near the Casquettes, where the Channel makes things very uncomfortable for you, if there is the least wind blowing.  I had curled myself up in a corner in the stern of the boat and was preparing to feel very sadly.  Up came two French ladies, appearing, like myself, to have strayed that way in search of solitude.

Saperlotte,” thought I, “here are women looking at you, my boy; be a man.”

I fixed my eyes on a point of the horizon, and no doubt appeared to my neighbors to be plunged in profound contemplation.

The ladies took up their position not very far from me, and began to heave very heavy sighs.  I looked at them.  They were green.

“Ah, Monsieur!” said one of them to me, “how fortunate you are, not to be ill!”

I was saved, for the moment at all events.  It put fresh strength into me.  Forcing a smile, and gathering up my courage, I had the impudence to affirm that I felt pretty well.  The effort of the will had the power to keep the evil in check.

At that moment I understood how you can make a hero of a frightened soldier by telling him that bravery is written in his eyes.

A man who crosses the Channel several times a year is pretty sure to have one or two little anecdotes of the mal de mer, and its consequences, in a corner of his memory.

Here is one chosen at random: 

It was between Boulogne and Folkestone, on a mare contrarium.

Seated quietly on deck, I was just dozing over a book, the author of which I will not name, since his volume had less power over my senses than the rolling of the boat.  I was presently brought back to consciousness by the weight of a head, laid on my shoulder.  I opened my eyes, looked out of the corners of them; the head was a very pretty one, upon my word.

What was I to do?

To stay would be compromising; to get away suddenly would be ungallant and perhaps not without danger, for the poor little head might fall against the bulwarks of the boat.  I reclosed my eyes, and made believe not to have noticed anything.  All at once I heard a sweet voice in my ear: 

“O Arthur!  What shall I do?  If you only knew how sick I feel.  Oh!  I must lean my head on your shoulder; you don’t mind, do you?”

The situation was getting alarming.  I kept my eyes closed, so as not to scare away the poor creature, who was evidently at sea, in more senses than one.  I kept quiet, buried in my wraps and traveling cap, and, without moving my head, just murmured, “I am really awfully sorry, madam, but I am not Arthur.”

This was startling enough in all conscience.  I quite expected a small explosion; apologies, little screams, a fainting fit, perhaps.  Happily, however, on board ship, dignity is laid aside.  Certainly, on dry land, this lady could not have done less than faint, if it were only for the sake of appearances.  But a la mer, comme a la mer.

So there was no fuss or fainting; for that matter my poor fellow-traveler had not the strength to move.  I rose, helped her to assume a more comfortable position, placed a cushion under her head, and covered her with my rug.  Then, having called the steward and recommended Mme. Arthur to his care, there remained nothing but to decamp, and quit the thankless rôle of caretaker of somebody else’s wife.

When we got into harbor at Folkestone, Arthur suddenly made his appearance from somewhere in the lower regions.  He was my very double-the same size, the same dress....  I saw through the misadventure.

On joining the London train, I found myself in the same compartment as the young couple.  Arthur knew all, as they say in sensational novels, and we had a hearty laugh together over the affair.  Arthur was as gay as a lark.  I attributed his mirth to the fact of his having left the sea behind, and to his finding himself once more on terra firma with his beloved one.  I found in the course of conversation that he had only been married the day before, and the happy pair had come over to hide their bliss in the fogs.  They intended passing their honeymoon in London.  It would have been sacrilege.  I dissuaded them from their project, and induced them to go to Scotland, to see its lakes and mountains, and the bracken lit up with autumnal gold.