Read LETTER ONE of Six Months at the Cape , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on ReadCentral.com.

A LIFE ON THE OCEAN WAVE

South Africa.

Dear Periwinkle,-Since that memorable, not to say miserable, day, when you and I parted at Saint Katherine’s Docks, , with the rain streaming from our respective noses-rendering tears superfluous, if not impossible-and the noise of preparation for departure damaging the fervour of our “farewell”-since that day, I have ploughed with my “adventurous keel” upwards of six thousand miles of the “main,” and now write to you from the wild Karroo of Southern Africa.

The Karroo is not an animal.  It is a spot-at present a lovely spot.  I am surrounded by-by nature and all her southern abundance.  Mimosa trees, prickly pears, and aloes remind me that I am not in England.  Ostriches, stalking on the plains, tell that I am in Africa.  It is not much above thirty years since the last lion was shot in this region, , and the kloofs, or gorges, of the blue mountains that bound the horizon are, at the present hour, full of “Cape-tigers,” wild deer of different sorts, baboons, monkeys, and-but hold!  I must not forestall.  Let me begin at the beginning.

The adventurous keel above referred to was not, as you know, my own private property.  I shared it with some two hundred or so of human beings, and a large assortment of the lower animals.  Its name was the “Windsor Castle”-one of a magnificent line of ocean steamers belonging to an enterprising British firm.

There is something appallingly disagreeable in leave-taking.  I do not refer now to the sentiment, but to the manner of it.  Neither do I hint, my dear fellow, at your manner of leave-taking.  Your abrupt “Well, old boy, bon voyage, good-bye, bless you,” followed by your prompt retirement from the scene, was perfect in its way, and left nothing to be desired; but leave-takings in general-how different!

Have you never stood on a railway platform to watch the starting of an express?

Of course you have, and you have seen the moist faces of those two young sisters, who had come to “see off” that dear old aunt, who had been more than a mother to them since that day, long ago, when they were left orphans, and who was leaving them for a few months, for the first time for many years; and you have observed how, after kissing and weeping on her for the fiftieth time, they were forcibly separated by the exasperated guard; and the old lady was firmly, yet gently thrust into her carriage, and the door savagely locked with one hand, while the silver whistle was viciously clapt to the lips with the other, and the last “goo-ood-bye-d-arling!” was drowned by a shriek, and puff and clank, as the train rolled off.

You’ve seen it all, have you not, over and over again, in every degree and modification?  No doubt you have, and as it is with parting humanity at railway stations, so is it at steamboat wharves.

There are differences, however.  After you had left, I stood and sympathised with those around me, and observed that there is usually more emotion on a wharf than on a platform-naturally enough, as, in the case of long sea voyages, partings, it may be presumed, are for longer periods, and dangers are supposed to be greater and more numerous than in land journeys,-though this is open to question.  The waiting process, too, is prolonged.  Even after the warning bell had sent non-voyagers ashore, they had to stand for a considerable time in the rain while we cast off our moorings or went through some of those incomprehensible processes by which a leviathan steamer is moved out of dock.

After having made a first false move, which separated us about three yards from the wharf-inducing the wearied friends on shore to brighten up and smile, and kiss hands, and wave kerchiefs, with that energy of decision which usually marks a really final farewell-our steamer remained in that position for full half an hour, during which period we gazed from the bulwarks, and our friends gazed from under their dripping umbrellas across the now impassable gulf in mute resignation.

At that moment a great blessing befell us.  A boy let his cap drop from the wharf into the water!  It was an insignificant matter in itself, but it acted like the little safety-valve which prevents the bursting of a high-pressure engine.  Voyagers and friends no longer looked at each other like melancholy imbéciles.  A gleam of intense interest suffused every visage, intelligence sparkled in every eye, as we turned and concentrated our attention on that cap!  The unexpressed blessing of the whole company, ashore and afloat, descended on the uncovered head of that boy, who, all unconscious of the great end he was fulfilling, made frantic and futile efforts with a long piece of stick to recover his lost property.

But we did at last get under weigh, and then there were some touches of real pathos.  I felt no disposition to note the humorous elements around when I saw that overgrown lad of apparently eighteen summers, press to the side and wave his thin hands in adieu to an elderly lady on shore, while tears that he could not, and evidently did not care to restrain, ran down his hollow cheeks.  He had no friend on board, and was being sent to the Cape for the benefit of his health.  So, too, was another young man-somewhere between twenty and thirty years-whose high colour, brilliant eye, and feeble step told their own tale.  But this man was not friendless.  His young wife was there, and supported him with tender solicitude towards a seat.  These two were in the after-cabin.  Among the steerage passengers the fell disease was represented in the person of a little boy.  “Too late” was written on the countenances of at least two of these,-the married man and the little boy.

As to the healthy passengers, what shall I say of them?  Need I tell you that every species of humanity was represented?

There were tall men, and short men, as well as men broad and narrow,- mentally, not less than physically.  There were ladies pretty, and ladies plain, as well as grave and gay.  Fat and funny ones we had, also lean ones and sad.  The wise and foolish virgins were represented.  So too were smokers and drinkers; and not a few earnest, loving, and lovable, men and women.

A tendency had been gaining on me of late to believe that, after passing middle-life, a man cannot make new and enthusiastic friendships.  Never was I more mistaken.  It is now my firm conviction that men may and do make friendships of the closest kind up to the end of their career.  Of course the new friends do not, and cannot, take the place of the old.  It seems to me that they serve a higher purpose, and, by enabling one to realise the difference between the old and the new, draw the cords of ancient friendship tighter.  At all events, you may depend upon it, my dear Periwinkle, that no new friend shall ever tumble you out of the niche which you occupy in my bosom!

But be this as it may, it is a fact that in my berth-which held four, and was full all the voyage-there was a tall, dark, powerful, middle-aged man, an Englishman born in Cape Colony, , who had been “home” for a trip, and was on his way out again to his African home on the great Karroo.  This man raised within me feelings of disgust when I first saw him in the dim light of our berth, because he was big, and I knew that a big man requires more air to fill his lungs than a little one, and there was no superabundant air in our berth-quite the reverse.  This man occupied the top berth opposite to mine.  Each morning as I awoke my eyes fell on his beard of iron-grey, and I gazed at his placid countenance till he awoke-or I found his placid countenance gazing at me when I awoke.  From gazing to nodding in recognition is an easy step in ordinary circumstances, but not when one’s head is on one’s pillow.  We therefore passed at once, without the ceremony of nodding, into a quiet “good morning.”  Although reticent, he gradually added a smile to the “good morning,” and I noticed that his smile was a peculiarly pleasant one.  Steps that succeed the “first” are generally easy.  From disliking this man-not on personal, but purely selfish grounds-I came to like him; then to love him.  I have reason to believe that the attachment was mutual.  His name-why should I not state it?  I don’t think he would object-is Hobson.

In the bunk below Hobson lay a young Wesleyan minister.  He was a slender young fellow,-modest and thoughtful.  If Hobson’s bunk had given way, I fear that his modesty and thoughtfulness might have been put to a severe test.  I looked down upon this young Wesleyan from my materially exalted position, but before the voyage was over I learned to look up to him from a spiritually low position.  My impression is that he was a “meek” man.  I may be mistaken, but of this am I certain, that he was one of the gentlest, and at the same time one of the most able men in the ship.

But, to return to my berth-which, by the way, I was often loth to do, owing to the confined air below, and the fresh glorious breezes on deck-the man who slept under me was a young banker, a clerk, going out to the Cape to make his fortune, and a fine capable-looking fellow he was, inclined rather to be receptive than communicative.  He frequently bumped me with his head in getting up; I, not unfrequently, put a foot upon his nose, or toes, in getting down.

What can I say about the sea that has not been said over and over again in days of old?  This, however, is worthy of record, that we passed the famous Bay of Biscay in a dead-calm.  We did not “lay” one single “day” on that “Bay of Biscay, O!” The “O!” seems rather awkwardly to imply that I am not stating the exact truth, but I assure you that it is a fact.  More than this, we had not a storm all the way to the Cape.  It was a pure pleasure excursion-a sort of yacht voyage-from beginning to end; very pleasant at the time, and delightful now to dwell upon; for, besides the satisfaction of making a new friend like Hobson, there were others to whom I was powerfully drawn, both by natural sympathy and intellectual bias.

There was a Wesleyan minister, also an Englishman, born in South Africa, and of the race of Anak, with whom, and his amiable wife, and pretty children, I fraternised ardently.  My soul was also gladdened by intercourse with a clergyman of the Dutch-Reformed Church, well-known in the Cape, and especially in the Transvaal-who, with his pleasant wife and daughter, was on his way back to South Africa after a brief trip to Europe.  He was argumentative; so, you know, am I. He was also good-tempered, therefore we got on well.

It would be an endless business to name and describe all the passengers who were personally attractive, and who were more or less worthy of description.  There were, among others, a genial and enthusiastic Dutch-African legislator of the Cape; a broad-shouldered but retiring astronomer; also a kindly Cape merchant; and a genial English banker, with their respective wives and families.  I had the good fortune to sit in the midst of these at meals, close to Captain Hewat, who is unquestionably, what many of us styled him, a “trump.”  He is also a Scotchman.  There was likewise a diamond-digger, and another man who seemed to hate everybody except himself.  There were also several sportsmen; one of whom, a gallant son of Mars, and an author, had traversed the “Great Lone Land” of British America, and had generally, it seemed to me, “done” the world, with the exception of Central Africa, which he was at last going to add to his list.  There were also troops of children, who behaved remarkably well considering the trials they had to undergo; and numerous nurses, some of whom required more attention than all the ladies put together.

You will now, no doubt, expect an account of romantic adventures on the deep, and narrow escapes, and alarms of fire, and men overboard, and thrilling narratives.  If so, your expectations are doomed to disappointment.  We fished for no sharks, we chased no whales, we fell in with no slavers or pirates.  Nevertheless we saw flying fish, and we had concerts and lectures; and such delightful perambulations of the decks, and such charming impromptu duets and glees and solos on retired parts of the deck in moonlight nights, and such earnest discussions, and such genial companionship!  Truly that voyage was one of those brilliant episodes which occur only once in a lifetime, and cannot be repeated; one of those green spots in memory, which, methinks, will survive when all other earthly things have passed away.

I will write no more about it, however, at present.  Neither will I proceed in what is usually considered the natural manner with my epistles-namely, step by step.  Arrivals, cities, travelling, roads, inns, and all such, I will skip, and proceed at one bound to that which at the present moment is to me most interesting, merely remarking that we reached Capetown, (of which more hereafter), in November,-the South African summer-after a voyage of twenty-five days.

I am now sojourning at Ebenezer-Hobson’s residence on the Karroo.