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- Through the Magic Door - 20/23 -


The tradition of Arctic exploration is a noble one among Americans as well as ourselves. The next book is a case in point. It is Greely's "Arctic Service," and it is a worthy shelf-companion to Scott's "Account of the Voyage of the Discovery." There are incidents in this book which one can never forget. The episode of those twenty-odd men lying upon that horrible bluff, and dying one a day from cold and hunger and scurvy, is one which dwarfs all our puny tragedies of romance. And the gallant starving leader giving lectures on abstract science in an attempt to take the thoughts of the dying men away from their sufferings--what a picture! It is bad to suffer from cold and bad to suffer from hunger, and bad to live in the dark; but that men could do all these things for six months on end, and that some should live to tell the tale, is, indeed, a marvel. What a world of feeling lies in the exclamation of the poor dying lieutenant: "Well, this _is_ wretched," he groaned, as he turned his face to the wall.

The Anglo-Celtic race has always run to individualism, and yet there is none which is capable of conceiving and carrying out a finer ideal of discipline. There is nothing in Roman or Grecian annals, not even the lava-baked sentry at Pompeii, which gives a more sternly fine object-lesson in duty than the young recruits of the British army who went down in their ranks on the Birkenhead. And this expedition of Greely's gave rise to another example which seems to me hardly less remarkable. You may remember, if you have read the book, that even when there were only about eight unfortunates still left, hardly able to move for weakness and hunger, the seven took the odd man out upon the ice, and shot him dead for breach of discipline. The whole grim proceeding was carried out with as much method and signing of papers, as if they were all within sight of the Capitol at Washington. His offence had consisted, so far as I can remember, of stealing and eating the thong which bound two portions of the sledge together, something about as appetizing as a bootlace. It is only fair to the commander to say, however, that it was one of a series of petty thefts, and that the thong of a sledge might mean life or death to the whole party.

Personally I must confess that anything bearing upon the Arctic Seas is always of the deepest interest to me. He who has once been within the borders of that mysterious region, which can be both the most lovely and the most repellent upon earth, must always retain something of its glamour. Standing on the confines of known geography I have shot the southward flying ducks, and have taken from their gizzards pebbles which they have swallowed in some land whose shores no human foot has trod. The memory of that inexpressible air, of the great ice-girt lakes of deep blue water, of the cloudless sky shading away into a light green and then into a cold yellow at the horizon, of the noisy companionable birds, of the huge, greasy-backed water animals, of the slug-like seals, startlingly black against the dazzling whiteness of the ice--all of it will come back to a man in his dreams, and will seem little more than some fantastic dream itself, go removed is it from the main stream of his life. And then to play a fish a hundred tons in weight, and worth two thousand pounds--but what in the world has all this to do with my bookcase?

Yet it has its place in my main line of thought, for it leads me straight to the very next upon the shelf, Bullen's "Cruise of the Cachelot," a book which is full of the glamour and the mystery of the sea, marred only by the brutality of those who go down to it in ships. This is the sperm-whale fishing, an open-sea affair, and very different from that Greenland ice groping in which I served a seven-months' apprenticeship. Both, I fear, are things of the past--certainly the northern fishing is so, for why should men risk their lives to get oil when one has but to sink a pipe in the ground. It is the more fortunate then that it should have been handled by one of the most virile writers who has described a sailor's life. Bullen's English at its best rises to a great height. If I wished to show how high, I would take that next book down, "Sea Idylls."

How is this, for example, if you have an ear for the music of prose? It is a simple paragraph out of the magnificent description of a long calm in the tropics.

"A change, unusual as unwholesome, came over the bright blue of the sea. No longer did it reflect, as in a limpid mirror, the splendour of the sun, the sweet silvery glow of the moon, or the coruscating clusters of countless stars. Like the ashen-grey hue that bedims the countenance of the dying, a filmy greasy skin appeared to overspread the recent loveliness of the ocean surface. The sea was sick, stagnant, and foul, from its turbid waters arose a miasmatic vapour like a breath of decay, which clung clammily to the palate and dulled all the senses. Drawn by some strange force, from the unfathomable depths below, eerie shapes sought the surface, blinking glassily at the unfamiliar glare they had exchanged for their native gloom--uncouth creatures bedight with tasselled fringes like weed-growths waving around them, fathom-long, medusae with coloured spots like eyes clustering all over their transparent substance, wriggling worm-like forms of such elusive matter that the smallest exposure to the sun melted them, and they were not. Lower down, vast pale shadows creep sluggishly along, happily undistinguishable as yet, but adding a half-familiar flavour to the strange, faint smell that hung about us."

Take the whole of that essay which describes a calm in the Tropics, or take the other one "Sunrise as seen from the Crow's-nest," and you must admit that there have been few finer pieces of descriptive English in our time. If I had to choose a sea library of only a dozen volumes I should certainly give Bullen two places. The others? Well, it is so much a matter of individual taste. "Tom Cringle's Log" should have one for certain. I hope boys respond now as they once did to the sharks and the pirates, the planters, and all the rollicking high spirits of that splendid book. Then there is Dana's "Two Years before the Mast." I should find room also for Stevenson's "Wrecker" and "Ebb Tide." Clark Russell deserves a whole shelf for himself, but anyhow you could not miss out "The Wreck of the Grosvenor." Marryat, of course, must be represented, and I should pick "Midshipman Easy" and "Peter Simple" as his samples. Then throw in one of Melville's Otaheite books--now far too completely forgotten--"Typee" or "Omoo," and as a quite modern flavour Kipling's "Captains Courageous" and Jack London's "Sea Wolf," with Conrad's "Nigger of the Narcissus." Then you will have enough to turn your study into a cabin and bring the wash and surge to your cars, if written words can do it. Oh, how one longs for it sometimes when life grows too artificial, and the old Viking blood begins to stir! Surely it must linger in all of us, for no man who dwells in an island but had an ancestor in longship or in coracle. Still more must the salt drop tingle in the blood of an American when you reflect that in all that broad continent there is not one whose forefather did not cross 3000 miles of ocean. And yet there are in the Central States millions and millions of their descendants who have never seen the sea.

I have said that "Omoo" and "Typee," the books in which the sailor Melville describes his life among the Otaheitans, have sunk too rapidly into obscurity. What a charming and interesting task there is for some critic of catholic tastes and sympathetic judgment to undertake rescue work among the lost books which would repay salvage! A small volume setting forth their names and their claims to attention would be interesting in itself, and more interesting in the material to which it would serve as an introduction. I am sure there are many good books, possibly there are some great ones, which have been swept away for a time in the rush. What chance, for example, has any book by an unknown author which is published at a moment of great national excitement, when some public crisis arrests the popular mind? Hundreds have been still-born in this fashion, and are there none which should have lived among them? Now, there is a book, a modern one, and written by a youth under thirty. It is Snaith's "Broke of Covenden," and it scarce attained a second edition. I do not say that it is a Classic--I should not like to be positive that it is not--but I am perfectly sure that the man who wrote it has the possibility of a Classic within him. Here is another novel--"Eight Days," by Forrest. You can't buy it. You are lucky even if you can find it in a library. Yet nothing ever written will bring the Indian Mutiny home to you as this book will do. Here's another which I will warrant you never heard of. It is Powell's "Animal Episodes." No, it is not a collection of dog-and-cat anecdotes, but it is a series of very singularly told stories which deal with the animal side of the human, and which you will feel have an entirely new flavour if you have a discriminating palate. The book came out ten years ago, and is utterly unknown. If I can point to three in one small shelf, how many lost lights must be flitting in the outer darkness!

Let me hark back for a moment to the subject with which I began, the romance of travel and the frequent heroism of modern life. I have two books of Scientific Exploration here which exhibit both these qualities as strongly as any I know. I could not choose two better books to put into a young man's hands if you wished to train him first in a gentle and noble firmness of mind, and secondly in a great love for and interest in all that pertains to Nature. The one is Darwin's "Journal of the Voyage of the Beagle." Any discerning eye must have detected long before the "Origin of Species" appeared, simply on the strength of this book of travel, that a brain of the first order, united with many rare qualities of character, had arisen. Never was there a more comprehensive mind. Nothing was too small and nothing too great for its alert observation. One page is occupied in the analysis of some peculiarity in the web of a minute spider, while the next deals with the evidence for the subsidence of a continent and the extinction of a myriad animals. And his sweep of knowledge was so great--botany, geology, zoology, each lending its corroborative aid to the other. How a youth of Darwin's age--he was only twenty-three when in the year 1831 he started round the world on the surveying ship Beagle--could have acquired such a mass of information fills one with the same wonder, and is perhaps of the same nature, as the boy musician who exhibits by instinct the touch of the master. Another quality which one would be less disposed to look for in the savant is a fine contempt for danger, which is veiled in such modesty that one reads between the lines in order to detect it. When he was in the Argentina, the country outside the Settlements was covered with roving bands of horse Indians, who gave no quarter to any whites. Yet Darwin rode the four hundred miles between Bahia and Buenos Ayres, when even the hardy Gauchos refused to accompany him. Personal danger and a hideous death were small things to him compared to a new beetle or an undescribed fly.

The second book to which I alluded is Wallace's "Malay Archipelago." There is a strange similarity in the minds of the two men, the same courage, both moral and physical, the same gentle persistence, the same catholic knowledge and wide. sweep of mind, the same passion for the observation of Nature. Wallace by a flash of intuition understood and described in a letter to Darwin the cause of the Origin of Species at the very time when the latter was publishing a book founded upon twenty years' labour to prove the same thesis. What must have been his feelings when he read that letter? And yet he had nothing to fear, for his book found no more enthusiastic


Through the Magic Door - 20/23

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