I HAD some friends—but I dreamed that they were dead—
I had some friends—their crowns were in the sky—
I had a friend—he came up from Cape Horn,
I had a boat—I out and let her drive,
A Trip South
Once in a child’s dream, I wandered into a Fifth Quarter of the world, and found everything different from all previous knowledge; as only children or old folk desire it to be. Now, the dream has come true.
The South American boats are a world to themselves, more intimate and specialised than any other. Inquiries begin to be answered in Portuguese or Spanish, while we lie at Southampton docks; the ship’s notices stand in both tongues; and the passengers do not in the least concern themselves with anything or anybody, or any motive or policy that, till then, one had held to be important. Before our steamer began to shift the sun, all known centres of gravity had shifted, and were spinning on new bearings.
Companions of the Way
One companion of the way drew, by birth and inheritance, from the Falkland Islands, and knew that very woman who sent in word to Sturdee’s people that the enemy were coming down, not guessing that our ships were at hand. He used to circulate by boat among the firths and fiords of the islands, and by horse (“Saddlebags, of course. There’s no way of carrying a trunk.”) inland across rivers of stone, and moors where no trees grow, and men fence in the wild sea-birds at nesting time that they may better manure the pastures. This had been his father’s life before him, and he loved it more than all his great possessions.
Other companions inhabited beyond the limits of imagination—among the snows and fires of the Cordilleras, or in sweating forest concessions northward, where unknown rivers out of the hearts of unknown forests rise and drown unknown tribes whose bodies presently arrive, face-down, at the frontiers of civilisation. There were cattle-men owning flat and stoneless land by the hundred square league, through which railways run for ever and ever without a bend or a rise or a culvert to them. Their wives and daughters, and the families of the coffee-Princes, had, by the look of them, been in the Rue de la Paix till the last moment. There were men also, with English and Irish names, as Southern as their Argentine wives, and their electrically quick children who used three languages at once in their play and went to bed when they felt sleepy, and not before. Embarrassment of Riches.
As the blessed warmth brought back all the rules of right living – the thin kit, the long drink, and the disregard of what manufactured clocks say up North, men talked. Every man felt it his duty to point out that the place one was going to was not the place one ought to see; at any rate, not at first. There were Inca cities and causeways, for instance, 15,000 feet up in the air, with copper mines (or was it gold-stuffed glacial deposits?) just beneath them. A mere picnic to reach. But, said another, not to be compared with 200 solid miles of high-grade Herefords, all going to be turned into beef-tea, and all accessible by luxurious Pullmans. Or did one desire cities as progressive as Birmingham, with Opera and Town Halls, and racecourses of limitless cost and size? Or still green worlds of coffee; or whispering, dark cocoa-nut plantations where old houses were hidden beside old, old chapels, and one could catch a breath of what life used to be in the days of the superb Brazilian Empire? Or suburban railways that corkscrewed themselves up the faces of 3,000 foot mountains; or Transcontinentals that rumbled nightly over the Andes, and fed you rather decently en route? These things, and heaps more, were to be played with; and the men of the cattle, coffee, shipping, oil, rail, and all the other interests, said, and meant it, that they would give one a good time. But time was quite good enough as it came up day after day with the ripening warmth, under escort of squadrons of flying-fish always rounding-to across our steady bows.
The Portuguese and Spanish emigrants taken in at Vigo and Lisbon, lay out on the foc’sle, and lived in the open after their easy custom. The life that they were going to, men told me, would be the same as that they had left, with the difference that in the South they could become as rich as their talents justfied. They had no difficulties to overcome; an Italian could pick up working Portuguese in a fortnight. Climate, custom, and language had apportioned those countries for the Latin. There were Basques, also; and that was a stock that did well. The present ruler of one of the great Southern States was, for example, pure Basque. And emigrants were needed. Did I realise? – Here they spouted figures of square mileage and population thereto, showing how many millions could be thrown into the illimitable South before it ceased to echo. Some of my informants used “South” specifically, because they said the North means the Tropics, where men grow lazy; whereas the businesslike South is swept by Polar breezes and bucked up by frosty winters. To which the North replied in effect: “Don’t you wish you were like us? What would you give to be the Paris of the North?” and so on.
One got at these things easily as the days grew warmer, and more and more Spanish and Portuguese lingua franca crept into the talk, and the children’s voices lifted themselves along the decks: “Eduardo! Ahora se! Do look out you—you—petit imbecile!” Or, when it was necessary to suppress Eduardo further, in Portuguese: “Oh go away and plant potatoes!”
But my business was the pursuit of the Beautiful, and beyond a desire to hang architects, I had never taken interest in municipal buildings. The purple-blue seas pushed under and crowded back behind the ship; the sunrises without a shiver to them, when the day rules at once, full-born; and the instant down-dive of night over the very head of the sunset, had been forgotten too long for the soul’s health. One had to catch up with these.
The Clerks of “Pernam”
Then, one early morn, our ship stopped, and by consequence all the little draughts and breezes that run up and down her stopped too; and heat—the genuine heat of lands that have not “weather”—beat friendlily on the back. It was Pernambuco, opening another jewelled day, with boats alongside where men sold golden and pink mangoes, and green parrakeets, every patch and flash of colour definite as enamelwork; the whole backed by the concrete of new piers, oil-tanks and warehouses. Behind these, low coast with veritable palms and bananas, quite unchanged since last seen, and hints of villas on a wooded cape that ran out into the turquoise.
Overside, dim shapes of shovel-nosed sharks who are respectable harbour-scavengers and need not be fished for. And as one stared, there unrolled itself a length of well-known film—a shore-boat with a man in white kit that had been often washed. He came aboard and introduced himself to a very young man in quite new London “whites,” with the creases still down the front of the trousers, who turned to his companions and bade them farewell. It was just a Pernambuco Bank taking over a new clerk. When the pair were gone—the young figure looking all ways at once—and I had finished estimating the number of shore—boats of different makes, in different ports, at that hour, with allowance for change of time, convoying just the same suit of whites—I asked a man, “What do you think he’ll make of it?” “He’ll like it no end, and he’ll talk about his first commission at Pernam, as long as he lives. They all do. I know I did. It’s a dear little place.” Which must be good news to some mother, the far side of the sea.
And further, this beach gave me this tale for the instruction of psychologists. Not long since, a couple of Bank clerks of Pernambuco went out (men take liberties with these waters) three miles in a Canadian canoe, which upset. After due consideration, the one who could swim best pushed off for the shore to get help. It took him hours and hours; but what he resented most, at the last despairing lap, was the sight of his lit club house on the shore, where he knew his friends were all drinking happily. However, he survived, gave the news, and a launch hurried out and rescued the other man after some sixteen hours soaking. He, the tale ended, was all right; but the swimmer went “absolutely off” gin and bitters for weeks. He said they, somehow, reminded him of the taste of salt water.
There is a fascinating and old-established life behind the green of the shores—with adventure and fun today, and unbroken tradition from Elizabeth’s time, and in the background, a world almost untouched. We had entered a stream of its society—people going up and down the coast on little excursions, all apparently rich, all pleasantly at ease, all well acquainted with each other, or each other’s acquaintances. It snapped whatever last link there had been with the rest of the world. These places belonged to another Power, and had risen on foundations utterly alien to ours.
An old Portuguese fort beside some new harbour-works hinted as much. A Dutch cut on the sterns of the sailing barges added another hint (the Dutch and the Portuguese had it out together, here, a couple of centuries since), and the easy-moving, easy-spoken passengers filled in the rest. They were going, on their own concerns, to Bahia, 300—or Rio, a thousand—or Buenos Aires, 2,000 odd—miles down the road. That boat yonder with the banded funnels was a Brazilian Lloyd. She would run 1,200 miles north, and then up the Amazon for another thousand or two. Letters for Europe could be posted at Pernambuco, because the Dutch or the Italian or the French mail would be up to-morrow to take them on. So learning, we brushed along the green, resounding empty coasts till a vast bay opened, and we lay off Bahia, where, again, everyone coming aboard knew everyone, and the impression of age and solidity deepened in the face of ancient churches and serene old houses.
One felt, without telling, that Bahia was the Mother City—the hearth of all that flaming energy when Brazil was being born. Here, too, the Church had ruled, very completely, and here had come the slaves in their thousands, unaware that their children should be citizens of a Republic where the Colour question is not. Here you find the dishes and meats of the old regime—wonderful confections that derive from “palm-oil chop” at its highest; the fruits and the fruit-juice drinks; the rampant colours, greens, reds, and yellows, as of a negress’s head-dress; the glare and blaze that takes possession, but does not hurt; and the orderly alternation of the land and sea breezes. Everything that really civilised men can need; and, just because of these advantages, they prefer to talk about their docks and wharves, which, after all, come by nature and public loans to any decent seaboard town.
So we went on past a certain Cape where the air and water are always chilly for a few hours, while a Brazilian told me tales of the old time explorers and Captains and the Priests who came after them, in the years when fiery Portugal was raking half the world into her lap. They had as little fear, reason, or what is called common-sense, as any of our sea-workers of the same date, otherwise they would have left the proposition alone. For, he pointed out, from Bahia south to Rio runs a ridge of mountain some two or three thousand feet high within a few miles of the coast, and to get anywhere at all they had first to deal with the tribes in the low ground, and then to work themselves up to the ledge that gives on to the real country. “You’ll see it better when you are at Rio or Santos,” said he. “That ledge has held us back fifty years. In the old days, one rode it on mule-back—as my father did. Everything came down in packages—coffee and all. That was why we had to have slaves. People don’t keep slaves for fun. It’s a question of transport. Nothing kills slavery but roads.”
And while he was explaining, the heat, past Cape Frio, sucked in again, the mountains lifted themselves more loftily and fantastically into hammer-heads and tusks of rock, velveted, up to any slope short of vertical, with matted, solid fighting green forest-growth, and there was a general stir and possessiveness along the decks. Most of our Southampton passengers were almost home again.