From Sea to Sea

Letter XXII

by Rudyard Kipling

Then spoke der Captain Stossenheim
Who had theories of God,
‘Oh, Breitmann, this is judgment on
Der ways dot you have trod.
You only lifs to enjoy yourself
While you yourself agree
Dot self-development requires
Der religious Idee.’

Breitmann’s Going to Church

THIS is America. They call her the City of Peking, and she belongs to the Pacific Mail Company, but for all practical purposes she is the United States. We are divided between missionaries and generals—generals who were at Vicksburg and Shiloh, and German by birth, but more American than the Americans, who in confidence tell you that they are not generals at all, but only brevet majors of militia corps. The missionaries are perhaps the queerest portion of the cargo. Did you ever hear an English minister lecture for half an hour on the freight-traffic receipts and general working of, let us say, the Midland? The Professor has been sitting at the feet of a keen-eyed, close-bearded, swarthy man who expounded unto him kindred mysteries with a fluency and precision that a city leader-writer might have envied. ‘Who’s your financial friend with the figures at his fingers’ ends?’ I asked. ‘Missionary—Presbyterian Mission to the Japs,’ said the Professor. I laid my hand upon my mouth and was dumb.

As a counterpoise to the missionaries, we carry men from Manila—lean Scotchmen who gamble once a month in the Manila State lottery and occasionally turn up trumps. One, at least, drew a ten-thousand-dollar prize last December and is away to make merry in the New World. Everybody on the staff of an American steamer this side the continent seems to gamble steadily in that lottery, and the talk of the smoking-room runs almost entirely on prizes won by accident or lost through a moment’s delay. The tickets are sold more or less openly at Yokohama and Hong-Kong, and the drawings—losers and winners both agree here—are above reproach.

We have resigned ourselves to the infinite monotony of a twenty days’ voyage. The Pacific Mail advertises falsely. Only under the most favourable circumstances of wind and steam can their under-engined boats cover the distance in fifteen days. Our City of Peking, for instance, had been jogging along at a gentle ten knots an hour, a pace out of all proportion to her bulk. ‘When we get a wind,’ says the Captain, ‘we shall do better.’ She is a four-master and can carry any amount of canvas. It is not safe to run steamers across this void under the poles of Atlantic liners. The monotony of the sea is paralysing. We have passed the wreck of a little sealing-schooner lying bottom up and covered with gulls. She weltered by in the chill dawn, unlovely as the corpse of a man; and the wild birds piped thinly at us as they steered her across the surges. The pulse of the Pacific is no little thing even in the quieter moods of the sea. It set our bows swinging and nosing and ducking ere we were a day clear of Yokohama, and yet there was never swell nor crested wave in sight. ‘We ride very high,’ said the Captain, ’and she’s a dry boat. She has a knack of crawling over things somehow; but we shan’t need to put her to the test this journey.’

.     .     .     .     .

The Captain was mistaken. For four days we have endured the sullen displeasure of the North Pacific, winding up with a night of discomfort. It began with a grey sea, flying clouds, and a headwind that smote fifty knots off the day’s run. Then rose from the south-east a beam sea warranted by no wind that was abroad upon the waters in our neighbourhood, and we wallowed in the trough of it for sixteen mortal hours. In the stillness of the harbour, when the newspaper man is lunching in her saloon and the steam-launch is crawling round her sides, a ship of pride is a ‘stately liner.’ Out in the open, one rugged shoulder of a sea between you and the horizon, she becomes ‘the old hooker,’ a ‘lively boat,’ and other things of small import, for this is necessary to propitiate the Ocean. ‘There’s a storm to the southeast of us,’ explained the Captain. ‘That’s what’s kicking up this sea.’

The City of Peking did not belie her reputation. She crawled over the seas in liveliest wise, never shipping a bucket till—she was forced to. Then she took it green over the bows to the vast edification of, at least, one passenger who had never seen the scuppers full before.

Later in the day the fun began. ‘Oh, she’s a daisy at rolling,’ murmured the chief steward, flung starfish-wise on a table among his glassware. ‘She’s rolling some,’ said a black apparition new risen from the stoke-hold. ‘Is she going to roll any more?’ demanded the ladies grouped in what ought to have been the ladies’ saloon, but, according to American custom, was labelled ‘Social Hall.’

Passed in the twilight the chief officer—a dripping, bearded face. ‘Shall I mark out the bullboard?’ said he, and lurched aft, followed by the tongue of a wave. ‘She’ll roll her guards under to-night,’ said a man from Louisiana, where their river-steamers do not understand the meaning of bulwarks. We dined to a dashing accompaniment of crockery, the bounds of emancipated beer-bottles livelier than their own corks, and the clamour of the ship’s gong broken loose and calling to meals on its own account.

After dinner the real rolling began. She did roll ‘guards under,’ as the Louisiana man had prophesied. At thirty-minute intervals, to the second, arrived one big sea, when the electric lamps died down to nothing, and the screw raved and the blows of the sea made the decks quiver. On those occasions we moved from our chairs, not gently, but discourteously. At other times we were merely holding on with both hands.

It was then that I studied Fear—Terror bound in black silk and fighting hard with herself. For reasons which will be thoroughly understood, there was a tendency among the passengers to herd together and to address inquiries to every officer who happened to stagger through the saloon. No one was in the least alarmed,—oh dear, no,—but all were keenly anxious for information. This anxiety redoubled after a more than usually vicious roll. Terror was a large, handsome, and cultured lady who knew the precise value of human life, the inwardness of Robert Elsmere, the latest poetry—everything in fact that a clever woman should know. When the rolling was near its worst, she began to talk swiftly. I do not for a moment believe that she knew what she was talking about. The rolling increased. She buckled down to the task of making conversation. By the heave of the labouring bust, the restless working of the fingers on the tablecloth, and the uncontrollable eyes that turned always to the companion stairhead, I was able to judge the extremity of her fear. Yet her words were frivolous and commonplace enough; they poured forth unceasingly, punctuated with little laughs and giggles, as a woman’s speech should be. Presently, a member of her group suggested going to bed. No, she wanted to sit up; she wanted to go on talking, and as long as she could get a soul to sit with her she had her desire. When for sheer lack of company she was forced to get to her cabin, she left reluctantly, looking back to the well-lighted saloon over her shoulder. The contrast between the flowing triviality of her speech and the strained intentness of eye and hand was a quaint thing to behold. I know now how Fear should be painted.

No one slept very heavily that night. Both arms were needed to grip the berth, while the trunks below wound the carpet-slips into knots and battered the framing of the cabins. Once it seemed to me that the whole of the labouring fabric that cased our trumpery fortunes stood on end and in this undignified posture hopped a mighty hop. Twice I know I shot out of my berth to join the adventurous trunks on the floor. A hundred times the crash of the wave on the ship’s side was followed by the roar of the water, as it swept the decks and raved round the deckhouses. In a lull I heard the flying feet of a man, a shout, and a far-away chorus of lost spirits singing somebody’s requiem.

May 24 (Queen’s Birthday).—If ever you meet an American, be good to him. This day the ship was dressed with flags from stem to stern, the chiefest of the bunting was the Union Jack. They had given no word of warning to the English, who were proportionately pleased. At dinner up rose an ex-Commissioner of the Lucknow Division (on my honour, Anglo-India extends to the ends of the earth!) and gave us the health of Her Majesty and the President. It was afterwards that the trouble began. A small American penned half a dozen English into a corner and lectured them soundly on—their want of patriotism!

‘What sort of Queen’s Birthday do you call this?’ he thundered. ‘What did you drink our President’s health for? What’s the President to you on this day of all others? Well, suppose you are in the minority, all the more reason for standing by your country. Don’t talk to me. You Britishers made a mess of it—a mighty bungle of the whole thing. I’m an American of the Americans; but if no one can propose Her Majesty’s health better than by just throwing it at your heads, I’m going to try.’

Then and there he delivered a remarkably neat little oration—pat, well put together, and clearly delivered. So it came to pass that the Queen’s health was best honoured by an American. We English were dazed. I wondered how many Englishmen not trained to addressing their fellows would have spoken half so fluently as the gentleman from ’Frisco.

‘Well, you see,’ said one of us feebly, ‘she’s our Queen, anyhow, and—and—she’s been ours for fifty years, and not one of us here has seen England for seven years, and we can’t enthuse over the matter. We’ve lived to be hauled over the coals for want of patriotism by an American! We’ll be more careful next time.’

And the conversation drifted naturally into the question of the government of men—English, Japanese (we have several travelled Japanese aboard), and Americans throwing the ball from one to another. We bore in mind the golden rule: ‘Never agree with a man who abuses his oven country,’ and got on well enough.

‘Japan,’ said a little gentleman who was a rich man there, ‘Japan is divided into two administrative sides. On the one the remains of a very strict and quite Oriental despotism; on the other a mass of—what do you call it?—red-tapeism which is not understood even by the officials who handle it. We copy the red tape, and when it is copied we believe that we administer. That is a vice of all Oriental nations. We are Orientals.’

‘Oh no, say the most westerly of the westerns,’ purred an American soothingly.’

The little man was pleased. ‘Thanks. That is what we hope to believe, but up to the present it is not so. Look now. A farmer in my country holds a hillside cut into little terraces. Every year he must submit to his Government a statement of the size and revenue paid, not on the whole hillside, but on each terrace. The complete statement makes a pile three inches high, and is of no use when it is made except to keep in work thousands of officials to check the returns. Is that administration? By God! we call it so, but we multiply officials by the twenty, and they are not administration. What country is such a fool? Look at our Government offices eaten up with clerks! Some day, I tell you, there will be a smash,’

This was new to me, but I might have guessed it. In every country where swords and uniforms accompany civil office there is a natural tendency towards an ill-considered increase of officialdom.

‘You might pay India a visit some day,’ I said. ‘I fancy that you would find that our country shares your trouble.’

Thereupon a Japanese gentleman in the Educational Department began to cross-question me on the matters of his craft in India, and in a quarter of an hour got from me the very little that I knew about primary schools, higher education, and the value of an M.A. degree. He knew exactly what he wanted to ask, and only dropped me when the tooth of desire had clean picked the bone of ignorance.

Then an American held forth, harping on a string that has already been too often twanged in my ear. ‘What will it be in America itself?’

‘The whole system is rotten from top to bottom,’ he said. ‘As rotten as rotten can be.’

‘That’s so,’ said the Louisiana man, with an affirmative puff of smoke.

‘They call us a Republic. We may be. I don’t think it. You Britishers have got the only republic worth the name. You choose to run your ship of state with a gilt figurehead; but I know, and so does every man who has thought about it, that your Queen doesn’t cost you one-half what our system of pure democracy costs us. Politics in America? There aren’t any. The whole question of the day is spoils. That’s all. We fight our souls out over tram-contracts, gas-contracts, road-contracts, and any darned thing that will turn a dishonest dollar, and we call that politics. No one but a low-down man will run for Congress and the Senate—the Senate of the freest people on earth are bound slaves to some blessed monopoly. If I had money enough, I could buy the Senate of the United States, the Eagle, and the Star-Spangled Banner complete.’

‘And the Irish vote included?’ said some one—a Britisher, I fancy.

‘Certainly, if I chose to go yahooing down the street at the tail of the British lion. Anything dirty will buy the Irish vote. That’s why our politics are dirty. Some day you Britishers will grant Home Rule to the vermin in our blankets. Then the real Americans will invite the Irish to get up and git to where they came from. ’Wish you’d hurry up that time before we have another trouble. We’re bound hand and foot by the Irish vote; or at least that’s the excuse for any unusual theft that we perpetrate. I tell you there’s no good in an Irishman except as a fighter. He doesn’t understand work. He has a natural gift of the gab, and he can drink a man blind. These three qualifications make him a first-class politician.’

With one accord the Americans present commenced to abuse Ireland and its people as they had met them, and each man prefaced his commination service with: ‘I am an American by birth—an American from way back.’

It must be an awful thing to live in a country where you have to explain that you really belong there. Louder grew the clamour and crisper the sentiments.

‘If we weren’t among Americans, I should say we were consorting with Russians,’ said a fellow-countryman in my ear.

‘They can’t mean what they say,’ I whispered. ‘Listen to this fellow.’

‘And I know, for I have been three times round the world and resided in most countries on the Continent, that there was never people yet could govern themselves.’

‘Allah! This from an American!’

‘And who should know better than an American?’ was the retort. ‘For the ignorant—that is to say for the majority—there is only one argument—fear; the fear of Death. In our case we give any scallawag who comes across the water all the same privileges that we have made for ourselves. There we make a mistake. They thank us by playing the fool. Then we shoot them down. You can’t persuade the mob of any country to become decent citizens. If they misbehave themselves, shoot them. I saw the bombs thrown at Chicago when our police were blown to bits. I saw the banners in the procession that threw the bombs. All the mottoes on them were in German. The men were aliens in our midst, and they were shot down like dogs. I’ve been in labour riots and seen the militia go through a crowd like a finger through tissue-paper.’

‘I was in the riots at New Orleans,’ said the man from Louisiana. ‘We turned the Gatling on the other crowd, and they were sick.’

‘Whew! I wonder what would have happened if a Gatling had been used when the West End riots were in full swing?’ said an Englishman, ‘If a single rioter were killed in an English town by the police, the chances are that the policeman would have to stand his trial for murder and the Ministry of the day would go out.’

‘Then you’ve got all your troubles before you. The more power you give the people, the more trouble they will give. With us our better classes are corrupt and our lower classes are lawless. There are millions of useful, law-abiding citizens, and they are very sick of this thing. We execute our justice in the streets. The law courts are no use. Take the case of the Chicago Anarchists. It was all we could do to get ’em hanged; whereas the dead in the streets had been punished off-hand. We were sure of them. Guess that’s the reason we are so quick to fire on a mob. But it’s unfair, all the same. We receive all these cattle—Anarchists, Socialists, and ruffians of every sort—and then we shoot them. The States are as republican as they make ’em. We have no use for a man who wants to try any more experiments on the Constitution. We are the biggest people on God’s earth. All the world knows that. We’ve been shouting that we are also the greatest people. No one cares to contradict us but ourselves; and we are now wondering whether we are what we claim to be. Never mind; you Britishers will have the same experiences to go through. You’re beginning to rot now. Your County Councils will make you more rotten because you are putting power into the hands of untrained people. When you reach our level,—every man with a vote and the right to sell it; the right to nominate fellows of his own kidney to swamp out better men,—you’ll be what we are now—rotten, rotten, rotten!’

The voice ceased, and no man rose up to contradict.

‘We’ll worry through it somehow,’ said the man from Louisiana. ‘What would do us a world of good now would be a big European war. We’re getting slack and sprawly. Now a war outside our borders would make us all pull together. But that’s a luxury we shan’t get.’

‘Can’t you raise one within your own borders?’ I said flippantly, to get rid of the thought of the great blind nation in her unrest putting out her hand to the Sword. Mine was a most unfortunate remark.

‘I hope not,’ said an American, very seriously. ‘We have paid a good deal to keep ourselves together before this, and it is not likely that we shall split up without protest. Yet some say we are too large, and some say that Washington and the Eastern States are running the whole country. If ever we do divide,—God help us when we do,—it will be East and West this time.’

‘We built the old hooker too long in the run. Put the engine room aft. ’Break her back,’ said an American who had not yet spoken. ‘’Wonder if our forebears knew how she was going to grow?’

‘A very large country.’ The speaker sighed as though the weight of it from New York to ’Frisco lay upon his shoulders. ‘If ever we do divide, it means that we are done for. There is no room for four first-class empires in the States. One split will lead to another if the first is successful. What’s the use of talking?’

What was the use? Here’s our conversation as it ran, the night of the Queen’s Birthday. What do you think?