Since the Panama Canal was opened to traffic in August, 1914, several steamship lines have changed their routes so as to make use of the short cut.
Direct communication between England and the Canal Zone, via the West Indies, is now provided by frequent services of British, French and Dutch steamers. Passengers for Cristobal (Colon) can embark at Bristol, Dover, Plymouth or Liverpool. An alternative and popular route is via New York. Pacific-bound vessels continue their journey through the Canal, after calling at Cristobal.
But we are outward-bound in 1912, when the choice of routes is more limited. Fortunately, however, we can travel from Southampton to Colon in a luxurious mail steamer. The voyage takes eighteen days; a considerable portion of the route lies through magnificent scenery with historic associations, and the ports of call abound in novel entertainments.
Strains of a familiar tune are mingling with the briny breeze as we board the steamer at Southampton. The ship's orchestra is playing in the library. Music hath charms to dull the pangs of parting, and when this last and most trying half-hour of "good-byes" has thus been deprived of some of its lingering power, the artistes will have accomplished another of the many good works which go to the making of everyday life, and which are seldom recorded, hardly ever recognized, except they be performed under exceptionally dramatic circumstances. Once the ship is under way, much of the sorrow now lurking around will speedily have its sting sheathed. The people who must go will fall under the influence of the numerous distractions of ship-life; the daily round will assert its first claim on those who must stay behind. Not that absence will lead to forgetfulness. On the contrary, for many of those who are about to part, and are not likely to meet again for years to come, there will be minutes that seem like hours, hours that seem like days, when the sting of loss will stab their hearts, again to cause pain that makes life wellnigh unbearable. And knowing this we need not feel horrified, but should, rather, be very glad, when on the starry eve of a day not a week ahead we shall certainly see most of our now downcast fellow-travellers merrily joining in a dance on the promenade deck, which has been trimmed with bunting and illuminated with fairy-lamps for the occasion; and when we shall quite likely find them "tripping the light fantastic toe "to the strains of the same popular waltz melody which is now tempering the pathos that haunts an outward-bound liner.
Some of you, I expect, are thinking:
But we are only going away for a short time, and for a pleasure trip. We were so pleased to hear the music as we came on board because it was jolly like we were—and now—
And now there is not the slightest necessity for you or me to get melancholy because some of our neighbours are rather sad. People who get gloomy over other folk's troubles are about as weak-kneed as those who fancy they are very ill the moment they hear that someone in the next street has influenza. Besides, sorrow is more likely to flee at the sound of laughter than at the sight of tears. So let us be our natural selves, and quite unusually cold-blooded we should be if we were not naturally inclined to feel elated at the prospect of a holiday expedition—by the by, if you do not all come back feeling happy, the entire blame will rest with me as your guide. I was not forgetting my responsibility to you in that role when I turned your thoughts, for a moment or two, to some of your fellow-passengers who do not happen to be holiday-makers; you are all of you, I feel sure, likely to enjoy the voyage the more for embarking on it with a little of the understanding that makes for sympathy.
Upon leaving the home port the vessel is piloted past the Isle of Wight, and so close to the shores of both mainland and island is the deep-water passage through the Solent that, as we are favoured with a fine day, we get some memorable views of the picturesque scenery for which this part of England is famous, and of many oft-quoted landmarks such as Netley Hospital and the Needles.
Just before emerging into the open waters of the English Channel the ship slows down, and a small boat comes alongside to take the pilot ashore. As the little boat draws near, a rope is thrown out to her by a sailor on the lower deck of our big ship, and the free end is dexterously caught by one of the boat-hands. To-day, the little craft is easily brought alongside and held in position by means of the brace, but when a big sea is running she is more difficult to control, and the transfer business is in the nature of an adventure. The pilot makes his way from the bridge to the lower deck, followed by a sailor who carries his bag. Meanwhile, a rope ladder has been thrown over the side of the ship, and down this perilous-looking suspension the important official clambers to within a few feet of the water, when, after watching for his opportunity and quickly seizing it when it comes, he drops into his boat. His bag is lowered by a rope, the boatmen pull off, and our ship goes full steam ahead for Cherbourg, on the French coast.
Letters and telegrams can be sent off by a shore-going pilot boat. And the boat that brings a pilot aboard a vessel often carries a package of letters and telegrams for passengers, sent by friends and relations who are familiar with the postal facilities for communicating with ships on the high seas.
There is more to be gained than entertainment—peace of mind, for instance—by a little knowledge of the common events of ship life. As witness to the truth of this statement, here is a story about two inexperienced travellers with whom I once sailed; and I can assure you that from my own experience alone I could narrate several such absurd stories having a similar origin, namely fear rooted in ignorance, and dealing with delusions that might equally give rise to a panic as to a farce.
An Eastward-bound ship made the passage down the Thames under the best of weather conditions, but this happy beginning to a voyage at a time of year when that river is wont to be mantled in fog did not have any cheering effect on two ladies who were making their first trip across the ocean. They had come on board haunted by the idea that the chances are always all against any ship reaching her destination; indeed, they were very nearly akin to old-fashioned country-folk, for whom a train journey was a strange and terrifying undertaking in days long after most people had learnt to enter a railway carriage with as little fear as they would get into a donkey-cart.
The two nervous novices were strangers to each other, but the fates had decreed that they should be "stable companions," to use the seafaring term for people who share a cabin. They were certainly companions in distress throughout a river trip which induced the passengers as a whole to indulge in such exclamations as: What luck to get a beautiful day like this for a start off—and in January, too." When the ship had glided through the mouth of the river on to a sea that was as smooth as a pond, they were still in no mood to appreciate blessings, but continued to buttonhole officers, crew and fellow-passengers with poorly disguised inquiries about all sorts of possible and impossible misadventures.
Panamanian policeman and shoeblack.
Night came, stars studded the sky, and in due course people retired to their cabins. At about three o'clock in the morning, when the stars were still shining brightly and the sea was still perfectly smooth, the electric light was suddenly switched on in a particular cabin. Half a second later a figure sprang up in the opposite bunk. For a few moments two terrified females, half in and half out of their bunks, sat looking at each other and straining their ears to catch every sound of some disturbance that was going on outside.
"Sh," whispered one.
"They're getting the boats out," cried the other. "So they are," was the awestruck rejoinder.
Then they both slid to the floor and made a dart for the same lifebelt. Together they dragged it from its shelf, and heedless of two others which were sent sprawling to the ground, hung on to it like grim death. A violent struggle was interrupted by a drowsy voice from the third bunk:
"Oh, do be sensible and go to sleep, you two. What will you find to be frightened at next? We're only putting off the pilot."