Puslapio vaizdai
PDF
„ePub“

PIERRE LOTI'S DIARY.

BY MOIRA O'NEILL.

PIERRE LOTI, as all the world knows, was an officer in the French Navy, a man of genius, and poor.

He kept a Diary, not spasmodically, as many ordinary people do, but steadily, from youth to age, in every part of the world, and under all sorts of circumstances. He was one of those people to whom a record of their own impressions is an imperative necessity. Most of us receive our impressions as casually as we take our food; they are somehow converted into experience, and we pass on. It is perhaps a merciful dispensation that the owners of ordinary minds are commonly very uncommunicative about their workings.

Not so with the man of genius. He has to tell, and assuredly we have to listen. When the man of genius is of a subjective turn of mind, with the sensitive memory of an artist, the ear of a musician, the brooding melancholy of a half-poet, and the inflammable heart of a sailor, and a Frenchman, we listen with a certain amazement.

The Diary of Pierre Loti was really his life-work. He kept it for himself, but he did not keep it to himself. Reticence was not a characteristic of his, either as a man or an artist. Out of this Diary came the

stories of 'Aziyadé,' 'Le Mariage de Loti,'' Le Roman d'un Spahi,' and 'Mon Frère Yves ' -stories which made him famous far beyond France.

He wandered, like Ulysses, from sea to sea and from land to land, from the South Pacific to the coast of Guinea, from Senegal to Constantinople, from Algiers to Japan. But the wanderings of a French naval officer must end at last, and Loti retired to his own old house of Rochefort with his memories, his fame, and his Diary. Out of this he compiled yet another volume, the last, and called it 'Un Jeune Officier Pauvre.' He died before it was ready for publication, and his most faithful admirer, who is also his son, M. Samuel Viaud, brought the work to completion.

It is not, of course, a connected story; the life of a young naval officer is a rather disconnected affair. It is more like a series of pictures. The first picture is of the young cadets of seventeen and eighteen, in the training ship lying off Brest.

"In the floating cloister, where our youth had been suddenly shut in, life was both rough and austere. In several respects, it was intended to be the same life as the sailors led. Like them, we lived much in

the wind, and the sprays, and the sea-damp that left a taste of salt on our lips; like them, we climbed aloft to the yards, and tore our hands reefing the sails; we worked the guns in the old-time way, with the tackling of tarred ropes that was used in old-fashioned ships, and in all weathers we were out in the boats, generally bothered by squalls from the west, and tacking across the vast expanse of the roadstead.

"In our school hours inside the cloister we sat at our desks in the huge gun-room, where for long hours every day we were absorbed in glacial mathematical calculations, working out formulas of de or astronomy; and that, too, helped to bring a kind of appeasement into our existence. It was as calming to our imaginations and senses as the wholesome strain of our muscles.

"Around us, under a cloudy heaven, the changing mists of Brittany played their perpetual phantasies, transfiguring the deep distance, the granite cliffs, and the sea-shores with ceaseless changes of aspect."

The training lasted two years, and the cadets, who were entered at seventeen or eighteen, led for that space of time an "almost monastic " existence, which, by the way, must have been excellent for young Loti.

His first ship was the JeanBart, and we find him in 1870 on the coast of Algiers. He is not on board, but in some lonely inn at the head of a valley with one of his ship

[ocr errors]

mates; and the landlord, at close of day, escorts the two young officers on their horses for the first part of their way, and gives them some wellmeant advice about getting out of the valley before it is dark. Thereupon

[ocr errors]

"We set off, and raced till we were giddy, side by side, along the flank of the precipice. Broad leaves of palm trees, tufted branches of evergreen oaks, already dim in the twilight, passed over our heads like shadows. From time to time, out of the brushwood, the sinister profile of an Arab shepherd would rise up, looking like a phantom, draped in his white burnous.

"And then suddenly the gorge opened out, and the plain of the Medjerdah stretched before us in all its immensity. Our horses, excited by the open space, quickened their pace to a wild gallop that was like a frenzy. Night had come; the horizon was still red, with heaped-up clouds, and against it the sharp-pointed outlines of far-distant mountains showed clear. Below us the Chiffa could be faintly seen, winding in curves between the sombre masses of carob-trees. The air was full of that scent peculiar to Algeria. Lost on this faint track which we could hardly follow, exhausted with cold, with wind and speed, we gave ourselves up, and let the horses carry us where they pleased."

No animals have a stronger sense of responsibility than horses. The two young officers

were taken straight to Blidah, and silently admonished to rejoin their ship.

Within a month the JeanBart was lying off Syracuse, and Loti, with his inimitable simplicity, gives the very atmosphere, the colour, the softness of Sicily.

"Classic soil, venerable olivetrees, and Etna always above, sparkling with snow up among the clouds. It reminds one of old landscapes of the Italian school; ancient ruins among pastoral fields, with shepherds and goats. One feels all that melancholy charm of winter; but 'tis so soft a winter that there is nothing surprising in seeing palm-trees about us, and flowers, and cacti. Syracuse is mournful and mysterious as the Middle Ages.

"This evening, over the waters of the gulf, we had a regular 'Sunset in Italy,' and high above Etna glowed, red as a fire of coals. Some 'pifferari' were singing and playing harps along the shore, in swings decorated with sacred pictures.

"I came back after going ashore; I had left in the morning, with the long-boat, to get fresh water from the watering-place by the Temple of Jupiter. I brought back some large wild anemones, of a pale violet, gathered at the foot of the temple-columns."

It is a far cry from Syracuse to the Straits of Magellan. Of all places on earth, this seems to have the most terror for sailors. There are not only the blinding fogs and danger

ous channels, the raging winds and treacherous currents, but there is some dark horror brooding in the elements, something that has never died since valiant Magellan forced his way down that bitter coast, fighting, as he firmly believed, against fiends from the Pit, who were brewing tempests against him to block his course. At Port St Julian Magellan landed, and duly executed his two mutinous officers, then pursued his dauntless way to the south. There, sixty years later, Drake landed too, and where Magellan's mutineers had suffered, he executed his own treacherous friend and officer, Doughty; then he too pursued his way "south by the blind Horn's hate " on his immortal voyage.

Loti seems to have had little of the historic imagination, and no enthusiasm at all for either Portuguese or Englishman. Or possibly he admired them more than he wanted to, and was jealously silent about their exploits, as Frenchmen sometimes are.

It was in the frigate Vaudreuil that he first saw the South Atlantic. She was sent to explore the narrower channels between Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. The time was September of 1871, winter in the south, and in those days before the Panama Canal was opened the route was of more importance than it is now. The Vaudreuil came in from the Atlantic, and dark, cold, and desolate lay the shores on either side of her, flat at first, with snowy marshes

and naked land, gradually rising to heights covered with a dark strong vegetation, and finally to thick impenetrable forests, overlooked by grey glaciers on mountain crests against a sombre sky. There was apparently no life, only a labyrinth of mountains, deep bays, and dark-green islets, unchanging except for the passing shadows from heavy clouds and ever-shifting fog-banks. In the great bay of St Nicholas the Vaudreuil first dropped anchor, in the shelter of the cape which is the extreme southern point of America. Here Loti with a party went ashore.

"The country around us was absolutely virgin soil, entirely clothed with forest of an incredible thickness, and its green only half visible under the covering snows. Yet in the midst of all this solitude one slender smoke column betrayed the presence of human beings, and towards it we directed our way. It was made by some of these strange savages who inhabit the large islands of the South, and are radically different from the Indian peoples of the Continent. These Fuegian Fisheaters belong from every point of view to one of the lowest rungs of the human ladder, and the Patagonians when they meet them treat them as mischievous animals. We found them gathered about their huts of branches by the side of a clear stream in a delightful spot; heaps of shells and remains of fish lying round showed that the party had found them

selves well-off here, and had stayed a long while. The creatures were greatly afraid of us. Caught at home, their first movement was an attempt at flight; their second a demand for food. A distribution of biscuit all round made them wildly joyful. Small and puny, numb with cold, and all of them incredibly hideous, they promptly became familiar, and even jocular. even jocular. Our confidence in them, however, was extremely limited, and we very soon left them alone, carrying off with us as souvenirs some knives made of human bones for opening shellfish, the sole product of their industry."

Loti had a great horror of these savages, with their yellow skins, inhuman ugliness, and low buffoonery. He suspected them of cannibalism, for all their timidity, and the sailors had some partly superstitious dread of them. The savages, being fish-eaters, lived chiefly in their pirogues on the water, with their repulsive dogs on board; and stranger still, with a cinder-fire burning in the bottom of the boat. On one occasion, when the ship was lying off Queen Adelaide Island, her crew was almost startled by the sudden appearance of a pirogue full of savages bearing down upon her with signals of distress. The signals were made by the savages and dogs all howling fearfully together, with enormous open mouths, and faces as from another world. They cast themselves upon the ship, perfectly regardless of the danger of being

knocked to pieces; and the crew believed they were either mad or possessed. Not at all. They were simply hungry.

"The great mountainous island of Tierra del Fuego is covered on all its western side with virgin forest, practically impenetrable. The sky is misty above, the climate something like the polar regions of Europe. One can hardly move a step except by catching hold of one branch after another. In the midst of these timeless forests, encumbered with dead trees, the soil is heaped with old remains of vegetation, accumulated through the centuries, in which a man may sink and actually disappear. In the perpetual shade of the woods, lichens have attained a prodigious growth, and everything is smothered under thick layers of their lugubrious grey mosses. This nature, where nothing can waken life through the long gloom of the wintry days, has something strangely sinister in its aspect. The solitude and the great silence that reigns throughout grip the heart."

Such was the island of Tierra del Fuego. The icy waters of the Strait were hardly more merciless to man, but at any rate something lived there; whence ensued this brief incident of mournful memory.

"A young seal was disporting himself joyously alongside, yet there seemed no cause to justify such gaiety. We were at anchor between high and naked grey cliffs. The terrible wind of Cape Horn whistled

over our heads, chasing clouds of thick blackness swiftly across a sky that was gloomy enough before, and behind the grim rocks that sheltered us from the open came the loud noise of waves, presaging stormy weather. The swell rocked us to the farthest end of this melancholy bay, where the cold dark-green sea was striped with long streaks of pale foam. All around was fearsome and full of the sense of exile, even to the families of white-bellied penguins that stood in lines on every islet.

"But the young seal continued his gambols in the icy water, and his mirth was touching in such a scene. He had a pretty brown body, very plump and glistening like a polished agate. Between two plunges out would come his little fierce head, adorned with fine whiskers, like a great cat; then he would blow and shake himself, as children do bathing, to get the drops of water out of their nostrils. The sailors began throwing bits of fish to him, which he caught in the air as cleverly as a young clown. Then, as if to thank them, he began playing little pranks before them, throwing all sorts of pretty leaps and antics on the waves, as if he were positively playing to the gallery to please his benefactors.

"He had certainly never seen a ship before, poor little fellow.

He came nearer and nearer, quite confidingly, and the sailors began devising a plan to catch him, which would surely have been easy enough.

« AnkstesnisTęsti »