Harry Alverson Franck.

A vagabond journey around the world : a narrative of personal experience online

. (page 26 of 51)
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crow's-nest and save us two Lascars. On Sunday you '11 stand look-
out from four to eight, nine to twelve, two to seven, and eight to ten.
Look lively, now, and see that the poop deck begins to shine when I
come aft."

Without a break, I continued this regime as long as the voyage
lasted. Having once imposed his sentence upon me, the mate rarely
gave me a word. Less from fear of his wrath than of a leer of satis-


faction on his rough-hewn face, I toiled steadily at the task he had
assigned. The holly-stone took on great weight, but the privilege of
viewing every tropical sunrise and sunset from the crow's-nest I would
not have exchanged for a seat at the captain's table. My messmates
were good-hearted, their chief ever eager to do me a kindly service.
The Hindu crew took vast joy in my fancied degradation, and those
intervals were rare when a group of the brown rascals were not hover-
ing over me, chattering like apes in the forest, and grinning derisively.
But the proudest man on board was the sarang ; for it was through him
that the mate sent me his mandates. Since the days when he rolled
naked and unashamed on the sand floor of his natal hut on the banks
of the Hoogly, the native boatswain had dreamed of no greater bliss
than to issue commands to a sahib.

Ten days the Worcestershire steamed on through a motionless
sea, under a sun that waxed more torrid every hour. The " glory-
hole " became uninhabitable. Men who had waded through the snow on
the docks of Liverpool two weeks before took to sleeping on the deck
of the poop, in the thinnest of garb. With the smell of land in our
nostrils, the good-night chorus was sung more than once on the
eleventh evening, and our sleep was brief. Before darkness fled I had
Ciin-rcrcd again to my coign of vantage on the foremast. The first
gray of dawn revealed the dim outline of a low mountain range,
tinged with color by the unborn sunrise behind it. Slowly the moun-
tains faded from view as the lowlands rose up to greet us. By eight
bells we were within hailing distance of a score of brown-black
islanders, unburdened with clothing, who paddled boldly seaward in
their out-rigger canoes. The Worcestershire found entrance to a far-
reaching breakwater, and, escorted by a great school of small craft,
rode to an anchorage in the center of the harbor. A multitude
swarmed on board, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, and in the result-
ing overthrow of discipline I left my stone where the mess-call had
found it, and hurried below to make up my " shore bundle." By the
kindness of the chief steward, I was amply supplied with cotton suits.
The frock coat, still in the lifeboat, I willed to " Peggy," and re-
ported to the captain. His permission granted, I tossed my bundle into
the company launch, and, with one English half-penny jingleless in my
pocket, set foot on the verdant island of Ceylon.



IFFICULT, indeed, would it be to choose a more striking in-
troduction to the wonderland of the Far East than that egg-
shaped remnant left over from the building of India. How
^complete and lusterless seems the picture drawn by the anticipating
imagination when one stands at last in the midst of its prolific,
kaleidoscopic life! Sharp and vivid are the impressions that come
crowding on the traveler in jumbled, disordered succession, and he
experiences a confusion such as comes with the first glance at a great
painting. He must look again and again before the underlying con-
ception stands out clearly through the mass of unfamiliar detail.

It would have been strange if the white man of peripatetic mood
had not found his way to this Eden of the eastern seas. Within ten
minutes of my landing I was greeted by a score of ' beachcombers "
gathered in the black shade under the portico of a large government
building. In garb, they were men of means. It costs nothing worth
mentioning to keep spotless the jacket and trousers of thinnest cotton
that make up the wardrobe of the Indias. More than their sun-baked
faces, their listless movements and ingrown indolence betrayed them
as " vags." Those of the band who were not stretched out at full
length on the flagging of the veranda dangled their feet from the en-
circling railing or leaned against the massive pillars, puffing lazily at
pipe or cigarette. On the greensward below, two natives sat on their
heels before portable stands, rising now and then to pour out a glass
of tea for the " comber " who tossed a Ceylon cent at their feet.

Theoretically, the party had gathered to seek employment. The
morning hour, since time immemorial, had called the exiles together
in the shade of the shipping office to lay in wait for any stranger,
the " cut of whose jib " stamped him as a captain. ' Shipping," how-
ever, was dull. Imbued with the habit, " the boys ' continued to
gather, but into their drowsy yarning rarely intruded the fear of being
driven forth from this island paradise.

Now ad again some energetic member of the band rose to peer



through the open door of the shipping office; yet retreated hastily,
for a roar as of an angry bull was the invariable greeting from
within. When courage came, I ventured to glance inside. A burly
Englishman, as nearly naked as a mild sense of propriety permitted, lay
on his back in a reclining chair, on the arm of which he threw a
mass of typewritten sheets every half-minute, to mop up the perspira-
tion that poured down his rotund face and hairy chest in spite of
the heavy velvet punkahs that swung slowly back and forth above

" Shippin' master," volunteered a recumbent Irishman behind me.
" But divil a man dast disturb 'im. If you valy your loife, kape out
of 'is soight."

At noonday the office closed. The beachcombers wandered lan-
guidly away to some other shaded spot, and seeking refuge from the
equatorial sun in a neighboring park, I dreamed away my first day's
freedom from the holly-stone. A native runner roused me towards
nightfall and thrust into my hands a card setting forth the virtues
of " The Original and Well-Recognized Sailors' Boarding House of
Colombo, under Proprietorship of C. D. Almeida." It was a two-
story building in the native quarter of Pettah, of stone floor, but
otherwise of the lightest wooden material. The dining-room, in the
center of the establishment, boasted no roof. Narrow, windowless
chambers of the second story, facing this open space, housed the sea-
faring guests.

Almeida, the proprietor, was a Singhalese of purest caste. His
white silk jacket was modestly decorated with red braid and glistening
brass buttons. Beneath the folds of a skirt of gayest plaid peeped
feet that had never known the restraint of shoes, the toes of which
.stood out staunchly independent one from another. For all his oc-
cupation he clung stoutly to the symbols of his social superiority
tiny pearl earrings and a huge circle comb of celluloid. Fate had been
unkind to Almeida. Though his fellow-countrymen, with rarely an
exception, boasted thick tresses of long, raven-tinted hair, the boarding
master was well nigh bald. His gray and scanty locks did little more
than streak his black scalp, and the art of a lifetime of hair dressing
could not make the knob at the back of his head larger than a hickory
nut. Obviously no circle comb could sit in position so insecure ; at in-
tervals as regular as the ticking of his great silver watch, that of Al-
meida dropped on the ground behind him. Wherever he moved,


there slunk at his heels a native urchin who had known no other task
in many a month than that of restoring to its place the ornament of

The simple formality of signing a promise-to-pay made me a guest.
Four white men and as many black leaned their elbows on the un-
planed table, awaiting the evening meal. In an adjoining grotto, two
natives were stumbling over each other around a kettle and a fire of
fagots. Both were clothed in the scantiest of breechclouts. Xow
and then they squatted on their smoothly polished heels, scratched
savagely at some portion of their scrawny bodies, and sprang up
again to plunge both hands into the kettle.

In due time the mess grew too hot for stirring. The pair resumed
their squat and burst forth in a dreadful chatter of falsetto voices.
Then fell ominous silence. Suddenly the cooks dashed into the
smoke that veiled the entrance to the cave, and, flinging themselves
upon the caldron, dragged it forth into the dining-room. The senior
scooped out handfuls of steaming rice and filled our plates. The
younger returned to the smoky cavern and laid hold on a smaller pot
that contained a curry of chopped fish. Besides these two delicacies,
there were bananas in abundance and a chettie of water, brackish, dis-
colored and lukewarm.

Having distributed heavy pewter spoons among the guests, the
cooks filled a battered basin with rice and, dropping on their haunches,
thrust the food into their mouths with both hands. The blazing
fagots turned to dying embers, the \vick that floated in a bottle of oil
lighted up a bare corner of the table, and the rising moon, falling
upon the naked figures, cast weird shadows across the uneven floor.

Almeida took his leave. The dropping of his comb sounded twice
or thrice between the dining-room and the street, and the patter of
his bare feet mingled with the whisper of the night outside. I laid
my head on a hand as a sign of sleepiness, and a cook led the way to
the second story and into one of the narrow rooms. It was furnished
with three wooden tables of Dachshund legs. From two pegs in the
wall hung several diaphanous tropical garments, the property of my
unknown roommates. I inquired for my bed ; but the cook spoke no
English, and I sat down on the nearest table to await a more com-
municative mortal.

A long hour afterward two white men stumbled up the stairs, the
first carrying a candle high above his head. He was lean and sallow,


gray-haired and clean shaven, with something in his manner that
spoke of better days. His companion was a burly, tow-headed

" Oho ! Ole," grinned the older man ; " here 's a new bunkie. Why
-don't you turn in, mate ? '

" Have n't found my bed yet," I answered.

" Your bed ! " cried the newcomer, " Why, damn it, man, you 're sit-
ting on it."

I followed the example of the pair in reducing my attire to the
regulation coolie costume and, turning my bundled clothing into a pil-
low, sweated out the night.

Over the tea, bananas, and cakes of ground cocoanut that made
up the Almeida breakfast, I exchanged yarns with my companions of
the night. The Swede was merely a sailor ; the older man a less com-
monplace being. He was an Irishman named John Askins, a master
of arts of Dublin University and a civil engineer by profession.
Twenty years before, an encroaching asthma had driven him from his
native island. In his wanderings through every tropical country under
British rule, he had picked up a fluent use of half the dialects of the
east, from the clicking Kaffir to the guttural tongue of Kabul. Not by
choice was Askins, M. A., a vagabond. Periodically, however, em-
ployment failed him and he fell, as now, into the ranks of those who
listened open-mouthed when he chose to abandon the slang of "the
road " and the forecastle to his professorial diction.

Brief as was my acquaintance with Ceylon, I had already discovered
two possible openings to the wage-earning class. The first was to
join the police force. Half the European officers of Colombo had
once been beachcombers. Between them and our band existed a
liaison so close that the misdemeanors of " the boys ' were rarely
punished, and more than one white castaway was housed surreptitiously
in the barracks on Slave Island. I had no hesitancy, therefore, in
applying for information to the Irishman whose beat embraced the
cricket-ground separating Pettah from the European quarter.

He painted the life in uniform in glowing colors. His salary was
fifty rupees a month. No princely income, surely, for bear in mind
that it takes three rupees to make a dollar. The " graft," too, he
admitted sadly, was next to nothing. Yet he supported a wife a
white one, at that, strange to say and three children, kept several
servants, owned a house of his own, and increased his bank account




on every pay day. Ludicrous, you know, is the cost of living in

I hurried eagerly away to the office of the superintendent of
police. An awkward squad of white recruits was sprinkling with per-
spiration the green before the government bungalow, from which a
servant emerged to inquire my errand. The alacrity with which I
was admitted to the inner sanctum aroused within me visions of my-
self in uniform that were by no means dispelled by the hasty exam-
ination to which the superintendent subjected me.

Yes ! Yes ! " he broke in, before I had answered his last question ;
I think we can take you on all right. By the way, what part of the
country are you from ? You '11 be from Yorkshire side, I take it ? "

" United States.''

'A-oh! You don't say so? An American! Really, you don't
look it, you know. What a shame ! Had a beat all picked out for you.
But as an American you 'd better go to the Philippines and apply on the
force there. We can't give you anything in Ceylon or India, don't
you know. Awfully sorry. Good day."

None but a man ignorant of the ways of the Far East could have
conceived my second scheme in one sleepless night. It was suggested
by the fact that, in earlier years, I had, as the Englishman puts it, u gone
in for " cross-country running. Returning to Almeida's, I soon picked
up a partner for the projected enterprise. He was a young and lanky
Englishman, who, though he had never indulged in athletic sports,
was certain that in eluding for a decade the police of four continents
he had developed a record-breaking stride.

In a shady corner of Gordon Gardens we arranged the details of
our plan, which was why not admit it at once ? to become 'rick-
shaw runners. The hollow-chested natives who plied this equestrian
vocation leased their vehicles from the American consul. That official
surely would be glad to rent the two fine, new carriages that stood
idle in his establishment. The license would cost little. Cloth slip-
pers that sold for a few cents in the bazaars would render us as
light-footed as our competitors. We could not, of course, offer in-
discriminate service. Half the population of Colombo would have
swept down upon us, clamoring for the unheard-of honor of riding be-
hind a sahib. But nothing would be easier than to hang above our
licenses the announcement, " for white men only."

* By thunder," enthused the Briton, as we turned out into the sun'


light once more, " it 's a new scheme all right, absolutely unique. It s
sure to attract attention mighty quick."

It did. So quickly, in fact, that had there been a white police-
man within call when we broached the subject to the American con-
sul, we should have found lodging at once in two nicely padded
chambers of the city hospital.

" Did you two lunatics," shrieked my fellow-countryman, from be-
hind the protecting bulwark of his desk, " ever hear of Caste? Would
the Europeans patronize you ? You bet they would with a fine coat
of tar and feathers ! You 'd need it, too, for those long, slim knives
the runners carry. Of all the idiotic schemes ! Why, you you
don't you know that's a crime or, if it isn't, the governor would
make it one in about ten minutes. Go lie in the shade somewhere
until you get your senses if you 've got one ! '

Years ago, I came to the conclusion that the day of the enter-
prising young man is past. But it was cruel of the consul to put
the matter so baldly. Luckily, the Englishman possessed four cents or
we should have been denied the bitter joy of drowning our grief and
dissolving our partnership in a glass of arrack.

From the distance of the western world the rate in Almeida's
boarding house a half rupee a day does not seem exorbitant. It
was, however. In the native restaurants that abounded in Colombo,
one could live on half that amount ; and as for lodging what utter
foolishness to pay for the privilege of sleeping on a short-legged
table when the ground was so much softer? No sooner, therefore, had
a pawnbroker of Pettah appraised my useless winter garments at
two rupees than I paid my bill at the " Original Boarding House " and
became resident at large.

On the edge of the native section stood an eating shop that had won
the patronage of half the beachcombers in the city. It was a low,
thatched shanty, constructed, like its neighbors, chiefly of bamboo.
The front wall unless the canvas curtain that warded off the blazing
sunshine be reckoned such was all doorway, before which stood a
platform heaped high with multicolored tropical fruits.

A dozen white men bawled out a greeting as I pushed aside the
curtain and crowded into a place on one of the creaking benches
around the table. At the entrance stood the proprietor, guarding a
home-made safe, and smiling so vociferously upon whomever added to
its contents that his circle comb rose and fell with the exertion.
Plainly in sight of the yawning customers, in a smoke-choked back


room, two chocolate-colored cooks, who had evidently divided between
them a garment as large as a lady's handkerchief, toiled over a
long row of kettles.

The dinner was table d'hote, and cost four cents. A naked boy
set before me a heaping plate of rice, four bananas, a glass of tea,
and six small dishes of curried vegetables, meat, and shrimps. The
time had come when I must learn, like my companions, to dispense with
table utensils. I began the first lesson by following the movements
of my fellow-guests. Each dug in the center of his mound of rice a
hole of the size of a coffee-cup. Into this he dumped the curries one
after another and buried them by pushing in the sides of the excava-
tion. The interment finished, he fell upon the mess with both hands,
and mixed the ingredients as the " board-bucker ' mixes concrete
by shoveling it over and over.

Let no one fancy that the Far East has no etiquette of the table. It
was the height of ill-breeding, for example, to grasp a handful of food
and eat it from the open palm. Obviously, the Englishman beside me
had received careful Singhalese training. Without bending a joint of
his hand, he plunged it into the mixture before him, drew his fingers
closely together, and, thrusting his hand to the base of the thumb
into his mouth, sucked off the food by taking a long, quick breath.

I imitated him, gasped, choked, and clutched at the bench with both
hands, while the tears ran in rivulets down my cheeks. 'Twas my
introduction to the curries of Ceylon. A mouthful of cayenne pepper
would have tasted like ice cream in comparison. The stuff was so
calorific in chillies, not in temperature that it burned my fin-

" Hot, Yank? " grinned the Englishman. " That 's what all the lads
finds 'em when they first get out here. In a week they '11 be just
right. In a month you '11 be longin' for Madras where they make 'err

The dinner over, the guests threw under their feet the food that re-
mained ; washed their fingers, surreptitiously, of course, in a chettie
of drinking water ; and sauntered out into the star-lit night. Across
the way lay the cricket ground of Colombo, a twelve-acre field, si-
lent and deserted. While the policeman yawned at the far end of his
beat, I scrambled over the bamboo fence, and, choosing a spot where
the grass was not entirely worn off, went to bed. The proverbial
white elephant was never more of a burden than my kodak had be-
some. Hitherto, I had easily concealed it in a pocket of my corduroy


coat. Now my entire wardrobe could have been packed inside the
apparatus, and wherever I wandered I was forced to lug the thing
under one arm, like a pet poodle, wrapped in a ragged cover that de-
ceived the covetous as to its real value. By night it served as pillow,
and so fixed a habit had its possession become, that I ran no more
risk of leaving it behind than of going away without my cap.

The grassy slope was as soft as a mattress, the tepid night breeze
just the right covering. I quickly fell asleep. A feeling, as of some-
one close at hand, aroused me. Slowly I opened my eyes. Within a
foot of me, his naked body glistening in the moonlight, crouched a
coolie. I bounded to my feet. But the native was quicker than I.
With a leap that would have done credit to a kangaroo, he shot sud-
denly into the air, landed noiselessly on his bare feet some three
yards away, and, before I could take a step in his direction, was

Midnight, certainly, had passed. The flanking streets were utterly
deserted. Not a light shone in the long rows of shops. Only the
ceaseless chanting of myriads of insects tempered the stillness of the
night. I drew a cord from my pocket, tied one end to the kodak and
another to a wrist, and lay do\vn again. The precaution was wisely
taken. A tug at my arm awakened me a second time and, as I started
up, a black rascal, closely resembling my first visitor, scampered away
across the playground. Dawn was drawing a thin gray line on the
black canvas of night. I left my bed unmade and wandered away
into the city.

Before the sun was high I had found employment. A resident in
the Cinnamon Gardens had advertised for a carpenter, and for the
three days following I superintended the labors of a band of coolies in
laying a hardwood floor in his bungalow. During that period, a
rumor, spreading among the beachcombers, aroused them to new
wakefulness. Colombo was soon to be visited by a circus ! It was not
that the mixed odor of sawdust and pink lemonade appealed greatly to
1 the boys." But tradition whispered that the annual show would
bring employment to more than one whose curry and rice advanced
with laggard steps.

Dropping in at Almeida's when my task was ended, I found Askins
agog with news of the coming spectacle.

' She '11 be here in a week or ten days," he cried, gayly. " That
means a few dibs a day for some of us. For circuses must have white
men. Niggers won't do. That 's our game, Franck. Just lay low and


she blows in, we '11 swoop down on the supe and get our cog-
-loms on the pay roll.

" Or say ! ' he went on, in more excited tones. " Better still !
You won't need to lie idle meantime, either. An idea strikes me.
Remember the arrack shop where the two stokers set us up a bottle
of fire-water the other day? Well, just across the street is the Salva-
tion Army. Now you waltz down to the meeting there to-night and
et converted. They '11 hand you down a swell white uniform, put
you right in a good hash-house, and throw a few odd grafts in your
way. All you '11 have to do '11 be to baste a drum or something of the
kind twice a day, and you can have quite a few chips tucked away by
the time the circus comes."

" Good scheme," I answered, " but I Ve got a few chips tucked away
now, and if she is n't due for ten days that will give me time for a
jaunt into the interior of the island."

" Well, it 's a ramble worth making," admitted the Irishman, " but
!ook out for the sun, and be sure you 're on hand again for the big

The city of Colombo is well spread out. Though I set off early
next morning, it was nearly noon when I crossed the Victoria bridge
at Grand Pass and struck the open country. Great was the contrast
between the Ceylon of my imagination and the reality. A riot of
tropical vegetation spread out on every hand ; in the dense shadows
swarmed naked humans uncountable. But jungle was there none
neither wild men, nor savage beasts. Every acre was producing for
the use of man. The highway was wide, well-built as in Europe, close
flanked on either side by thick forests of towering palm trees. Here
and there, bands of coolies repaired the roadway, or fought back the
aggressive vegetation with ax-like knives. Clumsy, broad-wheeled
bullock carts, in appearance like our " prairie schooners," creaked by
behind humped oxen ambling seaward at a snail's pace. Under his
protecting roof, made, not of canvas, as the first glimpse suggested,
but of thousands of leaves sewn together, the scrawny driver grinned
cheerily and mumbled some strange word of greeting. Even the heat

Online LibraryHarry Alverson FranckA vagabond journey around the world : a narrative of personal experience → online text (page 26 of 51)