It seemed particularly desirable to go to Guernsey, even more than to Alderney or Jersey or Sark, those others of the islands that are still more French than English, although they have been in English possession since the time of the Conqueror William; for I understood that in Guernsey, to even a greater extent than in her sister islands, were retained the ancient ways.
And there are various ways of getting there. I might have taken a boat that runs, for at least part of the year, from Plymouth, but was told that it was temporarily out of commission. Steamers sail twice daily, except Sundays, from Southampton and from Weymouth, direct to Guernsey, giving passengers the choice of a ride by daylight or at night, the trip taking some four or five hours. But I learned that a little boat puts out twice a week or so from Cherbourg, and, as I had a steamer stop over at Plymouth, from the liner by which I had arrived there, and could conveniently arrange to be at Plymouth on the necessary day, I decided to cross the Channel from there and then take the Cherbourg boat. This insured, too, a pleasant crossing of the Channel, for however rough it may be for the ordinary boats, the big liners are seldom affected by it.
That matter of steamer stop-overs is one that is worth noticing. I found it convenient, this time, on my way to Cherbourg; another time I ran back to Plymouth from London and caught a liner to Hamburg, thus making a delightful and restful way of getting there; and the same thing may conveniently be done with stop-overs at Gibraltar and at Naples.
The steamer from Cherbourg for Guernsey was more tiny than the one that had taken me to the Scillys. A sudden storm had delayed its arrival for a day, and I watched it come bobbingly in. The captain, exasperated by having his schedule of sailings interrupted, exclaimed in picturesquely determined language that he would return at once, even though the shades of night were falling fast. Within three minutes, however, the deserting tide so left his boat in the mud, such being the excellence of vaunted foreign harbors for craft that venture to the piers, that, unsubmissively acquiescent to fate, he announced postponement until six in the morning.
An uncivilized hour, I protested, but he declared that needs must when a floatable tide drives. So at six I was there-only to learn that he was still fast asleep in the hotel I had reluctantly left! Yet I am glad I went in that particular way, for there was far more of amusement than annoyance in the man’s declarations and shortcomings. And the very boat itself, so impossibly tiny for a rough voyage, seemed a joke. After all, too, we cross the Atlantic for things that are different. If all one looks for is a good boat, to run on time in an ordinary way, it is not necessary to leave America.
Cherbourg is an ancient city, in modern dress, which has hid its few vestiges of the past by tucking them out of sight and out of mind in narrow and forgotten back ways. Yet there is an extremely interesting exception, an old church, of the fourteen-hundreds, a church faded and gray with age and with an ancient inscription over its altar that carries a note of pathos in its patriotism, for in few and simple words it expresses thanks to God for the deliverance of the city from the long dominion of the stranger; meaning the end of a long occupancy of the city by the conquering English.
A spirit of welcome is permeative throughout Cherbourg; everywhere the present-day men of the city show no desire to be rid of the stranger, but to welcome him-at least, if he be an American!and to make his stay comfortable.
At the hotel-and at different times I have found two in Cherbourg that are excellent-after learning that the boat was not to go that evening, I went to the writing-room. A cold wind was blowing in from the sea, and the room was chilly, and the fire, in an open fireplace, would not draw. It was a coal fire. It had been lit for me, almost the sole guest at an off-season time of the year, and was filling the room with smoke.
I rang, and a green-aproned porter made his appearance and looked with concern at the little fire and much smoke.
The fireplace was between the two front windows, and I did not see any signs of a chimney rising above. Nor was there any there!
The porter vanished, but with a sign that he would return. In a few moments he reappeared with a can of kerosene. “Ah!” I thought, “he is about to encourage the fire in the good old American way!”
But it was the American way with French variation. For he uncovered a plate in the floor, right at my feet, in the middle of the room, and raising it, showed the flue, for it ran down from the fireplace and right across the room under the floor to the rear wall, and there into a chimney.
I watched the porter with fascinated interest. For he soaked a rag with kerosene, stuffed it into the flue, touched it with a match and clamped back the plate, leaving the oil-soaked rag to burn; and then, with a look of ineffable but calm-faced pride, watched the coal in the fireplace until, in a few moments, it responded to the stimulus of the restored draft in the kerosened flue and blazed up.
The ride out from Cherbourg around Cap de la Hague and through the Race of Alderney is a never-to-be-forgotten experience, if taken in a tiny steamer at the tail-end of a storm. Even in the calmest weather there are currents and cross-currents that boil and swoop and rock and clutch and tear. Gilbert Parker somewhere terms this passage “one of the death shoots of the tides,” and I should suggest the crossing in the bigger ships, from Southampton to Guernsey, rather than by the little boat from Cherbourg, for those who would not enjoy a fairly wild experience.