“To Any Reader”
“In August 1887, Robert Louis Stevenson, already famous for Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, set sail from the port of London on a voyage to America. Rather than sail on a “great big Birmingham liner like a new hotel,” Stevenson booked a passage on a cargo-carrying steamer, the Ludgate Hill. It was a rough crossing, but Stevenson in his letters to friends at home reveals his excitement and delight in being at sea. “O, it was lovely on our stable-ship,” he wrote, obviously enjoying every minute of it.”
“Picture an incongruous cargo of “the baser kind of Bagman,” apes and baboons, monkeys and stallions, then,”
“Take all this picture, and make it roll till the bell shall sound and unexpected notes and the fittings shall break loose in our state-room, and you have the voyage of the Ludgate Hill.”
The Voyage of the Ludgate Hill
I sailed with my wife, the delight of my life, and a great many people from Dover, but an ape in a squall made fools of us all before the strange journey was over. London and Scotland, good-bye! We shall feast on mutton and pie till light as a cork, we arrive in New York under a buttermilk sky!
We’d hardly set sail, when my wife at the rail heard a clatter of hooves and a bray, and the second mate roared, “We have taken aboard a stable and bales of hay. No need for alarm, you shall come to no harm.” But I saw a baboon by his door playing cards with an ape in a gabardine cape. We were three thousand miles from shore.
Oh, buckets and brushes and bales! Five monkeys are twitching their tails! And confirming my fears, I see dozens of ears perking up at the edge of the rail. Mrs. Early of Rood complained of the food; her sister complained of the damp. Mr. Collins of Greer took a chill in his ear, and I was laid low with a cramp. Halfway to New York we ran out of pork and butter and biscuits and sweets, and the cold mutton pie was in such short supply we devoured it all in a week. Crash and tinkle and roar! Our dishes have flown to the floor, and the lively baboon has run off with my spoon and the horses are neighing for more.
We sailed for days in a lavender haze till we met a regrettable squall. I was tossed from my bed and knocked on the head, and my wife had a terrible fall. Creeping out on the deck of our wonderful wreck, I was much astonished to see a second baboon with a face like the moon and a stallion as tall as a tree. Buttons and bobbins and lace! The baboon’s hearty embrace has ruined my coat, and I dreamed that a goat made a meal of my traveling case. I groped back to bed but encountered instead a horse who admired my clothes but decided my vest was too hard to digest and my socks too involved with my toes.
From the hold came a rumbling, a clatter and stumbling, the door of the stable broke free. Mr Collins of Greer gave chase to the mare who was chasing five monkeys and me. Oh, the monkeys with muttering maws! How I long for retractable claws and a comforting chat with the shipmaster’s cat as she scours the pads of her paws!
When the tempest had cleared, the captain appeared and discovered his compass and wheel were safe with the ape in the gabardine cape and an ancient, excitable eel. Mrs. Early of Rood, in a generous mood, said, “The ape has preserved us from harm. The eel did not quail in the face of the gale. He may go for a ride on my arm.” My wife called for fiddle and drum. “Let them thump and twitter and thrum! Let us skittle and hop, and dance till we drop or the moon changes seats with the sun!”
Mr. Collins of Greer asked if we were near, and the captain promised us land would dazzle our sight on this memorable night. When a jig burst forth from the band, the electric eel tied himself to my heel since he could not offer his hand, and two by two, but the light of my shoe we skipped to the promised land.