Luckily there is a rope out astern which still keeps the Astara near the quay. The German appears just as two sailors are manoeuvring with the fender. They each give him a hand and help him on board.
Evidently this fat man is an old hand at this sort of thing, and I should not be surprised if he did not arrive at his destination.
However, the Astara is under way, her powerful paddles are at work, and we are soon out of the harbor.
About a quarter of a mile out there is a sort of boiling, agitating the surface of the sea, and showing some deep trouble in the waters. I was then near the rail on the starboard quarter, and, smoking my cigar, was looking at the harbor disappearing behind the point round Cape Apcheron, while the range of the Caucasus ran up into the western horizon.
Of my cigar there remained only the end between my lips, and taking a last whiff, I threw it overboard.
In an instant a sheet of flame burst out all round the steamer The boiling came from a submarine spring of naphtha, and the cigar end had set it alight.
Screams arise. The Astara rolls amid sheaves of flame; but a movement of the helm steers us away from the flaming spring, and we are out of danger.
The captain comes aft and says to me in a frigid tone:
“That was a foolish thing to do.”
And I reply, as I usually reply under such circumstances:
“Really, captain, I did not know—”
“You ought always to know, sir!”
These words are uttered in a dry, cantankerous tone a few feet away from me.
I turn to see who it is.
It is the Englishwoman who has read me this little lesson.
I am always suspicious of a traveler’s “impressions.” These impressions are subjective—a word I use because it is the fashion, although I am not quite sure what it means. A cheerful man looks at things cheerfully, a sorrowful man looks at them sorrowfully. Democritus would have found something enchanting about the banks of the Jordan and the shores of the Dead Sea. Heraclitus would have found something disagreeable about the Bay of Naples and the beach of the Bosphorus. I am of a happy nature—you must really pardon me if I am rather egotistic in this history, for it is so seldom that an author’s personality is so mixed up with what he is writing about—like Hugo, Dumas, Lamartine, and so many others. Shakespeare is an exception, and I am not Shakespeare—and, as far as that goes, I am not Lamartine, nor Dumas, nor Hugo.
However, opposed as I am to the doctrines of Schopenhauer and Leopardi, I will admit that the shores of the Caspian did seem rather gloomy and dispiriting. There seemed to be nothing alive on the coast; no vegetation, no birds. There was nothing to make you think you were on a great sea. True, the Caspian is only a lake about eighty feet below the level of the Mediterranean, but this lake is often troubled by violent storms. A ship cannot “get away,” as sailors say: it is only about a hundred leagues wide. The coast is quickly reached eastward or westward, and harbors of refuge are not numerous on either the Asiatic or the European side.