This is a book of travel. But unlike other books of travel, it is not clever or wise or scientific. There is nothing about anthropology or biology or archaeology. There are no theories about transmission of language or about Sanskrit grammar. Sanskrit has ever been the last refuge of the learned.
We took this trip round the world on bicycles because we are more or less conceited, like to be talked about, and see our names in the newspapers. We didn’t go into training. We took things easy. We jogged through Europe, had sundry experiences in Asia, and survived the criticisms of our country from the Americans. For two years we bicycled in strange lands, and came home a great disappointment to our friends. We are not haggard or worn, or tottering in our gait. We had never been scalped, or had hooks through our spines; never been tortured, or had our eyes gouged; never been rescued after living for a fortnight on our shoes. And we never killed a man. It was evident we were not real travellers.
Still, away somewhere at the back of our heads, we are rather proud of what we have done. We have accomplished the longest bicycle ride ever attempted, just 19,237 miles over continuous new ground. We were stoned by Mohammedans because they alleged we were Christians, and we were pelted with mud in China because the Celestials were certain we were devils. We slept in wet clothes, subsisted on eggs, went hungry, and were enforced teetotalers. We had small-pox, fever, and other ailments. There were less than a dozen fights with Chinese mobs. We never shaved for five months, and only occasionally washed.
Our adventures therefore were of a humdrum sort. If only one of us had been killed, or if we had ridden back into London each minus a limb, excitement would have been caused. As it was we came home quietly.
JOHN FOSTER FRASER
THE AUTHOR’S CLUB,
ROUND THE WORLD
ON A WHEEL
FRIDAY morning, July 17th, 1896, and the dingy gilt hands on the clock face of St. Pancras Church pointed to half-past five. Rain had been falling heavily, and the roads were slushy and greasy; the sky was murky and scowling, and London generally looked disagreeable. Maybe London was sorry we were leaving.
Half a dozen courageous fellows dragged themselves out of bed at the abnormal hour of five a.m., and came along, unwashed and uncombed, to bid us farewell.
“Good-bye, old chap,” said one. “Take care of yourself,” said another. “Don’t break your neck while breaking records,” said a third.
The handshakes were soon over. The three of us jumped upon our bicycles. We turned in our saddles and gave a wave of the hand to the chaps we were leaving behind. And so we were off.
Our wheels were good, sturdy roadsters, painted black. In the diamond frames were leathern bags stuffed with repairing materials. Over the rear wheels had been fixed luggage carriers, and to these were strapped bags containing under-clothing. We were clad in brown woolen garb, guaranteed by the tailor to wear for ever and a fortnight, and we each wore big, bell-shaped helmets.
There must have been something of the daring-African-traveller look about us. The early workman, slouching to his work, stood still and looked at us. We were strange wild-fowl to go spinning through the city at that early hour.
“Hey! mateys, where are you off to?” shouted on old fellow.
“Them’s the bloomin’ blokes what’s goin’ ter ride rhan the bloomin’ hearth,” roared a man in Holburn.
“What’s brought the military hout? Asked a sallow cynic by a coffee-stall.
We had no time for repartee. Along Cheapside we whizzed. There was no hansom, or a bus, or a silk hat to be seen. Away down the Mile End Road we rushed, already noisy with morning traffic; we bumped over the uncomfortable cobbles; we were glad to reach villadom and spurt along macadam roads.
The milkman was tinkling his way from house to house; servant girls yawned sleepily over the scrubbing of the front doorsteps; little shopkeepers paused in taking down of the shutters, and gazed in our direction curiously.
The morning cleared from grey to sunshiny. The roads were fairly good. For two hours we rode without a halt. Then breakfast, then a brisk spin to Colchester, where there was lunch; then away to Harwich, and the kicking of our heels for several hours around the dismal Parkeston Quay.
That last day’s ride in England was to linger in my thoughts. We were going to strange lands. We had been told we were rash and foolish and mad, and we were hastening to our deaths. We didn’t believe it.
And yet a tinge of sadness crept into the mind. With a sort of half regret one sniffed the late-mown hay and heard the clatter of the reaping machine as it cut down the ripened corn. The cottages and the flowers, the plodding old labourers, moleskin-breeched, and wizened old women with cotton bonnets and short winsey skirts, were very lovely and rustic in my eyes that afternoon.
In the evening we embarked on the steamer, and next morning by breakfast we were at Antwerp. It was raining tempestuously, and the roads were covered with puddles. Towards afternoon the weather cleared, and we started our ride through Belgium. Once clear the ramparts of Antwerp we turned our machines upon the cindered footpath and rattled along easily. Half-way to Brussels we swung from high road to canal bank. The ride into Belgium’s capital was delightful. High, wide-spreading trees lined the way, and picturesque villages dotted the land. At places the path ran through meadows, and our pedals dusted poppies and bluebells on either side. Then we swung into the crowded streets of the great city, and we kept our loud-tongued bells clanging furiously as we picked a precarious way among the wondering jehus.
Next morning came a fright. His Majesty Leopold, King of the Belgians, invited us to ride out to the Chateau de Laeken and be received by him. We had no kings among our acquaintances, and we were doubtful what our conduct should be. Our own royal family, queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales, and the Duke of York, had never received us; therefore to be granted audience by a king, while he sat on his throne wrapped in purple robes, a golden crown on his head, something like a brass poker in one hand, and something like a gilded Dutch cheese in the other, made us tremble. Our round-the-world trip was likely to come to an untimely end. Our heads would be chopped off, because we were certain, through sheer, crass ignorance, to be guilty of high treason while in the Presence.
With trepidation we went to the Chateau de Laeken. At the gate soldiers saluted us. We affected a military scowl. We wheeled over the gravelled paths and dismounted at a big door. A magnificent being, in knee-breeches and a lot of gold about him, stood on the steps, and looked about four miles over our heads.
“I suppose that’s the king,” I whispered; “shall we bow?”
“No, you idiot; that’s a flunkey !”
We were led into a fine room and left alone. Our hearts thumped when we heard a footstep and the door was opened. It was a military gentleman in plum-coloured trousers. He bowed and we bowed, and then we looked at one another in a nervous way.
“His Majesty will be here presently; please make yourselves comfortable,” he said. “Sit down, won’t you?”
We fidgeted with our helmets, shuffled our feet, and remarked that the weather was better than yesterday.
“The king is coming,” whispered the aide-de-camp, and we jumped to our feet. The double door was thrown open, and somebody shouted “Le Roi!” The king entered.
As a king he disappointed me. There was no crown, or purple robe, or golden sceptre, There was no kingly frown or haughtiness. There was no label with the words “I am the King.”
We were fairly nervous. But our hands were taken and shaken by a tall, slim, grey-bearded, elderly gentleman, who smiled kindly and spoke just like other men. He was very nice, though his clothes were not nearly as fine as those of the aide-de-camp, and compared with the man in the knee-breeches and gold on the step he was quite ordinary.
The king put us at ease; that is, as far as he could. He chatted and joked and laughed, and we began to feel that being received by royalty wasn’t such a terrible ordeal after all.
“You are going,” he said, “on a most hazardous journey. But you are young, and no doubt well prepared for all the difficulties. Such undertaking shows you lack nothing in bravery.”
I demurred to the word brave.
“But you are going through wild, uncivilized countries, are you not?”
“Certainly, your Majesty.”
“And you will run all sorts of risks; you will at times be in want of food and water, and you run the chance of falling into the hands of bandits; you may be killed, and you may die of fever.”
“We are ready to face whatever dangers there may be.”
The king smiled. “Well,” he observed, “you’ve got pluck, and I’m glad to see you won’t allow anything to debar you.”
His majesty then strolled out to the chateau front and looked at the bicycles. He tried to lift one, but twisted a wry face when he found it too heavy. I remarked that cycling seemed to be quite as much the rage in Belgium as in England.
“Yes,” answered the king, “all the young men and women ride cycles, and even – even some old men ride,” he said, laughing, because he himself occasionally mounts a tricycle.
“And,” he added, “I think I would like an adventure like yours. But people like me can’t do just what they like.”
Soon after the king bade us good-morning, and we came away quite surprised; our heads were still upon our shoulders.