Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XIX

Inside the Channel

That little incident threw some light upon Major Hockin’s character. It was not for himself alone that he was so particular, or, as many would call it, fidgety, to have every thing done properly; for if any thing came to his knowledge which he thought unfair to any one, it concerned him almost as much as if the wrong had been done to his own home self. Through this he had fallen into many troubles, for his impressions were not always accurate; but they taught him nothing, or rather, as his wife said, “the Major could not help it.” The leading journals of the various places in which Major Hockin sojourned had published his letters of grievances sometimes, in the absence of the chief editor, and had suffered in purse by doing so. But the Major always said, “Ventilate it, ventilate the subject, my dear Sir; bring public opinion to bear on it.” And Mrs. Hockin always said that it was her husband to whom belonged the whole credit of this new and spirited use of the fine word “ventilation.”

As betwixt this faithful pair, it is scarcely needful perhaps to say that the Major was the master. His sense of justice dictated that, as well as his general briskness. Though he was not at all like Mr. Gundry in undervaluing female mind, his larger experience and more frequent intercourse with our sex had taught him to do justice to us; and it was pleasant to hear him often defer to the judgment of ladies. But this he did more, perhaps, in theory than in practice; yet it made all the ladies declare to one another that he was a perfect gentleman. And so he was, though he had his faults; but his faults were such as we approve of.

But Mrs. Hockin had no fault in any way worth speaking of. And whatever she had was her husband’s doing, through her desire to keep up with him. She was pretty, even now in her sixtieth year, and a great deal prettier because she never tried to look younger. Silver hair, and gentle eyes, and a forehead in which all the cares of eight children had scarcely imprinted a wrinkle, also a kind expression of interest in whatever was spoken of, with a quiet voice and smile, and a power of not saying too much at a time, combined to make this lady pleasant.

Without any fuss or declaration, she took me immediately under her care; and I doubt not that, after two years passed in the society of Suan Isco and the gentle Sawyer, she found many things in me to amend, which she did by example and without reproof. She shielded me also in the cleverest way from the curiosity of the saloon, which at first was very trying. For the Bridal Veil being a well-known ship both for swift passages and for equipment, almost every berth was taken, and when the weather was calm, quite a large assembly sat down to dinner. Among these, of course, were some ill-bred people, and my youth and reserve and self-consciousness, and so on, made my reluctant face the mark for many a long and searching gaze. My own wish had been not to dine thus in public; but hearing that my absence would only afford fresh grounds for curiosity, I took my seat between the Major and his wife, the former having pledged himself to the latter to leave every thing to her management. His temper was tried more than once to its utmost — which was not a very great distance — but he kept his word, and did not interfere; and I having had some experience with Firm, eschewed all perception of glances. And as for all words, Mrs. Hockin met them with an obtuse obliqueness; so that after a day or two it was settled that nothing could be done about “Miss Wood.”

It had been a very sore point to come to, and cost an unparalleled shed of pride, that I should be shorn of two-thirds of my name, and called “Miss Wood,” like almost anybody else. I refused to entertain such a very poor idea, and clung to the name which had always been mine — for my father would never depart from it — and I even burst into tears, which would, I suppose, be called “sentimental;” but still the stern fact stared me in the face — I must go as “Miss Wood,” or not go at all. Upon this Major Hockin had insisted; and even Colonel Gundry could not move him from his resolution.

Uncle Sam had done his utmost, as was said before, to stop me from wishing to go at all; but when he found my whole heart bent upon it, and even my soul imperiled by the sense of neglecting life’s chief duty, his own stern sense of right came in and sided with my prayers to him. And so it was that he let me go, with pity for my youth and sex, but a knowledge that I was in good hands, and an inborn, perhaps “Puritanical” faith, that the Lord of all right would see to me.

The Major, on the other hand, had none of this. He differed from Uncle Sam as much as a trim-cut and highly cultured garden tree differs from a great spreading king of the woods. He was not without a strict sense of religion, especially when he had to march men to church; and he never even used a bad word, except when wicked facts compelled him. When properly let alone, and allowed to nurse his own opinions, he had a respectable idea that all things were certain to be ordered for the best; but nothing enraged him so much as to tell him that when things went against him, or even against his predictions.

It was lucky for me, then, that Major Hockin had taken a most adverse view of my case. He formed his opinions with the greatest haste, and with the greatest perseverance stuck to them; for he was the most generous of mankind, if generous means one quite full of his genus. And in my little case he had made up his mind that the whole of the facts were against me. “Fact” was his favorite word, and one which he always used with great effect, for nobody knows very well what it means, as it does not belong to our language. And so when he said that the facts were against me, who was there to answer that facts are not truth?

This fast-set conclusion of his was known to me not through himself, but through his wife. For I could not yet bring myself to speak of the things that lay close at my heart to him, though I knew that he must be aware of them. And he, like a gentleman, left me to begin. I could often see that he was ready and quite eager to give me the benefit of his opinion, which would only have turned me against him, and irritated him, perhaps, with me. And having no home in England, or, indeed, I might say, any where, I was to live with the Major and his wife, supposing that they could arrange it so, until I should discover relatives.

We had a long and stormy voyage, although we set sail so fairly; and I thought that we never should round Cape Horn in the teeth of the furious northeast winds; and after that we lay becalmed, I have no idea in what latitude, though the passengers now talked quite like seamen, at least till the sea got up again. However, at last we made the English Channel, in the dreary days of November, and after more peril there than any where else, we were safely docked at Southampton. Here the Major was met by two dutiful daughters, bringing their husbands and children, and I saw more of family life (at a distance) than had fallen to my lot to observe before; and although there were many little jars and brawls and cuts at one another, I was sadly inclined to wish sometimes for some brothers and sisters to quarrel with.

But having none to quarrel with, and none to love, except good Mrs. Hockin, who went away by train immediately, I spent such a wretched time in that town that I longed to be back in the Bridal Veil in the very worst of weather. The ooze of the shore and the reek of the water, and the dreary flatness of the land around (after the glorious heaven-clad heights, which made me ashamed of littleness), also the rough, stupid stare of the men, when I went about as an American lady may freely do in America, and the sharpness of every body’s voice (instead of the genial tones which those who can not produce them call “nasal,” but which from a higher view are cordial)— taken one after other, or all together, these things made me think, in the first flush of thought, that England was not a nice country. After a little while I found that I had been a great deal too quick, as foreigners are with things which require quiet comprehension. For instance, I was annoyed at having a stupid woman put over me, as if I could not mind myself — a cook, or a nurse, or housekeeper, or something very useful in the Hockin family, but to me a mere incumbrance, and (as I thought in my wrath sometimes) a spy. What was I likely to do, or what was any one likely to do to me, in a thoroughly civilized country, that I could not even stay in private lodgings, where I had a great deal to think of, without this dull creature being forced upon me? But the Major so ordered it, and I gave in.

There I must have staid for the slowest three mouths ever passed without slow starvation finishing my growth, but not knowing how to “form my mind,” as I was told to do. Major Hockin came down once or twice to see me, and though I did not like him, yet it was almost enough to make me do so to see a little liveliness. But I could not and would not put up with a frightful German baron of music, with a polished card like a toast-rack, whom the Major tried to impress on me. As if I could stop to take music lessons!

“Miss Wood,” said Major Hockin, in his strongest manner, the last time he came to see me, “I stand to you in loco parentis. That means, with the duties, relationships, responsibilities, and what not, of the unfortunate — I should say rather of the beloved — parent deceased. I wish to be more careful of you than of a daughter of my own — a great deal more careful, ten times, Miss Wood; I may say a thousand times more careful, because you have not had the discipline which a daughter of mine would have enjoyed. And you are so impulsive when you take an idea! You judge every body by your likings. That leads to error, error, error.”

“My name is not Miss Wood,” I answered; “my name is ‘Erema Castlewood.’ Whatever need may have been on board ship for nobody knowing who I am, surely I may have my own name now.”

When any body says “surely,” at once up springs a question; nothing being sure, and the word itself at heart quite interrogative. The Major knew all those little things which manage women so manfully. So he took me by the hand and led me to the light and looked at me.

I had not one atom of Russian twist or dyed China grass in my hair, nor even the ubiquitous aid of horse and cow; neither in my face or figure was I conscious of false presentment. The Major was welcome to lead me to the light and to throw up all his spectacles and gaze with all his eyes. My only vexation was with myself, because I could not keep the weakness — which a stranger should not see — out of my eyes, upon sudden remembrance who it was that used to have the right to do such things to me. This it was, and nothing else, that made me drop my eyes, perhaps.

“There, there, my dear!” said Major Hockin, in a softer voice than usual. “Pretty fit you are to combat with the world, and defy the world, and brave the world, and abolish the world — or at least the world’s opinion! ‘Bo to a goose,’ you can say, my dear; but no ‘bo’ to a gander. No, no; do quietly what I advise — by-the-bye, you have never asked my advice.”

I can not have been hypocritical, for of all things I detest that most; but in good faith I said, being conquered by the Major’s relaxation of his eyes,

“Oh, why have you never offered it to me? You knew that I never could ask for it.”

For the moment he looked surprised, as if our ideas had gone crosswise; and then he remembered many little symptoms of my faith in his opinions; which was now growing inevitable, with his wife and daughters, and many grandchildren — all certain that he was a Solomon.

“Erema,” he said, “you are a dear good girl, though sadly, sadly romantic. I had no idea that you had so much sense. I will talk with you, Erema, when we both have leisure.”

“I am quite at leisure, Major Hockin,” I replied, “and only too happy to listen to you.”

“Yes, yes, I dare say. You are in lodgings. You can do exactly as you please. But I have a basin of ox-tail soup, a cutlet, and a woodcock waiting for me at the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Bless me! I am five minutes late already. I will come and have a talk with you afterward.”

“Thank you,” I said; “we had better leave it. It seems of no importance, compared — compared with —”

“My dinner!” said the Major; but he was offended, and so was I a little, though neither of us meant to vex the other.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31