Notes of a Journey From Cornhill to Grand Cairo, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter 3

The “Lady Mary Wood”

Our week’s voyage is now drawing to a close. We have just been to look at Cape Trafalgar, shining white over the finest blue sea. (We, who were looking at Trafalgar Square only the other day!) The sight of that cape must have disgusted Joinville and his fleet of steamers, as they passed yesterday into Cadiz bay, and tomorrow will give them a sight of St. Vincent.

One of their steam-vessels has been lost off the coast of Africa; they were obliged to burn her, lest the Moors should take possession of her. She was a virgin vessel, just out of Brest. Poor innocent! to die in the very first month of her union with the noble whiskered god of war!

We Britons on board the English boat received the news of the “Groenenland’s” abrupt demise with grins of satisfaction. It was a sort of national compliment, and cause of agreeable congratulation. “The lubbers!” we said; “the clumsy humbugs! there’s none but Britons to rule the waves!” and we gave ourselves piratical airs, and went down presently and were sick in our little buggy berths. It was pleasant, certainly, to laugh at Joinville’s admiral’s flag floating at his foremast, in yonder black ship, with its two thundering great guns at the bows and stern, its busy crew swarming on the deck, and a crowd of obsequious shore-boats bustling round the vessel — and to sneer at the Mogador warrior, and vow that we English, had we been inclined to do the business, would have performed it a great deal better.

Now yesterday at Lisbon we saw H.M.S. “Caledonia.” THIS, on the contrary, inspired us with feelings of respect and awful pleasure. There she lay — the huge sea-castle — bearing the unconquerable flag of our country. She had but to open her jaws, as it were, and she might bring a second earthquake on the city — batter it into kingdom-come — with the Ajuda palace and the Necessidades, the churches, and the lean, dry, empty streets, and Don John, tremendous on horseback, in the midst of Black Horse Square. Wherever we looked we could see that enormous “Caledonia,” with her flashing three lines of guns. We looked at the little boats which ever and anon came out of this monster, with humble wonder. There was the lieutenant who boarded us at midnight before we dropped anchor in the river: ten white-jacketed men pulling as one, swept along with the barge, gig, boat, curricle, or coach-and-six, with which he came up to us. We examined him — his red whiskers — his collars turned down — his duck trousers, his bullion epaulets — with awe. With the same reverential feeling we examined the seamen — the young gentleman in the bows of the boat — the handsome young officers of marines we met sauntering in the town next day — the Scotch surgeon who boarded us as we weighed anchor — every man, down to the broken-nosed mariner who was drunk in a wine-house, and had “Caledonia” written on his hat. Whereas at the Frenchmen we looked with undisguised contempt. We were ready to burst with laughter as we passed the Prince’s vessel — there was a little French boy in a French boat alongside cleaning it, and twirling about a little French mop — we thought it the most comical, contemptible French boy, mop, boat, steamer, prince — Psha! it is of this wretched vapouring stuff that false patriotism is made. I write this as a sort of homily ‘a propos of the day, and Cape Trafalgar, off which we lie. What business have I to strut the deck, and clap my wings, and cry “Cock-a-doodle-doo” over it? Some compatriots are at that work even now.

We have lost one by one all our jovial company. There were the five Oporto wine-merchants — all hearty English gentlemen — gone to their wine-butts, and their red-legged partridges, and their duels at Oporto. It appears that these gallant Britons fight every morning among themselves, and give the benighted people among whom they live an opportunity to admire the spirit national. There is the brave honest major, with his wooden leg — the kindest and simplest of Irishmen: he has embraced his children, and reviewed his little invalid garrison of fifteen men, in the fort which he commands at Belem, by this time, and, I have no doubt, played to every soul of them the twelve tunes of his musical-box. It was pleasant to see him with that musical-box — how pleased he wound it up after dinner — how happily he listened to the little clinking tunes as they galloped, ding-dong, after each other! A man who carries a musical-box is always a good-natured man.

Then there was his Grace, or his Grandeur, the Archbishop of Beyrouth (in the parts of the infidels), His Holiness’s Nuncio to the Court of Her Most Faithful Majesty, and who mingled among us like any simple mortal — except that he had an extra smiling courtesy, which simple mortals do not always possess; and when you passed him as such, and puffed your cigar in his face, took off his hat with a grin of such prodigious rapture, as to lead you to suppose that the most delicious privilege of his whole life was that permission to look at the tip of your nose or of your cigar. With this most reverend prelate was his Grace’s brother and chaplain — a very greasy and good-natured ecclesiastic, who, from his physiognomy, I would have imagined to be a dignitary of the Israelitish rather than the Romish Church — as profuse in smiling courtesy as his Lordship of Beyrouth. These two had a meek little secretary between them, and a tall French cook and valet, who, at meal times, might be seen busy about the cabin where their reverences lay. They were on their backs for the greater part of the voyage; their yellow countenances were not only unshaven, but, to judge from appearances, unwashed. They ate in private; and it was only of evenings, as the sun was setting over the western wave, and, comforted by the dinner, the cabin-passengers assembled on the quarter-deck, that we saw the dark faces of the reverend gentlemen among us for a while. They sank darkly into their berths when the steward’s bell tolled for tea.

At Lisbon, where we came to anchor at midnight, a special boat came off, whereof the crew exhibited every token of reverence for the ambassador of the ambassador of Heaven, and carried him off from our company. This abrupt departure in the darkness disappointed some of us, who had promised ourselves the pleasure of seeing his Grandeur depart in state in the morning, shaved, clean, and in full pontificals, the tripping little secretary swinging an incense-pot before him, and the greasy chaplain bearing his crosier.

Next day we had another bishop, who occupied the very same berth his Grace of Beyrouth had quitted — was sick in the very same way — so much so that this cabin of the “Lady Mary Wood” is to be christened “the bishop’s berth” henceforth; and a handsome mitre is to be painted on the basin.

Bishop No. 2 was a very stout, soft, kind-looking old gentleman, in a square cap, with a handsome tassel of green and gold round his portly breast and back. He was dressed in black robes and tight purple stockings: and we carried him from Lisbon to the little flat coast of Faro, of which the meek old gentleman was the chief pastor.

We had not been half-an-hour from our anchorage in the Tagus, when his Lordship dived down into the episcopal berth. All that night there was a good smart breeze; it blew fresh all the next day, as we went jumping over the blue bright sea; and there was no sign of his Lordship the bishop until we were opposite the purple hills of Algarve, which lay some ten miles distant — a yellow sunny shore stretching flat before them, whose long sandy flats and villages we could see with our telescope from the steamer.

Presently a little vessel, with a huge shining lateen sail, and bearing the blue and white Portuguese flag, was seen playing a sort of leap-frog on the jolly waves, jumping over them, and ducking down as merry as could be. This little boat came towards the steamer as quick as ever she could jump; and Captain Cooper roaring out, “Stop her!” to “Lady Mary Wood,” her Ladyship’s paddles suddenly ceased twirling, and news was carried to the good bishop that his boat was almost alongside, and that his hour was come.

It was rather an affecting sight to see the poor old fat gentleman, looking wistfully over the water as the boat now came up, and her eight seamen, with great noise, energy, and gesticulation laid her by the steamer. The steamer steps were let down; his Lordship’s servant, in blue and yellow livery (like the Edinburgh Review), cast over the episcopal luggage into the boat, along with his own bundle and the jack-boots with which he rides postilion on one of the bishop’s fat mules at Faro. The blue and yellow domestic went down the steps into the boat. Then came the bishop’s turn; but he couldn’t do it for a long while. He went from one passenger to another, sadly shaking them by the hand, often taking leave and seeming loth to depart, until Captain Cooper, in a stern but respectful tone, touched him on the shoulder, and said, I know not with what correctness, being ignorant of the Spanish language, “Senor ‘Bispo! Senor ‘Bispo!” on which summons the poor old man, looking ruefully round him once more, put his square cap under his arm, tucked up his long black petticoats, so as to show his purple stockings and jolly fat calves, and went trembling down the steps towards the boat. The good old man! I wish I had had a shake of that trembling podgy hand somehow before he went upon his sea martyrdom. I felt a love for that soft-hearted old Christian. Ah! let us hope his governante tucked him comfortably in bed when he got to Faro that night, and made him a warm gruel and put his feet in warm water. The men clung around him, and almost kissed him as they popped him into the boat, but he did not heed their caresses. Away went the boat scudding madly before the wind. Bang! another lateen-sailed boat in the distance fired a gun in his honour; but the wind was blowing away from the shore, and who knows when that meek bishop got home to his gruel?

I think these were the notables of our party. I will not mention the laughing ogling lady of Cadiz, whose manners, I very much regret to say, were a great deal too lively for my sense of propriety; nor those fair sufferers, her companions, who lay on the deck with sickly, smiling female resignation: nor the heroic children, who no sooner ate biscuit than they were ill, and no sooner were ill than they began eating biscuit again: but just allude to one other martyr, the kind lieutenant in charge of the mails, and who bore his cross with what I can’t but think a very touching and noble resignation.

There’s a certain sort of man whose doom in the world is disappointment — who excels in it — and whose luckless triumphs in his meek career of life, I have often thought, must be regarded by the kind eyes above with as much favour as the splendid successes and achievements of coarser and more prosperous men. As I sat with the lieutenant upon deck, his telescope laid over his lean legs, and he looking at the sunset with a pleased, withered old face, he gave me a little account of his history. I take it he is in nowise disinclined to talk about it, simple as it is: he has been seven-and-thirty years in the navy, being somewhat more mature in the service than Lieutenant Peel, Rear-Admiral Prince de Joinville, and other commanders who need not be mentioned. He is a very well-educated man, and reads prodigiously — travels, histories, lives of eminent worthies and heroes, in his simple way. He is not in the least angry at his want of luck in the profession. “Were I a boy tomorrow,” he said, “I would begin it again; and when I see my schoolfellows, and how they have got on in life, if some are better off than I am, I find many are worse, and have no call to be discontented.” So he carries Her Majesty’s mails meekly through this world, waits upon port-admirals and captains in his old glazed hat, and is as proud of the pennon at the bow of his little boat, as if it were flying from the mainmast of a thundering man-of-war. He gets two hundred a year for his services, and has an old mother and a sister living in England somewhere, who I will wager (though he never, I swear, said a word about it) have a good portion of this princely income.

Is it breaking a confidence to tell Lieutenant Bundy’s history? Let the motive excuse the deed. It is a good, kind, wholesome, and noble character. Why should we keep all our admiration for those who win in this world, as we do, sycophants as we are? When we write a novel, our great stupid imaginations can go no further than to marry the hero to a fortune at the end, and to find out that he is a lord by right. O blundering lickspittle morality! And yet I would like to fancy some happy retributive Utopia in the peaceful cloud-land, where my friend the meek lieutenant should find the yards of his ship manned as he went on board, all the guns firing an enormous salute (only without the least noise or vile smell of powder), and he be saluted on the deck as Admiral Sir James, or Sir Joseph — ay, or Lord Viscount Bundy, knight of all the orders above the sun.

I think this is a sufficient, if not a complete catalogue of the worthies on board the “Lady Mary Wood.” In the week we were on board — it seemed a year, by the way — we came to regard the ship quite as a home. We felt for the captain — the most good-humoured, active, careful, ready of captains — a filial, a fraternal regard; for the providor, who provided for us with admirable comfort and generosity, a genial gratitude; and for the brisk steward’s lads — brisk in serving the banquet, sympathising in handing the basin — every possible sentiment of regard and good-will. What winds blew, and how many knots we ran, are all noted down, no doubt, in the ship’s log: and as for what ships we saw — every one of them with their gunnage, tonnage, their nation, their direction whither they were bound — were not these all noted down with surprising ingenuity and precision by the lieutenant, at a family desk at which he sat every night, before a great paper elegantly and mysteriously ruled off with his large ruler? I have a regard for every man on board that ship, from the captain down to the crew — down even to the cook, with tattooed arms, sweating among the saucepans in the galley, who used (with a touching affection) to send us locks of his hair in the soup. And so, while our feelings and recollections are warm, let us shake hands with this knot of good fellows, comfortably floating about in their little box of wood and iron, across Channel, Biscay Bay, and the Atlantic, from Southampton Water to Gibraltar Straits.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00