There is no peculiar life more thoroughly apart from life in general, more unlike our usual life, more completely a life of itself, governed by its own rules and having its own roughnesses and amenities, than life on board ship. What tender friendship it produces, and what bitter enmities! How completely the society has formed itself into separate sets after the three or four first days! How thoroughly it is acknowledged that this is the aristocratic set, and that the plebeian! How determined are the aristocrats to admit no intrusion, and how anxious are the plebeians to intrude! Then there arises the great demagogue, who heads a party, having probably been disappointed in early life — that is, in his first endeavours on board the ship. And the women have to acknowledge all their weaknesses, and to exercise all their strength. It is a bad time for them on board ship if they cannot secure the attention of the men — as it is in the other world; but in order that they may secure it, they assume indifference. They assume indifference, but are hard at work with their usual weapons. The men can do very well by themselves. For them there is drinking, smoking, cards, and various games; but the potency of female spells soon works upon them, and all who are worth anything are more or less in love by the end of the first week. Of course it must all come to an end when the port is reached. That is understood, though there may sometimes be mistakes. Most pathetic secrets are told with the consciousness that they will be forgotten as soon as the ship is left. And there is the whole day for these occupations. No work is required from any one. The lawyer does not go to his court, nor the merchant to his desk. Pater-familias receives no bills; mater-familias orders no dinners. The daughter has no household linen to disturb her. The son is never recalled to his books. There is no parliament, no municipality, no vestry. There are neither rates nor taxes nor rents to be paid. The government is the softest despotism under which subjects were ever allowed to do almost just as they please. That the captain has a power is known, but hardly felt. He smiles on all, is responsible for everything, really rules the world submitted to him, from the setting of the sails down to the frying of the chops, and makes one fancy that there must be something wrong with men on shore because first-class nations cannot be governed like first-class ships.
The Goldfinder had on board her over a hundred first-class passengers, and nearly as many of the second class. The life among them was much of the same kind, though in the second class there was less of idleness, less of pleasure, and something more of an attempt to continue the ordinary industry of life. The women worked more and the men read more than their richer neighbours. But the love-making, and the fashion, and the mutiny against the fashion, were the same in one set as in the other. Our friends were at first subjected to an inconvenience which is always felt in such a position. They were known to have had saloon rather than second-class antecedents. Everybody had heard that they had been at Cambridge, and therefore they were at first avoided. And as they themselves were determined not to seek associates among their more aristocratic neighbours, they were left to themselves and solitary for some few days. But this was a condition not at all suited to Dick Shand’s temperament, and it was not long before he had made both male and female acquaintances.
‘Have you observed that woman in the brown straw hat?’ Dick said to Caldigate, one morning, as they were leaning together on the forepart of the vessel against one of the pens in which the fowls were kept. They were both dressed according to the parts they were acting, and which they intended to act, as second-class passengers and future working miners. Any one knowing in such matters would have seen that they were over-dressed; for the real miner, when he is away from his work, puts on his best clothes, and endeavours to look as little rough as possible. And all this had no doubt been seen and felt, and discounted among our friends’ fellow-passengers.
‘I have seen her every day, of course,’ said Caldigate, ‘and have been looking at her for the last half hour.’
‘She is looking at us now.’
‘She seems to me to be very attentive to the stocking she is mending.’
‘Just a woman’s wiles. At this moment she can’t hear us, but she knows pretty nearly what we are saying by the way our lips are going. Have you spoken to her?’
‘I did say a word or two to her yesterday.’
‘What did she say?’
‘I don’t recollect especially. She struck me as talking better than her gown, if you know what I mean.’
‘She talks a great deal better than her gown,’ said Dick. ‘I don’t quite know what to make of her. She says that she is going out to earn her bread; but when I asked her how, she either couldn’t or wouldn’t answer me. She is a mystery, and mysteries are always worth unravelling. I shall go to work and unravel her.’
At that moment the female of whom they were speaking got up from her seat on one of the spars which was bound upon the deck, folded up her work, and walked away. She was a remarkable woman, and certainly looked to be better than her gown, which was old and common enough. Caldigate had observed her frequently, and had been much struck by the word or two she had spoken to him on the preceding day. ‘I should like ship-life well enough,’ she had said, in answer to some ordinary question, ‘if it led to nothing else.’
‘You would not remain here for ever?’
‘Certainly, if I could. There is plenty to eat, and a bed to sleep on, and no one to be afraid of. And though nobody knows me, everybody knows enough of me not to think that I ought to be taken to a police office because I have not gloves to my hands.’
‘Don’t you think it wearisome?’ he had asked.
‘Everything is wearisome; but here I have a proud feeling of having paid my way. To have settled in advance for your dinner for six weeks to come is a magnificent thing. If I get too tired of it I can throw myself overboard. You can’t even do that in London without the police being down upon you. The only horror to me here is that there will so soon be an end to it.’
At that time he had not even heard her name, or known whether she were alone or joined to others. Then he had inquired, and a female fellow-passenger had informed him that she was a Mrs. Smith — that she had seen better days, but had been married to a ne’er-do-well husband, who had drank himself to death within a year of their marriage, and that she was now going out to the colony, probably — so the old lady said who was the informant — in search of a second husband. She was to some extent, the old lady said, in charge of a distant relative, who was then on board, with a respectable husband and children, and who was very much ashamed of her poor connection. So much John Caldigate had heard.
Though he had heard this he did not feel inclined to tell it all to Dick Shand. Dick had professed his intention of unravelling the mystery, but Caldigate almost thought that he would like to unravel it himself. The woman was so constantly alone! And then, though she was ill-dressed, untidy, almost unkempt on occasions, still, through it all, there was something attractive about her. There was a brightness in her eye, and a courage about her mouth, which had made him think that, in spite of her appearance, she would be worth his attention — just for the voyage. When he had been speaking to herself they had been on the deck together, and it had been dusk and he had not been able to look her in the face; but while Shand had been speaking to him he had observed that she was very comely. And this was the more remarkable because it seemed to him to be so evident that she made the worst rather than the best of herself. She was quite a young woman; — probably, he thought, not more than three or four and twenty; and she was there, with many young men round her, and yet she made no effort to attract attention. When his eye had fallen upon her she had generally been quite alone, doing some piece of coarse and ordinary work.
‘I have had another conversation with her,’ said Shand to him that night.
‘Have you unravelled the mystery?’
‘Not quite; but I have got the fact that there is a mystery. She told me that you and I and she herself ought not to be here. When I asked her why, she said that you and I ought to be gentlemen and that she ought to be a lady. I told her that you and I were gentlemen, in spite of our trousers. “Ah,” she said, “there comes the difference; I’m not a lady any longer!” When I contradicted her she snubbed me, and said that I hadn’t seen enough of the world to know anything about it. But I’ll have it all out of her before I’ve done.’
For some days after that Caldigate kept himself aloof from Mrs. Smith, not at all because he had ceased to notice her or to think about her, but from a feeling of dislike to exhibit rivalry with his friend. Shand was making himself very particular, and he thought that Shand was a fool for his pains. He was becoming angry with Shand, and had serious thoughts of speaking to him with solemn severity. What could such a woman be to him? But at the bottom of all this there was something akin to jealousy. The woman was good-looking, and certainly clever, and was very interesting. Shand, for two or three evenings running, related his success; how Mrs. Smith had communicated to him the fact that she utterly despised those Cromptons, who were distant cousins of her late husband’s, and with whom she had come on board; how she preferred to be alone to having aught to do with them; how she had one or two books with her, and passed some hours in reading; and how she was poor, very poor, but still had something on which to live for a few weeks after landing. But Caldigate fancied that there must be a betrayal of trust in these revelations, and though he was in truth interested about the woman, did not give much encouragement to his friend.
‘Upon my word,’ he said, ‘I don’t seem to care so very much about Mrs. Smith’s affairs.’
‘I do,’ said Shand, who was thick-skinned and irrepressible. ‘I declared my intention of unravelling the mystery, and I mean to do it.’
‘I hope you are not too inquisitive?’
‘Of course she likes to have some one to whom she can talk. And what can people talk about on board ship except themselves? A woman who has a mystery always likes to have it unravelled. What else is the good of a mystery?’
He was thick-skinned and irrepressible, but Caldigate endeavoured to show his displeasure. He felt that the poor woman was in coarse hands; and he thought that, had matters gone otherwise, he might have accepted, in a more delicate manner, so much confidence as she chose to vouchsafe.
So it was when they had been a fortnight at sea. They had left home in mid-winter; but now they were in the tropics, near the line, and everything was sultry, sleepy, and warm. Flying-fishes were jumping from the waves on to the deck, and when the dusk of night was come, the passengers would stand by the hour together watching the phosphorus on the water. The Southern Cross had shown itself plainly, and possessed the heavens in conjunction with the Bear. The thick woollen drawers which had been so carefully prepared, were no longer in use, and men were going about in light pantaloons and linen jackets — those on the quarter-deck at first beautifully clean and white, while our friends of the second cabin were less careful. The women, too, had got quit of their wraps, and lounged about the deck in light attire. During the bright hours of the day the aristocrats, in the stern, were shrouded from the sun by a delightful awning; but, forward, the passengers sought the shade of the loose idle sails, or screened themselves from the fierce rays as best they might among the hatchways and woodwork But it was when the burning sun had hidden himself, when the short twilight had disappeared, and the heavens were alive and alight with stars, that all the world of the ship would be crowded on the upper deck. There they would remain, long after the lamps below had been extinguished, some of them sleeping through the whole night in the comparative coolness of the air. But it was from eight, when tea would be over, till midnight, that the hum of voices would be thickest, and the tread of those who walked for their exercise the most frequent.
At such times Caldigate would be often alone; for though he had made acquaintances, and had become indeed intimate with some of those around him, he had never thrust himself into the life of the ship as Shand had done. Charades were acted in the second cabin, in which Shand always took part — and there were penny readings, at which Shand was often the reader. And he smoked much and drank somewhat with those who smoked and drank. The awe at first inspired by his university superiority and supposed rank in the world had faded almost into nothing, but by Caldigate, unconsciously, much of this had been preserved. I am not sure that he did not envy his friend, but at any rate he stood aloof. And, in regard to Mrs. Smith, when he saw her walking one evening with Shand in the sweetly dim light of the evening, with her hand upon Shand’s arm, he made up his mind that he would think no more about her.
They had been at sea just a fortnight when this happened. And in about a quarter of an hour after this resolve had been formed Mrs. Smith was standing by him and talking to him. A ball was being held on the quarter-deck, or rather, as there was in truth no quarter-deck to the Goldfinder, on that clean, large, luxurious expanse devoted to the aristocracy in the after-part of the vessel. From among the second-class passengers, two fiddlers and a flute player had been procured, who formed the band. At sea you have always to look for your musicians among the second-class passengers. And now under the awning young and old were standing up, and making themselves happy beneath the starlight and the glimmer of the dozen ship-lamps which had been hung around. On board ship there are many sources of joy of which the land knows nothing. You may flirt and dance at sixty; and if you are awkward in the turn of a valse, you may put it down to the motion of the ship. You need wear no gloves, and may drink your soda-and-brandy without being ashamed of it.
It was not for John Caldigate to join the mazes of that dance, though he would have liked it well, and was well fitted by skill and taste for such exercise. But the ground was hallowed on which they trod, and forbidden to him; and though there was probably not a girl or a dancing married woman there who would not have been proud to stand up with Mr. Caldigate of Folking, there was not one who would have dared to take the hand of a second-class passenger. So he stood, just within his own boundary, and looked and longed. Then there was a voice in his ear. ‘Do you dance, Mr. Caldigate?’
It was a very pleasant voice, low, but distinct and silvery, infinitely better again than the gown; a voice so distinct and well-managed that it would have been noticed for its peculiar sweetness if coming from any high-bred lady. He turned round and found her face close to his. Why had she come to speak to him when she must have perceived that he had intentionally avoided her.
‘I used to be very fond of dancing,’ he said, ‘but it is one of the things that have gone away.’
‘I, too, was fond of dancing; but, as you say, it has gone away. It will come back to you, in half-a-dozen years, perhaps. It can never come back to me. Things do come back to men.’
‘Why more than to women?’
‘You have a resurrection; — I mean here upon earth. We never have. Though we live as long as you, the pleasure-seeking years of our lives are much shorter. We burst out into full flowering early in our spring, but long before the summer is over, we are no more than huddled leaves and thick stalks.’
‘Are you a thick stalk, Mrs. Smith?’
‘Unfortunately, not. My flowers are gone while my stalk is still thin and sensitive. And then women can’t recuperate.’
‘I don’t quite know what that means.’
‘Yes, you do. It is good English enough even for Cambridge by this time. If you had made a false step, got into debt and ran away, or mistaken another man’s wife for your own, or disappeared altogether under a cloud for a while, you could retrieve your honour, and, sinking at twenty-five or thirty, could come up from out of the waters at thirty-five as capable of enjoyment and almost as fresh as ever. But a woman does not bear submersion. She is draggled ever afterwards. She must hide everything by a life of lies, or she will get no admittance anywhere. The man is rather the better liked because he has sown his wild oats broadly. Of all these ladies dancing there, which dances the best? There is not one who really knows how to dance.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01