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At Madeira seven of us were added to the first-class passengers of the Cambuscan, homeward bound from Cape Town; and even so the company made a poor muster in the saloon, which required a hundred and seventy feet of hurricane-deck for covering. Those were days--long before the South African War, before the Jameson Raid even--when every ship carried out a load of miners for the Transvaal, and returned comparatively empty, though as a rule with plenty of obviously rich men and be-diamonded ladies.
But every tide has its backwash; and it so happened that the Cambuscan held as many second and third-class passengers as she could stow. They were--their general air proclaimed it--the failures of South African immigration; men and women who had gone out too early and given up the struggle just when the propitious moment arrived. Seediness marked the second-class; the third-class came from all parts, from the Cape to Pietermaritzburg, but they might have conspired to assemble on the Cambuscan as a protest against high hopes and dreams of a promised land. The protest, let me add, was an entirely passive one. They stood aloof, watching the flashy gaieties of the hurricane-deck from their own sad penumbra--a dejected, wistful, whispering throng. "They simply don't occur," one of the be-diamonded ladies remarked to me, and went on to praise the U-- Line for arranging it so. With nightfall--or a trifle later--they vanished; and at most, when the time came for my last pipe before turning in, two or three figures would be left pacing there forward, pacing and turning and pacing again. I wondered who these figures were, and what their thoughts. They and the sleepers hived beneath them belonged to another world--a world driven with ours through wave and darkness, urged by the same propellers, controlled by the same helmsman, separated only by thin partitions which the touch of a rock would tear down like paper; yet, while the partitions stood, separated as no city separates its rich and poor. Only on Sundays did these two worlds consent to meet. They had, it appeared, a common God, and joined for a few minutes once a week in worshipping Him.
The be-diamonded lady, however, was not quite accurate. Once, and once only--it was the second day out from Madeira--the third-class passengers did "occur," to the extent of organising athletic sports, and even (with the captain's leave) of levying prize-money from the saloon-deck. Some four or five of us, when their delegate approached, were lounging beneath the great awning and listening, or pretending to listen, to the discourse of our only millionaire, Mr. Olstein. As usual, he recited his wrongs; and, as usual, the mere recital caused him to perspire. The hairs on the back of his expostulatory hand bristled with indignation, the diamonds on his fingers flashed with it. We had known him but two days and were passing weary of him, but allowed him to talk. He apostrophised the British Flag--his final Court of Appeal, he termed it--while we stared out over the waters.
"We love it," he insisted. "We never see it without a lump in our throats. But we ask ourselves, How long is this affection to count for nothing? What are we to get in return?"
No one answered, perhaps because no one knew. My thoughts had flown forward to a small riverside church in England, and a memorial window to one whose body had been found after Isandlwhana with the same flag wrapped around it beneath the tunic. This was his reward.
"Hey? What's this?" Mr. Olstein took the subscription list, fitted his gold-rimmed glasses and eyed the delegate over the paper. "Athletic sports? Not much in your line, I should say."
"No, sir;" and while the delegate bent his eyes a bright spot showed on either cheek. He was a weedy, hollow-chested man, about six feet in height, with tell-tale pits at the back of the neck, and a ragged beard evidently grown on the voyage. "I'm only a collector, with the captain's permission."
"I see." Mr. Olstein pulled out a sovereign. "I don't put this on you, mind; I can tell a consumptive with half an eye. See here"--he appealed to us--"this is just what we suffer from. You fellows with lung trouble flock to a tepid hole like Madeira, while the Cape would cure you in half the time: why, the voyage itself only begins to be decent after you get south! But you won't see it; and the people who do see it are just the sort who don't pay us when they come, and damage us when they go back,--hard cases, sent out to pick up a living as well as their health, who get stranded and hurry home half-cured."
A young Briton in the deck-chair next to mine rose and walked off abruptly, while I fumbled for a coin, ashamed to meet the collector's eye.
"Hullo!" Mr. Olstein grinned at me. "Our friend's in a hurry to dodge the subscription list."
But the young Briton turned and intercepted the collector as he moved towards the next group.
"It's your sovereign," said I, "that seems to be overlooked."
Mr. Olstein saw it at his elbow and re-pocketed it. "Well, if he hasn't the sense to pick it up, I've some more than to whistle him back. But that'll show you the sort of fool we send out to compete with Germans and suchlike. It's enough to make a man ashamed of his country."
This happened on a Saturday morning, and in the afternoon we attended the sports--a depressing ceremony. The performers went through their contests, so to speak, with bated breath and a self-consciousness which, try as we might, poisoned our applause and made it insufferably patronising. Their backers would pluck up heart and encourage them loudly with Whitechapel catch-words, and anon would hush their voices in uneasy shame. Our collector, brave by fits in his dignity as steward, would catch the eye of a saloon-deck passenger and shrink behind the enormous rosette which some wag had pinned upon him.
Next day I made an opportunity to speak with him, after service. It needed no pressing to extract his story, and he told it with entire simplicity. He was a Cockney, and by trade had been a baker in Bermondsey. "A wearing trade," he said. "The most of us die before forty. You'd be surprised." But he had started with a sound constitution, and somehow persuaded himself, in spite of warnings, that he was immune. At thirty-two he had married. "A deal later than most," he explained--and had scarcely been married three months before lung trouble declared itself. "I had a few pounds put by, having married so late; and it seemed a duty to Emily to give myself every chance: so we packed up almost at once and started for South Africa. It was a wrench to her, but the voyage out did us both all the good in the world, she being in a delicate state of health, and the room in Bermondsey not fit for a woman in that condition." The baby was born in Cape Town, five months after their landing. "But they've no employment for bakers out there," he assured me. "We found trade very low altogether, and what I picked up wasn't any healthier than in London. Emily disliked the place, too; though she'd have stayed gladly if it had been doing me any good. And so back we're going. There's one thing: I'm safe of work. My old employer in Bermondsey has promised that all right. And the child, you see, sir, won't suffer. There's no consumption, that I know of, in either of our families; and Emily, you may be sure, will see he's not brought up to be a baker."
He announced it in the most matter-of-fact way. He was going back to England to die--to die speedily--and he knew it. "I should like you to see our baby, sir," he added. "He weighs extraordinary, for his age. My wife comes from the North of England--a very big-boned family; and he's British, every ounce of him, though he was born in South Africa."
But the wife took a chill on entering the Bay, and remained below with the child; nor was it until the day we sighted England that I saw the whole family together.
We were to pick up the Eddystone; and as this was calculated to happen at sunset, or a little after, the usual sweepstake on the saloon-deck aroused a little more than the usual excitement. For the first glimpse, whether of lighthouse or light, would give the prize to the nearest guesser. If we anticipated sunset, the clearness of the weather would decide between two pretty close shots: if we ran it fine, the lamp (which carries for seventeen miles and more) might upset those who staked on daylight even at that distance from the mark. Our guesses had been tabulated, and the paper pinned up in the smoking-room.
They allowed a margin of some twenty-five knots on the twenty-four hours' run--ranging, as nearly as I can recollect, from three hundred and thirty-five to three hundred and sixty; and the date being the last week of March, and sunset falling close on half-past six, a whole nebula of guesses surrounded that hour, one or two divided only by a few seconds.
A strong head-wind met us in the Channel, and the backers of daylight had almost given up hope; but it dropped in the late afternoon, and by the log we were evidently in for a close finish. Mr. Olstein had set his watch by the ship's chronometer, and consulted it from minute to minute. He stood by me, binocular in hand, and grew paler with excitement as sunset drew on and the minutes scored off the guesses one by one from the list. His guess was among the last, but not actually the last by half a dozen.
We had reached a point when five minutes disposed of no less than nine guesses. The weather was dull: no one could tell precisely if the sun had sunk or not. We were certainly within twenty miles of the rock, and by the Nautical Almanack, unless our chronometer erred, the light ought to flash out within sixty seconds. If within forty the man sang out from the crow's-nest, Mr. Olstein would lose; after forty he had a whole minute and a half for a clear win.
The forty seconds passed. Mr. Olstein drew a long breath of relief. "But why the devil don't they light up?" he demanded after a moment. "I call you to witness what the time is by our chronometer. I'll have it tested as soon as I step ashore, and if it's wrong I'll complain to the Company; if it's not, I'll send the Trinity House a letter'll lay those lighthouse fellows by the heels! Punctuality, sir, in the case of shipping--life or death--"
The cry of the man in the crow's-nest mingled with ours as a spark touched the north-eastern horizon almost ahead of us--trembled and died--shone out, as it seemed, more steadily--and again was quenched.
Mr. Olstein slapped his thigh. He had won something like ten pounds and was a joyous millionaire. "That makes twice in four voyages," he proclaimed.
I congratulated him and strode forward. A group of third-class passengers had gathered by the starboard bow. They, too, had heard the cry. To all appearance they might have been an ordinary Whitechapel crowd, and even now they scarcely lifted their voices; but they whispered and pointed.
I singled out my friend the baker. Before I could reach him he had broken from the group. I hailed him. Without seeming to hear, he disappeared down the fore-companion. But by and by he emerged again, and with a baby in his arms. Evidently he had torn it from its cot. His wife followed, weak and protesting.
The child, too, raised a wail of querulous protest; but he hugged it to him, and running to the ship's side held it aloft.
It turned its head, seeking the pillow or its mother; and would not look, but broke into fresh and louder wailing.
He hugged it afresh. God knows of what feeling sprang the tears that fell on its face and baptized it. But he hushed his voice, and, lifting the child again, coaxed it to look--coaxed it with tears streaming now, and with a thrill that would not be denied--
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