We boarded ship, filled with a great, and what seemed to us, an unappeasable curiosity as to what we were going to see. It was not a very big ship, in spite of the grandiloquent descriptions in the advertisements, or the lithograph wherein she cut grandly and evenly through huge waves to the manifest discomfiture of infinitesimal sailing craft bobbing alongside. She was manned entirely by Germans. The room stewards waited at table, cleaned the public saloons, kept the library, rustled the baggage, and played in the band. That is why we took our music between meals. Our staterooms were very tiny indeed. Each was provided with an electric fan; a totally inadequate and rather aggravating electric fan once we had entered the Red Sea. Just at this moment we paid it little attention, for we were still in full enjoyment of sunny France, where, in our own experience, it had rained two months steadily. Indeed, at this moment it was raining, raining a steady, cold, sodden drizzle that had not even the grace to pick out the surface of the harbour in the jolly dancing staccato that goes far to lend attraction to a genuinely earnest rainstorm.
Down the long quay splashed cabs and omnibuses, their drivers glistening in wet capes, to discharge under the open shed at the end various hasty individuals who marshalled long lines of porters with astonishing impedimenta and drove them up the gang-plank. A half-dozen roughs lounged aimlessly. A little bent old woman with a shawl over her head searched here and there. Occasionally she would find a twisted splinter of wood torn from the piles by a hawser or gouged from the planking by heavy freight, or kicked from the floor by the hoofs of horses. This she deposited carefully in a small covered market basket. She was entirely intent on this minute and rather pathetic task, quite unattending the greatness of the ship, or the many people the great hulk swallowed or spat forth.
Near us against the rail leaned a dark-haired young Englishman whom later every man on that many-nationed ship came to recognize and to avoid as an insufferable bore. Now, however, the angel of good inspiration stooped to him. He tossed a copper two-sou piece down to the bent old woman. She heard the clink of the fall, and looked up bewildered. One of the waterside roughs slouched forward. The Englishman shouted a warning and a threat, indicating in pantomime for whom the coin was intended. To our surprise that evil-looking wharf rat smiled and waved his hand reassuringly, then took the old woman by the arm to show her where the coin had fallen. She hobbled to it with a haste eloquent of the horrible Marseillaise poverty-stricken alleys, picked it up joyously, turned--and with a delightful grace kissed her finger-tips towards the ship.
Apparently we all of us had a few remaining French coins; and certainly we were all grateful to the young Englishman for his happy thought. The sous descended as fast as the woman could get to where they fell. So numerous were they that she had no time to express her gratitude except in broken snatches or gesture, in interrupted attitudes of the most complete thanksgiving. The day of miracles for her had come; and from the humble poverty that valued tiny and infrequent splinters of wood she had suddenly come into great wealth. Everybody was laughing, but in a very kindly sort of way it seemed to me; and the very wharf rats and gamins, wolfish and fierce in their everyday life of the water-front, seemed to take a genuine pleasure in pointing out to her the resting-place of those her dim old eyes had not seen. Silver pieces followed. These were too wonderful. She grew more and more excited, until several of the passengers leaning over the rail began to murmur warningly, fearing harm. After picking up each of these silver pieces, she bowed and gestured very gracefully, waving both hands outward, lifting eyes and hands to heaven, kissing her fingers, trying by every means in her power to express the dazzling wonder and joy that this unexpected marvel was bringing her. When she had done all these things many times, she hugged herself ecstatically. A very well-dressed and prosperous-looking Frenchman standing near seemed to be a little afraid she might hug him. His fear had, perhaps, some grounds, for she shook hands with everybody all around, and showed them her wealth in her kerchief, explaining eagerly, the tears running down her face.
Now the gang-plank was drawn aboard, and the band struck up the usual lively air. At the first notes the old woman executed a few feeble little jig steps in sheer exuberance. Then the solemnity of the situation sobered her. Her great, wealthy, powerful, kind friends were departing on their long voyage over mysterious seas. Again and again, very earnestly, she repeated the graceful, slow pantomime--the wave of the arms outward, the eyes raised to heaven, the hands clasped finally over her head. As the brown strip of water silently widened between us it was strangely like a stage scene--the roofed sheds of the quay, the motionless groups, the central figure of the old woman depicting emotion.
Suddenly she dropped her hands and hobbled away at a great rate, disappearing finally into the maze of the street beyond. Concluding that she had decided to get quickly home with her great treasure, we commended her discretion and gave our attention to other things.
The drizzle fell uninterruptedly. We had edged sidewise the requisite distance, and were now gathering headway in our long voyage. The quail was beginning to recede and to diminish. Back from the street hastened the figure of the little old woman. She carried a large white cloth, of which she had evidently been in quest. This she unfolded and waved vigorously with both hands. Until we had passed quite from sight she stood there signalling her farewell. Long after we were beyond distinguishing her figure we could catch the flutter of white. Thus that ship's company, embarking each on his Great Adventure, far from home and friends, received their farewell, a very genuine farewell, from one poor old woman. B. ventured the opinion that it was the best thing we had bought with our French money.
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