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Eight

They finished “Great Expectations” on Christmas Eve. Rosalie read rather sadly as if she were parting with an old friend:

 

“We are friends,” said I rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench.

“And will continue friends apart,” said Estella.

I took her hand in mine and we went out of that ruined place, and as the morning mists had risen long ago, when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all that broad expanse of tranquil light I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

“It’s too bad we’ve finished,” said Rosalie. “it was a lovely book.”

 

“Yes, too bad but even good things always come to an end.”

“I do hope Estella married him, he’d been so faithful and had waited so long.”

“Of course she did, she’d been a great fool long enough, but a hard real world gave her a sense of values. Of course she married him, and right glad she was to find a fitting mate.”

“It’s made me sad though, not to be quite sure. They seemed realer than real people to me. It’s not too late, tell me one more story of you and Mat on the Arethusa to cheer me up.”

“Let’s see, where was I?”

“Almost to England, or rather Antwerp, on your first Atlantic crossing.”

The little old lady took off her glasses and began: “We made a wonderful run from Block Island to Queenstown, only eighteen days and close to a record. The old Arethusa was blunt in the bows and she was deep loaded, but she had a clean bottom, and never a day of head wind did we have. Then before we knew it, we were in the English Channel and we kept close to the English side, and I saw for the first time the White Cliffs of Dover and far off to star­board a dim line that was the French shore. And it’s strange, Rosalie, how little phrases you pick up are remembered and touch your heart; the White Cliffs of Dover, the White Cliffs of Dover. I stared and stared and said that phrase over and over. The English knew nothing of me, and really I knew little of them, but this England was where my folks came from long ago, brave men without money, with nothing but the strength of their hands and courage in their hearts to make a home for themselves in the wilderness that was their very own. England even then seemed to me like home in a long since past, for all the books I had read had been English books, and all the history I had studied had been English history. There’s good breed in that little northern island.

“At last a stubby impudent-looking tug hooked on to us and brought us alongside the pier in Antwerp. Mat had nothing to do with the discharging of the cargo of case-oil, and we went ashore and walked about every day. It was spring, May, I think, and it seemed always sunshine and fair weather. Mat used to put on a beaver top hat, a tailed coat and light trousers whenever we went ashore for though he was only twenty-three he was the Old Man, and I put on my smartest bonnets and a flowered dress Mat had bought me in New York. People used to turn and look at us, the giant broad-shouldered red-faced sailor man—the top hat made him at least six foot eight—and the slim little bride beside him. We were so happy there in Antwerp, and the old world with its crooked grey buildings was new to me. Everything gave us pleasure, looking in shop windows to see the curious strange things they had for sale, staring at big pictures in picture galleries though we didn’t know much about them, and going to music halls where neither of us understood a word but somehow got the jokes just the same. And the best fun of all was eating in the little cafes, sometimes under an awning on the very sidewalk, where we watched all of Antwerp march by. They are little, chattering, laughing men, those Belgians, and they know how to cook. They make even the commonest thing taste well in rich spicy sauces. The waiters used to smile and show their teeth and call me La petite Madame, and I, really a green country girl, felt very grand indeed. I never saw the inside of their kitchens, but they’re said to be very dirty and untidy, some people say that all first-class cooks are dirty. Those French Belgians can certainly cook fish and puddings. And while we were sipping black coffee out of tiny cups we used to watch the pairs of whispering, laughing lovers, young lovers arm in arm, strolling about. Sometimes we would visit the parks where there were green iron seats and the chestnuts were bursting in leaf and flower. Everywhere you go, Rosalie, at every season of the year, but especially in the spring season, you see pairs of lovers. We’re just the same in that way as the birds and animals and fishes. Everything in nature cries out, ‘reproduce yourself, reproduce yourself.’ It was my great sorrow in life that I could bear no children to such a noble man as Mat. I guess it must have been my fault for I had two men afterwards.

“There was never anything better than that spring in Antwerp. Even the dogs knew that May was come and ran about in packs expressing joy in every frisky movement. But the Belgians make dogs work, they harness them to milk carts. Most dogs are loafers and make their way through life by being agreeable and wagging their tails at their masters—some people are like that too—but the Belgians and Esquimaux put dogs to work, and very good it is for them.

“It was in Antwerp sitting with Mat before a cafe that I first saw street-girls. Some people call them by an ugly name, but everything pleased me then, and they were so pretty and pert and devil-may-care and reckless that I felt I wanted to talk with them and wish them luck.

“But while I didn’t feel a bit like reforming the street-girls, for I am not a reformer by nature, they gave me a certain feeling of sadness, perhaps because of my own great happiness and perhaps because I learned that they were often poor and led that kind of life to support needy parents. They seemed like butter­flies, butterflies that have only a brief day or two of life, and that flutter about and show their bright colours as long as the sunshine lasts and until the rains come.

“There never was anything again like seeing Antwerp for the first time. I can’t tell you everything I saw, Rosalie, or I’d never get on with my story, all about driving out into the country and all the queer little farms we passed, and every foot of ground under cultivation, crowded with growing vegetables and flowers and gay with tulips, the women working in the fields with the men, their sterns in the air, always bent double tending their plots and hoeing and weeding. I’d never come to an end if I told you everything about me and Antwerp and Mat and the Arethusa.

“From Antwerp we sailed across the North Sea, in ballast to Ham­burg and up the Elbe, a great broad tidal river. Look at the globe, Rosalie. Do you see the English Channel and Dover and The Goodwins and Antwerp and the Elbe and Hamburg?”

“Yes, yes,” said Rosalie, “I know all those on the map already, but what were Hamburg and the people there like? Do you suppose I’ll ever see Antwerp and Hamburg?”

“You’re going to see strange places, Rosalie, though not so many as me. Antwerp, Antwerp. Yes, you’ll see Antwerp I think. I had the itching foot too when I was young, only you must wait and be patient and work at whatever comes to your hand.”

“Go on OId Lady, go on with your story. What was Hamburg like?”

“Hamburg was a great grey city, not so bright-coloured as Antwerp, but somehow more solid, all stone and cement, a heavy pompous city, a great place for trade, and ships of all rigs from all kinds of foreign ports lay in the stream. The Arethusa could hardly find a place to cast her mud-hook. Here we took on a load of heavy machinery, in great wooden crates, and general cargo for Buenos Ayres. Mat and I went ashore every day dressed to the nines just as we had in Antwerp. Now the spring was far advanced, but there were still pairs of wandering lovers, I always had an eye cocked for them. The food was heavy in the restaurants where fat men sat with their families and drank stein after stein of foaming light coloured beer. The men never smiled at their fat wives, nor laughed nor talked with them much. Green as I was I could see that the men were cocks of the walk and thought themselves very important, and I was glad I hadn’t married a German man. Mat and I could always laugh and make little jokes together. He could be tough with a tough crew, but kind and gentle with a sick or wounded man.

“I’ve lived here so long alone, Rosalie, that I’ve got rather rough in my speech, maybe a defence among these people, but I can speak fine or coarse as I please. It was while I was in Hamburg that I learned I had a quick ear for words, and for sometime I’d been wondering how I could really help Mat who’d never got much schooling. A woman has to be a useful working partner to the man she loves if she wants to keep him. Love is good but it’s not enough. There must be something more for a happy partnership.

“Now Mat had to arrange all about cargoes and freight rates, and he was a pretty good trader, but he didn’t understand a word of any foreign language. The old Arethusa made thirty thousand dollars for the owners in the first year we had her, and her hull and rigging complete only cost sixty-five thousand. There was money in ships in those days. Mat was hampered by the language difficulty, however, so when I found I had a quick ear, I made up my mind to learn German, and I hired girl who had been a teacher, to come aboard every morning at nine o’clock and give me lessons, and I ground away at der, die, das. In no time I knew the words for water and beer and man, woman, child, street and waiter—you called them all ober if you wanted quick attention—church and house. Really lot of German words sound just like English. After I had learned a great many easy words, the verbs were the hardest, I got her to tell me all the words about ships and cargoes and wharves and docks, and tides and warehouses, and banking and accounts and trading and money. I wrote down all the words I’d learned in a scribbling book, and before I left Hamburg I knew over a thousand German words. I still know them, Rosalie, but I’ll never use them again.”

“Old Lady, I wish you were young again and we could wander over the wide world together, and you could speak all the words you’ve learned in your travels.”

“You can’t set the clock back. Nothing but the present and the future count, but it’s like living again to tell it all to you, Rosalie. I’ve been waiting for an understanding listener for so long. I kept on working at the German by myself and the start I had got in Hamburg with the German teacher and listening to the Germans talking was of great value to me. It’s through the ear and not the eye, Rosalie, that one learns a foreign tongue. That’s why the children in school who study languages from books never learn to speak well a language other than their own.”

“I know two languages,” said Rosalie, “and I seem to have learned both without trying.”

“You learned them just by hearing them. You’ll use both but you won’t need more than those. I can’t tell precisely what’s going to happen to you, but I certainly see you in white.

“We had a bit of bad luck in getting out of Hamburg harbour, and towing down the Elbe. The tug ran us aground on the edge of the channel but fortunately, it was soft deep mud. You always run out of Hamburg on the beginning of the ebb, and the tide runs out fast. Mat was mad as a hatter and addressed a few Nova Scotian words to the tug’s captain, but he didn’t waste any time swearing. That’s a beaten man’s game. Mat was a real sailor man and quick as greased lightning in anything about ships. While the mate got the boats into the water, he got some hawsers and three kedge anchors from the lazaretto. There was real danger that we’d tilt into the channel and land on our beam ends and stay there with our cargo all shifted to starboard. But Mat took the kedge anchors far in on the flats, and made the hawsers fast a third up the spars, and the old Arethusa settled down in the mud, and stood upright like the lady she was. We floated off into the channel at the top of the next flood, but then we had to anchor and wait for surveyors to come aboard and see if our ship had damaged her bottom. The pump sucked after two minutes so we knew she wasn’t leaking, she was honestly built. It was then that my little bit of German came into play, for I arranged that the towage company had to pay us a round sum for the delay and putting us ashore. ‘Good girl, Kitty,’ said Mat, ‘I never could have managed that by my­self.’ Words of praise are sweet from the lips of one you love and I made up my mind then that I would learn and help Mat a lot before I was through. ‘Your share’s four hundred dollars on that deal, Kitty,’ said Mat, handing it over to me. That was the most money I’d ever had up to that time and I made that money work, Rosalie, but I’ll tell you all about that later on.

“Out we went on the North Sea again, this time not so deep, and through the English Chanel, with a fair following wind all the way. The wind always seemed to be fair in those early days. But we had had one bit of bad luck in Hamburg. We had lost one of our men who had got in tow withs ome German girl and deserted. So we shipped an old Dane, named Hansen, in his place. He was a great black-bearded man about sixty, and he was a first rate sailor man, for he’d followed the sea since boyhood. But as soon as we get well into the North Sea old Hansen fell ill, and Mat found out that he had the worst kind of bad disease. You don’t know what that is, Rosalie.”

“Oh yes I do,” said Rosalie. “I’ve heard about it.”

“Mat read his big doctor’s book, and did what he could, and his treatments certainly made old Hansen howl, but the old fellow got no better, so we just let him moon about the deck, and ran the Arethusa one man short on the port watch.

“Then, Rosalie, we ran across the mouth of the Bay of Biscay. Do you see where that is? Every day it got warmer and the nights more mellow, and at last we came into the trade winds and the old Arethusa ambled along leisurely on an even keel. Do you know what the trade winds are?”

“A little,” said Rosalie. “They blow gently one way in hot places.”

“That’s it, the hot air rises at the equator and the colder air from north and south flows in to fill the space, and the earth turns on its axis, and the winds never catch up with it, so that they don’t blow north and south but north-east and south-west.”

“It’s not so simple, is it?” said Rosalie.

“It’s simple for sailing. You just sail along with all sail set and for days never shift a hallyard or a brace. Oh, Rosalie, you should have seen me in those first nights on a tropical ocean, me in love with Mat, the Master, king and queen of our own little kingdom. Sometimes it seemed that there was no land anywhere and that we would float forever on this tropic sea. Talk about Eden, and Adam’s garden! Adam and Eve were flats compared to Mat and me, for Mat and I worked together and played together, and who would be content to loaf forever in a shady garden, languidly plucking a ripe banana, talking with a serpent and cuddling a pretty woman or being cuddled by a handsome man. We had a real working paradise. By day, the sea, streaked with streamers of kelp and yellow eel-grass, slipped gently by us. Sometimes dolphins and porpoises played about our bows, sometimes schools of flying fish rose to glitter in the sunshine. Through it all the old Arethusa waddled on her way to Buenos Ayres, steady and contented as a fat old lady on her way to the grocery shop. And at night, after a sudden twilight, for there day changes into night in the twinkling of an eye, such a multitude of stars burned in the sky, not like our cold northern stars. The sky was like a great blue bowl splashed with gold. Now the great bear drooped behind the northern horizon and Mat told me I would soon see the Southern Cross. I put on my thinnest dresses and my lightest underclothes and sat on deck all day long. I could hardly bear to go below at night because sky and sea were so beautiful. When it got too hot in the foc’s’le the men would drag their mattresses out on deck and sleep in the shelter of the foe’s’le-head. They all did the same thing; they wrapped their heads in their jackets or a piece of canvas, for sailors think that if the moon shines on them while sleeping it will make them crazy lunatics.”

“Luna means moon in the old language,” said Rosalie, “perhaps that has something to do with it.”

“Maybe, anyway they all did it, and none of them went crazy.

“Just before we got to the line poor old Hansen died and we had a funeral at sea. The sailors sewed him up in a long canvas sack and put a length of chain at his feet, and laid him on a plank, the outer end resting on the bulwarks and the inner held up in place by two sailors. That long white bundle was a sad sight to my young eyes, for young lovers think that they can never die. The warm wind was friendly, the sea rolled ever so gently, and old Hansen was to be left alone in the depth of infinite waters. I could think of the dead rising from their churchyard graves, as I had been been taught, but never of old Hansen rising from the depths of that tropic sea. The men lined up in the waist of the ship, and Mat in his black coat with his cap off and the Book in hand stood alone near the body. Then he read as well as he could, stumbling over some of the big words, the sorrowful sentences for those buried at sea. The sailors began to tip up slowly the inner end of the plank. I was standing alone above them all, watching from the break of the poop, and suddenly I felt that I must do something for poor old Hansen. ‘Wait, wait,’ I cried, ‘I want to sing for old Hansen.’ Mat looked around at me, for the first time with an angry face. I had a voice when I was young, Rosalie, and I used to sing in the village choir. So I lifted up my little voice, that seemed so thin and weak in those infinite spaces of sea and sky, and sang a bit of an anthem I remembered:

Oh rest in the Lord,
Wait patiently for Him,
And He shall give thee
The desire of they heart.

It was quite inappropriate but I had to sing for the soul of that poor lonely sailor. The men all stood fast, not one cracked a smile, and when I had finished my song the sailors, on a signal from Mat, tipped the plank and old Hansen slid into the sea, with ever so little a splash. I could see the long white bundle going down, down in a kind of spiral through the pale blue water. Then I turned and ran below, and locked myself in my cabin and cried my heart out. Presently Mat knocked on the door and I was a little afraid to open, but be said: ‘You did well, Kitty, it was right that you should sing,’ and he kissed away my tears.

A little after that we crossed the Line, and on that day Mat said to me, ‘You must have your initiation, as the men forward will have for the greenhorns, so that you’ll always be lucky as a sailor girl.’ So together in our cabin he blacked my face with charcoal, ducked my head in the washbasin, and gave me a spanking. Not a hard spanking, you know, just a love spanking, though I can remember it stung a little for he had a great strong hand. Then we washed the smut off my face and went to bed. ‘We’ll be crossing the Line at eleven forty-seven as near as I can reckon,’ he said, and at eleven forty-five he put his watch away and took me in his arms. Sometime after midnight Mat whispered to me, ‘You’re a true sailor-man’s wife now, Kitty, and wedded to the sea as well.’

“How lovely,” said Rosalie.

“Quick, Rosalie, get the cards, we’ve only time for a swift game of rummy before we turn in.”

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Eight by Dalhousie University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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