The Great Secret/Chapter 3

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Captain Nelson was a man well fitted for his post, and one not easily moved. He had served his time in the royal navy, and was now well advanced in years. Ruddy-faced, with short-cropped hair and moustache both white, which contrasted well with his red complexion, black eyebrows and jetty eyes, he looked like a French general. He was an able commander, and insisted on rigid discipline from his subordinates, yet was jovial and courteous when off duty with his male passengers, and gallant to the fair sex. He had sailed the seas so often in the service of the company who owned this fine new vessel that it took some time to make him the least uneasy respecting this dynamitard scare, and as he had no real grounds to interfere with the private property of the passengers, he did his best to inspire his guests with confidence that all must go well. Yet he was not quite so tranquil as he appeared to be, for he, like the others, had read about the doings of the Anarchists on the Continent, and knew that no feat was too outrageous for them to contemplate.

The first officer was a most gentlemanly young fellow, who had served his time in the service and risen rapidly to his present position. His name was George Cox—tall, slender, good-looking, and about thirty-two years of age, he was a first-rate sailor and a general favourite with the ladies.

The second officer had not so much to commend him except his seamanship. He knew his business thoroughly, but in manner he was far from being agreeable, and in personal appearance decidedly unprepossessing. His eyes were the worst features about him, for they were positively ferocious in their glare—sullen blue and brown speckled eyes that lighted now and then with a savage gleam that resembled those of a maniac. He had been dismissed from several companies for the violence of his temper, yet, being backed by influence, had secured his present post. He was a powerfully built man of about forty, with dark hair and beard, while a livid scar which spread across his left cheek and nose, helped the sinister appearance of his eyes. His name was Digby Butcher.

The third and fourth officers were nice young men, who had been trained to make themselves agreeable when off duty, and enjoyed their occupation immensely.

The doctor was an unfortunate individual who had rested content too long in the light and not too dignified position of ship doctor, which does very well for young men as a relaxation after they have taken their degrees and before they have secured a practice, but which becomes most demoralising if continued more than a year or two. Young men, who like work and are ambitious to get on, learn this life as quickly as they can, or else they fall out of the ranks and become useless.

Dr Valentine Chiver had been in the service for twenty-five years, and had now become a fixture. In his youthful and dapper days, for he was of the diminutive order, he had gone to the sea for the sole purpose of picking up an heiress. He was after that illusive pursuit still, with less chance than ever of hooking her.

At the age of twenty-three (he was forty-eight now and rotund), he might have had a prospect of settling himself in life, had he not been too exacting in his demands, for women have a weakness towards doctors and parsons, and he had his chances with the elderly spinsters and widows, towards Hymen inclined, and nearly all sentimental, who are to be met going out or coming home, but like most miniature men, he thought no small beer of his attractions, and put a high market value on them.

At twenty-three he had been slender, small-waisted, and possibly lively, with sparkling black eyes, white teeth, and doll-like hands and feet, neat in his get-up, as if he had come out of a band-box—a little darling of a doctor, in fact, he must have been then, full of the latest conceits of his profession, and fresh-coloured, for he had never worked very hard at college nor taken higher honours than were needful to slip him through.

At forty-eight he still retained his doll-like hands and feet, but with twenty-five years' steady indulgence at the lavish tables provided by the company, no proper exercise and no brain efforts, he had grown bilious-eyed, pasty-cheeked, pot-bellied, and when he walked, waddled like a swan who was taking a promenade; his medical knowledge was a quarter of a century behind date, and he yet aspired to youth, beauty and wealth in his life partner, hence Mr Valentine Chiver was still a bachelor.

He was dull as ditch-water in his conversation; his eyes were like those of a robin redbreast in shape, only without the sparkle; he sighed often, as people suffering from indigestion or love are apt to do, and yet was as confident that the bright, young, wealthy heiress would yet fall at his feet as he had been, when he first started on his quest after the golden fleece. He was known all over the service as the "Lone Valentine," for he was not at all reticent as to his ultimate hopes and aspirations, and the young sparks enjoyed leading him on. Very little amuses people who are confined together, ruthless and cynical villains, from whom no breadth or fineness of humour was ever known to extract a smile while in a state of liberty, have been known to giggle as hysterically as tender school girls over a jest as innocent as small when they were in durance vile. On board ship the wit is not as a rule over scintillating, the food being on too lavish a scale for the encouragement of refined satire, yet the indulgence which dulls this sense of humour also blunts the critical faculties, so that the "Lone Valentine" passed muster for a good piece of humour, and the owner of that pretty title for a first-class butt to practise practical jokes upon.

It would be superfluous and boring to describe passenger life on board an ocean liner, as all the world and his spouse have experienced it for themselves. The Rockhampton, having the latest improvements inside and out, differed only from other ships by being a few degrees more luxurious and ornate.

To the very few who have not gone the grand tour we would say, recall the most sumptuous hotel or palace you have ever been in, imagine a scene out of the Arabian Nights, with the richest of carved pillars, cornices, ceilings and panels, white enamelled and hatched with gold, the daintiest and softest of cushioned seats, radiant with fairy globes of electric light toned down to a subdued lustre. This was the dining saloon, capable of seating four hundred guests with ease.

The music saloon was a gorgeous chamber of carved walnut panelled walls, and arranged like a conservatory with palm and fern trees. The smoke-room was a marble and gold hall, specially adapted to the comfort of the devotees of the Goddess Nicotine, particularly suited with its cool slabs for the Tropics.

The gangways ran without partitions between the saloon and the second cabin, and from there to the steward and seamen's quarters, thus the second passengers occupied the point of vantage between the employees and the saloon passengers; in fact, although fewer in number, they commanded the ship, and it was this portion that the suspected passengers at present occupied.

Down below, vast hordes of firemen, stokers, and engineers worked in an atmosphere of heat and suffocating closeness, that to outsiders it was hardly possible for suffering humanity to exist. Many died from heat-apoplexy each voyage these ocean liners made. Half a dozen men had already been carried up and flung overboard since the vessel had left port—Africans these were, so that little heed was paid to them. No European could have existed in these nethermost hells, where, like swart demons, the black men worked in a state of nakedness. Upstairs all was luxury and comfort, down here all was misery and suffering, still the pistons drove up and down, and the fairy globes of light shone soft and steadfast, while the fear that gripped at the hearts of the luxury-lapped ones also tugged at the vitals of the wretched slaves below.

Viewing the modern ironclad, whether destined for war, freightage or transfer, the romancist and artist, who have filled their fancy with the images of the ships that sailed into Trafalgar Bay, must be as much disappointed as the weak-kneed disciple of Ruskin when looking at a spreading railway line with its boundary of telegraph posts. Still, to those who may be just as artistic in their instincts, yet born to the use of these iron innovations, there is a fascination in the symmetry of perfect subtile lines with the mighty force suggested; and to carry one's imaginations back to the days of mail-covered warriors, there is much the same stiffness in the ship or the steam-engine as there must have been about the iron-clad knight of old.

The Rockhampton resembled a perfect lady, in so much that she did not ostentatiously display her riches, but looked plain, yet well-dressed, from the distance, her black hull, with its delicious, long-reaching lines and delicate curves. A bungler of a draughtsman might reproduce something which would resemble the Temeraire, and granting him the colour sense which the poetic Turner had, he would debauch the most critical into admiration of his failure, but only the most highly-educated of draughtsmen could have caught those graceful sweeps as she parted the waves, and left that creamy furrow behind her. She was a rock for steadiness, a leviathan for size and strength, a perfect prude for decorum, a nymph of Diana for grace, and an Atalanta for speed.

The blue waves, with their snowy crests, lapped round her scarlet water-line, which appeared like the glowing petticoat of a sedate beauty of modern times, while over it the dark hull looked like the clinging black robe which has superseded the flounces and furbelows of past modern fashion. It was a loveliness that required a refined education to appreciate, yet a loveliness unmistakable, for it owed nothing to superfluity, which is the weakness of mediocrity.

All was in harmony, the massive funnels, which relieved the more massive hull, the tower-like engine-rooms, the hurricane decks and deck-houses, the mighty screw, which champed and churned the waters, the graceful bows, masts and yards, which looked like useless but ornamental head-gear, yet were placed for use if required. When the modern ironclad ship is depicted properly, and also the steam-engine, with its steel lines and telegraph posts, the most faddish of critics will have to sink into silence, or else admire.

Look at the aspect of modesty and reserve the ship has as she lies broadside on the waters, with the gentle backward lean of her masts and funnels, but see her coming on fore-shortened like indomitable and resistless fate, watch the engine sweeping, as never eagle swooped or skater sped, along those glittering lines with those streamers of clouds behind; the valleys are filled with the backward-cast vapours which curl about the cliffs, upstarting boulders, furze bushes and forests, while the fierce dragon rushes on with its jointed body and tail, quivering and undulating.

When the painter gives us that living monster, with the effect of its vibrations and that mystery of cloud behind, we defy the critic to say that the landscape is not the better for this innovation of vitality and force into its former stagnation. It is like God's voice bidding sleeping Nature wake up from the torpor of centuries, it is soul-thrilling, it is vital, but it requires art to depict it, and robust minds to appreciate it, not dilettanti, who may worship the baldness of a Botticelli's and shudder at the cleanness and subtilty of those railway lines, or the exquisite sweep of an ironclad ocean packet.

Through the Bay of Biscay they had glided when it raged its fiercest, while the vessel hardly quivered. The passengers saw other three-masted ships bob up and down, and the sight of those madly-tossed vessels made some of the timid ones fancy they were going to be sea-sick, but they could not keep up the notion, for they were as steady as if they had watched the tempest from a granite built pier, only for the heart-like throbbing of that underground machinery, which beat in unison with their ever-throbbing pulses. Then came the balmy summer as they slid along the Spanish coast, when the clean decks invited all to lounge and dream.

Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said and Suez passed before them like the gay scenes of a panorama being unrolled. They had now become accustomed to the beating of that mighty protecting heart, so that when it stopped at these ports of call they seemed to have missed the breathing of a friend, and longed to hear it begin again. They felt gay while the heart beat, and almost desolate when it stopped, for many were making friends, and this made them think about the final stopping, when they would have to part and separate.

They were one family now, isolated from the rest of the world, and, like the insects whose existence terminates within the hour, they were disposed to live fast. Friendship was not an affair of slow growth, it blossomed and ripened rapidly. Sentiment burst forth at a touch or a glance, and situations which might have seemed ridiculous on shore, appeared only natural here, where the seasons changed like magic.

Before this vague scare had come to frighten the fugitive insects, there had been a deal of love-making and mutual confidences, for with that perpetual movement of the engines reading was almost impossible, and the most morose of solitaires could not keep their neighbours at bay. From the early morning, when the steward placed coffee, tea or cocoa, with fruit at their bedsides, to the last witching hour, when the lights were extinguished, they were together, with a balmy atmosphere around them, and the clusters of lustrous stars overhead, all inviting them to forget the past and the future, and live for the present only.

It was comic to see the gentlemen in the early morning, in their pyjamas and togas of bath towels, promenading the decks, and passing the fair companions of the night before, coming from, or going to the baths, with their dishevelled tresses flying loosely, and their light robes hardly covering them. Ship etiquette compelled the sexes to ignore each other at this hour, yet glances were stolen which would be remembered afterwards, and which would ripen the romantic interest of the night before.

The officers, as they generally did each voyage, made the swiftest headway in the good graces of the ladies. The first officer, George Cox, had found his affinity in a gentle-voiced, fair-haired, sweet young maiden of fifteen, and he was desperately in love. The piratical-looking Digby Butcher had also been picked up by a bold, tall and well-developed syren of thirty-five, who evidently had strong tastes, for she waylaid him at every free moment. The others were similarly occupied, while the good-natured captain walked about with a blind eye to these amorous proceedings.

Dr Valentine Chiver was perhaps the only single man who could not make up his mind, but that had been his drawback all his life. There were young enough and pretty enough girls on board, some of them known to be wealthy, but somehow these did not incline towards his ponderous attentions; the doubtful ones he fought shy of. Poor Chivers, he seemed doomed to a life of celibacy.