6. Letter VI
VISIT TO THE CUNARD STEAMER.
FROM PIDGIE TO BENNIE.
Nowhere in particular, July 22d.
I was almost in despair, dear Bennie, of ever getting a chance to send you the nice long letters I had written. Though we had been nearly three weeks from home, we had not stopped at any port, or spoken a single vessel. Yesterday evening, Clarendon was amusing himself with a spy-glass which he brought with him, and David and I were wondering whether it could make something out of nothing,--for there was no land in sight, or any thing else to spy at, that we could perceive. Brother's eyes, however, were better than ours; for he saw a speck in the distance, which he found to be a vessel of large size, and he called the captain to take a look at it. Captain Cobb pronounced it forthwith, from its peculiar form and the day of the month, to be one of the British steamers, which had got a little to the north, on its way to Halifax. He soon found that his conjectures were right; and as she appeared to be at rest, and the wind was fair, we made towards her with all possible speed.
It is a marvel to me how such a great, unwieldy thing can float on the water, especially as there is so much iron about it. After all, I like our old fishing-smack better than being within continual hearing of that monstrous engine; and then the smell of smoke and steam would, I am sure, take away my appetite, so that I could not even enjoy one of their splendid dinners.
But you have no idea, Bennie, what elegant style every thing is in on board these steamers. Two or three turns on the long, shining deck would be quite a morning walk, and the immense dining-room appears larger still, from the mirrors on every side. I had heard so much of the state-rooms, that I expected more than was reasonable; and when I saw them, the idea of passing night after night in such little closets was not agreeable. The pantry presented a beautiful assortment of glass and china; but every tumbler and cup had to be fastened to the wall by hooks, or, in case of rough weather, there would be fatal smashing. The castors, too, looked so droll, suspended over the table like hanging lamps!
The ladies appeared quite as much at home in their delightful saloons as in the most luxurious apartments in the city, and few Virginian drawing-rooms could make such a display of Wilton carpets, velvet lounges, and splendid mirrors.
These steamers must be nice things for women and children, for it cannot seem at all as if they were at sea when the weather is pleasant, and they are so used to spending their time in reading and working that it does not much matter where they are, if they keep on with these occupations. I suppose these ladies would have been miserable on such an old schooner as ours,--and some of the men, too, who looked almost as effeminate. I think Clarendon himself would very much prefer one of these nice little state-rooms, where he could make his toilet so comfortably, to his straw-bed in the old Go-Ahead. I am sure a dinner on board the steamer would be much more to his taste than biscuit and water, even with such nice fish as we caught this morning for a relish. He pulled up a whole barrel full of them himself, and that gave him a most excellent appetite.
At first, Clarendon declared that he could not go on board the steamer in his sailor rigging; but he had no other with him, and at length the desire to see what he called "civilized people" once more carried him over. You should have seen some pretty ladies, who were sitting in the dining-room, stare at him.
"That is a remarkably genteel-looking man for one in his condition," remarked the oldest of the group. "What kind of a vessel did he come from?"
"I heard one of the gentlemen say, as it approached us, that it was a Yankee fishing-smack," observed her daughter.
"He walks about as if he had been quite used to elegance," observed a third, "and does not stare around like that plump little fellow beside him, who is too fair to have been long on the water."
You may be sure that "the plump little fellow who stared about" was your cousin Pidgie, for David never looks astonished at any thing, and has so often visited all kinds of vessels that he is quite at home in any of them. He was able to explain all the machinery to brother and myself, pointing out the improvements which have been recently made in steam navigation with a clearness that I never could equal. I don't believe, though, that Clarendon heard a word of this explanation; for the remarks of the ladies in the dining-room had reached his ear, and he was terribly discomfited at being taken for a Down East fisherman.
David really seems to have more independence than my proud brother, for he don't care what people take him for, so there is nothing disgraceful about it, and verily believes that there is not a situation in the world which he could not do honor to, or make honorable.
Captain Cobb did not go on board himself, but deputed David to deliver a message to the captain about some fish, and no man could have discharged his commission with more quiet indifference. You could see at a glance that the son of the owner of the fishing-smack Go-Ahead considered himself quite equal to the captain of the royal steamer.
"Have you had good luck in fishing this season, my fine fellow?" said an English gentleman to Clarendon, who was standing with his back towards him.
I would have liked to have seen brother's face at being thus addressed; for I knew that there was a pint, at least, of the best old Virginia blood in his cheeks and forehead. The moment that he turned round, there was something in his air which showed the man of the world his mistake.
"I beg your pardon, Sir," he said quickly. "Your dress made me mistake you for one of the sailors; but I see from your complexion that you have not been long on the sea."
Clarendon received the apology very graciously, and now became interested in conversing with the stranger. Before parting with the acquaintance made thus unceremoniously, they had exchanged names,--for cards they had none at hand,--and the English gentleman partly promised to visit Clarendon Beverley at his own plantation of Altamac, which brother is to superintend on his return home.
There was a young Italian girl on board, as nurse to one of the ladies, who reminded me of a poor little fellow that recently died at Boston. David told me about him, and said that his face was the saddest that he ever saw. He earned a scanty support in a strange land by exhibiting two little white mice, which he carried in a small wooden cage hung around his neck. He offered to show them without asking for money, and when they ran up and down his arms, and over his hands, he would look upon them with the most mournful affection, as if they were the only friends he had on earth. Every one who saw him longed to know his history; but he could speak but little English, and shrank from the notice of strangers. He was taken sick and carried to the Massachusetts Hospital, where his gentleness won him many friends. But they could not stop the progress of his disease, or comfort his poor, lonely heart. The night before he died, no one near him could sleep for his piteous moaning and sad cries,--"I am afraid to die; I want my mother."
O Bennie! if we had seen this poor little fellow, so unprotected and sorrowful, with no means of support but exhibiting those poor little white mice, we should, I am sure, have felt that we could not be too thankful for all the comforts of our dear home. Yet, when I heard this story, the contrast with my own favored lot did not at first make me happier; for I began to realize how many miserable beings there are in the world, whose suffering we cannot relieve, and may never know. I could not eat a mouthful that day, for thinking of the melancholy little Italian boy. I wonder if that was his sister on board the steamer! How could his mother let him go so far away from her? Perhaps, though, she was starving at home, and had heard of America as a land of plenty.
I don't think that I shall ever want to go abroad myself; for they say that in foreign countries one sees so many poor, miserable children; and that would make me so unhappy that I should not enjoy any thing. I said so to David; but he talks like a young philosopher. He seems to have a way of keeping himself from feeling badly about others, though he has a very good heart, and, if he gave way to it, could make himself as unhappy about others as I sometimes do. He says he could enjoy looking at St. Peter's quite as much if there were a few beggars around it. I was sure, for my part, that I could take no pleasure in looking at the most beautiful building, if I saw any one who was suffering at the same time.
Clarendon laughed when he heard me make this remark, and said that I was too chicken-hearted for a boy, and ought to have been a girl. He need not smile at me, for he feels himself more quickly than the New-Englanders, though, after they have weighed any case of suffering in their own minds, they would do quite as much to relieve it. I can never think them cold-hearted, after visiting Boston and seeing their hospitals and schools. While I was there, there was a tremendous fire in the neighbourhood, by which a great many poor people lost their all. But the intelligence was hardly received before thousands of dollars were subscribed for their relief. They certainly have a great deal of real feeling and generosity, and if they would only express a little more of it in manner and words, every body would allow them to be, what I know they are, the kindest people in the world, always excepting the dear old Virginians. They speak, act, think, and feel just as they ought to do. You will perceive, from this last remark, that I am not turning traitor to the Old Dominion. We have been so successful in our fishing that I hope ere long to see it once more; and, till then, shall remain affectionately yours,