Chapter 7: A Ship Is Not A Church
I gazed, as I spoke, through the windows of the saloon or cuddy front which overlooked the main deck, where a number of steerage passengers were standing in groups; the ship was before the wind; the great main-course was hauled up to its yard, and I could see to as far as the forecastle, where a fragment of bowsprit showed under the white arch of the foresail; some sailors in colored apparel were hauling upon a rope hard by the foremast; a gleam of misty sunshine was pouring full upon this window-framed picture, and crowded it with rich oceanic tints softened by the rule-like swaying shadows of the rigging. An extraordinary thought flashed into my head.
"By Jove, Grace, I wonder if there's a parson on board !"
"Why do you wonder?"
"If there is a parson on board he might be able to marry us."
She colored, smiled, and looked grave all in a breath.
"A ship is not a church," said she, almost demurely.
"No," I answered, "but a parson's a parson wherever he is: he carries with him the same appetite, the same dress, the same powers, no matter whither his steps conduct him."
She shook her head, smiling, but her blush had faded, nor could her smile conceal a little look of alarm in her eyes.
"My darling," said I, "surely if there should be a clergyman on board you will not object to his marrying us? It would end all our troubles, anxieties, misgivings,—thrust Lady Amelia out of the question altogether, save us from a tedious spell of waiting ashore "
"But the objections which would hold good on shore would hold good here," said she, with her face averted.
"No, I can't see it," said I, talking so noisily out of the enthusiasm the notion had raised in me that she looked round to say, "Hush !" and then turned her head again. "There must be a difference," said I, sobering my voice, "between the marriage ceremony as performed on sea and on shore. The burial service is different, and you will find the other is so too. There is too much horizon at sea, too much distance, to talk of consent. Guardians and parents are too far off. As to banns, who's going to say 'no' on board a vessel?"
"I cannot imagine that it would be a proper wedding," said she, shaking her head.
"Do you mean in the sense of its being valid, my sweet?"
"Yes," she whispered.
"But don't you see that a parson's a parson everywhere? Whom God hath joined "
The steward entered the saloon at that moment. I called to him, and said, politely,—
"Have you many passengers, steward ?"
"Ay, sir, too many," he answered. "The steerage is pretty nigh chock ablock."
"Saloon passengers, I mean?"
"Every berth's occupied, sir."
"What sort of people are they, do you know? Any swells among them ?"
"That depends how they're viewed," he answered, with a cautious look round and a slow smile. "If by themselves, they're all swells; if by others,—-why "
"I thought perhaps you might have something in the colonial bishopric way."
"No, sir, there's nothin' in that way aboard. Plenty as needs it, I dessay. The language of some of them steerage chaps is something to turn the black hairs of a monkey white. Talk of the vulgarity of sailors!"
The glances of this steward were dry and shrewd, and his smile ' slow and knowing: I chose, therefore, to ask him no more questions.
But then substantially he had told me what I wanted to gather, and secretly I felt as much mortified and disappointed as though for days past I had been thinking of nothing else than finding a person on board ship at sea and being married to Grace by him.
A little later on, Mrs. Barstow came into the saloon and asked Grace to accompany her on deck. My sweetheart put on her hat and jacket, and the three of us went on to the poop.
"A voyage in such a ship as this, Mrs. Barstow," said I, "should make the most delightful trip of a person's life."
"It is better than yachting," said Grace, softly.
"A voyage soon grows tedious," remarked Mrs. Barstow. "Miss Bellassys, I trust you will share my cabin whilst you remain with us."
"You are exceedingly kind," said Grace.
Others of the passengers now approached, and I observed a general effort of kindness and politeness. The ladies gathered about Grace, and the gentlemen about me, and the time slipped by whilst I related my adventures and listened to their experiences of the weather in the Channel and such matters.
It was strange, however, to feel that every hour that passed was widening our distance from home. I never for an instant regretted my determination to quit the yacht. Yet at this early time of our being aboard the Carthusian I was disquieted by a sense of mild dismay when I ran my eye over the ship and marked her sliding and curtseying steadily forward to the impulse of her wide and gleaming pinions, and reflected that this sort of thing might go on for days and perhaps for weeks,—that we might arrive at the equator, perhaps at the latitude of the Cape of Good Hope, without meeting with a vessel to serve our turn!
Well, in talking, and in thinking, and in looking, that first afternoon passed, and at half-past five o'clock we went to dinner. I had had a short chat with Captain Parsons, and from him had learned that there was no person on board, though I flattered myself that I had put the question in such a way as not to excite in his brine-seasoned mind the faintest suspicion of the meaning of my curiosity.
I had also given him to understand that I was a young gentleman of substance, and begged him to believe that any cost Grace and I might put the ship should be repaid with interest to her owners.
It was impossible for me to find myself seated with Grace at my side at that cheerful, hospitable, sparkling, sea dinner-table without acutely realizing the difference between this time and yesterday. Some ten or twelve persons sat down, but there was room for another half dozen, which I believe about completed the number of saloon passengers the Carthusian carried.
Captain Parsons, with a countenance varnished as from the recent employment of soap, was at the head of the table, with Mrs. Barstow on is right, and I observed that they frequently conversed whilst they often directed their eyes at Grace and me.
The chief officer, the Scotch-faced man I have before written of, sat at the foot of the table, slowly and soberly eating.
"It would be strange, sir," said I, addressing him, "if we do not hereabouts speedily fall in with something homeward bound."
"It would, sir," he answered, with a road Scotch accent.
"Yet not so strange, Mr. McCosh," said a passenger sitting opposite to me, "if you come to consider how wide the sea is here."
"Well, perhaps not so strange either," said Mr. McCosh, in his sawdusty voice, speaking with his mouthful.
"Should you pass a steamer at night," said I, "would you stop and hail her?"
He reflected, and said he thought not.
"Then our opportunities for getting home must be limited to day
light," said I.
This seemed too obvious to him, I suppose, to need a response.
"Are you in a very great hurry, Mr. Barclay, to get home?" exclaimed a passenger with a slight cast in his eye that gave a turn of humor to his face.
"Why, yes," I answered, with a glance at Grace, who was eating quietly at my side, seldom looking up, though she was as much stare at even after all these hours as decent manners would permit. "You will please remember that we are without luggage."
"Eh, but that is to be managed, I think. There are many of us here of both sexes," continued the gentleman with the cast in his eye, sending a squint along the row of people on either side of the table.
"You should see New Zealand, sir. The country abounds with fine and noble prospects, and I do not think," he added, with a smile, "that you will find occasion to complain of a want of hospitality."
"I am greatly obliged," said I, giving him bow; "but New Zealand is a little distant for the moment."
The subject of New Zealand was now, however, started, and the conversation on its harbors, revenue, political parties, debts, prospects, and the like was exceedingly animated, and lasted pretty nearly through the dinner.
Though Grace and I were seated at the foremost end of the table, removed nearly by the whole length of it from the captain, I was sensible that his talk to those near him mainly concerned us.
He had, as I have said, Mrs. Barstow on one hand, and on the other sat the lady with the thin lips and sausage curls. I would notice him turn first to one, then to the other, his round, sea-colored face broadened by an arch, knowing smile; then Mrs. Barstow would look at us, then the lady with the thin lips would stretch her neck to take a peep down the line in which we sat; others would also look, smirk a bit, and address themselves with amused faces in a low voice to Captain Parsons.
All this was not so marked as to be offensive, or even embarrassing, but it was a very noticeable thing, and I whispered to Grace that we seemed to form the sole theme of conversation at the captain's end.
When dinner was over we went on deck. Mrs. Barstow and the thin-lipped lady carried off Grace for a stroll up and down the planks, and I joined a few of the gentlemen passengers on the quarter-deck to smoke a cigar one of them gave me.
There was a fine breeze out of the east, and the ship, with yards nearly square, was sliding and rolling stately along her course at some six or seven miles in the hour. The west was flushed with red, but a few stars were trembling in the airy dimness of the evening blue over the stern, and in the south was the young moon, a pale curl, but gathering from the clearness of the atmosphere a promise of radiance enough later on to touch the sea with silver under it and fling a gleam of her own upon our soaring sails.
I had almost finished my cigar,—two bells, seven o'clock, had not long been struck,—when one of the stewards came out of the saloon, and, approaching me, said,—
"Captain Parsons's compliments, sir, and he'll be glad to see you in his cabin if you can spare him a few minutes."
"With pleasure," I answered, flinging the end of my cigar over board, instantly concluding that he wished to see me privately to arrange about terms and accommodation whilst Grace and I remained with him.
I followed the man into the saloon, and was led right aft, where stood two large cabins. On entering I found Captain Parsons sitting at a table covered with nautical instruments, books, writing-materials, and so forth. A lighted bracket-lamp near the door illuminated the interior, and gave me a good view of the hearty little fellow and his sea-furniture of cot, lockers, chest of drawers, and wearing-apparel that slid to and from upon the bulkhead as it dangled from pegs.
His air was grave, and his countenance as full of importance as, with such features as his, it was capable of being. Having asked me to take a seat, he surveyed me thoughtfully for some moments in silence.
"Young gentleman," said he, at last, "before we man the windlass I have to beg you'll not take amiss any questions I may put. Whatever I ask won't be out of curiosity. I believe I can see my way to doing you and your pretty young lady a very considerable service; but I shall first want all the truth you may think proper to give me."
I heard him with some astonishment. What could he mean? What service had he in contemplation to render me?
"The truth of what, Captain Parsons?" said I.
"Well, now, your relations with Miss Bellassys: it's an elopement, I believe?"
"That is so," I answered, hardly knowing whether to laugh or to feel vexed.
"Though the young lady," he continued, "is not one of my passengers in the sense that the rest of them are, she is aboard my ship, and as though by the Divine ordering committed to my care, as are you and every man jack of the two hundred and four souls who are sailing with me. Of course you know that we ship-masters have very great powers."
I merely inclined my head, wondering what he was driving at.
"A ship-master," he proceeded, "is lord paramount, quite the cock of his own walk, and nothing must crow where he is. He is responsible for the safety and comfort, for the well-being, moral, spiritual, and physical, of every creature aboard his ship, no matter what the circumstances under which that creature came aboard, whether by paying cabin-money, by shipwreck, or by signing articles. Miss Bellassys has come into my hands, and it's my duty, as master of this ship, to see that she's done right by."
The conflict of twenty emotions rendered me quite incapable to do anything more than stare at him.
"Now, Mr. Barclay," he continued, crossing his bow legs, and wagging a little stunted forefinger in a kindly, admonishing way, "don't be affronted by this preface, and don't be affronted by what I'm going to ask; for if all be plain sailing I shall be able to do you and the young lady a real A1, copper-fastened service."
"Pray ask any questions you wish, captain," said I.
"This is an elopement, you say ?"
"Where from ?"
"Bullong-sewer-Mare," he repeated. "Was the young lady at school?"
"What might be her age, now ?"
"She will be eighteen next so-and-so," said I, giving him the month.
He suddenly jumped up, and I could not imagine what he meant to do, till, pulling open a drawer, he took out a large box of cigars, which he placed upon the table.
"Pray light up, Mr. Barclay," said he, looking to see if the window of his port-hole was open. "They are genuine Havana cigars." He lighted one himself, and proceeded: "What necessity was there for this elopement ?"
"Miss Bellassys is an orphan," I answered, still so much astonished that I found myself almost mechanically answering him, as though I were in a witness-box and he were Mr. Justice Parsons in a wig, instead of an old, bow-legged, pimple-nosed merchant kipper. "Her father was Colonel Bellassys, who died some years ago in India. On her mother's death she was taken charge of by her aunt, Lady Amelia Roscoe. Lady Amelia's husband was a gentleman named Withycombe Roscoe, whose estate in Kent adjoined my father's, Sir Herbert Barclay, the engineer."
"Do you mean the gentleman who built the L—-— Docks?"
"Oh, indeed !" cried he, looking somewhat impressed. "And how is your father, Mr. Barclay ?"
"He died about two years and a half ago," I replied. "But you have asked me for the truth of this elopement, Captain Parsons. There were constant quarrels between my father and Mr. Withycombe Roscoe over a hedge, or wall, or ditch,—some matter contemptibly insignificant; but if the value of the few rods or perches of ground had been represented by the national debt there could not have been hotter blood, more ill feeling between them. Litigation was incessant, and I am sorry to say that it still continues, though I should be glad to end it."
"Sort of entail lawsuit, I suppose ?" said the captain, smoking with enjoyment and listening with interest and respect.
"Just so," said I, finding now a degree of happiness in this candor; it was a kind of easing of my conscience to tell this man my story, absolute stranger as he had been to me but a few hours before.
"Mr. Roscoe died, and Lady Amelia took a house in London. I met her niece at the house of a friend, and fell in love with her."
"So I should think," exclaimed Captain Parsons. "Never saw a sweeter young lady in all my time."
"Well, to cut this part of the story, when her ladyship learned that her niece was in love, and discovered who her sweetheart was,— this occupied a few months, I may tell you—she packed the girl off to Boulogne, to a Mademoiselle Championnet, who keeps a sort of school at that place; though Grace was sent there professedly to learn French. This mademoiselle is some sort of r connection of Lady Amelia's, a bigoted Catholic, as her ladyship is, and it soon grew clear to my mind from letters I received from Miss Bellassys, dispatched in the old romantic fashion "
"What fashion's that ?" called out the captain.
"The bribed housemaid, sir—it soon grew clear to my mind, I say, that Lady Amelia's main object in sending the girl to Mademoiselle Championnet was to get her converted."
"A d—d shame!" cried Captain Parsons.
"Do you need to hear more ?" said I, smiling. "I love the girl, and she loves me; she was an orphan, and I did not consider the aunt a right and proper guardian for her; she consented to elope, and we did elope, and here we are, captain."
"And you were bound to Penzance, I understand?"
"Why Penzance ?"
"To get married at a church in that district."
"Who was going to marry ye ?"
"A cousin of mine, the Reverend Frank Howe,—of course after we had fulfilled the confounded legal conditions which obstruct young people like ourselves in England."
"And what are the legal conditions? It's so long since I was married that I forget them," said the captain.
"Residence, as it is called, then the consent of her ladyship, as Miss Bellassys is under age."
"But she isn't going to consent, is she?"
"How can she refuse, after our association in the yacht, and here?"
It took him some time to understand; he then shut one eye and said, "I see."
We pulled at our cigars in silence as we gazed at each other. The evening had blackened into night; a silver star or two slid in the open port, through which came the washing noise of the water as it swept eddying and seething past the bends into the wake of the ship; now and again the rudder jarred harshly, and there was a monotonous tread of feet overhead.
We were at the extreme after end of the vessel, where the heave of her would be most sensibly felt, and she was still courtesying with some briskness, but I scarcely heeded the motion, so effectually had the mad behavior of the Spitfire cured me of all tendency to nausea.
"And now, Mr. Barclay," exclaimed the captain, after a silence of a minute or two, "I'll explain why I have made so free as to ask you for your story. It's the opinion of Mrs. Barstow and Miss Moggadore that Miss Bellassys and you ought to be married right away off. It's a duty that's owing to the young lady. You can see it for yourself, sir. Her situation, young gentleman," he added, with emphasis, "is not what it ought to be."
"I agree in every word," I exclaimed; "but___"
He interrupted me: "Her dignity is yours; her reputation is yours. And the sooner you're married the better."
I was about to speak, but, despite my pronouncing several words, he proceeded obstinately: "Mrs. Barstow is one of the best-natured women in the world. There never was a more practical lady; sees a thing in a minute; and you may believe in her advice as you would in the fathom-marks on a lead-line. Miss Moggadore, the young lady that sat on my left at table,—did you notice her, Mr. Barclay ?"
"A middle-aged lady, with curls?"
"Eight-and-thirty. Ain't that young enough? Ay, Miss Moggadore has two curls; and let me tell you that her nose heads the right way. Miss Moggadore wasn't behind the door when brains were served out. Well, she and Mrs. Barstow, and your humble servant," he convulsed his short square figure into a sea-bow, "are for having you and Miss Bellassys married straight away off."
"So there is a clergyman on board ?" I cried, feeling the blood in my face, and staring eagerly at him.
"No, sir," said he, "there's no clergyman aboard my ship."
"Then," said I, almost sulkily, "what on earth, Captain Parsons, is the good of you and Mrs. Barstow and Miss Moggadore advising Miss Bellassys and me to get married straight away off, as you term it ?"
"It ought to be done," said he, with an emphatic nod.
"What! without a parson ?" I cried.
"I am a parson," he exclaimed.
I imagined he intended a stupid pun upon his name.
"Parson enough," he continued, "to do your business. I'll marry you"
"You ?" I shouted.
"Yes, me," he returned, striking his breast with his fist.
"Pray where were you ordain ?" said I, disgusted with the bad taste of what I regarded as a joke.
"Ordained?" he echoed. "I don't understand you. I'm the master of a British merchantman, and, as such, can and do desire for Miss Bellassys's sake to marry ye."
Now, I do not know how, when, or where I had stumbled upon the fact, but all on a sudden it came into my head that it was as Captain Parsons said,-——namely, that the master of a British merchantman was empowered, whether by statute, by precedent, or by recognition of the laws of necessity, to celebrate the marriage service on board his own ship at sea.
I may have read it in the corner of a newspaper,—in, some column of answers to correspondents,—as likely as not in a work of fiction; but the mere fact of having heard of it persuaded me that Captain Parsons was in earnest; and very much indeed did he look in earnest as he surveyed me with an expression of' triumph in his little eyes whilst I hung in the wind, swiftly thinking.
"But am I to understand," said I, fetching a breath, "that a marriage at sea, with nobody but the captain of the ship to officiate, is legal ?"
"Certainly," he cried. "Let me splice you to Miss Bellassys, and there's nothing mortal outside the Divorce Court that can sunder you.
How many couples do you think I've married in my time ?"
"I cannot imagine."
"Six," he cried; "and they're all doing well, too."
"Have you a special marriage service at sea?"
"The same, word for word, as you have it in the Prayer-Book."
"And when it is read ?" said I, pausing.
"I enter the circumstance in the official log-book, duly witnessed, and then there you are, much more married than it would delight you to feel if afterwards you should find out you've made a mistake."
My heart beat fast. Though I never dreamt for an instant of accepting this skipper's offices seriously, yet if the ceremony he performed should be legal it would be a trump card in my hand for any game I might hereafter have to play with Lady Amelia.
"But how," said I, "are you to get over the objections to my marriage?"
"What objections? The only objection I see is you're not being married already."
"Why," said I, "residence or license."
He flourished his hand: "You're both aboard my ship, aren't ye? That's residence enough for me. As to license, there's no such thing at sea. Suppose a couple wanted to get married in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; where's the license to come from ?"
"But how about the consent of the guardian ?"
"The lawful guardian isn't here," he answered : "the lawful guardian is leagues astern. No use talking of guardians aboard ship. The young lady being in this ship constitutes me her guardian, and it's enough for you that I give my consent."
His air as he pronounced these words induced such a fit of laughter that for several moments I was unable to speak. He appeared to enjoy my merriment heartily, and sat watching me with the broadest of grins.
"I'm glad you take to the notion kindly," said he. "I was afraid, with Mrs. Barstow, that you'd create a difficulty."
"I? Indeed, Captain Parsons, I have nothing in the world else to do, nothing in the world else to think of, but to get married. But how about Miss Bellassys ?" I added, with a shake of the head. "What will she have to say to a shipboard wedding?"
"You leave her to Mrs. Barstow and Miss Moggadore," said he, with a nod. "Besides, it's for her to be anxious to get married. Make no mistake, young man. Until she becomes Mrs. Barclay, her situation is by no means what it ought to be."
"But is it the fact, captain," I exclaimed, visited by a new emotion of surprise and incredulity, "that a marriage celebrated at sea by the captain of a ship is legal?"
Instead of answering, be counted upon his fingers: "Three and one are four, and two are six, and two's eight, and three's eleven, and four again's fifteen." He paused, looking up at me, and exclaimed, with as much solemnity as he could impart to his briny voice, "If it isn't legal, all I can say is, God help fifteen of as fine a set of children as ever a man could wish to clap eyes on,—not counting the twelve parents, that I married. But, since you seem to doubt,—I wish I had the official log-books containing the entries,—tell ye what I'll do !" he exclaimed, jumping up. "Do you know Mr. Higginson ?"
"A passenger, I presume?"
"Ay, one of the shrewdest lawyers in New Zealand. I'll send for him, and you shall hear what he says."
But on putting his head out to call for the steward he saw Mr. Higginson sitting at the saloon table, reading. Some whispering followed, and they both arrived, the captain carefully shutting the door behind him.
Mr. Higginson was a tall, middle-aged man, with a face that certainly looked intellectual enough to inspire one with some degree of confidence in anything he might deliver. He put on a pair of pince-nez glasses, bowed to me, and took a chair. The captain began awkwardly, abruptly, and in a rumbling voice:
"Mr. Higginson, I'll tell you in half a dozen words how the case stands. No need for mystery. Mr. Barclay's out on an eloping tour. He don't mind my saying so, for we want nothing but the truth aboard the Carthusian. He's run away with that sweet young lady we took off his yacht, and is anxious to get married, and Mrs. Barstow and Miss Moggadore don't at all relish the situation the young lady's put herself in, and they're for marrying her as quickly as the job can be done."
Mr. Higginson nursed his knee and smiled at the deck with a look of embarrassment, though he had been attending to the skipper's words with lawyer-like gravity down to that moment.
"You see," continued Captain Parsons, "that the young lady being aboard my ship is under my care."
"Just so," said Mr. Higginson.
"Therefore I'm her guardian, and it's my duty to look after her."
"Just so," murmured Mr. Higginson.
"Now, I suppose you're aware, sir," continued the captain, "that the master of a British merchantman is fully empowered to marry any couple aboard his ship ?"
"Empowered by what ?" asked Mr. Higginson.
"He has the right to do it, sir," answered the captain.
"It is a subject," said Mr. Higginson, nervously, "upon which I am hardly qualified to give an opinion."
"Is a shipboard marriage legal, or is it not legal?" demanded the captain.
"I cannot answer as to the legality," answered the lawyer, "but I believe there are several instances on record of marriages having taken place at sea, and I should say," he added, slowly and cautiously, "that, in the event of their legality ever being tested, no court would be found, willing, on the merits of the contracts as marriages, to set them aside."
"There ye have it, Mr. Barclay!" cried the captain, with a triumphant swing round in his chair.
"In the case of a marriage at sea," continued Mr. Higginson, looking at me, "I should certainly counsel the parties not to depend upon the validity of their union, but to make haste to confirm it by a second marriage on their arrival at port."
"Needless expense and trouble," whipped out the captain: "there's the official log-book : what more's wanted?"
"But is there no form required, no license necessary?" I exclaimed, addressing Mr. Higginson.
"Hardly at sea, I should say," he answered, smiling.
"My argument!" shouted the captain.
"But the young lady is under age," I continued. "She is an orphan, and her aunt is her guardian. How about that aunt's consent, sir 'I"
"How can it be obtained ?" exclaimed the lawyer.
"My argument again!" roared the captain.
"No doubt," said Mr. Higginson, "as the young lady is under age the marriage could be rendered by the action of the guardian null and void. But would the guardian in this case take such a step? Would she not rather desire that this union at sea should be confirmed by a wedding on shore ?"
"You exactly express my hope," said I; "but before we decide, Captain Parsons, let me first of all talk the matter over with Miss Bellassys."
"All right, sir," he answered, "but don't lose sight of this; that whilst the young lady's aboard my ship I'm her natural guardian and protector; the law holds me accountable for her safety and well-being, and what I say is, she ought to be married. I've explained why; and I say she ought to be married !"