Chapter 8: But the Captain Is in Charge!
A few minutes later I quitted the cabin, leaving the captain and Mr. Higginson arguing upon the powers of a commander of a ship, the skipper shouting, as I opened the door, "I tell you, Mr. Higginson, that the master of a vessel may not only legally marry a couple, but may legally christen their infants, sir, and then legally bury the lot of them if they should die."
I found Grace seated at the table between Mrs. Barstow and Miss Moggadore. Mrs. Barstow bestowed a smile upon me, but Miss Moggadore's thin lips did not part, and there was something very austere and acid in the gaze she fastened upon my face.
The saloon was now in full blaze, and presented a very fine, sparkling appearance indeed.
The motion of the ship was so quiet that the swing of the radiant lamps was hardly noticeable. Some eight or ten of the passengers were scattered about,—a couple at chess, another reading, a third leaning back with his eyes fixed on a lamp, and so on.
I leaned over the back of my darling's chair and addressed some commonplaces to her and to the two ladies, intending presently to withdraw her, that I might have a long talk, but after a minute or two, Mrs. Barstow rose and went to her cabin, a hint that Miss Moggadore was good enough to take. I seated myself in that lady's chair at Grace's side.
"Well, my pet, and what have they been talking to you about ?"
"They have been urging me to marry you tomorrow morning, Herbert," she answered, with a smile that was half a pout, and a blush that did not signify so much embarrassment but that she could look at me.
"I am fresh from a long talk with the captain," said I, "and he has been urging me to do the same thing."
"It is ridiculous," said she, holding down her head. "There is no clergyman in the ship."
"But the captain of a vessel may act as a clergyman, under the circumstances," said I.
"I don't believe it, Herbert."
"But see here, Grace," said I, speaking earnestly but softly, for there were ears not far distant: "it is not likely that we should regard the captain's celebration of our marriage here as more than something that will strengthen our hands for the struggle with your aunt.
Until we have been joined by a clergyman in proper shipshape fashion, as Captain Parsons himself might say, we shall not be man and wife; but then, my darling, consider this: first of all it is in the highest degree probable that a marriage performed on board a ship by her captain is legal; next, that your aunt would suppose we regarded the union as legal, when of course she would be forced to conclude we regarded ourselves as man and wife. Would she then dare come between us?
Her consent must be wrung from her by this politic stroke of shipboard wedding, that to her mind would be infinitely more significant than our association in the yacht. She will go about and inquire if a shipboard wedding is legal; her lawyers will answer her as best they can, but their advice will be, Secure your niece by sending your consent to Penzance that she may be legitimately married in an English church by a Church-of-England clergyman."
She listened thoughtfully, but with an air of childish simplicity that was inexpressibly touching to my love for her. "It would be merely a ceremony," said she, leaning her cheek in her hand, "to strengthen your appeal to Aunt Amelia?"
"Wholly, my darling."
"Well, dearest," said she, gently, "if you wish it—'
I could have taken her to my heart for her ready compliance. I had expected a resolved refusal, and had promised myself some hours both that evening and next day of exhortation, entreaty, representation. I was, indeed, hot on the project, and even as I talked to her I felt my enthusiasm growing.
Secretly I had no doubt whatever that Captain Parsons was empowered as master of a British merchantman to marry us, and though, as I had told her, I should consider the ceremony as simply an additional weapon for fighting Aunt Amelia with, yet as a contract it might securely bind us too; we were to be parted only by the action of the aunt; this, I felt assured, for the sake of her niece's fame and future and for her own name, her lady ship would never attempt; so that from the moment the Captain ended the service, Grace would be my wife to all intents and purposes, which indeed was all we had in view when we glided out of Boulogne harbor in the poor little Spitfire.
However, though she had sweetly and promptly consented, a great deal remained to talk about. I repeated all that Captain Parsons and all that Mr. Higginson had said, and when we had exhausted the subject we naturally spoke of our prospects of quitting the Carthusian; and, one subject suggesting another, we sat chatting till about nine o'clock, at which hour, the stewards arrived with wine and rog and biscuits, whereupon the passengers put away their books and chess-boards and gathered about the table, effectually ending our tête-à-tête.
Then Mrs. Barstow arrived, followed by Miss Moggadore. I took the former lady aside, leaving Grace in charge of the acidulated gentlewoman with the curls.
"Miss Bellassys tells me," said I, "that you have warmly counselled her to allow Captain Parsons to marry us. You are very good. You could not do us a greater service than by giving such advice. She has consented, asking only that the ceremony shall be privately performed in the captain's cabin."
"She is very young," replied Mrs. Barstow,——"too young, I fear, to realize her position. I am a mother, Mr. Barclay, and my sympathies are entirely with your charming sweetheart. Under such conditions as we find her in, we must all wish to see her married. Were her mother living, I am sure that would be her desire."
"Were her mother living," said I, "there would have been no elopement."
She inclined her head with a cordial gesture. "Miss Bellassys," said she, "has been very candid. As a mother myself, I must blame her; but as a woman—" She shook her head, smiling.
We stood apart conversing for some time, and were then interrupted by the head steward, who came to tell me that by orders of the captain I was to sleep in a berth occupied by one of the passengers, a Mr. Tooth. I went to inspect this berth, and was very well pleased to find a clean and comfortable bed prepared.
I had my pipe and a pouch of tobacco in my pocket, and thought I would go on deck for half an hour before retiring to bed. As I passed the table on my way to the companion-ladder, Mr. Higginson rose from a book he had been reading, and detained me by putting his hand upon my arm.
"I have been thinking over the matter of marriages at sea, Mr. Barclay," he began, with a wary look round to make sure that nobody was listening. "I wish we had a copy of the Merchant Shipping's Act for 1854, for I believe there is a section which provides that every master of a ship carrying an official log-book shall enter in it every marriage that takes place on board, together with the names and ages of the parties.
And I fancy there is another section which provides that every master of every foreign-going ship shall sign and deliver to some mercantile marine authority a list containing, among other things, a statement of every marriage which takes place on board.
There is also an Act called, if my memory serves me, the Confirmation of Marriage on her Majesty's Ships Act. But this, I presume, does not concern what may happen in merchant-vessels. I should like to read up Hammick on the Marriage Laws of England.
One thing, however, is clear: marriage at sea is contemplated by the Merchant Shipping's Act of 1854. Merchantmen do not carry chaplains; a clergyman in attendance as a passenger was assuredly not in the minds of those who are responsible for the Act.
The sections, in my opinion, point to the captain as the person to officiate; and, having turned the matter thoroughly over, I don't scruple to pronounce that a marriage solemnized at sea by the master of a British merchantman is as legal and valid as though celebrated on shore in the usual way."
"I am delighted to hear you say so," said I.
"It is a most interesting point," said he. "It ought certainly to be settled."
I laughed out, and went on deck with my spirits in a dance. To think of such a marriage as we contemplated and to find it in all probability as binding as the shore-going ceremony! Assuredly it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and the gale that had nearly foundered us was to end in returning us to our native shores a wedded pair!
I filled my pipe, and stood musing a bit, thinking of Caudel and the others of the little dandy, of the yacht, of the gale we had outlived, and of twenty other like matters, when the voice of the captain broke in upon my revery:
"This will be you, Mr. Barclay? I begin to know you now without candle-light, by your height."
"Yes, it is I, captain,—just stepped on deck for a smoke and a breath of this cool wind before turning in. Do you know, when I view the great dark outline of your ship sweeping through this tremendous space of darkness, and then think of the crowds of people asleep in her heart, I can't but believe the post of commander of a big merchantman, like this vessel, foremost among the most responsible under the sun ?"
"Sir, you are right," replied the little man, in a voice that was almost oily with gratification. "Let us walk."
We started to measure the planks from the wheel to half-way the length of the poop.
"There is no doubt," said I, "that you, as master of this vessel, are, as you have all along contended, empowered to marry me to Miss Bellassys." And then I gave him the substance of what Mr. Higginson had said to me below.
"I was sure that Higginson would see it after thinking a bit," said he. "Of course I am empowered to marry on board my ship any couple that may apply to me. Have you spoken to Miss Bellassys ?"
"And is she agreeable?"
"Good!" said he, with a chuckle. "Now, when shall it be?"
"Oh, it is for you to say, captain."
"Ten o'clock tomorrow morning do ?"
"Very well indeed," I answered, "but it will be quite private, Captain Parsons; it is Miss Bellassys's wish."
I slept right through the night, and when I awoke Mr. Tooth was shaving himself, and the cabin was brilliant with sunshine whitened to a finer glory yet by the broad surface of milk-white froth that was rushing past the ship. The ship was heeling to it as a yacht might; her yards were braced forward, and the snow at her forefoot soared and blew away in smoke to the sliding irresistible thrust of her sharp metal stem.
The sea for leagues and leagues rolled blue, foaming, brilliant; wool-like clouds lovely with prismatic glittering in their skirts as they sailed from the sun were speeding into the southeast; the whole life of the world seemed to be in that morning,—in the joyous sweep of the wind, in the frolicsome frothing of each long blue ridge of rolling sea, in the triumphant speeding of the ship sliding buoyant from one soft foam-freckled hollow to another.
I drew a deep breath. "Ha I" thought I, "if it were always like this, now, and New Zealand not so distant!"
I saw nothing of Grace till the cabin breakfast was ready. Most of the first-class passengers had by this time assembled, some of those who had been sea-sick yesterday issuing from their cabins; and I noticed a general stare of admiration as my darling stepped forth, followed by Mrs. Barstow.
Her long and comfortable night's rest had restored her bloom to her. How sweet she looked! how engaging the girlish dignity of her posture! how bright her timid eyes as she paused to send a glance round in search of me! I was instantly at her side.
"The ceremony is fixed for ten, I think ?" said Mrs. Barstow; and here Miss Moggadore arrived, as one who had a right to be of us, not to say with us.
"I am of opinion," said she, "that the ceremony ought to be public."
"I'd rather not," I answered. "In fact, we both had rather not."
"But so many witnesses !" said Miss Moggadore.
"Shall you be present ?" inquired Mrs. Barstow.
"I hope to receive an invitation," answered Miss Moggadore.
"We shall count upon your being present," exclaimed Grace, sweetly but the smile with which she spoke quickly faded; she look grave and nervous, and I found some reproach in the eyes she lifted to my face.
"It seems so unreal,—almost impious, Herbert, as though we were acting a sham part in a terribly solemn act," she exclaimed, as we seated ourselves.
"There is no sham in it, my pet. Yonder sits Mr. Higginson, a lawyer, and that man has no doubt whatever that when we are united by the captain we shall be as much man and wife as any clergyman could make us."
"I consent, but only to please you," said she, with something of restlessness in her manner; and I noticed that she ate but little.
"My darling, you know why I wish this marriage performed," I said, speaking softly in her ear, for there were many eyes upon us, and some ladies who had not before put in an appearance were seated almost opposite and constantly directed their gaze at us, whilst they would pass remarks in whispers when they bent their heads over their plates.
"It can do no possible harm; it must be my cousin, not Captain Parsons, who makes you my wife. But then, Grace, it may be binding too, requiring nothing more than the sanctification of the union in the regular way; and it may—it will—create a difficulty for your aunt which should go very near to extinguishing her."
She sighed and appeared nervous and depressed; but I was too eager to have my way to choose to notice her manner. It would be a thing of the past in a very little while; we might hope, at all events, to be on our way home shortly, and I easily foresaw I should never forgive myself after leaving the Carthusian if I suffered Grace to influence me into refusing the captain's offer to marry us, odd as the whole business was, and irregular as it might prove, too, for all I could tell.