IV. Monotony of the Voyage in Steerage
"I'm afraid I'll have to separate you married people."
This was the sentence which shadowed the on Sunday.
We had taken aboard a fresh lot of people at Queenstown and the rooms for single men and single women could not contain their occupants, while the married people's rooms had some vacant berths.
"I could swing hammocks for the men," said the steward, "but there's the girls. I told them to pitch their kits into the married people's rooms, but they say they won't go in where there's men. They fetch up the modesty against me. Modesty ! You'll see how much they have left when we're five days out. There's nothing else to do but put all the men together and all the women, so far as I see."
But the married women, especially those with children who wished the help of their husbands in taking care of them in the night, raised a storm about the steward's ears. They talked of the guarantees of the ticket. They refused outright to let the men go. They were afraid of the sea and shuddered at separation. The steward compromised.
"I'll see if I can't get some of the older women that's got more sense than girls to go into the married rooms without a fuss. It's all right. The men won't undress."
It was so settled. The married rooms were quieter than those occupied by the younger and more turbulent element, and women were found who were willing to take berths in them. It was far from an idyllic state of things, but both men and women made the best of the situation and the decencies of life were very fairly preserved.
All Sunday afternoon and until Monday morning we lay at Queenstown. Something was wrong with the engines and they must cool before repairs could be made. We bought oranges and lemons of bum-boat men. Bumboat women with Irish lace for sale anchored their craft aft. Their business was with the cabin people, not with us. We had learned by this time the limits assigned us and halted in our promenades abreast of the notice, " passengers not allowed abaft of here."
Sunday evening a group of people gathered on the fo'ksle head and sang hymns. The bos'n and a few sailors joined in the choruses. The cabin passengers looked across from the saloon deck and watched us. A kindly old man, hymn leader in a Methodist chapel in old England, beat time for us and preached a sermon of half a dozen sentences when the singing was done. We had bread with tea and sugar, without milk, for supper, and the women made little tea parties on deck, bringing their food up stairs and enjoying things sociably.
The saloon cookery was a subject of great interest to us. We saw chickens and grouse dressed for the table, and vegetables and fruit brought out from storehouses in the fo'ksle, and we looked on and yearned. Sometimes a steward with a load of good things bound for the saloon galley would drop an apple or a lobster's claw into the lap of a woman, when exclamations of satisfaction were loud and long.
Monday was a day of white faces and despairing eyes. Whether it be that the motion of a vessel is more noticeable forward or whether emigrants, being on an average less well nourished, are less fit to withstand sickness than cabin people, or whether fear of the sea produces the result, it would be hard saying, but the succumbs much sooner than the saloon. The berths were full of groaning humanity and bundles of wretchedness lay wrapped in shawls on the deck.
There are no benches forward and few emigrants are provided with camp stools. Down they lay, heads to the boards, and it seemed that the acme of misery had been reached when a woman allowed a sailor's broom sweeping up coal dust to be flourished past her face, touching her cheeks, without stirring. Thirty women in a huddled heap, pale, with closed eyes, all lying in the sun, was a usual spectacle. The children seemed, contrary to rule, to suffer quite as much as older persons. The color went out of their cheeks and they looked like young ghosts. Sailors have little sympathy with seasickness.
"Ah cawn't see what anybody wants to be sick for thees fine day," said an old seaman to me, looking out over the unhappiness of the deck.
It was on Monday that I attracted attention of some of the saloon passengers. A comfortable, well-fed man stopped me, as I was walking the deck. with-
"Ah -- will you be good enough to tell me where you come from?"
His question was put in a my-good-woman tone of voice, and I waited for further information.
"Some of us," and he pointed to a group of passengers looking down from the deck above, "have a little bet up about your nationality. Would you mind settling it ?"
I told him that I had spent most of my life in America.
"But your mother was a Norwegian?"
I assured him to the contrary.
"Then we were all wrong. I made sure you were Norse."
This incident relieved me from any fear of detection in my masquerade. We are all taken for what we profess to be in this world, and I ventured to present myself in the at the hour of the ship's doctor's daily inspection. His gold lace looked sadly out of place in our quarters but his "and what does this young woman want ?" was pleasantly spoken. I asked for some bromide to get myself some sleep, and he sent one of the saloon stewardesses to me with it.
There was card playing on deck at sunset. Jack Tar's superstitions were aroused at sight of a girl kneeling at her play.
"Get off your knees ! Get up ! Don't do that at cards, or you'll send us to see Davy Jones," he ejaculated, pulling the girl to her feet.
There was dancing, too. A pretty girl from the saloon fiddled for the sailors. She had beautiful dark hair, and a bunch of the red berries of the mountain ash shone against the white of her fleecy shawl. Two good-looking young fellows brought her forward to look at the people. She played and the sailors danced jigs and the stokers waltzed clumsily and two Frenchmen from the put their arms around each other's necks and executed a strange dance.
When she had gone a sailor continued the playing and a few women took partners and joined in the festivities. They had kept in the background as long as the saloon lady remained. We did not see much of the cabin people. They did not frequent our deck, though a lady with a very ugly small dog exercised her pet among us daily.
Tuesday passed with the usual monotony of life at sea. The men played quoits and one or two of the women, seeing me reading, borrowed books of me. The current number of "Harper's Magazine" was pretty well thumbed, as well as a novel or two of William Black's and Rider Haggard's. By Tuesday night so many of our people were sick that the air of the was unbreathable.
"Can't we have a porthole open ?" I asked the steward.
"It's against the rules at night."
"But even ten minutes would air this place out a little."
"Yes, I suppose so. But they can't open portholes tonight on the deck ten feet over this one. The water'll be over the top deck of all before long."
"Well, it looks a little windy."
There was a fresh breeze blowing. By morning it had stiffened into a gale.
"And she'd take a gold medal for rolling," said the swarthy steward with a grim pride in one of his boat's special attributes.