Authors: Valerie Fitzgerald
This book is for my father
An Invitation from the Publisher
‘… all the present time is a point
in eternity. All things are little,
‘Landfall! … Miss Hewitt! … At last we have landfall!’
Mr Roberts waved to me jubilantly as I appeared on deck and walked towards him where he leant on the rail gazing intently at the horizon.
Though it was still very early in the morning, scarcely more than dawn by English standards, it was already hot, and a haze born of the heat sapped the colours of sea and sky and effectively obscured my first and long-awaited glimpse of our destination.
‘But where?’ I shaded my eyes from the glare of the water and peered in the direction to which my companion pointed. ‘I can see nothing. Are you sure?’
‘Quite sure. You just missed the look-out’s shout from the crow’s nest—about a quarter of an hour ago—but I think I caught a glimpse of the coast a moment since. It has disappeared again—no—there it is! Look—that small smudge of darker grey low down near the water? Do you see it?’
‘I see something, but surely that cannot be land? It looks as insubstantial as the haze itself.’
‘Ah, but it’s land for all that! I’m sure of it now—and so is the crew. See them crowding the rails! That is India, Miss Hewitt. India on the horizon!’
Quite spontaneously we turned to each other and shook hands, as though we had something to congratulate ourselves upon. And indeed, looking back on the long journey of more than five months’ duration, most of it accomplished in bad weather and all in circumstances of discomfort, perhaps we had.
The Indiaman on which we had embarked from the Pool of London the previous April was old and dirty and still stank of the hides and skins that had formed a previous cargo. For weeks, as we bucketed down the western coast of Africa, every board and beam had squeaked and squealed in an agony of protesting age; and then, when we had rounded the Cape of Good Hope and turned northward again, the great winds of the south-west monsoon had bellied our patched sails to bursting, and, though we had made good time, the vessel, ill-balanced and forced beyond its capacity as it was, vented its rage at the elements on its twelve unhappy passengers. Few of us saw much of the sky between Cape Town and Calcutta, and of those few only two can have been said to have enjoyed the voyage—Mr Roberts and myself.
Not that I was entirely immune to
mal de mer
myself; but I had discovered early on the voyage that I could keep my feet pretty comfortably as long as I was in the fresh air. Thus I had formed the habit of settling my cousin Emily for the day in what scanty comfort her hot and airless cabin could provide, and then taking myself up on deck until the midday meal. Sometimes, indeed, I found it more prudent to miss the meal altogether, but whether because I soon became accustomed to the motion of the ship, or whether because I was constitutionally a better sailor than the others, by the time we were in the foul weather of the Indian Ocean, when all the hatches were battened and the ports shuttered, I was still able to rise, dress and pass the day in the unpleasantly close atmosphere of the saloon rather than in my bed.
Mr Roberts never turned a hair whatever the weather, and so, thrown much together as we were, and over a long period, a forced acquaintance had developed into a genuine friendship.
I dread to think what my state of
and frustration would have been had someone other than Mr Roberts kept me company over those long weeks. Of the remainder of the passengers, few would have been as pleasant and none as interesting.
There were only two ladies aboard apart from Emily and myself: Mrs Wilkins and her daughter Elvira, both of whom had suffered continuously and severely from sea-sickness. On embarkation they had had with them a ladies’ maid, a pathetic little orphan girl named Jepthah. But at Cape Town Jepthah, having endured the rigours of her own and her employers’ ill health for several weeks, was granted leave of absence to see the sights, and with commendable resourcefulness had neglected to return to the ship—which, despite the wails, threats and maledictions of the Wilkinses, sailed away without her.
At the time this happened I could afford to be amused at Jepthah’s defection and hoped she would be happy in her new environment. But within days I had occasion to wish the young woman had possessed more staying power, for, being the only female aboard capable of helping them, I could not in common charity neglect to assist Mrs Wilkins and her daughter, who were both by this time unable to do anything for themselves. Though they were not as demanding as my cousin Emily, anyone who has had to nurse a bad sailor on a long voyage will realize that my duties were far from pleasant. Even when the weather improved, they remained so debilitated that they could do nothing but lie on their hard cots and try to regain strength with the aid of gruel prepared in the galley by a kind cook and port wine donated by a kind captain. I sat with them for a brief period each evening, but the better I got to know them, the gladder I was that it was Mr Roberts who was my usual companion.