At Madeira seven of us were added to the first-class passengers of the Cambuscan, homeward bound from Cape Town; and even so the company made a poor muster in the saloon, which required a hundred and seventy feet of hurricane-deck for covering. Those were days–long before the South African War, before the Jameson Raid even–when every ship carried out a load of miners for the Transvaal, and returned comparatively empty, though as a rule with plenty of obviously rich men and be-diamonded ladies.
But every tide has its backwash; and it so happened that the Cambuscan held as many second and third-class passengers as she could stow. They were–their general air proclaimed it–the failures of South African immigration; men and women who had gone out too early and given up the struggle just when the propitious moment arrived. Seediness marked the second-class; the third-class came from all parts, from the Cape to Pietermaritzburg, but they might have conspired to assemble on the Cambuscan as a protest against high hopes and dreams of a promised land. The protest, let me add, was an entirely passive one. They stood aloof, watching the flashy gaieties of the hurricane-deck from their own sad penumbra–a dejected, wistful, whispering throng. “They simply don’t occur,” one of the be-diamonded ladies remarked to me, and went on to praise the U– Line for arranging it so. With nightfall–or a trifle later–they vanished; and at most, when the time came for my last pipe before turning in, two or three figures would be left pacing there forward, pacing and turning and pacing again. I wondered who these figures were, and what their thoughts. They and the sleepers hived beneath them belonged to another world–a world driven with ours through wave and darkness, urged by the same propellers, controlled by the same helmsman, separated only by thin partitions which the touch of a rock would tear down like paper; yet, while the partitions stood, separated as no city separates its rich and poor. Only on Sundays did these two worlds consent to meet. They had, it appeared, a common God, and joined for a few minutes once a week in worshipping Him.
The be-diamonded lady, however, was not quite accurate. Once, and once only–it was the second day out from Madeira–the third-class passengers did “occur,” to the extent of organising athletic sports, and even (with the captain’s leave) of levying prize-money from the saloon-deck. Some four or five of us, when their delegate approached, were lounging beneath the great awning and listening, or pretending to listen, to the discourse of our only millionaire, Mr. Olstein. As usual, he recited his wrongs; and, as usual, the mere recital caused him to perspire. The hairs on the back of his expostulatory hand bristled with indignation, the diamonds on his fingers flashed with it. We had known him but two days and were passing weary of him, but allowed him to talk. He apostrophised the British Flag–his final Court of Appeal, he termed it–while we stared out over the waters.
“We love it,” he insisted. “We never see it without a lump in our throats. But we ask ourselves, How long is this affection to count for nothing? What are we to get in return?”
No one answered, perhaps because no one knew. My thoughts had flown forward to a small riverside church in England, and a memorial window to one whose body had been found after Isandlwhana with the same flag wrapped around it beneath the tunic. This was his reward.
“Hey? What’s this?” Mr. Olstein took the subscription list, fitted his gold-rimmed glasses and eyed the delegate over the paper. “Athletic sports? Not much in your line, I should say.”
“No, sir;” and while the delegate bent his eyes a bright spot showed on either cheek. He was a weedy, hollow-chested man, about six feet in height, with tell-tale pits at the back of the neck, and a ragged beard evidently grown on the voyage. “I’m only a collector, with the captain’s permission.”