The Ginger Tree


A Novel


, off Aden
January 9th, 1903

I was sick yesterday on my birthday, after not having been sick crossing the Bay of Biscay and even in the storm off Malta. It seems silly to have been sick in a little sea like the Red Sea, but when I did get to the deck at sunset, to escape from Mrs Carswell’s groaning, the Second Officer came up beside me at the rail and said that I had been unwell because of the ground swell from Somalia. He said that many people who can stand up to all sorts of bumping and knocking about in storms are unable to stand up to a heavy ground swell. He is quite a nice man, though he must be thirty at least. He has very big hands. Too big. I did not tell anyone it was my birthday yesterday, not even Mrs Carswell. She was being sick, too, much worse than me.

The swells are like little hills on the move, completely smooth and grey. As we go up sideways on one of them you can see the others coming at us from the horizon. The sky is grey, too, and it does not seem able even to redden up for sunset. I am back in the cabin writing this, up in my berth above Mrs Carswell, who is still groaning. I would not have believed that anything could creak like this ship creaks. It is stifling in here. They have put tin things outside the portholes to catch the breeze, but there is no breeze, not even from the ship’s movement.

I have decided right now that I must not send this notebook to Mama as I promised. Ever since Port Said I have found myself wanting to write down things that she must never see. I have heard that people change east of Suez and that could be what is happening to me. The day before yesterday, when I was beginning to feel not too well, I still wanted to eat
curry and I have always hated curry. It is almost frightening, that you can travel in a ship and feel yourself changing.

It is not happening to everyone. Most of the passengers are too old to change. Nothing would ever change Mrs Carswell. I wish that, if I must have a chaperone, it did not have to be Mrs Carswell and we did not have to share a cabin.

I left off my new corset two days ago. Now I know I can never send this to Mama. Mrs Carswell has not found out yet since we dress and undress, at least mostly, behind our bunk curtains. I just could not get into that corset up here in the heat under the roof, which is why I left it off first time. Then I smuggled it down while she was still sleeping and hid it away in my cabin trunk under the little sofa. Fortunately I have a small waist even without having it held in, and she has not noticed yet, but I will have to be careful. She has the sharpest eyes. They are like jet beads.

Mama would be horrified if she could read me writing like this. Perhaps I do it because there is no one I can talk to on this ship. In the First Class they are all old except the Prices, and Mrs Carswell says the Prices are not suitable. She calls them ‘pushing’ and thinks they ought to be travelling Second Class because all he is going out to is a position with the Singapore Water Board. Mrs Carswell says that in Singapore they will soon learn their place, because people in the Public Works Department are not acceptable socially. In Hong Kong Mr Carswell is a lawyer, which means that his wife can leave cards at Government House once a year and the Governor’s Lady then leaves cards on her. Mrs Carswell is on the
list. She says I will learn about these things in Peking.

In all the things they did for me before I came away no one told me anything about how not to have perspiration. If China is as hot as this, am I going to be damp for the rest of my life? I have used up all my eau de Cologne already and it only makes you feel cool for about five minutes. I cannot ask Mrs Carswell what she has done about perspiration all her years in hot countries. She must have done something? Perhaps not.

January 11th, 1903

We were right out in the Indian Ocean before the Captain spoke to me for the first time. I was about to go down from the top deck because of the coal smuts coming from the funnel when he came along from the bridge. He is a big man and very hairy, with the kind of beard that never seems to be trimmed, wisps coming out of it. He does not appear very sociable and I turned away so that he would not have to speak to me but he made a point of coming to the rail and asking if I had my sea legs again after the big swells. I said I had, then told him that I did not like the Indian Ocean very much, was it always this grey colour? He said we were passing through the tail of a monsoon and usually the sea was a wonderful blue. I have not seen any wonderful blues yet, not even in the Mediterranean which was grey, too, only a different kind of grey. This is a hot grey, with vapours off the water. The Captain said that from where we are now all the way to ice in Antarctica there is nothing but sea, four thousand miles of it. He trained in sailing ships on the Australian grain run and they used to go through the Roaring Forties which are just north of the ice and once he was nearly shipwrecked at an island which is all black rock mountains and huge and no one lives there because terrible winds blow all the time. Then he must have thought he was frightening me for he said in a broad accent: ‘But dinny fash yersel’, lassie, you’ll no’ be shipwrecked.’ Though his name is Wilson I had not realised he was Scotch until then, which somehow made me feel safer on this ship.

After the Captain had gone and before I could escape from the smuts, which I was sure were getting in my hair, the Second Officer arrived, at once wanting to know what the Captain had been saying. The Second Officer comes from Cardiff in Wales and his voice is singsong and he keeps putting one of his hands as near as possible to mine on the rail without actually touching me. He knows I am going to China to get married because Mrs Carswell told him when she found him standing by my deck chair one day just after we left the Suez Canal. While we were still
in the Mediterranean he never even looked at me. The heat does make people different.

Last night I went down to dinner by myself because Mrs Carswell could only take some clear soup brought to her by the stewardess, though she was sitting up in her bunk watching me do my hair. I hope she hasn’t guessed about the corset. Some other people did not come down to the main saloon either, which left me and the Malacca Judge almost alone at our end of the long main table. The Malacca Judge is very old with a big tummy, and is coming back from his last home leave before retiring. He used to drink whisky with his dinner, but stopped it, I think because he saw Mrs Carswell did not like this. I would not have expected a judge to be worried about what Mrs Carswell might be thinking. Last night he had three whiskies, starting with the soup. The ship was still rolling and those boards they call ‘fiddles’ were raised all around the tables to keep the plates from landing in our laps. The Judge offered me a glass of wine and of course I refused, but it was strange, I really wanted to say yes. Once or twice I noticed the Captain looking at me from the top of the table. Mr Davies seemed to be doing this quite often from his much smaller table. I don’t think he likes the company he has at mealtimes, they are all old, even a woman who dresses young though she must be forty. At night she shows a lot of bosom. Mrs Carswell says she is a slut even though she is the wife of the British Consul in Swatow. Last night her dress had a bodice with a lot of Chinese embroidery on it, very gaudy. I was wearing my brown dress that Mama liked, but I don’t. Good enough for this ship, though. I am keeping my new things fresh, most of them still in tissue like the wedding dress. I thought about wearing the voile with spots but decided not to, with Mrs Carswell watching.

Next day

There has been quite a fuss in the Second Class. A lady was in her bunk when she saw a huge rat running along the pipes just over her head. In those cabins the partitions do not go right up to the roof and the rats can
use the pipes as a road. Apparently the lady just screamed and screamed and they couldn’t stop her until the doctor came. Mrs Carswell says it was a wonder
was able to do anything. She is quite sure the doctor has something in his past, which is why he is on a ship, but she will not tell me what she thinks this is. Now we have to shut our door at night instead of just pulling the curtain over it to give some draught from the porthole because Mrs Carswell thinks the rats might come to the First Class. I have pipes over my head, too, but they go through small holes in the iron wall and I think I am safe.

Perhaps because I was remembering about that rat I went to the end of our main deck and stood there for quite a long time looking down at the Second Class. They use the deck by the hatches to the holds and only have a small covered piece right at the back over the propeller and Mr Davies says they only have one saloon. They must use this for everything, eating, reading, sewing, etc. They have no piano. We have two, one in the men’s smoking-room, which of course I haven’t tried, but the one in the drawing-room is very tinny. Just after Gibraltar I tried playing a Chopin mazurka on it but had to stop, for Mrs Carswell does not care for music.

I felt it was rather shameful to stand there staring down at the Second Class passengers. Usually when we take our constitutionals around the deck we just walk quickly past that part, but today something made me stay to watch. There is a young lady with two children, both girls, and always in clean pinafores which cannot be easy to do in cabins like theirs. I would like to talk to her, but there is no way, of course. There are three Catholics, too, priests in black robes. Mr Davies says they are Jesuits. I don’t think I have ever seen a Jesuit before. They walk round and round the hatches, their mouths shaping words they are reading from a little book. I can’t remember ever having talked to any Catholics, at least not when I knew they were that. There are quite a few of them in Scotland, but I never heard of any in South Edinburgh where we lived. We are all Presbyterians.

January 14th, 1903

Tomorrow we reach Colombo in Ceylon which will be my first land in the Far East. There will also be a mail ship leaving for home within a few hours after we arrive, so this is the first chance to get a letter off since Suez and I have been writing to Mama all morning. I can’t use many things in this notebook, though I did tell her what the Captain said to me. I did not mention Mr Davies. I also told her about the Lascar sailors washing down the decks quite early in the morning and the sound it makes just over my head which nearly always wakes me. There is not a lot to say. I told some fibs, that I was getting on with my needlework when I haven’t touched it, and that I was reading
Daily Thoughts
, which she gave me, each morning after breakfast. I had stopped reading it even before we got near Malta. There is a message for every day and they are all semi-devotional, but I don’t care for them somehow. When we were still in the Bay of Biscay Mrs Carswell asked to see what I was reading and I gave her the book, but she gave it back quite quickly, saying the Bible was good enough for her. I haven’t seen her reading the Bible. If she carries one somewhere it must be well hidden, for I think I have seen everything else she has. She scatters things. In a small cabin this is a trial. I have never shared sleeping quarters with anyone before, except Margaret Blair when I went to stay with the Blairs near Aviemore, and her room was huge. I didn’t mind that, though it still gave me a strange feeling.

Mrs Carswell always has a nap after lunch which she says you must in the tropics. She takes off her dress and puts on a wrapper and lies on the bunk. It is bad enough climbing up to my berth over her at night time, but I won’t do it during the day. Also, she likes to eat heavily at what she calls ‘tiffin’, and this makes her snore. It is horrid in that cabin and I won’t ever stay there longer than I have to. Usually I go to my deck chair and sit there. I am reading
St Ronan’s Well
by Sir Walter Scott from the ship’s library, but I do not find it very interesting. Mama says I am not a natural reader, for I do not like being instructed in a book. Most of the books in Papa’s old library were like sermons about something, though they were
not sermons about religious matters. I only remember Papa from
, but I do know it was a great grief to Mama that he never went to church more than twice a year, if then. And never for Holy Communion. Once, when she was crying about being a lone widow after I had said I would marry Richard and go to China, she said that the Devil had got to Papa through a man called Dr Huxley. I remember the name because I was curious about who Dr Huxley was, but I never found out.

I was reading in my deck chair, the ship scarcely rolling at all, when I realised that the light had changed. For days we have had such a strange light, that greyness, the sun screened. Now it was suddenly much brighter. I went to the rail and straight ahead the greyness from sea to sky ended on a line, and some miles ahead I could see the blue the Captain had talked about. It was glittery enough to hurt my eyes and this seemed to be because where the cloud ended there was a breeze ruffling the water, though where we were it was still quiet and the sea looked oily. I went to the front of the deck and stood there, all alone, the other passengers probably taking their after-lunch naps. As the ship got nearer that light, but was still in shadow, it almost seemed as though suddenly we would be moving from one picture into another. Then there was a great
on the water just inside where the sea was still grey, what seemed to be huge fish leaping into the air and falling back again with great splashes.

‘Dolphins,’ Mr Davies said from behind me, and I jumped. I don’t know how long he had been standing there. He must have been watching me while I was watching the sea, which gave me an uneasy feeling. He asked if I would like to go to the ship’s bow to watch the dolphins leaping in front of it. The deck below was used by Chinese steerage passengers but we hadn’t any as yet so it was all right to use it and we went past hatches and machinery to more steps up over the forecastle where the Lascars live. From an open door came a strange, hot smell that wasn’t cooking, I don’t know what it was. There was also the sound of a penny whistle, only with better notes, deeper and rather sad. Maybe it was a Lascar playing a tune of home. I wanted to wait on the steps to listen but Mr Davies gripped my arm and pushed me up.

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