The Ginger Tree (3 page)

While I was talking to the doctor the lady with the two children from the Second Class came in. She was wearing a white dress that was quite pretty and had her hair dressed very well in a simple style. She stood in the doorway looking more frightened than I had felt, and if I had not been a
performer I think I would have gone over to welcome her. Fortunately the Judge turned and saw her and he did that, very pleasantly in a nice old-gentlemanly manner. When he wishes to, the Judge can be very agreeable, and I think it is quite wrong of him to goad me in connection with Mrs C, which is what I am beginning to see he is doing. Why? While the lady from the Second Class was being shown to her seat I saw the wife of the Consul in Swatow staring at her. For once I agree with Mrs C. I do not care for that woman. She had on yet another new dress of
Shantung silk cut very low in front with a lace collar that was boned to stand up all around her neck almost like the collars you see in pictures of Queen Elizabeth. The collar seemed to me to call attention to her face, which is very hard, and certainly not young. I think she uses paint. Perhaps she smokes in private? Mrs C says that in these times of lax morals there are ladies who do, though this might just be one of her exaggerations.

Perhaps because I was looking at her the lady from Swatow looked at me, only she was staring. Suddenly I realised that I should have worn my corset under the voile and that she suspected I wasn’t, and was just waiting for me to walk over to the piano to make sure, perhaps preparing to say something to the people around her, who were men. I wanted to run from the smoking-room and down to the cabin and I was very hot, and could feel the flush coming again which would make me look dreadful. I wondered for a minute if I might escape by saying that I felt faint and must go out on deck, but put away this idea because it would be running from something I had said I would do. It seemed as though everyone in those other seats was staring at us and from the burning I felt in my face I was sure it was now bright red. Suddenly Dr Waterford leaned towards me and said: ‘No one seems to be thinking about
for the entertainers. I feel the need of some Dutch courage myself, and how would you fancy a lemon squash, Miss Mackenzie?’

Though I was sure he only made the suggestion because I looked as if I might burst into flames, I was very grateful for his consideration and thanked him. He went off to the hatch himself instead of calling one of the Goanese stewards, and while he was away the Judge announced the
first item which was to be general singing of a song he said we all knew that had been made famous by none other than Miss Marie Lloyd. I did not know the song. I had heard of Miss Lloyd, of course, but Mama does not approve of music halls, so I never saw her on the stage. I have only been to the theatre three times, once to see a Shakespeare play,
The Tempest
and twice to Gilbert and Sullivan operas. The Judge led the singing in a voice that must have been quite good when he was young, a baritone, and it was mostly the men in the audience who took up the chorus, I did not hear any ladies’ voices at all, though the Swatow Consul’s wife was waving time with her ivory fan. I knew that Mrs C, if she was listening, would be shocked by the words, which were something about how a little of what you fancy does you good.

The men were still roaring that chorus when Dr Waterford came back with the refreshment, and I thought the lemon squash had rather a queer taste, not as sweet as I had been expecting, but I was grateful for it, and after even a few sips began to feel a little better. The doctor seemed to be enjoying his Dutch courage, and had been long enough at the hatch to empty a glass before the one in his hand. I noticed that the Swatow lady was drinking what looked very like whisky, too. I knew by then that Mrs C had been right about one thing, Mama would not have wished me to be at this drinking concert, let alone have me perform. Already some of the men, and they were not from the Second Class, were making loud jokes in one corner and the Judge was forced to call for silence before he announced the next item which was the First Officer reciting ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by Lord Tennyson. It is not a piece I care for. During it I sat thinking that I hated the voile dress and would never wear it again.

The next performer was a man who must be more than forty whom I have watched playing shuffleboard, but not spoken to. The Judge said he was a tin mine engineer from somewhere in Malaya, and the man explained before he sang, unaccompanied, that his is quite a lonely life and that he has entertained himself by collecting native songs, the one that he was going to sing being from his Chinese coolies. It was a very strange little tune, if you could call it that, and sung in native language, quite meaningless, but I rather liked it, and I clapped quite hard for an
encore which he must have heard, for he looked at me, then smiled and said he would give us a Malay song, this time about a lover lamenting his faithless sweetheart. I had the feeling he looked at me quite often while singing, which made me uncomfortable and some of the men, who perhaps understood the Malaya language, were laughing at the words as though they were suggestive. I didn’t like the Malaya song at all. Also, I was beginning to become very nervous again about when it would be the turn of Mrs Price and me, so I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to Dr Waterford’s performance. It was an extract from
The Pickwick Papers
by Charles Dickens and spoken in low-class English accents with ‘welly’ for ‘very’ and such things which meant I didn’t understand a lot of it. During the recitation I finished my glass of lemon squash quite quickly and though I was no cooler from it, I did feel less jumpy.

Though I should have been expecting it, I was still startled to hear the Judge say that now Mrs Price would sing accompanied by Miss
at the piano. As I stood up I realised that I had not really looked at the music and also that I hadn’t heard the piano played this evening. For all I knew there might be dead keys. When I sat down the stool was so low it was like trying to reach up to a shelf and the audience, seeing this, began to laugh. I had to get up again and spin the stool almost as high as it would go, and then I could not push it back far enough because, like all the furniture on the ship, it was fastened to the floor against rolling. From the way Mrs Price was looking at me it was plain she did not like people to laugh before she started to sing.

I played the introductory bars, the sound like an Italian barrel organ. I was too fast, Mrs Price likes to take her time. She sounded as though a bag of small stones were being jiggled on a string in her throat, and no one could have made out one word that she was singing. One of the hooks at the back of my dress gave way. I could feel the gap, but had to play on wondering how many others would go. The Swatow lady was probably wondering that, too. And maybe the men. I was sure that everyone was watching those hooks and eyes, and not Mrs Price.

The Indian song by Mrs Finden was slow enough but ‘Danny Boy’ crawled. I thought we would never finish. I felt I should have been
grinding the piano slowly with a crank, not trying to get sound from the keys. The worst thing happened then; while there were two stanzas of ‘Danny Boy’ to go, I became suddenly dizzy. For a moment I thought it might be the ship, then I knew it was not, for the smoking-room was moving around me. I could scarcely read the music and if there had been any new notes I could not have finished the piece. I just managed. Then, during the applause and calls for an encore, I knew I was going to be sick in one minute, or two at the most. I got up and walked past all those faces towards the door. I was swaying. I have never walked like that before in my life, as though my feet were going down on cotton wool, not the carpet. I just kept looking at the doors. I got out into the hallway and just managed to reach the deck, but the railing was too far. I had to stop and bend over.

A lady who could not have been at the concert came out of the drawing-room. I really couldn’t see her face but I heard what she said: ‘Were you drinking in there? A girl of your age? How disgusting!’

I am writing all this down in my berth above Mrs C, maybe with the idea that if I put everything down and face what happened that way I may be able to forget. Instead I am waiting for the sound of feet on the deck over my head which will mean that the concert has finished and people are out for a last walk. The Lascars will not wash those boards until the morning. How can I face the other passengers tomorrow?

I don’t know when Mrs C got back to the cabin, her curtains were drawn when I came in. For a long time there was no noise from below at all but now there is a sound that isn’t like her usual snoring. I had better put out this light.

Letter from Mary Mackenzie to Mrs Isabel Mackenzie

Raffles Hotel, Singapore
January 23rd, 1903

Dearest Mama – I have very sad news. The lady you found to be my chaperone to the Far East has unfortunately died, which has been a great shock to me as it will be to you. Mrs Carswell did not die on board the SS
, but in hospital in Penang, having been taken ill on the night of January 19th while we were still in the Indian Ocean approaching the Strait of Malacca. At dinner she was perhaps a little strained, but it did not seem much to me. She was a lady who always retired early and sometimes I did not accompany her at nine-thirty to our cabin, for, as you know well, I have never been one to sleep early. When I did go down after a last walk about the decks she was already behind the curtains of her berth and later, while I was using a light in my berth to write to you, I heard strange noises from below. For a time I did nothing since I was used to noises in the cabin, but then these became very violent. I found her convulsed and apparently unable to speak. It was very frightening. First I had to call a sleepy stewardess, then the doctor, who is a horrid man. By the time the doctor came it must have been one o’clock and Mrs Carswell was in great distress and groaning. He gave her some liquid medicine which had the effect of making her very sick very often, but no improvement by morning.

I had to nurse Mrs Carswell assisted by a stewardess who is old and grumpy and one other passenger, a lady I had not liked in appearance at all, but who suddenly came to our cabin as a volunteer when I was at my
wits’ end with worry. She is the wife of the British Consul in Swatow, a Mrs Brinkhill. Before she came I had not had the slightest desire to make her acquaintance, which shows that it is not right to make judgements too quickly. She had seemed to me hard and worldly, but she became a tower of strength. There are other ladies on board who might have come to help, but not one of them did, not so much as a knock on the cabin door with enquiries though when passing along the passage beyond they must at times have heard the terrible noise Mrs Carswell, poor lady, was making. The world is a strange mix of people of different types and so many look what they aren’t.

When I first agreed to marry Richard and come to the Far East you said that you feared for me because I had been brought up in such a sheltered manner and had never been out in the world. Well, I am having experience now. I had never thought of myself as a nurse, but with Mrs Brinkhill to show me how to manage, I learned a great deal, especially how to meet up with real unpleasantness without giving way to disgust and wanting to hide. To be honest I did feel like that at first, wanting others to take over, but it was Mrs Brinkhill who helped me to do what had to be done. She is a wonderful lady. The ship is to be in Singapore for two days before sailing on to Hong Kong and because Mrs Brinkhill said we both needed a change from being on board she has taken a room in this very charming hotel. We are now relaxing here, and beyond the open shutters on to a balcony I can hear the crackling of palm fronds in the wind which is a new sound for me, and I like it.

But to tell you about Mrs Carswell. They took her from the ship to hospital in Penang as soon as we had anchored and a tender could be brought alongside. They lowered the gangplank and she was carried down it very early in the morning, just as dawn was coming all bright and red. Penang is a very beautiful harbour and it seemed so strange, the loveliness of nature all around, and a poor woman being carried to her death. I think I knew, though I didn’t say it to Mrs Brinkhill as we watched, that she could not live. So you see I am not so sheltered any more. I have seen the face of death. It did not make me want to cry, I was just cold inside.

It is all most tragic. The news has been cabled to Mr Carswell in Hong Kong where he must have been making preparations to welcome home his wife from her trip to England. I do not know much about Mr Carswell, for she rarely spoke of him. However, there were no children in the family. Mrs Brinkhill surprised me by saying that he would marry again soon, that widowers in the Far East always marry again quickly when they lose their wives. Such remarks may make her seem hard, but underneath is a well of kindness. I cannot believe that only a week ago I thought her a lady to be avoided.

Since Mrs Carswell died the ship’s doctor has scarcely been seen, perhaps because he knows he did not do much to help her. According to Mrs Brinkhill, the word from the Penang hospital just before we sailed again was that Mrs Carswell had died from dysentery as the result of Colombo fruits eaten on board. For my part I doubt this since she was most careful about eating anything strange and never did in Hong Kong and, though I did see her tasting some kind of melon, it was only from far inside it, at the very centre, which could scarcely carry such germs. Mrs Brinkhill thinks it was probably peritonitis, but we will never know now. Because the trouble just might have been contagious all my things were moved to another cabin and the one I shared with Mrs Carswell
while we sailed down to Singapore. I was glad of the change, for I would not have cared to go on living in the old cabin with all its associations.

Well, Mama dear, I am sorry this has to be such a sad letter, but you mustn’t worry about me. Even though Mrs Carswell has gone I am not deserted and Mrs Brinkhill has really taken over as chaperone. As I told you, she is the wife of a Consul and therefore someone of importance. I am writing this to you in our room in the hotel where I have had breakfast in bed, with the windows open on to all the strange sounds of an Oriental city, the jingling bicycle bells on the rickshas, street cries, and so on. The sun is very bright outside and later we will go for a ride in a carriage about the streets and then visit the famous botanic gardens which are said to be one of the sights of Asia.

The service in this hotel is very good, soft-footed Chinese who seem to
know what your every wish is as soon as you think of it. If I am to have servants like this in Peking it will certainly make life very easy in some ways. I had hoped to have a letter from Richard waiting for me here but there wasn’t one, so perhaps he missed the mail connections from North China which Mrs Brinkhill says are very uncertain. Even in Swatow where she lives, and which is quite near Hong Kong, there are sometimes whole months in which she has no word from the outside world at all. They take English newspapers which arrive two to three months later in huge bundles, but they read them all in sequence by dates, something her husband insists on. It sounds as if her home in Swatow is very pretty but I shan’t have a chance to visit it for the
does not call there on the way to Shanghai. Mrs Brinkhill has to change ships in Hong Kong so I will be without her company for the last days of the voyage. The man I thought was her husband is not, just an old friend. Her husband is in Swatow.

Well, I must close now. I will write again to catch the mail from Hong Kong. All my love to you, dear.

Your ever loving daughter,


January 27th, 1903

Today we passed a huge island in the South China Sea and I am down in my cabin writing about it before I dress for dinner. Since I am living on my own there are times when I can wear just a kimono for coolness if I lock the door. It was Mrs Brinkhill who told me that it is all right for ladies to do this in the tropic heat, for temporary relief.

We went to a Singapore shop to buy the kimono and I chose one that is white cotton with blue flowers on it, very light for easy washing in the basin and hanging to dry by the porthole. Mrs B also told me she thinks I have been a martyr to my underclothes, bought at Maule’s Drapery in Edinburgh, which were supposed to be suitable for a tropic climate but Mrs B says might have been designed for Eskimos. Mama would be
horrified to know that I am abandoning part of my expensive trousseau like this, but then Mama has never been in a hot country. In the shop I spent the equivalent of two pounds seven shillings British money.

I have also learned about prickly heat. Mrs B said that if I hadn’t got it now soon I would, so I admitted that I had it a little, though I didn’t tell her where, but I think she guessed. She said that chafing is to be avoided at all costs and that I must be very careful about using the fresh water rinse after my salt baths. I can ask her anything and she will tell me, without embarrassment between us, or not much. I have a little, she has none. I am now sitting at her table in the dining saloon which means sitting opposite Mr Davies at mealtimes but he does not seem to have much to say for himself in Mrs B’s company, only staring at me a lot, which I have got used to. A lot of our passengers left the ship at Singapore, including the Malacca Judge whom I was not sorry to lose, and only a few people have joined us, but these include a Mr and Mrs Hansen who are Danish, both very fair and young, which makes a pleasant change. The Danish people must be very carefree socially, for almost immediately after we had been introduced Mrs Hansen suggested that I call her Ingrid. I can see that Mrs Brinkhill doesn’t care for this quick informality and I don’t think she likes the way I am playing shuffleboard with the Hansens at least twice a day. It is my feeling, too, that she somehow arranged that the newcomers were not to sit at our dining table, though there were two places vacant after Singapore. All this is strange, for Mrs Brinkhill is such a generous woman. For instance, I was not allowed to pay one penny towards our bill at Raffles Hotel, though I tried to.

I was writing about the island we saw. It came into view in the late afternoon and we sailed past just before sunset, a big island with quite a high mountain and all a most wonderful bright green that quickly darkened to almost purple. The other day I was trying to describe a tropic sunset to Mama and said that it seemed as if Heaven had spilled down all the colours they had, but of course I had to tear that sheet up for she would have thought it sacrilegious. Travel seems to put more than distance between you and the people at home, an increasing number of things you have seen and thought about which you can’t mention for fear
they would shock, and this is really sad. I think of Mama doing all the things in one week that she will do in the next week, like those tea-parties.

I am going to a totally different life. For instance, Mrs B told me about pirates as though they were nothing special. Her boat from Hong Kong to Swatow passes Byas Bay where there is a famous pirate base, and even though these coastal ships have British officers and First Class
protected by iron grilles and so on, they are frequently attacked, usually by accomplices travelling steerage who start things off just before the fast junks appear from behind some island firing cannon. Mrs B was once in a real battle in which six or seven of the pirates were killed and one of the British officers wounded and she acted as nurse to the wounded man while bullets were flying. I cannot imagine the Edinburgh tea-party ladies being much use during a pirate attack.

The island is called Great Natuna and belongs to the Dutch. The Dutch seem to have a huge empire in these parts that stretches for thousands of miles and includes thousands of islands, some very big like Sumatra. At school we always thought there was only one really big empire and that was ours, on which the sun will never set. I was looking at the island with the silly idea in my mind that it would be nice to be queen of such a place and never leave it when suddenly I remembered Mrs Carswell being carried down the gangplank at Penang looking already dead. I shivered. Mrs B came up behind me then and asked what was the matter? I told her what I had been thinking about and she said something I will always remember: ‘Child, you are travelling towards the lands of sudden death.’

She told me about a huge flood in China near a place called Wuhan in which some say as many as two and a half million people drowned, which is half of all the people in Scotland. Many of the bodies came floating down river to near Shanghai where Mrs B was at the time.

whisky she drinks. I believe she must also keep some in her cabin for I have smelt it when I was visiting her there. Some of the things Mrs Carswell thought about Mrs B are true enough, but I don’t mind that at all. Good and bad are not so simple as we are taught. On this ship I have become five years older.

February 5th, 1903

When I first heard about the typhoon coming I was rather excited, sure that I must really have my sea legs now so wouldn’t be sick, which would make it an adventure. I do not want another adventure like it. The first thing that happened was no ship’s officers in the dining saloon for dinner, which seemed odd. Since Mrs Brinkhill left the ship at Hong Kong I have moved back to the main table opposite the Hansens, but Ingrid had a headache, and for some reason Nils was gloomy, though I don’t think he was worrying about the coming storm. Afterwards I was going up the main stair when I met Mr Davies coming down it and I asked for news of the typhoon. He didn’t at once answer me. His face looked strained. When he finally spoke he was very solemn: ‘Miss Mackenzie, I want you to promise me that whatever you may think is happening on this ship you will stay in your berth in your cabin.’ I couldn’t believe he meant I should stay in my berth in the daytime, but he did, saying that the stewardess would show me how to make bedding rolls that would wedge me into my berth. I said: ‘Do you mean the ship’s movement could roll me out of my berth?’ He said: ‘It could throw you out.’

After that I went to the drawing-room, which was empty, as though everyone had gone to cabins to prepare for what was to come. I found the doors to the deck had been locked so there was nothing really I could do but go below myself, to undress and go to bed in the normal way without any padding of blankets. What woke me was my trunk coming out from beneath the berth and sliding over to hit the leg of the sofa. Then, while I lay listening to a roaring noise I had certainly not heard before on this ship, the trunk began to move again, this time rumbling over to crash against the cabin door. As we came back to near level I got up and went to pull aside the curtains over the porthole, only to find that the inner iron shutter which I had never expected to see used was now clamped down against the thick glass beyond it. The ventilation grille over the door which had sometimes let in the sound of men coming down late and noisily from the smoking-room now gave me a variety of other sounds,
amongst them a great clattering that sounded like a shelf loaded with pots collapsing in a pantry. There was shouting at a distance, but no words I could make out. I was trying to push the trunk back under the berth when the ship went into a roll much worse than anything I would have believed possible. The ship lifted, then sagged, the sag throwing me first on to the sofa, then against the cabin wall. My trunk followed me, this time breaking the sofa leg. What must have been a monster wave hit the ship just beyond my wall, and this was followed by a shivering twenty times worse than the vibration we had when the
was going at top speed. Then came a roll that had me almost standing on the cabin wall and I was sure the ship was going to capsise.

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