In the bitter winter of 1847, from an Ireland torn by famine and injustice, the Star of the Sea sets sail for NewYork. On board are hundreds of refugees, some optimistic, many more desperate. Among them are a maid with a devastating secret, the bankrupt Lord Merridith, his wife and children, and a killer stalking the decks, hungry for the vengeance that will bring absolution.
This journey will see many lives end, others begin anew. Passionate loves are tenderly recalled, shirked responsibilities regretted too late, and profound relationships shockingly revealed. In this spellbinding tale of tragedy and mercy, love and healing, the farther the ship sails toward the Promised Land, the more her passengers seem moored to a past that will never let them go.
As urgently contemporary as it is historical, this exciting and compassionate novel builds with the pace of a thriller to a stunning conclusion.
About the Author
Joseph O'Connor is the author of several widely acclaimed novels, including Cowboys & Indians, Desperadoes, and The Salesman. He has also written criticism, plays, and screenplays, and edited Yeats Is Dead! He lives in Dublin.
Date of Birth:September 20, 1963
Place of Birth:Dublin, Ireland
Education:B.A., University College, Dublin, 1984; M.A., 1986; University College, Oxford, 1987; M.A., University of Leeds, 1991
Read an Excerpt
The FIRST of our TWENTY-SIX days at Sea:
in which Our Protector records some essential Particulars,
and the Circumstances attending our setting-out.
VIII NOV. MDCCCXLVII
MONDAY THE EIGHTH DAY OF NOVEMBER,
EIGHTEEN HUNDRED AND FORTY-SEVEN
TWENTY-FIVE DAYS AT SEA REMAINING.
The following is the only register of Josias Tuke Lockwood, Master of Vessel, signed and written in his own hand; and I attest it on my solemn honour a compleat and true account of the voyage, and neither has any matter pertinent been omitted.
LONG: 10°16.7'W. LAT: 51°35.5'N. ACTUAL GREENWICH STANDARD TIME: 8.17 P.M. WIND DIR. & SPEED: S.S.W. Force 4. BUFFETING SEAS: rough. HEADING: W.N.W. 282.7°. PRECIPITATION. & REMARKS: Mild mist all the day but very cold and clear night. Upper riggings encrusted with ice. Dursey Island to starboard. Tearagh Isld visible at 52°4.5'N, 10°39.7'W, most westerly point of Ireland and therefore of the United Kingdom. (Property of the Earl of Cork.)
NAME OF VESSEL: The Star of the Sea (formerly the Golden Lady).
BUILDER: John Wood, Port Glasgow (prop. engines by M. Brunel).
OWNER: Silver Star Shipping Line & Co.
PREVIOUS VOYAGE: Dublin Port (South Docks) - Liverpool - Dublin Kingstown.
PORT OF EMBARKATION: Queenstown (or The Cove). 51°51'N; 008°18'W.
PORT OF DESTINATION: New York. 40°.42'N; 74°.02'W.
DISTANCE: 2,768 nautical miles direct: to be factorised for tacking into westerlies.
FIRST MATE: Thos. Leeson.
ROYAL MAIL AGENT: George Wellesley Esq. (accompnd. by a servant, Briggs).
WEIGHT OF VESSEL: 1,154 gross tons.
LENGTH OF VESSEL: 207 ft ¥ beam 34 ft.
GENERAL: clipper bows, one funnel, three square-rig masts (rigged for sail), oaken hull (copperfastened), three decks, a poop and topgallant forecastle, side-paddle wheel propulsion, full speed 9 knots. All seaworthy though substantial repairs required; also damage to interior fittings & cetera. Bad leaking through overhead and bulkheads of steerage. Hull to be audited in dry dock at New York and caulked if required.
CARGO: 5,000 lbs of mercury for Alabama Mining Co. The Royal Mail (forty bags). Sunderland coal for fuel. (Poor quality the supply, dirty and slaggy.) Luggage of passengers. Spare slop in stores. One grand piano for John J. Astor Esq. at New York.
PROVISIONS: sufficient of freshwater, ale, brandy, claret, rum, pork, cocks, mutton, biscuit, preserved milk & cetera. Also oatmeal, cutlings, molasses, potatoes, salt or hung beef, pork, bacon and hams, salted veal, fowl in pickle, coffee, tea, cyder, spices, pepper, ginger, flour, eggs, good port wine and porter-beer, pickled colewort, split peas for soup; and lastly, vinegar, butter, and potted herrings. Live beasts (caged) to be butchered on board: pigs, chickens, lambs and geese.
One passenger, a certain Meadowes, is lodged in the lock-up for drunkenness and fighting. (A hopeless out-and-outer: he shall have to be watched.) Suspected case of Typhus Fever moved to the hold for isolation.
Be it recorded that this day three passengers of the steerage class died, the cause in each case being the infirmity consequent on prolonged starvation. Margaret Farrell, fifty-two yrs, a married woman of Rathfylane, Enniscorthy, County Wexford; Joseph English, seventeen yrs (formerly, it is said, apprenticed to a wheelwright) of no fixed place but born near Cootehill, County Cavan; and James Michael Nolan of Skibbereen, County Cork, aged one month and two days (bastard child).
Their mortal remains were committed to the sea. May Almighty God have mercy upon their souls: 'For here have we no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.'
We have thirty-seven crew, 4021/2 ordinary steerage passengers (a child being reckoned in the usual way as one half of one adult passenger) and fifteen in the First-Class quarters or superior staterooms. Among the latter: Earl David Merridith of Kingscourt and his wife the Countess, their children and an Irish maidservant. Mr G.G. Dixon of the New York Tribune: a noted columnist and man of letters. Surgeon Wm. Mangan, M.D. of the Theatre of Anatomy, Peter Street, Dublin, accompanied by his sister, Mrs Derrington, relict; His Imperial Highness, the potentate Maharajah Ranjitsinji, a princely personage of India; Reverend Henry Deedes, D.D., a Methodist Minister from Lyme Regis in England (upgraded); and various others.
As we sailed this day came heavy news of the wreck of the Exmouth out of Liverpool on the 4th ult. with the loss of all 2391/2 emigrants on board and all but three of the crew. May Almighty God have mercy upon their souls: and may He bestow greater clemency upon our own voyage; or at least observe it with benign indifference.
The SECOND evening of the Voyage: in which a certain important Passenger is introduced to the Reader.
The Right Honourable Thomas David Nelson Merridith, the noble Lord Kingscourt, the Viscount of Roundstone, the ninth Earl of Cashel, Kilkerrin and Carna, entered the Dining Saloon to an explosion of smashing glass.
A steward, a Negro, had stumbled near the doorway, bucked by a sudden roll of the vessel, letting slip an overloaded salver of charged champagne flutes. Someone was performing an ironic slow-handclap at the fallen man's expense. An inebriated mocking cheer came from the farthest corner: 'Huazzah! Bravo! Well done, that fellow!' Another voice called: 'They'll have to put up the fares!'
The steward was on his knees now, trying to clear the debris. Blood was rivuleting down his slender left wrist, staining the cuff of his brocaded jacket. In his anxiety to collect the shards of shattered crystal he had sliced open his thumb from ball to tip.
'Mind your hand,' Lord Kingscourt said. 'Here.' He offered the steward a clean linen handkerchief. The man looked up with an expression of dread. His mouth began to work but no sound came. The Chief Steward had bustled over and was barking at his subordinate in a language Merridith did not understand. Was it German, perhaps? Portuguese? Saliva flew from his mouth as he hissed and cursed the man, who was now cowering on the carpet like a beaten child, his uniform besmirched with blood and champagne, a grotesque parody of commodore's whites.
'David?' called Merridith's wife. He turned to look. She had half risen from her banquette at the Captain's table and was gaily beckoning him over with a bread-knife, her knotted eyebrows and pinched lips set in a burlesque of impatience. The people around her were laughing madly, all except the Maharajah, who never laughed. When Merridith glanced back towards the steward again, he was being chivvied from the saloon by his furious superior, the latter still bawling in the guttural language, the transgressor cradling his hand to his breast like a wounded bird.
Lord Kingscourt's palate tasted acridly of salt. His head hurt and his vision was cloudy. For several weeks he had been suffering some kind of urinary infection and since boarding the ship at Kingstown, it had worsened significantly. This morning it had pained him to pass water; a scalding burn that had made him cry out. He wished he'd seen a doctor before embarking on the voyage. Nothing for it now but to wait for New York. Couldn't be frank with that drunken idiot Mangan. Maybe four weeks. Hope and pray.
Surgeon Mangan, a morose old bore by day, was already pink in the face from drinking, his greasy hair gleaming like a polished strap. His sister, who looked like a caricature of a cardinal, was systematically breaking the petals off a pale yellow rose. For a moment Lord Kingscourt wondered if she was going to eat them; but instead she dropped them one by one into her tumbler of water. Watching them with a sullen undergraduate expression sat the Louisiana columnist, Grantley Dixon, in a dinner jacket he had clearly borrowed from someone larger and which gave his shoulders a boxy look. Merridith disliked him and always had, since being forced to endure his socialistic prattle at one of Laura's infernal literary evenings in London. The novelists and poets were tolerable in their way, but the aspiring novelists and poets were simply insufferable. A clown, Grantley Dixon, a perfervid parrot, with his militant slogans and second-hand attitudes: like all coffee-house radicals a screaming snob at heart. As for his imperious guff about the novel he was writing, Merridith knew a dilettante when he saw one, and he was looking at one now. When he'd heard Grantley Dixon was going to be on the same ship, he had almost wanted to postpone the journey. But Laura had told him he was being ridiculous. He could always count on Laura to tell him that.
What a collection to have to abide over dinner. A favourite expression of his father's came into Merridith's mind. Too much for the white man to be asked to bear.
'Are you quite all right, dear?' Laura asked. She enjoyed the role of the concerned wife, particularly when she had an audience to appreciate her concern. He didn't mind. It made her happy. Sometimes it even made him happy too.
'You look as if you're in pain. Or discomfort of some kind.'
'I'm fine,' he said, easing into his seat. 'Just famished.'
'Amen to that,' said Surgeon Mangan.
'Excuse my lateness,' Lord Kingscourt said. 'There are two little chaps I know who insist on being told bedtime stories.'
The Mail Agent, a father, gave a strange, baleful smile. Merridith's wife rolled her eyes like a doll.
'Our girl Mary is ill again,' she said.
Mary Duane was their nanny, a native from Carna in County Galway. David Merridith had known her all his life.
'I don't know what's come over that girl,' Lady Kingscourt continued. 'She's barely left her cabin since the moment we boarded. When usually she's hale as a Connemara pony. And quite as bloody-minded as one too.' She held up her fork and gazed at it closely, for some reason gently pricking her fingertips with the ends of the tines.
'Perhaps she is homesick,' Lord Kingscourt said.
His wife laughed briefly. 'I hardly think so.'
'I notice some of the sailorboys giving her the glad eye,' said the Surgeon affably. 'Pretty little thing if she didn't wear so much black.'
'She was bereaved of her husband not too long ago,' said Merridith. 'So she probably shan't notice the sailorboys I should think.'
'Oh dear, oh dear. Hard thing at her age.'
Wine was poured. Bread was offered. A steward brought a tureen and began to serve the vichyssoise.
Lord Kingscourt was finding it difficult to concentrate. A worm of pain corkscrewed slowly through his groin: a stone-blind maggot of piercing venom. He could feel his shirt sticking to his shoulders and abdomen. The Dining Saloon had an ashy, stagnant atmosphere, as though pumped dry of air and filled up with pulverised lead. Against the cloying odour of meat and over-bloomed lilies another more evil stench was trying to gain. What in the name of Christ was that filthy smell?
The Surgeon had clearly been in the middle of one of his interminable stories when Merridith had arrived. He resumed telling it now, chuckling expansively, enfeebled by duckish clucks of self-amusement as he gaped around at the dutifully simpering company. Something about a pig who could talk. Or dance? Or stand on its hind legs and sing Tom Moore. It was an Irish peasant story anyway: all of the Surgeon's were. Gintilmin. Sorr. Jayzus be savin' Yer Worship. He tugged his invisible forelock and puffed out his cheeks, so juicily proud of his facility for imitation. It was something Merridith found hard to stomach, the way the prosperous Irish were never done lampooning their rural countrymen: a sign, they often claimed, of their own maturity on matters national, but in truth just another form of cringing obsequiousness.
'Will you tell me now,' the Surgeon chortled, his bright eyes streaming with excess of mirth, 'where else could that happen but darlin' auld Oirland?'
He spoke the last three words as though in inverted commas.
'Wonderful people,' agreed the heavily perspiring Mail Agent. 'A marvellous logic all their own.'
The Maharajah said nothing for a few long moments, grim-faced and bored in his stiff robes. Then he muttered a few gloomy syllables and snapped his fingers to his personal butler who was standing like a Guardian Angel a few feet behind him. The butler brought over a small silver box, which the Maharajah reverently opened. Out of it he took a pair of spectacles. He looked at them for a moment, as though surprised to have found them there. Cleaned them with a napkin and put them on.
'You'll remain at New York for some time, Lord Kingscourt?'
It took a moment for Merridith to realise whom the Captain was addressing.
'Indeed,' he said. 'I mean to go into business, Lockwood.'
Inevitably Dixon gave him a look. 'Since when did the gentry stoop to working for a living?'
'There's a famine in progress in Ireland, Dixon. I assume you stumbled across it on your visit there, did you?'
The Captain gave an apprehensive laugh. 'I'm sure our American friend meant no offence, Lord Kingscourt. He only thought - '
'I'm quite aware of what he thought. How can an Earl be fallen low as a tradesman? In a way my dear wife often thinks the same thing.' He looked across the table at her. 'Don't you, Laura?'
Lady Kingscourt said nothing. Her husband went back to his soup. He wanted to eat it before it cagulated.
'Yes. So you see my predicament, Dixon. Not a man on my estate has paid rent for four years. My father's death leaves me with half of all the bogland in southern Connemara, a great deal of stones and bad turf, a greater deal of overdue accounts and unpaid wages. Not to mention the considerable duties owing to the government.' He broke a piece of bread and took a sip of wine. 'Dying is rather expensive,' he smiled darkly at the Captain. 'Unlike this claret. Which is muck.'
Lockwood glanced uneasily around the table. He wasn't accustomed to dealing with the aristocracy.
A young woman had begun to pluck the ornate harp that was sitting near the dessert table in the middle of the saloon, beside the dripping ice sculpture of Neptune Triumphant. The melody sounded tinny and just slightly out of tune, as harp music habitually sounded to Merridith, but she played with a seriousness he found affecting. He wished the Dining Saloon were empty except for himself and the young woman. He would have liked to sit there and drink for a while: drinking and listening to the out-of-tune music. Drinking until he felt nothing.
Connors? Mulligan? Lenihan? Moran?
Earlier in the day, through the cast-iron bars that fenced off the people of steerage from their betters, he had noticed a man he had often seen in the streets of Clifden. The fellow was in chains, and either drunk or half mad, but Merridith still recognised him, he wasn't mistaken. He was a tenant of Tommy Martin's at Ballynahinch. Apparently - so the Methodist minister from Lyme Regis had said - he had been flung in the lock-up for being drunk and violent. Merridith had been quite astounded to hear it. That wasn't at all how he remembered him.
Corrigan? Joyce? Mahony? Black?
He would come in to Clifden on a Monday morning to sell turnips and kale with father, a smallholder: a pugnacious little jockey of a typical Galwayman, full of spit and strength and snap. What the hell was his name? Fields? Shields? A widower, anyway. Wife died in '36. He'd scraped a living for himself and seven children out of a perch of quartzite shale on the slopes of Bencollaghduff. Ridiculous to say, Merridith had often envied them.
He knew himself how ridiculous that was. And yet the father was clearly so proud of his son. There was a tenderness between them, an embarrassed affection, even though they were never done goading each other. The farmer would accuse his son of idleness; the son would retort that his father was a drunken gawm. The man would clip his son across the head; the son would fling a half-rotten turnip at him. The women of Clifden would congregate around their rickety stall as much to watch them trade imprecations as to buy what meagre goods they offered. Abusing each other had become a kind of pantomime. But Merridith knew that was all it was.
Very early one December morning, driving the phaeton to meet his sister off the mail-coach at Maam Cross, he had seen them kicking a ragged football in the middle of the empty marketplace. The morning was still: a little misty. Their stall had been set up near the gates of the church, the turnips polished like gleaming orbs. The whole town was asleep except for the father and son. Leaves were drifting in the deserted streets; the fields in the distance were silvered with dew. He remembered it all now, as he sat in the Dining Saloon, plunging through the rolling darkness of the sea. The strange beauty of everything in the Connemara morning. Their shadowed forms gliding through the mist like celestial beings. The thuk as one of them would hoof into the ball. The muffled shouts. The impish obscenities. The extraordinary music of their unrestrained laughter echoing against the high black walls of the church.
In all his childhood Lord David Merridith had never kicked a football with his own father. He wasn't sure his father would have recognised a football. He remembered saying as much to his sister when he met her off the Bianconi that morning, weighed down with Christmas parcels and boxes of candied fruits; brimming with news and gossip from London. The way she had laughed and agreed with his remark. Probably, Emily said, if Papa had ever seen a football, he would have rammed it into a cannon and tried to shoot it at a Frenchman.
He wondered where his father was now. His body was buried in the churchyard at Clifden; but where was he? Was there any shred of truth to it, after all, the pietistical absurdity of life after death? Could the story be metaphor for some other, more scientific reality? Would the sages of the coming times be able to decode the allegory? And if such a truth existed, how did it work? Where was Heaven? And where was Hell?
Am I all my fathers? Are they all me?
Three weeks before embarking on the Star of the Sea, Merridith had locked up the house in which he and his father and grandfather had been born, shuttered up its shattered windows, closed it and locked it for the last time. He had handed the keys to the valuer from Galway and walked around the empty stables for a while. Not a single former tenant had turned up to see him off. He had waited until dusk but nobody had come.
Accompanied by his bodyguard - the man had insisted - he had ridden out from Kingscourt to visit his father's grave at Clifden, only to find that it had been desecrated again. The granite sea-angel had been smashed in two, the words ROTTIN BASTARD whitewashed across the tombstone, along with the emblem of those who had put them there. His grandfather's grave and those of the ancestors had all been marked with the splattered badge of their loathing. Merridith's own name appeared on several of the stones, and those ones, too, had been defaced. His mother's tomb alone had not been touched, a pardoning which had merely made the despoliation around it seem starker. But looking at the scene, he had been able to feel nothing. Only the misspelled words had truly taken his attention. Did they mean that his father was rotten or rotting?
He wondered about that now: the awful inadequacy of his response. And what precisely had they meant to say, these men who had ruined his father's grave? Their symbol was an H enclosed in a heart, but what heart was it that could violate the dead? 'Hibernian Defenders', his bodyguard had explained; the name the local troublemakers gave to themselves. Another name they went by was 'the Liable Men', primarily because they dealt out liability; also they were gruesomely reliable in doing so. And Merridith had quietly pretended not to know these etymologies already, had feigned his usual interest in the customs of the indigenous, as though the constable had been enlightening him about jig steps or fairytales. Had they truly hated his father quite so much? What had he done to deserve their repugnance? Yes, he had been an inflexible landlord, in te latter years especially; that was undeniable. But so had most other landlords in Ireland, and in England too, and everywhere else: some far worse and many more cruel. Didn't they know, these night-stalking mutilators, how much his father had tried to do for them? Couldn't they understand he was a man of his time, a conservative by instinct as well as politics? That politics and instinct were often the same thing, in the pebbled fields of Galway, in the statued halls of Westminster. Probably in every other place, too. 'Politics' the polite word for antediluvian prejudices, the rags put on by enmity and tribal resentment.
For some reason Merridith found himself thinking about his children: a memory of his younger son as a baby, sobbing in the night with the pain of teething. The puppet-stuffed nursery in the London house. Stroking the child's head. Holding his hand. A blackbird hopping on the rain-spattered windowsill. The tiny fingers tendrilling around his own, as though mutely to plead, 'stay with me'. Like Christ in the garden. Watch with me one hour. The heart-rending smallnesses we finally want. Strange thought that Merridith's father had been a baby once. And in the minutes before he died he had seemed so again; that vast, indignant, iron-hearted seaman whose portrait hung in galleries all over the empire. He had reached out his frail, white hand to David Merridith and squeezed his thumb as though trying to break it. There was fear in his eyes; gleaming terror. And David Merridith had wanted to say, It's all right. I'll stay with you. Don't be afraid. But he had not been able to say anything.
As though waking from a sleep that has lasted too long, he realised the people around him were talking about the Famine.
The Mail Agent was loudly contending with Dixon. 'The landlords aren't all bad, you know, dear boy. Many of them subsidise their tenants to emigrate.'
The American scoffed. 'To rid their estates of the weakest and keep the best.'
'I suppose they must run their lands as a proper business,' attempted the Captain. 'It's a hard thing for everyone, but there it is.'
The thrown-back glower was wholly predictable. 'And is it proper business to accommodate the steerage passengers as you have on this vessel?'
'The passengers are treated as well as my men can hope to treat them. I must work within the constraints laid down by my owners.'
'Your "owners", Captain? And who might those be?'
'I mean the owners of the ship. The Silver Star company.'
Dixon nodded grimly, as though having expected the answer. He was the kind of radical, so Merridith assumed, who is secretly relieved that injustices exist; morality being so easily attainable by saying you found them outrageous.
'He has a point, Lockwood,' the Surgeon said. 'Those people down in steerage aren't Africans, after all.'
'Nig-nogs are cleaner,' the Mail Agent chuckled.
The Surgeon's sister emitted a hiccup of tipsy laughter. Her brother gave her an admonishing glance. Quickly she arranged her features into an expression of sorrow.
'Treat a man like a savage and he'll behave like one,' Merridith said. His voice had a tremble that frightened him a little. 'Anyone acquainted with Ireland should know that fact. Or Calcutta or Africa or anywhere else.'
At the mention of Calcutta some of the company surreptitiously glanced at the Maharajah. But he was busy blowing on a spoonful of soup. A surprising thing to do, perhaps, given that the soup was already chilled.
Grantley Dixon was staring at Lord Kingscourt now. 'That's rich, Merridith, coming from you. I don't know how a member of your class can sleep at night.'
'I sleep very well, I assure you, old thing. But then I always peruse your latest article immediately before retiring.'
'I am aware that your Lordship has learned how to read. Since you wrote to my editor to complain about my work.'
Merridith gave a low-lidded, disdainful grin. 'Sometimes I even snore a little and keep my wife awake in bed.'
'David, for heaven's sake.' Lady Kingscourt was blushing. 'Such talk at the dining table.'
'Quite a sight, the periodic eruption of Mount Dixon the Lesser. As for when your long-awaited novel finally delights us all by appearing, no doubt I shall find it as conducive to tranquillity as the rest of your effusions. I dare say I shall sleep like Endymion, then.'
Dixon didn't join in the round of uneasy laughter. 'You keep your people in abject penury, or near it. Break their backs with work to pay for your position, then put them off the land with no compensation when it suits you.'
'No tenant of mine has been put off the land without compensation.'
'Because there's hardly anyone left to put off it, since your father evicted half of his tenants. Consigned them to the workhouse or death on the roads.'
'Dixon, please,' said the Captain quietly.
'How many of them are in Clifden Workhouse tonight, Lord Kingscourt? Spouses kept apart as a condition of entry. Children younger than your own torn from their parents to slave.' He reached into the pocket of his tuxedo and pulled out a notebook. 'Did you know they have names? Would you like me to list them? Ever once visited to read a bedtime story to them?'
Merridith's face felt as though it were sun-scorched. 'Do not dare to impugn my father in my presence, sir. Never again. Do you understand me?'
'David, calm down,' his wife said quietly.
'My father loved Ireland and fought for her freedom against the vicious scourge of Bonapartism. And I have used what you term "my position", Mr Dixon, to make strenuous argument for reform of the workhouses. Which would not be there at all to offer what help they do were it not for the likes of my father.'
Dixon gave a barely audible scoff. Merridith's tone was becoming more strident.
'I have spoken about the matter frequently, in the House of Lords and other places. But I shouldn't suppose your readers would be interested in that. Rather tittle-tattle and muck-raking and simplistic caricatures.'
'I represent the free press of America, Lord Kingscourt. I write as I find and I always will.'
'Don't delude yourself, sir. You represent nothing.'
'Gentlemen, gentlemen,' the Captain sighed. 'I implore you. We have a long voyage ahead, so let us leave aside our differences and remain good friends and companions together.'
Silence settled over the discomfited company. It was as though an uninvited guest had sat down at the table but everyone was too embarrassed to mention the fact. A dribble of unenthusiastic applause sounded through the saloon as the harpist finished a sentimental Celtic melody. Dixon pushed his plate away desultorily and downed a glass of water in three quick gulps.
'Perhaps we shall postpone the politicaldiscussion until later in the evening when the ladies have retired,' the Captain said, forcing a laugh. 'Now. More wine, anyone?'
'I have done all I can to improve the situation of those in the workhouses,' Merridith said, trying to keep his tone steady. 'I have lobbied, for example, to relax the conditions for admission. But this is a very difficult question.' He allowed himself to meet Dixon's now unmeasurable gaze. 'Perhaps you and I can have a talk about it on another occasion.' He added once more: 'it's a difficult question.'
'It certainly is,' Merridith's wife said suddenly. 'Unless strict conditions are imposed they take advantage of the help offered them, David. The conditions should be a great deal stricter, if anything.'
'That is not the case, dear, as I have told you previously.'
'I believe it is,' she calmly continued.
'No, it isn't,' said Merridith. 'And I have corrected you on this question before.'
'Otherwise we merely encourage that same idleness and dependency which have only led to their present misfortune.'
Merridith found his anger rising again. 'I'll be damned if I'll be given lectures on idleness by your good self, Laura. Damned, I say. Do you hear me now?'
The Captain put down his cutlery and gazed bleakly at his plate. At the next table the Methodist minister turned to give an owlish stare. Dixon and the Mail Agent sat very still. The Surgeon and his sister bowed their heads. The Maharajah continued quietly eating his soup, a soft whistle through his teeth as he blew on it.
'Permit me to apologise,' Lady Kingscourt said hoarsely. 'I am feeling a little unwell this evening. I believe I shall go to take some air.'
Laura Merridith rose stiffly from the table, dabbing her lips and hands with a napkin. The men half-stood and bowed as she went, all except her husband and Maharajah Ranjitsinji. The Maharajah never bowed.
He removed his spectacles, breathed carefully on to the lenses and began wiping them scrupulously on the hem of his golden scarf.
The Captain waved over one of the stewards. 'Go after the Countess,' he quickly muttered. 'Make sure she stays behind the First-Class gates.'
The man nodded his understanding and left the saloon.
'Natives restless, are they?' the Mail Agent smirked.
Josias Lockwood made no reply.
'Tell me something, Captain,' said the Maharajah with a perplexed frown. Everyone at the table gaped at him now. It was as though they had forgotten he was capable of speech.
'That pretty young lady who is at present playing the harp?'
The Captain gave an embarrassed look.
'You shall enlighten me, I know, if I am speaking in error.'
'But isn't she actually...the Second Engineer?'
Everyone turned or stretched to stare. The harpist's hands were sweeping across the loom of strings, weaving a climax of ardent arpeggios.
'By the holy powers,' said the Mail Agent uneasily.
The Surgeon's sister made an attempt at laughter. But when nobody joined in, she suddenly stopped.
'It didn't seem right to have a man,' the Captain murmured. 'We do like to keep up appearances on the Star.'
Copyright © Joseph O'Connor 2002
First published in Great Britain by Secker & Warburg
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