On the forenoon of a day in February, 1899, the White Star S. S. Cryptic forced her way from Pier No. 48 out into the Hudson River through a mass of floating ice, which made a moving carpet over the whole river from Poughkeepsie to Sandy Hook. It was little wonder that the hearts of the outwardbound passengers were cheered with hope; outside on the wide ocean there must be somewhere clear skies and blue water, and perchance here and there a slant of sunshine. Come what might, however, it must be better than what they were leaving behind them in New York. For three whole weeks the great city had been beleaguered by cold; held besieged in the icy grip of a blizzard which, moving from northwest to south, had begun on the last day of January to devastate the central North American States. In one place, Breckenridge in Colorado, there fell in five days--and this on the top of an accumulation of six feet of snow--an additional forty-five inches. In the track swept by the cold wave, a thousand miles wide, record low temperatures were effected, ranging from 15° below zero in Indiana to 54° below at White River on the northern shore of Lake Superior.
In New York city the temperature had sunk to 6.2° below zero, the lowest ever recorded, and an extraordinary temperature for a city almost entirely surrounded by tidal currents. The city itself was in a helpless condition, paralyzed and impotent. The snow fell so fast that even the great snow-ploughs driven by the electric current on the tram lines could not keep the avenues clear. And the cold was so great that the street-clearing operations--in which eight thousand men with four thousand carts dumping some fifty thousand tons of snow daily into the river were concerned--had to be suspended. Neither men nor horses could endure the work. The "dead boat" which takes periodically the city's unclaimed corpses to Potter's Field on Hart's Island was twice beaten back and nearly wrecked; it carried on the later voyage 161 corpses. Before its ghastly traffic could be resumed there were in the city mortuaries over a thousand bodies waiting sepulture. The "Scientific editor" of one of the great New York dailies computed that the blanket of snow which lay on the twenty-two square miles of Manhattan Island would form a solid wall a thousand feet high up the whole sixty feet width of Broadway in the two and a half miles between the Battery and Union Square, weighing some two and a half million tons. Needless to say the streets were almost impassable. In the chief thoroughfares were narrow passages heaped high with piled-up snow now nearly compact to ice. In places where the falling snow had drifted it reached to the level of, and sometimes above, the first floor windows.
As the Cryptic forced her way through the rustling masses of drifting ice the little company of passengers stood on deck watching at first the ferry-boats pounding and hammering their strenuous way into the docks formed by the floating guards or screens by whose aid they shouldered themselves to their landing stages; and later on, when the great ship following the wide circle of the steering buoys, opened up the entrance of Sandy Hook, the great circle around them of Arctic desolation. Away beyond the sweep of the river and ocean currents the sea was frozen and shimmering with a carpet of pure snow, whose luminous dreariness not even the pall of faint chill mist could subdue. Here and there, to north and south, were many vessels frozen in, spar and rope being roughly outlined with clinging snow. The hills of Long Island and Staten Island and the distant ranges of New Jersey stood out white and stark into the sky of steel.
All was grimly, deadly silent so that the throb of the engines, the rustle and clatter of the drifting ice-pack, as the great vessel, getting faster way as the current became more open, or the hard scrunch as she cut through some solid floating ice-field, sounded like something unnatural--some sound of the living amid a world of the dead.
When the Narrows had been reached and passed and the flag of smoke from the great chimney of the Standard Oil Refining Works lay far behind on the starboard quarter; when Fire Island was dropping down on the western horizon, all became changed as though the wand of some beneficent fairy had obliterated all that was ugly or noxious in its beneficent sweep. Sky and wave were blue; the sun beamed out; and the white-breasted gulls sweeping above and around the ship seemed like the spirit of nature freed from the thrall of the Ice Queen.
Naturally the spirits of the travellers rose. They too found their wings free; and the hum and clash of happy noises arose. Unconsciously there was a general unbending each to the other. All the stiffness which is apt to characterize a newly gathered company of travellers seemed to melt in the welcome sunshine; within an hour there was established an easiness of acquaintanceship generally to be found only towards the close of a voyage. The happiness coming with the sunshine and the open water, and the relief from the appalling gloom of the blizzard, had made the freed captives into friends.
At such moments like gravitates to like. The young to young; the grave to the grave; the pleasure-lovers to their kind; free sex to its free opposite. On the Cryptic the complement of passengers was so small that the choice of kinds was limited. In all there were only some thirty passengers. None but adventurous spirits, or those under stress of need, challenged a possible recurrence of Atlantic dangers which had marked the beginning of the month, when ship after ship of the giant liners arrived in port maimed and battered and listed with the weight of snow and frozen spray and fog which they carried.
Naturally the ladies were greatly in the minority. After all, travel is as a rule, men's work; and this was no time for pleasure trips. The dominant feeling on board on this subject was voiced in a phrase used in the Chart room where the Captain was genially pointing out the course to a tall, proud old man. The latter, with an uneasy gesture of stroking his long white moustache, which seemed to be a custom or habit at certain moments of emotion, said:
"And I quite agree with you, seh; I don't mind men travelling in any weather. That's man's share. But why in hell, seh, women want to go gallivantin' round the world in weather that would make any respectable dog want to lie quiet by the fireside, I don't know. Women should learn----" He was interrupted by a tall young girl who burst into the room without waiting for a reply to her breathless: "May I come in?"
"I saw you go in, Daddy, and I wanted to see the maps too; so I raced for all I was worth. And now I find I've come just in time to get another lesson about what women ought to do!" As she spoke she linked her arm in her father's with a fearlessness and security which showed that none of the natural sternness which was proclaimed in the old man's clear-cut face was specially reserved for her. She squeezed his arm in a loving way and looked up in his face saucily--the way of an affectionate young girl towards a father whom she loves and trusts. The old man pulled his arm away and put it round her shoulder. With a shrug which might if seen alone have denoted constraint, but with a look in the dark eyes and a glad tone in the strong voice which nullified it absolutely, he said to the Captain:
"Here comes my tyrant, Captain. Now I must behave myself."
The girl standing close to him went on in the same loving half-bantering way:
"Go on, Daddy! Tell us what women should learn!"
"They should learn, Miss Impudence, to respect their fathers!" Though he spoke lightly in a tone of banter and with a light of affection beaming in his eyes, the girl grew suddenly grave, and murmured quickly:
"That is not to be learned, Father. That is born with one, when the father is like mine!" Then turning to the Captain she went on:
"Did you ever hear of the Irishman who said: There's some subjects too sarious for jestin'; an' pitaties is wan iv them? I can't sauce my father, or chaff him, or be impudent--though I believe he likes me to be impudent--to him, when he talks of respect. He has killed men before now for want of that. But he won't kill me. He knows that my respect for him is as big as my love--and there isn't room for any more of either of them in me. Don't you Daddy?"
For answer the old man drew her closer to him; but he said nothing. Really there was no need for speech. The spirits and emotions of both were somewhat high strung in the sudden change to brightness from the gloom that had prevailed for weeks. At such times even the most staid are apt to be suddenly moved.
A diversion came from the Captain, a grave, formal man as indeed becomes one who has with him almost perpetually the responsibility of many hundreds of lives:
"Did I understand rightly, Colonel Ogilvie that you have killed men for such a cause?" The old gentleman lifted his shaggy white eyebrows in faint surprise, and answered slowly and with an easiness which only half hid an ineffable disdain:
"Why, cert'nly!" The simple acceptance of the truth left the Captain flabbergasted. He grew red and was beginning: "I thought"--when the girl who considered it possible that a quick quarrel might arise between the two strong men, interrupted:
"Perhaps Captain, you don't understand our part of the world. In Kentucky we still hold with the old laws of Honour which we sometimes hear are dead--or at any rate back numbers--in other countries. My father has fought duels all his life. The Ogilvies have been fighters way back to the time of the settlement by Lord Baltimore. My Cousin Dick tells me--for father never talks of them unless he has to--that they never forced quarrels for their own ends; though I must say that they are pretty touchy"--She was in turn interrupted by her father who said quickly:
"'Touchy' is the word, my girl, though I fear you use it too lightly. A man should be touchy where honour is concerned. For Honour is the first thing in all the world. What men should live for; what men should die for! To a gentleman there is nothing so holy. And if he can't fight for such a sacred thing, he does not deserve to have it. He does not know what it means."
Through the pause came the grave voice of the Captain, a valiant man who on state occasions wore on his right breast in accordance with the etiquette of the occasion the large gold medal of the Royal Humane Society:
"There are many things that men should fight for--and die for if need be. But I am bound to say that I don't hold that the chiefest among them is a personal grievance; even if it be on the subject of the measure of one's own self-respect." Noticing the coming frown on the Kentuckian's face, he went on a thought more quickly: "But, though I don't hold with duelling, Colonel Ogilvie, for any cause, I am bound to say that if a man thinks and believes that it is right to fight, then it becomes a duty which he should fulfil!"
For answer the Colonel held out his hand which the other took warmly. That handshake cemented a friendship of two strong men who understood each other well enough to tolerate the other's limitations.
"And I can tell you this, seh," said Colonel Ogilvie, "there are some men who want killing--want it badly!"
The girl glowed. She loved to see her father strong and triumphant; and when toleration was added to his other fine qualities, there was an added measure in her pride of him.
There came a tap on the panelling and the doorway was darkened by the figure of a buxom pleasant-faced woman, who spoke in a strong Irish accent:
"I big yer pardon, Miss Ogilvie, but yer Awnt is yellin' out for ye. She's thinkin' that now the wather's deep the ship is bound to go down in it; an' she sez she wants ye to be wid her whin the ind comes, as she's afeard to die alone!"
"That's very thoughtful of her! Judy was always an unselfish creature!" said the Colonel with an easy sarcasm. "Run along to her anyhow, little girl. That's the sort of fighting a woman has to do. And" turning to the Captain "by Ged, seh! she's got plenty of that sort of fighting between her cradle and her grave!" As she went out of the door girl said over her shoulder:
"That reminds me, daddy. Don't go on with that lecture of yours of what women should learn until I come back. Remember I'm only 'a child emerging into womanhood'--that's what you wrote to mother when you wouldn't let me travel to her alone. Some one might kill me I suppose, or steal me between this and Ischia. So it is well I should be forewarned, and so forearmed, at all points!"
The Captain looked after her admiringly; then turning to Colonel Ogilvie he said almost unconsciously--he had daughters of his own:
"I shouldn't be surprised if a lot want to steal her, Colonel. And I don't know but they'd be right!"
"I agree with you, by Ged, seh!" said the Colonel reflectively, as he looked after his daughter pacing with free strides along the deck with the stout little stewardess over whom she towered by a full head.