The evening started badly, although it got better later. I do not even remember lying down when I got back to the cabin after the deck quoits. All I know is that I woke in a panic, covered in cold sweat, when Rufus knocked on the cabin door to remind me that dinner would be in half an hour. It was an old nightmare, being trapped in a room and everybody jeering at me, and trying to push me out of the room, but I could not find the door. I do not know what triggered it, though perhaps it was all the time I spent socialising during and after lunch. I cannot remember the last occasion I spent time in such a large gathering, so perhaps it was a little too much for me. For a while, I just lay there, giving serious consideration to skipping dinner, or having some sent to my cabin. It was a tempting thought, but I dominated myself, and forced myself to get up, wash and change.
I must confess that I approached the dining room with some trepidation, fearing that the nightmare had set me back; that all the old scars would render me unable to enjoy the meal. However, I gritted my teeth, plastered on a smile and went forth. As I came into the dining room, I was handed a glass of sherry. I stood for a moment, regarding the various groups of people, uncertain as to how to introduce myself into any of them. I was saved from this dilemma by Rufus, who appeared at my elbow and piloted me to one group saying that I must come and meet a Mr Sandeman. This person was a rather forbidding looking gentleman with a craggy brow. Rufus introduced me as Mr Cussons, who was also interested in poetry. I must confess I gave Rufus a rather sharp look, which he correctly interpreted as a request for explanation.
“I saw the Coleridge book on your table when I tidied your cabin,” he said. This seemed a little presumptuous of him, but I could scarcely blame him for wanting to help with introductions. He disappeared quickly as Mr Sandeman turned to me and offered his hand.
“Please, call me Malcolm,” he said, in a friendly voice and with a smile that somewhat belied his forbidding appearance. “So you are a fan of the Lake Poets then?” I switched the sherry glass to my other hand and shook his warmly, relieved to have a hopefully neutral subject for discussion.
“Edmund,” I said returning the compliment of placing us on a first name basis. “And yes, I am. Mr Wordsworth in particular being the one I am most familiar with, hence bringing Mr Coleridge along with me on this voyage, as I have neglected him of late.” Soon, we were chatting, along with a couple of other guests of a poetic bent on a variety of subjects, starting with the relative merits of the two poets, their various philosophies and then a discussion of Coleridge’s alleged translation of Faust. I realised how much I had missed these discussions, having not had such since… I stopped and suppressed that thought, not wishing my past to well up and spoil the evening.
All too soon, we were called to table. It was a most unusual arrangement of tables, or so it seemed to me. There was no Captain’s table as such. Of course, he had to sit somewhere, but it appeared that the arrangement was that there would be one or two officers at each table for part of the meal, and they would rotate between courses, so that everybody got a chance to sit with the captain. I had not heard of this arrangement before, but it seemed to fit in well with the other things I had observed. The meal was a most excellent one. I started with escargot, having never had this before. While it was tasty enough, it did seem to me to be a rather chewy way of eating garlic butter. That was followed by an excellent fillet of Dover Sole, a substantial entrecote of beef and topped off with a delicate lemon syllabub. By the time we got to the cheese and biscuits and handing round the port, I was barely able to do more than nibble at a small piece of Gruyere. Curiously, there was no toast to the Queen, but perhaps they do things differently at sea.
One other thing that was different was that the ladies did not retire; at least, they did not retire very far. Permission to smoke was given, with a fine selection of cigars on offer. After dinner entertainment seemed to consist of walks around the promenade deck or assorted games of cards. Being far too replete to remember the rules of most card games, I opted for walking and then, perhaps wearied by all the eating and discussion, retired to my cabin for the night.
This seemed to set the pattern for the rest of the voyage. A leisurely breakfast, followed by assorted recreations until lunchtime, then more recreations until dinner and so on. I took part in a poetry reading with great enjoyment and was even persuaded by Rufus, after he had seen the violin in my luggage, to give a short recital. My fingers were somewhat rusty, so I limited myself to a couple of Paganini’s Caprices and an O’Carolan jig. All of which were well received. For the most part, I coped well, bar one or two times when conversation reminded me of things I would rather forget, but even those were resolved by excusing myself with the need for a short walk in the fresh air.
One thing I did notice was that after the fifth day, members of the party seemed to disappear. When I enquired as to the whereabouts of my poetic friend, as he was one of the first to so disappear, Rufus assured me that all was well, and it was merely that Mr Sandeman and one or two others had reached their destination, having been taken off ship by the jolly boat early in the morning. When I asked about our whereabouts, Rufus deflected my query, telling me not to worry about it, and that he would give me ample notice when it was my turn.
And so it came about, on the seventh night out, when I returned to my cabin after dinner, I found Rufus already engaged in packing my belongings, saying that he would call me at 6am, there to take the jolly boat to my destination. I had no great notion as to our whereabouts, but figured that we had sailed for sufficient time to reach the Mediterranean. The outfit that Rufus had laid out for me looked suitable for a Mediterranean climate, so far as I could tell. I thanked him for his kind attentions during the voyage and again, tried to offer him a gift, which he again declined. He poured me a small measure of brandy for a nightcap and told me to get a good night’s sleep. As I lay there, by now completely unaware of the rumble of the engines and the other, by now familiar noises of the ship, I did wonder what the new day would bring, and soon drifted into a dreamless sleep.