Life Among the Savages, Part 13.
One might expect, given the mercurial nature of the sea and the harsh conditions that can often arise therein, that comfort and refinement are rare characteristics whilst sailing, both in the general nature of the voyage itself and in the specific temperaments of crew and passenger, not to mention the normal activities and goings-on that are as necessary in the middle of an ocean as they are when one is firmly positioned on a large and stable land mass. However, during my encirculations of the globe, I have found that it is those very principles of comfort and refinement that are most deeply prized, even by sailors, and the presence of and attention to maintaining a level of terrestrial decorum is often the strongest indicator of a captain who is truly “worth his salt”.
In this arena, Captain Stagg proved his experience and mastery. Given my own adventure thus far, I had to admit that I possessed certain (and I would say very reasonable) reservations concerning the nature of any meal, formal or otherwise, that would be provided to me while aboard the Holy Diver. However, much to the chagrin of my pessimism, the Captain laid out a feast fit for the finest tables of any country manor, and a positive miracle for a meal aboard a vessel several days’ journey into the Pacific. The captain hosted dinner in his own quarters, which were large enough to accommodate the event, and the table was dressed in linens and the food served in silver dishes, with candles set to brighten the dusky space with a soft and fluttering light. Once I arrived – I was the last of the guests, delayed by hygienic tasks which I had neglected due to my coma – the captain served wine, of which I took a small draught, on account of my recovering constitution. In attendance were myself; the widow von Kant; Dr. Blight; Jones; Turner; and of course, the Captain himself.
“Glad you’re finally here, my boy!” Captain Stagg exclaimed, and he moved toward me, but Turner and Jones positioned themselves in such a way that a direct path to me was blocked so the captain’s advance was undone, and instead he waved at me, and I heartily did likewise. The captain bade us to sit, and we chose seats that seemed most sensible for a satisfactory accomplishment of the meal: Captain Stagg at the head of the table; to his right, Jones and to his left, Dr. Blight; and the widow von Kant opposite the captain. Turner and I sat across from one another, immediately to the right and left of the widow respectively. I could not help but feel a surge of elation at the fortuitousness of this seating arrangement, as it not only placed a welcome buffer between myself and the captain for the entirety of the dinner, but also sat me in the closest possible proximity to Mrs. von Kant, a sort of double victory which I saw as a most providential blessing. The widow, as always, was breathtaking in her pulchritude and it acted as a revitalizing tonic to me, as it had when I was in the throes of my infirmity. Even the tapers’ meager light did not obscure her beauty, but instead recast it, so that new elements of its complex and many-faceted nature were revealed to me: the gentle definition of her neck and jawline, the straightness of the bridge of her nose, the sparkling chimeric color of her eyes as the candlelight twinkled in them –
The loud sharp sound of a man clearing his throat shook me from my reverie. I saw Turner glaring at me from across the table. “Butter, please,” he said. I handed him the dish, and he slapped a lump onto a biscuit, which he then shoved at his mouth.
At the behest of Dr. Blight, the passengers were asked to recount the nature and circumstances of their journeys. Naturally I deferred to Mrs. von Kant to share her tale first, for reasons of both courtesy and – I will admit – curiosity, and though I could see she was somewhat reluctant to be focus of our attentions (due to her admirable modesty, I am certain), she acquiesced and began to relate her story, while we enjoyed our first course, a quite serviceable potato broth.
The widow’s husband, the Baron Friedrich Mannheim Dampfwalze Reiniger von Kant, was a wealthy Prussian twenty-two years her elder, and a casual acquaintance of Mrs. von Kant’s parents, who were also of the noble class but of considerably lesser station, and also in dire financial straits. “I only knew of him as a rich man who paid occasional visits to my parents. Beyond greetings and pleasantries, I do not think we ever engaged in conversation. However, around the time of my sixteenth birthday and with little preamble, he proposed marriage. My father and mother made it clear how generous and important the baron’s offer was,” Mrs. von Kant said. “And I, being a dutiful daughter, accepted his proposal.
“Here, though, gentlemen,” she continued, “I must admit I had reservations about becoming a wife to this strange older man. Yes, I was dutiful, and I knew my place in society, as a woman and a daughter. But I was also young and impetuous, and the idea of being bound to a man whom I barely knew seemed profoundly… boring. I hope I am not shocking you with my candidness.” The rest of the table murmured assurances and encouragement, and my words were the most fervent of any of them, for already I had become enraptured by the widow’s tale.
“Luckily for me, my expectations were dashed almost immediately. Have any of you heard of Friedrich? He was a man of unique ambitions, especially for one born into privilege. He insisted that I educate myself, in all manner of fields – literaure, history, the natural sciences – and procured the finest tutors from across Europe to aid me in that mission.”
“Forgive me, Mrs. von Kant,” Captain Stagg interjected, “but in G-d’s name, why? Surely your dearly departed husband’s insistence on your education… well, it is just unseemly for a woman such as yourself to know such things.”
At this point a coy smile appeared on the widow von Kant’s face. “Why, Captain. Does the possibility of a learned, intelligent woman frighten you?”
“Frighten? No. I wouldn’t use that word to describe my feelings. It’s just…” the captain trailed off for a moment. A war was clearly visible within the Captain, between, on one hand, his distaste for Mrs. von Kant’s intellectual pursuits, and on the other, his desire not to offend or upset a fare-paying passenger aboard his own vessel. Finally, Captain Stagg exclaimed “It’s just so bloody unnecessary!” At this point I saw Jones cover his eyes with his hand, and Turner focussed on his soup with profound intensity.
Whatever fears they had about Mrs. von Kant’s reaction to their captain’s words seemed disproportionate, however, as the widow displayed no anger at the captain’s needlessly casual outburst, and in fact seemed amused by his reaction. “I see,” she said, “and what about you, Doctor Blight? Do you share the captain’s prejudices on female education?”
Dr. Blight chuckled as he set down his spoon and said, “Milady, I must admit that your pursuits are untraditional, but I am rarely offended by departures from tradition. As a matter of fact, I often seek them out.” Here the doctor laughed to himself again, though I could not perceive why. “But as a man of science, I must confess a conservative streak, and hope that your personal practices do not supplant the educational traditions concerning the weaker sex. I will readily grant that rare specimens of womanhood can engage in edification of the mind and grapple with the lofty concepts and abstractions that are readily entertained by the weightier male brain, and clearly you are one of these seldom-seen creatures that possesses the capacity. But I fear for my England, and for all of Europe, should some fad of ‘womanly erudition’ take root. The common male brain cannot endure the process of enlightenment. To place the common female brain under the same pressures would surely cause it to seep out their earholes.”
“An interesting perspective, Doctor.” The widow von Kant turned her lovely gaze toward me. “And you?”
For a moment, I was transfixed by the attention of the widow, and had to pause to regain the capacity for speech. When I did, it took great effort to avoid stammering or misspeaking, but eventually I was able to say “Mrs. von Kant, if the pursuit of learning would make all women as charming as you are, then consider me its most stalwart proponent.” There was a moment of silence, broken by a nearly-inaudible Mr. Jones saying “Hmm.”
“Sir, you are too kind,” the widow von Kant said, and I thought I detected a bit of color entering her cheeks, though due to the quality of the candle light in the room it was impossible to determine whether it was blushing or an errant shadow. Mrs. von Kant now turned to the first mate. “Mr. Jones. Do you have any thoughts pertaining to our current debate?”
Jones looked up from his soup, took a long draught from his pipe, removed the pipe from his mouth and said, “I’m just a sailor, ma’am.”
The widow von Kant smiled at Jones. “Of course you are, Mr. Jones,” she said, and continued to smile at him in silence for seven more seconds, before the captain said he hoped he hadn’t offended Mrs. von Kant and apologized if offense had been taken. She assured him no harm had been done.
“Instead, thank you for indulging my flight of intellectual fancy. I did not intend to generate any controversy, merely to engage in a bit of debate. However, our conversation has moved far away from our original topic, so let me return to why I am here aboard the Holy Diver.
“To make the subject more succinct and less contentious, the baron had his intellectual pursuits and he wanted me to share them; hence, my education. We began a long period of travel, moving from country to country all over the world in search of the mysteries that most intrigued him. He adored the sciences and the arts, but other more rarefied fields of study were his true desire. Those realms where empirical knowledge fails, where unknown powers seem to operate beyond our reckoning, the gray and murky regions of the earth and in our minds where humanity may be the plaything of entities we cannot begin to comprehend: these were his greatest love, perhaps his obsession. I speak, of course, of the occult.”
As if timed for the greatest capacity for startlement, at that moment, a great crash resounded in the hall just beyond the door. Combined with the nocturnal dark that had gradually overtaken the cabin, the effect was profound, with Dr. Blight and the captain making loud exclamations and Turner dropping his fifth biscuit on the floor. Even Jones’ eyes were open much wider than I had ever seen them before.
The door to the captain’s cabin creaked open, and from the blackness of the corridor stepped Starkey.
“Beggin’ your pardon, sir. I brought the second course, but I tripped in the dark,” Starkey said.