Chapter Two of an old fashioned adventure. The hero prepares to cross the Atlantic.
|It had happened so often in the past that I really should have learned my lesson, but do we ever when our friends are concerned? Elly, true to his nature, hadn’t been quite straight with me. It’s not that he’d lied, he just hadn’t told me the complete truth.
I arrived at Liverpool Dock, a dingy and dirty God-awful place, at lunchtime on a rainy Friday. My luggage, newly purchased and containing everything I needed for tropical climes, and all charged to my unknowing brother’s account, had been sent ahead and had hopefully preceded me to the docks. All I had with me was a Gladstone bag which held my more personal items. The harbour office was naturally closed, so I had to wait around, kicking my heels in the rain for an increasingly anxious twenty minutes, before someone turned up and let me in. I duly signed for the package waiting for me from Elly, and the clerk begrudgingly gave me directions to the ‘Solemar.’
“German ship, that sir,” he said. “Hamburg American Line.” He seemed to be questioning why an Englishman such as myself would be wanting to travel on a German ship. Well, let him wonder. It was none of his damned business anyway.
“Yes, that’s the one,” I said.
“Far end of the quay, sir, you can’t miss her,” he said, smiling as if grateful it was all the way down there away from him as it could be. The porter pushing the trolley with my trunks seemed quite worn out when we arrived, but perked up really well when I gave him a large tip and walked away whistling. I was left on my own, dwarfed by the 'Solemar'. So this was the ship that was going to take me across the Atlantic. To be honest, I was relieved at the size of the thing, and, to add to my relief, the rain had stopped. At the bottom of the gangplank, a tall, erect man in a crisp white uniform greeted me with a smile and a salute while at the same preventing me boarding.
“Good afternoon, sir,” he said in a strong North American accent, which surprised me. It was a German ship, after all, as the clerk had pointed out to me. I said as much. “Oh, it’s a mixed German and American crew, sir, with Captain Schultze in charge. He’s been with the line for years.” Another good sign, I thought to myself. A man of experience who’s bound to know what he’s doing. My feelings must have shown on my face. “I take it this is the first time you’ve crossed, sir?” I nodded.
“The Atlantic, sir.”
“Is it that obvious?”
“Yes, sir, but you’ll enjoy New York. My home town, and a grand place.” I nodded again, and then his words slowly sank in. New York? That wasn’t where I was going.
“I’m actually booked to travel with the ship all the way to Venezuela,” I said, hoping to impress him. It didn’t work.
“No, sir. The Solemar’s going to New York,” he insisted. “We get a couple of days’ shore leave, then back across to Europe.”
“I’m going to Venezuela,” I said more firmly, although for the life of me I couldn’t remember the name of the port I was sailing to, or even if Elly had told me. Even so, as the passenger, I felt fairly confident as to where I was going. It was the reason for my journey that was eluding me. Just as the officer was about to speak again, a hand tapped me lightly on the shoulder, and I turned. A well-dressed gentleman stood behind me, carrying a cane and a small briefcase. Somehow he managed to tip his hat to me despite his encumbrances. I returned the polite gesture.
“May I be of some assistance?” he asked in heavily accented English.
“I was just about to explain to the gentleman, sir,” the American began, but the newcomer silenced him with a wave of his cane. Obviously a man used to being obeyed. It was quite apparent that the ship’s officer didn’t like him.
“I will explain to Herr Nicholson over a drink on-board,” he said. His words at least settled the accent: German, but how he knew my name was another matter. “Come,” he said to me, “we will be much more comfortable in the passenger lounge.” He pushed past the American, who to my surprise saluted him. My new companion turned and spoke to him again, quite sharply, in my opinion. “See to Herr Nicholson’s luggage, will you?” he said, just as if the man were some porter and not a ship’s officer. I explained that my luggage had been sent on ahead and would almost certainly already be in my cabin and we climbed the gangplank into the side of the ship.
By the time we reached the passenger lounge, if you could call it that, as I believe the porter’s room at my club was bigger and more comfortable looking, I had come to the conclusion that my companion was a charming gentleman and had learned he was actually a director of the shipping line, which at least gave some reason for his attitude towards the officer on the dock. It also explained how he knew my name, as presumably he had access to the passenger list, on which I would have been the only entry, apart from himself. However, it wasn’t until we sat with drinks in our hands that he introduced himself as Johan Wittstein. He said he was something in the German diplomatic service, but I didn’t actually gather what. He turned out to be a charming and likeable man, despite my initial reservations. You see, if you believed the press and what was in the newspapers, then Germans as a race weren’t to be trusted any further than you could throw them, which in my case wasn’t very far at all. And more, if you were an avid reader of Punch magazine, which I happily admit I am, then every single German was a monocled, spiked helmet wearing megalomaniac who kicked his legs up in the air when he marched – which they did a lot, apparently. Herr Wittstein was none of these things, thankfully, not that there was a lot of space on the ‘Solemar’ for marching. Nor was he a Count, which was a little bit of a disappointment; every German I’d read about seemed to be a Count von something or other.
The voyage wasn’t a bad one. We did have one bad storm just after rounding the southern tip of Ireland and into the Atlantic proper. It lasted all of one day and into the following night, and naturally I suffered from a bad bout of seasickness. I was convinced it was likely to be fatal and that my time had come, but my American steward, with a rather cruel lack of sympathy for my condition, assured me it was nothing out of the ordinary, and gave me the distinct impression that all I was doing was making a fuss and that I should get up and get on with it. Apart from that short period of being confined to my cabin, I spent the voyage in Herr Wittstein’s company and was rather sad to hear him say that we would be parting in New York.
I didn’t enjoy my two day stay in New York. This was despite having been told just before I boarded the ship that it was a grand place. I found it brash, noisy and just too busy for my taste. The hotel was comfortable, and I couldn’t fault the service, but you just couldn’t get a decent cup of tea anywhere, which had me missing dear old Mrs Merchant, of all people. Actually boarding a ship for the second part of the journey – another Hamburg American ship, incidentally – was a relief.
It was a quiet and relaxing few days steaming down the North American coastline before entering the tropics and continuing down through Central America, calling in at all sorts and sizes of ports whose names I never knew and never bothered to enquire. There was a simple explanation for this, and the main reason for it being a quiet voyage. The entire crew was German, none of whom except one officer spoke any English, the only language I could speak. He was a taciturn, reclusive man, who soon after I boarded in New York made it perfectly clear he had no interest in talking to me. I didn’t take it to heart and it just seemed better for all concerned if I kept myself to myself, even though I’ve never really been one to enjoy my own company. Still, the days passed and, as happens with journeys, we finally reached our destination where I would have someone to talk to and hopefully an explanation for my travels.