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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesShawl-straps - Chapter 1. Off
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Shawl-straps - Chapter 1. Off Post by :add2it Category :Long Stories Author :Louisa May Alcott Date :May 2012 Read :1214

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Shawl-straps - Chapter 1. Off

Chapter I. OFF

'On the first day of February we three will sail from Boston for Messina, in the little fruit-ship "Wasp." We shall probably be a month going, unless we cross in a gale as I did, splitting sails every night, and standing on our heads most of the way,' said Amanda, folding up her maps with an air of calm decision.

'Hurrah! what fun!' cried Matilda, waving a half-finished dressing-case over her head.

But Lavinia, with one sepulchral groan, fell flat upon her bed, and lay there, dumb with the horrors of such a voyage.

'Just the thing for you, my poor old dear. Think of the balmy airs of Sicily, the oranges, the flowers. Then a delicious month or two at Sorrento, with no east winds, no slush, no spring cleaning. We shall be as merry as grigs, and get as buxom as dairy-maids in a month,' said the sprightly Amanda.

'You promised to go, and if you back out we are lost, for we _must have a duenna. You can lie round in Europe just as well as here, and I have no doubt it will do you a world of good,' added Matilda.

'I shall keep my word; but you will bury me in the Atlantic, so make up your minds to it. Do you suppose that I, a poor, used-up old invalid, who can't look at a sail-boat without a qualm, can survive thirty days of standing on my head, and thirty nights of sail-splitting, as we go slamming and lurching across two or three awful oceans?' demanded Lavinia, with the energy of despair.

Before anyone could reply, Amanda's little Mercury appeared with a note.

'The "Wasp" will _not take passengers, and no other fruit-ship sails this spring,' read Amanda.

'Oh dear!' sighed Matilda.

'Saved!' cried Lavinia.

'Be calm: we shall go, sooner or later, if I buy a ship and sail her myself;' with which indomitable remark Amanda went forth to grapple with and conquer untoward circumstances.

A month of plans, vicissitudes, and suspense followed, during which Amanda strove manfully; Matilda suffered agonies of hope and fear; and Lavinia remained a passive shuttlecock, waiting to be tossed wherever Fate's battledore chose to send her.

'Exactly two weeks from to-day, we sail with a party of friends in the French steamer "Lafayette," from New York for Brest. Will you be ready?' demanded Amanda, after a protracted wrestle with aforesaid adverse circumstances.

'But that is exactly what we didn't mean to do. It's expensive and fashionable; France and not Italy, north and not south.'

'That's because I'm in the party. If you take a Jonah nothing will go well. Leave me behind, and you will have a charming trip,' said Lavinia, who had an oyster-like objection to being torn from her bed.

'No matter, we are going, live or die, sink or swim; and I shall expect to meet you, all booted and spurred and fit for the fight, April first,' said the unwavering Amanda.

'A most appropriate day for three lone women to start off on a wild-goose chase after health and pleasure,' groaned Lavinia from among her pillows.

'Very well, then; I leave you now, and shall expect to meet on the appointed day?'

'If I'm spared,' answered the sufferer.

'I'll bring her, never fear,' added the sanguine Mat, as she rattled the trays out of an immense trunk.

How they ever did it no one knows; but in a week everything was ready, and the sisters had nothing left to do but to sit and receive the presents that showered upon them from all quarters. How kind everyone was, to be sure! Six fine dressing-cases arrived, and were hung upon the walls; four smelling-bottles--one for each nostril; bed-socks, rigolettes, afghans, lunch-baskets, pocket-flasks, guide-books, needle-cases, bouquets in stacks, and a great cake with their names on top in red and blue letters three inches long.

Friendly fingers sewed for them; even the gentlemen of the house--and there were eight--had a 'bee,' and hemmed handkerchiefs for Mat, marked towels; and one noble being actually took off his coat and packed the trunks in layers of mosaic-work wonderful to behold. A supper celebrated the last evening; and even the doleful Lavinia, touched by such kindness, emerged from her slough of despond and electrified the ball by dancing a jig with great spirit and grace.

Devoted beings were up at dawn to share the early breakfast, lug trunks, fly up and down with last messages, cheer heartily as the carriage drove off, and then adjourn _en masse to the station, there to shake hands all round once more, and wave and wring handkerchiefs as the train at last bore the jocund Mat and the resigned Lavinia toward the trysting-place and Amanda.

All along the route more friends kept bursting into the cars as they stopped at different places; more gifts, more hand-shakes and kisses, more good wishes and kind prophecies, till at last in a chaos of smiles, tears, smelling-bottles, luncheon, cloaks, books, and foot-warmers, the travellers left the last friendly face behind and steamed away to New York.

'How de-licious this is!' cried the untravelled Matilda, as they stepped upon the deck of the 'Lafayette,' and she sniffed the shippy fragrance that caused Lavinia to gasp and answer darkly,--

'Wait till to-morrow.'

While Mat surveyed the steamer under the care of Devoted Being No. 10, who appeared to see them off, Lavinia arranged the stateroom, stowing away all useless gear and laying forth dressing-gowns, slippers, pocket-handkerchiefs, with an anguished smile. _She had crossed the ocean twice, and was a wiser, sadder woman for it. At eight she turned in, and ten minutes later Amanda came aboard with a flock of gay friends. But no temptations of the flesh could lure the wary spinster from her den; for the night was rough and cold, and the steamer a Babel of confusion.

'It's perfectly delightful! I wish you'd been there, Livy. We had supper, and songs, and funny stories, and all sorts of larks. There are quantities of nice people aboard, and we shall have a perfectly splendid trip. I shall be up bright and early, put on my scarlet stockings, my new boots, and pretty sea-suit, and go in for a jolly day,' said the ardent Matilda, as she came skipping down at midnight and fell asleep full of rosy visions of the joys of a

Life on the ocean wave.

'Deluded child!' sighed Lavinia, closing her dizzy eyes upon the swaying garments on the wall, and feebly wishing she had hung herself along with them.

In the gray dawn she was awakened by sounds of woe, and peering forth beheld the festive Matilda with one red stocking on and one off, her blonde locks wildly dishevelled, her face of a pale green, and her hands clasping lemons, cologne, and salts, as she lay with her brow upon the cool marble of the toilet-table.

'How do you like it, dear?' asked the unfeeling Lavinia.

'Oh, what is it? I feel as if I was dying. If somebody would only stop the swing _one minute. Is it sea-sickness? It's awful, but it will do me good. Oh, yes! I hope so. I've tried everything, and feel worse and worse. Hold me! save me! Oh, I wish I hadn't come!'

'Shipmates ahoy! how are you, my loves?' and Amanda appeared, rosy, calm, and gay, with her pea-jacket on, skirts close reefed, hat well to windward, and everything taut and ship-shape; for she was a fine sailor, and never missed a meal.

Wails greeted her, and faint inquiries as to the state of things in the upper world.

'Blowing a gale; rain, hail, and snow,--very dirty weather; and we are flying off the coast in fine style,' was the cheerful reply.

'Have we split any sails?' asked Lavinia, not daring to open her eyes.

'Dozens, I dare say. Shipping seas every five minutes. All the passengers ill but me, and every prospect of a north-easter all the way over,' continued the lively Amanda, lurching briskly about the passage with her hands in her pockets.

Matilda dropped her lemons and her bottles to wring her hands, and Lavinia softly murmured--

'Lord, what fools we mortals be, That we ever go to sea!'

'Breakfast, ladies?' cried the pretty French stewardess, prancing in with tea-cups, bowls of gruel, and piles of toast balanced in some miraculous manner all over her arms.

'Oh, take it away! I shall never eat again,' moaned Matilda, clinging frantically to the marble, as the water-pitcher went down the middle with a hair-brush, and all the boots and shoes had a grand promenade round the room.

'Don't speak to me; don't look at me; don't even _think of me for three days at least. Go and enjoy yourself, and leave us to our doom;' with which tragical remark Lavinia drew her curtains, and was seen no more.

Great heavens, what a week that was! Rain, wind, fog; creak, pitch, toss; noise, smells, cold. Broken sleep by day, woe in every variety by night; food and drink a delusion and a snare; society an affliction; life a burden; death a far-off blessing not to be had at any price. Slowly, slowly the victims emerge from the lower depths of gloom, feebly smile, faintly joke, pick fearfully but wistfully at once-rejected dishes; talk about getting up, but don't do it; read a little, look at their sallow countenances in hand-glasses, and speculate upon the good effects of travel upon the constitution. Then they suddenly become daring, gay, and social; rise, adorn themselves, pervade the cabins, sniff the odours of engine and kitchen without qualms, play games, go to table; and, just as the voyage is over, begin to enjoy it.

Alas for poor Lavinia! no such resurrection was possible for her. Long after Mat had bravely donned the scarlet hose, cocked up her beaver and gone forth to festive scenes, her shipmate remained below in chrysalis state, fed by faithful Marie, visited by the ever-cheerful Amanda, and enlivened by notes and messages from fellow-sufferers in far-off cells.

Mr. and Mrs. Harry Walmars, jun., called, and had private theatricals in the passage. Dried-ginger parties were held about the invalid's berth, poems were composed, and conundrums circulated. A little newspaper was concocted, replete with wit and spirit, by these secluded ladies, and called the 'Sherald,' to distinguish it from the 'Herald,' got up by sundry gentlemen whose shining hours were devoted to flirtation, cards, and wine.

'Perfect gentlemen, I assure you, my dear; for, drunk or sober, they wear yellow kids from morning till night, smoke the best cigars, and dance divinely,' as Mrs. Twaddle said, sitting erect in the saloon, shrouded in fur and velvet, with five diamond-rings well displayed, as she recounted the diseases she had enjoyed, and did the honours of a remarkable work-basket, containing eight different sorts of scissors.

'We shall be in to-morrow, so you'd better be digging up the treasures you have buried, you old magpie,' said Mat, appearing to the pensive Livy on the eleventh day.

'The sun is out; come on deck, and help us get up the last edition of our paper. How will this do? Query--If steamers are named the "Asia," the "Russia," and the "Scotia," why not call one the "Nausea?"' added Amanda, popping her head into the den. Lavinia threw a pillow at her, but the undaunted joker continued--

'Also this: Financial--This being a feminine paper, gold is no longer at Pa, but at Ma.'

'Good! Add this: Argument in favour of the Superiority of Women--The sluggard was _not told to go to his uncle.'

'Thank you,' and Amanda departed to twine with her forty-third bosom friend, while Lavinia disinterred, from holes and corners of her berth, money, nuts, and raisins; books, biscuits, and literary efforts much the worse for deluges of soap and daubs of butter.

The cry of 'Land!' on the morrow caused passengers unseen before to appear like worms after a shower; all heroically did up their back hair, put on their best suits, and walked forth with the delusive hope that no one would know how ill they had been.

A French Marquis, with a sickly little son, whose diet of fried potatoes and sour wine accounted for his having the temper of a young fiend, appeared, and were made much of by dear, title-loving Americans.

A Spanish opera-singer, stout, saffron-coloured, and imperious, likewise emerged from obscurity, with a meek little husband, who waited on her like a servant, and a big bald parrot, who swore like a trooper.

Several nuns languished in corners of the saloon, surveying the vanities of life with interest, and telling their beads devoutly when they saw anyone looking at them.

A mysterious lady in green velvet with many diamonds, and a shabby, speechless companion, sailed about the ship, regardless of the rumours told of her--deserted husbands, stolen jewellery, lovers waiting on the other side, and many equally pleasant little tales.

The gentlemen with orange gloves and copper-coloured noses got themselves up in the most superb style, though few were going to land at Brest, and took tender farewells of such ladies as did, each professing desolation and despair at the termination of a twelve days' flirtation.

'I am not fond of dirt, but I could kneel down and kiss this mud, so grateful am I to feel solid ground under my feet, after leading the life of a fly for so long,' said Lavinia with emotion, as the three trudged up the wharf at Brest into a sort of barn which served for a custom-house.

'Now let each sit upon her luggage and clamour till some one comes and examines it, else it will get whisked away heaven only knows where,' ordered Amanda, who was the leader in right of her knowledge of tongues.

Each perched accordingly on her one big trunk, and tried to 'clamour.' But nothing came of it save loss of time and temper, for no one paid the slightest heed to them; and it was maddening to see trunk after trunk passed and sent off, followed by its rejoicing owner. Especially hard to bear was the sight of the green-velvet sinner, who, with a smile or two, won the sternest official to pass her five trunks without turning a key, and sailed away with a scornful glance at the virtuous Three planted on their property and feebly beckoning for help.

'I shall bear this no longer. Mat, sit there and guard the small things, while you and I, Livy, charge boldly among these imbeciles and drag them to their duty;' and Amanda marched away to clutch a cockaded victim by the shoulder with an awe-inspiring countenance.

Lavinia picked out a feeble, gray officer, and dogged him like an Indian, smiling affably, and pointing to her luggage with a persistent mildness that nearly drove the poor man mad.

No matter where he went, or what he did; no matter how thick the crowd about him, or how loud the din; still, like a relentless ghost, that mild old lady was ever at his side, mutely pointing and affably smiling. Of course he gave in, lifted one tray, saw much flannel, nearly blew his venerable nose off sniffing at one suspicious bottle, and slamming down the lid, scrawled a mysterious cross, bowed and fled.

Proudly returning to Amanda, the victorious one found her friend in a high state of indignation; for no officer there would touch her trunk because some American Express had put little leaden stamps here and there for some unknown purpose. Not even in her best French could the irate lady make the thick-headed men understand that it was not a high crime against the nation to undo a strap till some superior officer arrived to take the responsibility of so rash a step.

If they had comprehended the dire threats, the personal remarks, and unmitigated scorn of those three fair travellers, the blue-coated imbeciles would have been reduced to submission. Fortunately the great man came in time to save them from utter rout; for the ladies were just trying to decide whether to go and leave the luggage to its fate, or to haul it forth and depart _vi et armis_, when a stout old party came, saw, said, 'It is nothing; pass the trunk; a thousand pardons, Madame,' and peace was restored.

Instantly the porters, who till then had stood back, eyeing the innocent, black ark, as if it was an infernal machine liable to explode at a touch, threw themselves upon it, bore it forth, and heaving it atop of an omnibus, returned to demand vast sums for having waited so long.

Then was Amanda sublime; then did her comrades for the first time learn the magnitude of her powers, and realise the treasure they possessed. Stowing Matilda and the smaller traps in the bus, and saying to Lavinia, 'Stand by me,' this dauntless maid faced one dozen blue-bloused, black-bearded, vociferous, demonstrative Frenchmen; and, calmly offering the proper sum, refused to add one sou more.

Vainly the drivers perjured themselves in behalf of the porters; vainly the guard looked on, with imposing uniforms, and impertinent observations; vainly Mat cried imploringly, 'Pay anything, and let us get off before there is a mob'--still the indomitable Amanda held forth the honest franc; and, when no one would take it, laid it on the post, and entering the omnibus, drove calmly away.

'What should we do without you?' sighed Lavinia, with fervent gratitude.

'Be cheated right and left, and never know it, dear,' responded Amanda, preparing for another fight with the omnibus-driver.

And she had it; for, unwarned by the fate of the porters, this short-sighted man insisted on carrying the ladies to a dirty little hotel to dine, though expressly ordered to go at once to the station. Nothing would induce them to alight, though the landlord came out in person and begged them to do so; and, after a protracted struggle and a drive all over the town, they finally reached the depot.

Here another demand for double fare was promptly quenched by an appeal to the _chef de station_, who, finding that Mademoiselle was wide awake, crushed the driver and saw justice done.

Exhausted but triumphant, the three at length found themselves rolling slowly towards Morlaix through a green and blooming country, so unlike the New England they had left behind, that they rejoiced like butterflies in the sunshine.

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