There was no question of expediency. The Boy lay sick in a foreign land, so we went to him. It was full noon when the news came, and nightfall saw us dashing through the murk of a wild mid-December night towards Dover pier, feeling that only the express speed of the mail train was quick enough for us to breathe in.
But even the most apprehensive of journeys may hold its humours. Just at the moment of starting anxious friends assisted a young lady into our carriage. “She was going to Marseilles. Would we kindly see that she got on all right?” We were only going as far as Paris direct. “Well, then, as far as Paris. It would be a great favour.” So from Charing Cross to the Gare du Nord, Placidia, as we christened her, became our care.
She was a large, handsome girl of about three-and-twenty. What was her reason for journeying unattended to Cairo we know not. Whether she ever reached her destination we are still in doubt, for a more complacently incapable damsel never went a-voyaging. The Saracen maiden who followed her English lover from the Holy Land by crying “London” and “A Becket” was scarce so impotent as Placidia; for any information the Saracen maiden had she retained, while Placidia naively admitted that she had already forgotten by which line of steamers her passage through the Mediterranean had been taken.
Placidia had an irrational way of losing her possessions. While yet on her way to the London railway station she had lost her tam-o’-shanter. So perforce, she travelled in a large picture-hat which, although pretty and becoming, was hardly suitable headgear for channel-crossing in mid-winter.
[Illustration: Storm Warning]
It was a wild night; wet, with a rising north-west gale. Tarpaulined porters swung themselves on to the carriage-steps as we drew up at Dover pier, and warned us not to leave the train, as, owing to the storm, the Calais boat would be an hour late in getting alongside.
The Ostend packet, lying beside the quay in full sight of the travellers, lurched giddily at her moorings. The fourth occupant of our compartment, a sallow man with yellow whiskers, turned green with apprehension. Not so Placidia. From amongst her chaotic hand-baggage she extracted walnuts and mandarin oranges, and began eating with an appetite that was a direct challenge to the Channel. Bravery or foolhardiness could go no farther.
Providence tempers the wind to the parents who are shorn of their lamb. The tumult of waters left us scatheless, but poor Placidia early paid the penalty of her rashness. She “thought” she was a good sailor—though she acknowledged that this was her first sea-trip—and elected to remain on deck. But before the harbour lights had faded behind us a sympathetic mariner supported her limp form—the feathers of her incongruous hat drooping in unison with their owner—down the swaying cabin staircase and deposited her on a couch.