The Western Islands
The first day or so of the voyage seemed long to Irma. She could not lie in a steamer chair, and pretend to read, as Aunt Caroline did. She had more than a suspicion that her aunt seldom turned the leaves of her book, and that left to herself she was apt to doze, although each morning Uncle Jim placed beside her chair a large basket containing books and magazines.
“Lean back, Irma,” Uncle Jim would say, “you are not a real bird that you need perch on the arm of your chair. Lean back; I will fix your cushions—as Marion is not here to do this for you,” he concluded mischievously.
“I wonder what Marion does with himself,” interposed Aunt Caroline. “We see him only at meals, and I thought he would be such company for Irma.”
“Irma doesn’t need him,” responded Uncle Jim. “Come, my dear, let us look at the steerage.”
“Don’t go below,” protested Aunt Caroline. “You don’t know what frightful disease you might catch.”
“We’ll only look over the railing,” and Uncle Jim led Irma to a spot where she could look down at the steerage passengers, sitting in the sun on the deck below.
“It’s not very crowded,” explained Uncle Jim, “on the passage to Europe at this season. Most of those you see have a free passage because the authorities fear they may become public charges.”
“No, my dear. Many of them have better food and quarters here than they ever have on shore.”
“Are there many sick among them?”
“The doctor told me of one poor woman who may not live until she reaches the Azores. She has been working in New Bedford, but when the doctors told her she could not live long, she was sure the air of the Western Islands would cure her. So her friends had a raffle, and raised enough for her passage, and a little more for her to live on after her arrival here, at least, that’s what Marion told me.”
“Yes, he takes a great interest in the steerage. I dare say he knows those three ferocious-looking desperadoes in the corner.”
“Well, they might be brigands, might they not? at least judging from their appearance. Most men returning at this season—and not a few of the women, too—are sent back by our Government because undesirable for citizenship.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Irma. “That explains why so many wear strange clothes. They are really foreigners.”
“Yes. The majority of them have probably never even landed.”
As Irma turned away, her interest in the steerage increased rather than lessened. But when she asked Uncle Jim questions, she found he knew little about individuals.
She wished that Marion would talk to her. She believed that he could tell her what she wished to know. But as the days passed Marion did not thaw out. It is true he usually reported the day’s run to Irma, a little ahead of the time when it was marked on the ship’s chart, and if she was not near Aunt Caroline when the steward passed around with his tea and cakes, he would usually hunt her up. But if she began to talk to him, he answered in the briefest words, and did not encourage further conversation.
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