The North Atlantic,
One pair of eyes regarded the storms gathering on the horizon without apprehension. Even the sudden drop in temperature of the breeze was received with gladness, a gladness born of childhood memories. Dr. Bernice Vedeen had indeed missed home dearly. Although she would not trade the last three years of her life for anything in the world, every northward degree of latitude seemed to swell her heart a bit more with a heady mixture of excitement and longing.
She had not smiled like this since… when? A moment of self-examination was all it took to retrace that feeling; and the answer was surprising. Had it truly been almost a decade already? She had to accept the truth of that assessment together with the questions it immediately raised about the state of her heart.
That smile was a smile full of anticipation and optimism. It used to be her natural response to an unsolvable problem or an impossible dream suddenly revealing itself to be tractable. It was born of that sense of wonder that her parents had so carefully cultivated in her during her childhood. Had the years stolen away that sense of wonder?
No. That smile was here, now; but like a friend long abandoned it demanded to know why it had been forgotten. Why, indeed? It had shone bright at fourteen when she had announced her life’s dream to her parents. It had declared itself indomitable at sixteen when she had cemented her determination to make that dream a reality. It had sung victory the summer she turned eighteen, when she met Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, and the path to her future, ordained so long ago in a youthful heart, finally became crystal clear.
Bernice had to smile again but this time with the restraint of adulthood and the perspective that the years had provided. She remembered the girl she had been at the beginning and at the end of that summer, and how her dream had almost been derailed. But in the end she had plunged fully into her future. Was it then that she stopped smiling like that? Maybe. After all, there is a time for everything under the Sun. That was the time to forge.
Four years of single-minded determination in America, ushered her into her chosen future as a Physician. And then, with that victory realized, the other dreams she’d held at bay by the force of her will gained voice and claimed their turn. Jonathan had waited for her. His letters from the battle front confessed an even stronger love than the one he had declared that summer four years earlier. She was ready for happiness; instead came mourning.
Six years had gone by since then. Six years. When did they start passing by so swiftly?
She stepped closer to the railing, ever so slightly closer to her destination, to allow the English couple to slip past her on their way to their cabins. Their faces, a mixture of concern and chagrin, revealed that they had just been apprised of the prospects for the rest of their journey. Soon, the balance of the colorful medley of passengers that had ventured that afternoon on deck, was marching past her to their places below. The morning storm’s sudden end had filled many of them with hope for an enduring clearing of the weather. But such was not the case. The force of the wind had just dragged those clouds away.
To anyone raised in these latitudes, familiar with the summer weather of northern England and Europe, the shape and color of the billows on the horizon told the whole story.
She gazed at the retreating crowd with a tinge of amusement. The broad crinolined skirts bounced elastically off the edges of the narrow passageways, like great cloth bells, swinging noiselessly on the fulcra of impossibly narrow waists. Bernice wondered how their fashionable French owners would fare in the event of a true emergency. The American ladies on board were no less extravagantly arrayed but at least they were not constrained by extreme corsets that could only be cinched by a team of maidservants.
Bernice’s simple attire singled her out on that ship. ‘A Florence Nightingale’, the only other Englishman on board had called her last night, as she had passed by his table in the dining room. He was a harmless Dandy, really past the age of wearing garish waistcoats but still amusing in his own way. He had decided to settle the discussion of his companions at table, a trio of elder French socialites, by divining the particulars of Bernice’s family background and occupation.
“Clearly, by your poise and meticulous attention to every detail of propriety, I perceive a noble upbringing. The bronzing of a natural light complexion suggests to me you have spent the last few months laboring in the sun. And the manufacturer’s plaque on your luggage confirms it has been in America.
“Being familiar with the current crisis there, and having observed how your attentions quieted the colics of Madame Joliet’s baby, I have affirmed to my fellow travelers that you are a nurse recently returned from the battlefields of the East coast of America; Virginia perhaps?”
Bernice replied with a smile. “Your powers of observation, Sir, are worthy of a story by Poe. You have the profession right.”
“It explains the practical elegance of your attire.” He congratulated himself as he motioned her to join his circle and started to introduce her.
“Only, the continent and the timing are slightly wrong.”
His eyebrows flickered at her words but he proceeded nonetheless to lift her gloved hand and blow a kiss in the air above it.
She continued. “I have been in Africa.” That caused him to pause. And as he straightened up she went on, “for the past three years. It is a pleasure making your acquaintance, Monsieur…”
“Ah, yes,” he bowed, “Dennis Avermont, Squire.”
“Dr. Bernice Vedeen.” She curtsied to him and then to the ladies.
“Doctor, yes – ah – well. Yes, of course!” In those few words his expression turned from the pleased smile to a speechless embarrassment that culminated with his face flushing red.
Bernice capitalized on it and offered to find him an appropriate physic in her medicine travel chest. The man’s stuttered apology didn’t make it past the eldest lady’s laughter; and soon the whole table joined in the mirth. With a self-deprecating smile Squire Avermont drew back a chair for Bernice, and she dined with them that night.
She nodded at the foursome as they went by with the rest of the crowd. Last night they had been full of questions about the ‘Dark Continent’; and Bernice had been glad to dispel as many myths as possible. In doing so she related the highlights of those three and a half years of her life, how she had finally joined Dr. Livingstone’s party, served at one of his missions, and come to love Africa.
Over those three years the Spaniard had kept their connection alive through correspondence, four times a year. Every time it was delivered by a Portuguese soldier, once or twice by an officer. It was always in the form of a parcel. Inside, the first item was a letter in his hand. She had come to know its lines well: always legible yet swiftly written. The curves of his script and the hint of a tendency to write the ending “s” different from the “s” trapped inside a word were echoes of his foreign upbringing.
She had started noticing those echoes even though they were barely discernible (as if hidden by practice). Another one of them was his accent. Two Spanish families came on board at Marseilles. Their pronunciation of French and English were completely different from Santiago’s. In retrospect, the best she could describe his accent was that it was neutral, betraying no obvious nationality.
His letter always contained his version of the past months’ news of Europe and America. Next in the parcel, below the letter, he included his references, pages of newspapers from all over Europe. And then, at the bottom, there always was a package. One time it had been a full supply of steel syringes from France. More often than not it was laden with trinkets, bric a brac, unusual polished stones or beads, ornamental metal work, all to be used as barter, bribe, or gift for her beloved ‘natives’. The last Christmas the package had been filled with candies.
As much as she appreciated receiving the parcel, she appreciated all the more the gentleman’s subtlety. Another man might have plied her with luxuries, written of his burning devotion, and begged her to return to the civilized world, or better yet offered to come rescue her from that dark world of hardship unsuitable to a woman. Not Santiago. From the very first he had treated her as an equal. His gifts honored her choice and her profession.
The newspapers he included were not required as evidence of the accuracy of his handwritten summary; they were meant to keep open for Bernice a connection to her home and her loved ones, in readiness for the day that she chose to return. Ever since the second parcel he had included Danish newspapers in the mix, always packed next to the ones from Amsterdam. The fact that the Spaniard had ascertained the details of her family tree did not surprise her. In fact, the realization that he had gone to that trouble brought a quiet warmth to her heart, a warmth that made her smile again.
Could she smile thus over the Spaniard? Was her heart declaring that impossible dream tractable? All her reservations about him still stood, both on the grounds of logic and religious conviction, given what she knew. Yet, these years serving under the mantle of Dr. Livingstone had taught her many things, opened her eyes to truths that children sometimes see more clearly than men and women. It is not compromise to live a practical Christianity.
Doctor Livingstone’s approach to his life’s work, though incomprehensible to the Missionary Societies, was firmly grounded in the actual state of things. The kingdom of God may not be of this world but it is in this world that we find the souls we endeavor to lead there. What good is it to offer them comfort on the other side of death if we are not going to try to improve their lives on this side? “To encourage the Africans to cultivate for our markets is the most effectual means, next to the Gospel, of their elevation.” Those were his words.
The reviewer of Livingstone’s book for Harper’s Magazine understood the vision of the man, understood that in his eyes there were many who deserved the title of missionaries besides himself: ‘the man of science who searches after hidden truths, the soldier who fights against tyranny, the sailor who puts down the slave-trade, and the merchant who teaches practically the mutual dependence of the nations of the earth.’
The priesthood of all believers, that’s what Luther had called it. All families, not just the nobles but the humble as well, all professions, not just the priests but every tradesman, aye, even the chimney sweep, all races regardless of the accident of their geographical birth, they all fit into the plan of the Creator. They all did. Who, then, was she to limit the reach of His hand?
Yes, it was alright to smile. She may not be ready to dream but she was ready to see Santiago De Soray in a new light.
“Dr. Vedeen.” The first officer drew her out of her thoughts and back into the reality of the ship. A strong breeze was filling the air with salt spray. “The Captain would like all passengers to return to their rooms or, if you prefer, the shelter of the Saloon.” He waved towards the one in the poop. “We will be docking at Southampton.”
“That storm is in full force over Ireland, isn’t it?”
“Yes, the P&O vessel from Liverpool confirmed it.”
Bernice had witnessed the semaphore communication between the ships earlier that morning. Her silence moved the first officer to amplify.
“With the coal stores as low as they are, the Captain would rather make it to a safe port as quickly as possible.”
“Understandable.” She smiled up at the officer and then she searched her hand purse for an envelope. “Even that eventuality has been accounted for. I am told these days there is rail service all the way to Holyhead.”
It was the officer’s turn to smile at this most unusual passenger. The tenor of the instructions the ship had received, the advance payment, and the fact that by all accounts that precision in planning had extended to every section of her journey would have led anyone to assume that the object of such care was a member of the royal family or at least a foreign dignitary, not this charming, unassuming physician and missionary. “Your Lord Hallowstone has paid attention to every detail.”
“Indeed,” she put away the envelope, “it would appear so.”
She returned to her room, worrying in passing about the between-deck passengers. But a look at the horizon convinced her that they would reach safe port before the storm. She decided to ready her things for what would be the last segment of her journey, planned with mathematical precision by the solicitous Lord Hallowstone.
That was one more mystery to be added to the Spaniard’s account. The attentions bestowed on her by the Portuguese soldiers in Africa spoke of a connection there, a connection that she interpreted as loyalty. But the connections to a British aristocrat, whom she had never met, were on a different scale.
Santiago’s last letter had asked if she would be willing to come meet him in England to render aid in a matter of great importance. Given that he would be interrupting her work in Africa, he offered to cover all her costs, and even the cost of a holiday afterwards in the Netherlands; that she might see her family before returning to her work.
Bernice gladly accepted. The last months had been the hardest of her career. Mrs. Livingstone had returned from England with the intention of joining her husband in the field but was taken suddenly ill at the Cape. Bernice traveled there to see her and offer any comfort she could, but within three months Mary Livingstone had gone to be with her Lord. The blow to Doctor Livingstone was greater than all the trials and hardships he had endured till then. Then adversity struck again within months: the Universities Mission in Malawi, her home base, finally had to close down for lack of resources.
Bernice had prepared herself for that. As fluent in the native languages as Livingstone, she was ready to try to continue her work living among her adopted people. But then the Spaniard’s letter arrived. And its sense of urgency dispelled any guilt that might have lingered over abandoning her work. No, she would not abandon it. But perhaps it was time for a change. She replied in the affirmative to his offer.
As asked, she sent her reply via telegram from Mombassa. And within two days a telegram arrived from the solicitors of Lord Hallowstone of Anglesey. They had been directed to oversee her travel. The next R. M. S. ship bound for England was not due for over a month; therefore they arranged for a series of connected segments.
At every port, starting with her departure from Mombassa, there were agents of his, instructed to ensure her safety and her complete comfort. She traveled first class to Aden; then again first class to Suez. And then a veritable caravan carried her and her things across the length of the great construction site of the Franco-Egyptian canal that would one day reconnect the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea. On the other side, a French Messageries Imperiales ship delayed its departure by half a day waiting for her. The influence of this Lord Hallowstone was most impressive indeed.