Journey to the river sea, p.2
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       Journey to the River Sea, p.2

           Eva Ibbotson

  She had reached the gulping stage when she heard a loud snapping noise and turned her head. Miss Minton had opened the metal clasp of her large black handbag and was handing her a clean handkerchief, embroidered with the initial ‘A’.

  ‘Myself,’ said the governess in her deep gruff voice, ‘I would think how lucky I was. How fortunate.’

  ‘To go to the Amazon, you mean?’

  ‘To have so many friends who were sad to see me go.’

  ‘Didn’t you have friends who minded you leaving?’

  Miss Minton’s thin lips twitched for a moment.

  ‘My sister’s budgerigar, perhaps. If he had understood what was happening. Which is extremely doubtful.’

  Maia turned her head. Miss Minton was certainly a most extraordinary-looking person. Her eyes, behind thick, dark-rimmed spectacles, were the colour of mud, her mouth was narrow, her nose thin and sharp and her black felt hat was tethered to her sparse bun of hair with a fearsome hat pin in the shape of a Viking spear.

  ‘It’s copied from the armour of Eric the Hammerer,’ said Miss Minton, following Maia’s gaze. ‘One can kill with a hatpin like that.’

  Both of them fell silent again, till the cab lurched suddenly and Miss Minton’s umbrella clattered to the floor. It was quite the largest and ugliest umbrella Maia had ever seen, with a steel spike and a long shaft ending in a handle shaped like the beak of a bird of prey.

  Miss Minton, however, was looking carefully at a crack in the handle which had been mended with glue.

  ‘Did you break it before?’ Maia asked politely.

  ‘Yes.’ She peered at the hideous umbrella through her thick glasses. ‘I broke it on the back of a boy called Henry Hartington,’ she said.

  Maia shrank back.

  ‘How—’ she began, but her mouth had gone dry.

  ‘I threw him on the ground and knelt on him and belaboured him with my umbrella,’ said Miss Minton. ‘Hard. For a long time.’

  She leant back in her seat, looking almost happy.

  Maia swallowed. ‘What had he done?’

  ‘He had tried to stuff a small spaniel puppy through the wire mesh of his father’s tennis court.’

  ‘Oh! Was it hurt badly? The puppy?’


  ‘What happened to it?’

  ‘One leg was dislocated and his eye was scratched. The gardener managed to set the leg, but we couldn’t do anything about his eye.’

  ‘How did Henry’s mother punish him?’

  ‘She didn’t. Oh dear me no! I was dismissed instead. Without a reference.’

  Miss Minton turned away. The year that followed when she could not get another job and had to stay with her married sister, was one that she was not willing to remember or discuss.

  The cab stopped. They had reached Euston station. Miss Minton waved her umbrella at a porter, and Maia’s trunk and her suitcase were lifted on to a trolley. Then came a battered tin trunk with the letters A. MINTON painted on the side.

  ‘You’ll need two men for that,’ said the governess.

  The porter looked offended. ‘Not me. I’m strong.’

  But when he came to lift the trunk, he staggered.

  ‘Crikey, Ma’am, what have you got in there?’ he asked.

  Miss Minton looked at him haughtily and did not answer. Then she led Maia onto the platform where the train waited to take them to Liverpool and the RMS Cardinal bound for Brazil.

  They were steaming out of the station before Maia asked, ‘Was it books in the trunk?’

  ‘It was books,’ admitted Miss Minton.

  And Maia said, ‘Good.’

  Chapter Two

  The Cardinal was a beautiful ship; a snow-white liner with a slender, light blue funnel. She had two state rooms, a dining room and lots of deck space where people could lie about and drink beef tea or play games.

  ‘Isn’t it lovely?’ said Maia, and she imagined herself standing by the rail with the wind in her face as she watched the porpoises play and the white birds wheel and circle overhead.

  But the beginning of the voyage wasn’t at all like that because after the ship left Lisbon, the Cardinal ran into a storm. Great green waves loomed up like mountains, the ship rolled and shuddered and pitched. Hardly anyone got as far as the dining room, and the doors to the decks were closed so that any passengers still on their legs did not get washed overboard.

  Maia and Miss Minton shared a cabin with two Portuguese ladies who spent their time in their bunks groaning, being sick, praying to the Virgin and begging to die. Maia thought this was going too far, but it is true that being seasick is so awful that people do sometimes wish that the ship would simply sink and put them out of their misery.

  Maia was not seasick and nor was Miss Minton. They did not feel exactly hungry but they managed to get to the dining room, holding onto everything they could find, and to eat some of the soup which the waiters poured into the bowls fastened onto the table with a special gadget that came out in storms. It is difficult not to feel superior when everyone is being ill and you aren’t, and Maia couldn’t help being a bit pleased with herself. This lasted till Miss Minton, hanging onto the saloon rail with her long, black arms, said that this would be a good time to start learning Portuguese.

  ‘We shall be undisturbed.’

  Maia thought this was a bad idea. ‘Maybe the twins would teach me. They must speak it if they’ve been there for so long.’

  ‘You don’t want to arrive in a country unable to make yourself understood. Everyone speaks Portuguese in Brazil. Even the Indians mix it with their own languages.’

  But the lessons did not go well. Miss Minton had found a book about the family of Senhor and Senhora Olvidares and their children Pedro and Sylvina who did all the things that people do in phrase books, like losing their luggage and finding a fly in their soup, but fixing their eyes on a page when the boat was heaving made them feel definitely queasy. Trying to read when you are being tossed about is not a good idea.

  Then on the second day of the storm, Maia made her way to the main state room, where the passengers were supposed to sit and enjoy their drinks and have parties. Miss Minton was helping the Portuguese ladies and Maia wanted to get out of the way.

  It was a huge room with red plush sofas screwed to the floor and long gilt-edged mirrors lining the walls, and at first she thought it was empty.

  Then she saw a boy of about her own age, peering into one of the mirrors on the far wall. He had fair hair, long and curly, and was dressed in old-fashioned clothes – velvet knickerbockers and a belted jacket too short in the sleeves – and when he turned round she saw that he was looking unhappy and afraid.

  ‘Are you feeling sick?’ she asked him.

  ‘No. But I’m getting a spot,’ he said, pointing to his chin. His voice trembled, and to her amazement Maia saw that his big blue eyes had filled with tears.

  ‘It’s not chickenpox,’ said Maia firmly. ‘We just had chickenpox at school and it doesn’t look like that.’

  ‘I know it isn’t chickenpox. It’s a spot because I’m growing up. There’s another one starting on my forehead.’ He lifted his blond curls to show Maia, but at that moment the boat tilted violently and she had to wait till the boy was level with her again to see the small red pimple over his right eye. ‘And the other day my voice suddenly cracked. It went down a whole octave. If it happens on stage, I’m finished.’

  ‘Of course. You came with those actors, didn’t you? The Pilgrim Players,’ said Maia. She remembered now seeing a whole crowd of oddly dressed people getting on at Lisbon, talking at the top of their voices and waving their arms. ‘But surely the spots wouldn’t show under your make-up?’

  ‘I can’t wear make-up on my voice. If it cracks in Little Lord Fauntleroy they’ll throw me out.’

  ‘They won’t do that,’ said Maia firmly. ‘You’re a child. People don’t throw children out like that.’

  ‘Oh, don’t they?’ said the boy. He looked at Maia: her
neat, expensive clothes, her carefully braided hair. ‘You don’t know what it’s like—’

  The boat lurched again, throwing the children against each other, and they struggled towards a sofa fastened to the floor.

  The boy’s name was Clovis King. ‘It’s not my real name. My real name is Jimmy Bates but they changed it when they adopted me.’

  ‘Who did? Who adopted you?’

  ‘The Goodleys. Mr and Mrs Goodley. They own the acting company and they play most of the leads. Then there’s Mrs Goodley’s daughter Nancy – she’s awful – and Mrs Goodley’s sister, and Mr Goodley’s nephew. He’s the stage manager and does the box office. And old Mrs Goodley does the costumes, but she can’t see too well. They found me when they were on their way to York. I was playing cricket on the village green with my friends and they said they’d teach me to act and play juvenile leads – you know, all the children’s parts and the pageboys and all that. Because I had a good voice and could sing and looked right.’

  ‘Didn’t your parents mind?’

  ‘I don’t have any parents. I was living with my foster mother. She cried and cried when I went but the Goodleys said it would be a good chance for me – I could make a lot of money and come back rich and famous. But I don’t make any money because no one ever gets paid, and we’re always in debt and we just trail about from one awful hot place to another.’

  ‘But isn’t it fun – the acting and the travelling?’

  ‘No, it isn’t. We stay in beastly hotels full of bedbugs and the food makes me feel sick. My foster mother used to be a cook in a big house: she made toad-in-the-hole and treacle pudding and custard and I had a clean vest every day,’ said Clovis, and once again his eyes filled with tears. ‘We haven’t been back to England for four years and if they throw me out I’ll never get back there on my own because I haven’t any money.’

  Maia did her best to comfort him, but later when she was alone with Miss Minton she said, ‘Could they do that? Could they throw him out?’

  ‘Unlikely,’ said the governess. ‘It depends on whether they adopted him legally or not.’

  But when the sea became calm again and the passengers came out on deck, they weren’t so sure. The Goodleys were not exactly nasty, but they behaved as if no one existed in the world except themselves.

  Mr Goodley was tall with a red face, white hair and a loud braying voice. Mrs Goodley’s hair was dyed a fierce red and she wore layers of scarves and boas and shawls which got caught in things, and Nancy Goodley, who was nineteen, simpered and minced and ordered everyone about. As well as the Goodleys there was an Italian couple, the Santorinis, who did the music and the dancing, and a very old man whose false teeth were so white that one wanted to blink when one looked at him.

  ‘He’s got another set of teeth for when he plays villains; they’re yellow with black holes in them and they’re terrifying,’ whispered Clovis.

  The first thing Mr Goodley did when all the actors had piled onto the deck was to move away the other passengers who were trying to read or have a game of quoits.

  ‘We must be quite undisturbed for at least two hours,’ he said.

  Then they started doing their acting exercises. Mr Goodley had invented these and he was very proud of them. He had even written a book about them but nobody would publish it.

  First everybody threw out their chests and made the air go from the bottom of their spines to their throats in an ‘Aaah’ sound. Then they flopped forward and wiggled their shoulders and one of Mrs Goodley’s scarves came off. After that they threw their arms out towards the sea and cried ‘Merry to the Right’, while their faces became violently cheerful, and then they threw them in the other direction and cried, ‘Merry to the Left’.

  When they had done ‘Merry to the Right’ and ‘Merry to the Left’, they did ‘Wretched to the Right’ and ‘Wretched to the Left’ and their faces stopped being cheerful and became extremely sad.

  Clovis had to join in with the others but whenever he could, he came over to talk to Maia and Miss Minton and asked them questions about England.

  ‘Do they still play conkers?’ he wanted to know, ‘and make a Guy on Bonfire Day? And what about snowmen? Has there been a lot of snow?’

  ‘Yes, it was good last year,’ said Maia. ‘We always run out when the first flakes fall and try to catch them on our tongues. The first snow tastes like nothing else in the world.’

  Clovis agreed, but the thought of tasting things set him off on what he missed most from England: the food.

  ‘Did you have semolina bake for pudding? The kind with squelchy raisins in it? And what about jam roly-poly . . . and plum duff with cornflour sauce?’

  Maia said, yes, they had all those at school, but she couldn’t help being sorry for Clovis who was so homesick for the stodgy puddings she hoped never to eat again.

  When they had finished their exercises, the company started rehearsing scenes from the plays they were going to do. One of these was the sleepwalking scene from Macbeth. Mrs Goodley was Lady Macbeth, of course, and Maia thought she was very stirring, tottering about all over the place and muttering ‘Out damned spot’ with a terrible leer. So she was rather hurt when Miss Minton, who had been reading, closed her book and got ready to go below.

  ‘Don’t you like Shakespeare?’ asked Maia.

  Miss Minton gave her a look. ‘I rank Shakespeare as second only to God,’ she said. ‘Which is why I am going to my cabin.’

  Clovis didn’t have much to do in Macbeth – Mr Goodley had cut most of the parts with children – but the next day they rehearsed Little Lord Fauntleroy. Maia had read the book. It was soppy, but a good story all the same, and she thought Clovis acted very well. He was the hero, of course, the little American boy who finds he is the heir to a great castle in England owned by his crusty old grandfather, the earl. The boy’s name was Cedric and he called his mother ‘Dearest’ and together they travelled to England and melted the heart of the earl and did good to the tenants and were loved by everyone.

  ‘I thought you were very good,’ said Maia. ‘It can’t be easy to call your mother “Dearest”.’

  ‘No, it isn’t. Especially when she’s Nancy Goodley who’d pinch you as soon as look at you.’

  ‘And your voice didn’t wobble in the least.’

  Clovis looked worried again. ‘It had better not! Beastly Lord Fauntleroy is supposed to be seven years old.’

  He told Maia that they were staying for two weeks in Belem, the first port on the Amazon and then going on to Manaus. ‘It’s a really good theatre there – usually we wouldn’t get a booking in a big place like that but the ballet company who were going to come had to cancel. We’re putting on a matinée of Fauntleroy every day. If it goes well we might be able to clear our debts but if not—’

  ‘Of course it’ll go well. And I’m so glad you’re going to play in Manaus because I’ll be able to come and see you.’

  It seemed to her really sad that a boy should have to worry about getting spots – and that he shouldn’t be at all excited about travelling to the Amazon. They were sailing into warm waters now; the sun shone day after day and the sea was a brilliant blue, but Clovis hated the heat. When he wasn’t following Maia about and asking her about Yorkshire pudding and apple crumble, he lay under a fan and swatted flies and sighed. ‘I must get back to England,’ he said – and made them tell him about tobogganing and skating on frozen ponds, and muffins afterwards for tea. ‘My foster mother made the best muffins in the world,’ he said.

  For Maia it was quite different. When she was small, her parents had taken her along when they went to dig up ancient ruins in Greece and Egypt; she remembered the happiness of being warm even at night and the freedom of the camp. And the closer she got to her destination, the more certain she became that what she had felt there on the ladder in the library was true and that this new country was for her.

  ‘I’m going to stay with twins,’ she told Clovis. ‘Twins are special, don’t you think? Like
Romulus and Remus, though they were brought up by wolves, of course.’

  ‘If they’re nice it’ll be all right,’ said Clovis. ‘But if they’re nasty you’ll have a double dose.’

  ‘They won’t be nasty,’ said Maia.

  When they had been at sea for nearly four weeks, they came on deck one morning to smell not only tar and engine oil, and the salt in the wind, but a warm, rich, mouldering smell. The smell not just of land but of the jungle – and within a few hours they saw a dark line of trees fringed by surf – and then they steamed into the mouth of the river and put down anchor at Belem.

  It was here that the Pilgrim Players left the ship. They disembarked with as many shouts and arm-wavings as when they came on board. Maia and Clovis hugged each other; she was really sorry to see him go. She gave him her address at the Carters’ so that he could come and see her as soon as he arrived in Manaus.

  ‘The name of the house is Tapherini. That means “A Place of Rest”, Miss Minton says, so it’s sure to be beautiful,’ she said. ‘The twins will be excited to see a proper actor.’

  ‘And you’ll come and see me in the play?’

  ‘I promise,’ said Maia. ‘I absolutely promise.’

  Clovis didn’t just hug Maia, he hugged Miss Minton too. It struck Maia that though he was afraid of so many things, he didn’t seem to be afraid of her fierce-looking governess.

  The journey down the Amazon was one that Maia never forgot. In places the river was so wide that she understood why it was called the River Sea and they sailed between distant lines of trees. But sometimes they made their way between islands and then, on the sandbanks, they saw some of the creatures that Maia had read about. Once a litter of capybaras lumbered after their mother and they were close enough to see their funny snouts and sandy fur. Once they passed a tree whose roots had been killed by the rise of the water, and its bare branches were full of scarlet and blue parakeets which flew up, screeching, when the boat came past. And once Maia saw a grey log lying in the shallows which suddenly came to life.

  ‘Oh look,’ she said, ‘A croc— I mean an alligator. My first one!’, and a man standing close by nodded, and said he was glad that she knew there were no crocodiles in this part of the world. ‘You’d be surprised how many people never learn.’

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