Captain Ravender and first mate Steadiman are bringing the Golden Mary from England to California, for the gold rush, when they run into an iceberg rounding Cape Horn. Crew and passengers make it into boats, as the ship is clearly going down, and row and drift around the South Pacific until being picked up just as they are all about to expire.
The captain and the first mate are both first rate: the captain steady and respectable, eating dinner with the lady passengers, threatening to shoot the bad seed who almost panics the escape operation, and the first mate hypercompetent, playful, serious, and taking over, seeing everyone through to the rescue even though he wishes for the benefit of the captain’s experience the whole time. And there are some very good scenes at sea:
The light shone up so high that I could see the huge iceberg upon which we had struck, cloven at the top and down the middle, exactly like Penrith Church in my dream. At the same moment I could see the watch last relieved, crowding up and down on deck; I could see Mrs Atherfield and Miss Coleshaw thrown about on the top of the companion as they struggled to bring the child up from below; I could see that the masts were going with the shock and the beating of the ship; I could see the frightful breach stove in on the starboard side, half the length of the vessel, and the sheathing and timbers spirting up; I could see that the Cutter was disabled, in a wreck of broken fragments; and I could see every eye turned upon me. It is my belief that if there had been ten thousand eyes there, I should have seen them all, with their different looks. And all this in a moment. But you must consider what a moment.
Before the rescue, there is “The Beguilement in the Boats,” the section of the book written by Dickens’s and Collins’s collaborators. Percy Fitzgerald, who makes two contributions, is my favorite. Both of the stories themselves are the best. “The Armourer’s Story” is an English country village tale of romantic frustration leading as far as violence, and “The Supercargo’s Story” is a lovely ghost-ship yarn set in the North Sea on Christmas night. And there was a definite something I liked about his writing style (PS, I should really find out who this guy actually is). Here, describing the ruins of of an old abbey or nunnery where they form an arch now used as a forge:
This might have been the clergymen’s pantry, or wine vaults, may be, in the old times. Whatever use they had for it, it was a very snug place. I recollect there were all sorts of queer faces with horns and hoods, all carved out in the bunch; and I often lay awake at nights looking at them, and studying them, and thinking why they were grinning and winking at me in that way. I remember one creature that always aimed straight at you with his tail pointed, holding it like a gun.
I mean, picture that little guy!
So, where was the Christmas in Household Words‘ 1856 Christmas issue (aside from its being the night Jan Fagel haunts the coast)? It’s Christmas in the way Dickens is always Christmas: a motley cast of characters—all, of course, Dickensian—goes through a tribulation and comes together as a society to overcome, and, you know, humanism, that sort of thing. (I kind of devolved there but I think you get the idea.) And I think that’s fine! But I might just have been disappointed if this were really supposed to be my Christmas number and it had none of the snugness-and-chill of “A Christmas Carol” or “The Chimes.”