A Burial At Sea is an excerpt from a work-in-progress, a novel set in Australia and China in 1885-95, provisionally titled Kerosene Creek.
15 June, 1894.
Captain Hamish Nelson, a crusty, no-nonsense Scotsman of 58, had been with Swire Shipping ever since it was established a quarter of a century ago and master of the MS Taiyuan for the past six years. The death of a passenger was no novelty to him, but there was something disturbing about the sight that greeted him this morning. As he stepped into the cramped steerage cabin, the stink of engine oil, damp clothes, sweat and vomit took his breath away. In the lower bunk he made out the shape of an emaciated body, covered to the chin with a damp, grey sheet, the long nose made thinner and sharper by death, the wide-open eyes fixed on the crucifix swinging on a string of beads from the bunk above. A stubble of dark hair poked like bristles through the tightly drawn skin on her scalp. “So that’s what nuns do with their hair,” thought the Captain, but he turned a businesslike face to the dead nun’s companion. She was kneeling on the damp floor beside the bunk, her lips soundlessly praying the rosary.
“When did this happen, Sister?”
The nun scrambled to her feet as though she’d been caught in the act of some transgression. The first thing he noticed was the stray lock of bright red hair that projected from beneath her coif. “She’s young.” He estimated the nun was the same age as his daughter.
“I sent for Doctor Zabek last night, but the steward says he went ashore in Haiphong.”“Useless.” Captain Nelson shook his head. “The damned pox-doctor is under my feet half the day with his insane questions and impossible requests, but when you need him he’s disappeared into thin air.”
“Don’t blame the doctor, Captain. Sister Magdalene had moved beyond the reach of medicine. The Lord has been calling his beloved daughter from the moment we embarked. The Holy Mother…”
“Yes, yes,” Captan Nelson waved his Presbyterian hand. He had no time for Catholic mumbo-jumbo. “What killed her, do you think?”
“She was a martyr to seasickness and she was too weak to go on deck to get relief from the heat…”
“But is she is infectious?” interrupted the Captain. “I have thirty passengers to think of, let alone my crew.”
“Had her soul flown up to the Lord yesterday, I would have taken her ashore in Haiphong. Sister Magdalene was French,” she added as though the Captain needed an explanation for wanting to bury someone in such a heathen country.
Captain Nelson snapped his fingers and the sailor waiting in the corridor passed him a list of names, together with a pair of spectacles. He perched them on the end of his nose and ran his finger down the list, “This is Sister Magdalene? You must be Sister Agnes, am I right? You are bound for Hong Kong”
“That is… was our mission, Captain.”
“Are you aware that Hong Kong is under quarantine for bubonic plague?” He looked back at the outline of the body beneath the sheet. “Do you think she…?”
“Neither of us has been to Hong Kong before, Captain. Neither of us has been in contact with the plague.”
“To the best of your knowledge.” The Captain, paused dramatically, then he consulted the manifest again, “I have two passengers listed as doctors. One’s a Chinaman… a Doctor Sun something-or-other, and Frenchman who joined us in Haiphong.” He passed the list back to the sailor, “Better call them both. And if you find that drunken Transylvanian quack, tell him to report to the bridge.”
“Sister Magdalene and I are both nurses, Captain. I think I know what plague looks like.”
“I’m sure you do, Sister, but we need a qualified doctor to sign the death certificate and I wouldn’t trust that vampire to sign a grocery list. In the mean time, this cabin must be sealed and fumigated.”
Dr Sun was a distinguished Chinese man of about 30, with a Western haircut and a neat moustache, dressed in a three-piece suit. He asked for the porthole cover to be unlatched to admit daylight, then he gingerly raised the sheet covering the nun’s face and held a small mirror to her mouth. The glass fogged immediately from the humidity in the cabin, so he felt for a pulse in her wrist and neck and solemnly declared Sister Magdalene to be, indeed, deceased. He apologised that he could not be more specific, but he no longer practised medicine and had no first-hand knowledge of infectious diseases. The Captain asked him to sign the log to that effect.
Dr Yersin was about the same age, shorter, with a scrubby beard and rather awkward in his manner. His clothes were more practical tropical linen. He spoke almost no English, but asked for the door to be closed and Sister Agnes to be present while he conducted the investigation, “Pour la bienséance.”
“To maintain propriety,” translated Sister Agnes for the Captain’s benefit. The doctor looked relieved hearing the young nun speak French.
Yersin lifted off the sheet, revealing an emaciated woman of perhaps 50 dressed in a stained cotton shift. He pulled back the eyelids to reveal the whites, bloodshot from constant retching, he probed the skin around the neck, feeling for swollen glands, then he asked Sister Agnes for permission to raise the cotton shift so he could inspect the body.
“Si maigre,” said Yersin. The corpse’s leg and hip bones were clearly defined, her arms were mere toothpicks without muscle and her breasts were mere flaps of skin on the sharply protruding ribs.
“Elle n’a rien mangé depuis un mois,” explained Sister Agnes. “Sea-sickness. Mal de mer.”
The doctor pointed out a pattern of red scratches and lumps on the hands and around the neck. “Moustiques?”
“I lit mosquito coils when we were in port,“ said Agnes, “But they made the air intolerable.”
Yersin nodded, then deftly felt for the glands in the woman’s arm pits and groin. He gently tipped the corpse over to reveal the red welts of bed sores on the back. He let the body fall back and pulled down the shift to grant her modesty again.
“J’en ai assez vu,” said Yersin.
Sister Agnes rearranged her companion’s hands and threaded rosary beads through stiffening fingers. Then she covered the body with the sheet.
Yersin watched with approval, “Elle est très propre.”
Agnes didn’t understand, “Propre?”
“Votre réligieuse… is very clean,” translated the doctor. “You wash?” He looked around and pointed to the basin of water beside the bed. Agnes nodded. He held up his hands, “It is très important… laver les mains.”
Agnes emptied the basin of grey water into the sluice on the floor and re-filled it from the small tap, then handed the doctor soap and a towel. He washed and dried his hands meticulously, then indicated Sister Agnes should do the same. “Trés important,” he stressed.
Dr Yersin opened the cabin door and Agnes translated his report to the Captain: Sister Magdalene died no more than six hours ago from a combination of dehydration resulting from chronic seasickness, and possibly plaudisme—malaria—brought on by the unhealthy miasma in the cabin. She did not exhibit the swollen glands, or buboes, typical of plague and the corpse was unlikely to be infectious. A proper post-mortem could be conducted in Hong Kong, but they would need to preserve the body in ice or it would begin to decay in this weather.
“I doubt they’ll let us take her ashore in Hong Kong, given the quarantine and all,” said Captain Nelson. “Nothing for it but commit her to the waters. I trust you won’t object, Sister?”
“Will there be a priest?”
“There are no priests on the passenger list, but it is customary for the Captain to conduct a Christian service. Personally, I’m a Presbyterian, but we both worship the same god unless I’m mistaken. You will say a few words yourself, I assume?”
“I do not believe the Good Lord will bar Sister Magdalene from Heaven because of a protestant prayer. In any case, I will throw in some Latin, which should at least satisfy the Pope.” The Captain was surprised to see the young nun show the hint of a smile. She really did resemble his daughter.
“The bosun will sew her a shroud and we’ll conduct the service before dinner this evening. I propose to fumigate this cabin, no matter the doctor’s assurances about plague, and I’d advise you to wash your watchacallit… habit? clothes?”
“I’d like to stay with her as long as possible.”
The Captain looked around the cabin and resisted the urge to hold his nose again.
“I can’t have you spend the rest of the voyage in this hell-hole, Sister. I’m going to move you to an empty cabin on the main deck with healthier air. I’ll leave some of my wife’s clothes you can wear until yours are disinfected.”
That afternoon, as the setting sun burnished the waters of the South China Sea, a small group gathered on the after deck. The body of Sister Magdalene, together with an iron gear wheel, a shoemaker’s last and several assorted lumps of metal had been sewn into a canvas shroud, which rested on a plank set on two trestles level with the railing. A sailor in dress uniform stood to attention at the head of the plank. The Captain, the First Mate and the Bosun stood to one side; Sister Agnes stood alone on the other side. Dr Yersin and Dr Sun, bare-headed out of respect, and half a dozen curious passengers watched from a respectful distance.
Agnes threaded Sister Magdalena’s crucifix through her fingers and squeezed until the the beads bit deeply into her fingers. She concentrated her gaze on the pitifully small shape on the plank in front of her. The oil-stained canvas of the shroud, rough sewn with cobbler’s black twine, seemed such an unsuitable vessel for a nun’s last voyage. She wanted to point out to the captain and passengers that Sister Magdalena had learned lace-making as a girl and was renowned in the convent for her needlework. But she pushed the thought aside—vanity was not one of her companion’s faults, if she had any at all. The Lord would not judge Sister Magdalena by the stitching of her shroud.
Captain Nelson opened the Book of Common Prayer and read:
“Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our sister departed, and we commit her body to the deep; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”
The sailor reached out to grasp the end of the plank, but the Captain held up his hand and looked up at Agnes.
“Sister, will you say a few words?”
Agnes shook her head as though waking from a trance. She spoke softly at first, her eyes lowered: “Sister Mary Magdalene, you were christened Elvie Duclos in Vichy, France, in the Year of Our Lord 1835. You took the name of the blessed saint when you entered the order of the Daughters of Charity. You brought comfort to the sick in Africa, India and the gold fields of Australia. Your next mission was to be to the heathen victims of the Black Death in the vastness of China. However…” she paused, “However, it is not to be.”
She looked up into the setting sun, addressing it in a voice choking with bitterness: “Why? Why did you not grant your devoted servant life to complete her mission on earth? Why was it necessary to inflict so much pain? What was your reason for casting our sister aside like a…” she waved her hand in the direction of the shroud, “Like a bag of…?”
The passengers looked away in embarrassment as Agnes choked back tears. After a long pause, during which some of the passengers grew restless and began whispering among themselves, she recovered her poise and laid her hand gently on the rough canvas of the shroud, “Lord, grant that Sister Magdalene sleep in peace beneath your waters until you waken her to glory. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”
Then she lifted her hand and took a pace back.
The Captain nodded to the sailor, who lifted his end of the plank. Nothing happened. He shook it, but the body would not move. The Captain whispered to the First Mate, who moved to help the sailor raise the plank higher, until the shroud, weighted with more ironware than was necessary, abruptly slid down the plank, across the railing and disappeared into the ship’s wake.
Captain Nelson and his crew saluted. Agnes untangled the small wooden crucifix from her fingers and threw it in a high arc so that it splashed down exactly in the receding ripples the body had made.
A few of the watching passengers clapped, though it wasn’t clear whether the applause was for Sister Magdalene or for Sister Agnes’ prodigious throw.
The Malay steward ushered Agnes into the compartment on the main deck. It was furnished with a large double bed with starched, white sheets, a square window rather than a porthole and a private bathroom. Agnes began to object, but the steward pointed out the two suitcases just inside the door, transported from their below-decks cabin. To Agnes they looked like a pair of shabby beggars trying to be inconspicuous in a stately home.
“This is Captain wife’s private cabin, but she not on voyage with us at this time,” explained the steward. He handed Agnes a brown paper bag, subtly wrinkling his nose as he spoke. “Captain request your clothes fumigated and laundered. I return them tomorrow morning.” He walked across to a lowboy and pulled out a drawer, “Captain say please borrow one of Mrs outfits for dinner. Captain wife is your size thereabouts.” He opened the cabin door, “Leave laundry on the bed when you are ready,” and he departed with a cryptic smile.
Agnes thought, “He’s going to recount the story of the nun dressed in his captain’s wife’s clothes for years to come.”
Nevertheless, she was grateful. She explored the tiny bathroom with its hot and cold taps, multi-coloured bottles of lotions and oils, scented soap and soft towels. “Lead us not into temptation,” she smiled to herself. In the convent, the nuns were encouraged to wear their shifts while bathing, but Agnes threw caution to the winds. She stepped naked under the shower and shivered with pleasure as the needles of hot water massaged her exhausted body. She washed her hair for the first time in weeks with Mrs Nelson’s jasmine-scented French Shampooing. She packed her black nun’s habit and sweat-stained underclothes and stockings into the laundry bag and then, with a quiver of guilty pleasure, pulled on a pair of silk culottes françaises from the extravagant underwear drawer. She lay down on the bed, cradled in the soft pillows and closed her eyes. She found herself debating with her conscience whether it as a sin that she was given this luxury through the death of her companion.
Was it the memory of beautiful Madeline or the sensuous afterglow of the shower that gave her hands permission to stray? First, they gently cupped her breasts until her nipples stood erect, they moved downward, brushing her stomach, sending thrilling ripples across her skin, until finally they slipped beneath the elastic waist band of Mrs Nelson’s knickers.
She was woken by a discrete knock on the door and the steward collected the laundry and reminded her that dinner would be served in 10 minutes.
None of the garments hanging in the wardrobe appeared to be suitable for a nun to wear to dinner, but her hands once again acted on their own volition and lifted out a scarlet silk dress with an embroidered gold dragon on the front, its nose nuzzling the high neckline, its tail wrapped sensuously around the skirt, which was slit on each side to the thigh. Agnes held the oriental-style dress up against herself and inspected the result in the mirror. She smiled ruefully and was just about to return the dress to the wardrobe, when she had a sudden thought. She lifted her battered suitcase onto the bed and felt around among the jumble of underclothes, books and packages until her fingers encountered a silver chain attached to a carved jade pendant.
“Why not?” Agnes whispered to herself.
That night, a mystery woman joined the guests at the Captain’s table for dinner. Dr Yersin later described her in a letter to his mother: “Perhaps mid-20s, with a clear complexion devoid of any make-up. A mane of undisciplined red hair framing a freckled face and clear blue eyes. She was dressed in a scarlet silk qipao that showed off a shapely bosom, slim waist and strong legs. The Captain introduced her as Miss Agnes Kelly from Australia, who joined the ship in Haiphong.”
When Agnes arrived at the Captain’s table, the other guests had been discussing the afternoon’s burial at sea. They spoke as though it had been just another shipboard entertainment like ‘King Neptune’s Visit’ or ‘Crossing the Line’.
“I felt so sorry for that young nun,” tut-tutted Mrs Foley-Jessop, the buxom wife of the heavy-jowled tea merchant beside her. “What will she do now, I wonder?”
“She disembarks in Hong Kong,” said the Captain. “One of the convents there will take her in.”
“They always travel in pairs, you know,” Mr Foley-Jessup put in, with a voice the timbre of a fart in a tuba. “They’re like policemen—you never see one nun on her own.”
“It’s either one or nun,” chortled Colonel Morgan-Stanley, blowing soup through his moustache. “None…nun,” he mimed a zero and then a cowl around his face as he looked around the dinner guests for approval. The short-sighted Miss Jenkins tittered politely.
The Captain quickly changed the subject.
“Hong Kong port is under quarantine. We won’t be allowed to dock and certainly will not be taking on passengers.”
“Bertie and I are headed for Fuchow. No plague there, thank heavens. How about you, Miss Kelly? Where are you bound for?”
Agnes dabbed her lips with a serviette in case someone looked at her too critically, “Hong Kong,” she replied quietly.
“Why anyone would voluntarily go ashore in a plague port beggars the imagination. You’d have to be mad or suicidal.”
“I am also disembarking in Hong Kong,” said Dr Sun, “And I possess neither of those qualities I hope.”
Miss Jenkins coughed. “I heard that a million have died in the last year. Mostly Chinese, of course.”
“Thank heavens the white man seems immune to the pestilence, said Colonel Morgan-Stanley, It gives one faith in British breeding.”
Dr Sun sat forward earnestly. “Disease has nothing to do with breeding nor race, Colonel. Plague is a consequence of poverty. The Hong Kong British avoid infection because they built their houses on the mountain, high above the miasma where the disease can’t establish a foothold. The Chinese workers, on the other hand, are crowded into slums along the shoreline, where the air is foetid, the sanitation is inadequate and the food is rotten. If the British really want to eliminate the plague they could begin by enforcing their own housing laws.”
There was an embarrassed silence. “I say, old chap,” said Mr Foley-Jessup, “ Are you implying…”
Dr Sun continued, “The Chinese newspapers accuse the British of using the plague as a political weapon. I personally do not subscribe to that theory…”
“What’s your theory, then?” snapped Colonel Morgan-Stanley.
“If there is a political dimension to the plague, it is the incompetence of the Chinese government who allowed the disease to reach Canton and Hong Kong in the first place. The British are doing the best they can.” He turned away from the Colonel and addressed the whole table as though they were spectators at a rally, “My struggle is not with Britain, it’s with the Ch’in emperor and his mandarins.”
“You’re a doctor, you say?”
“I qualified in Hong Kong,” said Dr Sun.
“Do you treat plague victims?”
“I gave up practising medicine for what I consider a higher cause. My ‘patient’ is China itself.”
Miss Jenkins, whose role in life appeared to be changing the subject, turned her moon-shaped glasses on Agnes: “Your pendant is most unusual, Miss Kelly. I can’t work out what animal it represents.”
“It is quite old. It was given to me by a friend.”
“Is it a unicorn?”
“It is called a Qilin,” put in Dr Sun. “A mythical Chinese beast, part dragon, part lion, part deer. It appears on earth to signal that momentous changes are about to take place.”
© Ian Hart, 2020