From Cherbourg our ship steers a westerly course through the English Channel until Land's End is passed; then, having reached the open Atlantic, she heads south-west, to follow an oblique line of route that is a short cut to the Tropics. Four days after leaving Southampton we are calling at the little island of St. Michael's, in the Azores group. As the ship stays in port for a few hours we can make a brief excursion ashore.
We land at the foot of a hill, and soon discover that we are in a quaint, Portuguese town. The people we meet are Portuguese in appearance; the steep, straggling streets, with Portuguese names, are bordered by colour-washed houses and shops, on which names and notices are displayed in the Portuguese language.
Although we have not yet reached the Tropics, we are on an island which is famous for the production of a tropical fruit, the pineapple. St. Michael pines require a certain amount of protection, not forcing, so they are reared in glasshouses. But many plants that can only just exist in England under close confinement in a hot-house grow to perfection in the open air on these sunny shores. Let us take a carriage and drive to one of the most beautiful gardens that I know of anywhere in the world.
At a gate that gives access to some private grounds, in which, by courtesy of the owner, we have permission to roam, we are met by a gardener. Under his guidance we loiter through a long avenue of giant camellia-trees, whose branches are heavily laden with pink and white blooms; emerge on the margin of a billowing expanse, which seems to be the show-ground for a fine collection of English cottage-gardens; follow a serpentining path between these hardy flower-beds until, reaching a wondrous display of gardenias and suchlike sun-lovers, we pass under an arch of stephanotis into a fairyland of roses; strike off at a tangent through a thicket of Marechal Niels; scale a track piercing a magnificent rock-garden; and, plunging into a tropical wilderness, traverse a trail that brings us to a sylvan glade, by which we wander into an orange-grove, and thence into an old-world Italian garden, whose trim hedges are pedestals for shear-modelled birds, animals and fantastic images.
The shrill call of a siren warns us that we must be making our way back to the steamer. We have but had time to get a peep at part of these fascinating grounds, but over and above the delight they have afforded all of us through the colour, form and scent of their flowers and foliage, they have, I am sure, created a strong feeling of surprise among those of you who have not been here before. Is it not an extraordinary sight, this very mixed company of Northern and Southern plants flourishing in the same atmosphere?
St. Michael's Isle is, as it were, the junction for temperate and tropical climes, and its vegetation is symbolic of the contrast between the robust forces which play such an influential part in moulding the general character, and fixing the routine of life in a northerly region, and the luxuriant powers which are largely responsible for the very different character and routine of life in a land of eternal summer. My principal object in bringing you to these gardens was to help you to realize, through a pleasant conflict of sensations, that we are going to an entirely different part of the world from that we are leaving behind.
As we turn our faces quaywards, our guide delights our hearts with the information that we are at liberty to pick any flowers that take our fancy, and as many of them as we can carry away. Had we not seen England for many months, and were now on the way back to the Old Country, one and all of us, probably, would make straight for the beds where we could collect a nosegay of stocks, pansies, mignonette, columbines, forget-me-nots and love-in-a-mist. Now, our desire is for the flowers which seem to be chorusing the news that a wealth of novel experiences will soon be falling to our lot. Manners put the break on a greedy instinct that tempts us to make the most of our limited time and complete freedom—we begin to pick single specimens of choice blooms; whereupon our guide breaks off some big sprays from a gardenia bush, distributes them, and with a wide sweep of the arm suggests that there is not the slightest reason for us to be helping ourselves so modestly.
In a jolly-boat, which is being made to live up to her name, and which looks as if she were carrying us off to take part in a Battle of Flowers, we go back to the steamer. Our cabins and the dining-tables are soon richly decorated with stephanotis, orange-blossoms, camellias, cherry-pie, and many a sprig, spray and streamer bearing bright-hued, sweet-scented blooms, which are none the less pleasing because we are ignorant of their names.
The flowers which have replaced those brought from England are in harmony with a general rise of spirits among the passengers. Not that life on the steamer has previously been at all dull, but people have been amusing themselves, and their own particular friends, by the help of such hobbies as reading, chatting, and a game of cards or chess. All experiments in the way of forming new acquaintances have been hampered by shyness and reserve.
But by high-tea time to-night the children have made some discoveries that call for common discussion and general rejoicing—the nice Captain has said they may start paddling to-morrow morning whilst the decks are being swabbed; the tall officer (heated discussion as to whether he is the Chief, Second or Third) has promised to rig up a swing; the jolly man with a bald head is going to get up some Juvenile Athletic Sports—running round the deck, a sack-race, chalking the pig's eye, and that sort of thing. There are to be prizes, too, lots of prizes. Where will the prizes come from? Why, from the barber's shop, of course. Can it really be possible that Jimmy has been on board all this time without discovering the barber's shop, almost next door to his own cabin, where you can buy sweets, toys and all kinds of quite decent things—lots of them real silver.
Equally excited are the grown-ups who hasten to the saloon when the bugler sounds the call for dinner. Not only is everyone ready to do justice to another excellent table-d'hote meal, but everybody is anxious to meet everybody else so as to find out how much truth there is in the rumours that have been flying round about a Fancy Dress Ball, with prizes for the best costumes made on board, a Concert, and numerous other festivities.
To-day the sun has begun to get into everyone's blood. To-morrow morning all the passengers will be wearing summer clothes, and talking together as though they had known each other for years; officers will have discarded serviceable-looking serge uniforms for holiday-looking "white ducks"; and the deck steward will be bringing round ice-creams instead of beef-tea for intermediate refreshment.