Ralph toiled up the steep hill, his head lowered against the swirling snow. The wind was at his back – coming off the St Laurence, a true early nor'easter – but gusting to gale force and whipping through the narrow streets of the Lower Town. It gained in strength as he climbed; when he turned around upon gaining the crest of the hill, the snow stung at his cheeks with a lash of ice. He almost welcomed it.
The severe buildings of the Old Town, with their grey stone and steeply pitched roofs, looked as though they belonged in an Alpine village rather than the wilds of North America. With thick brows of snow gathering upon their serried dormers, they seemed to be frowning disapprovingly down upon any passerby so foolish as to be out in the storm.
Of the Canadian Pacific liner he had left behind, lying at harbour in the Bassin Louise, there was no sign. Lost to sight in the deep blue of dusk, she might have been sunk beneath the waves. It was the last run of the season; she should have been steaming onwards to Montréal, but the unseasonable early cold had put paid to that. Montréal was locked in ice already, inaccessible until April and the coming of spring.
So the Duchess of Bedford would be weighing anchor for Avonmouth at midnight – and she would need to, whatever the weather, if she was to outrun the young brash ice already beginning to drift along the river. She was a bitch in the slightest swell, and passengers were more particular than cargo, but the old man insisted that the storm was blowing through. The weather would be as smooth as glass by the time they passed Sept-Îles, he said.
Therefore he had sent Ralph to collect the new ship's doctor from his hotel. Any new crew member with sense would, one might have thought, come aboard in Avonmouth, an easy three hours from London by train. But the doctor had booked his own passage out, choosing to spend a fortnight exploring Québec before joining his new ship. And in the depths of winter no less. If it had been an ordinary member of the crew, Ralph would have known what to think of this, but ships' doctors were something different, neither fish nor fowl; more than a year with Alec had, if nothing else, given him a certain tolerance for the eccentricities of medical men.
He had been out at sea in worse weather. If he had to escort the doctor personally, so be it.
Ahead and above him, Ralph could dimly make out the lights of the Frontenac and the new Édifice Price. One wondered whether the place would all be skyscrapers fifty years hence. In a mood for a sweeping away of the old – encouraged by the time of year and the pink gin – Ralph found himself vaguely approving of the thought.
His destination was not the Édifice Price, however, but the Hotel Clarendon next door. Its Art Deco façade, and the wrought iron of its glass doors, were lightly dusted with snow. On the two stone steps up to the entrance, it lay in drifts. The hotel seemed good enough that one might expect the staff to do a better job of keeping up. So thought Ralph, at least; he would never stand for that sort of sloppiness aboard ship. He knocked the snow off his boots as best he could and endeavoured to wipe the remainder on the carpet of the entryway, but it was already sodden with others' earlier entrances and did him little good. His conscience pricked him nonetheless as he tracked the stuff into the lobby of the hotel.
It was a large space, made cozy by a half-timbered ceiling and overstuffed armchairs gathered around a roaring fire. Ralph quickly unwound the scarf from around his neck and summoned up what remained of his schoolboy French to ask Dr. Hilary Mansell's room number at the front desk. With a regretful glance towards the bar – which was full, and from which a buzz of voices was audible even halfway across the room – he took the lift for the fourth floor.
There was a pause before the door swung open. On the other side stood a woman wrapped in a wool dressing gown. Her reddish-brown hair hung loose and damp about her shoulders and she studied him quizzically.
"Ralph Lanyon, Second Mate on the Duchess of Bedford. I've come to collect Doctor Mansell."
So that's what he's been doing in Québec, thought Ralph. He wondered whether this was a pre-existing acquaintance, or if the doctor had met her on the passage or during the visit. She was the sort of woman who might be described as handsome rather than beautiful, but her looks were good enough for those who liked that sort of thing. She was not young, probably past thirty. He wondered whether the doctor had told her that he was soon to depart.
"Tonight?" she said. She was not Quebecois. Her English was impeccable, a clipped, unhesitating, faultless RP. "There was a telegram yesterday, saying that the sailing had been brought forward by two days. Then another this morning, saying it would be delayed because of the storm..."
Ralph was not in the mood to explain the old man's enigmatic decisions. In any case she hardly needed to know. He looked past her but the smallish hotel room was empty, the door to the bathroom standing open. It was clear that she had just got out of the bath; anticipating her lover's arrival, no doubt.
"Ten o'clock tonight," said Ralph. As a matter of habit he subtracted two hours from departure times when dealing with passengers. "Is he not in? If he..."
"I'm Doctor Mansell, as it happens," the woman replied crisply, with the air of one accustomed to rapid, unemotional decision. "Wait in the foyer. I'll be down in fifteen minutes."
Hilary Mansell was as good as her word. Better, in fact. Barely ten minutes later she emerged from the lift in the foyer, pulling a heavy astrakhan coat around her shoulders. She went straight to the front desk, where Ralph could dimly hear her making arrangements for her luggage to be delivered to the ship.
After quickly downing the rest of the whisky he had just ordered, on the assumption that she would be half an hour at least, Ralph got up from the bar and went to join her. The desk clerk was attempting without success to persuade her to order a taxi. She was speaking to him in schoolgirl French, correct in grammar (so far as he could tell) but awkward in pronunciation.
"It isn't far, is it, the Bassin Louise?" she said then in English, addressing the air halfway between Ralph and the clerk. "And not so late. I thought I would walk."
"I'd be happy to accompany you," said Ralph. His chivalrousness felt rather stiff from disuse. Since he'd begun serving on a passenger liner, he'd been required to take it out of mothballs but he was still out of practice. Perhaps it had never been his style.
"I don't require supervision," she retorted. The note of stung pride was familar.
Ralph shrugged. "I'm going that way myself. Back to the ship."
It was true, in a manner of speaking; albeit that he had been hoping to stop by L'Oncle Antoine on the way to say goodbye to a chap he ought not to have known in the first place. No matter. Perhaps it was a good thing. Perhaps he would have time to go back before midnight anyway.
She was blushing slightly; she hid her unease by absorbing herself in wrapping her scarf around her neck. Ralph did not compound it by offering her his arm.
Nonetheless they stepped out into the storm together.
"A first-class bitch, I'm certain," said Ralph. "All the signs are there. Not that I've had the chance to find out yet."
In Bridstow it was the tail end of a dreary, grey November. Through the window, which needed washing, Alec had been watching the rain dripping off the last remnants of the leaves onto the green, sodden grass. It was difficult to believe that Ralph had been fighting his way through ice floes in Canada barely a week earlier. Just another sea yarn.
"You paying attention?" said Ralph.
Alec could not help giving Ralph a look. "Of course I'm paying attention." He rummaged through his memory to pick up the thread of conversation. "Didn't you say once that you only got on with real bitches?"
"Not that sort," Ralph said. "And not now, in any case."
Although this was not what he had meant, Alec hardly had to enquire further. Not far beneath Ralph's bohemian exterior lurked a rather solemn, nineteenth-century view of relationships which (Alec was certain) pre-dated his gratitude at being rescued from two years of women. The rescue had not been Alec's intention at the start; if it had, he would have taken greater care over it. Now he was – 'stuck' was the wrong word entirely, besides being utterly unfair to Ralph. It was only that it felt like it sometimes.
"As soon as I'd stowed her in her cabin," Ralph continued, "I went to the old man to ask him what the hell he'd been thinking. It turned out she'd been hired by the line – sight unseen, one assumes – and he hadn't any more idea about it than I did."
"What happened then?"
"I couldn't do anything; neither could he, for that matter. We made the crossing. The weather was abominable. I imagine they kept her busy dealing out seasickness tablets. That's mostly what the work is anyway, on that sort of ship – that and hysteria. Perhaps a woman doctor makes some sense, when you think about it."
"There are some quite good female doctors. But one wonders what exactly she was running away from."
Ralph gave him a look. "Not everyone who goes to sea is running away."
"No..." said Alec, a long and doubtful vowel.
It was, he realised too late, the same response he would give to an obviously terminal cancer patient who continued to profess his faith in a cure.
A silence fell between them.