On 3 October 1863, at three o’clock in the afternoon, the City of Limerick, a paddle-boat passenger ship, leaves the port of Dublin for New York.
Around seven o’clock at night, the ship penetrates an agitated zone, and a steward warns the passengers that the evening might be a bit rough. He is right. One hour later, the City of Limerick is rolling so much, that the rare people who had risked the dining-room, quickly return to their bunks. However, not everyone is suffering from seasickness. In one cabin, two passengers, whom chance has thrown together, are trying to play American manille by the light of a candle, in spite of the vertiginous rolling.
One of them, tall, red-haired and bearded, is called William Tait. He is a rich Irishman. The other, Harold Wilmot, is an American industrialist who is returning to Connecticut where his wife and children are waiting for him. The two men, who had already met during an earlier voyage, had been delighted to see each other again. But a problem had presented itself when it was time to choose their bunks. The cabin that they are occupying being situated at the ship’s stern and taking its curved form, the top bunk is longer than the lower one. And each of the two men had of course wanted the other to have the better place.
Finally, all had been decided by flipping a coin, and luck had attributed the higher bunk to William Tait.
It is therefore on Harold Wilmot’s bunk that they are sitting for their game of manille…
Suddenly, a wave makes the ship leap, and the cards fall to the floor. They decide to go to sleep.
And, as calmly as if he were in his Connecticut bedroom, Harold Wilmot dons his nightshirt and lies down. He is asleep within five minutes.
William Tait, who is not as used to ocean crossings as his companion, is feeling a bit tense. He climbs up onto his bunk and lies down, completely dressed, leaving the candle alight.
Suddenly, he has the impression that something light-coloured has moved in the cabin. He leans over and sees, astounded, a young blonde woman dressed in a blue and white striped dressing-gown who, seeming to come from the gangway via the door which he had himself locked, is heading towards the bunks. After having glanced uneasily at William Tait, she leans over Harold Wilmot and kisses him on the forehead.
More and more astonished, the Irishman makes a sudden movement to sit up and loses the mysterious visitor from sight for a second. When he raises his head, the young woman has disappeared.
William Tait descends from his bunk and goes to examine the door. It is still locked.
Very intrigued, he climbs back to lie down and reflects on it.
“Let’s see, for this young woman to come in the middle of the night, dressed in a light dressing-gown, into the cabin where Wilmot is sleeping, he and she must be closely connected. This begs the question: if Harold is travelling with his mistress, why isn’t he sharing his cabin with her?”
William Tait continues to reflect and soon thinks that he has found the solution to the enigma: Harold Wilmot, who is married, must be travelling with a lady who is also married. To save appearances, they each took a cabin.
“It’s as simple as that. And the American gave his key to his girlfriend so that she could join him at nightfall… They couldn’t have known that a tempest would prevent me from sleeping; and that is why the poor woman seemed so uneasy when she saw me awake, and limited herself to chastely kissing Harold Wilmot before leaving to run to her cabin…”
The Irishman, delighted with having elucidated this little mystery, stretches out and, the tempest having calmed a bit, finally goes to sleep.
Early in the morning, when he awakes, he calls to the American:
“So, Sneaky, we give appointments to ladies at night?”
The other man looks blank.
“You should have told me… I would have gone to sleep in her cabin… “
The American doesn’t know to what his cabin companion is referring.
“Go on! Don’t deny it. I saw her… She came while you were asleep… “
This time, Wilmot seems stunned. He assures the Irishman that he doesn’t understand a word that he is saying. His evident sincerity troubles William Tait. He explains that, during the night a young blonde woman dressed in a blue and white dressing-gown had entered the cabin and kissed the American. Wilmot bursts out laughing and says that he must have been talking in his sleep. Tait asks him why he thinks that. Wilmot replies that he had dreamed that his wife came to the cabin to kiss him. And that she was wearing a dressing-gown. This time, it is the Irishman who is astounded.
“Is your wife blonde with her hair wound in plaited buns over her ears?”
“Does she have very light blue eyes?”
“Does she have a blue and white striped dressing-gown?”
No, it’s yellow.
“What colour was it in your dream?”
He didn’t notice.
All morning, the two men compared memories… Finally, they came to the conclusion that William Tait had seen, in the cabin, Mrs Wilmot acting exactly the way that she had acted, at that same moment, in the American’s dream…
All that day and those that followed, this story is the only topic of conversation among the passengers.
Then the ship arrives in New York, and Harold Wilmot, who wants to understand what had happened, takes William Tait home with him to Connecticut.
To be continued.