Maiden Voyage, page 1
For the brave souls aboard the
Titanic’s maiden voyage
1. ISABELLA JAMES
2. LUCY MILES
3. ABIGAIL O’ROURKE
“Hurry now,” Isabella James’s mother rushed her out the door and into the cold, damp predawn air. “We can’t be late.” She hoisted a full carpetbag onto her arm.
Late for what? Isabella wondered. The tightness in her mother’s voice kept her from asking the question aloud. She stumbled into the London streets and blinked, letting her eyes adjust to the dark. There were no streetlights in their neighborhood, and her thin coat did little to ward off the biting spring cold. She longed to crawl right back into her bed, the only warm place in the tiny apartment she shared with her parents, but the door was already closed and she could hear her father turning the key.
Isabella’s mother clutched her hand as they began to move in a small herd through the streets of East London. It was clear that they had a destination, that her mother was leading them somewhere.
Isabella fleetingly wondered if her parents had found her a job. Things had been hard lately. The coal strike seemed unending, and her father hadn’t worked in weeks. And worse, Isabella was concerned he would not be healthy enough to return to the mines when the strike ended. She heard her father cough, as if agreeing with her thoughts.
Of course Isabella would have been more than happy to work, to do whatever she could to put food on the table and a fire in the stove. Already she was assisting her mother taking in laundry and sewing, though she knew it was not enough. She honestly hoped her family had found her a job. But what sort of job required leaving home in the middle of the night?
And what sort of job required a packed carpetbag?
Isabella hurried to keep up with her mother’s rapid pace. She turned back to her father, who was lagging and breathing heavily. “Are you all right, Papa?” she asked quietly.
Francis James nodded, punctuating the gesture with another ragged cough. Worry seeped into Isabella like the damp cold. Her chest was tight, her mouth full of unspoken words.
“Mother, we’re moving too quickly,” she said softly. Her mother slowed for an instant, but only an instant.
“We have no choice,” she answered, her voice a high-pitched squeak. “We mustn’t miss the train.”
Isabella squinted, trying to see her mother’s face, to read something in her eyes. Though the black sky was turning gray with the promise of dawn, it was still dark. She could not make out her expression, but saw her raise a hand to her cheek, to wipe at something shiny. Isabella sucked in her breath. She had never seen her mother cry.
“The ship’s been fitted out with every luxury imaginable and they say she’s absolutely unsinkable!”
Lucy Miles overheard the excitement of the passengers around her as they crossed the elevated gangplank and moved toward the first-class entrance of the White Star Line’s glorious Titanic. Not only was she the largest ship ever built, she was the grandest. And she was brand-new!
Lucy linked her arm through her mother’s. “Did you hear that, Mama?” she asked in a cheerful voice. “That gentleman said the Titanic is unsinkable!” Lucy hoped the words would comfort her mother. “Isn’t that right, Father?” She looked over her shoulder at her father with a broad smile, hoping he would offer some reassurance of his own. Her mother was easily overwhelmed—especially lately—and what with the noise, the train ride to Southampton, the crowds swirling below them, and the seven-day sea crossing ahead, Elisabeth Miles already looked rather pale.
“Father?” Lucy repeated a bit louder. But Phillip Miles didn’t seem to hear her. He was staring intently into the crowd of people below who had come to see the massive ship off on its maiden voyage, as though looking for something. Or someone. Lucy’s smile faded as she studied his face. His moustache was so large it hid most of his mouth, but it was not big enough to cover his twisted scowl.
Never mind, Lucy told herself, turning back to her mother and the massive Titanic. Her father just needed to get away from London, to leave his business concerns behind. Once he sailed away from the day-to-day distractions, the three of them would be able to have the family holiday she had longed and waited for. After all, they were traveling to America! To New York City, where her mother had been born. Lucy was looking forward to staying with her uncle Julian and aunt Millie, and all of her cousins.
Lucy felt her mother teeter a bit on the gangplank, and deftly steadied her. “What is it?” she asked, following her mother’s backward gaze. Elisabeth did not answer, but it was clear that her husband’s scowl had caused the misstep. Lucy opened her mouth to speak, trying to think of something to distract her mother from her father’s pronounced sourness, when Abby O’Rourke, their new maid, spoke first.
“Oh, look, Lady Elisabeth!” the maid cried, her blue eyes wide. She shifted one of the hatboxes she was carrying—they were too delicate to leave to the stewards—so she could point to a gray-striped cat making her way down another, far less busy gangplank below them with a kitten in her mouth. The small mama cat made the trip three times as the Miles party made their way slowly up the other gangplank, settling each of her babies in an empty cargo crate on the dock.
“She’s a diligent mother, isn’t she?” Elisabeth noted.
“Indeed,” Abby replied. “Although I wonder why she’s disembarking with her little family before we’ve even set sail?”
“Perhaps the Titanic is so new there aren’t enough mice on board to keep the kittens fed,” Lucy offered, turning back to her mother. But Elisabeth wasn’t looking at the cats any longer. She was gazing intently into the crowd of people below.
“Phillip, that man there. He’s calling your name,” she said, pointing at someone in the crowd.
Indeed, the man in the crowd was hard to miss. He was large and rough-looking, with a broad face. He waved his arms angrily and shouted, “Miles! Phillip Miles!”
Lucy turned to her father to ask who the man was, but he didn’t acknowledge her. He focused his attention in the precise opposite direction, and appeared suddenly eager to get to the top of the gangplank and through the carved double doors.
Looking back, Lucy caught sight of the man once more and saw him take off his cap and wave it in the air, signaling someone else while still pointing at her father. She tried to look in the direction the man was wav
“My, my, what a ship!” he exclaimed, his scowl turning into a stiff smile. “White Star clearly spared no expense on this enormous tub!”
Lucy thought tub was an odd word for such a glorious liner, but she had to agree with her father’s assessment as she joined him inside the lovely white-paneled room. The carved ceilings, the plush carpet, the turned bannisters … everything was opulent down to the tiniest details! The Titanic was so ornate she felt as if she’d boarded a floating palace, and all thoughts of the shouting man promptly disappeared.
Abby O’Rourke craned her neck as she made her way toward the Titanic’s first-class entrance. But she wasn’t trying to get a look inside the beautiful ship—she was searching for the large yellow steamer trunk that was supposedly being loaded with the rest of the Miles family luggage. She’d checked the tag herself, making sure it had the red-and-white circular label with the correct stateroom. But hadn’t Master Miles complained that luggage on steamships often went missing? With over thirteen hundred passengers and their many trunks, suitcases, crates, and even medicine chests, it was a wonder that anything made it to its proper place.
Apprehension prickled at the back of Abby’s neck. The yellow steamer could not get lost.
“Abigail, is everything all right?” Miss Lucy was peering at her intently, which unnerved Abby even further. She still hadn’t grown accustomed to working for a girl the same age she was, but she was trying to adjust … to so many things.
“Of course, Miss,” she replied. “It’s just so beautiful.” Abby was embarrassed that she’d let her distraction show. Her mother—the Mileses’ previous maid—would have never let her own thoughts get in the way of her work. “My concerns are of no concern,” Maggie had explained to her daughter more than once. Abby knew the same was supposed to be true of her. She was in service now. Her opinion had no place, and her attention was to be on Mistress Elisabeth and Miss Lucy, and nothing else, at all times.
Abby closed her eyes for the briefest of moments, pushing back the grief that lived just below the surface. If her mother were still alive, Abby wouldn’t even be a maid.
Inside the first-class entrance, a smartly dressed steward was handing the gentlemen flowers to wear in their lapels. He extended a perfect yellow carnation to her master, but Phillip Miles batted it away. “I don’t wear flowers,” he gruffed.
The steward looked momentarily taken aback, but quickly adjusted his face into an unreadable expression. “Of course, sir. It’s entirely up to you.”
“I should say so,” Master Miles replied. Abby bristled at her master’s rudeness. Though it was hardly unexpected, it was completely unnecessary. The man was only doing his job!
Phillip Miles stepped up to a second steward and handed over three first-class boarding cards and one second-class boarding card with a flourish. “Stateroom for us,” he said. “Nothing but the best for my girls. And the maid will be fine on a separate deck. Isn’t that right, O’Rourke?”
“Of course, sir,” Abby replied.
“We are offering tours of the first-class sections of the ship if you’d like to accompany your steward,” the man holding the boarding passes said, gesturing toward a line of young men in uniform.
“Oh, that sounds wonderful!” Lucy exclaimed. “May we, Father?”
“I could start to unpack your things,” Abby said, seizing the opportunity. A little time away from the Miles family was precisely what she needed.
“You can do more than just start,” Master Miles replied brusquely. “You can bloody well finish!” Abby stood up straighter. She was careful not to react to her master’s swearing, but saw the ladies around them cringe. “You’d think a girl your age would be quick, and yet you’re so much slower than your mother ever was.”
“I don’t know about a tour,” Mistress Elisabeth said, interrupting her husband’s rant. “I’m exhausted from all the commotion.”
Lucy took ahold of her mother’s hand. “Oh, Mother, please?” she pleaded. “I’m sure we’d only be in Abigail’s way, and there’s so much to see.”
Abby much preferred Miss Lucy calling her by her first name. In her mind, O’Rourke would always be her mother’s service name, not her own.
Elisabeth smiled wanly at her only child. “Oh, all right, Lucy,” she said with a little nod. “But only if it’s not terribly long.”
“You can slip out of the tour whenever you like,” the steward assured them. “The time spent is at your discretion, of course.”
Abby tried not to show her relief at the realization that she really was going to get a reprieve from the entire Miles family, if only for a few minutes.
“Well, what are you waiting for, girl?” Master Miles barked at Abby as he prodded his wife and daughter toward the steward who was to take them on their personalized tour. “This voyage is not a vacation for you. I expect you to be as industrious on the Titanic as you are in London. Get to work!”
Abby narrowed her eyes at her master’s back as he and his family walked away. He never missed an opportunity to shout at her, or point out her failings. Or anyone else’s, for that matter.
As the group passed through the far set of double doors she heard passengers remarking on the glass-domed staircase. Everyone, it seemed, was enthralled by the Grand Staircase. Abby wanted to pause and gaze at the beautiful sight herself—it was a wonder with its intricately carved oak, sweeping curves, and winged figure lamp—but she had more pressing matters to deal with.
After getting directions from another steward, she hurried to board an elevator behind the opulent staircase. She suspected the elegant lift was the fastest route to the Mileses’ suite, and she did not know how long her freedom would last. Though she’d only been doing her mother’s job for a couple of months, Abby understood that Elisabeth Miles was prone to fits of fatigue and might remain on the tour for only a few minutes before retiring to her stateroom to rest.
Following the steward’s instructions, she found the Mileses’ stateroom on B deck. The small plaque on the door said “Gregorian,” and when Abby stepped inside she couldn’t help but gasp. The suite was glorious! It had curved paneled walls covered in golden damask with carved arches outlined in gold, and the paint on the shining white trim was so fresh she could still smell it. The fittings were more ornate and beautiful than those inside the Mileses’ mansion in London! The family would have plenty of space during their voyage, for their quarters included two dressing rooms, two bedrooms, a sitting room, and a private bathroom.
Before Abby could latch the door there was a rap, and two harried-looking bellboys, not much older than she was, appeared to deliver the family’s luggage. Abby bit her lip as she scanned the pile of suitcases and trunks, looking for something yellow …
Finally, she spotted it. “This one here belongs in cabin D twenty-two,” she told the bellboy, looking at her boarding pass to confirm. The boy looked from the steamer, to her, and back to the steamer. He double-checked the label.
“You sure?” he asked doubtfully. “The label says it belongs right here.”
Abby couldn’t tell if the bellboy was lazy or worried about getting into trouble, but she straightened up, squared her shoulders, and tried to speak with authority. “D twenty-two,” she repeated, rapping three times on the trunk for emphasis.
“Oh, all right,” the bellboy agreed, shrugging. He took a breath and hoisted the trunk. “What do you have in here, rocks?” he asked as he steadied his legs against the weight.
Abby felt a tingle of alarm, but did not pause in situating the Mileses’ luggage for orderly unpacking. There were so many cases! She opened the trunks with the gowns and overcoats and hurriedly hung them in the large armoire. With that accomplished, she moved on to neatly placing undergarments, hats, and gloves in the many drawers. She unpacked pair after pair of shoes, running a cloth ov
The moment the last case was emptied and put away, Abby hurried out of the stateroom in search of her own cabin and the yellow steamer. She rushed down a corridor, a set of stairs, and another corridor. But wait—how did she get all the way down to E deck? Turning back, she went up a flight of stairs and found D deck. But here the cabin numbers were too high.
Her worry mounting, Abby backtracked again and somehow found the correct corridor. And then, finally, D 22. Letting out an enormous sigh of relief, she pushed open the door.
Isabella stood in the mass of swirling strangers on gangway E with tears streaming down her pale face.
“You’re late,” the scowling doctor barked. He peered into her eyes and ears, jerking her head back and forth as he checked her for signs of illness. “I don’t know why you people think you can arrive at the last minute and expect to pass your medical exam in time to board. We can’t have infectious diseases ruining Titanic’s maiden voyage.”
The Titanic, Isabella thought, fighting back a fresh wash of tears that blurred the enormous boat looming before her.
“You won’t be allowed on if we find anything, you know,” the doctor snapped as his rough hands began to search her dark curls for lice.
I don’t want to board! Isabella shouted in her head. I want to go home!
The doctor leaned forward, peering through a magnifying glass at her scalp. His foul breath lingered in front of her face, nearly making her gag. Squeezing her eyes shut and trying not to inhale, she silently prayed that he would find lice and she would be turned away.
It hadn’t been until they’d reached the docks at Southampton and the massive ship loomed into view that Isabella had begun to grasp her parents’ intentions. And even then it had been too horrible for her to believe. She was being shipped off to the other side of the Atlantic! She’d turned to them as it dawned on her, searching their faces for a sign that it wasn’t true. That she wasn’t such a burden to them that they would have to send her away …