From foggy dawn to starlit night: five endless days, endlessly repeating…
The message, handed to me at the end, seemed like nonsense. But after a while I began to understand. After a much longer time I knew who’d sent it…
I know the force which
draws objects together & ends with
Look back, see how events cluster and collide,
Drawn in by the celestial wash of Time,
leaving nothing but flotsam
bobbing in the
And as I ponder those words afresh, memories loom out of the mist like the sails of a schooner off the Grand Banks, skimming past my bridge with a tangible rush and barely a yard to spare. So close I can see the man on watch, and terror in the helmsman’s eyes…
I looked out on fog. Skeletal trees surrounded the house, lurking like phantoms in the pre-dawn murk. The cab arrived, the man stowing my bag while his horse blew patiently between the shafts. Having said my goodbyes, as a rule I didn’t look back; but this time, compelled to take one last glance, I rubbed at the glass as though I could clear it with my glove. The house with its turrets and gables was still there, my wife and daughter watching from the steps. They grew faint as the cab pulled away. We gathered pace and they were gone.
Hating mist and fog with the kind of passion most men reserve for long-term enemies, I was tempted to tell the cabbie to stop. But that would have flouted the cardinal rule: once set forth on a voyage, never go back.
I turned away, closing my mind to all that was dear to me.
Even so, I was fretting all the way to the docks. Rubbing my eyes every few minutes, listening to the heavy clip-clop of the horse’s hooves, my tension rising at every pause, every jingle of the reins, each hacking cough from the cabbie. Would we never get there? Anticipating trouble, my stomach tightened into a knot as I ran through all the likely hazards. Every one made worse by the fog.
At last, the South-Western Hotel loomed out of the greyness, red brick and white Portland stone a familiar landmark before the docks. I pictured the guests, many of them bound with me for New York, about to rise for breakfast and last minute packing. Perhaps it was my strange mood that morning, but the shrouded line of waiting cabs looked like a funeral procession.
We crossed the junction at Canute Road, turning by the Harbour Office to enter the realm of ships and the sea. Ahead I saw her, by some alchemy the biggest ship afloat – bigger even than her sister-ship Olympic – rising above the sheds, hull black as widow’s weeds, funnels veiled by mist and smoke.
Again, that sense of running against the clock. Fog surrounding me, time escaping, responsibility a weight on my back…
I pulled myself together. Quartermaster Perkis was on the gangway. As I bade him good morning he touched his cap and took my bag, handing it to my steward as he materialised by the main entrance. Paintin followed me along the deck and up to the bridge. Beyond the usual greeting, we didn’t speak. Paintin knew that with a dozen matters pressing as we prepared to sail at noon, I did not need to know the state of play in the catering department, nor that my new uniforms had arrived from the tailor. Most of all I did not want comments on the weather.
My quarters were behind the wheelhouse. Shrugging off my coat, I went through to the bedroom, quickly changing civilian clothes for the brass-bound uniform Paintin laid out for me. As my steward tidied away, I opened the dayroom door and hooked it back. Officially aboard now, and available.
The paperwork was waiting in my office. I checked certificates of sea-worthiness for the Board of Trade, and cast my eye over the Southampton crew-list. Customs declarations yet to be completed, but no cargo manifest as yet…
The new charts had come aboard in Belfast. Going through them again, extracting those for Southampton Water and the Solent, I checked the depth of water in the navigable channel against the current Tide Tables. Any ship could go aground on that notorious bend around the Bramble Bank, and with something this size it could be disastrous. After that last little difficulty with HMS Hawke, I needed to double-check for my own peace of mind.
Halfway through the calculations there came a tap at my dayroom door. I glanced back to see the Chief Engineer standing by with a sheaf of papers in his hand.
‘Good morning, Chief – come on through.’ I beckoned him in and set my figures aside. ‘How are you? Everything going well below?’
‘Engine room’s just about ready for departure, sir. Bunkers are topped off and signed for. But,’ Joe Bell lowered his voice, ‘I’m grieved to say that fire’s still smouldering in bunker number ten.’
Fire: the very word a stab of alarm.
‘Still going? I thought it wasn’t serious?’
He grimaced, his abundant moustache squirming. ‘Well, like I said yesterday, sir, it’s got to be in that Belfast coal at the base, but it’s getting to it, that’s the trouble. I’ve had the lads working on it constantly. Could do with another couple of days, to be honest.’
Blasted bunker fires – common enough, but no less dangerous for all that. And we were due to sail at noon. I weighed risk against necessity. ‘Is it likely to affect the structure?’
‘No,’ he said decisively. ‘It’s against the transverse bulkhead, not the double-bottoms. As soon as it’s cooled down we’ll let Mr Andrews’ men have a look.’ He squared his shoulders and turned for the door. ‘Never mind, sir. We’ll keep at it.’
I drew breath, quelling anxiety. ‘Thanks, Chief. Keep me informed.’
He would, I knew that. Joe Bell was sound, he’d been with me before. He knew the situation, knew we couldn’t afford not to sail on time, and once under way we had to keep up our speed. But he knew his men. If anyone could be guaranteed to solve a problem below decks, Joe Bell was the man.
Even so… New ship, maiden voyage, fire below decks: it was not a good beginning.
I forced my mind to more immediate matters, countersigned the Chief’s paperwork, placed my copies with other White Star receipts and returned to my calculations. I was almost done when I heard someone moving about in the wheelhouse. Glancing up I saw Henry Wilde’s broad back, his thick neck supporting a dark head slightly bowed as he studied something. The cargo manifest, no doubt.
Calling him in, I thanked him for agreeing to do this one last trip with me. Less than two weeks since we’d parted when Olympic docked, and my Chief Officer had been promised the big step up to command. But with all the strikes and so many ships laid up, his promotion was delayed. I felt he’d be better served here in the interim, at least until his future was clear. He’d joined Titanic only the day before, and was still making himself familiar with the layout.
‘Shaking down all right?’ An oft-repeated question, but it gave an opening.
‘Yes, sir, I think so. Not exactly like Olympic, is she? I thought she would be, but I’ve managed to lose myself twice so far, just doing the rounds.’
In truth, I was having similar problems, despite studying the blueprints and walking the ship. ‘You’ll manage,’ I said, because I knew he would. Wilde nodded, but I could tell something was bothering him. ‘Everything all right at home?’
With the slightest of shrugs he managed to indicate that things were as well as could be expected. Since the loss of his wife and twin babies the year before, his four young children were being cared for by a married sister in Liverpool. Hard for all concerned. My dear wife had said he needed time at home and I should let him be until the strike was truly over. But to my mind he was better off working than brooding ashore.
‘Well,’ I said with sympathy, ‘I’m sure your sister is doing her best. The children are bound to miss their mother – they’ll settle down in time.’ He nodded without much conviction. ‘It’s a disappointment, I know, not getting your command this time. It won’t be long though – things will soon return to normal now the pits are starting up again. Meantime, I’m more than glad to have you here.’
‘Yes, sir,’ he acknowledged politely, but his eyes were dull.
I had the strangest sense that I should have said something more – apologized maybe, for cutting short his leave. But surely he understood? With a new ship and no stand-by period beforehand, I needed my trusted men around me.
Just ten months ago, Olympic – the first of White Star’s huge new liners – had left Southampton amidst great fanfare, beginning her maiden voyage just as the Fleet was gathering in the Solent for the Coronation review. Once clear, we’d made good speed across the Atlantic – but that was the best part. With regard to service it had been chaotic, everyone strange to the huge new liner, time wasted by staff simply trying to find their way about. Passenger complaints by the dozen. So for this one trip I’d insisted on having Olympic’s senior officers with me. I told Mr Ismay in plain words, if the company wanted to make a good impression with this maiden voyage, then everything must work as smoothly as possible.
Delays over the past few months had been costly. Then there had been a swathe of strikes to contend with – the miners had been out since February and had only just agreed to go back to work. For two long months the country had been held to ransom as stocks ran down. And as dear Ellie remarked, people at home had been surviving on coal dust and clinkers. Trains were now running a limited service, but it would be weeks before things returned to normal.
As for ships, they were laid up in every port in the land – here in Southampton they were two and three deep. Many Atlantic liners were out of service but White Star had pulled every string, pushing cargo vessels aside to get to the head of the queue for bunkers. On my last trip from New York, we’d even carried American coal to ensure this new ship got away as advertised.
Despite some atrocious weather, I’d brought Olympic in on time; and she’d managed to leave on schedule with her new master. Some delayed passengers were travelling with us; others we’d gained from rival companies. I thought we’d be overwhelmed with bookings, but apparently not.
Casting my eyes down the list of First Class passengers brought in my Chief Purser, I felt more wearied than inspired. Many were regulars and known to me. The good, the bad and the downright difficult, all convinced of their own importance, all needing to have it acknowledged on a daily basis. There was one I had never met but knew by reputation. When I saw his name, Stead, an irrational shudder went through me.
‘A Jonah,’ I muttered. ‘That’s all we need.’
‘Ah, he’ll not bother us,’ McElroy grinned. ‘We’re bigger than that, sir.’
‘It’s what nonsense he’ll put in the other passengers’ heads – that’s what bothers me. You know he’s taken up table-rapping and all that claptrap? We don’t want any of that on board.’
‘Then we’ll just have to have a little word, sir, won’t we?’
‘Be sure you do,’ I said firmly.
McElroy would be discreet; jovial but insistent. That was his job and he did it well. Ellie said it was the Irish in him, and maybe she was right. He was a big man in his thirties, his round face and guileless eyes belying the sharp wits behind his smile. But he had charm in abundance, could entertain any company and soothe any fractious situation without raising a hair. Something told me we were going to need his expertise this trip.
As for William T Stead, Esquire, he was no more an esquire than I was, and not renowned for bowing to discretion. Indeed, he had made a profession of shouting his cock-eyed views to the world. I’d read in yesterday’s paper that the former editor of the Pall Mall Gazette was going to some kind of peace conference in New York – apparently the President himself had invited him to speak. Made me wonder – and I wasn’t the only one – just what Mr Taft was thinking.
I fingered the medal ribbons on my left breast. Earned during the South African War, transporting troops and evacuating the wounded, I was proud of what my men and I had done to support our country. While Mr Stead – and that crony of his, Lloyd George – had clearly been on the side of the Boers. It was just one thing that roused my ire. There were others I’d like to have tackled him with, but my job, apart from seeing us safely from port A to port B, was to play the diplomat. Just occasionally it was harder work than running the ship.
‘Who else have we?’ I ran my eye down the Cherbourg list, recognising several of the wealthiest names in America. My eye stopped at Mr and Mrs Morgan. Not Mr John Pierpont Morgan – he and Ismay together would have been a strain – but for some reason JP had already cancelled. I wondered aloud who these other Morgans could be. The Purser winked and quoted a bit of doggerel.
‘Would you like to sin with Elinor Glyn on a tiger skin…?’ At my blank look, McElroy sighed. ‘To be honest, sir, it’s not the lady author, but the sister, Lucile.’ Still mystified, I told McElroy to spell it out. ‘Lucile, sir, the famous couturier. Lady Duff-Gordon to you and me, travelling incognito with Sir Cosmo. And a small entourage, of course.’ He smiled wickedly. ‘Avoiding the newspapermen, I understand.’
‘Come to the wrong place, then, hasn’t she? She and Mr Stead will be playing cat and mouse all trip.’
‘We’ll have a word, sir.’
As McElroy left with his passenger lists, I rose from my desk and went outside for a breath of air. The day was brightening. Warmth was beginning to burn off the mist – the bridge was surrounded by drifting, sunlit wraiths. The real world might not have existed, but our funnels, buff and black, were spouting clouds of smoke into a hazy blue sky. Not long now. Making a swift plea to the Almighty, I prayed for the shrouds to lift.