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APRIL 1912, THE NORTH ATLANTIC
The luxury liner plowed remarkably smoothly through the night. That fact was appreciated by the tall, handsome ("arrogantly handsome," an admirer had once called him) man who stood in the middle of the promenade deck, his arms resting on the rail and his hands clasped. He had also been appreciative of the fact that from the moment the ship had disembarked from Southampton four days earlier, he had been the target of a half-dozen flirtatious women and the topic of conversation of a dozen more. But as thirty-year-old J.P. Winthrop stood looking out over the North Atlantic Ocean, a cold breeze ruffling his black hair, he was unable to distract his mind from busily replaying the music he had just been listening to -- music that brought back bittersweet memories.
After dinner the ship's orchestra had presented a concert in the Louis Seize lounge on A deck, and those first-class passengers attending were served coffee at the small tables under the palms as they listened. The concert had ended with a selection from Les Contes d'Hoffman, Offenbach's opera about softly lighted Venetian balconies, star-crossed lovers, gliding gondolas, and roisterous students celebrating the joy of youth. By coincidence J.P. had attended the same opera just a month earlier, and now, in midocean, sailing through the darkness under a brilliant vault of stars, this moment seemed like a curtain call. The feeling was heightened by the fact that the woman he loved -- his own star-crossed love -- was on board this very ship.
He sighed and focused on the water. It was ten-thirty, the cold night air was clear and sharp, andfrom this perspective he had a magnificent view. Though there was no moon, the stars were so bright that he could observe the gently rolling sea from horizon to horizon. The dark surface was given texture by whitecaps that flickered like a hundred thousand candle flames when the waves spilled over. Looking down fifty feet to the waterline, he could see phosphorescent fish glowing in the sea.
"Don't tell me the heartthrob of every young maiden on this ship is out here all alone," a woman's voice teased. "Have you been abandoned by your harem, J.P.? Or have you abandoned them?"
Though he felt his heart leap, he laughed easily and turned to face the strikingly beautiful young woman standing behind him. She had just stepped through the door from the first-class lounge.
"Perhaps it's a little of both," he said.
"Well, then you won't mind if I join you?"
"Not at all." With a sweeping gesture of his arm, he indicated the empty promenade deck. "There's plenty of room, as you can see."
"It was a lovely concert, wasn't it?"
"Yes," J.P. agreed. "I enjoyed it very much."
"It was sad, though, the lovers coming so close, yet never finding happiness.
This wasn't a chance meeting. J.P. knew the woman far too well to think that. She was Lady Lucinda Chetwynd-Dunleigh, née Delacroix. Eight years ago her father had arranged a union for her -- joining American money and English nobility. The marriage had enriched her husband by one million dollars and provided her with a title. She was now the wife of an English earl and the mother of a six-year-old boy whose own title was bigger than he was. She once joked that it had taken three hundred years of English peerage to make her a lady... though her remark had not been very well received by the formal, stiff-necked men and women of her husband's social class.
"Brrr," Lucinda said, shivering and pulling her fur coat tighter around her. "I don't care if it is spring, it's freezing out here." She looked so beautiful and vulnerable that J.P.'s impulse was to reach for her and put his arms around her. But he didn't.
Lucinda was his star-crossed lover. She was the first woman he had ever been intimate with and the only one he had ever truly loved. At one time J.P. had entertained the idea that Lucinda might marry him. But that wasn't to be.
She looked down at the ocean. "It really is quite beautiful, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is."
"Have you seen the ship's wake?" she asked. "I'm always fascinated by the wake, the way it churns and shines so white against the black sea. I have a theory about wakes, you know. Would you like to hear it?"
She looked up at him, and J.P. thought she had never been more beautiful than she was at this very moment. Her blond hair gleamed golden in the light from the wall sconce just behind them, and her green eyes sparkled as she gazed intently at him. He involuntarily shivered. Perhaps it was the power of suggestion or perhaps it was being in her presence -- or perhaps it was because he was wearing only the evening clothes he had worn at dinner and no overcoat.
"You're cold, too?" Lucinda asked.
"Lean against me," she offered. "You'll get some warmth from my coat.
"Obediently J.P. leaned against her and found she was right. He did realize some warmth from the fur of her coat. Though he didn't want to admit it, not even to himself, he was also warmed by his proximity to her. Above the smell of the sea he could smell her perfume and the essence of her own sweet scent.
"You didn't answer me," she reminded him. Smiling, she reached up, familiarly brushing back a lock of his hair that had fallen onto his forehead, and J.P. wished that there were but the two of them in the world at this moment. He damned all the accursed bright lights of this ship. "Would you like to know my theory about wakes?" she repeated.
"Yes," he replied, his voice somewhat louder than he had intended. "Yes, of course I would."
"Good. Well, I believe that, like a ship, our lives also leave wakes, and if we could follow that wake backward, very fast -- say, in the fastest motorboat -- we would see our lives unfolding again. Isn't that an interesting theory?
"J.P. chuckled. "Perhaps it is, but the question remains: How many people would really want to do that? Who would want to go back and have to relive earlier parts of life?"
"I would," Lucinda said, her voice somber. "I would especially like to go back if, in so doing, I could alter the course of my life at a certain, critical juncture." Her large eyes grew deep and serious, and she turned to study him. "I think you know which critical juncture I'm talking about," she added.
J.P. didn't respond, and for a long moment there was no sound except the subdued throb of the ship's engines and the quiet slap of water against the ship's hull. Then a sudden peal of laughter burst forth from the lounge, where a marathon game of bridge was in progress and had been for most of the day and evening.
"Have you nothing to say to me about that, J.P.?"
"Would you really want to change anything, Lucinda?" he asked. "Consider your son."
Lucinda let out a long sigh. "Yes," she finally said. "Yes, of course, one must consider Jimmy. He is a dear child, and I love him so. Still, one must hang on to the memories and the dreams of what might have been. Or else how could one go on?"
There was another exuberant peal of laughter from inside. Lucinda turned away from the rail and looked back toward the light shining through the diamond-shaped, leaded-glass window at the top of the door.
"Listen to them in there," she said. "Dear old Alex must be in rare form tonight, regaling the others around the card table with his ribald tales."
"Sir Alex is a likable man and an entertaining fellow," J.P. said. "In these last few days I have come to consider him my friend."
"Yes, and he considers you his friend as well," Lucinda said. "And I must confess that I also find him quite charming... as a friend." She turned toward J.P. and put her fingers on his cheek. "But you must know that you were more than a friend. Much more." She leaned against him, opening the folds of her coat, and J.P. could feel the soft warmth of her thigh through her silken evening dress. "Dear, dear J.P. Do you never think of me anymore? Do you never recall that afternoon in my friend's apartment when we--"
J.P. reached up and clutched her wrist, then pulled her hand away from his cheek -- not roughly, but firmly. "Lucinda, this is very poor form."
Lucinda laughed. "Ah, yes, and we mustn't forget form, must we? But then it wasn't I who reentered your life, J.P. It was you who reentered mine, remember? I was quite happy and content... well, at least resigned to life as the Countess of Dunleigh. I had no idea you would show up last week."
"I told you why I went. When I learned that you and Sir Alex had booked passage on this voyage, I thought it'd be good to come see you and inform you that I, too, would be making the crossing. After all, it's been nearly eight years since we went our separate ways. We've both made new lives for ourselves since then."
"And yet you never married," Lucinda said. It was a statement, not a question.
"No. I never married."
"Why didn't you?"
"I don't know. My work as an art buyer for the J.P. Morgan collection, I suppose. It takes me all over the world, and I'm not sure a wife would appreciate or understand such long separations."
"No," Lucinda countered, "we both know that's not why you never married. You never married because you have never stopped loving me."
"Lucinda, please," J.P. said softly. "This is getting us nowhere."
"If you won't confess it to me, then I'll confess it to you." She put her fingers on his cheek again, and he was amazed at the heat they generated. "I love you, J.P. I have never stopped loving you." She tried to embrace him, but he turned away from her, leaving her arms grasping at empty air.
"No!" he said sharply. "No, I won't let you degrade yourself like this."
Lucinda's long sigh signaled defeat. "Yes," she finally said quietly. She shivered again. "Well, it is getting a bit too cold out here at that. Perhaps I had better go back in." She started for the door, then turned back toward him. "You are having breakfast at our table in the morning?"
"Yes, of course," J.P. answered. He smiled. "I promised Jimmy."
"I know. And we mustn't disappoint Jimmy, must we?"
He watched her step through the doorway, then turned back to stare out at the sea. This voyage had been a monumental mistake. He had told himself and others that he chose to make the crossing on the Titanic because it was the maiden voyage of the newest, biggest, fastest, most elegant ship afloat, and he wanted to be a part of it. But the truth was much more fundamental than that: He chose to make this passage because he had read in the newspaper that Lord and Lady Alex Percival Chetwynd-Dunleigh and son would be on board. He thought he would test himself, to see if, after eight years, he could be in such close proximity to Lucinda and not be affected by it. Now even that bit of subterfuge was peeled away for the sham it was. He was on this ship for one reason and one reason only: He had to be close to her. He was still in love with Lucinda, and she had just confessed to him that she was still in love with him. But she was married to one English lord and was the mother of another.
Star-crossed lovers. J.P. had never been more miserable in his life.
"Good evening, Mr. Winthrop."
Turning, J.P. saw the assistant radio operator, Harold Bride, his white uniform crisp and sparkling, hurrying along the deck. Bride was coming from the direction of the radio shack, where earlier this afternoon J.P. had sent a radiogram to his employer, J. Pierpont Morgan, informing the financier that he had just closed the deal on the Monet he had gone to Europe to buy for Morgan's renowned art collection.
"Good evening, Mr. Bride," J.P. responded, and then he turned back to resume his vigil over the sea.
Harold Bride hurried on to the bridge, where he handed a sheet of paper to William Murdoch, the officer on watch.
"Thank you," Murdoch replied.
Captain E.J. Smith, fifty-nine years old and distinguished looking with white hair and beard, was puffing on a pipe as he studied the chart that marked the ship's progress. He glanced up as the message was passed.
"What is it, Mr. Murdoch?" he asked.
"More warnings of icebergs, Captain," Murdoch answered. "One from the French liner Touraine and another from the German ship Amerika.
"Were the messages sent specifically to us?" Captain Smith asked.
"Aye, sir, they were. Should I reduce speed?"
Captain Smith stroked his beard for a moment. They had been proceeding at just over twenty-two knots for four days on what promised to be a record crossing. The air was clear, the sea was as calm as a millpond, and the ship was behaving so beautifully that its motion was barely discernible. "Have we someone aloft?" Smith asked.
"Aye, sir, two men. Seamen Fleet and Lee are in the crow's nest."
"Ah, good, good. I know both of them; they're responsible, sober young men. We'll continue at this speed, but pass the word to all hands to be particularly alert."
"Aye, aye, sir."
Smith knocked out his pipe, then slipped it down into his jacket pocket. "I'll be turning in now."
"Very good, sir," Murdoch replied. "I'll continue heading and speed unless otherwise directed by circumstances."
"In which case I want to be informed," Smith added as he left the bridge on the way to his quarters.
Several decks below the bridge, in the third-class compartment, Karl Tannenhower, a nineteen-year-old immigrant from Germany, sat at a table in the dining hall/recreation lounge, playing chess with Tim O'Leary, an equally young immigrant from Ireland.
Physical opposites -- one blond, the other black-haired; one burly, the other slim -- the two young men had taken to each other immediately on their first day out of Southampton. Karl was about two inches the shorter though probably forty pounds heavier. The additional weight was all muscle, for he had a bull-like neck, broad shoulders, and very powerful arms as the result of his hobby of lifting weights. Unable to bring his dumbbells due to weight and space restrictions, but wanting to stay fit, Karl had improvised, and the first night out he had startled Tim and the other men sharing his compartment by repeatedly lifting one of the heavy lockers over his head.
Karl and Tim had quickly discovered a shared passion for chess, playing innumerable games since setting sail. This particular game had started shortly after they had eaten supper. Now, with but a moment's deliberation, Karl took Tim's rook.
"Ouch, 'tis a cruel assassin you are," Tim complained.
Karl laughed. "But it was you who put the rook at risk with your bold play," he countered.
"Aye, I am a bit of the bold one now, aren't I?" Tim replied with a good-natured laugh. He studied the pieces silently for a moment, then remarked, "So 'tis to St. Louis you'll be going now, I believe you said."
"Yes," Karl answered.
"Why such a place?"
"My uncle owns a brewery there. Why do you call St. Louis 'such a place'? Do you know of some evil in the city I should avoid?"
"I mean nothin' by the remark, for I know nothin' of St. Louis," Tim said. " 'Tis Boston for the likes of my kind. 'Tis said that Boston has nearly as many Irish as Dublin itself. Strange, isn't it, how a particular city in a foreign country can attract so many from one place?"
"Yes," Karl agreed. "For Germans it is St. Louis and Milwaukee."
"Tell me, Karl, if your uncle owns a brewery, why is it then that you're not crossin' in second class? Or even first? Surely a man such as your uncle must be wealthy. I'd be thinkin' he'd want his nephew to make the crossin' with all the proper ladies and gentlemen."
Karl laughed. "My uncle did send me the money for first-class fare, but I thought that an unnecessary extravagance. Besides, where would I find better people than the friends I have made here?" he asked, taking in the big room with a broad sweep of his large hands. "I would much rather save the money, for I have a feeling I will be needing it when I start school. You see, I am going to attend a university in America. My uncle has written of it. He says it is a fine institution, as fine as the University of Heidelberg."
"And would this fine school be Harvard, now?" Tim asked. "Sure and I've heard of Harvard, though few of my countrymen attend, I'm told. But I didn't know Harvard was in St. Louis." He moved one of his chessmen, then looked up at Karl, smiling. "Handle that one, lad," the Irishman challenged.
Karl responded with his own move, then said, "Check."
"Check?" Tim asked, clearly surprised by the sudden turn of events and studying the board intently.
"No, it is not Harvard," Karl said, finally answering Tim's question. "It is Jefferson University. It is named after an American president."
"I've never heard of the place or the man." Tim let out a sigh, then began taking his pieces from the board. "You're too good for me," he said. "Would you like to be gettin' a beer, then, and seein' what the fair lassies are doin'?"
"I think that would be nice," Karl agreed, getting up from the table and draping a casual arm around his companion's shoulder.
It was important that the immigrants at least got along with one another, for sleeping accommodations for those in steerage consisted of compartments comprised solely of multiple tiers of bunks. Located deep in the bowels of the ship, those for the women were way back at the stern, while those for the men were far forward in the bow. When not actually in bed, the men and women congregated in the large, rather sterile dining hall that acted as a boundary between the two sets of compartments. It was also the recreation lounge, and a piano had been provided at one end, though any music the instrument produced would have to come from the passengers themselves. Fortunately there were enough steerage passengers with musical talent that someone was playing all the time. A few passengers even had their own instruments, so that on a few occasions an entire band was formed. The only difficulty seemed to lie in finding music that everyone in this diverse ethnic mix liked: Some of the music appealed to eastern Europeans, some to western Europeans, some to the Irish, some to the Jews, and some was uniquely American. Fortunately, there were always some songs that had broken out of their compartmentalized ethnic origins to become widely enjoyed.
The band performing at the moment was made up of several American college students, returning to the States after a tour of the Continent. They were playing "Alexander's Ragtime Band," one of those pieces having a universal appeal, and dozens of young men and women from all ethnic groups were dancing to the music.
A smile on his face, Karl stood listening to the music while imagining his future in America -- a prospect he greatly looked forward to.
Beneath the party going on in third class, way down in the hold, the men of the "black gang" were stripped to the waist, laboring to keep the fires stoked. Some of the men worked in the coal bunkers, shoveling the gritty black chunks into wheelbarrows. Others, called trimmers, would then push the loaded wheelbarrows from the bunkers to the furnaces, where they'd tip them up at the doors, propelling the coal into the roaring flames.
The ship's engines had a voracious appetite, and nearly one hundred tons of coal were consumed during every watch. Though lighted by dozens of electric lights, the room was nevertheless dark because the air was always thick with coal dust. Occasionally one of the men would be silhouetted against the open mouth of a furnace, looking for all the world like a demon stepping out of the fires of hell itself.
A constant din filled the room: the slap of shovels digging into the coal, the clanging of furnace doors opening and closing, the throb of the reciprocating engines driving the outboard propellers, the hum of the turbine driving the center-line propeller, and the whine of the dynamos generating the ship's electricity. Twenty-four of the twenty-nine boilers were lit, watched over by the officers on duty and tended to by the unrelenting, backbreaking labor of the men of the black gang.
It may have been freezing up on deck, but down in the engine room the men had to be watched closely for signs of heat exhaustion. To prevent that from happening, more than forty fans were spinning, providing much-needed circulation of the air. Despite the grueling conditions, these men were proud to be in service on such a mighty vessel.
Far above all this, up on the promenade deck, J.P. Winthrop finally turned away from the railing and went back inside. Passing through the lounge, he glanced over toward the card game. It had drawn over a dozen spectators, for all the participants were exceptionally skilled, as was evidenced by some well-played rubbers. At the other end of the room, the orchestra, its members formally dressed, had returned from the concert in the Louis Seize room and was now playing dance music, currently a waltz. A few couples were gliding around the highly polished dance floor, while others sat in quiet conversation at tables. John Jacob Astor and his wife were seated with several other august passengers, including Sir Cosmos and Lady Duff-Gordon and J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line. Astor waved at J.P. as the younger man walked across the lounge, and J.P. waved back.
Reaching the grand staircase, J.P. climbed it to his deck, then walked down the long carpeted corridor to his cabin and let himself in with his key. He closed the door behind him and was about to turn on the light when he had the certain feeling that someone was in his suite.
"Is someone in here?" he asked anxiously, reaching for the light switch.
"No, leave the light off," a woman said from the darkness.
J.P. immediately recognized the voice. "Lucinda!" he gasped. "What are you doing in here? How did you get in?"
"I bribed one of the stewards," she admitted. "And as for what I'm doing in here... well, I suppose that all depends on you, doesn't it?
"The cabin wasn't totally dark because a wedge of light spilled in over the transom. As J.P.'s eyes adjusted to the gloom, he located Lucinda. And when she moved slightly so that she was standing in the ambient light, he knew why she was here. She was totally naked and offering herself to him.
"Lucinda, my God," J.P. whispered.
She didn't respond. Instead, she started toward the bedroom of his suite. She didn't ask him to follow, but it was clear that she knew he would.
"Woman, do you know what you are doing?" J.P. asked in a choked voice.
"Do you want me?"
"Yes, of course, but--"
"Then, please, ask no questions," she implored.
"But you shouldn't be here," he insisted. Even as he spoke the words, he knew he was only paying lip service to his conscience. It had gone too far now, and he wasn't sure he would let her leave even if she suddenly changed her mind.
"Still in your evening clothes? I'm surprised at you, J.P. You've never been known to be improperly dressed for any occasion." She laughed at her own joke.
"If I'm improperly dressed, perhaps I should do something about it," he replied, jerking out the knot in his bowtie and rapidly unbuttoning his shirt.
"I was sure you would want to be correct," Lucinda quipped.
A moment later he was as naked as she, and when she lay back on his bed holding her arms up toward him in invitation, he went to her quickly.
He ran his hands over her naked flesh, reveling in the smooth silkiness of her skin and the soft curves of her body, becoming more aroused than he ever thought possible. The churning in the pit of his stomach turned to a roaring fire, and his caresses grew more fevered.
Suddenly Lucinda pulled away. She lay on the bed beside him, looking at him with an intensity he could measure, even in the darkness.
"Do you want me, J.P.?"
"My God, yes!" he answered, now barely able to control his surging desire.
"Then tell me."
He reached for her, but she pushed him away.
"No, I mean it. You must tell me that you want me. Don't you understand, J. P.? I have to know that this isn't all one-sided, that I'm not a fool for throwing myself at you like this."
"Lucinda, I want you more than I have ever wanted anyone or anything. I'll die if I don't have you," J.P. said fervently.
"J.P.?" Lucinda said.
"I love you, you know. I have always loved you."
He moved over her then, and he felt her adjusting herself to him, spreading her legs and arching her body so he was able to slip into her. As the connection was made, he felt sensations that he realized he had felt only once before. That time, as now, it had been with this woman.
And in his present state of sexual inebriation, he wasn't sure that this wasn't that time. Perhaps, somehow, he had actually managed to follow that wake backward, as Lucinda had suggested, and this was then and then was now. It was as if all his dreams, musings, and desires had come together in this one, intense instant in the continuum of eternity.
J.P. was consumed by the white heat and demanding passions of the woman beneath him. He felt himself dissolving through that part of him that was most sensitive; then, in one, explosive moment, he believed that his essence was moving down and out through that connection between them, until he was a part of her and she a part of him.
Minutes later, totally spent as if he had just run a race, he lay with Lucinda in his arms, feeling the tiny quivers and aftershocks from her body as she slowly coasted down from her climax. He brushed her blond hair back from her forehead and kissed her gently.
"This was the first time I have made love in well over six years," Lucinda said quietly.
Surprised, J.P. raised himself on one elbow and looked down at her. "What?"
"It's true," she said. "Alex has become completely incapable of making love. I... I don't know why. It isn't something he'll talk about."
In the near-darkness her features weren't discernible. He wished he could see her eyes and try to read them. He lay back down on the pillow with his arms folded behind his head, staring up at the ceiling. "I'm sorry you told me," he said after a long pause.
"Because now I'll never know if..." He let the thought drop, uncompleted.
Lucinda chuckled softly. "You'll never know if I came to your bed because I love you or because I needed a man. Is that it?"
"I didn't say that."
"You didn't have to. That's what you're wondering." She sat up and looked down at him.
"I didn't mean it exactly the way you made it sound," J.P. said.
Lucinda touched his shoulder; J.P. took her hand and raised it to his lips, then kissed it."
J.P.," she said, "if I had just needed a man, I've had several opportunities over the years. Don't you understand? I didn't want just any man... I wanted you."
There was a slight bump. The ship shuddered a bit, then continued on.
As did J.P. and Lucinda.
"My word! Did you see that?" one of the kibitzers at the card game asked.
"See what?" another one asked back.
"An iceberg! I saw it pass the windows there. We just scraped by an iceberg! l mean, it was so close that had I been on the promenade deck, I would have been able to reach out and touch it!"
Alex Chetwynd-Dunleigh held up his glass. "Excellent!" he said. "My drink needs more ice. Be a good fellow, will you, and see if you can get some of that iceberg for me."
The others laughed.
"Well, you can laugh if you wish, but I intend to register a complaint with the White Star Line office when we reach New York," the first onlooker said. "There is no excuse for our coming that close to an iceberg. Those things can be quite dangerous."
"Listen," one of the players abruptly said, looking around.
"Listen to what?"
"The engines have stopped."
The cardplayer half rose from his chair, but Alex motioned for him to stay put. "Where are you going?"
"To find out what is happening."
"Sit down and play," Alex instructed. "If we were really as close to an iceberg as all that, I expect we may have scraped off some of the paint. So they've probably stopped to retouch it. The captain doesn't want to arrive in New York with his new ship scratched up, now does he?"
Along with everyone else, the cardplayer laughed.
Captain Smith wasn't laughing. The moment he had felt the jolt, he got up from his bed, dressed quickly, then rushed to the bridge, which was right next door to his cabin.
"Mr. Murdoch, what was that?" he asked.
"An iceberg, sir," the officer on watch answered. "I put us hard to starboard and reversed the engines, and I was going hard to port around it, but it was too close. I couldn't do any more."
"Close the emergency doors." "The doors are already closed, sir.
"The captain nodded. "Let's keep a sharp eye."
"Sweet Jesus!" one of the immigrants exclaimed as he came into the steerage dining room. "I was just down in the mail room, and there's water comin' in down there!"
Copyright © 1992 by Robert Vaughan