By Morgan Llywelyn
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1998 Morgan Llywelyn
All rights reserved.
NED awoke with a start.
The atmosphere in the darkened cabin was warm and close, smelling of lavender wax and fresh linen. A goose down pillow cushioned his head; his pajamas were crisply ironed. But something was wrong.
That evening the dinner menu in the second-class dining saloon had included such exotic items as curried chicken and rice, roast turkey with cranberry sauce, cocoanut sandwich—and American ice cream! "Can I have a bite of everything?" he had asked hopefully. The waiter stifled a smile, but Mama frowned.
Ned was only fifteen years old, however, and this was the adventure of a lifetime, so at last she agreed. Mrs. Halloran could deny her children nothing.
By the time he returned to his cabin the boy was suffering from a stomachache. He undressed and crawled into bed without even washing his face in the basin, trusting a night's sleep to put matters right.
The last thing he remembered was a muffled throb like the beat of a giant heart lulling him into sleep ...
... until a jolt and a peculiar grinding noise startled him awake again.
He lay still for a few moments, disoriented. Then he sat up.
The whisper of breeze through the open porthole of his cabin had ceased, as had the rhythmic creaking of a ship in motion. Instead there was silence.
The muffled heartbeat had stopped.
Ned swung his legs over the side of the berth and groped on the floor with his bare feet, searching for his shoes—highly polished, store-bought shoes instead of his customary country brogans. At the same time his fingers reached for his woolen bathrobe, also new, lovingly sewn by his Aunt Norah and lined with red flannel from one of her old petticoats.
He had no intention of opening the cabin door until he was decently covered. Mama would be mortified.
Theresa Halloran continually worried about other people's opinions. Her guiding precept was not the strict morality of her Catholic faith but "What will the neighbors think?" When the tickets arrived she had found one pretext after another to call on every family she knew, up and down the country lanes of Clare. "My daughter Kathleen's fiancé is bringing us out to America for their wedding," she would announce during her visit, casually producing the tickets to show around while teacups clattered and slices of fruitcake were reduced to crumbs. "He has a very important position with the shipping line, so he does."
The entire family would not be going. Passage for only three was being provided by Kathleen's fiancé. "Is it not mean of him?" Theresa had complained to her husband in the privacy of their bed. "Sure an important man like himself could send for us all!" She sat up and pounded her pillow with a doubled fist.
"Be grateful for your blessings, love," Patrick Halloran had advised. "And while you're about it, would you ever get us another quilt?"
The couple had decided to take their second son. "As Frank is the oldest, he will be needed at home to mind the farm and his little sisters," Patrick had explained.
When Ned heard he was going to America he could hardly believe his good fortune. He was even to have his very own cabin on the ship! All his life he had shared a bed with Frank, who invariably fell asleep first and snored. Rushing out of the house, Ned turned cartwheels in the muddy Ennis road; a tall, wiry boy with an unruly mop of black curls, celebrating the prospect of a great adventure and the first concession to his burgeoning manhood.
That had been two months ago. Now, three days out of Queenstown Harbor, he sat on the edge of his berth in the dark, listening to silence.
His skin prickled with an atavistic warning.
"Wisha, lad, don't be letting your imagination run away with you," Mama would say; Mama, who heard banshees on the wind and shrieked aloud if someone brought whitethorn blossoms into the house.
Ned swallowed hard. Some intuition whose existence he had never suspected was ringing alarm bells in him. Yet at the same time he felt a curious thrill.
If the ship was in trouble ...
Perhaps the liner had been boarded by pirates!
If there were pirates they might have drugged the crew with the help of accomplices. Or they could be holding the captain at gunpoint.
Suppose some daring young man was able to sneak up behind the pirates and take them by surprise ...
Where could he find some sort of weapon? A pitchfork, for example; pitchforks were invaluable in times of trouble. But there would be no farm tools on a passenger liner. Guns, though ... there might at least be a gun. In the captain's cabin? Where would that be in relation to Middle Deck F?
Ned struggled to recall what he had learned about the ship's layout. His was an insatiable mind that absorbed information as readily as his mother's soda bread absorbed buttermilk.
The huge steamship was eleven storeys high, four city blocks long, and was carrying some thirteen hundred passengers. She even made her own electricity. There was no electrification in rural Ireland, so a ship glowing with unflickering light was a vision of heaven to Ned.
The vessel was like a small city, with a fully fitted gymnasium, a swimming pool and Turkish bath, even a replica of a Parisian sidewalk café for "the young set." Unparalleled comfort and luxury were provided. The Grand Staircase was five storeys high. First-class suites were decorated with valuable antiques and boasted electric heaters. Second-class had crystal light fixtures and elevators with wrought iron grillwork.
From the moment Ned saw the liner he had loved her. A sovereign of the seas, serene and assured, she encompassed everything a human could desire.
Ned's cabin on Middle Deck F was small by comparison to the more costly suites. Yet it contained a single mahogany-framed berth set against one wall with lockers over the bath, an upholstered couch on the opposite wall, another locker with fitted drawers, and a highly polished mahogany washstand with mirror, basin, and a concealed chamber pot. Robe hooks and soap dishes and drawer handles and porthole fittings were all of polished brass.
In that cabin Ned had felt like an egg-bound chick that had finally broken out of its shell into a larger and finer world. If the wonderful ship was in danger now, he, Edward Joseph Halloran, meant to fight for her!
But first he had better get fully dressed. One could hardly cut a heroic figure in a bathrobe, even a new one lined with red flannel.
The long white corridor was dimly lit. Through closed cabin doors he could hear the sound of voices, but there was no one in the passage. Ned looked left and right to be sure, then glanced at his parents' door. Should he knock and go in to them?
If he did, Papa would never let him go looking for pirates.
Ned set off down the corridor.
A white-jacketed steward emerging from a side passage startled him. "I'm after hearing something strange," Ned explained hastily, "and then there was a sort of jolt."
The man flicked him a distracted glance. "Everything's all right." Even as he spoke they heard a clanging crash somewhere below.
"It's nothing to worry about," the steward insisted. Brushing past Ned, he hurried on. At the far end of the corridor he knocked on a door and murmured something, then went to the next door.
The corridor seemed to have grown very cold.
As if carried on an invisible current, Ned resumed walking. Others were feeling the current too. First one cabin door and then another opened. People put out their heads and looked around, or emerged in varying degrees of undress. A stocky man wearing trousers and braces and a half-unbuttoned boiled shirt stepped from his cabin so abruptly he collided with Ned. "What's happening?" he demanded in a Liverpool accent.
Ned had noticed the Englishman earlier in the second-class dining saloon. A waiter had addressed him as "Mr. Otter" the name seemed comical then. Faced with the size and solidity of the man in the narrow passage, however, there was nothing amusing about him.
"I'm sure I don't know, sir," Ned replied with reflexive humility. "Be meek in the presence of your betters" was the motto drummed into Irish bones from birth to the grave.
The Englishman scowled into a pair of black-lashed green eyes that looked as if they had been put in the boy's face with a sooty thumb. "You're Irish, aren't you?" He made it sound like an accusation.
"I am, sir. From Clare, sir."
"Then what are you doing here? You belong in steerage."
Ned's chin lifted, displaying the scoilt, the inherited Halloran cleft. "I do not," he replied before he could stop himself. "My family has second-class passage. Bought and paid for."
"Is that so?" The man sounded skeptical. "You should go back before you're found out. Your people aren't allowed on this deck."
"I told you, we're traveling second-class. My father works for Lord Inchiquin," Ned offered as additional credentials.
"Never heard of 'im. You think that gives you the right to ape your betters?"
The boy's face flamed. "I have the right to be here."
"Your sort are always trying to act above their station. Did I not see you earlier with some other rascal from steerage, a redheaded lout? The two of you were sneaking into the second-class library."
"He's my friend," Ned argued, surprised at his own temerity, "and we were not sneaking. I invited him. I just wanted him to see all those books."
The Englishman's complexion mottled with anger. "You can't 'invite' steerage here! I'll have you both—"
But whatever he intended to say was interrupted by a shout echoing down the corridor. "They're uncovering the lifeboats!"
Suddenly the passage was filled with men and women milling in confusion, asking one another questions no one could answer. Stewards' bells began to ring throughout the ship.
"What's happening?" Otter repeated irritably. "Bloody nuisance, middle of the night ..." Turning away, he stumped off down the corridor like a man determined to set things to rights.
For all his unpleasantness, Otter was an adult and English and therefore doubly a figure of authority. Ned followed him.
They made their way up the second-class stairs and emerged on the portside boat deck. More passengers were gathering there, but no one seemed interested in getting into the lifeboats. On a bitter cold night in the middle of a vast ocean, it would be insane to leave the safety and comfort of a ship known to be invulnerable.
Ned's breath was a miniature version of the clouds of steam being exhaled from the four huge smokestacks towering above the deck.
Overhead glittered the indifferent stars. The sky had never looked so deep. From the lounge the sound of the ship's orchestra began to drift out over the water; they were playing a song Ned did not recognize.
Though the ship was dead in the water no one appeared alarmed. The mood was one of curiosity and amusement, as if an entertainment were being presented. The passengers were paying for the finest care in the world and expected nothing less. A few members of the crew circulated among them, making guesses as to the cause of the delay which were no better informed than those of the passengers themselves. A purser suggested the ship had lost a propeller. In reply to an irascible question from Mr. Otter, a junior officer claimed she had hit "some floating ice, but we'll be under way again soon."
Neither possibility seemed as dramatic to Ned as pirates, but the hope of seeing an iceberg sent him to the rail. He leaned as far out as he could and peered into the Atlantic night. No mountainous berg could be seen from his vantage point, but there were strangely glimmering islands floating on the black water. The air was shimmering with ice crystals and so dry and cold it burned the membranes of his nose.
A voice shouted, "There are huge chunks of ice on the starboard boat deck!"
"Let's go get some!" cried a young man. Several passengers set off at once, challenging one another to an impromptu hockey game. Ned trotted after them with a vague notion of finding Dan Duffy.
The adventure would be more fun with a friend.
NED had met Dan on the dock at Queenstown as his family waited to board the ship. Beneath her best woolen cloak, Mrs. Halloran was attired in her first "traveling costume"—a tailored skirt that covered her instep, a peplum jacket with puffed sleeves, and a linen blouse foaming with Limerick lace. Atop her head was pinned a broad-brimmed hat with a large white plume. The wind blew filaments from the plume into her eyes, and whenever she moved her new corset creaked.
Her husband was equally uncomfortable in a thigh-length frieze coat, spotted waistcoat, and high-collared shirt that scratched his wind-reddened neck. In place of his familiar cords were wide-legged trousers that let cold drafts blow up his legs, and he missed his cap. His wife had been very firm about this: "You are not going to America wearing that filthy old Scarriff hat you inherited from your father. You shall have a new black top hat, like a proper gentleman."
Ned was to begin the voyage in a Norfolk suit of black-and-white Donegal tweed, which at least was warm. Privately he thought he looked ridiculous, and he hated the knee- britches, but his mother had saved to buy the fabric and he did not dare complain. While his parents were preoccupied with making arrangements about their baggage, he ducked under a barrier and joined those waiting to embark as third-class passengers. As Irish people, the Hallorans were very much in the minority in second-class. Those who would be traveling steerage had Irish faces. Young faces.
Their clothes, though clean for the most part, were entirely homemade, patched and mended. Men and women alike wore boots. They had no baggage to be stored in the steamship's capacious baggage rooms; the few possessions they carried with them were in cloth bundles or pasteboard boxes fastened with string. Grandchildren of the Great Famine, theirs was the most recent generation of exiles from a depopulated land.
Among them were several startlingly pretty girls. One in particular had a high, rounded bosom and swaying hips.
One shy glance was all Ned had dared. Even that gave him the unsettling feeling of an extra layer of heat beneath his skin. He could almost hear Father Hagerty warning against sins of the flesh, erecting the pillars of guilt that supported a Catholic conscience. Regretfully, Ned had dragged his eyes away only to have his attention caught by a redheaded boy flashing a jaunty grin. When Ned grinned back, the other beckoned him forward. "Ain't she a wonder?" the boy had asked. At first Ned thought he meant the girl, but he was indicating the waiting ship. "Did you ever know there was anything in the wide world like that?"
"I never did," Ned had answered truthfully. Side by side, the two had stood gazing at the great liner in openmouthed admiration.
That was how he had met Dan Duffy, a rawboned, freckled youth a year or so older than himself, with merry brown eyes and work-callused hands. By a happy coincidence Dan was also from County Clare. Anyone from your home county became a friend when met in a strange place.
Now, as he searched for Dan aboard the stalled liner, Ned recalled their first conversation. The redhead had explained, "I'm one of too many Duffys. Our holding at Ruan has been divided so many times among so many sons over the generations that it's all stone walls now, with hardly enough earth left to grow a tattie. It'd make a cat laugh if it weren't so sad. So I'm off to Amerikay to make me fortune."
"How are you going to make your fortune?"
"There's gold in them streets."
"You're not believing that."
Dan had chuckled. "Perhaps not. But there's jobs sure. I'm strong, so I am. Could be I'll work on a railroad, or dig a canal. What about yourself?"
"My sister Kathleen went out two years ago. My mother has cousins in Boston who visited us in '09. Kathleen went to visit them the next year; she'd been talking of nothing else since the day they went back. My mother was worried, but Kathleen appealed to Papa and he found the money for her passage. Kathleen always could get her way through Papa. She's a real beauty, with dark curly hair like mine and a dimple in her chin instead of a cleft. All the lads in Clare were after her." (Continues...)
Excerpted from 1916 by Morgan Llywelyn. Copyright © 1998 Morgan Llywelyn. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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