Authors: Caroline Dunford
A DEATH FOR KING AND COUNTRY
A EUPHEMIA MARTINS MYSTERY
Also by Caroline Dunford
Euphemia Martins Mysteries series
A Death in the Family
Death in the Highlands
A Death in the Asylum
A Death in the Wedding Party
A Death in the Pavilion
A Death in the Loch
The Mistletoe Mystery
|Chapter Twenty one|
|Chapter Twenty two|
|Chapter Twenty three|
The Night of April 14th 1912
Richenda and I leaned as far as we dared over the railing and peered out into the vast, starlit sea. The air was so cold it was like pressing our faces against a sheet of ice. The inkiness of the night blurred the line between the sea and the sky. We could have been sailing off the end of the world. The frivolity and liveliness we had found in the week we had spent in New York now seemed a lifetime away.
‘Do you think we will see the lights soon?’ asked Richenda for the thousandth time. I could not berate her for her repetition, for the very same thought was echoing around in my own mind. I looked at my wristwatch, a bridesmaid’s present from Richenda and Hans, but I could not read the dial.
‘It’s too dark to see,’ I said, ‘but the Captain did say it would take six hours to get there. And that was with turning off the heating and our lights.’
‘Can you believe it?’ scowled Richenda. ‘I heard the woman in the cabin next to ours complaining about the cold. And she with six mink coats, too!’
Despite the seriousness of the situation, I felt pleasure at my companion’s remark. It would not have been that long ago she would have made such a complaint herself. Only a year ago, Richenda Stapleford had been an almost entirely self-centred, spoiled woman, obsessed with fashion, who at best turned a blind eye to the actions of her malevolent twin Richard. Now, recently married to the banker Hans Muller in what was essentially a marriage of convenience for them both, she had unexpectedly blossomed. Having been her housemaid
, and now paid companion, we had shared many exploits together. The damage done to her by a harsh stepmother, an uncaring father, and a manipulative twin had been worn away to reveal a good woman.
A woman who, like myself, was currently fretting and praying over those hundreds of souls at peril on the sea tonight.
There was an aspect of ‘there but for the grace of God go we’ about the situation. When Hans had declared his intention of a spectacular world cruise for Richenda and himself, she had begged to go on the RMS
. Hans had demurred, not at the cost (although it would have been steep even for him), but at the declaration that the ship was practically unsinkable.
‘I cannot believe such a thing,’ he had said. ‘I fear the crew and Captain will take greater risks if they believe themselves invincible. It is the nature of man to do so.’
Richenda had argued hard, but for once Hans had refused her. If he had not, we too would be amongst the stricken passengers of the floundering
, rather than on board the RMS
racing to rescue her. We had no idea what had happened, but like many of those on board we had volunteered to share our quarters with those about to be rescued. The
was not the biggest of ships, and the
had, we believed, almost two thousand souls on board. Hans, like many of the men, had given up his bed completely. Richenda was to share my accommodation and he would sleep on deck, their entire stateroom suite given up. For Hans there had been no question that this should be done, and one stern look at Richenda had convinced her of the same.
The mood among the passengers on board had been one of disbelief. Unlike Hans, no one else seemed to have thought
sinkable. As it was, people whispered of slight damage and maybe a few people needing to leave the ship. But as the hours wore on and the Captain diverted all possible power to the engines, I think everyone began to realise the gravity of the situation.
Richenda gave a little cry and pointed out to sea. ‘There!’ she gasped. Ahead of us, in the distance, glimmered some indistinct object. We were quiet as we approached it, but no sooner did it seem to become firm amid the shimmering night sea than we felt the ship shift beneath our feet.
‘Iceberg,’ murmured a woman to my right.
Moonlight struck the structure as we passed it. I believe everyone on board held their breath. Certainly no one around us spoke for several minutes. The beauty of the sparkling ice in the night was unearthly. If was as if a piece of heaven had fallen from the skies and landed in the dark calm of the waters.
‘Let’s hope there were enough boats,’ said Hans, appearing at our sides. He handed us each a wrap. ‘They’re gathering shawls for the survivors. You can wear these for now, but …’
‘Of course,’ I said, ‘we will at once hand them over to those in more need.’
Richenda, her teeth chattering, nodded. ‘It is so cold on deck, I cannot imagine how cold the water must be.’
‘You would not have to imagine it for very long,’ said Hans grimly. ‘A few minutes at most.’
Both Richenda and I gasped at the implication. ‘What did you mean about boats?’ I asked. ‘Are there other ships coming to the rescue?’
Hans shook his head. ‘I talked to one of the officers. Other ships have answered the distress call, but even at six hours away we are by far the nearest. No, I was referring to the lifeboats.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Richenda.
Hans sighed and huddled down further in his greatcoat. ‘I knew how much you wanted to go on the
, my dear, so I did explore the possibility more fully than you perhaps realised. One of the facts that decided me was the builders’ declaration that a full number of lifeboats was not needed as they would never be used.’
He took Richenda’s hand in his. ‘I do not take risks with those I value.’ He smiled at me too. Richenda blushed or at least went a shade darker in the night. As a redhead with freckles, and of a fulsome figure, blushing, to which she was unfortunately prone, was never kind to her.
‘How short of places were they?’ I asked.
Hans shook his head. ‘It is pointless to speculate now. But I do fear the number of survivors will not overload this ship, as some have feared.’
I looked down into the dark water and shivered.
I cannot tell you how long it was from then that the
began to slow. I know I was colder than I had ever been in my life. However, despite Hans’ prompting neither of us could bear to retire inside the ship. It was as if we both felt that by willing it so the ship would move faster through the endless sea. That and the sight of the icebergs would have had me rushing out to check every few minutes that we too were not in danger of collision.
The ship gradually slowed and slowed. Richenda and I peered into the night. ‘Where is it?’ she asked. And then we heard the whistles and the cries from the small wooden lifeboats that remained. ‘She’s gone,’ I said. My heart felt like a stone within me. ‘The entire ship has gone. We are too late.’
We were not late. To this day people speak of the
and the impossible race her captain made across the sea. The speed we achieved was incredible, but the damage done to the
by the iceberg was beyond anything anyone had thought possible. It seemed she had split quite in two and sunk quickly to the bottom of the sea.
The tales we heard that night will stay with me for the rest of my life. Of wives who chose to stay with their husbands. Of small children, now orphaned, handed over by third-class passengers who were refused a place on a lifeboat. Of the men who had run amok and released the lifeboats early in their fear and cowardice, and the bravery of the crew who had restored order even though they knew there was no chance of their own survival. And we heard the terrible, terrible stories, of those locked below decks, and of keys never found no matter how some brave officers sought.
Richenda and I did not stay in our cabin. We helped the crew as much as we could, but more than anything we made what poor efforts we could to comfort those lost, cold, bereaved, and shocked. Hans too was out in our ship’s lifeboats, scouring for any souls still clinging to wreckage or held aloft by their life-jackets. He never spoke of what he saw that night, but when he came back to us I saw the haunted look in his eyes. It also helps explain what transpired next.
Richenda, though stout in many ways, does not have my constitution. I have worked below stairs, and before that I grew up in a vicarage where exercise was praised and encouraged. Richenda, long overfond of cake, could not stay the same course I could. I found Hans, by purest chance, as he came in from the boats, and told him I was seeking his wife.
‘She has been much moved by the plight of the survivors, but she is not as strong as I. She needs to rest. I fear in this cold she will make herself ill.’
Hans put a hand on my shoulder. ‘You have both done more than could have been asked of you,’ he said. ‘And there will time for you to do more as we travel back to port, but you both need to rest.’
I looked across the sea of faces, the survivors still being sorted and shepherded to whatever shelter could be found.
‘There are not as many I as thought there would be,’ I said sadly.
‘I believe over a thousand lives have been lost,’ said Hans.
I felt my knees crumble beneath me. Only Hans’ strong arm around my waist stopped me falling into a dead faint.
‘A thousand,’ I murmured. ‘A thousand.’
‘I should not have told you,’ said Hans. I could hear in his voice he was cross with himself.
‘Was it very terrible out in the boats?’ I asked.
‘Come, let us find my wife,’ was all he would answer.
We found Richenda sitting on the lower deck, tears streaming down her face, a child of two or three, dressed in poor clothing, clasped in her arms. Richenda rocked the child gently and was crooning to her despite her tears. When she looked up at us her face showed her shock and despair.
‘Her mother died on the lifeboat,’ she said. ‘Her father stayed on the ship. She is two and half years old and her name is Amy.’ Then she began to sob as if her heart might break.
Hans helped her to her feet, but he made no attempt to take the child from her. ‘Take her to your bed,’ he said. ‘She is cold and scared.’
‘She is the daughter of an Irish maid,’ said Richenda, and I could hear the fear in her voice.
‘Does she have any other relatives?’ asked Hans.
‘She was with another woman, who had come to know them on the journey. The woman thought not.’
‘This other woman would not take her?’ asked Hans.
Richenda shook her head. ‘She has lost her husband and has her two own children with her.’
Hans nodded. ‘You’d better take her with you to your quarters. You both need rest, and Amelia needs to be out of this cold.’
Richenda looked at him warily. He gave her a gentle push towards the cabins. ‘Go and rest. There is nothing more to be done now.’
I let Richenda go on ahead. ‘I have never seen her like that,’ I said to Hans.
‘Tonight has changed us all,’ said Hans.
‘The child,’ I said haltingly, ‘I fear she will not easily give her up.’
Hans looked down at me. ‘If the child has no other relatives I see no reason why she should,’ he said somewhat fiercely.
I must have looked surprised. ‘Honestly, Euphemia,’ he said, ‘I would have thought you knew me better. An accident of birth is no reason to discriminate against a small child, and an orphaned one at that.’
I always knew Hans Muller was a good man, but it was that night I realised how very good he was.
And once shut in a cupboard by her, a travesty I find hard to forget!