Chapter 2 : Sinking
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For Sarah (my_voice_rising) ♥
Tonight, the sky is clear and bright, the air cold and biting, and I make my way across the deck for a last cigarette before going to bed. Unsurprisingly, Jeremy is standing in my usual spot, his back to the sea. He has been doing this for the past few days, and each day we exchange a few words, their number increasing with every encounter. He watches me approach, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
As I bring the unlit cigarette to my mouth, he motions me forward and lights it for me, striking up a clear flame against the sombre background. I let him do so, and breathe out the smoke, facing him.
"Dropping the façade then?" He thrusts out his chin at my attire.
I look down at the plain green dress I am wearing, my wool coat tossed negligently over it. Gone are the corsets, the taffeta skirts and multiple underskirts. I wear simple fabric shoes, having discarded the leather boots to the back of my trunk. A sole reminder of who I once was, Mother's pearl earrings, glints off my earlobes, catching the light and reflecting it off in various directions.
"I have come to the realisation that it is not what is most practical on board," I shrug.
He smiles, and says nothing. I am the first to break the silence.
"You have not told me," I start hesitantly, "why you were here."
"Oh. Business," he waves me off dismissively. Immediately, a flare of annoyance rises up in my stomach. Patronising me is not the sensible thing to do, and as much as I am starting to appreciate the company of the man I am talking to, I will not allow him to do so.
"What type of business?"
He laughs softly. "Nothing you can understand, being a Mug… – being so young."
I cross my arms over my chest, resolutely, daring him to treat me like a child. "I am quite sure I can understand whatever it is you have to say."
He drops the butt of his cigarette to the floor and stomps it out with his foot. "Do you believe in magic, Elizabeth?"
"Do not try to change the subject," I argue, ignoring the fact he has addressed me by my first name.
"Oh, but this has everything to do with that."
"This is not amusing, Jeremy."
"What if it was real?"
My foot is tapping impatiently on the floor, creating a dull, mechanical rhythm. "Magic is for children, it does not exist," I scoff.
"As you'll have it."
There is a short pause, that once again I am the first to break.
"You cannot possibly truly believe in magic, can you?"
"I think anything can exist if you believe sufficiently in it."
"That is an answer for cowards. Is there nothing you believe in?"
"Death. And love," he adds after a moment's hesitation. "Do you dance, Elizabeth?"
I smile dryly. "Sadly, yes. It is the only activity my stepmother has ever considered appropriate for a lady of my age and rank," I falsify my voice as I speak the last few words.
"What activities weren't considered appropriate in that case?" Jeremy inquires.
"Reading, writing, running, swimming, fighting, sketching, caring for others, wandering into my own mind, dawdling…" With each new addition I bring a finger up. "A proper young lady does not question, does not create, and most particularly does not think," I conclude bitterly, remembering the etiquette professor I hated so. "But I am not a proper young lady, am I?"
He laughs once more, the sound fills up my ears. "In that case, it will not be a problem for you to dance with me, will it?"
"Why, Mr Abbott," I cock an eyebrow playfully, giving in to his teasing demeanour, "how audacious of you."
He slides a hand to my waist, keeping nonetheless a decorous distance between our two bodies. One of my hands delicately settles on his shoulder, and both our remaining hands intertwine.
If any of the old bats of the London society Father's wife was acquainted with could see me, they would certainly have a stroke at the sight: dancing with a stranger, my hair down and with no stockings! Thank God I have the decency to dance with a man of my social rank, in second class like I am – I can hear the disapproval already.
There is no tune to our dance. I accord my movements to those of my partner in a quiet ballet of feet, his treading on mine, letting him twirl me round and round the deck until I can bear it no more, my head spinning.
I have moved closer to him. He is by far taller than I am, I realise as my nose nearly hits his chest.
How terribly unconventional I am.
(My sense of conventions has been thrown down the Thames since the first time I walked out and into the street with a man's outfit at the age of eight.)
Slowly, we waltz to a stop, and his strong arms steady me.
I laugh. "Where, precisely, did you learn to dance, in a stable? My feet must resemble Christmas pudding."
He immediately looks indignant. "My dancing abilities are flawless. You, however, have the grace of a Blast-Ended Skrewt with arthritis."
"What on earth is that?"
He freezes. "A new creature, discovered last year, found exclusively in the colonies."
A small smile creeps up the corners of my mouth. "Thank you for this dance."
"You're most welcome. I will see you tomorrow?"
"Certainly," I curtsey slightly.
"There is no need to be so formal with me, Elizabeth," his fingers graze my cheek.
I blush fiercely, the heat radiating off my cheeks, pull my coat more tightly to my body, and very nearly run away, unsure of what is expected of me in such circumstances.
Mathilda is waiting for me in the cabin, a book in her lap. She lifts her head up as the door creaks close behind me, and offers me a timid smile.
"I could not sleep," she apologises.
I gather my dress and sit down next to her, our legs sticking over the side of the bed. "What are you reading?"
"A novel by Jane Austen. Persuasion," she lifts the book up slightly so that I may see the cover.
"I am sorry to have left you on your own during these four days," I tell her quietly, pushing a strand of brown hair behind her ear. "We will be able to spend more time together once we get to America, I promise you."
"I found my way around on my own very well," Mathilda replies proudly, the fire of independence lighting her eyes. "The library here has an impressive quantity of works, by many authors, and I spent a fair amount of my time walking on the deck, or reading there." In an unexpected surge of affection, she leans over and wraps her arms around my waist. "I will be glad to spend more time with you even so."
There is a loud, urgent knock on the door, and I sleepily emerge from my dreams, blindly searching for something to pull over my nightgown.
Mathilda, however, is already up, and she opens the door a hair's breadth, just enough for her to see the face of the steward who has knocked.
"You're to put on your lifebelts and come up to the deck," he states briskly.
"Why, what is happening?" Mathilda asks, but he has left already.
Fully awake now, I steer her away from the door where she is still standing, aghast with the fact that she was denied the answer to such a simple question.
"I do not know how critical the situation is, but if we are to be outside by such a cold evening, I would advise you to wear your warmest clothes," I tell her, pulling out a cardigan and a pair of men's trousers for myself. She blinks once or twice, then shakes her head, focusing her attention on the speed at which she does what I have told her to do. Once I am dressed, I anxiously rummage around the room for lifebelts, which are eventually found and rapidly placed around our chests.
The walk to the deck at the top of the boat goes quickly, Mathilda and I having our cabin on one of the higher decks. Not many people are there when we reach our destination, but more and more are arriving at every moment, constantly pouring into an area that looks like it will not hold everyone.
I direct Mathilda and me to an area near the orchestra, where it is possible for us to have a good view of our surroundings, and do my best to hide my growing fear.
Time ticks by painfully slowly, and I wish more than ever that I had a watch. It is nerve challenging for everyone; mothers singing to children with wide, terrified eyes; men surveying the crowd over their moustache; couples holding onto each other for safety.
I spin around so fast that I am sure my neck has cracked, and let out a sigh of relief as Jeremy slices through the throng with as much ease as a needle through silk.
"Jeremy, do you know what's happening?"
"The boat has apparently collided with an iceberg."
Mathilda blanches next to me. "Are we… are we drowning?"
Jeremy does not need to answer her. Just across from us, the first lifeboats are being filled, and cries of 'Women and children first!' fill the air.
"What do we do?" Mathilda leans in closer to me, her voice shaking with controlled panic. The last word shatters against her tongue.
"We try to board," I say decisively. I grab her hand and begin to push my way through as well, body against body, foot on foot, almost like the dance Jeremy and I shared earlier, but far more violent.
We arrive too late, and the lifeboat is sent towards the waters at an alarmingly high speed. It makes contact in an explosion of foam and spray, and drifts away rapidly under the actions of the people inside, rowing with desperation away from the aquatic graveyard that everyone knows the Titanic will soon become.
"Over there," Mathilda says, pointing to the side. "We can try over there, can we not?"
I look in the direction she is indicating, then back behind me, where Jeremy is standing. I lock my eyes with his, and he mouths a single word.
And with that, I know that I cannot.
In a ridiculous demonstration of strength I did not know I possessed, I pull away from the people who are bordering on hysterical with every tick of the clock, and stomp my way back to Jeremy with Mathilda on my heels.
"Come with us," I beg.
It is a complex instrument, the human heart. This man that I did not know when I boarded the ship, that I found insufferable when we first met, that I still barely know right now, is going to determine my sister's survival.
To my horror, he shakes his head. "No, Elizabeth. Save yourself, save Mathilda, but do not wait for me."
Fiercely, I shake my head. "I will not leave without you." I then turn to Mathilda, who has tears brimming at the corners of her eyes – she knows what I am about to ask of her.
"You are going to board one of those lifeboats without me, and I will join you later."
Her reaction surprises me. Where I was expecting sobs and refusal, she shows nothing but grim determination.
"I promise," I whisper fervently, dropping a kiss against her clammy forehead. "I promise."
She hugs me tightly, before turning around, and elbowing her way back to the front of the lunge to safety.
Jeremy looks at me in disbelief, but he does not say anything. Instead, he pulls me along with him towards the stern. We stop in a slightly secluded corner, hidden from the eyes of other passengers.
"Close your eyes," he orders. I do as I am told. "Concalefacio," he then murmurs, barely loud enough for me to hear it.
I immediately feel warmer, for an inexplicable reason, and open my eyes just in time to see him pocket a long, slender… stick?
"We don't have much time," he tugs a watch out of his jacket pocket.
Two twelve in the morning.
I turn around one last time, hoping to get a glimpse of Mathilda.
She is seated on one of the lifeboats. Her face is pale, her eyes seeming to eat it up, but she looks collected enough. The entire boat shudders suddenly, and Mathilda's lifeboat plummets down like a rock.
Quick as lightning, I rush to the railing, and glance down just in time to see the fragile collage of wood and cloth turn over, sending all its passengers overboard.
Mathilda's long hair disappears, swallowed by the thrashing sea, and a high-pitched, animalistic scream escapes my mouth.
Without a second's hesitation, I climb over the railing, curling my toes over the edge of the boat as I cling on to the metal barrier behind me.
With a deep breath, I let go and dive headfirst into the frozen waters.
The novel Persuasion is entirely the property of Jane Austen.
Not much magic here again, I apologise, but everything comes together in the next chapter.
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Concalefacio is latin for warmth.