Katherine’s Story, 1848
I sat back in my deck chair, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath of sea air. No matter how many times I wished it, the paddle steamer Britannia would not stop rocking and rolling on the waves of the Atlantic. We could not reach America soon enough to suit my seasick stomach.
Opening my eyes again, I saw my twin sister, Elizabeth, at the deck rail, watching a school of dolphins. They had appeared suddenly after luncheon, leaping and dancing in the waves. They seemed to be performing for the entertainment of the ship’s passengers, who surrounded my sister, laughing and calling out to the sea creatures.
I saw one leap above the white foam of the waves and squeal loudly enough for us all to hear. Was it saying hello?
Elizabeth made quick sketches in her drawing pad, catching the essence of the sleek creatures in a few simple lines. No doubt she would include the dolphins in her next painting.
She turned to me, still in my deck chair, my journal unopened in my lap. “Katherine, aren’t they the most wonderful things you’ve ever seen?”
“They’re splendid,” I said, trying to focus on something other than the lurching in my stomach, but it was no use. The dolphins were indeed splendid, but I would have enjoyed them much more if I had been able to watch them from solid land. My bold sister felt no ill effects from the motion of the ship, but I had been feeling seasick almost from the first moment we stepped aboard the Britannia.
It was one of the few differences between us. Elizabeth and I were so nearly identical that when we were born only Mama had been able to tell us apart in an instant. The only obvious physical difference between us was in our hair: Elizabeth’s was stick straight while mine fell in waves. That and the fact that Elizabeth was half an inch taller. My twin often joked that she would gladly give me her half inch in height in exchange for my wavy hair.
Right now I’d gladly give her my queasy stomach in exchange for just about anything of hers.
Elizabeth’s face fell, seeing my discomfort. “Is it very bad today?” she asked.
I shook my head, not wanting to trouble her. “Not today,” I said. “I’m grateful that yesterday’s storm has passed, but I am rather tired. I believe I’ll lie down for a while before dinner. I’ll go and find Essie.”
I stood and made my unsteady way toward the passage to our first-class cabin.
As if she had a sixth sense, Essie Bridges, our lady’s maid, stepped onto the deck from belowstairs. Like the steadfast friend she was, Essie supported me as I walked shakily across the deck. Minutes later, I was safely ensconced in my bed in the stateroom I shared with Elizabeth.
Essie tucked me in and placed a cool cloth on my forehead. “It won’t be long now, Lady Katherine,” she said. “I expect you’ll feel right as rain the minute your feet touch the dock.”
“As long as it isn’t moving,” I said with a wry smile. “And to think I used to joke about marrying a sea captain.”
“Marry a man with two solid feet on the ground, milady,” Essie answered. “That’s what my da always says.”
I couldn’t help but smile. Essie and her “da” had recently been united after a lifetime never knowing each other, and she had taken to quoting his wisdom at every opportunity.
Many years ago, Essie’s mother, Maggie O’Brien, had been a kitchen maid at our family estate, Chatswood Manor. She kept the fact that she was married a secret from everyone at the manor. Her husband, Sean O’Brien, had sailed to India to earn his fortune. He’d planned to come home or to send for Maggie as soon as he could. Maggie had wanted to train to be a teacher—it was her deepest desire to teach children in her home country of Ireland how to read—and Sean O’Brien wanted to make her dream come true. But by the time he had enough money to send for Maggie, she had disappeared.
Sadly, we learned much later that Essie’s mother had died in childbirth. She kept the fact that she was due to have a baby a secret even from her husband and slipped into the village one afternoon on her half
day off to find the midwife. The midwife didn’t even know the poor young mother’s name, only that she was Irish and wished to name her daughter Essie. When the young woman died, a family in the village, named Bridges, agreed to raise the baby as their own, but they honored her mother’s wish to call her Essie.
At Chatswood Manor, Maggie O’Brien was simply listed in the staff ledger as a maid who had worked in the kitchens for a few short months before disappearing one afternoon.
Essie herself entered service at Chatswood Manor when she was a teenager. Her warm smile and cheerful nature soon made her our favorite housemaid. When my sister and I were old enough to require a lady’s maid, she was our first and only choice. Like Mama, Essie could almost always tell us apart, and she always knew just what to say when we were feeling sad or scared. She wasn’t a blood relative, of course, but she was as much family to me and my sister as we were to each other.
When Maggie’s husband, Sean O’Brien, came in search of his wife twenty years after she disappeared, Elizabeth couldn’t resist the chance to solve a real-life
mystery. My adventurous sister talked me into helping her find out what had happened to the mysterious kitchen maid. We had no idea it would lead to our dear Essie being united with her father.
It was a happy, happy day when we made our discovery. Essie, who had helped Elizabeth and me survive the death of our own dear mama, deserved all the happiness in the world. I wondered if she minded our pulling her away on a pleasure trip just a short while after she and her da had found each other.
“Do you miss your father very much, Essie?” I asked.
Essie nodded and gave her customary cheerful smile. “It’s the first time we’ve been apart since we found each other,” she said. “But this is a grand adventure, and I wouldn’t want to miss a minute of it with my young ladies.”
“Mama would have enjoyed it,” I said quietly, placing a hand over my necklace.
Mama had died before Elizabeth’s and my twelfth birthday, but not before she chose the most special birthday present I could ever imagine. On the morning of our birthday ball this past spring, Papa had
presented me and Elizabeth with two velvet boxes. Inside, we each found a stunning gold pendant in the shape of half a heart. Mine was studded in brilliant blue sapphires, as blue is my favorite color. My sister’s was encrusted with red rubies, reflecting her favorite hue.
When the two halves of the heart are joined together, a secret compartment reveals itself. Elizabeth and I wrote a secret message to each other, cut the letters into confetti, and divided the pieces between the two necklaces. We promised to pass the necklaces along to the daughters we would have one day. We hoped that future generations of girls in our family would discover the secret message and be inspired to feel the same love for each other that Elizabeth and I did.
But it was more than the gemstones and the hidden compartments that made the necklaces so special to my sister and me. Mama had chosen them for us. Elizabeth and I wore our necklaces every day, not just to remind ourselves of our everlasting bond to each other, but also to keep Mama’s love close to our hearts.
“Mama wanted me to have adventures,” I said,
thinking about her last letter to me.
“She did, indeed,” Essie said, smoothing my hair away from my face.
I closed my eyes, thinking of Mama and of Chatswood Manor and missing them both.
“I miss Mama,” I said to Essie. “And home. I long for my own bed—a bed that doesn’t roll and lurch.”
“We’ll be on land again soon, Lady Katherine,” Essie said. “I’m sure your papa’s American relatives have a lovely room prepared for you, with a bed as comfortable as your own.”
I swallowed, hoping for a momentary reprieve from my stomach. “Do you think I don’t have the love of adventure that Mama wanted me to have, because I miss home so much?”
Essie shook her head. “I think it means there’s lots of love there, milady. It’s natural and right to miss it and the people there—I know I do.” She smiled. “I even miss crotchety old Mr. Fellows,” she said.
I almost giggled, thinking of our dignified butler and how exasperated he could become with Elizabeth and me when we failed to act like proper English ladies, or with Essie when he deemed her too familiar
with us. Mr. Fellows had a big heart but often hid it under his dignified demeanor.
“I miss him, too,” I said. “I think I’ll always miss Chatswood Manor when I’m away from it, even when I’m married. It makes me sad sometimes to think I have to grow up and get married, only to move away.”
“That’s many years away, milady,” Essie said. “Don’t borrow trouble from tomorrow. That’s what my da says.” She placed a new cool cloth on my forehead. “You rest now. I’ll be nearby if there’s anything you need.”
Essie sat in the cabin’s comfortable chair, her journal in her lap and a pen in her hand, and watched over me. I breathed in and out, imagining myself at picnic in the gardens at Chatswood Manor, lying on a blanket in the sun the way I sometimes did. The illusion of solid land must have worked. The next thing I knew, my sister was breezing into the cabin. I could tell by the dim light coming through our small porthole that a couple of hours had passed. I had slept.
“Oh, Essie, did you see them?” Elizabeth exclaimed, showing Essie her dolphin sketches. “Weren’t they glorious?”
Seeing me in bed, she began to whisper.
“I’m awake,” I said, sitting up.
“How are you feeling?” Elizabeth asked.
“Right as rain,” I said, repeating Essie’s phrase. In truth, my stomach lurched with each dip and roll of the ship, but I was determined not to dampen my sister’s joy. I knew she would do the same for me if our situations were reversed.
Elizabeth opened the steamer trunk that we shared. The bottom of the trunk was packed tightly with everything we would need for the coming weeks in America. At the top was what we needed on board the ship—some traveling dresses, formal evening dresses to wear to dinner in the dining room, and whatever we wanted for our amusement. In the trunk’s hidden compartment in the lid, we’d stowed away the tools for our favorite pastimes, not because they were secret, but because they were special enough to require safekeeping. For Elizabeth, that was her paints and sketchbook. For me, that was my journal, ink, and pens. Sometimes we combined our efforts. Elizabeth painted scenes to go with my poems and stories, or I wrote stories to go with her sketches and paintings.
“I’m glad you’re feeling better,” Elizabeth said happily. “Cousin Maxwell says we’ll arrive in Boston in two days’ time—he and Papa took a turn on the deck with the captain this afternoon.”
Papa had expressly wished for Cousin Maxwell to join us on our expedition to America so that he would meet our American relations. By law, Papa’s title and estate would be inherited by his closest male heir, and that was my thirteen-year-old cousin Maxwell. It was Papa’s and Mama’s dearest wish that their eldest daughter would marry him one day and become the lady of Chatswood Manor. Elizabeth, being five minutes older than me, was Maxwell’s intended bride.
I thought it was romantic and exciting that it had been decreed that she would one day marry Maxwell, especially since he was such a fine and handsome young man. Elizabeth didn’t always share that notion. She liked Maxwell well enough, but she often said it would be more much exciting and romantic to wonder about whom her husband might turn out to be, like I could.
“Cousin Maxwell asked about you,” my sister said, plopping onto her bed on the other side of the
stateroom. “He said he hoped you’d be well enough to join us for dinner.”
The warm glow that came over me at the idea of Cousin Maxwell thinking and asking about me almost replaced my seasickness. He and I had become great friends at my birthday ball—in fact, he had mistaken me for Elizabeth and swept me into a waltz for my first dance after the one with Papa. On this trip, we had discovered that we shared many of the same interests. Maxwell had a way of putting me at ease, even when my stomach was flipping over itself with seasickness.
He and Elizabeth did not have the same effortlessness of conversation. I imagine it had something to do with the fact that they would one day be married. It made them shy and stiff with each other.
I didn’t want my sister and Essie to see how happy Maxwell’s attention made me. Instead I focused on my sister’s other news report.
“Two days till we set foot on land,” I said. “I can’t wait.”
Essie shook her head. “Imagine that, milady. Sailing all the way across a vast ocean in just two weeks’ time. I can hardly believe it.”
“I’m grateful we’re on a steamer and not on one of those great big, lumbering ships we saw in Liverpool,” I said. “The captain told me it could take them six weeks or more to reach America.”
I shuddered, thinking of the long line of people, most of them dressed in what could at best be called rags, shuffling up the gangplank into the side of that vast ship. Next to it, our ship had looked like a toy boat bobbing in a pond.
We had learned just before we left Chatswood Manor that the potato crop in Ireland had failed for the fourth year in a row. Papa said the British government was doing all it could to take care of the people there, but I also knew that Sean O’Brien, and now our Essie, sent every penny they could to relatives in Ireland. Many of the Irish had decided to try their luck in America rather than face starvation at home. Third-class tickets, for accommodations deep in the belly of those slow ships, were the best they could afford. I only hoped they’d survive the long journey.
I shook myself out of my sadness, wishing that all of those travelers would grow rich and fat in North America.
There was another remedy to my sadness at hand. It was time to dress for dinner. Despite my seasickness, dinner had become my favorite part of the day. It was time spent with Papa, my sister, and Maxwell.