The sinking of the Titanic: from ‘The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane’
Gray skies replaced the blue, though the ocean remained serene. It was an easier voyage than most she’d known on the Atlantic run. The water was like mercury under the misted stars.
But that night, the fourteenth, the air turned icy and drove the passengers inside, the gentlemen taking refuge in the saloons with their brandy snifters and cigars, the ladies retiring early to their cabins.
When Kitty had finished settling in her passengers for the night, she slipped out onto the third class deck. It was late, and the cold took her breath away. There was ice crystals formed on the metal rails, and “whiskers around the lights,” as the old hands called it.
She thought perhaps Lincoln Randolph had gone to bed, and so he should have done if he had any sense, but then she saw him sitting there, in the same deck chair as always, a blanket over his knees, a scarf wrapped around his face against the cold.
“Didn’t think you’d be out here tonight.”
“I was waiting for you,” he said.
“What on earth for?”
“It’s the best part of my day, talking to you.”
“Well, then I feel sorry for you and the sad life you have. Did you finish your article?”
“I finished two and started on a third.”
“Aren’t we just the scribbler, then?”
“I told you, it’s what I do.”
“Not all day and every day, though? What is it you do when you’re not writing? Is there a woman waiting for you back in New York?”
“I’m happily unattached. I don’t hold with marriage. It makes a slave out of a woman and a monster out of a man. What about you?”
She shook her head.
“So do you have a job to go back to, Lincoln?”
“I told you, Kitty, I freelance my work. No man owns me; I won’t allow it. I’ll sell my articles to will take them and then write some more.”
“You won’t be needing a union then.”
“But there’s plenty that do. There’s big change coming in the world, Kitty, and I intend to be a part of it. Can you not feel it in the air?”
“Not tonight, it’s so cold I’ve no feeling anywhere.”
“Well, I’d say, even with a blue nose you’re the prettiest girl I’ve seen in a long time.”
“Would you, now? Well, pretty will get a girl in more trouble than plain, I’ve found.”
“And you’ve a wit too. Wish I had more time to get to know you better.”
“Well, we’ve three more days till we arrive in New York. Plenty of time, if that’s what you want. But not tonight, it’s too cold, and I’m too beat.”
He stood up and let the blanket fall. She thought he was going to take her hand and wish her good-night, maybe even a small bow as a gentleman might do, that would be a novelty. Instead he pulled her toward him and tried to kiss her. She let him, briefly, then she pulled away. “What do you think you’re doing? I’m not that sort of girl.”
“I couldn’t help myself. Don’t tell me you didn’t like it.”
“If that’s the brave new world, I’ll stick with capitalism, thanks very much. Now good night, Mr. Randolph.”
“Well, I’m sorry if I offended you. Good night, Kitty.”
He looked abashed, she thought, but not nearly as much as he should. She gave him a look and hurried belowdecks.
The alleyways were mostly deserted except for a few stewards on late watch, all of them yawning with one eye on the companion clock. Almost half past eleven. Late. She passed a few passengers on their way back from the smoking room, others stepping out for some fresh air before turning in. Well, they wouldn’t last long out there.
It was warmer down in the glory hole, but not by much. Elsie was already in her bunk, shivering under the blanket. “I can’t get warm,” she said.
“Give a thought for those two in the crow’s nest,” Kitty said. “What a night to be stuck up there. I’ve never been so bloody cold.”
She scrambled into her own bunk for a few precious hours sleep before she had to do it all again. She closed her eyes, thought about Her Ladyship and that bruise on her cheek, thought about Lincoln and how good it felt to have a man’s arms around her again, even if for just a few moments.
She reached out a hand for the jewelry box. Her officer had bought it for her—only thing he ever got her—lovely it was, mahogany and inlaid with mother of pearl; he said it came from Hong Kong. She cradled it the dark.
“So what’s in there then?”
“I thought you were asleep.”
“You got the crown jewels in there?”
“You’re back late.”
“Lady Astor wanted a nightcap.”
“What about Mr. Randolph, did he get a nightcap too?”
“Don’t talk filthy.”
“Oh come on, Kitty, don’t tell me you haven’t been up on deck talking to your young man again.”
“He’s not my young man!”
“God love us, he’s too handsome for third deck. I heard he was a writer and that his father’s rich as Croesus. Come on, you can tell me. I won’t tell a soul.”
“Telling you and putting it on the front pages of the newspapers is just about the same thing!”
They both laughed at that, and Elsie had started to say something else when they felt the great ship shudder; there was a squealing so loud it was like the brakes of a thousand express engines. The hull vibrated for a few seconds, and then they heard the engines shutting down.
And then everything was still.
Elsie peered over the side of the bunk at her. “Sounds like something queer just happened, Irish.”
Kitty lay quite still. There were voices in the passageway. One of the junior stewards knocked on their door and peered in.
“What’s happened?” Kitty said.
“Been a little accident. Purser says they’re going to fix it, and then we’ll be on our way.”
“What kind of bleedin’ accident?” Elsie said, but already he was gone.
Kitty wondered what she should do. Absently, she got out of bed and started tidying the cabin, folding her clothes, putting things in their place. She could feel Elsie watching her. “What you doin’, girl?”
Kitty didn’t answer her.
Suddenly the door burst open. It was the chief steward. “My God, why are you girls still down here? Put on some warm clothes and your life jackets and get yourselves upstairs. You have to look after your passengers. Get them into blankets and eiderdowns and up onto the deck. Quickly!”
“What’s happened?” Elsie said.
“We’ve hit an iceberg,” he said, as if it was obvious.
And then he was gone. Kitty fumbled in the wardrobe for her uniform, and she and Elsie dressed in silence—neither of them could think of a thing to say. Kitty’s teeth chattered, and her fingers were all thumbs. Finally she finished putting on her lifebelt and rushed out the door. She nearly tripped over a block of ice. How had that got down here? There were children playing in the passage, kicking around lumps of it as if they were footballs. The same junior steward who had come in earlier hurried past, shooing all the third class passengers back into their cabins. “Just an engine problem,” he shouted at them. “We’ll be back underway shortly.”
Kitty hurried up to first deck, checked that her passengers were all up and that they had their lifebelts on. “Is all this fuss necessary, Kitty?” Finnegan drawled at her. “They told me this tub’s unsinkable.”
“I’m sure it’s just a precaution,” Kitty said.
Her Ladyship asked her to get some warm milk for Suzie. Kitty stared at her. It all seemed so unreal. Finnegan was right, wasn’t he? The Titanic couldn’t sink. But as she ran toward the pantry, she saw Tommy Andrews coming the other way and she took one look at his face and she knew.
To hell with Her Ladyship.
She went from cabin to cabin, reminding people to put on warm clothing and to take blankets and their valuables with them. Just a precaution, sir, madam, no reason to be alarmed. Have you got your lifebelt with you, please, sir?
Finally everyone on first deck was headed for the companionways, but taking their time about it—you didn’t hurry the upper class. Some made jokes, some wanted to stay and chat. She saw several of the officers peering down, unwilling to alarm them, but she could tell by their faces, they just wished they’d hurry up about it.
She headed for the upper decks. There was music playing somewhere, from one of the saloons. It all seemed surreal. It was so cold outside, it took her breath away.
Sleepy passengers were milling around, fumbling with jacket buttons and lifebelt ties. Most of them acted as though it was a drill. Those gentlemen who had not yet gone to bed when it happened were standing around, smoking cigars, and murmuring to each other in low voices. She expected any moment one of them would ask her to run and fetch the porter.
She looked for’ard. Oh Jesus Mary. The Titanic’s bow was covered with huge blocks of ice.
One of the officers came around, ordering everyone to the lifeboats. Just a precaution, he said. The music had stopped playing. She saw the orchestra six-piece step out of the saloon, locking the doors behind them.
There couldn’t be any danger surely; the Titanic was as steady as a rock in the water. She might as well have been in dock. Then Kitty looked up at the bridge, saw Captain Smith up there, shouting at someone and waving his arms. She had never heard him raise his voice before, though they said when the Olympic had collided with the Hawke, he had raised an eyebrow.
That’s when she knew for sure and certain.
Officers were ordering women into the boats, but most were unwilling to leave their men, especially when they saw the first boat being lowered, swinging wildly on its davits. It was only half-full, for God’s sake.
“I’ll not go without him,” she heard a woman shouting. Her husband looked grim, kept pushing her away from him toward one of the officers.
She did a count of her own passengers, making sure she had them all.
The number 5 boat was ready to go down. Mr. Ismay was there, she heard him calling out: “Are there any more women before this boat goes?”
Officer Murdoch saw her. “Come on, jump in,” he said to her.
“I’m just a stewardess,” Kitty said.
“Never mind,” Ismay said. “You’re a woman; take your place.”
Kitty clambered in. Mr. Ismay gave her a smile; he was sweating, she could see, even though it was a freezing night and he had on only his slippers and pajamas under the blanket round his shoulders. Just as they were about to lower away, she remembered her jewelry box. Jesus Mary, she couldn’t leave that behind.
She jumped back to her feet, grabbed Mr. Murdoch’s arm, and clambered out.
“Where are you going, girl?”
“I’ll be right back!” she shouted.
It was strange to pass by the staterooms, all lit up so brilliantly, their doors gaping open. There was expensive jewelry lying about on dressers, a pair of silver slippers lying on the carpet where they had been kicked off.
She passed a group of officers, still in their mess jackets, hands in their pockets, chatting quietly on the companion square as if they were waiting to go to lunch. They smiled at her as she went past. She knew them, of course: Tommy Andrews, Captain Smith, the chief purser, McElroy.
Farther down, the passageways were deserted. It was eerie; the steelwork was groaning and squealing. It was like being inside something that was dying. Kitty fought back her fear. I’ll not leave that jewelry box behind, she told herself. Now get a grip on yourself, girl.
It was when she reached her glory hole that she saw Elsie lying in the passageway. There was blood smeared on the deck. She must have slipped on the ice. There was freezing bilge water lapping about; if she’d fallen face down, she would have drowned.
“Elsie love,” she said, and squatted down, rested her chin on her knees. Blessed Christ Jesus she was out to it; her eyes were rolled right back in her head, blood was matted thick in her hair. She had to get her out of there.
She was a big girl, Elsie, solid, and Kitty didn’t have the strength for it. She dragged her as far as the companionway, but how was she going to get her up the steps? She shouted till her throat was sore, but there was no one around. The lights started to flicker. Oh Jesus, help me, if they go out, we’re really in trouble.
“Elsie, wake up, now’s no time for this fuss.”
She sat her up, nothing she could do unless she had help. She yelled for help again, loud as she could.
“Is that you, Miss O’Kane?”
“Mr. Richardson! Thank the Lord! I’m down here!”
His face appeared in the companionway. His moustaches seemed to bristle with alarm when he saw her. “I told you to fetch eiderdowns!”
“It’s Elsie, sir, she’s had a fall!”
He came down the companionway. When he saw what had happened, he clucked his tongue as if Elsie was a spilled china plate. Then he bent down and hauled her over his shoulder. “I’ll get her up top. You take care of your passengers like I told you, Miss O’Kane.”
He started up the companionway. Kitty hesitated, then ran back down the passageway. “Miss O’Kane, where are you going? Come back here!”
The jewelry box was right there on her side table. She tucked it into her coat and ran back out. The lights flickered again. The Titanic is going down, she thought. She really is going down.
Up on deck the mood had changed, arguments had started over who would go into the boats and who wouldn’t. Kitty peered over the edge of the port rail, just yawning blackness down there. Dear God in heaven, why did they have to get into the boats anyway? The Titanic seemed so steady. Someone pointed to lights on the horizon; there was another ship out there—help wasn’t far away, surely.
One of the officers was walking around, reassuring everyone that all would be well. “There are plenty of boats in the vicinity,” he said. “They’ll be with us any moment now.”
So why were they lowering the lifeboats? Another went down, there hardly seemed a soul in it.
Where were Mr. Richardson and Elsie?
There was a bang, and a distress rocket sparked into the sky. Kitty saw children pointing at it and laughing, like it was fireworks, and she had to admit, with all the lights on in all the cabins, the flare exploding against the black night, and all those millions of stars, why it did look very pretty, no mistake.
She climbed down the iron ladder to B deck, calling for Elsie and Mr. Richardson. Officers and men were getting more lifeboats ready. They looked tense, unlike the well-ordered groups of passengers wandering about.
So cold. She found an eiderdown lying on the deck and wraped it round herself, climbed back up to the boat deck. More distress rockets arced into the sky. The lights on the horizon seemed to be getting closer. Some of the women were pointing even as they climbed into the lifeboats. The young officers were urging them to hurry.
Kitty started when she heard the gunshots. Through the crowd she saw Fifth But he ordered him off anyway. Jesus God, Kitty thought, things have come to a pass when men start pointing guns at schoolboys.
Another rocket went up into the night.
People were pointing, and Kitty turned to see what it was everyone was looking at. The sea was so calm that no one had noticed before, but now she could see that water was settling over the bow. Panic rippled through the crowd on the deck below her, and there was a surge toward the boats. Men started to fight for places, and Lowe held his revolver in the air and threatened to shoot any man that came too close.
Second Officer Lightoller ordered the boat down. Women were begging him to allow their men to take the empty seats, but poor Lightoller looked scared half to death; he wasn’t himself. “Only women and children,” he was shouting. “I’ll shoot any man that tries to get in!”
There was a shocked silence as the boat was lowered into the water.
The women around her started crying when they realized they would have to leave their husbands behind. Their men stood back, with stiff smiles.
Where was Elsie?
Boats were being lowered more rapidly now. The blocks kept jamming, tilting the boats, some of them empty, some of them dangerously overcrowded. There were women and children screaming everywhere. Titanic was listing over. Oh God, love us.
They were getting another boat ready. A quartermaster marshaled the women passengers behind Kitty in a line; a man tore his toddler’s arms from his neck and handed the screaming little girl to her mother. He gave her a quick embrace and stepped back. “It’s all right, go along. It’s just a precaution. You’ll be back here again in a few moments.”
“I’ll not go without you!” she screamed.
He turned away. Two sailors took her arms and dragged her screaming toward the boat.
Kitty thought she heard more pistol shots from the starboard deck. It was bedlam now. There were men throwing themselves at the boats, and the sailors were throwing them back.
They were trying to launch another of the boats from the Promenade Deck. Kitty saw her Mr. Astor hand his wife into the boat; he tried to get in with her, told the second officer that she was “in a delicate condition.” But Mr. Lightoller ordered him off, and Mr. Astor waved encouragingly to his wife as he stepped back into an ever-increasing crowd of men. He lit a cigar and straightened his shoulders. He was still wearing his dinner suit.
A steward brought a crowd of Swedish immigrants up from the third deck, and there was a heated row. Then one of them dashed over to a lifeboat, the others followed, there was pushing, and she saw a punch thrown. One of the officers shouted instructions to lower away, and the lifeboat jerked downward into the dark, slowly at first, first one end up and then the other. A man dashed to the ship’s side, and before anyone could stop him, he hurled himself into the descending boat. It rocked alarmingly, and he lost his balance and fell into the black water below.
One of the mailmen from the sorting office came panting up onto the deck. “The mail is floating up to F deck with the water.” He said it as if he couldn’t believe it himself. The music started up again, the orchestra in their lifejackets and overcoats had reassembled just aft of the first class entrance.
Well, we have to have music to drown by, she thought. On first deck they like to do things properly.
Kitty fought her way to the starboard side. People kept pouring up the companionway from third deck. There was a big crush behind her; they all surged forward, and Kitty was pushed into a boat. She heard an officer screaming: “Women and children only, women and children first!”
In moments the boat was full, and people were tripping over oars and tackle in the dark. A man tried to clamber in, missed his footing and fell.
The boat jerked down into the blackness below, past rows of brilliantly lit portholes, dark then light, then dark again. The men used their hands and the oars to keep the lifeboat clear of the hull. Clang, clang, clang, down she went. Their boat hit the water with a spine-jarring thud, a baby started crying somewhere at the back of the boat, no one else spoke.
Then the Quartermaster in charge shouted, “Oars out,” and the crew rowed away from the ship as hard as they could.
“There’s too many on the boat,” a woman beside her said. “Someone will have to get out.” Sure she doesn’t mean herself or anyone from first deck, I’ll bet. Would you like me to bring you a hot toddy before I step over the side?
Kitty clutched her jewelry box tightly to her chest, rested her other hand on the gunnel—their lifeboat was so low in the water, her fingers were wet almost to the knuckles, and Jesus Mary the water was freezing. Anyone going into that would have no chance. The quartermaster shouted to the men at the oars to get them as far away from the ship as possible. “She’ll suck us down under with her when she goes,” he said.
This was not happening. It couldn’t be real, it couldn’t be.
THE UNKILLABLE KITTY O’KANE, by Colin Falconer
published by Lake Union and available for audio, Kindle and paperback here