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Something White in the Distance

by Heather Chock 26 days ago in Historical · updated 26 days ago
Runner-Up in Ship of Dreams ChallengeRunner-Up in Ship of Dreams Challenge
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A Bride’s Journey Aboard Titanic

Image source: Canva

Wednesday, April 10, 1912

If it hadn’t been for the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, Emily would have sprinted up the gangway. Salt air whirled though the Southampton morning. Her ticket crumpled in her fist. She should tuck it into her pocket, but she didn’t dare. She needed to feel it in her hand. To see the words RMS Titanic in bold black ink. A year’s savings from her slim earnings. Second-class passage to America. To William. To their life together.

Paint fumes filled her nostrils as she entered her cabin. Fresh linens on the beds, thick carpet beneath her feet, shiny brass fixtures all around. Emily had never seen a room so new.

Out of the sea wind, she finally let go of her ticket. Safe aboard the unsinkable ship, she need not fear the dream that had haunted her since the day she purchased her passage. It had revisited sporadically, a specter wandering the halls of her mind when all was dark and quiet. A different kind of dream—one she heard and felt. The sound of breaking glass. Fierce cold. Something white in the distance.

She took Will’s photo from her trunk. His smile pushed the nightmare away.

She hung her wedding dress in the wardrobe, unwilling that its fine muslin and lace be crushed in her luggage. Mum’s favorite hymn rose to her lips, soothing her spirit.

Lead thou me on / Keep thou my feet, I do not ask to see / The distant scene, one step enough for me

The door swung open.

“What an angelic soprano.” A voice chirped.

Emily turned with a start.

A round young woman entered, followed by a rounder old woman. Both shared lively blue eyes and glossy black hair.

The younger rushed forward, cheeks glowing, and clasped Emily’s hands. “We’re your cabin mates, the Sweeneys. I’m Patience, and this is my mother, Ethel.”

A horn blew and the hiss of engines shook the room. The desk clock struck noon.

Patience Sweeney clapped her hands. “We’re underway.” She spun toward her mother and continued to speak so rapidly that Emily felt she must be misnamed. “Oh, Mother, we made it just in time. I told you we would. Aren’t you glad I had us run from the pier? What if we hadn’t made it?” She tucked her mother’s valise in a corner and faced Emily. “You and I will take the berths. Mother may have the bed. I know we shall be splendid friends, Miss…”

“Collins. Emily Collins.” Emily extended her hand.

But Patience’s gaze fixed on the wardrobe. “Miss Collins. Is this your dress?” Her hands went to her mouth with a gasp. “Of course, it is. Why, it’s divine. Are you to be married on board?”

“In New York. Then we’ll travel to California. My fiancé has a farm there. He immigrated eighteen months ago—”

“And you’re to be reunited.” The young woman hugged Emily. “Oh, it’s so romantic. Mother, isn’t that just the most romantic thing? And this dress.” She fluttered back to the wardrobe and waved the skirt until it billowed.

Emily tucked her head. “Thank you.”

Mrs. Sweeney settled her considerable bulk onto the couch. “Patience, dear, take a breath. And for heaven’s sake, let poor Miss Collins unpack.”

Patience whirled around the cabin. “Isn’t this a lovely room? So refined. I bet first class can’t hold a candle to it. Oh, Miss Collins!” She snatched Will’s photo from the desk. “Is this your intended?”

Mrs. Sweeney sighed.

Patience returned to the wardrobe. She ran her fingers over the delicate embroidery and tiny pin tucks. “It’s a dream.”

Mrs. Sweeney rose and inspected the dress. “Sensible design. Fine workmanship. You’ve got quite a talent with a needle.”

“Oh, not me. I’m a schoolteacher with great patience for books but none at all for sewing.” Emily said. “My step-mother, Marie, made this. She sewed my whole trousseau. Finer than anything I could have imagined.”

Emily lifted the dress from the wardrobe. “The lace was tatted by my late mother.” She held the dress against her and caught her image in the mirror. This lace and the pearls in her trunk were the last two things she had of Mum. Along with the clothes lovingly stitched by Marie, they anchored her to home. Sailed forward with her to the future.

Was this the distant white thing from her dream? Grief below its surface, hope rising above?

“Hard to believe in ten days, I’ll be a bride.” The words flowed as light as the white muslin.

A knock rattled the open door. A graying man in tweed and spectacles stood at the threshold. “May I accompany you ladies to luncheon?”

“Dr. Granger!” Emily rushed to the doorway and took her friend’s hand. “Come in and meet my cabinmates.

Mrs. Sweeney arched an eyebrow. “I do not approve of young men entering ladies’ quarters.”

Young man! Why Dr. Granger was old as the hills—well, nearly old as Dad, at least.

“This is a family friend, ma’am.” Emily protested. “I’ve known him all my life. Literally. He delivered me.”

The doctor held his hat to his chest. “That’s true. And I gave her parents my solemn promise to watch over her on the voyage.”

“And beyond that.” Emily smiled. “He’ll walk me down the aisle before he travels on to Boston.”

Mrs. Sweeney pursed her lips. “Nevertheless, I don’t hold with—”

“Oh, Mother. Don’t be a prude.” Patience laced her arm through Dr. Granger’s. “We’d be honored for you to escort us.”

Saturday, April 13, 1912

Emily and Patience snuck into first class to glimpse the state rooms before the likes of Guggenheim and Astor boarded at Cherbourg.

Patience covered her gaping mouth as she surveyed rich brocades and polished mahogany. “Oh, my. I was wrong. These rooms are nicer than ours. Like Buckingham Palace. Maybe better.”

Emily couldn’t help but laugh at the girl, scarcely out of secondary school, eight years her junior. She sniffed. “Still smells of paint fumes. Just like ours.”

“Maybe so. But I bet it’s expensive paint.”

The two shared a giggle.

“Imagine living like this,” Patience whispered. “All your life. It’s a far cry from our little cottage in Kent. Or the vicarage we’ll share with my brother in Cleveland.”

Emily wrapped an arm around Patience and led her into the corridor. “I expect you’ll be quite as happy in your cozy vicarage as in any mansion John Jacob Astor could build. Just as I will be in my little farmhouse with Will.”

Patience glanced over her shoulder at the receding line of stateroom doors. “I suppose.” She sighed. “But I’d sure like to give it a try some time.”

Sunday, April 14, 1912 .

Patience spied Mrs. Astor as soon she entered the church service. “Why, she’s hardly older than me.” She whispered over her hymnal. “And married six months already.”

Madeleine Astor’s eyes shone as she glided down the aisle with her middle-aged, millionaire husband. A spray of peonies and silk ribbon danced atop her wide hat-brim.

Transfixed by the socialite for the sermon’s duration, Patience only once looked at her Bible—when it slipped from her lap and thudded to the floor.

As Mrs. Astor exited, her fur coat brushed Patience’s arm. For once, the girl was dumbstruck.

"Close your mouth and breathe, dear." Emily clutched her friend’s waist, afraid the poor girl might faint. “Let’s get you some fresh air before lunch.”

On the upper deck, Dr. Granger leaned over the railing and stared at the glassy calmness of the ocean. He tipped his hat as the women approached. “Finished gawking at the American royalty, ladies?” The doctor bit his pipe and grinned. “Since Mrs. Astor is likely occupied.” He extended his elbows to Emily and Patience. “May I accompany you on a Sunday stroll?”

They took his arms. He regaled them with tales of Reading life and town gossip that even Emily had never heard.

“Just don’t tell Miss Sweeney about any of my childhood escapades.” Emily adjusted her hat in the glaring sunlight.

“Oh, doctor. Do tell.” Patience loosened her scarf and dabbed perspiration from her neck.

As they reached the starboard side, a gaggle of laughing children darted past.

Dr. Granger opened his mouth to speak. But in an instant the air chilled. His lips tightened.

Emily’s stomach clenched.

Patience retied her scarf.

“Odd.” The doctor looked around.

Passengers buttoned their coats. Several retreated below decks.

“No wind,” Dr. Granger said. “Not even in the distance. Look. The water’s tranquil as ever.”

Emily surveyed the sky. “No cloud-cover. Nothing in the weather changed. And yet it feels like we stepped into an icehouse.”

Dr. Granger led them midship, toward the second-class lodgings. “It’s almost lunchtime. I suppose you ladies would like to freshen up.” He addressed Patience. “Would Mrs. Sweeney and the two of you care to meet in the dining room in half an hour?” The doctor strode toward his cabin.

Patience scurried behind him.

Emily remained on deck. She turned up her collar against the cold, searching the placid ocean and blue sky for an explanation of the temperature drop. Uneasiness settled into her stomach. Her heart pounded beneath her woolen coat.

She’d felt this chill before. In her dream.

She sprinted to her room.

Mrs. Sweeney and Patience met her at the cabin door.

“Emily. You’re white as a sheet.” Patience took Emily's arm. “You stayed in the cold too long.”

Mrs. Sweeney laid a hand on Emily’s shoulder. “Come along. A good meal will put the roses back in your cheeks.”

Patience nodded. “We can’t have you meeting Will looking thin and pale.”

“I’m not hungry at the moment.” Emily stepped into the cabin. She shivered. Her dream hadn’t returned since she’d been aboard. It didn’t need to. She was living it.

Mrs. Sweeney’s eyes narrowed. The woman seemed to read her thoughts.

Emily turned away. “I should write a letter to Dad and Marie.” She pulled paper from the desk drawer. “My, my. How fine this Titanic stationery is. White Star overlooks no detail.”

The older Sweeney advanced on her. “You’re not fretting over that silly dream, are you, lass?”

Emily stared at the writing paper. She shook her head, but the denial was a lie.

Mrs. Sweeney cupped Emily’s chin in her hand and looked her in the eye. “It’s natural for a young bride to feel uncertain—”

“But I’m not. I love Will. Our wedding. The farm. It’s all we’ve talked about for—”

Mrs. Sweeney placed a wrinkled finger over Emily’s lips. “Fine, fine, dearie. We don’t doubt any of that. A bride’s allowed a few nerves. Especially one who's left her home and family.”

Emily trembled. The great white thing seemed to loom closer than ever.

The older woman opened the wardrobe. She frowned as she ran her fingers over the lace of the sleeve. “Your mam tatted this lace, aye?”

“It’s the only thing I have of hers. That, and her pearl necklace. I saved them for my wedding.”

“And your step-mam worked this embroidery?”

Emily nodded.

Mrs. Sweeney’s expression softened. “It’s a fine legacy to take into your new life. Still, it is a new life. One you’re heading into alone.”

“Not alone, Mother.” Patience protested. “She has us. And Dr. Granger. And Will.”

Mrs. Sweeney shook her head. “There are places Miss Emily will have to walk alone. That is, except for the good Lord, who never leaves her.” She dropped the sleeve of the dress. “I think that’s the big, white thing you keep going on about. Close enough you know it’s there. Far enough you can’t see it. A wedding. A life spent together, come what may.”

She took Emily’s hand. “Let me pray for you, dearie.”

***

Emily abandoned her plans to write home that afternoon. Instead she examined each piece of her trousseau. The gown. The rose-colored suit for traveling West. The filmy negligee. Emily’s heart overflowed with gratitude for each stitch. She lifted the garments to her face and breathed in the sweetness of Marie’s lavender wash shop.

Mrs. Sweeney was right, of course. Twenty years of marriage before she was widowed and three children living, she must know what she was talking about.

Emily’s chill thawed. Her heart calmed. Her appetite returned in time for tea.

Image source: Canva

The fragrance of strong tea and buttery pastries welcomed Emily to the second-class library.

In a corner, Dr. Granger chewed his pipe and debated with Reverend Carter, a London clergyman.

The Sweeneys nibbled sandwiches and chatted with Mrs. Carter. Emily perched on the sofa next to them. A waiter rushed to attend her.

Across the room, a mother lost the battle of containing four children. The waiter scowled. But children’s game of hide-and-seek delighted Emily.

Will wanted a whole houseful of children. She hoped they’d be boys—hard-working and honest like their dad.

“Miss Collins!”

The crisp baritone startled her. She turned to face Reverend Carter and Dr. Granger.

The reverend folded his hands. “Might I persuade you to lead singing at our hymn service tonight? Granger here tells me you directed the girls’ chorus at your school in Reading.”

The doctor spoke, pipe in teeth. “She’s had a fine set of lungs since the day she was born.”

Patience agreed. “She sings like an angel.”

Emily’s cheeks warmed. Leading the primary grade girls at home was one thing. A congregation of strangers was quite another. But she found herself nodding to the reverend.

Image source: Canva

Late that night, Emily returned to her room with Mum’s favorite hymn still on her lips.

Lead, kindly light / Lead thou me on

In two days, Titanic would dock in New York. In six days, Emily would be Will’s wife.

She sat at the cabin’s desk and began a letter home.

As the clock struck 11:30, she sealed the envelope.

No sign of the Sweeneys since hymn-singing. Patience had probably made a new friend and lost track of time.

Emily placed her letter in the drawer and rose to dress for bed.

A sudden quake shook her room. She grasped the bedpost. A sound like breaking glass shattered the quiet.

The hum of the ship’s engines halted. A painful silence settled over the room.

Emily rushed to the upper deck in search of Mrs. Sweeney and Patience.

Two passengers questioned an officer, their cheeks ashen.

“Not to worry, folks.” The officer’s voice boomed for all to hear. “She grazed an iceberg. Captain stopped the engines while we make repairs. We’ll be underway soon.”

The gathering crowd murmured doubt. Passengers peered over the railing. An iceberg receded from the starboard side.

Emily’s stomach churned.

A sound like breaking glass. Fierce cold. Something white in the distance.

Her dream.

She pushed through the throng of dazed faces. Where were the Sweeneys?

A strong hand caught her arm.

She whirled around. “Dr. Granger. What’s happening?”

He shook his head.

She studied his grave face. “The steward says not to worry.”

The doctor worked his jaw. He wore a lifebelt.

“Right, Dr. Granger?” Her throat tightened. “Nothing to worry about?”

“Go to your room and retrieve your coat. Meet me back here. I’ll find you a lifebelt.”

“I’ll pack my trunk. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.” She turned toward midship.

“No, Emily.”

His tone sent a shudder through her chest.

“Only your coat. And your warmest shoes.”

“But my wedding dress!”

Bending metal moaned from below. The deck slid beneath them as the ship listed.

“Child.” He grabbed her by both arms. “There’s no time to lose. Your coat. Back in five minutes. Less.”

In her room, Emily defied the doctor and opened the wardrobe for her wedding gown. She’d take her rose suit from the trunk as well. But as she fumbled with the locks, the cabin pitched with a scream of twisting steel. A voice in her head commanded, Only your coat! No time to lose!

On deck, the crowd seethed, their silent milling about transformed to shouts and shoves. Why the hysteria? A few repairs and they’d be underway again.

Emily looked for Dr. Granger. And what of Patience and her mum?

A hand waved over the crowd. “Emily! Emily Collins!” The doctor pushed through the mob. “I promised your parents I’d look out for you.” He fastened a lifebelt around her. “Too many people on this side.” He grabbed her wrist and pulled her forward. “We’ll try the other.”

Ahead, a woman struggled against two stewards loading a lifeboat.

“I won’t go! I won’t!” She thrust her shoulder into the ribs of one steward and wriggled from his grasp. “Not without my husband!”

“Mrs. Carter!” Emily gasped, unable to believe the meek wife of the reverend could behave so.

“Women and children only.” The steward spoke through clenched teeth.

“No!” Mrs. Carter hissed.

Emily stared over her shoulder as Dr. Granger pulled her on. Reverend Carter dipped his head. His wife crawled out of the lifeboat. She ran to him. He wrapped an arm around her with a resigned slump of his shoulders. She sobbed against his chest.

A shock of realization electrified Emily. She looked to the doctor’s face for some expression of hope but found it grave and drawn. Bile rose in her throat.

They reached a clearing on the port side amid the splashing of lifeboats. Two men jumped into a boat labeled number nine, only to be hurled off by stewards. The doctor pointed to it. “You better run!” He pushed her forward as the crowd engulfed him.

Emily looked back as she clambered aboard. “You’ve delivered me a second time! Thank you, Dr. Granger!”

But he was gone.

Emily clutched her seat as the lifeboat struck the black Atlantic. Icy ocean spray seeped into her coat. Salt burned her nostrils.

Titanic pitched backward. Its wake sucked their little craft down and back. Emily leaned over the side and wretched.

“Row!” One crewman cursed at the other.

Emily eyes adjusted to the darkness of the open sea as she scanned the lifeboat. At least fifteen empty seats. Passengers crowded on deck. Why had they launched so quickly? Half-empty?

Fingers like icicles dug into Emily’s arm. A middle-aged woman clung to her.

“They wouldn’t let my son board.” The woman howled. “He said he’d find me when we reach land. He promised.” She buried her face in Emily’s shoulder.

“And so he will.” Emily embraced the stranger.

Near the bow, two small boys lifted their heads from the lap of an older girl. They turned toward the sinking Titanic. Everyone did.

Music rose from the ship.

The orchestra had gathered on the foredeck. The melody of Nearer, My God to Thee floated from their strings.

A grizzled woman whispered the lyrics, tears freezing on her wrinkled face.

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down, / darkness be over me, my rest a stone; / yet in my dreams I'd be / nearer, my God, to thee

Titanic’s hull pitched upright. Crashed down.

A sound like an explosion shook Emily’s bones.

All light vanished. The night went silent.

A cry lodged in Emily’s throat.

With the mighty ship of dreams sank all she owned. Her trousseau. Her wedding gown. Mum’s pearls. The legacy she carried from the old life to the new. Her dream in white.

Shame burned her cheeks. A dress? A necklace? How could she be so vain and selfish? While countless souls perished?

The woman next her wailed. The children at the bow caught her hysteria. Three mites, huddled together. Where was their mother?

Emily crawled across the hull, groping for them in the moonless night. She found a tiny foot. A skinny leg. She pulled herself onto the seat and wrapped the sides of her coat around the children, like a hen gathering chicks under her wings.

She whispered prayers over them.

Waves slapped the sides of the boat as voices called for help from the inky water.

Crewmen barked. An oil lamp flickered to life.

Emily shivered against the children. Terrible sounds pounded her ears. Her lungs burned with each frozen breath.

The elderly lady grew still, head slipping forward as her eyes closed. A girl reached for her. Pulled her close. Rubbed her shoulders until she revived.

Mum’s song filled Emily’s chest. Was it only a few hours ago she’d stood in the light and led the hymn?

Lead, kindly light.

They needed that light now. Without it, they would die.

Emily stilled her chattering teeth and lifted her voice.

The night is dark, and I am far from home / Lead thou me on / Keep thou my feet, I do not ask to see / The distant scene, one step enough for me

She sang as Carpathia’s search lights pierced the night. Sang on when pale morning rose over the horizon. Sang until Carpathia’s crew hoisted lifeboat nine onto its deck.

Saturday, April 20, 1912

In the vestry of St. Christopher’s Chapel, Emily tugged at the bodice of her borrowed wedding dress.

Evening sunlight bled through the stained-glass windows. Her heels clicked against the cobblestone as she paced in and out of the light, hugging herself.

Emily had not felt warm—truly warm—in days. The bitter night of April 15 had settled deep into her bones. Her legs still wobbled from the rocking of lifeboat nine. She reached for her coat and wrapped it around her like a lifebelt.

The church organist practiced. Scales at first. Then a few bars of the Wedding March.

But all Emily heard was the strings of the Titanic orchestra fading into the ocean.

She peeked out the vestry door into the candlelit chapel.

Members of the Women’s Relief Committee, strangers until this morning, gathered to witness her vows. Emily should feel more grateful for their generosity—loaning her a wedding gown, gathering a trousseau, filling the pews of St. Christopher’s.

Instead she felt like a window display. A newspaper headline.

Will hovered near the altar. Pacing, just like her. He’d grown so tan and broad-shouldered working the farm. He paused, solemn gaze scanning the aisle. Waiting for her.

She must move forward. Like those crewmen shouting “Row!” as they urged the lifeboats from the suction of the sinking ship. Move! Go!

She made it as far as the dim narthex. Ahead, the altar shone in gold light.

The vicar spotted her and nodded, impatient.

Her feet became cement. If only Dr. Granger were here to walk her down the aisle.

She’d searched Carpathia in vain for him. For the Sweeneys. And the Carters.

Her land legs gave way. She sank to a bench by the front door of the chapel. She pulled her coat tight around her neck as the chill deepened.

The organist attacked. The Wedding March began.

No time to lose! Dr. Granger’s distant voice echoed.

I can’t go. Not alone.

She might be sick.

She leaned her head against the stone wall and closed her eyes.

Mrs. Sweeney’s prayer lilted in her ears, drowning out the organ’s bellows.

So did Mum’s hymn.

Keep thou my feet, I do not ask to see / The distant scene, one step enough for me

Could she even take that step?

This wasn’t how her wedding day was supposed to be. Titanic shattered that dream into a thousand shards of ice. Her insides twisted and pitched. She sucked in a breath.

A broad, callused hand took hers.

She opened her eyes.

Will knelt before her.

She wrapped both her hands around his, drawing in their heat.

“You don’t have to do this now, love. We can wait.” Concern softened his eyes.

Emily shook her head. “We can’t travel unmarried. Arrive in California not man and wife.”

He met her protests with a grin. “We can do anything we want. You’ve earned the right, love. And I won’t rush you.”

She jumped to her feet with a shock of awareness. “You shouldn’t see me, Will. Not in my wedding dress. It’s bad luck.” She pulled her hands from his.

Will wrapped his arms around her. “It’s bad luck, she says. The girl who survived a shipwreck.” He stepped back and held her hands out wide before him. His laugh like sunshine echoed over the stone walls. “Besides, I can’t see your dress. Just this big pink coat.”

She looked down at the garment, water-marked and torn. A disgraceful sight over the delicate lace of the gown. She unfastened a few buttons then stopped. “I’m so cold, Will.”

“Then keep it on.” He smiled, redoing the buttons.

“It’s a mess of girl you’re trying to marry.” Her eyes met his.

He placed his hands on her cheeks. “The only one I want,” he whispered.

Her tears welled.

He pushed them away with his thumbs. “When I thought I’d lost you, love—”

The organist piped up again with the march.

Will rolled his eyes at the sound. He rested his hands on her shoulders. “You take all the time you need, my Emily.”

She swallowed. “You go. Back to the altar. I’ll be fine.” She glanced toward the pool of light spilling from the chapel.

Lead, kindly light.

Will squeezed her hand then headed inside.

One step enough for me.

Dr. Granger’s face materialized in her mind. His strong arm leading her forward to safety.

But she pulled back into the darkness. I can’t walk this alone.

Will stopped and turned, as if he’d heard her heart. He reached out his hand.

Candlelight flickered behind him.

Lead, kindly light.

She took his hand. Took her place at his side.

He slipped his arm through hers. Pulled her close to his warmth.

Together, they moved forward, one step at a time.

Image source: Canva

Lead, Kindly Light; Lyrics: Newman, John Henry and Bickersteth, Edward; Composer Dykes, John Bacchus; 1833; public domain.

Nearer, My God to Thee; Lyrics: Adams, Sarah F.; Composer: Flower, Eliza; 1841; public domain.

This work of fiction is inspired by Titanic survivor Marion Wright, who married her fiancé in New York five days after the shipwreck. Arthur and Marion Wright Woolcott lived on their Oregon farm until Arthur’s death in 1961. Some story details derived from Miss Wright’s account of the disaster in letters and interviews.

Learn more about Marion Wright at Encyclopedia Titanica.

Explore her letters at https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/rmgc-object-489565.

Historical

About the author

Heather Chock

Heather is a wife, mom of three, writer, seamstress, and teacher who loves crafting beautiful things from both fabric and words and encouraging others to share their unique beauty.

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  2. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  3. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

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