The Box of the Captain's Table
For my grandmother, who did in fact cuss out an archeologist in seven languages
Madelaine was rummaging in the archives of the lower basement, like usual. Why sweat and work yourself to a lather in the field, when you can work in the sub-basement on the hottest day and still be cool? And she still got to unearth treasures. Sure, someone else had found them first, but then they were stored and forgotten after being itemized - if they'd ever been properly itemized at all. Forget being filed; things were just dumped hodgepodge in boxes and crates as they were donated. She'd gotten a small wall's worth of proper filing totes and a handful of markers, and would only re-emerge blinking into the sunlight at meals or quitting time. But things were finally sorted in a way to be useful to future researchers... especially if you liked ledgers. Chock full of ledgers, they were. The local small town banks had donated them all when the big city takeover was complete, with contents and assorted ephemera that they'd gathered from the corners and storage rooms. No complete inventory had been successful, but Madelaine was more determined than usual. Being the re-discoverer, as it were - and displaying or storing things properly - was so much more fun than arguing with arrogant know-it-all entities about just how significant the placement of the jar on the left or right side of the burial meant if it was male or female.
The rumored Mozart, and Rembrandt, that were allegedly hiding down here both stubbornly refused to surface.
If people ever wondered why Madelaine was content here, and not out in the field, they didn't have to wait long to find out. She was more than happy to tell them stories of her time working under the archeological equivalent of the glass ceiling. And could sure cuss out the head of a dig in seven languages, only three of which were still spoken.
But her expertise was on land. Northern Africa, the Levant, even a good chunk of Asia and parts of Europe. She was getting better concerning the British Isles, but some knowledge still eluded her. But, hey, that's what department heads were for, right? She knew how to utilize another person's specialty in deciphering historical puzzles. And collaboration was its own fun treasure hunt, as people would light up and chatter for days about all they knew. Fitting it into the enigma that was humanity was a delightful challenge.
So perhaps she can be forgiven if she was thinking about the history of backgammon across the continent when she came across the hat box.
Normally, the sub-cellar was for the more durable items. She'd found dinosaur skeletons, still wrapped in protective plaster. Jars of things in formaldehyde, fresh when a small circus broke down in town and had to rid itself of a lot of weight to take a train home. Large mineral specimens that had been replaced by bigger and better at the natural history museum; sometimes the newspapers they had been wrapped in were worth more than the specimens themselves. The entire bits and pieces of a chandelier saved from some French palace, now reassembled and in the main foyer.
Hat boxes were most definitely not par for the course down here. Trunks of dresses and photographs, sure. More ledgers than she could shake a stick at (she'd tried, the Civil War era bedpost was broken already). Even someone's old vinyl record collection, donated by exasperated heirs. Enough diaries and batches of letters to make for dozens of exhibitions. Hat boxes? Fancy ones? Not so much.
This one was coated in thick beeswax with a card half-sticking out near the securely-tied knot. There were decent lights down here, but even with her magnifying headband, she couldn't make out the writing. Not even with the flashlight added. And it was pretty heavy, as if there was more than a hat in here - unless it was a hat made of lead?
She decided to carry it upstairs, use the microscope in the analysis lab. Thanks to the large city university nearby and associate status, they could maintain one. The curators were usually professors, and they'd collect here during spring break to talk shop. Close enough to do tests in spare time, and nip back for a late lecture during terms. It was a fun place to chat, where shared information would be swapped while waiting for analysis results. Matt was there, chatting with Kevin about cotton thread count in stockings around the turn of the century as Deborah swirled an Erlenmeyer flask to dissolve something before carefully pouring it into the waiting sample tray.
The microscope was open. She slid a chair into position to scope the card. The wax, discolored in places, made it difficult to read the tag at various thicknesses of the hardened coating. She even grabbed a UV lamp to see if it could help her decipher the natural ink that was very faded. She took pictures at various wavelengths.
Eventually, setting the hat box aside (Matt glanced over, and cheerily added "Turn of the century, Paris mode fashion I believe, hard to make it out through the wax, if that helps"), she popped the pics onto her laptop, worked on making out the label.
Finally, the elegant script became legible: "This is the Captain's Box. Custody given to Esther Hart. Do Not Open for 100 Years."
Should that name sound familiar?
Before she checked online, she decided to open it to the floor of the lab. "Hey, everyone, ever hear of an Esther Hart? Or the Captain's Box?"
The silence that followed her question was of people trying to recall the name or the object.
It was broken by Deborah's flask hitting the floor and shattering. Everyone jumped, looked to make sure she was okay. She was pale and shaking.
Deborah Winston, head of Maritime Antiquities.
They helped her to a chair before she collapsed.
They had to prevent Deborah from rushing headlong to the sub-basement to see what else was there.
Madelaine quickly found the list of the other articles in the bequeathment - some dresses, some underclothing, the boots and hats themselves, other accessories - those were already in the fashion department, and Matt was more than willing to retrieve them. At least these things had been logged properly! A few more boxes of miscellaneous things were in the same corner of the basement, well hidden under piles of stuff, and Madelaine went down with Kevin to collect them. Deborah wouldn't leave the hatbox out of her sight, and everyone was willing to let her babysit it, as long as she didn't open it.
She didn't even want to touch it, just look at it in reverence.
Out of deference, they waited till everything was assembled before asking her for some history. Not one of them sneaked a peek online for some answers.
Deborah wanted to touch it all - the petticoats, the coat especially. She shook her head at the while silk dress and cardigan with the coat. The stuff in the boxes just seemed to be toilette articles - combs and brushes, perfume bottles, even the tray and cream jars.
And still no one asked, letting her take the time to sort through very obvious emotions before explaining.
By the time late lunch rolled around, everyone from the director on down knew something was up. With hardly any visitors, they just closed for the day and sat down together to eat. Deborah glanced at her watch, giggled, and finally asked, "Can you all wait for an explanation till two-thirty?" They nodded - what did they have to lose?
So they ate, nervously, and waited. They really didn't talk much.
Come 2:10, Deborah pulled out her phone. They gathered round to see her set up a text to a large amount of people. Only one name caught Madelaine's eye - shouldn't she know the name Robert Ballard? - but watched as Deborah typed a text in all caps: CAPTAIN'S BOX FOUND IN OUR BASEMENT BY ARCHIVIST!!!
At exactly 2:20, she hit send. And waited till she knew the message sent - then turned off her phone.
And cackled maniacally while they heard the echoes of the phones in every office start ringing off the hook.
Madelaine's brain slowly caught up. "Wait. Robert Ballard. Isn't....he the guy... who helped re-discover the Titanic?"
Deborah nodded, still howling with glee. She hiccupped, began to calm herself down. "Yup. You just solved a mystery that he, and other treasure seekers, have been trying to figure out ever since it went down. Esther Hart isn't a name you would likely know unless you memorized the ship's manifest. But you might recall her daughter's name, Eva. The seven year old who testified at the inquest, and insisted that the ship broke in half when it sank. That eyewitness account wasn't confirmed till Ballard found the debris field, and the two halves of the ship lying about a third of a mile apart from each other."
All eyes were suddenly riveted to the box.
"We would have never thought to look at the ship's passenger list for clues to its location, or possessor. We think there was a party hosted by Captain Smith the night the ship was hit by that iceberg. Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon may have been in attendance, among others. Many of them got into the lifeboat known as the Money Boat, since it launched early with only fourteen of the richest people on board and there are rumors that the pursers were paid a bribe not to return for more passengers.
"That dress....the silk gown, the cardigan, the polo coat. That's the exact dress that actress Dorothy Gibson wore while escaping the disaster, and also in the movie she starred in about the sinking five days later. The only known copy of that movie was destroyed in a fire. Till today." She patted one of the crates Madelaine brought up, filled with old film canisters. "Her black shoes are in here too.
"So. The night of the disaster, we don't quite know where Captain Smith was dining. We suspect he was at the Ritz, because that's where the hoi polloi were. So was the band, that we have on record. I think Captain Smith was having a private dinner with the creme de la creme, so to speak. On the ship, he was their social equal, and this was supposed to be his final commission before retirement. He would want to be remembered fondly by these giants of money. We know the Weideners held a party at the a la carte resturant, maybe he was there with the Thayers and Carters. But from here on, we have only rumors...
"It was never stated on record that this happened. No diary, no inquest statement, no intimate letter sent to friends afterwards. But since the beginning, there have been rumors of the Captain's Box - a time capsule that was created at the dinner party that Captain Smith hosted that very night. Each of the guests was rumored to have added an item from their person to the box, with a description and a signature. It was thought to have been put in one of the rooms that night, to be dealt with when they arrived in New York City, and completely forgotten in the disaster.
"There have even been rumors of what's inside. A giant diamond that Mrs. Vanderbilt was wearing. Lady Astor's earrings. John Jacob Astor's gold watch. Opera glasses from the Countess of Rothes. John Thayer's gloves. A feather from Molly Brown's hat. A sketch from Lucy Duff-Gordon, and Cosmo's signed menu. A silk rose from Guggenheim's mistress. The key to Charles Mellville Hay's state room - he said he would no longer need it."
Kevin was grinning. "For something that was just rumored, that's a pretty specific list of contents," he observed.
"Defnintely odd for something that's never been written down. Ever. Not by the people on board, not their heirs, not their confidantes. Just word of mouth, probably added to by speculation over the years. Mythology plus a heaping dose of wishful thinking, hoping beyond hope that something made it home? Maybe the disaster itself and the inquest and sensationalist hounding tabloid reporters and deathbed confessions put it out of their minds. Yet the rumors persisted. I had honestly thought it was a phantasm."
"Yet here it sits. Possibly."
"And heavy. Far heavier than it should be. I don't want to even X-ray it to spoil the surprise. And I really shouldn't open it, I should perch like a fond vulture on Madelaine's shoulder and bless the day her obsession for order drove her into our own basements." She smiled beatifically at Madelaine, who blushed. "You see, many treasures went down with the Titanic. But maybe, just maybe, this box was closed later than we think, in the rush to get to the boats. The Weideners were avid book collectors, and their son Harry was carrying the most expensive book in the world to its new owner in America. Maybe, just maybe, we'll find The Great Omar in here."
Deborah sailed through the next month, setting up interviews and answering questions and sending invitations for the live audience to the box's opening. She got all the local experts on board, and soothed ruffled feathers of the ones that felt they were left high and dry. She battened down the hatches for security measures, because these articles would become priceless the moment they breached the surface. This revealing would be close quarters - standing room only, and every square inch available to hold a person was filled with a willing body and twenty more begging to be let in.
Madelaine just tried to tread water, keep from sinking in doldrums, and not make waves. The nautical references were so thick sometimes, it felt like her head wasn't above water.
Well, the landlubber's got to learn the ropes sometime....
"You've got this, Madelaine. You found it, no matter what's in there. You've earned the right to catalog the contents for the world to watch."
"It's an amazing feeling, but half of me wants to just scream and run away right now." Madelaine peeked out at the full room. Kevin winked from the front row, and Matt aside of him gave a small wave. Faces she knew, faces she'd become familiar with, faces she knew from the media. All there. Video cameras, journalists, high level security from many countries.
High stakes. She hoped the box's contents would reflect that.
Deborah hugged her shoulders. "As much as part of me would like to run too, this has been an amazing month! The intensity, the thrill of finding something we thought lost. Isn't that why you chose this career?"
"Sure, but I expected to find the glint of gold in a mound of earth, not a basement."
"Or in a mountain of maritime metaphors?"
"Oh, don't remind me! If someone likes the cut of my jib one more time, I may drop the box on them!" They giggled, though the giant security officer beside the table did not.
They both looked at the box, whole for the last time. The wax was dull, compared to the bright and shiny of the room, the lights, the people's faces.
A table waited, with instruments for cutting and slicing. Tablets to document. Scope cameras to peer. X-ray machine, ready to be employed at last, hooked up to a projector.
Madelaine reached out, patted the box gently. Deborah patted her arm reassuringly.
At 2:19pm, Madelaine picked up the box, and she and Deborah walked into a sea of faces, the click of cameras, the ocean of bright lights....
About the author
Mix equal parts anthropologist, biologist, geologist, and artisan, stir and heat in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, sprinkle with a heaping pile of odd life experiences. Half-baked.