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The Key

by Lori Lamothe about a month ago in Historical · updated 30 days ago
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The Key
Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

Maddie stared at the key in her palm as if it were a foreign, unknown thing. A thing without a name, like the strange artifact her husband had given her when he returned from the Pacific to marry her.

They had been happy then, in those fleeting nights after the marriage. They'd never gone on a proper honeymoon and within weeks Davy shipped out on the Gothic. She hadn't cared. Not because her husband was so wild and handsome that she was finally the kind of woman other women envied. Not because the village girls had at long last stopped giggling about her strange spinster ways. For the first time in her life, she was in love.

His departure hadn't surprised her. She'd always known his real bride was the sea. As for her, she never understood even his lukewarm interest in “my rosy-cheeked lass,” as he'd once called her. She'd been 40 and Davy nine years her junior when he slipped the thin gold band onto her left hand. Any bloom she'd had was forever gone.

R.M.S. Titanic

The letters stood out clearly against the circular brass tag, still shiny as the ship itself had been when she visited a month before. Even after Davy had shown her every part of the boat above and below deck, its enormity had been impossible to comprehend. The corridors wound this way and that, endless, and had it not been for her husband's quick mind she would never have found her way out of its labyrinthine depths.

He had been so proud to be appointed second officer of such a grand vessel. That is, until he'd been demoted at the last moment and forced to give up his dream of sailing on her maiden voyage.

Afterward he had been angry, so angry, and his ebullience turned dark as ink. When he had turned up on the 9th, she opened the door to find a drunken man swaying on the front step. He brushed past her and went straight to bed, slamming the door behind him. She hadn't followed. After seven years of marriage, she knew that much.

Her words came back to her. His quick mind. Yet here was the key still in his uniform pocket more than a month after he'd been ordered to leave the ship. Maddie flipped the round tag over and read the words she knew would be there.

CROWS NEST KEY TELEPHONE

Only last week she'd read the testimony of Frederick Fleet, the crewman who had been lookout the night the Titanic sank. The papers had been full of little else since the disaster. Every day brought new testimony from the hearings in New York, new details. The words of the witnesses meandered and circled back upon themselves, as contradictory and confusing as the layout of the boat itself. Had Mr. Ismay truly dressed as a woman to save himself while he left children to drown? Had Captain Smith frozen like the iceberg that lay in their path? Had officers fired into the steerage passengers to stop them from boarding the lifeboats? Had the women rowed to safety while their husbands and sons cried out for help?

Maddie couldn't make heads or tails of it. But like an opium addict who couldn't get enough, she consumed every word. She had never cared much for company, other than her sister, but now she found herself visiting the Prancing Pony in search of gossip. She strained to hear every snatch of conversation, every stray observation about the event that cost so many lives. She'd always been one for puzzles but in books, not real life. For the past month she had turned into a regular Sherlock Holmes.

In all that time she'd never thought to look in the one place that would unravel the mystery of what sank the unsinkable ship. Her own home. Her own bedroom, for that matter.

Maddie slipped the key back into the pocket where she'd found it. Bad enough she'd been searching her husband's clothes. Even worse that she suspected him of infidelity—and with her own sister at that. But if he discovered her holding the key to the crow's nest locker, the very key that Fleet had testified held the binoculars that could have saved everyone on board. . .

“We could have seen it a bit sooner.”

That's what Fleet had told the packed room at the Waldorf-Astoria. That had it not been for the lack of binoculars he and the other lookout responsible for watching the sea that night would likely have spotted the iceberg earlier. When the senator had asked how much sooner, Fleet had been forced to admit what everyone both wanted and dreaded to hear:

"Well, enough to get out of the way."

There would have been murmurs, gasps. How could the ship that had everything—everything imaginable—have lacked such a fundamental item? How could it have been sailing full speed into an ice field with lookouts who could not see properly?

Yet it hadn't lacked that fundamental item. Instead the key to the crow's nest locker had gone missing and the lookouts could not open it. They were told to do without their glasses. The sea had been deadly calm that night, as smooth and still as glass. There had been no waves breaking against the berg to warn them. No moon and thus no reflections to help Fred and Reggie spot the force that would destroy more than 1,500 souls.

“Where on earth could that key have gone?”

Her own sister had posed that very question when they'd met for tea the previous day. Maddie had been reading the news aloud, raising her voice above the din in the restaurant.

Her sister had it too, the obsession. Once, they met to chatter on about who'd gotten engaged or who was surely expecting. At least Bonnie had. At 47, Maddie had little interest in such things. She had Nancy and knew there would be no more children. As for Bonnie, her interest in marriage and children had disappeared entirely since April 15 and the two of them spent countless hours poring over the news in search of some new fact. Some new explanation.

Well, she had one now.

Maddie's heart beat hard in her chest and her throat felt as if it might close up entirely. The spotless room spun and she lurched toward the bed as if she were a passenger finding her sea legs. She fell back onto the spread and placed both hands on either side of her to steady herself. After a few minutes her heart slowed and she could breathe again.

The ticking of the clock on the mantle brought her back to the present. With a start, she noticed the time. Almost three. Nancy was down for her nap and wouldn't wake for at least another half hour. Davy had gone out and wouldn't turn up until well after dark. He was due to ship out for New York any day on the Majestic.

She crossed to the closet and pulled the door open. Reached for the coat, the pocket, the key. She simply could not help herself.

Again, she read the name of the ship. Again, she flipped the tag over and ran her fingertip across the engraved letters. Here is the key to the locker in the crow's nest, she told herself. Here is the reason the ship sank.

She repeated the phrases over and over like a mantra, a spell that could reverse what had happened. Of course, no spell could rewrite the past. The Titanic would never dock in America. The souls who sought new lives would never set foot on land. The key felt warm against her skin.

Why had Davy taken it with him when he left the ship? Undoubtedly he would have known its importance.

Three loud raps pierced the silence and for a moment Maddie imagined one of the dead was trying to contact her from beyond. Three more raps came before she understood someone was knocking on the front door. She slammed the closet shut and shoved the key into her skirt pocket. She would replace it later.

By the time she laid her hand on the brass doorknob in the parlor, she was out of breath once more. The key burned in her pocket as she opened the door and pasted a smile onto her face.

Davy stood before her. He smelled sober as a judge. It was a clear blue day and the blinding sun cast him in shadow.

“I forgot the key,” he said.

Stupidly, she thought at first he meant the key he'd taken from the ship and nearly answered him. Nearly said, I know. Instead she stepped aside for him to enter.

“Would you care for a cup of tea?” she asked.

“That would be lovely.” For a moment his expression was not so very different than it had been when they first met. When he had taken her for a much younger woman because of her luxurious red hair. Her one indulgence.

She hurried off and made a great fuss in the kitchen, far more than a simple pot of tea required. The shriek of the kettle went on for too long and she dropped not one but two spoons onto the floor before she managed to get the tea tray set. She deliberately avoided their best china and selected instead two flowery cups she didn't care for.

She'd been surprised that the tea served on the Titanic during her visit had come in a bag. It had been the only aspect of her meal that was ordinary. Everything else—the Irish smoked salmon, the fruity tomato chutney, the lemon meringue tartlet--had been exquisite. In the cafe a gilded haze seemed to hang over everything, even the workers scurrying to and fro in their rush to get the liner ready on time.

Davy's footsteps echoed through their little house and though he was out of her view, she envisioned his relentless discontent. He had been itching to be on his way again ever since he'd come on shore that awful night. She heard him walk into their bedroom, then walk out again. Into the parlor, the dining room. Back to the bedroom. Pacing like a caged animal. The only room he didn't visit was the nursery.

If he should go to the closet. . .Maddie tried to recall if she'd left anything out of place. There was no way he could know she had found the key. Maybe Davy didn't even realize himself. . . Did. Not. Know.

“Where's that tea, luv?” he called out after an inordinate number of minutes had passed.

“Coming!” she called back, but more softly, so as not to wake Nancy. Her hands shook as she lifted the tray off the counter. An idea was building within her. A terrible curiosity. A question.

Davy was seated in his usual armchair when she reached the parlor. If he noticed the shaking, he didn't mention it. She wasn't used to him being sober on shore, had forgotten how keen his powers of observation could be.

She set down the tray with relief. Wiped her palms on her skirt and reached for his cup. When she held it out to him a surge of triumph coursed through her. The key was well hidden in her pocket. The uniform in its place on his side of the closet. She had nothing to fear. If he didn't go out again, she would simply wait until he dropped off to sleep. The she would slip the key back where she'd found it. If only she hadn't removed it a second time!

Meanwhile the question was fighting for survival. She tamped it down. He was her husband. She didn't need to know, just like she didn't need to know the nature of his relationship with her sister.

Davy spooned sugar into his cup and stirred. He took a sip and made a face.

“You added four spoonfuls?” His eyebrows went up.

Maddie winced. She never gave in to her husband's whims under normal circumstances. She was, after all, a reverend's daughter. A frugal Scotswoman down to her bones. Then again, so was Bonnie and that didn't stop her from carrying on a correspondence with a married man. Even now, Maddie couldn't erase the sting of seeing that postcard in her sister's sitting room at the boarding house. Bonnie swept it out of sight but not before Maddie spotted Davy's handwriting and read a few lines.

Am afraid I shall have to step out to make room for chief officer of the Olympic. This is a magnificent ship, I feel very disappointed I am not to make her first voyage.

How grateful Maddie had been to think Davy had not been on the fatal voyage. Relief. That had been her first feeling and it had been so powerful it left no room for any other emotion. God help her, she had actually felt happy. Then the postcard. The realization. The search. Her relief tangling and tangling into an embarrassing knot of jealousy.

Davy was staring at her. Watching her, she imagined, as closely as he watched the water when he was on the bridge. Did he watch Bonnie like that? Or was she, too, subordinate to the face of the sea?

“I know what you did.”

The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. There was no uncertainty in them. He looked away and flushed to his roots, guilt suffusing every part of him.

Seconds later he flicked his sheepish schoolboy gaze back to her. His blue eyes, the eyes she had loved so, beseeched her to forgive him. “Maddie,” he sputtered, “Whatever you suspect, whatever you believe, you're mistaken—

His denial left her cold. “Don't lie to me,” she said. “I have proof.”

“Proof? What proof? Bonnie and I—” he broke off and raised his eyes upward, as if he could locate the lie he needed on the ceiling. “I care for her because of you, because of you, dearest, because you two are close as twins, there's nothing more—”

She blinked back tears and hated herself for it. In seven years, she'd barely seen him. She could count on one hand the number of weekends they had spent in bed wrapped in each other's arms. What did it matter if he'd misunderstood her, if he and her sister. . .

“Do you imagine I'm under the illusion you've remained faithful to me?” She realized she was shouting and then she realized she didn't care. Let him hear their child cry. Let him remember he had one.

“I've been nothing but faithful to you.” Now it was Davy whose voice had fallen to a whisper. "Though for the life of me I can't say why."

Maddie reached into her skirt pocket and flung the key onto the coffee table. It skittered off the edge and landed on the threadbare carpet. “You want proof," she said. "There's your proof.”

In the nursery, Nancy began to cry. Davy paid no heed to the sound. He knelt before the golden object and reached to retrieve it from its spot on the rug.

She watched him turn it, just as she had done an hour earlier, though he must know what key it was. Surely he knew the inscriptions as well as he knew the lines on his own palm.

When he raised his eyes to her, it was as if he'd looked too long at the sun. As if she were not there at all. “Where did you find this?”

Nancy was crying at full volume now. The thrill of satisfaction she'd felt when she threw the key had dwindled to nothing.

“I need to get the baby,” she said. It came out as a plea rather than a statement.

“Where?”

“In your uniform pocket,” she said. “I was—

Maddie didn't bother to finish. What was the point in lying now? He wouldn't believe her anyway. She studied his profile, the strong, stubbled jawline that had driven her to leave her home in Scotland, her books, her writing, her independence. Her sister, until she'd traveled to England to be with Maddie while they were living in Southampton.

Was Davy troubled that she'd discovered his secret, the terrible thing he'd done out of spite? If he had deliberately taken the key he couldn't have known the events that would follow. He couldn't have meant it as anything more than a cruel joke. But that didn't mean he hadn't been responsible for the deaths of everyone on board.

Or had he not known the key was there in the first place? Had he forgotten to return it in his rush to pack his things before the Titanic left port? If he had done it accidentally, however, his omission meant the lookouts had to rely on their eyesight alone. No matter what other mistakes occurred, the lack of glasses would never be inconsequential.

Maddie resisted the temptation to touch him. "Was it intentional?"

His expression was unfathomable. They were three feet apart from one another but she wasn't certain he'd heard her.

Nancy's shrieks reached a fever pitch. "The baby," she said but remained rooted to the spot. Waiting for what?

Davy deposited the key into his pocket and walked out into the sunlight.

When Maddie reached the nursery, she lifted her daughter out of the crib and held her close. Her small body felt solid and full of life. With her free hand, Maddie wiped the girl's cheeks. "I'm sorry," she said as Nancy wrapped a pudgy hand around her damp finger.

In the parlor the door stood open, just as it had when Davy went out. Voices rang out across the air and on the street below people hurried past as they rushed toward the future.

***

While the characters above are based on real people, this story is purely fiction. Yes, David "Davy" Blair was demoted from second officer on the Titanic on April 9, 2012, just days before the fateful voyage. Though Blair sailed on the ship's trial runs, his superiors decided to bring on Henry Wilde of the R.M.S. Olympic for her maiden voyage. As a result, the Titanic officers were shuffled around at the last minute and Blair left the ship.

Blair was bitterly disappointed and in his rush to depart he did not return the key to the crow's nest locker that held binoculars for the lookouts. On April 14 the sea was calm and the sky dark, which made it difficult for Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee to spot the iceberg until it was too late.

Fleet testified in New York that he immediately rang the crow's nest bell three times to warn the crew something was ahead. He then picked up the telephone in the crow's nest and informed the bridge he had spotted an iceberg in their path. After his call, the ship changed course.

The lines from Fleet's testimony are verbatim. He spoke them when questioned at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, where the Congressional hearings occurred. He also said that though he'd been at sea since he was a boy he had never served as lookout without binoculars, which were commonly referred to as "glasses."

Though Fleet was not to blame I wonder if he blamed himself, regardless of the inquiry's finding that the lack of binoculars was not the main cause of the tragedy. He suffered from severe depression later in life and committed suicide in 1965.

It is generally said that Blair's act was not intentional. He was respected and had never done anything to warrant a demotion for his work. In 1913, Blair jumped overboard to try to save a coal trimmer who leapt into the sea from the S.S. Majestic. For his selfless act, the Royal Humane Society awarded him a medal for his bravery. The following year, however, he was court martialed for a navigation error when the R.M.S. Oceanic ran aground.

As for Blair's personal life, not much is known, and so my story is, for the most part, wild invention. He did leave San Francisco to marry Madeleine Temple Mackness in 1905, when she was 40 years old. A short article published in the San Francisco Call mentioned his description of his wife-to-be as a "rosy-cheeked lass."

Within a few weeks of the marriage, he sailed for New Zealand on the Gothic. After that, he was not on land much--like most sailors--but it was apparently enough for him to father their only child, Elizabeth Nancy Blair, who went by her middle name.

Blair sailed all over the world and left England as part of the St. George scientific expedition to the South Seas in 1923. He did not return to England and appears to have lived in Panama, in addition to commanding a yacht in the South Seas, until 1936. Madeleine died in 1950 and Blair remarried a woman 33 years younger than him that same year. After fathering a son, he died at 80 in 1955.

It was Nancy who donated the key to the International Sailors Society. In 2007, the key and the postcard to his sister-in-law were auctioned off.

As for the romance I brewed up, there is no evidence any such thing existed. I do find it odd that Madeleine's husband would write her sister of all people (whose name I could not determine). I also surmise their marriage was not the happiest, since he did not bother to return to England for 13 years and it is not clear he contacted Madeleine upon his return.

Madeleine (or Madeline) was born in Surrey, England in 1865 to Reverend George Mackness and Fanny Bird. She married Blair in Broughty Ferry, Scotland, and lived there for a time. Again, the two seemed oddly paired, especially during that time period: a 40-year-old unmarried Scottish daughter of a reverend and a younger itinerant sailor with tattoos on both arms.

Though it has no basis in fact, I couldn't help thinking of Emily Bronte as I wrote about her. When I read about Madeleine visiting Davy before the Titanic's departure and having tea on board, I saw Emily. At least at first. Eventually, Maddie became her own person, with her own ideas about the key to the crow's nest locker.

Did Madeleine and Davy ever discuss the key? Did she ask him if he'd taken it on purpose or left it behind by accident? How could they have avoided the topic? If not, what did he say? And did she believe him?

Barring the discovery of some secret diary, we'll never know.

Historical

About the author

Lori Lamothe

Poet, writer

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