Lesbian Love on the Doomed Titanic Voyage
Author: Edit Team
June 25, 2020
About the book:
Studiously researched and fantastically written, Sea Queens resuscitates the vessel’s flamboyant
and fay characters including Major Archibald Butt, Thomson Beattie, Thomas Francis McCaffrey,
John Hugo Ross, Ella White, and Marie Grice Young. Probing world history, nautical lore, and the
queer imaginary, the 130-page historical novella richly describes their intimate and professional
struggles from the moment of boarding in Southampton up to the aftermath of Titanic’s sinking on
April 15, 1912.
Marie Grice Young & Ella White
Friday, April 12, 1912
How I wish that our first complete day aboard RMS Titanic could have possessed the serene tenderness of the prior night’s slumber! I had drifted away so swiftly in Ella’s arms. Her hands had been firmly laced about my waist; her soft chin, tucked into a dimple in my shoulder. I did not mind her raucous snore or the tickle of her nightcap’s tassel against my eyelashes. The precious, private pose reminded me of our early days when Ella would make an elaborate performance of devouring me, bonnet to slippers.
Yet Thursday morning brought with it the strife of our life together. My hand wandered beneath Ella’s chemise promisingly, my little grasps prompting both of us to sigh. I took handfuls of her rump, her firm thighs, even the coarse, wild hairs that coated her Cyprian arbour. I longed to part her. She soon found my bosom as she always did: a small hand reached out, pulling the tip of my breast to attention.
As my hands descended to Ella’s calves, I was shocked to find her limb grotesquely swollen. Lifting the gown’s fabric revealed a ballooning leg seemingly on the cusp of pustulization, its fair skin marbled by purples and yellows.
“You were encouraged to call the ship’s doctor,” I said. “Maybe now is the time?”
“Marie, it’s nothing of concern,” Ella murmured. “Please do go on. I do adore how you are petting me, my sweet.”
“Ella, I am concerned.”
“No need. I’ve fared far worse. Remember my trip to the Galapagos?”
“Were we not having a divine morning?”
“Yes. Yes we were,” Ella said spitefully.
I sighed, rearranging my bosom in my nightgown and waiting for the tell-tale color to drain from my cheeks before summoning Nellie and Sante. They knew the nature of our friendship. Still, I strove to maintain a modicum of decorum; to resist challenging each employee’s ardent Catholicism or subjecting them to an image they would be unable to remove from psychic circulation. Their support would be essential; I daren’t take it for granted.
Nellie arrived from their quarters, still pinning up her hair. “Good morning, Miss Young. Good morning, Mrs. White. Can you smell the ocean?” She inhaled deeply.
Ella groaned, abundantly annoyed. “Can someone kindly tell me what is happening?”
“Nellie, would you do us the favor of pressing the steward’s button? Ella needs her leg checked after by a physician.”
“HOW DARE YOU TREAT ME LIKE AN ANEMIC CHIL—” my lady roared.
“Nellie, the button,” I repeated. Rolling atop Ella, I gripped her soft wrists above her head to still her flailing attempts to obstruct her maid.
Wincing as though gripping a skillet without a mitten, Nellie obliged. The buzz was promptly followed by a knock at the cabin’s door.
“You rang, madam?”
“I most certainly did not!” Ella bellowed.
Sante, also still dressing, opened the cabin’s door with a polite nod, the lone calm within our collective tempest, as always. Throughout the years of knowing him, I pondered his life before the Americas. What tumult had he witnessed and from whom did he learn to persevere? Would he blink if his employer were to slap him? Surely her words had done far worse.
Bearing his initials, the ring on Sante’s left index finger was the singular indicator that betrayed his neurotic constitution. Using his thumb and middle finger, he would twirl the band around the tensed digit, faster and faster still, but for seldom longer than a full minute; it was a brief Central Park carousel ride that delighted me — a woman much too senior to be enjoying such childish play — until its very end.
“Buongiorno, sir. A doctor at once, please. The Misses — Mrs. J. Stuart White — has sprained her leg.”
“MY NAME IS ELLA WHITE,” she corrected in vain.
The steward nodded and made to leave, but paused when Ella emitted a cry akin to Coney Island’s gulls.
“Please, sir,” Sante probed the gentleman’s lapel for a name. “…Mr. Beasley! As you can see, she is in exceptional distress.” Anemic child, no, yet she was adept at emulating one’s pout and ruby complexion.
The steward departed with the sea breeze. Nellie pulled the door closed and drew me close. “You should leave, Miss. Some fresh air on the promenade, maybe?” She breathed in my ear. “We will tend to Mrs. White.”
“I suppose someone should check on the hens,” I reasoned. I recalled the sweet carpenter, in his brand new White Star Line uniform; so clearly proud of his occupation and what lay ahead. He promised to summon me at eleven. I would bide my time away. Ella doled out insults as I dressed myself. With Nellie’s help, she left bed long enough to relieve herself and procure a pastry from the breakfast platter before returning and commencing her tirade. As I numbed myself to her chastisement, I found beauty in her ability to meet her needs. I began to believe no other living woman required the same victuals to thrive as the former Mr. J. Stuart White. She needed a buffet, a bosom, a baroque symphony, a boarding pass, and — remorsefully — a brawl.
“I love you,” I told her as Sante opened the door for me. “No, I do not recall what transpired in the Galapagos, although I will say that your singular life puts any of Mr. Charles’ Darwin’s expeditions to shame. You, Ella White, are the only slithering, hissing organism since the dawn of creation who has curiously, deftly, and incalculably stolen my heart.”
“In that case, you can have it back,” Ella spat as the door closed. From the hallway, I could hear the groan of the mattress as she flopped back onto the bed.
She truly knew the movements, a piano teacher of mine would remark in response to a particularly moving recital by a deft pupil. The same could be said for Ella. She had long mastered the conversational codas that left me bruised, fatigued, and — somehow — still coveting more of her.
As I entered the fresh air, Titanic’s horn blared, indicating that we would soon cast anchor in Queenstown. As with Cherbourg, she would not be able to enter harbor; passengers would be delivered and taken from us with the assistance of tenders once more. I wondered how many casualties — a slip of the toe like Ella’s, or something far worse — would befall those traveling on this behemoth.
I leaned over the promenade’s guardrail, noticing how the breeze tickled my face less as the ship slowed speed. Perhaps Ella’s comparison from the day prior was incorrect. If my dearest resembled Titanic in any capacity, it was in their shared ability to force everything and person in their vicinity to bend to their fire-forged wills.
I returned to our C Deck accommodations near eleven o’ clock to await John. A heated conversation between Ella and an unrecognizable male emitted from behind the room’s closed door. I was content to linger in the hall, awaiting my new friend as an adolescent does a suiter.
He approached just as a nearby clock chimed the hour, adjusting his seaman’s cap.
“Good morning, Miss.”
“Marie,” I nodded. He was but a boy still, surely no older than twenty-five. John’s green eyes passed back-and-forth across my face, glinting. He was unnerved by his own gallantry.
“Marie. Miss Marie,” he said, humming through his Ms. “Right this way.”
I followed him across decks and down stairwells. “Thank you so much for assisting me. It must seem so curious to you, a lady being aboard a ship such as this but being unable to think of anything but her chickens!”
“Not at all, Mmmiss Mmmarie. My own lady was quite attached to her own fowl; would force me to feed them fancily, and twice on Christmas. Chickens, eating poached eggs! Can you imagine?”
“That does indeed ease my fears. I am sorry to hear of your loss.”
“Oh! No loss, Mmmiss Mmmarie. Just a separation of childhood sweethearts, you see. If you’ll forgive my candidness, but in youth, I thought I wanted a wife. But I believe what I was desiring most was a child. It is the sphinx’s riddle I ‘ave yet to solve.”
“I understand.” As we made our descent, the air became thicker and warmer. Beads of sweat came to my brow. The carpenter offered me his handkerchief. I accepted.
“Here we are,” John said, holding open the door to the dog kennels for me with a bow.
The birds’ crates had been tucked between an unflappable Great Dane and an Airedale. The canines, expressing more interest in John and I, seemed to have assumed the occupation of sentinels to poultry quite naturally. Our chickens, in a continued state of disarray, seemed to now fancy themselves canines, clucking as dogs bark and attempting to scratch at their feathers with spurred feet.
All was well. The birds scurried to greet the handfuls of feed I cast over their wire homes, the large plumes of copper feathers atop their heads grazing the cage’s clean floor. The dog kennel’s orderlies had treated them with the dignity of German Shepherds; their drinking water sparkled. There was no trace of droppings within the crate. Ella would be pleased to know that her birds were being afforded their equivalent of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
“Do you feel chickens are easier to tend than children?” John inquired. He lingered near the kennel’s entrance, allowing me an unnecessary degree of privacy.
“Oh, I wouldn’t know, Mr. Hutchinson. I haven’t any of my own. What I do know is that children have supernatural ears. When you do crack that riddle of yours, please treat them to music lessons. You will be serenaded for a lifetime — and by something far more lovely than clucks.” I looked at the hens. “I mean no disrespect, darlings. You are a perfect specimen of what you are.”
“Duly noted, Mmmiss Mmmarie.”
John insisted on escorting me above once more, promising to continue our daily excursions into the sultry below. I offered him a gratuity, which the carpenter accepted with much humility. “It’s such good luck to receive gold on a first voyage,” he murmured.
By that afternoon hour, we were preparing to depart Queensland. I strolled along the C Deck promenade, praying that Ella’s ailments and spat with modern medicine had simultaneously self-resolved.
An Irish woman from the third class, dressed in black from head to toe, had been permitted access to the first class quarters to sell her white lace finery. It was increasingly cold and windy, yet I approached her as one would lady death: cautiously, my jaw slacked in wonder. For one of such humble means, her display was impressive: lace dresses, drapery, and hairpieces surrounded her. Unsmiling, she held a long span of the material that would certainly appeal to those who patronized the French fashion houses; what potential for glamour it held!
Taking her in, I noticed that the frontispiece of her dress was crafted from the material, dyed black to match the rest; a risque addition to what would otherwise be considered mourning attire. Behind her, a lace baby bonnet had been affixed to the ship’s side for showcasing.
I regretted not having asked John why he thought I knew anything at all about children. Such conversations seldom transpired in New York. Ella was quick to remind me of how society perceived us: She, a grating spinster who wielded an influential scepter; I, a bohemian suffragette best suited for international wedlock. It was presumed that our travels were philanthropic on Ella’s part. That she, with deep pockets and a hardened attitude toward charity, was determined to find me a reputable suitor. Naturally, we had many a good laugh and sigh of relief at high society’s naïve speculation.
Father had long since abandoned the subject of me bearing children; My profession had brought the family enough valor. There were so few people in Washington and abroad that could say they had won the hearts of each Roosevelt child: Teddy Junior, Alice, Kermit, Quentin, Archie, and Ethel. What I felt for them spanned two languages — English and the chromatic. It swelled my heart and veins to the point of hysterical pregnancy. I nurtured, I disciplined, I educated. What, if anything at all, was I missing?
The thought gnawed at my marrow as I returned to Ella.