Mary Russell’s War (twenty-three): freedom of the seas
5 January 1915
I should be ashamed at the exhilaration I feel, walking the decks of this ship. The Atlantic swells and shoves, concealing German U-boats and icebergs and deep darkness. The wind howls, while my fellow passengers speak in low voices, as if any noise might be heard beyond the hull. Despite the hazards lying out here in the deep, one of our engines lies idle so as to save fuel, though it extends our crossing time by half a day.
I may be the only person on board to whom this was good news. The longer the crossing, the greater the delay in facing London and all she holds.
Were I in fact the twenty years (twenty-two? -five?) I appear to my fellow passengers, I would entertain the idea of staying in Portsmouth. Finding employment, perhaps—I understand many women now work in England, from constabulary duties to munitions factories. I could even enlist for driving an ambulance on the Front! I would be good at that, I am sure.
However, I cannot be certain of my ability to maintain an act of being older. Plus that, simply disappearing from the world would not only inflict pain on what is left of my family, it would also be cowardly.
No: I shall face London. I shall prevail against my aunt, who I am certain will be clutching a dozen telegrams from Boston by the time I arrive on her—on my—front door. My grandparents will have received my letter by now (I paid an acquaintance to post it the day after I left, for fear that they would find some way of discovering which ship I boarded, and then forcing it back to New York!) and my mother’s sister in London would have been the first person to hear from them, with (I have no doubt) a series of escalating demands that she instantly place me back on the first ship heading west again. Which she would delight in doing, were she capable.
Fat chance of digging me out of England, once I’m there.
Last night at dinner the Purser walked slowly through the dining room, gazing intently at every passenger under the age (the apparent age) of twenty. I had been practicing the skill of manoeuvring the ship without my spectacles, so as to avoid that giveaway, and my hair gathered beneath its very grown-up hat is a far cry from the description of blonde plaits that he no doubt was given. (There is not much I can do about my eye colour, but blue is not exactly rare here on the ship. And clearly, no one has yet discovered my theft of my cousin’s passport, thus there has been no enquiry about an “Emily DuPont” on the passenger list. I did not even need to tell the man examining my papers that no, I was not one of The DuPonts, because clearly my Emporium coat and pinching shoes had told him that already. Although, why oh why are my shoes shrinking?)
So, with the perfect freedom of anonymity and adulthood, I walk the corridors, I make shallow conversation with other ladies, I dutifully blush at the jovial remarks of the men. Admittedly, I am not good at the techniques of flirtation one might expect of a woman of twenty-two or thereabouts, but in a flash of inspiration, on my second evening I dropped my eyes to my soup plate and murmured a vague sentence about the tragic loss of a junior officer with whom I had an unofficial understanding. As a result, my fellows now sympathise with my lack of interest in the opposite sex, while at the same time looking with approval on any pleasure or attempt at social intercourse that I may venture.
I suppose I should also be troubled by this previously unsuspected knack for confidence trickery—but I believe I have been sufficiently troubled in recent weeks, and I will no doubt be facing an entire barrage of other troubles once we make landfall, from a wartime countryside to an irascible aunt.
Just for these days of crossing, I shall gaze out across the white-capped expanse of salt, and feel at rest.
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The rest of Mary Russell’s War can be found here.