Elise Brennan waited amongst a crowd of other passengers to board the White Star Line tender Ireland. The tender America had just left the dock at Queenstown with over sixty passengers and was en route to the RMS Titanic anchored off Roche’s Point.
Elise, a native of Westmeath, Ireland, and only seventeen-years-old, hadn’t planned on sailing across the Atlantic by herself.
Times had been tough since the death of her mother less than a year ago, and her father, a farm labourer, had purchased the third-class tickets with what little money he could spare. The last of their family, he and Elise had sold everything they owned and would make for the great city of New York in search of new opportunities, like so many other Irish immigrants before them.
But then her father had died suddenly of heart failure only three weeks ago.
Elise imagined the stress of starting over at his age had been too much for him to handle, and his heart simply gave up.
With no other choice, Elise prepared to embark on the journey to New York alone, without the love and wisdom of her father, and by way of the newest ship in town.
The papers called it, The Ship of Dreams.
The creation of Bruce Ismay (the managing director of the White Star Line) and Lord James Pirrie (a partner at Harland and Wolff), the Titanic and its sister ship, the Olympic, were said to pave a new way for big, luxurious passenger liners.
The two ships were built over the course of three years in Belfast by Harland and Wolff, under the direction of Thomas Andrews, the nephew of Lord Pirrie. The Olympic was first to launch, and conducted its maiden voyage on June 14, 1911.
Elise remembered that June well, as it was just after her mother passed away. Her mother had been a housekeeper all her adult life, and while she didn’t earn much, the loss of her income had placed immense pressure on Elise’s father to make big changes for the betterment of his daughter.
Ten months later, Elise stood on the dock in Queenstown, after a series of train rides from Westmeath, to take part in the Titanic’s maiden voyage, and in many ways, a maiden voyage of her own, but in the company of strangers.
Elise watchedasport officials finished loading the last of the luggage into the Ireland.
She had said her goodbyes to the place she grew up, from the hills to the plains to the many rivers that divide them; to her friends whom she promised to write; and to her parents, who would forever remain buried in this land, yet whose memory she would carry no matter her station in life. God willing, in a week she would be an American.
One by one, port officials began checking tickets and allowing passengers to board. The crowd pushed in closer, anxious to get moving.
Elise examined the sea of faces. In front of her was a woman with three sons, the youngest maybe two-years-old, all clinging fearfully to their mother’s skirt. To her right, an older gentleman around her late father’s age, as solemn and quiet as she, presumably taking the trip alone as well. To her left, a young husband and wife with four children, the kids loud and rambunctious, playing off each other’s energy.
It was just after one of the four children, a boy around five or six, had accidently bumped into her, and she had smiled down at him with understanding eyes, that she felt the piercing sting on the nape of her neck.
Something had bit her.
She immediately massaged the sore spot with her index finger, returning a small amount of blood.
What kind of bug could possibly be out this chilly afternoon and amongst such a large an active crowd, she wondered?
A ruckus erupted behind her as a short and burly man with a bald head bullied his way backward through the crowd. Many furiously cursed his lack of manners, while Elise just stared in bewilderment. It wasn’t until the little boy beside her asked if she was okay that she understood what had happened.
She blazed through the path created by the bald man and ran under an awning used to shelter passengers from less friendly weather. Today it was mostly empty aside from a few security personnel who lumbered about. She yelled at them to help her, but they only insisted she slow down and explain herself.
Forty yards ahead, her assailant climbed over a stone ledge up on the left that led to a row of hotels and pubs.
Elise made it over the ledge and around some bushes on to the open road just as the bald man escaped out of sight in an alleyway. She stopped to catch her breath and looked back at the dock. From this vantage point, she could see the dock was nearly clear of passengers. Almost everyone was on the Irelandnow, waiting for the final few to board so they could be ferried out to the Titanic.
She looked back at the alleyway.
The bald man was long gone.
As she climbed back down the ledge, she found a small needle covered in dirt, its glass barrel smashed. She didn’t dare pick it up or tell security in fear that they might not allow her on the ship. They adhered to a strict policy and would treat any potential illness very seriously. Even if her life could be in danger, she couldn’t risk being stuck here, alone and penniless. On the ship, she could at least receive free medical attention.
The crew of the Ireland waited for Elise to make her way back down the dock. She was the last passenger to board. The others eyed her with wordless irritation, as though she had purposely delayed them. She caught sight of the little boy who had most likely been the only witness. He was playing with his siblings, completely absorbed in his youth. He had obviously said nothing to his parents.
Elise rubbed her neck again. The spot where the needle had gone in no longer bled, and it no longer hurt. Most of the pain had come and gone with the initial prick, all that lingered now was a growing fear that her health and well-being could be in jeopardy. She could think of no rational explanation for what had happened, and as best she could recall, she had never seen the bald man before in her life.
Who was he?
What did he want with her?
But more importantly—what had been inside the syringe?
What was now inside of her?
Before dropping any passengers off, the Ireland first had to stop by the Deep-water Quay to load mail bags carried by train. The short trip to the Quay was quite rocky, with the wind and waves off the shoreline battering against the small boat. A few rowboats ran alongside carrying local vendersout to the Titanic to sell crafts and other native goods to wealthy passengers.
The Titanic was anchored roughly two miles from the dock at Queenstown. It had already picked up the great majority of passengers the day before in Southampton, England, and then later on in the evening in Cherbourg, France.
Elise had a firm grip on the metal hand railing as she stood on the top deck of the Ireland and looked out at the magnificent port side profile of the Titanic as they drew closer.
The ship stood over twenty stories tall, a marvelous creation of modern engineering that embodied mankind’s never-ending quest for greatness. There was a strong, masculine contrast to the black and white paint that covered most of the ship’s exterior, further exemplified by the four yellow and black tipped funnels equally spaced down the center, two of which currently expelled dark grey clouds of smoke. But more than anything, Elise was astonished by the number of portholes—there had to be five hundred just on the port side alone—and hoped her room would have such a thing.
At the top of the foremast flew the red, white, and blue of the American flag with the forty-six stars of the United States, the ship’s destination. On the mainmast was the red swallow-tailed pendant with a single five-pointed white star signifying the Titanic as a member of the White Star Line.
Elise listened as many of the other passengers chatted amongst themselves, amazed by the sheer size and grandeur of the ship, the largest passenger vessel ever produced. They were equally excited to check out the amenities on board, even though most would be travelling in steerage, as the ship was advertised as having excellent service and accommodations in all areas.
Elise was just glad they stopped leering in her direction. She felt fine despite the mysterious incident that had occurred back on the dock. Sure, she was nervous to be leaving her homeland, knowing she might never return, but she was also hopeful of the possibilities that lay ahead. The Titanic symbolized the first step of a journey toward a new beginning. How could she possibly worry in the presence of such shared anticipation and childlike wonder?
They passed the tender America as it headed back to Queenstown having already docked and unloaded its passengers and luggage. The captain of the Ireland made a wide circle and slowly came up on the port side of the Titanic. Elise waved at many of the passengers standing high above on the Titanic’s second-class boat deck.
Moments later, the small tender came to a stop even with the foremast of the Titanic. As the boat rolled back and forth, crew of the Ireland rushed to tether the ship to the Titanic via two thick ropes, and then began securing the gangway into place.
Passengers were allowed to board first, then the local venders, who passed from their rowboats into the Ireland and then into the Titanic. After all the passengers were on board, port officials loaded the luggage and mail.
Elise made her way through the gangway and up a flight of stairs to the forward well deck. She joined many of the other passengers against the railing and looked down as the Ireland took on a handful of passengers to be ferried back to the mainland. For those below, the journey on the ship of dreams was already over.
At around 1:30 p.m., a series of whistles indicated the Ireland was departing. Soon after the tender was out of sight, the Titanic weighed anchor and prepared to depart.
After having survived inspection and the challenge of finding her room, Elise went back up to watch as the large ship made a quarter-circle and then headed down the Irish coast. Hundreds of seagulls soared above guiding the way.
The Titanic steamed down St. George’s Channel passing the Old Head of Kinsale, its lighthouse faintly visible four or five miles away. They also came dangerously close to a small fishing vessel. The fishermen aboard cheered as they were hit with spray from the bow of the Titanic.
Elise began to weep as the lush green fields of Ireland began to disappear into the distance. She said a final prayer for her mother and father at rest, for her friends she was leaving behind, and for the land that she loved.
As the sun began to set, the coastline receded to the northwest and the last of the Irish mountains slowly slipped away under the cover of darkness.