Women and Children First, II: The Aftermath of Disaster

Women and Children First, II: The Aftermath of Disaster

 
By Melissa Tawn
 
Henrietta did not survive the sinking of the Titanic, but her memory remains very much alive.


 
 

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Many people have asked me to write a followup to my story “Women and Children First”. I hope this satisfies their request. One has to first read the original story in order to figure out what has happened so far.
 

The lifeboat containing Mrs. Wilkerson and her three daughters, Elizabeth, Anne, and Margaret, was picked up by the Carpathia and they were safely rescued and returned home. They mourned the loss of Henrietta, who had slipped from Anne’s grasp in the confusion and panic on board the Titanic, but time, as the cliché says, does eventually heal most wounds and, slowly, the family life returned to its normal course.

The first daughter to leave home was Margaret. When she was 17, she met a dashing Yale junior named Timothy. They were married a year later, after he had graduated, and moved to New York, where Timothy landed a job with J. P. Morgan’s bank.

Margaret’s twin sister, Anne, joined the Red Cross after war broke out in Europe, and volunteered to go to France as a nurse. In one of the hospitals, she met a severely-wounded British officer, a blond giant of a man named Captain Bill Percy, whom she cared for and nursed back to health. Bill Percy had lost a leg while apparently doing something extremely brave, for he was awarded a Victoria Cross (Britain’s highest award for military valor) while in the hospital by General Haig in person. The ribbon was hung in a glass case over his bed, but he had it removed the next day, saying that it just attracted flies. As the months passed and Anne slowly and gently nursed and treated him, the two fell in love and, one day, Bill asked Anne to marry him — not without warning her that life with a disabled war veteran was not likely to be an idyll and that he would probably spend the rest of his life grousing about his wounds or, worse, boring her and everyone else with his war stories. Anne, however, was not worried and agreed. They were married quietly by the hospital chaplain, since Bill was still unable to leave his bed.

Two days later, a military courier brought Bill a large cream-colored envelope which, he explained, was a letter of congratulations from his Uncle George. “Your uncle must be an important man, if he can send his letters by courier,” remarked Anne. “Look,” said Bill, “there is some family stuff I should really have told you about before we were married, but I was afraid that you wouldn’t have me if you knew it.” With that, he handed Anne the envelope, which, to her amazement, was not addressed to Capt. Bill Percy but rather, in a very fancy script, to Capt. The Honorable William Henry Taillefer Lord Percy, Duke of Sheffield, Earl of Carrington, VC, KG. “That’s quite a much of a muchness, isn’t it,” he smiled. “I really much prefer just being plain Bill Percy, but when your ancestors landed with William the Conqueror at Hastings, you do acquire a modicum of baggage which, unfortunately, you are expected to tote until the next generation takes over. My uncle, by the way, wishes us the best on our marriage and hopes to see us soon,” Bill went on, “he is rather busy most of the time, being King and all, but from what I know of him he will always find time for a pretty lady. In any case, I am being transferred to his personal staff in London, so we shall be seeing him soon. We do own a townhouse on Portman Square, but it is currently taken over by a flock of code-breaking boffins whose feathers I think it is best not to ruffle, so I suppose we will end up camping out in one of the spare bedrooms in Buckingham Palace. I hope you don’t mind awfully. The food there is actually quite good.” When he received no response, Bill looked up and saw that Anne, now suddenly Duchess of Sheffield, had, in the best aristocratic tradition, fainted dead away.

Anne’s marriage left Elizabeth as the only remaining unmarried daughter. Having lost her fiancé on the Titanic, she seemed to be in no hurry to acquire another one. She enrolled at Vassar College and graduated with a major in history, magna cum laude. Her mother died of a stroke the year before her graduation and, with heavy heart, she returned to live alone in the family home in Hartford.

Elizabeth had plenty of money, so she did not have to work to support herself, however she decided that she must do something to ward off boredom and ennui, and so started writing a book on the women of Hartford during the Revolutionary War. This project took up her time quite fully until, after two years, it was interrupted by a letter from, of all people, Leonard, whom Elizabeth had presumed had died, along with the others, on the Titanic.

Leonard’s letter was long and began with a profuse apology. He began by relating what happened to him on the night the ship sank, and how Henrietta sacrificed herself so that he might live, by trading clothes with him. He had, as she had told him to do, run to lifeboat #4, where Elizabeth and her family were waiting, only to find that it had already been lowered into the sea. With great difficulty, he managed to get into another lifeboat and, after that too had been lowered into the water, the enormity of what happened, and particularly Henrietta’s self-sacrifice, suddenly hit him, and he lost consciousness. When he came to, Leonard had found himself in a bed in a psychiatric ward of New York’s Bellevue hospital, over six months later. According to the doctors, he had been suffering from acute shock and had not spoken a word since he was rescued, nor did he show any response to conversation with him. He just allowed himself to be passively led from place to place. They were not even sure who he was, and he was officially listed on their records just as an “unknown Titanic survivor”. Fortunately, Leonard’s family had several friends living in the New York area, and they were able, now, to come to the hospital and positively identify him.

Leonard had been afraid to write to Elizabeth; since he wasn’t sure she would forgive him for allowing Henrietta to go to her death in his place. Much as he still loved her, he felt he just couldn’t face her again, at least not at that time.

Both of Leonard’s parents were dead, his mother, according to eyewitness reports, refusing to leave her husband’s side as the ship sank. Leonard, too, had been declared presumably dead by the court handling his father’s estate, and it took considerable legal efforts to have that declaration reversed. When he finally left the hospital, Leonard decided to leave the management of the hotels he inherited to the company’s general manager, an old friend of his father, and to go off to study at Yale after all, a year later than was originally planned. However, instead of studying business or law, as his father had intended, Leonard decided to major in psychology, so that he could understand what had happened to him. In fact, he then continued on to graduate work in psychology, and was now delving into the work of Freud, Jung, and other Europeans, while trying to find a topic for his Ph.D. thesis.

The topic which particularly interested Leonard concerned a phenomenon identified by a British doctor named Havelock Ellis, who had circulated, but not yet published, his results. Dr. Ellis had studied men who had been raised as women, or who chose to live as women. He called this phenomenon “eonism”, named after the 18-th century French diplomat and spy, the Chevalier Charles-Genevieve-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée Eon de Beaumont, who had been raised as a girl and who lived most of his life as a woman. A few weeks prior to his letter, Leonard had met Margaret and her husband at an event for Yale alumni, and Margaret had told him that “Henrietta” had really been “Henry” and was, in fact, a perfect example of eonism. This touched Leonard very deeply, since he owed his life to Henrietta, and he decided to make her the major focal point of his research. If at all possible, he would very much like to come to Hartford to visit Elizabeth and talk to about her youngest sister and to see the surroundings in which she grew up.

Elizabeth, needless to say, was stunned by the letter. Leonard had been her first love after all, their engagement party had been scheduled for the night following the one on which the Titanic sank, and she had always assumed that he had died, along with all of the others. She was not sure she could face him again. On the other hand, she also felt that she had an obligation to Henrietta’s memory to help in any research which would help people like her sister in the future, and so she wrote to Leonard that she would be happy to have him visit, at his convenience.

The reunion of Elizabeth and Leonard was very moving, and both of them felt a resurgence of the affection they had known many years before. But more moving still, to Leonard, was his acquaintance with Henrietta’s life. Elizabeth showed him the family photo album, full of pictures of a beautiful young girl growing up. He spent hours in her room, which was kept exactly as she left it, since her mother could never bring herself to throw any of Henrietta’s things out and Elizabeth had, somehow, never gotten around to that either. It was the room of a typical teenage girl. Here were her dresses hanging in the closet, there were her books (she seemed to have a great love for Louisa May Alcott), some of which contained flowers pressed between the pages. The dolls from her large collection were everywhere. Leonard even found her diary, not well kept-up but full of the anxieties and hopes of a teenage girl. She had begun noticing boys, and had gushed about one boy whom she noticed in the park and whom she really hoped had noticed her as well. She worried about fashion, and what frocks would look like in the upcoming spring. She even wrote about her dreams, about her hopes of marriage and even of motherhood. Nobody could have guessed that the person who wrote this had been born Henry and was due to return to being Henry after her return from England. Leonard tried to imagine a baseball bat and glove in the corner, pictures of Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson on the wall, books by Bret Harte and Rudyard Kipling on the bookshelf. It was a totally impossible vision.

For days, Elizabeth told him stories about how the sisters lived and played together, the games they played: jump-rope, jacks, and endless doll parties. The stories they would make up and act out: Henrietta always got to be the princess or the fairy child, because she was the youngest and everyone acknowledged that she was the prettiest too. She told him how they learned to sew and behave like proper ladies and how they teased their governesses. As she told them, she felt she was bringing Henrietta back to life.

They also talked, on a more abstract level, about the meaning of all this. How can an eonist be one sort of being physically and another mentally? Elizabeth said that God must have made a mistake, and put a girl’s soul into Henry’s body. Leonard, who did not really believe in the soul, tended more to believe that somehow Henrietta’s subconscious was somehow rejecting the physical facts and instead creating an alternative persona to deal with a reality it found hard to cope with. Elizabeth countered that, since the girls grew up in a rather isolated environment, there was nothing for Henry to feel threatened by; Leonard retorted that, on the contrary, because it was an all-female environment, he had everything to feel threatened by.

Long and sometimes loud discussions ensued, which had the surprising effect of bringing Elizabeth and Leonard closer together. With Henrietta acting as a guardian angel, they fell in love again and, within a year, decided to get married. Leonard would finish his degree and then they would devote their combined efforts to studying and helping people like Henrietta, and making sure that they be able to live good and productive lives.

They had definite plans, but … that is another story.



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