Roll Back the Clouds
by Terri Wangard
A dream-come-true becomes a nightmare.
Geoff and Rosaleen Bonnard embark on a once-in-a-lifetime voyage to England aboard the fabled Lusitania in 1915. Europe is embroiled in war, but everyone insists the conflict shouldn’t affect a passenger liner.
Then, the grand ship is crippled by a German torpedo. Rosaleen makes it into a lifeboat, but Geoff is missing. Convinced he lives, she searches the morgues in Queenstown, heartsick at recognizing so many of her fellow travelers. Geoff is finally located in a Cork hospital, alive but suffering a devastating back injury.
While waiting for him to recover, Rosaleen is thrilled to meet her mother’s family, but a dark cloud over her. The battered faces of dead babies haunt her. She sinks into depression, despairing of Geoff’s new interest in religion. Her once happy life seems out of reach.
Will joy ever be theirs again?
Excerpt: Chapter 1
New York City
Saturday, May 1, 1915
“Oh, Geoff, look at it. The Lusitania!” Geoff Bonnard’s wife grabbed his hand. “Lavish enough for King Solomon and big enough for all of his wives.”
He grinned at Rosaleen’s excitement as their taxi inched closer to Pier 54, where the fabled ship loomed over them.
She fidgeted on the seat beside him, and laughed. “Mum never understood why the multiple wives should be spoken of so admirably when the Lusitania was launched.”
“The old king did live a rather risqué life. Hardly proper to excite young girls with his example.”
“It’s in the Bible.” His wife raised her chin, but her eyes still glittered with merriment. “Mum totally missed the fact that the ship resembles a palace and can comfortably accommodate Solomon’s thousand queens. Lots more than that. And now we get to sail on it.” If not for the curmudgeon driver seated in the open-air cab in front of them, she no doubt would have squealed.
Rain spattered on the taxi’s roof as a crowd hemmed it in. Not everyone in the crowd planned on sailing that day. Geoff spotted several cameras set up and aimed at the gigantic ship.
He slid open the window to speak to the driver. “Is a crowd like this usual when a ship sails?”
“Maybe a little bigger this time.” Their driver shrugged. “Maybe because of the war news.”
Rosaleen turned away from the bustling scene. “Has something happened?”
Her gaze swung to Geoff with eyes wide. He offered a minute shake of his head. Perhaps the man’s cryptic response suggested a frustrated longing to sail on the Cunard Line’s grand lady himself, or maybe it reflected his dour nature.
With a toot of his horn, the driver eased in closer to the ship. “Best I can do.” He heaved himself out and began wrestling with their steamer trunk.
Geoff helped Rosaleen step out of the car. She didn’t immediately release his hand. She squeezed it tight enough to do damage.
Then, her eyes aglow with wonder, she whirled to face the ship and took three steps forward. “This is really happening.” This time, her words came in an uninhibited squeal.
She came back and snatched up her hatbox. “Hurry. People are boarding already.”
Geoff chuckled. Rosaleen’s excitement rivaled that of a little kid at a candy counter, or a confectioner’s store. His smile dimmed. Good thing his brother Alf and his fiancée Edwina weren’t with them. Haughty Edwina would relish taunting his wife’s delight with patronizing condescension.
Their driver lined up their luggage on a trolley, and waited for Geoff’s payment.
“Have a good time.” His statement sounded like a question.
Uniformed Cunard officials stood at the foot of the forward gangway, checking tickets and papers. While Geoff and Rosaleen waited their turn, a man walked along the line handing out leaflets. He pushed one into Geoff’s hand.
“What does it say?” Clutching her hatbox and handbag, Rosaleen didn’t attempt to press close.
Geoff read the brief message, crumpled it, and shoved it into a pocket. “It’s a warning against sailing.” He blew out his breath. “Apparently, the Germans hope to disrupt the boarding.”
The war in Europe had been grinding on for the better part of a year. Maybe the Germans aimed to drive a wedge between the Americans and the British.
A photographer cranked his newsreel camera as the line of passengers edged forward. “Smile, folks. Your families will appreciate a last image if you don’t make it to England.”
Geoff gripped his briefcase hard enough to crack the handle. “The Germans aren’t stupid. They won’t attack a passenger liner.”
“That’s what you think.” The photographer blotted at any raindrops on his lens. “They’ve already made it clear they’re gunning for the Lucy.”
Such audacity to taunt the travelers! Cunard ought to keep the German provocateurs away from the passengers.
The man in front of them reached the gangway. He asked the officials, “Do you expect the Germans will attack the Lusitania?”
The official checking his ticket laughed like he’d heard a hilarious joke. “Oh, there’s no risk whatsoever. The Lusitania can make twenty-five knots. The old girl can outrun any enemy vessel that tries to catch her.”
Rosaleen whispered in Geoff’s ear. “He didn’t really answer the question.”
Geoff didn’t have the heart to dampen her spirits with his rising concern. She’d been so thrilled to hear she could accompany him on his business trip, which included passage on the ship that had fascinated her for years. Surely the mighty Lusitania was safe. “He seems like a blowhard, but the Lusitania has been continually crossing the Atlantic in safety since the war began.”
The official beckoned them forward. “Your tickets and passport, sir.”
The man inspected their tickets like he expected them to be phony, rubbing the paper, flexing it. His scrutiny took so long, Rosaleen turned away from the ship with her brow furrowing. Before Geoff could ask if there was a problem, their papers were returned.
“Very good, sir.” The Cunard man summoned a stevedore to take their trolley. “Would you like your trunk in your stateroom or in the cargo hold?”
“In our room,” Rosaleen answered. “May we remove things and then send it to the hold?”
“That will be fine, ma’am. Head on down to that gangway at the stern of the ship. Have your tickets ready and you may board.”
Geoff hesitated. Other passengers were being questioned. The taxi driver’s strange comment suggested something out of the ordinary. “Is this normal security?”
“No, no. We simply want to make sure nothing untoward will happen.” The company man smiled big and tipped his cap to Rosaleen. “Have a pleasant voyage, folks.” He turned to the next couple in line.
Something was up. Geoff had that twitchy feeling between his shoulders when he knew someone was lying, but what could be the problem?
Rosaleen shot Geoff a quick grin and marched ahead. With her first step on the narrow gangway, she hesitated. It clattered and quivered under all the passengers’ footfalls. Finding her rhythm, she strode halfway across and paused to look down at the Hudson River, so far below. She glanced back with another grin. “We don’t want to drop anything here.”
Geoff laughed. She maintained a dignified pace, even though she must want to dash across and step inside. Yet she stopped at the entrance, and he nearly walked into her.
“This is it, Geoff.” Her head swiveled back and forth. “We’re really here.”
“You’re inside. I’m not.” He tapped her shoulder. “Care to keep moving?”
“Oh.” She scooted forward to the first available crewmember. “Hello.”
“Welcome aboard, mum, sir.” The man must be the epitome of proper British decorum. He gave the impression he’d been waiting all day for them to arrive so he could greet them. “May I have your tickets?”
After consulting a ledger, he smiled. “Second class is overbooked, so we’ve assigned you to a stateroom in first class. I’m sure you’ll be quite comfortable there.” He nodded to the first man in a line of stewards. “Julius will show you the way.”
First class? Geoff tried not to frown. That may garner them extra physical comfort, but would the high and mighty ladies in their rarefied atmosphere be accepting of Rosaleen, her mouth now in a silent o? Edwina would be in her element, grabbing every opportunity to taunt his sweet-hearted wife.
The steward stepped forward and relieved Rosaleen of her hatbox. “This way, mum, sir.”
He led them out of the second-class foyer, and down the promenade toward the bow. “As you may know, second class is located in the stern, third class in the bow, and first class occupies the center of the ship. This is Deck C, also called the Shelter Deck. Your room is down on E Deck, the Main Deck.”
They walked half the length of the ship before entering a first-class foyer that stretched across the width of the Lusitania. Light poured in from skylights high overhead. The steward led them to a grillwork elevator beside a crimson-carpeted staircase. “Few people are about, because the saloon passengers haven’t started boarding yet.”
“Saloon?” Geoff wouldn’t have noticed the lack of people. All the intricate details in the plasterwork and ornate railings had claimed his attention. He grinned. Soon he’d be gawking like Rosaleen.
“Oh, Geoff. Isn’t this exciting?” His wife’s heels tapped unevenly on the tile floor as she twisted this way and that, missing nothing of their surroundings. “I’m glad the others aren’t here yet. It’s easier to see everything, and we can get settled in before they arrive.”
The elevator whisked them down to E Deck. Julius turned to the left, to the starboard hallway going fore and aft. He paused, facing aft. “Your room is forward, but allow me to point out the ladies’ lavatory there on the left. The gentlemen’s is on the opposite side.”
They continued forward. Just before the end of the hallway, Julius turned down a narrow aisle with three doors on each side. “The two at the end are outside rooms.” He stopped at the last door on the right, E-15, and opened it. “Here you are.”
A sigh of relief eased out of Geoff. The first leg of their journey was complete. The reason for their trip might border on the harebrained, but they may never again have the opportunity to be world travelers. A niggling doubt pushed into his thoughts. Could the war actually engulf them?
Rosaleen stepped over the threshold and clasped her hands together. “Oh, look, Geoff. We have a window.”
Behind her, Julius coughed. “Uh, a porthole, mum.”
She wanted to twirl around, but opted to first kneel on the sofa below the window―the porthole―and gaze down on the crowds milling about below. “We’re up high.” She turned back to the room. “This is so pretty.”
A wardrobe with a mirrored door and a washstand flanked the sofa. On the opposite wall, two single beds stood end to end. Tucked into the corner stood a dresser and mirror. The walls and ceiling, decorated in relief, glowed white. Blue predominated on the carpeting, quilted bed coverings, and sofa.
Julius set her hatbox on a bed. “When you wish to take a bath, make an appointment with the bath steward. Hot and cold running water is available in the bathrooms. Here in the cabin, you have only cold water. Hot water for washing or shaving is delivered in the morning and when the dressing gong sounds for dinner. You may also request it at any time from your cabin steward.”
He stepped back to take his leave, but Geoff asked, “Are there many second-class passengers who have been upgraded to first class?”
Rosaleen stepped away from the window to hear his response.
“This whole area forward of the stairs is accommodated by the overflow. Originally, this used to be part of third class, but it was gutted and converted to first class several years ago.” About to close their door, he paused. “Here’s your luggage.”
Two crewmen set their cases and trunk inside, bobbed their heads, and left. Julius smiled. “Enjoy the voyage.”
He closed the door and they were alone.
“Oh, Geoff. This is so grand. Like living in a fairy tale, or a dream come true.” Rosaleen gave in to her impulse and spun in a slow circle. “Did you ever imagine it would be so beautiful? Mum’s stories of crossing as a lady’s companion always sounded so drab and damp and disagreeable. Nothing like this.”
Geoff chuckled. “She traveled thirty years ago in late fall. The ships back then had first-class sections that likely rivaled this ship’s third class.” He unfolded a rack and swung a suitcase onto it. “ say we unpack and head out to the deck? I’d like to be outside when we set sail.”
He hesitated before opening the case. “Although in first class, maybe the room steward will unpack for us.”
Busy inspecting the wardroom, Rosaleen turned to him. “Horrors, no. I don’t want anyone pawing through my clothes.” A mental picture of a steward, or even a stewardess, examining her unmentionables caused her to shudder. “I don’t have haute couture underwear.”
She grabbed a stack of underskirts and camisoles, and shoved them into a dresser drawer. When she and her sisters shopped for her wardrobe, they hadn’t given a thought to silk undies.
Geoff pulled her close for a kiss. His lips vibrated from silent laughter. “You’re such fun.”
“.” She leaned back in his arms. “Since we’re located among others who paid for second class, we needn’t worry about bumping into Edwina, although if she uses the bathroom at the same time—”
“Not a chance. I doubt she’ll ever set foot on E Deck. First class has a range of fares, the lowest being down here. The higher the deck, the higher the cost. Her cabin is on B or C deck, I’d guess, although Alf may be in a more modest room.”
A commotion sounded in the hall.
“Our neighbors have arrived.” Geoff surveyed their cabin with the open suitcases. “And we’re not fit to welcome them.”
“Oh, you.” Rosaleen raked her fingers through his chocolate brown hair and pulled his head down for another kiss before reaching for her lovely new clothes.
They made quick work of hanging dresses, shirts, and suits, and filling drawers with sundry items. Geoff stowed their cases under their beds, then brushed off his hands. “Shall we head out?”
Rosaleen grabbed her hat and flung open the door. The door across the hall also opened and a young couple emerged. “Oh. Hello.”
She’d never seen anyone so covered with freckles. They covered the man’s face and hands, and he towered over his wife by at least a foot. He shook hands with Geoff. “I’m Lyle Stone. This is my wife, Constance.”
“Geoff and Rosaleen Bonnard. We plan on heading up to the deck to watch our departure.”
“Our thought as well.”
Rosaleen and Constance fell into step ahead of their husbands. Constance’s black hair and deep brown eyes contrasted with her cream blouse printed with rows of tiny maroon flowers. Her indigo skirt featured a wide, navy waistband. At least five inches shorter than Rosaleen, Constance reminded her of a delicate porcelain doll, and she felt gangly in comparison.
She smoothed a hand over the purple-and-cream striped skirt of her travel suit that her sister Taegan said looked so smart. “Have you been on a sea voyage before?”
“No, and I hope I don’t regret it.” Constance gazed up with a puckered brow. “I don’t care much for water, and I don’t know how to swim.”
“Goodness, I hope there won’t be a need to swim.” Disappointment flooded Rosaleen at Constance’s lack of enthusiasm. “I’ve been fascinated by the Lusitania since its first voyage. I remember it was in the second week of September, 1907. I was fifteen, and we discussed it at school. My mum says all I could talk about was the palace on water. Now I’m going to sail on it. It’s the perfect opportunity before we start a family.”
Constance toyed with the cameo at her throat. “Lyle has business in London, and he wanted me to come along, because we may never have another chance. But now, I hope we don’t regret this.”
They took the elevator up to A Deck, ventured outside, and wandered toward the bow. Down on the pier, passengers continued to arrive, and stevedores wrestled baggage onto the conveyor belts bringing it aboard.
Geoff braced his hands on the railing. “Do you suspect this voyage is riskier than others?”
“Have you seen today’s paper?” Lyle pulled a newspaper folded into fourths from a pocket and offered it to Geoff. He tapped the page on top. Rosaleen leaned close to read it for herself.
A black-bordered announcement lay next to a Cunard steamships advertisement of scheduled sailings. “NOTICE! Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or of any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk. Imperial German Embassy.”
A shiver tingled through her. “That’s a fret. The Germans wouldn’t dare ruin our voyage.”
Bio: Terri Wangard grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, during the Lombardi Glory Years. Her first Girl Scout badge was the Writer. These days she is writing historical fiction, and won the 2013 Writers on the Storm contest and 2013 First Impressions, as well as being a 2012 Genesis finalist. Holder of a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in library science, she lives in Wisconsin. Her research included going for a ride in a WWII B-17 Flying Fortress bomber. Classic Boating Magazine, a family business since 1984, keeps her busy as an associate editor.