The Mona Lisa Sisters

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Chapter 8

Alone on the pier, I’m overcome with emotion. Holding back tears, I do what I’ve done many times in recent months, I have a conversation with Walter. “Darling you should be here with me. Why did you have to leave?” If people could hear my thoughts, they would think me insane.

“Lura, I’m with you and will always be with you. I’m in your heart.”

“It is so hard Walter. I’m so lonely without you and little George.”

The SS La Touraine is a beautiful vessel. Always curious, I read all the brochures and newspapers articles I could find about her. Four years old, she is one of the largest and fastest ocean liners in the world. Black with white trim, her two funnels, bright red, are encircled by black bands at the top of the smoke stacks. Steam powered, she sports four masts.

I’m almost knocked off my feet as a man and woman rush by me. “Hurry Martha, we need to get aboard.” It seems almost an afterthought as the man mumbles, “Pardon, ma’am.” Forced from my musing, I hurry to board the ship.

“Welcome to the La Touraine Mrs. Myer. We hope you enjoy your time with us. Your suite is ready. Henri, your personal butler has arranged your luggage. He will attend to all your needs.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

Henri escorts me to the first-class section of the ship. In accented English, he shows me the suite that will be my home for the next seven days. It reminds me of my parent’s bedroom suite. There are two bedrooms separated by a moderately sized salon and study. The salon is equipped with a fully stocked bar. I can smell the residue of cigar smoke.

I ask Henri to tell me about the ship. He recaps what I already know and then adds, “We are the fifth-largest steam ship in the world. She is very fast.” Struggling for the word, he slips into French. He seems surprised when I ask him in French what he means. Smiling, he tells me that the ship can reach speeds of nineteen knots. Conversing in his native tongue, I ask him to tell me about the other accommodations aboard the ship. I’m surprised to learn that La Touraine has space for almost eleven-hundred passengers. Third-class is by far the largest with six-hundred rooms. Those passengers are forward and aft. One deck is set aside for them for walking and offers a glimpse of the ocean.

“We have three-hundred and ninety-two first-class suites, yours is the largest. In addition to me, you have your own maid, Monique. If you need her or my services at any time, ring for us.”

“When shall I meet Monique?”

Before Henri can answer, there is a discreet knock at the door. “That should her Madame.”

Opening the door, Henri ushers in a young Negro woman with skin the color often referred to as high yellow. She doesn’t appear to be older than sixteen. “Madame, this is Monique. She will be at your service throughout the trip across to France.”

With a curtsy, she says, “Madame. I am pleased to be at your service.” She speaks English with an inflection unfamiliar to me. I know it is not that of a typical French person. I ask her about the accent. I was surprised by her answer.

“I am Algerian. I came to France with the help of my father’s cousin, Monsieur Jules-Martin Cambon, the Governor-General.”

“Your father’s cousin is a famous politician. How is it that you are working as a maid?”

I will leave you two to become acquainted.” Henri appears embarrassed as he backs to the cabin door and slips away.

“Madame, it is of no importance. I am your maid and will be available when you wish for my services. If you have nothing now, I will leave and return later to assist you in preparing for dinner.”

The rapid departure of Henri, followed by that of Monique seems odd.

Once Henri and Monique have left, I sit before the vanity. Although the ship is barely three years old, the vanity appears to be is of vintage design.

Brushing my hair out, I’m overcome by melancholy. I feel the despair at the loss of my loved ones. I must fight to regain control of my mind and body. I don’t appreciate that tears are clouding my vision, my nose is running, I feel a deep ache in my chest. Looking down, I see that once again, I’m rubbing mother’s broach between my hands.

I feel Walther’s presence, his words clear. “You must not allow depression to overtake you. Do not allow it to confine you to the prison from which Emily freed you.”

Looking in the mirror, I almost laugh as I point a finger my reflection in the mirror. “Walter’s right I will not allow you to drag me down. Now, get dressed for dinner.”

I’m in a good mood, but don’t wish to eat alone. I decide that I will eat all dinners with companions for the seven evenings aboard La Touraine. Dinners during which, I shall ignore my pain and concentrate on my companions.

“Henri, how does one go about determining when and with whom one shall dine, especially a widow who is traveling alone?”

Henri has an easy and comfortable way about him. We converse as if he has been my confidant and servant for many years. “Does Madame want friendly and entertaining conversation? Or is Madame looking for something, ah, shall we say, more involved?”

Ah, Henri you are a rascal.

Crossing the Atlantic for the first time was less exciting than I expected. Once the New York skyline falls below the western horizon, the only change of scenery is watching the sun set. My second full day at sea finds me reading and napping on the promenade. I believe I slept for an hour or two before lunch, and again afterwards. The months of stress and then the rush to get Mr. Bartolini and Mr. Brandies in my service have taken a toll.

Waking the morning of my third day at sea, I notice that my stateroom is dark. Looking at my clock, I see it’s 4:00 a.m. I’m wide-awake, what shall I do?

It dawns on me that sunrise must be spectacular at sea. Hurrying, I dress and rush to the promenade deck. I’m not alone. The deck is crowded with first-class passengers gathered at the front of the ship. Looking over the railing, I see that both the second and third-class promenade decks are also crowded with early morning enthusiasts.

A voice asks in French, “Madame, voudriez-vous pour une tasse de chocolat chaud?”

I answer in English, “I would prefer coffee if it’s available.”

Mais naturellement Madame.” Within minutes, I’m handed a steaming mug of coffee.

The fragrance drifts up. Gripping the cup with both hands, I bring it close to my face, close my eyes and inhale the aroma through my nose. The combination is uplifting and tantalizing, with a hint of cloves, maybe even cinnamon. The sensation so unique that I fear I will be disappointed by the taste. I’m not. It is exquisite.

When the server returns, I do something a lady rarely does, I ask for another cup. “This coffee is wonderful. What is the secret?”

“Merano is our secret, Madame.”

“What? You must tell me.”

“There is a small town in South Tyrol, in Northern Italy called Merano. A local businessman, Josef Schreyogg, brings coffees from all over the world. He has perfected a blend especially for La Touraine. We have exclusive rights to this coffee. Is it not wonderful?”

“Yes, it most certainly is.”

A page is ringing his bell and announcing that sunrise will be in five minutes. There is a flurry of activity as we all try to move into the best position. I’m blocked by a large woman and her even more rotund escort. “Excuse me, may I get by?”

The man grunts, the woman sniffs and raises her face, but neither move. I’m trapped behind them with people to my sides and back. Resigned to missing the event, I start to turn and retreat. Someone takes my right arm. What is this? All I can see is the back of a tall man. He is wearing a bowler, and a dark top coat. With his right arm, he grabs the rotund man by the shoulder and spins him sideways. “Step back for the lady.” Not looking my way, the stranger bulls his way to the railing, where he deposits me and leaves without a word. I have no idea who my benefactor is, not even what he looks like.

Experiencing an odd sense of familiarity, I wonder, what just happened? I don’t have time to think about it or look for the stranger. Someone shouts, “There, look, look at the horizon, the sun is coming up.”

I stare far to the front of the ship. Someone shouts, “Look, here it comes.”

The throng looks in the same direction. I see it, the beginning of sunrise, a yellow glow that changes to orange as the sun breaks free of the night. It is just visible above the horizon. As the sun peeks out; brilliant rays of light reach ever farther into the sky. As the sun rises higher, the sea between the ship and the horizon turns from raven black to a dark blue gray.

With each passing moment, my world becomes lighter, and even though it’s only my imagination, I begin to feel warmer, reborn. As the sun reaches far into the sky, and into my heart, I feel the last remnants of despair fly from my soul. Oh, what a grand and glorious moment this is.

The sun has not just announced a new day, it has proclaimed a new life, mine. Within the hour, the sky gradually turns a brilliant blue and the water becomes a bright cobalt tinged with tiny points of white where the wind blows the peaks of the small waves into froth.

I watch the sun rise each of the remaining days at sea. Despite the beauty and brilliance of each occurrence, I don’t experience the joy of that first morning. Nor do I see the stranger who had appeared when needed.

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