|On the Way to America
Author: MeredithGreeneWriter PM
Historically accurate love story: Decades after the great famine, Molly and her grandfather leave Ireland for America. On the ship, her necklace is rescued by Luigi DiMattio, a Sicilian fleeing the Messina earthquake. He's never seen a girl like Molly.Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance/Drama - Chapters: 4 - Words: 15,726 - Reviews: 10 - Favs: 11 - Follows: 15 - Updated: 09-27-12 - Published: 06-09-08 - id: 2529691
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Muffled coughing woke Molly from the grasp of slumber. Sitting up, the young girl drew her woolen shawl about her shoulders. She did not dare light a candle; the small stubs of wax on the table were only to be used for emergencies. Woolen stockings kept some of the cold from her feet as she stepped to the bedroom door. Listening, she heard the soft sounds of her grandfather's loom. Shaking her head, Molly smiled a little and pushed open the door.
"What ar' ye doin up this time o' night, lass?"
The phrase was spoken even before the door was fully open. Molly smiled at the aging man sitting at the loom.
"I heard your coughing, grandfather," she explained, softly. Walking to the man's side the young woman took off her shawl, lovingly placing it over his worn jacket. The white-haired man smiled up at his granddaughter, the corners of his eyes crinkling.
"Thank ye," he said, turning back to his work. "Tis a mite nippy in 'ere." Molly sat down on a stool by his chair. Still smiling, the aging weaver took up his shuttle once more. The cloth he wove was a fine linen cloth, for a rich woman's table. As her grandfather moved the slender, wooden shuttle back and forth over and between the delicate-looking threads, Molly admired the smooth, even work of the master weaver.
"Beautiful," Molly said, "Is it going with the crate, to London?" Her grandfather nodded.
"Aye... 'tis the last of them I'll be making on the Erin shore..." the white-haired weaver's eyes took on a watery appearance as he said the words. Not able to find words of comfort, Molly covered one wizened hand with her own; the contrast between them was striking; his so pale and shrunken, hers fair and smooth. Patrick Callahan patted the girl's hand.
"Twill be alright," he said, heavily. "'Tis hard 't leave. It be the thing we must do, but 'tis hard to leave all t' same."
Molly felt grief well in her throat, but said nothing. Wiping away a tear, she nodded and swallowed the pain. Many of her friends had left with their families already, gone to Dublin, England or to New York City. Though the Great Famine was long over, the Emerald Isle had not fully recovered. Work was scarce, food was scarcer and in the cities the poor grew ever the more poor and wretched. A skilled worker of flax, her grandfather earned enough to keep them alive and housed, even setting by a little now and again; Molly aided him in knitting good, woolen stockings scarves and mittens to sell, but the earnings were meager.
At the very least, they had but the two of them to feed. Many young children and elders had perished from the poor food. Even in summer to see fruit or greens was a luxury. The stronger souls made for the farms to work, or set out on the long journey across the sea... to America.
"Will your cousin's family meet us in New York City?" Molly asked, after a moment. Her grandfather nodded, slowly.
"Aye," he said, continuing his work. "Liam and his family will meet us when we get off Ellis Island, so they say; they'll have a place where we can stay for a spell, until we find our own."
Molly watched her grandfather work for a moment.
"So, we're to drive a cart to the station, take the train down to Dublin, then the ferry to Liverpool," she said, quietly; saying their plans aloud seemed to bring with it a bit of comfort. "I heard there are inspectors at the ports that say whether or not ye can get on the boats at all," she continued. "They say that if you're even a bit sick you cannot go to America." Patrick smiled down at the young woman as he worked.
"You're nearly twenty years of age, Molly Callahan," he told her, with a bit of humor. "'Tis time you learned to take all advice with a grain of salt. Like as not there are inspections, however, we'll buy 'second-class' tickets. Nat Connor down at the pub said that his brother went last year; he said if you ride second-class 'tis a much better place than steerage. I've heard of stifling conditions down in the belly of the ship, where all the poor are crammed together… with no curtains for dressing or water for washing."
"That sounds dreadful..." Molly said, gravely. The white-haired man shot her a grin.
"I've some coin laid away, lassie," said he. "With what Liam sent, 'tis enough to get us to America without being robbed and pressed against others. Have ye bundled yer things?" Molly nodded, still watching his hands as they worked the fine, flaxen threads.
"Aye, sir," she replied, with a sigh. "I won't complain, grandfather… but I am loath to go. My heart is here, in Ireland."
The weaving stopped.
"I feel t' same as y'," the aging man told her gently. "But,we must look ahead now... and keep the Isle within our hearts." He patted the top of Molly's red head. "We are Ireland, you know; it goes where we go." He began working once more.
"If you think about it, we're but leaving one island for another. Ellis Island is where we're bound, and after that Manhattan. Our new home will be what we make of it."
The elderly man's words comforted his granddaughter a little. Molly watched him finish the pure white cloth. An hour later she helped him cut it carefully from the loom and finely knot the ends. Together, they folded it with twists of spare cloth in the creases and packed it in the large, wooden crate with many others. The coughing spasms Molly's grandfather was prone to bothered her; perhaps these officials would not let him onto the boat. The aging weaver seemed better as of late; he coughed less and less, in spite of the cold weather. With care, Molly laid an extra blanket over his tired form as he stretched on his mat.
"Thank ye," he said, in the darkness. "No fretting, now about t' journey. They say America has great promise, even for a poor Irishman. They say there is no sight like that of Lady Liberty, the huge statue in the great harbor of New York; she can be seen miles away, calling those in whom need a but a chance to make something of themselves. That's what we need now. Just a chance for a better life."
"Aye, sir," Molly returned; the aged man's quiet words gave her heart. "Goodnight, grandfather."
"Sleep well," came the tired reply. Molly smiled in the dark, quietly moving back to her own room.
The two occupants of the small weaver's store were up before the neighbor's rooster crowed. With Molly's help, Patrick wheeled out their borrowed cart and pony; on its rattling sides they hoisted the crate of linen tablecloths, their satchels and a single crate of the Callahan belongings. Casting one longing look at the weaving shop, Molly got up in the front seat beside her grandfather. Patrick flicked the reins and set them going. It seemed even the bumpy road was begging them to turn back… not to go on the long journey away from home.
After a long, dirty train ride-crammed tightly in with many other travelers-Molly and her grandfather were both aching and exhausted as they boarded the ferry to Liverpool harbor. Early January weather did little to help matters; it was bitterly cold and the wind cut like a knife. As heart-wrenching the sight of Ireland's green shores moving farther and farther away, Molly's sadness was abated by excitement. She was filled with awe and wonderment at the sight of the sprawling, gray, snow-dusted city of Liverpool with its rising smoke and vast harbor crammed with steamships. The mighty sea-going vessels of two, three or even four smokestacks dwarfed the tiny ferry they all rode upon.
Well-wrapped against the cold Molly kept a tight hold of her grandfather's arm as they disembarked onto the loading dock. It was the first time either of them had stepped foot on English soil. Agents from shipping companies were among the people swarming the docks; these men were sought out by families and travelers who'd bought traveling packages at the railway office. Molly and her grandfather had traveled in the sooty, stench-ridden third-class railway cars and took the cheapest ferry passage over to England. Any temptation to complain about the smell or the cramped quarters was tempered by excitement.
Every passenger seemed to be going to America... to Ellis Island and New York. Along the journey Molly heard whispered rumors of the immigration island.
"It is the Island of Hope," she overheard from one older woman on the train. "My cousin Mary wrote back, saying they eat like kings there, and they give you a flag and a kiss on the cheek and say you are now an American." The woman's companion shook her head, sadly.
"My neighbor's daughter and her husband went over last year," she said, in a hushed voice. "They said the journey was horrible, packed in like fish in a box and the smell was terrible; they were not let out for air in bad weather and she got ill with the boat rocking about so. She says when they got to New York, they had to strip stark-naked and let doctors look at them. Even then, some people were not allowed to go on and were sent back to the ship. Some people there were very afraid and called it the Isle of Tears."
Though the speakers had no idea they were being overheard their words made fear well up in the young woman's mind. The journey to America sounded bad enough, but the island of Ellis suddenly changed from a gateway to freedom to a dark and mysterious den of uncertainty and exposure. Patrick did his best to allay her fears.
"Gossip lies nine times, and tells a half-truth the tenth," he told her. "Even if all of that is true, folk still think 'tis worth the risk to have a chance at a new life. Myself I include in that, lass." Molly took heart at his words, though she kept the rumors in her mind, just to be prepared.
The harbor docks proved to be like no place Molly had ever seen. The day was mercifully clear, but frigid. Steamships were docking and going to and fro, people streaming by the rows of shops to get to line up outside the shipping company offices. Vendors pushed carts of bread and hot soup to sell, calling out above the din. Sitting on the crate of their belongings, Molly waited for her grandfather to come back to her; she could see him just across the way, buying a loaf of bread from a vendor. Many families and travelers sat nearby and all around, all waiting to speak to one of the shipping company officials.
Immense vessels lay moored nearby. Keeping her hands wrapped in her woolen muff, Molly stared up at the closest ship, its metal sides streaked with mineral deposits; black smoke drifted from one of the enormous smokestacks. Above the waterline, little, brown barnacles clung to the hull in dense clusters. The smell of food, fish and smoke whirled in the air on the chilly breeze.
"Well, here's a pretty lassie..." a strange man nearby her spoke, distracting Molly's eyes from the boat. A man in a fine, fur cap and a well-cut overcoat stood not two feet away from her crate, smiling down at her. Though he smiled widely, Molly felt unsettled by the man's manner; she moved her eyes to her shoes and did not answer. Her grandfather sternly warned her to speak to no one, especially men.
"'Tis a lovely sight ye are," the man continued, leaning a bit closer. "The loveliest girl on the docks that I've laid eyes on all day... is no one with you? Are ye all alone?"
"Nowt she is not," came a stern voice from behind the man. Molly looked up, relieved.
Patrick Callahan was an old man but the hard look in his eye belied his frailty; in his youth he'd been a boxer and right now he felt capable of wringing the younger usurper's neck with sheer wrath. "You'd best be pushin' off, afore I whip ye for harassin' a young girl and call the constable!" The stranger stepped back, took off his fur cap and nodded in a half-polite fashion. He grinned at Molly again before turning and disappearing into the crowd.
"Cheeky blighter..." the white-haired weaver murmured, glaring as the man.
"I said nothing to him, grandfather," Molly said, apologetically. Sitting down beside the young woman on the crate, Patrick Callahan nodded.
"Ah know," he said, heavily. "You're a good girl, Molly. Ye did right looking away and being silent. If I were but a little younger I'd have thrashed him. All brazen-like, too... trying to pick up a young girl under the very eyes of her kin..."
Taking the bread in his hands he broke the loaf with force; he gave one half to Molly. "Eat some, save some," he said, looking around with narrowed eyes. "'Tis likely all we're to get afore t' morrow." Molly kissed him on the cheek for thanks and tore off a few bites of the bread. It was fresh and delicious; they'd not had fresh bread in a week. They ate in silence, taking in the sea air mixed with hundreds of other mingling smells.
A newsboy came through up the dock, waving a paper and crying his stories out. The loudest call he made caught Molly's attention.
"Earthquake in Messina! Harbor destroyed! Death toll in the ten thousands! Sicily in uproar... read all about it!" Patrick shook his head.
"A tragedy that," he remarked, shaking his head.
"Where is Messina?" Molly asked. Her grandfather took his pipe from his mouth.
"In the north-eastern part of Sicily," he told her. "Italy is shaped like boot and the island of Sicily 'tis right at the toe, is if the mainland is kicking it away." Molly smiled at the imagery.
"Is it a big island?" she inquired, taking a bite of bread. Patrick titled his head a little to one side, his brow creased in thought.
"As I remember from maps an' such," he told her. "Not as big as Ireland, mind you, but big enough. Messina's likely a large city, with so many dead from one earthquake. A shame, really..." He pointed to a nearby ship with a strange-looking name. "That ship's from Italy, there... perhaps it docked at Messina once. There are all manner of ships here, from all harbors in the world. That ship over there is from Norway."
"Which ship is ours?" Molly asked, interested. Her grandfather grinned.
"The R. M. S. Cedric came in last night; most likely that will be it," he said, pointing straight ahead; it was the massive ship closest to them. Of the many flags it flew, the topmost was a red flag with a white star. "'Tis almost brand new; built just last year. That and the Celtic are twin ships… the biggest vessels on the sea. D' ya see that line of crewmen? They're re-stocking the boat with supplies, and 'tis being scrubbed down up top." Molly looked on the boat with awe, slowly chewing a bite of bread. "The man at the railway office advised we travel second class," her grandfather continued. "He says the food's terrible in steerage, and there's no privacy at all. At least we'll have a door on our room and linens, even hot water for bathing." His granddaughter looked relieved at this information.
"That sounds better than a posh hotel," she said, smiling. "We'll be traveling on the same boat as the rich folk, and there's nowt they can do about it." At this Patrick Callahan chuckled and tugged on the brim of Molly's bonnet.
A moment later he stood up, and gave her the rest of his bread.
"Now, tie that up and save it," he instructed. "I've to visit those shops for but a moment, and I'll be back." He glanced around quickly, and spied a constable, standing guard nearby. "You get his attention if anyone bothers ye. Like as not he'll come right away to help a bonnie lass." Nodding her head, Molly watched him flip up the collar of his thin coat and walk away, towards the harbor stores. Curious as to what he'd be after to buy, Molly contented herself with watching bold gulls dive and land on a nearby bread cart, avoiding the swipes of the owner and his son. The scene made her laugh quietly; one gull managed to get an entire roll, only to have it stolen from him by another. A half hour later, her grandfather returned, bearing several, large and mysterious parcels, wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine. Molly looked at the white-haired weaver in expectation but he merely took out his pipe and lit it, smoking in the confusion of voices and activity around them.
Due to the strict standards of the Immigration department at Ellis Island, all the shipping companies adhered to a process of cleanliness for all passengers. On the dock, an agent for the White Star Line politely informed Molly and her grandfather that if they wished to journey to America they would both need to be medically examined, their clothing de-loused and they'd be given an antiseptic bath. Molly looked at the man aghast, holding onto her grandfather's arm; the white haired weaver patted her hand encouragingly.
"They fear contagion, lass," he told her as they followed the agent into a large building, flying red flags with a white star on them.
"What about our crate and bags?" Molly asked, clutching her grandfather's arm.
"We have them, miss. They will be fumigated and marked for you," the agent said, giving the pretty young woman a kind smile. "Do not worry... we'll take good care of you." He wrote down their names, national origin and ages on two, large cards of thick paper and pinned them to their jackets. "'Tis so you don't lose them," he explained. The agent led them down a narrow corridor to a bustling hallway. Women and men with similar tags pinned to their jackets stood on opposite side of the room, in long lines down the hall. "Women on that side, men on this side. Good afternoon." The agent nodded and walked back from whence he'd come.
Patrick Callahan squeezed Molly's hand.
"Courage, lassie," he said. "Best to get it over with." Molly slowly released his arm and swallowed hard as she looked at the line of women, waiting to be 'inspected'. It was an accurate description; after waiting two hours, Molly joined ten other women in a small, private room. The woman working there were not unkind; the moment Molly disrobed, she was ushered into a warm antiseptic bath and given soap to wash her hair and a clean sheet to wrap up in. Sitting on a bench with the others outside the examination room, Molly bit her nails and tried to imagine she was back home, sitting in a green field where there were no doctors or strange, white rooms.
The doctor and woman nurse glanced her over quickly; they did exams hundred of times each and every day and the young woman, though slightly malnourished, appeared to have no symptoms of any disease whatsoever. The nurses in the room sat Molly down on a chair in her sheet and looking carefully at her head and combing through her damp hair.
"This one washes," one nurse said, to the other. "No eggs at all." Molly looked baffled at this; the nurse smiled. "It means there are no lice in your hair, dearie," she informed the young woman. Molly felt relieved; so far it had not been so bad. Each exam she passed through the doctor or nurse would write something on her card; they looked at her eyes, her teeth and washed her clothing with strong soap.
An hour later she sat waiting on another bench for her clothes to dry; she could see them hanging on a line on the other side of the room. Even her worn bonnet had been fumigated. Everything in the room-from the staff uniforms to the floors-was scrubbed clean.
"Can you really be sent back for being ill?" she asked of one white-aproned women that stood nearby. The woman nodded, her expression grave.
"Aye," she replied. "It's far less expensive to make certain you're healthy before we ship you over, than have to pay to ship you back as well." Considering the woman's words Molly huddled in the sheet, wrapping it about herself a bit more securely.
Dressed and squeaky clean Molly soon found her grandfather; he sat waiting in the parlor of an adjacent hotel, owned by the shipping company. Chairs were set up all over the large room and harbored several dozen other passengers. Patrick appeared glad to see his granddaughter unscathed, but joked nevertheless about his 'exam'.
"Felt like I was back in t' army," said he, with a shudder. "The doctor said my lungs were weak but not bad enough to detain me. He were an Irishman, so I gave him nah trouble. I've been told we're t' sit here and wait in the parlor. Cannae go out, lest we catch summat. We've bunks upstairs for sleeping. Boat leaves on the morrow… after breakfast." He packed his pipe as he spoke, nodding to himself. Molly looked at him a moment and then down at her clean fingernails.
"We're really going away," she said, softly. The ferry to England was one thing; 'twas but a small distance back to Ireland. New York was weeks away by sea and the journey perilous, if it stormed. Patrick patted her hand. Leaning back in his chair, he began thumbing through a worn newspaper lying on a nearby table.
A well-dressed shipping agent in spectacles came in the parlor some minutes later. He sat down with each traveler and family, asking questions and writing down their answers in a large, leather-bound ledger. Patrick and his granddaughter were last. After checking the numbers on their traveling cards, he found the corresponding lines in his ledger and poised his pen to write.
"What's that book you've got there?" Patrick asked, with interest. The man did not look up from his ledger.
"This is the ship's manifest," he enlightened them. "You'll be boarding The Cedric tomorrow morning." He glanced at their cards. "Patrick Callahan, and granddaughter Molly Callahan. Age?" He asked their marital status, town of origin, the exact amount of money they carried with them and then asked a few very strange questions that Molly had never been asked in her life.
"Are you an anarchist?" the shipping agent inquired; his face was just as calm as if he'd commented on the weather. Molly had no idea what this word meant. Her grandfather took his pipe from his mouth.
"No, young man," the white-haired said, scowling a little. "I'm Protestant… and I can speak for my young granddaughter as well... she's no anarchist." The agent nodded, writing this down.
"Are either of you polygamists?" the man asked. Patrick snorted.
"No," the older man said. "I suppose one wife would be sufficient." A small snort of laughter emanated from the shipping agent at this, but he hid it in a discreet cough.
After the questions were finished, Molly's grandfather asked the agent about conditions on the boat. The man took off his spectacles and cleaned them on a cloth; Patrick watched the younger man with a stoic expression, puffing his pipe.
"If you are able..." the man began, glancing at Molly. "You may wish to keep your granddaughter and yourself out of third-class." The white-haired weaver nodded, slowly.
"Tis as I heard," he said, slowly. The be-speckled shipping agent closed his ledger and stood; he extended a hand to Patrick and shook it before taking his leave.
"I suppose they've run out of good questions and have turned to the bizarre," Molly's grandfather muttered, somberly puffing on his pipe. "Oh, aye... the 70 year-old anarchist with seven wives..." Molly sighed a little, not quite understanding what he meant. She was glad to sit quietly in one place; the day of travel, exams and questions had taken their toll. As tired as she felt, Molly knew sleep would not come easy. Tomorrow, they would board one of the gigantic ships bobbing in the harbor and sail away... to America.