The note was on pale pink paper, with an even, flowing script, and a coat of arms seal on the back. It was addressed to “Miss Casey Wilson” and was delivered to the house on Tuesday of Casey’s second week after leaving Harland and Wolff.
The sender was Lady Margaret Pirrie.
Casey stood at the small desk in the parlor as Sam lit a fire to ward off the evening chill. She held the note with care, afraid to move for fear that movement would acknowledge the paper in her hand and force her to deal with it. What did Lady Pirrie want with her? Was this prelude to arrest? Announcement to sue? Some other alarming deed?
Sam noticed her stillness and glanced over, moving to her side in alarm at her expression. “What is it? Are you all right?”
She couldn’t focus on him, but handed the note in his direction. Confused, he took it and read the front, noting sender and addressee. Eyebrows severely elevated, he managed a sideways smile. “Honestly, dear. The company you keep.” His voice was mild.
Her lips trembled, eyes wide. “What does she want with me? Why would she send me a note? Am I going to be arrested?”
He held it out to her. “Arrest notices seldom come on scented pink paper. I hate to be pedantic, but the only way you’ll find out is to open it.”
Her lips twitched ever so slightly as she snatched the paper out of his hand and sniffed gently at it. Sure enough, roses. Taking a deep breath, she broke the seal and forced herself to scan the note. She felt her face flushing as she gaped at the invitation to: “Tea? She wants me to come to tea?”
Sam peeked over her shoulder at the elegant script.
Lady Margaret Pirrie requests the company of
Miss Casey Wilson
Two o’clock in the afternoon
Friday 22 November, 1906
at Ormiston House, Belfast
“Why would she want me to come to tea?” Casey shouted at Sam.
He lifted his shoulders. “Maybe she’s just curious. She did meet you at the shipyard at least once. Maybe she wants to see you as a girl.”
“For tea?” she repeated. “With Lady Pirrie? At Ormiston House?”
“Now, Casey, surely you know the rules of teatime. You attended Queen’s University for two-and-a-half years and I don’t think they’ve let the basics slide that much. You’ve attended formal teas, I’m sure of it.”
“Yes.” She looked doubtful. “But not by myself, and certainly not with a lady of the realm. Especially one who has a complaint against me.” Each remark got louder.
Sam sat in the desk chair. “I had a colleague once who always said to never admit fault until it was in your lap.” He sighed at Casey’s expression. “You don’t know that Lady Pirrie is offended. She may think it’s hilarious.”
Casey nodded in mock optimism. “I’m sure she does.”
Sam ignored the sarcasm as he gazed at the lace curtains over the window. “In fact, Lady Pirrie could be a real asset.”
“What do you mean, asset?”
Sam settled into his lecture mode. “According to history, Lady Pirrie had a lot of influence with her husband. She was practically a partner in the business. You mentioned she was often at the yard.” He looked at her for confirmation.
“So when you go to tea, you should feel her out. She’d be a formidable ally if she knew about the Titanic.”
“The Titanic?” Casey threw the note on the desk, face flushed and angry. “You want me to tell her about the Titanic? About us? Are you out of your mind, Sam?”
“Only if you’re comfortable with it, of course. I haven’t met her at all; you have. I’m sure you’ll get to know her a bit better on Friday. I’ll leave it to your discretion.”
“Sam.” Casey was flabbergasted and showed it. “Sam, the Pirries are not interested in us. Lady Pirrie probably wants to meet me to make sure I’m not up to espionage or something. That’s okay, I can understand that. But everyone says they’re extravagant, haughty social climbers. Their fondest wish is to be the darlings of London society. I’ve seen how Lord Pirrie runs that company like it’s his own personal little fiefdom. If anyone disagrees with him, he doesn’t promote them. Even his own nephew got that treatment because they disagreed about Home Rule. The Pirries are the problem, Sam.”
Sam was nodding. “I know, I know. They also live well beyond their means and when he dies, he leaves his wife destitute, and at the charitable mercies of friends and relations. He also cooks the books, although none of it is actually illegal these days. Still, Harland & Wolff is nearly as destitute as Lady Pirrie. But that’s all beside the point. The thing is, Casey, she knows ships. She really does. If you give her our information, she just might persuade Pirrie to change the ship.”
“She just might have us locked up for good, too. Worse, she might turn us over to the government. If he’s so desperate for society approval that he cooks the books, we’d be a real prize, wouldn’t we? Heck, the King might make him a Duke or something, for turning over time travelers. I don’t trust her at all, Sam. I don’t even trust her long enough to have tea with her. I wouldn’t dare tell her about us.”
He threw up his hands. “I told you. Do what you think is best. You know more about the woman than I do.” He reached over and lifted a fold of her black working skirt, eyeing it critically. “So, what do you plan on wearing to tea?”
Since Casey didn’t trust Lady Pirrie, she felt no need to go out of her way to impress her. She didn’t quite dare to refuse the invitation, however, and she responded with a polite note informing Her Ladyship that she was honored by the invitation, and looked forward to tea on Friday.
She would wear her nicest dress and shoes, which, while quite presentable for a woman of the middle class, would still never measure up to Lady Pirrie’s standards. Nevertheless, Casey was content. Her station in life was not a secret, so surely Lady Pirrie would understand. Casey did have a new hat.
Transportation was a thornier issue, with Sam vetoing all the possibilities. She couldn’t take a tram and walk onto the Ormiston property and up to the front door, not to mention leaving the same way. She couldn’t take a cab for the same reason. How would she summon another one when it was time to leave? In the end, Sam splurged and hired a driver and carriage for the afternoon. Like any other lady paying a call, Casey would be taken to the front door by her driver, who would then park the carriage at the designated spot for visitors. The horse would be allowed a drink of water and the driver some tea. When Casey was ready to leave, her driver would be summoned by the butler and Casey could enter her carriage at the door, as was proper.
“As long as you don’t make a habit of these teas, of course,” Sam teased her on Thursday. “If you get too popular, one of us will have to take a second job.”
So it was that on Friday, Casey let ‘her’ driver help her out of ‘her’ carriage and she rang the bell of Ormiston House precisely at two o’clock. She managed a polite smile for the butler in spite of sweaty palms and a pounding heart. He ignored it, bowing formally and taking her cloak before handing it off to a young girl in a maid’s uniform. He interrupted Casey’s awed examination of the proverbs carved into the walls, and led her to the drawing room, where he stiffly announced her to Lady Pirrie, who remained regally seated in front of a shining tea service.
Casey curtsied and murmured her how-do-you-do’s, having polished up on her lessons from Queens. Lady Pirrie broke into a delighted smile and stood, reaching to take both of Casey’s hands into her own. Flustered, Casey stood still and allowed the Lady’s scrutiny.
“My dear.” Lady Pirrie tilted her head graciously and gestured to the chair on the other side of the tea service. “I’m delighted you could come.” She returned to her seat as Casey sank into the indicated chair, an elegant open-arm affair with pink upholstery, identical to the one in which Lady Pirrie sat. The entire room was filled with color: the furniture in pink or green upholstery, gleaming gold and crystal chandeliers, polished wood armoires and side tables with gold handles. Casey felt like a child in a museum, hearing a distant docent’s voice admonishing her to “not touch the display.”
Lady Pirrie continued, “I must tell you, I was amused beyond words at the trick you played on our Tommy. I simply had to meet you, and see for myself the young lady who could accomplish such a task.”
Casey reddened and sat straighter in her chair. “Madam, I assure you. My motive was not to trick Mr. Andrews at all. I hold him in the highest esteem, and I am truly sorry if my deception has caused him any hurt.”
The tilted head was more intently critical this time. “Is that so?” the Lady murmured, but adroitly did not pursue the topic. Instead, she began the process of serving tea to her guest and herself, a ritual familiar and comforting to Casey. When both were outfitted with tea and small sandwiches, Casey’s fear began to return. What did Lady Pirrie want?
“My nephew, Miss Wilson,” began Lady Pirrie, with an air of resignation, “would rather die than add injury to someone already in distress, most particularly a young lady in distress. Surely, you realize he let you off astonishingly easy?”
Casey held her teacup gingerly and nodded. “I do, Lady Pirrie.” Ignoring the advice of Sam’s colleague, she added, “I would not have been so kind in his place.”
“Indeed? How would you have handled such a transgression, Miss Wilson?” Lady Pirrie seemed genuinely curious.
Casey set the teacup down, afraid of dropping it. During the months of her employment, she had imagined many dreadful things happening when Mr. Andrews found her out. In the few days since the confrontation, she had considered further which of the dire imaginings could have been most likely. “I imagined arrest or humiliation, although,” she added hastily, seeing Lady Pirrie’s insulted expression, “I’m sure that was more my own guilt speaking than anything else. After becoming better acquainted with him, I knew he would never do such a thing.”
“At the least, Madam, I would have given me a severe dressing down.” Casey looked down at her hands, clenched tightly in her lap, as she confessed, “to have him speak to me in that way would have been the most painful punishment. His good opinion of me meant so much. I am sure I have lost it and…well, I know I deserve that.”
Lady Pirrie sighed. “As to that, I cannot say. I know he forgives you, but whether he would trust you, that’s another story.”
He hasn’t contacted me or Sam about the warning, Casey thought miserably. Obviously, he doesn’t trust me. He probably never wants to see me again.
“How did you do it, Miss Wilson?”
Casey looked up, startled. “Do, Lady Pirrie? I don’t understand.”
“How did you manage to pass yourself off as a boy for all that time?” Lady Pirrie’s gaze wandered frankly over Casey’s form. “I talked to you myself for several minutes and I never guessed at all. But I don’t understand how you pulled it off. You look nothing like a boy, although your hair is an abomination.”
Casey’s hand went to her head in embarrassment. “I know. I had such wonderful hair, too. I miss it so much. But it will grow back. That, at least, is not permanent.” Her fingers uselessly fluffed the short curls in a mindless and habitual fashion. “I had it cut in order to sell it, when we needed money. Putting on pants and shirt with the cap completed the costume. I had noticed the boys on the street that were always out looking for odd jobs.” She shrugged delicately. “People see what they expect to see, for the most part. I didn’t plan to make a career out of it, but at that point, any money earned could only help us.” She frowned sternly at her hostess. “Obviously, Lady Pirrie, I could not go out on the streets to look for work as a girl. Society really gives women abysmal choices. We can starve. Or we can prostitute ourselves. But we are not allowed to do honest work for honest pay.”
Lady Pirrie flushed. “I know, dear. Without condoning what you did, I can only agree with you. Still, it seldom bodes well to toss society’s grievous conventions back into its face. Somehow, the victim always ends up paying the price.”
Casey nodded, acknowledging the truth of that. But she felt no guilt as she spoke. “I have no apologies for looking for well-paying jobs to help my guardian and I survive. I did good work, and I don’t believe anyone suffered because they unknowingly hired a girl instead of a boy. Not even Mr. Andrews, and Harland & Wolff.” She shrugged in self-deprecation. “I’m afraid I have a strong rebellious streak in that matter. If society insists on certain rules, however discriminatory or illogical, then I’ll work within the rules as I see fit.”
“They’d have burned you as a witch two hundred years ago, dear,” Lady Pirrie said. “You are fortunate society has matured in some fashion since then.”
“No doubt,” Casey agreed.
“And what are you doing since leaving the shipyard?”
“An acquaintance of my guardian is a horticulture professor at Queen’s. He needed some help with a project at the Palm House. This was my field of study in California, so I applied.” Casey found herself smiling. “I thought shipbuilding was fascinating, but I am overjoyed at working with plants again.”
Lady Pirrie blinked in astonishment, then shook her head, laughing a little. “It wouldn’t appeal to me, but I can see you enjoy it.” She filled Casey’s cup and leaned back to regard her solemnly. “Are you familiar with the Agriculture Society, and the work of Sir Horace Plunkett?”
Casey gulped in astonishment. “Yes, of course. He has established the society as a department of the government and is working throughout the country to help farmers form co-operatives and earn a living wage. I think his work is marvelous.”
Lady Pirrie seemed surprised she knew so much. “Indeed. I didn’t realize an American would be so familiar with the work, but it is true that Sir Plunkett spent a few years in America. Are you familiar with him from his time there?”
“His writings were often brought up during my studies, Lady Pirrie,” Casey said, quite truthfully.
The older woman nodded. “That’s wonderful! I ask because if you are truly interested in pursuing this work, I can arrange to introduce you to the local chapter. I have no way, myself, of determining whether you are qualified to help them, but they will know. Would you be interested in meeting them?”
Casey’s smile was answer enough, but she tried to sound calm and assured as she answered, “I would be honored, ma’am. I would love to help in any way I can.”
Lady Pirrie nodded again, pleased with this result. “I will be in contact with you then, once I’ve made arrangements.” She was not done, though, and continued with a slightly chiding tone. “My nephew will be glad to know you are doing well. I will talk to him, of course, but you might consider sending him a note and letting him know.”
Casey flushed. “I did write him, Lady Pirrie, when I first started the project. I sent a note to Mr. Andrews and to Mr. Hamilton, as I worked closely with both of them. Mr. Hamilton wrote me back, saying only that they were pleased and wished me luck.” She licked her lips and ran a finger around the rim of her cup. “I do not wish to make a pest of myself.”
“A wise decision, dear. I will say they have had a difficult time replacing you, which amuses my sense of feminine justice. You went a long way toward convincing some of them that a woman can work as well as a man.”
Lady Pirrie rose to indicate the interview was ended. Casey hastily placed her cup on the table and stood as Lady Pirrie rang for her butler and turned to face Casey. “Thank you for coming, my dear. I’m afraid I really was quite curious about you. But I rather have the impression that you’ll be an asset to the people of Belfast.”
Casey curtsied, managing to look elegant in spite of her poor dress and abominable hair. “I hope so, Lady Pirrie. And the pleasure has been mine. Your graciousness in this situation is most appreciated.”
She followed the butler out to her carriage, leaving a bemused Lady Pirrie to her thoughts.
On Tuesday, at the shipyard, Tom was sidetracked from an errand by a familiar voice calling him toward the Corridor of Power, the stairway leading to his uncle’s office.
“Oh, Tommy dear!” His aunt was just coming down the stairs, resplendent in her purple dress and matching parasol. Tom paused in his dash and gave her a peck on the cheek.
“Hello, Aunt Marge. Come to make sure Uncle Willie is handling things all right?”
“It’s a constant battle,” she said, smiling up at him in delight. “How have you been, dear? I’m just on my way to visit your mother and I’ll have to give her a report.”
Tom gave it some thought. “Now, I just saw her on Sunday, so I suppose you can tell her that I’ve been on an even keel and remain as content as I was then. Although,” and he anxiously rubbed at a small cut on his neck, “I did nick myself shaving yesterday. She might feel that’s significant news.”
They laughed together. She held up a hand as she remembered something. “By the way, I had your young lady over for tea the other day.”
He looked blank. “Has someone not informed me of something?” he asked her, puzzled. “What young lady is that?”
“Silly dolt,” she murmured. “I meant your former employee.”
“Oh,” he replied in despair. He was still putting up with teasing from the men; now Aunt Marge would be added to his list of torturers. “That young lady.”
“Why Tommy,” Lady Pirrie suddenly reached up and firmly rubbed a spot on his cheek. “You have egg on your face.”
He couldn’t help it; the joke caused him to roar with laughter. Too bad, too, because it would only encourage her. “Aye, so I do, so I do. Will I ever live this down?”
She smiled. “We’ll tire of it eventually.”
“Humph,” was his only response, but he suddenly realized what she had said, and he stared at her in shock. “Did you say you had her over for tea?” He could almost feel the blood draining from his face.
“Why yes, dear. On Friday.”
“Friday,” he said weakly. She nodded. “Why’d you do that?” he asked.
“Why?” Her brows rose, but she shrugged slightly. “Curiosity, dear. The story was quite amusing, of course, but I was fascinated at what she had done. I had to meet her for myself.” The parasol tip hit the floor sharply as Lady Pirrie tapped it. “I’m surprised you haven’t made the effort yourself. Aren’t you at all curious about her?”
Curious? he thought. That’s not quite it. Uneasy… perturbed… yes, curious as well, but… Almost without effort, he heard Casey’s warning again, and Dr. Altair’s enigmatic rejoinder. Most unsatisfactory.
He blinked, bringing himself back to the current conversation. His aunt was looking at him strangely. He cleared his throat. “Curious, yes. Of course. What did you think of her?”
The strange look remained, but she answered calmly enough. “I found her quite charming, Tommy. Truly, if I had not met her when she worked here, I would never have believed the young lady I was talking to could have pulled off such a deception.”
“Really?” Now he was curious. “How so?”
She examined him for a moment, tilting her head quizzically. “She’s very pretty, Tommy. Very feminine. I do not understand at all how she passed herself off as a boy.”
Tom grabbed a quick thought. “Are you certain it was the same person? None of us has ever met her as a girl.”
But his aunt merely nodded. “I am certain, yes. I talked to her for several minutes one day, while I was working in Saxon’s office. It’s subtle, but there were too many similarities for it to be a different person. In fact, I asked her about it.”
“What did she say?”
“She explained about her ‘costume,’ as she called it. How she used the clothes to cover herself and make her appear younger and boyish. She also said that in general, people see what they expect to see. She tried hard to never give us a reason to expect anything other than a boy.” She shook her head, clearly befuddled. “I don’t quite understand how that helped, but there you are.”
Tom could see it, as he thought back to the first moment he saw her. Part of it was the context: it would never have occurred to him that a girl would be loitering on the street, looking for work. She was dressed as a boy and his expectations told him to expect a boy. So that’s what he saw.
His aunt continued. “Frankly, I was concerned that she may have been part of some kind of espionage attempt, or something. I thought that talking to her would alleviate my fears, and I do feel better about her now. In fact, I’m introducing her to the Horticulture Society. I think she may fit in there.” She shrugged. “Really, Tommy, she’s very young. American, orphaned, in the care of an old man who has never married or raised children…. It’s a miracle the child can function in society at all. I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. At least, I’m convinced she was doing just what she told you she was doing. Trying to survive.”
Tom nodded, disturbed, but gave his aunt a quick hug. “I’ve got to run, Aunt Marge. Thanks for telling me about this. Be well, and tell my mother hello for me.”
She kissed his cheek. “I will. Be well Tommy.”