A Road Not Chosen
The life and adventures of Margaret Stewart.
This is a story based on a real person and facts about her life. I've embellished, dramatized, and taken literary license to make it more entertaining than a dry biography.
I've found the facts in this story and what this woman accomplished amazing. She showed courage that many of us would be hard pressed to duplicate.
Captain Reginald Collingsworth Smyth sat at the desk in his home office in Devonshire, England. It was early spring in 1894 and he had a decision to make. The results didn't really bother him but the execution was troubling. He had received orders to report for duty in South Africa. The Boers and the Zulus were rebelling against English rule and the empire had decided to augment the troops already in place.
Smyth's orders weren't the problem; he was eager to go as it meant a promotion to Major and this posting would further his rise up the ranks. He was a career army officer and hoped to be a general one day. But first he had to do his duty and pay his dues as it were. Therefore the posting to South Africa suited him very well.
The problem was his 12 year old daughter Margaret Rose. His wife Mary Katherine had died when Margaret was 8. For the last four years Smyth had "farmed" his daughter out to relatives and friends. Smyth would visit his daughter when he had leave from his duties but did so mostly to get sympathy from his relatives so they would continue to raise the girl for him. He also sent money once a month to whoever had the young girl. Not because he worried about the care Margaret received but it made it easier to get someone to watch over her.
The Captain really didn't care that much for Margaret; in fact he resented his responsibility to her. He had only married to further his chances for promotions by presenting a stable home life to his superiors. Smyth felt that Margaret's presence held him back and placed a strain on his chosen career. In truth, Reginald Smyth was a pompous ass that cared for no one and nothing but himself and how to get ahead in the army.
That's what I'll do, he thought as an idea had popped into his head. I'll send Margaret to my sister in law, Mildred, in America. She lives in some God forsaken place called Peoria in the Providence of Illinois. I'll send her a telegram today.
Margaret was an intelligent youngster. She was always at the top of her class in school in spite of moving from household to household as the hospitality of her cousins, aunt and uncles ran its course. Each place she stayed she was required to help with the household chores. Margaret didn't mind; it made her feel like part of the family and the home where ever she stayed.
Margaret had been at her current "foster" home the longest. She was living with a cousin, Florence Teasdale. Florence was several years older than Captain Smyth and lived in a large cottage in a middle class neighborhood. She lived alone and had enjoyed having Margaret stay there. The problem that arose was that Florence was moving to Perth Australia within the next six months to live with her son, his wife and their three children in Perth. Margaret once again would be for all intents and purposes homeless. There wasn't room for the young girl who was an orphan in everything but name.
I think I remind Father too much of Mum, Margaret thought. Why else would he have me live with others instead of with him? I've lived with almost everyone Father knows at one time or another; some more than once. But I guess now he will find us a place to live and we'll be together.
Margaret was correct in her assumption that she reminded her father of his departed wife but not for the reasons she thought. It was true that Margaret bore an uncanny resemblance to her mother. She had the same long dark hair, the same blue eyes and the same almost flawless porcelain like complexion of her mother. Margaret had inherited her father's height and build as she was well formed and tall for her age. She also had her father's calculating, almost cold, mind. If a problem or crisis arose she would solve the problem or handle the crisis without emotion. At least until the situation was taken care of.
Three weeks later Captain Smyth came to see his daughter. Margaret hadn't seen her father for about three months but it didn't make any difference. In the way of all children she was overjoyed to see him. She loved him and had missed him.
"Margaret I've been posted to South Africa," Reginald said by way of greeting. No "hello daughter or love", no "good to see you"; not even a dutiful hug, just his announcement. "You will be going to live with your Aunt Mildred and her family in America. Pack your things; your ship sails from Bristol the day after tomorrow."
"Can't I go with you Father?" Margaret asked hopefully. "How can we see each other if you're in Africa?"
"No my girl, you can't come with me. There are no accommodations for a family at the outpost. I will write to you monthly and when I return to England I will send for you."
In fact, as a Major, Smyth could have brought his family. He had been assigned an apartment that would allow him to bring his loved ones. The Army knew that to keep the officers happy and morale high they needed their families with them if possible for the months of hard duty. In fact Smyth simply did not want to be bothered with his daughter. He quickly got Margaret packed with most of her worldly possessions which fit into two large suitcases and a small overnight bag.
They boarded the train to Bristol early the next morning. Arriving in the port city Captain Smyth arranged lodging for the evening. Margaret didn't know it but it would be the last night she would ever spend in England.
Just after sunrise the Captain escorted Margaret to a pier. The Empress of India, a passenger ship, was sailing for New York City in America on the morning tide. He gave his daughter her ticket for steerage and a large leather wallet that contained Margaret's birth certificate and his sister in law's name and address. In the wallet Smyth had put $50 in United States currency; he'd made the money exchange at his bank before leaving for Bristol.
Reginald Smyth gave Margaret a half hearted hug, kissed her cheek and turned her over to the care of the Purser who was in charge of getting the passengers on board the vessel. He walked away never once turning back to see his daughter waving goodbye with tears in her eyes.
The ship would carryover 500 hundred people. There were 50 First Class berths, 118 Second class, and on this voyage 312 passengers in steerage. The First Class had private state rooms equal to any expensive hotel in England. Second Class traveled in smaller but still private state rooms. The passengers traveling steerage would share part of the cargo hold.
There were no staterooms; just a great open expanse. Each family or group would "stake out" a section of the deck as their own. The four bathrooms placed in each corner of the hold would be shared by all 312 passengers without regard to sex. First Class dined in a special VIP section of the main dining room while Second Class used the rest of the room. A galley had been installed on the fantail for the use of the steerage passengers. They in steerage cooked their own meals using their own supplies on the fantail. They either ate on deck in good weather or down in the hold if the weather turned bad.
Margaret stood in line, waiting to board the ship. First Class would board and then the Second Class passengers would follow. Neither of those groups would have to wait for the lowly steerage travelers to get out of their way. Steerage passengers would board last and be directed to the cargo hold. They would only be allowed on the fantail of the ship as it left port.
No standing at the rail waving goodbye to friends and family, no paper streamers thrown to celebrate the adventure, and no champagne for a toast for calm seas and a smooth voyage. Basically it was "stay out of the way" and "know your place" for the ones traveling steerage. They were treated better than livestock but not by much.
The young girl was deep in thought as the line started to move onto the ship. Margaret was sad to leave her father, her friends and England but she was a little excited to be going to a new country. A shout broke into her thoughts and brought her back to the gangplank. A young man of about 18 was running down the gangplank yelling and gesturing. It wasn't until he got closer that Margaret understood what he was yelling.
"Catch it please. Could someone catch that blasted ticket please," the young man yelled as he ran back toward the pier.
Margaret looked up and saw a piece of paper floating on the swirling sea breeze. As it passed over her head she reached up and snagged the object out of the air just before it could go over the side of the gangplank into the water. As the young man got closer, Margaret turned to him.
"Is this what you were chasing?" She asked holding the object out to him.
He smiled and took the offered paper. "Sure and you're an angel sent to watch over this dumb farm boy." His voice had the lilt of Ireland and his brogue was so thick you could cut it with a knife. "I'm Sean Riley and I thank you young Lass. He bowed and said, "Idiot that I am I didn't hold on to my ticket when the wind came up. Without it I would have been standing on the dock watching as you sailed away."
Margaret couldn't help but smile at Sean's accent and his expression of gratitude. "You're welcome, I'm glad I was able to catch the wayward thing."
"And what is your name? I should know the name of my savior." Looking around Sean asked, "Where is your family? I would like to thank them also for raising suc...