From Titanic: The Canadian Story
By Alan Hustak
Only after the catastrophe was Alice Fortune able to appreciate the clairvoyant's warning. The heat in Cairo that February day in 1912 was so stifling that she left her suite in Shepheard's Hotel to sit in the shade on the veranda overlooking the Nile. The hotel was one of the city's most famous landmarks. It had a Moorish hall lit by a glass dome, and a ballroom with lotus pillars modelled on those at Karnak. The veranda café was crowded with wicker chairs and tables overlooking the Midian Opéra, the main public square. Shepheard's was the giddy social centre of British Cairo and the watering hole of its moneyed classes. As Alice sat down, a wrinkled man with a fez beckoned to her through the balustrade. As she approached, he took her by the hand and examined her palm.
"You are in danger every time you travel on the sea, for I see you adrift on the ocean in an open boat," he said. "You will lose everything but your life."
William Sloper was there when it happened and in his memoirs he tells us Alice gave the soothsayer some money and the little man disappeared into the teeming crowd, "into the obscurity from which he so briefly emerged."
Alice was just twenty-four and still under her parents wing. She was not superstitious nor easily intimidated. Still, she seemed ill at ease as she fingered the string of cultured pearls she always wore around her slim, elegant neck. She wasn't frightened by the prediction but vaguely concerned for her family. She had come with her father, mother, two sisters and her younger brother halfway across the world from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to see the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the monumental Sphinx, and the treasures in the Museum of Antiquities.
Alice was very much her father's daughtervivacious, carefree, stubborn and self-assured. For her to share her concern would be out of character. Her father, Mark Fortune was a self-made man with a bank account that matched the family name. Lured to California by inflated dreams when he was still a teenager, he left Wentworth, Ontario, where he was born in 1847, and spent two years in San Francisco. In 1871 he was in the right place at the right time when he arrived in Manitoba at the end of the first Riel Rebellion. Led by Louis Riel, a group of disgruntled Métis had sought provincial status to improve conditions in their isolated colony. When their grievances were ignored they took up arms against the Canadian govern-ment. Their rebellion, poorly planned, was quickly crushed. The vanquished Métis were ordered by law from the very land they had sought to protect. Mark Fortune snapped up a thousand acres along the Assiniboine River. A few years later Winnipeg's main thoroughfare, Portage Avenue was surveyed through his property, and by the time he was thirty, he was a rich man. He married Mary McDougald, a girl from Portage la Prairie, and they had six children: Robert, Clara, Ethel, Mabel, Alice and Charles. Along the way Fortune was elected a Winnipeg city councillor and was a trustee of Knox Presbyterian Church. His contemporaries remembered him as brash and self-confident, "probably the most expert of Winnipeg's curlers. His judgement was sound, his discrimination keen, his life purpose high."
In 1911 Fortune built a substantial thirty-six-room Tudor-style mansion which, although now converted into condominiums, still stands at 393 Wellington Crescent in Winnipeg's finest neighbourhood. The same year, his youngest son, Charles, a vigorous and handsome eighteen-year-old with sandy hair, blue eyes and a serious face, graduated from Bishop's College School in Lennoxville, Quebec, with citations for academic and athletic excellence. His father had waited for Charles to finish school before rewarding the entire family by "finishing them off," with the ultimate mark of breeding, a Grand Tour of Europe. By then, his two eldest children, Robert and Clara, had made lives of their own in British Columbia, and they didn't want to go.
The second Fortune daughter, Ethel, had already announced her engagement to a rising Toronto banker, Crawford Gordon. Her friends remember Ethel as one of those headstrong personalities who sets her own agenda then pursues it vigorously. But she agreed to postpone her wedding in order to shop for a trousseau in Europe and chaperone her younger siblings.
Mabel Fortune moved in an orbit of her own. Blithe, unselfconscious, and a little high strung, she was attractive but spoiled. Much to her parents dismay Mabel had fallen in love with Harrison Driscoll, a jazz musician from Minnesota. The Fortunes thought they could stifle the romance, or at least cool her ardour, by taking her away for several months.
The Fortunes were part of a smug and complacent crowd with an imperial perspective of the world. They were born during the reign of Queen Victoria. Canadians were part of the British Empire and all that it entailed. It was said that "Canada was a favoured daughter in her mother's house, but mistress in her own." Canadians took exceptional pride in the fact that their head of state, the Governor-General, Prince Arthurthe Duke of Connaughtwas the queen's youngest son. Jan Morris describes the time in her trilogy, Pax Britannica: "There was hardly a moment of the day, hardly a facet of daily living in which the fact of Empire was not emphasized. From exhortatory editorials to matchbox lids, from children's fashion to parlour games, from music hall lyrics to parish church sermons, the Imperial Theme was relentlessly drummed." Rich Canadians in foreign lands considered themselves first and foremost as British subjects. Everyone else was regarded as a quaint extra in a drama directed by the Empire and produced for its benefit. Even French Canadians accepted their colonial status and generally applauded the notion put forward by one politician that Quebecers were "good, loyal and faithful British subjects: Englishmen but with one differencethey speak French."
It was a time of transatlantic travel when twenty pieces of hold luggage were the absolute basic minimum for social survival in First Class. Gentle-men were expected to change clothes four times a day. While he was willing to respect the conventions, Mark Fortune never went anywhere without his matted and moth-eaten Winnipeg Buffalo Coat. He had had it for years and considered the heavy fur coat something of a good luck charm, a talisman. His wife tried to talk him out of packing so useless a garment on a trip to Egypt, but he wouldn't listen. "You never know when it might come in handy," he said as he stashed the coat into a steamer trunk.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, only a few privileged Canadians could afford to sail off to Europe for the winter, and it seemed that those who did all knew one another.
Making the trip with the Fortunes were three well heeled Winnipeg bachelors: realtor Thomson Beattie, Beattie's best friend, Union Bank President Thomas McCaffry, who had recently been transferred to Vancouver, and John Hugo Ross, the son of Arthur Wellington Ross the Liberal-Conservative Member of Parliament for the Manitoba riding of Lisgar. John Hugo was born in Glengarry, Ontario in 1875, but his parents moved to Winnipeg when he was two, where his father became one of the largest real estate brokers in the province. Ross Sr. became involved in the building of the CPR, and in 1878 was elected a member of the Manitoba legislature. He resigned his seat in the legislature and in 1882 was elected to the House of Commons for the first time. As a child, John Hugo was described as "a rosy faced boy in knickerbockers, riding his dog sled or off skating. On Sunday and special occasions he was the little gentleman in a kilt." When he was still in his teens his father got him a position at the vice-regal residence, Liberty Hall, as secretary to Lieutenant Governor James Coolebrook Patterson. He worked there for a year, then in 1896 he left Winnipeg for Toronto where he went into business for himself as a mining broker. He squandered his money, the firm failed, and he had a falling out with his father. In 1902 with twenty-five cents in his pocket he left for the Klondike to pan for gold. He soon realized the Rush was over. Then his father died. He inherited the business and returned to Winnipeg to look after his widowed mother. Dapper and flamboyant, Ross had a sarcastic wit. He and realtor Thomson Beattie had offices across the hall from each other in the same Merchants Bank Building.
Thomson Beattie had been born late in his mother's life, in Fergus, Ontario on November 27, 1875, in a large Victorian farmhouse known as Belleside. The last of eleven children in a solid Presbyterian family, he was twenty-four years younger than his eldest brother, William. His mother Janet Wilson had been born to Scottish immigrant parents on May 15, 1830 aboard the Justinian in the mid-Atlantica ship bound for Canada. The Wilsons settled in Fergus, a small but thriving industrial community fifty kilometres west of Toronto where Janet grew up. In 1850 she married banker John Beattie who had worked as an agent for the Royal Bank before he opened his own bank. In 1871 he was named clerk of Wellington County, a position he held until he died twenty-three years later.
Their youngest son, Thomson, was a precious child, a shy, dreamy boy who was close to his mother. He apprenticed in his father's bank where he was programmed to become an accountant. But when his father died in 1897, Thomson and another brother, Charles, took their share of the estate and moved to Winnipeg. By then the city was the commercial distribution centre for all of Western Canada, "the clearing house for everything west of the Lakehead," and it was able to boast that it was home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in North America. In Winnipeg, Beattie went into partnership with another young, resourceful and deter-mined Scot, Richard Waugh. Together they took over the Haslam Land Company, and within five years their enterprise was so successful that Beattie was able to buy a large house in Fort Rouge that he shared with a medical doctor at 560 River Avenue, an upscale residential neighbourhood a few blocks from the Fortune family mansion. Richard Waugh was elected Mayor of Winnipeg in 1911, and Beattie was left to run the business by himself. He didn't display a high profile in the community but was generous in support of civic causes. "His cheque book was always at the command of any worthy charity," a colleague recalled, "and there is not a charitable institution in the city but has been made the richer through his generosity."
Beattie was a prominent member of Winnipeg's bachelor subculture. It was often said "that he was of such as retiring disposition that little was known of him except by his most intimate friends." The person who knew him best was Thomas McCaffry. Beattie and McCaffry resembled each other, dressed alike, and were often mistaken for brothers. The Winnipeg Free Press remarked on how similar they were, and observed the two of them "were almost inseparable." McCaffry, a forty-six year old banker was born in Ireland, but grew up in Trois-Rivières and Montreal before he was transferred to Winnipeg. He and Beattie often vacationed together. In 1908 they went to the Aegean and in 1910 to North Africa. They spent a lot of time in each others company, but they were not without female admirers. Maud MacArthur, a stenographer who worked in Ross' office was drawn towards Thomson Beattie in a way she could not articulate until he was gone.
The Fortunes and the Winnipeg musketeersBeattie, McCaffry, and Ross, left Winnipeg by train on January 8, 1912, and on January 20 sailed from New York aboard the Cunard liner Franconia bound for Trieste, main seaport of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Aboard ship they met William Sloper, a footloose, affable young man from New Britain, Connecticut, who was so smitten with Alice Fortune, he attached himself to their party. He was twenty-eight, and rich enough to do whatever he pleased because his father owned a Boston bank. Mrs. Fortune liked Sloper, but Mark Fortune didn't think he was strong willed enough to be a match for his daughter. They were at sea sixteen days, stopping along the way at Algiers, Monaco, and
Athens before they disembarked. From Trieste they made their way by train down the Adriatic Coast, through Greece, then across the Medi-terranean to Jerusalem before going on to Egypt. They posed for snapshots in front of the Karnak Temple at Luxor. Beattie sent copies to his brother Fred in Vancouver. Mark Fortune, McCaffry and Ross are all sporting keffiyeh, the traditional Arab headgear. Other photos show them feeding the pigeons in St. Mark's Square in Venice. By that time, at the end of March, Ross was feeling ill and Beattie, too, was exhausted from their travels. Both were weary and anxious to get home. They said as much in one postcard to friends in Winnipeg. "We are on the last lap of doing the old lands and ready for Winnipeg and business." The Fortunes were also weary and had had enough of sightseeing. When they reached Paris they cancelled their plans to sail home later on the Mauretania and decided to book passage on the maiden voyage of a celebrated new ship. Fortune booked three outside cabins for his family, C-22, 24 and 26. Ross took an inside cabin, A-10, and McCaffry and Beattie a forward cabin, C-6. "We are changing ships and coming home in a new, unsinkable boat," Beattie wrote to his mother in Fergus.
They crossed to London and ended their vacation with a bon voyage party on Easter Sunday at the Carlton Hotel. The Fortune sisters appeared for dinner in their new Worth gowns from Paris, in the popular colour that spring, Primrose Pink. All three wore their pearl chokers which had been made fashionable by the dowager Queen mother, Alexandra. As they were walking through the Palm Court on their way to dinner, Alice spotted her old friend, William Sloper, standing alone at the top of the staircase. They hadn't seen each other since they had been in Egypt together. She invited him to join the family for dinner.
"One of the first questions Alice asked me was ‘when are you going home?'" Sloper wrote in his memoirs. Only the day before he had made reservations to sail back to America aboard the Cunard liner Mauritania, which was then the fastest ship afloat. Sloper was so beguiled by Alice he impulsively decided to change his travel plans so he could be with her. "Alice was a very pretty girl and an excellent dancing partner. If that were not enough inducement, her assurance that she knew of twenty people who would be passengers with us, who had been on our steamer in January going to Europe, settled it," he wrote later.
He exchanged his tickets on Monday, and when he surprised Alice
with the news, she flirted with him.
"I am sorry you did it. Haven't you forgotten? I am a dangerous person
to travel with. Don't you remember the fortune teller last winter on the terrace at Shepheard's Hotel?"
"That fortune teller told every American tourist the same thing," Sloper grinned.
The following morning, April 10, 1912, Sloper joined the Fortunes, Ross, Beattie and McCaffry, and took the boat train to Southampton. Ross was now so ill with dysentery he had to be carried to his compartment on a stretcher. Sick as he was, he was determined to get home. He was not going to miss the maiden voyage of the world's largest steamship, the White Star Line's majestic Royal Mail Ship, Titanic.
© Copyright Alan Hustak