A Different Treasure
“I promise I’ll explain everything tonight,” Kim said with a slight grimace. “Right now I want to concentrate on this dive. Finding it must have been so totally cool.”
Her older sister Karen leaned in closer so she could be heard over the roar of the twin Mercury engines. “For sure.”
Seated next to each other and in profile, it was easy to mistake them for twins, although there was a year and a half difference in their ages. Karen was only an inch taller and, during their years on the middle and high school swim teams with their hair covered in caps, their coaches had constantly mixed them up. Not that chestnut and a little darker shade were easy to tell apart anyway, especially not in the almost identical short cuts the girls favored. They’d never understood swimmers who wanted to bother with untangling long curls.
It was another twenty minutes before they reached the unmarked site. Brad, Karen’s husband, had the location stored in his GPS and, for now, he was sharing the secret with no more than a few people, and none of the other dive shops. He would let them in on it soon, but locating a new shipwreck was something to savor. As word spread quickly within the diving community, he’d already been taking some fairly good natured ribbing about his reticence.
“Brad’s been looking for the Belle Marie for years. He’s studied everything he can find and is convinced she’s somewhere near here. He and Lance were with Mike who got this location from a friend of his who runs a fishing charter. The size seemed to be about right, and even though he was disappointed it wasn’t the Marie, it was only the second find he’d been in on, so it was pretty exciting.”
Kim knew about Brad’s passion for the 390-foot luxury steam liner that sank in the summer of 1910 after a fire blazed out of control. There had been little loss of life, but a hurricane blew in within days of the sinking and the few attempts to pinpoint her had not been successful. “You said this was a freighter from World War II?”
“The Ariana, as it turned out was one of the early ones that disappeared when the German U-boats were commencing operations off the east coast. According to the research Brad’s done, there were no survivors and, for whatever reason, they didn’t get a distress signal off. With no storm when she went missing and no report of a collision, it could have been a U-boat attack. The guy he’s working with is cross-checking information about U-boat credits to see if he can match the location. I think there were fewer than forty crew – tragic – just not like the larger ships.”
The boat’s engines began to throttle down as they approached an open spot; the only other craft in sight was almost too far away to make out as more than a distant shape. This was Kim’s first opportunity to dive a wreck that was so newly discovered, and she was thrilled even though Brad had told her it was broken up. It took him less than ten minutes to home in on the small, bright green mooring ball he’d tied to it, not noticeable unless you were right on top of it. As soon as the location was made public, they would attach two large white balls: one to each major section of the ship. Karen had moved to the bow and snagged the line to tie into, as Brad unfurled the red flag with a white diagonal stripe, the flag used to indicate he had divers in the water.
They couldn’t have ordered a more perfect day – eighty degrees and partly cloudy with a mild current and waves running three feet or less. They’d brought the oldest of the boats, the last original one from their purchase of the dive center. Equipped to seat up to fourteen divers with a wide swim platform with dual ladders, the amount of space was luxurious with four of them on board. The traditional dive season was drawing to a close with Labor Day over and most people were at work on a Wednesday. Lance, who ran his graphics studio from his house, was double-checking his new Sony HDR 150, his mostly bald head bent in concentration.
Brad pointed to the bow after Karen and Kim snapped the last buckle of their gear, ready to put their fins on. “Okay, we’re tied in on the stern section at seventy feet deep. It’s angled in at only about twenty degrees listing starboard and is stable. You’re not quite ninety feet to the sand. I like the idea of you waiting to dive the bow separately, but don’t do any penetration in either section, okay? There’s stuff all around, so you’ll be able to find plenty of souvenirs without going inside.”
The sisters nodded. They were diving with single tanks on nitrox today and planned around forty minutes for each dive with no intention of going inside. Neither of them was trained in shipwreck penetration like the divers who often came to the wrecks with short crowbars aiming to pry away portholes or the sought-after bell. Brad and Lance had retrieved that prize on their second trip to the Ariana.
Kim took the lead entering the water, swimming to the line to wait for Karen. She poked her face down as she waited for the tap on her shoulder to tell her they were ready to descend. The line she was holding disappeared into the realm of darker water and she judged there to be better than thirty feet of vertical visibility. She could see a small school of Atlantic spadefish zipping below them and it took only a short time for the outline of the wreckage to appear as they went down feet first.
There were basically three sections; the smallest of which had completely collapsed and looked as if a giant hand had smashed it nearly flat. The debris field stretched beyond the fifty feet of horizontal visibility and Kim could imagine it would take several excursions to cover the entire area that had become a thriving artificial reef. Just because she didn’t see sand tiger sharks didn’t mean they hadn’t cruised out of sight at their approach.
As they levelled over the stern, there were amberjacks swimming rapidly, a pair of beautiful queen angelfish, and the population of corals, sponges, and anemones seemed healthy. With Lance concentrating on filming, neither of them had brought a camera. As they dropped down several feet, they viewed broken bulkheads attesting to the damage, twisted beams partially blocking the openings, and rusting steel plates sprouting patches of marine growth lay in jumbled piles on the sand.
They planned their two dives for surveying, taking in as much of the wreck as they could without the need to rush. It was exactly the distraction Kim needed – immersing herself in the ocean and in this slice of history, tragic as it had been. Karen, now several fin kicks ahead, angled down to the bottom to a series of mounds where equipment and personal belongings might have tumbled from the ship and been buried beneath decades of sand. Kim followed, taking the next mound over where she could still see Karen. A few pokes of her dive knife and she hit something solid. She didn’t want to stir too much silt, so she knelt and gently inserted her gloved hand slowly removing a pair of binoculars. The strap was nearly gone and one lens was missing, but what a great find! She tapped on her tank with her knife to get Karen’s attention and held them up before slipping them into the red cache bag she was carrying. Karen then held up a mug of some type.
In the last part of the dive, they came up to the deck and watched a sizeable green moray eel dart from one gaping hole into another. Kim noticed a thin line running from an irregular shaped mound and with a quick glance to make sure Karen was nearby, she dipped down for a closer look. It was a dirty braided cord and, as she brushed away accumulated debris, the rotting canvas of the bag it was attached to became visible. The fabric shredded when she tugged it loose; there were a rectangular shaped black pouch still intact and a belt buckle in the swirl of decaying matter. Once she’d secured both items, Karen was hovering above her, signalling it was time to ascend. Her yellow cache bag was full, with a telescope protruding from the top.
Brad’s wide mouth was stretched in a grin as Karen clambered up the left swim ladder with Kim taking the one on the right. “Oh, man, how cool was that?” She turned her head to Kim. “What was that at the end?”
“I’m not sure,” Kim said, sliding onto the bench and hearing the tank click into place in the holder. “Let’s check it out and let me see what you got.”
“I set snacks up on the second camera table,” Brad said, waving them forward. “I’ll swap your tanks. There’s an extra rinse bucket to dunk your booty in.”
“Just one of the many reasons why I love you,” Karen laughed and Kim hoped she was masking an involuntary flinch at their casual happiness.
The telescope was in excellent condition, all things considered, and Karen had a thick white coffee mug that was barely chipped, as well as a cracked hand mirror and a Coca-Cola bottle. She watched Kim hold the pouch over the bucket and pull it open. A lump came out in a slurry of pale muck that had no doubt once been letters or other papers, and a few smaller objects dropped into the bucket. “Anything survive?”
“The pouch is actually not in bad shape,” Kim said, and dropped it to the side to reach for the other items. She felt with her fingers and smiled at her sister. “Hey, coins and something else wrapped.”
“Two silver dollars and a nickel,” she pronounced, holding her hand open. “Take them and let’s see what else is here.” A piece of oilskin had been tightly tied with thick string and when she cut the dripping palm-size package loose, it was a black jeweller’s box. “Hey, look at this.” She straightened, took the towel Karen gave her and rubbed the box briskly. The rusted hinges offered some resistance, but it didn’t take much to open it. “Wow, gold does hold up well, doesn’t it?”
Karen peered at the two plain bands, a man’s and a woman’s, nestled in the ruined fabric. “Is there anything on the inside of the lid?”
Kim tilted it. “Yeah. Quite a bit of the gold lettering is gone, but not all of it. Once we get it cleaned up and take a magnifying glass to it, I’ll bet we’ll be able to read it.”
“That’s odd though, isn’t it? Both rings together like that. I mean, I could see a guy keeping his ring in the box if he wasn’t going to wear it – a lot of men do that. Why would the woman’s ring be in there, too?”
“Hard to say,” Kim agreed and looked up when Brad took the camera rig from Lance who was coming on board. “Treasures from the deep?”
“Yep,” Kim said waving the box toward the display on the bench. “Everything will clean up nicely.”
The second dive was as good as the first, although Kim didn’t find anything else as intriguing as the rings. They were on their way back to the dive shop a little before three o’clock, relaxing in the salon that could comfortably seat six and squeeze in eight. They’d devoured sandwiches, chips and fruit and were on their second cold bottles of beer nestled in coozies with the dive shop logo – pink for Karen and purple for Kim.
“Lance will be up with Brad all the way back,” Karen said with a vague gesture to the ladder leading to the helm. “We’ve got an hour’s ride, so tell me what the hell’s really going on with you.”
Kim held the bottle to her lips. “We’re having such a nice day.”
Karen shrugged. “You were going to tell me tonight anyway. I assume it’s Matt – if you were upset about work, you’d have been bitching to get it out of your system.”
Kim couldn’t stop the sigh escaping. “It’s so damn ordinary, and I still don’t understand how we got to this point.”
Karen’s brown eyes widened. “He hasn’t….”
“No, no,” Kim said with a shake of her head. “Not that, well, I don’t think so.” She frowned slightly. “No, he hasn’t.”
“Then what? I know you love visiting me and diving, but you didn’t come just for that.”
Kim’s frustration welled insider her and she started to talk nonstop, detailing the worry built up over the past few months. She exhaled a deep breath. “It’s not only that we don’t seem to have any time for each other with Matt’s promotion and my work. All those minor things that irritate you suddenly seem to erupt and we’ve had a couple of arguments lately over unimportant stuff. We seem to snap at each other over practically everything, everything and nothing. What’s happened to the couple we were?” She took a long swig of beer. “I mean, how damn cliché is this?”
Karen’s voice was sympathetic. “You have a plan or just need a shoulder?”
Kim managed a half-smile. “Beats the hell out of me. A plan, no. The conventional wisdom is we make ourselves a priority again and slip away for a romantic weekend to recapture what we had in better days.” Her voice perfectly mimicked one of the afternoon television advice gurus.
“That’s not necessarily a bad idea.”
Kim puffed her cheeks out and released the air, feeling the cleansing effect of voicing her angst. “Yeah, I know. Coming here for a couple of days was a good idea, too. I needed to take a few steps back. Thanks.” She reached out and patted Karen’s hand. “Hey, look, I don’t want to talk about this anymore. You have a magnifying glass on board? Let’s see if we can figure anything out about the ring box.”
“We keep a couple on board – give me a minute to find one.”
Fifteen minutes later, Kim read the inscription inside the rings. “Love Endures is on both, the man’s initials are S.J.D and the woman’s are L.R.D. That’s funny – there’s no date.” She held the glass closer, turning the rings as Karen wrote on a pad. “The date isn’t worn off – I don’t think one was ever inscribed.”
“That is different,” Karen said and touched the box with a fingertip. “Can you read the name of the jeweller?”
“This is quality work,” Kim said, hefting the heavy duty plastic box in her hand. “The lettering was etched pretty deep and filled with gold. That’s why any of it lasted. “I’d say something along the lines of Monroe, and what I can read is N Ber N. I wonder if it’s New Bern, N.C. There aren’t too many other letters.”
Karen picked up her smartphone. “We ought to be in signal range. We can check the Yellow Pages.”
Kim set the box aside and slipped the woman’s ring loosely onto her right hand. It was a nice weight with no decoration, nothing unusual except the lack of a date. Maybe not inscribing the wedding date was more of a common practice than she realized.
“Hmm, there is a Manrey and Son Jewelry in New Bern. Hang on while I’ll check their website.”
Kim put both rings into the box and felt a prick of excitement. She didn’t dive too many wrecks where collecting was permitted and she’d never tracked the exact history of the few pieces she had. What if the rings had come from New Bern and she could find the owners, or considering the age, their descendants?
“Manrey was established in 1922 and the third generation is working along with the son of the founder,” Karen said, turning the phone to face Kim. “Want to call?”
“I’ll send an email with a photo,” Kim said. “That way I can do a close-up of the inside box lid.”
Karen nodded. “Hold off though until we get to the shop. The guy at the Maritime Museum in Beaufort is the one Brad’s let in on this and he sent a list of the crew the other day. We’ll see if the initials match.”
“Great idea – I mean, it isn’t totally far-fetched. A lot of local men went to sea. Did the historian say where the ship’s home port was?”
“Wilmington,” Karen said immediately. “He’s coming Friday morning to dive on her and we’re having a party for the local shops at seven o’clock to share the location. Why don’t you stay and go home Saturday?”
“Can’t. We’ve got a major new client coming in Monday and I have to prep for it over the weekend. The information I need won’t be ready until Friday which is why I was able to slip out during the week.”
Karen winked. “Then we’d better break out the new Panamanian rum tonight. We have two different kinds to try.”
“Works for me,” Kim said, looking up when Lance started down the ladder, no doubt ready to show off his video.
On Thursday morning Kim lingered in her good-bye hug with Karen, feeling less anxious about the situation with Matt. She probably was blowing things out of proportion. He was in Seattle until Sunday and with the time zone difference and his evening commitments, their conversations had been brief. He’d shared her enthusiasm about the mystery of the wedding rings and she was on her way to New Bern to the home of Lucinda Beesman, not certain what would happen.
Her email to Manrey and Son Jewellers had yielded surprising results. A Samuel John Donner had been on the crew list of Ariana, hometown New Bern, N.C., date of birth, October 2, 1921. She’d sent that information with photos of the rings and the box, and Caitlin Manrey, granddaughter of the store’s founder, had answered quickly then telephoned the next morning. Her grandmother had been meticulous about recordkeeping and she’d found a receipt for Sam Donner dated November 10, 1941. The address, however, hadn’t been a residential area since 1992, and they had no other records of transactions with him or any Donner.
The thread had stirred Caitlin’s curiosity and that of her brother, a research librarian with the county. He found an engagement announcement for Samuel John Donner and Lucinda Rachel Beesman in March, 1941. The short announcement didn’t list a wedding date. The newspaper building had been heavily damaged by fire in 1948 with significant archives lost, and the two other times Samuel J. Donner was mentioned were in the respective obituaries of his parents, with the notice their only son, Samuel John, had been killed during World War II while serving in the Merchant Marine.
Tracking Lucinda Beesman had yielded a handful of articles about her and her family as she apparently never married, spent a career as a fourth-grade teacher, and retired in 1998. There was a telephone listing for L.R. Beesman and Kim had hesitated before calling. If the research had yielded information about the Donners, it would have been an easy choice. If the engaged SJD and LRM was the same couple and they hadn’t married, why was the woman’s ring clearly inscribed with LRD? Was it possible Sam Donner had found another woman with the same initials as Lucinda Rachel? In calculating Ms. Beesman’s age at ninety or older, would she remember anything?
As it turned out, the woman who had answered the telephone was Martha Glenson who identified herself as Lucinda’s sister. She had paused so long when Kim finished explaining why she was calling that Kim thought she’d lost the connection.
“Sam Donner? You’re sure of that? Someone finally found the Ariana?”
“There isn’t any way to verify the rings belonged to him, but it does seem likely,” Kim said, trying not to sound too eager.
“I can understand why you would think so. Where did you say you were calling from?”
The address she provided led Kim into an old established neighborhood with large trees and well-kept lawns, most with one-car garages or carports, a sprinkling of two-story houses among the predominant bungalows, and few signs of renovation. This was not where people moved in, tore down the existing house, and rebuilt. This was where a movie crew could come in, swap out the cars, temporarily remove the satellite dishes, and shoot scenes from the 1930s and 1940s.
Large front porches were the consistent feature and a petite, white-haired woman stood at the top of three steps as Kim parked her silver Escape behind the blue Accord in the carport. The beds that ran the length of the porch were filled with trimmed camellia bushes and Kim briefly wondered if they once held flowers and had been replaced by something that required less tending.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” the woman said, smiling and extending her thin hand with a stronger grip than Kim expected. “I’m Martha, and I have us set up on the porch, if you don’t mind. “Lucinda had a difficult night and she’s sleeping late.”
Kim was barely five-six, and Martha was shorter, soft curls cut to frame a heart-shaped face that was free of make-up. Her posture was straight and green eyes behind gold wire-rimmed glasses were sparkling with what Kim assumed was curiosity. She gestured to straight-back, armless cane bottom chairs at a round table topped with a dark green cloth and set for two. “Baking is one of my passions. I hope you like apple caramel pecan coffeecake.”
“How kind of you,” Kim said waiting for her hostess to sit.
“This is exciting and quite a surprise, though a little puzzling,” Martha said, leaning forward to pour coffee from a black thermal carafe. “I wanted to talk to you alone because Lucinda’s memory is not what it used to be, and I want to be clear about this before I bring the subject up.” She placed generous squares of coffeecake on their plates. “As you might have guessed, this is the house we were raised in. I’m the youngest of three. Our brother Ned lives in Asheville. There’s quite a gap in our ages – mother had two miscarriages after Ned. My husband passed away not quite four years ago and I moved in with Lucinda so she could stay here rather than go into assisted living. She doesn’t require a great deal of help, but she can’t live alone any longer either.”
She nodded to Kim’s purse. “You have the rings?”
“Yes, and this is delicious,” Kim said, swallowing a bite before retrieving the box and passing it to Martha.
She removed the rings, placed them in the palm of her hand and didn’t speak for nearly a minute. She lifted her eyes and smiled sadly. “Poor Sam. He said he would never give up hope, and it looks like he didn’t.” She laid the rings on the table and cleared her throat. “The short version of the story is my sister made a stupid mistake in November of 1941, and she never had the chance to make it right. I have no doubt Sam bought those with the idea she would change her mind about calling off the wedding.”
Kim felt a surge of satisfaction that she was certain reflected in her expression.
“Would you like the slightly longer version without my airing too much old family history?”
“I don’t want to pry,” Kim half-lied. She wasn’t exactly prying.
Martha’s laugh was warm. “This is why I’m talking to you instead of introducing you to Lucinda – I’ll tell you the truth. I love my sister, and it isn’t that she’s not stubborn now, but compared to when she was younger…mellowing with age is true in her case. Anyway, I was eight years old when it all happened and I suppose the memory is so vivid because I thought Sam was wonderful, and I struggled, knowing I saw through what was going on better than the adults around me.”
Kim didn’t want to hurry the story.
“The details aren’t important after all this time. My sister’s best friend was Dottie Middler, as two-faced a person as ever lived. To this day I don’t know if she had an actual crush on Sam or if she was just jealous because Lucinda was engaged. Part of the issue about Sam, though, was he didn’t come from one of the better families in town and Daddy and Mama made it clear they thought Lucinda was marrying beneath her.” Martha paused for a sip of coffee. “In essence, Dottie got it into Lucinda’s head that Sam had made a pass at her, and Mama fanned the flames, so to speak. Sam tried to explain, but Lucinda took Dottie’s word over Sam’s. I was shamelessly eavesdropping throughout the whole thing. Sam had given her his grandmother’s ring for their engagement and she threw it back at him, saying she never wanted to see him again.”
Kim resisted temptation and shook her head to another square of coffeecake.
“I ran out of the house after their fight and flagged him down on the corner where no one could see me. I was crying and carrying on about how I believed him. He gave me his handkerchief and said, ‘Love endures, Martha, don’t you worry, she’ll come around. I know she will.’
Being in the Merchant Marine, Sam had to leave for his ship. I took up his cause and did all I could, but everyone kept telling me I was way too little to understand. The attack on Pearl Harbor was less than a month later and of course life changed for everyone. Sam sent lots of letters and Lucinda burned them without reading a single word.”
She sighed, her eyes momentarily clouding. “When we heard about the Ariana, Lucinda tried to pretend and act as if she didn’t care, but I heard her crying in her room at night. I was devastated and couldn’t help thinking about how she would never have the chance to make it right with Sam….”
The way she trailed the sentence indicated the story wasn’t over. She touched the rings lightly. “He must have had these made on his way out of town and kept them, waiting for the day he was certain would come,” she repeated. “You see, the thing is oh, it was six or seven months after the Ariana was declared missing that one of the senior bankers in town ran off and left his wife and children. Took right off with a much younger woman and caused a scandal like this town hadn’t seen in ages.”
Kim raised her eyebrows. “The younger woman was Dottie?”
“Absolutely,” Martha said. “Everybody was as shocked as they could be except me--I knew all along she was a lying, conniving creature, and Lucinda realized Dottie had probably lied about Sam, too. She wouldn’t admit it for a long time, of course. She never came right out and said so, but I’ve always thought her not marrying was because she couldn’t forgive herself for the way she’d treated Sam. She’d still been in love with him and let her pride get the best of her.”
Kim felt a wave of sympathy and Martha shrugged. “It is sad, but I learned a lesson, too. We all make mistakes, and it’s better to learn from them than wrap yourself in them for the rest of your life.” She smiled gently. “I want to thank you for calling. Lucinda is usually very alert for about half the day and I’ll let her know about this.” She replaced the rings in the box and extended it to Kim.
“Oh goodness, give those to Lucinda,” Kim said quickly. “They were meant for her and she should have them.”
Martha’s brow wrinkled. “Are you sure? Isn’t there some finders-keepers thing? Salvage rights? Sam’s sister passed away several years ago and I don’t think there are any relatives left in the area.”
Laughter bubbled from Kim’s lips. “From my perspective, the rings belong with Lucinda if she wants them. Actually being able to track the story back is something special, and it’s been a real pleasure meeting you. If Lucinda doesn’t want them, I think you should keep them.”
Martha looked thoughtful. “If she doesn’t, I’ll sell them and contribute the money to the Veterans’ Memorial we have in town. More coffee or cake?”
Kim pushed the chair back and began to rise. “No thank you. I’m going to stop at Manrey’s to meet them before I head home. Again, it’s been a pleasure for me, and I hope things go well with Lucinda.”
“You never know these days,” Martha said and rose, apparently intending to walk Kim to the car. “It took her fifty years to openly admit she regretted not believing Sam. In one sense, it wouldn’t have mattered. After all, their being married wouldn’t have changed the fact he was killed. We lost so many boys during the war.”
She stopped at the edge of the driveway. “Who knows though, if they had married, there might have been a Sam Junior to carry on his name.” Her voice was wistful, musing. “I’m not going to say that every day of our marriage was bliss, but Gary and I had two wonderful kids and so many good memories.” Martha smiled softly and extended her hand. “When you get to my age, you begin to understand how quickly life goes by. Thank you for returning this piece of the past. If you have a card, I can contact you and let you know what happens.”
“Oh that would be great,” Kim said and fished into the outside pocket of her purse. “Any chance you could send me the coffeecake recipe, too?”
Martha laughed. “No problem, that isn’t a family secret. Have a good drive home.” She waited until Kim backed onto the quiet street before turning away.
Kim lingered at the stop sign to punch in the address for Manrey’s Jewellery, thinking of the story she’d been told. How terrible Sam Donner had died never knowing he might have had a chance for Lucinda to have come around as he hoped. How terrible Lucinda couldn’t see beyond her mistake to find happiness with another man. Christ, why was it so easy to let misunderstandings get out of control?
Her telephone signalled an incoming text. Meetings going to end early. U have time to talk?
There was a small park to her right where she could pull in. 2 minutes, she texted back. She wanted to hear Matt’s voice, to tell him what she’d found out. She wanted to tell him she was ready for him to come home.
Copyright © 2001-2023, Charlie Hudson. All rights reserved.