Today I shocked the lawyers, and it surprised me, the effect I could have on them. A thunderstorm arose as we were leaving the court for lunch. They dashed for cover under the awning of a nearby shop to save their suits from getting wet while I stood in the street and opened my mouth to it, transported back and seeing again that other rain as it came at us in gray sheets. I had lived through that downpour, but the moment in the street was my first notion that I could live it again, that I could be immersed in it, that it could again be the tenth day in the lifeboat, when it began to rain.
The rain had been cold, but we welcomed it. At first it had been no more than a teasing mist, but as the day progressed, it began to come down in earnest. We held our faces up to it, mouths open, drenching our swollen tongues. Mary Ann could not or would not part her lips, either to drink or to speak. She was a woman of my age. Hannah, who was only a little older, slapped her hard and said, “Open your mouth, or I’ll open it for you!” Then she grabbed Mary Ann and pinched her nostrils until she was forced to gasp for air. The two of them sat for a long time in a sort of violent embrace while Hannah held Mary Ann’s jaws open, allowing the gray and saving rain to enter her, drop by drop.
“Come, come!” said Mr. Reichmann, who is the head of the little band of lawyers hired by my mother-in-law, not because she cares one jot about what happens to me, but because she thinks it will reflect badly on the family if I am convicted. Mr. Reichmann and his associates were calling to me from the sidewalk, but I pretended not to hear them. It made them very angry not to be heard or, rather, not to be heeded, which is a different and far more insulting thing, I imagine, to those used to speaking from podiums, to those who regularly have the attention of judges and juries and people sworn to truth or silence and whose freedom hangs on the particular truths they choose to tell. When I finally wrenched myself away and joined them, shivering and drenched to the bone but smiling to myself, glad to have rediscovered the small freedom of my imagination, they asked, “What kind of trick was that? Whatever were you doing, Grace? Have you gone mad?”
Mr. Glover, who is the nicest of the three, put his coat around my dripping shoulders, but soon the fine silk lining was soaked through and probably ruined, and while I was touched that Mr. Glover had offered his coat, I would much rather it had been the coat of the handsome, heavyset William Reichmann that had been ruined in the rain.
“I was thirsty,” I said, and I was thirsty still.
“But the restaurant is just there. It’s less than a block away. You can have any sort of drink you like in a minute or two,” said Mr. Glover while the others pointed and made encouraging noises. But I was thirsty for rain and salt water, for the whole boundless ocean of it.
“That’s very funny,” I said, laughing to think that I was free to choose my drink, when a drink of any sort wasn’t something I wanted. I had spent the previous two weeks in prison, and I was only free pending the outcome of a proceeding that was now in progress. Unable to restrain my laughter, which kept lapping at my insides and bursting out of me like gigantic waves, I was not allowed to accompany the lawyers into the dining room, but had to have my meal brought to me in the cloakroom, where a wary clerk perched vigilantly on a stool in the corner as I pecked at my sandwich. We sat there like two birds, and I giggled to myself until my sides ached and I thought I might be sick.
“Well,” said Mr. Reichmann when the lawyers rejoined me after the meal, “we’ve been discussing this thing, and an insanity defense doesn’t seem so far-fetched after all.” The idea that I had a mental disorder filled them with happy optimism. Where before lunch they had been nervous and pessimistic, now they lit cigarettes and congratulated one another on cases I knew nothing about. They had apparently put their heads together, considered my mental state and found it lacking on some score, and, now that the initial shock of my behavior had worn off and they had discovered that it could perhaps be explained scientifically and might even be exploited in the conduct of our case, they took turns patting me on the arm and saying, “Don’t you worry, my dear girl. After all, you’ve been through quite enough. Leave it to us, we’ve done this sort of thing a thousand times before.” They talked about a Dr. Cole and said, “I’m sure you will find him very sympathetic,” then rattled off a list of credentials that meant less than nothing to me.
I don’t know who had the idea, whether it was Glover or Reichmann or even that mousy Ligget, that I should try to re-create the events of those twenty-one days and that the resulting “diary” might be entered as some kind of exonerating exhibit.
“In that case, we’d better present her as sane, or the whole thing will be discounted,” said Mr. Ligget tentatively, as if he were speaking out of turn.
“I suppose you’re right,” agreed Mr. Reichmann, stroking his long chin. “Let’s see what she comes up with before we decide.” They laughed and poked the air with their cigarettes and talked about me as if I weren’t there as we walked back to the courthouse where, along with two other women, named Hannah West and Ursula Grant, I was to stand trial for my life. I was twenty-two years old. I had been married for ten weeks and a widow for over six.
The first day in the lifeboat we were mostly silent, either taking in or refusing to take in the drama playing itself out in the seething waters around us. John Hardie, an able-bodied seaman and the only crew member on board Lifeboat 14, took immediate charge. He assigned seats based on weight distribution, and because the lifeboat was riding low in the water, he forbade anyone to stand up or move without permission. Then he wrested a rudder from where it was stored underneath the seats, fixed it into place at the back of the boat, and commanded anyone who knew how to row a boat to take up one of four long oars, which were quickly appropriated by three of the men and a sturdy woman named Mrs. Grant. Hardie gave them orders to gain as much distance from the foundering craft as possible, saying, “Row yer bloody hearts out, unless ye want to be sucked under to yer doom!”
Mr. Hardie stood with his feet planted and his eyes alert, guiding us deftly around anything that blocked our way, while the four rowed in silence, their muscles straining and their knuckles white. Some of the others grabbed on to the ends of the long oars to help with the effort, but they were unpracticed, and the blades were as apt to skip over or slice through the water as they were to push against it broadside, the way they were designed to do. I pressed my feet against the floor of the boat in sympathy, and with every stroke I tensed my shoulders as if this would magically further our cause. Occasionally Mr. Hardie would break the shocked silence by saying things like “Two hundred meters farther out and we’ll be safe,” or “Ten minutes ’til she goes under, twelve at most,” or “Ninety percent of the women and children have been saved.” I found comfort in his words, even though I had just seen a mother toss her little girl into the water, then jump in after her and disappear. Whether Mr. Hardie had witnessed this or not, I did not know, but I suspected he had, for the black eyes darting about beneath his heavy brows seemed to absorb every detail of our situation. In any case, I did not correct him or even consider him to be guilty of a lie. Instead, I saw him as a leader trying to inspire confidence in his troops.
Because ours had been one of the last lifeboats to be launched, the water before us was congested. I saw two boats collide as they tried to avoid a mass of floating debris, and a calm center of my mind was able to understand that Mr. Hardie was aiming for a patch of clear water away from the rest. He had lost his cap, and with his wild-looking hair and fiery eyes, he seemed as suited to disaster as we were terrified by it. “Put yer backs into it, mates!” he shouted, “show me what yer made of!” and the people with the oars redoubled their efforts. At the same time, there was a series of explosions behind us, and the cries and screams of the people still on board the Empress Alexandra or in the water near it sounded as hell must sound, if it exists. I glanced back and saw the large hulk of the ocean liner shudder and roll, and for the first time I noticed orange flames licking at the cabin windows.
We passed jagged splinters of wood and half-submerged barrels and snakelike lengths of twisted rope. I recognized a deck chair and a straw hat and what looked like a child’s doll floating together, bleak reminders of the pretty weather we had experienced only that morning and of the holiday mood that had pervaded the ship. When we came upon three smaller casks bobbing in a group, Mr. Hardie shouted “Aha!” and directed the men to take two of them on board, then stored them underneath the triangular seat formed by the pointed aft end of the boat. He assured us they contained fresh water and that once we had been saved from the vortex created by the foundering ship, we might need to be saved from thirst and starvation; but I could not think that far ahead. To my mind, the railing of our little vessel was already perilously close to the surface of the water, and I could only believe that to stop for anything at all would decrease our chances of reaching that critical distance from the sinking ship.
There were bodies floating in the water, too, and living people clung to the wreckage—I saw another mother and child, the white-faced child holding out its hands toward me and screaming. As we came closer, we could see that the mother was dead, her body draped lifelessly over a wooden plank and her blond hair fanned out around her in the green water. The boy wore a miniature bow tie and suspenders, and it seemed to me ridiculous for the mother to dress him in such an unsuitable way, even though I had always been one to admire fine and proper dress and even though I myself was weighted down by a corset and petticoats and soft calfskin boots, not long ago purchased in London. One of the men yelled, “A little more this way and we can get to the child!” But Hardie replied, “Fine, and which one o’ ye wants to trade places with ’im?”
Mr. Hardie had a rough seaman’s voice. I could not always understand the things he said, but this served only to increase my faith in him. He knew about this world of water, he spoke its language, and the less I understood him, the greater the possibility that he was understood by the sea. No one had an answer for him, and we passed the howling child by. A slight man sitting near me grumbled, “Certainly we can trade those casks for the poor creature!” but this would now have involved turning the boat around, and our passions on behalf of the child, which had flared briefly, were already part of our sinking past, so we held our silence. Only the slight man spoke, but his thin voice was barely audible above the rhythmic groaning of the oarlocks, the roar of the inferno, and the cacophony of human voices issuing instructions or screams of distress: “It’s only a young boy. How much could such a small fellow weigh?” I later learned the speaker was an Anglican deacon, but at the time I did not know the names or callings of my fellow passengers. No one answered him. Instead, the rowers bent to their tasks and the rest of us bent with them, for it seemed the only thing we could do.
Not long afterwards, we encountered three swimmers making their way toward us with strong strokes. One by one they grabbed on to the lifeline that was fitted around the perimeter of our boat, putting enough weight on it that curls of water began to spill in over the edge. One of the men caught my eye. His face was clean-shaven and livid with cold, but there was no mistaking the clear light of relief that shone out from his ice-blue eyes. On Hardie’s orders, the oarsman sitting nearest him beat one set of hands away before beginning on the hands of the blue-eyed man. I heard the crack of wood against bone. Then Hardie raised his heavy boot and shoved it into the man’s face, eliciting a cry of anguished surprise. It was impossible to look away, and never have I had more feeling for a human being than I had for that unnamed man.
If I describe what was happening on the starboard side of Lifeboat 14, I of necessity give the impression that one thousand other dramas were not taking place in the turbulent waters to port and astern. Somewhere out there was my husband Henry, either sitting in a boat beating away people as we were doing or trying to swim to safety and being beaten away himself. It helped to remember that Henry had been forceful in securing me a seat in the boat, and I was sure he would have been just as forceful on his own behalf; but could Henry have acted as Hardie did if his life depended on it? Could I? The idea of Mr. Hardie’s cruelty was something to which my thoughts continue to return—certainly it was horrendous, certainly none of the rest of us would have had the strength to make the horrific and instantaneous decisions required of a leader at that point, and certainly it is this that saved us. I question whether it can even be called cruelty when any other action would have meant our certain death.
There was no wind, but even in the flat sea, water occasionally splashed in over the side of the overburdened boat. A few days ago, the lawyers conducted an experiment proving that one more adult of average weight in a boat of that size and type would have put us in immediate jeopardy. We could not save everybody and save ourselves. Mr. Hardie knew this and had the courage to act on the knowledge, and it was his actions in those first minutes and hours that spelled the difference between continued existence and a watery grave. His actions were also what turned Mrs. Grant, who was the strongest and most vocal of the women, against him. Mrs. Grant said, “Brute! Go back and save the child, at least,” but it must have been clear to her that we could not go back and escape with our lives. With those words, however, Mrs. Grant was branded a humanitarian and Hardie a fiend.
There were examples of nobility as well. The stronger women tended to the weaker ones, and it is a testament to the oarsmen that we so quickly distanced ourselves from the foundering ship. Mr. Hardie, for his part, was staunchly determined to save us, and he immediately distinguished those of us consigned to his care from those outside of it. It took the rest of us longer to make that distinction. For several days, I tended to identify less with Lifeboat 14 than I did with my fellow first-class travelers from the Empress Alexandra, and who wouldn’t? Despite the difficulties of recent years, I was used to luxury. Henry had paid over five hundred dollars for our first-class passage, and I still saw myself arriving triumphantly in the city of my birth, not as the bedraggled survivor of a shipwreck and not as the daughter of a failed businessman, but as a guest at some welcoming dinner, clothed in dresses and jewelry that were now resting in the weedy murk at the bottom of the sea. I imagined Henry at long last introducing me to his mother, whose resistance to my charms evaporated now that our marriage was a fait accompli. And I imagined the men who had swindled my father elbowing their way through the crowd only to be publicly rebuffed by everyone they met. Hardie, to his credit or damnation, adjusted to our new circumstances immediately, an ability I attribute to his seaman’s soul and the fact that he had long ago lost his finer sensibilities, if he had ever had them. He had strapped a knife around his waist and replaced his lost cap with a rag of unknown origin, which made a stark contrast to the gold buttons of his jacket; but these changes to his uniform seemed evidence of his readiness and adaptability and only served to heighten the trust I placed in him. When I finally thought to look around for other lifeboats, they had become distant specks, which seemed to me a good sign, for the open sea was a place of relative safety after the chaos and turbulence surrounding the wreck.
Mr. Hardie gave the weakest of the women the choicest seats and called us “ma’am.” He asked after our well-being as though there were something he could do about it; and at first the women returned the favor and lied that they were fine, even though anyone could see that Mrs. Fleming’s wrist hung at an odd angle and that a Spanish governess named Maria was badly suffering from shock. It was Mrs. Grant who fashioned a sling for Mrs. Fleming’s arm, and it was Mrs. Grant who first wondered aloud how Hardie came to be in our boat. We found out later that while emergency protocols called for a trained seaman in each lifeboat, Captain Sutter and most of the crew had remained with the ship, helping others into the lifeboats and trying to maintain order after panic had set in. We had seen for ourselves across the slowly increasing distance that the frantic haste with which crew and passengers alike tried to dispatch the lifeboats was counterproductive, for the foundering vessel was tilting dramatically, a condition made worse as her contents crashed and shifted within her, so that by the time our lifeboat was being lowered, it was no longer a straight line down from the deck to the water. Not only was the smaller craft in constant danger of hitting the steep incline of the ship’s side or catching against it and tipping, but the men working the pulleys had to struggle mightily to lower the fore and aft ends at the same rate. A boat that was launched immediately after ours turned completely upside down and dumped its entire load of women and children into the sea. We saw them screaming and flailing about in the water, but we did nothing to help them, and without Hardie to direct us, it stood to reason that we would have suffered a similar fate. After all that has happened, I can answer my own question in the affirmative: if Mr. Hardie hadn’t beaten people away from the side of our boat, I would have had to do it myself.
We had been in the lifeboat for perhaps five hours when the sky turned a deep pink shading to blue, then purple, and the sun seemed to inflate as it dropped toward the darkening line of water to the west. In the distance we could see the black shapes of other lifeboats, bobbing the way we were bobbing, set down in that pink and black vastness with nothing to do but wait, our fortunes in the hands of other crews and other sea captains who must by now have heard of our distress.
I had been anxious for dark to fall because of a pressing need to relieve my bladder. Mr. Hardie had explained the mechanism by which this was to be done. It involved, for the ladies, using one of the three wooden bailers, whose primary purpose was to scoop excess water out of the bottom of the boat. He stumbled awkwardly over his words as he suggested that one of the bailers be put in the possession of Mrs. Grant and that we were to tell her when we had need of it and were to switch places with someone who was sitting at the railing whenever nature dictated that we need this sort of service. “Hech!” said Mr. Hardie, looking up from under his heavy eyebrows in an almost comical way. “There, that’s that! I’m sure ye’ll figure it out.” He who had seemed so sure of himself when, only minutes earlier, he had gone over a list of supplies carried by each of the lifeboats and explained the use of each one was rendered progressively speechless by this task.
When the orange rim of the sun had completely disappeared, I took my turn with the bailer at the rail. To my dismay, I noticed that while the sky had turned dark and night had fully fallen, the black had texture to it, and sources of light, and shadows, and, behind the shadows, eyes. I was distressed to find that nighttime was not the concealing cover I had been expecting, and also that our quarters were so cramped there was no disguising the action I was performing. I thanked whatever forces had a hand in arranging things that I was surrounded mostly by women and that they were delicate of feeling and pretended not to notice what I was doing. We were in similar circumstances, after all, and an unspoken etiquette was arising where we would not look the beast of physical necessity in the eye. We would ignore it, we would dare it to claw apart our sense of decorum, we would preserve civility even in the face of a disaster that had almost killed us and that might kill us yet.
I was immensely relieved on several counts when the task was finished. I had been so preoccupied with how I would accomplish it that I had scarcely paid attention to Mr. Hardie’s accounting of our circumstances and inventory of supplies. Now I was able to realize that each of the lifeboats had come stocked with five blankets, a life ring with a long rope attached, the three wooden bailers, two tins of hard biscuits, a cask of fresh water, and two tin drinking cups. In addition to these supplies, Mr. Hardie had somehow procured a lump of cheese and some loaves of bread and salvaged two additional casks of water from the wreckage, which he surmised had come from a capsized lifeboat. He told us that there had once been a box of compasses stored on the deck of the Empress Alexandra, but it had gone missing on a previous voyage, and because the ship’s owner had moved up the departure date on account of the brewing war in Austria, it had never been replaced. “Ye can say what ye like, but seamen are neither more nor less honest than anybody else.” He also made a point of telling us that it was only through his quick thinking that the canvas cover that had kept rainwater out of the boat when it was stored on deck ended up in the boat with us. “But why do we need it?” asked Mr. Hoffman. “It’s exceedingly heavy, and it takes up a lot of room.” But all Mr. Hardie would say was “It can get wet in a lifeboat. Ye’ll see that for yerselves if we’re here long enough.” Most of us wore life vests, but they had been stored in our cabins, and during the confusion of the disaster, not everyone had had the time or forethought to retrieve them. Mr. Hardie, two sisters who sat huddled together and rarely spoke, and an older gentleman named Michael Turner were among those without.
Soon after I had returned to my seat, Mr. Hardie opened one of the tins and introduced us to hardtack, which were rock-hard wafers approximately two inches square that could not be swallowed unless first softened with saliva or water. I held the biscuit between my lips until pieces of it began to dissolve and looked off into the not-quite-dark sky at the myriad stars that pricked the heavens, at the endlessness of the atmosphere that was the only thing vaster than the sea, and sent a prayer to whatever force of nature had arranged events thus far and asked it to preserve my Henry.
I felt hopeful, but all around me women had started to break down and cry. Mr. Hardie stood up in the rocking boat and said, “Yer loved ones might be dead or they might not be. There’s a good chance they’re in one of the other lifeboats bobbing about out there, so ye’d do well not to waste yer body’s water in tears.” Despite his words, little wails and whimpers burst from the darkness throughout the night. I could feel the young woman sitting next to me shudder now and then, and once, she let out a throaty, animal sob. I lightly touched her shoulder, but the gesture seemed only to upset her further, so I took my hand away and listened to the soothing music of the water against the sides of the boat. Mrs. Grant made her way between the thwarts, trying as best she could to console the most stricken until Mr. Hardie cautioned her to sit still and told us we would be wise to make ourselves comfortable and get some rest, which we did as well as we could, leaning against each other and offering or asking for reassurance according to our needs and abilities. Against all odds, most of us managed to sleep.
By the time we awoke on the morning of the second day, Mr. Hardie had worked out a duty roster, which included turns at the oars for the strongest. Mrs. Grant and all of the men except for the frail Mr. Turner were seated by the boat’s eight oarlocks and took turns passing the four oars back and forth whenever Mr. Hardie called on them to row. He took some time gauging the breeze and the current, and I heard him remark to one of the men sitting near him that use of the oars would compensate for drift, for our best bet was to stay in the vicinity of the wreck. The rest of us took turns with the bailers. We were floating very low in the water, and even though there was little wind to speak of, every so often a swell splashed over the railing, which Mr. Hardie called a gunwale, so that our clothing and the blankets that were part of the boat’s little store of emergency supplies were in constant danger of getting wet. It was worst for those who sat in the ends of the boat or on the two long seats that ran lengthwise on either side. They formed a wall of protection for the rest of us, who were lucky enough to occupy the thwarts that spanned the breadth of the boat between them.
After passing out a ration of hardtack and water, Mr. Hardie bade us arrange the canvas boat cover and blankets in the crease formed by the forward part of the boat in such a way that the canvas protected the blankets from any water that might pool in the bottom of the boat as well as from spray that splashed in over the rail. He declared that the women could take turns resting there, three at a time, for a period not to exceed two hours. Because there were thirty-one women—if you counted little Charles—it worked out that we each were entitled to one turn per day in what was immediately dubbed the dormitory. The extra time would be given over to any of the men who desired it.
Once this was accomplished, Mr. Hardie charged the oarsmen with keeping the other lifeboats in sight as far as was possible. I gave myself the task of helping them, so I spent the day squinting into the distance, using my hands to shield my eyes against the blinding sparkle of the sun on the sea. In this way I felt I was contributing to the welfare of the people in our boat. Mr. Nilsson, who said he had worked for a shipping company and who seemed a stickler on points of organization, asked Mr. Hardie how long our supply of food would last, but Mr. Hardie put him off, saying food would not be an issue unless we were not rescued, which he fully expected we would be. For the most part, there was little conversation, and I could tell by the blank stares and enlarged pupils of many of the women that they were suffering from shock. At that point I knew only two of my fellow passengers by name. Colonel Marsh, a large, distinguished gentleman whose wife had died some years before, had sat at the captain’s table with Henry and me, and I had often seen Mrs. Forester, a silent woman with wary eyes, trailing about the Empress Alexandra with a book or knitting in her hand. The Colonel nodded efficiently in my direction, but when I aimed a smile of recognition at Mrs. Forester, she looked away.
For the rest of the morning and into the afternoon, we gazed out over the water for signs of a passing ship, while Mr. Hardie alternated between stoic silence and eruptions filled with geographical facts and lore of the sea. I found his short monologue on the effect of the sun on the water at the equator versus its effect on the curving surface at the poles bewildering, but I recall very clearly some of the other things he said. He called Lifeboat 14 a cutter and said it had been designed both to row and to sail; and indeed, there was a round hole in one of the forward thwarts where a mast could be inserted, but we had neither mast nor sail. He told us that because the speed of the earth’s rotation is much greater at the equator than it is at the poles, there were, over the surface of the earth, various wind belts. We had been traveling due west at approximately forty-three degrees north latitude when the ship went down, a position that put us, Hardie said, right in a belt of prevailing westerly winds. He explained that westerly winds blew from the west rather than to the west and that we were situated in the middle of well-traveled shipping lanes, which had been plotted in the era of sailing vessels to take advantage of these winds. He told us that typically both winds and current were against a ship going from east to west as we had been, but the advent of steamships had made it possible to take the shorter northern route, even if it meant heading into the wind. He raised visions of overbooked steamers to the point where we expected at any moment to have our choice of the vessels rushing to rescue us. Only Mr. Nilsson interjected a sour note by saying, “Who’d be coming to Europe now? There’s a war on!” The mention of war caused the Colonel to throw his shoulders back and say, “Quite so,” but Mr. Hardie gave them both a black look as he said, “There’s ships that’s going both ways. Keep yer eyes peeled so one of ’em doesn’t run us over.” While we watched together for some sort of vessel to arrive, the slight man, who now identified himself as a deacon, led us in a prayer.
The deacon had a beautiful voice, and although he was not someone who would attract notice in most situations, I found it hard to take my eyes off him when he spoke. I noticed later that this effect deserted him when he was confronted with an unfamiliar subject, but with the prayer he was sure of his ground, and his voice rang out over the water and unified us with its words. He had clearly found his calling, and I wondered, not for the first time, if some of life’s tragedy arose when people put themselves in situations they were not by nature suited for. I was later to revise my opinion of the deacon, and eventually his tenor seemed evidence of his general weakness; but at the time, I was content to watch the way his faith animated his features and listen as his voice brought life to the ancient words of the prayer.
Despite our common purpose, petty jealousies arose. Those who sat along the railing were far more likely to be splashed by dripping oars than those who sat amidships, and when Mr. Hardie determined the order in which we would take turns in the dormitory, a brusque woman named Mrs. McCain insisted that the older women should by rights go first. She would have it no other way, but she lasted only a few minutes on the blankets before declaring that it was beastly and hot under the canvas and that she would take her turn at night. Because of the crowded conditions, movement in the boat was difficult, and when Mrs. McCain lost her balance on her way back to her seat, a curl of water slid over the railing, causing Mr. Hardie to bark, “Keep to yer seats unless I tell ye otherwise!”
Mr. Hoffman was the first to mention what we all were thinking: the boat had not been designed for so many. A few minutes later, Colonel Marsh pointed out a brass plaque that was nailed next to the second starboard oarlock and engraved with the words Capacity 40 Persons. But even with thirty-nine of us, it was obvious to everyone that the boat rode far too low in the water and that it was only because the day was still that this did not present a greater danger. The plaque perplexed all of us, but it perplexed Colonel Marsh most of all, for he was a man of order who expected not only a certain regimentation to the universe, but also a gentleman’s agreement about meaning among users of the English language. “The spoken word is one thing,” he said, “but someone took the trouble to engrave this number into a plaque.” He kept rubbing his fingers over the letters and counting the thirty-nine heads in the boat, then shaking his own heavy head with the mystery of it. Once he tried to engage Mr. Hardie in a discussion about it, but Mr. Hardie only replied, “And what do you propose we do? Write to the people who made the bloody boat and lodge a formal complaint?”
We found out later that the craft was twenty-three feet long, seven feet two inches wide at her widest point, and just under three feet deep in the center and that the first owners of the Empress Alexandra had saved money by reducing the specifications for the lifeboats, which had been built to hold only about 80 percent of the stated capacity of forty people each. Apparently the order for the plaques had never been changed. It must have been because we were mostly women and smaller in stature than the average man that the boat didn’t sink early on the first day.
Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Nilsson often sat with their heads together, which gave me the impression they were colleagues of some sort, but since they were seated in the back of the boat and I was two-thirds of the way up toward the bow, I had little chance to talk to them and couldn’t hear what they were saying. Now and then they included Mr. Hardie in their discussions, though Hardie mostly remained aloof. We were unused to moving about the boat, and the next time a group of women were careless in making their way to the dormitory, water again splashed over the rail. Mr. Nilsson made a joke about someone volunteering to take a swim, maybe even two people, and Colonel Marsh replied, “Good idea, that. Why don’t you jump overboard yourself?”
“I’m the only one here besides Hardie who knows a thing about boats,” said Mr. Nilsson, who went on to tell us he had grown up in Stockholm, where boats were as common as motorcars. “Throw me over at your own peril,” he added, looking more defiant than seemed appropriate for a man who had merely been making a joke.
“We’re not talking about throwing anyone over,” said Mr. Hoffman reasonably, “we’re talking about volunteers,” but we had been in the boat for less than forty-eight hours. The sea was mostly calm and we were certain, still, of being rescued. Over the course of the afternoon, Mr. Hardie went from being dismissive of Mr. Hoffman’s arguments to seeming to consider them. That morning, when someone had asked if we should make contact with the other lifeboats, he had proclaimed, “There’s no need for drastic action. We’re sure to see a steamer or a fishing trawler,” but now and then the three men could be seen talking in low voices among themselves, and in the afternoon, when Mr. Hoffman again broached the topic of an emergency plan, Hardie nodded and then looked off into the distance as if gauging something I couldn’t see.
“If the wind comes up, we won’t have time for arguments and discussion,” I heard Mr. Nilsson say to Colonel Marsh. “Making a plan doesn’t mean we will ever put it into effect.” Mr. Hardie was not the type to take orders from anyone, and I had the feeling we were being manipulated in some way; but my mind was numb with fear and perhaps it is only in retrospect, now that I am facing a different sort of authority, that it seems there might have been webs of influence and deceit in the lifeboat from the very start.
Oddly, I became more clearheaded with the passage of time. In the first hours I was too frightened to think critically about my situation: either too hot or too cold, too hungry or too thirsty, too apt to imagine things and say to the young woman who sat beside me, “What’s that over there, Mary Ann? At two o’clock. Isn’t something glinting in the sun?” Or “What is that dark shape, Mary Ann? Does it look like a boat to you?” Toward evening on the second day, as the huge orange sun sank like a heavy ball and people seemed to wake from their stupor enough to grumble about their aching muscles or wet feet, Mr. Hoffman said, “If we don’t get any volunteers, we’ll have to decide by drawing lots.”
At that point Anya Robeson, a woman who spoke very little but whom Mary Ann had described as “someone from steerage,” gave Mr. Hoffman a stern look and hugged her son Charles under her coat. She didn’t want him to hear any of it. “Watch how you talk,” she would invariably say when one of the men spoke of death or used crude language. “There’s a child present.” I don’t know why she worried about that—perhaps so she wouldn’t have to worry about the sea, which went on and on, changing from blue to gray when a cloud passed over the sun and from gray to crimson when the sun flamed toward the horizon. A German girl named Greta Witkoppen burst into tears, and at first I thought she was crying because it would soon be dark or because she had lost a loved one, but then I realized that the talk of the men had frightened her.
Mrs. Grant leaned over to where she was sitting and patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry,” she told her. “You know how men are.” Greta then showed a bit of gumption by saying quite loudly, “You’re scaring people. You shouldn’t say such things.” Another time she said directly to Mr. Hardie, “I’d think you would care more about how you look to the world.”
“The world!” scoffed Hardie. “The world doesn’t know I exist.”
“Someday it will,” she ventured. “And someday it will judge you.”
“Leave that to the historians,” Hoffman shouted, and Hardie laughed into the rising wind and shouted, “We’re not history yet, by God! We’re not history yet!”
Greta was, I think, Mrs. Grant’s first disciple. I heard Greta say to her, “If they don’t care about the world, you’d think they’d care about God. God is omniscient. God sees everything.” Mrs. Grant responded by saying, “He’s a man. Most men think they are God,” and later I saw her pat Greta on the arm and whisper, “You just leave Mr. Hardie to me.”
Three Italian women and the governess named Maria were the only ones who didn’t speak any English. The Italian women were dressed in identical black cloaks and huddled together in the front of the boat, alternating between complete silence and rapid, incomprehensible bursts of speech as if something only they could see were about to boil over. Maria had been traveling to America to work for a family on Beacon Hill. She was nearly always hysterical, but I could not pity her. Even the most sympathetic of the women could see that her utter lack of self-control presented a danger to us all. At first I tried to calm her with the few words of Spanish I knew, but each time I attempted to communicate with her, she would claw at my clothing, then stand up and wave her arms in the air, so the rest of us, once we got tired of pulling her back into her seat, would do our best to ignore her.
I will confess that it crossed my mind how easy it would have been to rise to my feet and, in the act of trying to restrain her, fall against her and knock her out of the boat. She was sitting right next to the rail, and it was clear to me that we would be far better off without her and her histrionics. I hasten to add that I did nothing of the sort and mention it only to illustrate how the bounds of a person’s thinking quickly expand in such a situation and how part of me could understand the train of thought that had led Mr. Hoffman to suggest a way to lighten the load and also how such a suggestion, once made, was difficult to forget. What I did instead was to switch places with Maria, so that if she were to lose her balance and fall, she would fall on top of Mary Ann or me and not out of the boat and into the brine.
I was now one of the ones sitting along the rail being splashed by the oars as the oarsmen tried to hold our position against the current. After thinking about it for a long time, I put my hand down to touch the water. It was very cold and seemed to pull seductively at my fingers, though this effect was not really due to anything about the water and was more a product of the motion of our little boat through it and maybe partly the work of my imagination as well.
By the third day, some of the shock had worn off. The pupils of Maria’s eyes shrank back to normal size, and once she made a clown face at little Charles when he poked his head out from beneath his mother’s skirt. We had traveled far enough that we no longer encountered pieces of the wreckage, or perhaps we had kept our place and it was the debris that had moved. In any case, there was nothing left of the Empress Alexandra. She might never have been, but how then to account for our plight? I thought of her as I have often thought of God—responsible for everything, but out of sight and maybe annihilated, splintered on the rocks of his own creation.
The deacon said the experience renewed his faith in God—or if it hadn’t yet, it was bound to; Mrs. Grant said it renewed her conviction that there was no God; and little Mary Ann said, “Hush, hush, it doesn’t matter,” and led everyone in a hymn about those in peril on the sea. We felt uplifted, both tragic and chosen. It touched my heart to see that even Mrs. Grant joined in the singing, so great was our sense of unity and joy at being alive.
If Mary Ann was childlike in her faith in the Bible’s literal truth, I was a practical Anglican. I deemed anything that encouraged people to be moral a good thing, but I never parsed the tenets I believed in from those I didn’t. I thought reverentially of the Bible as the sturdy book with closed covers that sat in my mother’s reading room, where we gathered for our bedtime story. I had a Bible of my own from which I was assigned passages to memorize by the Sunday school mistress, but my book was small and unimpressive, and after my confirmation at the age of eleven, I put it in a drawer and never looked at it again.
Mr. Hardie remained confident, even grimly cheerful. “We’re lucky about the weather,” he said. “The wind is from the southwest and very light. The higher the clouds, the drier the air. The weather will hold.” I’d never wondered about it before and I never wondered about it again, but out there that day I wanted to know why the clouds were white, when they were supposedly made up of water, which is colorless. I asked Mr. Hardie, thinking that he, of all people, would know the answer, but all he said was “The sea is blue or black or all manner of color, and the spray of the breaking waves is white, and they’re made up of water, too.” Mr. Sinclair, whom I had observed rolling about the deck in his wheelchair but had never spoken to, said he wasn’t a scientist, but he had read that the color had to do with the refractive properties of light and the fact that the cold temperatures of the upper atmosphere turned the suspended water droplets into crystals of ice.
Mr. Hardie was on firmer ground with a different sort of fact. He told us that the Empress Alexandra had been equipped with twenty lifeboats, that at least ten or eleven of them had been successfully launched, which meant that at least half of the nearly eight hundred people on board had been saved. We could see two of them in the distance, but what had become of the others, we did not know. At first, Mr. Hardie ordered the oarsmen not to go up alongside the other craft, but Colonel Marsh spoke up in favor of approaching close enough to talk to their occupants and to find out if they might contain our loved ones or other people we knew, and my heart leapt at the prospect of seeing my Henry alive and well in one of the other boats. But Hardie said, “What would be the point o’ that, since they can do nothing for us and we can do nothing for them?”
“There is strength in numbers,” said Mr. Preston, which made me laugh despite his earnest demeanor, for he had been an accountant and I thought he was making a joke.
“Shouldn’t we at least see if they’re all right?” argued the Colonel, and Mr. Nilsson agreed, though he was one of those who had helped Mr. Hardie beat the swimmers away from our boat and didn’t strike me as someone too full of concern for his fellow man.
“And what if they’re not?” barked Hardie. “What then? Are we to try to solve their problems as well as our own?” He then muttered that he could tell from this distance that the first boat was as crowded as ours and that the second one wasn’t sitting too well in the water.
“What do you mean by that?” asked Mr. Hoffman.
“Something is off, that’s all.”
While it was natural that Mr. Hardie would seek the counsel of the men sitting nearest him, it began to seem as if theirs were the only opinions that mattered. Mr. Sinclair, who had lost the use of his legs but not of his mind, and the deacon, whose moral authority could not be ignored, were sitting toward the fore and so did not have Hardie’s ear, but at that point they spoke up on behalf of the women. Mr. Sinclair said, “Some people would like to know if their husbands or companions are in those boats.” His voice had a pleasing resonance, which amplified his tone of conviction. The deacon added, “Just yesterday, you were talking about overcrowding. If you are right about the situation in the second boat, it might be possible to transfer some of our people to it.” But his voice lacked force, which had the effect of making the idea he was presenting seem weak and questioning, and even before he finished speaking, Mr. Hardie was shaking his head. “If it were possible for her to take more passengers, don’t you think that some of the people in the overcrowded boat would have moved over to it by now? They’re a lot closer to each other than they are to us.”
“We should at least talk to them,” insisted the Colonel.
“Aye,” said Mr. Hardie after a long pause. “We’ll go within hailing distance, but what we do after that is up to me.”
The oarsmen took up their oars, and I held my breath as we approached the closer of the boats. I was praying to see Henry, yet I didn’t quite dare to hope. Mary Ann whispered to me that she would throw her engagement ring into the sea as an offering if only her mother were in one of the other boats, and I knew that all around me similar bargains were being struck. We were squinting into the sun, so it was difficult to make out faces against the brightness. As we got closer, I recognized Penelope Cumberland, who was someone I had met on the Empress Alexandra, but I counted only four men aboard and none of them was Henry. I heard sighs of disappointment as Mr. Hardie shouted out, “That’s far enough. Ship yer oars.”
A man with a full beard called across the water to inquire if we were all right, and he and Mr. Hardie exchanged a few words. “Have ye made contact with the other boat?” Hardie asked him.
“Yes,” said the bearded man, who appeared to be in charge. “The boat’s not half-full, but there’s a crazy ship’s officer on board who says there’s a hole been punched in its bottom. He tried to send some of his people with me, and when I said we couldn’t take them, he threw two of them overboard, so of course we picked them up. You can see our situation for yourself.” And indeed the lifeboat looked as crowded as our own.
Excerpted from The Lifeboat by Rogan, Charlotte Copyright © 2012 by Rogan, Charlotte. Excerpted by permission.
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