He ceased to waste his strength in fruitless cries, devoting all that remained to his struggle to reach the ladder. But his strokes were weaker than before and he found he was being carried back upon the current instead of making headway against it. Fight as he would, he could feel that sliding, hopeless drag against which he was powerless to combat. His strength vanished ounce by ounce. His arms grew so numb with fatigue and cold that he could do nothing but move them up and down, dog fashion. On he went, down toward the stern of the vessel.
He was moving as swiftly as the current was, whirling, twisting like a piece of wood. His mind dulled. He longed for death now. Instinctively he wished to get out of all the worry and struggle against dissolution. His one dominant idea was to throw up his hands and go down, down the deep descent. With a great cry of relief he yielded to the alluring thought. Up flew his arms above his head—and he felt so warm and cheerful! Something struck his outstretched hand and the fingers closed upon it. For a minute they gripped the swinging piece of rope. Then he opened his eyes to find he was hanging to a flimsy Jacob’s ladder, suspended from the stern. With a new strength born of hope he flung up his feet, shooting them through the hempen rungs; and there he stayed for a while—it seemed almost an eternity. Then laboriously climbing the ladder, he made the deck and there dropped as insensate as a log.
It was the happiest Christmas Day that Dan had ever known, and he told himself so as he walked slowly down South Street. Unschooled in the ethics of self-sacrifice as he was, he yet knew he had done something for a fellow man, for a man he despised; and something indefinable yet unmistakable told him it was very good. He felt bigger, broader, felt as though he had attained new stature in something that was not physical. And always, vaguely, he had been as anxious to feel this as he had been to get on in a material way. He had lost his rowboat in the act. And yet withal there was a certain fierce satisfaction in his loss—he had caught the spirit of Christmas. How much wiser, how much stronger he was to-day than on the previous afternoon.
So deep were his thoughts that he almost ran into Captain Barney.
“Hey, there!” snarled the tugboatman, most ungraciously, “I just left a new rowboat down in the Battery basin for you.” And that was all he said.
And Dan, as he trembled with rage, knew that Captain Barney might have said the right word and made Christmas Day all the more glorious. But he had said the wrong thing, done the wrong thing, and he had by his words and in his act taken much from Dan’s Christmas happiness. Dan knew it well; something told him so. He gazed at the tugboatman silently for a minute,—and then he knocked Captain Barney to the sidewalk.