Other passengers were in the saloon, and more followed. As this would be the first steamer to leave Dover that day, there was a good number of voyagers on board, in spite of adverse conditions. I heard people talking, and the splash of waves against the vessel’s sides, and then I went to sleep. Nothing could have kept me awake.
I awoke with a start, and with wavering eyes looked at the saloon clock. I had slept for one hour only, but it appeared to me that I was quite refreshed. My mind was strangely clear, every sense preternaturally alert. I began to wonder what had aroused me. Suddenly the ship shuddered through the very heart of her, and I knew that it was this shuddering, which must have occurred before, that had wakened me.
“Good God! We’re sinking!” a man cried. He was in the next berth to me, and he sat up, staring wildly.
“Rubbish!” I answered.
The electric lights went out, and we were left with the miserable illumination of one little swinging oil-lamp. Immediately the score or so persons in the saloon were afoot and rushing about, grasping their goods and chattels. The awful shuddering of the ship continued. Scarcely a word was spoken.
A man flew, or rather, tumbled, down the saloon stairs, shouting: “Where’s my wife? Where’s my wife?” No one took the slightest notice of him, nor did he seem to expect any answer. Even in the semi-darkness of the single lamp I distinctly saw that with both hands he was tearing handfuls of hair from his head. I had heard the phrase “tearing one’s hair” some thousands of time in my life, but never till that moment had I witnessed the action itself. Somehow it made an impression on me. The man raced round the saloon still shouting, and raced away again up-stairs and out of sight. Everyone followed him pell-mell, helter-skelter, and almost in a second I found myself alone. I put on my overcoat, and my mackintosh over that, and seizing Rosa’s jewel-box, I followed the crowd.
As I emerged on deck a Bengal light flared red and dazzling on the bridge, and I saw some sailors trying to lower a boat from its davits. Then I knew that the man who had cried “We’re sinking!” even if he was not speaking the exact truth, had at any rate some grounds for his assertion.
A rather pretty girl, pale with agitation, seized me by the buttonhole.
“Where are we going?” she questioned earnestly.
“Don’t know, madam,” I replied; and then a young man dragged her off by the arm.
“Come this way, Lottie,” I heard him say to her, “and keep calm.”
I was left staring at the place where the girl’s head had been. Then the head of an old man filled that place. I saw his mouth and all his features working in frantic endeavor to speak to me, but he could not articulate. I stepped aside; I could not bear to look at him.