The great ship was going down. It was horrible to realize—this mighty structure, this home for two weeks of several thousand people, this moving hotel with its sleeping-berths, its dining-saloons, its kitchens with lunch ready to be eaten, its mighty engines and its cargo of every kind of necessity and comfort for an army—all was about to plunge to the bottom of the sea! Jimmie Higgins had read about the torpedoing of scores of ocean-liners, but in all that reading he had learned less about the matter than he learned in a few minutes while he clung half-dazed to a stay rope, and watched the life-boats swing out over the sides and disappear.
“Women first!” was the cry; but the women would not go until the wounded had been taken, and this occasioned delay. Jimmie helped to get his friend the “wobbly”, and passed him on to be lowered with a rope. By that time the deck had got such a slant that it was hard to walk on it; the bow was settling, and the stern rearing up in the air. Never could you have realized the size of an ocean-liner, until you saw it rear itself up like a monstrous mountain, preparatory to plunging beneath the waves! “Jump for it!” shouted voices. “They’ll pick you up from the other vessels. Jump and swim.”
So Jimmie rushed to the rail. He saw a life-boat below, trying to push away, and being beaten against the vessel by the heavy waves. He heard a horrible scream, and saw a man slip between the boat and the side of the liner. People on every side of him were jumping—so many that he could not find a clear spot in the water. But at last he saw one, and climbed upon the rail and took the plunge.
He struck the icy water and sank, and a wave rolled over him. He came up quickly, owing to his life-preserver, and gasped for breath, and was choked by another rushing wave and then pounded on the head by an oar in the hands of a struggling sailor. He managed to get out of the way, and struck out to get clear of the vessel. He knew how to do this, thanks to many “swimmin’-holes”—including the one he had visited with the Candidate. But he had never before swam in such deadly cold as this; it was colder than he had dreamed when he had talked about it with Comrade Meissner! Its icy hand seemed to smite him, to smite the life out of him; he struggled desperately, as one struggles against suffocation.
The waves beat him here and there; and then suddenly he was seized as if by the falls of Niagara, drawn along and drawn under—down, down. He thought it was the end, and when again he bobbed up to the surface, his breath was all but gone. The great bulk of the vessel was no longer in sight, and Jimmie was struggling in a whirlpool, along with upset boats and oars and deck-chairs and miscellaneous wreckage, and scores of people clinging to such objects, or swimming frantically to reach them.
Jimmie was just about ready to roll over and let his face go under, when suddenly there loomed above him on the top of a wave a boat rowed swiftly by sailors. One in the boat flung a rope to him, and he tried to catch it, but missed; the boat plunged towards him, and an arm reached out, and caught him by the collar. It was a strong and comforting arm, and Jimmie abandoned himself to it, and remembered nothing more for a long time.