Playing the Game
Aboard the Titanic, the passengers stood calmly on the boat deck—unworried but confused, waiting for the next orders. Each class kept to its own decks—first class in the center of the ship, second a little aft, third at the very stern or on the well deck near the bow. With uneasy amusement, they eyed how one another looked in life belts.
There had been no boat drill, the passengers had no boat assignments, and the going was slow. Second Officer Charles H. Lightoller, in charge of the port side, stood with one foot in Boat 6 and one on deck. He called for women and children. The response was anything but enthusiastic. Why trade the bright decks of the Titanic for a few dark hours in a rowboat? Even John Jacob Astor ridiculed the idea: “We are safer here than in that little boat.” When Constance Willard flatly refused to enter the boat, an exasperated officer finally said, “Don’t waste time—let her go if she won’t get in!”
There was music to lull them too. Bandmaster Wallace Henry Hartley had assembled his men, and the band was playing ragtime.
At 12:45 a.m., a blinding flash seared the night as the first rocket shot up from the starboard side of the bridge. There was no more joking or lingering. In fact, there was hardly time to say goodbye.
“It’s all right, little girl,” called Dan Marvin to his new bride. “You go and I’ll stay awhile.” He blew her a kiss as she entered the boat. “Be brave, no matter what happens,” Dr. W. T. Minahan told his wife as he stepped back with the other men. But Mrs. Isidor Straus refused to go. “I’ve always stayed with my husband; where you go, I go,” she said.
Time was clearly running out. Soon the sea slopped over the Titanic’s forward well deck and rippled around the cranes, the hatches, and the foot of the mast. The nerve-racking rockets stopped, but the slant of the deck was steeper, and there was an ugly list to port.
A little group of millionaires stood quietly apart from the rest of the passengers on the boat deck; there were John Jacob Astor, George B. Widener, John B. Thayer, and a few others. Benjamin Guggenheim and his male secretary had changed back into evening dress. Declared Guggenheim, “We are prepared to go down like gentlemen.” He gave his steward—in case he survived—a message for his wife. “Tell her I played the game out straight and to the end. No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward.”
The poor Irish boys and girls from steerage were down on their knees, praying. An English priest, Father Thomas Byles, was moving to and fro among the passengers, hearing confessions and giving absolution. Every moment the black water was drawing nearer and nearer.
At 2:15 a.m., as the crewmen were tugging at the last two collapsible boats, the bridge dipped under, and the sea rolled aft along the boat deck. At this moment, the ragtime ended, and strains of the Episcopal hymn “Autumn” flowed across the deck and drifted into the still night far over the water.
God of mercy and compassion
Look with pity on my pain;
Hear a mournful, broken spirit
Prostrate at thy feet complain.
Hold me up in mighty waters …