Helen Churchill Candee was among the survivors of the Titanic disaster. Her short story "Sealed Orders" formed the inspiration for the story of Jack and Rose in the James Cameron 1997 film. The story was published just two weeks after the infamous disaster
WHEN all the lands were thrilling with the blossoming month of shower and sun, three widely differing craft crept out upon the sea. One sailed from the New World's city of towers, plowing east.
Another coquetted with three near ports of Europe and then sailed west. The third slipped down unnoticed from the glacial north.
The first was a little ship, and modestly, decorously glided down the bay and took her place on the ocean highway.
But across, on the other side of the world, the triumph of shipbuilding was starting her maiden trip—challenging the sea, men said; but a challenge is given by those who have rivals. The mammoth had none.
She was the largest ship man had ever made; in her construction and in her finish, from keel to topmast, she was the ultimate note of talent and skill and invention. Triumphant was the word that best told her imperial progress.
And the third, the sinister craft, set out from the north with an insolent indifference that transcended even the magnificence of the greatest ship afloat. And to all three of these craft the power that is greater than man gave sealed orders.
All three, though they knew it not, were bound for the same unmarkable spot on the shifting surface of the deep.
The titan's departure was the one man noticed for power and riches cannot be obscure. Three days out the ship knew she was Queen of the Seas. Not only was she the largest, the most beautiful, but she was hour by hour discovering herself a possible fleetest. And that way came destruction.
THERE had been delays in detaching from the shore; at one port a too close touch with another ship, a stop of hours at another for heavy bags of mail. But when free of the land, at last on the high sea, day followed day with the weather in which ships make time.
When the run went on the board it astonished, and there was a light laugh of pleasure from smoking room, deck, and lounge. Each man felt it a credit to himself.
The ship was to make the record trial run. The oldest captain of the fleet had had the crowning and final honor of his sea life in his assignment. The head man of the line was on board. From stoke hole to bridge the men had been picked with care from among their fellows on lesser boats, that the crew might be worthy of their trust.
It almost seemed that passengers had been picked too. The richest man was there, and he who by striving had nearly reached him. About the decks strolled the artist of renown and the great writer, the man of theatrical success, the giant in the world of trade, the aid of a nation's President, the prettiest woman, the woman who represented social prominence, the indispensable American girl, presidents of railways, aristocrats of Europe—all these to add to the glory of the first sea-crossing of the biggest ship.
Two days to try her wings, to prove her powers, and she was off for the saving of time. And the passenger for whom the keel had been laid and the magic wrought looked over the side at the flying water and laughed as a child.
A blond woman on the steerage deck stands like a Viking’s daughter, facing the wind. Her hair is golden bright in the sun, her long lines of grace show bold where the wind presses hard their draping. Around her is her little brood shouting and leaping in the wild free air. All have their faces set to the new Land of Possibility, whither the ship is taking them smooth and fleet, day, and night. Over the child asleep in her arms the woman's wide eyes are directed forward with the look of the emigrant, the look of courage which has conquered fate since the days of Columbus and the colonies.
“Let us wander over the ship and see it all,”
Donnybrook Fair. said she of the suite deluxe to him of the bachelor's cabin. So they mounted to the hurricane deck and gazed across to the other world of the second class and wondered at its luxury, and further across to the waves and wondered at their clemency.
A DOOR along the starboard side was open, clicking sounds within and a cheery English voice. “Come in, come right in, and try your strength,” cried the exhibitor of this particular booth in “Have a race with me on the wheel, sir, while the lady takes a trot in the saddle. Or, here is a camel for you, sir—good for the liver.” His own could not have needed it, so rubicund and clean of tint was he, this powerful five feet-five of white flannels. He bounded about the place, pulling weights with a smooth finish, slipping into a sliding seat and begging him to take the other boat and beat him with a Cambridge stroke. He was up again like a cat and gave a hard hand to the lady's foot to mount her into the saddle and to turn on the appliance for the trot. And so they played an hour with the toys in this wonderful retreat, never thinking of the sweet blue waters that lay so far away.
“I expect you'll be having a plunge in the pool after all this exercise, sir,” said the white flannels. “But I'll see you both in the morning for another go with the wheel and the oars.”
It was getting cold, biting cold, the cold that makes you glad to be alive, with air and water clear and clean as young blue eyes. The acres of decks were cleared of loungers, even of those whose chairs were placed well behind the plate glass weather screen. It was a time for activity, and a scattered parade was on. “You are flirting with the prettiest girl,” she accused, laughing. “Man is omnivorous,” he admitted, laughing back. “One of the women I most admire is this one,” he signified an elderly figure, soberly dressed, walking arm in arm with her husband. With no parleying you knew they were people who had gained and accepted the sweets of success without intoxication. Sobriety and modesty were theirs; strength and calm showed on their faces.
“They, too, have been using one of the ship's appliances. They have just finished a Marconi talk with their son, whose east-bound ship is talking with ours.”
“I see the glow on their faces—the same parent glow of the woman on the steerage deck. And there it is again—that handsome woman over there—see, it is for her son who is beside her with the adorable young wife. I have noticed them all the way over.”
THEN they went inside to escape the cold sparkling in the water and snapping in the air. And snugly in a green bay of the saloon, a bay made of velvet and wood in furniture shapes, they settled down before a glowing grate as one settles down before the home fire after a frosty afternoon ride over the fields.
And servants brought tea and toast, and a general feeling of well-being brought content. The old couple came in and settled nearby; the lady with the fine son drifted in and showed her pride to the world, her loving care to him.
The quiet hour was on, the hour when the sun grows sleepy.
At dinner, two hours later, the scene might have been in London or New York, with the men in evening dress, the women shining in pale satins and clinging gauze. The prettiest girl even wore a glittering frock of dancing length, with silver fringe around her dainty white satin feet. And after dinner there was coffee served to all at little tables around the great general lounging place, for here the orchestra played. Some said it was poor on its Wagner work; others said the violin was weak. But that was for conversation's sake, for nothing on board was more popular than the orchestra.
You could see that by the way everyone refused to leave it. And everyone asked of it some favorite bit. The prettiest girl asked for dance music, and clicked her satin heels and swayed her adolescent arms to the rhythm.
He of the Two who had walked the deck asked for Dvorak, while she asked for Puccini, and both got their liking, for the orchestra was adroit and willing.
At eleven, folk drifted off to their big cabins, with happy see-you-in-the-mornings, until a group formed itself alone, and the only sounds the musicians made were those of instruments being shut in their velvet beds.
The Two had all their friends about them. It was early yet. There was the restaurant above, a more cozy place for a little crowd—and things to drink were there on the end of a word of order. So they all strayed easily up the regal stairway—refusing this time the lift—and arrived at the littlest place where one might eat and took a table large enough for the six. The only other table was made gay by the party of a President's aid. “But how cold it is, how arctic" and she of the Two drew close her scarf. “Something hot, then,” said he to the waiter, and the steam savored of Scotch and lemons. How gay they were, these six. The talkative man told stories, the sensitive man glowed and laughed, the two modest Irishmen forgot to be suppressed, the facile Norseman cracked American jokes, the cosmopolitan Englishman expanded, and the lady felt divinely flattered to be in such company.
HALF-PAST eleven came. Even the last parties were breaking up, and only a handful of men strayed ladyless into the smoking room and fell to cards or reminiscence. Except for these and the night watch, the ship's company had settled down for another night of motionless repose. Silence and emptiness were all the illumination shone on in the great public room and corridors of the great vessel. And in this soft silence the titan was flying like an arrow on the trackless sea whither the sealed orders were sending her.
But she was not the first to arrive at the tryst. Down from the silent north that other sinister craft had slipped into her destined place. No wireless equipment, no port and starboard lights, no lines of cabins showing bright, no compass, no captain. But the power that is greater than man has no need of man's methods.
The white craft stretched its low, uneven length over miles of smoothest sea, shooting up peaks of dazzling white in lieu of sails, and her escort was the sleek, black seal and the white-winged gull.
With implacable patience the white craft awaited the coming of the greatest ship in the world, the virgin cleanly running to the unknown bridal across the starlit sea.
It was nearly midnight when she shuddered with horror in the embrace of the northern ice. Twice, from bow to stern, she shook with mighty endeavor to crush beneath her the assailant. And it seemed she had succeeded. A great calm at once fell upon the ship, such a calm as falls in port, and solitude reigned along the corridors and the wide halls.
A head or two were thrust from cabin doors but seeing nothing went back to bed. Stewards were reassuring, gay, and idle. In the smoking-room men went on bidding for the trump. But the Two went for a walk about in the keen cold air of the decks, “because I was startled.” she apologized.
They mounted to the hurricane deck and stood by the closed door of the gymnast's chamber. They looked up at the stream, violently roaring, of steam escaping by the mammoth funnels. “It is all right,” he said: “that is always a precaution when machinery stops.” “But why are not the other engines doing the same?” He could not answer; he did not know the bottom had been torn from the ship beneath him.
They walked aft and looked down where the mother and children of the steerage had been playing, and where the prosperous second-class passengers had reveled in their comforts. Solitude, desertion. Not a human being in sight. “There is a list to starboard,” said she.
HE WAS grimly silent. They went forward to make sure. There the list was worse. The forward deck below them leaned as a man leans with a sword in his living side. On the deck below they found the same desertion as everywhere, the deck where all the chairs were spread, where folk displayed themselves and criticized others.
The Two seemed all the people in the world, and because of the cold and because each had hard sorrow, although they walked about for warmth of body, they cracked jokes for warmth of heart. “If I had had a wireless—if I knew that my child was no longer living”—she left him to imagine the rest. “I don't mind going either,” he said, grim for for a moment. “Nevertheless,” she laughed, “I'd fight death to the last if it came. I'd be Mrs. Lecks and put on black stockings to scare sharks. Why are we so calm?” “We are Anglo-Saxons,” said he
. The cold drove them into the big, green velvet room with its glowing grate, empty in its blaze of light.
A young man—he of the adoring mother and adorable wife—sprang gayly across the wide floor holding cuplike hands together. “Ice " he laughed. “Have some iceberg. Take a piece! That's what happened. We struck an iceberg. This is what she left on the deck.”
HE FLEW away as gay as a boy. She took the bit, wondering in awe, and he dashed it from her and chafed the cold small hand until it glowed again, nor released it then, but turned the chafing to a caress, nor ever let the hand go. And in that minute, they looked into each other's faces, acknowledged the presence of death, and accepted it. But neither spoke a word. After that people began to come about, some dressed, some not, none alarmed, all quiet and curious to learn the cause of the disturbance. They took the seats about the companion way and talked low.
Women still in sweeping dinner gowns drew wraps about them as the deck door opened. People talked quietly in conventional groups, and all waited, waited, nor knew for what they delayed. The Two went again outside. The list had terribly increased as they viewed it from the deserted deck. “Listen" said she, holding his arm. “That noise over our heads—it is the sound of lifeboats being put out.”
His answer was to force her to the scene above.
Scarce a passenger, but the port side filled with a growing crowd of wiry men, black alike in face and dress, in order crowded about the strong, quiet figure of the captain.
The firemen had been ordered up from the engine rooms and the black crew huddled together awaiting the order to man the lifeboats, the order that would put life again into their hands, for they knew, these hard-faced toilers, that only those little boats would save from death. She smiled on them as she walked through the iron crew, and they looked, startled, at the smile, thinking it a lack of wit, not excess of courage.
But he was uneasy, and again took her down stairs and within, in search of less grim scenes. Different, but was it less grim? Up the sweep of the regal stairway was advancing a solid procession of all the ship's passengers, wordless, orderly, quiet, and only the dress told of the tragedy.
On every man and every woman's body was tied the sinister emblem of death at sea, and each one walked with his life-clutching pack to await the coming horrors. It was a fancy-dress ball in Dante's Hell.
Another glance between the Two. He caught her by the arm and forced her to a cabin, threw over her shoulders the white and bulky pack, saw that she was warmly wrapped, seized a rug, and said briefly : “Come.”
They passed those who huddled within the ship and mounted again to the topmost deck. A line of boats swung on davits at deck level. The black cloud of firemen still waited in order the command to jump in, faces set. The order came on the clear, cold air. “Down below, men. Every one of you, down below!”
And without a sound they wittingly turned from life and went to death, no protest, no murmur, no resistance, a band of unknown heroes.
And then it was that the captain ordered: “Put the women in the boats. No men are to go.” He spoke hard words in a quiet voice, but none might disobey. Now for tragedy; all the horrors of separation had begun. “See, captain, my arm is broken. My husband must go with me or I am helpless.” “No men allowed in the boats, madam,” and the couple turned away. “I am not young, and need my son; may he not come?” “Only women.”
And the young man in gay courage gave his mother and wife to the care of the swinging boat. Others got in; the captain, who knew he was living his last hour, stopped a number, then augmented it, then ordered the little craft lowered, and twenty-five silent women descended nearly a hundred feet, filled with hope, sure that those on board were better off than they, sure that all would be reunited in an hour either on the big ship they had just left, or on that other vessel whose far white light just showed over the port quarter.
THE Marconi man was hard at work, the second biggest ship was in near waters, and hope was high.
Terrible was the artillery of the rockets. The great ship seemed shrieking in despair. Before that was a dignity of self-confidence, but in that wild cry to heaven went up all the horror of death. Then it was the women already in the lifeboats agonized over what love had coerced them into doing. What was life but love, and what was life without loved ones? The horrors of the discovery can never be told. Women of courage had been tricked by noble heroes into saving their own lives.
It was an easy ruse—get into the boats, obey because it helps me; we will soon be together again. Do it for my sake, or the children's. By these sophistries of love were the women put into the boats at a time and in a place where theirs seemed the harder part to do.
But when by endless lowering each boat reached the water the women knew. They saw the salt flow sloping over the lighted ports of the third deck, and knew the vessel was already sunken thirty or forty feet into oblivion.
“Keep all the boats together and pull away from the vessel,” the captain has said in a strong, low voice. Why pull away? Because presently the great palace of light would be following the lead of her diving bow, and in the final plunge would draw everything after her. ON THE ship the bravely competent still loaded boats with protesting women and wailing children.
“Take her from me; take her "" cried the men from whom wives refused to part, and it was done. In a corner against the cabin stood the aged couple, arm in arm, calmly resolute. “Come into this boat,” the rescuers said to her. “I stay with my husband,” she said simply. It was not the frantic protest of the younger women, but the firm will of the seasoned soul. And in death these two were not divided.
What can one whose profession is to amuse do in time of tragedy? They, too, have a part in the great play of courage. Over the crowds, quiet, in active, anguished, there flowed a flood of music, such music as never before was heard—a gay march, a two-step, light operatic airs, all freighted with a burden of love, that love which lays down its life for a friend.
The ship orchestra was sending out courage from man to man in its peculiar expression, cheering others while itself faced death.
Men of courage and resource who had been loading and lowering boats from the very first came at last to a stop. The last boat was ready for the launching. Two who had held together in the work went a deck below to see if any stray women were there unrescued. All was brilliant desolation.
The lights were beginning to burn low, water—soft, noiseless water—was creeping up the slanting deck so fast that in another minute they would have been imprisoned under the deck's roof. They leaped to the railing and mounted it.
At that moment the last boat was floating just before them, three yards away, with vacant room in the bow. Surely, they had the right! They looked in each other's faces to ask the question, and each nodded to the other yes. They leaped the space and caught the sides of the boat, the last to leave the ship by boat, almost the only rescuers who were saved.
THE hundreds that were left drew closer. The beaten bow was hidden under water, the only uncovered space of deck sloped high toward the stern, and on this diminished point huddled this close pack and waited death with the transcendent courage and order and quiet that had been theirs for the horrible two hours.
And over them trembled the last strains of the orchestra's message: “Autumn” first, and then “Nearer, my God, to Thee.”
Down on the sea the little lifeboats were following the captain's orders to pull away from the ship in water as calm, as full of reflected stars as the pool in a Moorish garden. All waited the end, transfixed with horror. Window after window of the ship became dark as the water covered in the sloping, slow descent: less and less became the stern space where the hushed crowd waited.
At the last, the end of the world. A smooth, slow chute. Life went out on the big ship. THE death. call of sixteen hundred units of divine selflessness spread its volume over the waters as a single cry to God. There was no shriek nor wail nor frantic shout. Instead, a heavy moan as of one being from whom final agony forces a single sound.
And with this human protest against stifling arctic waters was a muffled sound from within, the groan of the dying ship, as if she, too, were sensate and joined her agony with man's. The mass in the dark waters was throwing hither and thither, and one or two caught rafts and boats. In the human instinct to preserve life, one man had drawn himself upon a raft. He was white-haired, but short and strong, and had much to live for. At last the raft had rescued so many she endangered all, and then began the horrid task of fighting off the swimmers. Those who looked for the gray beard on the raft saw him no more. Seeing the press, he had ceded his place and slipped silently into the sea.
"Don’t get on, you'll swamp us.”
“All right; God keep you all. Good-by.” and the waters closed over him. It was the little gymnast. AFTER that, silence, silence on the surface of the deep, and awe on the faces of the stricken freight in the scattered lifeboats Where had been the glowing lights from the luxurious cabins of the mammoth ship was now a soft, impersonal sheen of silver starlight, the implacability of nature.
And how futile were the little boats. Where were they going? Why were they there? The distant light that some had followed from the first scudded away into the aurora as fast as the first breath of breeze rippled over the glassy waters.
Why live now to die miserably of cold and starvation and drenching? And always with the horror of that death groan sounding in ears and soul. It was then that those in the boats who had been picked up from the water gave up the spirit.
It was then the mother of the fine son began to call for him in the unmeaning repetition of the mind which has snapped. It was then that the emigrant woman of the many babes sent screams for them ringing to the stars in maniac baby-talk. It was then the ghostly gulls swung and cried in the icy air.
THREE hours before the Marconi man had been at his post on the ship. Out over the oily waters, out on the clear, crisp air, as far as the twinkling canopy of stars, had trembled the soundless cry from the magic wires:
“Ship is sinking fast!”
Full sixty miles away a faithful wire had trembled in response.
And thus the third craft that went a-sailing on an April day learned of her sealed orders and their import, and turned flying to the trysting place.
All night she was preparing to help the proud big ship, happy to serve so great a supplicant. She would be but small and shabby beside the greater vessel, but would humbly do her best, and so she pounded the engines and kicked the waters and strained the boilers. The latitude and longitude given by the cry for succor were attained, yet the keenest glass could find no lights other than the stars. Darkness brooded on the face of the waters, and horror was in the faces of the relief.
DAWN showed the vast, vast reaches of the sea empty of big craft, but, floating near, a swaying tangle of deck chairs and cushions, and a pale white babe rocked in the cradle of that fashioning. The sun lingered in coming on such a scene. The rescue boat lay still and watched it. The aurora in the north was paled by the rosy chiffon scarfs that waved over the sun's east. Close down in the warm glow nestled an impertinent crescent moon.
Toward the sun rose sinister points dark against the light, the peaks of ice.
Away from the sun, struck by its light, were wondrous glistening sails of frozen white and pearly pink, ice mountains glorified into celestial beauty, and as far as the eye could see, the limitless level of the ice pack, purer and whiter than man's imagining.
The sound of the woman calling her babes because they were not, the moan of the woman calling her son—these were almost the only sounds from the scattered fleet of rowboats that showed like shells on the waters, the limping, chilled, and sorrowing fleet to whom the rescue ship brought salvation.
BUT a few hours more and the modest ship of gentle aim was turning back to port, heavy with the hundreds saved, and the flag at half-mast. But the burden of sorrow in the widows' hearts was to be read in the dark, dark shadows of their eyes.
The wail of mothers was heard in the closed chamber of the sick.
For every life on board three other braver ones had surrendered theirs in God like selflessness. The ice pack lay for miles, dazzling in the sun, peaks rising proudly here and there. Seals black and shiny showed in the waters, gulls flew and cried, active white against the silent white.
Superb, thrilling, dominant, the ice pack held the region with nature's implacable strength. The power that is greater than man's had prevailed, the crushing insensate power against which there is no defense, from whom is no pity and no sparing. But the power that is greater than all dominated even that, a power that is of God, which is the divinity of noble men.
WHOSE who love them call them gone, but they live with a virility immortal. The courage and tenderness of sixteen hundred souls who quietly gave their lives for others floods an entire world and makes it humbly eager to give tribute by living nobler lives. And as long as man lives the tale will be told to the uplifting of men, for showing them the divinity which is man's and his kinship to God.
"Sealed Orders," in Collier's: The National Weekly, New York: P. F. Collier & Son, Incorporated, Publishers, Vol. XLIX, No. 7, Saturday, 4 May 1912, p. 10, 12, 27-28.