The inhospitable icy waters of the Atlantic had transformed into a graveyard. As I surveyed the scene unfolding around me, I felt a slight tremor go down my spine, due to shock more than cold. The frosty air was filled with the terrified wails of the floating passengers of the Titanic, their chalky lifebelts emphasizing their colourless complexions against the dark surf; they were as ghosts, haunting the site of their demise. The water was littered with furniture, baggage and trinkets, floating amidst chunks of ice. All that remained of the sunken vessel was the debris lining the ocean’s surface, and the scarce number of lifeboats the Titanic had been equipped with. Their shadows glided on the waters, carrying the fortunate individuals who had escaped the ship before it eventually descended into the gloom. The lifeboats were aimlessly floating along the outskirts of the wreckage, out of reach for many of the drifting survivors – including me. My grip tightened around the rough edge of a supply crate I had fished out from the wreck as I sought to keep the crafts in focus; the freezing water had seeped through my clothes and numbed my floating corpse, lulling me into a drowsy state of serenity. A hazy recollection came to my mind – before the doomed Titanic perished, a fellow had circulated the news of a possible rescue by the Californian, a liner bound to Boston. However, as my body drifted at the mercy of the sea, the unforgiving Atlantic stretched its murky tentacles toward me and snuffed out my dim candle of endurance; my weighted lids sealed shut, and I exhaled a hushed dernier adieu into the wintry ocean breeze.
? ? ?
“SERGE! Par Dieu, try to step foot into this house looking like that! You nasty, uncontrollable boy, what have you gotten yourself into this time?”
I halted in the gateway to the Dumas estate, eyeing my governess, Madam Henriette. Scowling at me from the balcony of our Baroque-style manor, the madam’s expression was livid and tinged with exasperation; the old lady pulled her spectacles down and, with her hands on her hips and her foot impatiently tapping the floor of the elaborate balcony, continued her shrieking.
“Serge Dumas, get yourself up here this instant! And strip yourself of those foul clothes! I will not have –”
She did not finish, for by this time I was already making for the door, and she had to rush downstairs to prevent me from soiling the ivory marble floors. Nevertheless, Madam Henriette was too late, for by the time she made it down the stairs, puffing laboriously, I had already trailed mud and dirt through the entrance hall. The amiable rays of the warm March sun, entering through the ajar doorway behind me, illuminated my grimy trail. Madam Henriette, clutching her skirts so as not to sully them, pinched my ear and retraced my footsteps, disregarding my yelps of protest.
“For a boy au bord de la virilité, Monsieur Dumas, you do not know how to act!” The Madam gave my ear a solid twist before she released me, and gesturing at the path of mud and debris left in my wake, informed me that I had better tidy up the floors, and myself, within half an hour.
“Pardon, Madam, but where is –”
“Young monsieur, have you grown deaf as well as ignorant? Clean up your mess – your questions can come later!”
I heaved an annoyed sigh; although I desired to seek my father’s company right away, I knew that arguing with Madam Henriette would be useless – and if I didn’t clean up, the governess would have my head. I stripped down to my socks and knickers, tossing my dirty clothes behind a large porcelain flower vase – I’d retrieve and scrub those later. Pausing, I recovered my shirt and began to wipe the floors, removing the tracks of dirt. Within a few minutes of ruthless scouring, the marble once again took on it’s pale appearance, and I rushed upstairs, skipping a step here and there in my hurry. Once I had donned a fresh suit, I hastened to my father’s study, knocking once on its solid wooden door. He called me inside, and, shifting his books and papers slightly aside, crossed his arms and observed me with an amused expression.
“So, I hear you have been causing Madam Henriette quite a headache today, Serge,” my father remarked, a slight smile playing along his lips. “Tell me son, do you enjoy causing trouble? Or is it simply your nature?”
“Father, I don’t mean to be a nuisance…but look!” I reached into my jacket pocket, revealing a large white envelope stamped with the red hallmark of the United States Post Office. “See, a letter has arrived, marked Monsieur Serge Dumas! From the U.S.! I thought it might be an acceptance letter from Columbia.”
“My boy, why didn’t you say so! Well, what’s the hold up? Open it up!”
Swiping a pen knife from my pocket, I ripped the envelope open, my excitement fading into anxiety as I reached for the contents. I had applied to Columbia University in New York, seeking to master in anthropology. My interest in human society and behaviour had been nurtured by my late mother, Lorraine, who had been a prominent and respected French anthropologist before her unfortunate death. I was curious about the world around me, and my mother matured my curiosity into comprehension as she recounted her studies to me. On many late evenings, when rain knocked on the windows and our Parisian manor glittered with candlelight, my mother would sit with me and tell me tales of excavations in exquisite countries, where she sought to discover more about the past of human society. When she passed away, I resolved to tread in her footsteps and continue the work she had so fervently pursued. Thus, as I tensely revealed the contents of the envelope, I prayed that I had been accepted into the university, so I could maintain my mother’s legacy. Fervishly scanning the document, I paused on the last paragraph. A phrase stood out boldly – ‘Congratulations on your admission at Columbia University.’ My father, who had risen from his desk and was peering over my shoulder at the letter, patted my back.
“I guess I’d better purchase you a one-way ticket to New York, son.”
? ? ?
I felt a wet, firm object impact my face, startling me into dazed wakefulness. Fluttering my eyes open, I was shocked to see one of the Titanic’s lifeboats a couple inches ahead of me, combing through the wreckage and debris. I felt a small spark of energy ignite at the possibility of a rescue, and, cocking my head at the sky, hollered at the top of my lungs.
One of the men in the boat turned around and, noticing my arm limply waving about, directed the boat toward me. As they approached, two of the other passengers leaned out and grasped my limbs, retrieving me from the water. The men didn’t say anything; simply nodding, they returned to their duties, peering into the water over the boat’s edge to spot any survivors. The sun was beginning to show itself, painting the sky with a myriad of colours and coating the floating ice in glitter. Resting in the bottom of the vessel, my arms wrapped tightly around myself, I couldn’t believe my luck. There had been more than a thousand passengers thrown overboard throughout the Titanic’s sinking, and yet, I had been miraculously salvaged.
“Rendre grâce à Dieu,” I whispered graciously. Then, glancing around, I broke the ominous silence. “Has there been any news of another vessel coming to our rescue?”
An oarsman squinted at me, surprised. “By golly, man…are you blind?” The man pointed straight ahead and, looking out, I spotted a large shadow through the dazzling haze. “There’s the Carpathia, right there, come to get us. We’re saved!”
We steered toward the welcoming Carpathia, joining other lifeboats, and retrieving any floating survivors. One by one, the passengers of the Titanic were raised to the deck, and as I felt solid ground beneath my feet, I crumbled to my knees. Miraculously, I had somehow survived the sinking of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic. I was swept with feelings of shock, relief, and anxiety. However, I also felt a flicker of excitement. I had survived the worst night of my life, and I was again on my way to New York. Rising to my feet, I ambled over to the deck railing. I gripped the steel bars, my knuckles turning white with intensity, and gazed at the brilliant morning sun soaring above the horizon. Columbia awaited.