Fiction Writing Contest Entry (2nd Place, age 15-18)

News from the

Pennsylvania Curriculum Exchange

Our second place entry for the 15-18 age group:

Elizabeth Gormley of Ephrata, age 16

 “Nearer to Thee”

Roger watched the people on deck silently. Not many were getting into the lifeboats, despite the officers’ insistence that the women and children do so. But Roger understood the fear that clung to the shivering people gathered on the Boat Deck. The ship was unsinkable, so why should they clamber into lifeboats and sit in the freezing cold air? The Titanic was really the safest place to be.

“Roger!” Georges Krins ran up and pulled him around, away from the lifeboats.

“What is it?” Roger asked.

“Wallace Hartley, the leader of the quintet, asked me to gather all of the musicians on board. We’re to meet in the First-Class Lounge.”

“We don’t play with him,” Roger said. “Why does he want us?”

“So we can all play together. He wants to calm down the passengers; they’re starting to get upset.” Georges looked upset himself, but he said nothing more, only looked at Roger carefully.

Roger blew on his palms. “All right. I’ll have to get my cello first, though.”

When the two men walked into the lounge ten minutes later, nearly all the other musicians were already there. “I’m going to go find Theodore. You go sit down,” Georges said quietly.

“All right.” Roger seated himself and held his cello between his knees.

As Georges ran off to find the last musician, Wallace Hartley stood up and stared at the men. “I sent for you all so we could play for the passengers. I want them to feel calm about this whole thing.”

The men slowly agreed, for some reason none of them making any objections. Roger began to tune his cello, then stopped to look around at the people in the lounge. Many of them were whispering and glancing towards the door. A chill ran up Roger’s neck, and he tapped Wallace’s arm. “Is the ship really sinking? I thought it was just some little problem.”

Wallace folded his lips together before he spoke. “Yes, it’s sinking. Not many people realize that yet, but when they do, they’ll get panicked and chaos will begin. This is a way to keep them calm.”

“How long will we keep playing?” Roger asked, his fingers feeling stiff.

“I don’t know,” Wallace said quietly. “Until the end, probably.”

Roger sat deeper in his chair and bit his lip. The end… of their lives? Of the ship? Maybe both.

Georges jogged into the lounge with Theodore Brailey. “We’re all here now, Wallace.”

Wallace picked up his violin and nodded. “All right then, let’s start.” He smiled, then began playing a ragtime piece as Theodore and Georges took their seats.

Roger followed the violinist with his cello, but he didn’t look at the music. He glanced at the people around him for the second time. A young man and woman were watching the musicians, their faces confused and upset. The woman spoke quietly to her husband, who took a deep breath and didn’t answer her. His eyes were terrified.

Smiling at them, Roger played a little harder, trying to make them feel better. The couple slowly started to dance to the music. A minute later, the young man raised his head and gently whispered in his wife’s ear. The lady’s eyes gained alarm, and she gripped her husband tightly. He stopped dancing and kissed her, then began to walk her towards the staircase that led to Boat Deck. She pulled herself from his hold and backed against the wall.

Roger blinked hard. It was like watching a play, the way the couple’s emotions showed so plainly on their faces. He watched as the young man, looking very sad, tried to take the lady’s hand. She shook her head, then suddenly embraced him, and Roger turned his eyes to the music. He waited a few bars, then looked up. The couple were sitting on a couch, talking quietly. They seemed to have decided not to try to get into a lifeboat. But maybe, Roger realized, the lady had refused to leave the ship without her husband. His throat choking up, Roger didn’t look back at the couple again.

Bouncy tunes collided with the walls of the lounge as the minutes passed. Even though the music was cheerfully loud, Roger could hear people crying or shouting on the Boat Deck. As he flipped a page over in his music book, Roger saw a little girl standing near his chair, watching him. She looked very tired, and Roger guessed she had probably been woken up because of the trouble.

“Do you have any favorite tunes?” Roger asked her, as they came to the end of the piece.

“I like Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” the little girl said quickly.

“Gentlemen, Alexander’s Ragtime Band!” Wallace announced immediately, starting up the tune and grinning at Roger. Roger smiled back and began to play as the little girl sat down beside her mother and rocked her doll to the music. The tempo seemed too fast for getting a infant to go to sleep, but the wax baby in the girl’s arms made no objection, so he kept playing.

Alexander’s Ragtime Band ended, and Georges chose a new tune. I wonder if we’ll run of out of songs first, or if the ship will sink first? Roger thought numbly, turning another page.

The sound of a pistol shot vibrated through the room, and he dropped his bow. His heart skittering up and down in his chest, he looked at the other musicians. “What was that?”

John Hume placed his violin on his knee. “Is someone being shot?” he asked, very calmly. His tone seemed crazy, but Roger kept his mouth closed.

Wallace kept his finger on his place in the music book. “I don’t know. I doubt it.”

Why were they all so calm? Shaking his head, Roger looked nervously around and noticed that the lounge was mostly empty. “Wallace, there’s hardly anyone in here anymore.”

Theodore dragged an arpeggio out of the piano, the notes sounding very final, as if he wished never to touch the instrument again. “Shall we stop playing and see if we can find some way to save ourselves?”

Wallace stood and picked up his music stand. His face was passive, as if there was absolutely no cause for fear. “I’m going to keep playing on deck. Will you all come?”

Roger picked up his cello and bow and rose to his feet, shoving away terror. “I will.” For some reason, Wallace reminded him of a younger version of his father. Maybe it was just because the man was so calm.

Georges swallowed, then smiled. “I will, too.”

“How can I play the piano on deck?” Theodore asked. “I’ll come, but I don’t know how we can get this piano up there.”

John Humes frowned. “Well, you… you could sing instead of play.”

Theodore grimaced. “No, thank you. I’ll play here in the lounge and try to follow what you’re playing out there.”

Walking out onto the Boat Deck, Roger looked around. Some of the lifeboats were already floating in the water a couple hundred yards away. Pulling a deck chair over for himself, Roger noticed a lifeboat being lowered a few feet away. It looked hardly full at all.

“Wait, I want to get in!” cried a young woman, rushing from the doorway of the Grand Staircase towards the descending lifeboat. The officers in charge of the boat paid her no attention.

Roger set down his cello and also ran towards the lifeboat to help. “She wants to get on!” he said to one of the crewman helping to lower the small craft.

“I can’t pull the boat back up,” the crewman snapped. “This ship is sinking. We can’t keep pulling the lifeboats up and down because a single person wants to get on.”

“She’s a woman!” Roger shouted. “The women and children are supposed to be first! She isn’t on, so she needs to get on!”

The crewman pushed him out of the way and continued the lowering. Roger took the lady’s arm. “There are other boats, ma’am.”

The lady wiped at her cheeks with her handkerchief. “I know, but they’re all filling up!” Her face was very pale, and her eyes were full of hysteria.

Roger clenched his teeth in anger, glaring at the crewmen. No, some of them aren’t full at all, he thought. He led the lady towards the rail again.

“Can’t you just hold off the lowering for a moment so I can jump in?” the lady asked the crewman, her whole body shaking.

The crewman sighed in frustration. “All right. Jump in, if you can make it. It’s not safe, though.”

“Ma’am, don’t jump!” Roger exclaimed, trying to hold her back.

“I want to get off the ship!” she cried. She wiggled out of his grip and tumbled over the railing, only to miss the lifeboat and plunge beneath the water. Roger hollered, and dizziness was about to pull him down into a faint when the lady’s head appeared above the water and she grasped at the side of the lifeboat. An officer sitting inside dragged her up into it, and Roger gulped down his panic.

He hurried back to the musicians, who were starting to play another ragtime tune. “Sorry, the woman needed help,” he mumbled, though none of the men were paying attention to him. Sitting down, he found his place in the music and started to play. He could feel the deck beginning to tip beneath him. It was strange to see everyone around him moving with a slight tilt.

Another hour or so drifted past, and Roger tried to wiggle life into his numb fingers. The cold was everywhere, and still the ship tipped, but didn’t sink entirely. Roger pressed his feet against the deck to keep his chair stationary. What if the ship never sinks, and we keep playing forever? he thought ridiculously.

He picked up the pace of the tune a little, letting the others follow his lead, and glanced at Wallace to make sure the leader didn’t mind. Wallace was staring at the funnels of the Titanic, his face very still, his violin in his lap. Then suddenly he looked at the other men.

“Let’s play a hymn,” he said, shutting his book as the music trailed off into silence. “Do you know Propior Deo?”

The musicians nodded, and Roger flipped his music book shut with his pinkie. Looking to Wallace to begin the hymn, he held his bow over the strings of his cello.

Wallace nestled his violin under his chin like he was holding a baby. He started playing carefully, but loudly. Roger joined him, and so did the others.

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me;

Still all my song shall be nearer, my God, to Thee,

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,

Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;

Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God, to Thee.

Nearer, my God, to Thee,

Nearer to Thee.

Roger whispered the words of the hymn as he played the notes. He held onto his cello with his knees, rubbing one leg against the glossy wood. Looking at the other men, he suddenly felt close to them, and to God. How many minutes were left until he would be very close to God?

The lifeboats were all gone, but there were still people on deck, a lot of people. Roger played as loudly as he could to cover the screams of frightened adults and children. He wondered how many people could actually hear the musicians playing.

The ship’s bow lurched downwards and Roger stood up, a bit of panic starting through his chest. He kept playing, though, imitating Wallace’s movements. The young man was also standing, his violin leading the others solemnly, carefully.

Or if on joyful wing cleaving the sky,

Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I fly,

Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.

Nearer, my God, to Thee,

Nearer to Thee.

They started the hymn over, and Roger shook tears from his eyes. He noticed John Hume crying as well, and wondered if the man had any family to leave behind.

As the deck kept tilting, Roger watched the people who were still stranded on the Titanic. There were crowds of men and women, and even children. He saw the little girl who had asked him to play Alexander’s Ragtime Band clutching at her mother’s hand to keep her balance on the tilting deck. Roger winced. Why hadn’t she been able to get in a lifeboat?

Turning his head, he saw Captain Smith’s outline inside the bridge. The captain was choosing to go down with the Titanic. He was not alone. So many others would be going with him.

The musicians drew near to the end of their second round of Propior Deo as the ship tipped more and more, making them nearly lose their balance. Roger’s heart began beating faster than ever, and he tried to slow his breathing. They started the final stanza, and Roger closed his eyes. He was very afraid, but he kept playing the last few notes, and prayed along with the music.

Or if on joyful wing, cleaving the sky,

Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upwards I fly,

Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.

Nearer, my God, to Thee,

Nearer to Thee.

The End

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