Playlist Navigation Bar
A Man In Full: 2. Part Two: Not Even God
"Oh they built the ship Titanic to sail the ocean blue,
And they thought they'd built a ship that the water couldn't get through . . ."
I first saw the two of them as a pair of heads bobbing up above the crowd while our newest group of passengers embarked at Southampton. I'd seen the bustle of the docks a thousand times: the bray of auto horns and the sound of horses' feet on the cobbles as the motorcars and hansom cabs let off the departing sea voyagers. People embraced, some with smiles and laughter for those off on holiday, others tearfully for family and friends leaving the Old World forever for life in the New. Here and there, a magnificent chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce or Daimler might part the crowd as Moses did the Red Sea to deposit a first-class passenger among piles of trunks and other luggage. And overhead, our big crane swung a brand new Renault motor car into the cargo hold, bound for the garages of Mr. William Carter of Philadelphia.
Oh yes, I had seen it all before, but the sight of those two heads, one dark and one light, hatless despite the conventions of the day, sparked my curiosity. I turned to the purser. "Who is that gentleman with the bright yellow hair, Mr. McElroy? That one, just coming up the gangway?"
"I remember him from the Olympic, Mr. Lightoller," he replied, riffling through the pages of his passenger manifest. He stopped and marked with a finger. "Mr. Andreas Ribeiro and manservant, John Thomas Galwyn, of Chicago Illinois. Reason for travel: Business."
I might have been tempted to think, with such a name, that the fellow had what my forthright colleague Lowe might call a 'touch of the tar brush' in him, yet the man before me had skin as pale as any Swede.
While the valet had his hair drawn back into a neat braid, in a manner befitting a gentleman's gentleman, Ribeiro's flowed in a bright mane that reached almost to his shoulder-blades. On anyone else, that would have been effeminate. With this man, it suited him.
I had, at that time, been working the big liners for many a year and was to do so for many a year subsequent, but I confess Ribeiro intrigued me like no other passenger has done before or since. And so, I kept my eye on him as the voyage progressed.
My first memory of our short time at sea together -- a vivid one for reasons that shall soon become obvious -- was on a bright day as I left my cabin to begin a watch. I saw Ribeiro strolling the boat deck as the coast of Ireland faded into the distance, his valet in tow. I watched as his eyes ran appraisingly over the lifeboats trimmed and stowed neatly in their davits and his lips thinned into a grim line.
He turned and spied me in my officer's uniform. "Excuse me, Mr. . . .?"
"Lightoller," I informed him. "Second Officer."
"Yes, Mr. Lightoller. I wonder if you could tell me the capacity of one of these lifeboats?"
"Sixty-five persons," I replied.
"And you have sixteen of them?" he continued, counting the sets of davits along the port rail..
"Actually, that would be twenty, sir. We have four Engelhart collapsibles in addition to the ones in the davits. That is four more lifeboats than required by the British Board of Trade for a ship of Titanic's tonnage. White Star Line is very attentive to the regulations."
He gave his valet a queer look then and turned back to me. "What is the ship's capacity, Mr. Lightoller?"
"Two thousand five hundred and ninety-nine passengers," I replied, "with a further nine hundred in crew." He did not look very happy about this, so I added, "But we're not running at full capacity this trip. We've only slightly less than thirteen hundred passengers aboard."
Ribeiro furrowed his brow and turned again to his valet. "Correct me, Galwyn, if my computations are wrong, but I see a discrepancy here."
"Yes, sir," the man murmured, his expression remaining impassive. "A discrepancy."
Ribeiro flashed me a smile that did not reach his eyes. "I overheard a dockworker telling a lady passenger at Southampton that not even God could sink this ship. Surely you and the White Star line do not subscribe to that nonsense? Or are these lifeboats merely for decoration?"
How like a landsman, I thought. No understanding of the harsh realities of the ocean at all. "Of course not. No man who sails the salt seas ever believes a ship can be unsinkable." I dropped my voice, because he seemed a reasonable enough chap and able to handle candour. "In the event of a founder in mid-ocean, any true sailor knows that lifeboats merely prolong the inevitable. You drift to die of exposure or starvation, unless a squall or a rogue wave puts a quick end to you."
"You make it sound a mercy not to have a place in a lifeboat," he said. "Which some of us will not if something goes wrong."
"Nothing will go wrong, sir," I assured him. "Titanic is designed to remain afloat with any four of her forward watertight compartments completely flooded. An accident that would cause any more damage than that is extremely unlikely."
Again he turned to his valet. "Extremely unlikely. What do you think of that, Galwyn?"
"If I may be so bold, sir," the man replied, "my experience in life has taught me that if something can possibly go wrong, it will go wrong, and it is always wise to be prepared for any eventuality. But I am just a humble servant, and no one ever asks me."
Ribeiro laughed and favored me with a smile that reached his eyes this time. "Well, there you have it, Mr. Lightoller: the opinion of the common man. However, I suppose the White Star lines did not build Titanic for such folks as Mr. Galwyn here." He nodded pleasantly and the two of them continued their stroll aft.
Ribeiro had hit on the truth, although I doubt he knew it. Titanic's lifeboats hung in Welin davits, specially designed to lower their first load and then crank back to pick up another lifeboat from the deck. Harland and Wolff's designer Thomas Andrews, who was sailing with us on the maiden voyage, had originally specified extra lifeboats at each station, arrayed in stacks of three. Ultimately the owners of White Star lines had vetoed this, preferring more space on the boat deck for the first-class passengers to take the air to superfluous safety on a ship deemed to be virtually unsinkable.
From the vantage point of later experience I can only sigh at my own hubris and shake my head. And in those moments I reach for my Bible and read the wisdom of Proverbs 16:18: Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.
It takes more than a full purse and rich clothing to make a gentleman, and in this regard, Ribeiro did not disappoint me. There hung about him an air of quiet nobility, unchanging whether he dealt with his peers or those who might have been considered his inferiors.
He was decent to Astor, I recall. John Jacob Astor was just now returning from an extended honeymoon in Europe, following an equally extended divorce. Like any man with a wife less than half his age, the chap was so absurdly proud of his new bride and her obvious impending motherhood. Ribeiro always had a smile of genuine warmth for the young woman, a distinct contrast from some of the others -- friends, no doubt, of the previous Mrs. Astor -- who treated the couple with the glacial air of icy correctness required by polite society.
Ribeiro had a seat at the Captain's table, but other than our first evening out, at which he seemed mildly ill at ease, it remained empty. Through my contacts with the stewards, I learned that he subsequently took his meals in the Café Parisienne in the company of his valet, and of Mrs. Brown, who often joined them.
I daresay the presence of a servant at table surprised some, although most were too well-bred to show it. On the first day, I am told, Ribeiro, as if sensing a subtle air of disapproval from his waiter, merely raised an eyebrow and remarked, "He's here in case I drop my napkin."
Ribeiro must have been exceedingly prone to dropping things, for it was always that way I saw him, wandering the decks, his manservant ever at his shoulder. He shunned the smoking lounge, with its ever-present aroma of pipe and cigar; where he spent his evenings, I had no idea until one morning, the third day out, I spied one of the Third Class stewards eying him sidelong with a visible air of disapproval.
I gave the man a stern look. We had no business judging our passengers, no matter how eccentric they might appear. Noticing my rebuke, he said: "It's a disgrace, Mr. Lightoller. Him, a gentleman, stooping to slumming in steerage!"
My response to this was a quiet sigh. Thomas Mullin was a young man, not yet seasoned in the ways of the world. My own experience had given me greater sophistication. I knew that there were certain pleasures to be derived in Third Class; the exchange of coin for companionship often proved beneficial to both a gentleman and a young woman looking to establish herself in a new life. Yet such a thing might develop into an embarrassment for the company if allowed to become too blatant. "Has there been a problem with any of the young ladies?"
"Oh, no, Mr. Lightoller, nothing like that," Mullin hastened to say. "The two of them have been down there the past two nights running -- him and that man of his -- drinking and playing cards with the men. He's right popular with that crowd, because he loses, mostly."
He paused then, his face taking on a faraway expression. "Last night, one of the steerage passengers had a fiddle and another had a bagpipe, and Ribeiro and his man danced."
"With the girls?"
"No, sir -- with each other, while the fiddler and the piper played a reel. I've never seen the like of it, the two of them arm in arm, swinging and kicking high they seemed to hover like hummingbirds!"
I could not help but smile at this.
"And then, Mr. Lightoller, at the end they kissed, full on the mouth. I can tell you, I saw some raised eyebrows among the Irish and the Swedes. But it garnered them some applause from the Turks."
I was still smiling while I prepared for bed that night. Scattered reports of ice and the falling temperatures could not dampen my mood. As we steamed westward, the clear sky was filled with a thousand bright stars; the sea was as calm as a millpond. The mighty ship beneath me was the pinnacle of modern technology.
As soon as my head hit the pillow, I fell into the untroubled sleep of the blissfully ignorant on this, the final night of my old world.
Playlist Navigation Bar