The thickening smoke poured in after the crowd, who were nearly suffocated.
The dense mass choked the door, and Mr. Downing's party instinctively rushed to the cabin windows to escape. They climbed through them to the narrow passage between the cabin and the bulwarks of the boat, the crowd pressing heavily, shouting, crying, despairing, and suffocating in the smoke that now fell upon them in black clouds. Suddenly Mr. Downing said, "They are running her ashore, and we shall all be taken off." He led them round to the stern of the boat, thinking to escape more readily from the other side, but there saw a person upon the shore waving them back, so they returned to their former place. The flames began now to crackle and roar as they crept along the woodwork from the boiler, and the pressure of the throng toward the stern was frightful. Mr. Downing was seen by his wife to step upon the railing, with his coat tightly buttoned, ready for a spring upon the upper deck. At that moment she was borne away by the crowd and saw him no more. Their friend, who had been conversing with Mr. Downing, was calm but pale with alarm. "What will become of us?" said one of these women, in this frightful extremity of peril, as they held each other's hands and were removed from all human help. "May God have mercy upon us," answered the other.
Upon the instant they were separated by the swaying crowd, but Mrs. Downing still kept near her mother, and sister, and brother. The flames were now within three yards of them, and her brother said, "We must get overboard." Yet she still held some books and a parasol in her hand, not yet able to believe that this was Death creeping along the deck. She turned and looked for her husband. She could not see him and called his name. Her voice was lost in that wild whirl and chaos of frenzied despair, and her brother again said to her, "You must get overboard." In that moment the daughter looked upon the mother - the mother, who had said to her daughter's husband when he asked her hand, "She has been the comfort of her mother's heart, and the solace of her hours," and she saw that her mother's face was "full of the terrible reality and inevitable necessity" that awaited them. The crowd choked them, the flames darted toward them; the brother helped them upon the railing and they leaped into the water.
Mrs. Downing stretched out her hands, and grasped two chairs that floated near her, and lying quietly upon her back, was buoyed up by the chairs; then seizing another that was passing her, and holding two in one hand and one in the other, she floated away from the smoking and blazing wreck, from the shrieking and drowning crowd, past the stern of the boat that lay head in to the shore, past the blackened fragments, away from the roaring death struggle into the calm water of the river, calling upon God to save her. She could see the burning boat below her, three hundred yards, perhaps, but the tide was coming in, and after floating some little distance up the river a current turned her directly toward the shore. Where the water was yet too deep for her to stand, she was grasped by a man, drawn toward the bank, and there, finding that she could stand, she was led out of the water by two men. With the rest of the bewildered, horror-stunned people, she walked up and down the margin of the river looking for her husband. Her brother and sister met her as she walked here - a meeting more sad than joyful. Still the husband did not come, nor the mother, nor that friend who had implored the mercy of God. Mrs. Downing was sure that her husband was safe.
He had come ashore above - he was still floating somewhere - he had been picked up - he had swam out to some sloop in the river - he was busy rescuing the drowning - he was doing his duty somewhere - he could not be lost.
She was persuaded into a little house, where she sat at a window until nightfall, watching the wreck and the confusion. Then she was taken home upon the railroad. The neighbors and friends came to her to pass the night. They sat partly in the house and partly stood watching at the door and upon the piazza, waiting for news from the messengers who came constantly from the wreck. Mr. Vaux and others left directly for the wreck, and remained there until the end. The wife clung to her hope, but lay very ill, in the care of the physician. The day dawned over that blighted garden, and in the afternoon they told her that the body of her husband had been found, and they were bringing it home. A young woman who had been saved from the wreck and sat trembling in the house, then said what until then it had been impossible for her to say, that, at the last moment, Mr. Downing had told her how to sustain herself in the water, but that before she was compelled to leap, she saw him struggling in the river with his friend and others clinging to him. Then she heard him utter a prayer to God, and saw him no more.
Another had seen him upon the upper deck, probably just after his wife lost sight of him, throwing chairs into the river to serve as supports; nor is it too improbable that the chairs upon which his wife floated to shore were among those he had so thoughtfully provided.
In the afternoon, they brought him home, and laid him in his library. A terrific storm burst over the river and crashed among the hills, and the wild sympathy of nature surrounded that blasted home. But its master lay serene in the peace of the last prayer he uttered. Loving hands had woven garlands of the fragrant blossoms of the Cape jessamine, the sweet clematis, and the royal roses he loved so well. The next morning was calm and bright, and he was laid in the graveyard, where his father and mother lie. The quiet Fishkill mountains, that won the love of the shy boy in the garden, now watch the grave of the man, who was buried, not yet thirty-seven years old, but with great duties done in this world, and with firm faith in the divine goodness.
"Unwatch'd, the garden bough shall sway, The tender blossom flutter down, Unloved, that beech will gather brown, This maple burn itself away;
"Unloved, the sun-flower, shining fair Ray round with flame her disk of seed, And many a rose-carnation feed With summer spice the humming air.
"Unloved, by many a sandy bar
The brook shall babble down the plain, At noon, or when the lesser wain Is twisting round the polar star;
"Uncared for, gird the windy grove,
And flood the haunts of hern and crake; Or into silver arrows break, The sailing moon in creek and cove;
"Till from the garden and the wild, A fresh association blow, And year by year, the landscape grow Familiar to the stranger's child;
"As, year by year, the laborer tills
His wonted glebe, or lops the glades; And year by year our memory fades From all the circle of the hills".