From the Old World to the New
W. T. Stead (Excerpted from “From the Old World to the New” The Review of Reviews Christmas Edition, Dec. 1892) ch. 7-8. pp. 39-50
[Webmaster’s note: This is an extract from Stead’s story, From the Old World to the New, which appeared as The Review of Reviews Christmas annual in 1892. This is not the entire story, only the parts in which Stead, through his story, supposedly anticipates the sinking of the Titanic.]
Chapter 7: Coincidence or Clairvoyance
Mr. Compton was abruptly aroused from his reverie by a direct appeal from Mrs. Irwin.
“If you have ten minutes to spare, Mr. Compton, I will be glad to have a word with you by yourself.”
“Certainly, madam, will you come to the Library? It is sure to be empty just now, and we can speak at leisure.”
They soon found themselves ensconced in a corner of the Library. There were only one or two ladies present, and shortly afterwards these left Compton and Mrs. Irwin alone.
“I would not have ventured to trouble you,” said Mrs. Irwin, “but I know that you are no stranger to occult things. If I had not seen that in the face of you I should not have ventured to speak.”
“Yes, yes,” said Compton, somewhat impatiently, “but what has that to do with it?”
“It has everything to do with it, sir,” said she; “because, if you did not understand, it would be no use trying to explain. I must tell you that I come of one of the oldest families in Ireland. We have the Banshee, of course, but, what is more to the purpose, I have occasionally the gift of second sight. Now, last night—”
Compton, who at first had listened with hardly concealed impatience, suddenly manifested eager interest.
“My dear Mrs. Irwin,” he exclaimed, “why did you not tell me this before? Nothing interests me so much as to come upon those rare but peculiarly gifted persons who have inherited, or acquired by some strange gift of the gods, the privilege—often a sombre and terrible privilege—of seeing into futurity.”
“Sombre and terrible you may well say it is,” said Mrs. Irwin, “and fain would I be without it. It is a gruesome thing to see, as I have done, the funeral in the midst of the wedding-feast, and to mark the shroud high on the breast of the heir when he comes of age. But the gift comes when it comes, and goes when it goes; it seems as fitful as the shooting-stars which come no one knows from whence, and disappear no one knows whither.”
“Well,” said Compton, “you were saying that last night—?”
“I was saying,” said Mrs. Irwin, “that last night, as I was lying asleep in my berth, I was awakened by a sudden cry, as of men in mortal peril, and I roused myself to listen, and there before my eyes, as plain as you are sitting there, I saw a sailing ship among the icebergs. She had been stove[d] in by the ice, and was fast sinking. The crew were crying piteously for help: it was their voices that roused me. Some of them had climbed upon the ice; others were on the sinking ship, which was drifting away as she sank. Even as I looked she settled rapidly by the bow, and went down with a plunge. The waters bubbled and foamed. I could see the heads of a few swimmers in the eddy. One after another they sank, and I saw them no more. I saw that there were six men and a boy on the iceberg. Then, in a moment, the whole scene vanished, and I was alone in my berth, with the wailing cry of the drowning sailors still ringing in my ears.”
“Did you notice the appearance of any of the survivors?” said he, anxiously.
“As plainly as I am looking at you,” she replied. “I noticed especially one man, very tall—over six feet, I should say—who wore a curious Scotch plaid around his shoulders and a Scotch cap on his head. He had a rough red beard, and one eye was either blind or closed up.”
“And did you see the name of the ship before it foundered?”
“Certainly I did; it was plain to see as it went down headforemost. I read the name on the stern. It was the Ann and Jane of Montrose.”
Compton rose from his chair, and took a turn or two in deep thought. Then he stopped, and said,—
“Mrs. Irwin, you have trusted me, I will trust you. What you said has decided me, or rather has given me hope that we may be able to induce the captain of the Majestic to rescue these unfortunates, one of whom is a friend of my own.”
“But did you know about it before I spoke?” asked Mrs. Irwin.
“I need not explain to you,” said Compton, not heeding the interruption, “for you understand that there is no impossibility in the instantaneous communication of intelligence, from any distance, to others who have what some have described as the sixth sense. To some it comes in the form of clairvoyance, to others as clairaudience, while to a third class, among whom I count myself, it comes in the shape of what is called automatic writing. I have many friends in all parts of the world who also have this gift, and we use it constantly, to the almost entire disuse of the telegraph. At least once every day, each of us is under a pledge to place his hand at the disposal of any of the associated friends who may wish urgently to communicate with him. This morning, at noon, when I placed my hand with the pen on my dispatch book, it wrote off, with feverish rapidity, a message which I will now read to you:
“‘John Thomas. Tuesday morning, four o’clock. The Ann and Jane, Montrose, struck on an iceberg in the fog in North Atlantic, and almost immediately foundered. Six men and a boy succeeded in reaching the ice alive. All others were drowned. For God’s sake, rescue us speedily; otherwise death is certain from cold and hunger. We are close to the line of outward steamers.—John Thomas.’
“The signature, you see,” said Compton, “is the same as that appended to the last letter I received from him, which I hunted up after I had received this message. I have, therefore, no doubt that ‘John Thomas’ with five other men and a boy are exposed to a lingering death on the iceberg some hundred miles ahead.”
“But,” said Mrs. Irwin, “what can we do?”
“That,” replied Compton, “is my difficulty. To have gone to the captain with this message, without any confirmation but my word, would probably have exposed me to certain ridicule, and might have led the captain to steer still further to the south. Now, however, that you also have had the message, I will hesitate no longer.”
Without more ado, he wrote a short note to the captain, begging to be allowed to communicate with him on a matter of urgent and immediate importance, involving questions of life and death.
Hardly had the messenger departed with the note when the professor and the doctor entered the library.
“Halloo, Compton,” said the professor, “are you not coming on deck to see the fog? But, in the name of fortune, what is the matter? Doctor, I think you had better look to Compton.”
“It’s nothing,” said Compton faintly, “only a passing qualm. Is the fog very dense?”
“You can see it in the distance like a dim grey wall lying right across the bows of the steamer. We shall be into it in half-an-hour. But,” persisted the professor, “something is up. Can I not help?”
“Professor,” said Compton, a sudden thought striking him, “if I send for you from the captain’s cabin, please hold yourself in readiness to come.”
“Certainly,” said the professor. “But what, in the name of common-sense, are you troubling the captain for just as the ship is entering an ice fog?”
“Mr. Compton, the captain will see you at once in the cabin,” said the returned messenger.
“Now, Mrs. Irwin; not one word to any one! Professor, I may send for you shortly.”
So saying, he followed the messenger to the captain’s cabin. It is but seldom that any passenger ventures to intrude into that sanctum. But Mr. Compton was not an ordinary passenger. He had often crossed the Atlantic in vessels under the command of the present captain. He was known to be a man of power, of influence, and of wealth. More than that, he had, on more than one occasion, given invaluable information, procured no one knew how or where, which had enabled the captain to avoid imminent dangers into which he was steaming at full speed. He was, therefore, assured of a respectful hearing, even from the autocrat of the Majestic on the verge of an ice fog.
“Now, Mr. Compton,” said the captain, “what is it you wish to say to me? I have only a few minutes to spare. We shall have to steer southward to avoid the ice floe which is drifting across our usual course.”
“I want you,” said Mr. Compton, imperturbably, “to continue your usual course in order to pick up six men and a boy, who are stranded on an iceberg from the ship Ann and Jane, of Montrose, which foundered at four o’clock this morning, after collision with the ice.”
The captain stared. “Really, Mr. Compton, how do you know that? It is impossible for any one to know it.”
Mr. Compton replied. “There is the despatch from one of my friends, John Thomas, who was on the ship, and is now on the iceberg, received by me in his own handwriting at noon this day.”
The captain took the paper with an uneasy expression of countenance.
“Entering the fog, sir,” said an officer, putting his head into the cabin.
“Slacken speed,” said the captain. “I shall be out in a moment.”
He carefully read and re-read the paper, and then said—
“Well, really, if you were not Mr. Compton I should consider you a lunatic. What possible reliance can be placed upon such a statement?”
“I received this,” replied Compton, significantly, “in the same way that I received the message of 1889, which enabled you to—”
“I remember,” said the captain; “otherwise, I should not be listening to you now.”
“But this story has not come without confirmation;” and then Compton repeated Mrs. Irwin’s clairvoyant vision.
“What do I care for these old women’s stories,” said the captain. “But even if they were true, what then? I have nearly 2,000 passengers and crew, all told, on board the Majestic. I dare not risk them and the ship, hunting for a half-dozen castaways on an iceberg on the North Atlantic.”
“But,” said Compton, “if you are convinced that the men are there, dare you leave them to their fate?”
“But I am not convinced. They may have died ere now, even if they ever were there at all.”
“Might I ask you to give me a pencil and paper,” said Compton. The captain handed him what he wanted. Compton at once grasped the pencil, and placed it on the paper. Almost immediately it wrote:—
“John Thomas. Iceberg. Three o’clock. At one o’clock the iceberg parted under our feet, three men and a boy were carried away. Three still remain, frost bitten, without food or fire. We shall not be able to survive the night. When the Ann and Jane foundered, we were on the outward liners’ route, 45 by 45, on the extreme southern edge of the ice-floe. Since then, it has rather receded. For God’s sake, do not desert us.—John Thomas.”
The captain stared at the curious writing, which was not Compton’s, and then stared at Compton.
The latter merely said, “How far are we off the position mentioned?”
The captain looked at the chart.
“We are steering by our present altered course directly upon the spot where he says the berg is floating. If I believed your message, I would steer still more to the southward, to give the ice a clear berth. It is no joke shaving round an iceberg in such a fog as this. But I do not believe your message, and I will not alter the course of the Majestic by one point, for all the witches and wizards that ever lived.”
“Captain,” said Compton, “your niece is on board, I believe?”
“Yes,” said the captain. “But what in the world has she to do with it?”
“If you will allow her to come here, and permit me to send for my friend, the professor, I think we shall be able to convince you that these sailors are waiting deliverance.”
The captain rang the bell. “Bring my niece here instantly,” he said, “and Professor Glogoul. Thank heaven,” he added, “the fog is so dense, no one will be able to see them come, or else they would think—and think rightly—that I had taken leave of my wits.”
In a minute or two, the niece and the professor had both arrived.
“Captain,” said Compton, “will you let your niece sit down? The professor hypnotized her in a previous voyage, and cured her of seasickness. He can cast her into hypnotic sleep with her consent, by merely making a pass over her face with his hand.”
The captain growled, “Do what you like, only make haste. If it were any one but Mr. Compton,” he muttered under his breath, “if it were any one but Mr. Compton, I should very soon have cleared the cabin.”
The captain’s niece had hardly taken her seat when the professor’s pass threw her into a hypnotic sleep. A few more passes and the professor said she was in the clairvoyant state.
“What is it that you want?” he asked.
“Tell her,” said Compton, “to go ahead of the ship in the exact course she is now steering, and tell us what she sees.”
The professor repeated the request. Almost immediately the captain’s niece began to shiver and shudder, then she spoke—
“I go on for half-an-hour, then for an hour; it gets colder and colder. I see ice, not icebergs, but floating ice. I go through this floating ice for an hour, for two hours, then the fog gets thinner and thinner, it almost disappears. I see icebergs, they shine beautifully in the sunlight. There are many of them stretching for miles and miles, as far as I can see. What a noise there is when they break and capsize.”
“Do you see any ship or any thing?” asked the professor.
“No, I see nothing, only icebergs. I go on and on for another hour. Then I see on an iceberg, near the foot, some one making signals. I come nearer, I see him plainly. It is a tall man with one eye and red hair. He is walking up and down. Beside him there is one man sitting, and another man who seems to be dead. It seems to be the edge of the iceberg. There is clear water beyond.”
“That will do,” said Compton.
The professor blew lightly on the girl’s face.
She opened her eyes, and stood up looking round with a dazed expression.
“Well,” said Compton to the captain, “are you convinced?”
“Convinced!” said the captain. “It’s all confounded nonsense. Out with you! If you ever had to steer the Majestic through an ice fog in the mid-Atlantic you would know better than to fool away the captain’s time by such a pack of tomfoolery.”
The niece and the professor left the cabin.
As Compton turned to go he said, “Captain, that tall, one-eyed man on the iceberg is one of my friends. You will keep on your course, as you say:—I desire nothing better. Will you promise me, if only for the sake of the past, that if you strike drift-ice in an hour and a half, and if you emerge from the fog two hours later on the edge of the floe of icebergs, you will keep a look-out and save John Thomas if you can?”
“If, if, if,” said the captain, contemptuously. “Oh, yes, if all these things happen, I will promise; never fear, I can safely promise that!”
As Compton left the cabin the captain remarked— “They say it is always the cleverest men who have got the biggest bee in their bonnet, and upon my word I begin to believe it.”
Chapter 8: The Castaways
When Compton left the captain’s cabin he felt a spring of exhilaration. The very incredulity, the natural and proper incredulity of the captain, would lead directly to the result which he desired. He would save his friend. The chances against it seemed a million to one—to pick up a castaway on an iceberg, the exact location of which was uncertain, and which might be anywhere within fifty or five hundred miles. What seemed more utterly hopeless! But Compton had seen too much of the marvellous perception of clairvoyant subjects under hypnotism to doubt that, if the captain only kept on the southward course, which he had marked out in order to avoid the floe, the rescue would certainly take place.
Mentally transmitting a telepathic message to his friend on the iceberg, fearing greatly that he would not be able to receive it owing to the difficulty, if not impossibility, of practising automatic handwriting on the shifting ice, Compton made his way through the fog to his cabin, where he found the professor waiting him.
“Well,” said that worthy, “what is it all about? It is rather unusual to summon one to an experiment when the experimenter is kept so totally in the dark.”
Compton soon satisfied the curiosity of the professor; and sent him to tell the doctor and Mrs. Irwin and the captain’s niece what had happened. He then sat down in his berth with his dispatch book open before him and pencil in hand awaiting the arrival of further messages from the iceberg.
Meanwhile, the steamer was forging her way onward through the fog. The passengers were either in their berths or in the saloon, or the smoking-room. None were on deck. Mrs. Wills and Mrs. Julia were with Rose in her cabin. The doctor had undertaken to look after the boys and Pearl. Irene was looking out for the professor, whom she soon discovered, not at all to her satisfaction, in close conversation with Mrs. Irwin. Somehow or other, she did not like that Irishwoman, and every minute Dr. Glogoul remained with her the more she felt that Mrs. Irwin was the most objectionable of her sex.
The dense, cold fog filled the air. You breathed it and swallowed it, and saw dimly through it across the saloon. On deck all was strained attention. The captain on the bridge kept constant look out, bearing upon his shoulders the responsibility for 2,000 lives, and a ship with cargo worth at least nearly £400,000. The quartermaster outside the pilot house passed in the commands given by the captain to the first officer and to his messmate at the wheel. Every half-minute the fog whistle boomed its great voice into the fog. Sometimes, as from a far away distance, they heard the boom of another fog horn, but they could see nothing. At the bows, the deck look-out peered into the impenetrable mist; and the quartermaster posted to the leeward, and lowered the thermometer in a little canvass bag to test the temperature of the sea in hopes of timely warning of the coming ice.
The boys cowered close to the doctor, and asked him endless questions about the fog.
“Where does it come from? Who made it? What was the good of it? How could they sail through it without being able to see the end of the ship?”
“This fog,” replied the doctor, “came from icebergs.”
But that opened up another range of questions.
“What were icebergs? Where did they come from? Would there be bears upon them?” And so forth. A sharp child will ask more questions in ten minutes than a clever man can answer in an hour.
“Icebergs,” said the doctor, “are mountains of ice floating about in the sea. Ice, you know, does not sink in water. The bergs float just a little above the surface. All the rest is below. These icebergs are born in Greenland. The snow falls on the high land, and as it does not melt, and ever more and more snow falls, the great mass presses the lowest snow downwards and ever downwards to the sea. Thus glaciers are formed, slowly-moving solid rivers of frozen and solidified snow. When the glacier pushes its way into the sea, its end breaks off, tumbles over into the water with a noise like thunder, and becomes an iceberg. The glaciers are constantly making icebergs. These icebergs drift slowly away into the sea. Sometimes they get caught by the frost, and are winterbound. When summer comes, they drift off again into the current which carries them southward. A whole archipelago of icebergs will sometimes sail southward right across the ocean route to America.”
“Isn’t it very dangerous?” asked Tom.
“It is the greatest danger of the voyage. For the icebergs bring fogs with them, and the fogs hide the icebergs until the steamer is close upon them. Imagine a country as big as Ireland without lighthouses, foghorns, or any beacons, suddenly towed across the path of the steamer, and then enveloped in this dense frost-fog, and you can imagine. Hark, what is that?”
There was a sound as if the steamer were crashing through ice, and the screws were churning away amid the ice blocks. The doctor ran out to see what was the matter.
When he was gone, Tom said to Fred, “It is very terrible and cold. Are you not afraid?”
“Rather,” said Fred. “I wish mother were here. Are you frightened, Pearl?”
“No, I is not,” said the little lady, with emphasis, “and Kitty is not frightened either.”
“But, Pearl,” said Fred, “the fog—”
Pearl interrupted him disdainfully. “Can’t God see in the fog, Fred?”
The conversation was interrupted by the doctor’s return.
“It is not icebergs, boys. It is only the floe ice which the great ship goes through as Tom here goes through sugar candy.”
“What is floe ice, doctor?” asked Fred.
“Loose drift ice, formed in winter off Labrador and Newfoundland. It is not dangerous. It is only icebergs that are dangerous.”
“Do ships ever run against icebergs, doctor?” said Tom.
“Oh, yes, about four are lost every year in that way. But even if we did strike an iceberg, we probably should not sink. The Arizona once went full speed into an iceberg, and crumpled up thirty feet of her nose. She did not sink, but got safely to Newfoundland. I hope, however, we shall not try a similar experiment.”
“Doctor,” said little Pearl, “could you go to find mamma?”
“Certainly, Pearl,” said the doctor, “and where must I look for her?”
Tom replied, “She went with Mrs. Julia to see the sick lady in the second class. I think I can take you there if you will take my hand.”
“All right, Tom,” said the doctor, cheerily, “I can leave Pearl with you, Fred, till we come back. Ta-ta.”
They felt their way cautiously to the deck. It was wet and clammy and bitterly cold. Every half minute the fog whistle blew: the clashing of the floe ice against the sides of the ship, and the champing of the ice under the screws made it difficult to speak so as to be heard. Tom, however, felt his way along to the second class cabin where he had left his mother an hour before with Mrs. Julia. The doctor knocked at the door.
“Hush,” said Mrs. Wills, as she came out, “the poor girl is asleep.” She pointed to the upper berth. His eyes dazzled by the sudden glare of the electric light, saw nothing clearly beyond a prostrate form under the rug.
“Good-evening, Mrs. Julia,” said he, “I have come for Mrs. Wills. Pearl has sent me to bring her along.”
There was a slight movement in the upper berth. “I’d better go at once,” said Mrs. Wills, “she is stirring,” and so saying, she closed the door, and the three made the best of their way back to the saloon.
Half-an-hour later, Rose awoke. “Adelaide,” she murmured. Mrs. Julia reached up, and kissed her. As she did so, she saw a strange light in her face, a kind of radiance that was heightened rather than diminished by the tears that filled her eyes.
“Adelaide,” she said, “I have seen him! He has been here.”
“Nonsense, child,” said Mrs. Julia. “You have been dreaming. I never left you since you fell asleep.”
“You may not have seen him,” said Rose, calmly. “I did. I cannot be mistaken. I heard his voice, that voice which I have never heard from his lips for seven long years, but which I have never ceased to hear in my dreams. I heard his voice quite distinctly. I looked up, and there he was standing, older than when I knew him, with a sadder, more wistful look than he had in the old days. But it was he.”
“My dear child,” said Mrs. Julia, authoritatively, “you must have been dreaming. Your illness has made you a little light in your head. I assure you, I have been here the whole time, and except Mr. Vernon, who came to bring Mrs. Wills to her children, not a living soul has entered the cabin.”
“Adelaide,” she replied, “I am too weak to argue. You may not have seen him. I did. He is on the ship. I know it. You cannot deceive me.”
Mrs. Julia saw it was indeed no use arguing. So, bidding her lie quite still and take a good dinner, she departed.
All this while Mr. Compton was in the cabin, watching the movements of his hand, as a telegraphist watches the movements of the needle. It wrote a good deal. Messages were written out, and signed by telepathic friends in Melbourne, London, and Chicago. Then came the writing as before.
“John Thomas. Iceberg, 4.0. Are you coming? We cannot hold out much longer. One of the men is too frost-bitten to move. The fog is clearing.—John Thomas.”
Then came more messages from Edinburgh, the Cape, and Singapore. It was singular to note the confidence with which correspondents in such distant regions communicated with their chief in mid-Atlantic. But he had only eyes for one correspondent. At half-past four, it wrote again.—
“John Thomas. Iceberg, 4.30. The fog has gone. The sun is shining. We are on the outer edge of the iceberg field. If you skirt it, you cannot fail to see us—unless the iceberg falls over again. The frostbitten man is dead. We can hold out till sunset—no later.—John Thomas.”
Again more messages from other correspondents, which his hand wrote out without his eye following the lines. At half-past five came the writing.—
“John Thomas. Iceberg, 5.30. I cannot now see the time. My companion can no longer keep his feet. My strength is failing.—John Thomas.”
Compton could stand it no longer. Closing his dispatch-book, he hurried upon deck. He saw and heard the floe ice, and it seemed to him that the fog was not so dense. He saw the captain on the bridge. He went forward where the look-out was keeping a sharp look out on the deck. Suddenly he heard the cry,—
“Icebergs on the starboard.”
The captain shouted something inaudible in the crash of the ice, the engine bell rang, the engines slowed down their speed, the steamer steered a trifle more to the southward, but still kept pounding her way onward. He could only see ghastly shadows looming darkly to the northward. If his friend was on one of these phantasmal masses, what hope was there? Sick at heart he sought out Mrs. Irwin.
“Should you know the iceberg which you saw in your vision if you saw it again?”
“Certainly, I would,” she replied. “It was very irregular, with huge overhanging pinnacles. I could swear to it among a thousand.”
“Stand here, then, near the deck look-out, and keep your eye fixed on the north. It may be that the mist will rise.”
He went back to his cabin. The professor was awaiting him.
“Well?” said he.
“It is not well,” groaned Compton. As he opened his dispatch-book to see if any fresh message was waiting to be taken down, his hand wandered a little over the paper. Then it began;—
“John Thomas. Iceberg. My companion is dead. I am alone on the iceberg. I can no longer stand or walk. In another hour all will be over.—John Thomas.”
“Halloo!” said the professor. “The fog has lifted!” Compton rushed from the cabin, and tore madly to the bridge, where the captain was standing.
“Captain,” he cried, “remember your promise!” And as he spake, he pointed to a great flotilla of icebergs. Behind the steamer the fog was as thick as a blanket. Before her was open water. On the north stretched the dazzling array of icebergs, ever shifting and moving. Now and again a great berg would capsize with a reverberant roar. The captain was cowed. There was something uncanny and awesome about the incident. He had seen icebergs before, but he had seldom had such good luck as to pass clear by the southern edge of the floe, and then to have clear sky. He sent for Mr. Compton to the bridge.
“Captain,” said Compton, before the other had time to speak, “remember your promise. Here we are in open water outside the fog, just off the southern edge of the icebergs. Will you save John Thomas?”
The captain shrugged his shoulders. “How do I know where he is? Am I to use the Majestic, with 2,000 souls on board, to go hunting for John Thomas among that wilderness of icebergs? Ask yourself, Is it reasonable?”
Compton replied, “If I am able to point out the exact iceberg where John Thomas lies, will you stop and send a boat to bring him aboard?”
“Yes,” said the captain, “I could not well refuse that.”
The Majestic was now driving ahead at full speed. All the passengers were on deck enjoying the novel and magnificent spectacle. Suddenly a cry was heard from the bows. It was a woman’s voice, shrill and piercing.
“There it is! That is it! That is the iceberg!”
A rush was made forward. Mrs. Irwin was carried to the captain. Then she said: “We are abreast of it, and will be past it in a minute. Oh, stop her, for the Lord’s mercy! You are not going to leave three men to die?”
The captain took no notice, but keenly scrutinised through his glasses the peculiar-shaped iceberg which she indicated. “Tis curious,” he muttered. “I seem to see a speck of something on the base of that berg.”
The bell in the engine-room sounded, the engines stopped, and the great steamer, for the first time since leaving Queenstown, came to a standstill.
The ship was full of buzzing comments and eager inquiry. Why had the engines been stopped? What was the matter? Never was such a thing heard of—to bring to off an ice floe. There was now very little floating ice. The sea was tranquil. But who could say how soon the fog might fall again, or the northern bergs drift across the ship’s route? The captain must be mad? Was there an accident in the engine-room? No, nothing was wrong there. What then? In that hubbub the voices of those who held the highest numbers in the pool were loudest in angry denunciation of the captain.
And in all this hubbub where was Compton? In his cabin, eagerly deciphering the words which his hand wrote, hardly being able to do so for the tears which blinded him. It wrote:
“John Thomas. Iceberg. I am dying. I have lost all use of my limbs. I can see a steamer in the distance, but it will not stop. I cannot make any signal. Good-bye, chief; good-bye.—John Thomas.”
While he was deciphering this in his cabin, the crew, by the captain’s orders, were busily engaged in lowering one of the ship’s boats. A whisper ran through the ship that there was a castaway on one of the icebergs, and in a moment everyone on board, excepting the holders of the larger numbers, was intensely interested, and even enthusiastic.
Compton came up to the captain. “Captain,” he said “I am afraid it is too late, but grant me one favour?”
“Let the professor and me go in the boat. My friend cannot help himself. He is motionless and frost-bitten. Someone must climb the iceberg. It is not a task his friends should throw upon others. The professor and I are ready.”
The captain said “Go.”
The boat was now launched, the men were at the oars, when the professor and Mr. Compton, carrying ice axes, a rope ladder, a coil of rope, and a bag with brandy and other restoratives, climbed down the side of the ship and took their seats.
How the passengers cheered as they rowed away; cheered, too, in spite of the angry order to desist lest the sound should disturb the very slender equilibrium of some floating mountain.
They were about a mile from the iceberg. The officer in command of the boat conferred with Mr. Compton, who briefly explained what was to be done.
As the boat approached the iceberg, they could distinctly see three bodies, but they could make out no signs of life.
Nearer and nearer they rowed, cautiously but boldly, although every now and then huge blocks of ice detached themselves from the berg, and fell with ominous crash into the water.
Nearer still and nearer the boat rowed, until it was almost within a stone’s-throw of the iceberg. Then Compton, standing up, hailed his friend. There was a dull echo from the perpendicular ice-cliff, but the silent, motionless figures made no sign.
Too late, I fear,” muttered Compton through his clenched teeth. “Never mind, let us bring him to the ship, dead or alive.”
The three bodies were lying on a ledge about twenty feet above the level of the water. When the berg had split, the portion that broke off was that which had afforded the crew a tolerably easy landing-stage. Now there seemed nothing for it but for the boat to lay up alongside the steep ice-wall, and for the rescue party to climb aloft as best they could.
Then another difficulty revealed itself. The sloping ice stretched under water for some twenty or thirty yards, so that the boat could not draw up to the face of the ledge.
“There is nothing for it,” said Compton, “but for you to pull on until you feel the ice beneath your keel; then the professor and I will wade to the face of the cliff, and climb up.”
The boat soon bumped on the ice. Compton got out into the water first, followed by the professor. The latter insisted upon carrying some strange machine round his waist. Each had an axe, and they carried with them a rope-ladder, a small coil of rope, and a flask of brandy. They got out cautiously, fearing lest a sudden spring might possibly bring the whole mountain down upon their heads. In that case, not only were the boat’s crew doomed, but even the Majestic, a mile away, might be in danger.
They imagined they felt the ice give a little under the water, but they ignored it, and were soon at the foot of the ledge on which lay three motionless figures.
Compton and the professor were experienced mountaineers. They had little difficulty in cutting steps, on which they could climb, but the ice was rotten, and often gave way beneath their tread. On one occasion Compton, who was leading, came down with a heavy crash on the professor, laming his left shoulder. They began again at a place where the ice seemed more solid. This time Compton went up alone.
The moment he gained the ledge, an enthusiastic cheer went up from the Majestic, where his every movement was followed with breathless interest. Compton went directly to the longest of the prostrate forms.
“John Thomas,” he said.
There was no answer. He laid his hand upon his face; it was all frost-bitten, and as if it were dead.
“Too late!” he muttered; “too late!”
The professor’s head was just appearing above the ledge, when a heavy boulder, so to speak, of ice fell with a sullen crash out to the sea, dangerously jeopardising the safety of the boat.
“I am afraid it is too late,” said Compton, sullenly.
The professor stepped blithely to the side of the apparent corpse.
“No,” said he; “you will see the use of my patent galvano-vitalizer.”
He undid the machine he carried round his waist, and uncoiled some wires, to which plates of copper were attached. One he placed at the back of the neck, the other on the abdomen. Then he proceeded to turn a handle.
“Sit by his head, Compton,” he said, “and if he shows any signs of reviving, give him a small mouthful of brandy.”
For a time it seemed as if the handle might be turned for ever without producing more effect upon the body than upon the ice on which it lay. But after a while the apparent corpse began to twitch, the eyelids began to move, and then the mouth opened, and a heavy sigh told that vitality had been restored.
Compton tried, at first in vain, to pour some brandy down his throat. It only choked him, and it almost seemed as if John Thomas had survived the cold only to be killed by restoratives. At last, however, they got him sufficiently revived to get him to swallow some spirit, and to take a spoonful of strong beef-tea.
The professor then took off the galvano-vitalizer, and proceeded to fasten the rope-ladder down the side of the cliff. He fixed the two ice-axes securely in the ice, and slung the ladder over the edge. He then fastened the small cord round John Thomas’s waist. Compton and he carried the half-senseless, frost-bitten man to the top of the ladder. The professor then descended until he was in a position to take John Thomas’s legs on his shoulders. He then began slowly to descend, Compton relieving him of as much of the weight as possible by means of the cord. By this means they got safely down to the water, and from thence it was comparatively easy to carry him to the boat. The professor was just returning for the ice-axes, the rope-ladder, and, above all, for his admirable galvano-vitalizer, when a cry was raised in the boat which made his blood run cold— “The fog! the fog!”
Looking round, he saw that the fog was sweeping over the sea, and the outline of the Majestic could hardly be distinguished. Another ten minutes they might not be able to find their way back. The professor forgot even his machine and leapt into the boat. The men bent to their oars as for life, and sent the boat flying over the water like a bird.
Denser and denser grew the fog, but they could see the Majestic right before them, and in another moment they were alongside. Just as they reached the ship they heard a long roar like the reverberation of a park of artillery, and then the water heaved violently and dashed the boat heavily against the side of the Majestic.
There was a moment of agonising suspense. No one knew whether the displacement in the iceberg might not lead to a sudden upheaval of an iceberg under the keel of the Majestic. There was a deathly silence. Then the water began to subside, and the boat’s crew, with Compton and the professor, and the frozen, half-dead survivor were brought safely to deck.
There was too much alarm about the fog for much demonstration of enthusiasm. But, when the engines were once more started, and the Majestic felt her way slowly through the fog to the clear waters beyond, there was not one passenger on board who did not feel glad that the liner had laid to for two whole hours to save that one miserable castaway.
But there were some on board who were filled with deeper feelings than those of mere admiration and sympathy. During the whole of the two hours they had been absent from the ship Irene had watched their progress with a strained interest of emotion which left her no room even for the thought that she was experiencing the most terrible thrill of her life. She had hurriedly thrown an old waterproof over her dinner dress, and stood against the bulwarks following through the glass every movement of the professor, for it was he and he alone for whom she cared. She feared he did not care much for her. Why should he? She was but a silly girl with a pretty face. He was one of the greatest scientists of the world. She would rather be trampled on by him than be made love to by all the other men in the ship. She had always been piqued by his impersonal method of regarding her as alkali capable of yielding certain results when tested with acids; and she was honestly dazzled by his learning and genius, but this excursion of his to the iceberg suddenly transformed him into the prince and hero of her dreams. None of the other men in the boat, not even Compton, seemed to be worth a thought. The professor, and he alone, was the hero-leader of the expedition. How noble he seemed! His very eye seemed to glow with divine light as the boat left the ship. That he seemed supremely indifferent to her only added to his charm.
From all which meditations it may be inferred that Irene was experiencing for the first time an entirely new sensation of utter humility and of self-effacement. As the boat lessened in the distance, she had kept her glass fixed upon the professor, following him with an emotion too deep for utterance until he landed below the ice ledge.
An indefinable feeling of horror came over her as she saw he was in the water. She watched them cutting steps in the ice; but her indignation knew no bounds when she saw Compton go up first. What effrontery to thrust himself before her hero! But when, just as Compton was nearing the top, his foothold gave way he fell heavily upon the professor below, both falling into the water, it seemed to her as if she were witnessing a murder. In that one terrible moment the flame of her love and her life seemed to flare up with one fierce spasm and then go out for ever in horrible darkness of nothingness and despair. She gave a piteous scream. Her glass dropped from her hands over the bulwarks into the water, and she fell swooning on the deck. So great was the excitement at the moment that she lay for some minutes unnoticed. Then the doctor and one of the stewards carried her to the saloon, where they applied restoratives. She lay quite insensible, but as she was breathing heavily and evenly, they left her, and returned to watch the attempt at rescue.
There was another spectator who was only one degree less interested than Irene. That was Mrs. Irwin. She had been deeply impressed by the straightforward manliness of Mr. Compton, and attracted to him by his occult gifts. The incident of the wreck off the iceberg established a sympathy between them, and she felt naturally intensely interested in the rescue of the tall, red-haired, one-eyed man whom she had seen more than twelve hours before when they must have been distant nearly 200 miles. She would have gladly gone in the boat, but it was idle proposing it. So she had perforce prepared to choose the more arduous task of watching while Compton risked his life to save the castaway.
Mrs. Irwin was of a practical nature amid all her dreams and mystic imaginings. She did not merely watch, she prayed, prayed with all the intensity of a passionate nature for the safety of the man for whom alone she felt reviving in her breast the stormy emotions that she believed had been hushed for ever in her husband’s grave. “Something had gone snap inside,” she used to say, “when she heard the clods fall on the coffin lid.” She could never feel again as she felt in the glad old days when she wandered with her lover under the olive trees of the Riviera, or sat on the promontory rock of Monaco, and saw in the cool of the night the great moon shine double in sky and sea. All was dust and ashes within, and yet she felt, almost with a sense of profanation, the quickening throb of the old emotion as she watched Mr. Compton climb up the ice cliff. When he fell she cried, “O God, let it be the other one!” for her quick nature never hesitated a moment to sacrificing the professor or a hecatomb of professors to save Compton. She felt as if her prayer was granted when Compton struggled to his feet and the professor rose rubbing his shoulder. Every step up the cliff was accompanied by passionate prayer, the outpourings of a woman’s will, so potent often for ill as to justify the witch’s tar-barrel, but this time employed to bless, not to curse.
The moment she saw them reach the boat in safety, and pull off through the mist, her practical common-sense asserted itself. She bustled to the steward and made him prepare the most commodious berth in the ship for the reception of John Thomas, supply warm blankets, and provide all manner of creature comforts. She brought out the steward of Mr. Compton’s cabin, and induced him to provide plenty of warmed wraps, and the doctor got ready every kind of medicament and cordial.
When Compton stepped on board the ship, the impulsive Irish woman seized his hand with both of hers, and exclaimed:
“Mr. Compton, Mr. Compton! the Lord reward you for this day.”
He looked up at her glowing face and sparkling eyes, from which her whole soul was beaming in admiration and worship, and then moved slowly towards his berth without saying a word. She accompanied him with the doctor. When he reached the door, he said:
“It was a very near thing, Mrs. Irwin, nearer than I ever care to be in again. I am faint. The doctor will look after me. Good-night.”
She seized his proffered hand, wrung it passionately, and rushed away.
“Doctor,” said Compton, slowly, “undress me, and let me sleep.”
The doctor undressed him, but did not let him sleep. He chafed his frozen hands, plied him with strong and heated cordials, and made him drink a cup of the best clear soup the cook could provide, and then, when at last after an hour spent in this way he was allowed to sleep, all danger was passed.
As for John Thomas, he was cared for by the ship’s doctor. With skilful treatment and constant care life began to return, and by the morning he could speak.
As for the professor, he slipped away in the confusion, and was making his way through the saloon to his berth when he was startled by seeing Irene, her long black hair streaming behind, her face pallid as death, her eyes swollen, her whole appearance that of one almost distraught. She did not seem to see him, but moved as if she were in a dream. They were in a narrow corridor where two could pass with difficulty. He was obliged to speak; all wet as he was he could not allow her to spoil her dress. “Miss Vernon,” he said, “do you not see me?”
She gave a frightened cry, turned to run, with horror on her countenance.
The professor sighed for his cunning little instrument which measured emotion, and then, before Irene had time to run two steps, he caught her hand.
“Miss Vernon, this is a poor welcome,” he said. Irene stopped instantly, turned, and regarded him intently. “Then—you—are—not dead?”
“No,” he said, somewhat snappishly; “but I soon shall be if I cannot get off these wet clothes.”
Then, to his immense dismay, with a hysterical laugh, poor Irene flung herself upon him, all dripping wet with ice water, kissed him over and over again before he could get breath:
“O professor, professor, I thought I saw you die!”
The poor professor felt he would have given the whole world to have had his instrument in position. “It would have been the highest reading on record,” he said to himself. “The complexity of conflicting emotions would have put the instrument to a higher test than will ever recur again.”
“Brain fever, I fear,” said he, as, grasping Irene firmly with both hands, he led her, talking incoherently about her hero, to her berth, where he delivered her over to the stewardess, telling her to summon the doctor, and keep note of her temperature.
Then he turned to his own berth, and, before he took off his dripping garments, he fixed his instrument on his finger and tried to read the register. But it was too fitful, or his arm was too numb with the bruise on his shoulder, for its record to be valuable. So, calling the steward, he undressed, ate a hearty dinner, and was soon in a sound sleep. But, before he dozed off into unconsciousness, a new and unwonted sensation of mingled regret and desire stole over him.
“Steward,” he said, “give me my instrument. I want to measure—” but before he finished the sentence, he had dropped off to sleep.