The Horror of the Empress – Friday Reads

This Friday we’re pleased to present a short story by Paul Dayton. Author of the amazing sci-fi novel: WE’VE SEEN THE ENEMY, Paul is a master at taking real events and infusing them with his imagination to bring them to a reality that resonates with the reader. This one is based on the sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland, the deadliest maritime disaster in Canadian history and is an excerpt from Paul’s book THE EYE OF THE IDOL.

The Horror of the Empress

May 29, 1914, 1:20 A.M.

Captain Kendall couldn’t sleep. It was bad enough that this was his first trip down the St. Lawrence on his new command, but thoughts of his murdered wife and the horrendous image of her death flitted through his mind. He tried to put the blame for his sleeplessness on the stage actor’s wife, the one he had spoken with earlier. The actor, whose name was Irving, had searched him out in an effort to calm his wife down. She had been in a panic, and kept going on about the sinking of the Titanic two years before. After commenting on the precautions being taken to make sure all passengers were kept safe and comfortable, he took her up to the bridge and pointed out the deck hands and crew responsible for keeping an eye out, but she was beyond reason. Even visiting the ship doctor provided little relief which left Kendall worried. He had gone up to her after the laudanum had taken effect and calmly said, “Madam, I am not in the habit of sailing ships that sink.” He winked at her in good nature, but it had made little difference. Kendall shook his head. As strange as her uncontrollable panic was, it wasn’t that which had woken him now – it was her appearance and mannerism. She looked exactly like his deceased wife.

´But that’s not it,’ he thought to himself. Four years had passed, yet he still had trouble sleeping. Visions of her dismembered body were running through his mind more frequently, not less. There was no way he’d take the bromide or cocaine prescribed by his doctor, but he was nearly at wit’s end as to what to do otherwise.

Kendall threw his bed sheets over in disgust and got dressed. ‘I should be in the wheelhouse anyway,’ he said to himself, forgetting that the term better applied to his previous ship.
Walking out into the crisp cold air, he buttoned his overcoat in an attempt to keep out the damp chill and made his way up to the Bridge. Just before entering, he heard the heavy Newfoundlander accent of the Chief Officer on duty as he spoke to someone else inside.

“She’s all gone right bad y’know…”

“What’r you on about now Terry?” the Chief Officer replied.

“The ship. Right bad. Emmy knew, she never missed a sailing before.”

“That Jeezley cat’s crazy. Scraped my arm to hell when I tried to put her below decks.” Sammy held up his right arm, showing the angry red gouges. “She splits me hand to elbow, Hisses like I’m Satan hisself, and jumps straight onto the pier. Reminds me o my demon woman she does.”

“You could have got her. I seen her sittin’ on the tin shack when we was pullin’ out.”

“That was four friggin’ hours later. We tried to scoot her back between times, but the bugger took off onto the roof where we couldn’t get at her. We gave it over when she wouldn’t come down.  There’s a difference between scratching yer arse, and tearing it all to pieces.”

Chief looked at his forearm again. “She only come down when she heard the motors and we was backing her out of the slip.”

Terry nodded sagely. “Like I said. She’s all gone right bad. Emma knew what was coming.”

“And you’re as buggy as that friggin’ cat,” the Chief replied, shaking his head.
Kendall stepped in before the conversation got out of hand.

“Mornin’, Captain!” the Chief said. Surprised to see ya in so early. Brew’s right good n still fresh, if you mind some, sir.”

“Mornin’. Think I will then. Carry on, Chief.” He went and poured himself a cup. He stood just inside the door leading to the bridge wings and looked out into the heavy mist, happy to see the Empress moving carefully at slow ahead.

“It’s a small world out there, Captain,” the Chief said worriedly.

“So I see. How do you feel about it?”

“I’ve kept her close to shore and soundin every minute sir, but I’m worried. Perhaps we should wait dis out.”

“Might be a good idea. An hour won’t hurt anyone. Ring the Engine Master to stop.”

“Right y’are sir. Reverse to stop?”

“I don’t think we need…” he started to say, but remembered the 1500 people on the Empress. He knew the night officer well – a fully capable man that had come with excellent recommendations.

“Yes, reverse to stop.” Although her speed was only ten knots, it would be a good mile before the Empress came to a full stop, even with the reverse to stop orders.

He turned to look back out into the night as the night chief rang the engine room. Within seconds, his thoughts drifted back to that horrible event as he sipped at his still hot coffee. He couldn’t believe his wife was dead, but as gruesome as her death was, the story of her murderer’s capture was even stranger. He thought back to the moment that had almost given him a heart attack.

After bereaving the death of his wife, he continued command of the ship at the time, the SS Montrose. Once they had broken port he looked over the passenger list and as he scanned the names, he dropped the clipboard in surprise when he recognized one of them. Picking it up again, he had to read it twice to confirm his fears – his wife’s murderer and his accomplice had gotten passage aboard his very ship under one of the aliases the suspected couple used.

Using the ship’s Marconi wireless, he contacted authorities. The famous Dr. Crippen, the notorious ‘cellar killer’ and his lover Ethel Le Neve were arrested when the Montrose was intercepted by a police boat. As they were escorted away, Kendall remember the cold, hard stare  Crippen’s beautiful but deadly lover had given him, one he could never forget. It was one thing to see Dr. Crippen as a killer. Men had killed for the smallest of reasons. But never in his mind could he imagine such a cold-hearted, brutal but lovely female killer such as Le Neve. Before they were hung, Crippen had uttered a curse directed at Kendall himself, clearly stating that his next command would sink.

He shook his head at the unusual coincidence, and hoped he would eventually get some peace from the horrible event.

Tossing out the rest of his lukewarm coffee, he decided to walk around the perimeter. Just as he was about to leave, a massive impact shook the Empress and Kendall was knocked off his feet. He smacked the railing hard and crumpled to the ground. Confused and thinking they had hit ice on the St. Lawrence, he tried getting up, but the ship listed immediately to starboard. After a few moments, the Chief Officer stumbled out, saying, “Are you alright, Captain?”

“What did we hit?” he asked dazed, ignoring the question. He slowly pulled himself up as he heard the Chief’s report.

“She didn’ hit anyting, sir. We were hit from the side.” They looked at the list, and the degree of damage was inescapable. He looked the Chief in the eye. “The lower portholes are below water…”

“Aye sir. I hate to say it, but it’s only a matter of time now.”

Seconds later, the second mate yelled from inside. “Sir, reports of flooding in steerage! People are panicking on the lower decks…”

“And the boat deck?”

A moment passed, and he replied, “Relatively orderly.”

“I’ll get Mr. Giovanni to send out a mayday on the wireless. Announce the order to pass out the life vests and start loading the lifeboats. Make sure the engine master has the ballast pumps running on full and the boatsman has all hands ready to assist the passengers.”

“Yes sir,” Chief Officer Randall said.

Captain Kendall heard the order go out and watched the deck crew work at freeing up the lifeboats, but the Empress’s growing list was making things extremely difficult. After five minutes of struggling, only four had been launched, and he knew it would be a miracle if any more could be dropped. Fortunately, he could see the SS Storstad approach, heavily damaged but able to rescue the survivors.

For a fleeting moment, he eyed her with an ice cold stare. Damn you, Captain. Damn you and you’re ship…’

The Empress dropped again as her list worsened, reminding Kendall it was time to act.
Just as he turned to meet with the Marconi radio operator, an explosion rocked the Empress and she dropped fully to her side. Kendall shot through the air and hit the water hard, the vacuum of the rapidly keeling ship sucking him under. Although shocked with the ice cold water, he fought to reach the surface and caught a breath as he momentarily broke, but the violent eddies quickly pulled him down once again, disorienting him as he spun in the darkness.

He fought the massive urge to cough, the water forcing itself into his ears and nose as he desperately searched for direction. A shifting glimmer of light gave him hope, and he pumped powerful strokes towards it. Seconds later, he broke the surface once again as his head bumped against a wooden grating cast off from the Empress’s keeling. He grabbed hold of it as he heard people all around him screaming in horror or yelling for help. One woman grabbed hysterically at his hair from behind and tried to climb on top of him, pulling him under before he was able to fully cough the water from his lungs. Panicking himself, he swam under and behind her to escape her grasp and struggled again to reach the surface, but with his energy spent, it was just out of reach as the water weighed down his heavy overcoat. Though his lungs were burning for a breath of air, Kendall realized the truth. It was if Satan himself was pulling him down into the depths of hell, and he realized that breath would never come. Kendall stilled his racing heart as he let the air out of his lungs. ‘A few more minutes, my love, and I’ll be joining you,’ he thought, but the thought was interrupted by a powerful hand that reached deep and grabbed him from behind. He found himself being pulled into one of the lifeboats as he gagged out the St. Lawrence water.

“Here you go Captain!” a voice said as Kendall struggled to take a breath.

“Lucky Tower here! Are you alright?” Kendall was too busy coughing to reply.

“Stick with me and you’ll be fine. As my name says, I’m lucky. Survived one sinking already you know! Well, two now…I was also on the Titanic,” but Kendall wasn’t listening as he looked at his Empress, wheezing and spitting out what was left in his lungs. The horrible image would burn in his mind until the day he died – the Empress keeled on her side, her twin funnels now lapping at the water. The scene was surreal. The fog had come in again, and although he could see people crawling out of the portholes and decks onto her side, dumbfounded as they looked at the huge, dying ship, they seemed more like the immaterial spirits of those already dead.  Cries of those in the water faded into the distance as Kendall’s eyes took in the end result of his first major command. ‘My God. How could this happen?’

“Lucky! Damned lucky, I say.”

Kendall turned to ‘Lucky’ Tower and stared at him as he continued to jabber. Looking back at the Empress, the thought of what was about to happen hit him. In a panic, he stood up and yelled out, “Get off! Get off her now!” but it was obvious they’d never hear. He turned to the oarsmen and said, “Forward to those in the water, now!”

“But sir, she’s going down,” the deck hand at the rudder yelled. “She’ll suck us under…”

“Forward, towards the Empress…There,” he pointed, ignoring them and singling out the woman who had climbed over him, faintly holding on to the wooden grating. As they reached her and pulled her in, he did a double take. Mrs. Irving was just conscious enough to give him an “I told you so!’ look. From there they picked up others as he watched the Empress in despair. He could only imagine those on her thinking that perhaps the worst was over, as if the craft were grounded on an imaginary sandbar. A crazed laugh burst out of his mouth as he held his hands to his head.

For a minute, everything was calm, and even the cries had died down. But suddenly, the Empress groaned a death cry as her stern rose out of the water, the ones on her hull shaken off as she hung suspended for a moment. Those on the lifeboat became quiet as the massive vessel gave her last breath and sank rapidly out of sight. He stood oblivious to the cold as the carcass of the once beautiful Empress of Ireland gulped down the souls of those belonging to her and took them down to her grave.