I wrote this historical short story back in October, before NaNoWriMo. Thought I’d put it on here.
As Muriel Stockley registered that she was awake, she hoped that this time, it would be at a decent hour; a sign that she had finally gotten accustomed to the shipboard routine, a few days after setting out across the Atlantic. But when she opened her eyes, she knew that she was out of luck; there was no sign of sunlight from behind the porthole curtain, and Ben was still slumbering beside her.
Groping blindly at the dresser to retrieve her pocket watch, she realised that the cabin wasn’t quite as dark as it ought to have been. There was a sliver of light poking from under the door. Not only that, but she could hear footsteps in the corridor outside. The lights in the corridors were always turned off at night, so perhaps it actually was morning, though clearly very early morning.
Muriel peered at her watch, but there wasn’t quite enough light for her aging eyes to make out the time. She reached for the light on the dresser and flicked the switch, intending to check the time as quickly as possible before turning it off, to avoid disturbing Ben. But when the light came on, the watch made her pause in bewilderment; it said half past one. It wouldn’t be the same as the ship’s clocks, which were changed at midnight every night, but the difference should always be less than an hour so it hardly mattered in this case.
What on earth was anyone doing in the corridor at this time of night?
She was still considering the matter when she registered movement next to her; the light had roused Ben. Bleary-eyed, he looked at her and grunted, ‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m not doing anything,’ said Muriel. ‘But somebody’s up to something out there.’
‘What time is it?’
‘Half past one.’
Ben groaned. ‘Then it’s no concern of ours. Turn off the light and go back to sleep.’
Somebody else went past the cabin door – and from the sound of their footsteps, they were positively hurrying.
‘Well, I’m going to take a look, if you won’t,’ said Muriel.
When she pulled the cover off and got out of bed, she was struck by something else: the cabin was freezing cold. Muriel practically leapt toward the heater, and found that it was like stone under her fingers. Tentatively, she turned the knob. There was no trace of heat, no sound to indicate that the heater was even trying to work.
‘It’s broken,’ she said.
‘Well, this ship is hardly the pinnacle of the fleet,’ said Ben. ‘If you didn’t want any hiccups, we should have booked the Mauretania. Come back to bed if you’re so cold.’
‘For goodness sake, Ben, think about it,’ Muriel whispered. ‘It’s the middle of the night, the lights are still on, people are running around, the heater’s not working…something must be wrong with the ship! In fact…’ She paused and concentrated, considering the vibration through the cabin; then she placed a hand on the mattress, just to be certain. ‘I’m sure the engines are rattling more than they have been before.’
Ben now summoned the energy to sit up in bed and look at her. ‘They do seem to be going a little harder, now that I…’
Before he could say anymore, Muriel resolutely snatched her dressing gown, put it on, and opened the cabin door. She peered into the corridor, and almost immediately saw someone heading in the opposite direction. It was a crewman, laden down with blankets.
‘Excuse me!’ Muriel called after him. ‘What on earth is going on?’
The crewman didn’t even glance at her; he just disappeared down the corridor before she could call again.
Muriel went back into the cabin and saw Ben getting out of bed, shivering as he crossed the room toward her. ‘Someone is out there, then?’
‘A crewman went marching past and he completely ignored me,’ said Muriel. ‘Ben, something’s wrong. You can’t deny it.’
‘Very well, something out of the ordinary seems to be afoot, but the crew would let us know if there was a serious problem.’
‘Would they? What if they just don’t want to cause a panic?’
‘It’s their job to take care of us, Muriel,’ said Ben, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. ‘Try not to be so highly strung, dear – we’re supposed to be going on vacation, remember?’
But that was just it. Things like this weren’t supposed to happen on vacation. It was supposed to just be a nice, simple voyage to the warmth and jolly comfort of Naples; the sort of thing you could afford to do when you were getting on in years and the children had all left home. When you got on an ocean liner, you were supposed to simply relax and leave everything in the crew’s capable hands – but now, with the shipboard routine being interrupted without explanation, Muriel couldn’t relax at all.
Her mind filled with unpleasant possibilities. Suppose there had been some sort of malfunction down below – that might explain the abnormal sound of the engines – and the ship would have to turn around and go back to New York? What were they supposed to do about the vacation then? Could they get their money back?
And what if it was more than just a malfunction? The cold brought a more frightening possibility to mind.
‘Ben…aren’t there supposed to be icebergs at this time of year?’
‘If we’d hit an iceberg, we would feel it, Muriel,’ Ben sighed.
‘Would we? What if we hit one, and now they’re trying to get to another ship or something before we sink? What if all those blankets the sailor was carrying are to plug a hole down below? I’m sure I remember a story about a ship where they had to do something like that….one of those Collins Line ships from years ago, don’t you remember?’
Ben now had both hands resting on her shoulders. ‘Muriel, stop panicking.’
Suddenly, every sound around them seemed ominous. Muriel thought she could make out urgent voices, muffled by distance and the cabin door. There was a sudden clunk from above them – was there activity up on deck? She now felt more aware than ever that they were on a precarious ship in the middle of the dark ocean, and if that ship wasn’t going to stay afloat, and no help was nearby…
‘Why hasn’t someone told us what’s happening?’ she cried.
‘Possibly because they’re busy,’ said Ben, his voice soothing.
‘I’m going back out there. Maybe there’s another crewman who’ll actually bother to speak to us.’
‘In that case, I’ll accompany you.’
A moment later, the two of them stepped back into the lit corridor in their dressing gowns. Actually taking action made Muriel feel slightly better, just as it always had – and this time, there was indeed another crewman standing at the end of the corridor: a uniformed steward, this time. Before he noticed them, his face was looking grim, which only seemed to confirm Muriel’s suspicions.
Finally, he heard their footsteps and turned, putting on a more courteous expression. ‘Is there anything you need? I’m afraid the captain has asked for all passengers to remain in their cabins at this time.’
‘Then there is something going on!’ Muriel exclaimed. ‘Now please give me a straight answer: are we in danger?’
‘Madam,’ said the steward, ‘you don’t have to worry. There’s nothing wrong with this ship.’
‘But then why are all the crew rushing about? And the engines don’t sound right…’
The steward looked grim once again. ‘Right now, every bit of steam we have is going into those engines. Full speed.’
‘Full speed toward what, exactly?’ Ben asked.
‘All I know is that we received a distress call over the wireless. Another ship is sinking out there – struck an iceberg, apparently. We’re heading for their position to do what we can.’
When dawn broke, the engines were no longer running.
Muriel and Ben, along with the other passengers, had finally been allowed out on deck. The cold was biting, but Muriel had been compelled to witness this – the aftermath of the night’s events, happening not so far away, right when she had first woken.
Not so far away….and yet still too far.
There were the lifeboats, so small on the vastness of the sea, all seeking security in their direction. A few had already pulled up alongside, and their occupants were either climbing or being lifted aboard.
And there, off in the distance, were the icebergs, glistening in the sunlight, regarding them all imperiously.
Something floated close to the hull; for one horrible moment, Muriel thought that it was a body – but it was an empty life preserver, which was almost as bad. The bodies were undoubtedly out there, though; the ghost-like, horror-struck faces of those coming aboard testified to that. Every now and then, the quiet murmuring on the deck below was broken by the sound of a sob.
‘What do you think’s going to happen now?’ she asked quietly.
‘No idea,’ said Ben. ‘I can’t imagine we’re taking them all the way to Europe with us. Maybe we can put them on another ship, or maybe we’ll turn around and take them to New York ourselves. That’s where they were supposed to be headed, after all.’
An abandoned vacation suddenly seemed very unimportant. Muriel felt a powerful urge to see her children’s faces again as soon as possible.
‘Ben,’ she said, ‘let’s see if we can make any room in our cabin. Perhaps we can put someone up for a little while. Those poor souls need all the help they can get.’
Ben nodded, and they turned away, departing the sombre deck of the Carpathia.