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SCENE II

SCENEA section of the boat deck of the S. S. “Empress” just abaft of the bridge. The deck slants sharply downward in the direction of the bow. To the left the officers’ cabins with several lighted port holes. Just in back of them and in the middle of the deck is the wireless room with its door wide open revealing James Knapp bent over his instrument on the forward side of the compartment. His face is pale and set, and he is busy sending out calls, pausing every now and then with a strained expression as if he were vainly trying to catch some answer to his messages. Every time he taps on the key the snarl of the wireless sounds above the confused babble of frightened voices that rises from the promenade deck. To the right of the wireless room on the port side a life-raft. Still farther to the right one of the funnels. The background is a tropic sky blazing with stars. The wires running up from the wireless room to the foremast may be seen dimly lined against the sky. The time is about eleven o’clock.

  Captain Hardwick enters hurriedly from the direction of the bridge and walks across to the door of the wireless room where he stands looking in at Knapp. He is a stocky man about fifty dressed in a simple blue uniform. His face is reddened by sun and wind— that is, all of it which is not hidden by his grey beard and mustache. He drums nervously on the door. Knapp pretends not to see him and appears absorbed in his instrument.

  CAPT. HARDWICK—No answer yet? (Knapp does not reply and the Captain leans over impatiently and shakes him by the shoulder.) I asked you if there was any answer yet?

  KNAPP—(looking at him furtively) I haven’t heard a thing yet, sir.

  CAPT. HARDWICK—Damnation! What in hell is the matter with them? Are they all asleep?

  KNAPP—I’ll try again sir. (He taps on the key before him and the whine of the wireless shrills out discordantly.)

  CAPT. HARDWICK—(turning away with a muttered oath) Well, I’ve got to get back on the bridge. Let me know the moment you catch anyone.

  KNAPP—(who has been watching his lips move) Yes, sir. (His tone is vague as if he were guessing at the answer.)

  CAPT. HARDWICK—Tell ‘em we hit a derelict and are sinking. Make it as strong as you can. We need help and we need it right away.

  KNAPP—(more vaguely than ever) Yes sir.

  CAPT. HARDWICK—You surely ought to get the “Verdari.” She can’t be more than a hundred miles away if my reckoning is correct. (turning away again) I’ve got to go. Keep sending until you get an answer.

  KNAPP—Yes sir.

  CAPT. HARDWICK—(in under his breath) Damn your “yes sirs.” I believe you’re frightened out of your wits. (He walks quickly toward the bridge. Half-way across the deck he is met by Mason the First Officer, a tall, clean-shaven, middle-aged man in uniform who hurries in from forward.) Well, Mason, how do things look below?

  MASON—Very bad sir. I’m afraid the bulkhead can’t hold out much longer. They’re doing all they can to strengthen it but it don’t look to me as if it would stand the pressure. I wouldn’t give it more than half an hour—an hour at most, sir.

  CAPT. HARDWICK— She’s listing pretty badly. Guess you’re right, Mason. When that bulkhead goes it’s only a question of five or ten minutes. Are the crew all ready to man the boats?

  MASON—Yes sir.

  CAPT. HARDWICK—Good! Passengers all on deck and ready to leave?

  MASON—Yes sir.

  CAPT. HARDWICK—Good! Lucky there’s only a few of them or we’d be in a nice mess. Lucky it’s a calm night too. There’ll be no panic. (There is a pause broken only by the confused sound of voices from below.) Damned funny we get no reply to our calls for help, eh? Don’t you think so?

  MASON—Very funny, sir. The “Verdari” ought to be right around here about this time. There ought to be four or five vessels we could reach, I should think.

  CAPT. HARDWICK—Just what I told Knapp. The poor devil seems scared to death because he can’t get an answer. All he says every time I ask him is: (mimicking Knapp) Haven’t heard a thing yet, sir!

  MASON—He’s told me the same thing three or four times. I don’t like the looks of it, sir. He appears to act queer to me.

  CAPT. HARDWICK—You’re right. He has been strange all during the trip—didn’t seem to want to speak to anyone. I thought he must be sick. Think it’s drink?

  MASON—No sir. I never saw him touch a drop—even on shore.

  CAPT. HARDWICK—Let’s see what he’s got to say now. By God, we’ve got to get a message in soon or there’ll be the devil to pay. (They both go over to the wireless room where Knapp is frenziedly sending out call after call. The Captain goes into the compartment and stands beside Knapp. Mason remains outside the door. Knapp looks up and sees them. He glances fearfully from one to the other.)

  CAPT. HARDWICK—Caught the “Verdari” yet?

  KNAPP—(in the uncertain tone he had used before) I haven’t heard a thing yet, sir.

  CAPT. HARDWICK—Are you sure there’s nothing wrong with this machine of yours?

  KNAPP—(bewilderedly) No sir. Not a single answer, sir. I can’t account for it, sir.

  CAPT. HARDWICK—(angrily) I know that. You’ve told me often enough. Answer my question! (Knapp looks at him with puzzled eyes; then turns to the key of his instrument. Capt. Hardwick grabs him by the shoulder.) Did you hear what I said? Dammit, answer my question.

  KNAPP—(his lips trembling) No sir.

  CAPT. HARDWICK—(furiously) What?

  MASON—(interposing) Excuse me, sir, but something’s wrong with the man. I don’t think he heard what you said.

  CAPT. HARDWICK—The coward is frightened silly—that’s what’s the matter. (Bending down he shouts against the receivers which Knapp has over both his ears.) Say something, can’t you? Are you deaf? (Knapp shrinks away from him, his face ashy with fear, but does not answer.)

  MASON—Maybe it’s those things on his ears, sir.

  CAPT. HARDWICK—(taking hold of the metal loops that go over Knapp’s head and jerking the receivers off his ears) Now! Answer me! What in hell’s the matter with you? (then his voice softening a bit) If you’re sick, why don’t you say so?

  KNAPP—(looking at him helplessly for a moment—then hiding his face in his arms and weeping hysterically) Oh my God! it’s come! (The Captain and Mason look at each other in amazement as Knapp blurts out between his sobs) I wasn’t sure. I was hoping against hope. I can’t hear a word you say. I can’t hear anything. It’s happened just as the doctor said it might. (looking up at the Captain and clasping and unclasping his hands piteously) Oh, I should have told you, sir, before we started— but we’re so poor and I couldn’t get another job. I was just going to make this one more trip. I wanted to give up the job this time but she wouldn’t let me. She said I wanted them to starve—and Charlie asked me for a suit. (His sobs stifle him.) Oh God, who would have dream’t this could have happened—at such a time. I thought it would be all right—just this trip. I’m not a bad man, Captain. And now I’m deaf—stone deaf. I can’t hear what you say. I’m deaf! Oh my God! My God! (He flings his arms on the instrument in front of him and hides his face on them, sobbing bitterly.)

  CAPT. HARDWICK—(turning to Mason) Well, I’ll be damned! What do you make of this?

  MASON—I guess what he says is true, sir. He’s gone deaf. That’s why we’ve had no answer to our calls.

  CAPT. HARDWICK—(fuming helplessly) What in hell can we do? I must know they’re coming for us before I send the boats away. (He thinks a moment. Suddenly his face lights up and he strikes his fist into his open palm.) By God, I’ve got it. You know Dick Whitney? (Mason nods.) Operator of the “Duchess”—been laid up in Bahia with fever—came on board there—going home on vacation—he’s in the First Cabin—run and get him. (Mason runs down deck toward bridge.) Hurry, for God’s sake! (Mason is gone. Captain Hardwick turns to Knapp and lifting him by the arms helps him out of cabin and sits him down on the life-raft. Pats him roughly on back.) Brace up! Poor beggar! (Knapp continues to sob brokenly. Mason reappears followed by Dick Whitney, a thin, sallow-faced young fellow of about twenty-five, wearing a light sack suit. He shows the effect of his recent battle with tropical fever but he walks over to the wireless room confidently enough and takes his seat before the instrument.)

  CAPT. HARDWICK—Get some one quick, Whitney. Tell ‘em we’re just about to launch the boats.

  WHITNEY—(who has put the receivers over his ears) They’re calling us now, sir. (He sends answering call —a pause.) It’s the “Verdari.”

  CAPT. HARDWICK—Good! I knew she ought to be near us.

  WHITNEY—Operator says they’re coming full speed—ought to reach us before daylight—wants to know if we can’t keep up till then.

  CAPT. HARDWICK—No. Tell them the bulkhead’s almost gone. We’re due to sink within an hour at most. (to Mason) Better go down and see how things are below. (Mason leaves hurriedly.)

  WHITNEY—All right, sir. (He taps on the key —the wail of the wireless sounds again —then a pause.)

  CAPT. HARDWICK—What do they say now?

  WHITNEY—(with a slight smile) “Hard luck.”

  CAPT. HARDWICK—(exploding) Damn their sympathy!

  WHITNEY—The operator says he’s been trying to communicate with us for a long time. He got our messages all right but we never seemed to get his. (The Capt. glances at Knapp who is still sitting on the life-raft with his face hidden in his hands.) He says he got a call from one of the Fruit Co.’s boats. She’s rushing to help us too. He wants to know if we’ve heard anything from her.

  CAPT. HARDWICK—No. (He looks at Knapp again, then speaks dryly.) Tell him our receiving apparatus has been out of order.

  WHITNEY— (looks up in surprise —then sends the message— there is a pause) He asks if we’re sure it was a derelict we struck—says the “Verdari” sighted one about where we are now yesterday and he sent out warnings to all vessels he could reach—says he tried to get us especially because he knew we passed this way; but if our receiving end was bad that explains it.

  CAPT. HARDWICK—(staring at Knapp) By God!

  WHITNEY—Anything more you want to say, sir?

  CAPT. HARDWICK—(mechanically) Tell them to hurry, that’s all. (Suddenly in a burst of rage he strides toward Knapp and raises his fist as if to strike him. Mason comes in from astern and steps in between them. Capt. Hardwick glares at him for a moment—then recovers himself) You’re right, Mason. I won’t touch him; but that miserable, cowardly shrimp has lost my ship for me. (His face plainly shows how much this loss means to him. Mason does not understand what he means. Capt. Hardwick turns to the wireless room again where young Whitney is sitting expectantly awaiting orders.) Say Whitney! Write out that last message from the “Verdari” about her sending out warnings of that derelict yesterday—warnings which we didn’t get. Put down how the operator on the “Verdari” tried especially to warn us because he knew we would pass this way. (Mason now understands and turns from Knapp with a glance full of scorn. Whitney writes rapidly on the report pad near him and hands the sheet to the Capt. who walks over to Knapp and shaking him, holds the message out. Knapp takes it in a trembling hand.)

  MASON—I’ve got all the men up from below, sir. The bulkhead’s ready to go any minute. Shall I get some of the boats away, sir?

  CAPT. HARDWICK—Yes. (Mason starts astern.) Wait a moment. I’m coming with you. Come on Whitney. You can’t do any good there any longer. (He stops in front of Knapp as he walks toward the stern. Knapp is staring at the paper in his hand with wild eyes and pale, twitching features. Capt. Hardwick motions to him to follow them. They go off to right. Knapp sits still with the sheet of paper in his hand. The creaking of blocks is heard and Mason’s voice shouting orders.)

  KNAPP—(in a hoarse whisper) God! It’s my fault then! It’s my fault! (He staggers weakly to his feet.) What if the ship is lost! (He looks astern where they are lowering the boats —his face is convulsed with horror—he gives a bitter cry of despair.) O-o-h! They’re lowering the boats! She is lost! She is lost! (He stumbles across the deck into the wireless room, pulls out a drawer, and takes out a revolver, which he presses against his temple.) She is lost! (There is a sharp report and Knapp falls forward on his face on the floor before his instrument. His body twitches for a moment, then is still. The operator Whitney comes running in from the right calling: “Knapp! They’re waiting for you.” He gives one horrified glance at the body in the room; says “Good God!” in a stupefied tone, and then, seized with sudden terror, rushes astern again.)

(Curtain)


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