Contents I II
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
CAPT. HARDWICK—Good! Passengers all on deck and ready to leave?
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
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!
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?
uncertain tone he had used before) I haven’t heard a thing yet,
you sure there’s nothing wrong with this machine of yours?
No sir. Not a single answer, sir. I can’t account for it, sir.
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.
trembling) No sir.
Excuse me, sir, but something’s wrong with the man. I don’t think
he heard what you said.
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.)
those things on his ears, sir.
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?
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.)
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.
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.)
some one quick, Whitney. Tell ‘em we’re just about to launch the
has put the receivers over his ears) They’re calling
us now, sir. (He sends answering call —a pause.) It’s the
CAPT. HARDWICK—Good! I knew she ought to be near us.
says they’re coming full speed—ought to reach us before
daylight—wants to know if we can’t keep up till then.
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.)
sir. (He taps on the key —the wail of the wireless sounds again
—then a pause.)
CAPT. HARDWICK—What do they say now?
slight smile) “Hard luck.”
Damn their sympathy!
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.
(He looks at Knapp again, then speaks dryly.) Tell him our
receiving apparatus has been out of order.
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.
at Knapp) By God!
more you want to say, sir?
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
all the men up from below, sir. The bulkhead’s ready to go any
minute. Shall I get some of the boats away, sir?
(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.)
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.)