The Ship of Silence
A Tale of the New Canadian Navy
IT IS not a pleasant situation to find oneself alone, in a little fishing dory, not more than ten feet long, twenty miles from the Newfoundland coast, with a heavy sea running, at five o’clock of a cold September morning. Yet in just such an one did John M’Cann, master of the fishing trawler “Bonaventure” find himself upon a certain September morning of the year of grace, 1915.
An hour previously, from the deck of the trawler, lie had descried a low, flat object floating upon the heaving surface of the water, which had appeared to him to resemble a raft with a human body lashed upon it, and he had forthwith jumped into the dory and pulled away toward the object in order to investigtc matters.
The sea proved to be rougher than he had imagined and a twenty minutes’ pull lengthened ont into an hour before he came alongside the piece of flotsam which he found, upon investigation, to be, not a raft, but a hencoop containing a number of dead fowl which had evidently been washed off the deck of some passing ship. Deeply chargincd that he had had his long and arduous pull for nothing, M’Cann, noticing that the sea was becoming dangerously rough, pulled his boat’s head round and began to look for the trawler, the safetv of whose decks he was becoming increasingly anxious to regain.
But, peer as be might through the grey mists of dawn, he could sec
nothing of the “Bonaventure,” and, with a thrill of the keenest anxiety, John discovered that the mist which surrounded him was becoming denser, that it was, in fact, developing into one of those thick fogs which, upon the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, sweep down and envelop the mariner without the slightest warning.
“By the powers!” ejaculated M’Cann, whitening a little under his bronze, “I must get back to the ship without delay. It’s no joke to be lost in a fog, in a small boat, twenty miles from land, with a constantly increasing sea like this, too. Hallo, there!” he bawled at the top of his voice. “Trawler ahoy; whereabouts are you ?”
But, although he know that his voice would carry to a great distance through the fog, M’Cann listened in vain for any reply from the “Bonaventure,” and it began to be borne in upon him that he was in a very nasty predicament indeed. The trawler had evidently drifted away from him pretty rapidly during his pull toward the supposed raft, and, although she would, no doubt, be well within sight if the fog were only to disperse, she was most certainly out of shouting distance from the unfortunate man in the rowing-boat.
flflie skipper, however, was not a man to be easily discouraged, and lie rapidly calculated how the “raft” had been lying when he left the trawler, and then, turning his boat’s head in
the direction in which he guessed the “Bonaventure” must then be lying, commenced to pull, with long, vigorous strokes, across the rapidly-rising sea, the crests of whose waves were .already beginning to wash into the little dory, threatening every moment o swamp her.
Eor ten long mintes M’Cann tugged at the oars, until, even on that raw, cold morning, the sweat streamed down his face; then, rising stiffly to his feet, raised his hands to his mouth, funnelwise, and shouted with all his might into the fog.
There was no reply. No sound save the hissing of the sea broke upon the skipper's ears. Once more he shouted, despairingly this time; and this time he fancied, to his delight, that a reply came over the water, but from a great distance and from a different direction to that in which he was pulling. Sitting down in the dory, M’Cann turned his boat's head in the direction from which the sound had appeared to come, and commenced rowing with all his might, hoping very soon to see the shape of the trawler looming dimly over his shoulder; but long minute after long minute went by without M’Cann observing any signs of her. and once more he stopped pulling, and hailed the invisible ship until it seemed as though his lungs must burst with the effort.
This time there was no reply at all. Only the waves hissed and curled round the boat, looking, to M’Cann’s fevered imagination, like beasts waiting for the strength to die out of their prey. Then the man began to realize fully the utter hopelessness of his position and he shouted, shouted, shouted, until his throat was raw and he himself could scarcely hear the sound of his own voice, which had degenerated into a husky whisper. Despair took hold of him and he bowed his head between his hands, praying that death might come quickly and save him the pain of lingering for hours, perhaps for a whole day, waiting for the coming of the inevitable.
In this position the wretched man
remained for perhaps an hour, expecting every moment that his frail shallop would be overwhelmed, and then he suddenly looked up with the feeling strong upon him that something—he knew not what—was close beside him. Listening intently, he made out a sound as though the sea were washing against the face of some large rock, or against the sides of a ship ; and, knowing well that there were no rocks in the vicinity, his heart bounded with hope at the thought that he might, in a few minutes, be treading again the good, solid decks of a large ship instead of the flimsy bottom-boards of a frail rowing-boat.
“Ship ahoy! ship ahoy!” he shouted once more, facing in the direction of the sound ; but still no reply came to his frenzied hails. Yet the strange sound of water washing against some large solid substance still rang in his ears, and M‘Cann knew that there must be some big vessel close at hand, although he seemed unable to attract the attention of those on board her.
“Confound them!” he growled,
“are they all asleep aboard there? Is a man to perish because the watch in deck— Hallo, there, the ship ahoy !” he vociferated once again, as his
straining ears caught the sound of
iron clashing against iron; “heave to, will ye?”
Still there was no reply, no sound of human voices, and, with another anathema at the carelessness of those on board, M’Cann seized his oars and rowed madly through the mist to-
ward the invisible ship, looking eagerly over his shoulder the while.
Then, suddenly, she loomed up through the mist, and M’Cann was obliged to twist his boat round hurriedly to avoid running into her.
“Good heavens!” he ejaculated, “what is this—what sort of a ship is she? Steamer, without a doubt; built of iron—or steel, and—by all the powers, she’s a warship; and a large one at that. What’ll she be doing away out here? What country can she belong to? I know all the ships of the netv Canadian navy, but I’ll swear that
there are none of them so large as this vessel. Why, she must he of seven or eight thousand tons displacement, standing out of the water like the side of a house. And not a soul about her decks. Well, if this doesn’t beat creation, I’m a Dutchman."
Here the crest of a sea washed, hissing, into the little dory, putting an end to M’Cann’s astonished soliloquy, and proving to him that, unless he could speedily get on board the enormous steel warship, he would find a watery grave in the depths of the North Atlantic.
But how to climb those stee]) sides? That was the question. There were certainly guns projecting from her sides, like bristles from the back of an angry porcupine, but the lowest of them proved to be more than fifteen feet above the level of the sea, and. her smooth steel sides offered not the slightest projection whereby a man might reach her decks.
“By Jove!” suddenly muttered the seaman, “the ship’s engines arc not moving; she is hove to for some reason or other. Now, if I can only reach her stern, 1 shall perhaps be able to grasp her stern-gallery and haul myself up into that, after which the rest will be easy. Lucky for me her screws are not working, or I should be unable to try the gallery."
50 saving, M'Cann once more seized the oars and, with a few rapid strokes, propelled himself along the ship’s side until he came to her counter, when he perceived, to his great relief, that the gallery was placed so low that, by standing up in the boat, and waiting until she was on the crest of a wave he would be able to reach up, and, hv grasping the railing, haul himself up into safety.
Carefullv watching his opportunity, therefore, the skipper stood up; and. as the foaming crest o! a wave washed his boat havenwards. sprang with all his might for the railing, which he fortunately succeeded in grasping. A moment later he had climbed over the rail and stood in satclv, looking down t his own dory which was rapidlv
settling down below the surface of the water.
“A narrow escape, that!" observed M'Cann. wiping the sweat from his forehead; "I don't know that I’ve ever had a narrower. But I'm safe at last, thank heaven, and the next thing is to find out all about this queer, silent ship the crew of which seem to be asleep.”
With these words the fisherman laid his hand on the handle of the door leading from the gallery to the captain’s cabin, and, opening it. walked inside, closing the door carefully behind him. There was somebody in the room, seated at a table in the far corner of the cabin, apparently busily writing; so, taking off his watersoaked hat, M’Cann walked a few steps forward and. clearing his throat, observed in his dee]) tones: “Good
morning, sir. I have taken the liberty of coming aboard by way of your stern-gallery, because I could not attract the attention of anybody on deck.”
To his astonishment, however, the figure did not move, nor did it vouchsafe any reply; although now that his eves were more accustomed to the semi-darkness of the cabin. M’Cann could see that it was the captain whom he was addressing, because of the epaulettes on his shoulder and the broad gold bands upon his cuff. Clearing his throat once more he was about to address the figure again when his attention was attracted bv a certain strange rigiditv and lack of movement hi the form, and a sudden fear gripped his heart.
“Great powers !" he exclaimed : “a tragedv has taken place here; the man is dead! 1 must go at once and summon assistance."
Rushing from the cabin. M'Cann hastened along the main deck in search of somebody to whom he could tell the news; but. to his utter bewilderment. the place seemed to be deserted. It was the strangest aft air. this, that he had ever heard of. A ship—a warship, hove to. with nobody on deck, the skipper dead in his
cabin, and the lower decks deserted! M'Cann did not know what to make of it and fear, cold, creeping fear, began to steal over him at the mystery and horror of his surroundings.
Then, suddenly, he emerged upon the mess deck and, there before him, lay the solution of the mystery. The mess tables were laid and the ship's crew sat before them intent upon their meal. But, strange to say, not a man looked up as the skipper of the trawler rushed unceremoniously into the flat.
“I say,” shouted M'Cann to this silent company; “your captain sits in his cabin, dead. Where can 1 find the first lieutenant and the surgeon?"’
Not a sound came in reply from the men gathered there, and once more M'Cann repeated his question, thinking that he had not spoken loudly enough ; but again there was no reply from the ranks of the seamen.
\\ ith his hair bristling upon his seal]) from a fear to which he, as yet, hardly dared give a name, M’Cann crept forward and timidly touched one of the sailors on the hand; startingback in horror immediately afterward, for the hand was cold as ice and rigid as that of a wax figure.
‘‘Dead! dead! all dead!’’ shrieked M’Cann, wildly. “I see it all now. Some dreadful disease has seized this ship’s crew, smiting them with the hand of death where they sat. Oh, it is horrible, horrible! This ship is a ship of the dead. W ould to heaven I had stayed in my boat and gone down in her, for this is enough to drive any man out of his mind. Poor fellows ! poor fellows ! what an awful fate ! Struck down in a moment while they were at their meal. What on earth can the disease be that falls upon men so suddenly, and cuts them oft before they have time—”
A terrific explosion, a blindingflash of light, a concussion that hurled him, half blinded and stunned against the bulkhead, interrupted the flow of M’Cann’s thoughts; and, as he slowly and painfully staggered to his feet, with hands outstretched be-
fore him, there came to his ears the distant thunder of a heavy gun.
“What’s happening now?" shrieked the unhappy man, rushing forward, panic-stricken ; “another warship firing at us! What on earth can be the meaning of it all? This is ghastly— it is not natural—a strange ironclad, peopled with dead, being fired into by another ship; one of our own Canadian crusiers, by the sound of her guns. I wish to heaven I had never set eyes on this ship of horror."
Here another appalling explosion rent the air and, looking round. M’Cann saw that a shell had burst right upon the very spot where he had been standing a few seconds previously, blowing away half of one of the mess tables and sending the limbs and parts of the bodies of the dead sailors hurtling in all directions.
Again and again the shells struck the ironclad, making her quiver from stem to stern, while the air seemed to vibrate with the concussion of the bursting missiles and to be full of blinding flashes of light. Fragments of iron and steed whistled past M’Cann’s ears, causing him to crouch down upon the rent and dismantled decks which were now covered with debris; and it seemed to him as though the end of all things was at hand. Never had he dreamed of such a horror as this, never could he have believed that such things could happen, and the unhappy man’s brain reeled until reason herself trembled in the balance.
Then, suddenly, the end came. A more dreadful explosion than any wliich had gone before roared in M’Cann’s ears, and, simultaneously he felt himself Struck upon the head by something heavy. A deathly sickness stole over him, he felt something warm and sticky trickling down his neck, and, a moment later, his senses left him and he lapsed into oblivion.
When he next opened his eyes he found himself lying on his back on the deck of another, smaller ship, looking into the kindly face of a little, stout, clean-shaven man in the
uniform of a captain in the Canadian navy.
"Well, my man,” said the latter, smiling, ‘‘how do you feel now? You've had a pretty narrow escape, let me tell you. What on earth were you doing aboard that ship?”
“I feel all right now,” answered M’Cann, endeavoring to sit up, and failing in the attempt; “only my head’s humming like a spinning-top.” He then went on to describe the circumstances which had led to his getting aboard of that ship of silence; concluding by asking the captain what horror it was from which he had so opportunely been rescued.
"There was no horror at all about it,” replied the Canadian officer, laughing. “Your nerves had been a bit upset by your narrow escape from drowning, I suppose, or else you would hardly have failed to notice that your “dead” men were not dead at all—never having been alive—but were merely dummies.”
"Dummies!" returned the perplexed M’Cann; "what in thunder were dummies doing aboard an ironclad?”
“The dummies were doing nothing,” replied the skipper. “Things were being done to them. That ship you were on board, sir. was nothing less than a target ship. The Dominion Government was anxious to experiment with the guns of the new navy which Canada has just built for herself; and for that purpose the old English battleship “Rodney" was purchased and fitted up with guns and dummy figures. The idea was to find out, from actual experience, the results of modern shell-fire upon a ship, and she was, therefore, allowed to drift about out yonder while five of our cruisers hammered at her for an hour. You must have climbed
aboard only a few minutes before the fog lifted, or else you would have noticed this ship and her consorts and guessed what was to take place. As it was, you must have only just got below when the mist rose, disclosing to us our target ; and as we were quite ready to commence firing—why, we did so forthwith, being, of course, unaware that there was any living soul on board the “Rodney.” Then, when the practice was over, and the ■party was sent to report upon the results of the gunnery, your insensible body was found—much to the astonishment of my men. and brought on board this shin, the ‘Ottawa.’ You ve had, as Í said before, a very narrow escape, Mr. M’Cann; and I rather imagine that, in future, you will be chary of boarding any of His Majesty's ships without first receiving a written invitation. We shall be in Halifax this afternoon,” he continued, still smiling, “when you will be put ashore safe—if not altogether sound —and from that place you will, no doubt, be able to make your way to your own home.”
“Mr. Dupont," he went on. turning to the first lieutenant, “take this gentleman down below to the ward room and give him a big drink of whisky; I think his nerves are slightly in need of a little stimulant at the present moment. Good morning. Mr. M’Cann,” he concluded: and. going forward, he climbed up on the navigation bridge and stood looking at the land which was already showing like a cloud upon the edge of the horizon : while M’Cann. with tottering footsteps, and leaning upon the arm of the first lieutenant, went below to obtain that refreshment of which, there could be no doubt, he stood very sadlv in need.