The Wreck of the Titan or, Futility

In the Valley of the Shadow

Morgan Robertson

THERE ARE few facilities for cooking aboard submarine torpedo-boats, and that is why Lieutenant Ross ran his little submarine up alongside the flag-ship at noon, and made fast to the boat-boom—the horizontal spar extending from warships, to which the boats ride when in the water. And, as familiarity breeds contempt, after the first, tentative, trial, he had been content to let her hang by one of the small, fixed painters depending from the boom; for his boat was small, and the tide weak, bringing little strain on painter or boom. Besides, this plan was good, for it kept the submarine from bumping the side of the ship—and paint below the water-line is as valuable to a warship as paint above.

Thus moored, the little craft, with only her deck and conning-tower showing, rode lightly at the end of her tether, while Ross and his men—all but one, to watch—climbed aboard and ate their dinner.

Ross finished quickly, and sought the deck; for, on going down to the wardroom, he had seen among the visitors from shore the one girl in the world to him—the girl he had met at Newport, Washington, and New York, whom he wanted as he wanted life, but whom he had not asked for yet, because he had felt so sure of her.

And now this surety was jolted out of his consciousness; for she was there escorted by a man she had often described, and whom Ross recognized from the description—a tall, dark, “captainish”-looking fellow, with a large mustache; but who, far from being a captain or other kind of superman, was merely a photographer—yet a wealthy and successful photographer, whose work was unusual and artistic.

Ross, though an efficient naval officer, was anything but “captainish”; he was simply a clean-shaven, clean-cut young fellow, with a face that mirrored every emotion of his soul. Knowing this infirmity—if such it is—he resolutely put down the jealous thoughts that surged through his brain; and when the visitors, guests of the captain, reached the deck, he met them, and was introduced to Mr. Foster with as pleasant a face as the girl had ever seen.

Then, with the captain’s permission, he invited them down to inspect his submarine. A plank from the lower grating of the gangway to the deck of the smaller craft was all that was needed, and along this they went, the girl ahead, supported by Mr. Foster, and Ross following, with a messenger boy from the bridge following him.

At the hatch, the girl paused and shrank back, for the wide-open eyes of the caretaker were looking up at her. Ross surmised this, and called to the man to come up and get his dinner; then, as the man passed him and stepped onto the plank, the messenger got his attention. The officer of the deck desired to speak with him, he said.

Ross explained the manner of descent, admonished his guests to touch nothing until he returned, and followed the messenger back to the officer of the deck. It was nothing of importance, simply a matter pertaining to the afternoon drill; and, somewhat annoyed, Ross returned. But he paused at the end of the plank; a loud voice from below halted him, and he did not care to interrupt. Nor did he care to go back, leaving them alone in a submarine.

“I mean it,” Foster was saying vehemently. “I hope this boat does go to the bottom.”

“Why, Mr. Foster!” cried the girl. “What a sentiment!”

“I tell you I mean it. You have made life unbearable.”

“I make your life unbearable?”

“Yes, you, Irene. You know I have loved you from the beginning. And you have coquetted with me, played with me—as a cat plays with a mouse. When I have endeavored to escape, you have drawn me back by smiles and favor, and given me hope. Then it is coldness and disdain. I am tired of it.”

“I am sorry, Mr. Foster, if anything in my attitude has caused such an impression. I have given you no special smiles or favors, no special coldness or disdain.”

“But I love you. I want you. I cannot live without you.”

“You lived a long time without me, before we met.”

“Yes, before we met. Before I fell under the spell of your personality. You have hypnotized me, made yourself necessary to me. I am heartsick all the time, thinking of you.”

“Then you must get over it, Mr. Foster. I must think of myself.”

“Then you do not care for me, at all?”

“I do, but only as an acquaintance.”

“Not even as a friend?”

“I do not like to answer such pointed questions, sir; but, since you ask, I will tell you. I do not like you, even as a friend. You demand so much. You are very selfish, never considering my feelings at all, and you often annoy me with your moods. Frankly, I am happier away from you.”

“My moods!” Foster repeated, bitterly. “You cause my moods. But I know what the real trouble is. I was all right until Ross came along.”

“You have no right, Mr. Foster,” said the girl, angrily, “to bring Lieutenant Ross’ name into this discussion.”

“Oh, I understand. Do you think he can marry you on his pay?”

“Mr. Ross’ pay would not influence him, nor me.”

“Well, I’ll tell you this”—and Foster’s voice became a snarl—“you two won’t be married. I’ll see to it. I want you; and if I can’t have you, no one else shall.”

“Whew!” whistled Ross, softly, while he smiled sweetly, and danced a mental jig in the air. Then he danced a few steps of a real jig, to apprise them of his coming. “Time to end this,” he said; then called out, cheerily: “Look out below,” and entered the hatch.

“Got a bad habit,” he said, as he descended, “of coming down this ladder by the run. Must break myself, before I break my neck. Well, how are you making out? Been looking around?”

The girl’s face, pale but for two red spots in her cheeks, was turned away from him as he stepped off the ladder, and she trembled visibly. Foster, though flushed and scowling, made a better effort at self-control.

“Why, no, lieutenant,” he said, with a sickly smile. “It is all strange and new to us. We were waiting for you. But I have become slightly interested in this—” He indicated a circular window, fixed in the steel side of the boat. “Isn’t it a new feature in submarines?”

“Yes, it is,” answered Ross. “But it has long been known that glass will stand a stress equal to that of steel, so they’ve given us deadlights. See the side of the ship out there? We can see objects about twenty feet away near the surface. Deeper down it is darker.”

“And I suppose you see some interesting sights under water,” pursued Foster, now recovered in poise.

“Yes, very interesting—and some very harrowing. I saw a man drowning not long ago. We were powerless to help him.”

“Heavens, what a sight!” exclaimed Foster. “The expression on his face must have been tragic.”

“Pitiful—the most pitiful I ever looked at. He seemed to be calling to us. Such agony and despair; but it did not last long.”

“But while it did last—did you have a camera? What a chance for a photographer! That is my line, you know. Did ever a photographer get a chance to photograph the expression on the face of a drowning man? What a picture it would be?”

“Don’t,” said the girl, with a shudder. “For mercy’s sake, do not speak of such things.”

“I beg your pardon, Miss Fleming,” said Ross, gently. “It was very tactless in me.”

“And I, Miss Fleming,” said Foster, with a bow, “was led away by professional enthusiasm. Please accept my apology, too. Still, lieutenant, I must say that I would like the chance.”

“Sorry, Mr. Foster,” answered Ross, coldly. “We do all sorts of things to men in the navy, but we don’t drown them for the sake of their pictures. Suppose I show you around, for at two bells the men will be back from their dinner. Now, aft here, is the gasoline engine, which we use to propel the boat on the surface. We can’t use it submerged, however, on account of the exhaust; so, for under-water work, we use a strong storage battery to work a motor. You see the motor back there, and under this deck is the storage battery—large jars of sulphuric acid and lead. It is a bad combination if salt water floods it.”

“How? What happens?” asked Foster.

“Battery gas, or, in chemical terms, chlorine gas is formed. It is one of the most poisonous and suffocating of all gases. That is the real danger in submarine boats—suffocation from chlorine. It will remain so until we get a better form of motive power, liquid or compressed air, perhaps. And here”—Ross led them to a valve wheel amidships—“as though to invite such disaster, they’ve given us a sea cock.”

“What’s it for?” asked Foster.

“To sink the boat in case of fire. It’s an inheritance from steamboats—pure precedent—and useless, for a submarine cannot catch fire. Why, a few turns of that wheel when in the awash trim would admit enough water in two minutes to sink the boat. I’ve applied for permission to abolish it.”

“Two minutes, you say. Does it turn easy? Would it be possible to accidentally turn it?”

“Very easy, and very possible. I caution my men every day.”

“And in case you do sink, and do not immediately suffocate, how do you rise?”

“By pumping out the water. There’s a strong pump connected with that motor aft there, that will force out water against the pressure of the sea at fifty fathoms down. That is ten atmospheres—pretty hard pressure. But, if the motor gets wet, it is useless to work the pump; so, we can be satisfied that, if we sink by means of the sea cock, we stay sunk. There is a hand pump, to use on the surface with dead batteries, but it is useless at any great depth.”

“What do you mean by the awash trim, lieutenant?” asked Foster, who was now looking out through the deadlight.

“The diving trim—that is, submerged all but the conning-tower. I’ll show you, so that you can say that you have really been under water.”

Ross turned a number of valves similar to the sea cock, and the girl’s face took on a look of doubt and sudden apprehension.

“You are not going to sink the boat, are you, Mr. Ross?” she asked.

“Oh, no, just filling the tanks. When full, we still have three hundred pounds reserve buoyancy, and would have to go ahead and steer down. But we won’t go ahead. Come forward, and I’ll show you the torpedo-tube.”

Foster remained, moodily staring through the deadlight, while the other two went forward. Ross noticed his abstraction, and, ascribing it to weariness of technical detail, did not press him to follow, and continued his lecture to Miss Fleming in a lower tone and in evident embarrassment.

“Now, here is the tube,” he said. “See this rear door. It is water-tight. When a torpedo is in the tube, as it is now, we admit water, as well; and, to expel the torpedo, we only have to open the forward door, apply compressed air, and out it goes. Then it propels and steers itself. We have a theory—no, not a theory now, for it has been proved—that, in case of accident, a submarine’s crew can all be ejected through the tube except the last man. He must remain to die, for he cannot eject himself. That man”—Ross smiled and bowed low to the girl—“must be the commander.”

“How terrible!” she answered, interested, but looking back abstractedly at Foster. “Why do you remain at this work? Your life is always in danger.”

“And on that account promotion is more probable. I want promotion, and more pay”—he lowered his voice and took her hand—“so that I may ask for the love and the life companionship of the dearest and best girl in the world.”

She took her gaze off Foster, cast one fleeting glance into the young lieutenant’s pleading face, then dropped her eyes to the deck, while her face flushed rosily. But she did not withdraw her hand.

“Must you wait for promotion?” she said, at length.

“No, Irene, no,” exclaimed Ross, excitedly, squeezing the small hand in his own. “Not if you say so; but I have nothing but my pay.”

“I have always been poor,” she said, looking him frankly in the face. “But, John, that is not it. I am afraid. He—Mr. Foster, threatened us—vowed we would never—Oh, and he turned something back there after you started. He did it so quickly—I just barely saw him as I turned to follow you. I do not know what it was. I did not understand what you were describing.”

“He turned something! What?”

“It was a wheel of some kind.”

Ross looked at Foster. He was now on the conning-tower ladder, half-way up, looking at his opened watch, with a lurid, malevolent twist to his features.

“Say your prayers!” yelled Foster, insanely. “You two are going to die, I say. Die, both of you.”

He sprang up the ladder, and Ross bounded aft, somewhat bewildered by the sudden turn of events. He was temporarily at his wits’ end. But when Foster floundered down to the deck in a deluge of water from above, and the conning-tower hatch closed with a ringing clang, he understood. One look at the depth indicator was enough. The boat was sinking. He sprang to the sea-cock valve. It was wide open.

“Blast your wretched, black heart and soul,” he growled, as he hove the wheel around. “Did you open this valve? Hey, answer me. You did, didn’t you? And thought to escape yourself—you coward!”

“Oh, God!” cried Foster, running about distractedly. “We’re sinking, and I can’t get out.”

Ross tightened the valve, and sprang toward him, the murder impulse strong in his soul. In imagination, he felt his fingers on the throat of the other, and every strong muscle of his arms closing more tightly his grip. Then their plight dominated his thoughts; he merely struck out silently, and knocked the photographer down.

“Get up,” he commanded, as the prostrate man rolled heavily over on his hands and knees. “Get up, I may need you.”

Foster arose, and seated himself on a torpedo amidships, where he sank his head in his hands. With a glance at him, and a reassuring look at the girl, who still remained forward, Ross went aft to connect up the pump. But as he went, he noticed that the deck inclined more and more with each passing moment.

He found the depressed engine room full of water, and the motor flooded. It was useless to start it; it would short-circuit at the first contact; and he halted, wondering at the boat’s being down by the stern so much, until a snapping sound from forward apprised him of the reason.

The painter at the boom had held her nose up until the weight was too much for it, and, with its parting, the little craft assumed nearly an even keel, while the water rushed forward among the battery jars beneath the deck. Then a strong, astringent odor arose through the seams in the deck, and Ross became alive.

“Battery gas!” he exclaimed, as he ran amidships, tumbling Foster off the torpedo with a kick—for he was in his way. He reached up and turned valve after valve, admitting compressed air from the flasks to the filled tanks, to blow out the water. This done, he looked at the depth indicator; it registered seventy feet; but, before he could determine the speed of descent, there came a shock that permeated the whole boat. They were on the bottom.

“And Lord only knows,” groaned Ross, “how much we’ve taken in! But it’s only three atmospheres, thank God. Here, you,” he commanded to the nerveless Foster, who had again found a seat. “Lend a hand on this pump. I’ll deal with your case when we get up.”

“What must I do?” asked Foster, plaintively, as he turned his face, an ashy green now, toward Ross.

“Pump,” yelled Ross, in his ear. “Pump till you break your back if necessary. Ship that brake.”

He handed Foster his pump-brake, and they shipped them in the hand-pump. But, heave as they might, they could not move it, except in jerks of about an inch. With an old-fashioned force-pump, rusty from disuse, a three-inch outlet, and three atmospheres of pressure, pumping was useless, and they gave it up, even though the girl added her little weight and strength to the task.

Ross had plenty of compressed air in the numerous air flasks scattered about, and, as he could blow out no more tanks, he expended a jet into the choking atmosphere of the boat. It sweetened the air a little, but there was enough of the powerful, poisonous gas generated to keep them all coughing continually. However, he seated the girl close to the air jet, so that she need not suffer more than was necessary.

“Are we in danger, John?” she asked. “Real danger, I mean?”

“Yes, dear, we are,” he answered, tenderly. “And it is best that you should know. I have driven out all the water possible, and we cannot pump at this depth. Higher up we could. But I can eject the torpedo from the tube, and perhaps the others. That will lighten us a good deal.”

He went forward, driving Foster before him—for he did not care to leave him too close to the girl—and pushed him bodily into the cramped space between the tube and the trimming tanks.

“Stay there,” he said, incisively, “until I want you.”

“What can I do?” whimpered the photographer, a brave bully before the girl, when safe; a stricken poltroon now. “I’ll do anything you say, to get to the surface.”

“You’ll get to the surface in time,” answered Ross, significantly. “How much do you weigh?”

“Two hundred pounds.”

“Two hundred more than we want. However, I’ll get rid of this torpedo.”

Ross drove the water out of the tube, opened the breech-door; and, reaching in with a long, heavy wire, lifted the starting lever and water tripper that gave motion to the torpedo’s engine. The exhaust of air into the tube was driven out into the boat by the rapidly moving screws, and in a few moments the engine ran down.

Then Ross closed the door, flooded the tube, opened the forward door, or port, and sent out the torpedo, confident that, with a dead engine, it would float harmlessly to the surface, and perhaps locate their position to the fleet; for there could be little doubt that the harbor above was dotted with boats, dragging for the sunken submarine.

As the torpedo went out, Ross noticed that the nose of the boat lifted a little, then settled as the tube filled with water. This was encouraging, and he expelled the water. The nose again lifted, but the stern still held to the bottom. There were two other torpedoes, one each side, amidships, and though the dragging to the tube of these heavy weights was a job for all hands, Ross essayed it.

They were mounted on trucks, and with what mechanical aids and purchases he could bring to bear, he and the subdued Foster labored at the task, and in an hour had the starboard torpedo in the tube.

As he was expending weights, he did not take into the ’midship tank an equal weight of water, as was usual to keep the boat in trim, and when the torpedo, robbed of motive power and detonator, went out, the bow lifted still higher, though the stern held, as was evidenced by the grating sound from aft. The tide was drifting the boat along the bottom.

Another hour of hard, perspiring work rid them of the other torpedo, and the boat now inclined at an angle of thirty degrees, down by the stern because of the water in the engine room, but not yet at the critical angle that caused the flooding of the after battery jars as the boat sank.

Ross looked at the depth indicator, but found small comfort. It read off a depth of about sixty feet, but this only meant the lift of the bow. However, the propeller guard only occasionally struck the bottom now, proving to Ross that, could he expend a very little more weight, the boat would rise to the surface, where, even though he might not pump, his periscope and conning-tower could be seen. He panted after his labors until he had regained breath, then said to Foster:

“You next.”

“I next? What do you mean?”

“You want to get to the surface, don’t you?” said Ross, grimly. “You expressed yourself as willing to do anything I might say, in order to get to the surface. Well, strip off your coat, vest, and shoes, and crawl into that tube.”

“What? To drown? No, I will not.”

“Yes, you will. Can you swim?”

“I can swim, but not when I am shot out of a gun.”

“Then you’ll drown. Peel off.”

“I cannot. I cannot. Would you kill me?”

“Don’t care much,” answered Ross, quietly, “if I do. Only I don’t want your dead body in the boat. Come, now,” he added, his voice rising. “I’m giving you a chance for your life. I can swim, too, and would not hesitate at going out that tube, if I were sure that the boat, deprived of my weight, would rise. But I am not sure, so I send you, not only because you are heavier than I, but because, as Miss Fleming must remain, I prefer to remain, too, to live or die with her. Understand?”

“But, Miss Fleming,” cackled Foster. “She can swim. I’ve heard her say so.”

“You cowardly scoundrel,” said Ross, his eyes ablaze with scorn and rage. He had already shed his coat and vest. Now he rolled up his shirt-sleeves. “Will you go into that tube of your own volition, conscious, so that you may take a long breath before I flood the tube, or unconscious, and pushed in like a bag of meal, to drown before you know what ails you—which?”

“No,” shrieked Foster, as the menacing face and fists of Ross drew close to him. “I will not. Do something else. You are a sailor. You know what to do. Do something else.”

Ross’ reply was a crashing blow in the face, that sent Foster reeling toward the tube. But he arose, and returned, the animal fear in him changed to courage. He was a powerfully built man, taller, broader, and heavier than Ross, and what he lacked in skill with his fists, he possessed in the momentum of his lunges, and his utter indifference to pain.

Ross was a trained boxer, strong, and agile, and where he struck the larger man he left his mark; but in the contracted floor space of the submarine he was at a disadvantage. But he fought on, striking, ducking, and dodging—striving not only for his own life, but that of the girl whom he loved, who, seated on the ’midship trimming tank, was watching the fight with pale face and wide-open, frightened eyes.

Once, Ross managed to trip him as he lunged, and Foster fell headlong; but before Ross could secure a weapon or implement to aid him in the unequal combat, he was up and coming back, with nose bleeding and swollen, eyes blackened and half closed, and contusions plentifully sprinkled over his whole face.

He growled incoherently; he was reduced by fear and pain to the level of a beast, and, beast-like, he fought for his life—with hands and feet, only the possession of the prehensile thumb, perhaps, preventing him from using his teeth; for Ross, unable to avoid his next blind lunge, went down, with the whole two hundred pounds of Foster on top of him, and felt the stricture of his clutch on his throat.

A man being choked quickly loses power of volition, entirely distinct from the inhibition coming of suppressed breathing; after a few moments, his movements are involuntary.

Ross, with flashes of light before his eyes, soon took his hands from the iron fingers at his throat, and, with the darkening of his faculties, his arms and legs went through flail-like motions, rising and falling, thumping the deck with rhythmic regularity.

Something in this exhibition must have affected the girl at the air jet; for Ross soon began to breathe convulsively, then to see more or less distinctly—while his limbs ceased their flapping—and the first thing he saw was the girl standing over him, her face white as the whites of her distended eyes, her lips pressed tightly together, and poised aloft in her hands one of the pump-brakes, ready for another descent upon the head of Foster, who, still and inert, lay by the side of Ross.

As Ross moved and endeavored to rise, she dropped the club, and sank down, crying his name and kissing him. Then she incontinently fainted.

Ross struggled to his feet, and, though still weak and nerveless, found some spun yarn in a locker, with which he tied the unconscious victim’s hands behind his back, and lashed his ankles together. Thus secured, he was harmless when he came to his senses, which happened before Ross had revived the girl. But there were no growling threats coming from him now; conquered and bound, his courage changed to fear again, and he complained and prayed for release.

“Not much,” said Ross, busy with the girl. “When I get my wind, I’m going to jam you into that tube, like a dead man. I’ll release you inside.”

When Miss Fleming was again seated on the tank, breathing fresh air from the jet, Ross went to work with the practical methods of a sailor. He first, by a mighty exercise of all his strength, loaded the frightened Foster on to one of the torpedo trucks, face downward; then he wheeled him to the tube, so that his uplifted face could look squarely into it; then he passed a strap of rope around under his shoulders, to which he applied the big end of a ship’s handspike, that happened to be aboard; and to the other end of this, as it lay along the back of Foster, he secured the single block of a small tackle—one of the purchases he had used in handling the torpedoes—and when he had secured the double block to an eyebolt in the bow, he steadied the handspike between his knees, hauled on the fall, with no word to the screaming wretch, and launched him, head and shoulders, into the tube.

As his hands, tied behind him, went in, Ross carefully cut one turn of the spun yarn, hauled away, and as his feet disappeared, he cut the bonds on his ankles; then he advised him to shake his hands and feet clear, pulled out the handspike, slammed the breech-door to, and waited.

The protest from within had never ceased; but at last Ross got from the information, interlarded with pleadings for life, that his hands and feet were free.

“All right. Take a good breath, and I’ll flood you,” called Ross. “When you’re outside, swim up.” The voice from within ceased.

Ross threw over the lever that admitted water to the tube, opened the forward door, and applied the compressed air. There was a slight jump to the boat’s nose, but with the inrush of water as Foster went out, it sank.

However, when Ross closed the forward door, and had expelled this water, it rose again, and he anxiously inspected the depth indicator.

At first, he hardly dared believe it, but in a few moments he was sure. The indicator was moving, hardly faster than the minute hand of a clock. The boat, released of the last few pounds necessary, was seeking the surface.

“Irene,” he shouted, joyously, “we’re rising. We’ll be afloat before long, and they’ll rescue us. Even though we can’t pump, they’ll see our periscope, and tow us somewhere where they can lift the hatch out of water. It’s all over, girl—all over but the shouting. Stand up, and look at the indicator. Only fifty-five feet now.”

She stood beside him, supported by his arm, and together they watched the slowly moving indicator. Then Ross casually glanced at the deadlight, and violently forced the girl to her seat.

“Sit still,” he commanded, almost harshly. “Sit still, and rest.”

For, looking in through the deadlight, was the white face of Foster, washed clean of blood, but filled with the terror and agony of the dying. His hands clutched weakly at the glass, his eyes closed, his mouth opened, and he drifted out of sight.

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