WHEN the watch turned out at midnight, they found a vicious half-gale blowing from the northeast, which, added to the speed of the steamship, made, so far as effects on her deck went, a fairly uncomfortable whole gale of chilly wind. The head sea, choppy as compared with her great length, dealt the Titan successive blows, each one attended by supplementary tremors to the continuous vibrations of the engines—each one sending a cloud of thick spray aloft that reached the crow’s-nest on the foremast and battered the pilot-house windows on the bridge in a liquid bombardment that would have broken ordinary glass. A fog-bank, into which the ship had plunged in the afternoon, still enveloped her—damp and impenetrable; and into the gray, ever-receding wall ahead, with two deck officers and three lookouts straining sight and hearing to the utmost, the great racer was charging with undiminished speed.
At a quarter past twelve, two men crawled in from the darkness at the ends of the eighty-foot bridge and shouted to the first officer, who had just taken the deck, the names of the men who had relieved them. Backing up to the pilot-house, the officer repeated the names to a quartermaster within, who entered them in the log-book. Then the men vanished—to their coffee and “watch-below.” In a few moments another dripping shape appeared on the bridge and reported the crow’s-nest relief.
“Rowland, you say?” bawled the officer above the howling of the wind. “Is he the man who was lifted aboard, drunk, yesterday?”
“Is he still drunk?”
“All right—that’ll do. Enter Rowland in the crow’s-nest, quartermaster,” said the officer; then, making a funnel of his hands, he roared out: “Crow’s-nest, there.”
“Sir,” came the answer, shrill and clear on the gale.
“Keep your eyes open—keep a sharp lookout.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Been a man-o’-war’s-man, I judge, by his answer. They’re no good,” muttered the officer. He resumed his position at the forward side of the bridge where the wooden railing afforded some shelter from the raw wind, and began the long vigil which would only end when the second officer relieved him, four hours later. Conversation—except in the line of duty—was forbidden among the bridge officers of the Titan, and his watchmate, the third officer, stood on the other side of the large bridge binnacle, only leaving this position occasionally to glance in at the compass—which seemed to be his sole duty at sea. Sheltered by one of the deck-houses below, the boatswain and the watch paced back and forth, enjoying the only two hours respite which steamship rules afforded, for the day’s work had ended with the going down of the other watch, and at two o’clock the washing of the ’tween-deck would begin, as an opening task in the next day’s labor.
By the time one bell had sounded, with its repetition from the crow’s-nest, followed by a long-drawn cry—“all’s well”—from the lookouts, the last of the two thousand passengers had retired, leaving the spacious cabins and steerage in possession of the watchmen; while, sound asleep in his cabin abaft the chart-room was the captain, the commander who never commanded—unless the ship was in danger; for the pilot had charge, making and leaving port, and the officers, at sea.
Two bells were struck and answered; then three, and the boatswain and his men were lighting up for a final smoke, when there rang out overhead a startling cry from the crow’s-nest:
“Something ahead, sir—can’t make it out.”
The first officer sprang to the engine-room telegraph and grasped the lever. “Sing out what you see,” he roared.
“Hard aport, sir—ship on the starboard tack—dead ahead,” came the cry.
“Port your wheel—hard over,” repeated the first officer to the quartermaster at the helm—who answered and obeyed. Nothing as yet could be seen from the bridge. The powerful steering-engine in the stern ground the rudder over; but before three degrees on the compass card were traversed by the lubber’s-point, a seeming thickening of the darkness and fog ahead resolved itself into the square sails of a deep-laden ship, crossing the Titan’s bow, not half her length away.
“H—l and d—” growled the first officer. “Steady on your course, quartermaster,” he shouted. “Stand from under on deck.” He turned a lever which closed compartments, pushed a button marked—“Captain’s Room,” and crouched down, awaiting the crash.
There was hardly a crash. A slight jar shook the forward end of the Titan and sliding down her fore-topmast-stay and rattling on deck came a shower of small spars, sails, blocks, and wire rope. Then, in the darkness to starboard and port, two darker shapes shot by—the two halves of the ship she had cut through; and from one of these shapes, where still burned a binnacle light, was heard, high above the confused murmur of shouts and shrieks, a sailorly voice:
“May the curse of God light on you and your cheese-knife, you brass-bound murderers.”
The shapes were swallowed in the blackness astern; the cries were hushed by the clamor of the gale, and the steamship Titan swung back to her course. The first officer had not turned the lever of the engine-room telegraph.
The boatswain bounded up the steps of the bridge for instructions.
“Put men at the hatches and doors. Send every one who comes on deck to the chart-room. Tell the watchman to notice what the passengers have learned, and clear away that wreck forward as soon as possible.” The voice of the officer was hoarse and strained as he gave these directions, and the “aye, aye, sir” of the boatswain was uttered in a gasp.