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The Sinking of the Carnatic

by August J. Mordtmann

translation by Michael Wooff

Part 1 appears in this issue.


Conditions on the ice that year were especially favourable, and we were permitted to hope that we would come nearer to the pole than had been previously possible.

Under such circumstances tension on board the Lady Godiva grew hourly, and when, one afternoon, the captain informed us that today we had reached the same degree of latitude as that at which the Carnatic had originally frozen, there was a general shudder of excitement.

Still we sailed southward and we only altered this course the following day when we came to the solid pack ice. Then the bow of the ship was directed eastward, and we remained, as far as we could without imperilling ourselves, close to this polar ice. At night we struck sail and lay to so as not to miss the Carnatic under cover of darkness.

We sailed in this way for three days and ended up by reaching the degree of longitude at which the Carnatic had been left in the ice. We went directly over the spot where, had it foundered, it must have lain, and, although the sun shone brightly in the bracing air, and there was no visible sign of a ship anywhere, we all had that feeling that people must have when a ghost comes close enough to touch them. We dropped our lead and found the water was 120 fathoms deep. The tallow on the end of our lead brought up sand and gravel. There was no sunken ship here.

Next morning the helmsman, Ole Johannesen, called me over to tell me something in private. His face was ashen. “I don’t want to tell the old man,” he whispered, pointing to the captain, who was scanning the horizon with a spyglass. “But you should know this because, of all of us, you are the most incredulous. Mark my words, and think about them, if you still want to doubt them: this afternoon we shall have our first sighting of the Carnatic.”

I stared at the man more in shock than incredulity.

“Yes, you will see it,” Johannesen went on. “I woke up tonight and I saw it for myself. The Carnatic is still afloat, and, in just a few hours, its masts will appear on the horizon. There, due northeast of us.”

“You’ve been dreaming,” I said. “That’s what dreams are like. You imagine you’re awake and all the time you’re sleeping...”

“Well, yes, whatever,” Johannesen replied indifferently. “We’ll soon see. Pay attention to it when it comes. I clearly saw the name Carnatic on its bow. I was that near to it.”

“What about the captain’s wife?”

“That I don’t know. The face vanished the moment we launched the boat. But then, out of the fog, another picture emerged...” He bent towards me and whispered something in my ear that drained my lips white.

Lunch was concluded in silence. Clifford was prey to a feeling of unease as if, like Johannesen, he suspected that his wishes were about to be fulfilled. He had scarcely sipped a few spoonfuls of chicken soup when he stood up and rushed back to the deck. Johannesen watched him thoughtfully and nodded. “We still have an hour,” he said. “Let’s eat. Maybe we won’t have the appetite for it afterwards.”

But we too were open to the possibility and rushed to join the captain up on deck. Remarkably enough the whole crew had been gripped by the same fever of all-consuming impatience and stood to a man on the deck, at the bow, looking towards the north-east.

The man at the wheel of the ship sounded four bells to mark the passage of another hour. It was now one o’clock in the afternoon. My expectation’s fever had risen to a level that was unbearable.

Another fifteen minutes passed. A cry resounded down from the crow’s nest: “Ship ahoy!”

A ship in these latitudes! It could be no other surely!

Johannesen stood next to me. We looked at each other without a word. The blood had rushed from both our faces.

“Where?” the captain shouted up.

The man pointed with his hand ahead of him to the left. Clifford took the wheel himself and turned it till the bow was pointing to the compass quadrant in which our lookout had sighted the ship.

“Steady as she goes,” said Clifford to the steersman. “North-north-west by 2 points west...”

“Aye, aye,” replied the sailor.

The captain now took his spyglass and climbed up the mast to get a better view.

For fully five minutes he gazed at the area where the strange ship was visible. Then he retracted his spyglass and slowly descended.

“It’s a three-master,” he said. “I recognize it. It’s the Carnatic.”

And now his stiff face jerked suddenly and the tears rushed to his eyes. He took his cap off and held it, as if praying, in his hands bunched in front of his face. Some of the able seamen on board wiped their sleeve over their eyes; others stared dully into the distance. The masts creaked. The wind whistled in the rigging. It was as quiet on the Lady Godiva as if they had all been at church.

The water at the keel was foaming and gurgling behind our stern in a dead straight line. After a quarter of an hour, we could see the three tops of the masts with the naked eye. Another quarter of an hour and we saw that the ship was pitching and rolling without sails and rudderless to all intents and purposes.

The boat was made ready to be let down into the water as soon as we were close enough to the abandoned ship for any further approach on our part to be dangerous.

It no longer quite came as a surprise to us when, one and a half hours later, we were able to make out the damage that years of neglect had inflicted on the barque’s hull - of that there was no doubt. And now, with ponderous slowness, the hull turned slightly, and any lingering doubt evaporated: there, in faded gold lettering, stood the name: Carnatic.

The unfortunate ship was an epitome of irremediable waste and sadness. Her planks had been bleached of all colour and her sails hung in abbreviated rags from the yardarms. Her rigging and mast supports evinced that looseness that, to the eye of the careful seaman, is an unedifying spectacle. We had now come so near that we could hear the creaking of the masts and the grinding of the rudder chains.

We manned the boat. Captain Clifford, Ole Johannesen, I and six other sailors got in and we made for the ship. For the whole of the journey not a single word was spoken.

For a landlubber it would have been difficult to get to the deck of the somewhat high in the water ship, for no ladder and no rope had been left hanging down. Johannesen and the captain climbed up with no great effort, and the former helped me up. When I, shivering with cold and excited with anticipation at what we might find, jumped from the hull to the deck, the captain had already scuttled down into the cabin. We followed him at a more leisurely pace. Two sailors, who had just climbed aboard, betook themselves to the bridge and to the crew’s quarters forward in order to inspect these locations too.

We found nothing in the cabin, or in the captain’s bedroom. The search made by the sailors was equally fruitless. For hours on end we pursued our investigations, and we would have left the ship had not a strange and peculiar circumstance prevented us from doing so.

The air in the cabin and the crew’s quarters was heavy and musty. After we had opened all the doors and hatches, the quality of the air soon improved. And now we noticed that a feeling of alarm, which we were unable to get rid of in the cabin, was not due, as we had at first believed, to the close nature of the air, but to something else entirely. While nothing had struck us on deck, or in any other space on the ship, we experienced in the cabin a feeling that weighed down on us, which was enough, in my case, to make my hair stand on end.

“How do you feel in here?” Johannesen asked me, and I read in his eyes the answer he expected me to give him.

“Like you, shipmate,” I replied. “I can’t see anyone, but...”

“There’s someone here apart from us.” Johannesen completed the sentence for me.

That was a fact, and we noticed that Clifford felt the same as we did. So we did not stop looking, and looked in the most unlikely places, even back in those we had already seen. The sun was already low on the horizon, when we finally, tired and sad, ceased from our labours. The captain signed to us that he wanted to revisit the cabin one last time to see if he had missed anything hidden there. But we knew this was just an excuse, and that Clifford only wanted to be once again alone and undisturbed in the place where he had for so long been happy with his wife. We respected this feeling and stood at the top of the ladder leading down.

Two minutes might have elapsed when we heard a loud cry and rushed down to the cabin ourselves. When we entered we saw clearly how a door to one of the side cabins was being pushed to.

A simple yet terrible occurrence! Apart from us and the captain, there was not a soul in the room.

But something else immediately claimed our attention. The captain was sitting stiff and motionless on the sofa. He was dead. In his hand he was holding a gaudy scrap of wool. His open eyes conveyed an impression of inner bliss. His face was twisted in death to a joyful smile.

Johannesen and I wordlessly shook hands.

This was what we had feared ever since Johannesen had told us of his vision. He had in fact seen us lowering the captain’s corpse, as seamen do when someone dies, into the sea. But this sequence of terrible events had not yet run its course.

The cry we had heard up there had been a female one. And in the cabin, the door to which had been, before our very eyes, pushed to, we found, when we finally plucked up the courage to enter, a mummified female corpse that Johannesen and the sailors identified as Mrs Fanny Clifford. She was wearing a colourful woollen dress with the torn off piece that we had found in Clifford’s hand missing from one of the sleeves.

There is only one other thing that I should not neglect to mention. That cabin, like every other space on the ship, had been previously inspected by us without us having found a trace there of Mrs Clifford’s body.

We now had just one thought in mind: to get off this uncanny ship as quickly as possible. We went back to the Lady Godiva, and only after some considerable time did we recover sufficiently to go back on board the Carnatic so as to bring back the deceased captain for Christian burial.

We fetched the captain’s body with us to the Godiva, laying it out on a stretcher that night in the cabin after having sewn it up in sailcloth and tied an iron ball to its feet.

My suggestion that the corpse of the dead captain’s wife also be prepared for burial at sea in the same manner was rejected by reason of the rest of the crew’s stubborn resistance to it. All my ideas and requests were in vain. I nevertheless took it upon myself to bring her body back the following day, but what happened that night was so shocking that I would not have returned to the Carnatic afterwards for a king’s ransom.

I had, like all of us, been awake a long time. Shortly before going to bed, I was once more called up on deck by Johannesen to see something that filled the whole crew, assembled on the afterdeck, with terror and amazement. The Carnatic was correctly displaying the lights prescribed; green to starboard and red to port, and the cabin windows were brightly illuminated. I did not sleep a wink all night.

And yet, not even with this ghostly incident at night had the last scene of this awful tragedy been reached. When we let the body of the captain slide over the side into its watery grave, there suddenly arose, interrupting our quiet prayers, a general outcry. The Carnatic, only a few cable lengths from us, yawed, without any obvious reason, more than usual, first to the port side, then to starboard, then, abruptly, bow first, sank. The waves ran in whirlpools round the spot, foam sprayed the air and the Lady Godiva swayed in the resulting wash that pushed it on its way further south. Then it was over.

We had fully inspected the Carnatic only the day before and knew for a certainty that she had shipped very little water into her hull and had nowhere sprung a leak.

The sinking of this ghostly ship was just as inexplicable as everything else that had had to do with it.

German original by August J. Mordtmann (1839-1912)
Translation © 2020 by Michael Wooff

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