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The Last Night Of the Loch Ard

A Tale of Fiction.

Based On a True Story. 

 

 

It came on board at night, when the fog was at its thickest.  The only thing betraying its incursion was a faint rasping sound, and the profound stench of the sea.  The helmsman, Madden, and the look-out, O’Doherty, were the only crew members atop deck when the disturbance split the silence of the surrounding atmosphere.  This anomaly in the night made the men’s blood to turn to ice in their veins. 

“Did you hear that, lad?” Madden asked hoarsely, as the smoke of his cigarette caught in his throat.  He lifted his burning oil lamp, and furtively dangled it in front of him.

“Sweet Mary and Jaysus… I heard it too… what was it?” O’Doherty’s youthful face glanced around apprehensively. The steam from his mouth intensified as his breath quickened.

“…Got no idea, lad… I want to know where it’s coming from.”  Madden lit another cigarette from the dying embers of his previous one. Within the depths of the pervasive mist, the inhuman gurgling and rasping continued. It was unlike any earthly sound either sailor had ever heard before.  The men raised their lamps and shuffled into the haze towards the sound.

****

The first Captain Gibbs knew of the invasion was a faint drumming sound emitting from the cargo hold in the early hours of that last day of autumn, 1878. Gibbs, a twenty-nine year old man with a scoured face and white eyelashes, rushed towards the sound. He found O’Doherty standing beside the cargo hatch, staring vacantly towards the swarming, tumbling sea.

“What in God’s good name is going on down there,” Gibbs demanded.

The reply was flat and barely audible.

“I trapped it in the hold. It went down there and I trapped it….” He trailed off. “Maddens dead.”

“What do you mean you trapped it? What the hell is down there? This is my ship and I demand to know what is going on!”

“By God’s good mercy, do not open the hatch, Capt’n.” O’Doherty hissed.

“Why not, man?”

But O’Doherty would speak no more.

Against the backdrop of dark fog, Gibbs could resolve the prostrate form of his helmsman lying upon the deck.  The oil lamp that usually hung from the rigging lay extinguished beside him. Gibbs relit the lamp, and angled the shutters towards the helmsman to illuminate his face. The light revealed that Madden had not a graze upon his skin, but his face was twisted into a misshapen expression of horror.

“You are not to tell the others,” the captain ordered somberly.

***

Unaware, the thirty-seven crew and seventeen passengers of the HMS Loch Ard celebrated the end of their three month journey out of London, with free-flowing brandy and coarsely played flutes. Their insipid Anglo complexions were blistered and peeling, and their clothes filthy; but ne’er an unhappy expression could be seen amongst them. As they celebrated below deck, the majestic three-masted square Iron-hulled Clipper surged unhindered through the steaming water. The Glasgow-built ship held an affluent cargo of perfumes, pianos, candles, matches, cement, copper and matches. The stately Loch Ard was also the symbol of a new life for the Carmichael family, who were leaving the scourge of disease and cold weather of their hometown of Ireland, to embark on a happier existence in the prosperous city of Melbourne. Tom Pearce, an eighteen-year-old sailor with a homely, freckled face and great aspirations, leaned against the wall below deck, quietly observing the festivities. He was blissfully unaware of the tumult going on in the hold, as well as how far off course this magnificent ship had sailed.

***

The new sun on that last day of autumn bruised the spherical sky with a vivid purple and pink hue.  By the time it had climbed to the apex in late afternoon, it had become so engulfed by the profound fog, that it was nothing but a pinprick of light. The crew and passengers had awoken to the dull sound of drumming from the hold. The ship became a flurry with questions and muted panic.  Eighteen-year-old Eva Carmichael, a sprightly brunette, scuttled from person to person, inquiring as to the origins of the commotion.  However, it seemed that everyone was as equally mystified by the noise as she was. The women held their children close, and stroked their hair reassuringly, while they themselves were full of foreboding.  The men assembled in angry groups, and demanded to know what the noise was.

The pounding was now loud and erratic. At times, the thumps would occur closely, and at other times, they would occur torturous minutes apart. It now sounded like wood was being bludgeoned violently below. Its effects on the passengers were akin to Chinese water torture; each spasmodic thud would cause the people to wince with unfathomable anger and fear.  Captain Gibbs, a usually calm and resolute man, was starting to surge with panic. He cursed the preternatural fog, likening it to a breath from the mouth of hell. It had prevented him from calculating his bearings for days, and it had brought an unseen monster aboard his ship, which had claimed the life of his helmsman. After seeing Madden’s grotesquely twisted, ashen face, no sailor, not even Gibbs, was brave enough to descend into the hold to investigate.

“I just don’t know what’s down there… O’Doherty won’t tell me…. But I’m sure it’s just a wild beast,” he attempted to reassure the mob with a transparent lie.

The assemblage of men confronted O’Doherty, with what they merely intended to be civilized inquiries.

“How does a wild beast get on a ship in the middle of the ocean?”

“Tell us what is down there, sailor!”

“I can’t tell you. Just don’t open it, fer feck’s sake. It will all be over soon.”

This recalcitrant response issued a violent reaction from one of the Carmichael men, who were infamous for their fiery tempers. He grabbed O’Doherty by the scruff of his shirt.

“You answer us, you dimwitted fool…. Or I’ll fecking kill you.”

O’Doherty pushed Carmichael off of him, and a messy scuffle ensued. O’Doherty unsheathed a blade and held it in front of him protectively. But when the mob dispersed a few moments later, O’Doherty lay dead on the deck in a pool of blood; inexplicably killed by his own blade.

When word spread that the only man who knew what lurked in the ship’s hold was dead, the paranoia among the people augmented, and a couple of members of the desperate crew clandestinely threw themselves overboard in a final ironic act of self preservation.

Still, the pounding continued.

***

The icy wind was lashing violently by 3am on the morning of that first day of winter, 1887. Most of the passengers were too restive to sleep, and they had converged upon deck. The rumour of their imminent docking in Melbourne had spread among them like a bee fleeting from daisy to daisy, and they were increasingly desperate to flee the creature that was now banging with desperate fervour below in the hold.

The incessant sound engendered a sort of quiet madness among them, which caused them to gnash their teeth, and grind bloody crescents in their palms with their fingernails. But it was the mystery of its origin that filled them with immeasurable horror.

Captain Gibbs sent a sailor aloft to watch for the Cape Otway light.  But the enduring mist had sunk thickly onto the ship, and was enveloping every person so that they felt as though they were trapped within their own confined casket.

Tom Pearce and Eva Carmichael were standing above deck with a dozen other passengers when they first heard the mellifluous singing, which lilted like a tinkering bell.  The fog momentarily cleared, and they could distinguish a young girl with a pale elfin face, sitting cross-legged against the railing. She was draped in gray robes, with her arms elbow-deep in a large tub full of watery-orange liquid. From the tub, she smoothly lifted the blood-soaked socks of the men, and the frilly undergarments of the women. The crowd stood still, utterly mesmerized by this beautiful stranger. Suddenly a thick blanket of fog floated in from the east and encased the girl. When it dissipated a few seconds later, the girl had vanished.

The blood drained from the passenger’s faces. They knew in the depths of their souls what this apparition was, but no-one dared utter its name. Above them, the bright lucid moon emerged from behind the fog with the deftness of a magician’s hand, and the boundless sea became tinged with a heavenly opalescent hue.

It suddenly dawned on the passengers that the pounding had abruptly ceased while this apparition held their gaze. The sparkling air was quiet and still, like the earth had inhaled, and held its breath there for an eternity.  There was no sound but the violent waves crashing against the bow of the ship.

Suddenly, a blood-curdling woman’s scream pierced the dark night like a blade.

“Sailor!” Gibbs yelled. “What do you see?” There was no response.

The people stood, both motionless and soundless, save for muted sobs.

“Sailor! What do you see!!” he repeated in a hoarse yell, in order to be heard against the howling wind.

The crowd looked up to where the sailor should have been, and their hearts stopped collectively in their chests.

“Where is he?” they asked in a chorus as they turned to one another in confusion.

They had not even heard a splash in the sea to signify that he had fallen. He had simply disappeared when the fog had lifted and the banging had ceased. The crowd stared mutely at the peeling light from the stars above, which now covered the sky like an infinite sprinkling of dust.

Without warning, the precipitous cliffs of Victoria’s west coast materialized in the darkness.

The dreadful realization of how far off course they had sailed occurred to Captain Gibbs, which was accompanied by a hollow nausea. The passengers also saw the cliffs, and began screaming chillingly. The children instinctively felt the panic of their parents, and mirrored their anguish with high pitched sobs.

“Set the sails, men!!” Gibbs commanded.

He grabbed the slippery wheel, and attempted to steer the boat back out to sea.

But the clipper had lost momentum when it surged head-on into the now whipping wind, and the once majestic sails fell lifeless, causing the bow to swing back.

“Release the anchors!!” Gibbs screamed desperately.

The ship’s anchors sank fifty fathoms, but grasped onto nothing.  The ships bow was suddenly dragged mercilessly by the anchor.  The Captain strained and snapped every fragile tendon in his arms while violently turning the wheel to steer his ship out to sea, but it was futile. The ship ruthlessly crushed against the rocky reef jutting out from a small island.

The vision of his beautiful new wife back in England swept over the Captain’s mind.

Tremendous, frothy waves broke over the ship, and the deck was ripped from the hull. A dozen people were washed overboard with a horrific legacy of screams.  The 150-foot-masts and rigging from the ship smashed down upon the deck, turning it into jagged splinters. Loose rocks from the towering cliffs of the island came crashing down onto the deck. Panicked women plunged into the arctic waters, whilst still grasping their children’s hands. Husbands kissed their wives tenderly on the forehead before plummeting to their watery graves. Those trapped beneath the rigging screamed shrilly for help.

Ironically, they could see everything in front of them lucidly for the first time in days; but they were merely greeted with the ghastly vision of the final moments before their own death.

Amidst the pandemonium, Captain Gibbs grabbed Eva Carmichael by her lapel.

“If you are saved Eva, let my dear wife know that I died like a sailor.”

That was the last Eva saw of Captain Gibbs, as she was swept off the rigger by a violent wave.

Tom Pearce struggled with freeing the only lifeboat, but the shuddering Loch Ard threw him wayward. When he finally managed to launch it, it instantaneously crashed into the side of the rigger and capsized. As he jumped in the water after it, he caught a glimpse of an indistinct black silhouette, standing utterly rigid and composed atop the splintered deck of the Loch Ard, watching the carnage. It was slightly too tall and too broad to be human. It had the twisted, unholy face of the devil.

It was the last thing he saw before he sunk into the shadowy water.

The crew, who had fled below deck when the ship had crashed into the reef, clung to the leaking walls and murmured desperate prayers. But these prayers were left unanswered; for moments later, the once majestic ship slipped off the reef and into the deep sea, and embarked on its final death-throws in the churning water. Within fifteen minutes, all but two of the souls that had been on the HMS Loch Ard were lost somewhere in the inky depths of the Indian Ocean. The deafening laughter and the conversation of the night before was now a ghostly memory that made the spherical atmosphere seem more silent and more crushing.

Tom Pearce managed to kick to the surface of the water, and sheltered beneath the overturned hull of the lifeboat. As he clung to it, the strong current carried him out to sea. The chill of the water absolved all of his fear of death; for his mind was merely concerned with keeping his bruised and aching body warm. But the tide mercifully pushed Tom back towards shore, between two sheer cliffs and into a nearby gorge. He let go of the life boat, and laboriously swam to shore. He crawled into and an enormous damp limestone cave, with short stalactites hanging from the ceiling, where he collapsed, exhausted.

Eva spent five hours in the icy water, clinging to a chicken coop and then some rigging to keep afloat. As she floated in the middle of the black water with the blazing moon above her, her mind became consumed with the profound grief at the possibility of losing her family. As the hours dragged by, she made her peace with her Lord, and was reconciled to the idea of letting go of the rigging and sinking to her peaceful end.

But over the surge of the waves, Tom discerned some commotion in the waves at the mouth of the gorge. He rose to his feet and yelled in the direction of the splashing.

“Is someone there?” The vivid moon illuminated Tom’s form as he stood up. Eva saw him, and heard an unintelligible voice in the wind.

“Here!! Please!! Help me!” she yelled as loudly as her burning lungs could muster. 

Tom dived into the freezing water and swam towards her. But the current was ruthlessly strong, and Tom struggled for an hour to drag her back to the beach. He carried her to the cave and laid her unconscious form on the floor. For a moment, he fretted about how he was going to rouse her; when he auspiciously spied a case of brandy from the ship, which had washed up on the beach. He wondered wryly to himself how this much brandy was left unconsumed after the party last night, which now seemed like a lifetime ago. He broke the case open, and waved a bottle under Eva’s nose to revive her. 

***

When dawn broke cleanly over the cloudless sky, Tom painfully scaled the sheer cliffs to search for help. He found some faint hoof prints in the dirt, and followed them until he chanced upon two men from nearby Glenample Station, three and a half miles away.

“I am from the HMS Loch Ard. We wrecked… a few miles back.” He limply waved in the direction. “There’s a young woman with me”.

He was too exhausted to say anymore. The men threw Tom on the back of their horse, and rode back to the station to seek help. By the time the rescuers reached the gorge, the sun had gone down and the frosty wind was whipping around their ears. The flood tide had pushed a dozen dead men, women and children into the blowhole at the end of the gorge. The liters of inhaled water and pushed their bodies down to the seabed. When the rescuers stood above the cliff, they were met with the vision of these submerged bodies, which were lit up by the phosphorous from the matches that were stored in the ships hull.  It shone beneath them like a globe beneath moths, exposing their lifeless silhouettes, which were being pushed together by the gentle undercurrent of the ocean like they were involved in some sort of randomized, slow-motion liquid dance.

Some of the younger children’s bonnets were still tied tightly to their heads, and they were filled with water; making them appear like bloated halos around their heads. Some bodies were floating on their backs, and their dead bauble eyes stared at the brilliant constellations, which were now more vivid and beautiful than they had ever been.

 

Epilogue:

As they sat in the cave waiting for dawn to break, Tom and Eva resolved to not impart their horrific experiences on the HMS Loch Ard to anyone. They knew that the public would receive this story with suspicion and hysteria. More so, the events of that day were far too horrifying to ever be verbalized. Thus they fabricated an uncomplicated story; which is the one that has been historically documented.  After that night, Tom became a decorated hero for his rescue of Eva, and Eva returned to Ireland, where she married and bore a family. They never saw, nor corresponded, with each other again.