Well, it is midnight somewhere in the world tonight, so happy Hallows Eve to you.
Please enjoy a chilling little tale – on the House.
(NOTE: If you want to jump through a few hoops to download the file for your reader instead of reading it here, do so at Smashwords and enter the coupon code QM38X to get it for free there.)
The Embalmer was seasick, like all the other funeral directors on board. The Mackay-Bennett, rose slowly and fell faster, over and over again in a vascillating rhythm for days, locking the cramped vessel into a pattern of unrelenting inducement to nausea. She was a cable steamer, the main repair ship for lines laid by the Seimens Brothers, tiny in comparison to the lost vessel to whom she now paid grim recovery.
A forest of ropes and wire and steel seemed to draw the ship up in a package. One of the morticians joked, while navigating the great blockades of coffins and ducking the ropes, that he doubted that the steamer ever actually laid cable but instead adorned her decks with the excess.
The rush to fill her decks with ice, canvas, pine crates and grate iron had consumed the few modest leisure spots. Quarters for the crew and funeral directors were cramped.
As the condition of the ocean grew worse, and the icebergs seemed, at least to the non-seafaring men, to be gathering like sharks, more than one complaint was raised.
“Too many coffins. One-hundred? If we fill half that number, I’ll swim back,” said a director.
“Aye,” said another, shrugging, “the California found nothing. If we see anything, it’ll be driftwood, or, excuse me for saying it, rot so bad -“
“Or the bosuns -” said another, nodding to the bird outside the window that had been on board for days. A narrow-nosed member of their party had informed them that it was, in fact, a storm-petrel, but, as every crewman referred to it as bosun bird, the recoverers had taken up the custom of misnaming, assuming an unknown superstition.
The “bosuns” were scavenger birds.
The Embalmer stood up and clapped his hands, his hair a wiry mop.
“None of that,” he said, “I have few gifts, none, really, except for this: I am a student of embalming. From the Egyptian art to the latest stroke of science, there’s one thing God has put me on this earth, or, rather, this sea, to do. Whether it is ten or twenty or even fifty, bring them up – bring them all up – for the coffins. You’ll be amazed what we can do, or Mr. Snow -” he said, nodding his head respectfully in the direction of the lead undertaker, “-would not have brought us on. As long as you can practice your art of handling and conforming the bodies, I can bring them back to lifelike vigor. Most of them, in any case.”
“Except,” said the first director who spoke, in a loud voice, and then a hushed one as he looked around, “for crew.”
“No!” shouted the Embalmer. “All of them. You have care and talent enough. I have skill enough. We have coffins enough – far more than necessary.”
The Embalmer was a very modern man – at ease, keen on technology and engineering, a known master of his art. They, for the most part, trusted his enthusiasm.
One nebbish director, old and a bit addled, ventured a small protest. “When numbering them, do we need to prioritize the bodies? Should we consult the Canon?”
Canon Ken Hind was the priest who had dedicated that day to prayer and fasting, or, as some of the directors joked, “sleep and heaving.”
“No,” said Anguenet, “He is Jesuit.” Everyone else ignored his indiscretion, knowing the speaker to be half-mad but harmless in his rare remarks.
“Why would we need to prioritize?” said the first. “A ship that huge would have sucked them all down in her wake.”
“There will be some,” said the Embalmer, holding onto hope.
A flat-voiced question silenced them all.
“What if there are…too many?”
It came from a peculiar director in the back of the crowded cable room that had been emptied for staging and meeting during the day, and for extra cots at night. The man went by the name of Swift and had been the most reclusive of their party. He had been the only one who was not at least somewhat familiar to any of the others, having arrived by auto from Addison Maine, easily the farthest – and most treacherous – distance any of the morticians had traveled on such short notice.
He wore a cloak with a cowl over his overcoat and even more layers of clothes underneath. He looked like a medieval monk, save for the rich purple knot of the necktie that peeked out along the hint of his winged collar, and his shoes. They were new, high-laced Douglasses, polished.
The man was peculiar: stylish, fully modern and yet ascetic and secretive.
If any man looked carefully at Swift (though as he was universally viewed as aloof and unpleasant, such examination was unlikely) he would easily notice that despite the layers of clothes he wore, the gloves and obscuring scarf, his body shivered all over like a baby’s, fresh from an cold bath.
“Too many?” a man said, leading a small chorus of uneasy laughter.
“What will you do,” asked Swift, disregarding the mockery, “when the bodies are too many? When the harvest is high? When the catch bursts the nets? What will you do to honor the dead you leave behind?”
The Embalmer broke the silence. “That is what we should call a good problem to hope for.”
“There are no good problems,” said Swift, “only problems.”
Sleep was restless throughout the rocking vessel, even for seasoned crew in gently swaying hammocks which had been strung to accommodate the crowded sleeping quarters. Those directors who managed to stay on tipping cots the entire night awoke to the strain of their own unsleeping muscles which had worked the entire graveyard shift in a full body grip.
The air was cold and gray, and a cry went up.
The Embalmer cracked his foot on a loose rod of grate iron, twelve tons of which had been loaded on the deck.
Swift stood at the aft side rail, his cloaked arm stretched out over the waters like a death angel. Something bobbed on the surface. The strongest crewman on board, a sly cabler named Borning, hauled the ten foot, brass-headed, double-hooked boat pole and keeled the heavy hickory over the edge; all this as he clambered down the half-ladder like an ape.
Everyone else crowded the rail as he held the rung precariously with one hand and the heavy pole with the other. His shoulders leaned back, nearly parallel to the ocean below him. The pole slapped the water like a dull harpoon against a stone-skinned whale. He swung wide, jabbed again, and found his target.
He then became a muscle-bound nursemaid, balancing the long pole with improbable delicacy, its prize dangling from the tip, threatening to drop back into the water.
He scaled the ladder, holding the pole aloft. Finally, he lowered to the deck the recovered artifact. It splattered when it struck, and water pooled between two stacks of coffins.
The men gathered around it.
The stained white fabric on it had torn in one place, exposing cork to the air. It had the words “White Star Line” printed on the breast. Straps which should have been fastened against someone’s ribs hung loose.
It was a life jacket.
At noon the next day, the Mackay-Bennett made sight, and intermittent wireless contact, with another steamer. She changed course to meet her. The other ship had, according to their wireless man, a half-burned flywheel in the broadcast device, so they communicated the old fashioned way – Morse lamp, then yelling.
“Bergs!” Shouted the man, the Captain’s First, on the other vessel. The fellow wore a French hat and yelled through a brass megaphone. He looked like a director from a motion picture – completely out of place on a fishing boat, as out of place as an embalmer on a cabling ship. He shouted a number of nautical terms – geographic positioning, speeds, and so on that the Embalmer couldn’t follow.
He thought it was a wonder that the man was an English speaker, but Anguenet dispelled that. “Most ships on this route are British or North American. Those that aren’t most certainly have an English speaker on it.”
“As a matter of business?”
“As a matter of the Black Pope.”
The Embalmer could not help himself. “I’m sorry, sir, but I must say: you see Jesuits everywhere. Do you realize how stark mad you sound?”
Anguenet seemed genuinely pleased to be addressed so frankly, and cracked a smile for the first time since the Embalmer had met him.
“Of course! That is part of the plan, though, eh? If they’ve shaped society properly, then you have been predisposed since birth and through your upbringing to dismiss me as a madman.”
The Embalmer shuddered with laughter, shaking his head. “But I am not a Jesuit! I’m not even Catholic!”
“I know that. Do you think I would speak so plainly to an agent of the dark master? I only hope to make a soul here, a soul there, more aware of the plan.”
“Why? To raise an army of enlightened men against the teeming hordes of Jesuit papists?”
“No. Their mission to run the world for the sake of evil is ordained. Who am I to stop it?”
The Embalmer, quite visibly puzzled and amused, threw up his hands. “If the mission of your worldwide conspiracy that has woven the very fabric of society can’t be thwarted, why do insist on portraying yourself as a madman? Why not do the sensible thing, and just get along with the order of things?”
He made every effort to be pleasant about it, but he quite rightly assumed that he did so for his benefit alone. Anguenet was unflappable.
As Anguenet replied, the Embalmer experienced a jolt from the convergence of his conversation with the shouting between the man with the megaphone and his own Captain Lardner:
“Also bodies,” cried the motion picture director in perfect English, “hundreds near there, fifty miles from the coordinates you gave me. Drift!”
Simultaneously, said Anguenet, his voice fading to a whisper against the roar of waves:
“Answer me this, Friend, and you will know my own answer: why do you insist on voyaging to the heart of the North Atlantic to embalm the decaying corpses of people completely strange to you?”
An undulating blanket of ruin spread to the horizon off the port side of the Mackay-Bennett. Wedged between gray sky and blue-black sea lay the thin brown netting of shattered wood and the dead. The Embalmer saw a bright flash of color: the circle of an unstained red and white lifebelt, bobbing, empty.
He tried to count the bodies, corked and frozen stiff on the waves. Ten. Tens. Fifty. More, spreading, to his untrained eye, for a nautical mile, perhaps more. The crew made grim and determined expressions, but to the Embalmer, it was a ripe field. He made no effort to contain his round-faced happiness.
“We can work with this, lads!” he said, nodding, “We can work with this!”
The other funeral home directors stiffened their backs, and resolved themselves to the tasks under Snow’s leadership. They prepped litters and coffins and fluids and cameras.
Swift stood at the rail, staring out over the saltwater battlefield, his cloak wrapped around him. A chill wind blew.
“Work all you want, Sir,” he hissed. “You can’t possibly bring them all aboard.”
The Embalmer scanned the dead and picked up a short pole. “Well let’s get out and try, shall we?”
“What are you doing?” said Anguenet. “You must stay on the ship and embalm!”
“I have no one to embalm yet. This is my only chance to get down and assess the prospects.”
They lowered two boats to start, manned with light crews – six oarsmen and four funeral men. The Embalmer and Anguenet took the first, as did Swift and a taciturn apprentice from Snow’s office brought along for brawn and training. The ocean splashed over them as it struck water, soaking them all in ice-wet chills.
The crew rowed to a long broken deck board, still waxed. A wet frosted hand held it in its stiffened grasp. An empty shimmering green dress swayed on the surface. The body of a dog bobbed beyond it. A curious bit of marble floated, enticing an oarsman to reach over and pluck it out. Later, when brought back on board, it would be identified as something far more rare than polished stone: linoleum.
A man, asleep on the water, looked angelic.
A pasture of bodies and debris stretched out around them in the fog.
Many – too many, worried the Embalmer – could be recovered, but there was at least one body in disastrous shape as they strained to pull it on board. Dressed only in a sleeping gown, it carried no sign of identity, and an almost equally small number of intact physical features. The crewmen shied their eyes, but even the undertakers were grateful for the body’s frozen state and salt-water incense. It took a combination of strength and balance to pull the dead weight into the boat without capsizing it.
Unlike the others on board, there were no pockets to go through, no drenched papers, no coins, jewelry or identifying artifacts.
The Embalmer took a pair of knotted forty-pound bars of grate iron, and fastened them under its arms. He assigned it a number and the apprentice recorded what few notes they could discuss. The body sank, a bare foot briefly waving a farewell before disappearing.
“Only problems,” muttered Swift.
“So, what say you?” said Anguenet. “Settle the argument.”
The weight of the work had hunched their shoulders, and even the crew flagged in their ability to move the boat, now laden with a sampling of the dead. The return to ship had become thick exhaustion.
He pointed up toward the steamship at the crest of the hull where her name was painted in plain, efficient letters.
They had nine bodies stacked in the middle of the long boat, their limbs so frozen they would have to be broken with hammers to fit in coffins. Even though having taken great care to pull the bodies in, the men were soaked through layers of wool, to the skin, in icy water.
The Embalmer put his tongue to cheek, knowing there wasn’t a right answer in store, but instead an endless, and theatrically serious debate.
“‘Macky’ or ‘Ma-kai’ you mean? I guess my first question is why ‘Mack-kay’ doesn’t even have a minority faction.”
The crewmen groaned at the Embalmer’s literal addition. Anguenet chuckled at his odd new friend’s unwitting sense of anarchy. As they tightened the ropes to hoist the boat back up the side of the ship, a few crewmen growled “Macky!” as if to end things in a single word.
The Embalmer shrugged. “Do you have a thought, Swift?”
They worked together to lift the bodies up and over the rail to the others waiting on deck. The Embalmer tiredly went up with the dead to start his real labor, and another director with fewer preservation skills took his place down on the lifeboat.
“It does not matter,” said Swift not moving from his place in the boat. “This ship, whatever her name, will be forgotten.”
The spent crew sparked at this.
The head oarsman said, “Shut up, landie. You’re dancing on a curse and don’t know it.”
Beneath his hood, Swift remained motionless. “It is a curse. The same curse for you all. She will be sunk after this, but will not rest on the ocean floor. She will be torn from her nature, and end up in pieces, but will dry out. Today will be the greatest, for you and for her: a day spent among the rigid, bird-scarred frozen dead, pulling up the scraps from a ship more excellent than any other.”
The Embalmer felt as if Swift was only addressing him at this point, though his direct gaze was impossible to meet from their respective places: his on the ship, Swift’s on the lifeboat.
“I pronounce her,” Swift continued, his hand lightly extended to the Mackay-Bennett, “the shade of the Titanic, and you all are in her shadow. Though ravaged by violence, she will share nothing in this world, not even the ocean as a tomb with the Royal Mail Ship below us. Pronounce her name however you like. I pronounce her doom.”
“You shut your mouth, or get off this boat, you mad undertaker,” said the shivering oarsman.
“I will not get off this boat. I will go back down, but I will not come up.”
“Say not another word, you.”
“I will say nothing more.”
The next two days became a blur of labor until supplies ran out and bodies piled high on deck. The coffins were full, mostly of first class, and there had been a brief and muted jubilation on the first evening when Anguenet identified John Jacob Astor, in full evening wear. The ship would share in the very large bounty on his body, in addition to their guaranteed double pay for the grim voyage.
Second Class were sewn into canvases as with Third, and crew were stacked in ice. But they had too many on board already, with more to get. Not all the guests could stay.
All the bodies were numbered, photographed and identified. Any possessions were marked and filed and kept on board for returning to next of kin.
Wednesday evening, Canon Hind performed a funeral for the two hundred that had already been or now had to be returned to the sea, mostly for lack of space, sanitation and formaldehyde. The photographers took extra pictures of each one as he was blessed, wrapped, and hurled overboard. As evening came, the photographer resorted to using the expensive magnesium flash to ensure the image would appear.
It was at this funeral that the Embalmer had a moment for the controlled, undetectable tears of the sort known only to morticians, to wet his eyes.
A small and harrowed man that the Embalmer had not met placed his hand firmly on the Embalmer’s back. “This is good work. Our best will suffice.”
“We have so much work to do when we get back to Halifax,” said the Embalmer, sniffing once, with force, to draw his composure.
“Today has enough work on its own. We could not possibly bring back all fifteen hundred.”
The Embalmer nodded. “My apologies, I don’t recall meeting you yet.”
The small man scratched through his bushy hair, “No, of course not. Until the work really started, I was lying flat, seasick as can be. I was useless until just today. My name is Swift.”
The final body to be committed was one that the Embalmer had not worked on.
The cross-shaped magnesium camera lamp burst its flare in the foggy dusk. The dead man’s orange-glowing bare face, angular and sleeping, wore a cowl pulled back. Beneath the cowl and cloak the rich purple knot of a necktie peeked out along the hint of a winged collar.
His shoes were Douglasses, polished by the sea.
The Mackay-Bennett retired a decade later, to a harbor in England, as a storage hulk.
She was bombed and sunk during the Blitz.
Her body was ripped from the ocean floor, then forgotten, and finally towed and scrapped in Belgium.
Not one piece of her would ever touch water again.