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Rowling's Discovery, or the Titan's Ghost

by Bryan Warrick 27 days ago in Historical · updated 24 days ago
Runner-Up in Ship of Dreams ChallengeRunner-Up in Ship of Dreams Challenge
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One man's brush with spiritualism, or not

Photo/Bryan Warrick

Jonathan Rowling barely managed to dodge the tail of a huge tuna fish. The poor fish fellow whipped around excitedly as it tried to escape its fate. After the close call, Rowling managed to get a secure grip on the tail and pull the fish further onto the deck.

"You got the tail now, Jon?" Bryant called out.

"Got it all," Rowling declared, his grip staying strong against the tuna’s violent thrashing.

On his answer, two fellow crew members rushed forward to secure the rest of the fish. The tuna never let up, but through the focused efforts of some of the best bluefin fishermen around, it was carried to the hold and dumped in.

"Damn it to hell, he was a fighter!" One of the men, a chap named Franklin, said, wiping his wet brow. "Glad we were actually able to get the son of a bitch in there."

"Don't cuss, Franklin," the other man, Stevenson, said. "That being said, you're absolutely right."

The two young men patted each other on the backs and laughed, enjoying their hard-fought victory. Rowling couldn't help but smile at the sight. A tiny one, but a smile, nonetheless.

"Is the fish secure, Mr. Rowling?" Bryant asked from the wheelhouse.

"Yes, Captain," he replied. "That giant tunny is good and locked up."

"That's what I like to hear." Captain Bryant made a note in his raggedy old notebook and added up the numbers. "Well, boys, the hold is full and the market awaits us. We're heading home!"

The three crew members gave a loud – if exhausted – cheer. Ever so slowly, Rowling felt the tuna fishing ship Lexington turn about beneath his feet.

The seas were relatively calm, which Rowling was grateful for. Even though it was the end of May, the water was still barely above freezing. He leaned on the railing to catch his breath, watching the water swirling around them as the Lexington made the way back to Boston harbor. His fellow deckhands appeared at the railing.

"Say, John, what did you call the tuna? A tunny?" Franklin asked with a grin. "Goddamn Limey and your gibberish."

"Don't cuss," Stevenson repeated, it seemed, for the thousandth time on the trip.

"I did call it a tunny," Rowling said. "But do I gotta keep telling you? I'm not a Limey. I'm Irish." He accent certainly gave it away.

"Close enough," Franklin said with a shrug.

Rowling answered with a punch to the young man's arm.

"Oww." He chuckled and gave Rowling a wink. "I ain’t taking it back."

The hours passed in almost complete silence. The small crew knew what the captain expected of them and went about their various tasks around the ship. Rowling knew all too well from his many years at sea just how important it was to keep busy. Or at least look busy.

When they reached the waters of Boston Harbor, Rowling finally felt like he could get away with taking it easy. He sat down on one of the old wooden crates used for equipment and watched the many other ships coming and going. It didn’t take long for his two younger shipmates to join him in doing nothing.

As always seemed the case when the ship returned to port, the crew got talking about what news was awaiting them in the papers. The subjects they wondered about covered everything from Boston Braves scores to updates from the American troops fighting in Veracruz.

Franklin, who Rowling thought always imagined himself to be a sailor’s sailor, mentioned a bit of news he’d read right before they’d left port.

“Did you hear about the Empress of Ireland wreck?” he asked his crewmates.

Rowling shook his head. The name didn’t sound familiar to him, but Stevenson seemed to recognize it.

“I think so. That there Canadian ship that went down on the St. Lawrence right before we left?” he asked.

“The very same,” Franklin said. “Last I heard, it was struck by another ship – some tugboat or other – and went down in thick fog. They were saying in the papers over a thousand people went down with it. I wonder if there will be any more news about it when we return.”

The image made Rowling stop breathing. Immediately after he pictured the scene, several more horrific sights flashed through his mind. But these weren’t his imagination. Only when his lungs began to hurt, did he realize he still wasn’t breathing. When he finally took in a gulp of air, Rowling shook his head to be rid of the awful thoughts.

“Can you imagine being a crewmate during that sort of disaster?” Franklin continued, gazing wildly at the gray water around them. “Having a ship that large, that strong, just… fall out right from under you?” He shivered. So did Stevenson. Rowling didn’t move a single muscle.

“Enough of that.” Captain Bryant appeared behind them. “There’s no reason for that kind of talk on my boat.”

“What?” Franklin asked. “I was only posing a question. I didn’t mean our ship! I meant serving on one of the giant ladies! Having something that big go down with you on it!”

“Franklin!” the Captain shouted. “Enough!” After hammering the point home with a severe stare, Bryant turned without another word and returned to the wheelhouse.

Franklin, of course, was rather put out by the whole exchange. “What was that all about?” he asked. “It was just a thought.”

Despite the unpleasantness of the whole matter, Rowling didn’t want his young friend to feel foolish. After a moment to collect himself, he spoke up.

“The captain knows my history. He doesn’t want to hear such talk while I’m around, for my sake, I suppose,” he said. Both young men stared at him with questioning looks. Rowling sighed and admitted the truth. “Before I was ever working out of the Wharf, I was employed by the White Star Line. Worked as an Able Seaman on the Titanic…” his voice trailed off.

Of course, no additional explanation was needed. Rowling knew as much, watching both fellow crewmembers’ eyes go wide.

Stevenson was the first to remember how speaking worked. “I’m so terribly sorry,” he said. “I can’t even image such a nightmare. God must have been watching over you.”

The kind words were immediately followed by Franklin’s own flurry of questions. “What was it like? Did you see the iceberg? How did you survive?”

“Uhh…” Rowling froze, not knowing where to begin with answers.

Luckily, he didn’t have to, as Stevenson quickly slapped Franklin on the back of the head.

“Will you knock it off?” Stevenson asked in an exasperated tone. “I usually hit you for cussing, but this time, I’m hitting you for having a big mouth. Just shut up!”

In something approaching a small miracle, Franklin actually did shut his mouth. He didn’t ask a single question about the wreck of the Titanic or Rowling’s experiences all the way into port.

The Lexington came to dock on the newly constructed Boston Fish Pier on the southside of harbor. In the ensuing hustle and bustle of the local fish market, Captain Bryant leading the conversation with several sellers on cost per pound, Rowling silently stepped through the crowd. It didn’t take long to find the way into the nearest bar.

“Scotch, on the rocks if you can,” he asked the barkeep.

As the drink was placed before him, to Rowling’s surprise, Stevenson appeared on the barstool next to him.

“I’ll take the same,” the younger man requested.

When the second drink arrived, Stevenson joined Rowling in a silent toast. The silence continued until both men’s glasses were empty. It was the young fisherman who spoke up first.

“Sorry about Franklin,” Stevenson said. “He can be a jackass. And yes, I know… I shouldn’t cuss.”

Rowling shrugged. “He’s an excitable one. I suppose I can’t blame a youngster for being interested. Especially over something as famous as… well, as the Titanic.” The ship’s name was said in the quietest of whispers.

“Did you lose anyone?” Stevenson asked. “During the wreck, I mean. Because, if you did, there are… ways of reaching out to them.”

Rowling raised an eyebrow.

“Jon, you know I take my religious convictions seriously,” Stevenson explained.

“Like the cussing.”

“Yes, like the cussing, and in these modern, scientific times, there is no better evidence for God and His fate for us all then the study of spiritualism.”

Immediately, Rowling knew where the conversation was heading. “I’m not going to see some medium or ghost-whisperer,” he grumbled.

“Of course,” Stevenson said. “I’m not saying you have to. But… if you ever find yourself feeling truly overwhelmed by what you experienced, by the loss you witnessed, know there is an answer. You need only be open-minded to the experience, and an answer will come.”

“I… appreciate the concern,” Rowling said, trying his best to sound sincere. While he did have his own beliefs on a life after death, when it came to spiritualists, so many seemed nothing more than magicians at best, and conman at worst. I suppose some might be genuine, he thought. But good luck finding such a man.

The men shared a second round of drinks, downed in more silence, before Rowling excused himself and left the bar. He headed out of the crowded Wharf and into the public squares of the city proper.

Just as Franklin had predicted, among the headlines shouted by the newies, recent updates on the Empress of Ireland disaster seemed to grab the most attention. Several of the young newsboys shouting from the corners were calling it “Canada’s Titanic.”

The words sent a new barb of pain through Rowling. Keeping his head low, he continued onward.

“Yes sir, this is the book that predicted it all!” A strong voice broke through the noisy city air. “While everyone is talking about the Empress of Ireland, read the book that predicted the most famous shipwreck of all time! Read the book that predicted the wreck of the Titanic more than a decade before the tragedy.”

It didn’t take long to find the source of the voice: a middle-aged man with thinning hair and heavily wrinkled eyes called out to the people strolling past him.

“Yes, this book predicted the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic, 14 years before she ever set sail on that fateful voyage!” the man continued. “Yes, this is all true! Buy a copy here today, and witness one of the greatest examples of foresight made possible by the study of spiritualism.”

Despite the pain such callous words about the Titanic tragedy brought, Rowling’s curiosity was piqued by the man’s claims. Maybe that curiosity was just Stevenson’s words still fresh in his mind, but he wondered…

No, he thought. There couldn’t actually be something to this. Could there?

“What’s this book called?” Rowling find himself asking the salesman.

“Ah, my good man! This masterful text is called Futility, Or the Wreck of the Titan,” the man answered. “Published in 1898, and yet… it describes the true-to-life wreck of the Titanic – that didn’t occur until 1912! – with shocking detail. But don’t take my word for it. Buy a copy and read it for yourself!”

Despite feeling a little foolish, Rowling agreed and handed over his hard-earned money for a copy of the book. The man thanked him and sent him on his way. Rowling felt even more foolish when he arrived at his small apartment flat. The place was in the poorer section of town, but it matched him just fine.

He ran his fingers along the cheap binding of the book’s spine.

You certainly can be an idiot sometime, he told himself. Stevenson’s advice on seeking… spiritual assistance must have really gotten under your skin.

He shook his head, disappointed with himself for falling for such a scam. With a grunt, Rowling threw the book onto his small table, made of a wooden board on top of old crates, and went to take a nap in his own bed for the first time in days.

Sleep never came. By the time Rowling gave up and returned to the front room, he’d completely forgotten about the foolish purchase. But the moment his eyes saw the damn book sitting there, Rowling felt like a fool all over again.

Well, you might as well read it now, and move on with your life, he thought.

Rolling his eyes, Rowling grabbed the book and sat on the worn-down leather chair. He was expecting some cheap melodrama – something barely above a penny dreadful.

That critical take ended when he read the protagonist’s name: John Rowling.

“What the hell?” he asked aloud. With a sudden growing interest, Rowling continued to read.

He whisked through the rest of the story in a growing mania. With each page he read, the feeling of familiarity washed over him. By the end of the tale, it felt like a tidal wave had smashed into him.

It… it can’t be, he thought. It’s not possible. There were so many shared details with this fictional character and himself. It was truly a shocking amount.

For a moment, his usual stubborn nature refused to admit Stevenson’s theory about spirituality was the reason why, but even Rowling couldn’t argue with the incredible accuracy this Robertson fellow had described him.

And it was only the main character with shocking similarity to true life. As the salesman had promised, the story itself was eerily similar to the Titanic’s tragic voyage: A wonderous ship named the Titan, declared by the press to be unsinkable, struck an iceberg during a voyage in the north Atlantic in the month of April, and sank with great loss of life, in part because there were not enough lifeboats aboard.

The tale alone was unnerving, but it was the story’s hero that truly struck Rowling. They not only shared a name, but so much more. The John Rowling of the book was a former British sailor who found work on the ship as an Able Seaman. During the Titan’s wreck, he managed to not only survive, but save the life of a young girl.

Images from that terrible night flooded Rowling’s memory, overwhelming him to the point of tears. Only one thing prevented him from breaking down entirely.

Laura… he thought, closing his eyes. All the terrible things surging in his mind disappeared as he remembered her.

But unlike him, the story continued for the fictional Rowling. He survived, only to all but disappear from the world. Until the end, that is, when the imaginary man managed to find peace and purpose, even obtained a prominent government position.

Surely that couldn’t be the fate of the real Jonathan Rowling. Could it be? he wondered.

Rowling looked at the book cover for the writer’s name. Morgan Robertson.

I must find this man, Rowling thought. The man knows something. Or has seen something. However this spiritual madness works.

He rubbed his chin, thinking of how he could possibly locate this Robertson. Thoughts immediately returned to the sly salesman that sold the book to him in the first place. Yes, he must know something.

The investigation began in earnest the following morning. It wasn’t difficult for Rowling to find the smooth-salesman, and after more than a few threats to the man’s well-being, he started to talk. He sent Jon to the publisher, who also proved rather compliant after a few strong words. The publisher sent him to the writer’s agent, all the way down in New York City, and despite the hassle, Rowling took the train down to Manhattan. He found the agent, who – eventually – gave him Robertson’s address.

This writer, Rowling learned, had been a member of New York’s bohemia movement for some years, and like any true, successful artists, was living in Greenwich Village.

After a short search, he managed to find the building in the village. His heart was beating hard in his chest as he took the steps to the man’s apartment door. Without hesitation, he knocked on the door. For a moment there was no answer. He knocked again.

When the door opened, the sight that greeted him was not what he expected. Rowling had seen a few mediums and magicians in his time at traveling circuses, and at every show they had been dressed to the nines, with fancy jackets, hats, and mustaches to match. This man did not resemble those charlatans in the slightest.

Morgan Robertson was bald, with a thin ring of hair wrapping around the side of his head. He was clean-shaven and seemed to have a permanently bored expression on his face.

“Yes?” he asked in soft voice. “Can I help you?”

Words failed to form in Jon’s mind. This was a man who had clearly seen things beyond the physical world. He had seen the whole of Rowling’s life, including the tragedy on the Titanic, and even the future yet to come.

What do I say to someone like that? he wondered. Slowly, he found the strength to get the words out.

“My… my name is Jonathan Rowling,” he stuttered out. “I… umm, I served aboard the Titanic.” He froze for a moment, but managed to force himself to keep speaking. “I read your book, Futility, and… I think you described my life. Uh, sir.”

Morgan Robertson didn’t react at first. His face was stone, but the eyes moved over Rowling with startling focus.

“Please,” Rowling said. “I’m not some sycophant. I don’t know you. But, sir, I read your book, and it… it was about me. I am Jon Rowling. And I need to know if the future you saw was real. If… I actually have a future.”

Those intense eyes remained fixed on him. Nearly a minute passed before an answer finally came.

“Alright, come inside,” Robertson said.

The apartment was much better dressed than Rowling’s. It was simple, but with pleasant furniture and clean curtains on the windows. A large, thick wooden table took up space in the main room.

The writer sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Alright, let’s hear this and get it out of the way,” he said.

“What?”

“Oh, you’re not the first to visit me looking for answers,” Robertson said. “So many people think I must speak to the dead or get visions from God. But none of that is true.”

“But your book?” Rowling asked, puzzled.

“A work of fiction. Nothing more. It was never a prophesy or anything of the sort, despite what the hucksters on the street will tell you.”

The words hit like a punch to the gut. “But… but how?” Jon asked weakly.

“I know what I’m writing about, that’s all,” the writer said. “I write about maritime affairs. I am an experienced seaman, and I could see how ship construction was developing. Ships were getting very large and difficult to control. I understood the possible danger one of these behemoths would hit an iceberg.”

“But the ship’s name? The Titan!”

“Nothing but a coincidence, sir,” Robertson replied. The disappointment must have been visible on Rowling’s face, because the writer continued. “I am sorry if that wasn’t what you wanted to hear.”

Jon shook his head. “It’s not your fault,” he said, barely above a whisper. “It’s mine for jumping to such a conclusion.”

“May I ask what your experience was?” the writer ask. “If you wish to tell it. I understand if you don’t.”

“No, no, it’s alright,” Rowling said. “I’ve kept it buried inside for so long. Even the rare few who know I served aboard that ship, don’t know the details of that night. It needs to be told, and you might be the best man to hear it.”

Jonathan Rowling took in deep breath and did his best to calm himself. His heart was beating heavy as he began to speak.

“I’d served in the British Navy for a time, before finding myself employed by the White Star Line. Served on several ships until I found myself as an Able Seaman aboard the R.M.S. Titanic for its maiden voyage.”

For a moment, the magnificent ship returned in his mind’s eye as it had looked in dock. But the pleasant image quickly faded away.

“After we struck the berg, and she began to go under, I was called upon to assist in launching the lifeboats. None of us, neither the crew nor the passengers, truly understood just how dire the situation was.” He chuckled at the sad denial they’d all been a part of. “The band even came out to play for us.

“By the time we did realize the danger, it was too late… far too late for many. It was then the growing anxiety I felt turned into true terror, as the inevitable horror coming to most people board came upon me, but I stuck to my duty.

“By the greatest of chances, as we filled the last of the 16 wooden main boats – lifeboat number 4 – I was selected by Second Officer Lightoller to climb in and join the crew members lucky enough to row.”

The moment was seared into his mind like a cattle brand. The fear that threatened to overtake him immediately turned into relief, then joy. But as he climbed in, the joy gave way to stabbing guilt. He watched the men doomed to remain behind, and countless souls scrambling up and down the deck in increasing desperation to find rescue.

“Guilt grabbed me as I watched, from the safety of the boat, the last passengers board our lifesaving craft, leaving their loved ones behind,” Rowling continued, trying in vain to keep his voice from betraying his emotion.

He paused for a moment to collect himself. “I watched as Mrs. Astor carefully and fearfully climbed aboard. I continued to watch as her husband, the famous John Astor himself, asked to join his wife, who was with child. Lightoller refused the millionaire. And as the lifeboat began to lower, I was still watching as the poor woman cried out in grief to her husband. Of course, I’m sure you know Mr. Astor didn’t make it.”

Robertson nodded in silence.

“From the safety of our little boat,” Rowling continued, “we watched the Titanic’s stern lift high and higher, until the lights went out and we were plunged into darkness.”

He could still hear the terrible screech that followed the oppressive black of that night. While he wasn’t an engineer by any stretch, Rowling was sure it was the sound of the ship splitting in two, despite what wiser men like Lightoller stated on record.

“Our lifeboat had been placed under the command of Walter Perkis, a quartermaster during the voyage. A compassionate and brave man who will always have my respect. After the Titanic had floundered, we could hear the screams and cries of hundreds of dying souls.

“On Mr. Perkis’ orders, we quickly emptied many of our passengers into another boat and returned to the wreck site to save as many as we could,” Rowling said. “We were the first lifeboat to come back, and even then, we were too late to save most.”

Rowling quickly pushed the image out of his head. The floating bodies covered the sea, some 1,500 of them, still waiting for a rescue that never came. He shivered to his bones.

“We managed to save eight from the water, although two of those souls still perished from the cold,” he said. “One we did rescue was a young girl who couldn’t have been older than 12 or 13. I spotted her, trying to paddle toward us, although she’d clearly lost the ability to move her arms. I directed Perkis to her, and as we came alongside, I grabbed her under the arms and pulled the girl aboard.

“I immediately wrapped her in a blanket and dried her off as best I could. As we moved through the cold night, her shivering continued, and I attempted to keep her mind focused, to keep her alive. I asked her name, and in a weak voice, she replied ‘Laura.’ She asked if we’d rescued her family, which I was unable to answer, filled with the terrible certainty that we had not.

“Throughout the those long, cold hours, I continued to keep her mind busy by pointing out the constellations I knew in the starry night sky. When we boarded the Carpathia, she was taken into the custody of more capable caretakers, and I never saw her again.”

Another pause in the tale. Rowling saw the young face, pale as a ghost, looking up at him from the bundle of blankets. Pleading eyes that wanted to hear good news. But the only good news he’d had was of her safety alone.

“Much like your fictional Rowling, I not only survived the wreck, but saved the life of a young girl in the process,” the real Rowling said. “I’ve been so haunted by everything I saw that night, yet I find some comfort in the reminder of that little girl and how I pulled her out of that black, freezing seawater.”

Rowling finished the story, trying in vain to read Morgan Robertson’s reaction. When the writer didn’t say anything, he spoke again.

“It’s been barely two years since that terrible day,” Jon slowly continued. “I don’t… I don’t believe I’ve ever made peace with everything that happened. Since then, I’ve been listless. Distant from the world.”

“As was the Rowling of my book,” the writer said. “Until he found the strength to move on and live as a man. To make something of himself.” Robertson sighed once more. “But I am not a psychic. I don’t know your future, Mr. Rowling.”

“Your Rowling survived and saved a girl. You got all of that correct! Surely the rest must be too. Surely, I…”

Will I achieve the same? The real Rowling wanted to ask this wise man, but fear of the answer gripped him tight, making him feel powerless. It reminded him of the terror he’d suffered through on the Titanic.

Yet you overcame that fear, he suddenly realized. You survived that awful tragedy and rose to the challenge to save another. You can survive that fear now.

Yes! Yes, Rowling knew could survive this fear. And he knew he didn’t need to ask the man before him about the future.

“Maybe… maybe I can achieve the same as your Rowling,” he finally said, not bothering to ask the question. He knew what his answer was.

Robertson nodded slowly, those focused eyes seeing the difference in the man across from him. “I believe you just might, Mr. Rowling.”

A quiet moment passed between the two men. Just as Rowling felt he should leave, the writer stood up. “Would you care for a glass of whiskey before you leave?” he asked. “It’s the least I can offer after you came all this way.”

“Sounds great,” Rowling said with a laugh. He watched the man pour two glasses, topping one of them off with clear liquid he didn’t recognize.

“Paraldehyde,” Robertson explained. “I drink it often. Would you like some?”

Rowling shook his head, so the writer put the clear bottle away and returned with the two drinks.

“Cheers to you, Mr. Rowling,” Robertson said. “To your future, and to a truly amazing coincidence.” They clinked glasses.

The whiskey was smooth, and Rowling felt a rather pleasant warmth spread through him. He smiled – a real smile – for what felt like the first time in years. Perhaps it had been.

“You know, Mr. Robertson, it’s a true shame you’re not a real clairvoyant,” Rowling said. “It would certainly make things a lot easier.”

“I’ve heard that a lot, as well,” Robertson said. “I’m glad it isn’t true. I’m sure such a power would quickly become a burden.” He paused to look over at a notebook sitting on the table. “Take this tale I’ve been putting together recently. The working title is ‘Beyond the Spectrum.’ To many, it would seem a fantastical sort of tale –and I suppose it probably is– but the details come from what I see in the world. It’s a logical conclusion.”

“And what details are those?” Rowling asked.

For the first time since meeting him, Rowling saw the man smile.

“It’s set sometime in the future, and tells of the Japanese carrying out a secret, surprise attack on U.S. Naval forces near Hawaii and the Philippines,” the writer explained. “The attack leads to a great Pacific War between the U.S. and the Empire of Japan. As I said, it’s a rather fantastical story.”

“It certainly is,” Rowling said. He laughed and shook his head. What a preposterous idea! “Hopefully this time, your story won’t come true.”

Historical

About the author

Bryan Warrick

Having spent years writing as a journalist and publicist, I've decided to get serious about my fiction writing. Looking to learn and improve as a writer, so please check out my short stories and let me know what you think!

Thank you all!

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