Dancers in the Sea (1928)


by Bill Hacker, as told to W.A. Cornish

I HAD come back from the war—and lost my girl. She had married another man.

Naturally I was feeling low as I walked slowly along Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington, trying to think out some solution of my troubles.

Funny I should meet Blake right then—an old pal of mine. He almost bumped into me.

“Just signed up with the Overseas Salvage Corporation as Senior Officer in charge of an expedition bound for the Mediterranean,” he informed me. “Why not come along?”

I rubbed my eyes and stared. Yes, it was Lieutenant Blake all right.

“Nothing too Big—Nothing too Far—Nothing too Deep,” he droned in a sing-song tone, then burst into a loud laugh. “Come on, Bill—let’s go!”

Guess that was their trade slogan for I noticed it at the top of the contract I signed the next morning.

With one stroke of the pen I was metamorphosed from a chief gunner’s mate into a deep-sea diver. Anybody who knows anything about this, knows that was some jump, and it would be putting it mildly to say that I was elated with this sudden turn in fortune.

And the pay—about five times as much as I had received from Uncle Sam, though I had rated a C. P. O.’s chevrons overseas. I might mention too that this matter of pay didn’t deter my enthusiasm any.

We sailed the following week-a party of eight. Lieutenant Blake acquainted us with the intimate details of our job as we were crossing the Atlantic in the big Cunarder. It seemed unreal—the luxurious staterooms, the music, beautiful women and dancing in the salon—after two years of cramped iron bunks and four-hour watches.

“This is de-life, boys,” Slim Galvin was fond of repeating.

Slim, a tall, sharp-featured fellow, was our ace diver. Diving—like every other game, including flying and baseball—has its aces. Slim was our Guynemeier, our Walter Johnson. A twin-hitch, ex-service diver, Slim could have pointed to a fancy string of upside-down altitude records as long as your arm. But he never did. Slim was one of the most modest chaps I ever knew.

The Salvage Company had contracted, Lieutenant Blake explained, to recover 1,000,000 pounds sterling in gold bullion, a mere bagatelle of $5,000,000, from a water-proof safe in the submerged cabin of the S. S. Frisia, a 4,000-ton Russian merchantman lying somewhere on the bottom of the Black Sea. The Frisia had been rammed and sunk the previous winter of 1918 by a Bolshevik patrol boat in the harbor of Odessa.

Two months later—in June. 1919, to be exact—we had rigged-up and moored a lighter about 200-yards off the shore. Less than 250 feet back from where we lay, doubly anchored, the Black Sea drops off from the harbor ledge to sheer depths of a mile or more.

For a week the dull boom of the surf on the jutting pier heads had been like the roar of distant artillery. But one Monday—a day of ill-omen in the Navy—the skies cleared and the sea became several shades lighter.

The Black Sea derives its name from its murky color, and its color from the dreary reflection of dull, overcast skies. While the Mediterranean is always blue because of the deep sapphire of the sky, the Black Sea is a dark mirror reflecting leaden skies. There are no coloring pigments in the water.

The shadowy, hostile waters constantly reached with skeleton white-tipped fingers over the sides of the lighter. They quieted down by noonday. The sun broke through the dismal sky and diving conditions became as propitious as could be reasonably expected. We prepared for several hours of diving.

THE apparatus, consisting of an air pump, depth lines, two regulation diving suits with harness equipment, which had been previously rigged on the shore side, was carefully inspected.

Slim was our lead-off man. He was assisted into his suit, and slowly descended the ladder over the side. He paused on a bottom rung, the lower half of his body in the water, while I clamped the heavy glass visor into place. Holding to the ladder with one bare hand, he thrust the other into the sea. He recoiled as from the bite of an adder.

“Ugh!” he shuddered. “Cold as ice!”

After a final rehearsal of the pre-arranged call signals Slim dropped beneath the surface.

Deep sea diving is an art—of a sort. A highly intricate, dangerous sort. The air pump, equipped with a high-pressure gauge, is manned by two men. A third operative manipulates a measuring line. Two others attend to the lowering rope. The whole operation is in charge of a supervisor, usually the Senior Officer, who, with a constant eye on his watch, coordinates the depth as indicated by the measuring tape with the air pressure registered by the dial gauge. A slip on the part of any one of these workers might prove extremely dangerous to the man below.

The air pressure is increased as the diver is lowered, to counteract the greater volume of water at the lower levels. An over-supply of air near the surface would inflate the suit and neutralize the weight of the diver, reinforced as he is by 334-inch leaden soles, so that he could neither go down nor up. The diver may, however, guard against any such excess of air by manipulating a valve in the side of his helmet.

Too little air at a great depth would prove doubly dangerous as the diver would be liable to be crushed to death by the waters pressing in upon him without sufficient air pressure to combat them. Air is pumped to the diver through a durable black rubber hose of the ordinary garden variety.

Pure air is employed for all diving purposes. An air reserve is also carried aboard submarines for use in case of emergency. I mention this because I have found that many persons suppose that oxygen is used. Raw oxygen would choke a man—literally burn him to death.

The depth line played out slowly. At the end of 11 minutes it showed a depth of 80 feet, then 85, then 90. The signals had come intermittently, but without cessation. When the tape measured 90 feet at the water line it suddenly stopped. It twitched spasmodically for a few seconds and then was still. Only the loose coil floated lazily on the water.

The man at the line started. The two at the pump turned the handles mechanically, forcing air ninety feet down to their comrade. Two others on the powering rope—as is always the case in an emergency—began to hoist. Not too rapidly for there was no answering signal. The air was being decreased at the same relative rate that it had been applied—minute for minute.

After what seemed an eternity—it was exactly eleven minutes—the inert, rubber-swathed Slim was hauled over the side. The moment that we let go our hold, the suit, crumpling like an empty grain sack, sloughed to the deck in a heap.

The visor was hurriedly unclamped. A pallid face, drained of blood and with wide-open staring eyes, lay beneath. The eyes seemed all white; the pupils had shrunk to mere pin pricks of jet. An expression of rigid terror was frozen on the man’s countenance.

There was no need for a pulmotor. Death—ghastly, stark, horrible—leered from beneath the copper helmet.

Lieutenant Blake, after a hurried examination, stated that death had come from heart failure.

“Fright! A fear of something—I don’t know what—caused this man’s death,” he explained. There were no evidences of the dread “caisson disease,” the scourge of veteran divers. Its symptoms are too easily discerned to mistake.

Fear gripped us—fear of the unknown . . . of the eerie, alien “lost world” beneath unnaturally darkened waters. And then by degrees the initial consternation wore away. It was supplanted by a certain grim seriousness. For it was the summer after the war and men were not unaccustomed to the dead being hoisted over the sides of ships, or to gleaming white canvas bags slipping overboard into the sea while the crew stood by with bared heads.

Slim was loosed from his diving paraphernalia and carried below.

I turned to the second diver who had been preparing to relieve Slim. He was stretching a wide rubber wrist-band and letting it snap back against the palm of, his hand. Perspiration was coursing down his face. It ran in tiny streams to his neck where it was absorbed in a ragged fringe of blue jersey.

A dry laugh caused me to wheel suddenly.

Lieutenant Blake, smiling a fixed unnatural smile, more resembling the stenciled grimace of a mechanical puppet than of a man, had begun to divest himself of his coat. His officer’s cap lay on the deck where he had thrown it. No one made a motion to stop him.

HE was ready in an instant. He deliberately stepped over the emergency suit, as if not seeing it, and began to climb into the one that only a moment before had been stripped from the dead Slim. He fastened the wide rubber pants about him hurriedly as if impatient to start.

“Either insanity or sheer braggadocio,” I mentally accused. “This thing has got him!” And as the officer coolly adjusted the steel flange in the collar of his suit, my senses kept indicting “that guy hasn’t got iron nerves—he hasn’t got any!” But I never said a word.

Lieutenant Blake, as if challenging my very thoughts, looked over at me and grinned reassuringly.

“Superstition!” he said, and grimaced. “Lightning never strikes twice. . . .”

I did not hear any more. I was busy helping him with the heavy boots.

As he stood on the sea ladder fumbling with the air valve in his helmet, he leaned suddenly towards me and began to speak in dry hard cadences that were strangely reminiscent of a night on a North Sea patrol when we had dropped a depth bomb, and afterwards had watched together as a turgid black oil film slowly formed on the surface of the water. The smile had left his face.

“You’re in charge! . . . If I jerk the depth line twice, sharp—like this,” he illustrated with a whip motion of his right arm, “let me down slower. Three times,” his tone was rasping, “—stop. But don’t raise—not at first. I will use the regular signals only, at faster intervals—every five feet . . . and if they stop. . . .” His voice trailed off.

“Slim had a bad heart.” His tone changed — became lower-pitched, more intimate. “He should never have gone down.” He motioned for me to clamp down his visor. As the last bolt was tightened he stepped down into the sea and an instant later was lost to sight.

We stared as the waters closed over the rounded helmet and tiny bubbles began to flicker to the surface. We unreeled the line as if it were a live wire. It uncoiled, slowly, ominously.

I looked up from my watch only once. The faces of the group at the rail were drawn, cream-colored beneath dark tan. The waters seemed suddenly malignant . . . as if shrouding some evil genii in their sinister depths.

AS the line showed 85 feet I stared at it transfixed. It suddenly became taut and I felt my body grow rigid. There it was—the same twitching as before, but followed by a staccato, spasmodic jerking as if a thousand demons were signaling for release. It was a call for help from the depths of the sea. Then these stopped as suddenly as they had begun. The line lay slack on the water.

We began to pull at both lines. The lowering line seemed light, one of the men said. And the depth line ran in like a kite string after the kite has broken free. Easy and gentle-like, without resistance or feel of any sort.

It came up slowly. I counted every second, split them like a track coach with a stop watch as they passed in a gray parade. It was as if I was clocking the dogged, drugged last miles of a weary marathoner. Six hundred of them—long dragging seconds—and we pulled a deflated rubber suit over the side . . . like the other.

It was probably my imagination. It seemed a white-canvased sack, only incredibly light. Perhaps it was empty. It collapsed on the deck by way of confirming my queer suspicions. That spasmodic jerking! What had that been? A struggle, no doubt, with every blow vibrating over a dancing depth line.

I remember that I was unmoved. It all seemed so natural. A splendid stage set, with the darkened waters a perfect back-curtain, and the lights low. That was perfect too—for a death scene.

I unclasped the visor and with almost the same motion stripped the helmet from the head. Lieutenant “Blake lay beneath. I distinctly remember that I was surprised. I had been so confident that the suit would be empty. I felt a vague sense of disappointment—as if the play was wrong.

I should perhaps have been delirious. I wasn’t. Only curious and a bit disappointed.

It was Lieutenant Blake . . . a twisted, distorted smile identified him. But his face was livid, contused. A stain of red traced across his right cheek. He must have gashed it on the metal helmet. Perhaps he had forgotten and had tried to leap forward—leap out.

While we started, his body twitched convulsively—he gasped audibly.

Pungent rum was forced down his throat as he sputtered violently, coughed, and finally breathed regularly. He stared wildly about and raised one arm in the air. It held suspended there for a moment, his face working horribly. He seemed trying to strike out but his arm was held by some invisible force. At last it suddenly was released—flung forward in a frenzied blow and crashed cruelly on the deck.

His lips moved tremulously:

“There are people down there . . . alive!” He choked. “—alive! . . . thousands of them! . . .”

No one spoke.

Several times as he regained consciousness, he attempted to depict what he had seen, but all he could do was repeat in a flat, faintly articulate monotone “. . . thousands of them . . . living people . . . people! . . . thousands of them . . . alive! . . .”

Then occurred an occult perversion, a phenomenon which belongs rightfully in the realm of the metaphysical. I cannot explain it. It was not delirium, but curiosity that was tormenting me—unreasoning, staggering, deadly curiosity—as to what there was . . . down there on the floor of the sea.

“I am going down,” I announced.

It was not my own voice. The words echoed from afar off.

“You are crazy, Bill!” The others called back to me from a great distance.

“Perhaps, but at least I’ll know what to expect . . . now that Blake has seen them, and when . . . and . . .”

I carefully stepped over the suit that Lieutenant Blake and the dead Slim had used and motioned for the other. I was not superstitious.

THERE seemed nothing else to do. I was now in command, and the treasure—it lured like a mountain of gold—was just beneath us. My resolve seemed perfectly natural.

A tranquility, a gradual slowing down of life processes, exhilarated me. I—alone—was moving in a world that had slowed down almost to a halt. Someone had to go, I reasoned logically.

It was really easier than waiting on the deck staring at the water. And the water did not seem dark, nor cold. It suddenly looked warm, almost inviting. It fascinated me.

“The same signals,” I directed. And then a queer thought, an eerie facetiousness seared my brain. I laughed out loud.

“You don’t suppose they’ve caught on, do you? To our signals . . . I mean.” I continued to laugh at my jest as the others looked blank. They had not seen the joke.

I felt warm all over, ecstatic, glowing. I had been cold only a few minutes before.

As I was lowered by degrees I could feel the air pressure increase. It seemed oppressively heavy. I opened the valve a little. It was all right now.

At first I could discern nothing. The opaque darkness of the water shut off everything. Then I could see a short ways ahead. Afterwards, as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, I could perceive distances. That was all.

I went down . . . down . . . down. I thought I must be near the bottom of the sea . . . when . . . a gyrating shadow . . . a wraithy, giant body, long and thin, loomed beside me. slowly not five yards away, waving grotesque, disjointed arms and legs, rythmically, in a gibberish cadence—like a wooden monkey on a stick.

Others in distorted and freakish positions danced about me.

I was chill. My body seemed numb. Cold drops of moisture froze to my forehead, trickled down into my eyes. The helmet sheathing seemed cold and damp.

I was conscious, however,—tragically conscious, of the sargasso sea of bodies—human bodies—which had sprouted magically about me. I seemed to be slipping slowly, softly, down into their midst.

A wraithy arm reached out and brushed across my visor. I could feel the clammy impact through the metal On my other side, shapeless, grotesque arms were clutching at me as if to tear at my heart. Other hands were reaching . . . reaching. . . .

I signaled frantically. I clutched at the depth line desperately. I was afraid that it would be torn from my grasp.

At last after infinite centuries of waiting (it could not actually have been as much as a minute) I could feel myself rising. I gulped a deep breath . . . another. It seemed as if I had not breathed for hours. As I rose a spectral arm dragged along my body and trailed off my leaden boots in a last lingering caress.

MY single impression as I towered above the serried rows of bodies—safely out of their reach—was that they Were fighting among themselves, as the sons of the dragon’s teeth had fought so long ago. Fighting over me who was escaping from them—though, like the legendary warriors, perhaps they did not know.

I was conscious, I know, as I rose along side the lighter. I climbed up the diving ladder unassisted.

To the thousand questions phrased in the eyes of the silent group that circled about me, I repeated:

“Yes! There must be thousands . . .” I hesitated. It seemed a palpable lie. “. . . of human beings down there . . . fighting among themselves.

“No!” I corrected. Perhaps I had been wrong. “Not fighting—playing! . . . dancing!” I stopped. That was it.

But through my imaginative consciousness coursed weird, imaginative phrases.

“Dancing . . . to the rhythmic beat of the waves . . . a slow dance of death . . . living persons dancing a death dance.”

AND so we returned to the ancient city of Odessa and told our tale of the living dead in the sea—just as I have recounted it here.

The denouement came later. After a torturous three acts, came (as the critics say) the belated epilogue, and cleared up the mystery. It was absurdly simple.

During the winter of 1918, a citizen informed us, when the Bolsheviki conflagration was sweeping like a prairie fire over terrorized Ukrainia in Southern Russia, a surprise attack upon Odessa by the revolutionists turned a battle into a veritable massacre. The defenders—defenseless men, women and children—were driven before the Red marauders like sheep, through the narrow streets to the land’s end. They came at last to the buttressed dikes and the very edge of the sea.

Here they had their choice—of two deaths: to be cut down by malevolent devils or drown in the Black Sea.

The invaders were riding down the outer fringes of the ghastly hegira and slaughtering the stragglers without mercy. The others jumped into the sea. Burdened with heavy winter clothing, many of them in uniform, they did not have a chance for their lives in the tossing black waters. They sank like ballast.

The scientific explanation is likewise simple. Having sunk to the bottom they congealed in the icy waters and had never—not a single one of them—come to the top.

We left the country believing that they were destined, doomed, to dance eternity away . . . plashing, dancing, to the rythmic eddyings of icy currents.

I have since learned from Lieutenant Blake—whom I see occasionally when he is in port—that many of these bodies came to the surface and were recovered and buried the following year.

It was, of course, inevitable that when chemical re-agents neutralized the gases, the bodies should rise to the top—just as it is a law of physics that they should have retained their upright positions while dancing on the floor of the sea—with the upper portions, housing the air ventricles, swinging almost vertically upward while the lower halves remained down.

Blake also informed me that the bullion had been recovered two years later. But none of our party were there at the time.

“And so the guardian specter-cordon finally deserted the lost ship . . . to the last man,” he concluded with a grim smile.

It made me thoughtful. And many times since I have caught myself thinking of those weird dancers in the sea . . . undulating . . . gyrating . . . shapeless arms . . . reaching . . . dancing that slow dance of death in the rythmic eddying of icy currents.

Original Publication
Bill Hacker, as told to W.A. Cornish. “Dancers in the Sea,” Ghost Stories, vol 2, no 2, Feb. 1927, pp. 12-13, pp. 90-91.

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