June 1, 1878, somewhere off Mutton Island, Victoria
Shrill screams pierced through Eva’s dreams and awoke her. Her mother rushed in to her cabin. “Quick, Eva, get up. Go with your brothers onto the deck at once.” She pulled a lifebelt around Eva’s waist. “Come now, while I tend to your sisters.”
Eva discerned only her mother’s silhouette in the darkness. A sharp tug on the sleeve of her nightgown made her turn. Her brother’s voice sounded low in her ear. “Quickly, Eva. We must get above.”
She still felt groggy from tasting her first glass of champagne the night before. “You are eighteen, Eva. Old enough to celebrate our new life with this golden liquid,” Eva’s father had said. The passengers of Loch Ard had celebrated with wine and revelry after seeing a butterfly. Though a thick fog concealed their promised destination, the colorful insect on the ship assured them their tiresome journey would soon be over and Melbourne was near.
“Eva, for heaven’s sake, get up to the deck at once,” her brother shouted as he ran ahead. She rushed after him but stumbled at the doorway. She shook her head to clear her mind, and swayed as the Loch Ard lurched in the darkness.
Sounds of screaming, weeping, timber creaking, and waves crashing assaulted her ears. Eva’s heart pounded, her pulse quickened.
Her brother yelled at her again. “Find Papa and get onto a lifeboat.”
Eva spotted her father in the dim light of dawn, helping young Tom Pearce, the shipping apprentice, untie a dinghy from the side of the ship. “Papa!”
Eva ran to Papa, slipping on the wet deck. She lay prone in her soaked nightgown as people rushed past. Papa had not heard her. She covered her head, hoping not to be trampled on.
A pair of strong arms lifted Eva to her feet. She looked up at Captain Gibb’s tense face. “If you get to land, tell my dear wife that I died like a sailor.”
Eva’s eyes filled with tears and she nodded. Captain Gibb released her and resumed giving orders to the crew. The lookout’s voice boomed from above. “Land ho! Fifty yards, Captain.”
Huge rocks towered before them. Eva clutched at the railing. The Loch Ard careened towards the cliffs. Oh, God, she prayed, please save us all.
It was then that she saw Tom Pearce’s eyes, before he disappeared into the ocean with her father and brothers.
“No!” Eva cried out, as the ship listed and waves crashed onto the deck. The frigid water slammed against her chest and threw her into the sea. Her heart stopped beating for a moment as the cold sucked all breath from her lungs.
She sank, her lifebelt useless. She couldn’t swim. Not in rivers, not in creeks, certainly not in the sea. But somehow her legs and arms found the strength and agility to keep her head afloat. Her hands clutched at debris bobbing past her, some sinking before she could grasp them. She grabbed a chicken coop and a wooden spar from the ship, and they supported her weight well.
She looked back at the ship. About a quarter of its port side was still above water. She thought she saw Captain Gibb holding onto the railing, fulfilling his promise of going down with his ship. She searched for her family. Where was everyone else?
A strong sucking force tugged at her legs, and she wrenched away just as the Loch Ard disappeared under the waves.
She shuddered. The ship was gone, her entire family pulled under.
The undertow from the sinking vessel threatened to bring Eva to the bottom with it. She focused all her energy on getting away, her arms entwined around her makeshift life preserver. The freezing water splashed against her face and stung her eyes. She closed them and simply paddled and flailed, uncaring where her efforts took her. Every inch of her body knew she had to get away from the death grip of the water that wanted to drag her to the ocean floor.
When the waters calmed, only waves, foam, and debris remained. She wept, shivered, and wailed. Time stretched and contracted, her mind filled with visions of what had just occurred, what was still happening.
Peace returned to the sea. Eva held onto the wooden spar, tired and hungry. The morning came, and Eva noticed a huge gorge before her. She squinted. Was that a man sitting on the rocky shore beneath the cliff?
“Help!” she shouted, waving her arm. Her head sank. She grasped the spar with both hand and kicked hard. “Please—help—me,” she gurgled, as more saltwater rushed into her mouth.
Darkness came, but did not stay. Powerful arms wrapped around her waist. She kept her eyes closed. Her feet touched sand, but she could not stand. She let herself be hauled onto the beach.
Eva bent down and coughed up salt water onto land. She raised her head. Tom’s blue eyes gazed down at her.
“Eva,” he said, breathless. “You and I are saved. All else are lost.” Then he held her in his arms as she collapsed under the weight of grief and exhaustion, guilt and relief.
Tom made a bed of shrubs and grasses in the cave for Eva to lie on. He went outside to see what might be salvaged from the wreck. He found a case of brandy on the beach. He broke one open and took out a bottle.
“Here, Eva, drink this.” She refused to move, refused to blink. “Eva, please. This will help warm you.”
Tom brought her into a sitting position then handed the bottle to her. She shook her head. He made her rest against him as he poured the liquid down her mouth. The brandy spilled down her nightgown, staining it as if she had bled.
“Eva, you must trust me.”
He put his finger between her lips and pried them open. She sighed. He poured the brandy and thanked God when she swallowed.
Despite his exhaustion, he felt his body responding to this young woman pressed against him. Both of them had barely any clothes on, and whatever they wore clung to them like skin.
He lay her on the grassy bed. Tom stayed close to keep her warm, but not too close, lest he forget himself. He rubbed her arms whenever she shivered, caressed her hair when she whimpered.
The night came without mercy. Eva slept while Tom remained wide-eyed and alert.
He nudged her awake at sunrise. “I’ll go find help, Eva. Stay here and I’ll be back.”
Eva stared outside dumbly, unseeing, unhearing. He bent down and gripped her shoulders. “I’ll return to you, I promise.”
Eva nodded then closed her eyes again.
Tom had been gone for several hours. The sun would set soon. Eva forced herself to sit up. She embraced herself, suddenly feeling naked. She trembled at the faint memory of last night, recalling Tom’s strong arms around her, his rough hands on her arms, his calloused fingers on her forehead.
Shadow filled the cave.
“Eva, I’m back.”
She looked up at Tom. He seemed years older than when they had been on the ship. A beard darkened his face, and his forehead was furrowed in concern. His tattered clothes made him seem bigger, fiercer.
“Did you find anyone?” Eva whispered.
Tom smiled. “I’m pleased you’re feeling better.” He sat beside her. “And yes, I found a man, says his name is Gibson. He sent his wife to the nearest town to raise the alarm. He will be here with horses to bring us to his home.”
Eva nodded, then glanced down at her bare legs. She tucked them underneath her, blushing.
She peeked at Tom through her matted hair. He gazed outside the cave, at the rocks and wreckage that dotted the shore. She could hear the ocean from her position, but could not see it.
“Tom, I … ” he turned to her, “I wish to thank you … for everything.”
Tom stroked her cheek, then drew back. He coughed. “You’re a fine lady, Miss Carmichael. And a brave and strong one, at that. But when the rescuers come, things shall be as they were before: you are the daughter of a gentleman and I am a humble ship apprentice.”
Her lips trembled. “Yes, I understand.”
“Keep this, Miss Carmichael. So as to remember me by.” Tom placed something around her neck. She looked down and saw it was a compass attached to a chain.
A voice called out from up the cliff. “Hullo there, Tom Pearce! Where are ye, laddie? It’s Gibson!”
Tom kissed Eva on her forehead, then sprang out of the cave to greet their rescuer.
1934, Bedford, England
Eva knelt by her bed, praying. Tomorrow she would be married to a fine and upstanding doctor. She had escaped death and had found love. She thanked the Lord for her deliverance.
She brought out a tiny canvas pouch from under her pillow. There were folded clippings from Melbourne newspapers: some grimly recounted the tragedy, others speculated on a romance between the two young survivors. She unwrapped the compass and kissed it, then placed it back into the pouch. She wrote on a card: To my daughter, May this lead you to a good man in your moment of greatest distress. May he be a true hero-- one who braves everything and demands nothing.
She put the compass and the card in her hope chest. Never to be opened again until her future daughter shall do so. Then Eva lay in bed. She stared at the full moon outside her window.
Tom was wrong. Things did not return to as they were before the tragedy. The Loch Ard survived in history, while Tom and Eva became legends.
Note from Author:
This story is a romanticized imagining of true events, though Captain Gibb’s words to Eva are as recorded in history.
The Loch Ard ran aground in the early morning of June 1st 1878 off Mutton Island, Victoria.
Tom Pearce and Eva Carmichael were the only survivors among fifty-two passengers.
Tom and Eva spent one night in a cave in what is now known as Loch Ard Gorge, followed by several weeks in Glenample Station to recuperate. They then parted ways and never saw each other again.
June 1, 1878, somewhere off Mutton Island, Victoria
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