The Ghost Pirates, by William Hope Hodgson

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Hands that Plucked

Directly we reached the deck, the Second Mate gave the order:

“Mizzen t’gallant clewlines and buntlines,” and led the way up on to the poop. He went and stood by the haulyards, ready to lower away. As I walked across to the starboard clewline, I saw that the Old Man was on deck, and as I took hold of the rope, I heard him sing out to the Second Mate.

“Call all hands to shorten sail, Mr. Tulipson.”

“Very good, Sir,” the Second Mate replied. Then he raised his voice:

“Go forrard, you, Jessop, and call all hands to shorten sail. You’d better give them a call in the bosun’s place, as you go.”

“i, i, Sir,” I sung out, and hurried off.

As I went, I heard him tell Tammy to go down and call the Mate.

Reaching the fo’cas’le, I put my head in through the starboard doorway, and found some of the men beginning to turn-in.

“It’s all hands on deck, shorten sail,” I sung out.

I stepped inside.

“Just wot I said,” grumbled one of the men.

“They don’t damn well think we’re goin’ aloft tonight, after what’s happened?” asked another.

“We’ve been up to the main royal,” I answered. “The Second Mate went with us.”

“Wot?” said the first man. “Ther Second Mate hisself?”

“Yes,” I replied. “The whole blooming watch went up.”

“An’ wot ’appened?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “Nothing at all. We just made a mouthful apiece of it, and came down again.”

“All the same,” remarked the second man, “I don’t fancy goin’ upstairs, after what’s happened.”

“Well,” I replied. “It’s not a matter of fancy. We’ve got to get the sail off her, or there’ll be a mess. One of the ’prentices told me the glass is falling.”

“Come erlong, boys. We’ve got ter du it,” said one of the older men, rising from a chest, at this point. “What’s it duin’ outside, mate?”

“Raining,” I said. “You’ll want your oilskins.”

I hesitated a moment before going on deck again. From the bunk forrard among the shadows, I had seemed to hear a faint moan.

“Poor beggar!” I thought to myself.

Then the old chap who had last spoken, broke in upon my attention.

“It’s awl right, mate!” he said, rather testily. “Yer needn’t wait. We’ll be out in er minit.”

“That’s all right. I wasn’t thinking about you lot,” I replied, and walked forrard to Jacobs’s bunk. Some time before, he had rigged up a pair of curtains, cut out of an old sack, to keep off the draught. These, some one had drawn, so that I had to pull them aside to see him. He was lying on his back, breathing in a queer, jerky fashion. I could not see his face, plainly; but it seemed rather pale, in the half-light.

“Jacobs,” I said. “Jacobs, how do you feel now?” but he made no sign to show that he had heard me. And so, after a few moments, I drew the curtains to again, and left him.

“What like does ’e seem?” asked one of the fellows, as I went towards the door.

“Bad,” I said. “Damn bad! I think the Steward ought to be told to come and have a look at him. I’ll mention it to the Second when I get a chance.”

I stepped out on deck, and ran aft again to give them a hand with the sail. We got it hauled up, and then went forrard to the fore t’gallant. And, a minute later, the other watch were out, and, with the Mate, were busy at the main.

By the time the main was ready for making fast, we had the fore hauled up, so that now all three t’gallants were in the ropes, and ready for stowing. Then came the order:

“Up aloft and furl!”

“Up with you, lads,” the Second Mate said. “Don’t let’s have any hanging back this time.”

Away aft by the main, the men in the Mate’s watch seemed to be standing in a clump by the mast; but it was too dark to see clearly. I heard the Mate start to curse; then there came a growl, and he shut up.

“Be handy, men! be handy!” the Second Mate sung out.

At that, Stubbins jumped into the rigging.

“Come hon!” he shouted. “We’ll have ther bloomin’ sail fast, an’ down hon deck again before they’re started.”

Plummer followed; then Jaskett, I, and Quoin who had been called down off the look-out to give a hand.

“That’s the style, lads!” the Second sung out, encouragingly. Then he ran aft to the Mate’s crowd. I heard him and the Mate talking to the men, and presently, when we were going over the foretop, I made out that they were beginning to get into the rigging.

I found out, afterwards, that as soon as the Second Mate had seen them off the deck, he went up to the mizzen t’gallant, along with the four ’prentices.

On our part, we made our way slowly aloft, keeping one hand for ourselves and the other for the ship, as you can fancy. In this manner we had gone as far as the crosstrees, at least, Stubbins, who was first, had; when, all at once, he gave out just another such cry as had the Second Mate a little earlier, only that in his case he followed it by turning round and blasting Plummer.

“You might have blarsted well sent me flyin’ down hon deck,” he shouted. “If you bl — dy well think it’s a joke, try it hon some one else —”

“It wasn’t me!” interrupted Plummer. “I ’aven’t touched yer. ’oo the ’ell are yer swearin’ at?”

“At you —!” I heard him reply; but what more he may have said, was lost in a loud shout from Plummer.

“What’s up, Plummer?” I sung out. “For God’s sake, you two, don’t get fighting, up aloft!”

But a loud, frightened curse was all the answer he gave. Then straightway, he began to shout at the top of his voice, and in the lulls of his noise, I caught the voice of Stubbins, cursing savagely.

“They’ll come down with a run!” I shouted, helplessly. “They’ll come down as sure as nuts.”

I caught Jaskett by the boot.

“What are they doing? What are they doing?” I sung out. “Can’t you see?” I shook his leg as I spoke. But at my touch, the old idiot — as I thought him at the moment — began to shout in a frightened voice:

“Oh! oh! help! hel —!”

“Shut up!” I bellowed. “Shut up, you old fool. If you won’t do anything, let me get past you.”

Yet he only cried out the more. And then, abruptly, I caught the sound of a frightened clamour of men’s voices, away down somewhere about the maintop — curses, cries of fear, even shrieks, and above it all, someone shouting to go down on deck:

“Get down! get down! down! down! Blarst —” The rest was drowned in a fresh outburst of hoarse crying in the night.

I tried to get past old Jaskett; but he was clinging to the rigging, sprawled on to it, is the best way to describe his attitude, so much of it as I could see in the darkness. Up above him, Stubbins and Plummer still shouted and cursed, and the shrouds quivered and shook, as though the two were fighting desperately.

Stubbins seemed to be shouting something definite; but whatever it was, I could not catch.

At my helplessness, I grew angry, and shook and prodded Jaskett, to make him move.

“Damn you, Jaskett!” I roared. “Damn you for a funky old fool! Let me get past! Let me get past, will you!”

But, instead of letting me pass, I found that he was beginning to make his way down. At that, I caught him by the slack of his trousers, near the stern, with my right hand, and with the other, I got hold of the after shroud somewhere above his left hip; by these means, I fairly hoisted myself up on to the old fellow’s back. Then, with my right, I could reach to the forrard shroud, over his right shoulder, and having got a grip, I shifted my left to a level with it; at the same moment, I was able to get my foot on to the splice of a ratline and so give myself a further lift. Then I paused an instant, and glanced up.

“Stubbins! Stubbins!” I shouted. “Plummer! Plummer!”

And even as I called, Plummer’s foot — reaching down through the gloom — alighted full on my upturned face. I let go from the rigging with my right hand, and struck furiously at his leg, cursing him for his clumsiness. He lifted his foot, and in the same instant a sentence from Stubbins floated down to me, with a strange distinctness:

“For God’s sake tell ’em to get down hon deck!” he was shouting.

Even as the words came to me, something in the darkness gripped my waist. I made a desperate clutch at the rigging with my disengaged right hand, and it was well for me that I secured the hold so quickly; for the same instant, I was wrenched at with a brutal ferocity that appalled me. I said nothing, but lashed out into the night with my left foot. It is queer, but I cannot say with certainty that I struck anything; I was too downright desperate with funk, to be sure; and yet it seemed to me that my foot encountered something soft, that gave under the blow. It may have been nothing more than an imagined sensation; yet I am inclined to think otherwise; for, instantly, the hold about my waist was released; and I commenced to scramble down, clutching the shrouds pretty desperately.

I have only a very uncertain remembrance of that which followed. Whether I slid over Jaskett, or whether he gave way to me, I cannot tell. I know only that I reached the deck, in a blind whirl of fear and excitement, and the next thing I remember, I was among a crowd of shouting, half-mad sailor-men.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38