The Ghost Pirates, by William Hope Hodgson


The Council

A few minutes later, the Second Mate came forrard again. I was still standing near the rigging, holding the lantern, in an aimless sort of way.

“That you, Plummer?” he asked.

“No, Sir,” I said. “It’s Jessop.”

“Where’s Plummer, then?” he inquired.

“I don’t know, Sir,” I answered. “I expect he’s gone forrard. Shall I go and tell him you want him?”

“No, there’s no need,” he said. “Tie your lamp up in the rigging — on the sheerpole there. Then go and get his, and shove it up on the starboard side. After that you’d better go aft and give the two ’prentices a hand in the lamp locker.”

“i, i, Sir,” I replied, and proceeded to do as he directed. After I had got the light from Plummer, and lashed it up to the starboard sherpole, I hurried aft. I found Tammy and the other ’prentice in our watch, busy in the locker, lighting lamps.

“What are we doing?” I asked.

“The Old Man’s given orders to lash all the spare lamps we can find, in the rigging, so as to have the decks light,” said Tammy. “And a damned good job too!”

He handed me a couple of the lamps, and took two himself.

“Come on,” he said, and stepped out on deck. “We’ll fix these in the main rigging, and then I want to talk to you.”

“What about the mizzen?” I inquired.

“Oh,” he replied. “He” (meaning the other ’prentice) “will see to that. Anyway, it’ll be daylight directly.”

We shoved the lamps up on the sherpoles — two on each side. Then he came across to me.

“Look here, Jessop!” he said, without any hesitation. “You’ll have to jolly well tell the Skipper and the Second Mate all you know about all this.”

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“Why, that it’s something about the ship herself that’s the cause of what’s happened,” he replied. “If you’d only explained to the Second Mate when I told you to, this might never have been!”

“But I don’t know,” I said. “I may be all wrong. It’s only an idea of mine. I’ve no proofs —”

“Proofs!” he cut in with. “Proofs! what about tonight? We’ve had all the proofs ever I want!”

I hesitated before answering him.

“So have I, for that matter,” I said, at length. “What I mean is, I’ve nothing that the Skipper and the Second Mate would consider as proofs. They’d never listen seriously to me.”

“They’d listen fast enough,” he replied. “After what’s happened this watch, they’d listen to anything. Anyway, it’s jolly well your duty to tell them!”

“What could they do, anyway?” I said, despondently. “As things are going, we’ll all be dead before another week is over, at this rate.”

“You tell them,” he answered. “That’s what you’ve got to do. If you can only get them to realise that you’re right, they’ll be glad to put into the nearest port, and send us all ashore.”

I shook my head.

“Well, anyway, they’ll have to do something,” he replied, in answer to my gesture. “We can’t go round the Horn, with the number of men we’ve lost. We haven’t enough to handle her, if it comes on to blow.”

“You’ve forgotten, Tammy,” I said. “Even if I could get the Old Man to believe I’d got at the truth of the matter, he couldn’t do anything. Don’t you see, if I’m right, we couldn’t even see the land, if we made it. We’re like blind men . . . ”

“What on earth do you mean?” he interrupted. “How do you make out we’re like blind men? Of course we could see the land —”

“Wait a minute! wait a minute!” I said. “You don’t understand. Didn’t I tell you?”

“Tell what?” he asked.

“About the ship I spotted,” I said. “I thought you knew!”

“No,” he said. “When?”

“Why,” I replied. “You know when the Old Man sent me away from the wheel?”

“Yes,” he answered. “You mean in the morning watch, day before yesterday?”

“Yes,” I said. “Well, don’t you know what was the matter?”

“No,” he replied. “That is, I heard you were snoozing at the wheel, and the Old Man came up and caught you.”

“That’s all a darned silly yarn!” I said. And then I told him the whole truth of the affair. After I had done that, I explained my idea about it, to him.

“Now you see what I mean?” I asked.

“You mean that this strange atmosphere — or whatever it is — we’re in, would not allow us to see another ship?” he asked, a bit awestruck.

“Yes,” I said. “But the point I wanted you to see, is that if we can’t see another vessel, even when she’s quite close, then, in the same way, we shouldn’t be able to see land. To all intents and purposes we’re blind. Just you think of it! We’re out in the middle of the briny, doing a sort of eternal blind man’s hop. The Old Man couldn’t put into port, even if he wanted to. He’d run us bang on shore, without our ever seeing it.”

“What are we going to do, then?” he asked, in a despairing sort of way. “Do you mean to say we can’t do anything? Surely something can be done! It’s terrible!”

For perhaps a minute, we walked up and down, in the light from the different lanterns. Then he spoke again.

“We might be run down, then,” he said, “and never even see the other vessel?”

“It’s possible,” I replied. “Though, from what I saw, it’s evident that we’re quite visible; so that it would be easy for them to see us, and steer clear of us, even though we couldn’t see them.”

“And we might run into something, and never see it?” he asked me, following up the train of thought.

“Yes,” I said. “Only there’s nothing to stop the other ship from getting out of our way.”

“But if it wasn’t a vessel?” he persisted. “It might be an iceberg, or a rock, or even a derelict.”

“In that case,” I said, putting it a bit flippantly, naturally, “we’d probably damage it.”

He made no answer to this and for a few moments, we were quiet.

Then he spoke abruptly, as though the idea had come suddenly to him.

“Those lights the other night!” he said. “Were they a ship’s lights?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Why?”

“Why,” he answered. “Don’t you see, if they were really lights, we could see them?”

“Well, I should think I ought to know that,” I replied. “You seem to forget that the Second Mate slung me off the look-out for daring to do that very thing.”

“I don’t mean that,” he said. “Don’t you see that if we could see them at all, it showed that the atmosphere-thing wasn’t round us then?”

“Not necessarily,” I answered. “It may have been nothing more than a rift in it; though, of course, I may be all wrong. But, anyway, the fact that the lights disappeared almost as soon as they were seen, shows that it was very much round the ship.”

That made him feel a bit the way I did, and when next he spoke, his tone had lost its hopefulness.

“Then you think it’ll be no use telling the Second Mate and the Skipper anything?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I’ve been thinking about it, and it can’t do any harm. I’ve a very good mind to.”

“I should,” he said. “You needn’t be afraid of anybody laughing at you, now. It might do some good. You’ve seen more than anyone else.”

He stopped in his walk, and looked round.

“Wait a minute,” he said, and ran aft a few steps. I saw him look up at the break of the poop; then he came back.

“Come along now,” he said. “The Old Man’s up on the poop, talking to the Second Mate. You’ll never get a better chance.”

Still I hesitated; but he caught me by the sleeve, and almost dragged me to the lee ladder.

“All right,” I said, when I got there. “All right, I’ll come. Only I’m hanged if I know what to say when I get there.”

“Just tell them you want to speak to them,” he said. “They’ll ask what you want, and then you spit out all you know. They’ll find it interesting enough.”

“You’d better come too,” I suggested. “You’ll be able to back me up in lots of things.”

“I’ll come, fast enough,” he replied. “You go up.”

I went up the ladder, and walked across to where the Skipper and the Second Mate stood talking earnestly, by the rail. Tammy kept behind. As I came near to them, I caught two or three words; though I attached no meaning then to them. They were: “ . . . send for him.” Then the two of them turned and looked at me, and the Second Mate asked what I wanted.

“I want to speak to you and the Old M— Captain, Sir,” I answered.

“What is it, Jessop?” the Skipper inquired.

“I scarcely know how to put it, Sir,” I said. “It’s — it’s about these — these things.”

“What things? Speak out, man,” he said.

“Well, Sir,” I blurted out. “There’s some dreadful thing or things come aboard this ship, since we left port.”

I saw him give one quick glance at the Second Mate, and the Second looked back.

Then the Skipper replied.

“How do you mean, come aboard?” he asked.

“Out of the sea, Sir,” I said. “I’ve seen them. So’s Tammy, here.”

“Ah!” he exclaimed, and it seemed to me, from his face, that he was understanding something better. “Out of the Sea!”

Again he looked at the Second Mate; but the Second was staring at me.

“Yes Sir,” I said. “It’s the ship. She’s not safe! I’ve watched. I think I understand a bit; but there’s a lot I don’t.”

I stopped. The Skipper had turned to the Second Mate. The Second nodded, gravely. Then I heard him mutter, in a low voice, and the Old Man replied; after which he turned to me again.

“Look here, Jessop,” he said. “I’m going to talk straight to you. You strike me as being a cut above the ordinary shellback, and I think you’ve sense enough to hold your tongue.”

“I’ve got my mate’s ticket, Sir,” I said, simply.

Behind me, I heard Tammy give a little start. He had not known about it until then.

The Skipper nodded.

“So much the better,” he answered. “I may have to speak to you about that, later on.”

He paused, and the Second Mate said something to him, in an undertone.

“Yes,” he said, as though in reply to what the Second had been saying. Then he spoke to me again.

“You’ve seen things come out of the sea, you say?” he questioned. “Now just tell me all you can remember, from the very beginning.”

I set to, and told him everything in detail, commencing with the strange figure that had stepped aboard out of the sea, and continuing my yarn, up to the things that had happened in that very watch.

I stuck well to solid facts; and now and then he and the Second Mate would look at one another, and nod. At the end, he turned to me with an abrupt gesture.

“You still hold, then, that you saw a ship the other morning, when I sent you from the wheel?” he asked.

“Yes, Sir,” I said. “I most certainly do.”

“But you knew there wasn’t any!” he said.

“Yes, Sir,” I replied, in an apologetic tone. “There was; and, if you will let me, I believe that I can explain it a bit.”

“Well,” he said. “Go on.”

Now that I knew he was willing to listen to me in a serious manner all my funk of telling him had gone, and I went ahead and told him my ideas about the mist, and the thing it seemed to have ushered, you know. I finished up, by telling him how Tammy had worried me to come and tell what I knew.

“He thought then, Sir,” I went on, “that you might wish to put into the nearest port; but I told him that I didn’t think you could, even if you wanted to.”

“How’s that?” he asked, profoundly interested.

“Well, Sir,” I replied. “If we’re unable to see other vessels, we shouldn’t be able to see the land. You’d be piling the ship up, without ever seeing where you were putting her.”

This view of the matter, affected the Old Man in an extraordinary manner; as it did, I believe, the Second Mate. And neither spoke for a moment. Then the Skipper burst out.

“By Gad! Jessop,” he said. “If you’re right, the Lord have mercy on us.”

He thought for a couple of seconds. Then he spoke again, and I could see that he was pretty well twisted up:

“My God! . . . if you’re right!”

The Second Mate spoke.

“The men mustn’t know, Sir,” he warned him. “It’d be a mess if they did!”

“Yes,” said the Old Man.

He spoke to me.

“Remember that, Jessop,” he said. “Whatever you do, don’t go yarning about this, forrard.”

“No, Sir,” I replied.

“And you too, boy,” said the Skipper. “Keep your tongue between your teeth. We’re in a bad enough mess, without your making it worse. Do you hear?”

“Yes, Sir,” answered Tammy.

The Old Man turned to me again.

“These things, or creatures that you say come out of the sea,” he said. “You’ve never seen them, except after nightfall?” he asked.

“No, Sir,” I replied. “Never.”

He turned to the Second Mate.

“So far as I can make out, Mr. Tulipson,” he remarked, “the danger seems to be only at night.”

“It’s always been at night, Sir,” the Second answered.

The Old Man nodded.

“Have you anything to propose, Mr. Tulipson?” he asked.

“Well, Sir,” replied the Second Mate. “I think you ought to have her snugged down every night, before dark!”

He spoke with considerable emphasis. Then he glanced aloft, and jerked his head in the direction of the unfurled t’gallants.

“It’s a damned good thing, Sir,” he said, “that it didn’t come on to blow any harder.”

The Old Man nodded again.

“Yes,” he remarked. “We shall have to do it; but God knows when we’ll get home!”

“Better late than not at all,” I heard the Second mutter, under his breath.

Out loud, he said:

“And the lights, Sir?”

“Yes,” said the Old Man. “I will have lamps in the rigging every night, after dark.”

“Very good, Sir,” assented the Second. Then he turned to us.

“It’s getting daylight, Jessop,” he remarked, with a glance at the sky. “You’d better take Tammy with you, and shove those lamps back again into the locker.”

“i, i, Sir,” I said, and went down off the poop with Tammy.

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