The Ghost Pirates, by William Hope Hodgson

IV

The Fooling with the Sail

It was on the Friday night, that the Second Mate had the watch aloft looking for the man up the main; and for the next five days little else was talked about; though, with the exception of Williams, Tammy and myself, no one seemed to think of treating the matter seriously. Perhaps I should not exclude Quoin, who still persisted, on every occasion, that there was a stowaway aboard. As for the Second Mate, I have very little doubt now, but that he was beginning to realise there was something deeper and less understandable than he had at first dreamed of. Yet, all the same, I know he had to keep his guesses and half-formed opinions pretty well to himself; for the Old Man and the First Mate chaffed him unmercifully about his “bogy”. This, I got from Tammy, who had heard them both ragging him during the second dog-watch the following day. There was another thing Tammy told me, that showed how the Second Mate bothered about his inability to understand the mysterious appearance and disappearance of the man he had seen go aloft. He had made Tammy give him every detail he could remember about the figure we had seen by the log-reel. What is more, the Second had not even affected to treat the matter lightly, nor as a thing to be sneered at; but had listened seriously, and asked a great many questions. It is very evident to me that he was reaching out towards the only possible conclusion. Though, goodness knows, it was one that was impossible and improbable enough.

It was on the Wednesday night, after the five days of talk I have mentioned, that there came, to me and to those who knew, another element of fear. And yet, I can quite understand that, at that time, those who had seen nothing, would find little to be afraid of, in all that I am going to tell you. Still, even they were much puzzled and astonished, and perhaps, after all, a little awed. There was so much in the affair that was inexplicable, and yet again such a lot that was natural and commonplace. For, when all is said and done, it was nothing more than the blowing adrift of one of the sails; yet accompanied by what were really significant details — significant, that is, in the light of that which Tammy and I and the Second Mate knew.

Seven bells, and then one, had gone in the first watch, and our side was being roused out to relieve the Mate’s. Most of the men were already out of their bunks, and sitting about on their sea-chests, getting into their togs.

Suddenly, one of the ’prentices in the other watch, put his head in through the doorway on the port side.

“The Mate wants to know,” he said, “which of you chaps made fast the fore royal, last watch.”

“Wot’s ’e want to know that for?” inquired one of the men.

“The lee side’s blowing adrift,” said the ’prentice. “And he says that the chap who made it fast is to go up and see to it as soon as the watch is relieved.”

“Oh! does ’e? Well ’twasn’t me, any’ow,” replied the man. “You’d better arsk sum of t’others.”

“Ask what?” inquired Plummer, getting out of his bunk, sleepily.

The ’prentice repeated his message.

The man yawned and stretched himself.

“Let me see,” he muttered, and scratched his head with one hand, while he fumbled for his trousers with the other. “ ’oo made ther fore r’yal fast?” He got into his trousers, and stood up. “Why, ther Or’nary, er course; ’oo else do yer suppose?”

“That’s all I wanted to know!” said the ’prentice, and went away.

“Hi! Tom!” Stubbins sung out to the Ordinary. “Wake up, you lazy young devil. Ther Mate’s just sent to hinquire who it was made the fore royal fast. It’s all blowin’ adrift, and he says you’re to get along up as soon as eight bells goes, and make it fast again.”

Tom jumped out of his bunk, and began to dress, quickly.

“Blowin’ adrift!” he said. “There ain’t all that much wind; and I tucked the ends of the gaskets well in under the other turns.”

“P’raps one of ther gaskets is rotten, and given way,” suggested Stubbins. “Anyway, you’d better hurry up, it’s just on eight bells.”

A minute later, eight bells went, and we trooped away aft for roll-call. As soon as the names were called over, I saw the Mate lean towards the Second and say something. Then the Second Mate sung out:

“Tom!”

“Sir!” answered Tom.

“Was it you made fast that fore royal, last watch?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“How’s that it’s broken adrift?”

“Carn’t say, Sir.”

“Well, it has, and you’d better jump aloft and shove the gasket round it again. And mind you make a better job of it this time.”

“i, i, Sir,” said Tom, and followed the rest of us forrard. Reaching the fore rigging, he climbed into it, and began to make his way leisurely aloft. I could see him with a fair amount of distinctness, as the moon was very clear and bright, though getting old.

I went over to the weather pin-rail, and leaned up against it, watching him, while I filled my pipe. The other men, both the watch on deck and the watch below, had gone into the fo’cas’le, so that I imagined I was the only one about the maindeck. Yet, a minute later, I discovered that I was mistaken; for, as I proceeded to light up, I saw Williams, the young cockney, come out from under the lee of the house, and turn and look up at the Ordinary as he went steadily upwards. I was a little surprised, as I knew he and three of the others had a “poker fight” on, and he’d won over sixty pounds of tobacco. I believe I opened my mouth to sing out to him to know why he wasn’t playing; and then, all at once, there came into my mind the memory of my first conversation with him. I remembered that he had said sails were always blowing adrift at night. I remembered the, then, unaccountable emphasis he had laid on those two words; and remembering that, I felt suddenly afraid. For, all at once, the absurdity had struck me of a sail — even a badly stowed one — blowing adrift in such fine and calm weather as we were then having. I wondered I had not seen before that there was something queer and unlikely about the affair. Sails don’t blow adrift in fine weather, with the sea calm and the ship as steady as a rock. I moved away from the rail and went towards Williams. He knew something, or, at least, he guessed at something that was very much a blankness to me at that time. Up above, the boy was climbing up, to what? That was the thing that made me feel so frightened. Ought I to tell all I knew and guessed? And then, who should I tell? I should only be laughed at — I—

Williams turned towards me, and spoke.

“Gawd!” he said, “it’s started agen!”

“What?” I said. Though I knew what he meant.

“Them syles,” he answered, and made a gesture towards the fore royal.

I glanced up, briefly. All the lee side of the sail was adrift, from the bunt gasket outwards. Lower, I saw Tom; he was just hoisting himself into the t’gallant rigging.

Williams spoke again.

“We lost two on ’em just sime way, comin’ art.”

“Two of the men!” I exclaimed.

“Yus!” he said tersely.

“I can’t understand,” I went on. “I never heard anything about it.”

“Who’d yer got ter tell yer abart it?” he asked.

I made no reply to his question; indeed, I had scarcely comprehended it, for the problem of what I ought to do in the matter had risen again in my mind.

“I’ve a good mind to go aft and tell the Second Mate all I know,” I said. “He’s seen something himself that he can’t explain away, and — and anyway I can’t stand this state of things. If the Second Mate knew all —”

“Garn!” he cut in, interrupting me. “An’ be told yer’re a blastid hidiot. Not yer. Yer sty were yer are.”

I stood irresolute. What he had said, was perfectly correct, and I was positively stumped what to do for the best. That there was danger aloft, I was convinced; though if I had been asked my reasons for supposing this, they would have been hard to find. Yet of its existence, I was as certain as though my eyes already saw it. I wondered whether, being so ignorant of the form it would assume, I could stop it by joining Tom on the yard? This thought came as I stared up at the royal. Tom had reached the sail, and was standing on the foot-rope, close in to the bunt. He was bending over the yard, and reaching down for the slack of the sail. And then, as I looked, I saw the belly of the royal tossed up and down abruptly, as though a sudden heavy gust of wind had caught it.

“I’m blimed —!” Williams began, with a sort of excited expectation. And then he stopped as abruptly as he had begun. For, in a moment, the sail had thrashed right over the after side of the yard, apparently knocking Tom clean from off the foot-rope.

“My God!” I shouted out loud. “He’s gone!”

For an instant there was a blur over my eyes, and Williams was singing out something that I could not catch. Then, just as quickly, it went, and I could see again, clearly.

Williams was pointing, and I saw something black, swinging below the yard. Williams called out something fresh, and made a run for the fore rigging. I caught the last part —

“— ther garskit.”

Straightway, I knew that Tom had managed to grab the gasket as he fell, and I bolted after Williams to give him a hand in getting the youngster into safety.

Down on deck, I caught the sound of running feet, and then the Second Mate’s voice. He was asking what the devil was up; but I did not trouble to answer him then. I wanted all my breath to help me aloft. I knew very well that some of the gaskets were little better than old shakins; and, unless Tom got hold of something on the t’gallant yard below him, he might come down with a run any moment. I reached the top,and lifted myself over it in quick time. Williams was some distance above me. In less than half a minute, I reached the t’gallant yard. Williams had gone up on to the royal. I slid out on to the t’gallant foot-rope until I was just below Tom; then I sung out to him to let himself down to me, and I would catch him. He made no answer, and I saw that he was hanging in a curiously limp fashion, and by one hand.

Williams’s voice came down to me from the royal yard. He was singing out to me to go up and give him a hand to pull Tom up on to the yard. When I reached him, he told me that the gasket had hitched itself round the lad’s wrist. I bent beside the yard, and peered down. It was as Williams had said, and I realised how near a thing it had been. Strangely enough, even at that moment, the thought came to me how little wind there was. I remembered the wild way in which the sail had lashed at the boy.

All this time, I was busily working, unreeving the port buntline. I took the end, made a running bowline with it round the gasket, and let the loop slide down over the boy’s head and shoulders. Then I took a strain on it and tightened it under his arms. A minute later we had him safely on the yard between us. In the uncertain moonlight, I could just make out the mark of a great lump on his forehead, where the foot of the sail must have caught him when it knocked him over.

As we stood there a moment, taking our breath, I caught the sound of the Second Mate’s voice close beneath us. Williams glanced down; then he looked up at me and gave a short, grunting laugh.

“Crikey!” he said.

“What’s up?” I asked, quickly.

He jerked his head backwards and downwards. I screwed round a bit, holding the jackstay with one hand, and steadying the insensible Ordinary with the other. In this way I could look below. At first, I could see nothing. Then the Second Mate’s voice came up to me again.

“Who the hell are you? What are you doing?”

I saw him now. He was standing at the foot of the weather t’gallant rigging, his face was turned upwards, peering round the after side of the mast. It showed to me only as a blurred, pale-coloured oval in the moonlight.

He repeated his question.

“It’s Williams and I, Sir,” I said. “Tom, here, has had an accident.”

I stopped. He began to come up higher towards us. From the rigging to leeward there came suddenly a buzz of men talking.

The Second Mate reached us.

“Well, what’s up, anyway?” he inquired, suspiciously. “What’s happened?”

He had bent forward, and was peering at Tom. I started to explain; but he cut me short with:

“Is he dead?”

“No, Sir,” I said. “I don’t think so; but the poor beggar’s had a bad fall. He was hanging by the gasket when we got to him. The sail knocked him off the yard.”

“What?” he said, sharply.

“The wind caught the sail, and it lashed back over the yard —”

“What wind?” he interrupted. “There’s no wind, scarcely.” He shifted his weight on to the other foot. “What do you mean?”

“I mean what I say, Sir. The wind brought the foot of the sail over the top of the yard and knocked Tom clean off the foot-rope. Williams and I both saw it happen.”

“But there’s no wind to do such a thing; you’re talking nonsense!”

It seemed to me that there was as much of bewilderment as anything else in his voice; yet I could tell that he was suspicious — though, of what, I doubted whether he himself could have told.

He glanced at Williams, and seemed about to say something. Then, seeming to change his mind, he turned, and sung out to one of the men who had followed him aloft, to go down and pass out a coil of new, three-inch manilla, and a tailblock.

“Smartly now!” he concluded.

“i, i, Sir,” said the man, and went down swiftly.

The Second Mate turned to me.

“When you’ve got Tom below, I shall want a better explanation of all this, than the one you’ve given me. It won’t wash.”

“Very well, Sir,” I answered. “But you won’t get any other.”

“What do you mean?” he shouted at me. “I’ll let you know I’ll have no impertinence from you or any one else.”

“I don’t mean any impertinence, Sir — I mean that it’s the only explanation there is to give.”

“I tell you it won’t wash!” he repeated. “There’s something too damned funny about it all. I shall have to report the matter to the Captain. I can’t tell him that yarn —” He broke off abruptly.

“It’s not the only damned funny thing that’s happened aboard this old hooker,” I answered. “You ought to know that, Sir.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, quickly.

“Well, Sir,” I said, “to be straight, what about that chap you sent us hunting after up the main the other night? That was a funny enough affair, wasn’t it? This one isn’t half so funny.”

“That will do, Jessop!” he said, angrily. “I won’t have any back talk.” Yet there was something about his tone that told me I had got one in on my own. He seemed all at once less able to appear confident that I was telling him a fairy tale.

After that, for perhaps half a minute, he said nothing. I guessed he was doing some hard thinking. When he spoke again it was on the matter of getting the Ordinary down on deck.

“One of you’ll have to go down the lee side and steady him down,” he concluded.

He turned and looked downwards.

“Are you bringing that gantline?” he sang out

“Yes, Sir,” I heard one of the men answer.

A moment later, I saw the man’s head appear over the top. He had the tail-block slung round his neck, and the end of the gantline over his shoulder.

Very soon we had the gantline rigged, and Tom down on deck. Then we took him into the fo’cas’le and put him in his bunk. The Second Mate had sent for some brandy, and now he started to dose him well with it. At the same time a couple of the men chafed his hands and feet. In a little, he began to show signs of coming round. Presently, after a sudden fit of coughing, he opened his eyes, with a surprised, bewildered stare. Then he caught at the edge of his bunk-board, and sat up, giddily. One of the men steadied him, while the Second Mate stood back, and eyed him, critically. The boy rocked as he sat, and put up his hand to his head.

“Here,” said the Second Mate, “take another drink.”

Tom caught his breath and choked a little; then he spoke.

“By gum!” he said, “my head does ache.”

He put up his hand, again, and felt at the lump on his forehead. Then he bent forward and stared round at the men grouped about his bunk.

“What’s up?” he inquired, in a confused sort of way, and seeming as if he could not see us clearly.

“What’s up?” he asked again.

“That’s just what I want to know!” said the Second Mate, speaking for the first time with some sternness.

“I ain’t been snoozin’ while there’s been a job on?” Tom inquired, anxiously.

He looked round at the men appealingly.

“It’s knocked ’im dotty, strikes me,” said one of the men, audibly.

“No,” I said, answering Tom’s question. “you’ve had —”

“Shut that, Jessop!” said the Second Mate, quickly, interrupting me. “I want to hear what the boy’s got to say for himself.”

He turned again to Tom.

“You were up at the fore royal,” he prompted.

“I carn’t say I was, Sir,” said Tom, doubtfully. I could see that he had not gripped the Second Mate’s meaning.

“But you were!” said the Second, with some impatience. “It was blowing adrift, and I sent you up to shove a gasket round it.”

“Blowin’ adrift, Sir?” said Tom, dully.

“Yes! blowing adrift. Don’t I speak plainly?”

The dullness went from Tom’s face, suddenly.

“So it was, Sir,” he said, his memory returning. “The bloomin’ sail got chock full of wind. It caught me bang in the face.”

He paused a moment.

“I believe —” he began, and then stopped once more.

“Go on!” said the Second Mate. “Spit it out!”

“I don’t know, Sir,” Tom said. “I don’t understand —”

He hesitated again.

“That’s all I can remember,” he muttered, and put his hand up to the bruise on his forehead, as though trying to remember something.

In the momentary silence that succeeded, I caught the voice of Stubbins.

“There hain’t hardly no wind,” he was saying, in a puzzled tone.

There was a low murmur of assent from the surrounding men.

The Second Mate said nothing, and I glanced at him, curiously. Was he beginning to see, I wondered, how useless it was to try to find any sensible explanation of the affair? Had he begun at last to couple it with that peculiar business of the man up the main? I am inclined now to think that this was so; for, after staring a few moments at Tom, in a doubtful sort of way, he went out of the fo’cas’le, saying that he would inquire further into the matter in the morning. Yet, when the morning came, he did no such thing. As for his reporting the affair to the Skipper, I much doubt it. Even did he, it must have been in a very casual way; for we heard nothing more about it; though, of course, we talked it over pretty thoroughly among ourselves.

With regard to the Second Mate, even now I am rather puzzled by his attitude to us aloft. Sometimes I have thought that he must have suspected us of trying to play off some trick on him — perhaps, at the time, he still half suspected one of us of being in some way connected with the other business. Or, again, he may have been trying to fight against the conviction that was being forced upon him, that there was really something impossible and beastly about the old packet. Of course, these are only suppositions.

And then, close upon this, there were further developments.

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