The Ghost Pirates, by William Hope Hodgson

V

The End of Williams

As I have said, there was a lot of talk, among the crowd of us forrard, about Tom’s strange accident. None of the men knew that Williams and I had seen it happen. Stubbins gave it as his opinion that Tom had been sleepy, and missed the foot-rope. Tom, of course, would not have this by any means. Yet, he had no one to appeal to; for, at that time, he was just as ignorant as the rest, that we had seen the sail flap up over the yard.

Stubbins insisted that it stood to reason it couldn’t be the wind. There wasn’t any, he said; and the rest of the men agreed with him.

“Well,” I said, “I don’t know about all that. I’m a bit inclined to think Tom’s yarn is the truth.”

“How do you make that hout?” Stubbins asked, unbelievingly. “There haint nothin’ like enough wind.”

“What about the place on his forehead?” I inquired, in turn. “How are you going to explain that?”

“I ’spect he knocked himself there when he slipped,” he answered.

“Likely ’nuff,” agreed old Jaskett, who was sitting smoking on a chest near by.

“Well, you’re both a damn long way out of it!” Tom chipped in, pretty warm. “I wasn’t asleep; an’ the sail did bloomin’ well hit me.”

“Don’t you be impertinent, young feller,” said Jaskett.

I joined in again.

“There’s another thing, Stubbins,” I said. “The gasket Tom was hanging by, was on the after side of the yard. That looks as if the sail might have flapped it over? If there were wind enough to do the one, it seems to me that it might have done the other.”

“Do you mean that it was hunder ther yard, or hover ther top?” he asked.

“Over the top, of course. What’s more, the foot of the sail was hanging over the after part of the yard, in a bight.”

Stubbins was plainly surprised at that, and before he was ready with his next objection, Plummer spoke.

“ ’oo saw it?” he asked.

“I saw it!” I said, a bit sharply. “So did Williams; so — for that matter — did the Second Mate.”

Plummer relapsed into silence; and smoked; and Stubbins broke out afresh.

“I reckon Tom must have had a hold of the foot and the gasket, and pulled ’em hover the yard when he tumbled.”

“No!” interrupted Tom. “The gasket was under the sail. I couldn’t even see it. An’ I hadn’t time to get hold of the foot of the sail, before it up and caught me smack in the face.”

“ ’ow did yer get ’old er ther gasket, when yer fell, then?” asked Plummer.

“He didn’t get hold of it,” I answered for Tom. “It had taken a turn round his wrist, and that’s how we found him hanging.”

“Do you mean to say as ’e ’adn’t got ’old of ther garsket?”, Quoin inquired, pausing in the lighting of his pipe.

“Of course, I do,” I said. “A chap doesn’t go hanging on to a rope when he’s jolly well been knocked senseless.”

“Ye’re richt,” assented Jock. “Ye’re quite richt there, Jessop.”

Quoin concluded the lighting of his pipe.

“I dunno,” he said.

I went on, without noticing him.

“Anyway, when Williams and I found him, he was hanging by the gasket, and it had a couple of turns round his wrist. And besides that, as I said before, the foot of the sail was hanging over the after side of the yard, and Tom’s weight on the gasket was holding it there.”

“It’s damned queer,” said Stubbins, in a puzzled voice. “There don’t seem to be no way of gettin’ a proper hexplanation to it.”

I glanced at Williams, to suggest that I should tell all that we had seen; but he shook his head, and, after a moment’s thought, it seemed to me that there was nothing to be gained by so doing. We had no very clear idea of the thing that had happened, and our half facts and guesses would only have tended to make the matter appear more grotesque and unlikely. The only thing to be done was to wait and watch. If we could only get hold of something tangible, then we might hope to tell all that we knew, without being made into laughing-stocks.

I came out from my think, abruptly.

Stubbins was speaking again. He was arguing the matter with one of the other men.

“You see, with there bein’ no wind, scarcely, ther thing’s himpossible, an’ yet —”

The other man interrupted with some remark I did not catch.

“No,” I heard Stubbins say. “I’m hout of my reckonin’. I don’t savvy it one bit. It’s too much like a damned fairy tale.”

“Look at his wrist!” I said.

Tom held out his right hand and arm for inspection. It was considerably swollen where the rope had been round it.

“Yes,” admitted Stubbins. “That’s right enough; but it don’t tell you nothin’.”

I made no reply. As Stubbins said, it told you “nothin’ “. And there I let it drop. Yet, I have told you this, as showing how the matter was regarded in the fo’cas’le. Still, it did not occupy our minds very long; for, as I have said, there were further developments.

The three following nights passed quietly; and then, on the fourth, all those curious signs and hints culminated suddenly in something extraordinarily grim. Yet, everything had been so subtle and intangible, and, indeed, so was the affair itself, that only those who had actually come in touch with the invading fear, seemed really capable of comprehending the terror of the thing. The men, for the most part, began to say the ship was unlucky, and, of course, as usual! there was some talk of there being a Jonah in the ship. Still, I cannot say that none of the men realised there was anything horrible and frightening in it all; for I am sure that some did, a little; and I think Stubbins was certainly one of them; though I feel certain that he did not, at that time, you know, grasp a quarter of the real significance that underlay the several queer matters that had disturbed our nights. He seemed to fail, somehow, to grasp the element of personal danger that, to me, was already plain. He lacked sufficient imagination, I suppose, to piece the things together — to trace the natural sequence of the events, and their development. Yet I must not forget, of course, that he had no knowledge of those two first incidents. If he had, perhaps he might have stood where I did. As it was, he had not seemed to reach out at all, you know, not even in the matter of Tom and the fore royal. Now, however, after the thing I am about to tell you, he seemed to see a little way into the darkness, and realise possibilities.

I remember the fourth night, well. It was a clear, star-lit, moonless sort of night: at least, I think there was no moon; or, at any rate, the moon could have been little more than a thin crescent, for it was near the dark time.

The wind had breezed up a bit; but still remained steady. We were slipping along at about six or seven knots an hour. It was our middle watch on deck, and the ship was full of the blow and hum of the wind aloft. Williams and I were the only ones about the maindeck. He was leaning over the weather pin-rail, smoking; while I was pacing up and down, between him and the fore hatch. Stubbins was on the look-out.

Two bells had gone some minutes, and I was wishing to goodness that it was eight, and time to turn-in. Suddenly, overhead, there sounded a sharp crack, like the report of a rifle shot. It was followed instantly by the rattle and crash of sailcloth thrashing in the wind.

Williams jumped away from the rail, and ran aft a few steps. I followed him, and, together, we stared upwards to see what had gone. Indistinctly, I made out that the weather sheet of the fore t’gallant had carried away, and the clew of the sail was whirling and banging about in the air, and, every few moments, hitting the steel yard a blow, like the thump of a great sledge hammer.

“It’s the shackle, or one of the links that’s gone, I think,” I shouted to Williams, above the noise of the sail. “That’s the spectacle that’s hitting the yard.”

“Yus!” he shouted back, and went to get hold of the clew-line. I ran to give him a hand. At the same moment, I caught the Second Mate’s voice away aft, shouting. Then came the noise of running feet, and the rest of the watch, and the Second Mate, were with us almost at the same moment. In a few minutes we had the yard lowered and the sail clewed up. Then Williams and I went aloft to see where the sheet had gone. It was much as I had supposed; the spectacle was all right, but the pin had gone out of the shackle, and the shackle itself was jammed into the sheavehole in the yard arm.

Williams sent me down for another pin, while he unbent the clewline, and overhauled it down to the sheet. When I returned with the fresh pin, I screwed it into the shackle, clipped on the clewline, and sung out to the men to take a pull on the rope. This they did, and at the second heave the shackle came away. When it was high enough, I went up on to the t’gallant yard, and held the chain, while Williams shackled it into the spectacle. Then he bent on the clew-line afresh, and sung out to the Second Mate that we were ready to hoist away.

“Yer’d better go down an’ give ’em a ’aul,” he said. “I’ll sty an’ light up ther syle.”

“Right ho, Williams,” I said, getting into the rigging. “Don’t let the ship’s bogy run away with you.”

This remark I made in a moment of light-heartedness, such as will come to anyone aloft, at times. I was exhilarated for the time being, and quite free from the sense of fear that had been with me so much of late. I suppose this was due to the freshness of the wind.

“There’s more’n one!” he said, in that curiously short way of his.

“What?” I asked.

He repeated his remark.

I was suddenly serious. The reality of all the impossible details of the past weeks came back to me, vivid, and beastly.

“What do you mean, Williams?” I asked him.

But he had shut up, and would say nothing.

“What do you know — how much do you know?” I went on, quickly. “Why did you never tell me that you —”

The Second Mate’s voice interrupted me, abruptly:

“Now then, up there! Are you going to keep us waiting all night? One of you come down and give us a pull with the ha’lyards. The other stay up and light up the gear.”

“i, i, Sir,” I shouted back.

Then I turned to Williams, hurriedly.

“Look here, Williams,” I said. “If you think there is really a danger in your being alone up here —” I hesitated for words to express what I meant. Then I went on. “Well, I’ll jolly well stay up with you.”

The Second Mate’s voice came again.

“Come on now, one of you! Make a move! What the hell are you doing?”

“Coming, Sir!” I sung out.

“Shall I stay?” I asked definitely.

“Garn!” he said. “Don’t yer fret yerself. I’ll tike er bloomin’ piy-diy out of ’er. Blarst ’em. I ain’t funky of ’em.”

I went. That was the last word Williams spoke to anyone living.

I reached the decks, and tailed on to the haulyards.

We had nearly mast-headed the yard, and the Second Mate was looking up at the dark outline of the sail, ready to sing out “Belay”; when, all at once, there came a queer sort of muffled shout from Williams.

“Vast hauling, you men,” shouted the Second Mate.

We stood silent, and listened.

“What’s that, Williams?” he sung out. “Are you all clear?”

For nearly half a minute we stood, listening; but there came no reply. Some of the men said afterwards that they had noticed a curious rattling and vibrating noise aloft that sounded faintly above the hum and swirl of the wind. Like the sound of loose ropes being shaken and slatted together, you know. Whether this noise was really heard, or whether it was something that had no existence outside of their imaginations, I cannot say. I heard nothing of it; but then I was at the tail end of the rope, and furthest from the fore rigging; while those who heard it were on the fore part of the haulyards, and close up to the shrouds.

The Second Mate put his hands to his mouth.

“Are you all clear there?” he shouted again.

The answer came, unintelligible and unexpected. It ran like this:

“Blarst yer . . . I’ve styed . . . Did yer think . . . drive . . . bl — y piy-diy.” And then there was a sudden silence.

I stared up at the dim sail, astonished.

“He’s dotty!” said Stubbins, who had been told to come off the look-out and give us a pull.

“ ’e’s as mad as a bloomin’ ’atter,” said Quoin, who was standing foreside of me. “ ’e’s been queer all along.”

“Silence there!” shouted the Second Mate. Then:

“Williams!”

No answer.

“Williams!” more loudly.

Still no answer.

Then:

“Damn you, you jumped-up cockney crocodile! Can’t you hear? Are you blooming-well deaf?”

There was no answer, and the Second Mate turned to me.

“Jump aloft, smartly now, Jessop, and see what’s wrong!”

“i, i, Sir,” I said and made a run for the rigging. I felt a bit queer. Had Williams gone mad? He certainly always had been a bit funny. Or — and the thought came with a jump — had he seen — I did not finish. Suddenly, up aloft, there sounded a frightful scream. I stopped, with my hand on the sheerpole. The next instant, something fell out of the darkness — a heavy body, that struck the deck near the waiting men, with a tremendous crash and a loud, ringing, wheezy sound that sickened me. Several of the men shouted out loud in their fright, and let go of the haulyards; but luckily the stopper held it, and the yard did not come down. Then, for the space of several seconds, there was a dead silence among the crowd; and it seemed to me that the wind had in it a strange moaning note.

The Second Mate was the first to speak. His voice came so abruptly that it startled me.

“Get a light, one of you, quick now!”

There was a moment’s hesitation.

“Fetch one of the binnacle lamps, you, Tammy.”

“i, i, Sir,” the youngster said, in a quavering voice, and ran aft.

In less than a minute I saw the light coming towards us along the deck. The boy was running. He reached us, and handed the lamp to the Second Mate, who took it and went towards the dark, huddled heap on the deck. He held the light out before him, and peered at the thing.

“My God!” he said. “It’s Williams!”

He stooped lower with the light, and I saw details. It was Williams right enough. The Second Mate told a couple of the men to lift him and straighten him out on the hatch. Then he went aft to call the Skipper. He returned in a couple of minutes with an old ensign which he spread over the poor beggar. Almost directly, the Captain came hurrying forrard along the decks. He pulled back one end of the ensign, and looked; then he put it back quietly, and the Second Mate explained all that we knew, in a few words.

“Would you leave him where he is, Sir?” he asked, after he had told everything.

“The night’s fine,” said the Captain. “You may as well leave the poor devil there.”

He turned, and went aft, slowly. The man who was holding the light, swept it round so that it showed the place where Williams had struck the deck.

The Second Mate spoke abruptly.

“Get a broom and a couple of buckets, some of you.”

He turned sharply, and ordered Tammy on to the poop.

As soon as he had seen the yard mast-headed, and the ropes cleared up, he followed Tammy. He knew well enough that it would not do for the youngster to let his mind dwell too much on the poor chap on the hatch, and I found out, a little later, that he gave the boy something to occupy his thoughts.

After they had gone aft, we went into the fo’cas’le. Every one was moody and frightened. For a little while, we sat about in our bunks and on the chests, and no one said a word. The watch below were all asleep, and not one of them knew what had happened.

All at once, Plummer, whose wheel it was, stepped over the starboard washboard, into the fo’cas’le.

“What’s up, anyway?” he asked. “Is Williams much ’urt?”

“Sh!” I said. “You’ll wake the others. Who’s taken your wheel?”

“Tammy — ther Second sent ’im. ’e said I could go forrard an’ ’ave er smoke. ’e said Williams ’ad ’ad er fall.”

He broke off, and looked across the fo’cas’le.

“Where is ’e?” he inquired, in a puzzled voice.

I glanced at the others; but no one seemed inclined to start yarning about it.

“He fell from the t’gallant rigging!” I said.

“Where is ’e?” he repeated.

“Smashed up,” I said. “He’s lying on the hatch.”

“Dead?” he asked.

I nodded.

“I guessed ’twere somethin’ pretty bad, when I saw the Old Man come forrard. ’ow did it ’appen?”

He looked round at the lot of us sitting there silent and smoking.

“No one knows,” I said, and glanced at Stubbins. I caught him eyeing me, doubtfully.

After a moment’s silence, Plummer spoke again.

“I ’eard ’im screech, when I was at ther wheel. ’e must ’ave got ’urt up aloft.”

Stubbins struck a match and proceeded to relight his pipe.

“How d’yer mean?” he asked, speaking for the first time.

“ ’ow do I mean? Well, I can’t say. Maybe ’e jammed ’is fingers between ther parrel an’ ther mast.”

“What about ’is swearin’ at ther Second Mate? Was that ’cause ’e’d jammed ’is fingers?” put in Quoin.

“I never ’eard about that,” said Plummer. “ ’oo ’eard ’im?”

“I should think heverybody in ther bloomin’ ship heard him,” Stubbins answered. “All ther same, I hain’t sure he was swearin’ at ther Second Mate. I thought at first he’d gone dotty an’ was cussin’ him; but somehow it don’t seem likely, now I come to think. It don’t stand to reason he should go to cuss ther man. There was nothin’ to go cussin’ about. What’s more, he didn’t seem ter be talkin’ down to us on deck — what I could make hout. ’sides, what would he want ter go talkin’ to ther Second about his pay-day?”

He looked across to where I was sitting. Jock, who was smoking, quietly, on the chest next to me, took his pipe slowly out from between his teeth.

“Ye’re no far oot, Stubbins, I’m thinkin’. Ye’re no far oot,” he said, nodding his head.

Stubbins still continued to gaze at me.

“What’s your idee?” he said, abruptly.

It may have been my fancy; but it seemed to me that there was something deeper than the mere sense the question conveyed.

I glanced at him. I couldn’t have said, myself, just what my idea was.

“I don’t know!” I answered, a little adrift. “He didn’t strike me as cursing at the Second Mate. That is, I should say, after the first minute.”

“Just what I say,” he replied. “Another thing — don’t it strike you as bein’ bloomin’ queer about Tom nearly comin’ down by ther run, an’ then this?”

I nodded.

“It would have been all hup with Tom, if it hadn’t been for ther gasket.”

He paused. After a moment, he went on again.

“That was honly three or four nights ago!”

“Well,” said Plummer. “What are yer drivin’ at?”

“Nothin’,” answered Stubbins. “Honly it’s damned queer. Looks as though ther ship might be unlucky, after all.”

“Well,” agreed Plummer. “Things ’as been a bit funny lately; and then there’s what’s ’appened ter-night. I shall ’ang on pretty tight ther next time I go aloft.”

Old Jaskett took his pipe from his mouth, and sighed.

“Things is going wrong ’most every night,” he said, almost pathetically. “It’s as diff’rent as chalk ’n’ cheese ter what it were w’en we started this ’ere trip. I thought it were all ’ellish rot about ’er bein’ ’aunted; but it’s not, seem’ly.”

He stopped and expectorated.

“She hain’t haunted,” said Stubbins. “Leastways, not like you mean —”

He paused, as though trying to grasp some elusive thought.

“Eh?” said Jaskett, in the interval.

Stubbins continued, without noticing the query. He appeared to be answering some half-formed thought in his own brain, rather than Jaskett:

’Things is queer — an’ it’s been a bad job tonight. I don’t savvy one bit what Williams was sayin’ of hup aloft. I’ve thought sometimes he’d somethin’ on ’is mind —”

Then, after a pause of about half a minute, he said this:

“Who was he sayin’ that to?”

“Eh?” said Jaskett, again, with a puzzled expression.

“I was thinkin’,” said Stubbins, knocking out his pipe on the edge of the chest. “P’raps you’re right, hafter all.”

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