The Ghost Pirates, by William Hope Hodgson

VI

Another Man to the Wheel

The conversation had slacked off. We were all moody and shaken, and I know I, for one, was thinking some rather troublesome thoughts.

Suddenly, I heard the sound of the Second’s whistle. Then his voice came along the deck:

“Another man to the wheel!”

“ ’e’s singin’ out for some one to go aft an’ relieve ther wheel,” said Quoin, who had gone to the door to listen. “Yer’d better ’urry up, Plummer.”

“What’s ther time?” asked Plummer, standing up and knocking out his pipe. “Must be close on ter four bells. ’oo’s next wheel is it?”

“It’s all right, Plummer,” I said, getting up from the chest on which I had been sitting. “I’ll go along. It’s my wheel, and it only wants a couple of minutes to four bells.”

Plummer sat down again, and I went out of the fo’cas’le. Reaching the poop, I met Tammy on the lee side, pacing up and down.

“Who’s at the wheel?” I asked him, in astonishment.

“The Second Mate,” he said, in a shaky sort of voice. “He’s waiting to be relieved. I’ll tell you all about it as soon as I get a chance.”

I went on aft to the wheel.

“Who’s that?” the Second inquired.

“It’s Jessop, Sir,” I answered.

He gave me the course, and then, without another word, went forrard along the poop. On the break, I heard him call Tammy’s name, and then for some minutes he was talking to him; though what he was saying, I could not possibly hear. For my part, I was tremendously curious to know why the Second Mate had taken the wheel. I knew that if it were just a matter of bad steering on Tammy’s part, he would not have dreamt of doing such a thing. There had been something queer happening, about which I had yet to learn; of this, I felt sure.

Presently, the Second Mate left Tammy, and commenced to walk the weather side of the deck. Once he came right aft, and, stooping down, peered under the wheel-box; but never addressed a word to me. Sometime later, he went down the weather ladder on to the main-deck. Directly afterwards, Tammy came running up to the lee side of the wheel-box.

“I’ve seen it again!” he said, gasping with sheer nervousness.

“What?” I said.

“That thing,” he answered. Then he leant across the wheel-box, and lowered his voice.

“It came over the lee rail — up out of the sea,” he added, with an air of telling something unbelievable.

I turned more towards him; but it was too dark to see his face with any distinctness. I felt suddenly husky. “My God!” I thought. And then I made a silly effort to protest; but he cut me short with a certain impatient hopelessness.

“For God’s sake, Jessop,” he said, “do stow all that! It’s no good. I must have someone to talk to, or I shall go dotty.”

I saw how useless it was to pretend any sort of ignorance. Indeed, really, I had known it all along, and avoided the youngster on that very account, as you know.

“Go on,” I said. “I’ll listen; but you’d better keep an eye for the Second Mate; he may pop up any minute.”

For a moment, he said nothing, and I saw him peering stealthily about the poop.

“Go on,” I said. “You’d better make haste, or he’ll be up before you’re half-way through. What was he doing at the wheel when I came up to relieve it? Why did he send you away from it?”

“He didn’t,” Tammy replied, turning his face towards me. “I bunked away from it.”

“What for?” I asked.

“Wait a minute,” he answered, “and I’ll tell you the whole business. You know the Second Mate sent me to the wheel, after that —” He nodded his head forrard.

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, I’d been here about ten minutes, or a quarter of an hour, and I was feeling rotten about Williams, and trying to forget it all and keep the ship on her course, and all that; when, all at once, I happened to glance to loo’ard, and there I saw it climbing over the rail. My God! I didn’t know what to do. The Second Mate was standing forrard on the break of the poop, and I was here all by myself. I felt as if I were frozen stiff. When it came towards me, I let go of the wheel, and yelled and bunked forrard to the Second Mate. He caught hold of me and shook me; but I was so jolly frightened, I couldn’t say a word. I could only keep on pointing. The Second kept asking me ’Where?’ And then, all at once, I found I couldn’t see the thing. I don’t know whether he saw it. I’m not at all certain he did. He just told me to damn well get back to the wheel, and stop making a damned fool of myself. I said out straight I wouldn’t go. So he blew his whistle, and sung out for someone to come aft and take it. Then he ran and got hold of the wheel himself. You know the rest.”

“You’re quite sure it wasn’t thinking about Williams made you imagine you saw something?” I said, more to gain a moment to think, than because I believed that it was the case.

“I thought you were going to listen to me, seriously!” he said, bitterly. “If you won’t believe me; what about the chap the Second Mate saw? What about Tom? What about Williams? For goodness sake! don’t try to put me off like you did last time. I nearly went cracked with wanting to tell someone who would listen to me, and wouldn’t laugh. I could stand anything, but this being alone. There’s a good chap, don’t pretend you don’t understand. Tell me what it all means. What is this horrible man that I’ve twice seen? You know you know something, and I believe you’re afraid to tell anyone, for fear of being laughed at. Why don’t you tell me? You needn’t be afraid of my laughing.”

He stopped, suddenly. For the moment, I said nothing in reply.

“Don’t treat me like a kid, Jessop!” he exclaimed, quite passionately.

“I won’t,” I said, with a sudden resolve to tell him everything. “I need someone to talk to, just as badly as you do.”

“What does it all mean, then?” he burst out. “Are they real? I always used to think it was all a yarn about such things.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what it all means, Tammy,” I answered. “I’m just as much in the dark, there, as you are. And I don’t know whether they’re real — that is, not as we consider things real. You don’t know that I saw a queer figure down on the maindeck, several nights before you saw that thing up here.”

“Didn’t you see this one?” he cut in, quickly.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Then, why did you pretend not to have?” he said, in a reproachful voice. “You don’t know what a state you put me into, what with my being certain that I had seen it and then you being so jolly positive that there had been nothing. At one time I thought I was going clean off my dot — until the Second Mate saw that man go up the main. Then, I knew that there must be something in the thing I was certain I’d seen.”

“I thought, perhaps, that if I told you I hadn’t seen it, you would think you’d been mistaken,” I said. “I wanted you to think it was imagination, or a dream, or something of that sort.”

“And all the time, you knew about that other thing you’d seen?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“It was thundering decent of you,” he said. “But it wasn’t any good.”

He paused a moment. Then he went on:

“It’s terrible about Williams. Do you think he saw something, up aloft?”

“I don’t know, Tammy,” I said. “It’s impossible to say. It may have been only an accident.” I hesitated to tell him what I really thought.

“What was he saying about his pay-day? Who was he saying it to?”

“I don’t know,” I said, again. “He was always cracked about taking a pay-day out of her. You know, he stayed in her, on purpose, when all the others left. He told me that he wasn’t going to be done out of it, for anyone.”

“What did the other lot leave for?” he asked. Then, as the idea seemed to strike him —“Jove! do you think they saw something, and got scared? It’s quite possible. You know, we only joined her in ’Frisco. She had no ’prentices on the passage out. Our ship was sold; so they sent us aboard here to come home.”

“They may have,” I said. “Indeed, from things I’ve heard Williams say, I’m pretty certain, he for one, guessed or knew a jolly sight more than we’ve any idea of.”

“And now he’s dead!” said Tammy, solemnly. “We’ll never be able to find out from him now.”

For a few moments, he was silent. Then he went off on another track.

“Doesn’t anything ever happen in the Mate’s watch?”

“Yes,” I answered. “There’s several things happened lately, that seem pretty queer. Some of his side have been talking about them. But he’s too jolly pig-headed to see anything. He just curses his chaps, and puts it all down to them.”

“Still,” he persisted, “things seem to happen more in our watch than in his — I mean, bigger things. Look at tonight.”

“We’ve no proof, you know,” I said.

He shook his head, doubtfully.

“I shall always funk going aloft, now.”

“Nonsense!” I told him. “It may only have been an accident.”

“Don’t!” he said. “You know you don’t think so, really.”

I answered nothing, just then; for I knew very well that he was right. We were silent for a couple of moments.

Then he spoke again:

“Is the ship haunted?”

For an instant I hesitated.

“No,” I said, at length. “I don’t think she is. I mean, not in that way.”

“What way, then?”

“Well, I’ve formed a bit of a theory, that seems wise one minute, and cracked the next. Of course, it’s as likely to be all wrong; but it’s the only thing that seems to me to fit in with all the beastly things we’ve had lately.”

“Go on!” he said, with an impatient, nervous movement.

“Well, I’ve an idea that it’s nothing in the ship that’s likely to hurt us. I scarcely know how to put it; but, if I’m right in what I think, it’s the ship herself that’s the cause of everything.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, in a puzzled voice. “Do you mean that the ship is haunted, after all?”

“No!” I answered. “I’ve just told you I didn’t. Wait until I’ve finished what I was going to say.”

“All right!” he said.

“About that thing you saw tonight,” I went on. “You say it came over the lee rail, up on to the poop?”

“Yes,” he answered.

“Well, the thing I saw, came up out of the sea, and went back into the sea.”

“Jove!” he said; and then: “Yes, go on!”

“My idea is, that this ship is open to be boarded by those things,” I explained. “What they are, of course I don’t know. They look like men — in lots of ways. But — well, the Lord knows what’s in the sea. Though we don’t want to go imagining silly things, of course. And then, again, you know, it seems fat-headed, calling anything silly. That’s how I keep going, in a sort of blessed circle. I don’t know a bit whether they’re flesh and blood, or whether they’re what we should call ghosts or spirits.”

“They can’t be flesh and blood,” Tammy interrupted. “Where would they live? Besides, that first one I saw, I thought I could see through it. And this last one — the Second Mate would have seen it. And they would drown —”

“Not necessarily,” I said.

“Oh, but I’m sure they’re not,” he insisted. “It’s impossible —”

“So are ghosts — when you’re feeling sensible,” I answered. “But I’m not saying they are flesh and blood; though, at the same time, I’m not going to say straight out they’re ghosts — not yet, at any rate.”

“Where do they come from?” he asked, stupidly enough.

“Out of the sea,” I told him. “You saw for yourself!”

“Then why don’t other vessels have them coming aboard?” he said. “How do you account for that?”

“In a way — though sometimes it seems cracky — I think I can, according to my idea,” I answered.

“How?” he inquired again.

“Why, I believe that this ship is open, as I’ve told you — exposed, unprotected, or whatever you like to call it. I should say it’s reasonable to think that all the things of the material world are barred, as it were, from the immaterial; but that in some cases the barrier may be broken down. That’s what may have happened to this ship. And if it has, she may be naked to the attacks of beings belonging to some other state of existence.”

“What’s made her like that?” he asked, in a really awed sort of tone.

“The Lord knows!” I answered. “Perhaps something to do with magnetic stresses; but you’d not understand, and I don’t, really. And, I suppose, inside of me, I don’t believe it’s anything of the kind, for a minute. I’m not built that way. And yet I don’t know! Perhaps, there may have been some rotten thing done aboard of her. Or, again, it’s a heap more likely to be something quite outside of anything I know.”

“If they’re immaterial then, they’re spirits?” he questioned.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s so hard to say what I really think, you know. I’ve got a queer idea, that my head-piece likes to think good; but I don’t believe my tummy believes it.”

“Go on!” he said.

“Well,” I said. “Suppose the earth were inhabited by two kinds of life. We’re one, and they’re the other.”

“Go on!” he said.

“Well,” I said. “Don’t you see, in a normal state we may not be capable of appreciating the realness of the other? But they may be just as real and material to them, as we are to us. Do you see?”

“Yes,” he said. “Go on!”

“Well,” I said. “The earth may be just as real to them, as to us. I mean that it may have qualities as material to them, as it has to us; but neither of us could appreciate the other’s realness, or the quality of realness in the earth, which was real to the other. It’s so difficult to explain. Don’t you understand?”

“Yes,” he said. “Go on!”

“Well, if we were in what I might call a healthy atmosphere, they would be quite beyond our power to see or feel, or anything. And the same with them; but the more we’re like this, the more real and actual they could grow to us. See? That is, the more we should become able to appreciate their form of materialness. That’s all. I can’t make it any clearer.”

“Then, after all, you really think they’re ghosts, or something of that sort?” Tammy said.

“I suppose it does come to that,” I answered. “I mean that, anyway, I don’t think they’re our ideas of flesh and blood. But, of course, it’s silly to say much; and, after all, you must remember that I may be all wrong.”

“I think you ought to tell the Second Mate all this,” he said. “If it’s really as you say, the ship ought to be put into the nearest port, and jolly well burnt.”

“The Second Mate couldn’t do anything,” I replied. “Even if he believed it all; which we’re not certain he would.”

“Perhaps not,” Tammy answered. “But if you could get him to believe it, he might explain the whole business to the Skipper, and then something might be done. It’s not safe as it is.”

“He’d only get jeered at again,” I said, rather hopelessly.

“No,” said Tammy. “Not after what’s happened tonight.”

“Perhaps not,” I replied, doubtfully. And just then the Second Mate came back on to the poop, and Tammy cleared away from the wheel-box, leaving me with a worrying feeling that I ought to do something.

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