The Ghost Pirates, by William Hope Hodgson

VIII

After the Coming of the Mist

After the coming of the mist, things seemed to develop pretty quickly. In the following two or three days a good deal happened.

On the night of the day on which the Skipper had sent me away from the wheel, it was our watch on deck from eight o’ clock to twelve, and my look-out from ten to twelve.

As I paced slowly to and fro across the fo’cas’le head, I was thinking about the affair of the morning. At first, my thoughts were about the Old Man. I cursed him thoroughly to myself, for being a pig-headed old fool, until it occurred to me that if I had been in his place, and come on deck to find the ship almost aback, and the fellow at the wheel staring out across the sea, instead of attending to his business, I should most certainly have kicked up a thundering row. And then, I had been an ass to tell him about the ship. I should never have done such a thing, if I had not been a bit adrift. Most likely the old chap thought I was cracked.

I ceased to bother my head about him, and fell to wondering why the Second Mate had looked at me so queerly in the morning. Did he guess more of the truth than I supposed? And if that were the case, why had he refused to listen to me?

After that, I went to puzzling about the mist. I had thought a great deal about it, during the day. One idea appealed to me, very strongly. It was that the actual, visible mist was a materialised expression of an extraordinarily subtle atmosphere, in which we were moving.

Abruptly, as I walked backwards and forwards, taking occasional glances over the sea (which was almost calm), my eye caught the glow of a light out in the darkness. I stood still, and stared. I wondered whether it was the light of a vessel. In that case we were no longer enveloped in that extraordinary atmosphere. I bent forward, and gave the thing my more immediate attention. I saw then that it was undoubtedly the green light of a vessel on our port bow. It was plain that she was bent on crossing our bows. What was more, she was dangerously near — the size and brightness of her light showed that. She would be close-hauled, while we were going free, so that, of course, it was our place to get out of her way. Instantly, I turned and, putting my hands up to my mouth, hailed the Second Mate:

“Light on the port bow, Sir.”

The next moment his hail came back:

“Whereabouts?”

“He must be blind,” I said to myself.

“About two points on the bow, Sir,” I sung out.

Then I turned to see whether she had shifted her position at all. Yet, when I came to look, there was no light visible. I ran forrard to the bows, and leant over the rail, and stared; but there was nothing — absolutely nothing except the darkness all about us. For perhaps a few seconds I stood thus, and a suspicion swept across me, that the whole business was practically a repetition of the affair of the morning. Evidently, the impalpable something that invested the ship, had thinned for an instant, thus allowing me to see the light ahead. Now, it had closed again. Yet, whether I could see, or not, I did not doubt the fact that,there was a vessel ahead, and very close ahead, too. We might run on top of her any minute. My only hope was that, seeing we were not getting out of her way, she had put her helm up, so as to let us pass, with the intention of then crossing under our stern. I waited, pretty anxiously, watching and listening. Then, all at once, I heard steps coming along the deck, forrard, and the ’prentice, whose time-keeping it was, came up on to the fo’cas’le head.

“The Second Mate says he can’t see any light Jessop,” he said, coming over to where I stood. “Whereabouts is it?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I’ve lost sight of it myself. It was a green light, about a couple of points on the port bow. It seemed fairly close.”

“Perhaps their lamp’s gone out,” he suggested, after peering out pretty hard into the night for a minute or so.

“Perhaps,” I said.

I did not tell him that the light had been so close that, even in the darkness, we should now have been able to see the ship herself.

“You’re quite sure it was a light, and not a star?” he asked, doubtfully, after another long stare.

“Oh! no,” I said. “It may have been the moon, now I come to think about it.”

“Don’t rot,” he replied. “It’s easy enough to make a mistake. What shall I say to the Second Mate?”

“Tell him it’s disappeared, of course!”

“Where to?” he asked.

“How the devil should I know?” I told him. “Don’t ask silly questions!”

“All right, keep your rag in,” he said, and went aft to report to the Second Mate.

Five minutes later, it might have been, I saw the light again. It was broad on the bow, and told me plainly enough that she had up with her helm to escape being run down. I did not wait a moment; but sung out to the Second Mate that there was a green light about four points on the port bow. By Jove! it must have been a close shave. The light did not seem to be more than about a hundred yards away. It was fortunate that we had not much way through the water.

“Now,” I thought to myself, “the Second will see the thing. And perhaps Mr. Blooming ’prentice will be able to give the star its proper name.”

Even as the thought came into my head, the light faded and vanished; and I caught the Second Mate’s voice.

“Whereaway?” he was singing out.

“It’s gone again, Sir,” I answered.

A minute later, I heard him coming along the deck.

He reached the foot of the starboard ladder.

“Where are you, Jessop?” he inquired.

“Here, Sir,” I said, and went to the top of the weather ladder.

He came up slowly on to the fo’cas’le head.

“What’s this you’ve been singing out about a light?” he asked. “Just point out exactly where it was you last saw it.”

This I did, and he went over to the port rail, and stared away into the night; but without seeing anything.

“It’s gone, Sir,” I ventured to remind him. “Though I’ve seen it twice now — once, about a couple of points on the bow, and this last time, broad away on the bow; but it disappeared both times, almost at once.”

“I don’t understand it at all, Jessop,” he said, in a puzzled voice. “Are you sure it was a ship’s light?”

“Yes, Sir. A green light. It was quite close.”

“I don’t understand,” he said again. “Run aft and ask the ’prentice to pass you down my night glasses. Be as smart as you can.”

“i, i, Sir,” I replied, and ran aft.

In less than a minute, I was back with his binoculars; and, with them, he stared for some time at the sea to leeward.

All at once he dropped them to his side, and faced round on me with a sudden question:

“Where’s she gone to? If she’s shifted her bearing as quickly as all that, she must be precious close. We should be able to see her spars and sails, or her cabin light, or her binnacle light, or something!”

“It’s queer, Sir,” I assented.

“Damned queer,” he said. “So damned queer that I’m inclined to think you’ve made a mistake.”

“No, Sir. I’m certain it was a light.”

“Where’s the ship then?” he asked.

“I can’t say, Sir. That’s just what’s been puzzling me.”

The Second said nothing in reply; but took a couple of quick turns across the fo’cas’le head — stopping at the port rail, and taking another look to leeward through his night glasses. Perhaps a minute he stood there. Then, without a word, he went down the lee ladder, and away aft along the main deck to the poop.

“He’s jolly well puzzled,” I thought to myself. “Or else he thinks I’ve been imagining things.” Either way, I guessed he’d think that.

In a little, I began to wonder whether, after all, he had any idea of what might be the truth. One minute, I would feel certain he had; and the next, I was just as sure that he guessed nothing. I got one of my fits of asking myself whether it would not have been better to have told him everything. It seemed to me that he must have seen sufficient to make him inclined to listen to me. And yet, I could not by any means be certain. I might only have been making an ass of myself, in his eyes. Or set him thinking I was dotty.

I was walking about the fo’cas’le head, feeling like this, when I saw the light for the third time. It was very bright and big, and I could see it move, as I watched. This again showed me that it must be very close.

“Surely,” I thought, “the Second Mate must see it now, for himself.”

I did not sing out this time, right away. I thought I would let the Second see for himself that I had not been mistaken. Besides, I was not going to risk its vanishing again, the instant I had spoken. For quite half a minute, I watched it, and there was no sign of its disappearing. Every moment, I expected to hear the Second Mate’s hail, showing that he had spotted it at last; but none came.

I could stand it no longer, and I ran to the rail, on the after part of the fo’cas’le head.

“Green light a little abaft the beam, Sir!” I sung out, at the top of my voice.

But I had waited too long. Even as I shouted, the light blurred and vanished.

I stamped my foot and swore. The thing was making a fool of me. Yet, I had a faint hope that those aft had seen it just before it disappeared; but this I knew was vain, directly I heard the Second’s voice.

“Light be damned!” he shouted.

Then he blew his whistle, and one of the men ran aft, out of the fo’cas’le, to see what it was he wanted.

“Whose next look-out is it?” I heard him ask.

“Jaskett’s, Sir.”

“Then tell Jaskett to relieve Jessop at once. Do you hear?”

“Yes, Sir,” said the man, and came forrard.

In a minute, Jaskett stumbled up onto the fo’cas’le head.

“What’s up, mate?” he asked sleepily.

“It’s that fool of a Second Mate!” I said, savagely. “I’ve reported a light to him three times, and, because the blind fool can’t see it, he’s sent you up to relieve me!”

“Where is it, mate?” he inquired.

He looked round at the dark sea.

“I don’t see no light,” he remarked, after a few moments.

“No,” I said. “It’s gone.”

“Eh?” he inquired.

“It’s gone!” I repeated, irritably.

He turned and regarded me silently, through the dark.

“I’d go an’ ’ave a sleep, mate,” he said, at length. “I’ve been that way meself. Ther’s nothin’ like a snooze w’en yer gets like that.”

“What!” I said. “Like what?”

“It’s all right, mate. Yer’ll be all right in ther mornin’. Don’t yer worry ’bout me.” His tone was sympathetic.

“Hell!” was all I said, and walked down off the fo’cas’le head. I wondered whether the old fellow thought I was going silly.

“Have a sleep, by Jove!” I muttered to myself. “I wonder who’d feel like having a sleep after what I’ve seen and stood today!”

I felt rotten, with no one understanding what was really the matter. I seemed to be all alone, through the things I had learnt. Then the thought came to me to go aft and talk the matter over with Tammy. I knew he would be able to understand, of course; and it would be such a relief.

On the impulse, I turned and went aft, along the deck to the ’prentices’ berth. As I neared the break of the poop, I looked up and saw the dark shape of the Second Mate, leaning over the rail above me.

“Who’s that?” he asked.

“It’s Jessop, Sir,” I said.

“What do you want in this part of the ship?” he inquired.

“I’d come aft to speak to Tammy, Sir,” I replied.

“You go along forrard and turn-in,” he said, not altogether unkindly. “A sleep will do you more good than yarning about. You know, you’re getting to fancy things too much!”

“I’m sure I’m not, Sir! I’m perfectly well. I—”

“That will do!” he interrupted, sharply. “You go and have a sleep.”

I gave a short curse, under my breath, and went slowly forrard. I was getting maddened with being treated as if I were not quite sane.

“By God!” I said to myself. “Wait till the fools know what I know — just wait!”

I entered the fo’cas’le, through the port doorway, and went across to my chest, and sat down. I felt angry and tired, and miserable.

Quoin and Plummer were sitting close by, playing cards, and smoking. Stubbins lay in his bunk, watching them, and also smoking. As I sat down, he put his head forward over the bunk-board, and regarded me in a curious, meditative way.

“What’s hup with ther Second hofficer?” he asked, after a short stare.

I looked at him, and the other two men looked up at me. I felt I should go off with a bang, if I did not say something, and I let out pretty stiffly, telling them the whole business. Yet, I had seen enough to know that it was no good trying to explain things; so I just told them the plain, bold facts, and left explanations as much alone as possible.

“Three times, you say?” said Stubbins when I had finished.

“Yes,” I assented.

“An’ ther Old Man sent yer from ther wheel this mornin’, ’cause yer ’appened ter see a ship ’e couldn’t,” Plummer added in a reflective tone.

“Yes,” I said, again.

I thought I saw him look at Quoin, significantly; but Stubbins, I noticed, looked only at me.

“I reckon ther Second thinks you’re a bit hoff colour,” he remarked, after a short pause.

“The Second Mate’s a fool!” I said, with some bitterness. “A confounded fool!”

“I hain’t so sure about that,” he replied. “It’s bound ter seem queer ter him. I don’t understand it myself —”

He lapsed into silence, and smoked.

“I carn’t understand ’ow it is ther Second Mate didn’t ’appen to spot it,” Quoin said, in a puzzled voice.

It seemed to me that Plummer nudged him to be quiet. It looked as if Plummer shared the Second Mate’s opinion, and the idea made me savage. But Stubbins’s next remark drew my attention.

“I don’t hunderstand it,” he said, again; speaking with deliberation. “All ther same, ther Second should have savvied enough not to have slung you hoff ther look-hout.”

He nodded his head, slowly, keeping his gaze fixed on my face.

“How do you mean?” I asked, puzzled; yet with a vague sense that the man understood more, perhaps, than I had hitherto thought.

“I mean what’s ther Second so blessed cocksure about?”

He took a draw at his pipe, removed it, and leant forward somewhat, over his bunk-board.

“Didn’t he say nothin’ ter you, after you came hoff ther look-hout?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied; “he spotted me going aft. He told me I was getting to imagining things too much. He said I’d better come forrard and get a sleep.”

“An’ what did you say?”

“Nothing. I came forrard.”

“Why didn’t you bloomin’ well harsk him if he weren’t doin’ ther imaginin’ trick when he sent us chasin’ hup ther main, hafter that bogyman of his?”

“I never thought of it,” I told him.

“Well, yer ought ter have.”

He paused, and sat up in his bunk, and asked for a match.

As I passed him my box, Quoin looked up from his game.

“It might ’ave been a stowaway, yer know. Yer carn’t say as it’s ever been proved as it wasn’t.”

Stubbins passed the box back to me, and went on without noticing Quoin’s remark:

“Told you to go an’ have a snooze, did he? I don’t hunderstand what he’s bluffin’ at.”

“How do you mean, bluffing?” I asked.

He nodded his head, sagely.

“It’s my hidea he knows you saw that light, just as bloomin’ well as I do.”

Plummer looked up from his game, at this speech; but said nothing.

“Then you don’t doubt that I really saw it?” I asked, with a certain surprise.

“Not me,” he remarked, with assurance. “You hain’t likely ter make that kind of mistake three times runnin’.”

“No,” I said. “I know I saw the light, right enough; but”— I hesitated a moment —“it’s blessed queer.”

“It is blessed queer!” he agreed. “It’s damned queer! An’ there’s a lot of other damn queer things happenin’ aboard this packet lately.”

He was silent for a few seconds. Then he spoke suddenly:

“It’s not nat’ral, I’m damned sure of that much.”

He took a couple of draws at his pipe, and in the momentary silence, I caught Jaskett’s voice, above us. He was hailing the poop.

“Red light on the starboard quarter, Sir,” I heard him sing out.

“There you are,” I said with a jerk of my head. “That’s about where that packet I spotted, ought to be by now. She couldn’t cross our bows, so she up helm, and let us pass, and now she’s hauled up again and gone under our stern.”

I got up from the chest, and went to the door, the other three following. As we stepped out on deck, I heard the Second Mate shouting out, away aft, to know the whereabouts of the light.

“By Jove! Stubbins,” I said. “I believe the blessed thing’s gone again.”

We ran to the starboard side, in a body, and looked over; but there was no sign of a light in the darkness astern.

“I carn’t say as I see any light,” said Quoin.

Plummer said nothing.

I looked up at the fo’cas’le head. There, I could faintly distinguish the outlines of Jaskett. He was standing by the starboard rail, with his hands up, shading his eyes, evidently staring towards the place where he had last seen the light.

“Where’s she got to, Jaskett?” I called out.

“I can’t say, mate,” he answered. “It’s the most ’ellishly funny thing I’ve ever comed across. She were there as plain as me ’att one minnit, an’ ther next she were gone — clean gone.”

I turned to Plummer.

“What do you think about it, now?” I asked him.

“Well,” he said. “I’ll admit I thought at first ’twere somethin’ an’ nothin’. I thought yer was mistaken; but it seems yer did see somethin’.”

Away aft, we heard the sound of steps, along the deck.

“Ther Second’s comin’ forrard for a hexplanation, Jaskett,” Stubbins sung out. “You’d better go down an’ change yer breeks.”

The Second Mate passed us, and went up the starboard ladder.

“What’s up now, Jaskett?” he said quickly. “Where is this light? Neither the ’prentice nor I can see it!”

“Ther damn thing’s clean gone, Sir,” Jaskett replied.

“Gone!” the Second Mate said. “Gone! What do you mean?”

“She were there one minnit, Sir, as plain as me ’att, an’ ther next, she’d gone.”

“That’s a damn silly yarn to tell me!” the Second replied. “You don’t expect me to believe it, do you?”

“It’s Gospel trewth any’ow, Sir,” Jaskett answered. “An’ Jessop seen it just ther same.”

He seemed to have added that last part as an afterthought. Evidently, the old beggar had changed his opinion as to my need for sleep.

“You’re an old fool, Jaskett,” the Second said, sharply. “And that idiot Jessop has been putting things into your silly old head.”

He paused, an instant. Then he continued:

“What the devil’s the matter with you all, that you’ve taken to this sort of game? You know very well that you saw no light! I sent Jessop off the look-out, and then you must go and start the same game.”

“We ’aven’ t —” Jaskett started to say; but the Second silenced him.

“Stow it!” he said, and turned and went down the ladder, passing us quickly, without a word.

“Doesn’t look to me, Stubbins,” I said, “as though the Second did believe we’ve seen the light.”

“I hain’t so sure,” he answered. “He’s a puzzler.”

The rest of the watch passed away quietly; and at eight bells I made haste to turn-in, for I was tremendously tired.

When we were called again for the four to eight watch on deck, I learnt that one of the men in the Mate’s watch had seen a light, soon after we had gone below, and had reported it, only for it to disappear immediately. This, I found, had happened twice, and the Mate had got so wild (being under the impression that the man was playing the fool) that he had nearly came to blows with him — finally ordering him off the look-out, and sending another man up in his place. If this last man saw the light, he took good care not to let the Mate know; so that the matter had ended there.

And then, on the following night, before we had ceased to talk about the matter of the vanishing lights, something else occurred that temporarily drove from my mind all memory of the mist, and the extraordinary, blind atmosphere it had seemed to usher.

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