The Ghost Pirates, by William Hope Hodgson

IX

The Man Who Cried for Help

It was, as I have said, on the following night that something further happened. And it brought home pretty vividly to me, if not to any of the others, the sense of a personal danger aboard.

We had gone below for the eight to twelve watch, and my last impression of the weather at eight o’clock, was that the wind was freshening. There had been a great bank of cloud rising astern, which had looked as if it were going to breeze up still more.

At a quarter to twelve, when we were called for our twelve to four watch on deck, I could tell at once, by the sound, that there was a fresh breeze blowing; at the same time, I heard the voices of the men on the other watch, singing out as they hauled on the ropes. I caught the rattle of canvas in the wind, and guessed that they were taking the royals off her. I looked at my watch, which I always kept hanging in my bunk. It showed the time to be just after the quarter; so that, with luck, we should escape having to go up to the sails.

I dressed quickly, and then went to the door to look at the weather. I found that the wind had shifted from the starboard quarter, to right aft; and, by the look of the sky, there seemed to be a promise of more, before long.

Up aloft, I could make out faintly the fore and mizzen royals flapping in the wind. The main had been left for a while longer. In the fore riggings, Jacobs, the Ordinary Seaman in the Mate’s watch, was following another of the men aloft to the sail. The Mate’s two ’prentices were already up at the mizzen. Down on deck, the rest of the men were busy clearing up the ropes.

I went back to my bunk, and looked at my watch — the time was only a few minutes off eight bells; so I got my oilskins ready, for it looked like rain outside. As I was doing this, Jock went to the door for a look.

“What’s it doin’, Jock?” Tom asked, getting out of his bunk, hurriedly.

“I’m thinkin’ maybe it’s goin’ to blow a wee, and ye’ll be needin’ yer’ oilskins,” Jock answered.

When eight bells went, and we mustered aft for roll-call, there was a considerable delay, owing to the Mate refusing to call the roll until Tom (who as usual, had only turned out of his bunk at the last minute) came aft to answer his name. When, at last, he did come, the Second and the Mate joined in giving him a good dressing down for a lazy sojer; so that several minutes passed before we were on our way forrard again. This was a small enough matter in itself, and yet really terrible in its consequence to one of our number; for, just as we reached the fore rigging, there was a shout aloft, loud above the noise of the wind, and the next moment, something crashed down into our midst, with a great, slogging thud — something bulky and weighty, that struck full upon Jock, so that he went down with a loud, horrible, ringing “ugg,” and never said a word. From the whole crowd of us there went up a yell of fear, and then, with one accord, there was a run for the lighted fo’cas’le. I am not ashamed to say that I ran with the rest. A blind, unreasoning fright had seized me, and I did not stop to think.

Once in the fo’cas’le and the light, there was a reaction. We all stood and looked blankly at one another for a few moments. Then someone asked a question, and there was a general murmur of denial. We all felt ashamed, and someone reached up and unhooked the lantern on the port side. I did the same with the starboard one; and there was a quick movement towards the doors. As we streamed out on deck, I caught the sound of the Mates’ voices. They had evidently come down from off the poop to find out what had happened; but it was too dark to see their whereabouts.

“Where the hell have you all got to?” I heard the Mate shout.

The next instant, they must have seen the light from our lanterns; for I heard their footsteps, coming along the deck at a run. They came the starboard side, and just abaft the fore rigging, one of them stumbled and fell over something. It was the First Mate who had tripped. I knew this by the cursing that came directly afterwards. He picked himself up, and, apparently without stopping to see what manner of thing it was that he had fallen over, made a rush to the pin-rail. The Second Mate ran into the circle of light thrown by our lanterns, and stopped, dead — eyeing us doubtfully. I am not surprised at this, now, nor at the behaviour of the Mate, the following instant; but at that time, I must say I could not conceive what had come to them, particularly the First Mate. He came out at us from the darkness with a rush and a roar like a bull and brandishing a belaying-pin. I had failed to take into account the scene which his eyes must have shown him:— the whole crowd of men in the fo’cas’le — both watches — pouring out on to the deck in utter confusion, and greatly excited, with a couple of fellows at their head, carrying lanterns. And before this, there had been the cry aloft and the crash down on deck, followed by the shouts of the frightened crew, and the sounds of many feet running. He may well have taken the cry for a signal, and our actions for something not far short of mutiny. Indeed, his words told us that this was his very thought.

“I’ll knock the face off the first man that comes a step further aft!” he shouted, shaking the pin in my face. “I’ll show yer who’s master here! What the hell do yer mean by this? Get forrard into yer kennel!”

There was a low growl from the men at the last remark, and the old bully stepped back a couple of paces.

“Hold on, you fellows!” I sung out. “Shut up a minute.”

“Mr. Tulipson!” I called out to the Second, who had not been able to get a word in edgeways, “I don’t know what the devil’s the matter with the First Mate; but he’ll not find it pay to talk to a crowd like ours, in that sort of fashion, or there’ll be ructions aboard.”

“Come! come! Jessop! This won’t do! I can’t have you talking like that about the Mate!” he said, sharply. “Let me know what’s to-do, and then go forrard again, the lot of you.”

“We’d have told you at first, Sir,” I said, “only the Mate wouldn’t give any of us a chance to speak. There’s been an awful accident, Sir. Something’s fallen from aloft, right on to Jock —”

I stopped suddenly; for there was a loud crying aloft.

“Help! help! help!” someone was shouting, and then it rose from a shout into a scream.

“My God! Sir!” I shouted. “That’s one of the men up at the fore royal!”

“Listen!” ordered the Second Mate. “Listen!”

Even as he spoke, it came again — broken and, as it were, in gasps.

“Help! . . . Oh! . . . God! . . . Oh! . . . Help! H-e-l-p!”

Abruptly, Stubbins’s voice struck in.

“Hup with us, lads! By God! hup with us!” and he made a spring into the fore rigging. I shoved the handle of the lantern between my teeth, and followed. Plummer was coming; but the Second Mate pulled him back.

“That’s sufficient,” he said. “I’m going,” and he came up after me.

We went over the foretop, racing like fiends. The light from the lantern prevented me from seeing to any distance in the darkness; but, at the crosstrees, Stubbins, who was some ratlines ahead, shouted out all at once, and in gasps:

“They’re fightin’ . . . like . . . hell!”

“What?” called the Second Mate, breathlessly.

Apparently, Stubbins did not hear him; for he made no reply. We cleared the crosstrees, and climbed into the t’gallant rigging. The wind was fairly fresh up there, and overhead, there sounded the flap, flap of sailcloth flying in the wind; but since we had left the deck, there had been no other sound from above.

Now, abruptly, there came again a wild crying from the darkness over us. A strange, wild medley it was of screams for help, mixed up with violent, breathless curses.

Beneath the royal yard, Stubbins halted, and looked down to me.

“Hurry hup . . . with ther . . . lantern . . . Jessop!” he shouted, catching his breath between the words. “There’ll be . . . murder done . . . hin a minute!”

I reached him, and held the light up for him to catch. He stooped, and took it from me. Then, holding it above his head, he went a few ratlines higher. In this manner, he reached to a level with the royal yard. From my position, a little below him, the lantern seemed but to throw a few straggling, flickering rays along the spar; yet they showed me something. My first glance had been to wind’ard, and I had seen at once, that there was nothing on the weather yard arm. From there my gaze went to leeward. Indistinctly, I saw something upon the yard, that clung, struggling. Stubbins bent towards it with the light; thus I saw it more clearly. It was Jacobs, the Ordinary Seaman. He had his right arm tightly round the yard; with the other, he appeared to be fending himself from something on the other side of him, and further out upon the yard. At times, moans and gasps came from him, and sometimes curses. Once, as he appeared to be dragged partly from his hold, he screamed like a woman. His whole attitude suggested stubborn despair. I can scarcely tell you how this extraordinary sight affected me. I seemed to stare at it without realising that the affair was a real happening.

During the few seconds which I had spent staring and breathless, Stubbins had climbed round the after side of the mast, and now I began again to follow him.

From his position below me, the Second had not been able to see the thing that was occurring on the yard, and he sung out to me to know what was happening.

“It’s Jacobs, Sir,” I called back. “He seems to be fighting with someone to looard of him. I can’t see very plainly yet.”

Stubbins had got round on to the lee foot-rope, and now he held the lantern up, peering, and I made my way quickly alongside of him. The Second Mate followed; but instead of getting down on to the foot-rope, he got on the yard, and stood there holding on to the tie. He sung out for one of us to pass him up the lantern, which I did, Stubbins handing it to me. The Second held it out at arm’s length, so that it lit up the lee part of the yard. The light showed through the darkness, as far as to where Jacobs struggled so weirdly. Beyond him, nothing was distinct.

There had been a moment’s delay while we were passing the lantern up to the Second Mate. Now, however, Stubbins and I moved out slowly along the foot-rope. We went slowly; but we did well to go at all, with any show of boldness; for the whole business was so abominably uncanny. It seems impossible to convey truly to you, the strange scene on the royal yard. You may be able to picture it yourselves. The Second Mate standing upon the spar, holding the lantern; his body swaying with each roll of the ship, and his head craned forward as he peered along the yard. On our left, Jacobs, mad, fighting, cursing, praying, gasping; and outside of him, shadows and the night.

The Second Mate spoke, abruptly.

“Hold on a moment!” he said. Then:

“Jacobs!” he shouted. “Jacobs, do you hear me?”

There was no reply, only the continual gasping and cursing.

“Go on,” the Second Mate said to us. “But be careful. Keep a tight hold!”

He held the lantern higher and we went out cautiously.

Stubbins reached the Ordinary, and put his hand on his shoulder, with a soothing gesture.

“Steady hon now, Jacobs,” he said. “Steady hon.”

At his touch, as though by magic, the young fellow calmed down, and Stubbins — reaching round him — grasped the jackstay on the other side.

“Get a hold of him your side, Jessop,” he sung out. “I’ll get this side.”

This, I did, and Stubbins climbed round him.

“There hain’t no one here,” Stubbins called to me; but his voice expressed no surprise.

“What!” sung out the Second Mate. “No one there! Where’s Svensen, then?”

I did not catch Stubbins’s reply; for suddenly, it seemed to me that I saw something shadowy at the extreme end of the yard, out by the lift. I stared. It rose up, upon the,yard, and I saw that it was the figure of a man. It grasped at the lift, and commenced to swarm up, quickly. It passed diagonally above Stubbins’s head, and reached down a vague hand and arm.

“Look out! Stubbins!” I shouted. “Look out!”

“What’s hup now?” he called, in a startled voice. At the same instant, his cap went whirling away to leeward.

“Damn ther wind!” he burst out.

Then all at once, Jacobs, who had only been giving an occasional moan, commenced to shriek and struggle.

“Hold fast hon ter him!” Stubbins yelled. “He’ll be throwin’ hisself hoff ther yard.”

I put my left arm round the Ordinary’s body — getting hold of the jackstay on the other side. Then I looked up. Above us, I seemed to see something dark and indistinct, that moved rapidly up the lift.

“Keep tight hold of him, while I get a gasket,” I heard the Second Mate sing out.

A moment later there was a crash, and the light disappeared.

“Damn and set fire to the sail!” shouted the Second Mate.

I twisted round, somewhat, and looked in his direction. I could dimly make him out on the yard. He had evidently been in the act of getting down on to the foot-rope, when the lantern was smashed. From him, my gaze jumped to the lee rigging. It seemed that I made out some shadowy thing stealing down through the darkness; but I could not be sure; and then, in a breath, it had gone.

“Anything wrong, Sir?” I called out.

“Yes,” he answered. “I’ve dropped the lantern. The blessed sail knocked it out of my hand!”

“We’ll be all right, Sir,” I replied. “I think we can manage without it. Jacobs seems to be quieter now.”

“Well, be careful as you come in,” he warned us.

“Come on, Jacobs,” I said. “Come on; we’ll go down on deck.”

“Go along, young feller,” Stubbins put in. “You’re right now. We’ll take care of you.” And we started to guide him along the yard.

He went willingly enough, though without saying a word. He seemed like a child. Once or twice he shivered; but said nothing.

We got him in to the lee rigging. Then, one going beside him, and the other keeping below, we made our way slowly down on deck. We went very slowly — so slowly, in fact, that the Second Mate — who had stayed a minute to shove the gasket round the lee side of the sail — was almost as soon down.

“Take Jacobs forrard to his bunk,” he said, and went away aft to where a crowd of the men, one with a lantern, stood round the door of an empty berth under the break of the poop on the starboard side.

We hurried forrard to the fo’cas’le. There we found all in darkness.

“They’re haft with Jock, and Svenson!” Stubbins had hesitated an instant before saying the name.

“Yes,” I replied. “That’s what it must have been, right enough.”

“I kind of knew it all ther time,” he said.

I stepped in through the doorway, and struck a match. Stubbins followed, guiding Jacobs before him, and, together, we got him into his bunk. We covered him up with his blankets, for he was pretty shivery. Then we came out. During the whole time, he had not spoken a word.

As we went aft, Stubbins remarked that he thought the business must have made him a bit dotty.

“It’s driven him clean barmy,” he went on. “He don’t hunderstand a word that’s said ter him.”

“He may be different in the morning,” I answered.

As we neared the poop, and the crowd of waitlng men, he spoke again:

“They’ve put ’em hinter ther Second’s hempty berth.”

“Yes,” I said. “Poor beggars.”

We reached the other men, and they opened out, and allowed us to get near the door. Several of them asked in low tones, whether Jacobs was all right, and I told them, “Yes”; not saying anything then about his condition.

I got close up to the doorway, and looked into the berth. The lamp was lit, and I could see, plainly. There were two bunks in the place, and a man had been laid in each. The Skipper was there, leaning up against a bulkshead. He looked worried; but was silent — seeming to be mooding in his own thoughts. The Second Mate was busy with a couple of flags, which he was spreading over the bodies. The First Mate was talking, evidently telling him something; but his tone was so low that I caught his words only with difficulty. It struck me that he seemed pretty subdued. I got parts of his sentences in patches, as it were.

“ . . . broken,” I heard him say. “And the Dutchman . . . ”

“I’ve seen him,” the Second Mate said, shortly.

“Two, straight off the reel,” said the Mate “ . . . three in . . . ”

The Second made no reply.

“Of course, yer know . . . accident.” The First Mate went on.

“Is it!” the Second said, in a queer voice.

I saw the Mate glance at him, in a doubtful sort of way; but the Second was covering poor old Jock’s dead face, and did not appear to notice his look.

“It — it —” the mate said, and stopped.

After a moment’s hesitation, he said something further, that I could not catch; but there seemed a lot of funk in his voice.

The Second Mate appeared not to have heard him; at any rate, he made no reply; but bent, and straightened out a corner of the flag over the rigid figure in the lower bunk. There was a certain niceness in his action which made me warm towards him.

“He’s white!” I thought to myself.

Out loud, I said:

“We’ve put Jacobs into his bunk, Sir.”

The Mate jumped; then whizzed round, and stared at me as though I had been a ghost. The Second Mate turned also; but before he could speak, the Skipper took a step towards me.

“Is he all right?” he asked.

“Well, Sir,” I said. “He’s a bit queer; but I think it’s possible he may be better, after a sleep.”

“I hope so, too,” he replied, and stepped out on deck. He went towards the starboard poop ladder, walking slowly. The Second went and stood by the lamp, and the Mate, after a quick glance at him, came out and followed the Skipper up on to the poop. It occurred to me then, like a flash, that the man had stumbled upon a portion of the truth. This accident coming so soon after that other! It was evident that, in his mind, he had connected them. I recollected the fragments of his remarks to the Second Mate. Then, those many minor happenings that had cropped up at different times, and at which he had sneered. I wondered whether he would begin to comprehend their significance — their beastly, sinister significance.

“Ah! Mr. Bully–Mate,” I thought to myself. “You’re in for a bad time if you’ve begun to understand.”

Abruptly, my thoughts jumped to the vague future before us.

“God help us!” I muttered.

The Second Mate, after a look round, turned down the wick of the lamp, and came out, closing the door after him.

“Now, you men,” he said to the Mate’s watch, “get forrard; we can’t do anything more. You’d better go and get some sleep.”

“i, i, Sir,” they said, in a chorus.

Then, as we all turned to go forrard, he asked if anyone had relieved the look-out.

“No, sir,” answered Quoin.

“Is it yours?” the Second asked.

“Yes, Sir,” he replied.

“Hurry up and relieve him then,” the Second said.

“i, i, Sir,” the man answered, and went forrard with the rest of us.

As we went, I asked Plummer who was at the wheel.

“Tom,” he said.

As he spoke, several spots of rain fell, and I glanced up at the sky. It had become thickly clouded.

“Looks as if it were going to breeze up,” I said.

“Yes,” he replied. “We’ll be shortenin’ ’er down ’fore long.”

“May be an all-hands job,” I remarked.

“Yes,” he answered again. “ ’Twon’t be no use their turnin’ in, if it is.”

The man who was carrying the lantern, went into the fo’cas’le, and we followed.

“Where’s ther one, belongin’ to our side?” Plummer asked.

“Got smashed hupstairs,” answered Stubbins.

“ ’ow were that?” Plummer inquired.

Stubbins hesitated.

“The Second Mate dropped it,” I replied. “The sail hit it, or something.”

The men in the other watch seemed to have no immediate intention of turning-in; but sat in their bunks, and around on the chests. There was a general lighting of pipes, in the midst of which there came a sudden moan from one of the bunks in the forepart of the fo’cas’le — a part that was always a bit gloomy, and was more so now, on account of our having only one lamp.

“Wot’s that?” asked one of the men belonging to the other side.

“S— sh!” said Stubbins. “It’s him.”

“ ’oo?” inquired Plummer. “Jacobs?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Poor devil!”

“Wot were ’appenin’ w’en yer got hup ther’?” asked the man on the other side, indicating with a jerk of his head, the fore royal.

Before I could reply, Stubbins jumped up from his sea-chest.

“Ther Second Mate’s whistlin’!” he said. “Come hon,” and he ran out on deck.

Plummer, Jaskett and I followed quickly. Outside, it had started to rain pretty heavily. As we went, the Second Mate’s voice caine to us through the darkness.

“Stand by the main royal clewlines and buntlines,” I heard him shout, and the next instant came the hollow thutter of the sail as he started to lower away.

In a few minutes we had it hauled up.

“Up and furl it, a couple of you,” he sung out.

I went towards the starboard rigging; then I hesitated. No one else had moved.

The Second Mate came among us.

“Come on now, lads,” he said. “Make a move. It’s got to be done.”

“I’ll go,” I said. “If someone else will come.”

Still, no one stirred, and no one answered.

Tammy came across to me.

“I’ll come,” he volunteered, in a nervous voice.

“No, by God, no!” said the Second Mate, abruptly. He jumped into the main rigging himself. “Come along, Jessop!” he shouted.

I followed him; but I was astonished. I had fully expected him to get on to the other fellows’ tracks like a ton of bricks. It had not occurred to me that he was making allowances. I was simply puzzled then; but afterwards it dawned upon me.

No sooner had I followed the Second Mate, than, straightway, Stubbins, Plummer, and Jaskett came up after us at a run.

About half-way to the maintop, the Second Mate stopped, and looked down.

“Who’s that coming up below you, Jessop?” he asked.

Before I could. speak, Stubbins answered:

“It’s me, Sir, an’ Plummer an’ Jaskett.”

“Who the devil told you to come now? Go straight down, the lot of you!”

“We’re comin’ hup ter keep you company, Sir,” was his reply.

At that, I was confident of a burst of temper from the Second; and yet, for the second time within a couple of minutes I was wrong. Instead of cursing Stubbins, he, after a moment’s pause, went on up the rigging, without another word, and the rest of us followed. We reached the royal, and made short work of it; indeed, there were sufficient of us to have eaten it. When we had finished, I noticed that the Second Mate remained on the yard until we were all in the rigging. Evidently, he had determined to take a full share of any risk there might be; but I took care to keep pretty close to him; so as to be on hand if anything happened; yet we reached the deck again, without anything having occurred. I have said, without anything having occurred; but I am not really correct in this; for, as the Second Mate came down over the crosstrees, he gave a short, abrupt cry.

“Anything wrong, Sir?” I asked.

“No — o!” he said. “Nothing! I banged my knee.”

And yet now, I believe he was lying. For, that same watch, I was to hear men giving just such cries; but, God knows, they had reason enough.

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