Claimed!, by Francis Stevens

Chapter XIV.

The Apparition

“Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts;

all thy waves and thy billows have gone over me.”

Ps. XMII, 7.

The steady stuttering of the engine ceased, and the launch swerved so sharply as to come perilously near capsizing. For one moment, in fact, a frothing lip of water was actually flooding in over the submerged counter. Vanaman and all the others ranged along the port side were drenched from the waist down. The boat righted, however, and no one had even a thought to spare for their narrow escape from foundering.

The launch had come about broadside on to a vessel which there could be no doubt was Red Dolphin. Less than forty feet distant, the conspicuous figure-head curved out, bold and scarlet, at her prow.

But how had Captain Porter — how had any of the various persons who had caught glimpses of the ship failed even in the night and fog to perceive her utterly strange and inexplicable character?

Black she was, but not with the blackness of pigments. Rather it seemed that her ancient, crumbling timbers were darkened and rotted by an age too incredibly great for computation.

She was rigged, indeed, with sails. But for all her hundred foot length, the three masts stepped at stem, stern and amidships were mere slender spars — and spars, moreover, that had a broken, splintered appearance, as if each one of them had been blasted by many lightning strokes.

Her lack of a bowsprit had been noted by Shelby’s commander, and Captain Porter had mentioned the odd “swell out and curve-back cut” of her stem. But neither seemed to have taken the full sense of incongruity to a modern vessel presented by that swelling, curving, quaintly fashioned prow. And no one, apparently, had even glimpsed the equally quaint stern, with its extended post, elaborately carved though moldering, that curved inward above the strange, high poop.

Her auxiliary power — the means by which she had moved without spread of canvas — had not, it seemed, been provided by the gasoline engine or steam turbines which one would have naturally looked for in a vessel of her remarkable speed. Her actual mode of propulsion was now equally obvious and astounding. Down all her worm-eaten hundred feet of freeboard were cut three rows of apertures like oblong portholes. Out of these, one row above the other, extended three banks of oars, some two-score in all, long, heavy, and with that appearance of black, crumbling age at characterized the ship’s timbers.

No sign of life was visible beyond her somber bulwark. The oars trailed without motion, save that imparted by the restless waters. She lay silent, as if deserted, rising and falling gently with the long, quiet heave of the ocean. She was a craft more strange than the Flying Dutchman of old fables. She was a rotting anachronism, a resurrection from ages infinitely remote.

In some cases a classical education gives advantage over even the widest practical experience. Mere landsman that he was, it was Vanaman, not Porter, who identified her type.

“A trireme!” His voice sounded hoarse and strange to him. “A trireme galley of the cataphract Phoenician type, that preceded even the Greek. And by the look of those timbers she’s as old as — Porter, Porter, man, what is that ship?”

“I don’t know!” The bluff seaman’s face was yellow-white under its tan. “Look. Look over beyond there!

“What — ah — h!”

The exclamation as it came from the doctor’s throat had a sound of awestruck recognition.

In one direction, that toward which Red Dolphin’s prow was pointing, the mist had cleared yet further. Or rather, without clearing, it had become more transparent. Vanaman had an impression, real or fancied, that the foggy saturation of the air was no less, only some strange power was gradually robbing it of that refractive quality which makes it visible. To a certain distance one could see through it clearly; but there was an indefinable effect of gazing through transparent water rather than transparent air. For five hundred yards, at least, the peculiar clearness now extended; beyond that the eye could as yet penetrate but dimly.

What vast, mist-veiled shapes were those which loomed there?

Buildings? Monumental outposts of some great harbor? But no land had been within fifty miles when they first came on Red Dolphin.

And these buildings, if buildings they were, glittered even through the enshrouding mists with a vivid and ominous color.

Scarlet they were, beyond doubt; scarlet as blood newly shed; scarlet as the writing that lay across what he claimed for his own.

Dr. Vanaman felt a sickly weakness creeping over him; a helpless yielding to that fearful belief he had fought against.

There, close at hand, very ghastly because of its suggestion of incredible age, lay the rotting black galley. Obscurity was too swiftly dissolving from about certain habitations of man lately seen by several in dreams, but which in their material being lay sunk miles deep beneath green waters; deeper still in the mists of antiquity. And from far off, somewhere behind them, hooted the Nagaina’s extremely modern steam-siren, as if in mournful but incongruous comment.

The eight armed men who had been brought to subdue Red Dolphin were, it may be supposed, no more imaginative nor easily frightened than the average. Yet meeting this strange end to the chase and perceiving also the indubitable dismay of their leaders, it is likely that with Porter’s orders or without them the launch would have been put about and sent speeding away, save for one reason.

Over all, that feeling of tension which Porter had expressed as “something due to break” was stealthily, steadily tightening its grip.

The men had probably no real wish to see more of red buildings that loomed where buildings of any kind or color had no right to be; their proximity to that strange, rotting black ship may well have excited the superstitious dread of the seamen.

Yet, through several long, agonizing minutes not a man in the launch moved or spoke. Any human act, any human sound, it seemed, might snap the tension and precipitate whatever vast, superhuman event impended.

The fog’s transparency was now complete, and there, where no land should have been, rose a land very strange and beautiful.

Mirage — illusion — dream — whatsoever the vision’s nature, it had the appearance at least of solid reality.

Far in the background the peaks of snowcapped mountains pierced a lowering sky. Between them and the sea, on the flattened crest of a foot-hill, lifted what seemed to be either a single great building or the domes and towers of many smaller ones, surrounded by a high, encircling wall. Though small in the distance, this walled fortress or city stood out distinctly as a painted miniature because of its colour — blood-red against the green lower slopes of the mountains.

Down from it curved a white road that led to a broad stream of water, not a natural river, but a canal cut by human hands; it stretched straight as a ruled line between the sea and a valleylike gap in the distant mountain range. This canal was crossed in many places by massive bridges, high-curved, single-arched, and built of scarlet stone.

The broad plain it bisected, stretching to the right and left far as the eye could travel, was verdant and cultivated in many regular fields, surrounding small isolated dwellings and villages, and far to the right the scarlet heights of another walled, pinnacled city.

In the immediate foreground, where canal and sea were united, the land retreated in the shape of a great bay. This bay was lined with built-up terraces of red stone, out from which jutted many wharfs and docks. Its waters were not empty, but thronged with shipping of a type as anachronistic, though by no means so time-rotted, as the galley of the dolphin figure-head. Great triremes, with the shields of their warriors ranged glittering down the length of their bulwarks, shared the anchorage with ships of more peaceful appearance, merchant-vessels carved and gilded from stem to stern and of sails vari-hued as bright banners.

At the point of the nearer of two promontories which guarded the harbor waters stood a pillared palace or temple, either built of solid metal or coated with smoothly polished plates of it. The metal was also red.

At the point of the other promontory appeared, not a building, but an immense group of statuary. One towering white figure, forty feet in height at least, faced outward toward the sea. It was chiseled to the form of a man, nude, mighty muscled, with wind-blown hair and beard. The colossal hand gripped a trident, and the figure stood erect in a scarlet chariot drawn by six wild, white steeds, about whose plunging marble hoofs scarlet dolphins disported.

The sculptor had given such vigor and life to the group that as the seething green waters curled about its base the galloping horses seemed almost to be in motion, the figure’s hair and beard to be torn by wild winds as its chariot raced across the waves.

And now all the air and the earth and the sea were shaken by a sound, low but terrible. It seemed to emanate from no special source, but to fill all space simultaneously. The lowering sky had assumed a sulfurish yellow cast. A faint wreath of vapor that overhung one of the snowcapped mountains grew suddenly dense, black, shot with forks of ruddy fire. It rolled down the mountainside, an avalanche of black cloud, and from the peak above an enormous flame burst skyward.

Yet still, save for that low, all pervading moan, and the hoot of the invisible steamer’s siren, there was no sound.

The black cloud rolled on down the sides of the flaming mountain. It spread across the plain, engulfing the fields, the villages, and the dwellings. The hill which bore the nearest red city split asunder in awful crevasses that belched flame and smoke and closed again.

Throngs of little running figures fled across the plain, pursued, overtaken, and swallowed up by the rolling cloud. In the harbor, close at hand, crews of swarthy men sprang with feverish haste to run up the rainbow-hued sails of the merchant-vessels. The oarsmen of the war-galleys swarmed to their seats on the rowing-benches.

The actions of all were those of men stricken by fear to confusion and mad haste; yet, though so near, their shouts reached the men in the launch only as a faint, shrill piping, as if ere the sounds could be heard they must pierce some almost infinite distance of space — or time.

And now, out of the pillared scarlet palace that terminated the nearer promontory, there issued another sound, very faint, like the noise of men chanting far away. Two portals of red metal swung asunder, and in the aperture a single figure appeared. It was the form of a man, dressed in a flowing robe, gray-green in color, like the sea under gloomy skies. His face where it showed between flowing hair and beard was white as death’s self. Aloft in his hands he bore something that gleamed greenly lucent, an oblong block of clouded emerald.

Very slowly he descended the temple steps, and after him followed many others, dressed like himself. Six of these followers held the scarlet-hued halters of six white stallions, that plunged and stumbled on the flight of broad, shallow stairs.

Chanting still — in those dim ghosts of voices — the group reached a platform of red stone some twenty feet above water-level, where they halted facing the opposite promontory with its colossal statue of the ocean deity.

The leader of the priests — if priests they were — now held the green thing aloft with one hand while with the other he gestured toward the nightmare of flame-shot smoke rolling from landward down upon the harbor.

The ghostly chanting had ceased and his single voice sounded thin and faint as the singing of air through a wind-harp. By his gestures, he made some invocation or plea to the statuesque sea-god across the harbor. The men in the ships had ceased their frantic exertions and wherever they chanced to be, in the rigging, at the oars or lined up along gaudily gilded bulwarks, they stood at gaze watching the priests as if fascinated.

The speaker’s thin-voiced oration came to an end. Those behind him drew upon the blood-red halters, bringing the fierce white stallions to the red stone platform’s edge. Six knives flashed simultaneously. The great horses fought, screaming and plunging. Four of the priests accomplished the sacrifice without harm to themselves; the other two were carried over the brink by the maddened, blood-streaming beasts they were slaughtering. No effort was made toward rescue. The main body of the priests had resumed their monotonous, piping chant.

Landward the black cloud from the mountain had over-spread all the land, and above it not one peak, but three, were spouting flame to the skies. No sign of the red cities was now visible. Just those three flares, like torches of the awful and angered gods, and below them a rolling black wall that swept onward swiftly.

Then he who had held aloft the glittering green casket grew angered — or maddened. His voice shrilled out like the shriek of an angry sea-bird. Puny little creature that he was, with word and gesture he cursed alike the terrific cataclysm that was destroying the land and the great sea-god, whom prayer nor sacrifice had moved to avert it.

Raising the green casket yet higher, with all his force he flung it from him, so that it fell into the sea, midway between the two promontories.

A thin wail of terror rose from his companions; the seamen in the ships and the galleys wrung their hands.

The black cloud had now reached the scarlet terraces that surrounded the harbor. Towering hundreds of feet into the air, shot with forked lightnings and moving with a rolling motion, in another instant it must overwhelm the harbor and sweep outward across the sea.

Yet, though directly in its path, the men in the Nagaina’s launch crouched motionless, either numbed by terror or held quiescent by that same nightmarish paralysis which had visited Vanaman in those bad nights he had previously passed on guard.

And as on each of those occasions the paralysis had been broken by old Robinson’s scream for help, so this time also the evil charm lifted at a sound. It was not, however the voice of man nor beast, nor the deafening roar that in more normal cases accompanies volcanic activity.

Begun on a mournful, sobbing, gulping note, it crescendoed upward to a wail more weird than was ever produced by anything except that particularly weird and modern invention, the steam siren.

Every man aboard the launch started as if galvanized to a new lease of life. They had been hearing that sound at intervals ever since leaving the steamer, but muffled by fog and distance. Now it was close at hand. If their sense of direction were not utterly at fault, it came from the very midst of the towering black cloud that threatened.

Another instant and out of the cloud’s midst at sea-level, sweeping with no apparent hindrance straight through the scarlet terraces and antique shipping, the Nagaina plowed incongruously into view.

She was greeted by a feeble cheer from the launch. As a great, clumsy reality might rend asunder and dissipate a mirage, so the steamer’s coming had banished the vision of doom. In one brief flash of time the false transparency of the fog was gone. The circle of clear vision narrowed again to a bare fifty-yard radius. There was no red temple with despairing priests. There was no vast statue of an implacable ocean god. There was neither harbor nor lightning-shot cloud rolling down upon them.

Only the clumsy old steamer with propellers threshing the sea to foam as she came to a reluctant halt, the launch and the rotting black trireme with its dolphin figurehead. That last had not vanished. That was no mirage. That was real, or at least material in some sense, or it must have gone with the rest of the vision.

In the launch Vanaman sprang to his feet.

“Put me aboard that vessel!” he cried fiercely. “No matter what damnable magic is about, there is the ship we’ve been hunting! Run the launch alongside, and put me aboard!”

Human courage, save when spurred by the all-powerful motive which actuated Vanaman, has a limit, and it is very likely that even if Captain Porter had dared comply with his passenger’s demand, the men under him would have mutinied, rather than run any closer to Red Dolphin. The question of their courage, however, was not then put to test.

Even as the demand left Vanaman’s lips a strange change overswept the ancient trireme; a shocking change, if there be shock in witnessing a revivification of a rotting corpse; in seeing a dead ship come to life. Apparently deserted as the trireme’ had been, its decks were suddenly aswarm with moving figures. The triple banks of oars that had trailed lax to the tide, lifted, came into alignment, and swept forward, feathering the waves in perfect unison. They took the water with a tearing, rushing sound, and like a spurred horse the black galley leaped forward.

A cry, inarticulate and heart-broken, burst from Vanaman’s lips. It was echoed by a woman’s voice from somewhere beyond the galley’s near bulwark.

Two struggling figures came into view. One was tall, bearded, and clad in a flowing, grayish-green cloak; it bore, in fact, a startling resemblance to the figure of the priest in the vision. The other —

Again Vanaman shouted, and would have flung himself into the sea in a mad attempt to swim after the retreating galley had not Porter’s strong arms closed about him and pulled him backward.

Struggling savagely, he yet realized a certain peculiarity in that struggle going on beyond the galley’s bulwark. The woman — for the second form was beyond doubt Leilah — was not fighting as he had at first imagined to fling herself overboard from the nightmare vessel that had abducted her. On the contrary, she seemed to be straining every nerve and muscle of her frail young body to fight back from the bulwark.

With sharp abruptness the struggle ended. The gray-cloaked man had lifted the woman bodily. For a moment, as the man in the vision had elevated the phantom of the green casket, he held her high in his arms. Then he flung her outward, and with such superhuman strength that her body struck the water well beyond the foaming and perilous path of the oars.

In one great effort Vanaman had wrenched from Porter’s grasp. Calm reasoning would have informed him that the quickest, safest way to rescue Leilah was by remaining aboard the launch, which could reach the spot where the woman had gone under far more quickly than any man could swim there. At that moment, however, the doctor was not in a mood for calm reasoning. The primitive, personal form of rescue was the only one that appealed to him, and not even pausing to remove coat or shoes, he plunged headlong overboard.

Reckless and condemnable though his act might have been under other circumstances, in this case it proved justified. Beyond doubt, the launch should have sped instantly to the rescue of the woman so ruthlessly jettisoned by Red Dolphin. As a matter of fact, it did nothing of the sort. Swimming with long, powerful strokes, the man in the water had reached his objective point, dived and come to the surface triumphantly bringing the woman’s slim, limp form up with him, and still the launch had not moved a foot from its original position.

Vanaman was a strong man and a good swimmer, but hampered and dragged under by his clothing he now found it hard indeed to keep the woman’s head and his own above water. Leilah herself made no struggle. Dead or living she was wholly insensible, a fact for which her rescuer was instinctively grateful, though without thought.

All that happened had taken place in a very brief space of time, too crowded with action and incident for coherent thought be possible. As their two heads rose on heaving shoulder of a swell, the black ship, though moving with increasing speed, was not yet engulfed by the surrounding mists. The steamer had barely lost way, and indeed was still sliding forward at a rate which promised to run Vanaman and his burden under in a few more seconds. And, aboard the launch, in the brief glance he had for it, there appeared to be some sort of battle going forward, accompanied by a burst of angry shouting.

The next wave went over Vanaman’s head. Fighting desperately, he reached the surface a second time. He could not remain there long, but enough for one deep breath and a confused glimpse of some tremendous happening — a happening so great and terrible that afterward he might have believed it a figment of drowning delirium, save that the memory was confirmed by others who were not drowning and retained at least some measure of comprehension.

The universal breathless tension in the atmosphere had been by no means dissipated when the mirage-like vision of the red harbor faded. Captain Porter had previously referred to an area of barometric low pressure through which his vessel had been running since leaving the coast, and had also complained of the unnatural and wholly unforecastable state of the weather.

What now took place was actually as alien to the latitude as to the commonly known laws of meteorology. In the ordinary course of events, and with the given condition of warm, motionless, fog-saturated air, it could not have occurred. Let this be clearly granted, and the alleged fact that it did nevertheless occur may be accepted or denied as one has faith in the claims of those who witnessed the phenomenon. If it be accepted, the incident perhaps carried more weight as evidence of some supernormal power involved than any other of those very queer happenings which surrounded the advent and passing of the emerald casket.

When Vanaman, with his unconscious burden, fought his way to the surface that second time, he found himself caught in a rushing swirl of water which in the first brief second he believed to be caused by the Nagaina’s advancing prow. The steamer did indeed loom close upon him, but the powerful impulse imparted to the water was sucking him not toward but away from her. The launch seemed also to be affected. Like a cork flung into a whirlpool’s edge it gyrated, turned once completely around, then darted off with the tugging pull of the current.

Red Dolphin was still faintly visible as a receding shadow. The rush of current set dead in that direction. It was as if somewhere about or beyond the black galley a center of suction had been formed which affected not only the water, but the air, for in the brief while that Vanaman had been completely submerged a sudden wind had arisen. With appalling swiftness the wind became a gale, and the gale a tornado. On the loud, invisible wings of it the fog swept by, riven to trailing shreds and mingled with flying foam. The low, all-pervading moan that had begun some minutes earlier and persisted continuously now swelled to a deafening roar.

The upper clouds, visible at last, rolled low and unbroken save near the eastern horizon, where a single strip of clear blue-white lay like a rent slashed asunder in a night-black roof, and silhouetted against that one slash of light the ancient trireme was tearing along at a pace that seemed to make her strangely, frightfully at one with the dark, wild scene. As the spume and fragmentary mist wraiths scudded with the gale, so Red Dolphin fled across the wind-flattened billows, the path of her many oars a welter of spouting foam.

Specter? Ghost-ship? In good earnest the “devil’s own private yacht” that Porter had half-jestingly termed her?

Whatever she was, another moment saw her blotted from human vision.

Between Red Dolphin and the steamer a towering blackness roared upward toward the clouds. The clouds themselves had already dipped to meet it. Whirling, cyclonic, the dark upper vapors descended in a vast cone shape. The tip joined the raging cone of black water beneath; the powers of the air had mated in thunder with the ocean, and as one monstrous being stalked across the groaning abyss. Deep had called to deep, and the waterspout was born.

Caught in the racing current that drew them toward it, two tiny human atoms were borne forward, suffocated, drowning.

Yet through the chaos which filled his ears, through the roar of elemental forces mingled with a ringing as of shrill bells aclamor within his brain, the man thought that a human voice shrieked articulate words. Piercing as a seabird’s cry, it seemed to drift down-wind from somewhere behind and above him. In one swift-passing flash of comprehension he knew that what he now beheld was the full physical, material form of that being whose phantom shape had haunted the green box; and also the human voice gave a name to it — the name of a very ancient god.

Then something struck him a heavy blow on the head, and oblivion with its blank, perfect peace closed over him.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30