The Ghost Pirates, by William Hope Hodgson


The Search for Stubbins

In a confused way, I was conscious that the Skipper and the Mates were down among us, trying to get us into some state of calmness. Eventually they succeeded, and we were told to go aft to the Saloon door, which we did in a body. Here, the Skipper himself served out a large tot of rum to each of us. Then, at his orders, the Second Mate called the roll.

He called over the Mate’s watch first, and everyone answered. Then he came to ours, and he must have been much agitated; for the first name he sung out was Jock’s.

Among us there came a moment of dead silence, and I noticed the wail and moan of the wind aloft, and the flap, flap of the three unfurled t’gallan’s’ls.

The Second Mate called the next name, hurriedly:

“Jaskett,” he sung out.

“Sir,” Jaskett answered.


“Yes, Sir.”


“Sir,” I replied.


There was no answer.

“Stubbins,” again called the Second Mate.

Again there was no reply.

“Is Stubbins here? — anyone!” The Second’s voice sounded sharp and anxious.

There was a moment’s pause. Then one of the men spoke:

“He’s not here, Sir.”

“Who saw him last?” the Second asked.

Plummer stepped forward into the light that streamed through the Saloon doorway. He had on neither coat nor cap, and his shirt seemed to be hanging about him in tatters.

“It were me, Sir,” he said.

The Old Man, who was standing next to the Second Mate, took a pace towards him, and stopped and stared; but it was the Second who spoke.

“Where?” he asked.

“ ’e were just above me, in ther crosstrees, when, when —” the man broke off short.

“Yes! yes!” the Second Mate replied. Then he turned to the Skipper.

“Someone will have to go up, Sir, and see —” He hesitated.

“But —” said the Old Man, and stopped.

The Second Mate cut in.

“I shall go up, for one, Sir,” he said, quietly.

Then he turned back to the crowd of us.

“Tammy,” he sung out. “Get a couple of lamps out of the lamp-locker.”

“i, i, Sir,” Tammy replied, and ran off.

“Now,” said the Second Mate, addressing us. “I want a couple of men to jump aloft along with me and take a look for Stubbins.”

Not a man replied. I would have liked to step out and offer; but the memory of that horrible clutch was with me, and for the life of me, I could not summon up the courage.

“Come! come, men!” he said. “We can’t leave him up there. We shall take lanterns. Who’ll come now?”

I walked out to the front. I was in a horrible funk; but, for very shame, I could not stand back any longer.

“I’ll come with you, Sir,” I said, not very loud, and feeling fairly twisted up with nervousness.

“That’s more the tune, Jessop!” he replied, in a tone that made me glad I had stood out.

At this point, Tammy came up, with the lights. He brought them to the Second, who took one, and told him to give the other to me. The Second Mate held his light above his head, and looked round at the hesitating men.

“Now, men!” he sung out. “You’re not going to let Jessop and me go up alone. Come along, another one or two of you! Don’t act like a damned lot of cowards!”

Quoin stood out, and spoke for the crowd.

“I dunno as we’re actin’ like cowyards, Sir; but just look at ’im,” and he pointed at Plummer, who still stood full in the light from the Saloon doorway.

“What sort of a Thing is it ’as done that, Sir?” he went on. “An’ then yer arsks us ter go up agen! It aren’t likely as we’re in a ’urry.”

The Second Mate looked at Plummer, and surely, as I have before mentioned, the poor beggar was in a state; his ripped-up shirt was fairly flapping in the breeze that came through the doorway.

The Second looked; yet he said nothing. It was as though the realisation of Plummer’s condition had left him without a word more to say. It was Plummer himself who finally broke the silence.

“I’ll come with yer, Sir,” he said. “Only yer ought ter ’ave more light than them two lanterns. ’Twon’t be no use, unless we ’as plenty er light.”

The man had grit; and I was astonished at his offering to go, after what he must have gone through. Yet, I was to have even a greater astonishment; for, abruptly, The Skipper — who all this time had scarcely spoken — stepped forward a pace, and put his hand on the Second Mate’s shoulder.

“I’ll come with you, Mr. Tulipson,” he said.

The Second Mate twisted his head round, and stared at him a moment, in astonishment. Then he opened his mouth.

“No, Sir; I don’t think —” he began.

“That’s sufficient, Mr. Tulipson,” the Old Man interrupted. “I’ve made up my mind.”

He turned to the First Mate, who had stood by without a word.

“Mr. Grainge,” he said. “Take a couple of the ’prentices down with you, and pass out a box of blue-lights and some flare-ups.”

The Mate answered something, and hurried away into the Saloon, with the two ’prentices in his watch. Then the Old Man spoke to the men.

“Now, men!” he began. “This is no time for dilly-dallying. The Second Mate and I will go aloft, and I want about half a dozen of you to come along with us, and carry lights. Plummer and Jessop here, have volunteered. I want four or five more of you. Step out now, some of you!”

There was no hesitation whatever, now; and the first man to come forward was Quoin. After him followed three of the Mate’s crowd, and then old Jaskett.

“That will do; that will do,” said the Old Man.

He turned to the Second Mate.

“Has Mr. Grainge come with those lights yet?” he asked, with a certain irritability.

“Here, Sir,” said the First Mate’s voice, behind him in the Saloon doorway. He had the box of blue-lights in his hands, and behind him, came the two boys carrying the flares.

The Skipper took the box from him, with a quick gesture, and opened it.

“Now, one of you men, come here,” he ordered.

One of the men in the Mate’s watch ran to him.

He took several of the lights from the box, and handed them to the man.

“See here,” he said. “When we go aloft, you get into the foretop, and keep one of these going all the time, do you hear?”

“Yes, Sir,” replied the man.

“You know how to strike them?” the Skipper asked, abruptly.

“Yes, Sir,” he answered.

The Skipper sung out to the Second Mate:

“Where’s that boy of yours — Tammy, Mr. Tulipson?”

“Here, Sir,” said Tammy, answering for himself.

The Old Man took another light from the box.

“Listen to me, boy!” he said. “Take this, and stand-by on the forrard deck house. When we go aloft, you must give us a light until the man gets his going in the top. You understand?”

“Yes, Sir,” answered Tammy, and took the light.

“One minute!” said the Old Man, and stooped and took a second light from the box. “Your first light may go out before we’re ready. You’d better have another, in case it does.”

Tammy took the second light, and moved away.

“Those flares all ready for lighting there, Mr. Grainge?” the Captain asked.

“All ready, Sir,” replied the Mate.

The Old Man pushed one of the blue-lights into his coat pocket, and stood upright.

“Very well,” he said. “Give each of the men one apiece. And just see that they all have matches.”

He spoke to the men particularly:

“As soon as we are ready, the other two men in the Mate’s watch will get up into the cranelines, and keep their flares going there. Take your paraffin tins with you. When we reach the upper topsail, Quoin and Jaskett will get out on the yard-arms, and show their flares there. Be careful to keep your lights away from the sails. Plummer and Jessop will come up with the Second Mate and myself. Does every man clearly understand?”

“Yes, Sir,” said the men in a chorus.

A sudden idea seemed to occur to the Skipper, and he turned, and went through the doorway into the Saloon. In about a minute, he came back, and handed something to the Second Mate, that shone in the light from the lanterns. I saw that it was a revolver, and he held another in his other hand, and this I saw him put into his side pocket.

The Second Mate held the pistol a moment, looking a bit doubtful.

“I don’t think, Sir —” he began. But the Skipper cut him short.

“You don’t know!” he said. “Put it in your pocket.”

Then he turned to the First Mate.

“You will take charge of the deck, Mr. Grainge, while we’re aloft,” he said.

“i, i, Sir,” the Mate answered and sung out to one of his ’prentices to take the blue-light box back into the cabin.

The Old Man turned and led the way forrard. As we went, the light from the two lanterns shone upon the decks, showing the litter of the t’gallant gear. The ropes were foul of one another in a regular “bunch o’ buffers.” 1 This had been caused, I suppose, by the crowd trampling over them in their excitement, when they reached the deck. And then, suddenly, as though the sight had waked me up to a more vivid comprehension, you know, it came to me new and fresh, how damned strange was the whole business . . . I got a little touch of despair, and asked myself what was going to be the end of all these beastly happenings. You can understand?

Abruptly, I heard the Skipper shouting, away forrard. He was singing out to Tammy to get up on to the house with his blue-light. We reached the fore rigging, and, the same instant, the strange, ghastly flare of Tammy’s blue-light burst out into the night causing every rope, sail, and spar to jump out weirdly.

I saw now that the Second Mate was already in the starboard rigging, with his lantern. He was shouting to Tammy to keep the drip from his light clear of the staysail, which was stowed upon the house. Then, from somewhere on the port side, I heard the Skipper shout to us to hurry.

“Smartly now, you men,” he was saying. “Smartly now.”

The man who had been told to take up a station in the fore-top, was just behind the Second Mate. Plummer was a couple of ratlines lower.

I caught the Old Man’s voice again.

“Where’s Jessop with that other lantern?” I heard him shout.

“Here, Sir,” I sung out.

“Bring it over this side,” he ordered. “You don’t want the two lanterns on one side.”

I ran round the fore side of the house. Then I saw him. He was in the rigging, and making his way smartly aloft. One of the Mate’s watch and Quoin were with him. This, I saw as I came round the house. Then I made a jump, gripped the sheerpole, and swung myself up on to the rail. And then, all at once, Tammy’s blue-light went out, and there came, what seemed by contrast, pitchy darkness. I stood where I was — one foot on the rail and my knee upon the sheerpole. The light from my lantern seemed no more than a sickly yellow glow against the gloom, and higher, some forty or fifty feet, and a few ratlines below the futtock rigging on the starboard side, there was another glow of yellowness in the night. Apart from these, all was blackness. And then from above — high above — there wailed down through the darkness a weird, sobbing cry. What it was, I do not know; but it sounded horrible.

The Skipper’s voice came down, jerkily.

“Smartly with that light, boy!” he shouted. And the blue glare blazed out again, almost before he had finished speaking.

I stared up at the Skipper. He was standing where I had seen him before the light went out, and so were the two men. As I looked, he commenced to climb again. I glanced across to starboard. Jaskett, and the other man in the Mate’s watch, were about midway between the deck of the house and the foretop. Their faces showed extraordinary pale in the dead glare of the blue-light. Higher, I saw the Second Mate in the futtock rigging, holding his light up over the edge of the top. Then he went further, and disappeared. The man with the blue-lights followed, and also vanished from view. On the port side, and more directly above me, the Skipper’s feet were just stepping out of the futtock shrouds. At that I made haste to follow.

Then, suddenly, when I was close under the top, there came from above me the sharp flare of a blue-light, and almost in the same instant, Tammy’s went out.

I glanced down at the decks. They were filled with flickering, grotesque shadows cast by the dripping light above. A group of the men stood by the port galley door — their faces upturned and pale and unreal under the gleam of the light.

Then I was in the futtock rigging, and a moment afterwards, standing in the top, beside the Old Man. He was shouting to the men who had gone out on the craneline. It seemed that the man on the port side was bungling; but at last — nearly a minute after the other man had lit his flare — he got going. In that time, the man in the top had lit his second blue-light, and we were ready to get into the topmast rigging. First, however, the Skipper leant over the afterside of the top, and sung out to the First Mate to send a man up on to the fo’cas’le head with a flare. The Mate replied, and then we started again, the Old Man leading.

Fortunately, the rain had ceased, and there seemed to be no increase in the wind; indeed, if anything, there appeared to be rather less; yet what there was drove the flames of the flare-ups out into occasional, twisting serpents of fire at least a yard long.

About half-way up the topmast rigging, the Second Mate sung out to the Skipper, to know whether Plummer should light his flare; but the Old Man said he had better wait until we reached the crosstrees, as then he could get out away from the gear to where there would be less danger of setting fire to anything.

We neared the crosstrees, and the Old Man stopped and sung out to me to pass him the lantern by Quoin. A few ratlines more, and both he and the Second Mate stopped almost simultaneously, holding their lanterns as high as possible, and peered up into the darkness.

“See any signs of him, Mr. Tulipson?” the Old Man asked.

“No, Sir,” replied the Second. “Not a sign.”

He raised his voice.

“Stubbins,” he sung out. “Stubbins, are you there?”

We listened; but nothing came to us beyond the blowing moan of the wind, and the flap, flap of the bellying t’gallant above.

The Second Mate climbed over the crosstrees, and Plummer followed. The man got out by the royal backstay, and lit his flare. By its light we could see, plainly; but there was no vestige of Stubbins, so far as the light went.

“Get out on to the yard-arms with those flares, you two men,” shouted the Skipper. “Be smart now! Keep them away from the sail!”

The men got on to the foot-ropes — Quoin on the port, and Jaskett on the starboard side. By the light from Plummer’s flare, I could see them clearly, as they lay out upon the yard. It occurred to me that they went gingerly — which is no surprising thing. And then, as they drew near to the yard-arms, they passed beyond the brilliance of the light; so that I could not see them clearly. A few seconds passed, and then the light from Quoin’s flare streamed out upon the wind; yet nearly a minute went by, and there was no sign of Jaskett’s.

Then out from the semi-darkness at the starboard yard-arm, there came a curse from Jaskett, followed almost immediately by a noise of something vibrating.

“What’s up?” shouted the Second Mate. “What’s up, Jaskett?”

“It’s ther foot-rope, Sir-r-r!” he drew out the last word into a sort of gasp.

The Second Mate bent quickly, with the lantern. I craned round the after side of the top-mast, and looked.

“What is the matter, Mr. Tulipson?” I heard the Old Man singing out.

Out on the yard-arm, Jaskett began to shout for help, and then, all at once, in the light from the Second Mate’s lantern, I saw that the starboard foot-rope on the upper topsail yard was being violently shaken — savagely shaken, is perhaps a better word. And then, almost in the same instant, the Second Mate shifted the lantern from his right to his left hand. He put the right into his pocket and brought out his gun with a jerk. He extended his hand and arm, as though pointing at something a little below the yard. Then a quick flash spat out across the shadows, followed immediately by a sharp, ringing crack. In the same moment, I saw that the foot-rope ceased to shake.

“Light your flare! Light your flare, Jaskett!” the Second shouted. “Be smart now!”

Out at the yard-arm there came a splutter of a match, and then, straightaway, a great spurt of fire as the flare took light.

“That’s better, Jaskett. You’re all right now!” the Second Mate called out to him.

“What was it, Mr. Tulipson?” I heard the Skipper ask.

I looked up, and saw that he had sprung across to where the Second Mate was standing. The Second Mate explained to him; but he did not speak loud enough for me to catch what he said.

I had been struck by Jaskett’s attitude, when the light of his flare had first revealed him. He had been crouched with his right knee cocked over the yard, and his left leg down between it and the foot-rope, while his elbows had been crooked over the yard for support, as he was lighting the flare. Now, however, he had slid both feet back on to the foot-rope, and was lying on his belly, over the yard, with the flare held a little below the head of the sail. It was thus, with the light being on the foreside of the sail, that I saw a small hole a little below the foot-rope, through which a ray of the light shone. It was undoubtedly the hole which the bullet from the Second Mate’s revolver had made in the sail.

Then I heard the Old Man shouting to Jaskett.

“Be careful with that flare there!” he sung out. “You’ll be having that sail scorched!”

He left the Second Mate, and came back on to the port side of the mast.

To my right, Plummer’s flares seemed to be dwindling. I glanced up at his face through the smoke. He was paying no attention to it; instead, he was staring up above his head.

“Shove some paraffin on to it, Plummer,” I called to him. “It’ll be out in a minute.”

He looked down quickly to the light, and did as I suggested. Then he held it out at arm’s length, and peered up again into the darkness.

“See anything?” asked the Old Man, suddenly observing his attitude.

Plummer glanced at him, with a start.

“It’s ther r’yal, Sir,” he explained. “It’s all adrift.”

“What!” said the Old Man.

He was standing a few ratlines up the t’gallant rigging, and he bent his body outwards to get a better look.

“Mr. Tulipson!” he shouted. “Do you know that the royal’s all adrift?”

“No, Sir,” answered the Second Mate. “If it is, it’s more of this devilish work!”

“It’s adrift right enough,” said the Skipper, and he and the Second went a few ratlines higher, keeping level with one another.

I had now got above the crosstrees, and was just at the Old Man’s heels.

Suddenly, he shouted out:

“There he is! — Stubbins! Stubbins!”

“Where, Sir?” asked the Second, eagerly. “I can’t see him!”

“There! there!” replied the Skipper, pointing.

I leant out from the rigging, and looked up along his back, in the direction his finger indicated. At first, I could see nothing; then, slowly, you know, there grew upon my sight a dim figure crouching upon the bunt of the royal, and partly hidden by the mast. I stared, and gradually it came to me that there was a couple of them, and further out upon the yard, a hump that might have been anything, and was only visible indistinctly amid the flutter of the canvas.

“Stubbins!” the Skipper sung out. “Stubbins, come down out of that! Do you hear me?”

But no one came, and there was no answer.

“There’s two —” I began; but he was shouting again:

“Come down out of that! Do you damned well hear me?”

Still there was no reply.

“I’m hanged if I can see him at all, Sir!” the Second Mate called out from his side of the mast.

“Can’t see him!” said the Old Man, now thoroughly angry. “I’ll soon let you see him!”

He bent down to me with the lantern.

“Catch hold, Jessop,” he said, which I did.

Then he pulled the blue-light from his pocket, and as he was doing so, I saw the Second peek round the back side of the mast at him. Evidently, in the uncertain light, he must have mistaken the Skipper’s action; for, all at once, he shouted out in a frightened voice:

“Don’t shoot, Sir! For God’s sake, don’t shoot!”

“Shoot be damned!” exclaimed the Old Man. “Watch!”

He pulled off the cap of the light.

“There’s two of them, Sir,” I called again to him.

“What!” he said in a loud voice, and at the same instant he rubbed the end of the light across the cap, and it burst into fire.

He held it up so that it lit the royal yard like day, and straightway, a couple of shapes dropped silently from the royal on to the t’gallant yard. At the same moment, the humped Something, midway out upon the yard, rose up. It ran in to the mast, and I lost sight of it.

“God!” I heard the Skipper gasp, and he fumbled in his side pocket.

I saw the two figures which had dropped on to the t’gallant, run swiftly along the yard — one to the starboard and the other to the port yard-arms.

On the other side of the mast, the Second Mate’s pistol cracked out twice, sharply. Then, from over my head the Skipper fired twice, and then again; but with what effect, I could not tell. Abruptly, as he fired his last shot, I was aware of an indistinct Something, gliding down the starboard royal backstay. It was descending full upon Plummer, who, all unconscious of the thing, was staring towards the t’gallant yard.

“Look out above you, Plummer!” I almost shrieked.

“What? where?” he called, and grabbed at the stay, and waved his flare, excitedly.

Down on the upper topsail yard, Quoin’s and Jaskett’s voices rose simultaneously, and in the identical instant, their flares went out. Then Plummer shouted, and his light went utterly. There were left only the two lanterns, and the blue-light held by the Skipper, and that, a few seconds afterwards, finished and died out.

The Skipper and the Second Mate were shouting to the men upon the yard, and I heard them answer, in shaky voices. Out on the crosstrees, I could see, by the light from my lantern, that Plummer was holding in a dazed fashion to the backstay.

“Are you all right, Plummer?” I called.

“Yes,” he said, after a little pause; and then he swore.

“Come in off that yard, you men!” the Skipper was singing out. “Come in! come in!”

Down on deck, I heard someone calling; but could not distinguish the words. Above me, pistol in hand, the Skipper was glancing about, uneasily.

“Hold up that light, Jessop,” he said. “I can’t see!”

Below us, the men got off the yard, into the rigging.

“Down on deck with you!” ordered the Old Man. “As smartly as you can!”

“Come in off there, Plummer!” sung out the Second Mate. “Get down with the others!”

“Down with you, Jessop!” said the Skipper, speaking rapidly. “Down with you!”

I got over the crosstrees, and he followed. On the other side, the Second Mate was level with us. He had passed his lantern to Plummer, and I caught the glint of his revolver in his right hand. In this fashion, we reached the top. The man who had been stationed there with the blue-lights, had gone. Afterwards, I found that he went down on deck as soon as they were finished. There was no sign of the man with the flare on the starboard craneline. He also, I learnt later, had slid down one of the backstays on to the deck, only a very short while before we reached the top. He swore that a great black shadow of a man had come suddenly upon him from aloft. When I heard that, I remembered the thing I had seen descending upon Plummer. Yet the man who had gone out upon the port craneline — the one who had bungled with the lighting of his flare — was still where we had left him; though his light was burning now but dimly.

“Come in out of that, you!” the Old Man sung out “Smartly now, and get down on deck!”

“i, i, Sir,” the man replied, and started to make his way in.

The Skipper waited until he had got into the main rigging, and then he told me to get down out of the top. He was in the act of following, when, all at once, there rose a loud outcry on deck, and then came the sound of a man screaming.

“Get out of my way, Jessop!” the Skipper roared, and swung himself down alongside of me.

I heard the Second Mate shout something from the starboard rigging. Then we were all racing down as hard as we could go. I had caught a momentary glimpse of a man running from the doorway on the port side of the fo’cas’le. In less than half a minute we were upon the deck, and among a crowd of the men who were grouped round something. Yet, strangely enough, they were not looking at the thing among them; but away aft at something in the darkness.

“It’s on the rail!” cried several voices.

“Overboard!” called somebody, in an excited voice. “It’s jumped over the side!”

“Ther’ wer’n’t nothin’!” said a man in the crowd.

“Silence!” shouted the Old Man. “Where’s the Mate? What’s happened?”

“Here, Sir,” called the First Mate, shakily, from near the centre of the group. “It’s Jacobs, Sir. He — he —”

“What!” said the Skipper. “What!”

“He — he’s — he’s — dead I think!” said the First Mate, in jerks.

“Let me see,” said the Old Man, in a quieter tone.

The men had stood to one side to give him room, and he knelt beside the man upon the deck.

“Pass the lantern here, Jessop,” he said.

I stood by him, and held the light. The man was lying face downwards on the deck. Under the light from the lantern, the Skipper turned him over and looked at him.

“Yes,” he said, after a short examination. “He’s dead.”

He stood up and regarded the body a moment, in silence. Then he turned to the Second Mate, who had been standing by, during the last couple of minutes.

“Three!” he said, in a grim undertone.

The Second Mate nodded, and cleared his voice.

He seemed on the point of saying something; then he turned and looked at Jacobs, and said nothing.

“Three,” repeated the Old Man. “Since eight bells!”

He stooped and looked again at Jacobs.

“Poor devil! poor devil!” he muttered.

The Second Mate grunted some of the huskiness out of his throat, and spoke.

“Where must we take him?” he asked, quietly. “The two bunks are full.”

“You’ll have to put him down on the deck by the lower bunk,” replied the Skipper.

As they carried him away, I heard the Old Man make a sound that was almost a groan. The rest of the men had gone forrard, and I do not think he realised that I was standing by him

“My God! O, my God!” he muttered, and began to walk slowly aft.

He had cause enough for groaning. There were three dead, and Stubbins had gone utterly and completely. We never saw him again.

1 Modified from the original.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55