The Ghost Pirates: Chapter 7
THE COMING OF THE MIST, AND THAT WHICH IT USHERED
We buried Williams at midday. Poor beggar! It had been so sudden. All day the men were awed and gloomy, and there was a lot of talk about there being a Jonah aboard. If they'd only known what Tammy and I, and perhaps the Second Mate, knew!
And then the next thing came--the mist. I cannot remember now, whether it was on the day we buried Williams that we first saw it, or the day after.
When first I noticed it, like everybody else aboard, I took it to be some form of haze, due to the heat of the sun; for it was broad daylight when the thing came.
The wind had died away to a light breeze, and I was working at the main rigging, along with Plummer, putting on seizings.
"Looks as if 'twere middlin' 'ot," he remarked.
"Yes," I said; and, for the time, took no further notice.
Presently he spoke again:
"It's gettin' quite 'azy!" and his tone showed he was surprised.
I glanced up, quickly. At first, I could see nothing. Then, I saw what he meant. The air had a wavy, strange, unnatural appearance; something like the heated air over the top of an engine's funnel, that you can often see when no smoke is coming out.
"Must be the heat," I said. "Though I don't remember ever seeing anything just like it before."
"Nor me," Plummer agreed.
It could not have been a minute later when I looked up again, and was astonished to find that the whole ship was surrounded by a thinnish haze that quite hid the horizon.
"By Jove! Plummer," I said. "How queer!"
"Yes," he said, looking round. "I never seen anythin' like it before--not in these parts."
"Heat wouldn't do that!" I said.
"N--no," he said, doubtfully.
We went on with our work again--occasionally exchanging an odd word or two. Presently, after a little time of silence, I bent forward and asked him to pass me up the spike. He stooped and picked it up from the deck, where it had tumbled. As he held it out to me, I saw the stolid expression on his face, change suddenly to a look of complete surprise. He opened his mouth.
"By gum!" he said. "It's gone."
I turned quickly, and looked. And so it had--the whole sea showing clear and bright, right away to the horizon.
I stared at Plummer, and he stared at me.
"Well, I'm blowed!" he exclaimed.
I do not think I made any reply; for I had a sudden, queer feeling that the thing was not right. And then, in a minute, I called myself an ass; but I could not really shake off the feeling. I had another good look at the sea. I had a vague idea that something was different. The sea looked brighter, somehow, and the air clearer, I thought, and I missed something; but not much, you know. And it was not until a couple of days later, that I knew that it was several vessels on the horizon, which had been quite in sight before the mist, and now were gone.
During the rest of the watch, and indeed all day, there was no further sign of anything unusual. Only, when the evening came (in the second dog-watch it was) I saw the mist rise faintly--the setting sun shining through it, dim and unreal.
I knew then, as a certainty, that it was not caused by heat.
And that was the beginning of it.
The next day, I kept a pretty close watch, during all my time on deck; but the atmosphere remained clear. Yet, I heard from one of the chaps in the Mate's watch, that it had been hazy during part of the time he was at the wheel.
"Comin' an' goin', like," he described it to me, when I questioned him about it. He thought it might be heat.
But though I knew otherwise, I did not contradict him. At that time, no one, not even Plummer, seemed to think very much of the matter. And when I mentioned it to Tammy, and asked him whether he'd noticed it, he only remarked that it must have been heat, or else the sun drawing up water. I let it stay at that; for there was nothing to be gained by suggesting that the thing had more to it.
Then, on the following day, something happened that set me wondering more than ever, and showed me how right I had been in feeling the mist to be something unnatural. It was in this way.
Five bells, in the eight to twelve morning watch, had gone. I was at the wheel. The sky was perfectly clear--not a cloud to be seen, even on the horizon. It was hot, standing at the wheel; for there was scarcely any wind, and I was feeling drowsy. The Second Mate was down on the maindeck with the men, seeing about some job he wanted done; so that I was on the poop alone.
Presently, with the heat, and the sun beating right down on to me, I grew thirsty; and, for want of something better, I pulled out a bit of plug I had on me, and bit off a chew; though, as a rule, it is not a habit of mine. After a little, naturally enough, I glanced round for the spittoon; but discovered that it was not there. Probably it had been taken forrard when the decks were washed, to give it a scrub. So, as there was no one on the poop, I left the wheel, and stepped aft to the taffrail. It was thus that I came to see something altogether unthought of--a full-rigged ship, close-hauled on the port tack, a few hundred yards on our starboard quarter. Her sails were scarcely filled by the light breeze, and flapped as she lifted to the swell of the sea. She appeared to have very little way through the water, certainly not more than a knot an hour. Away aft, hanging from the gaff-end, was a string of flags. Evidently, she was signalling to us. All this, I saw in a flash, and I just stood and stared, astonished. I was astonished because I had not seen her earlier. In that light breeze, I knew that she must have been in sight for at least a couple of hours. Yet I could think of nothing rational to satisfy my wonder. There she was--of that much, I was certain. And yet, how had she come there without my seeing her, before?
All at once, as I stood, staring, I heard the wheel behind me, spin rapidly. Instinctively, I jumped to get hold of the spokes; for I did not want the steering gear jammed. Then I turned again to have another look at the other ship; but, to my utter bewilderment, there was no sign of her--nothing but the calm ocean, spreading away to the distant horizon. I blinked my eyelids a bit, and pushed the hair off my forehead. Then, I stared again; but there was no vestige of her--nothing, you know; and absolutely nothing unusual, except a faint, tremulous quiver in the air. And the blank surface of the sea reaching everywhere to the empty horizon.
Had she foundered? I asked myself, naturally enough; and, for the moment, I really wondered. I searched round the sea for wreckage; but there was nothing, not even an odd hen-coop, or a piece of deck furniture; and so I threw away that idea, as impossible.
Then, as I stood, I got another thought, or, perhaps, an intuition and I asked myself seriously whether this disappearing ship might not be in some way connected with the other queer things. It occurred to me then, that the vessel I had seen was nothing real, and, perhaps, did not exist outside of my own brain. I considered the idea, gravely. It helped to explain the thing, and I could think of nothing else that would. Had she been real, I felt sure that others aboard us would have been bound to have seen her long before I had--I got a bit muddled there, with trying to think it out; and then, abruptly, the reality of the other ship, came back to me--every rope and sail and spar, you know. And I remembered how she had lifted to the heave of the sea, and how the sails had flapped in the light breeze. And the string of flags! She had been signalling. At that last, I found it just as impossible to believe that she had not been real.
I had reached to this point of irresolution, and was standing with my back, partly turned to the wheel. I was holding it steady with my left hand, while I looked over the sea, to try to find something to help me to understand.
All at once, as I stared, I seemed to see the ship again. She was more on the beam now, than on the quarter; but I thought little of that, in the astonishment of seeing her once more. It was only a glimpse, I caught of her--dim and wavering, as though I looked at her through the convolutions of heated air. Then she grew indistinct, and vanished again; but I was convinced now that she was real, and had been in sight all the time, if I could have seen her. That curious, dim, wavering appearance had suggested something to me. I remembered the strange, wavy look of the air, a few days previously, just before the mist had surrounded the ship. And in my mind, I connected the two. It was nothing about the other packet that was strange. The strangeness was with us. It was something that was about (or invested) our ship that prevented me--or indeed, any one else aboard from seeing that other. It was evident that she had been able to see us, as was proved by her signalling. In an irrelevant sort of way, I wondered what the people aboard of her thought of our apparently intentional disregard of their signals.
After that, I thought of the strangeness of it all. Even at that minute, they could see us, plainly; and yet, so far as we were concerned, the whole ocean seemed empty. It appeared to me, at that time, to be the weirdest thing that could happen to us.
And then a fresh thought came to me. How long had we been like that? I puzzled for a few moments. It was now that I recollected that we had sighted several vessels on the morning of the day when the mist appeared; and since then, we had seen nothing. This, to say the least, should have struck me as queer; for some of the other packets were homeward bound along with us, and steering the same course. Consequently, with the weather being fine, and the wind next to nothing, they should have been in sight all the time. This reasoning seemed to me to show, unmistakably, some connection between the coming of the mist, and our inability to see. So that it is possible we had been in that extraordinary state of blindness for nearly three days.
In my mind, the last glimpse of that ship on the quarter, came back to me. And, I remember, a curious thought got me, that I had looked at her from out of some other dimension. For a while, you know, I really believed the mystery of the idea, and that it might be the actual truth, took me; instead of my realising just all that it might mean. It seemed so exactly to express all the half-defined thoughts that had come, since seeing that other packet on the quarter.
Suddenly, behind me, there came a rustle and rattle of the sails; and, in the same instant, I heard the Skipper saying:
"Where the devil have you got her to, Jessop?"
I whirled round to the wheel.
"I don't know--Sir," I faltered.
I had forgotten even that I was at the wheel.
"Don't know!" he shouted. "I should damned well think you don't. Starboard your helm, you fool. You'll have us all aback!"
"i, i, Sir," I answered, and hove the wheel over. I did it almost mechanically; for I was still dazed, and had not yet had time to collect my senses.
During the following half-minute, I was only conscious, in a confused sort of way, that the Old Man was ranting at me. This feeling of bewilderment passed off, and I found that I was peering blankly into the binnacle, at the compass-card; yet, until then, entirely without being aware of the fact. Now, however, I saw that the ship was coming back on to her course. Goodness knows how much she had been off!
With the realisation that I had let the ship get almost aback, there came a sudden memory of the alteration in the position of the other vessel. She had appeared last on the beam, instead of on the quarter. Now, however, as my brain began to work, I saw the cause of this apparent and, until then, inexplicable change. It was due, of course, to our having come up, until we had brought the other packet on to the beam.
It is curious how all this flashed through my mind, and held my attention--although only momentarily--in the face of the Skipper's storming. I think I had hardly realised he was still singing out at me. Anyhow, the next thing I remember, he was shaking my arm.
"What's the matter with you, man?" he was shouting. And I just stared into his face, like an ass, without saying a word. I seemed still incapable, you know, of actual, reasoning speech.
"Are you damned well off your head?" he went on shouting. "Are you a lunatic? Have you had sunstroke? Speak, you gaping idiot!"
I tried to say something; but the words would not come clearly.
"I--I--I--" I said, and stopped, stupidly. I was all right, really; but I was so bewildered with the thing I had found out; and, in a way, I seemed almost to have come back out of a distance, you know.
"You're a lunatic!" he said, again. He repeated the statement several times, as if it were the only thing that sufficiently expressed his opinion of me. Then he let go of my arm, and stepped back a couple of paces.
"I'm not a lunatic!" I said, with a sudden gasp. "I'm not a lunatic, Sir, any more than you are."
"Why the devil don't you answer my questions then?" he shouted, angrily. "What's the matter with you? What have you been doing with the ship? Answer me now!"
"I was looking at that ship away on the starboard quarter, Sir," I blurted out. "She's been signalling--"
"What!" he cut me short with disbelief. "What ship?"
He turned, quickly, and looked over the quarter. Then he wheeled round to me again.
"There's no ship! What do you mean by trying to spin up a cuffer like that?"
"There is, Sir," I answered. "It's out there--" I pointed.
"Hold your tongue!" he said. "Don't talk rubbish to me. Do you think I'm blind?"
"I saw it, Sir," I persisted.
"Don't you talk back to me!" he snapped, with a quick burst of temper. "I won't have it!"
Then, just as suddenly, he was silent. He came a step towards me, and stared into my face. I believe the old ass thought I was a bit mad; anyway, without another word, he went to the break of the poop.
"Mr. Tulipson," he sung out.
"Yes, Sir," I heard the Second Mate reply.
"Send another man to the wheel."
"Very good, Sir," the Second answered.
A couple of minutes later, old Jaskett came up to relieve me. I gave him the course, and he repeated it.
"What's up, mate?" he asked me, as I stepped off the grating.
"Nothing much," I said, and went forrard to where the Skipper was standing on the break of the poop. I gave him the course; but the crabby old devil took no notice of me, whatever. When I got down on to the maindeck, I went up to the Second, and gave it to him. He answered me civilly enough, and then asked me what I had been doing to put the Old Man's back up.
"I told him there's a ship on the starboard quarter, signalling us," I said.
"There's no ship out there, Jessop," the Second Mate replied, looking at me with a queer, inscrutable expression.
"There is, Sir," I began. "I--"
"That will do, Jessop!" he said. "Go forrard and have a smoke. I shall want you then to give a hand with these foot-ropes. You'd better bring a serving-mallet aft with you, when you come."
I hesitated a moment, partly in anger; but more, I think, in doubt.
"i, i, Sir," I muttered at length, and went forrard.