The Ghost Pirates: Chapter 15
THE GREAT GHOST SHIP
When we were called again, at a quarter to four, the man who roused us out, had some queer information.
"Toppin's gone--clean vanished!" he told us, as we began to turn out. "I never was in such a damned, hair-raisin' hooker as this here. It ain't safe to go about the bloomin' decks."
" 'oo's gone?" asked Plummer, sitting up suddenly and throwing his legs over his bunk-board.
"Toppin, one of the 'prentices," replied the man. "We've been huntin' all over the bloomin' show. We're still at it--but we'll never find him," he ended, with a sort of gloomy assurance.
"Oh, I dunno," said Quoin. "P'raps 'e's snoozin' somewheres 'bout."
"Not him," replied the man. "I tell you we've turned everythin' upside down. He's not aboard the bloomin' ship."
"Where was he when they last saw him?" I asked. "Someone must know something, you know!"
"Keepin' time up on the poop," he replied. "The Old Man's nearly shook the life out of the Mate and the chap at the wheel. And they say they don't know nothin'."
"How do you mean?" I inquired. "How do you mean, nothing?"
"Well," he answered. "The youngster was there one minute, and then the next thing they knew, he'd gone. They've both sworn black an' blue that there wasn't a whisper. He's just disappeared off of the face of the bloomin' earth."
I got down on to my chest, and reached for my boots.
Before I could speak again, the man was saying something fresh.
"See here, mates," he went on. "If things is goin' on like this, I'd like to know where you an' me'll be befor' long!"
"We'll be in 'ell," said Plummer.
"I dunno as I like to think 'bout it," said Quoin.
"We'll have to think about it!" replied the man. "We've got to think a bloomin' lot about it. I've talked to our side, an' they're game."
"Game for what?" I asked.
"To go an' talk straight to the bloomin' Capting," he said, wagging his finger at me. "It's make tracks for the nearest bloomin' port, an' don't you make no bloomin' mistake."
I opened my mouth to tell him that the probability was we should not be able to make it, even if he could get the Old Man to see the matter from his point of view. Then I remembered that the chap had no idea of the things I had seen, and thought out; so, instead, I said:
"Supposing he won't?"
"Then we'll have to bloomin' well make him," he replied.
"And when you got there," I said. "What then? You'd be jolly well locked up for mutiny."
"I'd sooner be locked up," he said. "It don't kill you!"
There was a murmur of agreement from the others, and then a moment of silence, in which, I know, the men were thinking.
Jaskett's voice broke into it.
"I never thought at first as she was 'aunted--" he commenced; but Plummer cut in across his speech.
"We mustn't 'urt any one, yer know," he said. "That'd mean 'angin', an' they ain't been er bad crowd."
"No," assented everyone, including the chap who had come to call us.
"All the same," he added. "It's got to be up hellum, an' shove her into the nearest bloomin' port."
"Yes," said everyone, and then eight bells went, and we cleared out on deck.
Presently, after roll-call--in which there had come a queer, awkward little pause at Toppin's name--Tammy came over to me. The rest of the men had gone forrard, and I guessed they were talking over mad plans for forcing the Skipper's hand, and making him put into port--poor beggars!
I was leaning over the port rail, by the fore brace-lock, staring down into the sea, when Tammy came to me. For perhaps a minute he said nothing. When at last he spoke, it was to say that the shadow vessels had not been there since daylight.
"What?" I said, in some surprise. "How do you know?"
"I woke up when they were searching for Toppin," he replied. "I've not been asleep since. I came here, right away." He began to say something further; but stopped short.
"Yes," I said encouragingly.
"I didn't know--" he began, and broke off. He caught my arm. "Oh, Jessop!" he exclaimed. "What's going to be the end of it all? Surely something can be done?"
I said nothing. I had a desperate feeling that there was very little we could do to help ourselves.
"Can't we do something?" he asked, and shook my arm. "Anything's better than this! We're being murdered!"
Still, I said nothing; but stared moodily down into the water. I could plan nothing; though I would get mad, feverish fits of thinking.
"Do you hear?" he said. He was almost crying.
"Yes, Tammy," I replied. "But I don't know! I don't know!"
"You don't know!" he exclaimed. "You don't know! Do you mean we're just to give in, and be murdered, one after another?"
"We've done all we can," I replied. "I don't know what else we can do, unless we go below and lock ourselves in, every night."
"That would be better than this," he said. "There'll be no one to go below, or anything else, soon!"
"But what if it came on to blow?" I asked. "We'd be having the sticks blown out of her."
"What if it came on to blow now?" he returned. "No one would go aloft, if it were dark, you said, yourself! Besides, we could shorten her right down, first. I tell you, in a few days there won't be a chap alive aboard this packet unless they jolly well do something!"
"Don't shout," I warned him. "You'll have the Old Man hearing you." But the young beggar was wound up, and would take no notice.
"I will shout," he replied. "I want the Old Man to hear. I've a good mind to go up and tell him."
He started on a fresh tack.
"Why don't the men do something?" he began. "They ought to damn well make the Old Man put us into port! They ought--"
"For goodness sake, shut up, you little fool!" I said. "What's the good of talking a lot of damned rot like that? You'll be getting yourself into trouble."
"I don't care," he replied. "I'm not going to be murdered!"
"Look here," I said. "I told you before, that we shouldn't be able to see the land, even if we made it."
"You've no proof," he answered. "It's only your idea."
"Well," I replied. "Proof, or no proof, the Skipper would only pile her up, if he tried to make the land, with things as they are now."
"Let him pile her up," he answered. "Let him jolly well pile her up! That would be better than staying out here to be pulled overboard, or chucked down from aloft!"
"Look here, Tammy--" I began; but just then the Second Mate sung out for him, and he had to go. When he came back, I had started to walk to and from, across the fore side of the mainmast. He joined me, and after a minute, he started his wild talk again.
"Look here, Tammy," I said, once more. "It's no use your talking like you've been doing. Things are as they are, and it's no one's fault, and nobody can help it. If you want to talk sensibly, I'll listen; if not, then go and gas to someone else."
With that, I returned to the port side, and got up on the spar, again, intending to sit on the pinrail and have a bit of a talk with him. Before sitting down I glanced over, into the sea. The action had been almost mechanical; yet, after a few instants, I was in a state of the most intense excitement, and without withdrawing my gaze, I reached out and caught Tammy's arm to attract his attention.
"My God!" I muttered. "Look!"
"What is it?" he asked, and bent over the rail, beside me. And this is what we saw: a little distance below the surface there lay a pale-coloured, slightly-domed disc. It seemed only a few feet down. Below it, we saw quite clearly, after a few moment's staring, the shadow of a royal-yard, and, deeper, the gear and standing-rigging of a great mast. Far down among the shadows I thought, presently, that I could make out the immense, indefinite stretch of vast decks.
"My God!" whispered Tammy, and shut up. But presently, he gave out a short exclamation, as though an idea had come to him; and got down off the spar, and ran forrard on to the fo'cas'le head. He came running back, after a short look into the sea, to tell me that there was the truck of another great mast coming up there, a bit off the bow, to within a few feet of the surface of the sea.
In the meantime, you know, I had been staring like mad down through the water at the huge, shadowy mast just below me. I had traced out bit by bit, until now I could clearly see the jackstay, running along the top of the royal mast; and, you know, the royal itself was set.
But, you know, what was getting at me more than anything, was a feeling that there was movement down in the water there, among the rigging. I thought I could actually see, at times, things moving and glinting faintly and rapidly to and fro in the gear. And once, I was practically certain that something was on the royal-yard, moving in to the mast; as though, you know, it might have come up the leech of the sail. And this way, I got a beastly feeling that there were things swarming down there.
Unconsciously, I must have leant further and further out over the side, staring; and suddenly--good Lord! how I yelled--I overbalanced. I made a sweeping grab, and caught the fore brace, and with that, I was back in a moment upon the spar. In the same second, almost, it seemed to me that the surface of the water above the submerged truck was broken, and I am sure now, I saw something a moment in the air against the ship's side--a sort of shadow in the air; though I did not realise it at the time. Anyway, the next instant, Tammy gave out an awful scream, and was head downwards over the rail, in a second. I had an idea then that he was jumping overboard. I collared him by the waist of his britchers, and one knee, and then I had him down on the deck, and sat plump on him; for he was struggling and shouting all the time, and I was so breathless and shaken and gone to mush, I could not have trusted my hands to hold him. You see, I never thought then it was anything but some influence at work on him; and that he was trying to get loose to go over the side. But I know now that I saw the shadow-man that had him. Only, at the time, I was so mixed up, and with the one idea in my head, I was not really able to notice anything, properly. But, afterwards, I comprehended a bit (you can understand, can't you?) what I had seen at the time without taking in.
And even now looking back, I know that the shadow was only like a faint-seen greyness in the daylight, against the whiteness of the decks, clinging against Tammy.
And there was I, all breathless and sweating, and quivery with my own tumble, sitting on the little screeching beggar, and he fighting like a mad thing; so that I thought I should never hold him.
And then I heard the Second Mate shouting and there came running feet along the deck. Then many hands were pulling and hauling, to get me off him.
"Bl--y cowyard!" sung out someone.
"Hold him! Hold him!" I shouted. "He'll be overboard!"
At that, they seemed to understand that I was not ill-treating the youngster; for they stopped manhandling me, and allowed me to rise; while two of them took hold of Tammy, and kept him safe.
"What's the matter with him?" the Second Mate was singing out. "What's happened?"
"He's gone off his head, I think," I said.
"What?" asked the Second Mate. But before I could answer him, Tammy ceased suddenly to struggle, and flopped down upon the deck.
" 'e's fainted," said Plummer, with some sympathy. He looked at me, with a puzzled, suspicious air. "What's 'appened? What's 'e been doin'?"
"Take him aft into the berth!" ordered the Second Mate, a bit abruptly. It struck me that he wished to prevent questions. He must have tumbled to the fact that we had seen something, about which it would be better not to tell the crowd.
Plummer stooped to lift the boy.
"No," said the Second Mate. "Not you, Plummer. Jessop, you take him." He turned to the rest of the men. "That will do," he told them and they went forrard, muttering a little.
I lifted the boy, and carried him aft.
"No need to take him into the berth," said the Second Mate. "Put him down on the after hatch. I've sent the other lad for some brandy."
Then the brandy came, we dosed Tammy and soon brought him round. He sat up, with a somewhat dazed air. Otherwise, he seemed quiet and sane enough.
"What's up?" he asked. He caught sight of the Second Mate. "Have I been ill, Sir?" he exclaimed.
"You're right enough now, youngster," said the Second Mate. "You've been a bit off. You'd better go and lie down for a bit."
"I'm all right now, Sir," replied Tammy. "I don't think--"
"You do as you're told!" interrupted the Second. "Don't always have to be told twice! If I want you, I'll send for you."
Tammy stood up, and made his way, in rather an unsteady fashion, into the berth. I fancy he was glad enough to lie down.
"Now then, Jessop," exclaimed the Second Mate, turning to me. "What's been the cause of all this? Out with it now, smart!"
I commenced to tell him; but, almost directly, he put up his hand.
"Hold on a minute," he said. "There's the breeze!"
He jumped up the port ladder, and sung out to the chap at the wheel. Then down again.
"Starboard fore brace," he sung out. He turned to me. "You'll have to finish telling me afterwards," he said.
"i, i, Sir," I replied, and went to join the other chaps at the braces.
As soon as we were braced sharp up on the port tack, he sent some of the watch up to loose the sails. Then he sung out for me.
"Go on with your yarn now, Jessop," he said.
I told him about the great shadow vessel, and I said something about Tammy--I mean about my not being sure now whether he had tried to jump overboard. Because, you see, I began to realise that I had seen the shadow; and I remembered the stirring of the water above the submerged truck. But the Second did not wait, of course, for any theories, but was away, like a shot, to see for himself. He ran to the side, and looked down. I followed, and stood beside him; yet, now that the surface of the water was blurred by the wind, we could see nothing.
"It's no good," he remarked, after a minute. "You'd better get away from the rail before any of the others see you. Just be taking those halyards aft to the capstan."
From then, until eight bells, we were hard at work getting the sail upon her, and when at last eight bells went, I made haste to swallow my breakfast, and get a sleep.
At midday, when we went on deck for the afternoon watch, I ran to the side; but there was no sign of the great shadow ship. All that watch, the Second Mate kept me working at my paunch mat, and Tammy he put on to his sinnet, telling me to keep an eye on the youngster. But the boy was right enough; as I scarcely doubted now, you know; though--a most unusual thing--he hardly opened his lips the whole afternoon. Then at four o'clock, we went below for tea.
At four bells, when we came on deck again, I found that the light breeze, which had kept us going during the day, had dropped, and we were only just moving. The sun was low down, and the sky clear. Once or twice, as I glanced across to the horizon, it seemed to me that I caught again that odd quiver in the air that had preceded the coming of the mist; and, indeed on two separate occasions, I saw a thin whisp of haze drive up, apparently out of the sea. This was at some little distance on our port beam; otherwise, all was quiet and peaceful; and though I stared into the water, I could make out no vestige of that great shadow ship, down in the sea.
It was some little time after six bells that the order came for all hands to shorten sail for the night. We took in the royals and t'gallants, and then the three courses. It was shortly after this, that a rumour went round the ship that there was to be no look-out that night after eight o'clock. This naturally created a good deal of talk among the men; especially as the yarn went that the fo'cas'le doors were to be shut and fastened as soon as it was dark, and that no one was to be allowed on deck.
" 'oo's goin' ter take ther wheel?" I heard Plummer ask.
"I s'pose they'll 'ave us take 'em as usual," replied one of the men. "One of ther officers is bound ter be on ther poop; so we'll 'ave company."
Apart from these remarks, there was a general opinion that--if it were true--it was a sensible act on the part of the Skipper. As one of the men said:
"It ain't likely that there'll be any of us missin' in ther mornin', if we stays in our bunks all ther blessed night."
And soon after this, eight bells went.