"How?" he inquired again.
"Why, I believe that this ship is open, as I've told you—exposed, unprotected, or whatever you like to call it. I should say it's reasonable to think that all the things of the material world are barred, as it were, from the immaterial; but that in some cases the barrier may be broken down. That's what may have happened to this ship. And if it has, she may be naked to the attacks of beings belonging to some other state of existence."
"What's made her like that?" he asked, in a really awed sort of tone.
"The Lord knows!" I answered. "Perhaps something to do with magnetic stresses; but you'd not understand, and I don't, really. And, I suppose, inside of me, I don't believe it's anything of the kind, for a minute. I'm not built that way. And yet I don't know! Perhaps, there may have been some rotten thing done aboard of her. Or, again, it's a heap more likely to be something quite outside of anything I know."
"If they're immaterial then, they're spirits?" he questioned.
"I don't know," I said. "It's so hard to say what I really think, you know. I've got a queer idea, that my head-piece likes to think good; but I don't believe my tummy believes it."
"Go on!" he said.
"Well," I said. "Suppose the earth were inhabited by two kinds of life. We're one, and they're the other."
"Go on!" he said.
"Well," I said. "Don't you see, in a normal state we may not be capable of appreciating the realness of the other? But they may be just as real and material to them, as we are to us. Do you see?"
"Yes," he said. "Go on!"
"Well," I said. "The earth may be just as real to them, as to us. I mean that it may have qualities as material to them, as it has to us; but neither of us could appreciate the other's realness, or the quality of realness in the earth, which was real to the other. It's so difficult to explain. Don't you understand?"
"Yes," he said. "Go on!"
"Well, if we were in what I might call a healthy atmosphere, they would be quite beyond our power to see or feel, or anything. And the same with them; but the more we're like this, the more real and actual they could grow to us. See? That is, the more we should become able to appreciate their form of materialness. That's all. I can't make it any clearer."
"Then, after all, you really think they're ghosts, or something of that sort?" Tammy said.
"I suppose it does come to that," I answered. "I mean that, anyway, I don't think they're our ideas of flesh and blood. But, of course, it's silly to say much; and, after all, you must remember that I may be all wrong."
"I think you ought to tell the Second Mate all this," he said. "If it's really as you say, the ship ought to be put into the nearest port, and jolly well burnt."
"The Second Mate couldn't do anything," I replied. "Even if he believed it all; which we're not certain he would."
"Perhaps not," Tammy answered. "But if you could get him to believe it, he might explain the whole business to the Skipper, and then something might be done. It's not safe as it is."
"He'd only get jeered at again," I said, rather hopelessly.
"No," said Tammy. "Not after what's happened tonight."
"Perhaps not," I replied, doubtfully. And just then the Second Mate came back on to the poop, and Tammy cleared away from the wheel-box, leaving me with a worrying feeling that I ought to do something.
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.
After the Coming of the Mist
After the coming of the mist, things seemed to develop pretty quickly. In the following two or three days a good deal happened.
On the night of the day on which the Skipper had sent me away from the wheel, it was our watch on deck from eight o' clock to twelve, and my look-out from ten to twelve.
As I paced slowly to and fro across the fo'cas'le head, I was thinking about the affair of the morning. At first, my thoughts were about the Old Man. I cursed him thoroughly to myself, for being a pig-headed old fool, until it occurred to me that if I had been in his place, and come on deck to find the ship almost aback, and the fellow at the wheel staring out across the sea, instead of attending to his business, I should most certainly have kicked up a thundering row. And then, I had been an ass to tell him about the ship. I should never have done such a thing, if I had not been a bit adrift. Most likely the old chap thought I was cracked.
I ceased to bother my head about him, and fell to wondering why the Second Mate had looked at me so queerly in the morning. Did he guess more of the truth than I supposed? And if that were the case, why had he refused to listen to me?
After that, I went to puzzling about the mist. I had thought a great deal about it, during the day. One idea appealed to me, very strongly. It was that the actual, visible mist was a materialised expression of an extraordinarily subtle atmosphere, in which we were moving.
Abruptly, as I walked backwards and forwards, taking occasional glances over the sea (which was almost calm), my eye caught the glow of a light out in the darkness. I stood still, and stared. I wondered whether it was the light of a vessel. In that case we were no longer enveloped in that extraordinary atmosphere. I bent forward, and gave the thing my more immediate attention. I saw then that it was undoubtedly the green light of a vessel on our port bow. It was plain that she was bent on crossing our bows. What was more, she was dangerously near—the size and brightness of her light showed that. She would be close-hauled, while we were going free, so that, of course, it was our place to get out of her way. Instantly, I turned and, putting my hands up to my mouth, hailed the Second Mate:
"Light on the port bow, Sir."
The next moment his hail came back:
"He must be blind," I said to myself.
"About two points on the bow, Sir," I sung out.
Then I turned to see whether she had shifted her position at all. Yet, when I came to look, there was no light visible. I ran forrard to the bows, and leant over the rail, and stared; but there was nothing— absolutely nothing except the darkness all about us. For perhaps a few seconds I stood thus, and a suspicion swept across me, that the whole business was practically a repetition of the affair of the morning. Evidently, the impalpable something that invested the ship, had thinned for an instant, thus allowing me to see the light ahead. Now, it had closed again. Yet, whether I could see, or not, I did not doubt the fact that, there was a vessel ahead, and very close ahead, too. We might run on top of her any minute. My only hope was that, seeing we were not getting out of her way, she had put her helm up, so as to let us pass, with the intention of then crossing under our stern. I waited, pretty anxiously, watching and listening. Then, all at once, I heard steps coming along the deck, forrard, and the 'prentice, whose time-keeping it was, came up on to the fo'cas'le head.
"The Second Mate says he can't see any light Jessop," he said, coming over to where I stood. "Whereabouts is it?"
"I don't know," I answered. "I've lost sight of it myself. It was a green light, about a couple of points on the port bow. It seemed fairly close."
"Perhaps their lamp's gone out," he suggested, after peering out pretty hard into the night for a minute or so.
"Perhaps," I said.
I did not tell him that the light had been so close that, even in the darkness, we should now have been able to see the ship herself.
"You're quite sure it was a light, and not a star?" he asked, doubtfully, after another long stare.
"Oh! no," I said. "It may have been the moon, now I come to think about it."
"Don't rot," he replied. "It's easy enough to make a mistake. What shall I say to the Second Mate?"
"Tell him it's disappeared, of course!"
"Where to?" he asked.
"How the devil should I know?" I told him. "Don't ask silly questions!"
"All right, keep your rag in," he said, and went aft to report to the Second Mate.
Five minutes later, it might have been, I saw the light again. It was broad on the bow, and told me plainly enough that she had up with her helm to escape being run down. I did not wait a moment; but sung out to the Second Mate that there was a green light about four points on the port bow. By Jove! it must have been a close shave. The light did not seem to be more than about a hundred yards away. It was fortunate that we had not much way through the water.
"Now," I thought to myself, "the Second will see the thing. And perhaps Mr. Blooming 'prentice will be able to give the star its proper name."
Even as the thought came into my head, the light faded and vanished; and I caught the Second Mate's voice.
"Whereaway?" he was singing out.
"It's gone again, Sir," I answered.
A minute later, I heard him coming along the deck.
He reached the foot of the starboard ladder.
"Where are you, Jessop?" he inquired.
"Here, Sir," I said, and went to the top of the weather ladder.
He came up slowly on to the fo'cas'le head.
"What's this you've been singing out about a light?" he asked. "Just point out exactly where it was you last saw it."
This I did, and he went over to the port rail, and stared away into the night; but without seeing anything.
"It's gone, Sir," I ventured to remind him. "Though I've seen it twice now—once, about a couple of points on the bow, and this last time, broad away on the bow; but it disappeared both times, almost at once."
"I don't understand it at all, Jessop," he said, in a puzzled voice. "Are you sure it was a ship's light?"
"Yes, Sir. A green light. It was quite close."
"I don't understand," he said again. "Run aft and ask the 'prentice to pass you down my night glasses. Be as smart as you can."
"i, i, Sir," I replied, and ran aft.
In less than a minute, I was back with his binoculars; and, with them, he stared for some time at the sea to leeward.
All at once he dropped them to his side, and faced round on me with a sudden question:
"Where's she gone to? If she's shifted her bearing as quickly as all that, she must be precious close. We should be able to see her spars and sails, or her cabin light, or her binnacle light, or something!"
"It's queer, Sir," I assented.
"Damned queer," he said. "So damned queer that I'm inclined to think you've made a mistake."
"No, Sir. I'm certain it was a light."
"Where's the ship then?" he asked.
"I can't say, Sir. That's just what's been puzzling me."
The Second said nothing in reply; but took a couple of quick turns across the fo'cas'le head—stopping at the port rail, and taking another look to leeward through his night glasses. Perhaps a minute he stood there. Then, without a word, he went down the lee ladder, and away aft along the main deck to the poop.
"He's jolly well puzzled," I thought to myself. "Or else he thinks I've been imagining things." Either way, I guessed he'd think that.
In a little, I began to wonder whether, after all, he had any idea of what might be the truth. One minute, I would feel certain he had; and the next, I was just as sure that he guessed nothing. I got one of my fits of asking myself whether it would not have been better to have told him everything. It seemed to me that he must have seen sufficient to make him inclined to listen to me. And yet, I could not by any means be certain. I might only have been making an ass of myself, in his eyes. Or set him thinking I was dotty.
I was walking about the fo'cas'le head, feeling like this, when I saw the light for the third time. It was very bright and big, and I could see it move, as I watched. This again showed me that it must be very close.
"Surely," I thought, "the Second Mate must see it now, for himself."
I did not sing out this time, right away. I thought I would let the Second see for himself that I had not been mistaken. Besides, I was not going to risk its vanishing again, the instant I had spoken. For quite half a minute, I watched it, and there was no sign of its disappearing. Every moment, I expected to hear the Second Mate's hail, showing that he had spotted it at last; but none came.
I could stand it no longer, and I ran to the rail, on the after part of the fo'cas'le head.
"Green light a little abaft the beam, Sir!" I sung out, at the top of my voice.
But I had waited too long. Even as I shouted, the light blurred and vanished.
I stamped my foot and swore. The thing was making a fool of me. Yet, I had a faint hope that those aft had seen it just before it disappeared; but this I knew was vain, directly I heard the Second's voice.
"Light be damned!" he shouted.
Then he blew his whistle, and one of the men ran aft, out of the fo'cas'le, to see what it was he wanted.
"Whose next look-out is it?" I heard him ask.
"Then tell Jaskett to relieve Jessop at once. Do you hear?"
"Yes, Sir," said the man, and came forrard.
In a minute, Jaskett stumbled up onto the fo'cas'le head.
"What's up, mate?" he asked sleepily.
"It's that fool of a Second Mate!" I said, savagely. "I've reported a light to him three times, and, because the blind fool can't see it, he's sent you up to relieve me!"
"Where is it, mate?" he inquired.
He looked round at the dark sea.
"I don't see no light," he remarked, after a few moments.
"No," I said. "It's gone."
"Eh?" he inquired.
"It's gone!" I repeated, irritably.
He turned and regarded me silently, through the dark.
"I'd go an' 'ave a sleep, mate," he said, at length. "I've been that way meself. Ther's nothin' like a snooze w'en yer gets like that."
"What!" I said. "Like what?"
"It's all right, mate. Yer'll be all right in ther mornin'. Don't yer worry 'bout me." His tone was sympathetic.
"Hell!" was all I said, and walked down off the fo'cas'le head. I wondered whether the old fellow thought I was going silly.
"Have a sleep, by Jove!" I muttered to myself. "I wonder who'd feel like having a sleep after what I've seen and stood today!"
I felt rotten, with no one understanding what was really the matter. I seemed to be all alone, through the things I had learnt. Then the thought came to me to go aft and talk the matter over with Tammy. I knew he would be able to understand, of course; and it would be such a relief.
On the impulse, I turned and went aft, along the deck to the 'prentices' berth. As I neared the break of the poop, I looked up and saw the dark shape of the Second Mate, leaning over the rail above me.
"Who's that?" he asked.
"It's Jessop, Sir," I said.
"What do you want in this part of the ship?" he inquired.
"I'd come aft to speak to Tammy, Sir," I replied.
"You go along forrard and turn-in," he said, not altogether unkindly. "A sleep will do you more good than yarning about. You know, you're getting to fancy things too much!"
"I'm sure I'm not, Sir! I'm perfectly well. I—"
"That will do!" he interrupted, sharply. "You go and have a sleep."
I gave a short curse, under my breath, and went slowly forrard. I was getting maddened with being treated as if I were not quite sane.
"By God!" I said to myself. "Wait till the fools know what I know—just wait!"
I entered the fo'cas'le, through the port doorway, and went across to my chest, and sat down. I felt angry and tired, and miserable.
Quoin and Plummer were sitting close by, playing cards, and smoking. Stubbins lay in his bunk, watching them, and also smoking. As I sat down, he put his head forward over the bunk-board, and regarded me in a curious, meditative way.
"What's hup with ther Second hoffcer?" he asked, after a short stare.
I looked at him, and the other two men looked up at me. I felt I should go off with a bang, if I did not say something, and I let out pretty stiffly, telling them the whole business. Yet, I had seen enough to know that it was no good trying to explain things; so I just told them the plain, bold facts, and left explanations as much alone as possible.
"Three times, you say?" said Stubbins when I had finished.
"Yes," I assented.
"An' ther Old Man sent yer from ther wheel this mornin', 'cause yer 'appened ter see a ship 'e couldn't," Plummer added in a reflective tone.
"Yes," I said, again.
I thought I saw him look at Quoin, significantly; but Stubbins, I noticed, looked only at me.
"I reckon ther Second thinks you're a bit hoff colour," he remarked, after a short pause.
"The Second Mate's a fool!" I said, with some bitterness. "A confounded fool!"
"I hain't so sure about that," he replied. "It's bound ter seem queer ter him. I don't understand it myself—"
He lapsed into silence, and smoked.
"I carn't understand 'ow it is ther Second Mate didn't 'appen to spot it," Quoin said, in a puzzled voice.
It seemed to me that Plummer nudged him to be quiet. It looked as if Plummer shared the Second Mate's opinion, and the idea made me savage. But Stubbins's next remark drew my attention.
"I don't hunderstand it," he said, again; speaking with deliberation. "All ther same, ther Second should have savvied enough not to have slung you hoff ther look-hout."
He nodded his head, slowly, keeping his gaze fixed on my face.
"How do you mean?" I asked, puzzled; yet with a vague sense that the man understood more, perhaps, than I had hitherto thought.
"I mean what's ther Second so blessed cocksure about?"
He took a draw at his pipe, removed it, and leant forward somewhat, over his bunk-board.
"Didn't he say nothin' ter you, after you came hoff ther look-hout?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied; "he spotted me going aft. He told me I was getting to imagining things too much. He said I'd better come forrard and get a sleep."
"An' what did you say?"
"Nothing. I came forrard."
"Why didn't you bloomin' well harsk him if he weren't doin' ther imaginin' trick when he sent us chasin' hup ther main, hafter that bogyman of his?"
"I never thought of it," I told him.
"Well, yer ought ter have."
He paused, and sat up in his bunk, and asked for a match.
As I passed him my box, Quoin looked up from his game.
"It might 'ave been a stowaway, yer know. Yer carn't say as it's ever been proved as it wasn't."
Stubbins passed the box back to me, and went on without noticing Quoin's remark:
"Told you to go an' have a snooze, did he? I don't hunderstand what he's bluffin' at."
"How do you mean, bluffing?" I asked.
He nodded his head, sagely.
"It's my hidea he knows you saw that light, just as bloomin' well as I do."
Plummer looked up from his game, at this speech; but said nothing.
"Then you don't doubt that I really saw it?" I asked, with a certain surprise.
"Not me," he remarked, with assurance. "You hain't likely ter make that kind of mistake three times runnin'."
"No," I said. "I know I saw the light, right enough; but"—I hesitated a moment—"it's blessed queer."
"It is blessed queer!" he agreed. "It's damned queer! An' there's a lot of other damn queer things happenin' aboard this packet lately."
He was silent for a few seconds. Then he spoke suddenly:
"It's not nat'ral, I'm damned sure of that much."
He took a couple of draws at his pipe, and in the momentary silence, I caught Jaskett's voice, above us. He was hailing the poop.
"Red light on the starboard quarter, Sir," I heard him sing out.
"There you are," I said with a jerk of my head. "That's about where that packet I spotted, ought to be by now. She couldn't cross our bows, so she up helm, and let us pass, and now she's hauled up again and gone under our stern."
I got up from the chest, and went to the door, the other three following. As we stepped out on deck, I heard the Second Mate shouting out, away aft, to know the whereabouts of the light.
"By Jove! Stubbins," I said. "I believe the blessed thing's gone again."
We ran to the starboard side, in a body, and looked over; but there was no sign of a light in the darkness astern.
"I carn't say as I see any light," said Quoin.
Plummer said nothing.
I looked up at the fo'cas'le head. There, I could faintly distinguish the outlines of Jaskett. He was standing by the starboard rail, with his hands up, shading his eyes, evidently staring towards the place where he had last seen the light.
"Where's she got to, Jaskett?" I called out.
"I can't say, mate," he answered. "It's the most 'ellishly funny thing I've ever comed across. She were there as plain as me 'att one minnit, an' ther next she were gone—clean gone."
I turned to Plummer.
"What do you think about it, now?" I asked him.
"Well," he said. "I'll admit I thought at first 'twere somethin' an' nothin'. I thought yer was mistaken; but it seems yer did see somethin'."
Away aft, we heard the sound of steps, along the deck.
"Ther Second's comin' forrard for a hexplanation, Jaskett," Stubbins sung out. "You'd better go down an' change yer breeks."
The Second Mate passed us, and went up the starboard ladder.
"What's up now, Jaskett?" he said quickly. "Where is this light? Neither the 'prentice nor I can see it!"
"Ther damn thing's clean gone, Sir," Jaskett replied.
"Gone!" the Second Mate said. "Gone! What do you mean?"
"She were there one minnit, Sir, as plain as me 'att, an' ther next, she'd gone."
"That's a damn silly yarn to tell me!" the Second replied. "You don't expect me to believe it, do you?"
"It's Gospel trewth any'ow, Sir," Jaskett answered. "An' Jessop seen it just ther same."
He seemed to have added that last part as an afterthought. Evidently, the old beggar had changed his opinion as to my need for sleep.
"You're an old fool, Jaskett," the Second said, sharply. "And that idiot Jessop has been putting things into your silly old head."
He paused, an instant. Then he continued:
"What the devil's the matter with you all, that you've taken to this sort of game? You know very well that you saw no light! I sent Jessop off the look-out, and then you must go and start the same game."
"We 'aven't—" Jaskett started to say; but the Second silenced him.
"Stow it!" he said, and turned and went down the ladder, passing us quickly, without a word.
"Doesn't look to me, Stubbins," I said, "as though the Second did believe we've seen the light."
"I hain't so sure," he answered. "He's a puzzler."
The rest of the watch passed away quietly; and at eight bells I made haste to turn-in, for I was tremendously tired.
When we were called again for the four to eight watch on deck, I learnt that one of the men in the Mate's watch had seen a light, soon after we had gone below, and had reported it, only for it to disappear immediately. This, I found, had happened twice, and the Mate had got so wild (being under the impression that the man was playing the fool) that he had nearly came to blows with him—finally ordering him off the look-out, and sending another man up in his place. If this last man saw the light, he took good care not to let the Mate know; so that the matter had ended there.
And then, on the following night, before we had ceased to talk about the matter of the vanishing lights, something else occurred that temporarily drove from my mind all memory of the mist, and the extraordinary, blind atmosphere it had seemed to usher.
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, on 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 up now?" he called, in a startled voice. At the same instant, his cap went whirling away to leeward.
"Damn the wind!" he burst out.
Then all at once, Jacobs, who had only been giving an occasional moan, commenced to shriek and struggle.
"Hold fast onto him!" Stubbins yelled. "He'll be throwin' himself off the 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 waiting 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.
"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 came 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.
Hands That Plucked
Directly we reached the deck, the Second Mate gave the order:
"Mizzen t'gallant clewlines and buntlines," and led the way up on to the poop. He went and stood by the haulyards, ready to lower away. As I walked across to the starboard clewline, I saw that the Old Man was on deck, and as I took hold of the rope, I heard him sing out to the Second Mate.
"Call all hands to shorten sail, Mr. Tulipson."
"Very good, Sir," the Second Mate replied. Then he raised his voice:
"Go forrard, you, Jessop, and call all hands to shorten sail. You'd better give them a call in the bosun's place, as you go."
"i, i, Sir," I sung out, and hurried off.
As I went, I heard him tell Tammy to go down and call the Mate.
Reaching the fo'cas'le, I put my head in through the starboard doorway, and found some of the men beginning to turn-in.
"It's all hands on deck, shorten sail," I sung out.
I stepped inside.
"Just wot I said," grumbled one of the men.
"They don't damn well think we're goin' aloft to-night, after what's happened?" asked another.
"We've been up to the main royal," I answered. "The Second Mate went with us."
"Wot?" said the first man. "Ther Second Mate hisself?"
"Yes," I replied. "The whole blooming watch went up."
"An' wot 'appened?" he asked.
"Nothing," I said. "Nothing at all. We just made a mouthful apiece of it, and came down again."
"All the same," remarked the second man, "I don't fancy goin' upstairs, after what's happened."
"Well," I replied. "It's not a matter of fancy. We've got to get the sail off her, or there'll be a mess. One of the 'prentices told me the glass is falling."
"Come erlong, boys. We've got ter du it," said one of the older men, rising from a chest, at this point. "What's it duin' outside, mate?"
"Raining," I said. "You'll want your oilskins."
I hesitated a moment before going on deck again. From the bunk forrard among the shadows, I had seemed to hear a faint moan.
"Poor beggar!" I thought to myself.
Then the old chap who had last spoken, broke in upon my attention.
"It's awl right, mate!" he said, rather testily. "Yer needn't wait. We'll be out in er minit."
"That's all right. I wasn't thinking about you lot," I replied, and walked forrard to Jacobs's bunk. Some time before, he had rigged up a pair of curtains, cut out of an old sack, to keep off the draught. These, some one had drawn, so that I had to pull them aside to see him. He was lying on his back, breathing in a queer, jerky fashion. I could not see his face, plainly; but it seemed rather pale, in the half-light.
"Jacobs," I said. "Jacobs, how do you feel now?" but he made no sign to show that he had heard me. And so, after a few moments, I drew the curtains to again, and left him.
"What like does 'e seem?" asked one of the fellows, as I went towards the door.
"Bad," I said. "Damn bad! I think the Steward ought to be told to come and have a look at him. I'll mention it to the Second when I get a chance."
I stepped out on deck, and ran aft again to give them a hand with the sail. We got it hauled up, and then went forrard to the fore t'gallant. And, a minute later, the other watch were out, and, with the Mate, were busy at the main.
By the time the main was ready for making fast, we had the fore hauled up, so that now all three t'gallants were in the ropes, and ready for stowing. Then came the order:
"Up aloft and furl!"
"Up with you, lads," the Second Mate said. "Don't let's have any hanging back this time."
Away aft by the main, the men in the Mate's watch seemed to be standing in a clump by the mast; but it was too dark to see clearly. I heard the Mate start to curse; then there came a growl, and he shut up.
"Be handy, men! be handy!" the Second Mate sung out.
At that, Stubbins jumped into the rigging.
"Come hon!" he shouted. "We'll have ther bloomin' sail fast, an' down hon deck again before they're started."
Plummer followed; then Jaskett, I, and Quoin who had been called down off the look-out to give a hand.
"That's the style, lads!" the Second sung out, encouragingly. Then he ran aft to the Mate's crowd. I heard him and the Mate talking to the men, and presently, when we were going over the foretop, I made out that they were beginning to get into the rigging.
I found out, afterwards, that as soon as the Second Mate had seen them off the deck, he went up to the mizzen t'gallant, along with the four 'prentices.
On our part, we made our way slowly aloft, keeping one hand for ourselves and the other for the ship, as you can fancy. In this manner we had gone as far as the crosstrees, at least, Stubbins, who was first, had; when, all at once, he gave out just another such cry as had the Second Mate a little earlier, only that in his case he followed it by turning round and blasting Plummer.
"You might have blarsted well sent me flyin' down hon deck," he shouted. "If you bl—dy well think it's a joke, try it hon some one else—"
"It wasn't me!" interrupted Plummer. "I 'aven't touched yer. 'oo the 'ell are yer swearin' at?"
"At you—!" I heard him reply; but what more he may have said, was lost in a loud shout from Plummer.
"What's up, Plummer?" I sung out. "For God's sake, you two, don't get fighting, up aloft!"
But a loud, frightened curse was all the answer he gave. Then straightway, he began to shout at the top of his voice, and in the lulls of his noise, I caught the voice of Stubbins, cursing savagely.
"They'll come down with a run!" I shouted, helplessly. "They'll come down as sure as nuts."
I caught Jaskett by the boot.
"What are they doing? What are they doing?" I sung out. "Can't you see?" I shook his leg as I spoke. But at my touch, the old idiot—as I thought him at the moment—began to shout in a frightened voice:
"Oh! oh! help! hel—!"
"Shut up!" I bellowed. "Shut up, you old fool. If you won't do anything, let me get past you."
Yet he only cried out the more. And then, abruptly, I caught the sound of a frightened clamour of men's voices, away down somewhere about the maintop—curses, cries of fear, even shrieks, and above it all, someone shouting to go down on deck:
"Get down! get down! down! down! Blarst—" The rest was drowned in a fresh outburst of hoarse crying in the night.
I tried to get past old Jaskett; but he was clinging to the rigging, sprawled on to it, is the best way to describe his attitude, so much of it as I could see in the darkness. Up above him, Stubbins and Plummer still shouted and cursed, and the shrouds quivered and shook, as though the two were fighting desperately.
Stubbins seemed to be shouting something definite; but whatever it was, I could not catch.
At my helplessness, I grew angry, and shook and prodded Jaskett, to make him move.
"Damn you, Jaskett!" I roared. "Damn you for a funky old fool! Let me get past! Let me get past, will you!"
But, instead of letting me pass, I found that he was beginning to make his way down. At that, I caught him by the slack of his trousers, near the stern, with my right hand, and with the other, I got hold of the after shroud somewhere above his left hip; by these means, I fairly hoisted myself up on to the old fellow's back. Then, with my right, I could reach to the forrard shroud, over his right shoulder, and having got a grip, I shifted my left to a level with it; at the same moment, I was able to get my foot on to the splice of a ratline and so give myself a further lift. Then I paused an instant, and glanced up.
"Stubbins! Stubbins!" I shouted. "Plummer! Plummer!"
And even as I called, Plummer's foot—reaching down through the gloom— alighted full on my upturned face. I let go from the rigging with my right hand, and struck furiously at his leg, cursing him for his clumsiness. He lifted his foot, and in the same instant a sentence from Stubbins floated down to me, with a strange distinctness:
"For God's sake tell 'em to get down hon deck!" he was shouting.
Even as the words came to me, something in the darkness gripped my waist. I made a desperate clutch at the rigging with my disengaged right hand, and it was well for me that I secured the hold so quickly, for the same instant, I was wrenched at with a brutal ferocity that appalled me. I said nothing, but lashed out into the night with my left foot. It is queer, but I cannot say with certainty that I struck anything; I was too downright desperate with funk, to be sure; and yet it seemed to me that my foot encountered something soft, that gave under the blow. It may have been nothing more than an imagined sensation; yet I am inclined to think otherwise; for, instantly, the hold about my waist was released; and I commenced to scramble down, clutching the shrouds pretty desperately.
I have only a very uncertain remembrance of that which followed. Whether I slid over Jaskett, or whether he gave way to me, I cannot tell. I know only that I reached the deck, in a blind whirl of fear and excitement, and the next thing I remember, I was among a crowd of shouting, half-mad sailor-men.
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.
"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." 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?
[Footnote 1: Modified from the original.]
Abruptly, I heard the Skipper shouting, away forward. 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.
A few minutes later, the Second Mate came forrard again. I was still standing near the rigging, holding the lantern, in an aimless sort of way.
"That you, Plummer?" he asked.
"No, Sir," I said. "It's Jessop."
"Where's Plummer, then?" he inquired.
"I don't know, Sir," I answered. "I expect he's gone forrard. Shall I go and tell him you want him?"