“It’s the material,” said the old ship’s doctor — “the material plus the conditions — and, maybe,” he added slowly, “a third factor — yes, a third factor; but there, there ——” He broke off his half-meditative sentence and began to charge his pipe.
“Go on, doctor,” we said encouragingly, and with more than a little expectancy. We were in the smoke-room of the Sand-a-lea, running across the North Atlantic; and the doctor was a character. He concluded the charging of his pipe, and lit it; then settled himself, and began to express himself more fully.
“The material,” he said with conviction, “is inevitably the medium of expression of the life-force — the fulcrum, as it were; lacking which it is unable to exert itself, or, indeed, to express itself in any form or fashion that would be intelligible or evident to us. So potent is the share of the material in the production of that thing which we name life, and so eager the life-force to express itself, that I am convinced it would, if given the right conditions, make itself manifest even through so hopeless seeming a medium as a simple block of sawn wood; for I tell you, gentlemen, the life-force is both as fiercely urgent and as indiscriminate as fire — the destructor; yet which some are now growing to consider the very essence of life rampant. There is a quaint seeming paradox there,” he concluded, nodding his old grey head.
“Anyway,” he continued, “as I suppose you’ve all guessed, I’ve a yarn to tell you in support of my impression that life is no more a mystery or a miracle than fire or electricity. But, please to remember, gentlemen, that because we’ve succeeded in naming and making good use of these two forces, they’re just as much mysteries, fundamentally as ever. And, anyway, the thing I’m going to tell you won’t explain the mystery of life, but only give you one of my pegs on which I hang my feeling that life is as I have said, a force made manifest through conditions — that is to say, natural chemistry — and that it can take for its purpose and need, the most incredible and unlikely matter; for without matter it cannot come into existence — it cannot become manifest ——”
“I don’t agree with you, doctor,” I interrupted. “Your theory would destroy all belief in life after death. It would ——”
“Hush, sonny,” said the old man, with a quiet little smile of comprehension. “Hark to what I’ve to say first; and, anyway, what objection have you to material life after death? And if you object to a material framework, I would still have you remember that I am speaking of life, as we understand the word in this our life. Now do be a quiet lad, or I’ll never be done:
“It was when I was a young man, and that is a good many years ago, gentlemen. I had passed my examinations, but was so run down with overwork that it was decided that I had better take a trip to sea. I was by no means well off, and very glad in the end to secure a nominal post as doctor in the sailing passenger clipper running out to China.
“The name of the ship was the Bheospse, and soon after I had got all my gear aboard she cast off, and we dropped down the Thames, and next day were well away out in the Channel. The captain’s name was Gannington, a very decent man, though quite illiterate. The first mate, Mr. Berlies, was a quiet, sternish, reserved man, very well-read. The second mate, Mr. Selvern, was, perhaps, by birth and upbringing, the most socially cultured of the three, but he lacked the stamina and indomitable pluck of the two others. He was more of a sensitive, and emotionally and even mentally, the most alert man of the three.
“On our way out, we called at Madagascar, where we landed some of our passengers; then we ran eastward, meaning to call at North-West Cape; but about a hundred degrees east we encountered very dreadful weather, which carried away all our sails, and sprung the jibboom and foret’gallantmast.
“The storm carried us northward for several hundred miles, and when it dropped us finally, we found ourselves in a very bad state. The ship had been strained, and had taken some three feet of water through her seams; the maintopmast had been sprung, in addition to the jibboom and foret’gallantmast, two of our boats had gone, as also one of the pigstys, with three fine pigs, these latter having been washed overboard but some half-hour before the wind began to ease, which it did very quickly, though a very ugly sea ran for some hours after.
“The wind left us just before dark, and when morning came it brought splendid weather — a calm, mildly undulating sea, and a brilliant sun, with no wind. It showed us also that we were not alone, for about two miles away to the westward was another vessel, which Mr. Selvern, the second mate, pointed out to me.
“‘That’s a pretty rum-looking, packet, doctor,’ he said, and handed me his glass.
“I looked through it at the other vessel, and saw what he meant; at least, I thought I did.
“‘Yes, Mr. Selvern,’ I said. ‘She’s got a pretty old-fashioned look about her.’
“He laughed at me in his pleasant way.
“‘It’s easy to see you’re not a sailor, doctor,’ he remarked. ‘There’s a dozen rum things about her. She’s a derelict, and has been floating round, by the look of her, for many a score of years. Look at the shape of her counter, and the bows and cutwater. She’s as old as the hills, as you might say, and ought to have gone down to Davy Jones a good while ago. Look at the growths on her, and the thickness of her standing rigging; that’s all salt encrustations, I fancy, if you notice the white colour. She’s been a small barque; but, don’t you see, she’s not a yard left aloft. They’ve all dropped out of the slings; everything rotted away; wonder the standing rigging hasn’t gone, too. I wish the old man would let us take the boat and have a look at her. She’d be well worth it.’
“‘There seemed little chance, however, of this, for all hands were turned to and kept hard at it all day long repairing the damage to the masts and gear; and this took a long while, as you may think. Part of the time I gave a hand heaving on one of the deck capstans, for the exercise was good for my liver. Old Captain Gannington approved, and I persuaded him to come along and try some of the same medicine, which he did; and we got very chummy over the job.
“We got talking about the derelict, and he remarked how lucky we were not to have run full tilt on to her in the darkness, for she lay right away to leeward of us, according, to the way that we had been drifting in the storm. He also was of the opinion that she had a strange look about her, and that she was pretty old; but on this latter point he plainly had far less knowledge than the second mate, for he was, as I have said, an illiterate man, and knew nothing of seacraft beyond what experience had taught him. He lacked the book knowledge which the second mate had of vessels previous to his day, which it appeared the derelict was.
“‘She’s an old ‘un, doctor,’ was the extent of observations in this direction.
“Yet, when I mentioned to him that it would be interesting to go aboard and give her a bit of an overhaul, he nodded his head as if the idea had been already in his mind and accorded with his own inclinations.
“‘When the work’s over, doctor,’ he said. ‘Can’t spare the men now, ye know. Got to get all shipshape an’ ready as smart as we can. But, we’ll take my gig, an’ go off in the second dog-watch. The glass is steady, an’ it’ll be a bit of gam for us.’
“That evening, after tea, the captain gave orders to clear the gig and get her overboard. The second mate was to come with us, and the skipper gave him word to see that two or three lamps were put into the boat, as it would soon fall dark. A little later we were pulling across the calmness of the sea with a crew of six at the oars, and making very good speed of it.
“Now, gentlemen, I have detailed to you with great exactness all the facts, both big and little, so that you can follow step by step each incident in this extraordinary affair, and I want you now to pay the closest attention. I was sitting in the stern-sheets with the second mate and the captain, who was steering, and as we drew nearer and nearer to the stranger I studied her with an ever-growing attention, as, indeed, did Captain Gannington and the second mate. She was, as you know, to the west-ward of us, and the sunset was making a great flame of red light to the back of her, so that she showed a little blurred and indistinct by reason of the halation of the light, which almost defeated the eye in any attempt to see her rotting spars and standing rigging, submerged, as they were, in the fiery glory of the sunset.
“It was because of this effect of the sunset that we had come quite close, comparatively, to the derelict before we saw that she was all surrounded by a sort of curious scum, the colour of which was difficult to decide upon by reason of the red light that was in the atmosphere, but which afterwards we discovered to be brown. This scum spread all about the old vessel for many hundreds of yards in a huge, irregular patch, a great stretch of which reached out to the eastward, upon the starboard side of the boat some score or so fathoms away.
“‘Queer stuff,’ said Captain Gannington, leaning to the side and looking over. ‘Something in the cargo as ‘as gone rotten, and worked out through ‘er seams.’
“‘Look at her bows and stern,’ said the second mate. ‘Just look at the growth on her!’
“There were, as he said, great clumpings of strange-looking sea-fungi under the bows and the short counter astern. From the stump of her jibboom and her cutwater great beards of rime and marine growths hung downward into the scum that held her in. Her blank starboard side was presented to us — all a dead, dirtyish white, streaked and mottled vaguely with dull masses of heavier colour.
“‘There’s a steam or haze rising off her,’ said the second mate, speaking again. ‘You can see it against the light. It keeps coming and going. Look!’
“I saw then what he meant — a faint haze or steam, either suspended above the old vessel or rising from her. And Captain Gannington saw it also.
“‘Spontaneous combustion!’ he exclaimed. ‘We’ll ‘ave to watch when we lift the ‘atches, ‘nless it’s some poor devil that’s got aboard of ‘er. But that ain’t likely.’
“We were now within a couple of hundred yards of the old derelict, and had entered into the brown scum. As it poured off the lifted oars I heard one of the men mutter to himself, ‘Dam’ treacle!’ And, indeed, it was not something unlike it. As the boat continued to forge nearer and nearer to the old ship the scum grew thicker and thicker, so that, at last, it perceptibly slowed us.
“‘Give way, lads! Put some beef to it!’ sang out Captain Gannington. And thereafter there was no sound except the panting of the men and the faint, reiterated suck, suck of the sullen brown scum upon the oars as the boat was forced ahead. As we went, I was conscious of a peculiar smell in the evening air, and whilst I had no doubt that the puddling of the scum by the oars made it rise, I could give no name to it; yet, in a way, it was vaguely familiar.
“We were now very close to the old vessel, and presently she was high about us against the dying light. The captain called out then to ‘in with the bow oars and stand by with the boat-hook,’ which was done.
“‘Aboard there! Ahoy! Aboard there! Ahoy!’ shouted Captain Gannington; but there came no answer, only the dull sound his voice going lost into the open sea, each time he sung out.
“Ahoy! Aboard there! Ahoy!’ he shouted time after time, but there was only the weary silence of the old hulk that answered us; and, somehow as he shouted, the while that I stared up half expectantly at her, a queer little sense of oppression, that amounted almost to nervousness, came upon me. It passed, but I remember how I was suddenly aware that it was growing dark. Darkness comes fairly rapidly in the tropics, though not so quickly as many fiction writers seem to think; but it was not that the coming dusk had perceptibly deepened in that brief time of only a few moments, but rather that my nerves had made me suddenly a little hypersensitive. I mention my state particularly, for I am not a nervy man normally, and my abrupt touch of nerves is significant, in the light of what happened.
“‘There’s no one on board there!’ said Captain Gannington. ‘Give way, men!’ For the boat’s crew had instinctively rested on their oars, as the captain hailed the old craft. The men gave way again; and then the second mate called out excitedly, ‘Why, look there, there’s our pigsty! See, it’s got Bheospse painted on the end. It’s drifted down here and the scum’s caught it. What a blessed wonder!’
“It was, as he had said, our pigsty that had been washed overboard in the storm; and most extraordinary to come across it there.
“‘We’ll tow it off with us, when we go,’ said the captain, and shouted to the crew to get down to their oars; for they were hardly moving the boat, because the scum was so thick, close in around the old ship, that it literally clogged the boat from moving. I remember that it struck me, in a half-conscious sort of way, as curious that the pigsty, containing our three dead pigs, had managed to drift in so far unaided, whilst we could scarcely manage to force the boat in, now that we had come right into the scum. But the thought passed from my mind, for so many things happened within the next few minutes.
“The men managed to bring the boat in alongside, within a couple of feet of the derelict, and the man with the boat-hook hooked on.
“Ave ye got ‘old there, forrard?’ asked Captain Gannington.
“‘Yessir!’ said the bowman; and as he spoke there came a queer noise of tearing.
“‘What’s that?’ asked the Captain.
“‘It’s tore, sir. Tore clean away!’ said the man, and his tone showed that he had received something of a shock.
“‘Get a hold again, then!’ said Captain Gannington irritably. ‘You don’t s’pose this packet was built yesterday! Shove the hook into the main chains’ The man did so gingerly, as you might say, for it seemed to me, in the growing dusk, that he put no strain on to the hook, though, of course there was no need — you see the boat could not go very far of herself, in the stuff in which she was imbedded. I remember thinking this, also as I looked up at the bulging side of the old vessel.
Then I heard Captain Gannington’s voice:
“‘Lord, but she s old! An’ what a colour, doctor! She don’t half want paint, do she? Now then, somebody, one of them oars.’ An oar was passed to him, and he leant it up against the ancient, bulging side; then he paused, and called to the second mate to light a couple of the lamps, and stand by to pass them up, for darkness had settled down now upon the sea.
“The second mate lit two of the lamps, and told one of the men to light a third, and keep it handy in the boat; then he stepped across, with a lamp in each hand, to where Captain Gannington stood by the oar against the side of the ship.
“‘Now, my lad,’ said the captain to the man who had pulled stroke, ‘up with you, an’ we’ll pass ye up the lamps.’
“The man jumped to obey, caught the oar, and put his weight upon it; and as he did so, something seemed to give way a little.
“‘Look!’ cried out the second mate, and pointed, lamp in hand. ‘It’s sunk in!’
“This was true. The oar had made quite an indentation into the bulging, somewhat slimy side of the old vessel.
“‘Mould, I reckon,’ said Captain Gannington, bending towards the derelict to look. Then to the man:
“‘Up you go, my lad, and be smart! Don’t stand there waitin’!’
“At that the man, who had paused a moment as he felt the oar give beneath his weight began to shin’ up, and in a few seconds he was aboard, and leant out over the rail for the lamps. These were passed up to him, and the captain called to him to steady the oar. Then Captain Gannington went, calling to me to follow, and after me the second mate.
“As the captain put his face over the rail, he gave a cry of astonishment.
“‘Mould, by gum! Mould — tons of it. Good lord!’
“As I heard him shout that I scrambled the more eagerly after him, and in a moment or two I was able to see what he meant — everywhere that the light from the two lamps struck there was nothing but smooth great masses and surfaces of a dirty white coloured mould. I climbed over the rail, with the second mate close behind, and stood upon the mould covered decks. There might have been no planking beneath the mould, for all that our feet could feel. It gave under our tread with a spongy, puddingy feel. It covered the deck furniture of the old ship, so that the shape of each article and fitment was often no more than suggested through it.
“Captain Gannington snatched a lamp from the man and the second mate reached for the other. They held the lamps high, and we all stared. It was most extraordinary, and somehow most abominable. I can think of no other word, gentlemen, that so much describes the predominant feeling that affected me at the moment.
“‘Good lord!’ said Captain Gannington several times. ‘Good lord!’ But neither the second mate nor the man said anything, and, for my part I just stared, and at the same time began to smell a little at the air, for there was a vague odour of something half familiar, that somehow brought to me a sense of half-known fright.
“I turned this way and that, staring, as I have said. Here and there the mould was so heavy as to entirely disguise what lay beneath, converting the deck-fittings into indistinguishable mounds of mould all dirty-white and blotched and veined with irregular, dull, purplish markings.
“There was a strange thing about the mould which Captain Gannington drew attention to — it was that our feet did not crush into it and break the surface, as might have been expected, but merely indented it.
“‘Never seen nothin’ like it before! Never!’ said the captain after having stooped with his lamp to examine the mould under our feet. He stamped with his heel, and the mould gave out a dull, puddingy sound. He stooped again, with a quick movement, and stared, holding the lamp close to the deck. ‘Blest if it ain’t a reg’lar skin to it!’
“The second mate and the man and I all stooped and looked at it. The second mate progged it with his forefinger, and I remember I rapped it several times with my knuckles, listening to the dead sound it gave out, and noticing the close, firm texture of the mould.
“‘Dough!’ the second mate. ‘It’s just like blessed dough! Pouf!’ He stood up with a quick movement. ‘I could fancy it stinks a bit,’ he said.
“As he said this I knew, suddenly, what the familiar thing was in the vague odour that hung about us — it was that the smell had something animal-like in it; something of the same smell, only heavier, that you would smell in any place that is infested with mice. I began to look about with a sudden very real uneasiness. There might be vast numbers of hungry rats aboard. They might prove exceedingly dangerous, if in a starving condition; yet, as you will understand, somehow I hesitated to put forward my idea as a reason for caution, it was too fanciful.
“Captain Gannington had begun to go aft along the mould-covered main-deck with the second mate, each of them holding their lamps high up, so as to cast a good light about the vessel. I turned quickly and followed them, the man with me keeping close to my heels, and plainly uneasy. As we went, I became aware that there was a feeling of moisture in the air, and I remembered the slight mist, or smoke, above the hulk, which had made Captain Gannington suggest spontaneous combustion in explanation.
“And always, as we went, there was that vague, animal smell; suddenly I found myself wishing we were well away from the old vessel.
“Abruptly, after a few paces, the captain stopped and pointed at a row of mould-hidden shapes on each side of the maindeck. ‘Guns,’ he said. ‘Been a privateer in the old days, I guess — maybe worse! We’ll ‘ave a look below, doctor; there may be something worth touchin’. She’s older than I thought. Mr. Selvern thinks she’s about two hundred years old; but I scarce think it.’
“We continued our way aft, and I remember that I found myself walking as lightly and gingerly as possible, as if I were subconsciously afraid of treading through the rotten, mould-hid decks. I think the others had a touch of the same feeling, from the way that they walked. Occasionally the soft stuff would grip our heels, releasing them with a little sullen suck.
“The captain forged somewhat ahead of the second mate; and I know that the suggestion he had made himself, that perhaps there might be something below worth carrying away, had stimulated his imagination. The second mate was, however, beginning to feel somewhat the same way that I did; at least I have that impression. I think, if it had not been for what I might truly describe as Captain Gannington’s sturdy courage, we should all of us have just gone back over the side very soon, for there was most certainly an unwholesome feeling abroad that made one feel queerly lacking in pluck; and you will soon see that this feeling was justified.
“Just as the captain reached the few mould-covered steps leading up on to the short half-poop, I was suddenly aware that the feeling of moisture in the air had grown very much more definite. It was perceptible now, intermittently, as a sort of thin, moist, fog-like vapour, that came and went oddly, and seemed to make the decks a little indistinct to the view, this time and that. Once an odd puff of it beat up suddenly from somewhere, and caught me in the face, carrying a queer, sickly, heavy odour with it that somehow frightened me strangely with a suggestion of a waiting and half-comprehended danger.
“We had followed Captain Gannington up the three mould covered steps, and now went slowly along the raised after-deck. By the mizzenmast Captain Gannington paused, and held his lantern near to it. ‘My word, mister,’ he said to the second mate, ‘it’s fair thickened up with mould! Why, I’ll g’antee it’s close on four foot thick.’ He shone the light down to where it met the deck. ‘Good lord!’ he said. ‘Look at the sea-lice on it!’ I stepped up, and it was as he had said; the sea-lice were thick upon it, some of them huge, not less than the size of large beetles, and all a clear, colourless shade, like water, except where there were little spots of grey on them.
“‘I’ve never seen the like of them, ‘cept on a live cod,’ said Captain Gannington, in an extremely puzzled voice. ‘My word! But they’re whoppers!’ Then he passed on; but a few paces farther aft he stopped again, and held his lamp near to the mould-hidden deck.
“‘Lord bless me, doctor,’ he called out, in a low voice, ‘did ye ever see the like of that? Why, it’s a foot long, if it’s a hinch!’
“I stooped over his shoulder, and saw what he meant; it was a clear, colourless creature about a foot long, and about eight inches high, with a curved back that was extraordinarily narrow. As we stared, all in a group, it gave a queer little flick, and was gone.
“‘Jumped!’ said the captain. ‘Well, if that ain’t a giant of all the sea-lice that ever I’ve seen. I guess it’s jumped twenty foot clear.’ He straightened his back, and scratched his head a moment, swinging the lantern this way and that with the other hand, and staring about us. ‘Wot are they doin’ aboard ‘ere?’ he said. ‘You’ll see ’em — little things — on fat cod an’ such-like. I’m blowed, doctor, if I understand.’
“He held his lamp towards a big mound of the mould that occupied part of the after portion of the low poop-deck, a little foreside of where there came a two-foot high ‘break’ to a kind of second and loftier poop, that ran away aft to the taffrail. The mound was pretty big, several feet across, and more than a yard high. Captain Gannington walked up to it.
“‘I reck’n this’s the scuttle,’ he remarked, and gave it a heavy kick. The only result was a deep indentation into the huge, whiteish hump of mould, as if he had driven his foot into a mass of some doughy substance. Yet I am not altogether correct in saying that this was the only result, for a certain other thing happened. From the place made by the captain’s foot there came a sudden gush of a purplish fluid, accompanied by a peculiar smell, that was, and was not, half familiar. Some of the mould-like substance had stuck to the toe of the captain’s boot, and from this likewise there issued a sweat, as it were, of the same colour.
“‘Well?’ said Captain Gannington, in surprise, and drew back his foot to make another kick at the hump of mould. But he paused at an exclamation from the second mate:
“‘Don’t sir,’ said the second mate.
“I glanced at him, and the light from Captain Gannington’s lamp showed me that his face had a bewildered, half-frightened look, as if he were suddenly and unexpectedly half afraid of something, and as if his tongue had given away his sudden fright, without any intention on his part to speak. The captain also turned and stared at him.
“‘Why, mister?’ he asked, in a somewhat puzzled voice, through which there sounded just the vaguest hint of annoyance. ‘We’ve got to shift this muck, if we’re to get below.’
“I looked at the second mate, and it seemed to me that, curiously enough he was listening less to the captain than to some other sound. Suddenly he said, in a queer voice, ‘Listen, everybody!’
“Yet we heard nothing, beyond the faint murmur of the men talking together in the boat alongside.
“‘I don’t, hear nothing,’ said Captain Gannington, after a short pause. ‘Do you, doctor?’
“‘No,’ I said.
“‘Wot was it you thought you heard?’ the captain, turning again to the second mate. But the second mate shook his head in a curious, almost irritable way, as if the captain’s question interrupted his listening. Captain Gannington stared a moment at him, then held his lantern up and glanced about him almost uneasily. I know I felt a queer sense of strain. But the light showed nothing beyond the greyish dirty-white of the mould in all directions.
“‘Mister Selvern,’ said the captain, at last, looking at him, ‘don’t get fancying, things. Get hold of your bloomin’ self. Ye know ye heard nothin’?’
“‘I’m quite sure I heard something, sir,’ said the second mate. ‘I seemed to hear ——’ He broke off sharply, and appeared to listen with an almost painful intensity.
“‘What did it sound like?’ I asked.
“‘It’s all right, doctor,’ said Captain Gannington, laughing gently. ‘Ye can give him a tonic when we get back. I’m goin’ to shift this stuff.’ He drew back, and kicked for the second time at the ugly mass which he took to hide the companionway. The result of his kick was startling, for the whole thing wobbled sloppily, like a mound of unhealthy-looking jelly.
“He drew his foot out of it quickly, and took a step backward, staring, and holding his lamp towards it. ‘By gum,’ he said, and it was plain that he was generally startled, ‘the blessed thing’s gone soft!’
“The man had run back several steps from the suddenly flaccid mound, and looking horribly frightened. Though of what, I am sure he had not the least idea. The second mate stood where he was, and stared. For my part, I know I had a most hideous uneasiness upon me. The captain continued to hold his light towards the wobbling mound and stare.
“‘It’s gone squashy all through,’ he said. ‘There’s no scuttle there. There’s no bally woodwork inside that lot! Phoo! What a rum smell!’
“He walked round to the after side of the strange mound, to see whether there might be some signs of an opening, into the hull at the back of the great heap of mould-stuff. And then:
“‘Listen!’ said the second mate again, in the strangest sort of voice.
“Captain Gannington straightened himself upright, and there succeeded a pause of the most intense quietness, in which there was not even the hum of talk from the men alongside in the boat. We all heard it — a kind of dull, soft thud, thud, thud, thud, somewhere in the hull under us, yet so vague as to make me half doubtful I heard it, only that the others did so, too.
“Captain Gannington turned suddenly to where the man stood.
“‘Tell them ——’ he began. But the fellow cried out something, and pointed. There had come a strange intensity into his somewhat unemotional face, so that the captain’s glance followed his action instantly. I stared also as you may think. It was the great mound at which the man was pointing. I saw what he meant. From the two gapes made in the mould-like stuff by Captain Gannington’s boot, the purple fluid was jetting out in a queerly regular fashion, almost as if it were being forced out by a pump. My word! But I stared! And even as I stared a larger jet squirted out, and splashed as far as the man, spattering his boots and trouser legs.
“The fellow had been pretty nervous before, in a stolid, ignorant sort of way, and his funk had been growing steadily; but at this he simply let out a yell, and turned about to run. He paused an instant,as if a sudden fear of the darkness that held the decks, between him and the boat, had taken him. He snatched at the second mate’s lantern, tore it out of his hand, and plunged heavily away over the vile stretch of mould.
“Mr. Selvern, the second mate, said not a word; he was just staring, staring at the strange-smelling twin-streams of dull purple that were jetting out from the wobbling mound. Captain Gannington, however, roared an order to the man to come back, but the man plunged on and on across the mould, his feet seeming to be clogged by the stuff, as if it had grown suddenly soft. He zigzagged as he ran, the lantern swaying, in wild circles as he wrenched his feet free with a constant plop, plop; and I could hear his frightened gasps even from where I stood.
“‘Come back with that lamp!’ roared the captain again; but still the man took no notice.
“And Captain Gannington was silent an instant, his lips working in a queer, inarticulate fashion, as if he were stunned momentarily by the very violence of his anger at the man’s insubordination. And in the silence I heard the sounds again — thud, thud, thud, thud! Quite distinctly now, beating, it seemed suddenly to me, right down under my feet, but deep.
“I stared down at the mould on which I was standing, with a quick, disgusting sense of the terrible all about me; then I looked at the captain, and tried to say something, without appearing frightened. I saw that he had turned again to the mound, and all the anger had gone out of his face. He had his lamp out towards the mound, and was listening. There was another moment of absolute silence, at least, I knew that I was not conscious of any sound at all in all the world, except that extraordinary thud, thud, thud, thud, down somewhere in the huge bulk under us.
“The captain shifted his feet with a sudden, nervous movement, and as he lifted them the mould went plop, plop! He looked quickly at me, trying to smile, as if he were not thinking anything very much about it.
“‘What do you make of it, doctor?’ he said.
“‘I think ——’ I began. But the second mate interrupted with a single word, his voice pitched a little high, in a tone that made us both stare instantly at him.
“‘Look!’ he said, and pointed at the mound. The thing was all of a slow quiver. A strange ripple ran outward from it, along the deck, like you will see a ripple run inshore out of a calm sea. It reached a mound a little foreside of us, which I had supposed to be the cabin skylight, and in a moment the second mound sank nearly level with the surrounding decks, quivering floppily in a most extraordinary fashion. A sudden quick tremor took the mould right under the second mate, and he gave out a hoarse little cry, and held his arms out on each side of him, to keep his balance. The tremor in the mould spread, and Captain Gannington swayed, and spread out his feet with a sudden curse of fright. The second mate jumped across to him, and caught him by the wrist.
“‘The boat, sir!’ he said, saying the very thing that I had lacked the pluck to say. ‘For God’s sake ——’
“But he never finished, for a tremendous hoarse scream cut off his words. They hove themselves round and looked. I could see without turning. The man who had run from us was standing in the waist of the ship, about a fathom from the starboard bulwarks. He was swaying from side to side, and screaming, in a dreadful fashion. He appeared to be trying to lift his feet, and the light from his swaying lantern showed an almost incredible sight. All about him the mould was in active movement. His feet had sunk out of sight. The stuff appeared to be lapping at his legs and abruptly his bare flesh showed. The hideous stuff had rent his trouser-leg away as if it were paper. He gave out a simply sickening scream, and, with a vast effort, wrenched one leg free. It was partly destroyed. The next instant he pitched face downward, and the stuff heaped itself upon him, as if it were actually alive, with a dreadful, severe life. It was simply infernal. The man had gone from sight. Where he had fallen was now a writhing, elongated mound, in constant and horrible increase, as the mould appeared to move towards it in strange ripples from all sides.
“Captain Gannington and the second mate were stone silent, in amazed and incredulous horror, but I had begun to reach towards a grotesque and terrific conclusion, both helped and hindered by my professional training.
“From the men in the boat alongside there was a loud shouting. and I saw two of their faces appear suddenly above the rail. They showed clearly a moment in the light from the lamp which the man had snatched from Mr. Selvern; for, strangely enough, this lamp was standing upright and unharmed on the deck, a little way foreside of that dreadful, elongated, growing mound, that still swayed and writhed with an incredible horror. The lamp rose and fell on the passing ripples of the mould, just — for all the world — as you will see a boat rise and fall on little swells. It is of some interest to me now, psychologically, to remember how that rising and falling lantern brought home to me more than anything the incomprehensible dreadful strangeness of it all.
“The men’s faces disappeared with sudden yells, as if they had slipped, or been suddenly hurt; and there was a fresh uproar of shouting from the boat. The men were calling to us to come away — to come away. In the same instant I felt my left boot drawn suddenly and forcibly downward, with a horrible, painful grip. I wrenched it free, with a yell of angry fear. Forrard of us, I saw that the vile surface was all amove, and abruptly I found myself shouting in a queer, frightened voice, ‘The boat, captain! The boat, captain!’
“Captain Gannington stared round at me, over his right shoulder, in a peculiar, dull way, that told me he was utterly dazed with bewilderment and the incomprehensibleness of it all. I took a quick, clogged, nervous step towards him, and gripped his arm, and shook it fiercely. ‘The boat!’ I shouted at him. ‘The boat! For God’s sake, tell the men to bring the boat aft!’
“Then the mound must have drawn his feet down, for abruptly he bellowed fiercely with terror, his momentary apathy giving place to furious energy. His thickset, vastly muscular body doubled and writhed with his enormous effort, and he struck out madly dropping the lantern. He tore his feet free, something ripping as he did so. The reality and necessity of the situation had come upon him brutishly real, and he was roaring to the men in the boat, ‘Bring the boat aft! Bring ‘er aft! Bring ‘er aft!’ The second mate and I were shouting the same thing madly.
“‘For God’s sake, be smart, lads!’ roared the captain, and stooped quickly for his lamp, which still burned. His feet were gripped again, and he hove them out, blaspheming breathlessly, aud leaping a yard high with his effort. Then he made a run for the side, wrenching his feet free at each step. In the same instant the second mate cried out something, and grabbed at the captain.
“‘It’s got hold of my feet! It’s got hold of my feet!’ he screamed. His feet, had disappeared up to his boot-tops, and Captain Gannington caught him round the waist with his powerful left arm, gave a mighty heave, and the next instant had him free; but both his boot-soles had gone. For my part, I jumped madly from foot to foot, to avoid the plucking of the mould; and suddenly I made a run for the ship’s side. But before I could get there, a queer gape came in the mould between us and the side, at least a couple of feet wide, and how deep I don’t know. It closed up in an instant, and all the mould where the cape had been vent into a sort of flurry of horrible ripplings, so that I ran back from it; for I did not dare to put my foot upon it. Then the captain was shouting to me:
“‘Aft, doctor! Aft, doctor! This way, doctor! Run!’ I saw then that he had passed me, and was up on the after raised portion of the poop. He had the second mate, thrown like a sack, all loose and quiet, over his left shoulder; for Mr. Selvern had fainted, and his long legs flogged limp and helpless against the captain’s massive knees as he ran. I saw, with a queer, unconscious noting of minor details, how the torn soles of the second mate’s boots flapped and jigged as the captain staggered aft.
“‘Boat ahoy! Boat ahoy! Boat ahoy!’ shouted the captain; and then I was beside him, shouting also. The men were answering with loud yells of encouragement, and it was plain they were working desperately to force the boat aft through the thick scum about the ship.
“We reached the ancient, mould-hid taffrail, and slewed about breathlessly in the half-darkness to see what was happening. Captain Gannington had left his lantern by the big mound when he picked up the second mate; and as we stood, gasping we discovered suddenly that all the mould between us and the light was full of movement. Yet, the part on which we stood, for about six or eight feet forrard of us, was still firm.
“Every couple of seconds we shouted to the men to hasten, and they kept on calling to us that they would be with us in an instant. And all the time we watched the deck of that dreadful hulk, feeling, for my part, literally sick with mad suspense, and ready to jump overboard into that filthy scum all about us.
“Down somewhere in the huge bulk of the ship there was all the time that extraordinary dull, ponderous thud, thud, thud, thud growing ever louder. I seemed to feel the whole hull of the derelict, beginning to quiver and thrill with each dull beat. And to me, with the grotesque and hideous suspicion of what made that noise, it was at once the most dreadful and incredible sound I have ever heard.
“As we waited desperately for the boat, I scanned incessantly so much of the grey white bulk as the lamp showed. The whole of the decks seemed to be in strange movement. Forrard of the lamp, I could see indistinctly the moundings of the mould swaying and nodding hideously beyond the circle of the brightest rays. Nearer, and full in the glow of the lamp, the mound which should have indicated the skylight, was swelling steadily. There were ugly, purple veinings on it, and as it swelled, it seemed to me that the veinings and mottlings on it were becoming plainer, rising as though embossed upon it, like you will see the veins stand out on the body of a powerful, full-blooded horse. It was most extraordinary. The mound that we had supposed to cover the companionway had sunk flat with the surrounding mould, and I could not see that it jetted out any more of the purplish fluid.
“A quaking movement of the mound began away forrard of the lamp, and came flurrying away aft towards us, and at the sight of that I climbed up on to the spongy-feeling taffrail, and yelled afresh for the boat. The men answered with a shout, which told me they were nearer, but the beastly scum was so thick that it was evidently a fight to move the boat at all. Beside me, Captain Gannington was shaking the second mate furiously, and the man stirred and began to moan. The captain shook him again, ‘Wake up! Wake up, mister!’ he shouted.
“The second mate staggered out of the captain’s arms, and collapsed suddenly, shrieking: ‘My feet! Oh, God! My feet!’ The captain and I lugged him off the mound, and got him into a sitting position upon the taffrail, where he kept up a continual moaning.
“‘Hold ‘im, doctor,’ said the captain. And whilst I did so, he ran forrard a few yards, and peered down over the starboard quarter rail. ‘For God’s sake, be smart, lads! Be smart! Be smart!’ he shouted down to the men, and they answered him, breathless, from close at hand, yet still too far away for the boat to be any use to us on the instant.
“I was holding the moaning, half-unconscious officer, and staring forrard along the poop decks. The flurrying of the mould was coming aft, slowly and noiselessly. And then, suddenly, I saw something closer:
“‘Look out, captain!’ I shouted. And even as I shouted, the mould near to him gave a sudden, peculiar slobber. I had seen a ripple stealing towards him through the mould. He gave an enormous, clumsy leap, and landed near to us on the sound part of the mould, but the movement followed him. He turned and faced it, swearing fiercely. All about his feet there came abruptly little gapings, which made horrid sucking noises. ‘Come back, captain!’ I yelled. ‘Come back, quick!’ As I shouted, a ripple came at his feet — lipping at them; and he stamped insanely at it, and leaped back, his boot torn half off his foot. He swore madly with pain and anger, and jumped swiftly for the taffrail.
“‘Come on, doctor! Over we go!’ he called. Then he remembered the filthy scum, and hesitated, and roared out desperately to the men to hurry. I stared down, also.
“‘The second mate?’ I said.
“‘I’ll take charge doctor,’ said Captain Gannington, and caught hold of Mr. Selvern. As he spoke, I thought I saw something beneath us, outlined against the scum. I leaned out over the stern, and peered. There was something under the port-quarter.
“‘There’s something down there, captain!’ I called, and pointed in the darkness. He stooped far over, and stared.
“‘A boat, by gum! A boat!’ he yelled, and began to wriggle swiftly along the taffrail, dragging the second mate after him. I followed. ‘A boat it is, sure!’ he exclaimed a few moments later, and, picking up the second mate clear of the rail, he hove him down into the boat, where he fell with a crash into the bottom.
“‘Over ye go, doctor!’ he yelled at me, and pulled me bodily off the rail and dropped me after the officer. As he did so, I felt the whole of the ancient, spongy rail give a peculiar, sickening quiver, and begin to wobble. I fell on to the second mate, and the captain came after, almost in the same instant, but, fortunately, he landed clear of us, on to the fore thwart, which broke under his weight, with a loud crack and splintering of wood.
“‘Thank God!’ I heard him mutter. ‘Thank God! I guess that was a mighty near thing to going to Hades.’
“He struck a match, just as I got to my feet, and between us we got the second mate straightened out on one of the after fore-and-aft thwarts. We shouted to the men in the boat, telling them where we were, and saw the light of their lantern shining round the starboard counter of the derelict. They called back to us to tell us they were doing their best, and then, whilst we waited, Captain Gannington struck another match, and began to overhaul the boat we had dropped into. She was a modern, two-bowed boat, and on the stern there was painted ‘Cyclone, Glasgow.’ She was in pretty fair condition, and had evidently drifted into the scum and been held by it.
“Captain Gannington struck several matches, and went forrard towards the derelict. Suddenly he called to me, and I jumped over the thwarts to him. ‘Look, doctor,’ he said, and I saw what he meant — a mass of bones up in the bows of the boat. I stooped over them, and looked; there were the bones of at least three people, all mixed together in an extraordinary fashion, and quite clean and dry. I had a sudden thought concerning the bones, but I said nothing, for my thought was vague in some ways, and concerned the grotesque and incredible suggestion that had come to me as to the cause of that ponderous, dull thud, thud, thud thud, that beat on so infernally within the hull, and was plain to hear even now that we had got off the vessel herself. And all the while, you know, I had a sick, horrible mental picture of that frightful, wriggling mound aboard the hulk.
“As Captain Gannington struck a final match, I saw something that sickened me and the captain saw it in the same instant. The match went out, and he fumbled clumsily for another, and struck it. We saw the thing again. We had not been mistaken. A great lip of grey-white was protruding in over the edge of the boat — a great lappet of the mould was coming stealthily towards us — a live mass of the very hull itself! And suddenly Captain Gannington yelled out in so many words the grotesque and incredible thing I was thinking: ‘She’s alive!’
“I never heard such a sound of comprehension and terror in a man’s voice. The very horrified assurance of it made actual to me the thing that before had only lurked in my subconscious mind. I knew he was right; I knew that the explanation my reason and my training both repelled and reached towards was the true one. Oh, I wonder whether anyone can possibly understand our feelings in that moment? The unmitigated horror of it and the incredibleness!
“As the light of the match burned up fully, I saw that the mass of living matter coming towards us was streaked and veined with purple, the veins standing out, enormously distended. The whole thing quivered continuously to each ponderous thud, thud, thud, thud, of that gargantuan organ that pulsed within the huge grey-white bulk. The flame of the match reached the captain’s fingers, and there came to me a little sickly whiff of burned flesh, but he seemed unconscious of any pain. Then the flame went out in a brief sizzle, yet at the last moment I had seen an extraordinary raw look become visible upon the end of that monstrous, protruding lappet. It had become dewed with a hideous, purplish sweat. And with the darkness there came a sudden charnel-like stench.
“I heard the matchbox split in Captain Gannington’s hands as he wrenched it open. Then he swore, in a queer frightened voice, for he had come to the end of his matches. He turned clumsily in the darkness, and tumbled over the nearest thwart, in his eagerness to get to the stern of the boat; and I after him. For we knew that thing was coming towards us through the darkness, reaching over that piteous mingled heap of human bones all jumbled together in the bows. We shouted madly to the men, and for answer saw the bows of the boat emerge dimly into view round the starboard counter of the derelict.
“‘Thank God!’ I gasped out. But Captain Gannington roared to them to show a light. Yet this they could not do, for the lamp had just been stepped on in their desperate efforts to force the boat round to us.
“‘Quick! Quick!’ I shouted.
“‘For God’s sake, be smart, men!’ roared the captain.
“And both of us faced the darkness under the port-counter, out of which we knew — but could not see — the thing was coming to us.
“‘An oar! Smart, now — pass me an oar!’ shouted the captain; and reached out his hands through the gloom towards the on-coming boat. I saw a figure stand up in the bows, and hold something out to us across the intervening yards of scum. Captain Gannington swept his hands through the darkness, and encountered it.
“‘I’ve got it! Let go there!’ he said, in a quick, tense voice.
“In the same instant the boat we were in was pressed over suddenly to starboard by some tremendous weight. Then I heard the captain shout, ‘Duck y’r head, doctor!’ And directly afterwards he swung the heavy, fourteen-foot oar round his head, and struck into the darkness. There came a sudden squelch, and he struck again, with a savage grunt of fierce energy. At the second blow the boat righted with a slow movement, and directly afterwards the other boat bumped gently into ours.
“Captain Gannington dropped the oar, and, springing across to the second mate, hove him up off the thwart, and pitched him with knee and arms clear in over the bows among the men; then he shouted to me to follow, which I did, and he came after me, bringing the oar with him. We carried the second mate aft, and the captain shouted to the men to back the boat a little; then they got her bows clear of the boat we had just left, and so headed out through the scum for the open sea.
“‘Where’s Tom ‘Arrison?” gasped one of the men, in the midst of his exertions. He happened to be Tom Harrison’s particular chum, and Captain Gannington answered him briefly enough:
“‘Dead! Pull! Don’t talk!”
“Now, difficult as it had been to force the boat through the scum to our rescue, the difficulty to get clear seemed tenfold. After some five minutes pulling, the boat seemed hardly to have moved a fathom, if so much, and a quite dreadful fear took me afresh, which one of the panting men put suddenly into words, ‘It’s got us!’ he gasped out. ‘Same as poor Tom!’ It was the man who had inquired where Harrison was.
“‘Shut y’r mouth an’ pull!’ roared the captain. And so another few minutes passed. Abruptly, it seemed to me that the dull, ponderous thud, thud, thud, thud came more plainly through the dark, and I stared intently over the stern. I sickened a little, for I could almost swear that the dark mass of the monster was actually nearer — that it was coming nearer to us through the darkness. Captain Gannington must have had the same thought, for, after a brief look into the darkness, he jumped forrard, and began to double-bank the stroke-oar.
“‘Get forrid under the oars, doctor,’ he said to me rather breathlessly. ‘Get in the bows, an’ see if you can’t free the stuff a bit round the bows.’
“I did as he told me, and a minute later I was in the bows of the boat, puddling the scum from side to side, and trying to break up the viscid, clinging muck. A heavy almost animal-like smell rose off it, and all the air seemed full of the deadening, heavy smell. I shall never find words to tell anyone on earth the whole horror of it all — the threat that seemed to hang in the very air around us, and but a little astern that incredible thing, coming, as I firmly believed, nearer, and scum holding us, like half-melted glue.
“The minutes passed in a deadly, eternal fashion, and I kept staring back astern into the darkness but never ceasing to puddle that filthy scum, striking at it and switching it from side to side until I sweated.
“Abruptly Captain Gannington sang out: ‘We’re gaining, lads. Pull!’ And I felt the boat forge ahead perceptibly, as they gave way with renewed hope and energy. There was soon no doubt of it, for presently that hideous thud, thud, thud, thud had grown quite dim and vague somewhere astern and I could no longer see the derelict, for the night had come down tremendously dark and all the sky was thick, overset with heavy clouds. As we drew nearer and nearer to the edge of the scum, the boat moved more and more perceptibly, until suddenly we emerged with a clean, sweet, fresh sound into the open sea.
“‘Thank God!’ I said aloud, and drew in the boathook, and made my way aft again to where Captain Gannington now sat once more at the tiller. I saw him looking anxiously up at the sky and across to where the lights of our vessel burned, and again he would seem to listen intently, so that I found myself listening also.
“‘What’s that, Captain?’ I said sharply; for it seemed to me that I heard a sound far astern, something, between a queer whine and a low whistling. ‘What’s that?’
“‘It’s wind, doctor.’ he said in a low voice. ‘I wish to God we were aboard.’ Then to the men: ‘Pull! Put y’r backs into it, or ye’ll never put y’r teeth through good bread again!’ The men obeyed nobly, and we reached the vessel safely, and had the boat safely stowed before the storm came, which it did in a furious white smother out of the west. I could see it for some minutes beforehand, tearing the sea in the gloom into a wall of phosphorescent foam; and as it came nearer, that peculiar whining, piping sound grew louder and louder, until it was like a vast steam whistle rushing towards us. And when it did come, we got it very heavy indeed, so that the morning showed us nothing but a welter of white seas, with that grim derelict many a score of miles away in the smother, lost as utterly as our hearts could wish to lose her.
“When I came to examine the second mate’s feet, I found them in a very extraordinary condition. The soles of them had the appearance of having been partly digested. I know of no other word that so exactly describes their condition, and the agony the man suffered must have been dreadful.
“Now,” concluded the doctor, “that is what I call a case in point. If we could know exactly what the old vessel had originally been loaded with, and the juxtaposition of the various articles of her cargo, plus the heat and time she had endured, plus one or two other only guessable quantities, we should have solved the chemistry of the life-force, gentlemen. Not necessarily the origin, mind you; but, at least, we should have taken a big step on the way. I’ve often regretted that gale, you know — in a way, that is, in a way. It was a most amazing discovery, but at the same time I had nothing but thankfulness to be rid of it. A most amazing chance. I often think of the way the monster woke out of its torpor. And that scum! The dead pigs caught in i! I fancy that was a grim kind of a net, gentlemen. It caught many things. It ——”
The old doctor sighed and nodded.
“If I could have had her bill of lading,” he said, his eyes full of regret. “If —— It might have told me something to help. But, anyway ——” He began to fill his pipe again. “I suppose,” he ended, looking round at us gravely, “I s’pose we humans are an ungrateful lot of beggars at the best! But — but, what a chance? What a, chance, eh?”
The Derelict by William Hope Hodgson, published 1912
Categories: Poetry and Prose