The Ghost Pirates
Chapter 6: Another Man to the Wheel
Copyright© 2016 by William Hope Hodgson
The conversation had slacked off. We were all moody and shaken, and I know I, for one, was thinking some rather troublesome thoughts.
Suddenly, I heard the sound of the Second’s whistle. Then his voice came along the deck:
“Another man to the wheel!”
“‘e’s singin’ out for some one to go aft an’ relieve ther wheel,” said Quoin, who had gone to the door to listen. “Yer’d better ‘urry up, Plummer.”
“What’s ther time?” asked Plummer, standing up and knocking out his pipe. “Must be close on ter four bells, ‘oo’s next wheel is it?”
“It’s all right, Plummer,” I said, getting up from the chest on which I had been sitting. “I’ll go along. It’s my wheel, and it only wants a couple of minutes to four bells.”
Plummer sat down again, and I went out of the fo’cas’le. Reaching the poop, I met Tammy on the lee side, pacing up and down.
“Who’s at the wheel?” I asked him, in astonishment.
“The Second Mate,” he said, in a shaky sort of voice. “He’s waiting to be relieved. I’ll tell you all about it as soon as I get a chance.”
I went on aft to the wheel.
“Who’s that?” the Second inquired.
“It’s Jessop, Sir,” I answered.
He gave me the course, and then, without another word, went forrard along the poop. On the break, I heard him call Tammy’s name, and then for some minutes he was talking to him; though what he was saying, I could not possibly hear. For my part, I was tremendously curious to know why the Second Mate had taken the wheel. I knew that if it were just a matter of bad steering on Tammy’s part, he would not have dreamt of doing such a thing. There had been something queer happening, about which I had yet to learn; of this, I felt sure.
Presently, the Second Mate left Tammy, and commenced to walk the weather side of the deck. Once he came right aft, and, stooping down, peered under the wheel-box; but never addressed a word to me. Sometime later, he went down the weather ladder on to the main-deck. Directly afterwards, Tammy came running up to the lee side of the wheel-box.
“I’ve seen it again!” he said, gasping with sheer nervousness.
“What?” I said.
“That thing,” he answered. Then he leant across the wheel-box, and lowered his voice.
“It came over the lee rail--up out of the sea,” he added, with an air of telling something unbelievable.
I turned more towards him; but it was too dark to see his face with any distinctness. I felt suddenly husky. “My God!” I thought. And then I made a silly effort to protest; but he cut me short with a certain impatient hopelessness.
“For God’s sake, Jessop,” he said, “do stow all that! It’s no good. I must have someone to talk to, or I shall go dotty.”
I saw how useless it was to pretend any sort of ignorance. Indeed, really, I had known it all along, and avoided the youngster on that very account, as you know.
“Go on,” I said. “I’ll listen; but you’d better keep an eye for the Second Mate; he may pop up any minute.”
For a moment, he said nothing, and I saw him peering stealthily about the poop.
“Go on,” I said. “You’d better make haste, or he’ll be up before you’re half-way through. What was he doing at the wheel when I came up to relieve it? Why did he send you away from it?”
“He didn’t,” Tammy replied, turning his face towards me. “I bunked away from it.”
“What for?” I asked.
“Wait a minute,” he answered, “and I’ll tell you the whole business. You know the Second Mate sent me to the wheel, after that--” He nodded his head forrard.
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, I’d been here about ten minutes, or a quarter of an hour, and I was feeling rotten about Williams, and trying to forget it all and keep the ship on her course, and all that; when, all at once, I happened to glance to loo’ard, and there I saw it climbing over the rail. My God! I didn’t know what to do. The Second Mate was standing forrard on the break of the poop, and I was here all by myself. I felt as if I were frozen stiff. When it came towards me, I let go of the wheel, and yelled and bunked forrard to the Second Mate. He caught hold of me and shook me; but I was so jolly frightened, I couldn’t say a word. I could only keep on pointing. The Second kept asking me ‘Where?’ And then, all at once, I found I couldn’t see the thing. I don’t know whether he saw it. I’m not at all certain he did. He just told me to damn well get back to the wheel, and stop making a damned fool of myself. I said out straight I wouldn’t go. So he blew his whistle, and sung out for someone to come aft and take it. Then he ran and got hold of the wheel himself. You know the rest.”
“You’re quite sure it wasn’t thinking about Williams made you imagine you saw something?” I said, more to gain a moment to think, than because I believed that it was the case.
“I thought you were going to listen to me, seriously!” he said, bitterly. “If you won’t believe me; what about the chap the Second Mate saw? What about Tom? What about Williams? For goodness sake! don’t try to put me off like you did last time. I nearly went cracked with wanting to tell someone who would listen to me, and wouldn’t laugh. I could stand anything, but this being alone. There’s a good chap, don’t pretend you don’t understand. Tell me what it all means. What is this horrible man that I’ve twice seen? You know you know something, and I believe you’re afraid to tell anyone, for fear of being laughed at. Why don’t you tell me? You needn’t be afraid of my laughing.”
He stopped, suddenly. For the moment, I said nothing in reply.
“Don’t treat me like a kid, Jessop!” he exclaimed, quite passionately.
“I won’t,” I said, with a sudden resolve to tell him everything. “I need someone to talk to, just as badly as you do.”
“What does it all mean, then?” he burst out. “Are they real? I always used to think it was all a yarn about such things.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what it all means, Tammy,” I answered. “I’m just as much in the dark, there, as you are. And I don’t know whether they’re real--that is, not as we consider things real. You don’t know that I saw a queer figure down on the maindeck, several nights before you saw that thing up here.”
“Didn’t you see this one?” he cut in, quickly.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Then, why did you pretend not to have?” he said, in a reproachful voice. “You don’t know what a state you put me into, what with my being certain that I had seen it and then you being so jolly positive that there had been nothing. At one time I thought I was going clean off my dot--until the Second Mate saw that man go up the main. Then, I knew that there must be something in the thing I was certain I’d seen.”
“I thought, perhaps, that if I told you I hadn’t seen it, you would think you’d been mistaken,” I said. “I wanted you to think it was imagination, or a dream, or something of that sort.”
“And all the time, you knew about that other thing you’d seen?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“It was thundering decent of you,” he said. “But it wasn’t any good.”
He paused a moment. Then he went on:
“It’s terrible about Williams. Do you think he saw something, up aloft?”
“I don’t know, Tammy,” I said. “It’s impossible to say. It may have been only an accident.” I hesitated to tell him what I really thought.
“What was he saying about his pay-day? Who was he saying it to?”
“I don’t know,” I said, again. “He was always cracked about taking a pay-day out of her. You know, he stayed in her, on purpose, when all the others left. He told me that he wasn’t going to be done out of it, for anyone.”
“What did the other lot leave for?” he asked. Then, as the idea seemed to strike him--”Jove! do you think they saw something, and got scared? It’s quite possible. You know, we only joined her in ‘Frisco. She had no ‘prentices on the passage out. Our ship was sold; so they sent us aboard here to come home.”
“They may have,” I said. “Indeed, from things I’ve heard Williams say, I’m pretty certain, he for one, guessed or knew a jolly sight more than we’ve any idea of.”
“And now he’s dead!” said Tammy, solemnly. “We’ll never be able to find out from him now.”
For a few moments, he was silent. Then he went off on another track.
“Doesn’t anything ever happen in the Mate’s watch?”
“Yes,” I answered. “There’s several things happened lately, that seem pretty queer. Some of his side have been talking about them. But he’s too jolly pig-headed to see anything. He just curses his chaps, and puts it all down to them.”
“Still,” he persisted, “things seem to happen more in our watch than in his--I mean, bigger things. Look at tonight.”
“We’ve no proof, you know,” I said.
He shook his head, doubtfully.
“I shall always funk going aloft, now.”
“Nonsense!” I told him. “It may only have been an accident.”
“Don’t!” he said. “You know you don’t think so, really.”
I answered nothing, just then; for I knew very well that he was right. We were silent for a couple of moments.
Then he spoke again:
“Is the ship haunted?”