Out of the Dreadful Depths

by C.D. Willard

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Robert Thorpe seeks out the nameless horror that is sucking all human life out of ships in the South Pacific.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Robert Thorpe reached languidly for a cigarette and, with lazy fingers, extracted a lighter from his pocket.

“Be a sport,” he repeated to the gray haired man across the table. “Be a sport, Admiral, and send me across on a destroyer. Never been on a destroyer except in port. It ... would be a new experience ... enjoy it a lot...”

In the palm-shaded veranda of this club-house in Manila, Admiral Struthers, U. S. N., regarded with undisguised disfavor the young man in the wicker chair. He looked at the deep chest and the broad shoulders which even a loose white coat could not conceal, at the short, wavy brown hair and the slow, friendly smile on the face below.

A likable chap, this Thorpe, but lazy--just an idler--he had concluded. Been playing around Manila for the last two months--resting up, he had said. And from what? the Admiral had questioned disdainfully. Admiral Struthers did not like indolent young men, but it would have saved him money if he had really got an answer to his question and had learned just why and how Robert Thorpe had earned a vacation.

“You on a destroyer!” he said, and the lips beneath the close-cut gray mustache twisted into a smile. “That would be too rough an experience for you, I am afraid, Thorpe. Destroyers pitch about quite a bit, you know.”

He included in his smile the destroyer captain and the young lady who completed their party. The young lady had a charming and saucy smile and knew it; she used it in reply to the Admiral’s remark.

“I have asked Mr. Thorpe to go on the Adelaide,” she said. “We shall be leaving in another month--but Robert tells me he has other plans.”

“Worse and worse,” was the Admiral’s comment. “Your father’s yacht is not even as steady as a destroyer. Now I would suggest a nice comfortable liner...”

Robert Thorpe did not miss the official glances of amusement, but his calm complacence was unruffled. “No,” he said, “I don’t just fancy liners. Fact is, I have been thinking of sailing across to the States alone.”

The Admiral’s smile increased to a short laugh. “I would make a bet you wouldn’t get fifty miles from Manila harbor.”

The younger man crushed his cigarette slowly into the tray. “How much of a bet?” he asked. “What will you bet that I don’t sail alone from here to--where are you stationed?--San Diego?--from here to San Diego?”

“Humph!” was the snorted reply. “I would bet a thousand dollars on that and take your money for Miss Allaire’s pet charity.”

“Now that’s an idea,” said Thorpe. He reached for a check book in his inner pocket and began to write.

“In case I lose,” he explained, “I might be hard to find, so I will just ask Miss Allaire to hold this check for me. You can do the same.” He handed the check to the girl.

“Winner gets his thousand back, Ruth; loser’s money goes to any little orphans you happen to fancy.”

“You’re not serious,” protested the Admiral.

“Sure! The bank will take that check seriously, I promise you. And I saw just the sloop I want for the trip ... had my eye on her for the past month.”

“But, Robert,” began Ruth Allaire, “you don’t mean to risk your life on a foolish bet?”

Thorpe reached over to pat tenderly the hand that held his check. “I’m glad if you care,” he said, and there was an undertone of seriousness beneath his raillery, “but save your sympathy for the Admiral. The U. S. Navy can’t bluff me.” He rose more briskly from his chair.

“Thorpe...” said Admiral Struthers. He was thinking deeply, trying to recollect. “Robert Thorpe ... I have a book by someone of that name--travel and adventure and knocking about the world. Young man, are you the Robert Thorpe?”

“Why, yes, if you wish to put it that way,” agreed the other. He waved lightly to the girl as he moved away.

“I must be running along,” he said, “and get that boat. See you all in San Diego!”

The first rays of the sun touched with golden fingers the tops of the lazy swells of the Pacific. Here and there a wave broke to spray under the steady wind and became a shower of molten metal. And in the boat, whose sails caught now and then the touch of morning, Robert Thorpe stirred himself and rose sleepily to his feet.

Out of the snug cabin at this first hint of day, he looked first at the compass and checked his course, then made sure of the lashing about the helm. The steady trade-winds had borne him on through the night, and he nodded with satisfaction as he prepared to lower his lights. He was reaching for a line as the little craft hung for an instant on the top of a wave. And in that instant his eyes caught a marking of white on the dim waters ahead.

“Breakers!” he shouted aloud and leaped for the lashed wheel. He swung off to leeward and eased a bit on the main-sheet, then lashed the wheel again to hold on the new course.

Again from a wave-crest he stared from under a sheltering hand. The breakers were there--the smooth swells were foaming--breaking in mid-ocean where his chart, he knew, showed water a mile deep. Beyond the white line was a three-master, her sails shivering in the breeze.

The big sailing ship swung off on a new tack as he watched. Was she dodging those breakers? he wondered. Then he stared in amazement through the growing light at the unbroken swells where the white line had been.

He rubbed his sleepy eyes with a savage hand and stared again. There were no breakers--the sea was an even expanse of heaving water.

“I could swear I saw them!” he told himself, but forgot this perplexing occurrence in the still more perplexing maneuvers of the sailing ship.

This steady wind--for smooth handling--was all that such a craft could ask, yet here was this old-timer of the sea with a full spread of canvas booming and cracking as the ship jibed. She rolled far over as he watched, recovered, and tore off on a long, sweeping circle.

The one man crew of the little sloop should have been preparing breakfast, as he had for many mornings past, but, instead he swung his little craft into the wind and watched for near an hour the erratic rushes and shivering haltings of the larger ship. But long before this time had passed Thorpe knew he was observing the aimless maneuvers of an unmanned vessel.

And he watched his chance for a closer inspection.

The three-master Minnie R., from the dingy painting of the stern, hung quivering in the wind when he boarded her. There was a broken log-line that swept down from the stern, and he caught this and made his own boat fast. Then, watching his chance, he drew close and went overboard, the line in his hand.

“Like a blooming native after cocoanuts,” he told himself as he went up the side. But he made it and pulled himself over the rail as the ship drew off on another tack.

Thorpe looked quickly about the deserted deck. “Ahoy, there!” he shouted, but the straining of rope and spars was his only answer. Canvas was whipping to ribbons, sheets cracked their frayed ends like lashes as the booms swung wildly, but a few sails still held and caught the air.

He was on the after deck, and he leaped first for the wheel that was kicking and whirling with the swing of the rudder. A glance at the canvas that still drew, and he set her on a course with a few steadying pulls. There was rope lying about, and he lashed the wheel with a quick turn or two and watched the ship steady down to a smooth slicing of the waves from the west.

And only then did the man take time to quiet his panting breath and look about him in the unnatural quiet of this strangely deserted deck. He shouted again and walked to a companionway to repeat the hail. Only an echo, sounding hollowly from below, replied to break the vast silence.

It was puzzling--inconceivable. Thorpe looked about him to note the lifeboats snug and undisturbed in their places. No sign there of an abandonment of the boat, but abandoned she was, as the silence told only too plainly. And Thorpe, as he went below, had an uncanny feeling of the crew’s presence--as if they had been there, walked where he walked, shouted and laughed a matter of a brief hour or two before.

The door of the captain’s cabin was burst in, hanging drunkenly from one hinge. The log-book was open; there were papers on a rude desk. The bunk was empty where the blankets had been thrown hurriedly aside. Thorpe could almost see the skipper of this mystery ship leaping frantically from his bed at some sudden call or commotion. A chair was smashed and broken, and the man who examined it curiously wiped from his hands a disgusting slime that was smeared stickily on the splintered fragments. There was a fetid stench within his nostrils, and he passed up further examination of this room.

Forward in the fo’c’sle he felt again irresistibly the recent presence of the crew. And again he found silence and emptiness and a disorder that told of a fear-stricken flight. The odor that sickened and nauseated the exploring man was everywhere. He was glad to gain the freedom of the wind-swept deck and rid his lungs of the vile breath within the vessel.

He stood silent and bewildered. There was not a living soul aboard the ship--no sign of life. He started suddenly. A moaning, whimpering cry came from forward on the deck!

Thorpe leaped across a disorder of tangled rope to race toward the bow. He stopped short at sight of a battered cage. Again the moaning came to him--there was something that still lived on board the ill-fated ship.

He drew closer to see a great, huddled, furry mass that crouched and cowered in a corner of the cage. A huge ape, Thorpe concluded, and it moaned and whimpered absurdly like a human in abject fear.

Had this been the terror that drove the men into the sea? Had this ape escaped and menaced the officers and crew? Thorpe dismissed the thought he well knew was absurd. The stout wood bars of the cage were broken. It had been partially crushed, and the chain that held it to the deck was extended to its full length.

“Too much for me,” the man said slowly, aloud; “entirely too much for me! But I can’t sail this old hooker alone; I’ll have to get out and let her drift.”

He removed completely one of the splintered bars from the broken cage. “I’ve got to leave you, old fellow,” he told the cowering animal, “but I’ll give you the run of the ship.”

He went below once more and came quickly back with the log-book and papers from the captain’s room. He tied these in a tight wrapping of oilcloth from the galley and hung them at his belt. He took the wheel again and brought the cumbersome craft slowly into the wind. The bare mast of his own sloop was bobbing alongside as he went down the line and swam over to her.

Fending off from the wallowing hulk, he cut the line, and his small craft slipped slowly astern as the big vessel fell off in the wind and drew lumberingly away on its unguided course.

She vanished into the clear-cut horizon before the watching man ceased his staring and pricked a point upon his chart that he estimated was his position.

And he watched vainly for some sign of life on the heaving waters as he set his sloop back on her easterly course.

It was a sun-tanned young man who walked with brisk strides into the office of Admiral Struthers. The gold-striped arm of the uniformed man was extended in quick greeting.

“Made it, did you?” he exclaimed. “Congratulations!”

“All O.K.,” Thorpe agreed. “Ship and log are ready for your verification.”

“Talk sense,” said the officer. “Have any trouble or excitement? Or perhaps you are more interested in collecting a certain bet than you are in discussing the trip.”

“Damn the bet!” said the young man fervently. “And that’s just what I am here for--to talk about the trip. There were some little incidents that may interest you.”

He painted for the Admiral in brief, terse sentences the picture of that daybreak on the Pacific, the line of breakers, white in the vanishing night, the abandoned ship beyond, cracking her canvas to tatters in the freshening breeze. And he told of his boarding her and of what he had found.

“Where was this?” asked the officer, and Thorpe gave his position as he had checked it.

“I reported the derelict to a passing steamer that same day,” he added, but the Admiral was calling for a chart. He spread it on the desk before him and placed the tip of a pencil in the center of an unbroken expanse.

“Breakers, you said?” he questioned. “Why, there are hundreds of fathoms here, Mr. Thorpe.”

“I know it,” Thorpe agreed, “but I saw them--a stretch of white water for an eighth of a mile. I know it’s impossible, but true. But forget that item for a time, Admiral. Look at this.” He opened a brief case and took out a log-book and some other papers.

“The log of the Minnie R.,” he explained briefly. “Nothing in it but routine entries up to that morning and then nothing at all.”

“Abandoned,” mused the Admiral, “and they did not take to the boats. There have been other instances--never explained.”

“See if this helps any,” suggested Thorpe and handed the other two sheets of paper. “They were in the captain’s cabin,” he added.

Admiral Struthers glanced at them, then settled back in his chair.

“Dated September fourth,” he said. “That would have been the day previous to the time you found her.” The writing was plain, in a careful, well-formed hand. He cleared his throat and read aloud:

“Written by Jeremiah Wilkens of Salem, Mass., master of the _Minnie R._, bound from Shanghai to San Pedro. I have sailed the seas for forty years, and for the first time I am afraid. I hope I may destroy this paper when the lights of San Pedro are safe in sight, but I am writing here what it would shame me to set down in the ship’s log, though I know there are stranger happenings on the face of the waters than man has ever seen--or has lived to tell.

“All this day I have been filled with fear. I have been watched--I have felt it as surely as if a devil out of hell stood beside me with his eyes fastened on mine. The men have felt it, too. They have been frightened at nothing and have tried to conceal it as I have done.--And the animals...

“A shark has followed us for days--it is gone to-day. The cats--we have three on board--have howled horribly and have hidden themselves in the cargo down below. The mate is bringing a big monkey to be sold in Los Angeles. An orang-outang, he calls it. It has been an ugly brute, shaking at the bars of its cage and showing its ugly teeth ever since we left port. But to-day it is crouched in a corner of its cage and will not stir even for food. The poor beast is in mortal terror.

“All this is more like the wandering talk of an old woman muttering in a corner by the fireside of witches and the like than it is like a truthful account set down by Jeremiah Wilkins. And now that I have written it I see there is nothing to tell. Nothing but the shameful account of my fear of some horror beyond my knowing. And now that it is written I am tempted to destroy--No, I will wait--”

“And now what is this?” Admiral Struthers interrupted his reading to ask. He turned the paper to read a coarse, slanting scrawl at the bottom of the page.

“The eyes--the eyes--they are everywhere above us--God help--” The writing trailed off in a straggling line.

The lips beneath the trim gray mustache drew themselves into a hard line. It was a moment before Admiral Struthers raised his eyes to meet those of Robert Thorpe.

“You found this in the captain’s cabin?” he asked.


“And the captain was--”


“Blood stains?”

“No, but the door had been burst off its hinges. There had been a struggle without a doubt.”

The officer mused for a minute or two.

“Did they go aboard another vessel?” he pondered. “Abandon ship--open the sea-cocks--sink it for the insurance?” He was trying vainly to find some answer to the problem, some explanation that would not impose too great a strain upon his own reason.

“I have reported to the owners,” said Thorpe. “The Minnie R. was not heavily insured.”

The Admiral ruffled some papers on his desk to find a report.

“There has been another,” he told Thorpe. “A tramp freighter is listed as missing. She was last reported due east of the position you give. She was coming this way--must have come through about the same water--” He caught himself up abruptly. Thorpe sensed that an Admiral of the Navy must not lend too credulous an ear to impossible stories.

“You’ve had an interesting experience, Mr. Thorpe,” he said. “Most interesting. Probably a derelict is the answer, some hull just afloat. We will send out a general warning.”

He handed the loose papers and the log book to the younger man. “This stuff is rubbish,” he stated with emphasis. “Captain Wilkins held his command a year or so too long.”

“You will do nothing about it?” Thorpe asked in astonishment.

“I said I would warn all shipping; there is nothing more to be done.”

“I think there is.” Thorpe’s gray eye were steady as he regarded the man at the desk. “I intend to run it down. There have been other such instances, as you said--never explained. I mean to find the answer.”

Admiral Struthers smiled indulgently. “Always after excitement,” he said. “You’ll be writing another book, I expect. I shall look forward to reading it ... but just what are you going to do?”

“I am going to the Islands,” said Thorpe quietly. “I am going to charter a small ship of some sort, and I am going out there and camp on that spot in the hope of seeing those eyes and what is behind them. I am leaving to-night.”

Admiral Struthers leaned back to indulge in a hearty laugh. “I refused you a passage on a destroyer once,” he said, “and it was an expensive mistake. I don’t make the same mistake twice. Now I am going to offer you a trip...

“The Bennington is leaving to-day on a cruise to Manila. I’ll hold her an extra hour or two if you would like to go. She can drop you at Honolulu or wherever you say. Lieutenant Commander Brent is in command--you remember him in Manila, of course.”

“Fine,” Thorpe responded. “I’ll be there.”

“And,” he added, as he took the Admiral’s hand, “if I didn’t object to betting on a sure thing I would make you a little proposition. I would bet any money that you would give your shirt to go along.”

“I never bet, either,” said Admiral Struthers, “on a sure loss. Now get out of here, you young trouble-shooter, and let the Navy get to work.” His eyes were twinkling as he waved the young man out.

Thorpe found himself comfortably fixed on the Bennington. Brent, her commander, was a fine example of the aggressive young chaps that the destroyer fleet breeds. And he liked to play cribbage, Thorpe found. They were pegging away industriously the sixth night out when the first S.O.S. reached them. A message was placed before the commander. He read it and tossed it to Thorpe as he rose from his chair.

“S.O.S.,” said the radio sheet, “Nagasaki Maru, twenty-four thirty-five N., one five eight West. Struck something unknown. Down at the bow. May need help. Please stand by.”

Captain Brent had left the room. A moment later, and the quiver and tremble of the Bennington told Thorpe they were running full speed for the position of the stricken ship.

But: “Twenty-four thirty-five North,” he mused, “and less than two degrees west of where the poor old Minnie R. got hers. I wonder ... I wonder...”

“We will be there in four hours,” said Captain Brent on his return. “Hope she lasts. But what have they struck out there? Derelict probably, though she should have had Admiral Struthers’ warning.”

Robert Thorpe made no reply other than: “Wait here a minute, Brent. I have something to show you.”

He had not told the officer of his mission nor of his experience, but he did so now. And he placed before him the wildly improbable statement of the late Captain Wilkins.

“Something is there,” surmised Captain Brent, “just awash, probably--no superstructure visible. Your Minnie R. hit the same thing.”

“Something is there,” Thorpe agreed. “I wish I knew what.”

“This stuff has got to you, has it?” asked Brent as he returned the papers of Captain Wilkins. He was quite evidently amused at the thought.

“You weren’t on the ship,” said Thorpe, simply. “There was nothing to see--nothing to tell. But I know...”

He followed Brent to the wireless room.

“Can you get the Nagasaki?” Brent asked.

“They know we are coming, sir,” said the operator. “We seem to be the only one anywhere near.”

He handed the captain another message. “Something odd about that,” he said.

U. S. S. Bennington,” the captain read aloud. “We are still afloat. On even keel now, but low in water. No water coming in. Engines full speed ahead, but we make no headway. Apparently aground. _Nagasaki Maru._”

“Why, that’s impossible,” Brent exclaimed impatiently. “What kind of foolishness--” He left the question uncompleted. The radio man was writing rapidly. Some message was coming at top speed. Both Brent and Thorpe leaned over the man’s shoulder to read as he wrote.

Bennington help,” the pencil was writing, “sinking fast--decks almost awash--we are being--”

In breathless silence they watched the pencil, poised above the paper while the operator listened tensely to the silent night.

Again his ear received the wild jumble of dots and dashes sent by a frenzied hand in that far-off room. His pencil automatically set down the words. “Help--help--” it wrote before Thorpe’s spellbound gaze, “the eyes--the eyes--it is attack--”

And again the black night held only the rush and roar of torn waters where the destroyer raced quivering through the darkness. The message, as the waiting men well knew, would never be completed.

“A derelict!” Robert Thorpe exclaimed with unconscious scorn. But Captain Brent was already at a communication tube.

“Chief? Captain Brent. Give her everything you’ve got. Drive the Bennington faster than she ever went before.”

The slim ship was a quivering lance of steel that threw itself through foaming waters, that shot with an endless, roaring surge of speed toward that distant point in the heaving waste of the Pacific, and that seemed, to the two silent men on the bridge, to put the dragging miles behind them so slowly--so slowly.

“Let me see those papers,” said Captain Brent, finally.

He read them in silence.

Then: “The eyes!” he said. “The eyes! That is what this other poor devil said. My God, Thorpe, what is it? What can it be? We’re not all insane.”

“I don’t know what I expected to find,” said Thorpe slowly. “I had thought of many things, each wilder than the next. This Captain Wilkins said the eyes were above him. I had visions of some sky monster ... I had even thought of some strange aircraft from out in space, perhaps, with round lights like eyes. I have pictured impossibilities! But now--”

“Yes,” the other questioned, “now?”

“There were tales in olden times of the Kraken,” suggested Thorpe.

“The Kraken!” the captain scoffed. “A mythical monster of the sea. Why, that was just a fable.”

“True,” was the quiet reply, “that was just a fable. And one of the things I have learned is how frequently there is a basis of fact underlying a fable. And, for that matter, how can we know there is no such monster, some relic of a Mesozoic species supposed to be extinct?”

He stood motionless, staring far out ahead into the dark. And Brent, too, was silent. They seemed to try with unaided eyes to penetrate the dark miles ahead and see what their sane minds refused to accept.

It was still dark when the search-light’s sweeping beam picked up the black hull and broad, red-striped funnels of the Nagasaki Maru. She was riding high in the water, and her big bulk rolled and wallowed in the trough of the great swells.

The Bennington swept in a swift circle about the helpless hulk while the lights played incessantly upon her decks. And the watching eyes strained vainly for some signal to betoken life, for some sign that their mad race had not been quite vain. Her engines had been shut down; there was no steerage-way for the Nagasaki Maru, and, from all they could see, there were no human hands to drag at the levers of her waiting engines nor to twirl with sure touch the deserted helm. The Nagasaki Maru was abandoned.

The lights held steadily upon her as the Bennington came alongside and a boat was swung out smartly in its davits. But Thorpe knew he was not alone in his wild surmise as to the cause of the catastrophe.

“Throw your lights around the water occasionally,” Brent ordered. “Let me know if you see anything.”

“Yes sir,” said the man at the search-light. “I will report if I spot any survivors or boats.”

“Report anything you see,” said Commander Brent curtly.

“You go aboard if you want to,” he suggested to Thorpe. “I will stay here and be ready if you need help.”

Thorpe nodded with approval as the small boat pulled away in the dark, for there was activity apparent on the destroyer not warranted by a mere rescue at sea. Gun-crews rushed to their stations; the tarpaulin covers were off of the guns, and their slender lengths gleamed where they covered the course of the boat.

“Brent is ready,” Thorpe admitted, “for anything.”

They found the iron ladder against the ship’s side, and a sailor sprang for it and made his way aboard. Thorpe was not the last to set foot on deck, and he shuddered involuntarily at the eery silence he knew awaited them.

It was the Minnie R. over again, as he expected, but with a difference. The sailing vessel, before he boarded it, had been for some time exposed to the sun, while the Nagasaki Maru had not. And here there were slimy trails still wet on the decks.

He went first to the wireless room. He must know the final answer to that interrupted message, and he found it in emptiness. No radio man was waiting him there, nor even a body to show the loser of an unequal battle. But there was blood on the door-jamb where a body--the man’s body, Thorpe was sure--had been smashed against the wood. A wisp of black hair in the blood gave its mute evidence of the hopeless fight. And the slime, like the trails on the deck, smeared with odorous vileness the whole room.

Thorpe went again to the deck, and, as on the other ship, he breathed deeply to rid his lungs and nostrils of the abhorrent stench. The ensign in charge of the boarding party approached.

“What kind of a rotten mess is this?” he demanded. “The ship is filthy and not a soul on board. Not a man of them, officers or crew, and the boats are all here. It’s absolutely amazing, isn’t it?”

“No,” Thorpe told him, “about what we expected. What do you make of this?” He touched with his foot a broad trail that shone wet in the Bennington’s lights.

“The Lord knows,” said the ensign in wonder. “It’s all over and it smells like a rotten dead fish. Well, we will be going back, sir.” He called to a petty officer to round up the men, and the boat was brought alongside.

Their return to the Bennington again through a pathway of light that Thorpe knew was safe under the black muzzles of the destroyer’s guns.

Or was it, he asked himself. Safe! Was anything safe from this devilish mystery that could pluck each cowering human from the lowest depths of this steel freighter, that could drag her down in the water till the radio man sent his cry: “We are sinking!...”

He told Brent quietly, after the ensign had reported, of the struggles in the wireless room and its few remaining traces. And he watched with the commander through the hour of darkness while the Bennington steamed in slow circles about the abandoned hulk, while her search-lights played endlessly over the empty waters and the men at the guns cast wondering glances at their skipper who ordered such strange procedure when no danger was there.

With daylight the scene lost its sense of mysterious threat, and Thorpe was eager to return to the abandoned ship.

“I might find something,” he said, “some trace or indication of what we have to fight.”

“I must leave,” said Commander Brent. “Oh, I’m coming back, never fear,” he added, at the look of dismay on Thorpe’s face. The thought of leaving this mystery unsolved was more than that young seeker after adventure could accept.

“I’m coming back,” Brent repeated. “I’ve been in communication with the Admiral--Honolulu has relayed the messages through. All code, of course; we mustn’t alarm the whole Pacific with our nightmares. The old man says to stick around and get the low-down on this damn thing.”

“Then why leave?” objected Thorpe.

“Because I am coming around to your way of thinking, Thorpe. Because I am as certain as can be that we have a monster of some sort to deal with ... and because I haven’t any depth charges. I want to run up to the supply station at Honolulu and get a couple of ash-cans of TNT to lay on top of the brute if we sight him.”

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