Today we present the sequel to yesterday’s Sargasso Sea story, “More News from the Homebird”.
This story was first published in BLUE BOOK MAGAZINE in August, 1907 (in the U.S.) and didn’t appear in England until May, 1911, in THE LONDON MAGAZINE where it was titled “The Fifth Message from the Tideless Sea”. As noted yesterday, this story is usually combined with “From the Tideless Sea” in reprints from that point on.
This is the last story from Hodgson about the survivors of the Homebird. Their final fate remains unknown. Perhaps some other enterprising writer (John B. Ford, perhaps?) will one day finish this tale?
This version is from the 1911 appearance in the LONDON MAGAZINE and contains the original artwork used in that publication. Both come from the website http://www.amalgamatedspooks.com/ which reprints many old Victorian ghost stories. Despite it not having been updated in some time, I encourage everyone to check out the site! This version is somewhat different from the ‘authentic’ version that was reprinted in Hodgson’s collection, MEN OF THE DEEP WATERS, most specifically in the ‘historical’ note which begins the tale. My assumption is that this was likely an editorial decision in terms of space, word count, etc. Enjoy!
“THE FIFTH MESSAGE FROM THE TIDELESS SEA”
by William Hope Hodgson
In the August of 19—, Captain Bateman, of the schooner “Agnes,” picked up a small barrel, upon which was painted a half-obliterated word, which, finally, he succeeded in deciphering as “Homebird,” the name of a full-rigged ship, which left London in the November of 187__ and from thenceforth was heard of no more by any man.
Captain Bateman opened the barrel, and discovered a packet of manuscript, wrapped in oilskin. This, on examination, proved to be papers written by one Arthur Samuel Philips, a surviving passenger of the “Homebird” amid the desolate wastes of the Sargasso Sea. The document is as follows:
This is the fifth message that I have sent abroad over the loathsome surface of this vast Weed-World, praying that it may come to the open sea ere the lifting power of my fire-balloon be gone, and yet, if it come there, how shall I be the better for it? Yet write I must, or go mad, and so I choose to write, though feeling as I write that no living creature, save it be some giant octopus that lives in the weed about me, will ever see the thing I write.
It is now six complete years since the Weed-World claimed us—I and my wife— from the world of the living—six years away from our brothers and sisters of the human and living world! It is six years living in a grave! And there are all the years ahead! Oh! My God! My God! I dare not think upon them! I must control myself—and then there is the little one: she is nearly four-and-a-half now, and growing wonderfully, out among these wilds. Four-and-a-half years, and the little woman has never seen a human face besides ours—think of it! And yet, if she lives four-and-forty years, she will never see another. . . . Four-and-forty years! It is foolishness to trouble about such a space of time, for the future for us ends in ten years—eleven at the utmost. Our food will last no longer than that.
. . . My wife does not know, for it seems to me a wicked thing to add unnecessarily to her punishment. She does but know that we must waste no ounce of food-stuff, and for the rest she imagines that the most of the cargo is of an edible nature. Perhaps I have nurtured this belief. If anything happened to me the food would last for a few extra years for only two, but my wife would have to imagine it an accident, else would each bite she took sicken her. I have thought often and long upon this matter, yet I fear to leave them; for who knows but what their very lives might depend upon my lost strength, even more so, perhaps, than upon the food which they must come at last to lack. No, I must not bring upon them, and myself, a certain calamity to defer one that has a little less certainty and is at a further distance.
Until lately nothing has happened to us in the past four years, if I except the adventures that attended my mad attempt to cut a way through the surrounding weed to freedom, and from which it pleased God that I and those with me should be preserved. Yet in the latter part of this year an adventure, much touched with grimness, came to us most unexpectedly, in a fashion quite unthought of—an adventure that has brought into our lives a fresh and more active peril; for now I have learned that the weed holds other terrors besides that of the giant octopi. Indeed, I have grown to believe this world of desolation capable of holding any horror, as well it might. Think of it—an interminable stretch of olive-brown loneliness in all directions to the distant horizon; a place where monsters of the deep and the weed have undisputed reign! I cannot describe it, nor can any hope ever to imagine it. When the wind falls, a vast silence holds us girt all about, yet it is a silence through which one seems to feel the pulse of hidden things all about us, watching and waiting—waiting and watching; waiting but for the chance to reach forth in a huge death-grapple. … It is no use, I cannot bring it home to any, nor shall I be better able to convey the frightening sound of the wind sweeping across these vast, quaking plains—the shrill whispering of the weed-fronds under the stirring of the winds; to hear it beyond our canvas screen is like to listening to the uncounted dead of the mighty Sargasso wailing their own requiems. Or again, my fancy, diseased with much loneliness and brooding, likens it to the advancing rustle of armies of the great monsters that are always about us—waiting.
And so to the coming of this new terror:
It was in the latter end of October that we first had knowledge of it. I was down in the lazarette overhauling our stores, and suddenly I heard it—tap—tap—tap—against the outside of the vessel upon the starboard side, and below the water-line. I stood for a while listening, but could not come at what it was that should come a-tapping against our side away out here in this lonesome world of weed and slime. And then, as I stood there listening, the tapping ceased, and so I waited, wondering, and with a hateful sense of fear weakening my manhood and taking the courage out of my heart. …
Abruptly it recommenced, but now upon the opposite side of the vessel, and as it continued I fell into a great sweat, for it seemed to me that some foul thing out in the night was tapping for admittance. Tap—tap—tap it went, and continued, and there I stood listening, and so gripped about with frightened thoughts, that I seemed without power to stir myself; for the spell of the Weed-World, and the fear bred of its hidden terrors and the weight and dreeness of its loneliness were entered into my marrow.
Presently, however, I shook off something of the foolish fright that had taken me, and moved over to the place from whence the tapping seemed to sound. Coming close to it, I bent my head down close to the side of the vessel, and listened. Thus I heard the noises with greater plainness, and could distinguish easily now that something knocked with a hard object upon the outer side of the ship, as though someone had been striking the outer iron with a small hammer. Then, even as I listened, came a thunderous blow close to my ear, so loud and astonishing that I leaped sideways in sheer fright. Directly afterwards there came a second heavy blow, and then a third, as though someone had struck the ship’s side with a heavy sledge-hammer, and after that a space of silence in which I heard my wife’s voice at the trap of the lazarette calling down to me to know what had happened to cause so great a noise.
“Hush, my dear!” I whispered, for it seemed to me that the thing outside might hear her. Though this could not have been possible, and I do but mention it as showing how the noises had set me off my natural balance.
At my whispered command, my wife turned her about and came down the ladder into the semi-darkness of the place.
“What is it, Arthur?” she asked, coming to my side and slipping her hand between my arm and side.
As though in reply to her query, there came against the outside of the ship a fourth tremendous blow, filling the whole of the lazarette with a dull thunder.
My wife gave out a frightened cry, and sprang away from me; but the next instant she was back, and gripping hard at my arm.
“What is it, Arthur? What is it?” she asked me, her voice, though no more than a frightened whisper, easily heard in the succeeding silence.
“I don’t know, Mary,” I replied, trying to speak in a level tone. “It’s something–”
“There’s something again!” she interrupted, as the minor tapping noises recommenced.
For about a minute we stood silent, listening to those eerie taps. Then my wife turned to me.
“Come up out of this horrible place, Arthur!” she said. “I shall be ill if we stay here any longer. Perhaps the—the thing outside can hear us, and it may stop if we go upstairs.”
At the top we paused for a little to listen, bending down over the open hatchway. A space of, maybe, some five minutes passed away in silence, then there commenced again the tapping noises, the sound coming clearly up to us where we crouched.
I led my wife away from the hatch, guiding her to a seat in the saloon, for the hatch was situated under the saloon table. After that I returned to the opening, and replaced the cover. Then I went into our cabin—the one which had been the captain’s, her father—and brought from thence a revolver, of which we had several. This I loaded with care and afterwards placed in my side-pocket. Having done this, I brought from the pantry, where I have made it my use to keep such things at hand, a bull’s-eye lantern, the same having been intended for use on dark nights when clearing up the ropes from the decks. This I lit, and afterwards turned the dark slide to cover the light. Next I slipped off my boots, and then, as an afterthought, reached down one of the long-handled American axes from the rack about the mizzenmast, those being keen and very formidable weapons. After that, I had to calm my wife, and assure her that I would run no unnecessary risks, if, indeed, there were any risk to run; though, as may be imagined, I could not say what new peril might not be upon us. And then, picking up the lantern, I made my way silently on my stockinged foot up the companionway. I reached the top, and made my way cautiously to the side of the vessel. Here I paused and listened very carefully, being just above that spot upon the port side where I had heard the most part of the tapping, and all of the heavy bangs. Yet, though I listened, as I have said, with much attention, there seemed to be no repetition of the sounds.
Presently I rose and made my way forrard to the break of the poop. Here, bending over the rail which ran across, I listened, peering along the dim main deck, but could see nor hear nothing. Not that, indeed, I had any reason for expecting to see or hear aught unusual aboard of the vessel, for all of the noises had come from over the side, and, more than that, from beneath the water-line. Yet in the state of mind in which I was, I had less use for reason than fancy, for that strange thudding and tapping out in the midst of this world of loneliness had set me vaguely imagining terrors stealing upon me in every shadow that lay upon the dimly seen decks.
Then, as still I listened, hesitating to go down on to the main-deck, yet too dissatisfied with the result of my peerings to cease from my search, I heard, faint yet clear, in the stillness of the night, the tapping noises recommence. I took my weight from off the rail, and listened; but I could no longer hear them, and at that I leant forward again over the rail, and peered down on the main-deck. Immediately the sounds came once more to me, and I knew now that they were borne to me by the medium of the rail, it conducting them to me through the iron stanchions by which it is fixed to the vessel. At that, I turned and went aft along the poop-deck, moving very warily and with quietness. I stopped over the place where first I had heard the noises, and stooped, putting my ear against the rail. Here the sounds came to me with great distinctness. For a little I listened, then stood up, and slid away that part of the tarred canvas screen which covers the opening through which we dump our refuse, they being made here for convenience, one upon each side of the vessel. This I did very silently; then, leaning forward through the opening, I peered down into the dimness of the weed. Even as I did so I heard, plainly below me, a heavy thud, muffled and dull by reason of the intervening water, against the iron side of the ship. It seemed to me that there was some disturbance amid the dark, shadowy masses of the weed. Then I turned off the dark slide of my lantern, and sent a clear beam of light down into the darkness. For a brief instant I thought I perceived a multitude of things moving. Yet, beyond that they were oval in shape, and showed white through the weed fronds, I had no clear conception of anything; for with the flash of the light they vanished, and there lay beneath me only the dark, olive-brown masses of the weed, demurely quiet. Yet an impression they did leave upon my overexcited imagination—an impression that might have been due to morbidity, bred of too much loneliness; but, nevertheless, it seemed to me that I had seen momentarily a multitude of dead, white faces upturned towards me among the meshes of the weed.
For a little I leant there, staring down at the circle of illumined weed, yet with my thoughts in such a turmoil of frightened doubts and conjectures that my physical eyes did but poor work compared with the orb that looks inward. And through all the chaos of my mind there rose up weird and creepy memories—ghouls, the Un-Dead. And there seemed nothing improbable in associating the terms with the fears that were besetting me. For no man may dare to say what terrors this world holds until he has become lost to his brother men amid the unspeakable desolation of the vast and slimy weed-plains of the Sargasso Sea.
And then, as I leant there, so foolishly exposing myself to those dangers which I had learnt did truly exist, my eyes caught, and sub-consciously noted, the strange and subtle undulation which always foretells the approach of one of the giant octopi. Instantly, I leapt back, and whipped the tarred canvas over across the opening, and so stood alone there in the night, glancing frightenedly before and behind me, the beam from my lamp casting wavering splashes of light to and fro about the decks. And all the time I was listening—listening; for it seemed to me that Terror was brooding above me in the night, and might come upon us at any moment and in any form.
Then, across the silence, stole a whisper, and I turned swiftly towards the companionway. My wife was there, and she reached out her arms to me, begging me to come below into safety. As the light from my lantern flashed upon her, I saw that she had a revolver in her right hand, and at that, I asked her what she had it for; whereupon she informed me that she had been watching over me through the whole of the time that I had been on deck, save for the time that it had taken her to get and load the weapon.
At that, as may be imagined, I embraced her very heartily, kissing her for the love that had prompted her actions, and then, after that, we spoke a little together in low tones—she asking that I should come down and fasten up the companion-doors, and I demurring; telling her that I felt too unsettled to sleep; but would rather keep watch about the poop for a while longer.
But all was quiet and, presently, I consented to go below and bar up the companion, as my wife desired; for, indeed, there was much sense in her plea of the futility of my staying up upon the decks.
It would be, I would imagine, about two o’clock in the morning that I was aroused from a somewhat troubled sleep by the agonized screaming of our solitary pig away forrard. I leant up upon my elbow, and listened, and so grew speedily wide awake. I sat up, and slid from my cot to the floor. My wife, as I could tell from her breathing, was sleeping peacefully, so that I was able to draw on a few clothes without disturbing her.
Away forrard, the shrieking of the pig had been succeeded by an absolute silence, and there was nowhere any noise, if I except an occasional odd tap-tap which seemed to come from the side of the ship. And so, taking hold of my courage, I stepped out on to the main-deck, and proceeded slowly forrard, throwing the beam of light to and fro continuously as I walked.
Abruptly I heard away in the bows of the ship a sudden multitudinous tapping and scraping and slithering, and so loud and near did it sound that I was brought up all of a round turn, as the saying is. For perhaps a whole minute I stood there hesitating, and playing the light all about me, not knowing but that some hateful thing might leap upon me from out of the shadows. And then, suddenly, I remembered that I had left the door open behind me that led into the saloon, so that, were there any deadly thing about the decks, it might chance to get in upon my wife and child as they slept. At the thought I turned and ran swiftly aft again, and in through the door to my cabin. Here, I made sure that all was right with the two sleepers, and after that I returned to the deck, shutting the door, and locking it after me.
And now, feeling very lonesome out there upon the dark decks, and cut off in a way from a retreat, I had need of all my manhood to force me forrard to learn the wherefore of the pig’s crying, and the cause of that manifold tapping. Yet go I did, and am proud of the act to this day; for the dreeness and lonesomeness and the cold fear of the Weed-World squeezes the pluck out of one in a very woeful manner.
As I approached the empty fo’cas’le I moved with all wariness, swinging the light to and fro, and holding my axe very handily, and the heart within my breast like a shape of water, so feared was I. Yet, I came at last to the pigsty, and so discovered a most fearsome sight. The pig, a huge boar of twenty-score pounds, had been dragged out on to the deck, and lay before the sty with all his belly ripped up, and stone dead. The iron bars of the sty—stout bars they are, too—had been torn apart as though they had been so many straws, and, for the rest, there was a deal of blood both within the sty and upon the decks.
Yet I did not stay then to see more; for a sudden and overwhelming fear leapt upon me, overbearing my courage, so that I turned and ran like a frightened hare for the shelter of the saloon, and stopped not until the stout door was locked between me and that which had wrought such dire destruction upon the pig. And as I stood there, shivering with very fright, the question kept ever recurring to me—“What manner of wild beast Thing is it that can burst asunder iron bars, and rip the life out of a great boar, as though it were of no more account than a kitten?” And then came the more vital questions: “How did it get aboard, and where is it now?” And then again: “What is it?” And so in this fashion for maybe the better part of an hour, until I had grown something more calmed. And through all the remainder of that night I slept not so much as a wink.
Then in the morning when my wife awoke I told her of the happenings of the night; whereat she turned very white, and fell to reproaching me for going out at all on to the deck, declaring that I had run needlessly into danger, and that, at least, I should not have left her alone sleeping in ignorance of what was towards. And after that she fell into a fit of crying, so that I had some to-do comforting her. Yet, when she had come back to calmness, she was all for accompanying me about the decks to see by daylight what had indeed befallen in the night-time. And from this decision I could not turn her; though I assured her I should have told her nothing, had it not been that I wished to warn her from going to and fro between the saloon and the galley until I had made a thorough search about the decks.
Yet, as I have remarked, I could not turn her from her purpose of accompanying me, and so was forced to let her come, though sorely against my desire. We made our way on deck through the door that opened under the break of the poop, my wife carrying her loaded revolver half clumsily in both hands, whilst I had mine held in my left, and the long-handled axe in my right—holding it very readily. On stepping out on to the deck we closed the door behind us, locking it and removing the key, for we had in mind our sleeping child. Then we went slowly forrard along the decks, glancing about warily. As we came fore-side of the pigsty, and my wife saw that which lay before it, she let out a little exclamation of horror at the sight of the mutilated pig, as, indeed, she might. Yet, on my part, I said nothing; but glanced with much apprehension about us, feeling a fresh access of fright; for it was very plain to me that the boar had been molested since I had seen it—the head having boon torn, with awful might, from the body, and there were, besides, other new and ferocious wounds, one of which had come nigh to severing the poor brute’s body in half All of which was as so much additional evidence of the formidable character of the monster, or monsters, that had attacked the animal.
I did not delay by the pig, nor attempt to touch it; but beckoned my wife to follow me up to the fo’cas’le head. Here I removed the canvas cover from the small skylight which let light into the fo’cas’le beneath, and after that I lifted off the heavy top, letting a flood of light down into the gloomy place beneath. Then I leant down into the opening, and peered about; but could discover no signs of any lurking Thing, and so returned to the main-deck, and made an entrance into the fo’cas’le through the starboard doorway. And now I made a more minute search, but discovered nothing beyond the mournful array of sea-chests that had belonged to our dead crew. My search concluded, I hastened out from the doleful place into the daylight, and after that made fast the door again, and saw to it that the one upon the port side was securely locked. Then I went up again on to the fo’casl’e head, and replaced the skylight-top and the canvas rover, battening the whole down very thoroughly. And in this wise, and with an almost foolish care, did I make my search through the ship, fastening up each place behind me, so that I should be certain that no Thing was playing some dread game of hide and seek with me.
Yet I found nothing, and, had it not been for the grim evidence of the dead and mutilated boar, I had been like to have thought nothing more dreadful than an over-vivid imagination had roamed the decks in the darkness of the past night. That I had reason to feel puzzled may be the better understood when I explain that I had examined the whole of the great tarred-canvas screen, which I had built about the ship as a protection against the roaming tentacles of the giant octopi, without discovering any torn place such as must have been made if any material monster had climbed aboard out of the weed. Also, it must be borne in mind that the ship stood many feet out of the weed, presenting only her smooth steel sides to anything that desired to climb aboard.
And yet there was the dead pig lying brutally torn before its empty sty! An undeniable proof that to go out upon the decks after dark was to run the risk of meeting a horrible and mysterious death.
Through all that day I pondered over this new fear that had come upon us, and particularly upon the monstrous and unearthly power that had torn apart the stout iron bars of the sty and so ferociously wrenched off the head of the boar. The result of my pondering was that I removed our sleeping belongings that evening from the cabin to the steel half-deck—a little, four-bunked house standing foreside of the stump of the mainmast, and built entirely of steel even to the single door, which opened out of the after-end. Along with our sleeping matters, I carried forrard to our new lodgings a lamp and oil, also the dark-lantern, a couple of the axes, two rifles, and all of the revolvers, as well as a good supply of ammunition. Then I bade my wife forage out sufficient provisions to last us for a week, if need be, and whilst she was so busied I cleaned out and filled the water-breaker which belonged to the half-deck.
At half-past six I sent my wife forrard to the little steel house, with the baby, and then I locked up the saloon and all of the cabin doors, finally locking after me the heavy teak door that opened out under the break of the poop. Then I went forrard to my wife and child, and shut and bolted the steel door of the half-deck for the night. After that, I went round and saw to it that all of the steel storm-doors that shut over the eight ports of the house were in good working order, and so we sat down, as it were, to await the night.
By eight o’clock the dusk was upon us, and before half-past the night hid all the decks from my sight. Then I shut down all of the steel port-flaps, and screwed them up securely, and after that lit the lamp. And so a space of waiting ensued, during which I whispered reassuringly to my wife, who was looking across at me from her seat beside the sleeping child with frightened eyes, and a very white face; for somehow there had come upon us within the last hour a sense of chilly fright that went straight to one’s heart, robbing one vilely of pluck.
A little later a sudden sound broke the impressive silence—a sudden dull thud against the side of the ship; and after that there was quietness for maybe a quarter of an hour.
Then, suddenly, I heard away forrard, a tap—tap—tap, and then a loud rattling, slurring noise and a loud crash. After that I heard many other sounds, and always that tap—tap—tap repeated a hundred times, as though an army of wooden-legged men were busied all about the fore-end of the ship.
Presently there came to me the sound of something coming down the deck: tap— tap—tap, it came. It drew near to the house, paused for nigh a minute; then continued away aft towards the saloon—tap—tap—tap. I shivered a little, and then fell half consciously to thanking God that I had been given wisdom to come forrard to the security of the steel deckhouse.
About a minute later I heard the sound of a heavy blow struck somewhere away aft, and after that a second, and then a third, and seeming by the sounds to have been against steel—the steel of the bulkheads that went across the break of the poop. There came the noise of a fourth blow, and it blended into a crash of broken woodwork. And therewith I fell for a little into a sort of tearless quivering, for the little one and my wife might have been sleeping aft there at that very moment, had it not been for the Providential thought which had sent us forrard to the half-deck.
With the crash of the broken door away aft, there came from forrard of us a great tumult of sounds, and directly it sounded as though a multitude of things were coming down the decks. Tap—tap—tap; tap-a-tap, the noises came, and drew abreast of where we sat in the house, crouched, and holding our breaths, for fear that we should make some noise to attract that which was without. The sounds passed us, and went tapping away aft; and a little breath of sheer relief came from me. Then, as a sudden thought came to me, I rose and turned down the lamp, fearing that some ray from it might be seen from beneath the door. And so for the space of an hour we sat wordless, listening to the sounds which came from away aft, the thud of heavy blows, the occasional crash of wood, and presently the tap—tap—tap again, coming forrard towards us.
The sounds came to a stop opposite the starboard side of the house, and, for a full minute, there was quietness. Then, suddenly, “boom!”—a tremendous blow had been struck against the side of the house. I heard my wife give out a little gasping cry; then there came a second blow, and at that the child awoke and began to wail, and my wife was put to it with trying to soothe it into immediate silence. A third blow was struck, filling the little house with a dull thunder of sound, and then I heard the tap—tap—tap move round to the after-end of the house. There came a pause, and then a great blow right upon the door, and at that I grasped the rifle which I had leaned against my chair, and stood up; for I did not know but that the thing might not be upon us in a moment, so prodigious was the force of the blows it struck. Once again it struck the door, and after that went tap—tap—tap round to the port side of the house, and there struck the house again; but now I had more ease of mind, for it was its direct attack upon the door that had put such horrid dread into my heart.
After the blows upon the port side of the house, there came a long spell of silence, as though the thing outside were listening; but, by the mercy of God, my wife had been able to soothe the child, so that no sound from us told of our presence.
Then, at last, there came again the sounds—tap—tap—tap as the silent thing moved away forrard. Presently I heard the noises cease aft, and after that there came a multitudinous tap-a-tapping coming along she decks. It passed the house without so much as a pause, and receded away forrard.
After that, for a space of over two hours, there was an absolute silence, so that I judged that we were now no longer in danger of being molested. An hour later I whispered to my wife; but getting no reply, knew that she had fallen into a doze, and so I sat on listening tensely, yet making no sort of noise that might attract attention.
Presently, by the thin line of light from beneath the door, I saw that the day was breaking, and at that I rose stiffly, and commenced to unscrew the steel port-covers. I unscrewed the forrard ones first, and looked out into the wan dawn; but could discover nothing unusual about so much of the decks as I could see from thence. After that I went round and loosened each as I came to it in its turn; but it was not until I had unscrewed that which gave me a view of the port side of the after main-deck that I discovered anything unusual. Then I saw, at first dimly, but more clearly as the day brightened, that the door leading from beneath the break of the poop into the saloon had been broken to flinders, some of which still hung from the bent hinges, whilst more, no doubt, were strewed in the passage beyond my sight.
Turning from the port, I glanced towards my wife, and saw that she lay half in and half out of the baby’s bunk, sleeping with her head beside the child’s, both upon one pillow. At the sight, a great wave of thankfulness took me that we had been so wonderfully spared from the terrible and mysterious dangers that had stalked the decks in the darkness of the preceding night. Feeling thus, I stole across the floor of the house and kissed them both very gently, being full of tenderness, yet not minded to waken them. And after that, I lay down in one of the bunks, and slept until the sun was high in the heavens.
When I awoke, my wife was about and had tended to the child and prepared our breakfast, so that I had naught to do but tumble out and set to, the which I did with a certain keenness of appetite, induced, I doubt not, by the stress of the past night. Whilst we ate we discussed the peril through which we had just come with safety, but without coming any the nearer to a solution of the weird mystery of the Terror.
Breakfast over, we took a long and final survey of the decks from the various ports, and then prepared to sally out. This we did with instinctive caution and quietness, and each of us armed as on the previous lay. The door of the half-deck we closed and locked behind us, thereby insuring that the child was open to no danger whilst we were in other parts of the ship.
After a quick look about us, we proceeded aft towards the shattered door beneath the break of the poop. At the doorway we stopped, not so much with the intent to examine the broken door, as because of an instinctive and natural hesitation to go forward into the saloon, which but a few hours previous had been visited by some incredible monster or monsters. Finally, we decided to go up upon the poop and peer down through the skylight. This we did, lifting the sides of the dome for that purpose; yet though we peered long and earnestly, we could perceive no signs of any lurking thing. But broken woodwork there appeared to be in plenty, to judge by the scattered flinders.
After that I unlocked the companion, and pushed back the big, overarching slide. Then, silently, we stole down the steps and into the saloon. Here, being now able to see the place through all its length, we discovered a most extraordinary scene, the whole place appeared to be wrecked from end to end; the six cabins that line each side had their bulkheadings driven into shards and slivers of broken wood in places. Here, a door would be standing untouched, whilst the bulkhead beside it was in a mass of flinders—there, a door would be driven completely from its hinges, whilst the surrounding woodwork was untouched. And so it was wherever we looked.
My wife made to go towards our cabin; but I pulled her back, and went forward myself. Here the desolation was almost as great. My wife’s bunk-board had been ripped out, whilst the supporting side-batten of mine had been plucked forth, so that all the bottom boards of the bunk had descended to the floor in a cascade. But it was neither of these things that touched us so sharply as the fact that the child’s little swing cot had been wrenched from its standards and flung in a tangled mass of white-painted ironwork across the cabin. At the sight of that, I glanced at my wife, and she at me, her face grown very white. Then down she slid to her knees and fell to crying and thanking God together, so that I found myself beside her in a moment, with a very humble and thankful heart.
Presently, when we were more controlled, we left the cabin, and finished our search. The pantry we discovered to be entirely untouched, which, somehow, I do not think then was a matter of great surprise to me; for I had ever a feeling that the things which had broken a way into our sleeping cabin had not been looking for anything but us!
In a little while we left the wrecked saloon and cabins, and made our way forrard to the pig-sty; for I was anxious to see whether the carcase of the pig had been touched. As we came round the corner of the sty, I uttered a great cry; for there, lying upon the deck, on its back, was a gigantic crab, so vast in size that I had not conceived so huge a monster existed. Olive-brown it was in colour, and when later we measured it, we found it to be three feet seven inches across the back of its shell, measuring it along its greatest length.
One of its pincer-claws or mandibles had been torn off in the fight in which it must have been slain—for it was all disemboweled—and weighed exactly thirty-three-and-a-quarter pounds, and by these two measurements you may have some idea of the size and formidableness of the thing.
Around this great crab lay half-a-dozen smaller ones, no more than from seven or eight to fifteen inches across, and all white in colour, save for an occasional mottling of olive-brown. These had all been killed by a single nip of an enormous mandible, which had in every case smashed them almost into two halves. Of the carcase of the great boar, not a fragment remained.
And so was the mystery solved, and with the solution departed the superstitious terror which had suffocated me through those three nights since the tapping had commenced. We had been attacked by a wandering shoal of giant crabs, who, it is quite possible, roamed across the weed from place to place, devouring and slaying everything that came in their path.
Whether they had ever boarded a ship before, and so, perhaps, developed a preferential taste for human flesh, or whether their attack had been prompted by curiosity, I cannot possibly say. It may be that, at first, they mistook the hull of the vessel for the body of some dead marine monster, and hence their blows upon her sides, by which, possibly, they were endeavouring to pierce through our somewhat unusually tough hide! Or again, it may be that they have some power of scent by means of which they were enabled to smell our presence aboard the ship; but this—as they made no general attack upon us in the deckhouse—I feel disinclined to regard as probable. And yet—I do not know! Why their attack upon the saloon and our sleeping cabin? As I say, I cannot tell, and so must leave it there.
Of the way in which they made their way aboard I discovered that same day; for, having learned what manner of creature it was that had attacked us, I made a more intelligent survey of the sides of the ship. But it was not until I came to the extreme bows that I saw how they had managed. Here I found that some of the gear of the broken bowsprit and jibboom trailed down on to the weed, and as I had not extended the canvas screen across the heel of the bowsprit, the monsters had been able to climb up the gear and thence aboard without the least obstruction being opposed to their progress.
This state of affairs I very speedily remedied, for with a few strokes of my axe I cut through the gear, allowing it to drop down among the weed; and after that I built a temporary breastwork of wood across the gap between the two ends of the screen, later on making it more permanent.
Since that time we have been no more molested by the giant crabs, though for a week afterwards we heard them at night knocking against our sides. Maybe, they were attracted by such refuse as we are forced to dump overboard, and this would explain their first tappings being aft, opposite to the lazarette, for it is from the openings in this part of the canvas screen that we cast our rubbish. Yet it is weeks now since we heard aught of them, so that I have reason to believe that they have betaken themselves elsewhere, maybe to attack some other lonely humans living out their short span of life aboard some lone derelict, lost even to memory in the depth of this vast sea of weed and deadly creatures.
I shall send this message forth on its journey, as I have sent the other four, within a well-pitched barrel, attached to a small fire-balloon.
What other terrors does this hideous world hold for us?
I had thought of enclosing along with this letter the claw and the shell of one of the white smaller crabs. It must have been some of these moving in the weed that night that set my disordered fancy to imaginings of ghouls and the Un-Dead. But, on thinking it over, I shall not; for to do so would be to illustrate nothing that needs illustration, and would but increase needlessly the weight which the balloon will have to lift.
And so I grow wearied of writing. The night is drawing near, and I have little more to tell. I am writing this in the saloon, and, though I have mended and patched so well as I am able, nothing I can do will hide the traces of that night when the vast crabs raided through these cabins searching for—what?
There is nothing more to say. In health I am well, and so is my wife and little one; but—
I must have myself under control, and be patient. We are beyond all help, and must bear that which is before us with such bravery as we are able. And with this I end; for my last word shall not be one of complaint.
ARTHUR SAMUEL PHILIPS.
Christmas Eve. 1879.