If Hodgson can be said to have created a “Mythos” (ala H. P. Lovecraft), probably the best case for that would be his Sargasso Sea stories.
Located within an area of the North Atlantic Ocean, the Sargasso Sea is a section bordered by strong currents which deposits debri and seaweed. A source of legends, under Hodgson’s pen it would become a “haunted graveyard of the ocean” with seaweed in banks that are so massive that ships cannot break through and home to horrifyingly monsterous crabs and octopi that prey on trapped crews.
Hodgson’s Mythos first takes form in the story “From the Tideless Sea” and sets the tone for the rest to come. In the story, a ship becomes mired in the weed and the crew faces a vicious fight for survival. The story first appeared in an American magazine, MONTHLY STORY MAGAZINE, in April, 1906. It would not be published in England until May, 1907, when it appears in LONDON MAGAZINE. It would, in fact, be Hodgson’s FOURTH published fiction to appear. The story must have been a success for Hodgson penned a sequel, “More News From the Homebird” which appeared in America’s BLUE BOOK MAGAZINE in August of 1907 but not in the LONDON MAGAZINE until May of 1911! When the two stories were collected in MEN OF DEEP WATERS (1914), they were combined into one long tale and this has remained the custom in all subsequent reprintings.
That Hodgson felt some ownership of the Sargasso Sea mythos is evident as he was already complaining about others using it as early as 1905. In a letter to Coulson Kernahan (dated November 17th, 1905) Hodgson states:
See, Man, I begin to realise what it is urges men to do desperate things. In one of the late numbers of SKETCHY BITS (ye gods!) a friend of mine called my attention to a story, entitled “THE RAFT”, signed only by the initials C.L. The thing bears internal evidence that the writer has read at least one of my “weed” stories, and here, in such piffle as this, am I to be robbed of the original element, which is my birthright. If the story had been merely about the Sargasso Sea, I should have thought nothing; but they have embodied in it at least two of my ideas. That the story is not evolved from the brain of C.L., I have proof, for the writer betrays ignorance of his subject in every other paragraph. The story is, of course, different from mine, that is, superficially; but the deeper thing–the conception is mine. Damn him! The Sargasso, of my stories, is mine own happy hunting ground. I have invented it, and have a right to hunt in it. It is true that there have been other “weed” yarns; but there has been nothing at all before like to the weed world which I have created. If only I could at least have the chance, in a better mag, which this rotter has in his poorer, but, no! I must be a dumb pen, whilst he, or she, (wonder who it is) takes all the freshness and newness and sense of originality out of my yarns. Then, when mine come out, they will say that the stories owe their conceptions to an “unknown writer who wrote up the subject in SKETCHY BITS”. (THE UNCOLLECTED WILLIAM HOPE HODGSON, VOL. 1, Hobgoblin Press, 1995, pg 38-39)
It is interesting that Hodgson is practically accusing the mysterious “C.L.” of plagerism and yet the first of Hodgson’s Sargasso Sea stories did not appear in print until April, 1906, nearly half a year after Hodgson writes this letter. Is his implication that someone had seen his stories in the submission piles? Perhaps read one or two and then ‘stole’ the ideas for their own story? We will never know. “The Raft”, incidentally, was actually reprinted in the fifth, and final volume, of Night Shade’s THE COMPLETE FICTION OF WILLIAM HOPE HODGSON. It is credited to scholar Douglas Anderson for finding the story and given the date of October, 1905.
Stories belonging to Hodgson’s Sargasso Sea Mythos are: “From the Tideless Sea, Part One”, “From the Tideless Sea, Part Two” (aka “More News from the Homebird”), “The Mystery of the Derelict”, “The Thing in the Weeds”, “The Finding of the Graiken” and “The Call in the Dawn”. I would also place the novel, THE BOATS OF THE ‘GLEN CARRIG’, in this company as the Sargasso Sea is the setting for the last half of the book.
Although not as wide-reaching or ambitious as Lovecraft’s Mythos, Hodgson’s Sargasso Sea Mythos is an important part of his work. In it, he combined sea-adventure with horror to achieve a unique mixture that had never been seen before.
Following is a reprint of “From the Tideless Sea, Part One”. I hope you enjoy it!
FROM THE TIDELESS SEA
The Captain of the schooner leant over the rail, and stared for a moment, intently.
“Pass us them glasses, Jock,” he said, reaching a hand behind him.
Jock left the wheel for an instant, and ran into the little companionway. He emerged immediately with a pair of marine-glasses, which he pushed into the waiting hand.
For a little, the Captain inspected the object through the binoculars. Then he lowered them, and polished the object glasses.
“Seems like er water-logged barr’l as sumone’s been doin’ fancy paintin’ on,” he remarked after a further stare. “Shove ther ‘elm down er bit, Jock, an’ we’ll ‘ave er closer look at it.”
Jock obeyed, and soon the schooner bore almost straight for the object which held the Captain’s attention. Presently, it was within some fifty feet, and the Captain sung out to the boy in the caboose to pass along the boathook.
Very slowly, the schooner drew nearer, for the wind was no more than breathing gently. At last the cask was within reach, and the Captain grappled at it with the boathook. It bobbed in the calm water, under his ministrations; and, for a moment, the thing seemed likely to elude him. Then he had [Pg 96] the hook fast in a bit of rotten-looking rope which was attached to it. He did not attempt to lift it by the rope; but sung out to the boy to get a bowline round it. This was done, and the two of them hove it up on to the deck.
The Captain could see now, that the thing was a small water-breaker, the upper part of which was ornamented with the remains of a painted name.
“H—M—E—B——” spelt out the Captain with difficulty, and scratched his head. “‘ave er look at this ‘ere, Jock. See wot you makes of it.”
Jock bent over from the wheel, expectorated, and then stared at the breaker. For nearly a minute he looked at it in silence.
“I’m thinkin’ some of the letterin’s washed awa’,” he said at last, with considerable deliberation. “I have ma doots if he’ll be able to read it.
“Hadn’t ye no better knock in the end?” he suggested, after a further period of pondering. “I’m thinkin’ ye’ll be lang comin’ at them contents otherwise.”
“It’s been in ther water er thunderin’ long time,” remarked the Captain, turning the bottom side upwards. “Look at them barnacles!”
Then, to the boy:—
“Pass erlong ther ‘atchet outer ther locker.”
Whilst the boy was away, the Captain stood the little barrel on end, and kicked away some of the barnacles from the underside. With them, came away a great shell of pitch. He bent, and inspected it.
“Blest if ther thing ain’t been pitched!” he said. “This ‘ere’s been put afloat er purpose, an’ they’ve been, mighty anxious as ther stuff in it shouldn’t be ‘armed.
He kicked away another mass of the barnacle-studded pitch. Then, with a sudden impulse, he picked up the whole thing and shook it violently. It gave out a light, dull, thudding sound, as though something soft and small were within. Then the boy came with the hatchet.
“Stan’ clear!” said the Captain, and raised the implement. The next instant, he had driven in one end of the barrel. Eagerly, he stooped forward. He dived his hand down and brought out a little bundle stitched up in oilskin.
“I don’ spect as it’s anythin’ of valley,” he remarked. “But I guess as there’s sumthin’ ‘ere as ‘ll be worth tellin’ ’bout w’en we gets ‘ome.”
He slit up the oilskin as he spoke. Underneath, there was another covering of the same material, and under that a third. Then a longish bundle done up in tarred canvas. This was removed, and a black, cylindrical shaped case disclosed to view. It proved to be a tin canister, pitched over. Inside of it, neatly wrapped within a last strip of oilskin, was a roll of papers, which, on opening, the Captain found to be covered with writing. The Captain shook out the various wrappings; but found nothing further. He handed the MS. across to Jock.
“More ‘n your line ‘n mine, I guess,” he remarked. “Jest you read it up, an’ I’ll listen.”
He turned to the boy.
“Fetch thef dinner erlong ‘ere. Me an’ ther Mate ‘ll ‘ave it comfertable up ‘ere, an’ you can take ther wheel…. Now then, Jock!”
And, presently, Jock began to read.
“The Losing of the Homebird“
“The ‘Omebird!” exclaimed the Captain. “Why, she were lost w’en I wer’ quite a young feller. Let me see—seventy-three. That were it. Tail end er seventy-three w’en she left ‘ome, an’ never ‘eard of since; not as I knows. Go a’ead with ther yarn, Jock.”
“It is Christmas eve. Two years ago to-day, we became lost to the world. Two years! It seems like twenty since I had my last Christmas in England. Now, I suppose, we are already forgotten—and this ship is but one more among the missing! My God! to think upon our loneliness gives me a choking feeling, a tightness across the chest!
“I am writing this in the saloon of the sailing ship, Homebird, and writing with but little hope of human eye ever seeing that which I write; for we are in the heart of the dread Sargasso Sea—the Tideless Sea of the North Atlantic. From the stump of our mizzen mast, one may see, spread out to the far horizon, an interminable waste of weed—a treacherous, silent vastitude of slime and hideousness!
“On our port side, distant some seven or eight miles, there is a great, shapeless, discoloured mass. No one, seeing it for the first time, would suppose it to be the hull of a long lost vessel. It bears but little resemblance to a sea-going craft, because of a strange superstructure which has been built upon it. An examination of the vessel herself, through a telescope, tells one that she is unmistakably ancient. Probably a hundred, possibly two hundred, years. Think of it! Two hundred years in the midst of this desolation! It is an eternity.
“At first we wondered at that extraordinary superstructure. Later, we were to learn its use—and profit by the teaching of hands long withered. It is inordinately strange that we should have come upon this sight for the dead! Yet, thought suggests, that there may be many such, which have lain here through the centuries in this World of Desolation. I had not imagined that the earth contained so much loneliness, as is held within the circle, seen from the stump of our shattered mast. Then comes the thought that I might wander a hundred miles in any direction—and still be lost.
“And that craft yonder, that one break in the monotony, that monument of a few men’s misery, serves only to make the solitude the more atrocious; for she is a very effigy of terror, telling of tragedies in the past, and to come!
“And now to get back to the beginnings of it. I joined the Homebird, as a passenger, in the early part of November. My health was not quite the thing, and I hoped the voyage would help to set me up. We had a lot of dirty weather for the first couple of weeks out, the wind dead ahead. Then we got a Southerly slant, that carried us down through the forties; but a good deal more to the Westward than we desired. Here we ran right into a tremendous cyclonic storm. All hands were called to shorten sail, and so urgent seemed our need, that the very officers went aloft to help make up the sails, leaving only the Captain (who had taken the wheel) and myself upon the poop. On the maindeck; the cook was busy letting go such ropes as the Mates desired.
“Abruptly, some distance ahead, through the vague sea-mist, but rather on the port bow, I saw loom up a great black wall of cloud.
“‘Look, Captain!’ I exclaimed; but it had vanished before I had finished speaking. A minute later it came again, and this time the Captain saw it.
“‘O, my God!’ he cried, and dropped his hands from the wheel. He leapt into the companionway, and seized a speaking trumpet. Then out on deck. He put it to his lips.
“‘Come down from aloft! Come down! Come down!’ he shouted. And suddenly I lost his voice in a terrific mutter of sound from somewhere to port. It was the voice of the storm—shouting. My God! I had never heard anything like it! It ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and, in the succeeding quietness, I heard the whining of the kicking-tackles through the blocks. Then came a quick clang of brass upon the deck, and I turned quickly. The Captain had thrown down the trumpet, and sprung back to the wheel. I glanced aloft, and saw that many of the men were already in the rigging, and racing down like cats.
“I heard the Captain draw his breath with a quick gasp.
“‘Hold on for your lives!’ he shouted, in a hoarse, unnatural voice.
“I looked at him. He was staring to windward with a fixed stare of painful intentness, and my gaze followed his. I saw, not four hundred yards distant, an enormous mass of foam and water coming down upon us. In the same instant, I caught the hiss of it, and immediately it was a shriek, so intense and awful, that I cringed impotently with sheer terror.
“The smother of water and foam took the ship a little fore-side of the beam, and the wind was with it. Immediately, the vessel rolled over on to her side, the sea-froth flying over her in tremendous cataracts.
“It seemed as though nothing could save us. Over, over we went, until I was swinging against the deck, almost as against the side of a house; for I had grasped the weather rail at the Captain’s warning. As I swung there, I saw a strange thing. Before me was the port quarter boat. Abruptly, the canvas cover was flipped clean off it, as though by a vast, invisible hand.
“The next instant, a flurry of oars, boats’ masts and odd gear flittered up into the air, like so many feathers, and blew to leeward and was lost in the roaring chaos of foam. The boat, herself, lifted in her chocks, and suddenly was blown clean down on to the maindeck, where she lay all in a ruin of white-painted timbers.
“A minute of the most intense suspense passed; then, suddenly, the ship righted, and I saw that the three masts had carried away. Yet, so hugely loud was the crying of the storm, that no sound of their breaking had reached me.
“I looked towards the wheel; but no one was there. Then I made out something crumpled up against the lee rail. I struggled across to it, and found that it was the Captain. He was insensible, and queerly limp in his right arm and leg. I looked round. Several of the men were crawling aft along the poop. I beckoned to them, and pointed to the wheel, and then to the Captain. A couple of them came towards me, and one went to the wheel. Then I made out through the spray the form of the Second Mate. He had several more of the men with him, and they had a coil of rope, which they took forrard. I learnt afterwards that they were hastening to get out a sea-anchor, so as to keep the ship’s head towards the wind.
“We got the Captain below, and into his bunk. There, I left him in the hands of his daughter and the steward, and returned on deck.
“Presently, the Second Mate came back, and with him the remainder of the men. I found then that only seven had been saved in all. The rest had gone.
“The day passed terribly—the wind getting stronger hourly; though, at its worst, it was nothing like so tremendous as that first burst.
“The night came—a night of terror, with the thunder and hiss of the giant seas in the air above us, and the wind bellowing like some vast Elemental beast.
“Then, just before the dawn, the wind lulled, almost in a moment; the ship rolling and wallowing fearfully, and the water coming aboard—hundreds of tons at a time. Immediately afterwards it caught us again; but more on the beam, and bearing the vessel over on to her side, and this only by the pressure of the element upon the stark hull. As we came head to wind again, we righted, and rode, as we had for hours, amid a thousand fantastic hills of phosphorescent flame.
“Again the wind died—coming again after a longer pause, and then, all at once, leaving us. And so, for the space of a terrible half hour, the ship lived through the most awful, windless sea that can be imagined. There was no doubting but that we had driven right into the calm centre of the cyclone—calm only so far as lack of wind, and yet more dangerous a thousand times than the most furious hurricane that ever blew.
“For now we were beset by the stupendous Pyramidal Sea; a sea once witnessed, never forgotten; a sea in which the whole bosom of the ocean is projected towards heaven in monstrous hills of water; not leaping forward, as would be the case if there were wind; but hurling upwards in jets and peaks of living brine, and falling back in a continuous thunder of foam.
“Imagine this, if you can, and then have the clouds break away suddenly overhead, and the moon shine down upon that hellish turmoil, and you will have such a sight as has been given to mortals but seldom, save with death. And this is what we saw, and to my mind there is nothing within the knowledge of man to which I can liken it.
“Yet we lived through it, and through the wind that came later. But two more complete days and nights had passed, before the storm ceased to be a terror to us, and then, only because it had carried us into the seaweed laden waters of the vast Sargasso Sea.
“Here, the great billows first became foamless; and dwindled gradually in size as we drifted further among the floating masses of weed. Yet the wind was still furious, so that the ship drove on steadily, sometimes between banks, and other times over them.
“For a day and a night we drifted thus; and then astern I made out a great bank of weed, vastly greater than any which hitherto we had encountered. Upon this, the wind drove us stern foremost, so that we over-rode it. We had been forced some distance across it, when it occurred to me that our speed was slackening. I guessed presently that the sea-anchor, ahead, had caught in the weed, and was holding. Even as I surmised this, I heard from beyond the bows a faint, droning, twanging sound, blending with the roar of the wind. There came an indistinct report, and the ship lurched backwards through the weed. The hawser, connecting us with the sea-anchor, had parted.
“I saw the Second Mate run forrard with several men. They hauled in upon the hawser, until the broken end was aboard. In the meantime, the ship, having nothing ahead to keep her “bows on,” began to slew broadside towards the wind. I saw the men attach a chain to the end of the broken hawser; then they paid it out again, and the ship’s head came back to the gale.
“When the Second Mate came aft, I asked him why this had been done, and he explained that so long as the vessel was end-on, she would travel over the weed. I inquired why he wished her to go over the weed, and he told me that one of the men had made out what appeared to be clear water astern, and that—could we gain it—we might win free.
“Through the whole of that day, we moved rearwards across the great bank; yet, so far from the weed appearing to show signs of thinning, it grew steadily thicker, and, as it became denser, so did our speed slacken, until the ship was barely moving. And so the night found us.
“The following morning discovered to us that we were within a quarter of a mile of a great expanse of clear water—apparently the open sea; but unfortunately the wind had dropped to a moderate breeze, and the vessel was motionless, deep sunk in the weed; great tufts of which rose up on all sides, to within a few feet of the level of our maindeck.
“A man was sent up the stump of the mizzen, to take a look round. From there, he reported that he [Pg 105] could see something, that might be weed, across the water; but it was too far distant for him to be in any way certain. Immediately afterwards, he called out that there was something, away on our port beam; but what it was, he could not say, and it was not until a telescope was brought to bear, that we made it out to be the hull of the ancient vessel I have previously mentioned.
“And now, the Second Mate began to cast about for some means by which he could bring the ship to the clear water astern. The first thing which he did, was to bend a sail to a spare yard, and hoist it to the top of the mizzen stump. By this means, he was able to dispense with the cable towing over the bows, which, of course, helped to prevent the ship from moving. In addition, the sail would prove helpful to force the vessel across the weed. Then he routed out a couple of kedges. These, he bent on to the ends of a short piece of cable, and, to the bight of this, the end of a long coil of strong rope.
“After that, he had the starboard quarter boat lowered into the weed, and in it he placed the two kedge anchors. The end of another length of rope, he made fast to the boat’s painter. This done, he took four of the men with him, telling them to bring chain-hooks, in addition to the oars—his intention being to force the boat through the weed, until he reached the clear water. There, in the marge of the weed, he would plant the two anchors in the thickest clumps of the growth; after which we were to haul the boat back to the ship, by means of the rope attached to the painter.
“‘Then,’ as he put it, ‘we’ll take the kedge-rope to the capstan, and heave her out of this blessed cabbage heap!’
“The weed proved a greater obstacle to the progress of the boat, than, I think, he had anticipated. After half an hour’s work, they had gone scarcely more than some two hundred feet from the vessel; yet, so thick was the stuff, that no sign could we see of them, save the movement they made among the weed, as they forced the boat along.
“Another quarter of an hour passed away, during which the three men left upon the poop, paid out the ropes as the boat forged slowly ahead. All at once, I heard my name called. Turning, I saw the Captain’s daughter in the companionway, beckoning to me. I walked across to her.
“‘My father has sent me up to know, Mr. Philips, how they are getting on?’
“‘Very slowly, Miss Knowles,’ I replied. ‘Very slowly indeed. The weed is so extraordinarily thick.’
“She nodded intelligently, and turned to descend; but I detained her a moment.
“‘Your father, how is he?’ I asked.
“She drew her breath swiftly.
“‘Quite himself,’ she said; ‘but so dreadfully weak. He——’
“An outcry from one of the men, broke across her speech:—
“‘Lord ‘elp us, mates! wot were that!’
“I turned sharply. The three of them were staring over the taffrail. I ran towards them, and Miss Knowles followed.
“‘Hush!’ she said, abruptly. ‘Listen!’
“I stared astern to where I knew the boat to be. The weed all about it was quaking queerly—the movement extending far beyond the radius of their hooks and oars. Suddenly, I heard the Second Mate’s voice:
“‘Look out, lads! My God, look out!’
“And close upon this, blending almost with it, came the hoarse scream of a man in sudden agony.
“I saw an oar come up into view, and descend violently, as though someone struck at something with it. Then the Second Mate’s voice, shouting:—
“‘Aboard there! Aboard there! Haul in on the rope! Haul in on the rope——!’ It broke off into a sharp cry.
“As we seized hold of the rope, I saw the weed hurled in all directions, and a great crying and choking swept to us over the brown hideousness around.
“‘Pull!’ I yelled, and we pulled. The rope tautened; but the boat never moved.
“‘Tek it ter ther capsting!’ gasped one of the men.
“Even as he spoke, the rope slackened. “‘It’s coming!’ cried Miss Knowles. ‘Pull! Oh! Pull!’
“She had hold of the rope along with us, and together we hauled, the boat yielding to our strength with surprising ease.
“‘There it is!’ I shouted, and then I let go of the rope. There was no one in the boat.
“‘For the half of a minute, we stared, dumfoundered. Then my gaze wandered astern to the place from which we had plucked it. There was a heaving movement among the great weed masses. I saw something waver up aimlessly against the sky; it was sinuous, and it flickered once or twice from side to side; then sank back among the growth, before I could concentrate my attention upon it.
“I was recalled to myself by a sound of dry sobbing. Miss Knowles was kneeling upon the deck, her hands clasped round one of the iron uprights of the rail. She seemed momentarily all to pieces.
“‘Come! Miss Knowles,’ I said, gently. ‘You must be brave. We cannot let your father know of this in his present state.’
“She allowed me to help her to her feet. I could feel that she was trembling badly. Then, even as I sought for words with which to reassure her, there came a dull thud from the direction of the companionway. We looked round. On the deck, face downward, lying half in and half out of the scuttle, was the Captain. Evidently, he had witnessed everything. Miss Knowles gave out a wild cry, and ran to her father. I beckoned to one of the men to help me, and, together, we carried him back to his bunk. An hour later, he recovered from his swoon. He was quite calm, though very weak, and evidently in considerable pain.
“Through his daughter, he made known to me that he wished me to take the reins of authority in his place. This, after a slight demur, I decided to do; for, as I reassured myself, there were no duties required of me, needing any special knowledge of shipcraft. The vessel was fast; so far as I could see, irrevocably fast. It would be time to talk of freeing her, when the Captain was well enough to take charge once more.
“I returned on deck, and made known to the men the Captain’s wishes. Then I chose one to act as a sort of bo’sun over the other two, and to him I gave orders that everything should be put to rights before the night came. I had sufficient sense to leave him to manage matters in his own way; for, whereas my knowledge of what was needful, was fragmentary, his was complete.
“By this time, it was near to sunsetting, and it was with melancholy feelings that I watched the great hull of the sun plunge lower. For awhile, I paced the poop, stopping ever and anon to stare over the dreary waste by which we were surrounded. The more I looked about, the more a sense of lonesomeness and depression and fear assailed me. I had pondered much upon the dread happening of the day, and all my ponderings led to a vital questioning:—What was there among all that quiet weed, which had come upon the crew of the boat, and destroyed them? And I could not make answer, and the weed was silent—dreadly silent!
“The sun had drawn very near to the dim horizon, and I watched it, moodily, as it splashed great clots of red fire across the water that lay stretched into the distance across our stern. Abruptly, as I gazed, its perfect lower edge was marred by an irregular shape. For a moment, I stared, puzzled. Then I fetched a pair of glasses from the holdfast in the companion. A glance through these, and I knew the extent of our fate. That line, blotching the round of the sun, was the conformation of another enormous weed bank.
“I remembered that the man had reported something as showing across the water, when he was sent up to the top of the mizzen stump in the morning; but, what it was, he had been unable to say. The thought flashed into my mind that it had been only just visible from aloft in the morning, and now it was in sight from the deck. It occurred to me that the wind might be compacting the weed, and driving the bank which surrounded the ship, down upon a larger portion. Possibly, the clear stretch of water had been but a temporary rift within the heart of the Sargasso Sea. It seemed only too probable.
“Thus it was that I meditated, and so, presently, the night found me. For some hours further, I paced the deck in the darkness, striving to understand the incomprehensible; yet with no better result than to weary myself to death. Then, somewhere about midnight, I went below to sleep.
“The following morning, on going on deck, I found that the stretch of clear water had disappeared entirely, during the night, and now, so far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but a stupendous desolation of weed.
“The wind had dropped completely, and no sound came from all that weed-ridden immensity. We had, in truth, reached the Cemetery of the Ocean!
“The day passed uneventfully enough. It was only when I served out some food to the men, and one of them asked whether they could have a few raisins, that I remembered, with a pang of sudden misery, that it was Christmas day. I gave them the fruit, as they desired, and they spent the morning in the galley, cooking their dinner. Their stolid indifference to the late terrible happenings, appalled me somewhat, until I remembered what their lives were, and had been. Poor fellows! One of them ventured aft at dinner time, and offered me a slice of what he called ‘plum duff.’ He brought it on a plate which he had found in the galley and scoured thoroughly with sand and water. He tendered it shyly enough, and I took it, so graciously as I could, for I would not hurt his feelings; though the very smell of the stuff was an abomination.
“During the afternoon, I brought out the Captain’s telescope, and made a thorough examination of the ancient hulk on our port beam. Particularly did I study the extraordinary superstructure around her sides; but could not, as I have said before, conceive of its use.
“The evening, I spent upon the poop, my eyes searching wearily across that vile quietness, and so, in a little, the night came—Christmas night, sacred to a thousand happy memories. I found myself dreaming of the night a year previous, and, for a little while, I forgot what was before me. I was recalled suddenly—terribly. A voice rose out of the dark which hid the maindeck. For the fraction of an instant, it expressed surprise; then pain and terror leapt into it. Abruptly, it seemed to come from above, and then from somewhere beyond the ship, and so in a moment there was silence, save for a rush of feet and the bang of a door forrard.
“I leapt down the poop ladder, and ran along the maindeck, towards the fo’cas’le. As I ran, something knocked off my cap. I scarcely noticed it then. I reached the fo’cas’le, and caught at the latch of the port door. I lifted it and pushed; but the door was fastened.
“‘Inside there!’ I cried, and banged upon the panels with my clenched fist.
“A man’s voice came, incoherently.
“‘Open the door!’ I shouted. ‘Open the door!’
“‘Yes, Sir—I’m com—ming, Sir,’ said one of them, jerkily.
“I heard footsteps stumble across the planking. Then a hand fumbled at the fastening, and the door flew open under my weight.
“The man who had opened to me, started back. He held a flaring slush-lamp above his head, and, as I entered, he thrust it forward. His hand was trembling visibly, and, behind him, I made out the face of one of his mates, the brow and dirty, clean-shaven upper lip drenched with sweat. The man who held the lamp, opened his mouth, and gabbered at me; but, for a moment, no sound came.
“‘Wot—wot were it? Wot we-ere it?’ he brought out at last, with a gasp.
“The man behind, came to his side, and gesticulated.
“‘What was what?’ I asked sharply, and looking from one to the other. ‘Where’s the other man? What was that screaming?’
“The second man drew the palm of his hand across his brow; then flirted his fingers deckwards.
“‘We don’t know, Sir! We don’t know! It were Jessop! Somethin’s took ‘im just as we was comin’ forrid! We—we—He-he-HARK!’
“His head came forward with a jerk as he spoke, and then, for a space, no one stirred. A minute passed, and I was about to speak, when, suddenly, from somewhere out upon the deserted maindeck, there came a queer, subdued noise, as though something moved stealthily hither and thither. The man with the lamp caught me by the sleeve, and then, with an abrupt movement, slammed the door and fastened it.
“‘That’s IT, Sir!’ he exclaimed, with a note of terror and conviction in his voice.
“I bade him be silent, while I listened; but no sound came to us through the door, and so I turned to the men and told them to let me have all they knew.
“It was little enough. They had been sitting in the galley, yarning, until, feeling tired, they had decided to go forrard and turn-in. They extinguished the light, and came out upon the deck, closing the door behind them. Then, just as they turned to go forrard, Jessop gave out a yell. The next instant they heard him screaming in the air above their heads, and, realising that some terrible thing was upon them, they took forthwith to their heels, and ran for the security of the fo’cas’le.
“Then I had come.
“As the men made an end of telling me, I thought I heard something outside, and held up my hand for silence. I caught the sound again. Someone was calling my name. It was Miss Knowles. Likely enough she was calling me to supper—and she had no knowledge of the dread thing which had happened. I sprang to the door. She might be coming along the maindeck in search of me. And there was Something out there, of which I had no conception—something unseen, but deadly tangible!
“‘Stop, Sir!’ shouted the men, together; but I had the door open.
“‘Mr. Philips!’ came the girl’s voice at no great distance. ‘Mr. Philips!’
“‘Coming, Miss Knowles!’ I shouted, and snatched the lamp from the man’s hand.
“‘The next instant, I was running aft, holding the lamp high, and glancing fearfully from side to side. I reached the place where the mainmast had been, and spied the girl coming towards me.
“‘Go back!’ I shouted. ‘Go back!’
“She turned at my shout, and ran for the poop ladder. I came up with her, and followed close at her heels. On the poop, she turned and faced me.
“‘What is it, Mr. Philips?’
“I hesitated. Then:—
“‘I don’t know!’ I said.
“‘My father heard something,’ she began. ‘He sent me. He——’
“I put up my hand. It seemed to me that I had caught again the sound of something stirring on the maindeck.
“‘Quick!’ I said sharply. ‘Down into the cabin!.’ And she, being a sensible girl, turned and [Pg 114] ran down without waste of time. I followed, closing and fastening the companion-doors behind me.
“In the saloon, we had a whispered talk, and I told her everything. She bore up bravely, and said nothing; though her eyes were very wide, and her face pale. Then the Captain’s voice came to us from the adjoining cabin.
“‘Is Mr. Philips there, Mary?’
“‘Bring him in.’
“I went in.
“‘What was it, Mr. Philips?’ he asked, collectedly.
“I hesitated; for I was willing to spare him the ill news; but he looked at me with calm eyes for a moment, and I knew that it was useless attempting to deceive him.
“‘Something has happened, Mr. Philips,’ he said, quietly. ‘You need not be afraid to tell me.’
“At that, I told him so much as I knew, he listening, and nodding his comprehension of the story.
“‘It must be something big,’ he remarked, when I had made an end. ‘And yet you saw nothing when you came aft?’
“‘No,’ I replied.
“‘It is something in the weed,’ he went on. ‘You will have to keep off the deck at night.’
“After a little further talk, in which he displayed a calmness that amazed me, I left him, and went presently to my berth.
“The following day, I took the two men, and, together, we made a thorough search through the ship; but found nothing. It was evident to me that the Captain was right. There was some dread Thing hidden within the weed. I went to the side and looked down. The two men followed me. Suddenly, one of them pointed.
“‘Look, Sir!’ he exclaimed. ‘Right below you, Sir! Two eyes like blessed great saucers! Look!’
“I stared; but could see nothing. The man left my side, and ran into the galley. In a moment, he was back with a great lump of coal.
“‘Just there, Sir,’ he said, and hove it down into the weed immediately beneath where we stood.
“Too late, I saw the thing at which he aimed—two immense eyes, some little distance below the surface of the weed. I knew instantly to what they belonged; for I had seen large specimens of the octopus some years previously, during a cruise in Australasian waters.
“‘Look out, man!’ I shouted, and caught him by the arm. ‘It’s an octopus! Jump back!’ I sprang down on to the deck. In the same instant, huge masses of weed were hurled in all directions, and half a dozen immense tentacles whirled up into the air. One lapped itself about his neck. I caught his leg; but he was torn from my grasp, and I tumbled backwards on to the deck. I heard a scream from the other man as I scrambled to my feet. I looked to where he had been; but of him there was no sign. Regardless of the danger, in my great agitation, I leapt upon the rail, and gazed down with frightened eyes. Yet, neither of him nor his mate, nor the monster, could I perceive a vestige.
“How long I stood there staring down bewilderedly, I cannot say; certainly some minutes. I was so bemazed that I seemed incapable of movement. Then, all at once, I became aware that a light quiver ran across the weed, and the next instant, something stole up out of the depths with a deadly celerity. Well it was for me that I had seen it in time, else should I have shared the fate of those two—and the others. As it was, I saved myself only by leaping backwards on to the deck. For a moment, I saw the feeler wave above the rail with a certain apparent aimlessness; then it sank out of sight, and I was alone.
“An hour passed before I could summon a sufficiency of courage to break the news of this last tragedy to the Captain and his daughter, and when I had made an end, I returned to the solitude of the poop; there to brood upon the hopelessness of our position.
“As I paced up and down, I caught myself glancing continuously at the nearer weed tufts. The happenings of the past two days had shattered my nerves, and I feared every moment to see some slender death-grapple searching over the rail for me. Yet, the poop, being very much higher out of the weed than the maindeck, was comparatively safe; though only comparatively.
“Presently, as I meandered up and down, my gaze fell upon the hulk of the ancient ship, and, in a flash, the reason for that great superstructure was borne upon me. It was intended as a protection against the dread creatures which inhabited the weed. The thought came to me that I would attempt some similar means of protection; for the feeling that, at any moment, I might be caught and lifted out into that slimy wilderness, was not to be borne. In addition, the work would serve to occupy my mind, and help me to bear up against the intolerable sense of loneliness which assailed me.
“I resolved that I would lose no time, and so, after some thought as to the manner in which I should proceed, I routed out some coils of rope and several sails. Then I went down on to the maindeck and [Pg 117] brought up an armful of capstan bars. These I lashed vertically to the rail all round the poop. Then I knotted the rope to each, stretching it tightly between them, and over this framework stretched the sails, sewing the stout canvas to the rope, by means of twine and some great needles which I found in the Mate’s room.
“It is not to be supposed that this piece of work was accomplished immediately. Indeed, it was only after three days of hard labour that I got the poop completed. Then I commenced work upon the maindeck. This was a tremendous undertaking, and a whole fortnight passed before I had the entire length of it enclosed; for I had to be continually on the watch against the hidden enemy. Once, I was very nearly surprised, and saved myself only by a quick leap. Thereafter, for the rest of that day, I did no more work; being too greatly shaken in spirit. Yet, on the following morning, I recommenced, and from thence, until the end, I was not molested.
“Once the work was roughly completed, I felt at ease to begin and perfect it. This I did, by tarring the whole of the sails with Stockholm tar ; thereby making them stiff, and capable of resisting the weather. After that, I added many fresh uprights, and much strengthening ropework, and finally doubled the sailcloth with additional sails, liberally smeared with the tar.
“In this manner, the whole of January passed away, and a part of February. Then, it would be on the last day of the month, the Captain sent for me, and told me, without any preliminary talk, that he was dying. I looked at him; but said nothing; for I had known long that it was so. In return, he stared back with a strange intentness, as though he would read my inmost thoughts, and this for the space of perhaps two minutes.
“‘Mr. Philips,’ he said at last, ‘I may be dead by this time to-morrow. Has it ever occurred to you that my daughter will be alone with you ?’
“‘Yes, Captain Knowles,’ I replied, quietly, and waited.
“For a few seconds, he remained silent; though, from the changing expressions of his face, I knew that he was pondering how best to bring forward the thing which it was in his mind to say.
“‘You are a gentleman——’ he began, at last.
“‘I will marry her,’ I said, ending the sentence for him.
“A slight flush of surprise crept into his face.
“‘You—you have thought seriously about it?’
“‘I have thought very seriously,’ I explained.
“‘Ah!’ he said, as one who comprehends. And then, for a little, he lay there quietly. It was plain to me that memories of past days were with him. Presently, he came out of his dreams, and spoke, evidently referring to my marriage with his daughter.
“‘It is the only thing,’ he said, in a level voice.
“I bowed, and after that, he was silent again for a space. In a little, however, he turned once more to me:—
“‘Do you—do you love her?’
“His tone was keenly wistful, and a sense of trouble lurked in his eyes.
“‘She will be my wife,’ I said, simply; and he nodded.
“‘God has dealt strangely with us,’ he murmured presently, as though to himself.
“Abruptly, he bade me tell her to come in.
“And then he married us.
“Three days later, he was dead, and we were alone.
“For a while, my wife was a sad woman; but gradually time eased her of the bitterness of her grief.
“Then, some eight months after our marriage, a new interest stole into her life. She whispered it to me, and we, who had borne our loneliness uncomplainingly, had now this new thing to which to look forward. It became a bond between us, and bore promise of some companionship as we grew old. Old! At the idea of age, a sudden flash of thought darted like lightning across the sky of my mind:—FOOD! Hitherto, I had thought of myself, almost as of one already dead, and had cared naught for anything beyond the immediate troubles which each day forced upon me. The loneliness of the vast Weed World had become an assurance of doom to me, which had clouded and dulled my faculties, so that I had grown apathetic. Yet, immediately, as it seemed, at the shy whispering of my wife, was all this changed.
“That very hour, I began a systematic search through the ship. Among the cargo, which was of a ‘general’ nature, I discovered large quantities of preserved and tinned provisions, all of which I put carefully on one side. I continued my examination until I had ransacked the whole vessel. The business took me near upon six months to complete, and when it was finished, I seized paper, and made calculations, which led me to the conclusion that we had sufficient food in the ship to preserve life in three people for some fifteen to seventeen years. I could not come nearer to it than this; for I had no means of computing the quantity the child would need year by year. Yet it is sufficient to show me that seventeen years must be the limit. Seventeen years! And then——
“Concerning water, I am not troubled; for I have rigged a great sailcloth tun-dish, with a canvas pipe into the tanks; and from every rain, I draw a supply, which has never run short.
“The child was born nearly five months ago. She is a fine little girl, and her mother seems perfectly happy. I believe I could be quietly happy with them, were it not that I have ever in mind the end of those seventeen years. True! we may be dead long before then; but, if not, our little girl will be in her teens—and it is a hungry age.
“If one of us died—but no! Much may happen in seventeen years. I will wait.
“My method of sending this clear of the weed is likely to succeed. I have constructed a small fire-balloon, and this missive, safely enclosed in a little barrel, will be attached. The wind will carry it swiftly hence.
“Should this ever reach civilised beings, will they see that it is forwarded to:—”
(Here followed an address, which, for some reason, had been roughly obliterated. Then came the signature of the writer)
“Arthur Samuel Philips.”
The captain of the schooner looked over at Jock, as the man made an end of his reading.
“Seventeen years pervisions,” he muttered thoughtfully. “An’ this ‘ere were written sumthin’ like twenty-nine years ago!” He nodded his head several times. “Poor creatures!” he exclaimed. “It’d be er long while, Jock—a long while!”