No. 6.—The Death Ship, Part 1.
NOT LONG AFTER the adventure of the Axe of the Apostles, I was called into Admiral Blanderson’s private chambers once again. Such a summons invariably indicated that the Admiral had some special mission for me, or that there were bagels left over from the admirals’ daily staff meeting. Among the captains of the fleet, I was by this time the one whom Admiral Blanderson trusted with the most unusual and difficult enterprises, and I flatter myself that I had at least in some measure earned his trust.
As the matters on which Admiral Blanderson consulted me were usually state secrets, I was somewhat surprised to discover that Admiral Blanderson was not alone when I entered his inner sanctum. A rather scruffy sailor, whose obvious efforts at cleaning himself up to make him suitable company for the Admiral had been less effectual than he imagined, was sitting in front of the Admiral’s desk, occupying the chair that I usually sat in when I had my conferences with the Admiral.
“Good morning, Captain Hornswoggle,” the Admiral greeted me—not with his usual heartiness, however, but with a rather hoarse voice, as of a man whose spirit has been shaken by some terror. “I shall dispense with the ordinary pleasantries, and ask you a simple and direct question. Are you a believer in the supernatural?”
One is never entirely certain how to answer an unexpected personal question from a superior officer. In this case, I decided the truth was the best answer; so I reminded Admiral Blanderson of my encounters with the demon-god Picante and the Ghost Galleon of the Maldives, and declared that I chose to believe the testimony of my own experience.
“A sensible answer,” the Admiral responded. “Would you like a bagel, by the way? Help yourself. I must confess that I have never been much for that supernatural hocus-pocus jiggery-pokery higgledy-piggledy hickory-dickory-dock myself, but this honest fellow, a sailor in our merchant marine, has been telling me a story that would have made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up did I not carefully shave them off every morning.”
“Aye, cap’n,” the honest sailor interjected. “Thar be more things in heav’n an’ arth than wot be dreamt of in yer philosophizin’.”
“Mr. Sludgewater,” the Admiral said to the sailor, “would you be so kind as to repeat the story you have just told me, so that Captain Hornswoggle may hear the details of it?”
“Aye, ’twere a dark an’ stormy night, that it were,” the honest sailor began. He continued in that vein; but to spare you the trouble of deciphering his honest but impenetrable accent, and myself the trouble of transcribing it, I shall continue his story as though he spoke the Queen’s English, or at least the King’s.
“I was sailing on the snow-brig Merry Brindle on the equatorial route. We were hauling a shipload of nutcrackers to the Macadamia Coast, hoping to trade them for a cargo of the soybeans and alfalfa sprouts that grow in abundance along those blessed shores, when a gale blew up from the northwest, threatening to toss our ship on the unpredictable bars that lurk in the waters off the coast in those parts.
“Our captain was a wise old veteran who had seen many a storm before. He trimmed and folded the sails in certain patterns known to sailors as ‘kirigami,’ the better to withstand the onslaught of the storm; and he applied all his skill to keeping the ship safely in deep waters, and away from the dangerous shallows.
“Lightning flashed all around us, and the thunder was terrible; but you may imagine our greater terror when quite suddenly, out of the driving rain and foggy darkness, there appeared the ghostly outline of an enormous ship, glowing from stem to stern with a bright unearthly light, and headed straight toward us.
“Our panic terror gave us something like superhuman strength as we turned the wheel and swung the booms about. We lurched to port just in time; instead of colliding with the ghastly apparition, we passed by the ship so close that we could nearly reach over the starboard rail and grasp its anchor rope. Shadowy figures marched to and fro on the glowing deck, a sight that filled us with a nameless dread. But just as we had passed halfway along the length of the enormous ship, a brilliant flash from the heavens illuminated the scene as bright as day; and in that brief illumination, gentlemen, I saw a sight that will haunt me as long as I live, though I should live as long as the antediluvian patriarchs. For every member of that ghastly crew was not a human being, but an animated skeleton.
“I am not a timid man. I have spent my entire adult life on the sea, and have experienced more than my share, perhaps, of perilous adventures. But I bid you dread that death ship more than the entire Iberian navy; for myself, I had rather die cleanly by a Spanish harquebus than wander for eternity as a living skeleton with only the demons for my horrible company.
“Needless to say, the story of our encounter with the death ship spread quickly in sailors’ gossip. Since we returned, no one has dared sail the equatorial route, and the people of the Macadamia Coast, poor blighted devils, are starving amidst abundance for lack of good manufactured nutcrackers.”
There was a brief silence; then Admiral Blanderson spoke again.
“And now, Captain Hornswoggle,” he said quietly but distinctly, “I imagine you have a rather accurate idea of what your next assignment will be.”
Proceed to the conclusion.