Admiral Hornswoggle

No. 7.–The Death Ship, concluded.

(Continued from Part 1.)

The Indifferent set sail two days later. I had questioned in my mind whether I ought to reveal the exact nature of our mission to the crew beforehand, but when we began filling the hold with nutcrackers, my crew, as clever a lot of jolly seamen as ever sailed, drew their own conclusions. It is much to their credit that, even after my men knew we were headed for the Macadamia Coast with the express purpose of seeking out and confronting the death ship, we had only fourteen desertions and two confirmed suicides, with five missing and presumed resigned. The remaining dozen or so were bold enough to set out with me, though I did from time to time observe them clutching their horseshoes, rabbit’s feet, egg-beaters, and other superstitious totems to which sailors are much attached.

A favoring breeze brought us quickly to the equatorial regions, and as we approached the Macadamia Coast we had nothing but the mildest weather. On a certain night, however, we had approached within a few leagues of the coast when a foul storm arose from the northwest.

My men had heard the story of the death ship through sailors’ gossip, though by the time it reached them it had been embellished with details involving the Statue of Liberty and a gigantic percolator that must have made it even more terrifying to their untutored minds. They immediately recollected that the encounter with the unearthly vessel had happened on just such a night as this, during just such a storm, and at about this location. Most of them were paralyzed with fear, cowering below decks muttering to themselves and spinning their egg-beaters in a distracted manner. I therefore had to man the wheel myself, while simultaneously seeing to the rigging, which I could accomplish only by improvising a system of ropes and pulleys controlled from the helmsman’s post. This was, I believe, the first time in the history of our navy that a frigate of this size had been controlled entirely by a single man, and in a howling gale at that; but I had no time to congratulate myself on my accomplishment, as the glowing outline of the death ship suddenly appeared not more than fifteen fathoms off our bow.

It was just as the scruffy but honest sailor had described it in Admiral Blanderson’s chambers. The decks–for it seemed to have multiple levels–glowed brightly with a brilliant illumination, and I could see the same sepulchral figures the scruffy but honest sailor had described, wandering here and there on the deck with no apparent aim or purpose.

Tossed by the storm, I lost sight of the apparition again as the mists and cloud closed around it. When next I saw it, the ghastly specter was astern and farther off; we must have passed in the storm without realizing it. Frantically spinning the wheel and yanking my pulleys this way and that, I managed to bring us about and set off in pursuit of the death ship, at least as well as I could in the crashing waves. The Indifferent was a brave ship, and responded as well as she could in the gale; and though the storm occasionally hid the specter from view, I did not lose it, but kept up my pursuit until the storm abated.

Now it was clear sailing, and I rapidly erased the distance between the death ship and the Indifferent. After lashing my men to their bunks to prevent them from leaping to their deaths in the shark-infested waters, I brought the Indifferent within range of our grappling-hooks and prepared to board the enormous glowing apparition.

I had not been aboard the ship more than half a minute when one of its skeletal crew surprised me by approaching me from behind.

“Ghastly storm tonight, wasn’t it?” said a voice like cold death.

I whipped around, and I am certain that, if I could have seen my own complexion, it would have been as white as a sail. I did, however, find the courage to respond as though I had my wits about me.

“Quite,” I replied.

Now, however, I noticed an extraordinary thing. In the brilliant light, I saw that the skeleton was indeed covered with flesh, and presented some evidence of being a living human. It is true that the man was extraordinarily emaciated, so that every one of his bones was easily visible, and from a distance he did present the aspect of an animated skeleton. It was only from nearby that one could discern the thin layer of flesh that covered his bones. Nevertheless, the flesh was there, and the man did seem to be living and breathing.

“Mind you,” he continued, “I imagine it was worse for you in your little boat. Got a bit wet, did you? I say, would you care for a midnight snack? The Nature Bar is open for sprouts and smoothies.”

Still not sure of myself, I simply nodded and followed him into what appeared to be a kind of salon or tavern on board the ship, where a number of similarly emaciated men and women were seated at tables grazing at what appeared to be plates piled high with gorse. We sat at an empty table, and immediately a uniformed waiter, just as skeletal as the rest of the inhabitants of this strange ship, brought us each a plate of gorse and a glass of sea-foam, or something similarly greenish.

“If it’s not impolite,” I began, “may I ask what ship this is, and who its passengers are?”

“Not at all impolite, sir,” the skeleton man replied as he began stuffing the greenery into his mouth. “This is the Jolly Marrow, a cruise ship patronized by ardent devotees of vegetarian health foods. Once a month, it makes a cruise to the Macadamia Coast, where the famous local bazaars are filled with the sprouts and soy products we crave.”

In an instant the mystery was unraveled. The brilliant illumination, the skeletal appearance of the passengers, the immense size of the ship–everything was explained in one sentence. I am still a believer in the supernatural, but this was entirely a natural affair, if “natural” is the word that springs to mind to describe human beings grazing like cattle.

We had a cheery conversation that lasted until the rosy fingers of dawn lit up the eastern sky. It was only then that I remembered my crew, still tied to their bunks on board the Indifferent. I bid my new acquaintance a hasty adieu, and as the sun rose in the east we were already sailing back homeward, my crew much relieved at my discoveries on board the Jolly Marrow. Along the way we ran across the Flying Dutchman, a rather more famous supernatural manifestation; but by that time my crew, bless them, had thoroughly rejected superstition, and were steadfast in their belief that we were seeing merely another vegetarian cruise liner: a comfortable delusion in which I was content to leave them, seeing no reason to disturb their complacency with pedantic details that they could very well live without.