by William Hope
the material," said the old ship's doctor "the material plus
the conditions and, maybe," he added slowly, "a third factor yes, a
third factor; but there, there " He broke off his half-meditative
sentence and began to charge his pipe.
"Go on, doctor," we said encouragingly, and with more than a little
expectancy. We were in the smoke-room of the Sand-a-lea, running
across the North Atlantic; and the doctor was a character. He
concluded the charging of his pipe, and lit it; then settled himself,
and began to express himself more fully.
"The material," he said with conviction, "is inevitably the medium
of expression of the life-force the fulcrum, as it were; lacking
which it is unable to exert itself, or, indeed, to express itself in
any form or fashion that would be intelligible or evident to us. So
potent is the share of the material in the production of that thing
which we name life, and so eager the life-force to express itself,
that I am convinced it would, if given the right conditions, make
itself manifest even through so hopeless seeming a medium as a simple
block of sawn wood; for I tell you, gentlemen, the life-force is both
as fiercely urgent and as indiscriminate as fire the destructor; yet
which some are now growing to consider the very essence of life
rampant. There is a quaint seeming paradox there," he concluded,
nodding his old grey head.
"Yes, doctor," I said. "In brief, your argument is that life is a
thing, state, fact, or element, call it what you like, which requires
the material through which to manifest itself, and that given the
material, plus the conditions, the result is life. In other words,
that life is an evolved product, manifested through matter and bred of
"As we understand the word," said the old doctor. "Though, mind you,
there may be a third factor. But, in my heart, I believe that it is a
matter of chemistry conditions and a suitable medium; but given the
conditions, the brute is so almighty that it will seize upon anything
through which to manifest itself. It is a force generated by
conditions; but, nevertheless, this does not bring us one iota nearer
to its explanation, any more than to the explanation of electricity or
fire. They are, all three, of the outer forces monsters of the void.
Nothing we can do will create any one of them, our power is merely to
be able, by providing the conditions, to make each one of them
manifest to our physical senses. Am I clear?"
"Yes, doctor, in a way, you are," I said. "But I don't agree with
you, though I think I understand you. Electricity and fire are both
what I might call natural things, but life is an abstract something a
kind of all-permeating wakefulness. Oh, I can't explain it! Who could?
But it s spiritual, not just a thing bred out of a condition, like
fire, as you say, or electricity. It's a horrible thought of yours.
Life's a kind of spiritual mystery "
"Easy, my boy!" said the old doctor, laughing gently to himself. "Or
else I may be asking you to demonstrate the spiritual mystery of life
of the limpet, or the crab, shall we say." He grinned at me with
ineffable perverseness. "Anyway," he continued, "as I suppose you've
all guessed, I've a yarn to tell you in support of my impression that
life is no more a mystery or a miracle than fire or electricity. But,
please to remember, gentlemen, that because we've succeeded in naming
and making good use of these two forces, they're just as much
mysteries, fundamentally as ever. And, anyway, the thing I'm going to
tell you won't explain the mystery of life, but only give you one of
my pegs on which I hang my feeling that life is as I have said, a
force made manifest through conditions that is to say, natural
chemistry and that it can take for its purpose and need, the most
incredible and unlikely matter; for without matter it cannot come into
existence it cannot become manifest "
"I don't agree with you, doctor," I interrupted. "Your theory would
destroy all belief in life after death. It would "
"Hush, sonny," said the old man, with a quiet little smile of
comprehension. "Hark to what I've to say first; and, anyway, what
objection have you to material life after death? And if you object to
a material framework, I would still have you remember that I am
speaking of life, as we understand the word in this our life. Now do
be a quiet lad, or I'll never be done:
"It was when I was a young man, and that is a good many years ago,
gentlemen. I had passed my examinations, but was so run down with
overwork that it was decided that I had better take a trip to sea. I
was by no means well off, and very glad in the end to secure a nominal
post as doctor in the sailing passenger clipper running out to China.
"The name of the ship was the Bheospse, and soon after I had got all
my gear aboard she cast off, and we dropped down the Thames, and next
day were well away out in the Channel.
"The captain's name was Gannington, a very decent man, though quite
illiterate. The first mate, Mr. Berlies, was a quiet, sternish,
reserved man, very well-read. The second mate, Mr. Selvern, was,
perhaps, by birth and upbringing, the most socially cultured of the
three, but he lacked the stamina and indomitable pluck of the two
others. He was more of a sensitive, and emotionally and even mentally,
the most alert man of the three.
"On our way out, we called at Madagascar, where we landed some of
our passengers; then we ran eastward, meaning to call at North-West
Cape; but about a hundred degrees east we encountered very dreadful
weather, which carried away all our sails, and sprung the jibboom and
"The storm carried us northward for several hundred miles, and when
it dropped us finally, we found ourselves in a very bad state. The
ship had been strained, and had taken some three feet of water through
her seams; the maintopmast had been sprung, in addition to the jibboom
and foret'gallantmast, two of our boats had gone, as also one of the
pigstys, with three fine pigs, these latter having been washed
overboard but some half-hour before the wind began to ease, which it
did very quickly, though a very ugly sea ran for some hours after.
"The wind left us just before dark, and when morning came it brought
splendid weather a calm, mildly undulating sea, and a brilliant sun,
with no wind. It showed us also that we were not alone, for about two
miles away to the westward was another vessel, which Mr. Selvern, the
second mate, pointed out to me.
"'That's a pretty rum-looking, packet, doctor,' he said, and handed
me his glass.
"I looked through it at the other vessel, and saw what he meant; at
least, I thought I did.
"'Yes, Mr. Selvern,' I said. 'She's got a pretty old-fashioned look
"He laughed at me in his pleasant way.
"'It's easy to see you're not a sailor, doctor,' he remarked.
'There's a dozen rum things about her. She's a derelict, and has been
floating round, by the look of her, for many a score of years. Look at
the shape of her counter, and the bows and cutwater. She's as old as
the hills, as you might say, and ought to have gone down to Davy Jones
a good while ago. Look at the growths on her, and the thickness of her
standing rigging; that's all salt encrustations, I fancy, if you
notice the white colour. She's been a small barque; but, don't you
see, she's not a yard left aloft. They've all dropped out of the
slings; everything rotted away; wonder the standing rigging hasn't
gone, too. I wish the old man would let us take the boat and have a
look at her. She'd be well worth it.'
"'There seemed little chance, however, of this, for all hands were
turned to and kept hard at it all day long repairing the damage to the
masts and gear; and this took a long while, as you may think. Part of
the time I gave a hand heaving on one of the deck capstans, for the
exercise was good for my liver. Old Captain Gannington approved, and I
persuaded him to come along and try some of the same medicine, which
he did; and we got very chummy over the job.
"We got talking about the derelict, and he remarked how lucky we
were not to have run full tilt on to her in the darkness, for she lay
right away to leeward of us, according, to the way that we had been
drifting in the storm. He also was of the opinion that she had a
strange look about her, and that she was pretty old; but on this
latter point he plainly had far less knowledge than the second mate,
for he was, as I have said, an illiterate man, and knew nothing of
seacraft beyond what experience had taught him. He lacked the book
knowledge which the second mate had of vessels previous to his day,
which it appeared the derelict was.
"'She's an old 'un, doctor,' was the extent of observations in this
"Yet, when I mentioned to him that it would be interesting to go
aboard and give her a bit of an overhaul, he nodded his head as if the
idea had been already in his mind and accorded with his own
"'When the work's over, doctor,' he said. 'Can't spare the men now,
ye know. Got to get all shipshape an' ready as smart as we can. But,
we'll take my gig, an' go off in the second dog-watch. The glass is
steady, an' it'll be a bit of gam for us.'
"That evening, after tea, the captain gave orders to clear the gig
and get her overboard. The second mate was to come with us, and the
skipper gave him word to see that two or three lamps were put into the
boat, as it would soon fall dark. A little later we were pulling
across the calmness of the sea with a crew of six at the oars, and
making very good speed of it.
"Now, gentlemen, I have detailed to you with great exactness all the
facts, both big and little, so that you can follow step by step each
incident in this extraordinary affair, and I want you now to pay the
closest attention. I was sitting in the stern-sheets with the second
mate and the captain, who was steering, and as we drew nearer and
nearer to the stranger I studied her with an ever-growing attention,
as, indeed, did Captain Gannington and the second mate. She was, as
you know, to the west-ward of us, and the sunset was making a great
flame of red light to the back of her, so that she showed a little
blurred and indistinct by reason of the halation of the light, which
almost defeated the eye in any attempt to see her rotting spars and
standing rigging, submerged, as they were, in the fiery glory of the
"It was because of this effect of the sunset that we had come quite
close, comparatively, to the derelict before we saw that she was all
surrounded by a sort of curious scum, the colour of which was
difficult to decide upon by reason of the red light that was in the
atmosphere, but which afterwards we discovered to be brown. This scum
spread all about the old vessel for many hundreds of yards in a huge,
irregular patch, a great stretch of which reached out to the eastward,
upon the starboard side of the boat some score or so fathoms away.
"'Queer stuff,' said Captain Gannington, leaning to the side and
looking over. 'Something in the cargo as 'as gone rotten, and worked
out through 'er seams.'
"'Look at her bows and stern,' said the second mate. 'Just look at
the growth on her!'
"There were, as he said, great clumpings of strange-looking
sea-fungi under the bows and the short counter astern. From the stump
of her jibboom and her cutwater great beards of rime and marine
growths hung downward into the scum that held her in. Her blank
starboard side was presented to us all a dead, dirtyish white,
streaked and mottled vaguely with dull masses of heavier colour.
"'There's a steam or haze rising off her,' said the second mate,
speaking again. 'You can see it against the light. It keeps coming and
"I saw then what he meant a faint haze or steam, either suspended
above the old vessel or rising from her. And Captain Gannington saw it
"'Spontaneous combustion!' he exclaimed. 'We'll 'ave to watch when
we lift the 'atches, 'nless it's some poor devil that's got aboard of
'er. But that ain't likely.'
"We were now within a couple of hundred yards of the old derelict,
and had entered into the brown scum. As it poured off the lifted oars
I heard one of the men mutter to himself, 'Dam' treacle!' And, indeed,
it was not something unlike it. As the boat continued to forge nearer
and nearer to the old ship the scum grew thicker and thicker, so that,
at last, it perceptibly slowed us.
"'Give way, lads! Put some beef to it!' sang out Captain Gannington.
And thereafter there was no sound except the panting of the men and
the faint, reiterated suck, suck of the sullen brown scum upon the
oars as the boat was forced ahead. As we went, I was conscious of a
peculiar smell in the evening air, and whilst I had no doubt that the
puddling of the scum by the oars made it rise, I could give no name to
it; yet, in a way, it was vaguely familiar.
"We were now very close to the old vessel, and presently she was
high about us against the dying light. The captain called out then to
'in with the bow oars and stand by with the boat-hook,' which was
"'Aboard there! Ahoy! Aboard there! Ahoy!' shouted Captain
Gannington; but there came no answer, only the dull sound his voice
going lost into the open sea, each time he sung out.
"'Ahoy! Aboard there! Ahoy!' he shouted time after time, but there
was only the weary silence of the old hulk that answered us; and,
somehow as he shouted, the while that I stared up half expectantly at
her, a queer little sense of oppression, that amounted almost to
nervousness, came upon me. It passed, but I remember how I was
suddenly aware that it was growing dark. Darkness comes fairly rapidly
in the tropics, though not so quickly as many fiction writers seem to
think; but it was not that the coming dusk had perceptibly deepened in
that brief time of only a few moments, but rather that my nerves had
made me suddenly a little hypersensitive. I mention my state
particularly, for I am not a nervy man normally, and my abrupt touch
of nerves is significant, in the light of what happened.
"'There's no one on board there!' said Captain Gannington. 'Give
way, men!' For the boat's crew had instinctively rested on their oars,
as the captain hailed the old craft. The men gave way again; and then
the second mate called out excitedly, 'Why, look there, there's our
pigsty! See, it's got Bheospse painted on the end. It's drifted down
here and the scum's caught it. What a blessed wonder!'
"It was, as he had said, our pigsty that had been washed overboard
in the storm; and most extraordinary to come across it there.
"'We'll tow it off with us, when we go,' said the captain, and
shouted to the crew to get down to their oars; for they were hardly
moving the boat, because the scum was so thick, close in around the
old ship, that it literally clogged the boat from moving. I remember
that it struck me, in a half-conscious sort of way, as curious that
the pigsty, containing our three dead pigs, had managed to drift in so
far unaided, whilst we could scarcely manage to force the boat in, now
that we had come right into the scum. But the thought passed from my
mind, for so many things happened within the next few minutes.
"The men managed to bring the boat in alongside, within a couple of
feet of the derelict, and the man with the boat-hook hooked on.
"''Ave ye got 'old there, forrard?' asked Captain Gannington.
"'Yessir!' said the bowman; and as he spoke there came a queer noise
"'What's that?' asked the Captain.
"'It's tore, sir. Tore clean away!' said the man, and his tone
showed that he had received something of a shock.
"'Get a hold again, then!' said Captain Gannington irritably. 'You
don't s'pose this packet was built yesterday! Shove the hook into the
main chains' The man did so gingerly, as you might say, for it seemed
to me, in the growing dusk, that he put no strain on to the hook,
though, of course there was no need you see the boat could not go
very far of herself, in the stuff in which she was imbedded. I
remember thinking this, also as I looked up at the bulging side of the
old vessel. Then I heard Captain Gannington's voice:
"'Lord, but she s old! An' what a colour, doctor! She don't half
want paint, do she? Now then, somebody, one of them oars.' An oar was
passed to him, and he leant it up against the ancient, bulging side;
then he paused, and called to the second mate to light a couple of the
lamps, and stand by to pass them up, for darkness had settled down now
upon the sea.
"The second mate lit two of the lamps, and told one of the men to
light a third, and keep it handy in the boat; then he stepped across,
with a lamp in each hand, to where Captain Gannington stood by the oar
against the side of the ship.
"'Now, my lad,' said the captain to the man who had pulled stroke,
'up with you, an' we'll pass ye up the lamps.'
"The man jumped to obey, caught the oar, and put his weight upon it;
and as he did so, something seemed to give way a little.
"'Look!' cried out the second mate, and pointed, lamp in hand. 'It's
"This was true. The oar had made quite an indentation into the
bulging, somewhat slimy side of the old vessel.
"'Mould, I reckon,' said Captain Gannington, bending towards the
derelict to look. Then to the man:
"'Up you go, my lad, and be smart! Don't stand there waitin'!'
"At that the man, who had paused a moment as he felt the oar give
beneath his weight began to shin' up, and in a few seconds he was
aboard, and leant out over the rail for the lamps. These were passed
up to him, and the captain called to him to steady the oar. Then
Captain Gannington went, calling to me to follow, and after me the
"As the captain put his face over the rail, he gave a cry of
"'Mould, by gum! Mould tons of it. Good lord!'
"As I heard him shout that I scrambled the more eagerly after him,
and in a moment or two I was able to see what he meant everywhere
that the light from the two lamps struck there was nothing but smooth
great masses and surfaces of a dirty white coloured mould. I climbed
over the rail, with the second mate close behind, and stood upon the
mould covered decks. There might have been no planking beneath the
mould, for all that our feet could feel. It gave under our tread with
a spongy, puddingy feel. It covered the deck furniture of the old
ship, so that the shape of each article and fitment was often no more
than suggested through it.
"Captain Gannington snatched a lamp from the man and the second mate
reached for the other. They held the lamps high, and we all stared. It
was most extraordinary, and somehow most abominable. I can think of no
other word, gentlemen, that so much describes the predominant feeling
that affected me at the moment.
"'Good lord!' said Captain Gannington several times. 'Good lord!'
But neither the second mate nor the man said anything, and, for my
part I just stared, and at the same time began to smell a little at
the air, for there was a vague odour of something half familiar, that
somehow brought to me a sense of half-known fright.
"I turned this way and that, staring, as I have said. Here and there
the mould was so heavy as to entirely disguise what lay beneath,
converting the deck-fittings into indistinguishable mounds of mould
all dirty-white and blotched and veined with irregular, dull, purplish
"There was a strange thing about the mould which Captain Gannington
drew attention to it was that our feet did not crush into it and
break the surface, as might have been expected, but merely indented
"'Never seen nothin' like it before! Never!' said the captain after
having stooped with his lamp to examine the mould under our feet. He
stamped with his heel, and the mould gave out a dull, puddingy sound.
He stooped again, with a quick movement, and stared, holding the lamp
close to the deck. 'Blest if it ain't a reg'lar skin to it!'
"The second mate and the man and I all stooped and looked at it. The
second mate progged it with his forefinger, and I remember I rapped it
several times with my knuckles, listening to the dead sound it gave
out, and noticing the close, firm texture of the mould.
"'Dough!' the second mate. 'It's just like blessed dough! Pouf!' He
stood up with a quick movement. 'I could fancy it stinks a bit,' he
"As he said this I knew, suddenly, what the familiar thing was in
the vague odour that hung about us it was that the smell had
something animal-like in it; something of the same smell, only
heavier, that you would smell in any place that is infested with
mice. I began to look about with a sudden very real uneasiness. There
might be vast numbers of hungry rats aboard. They might prove
exceedingly dangerous, if in a starving condition; yet, as you will
understand, somehow I hesitated to put forward my idea as a reason for
caution, it was too fanciful.
"Captain Gannington had begun to go aft along the mould-covered
main-deck with the second mate, each of them holding their lamps high
up, so as to cast a good light about the vessel. I turned quickly and
followed them, the man with me keeping close to my heels, and plainly
uneasy. As we went, I became aware that there was a feeling of
moisture in the air, and I remembered the slight mist, or smoke, above
the hulk, which had made Captain Gannington suggest spontaneous
combustion in explanation.
"And always, as we went, there was that vague, animal smell;
suddenly I found myself wishing we were well away from the old vessel.
"Abruptly, after a few paces, the captain stopped and pointed at a
row of mould-hidden shapes on each side of the maindeck. 'Guns,' he
said. 'Been a privateer in the old days, I guess maybe worse! We'll
'ave a look below, doctor; there may be something worth touchin'.
She's older than I thought. Mr. Selvern thinks she's about two hundred
years old; but I scarce think it.'
"We continued our way aft, and I remember that I found myself
walking as lightly and gingerly as possible, as if I were
subconsciously afraid of treading through the rotten, mould-hid decks.
I think the others had a touch of the same feeling, from the way that
they walked. Occasionally the soft stuff would grip our heels,
releasing them with a little sullen suck.
"The captain forged somewhat ahead of the second mate; and I know
that the suggestion he had made himself, that perhaps there might be
something below worth carrying away, had stimulated his imagination.
The second mate was, however, beginning to feel somewhat the same way
that I did; at least I have that impression. I think, if it had not
been for what I might truly describe as Captain Gannington's sturdy
courage, we should all of us have just gone back over the side very
soon, for there was most certainly an unwholesome feeling abroad that
made one feel queerly lacking in pluck; and you will soon see that
this feeling was justified.
"Just as the captain reached the few mould-covered steps leading up
on to the short half-poop, I was suddenly aware that the feeling of
moisture in the air had grown very much more definite. It was
perceptible now, intermittently, as a sort of thin, moist, fog-like
vapour, that came and went oddly, and seemed to make the decks a
little indistinct to the view, this time and that. Once an odd puff of
it beat up suddenly from somewhere, and caught me in the face,
carrying a queer, sickly, heavy odour with it that somehow frightened
me strangely with a suggestion of a waiting and half-comprehended
"We had followed Captain Gannington up the three mould covered
steps, and now went slowly along the raised after-deck. By the
mizzenmast Captain Gannington paused, and held his lantern near to it.
'My word, mister,' he said to the second mate, 'it's fair thickened up
with mould! Why, I'll g'antee it's close on four foot thick.' He shone
the light down to where it met the deck. 'Good lord!' he said. 'Look
at the sea-lice on it!' I stepped up, and it was as he had said; the
sea-lice were thick upon it, some of them huge, not less than the size
of large beetles, and all a clear, colourless shade, like water,
except where there were little spots of grey on them.
"'I've never seen the like of them, 'cept on a live cod,' said
Captain Gannington, in an extremely puzzled voice. 'My word! But
they're whoppers!' Then he passed on; but a few paces farther aft he
stopped again, and held his lamp near to the mould-hidden deck.
"'Lord bless me, doctor,' he called out, in a low voice, 'did ye
ever see the like of that? Why, it's a foot long, if it's a hinch!'
"I stooped over his shoulder, and saw what he meant; it was a clear,
colourless creature about a foot long, and about eight inches high,
with a curved back that was extraordinarily narrow. As we stared, all
in a group, it gave a queer little flick, and was gone.
"'Jumped!' said the captain. 'Well, if that ain't a giant of all the
sea-lice that ever I've seen. I guess it's jumped twenty foot clear.'
He straightened his back, and scratched his head a moment, swinging
the lantern this way and that with the other hand, and staring about
us. 'Wot are they doin' aboard 'ere?' he said. 'You'll see 'em little
things on fat cod an' such-like. I'm blowed, doctor, if I
"He held his lamp towards a big mound of the mould that occupied
part of the after portion of the low poop-deck, a little foreside of
where there came a two-foot high 'break' to a kind of second and
loftier poop, that ran away aft to the taffrail. The mound was pretty
big, several feet across, and more than a yard high. Captain
Gannington walked up to it.
"'I reck'n this's the scuttle,' he remarked, and gave it a heavy
kick. The only result was a deep indentation into the huge, whiteish
hump of mould, as if he had driven his foot into a mass of some doughy
substance. Yet I am not altogether correct in saying that this was the
only result, for a certain other thing happened. From the place made
by the captain's foot there came a sudden gush of a purplish fluid,
accompanied by a peculiar smell, that was, and was not, half familiar.
Some of the mould-like substance had stuck to the toe of the captain's
boot, and from this likewise there issued a sweat, as it were, of the
"'Well?' said Captain Gannington, in surprise, and drew back his
foot to make another kick at the hump of mould. But he paused at an
exclamation from the second mate:
"'Don't sir,' said the second mate.
"I glanced at him, and the light from Captain Gannington's lamp
showed me that his face had a bewildered, half-frightened look, as if
he were suddenly and unexpectedly half afraid of something, and as if
his tongue had given away his sudden fright, without any intention on
his part to speak. The captain also turned and stared at him.
"'Why, mister?' he asked, in a somewhat puzzled voice, through which
there sounded just the vaguest hint of annoyance. 'We've got to shift
this muck, if we're to get below.'
"I looked at the second mate, and it seemed to me that, curiously
enough he was listening less to the captain than to some other sound.
Suddenly he said, in a queer voice, 'Listen, everybody!'
"Yet we heard nothing, beyond the faint murmur of the men talking
together in the boat alongside.
"'I don't, hear nothing,' said Captain Gannington, after a short
pause. 'Do you, doctor?'
"'No,' I said.
"'Wot was it you thought you heard?' the captain, turning again to
the second mate. But the second mate shook his head in a curious,
almost irritable way, as if the captain's question interrupted his
listening. Captain Gannington stared a moment at him, then held his
lantern up and glanced about him almost uneasily. I know I felt a
queer sense of strain. But the light showed nothing beyond the greyish
dirty-white of the mould in all directions.
"'Mister Selvern,' said the captain, at last, looking at him, 'don't
get fancying, things. Get hold of your bloomin' self. Ye know ye heard
"'I'm quite sure I heard something, sir,' said the second mate. 'I
seemed to hear ' He broke off sharply, and appeared to listen with
an almost painful intensity.
"'What did it sound like?' I asked.
"'It's all right, doctor,' said Captain Gannington, laughing gently.
'Ye can give him a tonic when we get back. I'm goin' to shift this
stuff.' He drew back, and kicked for the second time at the ugly mass
which he took to hide the companionway. The result of his kick was
startling, for the whole thing wobbled sloppily, like a mound of
"He drew his foot out of it quickly, and took a step backward,
staring, and holding his lamp towards it. 'By gum,' he said, and it
was plain that he was generally startled, 'the blessed thing's gone
"The man had run back several steps from the suddenly flaccid mound,
and looking horribly frightened. Though of what, I am sure he had not
the least idea. The second mate stood where he was, and stared. For my
part, I know I had a most hideous uneasiness upon me. The captain
continued to hold his light towards the wobbling mound and stare.
"'It's gone squashy all through,' he said. 'There's no scuttle
there. There's no bally woodwork inside that lot! Phoo! What a rum
"He walked round to the after side of the strange mound, to see
whether there might be some signs of an opening, into the hull at the
back of the great heap of mould-stuff. And then:
"'Listen!' said the second mate again, in the strangest sort of
"Captain Gannington straightened himself upright, and there
succeeded a pause of the most intense quietness, in which there was
not even the hum of talk from the men alongside in the boat. We all
heard it a kind of dull, soft thud, thud, thud, thud, somewhere in
the hull under us, yet so vague as to make me half doubtful I heard
it, only that the others did so, too.
"Captain Gannington turned suddenly to where the man stood.
"'Tell them ' he began. But the fellow cried out something, and
pointed. There had come a strange intensity into his somewhat
unemotional face, so that the captain's glance followed his action
instantly. I stared also as you may think. It was the great mound at
which the man was pointing. I saw what he meant. From the two gapes
made in the mould-like stuff by Captain Gannington's boot, the purple
fluid was jetting out in a queerly regular fashion, almost as if it
were being forced out by a pump. My word! But I stared! And even as I
stared a larger jet squirted out, and splashed as far as the man,
spattering his boots and trouser legs.
"The fellow had been pretty nervous before, in a stolid, ignorant
sort of way, and his funk had been growing steadily; but at this he
simply let out a yell, and turned about to run. He paused an
instant,as if a sudden fear of the darkness that held the decks,
between him and the boat, had taken him. He snatched at the second
mate's lantern, tore it out of his hand, and plunged heavily away over
the vile stretch of mould.
"Mr. Selvern, the second mate, said not a word; he was just staring,
staring at the strange-smelling twin-streams of dull purple that were
jetting out from the wobbling mound. Captain Gannington, however,
roared an order to the man to come back, but the man plunged on and on
across the mould, his feet seeming to be clogged by the stuff, as if
it had grown suddenly soft. He zigzagged as he ran, the lantern
swaying, in wild circles as he wrenched his feet free with a constant
plop, plop; and I could hear his frightened gasps even from where I
"'Come back with that lamp!' roared the captain again; but still the
man took no notice.
"And Captain Gannington was silent an instant, his lips working in a
queer, inarticulate fashion, as if he were stunned momentarily by the
very violence of his anger at the man's insubordination. And in the
silence I heard the sounds again thud, thud, thud, thud! Quite
distinctly now, beating, it seemed suddenly to me, right down under my
feet, but deep.
"I stared down at the mould on which I was standing, with a quick,
disgusting sense of the terrible all about me; then I looked at the
captain, and tried to say something, without appearing frightened. I
saw that he had turned again to the mound, and all the anger had gone
out of his face. He had his lamp out towards the mound, and was
listening. There was another moment of absolute silence, at least, I
knew that I was not conscious of any sound at all in all the world,
except that extraordinary thud, thud, thud, thud, down somewhere in
the huge bulk under us.
"The captain shifted his feet with a sudden, nervous movement, and
as he lifted them the mould went plop, plop! He looked quickly at me,
trying to smile, as if he were not thinking anything very much about
"'What do you make of it, doctor?' he said.
"'I think ' I began. But the second mate interrupted with a
single word, his voice pitched a little high, in a tone that made us
both stare instantly at him.
"'Look!' he said, and pointed at the mound. The thing was all of a
slow quiver. A strange ripple ran outward from it, along the deck,
like you will see a ripple run inshore out of a calm sea. It reached a
mound a little foreside of us, which I had supposed to be the cabin
skylight, and in a moment the second mound sank nearly level with the
surrounding decks, quivering floppily in a most extraordinary fashion.
A sudden quick tremor took the mould right under the second mate, and
he gave out a hoarse little cry, and held his arms out on each side of
him, to keep his balance. The tremor in the mould spread, and Captain
Gannington swayed, and spread out his feet with a sudden curse of
fright. The second mate jumped across to him, and caught him by the
"'The boat, sir!' he said, saying the very thing that I had lacked
the pluck to say. 'For God's sake '
"But he never finished, for a tremendous hoarse scream cut off his
words. They hove themselves round and looked. I could see without
turning. The man who had run from us was standing in the waist of the
ship, about a fathom from the starboard bulwarks. He was swaying from
side to side, and screaming, in a dreadful fashion. He appeared to be
trying to lift his feet, and the light from his swaying lantern showed
an almost incredible sight. All about him the mould was in active
movement. His feet had sunk out of sight. The stuff appeared to be
lapping at his legs and abruptly his bare flesh showed. The hideous
stuff had rent his trouser-leg away as if it were paper. He gave out a
simply sickening scream, and, with a vast effort, wrenched one leg
free. It was partly destroyed. The next instant he pitched face
downward, and the stuff heaped itself upon him, as if it were actually
alive, with a dreadful, severe life. It was simply infernal. The man
had gone from sight. Where he had fallen was now a writhing, elongated
mound, in constant and horrible increase, as the mould appeared to
move towards it in strange ripples from all sides.
"Captain Gannington and the second mate were stone silent, in amazed
and incredulous horror, but I had begun to reach towards a grotesque
and terrific conclusion, both helped and hindered by my professional
"From the men in the boat alongside there was a loud shouting. and I
saw two of their faces appear suddenly above the rail. They showed
clearly a moment in the light from the lamp which the man had
snatched from Mr. Selvern; for, strangely enough, this lamp was
standing upright and unharmed on the deck, a little way foreside of
that dreadful, elongated, growing mound, that still swayed and writhed
with an incredible horror. The lamp rose and fell on the passing
ripples of the mould, just for all the world as you will see a boat
rise and fall on little swells. It is of some interest to me now,
psychologically, to remember how that rising and falling lantern
brought home to me more than anything the incomprehensible dreadful
strangeness of it all.
"The men's faces disappeared with sudden yells, as if they had
slipped, or been suddenly hurt; and there was a fresh uproar of
shouting from the boat. The men were calling to us to come away to
come away. In the same instant I felt my left boot drawn suddenly and
forcibly downward, with a horrible, painful grip. I wrenched it
free, with a yell of angry fear. Forrard of us, I saw that the vile
surface was all amove, and abruptly I found myself shouting in a
queer, frightened voice, 'The boat, captain! The boat, captain!'
"Captain Gannington stared round at me, over his right shoulder, in
a peculiar, dull way, that told me he was utterly dazed with
bewilderment and the incomprehensibleness of it all. I took a quick,
clogged, nervous step towards him, and gripped his arm, and shook it
fiercely. 'The boat!' I shouted at him. 'The boat! For God's sake,
tell the men to bring the boat aft!'
"Then the mound must have drawn his feet down, for abruptly he
bellowed fiercely with terror, his momentary apathy giving place to
furious energy. His thickset, vastly muscular body doubled and writhed
with his enormous effort, and he struck out madly dropping the
lantern. He tore his feet free, something ripping as he did so. The
reality and necessity of the situation had come upon him brutishly
real, and he was roaring to the men in the boat, 'Bring the boat aft!
Bring 'er aft! Bring 'er aft!' The second mate and I were shouting the
same thing madly.
"'For God's sake, be smart, lads!' roared the captain, and stooped
quickly for his lamp, which still burned. His feet were gripped again,
and he hove them out, blaspheming breathlessly, aud leaping a yard
high with his effort. Then he made a run for the side, wrenching his
feet free at each step. In the same instant the second mate cried out
something, and grabbed at the captain.
"'It's got hold of my feet! It's got hold of my feet!' he screamed.
His feet, had disappeared up to his boot-tops, and Captain Gannington
caught him round the waist with his powerful left arm, gave a mighty
heave, and the next instant had him free; but both his boot-soles had
gone. For my part, I jumped madly from foot to foot, to avoid the
plucking of the mould; and suddenly I made a run for the ship's side.
But before I could get there, a queer gape came in the mould between
us and the side, at least a couple of feet wide, and how deep I don't
know. It closed up in an instant, and all the mould where the cape had
been vent into a sort of flurry of horrible ripplings, so that I ran
back from it; for I did not dare to put my foot upon it. Then the
captain was shouting to me:
"'Aft, doctor! Aft, doctor! This way, doctor! Run!' I saw then that
he had passed me, and was up on the after raised portion of the poop.
He had the second mate, thrown like a sack, all loose and quiet, over
his left shoulder; for Mr. Selvern had fainted, and his long legs
flogged limp and helpless against the captain's massive knees as he
ran. I saw, with a queer, unconscious noting of minor details, how the
torn soles of the second mate's boots flapped and jigged as the
captain staggered aft.
"'Boat ahoy! Boat ahoy! Boat ahoy!' shouted the captain; and then I
was beside him, shouting also. The men were answering with loud yells
of encouragement, and it was plain they were working desperately to
force the boat aft through the thick scum about the ship.
"We reached the ancient, mould-hid taffrail, and slewed about
breathlessly in the half-darkness to see what was happening. Captain
Gannington had left his lantern by the big mound when he picked up the
second mate; and as we stood, gasping we discovered suddenly that all
the mould between us and the light was full of movement. Yet, the part
on which we stood, for about six or eight feet forrard of us, was
"Every couple of seconds we shouted to the men to hasten, and they
kept on calling to us that they would be with us in an instant. And
all the time we watched the deck of that dreadful hulk, feeling, for
my part, literally sick with mad suspense, and ready to jump overboard
into that filthy scum all about us.
"Down somewhere in the huge bulk of the ship there was all the time
that extraordinary dull, ponderous thud, thud, thud, thud growing ever
louder. I seemed to feel the whole hull of the derelict, beginning to
quiver and thrill with each dull beat. And to me, with the grotesque
and hideous suspicion of what made that noise, it was at once the most
dreadful and incredible sound I have ever heard.
"As we waited desperately for the boat, I scanned incessantly so
much of the grey white bulk as the lamp showed. The whole of the decks
seemed to be in strange movement. Forrard of the lamp, I could see
indistinctly the moundings of the mould swaying and nodding hideously
beyond the circle of the brightest rays. Nearer, and full in the glow
of the lamp, the mound which should have indicated the skylight, was
swelling steadily. There were ugly, purple veinings on it, and as it
swelled, it seemed to me that the veinings and mottlings on it were
becoming plainer, rising as though embossed upon it, like you will see
the veins stand out on the body of a powerful, full-blooded horse. It
was most extraordinary. The mound that we had supposed to cover the
companionway had sunk flat with the surrounding mould, and I could not
see that it jetted out any more of the purplish fluid.
"A quaking movement of the mound began away forrard of the lamp, and
came flurrying away aft towards us, and at the sight of that I climbed
up on to the spongy-feeling taffrail, and yelled afresh for the boat.
The men answered with a shout, which told me they were nearer, but the
beastly scum was so thick that it was evidently a fight to move the
boat at all. Beside me, Captain Gannington was shaking the second mate
furiously, and the man stirred and began to moan. The captain shook
him again, 'Wake up! Wake up, mister!' he shouted.
"The second mate staggered out of the captain's arms, and collapsed
suddenly, shrieking: 'My feet! Oh, God! My feet!' The captain and I
lugged him off the mound, and got him into a sitting position upon the
taffrail, where he kept up a continual moaning.
"'Hold 'im, doctor,' said the captain. And whilst I did so, he ran
forrard a few yards, and peered down over the starboard quarter rail.
'For God's sake, be smart, lads! Be smart! Be smart!' he shouted down
to the men, and they answered him, breathless, from close at hand, yet
still too far away for the boat to be any use to us on the instant.
"I was holding the moaning, half-unconscious officer, and staring
forrard along the poop decks. The flurrying of the mould was coming
aft, slowly and noiselessly. And then, suddenly, I saw something
"'Look out, captain!' I shouted. And even as I shouted, the mould
near to him gave a sudden, peculiar slobber. I had seen a ripple
stealing towards him through the mould. He gave an enormous, clumsy
leap, and landed near to us on the sound part of the mould, but the
movement followed him. He turned and faced it, swearing fiercely. All
about his feet there came abruptly little gapings, which made horrid
sucking noises. 'Come back, captain!' I yelled. 'Come back, quick!' As
I shouted, a ripple came at his feet lipping at them; and he stamped
insanely at it, and leaped back, his boot torn half off his foot. He
swore madly with pain and anger, and jumped swiftly for the taffrail.
"'Come on, doctor! Over we go!' he called. Then he remembered the
filthy scum, and hesitated, and roared out desperately to the men to
hurry. I stared down, also.
"'The second mate?' I said.
"'I'll take charge doctor,' said Captain Gannington, and caught hold
of Mr. Selvern. As he spoke, I thought I saw something beneath us,
outlined against the scum. I leaned out over the stern, and peered.
There was something under the port-quarter.
"'There's something down there, captain!' I called, and pointed in
the darkness. He stooped far over, and stared.
"'A boat, by gum! A boat!' he yelled, and began to wriggle swiftly
along the taffrail, dragging the second mate after him. I followed. 'A
boat it is, sure!' he exclaimed a few moments later, and, picking up
the second mate clear of the rail, he hove him down into the boat,
where he fell with a crash into the bottom.
"'Over ye go, doctor!' he yelled at me, and pulled me bodily off the
rail and dropped me after the officer. As he did so, I felt the whole
of the ancient, spongy rail give a peculiar, sickening quiver, and
begin to wobble. I fell on to the second mate, and the captain came
after, almost in the same instant, but, fortunately, he landed clear
of us, on to the fore thwart, which broke under his weight, with a
loud crack and splintering of wood.
"'Thank God!' I heard him mutter. 'Thank God! I guess that was a
mighty near thing to going to Hades.'
"He struck a match, just as I got to my feet, and between us we got
the second mate straightened out on one of the after fore-and-aft
thwarts. We shouted to the men in the boat, telling them where we
were, and saw the light of their lantern shining round the starboard
counter of the derelict. They called back to us to tell us they were
doing their best, and then, whilst we waited, Captain Gannington
struck another match, and began to overhaul the boat we had dropped
into. She was a modern, two-bowed boat, and on the stern there was
painted 'Cyclone, Glasgow.' She was in pretty fair condition, and had
evidently drifted into the scum and been held by it.
"Captain Gannington struck several matches, and went forrard towards
the derelict. Suddenly he called to me, and I jumped over the thwarts
to him. 'Look, doctor,' he said, and I saw what he meant a mass of
bones up in the bows of the boat. I stooped over them, and looked;
there were the bones of at least three people, all mixed together in
an extraordinary fashion, and quite clean and dry. I had a sudden
thought concerning the bones, but I said nothing, for my thought was
vague in some ways, and concerned the grotesque and incredible
suggestion that had come to me as to the cause of that ponderous, dull
thud, thud, thud thud, that beat on so infernally within the hull, and
was plain to hear even now that we had got off the vessel herself. And
all the while, you know, I had a sick, horrible mental picture of that
frightful, wriggling mound aboard the hulk.
"As Captain Gannington struck a final match, I saw something that
sickened me and the captain saw it in the same instant. The match went
out, and he fumbled clumsily for another, and struck it. We saw the
thing again. We had not been mistaken. A great lip of grey-white was
protruding in over the edge of the boat a great lappet of the mould
was coming stealthily towards us a live mass of the very hull itself!
And suddenly Captain Gannington yelled out in so many words the
grotesque and incredible thing I was thinking: 'She's alive!'
"I never heard such a sound of comprehension and terror in a man's
voice. The very horrified assurance of it made actual to me the thing
that before had only lurked in my subconscious mind. I knew he was
right; I knew that the explanation my reason and my training both
repelled and reached towards was the true one. Oh, I wonder whether
anyone can possibly understand our feelings in that moment? The
unmitigated horror of it and the incredibleness!
"As the light of the match burned up fully, I saw that the mass of
living matter coming towards us was streaked and veined with purple,
the veins standing out, enormously distended. The whole thing quivered
continuously to each ponderous thud, thud, thud, thud, of that
gargantuan organ that pulsed within the huge grey-white bulk. The
flame of the match reached the captain's fingers, and there came to me
a little sickly whiff of burned flesh, but he seemed unconscious of
any pain. Then the flame went out in a brief sizzle, yet at the last
moment I had seen an extraordinary raw look become visible upon the
end of that monstrous, protruding lappet. It had become dewed with a
hideous, purplish sweat. And with the darkness there came a sudden
"I heard the matchbox split in Captain Gannington's hands as he
wrenched it open. Then he swore, in a queer frightened voice, for he
had come to the end of his matches. He turned clumsily in the
darkness, and tumbled over the nearest thwart, in his eagerness to get
to the stern of the boat; and I after him. For we knew that thing was
coming towards us through the darkness, reaching over that piteous
mingled heap of human bones all jumbled together in the bows. We
shouted madly to the men, and for answer saw the bows of the boat
emerge dimly into view round the starboard counter of the derelict.
"'Thank God!' I gasped out. But Captain Gannington roared to them to
show a light. Yet this they could not do, for the lamp had just been
stepped on in their desperate efforts to force the boat round to us.
"'Quick! Quick!' I shouted.
"'For God's sake, be smart, men!' roared the captain.
"And both of us faced the darkness under the port-counter, out of
which we knew but could not see the thing was coming to us.
"'An oar! Smart, now pass me an oar!' shouted the captain; and
reached out his hands through the gloom towards the on-coming boat. I
saw a figure stand up in the bows, and hold something out to us across
the intervening yards of scum. Captain Gannington swept his hands
through the darkness, and encountered it.
"'I've got it! Let go there!' he said, in a quick, tense voice.
"In the same instant the boat we were in was pressed over suddenly
to starboard by some tremendous weight. Then I heard the captain
shout, 'Duck y'r head, doctor!' And directly afterwards he swung the
heavy, fourteen-foot oar round his head, and struck into the darkness.
There came a sudden squelch, and he struck again, with a savage grunt
of fierce energy. At the second blow the boat righted with a slow
movement, and directly afterwards the other boat bumped gently into
"Captain Gannington dropped the oar, and, springing across to the
second mate, hove him up off the thwart, and pitched him with knee and
arms clear in over the bows among the men; then he shouted to me to
follow, which I did, and he came after me, bringing the oar with him.
We carried the second mate aft, and the captain shouted to the men to
back the boat a little; then they got her bows clear of the boat we
had just left, and so headed out through the scum for the open sea.
"'Where's Tom 'Arrison?" gasped one of the men, in the midst of his
exertions. He happened to be Tom Harrison's particular chum, and
Captain Gannington answered him briefly enough:
"'Dead! Pull! Don't talk!"
"Now, difficult as it had been to force the boat through the scum to
our rescue, the difficulty to get clear seemed tenfold. After some
five minutes pulling, the boat seemed hardly to have moved a fathom,
if so much, and a quite dreadful fear took me afresh, which one of the
panting men put suddenly into words, 'It's got us!' he gasped out.
'Same as poor Tom!' It was the man who had inquired where Harrison
"'Shut y'r mouth an' pull!' roared the captain. And so another few
minutes passed. Abruptly, it seemed to me that the dull, ponderous
thud, thud, thud, thud came more plainly through the dark, and I
stared intently over the stern. I sickened a little, for I could
almost swear that the dark mass of the monster was actually
nearer that it was coming nearer to us through the darkness.
Captain Gannington must have had the same thought, for, after a brief
look into the darkness, he jumped forrard, and began to double-bank
"'Get forrid under the oars, doctor,' he said to me rather
breathlessly. 'Get in the bows, an' see if you can't free the stuff a
bit round the bows.'
"I did as he told me, and a minute later I was in the bows of the
boat, puddling the scum from side to side, and trying to break up the
viscid, clinging muck. A heavy almost animal-like smell rose off it,
and all the air seemed full of the deadening, heavy smell. I shall
never find words to tell anyone on earth the whole horror of it
all the threat that seemed to hang in the very air around us, and but
a little astern that incredible thing, coming, as I firmly believed,
nearer, and scum holding us, like half-melted glue.
"The minutes passed in a deadly, eternal fashion, and I kept staring
back astern into the darkness but never ceasing to puddle that filthy
scum, striking at it and switching it from side to side until I
"Abruptly Captain Gannington sang out: 'We're gaining, lads. Pull!'
And I felt the boat forge ahead perceptibly, as they gave way with
renewed hope and energy. There was soon no doubt of it, for presently
that hideous thud, thud, thud, thud had grown quite dim and vague
somewhere astern and I could no longer see the derelict, for the night
had come down tremendously dark and all the sky was thick, overset
with heavy clouds. As we drew nearer and nearer to the edge of the
scum, the boat moved more and more perceptibly, until suddenly we
emerged with a clean, sweet, fresh sound into the open sea.
"'Thank God!' I said aloud, and drew in the boathook, and made my
way aft again to where Captain Gannington now sat once more at the
tiller. I saw him looking anxiously up at the sky and across to where
the lights of our vessel burned, and again he would seem to listen
intently, so that I found myself listening also.
"'What's that, Captain?' I said sharply; for it seemed to me that I
heard a sound far astern, something, between a queer whine and a low
whistling. 'What's that?'
"'It's wind, doctor.' he said in a low voice. 'I wish to God we were
aboard.' Then to the men: 'Pull! Put y'r backs into it, or ye'll never
put y'r teeth through good bread again!' The men obeyed nobly, and we
reached the vessel safely, and had the boat safely stowed before the
storm came, which it did in a furious white smother out of the west. I
could see it for some minutes beforehand, tearing the sea in the gloom
into a wall of phosphorescent foam; and as it came nearer, that
peculiar whining, piping sound grew louder and louder, until it was
like a vast steam whistle rushing towards us. And when it did come, we
got it very heavy indeed, so that the morning showed us nothing but a
welter of white seas, with that grim derelict many a score of miles
away in the smother, lost as utterly as our hearts could wish to lose
"When I came to examine the second mate's feet, I found them in a
very extraordinary condition. The soles of them had the appearance of
having been partly digested. I know of no other word that so exactly
describes their condition, and the agony the man suffered must have
"Now," concluded the doctor, "that is what I call a case in point.
If we could know exactly what the old vessel had originally been
loaded with, and the juxtaposition of the various articles of her
cargo, plus the heat and time she had endured, plus one or two other
only guessable quantities, we should have solved the chemistry of the
life-force, gentlemen. Not necessarily the origin, mind you; but, at
least, we should have taken a big step on the way. I've often
regretted that gale, you know in a way, that is, in a way. It was a
most amazing discovery, but at the same time I had nothing but
thankfulness to be rid of it. A most amazing chance. I often think of
the way the monster woke out of its torpor. And that scum! The dead
pigs caught in i! I fancy that was a grim kind of a net, gentlemen. It
caught many things. It "
The old doctor sighed and nodded.
"If I could have had her bill of lading," he said, his eyes full of
regret. "If It might have told me something to help. But,
anyway " He began to fill his pipe again. "I suppose," he ended,
looking round at us gravely, "I s'pose we humans are an ungrateful lot
of beggars at the best! But but, what a chance? What a, chance, eh?"