By Hugh B. Cave
Night, black as pitch and filled with the wailing of a dead wind, sank like a shapeless specter into the oily waters of the Indian Ocean, leaving a great gray expanse of sullen sea, empty except for a solitary speck that rose and dropped in the long swell.
The forlorn thing was a ship’s boat. For seven days and seven nights it had drifted through the waste, bearing its ghastly burden. Now, groping to his knees, one of the two survivors peered away into the East, where the first glare of a red sun filtered over the rim of the world.
Within arm’s reach, in the bottom of the boat, lay a second figure, face down. All night long he had lain there. Even the torrential shower, descending in the dark hours and flooding the dory with life-giving water, had failed to move him.
The first man crawled forward. Scooping water out of the tarpaulin with a battered tin cup, he turned his companion over and forced the stuff through receded lips.
“Miggs!” The voice was a cracked whisper. “Miggs! Good God, you ain’t dead, Miggs? I ain’t left all alone out here-”
John Miggs opened his eyes feebly.
“What-what’s wrong?” he muttered.
“We got water, Miggs! Water!”
“You’re dreamin’ again, Yancy. It-it ain’t water. It’s nothin’ but sea-”
“It rained!” Yancy screeched. “Last night it rained. I stretched the tarpaulin. All night long I been lyin’ face up, lettin’ it rain in my mouth!”
Miggs touched the tin cup to his tongue and lapped its contents suspiciously. With a mumbled cry he gulped the water down. Then, gibbering like a monkey, he was crawling toward the tarpaulin.
Yancy flung him back, snarling.
“No you won’t!” Yancy rasped. “We got to save it, see? We got to get out of here.”
Miggs glowered at him from the opposite end of the dory. Yancy sprawled down beside the tarpaulin and stared once again over the abandoned sea, struggling to reason things out.
They were somewhere in the Bay of Bengal. A week ago they had been on board the Cardigan, a tiny tramp freighter carrying its handful of passengers from Maulmain to Georgetown:. The Cardigan had foundered in the typhoon off the Mergui Archipelago. For twelve hours she had heaved and groaned through an inferno of swirling seas. Then she had gone under.
Yancy’s memory of the succeeding events was a twisted, unreal parade of horrors. At first there had been five men in the little boat. Four days of terrific heat, no water, no food, had driven the little Persian priest mad; and he had jumped overboard. The other two had drunk salt water and died in agony. Now he and Miggs were alone.
The sun was incandescent in a white hot sky. The sea was calm, greasy, unbroken except for the slow, patient black fins that had been following the boat for days. But something else, during the night, had joined the sharks in their hellish pursuit. Sea snakes, hydrophünae, wriggling out of nowhere, had come to haunt the dory, gliding in circles round and round, venomous, vivid, vindictive. And overhead were gulls wheeling, swooping in erratic arcs, cackling fiendishly and watching the two men with relentless eyes.
Yancy glanced up at them. Gulls and snakes could mean only one thing-land! He supposed they had come from the Andamans, the prison isles of India. It didn’t much matter. They were here. Hideous, menacing harbingers of hope!
His shirt, filthy and ragged, hung open to the belt, revealing a lean chest tattooed with grotesque figures. A long time ago-too long to remember-he had gone on a drunken binge in Goa. Jap rum had done it. In company with two others of the Cardigan’s, crew he had shambled into a tattooing establishment and ordered the Jap, in a bloated voice, to “paint anything you damned well like, professor. Anything at all!” And the Jap, being of a religious mind and sentimental, had decorated Yancy’s chest with a most beautiful Crucifix, large, ornate, and colorful.
It brought a grim smile to Yancy’s lips as he peered down at it. But presently his attention was centered on something else-something unnatural, bewildering, on the horizon. The thing was a narrow bank of fog lying low on the water, as if a distorted cloud had sunk out of the sky and was floating heavily, half submerged in the sea. And the small boat was drifting toward it.
In a little while the fog bank hung dense on all sides. Yancy groped to his feet, gazing about him. John Miggs muttered something beneath his breath and crossed himself.
The thing was shapeless, grayish-white, clammy. It reeked-not with the dank smell of sea fog, but with the sickly, pungent stench of a buried jungle or a subterranean mushroom cellar. The sun seemed unable to penetrate it. Yancy could see the red ball above him, a feeble, smothered eye of crimson fire, blotted by swirling vapor.
“The gulls,” mumbled Miggs. “They’re gone.”
“I know it. The sharks, too-and the snakes. We’re all alone, Miggs.”
An eternity passed, while the dory drifted deeper and deeper into the cone. And then there was something else-something that came like a moaning voice out of the fog. The muted, irregular, sing-song clangor of a ship’s bell!
“Listen!” Miggs cackled. “You hear-”
But Yancy’s trembling arm had come up abruptly, pointing ahead.
“By God, Miggs! Look!”
Miggs scrambled up, rocking the boat beneath him. His bony fingers gripped Yancy’s arm. They stood there, the two of them, staring at the massive black shape that loomed up, like an ethereal phantom of another world, a hundred feet before them.
“We’re saved,” Miggs said incoherently. “Thank God, Nels-”
Yancy called out shrilly. His voice rang through the fog with a hoarse jangle, like the scream of a caged tiger. It choked into silence. And there was no answer, no responsive outcry-nothing so much as a whisper.
The dory drifted closer. No sound came from the lips of the two men as they drew alongside. There was nothing-nothing but the intermittent tolling of that mysterious, muted bell.
Then they realized the truth-a truth that brought a moan from Miggs’ lips. The thing was a derelict, frowning out of the water, inanimate, sullen, buried in its winding-sheet of unearthly fog. Its stern was high, exposing a propeller red with rust and matted with clinging weeds. Across the bow, nearly obliterated by age, appeared the words: Golconda-Cardiff.
“Yancy, it ain’t no real ship! It ain’t of this world-”
Yancy stooped with a snarl, and picked up the oar in the bottom of the dory. A rope dangled within reach, hanging like a black serpent over the scarred hull. With clumsy strokes he drove the small boat beneath it; then, reaching up, he seized the line and made the boat fast.
“You’re-goin’ aboard?” Miggs said fearfully.
Yancy hesitated, staring up with bleary eyes. He was afraid, without knowing why. The Golconda frightened him. The mist clung to her tenaciously. She rolled heavily, ponderously in the long swell; and the bell was still tolling softly somewhere within the lost vessel.
“Well, why not?” Yancy growled. “There may be food aboard. What’s there to be afraid of?”
Miggs was silent. Grasping the ropes, Yancy clambered up them. His body swung like a gibbet-corpse against the side. Clutching the rail, he heaved himself over; then stood there, peering into the layers of thick fog, as Miggs climbed up and dropped down beside him.
“I-don’t like it,” Miggs whispered. “It ain’t-”
Yancy groped forward. The deck planks creaked dismally under him. With Miggs clinging close, he led the way into the waist, then into the bow. The cold fog seemed to have accumulated here in a sluggish mass, as if some magnetic force had drawn it. Through it, with arms outheld in front of him, Yancy moved with shuffling steps, a blind man in a strange world.
Suddenly he stopped-stopped so abruptly that Miggs lurched headlong into him. Yancy’s body stiffened. His eyes were wide, glaring at the deck before him. A hollow, unintelligible sound parted his lips.
Miggs cringed back with a livid screech, clawing at his shoulder.
“What-what is it?” he said thickly.
At their feet were bones. Skeletons-lying there in the swirl of vapor. Yancy shuddered as he examined them. Dead things they were, dead and harmless, yet they were given new life by the motion of the mist. They seemed to crawl, to wriggle, to slither toward him and away from him.
He recognized some of them as portions of human frames. Others were weird, unshapely things. A tiger skull grinned up at him with jaws that seemed to widen hungrily. The vertebrae of a huge python lay in disjointed coils on the planks, twisted as if in agony. He discerned the skeletonic remains of tigers, tapirs, and jungle beasts of unknown identity. And human heads, many of them, scattered about like an assembly of mocking, dead-alive faces, leering at him, watching him with hellish anticipation. The place was a morgue-a charnel house! *
Yancy fell back, stumbling. His terror had returned with triple intensity. He felt cold perspiration forming on his forehead, on his chest, trickling down the tattooed Crucifix.
Frantically he swung about in his tracks and made for the welcome solitude of the stern deck, only to have Miggs clutch feverishly at his arm.
“I’m goin’ to get out of here, Nels! That damned bell-these here things-”
Yancy flung the groping hands away. He tried to control his terror. This ship-this Golconda-was nothing but a tramp trader. She’d been carrying a cargo of jungle animals for some expedition. The beasts had got loose, gone amuck, in a storm. There was nothing fantastic about it!
In answer, came the intermittent clang of the hidden bell below decks and the soft lapping sound of the water swishing through the thick weeds which clung to the ship’s bottom.
“Come on,” Yancy said grimly. “I’m goin’ to have a look around. We need food.”
He strode back through the waist of the ship, with Miggs shuffling behind. Feeling his way to the towering stern, he found the fog thinner, less pungent.
The hatch leading down into the stern hold was open. It hung before his face like an uplifted hand, scarred, bloated, as if in mute warning. And out of the aperture at its base straggled a spidery thing that was strangely out of place here on this abandoned derelict-a curious, menacing, crawling vine with mottled triangular leaves and immense orange-hued blossoms. Like a living snake, intertwined about itself, it coiled out of the hold and wormed over the deck.
Yancy stepped closer, hesitantly. Bending down, he reached to grasp one of the blooms, only to turn his face away and fall back with an involuntary mutter. The flowers were sickly sweet, nauseating. They repelled him with their savage odor.
“Somethin’-” Miggs whispered sibilantly, “is watchin’ us, Nels! I can feel it.”
Yancy peered all about him. He, too, felt a third presence close at hand. Something malignant, evil, unearthly. He could not name it.
“It’s your imagination,” he snapped. “Shut up, will you?”
“We ain’t alone, Nels. This ain’t no ship at all!”
“But the flowers there-they ain’t right. Flowers don’t grow aboard a Christian ship, Nels!”
“This hulk’s been here long enough for trees to grow on it,” Yancy said curtly. “The seeds probably took root in the filth below.”
“Well, I don’t like it.”
“Go forward and see what you can find. I’m goin’ below to look around.”
Miggs shrugged helplessly and moved away. Alone, Yancy descended to the lower levels. It was dark down here, full of shadows and huge gaunt forms that lost their substance in the coils of thick, sinuous fog. He felt his way along the passage, pawing the wall with both hands. Deeper and deeper into the labyrinth he went, until he found the galley.
The galley was a dungeon, reeking of dead, decayed food, as if the stench had hung there for an eternity without being molested; as if the entire ship lay in an atmosphere of its own-an atmosphere of the grave-through which the clean outer air never broke.
But there was food here; canned food that stared down at him from the rotted shelves. The labels were blurred, illegible. Some of the cans crumbled in Yancy’s fingers as he seized them-disintegrated into brown, dry dust and trickled to the floor. Others were in fair condition, air-tight. He stuffed four of them into his pockets and turned away.
Eagerly now, he stumbled back along the passage. The prospects of food took some of those other thoughts out of his mind, and he was in better humor when he finally found the captain’s cabin.
Here, too, the evident age of the place gripped him. The walls were gray with mold, falling into a broken, warped floor. A single table stood on the far side near the bunk, a blackened, grimy table bearing an upright oil lamp and a single black book.
He picked the lamp up timidly and shook it. The circular base was yet half full of oil, and he set it down carefully. It would come in handy later. Frowning, he peered at the book beside it.
It was a seaman’s Bible, a small one, lying there, coated with cracked dust, dismal with age. Around it, as if some crawling slug had examined it on all sides, leaving a trail of excretion, lay a peculiar line of black pitch, irregular but unbroken.
Yancy picked the book up and flipped it open. The pages slid under his fingers, allowing a scrap of loose paper to flutter to the floor. He stooped to retrieve it, then, seeing that it bore a line of penciled script, he peered closely at it.
The writing was an apparently irrelevant scrawl-a meaningless memorandum which said crudely:
It’s the bats and the crates. I know it now, but it is too late. God help me’t
With a shrug, he replaced it and thrust the Bible into his belt, where it pressed comfortingly against his body. Then he continued his exploration.
In the wall cupboard he found two full bottles of liquor, which proved to be brandy. Leaving them there, he groped out of the cabin and returned to the upper deck in search of Miggs.
Miggs was leaning on the rail, watching something below. Yancy trudged toward him, calling out shrilly:
“Say, I got food, Miggs! Food and brand-”
He did not finish. Mechanically his eyes followed the direction of Miggs’ stare, and he recoiled involuntarily as his words clipped into stifled silence. On the surface of the oily water below, huge sea snakes paddled against the ship’s side-enormous slithering shapes, banded with streaks of black and red and yellow, vicious and repulsive.
“They’re back,” Miggs said quickly. “They know this ain’t no proper ship. They come here out of their hell-hole, to wait for us.”
Yancy glanced at him curiously. The inflection of Miggs’ voice was peculiar-not at all the phlegmatic, guttural tone that usually grumbled through the little man’s lips. It was almost eager!
“What did you find?” Yancy faltered.
“Nothin’. All the ship’s boats are hangin’ in their davits. Never been touched.”
“I found food,” Yancy said abruptly, gripping his arm. “We’ll eat; then we’ll feel better. What the hell are we, anyhow-a couple of fools? Soon as we eat, we’ll stock the dory and get off this blasted death ship and clear out of this stinkin’ fog. We got water in the tarpaulin.”
“We’ll clear out? Will we, Nels?”
“Yah. Let’s eat.”
Once again, Yancy led the way below decks to the galley. There, after a twenty-minute effort in building a fire in the rusty stove, he and Miggs prepared a meal, carrying the food into the captain’s cabin, where Yancy lighted the lamp.
They ate slowly, sucking the taste hungrily out of every mouthful, reluctant to finish. The lamplight, flickering in their faces, made gaunt masks of features that were already haggard and full of anticipation.
The brandy, which Yancy fetched out of the cupboard, brought back strength and reason-and confidence. It brought back, too, that unnatural sheen to Miggs’ twitching eyes.
“We’d be damned fools to clear out of here right off,” Miggs said suddenly. “The fog’s got to lift sooner or later. I ain’t trustin’ myself to no small boat again, Nels-not when we don’t know where we’re at.”
Yancy looked at him sharply. The little man turned away with a guilty shrug. Then hesitantly:
“I-I kinda like it here, Nels.”
Yancy caught the odd gleam in those small eyes. He bent forward quickly.
“Where’d you go when I left you alone?” he demanded.
“Me? I didn’t go nowhere. I-I just looked around a bit, and I picked a couple of them flowers. See.”
Miggs groped in his shirt pocket and held up one of the livid, orange-colored blooms. His face took on an unholy brilliance as he held the thing close to his lips and inhaled its deadly aroma.
His eyes, glittering across the table, were on fire with sudden fanatic lust.
For an instant Yancy did not move. Then, with a savage oath, he lurched up and snatched the flower out of Miggs’ fingers. Whirling, he flung it to the floor and ground it under his boot.
“You damned thick-headed fool!” he screeched. “You-God help you!”
Then he went limp, muttering incoherently. With faltering steps he stumbled out of the cabin and along the black passageway, and up on the abandoned deck. He staggered to the rail and stood there, holding himself erect with nerveless hands. A
“God!” he whispered hoarsely. “God-what did I do that for? Am I goin’ crazy?”
No answer came out of the silence. But he knew the answer. The thing he had done down there in the skipper’s cabin-those mad words that had spewed from his mouth-had been involuntary. Something inside him, some sense of danger that was all about him, had hurled the words out of his mouth before he could control them. And his nerves were on edge, too; they felt as though they were ready to crack.
But he knew instinctively that Miggs had made a terrible mistake. There was something unearthly and wicked about those sickly sweet flowers. Flowers didn’t grow aboard ship. Not real flowers. Real flowers had to take root somewhere, and, besides, they didn’t have that drunken, etherish odour. Miggs should have left the vine alone. Clinging at the rail there, Yancy knew it, without knowing why.
He stayed there for a long time, trying to think and get his nerves back again. In a little while he began to feel frightened, being alone, and he returned below-decks to the cabin.
He stopped in the doorway, and stared. ^
Miggs was still there, slumped grotesquely over the table. The bottle was empty. Miggs was drunk, unconscious, mercifully oblivious of his surroundings.
For a moment Yancy glared at him morosely. For a moment, too, a new fear tugged at Yancy’s heart-fear of being left alone through the coming night. He yanked Miggs’ arm and shook him savagely; but there was no response. It would be hours, long, dreary, sinister hours, before Miggs regained his senses.
Bitterly Yancy took the lamp and set about exploring the rest of the ship. If he could find the ship’s papers, he considered, they might dispel his terror. He might learn the truth.
With this in mind, he sought the mate’s quarters. The papers had not been in the captain’s cabin where they belonged; therefore they might be here.
But they were not. There was nothing-nothing but a chronometer, sextant, and other nautical instruments lying in curious positions on the mate’s table, rusted beyond repair. And there were flags, signal flags, thrown down as if they had been used at the last moment. And, lying in a distorted heap on the floor, was a human skeleton.
Avoiding this last horror, Yancy searched the room thoroughly. Evidently, he reasoned, the captain had died early in the Golconda’s unknown plague. The mate had brought these instruments, these flags, to his own cabin, only to succumb before he could use them.
Only one thing Yancy took with him when he went out: a lantern, rusty and brittle, but still serviceable. It was empty, but he poured oil into it from the lamp. Then, returning the lamp to the captain’s quarters where Miggs lay unconscious, he went on deck.
He climbed the bridge and set the lantern beside him. Night was coming. Already the fog was lifting, allowing darkness to creep in beneath it. And so Yancy stood there, alone and helpless, while blackness settled with uncanny quickness over the entire ship.
He was being watched. He felt it. Invisible eyes, hungry and menacing, were keeping check on his movements. On the deck beneath him were those inexplicable flowers, trailing out of the unexplored hold, glowing like phosphorescent faces in the gloom.
“By God,” Yancy mumbled, “I’m goin’ to get out of here!”
His own voice startled him and caused him to stiffen and peer about him, as if someone else had uttered the words. And then, very suddenly, his eyes became fixed on the far horizon to starboard. His lips twitched open, spitting out a shrill cry.
“Miggs! Miggs! A light! Look, Miggs-”
Frantically he stumbled down from the bridge and clawed his way below decks to the mate’s cabin. Feverishly he seized the signal flags. Then, clutching them in his hand, he moaned helplessly and let them fall. He realized that they were no good, no good in the dark. Gibbering to himself, he searched for rockets. There were none.
Suddenly he remembered the lantern. Back again he raced through the passage, on deck, up on the bridge. In another moment, with the lantern dangling from his arm, he was clambering higher and higher into the black spars of the mainmast. Again and again he slipped and caught himself with outflung hands. And at length he stood high above the deck, feet braced, swinging the lantern back and forth…
Below him, the deck was no longer silent, no longer abandoned.
From bow to stern it was trembling, creaking, whispering up at him. He peered down fearfully. Blurred shadows seemed to be prowling through the darkness, coming out of nowhere, pacing dolefully back and forth through the gloom. They were watching him with a furtive interest.
He called out feebly. The muted echo of his own voice came back up to him. He was aware that the bell was tolling again, and the swish of the sea was louder, more persistent.
With an effort he caught a grip on himself.
“Damned fool,” he rasped. “Drivin’ yourself crazy-”
The moon was rising. It blurred the blinking light on the horizon and penetrated the darkness like a livid yellow finger. Yancy lowered the lantern with a sob. It was no good now. In the glare of the moonlight, this puny flame would be invisible to the men aboard that other ship. Slowly, cautiously, he climbed down to the deck.
He tried to think of something to do, to take his mind off the fear. Striding to the rail, he hauled up the water butts from the dory. Then he stretched the tarpaulin to catch the precipitation of the night dew. No telling how long he and Miggs would be forced to remain aboard the hulk.
He turned, then, to explore the forecastle. On his way across the deck, he stopped and held the light over the creeping vine. The curious flowers had become fragrant, heady, with the fumes of an intoxicating drug. He followed the coils to where they vanished into the hold, and he looked down. He saw only a tumbled pile of boxes and crates. Barred boxes which must have been cages at one time.
Again he turned away. The ship was trying to tell him something. He felt it-felt the movements of the deck planks beneath his feet. The moonlight, too, had made hideous white things of the scattered bones in the bow. Yancy stared at them with a shiver. He stared again, and grotesque thoughts obtruded into his consciousness. The bones were moving. Slithering, sliding over the deck, assembling themselves, gathering into definite shades. He could have sworn it!
Cursing, he wrenched his eyes away. Damned fool, thinking such thoughts! With clenched fists he advanced to the forecastle; but before he reached it, he stopped again.
It was the sound of flapping wings that brought him about. Turning quickly, with a jerk, he was aware that the sound emanated from the open hold. Hesitantly he stepped forward-and stood rigid with an involuntary scream.
Out of the aperture came two horrible shapes-two inhuman things with immense, clapping wings and glittering eyes. Hideous; enormous. Bats’t
Instinctively he flung his arm up to protect himself. But the creatures did not attack. They hung for an instant, poised over the hatch, eyeing him with something that was fiendishly like intelligence. Then they flapped over the deck, over the rail, and away into the night. As they sped away towards the west, where he had seen the light of that other ship twinkling, they clung together like witches hell-bent on some evil mission. And below them, in the bloated sea, huge snakes weaved smoky, golden patterns-waiting!…
He stood fast, squinting after the bats. Like two hellish black eyes they grew smaller and smaller, became pinpoints in the moon-glow, and finally vanished. Still he did not stir. His lips were dry, his body stiff and unnatural. He licked his mouth. Then he was conscious of something more. From somewhere behind him came a thin, throbbing thread of harmony-a lovely, utterly sweet musical note that fascinated him.
He turned slowly. His heart was hammering, surging. His eyes went suddenly wide.
There, not five feet from him, stood a human form. Not his imagination. Real!
But he had never seen a girl like her before. She was too beautiful. She was wild, almost savage, with her great dark eyes boring into him. Her skin was white, smooth as alabaster. Her hair was jet black; and a waving coil of it, like a broken cobweb of pitch strings, framed her face. Grotesque hoops of gold dangled from her ears. In her hair, above them, gleamed two of those sinister flowers from the straggling vine.
He did not speak; he simply gaped. The girl was bare-footed, bare-legged. A short, dark skirt covered her slender thighs. A ragged white waist, open at the throat, revealed the full curve of her breast. In one hand she held a long wooden reed, a flute-like instrument fashioned out of crude wood. And about her middle, dangling almost to the deck, twined a scarlet, silken sash, brilliant as the sun, but not so scarlet as her lips, which were parted in a faint, suggestive smile, showing teeth of marble whiteness!
“Who-who are you?” Yancy mumbled.
She shook her head. Yet she smiled with her eyes, and he felt, somehow, that she understood him. He tried again, in such tongues as he knew. Still she shook her head, and still he felt that she was mocking him. Not until he chanced upon a scattered, faltering greeting in Serbian, did she nod her head.
“Dobra!” she replied, in a husky rich voice which sounded, somehow, as if it were rarely used.
He stepped closer then. She was a gipsy evidently. A Tzany of the Serbian hills. She moved very close to him with a floating, almost ethereal movement of her slender body. Peering into his face, flashing her haunting smile at him, she lifted the flute-like instrument and, as if it were nothing at all unnatural or out of place, began to play again the song which had first attracted his attention.
He listened in silence until she had finished. Then, with a cunning smile, she touched her fingers to her lips and whispered softly:
He did not understand. She clutched his arm and glanced fearfully toward the west, out over the sea.
“You-mine!” she said again, fiercely. “P^apa Bocito-Seraphino-they no have you. You-not go-to them!”
He thought he understood then. She turned away from him and went silently across the deck. He watched her disappear into the forecastle, and would have followed her, but once again the ship-the whole ship-seemed to be struggling to whisper a warning.
Presently she returned, holding in her white hand a battered silver goblet, very old and very tarnished, brimming with scarlet fluid. He took it silently. It was impossible to refuse her. Her eyes had grown into lakes of night, lit by the burning moon. Her lips were soft, searching, undeniable.
“Who are you?” he whispered.
“Stragella,” she smiled.
“Stragella. . .Stragella. . .”
The name itself was compelling. He drank the liquid slowly, without taking his eyes from her lovely face. The stuff had the taste of wine-strong, sweet wine. It was intoxicating, with the same weird effect that was contained in the orange blooms which she wore in her hair and which groveled over the deck behind her.
Yancy’s hands groped up weakly. He rubbed his eyes, feeling suddenly weak, powerless, as if the very blood had been drained from his veins. Struggling futilely, he staggered back, moaning half inaudibly. *
Stragella’s arms went about him, caressing him with sensuous touch. He felt them, and they were powerful, irresistible. The girl’s smile maddened him. Her crimson lips hung before his face, drawing nearer, mocking him. Then, all at once, she was seeking his throat. Those warm, passionate, deliriously pleasant lips were searching to touch him.
He sensed his danger. Frantically he strove to lift his arms and push her away. Deep in his mind some struggling intuition, some half-alive idea, warned him that he was in terrible peril. This girl, Stregella, was not of his kind; she was a creature of the darkness, a denizen of a different, frightful world of her own! Those lips, wanting his flesh, were inhuman, too fervid-
Suddenly she shrank away from him, releasing him with a jerk. A snarling animal-like sound surged through her flaming mouth. Her hand lashed out, rigid, pointing to the thing that hung in his belt. Talonic fingers pointed to the Bible that defied her!
But the scarlet fluid had taken its full effect. Yancy slumped down, unable to cry out. In a heap he lay there, paralyzed, powerless to stir.
He knew that she was commanding him to rise. Her lips, moving in pantomime, formed soundless words. Her glittering eyes were fixed upon him, hypnotic. The Bible-she wanted him to cast it over the rail! She wanted him to stand up and go into her arms. Then her lips would find a hold…
But he could not obey. He could not raise his arms to support himself. She, in turn, stood at bay and refused to advance. Then, whirling about, her lips drawn into a diabolical curve, beautiful but bestial, she retreated. He saw her dart back, saw her tapering body whip about, with the crimson sash outflung behind her as she raced across the deck.
Yancy closed his eyes to blot out the sight. When he opened them again, they opened to a new, more intense horror. On the Golcondd’s deck, Stragella was darting erratically among those piles of gleaming bones. But they were bones no longer. They had gathered into shapes, taken on flesh, blood. Before his very eyes they assumed substance, men and beasts alike. And then began an orgy such as Nels Yancy had never before looked upon-an orgy of the undead.
Monkeys, giant apes, lunged about the deck. A huge python reared its sinuous head to glare. On the hatch cover a snow-leopard, snarling furiously, crouched to spring. Tigers, tapirs, crocodiles-fought together in the bow. A great brown bear, of the type found in the lofty plateaus of the Pamirs, clawed at the rail.
And the men! Most of them were dark-skinned-dark enough to have come from the same region, from Madras. With them crouched Chinamen, and some Anglo-Saxons. Starved, all of them. Lean, gaunt, mad!
Pandemonium raged then. Animals and men alike were insane with hunger. In a little struggling knot, the men were gathered about the number-two hatch, defending themselves. They were wielding firearms-firing pointblank with desperation into the writhing mass that confronted them. And always, between them and around them and among, darted the girl who called herself Stragella.
They cast no shadows, those ghost shapes. Not even the girl, whose arms he had felt about him only a moment ago. There was nothing real in the scene, nothing human. Even the sounds of the shots and the screams of the cornered men, even the roaring growls of the big cats, were smothered as if they came to him through heavy glass windows, from a sealed chamber.
He was powerless to move. He lay in a cataleptic condition, conscious of the entire pantomime, yet unable to flee from it. And his senses were horribly acute-so acute that he turned his eyes upward with an abrupt twitch, instinctively; and then shrank into himself with a new fear as he discerned the two huge bats which had winged their way across the sea…
They were returning now. Circling above him, they flapped down one after the other and settled with heavy, sullen thuds upon the hatch, close to that weird vine of flowers. They seemed to have lost their shape, these nocturnal monstrosities, to have become fantastic blurs, enveloped in an unearthly bluish radiance. Even as he stared at them, they vanished altogether for a moment; and then the strange vapor cleared to reveal the two creatures who stood there!
Not bats! Humans! Inhumans! They were gipsies, attired in moldy, decayed garments which stamped them as Balkans. Man and woman. Lean, emaciated, ancient man with fierce white mustache; plump old woman with black, rat-like eyes that seemed unused to the light of day. And they spoke to Stragella-spoke to her eagerly. She, in turn, swung about with enraged face and pointed to the Bible in Yancy’s belt.
But the pantomime was not finished. On the deck the men and animals lay moaning, sobbing. Stragella turned noiselessly, calling the old man and woman after her. Galling them by name.
“Come-Papa Bocito, Seraphino!”
The tragedy of the ghost-ship was being reenacted. Yancy knew it, and shuddered at the thought. Starvation, cholera had driven the Golconda’s crew mad. The jungle beasts, unfed, hideously savage, had escaped out of their confinement^And now-now that the final conflict was over-Stragella and Papa Bocito and Seraphino were proceeding about their ghastly work.
Stragella was leading them. Her charm, her beauty, gave her a hold on the men. They were in love with her. She had made them love her, madly and without reason. Now she was moving from one to another, loving them and holding them close to her. And as she stepped away from each man, he went limp, faint, while she laughed terribly and passed on to the next. Her lips were parted. She licked them hungrily-licked the blood from them with a sharp, crimson tongue.
How long it lasted, Yancy did not know. Hours, hours on end. He was aware, suddenly, that a high wind was screeching and wailing in the upper reaches of the ship; and, peering up, he saw that the spars were no longer bare and rotten with age. Great gray sails stood out against the black sky-fantastic things without any definite form or outline. And the moon above them had vanished utterly. The howling wind was bringing a storm with it, filling the sails to bulging proportions. Beneath the decks the ship was groaning like a creature in agony. The seas were lashing her, slashing her, carrying her forward with amazing speed.
Of a sudden came a mighty grinding sound. The Golconda hurtled back, as if a huge, jagged reef of submerged rock had bored into her bottom. She listed. Her stern rose high in the air. And Stragella with her two fellow fiends, was standing in the bow, screaming in mad laughter in the teeth of the wind. The other two laughed with her.
Yancy saw them turn toward him, but they did not stop. Somehow, he did not expect them to stop. This scene, this mad pantomime, was not the present; it was the past. He was not here at all. All this had happened years ago! Forgotton, buried in the past!
But he heard them talking, in a mongrel dialect full of Serbian words.
“It is done. Papa Bocito! We shall stay here forever now. There is land within an hour’s flight, where fresh blood abounds and will always abound. And here, on this wretched hulk, they will never find our graves to destroy us!”
The horrible trio passed close. Stragella turned, to stare out across the water, and raised her hand in silent warning. Yancy, turning wearily to stare in the same direction, saw that the first streaks of daylight were beginning to filter over the sea.
With a curious floating, drifting movement the three undead creatures moved toward the open hatch. They descended out of sight. Yancy, jerking himself erect and surprised to find that the effects of the drug had worn off with the coming of dawn, crept to the hatch and peered down-in time to see those fiendish forms enter their coffins. He knew then what the crates were. In the dim light, now that he was staring directly into the aperture, he saw what he had not noticed before. Three of those oblong boxes were filled with dank grave-earth!
He knew then the secret of the unnatural flowers. They had roots! They were rooted in the soil which harbored those undead bodies!
Then, like a groping finger, the dawn came out of the sea. Yancy walked to the rail, dazed. It was over now-all over. The orgy was ended. The Golconda was once more an abandoned, rotted hulk.
For an hour he stood at the rail, sucking in the warmth and glory of the sunlight. Once again that wall of unsightly mist was rising out of the water on all sides. Presently it would bury the ship, and Yancy shuddered.
He thought of Miggs. With quick steps he paced to the compan-ionway and descended to the lower passage. Hesitantly he prowled through the thickening layers of dank fog. A queer sense of foreboding crept over him.
He called out even before he reached the door. There was no answer. Thrusting the barrier open, he stepped across the sill-and then he stood still while a sudden harsh cry broke from his lips.
Miggs was lying there, half across the table, his arms flung out, his head turned grotesquely on its side, staring up at the ceiling.
“Miggs! Miggs!” The sound came choking through Yancy’s lips. “Oh, God, Miggs-what’s happened?”
He reeled forward. Miggs was cold and stiff, and quite dead. All the blood was gone out of his face and arms. His eyes were glassy, wide open. He was as white as marble, shrunken horribly. In his throat were two parallel marks, as if a sharp-pointed staple had been hammered into the flesh and then withdrawn. The marks of the vampire.
For a long time Yancy did not retreat. The room swayed and lurched before him. He was alone. Alone! The whole ghastly thing was too sudden, too unexpected.
Then he stumbled forward and went down on his knees, clawing at Miggs’ dangling arm.
“Oh God, Miggs,” he mumbled incoherently. “You got to help me. I can’t stand it!”
He clung there, white-faced, staring, sobbing thickly-and presently slumped in a pitiful heap, dragging Miggs over on top of him.
It was later afternoon when he regained consciousness. He stood up, fighting away the fear that overwhelmed him. He had to get away, get away! The thought hammered into his head with monotonous force. Get away!
He found his way to the upper deck. There was nothing he could do for Miggs. He would have to leave him here. Stumbling, he moved along the rail and reached down to draw the small boat closer, where he could provision it and make it ready for his departure.
His fingers clutched emptiness. The ropes were gone. The dory was gone. He hung limp, staring down at a flat expanse of oily sea.
For an hour he did not move. He fought to throw off his fear long enough to think of a way out. Then he stiffened with a sudden jerk and pushed himself away from the rail.
The ship’s boats offered the only chance. He groped to the nearest one and labored feverishly over it.
But the task was hopeless. The life boats were of metal, rusted through and through, wedged in their davits. The wire cables were knotted and immovable. He tore his hands on them, wringing blood from his scarred fingers. Even while he worked, he knew that the boats would not float. They were rotten, through and through.
He had to stop, at last, from exhaustion.
After that, knowing that there was no escape, he had to do something, anything, to keep sane. First he would clear those horrible bones from the deck, then explore the rest of the ship…
It was a repulsive task, but he drove himself to it. If he could get rid of the bones, perhaps Stragella and the other two creatures would not return. He did not know. It was merely a faint hope, something to cling to.
With grim, tight-pressed lips he dragged the bleached skeletons over the deck and kicked them over the side, and stood watching them as they sank from sight. Then he went to the hold, smothering his terror, and descended into the gloomy belly of the vessel. He avoided the crates with a shudder of revulsion. Ripping up that evil vine-thing by the roots, he carried it to the rail and flung it away, with the mold of grave-earth still clinging to it.
After that he went over the entire ship, end to end, but found nothing.
He slipped the anchor chains then, in the hopes that the ship would drift away from that vindictive bank of fog. Then he paced back and forth, muttering to himself and trying to force courage for the most hideous task of all.
The sea was growing dark, and with dusk came increasing terror. He knew the Golconda was drifting. Knew, too, that the undead inhabitants of the vessel were furious with him for allowing the boat to drift away from their source of food. Or they would be furious when they came alive again after their interim of forced sleep.
And there was only one method of defeating them. It was a horrible method, and he was already frightened. Nevertheless he searched the deck for a marlin spike and found one; and, turning sluggishly, he went back to the hold.
A stake, driven through the heart of each of the horrible trio…
The rickety stairs were deep in shadow. Already the dying sun, buried behind its wreath of evil fog, was a ring of bloody mist. He glanced at it and realized that he must hurry. He cursed himself for having waited so long.
It was hard, lowering himself into the pitch-black hold when he could only feel his footing and trust to fate. His boots scraped ominously on the steps. He held his hands above him, gripping the deck timbers.
And suddenly he slipped.
His foot caught on the edge of a lower step, twisted abruptly, and pitched him forward. He cried out. The marlin spike dropped from his hand and clattered on one of the crates below. He tumbled in a heap, clawing for support. The impact knocked something out of his belt. And he realized, even as his head came in sharp contact with the foremost oblong box, that the Bible, which had heretofore protected him, was no longer a part of him.
He did not lose complete control of his senses. Frantically he sought to regain his knees and grope for the black book in the gloom of the hold. A sobbing, choking sound came pitifully from his lips.
A soft, triumphant laugh came out of the darkness close to him. He swung about heavily-so heavily that the movement sent him sprawling again in an inert heap.
He was too late. She was already there on her knees, glaring at him hungrily. A peculiar bluish glow welled about her face. She was ghastly beautiful as she reached behind her into the oblong crate and began to trace a circle about the Bible with a chunk of soft, tarry, pitch-like substance clutched in her white fingers.
Yancy stumbled toward her, finding strength in desperation. She straightened to meet him. Her lips, curled back, exposed white teeth. Her arms coiled out, enveloping him, stifling his struggles. God, they were strong. He could not resist them. The same languid, resigned feeling came over him. He would have fallen, but she held him erect.
She did not touch him with her lips. Behind her he saw two other shapes take form in the darkness. The savage features of Papa Bocito glowered at him; and Seraphino’s rAtty, smoldering eyes, full of hunger, bored into him. Stragella was obviously afraid of them.
Yancy was lifted from his feet. He was carried out on deck and borne swiftly, easily, down the companionway, along the lower passage, through a swirling blanket of hellish fog and darkness, to the cabin where Miggs lay dead. And he lost consciousness while they carried him.
He could not tell, when he opened his eyes, how long he had been asleep. It seemed a long, long interlude. Stragella was sitting beside him. He lay on the bunk in the cabin, and the lamp was burning on the table, revealing Miggs’ limp body in full detail.
Yancy reached up fearfully to touch his throat. There were no marks there; not yet.
He was aware of voices, then. Papa Bocito and the ferret-faced woman were arguing with the girl beside him. The savage old man in particular was being angered by her cool, possessive smile.
“We are drifting away from the prison isles,” Papa Bocito snarled, glancing at Yancy with unmasked hate. “It is his work, lifting the anchor. Unless you share him with us until we drift ashore, we shall perish!”
“He is mine,” Stragella shrugged, modulating her voice to a persuasive whisper. “You had the other. This one is mine. I shall have him!”
“He belongs to us all!”
“Why?” Stragella smiled. “Because he has looked upon the resurrection night? Ah, he is the first to learn our secret.”
Seraphino’s eyes narrowed at that, almost to pinpoints. She jerked forward, clutching the girl’s shoulder.
“We have quarreled enough,” she hissed. “Soon it will be daylight. He belongs to us all because he has taken us away from the isles and learned our secrets.”
The words drilled their way into Yancy’s brain. “The resurrection night!” There was an ominous significance in it, and he thought he knew its meaning. His eyes, or his face, must have revealed his thoughts, for Papa Bocito drew near to him and pointed into his face with a long, bony forefinger, muttering triumphantly.
“You have seen what no other eyes have seen,” the ancient man growled bitterly. “Now, for that, you shall become one of us. Stragella wants you. She shall have you for eternity-for a life without death. Do you know what that means?”
Yancy shook his head dumbly, fearfully.
“We are the undead,” Bocito leered. “Our victims become creatures of the blood, like us. At night we are free. During the day we must return to our graves. That is why”-he cast his arm toward the upper deck in a hideous gesture-”those other victims of ours have not yet become like us. They were never buried; they have no graves to return to. Each night we give them life for our own amusement, but they are not of the brotherhood-yet.”
Yancy licked his lips and said nothing. He understood then. Every night it happened. A nightly pantomime, when the dead become alive again, reenacting the events of the night when the Golconda had become a ship of hell.
“We are gipsies,” the old man gloated. “Once we were human, living in our pleasant little camp in the shadow of Pobyezdin Potok’s crusty peaks, in the Morava Valley of Serbia. That was in the time of Milutin, six hundreds of years ago. Then the vampires of the hills came for us and took us to them. We lived the undead life, until there was no more blood in the valley. So we went to the coast, we three, transporting our grave-earth with us. And we lived there, alive by night and dead by day, in the coastal villages of the Black Sea, until the time came when we wished to go to the far places.”
Seraphino’s guttural voice interrupted him, saying harshly:
“Hurry. It is nearly dawn!”
“And we obtained passage on this Golconda, arranging to have our crates of grave-earth carried secretly to the rjold. And the ship fell into cholera and starvation and storm. She went aground. And-here we are. Ah, but there is blood upon the islands, my pretty one, and so we anchored the Golconda on the reef, where life was close at hand!”
Yancy closed his eyes with a shudder. He did not understand all of the words; they were in a jargon of gipsy tongue. But he knew enough to horrify him.
Then the old man ceased gloating. He fell back, glowering at Stragella. And the girl laughed, a mad, cackling, triumphant laugh of possession. She leaned forward, and the movement brought her out of the line of the lamplight, so that the feeble glow fell full over Yancy’s prostrate body.
At that, with an angry snarl, she recoiled. Her eyes went wide with abhorrence. Upon his chest gleamed the Crucifix-the tattooed Gross and Savior which had been indelibly printed there. Stragella held her face away, shielding her eyes. She cursed him horribly. Backing away, she seized the arms of her companions and pointed with trembling finger to the thing which had repulsed her.
The fog seemed to seep deeper and deeper into the cabin during the ensuing silence. Yancy struggled to a sitting posture and cringed back against the wall, waiting for them to attack him. It would be finished in a moment, he knew. Then he would join Miggs, with those awful marks on his throat and Stragella’s lips crimson with his sucked blood.
But they held their distance. The fog enveloped them, made them almost indistinct. He could see only three pairs of glaring, staring, phosphorescent eyes that grew larger and wider and more intensely terrible.
He buried his face in his hands, waiting. They did not come. He heard them mumbling, whispering. Vaguely he was conscious of another sound, far off and barely audible. The howl of wolves.
Beneath him the bunk was swaying from side to side with the movement of the ship. The Golconda was drifting swiftly. A storm had risen out of nowhere, and the wind was singing its dead dirge in the rotten spars high above decks. He could hear it moaning, wheezing, like a human being in torment.
Then the three pairs of glittering orbs moved nearer. The whispered voices ceased, and a cunning smile passed over Stragella’s features. Yancy screamed, and flattened against the wall. He watched her in fascination as she crept upon him. One arm was flung across her eyes to protect them from the sight of the Crucifix. In the other hand, outstretched, groping ever nearer, she clutched that hellish chunk of pitch-like substance with which she had encircled the Bible!
He knew what she would do. The thought struck him like an icy blast, full of fear and madness. She would slink closer, closer, until her hand touched his flesh. Then she would place the black substance around the tattooed cross and kill its powers. His defense would be gone. Then-those cruel lips on his throat…
There was no avenue of escape. Papa Bocito and the plump old woman, grinning malignantly, had slid to one side, between him and the doorway. And Stragella writhed forward with one alabaster arm feeling… feeling…
He was conscious of the roar of surf, very close, very loud, outside the walls of the fog-filled enclosure. The ship was lurching, reeling heavily, pitching in the swell. Hours must have passed. Hours and hours of darkness and horror.
Then she touched him. The sticky stuff was hot on his chest, moving in a slow circle. He hurled himself back, stumbled, went down, and she fell upon him.
Under his tormented body the floor of the cabin split asunder. The ship buckled from top to bottom with a grinding, roaring impact. A terrific shock burst through the ancient hulk, shattering its rotted timbers.
The lamp caromed off the table, plunging the cabin in semi-darkness. Through the port-holes filtered a gray glare. Stragella’s face, thrust into Yancy’s, became a mask of beautiful fury. She whirled back. She stood rigid, screaming lividly to Papa Bocito and the old hag.
“Go back! Go back!” she railed. “We have waited too long! It is dawn!”
She ran across the floor, grappling with them. Her lips were distorted. Her body trembled. She hurled her companions to the door. Then, as she followed them into the gloom of the passage, she turned upon Yancy with a last unholy snarl of defeated rage. And she was gone.
* * *
Yancy lay limp. When he struggled to his feet at last and went on deck, the sun was high in the sky, bloated and crimson, struggling to penetrate the cone of fog which swirled about the ship.
The ship lay far over, careened on her side. A hundred yards distant over the port rail lay the heaven-sent sight of land-a bleak, vacant expanse of jungle-rimmed shore line.
He went deliberately to work-a task that had to be finished quickly, lest he be discovered by the inhabitants of the shore and be considered stark mad. Returning to the cabin, he took the oil lamp and carried it to the open hold. There, sprinkling the liquid over the ancient wood, he set fire to it. ‹
Turning, he stepped to the rail. A scream of agony, unearthly and prolonged, rose up behind him. Then he was over the rail, battling in the surf.
When he staggered up on the beach, twenty minutes later, the Golconda was a roaring furnace. On all sides of her the flames snarled skyward, spewing through that hellish cone of vapor. Grimly Yancy turned away and trudged along the beach.
He looked back after an hour of steady plodding. The lagoon was empty. The fog had vanished. The sun gleamed down with warm brilliance on a broad, empty expanse of sea.
Hours later he reached a settlement. Men came and talked to him, and asked curious questions. They pointed to his hair which was stark white. They told him he had reached Port Blair, on the southern island of the Andamans. After that, noticing the peculiar gleam of his blood-shot eyes, they took him to the home of the governor.
There he told his story-told hesitantly, because he expected to be disbelieved, mocked.
The governor looked at him cryptically.
“You don’t expect me to understand?” the governor said. “I am not so sure, sir. This is a penal colony, a prison isle. During the past few years, more than two hundred of our convicts have died in the most curious way. Two tiny punctures in the throat. Loss of blood.”
“You-you must destroy the graves,” Yancy muttered.
The governor nodded silently, significantly.
After that, Yancy returned to the world, alone. Always alone. Men peered into his face and shrank away from the haunted stare of his eyes. They saw the Crucifix upon his chest and wondered why, day and night, he wore his shirt flapping open, so that the brilliant design glared forth.
But their curiosity was never appeased. Only Yancy knew; and Yancy was silent.