The Dutchman

a short story by AD Bane
3670 words

The Redawn rose up with the swell of the sea, capped the wave, and returned to the depth, her bow breaking the surf; for she was a sea-faring vessel. The ocean brine washed the deck and the seamen who clung to their mistress to save their own lives: the storm was unrelenting. The rigging groaned beneath the strain, the bowsprit gone: for they’d been many days already running before the hurricane. The hull creaked as she sank down again into the darkest valleys of the tempest squall. High walls of the deep black sea rose up on all sides, and the eternal shriek the howling storm made through her ragged canvas drowned out all else. The barnacle encrusted timbers of the starboard, marred and scarred from years of repair from cannonade and tempest, rose up out of the water as the ship listed. One of her mariners was loosed and swept across the deck, where he caught hold the bulwarks with trembling hands, before he was lost to sight at the next wave and vanished into the sea. But there was no time for help, and no breath for the lookout at the helm to give the alarm. No, the sailor was lost to the locker, and all the helmsman could do was to bring his cloak as tight around his shoulders as would be and hold the ship to the truest course possible; for if they had any hope now of reaching firm land once more it must be by his skill alone. In his worn hands were years at sea, in his heart the fear that gripped all in such a storm, and on his lips was the song of sailor’s dread, amix with the smell of last night’s rum: for he was a sailor, it’s true.

Again she climbed the wave, rising up toward the sky, whipped into hell’s fury by the ocean gods. Black as night it were, sun blotted by her foe, and thunder and lightning to take its place. If all were not to be enough, through the wind and fury of the waves came the torrent of the rain, enough to choke the sea herself. The ship broke crest again, and the boatswain clung to the port bulwark, desperate in attempt to secure a tack line as it rushed once more into a seemingly endless valley. Drenched by the sea water that washed the deck as each wave rolled over them, drowning him to his shoulders, the swain staggered up the steps to the sterncastle. Again they climbed, rushing upward, the bow riding the slope of the wave; then they were up, and for a moment the world stood still. The swain regained his trembling feet and crawled to the tiller.

“My eyes see nothing in this fury,” he yelled to the helmsman above the tremor of the storm. “And the ocean’s intent is to take us ‘neath her!”

“But if she be trying then she be failing, for still we ride this devil’s squall,” the helmsman answered with a laugh, for he was a stolid sailor at heart, and he’d ridden hurricanes enough to know all was not lost.

“Too true, aye, too true,” the boatswain said, though his words were drowned and his mouth filled with the sea “Yet we ride. Still, Cap’n counts nine now total claimed by the sea, and we can take little more of this beating. A full week now it’s been, and no sight of land nor sun! Are we still on course, or will we be blown into the dark continent?”

“Aye, little we can do, save going ourselves to the waves,” the other said. “But I would not choose such a fate for the ship, nor her company – and I least of all. Ahoy, wave!” He clutched the tiller like a madman. “I feel the very fingers of Jones at me neck!”

A great wave swept over the sterncastle, leaving them both drenched in salt and clinging to the helm. Then out they came from the deep, sputtering. The Redawn broke crest and again the world stood still as a bolt of lightning slit the sky.

“We can take little more of this!” the boatswain yelled. “If not cold then wet; if not wet then cold!”

They plunged down, deep into the next green valley, and were joined on the castle by the captain who mounted the stair from the deck easily, though both years in his weathered face and the wooden leg that bore him should’ve stayed his pace. Still, in his hands and chest was the steady gait of a fervent seaman, and the sword at his side and pistols in their holsters were no toys to him. He crossed the castle with ease and joined the two already at the helm.

“Cap’n, we can take no more of this!” the swain yelled, stricken with fear: for he knew if they were turned they might be run up on the Cape and be ruined. “The sea will make us a grave, and the locker will be the only home to return to!”

“Stow it!” the captain answered, his cracked seaman’s voice the only rule he needed. “Yer foolish landlubbers and not welcome here. No one said ‘twoud be easy, now did they. Rounding the Cape has always been a treacherous route!”

The swain held his tongue, though the wind beat about them.

The captain tasted the sea brine on his lips and looked afore into the next wave; and if he feared at all for his soul no man would see it: he’d sailed the Redawn as long as the helmsman. His balance was perfect with the listing deck, his sea legs keeping time with the waves. He stood tall by the tiller and kept his pace; and when the helmsman hesitated to alter the course to break the next wave, the captain grasped the wheel and pulled the ship aside. “No storm can last forever, though hell and all her vehemence should be unleashed. We shall see calm waters on the other side!” he yelled over his shoulder. “Stay your strength and wait for the morning!”

They crashed forward and the ship nosed down into the valley. Green rose up on all sides, and they were swallowed beneath the spray; then out they came once more to the pinnacle of the next wave.

“Cap’n, what do yer eyes see there, some fair distance away?” the helmsman asked, for he’d been watching a shadow grow larger on the horizon until he couldn’t have said what it was with any certainty, for his nerves were all alight with the vigour of the storm. The lightning flashed, and there it was; then they three stood with bated breath waiting for the next flash. The captain strained hard, leaning into the wind, and didn’t reply for a moment, for by this sight he was both troubled adeep and encouraged; for his old eye did see it: at some distance another ship fought against the fury of the storm. It was a brigantine with dual mast and square rigging, though its sails were dark and torn in the wind, and her timbers like something washed up from the sea. About her was cloaked a doleful and pallor red glow, like the embers of some deep and dying fire which lit her timbers in the night and gave her that quality of the supernatural; and she seemed driven by no purpose, he thought. Still too afar they were to know if she had a crew or not, but even as they watched she turned against the wind.

“I see a ship,” the captain said at last. “A weathered derelict vessel whose sail is but rags and her hull torn.”

“Then we see the same,” returned the helmsman. “Swain, do ye too see that yonder ship, or is it even now a phantom?”

“Nay, for mine eyes too, weary though they are, can make it out, for it glows red with blood!” the boatswain replied.

Down they rushed into a valley of water, and the vessel was all but lost to their sight. They waited, not moving, and then up they came again on the further slope, and crested it. The valley beyond was dead as the rest, empty as a black night, and the strange ship naught to be seen.

“It’s lost to my eyes!” the helmsman called.

“And mine too,” the swain agreed.

“To the waves, it seems, it has returned,” the captain said, “That yonder ship is indeed a phantom, though a one we all might see when she crests the waves.”

“We have no weapons against ghouls and demons!” the swain cried in dismay.

“Hold ye tongue!” the captain shouted back apace, hand on his hilt, “Were it not the devil himself who holds us in this tempest?”

“Aye, be true!”

“Then I name ye yonder ship, Brigand Devil, for all the lives she surely has drawn into the waves!”

“Name to fit a demon,” the helmsman recalled, “Though I’d feel a spar safer were she still in sight!”

“Block and keel, were it our own Redawn could she scarce fly faster! for surely we should’ve overtaken her by now,” the boatswain said, peering into the storm ahead.

“No ghost ship, nor her crew, could ever be taken over by the fastest pursuer!” the captain replied like thunder. “Nor should we try, not by our own lives!”

The sea rose up around them like a great, writhing mountainous flesh of serpent and fury, and they at its heart; then they rode the wall of green, lightning breaking the sky asunder and thunder moaning in the deep of the ocean like a thousand drums of a siege war. The ship drew close to the summit of the wave, though she never seemed to actually crest, and for a time they rode the surf, able to peer down.

“Get ye to the nest,” the captain commanded to the swain, “And tell me what land you should see. I’ve a bend we’re a nearing rocks!”

“Aye, Cap’n!” the swain replied, already stumbling down the stair and deck toward the mast.

As if it were an entity of its own, the sea began to drop down before them as they topped the wave, and before the green water opened up like a hungry mouth to devour. Down they rushed with the wind in their faces, and the swain in desperation to hold onto the bulwark. Up they came once more with a torrent of salt-brine rained in their faces and the wind whipping all about them as if to take them to pieces. There they stalled on the height of a breaker. The swain stumbled for the ratlines and climbed; the captain rocked with the ship beneath him; and the helmsman clutched at the tiller to hold it apace.

“Captain!” the helmsman cried in dismay, a scarred and gnarled finger pointed astern. There, the captain peered over his shoulder, and broad as day, as if it had always been there, was a ship, thundering along through the waves after them with perfect pace, though her sails were drawn and she seemed storm-driven. Not more than ten fathoms far, her pace changed not at all, and she kept with them easily, never leaving sight. Were it the same vessel they’d seen the captain couldn’t tell, and though he peered into the storm he could see neither crew nor any life at all on her deck. Her hull was dark and rough, as if a billion barnacles and crustaceous were what kept her afloat, and her very timbers were the driftwood that washes up on the shore.

“Is it thar ship?” cried the helmsman.

The captain said nothing. He turned instead and peered up at the swain, now high overhead, and the swain back at him, though no words could be said through the storm. Rough and crude gestures astern brought attention, and the swain too peered curiously.

“Captain!” the helmsman called again, “She has vanished!”

The captain turned suddenly, the wind and the rain in his eyes, and there she wasn’t, as plain as could be. Twice he rubbed his eyes to be sure, but all about them on every side the sea was walls of green and black.

“Where has she gone?” the captain asked.

“To the water, doubt be false,” the helmsman replied. “I laid eyes upon her, and she vanished before my very sight, as if she were never there!”

“An ill omen, if ever there were!”

“Aye, then she be a ghost?”

“Undoubtedly!” the captain replied, staggering under the force of a sudden wave. “Some long since ruined ship, claimed by the sea-demon himself!”

“And we to follow!” the helmsman called back; though hardly were the words off his lips then he cried in terror: “Land ho!”

They ran up the wall of green, plowing it with such a vigor; but the waves broke irregular, and their ship was tossed about like a toy in a tub. As if the whole sea had unleashed its devil’s fury upon them, they ran against the rocks, bow and port. The crack of timber was terrible. But already the helm was hard over, and the captain was crying, “All hands on deck, all hands on deck!” They came down with a crash from the breaker, grinding against the ragged land. The Redawn listed to starboard, away from the hungry enemy that now clawed its way from the murky depths to drag it to its doom. A new wave came afresh and hauled them back from the rocks. They turned and ran away, parallel with the shore, but only till the next wave struck them broadside and they were dashed back up against the land like a piece of flotsam, endlessly tossing in the waters of that horrid sea. The crew staggered onto deck, dreary and worn from the storm, for they’d had no sleep; but the captain and rigger ordered the canvas secured and the tack relashed, and they fought against both sea and wind to restrain their ship.

For a time she ran a jostled course as strait as she could along the length of the shore, southward by the captain’s compass, and with each sickening grinding halt the seamen cursed the waves and the storm and the demon that sought so desperate to claim their lives. No light toil they bore, so when at last the ship ran free, the helmsman drew her out from the rock and away from danger to climb blindly back into the raging deep. But they ran not further than a few fathoms, cutting deep into the waves, and once more they met a great pinnacle of bare rock, soaked in salt and covered in barnacles. The wind at their backs, the bow plunged upon the stone, and the hull was breached and shattered; and at once the ship slipped into the foaming waves while the crew and captain still fought to keep her afloat. Long and hard they bailed and pried to free her, though she would not budge; and hardly had she drawn any water then they came to rest on the bottom, the sterncastle and half the main deck all but consumed by the waves. From the hatch the crew poured out, seeking refuge on the forecastle. They huddled close, watching the great waves wash over their ship, the ratlines and rigging protruding from angry waters. And the captain with the most anguish for the Redawn grew bitter with each passing moment. He cursed the sea and swore that never would he be taken to its murky grave. All around them the darkness seemed to creep in, and they huddled closer, fearing death would come too soon.

For hours it seemed they waited in the dark, cold and in misery by the waves that took away any chance of pushing back the sea. The tempest burned about them, and on all sides, and never had any sailor or crew felt so alone while surrounded by their comrades. The thick darkness gave no chance for morning, and the dark night seemed to last forever. Still, in the wee hours the wind calmed and the rain fell no more; and though cold crept into every bone, and darkness would not break, the sense of reaching hands was ceased: the hurricane had ended. One or two of the company could also swear to see a tinge of grey in the east when at once they were all aroused by a gust in the dark as of water rushing suddenly back into the sea. The captain stood on the castle, peering out into the dark and listening to the lap of the sea against the shattered hull, and it came to him dull and low across the water, the sound of voices:

Hey-ho, drown-ed soul,
Blackened night to bear yer bones,
Across the water, far ye crept,
But Death has come to claim ye yet!

At once he started, for such years had passed since such a song had come to him. Back street alleys and seedy bars in every port town from Dublin to Nassau. Drunken sailors drowning their misery after wrecks and months lost at sea. Into him crept a fear and dread, though he stayed his shaking knees and held his curiosity. The song went on:

Beneath the sea the kraken come,
Upon the waves the tempest roars,
Into your heart a black song sung,
And your dreams smashed against the shore.

They could hear the voices of the demons who sung it now, each horrible in their own way.

“Do you hear that?” one of the crew asked in a shaky voice, “A song across the water?”

“Aye, a song,” the captain replied, “A song of woe it be.”

“And who sings it?” another asked.

“The truth be told into the night,” the captain replied: they would know soon enough.

A light appeared to starboard, a lantern hung upon a spar, and in its wake could be seen a pale face and the bulwark of the ship that both stood upon. The gentle waves now lapped against the sunken hull, and across the water came the dip of oars. A boat landed, though with its presence they were all uneased, and none rushed to greet it. The captain laid hand to hilt and lowered his hat to hide his face.

Up the deck marched the crew from the boat, up to the castle with a lantern at their head. People crawled from some deep hole of the sea they looked, for all their mass of kelp and barnacles, and their captain least of all for human manifestation: yet a surly man with drowned eyes and water gushing from his mouth when he spoke. The light was held at the end of the castle, and the captain and his crew drew swords and stood before the huddled seamen who now, soaked, bedraggled, and with the slime of the sea, sweat of their backs and the blood of their toil, looked both the worse for their fight and the weaker for their defeat. Now, like the very sea that had tried so hard to devour them, they at last surrendered to this foe.

It was the captain of the landers who spoke first, a voice of rasp and salt, torn by the depths. He stood before the beaten captain, sword in hand. “Where would ye sail, man?” he asked, like a whisper from the dark, his words hung on the breath of the wind.

The captain’s response was weak, and his voice submitted. “Round the Cape!” he gasped, “A captain, a deck, and a sea, I have mastered, and no storm should drag me to the bottom. I fear nothing!” he looked into the eyes of his challenger, but only for a moment, then shrank away, for they were dreadful.

The other didn’t reply. Instead he raised his voice to the whole company. “Where would ye sail, men!” he asked, his tongue like the spit of the sea; and one by one the crew gave response.

“Round the Cape!” they cried as one.

The captain of the landers nodded and shook his fist. “Then you sail under my orders now, for we’ve been rounding these treacherous waters for many a year! Can you sail under a dutchman?”

“I will not sail under a Dutchman!” cried the captain defiantly. “For this is my ship, and I’m no one’s man!”

But his adversary drew his sword and ran him through. Then, to the crew, he cried again, “Can you sail under a dutchman!”

Some followed their captain and were cut down and slain; but those who swore the oath and gave both hand and heart were left to look on as their comrade’s blood washed the deck.

“Twenty men with hearts of steel: aye, this is good! Who of you fears death?” the voice of the captain of the landers called again, but the answer was resolved. “Death may knock, the sea may call, and though the Locker should pass you by, you owe your lives to my ship,” he said. “Tonight we hoist the sails and fly into the tempest—”

“But the storm is still in fury!” cried the men of the sunken ship.

His sword was extended, and teeth ajar, and in what light had caught his face he was fiercer than even the sea or the demons of the deep. “Will I round this cape if it be the last thing I do and every man of you perish in the sea!” he cried.

From the nest the boatswain looked down at the sortie on the castle. From the nest he saw his shipmates slaughtered or sworn, the captain beside the helmsman, their blood watering the sea-gods. He shuddered, for he knew those were demons drawn up from the deep of the locker; and whether he escaped tonight or not, he was a deadman either way.

 

 

 

 

 


This work is written by AD Bane and published by adbane.com. It is solely the property of ADBane.com and may not be reproduced in part or in whole for any reason except at the exclusive permission of the author. © 2009 ADBane.com

 




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