Friday, August 19, 2016
The Phantom Ship by Elliott O'Donnell 1911
The Phantom Ship by Elliott O'Donnell 1911
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From time to time, one still hears of a phantom ship being seen, in various parts of the world. Sometimes it is in the Straits of Magellan, vainly trying to weather the Horn; sometimes in the frozen latitudes of the north, steering its way in miraculous fashion past monster icebergs; sometimes in the Pacific, sometimes in the Atlantic, and only the other day I heard of its being seen off Cornwall. The night was dark and stormy, and lights being suddenly seen out at sea as of a vessel in distress, the lifeboat was launched. On approaching the lights, it was discovered that they proceeded from a vessel that mysteriously vanished as soon as the would-be rescuers were within hailing. Much puzzled, the lifeboat men were about to return, when they saw the lights suddenly reappear to leeward. On drawing near to them, they again disappeared, and were once more seen right out to sea. Utterly nonplussed, and feeling certain that the elusive bark must be the notorious phantom ship, the lifeboat men abandoned the pursuit, and returned home.
A fisherman of the same town—the town to which the lifeboat that had gone to the rescue of the phantom ship belonged—told me, when I was out with him one evening in his boat, that one of the oldest inhabitants of the place had on one occasion, when the phantom ship visited the bay, actually got his hands on her gunwales before she melted away, and he narrowly escaped pitching headlong into the sea. Though the weather was then still and warm, the yards of the ship, which were coated with ice, flapped violently to and fro, as if under the influence of some mighty wind. The appearance of the phenomenon was followed, as usual, by a catastrophe to one of the local boats.
I very often sound sailors as to whether they have ever come across this ominous vessel, and sometimes hear very enthralling accounts of it. An old sea captain whom I met on the pier at Southampton, in reply to my inquiry, said: "Yes! I have seen the phantom ship, or at any rate a phantom ship, once—but only once. It was one night in the fifties, and we were becalmed in the South Pacific about three hundred miles due west of Callao. It had been terrifically hot all day, and, only too thankful that it was now a little cooler, I was lolling over the bulwarks to get a few mouthfuls of fresh air before turning into my berth, when one of the crew touched me on the shoulder, and ejaculating, 'For God's sake——' abruptly left off. Following the direction of his glaring eyes, I saw to my amazement a large black brig bearing directly down on us. She was about a mile off, and, despite the intense calmness of the sea, was pitching and tossing as if in the roughest water. As she drew nearer I was able to make her out better, and from her build—she carried two masts and was square-rigged forward and schooner-rigged aft—as well as from her tawdry gilt figurehead, concluded she was a hermaphrodite brig of, very possibly, Dutch nationality. She had evidently seen a great deal of rough weather, for her foretopmast and part of her starboard bulwarks were gone, and what added to my astonishment and filled me with fears and doubts was, that in spite of the pace at which she was approaching us and the dead calmness of the air, she had no other sails than her foresail and mainsail, and flying-jib.
"By this time all of our crew were on deck, and the skipper and the second mate took up their positions one on either side of me, the man who had first called my attention to the strange ship, joining some other seamen near the forecastle. No one spoke, but, from the expression in their eyes and ghastly pallor of their cheeks, it was very easy to see that one and all were dominated by the same feelings of terror and suspicion. Nearer and nearer drew the brig, until she was at last so close that we could perceive her crew—all of whom, save the helmsman, were leaning over the bulwarks—grinning at us. Never shall I forget the horror of those grins. They were hideous, meaningless, hellish grins, the grins of corpses in the last stage of putrefaction. And that is just what they were—all of them—corpses, but corpses possessed by spirits of the most devilish sort, for as we stared, too petrified with fear to remove our gaze, they nodded their ulcerated heads and gesticulated vehemently. The brig then gave a sudden yaw, and with that motion there was wafted a stink—a stink too damnably foul and rotten to originate from anywhere, save from some cesspool in hell. Choking, retching, and all but fainting, I buried my face in the skipper's coat, and did not venture to raise it, till the far-away sounds of plunging and tossing assured me the cursed ship had passed. I then looked up, and was just in time to catch a final glimpse of the brig, a few hundred yards to leeward, (she had passed close under our stern) before her lofty stern rose out of the water, and, bows foremost, she plunged into the stilly depths and we saw her no more. There was no need for the skipper to tell us that she was the phantom ship, nor did she belie her sinister reputation, for within a week of seeing her, yellow fever broke out on board, and when we arrived at port, there were only three of us left."