But if it weren’t for him, I’d be dead now, and no mistake. And maybe the whole ship too, every man jack of the H.M.S. Octavia leaping off the rails like boys jumping into a pond.
We were five days out from the Maldives, having taken on supplies there, sailing west-northwest with the wind light on our starboard tack. For days we’d been nearly becalmed, just barely making way in the water with everything spread but the pennants, but that night we’d finally caught a breeze and were making two or three knots, which had pleased everyone, with the captain saying a cheerful word before going to his cabin.
Well, past seven bells, toward the end of the watch, that breeze failed too, and we were left just wallowing. The water so calm it looked like black oil. No sound, not a lone gull or albatross, just the lonely stars and the moonless night, the men on deck staying quiet, mindful of their mates down below, sleeping sound as whales in the deep.
I was on the quarterdeck, of course, looking out at the sea, listening the creak and moan of the rigging, thinking maybe we should shake down the topgallants again, when I heard a sound like rain. And squinting into the darkness, I thought maybe I could see a disturbance in the water like a squall approaching, but that was strange because the night was perfectly clear. I didn’t know what it was, so I called up to the boy in the lookout. “Not sure, Lieutenant Hoskins,” he called back. “But I see sort of a… glow in the water, sir.”
I was going to ask what the devil that meant, but the squall, if that’s what it was, got closer and closer to the ship, so I could hear the splashes and ripples in the water just yards away. And then it stopped, suddenly as it’d arisen.
I didn’t know what to make of it, but anyone who’s been on a long voyage has seen stranger, so I shrugged it off, while keeping my eyes sharp. And standing there, I slowly began to see what the lookout had meant. There was, all around, a growing phosphorescence in the sea. It started very faintly, just a hint of pale green light, like a glowing mucus, but as we watched it grew until looking over the rail I could see it illuminating the hull of the ship. The men were murmuring, growing amazed and a little alarmed. Looking into the water, too, I could see small forms within that luminescence darting back and forth, some kind of fish, maybe.
I won’t lie, gentlemen, it gave me the shivers. More eerie than a will-o’-the-wisp, and I’ve seen those, too, back home. But gradually I also became aware of a certain scent, a very pleasant scent, actually, like perfume. In fact it reminded me strongly of my dear Anna’s perfume, back in Kettering, half a world away.
Suddenly I felt, somehow, that she was there, waiting for me. Tantalizing me, ready, if you take my meaning, and you’re men of the world, I’m sure you do. It was like she was there just out of my reach, her skin just glowing, glowing like the light in the water, and the smell of her… It was intoxicating, in every sense of the word. I looked down at the glowing, swirling depths, and in that moment I was certain she was down there, awaiting my embrace.
I wasn’t alone. The first man to jump overboard was the second mate, I think, Harry Blyme, but I barely paid any attention. Other men were moving toward the rails, throwing off their shirts and jackets, and I could see they were – well, they were standing at attention, sirs. I don’t mean to be coarse, but that’s how it was, and they went over one by one calling the names of their wives and lovers.
Some part of me knew it was wrong, but that part was small and far away. I felt like I’d inhaled a strong dose of ether, or some ambrosial gas, and with the others I tore off my jacket and hurried to remove my shoes. The fact the first men to jump in were screaming, and writhing in the water, or that the glow was turning red, didn’t stop me. I saw the master, Blake, jump in hands-first, more shocking yet when you knew he couldn’t swim a stroke.
I had my foot on the rail when Jemmy Ducks tackled me and took me to the deck. I don’t know how he was awake at that hour, maybe his hens were clucking, but when he saw the men jumping and myself about to leap, he didn’t hesitate. He ran and brought me down, and say what you will about Irish farmboys, they don’t lack for strength. I fought him, too, and would have drawn my pistol on him, had he not struck me a fierce blow to the face.
He broke my nose, as you can see, and I thank him for that. For a second the pain quite blinded me, but when it diminished blood was streaming down my chin and I no longer wished to drown myself.
Below us the water was quite agitated, screams of dying men filling the air, and some creatures were launching themselves entirely out of the water in their frenzy. Still I couldn’t make out what they were until one slapped against a sail, smacked Ducks in the cheek and stuck there.
He tore it off with a scream, threw it to the deck and smashed it with his heel and when he had I saw it was a little squid with stubby little barbed tentacles and the devil’s own eyes staring from its misshapen and mutilated body. Between its tentacles it had a ring of little teeth like a lamprey’s, and it was with these that it had bitten into Ducks’s cheek, and I’m afraid the wound did nothing to improve his beauty. He cursed the damned thing in Irish, calling it something or other, and I joined him in English.
A more vicious and revolting predator, with a more insidious technique for its hunt, I cannot imagine. Like flying fish, they can propel themselves entirely out the water, and if they land on a ship, they can still crawl away with those stubby barbed limbs. When they find their prey, they invade its sense of smell with their glowing exudation, and if it affected us so even on our ship, imagine how much worse it must be in the water!
At the first screams the men belowdecks had awoken, and they poured from the hatches and ran to the rails, thinking to help, but of course they then too would succumb. Turning I saw the captain stumble from his cabin beneath the quarterdeck, and knew I must stop him before he too was caught. “Shut the hatches,” I yelled to Ducks, knowing if he failed we would soon be alone on the frigate. “Jam them shut, if you can!”
Then I raced down the steps and seized Captain Thayer. I could tell by the look in his eyes that he was already falling victim to the squid’s scented trap. He fought me, but being younger than him by twenty years, I prevailed, and shut him in his cabin.
You may say that by the letter of the law this was mutiny, and of course this is the reason for this court-martial. But I tell you that beneath the grip of these animals he was a man momentarily insane, and he would have died along with the other two hundred we lost that night. And we would have lost the other hundred too, were it not for Jemmy Ducks.