Thursday, April 7, 2016

Story: "The Last Tall Ship"

Drowning is a terrible death. In my few short years as a port-town doctor I have seen many drowned souls, man, woman, and child. Every face bore a rictus of pain unlike any other I can recall. The few survivors say it is akin to your own body strangling you.

And yet, after three days adrift in a lifeboat, I began to find drowning somewhat appealing. Had I not been certain Aunt Mathilde drowned, I should have cursed her name with a great deal of rancour.

Indeed, my aunt bore full responsibility for my current predicament. You see, a Miss Eliza Hartford--Aunt Mathilde's husband's brother's child--had been orphaned. A terrible thing, and when Aunt Mathilde read the telegram, she insisted on traveling to America and retrieving the child. Well, I say child, but the girl was a scant few years younger than myself. Of course, two women could not travel alone, and so I found myself pressganged as chaperone.

A loathsome state of affairs. While I felt certain the young lady was charming, the thought of leaving my practice for a month or more seemed intolerable. Besides, Aunt Mathilde gossipped and goggled incessantly. And she cheated at whist. Two things I cannot stand.

All the same, I packed a valise and boarded a steamer, as a good nephew ought. I bloody well regretted my fidelity to duty after the first day onboard. You cannot know torment until your aunt coerces you to play whist with two minor agricultural officials and a banker's wife.

Dinners in particular were a beastly affair. Through a stroke of misfortune, I sat at the captain's table. A drunkard and a slob, the captain. Worse yet, he was a Calvinist.

The entire ship trended in the tippling direction. Passing to and from my cabin, I often startled crewmembers at their recreation. Or so I presume. I've never yet known a man who swabs the deck with a small black bottle. As for the passengers, though their bibbling took a more refined form, it was scarcely as furtive.

These two factors explain the events leading to my solitary sojourn in a lifeboat. First, the boiler burst. One can assume its attendants had soused themselves to the core. Second, no one boarded lifeboats. Whether they were asleep, besotted, or--in Aunt Mathilde's case--refused to believe the ship might sink, I clambered into a lifeboat alone.

Some fifteen minutes later, I watched that wretched packetboat sink. Aunt Mathilde, in a florid nightgown, attempted to claw aboard the one other deployed lifeboat. It capsized and all souls drowned.

Perhaps I am a coward for leaving my fellow passengers to their doom. But I have no doubts of the outcome had circumstances been reversed.

So I floated, adrift in a lifeboat, for three days and three nights. The supplies, though sufficient, lacked zest. I began to wish for a game of whist. Alone at last, halfway between Britain and the Colonies. No one to bother me. I wanted to hate for cheating at cards.

As the fourth day dawned, I resigned myself to death on the high seas. Not a glamorous death, either. Starvation does not sell penny dreadfuls.

It emerged from the sunrise, gold-glowing with a haze of hope. A schooner, a sailing ship, proud and rakish. She lacked sails, her rigging bare as a bar-wench's ankle, yet she bore on against the wind.

I shouted and cheered, rocking the frail lifeboat with my joy. Salvation!

Like a knife, the first fin cut through my jubilation. Sharks. They dined not when the steamer sank, yet they circled now. In hordes of teeming horror they followed the schooner, wolves hunting sheep. I drew my limbs back from the lifeboat sides.

At least, I comforted myself, the schooner saw me. She changed her course slowly, yawing 'round to draw beside me. Its great black hulk loomed over the lifeboat, and a rope ladder coiled down from onboard.

Relieved, I boarded, ready to thank my rescuers. Absence greeted me. Not a soul on deck. I noted now that the ship was not black. Rather, it bore a thick layer of dark green seaweed on every surface, as if it had sailed inverted through the Sargasso Sea.

My relief vanished. As physician to sailors, I knew their superstitious tales. Ghost ships and corposants and the Scot's locker. I'd been carried bodily into such a tale.

Yet, alone and adrift as I was, no alternate course presented itself. Trembling, I stepped below, into the crew bunks.

A few storm-lanterns flickered to light my way. The air dripped with damp. I felt choked, as though breathing air from a deep underwater cavern which no mammal knew since the world was young.

Sailors lay in their bunks and for a moment I deulded myself that I had boarded a sleeping ship. Then, touching one's shoulder, I beheld a corpse. Drowning is a terrible death. The dead man grimaced in that rictus grin drowned men bear.

Drowned in his bunk, and so were all the rest. In panic, I fled the galley and sought the captain's cabin. There, too, a drowned man waited, though he sat at his deck, logbook open and pen in hand.

Compelled by fear, I bent and read. A ledger, name after name.

Sean O'Farrell - Overboard in a squall
George Jones - Cannonball
David Foster - Scurvy
Nathan Jacobson - Fell from the topmast

On and on the names ran, page after page, until at last I found names familiar to me--the agricultural officials, the banker's wife, Aunt Mathilde. All marked with - Boiler burst.

At last, a name I knew I must see. My own name.

Henry Glass - Drowned

I bowed my head and wept.