( Originally Published 1917 )
AN autumn gale gathering its forces in the sombre depths of the Western Ocean winged its way toward the shores of Brittany. Before it in warning, myriad-footed, swept a torrential rain. Night was falling in Morlaix that sits with her ancient feet in the sea, and in the twilight the heavy drops that beat upon her roofs and poured in torrents down her cobbled streets shone with the dull brilliancy of metal. Upon a side street near the fish market a small house with high peaked roof, and gabled windows heavily thatched, challenged the torrents with an ancient sea lantern which swung sturdily and unwinking ,in the tumult as though to a lantern of its experience such a storm was a mere zephyr.
Three figures in oil skins, their aged backs bent against the wind, their sticks clattering noisily upon the cobbles, halted beneath the lantern and entered through the low door.
The firelight within and the rays of a swinging lamp flickered upon the smoked rafters of the little room and upon the deep-lined faces of a dozen quiet old men and a round-faced young fisherman. The smoke of their pipes swayed and drifted above their heads. At their backs little windows that peered from under their thatched brows upon the leaden channel shuddered and shook with the might of the wind and the impact of the rain, and the roar of the sea upon the near sable thundered incessantly through the street.
As the door closed behind the three men one of the aged sailors arose and greeted them warmly. It was Pierre Latou, the master of the house, fisherman and pensioner, village oracle and local historian, and when they had hung their dripping oil skins upon the hooks behind the door and drawn off their heavy sea boots, they joined the circle by the fire. The room with its occupants, its raftered roof and swinging lamp, seemed like the cabin of some sea wanderer, lashed by the fury of a gale, and these old men with the life-long endurance of seamen in their eyes were as the watch below, relaxed for the hour but ready to spring to the call of brothers on deck. In the twilight of the dim floor before them sprawled a fishing net and each had drawn an edge into his lap and was busily seizing it to the tarred buoy-line, his face grave and intent upon the task.
In lulls of the gale they spoke of this one and that who was out upon the sea, fondly and confidently, with the brusque masculinity of sailors, fearless of the elements and confident in the staunchness of the vessel and the hardihood of her crew. The spirits of evil might toss their winds and waves about, but the saints would not forget devout sailors who had always done their duty toward the church. St. Anne d'Auray herself had risen out of a fog to help Pierre and at her shrine in the village church hung the silver boat he vowed to her for deliverance.
As the evening wore on the noise of the storm abated somewhat and the fire burned lower. Pipe smoke gathered so thickly in the air that the figures of the old sailors seemed like shadowy spirits wreathed in the ghostly clouds from their pipes. Even as their corporeal bodies faded into eerie smoke, and the tangible violence of the storm hushed away into mystic voices of sea and wind, so the stories of these old men of the sea shifted insensibly from the solid ground of physical experience to the tenuous world of apparitions and of legend.
One told of the Grande Chasse Foudre with her thou-sand ports, a ship as vast as the world ; another in an awed voice figured the corposant, the awful fires of St. Elmo; and so each calling to the memory of the others, they heard recounted the history of the spirit land of the sea from the very lips of her priests.
Passing about the circle the lot of speaker came at last to Pierre, the aged host, and the grizzled mate at his right called for the legend of Dahul, speaking quietly and urging Pierre to recount this greatest of his stories. He recalled that Dahul had appeared off Finisterre a year before to the coasting schooner Marguerite and the schooner with Pierre's only brother never again had been sighted. Since that time Pierre had never mentioned the name of Dahul. It was no wonder, said the old mate. Who knew but the dreadful brig was then hanging in the offing reckless of the gale? Were not even the pirates Surcouf and Tribaldor-le-Grand afraid of the mere name of Dahul? The old mate urged Pierre to tell of the spectre ship, and presently he laid aside his pipe and began the tale.
As they tell and say, there was once a brig that sailed from Barcelona to Palermo. The day was fine, and her master anxious to hasten upon his way spread all sail to the breeze, rejoicing in the prospect of a clear night and a long run. Toward sunset the wind died away and darkness closed down ominously, the stars blotted out by flying clouds from the north. The courses were hastily furled, and all hands jumped aloft to shorten sail and soon had the topsails straining in the buntlines. Without a moment's warning, while the men were still upon the yards, the storm broke fiercely upon them from abeam, bursting the bunted topsails from the boltropes with thunderous crashes, their torn cloths sweeping half the topmen from the foot-ropes away to leeward into the sea. Those remaining had scarcely made their way to the deck when the spanker blew away to leeward and left the brig with only a fore staysail. Hatches were hastily battened down and storm canvas held in readiness, but the rising seas swept bodily over the doomed brig, and whirling in green masses along her decks swept the remnant of her crew into the sea.
Alone and crippled, but still resolute and buoyant, drifting to leeward through the long night the solitary hull rolled away into the darkness. Day after day and through many a night the lonely brig drifted on her solitary way at the mercy of wind and wave. By day the fin of the shark gleamed alongside, by night wan phosphorescent lights flitted along her decks, and aloft from spar to spar, and in her stifled cabins the death-dew gathered white and damp. Slowly the currents set her to the westward till she approached the Algerian coast. A sail crept out of the morning haze to meet her, one of that fierce band of cut-throats who haunt the darker lanes of ocean and lurk in the deep shadows beyond the harbor lights.
She was an Arab felucca, whose graceful sweeping lines glistened in the sun beneath the splendid sweep of birdlike lateen. Slipping to the windward like a gull, her pirate captain hove alongside the desolate brig and hailed her. No sound came back save the creak of yards in their slings and the hollow voice of idle blocks. At once a score of his crew leaped aboard her, burst open her hatches and fought each other for the plunder in the poor sea chests of the lost crew. But though the plunder in the mouldering cabin was worth but little, the plunderers were delighted to find the ship sound and seaworthy, and they at once decided to stay aboard her, leaving a few of their comrades to sail the felucca. The strongest and handsomest ruffian of them all was their captain, a man guilty of all crimes, and his name was Dahul. Even his own men dreaded him, and believed that his reckless prowess and contempt of danger were due to an alliance with the devil. Under his orders new canvas was bent onto the bare yards, fresh rigging rove and a hot fire blazed in the unused galley.
So began the piratical cruise of the once peaceful and respectable merchant brig. Slave ships, Spanish galleons from the Indies and the southern seas, humble coasters and even small ships of war were captured, looted and burned by this scourge of the sea. So great was the terror of the name of Dahul that many a ship that went down in tempest or breakers was charged to the evil account of his crew. Armed merchantmen gave him battle and ships of war cruised in his wake, but in spite of many narrow escapes he grew bolder and more reckless and appalled even his own men by the utter abandon of his nature. They even began to fear him, and it was whispered that often the fiend stood watch with him at night. Some even heard him talking at night with a man not of the crew, so they were sure that it was indeed the devil, and knew that it was his power that had protected them from the king's ship.
Dahul and his ally spent much time together and seemed to enjoy each other's company greatly, but one night as they were conversing at the wheel they fell to quarreling and Dahul, unable to control himself, seized a heavy oak capsten-bar and attacked the fiend, who let go the wheel and with a curse and a terrible scowl disappeared into the darkness. Of a certainty the devil was very angry at Dahul, because it is a sea crime to strike any man at the wheel, but after he had thought the matter over a while he felt very sorry that he had quarreled with Dahul, whom he rightly considered one of his best friends and allies. He therefore decided to make up with him as soon as possible, and presently managed to mislead a homeward-bounder from the Indies directly into the grasp of the brig.
The big ship was sighted one fine morning in that sparkling sea that lies between Gibraltar and the Azores. Her billowy canvas and spotless deck shone in the summer sun, and her polished brass glistened peacefully in the shadow of her awnings. Her captain marked the approach of the brig through his glasses and drew no ill augury from the approach of a merchant brig under a peaceful flag. Not until two armed boats dashed from under her lee and a solid shot crashed into his hull did he prepare for defense. Before the crew of the big ship could get to quarters, Dahul at the head of his men boarded from her lee fore-chains. With cutlass and pistol the pirates cut down the surprised crew before they could arm themselves. Not a man asked for quarter and not one was spared except her officers, whom Dahul caused to be bound hand and foot and hung from their own yardarms. The dead and dying sailors were cast into the sea from the blood-stained decks they had so lately trod, and the pirates rushed below to the booty which they knew the big ship must contain.
Breaking in the cabin door, they came upon a scene which would have softened any but these hardened ruffians, whose lives had been full of plunder and violence. There in an agony of fear they found a Spanish family, with a black-robed priest, calm and resolute, quieting their fears and praying in a firm voice that they might be delivered from their peril. The summer sun shone from the open port on the face of a mother whose tears fell upon the child she strained to her breast; on the startled black eyes of a beautiful girl of eighteen or twenty years who clutched despairingly at her father, a tall Spanish merchant facing the pirates unarmed but like a lion at bay. With brutal exultation Dahul ordered them all dragged upon deck, while his men broke open chests and lockers and rioted in the profusion and variety of plunder from over seas they found aboard. Golden ornaments and precious silver miniatures from Cathay rolled about the decks, and the rich silks of Amoy fell disregarded from the ransacked chests. By the rail stood Dahul, pointing to this silver trinket and that ivory charm as his own portion and demanding that it be laid at his feet.
The priest, gazing with terror upon this scene of riot and brutality, and fearing that the next mood might involve his charges and himself in some bloody carnival of riot and excess, taking new courage from his faith and from his extremity, approached Dahul with such fortitude and calmness as he could muster. With firm words he besought the pirate captain to be satisfied with the golden trinkets and the rich fabrics which had fallen to his lot, and to avoid the wrath of the church and the judgment of God by sparing the lives of the unhappy passengers who had fallen into his hands.
In answer to the prayers of the priest, Dahul slapped him on the back, and with words of praise for his fine physique promised him safety if he would join the pirate crew, now lessened by the losses of the battle. The priest's indignant refusal aroused the wrath of Dahul, and he struck him with his fist, and with loud oaths ordered him crucified in the image of his Master. With a winning smile and a finger pointed at the tortured priest, he turned to the horrified Spaniard and with promises of life and loot offered him a place among the ruffians of his crew. The curl of proud disdain upon the father's blood-stained lips seemed to arouse Dahul to new frenzy, and with a torrent of oaths he rushed upon the dazed mother, snatched the child from her grasp, drew his reeking cutlass across its throat and tossing it to one of his men, shouted to him to have the cook roast the Spanish lamb at once and have a table set for his friends.
Under his orders the abominable deed was done, and on the table spread upon the after deck was laid the little body of the murdered child. Then, with his face wreathed in triumph, the murderer with affected politeness summoned the stricken family to join him at his dreadful table. The mother roused from her swoon and stretching her arms in agony toward the dying priest, besought his benediction and his prayers. With a sneer Dahul drew up to the table, and called to the priest whose lips were moving in prayer: "Yes, that is right, say grace."
The great yards moaned aloft with the pitch and roll of the vessel, and her blood-stained planks seemed to take up and swell the cry of agony of the priest who poured forth all his soul in his last appeal to his God. Dahul blanched and sprang to his feet in alarm as the priest ended and out of a darkened sky a mighty voice, heard above wind and wave, thundered in his ears from he knew not whence, "You shall wander, Dahul, at the will of the winds, at the mercy of the waves. Your crew shall exhaust itself in useless and unending toil. You shall wander upon every sea until the end of the centuries. You shall receive aboard you all the drowned of the world. You shall not die, nor shall you ever approach the shore, nor the ships which you will always see fleeing before you. You shall be the Wandering Jew of the seas !"
The voice was silent.- The ship shot away before the rising wind. Mother, daughter and father, and the priest, now freed from his crucifixion, were transported to the deck of a neighboring bark as by a miracle, and Dahul and his accursed ship, flying before the wrath of wind and wave, disappeared below the horizon.
Since that dread day the ship has borne her cursed crew. She wanders on forever, the harbinger of tempest, of fire, and of death. Food never comes to her galley, nor sleep to her bunks. She is without fresh water and without hope. She may be seen on every sea, her black hull like a great coffin, draped in the white shroud of her ghostly sails. Often at night while far off thunder rumbles in the air, and the soft lap of a rising swell tells of the coming storm, the fateful brig goes by some luckless ship like the shadow of impending death. Though the wind be light her close-reefed sails are full to bursting, and she seems to be racing toward the coming storm, yet no sound comes from aloft or below. At times sulphurous fires envelop her, and out of her cavernous hull come fearful cries. Fierce battles rage upon her decks, and above the uproar is heard the frightful laugh of the archfiend, the companion of Dahul, who stands at the wheel. Bodies writhe in the flames which rise to the very trucks, and the tall masts seem ready to break with the weight of the tortured souls.
Then the wise sailor who has seen these things commits his soul to heaven and his patron saint, makes the sign of the cross and shortens sail, for he has seen the wrath of God.