The Serpent Junk
( Originally Published 1917 )
A HIGH-STERNED junk, not unlike the smaller caravels of Columbus, lay idly by the shores near Foochow enveloped in the mists of morning. Marshbirds discovered her by the light of dawn and flew away shrilly crying. She was a stout and ancient craft, tawny from sheer to garboard with the mud of great rivers, black with the smoke of the pot-fires of decades, weary with the buffetings of countless storms from Tientsin to Rangoon. Her sails were furled and her hemp cable dripped and slatted under the bows. Voices arose from her decks and figures appeared wavering in the thin smoke of morning fires. Captain and crew, shivering in the gray fog, crouched about yellow breakfast bowls upon the deck under an awning of mats. A macaw jeered and scolded from the rail.
Shoreward a voice was heard and the straining of oars in rowlocks, and as the captain stepped to the rail he was hailed from a boat alongside.
"Aye," he replied, "we are bound for the south country. We go to Hong Kong with many measures of rice." A tall North Chinaman with wisps of hair upon his chin stood up in the boat and spoke in a slow deep voice.
"Back toward the hills," he said, "where the sun has not yet come, but a few li from Foochow, we set a trap for the great tiger. This morning we heard noises, and coming to the cage found in it a hideous serpent that goes upon his belly and upon short legs. His eyes are dead, and upon his head are horns. At first we were afraid, but the cage is mighty for strength, and he cannot escape. If the captain who braves the terrors of the great water is not afraid of serpents we will pay him many candareens to take the cage to Canton where the princely heads of the Hongs will pay much money."
The sun rose clear and strong above the eastern sea, and the brave morning wind filled the lungs of the captain and gave him fresh courage. "We will see your serpent," he said, "and if the cage is strong and your money rings true, he goes south with me." The captain slipped out of his padded jacket and into a stout coat and went quietly over the side into the boat. Pulling ashore, they dragged the heavy boat upon the beach and made their way to the lonely valley where the cage was. They looked in, very frightened, upon the prisoner, and he seemed small and not so terrible in the sunlight, and they forgot their fears and laughed at him. They threw thick matting over the cage, and lashing bamboo poles to it, bore it down to the boat and pulled out to the junk. The end of a cargo whip was made fast and in a moment the cage was on deck. There they lashed it at the foot of the mainmast, and as the serpent lay quietly and watched them, one man grew terrified, and jumping into the water swam ashore and fled, and so the captain hastily hoisted the hunter's boat aboard and made sail, and stood across the bar.
Overhead arched the great square sail with its curiously laced parts depending from the crossed yardarm. Across the mizzen spread the antennae of a smaller sail, yellow and smoke-begrimed. A fresh wind from the northeast tumbled the turbid and opaque waters of the Yellow Sea, and rolled the mists from the shores of far-off Formosa. The yards were squared over with much shouting and running about, and the lumbering craft soon stood to the southward bounding heavily through the short seas. All day the wind grew in force, and to leeward appeared hard-edged and oily clouds that seemed stationary above an in-distinct horizon.
The wind veered into the east toward afternoon, and seemed to scud now north, now south, of the high shores of the island. The smoke of steamers on the horizon streamed away in hard diverging lines, and fast-flying clouds seemed to brood lower and lower as they approached the southern shores of the mainland. Off-shore birds flew low and rapidly, and the sullen dirty sea fretted and tossed in the great channel as though it would escape some coming foe. The master of the junk felt the growing portents, and toward night directed his course to the westward toward the dim shores about Amoy.
With the night came a few brilliant stars in the cloud-swept sky, the vast edifices of the south rising and expanding in ominous blackness. Short sail was put upon the junk and all made snug and fast before the hot breath of the storm should come out of the south.
The water lay for a hushed second oily and metallic under the first blinding flash, then broke in brazen chaos under the continued blaze of light and the trip-hammers of tremendous thunder.
The junk reeled in torment and her torn sails lashed themselves into shreds. By her after house huddled the crew, powerless in panic, and blinded by the lightning. Great waves swept clean her forward deck, and only the sturdy mizzen which kept her head to wind saved her from their trough. Through the groans of the stricken ship, and above the thundering of the storm emerged of a sudden a new and more terrible tremor, that seemed to transfix the already fearful crew and stop their very hearts. All the depths of their superstitious natures stirred in an agony of apprehension. Was that the voice of the storm-devil himself come to mock them? They were poor and simple sailors who observed all the rules for the avoidance of devils. Had they offended the storm demons?
A great wave lifted itself resistless and indolent above the bows of the junk. For a moment she bravely stood it off, and at the instant a brighter flash revealed the dread panorama of sea and sky and the terror-bound crew cowering by the rail of their lonely and menaced craft, which seemed the center of a disordered universe. Right over-head appeared a hard-bodied flying cloud whose surface seemed white in the lightning and in whose wake streamed a black tail as of some dead and fateful comet. Their staring eyes were set upon this evil cloud, when the hoarse and raucous sound, half scream, half roar, once more blared forth, and they saw in the fierce light the broken bars of the cage and the horrid body of the serpent, emerging from his prison. The eyes were as festering pools in some foul desert, lusterless and dead, and above the slimy neck the head seemed raised in the half light to the level of the menacing cloud that was sweeping by and that mingled its vapors with the noxious breath of the monster. During that moment of awful visions, when death from wave, monster and storm glared at them as in the light of day, the crew seemed to cling to life only by virtue of that tenacity which marks the sailor of every race. The gulf of darkness that succeeded swallowed up their fears with the great wave, the vision of the monster and the storm cloud, and as the little craft sturdily surmounted the crest of the following wave, so rose their confidence and fortitude, self-assertive and buoyant, and they took heart and prepared to defend themselves.
Succeeding flashes and the coming of dawn showed that the center of the storm had passed, and revealed an empty cage and no trace of the serpent. But they were still in the grasp of the supernatural, and moved warily toward the shattered cage, and from its broken bars along the deck which seemed still quaking with the violence of its punishment. The scoured planks gave no spoor or sign, but presently a sailor found an open hatch, and clapping the cover upon its coamings yelled shrilly that the terrible beast was below. A short spar was lashed over the hatch cover, and safe for the moment all hands set resolutely to overhauling rigging and canvas. For the moment habit and routine triumphed over even the terrors of hell and only the pangs of an awakening hunger brought back their thoughts to the monster in the hold. Well-nigh stupefied they were when with the building of the galley fire came the sudden realization that under that barred hatch where the escaped horror glowered in the darkness lay all their rice and fish and vegetables, their lychee and ginger and curry, and even their casks of water.
Formosa lay far off, and a brave off-shore wind from the coast of Fokien cut off the possibility of a speedy run to the mainland. Starvation and the miseries of thirst stared at them from the barred hatch, and the dragon seemed to guard the most precious hoard in the world. His death alone could open the way to that treasure which their life demanded, and with stern sailor minds they turned over and over the terrible chances.
"A thousand taels of silver to him who kills the little snake," said the Captain. "Now he is unable to hurt any one. His back is broken by the great wave, and he is afraid of a brave man."
Tai Wan, the burly Amoy mate who had so long had his desires hovering about a certain stout and gaudy junk, seemed to see her in his grasp at last, to see her yellow sails rise at his word, to be walking proudly her after-deck clad in a padded silk jacket with endless sleeves. To him rallied a young sailor from Shanghai, and together they prepared to face the terrors of the forehold. Tapers and little squares of prayer-paper were burned in silence, outer clothes discarded, and short sharp swords prepared. Like those pilgrims of the east who, approaching the holy city of their dreams, advance in pride of conquest and devotion and yet falter and retreat in superstitious fear at their temerity and the vastness of their undertaking, so these hardy men in the crisis of their lives advanced and faltered and advanced again, impelled by the love of life and the hope of reward, and terror-maimed by the fears of the unknown powers of this evil messenger of storm and death.
The barred hatch-cover was lifted on its edge, and stealthily the two approached the black and fateful square. Nothing was to be seen below in the darkness into which they peered. Then of a sudden their swords flashed as a fearful head upreared itself slowly above the coaming. With fear-drawn faces they drew back, then rushed upon it with uplifted blades. But their blows never fell. Out of the fetid nostrils of the beast issued a cloud of noxious breath that broke upon them with the suddenness of tropic night, encircled them in the roaring of a thousand tempests and drifted lazily on to leeward over their stricken forms. The tackles of the hatch were let go by the run and it closed over the retreating head. So quickly had the moment passed that but for the broken bodies on deck there seemed no hold for memory to reconstruct it. No man approached the dead comrades. No man was ready to take up the fallen sword of the dragon slayer; none dared approach within reach of that death-dealing breath. Like some desert dwellers whose one spring has been poisoned, they turned their faces away from their temporary home and counted the chances of escape across the gray waste to a new store of food and drink. No one in the cowering group but knew the meaning of the alternatives which now faced him. If they remained on board there was ever present death, but a plank removed, and who knew at what moment the monster that was glutting him-self upon their stores would burst the deck and involve them in nameless death. The only shore the junk could reach in a short time was the rocky and pirate-haunted island to the westward of the straits, and beyond lay the mighty and unknown sunrise sea.
So slowly and sadly they launched their one small boat, unprovisioned and ill-equipped, frail and unseaworthy, and dropped into her and turned her bow to windward toward the low shores of China to the westward. Great as their danger was and keenly as they felt the loss of ship and cargo, they yet experienced a sense of relief as they pushed off from the stricken junk and left behind the living terror which she embodied. Sea and winds and the fortunes of life they could meet and face as sailors, but who could brave the spirit of death itself ? From the craft that had so long meant home and life they shrank with dread and curses and left her lonely and unmanned, outwardly serene and buoyant yet pregnant with unearthly horrors dipping sullenly away in the gathering night.
No man knows the fate of the unhappy junk, whether she still carries her foul passenger and cruises restlessly up and down the stormy yellow seas, or whether her ribs are bleaching long since upon some lonely strand. Some say she cruises still and is waiting for a captain. So it comes that when the watch has hailed some half-seen junk along that foggy coast and got no answer, or fishermen or coasters find a hulk upon some deserted shore, the terrible story of the serpent-junk is told, and the wise sailor goes not near.