Aye, the living ship, y’r honor. Yes I were bo’sun of the Mary Ellen for threescore years, knew Nimrod Smiley well as you please. This tale—he tell it to me, and I’ll set it out for you exactly as it was.
This was when you had all manner of clippers coming in and out of the bay, so a boat drifting into dock were no big news. At the time, old Pete Locke was the day-guard, mostly good for holding down a stool and not much else. When he first talked about the ship, nobody took it serious. He was fond of his own bits of nautical romance; ships that sailed about the ocean’s surface—from the other side. Had a whole logic behind it; what they were made of, how they had reverse-ballasts that kept them from breaching. A pretty piece of reasoning if you forgot he was madder than a barking bull. So when he told of the ship with no hand aboard, they took it as they did the rest of his tales. But Wrigley, the tax-man, went off with him and came back starch stiff.
Nimrod and the other boys came running. You take your fun where you can. They were there when the second mate of the Dooley took a pry-bar to her starboard hull and it chipped. No splinter. It chipped like bone.
A few of the boys decided to board her, but there was no plank nor place to put one. The ship had nosed right up to the dockside, snug as you please, but no mooring tie nor anchor was in sight. No one could see what kept it in place. Finally they lowered a board and string across, one at a time.
I haven’t described her proper yet, have I? The hull was bleached white, and seemed to come all in one piece. The deck were no different, nor the mast, which had the odd appearance of veins along its length. What they took for canvas was really some kind of leather, which you could see through if you stretched it tight enough.
Smiley went aboard, but he wasn’t one of the foolhardy souls that went inside, so this he told me secondhand:
Five men formed a dispatch and decided to brave her lower decks. The doorway was almost too small to admit them, a taller sailor had to squeeze in on hands and knees. Inside was black as pitch. There were no windows on her outside, so it came to no shock. They walked through the ship and never once met anyone except—
well, not really.
They said the tack, the bunks, every bit of gear in the place grew from the walls or the floor. The bunks had no sheets but some kind of velvet that was warm and tacky to the touch. There were no supplies, no food, no papers, not even barrels. And the place smelled like a tannery. They moved through a barracks and an empty brig, they said, and went further down.
I suppose they were expecting a galley. Instead they told of an enormous bellows, ran nearly her whole length. This was well before steamers, so lord only knows what they were doing there. Price–he was the long chap who had trouble getting through–took a knife to the bellows, just to test them. They say the skin retracted and a groan like an iceberg calving ran through the ship. Well, that was enough, even for these men of courage.
Now remember, Smiley was up on deck. He watched the sailors squeeze out fast as anyone could through that little door, one, two, three, four,—then came Price. He got his head out and then screamed that something had hold of his leg. Dooley’s mate said it was only his breeches caught up on a nail and ordered six stout men to take up his arms and pull. It weren’t long before Price screamed at them to stop, the hall was squeezing down on his ribs with an infernal pressure. The men thought it just a bit of ship-terrors, then Price’s grip slackened and blood come leaking from his mouth. They all watched as his face went taut from agony and then slowly slackened. The six dropped his arms. The ship moved, Smiley said he could feel it beneath his feet, and Price slowly slid down, back into the tunnel.
Well, they were off that ship faster than a heartbeat. Smiley said none of them rightly knew what to do, so they decided to leave the ship for the night and sleep on it. Price had no family, so there were no amends to be made, but a few of the boys had a drink in his memory. They were none too pleased when Locke roused them a few hours later, saying the boat wasn’t at the dock. When they went out there, they saw the ship halfway across the bay and sitting low in the water. That tore it.
Someone fetched some longboats and they scuttled the thing right then and there. Took forever to sink out of sight, and when it did, it must have gone right to pieces. Damndest thing, Smiley said, but chunks of it would wash ashore. They took the prow to the Holy Rolley tavern where you could sit on it and have a pint—or were, that is, if it hadn’t been stolen twenty year ago. All the flotsam washed out to sea, now the only thing left of it is this tale.