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Hammond Innes

The Wreck Of The Mary Deare

PART ONE

THE WRECK

CHAPTER ONE

I was tired and very cold; a little scared, too. The red and green navigation lights cast a weird glow over the sails. Beyond was nothing, a void of utter darkness in which the sea made little rushing noises. I eased my cramped legs, sucking on a piece of barley sugar. Above me the sails swung in a ghostly arc, slatting back and forth as Sea Witch rolled and plunged. There was scarcely wind enough to move the boat through the water, yet the swell kicked up by the March gales ran as strong as ever and my numbed brain was conscious all the time that this was only a lull. The weather forecast at six o’clock had been ominous. Winds of gale force were reported imminent in sea areas Rockall, Shannon, Sole and Finisterre. Beyond the binnacle light the shadowy outline of the boat stretched ahead of me, merging into the clammy blackness of the night. I had dreamed of this moment so often. But it was March and now, after fifteen hours at sea in the Channel, the excitement of owning our own boat was gone, eaten up by the cold. The glimmer of a breaking wave appeared out of the darkness and slapped against the counter, flinging spray in my face and sidling off into the blackness astern with a hiss of white water. God! It was cold! Cold and clammy — and not a star anywhere.

The door of the charthouse slammed back to give me a glimpse of the lit saloon and against it loomed Mike Duncan’s oilskin-padded bulk, holding a steaming mug in either hand. The door slammed to again, shutting out the lit world below, and the darkness and the sea crowded in again. ‘Soup?’ Mike’s cheerful, freckled face appeared abruptly out of the night, hanging disembodied in the light from the binnacle. He smiled at me from the folds of his balaclava as he handed me a mug. ‘Nice and fresh up here after the galley,’ he said. And then the smile was wiped from his face. ‘What the hell’s that?’ He was staring past my left shoulder, staring at something astern of us on the port quarter. ‘Can’t be the moon, can it?’

I swung round. A cold, green translucence showed at the edge of visibility, a sort of spectral light that made me catch my breath in sudden panic with all the old seamen’s tales of weird and frightful things seen at sea rushing through my mind.

The light grew steadily brighter, phosphorescent and unearthly — a ghastly brilliance like a bloated glow-worm. And then suddenly it condensed and hardened into a green pin-point, and I yelled at Mike: ‘The Aldis — quick!’ It was the starboard navigation light of a big steamer, and it was bearing straight down on us. Her deck lights were appearing now, misted and yellow; and gently, like the muffled beat of a tom-tom, the sound of her engines reached out to us in a low, pulsating throb.

The beam of the Aldis lamp stabbed the night, blinding us with the reflected glare from a thick blanket of mist that engulfed us. It was a sea mist that had crept up on me in the dark without my knowing it. The white of a bow wave showed dimly in the brilliance, and then the shadowy outline of the bows themselves took shape. In an instant I could see the whole for’ard half of the ship. It was like a ghost ship emerging out of the mist, and the blunt bows were already towering over us as I swung the wheel.

It seemed an age that I watched Sea Witch turn, waiting for the jib to fill on the other tack and bring her head round, and all the time I could hear the surge of that bow wave coming nearer. ‘She’s going to hit us! Christ! She’s going to hit us!’ I can still hear Mike’s cry, high and strident in the night. He was blinking the Aldis, directing the beam straight at her bridge. The whole superstructure was lit up, the light reflecting back in flashes from the glass windows. And the towering mass of the steamer kept on coming, thundering down on us at a good eight knots without a check, without any alteration of course.

The main and mizzen booms swung over with a crash. The jib was aback now. I left it like that for a moment, watching her head pay off. Every detail of Sea Witch, from the tip of her long bowsprit to the top of her mainmast, was lit by the green glow of the steamer’s starboard light now high above us. I let go the port jib sheet, hauling in on the starboard sheet, saw the sail fill, and then Mike screamed, ‘Look out! Hold on!’ There was a great roaring sound and a wall of white water hit us. It swept over the cockpit, lifting me out of my seat, tugging at my grip on the wheel. The sails swung in a crazy arc; they swung so far that the boom and part of the mainsail were buried for a moment in the back of a wave whilst tons of water spilled across our decks; and close alongside the steamer slid by like a cliff.

Slowly Sea Witch righted herself as the water poured off her in a white foam. I still had hold of the wheel and Mike was clutching the backstay runner, shouting obscenities at the top of his voice. His words came to me as a frail sound against the solid thumping of the ship’s engines. And then another sound emerged out of the night — the steady thrashing of a propeller partly clear of the water.

I shouted to Mike, but he had already realised the danger and had switched the Aldis on again. Its brilliant light showed us plates pitted deep with rust and a weed-grown Plimsoll mark high above the water. Then the plates curved up to the stern and we could see the propeller blades slashing at the waves, thumping the water into a swirling froth. Sea Witch trembled, sails slack. Then she slid off the back of a wave into that mill race and the blades were whirling close along our port side, churning white water over the cabin top, flinging it up into the mainsail.

It was like that for a moment and then they flailed off into the darkness beyond the bowsprit and we were left pitching in the broken water of the ship’s wake. The Aldis beam picked out her name — MARY DEARE — Southampton. We stared dazedly at her rust-streaked lettering while the stern became shadowy and then vanished abruptly. Only the beat of her engines remained then, throbbing gently and gradually dying away into the night. A faint smell of burning lingered on for a while in the damp air. ‘Bastards!’ Mike shouted, suddenly finding his voice. ‘Bastards!’ He kept on repeating the word.

The door of the charthouse slid back, and a figure emerged. It was Hal. ‘Are you boys all right?’ His voice — a little too calm, a little too cheerful — shook slightly.

‘Didn’t you see what happened?’ Mike cried.

‘Yes, I saw,’ he replied.

‘They must have seen us. I was shining the Aldis straight at the bridge. If they’d been keeping a lookout-’

‘I don’t think they were keeping a lookout. In fact, I don’t think there was anybody on the bridge.’ It was said so quietly that for a moment I didn’t realise the implication.

‘How do you mean — nobody on the bridge?’ I asked.

He came out on to the deck then. ‘It was just before the bow wave hit us. I knew something was wrong and I’d got as far as the charthouse. I found myself looking out through the window along the beam of the Aldis lamp. It was shining right on to the bridge. I don’t think there was anybody there. I couldn’t see anybody.’

‘But good God!’ I said. ‘Do you realise what you’re saying?’

‘Yes, of course, I do.’ His tone was peremptory, a little military. ‘It’s odd, isn’t it?’

He wasn’t the sort of man to make up a thing like that. H. A. Lowden — Hal to all his friends — was an ex-gunner, a colonel retired, who spent most of the summer months ocean racing. He had a lot of experience of the sea.

‘Do you mean to say you think there was nobody in control of that ship?’ Mike’s tone was incredulous.

‘I don’t know,’ Hal answered. ‘It seems incredible. But all I can say is that I had a clear view of the interior of the bridge for an instant and, as far as I could see, there was nobody there.’

We didn’t say anything for a moment. I think we were all too astonished. The idea of a big ship ploughing her way through the rock-infested seas so close to the French-coast without anybody at the helm … It was absurd.

Mike’s voice, suddenly practical, broke the silence. ‘What happened to those mugs of soup?’ The beam of the Aldis lamp clicked on, revealing the mugs lying in a foot of water at the bottom of the cockpit. ‘I’d better go and make another brew.’ And then to Hal who was standing, half-dressed, his body braced against the charthouse: ‘What about you, Colonel? You’d like some soup, wouldn’t you?’

Hal nodded. ‘I never refuse an offer of soup.’ He watched Mike until he had gone below and then he turned to me. ‘I don’t mind admitting it now that we’re alone,’ he said, ‘but that was a very unpleasant moment. How did we come to be right across her bows like that?’

I explained that the ship had been downwind from us and we hadn’t heard the beat of her engines. ‘The first we saw of her was the green of her starboard navigation light coming at us out of the mist.’

‘No fog signal?’

‘We didn’t hear it, anyway.’

‘Odd!’ He stood for a moment, his long body outlined against the port light, and then he came aft and seated himself beside me on the cockpit coaming. ‘Had a look at the barometer during your watch?’ he asked.

‘No,’ I said. ‘What’s it doing?’

‘Going down.’

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