Tag Archives: shipwreck

Philomena Bucket

 

Philomena Bucket had found it easy to stow away aboard the merchant vessel Hetty Pegler’, as she lay anchored in the Coal Quay of Cork. It had been almost as easy as Philomena’s decision to leave Ireland for good and seek fame and fortune as an artist in the United States of America.  That, unfortunately, was where ‘easy’ came to an abrupt halt. It took just three days for her to be discovered. Racked by hunger and confident, though misguided, in her belief that the ship would be deserted in the early hours, Philomena crept on all-fours from her hiding place in the hold, only to come face to face, or rather, face to knees, with the first mate, who was attending to his duties as middle-watchman.  It took very little time for Philomena to learn that here was a man who had little room for freeloaders on the ship and would happily have thrown her overboard. Fortunately, however, his respect for the chain of command overcame his natural instincts.

Captain Longdown was cut from a different cloth to his second-in-command. He had been at sea for forty years, had a weak heart and really did not want any more difficulty than was avoidable. To the first mate’s barely concealed disgust, he treated the waif-like creature, unceremoniously hauled before him, with great leniency. It was tricky enough keeping his crew in order at the best of times, without having this young woman aboard. Despite her bone-white pallor and long, snowy tresses, he could see that standing before him was a beauty, albeit an odd one, who could cause more than her fair share of trouble if left to wander about his ship.

“You can get off at the first landfall,” he said, not unkindly. “In the meantime, please keep out of the way.” He waved his hand dismissively, “Just go back into the hold, or wherever it was that you were hiding. I’ll get food brought down to you.”

Not wishing to advertise the presence of the strangely attractive stowaway, the captain entrusted the task of conveying her meals to the less-than-amused first mate, who fumed quietly. It was bad enough for a stowaway to be aboard, but for him, second only to the captain in rank, having to wait upon her was untenable.

From Philomena’s point of view, things were not too bad. She was enjoying a better quality of food and shelter than she had ever known. Staying out of sight was a small price to pay. The only fly in the ointment was a sudden attack of hay fever, which, in this enclosed space and hundreds of miles from the nearest land, puzzled her. The truth was that ‘Hetty Pegler ‘ had previously conveyed a cargo of raw cotton from Virginia, the spores of which still stubbornly fluttered around the rotund casks of Irish whiskey now gracing the hold. The result was that her previously pink, albino eyes were now quite red and her sense of smell seemed to have abandoned her altogether.

It was fully three weeks into the voyage that things started to go awry. A violent storm blew up from nowhere, mercilessly lashing the merchant ship and sweeping a young seaman overboard. For two hectic days the storm refused to abate. A ripped section of the foresail came free from the gaskets. It took four men to climb the rigging to secure the sail but only three returned. The other fell to his death, sprawled like a stringless puppet upon the deck. When, at last, the depleted crew breathed a weary sigh of relief as the tempest eventually blew itself out, an extra rum ration was distributed. Their troubles, however, were far from over. They had been blown far off course and it was not many days later, picking their way gingerly through the many islands peppering the coast of Maine, that the Captain Longdown, succumbing to his heart condition, watched the sun sink over the yardarm for the last time and quietly died. Command of ‘Hetty Pegler’ passed to the first mate, a man, we have already learned, not known for his tender heart.

 

The captain’s body was still cooling when the recently promoted first mate dragged Philomena up on to the deck. Stunned and blinking in the sunlight, she winced as he grasped her roughly by the wrist.

“Here is the cause of all of our troubles. This albino witch has cursed this voyage and all the time your oh-so-tender-hearted captain just stood by and let her do it.”

The superstitious crew muttered angrily as they saw, for the first time, the pale, fragile beauty being paraded, humiliatingly, before them.

“Even now she casts some sort of spell. Look at the fog curling up around us. This is not natural.”

The sailors looked and had to agree that the thick mist that had suddenly engulfed them was quite unlike anything they had ever experienced. Its murky tendrils, sinuous and smoky, curled over the ship’s sides, slithering up the masts and coldly caressing their legs. One could, indeed, be forgiven for believing it to be an enchantment, for the crew, to a man, stared in absolute silence, totally mesmerized by the ghostly fog. They quite forgot that their ship, now almost becalmed, was quietly inching forward through dark and hazardous waters. Only when the agonised scream of tortured timbers being reduced to matchwood shattered their reverie, did they realise that they had hit a submerged reef. The ‘Hetty Pegler’ was sinking.

“Abandon ship. Get to the lifeboats” yelled the mate, quite unnecessarily as it happened; the self-same thought had occurred to everyone else.

Philomena suddenly found herself alone, standing on the deck of a doomed ship. She could just make out the blurred forms of the retreating lifeboats. Despite the fact that everyone else had apparently escaped unscathed, there seemed to be an inexplicable amount of noise and commotion coming from their general direction. Terrified screams and huge splashes, as if a large object was being smashed to a thousand pieces by an even larger object, filled her ears. She strained her eyes, still sore from the hay fever, to see through the creeping fog and ascertain what, exactly, might be causing such a disturbance. Mercifully, they failed her and she was spared the spectacle of a gaping beak and long, thick tentacles writhing from the churning ocean, savagely ripping apart the fleeing lifeboats and their gibbering occupants.

It was less than a minute later that the wreck of the ‘Hetty Pegler’ came to an abrupt halt, with her wooden walls still intact, by and large, and bobbing about just above the waterline. Philomena’s feet were barely damp. She gazed about her with a mixture of relief and puzzlement. The ship appeared to have run aground on an island. Had the crew known how close they were to safety and not acted so hastily, they could have reached the shore with ease. Why, there were even lit candles, tiny beacons that would have guided them in. It was almost as though they were expected. She could not help but notice other lights, too. They seemed to be moving, as if with a purpose, yet high in the sky, barely discernible through the murky air. Wading thigh-deep through the chilly waters, Philomena wondered to herself how such a thing might be done but immediately dismissed the question from her mind, as the more pressing problem of getting dry and finding shelter occupied her. Stepping on to terra firma, she sneezed violently three times. Despite this, the cotton pollen that had insinuated itself deep into her nasal passages was determined not to move.

Within the hour, night had fallen and a weak, sickly moon peered through the misty sky. Philomena had made slow progress. She found herself walking a dark and rocky path that she fervently hoped led somewhere. Anywhere that had four walls – three walls, even – and a roof of some sort, would suffice. She was frozen. Her wet dress clung heavily to her pale legs and seemed to be getting heavier by the second. It was almost as if something was trying to drag her to the ground. She looked down and stifled a small squeal. Something was!

Welcome to Hopeless, Maine, Philomena Bucket.

To be continued…

 

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

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An Ill Wind

In the month of March, 1888, one of the most severe blizzards in the recorded history of the United States raged along the east coast of the country, causing devastation from Chesapeake Bay to Maine. The storm claimed the lives of more than four hundred people. At least twenty-five percent of these casualties were seamen, lost to the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean. This is not surprising, taking into consideration that an estimated two hundred ships were either wrecked or grounded over a period of two days.

Where there are shipwrecks, there are, invariably, spoils to be had. Regular readers of ‘The  Vendetta’ will doubtless guess that some of these spoils found their way to the grateful shores of that somewhat strange and foggy island, Hopeless, Maine.

 

Harriet Butterow and Petunia Middlestreet stood knee-deep in icy-cold water. They were anxious to drag a large wooden crate ashore. Neither woman had any clue as to what the crate may have contained but it did not really matter. What could not be eaten, or modified for personal use, could be bartered. On this impoverished island nothing was ever wasted. Try as they might, however, the crate was reluctant to move.

The two young women had a lot in common; Harriet was a single mother and Petunia a widow. Besides having had a friendship which started in childhood, they also shared the bond of motherhood. Both had young daughters who, for today, were in the care of Petunia’s elderly father-in-law, the kindly Bartholomew Middlestreet, landlord of The Squid and Teapot. Harriet and Petunia were secure in the knowledge that their daughters, Amelia Butterow and Lilac Middlestreet, were in safe but albeit, somewhat arthritic, hands.

Like many islanders, it was news of the several shipwrecks littering the coastline that had the pair braving the bitingly cold March morning and looking to salvage as much of the precious wreckage as possible. After the long winter, supplies of everything were low on Hopeless and while the loss of so many lives was deeply regrettable, the islanders could only marvel at their good fortune when they saw the extent of the bounty that the storm had provided. All that was needed now was to bring it safely ashore – a task easier said than done.

It sometimes feels that Tragedy is a trickster always waiting in the wings and never missing an opportunity to show its face; sadly, that face is one that the people of Hopeless are more than familiar with. Even so, none are really ever prepared for it to appear.

The sea had seemed unexpectedly calm that morning, especially after the raging nor’ easterlies that had angered it over the previous few days. Anyone who has lived or worked on the water will tell you that a change of wind direction can achieve that in just a few hours. And that same person would also caution you to be wary; wary of both a capricious sea and all that it contained.

 

Amos Gannicox smiled to himself as he waved to Harriet. He had been on the island for almost four years now and had every intention of winning her heart completely before another year had passed. He was a patient man and felt sure that his patience would pay off before too long. He was well aware that Harriet still harboured hopes that Amelia’s father – who she genuinely believed to be a Selkie – would return to her, but almost seven years had passed since he had left and this seemed most unlikely.

Lost in his own thoughts Amos was brought back to reality by a sudden scream. No – two screams.

An icy hand gripped his heart. A few seconds ago two young women had stood in the water, laughing and care-free. Now they were gone. Look as he might, there was no sign of either. All that remained was the crate which they had been trying to shift. Amos scanned the shoreline frantically. This could not be – he had only taken his gaze off the object of his affections for a few seconds. Panic stricken he ran towards the spot where they had been standing. Others were running too, frantically shouting the women’s names but it was soon obvious that searching would be futile. They had disappeared completely. The ocean, or something dwelling within it, had claimed them.

 

Bartholomew Middlestreet was devastated. Although the shadow of death always stalked the island, he never imagined that his daughter-in-law would be taken before he was and now it fell upon his old shoulders to tell two little girls that they had become orphans. Lilac, at three years old seemed too young to understand but Amelia Butterow, aged six, took it badly. So badly, in fact, that she was literally dumbstruck. The truth is that the girl never uttered another word for the remainder of her days. It is a strange coincidence for, as regular readers will recall, her father,who was of the seal-people, a Selkie, was never heard to speak either.

 

Bartholomew was resolved to look after the girls himself; he had no intention of either of them going to the orphanage. The running of The Squid and Teapot would have to be left to Tobias Thrupp. Tobias, shipwrecked at the same time as Amos Gannicox, had been living there for four years and had done little enough, so far, to pay for his keep.

 

Ten years slipped by; ten years that saw The Squid and Teapot decline in every way. Bartholmew Middlestreet devoted himself wholly to the well-being and education of the girls, oblivious to everything else, including the fact that Thrupp was dragging his beloved inn into certain ruin. Then, one day in the final year of the century, a strange thing happened. Bartholomew, Lilac and Amelia disappeared without a trace. And no one noticed!

 

Whether Bartholomew died of natural causes, or by Thrupp’s hand, is unclear, but die he certainly did. One can only surmise as to the cause. What is known, however, is that a corpse left outside for a night on the headland is unlikely to still be there by daybreak. The age-old problem of disposing of the body is no problem at all on Hopeless.

As the old man had been absent from the inn for so long, ownership of The Squid passed seamlessly to Thrupp. The girls, too, had not been seen for years and were all but forgotten. Such disappearances, while unfortunate, are not uncommon on this island.

 

In unearthing and relating these tales for you it sometimes feels as though I am putting together a vast and complex jigsaw puzzle, filling intriguing gaps in the picture as each new piece comes to hand. Like any jigsaw, this one has areas filled with light and clarity; it also contains great sweeps of darkness. The rest of this tale is, I fear, one such piece, darker and more dreadful than any other I know, or, indeed, ever wish to know.

 

To be continued…

Art by Tom Brown

Shipwreck!

Shipwreck on the North Coast
Shipwreck on the North Coast

 

Last Friday, the evening tides carried in more debris than usual, including several dead bodies (unidentified and now buried). It appears that a small ship of unknown origin hit the rocks on our north coast. Various intrepid folk have been out to the wreck, bringing back all kinds of interesting goods. I remind all readers that scavenging rules are simple – finders keepers. Anything washed up on the beaches belongs to the person who manages to make off with it. Rumours of coffee and chocolate led to scenes of brawling over the weekend, but no lasting damage done. Mithra Stubbs at the Black Swann Bakery claims to have shipwreck coffee for sale, by the mug. Having sampled it myself, I can’t say that it tastes any different from the stuff she usually sells. Perhaps this means that Mithra’s ersatz coffee is especially convincing. I wouldn’t want to suggest outright that one of our fair citizens might be lying through her teeth, but there is scope for doubt here.