The Withered Men
Captain Jonathan Downes, the fiercest pirate on the Spanish Main (and several other mains besides), stood at the prow of his ship, his cutlass thrust into his cummerbund and a look of ferocity on his grim features. It had been a hard winter and poor Graham had been left behind, for he had been shot in the Tortugas. But now the summer beckoned, the skull and crossbones was unfurled, Richard the Free Man (so called because he was an escaped slave from a tapioca plantation in Jamaica) was playing a hornpipe on his instrument and Dafty Naish, a one-time village idiot from Devon, was looking for his hammock, which someone had stolen.
Northwards they fared into the still blue ocean, a fearsome crew of sea-wolves. They then discerned a merchantman ahead and Slasher Olly said “There’s a merchantman ahead,” because he was quick that way.
“It will be great prize,” intoned Captain Downes, “for it doubtless carries a rich cargo of silks and fabrics, of spices and rare condiments, of jewels and perfumes of Araby, of elastic stockings and surgical boots and goodness knows what else.”
They quickly boarded the ship and would have made the crew walk the plank, except they had left the plank at home, so they cast them overboard. The sharks feasted well that day. Then, bursting into a cabin, they beheld a Beauteous Woman.
When Captain Downes beheld her, his jaw dropped and great drooling slobbers emerged from his mouth. Never had he seen such a creature. The rest of the crew were similarly impressed. But the Woman looked at them with scorn, so that even Dafty Naish blenched. Never a word spoke she.
Then Richard spoke slowly, “It were bad luck to have a woman aboard ship,” he intoned. “Fling her to the sharks.”
But Young Ross, the cabin boy, cried, “You shall not do so cruel a thing! Fie upon you for a caitiff!” and Richard replied, “What the deuce is a caitiff?”
They sailed on for several days, but never a word did the Woman utter. And then a storm struck. Great billows raised themselves above the ship, crashing down on the deck. Neptune with his watery trident struck the sides of the vessel again and again, until its stout boards creaked and groaned, like one in an agony of pain. Everyone huddled below decks and the chamber-pots were overturned, much to the common woe. Nor sun nor moon could they discern in the grizzled sky.
After several days the skies cleared, the heavenly torrents ceased descending, Dafty Naish discovered that his lost hammock was the thing he had thrown up on and the crew returned to the deck. They found before them a calm sea and ahead a green island.
“We must land and get fresh water,” pronounced Captain Downes.
When they landed they entered a green forest, but ere long they saw ahead of them a crumbling building, a castle ruinous. Slowly they entered its hall and saw there were tunnels leading out towards the rear.
“Look!” cried Hairy Redfern, “there are tunnels leading out to the rear.”
He was quick about such things.
It was then they heard the footsteps. Not the heavy tread of weighty souls, but an almost pattering sound, yet slower than pattering normally goes, and out of each tunnel emerged a man, each withered almost beyond all similarity to humanity with age, with folds of skin hanging from their faces, noses which seemed bereft of cartilage but oozing mucous, long yellow teeth protruding from diseased gums and infected skin crawling with fungus. When they exhaled, great swirls of foetid breath encircled the pirates, making them all first gag and then feel faint.
Each wore a loincloth only and from it dripped droplets of brownish urine that splashed on their bony knees.
“Flee!” cried Captain Downes, only to discover everybody else had already fled, so he turned around and followed suit. The pirates tore through undergrowth, bush and bramble and at last made it to the ship and were about to put off when Captain Downes cried, “Where is the woman?”
And then they saw her. A finger of land reached out into the sea and she was fleeing along it, with the Three Withered Men in pursuit; and for the first time she spoke, crying:
Turn the ship about again,
Save me, save me from the Withered Men.
But before they could respond to her piteous plea, a great fog descended on them, thick as porridge, and, when it cleared, to their astonishment, there was no sign of the island or of the Woman or of the Withered Men. Nor had the island sunk, for there was no turbulence in the ocean to mark its grave, but a flat and calm sea spread in all directions.
Then Dafty Naish said, “Well, I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to be a zoologist.”