Poor Old Bill, by Lord Dunsany
On an antique haunt of sailors, a tavern of the sea, the light of day was
fading. For several evenings I had frequented this place, in the hope of
hearing something from the sailors, as they sat over strange wines, about
a rumour that had reached my ears of a certain fleet of galleons of old
Spain still said to be afloat in the South Seas in some uncharted region.
In this I was again to be disappointed. Talk was low and seldom, and I was
about to leave, when a sailor, wearing ear-rings of pure gold, lifted up
his head from his wine, and looking straight before him at the wall, told
his tale loudly:
(When later on a storm of rain arose and thundered on the tavern's leaded
panes, he raised his voice without effort and spoke on still. The darker
it got the clearer his wild eyes shone.)
"A ship with sails of the olden time was nearing fantastic isles. We had
never seen such isles.
"We all hated the captain, and he hated us. He hated us all alike, there
was no favouritism about him. And he never would talk a word with any of
us, except sometimes in the evening when it was getting dark he would stop
and look up and talk a bit to the men he had hanged at the yard-arm.
"We were a mutinous crew. But Captain was the only man that had pistols.
He slept with one under his pillow and kept one close beside him. There
was a nasty look about the isles. They were small and flat as though they
had come up only recently from the sea, and they had no sand or rocks like
honest isles, but green grass down to the water. And there were little
cottages there whose looks we did not like. Their thatches came almost
down to the ground, and were strangely turned up at the corners, and under
the low eaves were queer dark windows whose little leaded panes were too
thick to see through. And no one, man or beast, was walking about, so that
you could not know what kind of people lived there. But Captain knew. And
he went ashore and into one of the cottages, and someone lit lights
inside, and the little windows wore an evil look.
"It was quite dark when he came aboard again, and he bade a cheery
good-night to the men that swung from the yard-arm and he eyed us in a way
that frightened poor old Bill.
"Next night we found that he had learned to curse, for he came on a lot of
us asleep in our bunks, and among them poor old Bill, and he pointed at us
with a finger, and made a curse that our souls should stay all night at
the top of the masts. And suddenly there was the soul of poor old Bill
sitting like a monkey at the top of the mast, and looking at the stars,
and freezing through and through.
"We got up a little mutiny after that, but Captain comes up and points
with his finger again, and this time poor old Bill and all the rest are
swimming behind the ship through the cold green water, though their bodies
remain on deck.
"It was the cabin-boy who found out that Captain couldn't curse when he
was drunk, though he could shoot as well at one time as another.
"After that it was only a matter of waiting, and of losing two men when
the time came. Some of us were murderous fellows, and wanted to kill
Captain, but poor old Bill was for finding a bit of an island, out of the
track of ships, and leaving him there with his share of our year's
provisions. And everybody listened to poor old Bill, and we decided to
maroon Captain as soon as we caught him when he couldn't curse.
"It was three whole days before Captain got drunk again, and poor old Bill
and all had a dreadful time, for Captain invented new curses every day,
and wherever he pointed his finger our souls had to go; and the fishes got
to know us, and so did the stars, and none of them pitied us when we froze
on the masts or were hurried through forests of seaweed and lost our
way—both stars and fishes went about their businesses with cold,
unastonished eyes. Once when the sun had set and it was twilight, and the
moon was showing clearer and clearer in the sky, and we stopped our work
for a moment because Captain seemed to be looking away from us at the
colours in the sky, he suddenly turned and sent our souls to the Moon. And
it was colder there than ice at night; and there were horrible mountains
making shadows; and it was all as silent as miles of tombs; and Earth was
shining up in the sky as big as the blade of a scythe, and we all got
homesick for it, but could not speak nor cry. It was quite dark when we
got back, and we were very respectful to Captain all the next day, but he
cursed several of us again very soon. What we all feared most was that he
would curse our souls to Hell, and none of us mentioned Hell above a
whisper for fear that it should remind him. But on the third evening the
cabin-boy came and told us that Captain was drunk. And we all went to his
cabin, and we found him lying there across his bunk, and he shot as he had
never shot before; but he had no more than the two pistols, and he would
only have killed two men if he hadn't caught Joe over the head with the
end of one of his pistols. And then we tied him up. And poor old Bill put
the rum between the Captain's teeth, and kept him drunk for two days, so
that he could not curse, till we found a convenient rock. And before
sunset of the second day we found a nice bare island for Captain, out of
the track of ships, about a hundred yards long and about eighty wide; and
we rowed him along to it in a little boat, and gave him provisions for a
year, the same as we had ourselves, because poor old Bill wanted to be
fair. And we left him sitting comfortable with his back to a rock singing
a sailor's song.
"When we could no longer hear Captain singing we all grew very cheerful
and made a banquet out of our year's provisions, as we all hoped to be
home again in under three weeks. We had three great banquets every day for
a week—every man had more than he could eat, and what was left over we
threw on the floor like gentlemen. And then one day, as we saw San
Huëgédos, and wanted to sail in to spend our money, the wind changed round
from behind us and beat us out to sea. There was no tacking against it,
and no getting into the harbour, though other ships sailed by us and
anchored there. Sometimes a dead calm would fall on us, while fishing
boats all around us flew before half a gale, and sometimes the wind would
beat us out to sea when nothing else was moving. All day we tried, and at
night we laid to and tried again the next day. And all the sailors of the
other ships were spending their money in San Huëgédos and we could not
come nigh it. Then we spoke horrible things against the wind and against
San Huëgédos, and sailed away.
"It was just the same at Norenna.
"We kept close together now and talked in low voices. Suddenly poor old
Bill grew frightened. As we went all along the Siractic coast-line, we
tried again and again, and the wind was waiting for us in every harbour
and sent us out to sea. Even the little islands would not have us. And
then we knew that there was no landing yet for poor old Bill, and every
one upbraided his kind heart that had made them maroon Captain on a rock,
so as not to have his blood upon their heads. There was nothing to do but
to drift about the seas. There were no banquets now, because we feared
that Captain might live his year and keep us out to sea.
"At first we used to hail all passing ships, and used to try to board them
in the boats; but there was no towing against Captain's curse, and we had
to give that up. So we played cards for a year in Captain's cabin, night
and day, storm and fine, and every one promised to pay poor old Bill when
we got ashore.
"It was horrible to us to think what a frugal man Captain really was, he
that used to get drunk every other day whenever he was at sea, and here he
was still alive, and sober too, for his curse still kept us out of every
port, and our provisions were gone.
"Well, it came to drawing lots, and Jim was the unlucky one. Jim only kept
us about three days, and then we drew lots again, and this time it was the
nigger. The nigger didn't keep us any longer, and we drew again, and this
time it was Charlie, and still Captain was alive.
"As we got fewer one of us kept us longer. Longer and longer a mate used
to last us, and we all wondered how ever Captain did it. It was five weeks
over the year when we drew Mike, and he kept us for a week, and Captain
was still alive. We wondered he didn't get tired of the same old curse;
but we supposed things looked different when one is alone on an island.
"When there was only Jakes and poor old Bill and the cabin-boy and Dick,
we didn't draw any longer. We said that the cabin-boy had had all the
luck, and he mustn't expect any more. Then poor old Bill was alone with
Jakes and Dick, and Captain was still alive. When there was no more boy,
and the Captain still alive, Dick, who was a huge strong man like poor old
Bill, said that it was Jakes' turn, and he was very lucky to have lived as
long as he had. But poor old Bill talked it all over with Jakes, and they
thought it better than Dick should take his turn.
"Then there was Jakes and poor old Bill; and Captain would not die.
"And these two used to watch one another night and day, when Dick was gone
and no one else was left to them. And at last poor old Bill fell down in a
faint and lay there for an hour. Then Jakes came up to him slowly with his
knife, and makes a stab at poor old Bill as he lies there on the deck. And
poor old Bill caught hold of him by the wrist, and put his knife into him
twice to make quite sure, although it spoiled the best part of the meat.
Then poor old Bill was all alone at sea.
"And the very next week, before the food gave out, Captain must have died
on his bit of an island; for poor old Bill heard the Captain's soul going
cursing over the sea, and the day after that the ship was cast on a rocky
"And Captain's been dead now for over a hundred years, and poor old Bill
is safe ashore again. But it looks as if Captain hadn't done with him yet,
for poor old Bill doesn't ever get any older, and somehow or other he
doesn't seem to die. Poor old Bill!"
When this was over the man's fascination suddenly snapped, and we all
jumped up and left him.
It was not only his revolting story, but it was the fearful look in the
eyes of the man who told it, and the terrible ease with which his voice
surpassed the roar of the rain, that decided me never again to enter that
haunt of sailors—the tavern of the sea.