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Title: Sea Curse
Author: Robert E. Howard
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0601731.txt
Edition: 1
Language: English
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Date first posted: June 2006
Date most recently updated: December 2007

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Sea Curse
Robert E. Howard



And some return by the failing light
And some in the waking dream.
For she hears the heels of the dripping ghosts
That ride the rough roofbeam.
--Kipling



They were the brawlers and braggarts, the loud boasters and hard
drinkers, of Faring town, John Kulrek and his crony Lie-lip Canool.
Many a time have I, a tousle-haired lad, stolen to the tavern door to
listen to their curses, their profane arguments and wild sea songs;
half fearful and half in admiration of these wild rovers. Aye, all the
people of Faring town gazed on them with fear and admiration, for they
were not like the rest of the Faring men; they were not content to ply
their trade along the coasts and among the shark-teeth shoals. No
yawls, no skiffs for them! They fared far, farther than any other man
in the village, for they shipped on the great sailing-ships that went
out on the white tides to brave the restless grey ocean and make ports
in strange lands.

Ah, I mind it was swift times in the little sea-coast village of
Faring when John Kulrek came home, with the furtive Lie-lip at his
side, swaggering down the gang-plank, in his tarry sea-clothes, and
the broad leather belt that held his ever-ready dagger; shouting
condescending greeting to some favored acquaintance, kissing some
maiden who ventured too near; then up the street, roaring some
scarcely decent song of the sea. How the cringers and the idlers, the
hangers-on, would swarm about the two desperate heroes, flattering and
smirking, guffawing hilariously at each nasty jest. For to the tavern
loafers and to some of the weaker among the straightforward villagers,
these men with their wild talk and their brutal deeds, their tales of
the Seven Seas and the far countries, these men, I say, were valiant
knights, nature's noblemen who dared to be men of blood and brawn.

And all feared them, so that when a man was beaten or a woman
insulted, the villagers muttered--and did nothing. And so when Moll
Farrell's niece was put to shame by John Kulrek, none dared even to
put into words what all thought. Moll had never married, and she and
the girl lived alone in a little hut down close to the beach, so close
that in high tide the waves came almost to the door.

The people of the village accounted old Moll something of a witch, and
she was a grim, gaunt old dame who had little to say to anyone. But
she minded her own business, and eked out a slim living by gathering
clams, and picking up bits of driftwood.

The girl was a pretty, foolish little thing, vain and easily befooled,
else she had never yielded to the shark-like blandishments of John
Kulrek.

I mind the day was a cold winter day with a sharp breeze out of the
east when the old dame came into the village street shrieking that the
girl had vanished. All scattered over the beach and back among the
bleak inland hills to search for her--all save John Kulrek and his
cronies who sat in the tavern dicing and toping. All the while beyond
the shoals, we heard the never-ceasing droning of the heaving,
restless grey monster, and in the dim light of the ghostly dawn Moll
Farrell's girl came home.

The tides bore her gently across the wet sands and laid her almost at
her own door. Virgin-white she was, and her arms were folded across
her still bosom; calm was her face, and the grey tides sighed about
her slender limbs. Moll Farrell's eyes were stones, yet she stood
above her dead girl and spoke no word till John Kulrek and his crony
came reeling down from the tavern, their drinking-jacks still in their
hands. Drunk was John Kulrek, and the people gave back for him, murder
in their souls; so he came and laughed at Moll Farrell across the body
of her girl.

"Zounds!" swore John Kulrek; "the wench has drowned herself, Lie-lip!"

Lie-lip laughed, with the twist of his thin mouth. He always hated
Moll Farrell, for it was she that had given him the name of Lie-lip.

Then John Kulrek lifted his drinking-jack, swaying on his uncertain
legs. "A health to the wench's ghost!" he bellowed, while all stood
aghast.

Then Moll Farrell spoke, and the words broke from her in a scream
which sent ripples of cold up and down the spines of the throng.

"The curse of the Foul Fiend upon you, John Kulrek!" she screamed.
"The curse of God rest upon your vile soul throughout eternity! May
you gaze on sights that shall sear the eyes of you and scorch the soul
of you! May you die a bloody death and writhe in hell's flames for a
million and a million and yet a million years! I curse you by sea and
by land, by earth and by air, by the demons of the swamplands, the
fiends of the forest and the goblins of the hills! And you"--her lean
finger stabbed at Lie-lip Canool and he started backward, his face
paling--"you shall be the death of John Kulrek and he shall be the
death of you! You shall bring John Kulrek to the doors of hell and
John Kulrek shall bring you to the gallows-tree! I set the seal of
death upon your brow, John Kulrek! You shall live in terror and die in
horror far out upon the cold grey sea! But the sea that took the soul
of innocence to her bosom shall not take you, but shall fling forth
your vile carcass to the sands! Aye, John Kulrek"--and she spoke with
such a terrible intensity that the drunken mockery on the man's face
changed to one of swinish stupidity--"the sea roars for the victim it
will not keep! There is snow upon the hills, John Kulrek, and ere it
melts your corpse will lie at my feet. And I shall spit upon it and be
content."

Kulrek and his crony sailed at dawn for a long voyage, and Moll went
back to her hut and her clam-gathering. She seemed to grow leaner and
more grim than ever and her eyes smoldered with a light not sane. The
days glided by and people whispered among themselves that Moll's days
were numbered, for she faded to a ghost of a woman; but she went her
way, refusing all aid.

That was a short, cold summer and the snow on the barren inland hills
never melted; a thing very unusual, which caused much comment among
the villagers. At dusk and at dawn Moll would come up on the beach,
gaze up at the snow which glittered on the hills, then out to sea with
a fierce intensity in her gaze.

Then the days grew shorter, the nights longer and darker, and the cold
grey tides came sweeping along the bleak strands, bearing the rain and
sleet of the sharp east breezes.

And upon a bleak day a trading-vessel sailed into the bay and
anchored. And all the idlers and the wastrels flocked to the wharfs,
for that was the ship upon which John Kulrek and Lie-lip Canool had
sailed. Down the gang-plank came Lie-lip, more furtive than ever, but
John Kulrek was not there.

To shouted queries, Canool shook his head. "Kulrek deserted ship at a
port of Sumatra," said he. "He had a row with the skipper, lads;
wanted me to desert, too, but no! I had to see you fine lads again, eh
boys?"

Almost cringing was Lie-lip Canool, and suddenly he recoiled as Moll
Farrell came through the throng. A moment they stood eyeing each
other; then Moll's grim lips bent in a terrible smile.

"There's blood on your hand, Canool!" she lashed out suddenly--so
suddenly that Lie-lip started and rubbed his right hand across his
left sleeve.

"Stand aside, witch!" he snarled in sudden anger, striding through the
crowd which gave back for him. His admirers followed him to the
tavern.

Now, I mind that the next day was even colder; grey fogs came drifting
out of the east and veiled the sea and the beaches. There would be no
sailing that day, and so all the villagers were in their snug houses
or matching tales at the tavern. So it came that Joe, my friend, a lad
of my own age, and I, were the ones who saw the first of the strange
things that happened.

Being harum-scarum lads of no wisdom, we were sitting in a small
rowboat, floating at the end of the wharfs, each shivering and wishing
the other would suggest leaving, there being no reason whatever for
our being there, save that it was a good place to build air-castles
undisturbed.

Suddenly Joe raised his hand. "Say," he said, "d'ye hear? Who can be
out on the bay upon a day like this?"

"Nobody. What d'ye hear?"

"Oars. Or I'm a lubber. Listen."

There was no seeing anything in that fog, and I heard nothing. Yet Joe
swore he did, and suddenly his face assumed a strange look.

"Somebody rowing out there, I tell you! The bay is alive with oars
from the sound! A score of boats at the least! Ye dolt, can ye not
hear?"

Then, as I shook my head, he leaped and began to undo the painter.

"I'm off to see. Name me liar if the bay is not full of boats, all
together like a close fleet. Are you with me?"

Yes, I was with him, though I heard nothing. Then out in the greyness
we went, and the fog closed behind and before so that we drifted in a
vague world of smoke, seeing naught and hearing naught. We were lost
in no time, and I cursed Joe for leading us upon a wild goose chase
that was like to end with our being swept out to sea. I thought of
Moll Farrell's girl and shuddered.

How long we drifted I know not. Minutes faded into hours, hours into
centuries. Still Joe swore he heard the oars, now close at hand, now
far away, and for hours we followed them, steering our course toward
the sound, as the noise grew or receded. This I later thought of, and
could not understand.

Then, when my hands were so numb that I could no longer hold the oar,
and the forerunning drowsiness of cold and exhaustion was stealing
over me, weak white stars broke through the fog which glided suddenly
away, fading like a ghost of smoke, and we found ourselves afloat just
outside the mouth of the bay. The waters lay smooth as a pond, all
dark green and silver in the starlight, and the cold came crisper than
ever. I was swinging the boat about, to put back into the bay, when
Joe gave a shout, and for the first time I heard the clack of oar-
locks. I glanced over my shoulder and my blood went cold.

A great beaked prow loomed above us, a weird, unfamiliar shape against
the stars, and as I caught my breath, sheered sharply and swept by us,
with a curious swishing I never heard any other craft make. Joe
screamed and backed oars frantically, and the boat walled out of the
way just in time; for though the prow missed us, still otherwise we
had died. For from the sides of the ship stood long oars, bank upon
bank which swept her along. Though I had never seen such a craft, I
knew her for a galley. But what was she doing upon our coasts? They
said, the far-farers, that such ships were still in use among the
heathens of Barbary; but it was many a long, heaving mile to Barbary,
and even so she did not resemble the ships described by those who had
sailed far.

We started in pursuit, and this was strange, for though the waters
broke about her prow, and she seemed fairly to fly through the waves,
yet she was making little speed, and it was no time before we caught
up with her. Making our painter fast to a chain far back beyond the
reach of the swishing oars, we hailed those on deck. But there came no
answer, and at last, conquering our fears, we clambered up the chain
and found ourselves upon the strangest deck man has trod for many a
long, roaring century.

Joe muttered fearsomely. "Look, how old it seems! Almost ready to fall
to pieces. Why, 'tis fairly rotten!"

There was no one on deck, no one at the long sweep with which the
craft was steered. We stole to the hold and looked down the stair.
Then and there, if ever men were on the verge of insanity, it was we.
For there were rowers there, it is true; they sat upon the rowers'
benches and drove the creaking oars through the grey waters. And they
that rowed were skeletons!

Shrieking, we plunged across the deck, to fling ourselves into the
sea. But at the rail I tripped upon something and fell headlong, and
as I lay, I saw a thing which vanquished my fear of the horrors below
for an instant. The thing upon which I had tripped was a human body,
and in the dim grey light that was beginning to steal across the
eastern waves I saw a dagger hilt standing up between his shoulders.
Joe was at the rail, urging me to haste, and together we slid down the
chain and cut the painter.

Then we stood off into the bay. Straight on kept the grim galley, and
we followed, slowly, wondering. She seemed to be heading straight for
the beach beside the wharfs, and as we approached, we saw the wharfs
thronged with people. They had missed us, no doubt, and now they
stood, there in the early dawn light, struck dumb by the apparition
which had come up out of the night and the grim ocean.

Straight on swept the galley, her oars a-swish; then ere she reached
the shallow water--crash!--a terrific reverberation shook the bay.
Before our eyes the grim craft seemed to melt away; then she vanished,
and the green waters seethed where she had ridden, but there floated
no driftwood there, nor did there ever float any ashore. Aye,
something floated ashore, but it was grim driftwood!

We made the landing amid a hum of excited conversation that stopped
suddenly. Moll Farrell stood before her hut, limned gauntly against
the ghostly dawn, her lean hand pointing sea-ward. And across the
sighing wet sands, borne by the grey tide, something came floating;
something that the waves dropped at Moll Farrell's feet. And there
looked up at us, as we crowded about, a pair of unseeing eyes set in a
still, white face. John Kulrek had come home.

Still and grim he lay, rocked by the tide, and as he lurched sideways,
all saw the dagger hilt that stood from his back--the dagger all of us
had seen a thousand times at the belt of Lie-lip Canool.

"Aye, I killed him!" came Canool's shriek, as he writhed and groveled
before our gaze. "At sea on a still night in a drunken brawl I slew
him and hurled him overboard! And from the far seas he has followed
me"--his voice sank to a hideous whisper--"because--of--the--curse--
the--sea--would--not--keep--his-- body!"

And the wretch sank down, trembling, the shadow of the gallows already
in his eyes.

"Aye!" Strong, deep and exultant was Moll Farrell's voice. "From the
hell of lost craft Satan sent a ship of bygone ages! A ship red with
gore and stained with the memory of horrid crimes! None other would
bear such a vile carcass! The sea has taken vengeance and has given me
mine. See now, how I spit upon the face of John Kulrek."

And with a ghastly laugh, she pitched forward, the blood starting to
her lips. And the sun came up across the restless sea.



THE END




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