Chapter 3

"The Library"

May soon learned that the crow's nest was intended as a form of punishment. It swayed with a vengeance and she suffered slightly from sea-sickness. On the third day of her post she called down to the captain, “Ship!”

Where?” returned Mundy.

May pointed: “Over there!” If there were any nautical terms to designate direction, May was ignorant of them.

Mundy retrieved a shabby telescope and spied the ship in his lens. “I'll be! There is a ship! The little urchin's got eyes in her head!”

Whoozit be, captain?” asked Crane, leaning on his mop.

I rightly don't know,” Mundy replied. “I can scarcely see the thing, and she aren't flying no colours, far as I can determine. Let's get a closer look, shall we?”

It was a merchant vessel, and the pirates hoisted up the flag of the skull-and-crossbones and closed in on their quarry. The merchantman tried to flee, but chain-shot from The Gruesome's forward guns splintered their mizzenmast and ruined some rigging. They surrendered.

The Gruesome came alongside the smaller ship, the pirates brandishing swords, pistols and muskets. Using grappling hooks and rope, the robbers boarded the vessel and quickly rounded up the crew, who were traders, not fighters.

Mundy pulled out one of several flintlock pistols kept on his person and bullied the captain of the merchantman, who was begging on his knees in stormy sobs to spare the lives of he and his crew. As fierce and grim as Mundy was, he had no interest in murder where there was no gain in it. He only desired the goods, though it turned out there wasn't much worth plundering at all aboard that worthless craft, so he took what weapons and little monies the traders possessed, as well as several casks of wine, and the Gruesome continued on its way.

That evening Mundy and the entire crew celebrated. They caved in the staves of the wine casks and drank heartily, roasted pork and fowl, and roared bawdy chanteys. The darkening sky was clear and the sea calm as could be, so, with leave from the captain, the helmsman lashed the wheel and quit his post.

May kept to herself, with Digger at her side, sitting on the deck of the forecastle, drinking jupiter juice from a flagon and eating more than her fair share of meat and bread, thanks to the good graces of the cook.

By the middle of the night the men lay strewn about the deck, unconscious, and beside them rolled empty cups fallen from nerveless fingers. They snored, or mumbled in their sleep.

May was enjoying the full moon, high overhead and glowing brightly. The infinite and placid sea twinkled in the eerie silence, and May whispered to Digger, “That's the quietest silence I ever heard!”

Suddenly, another ship loomed into view, pulling up port side. May kept her head low and drew her sabre without a sound. She cursed herself. How could she have not noticed its approach? But the vessel was a wreck, its sails tattered, the hull rotted and encrusted with barnacles, and slimy ropes dangled over the sides. There was no sign of life aboard.

May ran down to the deck and shook the nearest man. He simply groaned and fell over. She kicked the feet of several others, but not a one stirred. Not even the captain could be roused, though she hammered loudly on his cabin door with the pommel of her sword. All were dead drunk.

May's curiosity got the better of her. “Stay, Digger,” she bade, and she threw a grappling hook into one of the ghost-ship's shrouds and swung over to its deserted deck.

She crept cautiously across the aged planks in her bare feet, ready to fight or run. She saw a few skeletons in rags lying here and there, which upset her superstitious nature; still, she was a brave and venturous girl, and so, with some trepidation, went down one of the hatches midship. She found herself in the middle gun deck, where the moon shone a column of light on the floorboards.

The farther she stepped beyond that silver pool, the darker it became; but her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she could see in the gloom what a shambles the ship was. The guns had crashed through beams and walls, having broken free of their moorings, and lay toppled. More light streamed in from those empty ports and from a number of holes where enemy cannon balls had smashed through the hull.

And then came a sight that startled May so she stopped in her tracks: here and there skeletons sat or stood studying books and without the benefit of eyes in their ghastly skulls, though they did their reading by the glow of a dim candle or streaming moonlight. To May their bones were little more than twigs, with bits of mummified skin clinging like dried bark; and rags hung from their ribs like moss. Frightful as these apparitions were, they didn't menace their visitor – in fact, they paid her no attention at all. But May held her sword in a grip of iron, anyway.

Ahead of her lay the ward room, if May learned anything about great ships, and a relatively good light streamed through the doorway. She could turn and run, but the ladder to the upper deck seemed far away and a poor prospect. She stole forth through the shadows until she reached the room. There, opposite the door, sat a skeleton behind a wooden table laden with books of every size and make; behind this spectral figure were filing cabinets and a row of panelled windows that allowed for some illumination, though much of the light was supplied by a lantern.

The other three walls contained shelves of books from top to bottom. A few more skeletons were present, reading or searching for a particular title. Apparently it was a library – and a messy one, at that. Stacks of books and magazines and newspapers cluttered the floor, many of them toppled over.

May wasn't looking, but a colourful cover caught her eye. She picked up the book and flipped through it. It had lots of wonderful pictures and not too many words, big or otherwise, so she snapped it shut and kept it.

She couldn't bear another minute of this ghost ship with its haunted library, and so she went out the door. Behind her she could hear the skeleton tapping the desk bell, as if to page someone, and more of those hideous terrors stepped out from dusky corners, daggers clenched in crumbling teeth or swords in bony fingers. May beheaded one skeleton with a quick swoop of her sabre and shattered the ribcage of another who raised his sword to strike. She parried a few more blows from others and found herself backed up into the library. They didn't press further, but the one in the doorway raised its arm and pointed at her book and then over her shoulder.

May turned around: the librarian was motioning her to bring the book. She gave it to him and he opened it up to the last page, where he retrieved a card from its slip and stamped both.

Name,” the thing hissed in sepulchral tones, sliding the card to May. She took a pencil and carefully wrote “MAY” on one of the lines, whereupon the librarian handed the book back to her and filed the card. These odd rituals were all very intriguing to her, as she'd never been to a library before.

May was allowed to leave, and she wasted no time hurrying up the steps and swinging back to the Gruesome, which she was glad to see was still where she left it. She was never so relieved as to hear the raucous snores of her fellow sea-dogs. As for the rotting wreck, it floated away and away, which suited May just fine.

Digger came to her side and May threw her arms around him. “Oh, Digger!” she cried. “I wasn't sure I'd ever see you again. Bite me if you must but don't let me stray from this ship again until we reach land! But we ought to get some sleep. Who knows what surprises tomorrow may bring.”

The morning came and brought with it a sunny sky flecked with white clouds and a breeze to fill the sails. The deck was bustling with activity as the sailors resumed their duties, hungover but all in good spirits. May was sitting by the gunwales reading her book – or at least trying to. She wasn't the best reader, and Mr. Crane (as she called him) was busy swabbing the deck around her and wetting her feet. Suddenly, Crane staggered backwards from May with a curse, as if he had seen a devil.

Child, what are you doing?” he gasped.

May, confounded, and rightfully so, answered, “I'm reading.”

R-reading what?” Crane stammered.

A book,” said May.

It was a more or less uneventful scene, but at such close quarters it caught the attention of a few others, and they came to Crane's side. One of them stepped forth and took the book from May, who would have broken his nose, except that she was too bewildered by all the fuss.

Where did you get this book?” he asked sternly.

The crowd grew and Captain Mundy burst through the ranks to see what was the matter. Crane, the book once again in his possession, said, “Look, captain! The girl's got some kind of children's book!” And he read the title with a struggle: “'A Zebra in a Gauze Bra'”

Mundy tore the book from his grasp and flipped through it. “Where did you get this book, lass?” he queried.

From a broken down old ship that drifted by,” May answered.

When?” asked Mundy.

Last night,” said May, “while everyone was asleep. I almost chopped your door down trying to wake you, Mr. Mundy, but it was no use, so I went aboard looking for treasure. All I found was lots of skeletons and books. I liked that one, so I took it.”

Mundy looked out to sea with the blackest glare. Some of the others were simply horrified.

The Flyin' Librarian!” Crane cried out, trembling in his boots.

It wasn't flying,” said May, “it was just floating like a normal boat. But there was a librarian, and he stamped my book.”

This aroused the consternation of everyone, and Mundy immediately went to the last page. He saw the card was missing and the slip stamped. He read aloud the date for all to hear, “'June 10th.'

One week! She's damned us all!” a voice hollered, followed by a medley of curses and prayers.

You know the story, captain,” said Crane. “If you borrow a book from the Flyin' Librarian you have a week to return it – otherwise, the whole crew is doomed!”

Someone shouted from the back, “Maybe if we sacrifice her it'll appease the ghosts aboard that haunted wreck!”

Silence!” roared Mundy. “We've no one to blame but our own drunken hides.”

We have to find that ship, sir,” said Crane.

We're maintaining course,” said Mundy through gritted teeth. There was a chorus of protestations.

May rose to her feet. “Well, I'm not afraid of no skeletons,” she said boldly. “I killed two of them already. I'm for the treasure, if you are, captain.”

May's taunt strengthened Mundy's resolution. “This little girl has more heart than the whole lot of you miserable wretches,” he growled. “We can make the rock in three days if the winds are favourable, do our business, and be back here in less than a week to return the book. Sloane!” he bellowed to the helmsman. “Steady as she goes!”

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