THE SAILOR AND THE GHOST

 

"My uncle," said Mr, Pasco, "was mate of a small Indiaman before he was twenty years of age. His Christian name was John, and he too was a Pasco. He was a man very remarkable for courage and resolution and was valued by his sailors as one of those officers who would never set a Jack to a job which he himself would hesitate to attempt. Whether as apprentice or as mate—that is, as second mate—he was always first aloft; always the first to be jockeying a yard-arm when there was a topsail reef; always the first of the watch below to spring on deck to the hoarse cry of "all hands!" He was, indeed, one of those sailors who are spoken of as having rope yarn for hair and fish hooks for fingers. He was a very handsome man, and stood about six feet in socks, with a breadth of shoulder fit to bear an ox upon.

"Those who knew him would say they believed there was nothing in the world he was afraid of. He was too modest to admit this.

" 'Enough hasn't yet come in my road, he would say, to entitle me to brag. But this credit I may claim: that I believe there is no man less to be alarmed by what they call the supernatural that I. You hear people talk of spirits, of ghostly manifestations, of mysterious voices, of dark and indeterminable hints, which are presently verified at the cost of a man's own or the lives of people whom he loves, I have known stout, bold fellows to be terrified by a dream, and to be rendered miserable for six months by anticipation of the fulfilment of a nightmare, 'No,' he would say, 'before I am to be frightened I must be able to see, or touch, or smell my danger—must be well assured of its materiality, call it what you will—fire or water, or a gale of wind, or a collision at sea,'

"This was my uncle's philosophy. You shall see how he vindicated it.

"His parents had died poor, and left him and his sister to make their own way in the world. Amelia Pasco, through the friendly office of a clergyman who had been a friend of their parents, had obtained a situation as companion to a lady, who may be called Lady Chilham. Her ladyship's husband was a lord, a gouty old peer of considerable substance, who lived in a mansion that was situated in the heart of a park. His wife had a bad time with him. One foot or the other was incessantly swelled to the dimensions of the leg of a rhinoceros, and pain rendered his temper so violent that the lives of those who had to wait upon him grew burdensome. My aunt was a great comfort to Lady Chilham. She was a person of sensibility and of engaging manners. She read with dramatic instinct, sang sweetly, and was so useful to her ladyship that she acted as housekeeper as well as companion.

"Shortly before my uncle's return from India, in that voyage in which he first went as chief mate, lord Chilham, died, and everybody, with the exception of his wife, was made happy by an opportunity that enabled them to provide against all further chances of his troubling them; he was buried in the family vault that stood adjacent to the little church in which her ladyship worshipped. It was such another little church as that which stands in Lord Londonderry's estate at Seaham Harbour.

"My uncle, on his arrival in London, went down into the country to visit his sister. She was overjoyed to see him, and in expectation of his arrival had made hospitable preparation for him in her own private sitting room. He arrived on a chilly October afternoon, and was not a little rejoiced when he found himself toasting abreast of a cheerful fire with a table bright with damask and silver and crystal, and the atmosphere sweet with the scent of flowers newly brought from one of the conservatories.

" 'After a spell of 'tween-decks life,' said he, 'this is comfort worth coming to. You improve in beauty, my dear; you must soon get married. I must look about me for some handsome young fellow who will lift you out of the position of housekeeper into that of mistress, even though he shouldn't be able to nobly house you in the midst of a fine park. And how do you think I wear?'

" 'You are a true sailor,' she answered, 'I love the manly brown which the sun gives to the skin, and all the blue of the sea laughs and sparkles in your eyes, dear; but why do you wear so much hair, John?— over your ears, too, instead of down your back, according to the old style—though I did not know that this fashion of pigtails still existed at sea.'

" 'Nor does it,' answered my uncle. 'I am proud of my hair; few can exhibit such a head as this.' And, so saying, he rose to look at himself in the glass, holding his hands against the bush which stood out over either ear until it might very well have passed for an immense wig.

"An excellent meal was served. My uncle ate heartily, and tossed down bumpers to the memory of the deceased lord, to her ladyship, to his sister, Amelia; then lighting his pipe, he drew an arm chair to the fire, and fell to answering his sister's questions, and telling her of what he had seen upon the ocean. Amelia listened with large eyes and parted lips. This went on till about nine o'clock that night. Nobody interrupted them; they were perfectly happy in each other's company, and had a thousand things to talk about.

"Suddenly, in an interval of silence, a church bell was heard to sound.

" 'What hour is that?' exclaimed my uncle. 'It is nine,' replied Amelia.

" 'Have you a church near here?' asked my uncle. 'I had thought this house stood in the middle of a large park.'

" 'It is a little church,' said Amelia, 'belonging to the family. For generations the sons and daughters have been married in it, and the dead lie in a great family vault adjoining,'

"Here was a knock at the door. A footman entered and said, 'Her ladyship wishes to see you, miss.' My aunt at once left the room. She was absent for hard upon three-quarters of an hour, during which my uncle smoked out two or three bowlfuls of tobacco, meanwhile toasting his feet and sipping at a tumbler of hot whisky grog. When his sister returned, her face wore an air of vexation.

" 'Our footmen should go to sea,' she cried; 'they are wretches who require the experience of your calling to become men.'

" 'What is it?' inquired my uncle.

" 'Why,' answered his sister, 'her ladyship has lost a diamond drop from her ear. It is a very valuable jewel; but the worth of it in her own eyes is beyond money. The earrings were given to her by Lord Chilham; she would not have parted with them for a million, and is ready to break her heart over the loss.'

" 'Stolen?' says my uncle.

" 'Oh, no!' cried my aunt; 'the pendant has dropped from the hoop that still remains in the ear. We have been hunting for it high and low. And now my lady believes that she dropped it in the vault. She went there this afternoon to pray over her husband's remains, and she is persuaded it is there. Will you believe me, there is not a man on this establishment who will venture?'

" 'What are they afraid of?' cried my uncle.

" 'Of the dead, I suppose,' answered his sister. 'If I were a man—'

" 'But, as a woman, you decline?' he answered, laughing, and rising to kiss her. 'Tell me the road and give me a light, and I'll go.'

There was a little passage of affectionate talk.

" 'Well, John, I must say you are very brave,' cried my aunt, with a pale face. 'Her ladyship will greatly appreciate your kindness; and how heartily ashamed of themselves the men servants will be!'

"A lantern with a candle burning in it was procured, the key of the door of the vault was placed in uncle's hand, and thus equipped, with his monkey jacket buttoned across his chest and a wide-awake hat upon his head, he marched out into the chilly night through the great hall door, surveyed in silence by idle flunkeys, who were warming themselves at a large fire. The little church showed in a lump of blackness down against a huddle of trees, which formed a background to it. The autumn stars winked icily, and there was a hush as of frost in the atmosphere. The lantern swung like a will-o'-the wisp in the hand of my uncle as he trudged along the pallid winding walk that led to the church. He had received full directions from his sister, walked straight to the vault, inserted the key of the low, nail-studded, castle-keep-like door, shot back the heavy bolt, and put his foot upon the first of the short flight of steps.

"An ice-cold flavour of rotting mould rose to his nostrils and brought him to a halt for the space of a breath.

" 'Better a thunderstorm or a hurricane than this dead silence,' said he to himself.

"He descended, and held aloft the lantern to take a view of what lay around. There were a number of coffins on shelves, ranged along the walls, and they looked like cabin bunks. In the lid of one abreast of which he had passed there was a square of glass, and when he held the lantern, close he beheld a face that seemed to smile with the life which the mocking shadows caused by the lantern mockingly fixing upon it. A shudder ran through the heart of oak; he began to think it time to belay staring and to start upon the hunt. The lantern was somewhat complicated by the bars which framed the glass. It threw a shadow upon the ground, and he could not see. To remedy this he opened the lantern and removed the candle, and fell to groping his eyes all over the cold ground, holding the candle aloft that he might not miss an inch of the soil.

"He was in this posture when a swift cry of 'Hist!' sounded in his ear. It came from the direction of the coffin at whose inmate he had been looking, and he erect, as though electrified, his heart beating as never it had beaten before, blow high or blow low. He stood for some three minutes listening, gazing slowly from aide to side with eyes brilliant with emotion. All continued unendurably silent.

" 'Tush!' he exclaimed aloud; 'the laugh will be on the footmen's side if I don't mind my eye;' and, taking the candle in his left hand, he stooped low and started again to seek the jewel.

"A minute later another sharp 'Hist!' sounded; this time in his left ear, as though some goblin, ghost, or devil stood invisible behind him, hissing, now to right and now to left.

"His human nature gave way. Sweating at every pore, he shot through the door of the vault, and fled like a madman to the house. His sister and a number of servants were in the hall awaiting his return. There was a general squeal of terror as he entered, so wild was the alarm painted upon his face.

" 'My dear John!' cried my aunt.

" 'Oh, heaven!' he exclaimed; 'there is something alive in the vault—some thing living and not to be seen! It twice cried 'Hist!' in my ears. For mercy's sake a caulker of brandy, Amelia, or I'm a dead man!'

"The terrified servants uttered a number of exclamations. My aunt was about to turn to order some brandy for her brother, but something in his appearance arrested her. She stared, and continued to stare, in a manner that not only greatly increased my uncle's terror, but that satisfied all present her mind had suddenly left her.

" 'Why, gracious goodness, John!' she suddenly almost screamed out, approaching him by a stride or two, and always peering hard, 'what have you done with your hair, dear?'

"My uncle raised his hands to seek for those bushes of curly locks which had long been his pride. They were gone! Burnt off, sir! The candle had been the ghost! He had held the flame too near to his hair; the carefully-tended and well-oiled locks had vigorously hissed as they were singed. First he had unconsciously burnt away to the right and afterwards to the left!

"So much for the ghost that haunted this sailor, sir! Did he burst into a roar of laughter? No; with a wan smile he stalked forth again into the night, made for the vault, and a quarter of an hour later was bowing with quarter deck convulsions to her ladyship as he handed her the jewel she had been mourning for."

 

The Sailor and the Ghost by W. Clark Russell

First published in Cassell's Saturday Journal, 8 January, 1890

Collected and transcribed by John Addy