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forget. You couldn't. A thorough good sailor, too. And won't old Johns
just worry his head off! Unless the old fool should take fright at
him - for he does not seem the sort of man that would let himself be put
upon without letting you know what he thinks of you. And that's exactly
what old Johns would be more afraid of than of anything else."

As this is really meant to be the record of a spiritualistic experience
which came, if not precisely to Captain Johns himself, at any rate to
his ship, there is no use in recording the other events of the passage
out. It was an ordinary passage, the crew was an ordinary crew, the
weather was of the usual kind. The black mate's quiet, sedate method of
going to work had given a sober tone to the life of the ship. Even in
gales of wind everything went on quietly somehow.

There was only one severe blow which made things fairly lively for all
hands for full four-and-twenty hours. That was off the coast of Africa,
after passing the Cape of Good Hope. At the very height of it several
heavy seas were shipped with no serious results, but there was a
considerable smashing of breakable objects in the pantry and in the
staterooms. Mr. Bunter, who was so greatly respected on board, found
himself treated scurvily by the Southern Ocean, which, bursting open the
door of his room like a ruffianly burglar, carried off several useful
things, and made all the others extremely wet.

Later, on the same day, the Southern Ocean caused the _Sapphire_ to
lurch over in such an unrestrained fashion that the two drawers fitted
under Mr. Bunter's sleeping-berth flew out altogether, spilling all
their contents. They ought, of course, to have been locked, and Mr.
Bunter had only to thank himself for what had happened. He ought to have
turned the key on each before going out on deck.

His consternation was very great. The steward, who was paddling about
all the time with swabs, trying to dry out the flooded cuddy, heard him
exclaim "Hallo!" in a startled and dismayed tone. In the midst of his
work the steward felt a sympathetic concern for the mate's distress.

Captain Johns was secretly glad when he heard of the damage. He was
indeed afraid of his chief mate, as the sea-pilot had ventured to
foretell, and afraid of him for the very reason the sea-pilot had put
forward as likely.

Captain Johns, therefore, would have liked very much to hold that
black mate of his at his mercy in some way or other. But the man was
irreproachable, as near absolute perfection as could be. And Captain
Johns was much annoyed, and at the same time congratulated himself on
his chief officer's efficiency.

He made a great show of living sociably with him, on the principle that
the more friendly you are with a man the more easily you may catch him
tripping; and also for the reason that he wanted to have somebody who
would listen to his stories of manifestations, apparitions, ghosts, and
all the rest of the imbecile spook-lore. He had it all at his fingers'
ends; and he spun those ghostly yarns in a persistent, colourless voice,
giving them a futile turn peculiarly his own.

"I like to converse with my officers," he used to say. "There are
masters that hardly ever open their mouths from beginning to end of a
passage for fear of losing their dignity. What's that, after all - this
bit of position a man holds!"

His sociability was most to be dreaded in the second dog-watch, because
he was one of those men who grow lively towards the evening, and the
officer on duty was unable then to find excuses for leaving the poop.
Captain Johns would pop up the companion suddenly, and, sidling up in
his creeping way to poor Bunter, as he walked up and down, would fire
into him some spiritualistic proposition, such as:

"Spirits, male and female, show a good deal of refinement in a general
way, don't they?"

To which Bunter, holding his black-whiskered head high, would mutter:

"I don't know."

"Ah! that's because you don't want to. You are the most obstinate,
prejudiced man I've ever met, Mr. Bunter. I told you you may have any
book out of my bookcase. You may just go into my stateroom and help
yourself to any volume."

And if Bunter protested that he was too tired in his watches below to
spare any time for reading, Captain Johns would smile nastily behind
his back, and remark that of course some people needed more sleep than
others to keep themselves fit for their work. If Mr. Bunter was afraid
of not keeping properly awake when on duty at night, that was another
matter.

"But I think you borrowed a novel to read from the second mate the other
day - a trashy pack of lies," Captain Johns sighed. "I am afraid you are
not a spiritually minded man, Mr. Bunter. That's what's the matter."

Sometimes he would appear on deck in the middle of the night, looking
very grotesque and bandy-legged in his sleeping suit. At that sight the
persecuted Bunter would wring his hands stealthily, and break out into
moisture all over his forehead. After standing sleepily by the binnacle,
scratching himself in an unpleasant manner, Captain Johns was sure to
start on some aspect or other of his only topic.

He would, for instance, discourse on the improvement of morality to be
expected from the establishment of general and close intercourse with
the spirits of the departed. The spirits, Captain Johns thought, would
consent to associate familiarly with the living if it were not for the
unbelief of the great mass of mankind. He himself would not care to
have anything to do with a crowd that would not believe in his - Captain
Johns' - existence. Then why should a spirit? This was asking too much.

He went on breathing hard by the binnacle and trying to reach round his
shoulder-blades; then, with a thick, drowsy severity, declared:

"Incredulity, sir, is the evil of the age!"

It rejected the evidence of Professor Cranks and of the journalist chap.
It resisted the production of photographs.

For Captain Johns believed firmly that certain spirits had been
photographed. He had read something of it in the papers. And the idea of
it having been done had got a tremendous hold on him, because his mind
was not critical. Bunter said afterwards that nothing could be more
weird than this little man, swathed in a sleeping suit three sizes
too large for him, shuffling with excitement in the moonlight near the
wheel, and shaking his fist at the serene sea.

"Photographs! photographs!" he would repeat, in a voice as creaky as a
rusty hinge.

The very helmsman just behind him got uneasy at that performance, not
being capable of understanding exactly what the "old man was kicking up
a row with the mate about."

Then Johns, after calming down a bit, would begin again.

"The sensitised plate can't lie. No, sir."

Nothing could be more funny than this ridiculous little man's
conviction - his dogmatic tone. Bunter would go on swinging up and down
the poop like a deliberate, dignified pendulum. He said not a word. But
the poor fellow had not a trifle on his conscience, as you know; and to
have imbecile ghosts rammed down his throat like this on top of his own
worry nearly drove him crazy. He knew that on many occasions he was
on the verge of lunacy, because he could not help indulging in
half-delirious visions of Captain Johns being picked up by the scruff of
the neck and dropped over the taffrail into the ship's wake - the sort
of thing no sane sailorman would think of doing to a cat or any other
animal, anyhow. He imagined him bobbing up - a tiny black speck left far
astern on the moonlit ocean.

I don't think that even at the worst moments Bunter really desired to
drown Captain Johns. I fancy that all his disordered imagination longed
for was merely to stop the ghostly inanity of the skipper's talk.

But, all the same, it was a dangerous form of self-indulgence. Just
picture to yourself that ship in the Indian Ocean, on a clear, tropical
night, with her sails full and still, the watch on deck stowed away out
of sight; and on her poop, flooded with moonlight, the stately black
mate walking up and down with measured, dignified steps, preserving
an awful silence, and that grotesquely mean little figure in striped
flannelette alternately creaking and droning of "personal intercourse
beyond the grave."

It makes me creepy all over to think of. And sometimes the folly of
Captain Johns would appear clothed in a sort of weird utilitarianism.
How useful it would be if the spirits of the departed could be induced
to take a practical interest in the affairs of the living! What a help,
say, to the police, for instance, in the detection of crime! The number
of murders, at any rate, would be considerably reduced, he guessed
with an air of great sagacity. Then he would give way to grotesque
discouragement.

Where was the use of trying to communicate with people that had no
faith, and more likely than not would scorn the offered information?
Spirits had their feelings. They were _all_ feelings in a way. But
he was surprised at the forbearance shown towards murderers by their
victims. That was the sort of apparition that no guilty man would dare
to pooh-pooh. And perhaps the undiscovered murderers - whether believing
or not - were haunted. They wouldn't be likely to boast about it, would
they?

"For myself," he pursued, in a sort of vindictive, malevolent whine, "if
anybody murdered me I would not let him forget it. I would wither him
up - I would terrify him to death."

The idea of his skipper's ghost terrifying anyone was so ludicrous
that the black mate, little disposed to mirth as he was, could not help
giving vent to a weary laugh.

And this laugh, the only acknowledgment of a long and earnest discourse,
offended Captain Johns.

"What's there to laugh at in this conceited manner, Mr. Bunter?" he
snarled. "Supernatural visitations have terrified better men than you.
Don't you allow me enough soul to make a ghost of?"

I think it was the nasty tone that caused Bunter to stop short and turn
about.

"I shouldn't wonder," went on the angry fanatic of spiritism, "if you
weren't one of them people that take no more account of a man than if
he were a beast. You would be capable, I don't doubt, to deny the
possession of an immortal soul to your own father."

And then Bunter, being bored beyond endurance, and also exasperated by
the private worry, lost his self-possession.

He walked up suddenly to Captain Johns, and, stooping a little to look
close into his face, said, in a low, even tone:

"You don't know what a man like me is capable of."

Captain Johns threw his head back, but was too astonished to budge.
Bunter resumed his walk; and for a long time his measured footsteps and
the low wash of the water alongside were the only sounds which troubled
the silence brooding over the great waters. Then Captain Johns cleared
his throat uneasily, and, after sidling away towards the companion for
greater safety, plucked up enough courage to retreat under an act of
authority:

"Raise the starboard clew of the mainsail, and lay the yards dead
square, Mr. Bunter. Don't you see the wind is nearly right aft?"

Bunter at once answered "Ay, ay, sir," though there was not the
slightest necessity to touch the yards, and the wind was well out on
the quarter. While he was executing the order Captain Johns hung on the
companion-steps, growling to himself: "Walk this poop like an admiral
and don't even notice when the yards want trimming!" - loud enough for
the helmsman to overhear. Then he sank slowly backwards out of the man's
sight; and when he reached the bottom of the stairs he stood still and
thought.

"He's an awful ruffian, with all his gentlemanly airs. No more gentleman
mates for me."

Two nights afterwards he was slumbering peacefully in his berth, when a
heavy thumping just above his head (a well-understood signal that he was
wanted on deck) made him leap out of bed, broad awake in a moment.

"What's up?" he muttered, running out barefooted. On passing through the
cabin he glanced at the clock. It was the middle watch. "What on earth
can the mate want me for?" he thought.

Bolting out of the companion, he found a clear, dewy moonlit night and a
strong, steady breeze. He looked around wildly. There was no one on the
poop except the helmsman, who addressed him at once.

"It was me, sir. I let go the wheel for a second to stamp over your
head. I am afraid there's something wrong with the mate."

"Where's he got to?" asked the captain sharply.

The man, who was obviously nervous, said:

"The last I saw of him was as he-fell down the port poop-ladder."

"Fell down the poop-ladder! What did he do that for? What made him?"

"I don't know, sir. He was walking the port side. Then just as he turned
towards me to come aft..."

"You saw him?" interrupted the captain.

"I did. I was looking at him. And I heard the crash, too - something
awful. Like the mainmast going overboard. It was as if something had
struck him."

Captain Johns became very uneasy and alarmed. "Come," he said sharply.
"Did anybody strike him? What did you see?"

"Nothing, sir, so help me! There was nothing to see. He just gave
a little sort of hallo! threw his hands before him, and over he
went - crash. I couldn't hear anything more, so I just let go the wheel
for a second to call you up."

"You're scared!" said Captain Johns. "I am, sir, straight!"

Captain Johns stared at him. The silence of his ship driving on her way
seemed to contain a danger - a mystery. He was reluctant to go and look
for his mate himself, in the shadows of the main-deck, so quiet, so
still.

All he did was to advance to the break of the poop, and call for the
watch. As the sleepy men came trooping aft, he shouted to them fiercely:

"Look at the foot of the port poop-ladder, some of you! See the mate
lying there?"

Their startled exclamations told him immediately that they did see him.
Somebody even screeched out emotionally: "He's dead!"

Mr. Bunter was laid in his bunk and when the lamp in his room was lit
he looked indeed as if he were dead, but it was obvious also that he was
breathing yet. The steward had been roused out, the second mate called
and sent on deck to look after the ship, and for an hour or so Captain
Johns devoted himself silently to the restoring of consciousness. Mr.
Bunter at last opened his eyes, but he could not speak. He was dazed and
inert. The steward bandaged a nasty scalp-wound while Captain Johns
held an additional light. They had to cut away a lot of Mr. Bunter's
jet-black hair to make a good dressing. This done, and after gazing for
a while at their patient, the two left the cabin.

"A rum go, this, steward," said Captain Johns in the passage.

"Yessir."

"A sober man that's right in his head does not fall down a poop-ladder
like a sack of potatoes. The ship's as steady as a church."

"Yessir. Fit of some kind, I shouldn't wonder."

"Well, I should. He doesn't look as if he were subject to fits and
giddiness. Why, the man's in the prime of life. I wouldn't have another
kind of mate - not if I knew it. You don't think he has a private store
of liquor, do you, eh? He seemed to me a bit strange in his manner
several times lately. Off his feed, too, a bit, I noticed."

"Well, sir, if he ever had a bottle or two of grog in his cabin, that
must have gone a long time ago. I saw him throw some broken glass
overboard after the last gale we had; but that didn't amount to
anything. Anyway, sir, you couldn't call Mr. Bunter a drinking man."

"No," conceded the captain, reflectively. And the steward, locking
the pantry door, tried to escape out of the passage, thinking he could
manage to snatch another hour of sleep before it was time for him to
turn out for the day.

Captain Johns shook his head.

"There's some mystery there."

"There's special Providence that he didn't crack his head like an
eggshell on the quarter-deck mooring-bits, sir. The men tell me he
couldn't have missed them by more than an inch."

And the steward vanished skilfully.

Captain Johns spent the rest of the night and the whole of the ensuing
day between his own room and that of the mate.

In his own room he sat with his open hands reposing on his knees, his
lips pursed up, and the horizontal furrows on his forehead marked
very heavily. Now and then raising his arm by a slow, as if cautious
movement, he scratched lightly the top of his bald head. In the mate's
room he stood for long periods of time with his hand to his lips, gazing
at the half-conscious man.

For three days Mr. Bunter did not say a single word. He looked at people
sensibly enough but did not seem to be able to hear any questions put
to him. They cut off some more of his hair and swathed his head in
wet cloths. He took some nourishment, and was made as comfortable as
possible. At dinner on the third day the second mate remarked to the
captain, in connection with the affair:

"These half-round brass plates on the steps of the poop-ladders are
beastly dangerous things!"

"Are they?" retorted Captain Johns, sourly. "It takes more than a brass
plate to account for an able-bodied man crashing down in this fashion
like a felled ox."

The second mate was impressed by that view. There was something in that,
he thought.

"And the weather fine, everything dry, and the ship going along as
steady as a church!" pursued Captain Johns, gruffly.

As Captain Johns continued to look extremely sour, the second mate did
not open his lips any more during the dinner. Captain Johns was annoyed
and hurt by an innocent remark, because the fitting of the aforesaid
brass plates had been done at his suggestion only the voyage before, in
order to smarten up the appearance of the poop-ladders.

On the fourth day Mr. Bunter looked decidedly better; very languid yet,
of course, but he heard and understood what was said to him, and even
could say a few words in a feeble voice.

Captain Johns, coming in, contemplated him attentively, without much
visible sympathy.

"Well, can you give us your account of this accident, Mr. Bunter?"

Bunter moved slightly his bandaged head, and fixed his cold blue stare
on Captain Johns' face, as if taking stock and appraising the value of
every feature; the perplexed forehead, the credulous eyes, the inane
droop of the mouth. And he gazed so long that Captain Johns grew
restive, and looked over his shoulder at the door.

"No accident," breathed out Bunter, in a peculiar tone.

"You don't mean to say you've got the falling sickness," said Captain
Johns. "How would you call it signing as chief mate of a clipper ship
with a thing like that on you?"

Bunter answered him only by a sinister look. The skipper shuffled his
feet a little.

"Well, what made you have that tumble, then?"

Bunter raised himself a little, and, looking straight into Captain
Johns' eyes said, in a very distinct whisper:

"You - were - right!"

He fell back and closed his eyes. Not a word more could Captain Johns
get out of him; and, the steward coming into the cabin, the skipper
withdrew.

But that very night, unobserved, Captain Johns, opening the door
cautiously, entered again the mate's cabin. He could wait no longer. The
suppressed eagerness, the excitement expressed in all his mean, creeping
little person, did not escape the chief mate, who was lying awake,
looking frightfully pulled down and perfectly impassive.

"You are coming to gloat over me, I suppose," said Bunter without
moving, and yet making a palpable hit.

"Bless my soul!" exclaimed Captain Johns with a start, and assuming a
sobered demeanour. "There's a thing to say!"

"Well, gloat, then! You and your ghosts, you've managed to get over a
live man."

This was said by Bunter without stirring, in a low voice, and with not
much expression.

"Do you mean to say," inquired Captain Johns, in awe-struck whisper,
"that you had a supernatural experience that night? You saw an
apparition, then, on board my ship?"

Reluctance, shame, disgust, would have been visible on poor Bunter's
countenance if the great part of it had not been swathed up in
cotton-wool and bandages. His ebony eyebrows, more sinister than ever
amongst all that lot of white linen, came together in a frown as he made
a mighty effort to say:

"Yes, I have seen."

The wretchedness in his eyes would have awakened the compassion of
any other man than Captain Johns. But Captain Johns was all agog with
triumphant excitement. He was just a little bit frightened, too. He
looked at that unbelieving scoffer laid low, and did not even dimly
guess at his profound, humiliating distress. He was not generally
capable of taking much part in the anguish of his fellow-creatures. This
time, moreover, he was excessively anxious to know what had happened.
Fixing his credulous eyes on the bandaged head, he asked, trembling
slightly:

"And did it - did it knock you down?"

"Come! am I the sort of man to be knocked down by a ghost?" protested
Bunter in a little stronger tone. "Don't you remember what you said
yourself the other night? Better men than me - - - Ha! you'll have to
look a long time before you find a better man for a mate of your ship."

Captain Johns pointed a solemn finger at Bunter's bedplace.

"You've been terrified," he said. "That's what's the matter. You've been
terrified. Why, even the man at the wheel was scared, though he couldn't
see anything. He _felt_ the supernatural. You are punished for your
incredulity, Mr. Bunter. You were terrified."

"And suppose I was," said Bunter. "Do you know what I had seen? Can you
conceive the sort of ghost that would haunt a man like me? Do you think
it was a ladyish, afternoon call, another-cup-of-tea-please apparition
that visits your Professor Cranks and that journalist chap you are
always talking about? No; I can't tell you what it was like. Every man
has his own ghosts. You couldn't conceive..."

Bunter stopped, out of breath; and Captain Johns remarked, with the glow
of inward satisfaction reflected in his tone:

"I've always thought you were the sort of man that was ready for
anything; from pitch-and-toss to wilful murder, as the saying goes.
Well, well! So you were terrified."

"I stepped back," said Bunter, curtly. "I don't remember anything else."

"The man at the wheel told me you went backwards as if something had hit
you."

"It was a sort of inward blow," explained Bunter. "Something too deep
for you, Captain Johns, to understand. Your life and mine haven't been
the same. Aren't you satisfied to see me converted?"

"And you can't tell me any more?" asked Captain Johns, anxiously.

"No, I can't. I wouldn't. It would be no use if I did. That sort of
experience must be gone through. Say I am being punished. Well, I take
my punishment, but talk of it I won't."

"Very well," said Captain Johns; "you won't. But, mind, I can draw my
own conclusions from that."

"Draw what you like; but be careful what you say, sir. You don't terrify
me. _You_ aren't a ghost."

"One word. Has it any connection with what you said to me on that last
night, when we had a talk together on spiritualism?"

Bunter looked weary and puzzled.

"What did I say?"

"You told me that I couldn't know what a man like you was capable of."

"Yes, yes. Enough!"

"Very good. I am fixed, then," remarked Captain Johns. "All I say is
that I am jolly glad not to be you, though I would have given almost
anything for the privilege of personal communication with the world of
spirits. Yes, sir, but not in that way."

Poor Bunter moaned pitifully.

"It has made me feel twenty years older."

Captain Johns retired quietly. He was delighted to observe this
overbearing ruffian humbled to the dust by the moralizing agency of the
spirits. The whole occurrence was a source of pride and gratification;
and he began to feel a sort of regard for his chief mate.

It is true that in further interviews Bunter showed himself very
mild and deferential. He seemed to cling to his captain for spiritual
protection. He used to send for him, and say, "I feel so nervous," and
Captain Johns would stay patiently for hours in the hot little cabin,
and feel proud of the call.

For Mr. Bunter was ill, and could not leave his berth for a good many
days. He became a convinced spiritualist, not enthusiastically - that
could hardly have been expected from him - but in a grim, unshakable way.
He could not be called exactly friendly to the disembodied inhabitants
of our globe, as Captain Johns was. But he was now a firm, if gloomy,
recruit of spiritualism.

One afternoon, as the ship was already well to the north in the Gulf


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Online LibraryJoseph ConradTales Of Hearsay → online text (page 7 of 8)