Joseph Conrad.

Tales Of Hearsay online

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of Bengal, the steward knocked at the door of the captain's cabin, and
said, without opening it:

"The mate asks if you could spare him a moment, sir. He seems to be in a
state in there."

Captain Johns jumped up from the couch at once.

"Yes. Tell him I am coming."

He thought: Could it be possible there had been another spiritual
manifestation - in the daytime, too!

He revelled in the hope. It was not exactly that, however. Still,
Bunter, whom he saw sitting collapsed in a chair - he had been up
for several days, but not on deck as yet - poor Bunter had something
startling enough to communicate. His hands covered his face. His legs
were stretched straight out, dismally.

"What's the news now?" croaked Captain Johns, not unkindly, because in
truth it always pleased him to see Bunter - as he expressed it - tamed.

"News!" exclaimed the crushed sceptic through his hands. "Ay, news
enough, Captain Johns. Who will be able to deny the awfulness, the
genuineness? Another man would have dropped dead. You want to know what
I had seen. All I can tell you is that since I've seen it my hair is
turning white."

Bunter detached his hands from his face, and they hung on each side of
his chair as if dead. He looked broken in the dusky cabin.

"You don't say!" stammered out Captain Johns. "Turned white! Hold on a
bit! I'll light the lamp!"

When the lamp was lit, the startling phenomenon could be seen plainly
enough. As if the dread, the horror, the anguish of the supernatural
were being exhaled through the pores of his skin, a sort of silvery mist
seemed to cling to the cheeks and the head of the mate. His short beard,
his cropped hair, were growing, not black, but gray - almost white.

When Mr. Bunter, thin-faced and shaky, came on deck for duty, he
was clean-shaven, and his head was white. The hands were awe-struck.
"Another man," they whispered to each other. It was generally and
mysteriously agreed that the mate had "seen something," with the
exception of the man at the wheel at the time, who maintained that the
mate was "struck by something."

This distinction hardly amounted to a difference. On the other hand,
everybody admitted that, after he picked up his strength a bit, he
seemed even smarter in his movements than before.

One day in Calcutta, Captain Johns, pointing out to a visitor his
white-headed chief mate standing by the main-hatch, was heard to say
oracularly:

"That man's in the prime of life."

Of course, while Bunter was away, I called regularly on Mrs. Bunter
every Saturday, just to see whether she had any use for my services. It
was understood I would do that. She had just his half-pay to live on - it
amounted to about a pound a week. She had taken one room in a quiet
little square in the East End.

And this was affluence to what I had heard that the couple were reduced
to for a time after Bunter had to give up the Western Ocean trade - he
used to go as mate of all sorts of hard packets after he lost his ship
and his luck together - it was affluence to that time when Bunter would
start at seven o'clock in the morning with but a glass of hot water
and a crust of dry bread. It won't stand thinking about, especially for
those who know Mrs. Bunter. I had seen something of them, too, at that
time; and it just makes me shudder to remember what that born lady had
to put up with. Enough!

Dear Mrs. Bunter used to worry a good deal after the _Sapphire_ left
for Calcutta. She would say to me: "It must be so awful for poor
Winston" - Winston is Bunter's name - and I tried to comfort her the best
I could. Afterwards, she got some small children to teach in a family,
and was half the day with them, and the occupation was good for her.

In the very first letter she had from Calcutta, Bunter told her he had
had a fall down the poop-ladder, and cut his head, but no bones broken,
thank God. That was all. Of course, she had other letters from him, but
that vagabond Bunter never gave me a scratch of the pen the solid eleven
months. I supposed, naturally, that everything was going on all right.
Who could imagine what was happening?

Then one day dear Mrs. Bunter got a letter from a legal firm in the
City, advising her that her uncle was dead - her old curmudgeon of an
uncle - a retired stockbroker, a heartless, petrified antiquity that had
lasted on and on. He was nearly ninety, I believe; and if I were to meet
his venerable ghost this minute, I would try to take him by the throat
and strangle him.

The old beast would never forgive his niece for marrying Bunter; and
years afterwards, when people made a point of letting him know that she
was in London, pretty nearly starving at forty years of age, he only
said: "Serve the little fool right!" I believe he meant her to starve.
And, lo and behold, the old cannibal died intestate, with no other
relatives but that very identical little fool. The Bunters were wealthy
people now.

Of course, Mrs. Bunter wept as if her heart would break. In any other
woman it would have been mere hypocrisy. Naturally, too, she wanted to
cable the news to her Winston in Calcutta, but I showed her, _Gazette_
in hand, that the ship was on the homeward-bound list for more than a
week already. So we sat down to wait, and talked meantime of dear old
Winston every day. There were just one hundred such days before the
_Sapphire_ got reported "All well" in the chops of the Channel by an
incoming mailboat.

"I am going to Dunkirk to meet him," says she. The _Sapphire_ had a
cargo of jute for Dunkirk. Of course, I had to escort the dear lady
in the quality of her "ingenious friend." She calls me "our ingenious
friend" to this day; and I've observed some people - strangers - looking
hard at me, for the signs of the ingenuity, I suppose.

After settling Mrs. Bunter in a good hotel in Dunkirk, I walked down to
the docks - late afternoon it was - and what was my surprise to see the
ship actually fast alongside. Either Johns or Bunter, or both, must have
been driving her hard up Channel. Anyway, she had been in since the
day before last, and her crew was already paid off. I met two of
her apprenticed boys going off home on leave with their dunnage on a
Frenchman's barrow, as happy as larks, and I asked them if the mate was
on board.

"There he is, on the quay, looking at the moorings," says one of the
youngsters as he skipped past me.

You may imagine the shock to my feelings when I beheld his white head. I
could only manage to tell him that his wife was at an hotel in town.
He left me at once, to go and get his hat on board. I was mightily
surprised by the smartness of his movements as he hurried up the
gangway.

Whereas the black mate struck people as deliberate, and strangely
stately in his gait for a man in the prime of life, this white-headed
chap seemed the most wonderfully alert of old men. I don't suppose
Bunter was any quicker on his pins than before. It was the colour of the
hair that made all the difference in one's judgment.

The same with his eyes. Those eyes, that looked at you so steely, so
fierce, and so fascinating out of a bush of a buccaneer's black hair,
now had an innocent almost boyish expression in their good-humoured
brightness under those white eyebrows.

I led him without any delay into Mrs. Bunter's private sitting-room.
After she had dropped a tear over the late cannibal, given a hug to her
Winston, and told him that he must grow his moustache again, the dear
lady tucked her feet upon the sofa, and I got out of Bunter's way.

He started at once to pace the room, waving his long arms. He worked
himself into a regular frenzy, and tore Johns limb from limb many times
over that evening.

"Fell down? Of course I fell down, by slipping backwards on that fool's
patent brass plates. 'Pon my word, I had been walking that poop in
charge of the ship, and I didn't know whether I was in the Indian Ocean
or in the moon. I was crazy. My head spun round and round with sheer
worry. I had made my last application of your chemist's wonderful
stuff." (This to me.) "All the store of bottles you gave me got smashed
when those drawers fell out in the last gale. I had been getting some
dry things to change, when I heard the cry: 'All hands on deck!' and
made one jump of it, without even pushing them in properly. Ass! When I
came back and saw the broken glass and the mess, I felt ready to faint.

"No; look here - deception is bad; but not to be able to keep it up after
one has been forced into it. You know that since I've been squeezed
out of the Western Ocean packets by younger men, just on account of my
grizzled muzzle - you know how much chance I had to ever get a ship. And
not a soul to turn to. We have been a lonely couple, we two - she threw
away everything for me - and to see her want a piece of dry bread - - - "

He banged with his fist fit to split the Frenchman's table in two.

"I would have turned a sanguinary pirate for her, let alone cheating
my way into a berth by dyeing my hair. So when you came to me with your
chemist's wonderful stuff - - - "

He checked himself.

"By the way, that fellow's got a fortune when he likes to pick it up. It
is a wonderful stuff - you tell him salt water can do nothing to it. It
stays on as long as your hair will."

"All right," I said. "Go on."

Thereupon he went for Johns again with a fury that frightened his wife,
and made me laugh till I cried.

"Just you try to think what it would have meant to be at the mercy of
the meanest creature that ever commanded a ship! Just fancy what a life
that crawling Johns would have led me! And I knew that in a week or so
the white hair would begin to show. And the crew. Did you ever think of
that? To be shown up as a low fraud before all hands. What a life for me
till we got to Calcutta! And once there - kicked out, of course. Half-pay
stopped. Annie here alone without a penny - starving; and I on the other
side of the earth, ditto. You see?

"I thought of shaving twice a day. But could I shave my head, too?
No way - no way at all. Unless I dropped Johns overboard; and even
then - - -

"Do you wonder now that with all these things boiling in my head I didn't
know where I was putting down my foot that night? I just felt myself
falling - then crash, and all dark.

"When I came to myself that bang on the head seemed to have steadied my
wits somehow. I was so sick of everything that for two days I wouldn't
speak to anyone. They thought it was a slight concussion of the brain.
Then the idea dawned upon me as I was looking at that ghost-ridden,
wretched fool. 'Ah, you love ghosts,' I thought. 'Well, you shall have
something from beyond the grave.'

"I didn't even trouble to invent a story. I couldn't imagine a ghost
if I wanted to. I wasn't fit to lie connectedly if I had tried. I just
bulled him on to it. Do you know, he got, quite by himself, a notion
that at some time or other I had done somebody to death in some way, and
that - - - "

"Oh, the horrible man!" cried Mrs. Bunter from the sofa. There was a
silence.

"And didn't he bore my head off on the home passage!" began Bunter again
in a weary voice. "He loved me. He was proud of me. I was converted. I
had had a manifestation. Do you know what he was after? He wanted me and
him 'to make a _seance_,' in his own words, and to try to call up that
ghost (the one that had turned my hair white - the ghost of my supposed
victim), and, as he said, talk it over with him - the ghost - in a
friendly way.

"'Or else, Bunter,' he says, 'you may get another manifestation when you
least expect it, and tumble overboard perhaps, or something. You ain't
really safe till we pacify the spirit-world in some way.'

"Can you conceive a lunatic like that? No - say?"

I said nothing. But Mrs. Bunter did, in a very decided tone.

"Winston, I don't want you to go on board that ship again any more."

"My dear," says he, "I have all my things on board yet."

"You don't want the things. Don't go near that ship at all."

He stood still; then, dropping his eyes with a faint smile, said slowly,
in a dreamy voice:

"The haunted ship."

"And your last," I added.

We carried him off, as he stood, by the night train. He was very quiet;
but crossing the Channel, as we two had a smoke on deck, he turned to me
suddenly, and, grinding his teeth, whispered:

"He'll never know how near he was being dropped overboard!"

He meant Captain Johns. I said nothing.

But Captain Johns, I understand, made a great to-do about the
disappearance of his chief mate. He set the French police scouring the
country for the body. In the end, I fancy he got word from his owners'
office to drop all this fuss - that it was all right. I don't suppose he
ever understood anything of that mysterious occurrence.

To this day he tries at times (he's retired now, and his conversation is
not very coherent) - he tries to tell the story of a black mate he once
had, "a murderous, gentlemanly ruffian, with raven-black hair which
turned white all at once in consequence of a manifestation from beyond
the grave." An avenging apparition. What with reference to black and
white hair, to poop-ladders, and to his own feelings and views, it is
difficult to make head or tail of it. If his sister (she's very vigorous
still) should be present she cuts all this short - peremptorily:

"Don't you mind what he says. He's got devils on the brain."

THE END







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