By A. Hyatt Verrill
From Sea Stories Magazine, 1924 January 20. Digital capture by Philip Bolton Jr., Betty Paulos and Doug Frizzle 2009, December.
This is the story of the happenings aboard a whale ship as related by one of the mates to some old cronies who were gathered together and were swapping yarns, inexplicable happenings, and superstitions.
Old Captain Daniel Taber, of the
The captain comes on deck and shoots him in cold blood, and then refuses to give him a regular burial. What follows makes this a thoroughly interesting yarn, and verifies Captain Lampson’s statement that what he related was gospel truth.
The grizzled, weather beaten old seamen, gathered in the snug “Whaleman’s Club” in that once greatest of whaling ports,
“Did any of ye ever see a ghost?” queried Cap’n Lampson as he rammed his pipe full of tobacco and struck a match.
One after the other the circle of old whalemen shook their heads.
“Well, I did,” asserted Lampson peering from beneath his heavy brows at his companions as if challenging them to contradict him.
“I ain’t never told it before,” muttered Lampson, after a moment’s thoughtful silence. “But it’s gospel truth for all that.”
“Hey, sheet home and square away,” burst out nervous little Lemuel Potter. “Stop fillin’ an’ backin’ and get on yer course and let’s have the yarn. Course it’s true—don’t none of us doubt it.” He winked slyly at the others.
“It happened when I was second mate of the old
“Um, um, I knowed him,” commented Cap’n Josiah as Lampson touched another match to his pipe. “Lost at sea I recollect. Went crazy or somethin’.”
Yep, that’s part of this here yarn,” assented Lampson. “Well, as I was sayin’ Taber was skipper and the first mate was a chap named Dickson. Come for Si’sconsett and same sort of breed as the Old Man. Tough! Say, you could have heaved a iron at him and his hide would have turned the point, I’ll bet! ‘Course I ain’t sayin’ as greenies
Can be treated like a Sunday School class and officers has got to beat sense into their everlastin’ thick skulls with a handspike or a ropes’ end now and again. But there ain’t no use beatin’ ‘em up if they ain’t got the sense to learn and some on ‘em can’t never learn the difference ‘twixt a main yard and a cuttin’ stage. And there ain’t a mite of use cripplin’ ‘em so they can’t work or killin’ of ‘em. I don’t allow I’m so everlastin’ soft or tender hearted, but by glory, what I seen aboard the old
“And the old rascal pretended to be plumb religious too. Deacon of the church he were and read the Bible every day and was always quotin’ Scripture. An’ superstitious! Godfrey’s boots, he was fuller of superstitions than a shad is of bones! Howsomever, we had pretty fair luck, cruisin’ round the
“Course there wasn’t nothin’ done, though the hands hated the skipper and mate like poisen, and if they’d been real seamen they’d have mutinied inside three weeks. But the Old Man and Dickson had ‘em cowed. After they’d been beat up an’ had bones broken and two more had got bullets through ‘em—though they weren’t killed—they done what they was told on the jump.
“’But the Old Man had overdid it.”
“S’long’s the mates and boat steerers and other officers hang together and don’t chum with the greenies too much there ain’t no danger of trouble, but ‘ceptin the mate there weren’t a man jack aboard the Helena what wasn’t sore against the skipper and the mate. As a result, all hands for’ard was hand in glove and thicker’n molasses.
“Yep, I didn’t have no use for them two either, and the hands knowed it. ‘Course I had to follow orders and all that, but when it come to dirty, bloody, no sense brutality I left it to them as hatched it. Had a good many words with Cap’n Dan’el over it too, but he seen he couldn’t scare me and he needed me and at last he give it up.
“Then off Noronha we begun to have bad luck. Couldn’t raise a whale, no wind, and just rolled and wallowed along fit to slat the sticks out of her for three mortal weeks. Seems like the calm and no whales made the Old Man worse. He used to pace the after deck with his head down and just his singlet and drawers on talkin’ to himself and glowering like a mad bull for hours at a time. Then he’d set down below porin’ over his Bible and mutterin’ to himself.
“Least little thing’d drive him into a tantrum and he seemed to take unholy joy makin’ the hands work. Yes, sir, there, with never a breath of wind, he’d have ‘em ordered aloft to shorten sail, then, soon’s ever that was done, he’d roar out to put on every stitch the old bark’d carry.
“I tell ye it was fair hell aboard the
“The next minute he comes racin’ up the companion. ‘Damn ye,’ he yells, catchin’ sight of Chips just stoopin’ over the skylight to see where his hammer’d gone. “Ye will try to murder me! Take that, ye blankety blank son of Satan!’ With that he whips out his gun and afore Chips knows what’s up he plugs him.
“Chips let’s out a yell, claps his hand to his chest and lurches for’ard. Afore he’d taken three steps the skipper blazes away again and Chips jerks up and pitches down on his face abaft the mainmast. The Old Man shoves his revolver back in his pocket. ‘Mr. Lampson,’ says he, a nasty twisted smile on his face. ‘Have that carrion pitched over the rail and clean up the muss on the deck.’
“Well, sir, I was just about ready to tell the old murderer just what I thought of him. It was cold blooded murder—nothin’ less and I could see the hands for’ard edging toward the spades and irons by the bench and lookin’ everlastin’ ugly, ‘cause Chips was a prime fav’rite and they’d seen the whole bloody rumpus. But I managed to hold myself. Howsomever, I was sick of him and his ways. ‘You’re not meanin’, sir,’ I says, ‘that he’ll not be given burial?’
“The skipper swung round and I thought for a spell he was goin’ to plug me next. ‘Burial!’ he snorted. ‘Wastin’ Christian burial on a sneakin,’ underhanded, murderin’ dog like him. Obey my orders, Mr. Lampson or, by the eternal, you’ll follow him!’
“By that time I was het up and didn’t give a cuss what happened. I laughed,” Ye may be able to shoot down your men—even your carpenter—Cap’n Taber,’ says I, ‘But you’ll find it a different matter if you try it on your mates. If you don’t want to give proper burial to Chips it’s on your conscience, not mine. But, mark me, you’ll be damned sorry for it before this cruise is done.’
“I thought he was goin’ to shoot for sure. He half pulled his gun, his lips drew back over his yellow teeth and he crouched for’ard.
“Just then Dickson stepped over, ‘No use startin’ a row ‘twixt officers,’ he says ‘’specially over a bit of worthless carrion like that,’ he nodded towards Chips still lyin’ there with a widenin’ stain of blood around him. ‘Maybe, if ye think so much of proper obsequies over the body ye can ‘tend to it yourself.’
“’I will,’ says I, ‘I expect Chips’ soul’ll rest easier than if his murderer said prayers over him.’
“By glory, you should have seen the look the skipper gave me at that. He was so crazy mad he couldn’t even speak. Just gulped and ground his teeth and got purple and reached for his gun. But the mate said somethin’ and began talkin’ and I turned and went for’ward.
“I called to a couple of hands to pick up Chips’ body. Told the sailmaker—who was also cooper—to sew him up and ordered the blacksmith to knock a few links off an old chain to put at his feet.
“It was too late to get Chips sewed and bury him that night so the hands takes him for’ard and I tells ‘em the skipper won’t read the service, but I’ll attend to it first thing the next morning.
“Yes, sir,’ says the cooper, a dried up little old Irishman named Tiernan, “We heard the talk, Misther Lampson and the boys is wid yez, sir. B gorra ‘tis a murtherin’ haythen, is the Ould Man. And by the same token the mate is worse. Thank yez, sir, for seein’ as poor Chips has dacent burial, sir’”
“Well, next mornin’ along about six bells, I went for’ard and seen Chips’ body neat sewed in a bit of old canvas ready for the service. The Old Man wouldn’t back the yards and I didn’t ask him. I called the men and they lifted Chips onto a hatch cover and with bare hands carried him over to the rail. I read the service, lifted my hand, and as the hatchcover was tipped Chips dropped with a splash into the sea. He sunk kind of slow and, the bark bein’ under way, he went slippin’ aft, sinkin’ all the time and in the clear water you could see him like a light blurr of green gettin’ smaller and fainter, sort of as if he hated for to take that long v’yage of Lord knows how many thousand fathoms down to Davy Jones.
“The wind was mighty light—we weren’t makin’ over three or four knots—and it kept fallin’ till we was just makin’ steerage way. Long about eight bells it was nigh dead calm and was gettin’ foggy. You know what a south Atlantic fog is. Not one of them thick greasy fogs like we have up north or on the banks, but a wispy sort of thing, driftin’ along like smoke. One minute you could see a couple of miles clear as is, next minute all shut off to starboard and clear to port. Then ‘tother way about. First you could see the mastheads sharp against the smoky lookin’ sky and by the time you’d winked twice the riggin’ faded away at the topmast caps. Worst sort of fog for navigatin’ if there was ships about. But of course down there, with the whole ocean clear, there weren’t no danger. Only trouble was there weren’t much chance of raisin’ a whale. All the afternoon we was driftin’ about in it, sometimes fillin’ an’ drawin’ ahead a few knots, then sails slattin’ and just rollin’. The sun went down in a bank of murk and the moon give a sort of ghostly look to the sea. One minute hid back a mass of fog and balcker’n Jonah’s pocket, the next shinin’ through and makin’ it light as day with the clouds of fog white, like driftin’ snow.
“I was standin’ at the port rail aft by the mizzen riggin’, the mate was below and Cap’n Dan’el was pacin’ the deck to starboard.
“Suddenly I heard him let out a sort of gasp and wheelin around I seen him lookin’ aft with his head sort of bent forward starin’.
“Next minute he goes runnin’ aft reachin’ for his hip pocket. Wonderin’ what in thunderation was up I walked aft too. The Old Man was ahead of me and as he reached the taffrail he ripped out a string of cuss words. ‘Damn ye!’ he yelled. ‘Keep off! Get back where ye belong. Take that, damn ye!’
“With that he let drive and then I sees, Bobbin’ up and down in the wake, and sort of twistin’ an’ twirlin’, was a sort of gray-white thing, shapeless but sort of humanlike at that. Soon’s I seen it I knowed what ‘twas. It was Chips! Yes, sir, either the chain had bust through that rotten old canvas and let him bob up or there wasn’t weight enough to keep him down or somethin’. Anyhow he’d floated up, and getting’ in a current or maybe drawn along by the suction of the wake, there he be astern of us like he was follerin’ the old
“At the first shot the man at the wheel had looked back and when he see what ‘twas he let out a awful screech and dropped the wheel and started for’ard.
“’Twixt grabbin’ the wheel and yellin’ for the blasted idiot to come back, I had enough to do without watchin’ that corpse, though I heard the skipper poppin’ away.
“The feller came slinkin’ back whiter’n a sheet and without lookin’ aft took the wheel and when I look back Chips had disappeared and the Old Man was standin’ with his empty gun lookin’ dazed and his red face the color of putty. A wisp of fog had drifted past the stern and shut out everything more’n a biscuit toss away and of course I couldn’t say as Chips has sunk or was just hidden by the fog. At the sound of the shootin’ Dickson had come rushin’ up on deck and had pulled his gun and was askin’ the skipper what was up.
“The Old Man began to cuss excited. ‘That there blankety blank son of a wharf rat,’ he says. ‘Follerin’ us along and tryin’ to board us. By the eternal, I settled him though.’
“Dickson gave a short, hard laugh. ‘Better come below and have a shot of rum. Cap’n,’ he says. ‘Guess Chips won’t trouble you none. I’ve seen corpses do the same thing before now. ‘Tain’t nothin’to fret over.
“As they passed me by I could see the Old Man was shakin’ and his mouth was tight shut, but he went below with Dickson. Then the cooper came aft with a parcel of the hands and wanted to know what the shootin’ was about.
“When I told ‘em they looked scairt an’ gathered together in a bunch and looked nervously to starboard an’ port as if expectin’ to see Chips bobbin’ up again.
“The cooper shook his head serious. ‘Shure, sir, ‘tis bad business that do be,’ he said solemnly. ‘Poor ould Chips is onaisy an’ll be hangin’ ‘round afther us and bad luck he’ll be bringin’. Praise be ‘tis not afther anny av us uor yez he do be afther, Mr. Lampson.”
“Go for’ard,” I said, ‘and stop talkin’ that rot. Didn’t you never know of a body floatin’ up before? There ain’t nothin’ supernatural about it. We ain’t made a dozen knots since we dripped him over this mornin’ and there’s currents here’bouts runnin’ faster than we’ve been sailin’.”
“They didn’t say nothin’ and went for’ard. At four bells the skipper came on deck again and I went below to get some tobaccer. Just as I was startin’ out of my berth I heard a scream from the deck that sent shivers down my back. Mut’ny,’ I thought, an’ grabbin’ a gun I went up the companion in two jumps. Just before I reached the deck I heard the skipper yellin’ in a sort of choked, gurglin’ voice, “Do—do ye see him?’ he said. Then I heard the hand at the wheel.
“No, sir, I don’t see nothin’,” said he, kind of puzzled like. What ‘twas he didn’t see I didn’t know, but next minute I was on deck and, by Judas, I seen, and I tell you I felt like a bucket of water’d been splashed over me.
“Alongside the gangway, one leg over the rail like he was just comin’ aboard was Chips! His clothes were drippin’, there was a big red splotch over the front of his shirt and his face was sort of sickly green, like a shark’s belly. By glory, my knees was shakin’, Icould feel my jaw saggin’ and my throat felt stranglin’. Then I heard a sort of groan from the skipper and a curse. I wheeled around. He was standin’ holdin’ to the mizzen riggin’ with one hand, the other pointin’ at Chips and his face the color of old canvas. ‘My God!’ he sort of moaned. ‘He’s come back!’ Then he lets got the backstay, jumped for’ard, whipped out his gun and fires and falls flat on the deck.
“I jumped to him and gave a frightened glance to where Chips’ ghost had been. He was just steppin’ onto the deck and seemed sort of fadin’ out in a wisp of fog. The next minute he was gone. I turned the skipper over just as Dickson come on deck. “Here, look after the Old Man,” says I, and ran for’ard. I’d been mortal scared, but I’d got my sense back by now. ‘Where’d he go?’ I yelled as a bunch of the men came out of the fog lookin’ scared.
“Where’d who go?” asked a boat steerer. “What’s the shootin’, Mr. Lampson?”
“Chips,” I says.
“’Chips?’” answered the boat steerer, lookin’ like he thought I was crazy, “Chips?” Why ye buried him yerself this morning,” says he.
“’Aye an’ he just come aboard,’ I said. “Skipper and me seen him and cap’n fired at him.”
“The hands looked about, frightened. They hadn’t seen him, that was sure, and I run for’ard and downthe fo’c’s’le. He wasn’t there, but of course I knowed he wasn’t. Hadn’t I seen him plump into the sea all sewed up myself and hadn’t I seen him bobbin’ about in the wake with the skipper pluggin’ his corpse? By Godfrey, I begun to feel queer. You see I hadn’t never taken no stock in ghosts and spirits and such things, but I’d seed one now. I could feel my hair bristlin’ on the back of my neck and cold chills goin’ over me.
“I came on deck slow and walked mighty cautiously over to where I’d seen Chips. Just ‘longside the rail where’d he sat was a pool of water and ‘twas stained red!
“Well, ye can bet no one turned in that night aboard the old bark. Mate had got the skipper down to his berth and the Old Man was babblin’ of Chips and ghosts and eternal damnation and what all—gone clean off his head. Dickson was tryin’ to argue with him. Tellin’ him he just had a halluc’nation or somethin’.
“’Take a man and search the ship,’ he says to me. ‘Go through her from fore peak to lazarette an’find the damned scoundrel what’s tryin’ to play ghost.’
“I knew t’wan’t a mite of use, but I called the cooper and a boat steerer and started. When over the bark from truck to ballast and from stem to stern, but of course nary a sign of anything.
“The hands were all talkin’, mutterin’ and hangin’ about together, lookin’ scared half to death. “’Tain’t surprisin’, said the boat steerer. “Chips was murdered and of course he couldn’t rest easy. Like as not he just want to have a word with the skipper.’
“The cooper sat over the rail. ‘Shure Oi tould yez he was afther the ship,’ he said. ‘Soon’s ever he come up astarn Oi knowed ‘twould be boardin’ av us he’d be afther doin’.
“Well, after a bit, the skipper went to sleep and with mornin’ it all seemed like we’d been dreamin’. The fog lifted, a good breeze came up and nothin’ happened that day. The night was clear and bright moonlight and every time I looked towards the gangway I felt myself tremblin’. But Chips didn’t come aboard again and nothin’ happened that night. Next day the cap’n come on deck. Lookin’ kind of drawed and old, but seemin’ all right, but I caught him lookin’ furtive at the gangway a couple of times and he kept mumblin’ to himself. By and by he went below and began writin’ in his journal.
“About four bells in the afternoon we raised a whale and lowered two boats. Me and Dickson sent in and got two irons into him. He was about a seventy barrel bull—stowed seventy-four barrels I recollect—and by the time we got him under the cuttin’ stage it was black dark, the night bein’ cloudy and the moon risin’ late.
“Cause all hands fell to, cuttin’ and boilin’ with the bug light glimmerin’, and gutterin’. We’d got in the junk and sperm’cetti and were gettin’ on right well when there was an all-fired yell and the hands in the blubber room came pilin’ on deck.
“’Chips!’ yelled one of ‘em. ‘His ghost’s down below!’
“I give one jump and went down. But nothin’ was there. Not a sign of Chips’ ghost. I was just about leavin’ when I heard an awful screech on deck and as my head comes above the hatch coamin’ there was a shot and I wheeled around and, by Judas, I most tumbled back to the blubber room again. Standin’ by the for’mast and sort of red in the glare of the bug light was Chips, and slumped down on the deck, yellin’ and moanin’ like he’d gone plumb crazy was the cap’n.
“I made a jump for Chips or whoever ‘t was, tripped over a tackle and went down. But I never took my eyes off him and I seen him just fade away into the blackness like he’d done afore. It wasn’t no use of course, I might have known you couldn’t catch a ghost and the skipper’d ought to known he couldn’t shoot a spirit. Well, ye can bet there weren’t no more cuttin’ in or boilin’ that night.
“Dickson cussed and threatened and I did my best, but there was open, mutiny though the hands didn’t try violence. But they wouldn’t work; nary one of ‘em, and I couldn’t much blame ‘em. All that mortal night we stood around, the men whisperin’ and’ keepin’ close together, me and Dickson on the quarterdeck—and by glory for once I was glad of his comp’ny and felt mighty friendly to him and the skipper ravin’ like a madman down below.
“Seemed like mornin’ would never come, but at last it did and with daylight the men fell to again. Cut the whale adrift about two bells in the afternoon and squared away under all plain sail. Dickson and me was on deck and we hadn’t heard nothin’ from the cap’n’s berth for some time.
“Reckon he’s sleepin’,” said the mate. “Mebbe he’ll wake up all right. What do ye think ‘bout the whole consarned business anyhow, Mr. Lampson?”
I shook my head. ‘I never had no faith in ghosts,’ I says. ‘And I’ve always laughed at superstitions. But blow me, if I don’t believe now. Did you see it?”
“Not the first time,” he said. “But I seen it last night.”
“Well, what do ye think?” I asked.
“Dickson looked about as if half expectin’ to see Chips sneakin’ up. “Twixt me and you,” he said, low and quiet, “I think Chips come back to haunt the Old Man. I’ve been a tough man in my day,” he goes on after a bit. “But I never killed no man in cold blood. I can stand for knockin’ ‘em about and I’d never stop at shootin’ in case of mutiny, but as for murder—no, sir, I ain’t for it.”
“Well,” says I, “mebbe Chips just wanted to haunt the skipper and that’s why he ain’t showed up to you, but I was pretty friendly with him and the hands, and he ought to be grateful to me for givin’ him Christian burial and so I don’t see why he’s scarin’ the liver and lights out of me and his mates for’ard.”
“’Mebbe he knowed ye didn’t believe in spirits,’ said Dickson, ‘and wanted to convince ye. But I’ll tell ye one thing,’ he says. ‘It’s been a lesson to me. By cripes, seein’ him standin’ there in the dark with the bloody shirt was enough to turn a man’s hair white.’
“Don’t think there’s anything funny about it, do ye?” I asked, though I knows as well as I want to there ain’t.
“I thought so at first,” he says, “when cap’n told me about it. But we searched the ship twice an’ there ain’t any place a body could hide away an’ not one of the hands missin’ when he came last night. An’, hell, I couldn’t be mistook about Chips.”
“Me neither,” says I. “An’ I seen him sewed up and slipped over—to say nothin’ about him being killed in the beginnin’.”
“Ain’t no doubt of it,” says the mate. “’Sides, didn’t the skipper plug three bullets into him when he was floatin’ along in the wake? No, sir, it’s Chips’ ghost all right an’ I wish to blazes I was ashore an’ out of it.
Before I could say anythin’ more there was a yell from below, then a shot.
“He’s come again!” stammered Dickson. For a minute we just stood starin’ at each other an’ then down we goes—but not lively, I tell ye.
We seed a little wisp of smoke driftin’ from Cap’n Dan’el’s berth an’ steps along mighty slow an’ shakin’, not knowin’ when Chips might show up. But when we got to the skipper’s berth an’ looked in we forgot all about the ghost. He was lyin’ there, his head lollin’ off his bunk, his eyes open an’ starin’ an’ dead as a door nail. His pistol was still in his hand an’ one side of head black with powder where he put the gun an’ blowed out his brains.
“Must have seed Chips again,” whispered Dickson. “An’ couldn’t stand it.”
“Well, sir, we couldn’t get the cooper to touch him. Said he’d be shot before he’d put palm an’ needle to sewin’ up the skipper an’ him refusin’ to give Chips decent burial. An’ all hands was with him. In the end Dickson an’ me did it and, by glory, we had to carry him up and slip him over ourselves too!
“Seemed somehow, after the cap’n’d gone, like a sort of load was lifted from the ship. The men weren’t surly and our luck changed too. We took three sparms a runnin’ and stowed over two hundred barrel or ile an’ye’d oughta have seed the way Dickson changed.
“He was skipper now, an’, by Godfrey, he went out of his way to treat the hands right. An’ seemed like poor old Chips must have been satisfied too. Mebbe he just wanted Cap’n Dan’el’s spirit to keep him company down to Davy Jones or somethin’. Anyhow he didn’t board us again an’ bimeby we begun to get over bein’ scairt for fear he would, an’ four days after we buried the Old Man we sighted St. Helena an’ put in for water and veg’tables.”
“H’m,” muttered old Cap’n Josiah, as Lampson finished speaking and knocked the ashes from his pipe. “Didn’t never see no more of the ghost, eh?”
Cap’n Lampson chuckled. “Yep,” he replied, a twinkle in his keen eyes. “I did, an’ by Judas, it scairt me a dern sight worser’n the first time I seen it. I was ashore an’ dropped into a grog shop for a sip an’ when I looked up, by glory, there was Chips’ ghost a-lookin’ at me solemn like. I was all aback, gapin’ like a fish outa water. I hadn’t done nothin’ to Chips and’ yet there he be a ha’ntin’ me.
“Well, sir, fact was, Chips hadn’t been killed after all. Got a flesh would ‘crost his chest an’ lay on