WE were running So far south that the sailors said in jest that the skipper intended to circumnavigate the Pole. A snow-drift three feet deep often lay upon the lee side of the quarter-deck; big icicles bristled, bayonet-like, beneath the gallows and even raffed the galley; hot water had to be poured upon the blocks before the iron rod-like ropes and fast-jammed sheeves would move.
Far into the morning a dull dusk continued; the day was but a twilight; the stars came out at three. An ice-watch had been set, for a huge berg, more than a mile long and some seven or eight hundred feet high, had passed us at noon in very disagreeable propinquity. The sight of that dismal Delos sullenly surging on the leaden waves — lit by a few shivering sunbeams from a patch of cold yellow in the leaden sky — had cast a chill upon our spirits, too. It wasn’t pleasant to remember, as the brief day waned, that we might be running right on to a similar monster slowly coming up to meet us.
No songs were sung that night at the little club, which a few of us had got up in the second mate’s cabin. He lay smoking within his bunk, determined to be warm as long as he could, and dreading the approach of eight bells, when he would have to take the deck. We, the passengers whom he admitted to his sanctum for the sake of the entertainment, vocal and conversational, we gave him, were by no means paying our rent for the apartment, but sat on box and bench, puffing our pipes and sipping our grog in the most solemn of silences.
“Why, I verily believe you’re funky!” presently cried out the mirth-loving little officer. “If you can’t sing us a song, you might spin us a yarn.”
But even our anecdotical powers were frozen, and we should have spent a very Quaker-like evening, had not our host thrust aside his red curtain, and given three hearty knocks on the bulkhead which separated his “house” from that in which the carpenter and sail-maker were lodged.
“What’s wanted?” was the responsive query.
“You, Chips!” the reply.
Presently the cabin-door opened; and, preceded by a blast that pierced like a plump of Cossack lances, Chips thrust his blue-brown face and snow powdered whiskers — frosted before by age — into our little company. It was as much as he could do to shut the door again, for the wind pushed solidly against it, like a beam. At last, however, it was secured, and the carpenter, having been provided with a seat on a water-cask, and a glass of rum from a carboy of that beverage, which served as our common decanter, was told why he had been sent for.
“These gentlemen are all in the downs to-night,” said the mate, “so I want you to spin us one of your yarns to enliven us a bit.”
Chips’s notion of cheerful narrative must have been singular, for — after sundry modest requests to be excused on the score that “the gen’l’m’n wouldn’t care nowt for his old tales” — the following was the one he favoured us with. I will not bother the compositors and reader by attempting to preserve the old fellow’s peculiar phraseology, but will give the story as I heard it as nearly as I can, without sacrificing orthography, or making any great breaches in Prisoian’s head, or a fool of myself by a landsman’s misuse of the nautical lingo.
“In the year ‘twenty-six,” said Chips, “just when I was out of my time, I took it into my head to go whaling, not as carpenter, but before the mast. I shipped on board the old, one of Gale’s of Deptford. We took in some Shetlanders at Lerwick, as whalers mostly do, as hardy chaps as any afloat; but one of them died before we’d left Ilonas Head a month.
He was a strange, silent fellow, that was always looking over his shoulder in the forecastle at night, as if he expected to see something. We chaffed him about it at first, but he wasn’t a safe man to plague. His mates told us all kinds of queer yarns about him; that he’d been away from the Islands for ever so long, and that nobody knew where he’d been to. All that he’d say was that he’d been in the ‘Spanish service,’ and some made out that that meant a slaver, some a pirate, some one thing, some another; but none of them any good.
The Shetlanders don’t mind smuggling, but they are quite a pious people in the main, and they didn’t relish the way in which this man cursed and swore, and was for ever sneering at the kirk. He struck a minister one day when he’d got the horrors, and the parson had gone to look after him; saying, ‘that he didn’t want any spies about his bed.’ His eyes were staring at the wall on one side of him, as if some one was standing there. They said that he had got the horrors; but, as I’ve told you, he had always that frightened look in the dark, even when he was quite sober. Something bad was on his mind, that’s very certain.
“The day he died he was queerer than ever, keeping out of the way of everybody as much as he could, rolling his eyes about like a madman, talking to himself, and as pale as a sheet. ‘You’d better turn in, Gait,’ the doctor said to him; and down he went without a word, and presently the doctor sent him some stuff, thinking he was in a fever.
My bunk was next to his, and when I turned in at eight bells I could hear him hissing through his clenched teeth, just as if he was trying to keep in a shriek. It was much such a night as this, only there was a deal more ice ranging about than what we’ve seen. I soon fell asleep, for we had been making-off blubber all day, and I had got quite tired over the casks.
I might have been asleep about acouple of hours, when I was woke by a horrid scream — as if a soul was just dropping into the lower regions. I tumbled out in next to no time, and so did the other chaps, and we all came crowding round Gait’s berth. He was squeezed up against the side (we could see, when we lifted up the lantern) as if he wanted to drive his back into the wood, and was striking out with his right hand clutched as if he’d got a knife in it, and his left with all the fingers spread out. His face was a horrid sight. It was as white and as wet as the side of a chalk-pit, and his eyes were regularly a-light with rage and fear. I don’t know which there was most of in them.
” ‘Take her off! take her off!’ he yelled, when he saw us. ‘You won’t! won’t you, you villains? Then, confound you! go to blazes with me! I’ll haunt you, and sink the ship!’
“And then his face gave a twitch like a devil trying to laugh, and he fell over on it dead, with his aims still stiff. We could hardly get them down by his sides without breaking them. The next day but one we buried him, and — you may believe me or not, as you like —but I can tell you that his body didn’t drop into the sea, but was dragged down the moment he touched the water.
“The first slack day afterwards the skipper had his chest brought up, and tried to sell his things: but none of us would bid; so the skipper and the doctor, like good fellows, bid against each other, to get a good round sum for his old mother, whom he’d never cared about, his mates told us. We didn’t bid, because we didn’t think it would be lucky to put on anything that such a man as he had worn; but we made out a list of what each of us would give to the old girl, and gave it to the skipper to be stopped out of our pay.
“Nevertheless, after that, we had nothing but misfortunes. Next to no fish came in sight. Scarce one of those that did come, could we get near; and when we happened to strike one, the line was sure to break. One of the boats, too, went down all of a sudden, just as if it had been swallowed. Gait was haunting us sure enough. We didn’t see anything of him, however, until the sun set for good.
We were lying then, frozen up, in a great floe, some sixty miles N.W. of the Devil’s Thumb. We could just make it out when the sun dipped — not to come up again for weeks to come. There we were, fairly shut in for the whole winter. Well, we were sawing out a dock for the ship by moonlight, when suddenly — the bears had done growling, and the wolves howling, for a bit, and everything except the grating saws was still as death, for there wasn’t a breath of wind blowing — all of a sudden, I say, we heard shrieks and laughing.
We knocked off work, and ran aboard in a minute — we were so scared; and when we ventured to look over the bulwarks, there, about two miles off, we could see the boat’s crew we had lost rushing through the mist, as big as giants, and Gait after them, even bigger, striking out just as he did when he died.
”Another time, we made out some water a mile off, with a whale floundering about in it, as if she was puzzled how to get out. We launched the boats over the ice, gave chase, and killed her, and towed her alongside the floe to flinch. We were glad enough of the crang ourselves, for we had been on short allowance for a long time.
The bears and the wolves and the blue foxes scented it, and came down for their share. We drew off a bit to let them come near, and then let fly and killed a lot of them, too, for food. We had made quite a jolly pile of provisions, and were just about to spear an old shark — fried shark doesn’t taste unlike fried sole, when you’re hungry — that was bumping the whale with its ugly snout, to find a tid-bit, when crack went the ice, like a monstrous big pane of glass, with a running rumble like the roar of a thousand cannon let off one after another.
We could hear it growling away for miles into the darkness. The moon was just going down. The shark soon left the whale, for the bit of ice on which our prog was tilted over like a dust-cart, and shot its load into the sea. We were too busy looking after our lives to have any time to look after that. Two of our four boats were cracked like walnut-shells by the big lumps of ice that were jolting about everywhere.
It was as much as ever we could do to get off our lump safely — the four crews into two boats; it danced up and down, this side and that, like a cork upon the swell. And then we had only starlight to guide us as we pulled back to the ship, with broken ice on every side threatening each moment to stave us in. I didn’t see him that night, but three of our fellows did. They say he chased us back, jumping from block to block as if they were only stepping-stones across a brook.
“He was seen once more big like that. The ship was frozen in hard and fast again. You could see nothing but a hummocky plain of ice, with here and there a berg sticking up like a sharp horn, for miles all round — except in one place astern, where there was a little waterhole that glimmered in the moonlight like a great watching eye.
We had covered in the quarter-deck with a sloping canvas roof, but a hole was left just above the taffrail to look out from. Well, one night when the Northern Lights were flashing about the sky like huge flapping flags of red, and yellow, and green, one of the boys was looking out through this opening, and by the waterhole he saw Gait standing, as tall as a fir-tree. He had the fingers and the thumb of his left hand spread out as he had when he died, and with his right forefinger he counted them off one by one. Then down he went into the waterhole as the play-actors drop through the stage, and the next morning it was frozen up.
“On the night of the fourth day after he had been thus seen, he was seen again, the same size as he was when alive, walking round and round the ship, laughing and pointing. One, two, three, four he counted on his left hand, then shut it all up except the little finger, and kept lunging through the gloom with that. We knew what he meant next day.
“A berg twice as high as the one we saw at noon came with a jar against the floe, and shivered it for miles. The ice about the ship of course broke up and began a devil’s dance, but as the bits weren’t very big, and she was regularly cased with rope-fenders, she might have got over that if the berg hadn’t borne down upon her as straight as if it had been steered. On it came, never once falling off a point. You may fancy what a funk we were in!
We bundled clothes and blankets, pork and biscuit into the boats, and were over the side in a twinkling, pulling for dear life, and fending off the little lumps that came walloping up against us as well as we could with the boat-hooks. Two poor frost-bitten fellows couldn’t leave their berths, and the skipper swore, come what might, he’d stick by the ship. We saw him run forward and hoist the jib all by himself, to get some way on her, and then the berg came between, and we never saw any more of him or the poor old .
And may I never taste grog again if I didn’t see on the berg, alongside of Gait and a foreign-looking woman, the …”
Whom he saw, and how Chips and his comrades got home, we did not hear; for just then a shrill voice from the forecastle — echoed shrilly along the deck — sang out in tremulous haste, “Ice on the weather-bow!” and the chief officer, in his rushing route forwards, put in his snow-roofed visage at the cabin-door, and bellowed to his colleague, “Jackson, turn out!”
The cabin was soon cleared, and seeing, as we did, this second monster solemnly glide past us, so near that we could plainly make out the foam of the black billows breaking on its dully glimmering sides, we may, perhaps, be excused if we gave more credence than we should have afforded in less excited moments to Chips’s Ghost Story.
Author: Richard Rowe.