From the collection: Tales of Hearsay (1925)

The Black Mate (1884)

By Joseph Conrad


A good many years ago there were several ships loading at the Jetty, London Dock. I am speaking here of the ‘eighties of the last century, of the time when London had plenty of fine ships in the docks, though not so many fine buildings in its streets.

The ships at the Jetty were fine enough; they lay one behind the other; and the Sapphire, third from the end, was as good as the rest of them, and nothing more. Each ship at the Jetty had, of course, her chief officer on board. So had every other ship in dock.

The policeman at the gates knew them all by sight, without being able to say at once, without thinking, to what ship any particular man belonged. As a matter of fact, the mates of the ships then lying in the London Dock were like the majority of officers in the Merchant Service—a steady, hard-working, staunch, un-romantic-looking set of men, belonging to various classes of society, but with the professional stamp obliterating the personal characteristics, which were not very marked anyhow.

This last was true of them all, with the exception of the mate of the Sapphire. Of him the policemen could not be in doubt. This one had a presence.

He was noticeable to them in the street from a great distance; and when in the morning he strode down the Jetty to his ship, the lumpers and the dock labourers rolling the bales and trundling the cases of cargo on their hand-trucks would remark to each other:

“Here’s the black mate coming along.”

That was the name they gave him, being a gross lot, who could have no appreciation of the man’s dignified bearing. And to call him black was the superficial impressionism of the ignorant.

Of course, Mr. Bunter, the mate of the Sapphire, was not black. He was no more black than you or I, and certainly as white as any chief mate of a ship in the whole of the Port of London. His complexion was of the sort that did not take the tan easily; and I happen to know that the poor fellow had had a month’s illness just before he joined the Sapphire.

From this you will perceive that I knew Bunter. Of course I knew him. And, what’s more, I knew his secret at the time, this secret which—never mind just now. Returning to Bunter’s personal appearance, it was nothing but ignorant prejudice on the part of the foreman stevedore to say, as he did in my hearing: “I bet he’s a furriner of some sort.” A man may have black hair without being set down for a Dago. I have known a West-country sailor, boatswain of a fine ship, who looked more Spanish than any Spaniard afloat I’ve ever met. He looked like a Spaniard in a picture.

Competent authorities tell us that this earth is to be finally the inheritance of men with dark hair and brown eyes. It seems that already the great majority of mankind is dark-haired in various shades. But it is only when you meet one that you notice how men with really black hair, black as ebony, are rare. Bunter’s hair was absolutely black, black as a raven’s wing. He wore, too, all his beard (clipped, but a good length all the same), and his eyebrows were thick and bushy. Add to this steely blue eyes, which in a fair-haired man would have been nothing so extraordinary, but in that sombre framing made a startling contrast, and you will easily understand that Bunter was noticeable enough.

If it had not been for the quietness of his movements, for the general soberness of his demeanour, one would have given him credit for a fiercely passionate nature.

Of course, he was not in his first youth; but if the expression “in the force of his age” has any meaning, he realized it completely. He was a tall man, too, though rather spare. Seeing him from his poop indefatigably busy with his duties, Captain Ashton, of the clipper ship Elsinore, lying just ahead of the Sapphire, remarked once to a friend that “Johns has got somebody there to hustle his ship along for him.”

Captain Johns, master of the Sapphire, having commanded ships for many years, was well known without being much respected or liked. In the company of his fellows he was either neglected or chaffed. The chaffing was generally undertaken by Captain Ashton, a cynical and teasing sort of man. It was Captain Ashton who permitted himself the unpleasant joke of proclaiming once in company that “Johns is of the opinion that every sailor above forty years of age ought to be poisoned—shipmasters in actual command excepted.”

It was in a City restaurant, where several well-known shipmasters were having lunch together. There was Captain Ashton, florid and jovial, in a large white waistcoat and with a yellow rose in his buttonhole; Captain Sellers in a sack-coat, thin and pale-faced, with his iron-gray hair tucked behind his ears, and, but for the absence of spectacles, looking like an ascetical mild man of books; Captain Hell, a bluff sea-dog with hairy fingers, in blue serge and a black felt hat pushed far back off his crimson forehead. There was also a very young shipmaster, with a little fair moustache and serious eyes, who said nothing, and only smiled faintly from time to time.

Captain Johns, very much startled, raised his perplexed and credulous glance, which, together with a low and horizontally wrinkled brow, did not make a very intellectual ensemble. This impression was by no means mended by the slightly pointed form of his bald head.

Everybody laughed outright, and, thus guided, Captain Johns ended by smiling rather sourly, and attempted to defend himself. It was all very well to joke, but nowadays, when ships, to pay anything at all, had to be driven hard on the passage and in harbour, the sea was no place for elderly men. Only young men and men in their prime were equal to modern conditions of push and hurry. Look at the great firms: almost every single one of them was getting rid of men showing any signs of age. He, for one, didn’t want any oldsters on board his ship.

And, indeed, in this opinion Captain Johns was not singular. There was at that time a lot of seamen, with nothing against them but that they were grizzled, wearing out the soles of their last pair of boots on the pavements of the City in the heart-breaking search for a berth.

Captain Johns added with a sort of ill-humoured innocence that from holding that opinion to thinking of poisoning people was a very long step.

This seemed final but Captain Ashton would not let go his joke.

“Oh, yes. I am sure you would. You said distinctly ‘of no use.’ What’s to be done with men who are ‘of no use?’ You are a kind-hearted fellow, Johns. I am sure that if only you thought it over carefully you would consent to have them poisoned in some painless manner.”

Captain Sellers twitched his thin, sinuous lips.

“Make ghosts of them,” he suggested, pointedly.

At the mention of ghosts Captain Johns became shy, in his perplexed, sly, and unlovely manner.

Captain Ashton winked.

“Yes. And then perhaps you would get a chance to have a communication with the world of spirits. Surely the ghosts of seamen should haunt ships. Some of them would be sure to call on an old shipmate.”

Captain Sellers remarked drily:

“Don’t raise his hopes like this. It’s cruel. He won’t see anything. You know, Johns, that nobody has ever seen a ghost.”

At this intolerable provocation Captain Johns came out of his reserve. With no perplexity whatever, but with a positive passion of credulity giving momentary lustre to his dull little eyes, he brought up a lot of authenticated instances. There were books and books full of instances. It was merest ignorance to deny supernatural apparitions. Cases were published every month in a special newspaper. Professor Cranks saw ghosts daily. And Professor Cranks was no small potatoes either. One of the biggest scientific men living. And there was that newspaper fellow—what’s his name?—who had a girl-ghost visitor. He printed in his paper things she said to him. And to say there were no ghosts after that!

“Why, they have been photographed! What more proof do you want?”

Captain Johns was indignant. Captain Bell’s lips twitched, but Captain Ashton protested now.

“For goodness’ sake don’t keep him going with that. And by the by, Johns, who’s that hairy pirate you’ve got for your new mate? Nobody in the Dock seems to have seen him before.”

Captain Johns, pacified by the change of subjects, answered simply that Willy, the tobacconist at the corner of Fenchurch Street, had sent him along.

Willy, his shop, and the very house in Fenchurch Street, I believe, are gone now. In his time, wearing a careworn, absent-minded look on his pasty face, Willy served with tobacco many southern-going ships out of the Port of London. At certain times of the day the shop would be full of shipmasters. They sat on casks, they lounged against the counter.

Many a youngster found his first lift in life there; many a man got a sorely needed berth by simply dropping in for four pennyworth of birds’-eye at an auspicious moment. Even Willy’s assistant, a redheaded, uninterested, delicate-looking young fellow, would hand you across the counter sometimes a bit of valuable intelligence with your box of cigarettes, in a whisper, lips hardly moving, thus: “The Bellona, South Dock. Second officer wanted. You may be in time for it if you hurry up.”

And didn’t one just fly!

“Oh, Willy sent him,” said Captain Ashton. “He’s a very striking man. If you were to put a red sash round his waist and a red handkerchief round his head he would look exactly like one of them buccaneering chaps that made men walk the plank and carried women off into captivity. Look out, Johns, he don’t cut your throat for you and run off with the Sapphire. What ship has he come out of last?”

Captain Johns, after looking up credulously as usual, wrinkled his brow, and said placidly that the man had seen better days. His name was Bunter.

“He’s had command of a Liverpool ship, the Samaria, some years ago. He lost her in the Indian Ocean, and had his certificate suspended for a year. Ever since then he has not been able to get another command. He’s been knocking about in the Western Ocean trade lately.”

“That accounts for him being a stranger to everybody about the Docks,” Captain Ashton concluded as they rose from table.

Captain Johns walked down to the Dock after lunch. He was short of stature and slightly bandy. His appearance did not inspire the generality of mankind with esteem; but it must have been otherwise with his employers. He had the reputation of being an uncomfortable commander, meticulous in trifles, always nursing a grievance of some sort and incessantly nagging. He was not a man to kick up a row with you and be done with it, but to say nasty things in a whining voice; a man capable of making one’s life a perfect misery if he took a dislike to an officer.

That very evening I went to see Bunter on board, and sympathized with him on his prospects for the voyage. He was subdued. I suppose a man with a secret locked up in his breast loses his buoyancy. And there was another reason why I could not expect Bunter to show a great elasticity of spirits. For one thing he had been very seedy lately, and besides—but of that later.

Captain Johns had been on board that afternoon and had loitered and dodged about his chief mate in a manner which had annoyed Bunter exceedingly.

“What could he mean?” he asked with calm exasperation. “One would think he suspected I had stolen something and tried to see in what pocket I had stowed it away; or that somebody told him I had a tail and he wanted to find out how I managed to conceal it. I don’t like to be approached from behind several times in one afternoon in that creepy way and then to be looked up at suddenly in front from under my elbow. Is it a new sort of peep-bo game? It doesn’t amuse me. I am no longer a baby.”

I assured him that if anyone were to tell Captain Johns that he—Bunter—had a tail, Johns would manage to get himself to believe the story in some mysterious manner. He would. He was suspicious and credulous to an inconceivable degree. He would believe any silly tale, suspect any man of anything, and crawl about with it and ruminate the stuff, and turn it over and over in his mind in the most miserable, inwardly whining perplexity. He would take the meanest possible view in the end, and discover the meanest possible course of action by a sort of natural genius for that sort of thing.

Bunter also told me that the mean creature had crept all over the ship on his little, bandy legs, taking him along to grumble and whine to about a lot of trifles. Crept about the decks like a wretched insect—like a cockroach, only not so lively.

Thus did the self-possessed Bunter express himself with great disgust. Then, going on with his usual stately deliberation, made sinister by the frown of his jet-black eyebrows:

“And the fellow is mad, too. He tried to be sociable for a bit, and could find nothing else but to make big eyes at me, and ask me if I believed ‘in communication beyond the grave.’ Communication beyond—I didn’t know what he meant at first. I didn’t know what to say. ‘A very solemn subject, Mr. Bunter,’ says he. I’ve given a great deal of study to it.”

Had Johns lived on shore he would have been the predestined prey of fraudulent mediums; or even if he had had any decent opportunities between the voyages. Luckily for him, when in England, he lived somewhere far away in Leytonstone, with a maiden sister ten years older than himself, a fearsome virago twice his size, before whom he trembled. It was said she bullied him terribly in general; and in the particular instance of his spiritualistic leanings she had her own views.

These leanings were to her simply satanic. She was reported as having declared that, “With God’s help, she would prevent that fool from giving himself up to the Devils.” It was beyond doubt that Johns’ secret ambition was to get into personal communication with the spirits of the dead—if only his sister would let him. But she was adamant. I was told that while in London he had to account to her for every penny of the money he took with him in the morning, and for every hour of his time. And she kept the bankbook, too.

Bunter (he had been a wild youngster, but he was well connected; had ancestors; there was a family tomb somewhere in the home counties)—Bunter was indignant, perhaps on account of his own dead. Those steely-blue eyes of his flashed with positive ferocity out of that black-bearded face. He impressed me—there was so much dark passion in his leisurely contempt.

“The cheek of the fellow! Enter into relations with... A mean little cad like this! It would be an impudent intrusion. He wants to enter!... What is it? A new sort of snobbishness or what?”

I laughed outright at this original view of spiritism—or whatever the ghost craze is called. Even Bunter himself condescended to smile. But it was an austere, quickly vanished smile. A man in his almost, I may say, tragic position couldn’t be expected—you understand. He was really worried. He was ready eventually to put up with any dirty trick in the course of the voyage. A man could not expect much consideration should he find himself at the mercy of a fellow like Johns. A misfortune is a misfortune, and there’s an end of it. But to be bored by mean, low-spirited, inane ghost stories in the Johns style, all the way out to Calcutta and back again, was an intolerable apprehension to be under. Spiritism was indeed a solemn subject to think about in that light. Dreadful, even!

Poor fellow! Little we both thought that before very long he himself... However, I could give him no comfort. I was rather appalled myself.

Bunter had also another annoyance that day. A confounded berthing master came on board on some pretence or other, but in reality, Bunter thought, simply impelled by an inconvenient curiosity—inconvenient to Bunter, that is. After some beating about the bush, that man suddenly said:

“I can’t help thinking. I’ve seen you before somewhere, Mr. Mate. If I heard your name, perhaps Bunter—“

That’s the worst of a life with a mystery in it—he was much alarmed. It was very likely that the man had seen him before—worse luck to his excellent memory. Bunter himself could not be expected to remember every casual dock walloper he might have had to do with. Bunter brazened it out by turning upon the man, making use of that impressive, black-as-night sternness of expression his unusual hair furnished him with:

“My name’s Bunter, sir. Does that enlighten your inquisitive intellect? And I don’t ask what your name may be. I don’t want to know. I’ve no use for it, sir. An individual who calmly tells me to my face that he is not sure if he has seen me before, either means to be impudent or is no better than a worm, sir. Yes, I said a worm—a blind worm!”

Brave Bunter. That was the line to take. He fairly drove the beggar out of the ship, as if every word had been a blow. But the pertinacity of that brass-bound Paul Pry was astonishing. He cleared out of the ship, of course, before Bunter’s ire, not saying anything, and only trying to cover up his retreat by a sickly smile. But once on the Jetty he turned deliberately round, and set himself to stare in dead earnest at the ship. He remained planted there like a mooring-post, absolutely motionless, and with his stupid eyes winking no more than a pair of cabin portholes.

What could Bunter do? It was awkward for him, you know. He could not go and put his head into the bread-locker. What he did was to take up a position abaft the mizzen-rigging, and stare back as unwinking as the other. So they remained, and I don’t know which of them grew giddy first; but the man on the Jetty, not having the advantage of something to hold on to, got tired the soonest, flung his arm, giving the contest up, as it were, and went away at last.

Bunter told me he was glad the Sapphire, “that gem amongst ships” as he alluded to her sarcastically, was going to sea next day. He had had enough of the Dock. I understood his impatience. He had steeled himself against any possible worry the voyage might bring, though it is clear enough now that he was not prepared for the extraordinary experience that was awaiting him already, and in no other part of the world than the Indian Ocean itself; the very part of the world where the poor fellow had lost his ship and had broken his luck, as it seemed for good and all, at the same time.

As to his remorse in regard to a certain secret action of his life, well, I understand that a man of Bunter’s fine character would suffer not a little. Still, between ourselves, and without the slightest wish to be cynical, it cannot be denied that with the noblest of us the fear of being found out enters for some considerable part into the composition of remorse. I didn’t say this in so many words to Bunter, but, as the poor fellow harped a bit on it, I told him that there were skeletons in a good many honest cupboards, and that, as to his own particular guilt, it wasn’t writ large on his face for everybody to see—so he needn’t worry as to that. And besides, he would be gone to sea in about twelve hours from now.

He said there was some comfort in that thought, and went off then to spend his last evening for many months with his wife. For all his wildness, Bunter had made no mistake in his marrying. He had married a lady. A perfect lady. She was a dear little woman, too. As to her pluck, I, who know what times they had to go through, I cannot admire her enough for it. Real, hard-wearing every day and day after day pluck that only a woman is capable of when she is of the right sort—the undismayed sort I would call it.

The black mate felt this parting with his wife more than any of the previous ones in all the years of bad luck. But she was of the undismayed kind, and showed less trouble in her gentle face than the black-haired, buccaneer-like, but dignified mate of the Sapphire. It may be that her conscience was less disturbed than her husband’s. Of course, his life had no secret places for her; but a woman’s conscience is somewhat more resourceful in finding good and valid excuses. It depends greatly on the person that needs them, too.

They had agreed that she should not come down to the Dock to see him off. “I wonder you care to look at me at all,” said the sensitive man. And she did not laugh.

Bunter was very sensitive; he left her rather brusquely at the last. He got on board in good time, and produced the usual impression on the mud-pilot in the broken-down straw hat who took the Sapphire out of dock. The river-man was very polite to the dignified, striking-looking chief mate. “The five-inch manilla for the check-rope, Mr.—Bunter, thank you—Mr. Bunter, please.” The sea-pilot who left the “gem of ships” heading comfortably down Channel off Dover told some of his friends that, this voyage, the Sapphire had for chief mate a man who seemed a jolly sight too good for old Johns. “Bunter’s his name. I wonder where he’s sprung from? Never seen him before in any ship I piloted in or out all these years. He’s the sort of man you don’t 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.


“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:


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 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 iands. “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.”






© Copyright Fletcher Kovich 2013