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The Ghost-ship






BY RICHARD MIDDLETON


Fairfield is a little village lying near the Portsmouth Road, about
halfway between London and the sea. Strangers, who now and then find it
by accident, call it a pretty, old-fashioned place; we who live in it
and call it home don't find anything very pretty about it, but we should
be sorry to live anywhere else. Our minds have taken the shape of the
inn and the church and the green, I suppose. At all events, we never
feel comfortable out of Fairfield.

Of course the cockneys, with their vasty houses and noise-ridden
streets, can call us rustics if they choose; but for all that, Fairfield
is a better place to live in than London. Doctor says that when he goes
to London his mind is bruised with the weight of the houses, and he was
a cockney born. He had to live there himself when he was a little chap,
but he knows better now. You gentlemen may laugh--perhaps some of you
come from London-way, but it seems to me that a witness like that is
worth a gallon of arguments.

Dull? Well, you might find it dull, but I assure you that I've listened
to all the London yarns you have spun to-night, and they're absolutely
nothing to the things that happen at Fairfield. It's because of our way
of thinking, and minding our own business. If one of your Londoners was
set down on the green of a Saturday night when the ghosts of the lads
who died in the war keep tryst with the lasses who lie in the
churchyard, he couldn't help being curious and interfering, and then the
ghosts would go somewhere where it was quieter. But we just let them
come and go and don't make any fuss, and in consequence Fairfield is the
ghostiest place in all England. Why, I've seen a headless man sitting on
the edge of the well in broad daylight, and the children playing about
his feet as if he were their father. Take my word for it, spirits know
when they are well off as much as human beings.

Still, I must admit that the thing I'm going to tell you about was queer
even for our part of the world, where three packs of ghost-hounds hunt
regularly during the season, and blacksmith's great-grandfather is busy
all night shoeing the dead gentlemen's horses. Now that's a thing that
wouldn't happen in London, because of their interfering ways; but
blacksmith he lies up aloft and sleeps as quiet as a lamb. Once when he
had a bad head he shouted down to them not to make so much noise, and
in the morning he found an old guinea left on the anvil as an apology.
He wears it on his watch-chain now. But I must get on with my story; if
I start telling you about the queer happenings at Fairfield, I'll never
stop.

It all came of the great storm in the spring of '97, the year that we
had two great storms. This was the first one, and I remember it well,
because I found in the morning that it had lifted the thatch of my
pigsty into the widow's garden as clean as a boy's kite. When I looked
over the hedge, widow--Tom Lamport's widow that was--was prodding for
her nasturtiums with a daisy grubber. After I had watched her for a
little I went down to the Fox and Grapes to tell landlord what she had
said to me. Landlord he laughed, being a married man and at ease with
the sex. "Come to that," he said, "the tempest has blowed something into
my field. A kind of a ship I think it would be."

I was surprised at that until he explained that it was only a
ghost-ship, and would do no hurt to the turnips. We argued that it had
been blown up from the sea at Portsmouth, and then we talked of
something else. There were two slates down at the parsonage and a big
tree in Lumley's meadow. It was a rare storm.

I reckon the wind had blown our ghosts all over England. They were
coming back for days afterward with foundered horses, and as footsore as
possible, and they were so glad to get back to Fairfield that some of
them walked up the street crying like little children. Squire said that
his great-grandfather's great-grandfather hadn't looked so dead-beat
since the battle of Naseby, and he's an educated man.

What with one thing and another, I should think it was a week before we
got straight again, and then one afternoon I met the landlord on the
green, and he had a worried face. "I wish you'd come and have a look at
that ship in my field," he said to me. "It seems to me it's leaning real
hard on the turnips. I can't bear thinking what the missus will say when
she sees it."

I walked down the lane with him, and, sure enough, there was a ship in
the middle of his field, but such a ship as no man had seen on the water
for three hundred years, let alone in the middle of a turnipfield. It
was all painted black, and covered with carvings, and there was a great
bay-window in the stern, for all the world like the squire's
drawing-room. There was a crowd of little black cannon on deck and
looking out of her port-holes, and she was anchored at each end to the
hard ground. I have seen the wonders of the world on picture-postcards,
but I have never seen anything to equal that.

"She seems very solid for a ghost-ship," I said, seeing that landlord
was bothered.

"I should say it's a betwixt and between," he answered, puzzling it
over; "but it's going to spoil a matter of fifty turnips, and missus
she'll want it moved." We went up to her and touched the side, and it
was as hard as a real ship. "Now, there's folks in England would call
that very curious," he said.

Now, I don't know much about ships, but I should think that that
ghost-ship weighed a solid two hundred tons, and it seemed to me that
she had come to stay; so that I felt sorry for landlord, who was a
married man. "All the horses in Fairfield won't move her out of my
turnips," he said, frowning at her.

Just then we heard a noise on her deck, and we looked up and saw that a
man had come out of her front cabin and was looking down at us very
peaceably. He was dressed in a black uniform set off with rusty gold
lace, and he had a great cutlass by his side in a brass sheath. "I'm
Captain Bartholomew Roberts," he said in a gentleman's voice, "put in
for recruits. I seem to have brought her rather far up the harbor."

"Harbor!" cried landlord. "Why, you're fifty miles from the sea!"

Captain Roberts didn't turn a hair. "So much as that, is it?" he said
coolly. "Well, it's of no consequence."

Landlord was a bit upset at this. "I don't want to be unneighborly," he
said, "but I wish you hadn't brought your ship into my field. You see,
my wife sets great store on these turnips."

The captain took a pinch of snuff out of a fine gold box that he pulled
out of his pocket, and dusted his fingers with a silk handkerchief in a
very genteel fashion. "I'm only here for a few months," he said, "but
if a testimony of my esteem would pacify your good lady, I should be
content," and with the words he loosed a great gold brooch from the neck
of his coat and tossed it down to landlord.

Landlord blushed as red as a strawberry. "I'm not denying she's fond of
jewelry," he said; "but it's too much for half a sackful of turnips."
Indeed it was a handsome brooch.

The captain laughed. "Tut, man!" he said, "it's a forced sale, and you
deserve a good price. Say no more about it," and nodding good day to us,
he turned on his heel and went into the cabin. Landlord walked back up
the lane like a man with a weight off his mind. "That tempest has blowed
me a bit of luck," he said; "the missus will be main pleased with that
brooch. It's better than blacksmith's guinea any day."

'97 was Jubilee year--the year of the second Jubilee, you remember, and
we had great doings at Fairfield, so that we hadn't much time to bother
about the ghost-ship, though, anyhow, it isn't our way to meddle in
things that don't concern us. Landlord he saw his tenant once or twice
when he was hoeing his turnips, and passed the time of day and
landlord's wife wore her new brooch to church every Sunday. But we
didn't mix much with the ghosts at any time, all except an idiot lad
there was in the village, and he didn't know the difference between a
man and a ghost, poor innocent! On Jubilee day, however, somebody told
Captain Roberts why the church bells were ringing, and he hoisted a
flag and fired off his guns like a loyal Englishman. 'T is true the guns
were shotted, and one of the round shot knocked a hole in Farmer
Johnstone's barn, but nobody thought much of that in such a season of
rejoicing.

It wasn't till our celebrations were over that we noticed that anything
was wrong in Fairfield. 'T was shoemaker who told me first about it one
morning at the Fox and Grapes. "You know my great-great-uncle?" he said
to me.

"You mean Joshua, the quiet lad?" I answered, knowing him well.

"Quiet!" said shoemaker, indignantly. "Quiet you call him, coming home
at three o'clock every morning as drunk as a magistrate and waking up
the whole house with his noise!"

"Why, it can't be Joshua," I said, for I knew him for one of the most
respectable young ghosts in the village.

"Joshua it is," said shoemaker; "and one of these nights he'll find
himself out in the street if he isn't careful."

This kind of talk shocked me, I can tell you, for I don't like to hear a
man abusing his own family, and I could hardly believe that a steady
youngster like Joshua had taken to drink. But just then in came butcher
Aylwin in such a temper that he could hardly drink his beer. "The young
puppy! The young puppy!" he kept on saying, and it was some time before
shoemaker and I found out that he was talking about his ancestor that
fell at Senlac.

"Drink?" said shoemaker, hopefully, for we all like company in our
misfortunes, and butcher nodded grimly. "The young noodle!" he said,
emptying his tankard.

Well, after that I kept my ears open, and it was the same story all over
the village. There was hardly a young man among all the ghosts of
Fairfield who didn't roll home in the small hours of the morning the
worse for liquor. I used to wake up in the night and hear them stumble
past my house, singing outrageous songs. The worst of it was that we
couldn't keep the scandal to ourselves, and the folk at Greenhill began
to talk of "sodden Fairfield" and taught their children to sing a song
about us:

Sodden Fairfield, sodden Fairfield,
Has no use for bread and butter,
Rum for breakfast, rum for dinner,
Rum for tea, and rum for supper!

We are easy-going in our village, but we didn't like that.

Of course we soon found out where the young fellows went to get the
drink, and landlord was terribly cut up that his tenant should have
turned out so badly; but his wife wouldn't hear of parting with the
brooch, so he couldn't give the captain notice to quit. But as time went
on, things grew from bad to worse, and at all hours of the day you
would see those young reprobates sleeping it off on the village green.
Nearly every afternoon a ghost-wagon used to jolt down to the ship with
a lading of rum, and though the older ghosts seemed inclined to give the
captain's hospitality the go-by, the youngsters were neither to hold nor
to bind.

So one afternoon when I was taking my nap, I heard a knock at the door,
and there was parson, looking very serious, like a man with a job before
him that he didn't altogether relish.

"I'm going down to talk to the captain about all this drunkenness in the
village, and I want you to come with me," he said straight out.

I can't say that I fancied the visit much myself, and I tried to hint to
parson that as, after all, they were only a lot of ghosts, it didn't
much matter.

"Dead or alive, I'm responsible for their good conduct," he said, "and
I'm going to do my duty and put a stop to this continued disorder. And
you are coming with me, John Simmons."

So I went, parson being a persuasive kind of man.

We went down to the ship, and as we approached her, I could see the
captain tasting the air on deck. When he saw parson, he took off his hat
very politely, and I can tell you that I was relieved to find that he
had a proper respect for the cloth. Parson acknowledged his salute, and
spoke out stoutly enough.

"Sir, I should be glad to have a word with you."

"Come on board, sir; come on board," said the captain, and I could tell
by his voice that he knew why we were there.

Parson and I climbed up an uneasy kind of ladder, and the captain took
us into the great cabin at the back of the ship, where the bay-window
was. It was the most wonderful place you ever saw in your life, all full
of gold and silver plate, swords with jeweled scabbards, carved oak
chairs, and great chests that looked as though they were bursting with
guineas. Even parson was surprised, and he did not shake his head very
hard when the captain took down some silver cups and poured us out a
drink of rum. I tasted mine, and I don't mind saying that it changed my
view of things entirely. There was nothing betwixt and between about
that rum, and I felt that it was ridiculous to blame the lads for
drinking too much of stuff like that. It seemed to fill my veins with
honey and fire.

Parson put the case squarely to the captain, but I didn't listen much to
what he said. I was busy sipping my drink and looking through the window
at the fishes swimming to and fro over landlord's turnips. Just then it
seemed the most natural thing in the world that they should be there,
though afterward, of course, I could see that that proved it was a
ghost-ship.

But even then I thought it was queer when I saw a drowned sailor float
by in the thin air, with his hair and beard all full of bubbles. It was
the first time I had seen anything quite like that at Fairfield.

All the time I was regarding the wonders of the deep, parson was telling
Captain Roberts how there was no peace or rest in the village owing to
the curse of drunkenness, and what a bad example the youngsters were
setting to the older ghosts. The captain listened very attentively, and
put in a word only now and then about boys being boys and young men
sowing their wild oats. But when parson had finished his speech, he
filled up our silver cups and said to parson with a flourish:

"I should be sorry to cause trouble anywhere where I have been made
welcome, and you will be glad to hear that I put to sea to-morrow night.
And now you must drink me a prosperous voyage."

So we all stood up and drank the toast with honor, and that noble rum
was like hot oil in my veins.

After that, captain showed us some of the curiosities he had brought
back from foreign parts, and we were greatly amazed, though afterward I
couldn't clearly remember what they were. And then I found myself
walking across the turnips with parson, and I was telling him of the
glories of the deep that I had seen through the window of the ship. He
turned on me severely.

"If I were you, John Simmons," he said, "I should go straight home to
bed." He has a way of putting things that wouldn't occur to an ordinary
man, has parson, and I did as he told me.

Well, next day it came on to blow, and it blew harder and harder, till
about eight o'clock at night I heard a noise and looked out into the
garden. I dare say you won't believe me,--it seems a bit tall even to
me,--but the wind had lifted the thatch of my pigsty into the widow's
garden a second time. I thought I wouldn't wait to hear what widow had
to say about it, so I went across the green to the Fox and Grapes, and
the wind was so strong that I danced along on tiptoe like a girl at the
fair. When I got to the inn, landlord had to help me shut the door. It
seemed as though a dozen goats were pushing against it to come in out of
the storm.

"It's a powerful tempest," he said, drawing the beer. "I hear there's a
chimney down at Dickory End."

"It's a funny thing how these sailors know about the weather," I
answered. "When captain said he was going to-night, I was thinking it
would take a capful of wind to carry the ship back to sea; and now
here's more than a capful."

"Ah, yes," said landlord; "it's to-night he goes true enough, and mind
you, though he treated me handsome over the rent, I'm not sure it's a
loss to the village. I don't hold with gentrice, who fetch their drink
from London instead of helping local traders to get their living."

"But you haven't got any rum like his," I said, to draw him out.

His neck grew red above his collar, and I was afraid I'd gone too far;
but after a while he got his breath with a grunt.

"John Simmons," he said, "if you've come down here this windy night to
talk a lot of fool's talk, you've wasted a journey."

Well, of course then I had to smooth him down with praising his rum, and
Heaven forgive me for swearing it was better than captain's. For the
like of that rum no living lips have tasted save mine and parson's. But
somehow or other I brought landlord round, and presently we must have a
glass of his best to prove its quality.

"Beat that if you can," he cried, and we both raised our glasses to our
mouths, only to stop halfway and look at each other in amaze. For the
wind that had been howling outside like an outrageous dog had all of a
sudden turned as melodious as the carol-boys of a Christmas eve.

"Surely that's not my Martha," whispered landlord, Martha being his
great-aunt who lived in the loft overhead.

We went to the door, and the wind burst it open so that the handle was
driven clean into the plaster of the wall, but we didn't think about
that at the time; for over our heads, sailing very comfortably through
the windy stars, was the ship that had passed the summer in landlord's
field. Her port-holes and her bay-window were blazing with lights, and
there was a noise of singing and fiddling on her decks. "He's gone!"
shouted landlord above the storm, "and he's taken half the village with
him." I could only nod in answer, not having lungs like bellows of
leather.

In the morning we were able to measure the strength of the storm, and
over and above my pigsty, there was damage enough wrought in the village
to keep us busy. True it is that the children had to break down no
branches for the firing that autumn, since the wind had strewn the woods
with more than they could carry away. Many of our ghosts were scattered
abroad, but this time very few came back, all the young men having
sailed with captain; and not only ghosts, for a poor half-witted lad was
missing, and we reckoned that he had stowed himself away or perhaps
shipped as cabin-boy, not knowing any better.

What with the lamentations of the ghost girls and the grumblings of
families who had lost ancestors, the village was upset for a while, and
the funny thing was that it was the folk who had complained most of the
carryings-on of the youngsters who made most noise now that they were
gone. I hadn't any sympathy with shoemaker or butcher, who ran about
saying how much they missed their lads, but it made me grieve to hear
the poor bereaved girls calling their lovers by name on the village
green at nightfall. It didn't seem fair to me that they should have lost
their men a second time, after giving up life in order to join them, as
like as not. Still, not even a spirit can be sorry forever, and after a
few months we made up our mind that the folk who had sailed in the ship
were never coming back; and we didn't talk about it any more.

And then one day, I dare say it would be a couple of years after, when
the whole business was quite forgotten, who should come trapesing along
the road from Portsmouth but the daft lad who had gone away with the
ship without waiting till he was dead to become a ghost. You never saw
such a boy as that in all your life. He had a great rusty cutlass
hanging to a string at his waist, and he was tattooed all over in fine
colors, so that even his face looked like a girl's sampler. He had a
handkerchief in his hand full of foreign shells and old-fashioned pieces
of small money, very curious, and he walked up to the well outside his
mother's house and drew himself a drink as if he had been nowhere in
particular.

The worst of it was that he had come back as soft-headed as he went, and
try as we might, we couldn't get anything reasonable out of him. He
talked a lot of gibberish about keelhauling and walking the plank and
crimson murders--things which a decent sailor should know nothing about,
so that it seemed to me that for all his manners captain had been more
of a pirate than a gentleman mariner. But to draw sense out of that boy
was as hard as picking cherries off a crab-tree. One silly tale he had
that he kept on drifting back to, and to hear him you would have thought
that it was the only thing that happened to him in his life.

"We was at anchor," he would say, "off an island called the Basket of
Flowers, and the sailors had caught a lot of parrots and we were
teaching them to swear. Up and down the decks, up and down the decks,
and the language they used was dreadful. Then we looked up and saw the
masts of the Spanish ship outside the harbor. Outside the harbor they
were, so we threw the parrots into the sea, and sailed out to fight. And
all the parrots were drowneded in the sea, and the language they used
was dreadful."

That's the sort of boy he was--nothing but silly talk of parrots when we
asked him about the fighting. And we never had a chance of teaching him
better, for two days after he ran away again, and hasn't been seen
since.

That's my story, and I assure you that things like that are happening at
Fairfield all the time. The ship has never come back, but somehow, as
people grow older, they seem to think that one of these windy nights
she'll come sailing in over the hedges with all the lost ghosts on
board. Well, when she comes, she'll be welcome. There's one ghost lass
that has never grown tired of waiting for her lad to return. Every night
you'll see her out on the green, straining her poor eyes with looking
for the mast-lights among the stars. A faithful lass you'd call her, and
I'm thinking you'd be right.

Landlord's field wasn't a penny the worse for the visit; but they do say
that since then the turnips that have been grown in it have tasted of
rum.





Next: The Transplanted Ghost A Christmas Story

Previous: Back From That Bourne



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