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W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XLV, No. 1 (Jan 1877)
p. 61-67.

Jack Bonner's Ghost. 61



      We had no better man among all the crew of the Dorchester, whether in cabin or forecastle, than my chum and crony. Jack Bonner. Jack had joined our ship at Christmas Island, where he had shortly before suffered shipwreck, and he and I soon contracted a strong friendship for each other. Though not, of course, regularly shipped, he had signed a sort of agreement at sea, by which he was to make the voyage in the Dorchester for a certain stipulated lay, having his choice either to come home in her, or to receive his discharge in the last Pacific port, and was thus counted as one of the regular crew.

      But though, as I have already said, Bonner was one of our very best men, he had certain faults of manner which made him disliked by some of his superiors in rank. His opinions on most subjects were sound and well-considered, but he was often more forward in expressing them than is quite the thing for a subordinate on shipboard; and was always too honest and straightforward to go a step out of his way to conciliate any one for whom he had a dislike. Thus it came about, from no one particular circumstance, but little by little, that Captain Jeffreys was, as the phrase goes, "down on him." There was no love lost between them during the season in the Arctic; it seemed every day that the latent flame must very soon burst forth.

      Our season had been a very unfortunate one, and the captain had determined to avoid the expense of making his port at Honolulu, as also the trouble which he expected to meet with from desertion among his crew. "We ran down near to the port, and he ordered his boat away with a selected crew, leaving the mate with instructions to lie off and on until his return, it being now well understood that he intended only to get some fresh provisions, and then proceed on to some port in south latitude. The knowledge of that intention gave rise to much discontent in both ends of the ship, but Captain Jeffreys was not one to care much for our black looks, or for the volley of curses – "not loud, but deep" – which were hurled after him as his boat was pulled away toward the harbor. We were to be tantalized all day with the view of that beautiful port, and the many ships snugly moored inside, and with the thought of how the crews of those ships were enjoying themselves, while we were doomed to pass two or three more long months at sea before we should drop our anchor in some out-of-the-way place, none of us knew where.

      The dull hours dragged away, and eight bells came at last. We were all below at dinner except the third mate and the man at the wheel, when we were startled by the fearful cry of "fire!" A rush was made from the forecastle to the deck, and a small volume of smoke was visible rolling out of the main hatchway. The third mate stood peering down into it, but apparently not at all excited by the danger. Some one was down there in the smoke fighting the flames with water from the scuttle butt, which stood in the steerage between decks, and shouting the cry of fire from time to time. It was the same voice which had first startled us – that of Jack Bonner.

      The mate and other officers had poured out of the cabin pellmell, and, as well as those from the forecastle, were gathered round the hatchway in a high state of excitement, wanting to do something; but there was no need of our services, for the work was already done. Jack Bonner, single-handed, had extinguished the fire, and saved the good ship Dorchester from destruction.

      The mate jumped down between decks, followed by others, and began to drag out into view the smouldering brands. The remains of sticks of light wood, which had evidently been placed where they were by no accident, and well saturated with oil, and also some wads of greasy oakum in a half-consumed state, were sufficient evidence that the fire was incendiary.

      "What does all this mean?" demanded Mr. Green, the first officer. "What devil's work is this? Who first saw the fire?"

      "I did, sir," answered Jack Bonner, who stood near begrimed with smoke and perspiration,and panting from his exertions.

62 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

      "How came you to discover it?" asked the mate, looking at him sternly.

      "I came aft in the dinner hour, sir, to get some water from the scuttle-butt, and saw the smoke between decks, for it was just beginning then to pour up from the hatchway. There's my tin pot, sir, right where I dropped it when I first cried 'fire' and rushed for a bucket."

      "Where was Mr. Martin all this time? I left him in charge of the deck when I went to dinner."

      "Mr. Martin was away aft there, leaning over the taffrail by the round-house. I raised the alarm when I dropped my tin pot and rushed up the steerage ladder for the bucket, which I had seen standing on the booby-hatch."

      "What did Mr. Martin do then?"

      "Well, he didn't do anything right away, sir. The first word he said was, 'shut up your noise;' but I yelled again as I rushed down to the water cask, and then he came forward and looked down, and asked 'where?' very coolly, I thought, as if he were in no great hurry about it."

      "You lie!" roared the third mate, with a gesture as if he intended to follow the word with a blow. But Bonner was too quick-eyed; the tin pot which he had held in his hand was hurled full in the teeth of the pugnacious Mr. Martin, stunning him for the moment. Mr. Green and the boatsteerer interfered to prevent further violence, and Jack was marched aft and placed under guard in the cabin to await the arrival of his majesty the captain, for our boat was now to be seen coming out through the passage on the reef.

      Captain Jeffreys fairly foamed at the mouth when the story was made known to him. The investigation was short enough; indeed, it was no investigation at all, being entirely an ex parte affair, for Mr. Martin had first gotten the ear of the captain and mate, and told the story in his own way.

      The captain, blinded by his hatred and prejudice against Bonner, would not listen to anything from him. Indeed, Jack did not attempt to say much, for when he was directly charged to his face with having set fire to the ship, his lip only curled into a sneer, and he was disposed to treat the accusation with silent contempt. So the captain stormed away, having all the talk to himself.

      "O, you may curl your lip and put on airs," said he, "but I'll find a way to get the truth out of you! It was a nice plan, wasn't it, to set fire to the ship close to port! There would be no great danger to your precious carcass, and she would be pretty sure to be partly burned, so as to drive her into port for repairs, even if she wasn't burned up altogether, which would be still better, eh?"

      "So far as I am concerned in that business, you are only talking sheer nonsense," said Bonner, quietly.

      "O yes, of course," continued Captain Jeffreys, with rising rage. "I don't talk much else but nonsense, do I? And then, you miserable coward, you got scared at your own work after you had done it, and so you made a great show of raising an alarm and putting it out, eh? eh?"

      "You know better than that, or ought to know better, sir; you don't believe yourself what you are saying," said Jack, as the tyrant stopped to take breath.

      "O, don't I? We'll see about that; and I'll find a way to work the devil out of you that I've seen lurking in you for the last six months. What a pity you hadn't had, courage enough to carry out your rascally plan! As it is, the ship isn't damaged enough to amount to anything, and so you wont get your foot ashore in Honolulu, after all; and in the meantime, I'll put you in a place where I can find you, my very innocent lad. O no! you didn't set fire in the ship – of course you didn't! Perhaps you even know who did do it, eh?"

      "I think I do," answered Jack, as quietly as before, and with the same independent air, which only served to inflame the irate captain to a still higher pitch.

      "I'll break your proud spirit!" he roared. "Here, Mr. Martin, put these handcuffs on this man."

      The third mate, still smarting from the pain of his battered face, rushed forward eagerly to do the bidding of his superior. Bonner would probably have submitted to be ironed by any other officer, but this was the last straw to break the camel's back.

      "Don't touch me, Mr. Martin," he said, in a low tone, but with a gesture of warning.

      "What!" screamed the captain; "do you mean to say that you wont have the irons on?"

      "I say they shall not be put on by him. If you want to iron me yourself, I will hold out my hands to receive them. But I'll

Jack Bonner's Ghost. 63

knock him down If he undertakes it, even by your orders."

      "What! you'll knock down an officer of my ship, acting by my orders? Mr. Martin, are you a coward? Go on and do your duty."

      Martin, thus adjured, took another step, which brought him within the range of Bonner's fist, and was felled to the deck by a blow sent straight from the shoulder.

      "Here, Mr. Green! Mr. Conway! Here, boatsteerers! Take hold of this man and put him in irons! I'll have a cage made for him to-morrow."

      "There's no need to call any more help, or use any more violence," said Bonner, holding out his hands towards Conway, the second mate, who now had the handcuffs, and who adjusted them with a single click. The prisoner then walked off and sat down on the toolchest.

      "I said that I would never submit to be manacled by the third mate, and I never would; I'd have died first. And now, Captain Jeffreys, if you choose to carry me into your next port in handcuffs, or even in a cage, I suppose I can stand it. You may do your worst, now that I am in your power, but I believe you'll live to be sorry for this day's work."

      And after that, though the captain continued to storm, and swear, and taunt him as before, he was not to be goaded into breaking his silence.

      Having received on board a fresh supply of provisions from a shore launch, we made sail, and steered on our course to the southward. But the captain was as good as his word about the cage. He set the cooper at work the next day to make a cage of hoop iron, large enough for a man to stand erect in, or to lie down, as he might choose. The interstices were large enough to admit the passage of one's arm, and to allow of food being passed through to the prisoner inside.

      The officers remonstrated at the unnecessary cruelty of caging a man who was not at all dangerous or violent; and Mr. Conway, the second mate, who was a firm believer in the man's innocence of the charge, said all that a subordinate could well say about it.

      But old Jeffreys, an ignorant and brutal man at best, and especially unreasonable when fortified with liquor, as he was a great part of the time, turned a deaf ear to all remonstrance, and persevered in his scheme, the brutality of which was only equalled by its absurdity.

      Like most whalers, on long voyages, the Dorchester carried two spare spars, one on each side of the quarter deck, with the ends projecting out several feet over the stern. Across these projecting ends several smaller spars were lashed, forming a platform, which overhung the sea beyond the taff rail, and upon this platform the cage, when finished, was lashed, and Jack Bonner ordered into it.

      He obeyed the order without resistance, deigning no other reply to the captain's abusive language than the same cold sneer before mentioned.

      One end of the cage swung open as a door, and when closed was secured by a large padlock. A piece of old sail thrown about the top of the cage served as a partial screen from the heat of the sun, and at other times from rain.

      Thus was my noble young shipmate and crony secured in his strange prison, in full view of all hands, and exposed hourly to the taunts and abuse of a drunken tyrant.

      He was let out for an hour or two every afternoon, that he might stretch his legs, but at such times was required to wear his irons, having them taken off again when he returned into his iron basket.

      He was not allowed to talk with any of his shipmates, but, during my tricks at the wheel in the night, we were able to manage stolen interviews, being so near each other that we could converse in quite low tones.

      The key of (he padlock was always kept by the captain all day, and carried below at night, where the officer of the deck could not get it without waking him, for he was always in fear that some one would play him false, and befriend his poor victim in some unauthorized way.

      His fears were not without good reasons, for the second mate, disgusted with the whole business, proved a stanch friend of Jack; and searching among some old iron in the transom locker, found a rusty key which fitted the padlock of the prison.

      We had arrived within two days' sail of Huaheine, one of the Society Group, and it had leaked out that this island was to be our port.

      The weather was rough and squally when our watch was called at midnight, and the light sails had been furled, leaving the ship

64 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

under full topsails and jib. It was my turnout trick at the wheel, the third mate being in charge of our watch; and I went aft to my post as soon as I came on deck. I knew, for Bonner had himself told me the night before, that he had a key in his pocket, and could liberate himself from his cage at will.

      But although he had many indulgences during the second mate's watch on deck, his mortal enemy, Martin, was of course ignorant of all that, and we decided to keep him in ignorance.

      As a black tropical squall was rising, such a one as gets up a gale of wind at a moment's notice, and spends its fury within the hour, the officer was stirring, and pervaded the whole ship, looking after his men, and seeing that all was clear for an emergency, instead of lounging around the cabin gangway, as was his custom in fair weather.

      Bonner was lying down on his mattress at the bottom of the cage, but was broad awake, for my low whistle, given to indicate that the coast was clear, was answered at once.

      "Dirty weather. Jack," said I.

      "Yes. I rode out the rain squall very comfortably, in Mr. Conway's watch, thanks to him for sheltering me with his big tarpaulin. But I suppose if that thief of a third mate notices it, he'll take it away again."

      "I'm afraid. Jack," said I, "that the next squall is going to be a very heavy one, and coming butt-end foremost. I don't like the looks of the sky at all, and I wish the topsails were clewed down before it strikes us!"

      "Luff, boy, luff, close up to the wind!" called out Mr. Martin to me; but the order was superfluous, for the sails were already lifting and shivering.

      The squall closed upon us so black and thick that the darkness appeared to be tangible – one could feel it. There was a tremor in the air, and the stout old ship began to careen to the blast, which came with an ominous moaning sound.

      "Let go the topsail halyards, fore and aft!" roared the frightened officer. But he was too late.

      Down she went on her broadside, so suddenly that the distended sails would not come down, though all the halyards had been let fly at the word.

      For a minute or two there was a scene of confusion which no language can describe. There was no need to call all hands, for every one came tumbling as fast as he could up the ladder, which was no easy matter. The roaring of the blast was fearful, and the ship was in imminent danger.

      "Hard up your helm!" shouted the mate, as his head emerged from the cabin doorway. "Hard up, and get her off before it!"

      He was closely followed by Captain Jeffreys, and both starting forward, disappeared in the darkness.

      As the ship fell off to a "hard full," under the power of the helm, I heard a dull thud, and then a tremendous slatting and crashing, mingled with loud voices from everybody.

      "Foretop-mast's gone!" I heard some one say, "and the jibboom, too!"

      Then the word was given to square in the mizzen-topsail, but she was already falling off in obedience to the power of the helm. I heard a clanking of the iron cage behind me, and then Bonner's voice close to my ear:

      "I'm not going to be drowned like a rat in a trap, but I'm going to make them think so. And here goes!"

      I heard a rumbling and jarring behind me, then a sliding as of one heavy body upon another, and a heavy splash into the sea astern. I understood the whole. Jack had cut the lashings that confined the smaller booms, and now, with a single push of his feet, had sent the whole raft of them, with the iron cage attached, overboard. I looked round for him, but he was lost in darkness. I spoke in a moderate tone, then louder, but got no answer.

      The rain was now coming down in torrents, and I had enough to do to keep the old Dorchester before the blast; while every one was busy forward securing the wreck of the spars. But the coming of the rain indicated that the greatest force of the wind was now spent, and in a few minutes it began to abate. The weight of the squall was over before Captain Jeffreys came aft, emerging from the pitchy darkness into the little semi-circle of light shed from the binnacle lamp.

      "Bonner!" he cried; "how do you weather it? I ought to have remembered the man when the squall struck," he returned, "but I couldn't stop just then. Why, what – My God!" he roared, "he's gone overboard!"

Jack Bonner's Ghost. 65

      For the blackness was passing away to leeward, and the moon shining upon the scene, as he jumped on the taffrail, showed the long bare ends of the two spars projecting astern, but not a vestige of the bridge or the grated prison which before had stood towering up from it.

      As quickly as possible the ship was brought up to the wind, but the movement would amount to nothing, as was plain enough upon a second sober thought. For we had run several miles dead to leeward during the squall, and crippled as we now were, could do nothing at beating up again.

      The terror-stricken old man, now completely sobered, questioned me eagerly, but of course I knew nothing. I declared that I had been so entirely occupied with the helm, during the great emergency, that I knew nothing of what had happened directly behind me. and within a few feet. I actually knew nothing of what had become of Jack after he spoke to me, and I even feared that he might have slipped overboard himself when he pushed the booms over. I observed that the third mate's face wore a look of malignant triumph, and I tried in vain to read any special intelligence in the feature of Mr. Conway; for I fancied that he might know more than any one else about my chum, if indeed he were alive. Old Jeffreys, haggard and pale, staggered into the cabin to drown his remorse in liquor.

      We continued on our course towards Huaheine, rigging some jury-spars so as to carry a little head sail, but the Dorchester was now become that bugbear and terror of sailors – a haunted ship. The ghost was active, but pervaded only the cabin and the after part of the ship, where the "manifestations" were frequent, being of nightly occurrence.

      The captain got no sleep at all, except by drowning his senses, and was driven to the very verge of insanity. Things were thrown about in his stateroom in the strangest manner, his small hanging mirror, which hung against the wall near his head, fell to the floor with a crash, and was shivered to pieces.

      As he roused from his drunken sleep, he found the cabin in darkness, and caught a glimpse of a tall figure in white, which he declared had vanished out through the stern windows. He abandoned his stateroom and tried to rest better by taking up his lodgings on the transom, but that night a sepulchral voice came in at the window, close by his head, and accused him of the murder of an innocent man. He rushed on deck wild with fear, went and looked over the stern, peering downward, as if he expected to see spectres rising out of the vortex round the ship's rudder, and walked the deck in a fearful state of trembling and cold sweat, not daring to go below again until after daylight.

      The third mate was the next victim and suffered even more from fright than did Captain Jeffreys. He had been woke from sleep at the dead of night by that same unearthly voice calling out the word, "murderer!" in his ear, the sound appearing to come through the aperture of the side-lights which stood open in hot weather. Mr. Green, the mate, had also heard these strange nocturnal voices, though never seeming to be addressed to himself, and had once caught a momentary glimpse of a figure in white, which appeared to vanish into thin air before he could collect his bewildered senses, while the Portuguese steward, terrified beyond endurance, had deserted his lodgings entirely, and slept either above deck or in the "bull room," with the boatsteerers.

      All this time Mr. Conway laughed at the whole business, and pretended never to have heard anything out of the common course. At the same time he fed the flame of the captain's remorse, by insinuating his firm belief that the young man who had met this dreadful and untimely fate was quite innocent of having fired the ship.

      "If he didn't do it, who did?" demanded the old man at last, turning fiercely upon him. "You were in the boat with me, at the time, and of course, you know nothing about it."

      "I was in your boat, sir, that's true, but I can have my suspicions, and I think I do know something about it. It wasn't Jack Bonner, sir, though he has paid the penalty with his life."

      Captain Jeffreys's eyes appeared to flame from his haggard face like live coals in a bed of ashes, and he clutched a belayingpin for support. "What do you mean?" he shrieked, "who do you think set the fire?"

      "You wouldn't believe it unless I could furnish proof, and I am not quite prepared yet, though I hope to do it soon."

      "But who do you think it was? Why don't you tell me? What do you mean by

66 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

these hints? Speak out!" he roared in a frenzy.

      "The man who accused Bonner, sir, Mr. Martin, sir, is the real incendiary."

      "I can't believe it!"

      "So I suppose," answered the second mate, quietly. "You seemed to have made up your mind who was guilty before you asked any questions."

      The captain trembled so that, but for his grasp on the belaying-pin, he must have fallen to the deck. Mr. Conway followed up his advantage.

      "If you had listened to reason, sir, and investigated all the evidences, you might at least have doubted, and the blood of a fine young man would not be upon your hands."

      A deep groan was the only reply, but the captain raised himself erect, as if by a mighty effort, and reeled below the cabin stairs.

      "Gone to his bottle for strength," muttered the second mate. In a few minutes his gray head was again seen above the companion-way; he trod the deck with a firmer step, as if he had nerved himself up for some definite purpose, and meant to carry it through.

      "Mr. Martin," he shouted, "Come down!"

      The third mate was at the masthead looking out for whales, and obeyed the summons, wondering, as his looks plainly showed, why he was called down before his trick was out. The old man confronted him firm and stern, with determination in every feature.

      "Mr. Martin! Did you set fire to the ship?"

      "Who says I did?" demanded Martin, with a kind of tremulous bluster, for he was taken entirely by surprise and completely off his guard. The cool calm gaze of Mr. Conway was upon him.

      "I say you did."

      "Answer my question!" thundered Captain Jeffreys, seizing a capstan-bar from alongside the mizzen-mast. "If you hesitate or lie to me, I'll brain you on the spot."

      The frightened wretch turned and fled forward among the crew, as he saw the weapon raised in the air. The question was already answered to the captain's satisfaction.

      At a word from the infuriated old man, he was seized and hustled aft, we being only too glad to receive such orders. The handcuffs were ready with willing hands to put them on for him. The captain, as soon as the burst of excitement was over, sat down on the deck with his face in his hands and groaned aloud.

      "Better have another cage made now, sir," suggested Mr. Conway. It was a cruel thrust for a man already overwhelmed with agony, and the honest face of the second mate showed the next moment that he was sorry for it.

      The poor captain, completely overwhelmed at the knowledge that he had caused the death of an innocent man, was carried below insensible. A raging fever followed, and continued during the whole time we lay in the bay of Huaheine, where we arrived the next day.

      As soon as we anchored. Jack Bonner, like one raised from the dead, made his appearance on deck among us and went about his duty. But he arranged with Mr. Green to have his discharge from the ship in case Captain Jeffreys did not recover his reason during our stay in the port.

      Meanwhile, Martin, the third mate, deserted and got ashore in a native canoe, his escape having been winked at, for we were glad enough to be well rid of him. There was no law there to take cognizance of his crime; we did not care to have him as a shipmate, and it was not worth while to send him all the way to America for trial.

      We were ready for sea again, and Jack Bonner was in the cabin with the mate, arranging the papers for a sort of informal discharge, for there was no consul at the port. When Captain Jeffreys, who had fallen asleep after a night of mild delirium, first awoke to reason and a full consciousness of his whereabouts, weak and exhausted as he was, his first demand was for the bottle of rum. The steward was in the act of pouring some into a glass, when Mr. Conway, stepping into the room, made signs to him to wait a minute.

      "Captain Jeffreys," he said, "I wouldn't drink that stuff. It has made ruin and trouble enough for you already."

      "I must have it," he said, eagerly, though in a faint, voice. "I must drown thought and drive away remorse. The ghost of that innocent man is before me all the time. I have been the cause of his death, and I know now that he was innocent. Curses on that villain of a Martin, who accused him, when he had done the deed himself!"

Nellie's Protector. 67

      "But what if Jack Bonner be not dead?"

      "What?" said the captain. "Didn't I see his ghost here in my stateroom? And haven't I seen it before me night and day ever since he was lost? Give me the liquor!"

      "Stay a moment," said the second mate, quietly. "Bonner is here in the flesh, not his ghost. Here, Jack! Come in here!"

      The captain stood for a moment in doubt, then dashed the glass of liquor to the floor, and stretched out his arms.

      "Come here, Bonner, and forgive me, if you can. I have suffered enough, God knows, for my wicked prejudice against you and my appetite for the accursed poison. Heaven helping me, I will never drink another drop of it as long as I live!"

      "I told you, sir," said Bonner, "on the day that I was put in irons, that you would be sorry for what you had done."

      "I know you did, and I have suffered such torments as neither you nor any one else can imagine unless he has been guilty of similar wickedness, I don't know how all this ghost business has been managed, though I suppose Mr. Conway has been at the bottom of it. Neither do I care. It is enough that you are alive, that my soul is clear of murder, and that I may still make some atonement for the wrong I have done you."

      Bonner did not take his discharge at Huaheine, and the change in Captain Jeffreys was radical and complete. He appreciated my chum as one of the best men in the ship, for such he really was, and the vow of abstinence made on a sick bed was most sacredly kept. The matter of the iron cage was never in any way alluded to, at least in his hearing. The effect of the captain's terror and sickness had worked such a change, that the Dorchester was thenceforth to all of us "a good ship," in the comprehensive sense of the term, as used by sailors, referring not so much to the vessel herself as to the treatment and discipline on board of her.

      Before our voyage was completed, we learned, beyond all doubt, that Martin left Huaheine on another whaler, and, deserting again, became a "beach-comber," on one of the Caroline Islands, where he was killed in a squabble with the natives. We felt that he had met the fate which he deserved, and we all had reason to bless the second mate for his ingenious arrangement of the ghost business.

      He had kept Bonner secreted in a locker in his stateroom, which was always closed in the daytime, and had let him out at the proper time in the night, to make the manifestations which had made the Dorchester for a few days only, a haunted ship.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Jack Bonner's Ghost.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 45, No. 1 (Jan 1877)
Pages: 61-67