"recollect," says the fellow, "you have thrown overboard a black tom cat!"
In a quarter of an hour the pump sucked, and we all hastened down below to our grog and the completion of our yarn. As soon as we were all comfortably seated as before, Dick recommenced.
"Well, we were abreast of Malta, when the weather, which had hitherto on the voyage been very fine, changed. The clouds hung down very heavy, and there was every symptom of a fierce gale; and sure enough a worse gale I never was in than came on that night—and such a sea!—the ship rolled gunnel under, for the gale was fair, but the sea ran so high and so fast that we expected to be pooped every minute. It was about midnight when the rain came on in torrents, and the wind blew fiercer than ever. I was on deck, and so was the first mate and another man at the helm, for we were flying right before it, and she was hard to steer.
"We shall have it worse yet," said the captain.
"'Miaw!' was the reply, so clear, so loud, we could not tell where it came from. I thought it came from the maintop.
"'Mercy on us! what was that?' said the first mate, the light from the binnacle showing his face as pale as a sheet.
"'Miaw!' was the reply from somewhere.
"'The black cat, by all that's blue!' cried the captain.
"'The Lord have mercy upon us, we're all gone!' said the mate, clasping his hands in terror. To clasp his hands, of course he let go the wheel; and the other man, who was equally frightened, had not strength to hold it. Away he went, right over the wheel, knocking down the mate on the other side; and the ship taking a heavy lurch, they both went into the scuppers together. The ship broached-to, and our mainmast and mizzenmast went over the side."
"Do top that glim, Bill," said one of the men, in a tremulous voice.
Dick paused while the snuff was taken off the candle: and the water went tap, tap, tap against the bends, with a most melancholy sound. I really did feel rather queer myself.
Dick continued. "Well, all hands were on deck immediately, and it was good two hours before we could clear the wreck, for the men were disheartened. They had heard the loud miaw when in the fore-peak, and declared that it was close to them; and the passenger and Jim came out, frightened out of their wits. They had heard the miaw, and said that it was from under the cabin table. At last we were clear of the wreck, and the wind roared louder than ever.
"The captain was a stout-hearted fellow, and as the men were collected together under the bulwark, he said, 'Well, this breeze will shorten our distance, at any rate, and if it holds we shall soon be at Smyrna,'
"'We shall never see Smyrna!' replied the second mate, his teeth chattering.
"'No, never!' cried the seamen.
"The captain sent Jim down for his rum-bottle, and gave every man a stiff glass of liquor, and that made them feel more comfortable for a time; when there was a sort of lull, and again the loud miaw was repeated.
"'There it is!' cried the men; but they hardly had time to say so when the ship was pooped with a tremendous sea washing away the stern and quarter-boats, and sending all the men swimming forward. So loaded was the ship with water that she stopped, and appeared as if she was settling down. At last she rolled heavy to port and discharged it, and away we went before the wind, faster than ever. Well, there was some talk among the seamen of throwing poor Jim overboard to appease the ghost of the cat, for it was he who had thrown the cat overboard. But the captain heard what the men were saying, and he swore that he would knock the brains out of the first man who laid hold of the boy; and he sent Jim below out of harm's way. Poor Jim! how bitterly he cried, poor boy, when he heard what was going on.
"Well, it's a long lane that has no turning, and no gale lasts forever. The next day it moderated, and the day after the weather was quite fine, and the sea had gone down. We recovered our spirits, the more so as we heard no more of the cat; and having jury-rigged her aft, we steered our course with a light breeze. We were now but a short distance from Smyrna, and hoped to be there by the next day; but the second mate shook his head. He said, 'The cat has not done with us, for it was a black tomcat.'
"The fourth day the captain came on deck, and said, 'I heard a great washing of water in the run last night, as I thought; have you sounded the well lately?'
"'No,' replied the first mate, 'I left that to the carpenter.'
"'Well, then, ask him.' Well, the carpenter had not sounded the well, as it appeared; and so he sounded it immediately, and found that we had six feet water in the hold.
"'I knowed we were doomed,' said the second mate; 'we'll never get at port'; and so thought the men: but the captain said:
"'Why, the fact is, my lads, we must have sprung a leak in the gale, and no wonder, beating against the wreck so as we did when the masts went over the side. Come, rig the pumps, and we shall soon clear her. The tom cat has nothing to do with this, at all events.'
"Now, you see, our bottom cargo consisted of two or three tier of crates of crockery, which would not spoil by being wet; but the upper part of the cargo was bales of dry goods and linen; so the captain was very anxious that they should work the pumps before the water got higher: the weather was very fine, the sea smooth, and the wind, although fair, was light. Well, the seamen were terrified, and thought they were lost; they asked for liquor, and refused to work at the pumps; they said it was no use, the ship was doomed. Well, the captain he got very angry; he went down into the cabin, loaded his double-barreled gun, and swore that he would shoot the first man through the head who refused to work at the pumps. The men knew that he was in earnest, for he was a violent sort of fellow, and so they set to. We didn't gain much upon her; I thought we did a little, but the men said no. The captain declared that we did gain considerably, but it was supposed that he only said so to encourage the people. Well, the captain ordered the mate to take up the hatches that they might see the state of the cargo. This was done; the dry goods, as far as we could make out, were not injured, and the men pumped spell and spell until the evening, when the captain gave them a good allowance of grog, and an hour to rest themselves. It was a beautiful moonlight night: the sails were just asleep and no more; but the vessel was heavy, from the water in her, and we dragged slowly along. The captain, who had gone down below with the first mate, came up from the cabin, and said to the men, 'Now, my lads, we'll set to again'; when suddenly there was a loud, melancholy miaw! which terrified us all. We looked from whence the sound appeared to come, and there, on the launch turned over amidship, we beheld the ghost of the black tom cat, so large, so black, with the broad moonlight shining on it; and so thin, it was the skeleton of the cat, only it looked as black as ever; its back was humped up and its tail curved; and, as it stood out in the broad moonlight, it did look twice as big as the original cat, which was the biggest I ever saw. Well, the men actually screamed; they ran aft, upsetting the captain and mate, and roiling over them and hiding their faces, with 'Lord, have mercy on us!' and 'God, forgive our sins!' and 'Oh! we're lost, we're lost!' and every sort of crying and groaning that could be thought of. At last the captain gets up from under them in a great rage and looks forward to see what was the matter, and there he sees the ghost of the tom cat standing just in the same place; and it gave another miserable miaw! 'Why,' cried the captain (who had his grog on board, and was as brave as brass), 'it is the cussed cat himself. Stop a moment.' Down he goes to the cabin, reels up the hatchway again with his double-barreled gun, and lets fly at it"—(here Dick lowered his voice to almost a whisper)—"the cat gave a shriek—and then—"
Here, during the pause, Bill put out his finger and thumb to snuff the candle, but his hand shook—he snuffed it out, and we were all left in darkness. I can hardly describe the feeling which appeared to pervade the whole of our party. Every one was shuffling and crowding with their shoulders, but still no one moved from his place.
"Well," said Dick, the narrator, in a quiet subdued voice, "why don't one of you go and fetch a light? Come, jump up, Bill, you topped it out."
"Ay, ay," replied Bill, evidently shaking; "where's the candle?"
"Here," said one of the boys, handing it to him.
"Well, then, jump up yourself, you young whelp, you're younger than me."
"I didn't put it out," replied the boy, whining.
"Up immediately, or I'll break every rib in your body," replied Bill.
The boy, who was terribly frightened, got up at this threat, and began to ascend the ladder; he was about three steps up, when we heard from the deck a horrible miaw! The boy gave a scream of terror, and fell down on his back among us all, smashing the glass and flattening the tin cans against the men's legs, who halloed with pain. At last there was a dead silence again, and I could plainly hear the loud throbbing of more than one heart.
"Come," said Dick again, "what was the fool frightened about? Look for the candle, some of you."
At last Bill found it in his breast, broke in two and half melted away, and was proceeding for a light when the carpenter stepped to the hatch with his lantern, and said, "Why, you're all in the dark there, shipmates! Here, take my lantern."
I may as well here observe that the carpenter had been listening to the story as he sat by the hatchway on deck, and it was he who had favored us with the miaw which had so frightened the boy. As soon as the lantern had been received and the candle relighted, Dick recommenced.
"Well, my lads, I said that the captain went down below, brought up his gun, and let fly at the cat, and then—well, and then—the cat gave a loud shriek, and falls down upon the deck. The captain walks forward to it, takes it up by the tail, brings it aft, and shies it among the men.
"'There, you fools,' said he, 'it is the cat himself; will you believe your own eyes?'
"And sure enough, so it was; for, you see, when Jim tumbled overboard, it being then dark, and we so busy with Jim, we did not look after the cat, and so it must have crawled up the cable and run down into the hold while the hatches were off; and all that noise heard aft must have been the brute chasing the rats, I suppose. Jim may have heard, but he could not have seen, the cat; that was all fancy and fright. You know how long a cat will live without much food, and so the animal was pretty quiet after it had killed all the rats. Then when the gale came on, and the upper part of the cargo fetched way a little, for it was loosely stowed, we suppose that it got jammed now and then with the rolling, and that made it miaw; and then, when we took off the hatches to look at the cargo, after we had sprung the leak, the cat, o' course, came out, and a pretty skeleton it was, as you may suppose. Now do you understand the whole of it?"
"Yes, that's all clear," replied Bill; "and it was no ghost, after all? But still the cat did do mischief, for if the mate had not been frightened by it, he wouldn't have let go the wheel, and the masts would not have gone by the lee."
"That's true enough, and he might have done more mischief still if the captain had not shot him, for the men would never have gone to the pumps again; but when they found out that it was nothing but the cat himself, then they set to, and before the next evening the vessel was clear, and only required pumping out every two hours, for the leak wasn't great, after all. So there's a ghost story for you, and I believe that all others will be found, like mine, to end in moonshine. Now, suppose we turn in, for we shall weigh at three o'clock in the morning."
We all tumbled into the standing berths in the fore-peak. I dreamed of black tom cats all night. The next morning we weighed with a fair wind; as before, I stood beside Bramble, who pointed out to me everything worth notice or memory as we passed, but at last the motion affected me so much that I could pay little attention, and I remained by his side as pale as a sheet. We rounded the North Foreland, and long before dark anchored in the Downs. Bramble went no further with the vessel, the captain himself being a good pilot for the Channel. A Deal boat came alongside, we got into it, they landed us on the shingle beach, and I followed Bramble up to his abode.