A PREFACE; in which are sketched certain Recollections
of THE STAR OF THE SEA; the condition of her passengers
and the evil which stalked among them.
All night long he would walk the ship, from bow to stern, from dusk until quarterlight, that sticklike limping man from Connemara with the drooping shoulders and ash-coloured clothes.
The sailors, the watchmen, the lurkers near the wheelhouse would glance from their conversations or their solitary work and see him shifting through the vaporous darkness; cautiously, furtively, always alone, his left foot dragging as though hefting an anchor. A billycock hat was crumpled on his head, a ragged scarf wound around his chin and throat; his tattered military greatcoat so utterly dirty it was impossible to imagine it ever having been clean.
He moved with a deliberation that was almost ceremonial, a curious strain of threadbare stateliness: as a king in a story in disguise among his lessers. His arms were very long, his eyes needle-bright. Frequently he had a look of bewilderment or foreboding, as though his life had come to a point that was beyond explication or was drawing ever closer to such a point now.
His mournful face was disfigured with scars, cross-hatched with the blemishes of some affliction much exacerbated by his bouts of furious scratching. Though slender in build, made like a featherweight, he seemed to carry an indescribable burden. Neither was it a matter of his deformity alone -- a distorted foot in a brick of a wooden clog which was stamped or branded with a capital M -- but the air of anguished expectancy he bore; the perpetually frightened watchfulness of the abused child.
He was one of those men who attract great attention by making a great effort to attract none. Often, although they could not explain it, the sailors had a sense of his presence before seeing him. It became their amusement to wager on his whereabouts at a given hour. 'Ten bells' meant down by the starboard pigpens. Quarter after eleven found him up at the scuttlebutt where by day the destitute women of steerage prepared what little food they had -- but even by the third night out of Liverpool the contest had lost its power to kill the time. He walked the ship as though following a rite. Up. Down. Across. Back. Stem. Port. Stern. Starboard. Materialising with the stars, stealing below with the sunrise, he came to be known among the ship's nocturnal denizens as 'the Ghost'.
Never did he engage the sailors in conversation. The night-stragglers, also, he completely eschewed. Not even after midnight would he speak to another, when anyone still above boards would talk to anyone else; when the dark, wet deck of the Star of the Sea saw a fellowship seldom apparent by daylight. Gates were left open at night on the ship; rules relaxed or quite ignored. It was illusory, of course, this witching hour democracy; darkness seeming to obliterate station or creed, or at least level them down to a point where they were not worth acknowledging. An acknowledgement in itself, perhaps, of the axiomatic powerlessness of being at sea.
At night one sensed the ship as absurdly out of its element, a creaking, leaking, incompetent concoction of oak and pitch and nails and faith, bobbing on a wilderness of viciously black water which could explode at the slightest provocation. People spoke quietly on the decks after dark, as though fearful of awakening the ocean to savagery. Or one pictured the Star as a colossal beast of burden, its rib-timbers straining as though they might burst; flailed by an overlord into one last persecution, the hulk half dead already and we passengers its parasites. But the metaphor is not a good one for not all of us were parasites. Those of us who were would not have admitted it.
Below us the depths which could only be imagined, the gorges and canyons of that unfathomed continent: above us the death-black bowl of the sky. Wind pounded down in an outrage of screams from what even the most sceptical mariner was careful to term 'the heavens'. And the breakers thrashed and battered our shelter; like wind made flesh, incarnate and animate, a derision of the hubris of those who had dared to invade them. Yet there was an all but religious tranquillity among those who walked the decks at night: the angrier the sea, the icier the rain, the more palpable the solidarity among those withstanding them together. An admiral might chat to a frightened cabin boy, a hungry man of steerage to a sleepless Earl. One night a prisoner, a maddened violent Galwayman, was brought from the lock-up to take his doleful exercise. Even he was included in this communion of the somnambulant, quietly conversing and sharing a cup of rum with a Methodist minister from Lyme Regis in England who had never tasted rum before but had often preached its evils. (Together they were observed kneeling on the quarterdeck and quietly singing 'Abide With Me'.)
New things were possible in this Republic of night-time. But the Ghost showed no interest in possibility, or novelty. He was immune; a crag in the vastness surrounding him. Prometheus in rags, awaiting the avid birds. He stood by the mainmast watching the Atlantic as though expecting it to freeze over or bubble with blood.
Between first bell and two bells most would slip away; many alone but some together, for tolerances flowered under night's kind cover; nature and loneliness bedfellows in the dark. From three until first light, little happened on deck. It rose and it fell. It climbed. It plunged. Even the animals slept in their cages: pigs and chickens, sheep and geese. The clang of the watch-bell would sometimes puncture the ceaseless and numbing susurration of the sea. A sailor might sing shanties to keep himself awake: he and a comrade might tell stories to each other. From down in the lock-up the madman was intermittently heard, yelping like a wounded dog or threatening to brain the other prisoner with a handspike. (There was, at that time, no other prisoner.) A couple might be glimpsed in the shadowed alleyway formed by the aft wall of the wheelhouse and the base of the funnel. Still he would stand, that man from Connemara, gazing out at the awesome darkness; facing like a figurehead into the sleet, until the webs of the rigging emerged from the murk, so black against the reddening sky of dawn.
Just before sunrise on the third morning, a seaman approached to offer him a pan of coffee. Beadlets of ice had formed on his face, on the back of his coat and the brim of his hat. He did not accept the benevolence nor even acknowledge it. 'As poor as a pox-doctor's clerk,' the Mate remarked, watching him shuffle silently away.
The sailors sometimes wondered if the Ghost's nightly ritual was a religious observance or exotic self-punishment, such as the Catholics of Ireland were whispered to favour. A mortification, perhaps, for some unspeakable transgression, or ransom for the souls ablaze in Purgatory. They believed strange things, these Aboriginal Irish, and a mariner whose profession took him among them might expect to witness strange behaviour. They talked in a nonchalant, matter-of-fact manner about miracles; saintly apparitions; statues that bled. Hell was as real as the city of Liverpool, Paradise as mappable as Manhattan Island. Their prayers were like spells or voodoo incantations. Maybe the Ghost was a holy man: one of their gurus.
Among his own tribe, too, he evoked confusion. The refugees would hear him opening the hatch, hobbling down the ladder and into the gloom of candles; his hair wild, his clothes sodden, his glazen eyes like those of a half-dead mackerel. They knew it was dawn when they saw him coming, but he seemed to bring below the stinging cold of the night. Darkness clung around him, a cloak of many folds. If there was noise, as there often was even at dawn- a huddle of men colloguing, a woman deliriously chanting the Mysteries- his arrival would cause much of it to die. They watched as he shivered the length of the cabin, as he dragged himself down through the bundles and baskets, flaccid with exhaustion, dripping and coughing, a battered puppet whose strings had been cut. He would peel the drenched coat from his shuddering torso, fold it and roll it to the shape of a bolster and slump in his blanket to sleep.
No matter the happening, he would sleep all the day. Invulnerable to the noises of babies or seasickness, to the quarrels and tears and fighting and gaming that made up the clatter of life below decks, to the roars and oaths and wooings and ragings, he would lie on the boards like a corpse. Mice scuttled over him; he never gave a twitch; roaches ran under the collar of his semmit. About him the children would canter or puke, men would scrape fiddles or bellow or argue, women would haggle for a little spare food (for food was this waterborne dominion's only currency, its disbursement a matter of fevered speculation). From the heart of the din came the groans of the sick, rising like prayers from their paltry bunks; the sick and the healthy sleeping side by side, the tormented moans and fearful invocations mingling with the buzzing of the innumerable flies.
The line for the only two water closets in steerage formed directly past the coffin lid of squalid floor that the Ghost had silently claimed as his berth. One lavatory was cracked, the other clogged and overflowing; the cubicles infested with legions of hissing rats. By seven in the morning the ammoniac stench, constant as the cold and the cries of steerage, would have invaded that floating dungeon with savage force, would be filling it up like an erupting spirit. The stink had an almost corporeal presence; it felt like something you could grasp in gluey fistfuls. Rotten food, rotten flesh, rotten fruit of rotting bowels, you smelt it on your clothes, your hair, your hands; on the glass you drank from and the bread you ate. Tobacco smoke, vomit, stale perspiration, mildewed clothes, filthy blankets and rotgut whiskey.
The portholes intended to ventilate steerage would be thrown open in an attempt to quell the astounding putrescent reek. But if anything, the breeze seemed only to make it worse, blowing it into the hollows and alcoves. Saltwater would be sluiced over the boards twice a week, but even the freshwater stank of diarrhoea and had to be laced with vinegar before it could be faced. The malicious fetor oozed its way around steerage, a steaming, noxious, nauseating vapour that stung the eyes and inflamed the nostrils. But that choking effluvium of death and abandonment was not baneful enough to wake the Ghost.
Since the start of the voyage he had remained imperturbable. Just before noon on the morning we left Liverpool a great shout had gone up from a group on the maindeck. A barquentine had been sighted approaching from the south, heading up the coast towards Dublin. The Duchess of Kent was her honoured name. She had carried the remains of Daniel O'Connell, M.P. -- 'the Liberator' to Ireland's Catholic poor -- from his death-place at Genoa in August of that year, to be laid to rest in his motherland.* Seeing the ship was like seeing the man; so it appeared from the passengers' tearful praying. But far from joining the Novenas for the fallen champion, the Ghost had not even come up on deck to watch. Heroes did not interest him as much as sleep; nor did their hallowed vessels.
*In my memory the sails on that ship were black, but when I consult my notes I see I am mistaken. --G. G. Dixon.
At eight o'clock the galley crew distributed the daily ration: half a pound of hardtack and a quart of water for each adult, half that banquet for every child. Roll call was taken at a quarter after nine. Those who had died the night before were removed from steerage to await disposal. Sometimes the slumbering Ghost was mistaken for one of them and required the protection of his dilapidated fellows. The plywood bunks would be hastily hosed down. Swabs were mopped across the boards. Blankets would be collected and boiled in urine to kill the lice that spread scabies.
After they had eaten, the people of steerage would dress and wander up to the deck. There they would walk in the clean, cold air; would sit on the boards and beg from the sailors; would watch through the cast-iron double-locked gates as we First-Class passengers took pastries and coffee under the shelter of the silken awnings. Exactly how the cream was kept fresh for the rich was often vigorously discussed by the poor. A bead of blood dropped into the mix was said by some to be effective.
The first days passed with agonising slowness. To the passengers' stupefaction, they had learned at Liverpool that the ship would be taking them back to Ireland before setting out to confront the Atlantic. The news led to frustrated drinking among the men, which in turn had led to frustrated fights. Most in steerage had sold all they owned to gather the fare across to Liverpool. Many had been robbed in that unhappy and violent city, swindled into parting with their few possessions; sold heaps of crudely stamped pewter washers which they were informed were American dollars. Now they were being carried back to Dublin, from where they had fled in the weeks before, resigned- or endeavouring to become resigned, at least- to never setting eyes on their homeland again.
But even that small blessing was to be denied them. We had chopped across a filthy-tempered Irish Sea and docked at Kingstown to take on provisions; then crept down the jagged south-east coast, making for Queenstown in the county of Cork. (Or 'Cobh', as it is known in the Gaelic language.) Seeing Wicklow glide past, or Wexford or Waterford, seemed to many a bitter taunt, a poultice being ripped from a putrefying wound. A consumptive blacksmith from the town of Bunclody jumped the upperdeck rail near Forlorn Point and was last seen swimming weakly towards the shore; every last shred of his will employed to bring him back to the place where his death was certain.
At Queenstown a hundred more passengers came on, their condition so dreadful that it made the others seem as royalty. I saw one elderly woman, little more than an agglomeration of rags, barely gain the gangplank only to die on the foredeck. Her children beseeched the Captain to take her to America anyway. No means were available to pay for her burial but they could not support the shame of dumping her body on the wharf. Her aged and crippled husband was lying on the quayside, too afflicted by famine fever to be able for the journey, a few short hours from death himself. He could not be asked to witness that sight as one of his last sights on earth.
The Captain had refused to acquiesce. A sympathetic man, he was a Quaker by faith, but bound by a set of regulations he dared not to transgress. After almost an hour of weeping and begging, a middle course was discovered and carefully plotted. The woman's body was wrapped in a blanket from the Captain's own bunk, then placed in the lock-up until we had left the port, at which point it was discreetly thrown overboard. Her people had to do it themselves. No seaman could be asked to touch the remains in case of infection. It was later recounted by the Fourth Engineer, who against all advice had been moved to assist them, that they had disfigured her face terribly with some kind of blade, fearful that the current would drift her back to Crosshaven where she might be recognised by her former neighbours. Amongst those so poor that they deserve no shame, shame lasts even longer than life. Humiliation their only inheritance, and denial the coinage in which it is paid.
The batterings of recent crossings had taken their toll of the Star, a vessel approaching the end of her service. In her eighty-year span she had borne many cargoes: wheat from Carolina for the hungry of Europe, Afghanistan opium, 'blackpowder' explosive, Norwegian timber, sugar from Mississippi, African slaves for the sugar plantations. The highest and the most hideous instincts of man had been equally served by the Star's existence; to walk her decks and touch her boards was to feel in powerful communion with both. Her Captain did not know -- perhaps nobody knew -- but she was bound for Dover Docks when this voyage was completed, there to finish out her days as a hulk for convicts. A few of the steerage people were offered work by the Captain's Mate: coopering, caulking, doing odd bits of joinery, stitching up shrouds out of lengths of sailcloth. These were envied by their comrades who had no trade or whose trade back in Ireland had been tending sheep: as useless an occupation aboard the ship as it would surely prove in the slums and rookeries of Brooklyn. On-board work meant extra food. For some, it meant survival.
No Catholic priest was among us on the Star of the Sea, but sometimes in the afternoon the Methodist minister would recite a few uncontroversial words on the quarterdeck or read aloud from the scriptures. He favoured Leviticus, Maccabees and Isaiah. Howl, ye ships of Tarshish: for your strength is laid waste. Some of the children found his fiery style frightening and pleaded with their parents to be taken away. But many remained behind to listen, as much to kill the boredom as anything else. A small-headed, dapper, compassionate man, he would stand on his tiptoes and conduct them with his toothbrush as they sang the adamant hymns of his denomination, the lyrics starkly majestic as granite-stone graves.
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come;
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.
Down in steerage, the Ghost slept on through the singing.
And then the darkness would descend again. He would rise from his flea-ridden heap of stinking bedding and devour his ration like a man possessed. His food was left for him in a pail beside his berth and though theft of food was far from unknown on the Star, nobody ever stole the Ghost's.
He would take a drink of water. Every other day he would shave. Then he would don his ancient greatcoat, as a warrior putting on his armour of battle, and bluster his way up into the night.
The steerage cabin was situated directly below the maindeck, its half-rotted roof planks here and there as brittle as the biscuit that kept its inhabitants one swallow from death. So sometimes in steerage, as the dusk came down, they would hear the clug of his wooden shoe above them. A thud, and a shower of powdery splinters, causing children to chuckle into their gruel or take a kind of delicious fright. Some of the mothers would seize on their trepidation: 'If you're not good this minute and do as you're bidden, I'll put you above for Lord Ugly to eat you.'
The Ghost was not ugly but his face was unusual. Pale as milk and slightly elongated, its features might have been stolen from several different men. His nose was bent and a little too long. His ears protruded slightly like those of a harlequin. His hair, as a hideously overgrown black dandelion, might once have belonged to a pantomime ghoul. His wan blue eyes had an unearthly clarity which made the rest of his face seem dark despite its pallor. A smell of wet ashes hung around him, commingling with the odour of the long-time traveller. Yet he was more careful than many in his habits and was frequently observed to use half his water ration to wash his comically tangled hair, as meticulous as any débutante preparing for a ball.
Tedium was the god who reigned over steerage, commanding the acolytes of restlessness and dismay. The Ghost's eccentric demeanour soon began to attract speculation. Any assemblage comprising human beings, any family, any party, any tribe, any nation, will bind itself together not by what it shares but ultimately by what it fears, which is often so much greater. Perhaps it abhors the outsider as camouflage for its own alarms; dreading what it would do to itself were the binding to fall asunder. The Ghost became useful as the stranger of steerage, the freak come among the terrified normal. His presence helped to cultivate the illusion of unity. That he was indeed so very strange only increased his value.
Rumours adhered to him like barnacles to a hull. It was said by some that he had been a moneylender back in Ireland; a 'gombeen' in their slang; a hated figure. Others pronounced him the former master of a workhouse, or a landlord's agent or a deserted soldier. A candle-maker from Dublin insisted the Ghost was an actor and swore he had seen him playing his namesake in a production of Hamlet at the Queen's in Brunswick Street. Two Fermanagh girls who never laughed were certain he must have served time in a bridewell, so cold was his expression and so calloused his small hands. His apparent fear of daylight and love of the darkness led some of the imaginative to call him 'a cithoge'; a weird supernatural of Irish legend, the child of a faerie and a mortal man, possessed of the power to curse and conjure. Yet nobody was sure of exactly what he was, for he gave away little in conversation. Even a question of platitudinous unimportance would draw only a mumble by way of response, always evasive or too quiet to be understood. But he had the vocabulary of a scholar and was certainly literate, which many of those in steerage were not. Approached by one of the braver children, he would sometimes read in an oddly tender whisper from a tiny book of stories which he kept in the depths of his greatcoat and never allowed anyone to touch or examine.
When drunk, which was rare, he had his countrymen's habit of talking in ironies that do not seem ironic: of turning a question back on the interrogator. But most of the time he did not speak at all. He took pains to avoid one-to-one conversation completely, and in company -- which was often unavoidable, given the merciless realities of steerage -- he would bow his head and gaze at the boards, as one lost in prayer or hopeless recollection.
It was said by some of the children he tolerated that he knew the names of an astonishing number of species of fish. Music, too, seemed to interest him somewhat. One of the sailors, from memory a Mancunian, claimed to have seen him studying a broadsheet of Irish ballads -- and laughing at its contents for some unrevealed reason: 'cackling like a crone on Hallowe'en night'. When asked with absolute directness he would give an opinion of a fiddler. But the opinion was always briefly expressed, and almost always approving in tone, and as happens with those who only give approving opinions, the others soon wearied of asking him.
He had something of the younger priest; an unease around women. But clearly enough he was no sort of priest. He read no breviary, dispensed no blessing, never joined in the Glory Be. And when the first of the passengers was taken by typhus, two days out of Queenstown port, he did not attend the obsequies such as they were: a dereliction that caused a certain amount of muttering in steerage. But then it occurred to someone that the Ghost might be 'a Jewman', or possibly even some kind of Protestant. That, too, could have explained his unease.
It was not that he did anything unpredictable- in truth he was the most predictable man on the ship. It was more that his very predictability made him strange.
It was as though he was certain that someone was watching him.
Even at that greener and youthful interval, I had happened upon men who had taken life. Soldiers. Presidentes. Gangsters. Executioners. Since that terrible voyage I have met many more. Some killed for money, others for country: many, I think now, because they found pleasure in killing and used money or country as varieties of disguise. But this inconsequential little man was different to all of them: this monster who haunted the decks at night. To observe him shuffling that vessel of miseries, as he shuffles, still, across my memory, even at this interim of almost seven decades, was to witness one who was curious in his behaviour, certainly; but no more than many in the strangle of poverty. No more than most, if the truth be told.
There was something so intensely ordinary about him. It could never have been guessed that he meant to do murder.
Copyright © Joseph O'Connor 2002
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