The captain told the crew they must keep absolute silence on the subject of what had passed; and as the mate was not willing to give an explicit and absolute promise, he ordered him to be confined below. After a day or two, he came to the mate, and demanded if he had an intention to deliver him up for trial when the vessel got home. The mate, who was tired of close confinement in that sultry climate, spoke his commander fair, and obtained his liberty. When he mingled among the crew once more, he found them impressed with the idea, not unnatural in their situation, that the ghost of the dead man appeared among them when they had a spell of duty, especially if a sail was to be handed, on which occasion the spectre was sure to be out upon the yard before any of the crew. The narrator had seen this apparition himself repeatedly—he believed the captain saw it also, but he took no notice of it for some time, and the crew, terrified at the violent temper of the man, dared not call his attention to it. Thus they held on their course homeward, with great fear and anxiety.
At length the captain invited the mate, who was now in a sort of favour, to go down to the cabin and take a glass of grog with him. In this interview, he assumed a very grave and anxious aspect. " I need not tell you, Jack," he said, " what sort of hand we have got on board with us—He told me he would never leave me, and he has kept his word—You only see him now and then, but he is always by my side, and never out of my sight. At this very moment I see him—I am determined to bear it no longer, and I have resolved to leave you."
The mate replied, that his leaving the vessel while out of sight of land was impossible. He advised that, if the captain apprehended any bad consequences from what had happened, he should run for the west of France or Ireland, and there go ashore, and leave him, the mate, to carry the vessel into Liverpool. The captain only shook his head gloomily, and reiterated his determination to leave the ship. At this moment, the mate was called to the deck for some purpose or other, and the instant he got up the companion-ladder, he heard a splash in the water, and looking over the ship's side, saw that the captain had thrown himself into the sea from the quarter-gallery, and was running astern at the rate of six knots an hour. When just about to sink, he seemed to make a last exertion, sprung half out of the water, and clasped his hands towards the mate, calling, "By-, Bill is with me now!" and then sunk, to be seen no more.
After hearing this singular story, Mr. Clerk asked some questions about the captain, and whether his companion considered him at all times rational. The sailor seemed struck with the question, and answered, after a moment's delay, that in general he conversathned well enough.
It would have been desirable to have been able to ascertain how far this extraordinary tale was founded on fact; but want of time, and other circumstances, prevented Mr. Clerk from learning the names and dates that might, to a certain degree, have verified the events. Granted the murder to have taken place, and the tale to have been truly told, there was nothing more likely to arise among the ship's company than the belief in the apparition •, as the captain was a man of a passionate and irritable disposition, it is nowise improbable that he, the victim of remorse, should participate in the horrible visions of those less concerned, especially as he was compelled to avoid communicating his sentiments with any one else; and the catastrophe would in such a case be but the natural consequence of that superstitious horror which has conducted so many criminals to suicide or the gallows. If the fellow-traveller of Mr. Clerk be not allowed this degree of credit, he must at least be admitted to have displayed a singular talent for the composition of the terrible in fiction. The tale, properly managed, might have made the fortune of a romancer.
I cannot forbear giving you, as congenial to this story, another instance of a guilt-formed phantom, which made considerable noise about twenty years ago, or more. I am, I think, tolerably correct in the details, though I have lost the account of the trial. Jar-vis Matcham—such, if I am not mistaken, was the name of my hero—was pay-sergeant in a regiment, where he was so highly esteemed as a steady and accurate man that he was permitted opportunity to embezzle a considerable part of the money lodged in his hands for pay of soldiers, bounty of recruits, then a large sum, and other charges which fell within his duty. He was summoned to join his regiment from a town where he had been on the recruiting service, and this, perhaps, under some shade of suspicion. Matcham perceived discovery was at hand, and would have deserted, had it not been for the presence of a little drummer-lad, who was the only one of his party appointed to attend him. In the desperation of his crime, he resolved to murder the poor boy, and avail himself of some balance of money to make his escape. He meditated this wickedness the more readily that the drummer, he thought, had been put as a spy on him. He perpetrated his crime ; and, changing his dress after the deed was done, made a long walk across the country to an inn on the Portsmouth road, where he halted and went to bed, desiring to be called when the first Portsmouth coach came. The waiter summoned him accordingly ; but long after remembered that, when he shook the guest by the shoulder, his first words as he awoke were, " My God ! I did not kill him."
Matcham went to the seaport by the coach, and instantly entered as an able-bodied landsman or marine, I know not which. His sobriety and attention to duty gained him the same good opinion of the officers in his new service which he had enjoyed in the army. He was afloat for several years, and behaved remarkably well in some actions. At length the vessel came into Plymouth, was paid off, and some of the crew, amongst whom was Jarvis Matcham, were dismissed as too old for service. He and another seaman resolved to walk to town, and took the route by Salisbury. It was when within two or three miles of that celebrated city that they were overtaken by a tempest so sudden, and accompanied with such vivid lightning, and thunder so dreadfully loud, that the obdurate conscience of the old sinner began to be awakened. He expressed more terror than seemed natural for one who was familiar with the war of elements, and began to look and talk so wildly that his companion became aware that something more than usual was the matter. At length Matcham complained to his companion that the stones rose from the road and flew after him. He desired the man to walk on the other side of the highway, to see if they would follow him when he was alone. The sailor complied, and Jarvis Matcham complained that the stones still flew after him, and did not pursue the other. " But what is worse," he added, coming up to his companion, and whispering with a tone of mystery and fear, " who is that little drummer boy, and what business has he to follow us so closely?" —" I can see no one," answered the seaman, infected by the superstition of his associate. " What! not see that little boy with the bloody pantaloons ?" exclaimed the secret murderer, so much to the terror of his comrade that he conjured him, if he had anything on his mind, to make a clear conscience as far as confession could do it. The criminal fetched a deep groan, and declared that he was unable longer to endure the life which he had led for years. He then confessed the murder of the drummer, and added that, as a considerable reward had been offered, he wished his comrade to deliver him up to the magistrates of Salisbury, as he would desire a shipmate to profit by his fate, which he was now convinced was inevitable. Having overcome his friend's objections to this mode of proceeding, Jarvis Matcham was surrendered to justice accordingly, and made a full confession of his guilt. But before the trial the love of life returned. The prisoner denied his confession, and pleaded Not Guilty. By this time, however, full evidence had been procured from other quarters. Witnesses appeared from his former regiment to prove his identity with the murderer and deserter, and the waiter remembered the ominous words which he had spoken when he awoke him to join the Portsmouth coach. Matcham was accordingly found guilty and executed. When his last chance of life was over, he returned to his confession, and with his dying breath averred, and truly, as he thought, the truth of the vision on Salisbury Plain. Similar stories might be produced, showing plainly that, under the direction of Heaven, the influence of superstitious fear may be the appointed means of bringing the criminal to repentance for his own sake, and to punishment for the advantage of society.