It’s 1932 and a young seaman, posted with the Royal Navy in Dockyard, gets a night out in Hamilton with his mates. What could go wrong? This article was first published in the August 1932 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
The Naval Dockyard on Ireland Island on a drizzling December day is as dreary a sight as any pessimist could desire, but on this particular day young George gazed at a small part of it which was visible through the cruiser’s scuttle with a bright and friendly eye. He was standing with a dozen other requestmen and a few mournful defaulters on the half-deck outside the Captain’s cabin. On his right was a bare wooden table and behind it waited a group of officers and ship’s police.
George was just eighteen, but that meant far more to him than a twenty-first birthday does to most people. At the moment he was a “Boy, First Class” but he hoped that within a few minutes he would have received his Captain’s sanction to be rated “Ordinary Seaman.” Until his eighteenth birthday a young man in the Royal Navy is kept, as it were, on a very short leash—always under the eye of authority, not allowed to smoke, hounded into his hammock at nine o’clock every night—but George was now on the threshold of a glorious manhood. Tonight, if all went well, all Bermuda would be his. He would take the ferry to Hamilton—drink beer—perhaps see a theater—
“Requestmen and defaulters—shun!”
The Captain had arrived and all the officers were saluting. A name was called and the first requestman moved up to the table.
As each request was dealt with, George watched his own turn drawing nearer. He felt a little breathless and his mouth was dry. It was strange that he should feel so much more nervous now than he had done at his previous interview with the Captain. On that occasion he had been a defaulter—an unfortunate affair in connection with a half-smoked cigarette—and it is probably that it was the certainty that his crime would receive its just reward that had helped him to face the situation with calm fortitude. He remembered that the removal of his cap had exposed a riot of tangled hair which, he felt sure, had not helped matters.
For this more auspicious meeting he had brushed his hair with some care, but he was now regretting the waste of time. He had just realized that requestmen, unlike defaulters, do not take off their caps in the great man’s presence.
Suddenly he heard his name called and, moving at something between a quick march and a double, he advanced towards the table, stopped and saluted. Someone gesticulated at him and he edged obediently forward another pace and stared straight in front of him. The Captain had his arms folded across his chest and this brought a mass of gold-lace level with George’s eyes. Someone had once told George that this lace was made of real silver wire gilded over, and he wondered whether it was true. It was funny stuff when you examined it closely. He wished the Old Man wouldn’t look so hard a fellow—surely there was nothing wrong. George had put on a clean flannel especially and, although one of his bootlaces was broken, his feet were safely out of sight beneath the table. He wished he could take off his cap—but the Captain was asking a question and a voice replied “Yes, Sir—a very smart boy.”
That was funny. George’s divisional officer had never called him smart before. With a glow of satisfaction he expanded his chest another half-inch.
“Rated,” said the Captain.
“Rated Ordinary Seaman,” snapped the Master-at-Arms. “About turn. Quick March,” and away went George feeling, as the Americans say, like a million dollars.
The sailor eats his dinner at noon—another milestone for George. No longer to feed among his erstwhile companions on the Boy’s mess deck, he found his way with mingled pride and nervousness to his new mess. It was rather fine to be among these veterans—several of them were over thirty, and there was one old shell-back with three good-conduct badges. This latter said, “Well, young feller!” to George and then, as though surprised at his own geniality, ate the rest of his meal in silence. Most of his new messmates, however, were more talkative and, by the end of the dinner-hour, it had been decided that a party of them would show George round the wonder-city of Hamilton that very night.
By 9 p.m. the self-appointed entrainment committee and the young disciple had visited every house of refreshment in Front Street and the vicinity, and were beginning to work their way further in-land. It was still raining and their streaming oilskins reflected the light as they passed street-lamps and doorways, so that they seemed to flicker from bar to bar very much as a flock of sparrows flutters from bush to bush. George, bubbling with beer and bonhomie, was definitely on the crest of the wave. He would have liked more than anything else to discuss the financial situation in Peru with a Captain or an Admiral—in fact he was even willing to argue with a Chief Petty Officer. When, therefore, someone suggested a visit to a house in the Spanish Point direction, which was supposed to harbour a ghost, George realized at once that haunted houses were what he was best at.
The great test of a stout heart and an iron nerve, explained the originator of the idea, was to enter this empty house alone at night, to climb the stairs and to hammer a nail—the seal of achievement—into the floor of one of the upper rooms.
George needed no persuasion. Hammers and haunted houses were meat and drink to him—he could do this on his head—he’d show them.
The party had just entered another hostelry and Billie, the lady behind the bar, was persuaded to suspend her beer-handling and badinage and to borrow from the cellar-man a large hammer and an enormous nail. Thus provided the expedition set forth merrily through the rain.
It was a long walk and the wind flapped the skirts of George’s oilskin about his sodden trouser-legs. They left the gaily lighted streets and tramped on through the wet darkness, their boots squelching in the mud. The effects of the beer began to wear off, swept away by the blustering wind, and in some curious way the clouds racing across the moon made George suddenly realize that his feet were very damp and rather cold.
They turned in at a gateway at last and pushed their way across an over-grown garden. It was fairly sheltered there but very dark, and the trees seemed to nod to each other and shrug their shoulders and sigh. But more sinister still was the house which was now visible in the moonlight and appeared to be bathed in a cold perspiration. Frankly George didn’t like it but, before he had summoned the courage to say that he was afraid, he found himself being pushed gently through an open window. The nail and hammer were handed in after him.
The house seemed appallingly quiet—not a sound except for his own breathing and the dripping of his oilskin on the bare wooden floor. Now that he was indoors out of the winds and rain he felt warm. He undid the buttons of his oilskins—he wished it wasn’t quite so quiet. He wondered why the house was supposed to be haunted—perhaps there’d been a murder! He tried to imagine himself discovering a “body”—and then he tried not to.
Across the room he could just see a doorway and he tip-toed towards it. His boots made an unpleasant amount of noise. Passing cautiously out into a sort of hall he peered about again. There were the stairs leading up towards a window through which the moonlight wavered uncertainly. Somewhere overhead something rattled gently—it must be an ill-fitting door shaken by the wind—it couldn’t be anything else, could it? Perhaps he’d just go back and ask the other fellows what they thought—no, he didn’t dare do that. He began to mount the stairs.
There seemed to be several turnings, and at each corner George stopped with his back to the wall and gazed anxiously back the way he had come and nervously upward trying to locate that rattling noise. For a short period the rattling ceased and that made matters infinitely worse. Had something opened the door? Was something peeping down at him through the bannisters? George’s heart was going like a steam engine and a lump in his throat prevented him from saying, “Who’s there?” If only the moonlight would stay steady instead of flickering on and off like a Morse lamp! Then suddenly the rattle began again and the relief was so great that he walked almost boldly up the last flight of steps.
Three or four doorways were discernible in the gloom and just in front of him was the one that rattled. Clutching the nail and hammer in his right hand George seized the annoying doorknob with his left, turned it and very slowly pushed the door open. With bulging eyes he peered into the room—then swung round and glanced fearfully behind him. Everything seemed still as death.
Death! He shivered.
However the job was nearly done now. Stealthily he advanced into the room. By the feeble grey light from the window he could distinguish a fireplace with a dark corner beyond it which might conceal anything—perhaps a corpse. If only he didn’t think so much. He wished he could get a drink. He peered again into that mysterious corner and then turned hurriedly to stare at the doorway. His oilskin coat made a rasping noise and clung clammily about his knees. He found that, with his back to the window, he could keep an eye on door and corner at the same time. Good! He squatted down quickly and, holding the monster nail firmly in his left hand, smote it with the hammer.
The house seemed to rock, and echoes thundered round the room and galloped up and down the stairs. George gave a quick gasp and struck again.
It was about the third blow that he felt himself seized by the Awful Thing. As George raised his hammer he found a great weight clinging upon his shoulders trying to force him to the floor. He tried to scream but no sound came—he lashed out frantically with the hammer but hit nothing, and the weapon flew out of his hand. In the silent struggle—George was still trying to scream but his voice wouldn’t work—his oilskin was torn half off and, finding that his assailant was clinging to this garment, he wiggled desperately out of it and fled.
He remembered nothing of his flight down the stairs—one stride seemed to take him from the top to the bottom—but he felt that the thing was still close upon his heels. As he sped across the hall he was struck in the face so violently that he was knocked off his feet. He rose, winded and groggy, hit out fiercely at a moonbeam and started to run again.
The committee, waiting in the wet grass around the open window, heard the sound of the hammer-blows followed by what appeared to be a cavalry charge, and the next moment young George shot out into the night with a shrill wail like an express train going out of a tunnel.
They caught him, still running, a quarter of a mile away but could get no coherent account of what had happened. His nose was bleeding and there was a lump on his forehead and he could only repeat, “There’s somebody up there—there’s somebody up there—,” so they took him back to the ship.
The next morning young George decided to be a teetotaller. His head ached, there was a large purple bruise over one eye and his nose was very painful. He remembered now how this damage had occurred. During his headlong flight he tried to run through a doorway without noticing that the door was closed. This is a startling thing to do. The victim’s forehead meets the obstruction first and is followed in rapid succession by his nose, knees, chin and chest. The patient usually suffers from shock.
George, of course, suffered also from the loss of his oilskin, but his messmates proposed that a search party should accompany him to the house of terror in broad daylight to see what could be done about it.
The sun shone cheerfully as they approached the house and it was hard to believe that there could be anything sinister about it, but George was nervous. Though satisfied as to the explanation of his damaged face he was still certain—beyond the possibilities of beer or doubt—that somebody or something had grappled with him in that upper room and torn the coat off his back. Yet he had seen no one—heard no one.
He led the way upstairs, his escort creaking and jostling behind him. The door of the fateful room was still wide open and close to it lay the hammer, a scar in the plaster just above it showing where it had struck the wall.
In the middle of the room lay young George’s oilskin, its lower extremity firmly secured to the floor-boards by the monster nail.