A tale from Royal Navy Commander James William Gambier:
I have been shipmates with ghosts in one or two ships, but we had none that I know of in the Iris, except that of a cat; the evidence in support of whose spectral apparition seems better than that of most such phenomena. This fearsome animal, when in the flesh, belonged to the master of the hold, a functionary who spends a more or less lonely life buried in the bowels of the vessel, overhauling casks and provisions; storage and re-storage his one pre-occupation. Naturally rats are his deadly enemies and cats a necessity of his existence. Our master of the hold, an ancient mariner with a back bent double with ages of groping in the wings of ships, brought on board with him a long, slim black cat tied up in a blue bag, who at once went down into the hold as into familiar quarters, only occasionally emerging at night into the light of between-decks, if one could call light the semi-obscurity of a few tallow-dips in horn lanterns. Often and often have I looked down into the hold and seen this weird animal following its devious course amongst the casks in pursuit of the wily rat; or, perchance, sitting by the side of the ancient mariner, chewing pork rind. Then came a time when his place knew him no more, when he no longer answered to the melodious call of his master’s voice as the latter crawled into the remotest recesses of his domain crying, “Guts! Guts!”–the missing creature’s name. Not a trace of him could be found, nor yet when, in Auckland, some time after, the hold was partially cleared.
Then, one night, weeks after this, a bluejacket seated by the cat-head on the look-out, suddenly saw Guts sitting near him on the hammock-netting. He was so certain of this that he reached out his hand to stroke the animal, but to his dismay, instead of the creature merely skipping down and going away, for he was not a sociable cat, he simply vanished into thin air. Needless to say no one believed the man’s story, for even in men-of-war some persons may be mistaken, but a short time after Guts was seen again, and then again, in all manner of places, until the crew began to have a superstitious belief that some one had thrown him overboard to spite old Bung —the familiar cognomen of all captains of holds—who was not a popular character, and that, in consequence, disaster must overtake the ship. I do not think there were ten men in the Iris who did not believe in this wraith. But after two years from the time when he was first missing his crumbling skeleton was found underneath some casks of pork which had not been disturbed since we had hoisted them in in Sydney at a corresponding time. It will be asked why no bad smell led to the finding of the body. The answer is that rats had devoured every scrap of him, except the bones, and that, probably, within a few hours of finding him dead.
Links in My Life on Land and Sea, James William Gambier, 1906
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: One feels that one ought to burst into a chorus of “There’s cats, and rats, and re-ve-nants…” Ships’ cats, so helpful at containing the shipboard rat population, were looked on as a good luck charm or a weather glass to predict weather or even approaching disaster. Black cats were favoured as especially lucky.
Mrs Daffodil particularly recalls a tabby named Emmy, who was the ship’s cat on the RMS Empress of Ireland. Although normally an enthusiastic mariner, Emmy deserted on 28 May 1914. The next morning the Empress collided with another ship and sank with enormous loss of life.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.