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Anna Jane Vardill

Relics of Popular Superstitions

The Ship of the Dead

In the dreariest month of a dreary season, the ship Aurora sailed towards America from the Baltic with a small crew, composed of twenty German sailors, one female passenger and a boy, the wife and son of the commander, Eric Hermanwald; a man whose keen and fierce eye was almost the only interpreter of his wishes to his seamen, who seldom heard him speak except in a strange compound of Saxon and Danish execrations. Gestures, furious grimaces, and blows, were his usual eloquence, even to his wife and child, though this miserable wife seemed sinking under the hardships of a long voyage to a bitter climate. They soon terminated the struggles of a broken heart; and her body was given to the sea, without even a look from her husband or a tear from her darling boy, whose attention was fixed at that instant on a white bird which had fallen, exhausted by a long emigration, on the deck. He sprang to catch it as it lay gasping and fluttering; but a blow aimed at it by one of the crew in wantonness or cruelty, fell on his hand, and crushed it. His father, who had seen the act and the effect, levelled the offender at his feet, exclaiming in the Hanoverian dialect, which he had never been heard to use before—“Dog! the blood which drops from that boy’s hand is the richest in thy country.”—“More shall follow it,” said the surly Saxon, putting his drawn knife suddenly into his own sleeve. The Captain, construing this movement into a threat of assassination, ordered him to be instantly and heavily ironed. No one hesitated to obey, and Sturm was dragged to the yard-arm to receive his punishment; but Hendrig, the commander’s son, leaped on his neck, and entreated pardon for the accidental blow he had received. Either the caresses of his child, or the silent submission of the mutineer, relaxed Eric’s wrath, and he scornfully bade him thank Hendrig for his life. “I will owe it to you, not to the boy,” said Sturm, turning his back—“I keep my accounts with men.”

At the third watch of that night, while the vessel was sailing tranquilly, ber Captain’s sleep was broken by a singular noise. He roused himself, and found the door of his cabin barred against him. Eric’s frame was as vigorous as his spirit, and seizing his cutlass and his pistols, he hurled the door from its hinges, and had mounted half the ladder with one step, when twenty knives and bludgeons assailed him. His desperate courage forced his way, and thrusting his pistol into the powder-room, he called on the mutineers to see him fire it, at the instant that Sturm’s entered his back and he fell dead. Sturm coldly put his foot on the body; and seizing the boy, who ran shrieking to his father, said to his comrades, “We have closed accounts with the man—let me pay the child.”

Seven or eight hours devoted to the madness of intoxication, buried nearly half the crew in sleep, while the rest disputed to whom they should give the authority they had usurped. Wasted provision, empty casks, and broken weapons, strewed the deck, when the stupified ruffians awoke, and found the themselves driven far from their track. Cries and commands, which all made and none obeyed, occupied the time that might have retrieved their error. They were urged rapidly forward by a south-east wind into a latitude beyond their chart, while despair, hunger, and the remains of delirious intemperance, rendered the crew frantic. Cold and fogs increased their sufferings and dismay, till a few biscuits and a small cask of fresh water were all that remained of their stock. These were soon consumed by two or three of the boldest desperadoes, and quarrels produced by rage and frenzy saved nearly half the crew from the lingering tortures of famine. Those that survived assembled on the fifth day of their undirected course, to debate by what means they should avoid or delay their fate. Sturm presided at this gloomy council, and the first proposition was to throw the orphan-boy into the sea, and draw lots to decide what man should be sacrificed to preserve the rest a little longer. “I have a right to command once, at least,” said Sturm, laying his cutlass deliberately before him, and placing the half-starved and terrified child between his knees—“I freed you from your captain, and now, without the mummery of drawing lots, I will free you from this useless boy, and myself of a troublesome life. Give me one of the boats, a biscuit, and this child, and you may see what chance will do for you. I choose to die on land,” he added with a deadly smile, “for this boy’s father lies under the sea, and I could not rest there.”—If either malice or craft lurked against him in the minds of his three companions, his stern and resolute tone, and the assent he gave so readily to their savage selfishness, prevented any opposition. But one of these men, more shrewd or less human than the rest, conceived that a speech in which such singular disregard of life was hinted, must conceal some sinister purpose. Seizing the cutlass, which Sturm had placed unguardedly out of his own grasp, he gave a signal which the confederates obeyed, and rolling Sturm with the dying child in a wide sail cloth, they threw him into the smallest boat, and launched it without oar or sail into the sea. As the current bore it from them, they saw the body of their captain rise breast high above the water, and follow his murderer erect till both were out of sight.[1]

Sturm, framed for desperate efforts, and not yet subdued by hunger, soon released his arms and eyes from their covering, and found his little bark speeding towards an object dimly seen through the haze of those northern regions. When the distant object revealed itself more distinctly, Sturm perceived a ship whose bare masts seemed whitened by the frost of this dismal climate. Neither sails nor tackle were discernable, but a few human figures were ranged on the forecastle, stiffening and bleaching in the wind. Whether it moved by the force of the current, or from the steerage of invisible hands, Sturm dared not guess; and perhaps the dizziness of hunger increased the seeming motion of the object he gazed on. He saw, as he believed, the Ship of Death, which every seaman of the Baltic and Atlantic expects to behold when his death doom is certain. Suddenly it appeared to remain fixed, and Sturm felt his own boat drawn towards it with such hopeless horror as the Belgian culprit feels when he approaches, step by step, the deadly embrace of his executioner. Sturm’s iron heart sunk under this slow and freezing summons to death, and shrouding himself in the sail meant for his winding-sheet, he laid his head on the breast of the sleeping child, as if in a sanctuary, and closed his eyes. A violent concussion broke his trance, and the last instinct of nature enabled him to grasp firmly the substance on which he was thrown. It was ice, but the strong agony of struggling life gave his hands sufficient power; and a few moments restored his intellect enough to direct him into a hollow or cove made by fragments of a broken glacier. There lay a human skeleton white and almost crystallized; but beside it was a shape which, notwithstanding its crust of congealed snow, resembled a seaman’s bottle. Sturm broke it eagerly, and in the centre of a mass of ice, found about a cupfull of such potent spirit as recalled almost all the vigour and warmth of his heart. The child, muffled in the same sail-cloth which wrapped him, had shared his escape, and was soon made to partake the cordial he had found. His boat lay shattered into splinters among the spikes of ice which had entangled it; and Sturm, ascending one, perceived that the ice-island he now trod on resembled the ribs and deck of a stately ship. A few columns of fantastic ice stood at unequal distances, in postures strangely resenbling statues of shrouded men. Sturm trembled as he looked, and his bewildered imagination gave to one of them the features and form of him he had murdered. He sank on his knees, and remembering the awful office assigned by superstition to the Ship of Death, conceived himself selected to endure the weight of retributive justice. Fear, exhaustion, and the fumes of spirit too powerful for his weakened frame, produced the torpor which most resembles death, and oftenest precedes it in the midst of ice. He slept till awakened by a torch and the touch of an old man wrapped in a fur cloak, with a gigantic Newfoundland dog by his side.

“Are there not two of you here?” said the old man, raising his lighted pine-branch, and looking round. Sturm replied by feebly raising the sail-cloth, and pointing to the boy, whose warmth, as he lay nestled in his breast, had probably preserved his life. “That is well,” rejoined the stranger:—“Two nights ago I dreamed that five living creatures were in this Ship of the Dead:—next night, I saw but four; and this hour, my sleep shewed me only two. Therefore I came, for to-morrow would have been too late.” The Saxon’s blood ran still colder, while this aged seer and his sons placed him in a cot made of bear-skins, and carried him as in a hammock towards a recess, where stiffened in death on each side of a burning fir-trunk, he saw two of his comrades in postures such as our poet has imagined for two enemies expiring together in the darkness of the last day. The body of a third lay at some distance, mangled as it seemed by violence. The prophet’s family were inhabitants of a lonely creek on the coast of Labrador, not far from this isle of death; and Sturm suffered them to convey him with his helpless child to their little pinnace and hospitable hut. A few days spent under their bountiful and simple care, with the aid of such medicaments as superstition sanctifies, gave strength and hope to the solitary sailor. Yet he became silent and melancholy, replied in few words to their questions respecting his shipwreck, and shunned all proposals to domesticate or ally himself with them. He worked diligently as a carpenter, and promised his aid in constructing a better boat. They furnished him with materials; and after a year laboriously spent, he completed a six-oared cutter, and witnessed the jubilee which such an event produced. But on the morning which followed their revel, the fishermen found their old boat, the provisions they had stowed in it, their guest, and his adopted son, gone for ever.

Many years after this adventure, Eric, Lord of Hermanwald, and his young heir, re-appeared at their estate in the district of Hanover. This traveller, better known to the world as the Chevalier Megret, was one of the few who stood beside the unfortunate Charles XII. at the siege of Fredericshall, when he received the shot which ended his career; and Megret’s celebrated words—“the play is over—let us begone”—were still remembered by those who hated the traitor, though they loved the treason. Therefore he had quitted the associates and the scenes he then frequented, and the engineer Megret transformed himself into Baron Hermanwald, proprietor of the large estate and Mountain-House of Heinnichshohe, from whence, after a short residence, he disappeared with his wife and only son, reporting among his neighbours and dependents, that his health required a visit to the South of Europe. Ten years had elapsed when he announced his return, and settled as a disconsolate widower and a professed misanthropist, in entire seclusion. No one sought to interrupt it but his son, as he advanced to manhood, shewed an uncontroulable genius for military affairs. He entered that celebrated regiment which Frederick the Great made his chief pride and delight. Young Hermanwald’s fine person and noble deportment, added to the professional skill he derived from his paternal tutor, entitled him to distinction in a corps so select; and he held a captain’s rank with such severe attention to discipline as Frederick himself could not have excelled. Among the privates was a youth about the same age, of admirable proportions, and very engaging countenance, which bore a comparison even with his young commander’s, and had been noticed by the King when on parade. Frederick’s humour for multiplying and improving his favourite race is sufficiently well known, and the circumstance now connected with my story is upon record in his history. Taking his usual morning ride without attendants, he saw a young Lithuanian peasant girl, with the fine complexion and large stature peculiar to her province, gathering flax near his road. He called her, and writing a few lines on a slip of paper, bade her deliver it to Count Lieuwen at Konigsberg. The dollar which accompanied this commission, did not blind the girl’s prudence. She knew the keen blue eye and rapid gestures of her sovereign; and when his horse was out of sight, delivered his pencilled billet and piece of silver to a decrepid old woman who assisted her labours in the flax-field. Honest Gotha received them with great joy, and executed her task as speedily as she could. Count Lieuwen’s surprise when he opened the paper and looked on the porteress was extreme; for the message was, “Marry the bearer of these lines to Hendrig of the 4th instantly, and see the marriage performed yourself.” Lieuwen was colonel of the boasted regiment, and poor Hendrig obeyed his summons without any apprehension of the lot prepared for him, till the Count, with a smothered smile, enquired if Gotha had any objection to the order, which he repeated to her. Her acquiescence, and the astonishment of his young subaltern, were too ridiculous even for a Prussian officer’s dignity; but the good dame, drawing Hendrig aside, whispered in his ear, “Sign the mock contract—it may save you from a worse.” Lieuwen laughed heartily, offered Hendrig two rix-dollars and a marriage-dinner to smooth the sacrifice which he knew his master’s temper too well to delay and when Frederick saw his favourite troop drawn out, he enquired if the marriage had been duly celebrated. Lieuwen’s smile provoked his curiosity, and he ordered the new joined pair to stand before him. Even Frederick could not resist the ridiculous contrast; but presently changing his mirth to anger, he ordered their union to be instantly dissolved. Count Lieuwen was no less surprised when Hendrig modestly, yet firmly, begged it might be permitted to remain valid. Frederick was more enraged than before, and threatened him with an instant dismission from his colours. “I am proud of them,” said the young soldier, “but much prouder of my wife.”—“Thou art a silly fellow,” returned the King—“and thy wife will punish thee better than I.” So saying, and turning on his heel, with his own sly smile, he left the bridegroom to the ridicule of his comrades. No man understood the use of that powerful weapon better than the captain of the regiment, young Hermanwald; and secretly envying his exquisite symmetry and natural grace, he did not disdain to use it against Hendrig. The bitter scoff which he levelled at him before they quitted the parade, provoked the private soldier to reply, “If I was an officer, and your equal, I would answer you.” The regiment returned to its barracks, and on the following morning Hendrig found a sealed commission lying on his table, enclosed with these words from his captain—“I was mistaken, and forgot myself. If you condescend to remember and resent the affront, we are equals now, and the rampart will serve for our private meeting at daybreak.” Hendrig did not neglect the appointment; and first putting his right-hand into the young offender’s, he returned him the commission with the other. “I believe you are right,” said the generous boy, “it ought to come from a better hand.” He said no more on the subject, merely returning Hendrig’s friendly gesture; but a few days after, Frederick himself gave the colours into his hand, asking him if he had any other wish—“I do this to please myself,” added this kingly soldier—“I must do something more to gratify your new friend, Hermanwald.” Hendrig replied, that he could ask no greater honour than to serve by his side.

From that moment an affecting and noble intimacy began between the young ensign and his seeming benefactor. The decrepit old matron from whom it had sprung was never seen in public, and it was whispered that her husband gave her the largest part of his pay as the price of her quiet retirement. The first leave of absence was solicited by Hermanwald for himself and his friend, that he might introduce him, as he said, to the friendship and protection of his recluse father, Eric of Heinnichshohe. They set out together unattended, except by one person, to the Mountain-House, situated among the Hartz territories in Hanover. The sun was just rising above the horizon, and a few thick clouds were gathered on the pinnacles of the surrounding hills. As the travellers ascended a pile of granite rocks called the Tempelskanzel, they saw in the distance before them, among volumes of white clouds which rolled like the billows of a hazy ocean, a semblance of a ship with bare masts, and human figures scattered on the deck. Young Hermanwald saw his companion grow pale, and fix his eyes intently on the apparition, which gradually sunk and disappeared. They pursued their way towards the Worm Mountains, conversing on the Giant Spectre of the Broken, which for so many years has been the wonder of rustic Hanoverians, and the speculation of curious travellers. Hermanwald had wit and science; and he talked ingeniously on those deceptions of the atmosphere, and that morbid state of the brain, which, without either prejudice or superstition, may combine to form certain images. “But,” said the person who accompanied their route, “what was there in the sunbeam or the vapours to create the likeness of a ship? We might have seen our own shadows on the Auchtermaunshohe, because, as learned men say, those clouds reflect them: but where were the masts and the ship’s crew?”—“I did not say I saw them,” said Hermanwald gravely, and Hendrig mused a long time before he answered—“Perhaps I have read and thought too much on this subject, because I wished to find an excuse or a reason for my feelings. Both have been easily found, and it is no shame to say I may be one of those who have been duped by recollected images too strongly impressed, or by the power which the eye possesses of presenting those images as if real. Cardan saw the apparition of a son he feared was in danger; and Dr. Donne saw the wife he loved so fondly passing through his room in Paris, with her long hair loose and her dead infant in her arms, when both, in fact, were in London. These and all that we hear of familiar demons or warning ghosts, seem very reasonably referred by modern physicians to the eye’s creations, not to wilful delusion or imposture; the eye being aided and swayed by such images as possess or disease the brain.[2] No wonder, therefore, if I saw, or thought I saw, the Ship of the Dead in that atmospheric mirror; or if I now imagine that I see in the river which runs beside us, the upright body of a man floating half-raised above the water, and looking sternly at us.”—Hermanwald and his attendant paused, drawing back from Hendrig with surprise and horror—“There is no such spectre visible to your eyes,” continued the young man, smiling faintly—“but I have seen it in every flood and sea I have passed since my fifth year: and I see the same man with his lank wet hair, his large scarred forehead, and his hammock sewn loosely round his shoulders, moving by my side, whether I am on horseback or on foot, alone or in company and his glazed eye seems fixed on me, as it fixes now.”

They were now at the foot of a shelving eminence hung thickly with black pines, intertwined over the narrow steps hewn between rocks which formed an ascent to the Mountain-House where the elder Hermanwald resided. A strange chant, proceeding from uncouth voices, interrupted the travellers’ discourse, and they saw a few lean haglike figures creeping up the stony stairs, carrying vessels filled with water, and solacing their labour with a national ditty, according to the custom of their province. “Now,” said the young nobleman to his companion, “if English theories are right, your spectre ought to be, not a drowned man with wet hair, but an industrious old dame in the shape of one of these; for they resemble your wife, whose image has the best right to be in your brain, if not in your heart.” And laughing as he spoke, he entered his father’s portal followed by Hendrig and by one of these ancient women, who suddenly thrust herself between the gates, and entered with them. Surprised at such audacity, young Hermanwald turned back to punish it, and recognised Hendrig’s wife. His anger instantly seemed changed to mirth; and mistaking the paleness of Hendrig’s countenance for an expression of chagrin and confusion, he gave scope to his frolic temper, and seizing the decrepit beldame’s hand with a mock air of profound respect, ushered her ceremoniously into the presence-chamber, where the master of the Mountain-House waited for them. Already acquainted with the comic romance of Hendrig’s marriage, his son’s few arch words of affected introduction informed him how to receive the wrinkled and deformed creature he called the young ensign’s bride. He rebuked his son’s mirth with a side look of displeasure, and endeavoured to conciliate Hendrig by an air of serious courtesy to his strange follower. But his surprise was great when the withered and infirm woman, gathering her tattered cloak under her arm, and putting back its hood, shewed a grim bare head, and limbs of most masculine proportion. Stalking towards old Hermanwald, she stood erect before him, saying, in a voice which sounded as if from the depths of a vast cavern—“If thou art Eric of Heinnichshohe, who am I?”—The Lord of the Mountain-House was silent, and his son doubted whether he looked on a human shape or on a spectre, such as the Giant of the Broken. After a moment’s pause, the stranger drew forth the sleeve of a blue uniform coat, its cuff red with stains of blood, and held it near old Hermanwald, but he did not appear to view it with any feeling of surprise or dismay. “You mean to awe me with hints of murder,” said he, suddenly assuming fierceness—“ but I am no assassin—Eric of Heinnichshohe,—that is—myself, was cast upon the Ship of the Dead, and rescued by providential incidents. My son was with me, and we escaped from Labrador together:—the Aurora perished with all her freight and all her crew; though I, her commander, was exposed to the hazard of a boat without rigging, and returned in safety.” Without changing his aspect or his attitude, the pretended female fixed a ghastly eye upon the impostor, and replied—“if thou hadst been Eric, thou wouldst have known Sturm the sailor, who threw his captain into the sea, and saw his body follow him even to the Ship of the Dead. And this boy well remembers that ship and that body, which have haunted us, sleeping and waking, till this day. If thou wast Eric, thou wouldst have remembered the coat-sleeve of the king, whose blood was shed in Eric’s presence, when he who is now called Baron of Hermanwald was the engineer Megret. I have kept it as a holy relic, as an evidence of my truth, and as a means of obtaining justice. I killed my enemy, but his son shall have restitution.”

And this singular man, whose wild yet noble spirit had borne him through every species of desolate danger and abject disguise, repeated this testimony to the Aulic tribunal of justice. To rescue Hendrig’s inheritance from an usurping impostor, he avowed the murder which would have subjected him to death himself, had not his judges pardoned his guilt to the father in consideration of his generous love for the son. And that son repaid the beneficence of his young commander by sharing his restored estates with him; while Sturm spent his remaining life in deep repentance and visionary musings on the Ship of the Dead.

“No wonder,” said the leader of our tale-telling conclave, “that a sailor should chuse a sailor and a ship for his subjects—Prepare yourselves for the legend of a superstitious soldier—the most prodigious, and perhaps the truest, as it is my last.”


(To be continued)

  1. This circumstance often occurs when a drowned body has reached a state of putrefaction. 
  2. The visions of Ben Jonson, of Tasso, and many others more ancient, seem to be of this class. The first volumes of the “Memoirs of Literature,” published in 1714, contain very diverting instances; and Dr. Ferriar has collected some merry modern ones, especially the story of a Highland lady, who possessed one half of a gentleman’s ghost while her sister was visited by the other. Some of the Hanoverian rocks above-mentioned, rudely resemble the ribs and stern of a ship, and thus might have produced the visionary Ship of the Dead.”

The European Magazine, Vol. 75, May 1819, pp. 393- 398