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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 9 (December 1, 1937.)

The Curse of the “Freda Gault”

page 42

The Curse of the “Freda Gault

“ ‘It's true,’ Pedley cackled. ‘This old ship can't hurt me … because I love her.’ ”

With one bared arm upflung, pointing into the creeping dusk, he reminded me of the sailor in that wonderful picture by Millais—” Boyhood of Raleigh.”

“It was out there,” he said. “I can see her now, standin' gaunt and grim against a hurrying moon, jammed on the teeth of Terra Del Fuego. The seas reachin' up for her, striving to drag her under—a ship with a curse upon her.”

But he was much older than Millais's sailorman, one whose seafaring days are ended; and one who, according to himself, had given up the sea when the sea went to the dogs—with the passing of the windjammers.

Together, as the brighter stars rode out, we watched the league-long curlers that swept across six thousand miles of landless ocean, all the way from Cape Horn, and broke white against the Stewart Island bluffs.

“I saw her launched,” the old man resumed, after a thoughtful silence, “years afore I sailed in her. They called her the Freda Gault. Afterwards they renamed her the Hyacinth. but you can't fool sailormen that way. They shunned her … aye, like the plague.

“She was a beauty, as lovely a clipper ship as ever delighted the heart an' eye of a deep-water man. Her bows, the run aft of her … sweet. She went out to her launchin', eager, like a lass to meet her lover. There was a breathless moment a fore she kissed the water. The crowd waited, ready to cheer.

“Then a woman burst out from somewhere among the throng. She was old an' bent, and had a mad light in her eyes. She raised one thin arm, an' began to screech curses upon the ship. Her words came like stones dropping into a calm pool, clear for all to hear. Burnin' words, they were, of hate and grief.

“They carried her away, moaning, crying, an' beating her breast. You see, her only son had been killed just a week before by a falling beam in the Freda Gault.

“Well, you might think it foolish, mister, you bein' only a landsman, but I reckon every sailorman present, pledged his solemn oath, never to carry his sea-chest aboard that ship. Sailors know, you see, that it ain't no earthly use for to try an' buck a curse like that.

“You might ask then, how I came to sail in 'er. You must have heard of old Paddy West, the boarding master. Well, I was shanghaied by that self-same Paddy West of Liverpool. An' that was the only way you could get sailors to man the Freda … shanghai 'em.

“But the ship was nigh on ten years old afore I sailed in her, an' her record was bad. Very first trip out, in a fog off Cape Hatteras, she ran down an immigrant ship … over three score drowned. Skipper shot himself. Mutiny in her, two years later, led to two men bein' hanged in London. But that was only the beginning of a bad record.

“It was just after I'd come out of one of the Donald McKay Atlantic packets, an' after a wild week ashore, that I found myself in the fo'c'scle of the Hyacinth. or the Freda Gault. as she used to be known.

“Round the Horn an' up to Iquique with English coal. Aye … coal. She had come down a peg, had the Freda. which by this time wasn't much better than a down-easter hell-ship. We took her out, but not cheerily, to the tune of ‘Sally Brown.’ When there was a chantey, it was:

‘The skipper's a curse an’ the mate he's worse;
So leave her, Johnnie, leave her.'

page 43

“Well, the Mersey mud was hardly dry on the Freda's hook when she began to show her teeth. A block came down while we were busy with to'-gallants, an' struck Ned Cornish dead. The skipper couldn't find a Bible—that ship bein' no place for Bibles, anyhow—so Pedley, a man who had been in the Freda for years, an' who was queerly attached to her, said a few words from Scripture as he remembered it:

‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
If St. Peter won't ’ave ye
Then the devil must.'

“Barring complaints about the food, which had been bought cheap an' some of it already bad, we had a good passage as far as the tenth north parallel, bein' favoured by fine weather an' fair winds. Some said, of course, that the ghost of poor Ned Cornish walked the deck by night. The helmsman even swore that one night durin' his trick, he turned sudden an' saw Ned peerin' over his left shoulder into the binnacle. Though we didn't laugh, it never worried us, for, with everything goin' well, sailormen don't brood much on them things. It's when things happen that can be nowise accounted for, that he starts to think.

“One day, after the wind dropped altogether, we went aft in a body to see the skipper about the food. The salt junk was rancid. The biscuit was bad. The skipper, old Bully Dawes, had been ‘over the bay’ since the beginning of the voyage. He glowered at us. His eyes were red-rimmed and swollen from heavy drinking.

“‘You'll eat it, ye packet-rats an' Paddy Westers,’ he snarled thickly, ‘afore it'll eat you.’

“ ‘Don't know about that,’ roared Shane Souness, a big Liverpool Irishman, ‘them weevils might come aft an’ eat you, too, though, with so much bendin' of yer elbow, ye might be seem' somethin' bigger than weevils.'

“Seth Willets, the mate, let go the mizzen rigging and jumped at him. Souness shaped up, but it was no fight, for the mate wore a knuckle-duster. We carried Souness for'ard, insensible. We were set to unnecessary work, under a sun that blistered—a harsh skipper's idea of enforcing discipline, I suppose.

“ ‘There's food,’ said Souness, a fine seaman, but a natural breeder of mutiny, ‘plenty good food. We'll take it. An' no more of the work that we've been sweatin' at for the past week, understand?’

“But sailormen aren't easily led into the serious business of mutiny. Souness lashed us with his tongue, taunted us for a lily-livered pack of cowards.

“The ocean was like polished glass— never a ripple. The white glare of it blinded our eyes. The sun was pitiless, scorching. The pitch bubbled in the seams. The canvas hung limp on the yards. But the nights were cool, like paradise after hell.

* * *

“The calm lasted … twenty-nine days, with never so much as a breath. Young Harkaway, of the second mate's watch, died on the thirty-sixth day of the calm … sunstroke.

“Mad Pedley, the gaunt seaman, recited his piece again. His eyes were unnaturally bright, an' he seemed to enjoy it. He kept on repeating the words until he was stopped:

‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
If St. Peter won't 'ave ye,
Then the devil must …’

“And so the Freda Gault took her second victim of the voyage. Work ceased. We gazed at the expanse of molten fire. It burned its way into our brains until they commenced to throb. The food was becoming worse. The water was hot an' sickening.

“Souness led us aft again. We demanded to see the skipper. There was a queer look on the mate's face as he looked us over.

“‘Men,’ he said, ‘Captain Dawes is dead. He died in the forenoon watch.’

“We looked at the glassy sea, at the brazen heaven, at our lifeless canvas. I heard Pedley's quavery voice at my elbow.

“‘Yea, verily, ye are all dead men. The curse is stamped upon your souls.’

“Whene we looked overside … we could see the sharks … monsters.”

“Whene we looked overside … we could see the sharks … monsters.”

“We committed the skipper's body to the deep. Pedley said his piece once more, an' looked round hopefully, as though wonderin' who'd be the next. Pedley was queer. There must have been somethin' wrong with anyone who could love that accursed ship. But the strange, gaunt Pedley loved her. He'd sailed in her almost from the start, you see, an' the attachment had grown.

“There was something else. Under certain conditions the Freda was the very devil to handle, griping an' threatening to broach-to. But directly Pedley took hold of the wheel, she seemed a different ship. I dunno …

“Pedley used to say, in his cracked, quavery voice; ‘A ship's as near human as any wooden thing can be. Like humans, she has feelings. What can you expect from a ship that's been cursed an' hated, from London to the Golden Gate; all the way from Callao to Shanghai? Ain't it just natural that she'll return the same as she gets … hate for hate? Aye, an' love, if there was anyone to love her.’

“Willets was now in command, with Venables risin' to first mate. Not that there was much use for officers … nor anyone. Nothin' to do but watch the ocean an' pray for wind an' curse the heat.

“Then fever broke out, what sort of page 44 plague, I don't know. Four men went down to it, includin' the carpenter. Three died on one day. We began to talk about the boats, anythin' to get away from that ship of doom. But we were in mid-ocean, thousands of miles separating us from land. The mouth of the Orinoco lay somewhere through the blinding heat to the west. Freetown, on the African coast, to east'ard, with not a speck of land between.

“Pedley came down an' solemnly cut six notches on the edge of his bunk with his sheath-knife.

“‘What's that for?’ someone asked.

“Pedley's eyes glittered and he laughed shrilly.

“‘Six! Who'll be the next? Lucky, ye are, to have someone aboard wi' some scriptural learnin'. I'm goin' to be very busy.’

“A man jumped at his throat, screaming: ‘Aye, you're in league with this damned ship, you devil! You're part of her. You …’

“We dragged him off.

“‘It's true,' Pedley cackled. ‘This old ship can't hurt me … because I love her. You all hate her, an'…’

“Souness caught Pedley's arm, making him cry out with the pain of his grip.

“‘Enough o' that, you scum,’ Souness snarled. ‘Stow it or you'll be the seventh notch. Savvy?’

* * *

The calm held. We were like a picture ship engraved on brass, an' almost as silent, except when someone burst into hysterical laughter when another man died, choking and gasping for air. Long days of horror, with a black death stalking aboard, a fiery ocean, an' the heat like the furnace blast of hell. When we looked overside, deep down, among the trailing seaweed, we could see the sharks … monsters.

“Nearly all of the crew were stricken. Half of them managed to totter back to life. Only two came through unscathed—Souness an' Pedley. Venables died on the seventy-ninth day of the great calm. He was the last.

“Then the wind came with startling suddenness, screaming down from a leaden sky. Almost all of our sail was out, waitin' for wind. We tried to get it off her, but we were too weak to be of much use. Our royals went with the first blast. Seemingly we had been reserved from one death for another, but a cleaner death by drowning.

“Our lee rail was under, scooping water. I still wonder why we didn't turn turtle. With courses, tops'ls an' to'-gallants swelling to bursting, we tore through a wild slather of ocean. Poles bending to snapping point, cordage whining, torn canvas flaring out against an evil sky.

“Pedley held her, none but he could have saved her. He stood at the wheel, feet wide-braced on the grating, steering her, like some gaunt, grey ghost, with a strange unholy joy in his eyes.

“We tore through a pitch-black night an' burst out into a wild dawn. The rain, like slanting daggers, came down as though the floodgates of heaven had burst. The seas scoured the decks, taking every movable object, bat washing the ship clean of the pestilence.

“We flew south'ards, ever south'ard, maybe towards some rock-bound shore, for we knew not where we headed. Willets, you see, was still too sick to attempt a bearing. It didn't matter much, for sun an' stars were gone. We just ran before the wind—a dangerous thing to do, perhaps, but anythin' to get away from that hell-spot on the ocean. Then, short-handed as we were, it was well nigh impossible for us to try an' beat into some East Coast port.

page 45

“Mad Pedley would hardly leave the wheel. We watched him through the rain and the flyin' spindrift, his oilskins flogging in tatters about him, his white hair plastered to his head, the fierce, exultant light in his sunken eyes. Much like old Vanderdecken, he must have looked—the Flyin' Dutchman.

“We were a strange ship, a mad ship. Week in, week out, tarin' south, sailin' by dead-reckening, on through the smoking seas. Pedley's handling of the ship was uncanny, amazing.

“‘I know her I love her,’ he yelled. ‘I'll take her round Cape Stiff alone.’

“Which was merely madman's chatter, but still we wondered. And where was Pedley taking us? Willets never quite recovered. On an' off, he still had delirious spells, an' Pedley seemed to have automatically taken over command. It wasn't a nice thought—a madman in command. He seemed to take frightful risks, but his handling of the ship was perfect, an' none of us could have done so well. We talked about deposing Pedley an' having the ship hove-to, but we might stay there for days, until the little food we had was all gone. Then the conviction had grown in everyone, that without Pedley, the ship would fall into a trough or drive straight under. There could be no doubtin by this, that there was some uncanny understanding between the ship an' Pedley. We listened to Pedley's shrill, exultant laughter.

* * *

“Like the calm, that storm was unnatural, like a visitation, the hell-brew of an accursed ship. It lasted for weeks. We ran blindly, under a brooding sky, storming south, as though all the wrath of heaven was on our heels.

“An' then the snow came, swooping down on us like a ghostly army. It closed around us, so that we seemed to be driving headlong against a white wall. The deathly cold ate into the very marrow of our bones. We were scarcely human, scarecrow men, hungry, gaunt, without hope. It was no fair wind that blew the ship along, but Satan's breath. Aye, truly a ship accursed. A thousand times we asked ourselves the question: Where?

“Then the snow lifted, the sky cleared, an' Willets got a bearing at last. He made our position slightly north an' about two hundred miles east of Magellan Straits. Willet's and Pedley's decision to go right round, rather than attempt the passage, was wise.

“We became almost cheerful. A fair wind to take us round an' every prospect of the weather clearing. But down it came again, terriffic rain-squalls that blotted out everything.

“One pitch-black night we came leaping from our bunks at the cry of ‘Breakers Ahead!’ We could do nothing. The ship was doomed. Pedley ran aft, cursing an' crying. The vessel, lifted bodily by a huge sea, struck with a rending crash.

“It was that tremendous sea that saved us, for it had carried the ship far in. The rock was awash, but the water shallow, an' the big seas broke over only at intervals. We scrambled down an' crossed the slippery rock, in the intervals between the breaking seas. Mad Pedley refused to leave. We took him by force.

“Dawn found us huddled on the rainswept rock. We were on a small rocky island, separated from the mainland by about five miles of wild water. Our position was desperate before; it was far worse now. Death from exposure must be our lot. We looked at the ship through the flying spray, cursing her.

“The storm had grown in violence during the night. We were cut off from the vessel by the huge seas that broke over continually. The boats must all be smashed, but there would be some food … if we could get out to her. But unless we could manage it very soon, the ship would be in pieces.

“A dozen times the next day we tried to cross. It was hopeless. After a day's despairing effort, we crouched under a hump of rock, shivering in our rags. The moon came out, flying swiftly from cloud to cloud. There was something evil about the ship, perched there on the rocks, gaunt an' grim against the hurrying moon. She seemed to be gloating.

“Souness laughed harshly.

“‘What do you think of her now?’ he said to Pedley. ‘Your fine ship. She that was part o' you, an' could never harm you … tossed you up here to die with the rest o' us. A cold, frightful, starving death.’

“Pedley said nothing. He seemed like a man stricken; unable to credit it.

“One slender hope remained for us. When the vessel broke up, we might secure enough timber to make a raft and cross to the mainland. But what could we do without tools, even if we survived the next few days.

“The island was entirely barren. The cold was frightful. We found a few shell-fish and ate them raw, but that was all. We crouched close together for warmth, but still we shivered.

“Suddenly there came a muffled boom from aboard the ship. We were arguing about it when fire leapt up from amidships. We stared through the darkness. We could only guess at what had happened. The heat of the tropics an' the action of the water on that cargo of coal had formed a gas, An' then the explosion.

“The vessel blazed furiously. We watched, fascinated. Pedley was sobbing brokenly. Truly that cursed ship had had its revenge, even denying us the use of any of her timber. We cursed her to the last smouldering remnant of her.

* * *

“It was Souness who saw the sail.

“‘Look!’ he screamed. ‘Look!’

“We yelled, we danced, we sang. Standing off, far out, was a ship. An' approaching, a boat. The vessel was a ‘spouter,’ the whaler, Mohawk, out of New Bedford, Her skipper was Hiram K. Johns.

“‘Lucky for you, I guess,’ said Captain Johns, ‘that your old hooker went up when she did, an' I saw her blaze from far out, else I would have passed in the darkness. Dead lucky!’

“But we weren't so sure that it was just luck. Anyway, Pedley gave Luck no credit for it. He wiped a tear from his left eye, an' said: ‘Thanks, old girl. We stuck it out together … you an' me. I knew you couldn't forget.'”

page 46

page 47
“Above me, trees unnumber'd rise, Beautiful in varioous dyes” … —John Dyer. Sunshine and shadow in a birch avenue, near Maruia, on the Lewis Pass Road, South Island, New Zealand. (Photo, Thelma R. Kent.)

“Above me, trees unnumber'd rise, Beautiful in varioous dyes” …
John Dyer.
Sunshine and shadow in a birch avenue, near Maruia, on the Lewis Pass Road, South Island, New Zealand.
(Photo, Thelma R. Kent.)