Captain Frederick Wentworth sat inside his cabin aboard his 32-gun frigate Laconia, listening to the familiar creak of wood and feeling the gentle pitch of the ship as it sailed through the English Channel. Earlier in the day, he had hosted a Christmas Day dinner for his officers, followed by several rubbers of whist. The only guest remaining now was Thomas Harville, his first lieutenant, who sat with him at the table, each man holding a glass with a small amount of port in it.
"A magnificent dinner, sir," Harville was saying. "I must say that after a week on salt beef and biscuits with the rest of the ship, the smoked ham, puréed potatoes and plum duff were like heaven on a plate."
Frederick smiled, happy for the compliment. After months at sea, the officers were down to the dreaded, barely edible ship's provisions. Frederick's private stores had been near empty as well, and unbeknownst to all the men except his steward, Denham, he too had eaten salt beef and biscuits for the past seven days so that he could offer a respectable Christmas dinner tonight.
"Thank you, Mr. Harville. I hope you shall not have to eat any more provisions after tomorrow's breakfast. Do you think we shall be anchored at Plymouth by then?"
"Yes, sir. For once, the weather is on our side," Harville replied with a hint of excitement in his voice.
Frederick leaned back in his chair and smiled at his first lieutenant. "You are looking forward to seeing Mrs. Harville and your boy, Edward, no doubt."
"Indeed, sir. When I last saw Edward he was only four months old. Margaret's latest letter said he is quite the troublemaker now: climbing up sofas, pulling down curtains and causing more destruction in the gardens than any animals ever could do."
Frederick gave a slight laugh and nodded as if he understood the predicament exactly, but he did not, for he was neither a husband nor a father.
Though I should have been married and might even have had a child by now…
He brushed that thought away and swirled his glass, watching the rich amber liquid move in circles and wishing he had more than a scant portion of it. "Enjoy your time together. We only have three days ashore, as you know, but are fortunate to return at Christmastime."
"Yes, sir, I will. Margaret said she would delay Christmas Day dinner till we arrived. This will be our first year enjoying it together."
"Quite a special occasion, then." The conversation brought forth a great emptiness in Frederick's heart, one that had become painfully familiar over the past three years. "Do you know if Mrs. Harville will serve goose or turkey?"
"Goose - she plans to find the largest one in Plymouth, and will also have mince pies, jellies and plum pudding."
Though he was not hungry, Frederick's mouth watered at the mention of those traditional Christmas dishes. He had not enjoyed such a feast since before joining the Royal Navy College fourteen years ago. This year would offer the best opportunity to be with family, but his nearest relations were his older sister Sophia, who was presently in the East Indies with her husband, and his brother Edward, who lived two hundred fifty miles away in Shropshire — a two day journey in the best conditions. Tomorrow night, Frederick would be sitting alone at The Anchor, his usual Plymouth inn, partaking of something like pease soup and beef-steaks with watery sauce. Though if he was lucky, the innkeeper might have some remaining plum pudding - the real kind, topped with lit brandy. Frederick smiled at the thought.
After a pause, Harville said, "Margaret and I would be honoured to have your company at dinner, sir, if you are free at three o'clock tomorrow."
The invitation surprised Frederick as he and Harville had only been acquainted about a year, but he was very tempted to accept. He enjoyed the company of his first lieutenant but did not wish to intrude upon the short family reunion.
When the war ends, I will find a wife - a woman with a strong mind and sweetness of manner, not weak like…
He brushed that thought aside too, swirled the port again, and drank it down in one mouthful.
"I thank you, Mr. Harville, but I have plans. Please present my compliments and regrets to Mrs. Harville, and Merry Christmas."
Harville left soon after and Frederick went to his desk to finish reviewing the officers' books and accounts ahead of the Laconia's arrival in Plymouth. When he was done with his work, he relaxed in the chair with satisfaction, his hands folded in his lap. His gaze went around the great cabin. The room was sparsely furnished, with just the minimum amount of chairs, tables, and decoration that the dignity of his rank required.
There was a time when Frederick spent freely what had come freely, and he imagined that, after achieving the coveted rank of post-captain, his cabin would boast the finest furniture, silverware and crystal that he could afford. But then he lost his heart to Anne Elliot, and she had cited his lack of fortune among other reasons for breaking their engagement. Since then, he had diligently saved as much money as possible, and he now possessed a small fortune of five thousand pounds. He had not done it for her, however, but to prove that he could be worthy of any baronet's daughter. No, Frederick no longer wanted to marry Anne Elliot.
Her power with me is gone forever.
On a whim, he leaned forward and pulled open a desk drawer. Reaching his hand inside, he felt around the back until he located and pulled out a small parcel. It was wrapped in a linen handkerchief, with a single forget-me-not flower neatly embroidered in one corner. He held the bundle in his hand, feeling its weight and recalling the contents inside: the only two letters Anne wrote to him. She had sent them, along with the handkerchief, during their brief, ill-fated engagement. He did not need to read them to remember her words: expressions of love, exquisite felicity, and constancy. A sharp pain bloomed in his chest.
How young and foolish I was.
Moving to return the parcel to the drawer, he stopped when he noticed a strange alteration to Anne's handiwork. The blue, yellow and white threads seemed to blur and shift. Frowning, he blinked and looked again, and was startled when instead of seeing a flower, he now saw a face. He peered closer and recognised the face of his friend and former shipmate, Captain Jacob Marley, who had been first lieutenant of the Resolve when Frederick had served as third, and whose ship recently foundered at sea.
Frederick stared fixedly at the fabric, wondering if he had consumed too much liquor, but as quickly as the flower had changed to a face, it changed back. His pulse racing, he hurriedly shoved the bundle back in the drawer, closed the desk and then locked it for good measure. Rising from the chair, he took several turns around the room, intently studying every object as he passed by. When he saw nothing else amiss, he sighed and relaxed his shoulders.
Shaking his head at his strange imagination, he stepped out onto the larboard quarter gallery and inhaled deeply, the brisk winter air filling his lungs and rousing his spirits. Now that he was outside, he could hear a few of his men above on the quarterdeck, murmuring in quiet conversation. He quickly checked the sails he could see from his angle, then turned to watch the ship's wake as he enjoyed the feel of the wind against his face. Everything seemed normal.
When he returned inside, his steward had just come in to help him dress for bed. At first, Frederick was determined not to say anything related to the incident with the handkerchief, but then he decided that since his steward was very discreet, he would make a brief inquiry.
"Have you noticed anything unusual this evening, Denham?" Frederick asked as the man took his coat.
"Yes. Things appearing differently than they should, for example?"
Denham neatly folded the coat and began working on unbuttoning Frederick's shirt. "No, sir. I cannot say I have."
Frederick nodded but still felt an uneasiness in the back of his mind. "Very good."
When Denham left, Frederick headed for his sofa, but stopped in his tracks upon hearing the distant sound of bells. It was not the clear brass tone of the ship's bell, but rather a high-pitched tinkling like hundreds of small crystal bells. He looked at his watch which read a quarter past ten, an odd time to hear bells on a ship. The bells ceased as suddenly as they had begun and were succeeded by a strange clanking noise, seeming to come from the gun deck below, as if some person were dragging a heavy chain. The sound brought to Frederick's mind stories of ships haunted by ghosts, but he did not believe in that superstitious nonsense. The clanking grew louder and louder until, to his horror, something passed through the closed cabin door. Upon its coming in, the flame from his hanging lamp leapt up, as though it cried, "I know him; Captain Marley's Ghost!" and fell again.
It was the same face, the very same one Frederick had seen on the handkerchief, only this time a transparent grey colour like the rest of his body. The unlined lapels and plain cuffs of his coat showed Captain Marley was wearing his undress uniform. While the coat Frederick had just shed had one epaulette on the right shoulder, Captain Marley's had an epaulette on the left as well, indicating that he was, or had been, a post-captain for more than three years. A long chain wrapped around the middle of his body; one end hung off his left side, and attached to this was a large weight, five times the size of his head and clearly heavy, for it rendered the coat somewhat lopsided as he stood on the deck.
Captain Marley surveyed his surroundings and pursed his lips. "I expected better furnishings, Wentworth. You enjoyed fine things when we served together, and I had heard you are quite lucky with privateers, yet your cabin is so shabby."
Frederick did not take the insult well. "Who are you?" he demanded, belatedly wondering if he ought to show more respect to a senior officer's ghost. Captain Marley's face revealed more amusement than offence.
"You know who I am."
"I should like to hear it from you. Sir."
"Do you not trust your eyes? Very well. In life, I was your friend and fellow officer, Captain Jacob Marley."
"Then my condolences on your death, sir." It was odd to express sympathy to the very person who was dead. "The news only reached me recently. It happened over the summer?"
"Yes. Got caught in a blasted hurricane while sailing from Antigua to Liverpool. All hands were lost."
At this the spirit raised a frightful cry and shook its chain with a dismal and appalling noise. Frederick trembled slightly and took a breath to calm himself.
"To what do I owe the honour of your visit, sir?"
"The spirit within every person desires to find true attachment and love in life. Should it be fortunate enough to find it yet unjustly deny itself of that love, it shall die with such a heavy burden of regret that it cannot rise above the earth; it will be doomed to wander through the world, witnessing the happiness it cannot have, but might have had in life!"
Again the spectre raised a cry, and shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands.
"You are fettered, Captain Marley. Will you tell me why?"
"I wear the chain I forged in life, and the weight upon it is the sum of my regrets. I built them both of my own free will, month after month and year after year. Long ago, I loved a young woman and she loved me, but I did not want the burden of a family. I sought my happiness in the glory and riches of war instead. Rather than declare myself to her, I escaped to the freedom of the seas. I understood my error when, achieving all that I desired, my heart remained empty, but by then, she had married another."
"I am very sorry to hear it, sir, but what can I do to help you?"
"There is nothing that can be done for me. I am here tonight for your sake, to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate."
"Me!" Frederick exclaimed. "But I have never unjustly denied myself of love."
"Have you not?"
Frederick scoffed inwardly. Certainly he had not! The only woman he had ever loved was Anne, and she had given him up, not the other way around. She was the one who had unjustly denied him of love. How could he be condemned for her decision? Frederick was tempted to tell Captain Marley that he was in the wrong place and should go haunt Anne, and he very well might have. He often spoke hastily and without forethought, but had learned to hold his tongue in front of a senior officer. Therefore, he remained silent and reflected instead.
When she broke the engagement, Anne said they should wait until they had enough money to live independently, without the threat of poverty. Frederick had been recently made commander and had no ship, but told her that he would soon have one, allowing him to earn prize money and eventually gain the important step of post-captain. When he could not convince her to trust Providence, he suggested a long engagement instead of marrying right away. Not only did she refuse his reasonable offer, but she said she was relinquishing him for his sake! It was a ridiculous excuse. If she no longer wanted to be with him, the least she could have done was take responsibility for her decision instead of shifting the blame to him like a coward.
After making post last year, Frederick considered writing to Anne but decided that she had used him too ill. She had shown her true character - weak, feeble-minded, mercenary - it was not what he desired in a wife.
The Ghost interrupted his thoughts. "You have been fashioning your own chain and weight, Captain Wentworth, in the same style as mine. The weight you bear is almost the size of mine, and if you do not amend your ways, it shall grow larger and heavier still."
The Ghost set up another cry and clanked its chain so hideously that Frederick thought the marine sentry outside his cabin would come bursting in.
"I do not see how that is possible, sir," Frederick said, looking down to see if he could perceive a chain or weight around his body. He saw nothing.
Captain Marley shrugged. "Your opinion of the matter does not alter the truth of it. To avoid my fate, you will be haunted by three Spirits."
"Spirits? I-I think I would rather not." Now that he had met a ghost, Frederick was not keen on meeting more.
"Without their visits, you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first at one o'clock tomorrow night."
"Can they not come all at once?"
The Ghost ignored his question. "Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of twelve has ceased to vibrate. Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!"
The Ghost now moved until it reached the row of stern windows. It beckoned Frederick to approach, which he did. When they were within two paces of each other, Captain Marley's Ghost held up its hand, warning him to come no nearer. Frederick stopped and became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge and passed through the windows.
Out of curiosity, Frederick went to the window and pulled aside the curtain. The air outside was filled with phantoms, male and female, wandering hither and thither and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains and weights like Captain Marley's Ghost. Frederick saw one, a beautiful woman with a fine dress and jewels, cry piteously at having married a wealthy, mean-tempered man instead of the man she truly loved. Another spirit spoke of quarreling with his betrothed and, in a fit of anger, gambling away his fortune and thus losing her hand. The reasons for their misery were different, but they all shared the same heavy punishment.
The spirits drifted away together, their voices fading, until the night became as it had been when Harville left the cabin. Frederick closed the curtain. Exhausted by the fatigues of the day and in much need of rest, he went to his cot and fell asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow.
~~END OF CHAPTER~~