Haunted
by Emily Regent

 

His footsteps echoed through the empty gundeck. What was he doing here? Haunting this old ship when it was part of a past that had been eradicated from both memory and official record? Kennedy sighed and for once was glad to be shorter than average, so it was not necessary for him to keep ducking under the beams. There were no guns, now, although the planking bore the scars of gun-carriages, powder marks, the odd stain of blood not soaked up rapidly enough, but the deck had otherwise been cleaned. The timbers creaked alarmingly, and the ship heeled far over beneath him, but accustomed to the movement of the sea, rough weather and the habits of a given ship, Kennedy simply adjusted his balance to move with it, and there was no need for him to adjust his slow, steady pace.
The walk along the gundeck seemed interminable. But this had to be done; he held the lantern before him, to banish any ghosts that threatened to hinder him. Kennedy tried never to re-visit the past ­ he never saw any good come of doing so, but he had learned recently that however painful the memories, however evil the feelings they produced, it brought closure, and for him, it seemed, that the closure brought a measure of peace.
He had wanted to be part of a family; an only child, orphaned at fifteen with an ongoing family feud the only inheritance from his father, that was something long denied him and his tendency was to have his shipmates fill that gap in his life. Or rather, it had been. Contact with both his cousins ­ Cassillis and Dewhurst - had brought a new sense of belonging to him. Revisiting his blood relations had not turned out a bad thing, after all.
Neither had Kennedy ever truly allowed himself to get over Dewhursts supposed demise; and although there was good cause to think that he might have been better off dead, he felt somehow safer for the subsequent events. Seeing Dewhurst so broken had been painful ­ torturously so, but now there was peace and the pain had passed.
It was what he had hoped to accomplish on this old vessel. Closure. Peace.
However, the memories came fast and furious ­ so much so that he could almost hear the yelling, the water rushing in, the men at the capstan, the terrific thunder of double-shotted cannons and the broadside that couldn't possibly reach the enemy. Kennedy inhaled slowly and exhaled shakily, trying to calm himself. Perhaps he was wrong; perhaps he shouldn't have come. This visit was, most likely, the result of stubborn pride ­ that never-ending need to prove himself.
For /Renown/ was said to be haunted.
She wasn't a bad ship, despite the evil that had occurred here. Her timbers were sturdy; she was a good sailer and a powerful 74 when it came to engaging the enemy; indeed, one of the finest in the fleet. However, nobody would command her ­ men who had been sent to carry out refits, repairs or even just to ensure she didn't sink in dock, took boats or swam back to the shore after mere hours. Whatever lurked aboard must be so terrifying that even threats of Courts Martial were not sufficient to keep them on /Renown/. Kennedy didn't believe in such fairy-tales. Shakespeare and his Oberon and Titania and witches and ghosts were well enough for theatres and books, but then they ought to remain there.
Not here, in the stark, real world.
Pride! He was trying to prove himself unafraid of boggles and found himself beset by the ghosts of the Navy past. Which, Kennedy wondered as he turned downwards, were the most frightening?
Certainly he wanted the memory of this afternoon banished. They had come into dock; he had two days of shoreleave to start tomorrow, and had, of course, heard the rumours of /Renown/'s decommissioning due to an inability to man her. One experienced Post-Captain and two junior Captains assigned to her were now forcibly retired due to mental incapacity, and there was a rush of superstitious seamen assigned throughout the fleet from her. Able seamen, at that. Because of this damn ship!
The greatest part of this news had been told to Bush by Hornblower in the wardroom. Kennedy had come in after being relieved by Wellard, now that they were at Spithead, and as he entered, Hornblower had stopped talking. It was usual for him not to acknowledge Kennedy's presence, and a slight he was too used to for it to injure him as it once had, but he never drew his conversation to a close just because of him. In a way, Hornblower seemed to feel that much would be too great a complement to his former friend.
Poor Bush, caught between them, required rescue, and Kennedy obliged, hating how the innocent Bush was repeatedly put in such an awkward position. "I've just been hearing about /Renown/'s decommissioning. It seems so strange for a good ship, and I can't find any reason why!"
"Horatio was about to tell me," Bush answered, looking up at the Commander expectantly.
He also turned, to find that Hornblower had raised his hand, as though to shield his eyes from the sight of Kennedy, and gave only Bush the benefit of his attention. "I can inform you ashore, William; I need to report to the Captain," he said, cutting the third Lieutenant out completely. Hornblower was forced to move past him to leave, and for the briefest of moments their eyes met before Hornblower looked away, coldly, and went out of the wardroom.
It was a school-yard slight; 'I'm not telling /you/ 'coz /you're/ not my friend any more', but it cut Kennedy as no other insult had managed to do. The wound at his chest seemed to be pierced to the bone and like a child left out of the latest game, Kennedy retreated to his cabin. It seemed such a silly thing to weep over, but he couldn't help it.
In a more cheerful way, he managed to get the story from Acting Lieutenant Wellard and Midshipman Orrock. Wellard, understandably, seemed reluctant to talk about it too much, although he was surprisingly interested in what Orrock had to say. Orrock spoke about the ghost of /Renown/ in his exuberant Irish way, mourning his lack of opportunity to go in person and hunt down the ghost for himself. However, it had put the idea into Kennedy's head.
Maybe he should visit /Renown/ before she was broken up, and come to terms with the ghosts. Gain closure. Make peace. He was unafraid of spectres and phantoms that took to haunting old ships and graveyards and buildings; the memories were far more treacherous, and in his mind's eye, he saw Hornblower turn away from him again.
The boatmen had obviously not liked to take him across to /Renown/, either. They kept looking at him as though he were stark raving mad; or as though there was nothing wrong with the ship, but with him! Kennedy had tried to ignore it, but it was difficult when they had put him aboard, and begun whispering to each other before he had even properly gained the ladder.
"That's him!"
"Can't be! You said-"
"Oh God but it is - sweet Jesus defend us!"
Huh ­ perhaps they fancied they had seen the famed ghost through one of the gunports! Maybe it had opened one to glare out at them! Foolishness! He managed to smile to himself, though, remembering that when he had asked Orrock for the identity of this fearsome spirit, the midshipman suddenly clammed up, and Wellard went extremely pale. Kennedy had decided not to tease either of them, guessing for himself that it must be Sawyer ­ who else, after all, had been so famous aboard? And god forbid that a ghost be an ordinary man! He did not fear Sawyer's ghost; indeed, he would be glad of the chance to insult it.
Or perhaps even-
"Ah!" Kennedy jumped back towards the ladder.
There was a wail fit to cut through the very bulkhead ­ but it was no ben sidhe. A man crouched in the hold of the ship, behind the ladder Kennedy had just descended. No supernatural figure; no disembodied mist to shock him ­ just a man, cowering in an old officer's coat, down in the hold of the haunted ship. Kennedy sighed, but didn't feel foolish for his rapid heart beat or the breath that had caught in his lungs, forcing the exclamation for him. This ship was supposed to be empty; to be startled by an unexpected presence was no sign of cowardice.
"No, it's not you- it's not you- not you- not youuuuu-"
"Buckland?" Kennedy asked. Although he could not have been more surprised to confront Sawyer's ghost. "Sir?"
It was indeed. His hair matted, filthy and tangled; a beard, equally ill-kept and a tatty old officer's uniform; probably the same which he had worn in his days as the First Lieutenant and then Acting Captain of this vessel. He stank of cheap wine and gin. But it was undeniably poor old Buckland. Was /this/ the unfortunate ghost that had everyone so afeared?
"No, no, no no nononono."
"Oh, sir ­ I didn't mean to frighten you," Kennedy told him gently, crouching beside him. He put the lantern down and tried to reach for Buckland's trembling hand, but the older man would not suffer himself to be touched.
"It's not you."
"It's Mr Kennedy, sir. Remember?" he asked. He retrieved his lantern, the better that Buckland might recognise him, and the clinking of falling bottles as his hand knocked them over sounded unnaturally loud in the echoing vessel. He couldn't help but glance. All empty ­ indeed, gin and cheap wine. "Where did you get all this?" he asked.
"Hobbs brings it," Buckland whispered, almost as though it should be obvious. "Brings me food and and it's easier you know it's easier!"
"I'm sure it is, sir," Kennedy tried, knowing it was hardly the time to attempt to begin curing an alcoholic. "But /Renown/ is to be broken up, and you can't stay here. You have to leave the ship."
Buckland gazed at him, steadily, as though he could scarcely believe it. "Leave?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. You must leave. I can take you ashore," Kennedy answered, knowing that once his errand was explained, Captain Pellew would be sympathetic with his deviance from orders.
"I can leave? Really?" Buckland said.
"Of course, sir ­ any time you like. In fact-" Kennedy consulted his watch. "The boatman said he would send his relief for me and they'll be here in fifteen minutes."
"Hobbs is coming tomorrow," Buckland said, looking away, sadly. "From his work, at the foundry"
Kennedy had heard that Hobbs, unable to get a post as gunner, had gone into the foundry; making the guns and balls as opposed to firing them. Certainly, if he rose in that profession as he had in the Navy, he could expect a good wage, but Kennedy wondered, briefly, whether he was happy there. Perhaps Admiral Halliwell could look into it? However, that was a task for later. Now, getting Buckland onto the deck should be the place to start.
"We'll let Hobbs know that you're ashore," he promised, bending over to help Buckland gain his feet. He didn't trust the drunken Lieutenant with the lantern, although it was going to be an awkward business to support him and the light.
"I can really leave?" Buckland asked.
Kennedy felt his heart lurch with pity for the man. He couldn't bring himself to mock or be exasperated. "Yes, sir ­ you can really leave," he said, gently.
They stumbled up the ladders, to the deck. Kennedy contemplated the unfortunate circumstances of his presence, but then allowed himself a sad smile as he half-followed and half-supported Buckland up the final ladder to the main deck. It was as well he had come to challenge the ghosts here; perhaps once ashore, somewhere warm and safe, Buckland could begin to lay a few of his own to rest. However, he was glad he had made the effort himself ­ maybe getting the sorry Lieutenant off /Renown/ would bring its own peace of a deed well intended.
He looked over the rail, and saw the boat approach, precisely when it was supposed to. He grinned down and waved. "Might I have some assistance with a sick man, if you please?" he called.
The boatmen stared for a moment, and then began to point and scream. To his amazement, they turned the boat around in clumsy panic, still in the grip of an odd hysteria, and rowed back to the shore with as much haste as Kennedy might have been glad for, had he been with them!
"Hey ­ you men! Get back here!" he ordered in his best 'I-will-be-obeyed' voice. But they only rowed away all the faster. What could he do? Fire his pistol into the little boat and sink them?
How was he to get a boat, now? He looked over at Buckland, who sat dejected by the bell-frame, now bereft of it's bell. The boatmen must have seen him, if he had stood up. Perhaps it really was Buckland who was the ghost of /Renown/ after all, not Sawyer. Perhaps Sawyer haunted Buckland alone! Maybe the boatmen had seen him hovering over the former lieutenant's shoulder.
Kennedy sighed again. Well ­ they would just have to wait for Hobbs.

It was a miserable night, spent with the half-mad Buckland. Kennedy had not brought a coat, any spare fuel for their light, food nor water. Buckland's supplies had run out. He gazed across the deck. There. Right there, Hornblower had held him; afraid for his life ­ knowing that Clive could never save him (and he had been right ­ it had taken the intervention of a far superior surgeon). He thought back on Hornblower's cruel and even uncharacteristic abuse of him that afternoon ­ so very different. Buckland seemed in a stupor; contending with his own sorry ghosts, no doubt, even as Kennedy contemplated his.
The day dawned eventually. There was no call from the boat as Hobbs disembarked it and came aboard /Renown/. Kennedy stood once he realised who it must be and began to straighten his cramped limbs. Buckland simply stared across the empty deck, tears quietly and unobtrusively rolling down his cheeks. Kennedy was beginning to feel more himself as Hobbs came aboard, and was ready to greet the man; whether it would be a friendly exchange or not was yet to be seen. But Hobbs could always be relied on to obey orders, whether he liked them or not, and clearly had sufficient compassion for Buckland to make regular visits to a ship which everybody else shunned. Whether Hobbs cared for /him/ or not, Kennedy could depend on his help to get Buckland ashore.
Hobbs came over the rail with practised ease, and stopped short on seeing Kennedy.
"Ah ­ Mr Hobbs, thank goodness," Kennedy addressed. "I know it must be a surprise to find me here, but I fear I need your assistance in getting Mr Buckland ashore ­ he's rather unwell."
"He says I can leave" Buckland wept. "I can leave- I can leave-"
"Yes, sir," Hobbs said to him, firmly, and looked across the deck to the other ships moored in dock. Kennedy followed his gaze to /Seawitch/. Did the man perhaps think he was here without his ship?
"The boatmen I had hired left without conducting their duty. I trust this is not too great an imposition?"
"No, sir," Hobbs replied. But still he stood by the rail, unmoving.
"Mr Hobbs?" /Renown/'s former gunner looked up. "Oh, the only spirits here are those Mr Buckland has consumed! Don't tell me you're afraid of Sawyer's ghost as well," Kennedy exclaimed, exasperated. "For goodness sake, man, even if it were all true; you were ever loyal to him, and I'm sure have nothing to fear!"
"Captain Sawyer, sir?" Hobbs asked. "Captain Sawyer isn't the one to haunt this ship."
"Really?" Kennedy asked. It had seemed a perfectly reasonable assumption when he made it. "Or I suppose folk could think it's Mr Buckland here."
"No, sir," Hobbs answered.
"Then whose ghost is it, Mr Hobbs?" Kennedy asked, genuinely curious.
"Why; yours, sir."