The Kiplings and India: A Collection of Writings from British India, 1870-1900

The Haunted Cabin (Alice Kipling Fleming, 1885)

Summary and Keywords

THERE are ghosts of all ages and conditions—grey-haired ghosts, and ghosts with golden locks; spectres in shrouds, and apparitions in bridal —​array but by common consent it would seem to have been agreed that all should be alike melancholy and awe-inspiring. Hollow groans herald the approach of some; the rattling of chains accompanies the march of others. A merry ghost who ran laughing down a corridor, or a mischievous ghost who peeped through a half-open door with smiling eyes, would not be counted as one of the true breed by any who had the slightest acquaintance with the class to which it claimed to belong. Who ever heard of a rosy smiling spectre, of a plump and dimpled ghost frolicking in the noonday sunshine? Yet if ever I saw a spirit in my life it was one of this kind—a blue-eyed, golden-haired child-ghost, who, in spite of blooming cheeks and bright eyes, was as veritable a spectre as any shrouded vision.
        I was returning to India in good health and excellent spirits. My visit to England had been a short one, but I was eager to rejoin my husband and show him the improvement a few months had made in our Robbie, a bonny boy of three. I mention these facts to show that I was not in a state of mind to be ready to conjure up imaginary terrors. By what I then thought to be great good luck I had succeeded in getting a three-berth cabin for myself and my little boy alone—Nos. 45, 46, 47—on the starboard side of the ship. There was, of course, nothing about it to distinguish it from the other cabins; and I unpacked my boxes without the faintest suspicion of what was to happen to me before I left it. In order to escape the quarantine I had started from Gravesend, and found that the Bay of Biscay was exceedingly rough. As a precautionary measure I remained in my berth; and with some difficulty persuaded Robbie to do the same.
        On the second day, about noon, I was almost asleep when I heard the child's voice apparently talking to someone: "Who is 'oo? What's 'oo name?"
        "What's the matter Robbie?" I asked, without opening my eyes.
        "Who is 'oo?" repeated my boy persistently; and, looking up, I saw that he was staring at the cabin door.
        "She's gone now," he said; "but, Muzzie, it was a little girl; and this is our cabin, not hers. Why did she come in?"
        "Don't be cross about it, dear,'' l said. "I daresay she's a very nice little girl; and when the sea's quite smooth again, perhaps you will play with her on deck."
        I naturally thought no more of this trifling incident at the time, but, when we were out of the Bay and the ship was speeding steadily through calm seas, I went down to my cabin in search of a forgotten book and found an intruder there. But such a pretty little intruder that I stopped for a moment to watch her, for there on the upper berth, in a full blaze of sunlight from the open port, sat a little girl. A blue-eyed, yellow-haired, round-faced child who seemed to be about four years old. As I came in she sprang up and stood looking at me with a mischievous smile.
        "What are you doing here, dear?" I said. I spoke kindly, but with a little peal of laughter the child fled past me into the saloon, and I heard the quick patter of her feet as she ran laughing down it. Robbie was on deck; but I concluded without asking him that this must be the little girl whom he had seen before in the cabin. When I went up the "companion" I looked about the deck
for her, intending to ask whose child she was, but she was nowhere to be seen.
        The next morning I was aroused by a very impish laugh, and looking up saw, to my great surprise, the child's pretty yellow head peeping over the edge of the upper berth, while Robbie was quietly sleeping in the lower one. Seeing that I was watching her, she climbed carefully down from her perch, which was a work of time and difficulty, and hurried out of the cabin. I was rather vexed. It was tiresome to have this child coming in at all hours. Who could take care of her and allow her to wander about in the early morning, only wearing her little night-gown and with bare feet? Her mother or nurse must be culpably careless; it was almost my duty to speak about it. Several days went by, but though I saw the child constantly I never succeeded in calling anyone's attention to her. She was as quick as a flash of sunlight, and seemed at times to be absolutely ubiquitous. If she were standing by the wheel and I turned to ask the lady nearest me who the pretty child was, when I looked again she would have gone. Perhaps the end of a blue sash vanishing round the door of the "companion" would tell me of her whereabouts; but most frequently I saw nothing. Though she was often with the other children, she did not seem to play with them, and I never saw one of them speak to her except Robbie; and when he did so she never answered him.
        I questioned the stewardess—a tall, gaunt woman who had seen "better days," and who, therefore, was aggressively equal and unpleasant in manner but she told me nothing. After I had described the child, she looked at me in a rather peculiar way and said: "Your cabin's No. 45, isn't it?"
        I said " Yes," and she answered brusquely: "Well, Mrs. Forbes's child is the only yellow-haired one that I know of—and it's a boy,—but I haven't got time to learn all the children's names. They are quite tiresome enough without that."
        Still the child was a frequent visitor to my cabin. Almost every day I passed her as she was coming out of it, or turned when I was going on deck to see the little figure running into No. 45. She never touched any of my things; and Robbie's toys and picture-books had no attraction for her. I grew used to the presence of the golden head, though I was puzzled and vexed by the way in which she never spoke, and never answered my questions. Robbie, somewhat to my surprise, left off asking me about her; but I presently found out that the imaginative little fellow had invented a story to explain her silence.
        He had caught a slight cold which made him rather peevish and very sorry for himself, and one evening I was sitting by him, hoping he would soon go to sleep, when the curtain in front of the door was pushed aside, the blue eyes I knew so well peeped in for a moment, and then the curtain was dropped again.
        "There's that little girl," I said.
        "I think she looked in to see if you were asleep, dear."
        "I don't speak to her anymore," answered Robbie.
        "Why not? Won't she speak to you?"
        "No; faiwiz don't talk."
        ''You funny little boy," I said, laughing. "Do you think she is a fairy?"
        "I knows she is, Muzzie."
        "Now Robbie, don't be silly. Do you think she is one of the dog fairies you said you saw at Arran?"
        ''Well, Muzzie, I did see them—there was dog-faiwiz, and faiwiz with little blue caps. Yon couldn't see them, cos you'se gwown up, but I does!"
        I knew that the very best way of making Robbie cross was to doubt that he had seen fairies; for he was a strange child, and would if at all encouraged tell the quaintest tales of the "dog fairies," a mysterious class of fairy invented, I believe, by him, and the "things that came to see him at night;'' for he always thought his dreams were real. Perhaps when a child is not four years old it has still some lingering remembrances of the unknown land. I think so at least, for in no other way could I account for sights that Robbie would tell me of perfectly simply and naturally. That evening I was afraid of his getting excited and lying awake, for he was never a very sound sleeper; so, waiving the question of the "dog fairies," I asked him how it was that I saw this little girl, because, as he well knew, I was grown-up and never saw fairies. He considered this for some time, and then said solemnly that I wasn't so big and grown-up as some people, so that I could see a very big fairy like the one in question, but everybody couldn't see her, he knew, because he'd asked them. My interest in the mysterious child was heightened by Robbie's quaint fancy; and I asked with a certain degree of eagerness if the other children on the ship saw her.
        "No," said Robbie, looking rather puzzled; "not even Mab; and she does tell such nice stowiz—she ought to see faiwiz.''
        "Are you sure Mab doesn't see her, dear?"
        "Quite sure, 'cos to-day she was talking to me, and the little girl faiwy came and stood close next her, and I said, 'Go 'way,' and Mab said, 'Who is you talking to?'"
        "Perhaps Mab didn't look at the little girl," I suggested.
        "Oh, yes! she did, Muzzie. She looked wight at her." I was getting anxious to change the conversation without letting the child know I thought his news strange.
        "It is so late, Robbie, dear—do shut your eyes like a good boy, and see if tomorrow morning doesn't come very quickly."
        "I'se so sleepy," said Robbie, nestling his round brown head well into the pillow; "but, Muzzie do tell the faiwy girl not to come here when it's nights."
        "Does she, dear? I've never seen her." The exciting consciousness that he had seen something I had not, made Robbie sit straight up with very wide open eyes and begin energetically.
        "I doesn't sleep like you, Muzzie. I'se often awake whole hours sometimes. All the dark gets white and then; I can't sleep."
        "That's the moon, dear, didn't you know?"
        "It isn't like the moon when I look at it out of my burf!,'' answered Robbie, who was proud of this new word he had lately learnt.
        "But it's only the moon; and if it frightens you, wake, mother."
        "Then when it gets white I see the faiwy. I think she's always there, but I can't always see her."
        "Why don't you wake me then, dear?''
        "I've twied, but you doesn't wake; you sings, but you doesn't wake!"
        "Sing! Robbie! What can you mean?"
        "Oh not like day singing, Muzzie," he explained; "but a sort of little singing, like a very happy cat."
        "You dear little goose," I said, laughing, though I knew I ran the risk of offending Robbie by so doing; "when I snore like a
'happy cat' you may wake me ; and now go to sleep at once."
        Robbie made a valiant endeavour to keep awake, and succeeded for at least five minutes. Then the brown eyes closed, and I stole away, feeling more troubled about the strange little girl than I should have liked to acknowledge. That night the moon rose at half-past twelve. I was waiting for "the dark to get white;" for I was resolved to find out if the little girl did come to my cabin at night. Robbie was peacefully sleeping in a way that made me doubt his statement that he lay awake "whole hours;" probably a dream had made him fancy he really saw the child. It was a fine night, and the moon shone brightly through the port. The light was far too clear for me to be mistaken as to what I saw ; and without my having heard the door open or any sound of footsteps, there, at the end of my berth, sat the mysterious child: her pretty round face looking pale in the moonlight. I started up and tried to catch her, for I wished to put a stop to these unwelcome visits; but the tiresome little one seemed to melt away from under my hand. There was a little rustle of her night-gown, a scramble of tiny pink feet, and then the saucy eyes were mocking me from the upper berth.
        "I shall catch you now," I thought, but even as I stretched cut my arm she slipped over the side, reached the floor safely, rather to my surprise, and went into the saloon. A minute later I drew aside the curtain and looked after her. The saloon was dark, and though I listened for some time I heard no sound of voices or of a door opening to receive the little wanderer.
        "There is really something uncanny in the way that child slips about," I thought. Next day I happened to be walking on deck with a young girl, when the child flitted across just in front of us.
        "Look at that child," I said quickly. "Who is she?"
        "Which child? Where?"
        "By the funnel; with a blue sash on."
        "I can't see a child there at all."
        "No; she has just run away. Do come this direction. I want you to see her." She good-naturedly came.
        The child was standing looking at the cow, but as soon as I spoke she passed behind the sheep-pen.
        "I believe you are making fun of me," said my companion. ''I don't think there is a child at all."
        "Indeed, indeed there is," I said earnestly; "and I very much want to know her name. Do come with me to look for her."
        For nearly half an hour we watched and followed the strange child about the deck. I say "we" but in reality I only saw the object of our search. My friend was by some odd chance always looking another way when the little one appeared. She was like a will o' the wisp, and no corner or shelter seemed too small to bide her. I felt almost as if I were suffering from an optical delusion, but Robbie had seen her, so that this explanation did not satisfy me.
        We were having singularly calm weather. The Mediterranean was like a great blue lake; there was hardly a breath of wind to ruffle its smooth surface, and we found the afternoons exceedingly hot. The steamer was high in the water, so the ports in all the cabins were opened wide, and I had an anxious time of it cautioning my Robbie not to lean out of ours.
        One afternoon I had a bad headache; and as Robbie was listening entranced to one of his favourite "stowiz" told by Mab, who was old enough to look after him, I went down to enjoy the luxury of a quiet rest in my cabin. The port was wide open, and on the sill of it in a most dangerous position sat the little white figure with the golden hair.
        "Oh, take care, dear," I cried quickly. She started and lost her balance. The tiny hands clutched vainly at the air—then the port sill was empty, and I leant out only in time to see the blue waters closing over the golden head, and to hear a short stifled cry which was more like a sob than a shriek. For a moment I gasped without being able to utter a sound.
        Then I screamed, in a voice that didn't seem like my own, and that scream brought the Stewardess to me in one minute, with a blanched, terrified face.
        "The child! The child!" I cried. “Save her. She has just fallen out."
        "You don't mean, Robbie, ma'am?''
        "No! No! A little girl! I saw her fall. Good God! How can you stand quietly there while the child is drowning? Call for help! Let me go to the Captain!"
        But she stood in front of me and spoke very quietly to a Steward who was just outside in the saloon.
        "Nothing's the matter," she said; "the lady is a little bit excited and hysterical; that's all. lf anyone asks who screamed, you tell them that." Carefully closing the cabin door she came back and tried to make me sit down.
        I could hardly speak for anger. "You fiend!" I exclaimed. "I tell you a child has fallen overboard and is dying—drowning! She must be dead by now, and it is your fault. They might have saved her if you had called at once! God forgive you for being so wicked!"
        I burst into a passion of tears, but she only said: "Hush, don't cry! It's no real child—you've seen little May.''
        "What can you mean?" I asked.
        "You've seen little May Rodney. She fell out of this very port six years ago, poor darling; and again and again I've heard people in this cabin say they have seen her."
        "You are talking nonsense," I said. "Do you think I can possibly believe that the dear little girl who has been going in and out of this cabin is a ghost?"
        “Yes, a sort of shadow of the child. I've never seen it, but so many people seem to have done so that I have grown to believe in it."
        I was silent, and remembered various things about the child which confirmed the Stewardess's story. I began to feel, against my will, that she had been a phantom. Then I asked what she looked like.
        "As pretty a child as you could wish to see—blue eyes and hair like a doll, so yellow and curly, and such a fidgety little thing as she was, flashing about all over the ship; one never knew where she would be next.''
        The Stewardess spoke very calmly. She must have told the story before to ladies who had been as horrified and distressed by this sight as I was. “People who have No. 45 always see little May," she went on; "but they don't often see what you saw. It's no wonder you were frightened. I shall never forget the state Mrs. Rodney was in. I thought she was going to die too."
        "Why didn't you tell me this before?"
        "Well, I naturally don't wish to give one of the cabins a bad name—the Captain wouldn't like it; but whenever I can I advise ladies not to take that cabin. I'd sleep in it myself willingly if I were allowed to, but it's too near the middle of the ship for me to be let have it. I don't think poor little May would ever frighten me. Ah! she was a sweet, pretty child!" Something very like a tear was in the corner of one of the Stewardess's small yellow eyes—at least, I think so; but my own eyes were so brimming with tears that I could not see clearly.
        "How did the child fall out?" I asked; but I felt that I had been an eye-witness of the tragedy, and knew beforehand what the Stewardess was going to say.
        "She had been sitting on the sill of the port leaning out of it, and her mother came in and spoke to her suddenly, and she was startled and fell. I was in the ladies' saloon and heard the splash, but I didn't hear her scream. It must have been a very soft stifled little cry."
        "Yes, that was just what it was," I said.

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