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Southport Phantom Voice
John Roby recounted the following story entitled ‘The Phantom Voice’ in his ‘Traditions of Lancashire’ (1872)
Southport, a bathing-place of great resort on the Lancashire coast, has been pointed out as the scene of the following tragedy, which probably occurred long before its salubrity and convenience for sea-bathing had rendered this barren tract of sand the site of a populous and thriving hamlet. From the mildness and congeniality of the air to persons of weak and relaxed habits, it has been not inaptly termed, "The Montpelier of England."
"But the coast is probably as dangerous for shipping as any round the kingdom. The sandbanks extend in a north-westerly direction for at least six miles, so as to render the navigation extremely difficult even to the natives, and impracticable for strangers. Hence shipwrecks are very frequent;" and "in a coming tide, accompanied by a strong westerly wind, it is almost impossible for boats to put off or to live in the sea."
"It not unfrequently happens that these accidents occur in the night-time, in very hazy weather, or at ebb tide. In the latter case it is necessary for boats to be taken in carts over the sands down to low-water mark, before any assistance can be attempted.
"If the captain of the vessel be obstinate, and trust to his own skill, he increases the danger. When the crews of the vessels take to their own boats, and disobey the directions of the Southport pilots, their jeopardy is tenfold greater, and their loss almost inevitable."
Nearly one hundred vessels have been wrecked on this coast within the last thirty years, and more than half of them totally lost. Of these calamities the particulars are upon record. Which of them may have given rise to the events here detailed we have no means of ascertaining.
It was at the close of a bright and memorable evening in October that I had carelessly flung the reins upon the neck of my horse, as I traversed the bare and almost interminable sands skirting the Lancashire coast.
On my right a succession of low sand-hills, drifted by the partial and unsteady blasts, skirted the horizon—their summits strongly marked upon the red and lowering sky in an undulating and scarcely-broken outline. Behind them I heard the vast and busy waters rolling on, like the voice of the coming tempest. Here and there some rude and solitary hut rose above the red hillocks, bare and unprotected: no object of known dimensions being near by which its true magnitude might be estimated, the eye seemed to exaggerate its form upon the mind in almost gigantic proportions. As twilight drew on, the deception increased; and, starting occasionally from the influence of some lacerating thought, I beheld, perchance, some huge-and turreted fortress, or a pile of misshapen battlements, rising beyond the hills like the grim castles of romance, or the air-built shadows of fairy-land.... Night was fast closing; I was alone, out of the beaten track, amidst a desert and thinly-inhabited region; a perfect stranger, I had only the superior sagacity of my steed to look to for safety and eventual extrication from this perilous labyrinth.
The way, if such it might be called, threading the mazes through a chain of low hills, and consisting only of a loose and ever-shifting bed of dry sand, grew every moment more and more perplexed. Had it been daylight, there appeared no object by which to direct my course,—no mark that might distinguish whether or not my path was in a right line or a circle: I seemed to be rambling through a succession of amphitheatres formed by the sand-hills, every one so closely resembling its neighbour that I could not recognise any decided features on which to found that distinction of ideas which philosophers term individuality. In almost any other mood of the mind this would have been a puzzling and disagreeable dilemma; but at that moment it appeared of the least possible consequence to me where the dark labyrinth might terminate.
Striving to escape from thought, from recollection, the wild and cheerless monotony of my path seemed to convey a desperate stillness to the mind, to quench in some measure the fiery outburst of my spirit. It was but a deceitful, calm—the deadening lull of spent anguish: I awoke to a keener sense of misery, from which there was no escape.
But it was not to lament over my own griefs that I commenced my story. Let the dust of oblivion cover them; I would not pain another by the recital. There are sorrows—short ages of agony—into the dark origin of which none would dare to pry: one heart alone feels, hides, and nourishes them for ever!
Night now came on, heavy and dark; not a star twinkled above me; I seemed to have left the habitations of men. In whatever direction I turned not a light was visible; all fellowship with my kind had vanished. No sound broke the unvarying stillness but the heavy plunge of my horse's feet and the hollow moan of the sea. Gradually I began to rouse from my stupor: awaking, as from a dream, my senses grew rapidly conscious of the perils by which I was surrounded. I knew not but some hideous gulf awaited me, or the yawning sea, towards which I fancied my course tended, was destined to terminate this adventure. It was chiefly, however, a feeling of loneliness, a dread, unaccountable in its nature, that seemed to haunt me. There was nothing so very uncommon or marvellous in my situation; yet the horror I endured is unutterable. The demon of fear seemed to possess my frame, and benumbed every faculty. I saw, or thought I saw, shapes hideous and indistinct rising before me, but so rapidly that I could not trace their form ere they vanished. I felt convinced it was the mind that was perturbed, acting outwardly upon the senses, rendered more than usually irritable by the alarm and excitation they had undergone—yet I could not shake off the spell. I heard a sharp rustling past my ear; I involuntarily raised my hand; but nothing met my touch save the damp and chilly hair about my temples. I tried to rally myself out of these apprehensions, but in vain: reason has little chance of succeeding when fear has gained the ascendency. I durst not quicken my pace lest I should meet with some obstruction; judging it most prudent to allow my steed to grope out his path in the way best suited to his own sagacity. Suddenly he made a dead halt. No effort or persuasion could induce him to stir. I was the more surprised from knowing his generally docile and manageable temper. He seemed immovable, and, moreover, as I thought, in the attitude of listening. I too listened eagerly—intensely; my senses sharpened to the keenest perception of sound.
The moan of the sea came on incessantly as before; no other sound could be distinguished. Again I tried to urge him forward; but the attempt was fruitless. I now fancied that there might be some dangerous gulf or precipice just at his feet, and that the faithful animal was unwilling to plunge himself and his rider into immediate destruction. I dismounted, and with the bridal at arm's length, carefully stepped forward a few paces, but I could find no intimation of danger; the same deep and level bed of sand seemed to continue onwards, without any shelving or declivity whatever. Was the animal possessed? He still refused to proceed, but the cause remained inscrutable. A sharp and hasty snort, with a snuffing of the wind in the direction of the sea, now pointed out the quarter towards which his attention was excited. His terror seemed to increase, and with it my own. I knew not what to anticipate. He evidently began to tremble, and again I listened. Fancy plays strange freaks, or I could have imagined there was something audible through the heavy booming of the sea—a more distinct, and as it were, articulate sound—though manifestly at a considerable distance. There was nothing unusual in this—perhaps the voice of the fisherman hauling out his boat, or of some mariner heaving the anchor. But why such terror betrayed by the irrational brute, and apparently proceeding from this source? for it was manifest that some connection existed between the impulses of the sound now undulating on the wind, and the alarm of my steed. The cause of all this apprehension soon grew more unequivocal—it was evidently approaching. From the sea there seemed to come, at short intervals, a low and lengthened shout, like the voice of one crying out for help or succour. Presently the sounds assumed a more distinct and definite articulation. "Murder!—Murder!" were the only words that were uttered, but in a tone and with an expression of agony I shall never forget. It was not like anything akin to humanity, but an unearthly, and, if I may so express it, a sepulchral shriek—like a voice from the grave.
I crept closer to my steed: nature, recoiling from contact with the approaching phantom, prompted me thus intuitively to cling to anything that had life. I felt a temporary relief, even from the presence of the terrified beast, though I could distinctly perceive him shuddering, yet fixed to the spot. The voice now came on rapidly; it was but a few paces distant. I felt as though I was the sport and prey of thoughts too horrible for utterance. Alone, I had to cope with the Evil One;—or I was already, perhaps, the victim of some diabolical agency. The yell was close upon my ear; I felt the clammy breath of the grave across my face, and the sound swept by. It slowly arose;—but the agony of the cry was more intense,—more sharp and vehement the shriek of "Murder!" Grown bolder, or perhaps more desperate, I cried out, "Where, in the name of——?" I had scarcely uttered the words when a loud rushing cleft the air, and a crash followed, as though some heavy body had fallen at my feet. The horse burst from its bonds, galloping from me at full speed, and I stood alone! In this appalling extremity, I approached the object of my fears. I bent to the ground; stretching out my hand, my fingers rested on the cold and clammy features of a corpse! I well remember the deep groan that burst from my lips;—nature had reached the extremity of endurance—I felt a sudden rush of blood to the heart, and fell beside my ghastly companion, equally helpless and insensible.
I have no means of ascertaining the duration of this swoon; but, with returning recollection, I again put out my hand, which rested on the cold and almost naked carcase beside me. I felt roused by the touch, and started on my feet—the moon at this instant emerging from a mass of dark clouds, streamed full on the dead body, pale and blood-stained, the features distorted, as if by some terrible death. Fear now prompted me to fly: I ran as if the wind had lent me wings—not daring to look back, lest my eyes should again rest on the grisly form I had just left. I fled onwards for some time; the moon now enabling me to follow the beaten track, which, to my great joy, brought me suddenly, at the turn of a high bank, within sight of a cheerful fire gleaming through a narrow door, seemingly the entrance to some wayside tavern. Bursts of hilarity broke from the interior; the voice of revelry and mirth came upon my ear, as though I was just awakening from a dream. It was as if I had heard the dead laugh in their cold cerements. As I stepped across the threshold, the boisterous roar of mirth made me shudder; and it seemed, by the alarm visible in the countenances of the guests, that my appearance presented something as terrible to their apprehensions. Every eye was fixed on me as I seated myself by a vacant table; and I heard whisperings, with suspicious glances occasionally directed towards the place where I sat. The company, however, soon began to get the better of their consternation, and were evidently not pleased at so unseasonable an interruption to their mirth. I found that some explanation was necessary as to the cause of my intrusion, and with difficulty made them comprehend the nature of my alarm. I craved their assistance for the removal of the body; promising, if possible, to conduct them to the spot where the miserable victim was thrown. They stared at each other during this terrible announcement; and, at the conclusion, I found every one giving his neighbour credit for the requisite portion of courage, though himself, at the same time, declining to participate in the hazards of the undertaking.
"Roger towed me 'at he stood i' th' churchyard, wi' shoon-bottoms uppermost, looking for the wench he wur to wed through the windows. Ise sure he'll make noa bauk at a bogle."
"Luk thee, Jim, I canna face the dead; but I wunna show my back to a live fist, the best and the biggest o' the country-side—Wilt' smell, my lad?"
Roger, mortified at this test of his courage, raised his clenched hand in a half-threatening attitude. A serious quarrel might have ensued, had not a sudden stop been put to the proceedings of the belligerents by an interesting girl stepping before me, modestly inquiring where I had left the corpse; and offering herself as a companion, if these mighty cowards could not muster sufficient courage.
"Shame on thee, Will!" she cried, directing her speech to a young man who sat concealed by the shadow of the projecting chimney;—"shame on thee, I say, to be o'erfaced by two or three hard words. I'se ganging,—follow 'at dare."
Saying this, she took down a huge horn lantern, somewhat dilapidated in the outworks, and burnt in various devices, causing a most unprofitable privation of light. A bonnet and cloak, hastily thrown on, completed her costume; and, surrendering the creaking lantern to my care, she stood for a moment contemplating the dingy atmosphere before she stepped forth to depart. During these ominous preparations, a smart sailor-looking man, whose fear of his mistress' displeasure had probably overcome his dread of the supernatural, placed himself between me and the maiden, and taking her by the arm, crustily told me that if I could point out the way, he was prepared to follow;—rather a puzzling matter for a stranger, who scarcely knew whether his way lay right or left from the very threshold. Thus admirably qualified for a guide, I agreed to make the attempt, being determined to spare no pains, in the hope of discovering the object of our search.
Company breeds courage. Several of the guests, finding how matters stood, and that the encounter was not likely to be made single-handed, volunteered their attendance; so that our retinue was shortly augmented to some half-dozen stout fellows. The vanguard was composed of myself and the lovers; the rest crept close in our rear, forming their rank as broad as the nature of the ground would admit.
Luckily I soon found the jutting bank round which I had turned on my first view of the house we had just left. We proceeded in silence,—except that a whisper occasionally arose from one of the rearmost individuals talking to his bolder neighbour in front, when finding his own courage on the wane. Following for some time what appeared to be the traces of recent footsteps, I hoped, yet almost feared, that every moment I might stumble on the bleeding corpse. An attendant in the rear now gave the alarm,—something he saw moving on our left causing him to make a desperate struggle to get before his companions. This produced a universal uproar—each fighting for precedency, and thoroughly determined not to be the last. I soon beheld a dark object moving near, and the next minute I was overjoyed to find my recreant steed, quietly searching amongst the tufted moss and sea-reed for a scanty supper. My associates knew not what to make of this discovery. Some of them, I believe, eyed him with deep suspicion; and more than one glance was given at his hoofs to see if they were not cloven.
Order, however, being re-established, we again set forward with what proved a useful auxiliary to our train. We had not travelled far ere I was again aware of the peculiar snort by which he manifested his alarm; and it was with difficulty I got him onwards a few paces, when he stood still, his head drawn back, as if from some object that lay in his path. I knew the cause of his terror, and, giving the bridle to one of my attendants, cautiously proceeded, followed by the maiden and her lover; who, to do him justice, showed a tolerable share of courage—at any rate, in the presence of his mistress. At length I recognised the spot, where, yet unmoved, lay the bleeding carcase. The girl started when she beheld the grim features, horribly drawn together and convulsed, as if in the last agony. I was obliged to muster the requisite fortitude to attempt its removal; and raising it from the sand, with a little assistance I placed it across the horse, though not without a most determined opposition on the part of the animal. Throwing a cloak over the body, we made the best of our way back; and on arriving at the house I found that the only vacant apartment where I could deposit my charge was a narrow loft over the out-house, the entrance to which was both steep and dangerous. With the assistance of my two friends, though with considerable difficulty, it was in the end deposited there, upon a miserable pallet of straw, over which we threw a tattered blanket. On returning, I found the guest-room deserted: the old woman to whom the tavern belonged—the mother, as I afterwards found, of my female companion—was hastily clearing away the drinking utensils, and preparing for an immediate removal to the only apartment above-stairs which bore the honours of the bedchamber. She kindly offered me the use of it for the night; but this sacrifice of comfort I could not allow; and throwing my cloak over a narrow bench, I drew it near the fire, determining to snatch a brief interval of rest, without robbing the good woman and her daughter of their night's repose.
It was now past midnight; sleep was out of the question, as I lay ruminating on the mysterious events of the few past hours. The extraordinary manner in which the murdered wretch had been committed to my care seemed an imperative call upon me to attempt the discovery of some foul and horrible crime. With the returning day I resolved to begin my inquiries, and I vowed to compass sea and land ere I gave up the pursuit. So absorbed was I in the project, that I scarcely noticed the storm, now bursting forth in a continuous roll from the sea, until one wild gust, that seemed to rush by as if it would have swept the dwelling from its seat, put an end to these anticipations. I watched the rattling casement, expecting every moment that it would give way, and the groaning thatch be rent from its hold. Involuntarily I arose and approached the window. It was pitchy dark, and the roar of the sea, under the terrific sweep of the tempest, was truly awful. Never had I heard so terrible a conflict. I knew not how soon I might be compelled to quit this unstable shelter; the very earth shook; and every moment I expected the frail tenement would be levelled to its foundations. The eddying and unequal pressure of the wind heaped a huge sand-drift against the walls, which probably screened them from the full force of the blast, acting at the same time as a support to their feeble consistency; sand and earthy matter were driven about and tossed against the casement, insomuch that I almost anticipated a living inhumation. The next gust, however, generally swept off the greater portion of the deposit, making way for a fresh torrent, that poured upon the quaking roof like the rush of a heavy sea over a ship's bulwarks.
I was not destined to be left companionless in the midst of my alarms. The old woman and her daughter, too much terrified to remain quiet, came down from their resting-place, which, being close within the thatch, was most exposed to the tempest. A light was struck, and the dying embers once more kindled into a blaze. The old woman, whom I could not but observe with emotions of awe and curiosity, sat cowering over the flame, her withered hands half-covering her furrowed and haggard cheeks; a starting gleam occasionally lighted up her grey and wasted locks, which, matted in wild elf-knots, hung about her temples. Occasionally she would turn her head as the wind came hurrying on, and the loud rush of the blast went past the dwelling. She seemed to gaze upon it as though 'twere peopled, and she beheld the "sightless coursers of the air" careering on the storm; then, with a mutter and a groan, she again covered her face, rocking to and fro to the chant of some wild and unintelligible ditty. Her daughter sat nearly motionless, hearkening eagerly during the short intervals between the gusts; and as the wind came bellowing on, she huddled closer into the chimney-corner, whither she had crept for protection.
"Such nights are not often known in these parts," said I, taking advantage, as I spoke, of a pause in the warfare without. The old woman made no answer; but the daughter, bending forwards, replied slowly and with great solemnity:—"Mother has seen the death-lights dancing upo' the black scud: some ha' seen the sun sink down upon the waters that winna see him rise again fro' the hill-top."
"Is your mother a seer, then, my pretty maiden?"
"Ye're but a stranger, I guess, if you know not Bridget o' the Sandy Holm—Save us! she's hearkening again for the"——
"There!—Once!" The old woman raised her hands as she spoke, and bent her head in an attitude of listening and eager expectation. I listened too, but could discover no sound, save the heavy swing of the blast, and its receding growl."
"Again!" As she said this, Bridget rose from the low stool she had occupied, and hobbled towards the window. I thought a signal-gun was just then audible, as from some vessel in distress. Ere I could communicate this intelligence, another and a nearer roll silenced all conjecture. It was indeed but too evident that a vessel was in the offing, and rapidly driving towards the shore, from the increasing distinctness of the signals.
Old Bridget stood by the window; her dim and anxious eyes peering through the casement as if she could discern the fearful and appalling spectacle upon the dark billows.
"Your last!—your last, poor wretches!" she cried, when a heavy gust brought another report with amazing distinctness to the ear. "And now the death shriek!—another and another!—ye drop into the deep waters, and the gulf is not gorged with its prey. Bridget Rimmer, girl and woman, has ne'er watched the blue dancers but she has heard the sea-gun follow, and seen the red sand decked with the spoil. Wench, take not of the prey: 'tis accursed!"
The beldame drew back after uttering this anathema, and again resumed her station near the hearth.
The storm now seemed to abate, and as if satisfied with the mischief at this moment consummating, the wind grew comparatively calm. The gusts came by fitfully, like the closing sobs of some fretful and peevish babe, not altogether ceasing with the indulgence of its wishes. As I stood absorbed in a reverie, the nature of which I cannot now accurately determine, the maiden gently touched my arm.
"Sir, will ye walk to the shore? I'se warrant the neighbours are helping, and we may save a life though we canna gie it."
She was wrapped in a thick cloak, the hood thrown forward, and the horn lantern again put in requisition, fitted up for immediate service. We opened the door with considerable difficulty, and waded slowly through the heavy sand-drifts towards the beech. The clouds, shattered and driven together in mountainous heaps, were rolling along the sky, a dark scud sweeping over their huge tops, here and there partially illuminated by the moonbeams: the moon was still obscured, but a wild and faint light, usually seen after the breaking up of a storm, just served to show the outline of objects not too remote from our sphere of vision.
My companion soon brought me to an opening in the hills which led directly down to the beach. Immediately I saw lights before us moving to and fro, and the busy hum of voices came upon the wind; forms were indistinctly seen hurrying backward and forward upon the very verge of the white foam boiling from the huge billows. Hastening to the spot, we found a number of fishermen—their wives assisting in the scrutiny—carefully examining the fragments of wreck which the waves were from time to time casting up, and throwing with a heavy lunge upon the shore. Either for purposes of plunder, or for the more ostensible design of contributing to their preservation, sundry packages were occasionally conveyed away, subsequently to an eager examination of their contents. My associate ran into the thickest of the group, anxiously inquiring as to the fate of the crew, and if any lives had been preserved.
"I guess," cried an old hard-featured sinner, "they be where they'll need no lookin' after. Last brast o' wind, six weeks agone next St Barnaby, I gied my cabin to the lady and her children—an' the pains I waur like to ha' for my labour—I didn't touch a groat till the parson gied me a guinea out o' th' 'scription;—but I may trot gaily hoam to-night. There's no live lumber to stow i' my loft; the fishes ha' the pick o' the whole cargo this bout."
"Canna we get the boats?—I can pull an oar thou knows, Darby, wi' the best on 'em," inquired the female.
"Boats!" exclaimed Darby; "ne'er a boat would live but wi' keel uppermost. I'se not the chap to go to Davy Jones tonight pickled i' brine, my pratty Kate."
"Thou'rt a greedy glead;—I'se go ask Simon; but I'll warrant thou'lt be hankering after the reward, and the biggest share to thine own clutches."
She turned away from the incensed fisherman; and proceeding to a short distance, we found a knot of persons gathered around a half-drowned wretch who owed his appearance again upon land to having been lashed on some lumber which the sea had just cast ashore. Almost fainting from cold and exhaustion, he was undergoing a severe questioning from the bystanders—every one wishing to know the name of the ship, whither bound, and the whole particulars of the disaster. We just came in time for his release; and I soon had the satisfaction to find the poor fellow in my quarters, before a comfortable fire, his clothes drying, and his benumbed limbs chafed until the circulation was again pretty nigh restored. After drinking a tumbler of grog he appeared to recover rapidly; and we found on inquiry that he was master of the vessel just wrecked on the coast. He shook his head on a further inquiry as to the fate of her crew. "A score as good hands," said he, "are gone to the bottom as ever unreefed a clean topsail or hung out a ship's canvas to the wind; I saw them all go down as I lashed myself to the jib." He groaned deeply; but speedily assuming a gayer tone, requested a quid and a quiet hammock. "My lights are nearly stove in,—my head hangs as loose as a Dutchman's shrouds; a night's sleep will make all taut again."
Old Bridget was gone to bed; and unless the sailor chose to occupy the straw pallet already in the possession of a guest whose mysterious arrival seemed to be the forerunner of nothing but confusion and disaster, there did not seem any chance of obtaining a berth save by remaining in his present situation. I told him of the dilemma, but Kate replied:—"We can just take the body fro' the bed; it winna tak' harm upo' the chest i' the fur nook. The captain will not maybe sleep the waur for quiet company."
He did not seem to relish the idea of passing the night even with so quiet a companion; but as it seemed the least disagreeable alternative, we agreed to pilot him to the chamber and help the miserable pallet to change occupants. The corpse we agreed to lay on some clean litter used for the bedding of the cattle. We conducted the stranger to his dormitory, which was formerly a hay loft, until converted into an occasional sleeping-room for the humble applicants who sometimes craved a night's lodging at the Sandy Holm.
The only entrance was by a crazy ladder, and so steep, that I was afraid our feeble companion would find considerable difficulty in climbing to his chamber. It was my intention to have prevented him from getting a sight of the ghastly object that occupied his couch; but pressing foremost, he ran up the ladder with surprising agility, gaining the top ere I had made preparations for the ascent. I mounted cautiously, giving him the light whilst I made good my landing; and he went directly to the bed. I had set my foot on the floor, and was lending a hand to Kate, who had still to contend with the difficulties of the way, when I heard a dismal and most appalling shriek. Starting round, I beheld the stranger gazing on the couch, his eyeballs almost bursting from their sockets, and his countenance distorted with horror and amazement. I ran to him as the light dropped from his grasp; catching it ere it fell, I perceived his eyes rivetted on the livid and terrific features of the corpse. My limbs grew stiff with horror; thoughts of strange import crowded on my mind; I knew not how to shape them into any definite form, but stood trembling and appalled before the dark chaos whence they sprung. Scarcely knowing what I said, still I remember the first inquiry that burst from my lips—"Knowest thou that murdered man?"
The words were scarcely uttered when the conscience-stricken wretch exclaimed, in accents which I shall never forget, "Know him!—yesterday he stood at my helm. I had long borne him an evil grudge, and I brooded on revenge. The devil prompted it—he was at my elbow. It was dark, and the fiend's eyes flashed when I aimed the blow. It descended with a heavy crash, and the body rolled overboard. He spoke not, save once; it was when his hated carcase rose to the surface. I heard a faint moan; it rang on my ear like the knell of death; the voice rushed past—a low sepulchral shout; in my ear it echoed with the cry of 'MURDER!'"
Little remains to be told; he persisted to the last in this horrible confession. He had no wish to live; and the avenging arm of retributive justice closed the world and its interests for ever on a wretch who had forfeited all claims to its protection—cast out, and judged unworthy of a name and a place amongst his fellow-men.