Hello, my inklings! This short story is the result of my St. Patty’s day writing prompt. I highly recommend the exercise, especially randomly rolling up your combination of story elements, since it gave me the chance to practice building a plot and characters according some factors that were out of my hands. It felt great getting something worth sharing out of what started out sounding like a tall order. Write like an octopus and squeeze through any gap, my friends!
“The Last Voyage of Richard Breen”
By Robert JV Christensen
Richard Breen was a man of numbers unsuited to life at sea, but never the less there he was. The wobbly horizon rose and fell from the view of his porthole window like an indecisive painting and the rising sun cast its errant beams about the room whenever it came into view. Richard held both hands over his eyes and tried to imagine that he was anywhere on solid ground. Someone wrapped at the door.
“Master Breen, will you be takin’ breakfast with the crew?” the ship’s cabin boy called through the key hole. Richard stirred.
“Yes, lad. I think I will,” he groaned as he opened the door. Patting the boy on the head as he thanked him for not forgetting about him. It had been three days since Richard had eaten outside of his quarters and even longer since he could stomach watching the other men eat. Something had gotten to him today, however, and the lurching of the hull had lost some of its power. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that they had just sighted land the evening prior and would be docking in Havana later that day.
“Well if it isn’t young Master Breen come to grace us with his presence,” called a stocky officer with a gray ponytail as Richard entered the mess hall, “The men had started to believe they’d be hauling you ashore with the cargo when we weigh anchor.”
“Good morning, Officer Kavanaugh,” Richard said graciously.
“There’ll be none of that, at least here in the mess hall. We works as mates but we dines as family, I always say. I’m Barclay to you below deck, you hear?”
“Good morning, Officer Barclay,” Richard said, correcting himself. Barclay stared at the accountant and let out a sigh of dismay before turning back to his victuals.
The men laughed and joked with each other as they broke their bread. They were a hearty lot; hand-picked and, to the captain’s credit, good and honest sailors.
Richard sat down with the old salts and said, “At any rate, I should like to think I could save myself at least that one last embarrassment and walk down the gangplank to land under my own power. But I should say that if I ever set foot on a ship again it had better be moored in a pumpkin patch.”
“That’s a pity, lad,” said one of the men around a mouth full of crumbly hardtack.
“I’m sure it’s not, sir,” Richard laughed, “I’ve been next to no use to the lot of you and a man at sea must be at least worth his salt.”
“But you’ve managed the payroll alright, sir,” the cabin boy chirped as he laid out Mr. Breen’s breakfast, “and I’m well sure the men are quite happy with you about that.”
The men let out a roar of “ayes” and laughter as the ship pitched over the crest of a wave and sank suddenly down again into a trough. The others dipped and swayed in their seats, but none so nimbly as the cabin boy who expertly balanced open mugs of port and a tray of rations. While the cabin boy moved like a cork riding on a ripple, Richard fumbled with his plate and watched helplessly as his apple jumped the lip and rolled down the table.
Barclay Kavanaugh caught the fruit as it rolled off the table’s edge. He rose from the table and headed for the door, tossing Richard’s apple back to him as he passed. “It’s a shame you won’t be staying on with us, Richard. We could’ve used your expertise in Montego.”
After breakfast, Richard Breen was on deck with the other men doing what little he could to prepare for docking. He had gathered his few possessions and made his formal resignation with the captain, who had known his intention from the start of the journey. “It really is a beautiful day,” Richard thought as a salty mist wafted across the deck and the sea birds glided effortlessly overhead on the breeze. Reverie had, for the moment, given seasickness the slip and he dreamily watched the white stone walls of the city rising slowly over the horizon. The church bells of Havana could be heard ringing in the distance as they drew closer to the busy seaside town.
Officer Barclay let out a heavy sigh as he came up beside Richard at the ship’s railing.
“Those bells sure take me back, Master Breen,” he said.
“Church bells?” Richard asked, failing to picture Officer Kavanaugh as a clergyman.
“Indeed. I’ve got great memories here in Havana. Those very bells rang at my wedding, you know.”
“I never knew you were a married man.”
“Oh aye,” Officer Barclay said with a broad smile that shortly faded, “Well… I was.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Nah, never you mind, lad. ‘Twer me that brought it up. It was a long time ago. I weren’t much older than you back then,” The old officer stared hard at the city walls as they drew closer.
“I met a lovely Spanish girl there, in the middle of a voyage. It were eight months before I could be relieved of my duties and come back to Havana so we could court. I couldn’t believe she’d wait for me to return, she had no lack of other suitors to be sure, but sure enough when my ship finally came in there was Lucy at the dock.”
Richard studied the old officer’s expression but found him too distant. Officer Barclay was somewhere in the past. The two of them stood silently watching the ships in the harbor.
“You must have made quite an impression.” Richard prompted.
“Oh aye,” Barclay continued, “But not so much as she made on me, lad. My shipmates couldn’t hardly stand me for that long trip with all my blubberin’ and waxin’ poetical over her. After we were married, her father was a dear old saint to me and put me to work in his shipping fleet. She came with us everywhere no matter how near or far. You shoulda seen her in a sea breeze, her long black hair flowing so.”
“She must have been very beautiful,” Richard said.
“I was the envy of every sailor in the West Indies, you can be sure,” Barclay laughed with a smile, “If life were sweet we’d have carried on like that for always.”
“So,” Richard began cautiously.
Barclay nodded to him solemnly, “What happened to her? We were out between Havana and Montego and she…she got the fever. Took real ill, awful quick. We were too far from anywhere to get her to a mission hospital and that… that was it,” the old sailor slumped against the railing, his broad frame wilting with his words.
“That’s terrible, I’m so sorry, Barclay.”
“There’s nothin’ that you now, nor I then could do for it. What makes my heart ache over it though is that we had to bury her at sea or the fever might spread. It just felt like abandoning her and now whenever I make that trip for Montego it never fails…” The gulls shouted in chorus overhead as the old officer fell silent.
“What never fails?” Richard furrowed his brow. Officer Barclay frowned and let out a distressed sigh. He looked over his shoulder before continuing.
“I swear, Master Breen, I hear her cryin’ out there, just weepin’, seein’ as we left her behind like that.”
Richard took a deep breath and considered what he might say. There was a heaviness in Barclay’s voice that spoke to his conviction about the matter.
“That’s just not possible, Barclay. Don’t torture yourself,” Richard said, “It couldn’t possibly be…”
“A man knows what he knows, Master Breen. I guess I shouldn’t have told you, it’s just you remind me so much of meself at that age and with that trip coming…I had hoped you’d stay with us a little longer. Just until we get back from Montego.”
Richard stood awhile in thought. He’d not seen Officer Barclay so distraught through the entire trip and this was the first he’d ever heard him speak so superstitiously.
“You’ve been a gracious help and a friend to me on this long journey, good sir,” Richard began, “but what could I offer you if I stay?”
“I don’t know, Master Breen,” Officer Barclay said, “but I feel a kinship with you, I always have. If Lucy and I would have had a son he’d be your age by now. All I know is it would do me a world of good to have you along.”
“How can I refuse?” Richard said, almost to himself, but a strong clap on his back from the old officer let him know he had said it aloud.
“Aye, that’s a good lad!” Officer Barclay beamed. Richard could never tell him no now.
The captain took the news well that Richard would be accompanying them to Montego after all, considering that Richard’s Spanish was better than anyone else’s on board and his encyclopedic knowledge of exchange rates had already saved the expedition a sizable amount of money. Master Breen took advantage of the break on land and enjoyed every minute on solid ground that he could take in.
Havana was a bustling city full of vendors, beggars, and pilgrims. After having picked up a few supplies in town, Richard went for a walk down by the shore to find some peace and quiet.
“Englishman!” came a shout from behind him. Richard sped up a little, hoping it was someone else being addressed.
“Stop there, Englishman! I won’t harm ye,” the voice spoke with a twinge of heavily salted Irish. Richard laid hand on the hilt of his sword as discreetly as he could and turned around. The Irishman eyed his hand, “Don’t go doing anything foolish now, lad. We wouldn’t want to spoil this nice white sand with a bit of red, would we?”
“What do you want with me, sir.” Richard said coldly.
“You’re with the men heading to Montego,” the Irishman said.
“Perhaps I am,” Richard replied.
“Mark my words, you won’t ever arrive,” the man said with a mischievous grin.
“Is that a threat?”
“Call it a premonition, Englishman. It’ll be better for you to keep yerself on dry land.”
“I’ll have you know that any ship that sails under the flag of England shall be under the defense of the crown. Your threats could well hang you high, sir,” Richard puffed hotly.
“I weren’t threatening nobody, good sir. Just offering my advice,” the Irishman said.
“Well perhaps you should keep your advice to yourself.”
“The king’s honor and long ropes can’t answer every matter, good sir, nor should good advice be left secret. Just know this,” the Irishman said, staring sternly into Richard’s eyes, “Beware the lady in white, my friend. She’s not who she seems to be.”
“Now you’re just speaking nonsense, you drunken fool,” Richard scowled as he chided the man. The Irishman didn’t respond but only smirked and cast a glance over Richard’s shoulder. Richard gripped his sword by the hilt and turned to check behind himself anticipating an ambush but there was no one there. He turned once more to face the Irishman but found that he had stolen away while he wasn’t looking. He looked hurriedly around to see where the scoundrel had snuck off to but to no avail as the beach was well travelled and no one set of foot prints was easily distinguished from any of the others. The church bells rang the time and Richard was forced to head back for the ship. Discreetly, he told the captain of his encounter with the Irishman.
“It seems to me,” said the captain, “that it’s an easy assumption to make that an Englishman in Havana is a sailor and further that he may soon have business in another Spanish town. Pay it no heed, Master Breen, for the friends of rum and their gibberings abide in every port.”
Days passed and Richard did what he could to take part in daily life upon the ship but his constitution battled him back to his cabin much of the time. Despite it all, Officer Barclay was clearly glad to have him along. He would often come to visit Richard when the day’s work was done and chat with him well into the small hours.
“Don’t pay it no mind,” Officer Barclay said, “Anyone sails long enough they’re bound to meet a few lunatics. If they’re on our ship we throw them in the brig. If we meet them ashore we shove off. Simple as that.”
“I suppose there’s a statistically greater chance of running into imbeciles on land than at sea, given the limited company here,” Richard laughed. “My boy, you’ve got a mind for the sea, it’s a shame you don’t have legs to match.”
One such evening when Richard and Officer Barclay were talking together the wind had been whipping up into a howl. The old sailor grew quiet and the two of them sat listening to the ship strain and creak under the wind’s pressing breath.
“I know you’ll just tell me it’s the wind,” Officer Barclay mumbled.
“What was that?” Richard asked.
“That’s what the Captain tells me, says he don’t hear Lucy out there, weepin’.”
“Do you hear her?” Richard listened as the wind whistled through the ropes and snapped the sails in billowy gusts.
“Not now, no. But soon. We’re not far off from where we had to let her go,” Barclay said. His broad hands were folded together. His shoulders shook and a tear drop fell into his lap, “I still see her in my dreams, Richard. Pale and still, drifting down into the water.”
“Barclay, don’t talk like that,” Richard chided, “You won’t go improving your dreams thinking these things. Remember Lucy as she lived, my friend.”
“I can’t help it. Some things you live through can’t be undone. I pray you never have to see what things I’ve seen.”
The wind pounded against the porthole window as the ship groaned. Richard searched for the right words to say but failed to find any at all.
“I should be off to bed,” Officer Barclay said.
“See you in the morning then?” Richard asked.
“Oh aye,” came a weak reply.
Richard stared into the darkness of his cabin clenching his jaw compulsively. Barclay had seemed so broken. Wasn’t there anything that could be said or done for the old salt? No answers came to him. Richard’s thoughts wandered as he slipped in and out of sleep. The wind rushed against the ship and caused it to pitch wildly and Richard awoke with a start.
He could hear the ropes shrieking as the wind ripped across them but the sails were no longer loosed. Giving up on sleep, he swiveled and set his feet on the floor. Richard held his head in his hands as his stomach lurched within him. Meanwhile, the ship pitched again and again, teetering over every wave as it passed across them.
He decided to go above deck to get some fresh air. As he emerged from the crews’ quarters in the forecastle, he saw in the dim light of the moon that the sails had been furled. The wind, being too much for the ship to handle safely, the captain must have ordered that they weigh anchor to wait out the weather.
The cold wind blew across the deck stiffly and the salty spray billowed up the sides of the ship as she turned and pirouetted on the undulating waves. Richard was ready to go back to bed when he heard a familiar voice.
“Lucy!” Officer Barclay called out from the forecastle deck. Richard’s eyes shot up to see his friend with his arms outstretched to the open air, dangling out over the sea. Richard scrambled as best as his land loving legs would allow him to reach the old officer before he fell overboard.
“Lucy, my love,” the old man shouted, “I’m here for you!”
“Barclay! There’s no one there,” Richard cried crawling up the ladder to join him. It was as if Barclay couldn’t hear him. Richard, thinking that the wind was too loud, kept shouting as he drew closer.
“Listen to me! We’re alone up here. There’s nobody…” Richard stopped as a sound reached his ears. Distant at first, as if deep underwater, then clearer. A whimper. One that bubbled over into a choking sob and then, as sure as daylight pierces night, a long drawn sorrowful wail. The hair on Richard’s neck stood up and the blood ran from his face. Out over the water, floating in midair beyond the bowsprit of the ship was a woman in white draped in a flowing shroud. Her long dark hair whipped around in the wind as she seemed to lay there, her head buried in her arms, wailing and weeping. Richard staggered to his feet atop the forecastle deck and stared in disbelief.
“Dear sweet, Lucy,” Barclay shouted stretching out over the waves leaning hard against the railing, “My love, don’t cry, I’m here!”
As Officer Barclay dangled precariously over the sea below and continued calling Lucy’s name over and over the vision suddenly ceased from crying. Her limbs drooped and her head hung down, she turned her face upward until it came into view. Richard shouted in fright and fell backward onto the deck.
Barclay, still outstretched over the rail reaching for her, called out once more, “Darling, Lucy! Come to me, my love!” There was a loud crack and the wooden rail gave way, Barclay tumbled forward toward the churning waves below as Richard scrambled after him. The vision careened toward the two of them letting out a piercing otherworldly shriek as she flew.
Barclay started to slip over the edge as Richard caught hold of him by the legs and tried desperately to pull him back aboard. Richard screamed in abject terror as the woman floated just beyond his face, her mouth nightmarishly wide, howling at him as he and the officer slipped nearer over the lip of the deck, but no matter how she menaced him he refused to let go of Barclay.
“Someone help!” Richard sputtered as even the crashing waves seemed to reach up to grab them.
“Lucy! Lucy!” Barclay cried, struggling against Richard’s grip. Richard felt his weight shifting and they began to slip inexorably over the edge when a great swell rose up under the ship and tipped it back just enough to stop his slide. Suddenly the shrieking ceased altogether and the vision of the woman disappeared.
“Grab a hold of them,” the captain’s voice bellowed over the swirling wind and soon Richard felt the hands of the crew reaching out around him, grabbing Barclay as well and hauling them fully onto the forecastle deck. Barclay lay writhing there in agonies, weeping and clawing toward the railing as the crew held him back. Richard stared out over the sea where the vision had begun and saw only the black night and roiling waters.
They placed Officer Barclay in the brig for the rest of the night and for the next few days as Richard tried in vain to explain what they had seen. Everyone, most especially the captain, assumed that the panic of nearly falling overboard had given them both the terrors.
Richard spent the nights with the watchmen looking after Officer Barclay who was slowly coming to his senses. As Barclay’s mind became clearer he could recall less and less of what he had seen, a condition that Richard could only envy because for him the terror of that night could never fade away completely. Neither of them ever saw the lady in white again but it wasn’t until the black flag of the plague came into view over the fort at Montego, and the Captain ordered the ship to be turned around, that he remembered the words of the mysterious Irishman in Havana. “You won’t ever arrive.”
Years later in his new life in Havana, married to a beautiful Spanish girl of his own, Richard Breen would sometimes tell his children the story of why he still doesn’t travel to Montego.
“The Irishman had said that the lady in white wasn’t who she seems, and that much I know for certain. For there is no way that I could ever believe that a monster like that had ever been your Uncle Barclay’s dear Lucy. However, one of the many things I have wondered ever since is who was the Irishman?”