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RMSEtruria

1891 illustration of the transatlantic ocean liner RMS Etruria.

"The Upper Berth" is a famous horror story by the American author F. Marion Crawford. The short story was first published in The Broken Shaft: Tales in Mid-Ocean, the 1886 issue of Unwin’s Christmas Annual.

The story takes place aboard a transatlantic ocean liner. A passenger named Brisbane is puzzled when the steward behaves oddly while taking his luggage to his stateroom, number 105. In the middle of the first night, Brisbane is further perplexed when his roommate suddenly leaps down from the upper berth and runs out of the cabin. In the morning, Brisbane learns that his roommate has gone overboard – and was the fourth consecutive occupant of the same upper berth to do so.

Plot

Brisbane sails across the Atlantic frequently. On a warm morning in June, he boards one of his favorite ships, the Kamtschatka, and hails a steward. When Brisbane directs him to stateroom 105, lower berth, a strange expression crosses the steward's face. Brisbane is puzzled by the steward's odd manners as he deposits his luggage in the stateroom.

The first day of the voyage is uneventful, and Brisbane retires to his stateroom early. Having hoped to be alone, he is disappointed to see new luggage in the room and a folded rug with a stick and umbrella sitting in the upper berth. Shortly after Brisbane goes to bed, his roommate enters. Brisbane peeks out and sees a tall man, very thin and pale, with an odd air about him. Brisbane decides that he will try to avoid his roommate.

In the middle of the night, Brisbane is awakened by the noise of his roommate leaping down from the upper berth. The roommate runs out of the room at full speed, leaving the door open behind him. Brisbane closes the door and goes back to sleep. He wakes later feeling cold and smelling damp air. It is still dark. He hears his roommate turn over and groan in the upper berth and imagines that the man must be seasick. Brisbane dozes off again. When he wakes next, it is daylight and the room is cold. He is surprised to find the porthole wide open and hooked back. The curtains of the upper berth are still closed. Brisbane dresses quickly so he can go out before his roommate wakes.

On the deck, Brisbane meets the ship's young doctor. Brisbane comments on the unseasonably cold night and tells the doctor about finding the porthole wide open and the stateroom being damp. The doctor starts visibly when he learns that Brisbane is staying in stateroom 105. The doctor says there have been complaints about the stateroom for the last three trips. He hints that there is more to the matter, but he will say no more. Brisbane then tells him about the roommate running out in the middle of the night. To his surprise, the doctor offers to share his large cabin with Brisbane. The doctor explains that he is uneasy to have anyone stay in 105 because, on the last three trips, the passengers who slept there all went overboard. Brisbane declines the offer and assures the doctor that he will be all right.

After breakfast, Brisbane goes back to his stateroom to get a book. The curtains of the upper berth are drawn, so he assumes his roommate is still asleep. As he comes out, the steward informs him that the captain wants to see him. Brisbane goes to the captain's cabin and finds him waiting. The captain tells Brisbane that his roommate has disappeared. Brisbane tells the captain what happened during the night. The captain says that the two previous occupants of the upper berth in 105 bolted out in the exact same way and were seen going overboard by the watch. Although Brisbane's roommate was not seen, the superstitious steward went to check on him this morning and found the berth empty and untouched. They fear the man has gone overboard. The captain asks Brisbane not to mention the matter to other passengers. He then offers to share his own cabin with Brisbane for the rest of the voyage. Brisbane agrees to say nothing, but he declines the captain's offer because he prefers to have the stateroom for himself.

That night, Brisbane retires to his stateroom late. Feeling uneasy, he opens the curtains to check the upper berth. He then notices that the porthole is open and fastened back. Furious, Brisbane goes out to look for the steward. He drags the man back to the stateroom and threatens to report him to the captain for endangering the ship by leaving the porthole open. The steward, trembling and looking pale, swears that no one can keep the porthole closed at night. He fastens it with heavy brass fittings then bets his reputation that it will be open in half an hour. Brisbane checks the porthole then promises the steward a sovereign if it opens itself during the night.

Brisbane goes to bed but has trouble falling asleep. An hour later, he is just dozing off when he feels a cold draft and the sea spray. He finds the porthole wide open and fastened back. Too astonished to feel fear, he closes the porthole and screws down the loop nut with all his strength. He then decides to stand there and watch it. After about 15 minutes, he suddenly hears something moving in one of the berths. As he turns towards the sound, he hears a faint groan. He runs across the stateroom in the dark, throws open the curtains of the upper berth, and thrusts his hands into the berth to see if anyone is hiding there.

The air inside the upper berth is damp and smells of stagnant seawater. Brisbane grabs something shaped like a man's arm but clammy and icy cold. He pulls, and the creature springs on him. The heavy, wet thing sends Brisbane reeling as it rushes out of the stateroom. Brisbane runs after it and sees a dark shadow moving quickly down the dimly-lit passageway. In a moment, it turns the corner at the bulkhead and disappears.

Although badly frightened, Brisbane returns to stateroom 105 to examine the upper berth. He lights a lantern and sees that the porthole is open once again. He checks the upper berth and finds it dry. He wonders if it had all been a terrible dream. He closes the porthole and, putting his heavy stick through the brass loop to use as a lever, tightens it down until the metal begins to bend. He then puts down his lantern and spends the rest of the night on the couch. The porthole stays closed.

In the morning, Brisbane goes out on deck and finds the doctor smoking his pipe. He tells the doctor what happened, with an emphasis on the mystery of the porthole. He then asks the doctor to join him in stateroom 105 for one night to help investigate the phenomenon. The doctor refuses and advises Brisbane to leave it alone and move in with him. He says that such things cannot be explained, and tells Brisbane that he intends to leave the ship after this trip.

Later in the day, Brisbane meets the captain and repeats his story to him. The captain volunteers to spend the night with Brisbane to find out if there is a stowaway frightening the passengers. The captain sends for the ship's carpenter, and they all go down to stateroom 105. They examine every square inch of the cabin, testing panels and flooring and taking apart fittings, to make sure everything is in order. As they are finishing, the steward comes by and Brisbane gives him the sovereign. The carpenter advises Brisbane to give up the investigation and let him seal the cabin door.

At ten o'clock, the captain and Brisbane enter stateroom 105. The captain bolts the door, and they block it with Brisbane's portmanteau. They verify that the porthole is screwed down tight, open the curtains of the upper berth, and light the lantern. The captain sits down on the portmanteau, and Brisbane searches the room thoroughly. They agree that no human being can enter the room or open the porthole without aid. Brisbane sits down on the lower berth, and the captain begins to talk about the first incident which happened in March. He says that the passenger sleeping in the upper berth rushed out in the middle of the night and threw himself overboard. They later learned that the man was a lunatic who had run away.

As the captain speaks, Brisbane notices the brass loop nut beginning to turn very slowly. He checks the nut and finds that it has indeed loosened. The captain tells Brisbane that the second passenger, on the very next trip, went out through the same porthole during a bad storm. They found the porthole open afterwards with water pouring in every time the ship rolled. Since then, the captain says, the steward has complained that the porthole cannot be kept closed.

The smell of stagnant seawater grows stronger in the room. Then the lantern suddenly goes out. Brisbane is rising to examine the lantern when he hears the captain call out for help. He sees the captain struggling to keep the brass loop from turning. Brisbane takes his heavy walking stick and puts it through the loop. The stick snaps, and Brisbane falls down. He gets up and sees that the porthole is now wide open. There is something in the upper berth. Brisbane jumps up on the lower bed and begins to wrestle with the horrible thing – a putrid, oozy thing with dead white eyes, like the corpse of a drowned man. With superhuman strength, the creature overpowers Brisbane then springs on the captain. The captain strikes at the dead thing before falling down unconscious. Then the thing vanishes, apparently through the open porthole even though the hole is too small for its mass.

It is some time before Brisbane recovers enough to rise and help the captain. Brisbane's arm is broken. The captain, although badly stunned, is unhurt. The carpenter seals the door of stateroom 105, and Brisbane spends the rest of the voyage in the doctor's cabin. The captain leaves the ship at the end of the trip. Brisbane also refuses to sail in the Kamtschatka ever again.

See also

  • "Markheim", anothe rshort story that was first published in The Broken Shaft: Tales in Mid-Ocean

External links

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