The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Seventh Man" (1896)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Seventh Man” was written by A.T. Quiller-Couch and first appeared in Old Fires and Profitable Ghosts (1900). Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944) was a British poet, novelist, and critic who wrote under the pseudonym of “Q.” He was known in his lifetime not just for his writing but also as an educator and lecturer. “The Seventh Man” is one of Q’s more religious tales of the supernatural.
Six men live in a one-room hut high in the Arctic Circle. They have been stranded there by the wreck of their whaling ship, and they are trying to survive until the following summer, when the whaling fleet will return. The six men have made their hut into a relatively cozy place to live, and they have enough food and fuel to survive. However, it is in the middle of the long Arctic night, and the spirits of the six are declining; they have recently buried their friend Bill, and the Gaffer, the leader of the six, knows that they will not survive for long. One of men, George, is sick with scurvy, and his “complaints were wearing his comrades’ nerves to fiddle-strings—doing the mischief that cold and bitter hard work and the cruel loneliness had failed to do.”1 Lashman, one of the six, snaps at George, and this provokes an argument. As they bicker the Gaffer reads a passage from one of the three books he has, Marana’s Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy (see: Kruger’s Secret Service). The passage describes a ball at which twelve masqueraders found a thirteenth among them who puts their steps and motions wrong. But when Cardinal Mazarin gathers the dancers together only twelve appear, “whereas on the Stage there were thirteen.”2
The men hear a sound from outside the cabin, something “feeling about the door—fumbling its coating of ice and frozen snow.”3 At first George is sure that the bears have come for the group, but then he becomes convinced that it is Bill himself who is trying to get in to the cabin. The Gaffer sends Long Ede to the roof to see who or what is at the door, but Long Ede does not see anyone there. When he investigates he sees, in the clear moonlight, something moving among the frozen hummocks, although he can’t see what or who it is. And then Ede sees bloody footprints in the snow, leading to and returning from the cabin’s door. Ede has been afraid that he is going mad and is now convinced of it, and he begins cleaning up the footprints, because if the others saw them they would go mad as well. As he does so a great happiness fills him. Inside the hut the Gaffer worries about the men, who are in all likelihood going to die soon, and he prays for Long Ede, the only one of the six whose soul the Gaffer believes is saved. The following morning the men notice that Long Ede hasn’t returned, and they find him on the threshold of the door. They bring him in and revive him with rum, and the Gaffer summons the healthy men to prayer. The prayers bring all of the men joy, but the Gaffer keeps counting seven men who are saying their prayers, and he can’t figure out who the seventh man is. Soon after the prayers life in the cabin improves. George recovers, and by the second day Long Ede is up and about again. The sun soon rises, and the following June all of the men are alive to greet the whaling fleet. The Gaffer agrees with Ede that the Lord sent a miracle, but “it was meant just for you and me, and the rest were presairved [sic], as you might say, incidentally.”4
In “The Seventh Man” Q takes the phenomenon of isolated Arctic explorers hallucinating an additional person and makes it into an effective religious story, anticipating T.S. Eliot’s later, similar use of the same image in “The Waste Land” (1922). Q wisely keeps the source of men’s salvation non-sectarian, although Q undoubtedly meant it to be Christian. Q does an excellent job of sketching, both economically and forcefully, the lethal, forbidding, lonely environment of the Arctic and the danger faced by the men. If “The Seventh Man” is more somber than Q’s other supernatural stories and lacks the sweet sentimentality of “The Roll Call of the Deep” and “A Pair of Hands,” it is still skillfully told, and the religious subtext is handled in an understated and non-didactic manner. “The Seventh Man” is much more effective than most stories which combine the religious and the supernatural.
Print: Arthur Quiller-Couch, The Horror on the Stair and Other Weird Tales. Ashcroft, BC: Ash-Tree Press, 2000.
1 Arthur Quiller-Couch, “The Seventh Man,” in Old Fires and Profitable Ghosts (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1900), 24.
2 Quiller-Couch, “The Seventh Man,” 27.
3 Quiller-Couch, “The Seventh Man,” 29.
4 Quiller-Couch, “The Seventh Man,” 43.