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Chapter 13

A MAN-OF-WAR HERMIT IN A MOB.


The allusion to the poet Lemsford in a previous chapter, leads me
to speak of our mutual friends, Nord and Williams, who, with
Lemsford himself, Jack Chase, and my comrades of the main-top,
comprised almost the only persons with whom I unreservedly
consorted while on board the frigate. For I had not been long on
board ere I found that it would not do to be intimate with
everybody. An indiscriminate intimacy with all hands leads to
sundry annoyances and scrapes, too often ending with a dozen at
the gang-way. Though I was above a year in the frigate, there
were scores of men who to the last remained perfect strangers to
me, whose very names I did not know, and whom I would hardly be
able to recognise now should I happen to meet them in the streets.

In the dog-watches at sea, during the early part of the evening,
the main-deck is generally filled with crowds of pedestrians,
promenading up and down past the guns, like people taking the air
in Broadway. At such times, it is curious to see the men nodding
to each other's recognitions (they might not have seen each other
for a week); exchanging a pleasant word with a friend; making a
hurried appointment to meet him somewhere aloft on the morrow, or
passing group after group without deigning the slightest
salutation. Indeed, I was not at all singular in having but
comparatively few acquaintances on board, though certainly
carrying my fastidiousness to an unusual extent.

My friend Nord was a somewhat remarkable character; and if
mystery includes romance, he certainly was a very romantic one.
Before seeking an introduction to him through Lemsford, I had
often marked his tall, spare, upright figure stalking like Don
Quixote among the pigmies of the Afterguard, to which he
belonged. At first I found him exceedingly reserved and taciturn;
his saturnine brow wore a scowl; he was almost repelling in his
demeanour. In a word, he seemed desirous of hinting, that his
list of man-of war friends was already made up, complete, and
full; and there was no room for more. But observing that the only
man he ever consorted with was Lemsford, I had too much
magnanimity, by going off in a pique at his coldness, to let him
lose forever the chance of making so capital an acquaintance as
myself. Besides, I saw it in his eye, that the man had been a
reader of good books; I would have staked my life on it, that he
seized the right meaning of Montaigne. I saw that he was an
earnest thinker; I more than suspected that he had been bolted in
the mill of adversity. For all these things, my heart yearned
toward him; I determined to know him.

At last I succeeded; it was during a profoundly quiet midnight
watch, when I perceived him walking alone in the waist, while
most of the men were dozing on the carronade-slides.

That night we scoured all the prairies of reading; dived into the
bosoms of authors, and tore out their hearts; and that night White-
Jacket learned more than he has ever done in any single night since.

The man was a marvel. He amazed me, as much as Coleridge did the
troopers among whom he enlisted. What could have induced such a
man to enter a man-of-war, all my sapience cannot fathom. And how
he managed to preserve his dignity, as he did, among such a
rabble rout was equally a mystery. For he was no sailor; as
ignorant of a ship, indeed, as a man from the sources of the
Niger. Yet the officers respected him; and the men were afraid of
him. This much was observable, however, that he faithfully
discharged whatever special duties devolved upon him; and was so
fortunate as never to render himself liable to a reprimand.
Doubtless, he took the same view of the thing that another of the
crew did; and had early resolved, so to conduct himself as never
to run the risk of the scourge. And this it must have been--added
to whatever incommunicable grief which might have been his--that
made this Nord such a wandering recluse, even among our man-of-
war mob. Nor could he have long swung his hammock on board, ere
he must have found that, to insure his exemption from that thing
which alone affrighted him, he must be content for the most part
to turn a man-hater, and socially expatriate himself from many
things, which might have rendered his situation more tolerable.
Still more, several events that took place must have horrified
him, at times, with the thought that, however he might isolate
and entomb himself, yet for all this, the improbability of his
being overtaken by what he most dreaded never advanced to the
infallibility of the impossible.

In my intercourse with Nord, he never made allusion to his past
career--a subject upon which most high-bred castaways in a man-
of-war are very diffuse; relating their adventures at the gaming-
table; the recklessness with which they have run through the
amplest fortunes in a single season; their alms-givings, and
gratuities to porters and poor relations; and above all, their
youthful indiscretions, and the broken-hearted ladies they have
left behind. No such tales had Nord to tell. Concerning the past,
he was barred and locked up like the specie vaults of the Bank of
England. For anything that dropped from him, none of us could be
sure that he had ever existed till now. Altogether, he was a
remarkable man.

My other friend, Williams, was a thorough-going Yankee from
Maine, who had been both a peddler and a pedagogue in his day. He
had all manner of stories to tell about nice little country
frolics, and would run over an endless list of his sweethearts.
He was honest, acute, witty, full of mirth and good humour--a
laughing philosopher. He was invaluable as a pill against the
spleen; and, with the view of extending the advantages of his
society to the saturnine Nord, I introduced them to each other;
but Nord cut him dead the very same evening, when we sallied out
from between the guns for a walk on the main-deck.


Herman Melville