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Chapter 19

THE JACKET ALOFT.


Again must I call attention to my white jacket, which, about this
time came near being the death of me.

I am of a meditative humour, and at sea used often to mount aloft
at night, and seating myself on one of the upper yards, tuck my
jacket about me and give loose to reflection. In some ships in
which I have done this, the sailors used to fancy that I must be
studying astronomy--which, indeed, to some extent, was the case--
and that my object in mounting aloft was to get a nearer view of
the stars, supposing me, of course, to be short-sighted. A very
silly conceit of theirs, some may say, but not so silly after
all; for surely the advantage of getting nearer an object by two
hundred feet is not to be underrated. Then, to study the stars
upon the wide, boundless sea, is divine as it was to the Chaldean
Magi, who observed their revolutions from the plains.

And it is a very fine feeling, and one that fuses us into the
universe of things, and mates us a part of the All, to think
that, wherever we ocean-wanderers rove, we have still the same
glorious old stars to keep us company; that they still shine
onward and on, forever beautiful and bright, and luring us, by
every ray, to die and be glorified with them.

Ay, ay! we sailors sail not in vain, We expatriate ourselves to
nationalise with the universe; and in all our voyages round the
world, we are still accompanied by those old circumnavigators,
the stars, who are shipmates and fellow-sailors of ours--sailing
in heaven's blue, as we on the azure main. Let genteel generations
scoff at our hardened hands, and finger-nails tipped with tar--did
they ever clasp truer palms than ours? Let them feel of our sturdy
hearts beating like sledge-hammers in those hot smithies, our bosoms;
with their amber-headed canes, let them feel of our generous pulses,
and swear that they go off like thirty-two-pounders.

Oh, give me again the rover's life--the joy, the thrill, the
whirl! Let me feel thee again, old sea! let me leap into thy
saddle once more. I am sick of these terra firma toils and cares;
sick of the dust and reek of towns. Let me hear the clatter of
hailstones on icebergs, and not the dull tramp of these plodders,
plodding their dull way from their cradles to their graves. Let
me snuff thee up, sea-breeze! and whinny in thy spray. Forbid it,
sea-gods! intercede for me with Neptune, O sweet Amphitrite, that
no dull clod may fall on my coffin! Be mine the tomb that
swallowed up Pharaoh and all his hosts; let me lie down with
Drake, where he sleeps in the sea.

But when White-Jacket speaks of the rover's life, he means not
life in a man-of-war, which, with its martial formalities and
thousand vices, stabs to the heart the soul of all free-and-easy
honourable rovers.

I have said that I was wont to mount up aloft and muse; and thus
was it with me the night following the loss of the cooper. Ere my
watch in the top had expired, high up on the main-royal-yard I
reclined, the white jacket folded around me like Sir John Moore
in his frosted cloak.

Eight bells had struck, and my watchmates had hied to their
hammocks, and the other watch had gone to their stations, and the
_top_ below me was full of strangers, and still one hundred feet
above even _them_ I lay entranced; now dozing, now dreaming; now
thinking of things past, and anon of the life to come. Well-timed
was the latter thought, for the life to come was much nearer
overtaking me than I then could imagine. Perhaps I was half
conscious at last of a tremulous voice hailing the main-royal-
yard from the _top_. But if so, the consciousness glided away
from me, and left me in Lethe. But when, like lightning, the yard
dropped under me, and instinctively I clung with both hands to
the "_tie_," then I came to myself with a rush, and felt
something like a choking hand at my throat. For an instant I
thought the Gulf Stream in my head was whirling me away to
eternity; but the next moment I found myself standing; the yard
had descended to the _cup_; and shaking myself in my jacket, I
felt that I was unharmed and alive.

Who had done this? who had made this attempt on my life? thought
I, as I ran down the rigging.

"Here it comes!--Lord! Lord! here it comes! See, see! it is white
as a hammock."

"Who's coming?" I shouted, springing down into the top; "who's
white as a hammock?"

"Bless my soul, Bill it's only White-Jacket--that infernal White-
Jacket again!"

It seems they had spied a moving white spot there aloft, and,
sailor-like, had taken me for the ghost of the cooper; and after
hailing me, and bidding me descend, to test my corporeality, and
getting no answer, they had lowered the halyards in affright.

In a rage I tore off the jacket, and threw it on the deck.

"Jacket," cried I, "you must change your complexion! you must hie
to the dyers and be dyed, that I may live. I have but one poor
life, White-Jacket, and that life I cannot spare. I cannot
consent to die for _you_, but be dyed you must for me. You can
dye many times without injury; but I cannot die without
irreparable loss, and running the eternal risk."

So in the morning, jacket in hand, I repaired to the First
Lieutenant, and related the narrow escape I had had during the
night. I enlarged upon the general perils I ran in being taken
for a ghost, and earnestly besought him to relax his commands for
once, and give me an order on Brush, the captain of the paint-
room, for some black paint, that my jacket might be painted of
that colour.

"Just look at it, sir," I added, holding it lip; "did you ever see
anything whiter? Consider how it shines of a night, like a bit of
the Milky Way. A little paint, sir, you cannot refuse."

"The ship has no paint to spare," he said; "you must get along
without it."

"Sir, every rain gives me a soaking; Cape Horn is at hand--six
brushes-full would make it waterproof; and no longer would I be
in peril of my life!"

"Can't help it, sir; depart!"

I fear it will not be well with me in the end; for if my own sins
are to be forgiven only as I forgive that hard-hearted and
unimpressible First Lieutenant, then pardon there is none for me.

What! when but one dab of paint would make a man of a ghost, and
it Mackintosh of a herring-net--to refuse it I am full. I can say
no more.

Herman Melville