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Chapter 20

HOW THEY SLEEP IN A MAN-OF-WAR.


No more of my luckless jacket for a while; let me speak of my
hammock, and the tribulations I endured therefrom.

Give me plenty of room to swing it in; let me swing it between
two date-trees on an Arabian plain; or extend it diagonally from
Moorish pillar to pillar, in the open marble Court of the Lions
in Granada's Alhambra: let me swing it on a high bluff of the
Mississippi--one swing in the pure ether for every swing over the
green grass; or let me oscillate in it beneath the cool dome of
St. Peter's; or drop me in it, as in a balloon, from the zenith,
with the whole firmament to rock and expatiate in; and I would
not exchange my coarse canvas hammock for the grand state-bed,
like a stately coach-and-four, in which they tuck in a king when
he passes a night at Blenheim Castle.

When you have the requisite room, you always have "spreaders" in
your hammock; that is, two horizontal sticks, one at each end,
which serve to keep the sides apart, and create a wide vacancy
between, wherein you can turn over and over--lay on this side or
that; on your back, if you please; stretch out your legs; in short,
take your ease in your hammock; for of all inns, your bed is the best.

But when, with five hundred other hammocks, yours is crowded and
jammed on all sides, on a frigate berth-deck; the third from
above, when "_spreaders_" are prohibited by an express edict from
the Captain's cabin; and every man about you is jealously
watchful of the rights and privileges of his own proper hammock,
as settled by law and usage; _then_ your hammock is your Bastile
and canvas jug; into which, or out of which, it is very hard to
get; and where sleep is but a mockery and a name.

Eighteen inches a man is all they allow you; eighteen inches in
width; in _that_ you must swing. Dreadful! they give you more
swing than that at the gallows.

During warm nights in the Tropics, your hammock is as a stew-pan;
where you stew and stew, till you can almost hear yourself hiss.
Vain are all stratagems to widen your accommodations. Let them
catch you insinuating your boots or other articles in the head of
your hammock, by way of a "spreader." Near and far, the whole
rank and file of the row to which you belong feel the encroachment
in an instant, and are clamorous till the guilty one is found out,
and his pallet brought back to its bearings.

In platoons and squadrons, they all lie on a level; their hammock
_clews_ crossing and recrossing in all directions, so as to present
one vast field-bed, midway between the ceiling and the floor; which
are about five feet asunder.

One extremely warm night, during a calm, when it was so hot that
only a skeleton could keep cool (from the free current of air
through its bones), after being drenched in my own perspiration,
I managed to wedge myself out of my hammock; and with what little
strength I had left, lowered myself gently to the deck. Let me
see now, thought I, whether my ingenuity cannot devise some
method whereby I can have room to breathe and sleep at the same
time. I have it. I will lower my hammock underneath all these
others; and then--upon that separate and independent level, at
least--I shall have the whole berth-deck to myself. Accordingly,
I lowered away my pallet to the desired point--about three inches
from the floor--and crawled into it again.

But, alas! this arrangement made such a sweeping semi-circle of
my hammock, that, while my head and feet were at par, the small
of my back was settling down indefinitely; I felt as if some
gigantic archer had hold of me for a bow.

But there was another plan left. I triced up my hammock with all
my strength, so as to bring it wholly _above_ the tiers of
pallets around me. This done, by a last effort, I hoisted myself
into it; but, alas! it was much worse than before. My luckless
hammock was stiff and straight as a board; and there I was--laid
out in it, with my nose against the ceiling, like a dead man's
against the lid of his coffin.

So at last I was fain to return to my old level, and moralise
upon the folly, in all arbitrary governments, of striving to get
either _below_ or _above_ those whom legislation has placed upon
an equality with yourself.

Speaking of hammocks, recalls a circumstance that happened one
night in the Neversink. It was three or four times repeated, with
various but not fatal results.

The watch below was fast asleep on the berth-deck, where perfect
silence was reigning, when a sudden shock and a groan roused up
all hands; and the hem of a pair of white trowsers vanished up
one of the ladders at the fore-hatchway.

We ran toward the groan, and found a man lying on the deck; one end of
his hammock having given way, pitching his head close to three twenty-
four pound cannon shot, which must have been purposely placed in that
position. When it was discovered that this man had long been suspected
of being an _informer_ among the crew, little surprise and less
pleasure were evinced at his narrow escape.

Herman Melville