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Chapter 23

THEATRICALS IN A MAN-OF-WAR.


The Neversink had summered out her last Christmas on the Equator;
she was now destined to winter out the Fourth of July not very
far from the frigid latitudes of Cape Horn.

It is sometimes the custom in the American Navy to celebrate this
national holiday by doubling the allowance of spirits to the men;
that is, if the ship happen to be lying in harbour. The effects
of this patriotic plan may be easily imagined: the whole ship is
converted into a dram-shop; and the intoxicated sailors reel
about, on all three decks, singing, howling, and fighting. This
is the time that, owing to the relaxed discipline of the ship,
old and almost forgotten quarrels are revived, under the stimulus
of drink; and, fencing themselves up between the guns--so as to
be sure of a clear space with at least three walls--the
combatants, two and two, fight out their hate, cribbed and
cabined like soldiers duelling in a sentry-box. In a word, scenes
ensue which would not for a single instant be tolerated by the
officers upon any other occasion. This is the time that the most
venerable of quarter-gunners and quarter-masters, together with
the, smallest apprentice boys, and men never known to have been
previously intoxicated during the cruise--this is the time that
they all roll together in the same muddy trough of drunkenness.

In emulation of the potentates of the Middle Ages, some Captains
augment the din by authorising a grand jail-delivery of all the
prisoners who, on that auspicious Fourth of the month, may happen
to be confined in the ship's prison--"_the brig_."

But from scenes like these the Neversink was happily delivered.
Besides that she was now approaching a most perilous part of the
ocean--which would have made it madness to intoxicate the
sailors--her complete destitution of _grog_, even for ordinary
consumption, was an obstacle altogether insuperable, even had the
Captain felt disposed to indulge his man-of-war's-men by the most
copious libations.

For several days previous to the advent of the holiday, frequent
conferences were held on the gun-deck touching the melancholy
prospects before the ship.

"Too bad--too bad!" cried a top-man, "Think of it, shipmates--a
Fourth of July without grog!"

"I'll hoist the Commodore's pennant at half-mast that day,"
sighed the signal-quarter-master.

"And I'll turn my best uniform jacket wrong side out, to keep
company with the pennant, old Ensign," sympathetically responded
an after-guard's-man.

"Ay, do!" cried a forecastle-man. "I could almost pipe my eye to
think on't."

"No grog on de day dat tried men's souls!" blubbered Sunshine,
the galley-cook.

"Who would be a _Jankee_ now?" roared a Hollander of the fore-
top, more Dutch than sour-crout.

"Is this the _riglar_ fruits of liberty?" touchingly inquired an
Irish waister of an old Spanish sheet-anchor-man.

You will generally observe that, of all Americans, your foreign-
born citizens are the most patriotic--especially toward the
Fourth of July.

But how could Captain Claret, the father of his crew, behold the
grief of his ocean children with indifference? He could not.
Three days before the anniversary--it still continuing very
pleasant weather for these latitudes--it was publicly announced
that free permission was given to the sailors to get up any sort
of theatricals they desired, wherewith to honour the Fourth.

Now, some weeks prior to the Neversink's sailing from home--
nearly three years before the time here spoken of--some of the
seamen had clubbed together, and made up a considerable purse,
for the purpose of purchasing a theatrical outfit having in view
to diversify the monotony of lying in foreign harbours for weeks
together, by an occasional display on the boards--though if ever
there w-as a continual theatre in the world, playing by night and
by day, and without intervals between the acts, a man-of-war is
that theatre, and her planks are the _boards_ indeed.

The sailors who originated this scheme had served in other
American frigates, where the privilege of having theatricals was
allowed to the crew. What was their chagrin, then, when, upon
making an application to the Captain, in a Peruvian harbour, for
permission to present the much-admired drama of "_The Ruffian
Boy_," under the Captain's personal patronage, that dignitary
assured them that there were already enough _ruffian boys_ on
board, without conjuring up any more from the green-room.

The theatrical outfit, therefore, was stowed down in the bottom
of the sailors' bags, who little anticipated _then_ that it would
ever be dragged out while Captain Claret had the sway.

But immediately upon the announcement that the embargo was removed,
vigorous preparations were at once commenced to celebrate the
Fourth with unwonted spirit. The half-deck was set apart for the
theatre, and the signal-quarter-master was commanded to loan his
flags to decorate it in the most patriotic style.

As the stage-struck portion of the crew had frequently during the
cruise rehearsed portions of various plays, to while away the
tedium of the night-watches, they needed no long time now to
perfect themselves in their parts.

Accordingly, on the very next morning after the indulgence had
been granted by the Captain, the following written placard,
presenting a broadside of staring capitals, was found tacked
against the main-mast on the gun-deck. It was as if a Drury-Lane
bill had been posted upon the London Monument.


CAPE HORN THEATRE.
* * * * * * * *
Grand Celebration of the Fourth of July.
DAY PERFORMANCE.
UNCOMMON ATTRACTION.
THE OLD WAGON PAID OFF!
JACK CHASE. . . . PERCY ROYAL-MAST.
STARS OF THE FIRST MAGNITUDE.
For this time only.
THE TRUE YANKEE SAILOR.
The managers of the Cape Horn Theatre beg leave to inform
the inhabitants of the Pacific and Southern Oceans that,
on the afternoon of the Fourth of July, 184--, they will
have the honour to present the admired drama of

THE OLD WAGON PAID OFF!
Commodore Bougee . . . . _Tom Brown, of the Fore-top_.
Captain Spy-glass . . . . _Ned Brace, of the After-Guard_.
Commodore's Cockswain. . . _Joe Bunk, of the Launch_.
Old Luff . . . . . . . _Quarter-master Coffin._
Mayor . . . . . . . . _Seafull, of the Forecastle_.
PERCY ROYAL-MAST . . . . JACK CHASE.
Mrs. Lovelorn . . . . . _Long-locks, of the After-Guard_.
Toddy Moll . . . . . . _Frank Jones_.
Gin and Sugar Sall. . . . _Dick Dash_.

Sailors, Mariners, Bar-keepers, Crimps, Aldermen,
Police-officer's, Soldiers, Landsmen generally.
* * * * * * * *
Long live the Commodore! :: Admission Free.
* * * * * * * *
To conclude with the much-admired song by Dibdin,
altered to suit all American Tars, entitled

THE TRUE YANKEE SAILOR.
True Yankee Sailor (in costume), Patrick Flinegan,
Captain of the Head.

Performance to commence with "Hail Columbia," by the Brass
Band. Ensign rises at three bells, P.M. No sailor permitted
to enter in his shirt-sleeves. Good order is expected to be
maintained. The Master-at-arms and Ship's Corporals to be in
attendance to keep the peace.


At the earnest entreaties of the seamen, Lemsford, the gun-deck
poet, had been prevailed upon to draw up this bill. And upon this
one occasion his literary abilities were far from being underrated,
even by the least intellectual person on board. Nor must it be
omitted that, before the bill was placarded, Captain Claret, enacting
the part of censor and grand chamberlain ran over a manuscript copy
of "_The Old Wagon Paid Off_," to see whether it contained anything
calculated to breed disaffection against lawful authority among the
crew. He objected to some parts, but in the end let them all pass.

The morning of The Fourth--most anxiously awaited--dawned clear
and fair. The breeze was steady; the air bracing cold; and one
and all the sailors anticipated a gleeful afternoon. And thus was
falsified the prophecies of certain old growlers averse to
theatricals, who had predicted a gale of wind that would squash
all the arrangements of the green-room.

As the men whose regular turns, at the time of the performance,
would come round to be stationed in the tops, and at the various
halyards and running ropes about the spar-deck, could not be
permitted to partake in the celebration, there accordingly
ensued, during the morning, many amusing scenes of tars who were
anxious to procure substitutes at their posts. Through the day,
many anxious glances were cast to windward; but the weather still
promised fair.

At last _the people_ were piped to dinner; two bells struck; and
soon after, all who could be spared from their stations hurried
to the half-deck. The capstan bars were placed on shot-boxes, as
at prayers on Sundays, furnishing seats for the audience, while a
low stage, rigged by the carpenter's gang, was built at one end
of the open space. The curtain was composed of a large ensign,
and the bulwarks round about were draperied with the flags of all
nations. The ten or twelve members of the brass band were ranged
in a row at the foot of the stage, their polished instruments in
their hands, while the consequential Captain of the Band himself
was elevated upon a gun carriage.

At three bells precisely a group of ward-room officers emerged
from the after-hatchway, and seated themselves upon camp-stools,
in a central position, with the stars and stripes for a canopy.
_That_ was the royal box. The sailors looked round for the
Commodore but neither Commodore nor Captain honored _the people_
with their presence.

At the call of a bugle the band struck up _Hail Columbia_, the
whole audience keeping time, as at Drury Lane, when _God Save The
King_ is played after a great national victory.

At the discharge of a marine's musket the curtain rose, and four
sailors, in the picturesque garb of Maltese mariners, staggered
on the stage in a feigned state of intoxication. The truthfulness
of the representation was much heightened by the roll of the ship.

"The Commodore," "Old Luff," "The Mayor," and "Gin and Sugar
Sall," were played to admiration, and received great applause.
But at the first appearance of that universal favourite, Jack
Chase, in the chivalric character of _Percy Royal-Mast_, the whole
audience simultaneously rose to their feet, and greeted hire with
three hearty cheers, that almost took the main-top-sail aback.

Matchless Jack, _in full fig_, bowed again and again, with true
quarter-deck grace and self possession; and when five or six
untwisted strands of rope and bunches of oakum were thrown to
him, as substitutes for bouquets, he took them one by one, and
gallantly hung them from the buttons of his jacket.

"Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!--go on! go on!--stop hollering--hurrah!--
go on!--stop hollering--hurrah!" was now heard on all sides,
till at last, seeing no end to the enthusiasm of his ardent
admirers, Matchless Jack stepped forward, and, with his lips
moving in pantomime, plunged into the thick of the part. Silence
soon followed, but was fifty times broken by uncontrollable
bursts of applause. At length, when that heart-thrilling scene
came on, where Percy Royal-Mast rescues fifteen oppressed sailors
from the watch-house, in the teeth of a posse of constables, the
audience leaped to their feet, overturned the capstan bars, and
to a man hurled their hats on the stage in a delirium of delight.
Ah Jack, that was a ten-stroke indeed!

The commotion was now terrific; all discipline seemed gone for
ever; the Lieutenants ran in among the men, the Captain darted
from his cabin, and the Commodore nervously questioned the armed
sentry at his door as to what the deuce _the people_ were about.
In the midst of all this, the trumpet of the officer-of-the-deck,
commanding the top-gallant sails to be taken in, was almost
completely drowned. A black squall was coming down on the
weather-bow, and the boat-swain's mates bellowed themselves
hoarse at the main-hatchway. There is no knowing what would have
ensued, had not the bass drum suddenly been heard, calling all
hands to quarters, a summons not to be withstood. The sailors
pricked their ears at it, as horses at the sound of a cracking
whip, and confusedly stumbled up the ladders to their stations.
The next moment all was silent but the wind, howling like a
thousand devils in the cordage.

"Stand by to reef all three top-sails!--settle away the halyards!
--haul out--so: make fast!--aloft, top-men! and reef away!"

Thus, in storm and tempest terminated that day's theatricals. But
the sailors never recovered from the disappointment of not having
the "_True Yankee Sailor_" sung by the Irish Captain of the Head.

And here White-jacket must moralize a bit. The unwonted spectacle
of the row of gun-room officers mingling with "the people" in
applauding a mere seaman like Jack Chase, filled me at the time
with the most pleasurable emotions. It is a sweet thing, thought
I, to see these officers confess a human brotherhood with us,
after all; a sweet thing to mark their cordial appreciation of
the manly merits of my matchless Jack. Ah! they are noble fellows
all round, and I do not know but I have wronged them sometimes in
my thoughts.

Nor was it without similar pleasurable feelings that I witnessed
the temporary rupture of the ship's stern discipline, consequent
upon the tumult of the theatricals. I thought to myself, this now
is as it should be. It is good to shake off, now and then, this
iron yoke round our necks. And after having once permitted us
sailors to be a little noisy, in a harmless way--somewhat merrily
turbulent--the officers cannot, with any good grace, be so
excessively stern and unyielding as before. I began to think a
man-of-war a man-of-peace-and-good-will, after all. But, alas!
disappointment came.

Next morning the same old scene was enacted at the gang-way. And
beholding the row of uncompromising-looking-officers there
assembled with the Captain, to witness punishment--the same
officers who had been so cheerfully disposed over night--an old
sailor touched my shoulder and said, "See, White-Jacket, all
round they have _shipped their quarter-deck faces again_. But
this is the way."

I afterward learned that this was an old man-of-war's-man's
phrase, expressive of the facility with which a sea-officer falls
back upon all the severity of his dignity, after a temporary
suspension of it.

Herman Melville