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Chapter 25

THE DOG-DAYS OFF CAPE HORN.


Colder and colder; we are drawing nigh to the Cape. Now gregoes,
pea jackets, monkey jackets reefing jackets, storm jackets, oil
jackets, paint jackets, round jackets short jackets, long
jackets, and all manner of jackets, are the order of the day, not
excepting the immortal white jacket, which begins to be sturdily
buttoned up to the throat, and pulled down vigorously at the
skirts, to bring them well over the loins.

But, alas! those skirts were lamentably scanty; and though, with
its quiltings, the jacket was stuffed out about the breasts like
a Christmas turkey, and of a dry cold day kept the wearer warm
enough in that vicinity, yet about the loins it was shorter than
ballet-dancer's skirts; so that while my chest was in the
temperate zone close adjoining the torrid, my hapless thighs were
in Nova Zembla, hardly an icicle's toss from the Pole.

Then, again, the repeated soakings and dryings it had undergone,
had by this time made it shrink woefully all over, especially in
the arms, so that the wristbands had gradually crawled up near to
the elbows; and it required an energetic thrust to push the arm
through, in drawing the jacket on.

I endeavoured to amend these misfortunes by sewing a sort of canvas
ruffle round the skirts, by way of a continuation or supplement to
the original work, and by doing the same with the wristbands.

This is the time for oil-skin suits, dread-naughts, tarred
trowsers and overalls, sea-boots, comforters, mittens, woollen
socks, Guernsey frocks, Havre shirts, buffalo-robe shirts, and
moose-skin drawers. Every man's jacket is his wigwam, and every
man's hat his caboose.

Perfect license is now permitted to the men respecting their
clothing. Whatever they can rake and scrape together they put
on--swaddling themselves in old sails, and drawing old socks over
their heads for night-caps. This is the time for smiting your
chest with your hand, and talking loud to keep up the circulation.

Colder, and colder, and colder, till at last we spoke a fleet of
icebergs bound North. After that, it was one incessant "_cold
snap_," that almost snapped off our fingers and toes. Cold! It
was cold as _Blue Flujin_, where sailors say fire freezes.

And now coming up with the latitude of the Cape, we stood southward
to give it a wide berth, and while so doing were becalmed; ay,
becalmed off Cape Horn, which is worse, far worse, than being
becalmed on the Line.

Here we lay forty-eight hours, during which the cold was intense.
I wondered at the liquid sea, which refused to freeze in such a
temperature. The clear, cold sky overhead looked like a steel-
blue cymbal, that might ring, could you smite it. Our breath came
and went like puffs' of smoke from pipe-bowls. At first there was
a long gauky swell, that obliged us to furl most of the sails, and
even send down t'-gallant-yards, for fear of pitching them overboard.

Out of sight of land, at this extremity of both the inhabitable
and uninhabitable world, our peopled frigate, echoing with the
voices of men, the bleating of lambs, the cackling of fowls, the
gruntings of pigs, seemed like Noah's old ark itself, becalmed at
the climax of the Deluge.

There was nothing to be done but patiently to await the pleasure
of the elements, and "whistle for a wind," the usual practice of
seamen in a calm. No fire was allowed, except for the indispensable
purpose of cooking, and heating bottles of water to toast Selvagee's
feet. He who possessed the largest stock of vitality, stood the
best chance to escape freezing. It was horrifying. In such weather
any man could have undergone amputation with great ease, and helped
take up the arteries himself.

Indeed, this state of affairs had not lasted quite twenty-four hours,
when the extreme frigidity of the air, united to our increased tendency
to inactivity, would very soon have rendered some of us subjects for
the surgeon and his mates, had not a humane proceeding of the Captain
suddenly impelled us to vigorous exercise.

And here be it said, that the appearance of the Boat-swain, with
his silver whistle to his mouth, at the main hatchway of the gun-
deck, is always regarded by the crew with the utmost curiosity,
for this betokens that some general order is about to be
promulgated through the ship. What now? is the question that runs
on from man to man. A short preliminary whistle is then given by
"Old Yarn," as they call him, which whistle serves to collect
round him, from their various stations, his four mates. Then
Yarn, or Pipes, as leader of the orchestra, begins a peculiar
call, in which his assistants join. This over, the order,
whatever it may be, is loudly sung out and prolonged, till the
remotest corner echoes again. The Boatswain and his mates are the
town-criers of a man-of-war.

The calm had commenced in the afternoon: and the following morning
the ship's company were electrified by a general order, thus set forth
and declared: "_D'ye hear there, for and aft! all hands skylark!_"

This mandate, nowadays never used except upon very rare occasions,
produced the same effect upon the men that Exhilarating Gas would
have done, or an extra allowance of "grog." For a time, the wonted
discipline of the ship was broken through, and perfect license
allowed. It was a Babel here, a Bedlam there, and a Pandemonium
everywhere. The Theatricals were nothing compared with it. Then the
faint-hearted and timorous crawled to their hiding-places, and the
lusty and bold shouted forth their glee.

Gangs of men, in all sorts of outlandish habiliments, wild as
those worn at some crazy carnival, rushed to and fro, seizing
upon whomsoever they pleased--warrant-officers and dangerous
pugilists excepted--pulling and hauling the luckless tars about,
till fairly baited into a genial warmth. Some were made fast to
and hoisted aloft with a will: others, mounted upon oars, were
ridden fore and aft on a rail, to the boisterous mirth of the
spectators, any one of whom might be the next victim. Swings were
rigged from the tops, or the masts; and the most reluctant wights
being purposely selected, spite of all struggles, were swung from
East to West, in vast arcs of circles, till almost breathless.
Hornpipes, fandangoes, Donnybrook-jigs, reels, and quadrilles,
were danced under the very nose of the most mighty captain, and
upon the very quarter-deck and poop. Sparring and wrestling, too,
were all the vogue; _Kentucky bites_ were given, and the _Indian
hug_ exchanged. The din frightened the sea-fowl, that flew by
with accelerated wing.

It is worth mentioning that several casualties occurred, of
which, however, I will relate but one. While the "sky-larking"
was at its height, one of the fore-top-men--an ugly-tempered
devil of a Portuguese, looking on--swore that he would be the
death of any man who laid violent hands upon his inviolable
person. This threat being overheard, a band of desperadoes,
coming up from behind, tripped him up in an instant, and in the
twinkling of an eye the Portuguese was straddling an oar, borne
aloft by an uproarious multitude, who rushed him along the deck
at a railroad gallop. The living mass of arms all round and
beneath him was so dense, that every time he inclined one side he
was instantly pushed upright, but only to fall over again, to
receive another push from the contrary direction. Presently,
disengaging his hands from those who held them, the enraged
seaman drew from his bosom an iron belaying-pin, and recklessly
laid about him to right and left. Most of his persecutors fled;
but some eight or ten still stood their ground, and, while bearing
him aloft, endeavoured to wrest the weapon from his hands. In this
attempt, one man was struck on the head, and dropped insensible.
He was taken up for dead, and carried below to Cuticle, the surgeon,
while the Portuguese was put under guard. But the wound did not
prove very serious; and in a few days the man was walking about the
deck, with his head well bandaged.

This occurrence put an end to the "skylarking," further head-
breaking being strictly prohibited. In due time the Portuguese
paid the penalty of his rashness at the gangway; while once again
the officers _shipped their quarter-deck faces_.

Herman Melville