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Chapter 29

THE NIGHT-WATCHES.


Though leaving the Cape behind us, the severe cold still continued,
and one of its worst consequences was the almost incurable drowsiness
induced thereby during the long night-watches. All along the decks,
huddled between the guns, stretched out on the carronade slides,
and in every accessible nook and corner, you would see the sailors
wrapped in their monkey jackets, in a state of half-conscious
torpidity, lying still and freezing alive, without the power to
rise and shake themselves.

"Up--up, you lazy dogs!" our good-natured Third Lieutenant, a
Virginian, would cry, rapping them with his speaking trumpet.
"Get up, and stir about."

But in vain. They would rise for an instant, and as soon as his
back was turned, down they would drop, as if shot through the heart.

Often I have lain thus when the fact, that if I laid much longer
I would actually freeze to death, would come over me with such
overpowering force as to break the icy spell, and starting to my
feet, I would endeavour to go through the combined manual and
pedal exercise to restore the circulation. The first fling of my
benumbed arm generally struck me in the face, instead of smiting
my chest, its true destination. But in these cases one's muscles
have their own way.

In exercising my other extremities, I was obliged to hold on to
something, and leap with both feet; for my limbs seemed as
destitute of joints as a pair of canvas pants spread to dry, and
frozen stiff.

When an order was given to haul the braces--which required the
strength of the entire watch, some two hundred men--a spectator
would have supposed that all hands had received a stroke of the
palsy. Roused from their state of enchantment, they came halting
and limping across the decks, falling against each other, and,
for a few moments, almost unable to handle the ropes. The
slightest exertion seemed intolerable; and frequently a body of
eighty or a hundred men summoned to brace the main-yard, would
hang over the rope for several minutes, waiting for some active
fellow to pick it up and put it into their hands. Even then, it
was some time before they were able to do anything. They made all
the motions usual in hauling a rope, but it was a long time
before the yard budged an inch. It was to no purpose that the
officers swore at them, or sent the midshipmen among them to find
out who those "_horse-marines_" and "_sogers_" were. The sailors
were so enveloped in monkey jackets, that in the dark night there
was no telling one from the other.

"Here, _you_, sir!" cries little Mr. Pert eagerly catching hold
of the skirts of an old sea-dog, and trying to turn him round, so
as to peer under his tarpaulin. "Who are _you_, sir? What's your
name?"

"Find out, Milk-and-Water," was the impertinent rejoinder.

"Blast you! you old rascal; I'll have you licked for that! Tell
me his name, some of you!" turning round to the bystanders.

"Gammon!" cries a voice at a distance.

"Hang me, but I know _you_, sir! and here's at you!" and, so
saying, Mr. Pert drops the impenetrable unknown, and makes into
the crowd after the bodiless voice. But the attempt to find an
owner for that voice is quite as idle as the effort to discover
the contents of the monkey jacket.

And here sorrowful mention must be made of something which,
during this state of affairs, most sorely afflicted me. Most
monkey jackets are of a dark hue; mine, as I have fifty times
repeated, and say again, was white. And thus, in those long, dark
nights, when it was my quarter-watch on deck, and not in the top,
and others went skulking and "sogering" about the decks, secure
from detection--their identity undiscoverable--my own hapless
jacket for ever proclaimed the name of its wearer. It gave me
many a hard job, which otherwise I should have escaped. When an
officer wanted a man for any particular duty--running aloft, say,
to communicate some slight order to the captains of the tops--how
easy, in that mob of incognitoes, to individualise "_that white
jacket_," and dispatch him on the errand. Then, it would never do
for me to hang back when the ropes were being pulled.

Indeed, upon all these occasions, such alacrity and cheerfulness
was I obliged to display, that I was frequently held up as an
illustrious example of activity, which the rest were called upon
to emulate. "Pull--pull! you lazy lubbers! Look at White-Jacket,
there; pull like him!"

Oh! how I execrated my luckless garment; how often I scoured the
deck with it to give it a tawny hue; how often I supplicated the
inexorable Brush, captain of the paint-room, for just one
brushful of his invaluable pigment. Frequently, I meditated
giving it a toss overboard; but I had not the resolution.
Jacketless at sea! Jacketless so near Cape Horn! The thought was
unendurable. And, at least, my garment was a jacket in name, if
not in utility.

At length I essayed a "swap." "Here, Bob," said I, assuming all
possible suavity, and accosting a mess-mate with a sort of
diplomatic assumption of superiority, "suppose I was ready to
part with this 'grego' of mine, and take yours in exchange--what
would you give me to boot?"

"Give you to _boot?_" he exclaimed, with horror; "I wouldn't
take your infernal jacket for a gift!"

How I hailed every snow-squall; for then--blessings on them!--
many of the men became _white-jackets_ along with myself; and,
powdered with the flakes, we all looked like millers.

We had six lieutenants, all of whom, with the exception of the
First Lieutenant, by turns headed the watches. Three of these
officers, including Mad Jack, were strict disciplinarians, and
never permitted us to lay down on deck during the night. And, to
tell the truth, though it caused much growling, it was far better
for our health to be thus kept on our feet. So promenading was
all the vogue. For some of us, however, it was like pacing in a
dungeon; for, as we had to keep at our stations--some at the
halyards, some at the braces, and elsewhere--and were not allowed
to stroll about indefinitely, and fairly take the measure of the
ship's entire keel, we were fain to confine ourselves to the
space of a very few feet. But the worse of this was soon over.
The suddenness of the change in the temperature consequent on
leaving Cape Horn, and steering to the northward with a ten-knot
breeze, is a noteworthy thing. To-day, you are assailed by a
blast that seems to have edged itself on icebergs; but in a
little more than a week, your jacket may be superfluous.

One word more about Cape Horn, and we have done with it.

Years hence, when a ship-canal shall have penetrated the Isthmus of
Darien, and the traveller be taking his seat in the ears at Cape Cod
for Astoria, it will be held a thing almost incredible that, for so
long a period, vessels bound to the Nor'-west Coast from New York
should, by going round Cape Horn, have lengthened their voyages some
thousands of miles. "In those unenlightened days" (I quote, in
advance, the language of some future philosopher), "entire years were
frequently consumed in making the voyage to and from the Spice
Islands, the present fashionable watering-place of the beau-monde of
Oregon." Such must be our national progress.

Why, sir, that boy of yours will, one of these days, be sending your
grandson to the salubrious city of Jeddo to spend his summer vacations.

Herman Melville