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Chapter 31

THE GUNNER UNDER HATCHES.


Among such a crowd of marked characters as were to be met with on
board our frigate, many of whom moved in mysterious circles beneath
the lowermost deck, and at long intervals flitted into sight like
apparitions, and disappeared again for whole weeks together, there
were some who inordinately excited my curiosity, and whose names,
callings, and precise abodes I industriously sought out, in order
to learn something satisfactory concerning them.

While engaged in these inquiries, often fruitless, or but
partially gratified, I could not but regret that there was no
public printed Directory for the Neversink, such as they have in
large towns, containing an alphabetic list of all the crew, and
where they might be found. Also, in losing myself in some remote,
dark corner of the bowels of the frigate, in the vicinity of the
various store-rooms, shops, and warehouses, I much lamented that
no enterprising tar had yet thought of compiling a _Hand-book of
the Neversink_, so that the tourist might have a reliable guide.

Indeed, there were several parts of the ship under hatches shrouded
in mystery, and completely inaccessible to the sailor.

Wondrous old doors, barred and bolted in dingy bulkheads, must have
opened into regions full of interest to a successful explorer.

They looked like the gloomy entrances to family vaults of buried
dead; and when I chanced to see some unknown functionary insert
his key, and enter these inexplicable apartments with a battle-
lantern, as if on solemn official business, I almost quaked to
dive in with him, and satisfy myself whether these vaults indeed
contained the mouldering relics of by-gone old Commodores and
Post-captains. But the habitations of the living commodore and
captain--their spacious and curtained cabins--were themselves
almost as sealed volumes, and I passed them in hopeless
wonderment, like a peasant before a prince's palace. Night and
day armed sentries guarded their sacred portals, cutlass in hand;
and had I dared to cross their path, I would infallibly have been
cut down, as if in battle. Thus, though for a period of more than
a year I was an inmate of this floating box of live-oak, yet
there were numberless things in it that, to the last, remained
wrapped in obscurity, or concerning which I could only lose
myself in vague speculations. I was as a Roman Jew of the Middle
Ages, confined to the Jews' quarter of the town, and forbidden to
stray beyond my limits. Or I was as a modern traveller in the
same famous city, forced to quit it at last without gaining
ingress to the most mysterious haunts--the innermost shrine of
the Pope, and the dungeons and cells of the Inquisition.

But among all the persons and things on board that puzzled me,
and filled me most with strange emotions of doubt, misgivings and
mystery, was the Gunner--a short, square, grim man, his hair and
beard grizzled and singed, as if with gunpowder. His skin was of
a flecky brown, like the stained barrel of a fowling-piece, and
his hollow eyes burned in his head like blue-lights. He it was
who had access to many of those mysterious vaults I have spoken
of. Often he might be seen groping his way into them, followed by
his subalterns, the old quarter-gunners, as if intent upon laying
a train of powder to blow up the ship. I remembered Guy Fawkes
and the Parliament-house, and made earnest inquiry whether this
gunner was a Roman Catholic. I felt relieved when informed that
he was not.

A little circumstance which one of his _mates_ once told me
heightened the gloomy interest with which I regarded his chief.
He told me that, at periodical intervals, his master the Gunner,
accompanied by his phalanx, entered into the great Magazine under
the Gun-room, of which he had sole custody and kept the key,
nearly as big as the key of the Bastile, and provided with
lanterns, something like Sir Humphrey Davy's Safety-lamp for coal
mines, proceeded to turn, end for end, all the kegs of powder and
packages of cartridges stored in this innermost explosive vault,
lined throughout with sheets of copper. In the vestibule of the
Magazine, against the panelling, were several pegs for slippers,
and, before penetrating further than that vestibule, every man of
the gunner's gang silently removed his shoes, for fear that the
nails in their heels might possibly create a spark, by striking
against the coppered floor within. Then, with slippered feet and
with hushed whispers, they stole into the heart of the place.

This turning of the powder was to preserve its inflammability.
And surely it was a business full of direful interest, to be
buried so deep below the sun, handling whole barrels of powder,
any one of which, touched by the smallest spark, was powerful
enough to blow up a whole street of warehouses.

The gunner went by the name of _Old Combustibles_, though I
thought this an undignified name for so momentous a personage,
who had all our lives in his hand.

While we lay in Callao, we received from shore several barrels of
powder. So soon as the _launch_ came alongside with them, orders
were given to extinguish all lights and all fires in the ship;
and the master-at-arms and his corporals inspected every deck to
see that this order was obeyed; a very prudent precaution, no
doubt, but not observed at all in the Turkish navy. The Turkish
sailors will sit on their gun-carriages, tranquilly smoking,
while kegs of powder are being rolled under their ignited pipe-
bowls. This shows the great comfort there is in the doctrine of
these Fatalists, and how such a doctrine, in some things at
least, relieves men from nervous anxieties. But we all are
Fatalists at bottom. Nor need we so much marvel at the heroism of
that army officer, who challenged his personal foe to bestride a
barrel of powder with him--the match to be placed between them--
and be blown up in good company, for it is pretty certain that
the whole earth itself is a vast hogshead, full of inflammable
materials, and which we are always bestriding; at the same time,
that all good Christians believe that at any minute the last day
may come and the terrible combustion of the entire planet ensue.

As if impressed with a befitting sense of the awfulness of his
calling, our gunner always wore a fixed expression of solemnity,
which was heightened by his grizzled hair and beard. But what
imparted such a sinister look to him, and what wrought so upon my
imagination concerning this man, was a frightful scar crossing
his left cheek and forehead. He had been almost mortally wounded,
they said, with a sabre-cut, during a frigate engagement in the
last war with Britain.

He was the most methodical, exact, and punctual of all the
forward officers. Among his other duties, it pertained to him,
while in harbour, to see that at a certain hour in the evening
one of the great guns was discharged from the forecastle, a
ceremony only observed in a flag-ship. And always at the precise
moment you might behold him blowing his match, then applying it;
and with that booming thunder in his ear, and the smell of the
powder in his hair, he retired to his hammock for the night. What
dreams he must have had!

The same precision was observed when ordered to fire a gun to
_bring to_ some ship at sea; for, true to their name, and
preserving its applicability, even in times of peace, all men-of-
war are great bullies on the high seas. They domineer over the
poor merchantmen, and with a hissing hot ball sent bowling across
the ocean, compel them to stop their headway at pleasure.

It was enough to make you a man of method for life, to see the
gunner superintending his subalterns, when preparing the main-
deck batteries for a great national salute. While lying in
harbour, intelligence reached us of the lamentable casualty that
befell certain high officers of state, including the acting
Secretary of the Navy himself, some other member of the
President's cabinet, a Commodore, and others, all engaged in
experimenting upon a new-fangled engine of war. At the same time
with the receipt of this sad news, orders arrived to fire minute-
guns for the deceased head of the naval department. Upon this
occasion the gunner was more than usually ceremonious, in seeing
that the long twenty-fours were thoroughly loaded and rammed
down, and then accurately marked with chalk, so as to be
discharged in undeviating rotation, first from the larboard side,
and then from the starboard.

But as my ears hummed, and all my bones danced in me with the
reverberating din, and my eyes and nostrils were almost
suffocated with the smoke, and when I saw this grim old gunner
firing away so solemnly, I thought it a strange mode of honouring
a man's memory who had himself been slaughtered by a cannon. Only
the smoke, that, after rolling in at the port-holes, rapidly
drifted away to leeward, and was lost to view, seemed truly
emblematical touching the personage thus honoured, since that
great non-combatant, the Bible, assures us that our life is but a
vapour, that quickly passeth away.

Herman Melville