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Chapter 37

SOME SUPERIOR OLD "LONDON DOCK" FROM THE WINE-COOLERS OF NEPTUNE.


We had just slid into pleasant weather, drawing near to the
Tropics, when all hands were thrown into a wonderful excitement
by an event that eloquently appealed to many palates.

A man at the fore-top-sail-yard sung out that there were eight or
ten dark objects floating on the sea, some three points off our
lee-bow.

"Keep her off three points!" cried Captain Claret, to the
quarter-master at the _cun_.

And thus, with all our batteries, store-rooms, and five hundred
men, with their baggage, and beds, and provisions, at one move of
a round bit of mahogany, our great-embattled ark edged away for
the strangers, as easily as a boy turns to the right or left in
pursuit of insects in the field.

Directly the man on the top-sail-yard reported the dark objects
to be hogsheads. Instantly all the top-men were straining their
eyes, in delirious expectation of having their long _grog fast_
broken at last, and that, too, by what seemed an almost
miraculous intervention. It was a curious circumstance that,
without knowing the contents of the hogsheads, they yet seemed
certain that the staves encompassed the thing they longed for.

Sail was now shortened, our headway was stopped, and a cutter was
lowered, with orders to tow the fleet of strangers alongside. The
men sprang to their oars with a will, and soon five goodly
puncheons lay wallowing in the sea, just under the main-chains.
We got overboard the slings, and hoisted them out of the water.

It was a sight that Bacchus and his bacchanals would have gloated
over. Each puncheon was of a deep-green color, so covered with
minute barnacles and shell-fish, and streaming with sea-weed,
that it needed long searching to find out their bung-holes; they
looked like venerable old _loggerhead-turtles._ How long they had
been tossing about, and making voyages for the benefit of the
flavour of their contents, no one could tell. In trying to raft
them ashore, or on board of some merchant-ship, they must have
drifted off to sea. This we inferred from the ropes that length-
wise united them, and which, from one point of view, made them
resemble a long sea-serpent. They were _struck_ into the gun-
deck, where, the eager crowd being kept off by sentries, the
cooper was called with his tools.

"Bung up, and bilge free!" he cried, in an ecstasy, flourishing
his driver and hammer.

Upon clearing away the barnacles and moss, a flat sort of shell-
fish was found, closely adhering, like a California-shell, right
over one of the bungs. Doubtless this shell-fish had there taken
up his quarters, and thrown his own body into the breach, in
order the better to preserve the precious contents of the cask.
The by-standers were breathless, when at last this puncheon was
canted over and a tin-pot held to the orifice. What was to come
forth? salt-water or wine? But a rich purple tide soon settled
the question, and the lieutenant assigned to taste it, with a
loud and satisfactory smack of his lips, pronounced it Port!

"Oporto!" cried Mad Jack, "and no mistake!"

But, to the surprise, grief, and consternation of the sailors, an
order now came from the quarter-deck to strike the "strangers
down into the main-hold!" This proceeding occasioned all sorts of
censorious observations upon the Captain, who, of course, had
authorised it.

It must be related here that, on the passage out from home, the
Neversink had touched at Madeira; and there, as is often the case
with men-of-war, the Commodore and Captain had laid in a goodly
stock of wines for their own private tables, and the benefit of
their foreign visitors. And although the Commodore was a small,
spare man, who evidently emptied but few glasses, yet Captain
Claret was a portly gentleman, with a crimson face, whose father
had fought at the battle of the Brandywine, and whose brother had
commanded the well-known frigate named in honour of that
engagement. And his whole appearance evinced that Captain Claret
himself had fought many Brandywine battles ashore in honour of
his sire's memory, and commanded in many bloodless Brandywine
actions at sea.

It was therefore with some savour of provocation that the sailors
held forth on the ungenerous conduct of Captain Claret, in
stepping in between them and Providence, as it were, which by
this lucky windfall, they held, seemed bent upon relieving their
necessities; while Captain Claret himself, with an inexhaustible
cellar, emptied his Madeira decanters at his leisure.

But next day all hands were electrified by the old familiar
sound--so long hushed--of the drum rolling to grog.

After that the port was served out twice a day, till all was
expended.

Herman Melville