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Chapter 41

A MAN-OF-WAR LIBRARY.


Nowhere does time pass more heavily than with most men-of-war's-men
on board their craft in harbour.

One of my principal antidotes against _ennui_ in Rio, was reading.
There was a public library on board, paid for by government, and
intrusted to the custody of one of the marine corporals, a little,
dried-up man, of a somewhat literary turn. He had once been a clerk
in a post-office ashore; and, having been long accustomed to hand over
letters when called for, he was now just the man to hand over books.
He kept them in a large cask on the berth-deck, and, when seeking a
particular volume, had to capsize it like a barrel of potatoes. This
made him very cross and irritable, as most all librarians are. Who had
the selection of these books, I do not know, but some of them must have
been selected by our Chaplain, who so pranced on Coleridge's "_High
German horse_."

Mason Good's Book of Nature--a very good book, to be sure, but
not precisely adapted to tarry tastes--was one of these volumes;
and Machiavel's Art of War--which was very dry fighting; and a
folio of Tillotson's Sermons--the best of reading for divines,
indeed, but with little relish for a main-top-man; and Locke's
Essays--incomparable essays, everybody knows, but miserable reading
at sea; and Plutarch's Lives--super-excellent biographies, which pit
Greek against Roman in beautiful style, but then, in a sailor's
estimation, not to be mentioned with the _Lives of the Admirals_;
and Blair's Lectures, University Edition--a fine treatise on rhetoric,
but having nothing to say about nautical phrases, such as "_splicing
the main-brace_," "_passing a gammoning_," "_puddinging the dolphin_,"
and "_making a Carrick-bend_;" besides numerous invaluable but
unreadable tomes, that might have been purchased cheap at the auction
of some college-professor's library.

But I found ample entertainment in a few choice old authors, whom
I stumbled upon in various parts of the ship, among the inferior
officers. One was "_Morgan's History of Algiers_," a famous old
quarto, abounding in picturesque narratives of corsairs,
captives, dungeons, and sea-fights; and making mention of a cruel
old Dey, who, toward the latter part of his life, was so filled
with remorse for his cruelties and crimes that he could not stay
in bed after four o'clock in the morning, but had to rise in
great trepidation and walk off his bad feelings till breakfast
time. And another venerable octavo, containing a certificate from
Sir Christopher Wren to its authenticity, entitled "_Knox's
Captivity in Ceylon, 1681_"--abounding in stories about the
Devil, who was superstitiously supposed to tyrannise over that
unfortunate land: to mollify him, the priests offered up
buttermilk, red cocks, and sausages; and the Devil ran roaring
about in the woods, frightening travellers out of their wits;
insomuch that the Islanders bitterly lamented to Knox that their
country was full of devils, and consequently, there was no hope
for their eventual well-being. Knox swears that he himself heard
the Devil roar, though he did not see his horns; it was a
terrible noise, he says, like the baying of a hungry mastiff.

Then there was Walpole's Letters--very witty, pert, and polite--
and some odd volumes of plays, each of which was a precious
casket of jewels of good things, shaming the trash nowadays
passed off for dramas, containing "The Jew of Malta," "Old
Fortunatus," "The City Madam." "Volpone," "The Alchymist," and
other glorious old dramas of the age of Marlow and Jonson, and
that literary Damon and Pythias, the magnificent, mellow old
Beaumont and Fletcher, who have sent the long shadow of their
reputation, side by side with Shakspeare's, far down the endless
vale of posterity. And may that shadow never be less! but as for
St. Shakspeare may his never be more, lest the commentators
arise, and settling upon his sacred text like unto locusts,
devour it clean up, leaving never a dot over an I.

I diversified this reading of mine, by borrowing Moore's "_Loves
of the Angels_" from Rose-water, who recommended it as "_de
charmingest of volumes;_" and a Negro Song-book, containing
_Sittin' on a Rail_, _Gumbo Squash_, and _Jim along Josey_, from
Broadbit, a sheet-anchor-man. The sad taste of this old tar, in
admiring such vulgar stuff, was much denounced by Rose-water,
whose own predilections were of a more elegant nature, as evinced
by his exalted opinion of the literary merits of the "_Loves of
the Angels_."

I was by no means the only reader of books on board the Neversink.
Several other sailors were diligent readers, though their studies
did not lie in the way of belles-lettres. Their favourite authors
were such as you may find at the book-stalls around Fulton Market;
they were slightly physiological in their nature. My book experiences
on board of the frigate proved an example of a fact which every
book-lover must have experienced before me, namely, that though public
libraries have an imposing air, and doubtless contain invaluable
volumes, yet, somehow, the books that prove most agreeable, grateful,
and companionable, are those we pick up by chance here and there;
those which seem put into our hands by Providence; those which pretend
to little, but abound in much.

Herman Melville