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Chapter 44

A KNAVE IN OFFICE IN A MAN-OF-WAR.


The last smuggling story now about to be related also occurred
while we lay in Rio. It is the more particularly presented, since
it furnishes the most curious evidence of the almost incredible
corruption pervading nearly all ranks in some men-of-war.

For some days, the number of intoxicated sailors collared and
brought up to the mast by the master-at-arms, to be reported to
the deck-officers--previous to a flogging at the gangway--had, in
the last degree, excited the surprise and vexation of the Captain
and senior officers. So strict were the Captain's regulations
concerning the suppression of grog-smuggling, and so particular
had he been in charging the matter upon all the Lieutenants, and
every understrapper official in the frigate, that he was wholly
at a loss how so large a quantity of spirits could have been
spirited into the ship, in the face of all these checks, guards,
and precautions.

Still additional steps were adopted to detect the smugglers; and
Bland, the master-at-arms, together with his corporals, were publicly
harangued at the mast by the Captain in person, and charged to exert
their best powers in suppressing the traffic. Crowds were present at
the time, and saw the master-at-arms touch his cap in obsequious
homage, as he solemnly assured the Captain that he would still
continue to do his best; as, indeed, he said he had always done.
He concluded with a pious ejaculation expressive of his personal
abhorrence of smuggling and drunkenness, and his fixed resolution,
so help him Heaven, to spend his last wink in sitting up by night,
to spy out all deeds of darkness.

"I do not doubt you, master-at-arms," returned the Captain; "now go
to your duty." This master-at-arms was a favourite of the Captain's.

The next morning, before breakfast, when the market-boat came off
(that is, one of the ship's boats regularly deputed to bring off
the daily fresh provisions for the officers)--when this boat came
off, the master-at-arms, as usual, after carefully examining both
her and her crew, reported them to the deck-officer to be free
from suspicion. The provisions were then hoisted out, and among
them came a good-sized wooden box, addressed to "Mr.------ Purser
of the United States ship Neversink." Of course, any private
matter of this sort, destined for a gentleman of the ward-room,
was sacred from examination, and the master-at-arms commanded one
of his corporals to carry it down into the Purser's state-room.
But recent occurrences had sharpened the vigilance of the deck-
officer to an unwonted degree, and seeing the box going down the
hatchway, he demanded what that was, and whom it was for.

"All right, sir," said the master-at-arms, touching his cap;
"stores for the Purser, sir."

"Let it remain on deck," said the Lieutenant. "Mr. Montgomery!"
calling a midshipman, "ask the Purser whether there is any box
coming off for him this morning."

"Ay, ay, sir," said the middy, touching his cap.

Presently he returned, saying that the Purser was ashore.

"Very good, then; Mr. Montgomery, have that box put into the 'brig,'
with strict orders to the sentry not to suffer any one to touch it."

"Had I not better take it down into my mess, sir, till the Purser
comes off?" said the master-at-arms, deferentially.

"I have given my orders, sir!" said the Lieutenant, turning away.

When the Purser came on board, it turned out that he knew nothing at
all about the box. He had never so much as heard of it in his life.
So it was again brought up before the deck-officer, who immediately
summoned the master-at-arms.

"Break open that box!"

"Certainly, sir!" said the master-at-arms; and, wrenching off the
cover, twenty-five brown jugs like a litter of twenty-five brown pigs,
were found snugly nestled in a bed of straw.

"The smugglers are at work, sir," said the master-at-arms, looking up.

"Uncork and taste it," said the officer.

The master-at-arms did so; and, smacking his lips after a puzzled
fashion, was a little doubtful whether it was American whisky or
Holland gin; but he said he was not used to liquor.

"Brandy; I know it by the smell," said the officer; "return the
box to the brig."

"Ay, ay, sir," said the master-at-arms, redoubling his activity.

The affair was at once reported to the Captain, who, incensed at
the audacity of the thing, adopted every plan to detect the
guilty parties. Inquiries were made ashore; but by whom the box
had been brought down to the market-boat there was no finding
out. Here the matter rested for a time.

Some days after, one of the boys of the mizzen-top was flogged for
drunkenness, and, while suspended in agony at the gratings, was made
to reveal from whom he had procured his spirits. The man was called,
and turned out to be an old superannuated marine, one Scriggs, who did
the cooking for the marine-sergeants and masters-at-arms' mess. This
marine was one of the most villainous-looking fellows in the ship,
with a squinting, pick-lock, gray eye, and hang-dog gallows gait. How
such a most unmartial vagabond had insinuated himself into the
honourable marine corps was a perfect mystery. He had always been
noted for his personal uncleanliness, and among all hands, fore and
aft, had the reputation of being a notorious old miser, who denied
himself the few comforts, and many of the common necessaries of a
man-of-war life.

Seeing no escape, Scriggs fell on his knees before the Captain,
and confessed the charge of the boy. Observing the fellow to be
in an agony of fear at the sight of the boat-swain's mates and
their lashes, and all the striking parade of public punishment,
the Captain must have thought this a good opportunity for
completely pumping him of all his secrets. This terrified marine
was at length forced to reveal his having been for some time an
accomplice in a complicated system of underhand villainy, the
head of which was no less a personage than the indefatigable
chief of police, the master-at-arms himself. It appeared that
this official had his confidential agents ashore, who supplied
him with spirits, and in various boxes, packages, and bundles--
addressed to the Purser and others--brought them down to the
frigate's boats at the landing. Ordinarily, the appearance of
these things for the Purser and other ward-room gentlemen
occasioned no surprise; for almost every day some bundle or other
is coming off for them, especially for the Purser; and, as the
master-at-arms was always present on these occasions, it was an
easy matter for him to hurry the smuggled liquor out of sight,
and, under pretence of carrying the box or bundle down to the
Purser's room, hide it away upon his own premises.

The miserly marine, Scriggs, with the pick-lock eye, was the man
who clandestinely sold the spirits to the sailors, thus
completely keeping the master-at-arms in the background. The
liquor sold at the most exorbitant prices; at one time reaching
twelve dollars the bottle in cash, and thirty dollars a bottle in
orders upon the Purser, to be honored upon the frigate's arrival
home. It may seem incredible that such prices should have been
given by the sailors; but when some man-of-war's-men crave
liquor, and it is hard to procure, they would almost barter ten
years of their life-time for but one solitary "_tot_" if they could.

The sailors who became intoxicated with the liquor thus smuggled on
board by the master-at-arms, were, in almost numberless instances,
officially seized by that functionary and scourged at the gangway.
In a previous place it has been shown how conspicuous a part the
master-at-arms enacts at this scene.

The ample profits of this iniquitous business were divided,
between all the parties concerned in it; Scriggs, the marine,
coming in for one third. His cook's mess-chest being brought on
deck, four canvas bags of silver were found in it, amounting to a
sum something short of as many hundred dollars.

The guilty parties were scourged, double-ironed, and for several
weeks were confined in the "brig" under a sentry; all but the
master-at-arms, who was merely cashiered and imprisoned for a
time; with bracelets at his wrists. Upon being liberated, he was
turned adrift among the ship's company; and by way of disgracing
him still more, was thrust into the _waist_, the most inglorious
division of the ship.

Upon going to dinner one day, I found him soberly seated at my
own mess; and at first I could not but feel some very serious
scruples about dining with him. Nevertheless, he was a man to
study and digest; so, upon a little reflection; I was not
displeased at his presence. It amazed me, however, that he had
wormed himself into the mess, since so many of the other messes
had declined the honour, until at last, I ascertained that he had
induced a mess-mate of ours, a distant relation of his, to prevail
upon the cook to admit him.

Now it would not have answered for hardly any other mess in the
ship to have received this man among them, for it would have torn
a huge rent in their reputation; but our mess, A. No. 1--the
Forty-two-pounder Club--was composed of so fine a set of fellows;
so many captains of tops, and quarter-masters--men of undeniable
mark on board ship--of long-established standing and consideration
on the gun-deck; that, with impunity, we could do so many equivocal
things, utterly inadmissible for messes of inferior pretension.
Besides, though we all abhorred the monster of Sin itself, yet, from
our social superiority, highly rarified education in our lofty top,
and large and liberal sweep of the aggregate of things, we were in
a good degree free from those useless, personal prejudices, and
galling hatreds against conspicuous _sinners_, not _Sin_--which so
widely prevail among men of warped understandings and unchristian and
uncharitable hearts. No; the superstitions and dogmas concerning Sin
had not laid their withering maxims upon our hearts. We perceived how
that evil was but good disguised, and a knave a saint in his way;
how that in other planets, perhaps, what we deem wrong, may there
be deemed right; even as some substances, without undergoing any
mutations in themselves utterly change their colour, according to
the light thrown upon them. We perceived that the anticipated
millennium must have begun upon the morning the first words were
created; and that, taken all in all, our man-of-war world itself
was as eligible a round-sterned craft as any to be found in the
Milky Way. And we fancied that though some of us, of the gun-
deck, were at times condemned to sufferings and blights, and all
manner of tribulation and anguish, yet, no doubt, it was only our
misapprehension of these things that made us take them for woeful
pains instead of the most agreeable pleasures. I have dreamed of
a sphere, says Pinzella, where to break a man on the wheel is
held the most exquisite of delights you can confer upon him;
where for one gentleman in any way to vanquish another is
accounted an everlasting dishonour; where to tumble one into a
pit after death, and then throw cold clods upon his upturned
face, is a species of contumely, only inflicted upon the most
notorious criminals.

But whatever we mess-mates thought, in whatever circumstances we
found ourselves, we never forgot that our frigate, had as it was,
was homeward-bound. Such, at least, were our reveries at times,
though sorely jarred, now and then, by events that took our
philosophy aback. For after all, philosophy--that is, the best
wisdom that has ever in any way been revealed to our man-of-war
world--is but a slough and a mire, with a few tufts of good
footing here and there.

But there was one man in the mess who would have naught to do
with our philosophy--a churlish, ill-tempered, unphilosophical,
superstitious old bear of a quarter-gunner; a believer in Tophet,
for which he was accordingly preparing himself. Priming was his
name; but methinks I have spoken of him before.

Besides, this Bland, the master-at-arms, was no vulgar, dirty knave.
In him--to modify Burke's phrase--vice _seemed_, but only seemed, to
lose half its seeming evil by losing all its apparent grossness. He
was a neat and gentlemanly villain, and broke his biscuit with a
dainty hand. There was a fine polish about his whole person, and a
pliant, insinuating style in his conversation, that was, socially,
quite irresistible. Save my noble captain, Jack Chase, he proved
himself the most entertaining, I had almost said the most companionable
man in the mess. Nothing but his mouth, that was somewhat small,
Moorish-arched, and wickedly delicate, and his snaky, black eye, that
at times shone like a dark-lantern in a jeweller-shop at midnight,
betokened the accomplished scoundrel within. But in his conversation
there was no trace of evil; nothing equivocal; he studiously shunned
an indelicacy, never swore, and chiefly abounded in passing puns and
witticisms, varied with humorous contrasts between ship and shore
life, and many agreeable and racy anecdotes, very tastefully narrated.
In short--in a merely psychological point of view, at least--he was a
charming blackleg. Ashore, such a man might have been an irreproachable
mercantile swindler, circulating in polite society.

But he was still more than this. Indeed, I claim for this master-
at-arms a lofty and honourable niche in the Newgate Calendar of
history. His intrepidity, coolness, and wonderful self-
possession in calmly resigning himself to a fate that thrust him
from an office in which he had tyrannised over five hundred
mortals, many of whom hated and loathed him, passed all belief;
his intrepidity, I say, in now fearlessly gliding among them,
like a disarmed swordfish among ferocious white-sharks; this,
surely, bespoke no ordinary man. While in office, even, his life
had often been secretly attempted by the seamen whom he had
brought to the gangway. Of dark nights they had dropped shot down
the hatchways, destined "to damage his pepper-box," as they
phrased it; they had made ropes with a hangman's noose at the end
and tried to _lasso_ him in dark corners. And now he was adrift
among them, under notorious circumstances of superlative
villainy, at last dragged to light; and yet he blandly smiled,
politely offered his cigar-holder to a perfect stranger, and
laughed and chatted to right and left, as if springy, buoyant,
and elastic, with an angelic conscience, and sure of kind friends
wherever he went, both in this life and the life to come.

While he was lying ironed in the "brig," gangs of the men were
sometimes overheard whispering about the terrible reception they
would give him when he should be set at large. Nevertheless, when
liberated, they seemed confounded by his erect and cordial assurance,
his gentlemanly sociability and fearless companionableness. From
being an implacable policeman, vigilant, cruel, and remorseless in
his office, however polished in his phrases, he was now become a
disinterested, sauntering man of leisure, winking at all improprieties,
and ready to laugh and make merry with any one. Still, at first, the
men gave him a wide berth, and returned scowls for his smiles; but
who can forever resist the very Devil himself, when he comes in the
guise of a gentleman, free, fine, and frank? Though Goethe's pious
Margaret hates the Devil in his horns and harpooner's tail, yet she
smiles and nods to the engaging fiend in the persuasive,_winning_,
oily, wholly harmless Mephistopheles. But, however it was, I, for one,
regarded this master-at-arms with mixed feelings of detestation,
pity, admiration, and something op-posed to enmity. I could not but
abominate him when I thought of his conduct; but I pitied the continual
gnawing which, under all his deftly-donned disguises, I saw lying at
the bottom of his soul. I admired his heroism in sustaining himself
so well under such reverses. And when I thought how arbitrary the
_Articles of War_ are in defining a man-of-war villain; how much
undetected guilt might be sheltered by the aristocratic awning of our
quarter-deck; how many florid pursers, ornaments of the ward-room, had
been legally protected in defrauding _the people_, I could not but say
to myself, Well, after all, though this man is a most wicked one indeed,
yet is he even more luckless than depraved.

Besides, a studied observation of Bland convinced me that he was an
organic and irreclaimable scoundrel, who did wicked deeds as the
cattle browse the herbage, because wicked deeds seemed the
legitimate operation of his whole infernal organisation.
Phrenologically, he was without a soul. Is it to be wondered at,
that the devils are irreligious? What, then, thought I, who is to
blame in this matter? For one, I will not take the Day of
Judgment upon me by authoritatively pronouncing upon the
essential criminality of any man-of-war's-man; and Christianity
has taught me that, at the last day, man-of-war's-men will not be
judged by the _Articles of War_, nor by the _United States
Statutes at Large_, but by immutable laws, ineffably beyond the
comprehension of the honourable Board of Commodores and Navy
Commissioners. But though I will stand by even a man-of-war
thief, and defend him from being seized up at the gangway, if I
can--remembering that my Saviour once hung between two thieves,
promising one life-eternal--yet I would not, after the plain
conviction of a villain, again let him entirely loose to prey
upon honest seamen, fore and aft all three decks. But this did
Captain Claret; and though the thing may not perhaps be credited,
nevertheless, here it shall be recorded.

After the master-at-arms had been adrift among the ship's company
for several weeks, and we were within a few days' sail of home,
he was summoned to the mast, and publicly reinstated in his
office as the ship's chief of police. Perhaps Captain Claret had
read the Memoirs of Vidocq, and believed in the old saying, _set
a rogue to catch a rogue_. Or, perhaps, he was a man of very
tender feelings, highly susceptible to the soft emotions of
gratitude, and could not bear to leave in disgrace a person who,
out of the generosity of his heart, had, about a year previous,
presented him with a rare snuff-box, fabricated from a sperm-
whale's tooth, with a curious silver hinge, and cunningly wrought
in the shape of a whale; also a splendid gold-mounted cane, of a
costly Brazilian wood, with a gold plate, bearing the Captain's
name and rank in the service, the place and time of his birth,
and with a vacancy underneath--no doubt providentially left for
his heirs to record his decease.

Certain it was that, some months previous to the master-at-arms'
disgrace, he had presented these articles to the Captain, with
his best love and compliments; and the Captain had received them,
and seldom went ashore without the cane, and never took snuff but
out of that box. With some Captains, a sense of propriety might
have induced them to return these presents, when the generous
donor had proved himself unworthy of having them retained; but it
was not Captain Claret who would inflict such a cutting wound
upon any officer's sensibilities, though long-established naval
customs had habituated him to scourging _the people_ upon an
emergency.

Now had Captain Claret deemed himself constitutionally bound to
decline all presents from his subordinates, the sense of
gratitude would not have operated to the prejudice of justice.
And, as some of the subordinates of a man-of-war captain are apt
to invoke his good wishes and mollify his conscience by making
him friendly gifts, it would perhaps _have_ been an excellent
thing for him to adopt the plan pursued by the President of the
United States, when he received a present of lions and Arabian
chargers from the Sultan of Muscat. Being forbidden by his
sovereign lords and masters, the imperial people, to accept of
any gifts from foreign powers, the President sent them to an
auctioneer, and the proceeds were deposited in the Treasury. In
the same manner, when Captain Claret received his snuff-box and
cane, he might have accepted them very kindly, and then sold them
off to the highest bidder, perhaps to the donor himself, who in
that case would never have tempted him again.

Upon his return home, Bland was paid off for his full term, not
deducting the period of his suspension. He again entered the
service in his old capacity.

As no further allusion will be made to this affair, it may as
well be stated now that, for the very brief period elapsing
between his restoration and being paid off in port by the Purser,
the master-at-arms conducted himself with infinite discretion,
artfully steering between any relaxation of discipline--which
would have awakened the displeasure of the officers--and any
unwise severity--which would have revived, in tenfold force, all
the old grudges of the seamen under his command.

Never did he show so much talent and tact as when vibrating in
this his most delicate predicament; and plenty of cause was there
for the exercise of his cunningest abilities; for, upon the
discharge of our man-of-war's-men at home, should he _then_ be
held by them as an enemy, as free and independent citizens they
would waylay him in the public streets, and take purple vengeance
for all his iniquities, past, present, and possible in the
future. More than once a master-at-arms ashore has been seized by
night by an exasperated crew, and served as Origen served
himself, or as his enemies served Abelard.

But though, under extreme provocation, _the people_ of a man-of-
war have been guilty of the maddest vengeance, yet, at other
times, they are very placable and milky-hearted, even to those
who may have outrageously abused them; many things in point might
be related, but I forbear.

This account of the master-at-arms cannot better be concluded
than by denominating him, in the vivid language of the Captain of
the Fore-top, as "_the two ends and middle of the thrice-laid
strand of a bloody rascal_," which was intended for a terse,
well-knit, and all-comprehensive assertion, without omission or
reservation. It was also asserted that, had Tophet itself been
raked with a fine-tooth comb, such another ineffable villain
could not by any possibility have been caught.

Herman Melville