Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 47

AN AUCTION IN A MAN-OF-WAR.


Some allusion has been made to the weariness experienced by the
man-of-war's-men while lying at anchor; but there are scenes now
and then that serve to relieve it. Chief among these are the
Purser's auctions, taking place while in harbour. Some weeks, or
perhaps months, after a sailor dies in an armed vessel, his bag
of clothes is in this manner sold, and the proceeds transferred
to the account of his heirs or executors.

One of these auctions came off in Rio, shortly after the sad
accident of Baldy.

It was a dreamy, quiet afternoon, and the crew were listlessly
lying 'around, when suddenly the Boatswain's whistle was heard,
followed by the announcement, "D'ye hear there, fore and aft?
Purser's auction on the spar-deck!"

At the sound, the sailors sprang to their feet and mustered round
the main-mast. Presently up came the Purser's steward, marshalling
before him three or four of his subordinates, carrying several clothes'
bags, which were deposited at the base of the mast.

Our Purser's steward was a rather gentlemanly man in his way.
Like many young Americans of his class, he had at various times
assumed the most opposite functions for a livelihood, turning
from one to the other with all the facility of a light-hearted,
clever adventurer. He had been a clerk in a steamer on the
Mississippi River; an auctioneer in Ohio; a stock actor at the
Olympic Theatre in New York; and now he was Purser's steward in
the Navy. In the course of this deversified career his natural
wit and waggery had been highly spiced, and every way improved;
and he had acquired the last and most difficult art of the joker,
the art of lengthening his own face while widening those of his
hearers, preserving the utmost solemnity while setting them all
in a roar. He was quite a favourite with the sailors, which, in a
good degree, was owing to his humour; but likewise to his off-
hand, irresistible, romantic, theatrical manner of addressing them.

With a dignified air, he now mounted the pedestal of the main-
top-sail sheet-bitts, imposing silence by a theatrical wave of
his hand; meantime, his subordinates were rummaging the bags,
and assorting their contents before him.

"Now, my noble hearties," he began, "we will open this auction by
offering to your impartial competition a very superior pair of
old boots;" and so saying, he dangled aloft one clumsy cowhide
cylinder, almost as large as a fire bucket, as a specimen of the
complete pair.

"What shall I have now, my noble tars, for this superior pair of
sea-boots?"

"Where's t'other boot?" cried a suspicious-eyed waister. "I remember
them 'ere boots. They were old Bob's the quarter-gunner's; there was
two on 'em, too. I want to see t'other boot."

"My sweet and pleasant fellow," said the auctioneer, with his
blandest accents, "the other boot is not just at hand, but I give
you my word of honour that it in all respects cor-responds to the
one you here see--it does, I assure you. And I solemnly guarantee,
my noble sea-faring fencibles," he added, turning round upon all,
"that the other boot is the exact counterpart of this. Now, then, say
the word, my fine fellows. What shall I have? Ten dollars, did you
say?" politely bowing toward some indefinite person in the background.

"No; ten cents," responded a voice.

"Ten cents! ten cents! gallant sailors, for this noble pair of
boots," exclaimed the auctioneer, with affected horror; "I must
close the auction, my tars of Columbia; this will never do. But
let's have another bid; now, come," he added, coaxingly and
soothingly. "What is it? One dollar, one dollar then--one
dollar; going at one dollar; going, going--going. Just see how it
vibrates"--swinging the boot to and fro--"this superior pair of
sea-boots vibrating at one dollar; wouldn't pay for the nails in
their heels; going, going--gone!" And down went the boots.

"Ah, what a sacrifice! what a sacrifice!" he sighed, tearfully
eyeing the solitary fire-bucket, and then glancing round the
company for sympathy.

"A sacrifice, indeed!" exclaimed Jack Chase, who stood by; "Purser's
Steward, you are Mark Antony over the body of Julius Cesar."

"So I am, so I am," said the auctioneer, without moving a muscle.
"And look!" he exclaimed, suddenly seizing the boot, and
exhibiting it on high, "look, my noble tars, if you have tears,
prepare to shed them now. You all do know this boot. I remember
the first time ever old Bob put it on. 'Twas on a winter evening,
off Cape Horn, between the starboard carronades--that day his
precious grog was stopped. Look! in this place a mouse has
nibbled through; see what a rent some envious rat has made,
through this another filed, and, as he plucked his cursed rasp
away, mark how the bootleg gaped. This was the unkindest cut of
all. But whose are the boots?" suddenly assuming a business-like
air; "yours? yours? yours?"

But not a friend of the lamented Bob stood by.

"Tars of Columbia," said the auctioneer, imperatively, "these
boots must be sold; and if I can't sell them one way, I must sell
them another. How much _a pound_, now, for this superior pair of
old boots? going by _the pound_ now, remember, my gallant sailors!
what shall I have? one cent, do I hear? going now at one cent a
pound--going--going--going--_gone!_"

"Whose are they? Yours, Captain of the Waist? Well, my sweet and
pleasant friend, I will have them weighed out to you when the
auction is over."

In like manner all the contents of the bags were disposed of,
embracing old frocks, trowsers, and jackets, the various sums for
which they went being charged to the bidders on the books of the
Purser.

Having been present at this auction, though not a purchaser, and
seeing with what facility the most dismantled old garments went
off, through the magical cleverness of the accomplished auctioneer,
the thought occurred to me, that if ever I calmly and positively
decided to dispose of my famous white jacket, this would be the very
way to do it. I turned the matter over in my mind a long time.

The weather in Rio was genial and warm, and that I would ever
again need such a thing as a heavy quilted jacket--and such a
jacket as the white one, too--seemed almost impossible. Yet I
remembered the American coast, and that it would probably be
Autumn when we should arrive there. Yes, I thought of all that,
to be sure; nevertheless, the ungovernable whim seized me to
sacrifice my jacket and recklessly abide the consequences.
Besides, was it not a horrible jacket? To how many annoyances had
it subjected me? How many scrapes had it dragged me into? Nay,
had it not once jeopardised my very existence? And I had a
dreadful presentiment that, if I persisted in retaining it, it
would do so again. Enough! I will sell it, I muttered; and so
muttering, I thrust my hands further down in my waistband, and
walked the main-top in the stern concentration of an inflexible
purpose. Next day, hearing that another auction was shortly to
take place, I repaired to the office of the Purser's steward,
with whom I was upon rather friendly terms. After vaguely and
delicately hinting at the object of my visit, I came roundly to
the point, and asked him whether he could slip my jacket into one
of the bags of clothes next to be sold, and so dispose of it by
public auction. He kindly acquiesced and the thing was done.

In due time all hands were again summoned round the main-mast;
the Purser's steward mounted his post, and the ceremony began.
Meantime, I lingered out of sight, but still within hearing, on
the gun-deck below, gazing up, un-perceived, at the scene.

As it is now so long ago, I will here frankly make confession
that I had privately retained the services of a friend--Williams,
the Yankee pedagogue and peddler--whose business it would be to
linger near the scene of the auction, and, if the bids on the
jacket loitered, to start it roundly himself; and if the bidding
then became brisk, he was continually to strike in with the most
pertinacious and infatuated bids, and so exasperate competition
into the maddest and most extravagant overtures.

A variety of other articles having been put up, the white jacket
was slowly produced, and, held high aloft between the auctioneer's
thumb and fore-finger, was submitted to the inspection of the
discriminating public.

Here it behooves me once again to describe my jacket; for, as a
portrait taken at one period of life will not answer for a later
stage; much more this jacket of mine, undergoing so many changes,
needs to be painted again and again, in order truly to present
its actual appearance at any given period.

A premature old age had now settled upon it; all over it bore
melancholy sears of the masoned-up pockets that had once trenched
it in various directions. Some parts of it were slightly mildewed
from dampness; on one side several of the buttons were gone, and
others were broken or cracked; while, alas! my many mad endeavours
to rub it black on the decks had now imparted to the whole garment
an exceedingly untidy appearance. Such as it was, with all its
faults, the auctioneer displayed it.

"You, venerable sheet-anchor-men! and you, gallant fore-top-men!
and you, my fine waisters! what do you say now for this superior
old jacket? Buttons and sleeves, lining and skirts, it must this
day be sold without reservation. How much for it, my gallant tars
of Columbia? say the word, and how much?"

"My eyes!" exclaimed a fore-top-man, "don't that 'ere bunch of
old swabs belong to Jack Chase's pet? Aren't that _the white jacket?_"

"_The white jacket!_" cried fifty voices in response; "_the white
jacket!_" The cry ran fore and aft the ship like a slogan,
completely overwhelming the solitary voice of my private friend
Williams, while all hands gazed at it with straining eyes,
wondering how it came among the bags of deceased mariners.

"Ay, noble tars," said the auctioneer, "you may well stare at it;
you will not find another jacket like this on either side of Cape
Horn, I assure you. Why, just look at it! How much, now? _Give_ me
a bid--but don't be rash; be prudent, be prudent, men; remember your
Purser's accounts, and don't be betrayed into extravagant bids."

"Purser's Steward!" cried Grummet, one of the quarter-gunners,
slowly shifting his quid from one cheek to the other, like a
ballast-stone, "I won't bid on that 'ere bunch of old swabs,
unless you put up ten pounds of soap with it."

"Don't mind that old fellow," said the auctioneer. "How much for
the jacket, my noble tars?"

"Jacket;" cried a dandy _bone polisher_ of the gun-room. "The
sail-maker was the tailor, then. How many fathoms of canvas in
it, Purser's Steward?"

"How much for this _jacket_?" reiterated the auctioneer, emphatically.

"_Jacket_, do you call it!" cried a captain of the hold.

"Why not call it a white-washed man-of-war schooner? Look at the
port-holes, to let in the air of cold nights."

"A reg'lar herring-net," chimed in Grummet.

"Gives me the _fever nagur_ to look at it," echoed a mizzen-top-man.

"Silence!" cried the auctioneer. "Start it now--start it, boys;
anything you please, my fine fellows! it _must_ be sold. Come,
what ought I to have on it, now?"

"Why, Purser's Steward," cried a waister, "you ought to have new
sleeves, a new lining, and a new body on it, afore you try to
shove it off on a greenhorn."

"What are you, 'busin' that 'ere garment for?" cried an old
sheet-anchor-man. "Don't you see it's a 'uniform mustering
jacket'--three buttons on one side, and none on t'other?"

"Silence!" again cried the auctioneer. "How much, my sea-
fencibles, for this superior old jacket?"

"Well," said Grummet, "I'll take it for cleaning-rags at one cent."

"Oh, come, give us a bid! say something, Colombians."

"Well, then," said Grummet, all at once bursting into genuine
indignation, "if you want us to say something, then heave that
bunch of old swabs overboard, _say I_, and show us something
worth looking at."

"No one will give me a bid, then? Very good; here, shove it
aside. Let's have something else there."

While this scene was going forward, and my white jacket was thus
being abused, how my heart swelled within me! Thrice was I on the
point of rushing out of my hiding-place, and bearing it off from
derision; but I lingered, still flattering myself that all would
be well, and the jacket find a purchaser at last. But no, alas!
there was no getting rid of it, except by rolling a forty-two-
pound shot in it, and committing it to the deep. But though, in
my desperation, I had once contemplated something of that sort,
yet I had now become unaccountably averse to it, from certain
involuntary superstitious considerations. If I sink my jacket,
thought I, it will be sure to spread itself into a bed at the
bottom of the sea, upon which I shall sooner or later recline, a
dead man. So, unable to conjure it into the possession of
another, and withheld from burying it out of sight for ever, my
jacket stuck to me like the fatal shirt on Nessus.

Herman Melville