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 54


Whenever, in intervals of mild benevolence, or yielding to mere
politic dictates, Kings and Commodores relax the yoke of
servitude, they should see to it well that the concession seem
not too sudden or unqualified; for, in the commoner's estimation,
that might argue feebleness or fear.

Hence it was, perhaps, that, though noble Jack had carried the
day captive in his audience at the mast, yet more than thirty-six
hours elapsed ere anything official was heard of the "liberty"
his shipmates so earnestly coveted. Some of the people began to
growl and grumble.

"It's turned out all gammon, Jack," said one.

"Blast the Commodore!" cried another, "he bamboozled you, Jack."

"Lay on your oars a while," answered Jack, "and we shall see;
we've struck for liberty, and liberty we'll have! I'm your
tribune, boys; I'm your Rienzi. The Commodore must keep his word."

Next day, about breakfast-time, a mighty whistling and piping was
heard at the main-hatchway, and presently the boatswain's voice
was heard: "D'ye hear there, fore and aft! all you starboard-
quarter watch! get ready to go ashore on liberty!"

In a paroxysm of delight, a young mizzen-top-man, standing by at
the time, whipped the tarpaulin from his head, and smashed it
like a pancake on the deck. "Liberty!" he shouted, leaping down
into the berth-deck after his bag.

At the appointed hour, the quarter-watch mustered round the
capstan, at which stood our old First Lord of the Treasury and
Pay-Master-General, the Purser, with several goodly buck-skin
bags of dollars, piled up on the capstan. He helped us all round
to half a handful or so, and then the boats were manned, and,
like so many Esterhazys, we were pulled ashore by our shipmates.
All their lives lords may live in listless state; but give the
commoners a holiday, and they outlord the Commodore himself.

The ship's company were divided into four sections or quarter-
watches, only one of which were on shore at a time, the rest
remaining to garrison the frigate--the term of liberty for each
being twenty-four hours.

With Jack Chase and a few other discreet and gentlemanly top-
men, I went ashore on the first day, with the first quarter-
watch. Our own little party had a charming time; we saw many fine
sights; fell in--as all sailors must--with dashing adventures.
But, though not a few good chapters might be written on this
head, I must again forbear; for in this book I have nothing to do
with the shore further than to glance at it, now and then, from
the water; my man-of-war world alone must supply me with the
staple of my matter; I have taken an oath to keep afloat to the
last letter of my narrative.

Had they all been as punctual as Jack Chase's party, the whole
quarter-watch of liberty-men had been safe on board the frigate
at the expiration of the twenty-four hours. But this was not the
case; and during the entire day succeeding, the midshipmen and
others were engaged in ferreting them out of their hiding-places on
shore, and bringing them off in scattered detachments to the ship.

They came in all imaginable stages of intoxication; some with
blackened eyes and broken heads; some still more severely
injured, having been stabbed in frays with the Portuguese
soldiers. Others, unharmed, were immediately dropped on the gun-
deck, between the guns, where they lay snoring for the rest of
the day. As a considerable degree of license is invariably
permitted to man-of-war's-men just "off liberty," and as man-of-
war's-men well know this to be the case, they occasionally avail
themselves of the privilege to talk very frankly to the officers
when they first cross the gangway, taking care, meanwhile, to
reel about very industriously, so that there shall be no doubt
about their being seriously intoxicated, and altogether _non
compos_ for the time. And though but few of them have cause to
feign intoxication, yet some individuals may be suspected of
enacting a studied part upon these occasions. Indeed--judging by
certain symptoms--even when really inebriated, some of the
sailors must have previously determined upon their conduct; just
as some persons who, before taking the exhilarating gas, secretly
make up their minds to perform certain mad feats while under its
influence, which feats consequently come to pass precisely as if
the actors were not accountable for them.

For several days, while the other quarter-watches were given liberty,
the Neversink presented a sad scene. She was more like a madhouse
than a frigate; the gun-deck resounded with frantic fights, shouts,
and songs. All visitors from shore were kept at a cable's length.

These scenes, however, are nothing to those which have repeatedly
been enacted in American men-of-war upon other stations. But the
custom of introducing women on board, in harbour, is now pretty
much discontinued, both in the English and American Navy, unless
a ship, commanded by some dissolute Captain, happens to lie in
some far away, outlandish port, in the Pacific or Indian Ocean.

The British line-of-battle ship, Royal George, which in 1782 sunk
at her anchors at Spithead, carried down three hundred English
women among the one thousand souls that were drowned on that
memorable morning.

When, at last, after all the mad tumult and contention of "Liberty,"
the reaction came, our frigate presented a very different scene.
The men looked jaded and wan, lethargic and lazy; and many an old
mariner, with hand upon abdomen, called upon the Flag-staff to
witness that there were more _hot coppers_ in the Neversink than
those in the ship's galley.

Such are the lamentable effects of suddenly and completely
releasing "_the people_" of a man-of-war from arbitrary
discipline. It shows that, to such, "liberty," at first, must be
administered in small and moderate quantities, increasing with
the patient's capacity to make good use of it.

Of course while we lay in Rio, our officers frequently went
ashore for pleasure, and, as a general thing, conducted
themselves with propriety. But it is a sad thing to say, that, as
for Lieutenant Mad Jack, he enjoyed himself so delightfully for
three consecutive days in the town, that, upon returning to the
ship, he sent his card to the Surgeon, with his compliments,
begging him to drop into his state-room the first time he
happened to pass that way in the ward-room.

But one of our Surgeon's mates, a young medico of fine family but
slender fortune, must have created by far the strongest
impression among the hidalgoes of Rio. He had read Don Quixote,
and, instead of curing him of his Quixotism, as it ought to have
done, it only made him still more Quixotic. Indeed, there are
some natures concerning whose moral maladies the grand maxim of
Mr. Similia Similibus Curantur Hahneman does not hold true,
since, with them, _like cures_ not _like_, but only aggravates
_like_. Though, on the other hand, so incurable are the moral
maladies of such persons, that the antagonist maxim, _contraria
contrariis curantar_, often proves equally false.

Of a warm tropical day, this Surgeon's mate must needs go ashore
in his blue cloth boat-cloak, wearing it, with a gallant Spanish
toss, over his cavalier shoulder. By noon, he perspired very
freely; but then his cloak attracted all eyes, and that was huge
satisfaction. Nevertheless, his being knock-kneed, and spavined
of one leg, sorely impaired the effect of this hidalgo cloak,
which, by-the-way, was some-what rusty in front, where his chin
rubbed against it, and a good deal bedraggled all over, from his
having used it as a counterpane off Cape Horn.

As for the midshipmen, there is no knowing what their mammas
would have said to their conduct in Rio. Three of them drank a
good deal too much; and when they came on board, the Captain
ordered them to be sewed up in their hammocks, to cut short their
obstreperous capers till sober.

This shows how unwise it is to allow children yet in their teens
to wander so far from home. It more especially illustrates the
folly of giving them long holidays in a foreign land, full of
seductive dissipation. Port for men, claret for boys, cried Dr.
Johnson. Even so, men only should drink the strong drink of
travel; boys should still be kept on milk and water at home.
Middies! you may despise your mother's leading-strings, but they
are the _man-ropes_ my lads, by which many youngsters have
steadied the giddiness of youth, and saved themselves from
lamentable falls. And middies! know this, that as infants, being
too early put on their feet, grow up bandy-legged, and curtailed
of their fair proportions, even so, my dear middies, does it
morally prove with some of you, who prematurely are sent off to sea.

These admonitions are solely addressed to the more diminutive class of
midshipmen--those under five feet high, and under seven stone in weight.

Truly, the records of the steerages of men-of-war are full of most
melancholy examples of early dissipation, disease, disgrace, and death.
Answer, ye shades of fine boys, who in the soils of all climes, the
round world over, far away sleep from your homes.

Mothers of men! If your hearts have been cast down when your boys
have fallen in the way of temptations ashore, how much more bursting
your grief, did you know that those boys were far from your arms,
cabined and cribbed in by all manner of iniquities. But this some of
you cannot believe. It is, perhaps, well that it is so.

But hold them fast--all those who have not yet weighed their anchors
for the Navy-round and round, hitch over hitch, bind your leading-
strings on them, and clinching a ring-bolt into your chimmey-jam,
moor your boys fast to that best of harbours, the hearth-stone.

But if youth be giddy, old age is staid; even as young saplings,
in the litheness of their limbs, toss to their roots in the fresh
morning air; but, stiff and unyielding with age, mossy trunks
never bend. With pride and pleasure be it said, that, as for our
old Commodore, though he might treat himself to as many "_liberty
days_" as he pleased, yet throughout our stay in Rio he conducted
himself with the utmost discretion.

But he was an old, old man; physically, a very small man; his
spine was as an unloaded musket-barrel--not only attenuated, but
destitute of a solitary cartridge, and his ribs were as the ribs
of a weasel.

Besides, he was Commodore of the fleet, supreme lord of the Commons
in Blue. It beseemed him, therefore, to erect himself into an ensample
of virtue, and show the gun-deck what virtue was. But alas! when Virtue
sits high aloft on a frigate's poop, when Virtue is crowned in the
cabin a Commodore, when Virtue rules by compulsion, and domineers over
Vice as a slave, then Virtue, though her mandates be outwardly
observed, bears little interior sway. To be efficacious, Virtue must
come down from aloft, even as our blessed Redeemer came down to redeem
our whole man-of-war world; to that end, mixing with its sailors and
sinners as equals.

Herman Melville