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Chapter 59

A MAN-OF-WAR BUTTON DIVIDES TWO BROTHERS.


The conduct of Mandeville, in claiming the acquaintance of the
First Lieutenant under such disreputable circumstances was
strongly contrasted by the behaviour of another person on board,
placed for a time in a somewhat similar situation.

Among the genteel youths of the after-guard was a lad of about
sixteen, a very handsome young fellow, with starry eyes, curly
hair of a golden colour, and a bright, sunshiny complexion: he
must have been the son of some goldsmith. He was one of the few
sailors--not in the main-top--whom I used to single out for
occasional conversation. After several friendly interviews he
became quite frank, and communicated certain portions of his
history. There is some charm in the sea, which induces most
persons to be very communicative concerning themselves.

We had lain in Rio but a day, when I observed that this lad--whom
I shall here call Frank--wore an unwonted expression of sadness,
mixed with apprehension. I questioned him as to the cause, but he
chose to conceal it. Not three days after, he abruptly accosted
me on the gun-deck, where I happened to be taking a promenade.

"I can't keep it to myself any more," he said; "I must have a
confidant, or I shall go mad!"

"What is the matter?" said I, in alarm.

"Matter enough--look at this!" and he handed me a torn half sheet
of an old New York _Herald_, putting his finger upon a particular
word in a particular paragraph. It was the announcement of the
sailing from the Brooklyn Navy-yard of a United States store ship,
with provisions for the squadron in Rio. It was upon a particular
name, in the list of officers and midshipmen, that Frank's fingers
was placed.

"That is my own brother," said he; "he must have got a reefer's
warrant since I left home. Now, White-Jacket, what's to be done?
I have calculated that the store ship may be expected here every
day; my brother will then see me--he an officer and I a miserable
sailor that any moment may be flogged at the gangway, before his
very eyes. Heavens! White-Jacket, what shall I do? Would you run?
Do you think there is any chance to desert? I won't see him, by
Heaven, with this sailor's frock on, and he with the anchor button!"

"Why, Frank," said I, "I do not really see sufficient cause for
this fit you are in. Your brother is an of officer--very good;
and you are nothing but a sailor--but that is no disgrace. If he
comes on board here, go up to him, and take him by the hand;
believe me, he will be glad enough to see you!"

Frank started from his desponding attitude, and fixing his eyes
full upon mine, with clasped hands exclaimed, "White-Jacket, I
have been from home nearly three years; in that time I have never
heard one word from my family, and, though God knows how I love
them, yet I swear to you, that though my brother can tell me
whether my sisters are still alive, yet, rather than accost him
in this _lined-frock_, I would go ten centuries without hearing
one syllable from home?"

Amazed at his earnestness, and hardly able to account for it
altogether, I stood silent a moment; then said, "Why, Frank, this
midshipman is your own brother, you say; now, do you really think
that your own flesh and blood is going to give himself airs over
you, simply because he sports large brass buttons on his coat?
Never believe it. If he does, he can be no brother, and ought to
be hanged--that's all!"

"Don't say that again," said Frank, resentfully; "my brother is a
noble-hearted fellow; I love him as I do myself. You don't
understand me, White-Jacket; don't you see, that when my brother
arrives, he must consort more or less with our chuckle-headed
reefers on board here? There's that namby-pamby Miss Nancy of a
white-face, Stribbles, who, the other day, when Mad Jack's back
was turned, ordered me to hand him the spy-glass, as if he were a
Commodore. Do you suppose, now, I want my brother to see me a
lackey abroad here? By Heaven it is enough to drive one distracted!
What's to be done?" he cried, fiercely.

Much more passed between us, but all my philosophy was in vain,
and at last Frank departed, his head hanging down in despondency.

For several days after, whenever the quarter-master reported a
sail entering the harbour, Frank was foremost in the rigging to
observe it. At length, one afternoon, a vessel drawing near was
reported to be the long-expected store ship. I looked round for
Frank on the spar-deck, but he was nowhere to be seen. He must
have been below, gazing out of a port-hole. The vessel was hailed
from our poop, and came to anchor within a biscuit's toss of our
batteries.

That evening I heard that Frank had ineffectually endeavoured to
get removed from his place as an oarsman in the First-Cutter--a
boat which, from its size, is generally employed with the launch
in carrying ship-stores. When I thought that, the very next day,
perhaps, this boat would be plying between the store ship and our
frigate, I was at no loss to account for Frank's attempts to get
rid of his oar, and felt heartily grieved at their failure.

Next morning the bugler called away the First-Cutter's crew, and
Frank entered the boat with his hat slouched over his eyes. Upon
his return, I was all eagerness to learn what had happened, and,
as the communication of his feelings was a grateful relief, he
poured his whole story into my ear.

It seemed that, with his comrades, he mounted the store ship's
side, and hurried forward to the forecastle. Then, turning
anxiously toward the quarter-deck, he spied two midshipmen
leaning against the bulwarks, conversing. One was the officer of
his boat--was the other his brother? No; he was too tall--too
large. Thank Heaven! it was not him. And perhaps his brother had
not sailed from home, after all; there might have been some
mistake. But suddenly the strange midshipman laughed aloud, and
that laugh Frank had heard a thousand times before. It was a
free, hearty laugh--a brother's laugh; but it carried a pang to
the heart of poor Frank.

He was now ordered down to the main-deck to assist in removing
the stores. The boat being loaded, he was ordered into her, when,
looking toward the gangway, he perceived the two midshipmen
lounging upon each side of it, so that no one could pass them
without brushing their persons. But again pulling his hat over
his eyes, Frank, darting between them, gained his oar. "How my
heart thumped," he said, "when I actually, felt him so near me;
but I wouldn't look at him--no! I'd have died first!"

To Frank's great relief, the store ship at last moved further up
the bay, and it fortunately happened that he saw no more of his
brother while in Rio; and while there, he never in any way made
himself known to him.


Herman Melville