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 65

A M A N-O F-W A R RACE.


We lay in Rio so long--for what reason the Commodore only knows--that
a saying went abroad among the impatient sailors that our frigate would
at last ground on the beef-bones daily thrown overboard by the cooks.

But at last good tidings came. "All hands up anchor, ahoy!" And bright
and early in the morning up came our old iron, as the sun rose in the
East.

The land-breezes at Rio--by which alone vessels may emerge from the
bay--is ever languid and faint. It comes from gardens of citrons and
cloves, spiced with all the spices of the Tropic of Capricorn. And,
like that old exquisite, Mohammed, who so much loved to snuff perfumes
and essences, and used to lounge out of the conservatories of Khadija,
his wife, to give battle to the robust sons of Koriesh; even so this
Rio land-breeze comes jaded with sweet-smelling savours, to wrestle
with the wild Tartar breezes of the sea.

Slowly we dropped and dropped down the bay, glided like a stately swan
through the outlet, and were gradually rolled by the smooth, sliding
billows broad out upon the deep. Straight in our wake came the tall
main-mast of the English fighting-frigate, terminating, like a steepled
cathedral, in the bannered cross of the religion of peace; and straight
after _her_ came the rainbow banner of France, sporting God's token
that no more would he make war on the earth.

Both Englishmen and Frenchmen were resolved upon a race; and we
Yankees swore by our top-sails and royals to sink their blazing
banners that night among the Southern constellations we should
daily be extinguishing behind us in our run to the North.

"Ay," said Mad Jack, "St. George's banner shall be as the
_Southern Cross_, out of sight, leagues down the horizon, while
our gallant stars, my brave boys, shall burn all alone in the
North, like the Great Bear at the Pole! Come on, Rainbow and Cross!"

But the wind was long languid and faint, not yet recovered from its
night's dissipation ashore, and noon advanced, with the Sugar-Loaf
pinnacle in sight.

Now it is not with ships as with horses; for though, if a horse
walk well and fast, it generally furnishes good token that he is
not bad at a gallop, yet the ship that in a light breeze is
outstripped, may sweep the stakes, so soon as a t'gallant breeze
enables her to strike into a canter. Thus fared it with us.
First, the Englishman glided ahead, and bluffly passed on; then
the Frenchman politely bade us adieu, while the old Neversink
lingered behind, railing at the effeminate breeze. At one time,
all three frigates were irregularly abreast, forming a diagonal
line; and so near were all three, that the stately officers on
the poops stiffly saluted by touching their caps, though
refraining from any further civilities. At this juncture, it was
a noble sight to behold those fine frigates, with dripping
breast-hooks, all rearing and nodding in concert, and to look
through their tall spars and wilderness of rigging, that seemed
like inextricably-entangled, gigantic cobwebs against the sky.


Toward sundown the ocean pawed its white hoofs to the spur of its
helter-skelter rider, a strong blast from the Eastward, and,
giving three cheers from decks, yards, and tops, we crowded all
sail on St. George and St. Denis.

But it is harder to overtake than outstrip; night fell upon us,
still in the rear--still where the little boat was, which, at the
eleventh hour, according to a Rabbinical tradition, pushed after
the ark of old Noah.

It was a misty, cloudy night; and though at first our look-outs
kept the chase in dim sight, yet at last so thick became the
atmosphere, that no sign of a strange spar was to be seen. But
the worst of it was that, when last discerned, the Frenchman was
broad on our weather-bow, and the Englishman gallantly leading
his van.

The breeze blew fresher and fresher; but, with even our main-
royal set, we dashed along through a cream-coloured ocean of
illuminated foam. White-Jacket was then in the top; and it was
glorious to look down and see our black hull butting the white
sea with its broad bows like a ram.

"We must beat them with such a breeze, dear Jack," said I to our
noble Captain of the Top.

"But the same breeze blows for John Bull, remember," replied
Jack, who, being a Briton, perhaps favoured the Englishman more
than the Neversink.

"But how we boom through the billows!" cried Jack, gazing over
the top-rail; then, flinging forth his arm, recited,

"'Aslope, and gliding on the leeward side,
The bounding vessel cuts the roaring tide.'

Camoens! White-Jacket, Camoens! Did you ever read him? The
Lusiad, I mean? It's the man-of-war epic of the world, my lad.
Give me Gama for a Commodore, say I--Noble Gama! And Mickle,
White-Jacket, did you ever read of him? William Julius Mickle?
Camoens's Translator? A disappointed man though, White-Jacket.
Besides his version of the Lusiad, he wrote many forgotten
things. Did you ever see his ballad of Cumnor Hall?--No?--Why, it
gave Sir Walter Scott the hint of Kenilworth. My father knew
Mickle when he went to sea on board the old Romney man-of-war.
How many great men have been sailors, White-Jacket! They say
Homer himself was once a tar, even as his hero, Ulysses, was both
a sailor and a shipwright. I'll swear Shakspeare was once a
captain of the forecastle. Do you mind the first scene in _The
Tempest_, White-Jacket? And the world-finder, Christopher
Columbus, was a sailor! and so was Camoens, who went to sea with
Gama, else we had never had the Lusiad, White-Jacket. Yes, I've
sailed over the very track that Camoens sailed--round the East
Cape into the Indian Ocean. I've been in Don Jose's garden, too,
in Macao, and bathed my feet in the blessed dew of the walks
where Camoens wandered before me. Yes, White-Jacket, and I have
seen and sat in the cave at the end of the flowery, winding way,
where Camoens, according to tradition, composed certain parts of
his Lusiad. Ay, Camoens was a sailor once! Then, there's
Falconer, whose 'Ship-wreck' will never founder, though he
himself, poor fellow, was lost at sea in the Aurora frigate. Old
Noah was the first sailor. And St. Paul, too, knew how to box the
compass, my lad! mind you that chapter in Acts? I couldn't spin
the yarn better myself. Were you ever in Malta? They called it
Melita in the Apostle's day. I have been in Paul's cave there,
White-Jacket. They say a piece of it is good for a charm against
shipwreck; but I never tried it. There's Shelley, he was quite a
sailor. Shelley--poor lad! a Percy, too--but they ought to have
let him sleep in his sailor's grave--he was drowned in the
Mediterranean, you know, near Leghorn--and not burn his body, as
they did, as if he had been a bloody Turk. But many people
thought him so, White-Jacket, because he didn't go to mass, and
because he wrote Queen Mab. Trelawney was by at the burning; and
he was an ocean-rover, too! Ay, and Byron helped put a piece of a
keel on the fire; for it was made of bits of a wreck, they say;
one wreck burning another! And was not Byron a sailor? an amateur
forecastle-man, White-Jacket, so he was; else how bid the ocean
heave and fall in that grand, majestic way? I say, White-Jacket,
d'ye mind me? there never was a very great man yet who spent all
his life inland. A snuff of the sea, my boy, is inspiration; and
having been once out of sight of land, has been the making of
many a true poet and the blasting of many pretenders; for, d'ye
see, there's no gammon about the ocean; it knocks the false keel
right off a pretender's bows; it tells him just what he is, and
makes him feel it, too. A sailor's life, I say, is the thing to
bring us mortals out. What does the blessed Bible say? Don't it
say that we main-top-men alone see the marvellous sights and
wonders? Don't deny the blessed Bible, now! don't do it! How it
rocks up here, my boy!" holding on to a shroud; "but it only
proves what I've been saying--the sea is the place to cradle
genius! Heave and fall, old sea!"

"And _you_, also, noble Jack," said I, "what are you but a sailor?"

"You're merry, my boy," said Jack, looking up with a glance like
that of a sentimental archangel doomed to drag out his eternity
in disgrace. "But mind you, White-Jacket, there are many great
men in the world besides Commodores and Captains. I've that here,
White-Jacket"--touching his forehead--"which, under happier
skies--perhaps in you solitary star there, peeping down from
those clouds--might have made a Homer of me. But Fate is Fate,
White-Jacket; and we Homers who happen to be captains of tops
must write our odes in our hearts, and publish them in our heads.
But look! the Captain's on the poop."

It was now midnight; but all the officers were on deck.

"Jib-boom, there!" cried the Lieutenant of the Watch, going forward and
hailing the headmost look-out. "D'ye see anything of those fellows now?"

"See nothing, sir."

"See nothing, sir," said the Lieutenant, approaching the Captain, and
touching his cap.

"Call all hands!" roared the Captain. "This keel sha'n't be beat while
I stride it."

All hands were called, and the hammocks stowed in the nettings for
the rest of the night, so that no one could lie between blankets.

Now, in order to explain the means adopted by the Captain to
insure us the race, it needs to be said of the Neversink, that,
for some years after being launched, she was accounted one of the
slowest vessels in the American Navy. But it chanced upon a time,
that, being on a cruise in the Mediterranean, she happened to
sail out of Port Mahon in what was then supposed to be very bad
trim for the sea. Her bows were rooting in the water, and her
stern kicking up its heels in the air. But, wonderful to tell, it
was soon discovered that in this comical posture she sailed like
a shooting-star; she outstripped every vessel on the station.
Thenceforward all her Captains, on all cruises, _trimmed her by
the head;_ and the Neversink gained the name of a clipper.

To return. All hands being called, they were now made use of by
Captain Claret as make-weights, to trim the ship, scientifically,
to her most approved bearings. Some were sent forward on the
spar-deck, with twenty-four-pound shot in their hands, and were
judiciously scattered about here and there, with strict orders
not to budge an inch from their stations, for fear of marring the
Captain's plans. Others were distributed along the gun and berth-
decks, with similar orders; and, to crown all, several carronade
guns were unshipped from their carriages, and swung in their
breechings from the beams of the main-deck, so as to impart a
sort of vibratory briskness and oscillating buoyancy to the frigate.

And thus we five hundred make-weights stood out that whole night,
some of us exposed to a drenching rain, in order that the
Neversink might not be beaten. But the comfort and consolation of
all make-weights is as dust in the balance in the estimation of
the rulers of our man-of-war world.

The long, anxious night at last came to an end, and, with the
first peep of day, the look-out on the jib-boom was hailed; but
nothing was in sight. At last it was broad day; yet still not a
bow was to be seen in our rear, nor a stern in our van.

"Where are they?" cried the Captain.

"Out of sight, astern, to be sure, sir," said the officer of the deck.

"Out of sight, _ahead_, to be sure, sir," muttered Jack Chase,
in the top.

Precisely thus stood the question: whether we beat them, or
whether they beat us, no mortal can tell to this hour, since we
never saw them again; but for one, White-Jacket will lay his two
hands on the bow chasers of the Neversink, and take his ship's
oath that we Yankees carried the day.

Herman Melville