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Chapter 66

FUN IN A MAN-OF-WAR.


After the race (our man-of-war Derby) we had many days fine
weather, during which we continued running before the Trades
toward the north. Exhilarated by the thought of being homeward-
bound, many of the seamen became joyous, and the discipline of
the ship, if anything, became a little relaxed. Many pastimes
served to while away the _Dog-Watches_ in particular. These
_Dog-Watches_ (embracing two hours in the early part of the
evening) form the only authorised play-time for the crews of most
ships at sea.

Among other diversions at present licensed by authority in the
Neversink, were those of single-stick, sparring, hammer-and-
anvil, and head-bumping. All these were under the direct
patronage of the Captain, otherwise--seeing the consequences they
sometimes led to--they would undoubtedly have been strictly
prohibited. It is a curious coincidence, that when a navy captain
does not happen to be an admirer of the _Fistiana_ his crew
seldom amuse themselves in that way.

_Single-stick_, as every one knows, is a delightful pastime,
which consists in two men standing a few feet apart, and rapping
each other over the head with long poles. There is a good deal of
fun in it, so long as you are not hit; but a hit--in the judgment
of discreet persons--spoils the sport completely. When this
pastime is practiced by connoisseurs ashore, they wear heavy,
wired helmets, to break the force of the blows. But the only
helmets of our tars were those with which nature had furnished
them. They played with great gun-rammers.

_Sparring_ consists in playing single-stick with bone poles
instead of wooden ones. Two men stand apart, and pommel each
other with their fists (a hard bunch of knuckles permanently
attached to the arms, and made globular, or extended into a palm,
at the pleasure of the proprietor), till one of them, finding
himself sufficiently thrashed, cries _enough_.

_Hammer-and-anvil_ is thus practised by amateurs: Patient No. 1
gets on all-fours, and stays so; while patient No. 2 is taken up
by his arms and legs, and his base is swung against the base of
patient No. 1, till patient No. 1, with the force of the final
blow, is sent flying along the deck.

_Head-bumping_, as patronised by Captain Claret, consists in two
negroes (whites will not answer) butting at each other like rams.
This pastime was an especial favourite with the Captain. In the
dog-watches, Rose-water and May-day were repeatedly summoned
into the lee waist to tilt at each other, for the benefit of
the Captain's health.

May-day was a full-blooded "_bull-negro_," so the sailors called
him, with a skull like an iron tea-kettle, wherefore May-day much
fancied the sport. But Rose-water, he was a slender and rather
handsome mulatto, and abhorred the pastime. Nevertheless, the
Captain must be obeyed; so at the word poor Rose-water was fain
to put himself in a posture of defence, else May-day would
incontinently have bumped him out of a port-hole into the sea. I
used to pity poor Rose-water from the bottom of my heart. But my
pity was almost aroused into indignation at a sad sequel to one
of these gladiatorial scenes.

It seems that, lifted up by the unaffected, though verbally
unexpressed applause of the Captain, May-day had begun to despise
Rose-water as a poltroon--a fellow all brains and no skull;
whereas he himself was a great warrior, all skull and no brains.

Accordingly, after they had been bumping one evening to the
Captain's content, May-day confidentially told Rose-water that he
considered him a "_nigger_," which, among some blacks, is held a
great term of reproach. Fired at the insult, Rose-water gave May-
day to understand that he utterly erred; for his mother, a black
slave, had been one of the mistresses of a Virginia planter
belonging to one of the oldest families in that state. Another
insulting remark followed this innocent disclosure; retort
followed retort; in a word, at last they came together in mortal
combat.

The master-at-arms caught them in the act, and brought them up to
the mast. The Captain advanced.

"Please, sir," said poor Rose-water, "it all came of dat 'ar
bumping; May-day, here, aggrawated me 'bout it."

"Master-at-arms," said the Captain, "did you see them fighting?"

"Ay, sir," said the master-at-arms, touching his cap.

"Rig the gratings," said the Captain. "I'll teach you two men that,
though I now and then permit you to _play_, I will have no _fighting_.
Do your duty, boatswain's mate!" And the negroes were flogged.

Justice commands that the fact of the Captain's not showing any
leniency to May-day--a decided favourite of his, at least while
in the ring--should not be passed over. He flogged both culprits
in the most impartial manner.

As in the matter of the scene at the gangway, shortly after the
Cape Horn theatricals, when my attention had been directed to the
fact that the officers had _shipped their quarter-deck faces_--
upon that occasion, I say, it was seen with what facility a sea-
officer assumes his wonted severity of demeanour after a casual
relaxation of it. This was especially the case with Captain
Claret upon the present occasion. For any landsman to have beheld
him in the lee waist, of a pleasant dog-watch, with a genial,
good-humoured countenance, observing the gladiators in the ring,
and now and then indulging in a playful remark--that landsman
would have deemed Captain Claret the indulgent father of his
crew, perhaps permitting the excess of his kind-heartedness to
encroach upon the appropriate dignity of his station. He would
have deemed Captain Claret a fine illustration of those two well-
known poetical comparisons between a sea-captain and a father,
and between a sea-captain and the master of apprentices,
instituted by those eminent maritime jurists, the noble Lords
Tenterden and Stowell.

But surely, if there is anything hateful, it is this _shipping of
the quarter-deck face_ after wearing a merry and good-natured
one. How can they have the heart? Methinks, if but once I smiled
upon a man--never mind how much beneath me--I could not bring
myself to condemn him to the shocking misery of the lash. Oh
officers! all round the world, if this quarter-deck face you wear
at all, then never unship it for another, to be merely sported
for a moment. Of all insults, the temporary condescension of a
master to a slave is the most outrageous and galling. That
potentate who most condescends, mark him well; for that
potentate, if occasion come, will prove your uttermost tyrant.

Herman Melville