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Chapter 67

WHITE-JACKET ARRAIGNED AT THE MAST.


When with five hundred others I made one of the compelled
spectators at the scourging of poor Rose-water, I little thought
what Fate had ordained for myself the next day.

Poor mulatto! thought I, one of an oppressed race, they degrade
you like a hound. Thank God! I am a white. Yet I had seen whites
also scourged; for, black or white, all my shipmates were liable
to that. Still, there is something in us, somehow, that in the
most degraded condition, we snatch at a chance to deceive
ourselves into a fancied superiority to others, whom we suppose
lower in the scale than ourselves.

Poor Rose-water! thought I; poor mulatto! Heaven send you a
release from your humiliation!

To make plain the thing about to be related, it needs to repeat
what has somewhere been previously mentioned, that in _tacking
ship_ every seaman in a man-of-war has a particular station
assigned him. What that station is, should be made known to him
by the First Lieutenant; and when the word is passed to _tack_ or
_wear_, it is every seaman's duty to be found at his post. But
among the various _numbers and stations_ given to me by the
senior Lieutenant, when I first came on board the frigate, he had
altogether omitted informing me of my particular place at those
times, and, up to the precise period now written of, I had hardly
known that I should have had any special place then at all. For
the rest of the men, they seemed to me to catch hold of the first
rope that offered, as in a merchant-man upon similar occasions.
Indeed, I subsequently discovered, that such was the state of
discipline--in this one particular, at least--that very few of
the seamen could tell where their proper stations were, at
_tacking or wearing_.

"All hands tack ship, ahoy!" such was the announcement made by the
boatswain's mates at the hatchways the morning after the hard fate of
Rose-water. It was just eight bells--noon, and springing from my white
jacket, which I had spread between the guns for a bed on the main-deck,
I ran up the ladders, and, as usual, seized hold of the main-brace,
which fifty hands were streaming along forward. When _main-top-sail
haul!_ was given through the trumpet, I pulled at this brace with such
heartiness and good-will, that I almost flattered myself that my
instrumentality in getting the frigate round on the other tack, deserved
a public vote of thanks, and a silver tankard from Congress.

But something happened to be in the way aloft when the yards swung
round; a little confusion ensued; and, with anger on his brow, Captain
Claret came forward to see what occasioned it. No one to let go the
weather-lift of the main-yard! The rope was cast off, however, by a
hand, and the yards unobstructed, came round.

When the last rope was coiled, away, the Captain desired to know
of the First Lieutenant who it might be that was stationed at the
weather (then the starboard) main-lift. With a vexed expression
of countenance the First Lieutenant sent a midshipman for the
Station Bill, when, upon glancing it over, my own name was found
put down at the post in question.

At the time I was on the gun-deck below, and did not know of
these proceedings; but a moment after, I heard the boatswain's
mates bawling my name at all the hatch-ways, and along all three
decks. It was the first time I had ever heard it so sent through
the furthest recesses of the ship, and well knowing what this
generally betokened to other seamen, my heart jumped to my
throat, and I hurriedly asked Flute, the boatswain's-mate at the
fore-hatchway, what was wanted of me.

"Captain wants ye at the mast," he replied. "Going to flog ye, I guess."

"What for?"

"My eyes! you've been chalking your face, hain't ye?"

"What am I wanted for?" I repeated.

But at that instant my name was again thundered forth by the other
boatswain's mate, and Flute hurried me away, hinting that I would soon
find out what the Captain desired of me.

I swallowed down my heart in me as I touched the spar-deck, for a
single instant balanced myself on my best centre, and then, wholly
ignorant of what was going to be alleged against me, advanced to
the dread tribunal of the frigate.

As I passed through the gangway, I saw the quarter-master rigging
the gratings; the boatswain with his green bag of scourges; the
master-at-arms ready to help off some one's shirt.

Again I made a desperate swallow of my whole soul in me, and
found myself standing before Captain Claret. His flushed face
obviously showed him in ill-humour. Among the group of officers
by his side was the First Lieutenant, who, as I came aft, eyed me
in such a manner, that I plainly perceived him to be extremely
vexed at me for having been the innocent means of reflecting upon
the manner in which he kept up the discipline of the ship.

"Why were you not at your station, sir?" asked the Captain.

"What station do you mean, sir?" said I.

It is generally the custom with man-of-war's-men to stand
obsequiously touching their hat at every sentence they address to
the Captain. But as this was not obligatory upon me by the
Articles of War, I did not do so upon the present occasion, and
previously, I had never had the dangerous honour of a personal
interview with Captain Claret.

He quickly noticed my omission of the homage usually rendered
him, and instinct told me, that to a certain extent, it set his
heart against me.

"What station, sir, do you mean?" said I.

"You pretend ignorance," he replied; "it will not help you, sir."

Glancing at the Captain, the First Lieutenant now produced the
Station Bill, and read my name in connection with that of the
starboard main-lift.

"Captain Claret," said I, "it is the first time I ever heard of
my being assigned to that post."

"How is this, Mr. Bridewell?" he said, turning to the First
Lieutenant, with a fault-finding expression.

"It is impossible, sir," said that officer, striving to hide his
vexation, "but this man must have known his station."

"I have never known it before this moment, Captain Claret," said I.

"Do you contradict my officer?" he returned. "I shall flog you."

I had now been on board the frigate upward of a year, and remained
unscourged; the ship was homeward-bound, and in a few weeks, at most,
I would be a free man. And now, after making a hermit of myself in
some things, in order to avoid the possibility of the scourge, here it
was hanging over me for a thing utterly unforeseen, for a crime of which
I was as utterly innocent. But all that was as naught. I saw that my
case was hopeless; my solemn disclaimer was thrown in my teeth, and
the boatswain's mate stood curling his fingers through the _cat_.

There are times when wild thoughts enter a man's heart, when he seems
almost irresponsible for his act and his deed. The Captain stood on the
weather-side of the deck. Sideways, on an unobstructed line with him,
was the opening of the lee-gangway, where the side-ladders are suspended
in port. Nothing but a slight bit of sinnate-stuff served to rail in
this opening, which was cut right down to the level of the Captain's
feet, showing the far sea beyond. I stood a little to windward of him,
and, though he was a large, powerful man, it was certain that a sudden
rush against him, along the slanting deck, would infallibly pitch him
headforemost into the ocean, though he who so rushed must needs go over
with him. My blood seemed clotting in my veins; I felt icy cold at the
tips of my fingers, and a dimness was before my eyes. But through that
dimness the boatswain's mate, scourge in hand, loomed like a giant, and
Captain Claret, and the blue sea seen through the opening at the
gangway, showed with an awful vividness. I cannot analyse my heart,
though it then stood still within me. But the thing that swayed me to
my purpose was not altogether the thought that Captain Claret was about
to degrade me, and that I had taken an oath with my soul that he should
not. No, I felt my man's manhood so bottomless within me, that no word,
no blow, no scourge of Captain Claret could cut me deep enough for
that. I but swung to an instinct in me--the instinct diffused through
all animated nature, the same that prompts even a worm to turn under
the heel. Locking souls-with him, I meant to drag Captain Claret from
this earthly tribunal of his to that of Jehovah and let Him decide
between us. No other way could I escape the scourge.

Nature has not implanted any power in man that was not meant to be
exercised at times, though too often our powers have been abused. The
privilege, inborn and inalienable, that every man has of dying himself,
and inflicting death upon another, was not given to us without a purpose.
These are the last resources of an insulted and unendurable existence.

"To the gratings, sir!" said Captain Claret; "do you hear?"

My eye was measuring the distance between him and the sea.

"Captain Claret," said a voice advancing from the crowd. I turned
to see who this might be, that audaciously interposed at a juncture
like this. It was the same remarkably handsome and gentlemanly
corporal of marines, Colbrook, who has been previously alluded to,
in the chapter describing killing time in a man-of-war.

"I know that man," said Colbrook, touching his cap, and speaking in a
mild, firm, but extremely deferential manner; "and I know that he
would not be found absent from his station, if he knew where it was."

This speech was almost unprecedented. Seldom or never before had
a marine dared to speak to the Captain of a frigate in behalf of
a seaman at the mast. But there was something so unostentatiously
commanding in the calm manner of the man, that the Captain,
though astounded, did not in any way reprimand him. The very
unusualness of his interference seemed Colbrook's protection.

Taking heart, perhaps, from Colbrook's example, Jack Chase
interposed, and in a manly but carefully respectful manner, in
substance repeated the corporal's remark, adding that he had
never found me wanting in the top.

The Captain looked from Chase to Colbrook, and from Colbrook to
Chase--one the foremost man among the seamen, the other the
foremost man among the soldiers--then all round upon the packed
and silent crew, and, as if a slave to Fate, though supreme
Captain of a frigate, he turned to the First Lieutenant, made
some indifferent remark, and saying to me _you may go_, sauntered
aft into his cabin; while I, who, in the desperation of my soul,
had but just escaped being a murderer and a suicide, almost burst
into tears of thanks-giving where I stood.

Herman Melville