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Chapter 68

A MAN-OF-WAR FOUNTAIN, AND OTHER THINGS.


Let us forget the scourge and the gangway a while, and jot down
in our memories a few little things pertaining to our man-of-war
world. I let nothing slip, however small; and feel myself
actuated by the same motive which has prompted many worthy old
chroniclers, to set down the merest trifles concerning things
that are destined to pass away entirely from the earth, and
which, if not preserved in the nick of time, must infallibly
perish from the memories of man. Who knows that this humble
narrative may not hereafter prove the history of an obsolete
barbarism? Who knows that, when men-of-war shall be no more,
"White-Jacket" may not be quoted to show to the people in the
Millennium what a man-of-war was? God hasten the time! Lo! ye
years, escort it hither, and bless our eyes ere we die.

There is no part of a frigate where you will see more going and
coming of strangers, and overhear more greetings and gossipings
of acquaintances, than in the immediate vicinity of the scuttle-
butt, just forward of the main-hatchway, on the gun-deck.

The scuttle-butt is a goodly, round, painted cask, standing on
end, and with its upper head removed, showing a narrow, circular
shelf within, where rest a number of tin cups for the accommodation
of drinkers. Central, within the scuttle-butt itself, stands an iron
pump, which, connecting with the immense water-tanks in the hold,
furnishes an unfailing supply of the much-admired Pale Ale, first
brewed in the brooks of the garden of Eden, and stamped with the
_brand_ of our old father Adam, who never knew what wine was. We
are indebted to the old vintner Noah for that. The scuttle-butt
is the only fountain in the ship; and here alone can you drink,
unless at your meals. Night and day an armed sentry paces before
it, bayonet in hand, to see that no water is taken away, except
according to law. I wonder that they station no sentries at the
port-holes, to see that no air is breathed, except according to
Navy regulations.

As five hundred men come to drink at this scuttle-butt; as it is
often surrounded by officers' servants drawing water for their
masters to wash; by the cooks of the range, who hither come to
fill their coffee-pots; and by the cooks of the ship's messes to
procure water for their _duffs_; the scuttle-butt may be
denominated the town-pump of the ship. And would that my fine
countryman, Hawthorne of Salem, had but served on board a man-of-
war in his time, that he might give us the reading of a "_rill_"
from the scuttle-butt.


* * * * *

As in all extensive establishments--abbeys, arsenals, colleges,
treasuries, metropolitan post-offices, and monasteries--there are many
snug little niches, wherein are ensconced certain superannuated old
pensioner officials; and, more especially, as in most ecclesiastical
establishments, a few choice prebendary stalls are to be found,
furnished with well-filled mangers and racks; so, in a man-of-war,
there are a variety of similar snuggeries for the benefit of decrepit
or rheumatic old tars. Chief among these is the office of _mast-man_.

There is a stout rail on deck, at the base of each mast, where a
number of _braces, lifts_, and _buntlines_ are belayed to the
pins. It is the sole duty of the mast-man to see that these ropes
are always kept clear, to preserve his premises in a state of the
greatest attainable neatness, and every Sunday morning to dispose
his ropes in neat _Flemish coils_.

The _main-mast-man_ of the Neversink was a very aged seaman, who
well deserved his comfortable berth. He had seen more than half a
century of the most active service, and, through all, had proved
himself a good and faithful man. He furnished one of the very
rare examples of a sailor in a green old age; for, with most
sailors, old age comes in youth, and Hardship and Vice carry them
on an early bier to the grave.

As in the evening of life, and at the close of the day, old
Abraham sat at the door of his tent, biding his time to die, so
sits our old mast-man on the _coat of the mast_, glancing round
him with patriarchal benignity. And that mild expression of his
sets off very strangely a face that has been burned almost black
by the torrid suns that shone fifty years ago--a face that is
seamed with three sabre cuts. You would almost think this old
mast-man had been blown out of Vesuvius, to look alone at his
scarred, blackened forehead, chin, and cheeks. But gaze down into
his eye, and though all the snows of Time have drifted higher and
higher upon his brow, yet deep down in that eye you behold an
infantile, sinless look, the same that answered the glance of
this old man's mother when first she cried for the babe to be
laid by her side. That look is the fadeless, ever infantile
immortality within.


* * * * *

The Lord Nelsons of the sea, though but Barons in the state, yet
oftentimes prove more potent than their royal masters; and at
such scenes as Trafalgar--dethroning this Emperor and reinstating
that--enact on the ocean the proud part of mighty Richard Neville,
the king-making Earl of the land. And as Richard Neville entrenched
himself in his moated old man-of-war castle of Warwick, which,
underground, was traversed with vaults, hewn out of the solid rock,
and intricate as the wards of the old keys of Calais surrendered to
Edward III.; even so do these King-Commodores house themselves in their
water-rimmed, cannon-sentried frigates, oaken dug, deck under deck, as
cell under cell. And as the old Middle-Age warders of Warwick, every
night at curfew, patrolled the battlements, and dove down into the
vaults to see that all lights were extinguished, even so do the
master-at-arms and ship's corporals of a frigate perambulate all the
decks of a man-of-war, blowing out all tapers but those burning in the
legalized battle-lanterns. Yea, in these things, so potent is the
authority of these sea-wardens, that, though almost the lowest
subalterns in the ship, yet should they find the Senior Lieutenant
himself sitting up late in his state-room, reading Bowditch's Navigator,
or D'Anton "_On Gunpowder and Fire-arms_," they would infallibly blow
the light out under his very nose; nor durst that Grand-Vizier resent
the indignity.

But, unwittingly, I have ennobled, by grand historical comparisons,
this prying, pettifogging, Irish-informer of a master-at-arms.

You have seen some slim, slip-shod housekeeper, at midnight
ferreting over a rambling old house in the country, startling at
fancied witches and ghosts, yet intent on seeing every door
bolted, every smouldering ember in the fireplaces smothered,
every loitering domestic abed, and every light made dark. This is
the master-at-arms taking his night-rounds in a frigate.


* * * * *

It may be thought that but little is seen of the Commodore in
these chapters, and that, since he so seldom appears on the
stage, he cannot be so august a personage, after all. But the
mightiest potentates keep the most behind the veil. You might
tarry in Constantinople a month, and never catch a glimpse of the
Sultan. The grand Lama of Thibet, according to some accounts, is
never beheld by the people. But if any one doubts the majesty of
a Commodore, let him know that, according to XLII. of the Articles
of War, he is invested with a prerogative which, according to
monarchical jurists, is inseparable from the throne--the plenary
pardoning power. He may pardon all offences committed in the
squadron under his command.

But this prerogative is only his while at sea, or on a foreign
station. A circumstance peculiarly significant of the great
difference between the stately absolutism of a Commodore
enthroned on his poop in a foreign harbour, and an unlaced
Commodore negligently reclining in an easy-chair in the bosom of
his family at home.

Herman Melville