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Chapter 73


Mention has been made that the game of draughts, or checkers, was
permitted to be played on board the Neversink. At the present
time, while there was little or no shipwork to be done, and all
hands, in high spirits, were sailing homeward over the warm
smooth sea of the tropics; so numerous became the players,
scattered about the decks, that our First Lieutenant used
ironically to say that it was a pity they were not tesselated
with squares of white and black marble, for the express benefit
and convenience of the players. Had this gentleman had his way,
our checker-boards would very soon have been pitched out of the
ports. But the Captain--usually lenient in some things--permitted
them, and so Mr. Bridewell was fain to hold his peace.

But, although this one game was allowable in the frigate, all
kinds of gambling were strictly interdicted, under the penalty of
the gangway; nor were cards or dice tolerated in any way whatever.
This regulation was indispensable, for, of all human beings,
man-of-war's-men are perhaps the most inclined to gambling. The
reason must be obvious to any one who reflects upon their condition
on shipboard. And gambling--the most mischievous of vices anywhere--in
a man-of-war operates still more perniciously than on shore. But quite
as often as the law against smuggling spirits is transgressed by the
unscrupulous sailors, the statutes against cards and dice are evaded.

Sable night, which, since the beginning of the world, has winked and
looked on at so many deeds of iniquity--night is the time usually
selected for their operations by man-of-war gamblers. The place
pitched upon is generally the berth-deck, where the hammocks are
swung, and which is lighted so stintedly as not to disturb the
sleeping seamen with any obtruding glare. In so spacious an area the
two lanterns swinging from the stanchions diffuse a subdued
illumination, like a night-taper in the apartment of some invalid.
Owing to their position, also, these lanterns are far from shedding
an impartial light, however dim, but fling long angular rays here and
there, like burglar's dark-lanterns in the fifty-acre vaults of the
West India Docks on the Thames.

It may well be imagined, therefore, how well adapted is this
mysterious and subterranean Hall of Eblis to the clandestine
proceedings of gamblers, especially as the hammocks not only hang
thickly, but many of them swing very low, within two feet of the
floor, thus forming innumerable little canvas glens, grottoes,
nooks, corners, and crannies, where a good deal of wickedness may
be practiced by the wary with considerable impunity.

Now the master-at-arms, assisted by his mates, the ship's
corporals, reigns supreme in these bowels of the ship. Throughout
the night these policemen relieve each other at standing guard
over the premises; and, except when the watches are called, they
sit in the midst of a profound silence, only invaded by trumpeters'
snores, or the ramblings of some old sheet-anchor-man in his sleep.

The two ship's corporals went among the sailors by the names of
Leggs and Pounce; Pounce had been a policeman, it was said, in
Liverpool; Leggs, a turnkey attached to "The Tombs" in New York.
Hence their education eminently fitted them for their stations;
and Bland, the master-at-arms, ravished with their dexterity in
prying out offenders, used to call them his two right hands.

When man-of-war's-men desire to gamble, they appoint the hour,
and select some certain corner, in some certain shadow, behind
some certain hammock. They then contribute a small sum toward a
joint fund, to be invested in a bribe for some argus-eyed
shipmate, who shall play the part of a spy upon the master-at-
arms and corporals while the gaming is in progress. In nine cases
out of ten these arrangements are so cunning and comprehensive,
that the gamblers, eluding all vigilance, conclude their game
unmolested. But now and then, seduced into unwariness, or
perhaps, from parsimony, being unwilling to employ the services
of a spy, they are suddenly lighted upon by the constables,
remorselessly collared, and dragged into the brig there to await
a dozen lashes in the morning.

Several times at midnight I have been startled out of a sound
sleep by a sudden, violent rush under my hammock, caused by the
abrupt breaking up of some nest of gamblers, who have scattered
in all directions, brushing under the tiers of swinging pallets,
and setting them all in a rocking commotion.

It is, however, while laying in port that gambling most thrives
in a man-of-war. Then the men frequently practice their dark
deeds in the light of the day, and the additional guards which,
at such times, they deem indispensable, are not unworthy of note.
More especially, their extra precautions in engaging the services of
several spies, necessitate a considerable expenditure, so that, in
port, the diversion of gambling rises to the dignity of a nabob luxury.

During the day the master-at-arms and his corporals are continually
prowling about on all three decks, eager to spy out iniquities. At one
time, for example, you see Leggs switching his magisterial rattan, and
lurking round the fore-mast on the spar-deck; the next moment, perhaps,
he is three decks down, out of sight, prowling among the cable-tiers.
Just so with his master, and Pounce his coadjutor; they are here,
there, and everywhere, seemingly gifted with ubiquity.

In order successfully to carry on their proceedings by day, the
gamblers must see to it that each of these constables is relentlessly
dogged wherever he goes; so that, in case of his approach toward the
spot where themselves are engaged, they may be warned of the fact in
time to make good their escape. Accordingly, light and active scouts
are selected to follow the constable about. From their youthful
alertness and activity, the boys of the mizzen-top are generally
chosen for this purpose.

But this is not all. Onboard of most men-of-war there is a set of
sly, knavish foxes among the crew, destitute of every principle
of honour, and on a par with Irish informers. In man-of-war
parlance, they come under the denomination of _fancy-men_ and
_white-mice_, They are called _fancy-men_ because, from their
zeal in craftily reporting offenders, they are presumed to be
regarded with high favour by some of the officers. Though it is
seldom that these informers can be certainly individualised, so
secret and subtle are they in laying their information, yet
certain of the crew, and especially certain of the marines, are
invariably suspected to be _fancy-men_ and _white-mice_, and are
accordingly more or less hated by their comrades.

Now, in addition to having an eye on the master-at-arms and his
aids, the day-gamblers must see to it, that every person
suspected of being a _white-mouse_ or _fancy-man_, is like-wise
dogged wherever he goes. Additional scouts are retained
constantly to snuff at their trail. But the mysteries of man-of-
war vice are wonderful; and it is now to be recorded, that, from
long habit and observation, and familiarity with the _guardo
moves_ and _manoeuvres_ of a frigate, the master-at-arms and his
aids can almost invariably tell when any gambling is going on by
day; though, in the crowded vessel, abounding in decks, tops,
dark places, and outlandish corners of all sorts, they may not be
able to pounce upon the identical spot where the gamblers are hidden.

During the period that Bland was suspended from his office as
master-at-arms, a person who, among the sailors, went by the name
of Sneak, having been long suspected to have been a _white-mouse_,
was put in Bland's place. He proved a hangdog, sidelong
catch-thief, but gifted with a marvellous perseverance in
ferreting out culprits; following in their track like an
inevitable Cuba blood-hound, with his noiseless nose. When
disconcerted, however, you sometimes heard his bay.

"The muffled dice are somewhere around," Sneak would say to his
aids; "there are them three chaps, there, been dogging me about
for the last half-hour. I say, Pounce, has any one been scouting
around _you_ this morning?"

"Four on 'em," says Pounce. "I know'd it; I know'd the muffled
dice was rattlin'!"

"Leggs!" says the master-at-arms to his other aid, "Leggs, how is
it with _you_--any spies?"

"Ten on' em," says Leggs. "There's one on 'em now--that fellow
stitching a hat."

"Halloo, you, sir!" cried the master-at-arms, "top your boom and
sail large, now. If I see you about me again, I'll have you up to
the mast."

"What am I a-doin' now?" says the hat-stitcher, with a face as
long as a rope-walk. "Can't a feller be workin' here, without
being 'spected of Tom Coxe's traverse, up one ladder and down

"Oh, I know the moves, sir; I have been on board a _guardo_. Top
your boom, I say, and be off, or I'll have you hauled up and
riveted in a clinch--both fore-tacks over the main-yard, and no
bloody knife to cut the seizing. Sheer! or I'll pitch into you
like a shin of beef into a beggar's wallet."

It is often observable, that, in vessels of all kinds, the men
who talk the most sailor lingo are the least sailor-like in
reality. You may sometimes hear even marines jerk out more salt
phrases than the Captain of the Forecastle himself. On the other
hand, when not actively engaged in his vocation, you would take
the best specimen of a seaman for a landsman. When you see a
fellow yawning about the docks like a homeward-bound Indiaman, a
long Commodore's pennant of black ribbon flying from his mast-
head, and fetching up at a grog-shop with a slew of his hull, as
if an Admiral were coming alongside a three-decker in his barge;
you may put that man down for what man-of-war's-men call a _damn-
my-eyes-tar_, that is, a humbug. And many damn-my-eyes hum-bugs
there are in this man-of-war world of ours.

Herman Melville