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Chapter 76

THE CHAINS.


When wearied with the tumult and occasional contention of the
gun-deck of our frigate, I have often retreated to a port-hole,
and calmed myself down by gazing broad off upon a placid sea.
After the battle-din of the last two chapters, let us now do the
like, and, in the sequestered fore-chains of the Neversink,
tranquillise ourselves, if we may.

Notwithstanding the domestic communism to which the seamen in a
man-of-war are condemned, and the publicity in which actions the
most diffident and retiring in their nature must be performed,
there is yet an odd corner or two where you may sometimes steal
away, and, for a few moments, almost be private.

Chief among these places is the _chains_, to which I would
sometimes hie during our pleasant homeward-bound glide over those
pensive tropical latitudes. After hearing my fill of the wild
yarns of our top, here would I recline--if not disturbed--
serenely concocting information into wisdom.

The chains designates the small platform outside of the hull, at
the base of the large shrouds leading down from the three mast-
heads to the bulwarks. At present they seem to be getting out of
vogue among merchant-vessels, along with the fine, old-fashioned
quarter-galleries, little turret-like ap-purtenances, which, in
the days of the old Admirals, set off the angles of an armed
ship's stern. Here a naval officer might lounge away an hour
after action, smoking a cigar, to drive out of his whiskers the
villainous smoke of the gun-powder. The picturesque, delightful
stern-gallery, also, a broad balcony overhanging the sea, and
entered from the Captain's cabin, much as you might enter a bower
from a lady's chamber; this charming balcony, where, sailing over
summer seas in the days of the old Peruvian viceroys, the Spanish
cavalier Mendanna, of Lima, made love to the Lady Isabella, as
they voyaged in quest of the Solomon Islands, the fabulous Ophir,
the Grand Cyclades; and the Lady Isabella, at sunset, blushed
like the Orient, and gazed down to the gold-fish and silver-hued
flying-fish, that wove the woof and warp of their wakes in
bright, scaly tartans and plaids underneath where the Lady
reclined; this charming balcony--exquisite retreat--has been cut
away by Vandalic innovations. Ay, that claw-footed old gallery is
no longer in fashion; in Commodore's eyes, is no longer genteel.

Out on all furniture fashions but those that are past! Give me my
grandfather's old arm-chair, planted upon four carved frogs, as
the Hindoos fabled the world to be supported upon four tortoises;
give me his cane, with the gold-loaded top--a cane that, like the
musket of General Washington's father and the broadsword of
William Wallace, would break down the back of the switch-carrying
dandies of these spindle-shank days; give me his broad-breasted
vest, coming bravely down over the hips, and furnished with two
strong-boxes of pockets to keep guineas in; toss this toppling
cylinder of a beaver overboard, and give me my grandfather's
gallant, gable-ended, cocked hat.

But though the quarter-galleries and the stern-gallery of a man-
of-war are departed, yet the _chains_ still linger; nor can there
be imagined a more agreeable retreat. The huge blocks and
lanyards forming the pedestals of the shrouds divide the chains
into numerous little chapels, alcoves, niches, and altars, where
you lazily lounge--outside of the ship, though on board. But
there are plenty to divide a good thing with you in this man-of-
war world. Often, when snugly seated in one of these little
alcoves, gazing off to the horizon, and thinking of Cathay, I
have been startled from my repose by some old quarter-gunner,
who, having newly painted a parcel of match-tubs, wanted to set
them to dry.

At other times, one of the tattooing artists would crawl over the
bulwarks, followed by his sitter; and then a bare arm or leg
would be extended, and the disagreeable business of "_pricking_"
commence, right under my eyes; or an irruption of tars, with
ditty-bags or sea-reticules, and piles of old trowsers to mend,
would break in upon my seclusion, and, forming a sewing-circle,
drive me off with their chatter.

But once--it was a Sunday afternoon--I was pleasantly reclining
in a particularly shady and secluded little niche between two
lanyards, when I heard a low, supplicating voice. Peeping through
the narrow space between the ropes, I perceived an aged seaman on
his knees, his face turned seaward, with closed eyes, buried in
prayer. Softly rising, I stole through a port-hole, and left the
venerable worshipper alone.

He was a sheet-anchor-man, an earnest Baptist, and was well
known, in his own part of the ship, to be constant in his
solitary devotions in the _chains_. He reminded me of St. Anthony
going out into the wilderness to pray.

This man was captain of the starboard bow-chaser, one of the two
long twenty-four-pounders on the forecastle. In time of action,
the command of that iron Thalaba the Destroyer would devolve
upon _him_. It would be his business to "train" it properly; to
see it well loaded; the grape and cannister rammed home; also, to
"prick the cartridge," "take the sight," and give the word for
the match-man to apply his wand; bidding a sudden hell to flash
forth from the muzzle, in wide combustion and death.

Now, this captain of the bow-chaser was an upright old man, a
sincere, humble believer, and he but earned his bread in being
captain of that gun; but how, with those hands of his begrimed
with powder, could he break that _other_ and most peaceful and
penitent bread of the Supper? though in that hallowed sacrament,
it seemed, he had often partaken ashore. The omission of this
rite in a man-of-war--though there is a chaplain to preside over
it, and at least a few communicants to partake--must be ascribed to
a sense of religious propriety, in the last degree to be commended.

Ah! the best righteousness of our man-of-war world seems but an
unrealised ideal, after all; and those maxims which, in the hope
of bringing about a Millennium, we busily teach to the heathen,
we Christians ourselves disregard. In view of the whole present
social frame-work of our world, so ill adapted to the practical
adoption of the meekness of Christianity, there seems almost some
ground for the thought, that although our blessed Saviour was
full of the wisdom of heaven, yet his gospel seems lacking in the
practical wisdom of earth--in a due appreciation of the
necessities of nations at times demanding bloody massacres and
wars; in a proper estimation of the value of rank, title, and
money. But all this only the more crowns the divine consistency
of Jesus; since Burnet and the best theologians demonstrate,
that his nature was not merely human--was not that of a mere man
of the world.

Herman Melville