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Chapter 77

THE HOSPITAL IN A MAN-OF-WAR.


After running with a fine steady breeze up to the Line, it fell
calm, and there we lay, three days enchanted on the sea. We were
a most puissant man-of-war, no doubt, with our five hundred men,
Commodore and Captain, backed by our long batteries of thirty-two
and twenty-four pounders; yet, for all that, there we lay rocking,
helpless as an infant in the cradle. Had it only been a gale instead
of a calm, gladly would we have charged upon it with our gallant
bowsprit, as with a stout lance in rest; but, as with man-kind, this
serene, passive foe--unresisting and irresistible--lived it out,
unconquered to the last.

All these three days the heat was excessive; the sun drew the tar
from the seams of the ship; the awnings were spread fore and aft;
the decks were kept constantly sprinkled with water. It was
during this period that a sad event occurred, though not an
unusual one on shipboard. But in order to prepare for its
narration, some account of a part of the ship called the "_sick-
bay_" must needs be presented.

The "_sick-bay_" is that part of a man-of-war where the invalid
seamen are placed; in many respects it answers to a public
hospital ashore. As with most frigates, the sick-bay of the
Neversink was on the berth-deck--the third deck from above. It
was in the extreme forward part of that deck, embracing the
triangular area in the bows of the ship. It was, therefore, a
subterranean vault, into which scarce a ray of heaven's glad
light ever penetrated, even at noon.

In a sea-going frigate that has all her armament and stores on
board, the floor of the berth-deck is partly below the surface of
the water. But in a smooth harbour, some circulation of air is
maintained by opening large auger-holes in the upper portion of
the sides, called "air-ports," not much above the water level.
Before going to sea, however, these air-ports must be closed,
caulked, and the seams hermetically sealed with pitch. These
places for ventilation being shut, the sick-bay is entirely
barred against the free, natural admission of fresh air. In the
Neversink a few lungsful were forced down by artificial means.
But as the ordinary _wind-sail_ was the only method adopted, the
quantity of fresh air sent down was regulated by the force of the
wind. In a calm there was none to be had, while in a severe gale
the wind-sail had to be hauled up, on account of the violent
draught flowing full upon the cots of the sick. An open-work
partition divided our sick-bay from the rest of the deck, where
the hammocks of the watch were slung; it, therefore, was exposed
to all the uproar that ensued upon the watches being relieved.

An official, called the surgeon's steward, assisted by subordinates,
presided over the place. He was the same individual alluded to as
officiating at the amputation of the top-man. He was always to be
found at his post, by night and by day.

This surgeon's steward deserves a description. He was a small,
pale, hollow-eyed young man, with that peculiar Lazarus-like
expression so often noticed in hospital attendants. Seldom or
never did you see him on deck, and when he _did_ emerge into the
light of the sun, it was with an abashed look, and an uneasy,
winking eye. The sun was not made for _him_. His nervous
organization was confounded by the sight of the robust old sea-
dogs on the forecastle and the general tumult of the spar-deck,
and he mostly buried himself below in an atmosphere which long
habit had made congenial.

This young man never indulged in frivolous conversation; he only
talked of the surgeon's prescriptions; his every word was a
bolus. He never was known to smile; nor did he even look sober in
the ordinary way; but his countenance ever wore an aspect of
cadaverous resignation to his fate. Strange! that so many of
those who would fain minister to our own health should look so
much like invalids themselves.

Connected with the sick-bay, over which the surgeon's steward
presided--but removed from it in place, being next door to the
counting-room of the purser's steward--was a regular apothecary's
shop, of which he kept the key. It was fitted up precisely like
an apothecary's on shore, dis-playing tiers of shelves on all
four sides filled with green bottles and gallipots; beneath were
multitudinous drawers bearing incomprehensible gilded inscriptions
in abbreviated Latin.

He generally opened his shop for an hour or two every morning and
evening. There was a Venetian blind in the upper part of the
door, which he threw up when inside so as to admit a little air.
And there you would see him, with a green shade over his eyes,
seated on a stool, and pounding his pestle in a great iron mortar
that looked like a howitzer, mixing some jallapy compound. A
smoky lamp shed a flickering, yellow-fever tinge upon his pallid
face and the closely-packed regiments of gallipots.

Several times when I felt in need of a little medicine, but was
not ill enough to report myself to the surgeon at his levees, I
would call of a morning upon his steward at the Sign of the
Mortar, and beg him to give me what I wanted; when, without
speaking a word, this cadaverous young man would mix me my potion
in a tin cup, and hand it out through the little opening in his
door, like the boxed-up treasurer giving you your change at the
ticket-office of a theatre.

But there was a little shelf against the wall of the door, and
upon this I would set the tin cup for a while, and survey it;
for I never was a Julius Caesar at taking medicine; and to take
it in this way, without a single attempt at dis-guising it; with
no counteracting little morsel to hurry down after it; in short
to go to the very apothecary's in person, and there, at the
counter, swallow down your dose, as if it were a nice mint-julep
taken at the bar of a hotel--_this_ was a bitter bolus indeed.
But, then, this pallid young apothecary charged nothing for it,
and _that_ was no small satisfaction; for is it not remarkable, to
say the least, that a shore apothecary should actually charge you
money--round dollars and cents--for giving you a horrible nausea?

My tin cup would wait a long time on that little shelf; yet
"Pills," as the sailors called him, never heeded my lingering,
but in sober, silent sadness continued pounding his mortar or
folding up his powders; until at last some other customer would
appear, and then in a sudden frenzy of resolution, I would gulp
clown my sherry-cobbler, and carry its unspeakable flavour with
me far up into the frigate's main-top. I do not know whether it
was the wide roll of the ship, as felt in that giddy perch, that
occasioned it, but I always got sea-sick after taking medicine and
going aloft with it. Seldom or never did it do me any lasting good.

Now the Surgeon's steward was only a subordinate of Surgeon
Cuticle himself, who lived in the ward-room among the Lieutenants,
Sailing-master, Chaplain, and Purser.

The Surgeon is, by law, charged with the business of overlooking
the general sanitary affairs of the ship. If anything is going on
in any of its departments which he judges to be detrimental to
the healthfulness of the crew, he has a right to protest against
it formally to the Captain. When a man is being scourged at the
gangway, the Surgeon stands by; and if he thinks that the
punishment is becoming more than the culprit's constitution can
well bear, he has a right to interfere and demand its cessation
for the time.

But though the Navy regulations nominally vest him with this high
discretionary authority over the very Commodore himself, how
seldom does he exercise it in cases where humanity demands it?
Three years is a long time to spend in one ship, and to be at
swords' points with its Captain and Lieutenants during such a
period, must be very unsocial and every way irksome. No otherwise
than thus, at least, can the remissness of some surgeons in
remonstrating against cruelty be accounted for.

Not to speak again of the continual dampness of the decks
consequent upon flooding them with salt water, when we were
driving near to Cape Horn, it needs only to be mentioned that, on
board of the Neversink, men known to be in consumptions gasped
under the scourge of the boatswain's mate, when the Surgeon and
his two attendants stood by and never interposed. But where the
unscrupulousness of martial discipline is maintained, it is in
vain to attempt softening its rigour by the ordaining of
humanitarian laws. Sooner might you tame the grizzly bear of
Missouri than humanise a thing so essentially cruel and heartless.

But the Surgeon has yet other duties to perform. Not a seaman
enters the Navy without undergoing a corporal examination, to
test his soundness in wind and limb.

One of the first places into which I was introduced when I first
entered on board the Neversink was the sick-bay, where I found
one of the Assistant Surgeons seated at a green-baize table. It
was his turn for visiting the apartment. Having been commanded
by the deck officer to report my business to the functionary
before me, I accordingly hemmed, to attract his attention, and
then catching his eye, politely intimated that I called upon him
for the purpose of being accurately laid out and surveyed.

"Strip!" was the answer, and, rolling up his gold-laced cuff, he
proceeded to manipulate me. He punched me in the ribs, smote me
across the chest, commanded me to stand on one leg and hold out
the other horizontally. He asked me whether any of my family were
consumptive; whether I ever felt a tendency to a rush of blood to
the head; whether I was gouty; how often I had been bled during
my life; how long I had been ashore; how long I had been afloat;
with several other questions which have altogether slipped my
memory. He concluded his interrogatories with this extraordinary
and unwarranted one--"Are you pious?"

It was a leading question which somewhat staggered me, but I said
not a word; when, feeling of my calves, he looked up and
incomprehensibly said, "I am afraid you are not."

At length he declared me a sound animal, and wrote a certificate
to that effect, with which I returned to the deck.

This Assistant Surgeon turned out to be a very singular character,
and when I became more acquainted with him, I ceased to marvel at
the curious question with which he had concluded his examination
of my person.

He was a thin, knock-kneed man, with a sour, saturnine expression,
rendered the more peculiar from his shaving his beard so remorselessly,
that his chin and cheeks always looked blue, as if pinched with cold.
His long familiarity with nautical invalids seemed to have filled him
full of theological hypoes concerning the state of their souls. He was
at once the physician and priest of the sick, washing down his boluses
with ghostly consolation, and among the sailors went by the name of The
Pelican, a fowl whose hanging pouch imparts to it a most chop-fallen,
lugubrious expression.

The privilege of going off duty and lying by when you are sick,
is one of the few points in which a man-of-war is far better for
the sailor than a merchantman. But, as with every other matter in
the Navy, the whole thing is subject to the general discipline of
the vessel, and is conducted with a severe, unyielding method and
regularity, making no allowances for exceptions to rules.

During the half-hour preceding morning quarters, the Surgeon of a
frigate is to be found in the sick-bay, where, after going his
rounds among the invalids, he holds a levee for the benefit of
all new candidates for the sick-list. If, after looking at your
tongue, and feeling of your pulse, he pronounces you a proper
candidate, his secretary puts you down on his books, and you are
thenceforth relieved from all duty, and have abundant leisure in
which to recover your health. Let the boatswain blow; let the
deck officer bellow; let the captain of your gun hunt you up;
yet, if it can be answered by your mess-mates that you are "_down
on the list_," you ride it all out with impunity. The Commodore
himself has then no authority over you. But you must not be too
much elated, for your immunities are only secure while you are
immured in the dark hospital below. Should you venture to get a
mouthful of fresh air on the spar-deck, and be there discovered
by an officer, you will in vain plead your illness; for it is
quite impossible, it seems, that any true man-of-war invalid can
be hearty enough to crawl up the ladders. Besides, the raw sea
air, as they will tell you, is not good for the sick.

But, notwithstanding all this, notwithstanding the darkness and
closeness of the sick-bay, in which an alleged invalid must be
content to shut himself up till the Surgeon pronounces him cured,
many instances occur, especially in protracted bad weather, where
pretended invalids will sub-mit to this dismal hospital durance,
in order to escape hard work and wet jackets.

There is a story told somewhere of the Devil taking down the
confessions of a woman on a strip of parchment, and being obliged
to stretch it longer and longer with his teeth, in order to find
room for all the lady had to say. Much thus was it with our
Purser's steward, who had to lengthen out his manuscript sick-
list, in order to accommodate all the names which were presented
to him while we were off the pitch of Cape Horn. What sailors
call the "_Cape Horn fever_," alarmingly prevailed; though it
disappeared altogether when we got into the weather, which, as
with many other invalids, was solely to be imputed to the wonder-
working effects of an entire change of climate.

It seems very strange, but it is really true, that off Cape Horn
some "_sogers_" of sailors will stand cupping, and bleeding, and
blistering, before they will budge. On the other hand, there are
cases where a man actually sick and in need of medicine will
refuse to go on the sick-list, because in that case his allowance
of _grog_ must be stopped.

On board of every American man-of-war, bound for sea, there is a
goodly supply of wines and various delicacies put on board--
according to law--for the benefit of the sick, whether officers
or sailors. And one of the chicken-coops is always reserved for
the Government chickens, destined for a similar purpose. But, on
board of the Neversink, the only delicacies given to invalid
sailors was a little sago or arrow-root, and they did not get
_that_ unless severely ill; but, so far as I could learn, no
wine, in any quantity, was ever prescribed for them, though the
Government bottles often went into the ward-room, for the benefit
of indisposed officers.

And though the Government chicken-coop was replenished at every
port, yet not four pair of drum-sticks were ever boiled into
broth for sick sailors. Where the chickens went, some one must
have known; but, as I cannot vouch for it myself, I will not here
back the hardy assertion of the men, which was that the pious
Pelican--true to his name--was extremely fond of poultry. I am
the still less disposed to believe this scandal, from the
continued leanness of the Pelican, which could hardly have been
the case did he nourish himself by so nutritious a dish as the
drum-sticks of fowls, a diet prescribed to pugilists in training.
But who can avoid being suspicious of a very suspicious person?
Pelican! I rather suspect you still.

Herman Melville