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Chapter 79

HOW MAN-OF-WAR'S-MEN DIE AT SEA.


Shenly, my sick mess-mate, was a middle-aged, handsome, intelligent
seaman, whom some hard calamity, or perhaps some unfortunate excess,
must have driven into the Navy. He told me he had a wife and two
children in Portsmouth, in the state of New Hampshire. Upon being
examined by Cuticle, the surgeon, he was, on purely scientific grounds,
reprimanded by that functionary for not having previously appeared
before him. He was immediately consigned to one of the invalid cots as
a serious case. His complaint was of long standing; a pulmonary one,
now attended with general prostration.

The same evening he grew so much worse, that according to man-of-war
usage, we, his mess-mates, were officially notified that we must take
turns at sitting up with him through the night. We at once made our
arrangements, allotting two hours for a watch. Not till the third night
did my own turn come round. During the day preceding, it was stated at
the mess that our poor mess-mate was run down completely; the surgeon
had given him up.


At four bells (two o'clock in the morning), I went down to
relieve one of my mess-mates at the sick man's cot. The profound
quietude of the calm pervaded the entire frigate through all her
decks. The watch on duty were dozing on the carronade-slides, far
above the sick-bay; and the watch below were fast asleep in their
hammocks, on the same deck with the invalid.

Groping my way under these two hundred sleepers, I en-tered the
hospital. A dim lamp was burning on the table, which was screwed
down to the floor. This light shed dreary shadows over the white-
washed walls of the place, making it look look a whited sepulchre
underground. The wind-sail had collapsed, and lay motionless on
the deck. The low groans of the sick were the only sounds to be
heard; and as I advanced, some of them rolled upon me their
sleepless, silent, tormented eyes.

"Fan him, and keep his forehead wet with this sponge," whispered
my mess-mate, whom I came to relieve, as I drew near to Shenly's
cot, "and wash the foam from his mouth; nothing more can be done
for him. If he dies before your watch is out, call the Surgeon's
steward; he sleeps in that hammock," pointing it out. "Good-bye,
good-bye, mess-mate," he then whispered, stooping over the sick
man; and so saying, he left the place.

Shenly was lying on his back. His eyes were closed, forming two
dark-blue pits in his face; his breath was coming and going with
a slow, long-drawn, mechanical precision. It was the mere
foundering hull of a man that was before me; and though it
presented the well-known features of my mess-mate, yet I knew
that the living soul of Shenly never more would look out of those
eyes.

So warm had it been during the day, that the Surgeon himself, when
visiting the sick-bay, had entered it in his shirt-sleeves; and so warm
was now the night that even in the lofty top I had worn but a loose
linen frock and trowsers. But in this subterranean sick-bay, buried in
the very bowels of the ship, and at sea cut off from all ventilation,
the heat of the night calm was intense. The sweat dripped from me as
if I had just emerged from a bath; and stripping myself naked to the
waist, I sat by the side of the cot, and with a bit of crumpled
paper--put into my hand by the sailor I had relieved--kept fanning the
motionless white face before me.

I could not help thinking, as I gazed, whether this man's fate
had not been accelerated by his confinement in this heated
furnace below; and whether many a sick man round me might not
soon improve, if but permitted to swing his hammock in the airy
vacancies of the half-deck above, open to the port-holes, but
reserved for the promenade of the officers.

At last the heavy breathing grew more and more irregular, and
gradually dying away, left forever the unstirring form of Shenly.

Calling the Surgeon's steward, he at once told me to rouse the
master-at-arms, and four or five of my mess-mates. The master-at-arms
approached, and immediately demanded the dead man's bag, which was
accordingly dragged into the bay. Having been laid on the floor, and
washed with a bucket of water which I drew from the ocean, the body was
then dressed in a white frock, trowsers, and neckerchief, taken out of
the bag. While this was going on, the master-at-arms--standing over the
operation with his rattan, and directing myself and mess-mates--indulged
in much discursive levity, intended to manifest his fearlessness of death.

Pierre, who had been a "_chummy_" of Shenly's, spent much time in
tying the neckerchief in an elaborate bow, and affectionately
adjusting the white frock and trowsers; but the master-at-arms
put an end to this by ordering us to carry the body up to the
gun-deck. It was placed on the death-board (used for that
purpose), and we proceeded with it toward the main hatchway,
awkwardly crawling under the tiers of hammocks, where the entire
watch-below was sleeping. As, unavoidably, we rocked their
pallets, the man-of-war's-men would cry out against us; through
the mutterings of curses, the corpse reached the hatchway. Here
the board slipped, and some time was spent in readjusting the
body. At length we deposited it on the gun-deck, between two
guns, and a union-jack being thrown over it for a pall, I was
left again to watch by its side.

I had not been seated on my shot-box three minutes, when the
messenger-boy passed me on his way forward; presently the slow,
regular stroke of the ship's great bell was heard, proclaiming
through the calm the expiration of the watch; it was four o'clock
in the morning.

Poor Shenly! thought I, that sounds like your knell! and here you
lie becalmed, in the last calm of all!

Hardly had the brazen din died away, when the Boatswain and his
mates mustered round the hatchway, within a yard or two of the
corpse, and the usual thundering call was given for the watch
below to turn out.

"All the starboard-watch, ahoy! On deck there, below! Wide awake
there, sleepers!"

But the dreamless sleeper by my side, who had so often sprung
from his hammock at that summons, moved not a limb; the blue
sheet over him lay unwrinkled.

A mess-mate of the other watch now came to relieve me; but I told
him I chose to remain where I was till daylight came.


Herman Melville