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Chapter 83

A MAN-OF-WAR COLLEGE.


In our man-of-war world, Life comes in at one gangway and Death
goes overboard at the other. Under the man-of-war scourge, curses
mix with tears; and the sigh and the sob furnish the bass to the
shrill octave of those who laugh to drown buried griefs of their
own. Checkers were played in the waist at the time of Shenly's
burial; and as the body plunged, a player swept the board. The
bubbles had hardly burst, when all hands were _piped down_ by the
Boatswain, and the old jests were heard again, as if Shenly
himself were there to hear.

This man-of-war life has not left me unhardened. I cannot stop to
weep over Shenly now; that would be false to the life I depict;
wearing no mourning weeds, I resume the task of portraying our
man-of-war world.

Among the various other vocations, all driven abreast on board of
the Neversink, was that of the schoolmaster. There were two
academies in the frigate. One comprised the apprentice boys, who,
upon certain days of the week, were indoctrinated in the
mysteries of the primer by an invalid corporal of marines, a
slender, wizzen-cheeked man, who had received a liberal infant-
school education.

The other school was a far more pretentious affair--a sort of army
and navy seminary combined, where mystical mathematical problems
were solved by the midshipmen, and great ships-of-the-line were
navigated over imaginary shoals by unimaginable observations of the
moon and the stars, and learned lectures were delivered upon great guns,
small arms, and the curvilinear lines described by bombs in the air.

"_The Professor_" was the title bestowed upon the erudite
gentleman who conducted this seminary, and by that title alone
was he known throughout the ship. He was domiciled in the Ward-
room, and circulated there on a social par with the Purser,
Surgeon, and other _non-combatants_ and Quakers. By being
advanced to the dignity of a peerage in the Ward-room, Science
and Learning were ennobled in the person of this Professor, even
as divinity was honoured in the Chaplain enjoying the rank of a
spiritual peer.

Every other afternoon, while at sea, the Professor assembled his
pupils on the half-deck, near the long twenty-four pounders. A
bass drum-head was his desk, his pupils forming a semicircle
around him, seated on shot-boxes and match-tubs.


They were in the jelly of youth, and this learned Professor
poured into their susceptible hearts all the gentle gunpowder
maxims of war. Presidents of Peace Societies and Superintendents
of Sabbath-schools, must it not have been a most interesting sight?

But the Professor himself was a noteworthy person. A tall, thin,
spectacled man, about forty years old, with a student's stoop in
his shoulders, and wearing uncommonly scanty pantaloons, exhibiting
an undue proportion of his boots. In early life he had been a cadet
in the military academy of West Point; but, becoming very weak-sighted,
and thereby in a good manner disqualified for active service in the
field, he had declined entering the army, and accepted the office of
Professor in the Navy.

His studies at West Point had thoroughly grounded him in a
knowledge of gunnery; and, as he was not a little of a pedant, it
was sometimes amusing, when the sailors were at quarters, to hear
him criticise their evolutions at the batteries. He would quote
Dr. Hutton's Tracts on the subject, also, in the original, "_The
French Bombardier_," and wind up by Italian passages from the
"_Prattica Manuale dell' Artiglieria_."

Though not required by the Navy regulations to instruct his
scholars in aught but the application of mathematics to
navigation, yet besides this, and besides instructing them in the
theory of gunnery, he also sought to root them in the theory of
frigate and fleet tactics. To be sure, he himself did not know
how to splice a rope or furl a sail; and, owing to his partiality
for strong coffee, he was apt to be nervous when we fired
salutes; yet all this did not prevent him from delivering
lectures on cannonading and "breaking the enemy's line."

He had arrived at his knowledge of tactics by silent, solitary
study, and earnest meditation in the sequestered retreat of his
state-room. His case was somewhat parallel to the Scotchman's--
John. Clerk, Esq., of Eldin--who, though he had never been to
sea, composed a quarto treatise on fleet-fighting, which to this
day remains a text-book; and he also originated a nautical
manoeuvre, which has given to England many a victory over her foes.

Now there was a large black-board, something like a great-gun
target--only it was square--which during the professor's lectures
was placed upright on the gun-deck, supported behind by three
boarding-pikes. And here he would chalk out diagrams of great
fleet engagements; making marks, like the soles of shoes, for
the ships, and drawing a dog-vane in one corner to denote the
assumed direction of the wind. This done, with a cutlass he
would point out every spot of interest.

"Now, young gentlemen, the board before you exhibits the
disposition of the British West Indian squadron under Rodney,
when, early on the morning of the 9th of April, in the year of
our blessed Lord 1782, he discovered part of the French fleet,
commanded by the Count de Grasse, lying under the north end of
the Island of Dominica. It was at this juncture that the Admiral
gave the signal for the British line to prepare for battle, and
stand on. D'ye understand, young gentlemen? Well, the British
van having nearly fetched up with the centre of the enemy--who,
be it remembered, were then on the starboard tack--and Rodney's
centre and rear being yet becalmed under the lee of the land--the
question I ask you is, What should Rodney now do?"

"Blaze away, by all means!" responded a rather confident reefer,
who had zealously been observing the diagram.

"But, sir, his centre and rear are still becalmed, and his van
has not yet closed with the enemy."

"Wait till he _does_ come in range, and _then_ blaze away," said
the reefer.

"Permit me to remark, Mr. Pert, that '_blaze away_' is not a
strictly technical term; and also permit me to hint, Mr. Pert,
that you should consider the subject rather more deeply before
you hurry forward your opinion."

This rebuke not only abashed Mr. Pert, but for a time intimidated the
rest; and the professor was obliged to proceed, and extricate the
British fleet by himself. He concluded by awarding Admiral Rodney the
victory, which must have been exceedingly gratifying to the family pride
of the surviving relatives and connections of that distinguished hero.

"Shall I clean the board, sir?" now asked Mr. Pert, brightening up.

"No, sir; not till you have saved that crippled French ship in
the corner. That ship, young gentlemen, is the Glorieuse: you
perceive she is cut off from her consorts, and the whole British
fleet is giving chase to her. Her bowsprit is gone; her rudder is
torn away; she has one hundred round shot in her hull, and two
thirds of her men are dead or dying. What's to be done? the wind
being at northeast by north?"

"Well, sir," said Mr. Dash, a chivalric young gentleman from
Virginia, "I wouldn't strike yet; I'd nail my colours to the
main-royal-mast! I would, by Jove!"

"That would not save your ship, sir; besides, your main-mast has
gone by the board."

"I think, sir," said Mr. Slim, a diffident youth, "I think, sir,
I would haul back the fore-top-sail."

"And why so? of what service would _that_ be, I should like to
know, Mr. Slim?"

"I can't tell exactly; but I think it would help her a little,"
was the timid reply.

"Not a whit, sir--not one particle; besides, you can't haul back
your fore-top-sail--your fore-mast is lying across your forecastle."

"Haul back the main-top-sail, then," suggested another.

"Can't be done; your main-mast, also, has gone by the board!"

"Mizzen-top-sail?" meekly suggested little Boat-Plug.

"Your mizzen-top-mast, let me inform you, sir, was shot down in
the first of the fight!"

"Well, sir," cried Mr. Dash, "I'd tack ship, anyway; bid 'em
good-by with a broadside; nail my flag to the keel, if there was
no other place; and blow my brains out on the poop!"

"Idle, idle, sir! worse than idle! you are carried away, Mr.
Dash, by your ardent Southern temperament! Let me inform you,
young gentlemen, that this ship," touching it with his cutlass,
"_cannot_ be saved."

Then, throwing down his cutlass, "Mr. Pert, have the goodness to
hand me one of those cannon-balls from the rack."

Balancing the iron sphere in one hand, the learned professor
began fingering it with the other, like Columbus illustrating the
rotundity of the globe before the Royal Commission of Castilian
Ecclesiastics.

"Young gentlemen, I resume my remarks on the passage of a shot
_in vacuo_, which remarks were interrupted yesterday by general
quarters. After quoting that admirable passage in 'Spearman's
British Gunner,' I then laid it down, you remember, that the path
of a shot _in vacuo_ describes a parabolic curve. I now add that,
agreeably to the method pursued by the illustrious Newton in
treating the subject of curvilinear motion, I consider the
_trajectory_ or curve described by a moving body in space as
consisting of a series of right lines, described in successive
intervals of time, and constituting the diagonals of parallelograms
formed in a vertical plane between the vertical deflections caused
by gravity and the production of the line of motion which has been
described in each preceding interval of time. This must be obvious;
for, if you say that the passage _in vacuo_ of this cannon-ball,
now held in my hand, would describe otherwise than a series of right
lines, etc., then you are brought to the _Reductio ad Absurdum_,
that the diagonals of parallelograms are------"

"All hands reef top-sail!" was now thundered forth by the
boatswain's mates. The shot fell from the professor's palm; his
spectacles dropped on his nose, and the school tumultuously broke
up, the pupils scrambling up the ladders with the sailors, who
had been overhearing the lecture.

Herman Melville