Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 84


The allusion to one of the ship's barbers in a previous chapter,
together with the recollection of how conspicuous a part they
enacted in a tragical drama soon to be related, leads me now to
introduce them to the reader.

Among the numerous artists and professors of polite trades in the
Navy, none are held in higher estimation or drive a more
profitable business than these barbers. And it may well be
imagined that the five hundred heads of hair and five hundred
beards of a frigate should furnish no small employment for those
to whose faithful care they may be intrusted. As everything
connected with the domestic affairs of a man-of-war comes under
the supervision of the martial executive, so certain barbers are
formally licensed by the First Lieutenant. The better to attend
to the profitable duties of their calling, they are exempted
from all ship's duty except that of standing night-watches at
sea, mustering at quarters, and coming on deck when all hands are
called. They are rated as _able seamen_ or _ordinary seamen_, and
receive their wages as such; but in addition to this, they are
liberally recompensed for their professional services. Herein
their rate of pay is fixed for every sailor manipulated--so much
per quarter, which is charged to the sailor, and credited to his
barber on the books of the Purser.

It has been seen that while a man-of-war barber is shaving his
customers at so much per chin, his wages as a seaman are still
running on, which makes him a sort of _sleeping partner_ of a
sailor; nor are the sailor wages he receives altogether to be
reckoned as earnings. Considering the circumstances, however, not
much objection can be made to the barbers on this score. But
there were instances of men in the Neversink receiving government
money in part pay for work done for private individuals. Among
these were several accomplished tailors, who nearly the whole
cruise sat cross-legged on the half deck, making coats,
pantaloons, and vests for the quarter-deck officers. Some of
these men, though knowing little or nothing about sailor duties,
and seldom or never performing them, stood upon the ship's books
as ordinary seamen, entitled to ten dollars a month. Why was
this? Previous to shipping they had divulged the fact of their
being tailors. True, the officers who employed them upon their
wardrobes paid them for their work, but some of them in such a
way as to elicit much grumbling from the tailors. At any rate,
these makers and menders of clothes did not receive from some of
these officers an amount equal to what they could have fairly
earned ashore by doing the same work. It was a considerable
saving to the officers to have their clothes made on board.

The men belonging to the carpenter's gang furnished another case
in point. There were some six or eight allotted to this department.
All the cruise they were hard at work. At what? Mostly making chests
of drawers, canes, little ships and schooners, swifts, and other
elaborated trifles, chiefly for the Captain. What did the Captain pay
them for their trouble? Nothing. But the United States government paid
them; two of them (the mates) at nineteen dollars a month, and the rest
receiving the pay of able seamen, twelve dollars.

To return.

The regular days upon which the barbers shall exercise their
vocation are set down on the ship's calendar, and known as
_shaving days_. On board of the Neversink these days are
Wednesdays and Saturdays; when, immediately after breakfast, the
barbers' shops were opened to customers. They were in different
parts of the gun-deck, between the long twenty-four pounders.
Their furniture, however, was not very elaborate, hardly equal to
the sumptuous appointments of metropolitan barbers. Indeed, it
merely consisted of a match-tub, elevated upon a shot-box, as a
barber's chair for the patient. No Psyche glasses; no hand-
mirror; no ewer and basin; no comfortable padded footstool;
nothing, in short, that makes a shore "_shave_" such a luxury.

Nor are the implements of these man-of-war barbers out of keeping
with the rude appearance of their shops. Their razors are of the
simplest patterns, and, from their jagged-ness, would seem better
fitted for the preparing and harrowing of the soil than for the
ultimate reaping of the crop. But this is no matter for wonder,
since so many chins are to be shaven, and a razor-case holds but
two razors. For only two razors does a man-of-war barber have,
and, like the marine sentries at the gangway in port, these
razors go off and on duty in rotation. One brush, too, brushes
every chin, and one lather lathers them all. No private brushes
and boxes; no reservations whatever.

As it would be altogether too much trouble for a man-of-war's-man
to keep his own shaving-tools and shave himself at sea, and
since, therefore, nearly the whole ship's company patronise the
ship's barbers, and as the seamen must be shaven by evening
quarters of the days appointed for the business, it may be
readily imagined what a scene of bustle and confusion there is
when the razors are being applied. First come, first served, is
the motto; and often you have to wait for hours together, sticking
to your position (like one of an Indian file of merchants' clerks
getting letters out of the post-office), ere you have a chance to
occupy the pedestal of the match-tub. Often the crowd of quarrelsome
candidates wrangle and fight for precedency, while at all times the
interval is employed by the garrulous in every variety of ship-gossip.

As the shaving days are unalterable, they often fall upon days of
high seas and tempestuous winds, when the vessel pitches and
rolls in a frightful manner. In consequence, many valuable lives
are jeopardised from the razor being plied under such untoward
circumstances. But these sea-barbers pride themselves upon their
sea-legs, and often you will see them standing over their
patients with their feet wide apart, and scientifically swaying
their bodies to the motion of the ship, as they flourish their
edge-tools about the lips, nostrils, and jugular.

As I looked upon the practitioner and patient at such times, I
could not help thinking that, if the sailor had any insurance on
his life, it would certainly be deemed forfeited should the
president of the company chance to lounge by and behold him in
that imminent peril. For myself, I accounted it an excellent
preparation for going into a sea-fight, where fortitude in
standing up to your gun and running the risk of all splinters,
comprise part of the practical qualities that make up an
efficient man-of-war's man.

It remains to be related, that these barbers of ours had their
labours considerably abridged by a fashion prevailing among many
of the crew, of wearing very large whiskers; so that, in most
cases, the only parts needing a shave were the upper lip and
suburbs of the chin. This had been more or less the custom during
the whole three years' cruise; but for some time previous to our
weathering Cape Horn, very many of the seamen had redoubled their
assiduity in cultivating their beards preparatory to their return
to America. There they anticipated creating no small impression
by their immense and magnificent _homeward-bounders_--so they
called the long fly-brushes at their chins. In particular, the
more aged sailors, embracing the Old Guard of sea grenadiers on
the forecastle, and the begrimed gunner's mates and quarter-
gunners, sported most venerable beards of an exceeding length and
hoariness, like long, trailing moss hanging from the bough of
some aged oak. Above all, the Captain of the Forecastle, old
Ushant--a fine specimen of a sea sexagenarian--wore a wide,
spreading beard, gizzled and grey, that flowed over his breast
and often became tangled and knotted with tar. This Ushant, in
all weathers, was ever alert at his duty; intrepidly mounting the
fore-yard in a gale, his long beard streaming like Neptune's. Off
Cape Horn it looked like a miller's, being all over powdered with
frost; sometimes it glittered with minute icicles in the pale,
cold, moonlit Patagonian nights. But though he was so active in
time of tempest, yet when his duty did not call for exertion, he
was a remarkably staid, reserved, silent, and majestic old man,
holding himself aloof from noisy revelry, and never participating
in the boisterous sports of the crew. He resolutely set his beard
against their boyish frolickings, and often held forth like an
oracle concerning the vanity thereof. Indeed, at times he was wont
to talk philosophy to his ancient companions--the old sheet-anchor-men
around him--as well as to the hare-brained tenants of the fore-top,
and the giddy lads in the mizzen.

Nor was his philosophy to be despised; it abounded in wisdom.
For this Ushant was an old man, of strong natural sense, who had
seen nearly the whole terraqueous globe, and could reason of
civilized and savage, of Gentile and Jew, of Christian and
Moslem. The long night-watches of the sailor are eminently
adapted to draw out the reflective faculties of any serious-
minded man, however humble or uneducated. Judge, then, what half
a century of battling out watches on the ocean must have done for
this fine old tar. He was a sort of a sea-Socrates, in his old
age "pouring out his last philosophy and life," as sweet Spenser
has it; and I never could look at him, and survey his right
reverend beard, without bestowing upon him that title which, in
one of his satires, Persius gives to the immortal quaffer of the
hemlock--_Magister Barbatus_--the bearded master.

Not a few of the ship's company had also bestowed great pains
upon their hair, which some of them--especially the genteel young
sailor bucks of the After-guard--wore over their shoulders like
the ringleted Cavaliers. Many sailors, with naturally tendril
locks, prided themselves upon what they call _love curls_, worn
at the side of the head, just before the ear--a custom peculiar
to tars, and which seems to have filled the vacated place of the
old-fashioned Lord Rodney cue, which they used to wear some fifty
years ago.

But there were others of the crew labouring under the misfortune
of long, lank, Winnebago locks, carroty bunches of hair, or
rebellious bristles of a sandy hue. Ambitious of redundant mops,
these still suffered their carrots to grow, spite of all
ridicule. They looked like Huns and Scandinavians; and one of
them, a young Down Easter, the unenvied proprietor of a thick
crop of inflexible yellow bamboos, went by the name of _Peter the
Wild Boy_; for, like Peter the Wild Boy in France, it was
supposed that he must have been caught like a catamount in the
pine woods of Maine. But there were many fine, flowing heads of
hair to counter-balance such sorry exhibitions as Peter's.

What with long whiskers and venerable beards, then, of every
variety of cut--Charles the Fifth's and Aurelian's--and endless
_goatees_ and _imperials;_ and what with abounding locks, our crew
seemed a company of Merovingians or Long-haired kings, mixed with
savage Lombards or Longobardi, so called from their lengthy beards.

Herman Melville