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 85

THE GREAT MASSACRE OF THE BEARDS.


The preceding chapter fitly paves the way for the present,
wherein it sadly befalls White-Jacket to chronicle a calamitous
event, which filled the Neversink with long lamentations, that
echo through all her decks and tops. After dwelling upon our
redundant locks and thrice-noble beards, fain would I cease, and
let the sequel remain undisclosed, but truth and fidelity forbid.

As I now deviously hover and lingeringly skirmish about the frontiers
of this melancholy recital, a feeling of sadness comes over me that I
cannot withstand. Such a heartless massacre of hair! Such a
Bartholomew's Day and Sicilian Vespers of assassinated beards! Ah!
who would believe it! With intuitive sympathy I feel of my own brown
beard while I write, and thank my kind stars that each precious hair
is for ever beyond the reach of the ruthless barbers of a man-of-war!

It needs that this sad and most serious matter should be
faithfully detailed. Throughout the cruise, many of the officers
had expressed their abhorrence of the impunity with which the
most extensive plantations of hair were cultivated under their
very noses; and they frowned upon every beard with even greater
dislike. They said it was unseamanlike; not _ship-shape;_ in
short, it was disgraceful to the Navy. But as Captain Claret said
nothing, and as the officers, of themselves, had no authority to
preach a crusade against whiskerandoes, the Old Guard on the
forecastle still complacently stroked their beards, and the sweet
youths of the After-guard still lovingly threaded their fingers
through their curls.

Perhaps the Captain's generosity in thus far permitting our
beards sprung from the fact that he himself wore a small speck of
a beard upon his own imperial cheek; which if rumour said true,
was to hide something, as Plutarch relates of the Emperor Adrian.
But, to do him justice--as I always have done--the Captain's
beard did not exceed the limits prescribed by the Navy Department.

According to a then recent ordinance at Washington, the beards of
both officers and seamen were to be accurately laid out and
surveyed, and on no account must come lower than the mouth, so as
to correspond with the Army standard--a regulation directly
opposed to the theocratical law laid down in the nineteenth
chapter and twenty-seventh verse of Leviticus, where it is
expressly ordained, "_Thou shalt not mar the corners of thy
beard_." But legislators do not always square their statutes by
those of the Bible.

At last, when we had crossed the Northern Tropic, and were
standing up to our guns at evening quarters, and when the setting
sun, streaming in at the port-holes, lit up every hair, till to
an observer on the quarter-deck, the two long, even lines of
beards seemed one dense grove; in that evil hour it must have
been, that a cruel thought entered into the heart of our Captain.

A pretty set of savages, thought he, am I taking home to America;
people will think them all catamounts and Turks. Besides, now
that I think of it, it's against the law. It will never do. They
must be shaven and shorn--that's flat.

There is no knowing, indeed, whether these were the very words in
which the Captain meditated that night; for it is yet a mooted
point among metaphysicians, whether we think in words or whether
we think in thoughts. But something like the above must have been
the Captain's cogitations. At any rate, that very evening the
ship's company were astounded by an extraordinary announcement
made at the main-hatch-way of the gun-deck, by the Boat-swain's
mate there stationed. He was afterwards discovered to have been
tipsy at the time.

"D'ye hear there, fore and aft? All you that have hair on your heads,
shave them off; and all you that have beards, trim 'em small!"

Shave off our Christian heads! And then, placing them between our
knees, trim small our worshipped beards! The Captain was mad.

But directly the Boatswain came rushing to the hatchway, and,
after soundly rating his tipsy mate, thundered forth a true
version of the order that had issued from the quarter-deck. As
amended, it ran thus:

"D'ye hear there, fore and aft? All you that have long hair, cut
it short; and all you that have large whiskers, trim them down,
according to the Navy regulations."

This was an amendment, to be sure; but what barbarity, after all!
What! not thirty days' run from home, and lose our magnificent
homeward-bounders! The homeward-bounders we had been cultivating
so long! Lose them at one fell swoop? Were the vile barbers of
the gun-deck to reap our long, nodding harvests, and expose our
innocent chins to the chill air of the Yankee coast! And our viny
locks! were they also to be shorn? Was a grand sheep-shearing,
such as they annually have at Nantucket, to take place; and our
ignoble barbers to carry off the fleece?

Captain Claret! in cutting our beards and our hair, you cut us
the unkindest cut of all! Were we going into action, Captain
Claret--going to fight the foe with our hearts of flame and our
arms of steel, then would we gladly offer up our beards to the
terrific God of War, and _that_ we would account but a wise
precaution against having them tweaked by the foe. _Then_,
Captain Claret, you would but be imitating the example of
Alexander, who had his Macedonians all shaven, that in the hour
of battle their beards might not be handles to the Persians. But
_now_, Captain Claret! when after our long, long cruise, we are
returning to our homes, tenderly stroking the fine tassels on our
chins; and thinking of father or mother, or sister or brother, or
daughter or son; to cut off our beards now--the very beards that
were frosted white off the pitch of Patagonia--_this_ is too
bitterly bad, Captain Claret! and, by Heaven, we will not submit.
Train your guns inboard, let the marines fix their bayonets, let
the officers draw their swords; we _will not_ let our beards be
reaped--the last insult inflicted upon a vanquished foe in the East!

Where are you, sheet-anchor-men! Captains of the tops! gunner's
mates! mariners, all! Muster round the capstan your venerable
beards, and while you braid them together in token of brotherhood,
cross hands and swear that we will enact over again the mutiny of
the Nore, and sooner perish than yield up a hair!

The excitement was intense throughout that whole evening. Groups
of tens and twenties were scattered about all the decks,
discussing the mandate, and inveighing against its barbarous
author. The long area of the gun-deck was something like a
populous street of brokers, when some terrible commercial tidings
have newly arrived. One and all, they resolved not to succumb,
and every man swore to stand by his beard and his neighbour.

Twenty-four hours after--at the next evening quarters--the
Captain's eye was observed to wander along the men at their
guns--not a beard was shaven!

When the drum beat the retreat, the Boatswain--now attended by
all four of his mates, to give additional solemnity to the
announcement--repeated the previous day's order, and concluded by
saying, that twenty-four hours would be given for all to acquiesce.

But the second day passed, and at quarters, untouched, every
beard bristled on its chin. Forthwith Captain Claret summoned the
midshipmen, who, receiving his orders, hurried to the various
divisions of the guns, and communicated them to the Lieutenants
respectively stationed over divisions.

The officer commanding mine turned upon us, and said, "Men, if
tomorrow night I find any of you with long hair, or whiskers of a
standard violating the Navy regulations, the names of such
offenders shall be put down on the report."

The affair had now assumed a most serious aspect. The Captain was
in earnest. The excitement increased ten-fold; and a great many
of the older seamen, exasperated to the uttermost, talked about
_knocking of duty_ till the obnoxious mandate was revoked. I
thought it impossible that they would seriously think of such a
folly; but there is no knowing what man-of-war's-men will
sometimes do, under provocation--witness Parker and the Nore.

That same night, when the first watch was set, the men in a body
drove the two boatswain's mates from their stations at the fore
and main hatchways, and unshipped the ladders; thus cutting off
all communication between the gun and spar decks, forward of the
main-mast.

Mad Jack had the trumpet; and no sooner was this incipient
mutiny reported to him, than he jumped right down among the mob,
and fearlessly mingling with them, exclaimed, "What do you mean,
men? don't be fools! This is no way to get what you want. Turn
to, my lads, turn to! Boatswain's mate, ship that ladder! So! up
you tumble, now, my hearties! away you go!"

His gallant, off-handed, confident manner, recognising no attempt
at mutiny, operated upon the sailors like magic.

They _tumbled up_, as commanded; and for the rest of that night
contented themselves with privately fulminating their displeasure
against the Captain, and publicly emblazoning every anchor-
button on the coat of admired Mad jack.

Captain Claret happened to be taking a nap in his cabin at the
moment of the disturbance; and it was quelled so soon that he
knew nothing of it till it was officially reported to him. It was
afterward rumoured through the ship that he reprimanded Mad Jack
for acting as he did. He main-tained that he should at once have
summoned the marines, and charged upon the "mutineers." But if
the sayings imputed to the Captain were true, he nevertheless
refrained from subsequently noticing the disturbance, or
attempting to seek out and punish the ringleaders. This was but
wise; for there are times when even the most potent governor must
wink at transgression in order to preserve the laws inviolate for
the future. And great care is to be taken, by timely management,
to avert an incontestable act of mutiny, and so prevent men from
being roused, by their own consciousness of transgression, into
all the fury of an unbounded insurrection. _Then_ for the time,
both soldiers and sailors are irresistible; as even the valour of
Caesar was made to know, and the prudence of Germanicus, when
their legions rebelled. And not all the concessions of Earl
Spencer, as First lord of the Admiralty, nor the threats and
entreaties of Lord Bridport, the Admiral of the Fleet--no, nor
his gracious Majesty's plenary pardon in prospective, could
prevail upon the Spithead mutineers (when at last fairly lashed
up to the mark) to succumb, until deserted by their own mess-
mates, and a handful was left in the breach.

Therefore, Mad Jack! you did right, and no one else could have
acquitted himself better. By your crafty simplicity, good-natured
daring, and off-handed air (as if nothing was happening) you perhaps
quelled a very serious affair in the bud, and prevented the disgrace
to the American Navy of a tragical mutiny, growing out of whiskers,
soap-suds, and razors. Think of it, if future historians should devote
a long chapter to the great _Rebellion of the Beards_ on board the
United States ship Neversink. Why, through all time thereafter,
barbers would cut down their spiralised poles, and substitute
miniature main-masts for the emblems of their calling.

And here is ample scope for some pregnant instruction, how that events
of vast magnitude in our man-of-war world may originate in the pettiest
of trifles. But that is an old theme; we waive it, and proceed.

On the morning following, though it was not a regular shaving
day, the gun-deck barbers were observed to have their shops open,
their match-tub accommodations in readiness, and their razors
displayed. With their brushes, raising a mighty lather in their
tin pots, they stood eyeing the passing throng of seamen,
silently inviting them to walk in and be served. In addition to
their usual implements, they now flourished at intervals a huge
pair of sheep-shears, by way of more forcibly reminding the men
of the edict which that day must be obeyed, or woe betide them.

For some hours the seamen paced to and fro in no very good
humour, vowing not to sacrifice a hair. Beforehand, they
denounced that man who should abase himself by compliance. But
habituation to discipline is magical; and ere long an old
forecastle-man was discovered elevated upon a match-tub, while,
with a malicious grin, his barber--a fellow who, from his
merciless rasping, was called Blue-Skin--seized him by his long
beard, and at one fell stroke cut it off and tossed it out of the
port-hole behind him. This forecastle-man was ever afterwards
known by a significant title--in the main equivalent to that name
of reproach fastened upon that Athenian who, in Alexander's time,
previous to which all the Greeks sported beards, first submitted
to the deprivation of his own. But, spite of all the contempt
hurled on our forecastle-man, so prudent an example was soon
followed; presently all the barbers were busy.

Sad sight! at which any one but a barber or a Tartar would have
wept! Beards three years old; _goatees_ that would have graced a
Chamois of the Alps; _imperials_ that Count D'Orsay would have
envied; and _love-curls_ and man-of-war ringlets that would have
measured, inch for inch, with the longest tresses of The Fair One
with the Golden Locks--all went by the board! Captain Claret! how
can you rest in your hammock! by this brown beard which now waves
from my chin--the illustrious successor to that first, young,
vigorous beard I yielded to your tyranny--by this manly beard, I
swear, it was barbarous!

My noble captain, Jack Chase, was indignant. Not even all the
special favours he had received from Captain Claret. and the
plenary pardon extended to him for his desertion into the
Peruvian service, could restrain the expression of his feelings.
But in his cooler moments, Jack was a wise man; he at last deemed
it but wisdom to succumb.

When he went to the barber he almost drew tears from his eyes.
Seating himself mournfully on the match-tub, he looked sideways,
and said to the barber, who was _slithering_ his sheep-shears in
readiness to begin: "My friend, I trust your scissors are
consecrated. Let them not touch this beard if they have yet to be
dipped in holy water; beards are sacred things, barber. Have you
no feeling for beards, my friend? think of it;" and mournfully he
laid his deep-dyed, russet cheek upon his hand. "Two summers have
gone by since my chin has been reaped. I was in Coquimbo then,
on the Spanish Main; and when the husband-man was sowing his
Autumnal grain on the Vega, I started this blessed beard; and
when the vine-dressers were trimming their vines in the vineyards,
I first trimmed it to the sound of a flute. Ah! barber, have you no
heart? This beard has been caressed by the snow-white hand of the
lovely Tomasita of Tombez--the Castilian belle of all lower Peru.
Think of _that_, barber! I have worn it as an officer on the quarter-deck
of a Peruvian man-of-war. I have sported it at brilliant fandangoes
in Lima. I have been alow and aloft with it at sea. Yea, barber! it
has streamed like an Admiral's pennant at the mast-head of this same
gallant frigate, the Neversink! Oh! barber, barber! it stabs me to the
heart.--Talk not of hauling down your ensigns and standards when
vanquished--what is _that_, barber! to striking the flag that Nature
herself has nailed to the mast!"

Here noble Jack's feelings overcame him: he dropped from the
animated attitude into which his enthusiasm had momentarily
transported him; his proud head sunk upon his chest, and his
long, sad beard almost grazed the deck.

"Ay! trail your beards in grief and dishonour, oh crew of the
Neversink!" sighed Jack. "Barber, come closer--now, tell me, my
friend, have you obtained absolution for this deed you are about
to commit? You have not? Then, barber, I will absolve you; your
hands shall be washed of this sin; it is not you, but another;
and though you are about to shear off my manhood, yet, barber, I
freely forgive you; kneel, kneel, barber! that I may bless you,
in token that I cherish no malice!"

So when this barber, who was the only tender-hearted one of his
tribe, had kneeled, been absolved, and then blessed, Jack gave up
his beard into his hands, and the barber, clipping it off with a
sigh, held it high aloft, and, parodying the style of the
boatswain's mates, cried aloud, "D'ye hear, fore and aft? This is
the beard of our matchless Jack Chase, the noble captain of this
frigate's main-top!"

Herman Melville