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Chapter 86

THE REBELS BROUGHT TO THE MAST.


Though many heads of hair were shorn, and many fine beards reaped
that day, yet several still held out, and vowed to defend their
sacred hair to the last gasp of their breath. These were chiefly
old sailors--some of them petty officers--who, presuming upon
their age or rank, doubtless thought that, after so many had
complied with the Captain's commands, _they_, being but a
handful, would be exempted from compliance, and remain a monument
of our master's clemency.

That same evening, when the drum beat to quarters, the sailors
went sullenly to their guns, and the old tars who still sported
their beards stood up, grim, defying, and motionless, as the
rows of sculptured Assyrian kings, who, with their magnificent
beards, have recently been exhumed by Layard.

When the proper time arrived, their names were taken down by the
officers of divisions, and they were afterward summoned in a body
to the mast, where the Captain stood ready to receive them. The
whole ship's company crowded to the spot, and, amid the breathless
multitude, the vener-able rebels advanced and unhatted.

It was an imposing display. They were old and venerable
mariners; their cheeks had been burned brown in all latitudes,
wherever the sun sends a tropical ray. Reverend old tars, one and
all; some of them might have been grandsires, with grandchildren
in every port round the world. They ought to have commanded the
veneration of the most frivolous or magisterial beholder. Even
Captain Claret they ought to have humiliated into deference. But
a Scythian is touched with no reverential promptings; and, as the
Roman student well knows, the august Senators themselves, seated
in the Senate-house, on the majestic hill of the Capitol, had
their holy beards tweaked by the insolent chief of the Goths.

Such an array of beards! spade-shaped, hammer-shaped, dagger-
shaped, triangular, square, peaked, round, hemispherical, and
forked. But chief among them all, was old Ushant's, the ancient
Captain of the Forecastle. Of a Gothic venerableness, it fell
upon his breast like a continual iron-gray storm.

Ah! old Ushant, Nestor of the crew! it promoted my longevity to
behold you.

He was a man-of-war's-man of the old Benbow school. He wore a
short cue, which the wags of the mizzen-top called his "_plug of
pig-tail_." About his waist was a broad boarder's belt, which he
wore, he said, to brace his main-mast, meaning his backbone; for
at times he complained of rheumatic twinges in the spine, consequent
upon sleeping on deck, now and then, during the night-watches of
upward of half a century. His sheath-knife was an antique--a sort
of old-fashioned pruning-hook; its handle--a sperm whale's tooth--was
carved all over with ships, cannon, and anchors. It was attached to
his neck by a _lanyard_, elaborately worked into "rose-knots" and
"Turks' heads" by his own venerable fingers.

Of all the crew, this Ushant was most beloved by my glorious
captain, Jack Chase, who one day pointed him out to me as the old
man was slowly coming down the rigging from the fore-top.

"There, White-Jacket! isn't that old Chaucer's shipman?


"'A dagger hanging by a las hadde he,
About his nekke, under his arm adown;
The hote sommer hadde made his beard all brown.
Hardy he is, and wise; I undertake
With many a tempest has his beard be shake.'

From the Canterbury Tales, White-Jacket! and must not old Ushant
have been living in Chaucer's time, that Chaucer could draw his
portrait so well?"

Herman Melville