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Chapter 87

OLD USHANT AT THE GANGWAY.


The rebel beards, headed by old Ushant's, streaming like a
Commodore's _bougee_, now stood in silence at the mast.

"You knew the order!" said the Captain, eyeing them severely;
"what does that hair on your chins?"

"Sir," said the Captain of the Forecastle, "did old Ushant ever
refuse doing his duty? did he ever yet miss his muster? But,
sir, old Ushant's beard is his own!"

"What's that, sir? Master-at-arms, put that man into the brig."

"Sir," said the old man, respectfully, "the three years for which
I shipped are expired; and though I am perhaps bound to work the
ship home, yet, as matters are, I think my beard might be allowed
me. It is but a few days, Captain Claret."

"Put him into the brig!" cried the Captain; "and now, you old
rascals!" he added, turning round upon the rest, "I give you
fifteen minutes to have those beards taken off; if they then
remain on your chins, I'll flog you--every mother's son of you--
though you were all my own god-fathers!"

The band of beards went forward, summoned their barbers, and
their glorious pennants were no more. In obedience to orders,
they then paraded themselves at the mast, and, addressing the
Captain, said, "Sir, our _muzzle-lashings_ are cast off!"

Nor is it unworthy of being chronicled, that not a single sailor
who complied with the general order but refused to sport the vile
_regulation-whiskers_ prescribed by the Navy Department. No! like
heroes they cried, "Shave me clean! I will not wear a hair, since
I cannot wear all!"

On the morrow, after breakfast, Ushant was taken out of irons,
and, with the master-at-arms on one side and an armed sentry on
the other, was escorted along the gun-deck and up the ladder to
the main-mast. There the Captain stood, firm as before. They must
have guarded the old man thus to prevent his escape to the shore,
something less than a thousand miles distant at the time.

"Well, sir, will you have that beard taken off? you have slept
over it a whole night now; what do you say? I don't want to flog
an old man like you, Ushant!"

"My beard is my own, sir!" said the old man, lowly.

"Will you take it off?"

"It is mine, sir?" said the old man, tremulously.

"Rig the gratings?" roared the Captain. "Master-at-arms, strip him!
quarter-masters, seize him up! boatswain's mates, do your duty!"

While these executioners were employed, the Captain's excitement
had a little time to abate; and when, at last, old Ushant was
tied up by the arms and legs and his venerable back was exposed--
that back which had bowed at the guns of the frigate Constitution
when she captured the Guerriere--the Captain seemed to relent.

"You are a very old man," he said, "and I am sorry to flog you;
but my orders must be obeyed. I will give you one more chance;
will you have that beard taken off?"

"Captain Claret," said the old man, turning round painfully in
his bonds, "you may flog me if you will; but, sir, in this one
thing I _cannot_ obey you."

"Lay on! I'll see his backbone!" roared the Captain in a sudden fury.

"By Heaven!" thrillingly whispered Jack Chase, who stood by,
"it's only a halter; I'll strike him!"

"Better not," said a top-mate; "it's death, or worse punishment,
remember."

"There goes the lash!" cried Jack. "Look at the old man! By G---d,
I can't stand it! Let me go, men!" and with moist eyes Jack forced
his way to one side.

"You, boatswain's mate," cried the Captain, "you are favouring
that man! Lay on soundly, sir, or I'll have your own _cat_ laid
soundly on you."

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten,
eleven, twelve lashes were laid on the back of that heroic old
man. He only bowed over his head, and stood as the Dying
Gladiator lies.

"Cut him down," said the Captain.

"And now go and cut your own throat," hoarsely whispered an old
sheet-anchor-man, a mess-mate of Ushant's.

When the master-at-arms advanced with the prisoner's shirt,
Ushant waved him off with the dignified air of a Brahim, saying,
"Do you think, master-at-arms, that I am hurt? I will put on my
own garment. I am never the worse for it, man; and 'tis no
dishonour when he who would dishonour you, only dishonours himself."

"What says he?" cried the Captain; "what says that tarry old
philosopher with the smoking back? Tell it to me, sir, if you
dare! Sentry, take that man back to the brig. Stop! John Ushant,
you have been Captain of the Forecastle; I break you. And now you
go into the brig, there to remain till you consent to have that
beard taken off."

"My beard is my own," said the old man, quietly. "Sen-try, I am ready."

And back he went into durance between the guns; but after lying
some four or five days in irons, an order came to remove them;
but he was still kept confined.

Books were allowed him, and he spent much time in reading. But he
also spent many hours in braiding his beard, and interweaving
with it strips of red bunting, as if he desired to dress out and
adorn the thing which had triumphed over all opposition.

He remained a prisoner till we arrived in America; but the very
moment he heard the chain rattle out of the hawse-hole, and the
ship swing to her anchor, he started to his feet, dashed the sentry
aside, and gaining the deck, exclaimed, "At home, with my beard!"

His term of service having some months previous expired, and the
ship being now in harbour, he was beyond the reach of naval law,
and the officers durst not molest him. But without unduly
availing himself of these circumstances, the old man merely got
his bag and hammock together, hired a boat, and throwing himself
into the stern, was rowed ashore, amid the unsuppressible cheers
of all hands. It was a glorious conquest over the Conqueror
himself, as well worthy to be celebrated as the Battle of the Nile.

Though, as I afterward learned, Ushant was earnestly entreated to
put the case into some lawyer's hands, he firmly declined,
saying, "I have won the battle, my friends, and I do not care for
the prize-money." But even had he complied with these entreaties,
from precedents in similar cases, it is almost certain that not a
sou's worth of satisfaction would have been received.

I know not in what frigate you sail now, old Ushant; but Heaven
protect your storied old beard, in whatever Typhoon it may blow.
And if ever it must be shorn, old man, may it fare like the royal
beard of Henry I., of England, and be clipped by the right
reverend hand of some Archbishop of Sees.

As for Captain Claret, let it not be supposed that it is here
sought to impale him before the world as a cruel, black-hearted
man. Such he was not. Nor was he, upon the whole, regarded by his
crew with anything like the feelings which man-of-war's-men
sometimes cherish toward signally tyrannical commanders. In
truth, the majority of the Neversink's crew--in previous cruises
habituated to flagrant misusage--deemed Captain Claret a lenient
officer. In many things he certainly refrained from oppressing
them. It has been related what privileges he accorded to the
seamen respecting the free playing of checkers--a thing almost
unheard of in most American men-of-war. In the matter of
overseeing the men's clothing, also, he was remarkably indulgent,
compared with the conduct of other Navy captains, who, by
sumptuary regulations, oblige their sailors to run up large
bills with the Purser for clothes. In a word, of whatever acts
Captain Claret might have been guilty in the Neversink, perhaps
none of them proceeded from any personal, organic hard-
heartedness. What he was, the usages of the Navy had made him.
Had he been a mere landsman--a merchant, say--he would no doubt
have been considered a kind-hearted man.

There may be some who shall read of this Bartholomew Massacre of
beards who will yet marvel, perhaps, that the loss of a few hairs,
more or less, should provoke such hostility from the sailors, lash
them into so frothing a rage; indeed, come near breeding a mutiny.

But these circumstances are not without precedent. Not to speak
of the riots, attended with the loss of life, which once occurred
in Madrid, in resistance to an arbitrary edict of the king's,
seeking to suppress the cloaks of the Cavaliers; and, not to
make mention of other instances that might be quoted, it needs
only to point out the rage of the Saxons in the time of William
the Conqueror, when that despot commanded the hair on their upper
lips to be shaven off--the hereditary mustaches which whole
generations had sported. The multitude of the dispirited
vanquished were obliged to acquiesce; but many Saxon Franklins
and gentlemen of spirit, choosing rather to lose their castles
than their mustaches, voluntarily deserted their firesides, and
went into exile. All this is indignantly related by the stout
Saxon friar, Matthew Paris, in his _Historia Major_, beginning
with the Norman Conquest.

And that our man-of-war's-men were right in desiring to perpetuate
their beards, as martial appurtenances, must seem very plain, when
it is considered that, as the beard is the token of manhood, so,
in some shape or other, has it ever been held the true badge of a
warrior. Bonaparte's grenadiers were stout whiskerandoes; and perhaps,
in a charge, those fierce whiskers of theirs did as much to appall the
foe as the sheen of their bayonets. Most all fighting creatures sport
either whiskers or beards; it seems a law of Dame Nature. Witness the
boar, the tiger, the cougar, man, the leopard, the ram, the cat--all
warriors, and all whiskerandoes. Whereas, the peace-loving tribes
have mostly enameled chins.

Herman Melville