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Chapter 9


I MUST make some further mention of that white jacket of mine.

And here be it known--by way of introduction to what is to
follow--that to a common sailor, the living on board a man-of-war
is like living in a market; where you dress on the door-steps,
and sleep in the cellar. No privacy can you have; hardly one
moment's seclusion. It is almost a physical impossibility, that
you can ever be alone. You dine at a vast _table d'hote_; sleep
in commons, and make your toilet where and when you can. There is
no calling for a mutton chop and a pint of claret by yourself; no
selecting of chambers for the night; no hanging of pantaloons
over the back of a chair; no ringing your bell of a rainy
morning, to take your coffee in bed. It is something like life in
a large manufactory. The bell strikes to dinner, and hungry or
not, you must dine.

Your clothes are stowed in a large canvas bag, generally painted
black, which you can get out of the "rack" only once in the
twenty-four hours; and then, during a time of the utmost
confusion; among five hundred other bags, with five hundred other
sailors diving into each, in the midst of the twilight of the
berth-deck. In some measure to obviate this inconvenience, many
sailors divide their wardrobes between their hammocks and their
bags; stowing a few frocks and trowsers in the former; so that
they can shift at night, if they wish, when the hammocks are
piped down. But they gain very little by this.

You have no place whatever but your bag or hammock, in which to
put anything in a man-of-war. If you lay anything down, and turn
your back for a moment, ten to one it is gone.

Now, in sketching the preliminary plan, and laying out the
foundation of that memorable white jacket of mine, I had had an
earnest eye to all these inconveniences, and re-solved to avoid
them. I proposed, that not only should my jacket keep me warm,
but that it should also be so constructed as to contain a shirt
or two, a pair of trowsers, and divers knick-knacks--sewing
utensils, books, biscuits, and the like. With this object, I had
accordingly provided it with a great variety of pockets,
pantries, clothes-presses, and cupboards.

The principal apartments, two in number, were placed in the
skirts, with a wide, hospitable entrance from the inside; two
more, of smaller capacity, were planted in each breast, with
folding-doors communicating, so that in case of emergency, to
accommodate any bulky articles, the two pockets in each breast
could be thrown into one. There were, also, several unseen
recesses behind the arras; insomuch, that my jacket, like an old
castle, was full of winding stairs, and mysterious closets,
crypts, and cabinets; and like a confidential writing-desk,
abounded in snug little out-of-the-way lairs and hiding-places,
for the storage of valuables.

Superadded to these, were four capacious pockets on the outside;
one pair to slip books into when suddenly startled from my
studies to the main-royal-yard; and the other pair, for permanent
mittens, to thrust my hands into of a cold night-watch. This last
contrivance was regarded as needless by one of my top-mates, who
showed me a pattern for sea-mittens, which he said was much
better than mine.

It must be known, that sailors, even in the bleakest weather,
only cover their hands when unemployed; they never wear mittens
aloft, since aloft they literally carry their lives in their
hands, and want nothing between their grasp of the hemp, and the
hemp itself.--Therefore, it is desirable, that whatever things
they cover their hands with, should be capable of being slipped
on and off in a moment. Nay, it is desirable, that they should be
of such a nature, that in a dark night, when you are in a great
hurry--say, going to the helm--they may be jumped into,
indiscriminately; and not be like a pair of right-and-left kids;
neither of which will admit any hand, but the particular one
meant for it.

My top-mate's contrivance was this--he ought to have got out a
patent for it--each of his mittens was provided with two thumbs,
one on each side; the convenience of which needs no comment. But
though for clumsy seamen, whose fingers are all thumbs, this
description of mitten might do very well, White-Jacket did not so
much fancy it. For when your hand was once in the bag of the
mitten, the empty thumb-hole sometimes dangled at your palm,
confounding your ideas of where your real thumb might be; or
else, being carefully grasped in the hand, was continually
suggesting the insane notion, that you were all the while having
hold of some one else's thumb.

No; I told my good top-mate to go away with his four thumbs, I would
have nothing to do with them; two thumbs were enough for any man.

For some time after completing my jacket, and getting the
furniture and household stores in it; I thought that nothing
could exceed it for convenience. Seldom now did I have occasion
to go to my bag, and be jostled by the crowd who were making
their wardrobe in a heap. If I wanted anything in the way of
clothing, thread, needles, or literature, the chances were that
my invaluable jacket contained it. Yes: I fairly hugged myself,
and revelled in my jacket; till, alas! a long rain put me out of
conceit of it. I, and all my pockets and their contents, were
soaked through and through, and my pocket-edition of Shakespeare
was reduced to an omelet.

However, availing myself of a fine sunny day that followed, I
emptied myself out in the main-top, and spread all my goods and
chattels to dry. But spite of the bright sun, that day proved a
black one. The scoundrels on deck detected me in the act of
discharging my saturated cargo; they now knew that the white
jacket was used for a storehouse. The consequence was that, my
goods being well dried and again stored away in my pockets, the
very next night, when it was my quarter-watch on deck, and not in
the top (where they were all honest men), I noticed a parcel of
fellows skulking about after me, wherever I went. To a man, they
were pickpockets, and bent upon pillaging me. In vain I kept
clapping my pocket like a nervous old gentlemen in a crowd; that
same night I found myself minus several valuable articles. So, in
the end, I masoned up my lockers and pantries; and save the two
used for mittens, the white jacket ever after was pocketless.

Herman Melville