Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

by Herman Melville

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I HAD scarcely been aboard of the ship twenty-four hours, when a circumstance occurred, which, although noways picturesque, is so significant of the state of affairs that I cannot forbear relating it.

In the first place, however, it must be known, that among the crew was a man so excessively ugly, that he went by the ironical appellation of "Beauty." He was the ship's carpenter; and for that reason was sometimes known by his nautical cognomen of "Chips." There was no absolute deformity about the man; he was symmetrically ugly. But ill favoured as he was in person, Beauty was none the less ugly in temper; but no one could blame him; his countenance had soured his heart. Now Jermin and Beauty were always at swords' points. The truth was, the latter was the only man in the ship whom the mate had never decidedly got the better of; and hence the grudge he bore him. As for Beauty, he prided himself upon talking up to the mate, as we shall soon see.

Toward evening there was something to be done on deck, and the carpenter who belonged to the watch was missing. "Where's that skulk, Chips?" shouted Jermin down the forecastle scuttle.

"Taking his ease, d'ye see, down here on a chest, if you want to know," replied that worthy himself, quietly withdrawing his pipe from his mouth. This insolence flung the fiery little mate into a mighty rage; but Beauty said nothing, puffing away with all the tranquillity imaginable. Here it must be remembered that, never mind what may be the provocation, no prudent officer ever dreams of entering a ship's forecastle on a hostile visit. If he wants to see anybody who happens to be there, and refuses to come up, why he must wait patiently until the sailor is willing. The reason is this. The place is very dark: and nothing is easier than to knock one descending on the head, before he knows where he is, and a very long while before he ever finds out who did it.

Nobody knew this better than Jermin, and so he contented himself with looking down the scuttle and storming. At last Beauty made some cool observation which set him half wild.

"Tumble on deck," he then bellowed—"come, up with you, or I'll jump down and make you." The carpenter begged him to go about it at once.

No sooner said than done: prudence forgotten, Jermin was there; and by a sort of instinct, had his man by the throat before he could well see him. One of the men now made a rush at him, but the rest dragged him off, protesting that they should have fair play.

"Now come on deck," shouted the mate, struggling like a good fellow to hold the carpenter fast.

"Take me there," was the dogged answer, and Beauty wriggled about in the nervous grasp of the other like a couple of yards of boa-constrictor.

His assailant now undertook to make him up into a compact bundle, the more easily to transport him. While thus occupied, Beauty got his arms loose, and threw him over backward. But Jermin quickly recovered himself, when for a time they had it every way, dragging each other about, bumping their heads against the projecting beams, and returning each other's blows the first favourable opportunity that offered. Unfortunately, Jermin at last slipped and fell; his foe seating himself on his chest, and keeping him down. Now this was one of those situations in which the voice of counsel, or reproof, comes with peculiar unction. Nor did Beauty let the opportunity slip. But the mate said nothing in reply, only foaming at the mouth and struggling to rise.

Just then a thin tremor of a voice was heard from above. It was the captain; who, happening to ascend to the quarter-deck at the commencement of the scuffle, would gladly have returned to the cabin, but was prevented by the fear of ridicule. As the din increased, and it became evident that his officer was in serious trouble, he thought it would never do to stand leaning over the bulwarks, so he made his appearance on the forecastle, resolved, as his best policy, to treat the matter lightly.

"Why, why," he begun, speaking pettishly, and very fast, "what's all this about?—Mr. Jermin, Mr. Jermin—carpenter, carpenter; what are you doing down there? Come on deck; come on deck."

Whereupon Doctor Long Ghost cries out in a squeak, "Ah! Miss Guy, is that you? Now, my dear, go right home, or you'll get hurt."

"Pooh, pooh! you, sir, whoever you are, I was not speaking to you; none of your nonsense. Mr. Jermin, I was talking to you; have the kindness to come on deck, sir; I want to see you."

"And how, in the devil's name, am I to get there?" cried the mate, furiously. "Jump down here, Captain Guy, and show yourself a man. Let me up, you Chips! unhand me, I say! Oh! I'll pay you for this, some day! Come on, Captain Guy!"

At this appeal, the poor man was seized with a perfect spasm of fidgets. "Pooh, pooh, carpenter; have done with your nonsense! Let him up, sir; let him up! Do you hear? Let Mr. Jermm come on deck!"

"Go along with you, Paper Jack," replied Beauty; "this quarrel's between the mate and me; so go aft, where you belong!"

As the captain once more dipped his head down the scuttle to make answer, from an unseen hand he received, full in the face, the contents of a tin can of soaked biscuit and tea-leaves. The doctor was not far off just then. Without waiting for anything more, the discomfited gentleman, with both hands to his streaming face, retreated to the quarter-deck.

A few moments more, and Jermin, forced to a compromise, followed after, in his torn frock and scarred face, looking for all the world as if he had just disentangled himself from some intricate piece of machinery. For about half an hour both remained in the cabin, where the mate's rough tones were heard high above the low, smooth voice of the captain.

Of all his conflicts with the men, this was the first in which Jermin had been worsted; and he was proportionably enraged. Upon going below—as the steward afterward told us—he bluntly informed Guy that, for the future, he might look out for his ship himself; for his part, he had done with her, if that was the way he allowed his officers to be treated. After many high words, the captain finally assured him that, the first fitting opportunity, the carpenter should be cordially flogged; though, as matters stood, the experiment would be a hazardous one. Upon this Jermin reluctantly consented to drop the matter for the present; and he soon drowned all thoughts of it in a can of flip, which Guy had previously instructed the steward to prepare, as a sop to allay his wrath.

Nothing more ever came of this.

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