Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

by Herman Melville

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IN a few moments, we were paraded in the frigate's gangway; the first lieutenant—an elderly yellow-faced officer, in an ill-cut coat and tarnished gold lace—coming up, and frowning upon us.

This gentleman's head was a mere bald spot; his legs, sticks; in short, his whole physical vigour seemed exhausted in the production of one enormous moustache. Old Gamboge, as he was forthwith christened, now received a paper from the consul; and, opening it, proceeded to compare the goods delivered with the invoice.

After being thoroughly counted, a meek little midshipman was called, and we were soon after given in custody to half-a-dozen sailor-soldiers—fellows with tarpaulins and muskets. Preceded by a pompous functionary (whom we took for one of the ship's corporals, from his ratan and the gold lace on his sleeve), we were now escorted down the ladders to the berth-deck.

Here we were politely handcuffed, all round; the man with the bamboo evincing the utmost solicitude in giving us a good fit from a large basket of the articles of assorted sizes.

Taken by surprise at such an uncivil reception, a few of the party demurred; but all coyness was, at last, overcome; and finally our feet were inserted into heavy anklets of iron, running along a great bar bolted down to the deck. After this, we considered ourselves permanently established in our new quarters.

"The deuce take their old iron!" exclaimed the doctor; "if I'd known this, I'd stayed behind."

"Ha, ha!" cried Flash Jack, "you're in for it, Doctor Long Ghost."

"My hands and feet are, any way," was the reply.

They placed a sentry over us; a great lubber of a fellow, who marched up and down with a dilapidated old cutlass of most extraordinary dimensions. From its length, we had some idea that it was expressly intended to keep a crowd in order—reaching over the heads of half-a-dozen, say, so as to get a cut at somebody behind.

"Mercy!" ejaculated the doctor with a shudder, "what a sensation it must be to be killed by such a tool."

We fasted till night, when one of the boys came along with a couple of "kids" containing a thin, saffron-coloured fluid, with oily particles floating on top. The young wag told us this was soup: it turned out to be nothing more than oleaginous warm water. Such as it was, nevertheless, we were fain to make a meal of it, our sentry being attentive enough to undo our bracelets. The "kids" passed from mouth to mouth, and were soon emptied.

The next morning, when the sentry's back was turned, someone, whom we took for an English sailor, tossed over a few oranges, the rinds of which we afterward used for cups.

On the second day nothing happened worthy of record. On the third, we were amused by the following scene.

A man, whom we supposed a boatswain's mate, from the silver whistle hanging from his neck, came below, driving before him a couple of blubbering boys, and followed by a whole troop of youngsters in tears. The pair, it seemed, were sent down to be punished by command of an officer; the rest had accompanied them out of sympathy.

The boatswain's mate went to work without delay, seizing the poor little culprits by their loose frocks, and using a ratan without mercy. The other boys wept, clasped their hands, and fell on their knees; but in vain; the boatswain's mate only hit out at them; once in a while making them yell ten times louder than ever.

In the midst of the tumult, down comes a midshipman, who, with a great air, orders the man on deck, and running in among the bows, sets them to scampering in all directions.

The whole of this proceeding was regarded with infinite scorn by Navy Bob, who, years before, had been captain of the foretop on board a line-of-battle ship. In his estimation, it was a lubberly piece of business throughout: they did things differently in the English navy.

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.