Redburn. His First Voyage

by Herman Melville

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Chapter LI


As yet I have said nothing about how my friend, Harry, got along as a sailor.

Poor Harry! a feeling of sadness, never to be comforted, comes over me, even now when I think of you. For this voyage that you went, but carried you part of the way to that ocean grave, which has buried you up with your secrets, and whither no mourning pilgrimage can be made.

But why this gloom at the thought of the dead? And why should we not be glad? Is it, that we ever think of them as departed from all joy? Is it, that we believe that indeed they are dead? They revisit us not, the departed; their voices no more ring in the air; summer may come, but it is winter with them; and even in our own limbs we feel not the sap that every spring renews the green life of the trees.

But Harry! you live over again, as I recall your image before me. I see you, plain and palpable as in life; and can make your existence obvious to others. Is he, then, dead, of whom this may be said?

But Harry! you are mixed with a thousand strange forms, the centaurs of fancy; half real and human, half wild and grotesque. Divine imaginings, like gods, come down to the groves of our Thessalies, and there, in the embrace of wild, dryad reminiscences, beget the beings that astonish the world.

But Harry! though your image now roams in my Thessaly groves, it is the same as of old; and among the droves of mixed beings and centaurs, you show like a zebra, banding with elks.

And indeed, in his striped Guernsey frock, dark glossy skin and hair, Harry Bolton, mingling with the Highlander's crew, looked not unlike the soft, silken quadruped-creole, that, pursued by wild Bushmen, bounds through Caffrarian woods.

How they hunted you, Harry, my zebra! those ocean barbarians, those unimpressible, uncivilized sailors of ours! How they pursued you from bowsprit to mainmast, and started you out of your every retreat!

Before the day of our sailing, it was known to the seamen that the girlish youth, whom they daily saw near the sign of the Clipper in Union-street, would form one of their homeward-bound crew. Accordingly, they cast upon him many a critical glance; but were not long in concluding that Harry would prove no very great accession to their strength; that the hoist of so tender an arm would not tell many hundred-weight on the maintop-sail halyards. Therefore they disliked him before they became acquainted with him; and such dislikes, as every one knows, are the most inveterate, and liable to increase. But even sailors are not blind to the sacredness that hallows a stranger; and for a time, abstaining from rudeness, they only maintained toward my friend a cold and unsympathizing civility.

As for Harry, at first the novelty of the scene filled up his mind; and the thought of being bound for a distant land, carried with it, as with every one, a buoyant feeling of undefinable expectation. And though his money was now gone again, all but a sovereign or two, yet that troubled him but little, in the first flush of being at sea.

But I was surprised, that one who had certainly seen much of life, should evince such an incredible ignorance of what was wholly inadmissible in a person situated as he was. But perhaps his familiarity with lofty life, only the less qualified him for understanding the other extreme. Will you believe me, this Bury blade once came on deck in a brocaded dressing-gown, embroidered slippers, and tasseled smoking-cap, to stand his morning watch.

As soon as I beheld him thus arrayed, a suspicion, which had previously crossed my mind, again recurred, and I almost vowed to myself that, spite his protestations, Harry Bolton never could have been at sea before, even as a Guinea-pig in an Indiaman; for the slightest acquaintance with the sea-life and sailors, should have prevented him, it would seem, from enacting this folly.

"Who's that Chinese mandarin?" cried the mate, who had made voyages to Canton. "Look you, my fine fellow, douse that mainsail now, and furl it in a trice."

"Sir?" said Harry, starting back. "Is not this the morning watch, and is not mine a morning gown?"

But though, in my refined friend's estimation, nothing could be more appropriate; in the mate's, it was the most monstrous of incongruities; and the offensive gown and cap were removed.

"It is too bad!" exclaimed Harry to me; "I meant to lounge away the watch in that gown until coffee time;—and I suppose your Hottentot of a mate won't permit a gentleman to smoke his Turkish pipe of a morning; but by gad, I'll wear straps to my pantaloons to spite him!"

Oh! that was the rock on which you split, poor Harry! Incensed at the want of polite refinement in the mates and crew, Harry, in a pet and pique, only determined to provoke them the more; and the storm of indignation he raised very soon overwhelmed him.

The sailors took a special spite to his chest, a large mahogany one, which he had had made to order at a furniture warehouse. It was ornamented with brass screw-heads, and other devices; and was well filled with those articles of the wardrobe in which Harry had sported through a London season; for the various vests and pantaloons he had sold in Liverpool, when in want of money, had not materially lessened his extensive stock.

It was curious to listen to the various hints and opinings thrown out by the sailors at the occasional glimpses they had of this collection of silks, velvets, broadcloths, and satins. I do not know exactly what they thought Harry had been; but they seemed unanimous in believing that, by abandoning his country, Harry had left more room for the gamblers. Jackson even asked him to lift up the lower hem of his browsers, to test the color of his calves.

It is a noteworthy circumstance, that whenever a slender made youth, of easy manners and polite address happens to form one of a ship's company, the sailors almost invariably impute his sea-going to an irresistible necessity of decamping from terra-firma in order to evade the constables.

These white-fingered gentry must be light-fingered too, they say to themselves, or they would not be after putting their hands into our tar. What else can bring them to sea?

Cogent and conclusive this; and thus Harry, from the very beginning, was put down for a very equivocal character.

Sometimes, however, they only made sport of his appearance; especially one evening, when his monkey jacket being wet through, he was obliged to mount one of his swallow-tailed coats. They said he carried two mizzen-peaks at his stern; declared he was a broken-down quill-driver, or a footman to a Portuguese running barber, or some old maid's tobacco-boy. As for the captain, it had become all the same to Harry as if there were no gentlemanly and complaisant Captain Riga on board. For to his no small astonishment,—but just as I had predicted,—Captain Riga never noticed him now, but left the business of indoctrinating him into the little experiences of a greenhorn's career solely in the hands of his officers and crew.

But the worst was to come. For the first few days, whenever there was any running aloft to be done, I noticed that Harry was indefatigable in coiling away the slack of the rigging about decks; ignoring the fact that his shipmates were springing into the shrouds. And when all hands of the watch would be engaged clewing up a t'-gallant-sail, that is, pulling the proper ropes on deck that wrapped the sail up on the yard aloft, Harry would always manage to get near the belaying-pin, so that when the time came for two of us to spring into the rigging, he would be inordinately fidgety in making fast the clew-lines, and would be so absorbed in that occupation, and would so elaborate the hitchings round the pin, that it was quite impossible for him, after doing so much, to mount over the bulwarks before his comrades had got there. However, after securing the clew-lines beyond a possibility of their getting loose, Harry would always make a feint of starting in a prodigious hurry for the shrouds; but suddenly looking up, and seeing others in advance, would retreat, apparently quite chagrined that he had been cut off from the opportunity of signalizing his activity.

At this I was surprised, and spoke to my friend; when the alarming fact was confessed, that he had made a private trial of it, and it never would do: he could not go aloft; his nerves would not hear of it.

"Then, Harry," said I, "better you had never been born. Do you know what it is that you are coming to? Did you not tell me that you made no doubt you would acquit yourself well in the rigging? Did you not say that you had been two voyages to Bombay? Harry, you were mad to ship. But you only imagine it: try again; and my word for it, you will very soon find yourself as much at home among the spars as a bird in a tree."

But he could not be induced to try it over again; the fact was, his nerves could not stand it; in the course of his courtly career, he had drunk too much strong Mocha coffee and gunpowder tea, and had smoked altogether too many Havannas.

At last, as I had repeatedly warned him, the mate singled him out one morning, and commanded him to mount to the main-truck, and unreeve the short signal halyards.

"Sir?" said Harry, aghast.

"Away you go!" said the mate, snatching a whip's end.

"Don't strike me!" screamed Harry, drawing himself up.

"Take that, and along with you," cried the mate, laying the rope once across his back, but lightly.

"By heaven!" cried Harry, wincing—not with the blow, but the insult: and then making a dash at the mate, who, holding out his long arm, kept him lazily at bay, and laughed at him, till, had I not feared a broken head, I should infallibly have pitched my boy's bulk into the officer.

"Captain Riga!" cried Harry.

"Don't call upon him" said the mate; "he's asleep, and won't wake up till we strike Yankee soundings again. Up you go!" he added, flourishing the rope's end.

Harry looked round among the grinning tars with a glance of terrible indignation and agony; and then settling his eye on me, and seeing there no hope, but even an admonition of obedience, as his only resource, he made one bound into the rigging, and was up at the main-top in a trice. I thought a few more springs would take him to the truck, and was a little fearful that in his desperation he might then jump overboard; for I had heard of delirious greenhorns doing such things at sea, and being lost forever. But no; he stopped short, and looked down from the top. Fatal glance! it unstrung his every fiber; and I saw him reel, and clutch the shrouds, till the mate shouted out for him not to squeeze the tar out of the ropes. "Up you go, sir." But Harry said nothing.

"You Max," cried the mate to the Dutch sailor, "spring after him, and help him; you understand?"

Max went up the rigging hand over hand, and brought his red head with a bump against the base of Harry's back. Needs must when the devil drives; and higher and higher, with Max bumping him at every step, went my unfortunate friend. At last he gained the royal yard, and the thin signal halyards—, hardly bigger than common twine—were flying in the wind. "Unreeve!" cried the mate.

I saw Harry's arm stretched out—his legs seemed shaking in the rigging, even to us, down on deck; and at last, thank heaven! the deed was done.

He came down pale as death, with bloodshot eyes, and every limb quivering. From that moment he never put foot in rattlin; never mounted above the bulwarks; and for the residue of the voyage, at least, became an altered person.

At the time, he went to the mate—since he could not get speech of the captain—and conjured him to intercede with Riga, that his name might be stricken off from the list of the ship's company, so that he might make the voyage as a steerage passenger; for which privilege, he bound himself to pay, as soon as he could dispose of some things of his in New York, over and above the ordinary passage-money. But the mate gave him a blunt denial; and a look of wonder at his effrontery. Once a sailor on board a ship, and always a sailor for that voyage, at least; for within so brief a period, no officer can bear to associate on terms of any thing like equality with a person whom he has ordered about at his pleasure.

Harry then told the mate solemnly, that he might do what he pleased, but go aloft again he could not, and would not. He would do any thing else but that.

This affair sealed Harry's fate on board of the Highlander; the crew now reckoned him fair play for their worst jibes and jeers, and he led a miserable life indeed.

Few landsmen can imagine the depressing and self-humiliating effects of finding one's self, for the first time, at the beck of illiterate sea-tyrants, with no opportunity of exhibiting any trait about you, but your ignorance of every thing connected with the sea-life that you lead, and the duties you are constantly called upon to perform. In such a sphere, and under such circumstances, Isaac Newton and Lord Bacon would be sea-clowns and bumpkins; and Napoleon Bonaparte be cuffed and kicked without remorse. In more than one instance I have seen the truth of this; and Harry, poor Harry, proved no exception. And from the circumstances which exempted me from experiencing the bitterest of these evils, I only the more felt for one who, from a strange constitutional nervousness, before unknown even to himself, was become as a hunted hare to the merciless crew.

But how was it that Harry Bolton, who spite of his effeminacy of appearance, had evinced, in our London trip, such unmistakable flashes of a spirit not easily tamed—how was it, that he could now yield himself up to the almost passive reception of contumely and contempt? Perhaps his spirit, for the time, had been broken. But I will not undertake to explain; we are curious creatures, as every one knows; and there are passages in the lives of all men, so out of keeping with the common tenor of their ways, and so seemingly contradictory of themselves, that only He who made us can expound them.

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