Redburn. His First Voyage

by Herman Melville


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Chapter LIII


LIII. THE HORATII AND CURIATII

With a slight alteration, I might begin this chapter after the manner of Livy, in the 24th section of his first book:—"It happened, that in each family were three twin brothers, between whom there was little disparity in point of age or of strength."

Among the steerage passengers of the Highlander, were two women from Armagh, in Ireland, widows and sisters, who had each three twin sons, born, as they said, on the same day.

They were ten years old. Each three of these six cousins were as like as the mutually reflected figures in a kaleidoscope; and like the forms seen in a kaleidoscope, together, as well as separately, they seemed to form a complete figure. But, though besides this fraternal likeness, all six boys bore a strong cousin-german resemblance to each other; yet, the O'Briens were in disposition quite the reverse of the O'Regans. The former were a timid, silent trio, who used to revolve around their mother's waist, and seldom quit the maternal orbit; whereas, the O'Regans were "broths of boys," full of mischief and fun, and given to all manner of devilment, like the tails of the comets.

Early every morning, Mrs. O'Regan emerged from the steerage, driving her spirited twins before her, like a riotous herd of young steers; and made her way to the capacious deck-tub, full of salt water, pumped up from the sea, for the purpose of washing down the ship. Three splashes, and the three boys were ducking and diving together in the brine; their mother engaged in shampooing them, though it was haphazard sort of work enough; a rub here, and a scrub there, as she could manage to fasten on a stray limb.

"Pat, ye divil, hould still while I wash ye. Ah! but it's you, Teddy, you rogue. Arrah, now, Mike, ye spalpeen, don't be mixing your legs up with Pat's."

The little rascals, leaping and scrambling with delight, enjoyed the sport mightily; while this indefatigable, but merry matron, manipulated them all over, as if it were a matter of conscience.

Meanwhile, Mrs. O'Brien would be standing on the boatswain's locker—or rope and tar-pot pantry in the vessel's bows —with a large old quarto Bible, black with age, laid before her between the knight-heads, and reading aloud to her three meek little lambs.

The sailors took much pleasure in the deck-tub performances of the O'Regans, and greatly admired them always for their archness and activity; but the tranquil O'Briens they did not fancy so much. More especially they disliked the grave matron herself; hooded in rusty black; and they had a bitter grudge against her book. To that, and the incantations muttered over it, they ascribed the head winds that haunted us; and Blunt, our Irish cockney, really believed that Mrs. O'Brien purposely came on deck every morning, in order to secure a foul wind for the next ensuing twenty-four hours.

At last, upon her coming forward one morning, Max the Dutchman accosted her, saying he was sorry for it, but if she went between the knight-heads again with her book, the crew would throw it overboard for her.

Now, although contrasted in character, there existed a great warmth of affection between the two families of twins, which upon this occasion was curiously manifested.

Notwithstanding the rebuke and threat of the sailor, the widow silently occupied her old place; and with her children clustering round her, began her low, muttered reading, standing right in the extreme bows of the ship, and slightly leaning over them, as if addressing the multitudinous waves from a floating pulpit. Presently Max came behind her, snatched the book from her hands, and threw it overboard. The widow gave a wail, and her boys set up a cry. Their cousins, then ducking in the water close by, at once saw the cause of the cry; and springing from the tub, like so many dogs, seized Max by the legs, biting and striking at him: which, the before timid little O'Briens no sooner perceived, than they, too, threw themselves on the enemy, and the amazed seaman found himself baited like a bull by all six boys.

And here it gives me joy to record one good thing on the part of the mate. He saw the fray, and its beginning; and rushing forward, told Max that he would harm the boys at his peril; while he cheered them on, as if rejoiced at their giving the fellow such a tussle. At last Max, sorely scratched, bit, pinched, and every way aggravated, though of course without a serious bruise, cried out "enough!" and the assailants were ordered to quit him; but though the three O'Briens obeyed, the three O'Regans hung on to him like leeches, and had to be dragged off.

"There now, you rascal," cried the mate, "throw overboard another Bible, and I'll send you after it without a bowline."

This event gave additional celebrity to the twins throughout the vessel. That morning all six were invited to the quarter-deck, and reviewed by the cabin-passengers, the ladies manifesting particular interest in them, as they always do concerning twins, which some of them show in public parks and gardens, by stopping to look at them, and questioning their nurses.

"And were you all born at one time?" asked an old lady, letting her eye run in wonder along the even file of white heads.

"Indeed, an' we were," said Teddy; "wasn't we, mother?"

Many more questions were asked and answered, when a collection was taken up for their benefit among these magnanimous cabin-passengers, which resulted in starting all six boys in the world with a penny apiece.

I never could look at these little fellows without an inexplicable feeling coming over me; and though there was nothing so very remarkable or unprecedented about them, except the singular coincidence of two sisters simultaneously making the world such a generous present; yet, the mere fact of there being twins always seemed curious; in fact, to me at least, all twins are prodigies; and still I hardly know why this should be; for all of us in our own persons furnish numerous examples of the same phenomenon. Are not our thumbs twins? A regular Castor and Pollux? And all of our fingers? Are not our arms, hands, legs, feet, eyes, ears, all twins; born at one birth, and as much alike as they possibly can be?

Can it be, that the Greek grammarians invented their dual number for the particular benefit of twins?

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