Redburn. His First Voyage

by Herman Melville

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Chapter LIV


It has been mentioned how advantageously my shipmates disposed of their tobacco in Liverpool; but it is to be related how those nefarious commercial speculations of theirs reduced them to sad extremities in the end.

True to their improvident character, and seduced by the high prices paid for the weed in England, they had there sold off by far the greater portion of what tobacco they had; even inducing the mate to surrender the portion he had secured under lock and key by command of the Custom-house officers. So that when the crew were about two weeks out, on the homeward-bound passage, it became sorrowfully evident that tobacco was at a premium.

Now, one of the favorite pursuits of sailors during a dogwatch below at sea is cards; and though they do not understand whist, cribbage, and games of that kidney, yet they are adepts at what is called "High-low-Jack-and-the-game," which name, indeed, has a Jackish and nautical flavor. Their stakes are generally so many plugs of tobacco, which, like rouleaux of guineas, are piled on their chests when they play. Judge, then, the wicked zest with which the Highlander's crew now shuffled and dealt the pack; and how the interest curiously and invertedly increased, as the stakes necessarily became less and less; and finally resolved themselves into "chaws."

So absorbed, at last, did they become at this business, that some of them, after being hard at work during a nightwatch on deck, would rob themselves of rest below, in order to have a brush at the cards. And as it is very difficult sleeping in the presence of gamblers; especially if they chance to be sailors, whose conversation at all times is apt to be boisterous; these fellows would often be driven out of the forecastle by those who desired to rest. They were obliged to repair on deck, and make a card-table of it; and invariably, in such cases, there was a great deal of contention, a great many ungentlemanly charges of nigging and cheating; and, now and then, a few parenthetical blows were exchanged.

But this was not so much to be wondered at, seeing they could see but very little, being provided with no light but that of a midnight sky; and the cards, from long wear and rough usage, having become exceedingly torn and tarry, so much so, that several members of the four suits might have seceded from their respective clans, and formed into a fifth tribe, under the name of "Tar-spots."

Every day the tobacco grew scarcer and scarcer; till at last it became necessary to adopt the greatest possible economy in its use. The modicum constituting an ordinary "chaw," was made to last a whole day; and at night, permission being had from the cook, this self-same "chaw" was placed in the oven of the stove, and there dried; so as to do duty in a pipe.

In the end not a plug was to be had; and deprived of a solace and a stimulus, on which sailors so much rely while at sea, the crew became absent, moody, and sadly tormented with the hypos. They were something like opium-smokers, suddenly cut off from their drug. They would sit on their chests, forlorn and moping; with a steadfast sadness, eying the forecastle lamp, at which they had lighted so many a pleasant pipe. With touching eloquence they recalled those happier evenings—the time of smoke and vapor; when, after a whole day's delectable "chawing," they beguiled themselves with their genial, and most companionable puffs.

One night, when they seemed more than usually cast down and disconsolate, Blunt, the Irish cockney, started up suddenly with an idea in his head—"Boys, let's search under the bunks!" Bless you, Blunt! what a happy conceit! Forthwith, the chests were dragged out; the dark places explored; and two sticks of nail-rod tobacco, and several old "chaws," thrown aside by sailors on some previous voyage, were their cheering reward. They were impartially divided by Jackson, who, upon this occasion, acquitted himself to the satisfaction of all.

Their mode of dividing this tobacco was the rather curious one generally adopted by sailors, when the highest possible degree of impartiality is desirable. I will describe it, recommending its earnest consideration to all heirs, who may hereafter divide an inheritance; for if they adopted this nautical method, that universally slanderous aphorism of Lavater would be forever rendered nugatory—"Expert not to understand any man till you have divided with him an inheritance."

The nail-rods they cut as evenly as possible into as many parts as there were men to be supplied; and this operation having been performed in the presence of all, Jackson, placing the tobacco before him, his face to the wall, and back to the company, struck one of the bits of weed with his knife, crying out, "Whose is this?" Whereupon a respondent, previously pitched upon, replied, at a venture, from the opposite corner of the forecastle, "Blunt's;" and to Blunt it went; and so on, in like manner, till all were served.

I put it to you, lawyers—shade of Blackstone, I invoke you —if a more impartial procedure could be imagined than this?

But the nail-rods and last-voyage "chaws" were soon gone, and then, after a short interval of comparative gayety, the men again drooped, and relapsed into gloom.

They soon hit upon an ingenious device, however—but not altogether new among seamen—to allay the severity of the depression under which they languished. Ropes were unstranded, and the yarns picked apart; and, cut up into small bits, were used as a substitute for the weed. Old ropes were preferred; especially those which had long lain in the hold, and had contracted an epicurean dampness, making still richer their ancient, cheese-like flavor.

In the middle of most large ropes, there is a straight, central part, round which the exterior strands are twisted. When in picking oakum, upon various occasions, I have chanced, among the old junk used at such times, to light upon a fragment of this species of rope, I have ever taken, I know not what kind of strange, nutty delight in untwisting it slowly, and gradually coming upon its deftly hidden and aromatic "heart;" for so this central piece is denominated.

It is generally of a rich, tawny, Indian hue, somewhat inclined to luster; is exceedingly agreeable to the touch; diffuses a pungent odor, as of an old dusty bottle of Port, newly opened above ground; and, altogether, is an object which no man, who enjoys his dinners, could refrain from hanging over, and caressing.

Nor is this delectable morsel of old junk wanting in many interesting, mournful, and tragic suggestions. Who can say in what gales it may have been; in what remote seas it may have sailed? How many stout masts of seventy-fours and frigates it may have staid in the tempest? How deep it may have lain, as a hawser, at the bottom of strange harbors? What outlandish fish may have nibbled at it in the water, and what un-catalogued sea-fowl may have pecked at it, when forming part of a lofty stay or a shroud?

Now, this particular part of the rope, this nice little "cut" it was, that among the sailors was the most eagerly sought after. And getting hold of a foot or two of old cable, they would cut into it lovingly, to see whether it had any "tenderloin."

For my own part, nevertheless, I can not say that this tit-bit was at all an agreeable one in the mouth; however pleasant to the sight of an antiquary, or to the nose of an epicure in nautical fragrancies. Indeed, though possibly I might have been mistaken, I thought it had rather an astringent, acrid taste; probably induced by the tar, with which the flavor of all ropes is more or less vitiated. But the sailors seemed to like it, and at any rate nibbled at it with great gusto. They converted one pocket of their trowsers into a junk-shop, and when solicited by a shipmate for a "chaw," would produce a small coil of rope.

Another device adopted to alleviate their hardships, was the substitution of dried tea-leaves, in place of tobacco, for their pipes. No one has ever supped in a forecastle at sea, without having been struck by the prodigious residuum of tea-leaves, or cabbage stalks, in his tin-pot of bohea. There was no lack of material to supply every pipe-bowl among us.

I had almost forgotten to relate the most noteworthy thing in this matter; namely, that notwithstanding the general scarcity of the genuine weed, Jackson was provided with a supply; nor did it give out, until very shortly previous to our arrival in port.

In the lowest depths of despair at the loss of their precious solace, when the sailors would be seated inconsolable as the Babylonish captives, Jackson would sit cross-legged in his bunk, which was an upper one, and enveloped in a cloud of tobacco smoke, would look down upon the mourners below, with a sardonic grin at their forlornness.

He recalled to mind their folly in selling for filthy lucre, their supplies of the weed; he painted their stupidity; he enlarged upon the sufferings they had brought upon themselves; he exaggerated those sufferings, and every way derided, reproached, twitted, and hooted at them. No one dared to return his scurrilous animadversions, nor did any presume to ask him to relieve their necessities out of his fullness. On the contrary, as has been just related, they divided with him the nail-rods they found.

The extraordinary dominion of this one miserable Jackson, over twelve or fourteen strong, healthy tars, is a riddle, whose solution must be left to the philosophers.

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