Redburn. His First Voyage

by Herman Melville


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Chapter LV


LV. DRAWING NIGH TO THE LAST SCENE IN JACKSON'S CAREER

The closing allusion to Jackson in the chapter preceding, reminds me of a circumstance—which, perhaps, should have been mentioned before—that after we had been at sea about ten days, he pronounced himself too unwell to do duty, and accordingly went below to his bunk. And here, with the exception of a few brief intervals of sunning himself in fine weather, he remained on his back, or seated cross-legged, during the remainder of the homeward-bound passage.

Brooding there, in his infernal gloom, though nothing but a castaway sailor in canvas trowsers, this man was still a picture, worthy to be painted by the dark, moody hand of Salvator. In any of that master's lowering sea-pieces, representing the desolate crags of Calabria, with a midnight shipwreck in the distance, this Jackson's would have been the face to paint for the doomed vessel's figurehead, seamed and blasted by lightning.

Though the more sneaking and cowardly of my shipmates whispered among themselves, that Jackson, sure of his wages, whether on duty or off, was only feigning indisposition, nevertheless it was plain that, from his excesses in Liverpool, the malady which had long fastened its fangs in his flesh, was now gnawing into his vitals.

His cheek became thinner and yellower, and the bones projected like those of a skull. His snaky eyes rolled in red sockets; nor could he lift his hand without a violent tremor; while his racking cough many a time startled us from sleep. Yet still in his tremulous grasp he swayed his scepter, and ruled us all like a tyrant to the last.

The weaker and weaker he grew, the more outrageous became his treatment of the crew. The prospect of the speedy and unshunable death now before him, seemed to exasperate his misanthropic soul into madness; and as if he had indeed sold it to Satan, he seemed determined to die with a curse between his teeth.

I can never think of him, even now, reclining in his bunk, and with short breaths panting out his maledictions, but I am reminded of that misanthrope upon the throne of the world— the diabolical Tiberius at Caprese; who even in his self-exile, imbittered by bodily pangs, and unspeakable mental terrors only known to the damned on earth, yet did not give over his blasphemies but endeavored to drag down with him to his own perdition, all who came within the evil spell of his power. And though Tiberius came in the succession of the Caesars, and though unmatchable Tacitus has embalmed his carrion, yet do I account this Yankee Jackson full as dignified a personage as he, and as well meriting his lofty gallows in history; even though he was a nameless vagabond without an epitaph, and none, but I, narrate what he was. For there is no dignity in wickedness, whether in purple or rags; and hell is a democracy of devils, where all are equals. There, Nero howls side by side with his own malefactors. If Napoleon were truly but a martial murderer, I pay him no more homage than I would a felon. Though Milton's Satan dilutes our abhorrence with admiration, it is only because he is not a genuine being, but something altered from a genuine original. We gather not from the four gospels alone, any high-raised fancies concerning this Satan; we only know him from thence as the personification of the essence of evil, which, who but pickpockets and burglars will admire? But this takes not from the merit of our high-priest of poetry; it only enhances it, that with such unmitigated evil for his material, he should build up his most goodly structure. But in historically canonizing on earth the condemned below, and lifting up and lauding the illustrious damned, we do but make examples of wickedness; and call upon ambition to do some great iniquity, and be sure of fame.

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