Redburn. His First Voyage

by Herman Melville

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Chapter XLIX


There was on board our ship, among the emigrant passengers, a rich-cheeked, chestnut-haired Italian boy, arrayed in a faded, olive-hued velvet jacket, and tattered trowsers rolled up to his knee. He was not above fifteen years of age; but in the twilight pensiveness of his full morning eyes, there seemed to sleep experiences so sad and various, that his days must have seemed to him years. It was not an eye like Harry's tho' Harry's was large and womanly. It shone with a soft and spiritual radiance, like a moist star in a tropic sky; and spoke of humility, deep-seated thoughtfulness, yet a careless endurance of all the ills of life.

The head was if any thing small; and heaped with thick clusters of tendril curls, half overhanging the brows and delicate ears, it somehow reminded you of a classic vase, piled up with Falernian foliage.

From the knee downward, the naked leg was beautiful to behold as any lady's arm; so soft and rounded, with infantile ease and grace. His whole figure was free, fine, and indolent; he was such a boy as might have ripened into life in a Neapolitan vineyard; such a boy as gipsies steal in infancy; such a boy as Murillo often painted, when he went among the poor and outcast, for subjects wherewith to captivate the eyes of rank and wealth; such a boy, as only Andalusian beggars are, full of poetry, gushing from every rent.

Carlo was his name; a poor and friendless son of earth, who had no sire; and on life's ocean was swept along, as spoon-drift in a gale.

Some months previous, he had landed in Prince's Dock, with his hand-organ, from a Messina vessel; and had walked the streets of Liverpool, playing the sunny airs of southern chines, among the northern fog and drizzle. And now, having laid by enough to pay his passage over the Atlantic, he had again embarked, to seek his fortunes in America.

From the first, Harry took to the boy.

"Carlo," said Harry, "how did you succeed in England?"

He was reclining upon an old sail spread on the long-boat; and throwing back his soiled but tasseled cap, and caressing one leg like a child, he looked up, and said in his broken English—that seemed like mixing the potent wine of Oporto with some delicious syrup:—said he, "Ah! I succeed very well!—for I have tunes for the young and the old, the gay and the sad. I have marches for military young men, and love-airs for the ladies, and solemn sounds for the aged. I never draw a crowd, but I know from their faces what airs will best please them; I never stop before a house, but I judge from its portico for what tune they will soonest toss me some silver. And I ever play sad airs to the merry, and merry airs to the sad; and most always the rich best fancy the sad, and the poor the merry."

"But do you not sometimes meet with cross and crabbed old men," said Harry, "who would much rather have your room than your music?"

"Yes, sometimes," said Carlo, playing with his foot, "sometimes I do."

"And then, knowing the value of quiet to unquiet men, I suppose you never leave them under a shilling?"

"No," continued the boy, "I love my organ as I do myself, for it is my only friend, poor organ! it sings to me when I am sad, and cheers me; and I never play before a house, on purpose to be paid for leaving off, not I; would I, poor organ?"— looking down the hatchway where it was. "No, that I never have done, and never will do, though I starve; for when people drive me away, I do not think my organ is to blame, but they themselves are to blame; for such people's musical pipes are cracked, and grown rusted, that no more music can be breathed into their souls."

"No, Carlo; no music like yours, perhaps," said Harry, with a laugh.

"Ah! there's the mistake. Though my organ is as full of melody, as a hive is of bees; yet no organ can make music in unmusical breasts; no more than my native winds can, when they breathe upon a harp without chords."

Next day was a serene and delightful one; and in the evening when the vessel was just rippling along impelled by a gentle yet steady breeze, and the poor emigrants, relieved from their late sufferings, were gathered on deck; Carlo suddenly started up from his lazy reclinings; went below, and, assisted by the emigrants, returned with his organ.

Now, music is a holy thing, and its instruments, however humble, are to be loved and revered. Whatever has made, or does make, or may make music, should be held sacred as the golden bridle-bit of the Shah of Persia's horse, and the golden hammer, with which his hoofs are shod. Musical instruments should be like the silver tongs, with which the high-priests tended the Jewish altars—never to be touched by a hand profane. Who would bruise the poorest reed of Pan, though plucked from a beggar's hedge, would insult the melodious god himself.

And there is no humble thing with music in it, not a fife, not a negro-fiddle, that is not to be reverenced as much as the grandest architectural organ that ever rolled its flood-tide of harmony down a cathedral nave. For even a Jew's-harp may be so played, as to awaken all the fairies that are in us, and make them dance in our souls, as on a moon-lit sward of violets.

But what subtle power is this, residing in but a bit of steel, which might have made a tenpenny nail, that so enters, without knocking, into our inmost beings, and shows us all hidden things?

Not in a spirit of foolish speculation altogether, in no merely transcendental mood, did the glorious Greek of old fancy the human soul to be essentially a harmony. And if we grant that theory of Paracelsus and Campanella, that every man has four souls within him; then can we account for those banded sounds with silver links, those quartettes of melody, that sometimes sit and sing within us, as if our souls were baronial halls, and our music were made by the hoarest old harpers of Wales.

But look! here is poor Carlo's organ; and while the silent crowd surrounds him, there he stands, looking mildly but inquiringly about him; his right hand pulling and twitching the ivory knobs at one end of his instrument.

Behold the organ!

Surely, if much virtue lurk in the old fiddles of Cremona, and if their melody be in proportion to their antiquity, what divine ravishments may we not anticipate from this venerable, embrowned old organ, which might almost have played the Dead March in Saul, when King Saul himself was buried.

A fine old organ! carved into fantastic old towers, and turrets, and belfries; its architecture seems somewhat of the Gothic, monastic order; in front, it looks like the West-Front of York Minster.

What sculptured arches, leading into mysterious intricacies! —what mullioned windows, that seem as if they must look into chapels flooded with devotional sunsets!—what flying buttresses, and gable-ends, and niches with saints!—But stop! 'tis a Moorish iniquity; for here, as I live, is a Saracenic arch; which, for aught I know, may lead into some interior Alhambra.

Ay, it does; for as Carlo now turns his hand, I hear the gush of the Fountain of Lions, as he plays some thronged Italian air—a mixed and liquid sea of sound, that dashes its spray in my face.

Play on, play on, Italian boy! what though the notes be broken, here's that within that mends them. Turn hither your pensive, morning eyes; and while I list to the organs twain— one yours, one mine—let me gaze fathoms down into thy fathomless eye;—'tis good as gazing down into the great South Sea, and seeing the dazzling rays of the dolphins there.

Play on, play on! for to every note come trooping, now, triumphant standards, armies marching—all the pomp of sound. Methinks I am Xerxes, the nucleus of the martial neigh of all the Persian studs. Like gilded damask-flies, thick clustering on some lofty bough, my satraps swarm around me.

But now the pageant passes, and I droop; while Carlo taps his ivory knobs; and plays some flute-like saraband—soft, dulcet, dropping sounds, like silver cans in bubbling brooks. And now a clanging, martial air, as if ten thousand brazen trumpets, forged from spurs and swordhilts, called North, and South, and East, to rush to West!

Again-what blasted heath is this?—what goblin sounds of Macbeth's witches?—Beethoven's Spirit Waltz! the muster-call of sprites and specters. Now come, hands joined, Medusa, Hecate, she of Endor, and all the Blocksberg's, demons dire.

Once more the ivory knobs are tapped; and long-drawn, golden sounds are heard-some ode to Cleopatra; slowly loom, and solemnly expand, vast, rounding orbs of beauty; and before me float innumerable queens, deep dipped in silver gauzes.

All this could Carlo do—make, unmake me; build me up; to pieces take me; and join me limb to limb. He is the architect of domes of sound, and bowers of song.

And all is done with that old organ! Reverenced, then, be all street organs; more melody is at the beck of my Italian boy, than lurks in squadrons of Parisian orchestras.

But look! Carlo has that to feast the eye as well as ear; and the same wondrous magic in me, magnifies them into grandeur; though every figure greatly needs the artist's repairing hand, and sadly needs a dusting.

His York Minster's West-Front opens; and like the gates of Milton's heaven, it turns on golden binges.

What have we here? The inner palace of the Great Mogul? Group and gilded columns, in confidential clusters; fixed fountains; canopies and lounges; and lords and dames in silk and spangles.

The organ plays a stately march; and presto! wide open arches; and out come, two and two, with nodding plumes, in crimson turbans, a troop of martial men; with jingling scimiters, they pace the hall; salute, pass on, and disappear.

Now, ground and lofty tumblers; jet black Nubian slaves. They fling themselves on poles; stand on their heads; and downward vanish.

And now a dance and masquerade of figures, reeling from the side-doors, among the knights and dames. Some sultan leads a sultaness; some emperor, a queen; and jeweled sword-hilts of carpet knights fling back the glances tossed by coquettes of countesses.

On this, the curtain drops; and there the poor old organ stands, begrimed, and black, and rickety.

Now, tell me, Carlo, if at street corners, for a single penny, I may thus transport myself in dreams Elysian, who so rich as I? Not he who owns a million.

And Carlo! ill betide the voice that ever greets thee, my Italian boy, with aught but kindness; cursed the slave who ever drives thy wondrous box of sights and sounds forth from a lordling's door!

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