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I Aung myself from my lair, and humbled, ill, and wretched, I crawled upon the deck. The view there, and from thence, was disconsolate. The sea had increased with our distance from the land, and the ill humour and sullenness of the mate, who had charge of the watch, had increased with the sea. The vessel was holding her course for the Straits of Gibraltar, with the gale on her larboard quarter, and with nothing set but her reefed foresail and storm staystail. She was making rapid way, but the night was excessively dark, the cold extreme, and its bitterness much increased by the frozen, arrowy sleet, that drove aslant across the decks.
When I gained the deck, it must not be supposed that I was in the blandest frame of mind. As I made my appearance above the hatchway, I distinctly heard the man at the wheel say, with a contemptuous roll of his quid, “ the long-shore dandy."
As I stumbled across the weather side of the little space, dignified by the high-sounding title of the quarter-deck, I came in contact, certainly not willingly on my part, with the surly mate. His name was Gavel. Yes, James Gavel, I remember was the name of this man with the unfortunate temper.
“ Out of my way, sir,” said he to me, pushing me aside with his arm.
“ This to me?"
“ I am doing my duty. You are in my way. On duty, if you were the king's son, and got in my way, I would send you out of it thus," and he thrust me over to lee ward.
I staggered with the violent motion of the brig, and came with great force against the iron belaying pins, and was much hurt. I did not feel that pain then. The action of the mate could not be called a blow. It was a push-a something with which to put aside an obstruction. I glared upon my assaulter, and looked eagerly round for some weapon with which to avenge the insult. Even Bounder, the large Newfoundland dog, of whom I have made honourable mention, recent as was our acquaintance, sided with me. He placed himself in a hostile attitude before my person, as if to protect it from further injury, and growled defiance at my aggressor. This sudden action of the dog seemed to strike Gavel forcibly, and he exclaimed with a horrible oath, “ Is every thing that breathes my enemy?"
I felt the infirmity of passion fast mastering me; but, remembering my horrible impulse in the cabin, with one mighty effort I subdued it. What a mystic entanglement of thoughts and feelings is the human mind! For no intentional injury or insult, I had just thirsted for blood, and now that both had been inflicted upon me, and that, in no measured degree, I thought only of vindicating my injured honour, and of simply chastising my insulter.
After the first burst of resentment had subsided, I made my way to Gavel, and placing my hand heavily upon his shoulder, I said to him slowly and distinctly, “ You have grossly wronged me. You must apologize."
“ See you d- d first."
“ But indeed you must. Here, upon your own element, and on a planking on which I cannot even keep my footing-annoyed in mind, and dreadfully enfeebled by a sickness that is to you but a source of your derision, I am unable fairly to.cope with you. Do not put, therefore, the assassin's thought into my head, for your sake and mine. Apologize-I even entreat you."
“ Tell ye I wont. To a man as is a man, if so be as I have wronged him unlike a man, I am willing, heart and soul, to ask his pardon; but that I, a thorough seaman, should demean myself to beg pardon of a tooth-polishing, pomatum-smelling, white-handed thing of starch like yourself-no, not if you were standing over me with the stiletto at my bosom, that your d— d cowardly countrymen are so fond of using. Ask your pardon l-even if the point were in my heart, I would curse you, and with my last struggle spurn you. Ah! you are feeling for your knife or your dagger, are ye? Well, there is my broad chest, strike if you dare. I may as well die by the base hand of a mongrel Spaniard, as live the cursed life I now do; for I am sick, sick, sick of the world, and all that is in and upon it.”
Notwithstanding the towering passion which the principal part of this speech had thrown me into, the last sentence of it was uttered with such a touching and deep tone of melancholy-a tone in complete contrast with his usual reckless and ferocious bearing that I was suddenly checked in my intent of summary vengeance, though I hardly knew how that intent was to be worked out. Holding on, therefore, by the weather main rigging, I answered with a calmness that surprised myself." Mr. Gavel, you refuse me justice because you hold me not to be a man, but as, in your acceptation of the term, something inferior to one. Your profession is not mine-nor your knowledge, nor your capability to bear hardship, nor your power of keeping footing in this terrible sea- all these, I repeat, are not mine. A man may want these, and yet have a nobleness of heart, a firmness of purpose, and a sublimity of true courage, which the uneducated cannot even comprehend. These qualities I do not, to any great degree, arrogate to myself; but I trust that I have enough of them to write myself as good a man as James Gavel, chief mate of my father's hired brig, the Jane.”
“ Prove it," said my adversary sullenly.
"I will prove it, when occasion offers itself--and when I have, you will confess your error-you will apologize. This is the first quarrel that I ever had upon my hands, I humbly beseech of Heaven it may be the last-it seems to be changing me into a demon.”
“ Well, you speak fairly, Mr. Troughton. Occasions enough will soon offer themselves. This is a doomed vessel. The death-fires were playing last night round the foretopmast head, a whole hour by the glass; and there was a strange animal seen forward by old Huggins, balf fish, half hyena-it lives upon sailor's carcases, and knows better than the shark when fat corpses will be tumbling into the sea. Take that, you lubber," he continued, giving the man at the wheel a tremendous blow on the face, that covered it instantaneously with blood, at the same time seizing the spoke itself, and rapidly righting
May 1836,--VOL. XVI.-NO. LXI.
the course of the vessel - take that, and learn to mind your trick at the wheel, and don't founder us before our time.”
I was not altogether sorry for the chastisement, albeit it was so severe. The fellow was cowed in a moment, and without wiping the blood off his face, he resumed his office. In listening to the mate, he had neglected the steerage, and suffered the brig so far to broach to, as to bring the wind right abeam, and a deluging sea swept clean over her. As every thing was well secured, no other damage was sustained, than that arising from adding a salt water wetting to the fresh one that we were so patiently enduring.
“ You think then, Mr. Gavel, that we are in danger ?"
“ Know it—not sorry—tired of the world. No preferment for a man as does his duty. Look at that beast, our skipper Tomkinswith his means I might be happy, and make my poor mother comfortable and happy too."
“ But is he not reckoned a good seaman ?".
“ This is the exact case, sir; he is fit to command this or any other vessel just two half hours in the four-and-twenty-those are the periods, just before he gets outrageously drunk. Before he has had a sufficient quantity to wind him up, he is as fearful as a hare, and as weak as a spoilt lady who lives upon green tea; when he has had too much, he is as rash and as reckless as a ruined gamester, with a wife and young family; and, excepting during the two half hours that I have mentioned, he is always either in one or other of these states. But, never mind, it's all one now-his green shroud is ready for him—he'll find it wide enough, I'm thinking—he'll shortly lie in a deeper grave than his father's."
“ But why all these misgivings? You know that, as yet, I am a wretched sailor, or you should not have thrust me from you as you did, with impunity. You'll have to answer for that yet. But why all these doubts of our safety? The vessel rolls, but she seems to be now in no more danger than she has been for the last eight-and-forty hours. Really, your dismal prognostications look like superstition.”
Do they? Well, call it what you like. The rats are much better judges of those matters than we-poor blind mortals that we are. This is an old craft, mark you, and was, erewhile, overrun with these black gentlemen with long tails and black whiskers. There was not a finer colony in any vessel in the Thames from London Bridge to the Nore light. Well, I'm blessed if I did not see them, the very night, that you came on board, at Gravesend, walk down the chain cable, as leisurely and as orderly as if they had been soldiers at a parade, and take to the water in three divisions, some of the mothers and fathers taking the little ones in their teeth."
“ Incredible !”
“ True ! One line swam on board the George Indiaman. She is a safe ship for this voyage. The owners and merchants, if they knew all, might have saved their insurances.”
“ Where did the other two divisions go ?".
“ I didn't watch. A good way down the river, I'm thinking. I should like to know myself—but I was so much taken up with the last of the train that left the brig. It was a large rat, grown grey with age. As he stood upon the last link of the chain cable, and just before he plunged into the water, he turned himself round very leisurely, and then shook his head at the craft, with quite as much gravity and wisdom as a judge upon the bench. I had a great mind to have flung a marling spike at him, that I happened to have in my hand, only the hooker is not too well found in stores. Upon my soul, I had a great mind to have cut my stick, and walked off with them.”
“So, you judge from this that we shall perish ?"
“ Horrible !" I exclaimed, my own vile thoughts in the cabin rising up in judgment against me. “ This is a grave accusation, Mr. Gavel; -how know you this ?"
“ The deed may not yet be committed, but it is predestined ; and the man that is to do it, or has already done it, is now in this condemned barky."
“ But if, according to your ridiculous omens, the vessel is so soon to be lost, and this murder is not committed, there can be no murder at all, since we shall all share one common fate." I spoke this with a dreadful mistrust of myself.
“Mayhap it is, mayhap it ain't. If it tain't yet done, short as is our time, it will still be long enough to commit wickedness to plunge us all into hell. You yourself looked just now at me as if you longed to cut my throat, merely for pushing you out of my way. I dare say, that if just then you had had a knife in your hand, you would have clapped it between my ribs-you shudder.—Why, Master Troughton, what a trivial accident only intervened between you and murder ! -you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
My cheeks burned with contrition at this reproof from the rough and sullen seaman, but still I was too proud to betray my feelings in words, and I coldly replied, “ You will give me satisfaction for that outrage when you have proved me: it is a quarrel that we will suspend, yet not forget. In the mean time, let us act generously towards each other. I have already learned to esteem your sterling good qualities,—already I know that on you only, the salvation of this ship depends, if she may be saved : it is a pity that you should mar those good impressions by your ruffianly deportment.”
“My ruffianly deportment, as you are pleased to call it, is neither here nor there. Concerning this matter, the craft is not to be saved, without, Jonas-like, we could pitch the murderer overboard. If he was struggling in that eddying whirl to leeward there, we might have fine weather and a quiet sea in an hour's time. I wish he was, from the bottom of my heart !"
“ Mr. Gavel, you shock me! Are these the impressions of a Christian? It is meet that crime should be punished, but unmanly and unnatural to rejoice in the punishment; had I said diabolical, I should but have characterised the feeling too truly."
“Self-preservation, Master Troughton—but hark! there is a fresh hand at the bellows :--and, mark me, fair and delicate sir, how pitchy dark it is suddenly grown-you are not sea-sick now—no, fear has overcome it-lift up your head, and look over the bulwark if you dare, and then tell me what you see.'
I obeyed fearfully; at first the intense violence of the wind nearly took away my breath, and the sleet almost blinded me; but shading my face partially with my hands, I was enabled to preserve my watching and look-out for a short space.
“ Another hand at the wheel. Mind your helm, my boy, mind your helm,_steady so—meet her, boys, meet her—she reels like a drunken man-o'-war’s-man on the Point. Well, Master Troughton, what have you seen ?” he continued, turning to me, who had been fairly beaten off by the wind, and was now endeavouring to recover my breath as I crouched down beneath the weather bulwark.
“All above was black, black, black; the only light seemed to be emitted from the angry foam of the vexed waters, and the horizon marked by a pale, sickly streak of colour, seemed fearfully near us, as if approaching to compass us in on every side. That pallid light, Gavel, from the hissing waves is very horrible to look upon.”
“ It is—but did you not see the corpse-lights dancing here and there, just where the opening gulfs of the waves look the blackest ?”
“ Describe them to me."
“Oh, they are nothing when one is used to them. They always appear to me as if, through the black depths of the unfathomable ocean, they were each lighting a condemned soul down to hell; and yet they are nothing but quivering little bits of sickly-looking blue flames, after all. They were dancing round the maintop-head last night-there-there,” said he, seizing my arm with the grip of a Sampson, “ look at the fore rigging:—there they are! As sure as God is in heaven, the murderer is on board."
I gazed and shuddered. There were many small, wiry, and snaky streams of electric fire playing among the shrouds : though I knew that these proceeded from natural causes, I could not prevent the chill of superstition from creeping through my blood to my very heart; however, I mastered my fears as well as I could, and turning to the mate, said, “ These blue flames, that you call corpse-lights, are nothing but indications that the atmosphere is overcharged with positive electric matter, attracted, no doubt, by the working of the wood and rope against the iron at the head of the foremast: instead of showing us that we have a murderer on board, it merely prognosticates that we shall have thunder and lightning."
“ I know that too: but this comes of your book learning-you believe nothing—just like you all, with your philosophy. Why, you have philosophised away all the truths of the Bible already : fie upon your natural causes—you will have everything proved and nothing believed. Because thunder generally follows these corpse-lights, it is no rule that they do not indicate the presence of a murderer on board ; and because the rainbow is produced merely by natural causes, it is no reason why it should not be regarded as a perpetually-recurring miracle, placed there as a sign by God himself to all men and to all nations, that water shall never again drown the world, though it is likely enough it will drown all of it that there is in this condemned barky. However, Jem Gavel, with the ruffianly deportment, will do his duty to the last, blow high blow low. I wish that foresail was off, but I doubt whether we have beef (i.e. men) enough to take it in, without splitting it to ribbons ;-upon my soul, those corpse-lights are