Redburn. His First Voyage/Chapter LI

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Redburn. His First Voyage by Herman Melville
Chapter LI

LI. THE EMIGRANTS[edit]

After the first miserable weather we experienced at sea, we had intervals of foul and fair, mostly the former, however, attended with head winds', till at last, after a three days' fog and rain, the sun rose cheerily one morning, and showed us Cape Clear. Thank heaven, we were out of the weather emphatically called "Channel weather," and the last we should see of the eastern hemisphere was now in plain sight, and all the rest was broad ocean.

Land ho! was cried, as the dark purple headland grew out of the north. At the cry, the Irish emigrants came rushing up the hatchway, thinking America itself was at hand.

"Where is it?" cried one of them, running out a little way on the bowsprit. "Is that it?"

"Aye, it doesn't look much like ould Ireland, does it?" said Jackson.

"Not a bit, honey:—and how long before we get there? to-night?"

Nothing could exceed the disappointment and grief of the emigrants, when they were at last informed, that the land to the north was their own native island, which, after leaving three or four weeks previous in a steamboat for Liverpool, was now close to them again; and that, after newly voyaging so many days from the Mersey, the Highlander was only bringing them in view of the original home whence they started.

They were the most simple people I had ever seen. They seemed to have no adequate idea of distances; and to them, America must have seemed as a place just over a river. Every morning some of them came on deck, to see how much nearer we were: and one old man would stand for hours together, looking straight off from the bows, as if he expected to see New York city every minute, when, perhaps, we were yet two thousand miles distant, and steering, moreover, against a head wind.

The only thing that ever diverted this poor old man from his earnest search for land, was the occasional appearance of porpoises under the bows; when he would cry out at the top of his voice—"Look, look, ye divils! look at the great pigs of the sea!"

At last, the emigrants began to think, that the ship had played them false; and that she was bound for the East Indies, or some other remote place; and one night, Jackson set a report going among them, that Riga purposed taking them to Barbary, and selling them all for slaves; but though some of the old women almost believed it, and a great weeping ensued among the children, yet the men knew better than to believe such a ridiculous tale.

Of all the emigrants, my Italian boy Carlo, seemed most at his ease. He would lie all day in a dreamy mood, sunning himself in the long boat, and gazing out on the sea. At night, he would bring up his organ, and play for several hours; much to the delight of his fellow voyagers, who blessed him and his organ again and again; and paid him for his music by furnishing him his meals. Sometimes, the steward would come forward, when it happened to be very much of a moonlight, with a message from the cabin, for Carlo to repair to the quarterdeck, and entertain the gentlemen and ladies.

There was a fiddler on board, as will presently be seen; and sometimes, by urgent entreaties, he was induced to unite his music with Carlo's, for the benefit of the cabin occupants; but this was only twice or thrice: for this fiddler deemed himself considerably elevated above the other steerage-passengers; and did not much fancy the idea of fiddling to strangers; and thus wear out his elbow, while persons, entirely unknown to him, and in whose welfare he felt not the slightest interest, were curveting about in famous high spirits. So for the most part, the gentlemen and ladies were fain to dance as well as they could to my little Italian's organ.

It was the most accommodating organ in the world; for it could play any tune that was called for; Carlo pulling in and out the ivory knobs at one side, and so manufacturing melody at pleasure.

True, some censorious gentlemen cabin-passengers protested, that such or such an air, was not precisely according to Handel or Mozart; and some ladles, whom I overheard talking about throwing their nosegays to Malibran at Covent Garden, assured the attentive Captain Riga, that Carlo's organ was a most wretched affair, and made a horrible din.

"Yes, ladies," said the captain, bowing, "by your leave, I think Carlo's organ must have lost its mother, for it squeals like a pig running after its dam."

Harry was incensed at these criticisms; and yet these cabin-people were all ready enough to dance to poor Carlo's music.

"Carlo"—said I, one night, as he was marching forward from the quarter-deck, after one of these sea-quadrilles, which took place during my watch on deck:—"Carlo"—said I, "what do the gentlemen and ladies give you for playing?"

"Look!"—and he showed me three copper medals of Britannia and her shield—three English pennies.

Now, whenever we discover a dislike in us, toward any one, we should ever be a little suspicious of ourselves. It may be, therefore, that the natural antipathy with which almost all seamen and steerage-passengers, regard the inmates of the cabin, was one cause at least, of my not feeling very charitably disposed toward them, myself.

Yes: that might have been; but nevertheless, I will let nature have her own way for once; and here declare roundly, that, however it was, I cherished a feeling toward these cabin-passengers, akin to contempt. Not because they happened to be cabin-passengers: not at all: but only because they seemed the most finical, miserly, mean men and women, that ever stepped over the Atlantic.

One of them was an old fellow in a robust looking coat, with broad skirts; he had a nose like a bottle of port-wine; and would stand for a whole hour, with his legs straddling apart, and his hands deep down in his breeches pockets, as if he had two mints at work there, coining guineas. He was an abominable looking old fellow, with cold, fat, jelly-like eyes; and avarice, heartlessness, and sensuality stamped all over him. He seemed all the time going through some process of mental arithmetic; doing sums with dollars and cents: his very mouth, wrinkled and drawn up at the corners, looked like a purse. When he dies, his skull ought to be turned into a savings box, with the till-hole between his teeth.

Another of the cabin inmates, was a middle-aged Londoner, in a comical Cockney-cut coat, with a pair of semicircular tails: so that he looked as if he were sitting in a swing. He wore a spotted neckerchief; a short, little, fiery-red vest; and striped pants, very thin in the calf, but very full about the waist. There was nothing describable about him but his dress; for he had such a meaningless face, I can not remember it; though I have a vague impression, that it looked at the time, as if its owner was laboring under the mumps.

Then there were two or three buckish looking young fellows, among the rest; who were all the time playing at cards on the poop, under the lee of the spanker; or smoking cigars on the taffrail; or sat quizzing the emigrant women with opera-glasses, leveled through the windows of the upper cabin. These sparks frequently called for the steward to help them to brandy and water, and talked about going on to Washington, to see Niagara Falls.

There was also an old gentleman, who had brought with him three or four heavy files of the London Times, and other papers; and he spent all his hours in reading them, on the shady side of the deck, with one leg crossed over the other; and without crossed legs, he never read at all. That was indispensable to the proper understanding of what he studied. He growled terribly, when disturbed by the sailors, who now and then were obliged to move him to get at the ropes.

As for the ladies, I have nothing to say concerning them; for ladies are like creeds; if you can not speak well of them, say nothing.