Redburn. His First Voyage/Chapter LVI

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Redburn. His First Voyage by Herman Melville
Chapter LVI

LVI. UNDER THE LEE OF THE LONG-BOAT, REDBURN AND HARRY HOLD CONFIDENTIAL COMMUNION[edit]

A sweet thing is a song; and though the Hebrew captives hung their harps on the willows, that they could not sing the melodies of Palestine before the haughty beards of the Babylonians; yet, to themselves, those melodies of other times and a distant land were as sweet as the June dew on Hermon.

And poor Harry was as the Hebrews. He, too, had been carried away captive, though his chief captor and foe was himself; and he, too, many a night, was called upon to sing for those who through the day had insulted and derided him.

His voice was just the voice to proceed from a small, silken person like his; it was gentle and liquid, and meandered and tinkled through the words of a song, like a musical brook that winds and wantons by pied and pansied margins.

"I can't sing to-night"—sadly said Harry to the Dutchman, who with his watchmates requested him to while away the middle watch with his melody—"I can't sing to-night. But, Wellingborough," he whispered,—and I stooped my ear,— "come you with me under the lee of the long-boat, and there I'll hum you an air."

It was The Banks of the Blue Moselle.

Poor, poor Harry! and a thousand times friendless and forlorn! To be singing that thing, which was only meant to be warbled by falling fountains in gardens, or in elegant alcoves in drawing-rooms,—to be singing it here—here, as I live, under the tarry lee of our long-boat.

But he sang, and sang, as I watched the waves, and peopled them all with sprites, and cried "chassez!" "hands across!" to the multitudinous quadrilles, all danced on the moonlit, musical floor.

But though it went so hard with my friend to sing his songs to this ruffian crew, whom he hated, even in his dreams, till the foam flew from his mouth while he slept; yet at last I prevailed upon him to master his feelings, and make them subservient to his interests. For so delighted, even with the rudest minstrelsy, are sailors, that I well knew Harry possessed a spell over them, which, for the time at least, they could not resist; and it might induce them to treat with more deference the being who was capable of yielding them such delight. Carlo's organ they did not so much care for; but the voice of my Bury blade was an accordion in their ears.

So one night, on the windlass, he sat and sang; and from the ribald jests so common to sailors, the men slid into silence at every verse. Hushed, and more hushed they grew, till at last Harry sat among them like Orpheus among the charmed leopards and tigers. Harmless now the fangs with which they were wont to tear my zebra, and backward curled in velvet paws; and fixed their once glaring eyes in fascinated and fascinating brilliancy. Ay, still and hissingly all, for a time, they relinquished their prey.

Now, during the voyage, the treatment of the crew threw Harry more and more upon myself for companionship; and few can keep constant company with another, without revealing some, at least, of their secrets; for all of us yearn for sympathy, even if we do not for love; and to be intellectually alone is a thing only tolerable to genius, whose cherisher and inspirer is solitude.

But though my friend became more communicative concerning his past career than ever he had been before, yet he did not make plain many things in his hitherto but partly divulged history, which I was very curious to know; and especially he never made the remotest allusion to aught connected with our trip to London; while the oath of secrecy by which he had bound me held my curiosity on that point a captive. However, as it was, Harry made many very interesting disclosures; and if he did not gratify me more in that respect, he atoned for it in a measure, by dwelling upon the future, and the prospects, such as they were, which the future held out to him.

He confessed that he had no money but a few shillings left from the expenses of our return from London; that only by selling some more of his clothing, could he pay for his first week's board in New York; and that he was altogether without any regular profession or business, upon which, by his own exertions, he could securely rely for support. And yet, he told me that he was determined never again to return to England; and that somewhere in America he must work out his temporal felicity.

"I have forgotten England," he said, "and never more mean to think of it; so tell me, Wellingborough, what am I to do in America?"

It was a puzzling question, and full of grief to me, who, young though I was, had been well rubbed, curried, and ground down to fine powder in the hopper of an evil fortune, and who therefore could sympathize with one in similar circumstances. For though we may look grave and behave kindly and considerately to a friend in calamity; yet, if we have never actually experienced something like the woe that weighs him down, we can not with the best grace proffer our sympathy. And perhaps there is no true sympathy but between equals; and it may be, that we should distrust that man's sincerity, who stoops to condole with us.

So Harry and I, two friendless wanderers, beguiled many a long watch by talking over our common affairs. But inefficient, as a benefactor, as I certainly was; still, being an American, and returning to my home; even as he was a stranger, and hurrying from his; therefore, I stood toward him in the attitude of the prospective doer of the honors of my country; I accounted him the nation's guest. Hence, I esteemed it more befitting, that I should rather talk with him, than he with me: that his prospects and plans should engage our attention, in preference to my own.

Now, seeing that Harry was so brave a songster, and could sing such bewitching airs: I suggested whether his musical talents could not be turned to account. The thought struck him most favorably—"Gad, my boy, you have hit it, you have," and then he went on to mention, that in some places in England, it was customary for two or three young men of highly respectable families, of undoubted antiquity, but unfortunately in lamentably decayed circumstances, and thread-bare coats—it was customary for two or three young gentlemen, so situated, to obtain their livelihood by their voices: coining their silvery songs into silvery shillings.

They wandered from door to door, and rang the bell—Are the ladies and gentlemen in? Seeing them at least gentlemanly looking, if not sumptuously appareled, the servant generally admitted them at once; and when the people entered to greet them, their spokesman would rise with a gentle bow, and a smile, and say, We come, ladies and gentlemen, to sing you a song: we are singers, at your service. And so, without waiting reply, forth they burst into song; and having most mellifluous voices, enchanted and transported all auditors; so much so, that at the conclusion of the entertainment, they very seldom failed to be well recompensed, and departed with an invitation to return again, and make the occupants of that dwelling once more delighted and happy.

"Could not something of this kind now, be done in New York?" said Harry, "or are there no parlors with ladies in them, there?" he anxiously added.

Again I assured him, as I had often done before, that New York was a civilized and enlightened town; with a large population, fine streets, fine houses, nay, plenty of omnibuses; and that for the most part, he would almost think himself in England; so similar to England, in essentials, was this outlandish America that haunted him.

I could not but be struck—and had I not been, from my birth, as it were, a cosmopolite—I had been amazed at his skepticism with regard to the civilization of my native land. A greater patriot than myself might have resented his insinuations. He seemed to think that we Yankees lived in wigwams, and wore bear-skins. After all, Harry was a spice of a Cockney, and had shut up his Christendom in London.

Having then assured him, that I could see no reason, why he should not play the troubadour in New York, as well as elsewhere; he suddenly popped upon me the question, whether I would not join him in the enterprise; as it would be quite out of the question to go alone on such a business.

Said I, "My dear Bury, I have no more voice for a ditty, than a dumb man has for an oration. Sing? Such Macadamized lungs have I, that I think myself well off, that I can talk; let alone nightingaling."

So that plan was quashed; and by-and-by Harry began to give up the idea of singing himself into a livelihood.

"No, I won't sing for my mutton," said he—"what would Lady Georgiana say?"

"If I could see her ladyship once, I might tell you, Harry," returned I, who did not exactly doubt him, but felt ill at ease for my bosom friend's conscience, when he alluded to his various noble and right honorable friends and relations.

"But surely, Bury, my friend, you must write a clerkly hand, among your other accomplishments; and that at least, will be sure to help you."

"I do write a hand," he gladly rejoined—"there, look at the implement!—do you not think, that such a hand as that might dot an i, or cross a t, with a touching grace and tenderness?"

Indeed, but it did betoken a most excellent penmanship. It was small; and the fingers were long and thin; the knuckles softly rounded; the nails hemispherical at the base; and the smooth palm furnishing few characters for an Egyptian fortune-teller to read. It was not as the sturdy farmer's hand of Cincinnatus, who followed the plough and guided the state; but it was as the perfumed hand of Petronius Arbiter, that elegant young buck of a Roman, who once cut great Seneca dead in the forum.

His hand alone, would have entitled my Bury blade to the suffrages of that Eastern potentate, who complimented Lord Byron upon his feline fingers, declaring that they furnished indubitable evidence of his noble birth. And so it did: for Lord Byron was as all the rest of us—the son of a man. And so are the dainty-handed, and wee-footed half-cast paupers in Lima; who, if their hands and feet were entitled to consideration, would constitute the oligarchy of all Peru.

Folly and foolishness! to think that a gentleman is known by his finger-nails, like Nebuchadnezzar, when his grew long in the pasture: or that the badge of nobility is to be found in the smallness of the foot, when even a fish has no foot at all!

Dandies! amputate yourselves, if you will; but know, and be assured, oh, democrats, that, like a pyramid, a great man stands on a broad base. It is only the brittle porcelain pagoda, that tottles on a toe.

But though Harry's hand was lady-like looking, and had once been white as the queen's cambric handkerchief, and free from a stain as the reputation of Diana; yet, his late pulling and hauling of halyards and clew-lines, and his occasional dabbling in tar-pots and slush-shoes, had somewhat subtracted from its original daintiness.

Often he ruefully eyed it.

Oh! hand! thought Harry, ah, hand! what have you come to? Is it seemly, that you should be polluted with pitch, when you once handed countesses to their coaches? Is this the hand I kissed to the divine Georgiana? with which I pledged Lady Blessington, and ratified my bond to Lord Lovely? This the hand that Georgiana clasped to her bosom, when she vowed she was mine?—Out of sight, recreant and apostate!—deep down—disappear in this foul monkey-jacket pocket where I thrust you!

After many long conversations, it was at last pretty well decided, that upon our arrival at New York, some means should be taken among my few friends there, to get Harry a place in a mercantile house, where he might flourish his pen, and gently exercise his delicate digits, by traversing some soft foolscap; in the same way that slim, pallid ladies are gently drawn through a park for an airing.