WE were not many days out of port, when a rumour was set afloat that dreadfully alarmed many tars. It was this: that, owing to some unprecedented oversight in the Purser, or some equally unprecedented remissness in the Naval-storekeeper at Callao, the frigate’s supply of that delectable beverage, called “grog,” was well-nigh expended.
In the American Navy, the law allows one gill of spirits per day to every seaman. In two portions, it is served out just previous to breakfast and dinner. At the roll of the drum, the sailors assemble round a large tub, or cask, filled with liquid; and, as their names are called off by a midshipman, they step up and regale themselves from a little tin measure called a “tot.” No high-liver helping himself to Tokay off a well-polished sideboard, smacks his lips with more mighty satisfaction than the sailor does over this tot. To many of them, indeed, the thought of their daily tots forms a perpetual perspective of ravishing landscapes, indefinitely receding in the distance. It is their great “prospect in life.” Take away their grog, and life possesses no further charms for them. It is hardly to be doubted, that the controlling inducement which keeps many men in the Navy, is the unbounded confidence they have in the ability of the United States government to supply them, regularly and unfailingly, with their daily allowance of this beverage. I have known several forlorn individuals, shipping as landsmen, who have confessed to me, that having contracted a love for ardent spirits, which they could not renounce, and having by their foolish courses been brought into the most abject poverty—insomuch that they could no longer gratify their thirst ashore—they incontinently entered the Navy; regarding it as the asylum for all drunkards, who might there prolong their lives by regular hours and exercise, and twice every day quench their thirst by moderate and undeviating doses.
When I once remonstrated with an old toper of a top-man about this daily dram-drinking; when I told him it was ruining him, and advised him to stop his grog and receive the money for it, in addition to his wages as provided by law, he turned about on me, with an irresistibly waggish look, and said, “Give up my grog? And why? Because it is ruining me? No, no; I am a good Christian, White-Jacket, and love my enemy too much to drop his acquaintance.”
It may be readily imagined, therefore, what consternation and dismay pervaded the gun-deck at the first announcement of the tidings that the grog was expended.
“The grog gone!” roared an old Sheet-anchor-man.
“Oh! Lord! what a pain in my stomach!” cried a Main-top-man.
“It’s worse than the cholera!” cried a man of the After-guard.
“I’d sooner the water-casks would give out!” said a Captain of the Hold.
“Are we ganders and geese, that we can live without grog?” asked a Corporal of Marines.
“Ay, we must now drink with the ducks!” cried a Quarter-master.
“Not a tot left?” groaned a Waister.
“Not a toothful!” sighed a Holder, from the bottom of his boots.
Yes, the fatal intelligence proved true. The drum was no longer heard rolling the men to the tub, and deep gloom and dejection fell like a cloud. The ship was like a great city, when some terrible calamity has overtaken it. The men stood apart, in groups, discussing their woes, and mutually condoling. No longer, of still moonlight nights, was the song heard from the giddy tops; and few and far between were the stories that were told. It was during this interval, so dismal to many, that to the amazement of all hands, ten men were reported by the master-at-arms to be intoxicated. They were brought up to the mast, and at their appearance the doubts of the most skeptical were dissipated; but whence they had obtained their liquor no one could tell. It was observed, however at the time, that the tarry knaves all smelled of lavender, like so many dandies.
After their examination they were ordered into the “brig,” a jail-house between two guns on the main-deck, where prisoners are kept. Here they laid for some time, stretched out stark and stiff, with their arms folded over their breasts, like so many effigies of the Black Prince on his monument in Canterbury Cathedral.
Their first slumbers over, the marine sentry who stood guard over them had as much as he could do to keep off the crowd, who were all eagerness to find out how, in such a time of want, the prisoners had managed to drink themselves into oblivion. In due time they were liberated, and the secret simultaneously leaked out.
It seemed that an enterprising man of their number, who had suffered severely from the common deprivation, had all at once been struck by a brilliant idea. It had come to his knowledge that the purser’s steward was supplied with a large quantity of Eau-de-Cologne, clandestinely brought out in the ship, for the purpose of selling it on his own account, to the people of the coast; but the supply proving larger than the demand, and having no customers on board the frigate but Lieutenant Selvagee, he was now carrying home more than a third of his original stock. To make a short story of it, this functionary, being called upon in secret, was readily prevailed upon to part with a dozen bottles, with whose contents the intoxicated party had regaled themselves.
The news spread far and wide among the men, being only kept secret from the officers and underlings, and that night the long, crane-necked Cologne bottles jingled in out-of-the-way corners and by-places, and, being emptied, were sent flying out of the ports. With brown sugar, taken from the mess-chests, and hot water begged from the galley-cooks, the men made all manner of punches, toddies, and cocktails, letting fall therein a small drop of tar, like a bit of brown toast, by way of imparting a flavour. Of course, the thing was managed with the utmost secrecy; and as a whole dark night elapsed after their orgies, the revellers were, in a good measure, secure from detection; and those who indulged too freely had twelve long hours to get sober before daylight obtruded.
Next day, fore and aft, the whole frigate smelled like a lady’s toilet; the very tar-buckets were fragrant; and from the mouth of many a grim, grizzled old quarter-gunner came the most fragrant of breaths. The amazed Lieutenants went about snuffing up the gale; and, for once. Selvagee had no further need to flourish his perfumed hand-kerchief. It was as if we were sailing by some odoriferous shore, in the vernal season of violets. Sabaean odours!
But, alas! all this perfume could not be wasted for nothing; and the masters-at-arms and ship’s corporals, putting this and that together, very soon burrowed into the secret. The purser’s steward was called to account, and no more lavender punches and Cologne toddies were drank on board the Neversink.