We had just slid into pleasant weather, drawing near to the Tropics, when all hands were thrown into a wonderful excitement by an event that eloquently appealed to many palates.
A man at the fore-top-sail-yard sung out that there were eight or ten dark objects floating on the sea, some three points off our lee-bow.
"Keep her off three points!" cried Captain Claret, to the quarter-master at the cun.
And thus, with all our batteries, store-rooms, and five hundred men, with their baggage, and beds, and provisions, at one move of a round bit of mahogany, our great-embattled ark edged away for the strangers, as easily as a boy turns to the right or left in pursuit of insects in the field.
Directly the man on the top-sail-yard reported the dark objects to be hogsheads. Instantly all the top-men were straining their eyes, in delirious expectation of having their long grog fast broken at last, and that, too, by what seemed an almost miraculous intervention. It was a curious circumstance that, without knowing the contents of the hogsheads, they yet seemed certain that the staves encompassed the thing they longed for.
Sail was now shortened, our headway was stopped, and a cutter was lowered, with orders to tow the fleet of strangers alongside. The men sprang to their oars with a will, and soon five goodly puncheons lay wallowing in the sea, just under the main-chains. We got overboard the slings, and hoisted them out of the water.
It was a sight that Bacchus and his bacchanals would have gloated over. Each puncheon was of a deep-green color, so covered with minute barnacles and shell-fish, and streaming with sea-weed, that it needed long searching to find out their bung-holes; they looked like venerable old loggerhead-turtles. How long they had been tossing about, and making voyages for the benefit of the flavour of their contents, no one could tell. In trying to raft them ashore, or on board of some merchant-ship, they must have drifted off to sea. This we inferred from the ropes that length- wise united them, and which, from one point of view, made them resemble a long sea-serpent. They were struck into the gun- deck, where, the eager crowd being kept off by sentries, the cooper was called with his tools.
"Bung up, and bilge free!" he cried, in an ecstasy, flourishing his driver and hammer.
Upon clearing away the barnacles and moss, a flat sort of shell- fish was found, closely adhering, like a California-shell, right over one of the bungs. Doubtless this shell-fish had there taken up his quarters, and thrown his own body into the breach, in order the better to preserve the precious contents of the cask. The by-standers were breathless, when at last this puncheon was canted over and a tin-pot held to the orifice. What was to come forth? salt-water or wine? But a rich purple tide soon settled the question, and the lieutenant assigned to taste it, with a loud and satisfactory smack of his lips, pronounced it Port!
"Oporto!" cried Mad Jack, "and no mistake!"
But, to the surprise, grief, and consternation of the sailors, an order now came from the quarter-deck to strike the "strangers down into the main-hold!" This proceeding occasioned all sorts of censorious observations upon the Captain, who, of course, had authorised it.
It must be related here that, on the passage out from home, the Neversink had touched at Madeira; and there, as is often the case with men-of-war, the Commodore and Captain had laid in a goodly stock of wines for their own private tables, and the benefit of their foreign visitors. And although the Commodore was a small, spare man, who evidently emptied but few glasses, yet Captain Claret was a portly gentleman, with a crimson face, whose father had fought at the battle of the Brandywine, and whose brother had commanded the well-known frigate named in honour of that engagement. And his whole appearance evinced that Captain Claret himself had fought many Brandywine battles ashore in honour of his sire's memory, and commanded in many bloodless Brandywine actions at sea.
It was therefore with some savour of provocation that the sailors held forth on the ungenerous conduct of Captain Claret, in stepping in between them and Providence, as it were, which by this lucky windfall, they held, seemed bent upon relieving their necessities; while Captain Claret himself, with an inexhaustible cellar, emptied his Madeira decanters at his leisure.
But next day all hands were electrified by the old familiar sound—so long hushed—of the drum rolling to grog.
After that the port was served out twice a day, till all was expended.
White-Jacket Chapter 37