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Bill Thayer

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The Galley Politicians

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Life in a Man-of‑War

a Fore‑top-man

published by
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston and New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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please let me know!


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The Shabby Reception
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p140  The Barber's Shop

"Rove not from place to place, but here step in,

Where they cut damn'd good jokes as well as your skin."

A fashionable barber's shop in some of our populous cities, is a place wherein an hour may be passed very pleasantly when labouring under the effects of ennui; it is a sort of diminutive exchange; a miniature news-room, where the transactions of the week, or the on‑dits of the day are talked over with a regular gusto, by all who chance to enter the sanctorum for the purpose of getting their countenances freed from the superfluous bristles that may have accumulated since their last visit. The proprietor, too, of one of those establishments is generally a flippant, talkative fellow, possessing a fund of anecdote and repartee; whose tongue moves faster than his razor, and cuts occasionally as keen. He is never at a loss for a subject to start upon; he will give you an outline of the plot of Knowles' last play; whilst at intervals in a sotto voice he is endeavouring to make the individual whom he may at the time have by the hose, acquainted with the moving eloquence of Parson So‑and‑so's last sermon. He will at one moment describe to you with a face as solemn and lengthened as an undertaker's, some dreadful accident that took place in the purlieus of the city; whilst at the next, or almost in the same breath, he will throw himself into some comical attitude — screw his mouth into a thousand contortions, and drawl forth a sentence with a nasal-twang, which he will assure you was exactly the way Hill spoke it when he drew forth such plaudits from the gallery, pit, and boxes. He will quote Scripture to please the palate of the religious bigot; and at the next moment will coincide with the bloated debauchee in lauding the virtues of the inspiring beverage. To this sanctorum hundreds repair for the purpose of hearing the idle gossip of the day; many a reputation is torn piecemeal; many a luminary in the political firmament, whose eloquence awes and astonishes his hearers, is unsparingly cut up; many a popular Roscius,  p141 bending beneath his well-earned laurels, is vigorously criticized; and many a plain-dealing unsophisticated citizen, whose kind-hearted benevolence may have gained him the esteem of his large circle of acquaintance, is fiercely villified by a dozen slanderous tongues, within the precincts of a barber's shop.

Our barber's shop on shipboard, resembles those establishments on shore in some measure, for here, after the nine o'clock inspection on shaving days, (Wednesdays and Saturdays,) crowds may be seen around the two guns on the main-deck, between which the man of soap-suds performs his operations; and the anecdote and bon mot are bandied about with avidity, little caring at whose expense. The general rule is, "first come first served," and so in rotation they fill the chair; occasionally a dispute arises between a couple of worthies respecting the priority, and not unfrequently they have recourse to blows to settle the point in question; in this case, the weakest goes to the wall. — Here, as at the galley amongst the smokers, the passing events of the day, our ship's movements, the probable time of our return to the United States, together with the proceedings in the political world, gleaned from some eight-months‑old papers, become at one and the same time, from fifty different tongues, the topic of conversation; our curly-headed knight of the razor occasionally gives his opinion on affairs of moment, unasked, and many a sharp rebuff he receives from our ship's wags in consequence. — Fancy to yourself Saturday forenoon then; yonder on the starboard side, immediately abreast of the scuttle-butt, is our man of lather and his assistant, with sleeves uprolled to the shoulders, as busy as busy can be,

Making their razors move with easy grace

Over each son of Neptune's sun‑burnt face.

A more than ordinary crowd is assembled on this occasion around the shaving establishment, and each one is awaiting with Job's patience, for his turn to come. There stands an old quarter-gunner, seemingly in deep cogitation, his eye intently fixed upon the countenance of the individual upon whom Strap is operating; he keeps  p142 edging closer to the barber every moment, fearing some one amongst the crowd will endeavour to supplant him; behold what an austere, solemn countenance he has; the jokes and repartees bandied about on every side, pass by unheeded, for not one smile do they draw forth from his iron muscles:

"He would not ope his mouth by way of smile,

Though Nestor swore the jest be laughable."

Near him is a wild devil‑may-care mizen-topman, playing his pranks indiscriminately upon all who may chance to come in his way; he is one of those fellows

"Whose laughing features wear a constant grin."

Fun and frolic are his delight, and to indulge in his humorous vein, he will occasionally risk a slight punishment with the colt: close by are a couple of galley-cooks, their appearance as grim and sooty as can well be imagined, their loud yaw, yaw, yaw, when applauding the wit of some our wags, re‑echoing loudly along the deck; and as they distort their risible muscles, their white grinders forming an elegant contrast to their well-greased ebony skin. "Come, Patterson," cried old Bowser, the forecastle‑man, doffing his tarpaulin and relieving his mouth of a huge and well-saturated lump of the Virginia weed, which he stowed for safe keeping in the capacious pocket of his jacket, "I want you to give me a tolerable decent shave this time, last Wednesday you left more hair on than you took off, and you put your red mark on my cheek in the bargain." — "You must recollect, Bowser," cried the barber, "that we were at sea last shaving day, and the ship rolled and pitched dreadfully; I defy the smartest operator in New York or Boston to work round a man's countenance as I can; I believe I can safely say that, and not brag either; isn't that the truth Bradley?" he continued, appealing to our Hibernian, whom he perceived amongst the crowd. — "Well, to give my opinion on it," responded Bradley, "I must say the last time you brought one of your imperial razors, as you call them, to bear on my chops, 'twas damn'd sharp work for the eyes, as Spritsail the maintop‑man said, when the marlin-spike fell from the cross-trees  p143 and hit him on the nose — why there's scarcely a time you operate on me but what you make me shed more tears than if all belonging to me were dead; you might have the conscience to call it shaving, but in my opinion skinning would be nearer the mark." — "You should'nt speak in that style, Bradley," remarked Shakings, the captain of the hold, with a knowing wink at the assembled crowd; "folks might think that Patterson's tools were no better than they should be." "Po! po! nonsense, nonsense," replied the shaver with a shout laugh, "I know you're only poking fun at me." — "I tell you what it is, old fellow," cried Flyblock, the captain of the forecastle, whom he was operating upon, springing hurriedly upon his feet, his face besmeared all over with soap-suds, "if you don't keep your weather eye open, and mind how you cut your hair-strokes, I'll be for poking this fist at you, and you'll find there won't be much fun in that; damme, you've almost made an entering-port in my right cheek with your infernal razor." — "Come sit down again," cried the barber in quite a soothing tone, " 'tis but a slight scratch; you dodged your head, or it would'nt have occurred at all." — "No, no," replied old Flyblock, "I've had enough of your skill for this time, I'll try and finish the job myself." — "If that's the case, the next man take a seat," sung out Strap in an audible voice: at this intimation two or three of the crowd began to push violently towards the chair, and amongst them a Johnny Raw, belonging to the after-guard, who, by some means or another gained possession. — "I say Dobbs," bellowed out Flukes, the maintop wag, "who told you 'twas your turn next? top your boom now in short order; I'd have you to know I stand before you in this shop." — "Oh! Flukes," quickly returned Dobbs, "I reckon as how I'm next on the list." — "Then you reckon too fast, matie," responded the maintop‑man; "if you hav'nt learned the ropes since you joined the Constitution, I wonder at it; come, haul your wind, or I'll be for trying whether you or I are the strongest;" at this hint Dobbs vacated the chair, and the old groom quarter-gunner placed himself immediately into it. — "I believe you'll find it's my turn," drawled forth the old sea‑dog; "I was just laying back to see how far you  p144 would go. "You were, eh?" replied Flukes "then my old sea‑fencible," continued he, catching this disciple of Neptune by the back of the neck and flinging him into the middle of the deck, "there, you've seen how far I went, now see how far you can go yourself." This little rumpus caused a laugh at the expense of old Cylinder, for he was anything but a favourite with the ship's company; and he walked away muttering curses between his teeth, and mentioning the word "report" pretty audibly.

"Flukes," cried Bill Garnet, "I'm afraid the old fellow will have you at the bull-ring, he looked marlin-spikes at you as he picked himself up." — "Well, suppose he does," replied the maintop wag, "I'll have to back it off, that's all; I'd take a dozen any time without winking, for having the pleasure of swabbing the lee‑scuppers up with such snarling grumbling old customers as Cylinder; but come, blue-skin," continued he, addressing himself to the knight of the razor, who, with his brush in one hand, and mouth wide open, was swallowing every word of the present colloquy, "spring your luff, and bring those pretty tormentors of yours to bear on my phiziog; if I have to go to the mast, let me go there clean-scraped any how;" — At this hint Strap lathered away in great style, and soon sent the maintop‑man about his business, "new reap'd;" but his ideas respecting being reported were incorrect, for the old quarter-gunner, after cooling his fiery temper a little on the spar-deck, became somewhat mollified — perhaps fearing he'd obtain but little satisfaction; at all events he let the matter rest as it was, and in a few days him and Flukes became as intimate as any two in the ship.

As soon as Flukes departed, Swampseed, one of the ebony gemmen wot cooks at the range, placed his unwieldy body in quite a stylish manner in the chair, brushed up his wool, and signified by divers movements that he was impatient for the operator to commence on him. Strap had scarcely time to lay down his razor, and repossess himself of his brush, ere Garnet was at the elbow of the man of gridirons and frying-pans. "Ho! ho! Mr. Bonepolisher," cried Bill, "you make himself quite at home, as the gentleman said to the loafer when he found his hand in his coat pocket; just be kind enough  p145 to shift your quarters as quick as possible; if you'll but take the trouble to overhaul a range of those bright ideas of yours, you'll find I was here when you first showed your pretty figure-head." "I deny that in toto, Garnet," rejoined our galley-cook, "I tink at all events people ob business ought to be attended to first; my time is uncommonly precious."

"Now I tink, Mr. Snowball!" replied Bill, imitating his refined pronunciation, "if you don't make yourself scarce out of that chair, I'll be aboard of you; you talk about denying it in toto; look out I don't be for bringing my toe toe in contact with your stern-post." Garnet's peculiar gestures at this moment, he appearing as if about to suit the action to the word, caused our cook to vacate the disputed place forthwith; and he hastily retreated to the confines of the galley, muttering as he went, that "de white trash would take de ship by and by." Strap and his assistant in spite of all these little annoyances, which took place almost every fifteen minutes, continued to ply the razor and brush with complete good will, and ere the drum beat to evening quarters, every one throughout the ship (to use an old sea phrase,) "had their muzzle lashings taken off."

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21