[They are interrupted by a messenger boy telling Benito it is time for him to be shaved. Delano is invited along to talk while he is shaved.]
At this moment a messenger-boy, a white, hurried by, in the regular performance of his function carrying the last expired half hour forward to the forecastle, from the cabin time-piece, to have it struck at the ship’s large bell.
“Master,” said the servant, discontinuing his work on the coat sleeve, and addressing the rapt Spaniard with a sort of timid apprehensiveness, as one charged with a duty, the discharge of which, it was foreseen, would prove irksome to the very person who had imposed it, and for whose benefit it was intended, “master told me never mind where he was, or how engaged, always to remind him to a minute, when shaving-time comes. Miguel has gone to strike the half-hour afternoon. It is _now_, master. Will master go into the cuddy?”
“Ah–yes,” answered the Spaniard, starting, as from dreams into realities; then turning upon Captain Delano, he said that ere long he would resume the conversation.
“Then if master means to talk more to Don Amasa,” said the servant, “why not let Don Amasa sit by master in the cuddy, and master can talk, and Don Amasa can listen, while Babo here lathers and strops.”
“Yes,” said Captain Delano, not unpleased with this sociable plan, “yes, Don Benito, unless you had rather not, I will go with you.”
“Be it so, Señor.”
As the three passed aft, the American could not but think it another strange instance of his host’s capriciousness, this being shaved with such uncommon punctuality in the middle of the day. But he deemed it more than likely that the servant’s anxious fidelity had something to do with the matter; inasmuch as the timely interruption served to rally his master from the mood which had evidently been coming upon him.
[A description of the room into which they entered. It looks like an eccentric gentleman’s country house]
The place called the cuddy was a light deck-cabin formed by the poop, a sort of attic to the large cabin below. Part of it had formerly been the quarters of the officers; but since their death all the partitioning had been thrown down, and the whole interior converted into one spacious
and airy marine hall; for absence of fine furniture and picturesque disarray of odd appurtenances, somewhat answering to the wide, cluttered hall of some eccentric bachelor-squire in the country, who hangs his shooting-jacket and tobacco-pouch on deer antlers, and keeps his fishing-rod, tongs, and walking-stick in the same corner.
The similitude was heightened, if not originally suggested, by glimpses of the surrounding sea; since, in one aspect, the country and the ocean seem cousins-german.
The floor of the cuddy was matted. Overhead, four or five old muskets were stuck into horizontal holes along the beams. On one side was a claw-footed old table lashed to the deck; a thumbed missal on it, and over it a small, meagre crucifix attached to the bulk-head. Under the table lay a dented cutlass or two, with a hacked harpoon, among some; melancholy old rigging, like a heap of poor friars’ girdles. There were also two long, sharp-ribbed settees of Malacca cane, black with age, and uncomfortable to look at as inquisitors’ racks, with a large, misshapen arm-chair, which, furnished with a rude barber’s crotch at the back, working with a screw, seemed some grotesque engine of torment. A flag locker was in one corner, open, exposing various colored bunting, some rolled up, others half unrolled, still others tumbled. Opposite was
a cumbrous washstand, of black mahogany, all of one block, with a pedestal, like a font, and over it a railed shelf, containing combs, brushes, and other implements of the toilet.
[This is an interesting note: to sleep here would give one bad dreams. This also might be a Hamlet allusion, “No, I could live in a walnut shell and feel like the king of the universe. The real problem is that I have bad dreams.” This place which gives bad dreams is also the place where Benito sleeps]
A torn hammock of stained grass swung near; the sheets tossed, and the pillow wrinkled up like a brow, as if who ever slept here slept but illy, with alternate visitations of sad thoughts and bad dreams.
The further extremity of the cuddy, overhanging the ship’s stern, was pierced with three openings, windows or port-holes, according as men or cannon might peer, socially or unsocially, out of them. At present neither men nor cannon were seen, though huge ring-bolts and other rusty iron fixtures of the wood-work hinted of twenty-four-pounders.
Glancing towards the hammock as he entered, Captain Delano said, “You sleep here, Don Benito?”
“Yes, Se�or, since we got into mild weather.”
“This seems a sort of dormitory, sitting-room, sail-loft, chapel, armory, and private closet all together, Don Benito,” added Captain Delano, looking round.
“Yes, Se�or; events have not been favorable to much order in my arrangements.”
[Babo shaves Benito. I wonder if you saw this as a movie would you play a bit of malice underneath the surface. The two certainly have reason to hate and fear one-another.]
Here the servant, napkin on arm, made a motion as if waiting his master’s good pleasure. Don Benito signified his readiness, when, seating him in the Malacca arm-chair, and for the guest’s convenience drawing opposite one of the settees, the servant commenced operations by throwing back his master’s collar and loosening his cravat.
[Delano casual racism: this what these people were born to do. Also interesting is that he simply assumes in accordance with his racism the “docility” of the Africans.]
There is something in the negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one’s person. Most negroes are natural valets and hair-dressers; taking to the comb and brush congenially as to the castinets, and flourishing them apparently with almost equal
satisfaction. There is, too, a smooth tact about them in this employment, with a marvelous, noiseless, gliding briskness, not ungraceful in its way, singularly pleasing to behold, and still more so to be the manipulated subject of. And above all is the great gift of good-humor. Not the mere grin or laugh is here meant. Those were unsuitable. But a certain easy cheerfulness, harmonious in every glance and gesture; as though God had set the whole negro to some pleasant tune.
When to this is added the docility arising from the unaspiring contentment of a limited mind and that susceptibility of blind attachment sometimes inhering in indisputable inferiors, one readily perceives why those hypochondriacs, Johnson and Byron–it may be, something like the hypochondriac Benito Cereno–took to their hearts, almost to the exclusion of the entire white race, their serving men, the negroes, Barber and Fletcher. But if there be that in the negro which exempts him from the inflicted sourness of the morbid or cynical mind, how, in his most prepossessing aspects, must he appear to a benevolent one? When at ease with respect to exterior things, Captain Delano’s nature was not only benign, but familiarly and humorously so. At home, he had often taken rare satisfaction in sitting in his door, watching some free man of color at his work or play. If on a voyage he chanced to have a black sailor, invariably he was on chatty and half-gamesome terms with him. In fact, like most men of a good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs. [What a degrading comparison]
Hitherto, the circumstances in which he found the San Dominick had repressed the tendency. But in the cuddy, relieved from his former uneasiness, and, for various reasons, more sociably inclined than at any previous period of the day, and seeing the colored servant, napkin on
arm, so debonair about his master, in a business so familiar as that of shaving, too, all his old weakness for negroes returned.
Among other things, he was amused with an odd instance of the African love of bright colors and fine shows, in the black’s informally taking from the flag-locker a great piece of bunting of all hues, and lavishly tucking it under his master’s chin for an apron.
[Description of the shaving]
The mode of shaving among the Spaniards is a little different from what it is with other nations. They have a basin, specifically called a barber’s basin, which on one side is scooped out, so as accurately to receive the chin, against which it is closely held in lathering; which is done, not with a brush, but with soap dipped in the water of the basin and rubbed on the face.
In the present instance salt-water was used for lack of better; and the parts lathered were only the upper lip, and low down under the throat, all the rest being cultivated beard.
The preliminaries being somewhat novel to Captain Delano, he sat curiously eying them, so that no conversation took place, nor, for the present, did Don Benito appear disposed to renew any.
Setting down his basin, the negro searched among the razors, as for the sharpest, and having found it, gave it an additional edge by expertly strapping it on the firm, smooth, oily skin of his open palm; he then made a gesture as if to begin, but midway stood suspended for an instant, one hand elevating the razor, the other professionally dabbling among the bubbling suds on the Spaniard’s lank neck.
[Delano for a moment has the imagination that Benito will be beheaded. To what extent is Delano noticing the apparent fear in Benito]
Not unaffected by the close sight of the gleaming steel, Don Benito nervously shuddered; his usual ghastliness was heightened by the lather, which lather, again, was intensified in its hue by the contrasting sootiness of the negro’s body. Altogether the scene was somewhat peculiar, at least to Captain Delano, nor, as he saw the two thus postured, could he resist the vagary, that in the black he saw a headsman, and in the white a man at the block. But this was one of those antic conceits, appearing and vanishing in a breath, from which, perhaps, the best regulated mind is not always free.
Meantime the agitation of the Spaniard had a little loosened the bunting from around him, so that one broad fold swept curtain-like over, the chair-arm to the floor, revealing, amid a profusion of armorial bars and ground-colors–black, blue, and yellow–a closed castle in a blood red field diagonal with a lion rampant in a white.
“The castle and the lion,” exclaimed Captain Delano–“why, Don Benito, this is the flag of Spain you use here. It’s well it’s only I, and not the King, that sees this,” he added, with a smile, “but”—turning towards the black–“it’s all one, I suppose, so the colors be gay;” which playful remark did not fail somewhat to tickle the negro.
“Now, master,” he said, readjusting the flag, and pressing the head gently further back into the crotch of the chair; “now, master,” and the steel glanced nigh the throat.
Again Don Benito faintly shuddered.
“You must not shake so, master. See, Don Amasa, master always shakes when I shave him. And yet master knows I never yet have drawn blood, though it’s true, if master will shake so, I may some of these times. Now master,” he continued. “And now, Don Amasa, please go on with your talk about the gale, and all that; master can hear, and, between times, master can answer.”
[Delano begins to ask questions about the troubles of the ship: the gale and the calms]
“Ah yes, these gales,” said Captain Delano; “but the more I think of your voyage, Don Benito, the more I wonder, not at the gales, terrible as they must have been, but at the disastrous interval following them. For here, by your account, have you been these two months and more
getting from Cape Horn to St. Maria, a distance which I myself, with a good wind, have sailed in a few days. True, you had calms, and long ones, but to be becalmed for two months, that is, at least, unusual. Why, Don Benito, had almost any other gentleman told me such a story, I
should have been half disposed to a little incredulity.”
Here an involuntary expression came over the Spaniard, similar to that just before on the deck, and whether it was the start he gave, or a sudden gawky roll of the hull in the calm, or a momentary unsteadiness of the servant’s hand, however it was, just then the razor drew blood,
spots of which stained the creamy lather under the throat: immediately the black barber drew back his steel, and, remaining in his professional attitude, back to Captain Delano, and face to Don Benito, held up the trickling razor, saying, with a sort of half humorous sorrow, “See,
master–you shook so–here’s Babo’s first blood.”
No sword drawn before James the First of England, no assassination in that timid King’s presence, could have produced a more terrified aspect than was now presented by Don Benito.
Poor fellow, thought Captain Delano, so nervous he can’t even bear the sight of barber’s blood; and this unstrung, sick man, is it credible that I should have imagined he meant to spill all my blood, who can’t endure the sight of one little drop of his own? Surely, Amasa Delano,
you have been beside yourself this day. Tell it not when you get home, sappy Amasa. Well, well, he looks like a murderer, doesn’t he? More like as if himself were to be done for. Well, well, this day’s experience shall be a good lesson.
[Delano seems to miss all of the tension in this scene]
Meantime, while these things were running through the honest seaman’s mind, the servant had taken the napkin from his arm, and to Don Benito had said–“But answer Don Amasa, please, master, while I wipe this ugly stuff off the razor, and strop it again.”
As he said the words, his face was turned half round, so as to be alike visible to the Spaniard and the American, and seemed, by its expression, to hint, that he was desirous, by getting his master to go on with the conversation, considerately to withdraw his attention from the recent annoying accident. As if glad to snatch the offered relief, Don Benito resumed, rehearsing to Captain Delano, that not only were the calms of unusual duration, but the ship had fallen in with obstinate currents; and other things he added, some of which were but repetitions of former statements, to explain how it came to pass that the passage from Cape Horn to St. Maria had been so exceedingly long; now and then, mingling with his words, incidental praises, less qualified than before, to the blacks, for their general good conduct. These particulars were
not given consecutively, the servant, at convenient times, using his razor, and so, between the intervals of shaving, the story and panegyric went on with more than usual huskiness.
[And he wonders, why would they playact this shaving before him? This scene is symbolic in that it shows the dangerous relationship between the two: The slave is performing a task for the captain. At the same time, slave has a knife to the captain’s throat. Who really has the power here? Think back to the masked Satyr at beginning of the story. Who has power over whom?]
To Captain Delano’s imagination, now again not wholly at rest, there was something so hollow in the Spaniard’s manner, with apparently some reciprocal hollowness in the servant’s dusky comment of silence, that the idea flashed across him, that possibly master and man, for some
unknown purpose, were acting out, both in word and deed, nay, to the very tremor of Don Benito’s limbs, some juggling play before him. Neither did the suspicion of collusion lack apparent support, from the fact of those whispered conferences before mentioned. But then, what could be the object of enacting this play of the barber before him? At last, regarding the notion as a whimsy, insensibly suggested, perhaps, by the theatrical aspect of Don Benito in his harlequin ensign, Captain Delano speedily banished it.
The shaving over, the servant bestirred himself with a small bottle of scented waters, pouring a few drops on the head, and then diligently rubbing; the vehemence of the exercise causing the muscles of his face to twitch rather strangely.
His next operation was with comb, scissors, and brush; going round and round, smoothing a curl here, clipping an unruly whisker-hair there, giving a graceful sweep to the temple-lock, with other impromptu touches evincing the hand of a master; while, like any resigned gentleman in barber’s hands, Don Benito bore all, much less uneasily, at least than he had done the razoring; indeed, he sat so pale and rigid now, that the negro seemed a Nubian sculptor finishing off a white statue-head.
All being over at last, the standard of Spain removed, tumbled up, and tossed back into the flag-locker, the negro’s warm breath blowing away any stray hair, which might have lodged down his master’s neck; collar and cravat readjusted; a speck of lint whisked off the velvet lapel; all
this being done; backing off a little space, and pausing with an expression of subdued self-complacency, the servant for a moment surveyed his master, as, in toilet at least, the creature of his own hands.
Captain Delano playfully complimented him upon his achievement; at the same time congratulating Don Benito.
But neither sweet waters, nor shampooing, nor fidelity, nor sociality, delighted the Spaniard. Seeing him relapsing into forbidding gloom, and still remaining seated, Captain Delano, thinking that his presence was undesired just then, withdrew, on pretense of seeing whether, as he had prophesied, any signs of a breeze were visible.