"Steelkilt rose, and slowly retreating round the windless, steadily followed by the mate with his menacing hammer, deliberately repeated his intention not to obey. Seeing, however, that his forbearance had not the slightest effect, by an awful and unspeakable intimation with his twisted hand he warned off the foolish and infatuated man; but it was to no purpose. And in this way the two went once slowly round the windlass; when, resolved at last no longer to retreat, bethinking him that he had now forborne as much as comported with his humor, the Lakeman paused on the hatches and thus spoke to the officer:
Radney, I will not obey you. Take that hammer away, or look to
yourself.' But the predestinated mate coming still closer to him, where
the Lakeman stood fixed, now shook the heavy hammer within an inch of
his teeth; meanwhile repeating a string of insufferable maledictions.
Retreating not the thousandth part of an inch; stabbing him in the eye
with the unflinching poniard of his glance, Steelkilt, clenching his
right hand behind him and creepingly drawing it back, told his
persecutor that if the hammer but grazed his cheek he (Steelkilt) would
murder him. But, gentlemen, the fool had been branded for the slaughter
by the gods. Immediately the hammer touched the cheek; the next instant
the lower jaw of the mate was stove in his head; he fell on the hatch
spouting blood like a whale.
"Ere the cry could go aft Steelkilt
was shaking one of the backstays leading far aloft to where two of his
comrades were standing their mastheads. They were both Canallers.
cried Don Pedro. 'We have seen many whaleships in our harbors, but
never heard of your Canallers. Pardon: who and what are they?'
"'Canallers, Don, are the boatmen belonging to our grand Erie Canal. You must have heard of it.'
"'Nay, Senor; hereabouts in this dull, warm, most lazy, and hereditary land, we know but little of your vigorous North.'
Well then, Don, refill my cup. Your chicha's very fine; and ere
proceeding further I will tell ye what our Canallers are; for such
information may throw side-light upon my story.'
hundred and sixty miles, gentlemen, through the entire breadth of the
state of New York; through numerous populous cities and most thriving
villages; through long, dismal, uninhabited swamps, and affluent,
cultivated fields, unrivalled for fertility; by billiard-room and
bar-room; through the holy-of-holies of great forests; on Roman arches
over Indian rivers; through sun and shade; by happy hearts or broken;
through all the wide contrasting scenery of those noble Mohawk counties;
especially, by rows of snow-white chapels, whose spires stand almost
like milestones, flows one continual stream of Venetianly corrupt and
often lawless life. There's your true Ashantee, gentlemen; there howl
your pagans; where you ever find them, next door to you; under the
long-flung shadow, and the snug patronizing lee of churches. For by some
curious fatality, as it is often noted of your metropolitan freebooters
that they ever encamp around the halls of justice, so sinners,
gentlemen, most abound in holiest vicinities.
"'Is that a fair passing?' said Don Pedro, looking downwards into the crowded plazza, with humorous concern.
"'Well for our northern friend, Dame Isabella's Inquisition wanes in Lima,' laughed Don Sebastian. 'Proceed, Senor.'
moment! Pardon!' cried another of the company. 'In the name of all us
Limeese, I but desire to express to you, sir sailor, that we have by no
means overlooked your delicacy in not substituting present Lima for
distant Venice in your corrupt comparison. Oh! do not bow and look
surprised: you know the proverb all along this coast- "Corrupt as Lima."
It but bears out your saying, too; churches more plentiful than
billiard-tables, and for ever open-and "Corrupt as Lima." So, too,
Venice; I have been there; the holy city of the blessed evangelist, St.
Mark!- St. Dominic, purge it! Your cup! Thanks: here I refill; now, you
pour out again.'
"Freely depicted in his own vocation, gentlemen,
the Canaller would make a fine dramatic hero, so abundantly and
picturesquely wicked he is. Like Mark Antony, for days and days along
his green-turfed, flowery Nile, he indolently floats, openly toying with
his red-cheeked Cleopatra, ripening his apricot thigh upon the sunny
deck. But ashore, all this effeminacy is dashed. The brigandish guise
which the Canaller so proudly sports; his slouched and gaily-ribboned
hat betoken his grand features. A terror to the smiling innocence of the
villages through which he floats; his swart visage and bold swagger are
not unshunned in cities. Once a vagabond on his own canal, I have
received good turns from one of these Canallers; I thank him heartily;
would fain be not ungrateful; but it is often one of the prime redeeming
qualities of your man of violence, that at times he has as stiff an arm
to back a poor stranger in a strait, as to plunder a wealthy one. In
sum, gentlemen, what the wildness of this canal life is, is emphatically
evinced by this; that our wild whale-fishery contains so many of its
most finished graduates, and that scarce any race of mankind, except
Sydney men, are so much distrusted by our whaling captains. Nor does it
at all diminish the curiousness of this matter, that to many thousands
of our rural boys and young men born along its line, the probationary
life of the Grand Canal furnishes the sole transition between quietly
reaping in a Christian corn-field, and recklessly ploughing the waters
of the most barbaric seas.
"'I see! I see!' impetuously exclaimed
Don Pedro, spilling his chicha upon his silvery ruffles. 'No need to
travel! The world's one Lima. I had thought, now, that at your temperate
North the generations were cold and holy as the hills.- But the story.'
had left off, gentlemen, where the Lakeman shook the backstay. Hardly
had he done so, when he was surrounded by the three junior mates and the
four harpooneers, who all crowded him to the deck. But sliding down the
ropes like baleful comets, the two Canallers rushed into the uproar,
and sought to drag their man out of it towards the forecastle. Others of
the sailors joined with them in this attempt, and a twisted turmoil
ensued; while standing out of harm's way, the valiant captain danced up
and down with a whale-pike, calling upon his officers to manhandle that
atrocious scoundrel, and smoke him along to the quarter-deck. At
intervals, he ran close up to the revolving border of the confusion, and
prying into the heart of it with his pike, sought to prick out the
object of his resentment. But Steelkilt and his desperadoes were too
much for them all; they succeeded in gaining the forecastle deck, where,
hastily slewing about three or four large casks in a line with the
windlass, these sea-Parisians entrenched themselves behind the
"'Come out of that, ye pirates!' roared the captain,
now menacing them with a pistol in each hand, just brought to him by the
steward. 'Come out of that, ye cut-throats!'
"Steelkilt leaped on
the barricade, and striding up and down there, defied the worst the
pistols could do; but gave the captain to understand distinctly, that
his (Steelkilt's) death would be the signal for a murderous mutiny on
the part of all hands. Fearing in his heart lest this might prove but
too true, the captain a little desisted, but still commanded the
insurgents instantly to return to their duty.
"'Will you promise not to touch us, if we do?' demanded their ringleader.
to! turn to!- I make no promise; to your duty! Do you want to sink the
ship, by knocking off at a time like this? Turn to!' and he once more
raised a pistol.
"'Sink the ship?' cried Steelkilt. 'Aye, let her
sink. Not a man of us turns to, unless you swear not to raise a
rope-yarn against us. What say ye, men?' turning to his comrades. A
fierce cheer was their response.
"The Lakeman now patrolled the
barricade, all the while keeping his eye on the Captain, and jerking out
such sentences as these:- 'It's not our fault; we didn't want it; I
told him to take his hammer away; it was boy's business; he might have
known me before this; I told him not to prick the buffalo; I believe I
have broken a finger here against his cursed jaw; ain't those mincing
knives down in the forecastle there, men? look to those handspikes, my
hearties. Captain, by God, look to yourself; say the word; don't be a
fool; forget it all; we are ready to turn to; treat us decently, and
we're your men; but we won't be flogged.'
"'Turn to! I make no promises, turn to, I say!'
ye, now,' cried the Lakeman, flinging out his arm towards him, 'there
are a few of us here (and I am one of them) who have shipped for the
cruise, d'ye see; now as you well know, sir, we can claim our discharge
as soon as the anchor is down; so we don't want a row; it's not our
interest; we want to be peaceable; we are ready to work, but we won't be
"'Turn to!' roared the Captain.
glanced round him a moment, and then said:- 'I tell you what it is now,
Captain, rather than kill ye, and be hung for such a shabby rascal, we
won't lift a hand against ye unless ye attack us; but till you say the
word about not flogging us, we don't do a hand's turn.'
"'Down into the forecastle then, down with ye, I'll keep ye there till ye're sick of it. Down ye go.'
we?' cried the ringleader to his men. Most of them were against it; but
at length, in obedience to Steelkilt, they preceded him down into their
dark den, growlingly disappearing, like bears into a cave.
the Lakeman's bare head was just level with the planks, the Captain and
his posse leaped the barricade, and rapidly drawing over the slide of
the scuttle, planted their group of hands upon it, and loudly called for
the steward to bring the heavy brass padlock belonging to the
Then opening the slide a little, the Captain
whispered something down the crack, closed it, and turned the key upon
them- ten in number- leaving on deck some twenty or more, who thus far
had remained neutral.
"All night a wide-awake watch was kept by
all the officers, forward and aft, especially about the forecastle
scuttle and fore hatchway; at which last place it was feared the
insurgents might emerge, after breaking through the bulkhead below. But
the hours of darkness passed in peace; the men who still remained at
their duty toiling hard at the pumps, whose clinking and clanking at
intervals through the dreary night dismally resounded through the ship.
sunrise the Captain went forward, and knocking on the deck, summoned
the prisoners to work; but with a yell they refused. Water was then
lowered down to them, and a couple of handfuls of biscuit were tossed
after it; when again turning the key upon them and pocketing it, the
Captain returned to the quarter-deck. Twice every day for three days
this was repeated; but on the fourth morning a confused wrangling, and
then a scuffling was heard, as the customary summons was delivered; and
suddenly four men burst up from the forecastle, saying they were ready
to turn to. The fetid closeness of the air, and a famishing diet, united
perhaps to some fears of ultimate retribution, had constrained them to
surrender at discretion. Emboldened by this, the Captain reiterated his
demand to the rest, but Steelkilt shouted up to him a terrific hint to
stop his babbling and betake himself where he belonged. On the fifth
morning three others of the mutineers bolted up into the air from the
desperate arms below that sought to restrain them. Only three were left.
"'Better turn to, now?' said the Captain with a heartless jeer.
"'Shut us up again, will ye!' cried Steelkilt.
"'Oh certainly,' the Captain, and the key clicked.
So, here we are in the middle of a story about imprisonment, forced labor, and torture. Certainly, Steelkilt was provoked to his violence by Radney, who is simply a bully. Steelkilt tries to retreat to avoid the conflict. However, Radney persists. The result is near mutiny. The captain can't hang Steelkilt and his followers. Nor can he agree to Steelkilt's demands because that risks complete loss of authority. Steelkilt is then running the show. The captain is stuck. So is Steelkilt.
Life is like that. Getting stuck between difficult choices. Steelkilt could have bowed to Radney's demands and lost respect for himself. The captain could give in to Steelkilt's demands and lost control of his ship. Of course, Steelkilt bashes Radney's jaw. The captain captures and starves Steelkilt and his men. There are no right choices in this situation. Only bad outcomes.
I want to tell you a little story about difficult choices. When my daughter was five-years-old, my wife and I separated. It had to do with some choices my wife had made. She was in the throes of sexual addiction, probably brought on by a prolonged manic episode. She decided she didn't want to be a wife or mother any more. So, she left.
That's the Cliff's Notes version. It leaves out a lot of details. Crying. Sleepless nights. Depression. Suicidal ideation. Obviously, things went in the happily-ever-after direction since my wife and I are still married, and we now have a nine-year-old son, too. However, that happily ever after was the result of difficult choices, as well.
When it came to the point of reconciling with my wife after a year, I had two choices: 1) say "no," get divorced, and raise my daughter by myself; or 2) forgiveness and love. Either option required a LOT of work and the possibility of more pain. I chose the second option, and I've never regretted it. While it hasn't always been roses and unicorns, my life is better because of the choice I made almost ten years ago.
I don't think anybody's life can be boiled down to simple, easy decisions. I don't know a single person who had to choose between being a television/movie star or a princess (except for Meghan Markle). It just doesn't work that way. There are crossroads--two roads diverging in a yellow wood, to paraphrase Frost. In fact, there are a lot of those goddamn yellow crossroads. No GPS. No Siri. Just paths winding through dark woods with no definite destination.
My wife still struggles some days with her addiction. My son has ADHD and ODD--every day for him is full of difficult choices. My daughter is a junior in high school. She's on the verge of a lot of difficult choices--college, major, job, career. And my days, it seems, are a series of calendar conflicts--choosing one obligation over another.
Tonight, my conflict is attending a friend's art gallery exhibition closing or working on an essay that I need to finish for my book. At the moment, the essay is winning out. Haven't completely decided yet. We shall see. As with most crossroads, there is no right or wrong answer (unless it's impeaching Donald Trump or not).
Tonight, Saint Marty is thankful for all the choices he's made in his life--except the burrito he ate yesterday for lunch.