Steering now south-eastward by Ahab's levelled steel, and her progress solely determined by Ahab's level log and line; the Pequod held on her path towards the Equator. Making so long a passage through such unfrequented waters, descrying no ships, and ere long, sideways impelled by unvarying trade winds, over waves monotonously mild; all these seemed the strange calm things preluding some riotous and desperate scene.
At last, when the ship drew near to the outskirts, as it
were, of the Equatorial fishing-ground, and in the deep darkness that
goes before the dawn, was sailing by a cluster of rocky islets; the
watch- then headed by Flask- was startled by a cry so plaintively wild
and unearthly- like half-articulated wailings of the ghosts of all
Herod's murdered Innocents- that one and all, they started from their
reveries, and for the space of some moments stood, or sat, or leaned all
transfixed by listening, like the carved Roman slave, while that wild
cry remained within hearing. The Christian or civilized part of the crew
said it was mermaids, and shuddered; but the pagan harpooneers remained
unappalled. Yet the grey Manxman- the oldest mariner of all- declared
that the wild thrilling sounds that were heard, were the voices of newly
drowned men in the sea.
Below in his hammock, Ahab did not hear
of this till grey dawn, when he came to the deck; it was then recounted
to him by Flask, not unaccompanied with hinted dark meanings. He
hollowly laughed, and thus explained the wonder.
islands the ship had passed were the resort of great numbers of seals,
and some young seals that had lost their dams, or some dams that had
lost their cubs, must have risen nigh the ship and kept company with
her, crying and sobbing with their human sort of wall. But this only the
more affected some of them, because most mariners cherish a very
superstitious feeling about seals, arising not only from their peculiar
tones when in distress, but also from the human look of their round
heads and semi-intelligent faces, seen peeringly uprising from the water
alongside. In the sea, under certain circumstances, seals have more
than once been mistaken for men.
But the bodings of the crew were
destined to receive a most plausible confirmation in the fate of one of
their number that morning. At sun-rise this man went from his hammock to
his mast-head at the fore; and whether it was that he was not yet half
waked from his sleep (for sailors sometimes go aloft in a transition
state), whether it was thus with the man, there is now no telling; but,
be that as it may, he had not been long at his perch, when a cry was
heard- a cry and a rushing- and looking up, they saw a falling phantom
in the air; and looking down, a little tossed heap of white bubbles in
the blue of the sea.
The life-buoy- a long slender cask- was
dropped from the stern, where it always hung obedient to a cunning
spring; but no hand rose to seize it, and the sun having long beat upon
this cask it had shrunken, so that it slowly filled, and that parched
wood also filled at its every pore; and the studded iron-bound cask
followed the sailor to the bottom, as if to yield him his pillow, though
in sooth but a hard one.
And thus the first man of the Pequod
that mounted the mast to look out for the White Whale, on the White
Whale's own peculiar ground; that man was swallowed up in the deep. But
few, perhaps, thought of that at the time. Indeed, in some sort, they
were not grieved at this event, at least as a portent; for they regarded
it, not as a fore-shadowing of evil in the future, but as the
fulfilment of an evil already presaged. They declared that now they knew
the reason of those wild shrieks they had heard the night before. But
again the old Manxman said nay.
The lost life-buoy was now to be
replaced; Starbuck was directed to see to it; but as no cask of
sufficient lightness could be found, and as in the feverish eagerness of
what seemed the approaching crisis of the voyage, all hands were
impatient of any toil but what was directly connected with its final
end, whatever that might prove to be; therefore, they were going to
leave the ship's stern unprovided with a buoy, when by certain strange
signs and inuendoes Queequeg hinted a hint concerning his coffin.
"A life-buoy of a coffin!" cried Starbuck, starting.
"Rather queer, that, I should say," said Stubb.
"It will make a good enough one," said Flask, "the carpenter here can arrange it easily."
it up; there's nothing else for it," said Starbuck, after a melancholy
pause. "Rig it, carpenter; do not look at me so- the coffin, I mean.
Dost thou hear me? Rig it."
"And shall I nail down the lid, sir?" moving his hand as with a hammer.
"And shall I caulk the seams, sir?" moving his hand as with a caulking-iron.
"And shall I then pay over the same with pitch, sir?" moving his hand as with a pitch-pot.
"Away! what possesses thee to this? Make a life-buoy of the coffin, and no more.- Mr. Stubb, Mr. Flask, come forward with me."
goes off in a huff. The whole he can endure; at the parts he baulks.
Now I don't like this. I make a leg for Captain Ahab, and he wears it
like a gentleman; but I make a bandbox for Queequeg, and he won't put
his head into it. Are all my pains to go for nothing with that coffin?
And now I'm ordered to make a life-buoy of it. It's like turning an old
coat; going to bring the flesh on the other side now. I don't like this
cobbling sort of business- I don't like it at all; it's undignified;
it's not my place. Let tinkers' brats do tinkerings; we are their
betters. I like to take in hand none but clean, virgin, fair-and-square
mathematical jobs, something that regularly begins at the beginning, and
is at the middle when midway, and comes to an end at the conclusion;
not a cobbler's job, that's at an end in the middle, and at the
beginning at the end. It's the old woman's tricks to be giving cobbling
jobs. Lord! what an affection all old women have for tinkers. I know an
old woman of sixty-five who ran away with a bald-headed young tinker
once. And that's the reason I never would work for lonely widow old
women ashore when I kept my job-shop in the Vineyard; they might have
taken into their lonely old heads to run off with me. But heigh-ho!
there are no caps at sea but snow-caps. Let me see. Nail down the lid;
caulk the seams; pay over the same with pitch; batten them down tight,
and hang it with the snap-spring over the ship's stern. Were ever such
things done before with a coffin? Some superstitious old carpenters,
now, would be tied up in rigging, ere they would do the job. But I'm
made of knotty Aroostook hemlock; I don't budge. Cruppered with a
coffin! Sailing about with a grave-yard tray! But never mind. We workers
in woods make bridal bedsteads and card-tables, as well as coffins and
hearses. We work by the month, or by the job, or by the profit; not for
us to ask the why and wherefore of our work, unless it be too confounded
cobbling, and then we stash it if we can. Hem! I'll do the job, now,
tenderly. I'll have me- let's see- how many in the ship's company, all
told? But I've forgotten. Any way, I'll have me thirty separate,
Turk's-headed life-lines, each three feet long hanging all round to the
coffin. Then, if the hull go down, there'll be thirty lively fellows all
fighting for one coffin, a sight not seen very often beneath the sun!
Come hammer, caulking-iron, pitch-pot, and marling-spike! Let's to it."
The Life-Buoy. Strange title for a chapter in which a casket is turned into the Pequod's life-buoy. A more appropriate title would seem to be "The Death-Buoy." Another portent of the bad luck to come. A man falls overboard and sinks into the deep, never to be seen again. The White Whale has still not made an appearance. And now, the carpenter is ordered to transform Queequeg's casket into a life-preserver.
Greetings on an early Wednesday evening. Once again, I'm dashing this blog post off between classes. I just finished teaching Mythology, and now I'm headed into Composition I. I'm tired, but not as exhausted as I was at the beginning of the week. Funny, I always seem to gain energy on Wednesday nights, until I'm done. Then, on my way home, I slowly lose power. Like a dying battery. By the time I park my car in front of my house, all the adrenaline of the day will have worn off, leaving me in a curious state of waking sleep.
That's how I picture Ahab's crew at this point in the novel. After months and months at sea, after whales and whales killed and rendered, they are at the end of their day, so to speak. Ready to head for home and bed. And Ahab is not allowing this to happen. He is that annoying phone call in the middle of the night. That dripping faucet that won't let you go to fall sleep.
As I've been saying for most of the week, the upheaval in the medical office where I work has been taking a toll on my energy, to the point where the smallest of tasks can seem Everestian. (Yes, I just made up a word. Poets are allowed to do that.) Friday is coming, but I have a lot of climbing to do before I reach that summit.
I'm sure, when I go downstairs in about half an hour, the young people in my classroom will lend me a little of their youthful energy. Just enough to help me make it through three hours of talking about research. It's not exciting stuff, but it's useful. Pragmatic. Information that these students will use throughout their academic careers and into the work place. That is why it's important.
Saint Marty is thankful tonight for having a purpose.
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