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Page 577


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 transfixedly 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.

Those rocky islands the ship had passed were the resort of
great numbers of seals, and some young seals that had lost their


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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 wail. 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

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 the 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 foreshadowing of evil in the future,
but as the fulfilment of an evil already presaged. They declared


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that now they knew the reason of those wild shrieks they
had heard the night before. But again the old Manxman said

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.”

“Bring 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


“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.”

“He 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 wont put his head into it. Are


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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; its 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 it 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 the 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'sheaded
life-lines, each three feet long hanging all round to the
coffin. Then, if the hull go down, there'll be thirty lively fellows


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all fighting for one coffin, a sight not seen very often
beneath the sun! Come hammer, calking-iron, pitch-pot, and
marling-spike! Let's to it.”