University of Virginia Library

Search this document 




Page 258


Days, weeks passed, and under easy sail, the ivory Pequod
had slowly swept across four several cruising-grounds; that off
the Azores; off the Cape de Verdes; on the Plate (so called),
being off the mouth of the Rio de la Plata; and the Carrol
Ground, an unstaked, watery locality, southerly from St.

It was while gliding through these latter waters that one
serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like
scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made
what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude: on such a silent
night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles
at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed
some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea. Fedallah
first descried this jet. For of these moonlight nights, it
was his wont to mount to the main-mast head, and stand a
look-out there, with the same precision as if it had been day.
And yet, though herds of whales were seen by night, not one
whaleman in a hundred would venture a lowering for them.
You may think with what emotions, then, the seamen beheld
this old Oriental perched aloft at such unusual hours; his
turban and the moon, companions in one sky. But when, after
spending his uniform interval there for several successive nights
without uttering a single sound; when, after all this silence,
his unearthly voice was heard announcing that silvery, moon-lit
jet, every reclining mariner started to his feet as if some
winged spirit had lighted in the rigging, and hailed the mortal
crew. “There she blows!” Had the trump of judgment


Page 259
blown, they could not have quivered more; yet still they felt
no terror; rather pleasure. For though it was a most unwonted
hour, yet so impressive was the cry, and so deliriously exciting,
that almost every soul on board instinctively desired a lowering.

Walking the deck with quick, side-lunging strides, Ahab
commanded the t'gallant sails and royals to be set, and every
stunsail spread. The best man in the ship must take the helm.
Then, with every mast-head manned, the piled-up craft rolled
down before the wind. The strange, upheaving, lifting tendency of
the taffrail breeze filling the hollows of so many sails, made the
buoyant, hovering deck to feel like air beneath the feet; while still
she rushed along, as if two antagonistic influences were struggling
in her—one to mount direct to heaven, the other to drive
yawingly to some horizontal goal. And had you watched
Ahab's face that night, you would have thought that in him
also two different things were warring. While his one live leg
made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead
limb sounded like a coffin-tap. On life and death this old man
walked. But though the ship so swiftly sped, and though from
every eye, like arrows, the eager glances shot, yet the silvery jet
was no more seen that night. Every sailor swore he saw it
once, but not a second time.

This midnight-spout had almost grown a forgotten thing,
when, some days after, lo! at the same silent hour, it was again
announced: again it was descried by all; but upon making sail
to overtake it, once more it disappeared as if it had never been.
And so it served us night after night, till no one heeded it but
to wonder at it. Mysteriously jetted into the clear moonlight,
or starlight, as the case might be; disappearing again for one
whole day, or two days, or three; and somehow seeming at
every distinct repetition to be advancing, still further and
further in our van, this solitary jet seemed for ever alluring
us on.

Nor with the immemorial superstition of their race, and in


Page 260
accordance with the preternaturalness, as it seemed, which in
many things invested the Pequod, were there wanting some of
the seamen who swore that whenever and wherever descried;
at however remote times, or in however far apart latitudes and
longitudes, that unnearable spout was cast by one self-same
whale; and that whale, Moby Dick. For a time, there reigned,
too, a sense of peculiar dread at this flitting apparition, as if it
were treacherously beckoning us on and on, in order that the
monster might turn round upon us, and rend us at last in the
remotest and most savage seas.

These temporary apprehensions, so vague but so awful,
derived a wondrous potency from the contrasting serenity of the
weather, in which, beneath all its blue blandness, some thought
there lurked a devilish charm, as for days and days we voyaged
along, through seas so wearily, lonesomely mild, that all space,
in repugnance to our vengeful errand, seemed vacating itself of
life before our urn-like prow.

But, at last, when turning to the eastward, the Cape winds
began howling around us, and we rose and fell upon the long,
troubled seas that are there; when the ivory-tusked Pequod
sharply bowed to the blast, and gored the dark waves in
her madness, till, like showers of silver chips, the foam-flakes
flew over her bulwarks; then all this desolate vacuity
of life went away, but gave place to sights more dismal than

Close to our bows, strange forms in the water darted hither
and thither before us; while thick in our rear flew the inscrutable
sea-ravens. And every morning, perched on our stays,
rows of these birds were seen; and spite of our hootings, for a
long time obstinately clung to the hemp, as though they
deemed our ship some drifting, uninhabited craft; a thing
appointed to desolation, and therefore fit roosting-place for their
homeless selves. And heaved and heaved, still unrestingly
heaved the black sea, as if its vast tides were a conscience; and


Page 261
the great mundane soul were in anguish and remorse for the
long sin and suffering it had bred.

Cape of Good Hope, do they call ye? Rather Cape Tormentoto,
as called of yore; for long allured by the perfidious
silences that before had attended us, we found ourselves
launched into this tormented sea, where guilty beings transformed
into those fowls and these fish, seemed condemned
to swim on everlastingly without any haven in store, or beat
that black air without any horizon. But calm, snow-white, and
unvarying; still directing its fountain of feathers to the sky;
still beckoning us on from before, the solitary jet would at
times be descried.

During all this blackness of the elements, Ahab, though
assuming for the time the almost continual command of the
drenched and dangerous deck, manifested the gloomiest reserve;
and more seldom than ever addressed his mates. In tempestuous
times like these, after everything above and aloft has been
secured, nothing more can be done but passively to await the
issue of the gale. Then Captain and crew become practical
fatalists. So, with his ivory leg inserted into its accustomed
hole, and with one hand firmly grasping a shroud, Ahab for
hours and hours would stand gazing dead to windward, while
an occasional squall of sleet or snow would all but congeal his
very eyelashes together. Meantime, the crew driven from the
forward part of the ship by the perilous seas that burstingly
broke over its bows, stood in a line along the bulwarks in the
waist; and the better to guard against the leaping waves, each
man had slipped himself into a sort of bowline secured to the
rail, in which he swung as in a loosened belt. Few or no words
were spoken; and the silent ship, as if manned by painted
sailors in wax, day after day tore on through all the swift madness
and gladness of the demoniac waves. By night the same
muteness of humanity before the shrieks of the ocean prevailed;
still in silence the men swung in the bowlines; still wordless


Page 262
Ahab stood up to the blast. Even when wearied nature seemed
demanding repose he would not seek that repose in his hammock.
Never could Starbuck forget the old man's aspect, when
one night going down into the cabin to mark how the barometer
stood, he saw him with closed eyes sitting straight in his floor-screwed
chair; the rain and half-melted sleet of the storm from
which he had some time before emerged, still slowly dripping
from the unremoved hat and coat. On the table beside him
lay unrolled one of those charts of tides and currents which
have previously been spoken of. His lantern swung from his
tightly clenched hand. Though the body was erect, the head
was thrown back so that the closed eyes were pointed towards
the needle of the tell-tale that swung from a beam in the ceiling.[1]

Terrible old man! thought Starbuck with a shudder, sleeping
in this gale, still thou steadfastly eyest thy purpose.


The cabin-compass is called the tell-tale, because without going to
the compass at the helm, the Captain, while below, can inform himself of
the course of the ship.