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Sea StoriesThe Mother Ship
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The Capture Of The Great White Whale
That night, in the mid-watch, when the old man--as his wont at
intervals--stepped forth from the scuttle in which he leaned, and went
to his pivot-hole, he suddenly thrust out his face fiercely, snuffing
up the sea air as a sagacious ship's dog will, in drawing nigh to some
barbarous isle. He declared that a whale must be near. Soon that
peculiar odor, sometimes to a great distance given forth by the living
sperm whale, was palpable to all the watch; nor was any mariner
surprised when, after inspecting the compass, and then the dog-vane,
and then ascertaining the precise bearing of the odor as nearly as
possible, Ahab rapidly ordered the ship's course to be slightly
altered, and the sail to be shortened.
The acute policy dictating these movements was sufficiently vindicated
at daybreak, by the sight of a long sleek on the sea directly and
lengthwise ahead, smooth as oil, and resembling in the pleated watery
wrinkles bordering it, the polished metallic-like marks of some swift
tide-rip, at the mouth of a deep, rapid stream.
"Man the mast-heads! Call all hands!"
Thundering with the butts of three clubbed handspikes on the forecastle
deck, Daggoo roused the sleepers with such judgment claps that they
seemed to exhale from the scuttle, so instantaneously did they appear
with their clothes in their hands.
"What d'ye see?" cried Ahab, flattening his face to the sky.
"Nothing, nothing, sir!" was the sound hailing down in reply.
"T'gallant sails!--stunsails! alow and aloft, and on both sides!"
All sail being set, he now cast loose the life-line, reserved for
swaying him to the main royal-mast head; and in a few moments they were
hoisting him thither, when, while but two-thirds of the way aloft, and
while peering ahead through the horizontal vacancy between the
main-top-sail and top-gallant-sail, he raised a gull-like cry in the
air, "There she blows!--there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It
is Moby Dick!"
Fired by the cry which seemed simultaneously taken up by the three
look-outs, the men on deck rushed to the rigging to behold the famous
whale they had so long been pursuing. Ahab had now gained his final
perch, some feet above the other look-outs, Tashtego standing just
beneath him on the cap of the top-gallant-mast, so that the Indian's
head was almost on a level with Ahab's heel. From this height the
whale was now seen some mile or so ahead, at every roll of the sea
revealing his high sparkling hump, and regularly jetting his silent
spout into the air. To the credulous mariners it seemed the same
silent spout they had so long ago beheld in the moon-lit Atlantic and
"And did none of ye see it before?" cried Ahab, hailing the perched men
all around him.
"I saw him almost that same instant, sir, that Captain Ahab did, and I
cried out," said Tashtego.
"Not the same instant; not the same--no, the doubloon is mine, Fate
reserved the doubloon for me. I only; none of ye could have raised the
White Whale first. There she blows! there she blows!--there she blows!
There again--there again!" he cried, in long-drawn, lingering, methodic
tones, attuned to the gradual prolongings of the whale's visible jets.
"He's going to sound! In stunsails! Down top-gallant-sails! Stand by
three boats. Mr. Starbuck, remember, stay on board, and keep the ship.
Helm there! Luff, luff a point! So; steady, man, steady! There go
flukes! No, no; only black water! All ready the boats there? Stand
by, stand by! Lower me, Mr. Starbuck; lower, lower,--quick, quicker!"
and he slid through the air to the deck.
"He is heading straight to leeward, sir," cried Stubb, "right away from
us; cannot have seen the ship yet."
"Be dumb, man! Stand by the braces! Hard down the helm!--brace up!
Shiver her!--shiver her! So; well that! Boats, boats!"
Soon all the boats but Starbuck's were dropped; all the boat-sails
set--all the paddles plying; with rippling swiftness, shooting to
leeward; and Ahab heading the onset. A pale, death-glimmer lit up
Fedallah's sunken eyes; a hideous motion gnawed his mouth.
Like noiseless nautilus shells, their light prows sped through the sea;
but only slowly they neared the foe. As they neared him, the ocean
grew still more smooth; seemed drawing a carpet over its waves; seemed
a noon-meadow, so serenely it spread. At length the breathless hunter
came so nigh his seemingly unsuspecting prey, that his entire dazzling
hump was distinctly visible, sliding along the sea as if an isolated
thing, and continually set in a revolving ring of finest, fleecy,
greenish foam. He saw the vast, involved wrinkles of the slightly
projecting head beyond. Before it, far out on the soft Turkish-rugged
waters, went the glistening white shadow from his broad, milky
forehead, a musical rippling playfully accompanying the shade; and
behind, the blue waters interchangeably flowed over into the moving
valley of his steady wake; and on either hand bright bubbles arose and
danced by his side. But these were broken again by the light toes of
hundreds of gay fowl softly feathering the sea, alternate with their
fitful flight; and like to some flag-staff rising from the painted hull
of an argosy, the tall but shattered pole of a recent lance projected
from the white whale's back; and at intervals one of the cloud of
soft-toed fowls hovering, and to and fro skimming like a canopy over
the fish, silently perched and rocked on this pole, the long tail
feathers streaming like pennons.
A gentle joyousness--a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested
the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with
ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering
eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness,
rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that
great majesty Supreme! did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so
On each soft side--coincident with the parted swell, that but once
leaving him, then flowed so wide away--on each bright side, the whale
shed off enticings. No wonder there had been some among the hunters
who namelessly transported and allured by all this serenity, had
ventured to assail it; but had fatally found that quietude but the
vesture of tornadoes. Yet calm, enticing calm, oh, whale! thou glidest
on, to all who for the first time eye thee, no matter how many in that
same way thou may'st have bejuggled and destroyed before.
And thus, through the serene tranquillities of the tropical sea, among
waves whose hand-clappings were suspended by exceeding rapture, Moby
Dick moved on, still withholding from sight the full terrors of his
submerged trunk, entirely hiding the wrenched hideousness of his jaw.
But soon the fore part of him slowly rose from the water; for an
instant his whole marbleized body formed a high arch, like Virginia's
Natural Bridge, and warningly waving his bannered flukes in the air,
the grand god revealed himself, sounded, and went out of sight.
Hoveringly, halted, and dipping on the wing, the white sea-fowls
longingly lingered over the agitated pool that he left.
With oars apeak, and paddles down, the sheets of their sails adrift,
the three boats now stilly floated, awaiting Moby Dick's reappearance.
"An hour," said Ahab, standing rooted in his boat's stern; and he gazed
beyond the whale's place, toward the dim blue spaces and wide wooing
vacancies to leeward. It was only an instant; for again his eyes
seemed whirling round in his head as he swept the watery circle. The
breeze now freshened; the sea began to swell.
"The birds!--the birds!" cried Tashtego.
In long Indian file, as when herons take wing, the white birds were now
all flying towards Ahab's boat; and when within a few yards began
fluttering over the water there, wheeling round and round, with joyous,
expectant cries. Their vision was keener than man's; Ahab could
discover no sign in the sea. But suddenly as he peered down and down
into its depths, he profoundly saw a white living spot no bigger than a
white weasel, with wonderful celerity uprising, and magnifying as it
rose, till it turned, and then there were plainly revealed two long
crooked rows of white, glistening teeth, floating up from the
undiscoverable bottom. It was Moby Dick's open mouth and scrolled jaw;
his vast, shadowed bulk still half blending with the blue of the sea.
The glittering mouth yawned beneath the boat like an open-doored marble
tomb; and giving one sidelong sweep with his steering oar, Ahab whirled
the craft aside from this tremendous apparition. Then, calling upon
Fedallah to change places with him, went forward to the bows, and
seizing Perth's harpoon, commanded his crew to grasp their oars and
stand by to stern.
Now, by reason of this timely spinning round the boat upon its axis,
its bow, by anticipation, was made to face the whale's head while yet
under water. But as if perceiving this stratagem, Moby Dick, with that
malicious intelligence ascribed to him, sidelingly transplanted
himself, at it were, in an instant, shooting his pleated head
lengthwise beneath the boat.
Through and through; through every plank and each rib, it thrilled for
an instant, the whale obliquely lying on his back, in the manner of a
biting shark, slowly and feelingly taking its bows full within his
mouth, so that the long, narrow, scrolled lower jaw curled high up into
the open air, and one of the teeth caught in a row-lock. The bluish
pearl-white of the inside of the jaw was within six inches of Ahab's
head, and reached higher than that. In this attitude the White Whale
now shook the slight cedar as a mildly cruel cat her mouse. With
unastonished eyes Fedallah gazed, and crossed his arms; but the
tiger-yellow crew were tumbling over each other's heads to gain the
And now, while both elastic gunwales were springing in and out, as the
whale dallied with the doomed craft in this devilish way; and from his
body being submerged beneath the boat, he could not be darted at from
the bows, for the bows were almost inside of him, as it were; and while
the other boats involuntarily paused, as before a quick crisis
impossible to withstand, then it was that monomaniac Ahab, furious with
this tantalizing vicinity of his foe, which placed him all alive and
helpless in the very jaws he hated; frenzied with all this, he seized
the long bone with his naked hands, and wildly strove to wrench it from
its gripe. As now he thus vainly strove, the jaw slipped from him; the
frail gunwales bent in, collapsed, and snapped, as both jaws, like an
enormous shears, sliding further aft, bit the craft completely in
twain, and locked themselves fast again in the sea, midway between the
two floating wrecks. These floated aside, the broken ends drooping,
the crew at the stern-wreck clinging to the gunwales, and striving to
hold fast to the oars to lash them across.
At that preluding moment, ere the boat was yet snapped, Ahab, the first
to perceive the whale's intent, by the crafty upraising of his head, a
movement that loosed his hold for the time; at that moment his hand had
made one final effort to push the boat out of the bite. But only
slipping further into the whale's mouth, and tilting over sideways as
it slipped, the boat had shaken off his hold on the jaw; spilled him
out of it, as he leaned to the push; and so he fell flat-faced upon the
Rippingly withdrawing from his prey, Moby Dick now lay at a little
distance, vertically thrusting his oblong white head up and down in the
billows; and at the same time slowly revolving his whole spindled body;
so that when his vast wrinkled forehead rose--some twenty or more feet
out of the water--the now rising swells, with all their confident
waves, dazzlingly broke against it; vindictively tossing their shivered
spray still higher into the air. So, in a gale, the but half
baffled Channel billows only recoil from the base of the Eddy-stone,
triumphantly to overleap its summit with their scud.
But soon resuming his horizontal attitude, Moby Dick swam swiftly round
and round the wrecked crew; sideways churning the water in his vengeful
wake, as if lashing himself up to still another and more deadly
assault. The sight of the splintered boat seemed to madden him, as the
blood of grapes and mulberries cast before Antiochus's elephants in the
book of Maccabees. Meanwhile Ahab half smothered in the foam of the
whale's insolent tail, and too much of a cripple to swim,--though he
could still keep afloat, even in the heart of such a whirlpool as that;
helpless Ahab's head was seen, like a tossed bubble which the least
chance shock might burst. From the boat's fragmentary stern, Fedallah
incuriously and mildly eyed him; the clinging crew, at the other
drifting end, could not succor him; more than enough was it to look to
themselves. For so revolvingly appalling was the White Whale's aspect,
and so planetarily swift the ever-contracting circles he made, that he
seemed horizontally swooping upon them. And though the other boats
unharmed, still hovered hard by; still they dared not pull into the
eddy to strike, lest that should be the signal for the instant
destruction of the jeopardized castaways, Ahab and all; nor in that
case could they themselves hope to escape. With straining eyes, then,
they remained on the outer edge of the direful zone, whose centre had
now become the old man's head.
Meantime, from the beginning all this had been descried from the ship's
mast heads; and squaring her yards, she had borne down upon the scene;
and was now so nigh, that Ahab in the water hailed her:--"Sail on
the"--but that moment a breaking sea dashed on him from Moby Dick, and
whelmed him for the time. But struggling out of it again, and chancing
to rise on a towering crest, he shouted,--"Sail on the whale!--Drive
The _Pequod's_ prows were pointed; and breaking up the charmed circle,
she effectually parted the whale from his victim. As he suddenly swam
off, the boats flew to the rescue.
Dragged into Stubb's boat with blood-shot, blinded eyes, the white
brine caking in his wrinkles; the long tension of Ahab's bodily
strength did crack, and helplessly he yielded to his body's doom: for a
long time, lying all crushed in the bottom of Stubb's boat, like one
trodden under foot of herds of elephants. Far inland, nameless wails
came from him, as desolate sounds from out ravines.
But this intensity of his physical prostration did but so much the more
abbreviate it. In an instant's compass, great hearts sometimes
condense to one deep pang, the sum total of those shallow pains kindly
diffused through feebler men's whole lives. And so, such hearts,
though summary in each one suffering; still, if the gods decree it, in
their life-time aggregate a whole age of woe, wholly made up of
instantaneous intensities; for even in their pointless centres, those
noble natures contain the entire circumferences of inferior souls.
"The harpoon," said Ahab, half way rising, and draggingly leaning on
one bended arm--"is it safe!"
"Aye, sir, for it was not darted; this is it," said Stubb, showing it.
"Lay it before me;--any missing men!"
"One, two, three, four, five;--there were five oars, sir, and here are
"That's good.--Help me, man; I wish to stand. So, so, I see him!
there! there! going to leeward still; what a leaping spout!--Hands off
from me! The eternal sap runs up in Ahab's bones again! Set the sail;
out oars; the helm!"
It is often the case that when a boat is stove, its crew, being picked
up by another boat, help to work that second boat; and the chase is
thus continued with what is called double-banked oars. It was thus
now. But the added power of the boat did not equal the added power of
the whale, for he seemed to have treble-banked his every fin; swimming
with a velocity which plainly showed, that if now, under these
circumstances, pushed on, the chase would prove an indefinitely
prolonged, if not a hopeless one; nor could any crew endure for so long
a period, such an unintermitted, intense straining at the oar; a thing
barely tolerable only in some one brief vicissitude. The ship itself,
then, as it sometimes happens, offered the most promising intermediate
means of overtaking the chase. Accordingly, the boats now made for
her, and were soon swayed up to their cranes--the two parts of the
wrecked boat having been previously secured by her--and then hoisting
everything to her side, and stacking her canvas high up, and sideways
outstretching it with stun-sails, like the double-jointed wings of an
albatross; the _Pequod_ bore down in the leeward wake of Moby Dick. At
the well known, methodic intervals, the whale's glittering spout was
regularly announced from the manned mast-heads; and when he would be
reported as just gone down, Ahab would take the time, and then pacing
the deck, binnacle-watch in hand, so soon as the last second of the
allotted hour expired, his voice was heard.--"Whose is the doubloon
now? D'ye see him?" and if the reply was, No, sir! straightway he
commanded them to lift him to his perch. In this way the day wore on;
Ahab, now aloft and motionless; anon, unrestingly pacing the planks.
As he was thus walking, uttering no sound, except to hail the men
aloft, or to bid them hoist a sail still higher, or to spread one to a
still greater breadth--thus to and fro pacing, beneath his slouched
hat, at every turn he passed his own wrecked boat, which had been
dropped upon the quarter-deck, and lay there reversed; broken bow to
shattered stern. At last he paused before it; and as in an already
over-clouded sky fresh troops of clouds will sometimes sail across, so
over the old man's face there now stole some such added gloom as this.
Stubb saw him pause; and perhaps intending, not vainly, though, to
evince his own unabated fortitude, and thus keep up a valiant place in
his Captain's mind, he advanced, and eyeing the wreck exclaimed--"The
thistle the ass refused; it pricked his mouth too keenly, sir; ha! ha!"
"What soulless thing is this that laughs before a wreck? Man, man! did
I not know thee brave as fearless fire (and as mechanical) I could
swear thou wert a poltroon. Groan nor laugh should be heard before a
"Aye, sir," said Starbuck drawing near, "'tis a solemn sight; an omen,
and an ill one."
"Omen? omen?--the dictionary! If the gods think to speak outright to
man, they will honorably speak outright; not shake their heads, and
give an old wives' darkling hint.--Begone! Ye two are the opposite
poles of one thing; Starbuck is Stubb reversed, and Stubb is Starbuck;
and ye two are all mankind; and Ahab stands alone among the millions of
the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbors! Cold, cold--I
shiver!--How now? Aloft there! D'ye see him? Sing out for every
spout, though he spout ten times a second!"
The day was nearly done; only the hem of his golden robe was rustling.
Soon, it was almost dark, but the look-out men still remained unset.
"Can't see the spout now, sir;--too dark"--cried a voice from the air.
"How heading when last seen?"
"As before, sir,--straight to leeward."
"Good! he will travel slower now 'tis night. Down royals and
top-gallant stun-sails, Mr. Starbuck. We must not run over him before
morning; he's making a passage now, and may heave-to a while. Helm
there! keep her full before the wind!--Aloft! come down!--Mr. Stubb,
send a fresh hand to the fore-mast head, and see it manned till
morning."--Then advancing towards the doubloon in the main-mast--"Men,
this gold is mine, for I earned it; but I shall let it abide here till
the White Whale is dead; and then, whosoever of ye first raises him,
upon the day he shall be killed, this gold is that man's; and if on
that day I shall again raise him, then, ten times its sum shall be
divided among all of ye! Away now!--the deck is thine, sir."
And so saying, he placed himself half way within the scuttle, and
slouching his hat, stood there till dawn, except when at intervals
rousing himself to see how the night wore on.
Next: Second Day
Previous: The Wreck Of The _royal Caroline_