Chapter 110: Queequeg in His Coffin.
Upon searching, it was found that the casks last struck into the hold
were perfectly sound, and that the leak must be further off. So, it
being calm weather, they broke out deeper and deeper, disturbing the
slumbers of the huge ground-tier butts; and from that black midnight
sending those gigantic moles into the daylight above. So deep did they
go; and so ancient, and corroded, and weedy the aspect of the lowermost
puncheons, that you almost looked next for some mouldy corner-stone cask
containing coins of Captain Noah, with copies of the posted placards,
vainly warning the infatuated old world from the flood. Tierce after
tierce, too, of water, and bread, and beef, and shooks of staves, and
iron bundles of hoops, were hoisted out, till at last the piled decks
were hard to get about; and the hollow hull echoed under foot, as if
you were treading over empty catacombs, and reeled and rolled in the sea
like an air-freighted demijohn. Top-heavy was the ship as a dinnerless
student with all Aristotle in his head. Well was it that the Typhoons
did not visit them then.
Now, at this time it was that my poor pagan companion, and fast
bosom-friend, Queequeg, was seized with a fever, which brought him nigh
to his endless end.
Be it said, that in this vocation of whaling, sinecures are unknown;
dignity and danger go hand in hand; till you get to be Captain, the
higher you rise the harder you toil. So with poor Queequeg, who, as
harpooneer, must not only face all the rage of the living whale, but--as
we have elsewhere seen--mount his dead back in a rolling sea; and
finally descend into the gloom of the hold, and bitterly sweating
all day in that subterraneous confinement, resolutely manhandle the
clumsiest casks and see to their stowage. To be short, among whalemen,
the harpooneers are the holders, so called.
Poor Queequeg! when the ship was about half disembowelled, you should
have stooped over the hatchway, and peered down upon him there; where,
stripped to his woollen drawers, the tattooed savage was crawling about
amid that dampness and slime, like a green spotted lizard at the bottom
of a well. And a well, or an ice-house, it somehow proved to him, poor
pagan; where, strange to say, for all the heat of his sweatings, he
caught a terrible chill which lapsed into a fever; and at last, after
some days' suffering, laid him in his hammock, close to the very sill
of the door of death. How he wasted and wasted away in those few
long-lingering days, till there seemed but little left of him but his
frame and tattooing. But as all else in him thinned, and his cheek-bones
grew sharper, his eyes, nevertheless, seemed growing fuller and fuller;
they became of a strange softness of lustre; and mildly but deeply
looked out at you there from his sickness, a wondrous testimony to that
immortal health in him which could not die, or be weakened. And like
circles on the water, which, as they grow fainter, expand; so his eyes
seemed rounding and rounding, like the rings of Eternity. An awe that
cannot be named would steal over you as you sat by the side of this
waning savage, and saw as strange things in his face, as any beheld who
were bystanders when Zoroaster died. For whatever is truly wondrous and
fearful in man, never yet was put into words or books. And the drawing
near of Death, which alike levels all, alike impresses all with a last
revelation, which only an author from the dead could adequately tell.
So that--let us say it again--no dying Chaldee or Greek had higher and
holier thoughts than those, whose mysterious shades you saw creeping
over the face of poor Queequeg, as he quietly lay in his swaying
hammock, and the rolling sea seemed gently rocking him to his final
rest, and the ocean's invisible flood-tide lifted him higher and higher
towards his destined heaven.
Not a man of the crew but gave him up; and, as for Queequeg himself,
what he thought of his case was forcibly shown by a curious favour he
asked. He called one to him in the grey morning watch, when the day was
just breaking, and taking his hand, said that while in Nantucket he
had chanced to see certain little canoes of dark wood, like the rich
war-wood of his native isle; and upon inquiry, he had learned that all
whalemen who died in Nantucket, were laid in those same dark canoes,
and that the fancy of being so laid had much pleased him; for it was not
unlike the custom of his own race, who, after embalming a dead warrior,
stretched him out in his canoe, and so left him to be floated away to
the starry archipelagoes; for not only do they believe that the stars
are isles, but that far beyond all visible horizons, their own mild,
uncontinented seas, interflow with the blue heavens; and so form the
white breakers of the milky way. He added, that he shuddered at
the thought of being buried in his hammock, according to the usual
sea-custom, tossed like something vile to the death-devouring sharks.
No: he desired a canoe like those of Nantucket, all the more congenial
to him, being a whaleman, that like a whale-boat these coffin-canoes
were without a keel; though that involved but uncertain steering, and
much lee-way adown the dim ages.
Now, when this strange circumstance was made known aft, the carpenter
was at once commanded to do Queequeg's bidding, whatever it might
include. There was some heathenish, coffin-coloured old lumber aboard,
which, upon a long previous voyage, had been cut from the aboriginal
groves of the Lackaday islands, and from these dark planks the coffin
was recommended to be made. No sooner was the carpenter apprised of
the order, than taking his rule, he forthwith with all the indifferent
promptitude of his character, proceeded into the forecastle and took
Queequeg's measure with great accuracy, regularly chalking Queequeg's
person as he shifted the rule.
"Ah! poor fellow! he'll have to die now," ejaculated the Long Island
Going to his vice-bench, the carpenter for convenience sake and general
reference, now transferringly measured on it the exact length the coffin
was to be, and then made the transfer permanent by cutting two notches
at its extremities. This done, he marshalled the planks and his tools,
and to work.
When the last nail was driven, and the lid duly planed and fitted,
he lightly shouldered the coffin and went forward with it, inquiring
whether they were ready for it yet in that direction.
Overhearing the indignant but half-humorous cries with which the
people on deck began to drive the coffin away, Queequeg, to every one's
consternation, commanded that the thing should be instantly brought to
him, nor was there any denying him; seeing that, of all mortals, some
dying men are the most tyrannical; and certainly, since they will
shortly trouble us so little for evermore, the poor fellows ought to be
Leaning over in his hammock, Queequeg long regarded the coffin with
an attentive eye. He then called for his harpoon, had the wooden stock
drawn from it, and then had the iron part placed in the coffin along
with one of the paddles of his boat. All by his own request, also,
biscuits were then ranged round the sides within: a flask of fresh water
was placed at the head, and a small bag of woody earth scraped up in
the hold at the foot; and a piece of sail-cloth being rolled up for a
pillow, Queequeg now entreated to be lifted into his final bed, that he
might make trial of its comforts, if any it had. He lay without moving
a few minutes, then told one to go to his bag and bring out his little
god, Yojo. Then crossing his arms on his breast with Yojo between, he
called for the coffin lid (hatch he called it) to be placed over him.
The head part turned over with a leather hinge, and there lay Queequeg
in his coffin with little but his composed countenance in view. "Rarmai"
(it will do; it is easy), he murmured at last, and signed to be replaced
in his hammock.
But ere this was done, Pip, who had been slily hovering near by all this
while, drew nigh to him where he lay, and with soft sobbings, took him
by the hand; in the other, holding his tambourine.
"Poor rover! will ye never have done with all this weary roving? where
go ye now? But if the currents carry ye to those sweet Antilles where
the beaches are only beat with water-lilies, will ye do one little
errand for me? Seek out one Pip, who's now been missing long: I think
he's in those far Antilles. If ye find him, then comfort him; for he
must be very sad; for look! he's left his tambourine behind;--I found
it. Rig-a-dig, dig, dig! Now, Queequeg, die; and I'll beat ye your dying
"I have heard," murmured Starbuck, gazing down the scuttle, "that in
violent fevers, men, all ignorance, have talked in ancient tongues;
and that when the mystery is probed, it turns out always that in their
wholly forgotten childhood those ancient tongues had been really spoken
in their hearing by some lofty scholars. So, to my fond faith, poor Pip,
in this strange sweetness of his lunacy, brings heavenly vouchers of all
our heavenly homes. Where learned he that, but there?--Hark! he speaks
again: but more wildly now."
"Form two and two! Let's make a General of him! Ho, where's his harpoon?
Lay it across here.--Rig-a-dig, dig, dig! huzza! Oh for a game cock
now to sit upon his head and crow! Queequeg dies game!--mind ye that;
Queequeg dies game!--take ye good heed of that; Queequeg dies game! I
say; game, game, game! but base little Pip, he died a coward; died all
a'shiver;--out upon Pip! Hark ye; if ye find Pip, tell all the Antilles
he's a runaway; a coward, a coward, a coward! Tell them he jumped from
a whale-boat! I'd never beat my tambourine over base Pip, and hail
him General, if he were once more dying here. No, no! shame upon all
cowards--shame upon them! Let 'em go drown like Pip, that jumped from a
whale-boat. Shame! shame!"
During all this, Queequeg lay with closed eyes, as if in a dream. Pip
was led away, and the sick man was replaced in his hammock.
But now that he had apparently made every preparation for death; now
that his coffin was proved a good fit, Queequeg suddenly rallied; soon
there seemed no need of the carpenter's box: and thereupon, when some
expressed their delighted surprise, he, in substance, said, that the
cause of his sudden convalescence was this;--at a critical moment, he
had just recalled a little duty ashore, which he was leaving undone;
and therefore had changed his mind about dying: he could not die yet,
he averred. They asked him, then, whether to live or die was a matter of
his own sovereign will and pleasure. He answered, certainly. In a word,
it was Queequeg's conceit, that if a man made up his mind to live, mere
sickness could not kill him: nothing but a whale, or a gale, or some
violent, ungovernable, unintelligent destroyer of that sort.
Now, there is this noteworthy difference between savage and civilized;
that while a sick, civilized man may be six months convalescing,
generally speaking, a sick savage is almost half-well again in a day.
So, in good time my Queequeg gained strength; and at length after
sitting on the windlass for a few indolent days (but eating with a
vigorous appetite) he suddenly leaped to his feet, threw out his arms
and legs, gave himself a good stretching, yawned a little bit, and then
springing into the head of his hoisted boat, and poising a harpoon,
pronounced himself fit for a fight.
With a wild whimsiness, he now used his coffin for a sea-chest; and
emptying into it his canvas bag of clothes, set them in order there.
Many spare hours he spent, in carving the lid with all manner of
grotesque figures and drawings; and it seemed that hereby he was
striving, in his rude way, to copy parts of the twisted tattooing on
his body. And this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and
seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on
his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical
treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own
proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but
whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart
beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in
the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were
inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last. And this thought it must
have been which suggested to Ahab that wild exclamation of his, when
one morning turning away from surveying poor Queequeg--"Oh, devilish
tantalization of the gods!"