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Chapter 112: The Blacksmith.

	


Availing himself of the mild, summer-cool weather that now reigned in
these latitudes, and in preparation for the peculiarly active
pursuits shortly to be anticipated, Perth, the begrimed, blistered old
blacksmith, had not removed his portable forge to the hold again, after
concluding his contributory work for Ahab's leg, but still retained
it on deck, fast lashed to ringbolts by the foremast; being now almost
incessantly invoked by the headsmen, and harpooneers, and bowsmen to do
some little job for them; altering, or repairing, or new shaping their
various weapons and boat furniture. Often he would be surrounded by an
eager circle, all waiting to be served; holding boat-spades, pike-heads,
harpoons, and lances, and jealously watching his every sooty movement,
as he toiled. Nevertheless, this old man's was a patient hammer wielded
by a patient arm. No murmur, no impatience, no petulance did come from
him. Silent, slow, and solemn; bowing over still further his chronically
broken back, he toiled away, as if toil were life itself, and the
heavy beating of his hammer the heavy beating of his heart. And so it
was.--Most miserable!

A peculiar walk in this old man, a certain slight but painful appearing
yawing in his gait, had at an early period of the voyage excited the
curiosity of the mariners. And to the importunity of their persisted
questionings he had finally given in; and so it came to pass that every
one now knew the shameful story of his wretched fate.

Belated, and not innocently, one bitter winter's midnight, on the road
running between two country towns, the blacksmith half-stupidly felt
the deadly numbness stealing over him, and sought refuge in a leaning,
dilapidated barn. The issue was, the loss of the extremities of both
feet. Out of this revelation, part by part, at last came out the four
acts of the gladness, and the one long, and as yet uncatastrophied fifth
act of the grief of his life's drama.

He was an old man, who, at the age of nearly sixty, had postponedly
encountered that thing in sorrow's technicals called ruin. He had been
an artisan of famed excellence, and with plenty to do; owned a house
and garden; embraced a youthful, daughter-like, loving wife, and three
blithe, ruddy children; every Sunday went to a cheerful-looking church,
planted in a grove. But one night, under cover of darkness, and further
concealed in a most cunning disguisement, a desperate burglar slid into
his happy home, and robbed them all of everything. And darker yet to
tell, the blacksmith himself did ignorantly conduct this burglar into
his family's heart. It was the Bottle Conjuror! Upon the opening of that
fatal cork, forth flew the fiend, and shrivelled up his home. Now, for
prudent, most wise, and economic reasons, the blacksmith's shop was in
the basement of his dwelling, but with a separate entrance to it; so
that always had the young and loving healthy wife listened with no
unhappy nervousness, but with vigorous pleasure, to the stout ringing of
her young-armed old husband's hammer; whose reverberations, muffled by
passing through the floors and walls, came up to her, not unsweetly,
in her nursery; and so, to stout Labor's iron lullaby, the blacksmith's
infants were rocked to slumber.

Oh, woe on woe! Oh, Death, why canst thou not sometimes be timely? Hadst
thou taken this old blacksmith to thyself ere his full ruin came upon
him, then had the young widow had a delicious grief, and her orphans a
truly venerable, legendary sire to dream of in their after years; and
all of them a care-killing competency. But Death plucked down some
virtuous elder brother, on whose whistling daily toil solely hung the
responsibilities of some other family, and left the worse than useless
old man standing, till the hideous rot of life should make him easier to
harvest.

Why tell the whole? The blows of the basement hammer every day grew more
and more between; and each blow every day grew fainter than the last;
the wife sat frozen at the window, with tearless eyes, glitteringly
gazing into the weeping faces of her children; the bellows fell; the
forge choked up with cinders; the house was sold; the mother dived
down into the long church-yard grass; her children twice followed her
thither; and the houseless, familyless old man staggered off a vagabond
in crape; his every woe unreverenced; his grey head a scorn to flaxen
curls!

Death seems the only desirable sequel for a career like this; but Death
is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried; it is but
the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the
Wild, the Watery, the Unshored; therefore, to the death-longing eyes of
such men, who still have left in them some interior compunctions against
suicide, does the all-contributed and all-receptive ocean alluringly
spread forth his whole plain of unimaginable, taking terrors, and
wonderful, new-life adventures; and from the hearts of infinite
Pacifics, the thousand mermaids sing to them--"Come hither,
broken-hearted; here is another life without the guilt of intermediate
death; here are wonders supernatural, without dying for them. Come
hither! bury thyself in a life which, to your now equally abhorred and
abhorring, landed world, is more oblivious than death. Come hither! put
up THY gravestone, too, within the churchyard, and come hither, till we
marry thee!"

Hearkening to these voices, East and West, by early sunrise, and by fall
of eve, the blacksmith's soul responded, Aye, I come! And so Perth went
a-whaling.