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Chapter 118: The Quadrant.


The season for the Line at length drew near; and every day when Ahab,
coming from his cabin, cast his eyes aloft, the vigilant helmsman would
ostentatiously handle his spokes, and the eager mariners quickly run to
the braces, and would stand there with all their eyes centrally fixed
on the nailed doubloon; impatient for the order to point the ship's
prow for the equator. In good time the order came. It was hard upon high
noon; and Ahab, seated in the bows of his high-hoisted boat, was
about taking his wonted daily observation of the sun to determine his

Now, in that Japanese sea, the days in summer are as freshets of
effulgences. That unblinkingly vivid Japanese sun seems the blazing
focus of the glassy ocean's immeasurable burning-glass. The sky looks
lacquered; clouds there are none; the horizon floats; and this nakedness
of unrelieved radiance is as the insufferable splendors of God's throne.
Well that Ahab's quadrant was furnished with coloured glasses, through
which to take sight of that solar fire. So, swinging his seated form
to the roll of the ship, and with his astrological-looking instrument
placed to his eye, he remained in that posture for some moments to
catch the precise instant when the sun should gain its precise meridian.
Meantime while his whole attention was absorbed, the Parsee was kneeling
beneath him on the ship's deck, and with face thrown up like Ahab's,
was eyeing the same sun with him; only the lids of his eyes half hooded
their orbs, and his wild face was subdued to an earthly passionlessness.
At length the desired observation was taken; and with his pencil upon
his ivory leg, Ahab soon calculated what his latitude must be at that
precise instant. Then falling into a moment's revery, he again looked up
towards the sun and murmured to himself: "Thou sea-mark! thou high and
mighty Pilot! thou tellest me truly where I AM--but canst thou cast the
least hint where I SHALL be? Or canst thou tell where some other thing
besides me is this moment living? Where is Moby Dick? This instant thou
must be eyeing him. These eyes of mine look into the very eye that is
even now beholding him; aye, and into the eye that is even now equally
beholding the objects on the unknown, thither side of thee, thou sun!"

Then gazing at his quadrant, and handling, one after the other, its
numerous cabalistical contrivances, he pondered again, and muttered:
"Foolish toy! babies' plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and
Captains; the world brags of thee, of thy cunning and might; but what
after all canst thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou
thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds
thee: no! not one jot more! Thou canst not tell where one drop of water
or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet with thy impotence
thou insultest the sun! Science! Curse thee, thou vain toy; and cursed
be all the things that cast man's eyes aloft to that heaven, whose live
vividness but scorches him, as these old eyes are even now scorched
with thy light, O sun! Level by nature to this earth's horizon are the
glances of man's eyes; not shot from the crown of his head, as if God
had meant him to gaze on his firmament. Curse thee, thou quadrant!"
dashing it to the deck, "no longer will I guide my earthly way by thee;
the level ship's compass, and the level deadreckoning, by log and by
line; THESE shall conduct me, and show me my place on the sea. Aye,"
lighting from the boat to the deck, "thus I trample on thee, thou paltry
thing that feebly pointest on high; thus I split and destroy thee!"

As the frantic old man thus spoke and thus trampled with his live
and dead feet, a sneering triumph that seemed meant for Ahab, and a
fatalistic despair that seemed meant for himself--these passed over
the mute, motionless Parsee's face. Unobserved he rose and glided away;
while, awestruck by the aspect of their commander, the seamen clustered
together on the forecastle, till Ahab, troubledly pacing the deck,
shouted out--"To the braces! Up helm!--square in!"

In an instant the yards swung round; and as the ship half-wheeled upon
her heel, her three firm-seated graceful masts erectly poised upon
her long, ribbed hull, seemed as the three Horatii pirouetting on one
sufficient steed.

Standing between the knight-heads, Starbuck watched the Pequod's
tumultuous way, and Ahab's also, as he went lurching along the deck.

"I have sat before the dense coal fire and watched it all aglow, full of
its tormented flaming life; and I have seen it wane at last, down, down,
to dumbest dust. Old man of oceans! of all this fiery life of thine,
what will at length remain but one little heap of ashes!"

"Aye," cried Stubb, "but sea-coal ashes--mind ye that, Mr.
Starbuck--sea-coal, not your common charcoal. Well, well; I heard Ahab
mutter, 'Here some one thrusts these cards into these old hands of mine;
swears that I must play them, and no others.' And damn me, Ahab, but
thou actest right; live in the game, and die in it!"