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Chapter 123: The Musket.


During the most violent shocks of the Typhoon, the man at the Pequod's
jaw-bone tiller had several times been reelingly hurled to the deck by
its spasmodic motions, even though preventer tackles had been attached
to it--for they were slack--because some play to the tiller was

In a severe gale like this, while the ship is but a tossed shuttlecock
to the blast, it is by no means uncommon to see the needles in the
compasses, at intervals, go round and round. It was thus with the
Pequod's; at almost every shock the helmsman had not failed to notice
the whirling velocity with which they revolved upon the cards; it is
a sight that hardly anyone can behold without some sort of unwonted

Some hours after midnight, the Typhoon abated so much, that through the
strenuous exertions of Starbuck and Stubb--one engaged forward and the
other aft--the shivered remnants of the jib and fore and main-top-sails
were cut adrift from the spars, and went eddying away to leeward, like
the feathers of an albatross, which sometimes are cast to the winds when
that storm-tossed bird is on the wing.

The three corresponding new sails were now bent and reefed, and a
storm-trysail was set further aft; so that the ship soon went through
the water with some precision again; and the course--for the present,
East-south-east--which he was to steer, if practicable, was once more
given to the helmsman. For during the violence of the gale, he had only
steered according to its vicissitudes. But as he was now bringing the
ship as near her course as possible, watching the compass meanwhile, lo!
a good sign! the wind seemed coming round astern; aye, the foul breeze
became fair!

Instantly the yards were squared, to the lively song of "HO! THE
FAIR WIND! OH-YE-HO, CHEERLY MEN!" the crew singing for joy, that so
promising an event should so soon have falsified the evil portents
preceding it.

In compliance with the standing order of his commander--to report
immediately, and at any one of the twenty-four hours, any decided change
in the affairs of the deck,--Starbuck had no sooner trimmed the yards to
the breeze--however reluctantly and gloomily,--than he mechanically went
below to apprise Captain Ahab of the circumstance.

Ere knocking at his state-room, he involuntarily paused before it
a moment. The cabin lamp--taking long swings this way and that--was
burning fitfully, and casting fitful shadows upon the old man's bolted
door,--a thin one, with fixed blinds inserted, in place of upper panels.
The isolated subterraneousness of the cabin made a certain humming
silence to reign there, though it was hooped round by all the roar of
the elements. The loaded muskets in the rack were shiningly revealed, as
they stood upright against the forward bulkhead. Starbuck was an honest,
upright man; but out of Starbuck's heart, at that instant when he saw
the muskets, there strangely evolved an evil thought; but so blent with
its neutral or good accompaniments that for the instant he hardly knew
it for itself.

"He would have shot me once," he murmured, "yes, there's the very musket
that he pointed at me;--that one with the studded stock; let me touch
it--lift it. Strange, that I, who have handled so many deadly lances,
strange, that I should shake so now. Loaded? I must see. Aye, aye; and
powder in the pan;--that's not good. Best spill it?--wait. I'll cure
myself of this. I'll hold the musket boldly while I think.--I come
to report a fair wind to him. But how fair? Fair for death and
doom,--THAT'S fair for Moby Dick. It's a fair wind that's only fair for
that accursed fish.--The very tube he pointed at me!--the very one;
THIS one--I hold it here; he would have killed me with the very thing I
handle now.--Aye and he would fain kill all his crew. Does he not say
he will not strike his spars to any gale? Has he not dashed his heavenly
quadrant? and in these same perilous seas, gropes he not his way by mere
dead reckoning of the error-abounding log? and in this very Typhoon, did
he not swear that he would have no lightning-rods? But shall this crazed
old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship's company down to doom
with him?--Yes, it would make him the wilful murderer of thirty men and
more, if this ship come to any deadly harm; and come to deadly harm, my
soul swears this ship will, if Ahab have his way. If, then, he were this
instant--put aside, that crime would not be his. Ha! is he muttering in
his sleep? Yes, just there,--in there, he's sleeping. Sleeping? aye,
but still alive, and soon awake again. I can't withstand thee, then, old
man. Not reasoning; not remonstrance; not entreaty wilt thou hearken to;
all this thou scornest. Flat obedience to thy own flat commands, this is
all thou breathest. Aye, and say'st the men have vow'd thy vow; say'st
all of us are Ahabs. Great God forbid!--But is there no other way? no
lawful way?--Make him a prisoner to be taken home? What! hope to wrest
this old man's living power from his own living hands? Only a fool
would try it. Say he were pinioned even; knotted all over with ropes
and hawsers; chained down to ring-bolts on this cabin floor; he would
be more hideous than a caged tiger, then. I could not endure the
sight; could not possibly fly his howlings; all comfort, sleep itself,
inestimable reason would leave me on the long intolerable voyage. What,
then, remains? The land is hundreds of leagues away, and locked Japan
the nearest. I stand alone here upon an open sea, with two oceans and
a whole continent between me and law.--Aye, aye, 'tis so.--Is heaven
a murderer when its lightning strikes a would-be murderer in his bed,
tindering sheets and skin together?--And would I be a murderer, then,
if"--and slowly, stealthily, and half sideways looking, he placed the
loaded musket's end against the door.

"On this level, Ahab's hammock swings within; his head this way. A
touch, and Starbuck may survive to hug his wife and child again.--Oh
Mary! Mary!--boy! boy! boy!--But if I wake thee not to death, old man,
who can tell to what unsounded deeps Starbuck's body this day week
may sink, with all the crew! Great God, where art Thou? Shall I? shall
I?--The wind has gone down and shifted, sir; the fore and main topsails
are reefed and set; she heads her course."

"Stern all! Oh Moby Dick, I clutch thy heart at last!"

Such were the sounds that now came hurtling from out the old man's
tormented sleep, as if Starbuck's voice had caused the long dumb dream
to speak.

The yet levelled musket shook like a drunkard's arm against the panel;
Starbuck seemed wrestling with an angel; but turning from the door, he
placed the death-tube in its rack, and left the place.

"He's too sound asleep, Mr. Stubb; go thou down, and wake him, and tell
him. I must see to the deck here. Thou know'st what to say."