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Chapter 26: Knights and Squires.


The chief mate of the Pequod was Starbuck, a native of Nantucket, and a
Quaker by descent. He was a long, earnest man, and though born on an icy
coast, seemed well adapted to endure hot latitudes, his flesh being hard
as twice-baked biscuit. Transported to the Indies, his live blood would
not spoil like bottled ale. He must have been born in some time of
general drought and famine, or upon one of those fast days for which
his state is famous. Only some thirty arid summers had he seen; those
summers had dried up all his physical superfluousness. But this, his
thinness, so to speak, seemed no more the token of wasting anxieties and
cares, than it seemed the indication of any bodily blight. It was merely
the condensation of the man. He was by no means ill-looking; quite the
contrary. His pure tight skin was an excellent fit; and closely wrapped
up in it, and embalmed with inner health and strength, like a revivified
Egyptian, this Starbuck seemed prepared to endure for long ages to come,
and to endure always, as now; for be it Polar snow or torrid sun, like
a patent chronometer, his interior vitality was warranted to do well
in all climates. Looking into his eyes, you seemed to see there the yet
lingering images of those thousand-fold perils he had calmly confronted
through life. A staid, steadfast man, whose life for the most part was a
telling pantomime of action, and not a tame chapter of sounds. Yet, for
all his hardy sobriety and fortitude, there were certain qualities
in him which at times affected, and in some cases seemed well nigh to
overbalance all the rest. Uncommonly conscientious for a seaman, and
endued with a deep natural reverence, the wild watery loneliness of his
life did therefore strongly incline him to superstition; but to that
sort of superstition, which in some organizations seems rather to
spring, somehow, from intelligence than from ignorance. Outward portents
and inward presentiments were his. And if at times these things bent the
welded iron of his soul, much more did his far-away domestic memories
of his young Cape wife and child, tend to bend him still more from the
original ruggedness of his nature, and open him still further to those
latent influences which, in some honest-hearted men, restrain the gush
of dare-devil daring, so often evinced by others in the more perilous
vicissitudes of the fishery. "I will have no man in my boat," said
Starbuck, "who is not afraid of a whale." By this, he seemed to mean,
not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises
from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly
fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.

"Aye, aye," said Stubb, the second mate, "Starbuck, there, is as careful
a man as you'll find anywhere in this fishery." But we shall ere long
see what that word "careful" precisely means when used by a man like
Stubb, or almost any other whale hunter.

Starbuck was no crusader after perils; in him courage was not a
sentiment; but a thing simply useful to him, and always at hand upon all
mortally practical occasions. Besides, he thought, perhaps, that in this
business of whaling, courage was one of the great staple outfits of
the ship, like her beef and her bread, and not to be foolishly wasted.
Wherefore he had no fancy for lowering for whales after sun-down; nor
for persisting in fighting a fish that too much persisted in fighting
him. For, thought Starbuck, I am here in this critical ocean to kill
whales for my living, and not to be killed by them for theirs; and that
hundreds of men had been so killed Starbuck well knew. What doom was
his own father's? Where, in the bottomless deeps, could he find the torn
limbs of his brother?

With memories like these in him, and, moreover, given to a certain
superstitiousness, as has been said; the courage of this Starbuck which
could, nevertheless, still flourish, must indeed have been extreme. But
it was not in reasonable nature that a man so organized, and with such
terrible experiences and remembrances as he had; it was not in nature
that these things should fail in latently engendering an element in
him, which, under suitable circumstances, would break out from its
confinement, and burn all his courage up. And brave as he might be, it
was that sort of bravery chiefly, visible in some intrepid men, which,
while generally abiding firm in the conflict with seas, or winds, or
whales, or any of the ordinary irrational horrors of the world, yet
cannot withstand those more terrific, because more spiritual terrors,
which sometimes menace you from the concentrating brow of an enraged and
mighty man.

But were the coming narrative to reveal in any instance, the complete
abasement of poor Starbuck's fortitude, scarce might I have the heart to
write it; for it is a thing most sorrowful, nay shocking, to expose
the fall of valour in the soul. Men may seem detestable as joint
stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be;
men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble
and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any
ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their
costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves,
so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character
seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of
a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight,
completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this
august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but
that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it
shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic
dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The
great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His
omnipresence, our divine equality!

If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall
hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic
graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them
all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch
that workman's arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow
over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear
me out in it, thou Just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal
mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great
democratic God! who didst not refuse to the swart convict, Bunyan, the
pale, poetic pearl; Thou who didst clothe with doubly hammered leaves
of finest gold, the stumped and paupered arm of old Cervantes; Thou who
didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a
war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne! Thou who, in all
Thy mighty, earthly marchings, ever cullest Thy selectest champions from
the kingly commons; bear me out in it, O God!