Chapter 47: The Mat-Maker.
It was a cloudy, sultry afternoon; the seamen were lazily lounging
about the decks, or vacantly gazing over into the lead-coloured waters.
Queequeg and I were mildly employed weaving what is called a sword-mat,
for an additional lashing to our boat. So still and subdued and yet
somehow preluding was all the scene, and such an incantation of reverie
lurked in the air, that each silent sailor seemed resolved into his own
I was the attendant or page of Queequeg, while busy at the mat. As I
kept passing and repassing the filling or woof of marline between
the long yarns of the warp, using my own hand for the shuttle, and as
Queequeg, standing sideways, ever and anon slid his heavy oaken sword
between the threads, and idly looking off upon the water, carelessly and
unthinkingly drove home every yarn: I say so strange a dreaminess did
there then reign all over the ship and all over the sea, only broken by
the intermitting dull sound of the sword, that it seemed as if this were
the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving
and weaving away at the Fates. There lay the fixed threads of the warp
subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and
that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending
of other threads with its own. This warp seemed necessity; and here,
thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own
destiny into these unalterable threads. Meantime, Queequeg's impulsive,
indifferent sword, sometimes hitting the woof slantingly, or crookedly,
or strongly, or weakly, as the case might be; and by this difference
in the concluding blow producing a corresponding contrast in the final
aspect of the completed fabric; this savage's sword, thought I,
which thus finally shapes and fashions both warp and woof; this
easy, indifferent sword must be chance--aye, chance, free will, and
necessity--nowise incompatible--all interweavingly working together.
The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate
course--its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that;
free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and
chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of
necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though
thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the
last featuring blow at events.
Thus we were weaving and weaving away when I started at a sound so
strange, long drawn, and musically wild and unearthly, that the ball
of free will dropped from my hand, and I stood gazing up at the clouds
whence that voice dropped like a wing. High aloft in the cross-trees was
that mad Gay-Header, Tashtego. His body was reaching eagerly forward,
his hand stretched out like a wand, and at brief sudden intervals he
continued his cries. To be sure the same sound was that very moment
perhaps being heard all over the seas, from hundreds of whalemen's
look-outs perched as high in the air; but from few of those lungs could
that accustomed old cry have derived such a marvellous cadence as from
Tashtego the Indian's.
As he stood hovering over you half suspended in air, so wildly and
eagerly peering towards the horizon, you would have thought him some
prophet or seer beholding the shadows of Fate, and by those wild cries
announcing their coming.
"There she blows! there! there! there! she blows! she blows!"
"On the lee-beam, about two miles off! a school of them!"
Instantly all was commotion.
The Sperm Whale blows as a clock ticks, with the same undeviating and
reliable uniformity. And thereby whalemen distinguish this fish from
other tribes of his genus.
"There go flukes!" was now the cry from Tashtego; and the whales
"Quick, steward!" cried Ahab. "Time! time!"
Dough-Boy hurried below, glanced at the watch, and reported the exact
minute to Ahab.
The ship was now kept away from the wind, and she went gently rolling
before it. Tashtego reporting that the whales had gone down heading to
leeward, we confidently looked to see them again directly in advance of
our bows. For that singular craft at times evinced by the Sperm Whale
when, sounding with his head in one direction, he nevertheless, while
concealed beneath the surface, mills round, and swiftly swims off in the
opposite quarter--this deceitfulness of his could not now be in action;
for there was no reason to suppose that the fish seen by Tashtego had
been in any way alarmed, or indeed knew at all of our vicinity. One of
the men selected for shipkeepers--that is, those not appointed to the
boats, by this time relieved the Indian at the main-mast head. The
sailors at the fore and mizzen had come down; the line tubs were fixed
in their places; the cranes were thrust out; the mainyard was backed,
and the three boats swung over the sea like three samphire baskets over
high cliffs. Outside of the bulwarks their eager crews with one hand
clung to the rail, while one foot was expectantly poised on the gunwale.
So look the long line of man-of-war's men about to throw themselves on
board an enemy's ship.
But at this critical instant a sudden exclamation was heard that took
every eye from the whale. With a start all glared at dark Ahab, who was
surrounded by five dusky phantoms that seemed fresh formed out of air.