Chapter 48: The First Lowering.
The phantoms, for so they then seemed, were flitting on the other side
of the deck, and, with a noiseless celerity, were casting loose the
tackles and bands of the boat which swung there. This boat had always
been deemed one of the spare boats, though technically called the
captain's, on account of its hanging from the starboard quarter. The
figure that now stood by its bows was tall and swart, with one white
tooth evilly protruding from its steel-like lips. A rumpled Chinese
jacket of black cotton funereally invested him, with wide black trowsers
of the same dark stuff. But strangely crowning this ebonness was a
glistening white plaited turban, the living hair braided and coiled
round and round upon his head. Less swart in aspect, the companions of
this figure were of that vivid, tiger-yellow complexion peculiar to
some of the aboriginal natives of the Manillas;--a race notorious for
a certain diabolism of subtilty, and by some honest white mariners
supposed to be the paid spies and secret confidential agents on the
water of the devil, their lord, whose counting-room they suppose to be
While yet the wondering ship's company were gazing upon these strangers,
Ahab cried out to the white-turbaned old man at their head, "All ready
"Ready," was the half-hissed reply.
"Lower away then; d'ye hear?" shouting across the deck. "Lower away
there, I say."
Such was the thunder of his voice, that spite of their amazement the men
sprang over the rail; the sheaves whirled round in the blocks; with a
wallow, the three boats dropped into the sea; while, with a dexterous,
off-handed daring, unknown in any other vocation, the sailors,
goat-like, leaped down the rolling ship's side into the tossed boats
Hardly had they pulled out from under the ship's lee, when a fourth
keel, coming from the windward side, pulled round under the stern, and
showed the five strangers rowing Ahab, who, standing erect in the stern,
loudly hailed Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask, to spread themselves widely,
so as to cover a large expanse of water. But with all their eyes again
riveted upon the swart Fedallah and his crew, the inmates of the other
boats obeyed not the command.
"Captain Ahab?--" said Starbuck.
"Spread yourselves," cried Ahab; "give way, all four boats. Thou, Flask,
pull out more to leeward!"
"Aye, aye, sir," cheerily cried little King-Post, sweeping round
his great steering oar. "Lay back!" addressing his crew.
"There!--there!--there again! There she blows right ahead, boys!--lay
"Never heed yonder yellow boys, Archy."
"Oh, I don't mind'em, sir," said Archy; "I knew it all before now.
Didn't I hear 'em in the hold? And didn't I tell Cabaco here of it? What
say ye, Cabaco? They are stowaways, Mr. Flask."
"Pull, pull, my fine hearts-alive; pull, my children; pull, my little
ones," drawlingly and soothingly sighed Stubb to his crew, some of whom
still showed signs of uneasiness. "Why don't you break your backbones,
my boys? What is it you stare at? Those chaps in yonder boat? Tut! They
are only five more hands come to help us--never mind from where--the
more the merrier. Pull, then, do pull; never mind the brimstone--devils
are good fellows enough. So, so; there you are now; that's the stroke
for a thousand pounds; that's the stroke to sweep the stakes! Hurrah
for the gold cup of sperm oil, my heroes! Three cheers, men--all hearts
alive! Easy, easy; don't be in a hurry--don't be in a hurry. Why don't
you snap your oars, you rascals? Bite something, you dogs! So, so, so,
then:--softly, softly! That's it--that's it! long and strong. Give way
there, give way! The devil fetch ye, ye ragamuffin rapscallions; ye are
all asleep. Stop snoring, ye sleepers, and pull. Pull, will ye? pull,
can't ye? pull, won't ye? Why in the name of gudgeons and ginger-cakes
don't ye pull?--pull and break something! pull, and start your eyes out!
Here!" whipping out the sharp knife from his girdle; "every mother's son
of ye draw his knife, and pull with the blade between his teeth. That's
it--that's it. Now ye do something; that looks like it, my steel-bits.
Start her--start her, my silver-spoons! Start her, marling-spikes!"
Stubb's exordium to his crew is given here at large, because he had
rather a peculiar way of talking to them in general, and especially in
inculcating the religion of rowing. But you must not suppose from this
specimen of his sermonizings that he ever flew into downright passions
with his congregation. Not at all; and therein consisted his chief
peculiarity. He would say the most terrific things to his crew, in a
tone so strangely compounded of fun and fury, and the fury seemed so
calculated merely as a spice to the fun, that no oarsman could hear such
queer invocations without pulling for dear life, and yet pulling for
the mere joke of the thing. Besides he all the time looked so easy and
indolent himself, so loungingly managed his steering-oar, and so broadly
gaped--open-mouthed at times--that the mere sight of such a yawning
commander, by sheer force of contrast, acted like a charm upon the crew.
Then again, Stubb was one of those odd sort of humorists, whose jollity
is sometimes so curiously ambiguous, as to put all inferiors on their
guard in the matter of obeying them.
In obedience to a sign from Ahab, Starbuck was now pulling obliquely
across Stubb's bow; and when for a minute or so the two boats were
pretty near to each other, Stubb hailed the mate.
"Mr. Starbuck! larboard boat there, ahoy! a word with ye, sir, if ye
"Halloa!" returned Starbuck, turning round not a single inch as he
spoke; still earnestly but whisperingly urging his crew; his face set
like a flint from Stubb's.
"What think ye of those yellow boys, sir!
"Smuggled on board, somehow, before the ship sailed. (Strong, strong,
boys!)" in a whisper to his crew, then speaking out loud again: "A sad
business, Mr. Stubb! (seethe her, seethe her, my lads!) but never mind,
Mr. Stubb, all for the best. Let all your crew pull strong, come what
will. (Spring, my men, spring!) There's hogsheads of sperm ahead, Mr.
Stubb, and that's what ye came for. (Pull, my boys!) Sperm, sperm's the
play! This at least is duty; duty and profit hand in hand."
"Aye, aye, I thought as much," soliloquized Stubb, when the boats
diverged, "as soon as I clapt eye on 'em, I thought so. Aye, and that's
what he went into the after hold for, so often, as Dough-Boy long
suspected. They were hidden down there. The White Whale's at the bottom
of it. Well, well, so be it! Can't be helped! All right! Give way, men!
It ain't the White Whale to-day! Give way!"
Now the advent of these outlandish strangers at such a critical instant
as the lowering of the boats from the deck, this had not unreasonably
awakened a sort of superstitious amazement in some of the ship's
company; but Archy's fancied discovery having some time previous got
abroad among them, though indeed not credited then, this had in some
small measure prepared them for the event. It took off the extreme edge
of their wonder; and so what with all this and Stubb's confident way
of accounting for their appearance, they were for the time freed from
superstitious surmisings; though the affair still left abundant room for
all manner of wild conjectures as to dark Ahab's precise agency in the
matter from the beginning. For me, I silently recalled the mysterious
shadows I had seen creeping on board the Pequod during the dim Nantucket
dawn, as well as the enigmatical hintings of the unaccountable Elijah.
Meantime, Ahab, out of hearing of his officers, having sided the
furthest to windward, was still ranging ahead of the other boats; a
circumstance bespeaking how potent a crew was pulling him. Those tiger
yellow creatures of his seemed all steel and whalebone; like five
trip-hammers they rose and fell with regular strokes of strength, which
periodically started the boat along the water like a horizontal burst
boiler out of a Mississippi steamer. As for Fedallah, who was seen
pulling the harpooneer oar, he had thrown aside his black jacket, and
displayed his naked chest with the whole part of his body above the
gunwale, clearly cut against the alternating depressions of the watery
horizon; while at the other end of the boat Ahab, with one arm, like a
fencer's, thrown half backward into the air, as if to counterbalance any
tendency to trip; Ahab was seen steadily managing his steering oar as in
a thousand boat lowerings ere the White Whale had torn him. All at once
the outstretched arm gave a peculiar motion and then remained fixed,
while the boat's five oars were seen simultaneously peaked. Boat and
crew sat motionless on the sea. Instantly the three spread boats in the
rear paused on their way. The whales had irregularly settled bodily
down into the blue, thus giving no distantly discernible token of the
movement, though from his closer vicinity Ahab had observed it.
"Every man look out along his oars!" cried Starbuck. "Thou, Queequeg,
Nimbly springing up on the triangular raised box in the bow, the savage
stood erect there, and with intensely eager eyes gazed off towards the
spot where the chase had last been descried. Likewise upon the extreme
stern of the boat where it was also triangularly platformed level with
the gunwale, Starbuck himself was seen coolly and adroitly balancing
himself to the jerking tossings of his chip of a craft, and silently
eyeing the vast blue eye of the sea.
Not very far distant Flask's boat was also lying breathlessly still; its
commander recklessly standing upon the top of the loggerhead, a stout
sort of post rooted in the keel, and rising some two feet above the
level of the stern platform. It is used for catching turns with the
whale line. Its top is not more spacious than the palm of a man's hand,
and standing upon such a base as that, Flask seemed perched at the
mast-head of some ship which had sunk to all but her trucks. But little
King-Post was small and short, and at the same time little King-Post was
full of a large and tall ambition, so that this loggerhead stand-point
of his did by no means satisfy King-Post.
"I can't see three seas off; tip us up an oar there, and let me on to
Upon this, Daggoo, with either hand upon the gunwale to steady his
way, swiftly slid aft, and then erecting himself volunteered his lofty
shoulders for a pedestal.
"Good a mast-head as any, sir. Will you mount?"
"That I will, and thank ye very much, my fine fellow; only I wish you
fifty feet taller."
Whereupon planting his feet firmly against two opposite planks of the
boat, the gigantic negro, stooping a little, presented his flat palm to
Flask's foot, and then putting Flask's hand on his hearse-plumed head
and bidding him spring as he himself should toss, with one dexterous
fling landed the little man high and dry on his shoulders. And here was
Flask now standing, Daggoo with one lifted arm furnishing him with a
breastband to lean against and steady himself by.
At any time it is a strange sight to the tyro to see with what wondrous
habitude of unconscious skill the whaleman will maintain an erect
posture in his boat, even when pitched about by the most riotously
perverse and cross-running seas. Still more strange to see him giddily
perched upon the loggerhead itself, under such circumstances. But the
sight of little Flask mounted upon gigantic Daggoo was yet more curious;
for sustaining himself with a cool, indifferent, easy, unthought of,
barbaric majesty, the noble negro to every roll of the sea harmoniously
rolled his fine form. On his broad back, flaxen-haired Flask seemed
a snow-flake. The bearer looked nobler than the rider. Though truly
vivacious, tumultuous, ostentatious little Flask would now and then
stamp with impatience; but not one added heave did he thereby give to
the negro's lordly chest. So have I seen Passion and Vanity stamping the
living magnanimous earth, but the earth did not alter her tides and her
seasons for that.
Meanwhile Stubb, the third mate, betrayed no such far-gazing
solicitudes. The whales might have made one of their regular soundings,
not a temporary dive from mere fright; and if that were the case,
Stubb, as his wont in such cases, it seems, was resolved to solace the
languishing interval with his pipe. He withdrew it from his hatband,
where he always wore it aslant like a feather. He loaded it, and rammed
home the loading with his thumb-end; but hardly had he ignited his match
across the rough sandpaper of his hand, when Tashtego, his harpooneer,
whose eyes had been setting to windward like two fixed stars, suddenly
dropped like light from his erect attitude to his seat, crying out in a
quick phrensy of hurry, "Down, down all, and give way!--there they are!"
To a landsman, no whale, nor any sign of a herring, would have been
visible at that moment; nothing but a troubled bit of greenish white
water, and thin scattered puffs of vapour hovering over it, and
suffusingly blowing off to leeward, like the confused scud from white
rolling billows. The air around suddenly vibrated and tingled, as it
were, like the air over intensely heated plates of iron. Beneath this
atmospheric waving and curling, and partially beneath a thin layer of
water, also, the whales were swimming. Seen in advance of all the other
indications, the puffs of vapour they spouted, seemed their forerunning
couriers and detached flying outriders.
All four boats were now in keen pursuit of that one spot of troubled
water and air. But it bade fair to outstrip them; it flew on and on,
as a mass of interblending bubbles borne down a rapid stream from the
"Pull, pull, my good boys," said Starbuck, in the lowest possible but
intensest concentrated whisper to his men; while the sharp fixed glance
from his eyes darted straight ahead of the bow, almost seemed as two
visible needles in two unerring binnacle compasses. He did not say much
to his crew, though, nor did his crew say anything to him. Only the
silence of the boat was at intervals startlingly pierced by one of his
peculiar whispers, now harsh with command, now soft with entreaty.
How different the loud little King-Post. "Sing out and say something,
my hearties. Roar and pull, my thunderbolts! Beach me, beach me on their
black backs, boys; only do that for me, and I'll sign over to you my
Martha's Vineyard plantation, boys; including wife and children, boys.
Lay me on--lay me on! O Lord, Lord! but I shall go stark, staring mad!
See! see that white water!" And so shouting, he pulled his hat from his
head, and stamped up and down on it; then picking it up, flirted it far
off upon the sea; and finally fell to rearing and plunging in the boat's
stern like a crazed colt from the prairie.
"Look at that chap now," philosophically drawled Stubb, who, with his
unlighted short pipe, mechanically retained between his teeth, at a
short distance, followed after--"He's got fits, that Flask has. Fits?
yes, give him fits--that's the very word--pitch fits into 'em. Merrily,
merrily, hearts-alive. Pudding for supper, you know;--merry's the word.
Pull, babes--pull, sucklings--pull, all. But what the devil are you
hurrying about? Softly, softly, and steadily, my men. Only pull, and
keep pulling; nothing more. Crack all your backbones, and bite your
knives in two--that's all. Take it easy--why don't ye take it easy, I
say, and burst all your livers and lungs!"
But what it was that inscrutable Ahab said to that tiger-yellow crew of
his--these were words best omitted here; for you live under the blessed
light of the evangelical land. Only the infidel sharks in the audacious
seas may give ear to such words, when, with tornado brow, and eyes of
red murder, and foam-glued lips, Ahab leaped after his prey.
Meanwhile, all the boats tore on. The repeated specific allusions of
Flask to "that whale," as he called the fictitious monster which
he declared to be incessantly tantalizing his boat's bow with its
tail--these allusions of his were at times so vivid and life-like, that
they would cause some one or two of his men to snatch a fearful look
over the shoulder. But this was against all rule; for the oarsmen
must put out their eyes, and ram a skewer through their necks; usage
pronouncing that they must have no organs but ears, and no limbs but
arms, in these critical moments.
It was a sight full of quick wonder and awe! The vast swells of the
omnipotent sea; the surging, hollow roar they made, as they rolled along
the eight gunwales, like gigantic bowls in a boundless bowling-green;
the brief suspended agony of the boat, as it would tip for an instant on
the knife-like edge of the sharper waves, that almost seemed threatening
to cut it in two; the sudden profound dip into the watery glens and
hollows; the keen spurrings and goadings to gain the top of the opposite
hill; the headlong, sled-like slide down its other side;--all these,
with the cries of the headsmen and harpooneers, and the shuddering gasps
of the oarsmen, with the wondrous sight of the ivory Pequod bearing
down upon her boats with outstretched sails, like a wild hen after her
screaming brood;--all this was thrilling.
Not the raw recruit, marching from the bosom of his wife into the fever
heat of his first battle; not the dead man's ghost encountering the
first unknown phantom in the other world;--neither of these can feel
stranger and stronger emotions than that man does, who for the first
time finds himself pulling into the charmed, churned circle of the
hunted sperm whale.
The dancing white water made by the chase was now becoming more and more
visible, owing to the increasing darkness of the dun cloud-shadows
flung upon the sea. The jets of vapour no longer blended, but tilted
everywhere to right and left; the whales seemed separating their wakes.
The boats were pulled more apart; Starbuck giving chase to three whales
running dead to leeward. Our sail was now set, and, with the still
rising wind, we rushed along; the boat going with such madness through
the water, that the lee oars could scarcely be worked rapidly enough to
escape being torn from the row-locks.
Soon we were running through a suffusing wide veil of mist; neither ship
nor boat to be seen.
"Give way, men," whispered Starbuck, drawing still further aft the sheet
of his sail; "there is time to kill a fish yet before the squall comes.
There's white water again!--close to! Spring!"
Soon after, two cries in quick succession on each side of us denoted
that the other boats had got fast; but hardly were they overheard, when
with a lightning-like hurtling whisper Starbuck said: "Stand up!" and
Queequeg, harpoon in hand, sprang to his feet.
Though not one of the oarsmen was then facing the life and death peril
so close to them ahead, yet with their eyes on the intense countenance
of the mate in the stern of the boat, they knew that the imminent
instant had come; they heard, too, an enormous wallowing sound as of
fifty elephants stirring in their litter. Meanwhile the boat was still
booming through the mist, the waves curling and hissing around us like
the erected crests of enraged serpents.
"That's his hump. THERE, THERE, give it to him!" whispered Starbuck.
A short rushing sound leaped out of the boat; it was the darted iron of
Queequeg. Then all in one welded commotion came an invisible push from
astern, while forward the boat seemed striking on a ledge; the sail
collapsed and exploded; a gush of scalding vapour shot up near by;
something rolled and tumbled like an earthquake beneath us. The whole
crew were half suffocated as they were tossed helter-skelter into the
white curdling cream of the squall. Squall, whale, and harpoon had all
blended together; and the whale, merely grazed by the iron, escaped.
Though completely swamped, the boat was nearly unharmed. Swimming round
it we picked up the floating oars, and lashing them across the gunwale,
tumbled back to our places. There we sat up to our knees in the sea, the
water covering every rib and plank, so that to our downward gazing eyes
the suspended craft seemed a coral boat grown up to us from the bottom
of the ocean.
The wind increased to a howl; the waves dashed their bucklers together;
the whole squall roared, forked, and crackled around us like a white
fire upon the prairie, in which, unconsumed, we were burning; immortal
in these jaws of death! In vain we hailed the other boats; as well roar
to the live coals down the chimney of a flaming furnace as hail those
boats in that storm. Meanwhile the driving scud, rack, and mist, grew
darker with the shadows of night; no sign of the ship could be seen.
The rising sea forbade all attempts to bale out the boat. The oars were
useless as propellers, performing now the office of life-preservers.
So, cutting the lashing of the waterproof match keg, after many failures
Starbuck contrived to ignite the lamp in the lantern; then stretching
it on a waif pole, handed it to Queequeg as the standard-bearer of this
forlorn hope. There, then, he sat, holding up that imbecile candle in
the heart of that almighty forlornness. There, then, he sat, the sign
and symbol of a man without faith, hopelessly holding up hope in the
midst of despair.
Wet, drenched through, and shivering cold, despairing of ship or boat,
we lifted up our eyes as the dawn came on. The mist still spread over
the sea, the empty lantern lay crushed in the bottom of the boat.
Suddenly Queequeg started to his feet, hollowing his hand to his ear.
We all heard a faint creaking, as of ropes and yards hitherto muffled by
the storm. The sound came nearer and nearer; the thick mists were dimly
parted by a huge, vague form. Affrighted, we all sprang into the sea as
the ship at last loomed into view, bearing right down upon us within a
distance of not much more than its length.
Floating on the waves we saw the abandoned boat, as for one instant it
tossed and gaped beneath the ship's bows like a chip at the base of a
cataract; and then the vast hull rolled over it, and it was seen no
more till it came up weltering astern. Again we swam for it, were dashed
against it by the seas, and were at last taken up and safely landed on
board. Ere the squall came close to, the other boats had cut loose from
their fish and returned to the ship in good time. The ship had given us
up, but was still cruising, if haply it might light upon some token of
our perishing,--an oar or a lance pole.