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Chapter 51: The Spirit-Spout.

	


Days, weeks passed, and under easy sail, the ivory Pequod had slowly
swept across four several cruising-grounds; that off the Azores; off the
Cape de Verdes; on the Plate (so called), being off the mouth of the
Rio de la Plata; and the Carrol Ground, an unstaked, watery locality,
southerly from St. Helena.

It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and
moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver;
and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery
silence, not a solitude; on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen
far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it
looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from
the sea. Fedallah first descried this jet. For of these moonlight
nights, it was his wont to mount to the main-mast head, and stand a
look-out there, with the same precision as if it had been day. And yet,
though herds of whales were seen by night, not one whaleman in a hundred
would venture a lowering for them. You may think with what emotions,
then, the seamen beheld this old Oriental perched aloft at such unusual
hours; his turban and the moon, companions in one sky. But when, after
spending his uniform interval there for several successive nights
without uttering a single sound; when, after all this silence, his
unearthly voice was heard announcing that silvery, moon-lit jet, every
reclining mariner started to his feet as if some winged spirit had
lighted in the rigging, and hailed the mortal crew. "There she blows!"
Had the trump of judgment blown, they could not have quivered more; yet
still they felt no terror; rather pleasure. For though it was a most
unwonted hour, yet so impressive was the cry, and so deliriously
exciting, that almost every soul on board instinctively desired a
lowering.

Walking the deck with quick, side-lunging strides, Ahab commanded the
t'gallant sails and royals to be set, and every stunsail spread. The
best man in the ship must take the helm. Then, with every mast-head
manned, the piled-up craft rolled down before the wind. The strange,
upheaving, lifting tendency of the taffrail breeze filling the hollows
of so many sails, made the buoyant, hovering deck to feel like air
beneath the feet; while still she rushed along, as if two antagonistic
influences were struggling in her--one to mount direct to heaven, the
other to drive yawingly to some horizontal goal. And had you watched
Ahab's face that night, you would have thought that in him also two
different things were warring. While his one live leg made lively echoes
along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap.
On life and death this old man walked. But though the ship so swiftly
sped, and though from every eye, like arrows, the eager glances shot,
yet the silvery jet was no more seen that night. Every sailor swore he
saw it once, but not a second time.

This midnight-spout had almost grown a forgotten thing, when, some days
after, lo! at the same silent hour, it was again announced: again it
was descried by all; but upon making sail to overtake it, once more it
disappeared as if it had never been. And so it served us night after
night, till no one heeded it but to wonder at it. Mysteriously
jetted into the clear moonlight, or starlight, as the case might be;
disappearing again for one whole day, or two days, or three; and somehow
seeming at every distinct repetition to be advancing still further and
further in our van, this solitary jet seemed for ever alluring us on.

Nor with the immemorial superstition of their race, and in accordance
with the preternaturalness, as it seemed, which in many things invested
the Pequod, were there wanting some of the seamen who swore that
whenever and wherever descried; at however remote times, or in however
far apart latitudes and longitudes, that unnearable spout was cast
by one self-same whale; and that whale, Moby Dick. For a time, there
reigned, too, a sense of peculiar dread at this flitting apparition,
as if it were treacherously beckoning us on and on, in order that the
monster might turn round upon us, and rend us at last in the remotest
and most savage seas.

These temporary apprehensions, so vague but so awful, derived a wondrous
potency from the contrasting serenity of the weather, in which, beneath
all its blue blandness, some thought there lurked a devilish charm, as
for days and days we voyaged along, through seas so wearily, lonesomely
mild, that all space, in repugnance to our vengeful errand, seemed
vacating itself of life before our urn-like prow.

But, at last, when turning to the eastward, the Cape winds began howling
around us, and we rose and fell upon the long, troubled seas that are
there; when the ivory-tusked Pequod sharply bowed to the blast, and
gored the dark waves in her madness, till, like showers of silver chips,
the foam-flakes flew over her bulwarks; then all this desolate vacuity
of life went away, but gave place to sights more dismal than before.

Close to our bows, strange forms in the water darted hither and thither
before us; while thick in our rear flew the inscrutable sea-ravens. And
every morning, perched on our stays, rows of these birds were seen; and
spite of our hootings, for a long time obstinately clung to the hemp,
as though they deemed our ship some drifting, uninhabited craft; a thing
appointed to desolation, and therefore fit roosting-place for their
homeless selves. And heaved and heaved, still unrestingly heaved the
black sea, as if its vast tides were a conscience; and the great mundane
soul were in anguish and remorse for the long sin and suffering it had
bred.

Cape of Good Hope, do they call ye? Rather Cape Tormentoto, as called
of yore; for long allured by the perfidious silences that before had
attended us, we found ourselves launched into this tormented sea,
where guilty beings transformed into those fowls and these fish, seemed
condemned to swim on everlastingly without any haven in store, or beat
that black air without any horizon. But calm, snow-white, and unvarying;
still directing its fountain of feathers to the sky; still beckoning us
on from before, the solitary jet would at times be descried.

During all this blackness of the elements, Ahab, though assuming for the
time the almost continual command of the drenched and dangerous deck,
manifested the gloomiest reserve; and more seldom than ever addressed
his mates. In tempestuous times like these, after everything above and
aloft has been secured, nothing more can be done but passively to await
the issue of the gale. Then Captain and crew become practical fatalists.
So, with his ivory leg inserted into its accustomed hole, and with one
hand firmly grasping a shroud, Ahab for hours and hours would stand
gazing dead to windward, while an occasional squall of sleet or snow
would all but congeal his very eyelashes together. Meantime, the crew
driven from the forward part of the ship by the perilous seas that
burstingly broke over its bows, stood in a line along the bulwarks in
the waist; and the better to guard against the leaping waves, each man
had slipped himself into a sort of bowline secured to the rail, in which
he swung as in a loosened belt. Few or no words were spoken; and the
silent ship, as if manned by painted sailors in wax, day after day tore
on through all the swift madness and gladness of the demoniac waves.
By night the same muteness of humanity before the shrieks of the
ocean prevailed; still in silence the men swung in the bowlines; still
wordless Ahab stood up to the blast. Even when wearied nature seemed
demanding repose he would not seek that repose in his hammock. Never
could Starbuck forget the old man's aspect, when one night going down
into the cabin to mark how the barometer stood, he saw him with
closed eyes sitting straight in his floor-screwed chair; the rain
and half-melted sleet of the storm from which he had some time before
emerged, still slowly dripping from the unremoved hat and coat. On the
table beside him lay unrolled one of those charts of tides and currents
which have previously been spoken of. His lantern swung from his tightly
clenched hand. Though the body was erect, the head was thrown back so
that the closed eyes were pointed towards the needle of the tell-tale
that swung from a beam in the ceiling.*


*The cabin-compass is called the tell-tale, because without going to the
compass at the helm, the Captain, while below, can inform himself of the
course of the ship.


Terrible old man! thought Starbuck with a shudder, sleeping in this
gale, still thou steadfastly eyest thy purpose.