Chapter 63: The Crotch.
Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in
productive subjects, grow the chapters.
The crotch alluded to on a previous page deserves independent mention.
It is a notched stick of a peculiar form, some two feet in length, which
is perpendicularly inserted into the starboard gunwale near the bow,
for the purpose of furnishing a rest for the wooden extremity of the
harpoon, whose other naked, barbed end slopingly projects from the prow.
Thereby the weapon is instantly at hand to its hurler, who snatches it
up as readily from its rest as a backwoodsman swings his rifle from
the wall. It is customary to have two harpoons reposing in the crotch,
respectively called the first and second irons.
But these two harpoons, each by its own cord, are both connected with
the line; the object being this: to dart them both, if possible, one
instantly after the other into the same whale; so that if, in the coming
drag, one should draw out, the other may still retain a hold. It is a
doubling of the chances. But it very often happens that owing to the
instantaneous, violent, convulsive running of the whale upon receiving
the first iron, it becomes impossible for the harpooneer, however
lightning-like in his movements, to pitch the second iron into him.
Nevertheless, as the second iron is already connected with the line,
and the line is running, hence that weapon must, at all events, be
anticipatingly tossed out of the boat, somehow and somewhere; else the
most terrible jeopardy would involve all hands. Tumbled into the water,
it accordingly is in such cases; the spare coils of box line (mentioned
in a preceding chapter) making this feat, in most instances, prudently
practicable. But this critical act is not always unattended with the
saddest and most fatal casualties.
Furthermore: you must know that when the second iron is thrown
overboard, it thenceforth becomes a dangling, sharp-edged terror,
skittishly curvetting about both boat and whale, entangling the lines,
or cutting them, and making a prodigious sensation in all directions.
Nor, in general, is it possible to secure it again until the whale is
fairly captured and a corpse.
Consider, now, how it must be in the case of four boats all engaging
one unusually strong, active, and knowing whale; when owing to these
qualities in him, as well as to the thousand concurring accidents of
such an audacious enterprise, eight or ten loose second irons may be
simultaneously dangling about him. For, of course, each boat is supplied
with several harpoons to bend on to the line should the first one
be ineffectually darted without recovery. All these particulars are
faithfully narrated here, as they will not fail to elucidate several
most important, however intricate passages, in scenes hereafter to be