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Chapter 7: The Chapel.


In this same New Bedford there stands a Whaleman's Chapel, and few are
the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who
fail to make a Sunday visit to the spot. I am sure that I did not.

Returning from my first morning stroll, I again sallied out upon this
special errand. The sky had changed from clear, sunny cold, to driving
sleet and mist. Wrapping myself in my shaggy jacket of the cloth called
bearskin, I fought my way against the stubborn storm. Entering, I
found a small scattered congregation of sailors, and sailors' wives and
widows. A muffled silence reigned, only broken at times by the shrieks
of the storm. Each silent worshipper seemed purposely sitting apart from
the other, as if each silent grief were insular and incommunicable. The
chaplain had not yet arrived; and there these silent islands of men and
women sat steadfastly eyeing several marble tablets, with black borders,
masoned into the wall on either side the pulpit. Three of them ran
something like the following, but I do not pretend to quote:--

SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF JOHN TALBOT, Who, at the age of eighteen, was
lost overboard, Near the Isle of Desolation, off Patagonia, November
1st, 1836. THIS TABLET Is erected to his Memory BY HIS SISTER.

WALTER CANNY, SETH MACY, AND SAMUEL GLEIG, Forming one of the boats'
crews OF THE SHIP ELIZA Who were towed out of sight by a Whale, On the
Off-shore Ground in the PACIFIC, December 31st, 1839. THIS MARBLE Is
here placed by their surviving SHIPMATES.

of his boat was killed by a Sperm Whale on the coast of Japan, AUGUST
3d, 1833. THIS TABLET Is erected to his Memory BY HIS WIDOW.

Shaking off the sleet from my ice-glazed hat and jacket, I seated myself
near the door, and turning sideways was surprised to see Queequeg near
me. Affected by the solemnity of the scene, there was a wondering gaze
of incredulous curiosity in his countenance. This savage was the only
person present who seemed to notice my entrance; because he was the only
one who could not read, and, therefore, was not reading those frigid
inscriptions on the wall. Whether any of the relatives of the seamen
whose names appeared there were now among the congregation, I knew not;
but so many are the unrecorded accidents in the fishery, and so plainly
did several women present wear the countenance if not the trappings
of some unceasing grief, that I feel sure that here before me were
assembled those, in whose unhealing hearts the sight of those bleak
tablets sympathetically caused the old wounds to bleed afresh.

Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among
flowers can say--here, HERE lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation
that broods in bosoms like these. What bitter blanks in those
black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes! What despair in those
immovable inscriptions! What deadly voids and unbidden infidelities in
the lines that seem to gnaw upon all Faith, and refuse resurrections to
the beings who have placelessly perished without a grave. As well might
those tablets stand in the cave of Elephanta as here.

In what census of living creatures, the dead of mankind are included;
why it is that a universal proverb says of them, that they tell no
tales, though containing more secrets than the Goodwin Sands; how it is
that to his name who yesterday departed for the other world, we prefix
so significant and infidel a word, and yet do not thus entitle him, if
he but embarks for the remotest Indies of this living earth; why the
Life Insurance Companies pay death-forfeitures upon immortals; in what
eternal, unstirring paralysis, and deadly, hopeless trance, yet lies
antique Adam who died sixty round centuries ago; how it is that we
still refuse to be comforted for those who we nevertheless maintain are
dwelling in unspeakable bliss; why all the living so strive to hush all
the dead; wherefore but the rumor of a knocking in a tomb will terrify a
whole city. All these things are not without their meanings.

But Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these
dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.

It needs scarcely to be told, with what feelings, on the eve of a
Nantucket voyage, I regarded those marble tablets, and by the murky
light of that darkened, doleful day read the fate of the whalemen
who had gone before me. Yes, Ishmael, the same fate may be thine. But
somehow I grew merry again. Delightful inducements to embark, fine
chance for promotion, it seems--aye, a stove boat will make me an
immortal by brevet. Yes, there is death in this business of whaling--a
speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what
then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death.
Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true
substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too
much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that
thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my
better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not
me. And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come a stove boat and
stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot.