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Chapter 96: The Try-Works.


Besides her hoisted boats, an American whaler is outwardly distinguished
by her try-works. She presents the curious anomaly of the most solid
masonry joining with oak and hemp in constituting the completed ship.
It is as if from the open field a brick-kiln were transported to her

The try-works are planted between the foremast and mainmast, the most
roomy part of the deck. The timbers beneath are of a peculiar strength,
fitted to sustain the weight of an almost solid mass of brick and
mortar, some ten feet by eight square, and five in height. The
foundation does not penetrate the deck, but the masonry is firmly
secured to the surface by ponderous knees of iron bracing it on all
sides, and screwing it down to the timbers. On the flanks it is cased
with wood, and at top completely covered by a large, sloping, battened
hatchway. Removing this hatch we expose the great try-pots, two in
number, and each of several barrels' capacity. When not in use, they are
kept remarkably clean. Sometimes they are polished with soapstone
and sand, till they shine within like silver punch-bowls. During the
night-watches some cynical old sailors will crawl into them and coil
themselves away there for a nap. While employed in polishing them--one
man in each pot, side by side--many confidential communications
are carried on, over the iron lips. It is a place also for profound
mathematical meditation. It was in the left hand try-pot of the Pequod,
with the soapstone diligently circling round me, that I was first
indirectly struck by the remarkable fact, that in geometry all bodies
gliding along the cycloid, my soapstone for example, will descend from
any point in precisely the same time.

Removing the fire-board from the front of the try-works, the bare
masonry of that side is exposed, penetrated by the two iron mouths of
the furnaces, directly underneath the pots. These mouths are fitted
with heavy doors of iron. The intense heat of the fire is prevented
from communicating itself to the deck, by means of a shallow reservoir
extending under the entire inclosed surface of the works. By a tunnel
inserted at the rear, this reservoir is kept replenished with water as
fast as it evaporates. There are no external chimneys; they open direct
from the rear wall. And here let us go back for a moment.

It was about nine o'clock at night that the Pequod's try-works were
first started on this present voyage. It belonged to Stubb to oversee
the business.

"All ready there? Off hatch, then, and start her. You cook, fire the
works." This was an easy thing, for the carpenter had been thrusting his
shavings into the furnace throughout the passage. Here be it said that
in a whaling voyage the first fire in the try-works has to be fed for a
time with wood. After that no wood is used, except as a means of quick
ignition to the staple fuel. In a word, after being tried out, the
crisp, shrivelled blubber, now called scraps or fritters, still contains
considerable of its unctuous properties. These fritters feed the flames.
Like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope, once
ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body.
Would that he consumed his own smoke! for his smoke is horrible to
inhale, and inhale it you must, and not only that, but you must live in
it for the time. It has an unspeakable, wild, Hindoo odor about it, such
as may lurk in the vicinity of funereal pyres. It smells like the left
wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit.

By midnight the works were in full operation. We were clear from the
carcase; sail had been made; the wind was freshening; the wild ocean
darkness was intense. But that darkness was licked up by the fierce
flames, which at intervals forked forth from the sooty flues, and
illuminated every lofty rope in the rigging, as with the famed Greek
fire. The burning ship drove on, as if remorselessly commissioned to
some vengeful deed. So the pitch and sulphur-freighted brigs of the
bold Hydriote, Canaris, issuing from their midnight harbors, with broad
sheets of flame for sails, bore down upon the Turkish frigates, and
folded them in conflagrations.

The hatch, removed from the top of the works, now afforded a wide hearth
in front of them. Standing on this were the Tartarean shapes of the
pagan harpooneers, always the whale-ship's stokers. With huge pronged
poles they pitched hissing masses of blubber into the scalding pots, or
stirred up the fires beneath, till the snaky flames darted, curling, out
of the doors to catch them by the feet. The smoke rolled away in sullen
heaps. To every pitch of the ship there was a pitch of the boiling oil,
which seemed all eagerness to leap into their faces. Opposite the mouth
of the works, on the further side of the wide wooden hearth, was the
windlass. This served for a sea-sofa. Here lounged the watch, when not
otherwise employed, looking into the red heat of the fire, till their
eyes felt scorched in their heads. Their tawny features, now all
begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting
barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in
the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they narrated to each other
their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth;
as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the
flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers
wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the
wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and
yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness
of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in
her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing
Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning
a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the
material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul.

So seemed it to me, as I stood at her helm, and for long hours silently
guided the way of this fire-ship on the sea. Wrapped, for that interval,
in darkness myself, I but the better saw the redness, the madness, the
ghastliness of others. The continual sight of the fiend shapes before
me, capering half in smoke and half in fire, these at last begat kindred
visions in my soul, so soon as I began to yield to that unaccountable
drowsiness which ever would come over me at a midnight helm.

But that night, in particular, a strange (and ever since inexplicable)
thing occurred to me. Starting from a brief standing sleep, I was
horribly conscious of something fatally wrong. The jaw-bone tiller smote
my side, which leaned against it; in my ears was the low hum of sails,
just beginning to shake in the wind; I thought my eyes were open; I
was half conscious of putting my fingers to the lids and mechanically
stretching them still further apart. But, spite of all this, I could see
no compass before me to steer by; though it seemed but a minute since I
had been watching the card, by the steady binnacle lamp illuminating it.
Nothing seemed before me but a jet gloom, now and then made ghastly by
flashes of redness. Uppermost was the impression, that whatever swift,
rushing thing I stood on was not so much bound to any haven ahead as
rushing from all havens astern. A stark, bewildered feeling, as of
death, came over me. Convulsively my hands grasped the tiller, but with
the crazy conceit that the tiller was, somehow, in some enchanted way,
inverted. My God! what is the matter with me? thought I. Lo! in my brief
sleep I had turned myself about, and was fronting the ship's stern, with
my back to her prow and the compass. In an instant I faced back, just
in time to prevent the vessel from flying up into the wind, and very
probably capsizing her. How glad and how grateful the relief from this
unnatural hallucination of the night, and the fatal contingency of being
brought by the lee!

Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy
hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first
hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its
redness makes all things look ghastly. To-morrow, in the natural sun,
the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking
flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the
glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp--all others but liars!

Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia's Dismal Swamp, nor Rome's
accursed Campagna, nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of
deserts and of griefs beneath the moon. The sun hides not the ocean,
which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this
earth. So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow
in him, that mortal man cannot be true--not true, or undeveloped. With
books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the
truest of all books is Solomon's, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered
steel of woe. "All is vanity." ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold
of unchristian Solomon's wisdom yet. But he who dodges hospitals and
jails, and walks fast crossing graveyards, and would rather talk of
operas than hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Rousseau, poor devils all
of sick men; and throughout a care-free lifetime swears by Rabelais as
passing wise, and therefore jolly;--not that man is fitted to sit
down on tomb-stones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably
wondrous Solomon.

But even Solomon, he says, "the man that wandereth out of the way
of understanding shall remain" (I.E., even while living) "in the
congregation of the dead." Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it
invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom
that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill
eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges,
and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces.
And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the
mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still
higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.