STEERING now south-eastward by Ahabs levelled steel, and her progress solely determined by Ahabs level log and line; the Pequod held on her path toward the Equator. Making so long a passage through such unfrequented waters, descrying no ships, and ere long, sideways impelled by unvarying Trade Winds, over waves monotonously mild; all these seemed the strange calm things preluding some riotous and desperate scene.
At last, when the ship drew near to the outskirts, as it were, of the Equatorial fishing-ground, and in the deep darkness that goes before the dawn, was sailing by a cluster of rocky islets; the watchthen headed by Flaskwas startled by a cry so plaintively wild and unearthlylike half-articulated wailings of the ghosts of all Herods murdered Innocentsthat one and all, they started from their reveries, and for the space of some moments stood, or sat, or leaned all transfixedly listening, like the carved Roman slave, while that wild cry remained within hearing. The Christian or civilised part of the crew said it was mermaids, and shuddered; but the pagan harpooneers remained unappalled. Yet the gray Manxmanthe oldest mariner of alldeclared that the wild thrilling sounds that were heard, were the voices of newly drowned men in the sea.
Below in his hammock, Ahab did not hear of this till gray dawn, when he came to the deck; it was then recounted to him by Flask, not unaccompanied with hinted dark meanings. He hollowly laughed, and thus explained the wonder.
Those rocky islands the ship had passed were the resort of great numbers of seals, and some young seals that had lost their dams, or some dams that had lost their cubs, must have risen nigh the ship and kept company with her, crying and sobbing with their human sort of wail. But this only the more affected some of them, because most mariners cherish a very superstitious feeling about seals, arising not only from their peculiar tones when in distress, but also from the human look of their round heads and semi-intelligent faces, seen peeringly uprising from the water alongside. In the sea, under certain circumstances, seals have more than once been mistaken for men.
But the bodings of the crew were destined to receive a most plausible confirmation in the fate of one of their number that morning. At sunrise this man went from his hammock to his mast-head at the fore; and whether it was that he was not yet half waked from his sleep (for sailors sometimes go aloft in a transition state), whether it was thus with the man, there is now no telling; but be that as it may, he had not been long at his perch, when a cry was hearda cry and a rushingand looking up, they saw a falling phantom in the air; and looking down, a little tossed heap of white bubbles in the blue of the sea.
The life-buoya long slender caskwas dropped from the stern, where it always hung obedient to a cunning spring; but no hand rose to seize it; and the sun having long beat upon this cask, it had shrunken, so that it slowly filled, and that parched wood also filled at its every pore; and the studded iron-bound cask followed the sailor to the bottom, as if to yield him his pillow, though in sooth but a hard one.
And thus the first man of the Pequod that mounted the mast to look out for the White Whale, on the White Whales own peculiar ground; that man was swallowed up in the deep. But few, perhaps, thought of that at the time. Indeed, in some sort, they were not grieved at this event, at least as a portent; for they regarded it, not as a foreshadowing of evil in the future, but as the fulfilment of an evil already presaged. They declared that now they knew the reason of those wild shrieks they had heard the night before. But again the old Manxman said nay.
The lost life-buoy was now to be replaced; Starbuck was directed to see to it; but as no cask of sufficient lightness could be found, and as in the feverish eagerness of what seemed the approaching crisis of the voyage, all hands were impatient of any toil but what was directly connected with its final end, whatever that might prove to be; therefore, they were going to leave the ships stern unprovided with a buoy, when by certain strange signs and innuendoes Queequeg hinted a hint concerning his coffin.
He goes off in a huff. The whole he can endure; at the parts he baulks. Now I dont like this. I make a leg for Captain Ahab, and he wears it like a gentleman; but I make a bandbox for Queequeg, and he wont put his head into it. Are all my pains to go for nothing with that coffin? And now I m ordered to make a life-buoy of it. It s like turning an old coat; going to bring the flesh on the other side now. I dont like this cobbling sort of businessI dont like it at all; it s undignified; it s not my place. Let tinkers brats do tinkerings; we are their betters. I like to take in hand none but clean, virgin, fair-and-square mathematical jobs, something that regularly begins at the beginning, and is at the middle when midway, and comes to an end at the conclusion; not a cobblers job, that s at an end in the middle, and at the beginning at the end. It s the old womans tricks to be giving cobbling jobs. Lord! what an affection all old women have for tinkers. I know an old woman of sixty-five who ran away with a bald-headed young tinker once. And that s the reason I never would work for lonely widow old women ashore, when I kept my job-shop in the Vineyard; they might have taken it into their lonely old heads to run off with me. But heigh-ho! there are no caps at sea but snow-caps. Let me see. Nail down the lid; caulk the seams; pay over the same with pitch; batten them down tight, and hang it with the snap-spring over the ships stern. Were ever such things done before with a coffin? Some superstitious old carpenters, now, would be tied up in the rigging, ere they would do the job. But I m made of knotty Aroostook hemlock; I dont budge. Cruppered with a coffin! Sailing about with a graveyard tray! But never mind. We workers in woods make bridal-bedsteads and card-tables, as well as coffins and hearses. We work by the month, or by the job, or by the profit; not for us to ask the why and wherefore of our work, unless it be too confounded cobbling, and then we stash it if we can. Hem! I ll do the job, now, tenderly. I ll have melet s seehow many in the ships company, all told? But I ve forgotten. Anyway, I ll have me thirty separate, Turks-headed life-lines, each three feet long hanging all round to the coffin. Then, if the hull go down, there ll be thirty lively fellows all fighting for one coffin, a sight not seen very often beneath the sun! Come hammer, caulking-iron, pitch-pot, and marling-spike! Let s to it.