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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMoby Dick (or The Whale) - Chapter 87 The Grand Armada.
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Moby Dick (or The Whale) - Chapter 87 The Grand Armada. Post by :ebonilic Category :Long Stories Author :Herman Melville Date :February 2011 Read :902

Click below to download : Moby Dick (or The Whale) - Chapter 87 The Grand Armada. (Format : PDF)

Moby Dick (or The Whale) - Chapter 87 The Grand Armada.

The long and narrow peninsula of Malacca, extending south-eastward
from the territories of Birmah, forms the most southerly point of all
Asia. In a continuous line from that peninsula stretch the long
islands of Sumatra, Java, Bally, and Timor; which, with many others,
form a vast mole, or rampart, lengthwise connecting Asia with
Australia, and dividing the long unbroken Indian ocean from the
thickly studded oriental archipelagoes. This rampart is pierced by
several sally-ports for the convenience of ships and whales;
conspicuous among which are the straits of Sunda and Malacca. By the
straits of Sunda, chiefly, vessels bound to China from the west,
emerge into the China seas.

Those narrow straits of Sunda divide Sumatra from Java; and standing
midway in that vast rampart of islands, buttressed by that bold green
promontory, known to seamen as Java Head; they not a little
correspond to the central gateway opening into some vast walled
empire: and considering the inexhaustible wealth of spices, and
silks, and jewels, and gold, and ivory, with which the thousand
islands of that oriental sea are enriched, it seems a significant
provision of nature, that such treasures, by the very formation of
the land, should at least bear the appearance, however ineffectual,
of being guarded from the all-grasping western world. The shores of
the Straits of Sunda are unsupplied with those domineering fortresses
which guard the entrances to the Mediterranean, the Baltic, and the
Propontis. Unlike the Danes, these Orientals do not demand the
obsequious homage of lowered top-sails from the endless procession of
ships before the wind, which for centuries past, by night and by day,
have passed between the islands of Sumatra and Java, freighted with
the costliest cargoes of the east. But while they freely waive a
ceremonial like this, they do by no means renounce their claim to
more solid tribute.

Time out of mind the piratical proas of the Malays, lurking among the
low shaded coves and islets of Sumatra, have sallied out upon the
vessels sailing through the straits, fiercely demanding tribute at
the point of their spears. Though by the repeated bloody
chastisements they have received at the hands of European cruisers,
the audacity of these corsairs has of late been somewhat repressed;
yet, even at the present day, we occasionally hear of English and
American vessels, which, in those waters, have been remorselessly
boarded and pillaged.

With a fair, fresh wind, the Pequod was now drawing nigh to these
straits; Ahab purposing to pass through them into the Javan sea, and
thence, cruising northwards, over waters known to be frequented here
and there by the Sperm Whale, sweep inshore by the Philippine
Islands, and gain the far coast of Japan, in time for the great
whaling season there. By these means, the circumnavigating Pequod
would sweep almost all the known Sperm Whale cruising grounds of the
world, previous to descending upon the Line in the Pacific; where
Ahab, though everywhere else foiled in his pursuit, firmly counted
upon giving battle to Moby Dick, in the sea he was most known to
frequent; and at a season when he might most reasonably be presumed
to be haunting it.

But how now? in this zoned quest, does Ahab touch no land? does his
crew drink air? Surely, he will stop for water. Nay. For a long
time, now, the circus-running sun has raced within his fiery ring,
and needs no sustenance but what's in himself. So Ahab. Mark this,
too, in the whaler. While other hulls are loaded down with alien
stuff, to be transferred to foreign wharves; the world-wandering
whale-ship carries no cargo but herself and crew, their weapons and
their wants. She has a whole lake's contents bottled in her ample
hold. She is ballasted with utilities; not altogether with unusable
pig-lead and kentledge. She carries years' water in her. Clear old
prime Nantucket water; which, when three years afloat, the
Nantucketer, in the Pacific, prefers to drink before the brackish
fluid, but yesterday rafted off in casks, from the Peruvian or Indian
streams. Hence it is, that, while other ships may have gone to China
from New York, and back again, touching at a score of ports, the
whale-ship, in all that interval, may not have sighted one grain of
soil; her crew having seen no man but floating seamen like
themselves. So that did you carry them the news that another flood
had come; they would only answer--"Well, boys, here's the ark!"

Now, as many Sperm Whales had been captured off the western coast of
Java, in the near vicinity of the Straits of Sunda; indeed, as most
of the ground, roundabout, was generally recognised by the fishermen
as an excellent spot for cruising; therefore, as the Pequod gained
more and more upon Java Head, the look-outs were repeatedly hailed,
and admonished to keep wide awake. But though the green palmy cliffs
of the land soon loomed on the starboard bow, and with delighted
nostrils the fresh cinnamon was snuffed in the air, yet not a single
jet was descried. Almost renouncing all thought of falling in with
any game hereabouts, the ship had well nigh entered the straits, when
the customary cheering cry was heard from aloft, and ere long a
spectacle of singular magnificence saluted us.

But here be it premised, that owing to the unwearied activity with
which of late they have been hunted over all four oceans, the Sperm
Whales, instead of almost invariably sailing in small detached
companies, as in former times, are now frequently met with in
extensive herds, sometimes embracing so great a multitude, that it
would almost seem as if numerous nations of them had sworn solemn
league and covenant for mutual assistance and protection. To this
aggregation of the Sperm Whale into such immense caravans, may be
imputed the circumstance that even in the best cruising grounds, you
may now sometimes sail for weeks and months together, without being
greeted by a single spout; and then be suddenly saluted by what
sometimes seems thousands on thousands.

Broad on both bows, at the distance of some two or three miles, and
forming a great semicircle, embracing one half of the level horizon,
a continuous chain of whale-jets were up-playing and sparkling in the
noon-day air. Unlike the straight perpendicular twin-jets of the
Right Whale, which, dividing at top, fall over in two branches, like
the cleft drooping boughs of a willow, the single forward-slanting
spout of the Sperm Whale presents a thick curled bush of white mist,
continually rising and falling away to leeward.

Seen from the Pequod's deck, then, as she would rise on a high hill
of the sea, this host of vapoury spouts, individually curling up into
the air, and beheld through a blending atmosphere of bluish haze,
showed like the thousand cheerful chimneys of some dense metropolis,
descried of a balmy autumnal morning, by some horseman on a height.

As marching armies approaching an unfriendly defile in the mountains,
accelerate their march, all eagerness to place that perilous passage
in their rear, and once more expand in comparative security upon the
plain; even so did this vast fleet of whales now seem hurrying
forward through the straits; gradually contracting the wings of their
semicircle, and swimming on, in one solid, but still crescentic
centre.

Crowding all sail the Pequod pressed after them; the harpooneers
handling their weapons, and loudly cheering from the heads of their
yet suspended boats. If the wind only held, little doubt had they,
that chased through these Straits of Sunda, the vast host would only
deploy into the Oriental seas to witness the capture of not a few of
their number. And who could tell whether, in that congregated
caravan, Moby Dick himself might not temporarily be swimming, like
the worshipped white-elephant in the coronation procession of the
Siamese! So with stun-sail piled on stun-sail, we sailed along,
driving these leviathans before us; when, of a sudden, the voice of
Tashtego was heard, loudly directing attention to something in our
wake.

Corresponding to the crescent in our van, we beheld another in our
rear. It seemed formed of detached white vapours, rising and falling
something like the spouts of the whales; only they did not so
completely come and go; for they constantly hovered, without finally
disappearing. Levelling his glass at this sight, Ahab quickly
revolved in his pivot-hole, crying, "Aloft there, and rig whips and
buckets to wet the sails;--Malays, sir, and after us!"

As if too long lurking behind the headlands, till the Pequod should
fairly have entered the straits, these rascally Asiatics were now in
hot pursuit, to make up for their over-cautious delay. But when the
swift Pequod, with a fresh leading wind, was herself in hot chase;
how very kind of these tawny philanthropists to assist in speeding
her on to her own chosen pursuit,--mere riding-whips and rowels to
her, that they were. As with glass under arm, Ahab to-and-fro paced
the deck; in his forward turn beholding the monsters he chased, and
in the after one the bloodthirsty pirates chasing him; some such
fancy as the above seemed his. And when he glanced upon the green
walls of the watery defile in which the ship was then sailing, and
bethought him that through that gate lay the route to his vengeance,
and beheld, how that through that same gate he was now both chasing
and being chased to his deadly end; and not only that, but a herd of
remorseless wild pirates and inhuman atheistical devils were
infernally cheering him on with their curses;--when all these
conceits had passed through his brain, Ahab's brow was left gaunt and
ribbed, like the black sand beach after some stormy tide has been
gnawing it, without being able to drag the firm thing from its place.

But thoughts like these troubled very few of the reckless crew; and
when, after steadily dropping and dropping the pirates astern, the
Pequod at last shot by the vivid green Cockatoo Point on the Sumatra
side, emerging at last upon the broad waters beyond; then, the
harpooneers seemed more to grieve that the swift whales had been
gaining upon the ship, than to rejoice that the ship had so
victoriously gained upon the Malays. But still driving on in the
wake of the whales, at length they seemed abating their speed;
gradually the ship neared them; and the wind now dying away, word was
passed to spring to the boats. But no sooner did the herd, by some
presumed wonderful instinct of the Sperm Whale, become notified of
the three keels that were after them,--though as yet a mile in their
rear,--than they rallied again, and forming in close ranks and
battalions, so that their spouts all looked like flashing lines of
stacked bayonets, moved on with redoubled velocity.

Stripped to our shirts and drawers, we sprang to the white-ash, and
after several hours' pulling were almost disposed to renounce the
chase, when a general pausing commotion among the whales gave
animating token that they were now at last under the influence of
that strange perplexity of inert irresolution, which, when the
fishermen perceive it in the whale, they say he is gallied. The
compact martial columns in which they had been hitherto rapidly and
steadily swimming, were now broken up in one measureless rout; and
like King Porus' elephants in the Indian battle with Alexander, they
seemed going mad with consternation. In all directions expanding in
vast irregular circles, and aimlessly swimming hither and thither, by
their short thick spoutings, they plainly betrayed their distraction
of panic. This was still more strangely evinced by those of their
number, who, completely paralysed as it were, helplessly floated like
water-logged dismantled ships on the sea. Had these Leviathans been
but a flock of simple sheep, pursued over the pasture by three fierce
wolves, they could not possibly have evinced such excessive dismay.
But this occasional timidity is characteristic of almost all herding
creatures. Though banding together in tens of thousands, the
lion-maned buffaloes of the West have fled before a solitary
horseman. Witness, too, all human beings, how when herded together
in the sheepfold of a theatre's pit, they will, at the slightest
alarm of fire, rush helter-skelter for the outlets, crowding,
trampling, jamming, and remorselessly dashing each other to death.
Best, therefore, withhold any amazement at the strangely gallied
whales before us, for there is no folly of the beasts of the earth
which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.

Though many of the whales, as has been said, were in violent motion,
yet it is to be observed that as a whole the herd neither advanced
nor retreated, but collectively remained in one place. As is
customary in those cases, the boats at once separated, each making
for some one lone whale on the outskirts of the shoal. In about
three minutes' time, Queequeg's harpoon was flung; the stricken fish
darted blinding spray in our faces, and then running away with us like
light, steered straight for the heart of the herd. Though such a
movement on the part of the whale struck under such circumstances, is
in no wise unprecedented; and indeed is almost always more or less
anticipated; yet does it present one of the more perilous
vicissitudes of the fishery. For as the swift monster drags you
deeper and deeper into the frantic shoal, you bid adieu to
circumspect life and only exist in a delirious throb.

As, blind and deaf, the whale plunged forward, as if by sheer power
of speed to rid himself of the iron leech that had fastened to him;
as we thus tore a white gash in the sea, on all sides menaced as we
flew, by the crazed creatures to and fro rushing about us; our beset
boat was like a ship mobbed by ice-isles in a tempest, and striving
to steer through their complicated channels and straits, knowing not at
what moment it may be locked in and crushed.

But not a bit daunted, Queequeg steered us manfully; now sheering off
from this monster directly across our route in advance; now edging
away from that, whose colossal flukes were suspended overhead, while
all the time, Starbuck stood up in the bows, lance in hand, pricking
out of our way whatever whales he could reach by short darts, for
there was no time to make long ones. Nor were the oarsmen quite
idle, though their wonted duty was now altogether dispensed with.
They chiefly attended to the shouting part of the business. "Out of
the way, Commodore!" cried one, to a great dromedary that of a sudden
rose bodily to the surface, and for an instant threatened to swamp
us. "Hard down with your tail, there!" cried a second to another,
which, close to our gunwale, seemed calmly cooling himself with his
own fan-like extremity.

All whaleboats carry certain curious contrivances, originally
invented by the Nantucket Indians, called druggs. Two thick squares
of wood of equal size are stoutly clenched together, so that they
cross each other's grain at right angles; a line of considerable
length is then attached to the middle of this block, and the other
end of the line being looped, it can in a moment be fastened to a
harpoon. It is chiefly among gallied whales that this drugg is used.
For then, more whales are close round you than you can possibly
chase at one time. But sperm whales are not every day encountered;
while you may, then, you must kill all you can. And if you cannot
kill them all at once, you must wing them, so that they can be
afterwards killed at your leisure. Hence it is, that at times like
these the drugg, comes into requisition. Our boat was furnished with
three of them. The first and second were successfully darted, and we
saw the whales staggeringly running off, fettered by the enormous
sidelong resistance of the towing drugg. They were cramped like
malefactors with the chain and ball. But upon flinging the third, in
the act of tossing overboard the clumsy wooden block, it caught under
one of the seats of the boat, and in an instant tore it out and
carried it away, dropping the oarsman in the boat's bottom as the
seat slid from under him. On both sides the sea came in at the
wounded planks, but we stuffed two or three drawers and shirts in,
and so stopped the leaks for the time.

It had been next to impossible to dart these drugged-harpoons, were
it not that as we advanced into the herd, our whale's way greatly
diminished; moreover, that as we went still further and further from
the circumference of commotion, the direful disorders seemed waning.
So that when at last the jerking harpoon drew out, and the towing
whale sideways vanished; then, with the tapering force of his parting
momentum, we glided between two whales into the innermost heart of
the shoal, as if from some mountain torrent we had slid into a serene
valley lake. Here the storms in the roaring glens between the
outermost whales, were heard but not felt. In this central expanse
the sea presented that smooth satin-like surface, called a sleek,
produced by the subtle moisture thrown off by the whale in his more
quiet moods. Yes, we were now in that enchanted calm which they say
lurks at the heart of every commotion. And still in the distracted
distance we beheld the tumults of the outer concentric circles, and
saw successive pods of whales, eight or ten in each, swiftly going
round and round, like multiplied spans of horses in a ring; and so
closely shoulder to shoulder, that a Titanic circus-rider might
easily have over-arched the middle ones, and so have gone round on
their backs. Owing to the density of the crowd of reposing whales,
more immediately surrounding the embayed axis of the herd, no
possible chance of escape was at present afforded us. We must watch
for a breach in the living wall that hemmed us in; the wall that had
only admitted us in order to shut us up. Keeping at the centre of
the lake, we were occasionally visited by small tame cows and calves;
the women and children of this routed host.

Now, inclusive of the occasional wide intervals between the revolving
outer circles, and inclusive of the spaces between the various pods
in any one of those circles, the entire area at this juncture,
embraced by the whole multitude, must have contained at least two or
three square miles. At any rate--though indeed such a test at such a
time might be deceptive--spoutings might be discovered from our low
boat that seemed playing up almost from the rim of the horizon. I
mention this circumstance, because, as if the cows and calves had
been purposely locked up in this innermost fold; and as if the wide
extent of the herd had hitherto prevented them from learning the
precise cause of its stopping; or, possibly, being so young,
unsophisticated, and every way innocent and inexperienced; however it
may have been, these smaller whales--now and then visiting our
becalmed boat from the margin of the lake--evinced a wondrous
fearlessness and confidence, or else a still becharmed panic which it
was impossible not to marvel at. Like household dogs they came
snuffling round us, right up to our gunwales, and touching them; till
it almost seemed that some spell had suddenly domesticated them.
Queequeg patted their foreheads; Starbuck scratched their backs with
his lance; but fearful of the consequences, for the time refrained
from darting it.

But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and
still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For,
suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing
mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed
shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a
considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants
while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as
if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing
mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly
reminiscence;--even so did the young of these whales seem looking up
towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulfweed in
their new-born sight. Floating on their sides, the mothers also
seemed quietly eyeing us. One of these little infants, that from
certain queer tokens seemed hardly a day old, might have measured
some fourteen feet in length, and some six feet in girth. He was a
little frisky; though as yet his body seemed scarce yet recovered
from that irksome position it had so lately occupied in the maternal
reticule; where, tail to head, and all ready for the final spring,
the unborn whale lies bent like a Tartar's bow. The delicate
side-fins, and the palms of his flukes, still freshly retained the
plaited crumpled appearance of a baby's ears newly arrived from
foreign parts.

"Line! line!" cried Queequeg, looking over the gunwale; "him fast!
him fast!--Who line him! Who struck?--Two whale; one big, one
little!"

"What ails ye, man?" cried Starbuck.

"Look-e here," said Queequeg, pointing down.

As when the stricken whale, that from the tub has reeled out hundreds
of fathoms of rope; as, after deep sounding, he floats up again, and
shows the slackened curling line buoyantly rising and spiralling
towards the air; so now, Starbuck saw long coils of the umbilical
cord of Madame Leviathan, by which the young cub seemed still
tethered to its dam. Not seldom in the rapid vicissitudes of the
chase, this natural line, with the maternal end loose, becomes
entangled with the hempen one, so that the cub is thereby trapped.
Some of the subtlest secrets of the seas seemed divulged to us in
this enchanted pond. We saw young Leviathan amours in the deep.*


*The sperm whale, as with all other species of the Leviathan, but
unlike most other fish, breeds indifferently at all seasons; after a
gestation which may probably be set down at nine months, producing
but one at a time; though in some few known instances giving birth to
an Esau and Jacob:--a contingency provided for in suckling by two
teats, curiously situated, one on each side of the anus; but the
breasts themselves extend upwards from that. When by chance these
precious parts in a nursing whale are cut by the hunter's lance, the
mother's pouring milk and blood rivallingly discolour the sea for
rods. The milk is very sweet and rich; it has been tasted by man; it
might do well with strawberries. When overflowing with mutual
esteem, the whales salute MORE HOMINUM.


And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations
and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely
and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely
revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed
Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in
mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round
me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal
mildness of joy.

Meanwhile, as we thus lay entranced, the occasional sudden frantic
spectacles in the distance evinced the activity of the other boats,
still engaged in drugging the whales on the frontier of the host; or
possibly carrying on the war within the first circle, where abundance
of room and some convenient retreats were afforded them. But the
sight of the enraged drugged whales now and then blindly darting to
and fro across the circles, was nothing to what at last met our eyes.
It is sometimes the custom when fast to a whale more than commonly
powerful and alert, to seek to hamstring him, as it were, by
sundering or maiming his gigantic tail-tendon. It is done by darting
a short-handled cutting-spade, to which is attached a rope for
hauling it back again. A whale wounded (as we afterwards learned) in
this part, but not effectually, as it seemed, had broken away from
the boat, carrying along with him half of the harpoon line; and in
the extraordinary agony of the wound, he was now dashing among the
revolving circles like the lone mounted desperado Arnold, at the
battle of Saratoga, carrying dismay wherever he went.

But agonizing as was the wound of this whale, and an appalling
spectacle enough, any way; yet the peculiar horror with which he
seemed to inspire the rest of the herd, was owing to a cause which at
first the intervening distance obscured from us. But at length we
perceived that by one of the unimaginable accidents of the fishery,
this whale had become entangled in the harpoon-line that he towed; he
had also run away with the cutting-spade in him; and while the free
end of the rope attached to that weapon, had permanently caught in
the coils of the harpoon-line round his tail, the cutting-spade
itself had worked loose from his flesh. So that tormented to
madness, he was now churning through the water, violently flailing
with his flexible tail, and tossing the keen spade about him,
wounding and murdering his own comrades.

This terrific object seemed to recall the whole herd from their
stationary fright. First, the whales forming the margin of our lake
began to crowd a little, and tumble against each other, as if lifted
by half spent billows from afar; then the lake itself began faintly
to heave and swell; the submarine bridal-chambers and nurseries
vanished; in more and more contracting orbits the whales in the more
central circles began to swim in thickening clusters. Yes, the long
calm was departing. A low advancing hum was soon heard; and then
like to the tumultuous masses of block-ice when the great river
Hudson breaks up in Spring, the entire host of whales came tumbling
upon their inner centre, as if to pile themselves up in one common
mountain. Instantly Starbuck and Queequeg changed places; Starbuck
taking the stern.

"Oars! Oars!" he intensely whispered, seizing the helm--"gripe your
oars, and clutch your souls, now! My God, men, stand by! Shove him
off, you Queequeg--the whale there!--prick him!--hit him! Stand
up--stand up, and stay so! Spring, men--pull, men; never mind their
backs--scrape them!--scrape away!"

The boat was now all but jammed between two vast black bulks, leaving
a narrow Dardanelles between their long lengths. But by desperate
endeavor we at last shot into a temporary opening; then giving way
rapidly, and at the same time earnestly watching for another outlet.
After many similar hair-breadth escapes, we at last swiftly glided
into what had just been one of the outer circles, but now crossed by
random whales, all violently making for one centre. This lucky
salvation was cheaply purchased by the loss of Queequeg's hat, who,
while standing in the bows to prick the fugitive whales, had his hat
taken clean from his head by the air-eddy made by the sudden tossing
of a pair of broad flukes close by.

Riotous and disordered as the universal commotion now was, it soon
resolved itself into what seemed a systematic movement; for having
clumped together at last in one dense body, they then renewed their
onward flight with augmented fleetness. Further pursuit was useless;
but the boats still lingered in their wake to pick up what drugged
whales might be dropped astern, and likewise to secure one which
Flask had killed and waifed. The waif is a pennoned pole, two or
three of which are carried by every boat; and which, when additional
game is at hand, are inserted upright into the floating body of a
dead whale, both to mark its place on the sea, and also as token of
prior possession, should the boats of any other ship draw near.

The result of this lowering was somewhat illustrative of that
sagacious saying in the Fishery,--the more whales the less fish. Of
all the drugged whales only one was captured. The rest contrived to
escape for the time, but only to be taken, as will hereafter be seen,
by some other craft than the Pequod.

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