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Chapter 118

CHAPTER 118

The Quadrant.


The season for the Line at length drew near; and every day when Ahab,
coming from his cabin, cast his eyes aloft, the vigilant helmsman
would ostentatiously handle his spokes, and the eager mariners
quickly run to the braces, and would stand there with all their eyes
centrally fixed on the nailed doubloon; impatient for the order to
point the ship's prow for the equator. In good time the order came.
It was hard upon high noon; and Ahab, seated in the bows of his
high-hoisted boat, was about taking his wonted daily observation of
the sun to determine his latitude.

Now, in that Japanese sea, the days in summer are as freshets of
effulgences. That unblinkingly vivid Japanese sun seems the blazing
focus of the glassy ocean's immeasurable burning-glass. The sky
looks lacquered; clouds there are none; the horizon floats; and this
nakedness of unrelieved radiance is as the insufferable splendors of
God's throne. Well that Ahab's quadrant was furnished with coloured
glasses, through which to take sight of that solar fire. So,
swinging his seated form to the roll of the ship, and with his
astrological-looking instrument placed to his eye, he remained in
that posture for some moments to catch the precise instant when the
sun should gain its precise meridian. Meantime while his whole
attention was absorbed, the Parsee was kneeling beneath him on the
ship's deck, and with face thrown up like Ahab's, was eyeing the same
sun with him; only the lids of his eyes half hooded their orbs, and
his wild face was subdued to an earthly passionlessness. At length
the desired observation was taken; and with his pencil upon his ivory
leg, Ahab soon calculated what his latitude must be at that precise
instant. Then falling into a moment's revery, he again looked up
towards the sun and murmured to himself: "Thou sea-mark! thou high
and mighty Pilot! thou tellest me truly where I AM--but canst thou
cast the least hint where I SHALL be? Or canst thou tell where some
other thing besides me is this moment living? Where is Moby Dick?
This instant thou must be eyeing him. These eyes of mine look into
the very eye that is even now beholding him; aye, and into the eye
that is even now equally beholding the objects on the unknown,
thither side of thee, thou sun!"

Then gazing at his quadrant, and handling, one after the other, its
numerous cabalistical contrivances, he pondered again, and muttered:
"Foolish toy! babies' plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores,
and Captains; the world brags of thee, of thy cunning and might; but
what after all canst thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where
thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that
holds thee: no! not one jot more! Thou canst not tell where one drop
of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet with
thy impotence thou insultest the sun! Science! Curse thee, thou
vain toy; and cursed be all the things that cast man's eyes aloft to
that heaven, whose live vividness but scorches him, as these old eyes
are even now scorched with thy light, O sun! Level by nature to this
earth's horizon are the glances of man's eyes; not shot from the
crown of his head, as if God had meant him to gaze on his firmament.
Curse thee, thou quadrant!" dashing it to the deck, "no longer will I
guide my earthly way by thee; the level ship's compass, and the level
deadreckoning, by log and by line; THESE shall conduct me, and show
me my place on the sea. Aye," lighting from the boat to the deck,
"thus I trample on thee, thou paltry thing that feebly pointest on
high; thus I split and destroy thee!"

As the frantic old man thus spoke and thus trampled with his live and
dead feet, a sneering triumph that seemed meant for Ahab, and a
fatalistic despair that seemed meant for himself--these passed over
the mute, motionless Parsee's face. Unobserved he rose and glided
away; while, awestruck by the aspect of their commander, the seamen
clustered together on the forecastle, till Ahab, troubledly pacing
the deck, shouted out--"To the braces! Up helm!--square in!"

In an instant the yards swung round; and as the ship half-wheeled
upon her heel, her three firm-seated graceful masts erectly poised
upon her long, ribbed hull, seemed as the three Horatii pirouetting
on one sufficient steed.

Standing between the knight-heads, Starbuck watched the Pequod's
tumultuous way, and Ahab's also, as he went lurching along the deck.

"I have sat before the dense coal fire and watched it all aglow, full
of its tormented flaming life; and I have seen it wane at last, down,
down, to dumbest dust. Old man of oceans! of all this fiery life of
thine, what will at length remain but one little heap of ashes!"

"Aye," cried Stubb, "but sea-coal ashes--mind ye that, Mr.
Starbuck--sea-coal, not your common charcoal. Well, well; I heard
Ahab mutter, 'Here some one thrusts these cards into these old hands
of mine; swears that I must play them, and no others.' And damn me,
Ahab, but thou actest right; live in the game, and die in it!"


Herman Melville

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