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.. < chapter xxviii 11 AHAB >

For several days after leaving Nantucket,
nothing above hatches was seen of Captain Ahab. The mates regularly relieved
each other at the watches, and for aught that could be seen to the contrary,
they seemed to be the only commanders of the ship; only they sometimes issued
from the cabin with orders so sudden and peremptory, that after all it was
plain they but commanded vicariously. Yes, their supreme lord and dictator
was there, though hitherto unseen by any eyes not permitted to penetrate into
the now sacred retreat of the cabin. Every time I ascended to the deck from my
watches below, I instantly gazed aft to mark if any strange face were
visible; for my first vague disquietude touching the unknown captain, now in
the seclusion of the sea, became almost a perturbation. This was strangely
heightened at times by the ragged Elijah's diabolical incoherences uninvitedly
recurring to me, with a subtle energy I could not have before conceived of.
But poorly could I withstand them, much as in other moods I was almost ready
to smile at the solemn whimsicalities of that outlandish prophet of the
wharves. But whatever it was of apprehensiveness or uneasiness --to call it so
--which I felt, yet whenever I came to look about me in the ship, it seemed
against all warrantry to
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cherish such emotions. For though the harpooneers, with the great body of
the crew, were a far more barbaric, heathenish, and motley set than any of the
tame merchant-ship companies which my previous experiences had made me
acquainted with, still I ascribed this --and rightly ascribed it --to the
fierce uniqueness of the very nature of that wild Scandinavian vocation in
which I had so abandonedly embarked. But it was especially the aspect of the
three chief officers of the ship, the mates, which was most forcibly
calculated to allay these colorless misgivings, and induce confidence and
cheerfulness in every presentment of the voyage. Three better, more likely
sea-officers and men, each in his own different way, could not readily be
found, and they were every one of them Americans; a Nantucketer, a
Vineyarder, a Cape man. Now, it being Christmas when the ship shot from out
her harbor, for a space we had biting Polar weather, though all the time
running away from it to the southward; and by every degree and minute of
latitude which we sailed, gradually leaving that merciless winter, and all
its intolerable weather behind us. It was one of those less lowering, but
still grey and gloomy enough mornings of the transition, when with a fair wind
the ship was rushing through the water with a vindictive sort of leaping and
melancholy rapidity, that as I mounted to the deck at the call of the forenoon
watch, so soon as I levelled my glance towards the taffrail, foreboding
shivers ran over me. Reality outran apprehension; Captain Ahab stood upon
his quarter-deck. There seemed no sign of common bodily illness about him,
nor of the recovery from any. He looked like a man cut away from the stake,
when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them,
or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole
high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable
mould, like Cellini's cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey
hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck,
till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly
whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the
straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning
..


tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and
grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil,
leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. Whether that mark was born
with him, or whether it was the scar left by some desperate wound, no one
could certainly say. By some tacit consent, throughout the voyage little or no
allusion was made to it, especially by the mates. But once Tashtego's
senior, an old Gay-Head Indian among the crew, superstitiously asserted that
not till he was full forty years old did Ahab become that way branded, and
then it came upon him, not in the fury of any mortal fray, but in an
elemental strife at sea. Yet, this wild hint seemed inferentially negatived,
by what a grey Manxman insinuated, an old sepulchral man, who, having never
before sailed out of Nantucket, had never ere this laid eye upon wild Ahab.
Nevertheless, the old sea-traditions, the immemorial credulities, popularly
invested this old Manxman with preternatural powers of discernment. So that
no white sailor seriously contradicted him when he said that if ever Captain
Ahab should be tranquilly laid out --which might hardly come to pass, so he
muttered --then, whoever should do that last office for the dead, would find a
birth-mark on him from crown to sole. So powerfully did the whole grim aspect
of Ahab affect me, and the livid brand which streaked it, that for the first
few moments I hardly noted that not a little of this overbearing grimness was
owing to the barbaric white leg upon which he partly stood. It had previously
come to me that this ivory leg had at sea been fashioned from the polished
bone of the sperm whale's jaw. Aye, he was dismasted off Japan, said the
old Gay-Head Indian once; but like his dismasted craft, he shipped another
mast without coming home for it. he has a quiver of 'em. I was struck with
the singular posture he maintained. Upon each side of the Pequod's quarter
deck, and pretty close to the mizen shrouds, there was an auger hole, bored
about half an inch or so, into the plank. His bone leg steadied in that hole;

one arm elevated, and holding by a shroud; Captain Ahab stood erect, looking
straight out beyond the ship's ever-pitching prow. There was an infinity of
firmest fortitude, a determinate unsurrenderable
..


wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance. Not
a word he spoke; nor did his officers say aught to him; though by all their
minutest gestures and expressions, they plainly showed the uneasy, if not
painful, consciousness of being under a troubled master-eye. And not only
that, but moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his
face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe. Ere
long, from his first visit in the air, he withdrew into his cabin. But after
that morning, he was every day visible to the crew; either standing in his
pivot-hole, or seated upon an ivory stool he had; or heavily walking the
deck. As the sky grew less gloomy; indeed, began to grow a little genial, he
became still less and less a recluse; as if, when the ship had sailed from
home, nothing but the dead wintry bleakness of the sea had then kept him so
secluded. And, by and by, it came to pass, that he was almost continually in
the air; but, as yet, for all that he said, or perceptibly did, on the at
last sunny deck, he seemed as unnecessary there as another mast. But the
Pequod was only making a passage now; not regularly cruising; nearly all
whaling preparatives needing supervision the mates were fully competent to,
so that there was little or nothing, out of himself, to employ or excite Ahab,
now; and thus chase away, for that one interval, the clouds that layer upon
layer were piled upon his brow, as ever all clouds choose the loftiest peaks
to pile themselves upon. Nevertheless, ere long, the warm, warbling
persuasiveness of the pleasant, holiday weather we came to, seemed gradually
to charm him from his mood. For, as when the red-cheeked, dancing girls,
April and May, trip home to the wintry, misanthropic woods; even the barest,
ruggedest, most thunder-cloven old oak will at least send forth some few green
sprouts, to welcome such glad-hearted visitants; so Ahab did, in the end, a
little respond to the playful allurings of that girlish air. More than once
did he put forth the faint blossom of a look, which, in any other man, would
have soon flowered out in a smile.
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