Moby Dick

by Herman Melville

Chapter 118: The Quadrant

Additional Information
  • Year Published: 1851
  • Language: English
  • Country of Origin: United States of America
  • Source: Melville H. (1851). Moby Dick.London, England: Richard Bently.
  • Readability:
    • Flesch–Kincaid Level: 9.8
  • Word Count: 883
  • Genre: Adventure
  • Keywords: 19th century literature, american literature, herman melville, moby dick
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The season for the Line at length drew near; and every day when Ahab,coming from his cabin, cast his eyes aloft, the vigilant helmsmanwould ostentatiously handle his spokes, and the eager marinersquickly run to the braces, and would stand there with all their eyescentrally fixed on the nailed doubloon; impatient for the order topoint 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 hishigh-hoisted boat, was about taking his wonted daily observation ofthe sun to determine his latitude.

Now, in that Japanese sea, the days in summer are as freshets ofeffulgences. That unblinkingly vivid Japanese sun seems the blazingfocus of the glassy ocean’s immeasurable burning-glass. The skylooks lacquered; clouds there are none; the horizon floats; and thisnakedness of unrelieved radiance is as the insufferable splendors ofGod’s throne. Well that Ahab’s quadrant was furnished with colouredglasses, through which to take sight of that solar fire. So,swinging his seated form to the roll of the ship, and with hisastrological-looking instrument placed to his eye, he remained inthat posture for some moments to catch the precise instant when thesun should gain its precise meridian. Meantime while his wholeattention was absorbed, the Parsee was kneeling beneath him on theship’s deck, and with face thrown up like Ahab’s, was eyeing the samesun with him; only the lids of his eyes half hooded their orbs, andhis wild face was subdued to an earthly passionlessness. At lengththe desired observation was taken; and with his pencil upon his ivoryleg, Ahab soon calculated what his latitude must be at that preciseinstant. Then falling into a moment’s revery, he again looked uptowards the sun and murmured to himself: “Thou sea-mark! thou highand mighty Pilot! thou tellest me truly where I AM—but canst thoucast the least hint where I SHALL be? Or canst thou tell where someother thing besides me is this moment living? Where is Moby Dick?This instant thou must be eyeing him. These eyes of mine look intothe very eye that is even now beholding him; aye, and into the eyethat 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, itsnumerous 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; butwhat after all canst thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, wherethou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand thatholds thee: no! not one jot more! Thou canst not tell where one dropof water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet withthy impotence thou insultest the sun! Science! Curse thee, thouvain toy; and cursed be all the things that cast man’s eyes aloft tothat heaven, whose live vividness but scorches him, as these old eyesare even now scorched with thy light, O sun! Level by nature to thisearth’s horizon are the glances of man’s eyes; not shot from thecrown 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 Iguide my earthly way by thee; the level ship’s compass, and the leveldeadreckoning, by log and by line; THESE shall conduct me, and showme my place on the sea. Aye,” lighting from the boat to the deck,“thus I trample on thee, thou paltry thing that feebly pointest onhigh; thus I split and destroy thee!”

As the frantic old man thus spoke and thus trampled with his live anddead feet, a sneering triumph that seemed meant for Ahab, and afatalistic despair that seemed meant for himself—these passed overthe mute, motionless Parsee’s face. Unobserved he rose and glidedaway; while, awestruck by the aspect of their commander, the seamenclustered together on the forecastle, till Ahab, troubledly pacingthe deck, shouted out—”To the braces! Up helm!—square in!”

In an instant the yards swung round; and as the ship half-wheeledupon her heel, her three firm-seated graceful masts erectly poisedupon her long, ribbed hull, seemed as the three Horatii pirouettingon one sufficient steed.

Standing between the knight-heads, Starbuck watched the Pequod’stumultuous 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, fullof 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 ofthine, 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 heardAhab mutter, ‘Here some one thrusts these cards into these old handsof 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!”