A week or two after the encounter with the armada, the Pequod comes upon an especially foul-smelling French ship called the Bouton-de-Rose (French, "Rose-Bud"). The source of the odor is two whales, now lashed to the ship, members of the armada and mortally wounded in the previous encounter with the men of the Pequod. They obviously have been dead a while. Stubb goes aboard and speaks to the French captain through an interpreter. As the Rose-Bud sails away, Stubb tows the smaller whale a short distance with his open boat and finds in it a valuable substance. Ahab has little interest in any of this because the Rose-Bud has not seen Moby Dick.
Melville employs the literary device of irony while describing the gam with the fragrantly titled Bouton-de Rose. There is irony in the name of the ship, the biography of the captain, Stubb's exchange with the captain, and the nature of (versus the source of) ambergris. In each case, the circumstance reveals a surprise, often the opposite of what might be expected.
First, the ship is French, and its name evokes not only a certain continental air of romance but also, literally, a beautiful flower with an attractive fragrance. What the crew of the Pequod finds is a ship with two decaying whales attached, the foul odor so strong that the Rose-Bud is smelled even before it is seen. The captain is a novice seaman, on his first voyage, having worked as a cologne manufacturer previously. He should have cut these whales loose long ago — or never taken them.
Stubb can't resist having some fun with the situation. Speaking to the captain through the one Englishman aboard, Stubb mocks the senior officer mercilessly. For example, he considers the captain "no more fit to command a whale-ship than a . . . monkey" and points out that he, Stubb, has "diddled" the man. The interpreter simply tells the captain that Stubb offers worthwhile advice: Cut loose the whales.
The source of ambergris is ironic. It is a valuable substance, yellow or ash in color, "unctuous and savory," used in perfume, scented candles, cooking, and as a flavor in certain wines (claret, for example). But it is found in the "inglorious bowels of a sick whale." Stubb has been at sea long enough to suspect that the offensive dead whale will contain a nice supply of the sweet, precious ambergris. He opens the whale and grabs six handfuls before Ahab insists that Stubb come back aboard ship so the Pequod can resume its journey.
anathema a thing or person damned or greatly detested.
diddled to have sexual intercourse with; here, victimized, messed with.
slander a false, damaging statement about a person made to another person.
aspersion a damaging or disparaging remark.