But at last in his untraceable evolutions, the White Whale so crossed and recrossed, and in a thousand ways entangled the slack of the three lines now fast to him, that they foreshortened, and, of themselves, warped the devoted boats towards the planted irons in him; though now for a moment the whale drew aside a little, as if to rally for a more tremendous charge. Seizing that opportunity, Ahab first paid out more line: and then was rapidly hauling and jerking in upon it again — hoping that way to disencumber it of some snarls — when lo! — a sight more savage than the embattled teeth of sharks!
Caught and twisted — corkscrewed in the mazes of the line, loose harpoons and lances, with all their bristling barbs and points, came flashing and dripping up to the chocks in the bows of Ahab's boat. Only one thing could be done. Seizing the boat-knife, he critically reached within — through — and then, without — the rays of steel; dragged in the line beyond, passed it, inboard, to the bowsman, and then, twice sundering the rope near the chocks — dropped the intercepted fagot of steel into the sea; and was all fast again. That instant, the White Whale made a sudden rush among the remaining tangles of the other lines; by so doing, irresistibly dragged the more involved boats of Stubb and Flask towards his flukes; dashed them together like two rolling husks on a surf-beaten beach, and then, diving down into the sea, disappeared in a boiling maelstrom, in which, for a space, the odorous cedar chips of the wrecks danced round and round, like the grated nutmeg in a swiftly stirred bowl of punch.
While the two crews were yet circling in the waters, reaching out after the revolving line-tubs, oars, and other floating furniture, while aslope little Flask bobbed up and down like an empty vial, twitching his legs upwards to escape the dreaded jaws of sharks; and Stubb was lustily singing out for some one to ladle him up; and while the old man's line — now parting — admitted of his pulling into the creamy pool to rescue whom he could; — in that wild simultaneousness of a thousand concreted perils, — Ahab's yet unstricken boat seemed drawn up towards Heaven by invisible wires, — as, arrow-like, shooting perpendicularly from the sea, the White Whale dashed his broad forehead against its bottom, and sent it, turning over and over, into the air; till it fell again — gunwale downwards — and Ahab and his men struggled out from under it, like seals from a sea-side cave.
The first uprising momentum of the whale — modifying its direction as he struck the surface — involuntarily launched him along it, to a little distance from the centre of the destruction he had made; and with his back to it, he now lay for a moment slowly feeling with his flukes from side to side; and whenever a stray oar, bit of plank, the least chip or crumb of the boats touched his skin, his tail swiftly drew back, and came sideways smiting the sea. But soon, as if satisfied that his work for that time was done, he pushed his pleated forehead through the ocean, and trailing after him the intertangled lines, continued his leeward way at a traveller's methodic pace.
As before, the attentive ship having descried the whole fight, again came bearing down to the rescue, and dropping a boat, picked up the floating mariners, tubs, oars, and whatever else could be caught at, and safely landed them on her decks. Some sprained shoulders, wrists, and ankles; livid contusions; wrenched harpoons and lances; inextricable intricacies of rope; shattered oars and planks; all these were there; but no fatal or even serious ill seemed to have befallen any one. As with Fedallah the day before, so Ahab was now found grimly clinging to his boat's broken half, which afforded a comparatively easy float; nor did it so exhaust him as the previous day's mishap.
But when he was helped to the deck, all eyes were fastened upon him; as instead of standing by himself he still half-hung upon the shoulder of Starbuck, who had thus far been the foremost to assist him. His ivory leg had been snapped off, leaving but one short sharp splinter.
"Aye, aye, Starbuck, 'tis sweet to lean sometimes, be the leaner who he will; and would old Ahab had leaned oftener than he has."
"The ferrule has not stood, sir," said the carpenter, now coming up; "I put good work into that leg."
"But no bones broken, sir, I hope," said Stubb with true concern.
"Aye! and all splintered to pieces, Stubb! — d'ye see it. — But even with a broken bone, old Ahab is untouched; and I account no living bone of mine one jot more me, than this dead one that's lost. Nor white whale, nor man, nor fiend, can so much as graze old Ahab in his own proper and inaccessible being. Can any lead touch yonder floor, any mast scrape yonder roof? — Aloft there! which way?"
"Dead to leeward, sir."
"Up helm, then; pile on the sail again, ship keepers! down the rest of the spare boats and rig them — Mr. Starbuck away, and muster the boat's crews."
"Let me first help thee towards the bulwarks, sir."
"Oh, oh, oh! how this splinter gores me now! Accursed fate! that the unconquerable captain in the soul should have such a craven mate!"
"My body, man, not thee. Give me something for a cane — there, that shivered lance will do. Muster the men. Surely I have not seen him yet. By heaven it cannot be! — missing? — quick! call them all."
The old man's hinted thought was true. Upon mustering the company, the Parsee was not there.
"The Parsee!" cried Stubb — "he must have been caught in — "
"The black vomit wrench thee! — run all of ye above, alow, cabin, forecastle — find him — not gone — not gone!"
But quickly they returned to him with the tidings that the Parsee was nowhere to be found.
"Aye, sir," said Stubb — "caught among the tangles of your line — I thought I saw him dragging under."
"MY line! MY line? Gone? — gone? What means that little word? — What death-knell rings in it, that old Ahab shakes as if he were the belfry. The harpoon, too! — toss over the litter there, — d'ye see it? — the forged iron, men, the white whale's — no, no, no, — blistered fool! this hand did dart it! — 'tis in the fish! — Aloft there! Keep him nailed — Quick! — all hands to the rigging of the boats — collect the oars — harpooneers! the irons, the irons! — hoist the royals higher — a pull on all the sheets! — helm there! steady, steady for your life! I'll ten times girdle the unmeasured globe; yea and dive straight through it, but I'll slay him yet!
"Great God! but for one single instant show thyself," cried Starbuck; "never, never wilt thou capture him, old man — In Jesus' name no more of this, that's worse than devil's madness. Two days chased; twice stove to splinters; thy very leg once more snatched from under thee; thy evil shadow gone — all good angels mobbing thee with warnings: — what more wouldst thou have? — Shall we keep chasing this murderous fish till he swamps the last man? Shall we be dragged by him to the bottom of the sea? Shall we be towed by him to the infernal world? Oh, oh, — Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!"
"Starbuck, of late I've felt strangely moved to thee; ever since that hour we both saw — thou know'st what, in one another's eyes. But in this matter of the whale, be the front of thy face to me as the palm of this hand — a lipless, unfeatured blank. Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act's immutably decreed. 'Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates' lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine. — Stand round me, men. Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. 'Tis Ahab — his body's part; but Ahab's soul's a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs. I feel strained, half stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so. But ere I break, yell hear me crack; and till ye hear THAT, know that Ahab's hawser tows his purpose yet. Believe ye, men, in the things called omens? Then laugh aloud, and cry encore! For ere they drown, drowning things will twice rise to the surface; then rise again, to sink for evermore. So with Moby Dick — two days he's floated — tomorrow will be the third. Aye, men, he'll rise once more, — but only to spout his last! D'ye feel brave men, brave?"
"As fearless fire," cried Stubb.
"And as mechanical," muttered Ahab. Then as the men went forward, he muttered on: "The things called omens! And yesterday I talked the same to Starbuck there, concerning my broken boat. Oh! how valiantly I seek to drive out of others' hearts what's clinched so fast in mine! — The Parsee — the Parsee! — gone, gone? and he was to go before: — but still was to be seen again ere I could perish — How's that? — There's a riddle now might baffle all the lawyers backed by the ghosts of the whole line of judges: — like a hawk's beak it pecks my brain. I'LL, I'LL solve it, though!"
When dusk descended, the whale was still in sight to leeward.
So once more the sail was shortened, and everything passed nearly as on the previous night; only, the sound of hammers, and the hum of the grindstone was heard till nearly daylight, as the men toiled by lanterns in the complete and careful rigging of the spare boats and sharpening their fresh weapons for the morrow. Meantime, of the broken keel of Ahab's wrecked craft the carpenter made him another leg; while still as on the night before, slouched Ahab stood fixed within his scuttle; his hid, heliotrope glance anticipatingly gone backward on its dial; sat due eastward for the earliest sun.