For many chapters now, we have been in the natural history phase -- a very readable one at that. Only a Melville could make the whale's anatomy the inspiration for such philosophizing and moralizing. Now we resume the romantic account of Ahab's appointment with his destiny, not at the hands of, but the tail of Moby Dick. The Pequod's destiny resides in the battering-ram head of Moby Dick; and that of Ishmael -- well, read on.
Five chapters ago, we read of Ahab's ill-mannered departure from the convivial company of the English whaleship Samuel Enderby. Perhaps we remember that he commanded the Enderby's sailors to lower him by block-and-tackle to his waiting boat. Here we learn that he must have jumped part-way down, because he slammed his ivory peg-leg on the "thwart" (wooden seat) of the boat so hard that it cracked the ivory. Next he jammed it in one of the holes drilled in the Pequod's deck and spinned around, making the damage worse. So he's got to have a new peg-leg made out of Sperm Whale jaw ivory that has been collected. This brings up a "direful mishap", an "unimaginable casualty" that happened to Ahab just before the Pequod sailed.
Back on quaint Nantucket, Ahab had been found one night "lying prone on the ground and insensible;" Now comes the ambiguous part. Melville writes (using the many, many commas characteristic of his work -- not to mention the plethora of semicolons) that -- "by some unknown, and seemingly inexplicable, unimaginable casualty, his ivory limb having been so violently displaced, that it had stake-wise smitten, and all but pierced his groin; nor was it without extreme difficulty that the agonizing wound was entirely cured." He didn't say that the peg-leg was broken; he said violently displaced. It is far from clear what this means, but Melville wanted to make some reference to Moby Dick's messing with the captain's genitals -- and so it came out like this. Had it not been for Moby Dick, Ahab would not have had a peg-leg to "stake-wise" smite him in the groin, &c., &c. Ergo! Death to Moby Dick!
Now that "direful mishap" remained unexplained -- "moodily unaccounted for by Ahab." What happened? Who knows? Quien sabe? Quien sabe, senor?
But anyway . . . Ahab needs a new peg leg. He's stumping around the Pequod deck on a piece of whalebone that could fracture and "stake-wise smite him" in the groin again. The last time, his "violently displaced" whalebone underpinning had "all but pierced his groin." This time -- just too painful to contemplate. Call the ship's carpenter, for heaven's sake! Get a new leg made out of Stubb's Sperm Whale's jawbone! Call the ship's blacksmith! Fire up the ship's forge! This is serious. O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip . . . your fearful trip . . .