Chapter 124 The Needle

        What word can best describe Melville's style -- florid? Grandiloquent? Magniloquent? Consider the first paragraph: "Next morning the not-yet-subsided sea rolled in long slow billows of mighty bulk, and striving in the Pequod's gurgling track, pushed her on like giant's palms outspread. The strong, unstaggering breeze abounded so, that sky and air seemed vast outbellying sails; the whole world boomed before the wind. The invisible sun was known only by the spread intensity of his place. Emblazonings, as of crowned Babylonian kings and queens, reigned over everything. The sea was a crucible of molten gold, that bubblingly leaps with light and heat." Poetic would be most appropriate to Melville's style. But much more than poetic.

        Ahab regards this marvelous morning with bursting pride, calling his ship a "sea-chariot of the sun". But he senses something is wrong -- very wrong.

        "He hurried towards the helm, huskily demanding how the ship was heading.

        'East-sou-east, sir,' said the frightened steersman.'

        'Thou liest!' snapped Ahab, smiting him with his clenched fist. 'Heading East at this hour in the morning, and the sun astern?'"

        Well, old Ahab had him there. Poor fellow was heading West, but the compass told him he had been heading East all night long. Something wrong with the compass?

        "Thrusting his head half-way into the binnacle, Ahab caught one glimpse of the compasses; for a moment he almost seemed to stagger. Starbuck looked and lo! the two compasses pointed East, but the Pequod was as infallibly going West! The old man exclaimed, 'I have it! It has happened before, Mr. Starbuck, last night's thunder turned our compasses, that's all. Thou hast before now heard of such a thing, I take it.'

        'Aye; but never before has it happened to me, sir,' said the pale mate, gloomily.'"

        Melville then gives a little schoolmasterly lesson on how a jolt of electricity -- a lightning bolt -- can reverse the polarity of a magnet -- the compass needle being, in fact, a small magnet that responds to the earth's magnetic field. In the parlance of the times, the magnetism is referred to as "loadstone virtue". He then has Ahab seemingly perform a miracle for the crew.

        Declaring that he is "lord over the level loadstone", Ahab calls for a lance without the pole; a top-maul [hammer], and the smallest of sailmaker's needles. Quick! "The old man well knew that to steer by transpointed needles, though clumsily practicable, was not a thing to be passed over by superstitious sailors, without some shudderings and evil portents." So Ahab proceeded to magnetize the sailmaker's needle by tapping the steel shank of the lance while holding it properly in the magnetic field of the earth, and then using it to induce magnetism in the needle. When he hung the needle by a linen thread in the binnacle -- presto! it worked!

        "Stepping frankly back from the binnacle, and pointing his stretched arm towards it, Ahab exclaimed, 'Look ye, for yourselves, if Ahab not be lord of the level loadstone! The sun is East, and that compass [his needle] swears to it.'"

        "One after another they peered in, for nothing but their own eyes could persuade such ignorance as theirs. In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride." Melville leaves it unsaid that fatal pride goeth before a fatal fall.