Chapter 126 The Life-Buoy

        The Pequod continues on her course southward to the Equator, hoping to meet Moby Dick there. Just outside of the Equatorial whaling-ground two unnerving episodes take place. The first comes "in the deep darkness that goes before the dawn". The whole watch is startled by "a cry so plaintively wild and unearthly -- like the half-articulated wailings of the ghosts of all Herod's murdered children." The Christians in the crew said it was mermaids and shuddered, but the pagan harpooneers (who knew what it was) were unappalled. The superstitious Manxman -- the oldest -- "declared that the wild thrilling sounds that were heard were the voices of newly drowned men in the sea." Ahab explained to Flask, who had taken to hinting dark meanings, that the sounds came from seals on nearby rocky islets. Ishmael -- remember him? -- tells us, "Most mariners cherish a very superstitious feeling about seals, arising not only from their peculiar tones when in distress, but also from the human look of their round heads and semi-intelligent faces, seen peeringly uprising from the water alongside. In the sea, under certain circumstances, seals have more than once been mistaken for men."

        The second episode seemed foretold by the first. At sunrise, a sailor climbed to the mast-head to look out for Moby Dick. A cry was heard as he fell through the air -- "a falling phantom" -- and he disappeared beneath the waves. A life-buoy in the form of a cask that had been hanging by a spring from the stern was thrown to the spot where he sank; but the wooden cask was so dried-up that it sank, too. "And thus the first man of the Pequod that mounted the mast to look out for the White Whale, on the White Whale's own peculiar ground, that man was swallowed up in the deep." Rather than consider this a portent of evil to come, the crew believed it was a fulfillment -- the reason for the wild shrieks heard in the night.

        The life-buoy had to be replaced. But search as he would, Starbuck was unable to find a proper cask or barrel for the purpose. It was Queequeg who then volunteered his coffin! Reluctantly, Starbuck ordered the carpenter to rig the coffin as a lifebuoy. This entailed nailing down the lid, caulking the seams, and paying pitch over the caulked seams -- just as though the coffin were a water-tight boat. Ultimately, we shall see how important this is.

        But for the time being, the carpenter is quite miffed about being given a cobbler's job, as he puts it.. He allows as how some superstitious carpenters would absolutely refuse to turn a coffin into a life-buoy, but the Pequod's carpenter says he'll do the job "tenderly".

        "Anyway, I'll have me -- let's see -- how many in the ship's company all told? I'll have me thirty separate Turk's-headed life lines hanging all around the coffin. Then if the hull go down, there'll be thirty lively fellows all fighting for one coffin, a sight not very often seen beneath the sun!"

        The coffin life-buoy will be hung over the stern with a snap-spring, which, should the vessel sink, would release the life-buoy for the use and salvation of survivors. Melville calls this a "cunning" spring more than once. Ultimately it plays an important part in this yarn.