Chapter 28 AHAB

        [Note the biblical meaning of "Ahab" is "father's brother", i.e. uncle -- but far from avuncular is this Nantucket captain named for an evil king in the Old Testament!]

        Captain Ahab had been holed up in his cabin below deck. But the mates appeared to command the deck by proxy as the Pequod sped to the southeast, heading for the Pacific by way of the African coast, the Cape of Good Hope, the Indian Ocean, and the "Japan whaling banks". Before long, we will understand that this is no usual whaling voyage, but Ahab's personal vendetta against a monstrous white whale.

        Ishmael, though uneasy with his recollection of the dark intimations of Elijah, "the outlandish prophet of the wharves", is comforted by his impression of the three mates: "Three better, more likely sea-officers could not readily be found -- and they were every one of them Americans. Melville is emphasizing the contrast with the crew -- "a barbaric, heathenish and motley set" -- but Ishmael ascribes this as a natural consequence of their "wild Scandinavian vocation". This motley crew is bound together in a queer old whaleship that rushes through the water with a vindictive and melancholy rapidity.

        Finally, as the December weather of the north gives way to a more pleasant tropical atmosphere, suddenly "Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck" [The quarter deck of the whaleship is the sternmost one-quarter of the deck -- the area in which the Captain spends his time -- as opposed to the forward deck area, "before the mast" (i.e. the foremast) where the crew hangs out in the foc'stle (forecastle} below the deck.]

        A most ominous old salt is Ahab. Right off, mention must be made that he has one leg; the lost one replaced by a "barbaric" white ivory leg fashioned from the polished bone of a sperm whale's jaw. "Aye, he was dismasted off Japan," said an old Gay Head Indian once. Ahab had "auger holes" drilled in the deck, so he could insert the end of his whalebone leg in a hole to steady himself, "while he stood erect, looking straight out . . . with an infinity of firmest fortitude, unsurrenderable wilfulness, and fixed and fearless dedication." He bore a scar -- "threading its way out from among his grey hairs, continuing right down one side of his scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing." The superstition on board the Pequod is that their captain had been struck by lightning "in an elemental strife at sea". Ishmael tells us that Ahab's "whole high, broad form seemed made of solid bronze. Not a word he spoke, but moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless, regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe. Ere long, from his first visit in the air, he withdrew into his cabin." After that first morning, Ahab was visible every day to the crew -- with his peg leg in his pivot-hole, or seated on an ivory stool, saying or doing very little indeed -- although the warm, pleasant "holiday weather" was not quite able to chase away the clouds piled on his brow, nor to cause anything like a smile to visit his lips.