All the yard-arms were tipped with a pallid fire; and touched at each tri-pointed lightning-rod-end with three tapering white flames, each of the three tall masts was silently burning in that sulphurous air, like three gigantic wax tapers before an altar.
“Blast the boat! let it go!” cried Stubb at this instant, as a swashing sea heaved up under his own little craft, so that its gunwale violently jammed his hand, as he was passing a lashing. “Blast it!”—but slipping backward on the deck, his uplifted eyes caught the flames; and immediately shifting his tone he cried—”The corpusants have mercy on us all!”
To sailors, oaths are household words; they will swear in the trance of the calm, and in the teeth of the tempest; they will imprecate curses from the topsail-yard-arms, when most they teeter over to a seething sea; but in all my voyagings, seldom have I heard a common oath when God’s burning finger has been laid on the ship; when His “Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin” has been woven into the shrouds and the cordage.
While this pallidness was burning aloft, few words were heard from the enchanted crew; who in one thick cluster stood on the forecastle, all their eyes gleaming in that pale phosphorescence, like a far away constellation of stars. Relieved against the ghostly light, the gigantic jet negro, Daggoo, loomed up to thrice his real stature, and seemed the black cloud from which the thunder had come. The parted mouth of Tashtego revealed his shark-white teeth, which strangely gleamed as if they too had been tipped by corpusants; while lit up by the preternatural light, Queequeg’s tattooing burned like Satanic blue flames on his body.
The tableau all waned at last with the pallidness aloft; and once more the Pequod and every soul on her decks were wrapped in a pall. A moment or two passed, when Starbuck, going forward, pushed against some one. It was Stubb. “What thinkest thou now, man; I heard thy cry; it was not the same in the song.”
“No, no, it wasn’t; I said the corpusants have mercy on us all; and I hope they will, still. But do they only have mercy on long faces?—have they no bowels for a laugh? And look ye, Mr. Starbuck—but it’s too dark to look. Hear me, then: I take that mast-head flame we saw for a sign of good luck; for those masts are rooted in a hold that is going to be chock a’ block with sperm-oil, d’ye see; and so, all that sperm will work up into the masts, like sap in a tree. Yes, our three masts will yet be as three spermaceti candles—that’s the good promise we saw.”
At that moment Starbuck caught sight of Stubb’s face slowly beginning to glimmer into sight. Glancing upwards, he cried: “See! see!” and once more the high tapering flames were beheld with what seemed redoubled supernaturalness in their pallor.
“The corpusants have mercy on us all,” cried Stubb, again.
At the base of the mainmast, full beneath the doubloon and the flame, the Parsee was kneeling in Ahab’s front, but with his head bowed away from him; while near by, from the arched and overhanging rigging, where they had just been engaged securing a spar, a number of the seamen, arrested by the glare, now cohered together, and hung pendulous, like a knot of numbed wasps from a drooping, orchard twig. In various enchanted attitudes, like the standing, or stepping, or running skeletons in Herculaneum, others remained rooted to the deck; but all their eyes upcast.
“Aye, aye, men!” cried Ahab. “Look up at it; mark it well; the white flame but lights the way to the White Whale! Hand me those mainmast links there; I would fain feel this pulse, and let mine beat against it; blood against fire! So.”