Thursday, February 11, 2016

Moby Dick Ch. 54: The Town Ho's Story

The following is from a work-in-progress called "Moby Dick: a Book Report" in which I read each chapter of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick, and write about what I read.

While rounding the Cape of Good Hope, a busy thoroughfare for ships, the Pequod encountered a ship called the Town-Ho, and the two ships had a "gam"--an informal meeting at sea.  During this gam, one of the Town-Ho's crew related a story, secretly, to Tashtego the harpooneer, who mumbled it in his sleep, after which the story circulated among the Pequod's crew.  The version Ishmael tells is one he told years later to several Spanish dons in Lima, Peru.  In short, this is a somewhat unreliable story, as its being told third-hand several years after the fact.  Nevertheless, it's a whale of a tale.  Here it is...

Years ago, on the Nantucket-based ship The Town-Ho, a conflict arose between the ship's mate (an ugly man named Radney) and a crew member named Steelkilt, a valiant and handsome man from Buffalo, New York.  Steelkilt was a hardy canaller, meaning he sailed the Erie Canal, and the Great Lakes of America.  He was known as a "Lake Man."  Despite his higher ranking, Radney was jealous of Steelkilt, and Steelkilt often made fun of Radney.  Basically, the two men despised one another.

One day, the Town-Ho sprung a minor leak.  Steelkilt and his fellow crew members worked shifts to pump out the water, and they were supervised by Radney.  After Steelkilt had insulted Radney one too many times, the enraged mate ordered the Lake Man to do the demeaning and menial task of sweeping and shoveling the deck.  The proud Lake Man refused on principle.  Enraged, Radney wielded a hammer and commanded Steelkilt to comply.  Steelkilt said he would murder Radney if the hammer even touched his face.  Foolishly, Radney touched the hammer to his face.  The next moment, Steelkilt broke the mate's jaw.

A brawl ensued between supporters of Steelkilt and supporters of Radney.  The Town-Ho had a mutiny on its hands.  Steelkilt and his fellow Lake Men were tied up, flogged, and imprisoned for a time in the lower deck.  Eventually they were released.  It was in the midst of this conflict that, one day, a sailor of the Town-Ho spotted the white whale, Moby Dick himself!  In pursuit, Radney was eaten by the monster, thus giving Steelkilt the justice he sought.  When the Town-Ho reached land, Steelkilt and his fellow Lake Men deserted, and the captain picked up a new group of sailors, who were from Tahiti.

The Town-Ho's Story first appeared as a short story in Harper's.

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