12. The Timoneer's Story -

by Herman Melville

Herman Melville

But ere those Sinbads had begun
Their Orient Decameron,
Rolfe rose, to view the further hall.
Here showed, set up against the wall,
Heroic traditionary arms,
Protecting tutelary charms
(Like Godfrey's sword and Baldwin's spur
In treasury of the Sepulchre,
Wherewith they knighthood yet confer,
The monks or their Superior)
Sanctified heirlooms of old time;
With trophies of the paynim clime;
These last with tarnish on the gilt,
The jewels vanished from the hilt.
Upon one serpent-curving blade
Love-motto beamed from Antar's rhyme
In Arabic. A second said
(A scimetar the Turk had made,
And likely, it had clove a skull),
I N NAME OF G OD THE M ERCIFUL !
A third was given suspended place,
And as in salutation waved,
And in old Greek was finely graved
With this: Hail , M ARY, FULL OF GRACE !

'Tis a rare sheaf of arms be here,
Thought Rolfe: " Who's this?" and turned to peer.
At one who had but late come in,
(A stranger) and, avoiding din
Made by each distant reveller,
Anchored beside him. His sea-gear
Announced a pilgrim-timoneer.
The weird and weather-beaten face,
Bearded and pitted, and fine vexed
With wrinkles of cabbala text,
Did yet reveal a twinge-like trace
Of some late trial undergone:
Nor less a beauty grave pertained
To him, part such as is ordained
To eld, for each age hath its own,
And even scars may share the tone.
Bald was his head as any bell —
Quite bald, except a silvery round
Of small curled budlike locks which bound
His temples as with asphodel
Such he, who in nigh nook disturbed
Upon his mat by late uncurbed
Light revel, came with air subdued,
And by the clustered arms here stood
Regarding them with dullish eye
Of some old reminiscence sad.
On him Rolfe gazed: " And do ye sigh?
Hardly they seem to cheer ye: why?"
He pursed the mouth and shook the head.
" But speak!" " 'Tis but an old bewailing."
" No matter, tell" " 'Twere unavailing."
" Come, now"
" Since you entreat of me —
'Tis long-ago — I'm aged, see —
From Egypt sailing — hurrying too —
For spite the sky there, always blue,
And blue-daubed seas so bland, the pest
Was breaking out — the people quailing
In houses hushed; from Egypt sailing,
In ship, I say, which shunned the pest,
Cargo half-stored, and — and — alack!
One passenger of visage black,
But whom a white robe did invest
And linen turban, like the rest —
A Moor he was, with but a chest; —
A fugitive poor Wahabee —
So ran his story — who by me
Was smuggled aboard; and ah, a crew
That did their wrangles still renew,
Jabbing the poniard in the fray,
And mutinous withal; — I say,
From Egypt bound for Venice sailing —
On Friday — well might heart forebode!
In this same craft from Cadiz hailing,
Christened by friar " The Peace of God "
(She laden now with rusted cannon
Which long beneath the Crescent's pennon
On beach had laid, condemned and dead,
Beneath a rampart, and from bed
Were shipped off to be sold and smelted
And into new artillery melted) —
I say that to The Peace of God
(Your iron the salt seas corrode)
I say there fell to her unblest
A hap more baleful than the pest.
Yea, from the first I knew a fear,
So strangely did the needle veer.
A gale came up, with frequent din
Of cracking thunder out and in:
Corposants on yard-arms did burn,
Red lightning forked upon the stern:
The needle like an imp did spin.
Three gulls continual plied in wake,
Which wriggled like a wounded snake,
For I, the wretched timoneer,
By fitful stars yet tried to steer
'Neath shortened sail. The needle flew
(The glass thick blurred with damp and dew),
And flew the ship we knew not where.
Meantime the mutinous bad crew
Got at the casks and drowned despair,
Carousing, fighting. What to do?
To all the saints I put up prayer,
Seeing against the gloomy shades
Breakers in ghastly palisades.
Nevertheless she took the rocks;
And dinning through the grinds and shocks,
(Attend the solving of the riddle)
I heard the clattering of blades
Shaken within the Moor's strong-box
In cabin underneath the needle
How screamed those three birds round the mast
Slant going over. The keel was broken
And heaved aboard us for death-token.
To quit the wreck I was the last,
Yet I sole wight that 'scaped the sea."
" But he, the Moor?"
" O, sorcery!
For him no heaven is, no atoner.
He proved an armourer, the Jonah!
And dealt in blades that poisoned were,
A black lieutenant of Lucifer.
I heard in Algiers, as befell
Afterward, his crimes of hell.
I'm far from superstitious, see;
But arms in sheaf, somehow they trouble me."
" Ha, trouble, trouble? what 's that, pray?
I 've heard of it; bad thing, they say;

" Bug there, lady bug, plumped in your wine?
Only rose-leaves flutter by mine!"

The gracioso man, 'twas he,
Flagon in hand, held tiltingly.
How peered at him that timoneer,
With what a changed, still, merman-cheer,
As much he could, but would not say:
So murmuring naught, he moved away
" Old, old," the Lesbian dropped; " old — dry:
Remainder biscuit; and alas,
But recent 'scaped from luckless pass."
" Indeed? relate." — " Oh, by and by."
But Rolfe would have it then. And so
The incident narrated was
Forthwith.
Recast, it thus may flow:
The shipmen of the Cyclades
Being Greeks, even of St. Saba's creed,
Are frequent pilgrims. From the seas
Greek convents welcome them, and feed.
Agath, with hardy messmates ten,
To Saba, and on foot, had fared
From Joppa. Duly in the glen
His prayers he said; but rashly dared
Afar to range without the wall.
Upon him fell a robber-brood,
Some Ammonites. Choking his call,
They beat and stripped him, drawing blood,
And left him prone. His mates made search
With friars, and ere night found him so,
And bore him moaning back to porch
Of Saba's refuge. Cure proved slow;
The end his messmates might not wait;
Therefore they left him unto love
And charity — within that gate
Not lacking. Mended now in main,
Or convalescent, he would fain
Back unto Joppa make remove
With the first charitable train.
His story told, the teller turned
And seemed like one who instant yearned
To rid him of intrusive sigh:
" Yon happier pilgrim, by the by —
I like him: his vocation, pray?
Purveyor he? like me, purvey?"
" Ay — for the conscience: he 's our priest."
" Priest? he 's a grape, judicious one —
Keeps on the right side of the sun.
But here 's a song I heard at feast."





Last updated January 14, 2019