Ho, Ho

At the end of “Ho” (part 1 of “The Town-Ho’s Story”), brawny Steelkilt was about to clock wussy Radney, who had stupidly threatened him with a hammer. “Steelkilt told his persecutor that if the hammer but grazed his cheek he (Steelkilt) would murder him.”

Guess what happened? “Immediately the hammer touched the cheek; the next instant the lower jaw of the mate was stove in his head; he fell on the hatch spouting blood like [you’ll never guess] a whale.”

At that point, “a twisted turmoil ensued” with all the sailors piling on, including a couple of Canallers who “rushed into the uproar.”

Exciting stuff, eh? (Even the Classics Slacker’s cat, Señor Don Gato, began to stir.) But despite the rising action of the story, one of its listeners, Don Pedro, tragically asks for more details about “Canallers.” To which Ishmael replies, “Well then, Don, refill my cup. Your chicha’s very fine; and ere proceeding further I will tell ye what our Canallers are; for such information may throw side-light upon my story.”

No! No! No! It won’t! Canallers are just guys who work on the Erie Canal! Enough said! Too late. Ishmael is already drunk as (you’ll never guess) a sailor, and so digresses into yet another digression of the Town-Ho’s story, babbling on for five pages about Canallers.

At last Don Pedro, “spilling his chicha upon his silvery ruffles,” (Ack! Wine stains on metallic fabric! He’ll never get that out.) begs Ishmael to return to the story before he passes out. (As did, once again, Señor Don Gato.)

Oh yeah right, says Ishmael. Where was I?

Steelkilt and his fellow insurgents barricaded themselves behind some casks. The Captain, a pistol in each hand, roared: “Come out of that, ye cut-throats!”

Skeelkilt decided it was time to negotiate. They would go back to work if the Captain promised not to punish them. Replied the Captain: “Turn to! I make no promises, turn to, I say!” Skeelkilt pleaded his case four more times—mostly of the “he started it” variety—but to no avail.

The Captain issued an ultimatum: back to work or down into the forecastle—“a place as black as the bowels of despair.” Steelkilt chose the latter and convinced the rest of his buddies to do the same.

Long about day four, a few guys started to crack. “The fetid closeness of the air” (putting it mildly), and a “famishing diet” of “water and a couple handfuls of biscuits” (no, not gluten!) did them in. By the fifth day everyone had bailed except for Steelkilt and the aforementioned Canallers.

The next day the three who remained hatched an escape plan—until the Canallers decided to betray Steelkilt. While he was sleeping, they tied him up and forced him to the deck, surrendering him and ostensibly saving themselves.

Didn’t work. The captain punished the Canallers anyway, flogging them with a rope “till they yelled no more, but lifelessly hung their heads sideways, as the two crucified thieves are drawn.” Then Radney, still recovering from his jaw injury, took over, and lashed Steelkilt with the rope.

Over the next several days, Steelkilt pretended to be chastened. But in fact, he was planning “his own proper and private revenge upon the man who had stung him in the ventricles of his heart.” His plan: wait until Radney was sleeping, then bash his head in with an iron ball. Not too elegant, but effective.

As it turned out, Steelkilt didn’t have to murder anybody. “For by a mysterious fatality, Heaven itself seemed to step in to take out of his hands into its own the damning thing he would have done.” What did Heaven do? See the third and final installment of the Town-Ho’s Story:  “Ho, Ho, Ho.”

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