Ishmael pays for the inn’s room with some of Queequeg’s money, and the two place their belongings—both their bags—into a wheelbarrow they borrow from someone on the street. As Ishmael and Queequeg walk down to the wharf, to pick up the packet-steamer Moss, which will take them to Nantucket, some people on the street stare at the apparent friendship of a white man and a “cannibal.”
Melville has prepared the reader to accept that a man from Polynesia and a man from New York City might walk together in New Bedford, or in Nantucket—these whaling and fishing towns were among the most diverse and cosmopolitan of American locales in the mid-1800s.
Queequeg tells Ishmael a story of the first time he saw a wheelbarrow, in Sag Harbor. Not knowing what to do with it, he strapped his belongings inside and strapped the wheelbarrow to his shoulders, thus carrying it through the crowds instead of wheeling it. When Ishmael wonders aloud that Queequeg must have been taken for a foreign fool, Queequeg tells another story, of a white sailor who landed on the island of Kokovoko once, and who went to a large banquet with all the island’s dignitaries. The white captain, thinking that a large punchbowl was a “finger-glass,” rinsed his hands in it, only to be laughed at by all those present, who knew the bowl was for the purpose of ceremonial drinking.
Queequeg here demonstrates an important lesson in the “relatively” of politeness and etiquette across cultures. On the one hand, in the US, Queequeg is viewed as a hopelessly crude savage, one who does not understand even the most fundamental of American customs. But Queequeg is just as quick to point out that every culture has its customs—and, therefore, that every culture has its own conception of what is polite and what is “savage.”
Queequeg and Ishmael load their belongings onto the Moss, and set out through the cold wind for Nantucket. Once the boat is underway, Queequeg finds a “young sapling,” about to set out on his first whaling voyage, making fun of Queequeg “behind his back.” Queequeg takes the young boy and throws him up in the air. The boy lands on his feet unharmed, but the captain of the Moss comes up to Queequeg and upbraids him, saying that Queequeg could have killed the boy. When Ishmael intervenes and explains to Queequeg the captain’s words, Queequeg replies that the boy was a “small fish,” and that Queequeg has no need to harm such a small creature.
The first of Queequeg’s rescues. Here, Ishmael and Melville never mention this particular boy again, but it is safe to say that Melville has inserted this scene in order to foreshadow Queequeg’s rescue of other characters in the novel, including Pip, after he falls out of Stubb’s whaling-boat. Queequeg has courage and a willingness to help others that people who see him as a savage do not. In a sense, too, Queequeg is Ishmael’s “savior,” as the life-buoy intended for him—the man’s casket—is the flotation device Ishmael uses after the Pequod sinks.
But just after this conversation, the winds whip the boom back and forth, and the boom knocks the young boy off the decks of the ship. Queequeg, sensing that the boy might drown, throws a line around the boom to steady it, and jumps into the water, finding the boy beneath the waves and swimming him back to the Moss, and to safety. The boy and the captain are thankful for Queequeg’s efforts, and Ishmael remarks to himself that, after this moment, he “clove to Queequeg like a barnacle.” Queequeg accepts only fresh water as repayment, and calmly smokes his tomahawk-pipe on deck.
Queequeg’s virtue and courage are characterized by an inability to glory in his achievements. Where other sailors might attempt to use their “rescues” in order to advance their careers, or perhaps to lighten their other duties aboard the vessel, Queequeg is content to do a good deed, to receive some small recognition for it, and to carry on with himself.