As Ishmael and Queequeg are leaving the Pequod, they run into a man who does not identify himself, who asks if the two know the history of the Pequod, and of its Captain Ahab, whom the man calls “Old Thunder.” When the man persists, asking if Ishmael and Queequeg have signed the papers, and making insinuations and sighs—“what’s be will be,”—when Ishmael says that they have signed, Ishmael fires back, asking if the man has information about Ahab and his history that he wants to share. Ishmael adds that it is easy for a man to “pretend that he has a secret,” if he simply does not say entirely what he means.
The novel is, in many ways, a novel of prophecies, and in this chapter, the commentary of Elijah is no exception. Elijah seems to know that Ahab's search for the white whale will end in bloodshed for the crew. And yet it isn't clear whether Elijah is simply making an educated guess—based on the obvious fact of Ahab’s “monomania”—or whether Elijah does in fact have the ability to read the future, or if Elijah himself is crazy. Regardless, the dubious value of the prophet's prophecies is further marked by the fact that they come too late—Ishmael and Queequeg have already signed up.
But the man says only that Ahab lost his leg to a whale, and under suspicious circumstances. Ishmael asks the man’s name, and he replies that it’s Elijah, which Ishmael recognizes as the name of a Biblical prophet. Elijah asks also if Ishmael and Queequeg know about the “prophecies” regarding the Pequod, but when Ishmael asks for more information, Elijah leaves, then turns and follows many yards behind the two as they continue to walk along the wharf. Finally, however, when Ishmael decides to turn around and ask Elijah to explain his mysterious insinuations, he sees that Elijah has disappeared.
Elijah is also notable for his unwillingness to say, straight out, what he has prophesied regarding the ship and its crew. Once again Melville has filled the novel with omens and prophecies, while what is being prophesied or foreboded is entirely unclear, or made clear only in hindsight. And this is how it usually is with prophecy, that they imply that they will tell the future, but are understandable only in hindsight, when the future has come to pass. And it further highlights how men are always searching for clues to the future, to what will happen, and believe that they see such signs, but never really can know what "will be."