This page contains affiliate links. As Amazon Associates we earn from qualifying purchases.
Writers:
Language:
Form:
Genre:
Published:
  • 1898
Collection:
Tag:
Buy it on Amazon Subscribe to Audible

architecture of the coral was plainly visible through the brilliantly-clear sea, while, wherever the tiny builders had raised their fairy domain near the surface, an occasional roller would crown it with a snowy garland of foam–a dazzling patch of white against the sapphire sea. Altogether, such a panorama was spread out at our feet, as we stood gazing from the lofty crow’s- nest, as was worth a year or two of city life to witness. I could not help pitying my companion, one of the Portuguese harpooners, who stolidly munched his quid with no eyes for any of these glorious pictures, no thought of anything but a possible whale in sight.

My silent rhapsodies were rudely interrupted by something far away on the horizon. Hardly daring to breathe, I strained my eyes, and–yes, it was–“Ah blow-w-w-w!” I bellowed at the top of my lung-power, never before had I had the opportunity of thus distinguishing myself, and I felt a bit sore about it.

There was a little obliquity about the direction of the spout that made me hopeful, for the cachalot alone sends his spout diagonally upward, all the others spout vertically. It was but a school of kogia, or “short-headed” cachalots; but as we secured five of them, averaging seven barrels each, with scarcely any trouble, I felt quite pleased with myself. We had quite an exciting bit of sport with them, they were so lively; but as for danger–well, they only seemed like big “black fish” to us now, and we quite enjoyed the fun. They were, in all respects, miniature sperm whales, except that the head was much shorter and smaller in proportion to the body than their big relations.

*

CHAPTER XI

ROUND THE COCOS AND SEYCHELLES

Hitherto, with the exception of a couple of gales in the North and South Atlantic, we had been singularly fortunate in our weather. It does happen so sometimes.

I remember once making a round voyage from Cardiff to Hong Kong and the Philippines, back to London, in ten months, and during the whole of that time we did not have a downright gale. The worst weather we encountered was between Beachy Head and Portland, going round from London to Cardiff.

And I once spoke the barque LUTTERWORTH, a companion ship to us from Portland, Oregon to Falmouth, whose mate informed me that they carried their royals from port to port without ever furling them once, except to shift the suit of sails. But now a change was evidently imminent. Of course, we forward had no access to the barometer; not that we should have understood its indications if we had seen it, but we all knew that something was going to be radically wrong with the weather. For instead of the lovely blue of the sky we had been so long accustomed to by day and night, a nasty, greasy shade had come over the heavens, which, reflected in the sea, made that look dirty and stale also. That well-known appearance of the waves before a storm was also very marked, which consists of an undecided sort of break in their tops. Instead of running regularly, they seemed to hunch themselves up in little heaps, and throw off a tiny flutter of spray, which generally fell in the opposite direction to what little wind there was. The pigs and fowls felt the approaching change keenly, and manifested the greatest uneasiness, leaving their food and acting strangely. We were making scarcely any headway, so that the storm was longer making its appearance than it would have been had we been a swift clipper ship running down the Indian Ocean. For two days we were kept in suspense; but on the second night the gloom began to deepen, the wind to moan, and a very uncomfortable “jobble” of a sea got up. Extra, “gaskets” were put upon the sails, and everything movable about the decks was made as secure as it could be. Only the two close-reefed topsails and two storm stay-sails were carried, so that we were in excellent trim for fighting the bad weather when it did come. The sky gradually darkened and assumed a livid green tint, the effect of which was most peculiar.

The wind blew fitfully in short, gusts, veering continually back and forth over about a quarter of the compass. Although it was still light, it kept up an incessant mournful moan not to be accounted for in any way. Darker and darker grew the heavens, although no clouds were visible, only a general pall of darkness. Glimmering lightnings played continually about the eastern horizon, but not brilliant enough to show us the approaching storm-cloud. And so came the morning of the third day from the beginning of the change. But for the clock we should hardly have known that day had broken, so gloomy and dark was the sky. At last light came in the east, but such a light as no one would wish to see. It was a lurid glare, such as may be seen playing over a cupola of Bessemer steel when the speigeleisen is added, only on such an extensive scale that its brilliancy was dulled into horror. Then, beneath it we saw the mountainous clouds fringed with dull violet and with jagged sabres of lightning darting from their solid black bosoms. The wind began to rise steadily but rapidly, so that by eight a.m. it was blowing a furious gale from E.N.E. In direction it was still unsteady, the ship coming up and falling off to it several points. Now, great masses of torn, ragged cloud hurtled past us above, so low down as almost to touch the mastheads. Still the wind increased, still the sea rose, till at last the skipper judged it well to haul down the tiny triangle of storm stay-sail still set (the topsail and fore stay-sail had been furled long before), and let her drift under bare poles, except for three square feet of stout canvas in the weather mizen-rigging. The roar of the wind now dominated every sound, so that it might have been thundering furiously, but we should not have heard it. The ship still maintained her splendid character as a sea-boat, hardly shipping a drop of water; but she lay over at a most distressing angle, her deck sloping off fully thirty-five to forty degrees. Fortunately she did not roll to windward. It may have been raining in perfect torrents, but the tempest tore off the surface of the sea, and sent it in massive sheets continually flying over us, so that we could not possibly have distinguished between fresh water and salt.

The chief anxiety was for the safety of the boats. Early on the second day of warning they had been hoisted to the topmost notch of the cranes, and secured as thoroughly as experience could suggest; but at every lee lurch we gave it seemed as if we must dip them under water, while the wind threatened to stave the weather ones in by its actual solid weight. It was now blowing a furious cyclone, the force of which has never been accurately gauged (even by the present elaborate instruments of various kinds in use). That force is, however, not to be imagined by any one who has not witnessed it, except that one notable instance is on record by which mathematicians may get an approximate estimate.

Captain Toynbee, the late highly respected and admired Marine Superintendent of the British Meteorological Office, has told us how, during a cyclone which he rode out in the HOTSPUR at Sandheads, the mouth of the Hooghly, the three naked topgallant- masts of his ship, though of well-tested timber a foot in diameter, and supported by all the usual network of stays, and without the yards, were snapped off and carried away solely by the violence of the wind. It must, of course, have been an extreme gust, which did not last many seconds, for no cable that was ever forged would have held the ship against such a cataclysm as that. This gentleman’s integrity is above suspicion, so that no exaggeration could be charged against him, and he had the additional testimony of his officers and men to this otherwise incredible fact.

The terrible day wore on, without any lightening of the tempest, till noon, when the wind suddenly fell to a calm. Until that time, the sea, although heavy, was not vicious or irregular, and we had not shipped any heavy water at all. But when the force of the wind was suddenly withdrawn, such a sea arose as I have never seen before or since. Inky mountains of water raised their savage heads in wildest confusion, smashing one another in whirlpools of foam. It was like a picture of the primeval deep out of which arose the new-born world. Suddenly out of the whirling blackness overhead the moon appeared, nearly in the zenith, sending down through the apex of a dome of torn and madly gyrating cloud a flood of brilliant light. Illumined by that startling radiance, our staunch and seaworthy ship was tossed and twirled in the hideous vortex of mad sea until her motion was distracting. It was quite impossible to loose one’s hold and attempt to do anything without running the imminent risk of being dashed to pieces. Our decks were full of water now, for it tumbled on board at all points; but as yet no serious weight of a sea had fallen upon us, nor had any damage been done. Such a miracle as that could not be expected to continue for long. Suddenly a warning shout rang out from somewhere–“Hold on all, for your lives!” Out of the hideous turmoil around arose, like some black, fantastic ruin, an awful heap of water. Higher and higher it towered, until it was level with our lower yards, then it broke and fell upon us. All was blank. Beneath that mass every thought, every feeling, fled but one–“How long shall I be able to hold my breath?” After what seemed a never-ending time, we emerged from the wave more dead than alive, but with the good ship still staunch underneath us, and Hope’s lamp burning brightly. The moon had been momentarily obscured, but now shone out again, lighting up brilliantly our bravely-battling ship. But, alas for others!–men, like ourselves, whose hopes were gone. Quite near us was the battered remainder of what had been a splendid ship. Her masts were gone, not even the stumps being visible, and it seemed to our eager eyes as if she was settling down. It was even so, for as we looked, unmindful of our own danger, she quietly disappeared–swallowed up with her human freight in a moment, like a pebble dropped into a pond.

While we looked with hardly beating hearts at the place where she had sunk, all was blotted out in thick darkness again. With a roar, as of a thousand thunders, the tempest came once more, but from the opposite direction now. As we were under no sail, we ran little risk of being caught aback; but, even had we, nothing could have been done, the vessel being utterly out of control, besides the impossibility of getting about. It so happened, however, that when the storm burst upon us again, we were stern on to it, and we drove steadily for a few moments until we had time to haul to the wind again. Great heavens! how it blew! Surely, I thought, this cannot last long–just as we sometimes say of the rain when it is extra heavy. It did last, however, for what seemed an interminable time, although any one could see that the sky was getting kindlier. Gradually, imperceptibly, it took off, the sky cleared, and the tumult ceased, until a new day broke in untellable beauty over a revivified world.

Years afterwards I read, in one of the hand-books treating of hurricanes and cyclones, that “in the centre of these revolving storms the sea is so violent that few ships can pass through it and live.” That is true talk. I have been there, and bear witness that but for the build and sea-kindliness of the CACHALOT, she could not have come out of that horrible cauldron again, but would have joined that nameless unfortunate whom we saw succumb, “never again heard of.” As it was, we found two of the boats stove in, whether by breaking sea or crushing wind nobody knows. Most of the planking of the bulwarks was also gone, burst outward by the weight of the water on deck. Only the normal quantity of water was found in the well on sounding, and not even a rope-yarn was gone from aloft. Altogether, we came out of the ordeal triumphantly, where many a gallant vessel met her fate, and the behaviour of the grand old tub gave me a positive affection for her, such as I have never felt for a ship before or since.

There was now a big heap of work for the carpenter, so the skipper decided to run in for the Cocos or Keeling islands, in order to lay quietly and refit. We had now only three boats sound, the one smashed when poor Bamberger died being still unfinished–of course, the repairs had practically amounted to rebuilding. Therefore we kept away for this strange assemblage of reefs and islets, arriving off them early the next day.

They consist of a true “atoll,” or basin, whose rim is of coral reefs, culminating occasionally in sandy islands or cays formed by the accumulated debris washed up from the reef below, and then clothed upon with all sorts of plants by the agency of birds and waves.

These islands have lately been so fully described in many different journals, that I shall not burden the reader with any twice-told tales about them, but merely chronicle the fact that for a week we lay at anchor off one of the outlying cays, toiling continuously to get the vessel again in fighting trim.

At last the overworked carpenter and his crew got through their heavy task, and the order was given to “man the windlass.” Up came the anchor, and away we went again towards what used to be a noted haunt of the sperm whale, the Seychelle Archipelego. Before the French, whose flag flies over these islands, had with their usual short-sighted policy, clapped on prohibitive port charges, Mahe was a specially favoured place of call for the whalers. But when whale-ships find that it does not pay to visit a place, being under no compulsion as regards time, they soon find other harbours that serve their turn. We, of course, had no need to visit any port for some time to come, having made such good use of our opportunities at the Cocos.

We found whales scarce and small, so, although we cruised in this vicinity for nearly two months, six small cow cachalots were all we were able to add to our stock, representing less then two hundred barrels of oil. This was hardly good enough for Captain Slocum. Therefore, we gradually drew away from this beautiful cluster of islands, and crept across the Indian Ocean towards the Straits of Malacca. On the way, we one night encountered that strange phenomenon, a “milk” sea. It was a lovely night, with scarcely any wind, the stars trying to make up for the absence of the moon by shining with intense brightness. The water had been more phosphorescent than usual, so that every little fish left a track of light behind him, greatly disproportionate to his size. As the night wore on, the sea grew brighter and brighter, until by midnight we appeared to be sailing on an ocean of lambent flames. Every little wave that broke against the ship’s side sent up a shower of diamond-like spray, wonderfully beautiful to see, while a passing school of porpoises fairly set the sea blazing as they leaped and gambolled in its glowing waters. Looking up from sea to sky, the latter seemed quite black instead of blue, and the lustre of the stars was diminished till they only looked like points of polished steel, having quite lost for the time their radiant sparkle. In that shining flood the blackness of the ship stood out in startling contrast, and when we looked over the side our faces were strangely lit up by the brilliant glow.

For several hours this beautiful appearance persisted, fading away at last as gradually as it came. No satisfactory explanation of this curious phenomenon has ever been given, nor does it appear to portend any change of weather. It cannot be called a rare occurrence, although I have only seen it thrice myself– once in the Bay of Cavite, in the Philippine Islands; once in the Pacific, near the Solomon Islands; and on this occasion of which I now write. But no one who had ever witnessed it could forget so wonderful a sight.

One morning, a week after are had taken our departure from the Seychelles, the officer at the main crow’s-nest reported a vessel of some sort about five miles to the windward. Something strange in her appearance made the skipper haul up to intercept her. As we drew nearer, we made her out to be a Malay “prahu;” but, by the look of her, she was deserted. The big three-cornered sail that had been set, hung in tattered festoons from the long, slender yard, which, without any gear to steady it, swung heavily to and fro as the vessel rolled to the long swell. We drew closer and closer, but no sign of life was visible on board, so the captain ordered a boat to go and investigate.

In two minutes we were speeding away towards her, and, making a sweep round her stern, prepared to board her. But we were met by a stench so awful that Mr. Count would not proceed, and at once returned to the ship. The boat was quickly hoisted again, and the ship manoeuvred to pass close to windward of the derelict. Then, from our mast-head, a horrible sight became visible. Lying about the weather-beaten deck, in various postures, were thirteen corpses, all far advanced in decay, which horrible fact fully accounted for the intolerable stench that had driven us away. It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that we promptly hauled our wind, and placed a good distance between us and that awful load of death as soon as possible. Poor wretches! What terrible calamity had befallen them, we could not guess; whatever it was, it had been complete; nor would any sane man falling across them run the risk of closer examination into details than we had done. It was a great pity that we were not able to sink the prahu with her ghastly cargo, and so free the air from that poisonous foetor that was a deadly danger to any vessel getting under her lee.

Next day, and for a whole week after, we had a stark calm such a calm as one realizes who reads sympathetically that magical piece of work, the “Ancient Mariner.” What an amazing instance of the triumph of the human imagination! For Coleridge certainly never witnessed such a scene as he there describes with an accuracy of detail that is astounding. Very few sailors have noticed the sickening condition of the ocean when the life-giving breeze totally fails for any length of time, or, if they have, they have said but little about it. Of course, some parts of the sea show the evil effects of stagnation much sooner than others; but, generally speaking, want of wind at sea, if long continued, produces a condition of things dangerous to the health of any land near by. Whale-ships, penetrating as they do to parts carefully avoided by ordinary trading vessels, often afford their crews an opportunity of seeing things mostly hidden from the sight of man, when, actuated by some mysterious impulse, the uncanny denizens of the middle depths of the ocean rise to higher levels, and show their weird shapes to the sun.

*

CHAPTER XII

WHICH TREATS OF THE KRAKEN

It has often been a matter for considerable surprise to me, that while the urban population of Great Britain is periodically agitated over the great sea-serpent question, sailors, as a class, have very little to say on the subject. During a considerable sea experience in all classes of vessels, except men-of-war, and in most positions, I have heard a fairly comprehensive catalogue of subjects brought under dog-watch discussion; but the sea-serpent has never, within my recollection, been one of them.

The reasons for this abstinence may vary a great deal, but chief among them is–sailors, as a class, “don’t believe in no such a pusson.” More than that, they do believe that the mythical sea- serpent is “boomed” at certain periods, in the lack of other subjects, which may not be far from the fact. But there is also another reason, involving a disagreeable, although strictly accurate, statement. Sailors are, again taken as a class, the least observant of men. They will talk by the hour of trivialities about which they know nothing; they will spin interminable “cuffers” of debaucheries ashore all over the world; pick to pieces the reputation of all the officers with whom they have ever sailed; but of the glories, marvels, and mysteries of the mighty deep you will hear not a word. I can never forget when on my first voyage to the West Indies, at the age of twelve, I was one night smitten with awe and wonder at the sight of a vast halo round the moon, some thirty or forty degrees in diameter. Turning to the man at the wheel, I asked him earnestly “what THAT was.” He looked up with an uninterested eye for an instant in the direction of my finger, then listlessly informed me, “That’s what they call a sarcle.” For a long time I wondered what he could mean, but it gradually dawned upon me that it was his Norfolk pronunciation of the word “circle.” The definition was a typical one, no worse than would be given by the great majority of seamen of most of the natural phenomena they witness daily. Very few seamen could distinguish between one whale and another of a different species, or give an intelligible account of the most ordinary and often-seen denizens of the sea. Whalers are especially to be blamed for their blindness. “Eyes and no Eyes; or the Art of Seeing” has evidently been little heard of among them. To this day I can conceive of no more delightful journey for a naturalist to take than a voyage in a southern whaler, especially if he were allowed to examine at his leisure such creatures as were caught. But on board the CACHALOT I could get no information at all upon the habits of the strange creatures we met with, except whales, and very little about them.

I have before referred to the great molluscs upon which the sperm whale feeds, portions of which I so frequently saw ejected from the stomach of dying whales. Great as my curiosity naturally was to know more of these immense organisms, all my inquiries on the subject were fruitless. These veterans of the whale-fishery knew that the sperm whale lived on big cuttlefish; but they neither knew, nor cared to know, anything more about these marvellous molluscs. Yet, from the earliest dawn of history, observant men have been striving to learn something definite about the marine monsters of which all old legends of the sea have something to say.

As I mentioned in the last chapter, we were gradually edging across the Indian Ocean towards Sumatra, but had been checked in our course by a calm lasting a whole week. A light breeze then sprang up, aided by which we crept around Achin Head, the northern point of the great island of Sumatra. Like some gigantic beacon, the enormous mass of the Golden Mountain dominated the peaceful scene. Pulo Way, or Water Island, looked very inviting, and I should have been glad to visit a place so well known to seamen by sight, but so little known by actual touching at. Our recent stay at the Cocos, however, had settled the question of our calling anywhere else for some time decidedly in the negative, unless we might be compelled by accident; moreover, even in these days of law and order, it is not wise to go poking about among the islands of the Malayan seas unless you are prepared to fight. Our mission being to fight whales, we were averse to running any risks, except in the lawful and necessary exercise of our calling.

It would at first sight appear strange that, in view of the enormous traffic of steamships through the Malacca Straits, so easily “gallied” a creature as the cachalot should care to frequent its waters; indeed, I should certainly think that a great reduction in the numbers of whales found there must have taken place. But it must also be remembered, that in modern steam navigation certain well-defined courses are laid down, which vessels follow from point to point with hardly any deviation therefrom, and that consequently little disturbance of the sea by their panting propellers takes place, except upon these marine pathways; as, for instance, in the Red Sea, where the examination of thousands of log-books proved conclusively that, except upon straight lines drawn from point to point between Suez to Perim, the sea is practically unused to-day.

The few Arab dhows and loitering surveying ships hardly count in this connection, of course. At any rate, we had not entered the straits, but were cruising between Car Nicobar and Junkseylon, when we “met up” with a full-grown cachalot, as ugly a customer as one could wish. From nine a.m. till dusk the battle raged –for I have often noticed that unless you kill your whale pretty soon, he gets so wary, as well as fierce, that you stand a gaudy chance of being worn down yourselves before you settle accounts with your adversary. This affair certainly looked at one time as if such would be the case with us; but along about five p.m., to our great joy, we got him killed. The ejected food was in masses of enormous size, larger than any we had yet seen on the voyage, some of them being estimated to be of the size of our hatch- house, viz. 8 feet x 6 feet x 6 feet. The whale having been secured alongside, all hands were sent below, as they were worn out with the day’s work. The third mate being ill, I had been invested with the questionable honour of standing his watch, on account of my sea experience and growing favour with the chief. Very bitterly did I resent the privilege at the time, I remember, being so tired and sleepy that I knew not how to keep awake. I did not imagine that anything would happen to make me prize that night’s experience for the rest of my life, or I should have taken matters with a far better grace.

At about eleven p.m. I was leaning over the lee rail, grazing steadily at the bright surface of the sea, where the intense radiance of the tropical moon made a broad path like a pavement of burnished silver. Eyes that saw not, mind only confusedly conscious of my surroundings, were mine; but suddenly I started to my feet with an exclamation, and stared with all my might at the strangest sight I ever saw. There was a violent commotion in the sea right where the moon’s rays were concentrated, so great that, remembering our position, I was at first inclined to alarm all hands; for I had often heard of volcanic islands suddenly lifting their heads from the depths below, or disappearing in a moment, and, with Sumatra’s chain of active volcanoes so near, I felt doubtful indeed of what was now happening. Getting the night-glasses out of the cabin scuttle, where they were always hung in readiness, I focussed them on the troubled spot, perfectly satisfied by a short examination that neither volcano nor earthquake had anything to do with what was going on; yet so vast were the forces engaged that I might well have been excused for my first supposition. A very large sperm whale was locked in deadly conflict with a cuttle-fish or squid, almost as large as himself, whose interminable tentacles seemed to enlace the whole of his great body. The head of the whale especially seemed a perfect net-work of writhing arms–naturally I suppose, for it appeared as if the whale had the tail part of the mollusc in his jaws, and, in a business-like, methodical way, was sawing through it. By the side of the black columnar head of the whale appeared the head of the great squid, as awful an object as one could well imagine even in a fevered dream. Judging as carefully as possible, I estimated it to be at least as large as one of our pipes, which contained three hundred and fifty gallons; but it may have been, and probably was, a good deal larger. The eyes were very remarkable from their size and blackness, which, contrasted with the livid whiteness of the head, made their appearance all the more striking. They were, at least, a foot in diameter, and, seen under such conditions, looked decidedly eerie and hubgoblin-like. All around the combatants were numerous sharks, like jackals round a lion, ready to share the feast, and apparently assisting in the destruction of the huge cephalopod. So the titanic struggle went on, in perfect silence as far as we were concerned, because, even had there been any noise, our distance from the scene of conflict would not have permitted us to hear it.

Thinking that such a sight ought not to be missed by the captain, I overcame my dread of him sufficiently to call him, and tell him of what was taking place. He met my remarks with such a furious burst of anger at my daring to disturb him for such a cause, that I fled precipitately on deck again, having the remainder of the vision to myself, for none of the others cared sufficiently for such things to lose five minutes’ sleep in witnessing them. The conflict ceased, the sea resumed its placid calm, and nothing remained to tell of the fight but a strong odour of fish, as of a bank of seaweed left by the tide in the blazing sun. Eight bells struck, and I went below to a troubled sleep, wherein all the awful monsters that an over-excited brain could conjure up pursued me through the gloomy caves of ocean, or mocked my pigmy efforts to escape.

The occasions upon which these gigantic cuttle-fish appear at the sea surface must, I think, be very rare. From their construction, they appear fitted only to grope among the rocks at the bottom of the ocean. Their mode of progression is backward, by the forcible ejection of a jet of water from an orifice in the neck, besides the rectum or cloaca. Consequently their normal position is head-downward, and with tentacles spread out like the ribs of an umbrella–eight of them at least; the two long ones, like the antennae of an insect, rove unceasingly around, seeking prey.

The imagination can hardly picture a more terrible object than one of these huge monsters brooding in the ocean depths, the gloom of his surroundings increased by the inky fluid (sepia) which he secretes in copious quantities, every cup-shaped disc, of the hundreds with which the restless tentacles are furnished, ready at the slightest touch to grip whatever is near, not only by suction, but by the great claws set all round within its circle. And in the centre of this net-work of living traps is the chasm-like mouth, with its enormous parrot-beak, ready to rend piecemeal whatever is held by the tentaculae. The very thought of it makes one’s flesh crawl. Well did Michelet term them “the insatiable nightmares of the sea.”

Yet, but for them, how would such great creatures as the sperm whale be fed? Unable, from their bulk, to capture small fish except by accident, and, by the absence of a sieve of baleen, precluded from subsisting upon the tiny crustacea, which support the MYSTICETAE, the cachalots seem to be confined for their diet to cuttle-fish, and, from their point of view, the bigger the latter are the better. How big they may become in the depths of the sea, no man knoweth; but it is unlikely that even the vast specimens seen are full-sized, since they have only come to the surface under abnormal conditions, like the one I have attempted to describe, who had evidently been dragged up by his relentless foe.

Creatures like these, who inhabit deep waters, and do not need to come to the surface by the exigencies of their existence, necessarily present many obstacles to accurate investigation of their structure and habits; but, from the few specimens that have been obtained of late years, fairly comprehensive details have been compiled, and may be studied in various French and German works, of which the Natural History Museum at South Kensington possesses copies. These, through the courtesy of the authorities in charge, are easily accessible to students who wish to prosecute the study of this wonderful branch of the great mollusca family.

When we commenced to cut in our whale next morning, the sea was fairly alive with fish of innumerable kinds, while a vast host of sea-birds, as usual, waited impatiently for the breaking-up of the huge carcass, which they knew would afford them no end of a feast. An untoward accident, which happened soon after the work was started, gave the waiting myriads immense satisfaction, although the unfortunate second mate, whose slip of the spade was responsible, came in for a hurricane of vituperation from the enraged skipper. It was in detaching the case from the head –always a work of difficulty, and requiring great precision of aim. Just as Mr. Cruce made a powerful thrust with his keen t ool, the vessel rolled, and the blow, missing the score in which he was cutting, fell upon the case instead, piercing its side. For a few minutes the result was unnoticed amidst the wash of the ragged edges of the cut, but presently a long streak of white, wax-like pieces floating astern, and a tremendous commotion among the birds, told the story. The liquid spermaceti was leaking rapidly from the case, turning solid as it got into the cool water. Nothing could be done to stop the waste, which, as it was a large whale, was not less than twenty barrels, or about two tuns of pure spermaceti. An accident of this kind never failed to make our skipper almost unbearable in his temper for some days afterwards; and, to do him justice, he did not discriminate very carefully as to who felt his resentment besides its immediate cause.

Therefore we had all a rough time of it while his angry fit lasted, which was a whole week, or until all was shipshape again. Meanwhile we were edging gradually through the Malacca Straits and around the big island of Borneo, never going very near the land on account of the great and numerous dangers attendant upon coasting in those localities to any but those continually engaged in such a business.

Indeed, all navigation in those seas to sailing vessels is dangerous, and requires the greatest care. Often we were obliged at a minute’s notice to let go the anchor, although out of sight of land, some rapid current being found carrying us swiftly towards a shoal or race, where we might come to grief. Yet there was no fuss or hurry, the same leisurely old system was continued, and worked as well as ever. But it was not apparent why we were threading the tortuous and difficult waters of the Indian Archipelago. No whales of any kind were seen for at least a month, although, from our leisurely mode of sailing, it was evident that they were looked for.

An occasional native craft came alongside, desirous of bartering fish, which we did not want, being able to catch all we needed as readily almost as they were. Fruit and vegetables we could not get at such distances from land, for the small canoes that lie in wait for passing ships do not of course venture far from home.

*

CHAPTER XIII

OFF TO THE JAPAN GROUNDS

Very tedious and trying was our passage northward, although every effort was made by the skipper to expedite it. Nothing of advantage to our cargo was seen for a long time, which, although apparently what was to be expected, did not improve Captain Slocum’s temper. But, to the surprise of all, when we had arrived off the beautiful island of Hong Kong, to which we approached closely, we “raised” a grand sperm whale.

Many fishing-junks were in sight, busily plying their trade, and at any other time we should have been much interested in the quaint and cunning devices by which the patient, wily Chinaman succeeds so admirably as a fisherman. Our own fishing, for the time being, absorbed all our attention–the more, perhaps, that we had for so long been unable to do anything in that line. After the usual preliminaries, we were successful in getting fast to the great creature, who immediately showed fight. So skilful and wary did he prove that Captain Slocum, growing impatient at our manoeuvring with no result, himself took the field, arriving on the scene with the air of one who comes to see and conquer without more delay. He brought with him a weapon which I have not hitherto mentioned, because none of the harpooners could be induced to use it, and consequently it had not been much in evidence. Theoretically, it was as ideal tool for such work, its chief drawback being its cumbrousness. It was known as “Pierce’s darting gun,” being a combination of bomb-gun and harpoon, capable of being darted at the whale like a plain harpoon. Its construction was simple; indeed, the patent was a very old one. A tube of brass, thickening towards the butt, at which was a square chamber firmly welded to a socket for receiving the pole, formed the gun itself. Within the chamber aforesaid a nipple protruded from the base of the tube, and in line with it. The trigger was simply a flat bit of steel, like a piece of clock spring, which was held down by the hooked end of a steel rod long enough to stick out beyond the muzzle of the gun three or four inches, and held in position by two flanges at the butt and muzzle of the barrel. On the opposite side of the tube were two more flanges, close together, into the holes of which was inserted the end of a specially made harpoon, having an eye twisted in its shank through which the whale line was spliced. The whole machine was fitted to a neat pole, and strongly secured to it by means of a “gun warp,” or short piece of thin line, by which it could be hauled back into the boat after being darted at a whale. To prepare this weapon for use, the barrel was loaded with a charge of powder and a bomb similar to those used in the shoulder-guns, the point of which just protruded from the muzzle. An ordinary percussion cap was placed upon the nipple, and the trigger cocked by placing the trigger-rod in position. The harpoon, with the line attached, was firmly set into the socketed flanges prepared for it, and the whole arrangement was then ready to be darted at the whale in the usual way.

Supposing the aim to be good and the force sufficient, the harpoon would penetrate the blubber until the end of the trigger- rod was driven backwards by striking the blubber, releasing the trigger and firing the gun. Thus the whale would be harpooned and bomb-lanced at the same time, and, supposing everything to work satisfactorily, very little more could be needed to finish him. But the weapon was so cumbersome and awkward, and the harpooners stood in such awe of it, that in the majority of cases the whale was either missed altogether or the harpoon got such slight hold that the gun did not go off, the result being generally disastrous.

In the present case, however, the “Pierce” gun was in the hands of a man by no means nervous, and above criticism or blame in case of failure. So when he sailed in to the attack, and delivered his “swashing blow,” the report of the gun was immediately heard, proving conclusively that a successful stroke had been made.

It had an instantaneous and astonishing effect. The sorely wounded monster, with one tremendous expiration, rolled over and over swift as thought towards his aggressor, literally burying the boat beneath his vast bulk. Now, one would have thought surely, upon seeing this, that none of that boat’s crew would ever have been seen again. Nevertheless, strange as it may appear, out of that seething lather of foam, all six heads emerged again in an instant, but on the OTHER side of the great creature. How any of them escaped instant violent death was, and from the nature of the case must, ever remain, an unravelled mystery, for the boat was crumbled into innumerable fragments, and the three hundred fathoms of line, in a perfect maze of entanglement, appeared to be wrapped about the writhing trunk of the whale. Happily, there were two boats disengaged, so that they were able very promptly to rescue the sufferers from their perilous position in the boiling vortex of foam by which they were surrounded. Meanwhile, the remaining boat had an easy task. The shot delivered by the captain had taken deadly effect, the bomb having entered the creature’s side low down, directly abaft the pectoral fin. It must have exploded within the cavity of the bowels, from its position, causing such extensive injuries as to make even that vast animal’s death but a matter of a few moments. Therefore, we did not run any unnecessary risks, but hauled off to a safe distance and quietly watched the death-throes. They were so brief, that in less than ten minutes from the time of the accident we were busy securing the line through the flukes of our prize.

The vessel was an unusually long time working up to us, so slow, in fact, that Mr Count remarked, critically, “Shouldn’t wonder if th’ ole man ain’t hurt; they’re taking things so all-fired easy.” By the time she had reached us, we had a good few visitors around us from the fishing fleet, who caused us no little anxiety, The Chinese have no prejudices; they would just as soon steal a whale as a herring, if the conveyance could be effected without, more trouble or risk to their own yellow skins. If it involved the killing of a few foreign devils–well, so much to the good. The ship, however, arrived before the fishermen had decided upon any active steps, and we got our catch alongside without any delay. The truth of Mr. Count’s forecast was verified to the hilt, for we found that the captain was so badly bruised about, the body that he was unable to move, while one of the hands, a Portuguese, was injured internally, and seemed very bad indeed. Had any one told us that morning that we should be sorry to see Captain Slocum with sore bones, we should have scoffed at the notion, and some of us would probably have said that we should like to have the opportunity of making him smart. But under the present circumstances, with some hundreds of perfectly ruthless wretches hovering around us, looking with longing eyes at the treasure we had alongside, we could not help remembering the courage and resource so often shown by the skipper, and wished with all our hearts that we could have the benefit of them now. As soon as dinner was over, we all “turned to” with a will to get the whale cut in. None of us required to be told that to lay all night with that whale alongside would be extremely unhealthy for us, great doubt existing as to whether any of us would see morning dawn again. There was, too, just a possibility that when the carcass, stripped of its blubber, was cut adrift, those ravenous crowds would fasten upon it, and let us go in peace.

All hands, therefore, worked like Trojans. There was no need to drive us, nor was a single harsh word spoken. Nothing was heard but the almost incessant clatter of the windlass pawls, abrupt monosyllabic orders, and the occasional melancholy wail of a gannet overhead. No word had been spoken on the subject among us, yet somehow we all realized that we were working for a large stake no less than our lives. What! says somebody, within a few miles of Hong Kong? Oh yes; and even within Hong Kong harbour itself, if opportunity offers. Let any man go down the wharf at Hong Kong after sunset, and hail a sampan from the hundreds there that are waiting to be hired. Hardly will the summons have left his lips before a white policeman will be at his side, note-book in hand, inquiring his name and ship, and taking a note of the sampan’s number, with the time of his leaving the wharf. Nothing perfunctory about the job either. Let but these precautions be omitted, and the chances that the passenger (if he have aught of value about him) will ever arrive at his destination are almost nil.

So good was the progress made that by five p.m. we were busy at the head, while the last few turns of the windlass were being taken to complete the skinning of the body. With a long pent-up shout that last piece was severed and swung inboard, as the huge mass of reeking flesh floated slowly astern. As it drifted away we saw the patient watchers who had been waiting converging upon it from all quarters, and our hopes rose high. But there was no slackening of our efforts to get in the head. By the time it was dark we managed to get the junk on board, and by the most extraordinary efforts lifted the whole remainder of the head high enough to make sail and stand off to sea. The wind was off the land, the water smooth, and no swell on, so we took no damage from that tremendous weight surging by our side, though, had the worst come to the worst, we could have cut it adrift.

When morning dawned we hove-to, the land being only dimly visible astern, and finished taking on board our “head matter” without further incident. The danger past, we were all well pleased that the captain was below, for the work proceeded quite pleasantly under the genial rule of the mate. Since leaving port we had not felt so comfortable, the work, with all its disagreeables, seeming as nothing now that we could do it without fear and trembling. Alas for poor Jemmy!–as we always persisted in calling him from inability to pronounce his proper name–his case was evidently hopeless. His fellows did their poor best to comfort his fast-fleeting hours, one after another murmuring to him the prayers of the Church, which, although they did not understand them, they evidently believed most firmly to have some marvellous power to open the gates of paradise and cleanse the sinner. Notwithstanding the grim fact that their worship was almost pure superstition, it was far more in accordance with the fitness of things for a dying man’s surroundings than such scenes as I have witnessed in the forecastles of merchant ships when poor sailors lay a-dying. I remember well once, when I was second officer of a large passenger ship, going in the forecastle as she lay at anchor at St. Helena, to see a sick man. Half the crew were drunk, and the beastly kennel in which they lived was in a thick fog of tobacco-smoke and the stale stench of rum. Ribald songs, quarrelling, and blasphemy made a veritable pandemonium of the place. I passed quietly through it to the sick man’s bunk, and found him–dead! He had passed away in the midst of that, but the horror of it did not seem to impress his bemused shipmates much.

Here, at any rate, there was quiet and decorum, while all that could be done for the poor sufferer (not much, from ignorance of how he was injured) was done. He was released from his pain in the afternoon of the second day after the accident, the end coming suddenly and peacefully. The same evening, at sunset, the body, neatly sewn up in canvas, with a big lump of sandstone secured to the feet, was brought on deck, laid on a hatch at the gangway, and covered with the blue, star-spangled American Jack. Then all hands were mustered in the waist, the ship’s bell was tolled, and the ensign run up halfway.

The captain was still too ill to be moved, so the mate stepped forward with a rusty old Common Prayer-book in his hands, whereon my vagrant fancy immediately fastened in frantic endeavour to imagine how it came to be there. The silence of death was over all. True, the man was but a unit of no special note among us, but death had conferred upon him a brevet rank, in virtue of which be dominated every thought. It seemed strange to me that we who faced death so often and variously, until natural fear had become deadened by custom, should, now that one of our number lay a rapidly-corrupting husk before us, be so tremendously impressed by the simple, inevitable fact. I suppose it was because none of us were able to realize the immanence of Death until we saw his handiwork. Mr. Count opened the book, fumbling nervously among the unfamiliar leaves. Then he suddenly looked up, his weather- scarred face glowing a dull brick-red, and said, in a low voice, “This thing’s too many fer me; kin any of ye do it? Ef not, I guess we’ll hev ter take it as read.” There was no response for a moment; then I stepped forward, reaching out my hand for the book. Its contents were familiar enough to me, for in happy pre- arab days I had been a chorister in the old Lock Chapel, Harrow Road, and had borne my part in the service so often that I think even now I could repeat the greater part of it MEMORITER. Mr. Count gave it me without a word, and, trembling like a leaf, I turned to the “Burial Service,” and began the majestic sentences, “I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord.” I did not know my own voice as the wonderful words sounded clearly in the still air; but if ever a small body of soul-hardened men FELT the power of God, it was then. At the words, “We therefore commit his body to the deep,” I paused, and, the mate making a sign, two of the harpooners tilted the hatch, from which the remains slid off into the unknown depths with a dull splash. Several of the dead man’s compatriots covered their faces, and murmured prayers for the repose of his soul, while the tears trickled through their horny fingers. But matters soon resumed their normal course; the tension over, back came the strings of life into position again, to play the same old tunes and discords once more.

The captured whale made an addition to our cargo of one hundred and ten barrels–a very fair haul indeed. The harpooners were disposed to regard this capture as auspicious upon opening the North Pacific, where, in spite of the time we had spent, and the fair luck we had experienced in the Indian Ocean, we expected to make the chief portion of our cargo.

Our next cruising-ground is known to whalemen as the “Coast of Japan” ground, and has certainly proved in the past the most prolific fishery of sperm whales in the whole world. I am inclined now to believe that there are more and larger cachalots to be found in the Southern Hemisphere, between the parallels of 33deg. and 50deg. South; but there the drawback of heavy weather and mountainous seas severely handicaps the fishermen.

It is somewhat of a misnomer to call the Coast of Japan ground by that name, since to be successful you should not sight Japan at all, but keep out of range of the cold current that sweeps right across the Pacific, skirting the Philippines, along the coasts of the Japanese islands as far as the Kuriles, and then returns to the eastward again to the southward of the Aleutian Archipelago. The greatest number of whales are always found in the vicinity of the Bonin and Volcano groups of islands, which lie in the eddy formed by the northward bend of the mighty current before mentioned. This wonderful ground was first cruised by a London whale-ship, the SYREN, in 1819, when the English branch of the sperm whale-fishery was in its prime, and London skippers were proud of the fact that one of their number, in the EMILIA, had thirty-one years before first ventured around Cape Horn in pursuit of the cachalot.

After the advent of the SYREN, the Bonins became the favourite fishing-ground for both Americans and British, and for many years the catch of oil taken from these teeming waters averaged four thousand tuns annually. That the value of the fishery was maintained at so high a level for over a quarter of a century was doubtless due to the fact that there was a long, self-imposed close season, during which the whales were quite unmolested. Nothing in the migratory habits of this whale, so far as has ever been observed, would have prevented a profitable fishing all the year round; but custom, stronger even than profit, ordained that whale-ships should never stay too long upon one fishing-ground, but move on farther until the usual round had been made, unless the vessel were filled in the mean time.

Of course, there are whales whose habits lead them at certain seasons, for breeding purposes, to frequent various groups of islands, but the cachalot seems to be quite impartial in his preferences; if he “uses” around certain waters, he is just as likely to be found there in July as January.

The Bonins, too, form an ideal calling-place, from the whaling captain’s point of view. Peel Island, the principal one of the cluster, has a perfect harbour in Port Lloyd, where a vessel can not only lie in comfort, sheltered from almost every wind that blows, but where provisions, wood, and water are plentiful. There is no inducement, or indeed room, for desertion, and the place is healthy. It is colonized by Japs from the kingdom so easily reached to the westward, and the busy little people, after their manner, make a short stay very agreeable.

Once clear of the southern end of Formosa we had quite a rapid run to the Bonins, carrying a press of sail day and night, as the skipper was anxious to arrive there on account of his recent injuries. He was still very lame, and he feared that some damage might have been done to him of which he was ignorant. Besides, it was easy to see that he did not altogether like anybody else being in charge of his ship, no matter how good they were. Such was the expedition we made that we arrived at Port Lloyd twelve days after clearing up our last whale. Very beautiful indeed the islands, appeared, with their bold, steep sides clad in richest green, or, where no vegetation appeared, worn into a thousand fantastic shapes by the sea, or the mountain torrents carving away the lava of which they were all composed. For the whole of the islands were volcanic, and Port Lloyd itself is nothing more than the crater of a vast volcano, which in some tremendous convulsion of nature has sunk from its former high estate low enough to become a haven for ships.

I have said that it was a perfect harbour, but there is no doubt that getting in or out requires plenty of nerve as well as seamanship. There was so little room, and the eddying flaws of wind under the high land were so baffling, that at various times during our passage in it appeared as if nothing could prevent us from getting stuck upon some of the adjacent hungry-looking coral reefs. Nothing of the kind happened, however, and we came comfortably to an anchor near three other whale-ships which were already there. They were the DIEGO RAMIREZ, of Nantucket; the CORONEL, of Providence, Rhode Island; and the GRAMPUS, of New Bedford. These were the first whale-ships we had yet seen, and it may be imagined how anxious we felt to meet men with whom we could compare notes and exchange yarns. It might be, too, that we should get some news of that world which, as far as we were concerned, might as well have been at the other extremity of the solar system for the last year, so completely isolated had we been.

The sails were hardly fast before a boat from each of the ships was alongside with their respective skippers on board. The extra exertion necessary to pilot the ship in had knocked the old man up, in his present weak state, and he had gone below for a short rest; so the three visitors dived down into the stuffy cabin, all anxious to interview the latest comer. Considerate always, Mr. Count allowed us to have the remainder of the day to ourselves, so we set about entertaining our company. It was no joke twelve of them coming upon us all at once, and babel ensued for a short time. They knew the system too well to expect refreshments, so we had not to apologize for having nothing to set before them. They had not come, however, for meat and drink, but for talk. And talk we did, sometimes altogether, sometimes rationally; but I doubt whether any of us had ever enjoyed talking so much before.

*

CHAPTER XIV

LIBERTY DAY–AND AFTER

There is generally current among seamen a notion that all masters of ships are bound by law to give their crews twenty-four hours’ liberty and a portion of their wages to spend every three months, if they are in port. I have never heard any authority quoted for this, and do not know what foundation there is for such a belief, although the practice is usually adhered to in English ships. But American whale-ships apparently know no law, except the will of their commanders, whose convenience is always the first consideration. Thus, we had now been afloat for well over a year, during which time, except for our foraging excursions at the Cocos and Aldabra, we had certainly known no liberty for a whole day.

Our present port being one where it was impossible to desert without the certainty of prompt recapture, with subsequent suffering altogether disproportionate to the offence, we were told that one watch at a time would be allowed their liberty for a day. So we of the port watch made our simple preparations, received twenty-five cents each, and were turned adrift on the beach to enjoy ourselves. We had our liberty, but we didn’t know what to do with it. There was a native town and a couple of low groggeries kept by Chinamen, where some of my shipmates promptly invested a portion of their wealth in some horrible liquor, the smell of which was enough to make an ordinary individual sick. There was no place apparently where one could get a meal, so that the prospect of our stay ashore lasting a day did not seem very great. I was fortunate enough, however, to foregather with a Scotchman who was a beach-comber, and consequently “knew the ropes.” I dare say he was an unmitigated blackguard whenever he got the chance, but he was certainly on his best behaviour with me. He took me into the country a bit to see the sights, which were such as most of the Pacific islands afford. Wonderful indeed were the fantastic rocks, twisted into innumerable grotesque shapes, and, along the shores, hollowed out into caverns of all sizes, some large enough to shelter an army. He was quite familiar with the natives, understanding enough of their queer lingo to get along. By his friendly aid we got some food– yams, and fish cooked in native fashion, i.e. in heated holes in the ground, for which the friendly Kanakas would take no payment, although they looked murderous enough to be cannibals. It does not do to go by looks always.

Well, after a long ramble, the Scotchman and I laid our weary bodies down in the shade of a big rock, and had a grand sleep, waking up again a little before sunset. We hastened down to the beach off the town, where all my watchmates were sitting in a row, like lost sheep, waiting to be taken on board again. They had had enough of liberty; indeed, such liberty as that was hardly worth having. It seems hardly credible, but we were actually glad to get on board again, it was so miserable ashore, The natives were most unsociable at the port, and we could not make ourselves understood, so there was not much fun to be had. Even those who were inclined to drink had too little for a spree, which I was not sorry for, since doubtless a very unpleasant reception would have awaited them had they come on board drunk.

Next day the starboard watch west on liberty, while we who had received our share were told off to spend the day wooding and watering. In this most pleasant of occupations (when the weather is fine) I passed a much more satisfactory time than when wandering about with no objective, an empty pocket, and a hungry belly. No foremast hand has ever enjoyed his opportunities of making the acquaintance of his various visiting places more than I have; but the circumstances attendant upon one’s leave must be a little favourable, or I would much rather stay aboard and fish. Our task was over for the day, a goodly store of wood and casks of water having been shipped. We were sitting down to supper, when, in answer to a hail from the beach, we were ordered to fetch the liberty men. When we got to them, there was a pretty how-d’ye-do. All of them were more or less drunk, some exceedingly quarrelsome. Now, Mistah Jones was steering our boat, looking as little like a man to take sauce from a drunken sailor as you could imagine. Most of the transformed crowd ya- hooing on the beach had felt the weight of his shoulder-of-mutton fist, yet so utterly had prudence forsaken them that, before we came near them, they were abusing him through all the varied gamut of filthy language they possessed. My democratic sentiments are deeply seated, but I do believe in authority, and respect for it being rigidly enforced, so this uncalled-for scene upset me, making me feel anxious that the gibbering fools might get a lesson. They got one.

Goliath stood like a tower, his eyes alone betraying the fierce anger boiling within. When we touched the beach, his voice was mild end gentle as a child’s, his movements calm and deliberate. As soon as we had beached the boat he stepped ashore, and in two strides was in the middle of the snarling group. Further parley ceased at once. Snatching the loudest of them by the breast of his shirt with his right hand, another one by the collar with his left, he flung himself backwards towards the boat, knocking the interveners right and left. But a protruding fragment of rock caught his heel, bringing him with his captives to the ground in a writhing mass. The rest, maddened beyond restraint of fear, flung themselves upon the prostrate man, the glimmer of more than one knife-blade appearing. Two of us from the boat–one with the tiller, the other brandishing a paddle–rushed to the rescue; but before we arrived the giant had heaved off his assailants, and, with no other weapons than his bare hands, was doing terrific execution among them. Not knowing, I suppose, whether we were friendly to him or not, he shouted to us to keep away, nor dare to interfere. There was no need. Disregarding such trifles as a few superficial cuts–not feeling them perhaps–he so unmercifully mauled that crowd that they howled again for mercy. The battle was brief and bloody. Before hostilities had lasted five minutes, six of the aggressors were stretched insensible; the rest, comprising as many more, were pleading for mercy, completely sober. Such prowess on the part of one man against twelve seems hardly credible; but it must be remembered that Goliath fought, with all the moral force of the ship’s officers behind him, against a disorganized crowd without backbone, who would never have dared to face him but for the temporary mania induced by the stuff they had drunk. It was a conflict between a lion and a troop of jackals, whereof the issue was never in doubt as long as lethal weapons were wanting.

Standing erect among the cowering creatures, the great negro looked every inch a mediaeval hero. In a stern voice he bade his subjugated enemies to get into the boat, assisting those to do so who were too badly hurt to rise. Then we shoved off for the ship–a sorrowful gang indeed.

As I bent to my oar, I felt very sorry for what had happened. Here were half the crew guilty of an act of violence upon an officer, which, according to the severe code under which we lived, merited punishment as painful as could be inflicted, and lasting for the rest of the voyage. Whatever form that punishment might take, those of us who were innocent would be almost equal sufferers with the others, because discrimination in the treatment between watch and watch is always difficult, and in our case it was certain that it would not be attempted. Except as regarded physical violence, we might all expect to share alike. Undoubtedly things looked very unpleasant. My gloomy cogitations were abruptly terminated by the order to “unrow”–we were alongside. Somehow or other all hands managed to scramble on board, and assist in hoisting the boat up.

As soon as she was secured we slunk away forward, but we had hardly got below before a tremendous summons from Goliath brought us all aft again at the double quick. Most of the fracas had been witnessed from the ship, so that but a minute or two was needed to explain how or why it begun. Directly that explanation had been supplied by Mistah Jones, the order was issued for the culprits to appear.

I have before noticed how little love was lost between the skipper and his officers, Goliath having even once gone so far as to give me a very emphatic opinion of his about the “old man” of a most unflattering nature. And had such a state of things existed on board an English ship, the crew would simply have taken charge, for they would have seen the junior officers flouted, snubbed, and jeered at; and, of course, what they saw the captain do, they would not be slow to improve on. Many a promising young officer’s career has been blighted in this way by the feminine spite of a foolish man unable to see that if the captain shows no respect to his officers, neither will the crew, nor obedience either.

But in an American ship, so long as an officer remains an officer, he must be treated as such by every man, under pain of prompt punishment. Yankee skippers have far too much NOUS to allow their hands to grow saucy in consequence of division among the after-guard. So now a sort of court-martial was held upon the unfortunates who had dared to attack Goliath, at which that sable hero might have been the apple of Captain Slocum’s eye, so solicitous was he of Mistah Jones’ honour and the reparation to be made.

This sort of thing was right in his line. Naturally cruel, he seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself in the prospect of making human beings twist and writhe in pain. Nor would he be baulked of a jot of his pleasure.

Goliath approached him, and muttered a few words, meant, I felt sure, to appease him by letting him know how much they had suffered at his strong hands; but he turned upon the negro with a savage curse, bidding him be silent. Then every one of the culprits was stripped, and secured to the lash-rail by the wrists; scourges were made of cotton fish-line, knotted at intervals, and secured to a stout handle; the harpooners were told off as executioners, and the flogging began. Perhaps it was necessary for the maintenance of discipline–certainly it was trivial compared with the practice, till recently, in our own army and navy; but I am glad to say that, compelled to witness it, I felt quite sick–physically sick–trembling so in every limb that my legs would not support me. It was not fear, for I had nothing to fear had I been ever such a coward. Whatever it was, I am not sorry either to have felt it or to own it, even while I fully admit that for some forms of wickedness nothing but the lash seems adequate punishment.

Some of the victims fainted, not being in the best condition at the outset for undergoing so severe a trial; but all were treated alike, buckets of salt water being flung over them. This drastic reviver, while adding to their pain, brought them all into a state of sufficient activity to get forward when they were released. Smarting and degraded, all their temporary bravado effectually banished, they were indeed pitiable objects, their deplorable state all the harder to bear from its contrast to our recent pleasure when we entertained the visiting crews.

Having completed our quantum of wood, water, and fresh provisions for the officers, we got under way again for the fishing grounds. I did not see how we could hope for a successful season, knowing the utterly despondent state of the crew, which even affected the officers, who, not so callous or cruel as the skipper, seemed to be getting rather tired of the constant drive and kick, now the normal condition of affairs. But the skipper’s vigilance was great. Whether he noted any sign of slackness or indifference on the part of his coadjutors or not, of course I cannot say, but he certainly seemed to put more vigour into his attentions than had been his wont, and so kept everybody up to the mark.

Hitherto we had always had our fishing to ourselves; we were now to see something of the ways of other men employed in the same manner. For though the general idea or plan of campaign against the whales is the same in all American whalers, every ship has some individual peculiarity of tactics, which, needless to say, are always far superior to those of any other ship. When we commenced our cruise on this new ground, there were seven whalers in sight, all quite as keen on the chase as ourselves, so that I anticipated considerable sport of the liveliest kind should we “raise” whales with such a fleet close at hand.

But for a whole week we saw nothing but a grampus or so, a few loitering finbacks, and an occasional lean humpback bull certainly not worth chasing. On the seventh afternoon, however, I was in the main crow’s-nest with the chief, when I noticed a ship to windward of us alter her course, keeping away three or four points on an angle that would presently bring her across our bows a good way ahead. I was getting pretty well versed in the tricks of the trade now, so I kept mum, but strained my eyes in the direction for which the other ship was steering. The chief was looking astern at some finbacks, the look-out men forward were both staring to leeward, thus for a minute or so I had a small arc of the horizon to myself. The time was short, but it sufficed, and for the first time that voyage I had the privilege of “raising” a sperm whale. My voice quivered with excitement as I uttered the war-whoop, “Ah blo-o-o-o-w!” Round spun the mate on his heel, while the hands clustered like bees roused from their hive. “Where away–where?” gasped the mate. And I pointed to a spot about half a point on the lee bow, at the same time calling his attention to the fact that the stranger to windward was keeping away. In answer to the skipper’s hurried queries from below Mr. Count gave him the general outline of affairs, to which he replied by crowding every stitch of canvas on the vessel that was available.

The spout I had seen was a good ten miles off, and, for the present, seemed to belong to a “lone” whale, as it was the only one visible. There was a good breeze blowing, as much, in fact, as we could carry all sail to, the old barky making a tremendous commotion as she blundered along under the unusual press of canvas. In the excitement of the race all our woes were forgotten; we only thought of the possibility of the ship getting there first. We drew gradually nearer to the stranger, who, like us, was carrying all the sail he had got, but, being able to go a point or two free, was outsailing us.

It was anybody’s race as yet, though, when we heard the skipper’s hail, “‘Way down from aloft!” as he came up to take our place, The whale had sounded, apparently heading to leeward, so that the weather-gage held by our rival was not much advantage to him now. We ran on for another two miles, then shortened sail, and stood by to lower away the moment he should re-appear, Meanwhile another ship was working up from to leeward, having evidently noted our movements, or else, like the albatross, “smelt whale,” no great distance to windward of him. Waiting for that whale to rise was one of the most exciting experiences we had gone through as yet, with two other ships so near. Everybody’s nerves seemed strung up to concert pitch, and it was quite a relief when from half a dozen throats at once burst the cry, “There she white- waters! Ah blo-o-o-o-w!” Not a mile away, dead to leeward of us, quietly beating the water with the flat of his flukes, as if there was no such thing in the watery world as a whale-ship. Splash! almost simultaneously went the four boats. Out we shot from the ship, all on our mettle; for was not the skipper’s eye upon us from his lofty eerie, as well as the crew of the other ship, now not more than a mile away! We seemed a terrible time getting the sails up, but the officers dared not risk our willingness to pull while they could be independent of us.

By the time we were fairly off, the other ship’s boats were coming like the wind, so that eight boats were now converging upon the unconscious monster, We fairly flew over the short, choppy sea, getting drenched with the flying spray, but looking out far more keenly at the other boats than at the whale. Up we came to him, Mr. Count’s boat to the left, the other mate’s boat to the right. Almost at the same moment the irons flew from the hands of the rival harpooners; but while ours was buried to the hitches in the whale’s side, the other man’s just ploughed up the skin on the animal’s back, as it passed over him and pierced our boat close behind the harpooner’s leg. Not seeing what had happened to his iron, or knowing that we were fast, the other harpooner promptly hurled his second iron, which struck solidly. It was a very pretty tangle, but our position was rather bad. The whale between us was tearing the bowels of the deep up in his rage and fear; we were struggling frantically to get our sail down; and at any moment that wretched iron through our upper strake might tear a plank out of us. Our chief, foaming at the mouth with rage and excitement, was screeching inarticulate blasphemy at the other mate, who, not knowing what was the matter, was yelling back all his copious vocabulary of abuse. I felt very glad the whale was between us, or there would surely have been murder done. At last, out drops the iron, leaving a jagged hole you could put your arm through. Wasn’t Mr. Count mad? I really thought he would split with rage, for it was impossible for us to go on with that hole in our bilge. The second mate came alongside and took our line as the whale was just commencing to sound, thus setting us free. We made at once for the other ship’s “fast” boat, and the compliments that had gone before were just casual conversation to what filled the air with dislocated language now. Presently both the champions cooled down a bit from want of breath, and we got our case stated. It was received with a yell of derision from the other side as a splendid effort of lying on our part; because the first ship fast claims the whale, and such a prize as this one we were quarrelling about was not to be tamely yielded.

However, as reason asserted her sway over Mr. Count, he quieted down, knowing full well that the state of the line belonging to his rival would reveal the truth when the whale rose again. Therefore we returned to the ship, leaving our three boats busy waiting the whale’s pleasure to rise again. When the skipper heard what had happened, he had his own boat manned, proceeding himself to the battle-field in expectation of complications presently. By the time he arrived upon the scene there were two more boats lying by, which had come up from the third ship, mentioned as working up from to leeward. “Pretty fine ground this’s got ter be!” growled the old man. “Caint strike whale ‘thout bein’ crowded eout uv yer own propputty by a gang bunco steerers like this. Shall hev ter quit it, en keep a pawnshop.”

And still the whale kept going steadily down, down, down. Already he was on the second boat’s lines, and taking them out faster than ever. Had we been alone, this persistence on his part, though annoying, would not have mattered much; but, with so many others in company, the possibilities of complication, should we need to slip our end, were numerous. The ship kept near, and Mr. Count, seeing how matters were going, had hastily patched his boat, returning at once with another tub of line. He was but just in time to bend on, when to our great delight we saw the end slip from our rival’s boat. This in no wise terminated his lien on the whale, supposing he could prove that he struck first, but it got him out of the way for the time.

Meanwhile we were running line faster than ever. There was an enormous length attached to the animal now–some twelve thousand feet–the weight of which was very great, to say nothing of the many “drogues” or “stopwaters” attached to it at intervals. Judge, then, of my surprise when a shout of “Blo-o-o-w!” called my attention to the whale himself just breaking water about half a mile away. It was an awkward predicament; for if we let go our end, the others would be on the whale immediately; if we held on, we should certainly be dragged below in a twinkling; and our disengaged boats could do nothing, for they had no line. But the difficulty soon settled itself. Out ran our end, leaving us bare of line as pleasure skiffs. The newcomer, who had been prowling near, keeping a close watch upon us, saw our boat jump up when released from the weight. Off he flew like an arrow to the labouring leviathan, now a “free fish,” except for such claims as the two first-comers had upon it, which claims are legally assessed, where no dispute arises. In its disabled condition, dragging so enormous a weight of line, it was but a few minutes before the fresh boat was fast, while we looked on helplessly, boiling with impotent rage. All that we could now hope for was the salvage of some of our line, a mile and a half of which, inextricably mixed up with about the same length of our rival’s, was towing astern of the fast-expiring cachalot.

So great had been the strain upon that hardly-used animal that he did not go into his usual “flurry,” but calmly expired without the faintest struggle. In the mean time two of our boats had been sent on board again to work the ship, while the skipper proceeded to try his luck in the recovery of his gear. On arriving at the dead whale, however, we found that he had rolled over and over beneath the water so many times that the line was fairly frapped round him, and the present possessors were in no mood to allow us the privilege of unrolling it.

During the conversation we had drawn very near the carcass, so near, in fact, that one hand was holding the boat alongside the whale’s “small” by a bight of the line. I suppose the skipper’s eagle eye must have caught sight of the trailing part of the line streaming beneath,for suddenly he plunged overboard, reappearing almost immediately with the line in his hand. He scrambled into the boat with it, cutting it from the whale at once, and starting his boat’s crew hauling in.

Then there was a hubbub again. The captain of the NARRAGANSETT, our first rival, protested vigorously against our monopoly of the line; but in grim silence our skipper kept on, taking no notice of him, while we steadily hauled. Unless he of the NARRAGANSETT choose to fight for what he considered his rights, there was no help for him. And there was something in our old man’s appearance eminently calculated to discourage aggression of any kind.

At last, disgusted apparently with the hopeless turn affairs had taken, the NARRAGANSETT’s boats drew off, and returned on board their ship. Two of our boats had by this time accumulated a mountainous coil of line each, with which we returned to our own vessel, leaving the skipper to visit the present holder of the whale, the skipper of the JOHN HAMPDEN.

What arrangements they made, or how they settled the NARRAGANSETT’s claim between them, I never knew, but I dare say there was a costly law-suit about it in New Bedford years after.

This was not very encouraging for a start, nor did the next meek see us do any better. Several times we saw other ships with whales alongside, but we got no show at all. Now, I had hoped a great deal from our cruise on these grounds, because I had heard whispers of a visit to the icy Sea of Okhotsk, and the prospect was to me a horrible one. I never did take any stock in Arctic work. But if we made a good season on the Japan grounds, we should not go north, but gradually work down the Pacific again, on the other side, cruising as we went.

Day after day went by without any fresh capture or even sight of fish, until I began to believe that the stories I had heard of the wonderful fecundity of the Coast of Japan waters were fables without foundation, in fact. Had I known what sort of fishing our next bout would be, I should not have been so eager to sight whales again. If this be not a platitude of the worst kind, I don’t know the meaning of the word; but, after all, platitudes have their uses, especially when you want to state a fact baldly.

*

CHAPTER XV

WHICH COMES UNCOMFORTABLY NEAR BEING THE LAST

All unversed as I am in the finer shades of literary craftsmanship, there is great uncertainty in my mind whether it is good or bad “art” to anticipate your next chapter by foreshadowing its contents; but whether good or bad art, the remembrance of my miseries on the eventful occasion I wish to describe was so strong upon me as I wrote the last few lines of the previous chapter that I just had to let those few words leak out.

Through all the vicissitudes of this strange voyage I had hitherto felt pretty safe, and as the last thing a man anticipates (if his digestion is all right) is the possibility of coming to grief himself while fully prepared to see everybody else go under, so I had got to think that whoever got killed I was not to be–a very pleasing sentiment, and one that carries a man far, enabling him to face dangers with a light heart which otherwise would make a nerveless animal of him.

In this optimistic mood, then, I gaily flung myself into my place in the mate’s boat one morning, as we were departing in chase of a magnificent cachalot that had been raised just after breakfast. There were no other vessels in sight–much to our satisfaction –the wind was light, with a cloudless sky, and the whale was dead to leeward of us. We sped along at a good rate towards our prospective victim, who was, in his leisurely enjoyment of life, calmly lolling on the surface, occasionally lifting his enormous tail out of water and letting it fall flat upon the surface with a boom audible for miles.

We were as usual, first boat; but, much to the mate’s annoyance, when we were a short half-mile from the whale, our main-sheet parted. It became immediately necessary to roll the sail up, lest its flapping should alarm the watchful monster, and this delayed us sufficiently to allow the other boats to shoot ahead of us. Thus the second mate got fast some seconds before we arrived on the scene, seeing which we furled sail unshipped the mast, and went in on him with the oars only. At first the proceedings were quite of the usual character, our chief wielding his lance in most brilliant fashion, while not being fast to the animal allowed us much greater freedom in our evolutions; but that fatal habit of the mate’s–of allowing his boat to take care of herself so long as he was getting in some good home-thrusts –once more asserted itself. Although the whale was exceedingly vigorous, churning the sea into yeasty foam over an enormous area, there we wallowed close to him, right in the middle of the turmoil, actually courting disaster.

He had just settled down for a moment, when, glancing over the gunwale, I saw his tail, like a vast shadow, sweeping away from us towards the second mate, who was laying off the other side of him. Before I had time to think, the mighty mass of gristle leapt into the sunshine, curved back from us like a huge bow. Then with a roar it came at us, released from its tension of Heaven knows how many tons. Full on the broadside it struck us, sending every soul but me flying out of the wreckage as if fired from catapults. I did not go because my foot was jammed somehow in the well of the boat, but the wrench nearly pulled my thigh- bone out of its socket. I had hardly released my foot, when, towering above me, came the colossal head of the great creature, as he ploughed through the bundle of debris that had just been a boat. There was an appalling roar of water in my ears, and darkness that might be felt all around. Yet, in the midst of it all, one thought predominated as clearly as if I had been turning it over in my mind in the quiet of my bunk aboard–“What if he should swallow me?” Nor to this day can I understand how I escaped the portals of his gullet, which of course gaped wide as a church door. But the agony of holding my breath soon overpowered every other feeling and thought, till just as something was going to snap inside my head I rose to the surface. I was surrounded by a welter of bloody froth, which made it impossible for me to see; but oh, the air was sweet!

I struck out blindly, instinctively, although I could feel so strong an eddy that voluntary progress was out of the question. My hand touched and clung to a rope, which immediately towed me in some direction–I neither knew nor cared whither. Soon the motion ceased, and, with a seaman’s instinct, I began to haul myself along by the rope I grasped, although no definite idea was in my mind as to where it was attached. Presently I came butt up against something solid, the feel of which gathered all my scattered wits into a compact knub of dread. It was the whale! “Any port in a storm,” I murmured, beginning to haul away again on my friendly line. By dint of hard work I pulled myself right up the sloping, slippery bank of blubber, until I reached the iron, which, as luck would have it, was planted in that side of the carcass now uppermost. Carcass I said–well, certainly I had no idea of there being any life remaining within the vast mass beneath me, yet I had hardly time to take a couple of turns round myself with the rope (or whale-line, as I had proved it to be), when I felt the great animal quiver all over, and begin to forge ahead. I was now composed enough to remember that help could not be far away, and that my rescue, providing that I could keep above water, was but a question of a few minutes. But I was hardly prepared for the whale’s next move. Being very near his end, the boat, or boats, had drawn off a bit, I supposed, for I could see nothing of them. Then I remembered the flurry. Almost at the same moment it began; and there was I, who with fearful admiration had so often watched the titanic convulsions of a dying cachalot, actually involved in them. The turns were off my body, but I was able to twist a couple of turns round my arms, which, in case of his sounding, I could readily let go.

Then all was lost in roar and rush, as of the heart of some mighty cataract, during which I was sometimes above, sometimes beneath, the water, but always clinging with every ounce of energy still left, to the line. Now, one thought was uppermost –“What if he should breach?” I had seen them do so when in flurry, leaping full twenty feet in the air. Then I prayed.

Quickly as all the preceding changes had passed came perfect peace. There I lay, still alive, but so weak that, although I could feel the turns slipping off my arms, and knew that I should slide off the slope of the whale’s side into the sea if they did, I could make no effort to secure myself. Everything then passed away from me, just as if I had gone to sleep.

I do not at all understand how I kept my position, nor how long, but I awoke to the blessed sound of voices, and saw the second mate’s boat alongside, Very gently and tenderly they lifted me into the boat, although I could hardly help screaming with agony when they touched me, so bruised and broken up did I feel. My arms must have been nearly torn from their sockets, for the strands of the whale-line had cut deep into their flesh with the strain upon it, while my thigh was swollen enormously from the blow I received at the onset. Mr. Cruce was the most surprised man I think I ever saw. For full ten minutes he stared at me with wide-open eyes. When at last he spoke, it was with difficulty, as if wanting words to express his astonishment. At last he blurted out, “Whar you bin all de time, ennyhaow? ‘Cawse ef you bin hangin’ on to dat ar wale ev’sence you boat smash, w’y de debbil you hain’t all ter bits, hey?” I smiled feebly, but was too weak to talk, and presently went off again into a dead faint.

When I recovered, I was snug in my bunk aboard, but aching in every joint, and as sore as if I had been pounded with a club until I was bruised all over. During the day Mr. Count was kind enough to pay me a visit. With his usual luck, he had escaped without the slightest injury; neither was any other member of the boat’s crew the worse for the ducking but myself. He told me that the whale was one of the largest he had ever seen, and as fat as butter. The boat was an entire loss, so completely smashed to pieces that nothing Of her or her gear had been recovered. After spending about a quarter of an hour with me, he left me considerably cheered up, promising to look after me in the way of food, and also to send me some books. He told me that I need not worry myself about my inability to be at work, because the old man was not unfavourably disposed towards me, which piece of news gave me a great deal of comfort.

When my poor, weary shipmates came below from their heavy toil of cutting in, they were almost inclined to be envious of my comfort–small blame to them–though I would gladly have taken my place among them again, could I have got rid of my hurts. But I was condemned to lie there for nearly three weeks before I was able to get about once more. In my sleep I would undergo the horrible anticipation of sliding down that awful, cavernous mouth over again, often waking with a shriek and drenched with sweat.

While I lay there, three whales were caught, all small cows, and I was informed that the skipper was getting quite disgusted with the luck. At last I managed to get on deck, quite a different- looking man to when I went below, and feeling about ten years older. I found the same sullen quiet reigning that I had noticed several times before when we were unfortunate. I fancied that the skipper looked more morose and savage than ever, though of me, to my great relief, he took not the slightest notice.

The third day after my return to duty we sighted whales again. We lowered three boats as promptly as usual; but when within about half a mile of the “pod” some slight noise in one of the boats gallied them, and away they went in the wind’s eye, it blowing a stiffish breeze at the time, It was from the first evidently a hopeless task to chase them, but we persevered until recalled to the ship, dead beat with fatigue. I was not sorry, for my recent adventure seemed to have made quite a coward of me, so much so that an unpleasant gnawing at the pit of my stomach as we neared them almost made me sick. I earnestly hoped that so inconvenient a feeling would speedily leave me, or I should be but a poor creature in a boat.

In passing, I would like to refer to the wonderful way in which these whales realize at a great distance, if the slightest sound be made, the presence of danger. I do not use the word “hear” because so abnormally small are their organs of hearing, the external opening being quite difficult to find, that I do not believe they can hear at all well. But I firmly believe they possess another sense by means of which they are able to detect any unusual vibration of the waves of either air or sea at a far greater distance than it would be possible for them to hear, Whatever this power may be which they possess, all whalemen are well acquainted with their exercise of it, and always take most elaborate precautions to render their approach to a whale noiseless.

Our extraordinary want of success at last so annoyed the skipper that he determined to quit the ground and go north. The near approach of the open season in those regions probably hastened his decision, but I learned from Goliath that he had always been known as a most fortunate man among the “bowheads,” as the great MYSTICETAE of that part of the Arctic seas are called by the Americans. Not that there is any difference, as far as I have been able to ascertain, between them and the “right ” whale of the Greenland seas, but from some caprice of nomenclature for which there is no accounting.

So in leisurely fashion we worked north, keeping, of course, a bright look-out all the way for straggling cachalots, but not seeing any. From scraps of information that in some mysterious fashion leaked out, we learned that we were bound to the Okhotsk Sea, it being no part of the skipper’s intentions to go prowling around Behrings Sea, where he believed the whales to be few and far between.

It may be imagined that we of the crew were not at all pleased with this intelligence, our life being, we considered, sufficiently miserable without the addition of extreme cold, for we did not realize that in the Arctic regions during summer the cold is by no means unbearable, and our imagination pictured a horrible waste of perpetual ice and snow, in the midst of which we should be compelled to freeze while dodging whales through the crevices of the floes. But whether our pictures of the prospects that awaited us were caricatures or no made not the slightest difference. “Growl you may, but go you must” is an old sea- jingle of the truest ring; but, while our going was inevitable, growling was a luxury none of us dare indulge in.

We had by no means a bad passage to the Kuriles, which form a natural barrier enclosing the immense area of the Okhotsk Sea from the vast stretch of the Pacific. Around this great chain of islands the navigation is exceedingly difficult, and dangerous as well, from the ever-varying currents as from the frequent fogs and sudden storms. But these impediments to swift and safe navigation are made light of by the whalemen, who, as I feel never weary of remarking, are the finest navigators in the world where speed is not the first consideration.

The most peculiar features of these inhospitable shores to a seaman are the vast fields of seaweed surrounding them all, which certainly helps to keep the sea down during gales, but renders navigation most difficult on account of its concealment of hidden dangers. These islands are aptly named, the word “Kurile” being Kamschatkan for smoke; and whether it be regarded as given in consequence of the numerous volcanoes which pour their fumes into the air, or the all-prevailing fog fostered by the Kuro Siwo, or Japanese counterpart of the Gulf stream, the designation is equally appropriate.

We entered the Okhotsk Sea by the Nadeshda Channel, so-named after Admiral Krusenstern’s ship, which was the first civilized vessel that passed through its turbulent waters. It separates the islands Rashau and Mantaua by about twenty miles, yet so conflicting and violent are the currents which eddy and swirl in all parts of it, that without a steady, strong, fair wind it is most dangerous to a sailing vessel. Thenceforward the navigation was free from difficulty, or at least none that we could recognize as such, so we gave all our attention to the business which brought us there.

Scarcely any change was needed in our equipment, except the substitution of longer harpoons for those we had been using, and the putting away of the bomb-guns. These changes were made because the blubber of the bowhead is so thick that ordinary harpoons will not penetrate beyond it to the muscle, which, unless they do, renders them liable to draw, upon a heavy strain. As for the bombs, Yankees hold the mysticetae in such supreme contempt that none of them would dream of wasting so expensive a weapon as a bomb upon them. I was given to understand by my constant crony, Mistah Jones, that there was no more trouble in killing a bowhead than in slaughtering a sheep; and that while it was quite true that accidents DID occur, they were entirely due to the carelessness or clumsiness of the whalemen, and not in any way traceable to a desire on the victim’s part to do any one harm.

The sea was little encumbered with ice, it being now late in June, so that our progress was not at all impeded by the few soft, brashy floes that we encountered, none of them hard enough to do a ship’s hull any damage. In most places the sea was sufficiently shallow to permit of our anchoring. For this purpose we used a large kedge, with stout hawser for cable, never furling all the sails in case of a strong breeze suddenly springing up, which would cause us to drag. This anchoring was very comfortable. Besides allowing us to get much more rest than when on other cruising-grounds, we were able to catch enormous quantities of fish, mostly salmon, of which there were no less than fourteen varieties. So plentiful were these splendid fish that we got quite critical in our appreciation of them, very soon finding that one kind, known as the “nerker,” was far better flavoured than any of the others. But as the daintiest food palls the quickest, it was not long before we got tired of salmon, and wished most heartily for beef.

Much fun has been made of the discontent of sailors With food which is considered a luxury ashore, and wonder expressed that if, as we assert, the ordinary dietary of the seaman be so bad, he should be so ready to rebel when fed with delicacies. But in justice to the sailor, it ought to be remembered that the daintiest food may he rendered disgusting by bad cookery, such as is the rule on board merchant ships. “God sends meat, but the devil sends cooks” is a proverb which originated on board ship, and no one who has ever served any time in a ship’s forecastle would deny that it is abundantly justified. Besides which, even good food well cooked of one kind only, served many times in succession, becomes very trying, only the plainest foods, such as bread, rice, potatoes, etc., retaining their command of the appetite continually.

I remember once, when upon the Coromandel coast in a big Greenock ship, we found fowls very cheap. At Bimliapatam the captain bought two or three hundred, which, as we had no coops, were turned loose on deck. We had also at the same time prowling about the decks three goats, twenty pigs, and two big dogs.

Consequently the state of the ship was filthy, nor could all our efforts keep her clean. This farmyard condition of things was permitted to continue for about a week, when the officers got so tired of it, and the captain so annoyed at the frequent loss of fowls by their flying overboard, that the edict went forth to feed the foremast hands on poultry till further orders. Great was our delight at the news. Fowl for dinner represented to our imagination almost the apex of high living, only indulged in by such pampered children of fortune as the officers of ships or well-to-do people ashore.

When dinner-time arrived, we boys made haste to the galley with watering mouths, joyfully anticipating that rare delight of the sailor–a good “feed.” The cook uncovered his coppers, plunged his tormentors therein, and produced such a succession of ugly corpses of fowls as I had never seen before. To each man a whole one was allotted, and we bore the steaming hecatomb into the forecastle. The boisterous merriment became hushed at our approach, and faces grew lengthy when the unwholesome aspect of the “treat” was revealed. Each man secured his bird, and commenced operations. But oh, the disappointment, and the bad words! What little flesh there was upon the framework of those unhappy fowls was like leather itself, and utterly flavourless. It could not well have been otherwise. The feathers had been simply scalded off, the heads chopped off, and bodies split open to facilitate drawing (I am sure I wonder the cook took the trouble to do that much), and thus prepared they were cast into a cauldron of boiling salt water. There, with the water fiercely bubbling, they were kept for an hour and a half, then pitchforked out into the mess kid and set before us. We simply could not eat them; no one but a Noumean Kanaka could, for his teeth are equal to husking a cocoa-nut, or chopping off a piece of sugar-cane as thick as your wrist.

After much heated discussion, it was unanimously resolved to protest at once against the substitution of such a fraud as this poultry for our legitimate rations of “salt horse.” so, bearing the DISJECTA MEMBRA of our meal, the whole crowd marched aft, and requested an interview with the skipper. He came out of the cabin at once, saying, “Well, boys, what’s the matter?” The spokesman, a bald-headed Yankee, who had been bo’sun’s mate of an American man-of-war, stepped forward and said, offering his kid, “Jest have a look at that sir.” The skipper looked, saying, inquiringly, “Well?” “D’yew think, sir,” said Nat, “THET’S proper grub for men?” “Proper grub! Why, you old sinner, you don’t mean to say you’re goin’ to growl about havin’ chicken for dinner?” “Well, sir, it depends muchly upon the chicken. All I know is, that I’ve et some dam queer tack in my time, but sence I ben fishin’ I never had no such bundles of sticks parcelled with leather served out to me. I HEV et boot–leastways gnawed it; when I was cast away in a open boat for three weeks–but it wa’n’t bad boot, as boots go. Now, if yew say that these things is boots, en thet it’s necessary we should eat’em, or starve, w’y, we’ll think about it. But if yew call’em chickens,’n say you’re doin’ us a kindness by stoppin’ our’lowance of meat wile we’re wrastlin’ with ’em, then we say we don’t feel obliged to yew, ‘n ‘ll thank yew kindly to keep such lugsuries for yerself, ‘n give us wot we signed for.” A murmur of assent confirmed this burst of eloquence, which we all considered a very fine effort indeed. A moment’s silence ensued; then the skipper burst out, “I’ve often heard of such things, but hang me if I ever believed ’em till now! You ungrateful beggars! I’ll see you get your whack, and no more, from this out. When you get any little extras aboard this ship agen, you’ll be thankful for ’em; now I tell you.” “All right, sir,” said Nat; “so long as we don’t hev to chaw any more of yer biled Bimly crows, I dessay we shall worry along as usual.” And, as the Parliamentary reports say, the proceedings then terminated.

Now, suppose the skipper had told the story to some of his shore friends, how very funny the sailors’ conduct would have been made to appear.

On another occasion long after, when I was mate of a barque loading mahogany in Tonala, Mexico, the skipper thought he would practise economy by buying a turtle instead of beef. A large turtle was obtained for twenty-five cents, and handed over to the cook to be dealt with, particular instructions being given him as to the apportionment of the meat.

At eight bells there was a gathering of the men in front of the poop, and a summons for the captain. When he appeared, the usual stereotyped invitation to “have a look at THAT, if you please, sir,” was uttered. The skipper was, I think, prepared for a protest, for he began to bluster immediately. “Look here!” he bawled, “I ain’t goin’ to ‘ave any of your dam nonsense. You WANT somethin’ to growl about, you do.” ” Well, Cap’n George,” said one of the men, “you shorely don’t think we k’n eat shells, do yer?” Just then I caught sight of the kid’s contents, and could hardly restrain my indignation. For in a dirty heap, the sight of which might have pleased an Esquimaux, but was certainly enough to disgust any civilized man, lay the calipee, or under- shell of the turtle, hacked into irregular blocks. It had been simply boiled, and flung into the kid, an unclean, disgusting heap of shell, with pieces of dirty flesh attached in ragged lumps. But the skipper, red-faced and angry, answered, “W’y, yer so-and-so ijits, that’s wot the Lord Mayor of London gives about a guinea a hounce for w’en ‘e feeds lords n’ dooks. Only the haristocracy at ‘ome get a charnce to stick their teeth in such grub as that. An’ ‘ere are you lot a-growlin’ at ‘avin’ it for a change!” “That’s all right, cap’n,” said the man; “bein’ brort up ter such lugsuries, of corse you kin appreshyate it. So if yer keep it fer yer own eatin’, an’ giv us wot we signed for, we shall be werry much obliged.” “Now, I ain’t a-goin” to ‘ave none o’ YOUR cheek, so you’d better git forrard. You can betcher life you won’t get no more fresh messes this voy’ge.” So, with grumbling and ill-will on both sides, the conference came to an end. But I thought, and still think, that the mess set before those men, who had been working hard since six a.m., was unfit for the food of a good dog.

Out of my own experience I might give many other instances of the kind, but I hope these will suffice to show that Jack’s growling is often justified, when both sides of the story are heard.

*

CHAPTER XVI

“BOWHEAD” FISHING

Day and night being now only distinguishable by the aid of the clock, a constant look-out aloft was kept all through the twenty- four hours, watch and watch, but whales were apparently very scarce. We did a good deal of “pelagic” sealing; that is, catching seals swimming. But the total number obtained was not great, for these creatures are only gregarious when at their rocky haunts during the breeding season, or among the ice just before that season begins. Our sealing, therefore, was only a way of passing the time in the absence of nobler game, to be abandoned at once with whales in sight.

It was on the ninth or tenth morning after our arrival on the grounds that a bowhead was raised, And two boats sent after him. It was my first sight of the great MYSTICETUS, and I must confess to being much impressed by his gigantic bulk. From the difference in shape, he looked much larger than the largest sperm whale we had yet seen, although we had come across some of the very biggest specimens of cachalot.

The contrast between the two animals is most marked, so much so, in fact, that one would hardly credit them with belonging to the same order. Popular ideas of the whale are almost invariably taken from the MYSTICETUS, so that the average individual generally defines a whale as a big fish which spouts water out of the top of his head, and cannot swallow a herring. Indeed, so lately as last year a popular M.P., writing to one of the religious papers, allowed himself to say that “science will not hear of a whale with a gullet capable of admitting anything larger than a man’s fist”–a piece of crass ignorance, which is also perpetrated in the appendix to a very widely-distributed edition of the Authorized Version of the Bible. This opinion, strangely enough, is almost universally held, although I trust that the admirable models now being shown in our splendid Natural History Museum at South Kensington will do much to remove it. Not so many people, perhaps, believe that a whale is a fish, instead of a mammal, but few indeed are the individuals who do not still think that a cetacean possesses a sort of natural fountain on the top of its head, whence, for some recondite reason, it ejects at regular intervals streams of water into the air.

But a whale can no more force water through its spiracle or blow- hole than you or I through our nostrils. It inhales, when at the surface, atmospheric air, and exhales breath like ours, which, coming warm into a cooler medium, becomes visible, as does our breath on a frosty morning.

Now, the MYSTICETUS carries his nostrils on the summit of his head, or crown, the orifice being closed by a beautifully arranged valve when the animal is beneath the water. Consequently, upon coming to the surface to breathe, he sends up a jet of visible breath into the air some ten or twelve feet. The cachalot, on the other hand, has the orifice at the point of his square snout, the internal channel running in a slightly diagonal direction downwards, and back through the skull to the lungs. So when he spouts, the breath is projected forward diagonally, and, from some peculiarity which I do not pretend to explain, expends itself in a short, bushy tuft of vapour, very distinct from the tall vertical spout of the bowhead or right whale.

There was little or no wind when we sighted the individual I am now speaking of, so we did not attempt to set sail, but pulled straight for him “head and head.” Strange as it may appear, the MYSTICETUS’ best point of view is right behind, or “in his wake,” as we say; it is therefore part of the code to approach him from right ahead, in which direction he cannot see at all. Some time before we reached him he became aware of our presence, showing by his uneasy actions that he had his doubts about his personal security. But before he had made up his mind what to do we were upon him, with our harpoons buried in his back. The difference in his behaviour to what we had so long been accustomed to was amazing. He did certainly give a lumbering splash or two with his immense flukes, but no one could possibly have been endangered by them. The water was so shallow that when he sounded it was but for a very few minutes; there was no escape for him that way. As soon as he returned to the surface he set off at his best gait, but that was so slow that we easily hauled up close alongside of him, holding the boats in that position without the slightest attempt to guard ourselves from reprisals on his part, while the officers searched his vitals with the lances as if they were probing a haystack.

Really, the whole affair was so tame that it was impossible to get up any fighting enthusiasm over it; the poor, unwieldy creature died meekly and quietly as an overgrown seal. In less than an hour from the time of leaving the ship we were ready to bring our prize alongside.

Upon coming up to the whale, sail was shortened, and as soon as the fluke-chain was passed we anchored. It was, I heard, our skipper’s boast that he could “skin a bowhead in forty minutes;” and although we were certainly longer than that, the celerity with which what seemed a gigantic task was accomplished was marvellous. Of course, it was all plain-sailing, very unlike the complicated and herculean task inevitable at the commencement of cutting-in a sperm whale.

Except for the head work, removing the blubber was effected in precisely the same way as in the case of the cachalot. There was a marked difference between the quantity of lard enveloping this whale and those we had hitherto dealt with. It was nearly double the thickness, besides being much richer in oil, which fairly dripped from it as we hoisted in the blanket-pieces. The upper jaw was removed for its long plates of whalebone or baleen–that valuable substance which alone makes it worth while nowadays to go after the MYSTICETUS, the price obtained for the oil being so low as to make it not worth while to fit out ships to go in search of it alone. “Trying-out” the blubber, with its accompaniments, is carried on precisely as with the sperm whale. The resultant oil, when recent, is of a clear white, unlike the golden-tinted fluid obtained from the cachalot. As it grows stale it developes a nauseous smell, which sperm does not, although the odour of the oil is otto of roses compared with the horrible mass of putridity landed from the tanks of a Greenland whaler at the termination of a cruise. For in those vessels, the fishing-time at their disposal being so brief, they do not wait to boil down the blubber, but, chopping it into small pieces, pass it below as it is into tanks, to be rendered down by the oil-mills ashore on the ship’s return.

This first bowhead yielded us eighteen tuns of oil and a ton of baleen, which made the catch about equal in value to that of a seven-tun cachalot. But the amount of labour and care necessary in order to thoroughly dry and cleanse the baleen was enormous; in fact, for months after we began the bowhead fishery there was almost always something being done with the wretched stuff– drying, scraping, etc.–which, as it was kept below, also necessitated hoisting it up on deck and getting it down again.

After this beginning, it was again a considerable time before we sighted any more; but when we did, there were quite a number of them–enough to employ all the boats with one each. I was out of the fun this time, being almost incapable of moving by reason of several boils on my legs–the result, I suppose, of a long abstinence from fresh vegetables, or anything to supply their place.

deck-river
deck-river