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   Chapter 4 No.4

The World of Ice By R. M. Ballantyne Characters: 13549

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The chase and the battle-The chances and dangers of whaling war-Buzzby dives for his life and saves it-So does the whale and loses it-An anxious night, which terminates happily, though with a heavy loss.

The chase was not a long one, for, while the boats were rowing swiftly towards the whale, the whale was, all unconsciously, swimming towards the boats.

"Give way now, lads, give way," said the captain in a suppressed voice; "bend your backs, boys, and don't let the mate beat us."

The three boats flew over the sea, as the men strained their muscles to the utmost, and for some time they kept almost in line, being pretty equally matched; but gradually the captain shot ahead, and it became evident that his harpooner, Amos Parr, was to have the honour of harpooning the first whale. Amos pulled the bow-oar, and behind him was the tub with the line coiled away, and the harpoon bent on to it. Being an experienced whaleman, he evinced no sign of excitement, save in the brilliancy of his dark eye and a very slight flush on his bronzed face. They had now neared the whale and ceased rowing for a moment, lest they should miss it when down.

"There she goes!" cried Fred in a tone of intense excitement, as he caught sight of the whale not more than fifty yards ahead of the boat.

"Now, boys," cried the captain, in a hoarse whisper, "spring hard-lay back hard, I say-stand up!"

At the last word Amos-Parr sprang to his feet and seized the harpoon, the boat ran right on to the whale's back, and in an instant Parr sent two irons to the hitches into the fish.

"Stern all!" The men backed their oars with all their might, in order to avoid the flukes of the wounded monster of the deep, as it plunged down headlong into the sea, taking the line out perpendicularly like lightning. This was a moment of great danger. The friction of the line as it passed the loggerhead was so great that Parr had to keep constantly pouring water on it to prevent its catching fire. A hitch in the line at that time, as it flew out of the tub, or any accidental entanglement, would have dragged the boat and crew right down: many such fatal accidents occur to whalers, and many a poor fellow has had a foot or an arm torn off, or been dragged overboard and drowned, in consequence of getting entangled. One of the men stood ready with a small hatchet to cut the line in a moment, if necessary; for whales sometimes run out all that is in a boat at the first plunge, and should none of the other boats be at hand to lend a second line to attach to the one nearly expended, there is nothing for it but to cut. On the present occasion, however, none of these accidents befell the men of the captain's boat. The line ran all clear, and long before it was exhausted the whale ceased to descend, and the slack was hauled rapidly in.

Meanwhile the other boats pulled up to the scene of action, and prepared to strike the instant the fish should rise to the surface. It appeared, suddenly, not twenty yards from the mate's boat, where Buzzby, who was harpooner, stood in the bow ready to give it the iron.

"Spring, lads, spring!" shouted the mate, as the whale spouted into the air a thick stream of water. The boat dashed up, and Buzzby planted his harpoon vigorously. Instantly the broad flukes of the tail were tossed into the air, and, for a single second, spread like a canopy over Buzzby's head. There was no escape. The quick eye of the whaleman saw at a glance that the effort to back out was hopeless. He bent his head, and the next moment was deep down in the waves. Just as he disappeared the flukes descended on the spot which he had left, and cut the bow of the boat completely away, sending the stern high into the air with a violence that tossed men, and oars, and shattered planks, and cordage, flying over the monster's back into the seething caldron of foam around it. It was apparently a scene of the most complete and instantaneous destruction, yet, strange to say, not a man was lost. A few seconds after, the white foam of the sea was dotted with black heads as the men rose one by one to the surface, and struck out for floating oars and pieces of the wrecked boat.

"They're lost!" cried Fred Ellice in a voice of horror.

"Not a bit of it, youngster; they're safe enough, I'll warrant," replied the captain, as his own boat flew past the spot, towed by the whale.-"Pay out, Amos Parr; give him line, or he'll tear the bows out of us."

"Ay, ay, sir," sang out Amos, as he sat coolly pouring water on the loggerhead round which a coil of the rope was whizzing like lightning; "all right. The mate's men are all safe, sir; I counted them as we shot past, and I seed Buzzby come up last of all, blowin' like a grampus; and small wonder, considerin' the dive he took."

"Take another turn of the coil, Amos, and hold on," said the captain.

The harpooner obeyed, and away they went after the whale like a rocket, with a tremendous strain on the line and a bank of white foam gurgling up to the edge of the gunwale, that every moment threatened to fill the boat and sink her. Such a catastrophe is of not unfrequent occurrence, when whalemen thus towed by a whale are tempted to hold on too long; and many instances have happened of boats and their crews being in this way dragged under water and lost. Fortunately the whale dashed horizontally through the water, so that the boat was able to hold on and follow, and in a short time the creature paused and rose for air. Again the men bent to their oars, and the rope was hauled in until they came quite close to the fish. This time a harpoon was thrown and a deep lance-thrust given which penetrated to the vital parts of its huge carcass, as was evidenced by the blood which it spouted and the convulsive lashing of its tremendous tail.

While the captain's crew were thus engaged, Saunders, the second mate, observing from the ship the accident to the first mate's boat, sent off a party of men to the rescue, thus setting free the third boat, which was steered by a strapping fellow named Peter Grim, to follow up the chase. Peter Grim was the ship's carpenter, and he took after his name. He was, as the sailors expressed it, a "grim customer," being burnt by the sun to a deep rich brown colour, besides being covered nearly up to the eyes with a thick coal-black beard and moustache, which completely concealed every part of his visage except his prominent nose and dark, fiery-looking eyes. He was an immense man, the largest in the ship, probably, if we except the Scotch second mate Saunders, to whom he was about equal in all respects-except argument. Like most big men, he was peaceable and good-humoured.

"Look alive now, lads," said Grim, as the men pulled towards the wha

le; "we'll get a chance yet, we shall, if you give way like tigers. Split your sides, boys-do-that's it. Ah! there she goes right down. Pull away now, and be ready when she rises."

As he spoke the whale suddenly sounded-that is, went perpendicularly down, as it had done when first struck-and continued to descend until most of the line in the captain's boat was run out.

"Hoist an oar!" cried Amos Parr, as he saw the coil diminishing. Grim observed the signal of distress, and encouraged his men to use their utmost exertions. "Another oar!--another!" shouted Parr, as the whale continued its headlong descent.

"Stand by to cut the line," said Captain Guy with compressed lips. "No! hold on, hold on!"

At this moment, having drawn down more than a thousand fathoms of rope, the whale slackened its speed, and Parr, taking another coil round the loggerhead, held on until the boat was almost dragged under water. Then the line became loose, and the slack was hauled in rapidly. Meanwhile Grim's boat had reached the spot, and the men now lay on their oars at some distance ahead, ready to pull the instant the whale should show itself. Up it came, not twenty yards ahead. One short, energetic pull, and the second boat sent a harpoon deep into it, while Grim sprang to the bow and thrust a lance with deadly force deep into the carcass. The monster sent up a stream of mingled blood, oil, and water, and whirled its huge tail so violently that the sound could be heard a mile off. Before it dived again, the captain's boat came up, and succeeded in making fast another harpoon, while several additional lance-thrusts were given with effect, and it seemed as if the battle were about to terminate, when suddenly the whale struck the sea with a clap like thunder, and darted away once more like a rocket to windward, tearing the two boats after it as if they had been egg-shells.

Meanwhile a change had come over the scene. The sun had set, red and lowering, behind a bank of dark clouds, and there was every appearance of stormy weather; but as yet it was nearly calm, and the ship was unable to beat up against the light breeze in the wake of the two boats, which were soon far away on the horizon. Then a furious gust arose and passed away, a dark cloud covered the sky as night fell, and soon boats and whale were utterly lost to view.

"Wae's me!" cried the big Scotch mate, as he ran up and down the quarter-deck wringing his hands, "what is to be done noo?"

Saunders spoke a mongrel kind of language-a mixture of Scotch and English-in which, although the Scotch words were sparsely scattered, the Scotch accent was very strong.

"How's her head?"

"Nor'-nor'-west, sir."

"Keep her there, then. Maybe, if the wind holds stiddy, we may overhaul them before it's quite dark."

Although Saunders was really in a state of the utmost consternation at this unexpected termination to the whale-hunt, and expressed the agitation of his feelings pretty freely, he was too thorough a seaman to neglect anything that was necessary to be done under the circumstances. He took the exact bearings of the point at which the boats had disappeared, and during the night, which turned out gusty and threatening, kept making short tacks, while lanterns were hung at the mast-heads, and a huge torch, or rather a small bonfire, of tarred materials was slung at the end of a spar and thrust out over the stern of the ship. But for many hours there was no sign of the boats, and the crew of the Dolphin began to entertain the most gloomy forebodings regarding them.

At length, towards morning, a small speck of light was noticed on the weather-beam. It flickered for a moment, and then disappeared.

"Did ye see yon?" said Saunders to Mivins in an agitated whisper, laying his huge hand on the shoulder of that worthy. "Down your helm" (to the steersman).

"Ay, ay, sir!"

"Stiddy!"

"Steady it is, sir."

Mivins's face, which for some hours had worn an expression of deep anxiety, relaxed into a bland smile, and he smote his thigh powerfully, as he exclaimed, "That's them, sir, and no mistake! What's your opinion, Mr. Saunders?"

The second mate peered earnestly in the direction in which the light had been seen; and Mivins, turning in the same direction, screwed up his visage into a knot of earnest attention so complicated and intense, that it seemed as if no human power could evermore unravel it.

"There it goes again!" cried Saunders, as the light flashed distinctly over the sea.

"Down helm; back fore-top-sails!" he shouted, springing forward; "lower away the boat there!"

In a few seconds the ship was hove to, and a boat, with a lantern fixed to an oar, was plunging over the swell in the direction of the light. Sooner than was expected they came up with it, and a hurrah in the distance told that all was right.

"Here we are, thank God," cried Captain Guy, "safe and sound. We don't require assistance, Mr. Saunders; pull for the ship."

A short pull sufficed to bring the three boats alongside, and in a few seconds more the crew were congratulating their comrades with that mingled feeling of deep heartiness and a disposition to jest which is characteristic of men who are used to danger, and think lightly of it after it is over.

"We've lost our fish, however," remarked Captain Guy, as he passed the crew on his way to the cabin; "but we must hope for better luck next time."

"Well, well," said one of the men, wringing the water out of his wet clothes as he walked forward, "we got a good laugh at Peter Grim, if we got nothin' else by our trip."

"How was that, Jack?"

"Why, ye see, jist before the whale gave in, it sent up a spout o' blood and oil as thick as the main-mast, and, as luck would have it, down it came slap on the head of Grim, drenchin' him from head to foot, and makin' him as red as a lobster."

"'Ow did you lose the fish, sir?" inquired Mivins, as our hero sprang up the side, followed by Singleton.

"Lost him as men lose money in railway speculations now-a-days. We sank him, and that was the last of it. After he had towed us I don't know how far-out of sight of the ship at any rate-he suddenly stopped, and we pulled up and gave him some tremendous digs with the lances, until he spouted jets of blood, and we made sure of him, when all at once down he went head-foremost like a cannon ball, and took all the line out of both boats, so we had to cut, and he never came up again. At least, if he did it became so dark that we never saw him. Then we pulled to where we thought the ship was, and, after rowing nearly all night, caught sight of your lights; and here we are, dead tired, wet to the skin, and minus about two miles of whale-line and three harpoons."

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