Part 6 (1/2)

CHAPTER XIII.

CAPTAIN BOTTOM, THE WHALE-KILLER.

On the morning of the 24th of June, the good s.h.i.+p Pacific was sailing gallantly down the coast of Brazil, all her canva.s.s spread to a light breeze, her port tacks aboard, and heading for Bahia.

The air was hot with the breath of tropic winds, and the horizon to the west and south was festooned with fierce red clouds. The sun was just setting, and spreading the broad ocean with a crimson light, giving a weird and curious outline to every feature of the s.h.i.+p. There was something grand, even enchanting and sublime, in the picture here spread out, presenting as it did the highest example of G.o.d's goodness and reality.

The scene changed suddenly, as the sun disappeared. The fierce, red clouds melted into softness and tenderness. A pale, yellow light spread along the heavens and over the sea; and the s.h.i.+p that a few minutes before had looked like a white-winged phantom floating over a sea of fire, now a.s.sumed the appearance of a maiden decked in her bridal robes.

A man of short, stout figure, a sort of compromise between an alderman and a dwarf, with very short legs, a broad red face, wide mouth, crispy grey hair that stood nearly erect on his head, a red, punky nose, and keen, grey eyes, paced watchfully up and down the quarter-deck. He was dressed in white pantaloons and jacket, both fitting tight to his skin, and wore a Panama hat, with a long black ribbon streaming behind.

He would pause at the hand-rail every few minutes, scan eagerly along the sky from north to south, as if studying the strange and sudden changes that were going on in the heavens. Then he would exchange a few words with the officer of the watch, and resume his walk. Eight bells had just struck, the wind began to freshen and veer to the southwest, and the sky became overcast and filled with white, fleecy clouds.

An order was given to take in studding-sails and get the s.h.i.+p ”snug” for the night, and quickly obeyed. Order and regularity prevailed on board the good s.h.i.+p Pacific; and the promptness and cheerfulness with which both officers and men performed their duties showed that they had a more than ordinary interest in the s.h.i.+p and her voyage. Fas.h.i.+on had not then made slaves and idlers of our young men of wealthy parents, and it was, indeed, thought no disgrace for a gentleman of position to send his sons on one of these voyages, to do duty before the mast. It taught them how to face danger and endure hards.h.i.+ps. It developed their manliness, and made them more self-reliant. It gave them a knowledge of the world they could not get elsewhere, and laid a good foundation for a fixed and lasting character. Indeed, some of our richest and most enterprising merchants have dated their prosperity from one of these voyages.

The short, bluff-looking man pacing the quarter-deck was Captain Price Bottom; and a more honest-hearted old salt never sailed the sea. His great skill in killing whales had made him famous among whalemen throughout the Pacific. He had made three successful voyages, bringing home cargoes that had enriched his owners, put money in his own pocket, and secured him a reputation he esteemed of more value than a fortune.

In truth, he regarded whales just as a terrier does rats, and found his highest enjoyment in killing them. And yet nothing pleased him better than when a whale showed pluck, as he called it, and made a square, fierce fight for his life. A man had a chance then to show his skill and power over the brute, he said. He held, too, that man's highest object in life was to know how to kill a whale skilfully; and he heartily despised the whale ”as would submit quietly to the harpoon, and die like a lubber.” He also affected great contempt for the landsman who had lived like a gentleman, and never killed a whale in his life.

”There's no lunar to-night,” said Captain Bottom, pausing at the quarter-deck rail, and addressing himself to the officer of the watch.

”There's a goin' to be dirt, sir, there is; and them royals and topgallant-sails is got to c.u.m in. Would'nt surprise me if we had to double-reef topsails afore mornin'. Tell you what it is, Mr. Higgins, there's that ar north star with a towel over her face again. Sink me if there'll be any lunar took to-night.” The captain shook his head, gave his Panama a tip, and walking aft, stood beside the binnacle watching the compa.s.ses for several minutes. Then returning to where the officer of the watch stood, he resumed:

”Never made a bad landfall in my life, Mr. Higgins. Never shall be said of Captain Price Bottom that he lost his reckonin'. It's judgment; yes, Mr. Higgins, it's good judgment and sound sense what makes a good sailor. A man may cram his skull till it hurts with Bowditch, but if he hain't sense he'll never be a sailor. Same in killin' whales. If a man hain't got sense, the whale is sure to get the advantage of him.” Again he paused, as if courting a reply; but Mr. Higgins merely bowed a.s.sent to everything the captain said, every few minutes keeping an eye aloft at the sails.

”Man what gets his navigation aboard s.h.i.+p knows his business. Got mine there; yes, sir! Did'nt know a Bowditch from a Bible when I went aboard s.h.i.+p. Can do my amplitude and variations now without looking at a nautical almanac. Can, sir, by Jove!”

The s.h.i.+p bounded gallantly over the sea, leaving in her wake a long silvery train of phosphoric light. Drawing no response from Mr. Higgins, the captain raised his night-gla.s.s and scanned along the heavens to the west. ”We'll get somethin' out o' that quarter, b.u.t.t end foremost,” said the captain, lowering his gla.s.s.

Mr. Higgins was first officer of the s.h.i.+p, a position secured to him, not because he had worked his way up to it, but through the influence of a rich father, who was a large owner in the s.h.i.+p and her venture. He was a tall, well-formed, fine-looking young man, with delicate and well-cut features, and black hair. He was also a fine scholar and a perfect master of the theory of navigation, and a voyage or two to Europe had given him a slight knowledge of the practical part of it. Yet he was more an ornamental than a practical sailor; and it was this that made Captain Bottom, the whale-killer, hold him in no very high respect.

Indeed, he had several times said, in the presence of Mr. Higgins, that it was all very well for a young gentleman to be a scholar; but a sailor what had his head full of books never made a fortune for his owners.

”Eight and forty hours more, Mr. Higgins! Yes, sir, eight and forty hours more--keepin' her as she's going--and we have the land off Bahia.”

Captain Bottom gave his head a significant shake as he spoke. ”Using judgment, you see; not books, Mr. Higgins. Captain Price Bottom has sailed seventeen years, and never was deceived by that chart. Don't make charts now as they used to make 'em, Mr. Higgins,” he concluded, shrugging his shoulders.

The wind now came over the sea roaring like a fierce lion, indicating the rapid approach of the gale.

”If we make land off Bahia in forty-eight hours, then I'm mistaken,”

rejoined the first officer, satirically. ”There's something coming that will give us enough to do before morning.”

The words had hardly escaped his lips when the full force of the gale struck the s.h.i.+p, roaring and shrieking through her shrouds, and nearly throwing her on her beam ends. The sea was soon lashed into a tempest, and made a clean sweep over her decks. The canvas was carried clean from the bolt-ropes, the sheets were let go, and the lighter sails clewed up, and an attempt made to get the s.h.i.+p's head to the wind and lay her to.

But the mizzen-sails were all gone, and she fell off, and refused to obey her helm. The las.h.i.+ngs had given way, and the larboard, waist, and quarter boats were all swept from the davits, the frames sprung, and every timber in the good s.h.i.+p's hull worked, and strained, and complained, like a frail thing that must soon go to pieces. Every order, however, was obeyed promptly and cheerfully, for both officers and crew felt that their lives, as well as the saving of the s.h.i.+p, depended on the way in which each man performed his duty.

Just before the gale came up five young men, including t.i.te, might have been seen grouped together in the waist of the s.h.i.+p, pondering over a chart. Several books and nautical instruments were lying around. They were all, except t.i.te, young men of wealthy parents, who had joined the s.h.i.+p to enjoy the excitements of a whaling voyage. These young men, with t.i.te, had formed a school of instruction, and every evening got together in the same place to improve their knowledge in practical navigation.

One of them, a young man who had endeared himself to all on board by his courage and the gentleness of his manners, was third mate, and took a leading part in instructing the others. It would, indeed, have been difficult to find two young men whose characters bore a stronger resemblance than his and t.i.te's. Between them there grew up the strongest friends.h.i.+p.

The s.h.i.+p was now laboring in the trough of the sea, when a loud crash was heard aloft. The fore, main, and mizzen top-gallant masts had gone in rapid succession, and the swaying ma.s.s of wreck was threatening the destruction of the s.h.i.+p. Death now stared every one in the face. There was no hope of saving the s.h.i.+p and the lives of those on board, except in the strength and courage of those willing to go aloft and clear away the wreck. But who was there to do this perilous work?

Amidst the confusion caused by the excited elements there was the st.u.r.dy little captain, calm and cool, and giving his orders with that clearness and decision which had always characterized him. Men were called for to go aloft and cut away the swaying wreck, and save the s.h.i.+p. The first to obey this summons was young t.i.te Toodleburg, whose example was followed by the young man I have described as third mate, and one of his companions. They mounted the fore, main, and mizzen rigging, and working with all their strength and skill soon had the swaying wreck cut away, and the s.h.i.+p relieved of her strain. But in descending, the third mate, who had so gallantly performed his duty, lost his hold, and the s.h.i.+p giving a terrible lurch, he was plunged into the sea, and seen no more.

The s.h.i.+p now gradually righted, and with the aid of a storm-sail in her mizzen rigging, for her top-sail had been torn into shreds, her head was got to the wind.