Part 16 (1/2)

That morning about ten o'clock the lookout aloft called, ”Whale, O!” The glad announcement sent a thrill of joy over every one on board. The crew turned out with cheerful faces, and every one looked eagerly in the direction pointed to by the man aloft.

”Where away?” was the quick enquiry from the deck.

”Off the larboard bow--three miles. There he blows!” was the response.

A light breeze was blowing, and the s.h.i.+p was bowling off four knots, with her port tacks aboard. There was no one on board more elated at the prospect than the st.u.r.dy old captain. Seizing his gla.s.s he looked for a moment in the direction indicated.

”There he is!” he exclaimed, lowering his gla.s.s. ”Clear away the boats and bear away for him, my hearties.”

The las.h.i.+ngs were cast away, the davit-tackle falls overhauled, and a larboard and starboard boat was launched and manned, and in a few minutes they were das.h.i.+ng over the waves, the men pulling that steady, strong, and even stroke which gives such propelling force to the whaleman's oar. The men on board cheered, and their cheers seemed to quicken the action of the boatmen. The st.u.r.dy old captain watched their progress through his gla.s.s, every few minutes giving expression to his feelings in words of hope and encouragement.

”An old coaster, that whale is--thirty, yes, nearly forty barrels there.

Got pluck, too, that whale has. Can always tell when a whale's got pluck. Them old ones are ugly customers when they gets their pluck up,”

he would say, nodding his head decidedly and encouragingly.

The s.h.i.+p was now kept away a point or two, and proceeded under easy sail. There was something thrilling in the scene, and every heart on board beat with excitement as the boats went swiftly on, one commanded by the first officer, the other by t.i.te. Neither of these two young men had seen a whale killed; but there were in the boats old whalemen, who had successfully thrown both harpoon and lance.

The huge monster could now be seen clearly with the naked eye by those on the s.h.i.+p's deck, sporting lazily on the surface, his bright black sides now falling, now rising, like the hull of some water-logged s.h.i.+p, and throwing up thin white volumes of spray, over which the sun's rays reflected with singular brilliancy. Nearer and nearer the boats approached the monster, the first officer's boat being a little ahead.

Now the stern boat ceased pulling, and the men laid on their oars. Then the other slackened her speed, and began pulling with cautious and quiet stroke. The lookout announced that the head boat had made the whale, and the men climbed the s.h.i.+p's rigging to witness the struggle. They were doomed to temporary disappointment, however, for the whale, suddenly discovering his pursuers, made a vault and a plunge, tossed the sea into commotion, and disappeared.

”That's what comes of sendin' an amateur after an old whale,” said the captain, thrusting his hands deep into his nether pockets, shrugging his shoulders, and pacing nervously up and down the deck.

A signal was now made from the s.h.i.+p directing the boats what course to keep, for experience had taught the old captain what course the whale would take, and where he would be most likely to appear again. It was nearly half an hour before the monster lifted his huge, dripping sides above the surface again, but so near the first officer's boat that a harpoon was let go. They had fastened to him, and the scene became more exciting.

”Bad strike,” said the captain, shaking his head and stamping his feet.

”That whale's going to die hard.” The harpoon, in short, had fallen weak, had failed to touch a vital part, and had made one of those wounds which excite a whale to attack his pursuers.

The word ”astern” was given as soon as the harpoon was thrown. The monster threw up a thin wreath of slightly discolored spray, and set off at a velocity of speed almost incredible. Away he went, the boat following in his wake and cutting the water like a thing of life--the boat-steerer and line-tender carefully watching every movement, for the lives of all on board depended on their vigilance. The whale struck his course directly across the s.h.i.+p's bow, less than a mile away. The boat t.i.te commanded followed, with all the strength her crew could put on their oars.

It was easy to read in the captain's manner, however, that all was not going well with the boats. He quickly ordered a third boat launched, supplied with gear, and the best oarsmen on board to hold themselves ready to man it.

”Thar'll be a fight when that ar whale rises,” he muttered, rather than spoke. ”Wants a lance in the right place, and a man to put it there. Mr.

Higgins ain't the man for that work.”

The boat's speed began to slacken. The sharp, whizzing sound, caused by the rapid paying-out of the line and its great tension, gradually subsided. It was evident the whale was coming up to blow, perhaps change his course, perhaps attack his a.s.sailants. He had crossed the s.h.i.+p's course, and the head boat was nearly two miles off the starboard bow, the stern boat rapidly coming up.

The water just ahead of the boat began to quiver and curl into eddies, then the huge monster lifted himself, as it were, high above the surface, struck his flukes, and lashed the sea into a foam. This lasted for several minutes, the boat pulling for him with all the strength of her oarsmen. But when nearly alongside of the whale she suddenly slackened her speed, then stopped, then went ”astern hard.” It was evident to those on board the s.h.i.+p that something was wrong, for the boat seemed to be manoeuvring more for her own safety than to gain a position from which a lance could be hurled with effect.

”Too many landsmen in that boat!” said the old captain, who had been carefully watching every movement through his gla.s.s; now hoping, now fearing. He shook his head doubtingly, and paced the deck nervously for several minutes. Then, as if there was something it was necessary for him to set right, he turned to the officer of the watch, and ordered him to have the third boat manned. In another minute he was standing in the bow, lance in hand.

”Pull away for him, my hearty bullies,” he said; and the men plied their oars, and away the boat went, skimming over the water like a sea-bird.

There was resolution and courage depicted in every feature of that bronzed face.

The whale had now turned and was proceeding with open jaws to attack the first officer's boat. Another minute and he would have destroyed it, and perhaps all on board. Just at that moment t.i.te's boat came up, and with a quick, bold, and dexterous movement, rounded close under the whale's off side, and with a strong arm sent a lance home. That lance made a deep and fatal wound. The enraged monster forgot in a moment the object he was in pursuit of, threw up a volume of deep red spray, then making a desperate plunge, disappeared. He had no intention of giving up the battle, however. He merely sought relief for his wounds in deep water.

The boats now waited and watched for the result. After waiting nearly twenty minutes the monster rose again, directly ahead of the captain's boat, and so near as to dash the spray into it.

”Take that!” said the old captain; ”that iron'll stop your fightin'.”

And he hurled his lance, with quick and deadly aim, giving an order at the same time to ”astern hard.” But before sternway could be got on the boat, the infuriated monster made a sudden turn, dashed upon and stove it into fragments.