Frank Nelson in the Forecastle. Or, The Sportman's Club Among the Whalers
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For the first time since he came on board the Tycoon, Frank felt like laughing. The captain reminded him of Hans Breitman's velocipede, which, even before it became frightened and started to run away with its rider, went so fast that it
"Bless me, what muscles those two fellows in the bow have got!" continued the captain, still working at the stroke-oar with all his strength. "And how they do twist them oars about, just as if they were feathers! I've got to have stronger and heavier oars made for them, I can see that, for they're bound to break them they've got now. Ah! she touched that wave. Lift her up in the air again, where she belongs, and hold her there. You fellows in the bow needn't think you can pull your end of the boat so fast that we in the stern can't keep up with you. By the way, is that sharp-eyed, good-looking son of mine, who raised this whale, in the boat?"
"Yes, sir. It was Nelson," replied Lucas, promptly.
Frank, who did not believe in sailing under false colors, was about to protest that it wasn't he at all – that Lucas himself was the lucky man – but knowing the captain's uncertain disposition, and fearing that there might be some after-settlement that would prove unpleasant for the old boatswain's mate if the truth were known, he kept silent and heard himself praised for an act that he did not perform.
"Ah! it is just like him," said the captain. "I knew there was lots in him the first time I saw him. You can't fool me in a man. I can look in his eye and read him like an open book. There's a boatsteerer's berth ahead for you, Nelson," continued the captain, too excited and impatient to think of the name he always applied to Frank in derision. "Those boots belong to you, and when we get back to the ship you go straight down to the slop-chest – I'll give you the key – and pick out whatever you want. Take everything you find there – boots, breeches, shirts and – no, no! Take the ship. She's yours! That's the way Daddy Barclay treats his sons when they do their duty by him. Now, my lads," he added, in a thrilling whisper, "he's right here somewhere below us. Lay on your oars now; keep your eyes peeled and don't let me hear so much as an eye-wink from any of you."
Frank's heart fairly came up into his mouth. The captain's harangue being ended (he had a suspicion that the skipper had kept it up on purpose to divert the minds of his crew, one of whom was as green as Frank himself), there was nothing to occupy his attention, and he had leisure to ponder upon the dangers he was about to encounter. Of course all the stories he had heard in the Tycoon's forecastle concerning the perils to which whalemen are constantly exposed, came into his mind, and to save his life he could think of nothing else. He felt as he had often felt on going into action. After the crew are called to quarters there is almost always a delay, sometimes longer and sometimes shorter, before the first gun is fired, and to most men that is worse than the battle itself.They are glad when it is over and the fight begins. The interval of inactivity that came now gave the boat's crew a chance to rest after their long, hard pull, but Frank could scarcely endure it. He wanted the whale to show himself at once. If he was going to cut the boat in two with his jaw or smash it into kindling wood with his tail, Frank wished he would be about it and not keep him in suspense.
The whale was down a long time – so long that even the captain became impatient. He and the boat's crew, Frank among the rest, arose to their feet one after the other to obtain a wider view, and holding their oars in their hands, kept a bright lookout in every direction. The first mate's boat was lying about half a mile to windward, and her crew were also standing up. The Tycoon had come to directly in the path the whale was pursuing, and the third officer was at the mast-head, ready to signal to the boat's crews if the whale arose beyond the range of their vision. Frank's eyes were everywhere, and at last something induced him to turn them into the water close alongside the boat. He saw something there – an immense dark-blue object, which contrasted plainly with the paler blue of the water. He looked again, and then glanced into the water on the opposite side of the boat to make sure that his eyes had not deceived him. The sea on that side was all the same color, and that proved that there was something under the boat. He nudged Lucas with his elbow and pointed to it. The old sailor looked, and instantly every particle of color fled from his face. But he had nerve, if he was frightened, plenty of it, too, and it showed itself in the firm grasp he laid upon his harpoon. The time for action had arrived.
"He's coming," thought Frank, while the oar he held in his grasp seemed to turn into lead, so heavy did it feel to his weakened arm. "I always supposed a whale was black."
The boat header's action attracted the attention of the captain, who, following the direction of his gaze gave a sudden start and waved his hand to the crew. The men quickly seated themselves and dropped their oars softly in the row-locks. The temptation to look over his shoulder was almost irresistible, but fearing that if he did, his courage, which was rapidly oozing out at the ends of his fingers, would give away altogether, Frank resolutely controlled himself and kept his eyes fixed on the captain's face.
"There he is," cried the skipper, a moment afterward. "Throw it at him and go overboard if you miss him."
The old sailor obeyed the order to the very letter. He threw his harpoon, missed his object and went overboard. Whether it was for the reason that the boat was unsteady, or because the seaman was too badly frightened to stand firmly on his feet, or because his hand had lost its skill during the years that had passed since he struck his last whale, it is hard to tell. Perhaps all these things combined operated to bring about the events that followed. At any rate the iron went wild and the old boatswain's mate turned a complete back somersault and disappeared over the side. He rose immediately, however, and Frank catching sight of him as a wave carried him past the boat, promptly thrust his oar out to him.
The captain was almost beside himself with fury. He did not act or talk quite so much like an affectionate father as he did a short time before. He tore off his hat, trampled it under his feet and shook all over with rage. "He missed him as sure as I'm a sinner," he sputtered, hardly able to speak plainly. "If I had him aboard the ship I would trice him up for a week. Let the fool go," he roared with a long string of heavy adjectives, as Frank tried to place the blade of his oar in the old sailor's grasp. "A man that'll get up on his legs and tumble overboard while the boat is standing still, is of no use aboard a vessel of mine; so let him go down among the sharks, where he belongs. We're well rid of – Stern all! Stern for your lives! Well done, my son. You've been in this business before, and you are my boat-header from this day out."
The change in the captain's tone was brought about by an action on Frank's part that was unexpected, even to himself. He scarcely knew he did it until after it was done. Lucas, having missed his first throw and gone overboard, had no chance for a second attempt, and unless somebody took his place on the instant, the game was likely, if he did not escape altogether, to lead them a long, hard race before they could come up with him again. It required an emergency to show what Frank was made of. He never waited to take a second thought, but throwing his oar to the boatswain's mate – he knew it would keep him afloat until the boat could pick him up – he jumped to his feet, catching up the extra harpoon as he arose.
When his face was turned toward the bow of the boat, Frank saw a sight that was well calculated to shake stronger nerves than his – a sperm whale coming up on a breach almost within an oar's length of him. His huge bulk was shooting up into the air, and he did not even make a ripple in the water as he arose. But when he fell on his side, as he did a moment later, he created something more than a ripple. He raised waves that threatened to swamp the boat, and made a noise that would have given Frank some idea of the immense weight of the monster, if he had not been too highly excited and alarmed to have any ideas at all.
As the whale fell into the water – fortunately he fell away from the boat – Frank's harpoon was launched into the air, and being thrown with all the force his sinewy arms could give it, and flying true to its aim, was buried to the socket in the side of the whale. The next instant the young harpooner was thrown flat among the thwarts by the sudden start backward which the crew gave the boat in obedience to the captain's order "Stern all!" He heard something whistling through the air, and looked up just in time to see the whale's flukes disappearing in a pile of foam. How he opened his eyes at the sight of them! They would have measured more feet across than the boat measured in length. The whale gave the water an angry slap, raising a sea that would have filled the boat had not the bow been promptly brought around toward it, and then started down into the depths at the rate of a mile in six minutes, the line fairly smoking as it whizzed through the lead-lined groove. Frank held his breath while he gazed at it. It looked like a streak of blue flame, so swiftly did it run out. If it caught on anything, the boat and all her crew would be a hundred feet under water in an instant's time.
The young harpooner did not hear any of the words of praise and promises of reward which the delighted skipper shouted at him. He did not hear anything but the hissing of the line as it ran through the groove in the bow. He lay on the bottom perfectly stupefied, until he was aroused by the touch of somebody's hand.
When the captain gave the order to "Stern all," the crew sent the boat within reach of Lucas, who laid hold of the gunwale, and worked his way along to the bow, where he belonged. Attracting Frank's attention by a pull at his trowsers, he was hauled into the boat, and took his seat, looking not a little crestfallen. He caught up a hatchet lying near, and held it in his hand in readiness to cut the line in case it fouled while running out. Frank also seated himself, and then began to think about what he had done. No one in the boat could have been more surprised at it.
"I don't want any more of this," said he, mentally. "It is just awful. I can't stand it. While that fellow was shooting up toward the clouds he looked like a church-steeple turned wrong end up. He must be a hundred and fifty feet long – perhaps more. Who would have thought that I had courage enough to send that harpoon at him?"
Here Frank looked over his shoulder as if to satisfy himself that he had really performed the feat. There could be no mistake about it. The line was still running out, and Lucas was watching it while hauling in the harpoon with which he had missed the whale.
"I believe I did do it," thought Frank. "He is black after all. It was the water that made him look so blue. I wouldn't do it again to be made owner of the finest fleet of ships that ever floated!"
"Nelson," said the captain, and now that Frank's mind was settled a little he was able to pay attention to him, "whatever I've got that you want, just ask for it and it is yours. Don't be bashful or stand on ceremony with your Daddy Barclay. Take a big bite if you want to."
"I have only one favor to ask, captain," replied Frank, suddenly tempted to strike while the iron was hot, although he knew it would be quite useless, "and that is – "
"Well, slack away lively, and let it come out on the run," said the captain, as Frank hesitated a moment, wondering how he could word the request so that the skipper would not get angry at him. "Speak it out."
"I should be greatly obliged if you would set me and the two men who were shanghaied with me, ashore at the first port we make," said Frank. "We shall use the right the law gives us, and ask to see the consul as soon as we get there."
Frank's only motive in saying this was to let the captain know that he understood the law applying to the rights of seamen; and he said it at that time because he did not know that he would ever have another chance, this being the first opportunity he had ever had to exchange a word with the master of the Tycoon. If there is anything an officer thoroughly detests it is a "sea lawyer" among his crew. One of these gentry will keep a ship's company in hot water from the time the voyage begins until it is ended; and his presence acts as a restraint upon the captain and his mates, who, if they are disposed to be tyrannical, expect to escape the consequences through the sailor's ignorance of their rights. Frank knew this, and he was in hopes that if he let the captain see that he knew what his privileges were, and that he intended to insist on having them, the skipper would be glad to get rid of him with as little delay as possible.
The master of the Tycoon had not a word to say in reply to this request, but the look he gave Frank satisfied the latter that if he had not spoken at the right time to further his own interests, he had spoken at the right time to make the captain angry. He did not offer Frank any more rewards after that.
The line continued to run out with great rapidity for a few minutes, then the speed gradually decreased until it remained motionless, and the actions of the captain and his crew indicated that the whale was soon expected to make his appearance at the surface again. He came very speedily, and much too close to the boat for the comfort and safety of its crew. Seen through Frank's frightened eyes, his head looked like a small mountain rising out of the water. His mouth was wide open, showing a milk-white cavity large enough to take in the boat and all its crew, and Frank gathered from something Lucas said that he was ugly and had made up his mind to do some mischief. The sequel proved that the old sailor was right. The monster began operations at once by striking out with his long, sword-like jaw, which to Frank's great amazement he worked sideways, instead of up and down, and followed it up with a tremendous sweep of his tail that, had he succeeded in planting the blow where he wanted it, would have made an end of his enemies in a hurry. But both these dangers were escaped. His jaw just touched the bow of the boat, and the blow from his flukes was avoided by the vigilance of the captain and the prompt obedience of the crew, who quickly backed the boat out of his reach. Apparently satisfied with the demonstrations he had made, the whale got under way and made off at an astonishing rate of speed, the harpoon which Frank had planted still fast in his side.
The bow-oarsman now had a duty to perform, and he set about it without waiting for orders. It was to overhaul the line and draw the boat up alongside the whale, so that the captain, who stood ready to change places with the harpooner, could use his lance. He rapidly drew in the line, taking care to lay it down clear of everything, so that it would not kink or get foul in case the whale sounded again, and soon had the slack all in. Then he felt a strain upon it, and an instant afterward the line was whipped out of the water with such force that it was drawn as tight as a bow-string, and the spray flew from it in a perfect shower.
"Hold fast to it, my son," yelled the captain. "Keep every inch you get, and get every inch you can. We'll have a sleigh-ride now, and such a one as landsmen know nothing about."
For a moment the strain was fearful, and Frank's power of muscle was tested to the utmost. It seemed to him that if the harpoon did not draw or the line break, his arms would be pulled off. Letting go was something he did not think of; but he knew he could not retain his hold much longer, so in spite of the old mate's warning gestures, he passed a bight of the line around a thwart and held it there. By this time the boat began to move, and the strain was somewhat lessened.
Now began a novel ride, which Frank thought he could have enjoyed if he had only had leisure to give his attention to it. A whale can move at tremendous speed for a short distance, and this one went at such a rate that the boat buried her bow in the waves, and rolled back great masses of foam, which, spreading out over the surface of the water, gave it the appearance of a bank of snow. Perhaps it was this that first caused the sailors to call a ride of this kind a sleigh-ride. But Frank had no time to see what was going on around him. He had work to perform; and it was work to haul a heavy boat containing six men through the waves against such resistance as the whale created by the high rate of speed he kept up. The line was wet and slippery, and Frank's hands, which he had fondly hoped were pretty well hardened by this time, soon began to feel the effects of it.
In the first lesson he received while man?uvring about the "dummy whale," Frank had been instructed how to adjust the line to make the boat move side by side with a running whale and at a short distance from it, and he struggled hard to bring the boat in that position; but the line came in very slowly, and sometimes when he was almost on the point of accomplishing his object, an unusually large wave striking the bow or a sudden spurt on the part of the frantic beast in front, would tear the line from his hands in spite of all he could do to prevent it.
At length, after Frank had worked his best for nearly an hour without once pausing for breath, and the line had been drawn through his hands for the third time, the captain's small stock of patience was all exhausted, and he began to relieve his mind by uttering heavy oaths. "Coward!" he yelled, stamping his feet as if he were trying to knock a hole through the bottom of the boat. "If you are afraid to put me alongside that whale, jump overboard and give place to a better man. You're fixing your back for a rope's end as soon as you get aboard the ship!"
Frank and the old boatswain's mate exchanged quick glances, one elevating his eye-brows, and the other drawing his down. The first meant: "If he tries it will you sing out?" and Frank by his answering scowl meant: "I will." Not a word was passed, but each understood the other perfectly.