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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesDick Sands, The Boy Captain - Part 1 - Chapter 8. A Catastrophe
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Dick Sands, The Boy Captain - Part 1 - Chapter 8. A Catastrophe Post by :novedresources Category :Long Stories Author :Jules Verne Date :May 2012 Read :3384

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Dick Sands, The Boy Captain - Part 1 - Chapter 8. A Catastrophe

PART THE FIRST
CHAPTER VIII. A CATASTROPHE

Experienced whaleman as he was, Captain Hull knew the difficulty of the task he had undertaken, he was alive to the importance of making his approach to the whale from the leeward, so that there should be no sound to apprize the creature of the proximity of the boat. He had perfect confidence in his boatswain, and felt sure that he would take the proper course to insure a favourable result to the enterprise.

"We mustn't show ourselves too soon, Howick," he said.

"Certainly not," replied Howick, "I am going to skirt the edge of the discoloured water, and I shall take good care to get well to leeward."

"All right," the captain answered, and turning to the crew said, "now, my lads, as quietly as you can."

Muffling the sound of their oars by placing straw in the rowlocks, and avoiding the least unnecessary noise, the men skilfully propelled the boat along the outline of the water tinged by the crustacea, so that while the starboard oars still dipped in the green and limpid sea, the larboard were in the deep-dyed waves, and seemed as though they were dripping with blood.

"Wine on this side, water on that," said one of the sailors jocosely.

"But neither of them fit to drink," rejoined the captain sharply, "so just hold your tongue!"

Under Howick's guidance the boat now glided stealthily on to the greasy surface of the reddened waters, where she appeared to float as on a pool of oil. The whale seemed utterly unconscious of the attack that was threatening it, and allowed the boat to come nearer without exhibiting any sign of alarm.

The wide circuit which the captain had thought it advisable to take had the effect of considerably increasing the distance between his boat and the "Pilgrim," whilst the strange rapidity with which objects at sea become diminished in apparent magnitude, as if viewed through the wrong end of a telescope, made the ship look farther away than she actually was.

Another half-hour elapsed, and at the end of it the captain found himself so exactly to leeward that the huge body of the whale was precisely intermediate between his boat and the "Pilgrim." A closer approach must now be made; every precaution must be used; but the time had come to get sufficiently near for the harpoon to be discharged.

"Slowly, my men," said the captain, in a low voice; "slowly and softly!"

Howick muttered something that implied that the whale had ceased blowing so hard, and that it was aware of their approach; the captain, upon this, enjoined the most perfect silence, but urged his crew onwards, until, in five or six minutes, they were within a cable's length of the finback. Erect at the stern the boatswain stood, and manoeuvred to get the boat as close as possible to the whale's left flank, while he made it an object of special care to keep beyond the reach of its formidable tail, one stroke of which could involve them all in instantaneous disaster.

The manipulation of the boat thus left to the boatswain, the captain made ready for the arduous effort that was before him. At the extreme bow, harpoon in hand, with his legs somewhat astride so as to insure his equilibrium, he stood prepared to plunge his weapon into the mass that rose above the surface of the sea. By his side, coiled in a pail, and with one end firmly attached to the harpoon, was the first of the five lines which if the whale should dive to a considerable depth, would have to be joined end to end, one after another .

"Are you ready, my lads?" said he, hardly above a whisper.

"Ay, ay, sir," replied Howick, speaking as gently as his master, and giving a firmer grip to the rudder-oar that he held in his hands.

"Then, alongside at once," was the captain's order, which was promptly obeyed, so that in a few minutes the boat was only about ten feet from the body of the whale. The animal did not move. Was it asleep? In that case there was hope that the very first stroke might be fatal. But it was hardly likely. Captain Hull felt only too sure that there was some different cause to be assigned for its remaining so still and stationary; and the rapid glances of the boatswain showed that he entertained the same suspicion. But it was no time for speculation; the moment for action had arrived, and no attempt was made on either hand to exchange ideas upon the subject.

Captain Hull seized his weapon tightly by the shaft, and having poised it several times in the air, in order to make more sure of his aim, he gathered all his strength and hurled it against the side of the finback.

"Backwater!" he shouted.

The sailors pushed back with all their might, and the boat in an instant was beyond the range of the creature's tail.

And now the immoveableness of the animal was at once accounted for.

"See; there's a youngster!" exclaimed Howick.

And he was not mistaken. Startled by the blow of the harpoon the monster had heeled over on to its side, and the movement revealed a young whale which the mother had been disturbed in the act of suckling. It was a discovery which made Captain Hull aware that the capture of the whale would be attended with double difficulty; he knew; that she would defend "her little one" (if such a term can be applied to a creature that was at least twenty feet long) with the most determined fury; yet having made what he considered a successful commencement of the attack, he would not be daunted, nor deterred from his endeavour to secure so fine a prize.

The whale did not, as sometimes happens, make a precipitate dash upon the boat, a proceeding which necessitates the instant cutting of the harpoon-line, and an immediate retreat, but it took the far more usual course of diving downwards almost perpendicularly. It was followed by its calf; very soon, however, after rising once again to the surface with a sudden bound, it began swimming along under water with great rapidity.

Before its first plunge Captain Hull and Howick had sufficient opportunity to observe that it was an unusually large balaenoptera, measuring at least eighty feet from head to tail, its colour being of a yellowish-brown, dappled with numerous spots of a darker shade.

The pursuit, or what may be more aptly termed "the towing," of the whale had now fairly commenced. The sailors had shipped their oars, and the whale-boat darted like an arrow along the surface of the waves. In spite of the oscillation, which was very violent, Howick succeeded in maintaining equilibrium, and did not need the repeated injunctions with which the agitated captain urged his boatswain to be upon his guard.

But fast as the boat flew along, she could not keep pace with the whale, and so rapidly did the line run out that except proper care had been taken to keep the bucket in which it was coiled filled with water, the friction against the edge of the boat would inevitably have caused it to take fire. The whale gave no indication of moderating its speed, so that the first line was soon exhausted, and the second had to be attached to its end, only to be run out with like rapidity. In a few minutes more it was necessary to join on the third line; it was evident that the whale had not been hit in a vital part, and so far from rising to the surface, the oblique direction of the rope indicated that the creature was seeking yet greater depths.

"Confound it!" exclaimed the captain; "it seems as if the brute is going to run out all our line."

"Yes; and see what a distance the animal is dragging us away from the ‘Pilgrim,' " answered Howick.

"Sooner or later, however," said Captain Hull, "the thing must come to the surface; she is not a fish, you know."

"She is saving her breath for the sake of her speed," said one of the sailors with a grin.

But grin as he might, both he and his companions began to look serious when the fourth line had to be added to the third, and more serious still when the fifth was added to the fourth. The captain even began to mutter imprecations upon the refractory brute that was putting their patience to so severe a test.

The last line was nearly all uncoiled, and the general consternation was growing very great, when there was observed to be a slight slackening in the tension.

"Thank Heaven!" cried the captain; "the beast has tired herself out at last."

Casting his eye towards the "Pilgrim," he saw at a glance that she could not be less than five miles to leeward. It was a long distance, but when, according to his arrangement, he had hoisted the flag on the boat-hook which was to be the signal for the ship to approach, he had the satisfaction of seeing that Dick Sands and the negroes at once began bracing the yards to get as near as possible to the wind. The breeze, however, blew only in short, unsteady puffs, and it was only too evident that the "Pilgrim" would have considerable difficulty in working her way to the whale-boat, even if she succeeded at last.

Meantime, just as had been expected, the whale had risen to the surface of the water, the harpoon still fixed firmly in her side. She remained motionless, apparently waiting for her calf, which she had far out-distanced in her mad career. Captain Hull ordered his men to pull towards her as rapidly as they could, and on getting close up, two of the sailors, following the captain's example, shipped their oars and took up the long lances with which the whale was now to be attacked. Howick held himself in readiness to sheer off quickly in the event of the finback making a turn towards the boat.

"Now, my lads!" shouted the captain. "Look out! take a good aim! no false shots! Are you ready, Howick?"

"Quite ready, captain," answered the boatswain, adding, "but it perplexes me altogether to see the brute so quiet all of a sudden."

"It looks suspicious," said the captain; "but never mind; go on! straight ahead!"

Captain Hull was becoming more excited every moment.

During the time the boat was approaching, the whale had only turned round a little in the water without changing its position. It was evidently still looking for its calf, which was not to be seen by its side. All of a sudden it gave a jerk with its tail which carried it some few yards away.

The men were all excited. Was the beast going to escape again? Was the fatiguing pursuit all to come over a second time? Must not the chase be abandoned? Would not the prize have to be given up?

But no: the whale was not starting on another flight; it had merely turned so as to face the boat, and now rapidly beating the water with its enormous fins, it commenced a frantic dash forwards.

"Look out, Howick, she's coming!" shouted Captain Hull.

The skilful boatswain was all on the alert; the boat swerved, as if by instinct, so as to avoid the blow, and as the whale passed furiously by, she received three tremendous thrusts from the lances of the captain and the two men, who all endeavoured to strike at some vital part. There was a sudden pause. The whale spouted up two gigantic columns of blood and water, lashed its tail, and, with bounds and plunges that were terrible to behold, renewed its angry attack upon the boat.

None but the most determined of whalemen could fail to lose their head under such an assault. Calm and collected, however, the crew remained. Once again did Howick adroitly sheer aside, and once again did the three lances do their deadly work upon the huge carcase as it rolled impetuously past; but this time, so great was the wave that was caused by the infuriated animal, that the boat was well-nigh full of water, and in imminent danger of being capsized.

"Bale away, men!" cried the captain.

Putting down their oars, the other sailors set to work baling with all their might. Captain Hull cut the harpoon-line, now no longer required, because the whale, maddened with pain and grief for the loss of its offspring, would certainly make no further attempt to escape, but would fight desperately to the very end.

The finback was obviously bent on a third onslaught upon the boat, which, being in spite of all the men's exertions still more than half full of water, no longer answered readily to the rudder-oar.

No one thought of flight. The swiftest boat could be overtaken in a very few bounds. There was no alternative but to face the encounter. It was not long in coming. Their previous good fortune failed them. The whale in passing caught the boat with such a violent blow from its dorsal fin, that the men lost their footing and the lances missed their mark.

"Where's Howick?" screamed the captain in alarm.

"Here I am, captain; all right!" replied the boatswain, who had scrambled to his feet only to find that the oar with which he had been steering was snapped in half.

"The rudder's smashed," he said.

"Take another, Howick; quick!" cried the captain.

But scarcely had he time to replace the broken oar, when a bubbling was heard a few yards away from the boat, and the young whale made its appearance on the surface of the sea. Catching sight of it instantly, the mother made a fresh dash in its direction, the maternal instincts were aroused, and the contest must become more deadly than ever.

Captain Hull looked towards the "Pilgrim," and waved his signal frantically above his head. It was, however, with no hope of succour; he was only too well aware that no human efforts could effectually hasten the arrival of the ship. Dick Sands indeed had at once obeyed the first summons: already the wind was filling the sails, but in default of steam power her progress at best could not be otherwise than slow. Not only did Dick feel convinced that it would be a useless waste of time to lower a boat and come off with the negroes to the rescue, but he remembered the strict orders he had received on no account to quit the ship. Captain Hull, however, could perceive that the apprentice had had the aft-boat lowered, and was towing it along, so that it should be in readiness for a refuge as soon as they should get within reach.

But the whale, close at hand, demanded attention that could ill be spared for the yet distant ship. Covering her young one with her body, she was manifestly designing another charge full upon the boat.

"On your guard, Howick! sheer off!" bellowed the captain.

But the order was useless. The fresh oar that the boatswain had taken to replace the broken one was considerably shorter, and consequently it failed in lever-power. There was, in fact, no helm for the boat to answer. The sailors saw the failure, and convinced that all was lost uttered one long, despairing cry that might have been heard on board the "Pilgrim." Another moment, and from beneath there came a tremendous blow from the monster's tail that sent the boat flying in the air. In fragments it fell back again into a sea that was lashed into fury by the angry flapping of the finback's fins.

Was it not possible for the unfortunate men, bleeding and wounded as they were, still to save themselves by clinging to some floating spar? Captain Hull is indeed seen endeavouring to hoist the boatswain on to a drifting plank. But all in vain. There is no hope. The whale, writhing in the convulsions of death, returns yet once again to the attack; the waters around the struggling sailors seethe and foam. A brief turmoil follows as if there were the bursting of some vast waterspout.

In a quarter of an hour afterwards, Dick Sands, with the negroes, reaches the scene of the catastrophe. All is still and desolate. Every living object has vanished. Nothing is visible except a few fragments of the whale-boat floating on the blood-stained water.

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