Chapter 8 - The Jubarte
Captain Hull, an experienced whaler, would leave nothing to chance. The capture of a jubarte is a difficult thing. No precaution ought to be neglected. None was in this case.
And, first of all, Captain Hull sailed so as to come up to the whale on the leeward, so that no noise might disclose the boat's approach.
Howik then steered the whale-boat, following the rather elongated curve of that reddish shoal, in the midst of which floated the jubarte. They would thus turn the curve.
The boatswain, set over this work, was a seaman of great coolness, who inspired Captain Hull with every confidence. He had not to fear either hesitation or distraction from Howik.
"Attention to the steering, Howik," said Captain Hull. "We are going to try to surprise the jubarte. We will only show ourselves when we are near enough to harpoon it."
"That is understood, sir," replied the boatswain.
"I am going to follow the contour of these reddish waters, so as to keep to the leeward."
"Good!" said Captain Hull. "Boys, as little noise as possible in rowing."
The oars, carefully muffled with straw, worked silently. The boat, skilfully steered by the boatswain, had reached the large shoal of crustaceans. The starboard oars still sank in the green and limpid water, while those to larboard, raising the reddish liquid, seemed to rain drops of blood.
"Wine and water!" said one of the sailors.
"Yes," replied Captain Hull, "but water that we cannot drink, and wine that we cannot swallow. Come, boys, let us not speak any more, and heave closer!"
The whale-boat, steered by the boatswain, glided noiselessly on the surface of those half-greased waters, as if it were floating on a bed of oil.
The jubarte did not budge, and did not seem to have yet perceived the boat, which described a circle around it.
Captain Hull, in making the circuit, necessarily went farther than the "Pilgrim," which gradually grew smaller in the distance. This rapidity with which objects diminish at sea has always an odd effect. It seems as if we look at them shortened through the large end of a telescope. This optical illusion evidently takes place because there are no points of comparison on these large spaces. It was thus with the "Pilgrim," which decreased to the eye and seemed already much more distant than she really was.
Half an hour after leaving her, Captain Hull and his companions found themselves exactly to the leeward of the whale, so that the latter occupied an intermediate point between the ship and the boat.
So the moment had come to approach, while making as little noise as possible. It was not impossible for them to get beside the animal and harpoon it at good range, before its attention would be attracted.
"Row more slowly, boys," said Captain Hull, in a low voice.
"It seems to me," replied Howik, "that the gudgeon suspects something. It breathes less violently than it did just now!"
"Silence! silence!" repeated Captain Hull.
Five minutes later the whale-boat was at a cable's length from the jubarte. A cable's length, a measure peculiar to the sea, comprises a length of one hundred and twenty fathoms, that is to say, two hundred meters.
The boatswain, standing aft, steered in such a manner as to approach the left side of the mammal, but avoiding, with the greatest care, passing within reach of the formidable tail, a single blow of which would be enough to crush the boat.
At the prow Captain Hull, his legs a little apart to maintain his equilibrium, held the weapon with which he was going to give the first blow. They could count on his skill to fix that harpoon in the thick mass which emerged from the waters.
Near the captain, in a pail, was coiled the first of the five lines, firmly fastened to the harpoon, and to which they would successively join the other four if the whale plunged to great depths.
"Are we ready, boys?" murmured Captain Hull.
"Yes," replied Howik, grasping his oar firmly in his large hands.
The boatswain obeyed the order, and the whale-boat came within less than ten feet of the animal.
The latter no longer moved, and seemed asleep.
Whales thus surprised while asleep offer an easier prize, and it often happens that the first blow which is given wounds them mortally.
"This immovableness is quite astonishing!" thought Captain Hull. "The rascal ought not to be asleep, and nevertheless - - there is something there!"
The boatswain thought the same, and he tried to see the opposite side of the animal.
But it was not the moment to reflect, but to attack.
Captain Hull, holding his harpoon by the middle of the handle, balanced it several times, to make sure of good aim, while he examined the jubarte's side. Then he threw it with all the strength of his arm.
"Back, back!" cried he at once.
And the sailors, pulling together, made the boat recoil rapidly, with the intention of prudently putting it in safety from the blows of the cetacean's tail.
But at that moment a cry from the boatswain made them understand why the whale was so extraordinarily motionless for so long a time on the surface of the sea.
"A young whale!" said he.
In fact, the jubarte, after having been struck by the harpoon, was almost entirely overturned on the side, thus discovering a young whale, which she was in process of suckling.
This circumstance, as Captain Hull well knew, would render the capture of the jubarte much more difficult. The mother was evidently going to defend herself with greater fury, as much for herself as to protect her "little one " - if, indeed, we can apply that epithet to an animal which did not measure less than twenty feet.
Meanwhile, the jubarte did not rush at the boat, as there was reason to fear, and there was no necessity, before taking flight, to quickly cut the line which connected the boat with the harpoon. On the contrary, and as generally happens, the whale, followed by the young one, dived, at first in a very oblique line; then rising again with an immense bound, she commenced to cleave the waters with extreme rapidity.
But before she had made her first plunge, Captain Hull and the boatswain, both standing, had had time to see her, and consequently to estimate her at her true value.
This jubarte was, in reality, a whale of the largest size. From the head to the tail, she measured at least eighty feet. Her skin, of a yellowish brown, was much varied with numerous spots of a darker brown.
It would indeed be a pity, after an attack so happily begun, to be under the necessity of abandoning so rich a prey.
The pursuit, or rather the towing, had commenced. The whale-boat, whose oars had been raised, darted like an arrow while swinging on the tops of the waves.
Howik kept it steady, notwithstanding those rapid and frightful oscillations. Captain Hull, his eye on his prey, did not cease making his eternal refrain:
"Be watchful, Howik, be watchful!"
And they could be sure that the boatswain's vigilance would not be at fault for an instant.
Meanwhile, as the whale-boat did not fly nearly as fast as the whale, the line of the harpoon spun out with such rapidity that it was to be feared that it would take fire in rubbing against the edge of the whale-boat. So Captain Hull took care to keep it damp, by filling with water the pail at the bottom of which the line was coiled.
All this time the jubarte did not seem inclined to stop her flight, nor willing to moderate it. The second line was then lashed to the end of the first, and it was not long before it was played out with the same velocity.
At the end of five minutes it was necessary to join on the third line, which ran off under the water.
The jubarte did not stop. The harpoon had evidently not penetrated into any vital part of the body. They could even observe, by the increased obliquity of the line, that the animal, instead of returning to the surface, was sinking into lower depths.
"The devil!" cried Captain Hull, "but that rascal will use up our five lines!"
"And lead us to a good distance from the 'Pilgrim,'" replied the boatswain.
"Nevertheless, she must return to the surface to breathe," replied Captain Hull. "She is not a fish, and she must have the provision of air like a common individual."
"She has held her breath to run better," said one of the sailors, laughing.
In fact, the line was unrolling all the time with equal rapidity.
To the third line, it was soon necessary to join the fourth, and that was not done without making the sailors somewhat anxious touching their future part of the prize.
"The devil! the devil!" murmured Captain Hull. "I have never seen anything like that! Devilish jubarte!"
Finally the fifth line had to be let out, and it was already half unrolled when it seemed to slacken.
"Good! good!" cried Captain Hull. "The line is less stiff. The jubarte is getting tired."
At that moment, the "Pilgrim" was more than five miles to the leeward of the whale-boat. Captain Hull, hoisting a flag at the end of a boat-hook, gave the signal to come nearer.
And almost at once, he could see that Dick Sand, aided by Tom and his companions, commenced to brace the yards in such a manner as to trim them close to the wind.
But the breeze was feeble and irregular. It only came in short puffs. Most certainly, the "Pilgrim" would have some trouble in joining the whale-boat, if indeed she could reach it. Meanwhile, as they had foreseen, the jubarte had returned to the surface of the water to breathe, with the harpoon fixed in her side all the time. She then remained almost motionless, seeming to wait for her young whale, which this furious course must have left behind.
Captain Hull made use of the oars so as to join her again, and soon he was only a short distance from her.
Two oars were laid down and two sailors armed themselves, as the captain had done, with long lances, intended to strike the enemy.
Howik worked skilfully then, and held himself ready to make the boat turn rapidly, in case the whale should turn suddenly on it.
"Attention!" cried Captain Hull. "Do not lose a blow! Aim well, boys! Are we ready, Howik?"
"I am prepared, sir," replied the boatswain, "but one thing troubles me. It is that the beast, after having fled so rapidly, is very quiet now."
"In fact, Howik, that seems to me suspicious. Let us be careful!"
"Yes, but let us go forward."
Captain Hull grew more and more animated.
The boat drew still nearer. The jubarte only turned in her place. Her young one was no longer near her; perhaps she was trying to find it again.
Suddenly she made a movement with her tail, which took her thirty feet away.
Was she then going to take flight again, and must they take up this interminable pursuit again on the surface of the waters?
"Attention!" cried Captain Hull. "The beast is going to take a spring and throw herself on us. Steer, Howik, steer!"
The jubarte, in fact, had turned in such a manner as to present herself in front of the whale-boat. Then, beating the sea violently with her enormous fins, she rushed forward.
The boatswain, who expected this direct blow, turned in such a fashion that the jubarte passed by the boat, but without reaching it.
Captain Hull and the two sailors gave her three vigorous thrusts on the passage, seeking to strike some vital organ.
The jubarte stopped, and, throwing to a great height two columns of water mingled with blood, she turned anew on the boat, bounding, so to say, in a manner frightful to witness.
These seamen must have been expert fishermen, not to lose their presence of mind on this occasion.
Howik again skilfully avoided the jubarte's attack, by darting the boat aside.
Three new blows, well aimed, again gave the animal three new wounds. But, in passing, she struck the water so roughly with her formidable tail, that an enormous wave arose, as if the sea were suddenly opened.
The whale-boat almost capsized, and, the water rushing in over the side, it was half filled.
"The bucket, the bucket!" cried Captain Hull.
The two sailors, letting go their oars, began to bale out the boat rapidly, while the captain cut the line, now become useless.
No! the animal, rendered furious by grief, no longer dreamt of flight. It was her turn to attack, and her agony threatened to be terrible.
A third time she turned round, "head to head," a seaman would say, and threw herself anew on the boat.
But the whale-boat, half full of water, could no longer move with the same facility. In this condition, how could it avoid the shock which threatened it? If it could be no longer steered, there was still less power to escape.
And besides, no matter how quickly the boat might be propelled, the swift jubarte would have always overtaken it with a few bounds. It was no longer a question of attack, but of defense.
Captain Hull understood it all.
The third attack of the animal could not be entirely kept off. In passing she grazed the whale-boat with her enormous dorsal fin, but with so much force that Howik was thrown down from his bench.
The three lances, unfortunately affected by the oscillation, this time missed their aim.
"Howik! Howik!" cried Captain Hull, who himself had been hardly able to keep his place.
"Present!" replied the boatswain, as he got up. But he then perceived that in his fall his stern oar had broken in the middle.
"Another oar!" said Captain Hull.
"I have one," replied Howik.
At that moment, a bubbling took place under the waters only a few fathoms from the boat.
The young whale had just reappeared. The jubarte saw it, and rushed towards it.
This circumstance could only give a more terrible character to the contest. The whale was going to fight for two.
Captain Hull looked toward the "Pilgrim." His hand shook the boat-hook, which bore the flag, frantically.
What could Dick Sand do that had not been already done at the first signal from the captain? The "Pilgrim's" sails were trimmed, and the wind commenced to fill them. Unhappily the schooner did not possess a helix, by which the action could be increased to sail faster.
To lower one of the boats, and, with the aid of the blacks, row to the assistance of the captain, would be a considerable loss of time; besides, the novice had orders not to quit the ship, no matter what happened. However, he had the stern-boat lowered from its pegs, and towed it along, so that the captain and his companions might take refuge in it, in case of need.
At that moment the jubarte, covering the young whale with her body, had returned to the charge. This time she turned in such a manner as to reach the boat exactly.
"Attention, Howik!" cried Captain Hull, for the last time.
But the boatswain was, so to speak, disarmed. Instead of a lever, whose length gave force, he only held in his hand an oar relatively short. He tried to put about; it was impossible.
The sailors knew that they were lost. All rose, giving a terrible cry, which was perhaps heard on the "Pilgrim."
A terrible blow from the monster's tail had just struck the whale-boat underneath. The boat, thrown into the air with irresistible violence, fell back, broken in three pieces, in the midst of waves furiously lashed by the whale's bounds.
The unfortunate sailors, although grievously wounded, would have had, perhaps, the strength to keep up still, either by swimming or by hanging on to some of the floating wreck. That is what Captain Hull did, for he was seen for a moment hoisting the boatswain on a wreck.
But the jubarte, in the last degree of fury, turned round, sprang up, perhaps in the last pangs of a terrible agony, and with her tail she beat the troubled waters frightfully, where the unfortunate sailors were still swimming.
For some minutes one saw nothing but a liquid water-spout scattering itself in sheafs on all sides.
A quarter of an hour after, when Dick Sand, who, followed by the blacks, had rushed into the boat, had reached the scene of the catastrophe, every living creature had disappeared. There was nothing left but some pieces of the whale-boat on the surface of the waters, red with blood.