Read CHAPTER THIRTEEN - OCCUPANTS OF THE DEEP. of Steve Young , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

Saddened faces met the gaze of the occupants of the stern sheets, as the men steadily tugged away at their oars hour after hour, with the heavy beluga hanging from its rope behind.  Then all at once, when the mist was most dense, the silence perfect, and a feeling coming over all that it would be impossible to go on rowing much longer, every one loosed his oar and joined in a loud cheer; for from quite close at hand ­so near, in fact, that the mist swayed with the concussion ­there was the dull, heavy roar of a cannon.

“The Hvalross!” cried Steve.

“Yes, our signal-gun,” replied the captain.

A faint cheer like the distant echo of that from the boat was now heard, the men bent to their oars with renewed vigour, and ten minutes later, guided by shout after shout, the boat suddenly glided under the counter of the vessel.

“Why, we thought we had lost you!” cried the doctor, leaning over from the gangway.

“Then you got back?”

“Yes, hours ago.  The ship came right upon us, nearly running us down.  But what a fog!”

“Yes,” said Captain Marsham drily, “what a fog!  You seem to have been more fortunate than we were.  Save your fish?”

“Oh yes; they’ve got it towing alongside.  And you, did you cut yours adrift?”

“No; it is alongside, too.”

All were too tired to make an attack upon the whales that day, and after a good meal the watch was set, and those at liberty sought relief from their weariness in sleep, leaving the ship lying to and with the fires going sufficiently to enable the engineer to get up steam at a very short notice and take the ship out of danger if any came near.

Steve awoke after many hours’ sleep to find that a light breeze had swept away the mist, and that they were lying about ten miles away from the ice, toward which they had partly drifted, partly steamed, during the heavy mist.  It was another example of the difficulties of navigation in the north, another of the risks to which sailors are exposed.  But now that the trouble had passed it was almost forgotten, the men being eagerly at work cutting up the two whales and transferring their thick blubber to the caldron, from which a clear, sweet oil was soon after being drawn off and emptied into one of the tanks that henceforth would be reserved for this particular kind of oil.

The trouble of the past day was forgotten, and the men were ready to make light of it all, save the Norwegian sailors, who shook their heads when the others laughed and bantered them about getting lost; they knew the reality of the danger better, and said nothing either to make much or light of it.

The rendering down of the bear’s fat and the boiling of the whale blubber into oil rather disgusted Steve; but he contented himself with making a face when the doctor talked about it.

“Must take the rough with the smooth,” he said.  “The bear-hunt was very exciting and the whale-fishing grand.  I think I shall get Johannes to let me try harpooning.”

“You mean,” said the doctor, “that you must take the smooth with the rough.”

“Why?  I don’t understand you,” replied the boy.

“The smooth oil with the rough work of capturing.”

“Oh, I see!” cried Steve.

“And you mean to try harpooning?”

“Why not, sir?  I tried shooting.”

“Wait till you have some more muscle on your arm, Steve,” said the doctor, laughing; and then, after a look round at the sunlit sea, on which they were gliding easily along with plenty of canvas spread, as there was a favourable wind, he went below.

“Wait till I’ve got more muscle,” muttered Steve.  “I’ve got as much as most fellows of my age.  Yes, as much as you have, Mr Watty Links; and I’ll show you that I have one of these days,” he added, as he caught sight of the boy watching him with a supercilious smile on his face.  “No, I won’t,” thought Steve, as the boy disappeared.  “Nice blackguard I should look fighting with a fellow like that.  Why, he might lick me,” he added after a few moments’ thought.  “I’m not afraid of him, but he’s bigger and stronger than I am, and he might.  I should never forgive myself,” he said half aloud.  “Yes, I should,” he muttered, smiling at his fresh idea, “when I had had another try and licked him.  Bother!  I didn’t come to sea to fight.  Here, Jakobsen, where’s Johannes?”

The man smiled and pointed upward.

“What do you mean?  Oh, I see; in the crow’s-nest.”

“Yes, with the captain’s spy-glass.”  Steve had not been aloft since the day when the tub was fixed to the main-mast, and without pausing to think of anything that was said upon that occasion he climbed on to the bulwarks, seized hold of the shrouds, and began to mount slowly and steadily, enjoying the soft breeze blowing by him, and noticing how different the sails looked aloft from what they did from the deck.  The main-mast was passed, and he rested in the top for a few minutes to have a look round at the glittering sea, so brilliant now in the clear atmosphere.  Then he had a look upward, and began to mount again quietly, and in an easy, effortless way, as if he enjoyed the task.  He paused again, holding on by the shrouds as he looked up once more, to see that the Norseman was intent upon something in the distance, resting the large telescope he had taken up on the ring or rail of iron raised above the top of the cask, just at a convenient height for the purpose, and in perfect ignorance of the presence of visitors.  Steve smiled as he climbed higher, and paused once more as he reached the stout cross-bars which they had placed that day when the crow’s-nest was built.

“Ahoy there, Johannes!” he cried.

The man gave a violent start, and turned to look over the edge of the cask.

“Mr Young!” he cried, “you there?”

“Look’s like it.  I’ve come to see you.  Got any room in your nest?”

The Norseman laughed.

“Well, I daresay you could creep in.  But did the captain give you leave to come aloft?”

“No; I only just made up my mind to come.  Open the door; I’m coming.”

“Take care, my lad!” cried the Norseman warningly.  “There’s no one to catch you if you slip.”

“I won’t slip this time,” said Steve merrily; and climbing from the shrouds on to the wooden ladder, he went up from bar to bar till his head and shoulders passed into the cask, and the next minute the hinged bottom fell to again, and he had just room to stand in company with the sailor.

“I say, rather a tight fit,” said Steve, laughing.  “Wouldn’t do for two people to quarrel packed together in a barrel like this.”

“But why have you come up, sir?  Did the mate send any message?”

“No, I tell you,” cried Steve.  “I only saw that you were up here, and thought I should like to come up for a chat.”

“Very good of you, sir,” said the man quietly.  “Got over the scare of the fog?”

“Oh yes, now.  It’s of no use to worry about things when they’re over.  It was dangerous, though, wasn’t it?”

“Very, sir,” said the Norseman gravely.  “Three poor fellows from our town rowed away from their ship with three Swedish men.  They were after walrus.  One of those fogs came on, and they were never seen again.”

“No?  What became of them?”

Johannes shook his head.

“The great sea is wide, sir,” he replied.  “The fog confused them, and they must have rowed in the wrong direction, been caught in one of the strong currents, and then tried to reach home as they could not find their ship.  There are terrible losses out here in some summers.”

“Was it near here that they were lost?” said Steve, after a few minutes’ silence, during which he pictured the sufferings of the despairing boat’s crew.

“No, sir, more to the east, by Novaya-Zemlya.”

“How horrible!” said Steve with a shudder.  “Tell me about something else.”

“Yes, sir; I don’t want to what the English sailors call spin yarns; that seemed to come naturally after our escape.”

“Yes, of course; but tell me this, Johannes.  Next time we go off after one of those shoals of white whales ­”

“What, sir! you would go again?” said the great amiable-looking fellow, smiling.

“Of course.”

“And run risks?”

“Oh, I hope there would not be any risk; but you wouldn’t have me play the coward always because we were in danger once?”

“No, no, sir, of course not,” said the Norseman, patting the boy on the shoulder.  “Well, what if we go after the white whale again?  I was trying to make out a school with the glass when you spoke and made me jump.  Their oil is so fine and valuable.”

“Yes, I know,” said Steve impatiently; “but if we do go after a school again, I want you to let me try and harpoon one.”

There was not much room to move, but Johannes, as he smiled in his big, solemn way, managed to take hold of the boy’s arm, and gave the biceps a firm grip.

“Shut your hand tight and double up your arm,” he said; and Steve obeyed.  “Good; that will do.  Now take hold of mine.”

He imitated the boy’s action, and Steve imitated his, taking hold of a huge mass of muscle that stood right out like a partially compressed ball.

Steve coloured a little at the man’s quiet way of showing him the tremendous difference between them in the point of force.

“Well,” said Johannes, smiling, “do you still think that you would like to try?”

“Yes.  I know I’m only a boy, and can’t pretend to have a man’s strength; but I should like to try.  Don’t laugh at me, please.”

“No, I was only smiling, my lad.  Why should I laugh at one who is young because he wishes to try to be brave and manly and shows a desire to learn?”

“Oh, thank you!” cried Steve eagerly; “that is what I do feel, but people are so ready to banter and laugh at me.”

“It is foolish of them,” said Johannes, “unless it is when a boy is what you call conceited and self-satisfied, and thinks that he is a man too soon.”

“I don’t do that, indeed!” cried Steve.

“You need not tell me so,” said Johannes; “I can see that in your eyes, and I know it, my boy, from your words.”

“And you don’t think it absurd of me to want to try and use the harpoon?”

“Oh no.  It is not so much an act of strength to dart a harpoon into a soft thing like a white whale, but of practice and knack.  The shaft of the harpoon is so long and heavy, that if it is directed well and with good aim it curves over and falls with its own weight as well.”

“Then you will let me try!” cried Steve eagerly.

“If the captain is willing, of course you shall.  I could sooner teach you to strike a whale than one of your sailors ­Hamish or Andra.”

“Why?” said Steve eagerly.

“Because you are young and pliant, and eager to learn.  You would throw it with your head as well as with your arm.  They would throw it with the arm, and trust only to their strength.”

“Here, give us the telescope!” cried Steve.  “I want to find a shoal and begin at once.”

“I daresay,” said the Norseman, smiling; “but oil-fishing is not so easy as that, or people would soon make fortunes.  I have been on the look-out for hours, but there is nothing in sight.”

“But there’ll be plenty of walrus when we get to Spitzbergen?”

“Perhaps.  I have been there when we could load our boat in a very little while, and I have been there when all through the season we have hardly seen a walrus.”

“Oh, but if there are none at Spitzbergen, and we don’t find the Ice Blink, we must go somewhere else.”

“If,” said the Norseman, smiling.  “If?  If what?”

“If we can.  The ice may stop us.”

“What, for a day or two?”

“For a season or two seasons.  One can never tell, sir.  The ice is king up here, and has its own way.”

“Yes, but kings are conquered sometimes,” said Steve merrily; “perhaps we shall master, find the Ice Blink, and go right up to the North Pole, where the open Polar Sea lies.”

“No open Polar Sea lies up there, young gentleman,” said Johannes gravely; and as he spoke he gazed northward with a curious far-off look in his eyes.  “I have heard all of that before, but after you pass the southern edge of the floe it is all ice, ice right away.  I know there is land here and there, for one year, eastward of Spitzbergen, we came upon a rocky piece of coast; but whether it was an island or a great country running for hundreds of miles, no one yet knows.”

“Well, but how grand to land there and find out,” said Steve eagerly.  “I should like that.  Would Captain Marsham sail there?” Johannes smiled.

“It does not depend on Captain Marsham,” he replied.  “Look,” he said, pointing northward, “there is the edge of the floe.  Suppose you knew that there was land two hundred miles northward, how would you sail there?”

“Of course you could not for the ice.”

“That’s right,” said Johannes; “and so it is year by year.  By about August the floe has broken up, and part of it is melted, and one can sail a little way farther north, not very far some years, at others for a long distance; but the time always comes when the ice is solid and the ship cannot pass, and then at nights it begins to freeze again, and you have to hurry back for fear of being frozen up.”

“What’s the matter?” cried Steve, for the Norseman suddenly raised his spy-glass and directed it eastward, where the sea looked to be one dazzling sheen of damasked silver.

There was no answer for some moments, and then the man turned to the glass.

“Look yonder,” he said, “about a couple of points away to the south of the ship’s jib-boom.”

Steve seized the glass, and gazed through it, carefully sweeping the sea far and wide.

“Can you make it out?”

“No.”

“Try a little more to the south.”

“Can’t see anything.  Yes, I can; a ship’s boat bottom upward miles away.  It must be a big boat.  Why, it’s a small ship capsized.”

“Watch it,” said Johannes quietly.

“Yes, I’ve got it right now.  You can see the copper of the bottom shining in the sun, and ­oh, she’s sunk! she’s gone down quickly, head first, and ­why, it was a whale!”

“Hah! you were a long time getting to it, sir.  Yes, a whale, a right whale, and a big one, too.”

“Well, quick!” cried Steve excitedly.  “Why don’t you hail the deck, and tell them?  We must have that.”

“How, sir? with a hook and line?”

“Nonsense!  Do you think I don’t know?  Have out the boats and harpoon it, the same as you did the white whale.”

The Norseman laughed softly.

“No, no,” he said quietly; “you can’t kill right whales like that, sir.  You want proper boats with crews, and harpoons with long lines suitable for the work.  Why, that fish would run away with all our lines in a minute at the first wounding.  We must be satisfied with looking at it.  Has it come up again?”

“Oh yes, and I can see it swimming about and playing in the water.”

“Nice little thing to play, sir.  That must be seventy feet long.”

“But are you sure that we could not tire it out?”

“Quite, sir.  I once went for a voyage, and pretty well know what whale-fishing is.  Hail the deck now and tell the captain; there he is.  He’s using his glass; I fancy he has made it out.”

At that moment the captain looked upward.

“Who’s aloft there?” he cried.

“I am, sir ­Johannes!”

“There’s something out in the sunshine on the starboard bow; try if you can make it out.”

“We have, sir!” cried Steve; “it’s a large whale.”

“Hullo! you there?”

“Yes, sir.  Are you going to try for it?”

“Hah!  I can’t quite make it out from here.  Eh?  Try for it?  No, my lad.  We are not Greenland whale-fishers.  Mind how you come down.”

“Yes, I’ll take care,” replied Steve; and the captain made no reference to the last ascent, but walked away.

“You’ll remember your promise, Johannes?” said Steve after a few minutes.

“Oh yes, sir; never fear.  Only give me the chance, and you shall harpoon a white whale and catch your fish.”

But that chance did not seem as if it would come, as the Hvalross sailed on over a calm sea day after day, the wind serving well, and the coal-bunkers remaining well charged ready for the days when the cold weather was returning ­that was, if they had not already achieved their aim.

Here and there, as they kept along a mile or so from the floe, it began to show signs of breaking up, for at times loose fields of many acres in extent were passed, and at others detached fragments, imperceptibly gliding southward to dissolve slowly from the combined influence of the sunshine and the warmer sea into which they drifted.

“I say, Mr Handscombe,” said Steve one evening, when the sun in the north-west was shining with a softened radiance which turned the distant ice-floe into gold, “isn’t this getting to be a little tame and ­and ­”

“Monotonous?” said the doctor, finishing the boy’s sentence, for he had begun to hesitate.

“Yes, I meant something of that kind.  I thought we were going to have all kinds of adventures, and it’s always blue sea and the ice away there to the left.”

“Oh, I see,” said the doctor; “you want a bear every day, with a bit of whale-fishing, being lost in the mist, and a few wrecks discovered thrown in.”

“No, I don’t,” said the lad pettishly; “but I don’t want to be always sailing along like this, doing nothing.  If you go up in the crow’s-nest there’s ice and sun, and if you stop on deck it’s always the same.  I want to be doing something.  Look at Skeny here, growing quite fat.”

“Shall I ask Captain Marsham to see if we can’t find the sea-serpent for you?”

“There, now you’re laughing at me.”

“Then don’t be so impatient.  Why, you stupid fellow, isn’t it wonderful enough to be sailing along here in what looks like constant summer save for the floating ice, and with that glorious sun going round and round in the sky without setting?  Is not this constant daylight alone worth the journey?”

“Ye-es,” replied Steve; “only it does seem a bit wasteful.”

“Wasteful?”

“Yes.  What’s the good of having the sun shining when you are asleep?  It would be ever so much better to have some of it in the winter, or else for us to be so that we did not want any sleep for months in summer, and did not want to be awake for months in the winter, when it’s dark.”

“I say, Marsham!” cried the doctor, laughing, “come and listen.  Here’s our philosopher going to set nature right and improve the whole world.”

“Oh, I say, Mr Handscombe, don’t,” whispered Steve, flushing.

“What does he propose doing?” said the captain as he joined them.

“He wants to keep awake all the summer and sleep all the winter; he says it would be better.”

“Well, he has only to take lessons from the bears and practise hibernating.  But, like them, he would no doubt be very hungry when he awoke.”

“He’s getting out of patience, too; wants something to do.  Can’t you rig him up a line, and let him try for a shark?”

“No sharks up here,” said Steve promptly.

“Plenty,” said the captain, looking at Steve with a peculiar smile, which made the lad wince, for it seemed to say to him, “Don’t be so conceited, my lad; you don’t know everything yet.”

“Greenland shark, I think it is called.  The Finland people fish for it.  I say, Jakobsen, could we catch sharks anywhere hereabouts?”

“I don’t know about here, sir,” said the Norseman gravely.  “There are plenty near the Greenland shores.”

“How do you catch them?”

“Oh, easily, sir, with a long line and winch to reel it up quickly.  You let down a big hook with plenty of bait on it, right to the bottom, on some bank, about two hundred fathoms down.”

“Yes,” said Steve eagerly.  “That’s rather deep, though.”

“Yes, sir; but that’s where the sharks lie.”

“Are they very big?”

“Yes, sir, all sizes ­eight and ten and twelve or fourteen feet long.”

“Well, what then?” said Steve impatiently.

“Oh, then, sir, you wait for a bite.”

“Of course, I know that!  You wait for a bite in all fishing.  But do you fish from a small boat?”

“Oh no, sir.  You go, six or seven of you, in a decent-sized smack, and fish till you’ve loaded her ­if you’re lucky.”

“But what do you do with the sharks?  People don’t eat them.”

“Make isinglass of their skins?” suggested the doctor.

“Oh no, sir,” continued Jakobsen.  “I’ve been out two or three times, and very good trade it is, gentlemen.  You sail out to the Greenland banks, and if the weather’s good you’re all right, for the sharks bite very freely, and as the line’s very thin you can soon reel it up on a big winch.”

“But don’t they fight desperately?” said Steve eagerly.  “Sharks are so strong.”

“No, sir; they’re cruel fish, sharks, but a Greenland shark’s about the stupidest, most cowardly fish there is.  He could break away easily enough, but when he’s hooked and feels the line tight up he comes as quietly as possible, just as if he came to the top to ask what we wanted by hooking him like that.”

“And do you tell him?” said the doctor, laughing.

The Norseman shook his head.

“No, sir, we don’t play with him.  As soon as the bit of chain appears that’s fastened to the bottom of the line on account of the shark’s teeth ­because, if it wasn’t for that, he’d bite through the thin line ­ some of us stand ready with a big hook at the end of a pole like a spar ­a good sharp hook with a rope that runs through a block up aloft rigged to the spar; then, as the shark comes to the top ­click! ­the big hook’s into him, the rope’s tightened, he’s hoisted on board, and before he has time to struggle much he’s whipped up on to the deck, where two of us are ready for him.”

“And what do they do?” cried Steve, ­“kill the shark?”

“Yes, sir, and pretty quickly; for when the sharks are biting there’s no time to spare.  One of us gives him a crack on the head with a handspike, and the other cuts open his side with a big knife and drags out his great liver; then we use the pipe.”

“Yes, go on,” said Steve.

“And blow the dead shark full of wind and throw it overboard.”

“To keep it from sinking?”

“Yes, sir, that’s quite right; for if we didn’t he’d sink, and all the other sharks would begin feeding on him and wouldn’t bite any more at our bait.  Then we get the hook ready, and down it goes again, while the sea-birds get a good feast of shark instead of the fish.”

“All that to get only the liver?” said Steve.  “Yes, sir; but then the livers are very large, and from some they get quite a barrel of oil, only that’s from the very large sharks.”

“What do you bait with?” said Steve.  “Pieces of shark blubber, sir.”

“And isn’t the flesh good for eating?”

“Poor people eat it sometimes, sir, for it’s nice and white; but we sailors never care for it.  It’s fine fishing, though, for you get your hold full of the livers, and take them back to port to be boiled down.  Barrel of oil’s worth as much as seven pounds, sir.”

“What do they use it for, lamps or machinery?”

The Norseman stared.

“I thought you knew, sir.  It’s a very fine, tasteless oil, and supposed to be very good for sick people.  They make cod-liver oil of it.”

Captain Marsham burst into a hearty fit of laughter at the puzzlement and chagrin in his friend’s countenance.

“Stop a moment!” cried the doctor angrily.  “Do you mean to tell me that this shark oil is used for ­I mean, is sold for cod-liver oil?”

“Yes, sir, I believe so,” said the Norwegian.

“Disgusting!  Shameful!” cried the doctor.  “What a miserable piece of trickery!  The people who do it ought to be exposed.”

“Nonsense!” said the captain.  “As Jakobsen says, it is very good for sick people.  Why, my dear sir, the good effects of cod-liver oil do not depend upon its being extracted from a cod, but upon its being a rich fish oil, strongly impregnated with the peculiar salts, or whatever you call them, found in sea water.  I daresay the oil of any fish liver would be as good.”

“And quite as nasty,” suggested Steve.  “Right, my lad, quite as nasty, and would do for doctors to trim the wick of the lamp of life when it is burning low.”

“Humph! perhaps you are right,” said the doctor thoughtfully.

“Can’t we have some shark-fishing, Jakobsen?” cried Steve eagerly.

“Why, you don’t want your lamp trimmed, Steve?” said the captain.

“No, sir; but Mr Handscombe might like some of the oil,” replied Steve, with a laughing look at the frowning doctor, who was evidently thinking deeply.

“Eh?  No, my lad, I don’t want any.  But I’ve been thinking that perhaps this shark oil may be good.”

“Couldn’t catch sharks here, sir, unless we found a bank.”

“Wait a little longer, Steve,” said the captain, “and I daresay we shall find you something better than fishing for sharks.”