CHAPTER IX. OUR FIRST CALLING-PLACE
Perhaps it may hastily be assumed, from the large space already devoted to fishing operations of various kinds, that the subject will not bear much more dealing with, if my story is to avoid being monotonous. But I beg to assure you, dear reader, that while of course I have most to say in connection with the business of the voyage, nothing is farther from my plan than to neglect the very interesting portion of our cruise which relates to visiting strange, out-of-the-way corners of the world. If - which I earnestly deprecate - the description hitherto given of sperm whale-fishing and its adjuncts be found not so interesting as could be wished, I cry you mercy. I have been induced to give more space to it because it has been systematically avoided in the works upon whale-fishing before mentioned, which, as I have said, were not intended for popular reading. True, neither may my humble tome become popular either; but, if it does not, no one will be so disappointed as the author.
We had made but little progress during the week of oil manufacture, very little attention being paid to the sails while that work was about; but, as the south-east trades blew steadily, we did not remain stationary altogether. So that the following week saw us on the south side of the tropic of Capricorn, the south-east trade done, and the dirty weather and variable squalls, which nearly always precede the "westerlies," making our lives a burden to us. Here, however, we were better off than in an ordinary merchantman, where doldrums are enough to drive you mad. The one object being to get along, it is incessant "pully- hauly," setting and taking in sail, in order, on the one hand, to lose no time, and, on the other, to lose no sails. Now, with us, whenever the weather was doubtful or squally-looking, we shortened sail, and kept it fast till better weather came along, being quite careless whether we made one mile a day or one hundred. But just because nobody took any notice of our progress as the days passed, we were occasionally startled to find how far we had really got. This was certainly the case with all of us forward, even to me who had some experience, so well used had I now become to the leisurely way of getting along. To the laziest of ships, however, there comes occasionally a time when the bustling, hurrying wind will take no denial, and you've got to "git up an' git," as the Yanks put it. Such a time succeeded our "batterfanging" about, after losing the trades. We got hold of a westerly wind that, commencing quietly, gently, steadily, taking two or three days before it gathered force and volume, strengthened at last into a stern, settled gale that would brook no denial, to face which would have been misery indeed. To vessels bound east it came as a boon and blessing, for it would be a crawler that could not reel off her two hundred and fifty miles a day before the push of such a breeze. Even the CACHALOT did her one hundred and fifty, pounding and bruising the ill-used sea in her path, and spreading before her broad bows a far- reaching area of snowy foam, while her wake was as wide as any two ordinary ships ought to make. Five or six times a day the flying East India or colonial-bound English ships, under every stitch of square sail, would appear as tiny specks on the horizon astern, come up with us, pass like a flash, and fade away ahead, going at least two knots to our one. I could not help feeling a bit, home-sick and tired of my present surroundings, in spite of their interest, when I saw those beautiful ocean-flyers devouring the distance which lay before them, and reflected that in little more than one month most of them would be discharging in Melbourne, Sydney, Calcutta, or some other equally distant port, while we should probably be dodging about in our present latitude a little farther east.
After a few days of our present furious rate of speed, I came on deck one morning, and instantly recognized an old acquaintance. Right ahead, looking nearer than I had ever seen it before, rose the towering mass of Tristan d'Acunha, while farther away, but still visible, lay Nightingale and Inaccessible Islands. Their aspect was familiar, for I had sighted them on nearly every voyage I had made round the Cape, but I had never seen them so near as this. There was a good deal of excitement among us, and no wonder. Such a break in the monotony of our lives as we were about to have was enough to turn our heads. Afterwards, we learned to view these matters in a more philosophic light; but now, being new and galled by the yoke, it was a different thing. Near as the island seemed, it was six hours before we got near enough to distinguish objects on shore. I have seen the top of Tristan peeping through a cloud nearly a hundred miles away, for its height is tremendous. St. Helena looks a towering, scowling mass when you approach it closely but Tristan d'Acunha is far more imposing, its savage-looking cliffs seeming to sternly forbid the venturesome voyager any nearer familiarity with their frowning fastnesses. Long before we came within working distance of the settlement, we were continually passing broad patches of kelp (FUCUS GIGANTEA), whose great leaves and cable-laid stems made quite reef-like breaks in the heaving waste of restless sea. Very different indeed were these patches of marine growth from the elegant wreaths of the Gulf-weed with which parts of the North Atlantic are so thickly covered. Their colour was deep brown, almost black is some cases, and the size of many of the leaves amazing, being four to five feet long, by a foot wide, with stalks as thick as one's arm. They have their origin around these storm-beaten rocks, which lie scattered thinly over the immense area of the Southern Ocean, whence they are torn, in masses like those we saw, by every gale, and sent wandering round the world.