CHAPTER VIII. ABNER'S WHALE
In a previous chapter I have referred to the fact of a bounty being offered to whoever should first sight a useful whale, payable only in the event of the prize being secured by the ship. In consequence of our ill-success, and to stimulate the watchfulness of all, that bounty was now increased from ten pounds of tobacco to twenty, or fifteen dollars, whichever the winner chose to have. Most of us whites regarded this as quite out of the question for us, whose untrained vision was as the naked eye to a telescope when pitted against the eagle-like sight of the Portuguese. Nevertheless, we all did our little best, and I know, for one, that when I descended from my lofty perch, after a two hours' vigil, my eyes often ached and burned for an hour afterwards from the intensity of my gaze across the shining waste of waters.
Judge, then, of the surprise of everybody, when one forenoon watch, three days after we had lost sight of Trinidada, a most extraordinary sound was heard from the fore crow's-nest. I was, at the time, up at the main, in company with Louis, the mate's harpooner, and we stared across to see whatever was the matter, The watchman was unfortunate Abner Cushing, whose trivial offence had been so severely punished a short time before, and he was gesticulating and howling like a madman. Up from below came the deep growl of the skipper, "Foremast head, there, what d'ye say?" "B-b-b-blow, s-s-sir," stammered Abner; "a big whale right in the way of the sun, sir." "See anythin', Louey?" roared the skipper to my companion, just as we had both "raised" the spout almost in the glare cast by the sun. "Yessir," answered Louis; "but I kaint make him eout yet, sir." "All right; keep yer eye on him, and lemme know sharp;" and away he went aft for his glasses.
The course was slightly altered, so that we headed direct for the whale, and in less than a minute afterwards we saw distinctly the great black column of a sperm whale's head rise well above the sea, scattering a circuit of foam before it, and emitting a bushy, tufted burst of vapour into the clear air. "There she white-waters! Ah bl-o-o-o-o-o-w, blow, blow!" sang Louis; and then, in another tone, "Sperm whale, sir; big, 'lone fish, headin' 'beout east-by-nothe." "All right. 'Way down from aloft," answered the skipper, who was already half-way up the main-rigging; and like squirrels we slipped out of our hoops and down the backstays, passing the skipper like a flash as he toiled upwards, bellowing orders as he went. Short as our journey down had been, when we arrived on deck we found all ready for a start. But as the whale was at least seven miles away, and we had a fair wind for him, there was no hurry to lower, so we all stood at attention by our respective boats, waiting for the signal. I found, to my surprise, that, although I was conscious of a much more rapid heart-beat than usual, I was not half so scared as I expected to be - that the excitement was rather pleasant than otherwise. There were a few traces of funk about some of the others still; but as for Abner, he was fairly transformed; I hardly knew the man. He was one of Goliath's boat's crew, and the big darkey was quite proud of him. His eyes sparkled, and he chuckled and smiled constantly, as one who is conscious of having done a grand stroke of business, not only for himself, but for all hands. "Lower away boats!" came pealing down from the skipper's lofty perch, succeeded instantly by the rattle of the patent blocks as the falls flew through them, while the four beautiful craft took the water with an almost simultaneous splash. The ship-keepers had trimmed the yards to the wind and hauled up the courses, so that simply putting the helm down deadened our way, and allowed the boats to run clear without danger of fouling one another. To shove off and hoist sail was the work of a few moments, and with a fine working breeze away we went. As before, our boat, being the chief's, had the post of honour; but there was now only one whale, and I rather wondered why we had all left the ship. According to expectations, down he went when we were within a couple of miles of him, but quietly and with great dignity, elevating his tail perpendicularly in the air, and sinking slowly from our view. Again I found Mr. Count talkative.