CHAPTER XIII. OFF TO THE JAPAN GROUNDS
Very tedious and trying was our passage northward, although every effort was made by the skipper to expedite it. Nothing of advantage to our cargo was seen for a long time, which, although apparently what was to be expected, did not improve Captain Slocum's temper. But, to the surprise of all, when we had arrived off the beautiful island of Hong Kong, to which we approached closely, we "raised" a grand sperm whale.
Many fishing-junks were in sight, busily plying their trade, and at any other time we should have been much interested in the quaint and cunning devices by which the patient, wily Chinaman succeeds so admirably as a fisherman. Our own fishing, for the time being, absorbed all our attention - the more, perhaps, that we had for so long been unable to do anything in that line. After the usual preliminaries, we were successful in getting fast to the great creature, who immediately showed fight. So skilful and wary did he prove that Captain Slocum, growing impatient at our manoeuvring with no result, himself took the field, arriving on the scene with the air of one who comes to see and conquer without more delay. He brought with him a weapon which I have not hitherto mentioned, because none of the harpooners could be induced to use it, and consequently it had not been much in evidence. Theoretically, it was as ideal tool for such work, its chief drawback being its cumbrousness. It was known as "Pierce's darting gun," being a combination of bomb-gun and harpoon, capable of being darted at the whale like a plain harpoon. Its construction was simple; indeed, the patent was a very old one. A tube of brass, thickening towards the butt, at which was a square chamber firmly welded to a socket for receiving the pole, formed the gun itself. Within the chamber aforesaid a nipple protruded from the base of the tube, and in line with it. The trigger was simply a flat bit of steel, like a piece of clock spring, which was held down by the hooked end of a steel rod long enough to stick out beyond the muzzle of the gun three or four inches, and held in position by two flanges at the butt and muzzle of the barrel. On the opposite side of the tube were two more flanges, close together, into the holes of which was inserted the end of a specially made harpoon, having an eye twisted in its shank through which the whale line was spliced. The whole machine was fitted to a neat pole, and strongly secured to it by means of a "gun warp," or short piece of thin line, by which it could be hauled back into the boat after being darted at a whale. To prepare this weapon for use, the barrel was loaded with a charge of powder and a bomb similar to those used in the shoulder-guns, the point of which just protruded from the muzzle. An ordinary percussion cap was placed upon the nipple, and the trigger cocked by placing the trigger-rod in position. The harpoon, with the line attached, was firmly set into the socketed flanges prepared for it, and the whole arrangement was then ready to be darted at the whale in the usual way.
Supposing the aim to be good and the force sufficient, the harpoon would penetrate the blubber until the end of the trigger- rod was driven backwards by striking the blubber, releasing the trigger and firing the gun. Thus the whale would be harpooned and bomb-lanced at the same time, and, supposing everything to work satisfactorily, very little more could be needed to finish him. But the weapon was so cumbersome and awkward, and the harpooners stood in such awe of it, that in the majority of cases the whale was either missed altogether or the harpoon got such slight hold that the gun did not go off, the result being generally disastrous.
In the present case, however, the "Pierce" gun was in the hands of a man by no means nervous, and above criticism or blame in case of failure. So when he sailed in to the attack, and delivered his "swashing blow," the report of the gun was immediately heard, proving conclusively that a successful stroke had been made.
It had an instantaneous and astonishing effect. The sorely wounded monster, with one tremendous expiration, rolled over and over swift as thought towards his aggressor, literally burying the boat beneath his vast bulk. Now, one would have thought surely, upon seeing this, that none of that boat's crew would ever have been seen again. Nevertheless, strange as it may appear, out of that seething lather of foam, all six heads emerged again in an instant, but on the OTHER side of the great creature. How any of them escaped instant violent death was, and from the nature of the case must, ever remain, an unravelled mystery, for the boat was crumbled into innumerable fragments, and the three hundred fathoms of line, in a perfect maze of entanglement, appeared to be wrapped about the writhing trunk of the whale. Happily, there were two boats disengaged, so that they were able very promptly to rescue the sufferers from their perilous position in the boiling vortex of foam by which they were surrounded. Meanwhile, the remaining boat had an easy task. The shot delivered by the captain had taken deadly effect, the bomb having entered the creature's side low down, directly abaft the pectoral fin. It must have exploded within the cavity of the bowels, from its position, causing such extensive injuries as to make even that vast animal's death but a matter of a few moments. Therefore, we did not run any unnecessary risks, but hauled off to a safe distance and quietly watched the death-throes. They were so brief, that in less than ten minutes from the time of the accident we were busy securing the line through the flukes of our prize.