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Source global Wall Street Journal     time 2022-01-14 20:03:58
Typefacelarge in Small

The captain was not there. A search was immediately made without result, but presently, to the horror of every one on board, the steward, a rather feeble-minded mulatto, rushed on deck shouting “Fire!” It need not be said how terrible this cry at sea always is, but it is never more so than when on board a badly-found wooden ship. However, all hands rushed aft at the call of the mate, and prepared to do everything that was possible for the subdual of the fire when it should be located. The smoke appeared to be rising from the lazarette, a store-room in the after part of the ship beneath the cabin. The mate and a couple of men tore off the hatch, and, half choked with the smoke that burst up in a great volume, made their way below, only to scramble out again in double quick time and fall fainting on the deck.

Now, this was a momentous discovery indeed, for the sperm whales had experienced, even when fish and seals were plentiful, great difficulty in procuring sufficient food at one time for a full meal, and the problem of how to provide for themselves as they grew226 and multiplied had become increasingly hard to solve. Therefore this discovery filled the fortunate pioneer with triumph, for his high instincts told him that he had struck a new source of supply that promised to be inexhaustible. So, in the manner common to his people, he wasted no time in convening a gathering of them as large as could be collected. Far over the placid surface of that quiet sea lay gently rocking a multitude of vast black bodies, all expectant, all awaiting the momentous declaration presently to be made. The epoch-making news circulated among them in perfect silence, for to them has from the earliest times been known the secret that is only just beginning to glimmer upon the verge of human intelligence, the ability to communicate with one another without the aid of speech, sight, or touch—a kind of thought transference, if such an idea as animal thought may be held allowable. And having thus learned of the treasures held in trust for them by the deep waters, they separated and went, some alone and some in compact parties of a dozen or so, upon their rejoicing way.

Aided most manfully and sensibly by You Sing, I clewed up the royals and topgallant sails with a view of making the vessel easier to handle, and with a great deal of labour managed to haul up the courses (mainsail and foresail) as well, taking the gear to the capstan where it was too heavy for our united efforts, until those great squares of canvas hung snug as they could be without being actually furled. Then, after long cogitation, I decided to make for the coast of China, which I knew must be west of us, and trust to a merciful God to bring us in sight of either some civilized port or ship before any of those calm, merciless pagans came across us. Now we each took a regular trick at the wheel (You Sing learned to do so in less than half an hour); and little Elsie, all her high spirits gone, and docile as You Sing himself, even took a spell at steering when we would let her. Heaven alone knows what our track would have looked like on the chart, but it’s my belief that we were getting to the westward at the rate of about twenty miles a day for the best part of a week (I lost all count of time); and, though it seems hard to believe, I was actually beginning to feel quite important as the commander of a big vessel on the high seas. We fed well and we slept well—at least Elsie and I did; as for You Sing, I don’t know whether he ever slept at all. He did all the cooking, kept everything clean and tidy, and was ever ready when called upon. Besides all this, he had won his way into the affections of Elsie; and I almost felt a pang of jealousy when I heard her clear laugh at some of the quaint antics he cut in order to amuse her. Had it not been for the one haunting dread of being overhauled by a junk, I believe we should have been quite happy; for the terror of the past tragedy had faded from our minds, and the sea was kind and gentle, the soft breeze blew sweetly, though it varied a great deal, making our task of trimming the yards in order to keep the vessel somewhere near her course—due west—an uncommonly heavy one.


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