WE were down in the Indian Ocean, after sperm, and three years out;
The last six months in the tropics, and looking in vain for a spout,—
Five men up on the royal yards, weary of straining their sight;
And every day like its brother,—just morning and noon and night—
Nothing to break the sameness: water and wind and sun
Motionless, gentle, and blazing,—never a change in one.
Every day like its brother: when the noonday eight-bells came,
'Twas like yesterday; and we seemed to know that to-morrow would be the same.
The foremast hands had a lazy time: there was never a thing to do;
The ship was painted, tarred down, and scraped; and the mates had nothing new.
We'd worked at sinnet and ratline till there wasn't a yarn to use,
And all we could do was watch and pray for a sperm whale's spout—or news.
It was whaler's luck of the vilest sort; and, though many a volunteer
Spent his watch below on the look-out, never a whale came near,—
At least of the kind we wanted: there were lots of whales of a sort,—
Killers and finbacks, and such like, as if they enjoyed the sport
Of seeing a whale-ship idle; but we never lowered a boat
For less than a blackfish, —there's no oil in a killer's or finback's coat.
There was rich reward for the look-out men,—tobacco for even a sail,
And a barrel of oil for the lucky dog who'd be first to 'raise' a whale.
The crew was a mixture from every land, and many a tongue they spoke;
And when they sat in the fo'castle, enjoying an evening smoke,
There were tales told, youngster, would make you stare—stories of countless shoals
Of devil-fish in the Pacific and right-whales away at the Poles.
There was one of these fo'castle yarns that we always loved to hear,—
Kanaka and Maori and Yankee; all lent an eager ear
To that strange old tale that was always new,—the wonderful treasure-tale
Of an old Down-Eastern harpooneer who had struck an Amber Whale!
Ay, that was a tale worth hearing, lad: if 'twas true we couldn't say,
Or if 'twas a yarn old Mat had spun to while the time away.
'It's just fifteen years ago,' said Mat, 'since I shipped as harpooneer
On board a bark in New Bedford, and came cruising somewhere near
To this whaling-ground we're cruising now; but whales were plenty then,
And not like now, when we scarce get oil to pay for the ship and men.
There were none of these oil wells running then,—at least, what shore folk term
An oil well in Pennsylvania,—but sulphur-bottom and sperm
Were plenty as frogs in a mud-hole, and all of 'em big whales, too;
One hundred barrels for sperm-whales; and for sulphur-bottom, two.
You couldn't pick out a small one: the littlest calf or cow
Had a sight more oil than the big bull whales we think so much of now.
We were more to the east, off Java Straits, a little below the mouth,—
A hundred and five to the east'ard and nine degrees to the south;
And that was as good a whaling-ground for middling-sized, handy whales
As any in all the ocean; and 'twas always white with sails
From Scotland and Hull and New England,—for the whales were thick as frogs,
And 'twas little trouble to kill 'em then, for they lay as quiet as logs.
And every night we'd go visiting the other whale-ships 'round,
Or p'r'aps we'd strike on a Dutchman, calmed off the Straits, and bound
To Singapore or Batavia, with plenty of schnapps to sell
For a few whale's teeth or a gallon of oil, and the latest news to tell.
And in every ship of that whaling fleet was one wonderful story told,—
How an Amber Whale had been seen that year that was worth a mint of gold.
And one man—mate of a Scotchman—said he'd seen, away to the west,
A big school of sperm, and one whale's spout was twice as high as the rest;
And we knew that that was the Amber Whale, for we'd often heard before
That his spout was twice as thick as the rest, and a hundred feet high or more.
And often, when the look-out cried, 'He blows!' the very hail
Thrilled every heart with the greed of gold,—for we thought of the Amber Whale.
'But never a sight of his spout we saw till the season there went round,
And the ships ran down to the south'ard to another whaling-ground.
We stayed to the last off Java, and then we ran to the west,
To get our recruits at Mauritius, and give the crew a rest.
Five days we ran in the trade winds, and the boys were beginning to talk
Of their time ashore, and whether they'd have a donkey-ride or a walk,
And whether they'd spend their money in wine, bananas, or pearls,
Or drive to the sugar plantations to dance with the Creole girls.
But they soon got something to talk about. Five days we ran west-sou'-west,
But the sixth day's log
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