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CHAPTER IV A CLOSE SHAVE
 “I told you they were whales!” exclaimed Tom triumphantly, as the two boats drew side by side, and the men busied themselves getting tow lines fast to the dead whale.
“They wasn’t,” declared Cap’n Pem, “jes or’nary blackfish.”
“But this is a whale,” argued Tom.
“Jes dumb luck o’ Mr. Kemp,” replied the old whaleman. “Jes happened to be ’long o’ them there grampuses. An’ ’tain’t much o’ a whale neither—jes a baby.”
“Well it’s just our luck to be in the boat that didn’t get the whale,” lamented Jim. “Did you have much of a tussle, Mr. Kemp?”
“Nothin’ worth while,” responded the second officer. “Towed us a bit and died with nary a flurry.”
“I didn’t know they had sperm whales ’way up here,” said Tom, as the crews bent to their oars with the whale in tow.
[44]
“Don’t, so everlastin’ly often,” Cap’n Pem told him. “Come warm weather, they swims in by the Banks now an’ ag’in—that is, sparm do—an’ times gone there used to was a powerful lot o’ Biscay whales ’roun’ about the New Englan’ coast. Yes, sir, I recollec’ when a ship could v’yage out o’ New Bedford or Nantucket an’ fill up with Biscay ile an’ bone inside o’ six weeks.”
The schooner had now caught a light wind and was bearing down upon the boats. A few moments later, the whale was alongside and the two boats had been hoisted to the davits. Then followed the dirty, busy work of cutting in and boiling, with all of which the boys were familiar from their cruise in the Antarctic. But the whale, as Cap’n Pem had said, was scarcely more than a baby. The work was all over before midnight, with twenty barrels of oil stowed in the schooner’s hold.
“Pretty good beginning—for three days out of port,” chuckled Captain Edwards. “I reckon you boys—ahem, owners—must be mascots. Just hope the luck holds all through.”
“Well, there won’t be any bo’sun birds to bring bad luck, anyway,” laughed Jim. “Although I suppose there must be some bad omen even up here or sailors wouldn’t be satisfied.”
[45]
“Plenty on ’em,” declared Cap’n Pem. “But don’t go to talkin’ an’ a-bringin’ o’ it on. Ain’t it bad ’nough to have that there black cat aboard—an’ nary a dod-gasted soul a-knowin’ where she come from?”
The boys roared. “I knew you’d find something,” cried Tom. “Why, I thought the cat belonged to the crew. Why don’t you kill her or something if she’s such bad luck?”
“Kill her!” exclaimed the old man. “By the eternal, don’t ye know no more’n thet? Ye mought jes as well kill a Mother Cary’s chicken or a bo’sun bird. No sirree! Let good enough alone’s my motter.”
“Well, you are the most superstitious old whaleman I ever saw,” laughed Tom. “I’ll bet the cat’s what brought the good luck.”
Cap’n Pem snorted. “Ye mark my words,” he muttered as he strode aft. “We’ll be gittin’ inter some sort o’ mess long o’ that there cat yit.”
But for the next three or four days none on the Narwhal could have asked for better weather. The breeze, though light, was fair and steady. The sea ran in long, easy swells and the schooner, curtseying gently and with every stitch of canvas set, pressed steadily on her course.
Then one night the boys were awakened by the tolling of a bell and the ear-splitting screech of a[46] horn. Hastily throwing on a few clothes, they hurried on deck.
At the first glance about they realized what the trouble was. The man at the wheel was barely visible, although less than a dozen feet distant. The faint light of the binnacle was a mere glow and the sails, spars, and forward part of the vessel melted into nothingness. The Narwhal was enveloped in a dense fog.
From the unseen bows of the ship came the monotonous tolling of the bell. At intervals the raucous horn screeched from the blanket of gray mist. Borne in strangely ghostly fashion from the blackness, came the voices of men.
Tom glanced at his watch and found that it was nearly sunrise but nowhere was there a hint of light or of dawn.
“Gosh, but it’s thick!” exclaimed Tom. “I wonder where we are.”
“Where I wish we wasn’t,” replied a voice so close to the boys that they jumped. “Right plumb on the Grand Banks,” continued the invisible speaker, whom the boys now recognized as Captain Edwards.
“What’s wrong with the Banks?” asked Tom.
“Nothing wrong with them,” replied the skipper who now stepped from the curtain of fog and stood[47] near the boys. “But Lord alone knows when we may be a-knockin’ into a fishin’ smack, or a-bearin’ down on a dory, or gettin’ run down by a liner. I wish to heaven this condemned fog would lift.”
Hardly had he ceased speaking when there was a hoarse shout from forward, a tearing, grating sound, and a vast dark mass loomed alongside as the Narwhal scraped past a fishing schooner, snapping off the smack’s jib boom. A moment later the stranger was lost in the fog and only faint, angry cries told of her whereabouts.
“Sarved the lubbers right!” exploded Cap’n Pem, as he came hurrying aft to see if the Narwhal had been injured. “Never a-blowin’ o’ nary a horn, nor a-ringin’ o’ their bell!”
“Did it hurt us any?” asked Tom excitedly.
“Carried away a couple of backstays,” replied the skipper. “Lucky we was both headed the same way.”
By now the fog was getting lighter with the rising sun. The boys could see the lower portions of the sails, the lower masts, the ship’s deck as far forward as the forerigging, and the dull gray-green sea for a few hundred feet about the schooner. Beyond that, all was a solid wall of gray through which the Narwhal forged slowly ahead, horn and bell constantly[48] sounding warnings, and with men aloft striving to peer into the impenetrable murk.
“I should think they’d stop and anchor, or heave to until it lifts,” remarked Jim.
“Better to keep movin’,” declared Mr. Kemp, who was peering first to one side and then the other. “Long as we’ve steerage way on, we’ve a chance to dodge another ship—if we see ’em in time.”
Presently, from the starboard, came the sound of a bell. Then from ahead came the muffled roar of a horn, and soon, from all directions, there were warnings issuing from the fog.
“Golly, there are boats all around us!” cried Tom. “Look! See there, Jim.”
Jim turned in time to see a ghostly phantomlike shape appear as if by magic—a schooner with all sails set, and seemingly within a dozen yards of the Narwhal. But almost before he could grasp the fact that it was a vessel, it had vanished as weirdly as it had appeared.
For an hour or more the schooner picked her way through the fog, often swinging sharply to port or starboard at the skipper’s hoarsely bellowed orders, a dozen times avoiding collision with a smack by a few feet and twice swerving just in time to avoid running down the tiny bobbing dories.
[49]
At last the bells and horns grew faint. The captain breathed more freely and declared he must have left the fleet astern. As the fog began to lift and a wider expanse of sea and the upper sails became visible, the boys decided all danger was over and prepared to go to the cabin and dress properly.
Then, from the lookout, a frightened yell rang out. A shrieking bellow roared from the fog ahead. With a bound Captain Edwards leaped to the wheel. “Hard aport!” he screamed, as he grasped the spokes and strained with the steersman at the helm. Startled, realizing that imminent unknown peril threatened, confused by the shouts, orders and rush of men, the boys stood gazing helplessly about.
Then once more that ear-splitting, terrific bellow thundered from the fog. As the Narwhal’s head swung slowly to starboard, a vast, towering, mountainous shape came tearing, rushing, through the fog. Dimly through the opaque gray mist, the terror-stricken boys saw the tremendous fabric bearing down upon them. Far above the schooner’s crosstrees reared the lofty stem of a gigantic steamship. Within a cable’s length of the Narwhal, the billowing mass of foam about the keen steel stem roared with the sound of surf. Each second the boys expected to hear the crashing blow, to feel the splintering, terrific[50] impact that would spell their doom. Paralyzed with fright, they stood motionless and speechless. Nothing, they felt, could save them. The great, shearing prow of the steamer seemed to overhang their heads. Their staring eyes glimpsed dim, tiny figures leaning over the rails far above, shouting, gesticulating, life rings in hand.
And then, with a hissing roar like a passing train, the huge liner swept by. Endless rows of port holes filled with white faces rushed past the terror-stricken boys. The next second the Narwhal was bobbing and jumping like a cork on the tumbling heaving wake, with only the pall of smoke and the churning foam to mark the liner’s passage.
Leaping upon the schooner’s wildly tossing taffrail, Captain Edwards shook his fist at the spot where the liner had disappeared in the fog. Cap’n Pem, unable to stand on the rail, seized a belaying pin, hurled it after the liner and, throwing his cap on the deck, fairly danced with rage.
“Consarn their everlastin’ hides!” he screamed. “A-tearin’ ’crost these here Banks like a house afire, an’ fog thicker’n cheese. Blasted murderers! A-riskin’ lives o’ honest sailor men jes fer to make time an’ save a few dirty, blasted dollars! I’d like to git at ’em!”
[51]
Despite the narrow escape, the seriousness of the situation, and the old whaleman’s earnestness, the boys could not suppress a grin at the old fellow’s towering and thoroughly justified rage at the reckless officers of the liner.
Then, as if the steamship’s passage had been the signal, the fog lifted rapidly. A fresh breeze came up and presently the Narwhal was speeding over a wide clear sea with only a few wisps of whitish vapor to mark the fog which had so nearly brought an end to the schooner and those upon her.
“Didn’t I tell ye that there black cat would a be bringin’ o’ bad luck!” cried Cap’n Pem, as his temper cooled down and the fog disappeared.
“Nonsense!” laughed Tom. “She brought good luck three times now—first the whale, then escaping from that schooner, and then being saved from the steamer. And I shouldn’t wonder if she made the fog lift, too.”
“Humph!” snorted the old man. “’Course ye’ll have it your way, but if she didn’t bring that there fog an’ that consarned pesky liner, what did?”
“And if she didn’t save us and make the fog clear, what did?” responded Jim.
Cap’n Pem pursed his mouth, jerked his cap down over his eyes and stumped off. “No use[52] argufyin’,” he declared. “But ye’ll see! Mark my words.”
Three days after their narrow escape from the liner, the boys saw Cape Breton light. Tacking in long reaches, the Narwhal worked across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and with the thrill of seeing strange lands, Tom and Jim stared through their glasses at the forbidding shores of Newfoundland and at bleak Anticosti.
It was slow, hard work beating against tides, currents and head winds. Late in the season though it was, masses of ice still lingered in the coves of the shores. Once, as they watched the dirty white masses of ice, Tom cried out in delight as he saw a number of sleek brown creatures scramble into the sea when the schooner approached.
“Hurrah, those were seals!” he cried.
“Yep, harbor seal,” said Captain Edwards. “Not worth much. But you’ll see a-plenty of real seals after a bit. Shouldn’t wonder if we’d get some hides up round Belle Isle. Never did see so pesky much ice in the Gulf this time o’ year.”
At last the Straits of Belle Isle were reached, the wind shifted and once more sailing free, the Narwhal made good time through the narrow waterway between Newfoundland and Labrador.
[53]
As they passed the lonely, wave-washed Belle Isle, men were sent aloft on the lookout for seals. Nothing but a few herds of the little harbor seals were seen, however, and these were so wary that Captain Edwards vowed it would be a waste of time to attempt to hunt them.
Then, swinging past Cape St. Lewis, the schooner was headed up the coast of Labrador for Hebron where she was to put in for Eskimos.
Two days after passing the Cape, the boys were scanning the ugly green sea with their glasses when a faint, shimmering, cloud-like shape rose upon the horizon.
“Oh, there’s a ship!” exclaimed Jim. “And a big one.”
Mr. Kemp looked up, shaded his eyes with his hand and stared in the direction Jim indicated. “Ship!” he exclaimed. “That’s a berg.”
“A berg!” cried Tom. “You mean an iceberg?”
“Sure,” replied the second mate. “Pretty sizeable one too.”
“Oh, let’s sail over and see it!” exclaimed Jim.
“Less we see of ’em the better it’ll suit me,” said the skipper who had been studying the berg. “But you’ll have a chance to see it all right. We’ll have[54] to go out of our course if we don’t want to bump plumb into it.”
Rapidly the berg rose before the schooner, a massive mountain of ice, its summit carved and melted into spires, pinnacles and huge, overhanging shelves, steep precipitous sides rising from the wide hummocky base just above the waves and gleaming and shimmering with every color of the rainbow.
“Gee, isn’t it pretty!” cried Jim. “I never knew ice was so many colors. And look at those big caves in the sides.”
“And look—oh look, Jim!” exclaimed Tom. “There’s some one on it! See, right in front of that big green cave!”
“What in tarnation ye talkin’ of?” demanded Cap’n Pem. “Here, gimme them glasses.”
Adjusting the glasses, the old whaleman stared fixedly for a moment at the distant iceberg. “Some one on it!” he exclaimed. “Waal, I’ll be blowed if there beint—but ’tain’t no human critter. That there’s a whoppin’ big b’ar!”
“A bear?” cried Tom. “Hurrah! that’s all the better. Oh say, Captain Edwards, can’t we go over and shoot him?”
“Hmm,” muttered the skipper, “I dunno, but I reckon you can. Pem, soon’s ever we get ’bout half[55] a mile from the berg, have the yards swung an’ lower the sta’board quarter boat. White bear skins is worth takin’ and it’ll give the boys—I mean owners—a chance to try their hands. Better let Mr. Kemp go along with ’em.” Then, turning to the boys, he continued. “Now mind you do just as Mr. Kemp tells you. Bergs is mighty pesky things, an’ a gun shot’s li’ble to start a break or a slide or topple the dumb thing clean over. Better to lose the bear than get kilt.”
The boys scarcely heard what he said. Filled with excitement at thoughts of visiting the berg and shooting a polar bear, they dashed to their cabin, hastily got out their rifles and, stuffing their pockets with cartridges, rushed back on deck.


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