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19th Century American Whaling

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No. 3.

W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. LXV, No. 3 (Mar 1887)
pp. 233-236.


. . . .



No. 3.

A Bivouac and a Burrow. – A Wild Night. – Shipwreck of the "Daphne."

      We struggled onward to gain a place of shelter from the blinding storm, and select a camping-ground before nightfall. As we entered the region of turf-knolls, we made better weather of it, and our progress was more rapid, the fury of the gale being broken by the intervening hills.

      Descending into the ravine, we followed it up for a mile or more, skirting along its dry sides. The young elephants were floundering by hundreds in the narrow stream at the bottom.

      "This place must be almost dry, at times, in the summer," remarked Fielding; "but next month it will be swollen to a roaring torrent by the spring rains. But we must climb the bank again, for I don't want to go any nearer to the infernal din of the rookery. This looks promising," he continued, pointing in the direction of the pond. "Come on, this way."

      The loads of driftwood grew heavy upon our arms, and the shades of night were gathering down upon us. The gale was still increasing, and a wild night was before us. In my ignorance I saw no prospect of making a comfortable shelter. But I knew little, as it proved, of the fertility of our young officer in shifts and resources.

      "Here's the spot for an anchorage!" he cried, at last, suddenly coming to a halt, and


dropping his burden between two gigantic clumps of turf, which rose nearly four feet above the damp soil within, leaving a passage of not more than three feet across. "Here's a good natural lee, and, with some labor in the way of artificial improvement, we can get up a cosy little house to play Robinson Crusoe in, for a day, or even for a week, if necessary."

      "But we must have a fire," said Dave.

      "Certainly," he answered, beginning to whittle at the dryest bit of wood he could select. "That's easily managed. I've brought plenty of matches, and there's nothing more abundant than fuel after the fire is once started. You have both been itching to kill an elephant ever since we landed. Now you may kill two or three of the nearest ones; and mind you save the skins whole, if possible. They may be useful to us."

      We were not slow to avail ourselves of his permission, and a couple of the unwieldy beasts were soon biting the dust in impotent agony, while their life-blood gushed forth from gaping wounds in the breast. To skin them handsomely required some skill, but with a little instruction this was accomplished. The hides, stretched across between the two knolls, formed a complete shelter from the howling blast, blowing cold and raw over the icy mountain. Liberal cuts of the fat piled upon the incipient camp fire, blazed fiercely, and lighted up the strange, weird scene around us, sending clouds of black, dingy smoke driving off to leeward.

      "This is glorious!" exclaimed my chum. "We can be jolly enough as long as we can keep warm. But it soems to me that we might improve our sleeping accommodations by digging into the tussock."

      "Of course," said Mr. Fielding. "Dig away, you two, while I see what 1 can raise for supper. Strike in here, a little to windward of the fire, so the smoke will blow away from us. Empty your pockets, first, and let's see how much hard-tack we've got."

      The stock, when collected together, was larger than we had expected, and dispelled all present apprehensions on the score of hunger. While Mr. Fielding strayed off, as he said, in search of provisions, Bryant and I set to work at our excavation, using our lances, butcher-knives, and a bit of board brought from the beach, these composing our whole stock of tools. But the earth was soft at the bottom of the knoll, and we made more progress than might have been expected. The turf was so tough at the top as to obviate all danger of caving in upon us.

      An hour's work was sufficient to form a chamber large enough for three of us to stretch ourselves in. Resting from our fatigue, we surveyed the work with satisfaction.

      "Old Robinson Crusoe himself couldn't get up a better cave than that, at so short notice," said Bryant, complacently, "even with his savage man Friday to lend him a hand. Joe, I'd rather be here to-night, than standing an anchor-watch on board the little 'Woodlark.' She must be riding hard on her chain now, and washing her decks right fore and aft."

      "Yes, indeed," I replied. "I only hope she mayn't drag, or tear the windlass out of her. If she should so iishore at the base of the 'iceberg,' the lives of our shipmates wouldn't be worth a struggle for safety.''

      "This is comfortable," said Fielding, as he pushed his way in under a corner of the elephant's hide, and examined the result of our mining operations. As he spoke he threw from his shoulders a heavy burden of skins which he had taken from penguins, and opening a bag formed of a single skin, displayed his provisions for supper.

      "Here are some titbits, such as no old Boman emperor's table ever boasted. A sea-elephant's tongue is a luxury, I assure you, when it's not convenient to get a bullock's. And there's a bag full of woggins' hearts, which we can roast on sticks, and who doubts that we shall make a heart-y supper?"

      "But what are you going to do with the skins ?" I asked.

      "To floor off the sleeping-room, there. You'll find a downy carpet of that sort far superior to one of damp sand."

      "That's a capital idea," said Bryant. "You must have had some experience of this kind before, Mr. Fielding?"

      "A little, now and then. But let's get some sticks and cook our meat, for I'm sharp set, and I presume we all are by this time. We must back in the rest of the blubber before we turn in, and we shall have fuel enough to keep up the fire all night. We hardly perceive the gale now, sheltered as we are, but I assure you it is howling outside."

      "What do you think about the schooner at the anchorage? " I asked.


      "It's a wild night for her," he answered, with a shake of the head; "but it is impossible for us to be of any service to hor. We can neither see her nor know her fate until the gale blows out. We must trust in Providence and the strength of her cables."

      With appetites sharpened by the fatigues of the day, we did justice to the supper, and settled it with a comfortable smoke. We raised the ground in our bivouac by leveling the heaps of dirt thrown out in digging the cave; spread the floor of our snug dormitory with the soft carpet of skins, and brought in the reserve supply of animal fire-wood.

      We stretched ourselves in our quarters, ami lay awake for some time, conversing and listening to the monotonous caw of the penguins borne on the wind, till we thought any other sound, however unpleasant, would have been a relief to our ears.

      "Do they make that confounded noise all the time ?" Bryant asked.

      "Yes," replied Mr. Fielding; "or, at least, some of them are always making it. They'll be still more noisy in the laying season. It is too early now for eggs; but if we are here in December and January, we shall have that addition to our bill of fare. They can be picked up by the bushel off the ground."

      Had I been less drowsy, I might have stored up-much valuable information, which Fielding volunteered, touching the natural history and habits of the " woggin." I fell asleep in the midst of a yarn about wintering at the Crozettcs, and sealing at the Falklands, right whaling in the "kelp " at Desolation, and slaughtering woggins by the million on Patagonia for the little oil to be obtained from them. But all these were so strangely jumbled together in my brain, and so obscured by a kind of sleepy fog, that I have never since been able to arrange the details.

      My sleep must have been sound for several hours. When I awoke our fire was nearly out, and the sleeping-room somewhat chilly. My comrades were snoring in harmonious concert, and, without disturbing them, I crept out to replenish the fire, and to make observations upon the weather.

      A few pieces of fat judiciously applied soon revived the flame and sent the black cloud rolling away again down towards the ravine, startling the nearest elephants and increasing the clamor at the rookery. Then, stepping outside of the weather screen, I mounted the highest tussock, and looked about me in the darkness.

      The gale appeared to have broken its force, and to come now in gusts with lulls between. The temperature had softened, and the squalls were accompanied by rain instead of snow as on the previous day. I had no means of judging of the time, but supposed it must be long after midnight. A movement in the rear caused me to turn suddenly, and Dave Bryant stood beneath, leaning against the knoll on which I was perched.

      "What are you doing, Joe?" he said, seizing me by the leg. "Are you subject to somnambulism, or are you looking to the westward for sunrise? Studying astronomy in a rain squall, or quoting Cowper to an amphibious audience, 'I am monarch of all I survey ?'"

      "Not so," I answered. "My right there are many to dispute. But the gale is breaking up, Dave."

      "Yes, I think it has moderated somewhat. But it's far better weather in our dungeon than on the castle ramparts. Come, let's burrow again till daylight."

      "What's that?" we both exclaimed at once, as a sudden flash for an instant broke the gloom to windward. Even as we spoke, a heavy report came distinctly down to us.

      "Call Mr. Fielding! " I cried. That's a signal of distress. One of the vessels has struck adrift from the anchorage—dragged or parted her chain—God help them!"

      A touch sufficed to arouse the officer, and in less than a minute we all stood together on the tussock.

      "You're sure you heard a gun?"

      "Oh, yes! " we both answered in the same breath. "We saw the flash, too."

      A sudden gust of wind nearly took us off our feet. We crouched down together, while the big raindrops rattled on our sou'westers and ran down our jackets.

      "It can't be the ' Woodlark,'" Fielding said, "for she had no gun on board heavier than a musket, which would be of no more use than a Chinese cracker in a storm like this. It's not likely the other tender has any heavy gun, either. It must be the English barque. She's too heavy a vessel to be at anchor here, anyhow, and would be more apt to part her cable than one of the schooners."

      "There 'tis again!" sang out a trio of voices. "Now listen!" And the boom of the gun followed, much quicker than before,


showing that the unfortunate vessel must be frightfully near lhe land.

      "That bears about north-east from us," said our young leader, now thoroughly roused. "If we follow the north bank of the pond, we shall fetch out on the beach nearly abreast of it."

      Hastily throwing a fresh supply of blubber on our camp-fire, and shouldering our arms, we struck a bee-line for the shore, regardless of rain and wind. We were obliged to make a slight detour to skirt the bank of the pond, and another gun, still nearer, increased the excitement of our feelings, and quickened our movement into a dog-trot.

      When we reached high water mark, with the angry breakers rolling in round our feet, we supposed ourselves nearly at the same point where we had stood the day before, when we gave up the attempt to return to our vessel by crossing the glacier. It was during a lull that we reached the spot, but the night was intensely black and thick. Nought could be seen but the whitening of the surf; nor could any sound be heard but its roar, which nearly drowned our voices, as we stood close together.

      "She must be very near to us now," said Fielding. "If we could only got up a fire as a signal! But it's almost impossible, without dry wood to start it."

      "We can whittle enough from our lancepoles," said Bryant, "and feed it with oil."

      "Good I " said I. "That's a lucky thought. And I'll soon have fuel enough to keep it going."

      The nearest elephant for a victim, and the "slivers " of fat were ready by the time my two comrades had prepared a small heap of shavings. Crouching close round it to shield it with our bodies, we succeeded, by careful management, in starting it.

      "They may be near enough to see the flash of my gun," said Mr. Fielding. "I'll try it, at any rate, while you coax up the fire."

      And running down till his legs were washed by the advancing roller, he discharged both barrels in the air.

      A short interval elapsed, during which we were busy with our fire. Then a blinding flash and a thundering report, nearly simultaneous, startled us all to our feet, and showed us the vessel within a quarter of a mile of the breakers!"

      An instant, and all was blackness again. But our eyes and thoughts had done their

      work quickly. We all knew that she was a small brigantine, or, as we Yankees clumsily express it, hermaphrodite brig, and, of course, a new comer. She was doing her best under storm canvas, but it was evident she must be sagging fast down into the arc of the point.

      "The fire! the fire!" said Fielding. "Build it up as fast as you can. He Is a stranger, and the sooner he puts his helm up and beaches her, the better for all hands. There's no possible chance for her to clear the point; and if she strikes down yonder on the rocks, she'll go to pieces in ten minutes. If he puts her stem on, here, their lives may be saved."

      Thus stimulated, we renewed our efforts, and soon had the satisfaction of seeing the flame rise fiercely.

      "Pile on the blubber now!" said Dave. "Kill another elephant, Joe, and we'll raise such a bonfire that we can see the brig by the light of it. Isn't this tantalizing, now. to be so near and not able to communicate, nor even to see each other? Both of us staring into the very 'blackness of darkness!'"

      Another gun. Hurrah! she already has her helm up, her topsail run down, and is swinging her head inshore.

      "She'll steer as near as possible for the fire-light," said Fielding, "but she'll hardly fetch it; she'll strike a little further down. Come on, she'll be here now within two minutes." And we followed him swiftly, toward the spot where we expected the illfated stranger to strike. A heavy squall which swept down at the moment, beat upon our backs, and urged us along at racing speed.

      "There he is!" The well-known sound of slatting canvas was heard, and the brig shot within the glare of the fierce fire-light. Lifted on a long roller, her foresail was tugging at the buntlincs as it had been hauled up to the yard, and her terror-stricken crew were grouped aft, as if to be as far as possible from the point of concussion when she should strike.

      I can never forget the short glimpse of that gallant brig, rushing forward to destruction, while I stood rooted to the spot with suppressed breath. An involuntary cry escaped my lips—a cry of relief—as, suddenly arrested in her mad career, she brought up with a staggering shock, and her foretopmast pitched over the bows.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Beyond Desolation - No. 3.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 65, No. 3 (Mar 1887)
Pages: 233-236