Here to return to
THE LITTLE MEN OF THE DIOMEDES
IN the unremembered ages it is probable that the extreme end of Asia, which is East Cape, Siberia, was joined to the extreme western end of America, which is Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska. No tradition remains of the time when the sea broke through this slender barrier, yet even now it is but about thirty miles in a straight line across, and on clear days from the mountains of one promontory the other can be faintly discerned. There is a halfway station, too, two storm-beaten islands which lift rocky crests of grim granite in the very middle of the hurly-burly of the straits. These are the Diomede Islands, the greater belonging to Russia, the lesser to America, and the space between the two is so narrow that it seems in bright weather as if one could almost throw a stone across, though in reality it is more than a mile — farther than it looks. Across this slender land path in those forgotten years came one race after another from Central Asia, which was the birthplace of races, pressing southward and peopling the Western hemisphere with tribes, of which scant traces remain in some instances, while in others their degenerate descendants are still fading before the westward rush of civilization. Individuals cross this narrow barrier of tempestuous sea still, but races come no more, and we find on the halfway station of the Diomedes a remnant of some ancient people that has stranded there and made a home where it seems scarcely possible that human creatures could live the year round.
Here during the recent centuries met the Asiatic and Alaskan Eskimos, to trade and fight; and the bold, bare cliffs have been the scene of many a bloody battle. Now even this custom has passed, and the men from one side of the straits rarely meet those of the other; but the little remnant of an unknown people, who stranded there no one knows how long ago, still cling to their rocky islets and live as did their forefathers. You may find among them some who bear the mark of the Chuckchis, some who are more like the Alaskan Eskimos, but the little folk, while having the manners and customs of each, have characteristics which belong to neither. Hardly five feet in height, they are too small to have battled successfully with their more robust brethren, but they make up in slyness and ability what they lack in brute strength. They are shy and reticent, clever workmen, clever thieves, and cleverest of all in trading.
No vegetation save grass and chickweed grows on their cliffs. They build their dwellings of flat stones banked with scant earth, and the icy sea, which rims them round and seems to threaten with certain death, is their father and their mother in that it provides all they have in the world. In the brief summer an occasional log of driftwood is thrown against their cliffs, and from this they fashion their canoe frames and their spear handles. During all the cold and cruel winter the ice-floes which crash and grind against the worn granite of their islands bring the seal and walrus and the polar bear. These and the myriad sea birds of summer are their supplies.
For many days the southerly gale which had driven the Bowhead from the Siberian shore kept her in much danger. The sea room was narrow, ice-floes came driving down before the wind, it was impossible to get sight of the sun to find the ship’s position, and the drift of the current toward the straits was an unknown factor. Most of the time the vessel jogged under reefed topsails, with steam up for use in an emergency, and Captain Nickerson was almost constantly on deck. Thick clouds made the nights longer, and very dark, and Harry had a chance to see the full danger of Arctic navigation.
It was in the gloom of one of these nights that he stood on deck. The vessel heeled to the gale, now and then an icy wave sent a rush of spray over the windward rail, the wind howled and wailed in the tense shrouds, and an eerie glow seemed to show in the darkness without lighting it, as if dull fires burned behind the cloud curtains. It seemed to Harry as if they were blown about in chaos, a place dreary, ghostly, and lonely beyond expression. He shuddered and thought of the people at home, happy in the bright June weather. For the first time he was sorry for himself, and homesick. He thought with a great longing of the broad veranda looking out upon the bay, of his mother sitting there, and he seemed with his mind’s eye to see Maisie, in a pretty white gown, flitting gayly across the lawn toward the boats. Then out of the night came a wild, despairing cry, and something fluttered aboard, crashed against the mizzen rigging, and fell in a draggled white heap at his feet. The thought of Maisie was so strong that he sprang forward, with a great cry of alarm, to pick her up where she had fallen, when a sudden tremendous gust of the gale threw the Bowhead on her beam ends. A wall of white water roared down upon him, lifted him up with Maisie in his arms, and he went out into the night with it, still clinging to the limp figure he had clutched as he went down.
It was well for Harry that the same sea that sent him overboard sent with him a coil of line from a belaying-pin, where it hung against the mizzenmast. The whirl of the wave wound this round him, and the great boatswain, whose watch on deck it was, saw him go out with it, and finding it taut, and something towing, hauled away at it until he could reach down and get him by the collar. Then with one big swing of his enormous arm he landed him aboard. He set him in a heap on the deck, and with a hand on either knee peered down at him in the gloom.
“Young feller,” he said, with much emotion, “there’s just one thing I want you to do for me when we get back to Frisco. Do you know what that is?”
“What?” asked Harry, wholly dazed and half drowned, replying mechanically.
I want you to take all the money I get this trip and go and bet it on something for me. A man that can win out the way you’ve just done couldn’t lose at any game. Great jumping Jehoshaphat! what have you got here?”
“Is she all right?” asked Harry, struggling to his feet. He was still dazed, and had forgotten all the events of the last two months. It seemed to him that it was Griggs speaking, and that he had just pulled him and Maisie out of the Fore River.
The boatswain took the limp white figure from his arms and looked at it. It was a great white bird, quite dead, no doubt killed by its crash against the mizzenmast.
“Go below, my boy,” he said; “and get something hot and turn in. You’ve had trouble enough for one night.”
The great boatswain went forward, holding the bird in one hand and now and then slapping his great leg with the other, and letting forth a roar of amazed laughter.
“A goose,” he said; “a Yukon goose! Went overboard and came back and brought a Yukon goose! Well, the young feller is a seven-time winner. Bet ye we’ll raise whales this trip, all right.” He went forward to the galley, where he left his game, and then went back on watch.
As light grew through the chaos of struggling mist, the cry of “Land ho!” rang out from the lookout, and the ship rounded to so near dark cliffs that stretched upward into the mists out of sight that she was fairly in the wash of the great waves that thundered at their base. A moment after, ice barred their farther way on the other tack, and a great floe moved majestically along, bearing them down toward the cliffs. To lie to was to be carried in and crushed between ice and rocks, and Captain Nickerson, who was on deck, wisely guessing that it must be one of the Diomedes, wore ship and ran before the gale, coasting within sight of the great rock barrier. A half hour afterward he rounded to and swung close up under the lee of the towering northeast cliff of the big Diomede; so close to its sheer lift that one could almost throw a line ashore.
Here was level water indeed, and they were safe from the northward driven ice-floes, which would split on the island’s prow and sail by to port and starboard; but they did not escape the wind, which carne over the heights in tremendous “willie-waus,” blowing, as the sailors say, “up and down like the Irishman’s hurricane.” This seems to be a peculiarity of the Arctic gale. It comes tearing over the great heights, plunges down the steep face of the cliffs, and striking the water at their base with tremendous velocity, sends it whirling out to sea in great masses of spoondrift that sail along the surface as blown snow does in winter.
Two days more the ship lay head to the cliff, swinging to two anchors, then the mists blew away, the wind went down rapidly, and the sun shone brightly on lofty granite heights. Halfway up was a little space of level ground like a shelf set in a corner of rock, and out of holes in this green level came stubby fur-clad men and women, who swarmed down the cliff by paths of their own and launched umiaks from a sheltered little hidden cove, putting out to the ship.
HOME OF THE “LITTLE MEN” OF THE DIOMEDES
Harry was none the worse for his sudden plunge overboard a few days before. Instead of the weakness and lassitude which bad followed his April upset in the Fore River, there came an immediate reaction, and he declared a few hours afterward that it had done him good; he would do it every day, if he could be sure of getting back to the ship so handily. The Arctic air was already working wonders in him. The experienced seamen shook their heads at this. They knew well that his chance had been one in a thousand, and Captain Nickerson rated him soundly for being so careless as to let a sea catch him that way.
The little men had much walrus ivory, but not much else that was of value to the ship, and their trading did not last long. They did have many curios, and Harry had an opportunity to buy some of these with the “trade goods” he had brought from Seattle for the purpose. By Captain Nickerson’s advice he had laid in a few dollars’ worth of rubber balls, huge beads, little mirrors, harmonicas, and trinkets, and he now found these very useful. He bought with them many walrus teeth; the back teeth, which are as large as one’s thumb, carved in grotesque but lifelike shape of seals, bear, walrus, and other animals. Two bargains which lie made are noteworthy as showing the ways of the little people in trading. One of these was for an exquisite pair of little shoes, soled with walrus hide crimped up into miniature boots, topped with the softest of fur from the reindeer fawn, and with a bright edging of scarlet cloth. They were most skillfully fashioned, and tasteful, for the Eskimo is a born artist, and were brought aboard by a young woman who apparently was very proud of them, and wished rather to exhibit than to sell them.
Harry, proud of his newly acquired Eskimo, asked her immediately, “Soonoo pechuckta?” (How much do you want?) but she replied by shaking her head and putting the shoes away in her fur gown.
By and by she brought them out again and patted them lovingly. Again Harry tried to get her to name a price for them, and after much labor he got from her the single word “Oolik” (Blanket).
“Soonoo?” asked Harry again.
“Tellumuk,” was the answer, further emphasized by holding up five fingers.
Five blankets was so obviously exorbitant a price that Harry could not and would not think of giving it, so he thought to tempt his adversary with the offer of other things. In vain he brought out tin trumpets, harmonicas, bangles, beads, and even two alarm clocks, which he had found elsewhere to be greatly desired by the tribes, and offered them singly and in groups; the owner of the little shoes was determined. To all his offers she replied with fine scorn, “Peluck” (No good), and clung persistently to her first price.
But Harry, grown wise, took a leaf from her own book. He bethought him of a little plate-glass mirror, rimmed with scarlet plush, which he had not offered thus far. It had cost him a dollar and a half at Seattle, but he was willing to trade it for the shoes. Yet he was convinced that direct offer would be useless. So he brought it on deck, and without looking at the obdurate young woman began admiring his own countenance in it. When she took a furtive interest in it, he thrust it back in his own pocket. After a little he took it out again, and once more contemplated himself in its depths. This ludicrous performance continued for some time, and he could not tell whether or not his adversary were much interested, so cleverly did she veil her thoughts. By and by her boatload of people were ready to go home, and getting into the umiak, called to her to come with them. Harry saw that she lingered, and he played his last card.
“Ah de gar!” he exclaimed; “ah de gar!” ( Wonderful! wonderful!) and held the mirror in front of the little woman. She saw her own comely countenance in it, she saw the beveled glass and the vivid scarlet plush, and as Harry held out his other hand she gave a twitch of her shoulders, snatched the shoes from their concealment in her gown, and gave them to him. At the same time she caught up the mirror, flounced clown into the umiak, and settled herself on the bottom, with an air that was ludicrously like that of her civilized sister when angry with herself for being outwitted. Vanity and curiosity had conquered, but it was the only case in all his dealings with Eskimos in which Harry ever knew one of them to name a price for an article and then accept something different.
The other trade, if trade it could be called, was a different matter. It was with the smallest of the Eskimo men of another boat. He had half a dozen ivory finger rings, carved symmetrically with a seal’s head, or two or three, where stones would be. Harry sighted these and wished to trade for the bunch, but this did not suit the little man at all. Instead, with much pomp and much show of valuing it highly, he took one ring from the string and offered it to Harry, saying:
“Tobac, tobac, tunpanna kowkow” (Eating tobacco).
The Eskimos are not great smokers, a whiff or two is generally enough for them, but they are very fond of chewing tobacco, or “eating tobacco” as they call it, and there was a good store of this on the ship. Harry offered a moderate-sized piece for the ring and then wanted to purchase the second with a similar piece. This he could not do. The crafty little man’s price had risen fivefold, and it was only reluctantly that he parted with the second ring at the price of five pieces of tobacco. But when it came to the third one, there seemed to be no such thing as purchasing it. Harry offered tobacco galore, added trinkets and trade goods, but the little man was obdurate and all chances of trade seemed off.
Harry remembered the shoes and the mirror, and did not despair. He went down to his locker and brought out the alarm clock again. He wound it up, set the alarm for a little ahead of the moment, and took it on deck. There he set it up on a cask and waited. Several of the Eskimos gathered round and admired it, but the little man only looked at it out of the corner of his eye.
After a few minutes the alarm went off, and being a vigorous one, it startled the crowd of little men and women around it. They nearly fell over one another in astonishment, and when Harry wound up the alarm and set it off again, their delight was great. The ring-maker tried to assume an air of indifference, but when his boat was ready to go he came toward Harry as if to offer to trade. Harry had learned much of the ways of the Eskimo trader by that time and turned away indifferently. When the boat was loaded, he strolled to the side with the clock in his hand. The little man held up one ring, but he shook his head. Then the Eskimo offered two. The boat was just going, and Harry wanted the rings so much that he yielded. It would make four in all, which was perhaps all he cared for anyway. He handed the clock to the little man, and that worthy dropped something in his palm as he did so. At the same time he pointed toward the cliff and jabbered something excitedly in Eskimo.
Harry looked where he pointed but saw nothing. The boat was several lengths away now, the click of the windlass pawl showed that the Bowhead’s anchor was coming up, and they were off. The little man was no longer gesticulating, but looked back over his shoulder and solemnly winked one eye. This was a new feature in Eskimo expression, and Harry wondered much if a wink meant as much with these seemingly stolid people as with us. As he mused, the umiak rounded the cliff and was gone, and Harry looked at his two rings for the first time. They were not rings at all, only two circular sections of a walrus back tooth, flat and useless disks, which the little man may have meant to make into rings later.
Then he realized that a wink is a wink the world over, and the language of signs is common to all people.
The day was bright, the gale was over, and the Bowhead put to sea, once more heading northward into the mysterious Arctic, keeping a keen lookout for whales. The southerly weather had driven the ice of the straits far to the northward, and though there was now and then a floating cake, the pack was many miles distant.
“Suppose you could pull a whaleboat oar?” asked Captain Nickerson of Harry that day at dinner.
“Why, yes, sir,” replied Harry, “I think so. I’m a good oarsman, though I have never used quite such large oars as you have in the whaleboats.”
“I’m sure he could, father,” said Joe; “what of it?”
“Why, this,” replied his father; “you’ve been practically second mate of the Bowhead ever since we left Hawaii. Now I think I shall let you take a second mate’s place in charge of one of the boats, and am planning to have Harry pull an oar in your boat.”
Both boys turned red with delight at this prospect, and it was soon decided to thus promote them to the list of regular whalemen. Billy, an experienced Kanaka harpooner, was assigned to their boat as being a level-headed, skillful whaleman, whose counsel would be of use to Joe, and the whole thing was arranged.
If the two boys had been anxious to sight whales before, they were doubly eager now, and both spent as much time as they could in the rigging on the lookout. It was Joe who first of the two boys sighted a bow-head. The cry of “A–h–h blow!” had rung from the crow’s nest, and the Kanaka on the watch there reported a whale nearly dead ahead. All hands were on the lookout for the spout of this one, for the Kanakas in many cases have wonderful eyesight and can sight a whale much farther than the average white man, when, several points off the windward bow, Joe saw another blow and loudly proclaimed it from the mizzen rigging. A few moments afterward a third and a fourth were sighted, and the ship approached a school of black monsters numbering a dozen or so. Then she rounded to, a little to the windward, and the boats were hastily lowered. Harry found himself at the end of a sixteen -foot sweep that was very different from the oars he had been used to, but he soon accustomed himself to the stroke and swung along in good time with the others. He was conscious of a feeling of great elation, the thrill of ecstasy of the huntsman mingled with the dread of the unknown. They seemed such puny creatures to be attacking the greatest monster in the world. As they went on, both these feelings increased, till he shook with excitement and the man behind him noticed it. He was a brawny, grizzly old timer, bronzed by all the winds of the world, and hardened by many a hundred conflicts with the whales of all seas.
“Don’t get gallied, younker,” he said kindly; “the bowhead ain’t no whale. He’s jest a hundred tons or so of blubber and bone. If we was goin’ up against a sperm now, or a fightin’ bull humpback, ye might feel skeery, but a bowhead ain’t nothin’. They kill as easy as a slaughter-house lamb.”
Just then Harry fairly jumped from his seat, and lost his stroke for a moment. A shout had sounded, and glancing over his shoulder he saw that the first mate’s boat near by had already made fast, but had not as yet used the bomb gun. Instead, the whale seemed to have sounded too quickly, then changed his mind, and as Harry looked up over his shoulder he saw a great black mass rise fairly under the attacking boat, lifting it clear of the water, where it hung high for a moment, then, by some miracle still uncapsized, slid from the broad mass as if being launched. Even as the boat left the mountainous back, the mate leveled the bomb gun and discharged it full into the whale’s side. There was a shiver, the great flukes curled in one sweep that sent tons of spray into the air, which Mr. Jones with a skillful sweep of the steering oar narrowly avoided, and then the great black mass floated quivering on the surface.
“I told ye so, younker,” said the veteran, still swinging steadily and strongly to his oar. “He’s a dead un. There ain’t no fight in a bowhead. Ef that had been a sperm bull, there wouldn’t have been enough of that boat left to swear by. Oh, this ain’t whalin’, this ain’t; it’s pickin’ up blubber.”
Joe, standing by the steering oar, lifted his hand in a gesture commanding silence. His eyes glowered big beneath his cap, and Harry knew that they were close on to their game. A few more strokes and then, “Way enough,” said Joe gently. They glided silently forward with lifted oars. It seemed to Harry as if something took him by the throat and stopped his breathing. He would have given much to look around, but something held him motionless. He heard the stirring forward as the Kanaka harpooner moved to his position in the very bow. Then there was a gentle jolt and a “Huh!” from the harpooner as he drove the iron home.
“Give it to him!” yelled Joe; “stern all!”
Harry backed water mechanically, feeling curiously numb all over. He heard the report of the gun, and saw something tremendous and black beat the water three times with great blows within a few feet of the blade of his oar. A rush of foam shot from these blows and seemed to overwhelm him in a smother of salt water. Then he found himself still sitting on the thwart, wet to the skin and up to his knees in water, but still, to his great astonishment, alive and right side up, and backing water with mechanical precision. There was no sound save the whir of the line through the chock and the voice of the veteran in his ear.
“You’re all right, boy,” it said. “Ye didn’t jump out, and ye kept your oar a-goin’. Ye’ll make a whaleman ‘fore many days, an’ a good one, too. He’s soundin’ now, but he’ll come up dead. The Kanaka put the bomb into him right. He’s our whale.”
The rush of the line slackened and then ceased, and they began to take in on it. A long time they pulled steadily, and at last the black bulk showed in the wash of the dancing waves on the surface, the nerveless flipper swaying in the swell, and blood flowing from the spout-hole. Joe and Harry had captured their first whale in regulation fashion, and two prouder boys it would be hard to find. A hole was cut in the gristle of the great flukes, and the work of towing the monster to the ship was begun. Harry could not put much strength into his stroke at first, he was too weak with the reaction from the excitement, but he soon recovered from this and tugged away manfully.
A little way ahead of them was the first mate’s boat with an equally large capture in tow; astern was the captain’s boat, which had failed to make fast, and which soon pulled in to their assistance; but the boatswain was having the greatest adventure of them all. He had made fast to a good-sized whale, which had immediately become gallied, and without waiting to be reached by bomb gun or lance had started out at a terrific pace, headed apparently for the north pole. The boat was already almost out of sight in the distance and diminishing steadily in size. By and by it grew no smaller, but gradually moved along the horizon, proving that the tow had changed its course. Indeed, it seems to be well established that a frightened whale runs in a circle, though generally a very large one. This particular bowhead had done this, though his circle was much smaller than many would have made. Thus it happened that when the two whales which the first mate’s boat and Joe’s had struck were alongside, the boatswain’s was looming large on the horizon again and approaching rapidly. The circle which his whale had taken seemed to include the position of the ship in a part of its circumference. With strength and vivacity quite unusual for a bowhead, the monster kept up the pace, and had thus far frustrated the boat’s attempts to close up and kill. The boatswain, seeing that the whale was towing them toward the ship again, had ceased to attempt it, confident that even such a wonder of a pace-setter would finally tire, and wishing to be as near the ship as possible when the final stroke was made. Much attention to the race was given by those aboard, and Harry had an uneasy feeling that the monster, even though a proverbially timid bowhead, was bent on wreaking vengeance on the ship. If the huge creature should hurl himself against it at the pace at which he was coming, the result would be wreck beyond a doubt.
On he came at a great rate, ploughing through the water like a torpedo boat, the boatswain now straining every nerve to get up with him, but when the whale was within an eighth of a mile, there was an unexpected interference. He swerved to the right, again to the left, sounded and then breached, and the next moment a mottled black and white orca flung itself into the air, turned end over end, and came down with a tremendous thud in the middle of the bowhead’s back.
A strange groaning bellow came from the whale, but he plunged on desperately. Again the orca launched its twenty-five feet of length into the air and came down on the poor bowhead; and now another appeared, and the two alternately beat the frenzied and exhausted whale till it apparently had what little breath there was left hammered out of its body. Right alongside he gave up the fight and rolled motionless on the surface. The bellow had already subsided to a moan; this was followed by a gasp or two, and the bowhead ceased to breathe, turned on his side with the flipper in the air, dead before the boat could get alongside and finish the matter. The orcas had literally hammered the exhausted whale to death, and were now tearing at his lip to get his mouth open and devour the soft, spongy tongue, which is their chief delight. They seemed to pay no attention to the ship or the boat, and Harry had a good opportunity to see the behavior of these wild wolves of the sea before the boatswain, with much indignation, lanced them both to death.
“You’ll try to eat up my whale, will you, you blasted davy devils! Take that — and that — and that!” and with every “that” the keen lance searched the vitals of the gnawing orcas.
One died still voraciously tearing at the whale’s under lip, but the other turned at the blow of the lance and bit at what had stung it, taking the bow of the boat in its jaws and crushing and shaking it in the final agony as a terrier might worry a cat. The great teeth crunched the wood, and the men, with cries of terror, were shaken out of the boat, but luckily none were caught in the grasp of the jaws. The lance-thrust was deadly, and in a moment the orcas lay, belly up, beside the dead whale. The men were so near the side of the ship that ropes were thrown to them and they clambered aboard, after some trouble to save the gear and the crushed boat, which was towed alongside and hoisted on deck.
Thus ended the first adventure with a school of bowheads in the Arctic. Not so badly, though the whales had been much more lively and the events far more exciting than is common in the pursuit of this gentlest of cetaceans. A week of calm, warm weather followed, and at the end of that time the three whales were cut in, the blubber tried out, and the oil stowed away, together with three good heads of bone, making a fine beginning of what bade fair to be a very prosperous summer cruise.