The Whale’s Story
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Freddy sat thinking on the seat under the trees. It was a wide, white seat, about four feet long, sloping from the sides to the middle, something like a swing; and was not only comfortable but curious, for it was made of a whale’s bone. Freddy often sat there, and thought about it for he was very much interested in it, and nobody could tell him anything about it, except that it had been there a long time.
“Poor old whale, I wonder how you got here, where you came from, and if you were a good and happy creature while you lived?” wondered Freddy, patting the old bone with his little hand.
It gave a great creak; and a sudden gust of air stirred the trees, as if some monster groaned and sighed. Then Freddy heard a strange voice, very loud, yet cracked and queer, as if some one tried to talk with a broken jaw.
“Freddy ahoy!” called the big voice. “I’ll tell you all about it; for you are the only person who has ever pitied me, or cared to know anything about me.”
“How can you talk?” asked Freddy, very much astonished and a little frightened.
“Of course I can, for this is a part of my jaw-bone. I should talk better if my whole mouth was here; but I’m afraid my voice would then be so loud you wouldn’t be able to hear it. I don’t think anyone but you would understand me, anyway. It isn’t everyone that can, you know; but you are a thoughtful little chap, with a lively fancy as well as a kind heart, so you shall hear my story.”
“Thank you, I should like it very much, if you would please to speak a little lower, and not sigh; for your voice almost stuns me, and your breath nearly blows me away,” said Freddy.
“I’ll try: but it’s hard to suit my tone to such a mite, or to help groaning when I think of my sad fate; though I deserve it, perhaps,” said the bone, more gently.
“Were you a bad whale?” asked Freddy.
“I was proud, very proud, and foolish; and so I suffered for it. I dare say you know a good deal about us. I see you reading often, and you seem a sensible child.”
“No: I haven’t read about you yet, and I only know that you are the biggest fish there is,” replied Freddy.
The bone creaked and shook, as if it was laughing, and said in a tone that showed it hadn’t got over its pride yet:
“You’re wrong there, my dear; we are not fishes at all, though stupid mortals have called us so for a long time. We can’t live without air; we have warm, red blood; and we don’t lay eggs,—so we are not fish. We certainly are the biggest creatures in the sea and out of it. Why, bless you! some of us are nearly a hundred feet long; our tails alone are fifteen or twenty feet wide; the biggest of us weigh five hundred thousand pounds, and have in them the fat, bone, and muscle of a thousand cattle. The lower jaw of one of my family made an arch large enough for a man on horseback to ride under easily, and my cousins of the sperm-family usually yield eighty barrels of oil.”
“Gracious me, what monsters you are!” cried Freddy, taking a long breath, while his eyes got bigger and bigger as he listened.
“Ah! you may well say so; we are a very wonderful and interesting family. All our branches are famous in one way or another. Fin-backs, sperms, and rights are the largest; then come the norwhals, the dolphins, and porpoises,—which last, I dare say, you’ve seen.”
“Yes: but tell me about the big ones, please. Which were you?” cried Freddy.
“I was a Right whale, from Greenland. The Sperms live in warm places; but to us the torrid zone is like a sea of fire, and we don’t pass it. Our cousins do; and go to the East Indies by way of the North Pole, which is more than your famous Parrys and Franklins could do.”
“I don’t know about that; but I’d like to hear what you eat, and how you live, and why you came here,” said Freddy, who thought the whale rather inclined to boast.
“Well, we haven’t got any teeth,—our branch of the family; and we live on creatures so small, that you could only see them with a microscope. Yes, you may stare; but it’s true, my dear. The roofs of our mouths are made of whalebone, in broad pieces from six to eight feet long, arranged one against the other; so they make an immense sieve. The tongue, which makes about five barrels of oil, lies below, like a cushion of white satin. When we want to feed, we rush through the water, which is full of the little things we eat, and catch them in our sieve, spurting the water through two holes in our heads. Then we collect the food with our tongue, and swallow it; for, though we are so big, our throats are small. We roam about in the ocean, leaping and floating, feeding and spouting, flying from our enemies, or fighting bravely to defend our young ones.”
“Have you got any enemies? I shouldn’t think you could have, you are so large,” said Freddy.
“But we have, and many too,—three who attack us in the water, and several more that men use against us. The killer, the sword-fish, and the thrasher trouble us at home. The killer fastens to us, and won’t be shaken off till he has worried us to death; the sword-fish stabs us with his sword; and the thrasher whips us to death with his own slender, but strong and heavy body. Then, men harpoon us, shoot or entrap us; and make us into oil and candles and seats, and stiffening for gowns and umbrellas,” said the bone, in a tone of scorn.
Freddy laughed at the idea, and asked, “How about candles? I know about oil and seats and umbrellas; but I thought candles were made of wax.”
“I can’t say much on that point: I only know that, when a sperm whale is killed, they make oil out of the fat part as they do of ours; but the Sperms have a sort of cistern in their heads, full of stuff like cream, and rose-colored. They cut a hole in the skull, and dip it out; and sometimes get sixteen or twenty barrels. This is made into what you call spermaceti candles. We don’t have any such nonsense about us; but the Sperms always were a light-headed set.”
Here the bone laughed, in a cracked sort of roar, which sent Freddy flying off the seat on to the grass, where he stayed, laughing also, though he didn’t see any joke.
“I beg your pardon, child. It isn’t often that I laugh; for I’ve a heavy heart somewhere, and have known trouble enough to make me as sad as the sea is sometimes.”
“Tell me about your troubles; I pity you very much, and like to hear you talk,” said Freddy, kindly.
“Unfortunately we are very easily killed, in spite of our size; and have various afflictions besides death. We grow blind; our jaws are deformed sometimes; our tails, with which we swim, get hurt; and we have dyspepsia.”
Freddy shouted at that; for he knew what dyspepsia was, because at the sea-side there were many sickly people who were always groaning about that disease.
“It’s no laughing matter, I assure you,” said the whale’s bone. “We suffer a great deal, and get thin and weak and miserable. I’ve sometimes thought that’s the reason we are blue.”
“Perhaps, as you have no teeth, you don’t chew your food enough, and so have dyspepsia, like an old gentleman I know,” said Freddy.
“That’s not the reason; my cousins, the Sperms, have teeth, and dyspepsia also.”
“Are they blue?”
“No, black and white. But I was going to tell you my troubles. My father was harpooned when I was very young, and I remember how bravely he died. The Rights usually run away when they see a whaler coming; not from cowardice,—oh, dear, no!—but discretion. The Sperms stay and fight, and are killed off very fast; for they are a very headstrong family. We fight when we can’t help it; and my father died like a hero. They chased him five hours before they stuck him; he tried to get away, and dragged three or four boats and sixteen hundred fathoms of line from eight in the morning till four at night. Then they got out another line, and he towed the ship itself for more than an hour. There were fifteen harpoons in him: he chewed up a boat, pitched several men overboard, and damaged the vessel, before they killed him. Ah! he was a father to be proud of.”
Freddy sat respectfully silent for a few minutes, as the old bone seemed to feel a great deal on the subject. Presently he went on again:
“The Sperms live in herds; but the Rights go in pairs, and are very fond of one another. My wife was a charming creature, and we were very happy, till one sad day, when she was playing with our child,—a sweet little whaleling only twelve feet long, and weighing but a ton,—my son was harpooned. His mamma, instead of fleeng, wrapped her fins round him, and dived as far as the line allowed. Then she came up, and dashed at the boats in great rage and anguish, entirely regardless of the danger she was in. The men struck my son, in order to get her, and they soon succeeded; but even then, in spite of her suffering, she did not try to escape, but clung to little Spouter till both were killed. Alas! alas!”
Here the poor bone creaked so dismally, Freddy feared it would tumble to pieces, and bring the story to an end too soon.
“Don’t think of those sorrowful things,” he said; “tell me how you came to be here. Were you harpooned?”
“Not I; for I’ve been very careful all my life to keep out of the way of danger: I’m not like one of my relations, who attacked a ship, gave it such a dreadful blow that he made a great hole, the water rushed in, and the vessel was wrecked. But he paid dearly for that prank; for a few months afterward another ship harpooned him very easily, finding two spears still in him, and a wound in his head. I forgot to mention, that the Sperms have fine ivory teeth, and make ambergris,—a sort of stuff that smells very nice, and costs a great deal. I give you these little facts about my family, as you seem interested, and it’s always well to improve the minds of young people.”
“You are very kind; but will you be good enough to tell about yourself?” said Freddy again; for the bone seemed to avoid that part of the story, as if he didn’t want to tell it.
[Pg 186] “Well, if I must, I must; but I’m sorry to confess what a fool I’ve been. You know what coral is, don’t you?”
“No,” said Freddy, wondering why it asked.
“Then I must tell you, I suppose. There is a bit in the house there,—that rough, white, stony stuff on the table in the parlor. It’s full of little holes, you know. Well, those holes are the front doors of hundreds of little polypes, or coral worms, who build the great branches of coral, and live there. They are of various shapes and colors,—some like stars; some fine as a thread, and blue or yellow; others like snails and tiny lobsters. Some people say the real coral-makers are shaped like little oblong bags of jelly, closed at one end, the other open, with six or eight little feelers, like a star, all around it. The other creatures are boarders or visitors: these are the real workers, and, when they sit in their cells and put out their feelers, they make all manner of lovely colors under the water,—crimson, green, orange, and violet. But if they are taken up or touched, the coral people go in doors, and the beautiful hues disappear. They say there are many coral reefs and islands built by these industrious people, in the South Seas; but I can’t go there to see, and I am contented with those I find in the northern latitudes. I knew such a community of coral builders, and used to watch them long ago, when they began to work. It was a charming spot, down under the sea; for all manner of lovely plants grew there; splendid fishes sailed to and fro; wonderful shells lay about; crimson and yellow prawns, long, gliding green worms, and purple sea-urchins, were there. When I asked the polypes what they were doing, and they answered, ‘Building an island,’ I laughed at them; for the idea that these tiny, soft atoms could make anything was ridiculous. ‘You may roar; but you’ll see that we are right, if you live long enough,’ said they. ‘Our family have built thousands of islands and long reefs, that the sea can’t get over, strong as it is.’ That amused me immensely; but I wouldn’t believe it, and laughed more than ever.”
“It does seem very strange,” said Freddy, looking at the branch of coral which he had brought out to examine.
“Doesn’t it? and isn’t it hard to believe? I used to go, now and then, to see how the little fellows got on, and always found them hard at it. For a long while there was only a little plant without leaves, growing slowly taller and taller; for they always build upward toward the light. By and by, the small shrub was a tree: flying-fish roosted in its branches; sea-cows lay under its shadow; and thousands of jolly little polypes lived and worked in its white chambers. I was glad to see them getting on so well; but still I didn’t believe in the island story, and used to joke them about their ambition. They were very good-natured, and only answered me, ‘Wait a little longer, Friend Right.’ I had my own affairs to attend to; so, for years at a time, I forgot the coral-workers, and spent most of my life up Greenland way, for warm climates don’t agree with my constitution. When I came back, after a long absence, I was astonished to see the tree grown into a large umbrella-shaped thing, rising above the water. Sea-weed had washed up and clung there; sea-birds had made nests there; land-birds and the winds had carried seeds there, which had sprung up; trunks of trees had been cast there by the sea; lizards, insects, and little animals came with the trees, and were the first inhabitants; and, behold! it was an island.”
“What did you say then?” asked Freddy.
“I was angry, and didn’t want to own that I was wrong; so I insisted that it wasn’t a real island, without people on it. ‘Wait a little longer,’ answered the polypes; and went on, building broader and broader foundations. I flounced away in a rage, and didn’t go back for a great while. I hoped something would happen to the coral builders and their island; but I was so curious that I couldn’t keep away, and, on going back there, I found a settlement of fishermen, and the beginning of a thriving town. Now I should have been in a towering passion at this, if in my travels I hadn’t discovered a race of little creatures as much smaller than polypes as a mouse is smaller than an elephant. I heard two learned men talking about diatoms, as they sailed to Labrador; and I listened. They said these people lived in both salt and fresh water, and were found in all parts of the world. They were a glassy shell, holding a soft, golden-yellow substance, and that they were so countless that banks were made of them, and that a town here in these United States was founded on them. They were the food of many little sea-animals, who, in turn, fed us big creatures, and were very interesting and wonderful. I saved up this story; and, when the polypes asked if they hadn’t done what they intended, I told them I didn’t think it so very remarkable, for the tiny diatoms made cities, and were far more astonishing animals than they. I thought that would silence them; but they just turned round, and informed me that my diatoms were plants, not animals,—so my story was all humbug. Then I was mad; and couldn’t get over the fact that these little rascals had done what we, the kings of the sea, couldn’t do. I wasn’t content with being the biggest creature there: I wanted to be the most skilful also. I didn’t remember that every thing has its own place and use, and should be happy in doing the work for which it was made. I fretted over the matter a long while, and at last decided to make an island myself.”
“How could you?” asked Freddy.
“I had my plans; and thought them very wise ones. I was so bent on outdoing the polypes that I didn’t much care what happened; and so I went to work in my clumsy way. I couldn’t pile up stones, or build millions of cells; so I just made an island of myself. I swam up into the harbor yonder one night; covered my back with sea-weed; and lay still on the top of the water. In the morning the gulls came to see what it was, and pecked away at the weeds, telling me very soon that they knew what I was after, and that I couldn’t gull them. All the people on shore turned out to see the wonder also; for a fisherman had carried the tidings, and every one was wild to behold the new island. After staring and chattering a long while, boats came off to examine the mystery. Loads of scientific gentlemen worked away at me with microscopes, hammers, acids, and all sorts of tests, to decide what I was; and kept up such a fire of long words that I was ‘most dead. They couldn’t make up their minds; and meanwhile news of the strange thing spread, and every sort of person came to see me. The gulls kept telling them the joke; but they didn’t understand, and I got on capitally. Every night I dined and fed and frolicked till dawn; then put on my sea-weeds, and lay still to be stared at. I wanted some one to come and live on me; then I should be equal to the island of the polypes. But no one came, and I was beginning to be tired of fooling people, when I was fooled myself. An old sailor came to visit me: he had been a whaler, and he soon guessed the secret. But he said nothing till he was safely out of danger; then he got all ready, and one day, as I lay placidly in the sun, a horrible harpoon came flying through the air, and sunk deep into my back. I forgot every thing but the pain, and dived for my life. Alas! the tide was low; the harbor-bar couldn’t be passed; and I found hundreds of boats chasing me, till I was driven ashore down there on the flats. Big and strong as we are, once out of water, and we are perfectly helpless. I was soon despatched; and my bones left to whiten on the sand. This was long ago; and, one by one, all my relics have been carried off or washed away. My jaw-bone has been used as a seat here, till it’s worn out; but I couldn’t crumble away till I’d told some one my story. Remember, child, pride goeth before a fall.”
Then, with a great creak, the bone tumbled to pieces; and found a peaceful grave in the long green grass.
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