Authors: Jackie French
To Mark, who gives these books life, and beauty,
and insight, and his extraordinary generosity
to kids, to animals, and to the world
CONTENTSDedicationChapter 1: The Dinner GuestChapter 2: An OfferChapter 3: Rich?Chapter 4: PermissionChapter 5: MemoriesChapter 6: Off to the Hunt!Chapter 7: Trapped!Chapter 8: TheBritanniaChapter 9: Hauling in the WhaleChapter 10: HarvestChapter 11: Man Overboard!Chapter 12: Boiling DownChapter 13: Hunting OnChapter 14: Back to Sydney TownChapter 15: Where is Elsie?Chapter 16: Home!Author's NotesAbout the AuthorAlso by Jackie FrenchBack AdCopyrightGuideCoverContentsChapter 1iiiiiiivvvi123456789101112131415161718192021222324252627282930313233343536373839404142434445464748495051525354555657585960616263646566676869707172737475767778798081828384858687888990919293949596979899100101102103104105106107108109110111112113114115116117118119120121122123124125126127128129130131132133134135136137138
The Dinner Guest
Sydney Town, October 1791
The snake raised its head three feet from where I stood, turning the roosters on the spit above the fire.
Brown snake. Deadly.
A boy can run faster than a snake can slither. A brown snake can strike faster than a boy can move.
Birrung had taught me that snakes sleep in the winter. This one must have just woken up. Hungry. Ready to bite.
If Birrung had been there, I'd have yelled for her. Snakes sense movement on the ground, but can't hear much. She would have grabbed its tail. Lash! Snap! The snake would have been dead. âMeat,' Birrung had told me, when the colony was hungry and she caught snake for us.
But Birrung was gone. Back to her own people, the Indians. Somewhere in what was just bush to us from the colony, Birrung would be laughing, picking berries, hunting o'possum. Married, maybe, even though she was only a few years older than me and Elsie.
It hurt to think of Birrung. But not as much as it'd hurt if that snake struck me.
The snake stared at me. Such a tiny head to be so deadly, the sun glittering on its scales.
I stood like a statue, my hand still on the spit, the flames heating my face. I'd only ever seen a statue once, way back in England, before Ma was put in prison and me with her, and that was just a glimpse through London's yellow fog. The statue hadn't moved, and nor could I. If I even swayed, that snake would strike me. And I'd be dead.
Maybe if I stayed here long enough, the fire would die down and the snake get cold and go back to sleep. Or it would see a rat and go after it.
Could I stay still till then?
The snake poked out a thin tongue. It licked the air. Its neck was raised to strike . . .
âBarney! Drat the boy! Barney, have you got them roosters roasted yet?' Sally peered out the kitchen door.
The snake vanished so fast I didn't have time to blink. I stared. Had it even been there? Yes, there was the wriggle in the soil between the corn plants, just like Birrung had shown me . . .
I took a deep breath, smelling roast rooster and fresh-dug dirt, as well as the stink from the graveyard behind the brickworks. The breeze sang of spring and wattle blossom.
There'd just been the snake and me. Now the rest of the world was back: the fireplace with its roasting spit, outdoors so the house didn't get hot from the cooking; the Johnsons' fine new house and gardens and orchard; the crumbling huts of the colony, below them the waves dancing on the harbour and the newly arrived eleven ships of the Third Fleet rocking on the waves. Behind me stretched Mr Johnson's cornfield and melon patch and the potatoes I'd planted a week back and then the bush: green trees as endless as the sea.
And Sally in front of me in her apron, her hands on her hips. âIf you've let our Sunday dinner burn, boy . . .'
âOf course I haven't.' I turned the young roosters to show her how golden brown they were. Sally had her own kitchen now. Mr and Mrs Johnson's new brick house had bedrooms for all of us â one for Mr and Mrs Johnson and one for baby Milbah, and the room Sally and Elsie shared, and my room too. Mr Johnson's convict workers had their own quarters down among the huts.
I turned the spit again. I should be thinking of the grand dinner to come, instead of longing for Birrung. I had it good here, after those years in Newgate Prison with Ma, starving among the straw and rats; then nine months in the dark and stink of the ship on the way here, and Ma dying just as we were starting to hope for a new life in the colony, maybe our own hut and all the oysters and greens we could eat . . .
For a while after that it had been me and Elsie on our own, hiding because just about everyone in the colony was a thief of some sort, and would steal my rations quick as spit, and give me a bashing into the bargain.
And then Birrung brought Mr Johnson to rescue us. We all lived with his family, learning how to read and even write, and all about countries like Spain and Far Peru and the Holy Land, and how to make a seed smaller than a grain of sand grow into a carrot.
But then the Indians returned to the harbour when the plague that had killed so many of them vanished again, as fast as it had come. And Birrung left us.
Everything I saw reminded me of her. The snake; the blue of the harbour where she'd shown me how to swim; the sweep of stars like a road from the horizon through the sky.
I wiped my eyes quickly, before Sally saw me cry. I wasn't crying anyway. Boys don't cry. It was just two tears because of the smoke, that was all . . .
âYou bring them roosters in. Meal's on the table. We've got a guest for dinner too.'
âBirrung? Has she come back to see us again?'
But Sally had already vanished inside.
Birrung! What had she been doing all this time? Had she brought us a present? Honeycomb maybe, or woven baskets?
Maybe . . . maybe she'd decided she wanted to live with us now, not her own people.
I slipped the roosters off the spit and onto the platter. I ran as fast as I could without spilling them, through the kitchen, then skidded to a stop in the dining room.
Birrung wasn't there. Instead a big man sat opposite Elsie and Sally. The top half of his face was like oldleather, and the bottom half was white and shiny, like he had just shaved off a beard. Mr Johnson sat at one end of the table, and Mrs Johnson at the other, with baby Milbah sitting on her lap, chewing a spoon and dribbling.
The stranger didn't wear a uniform like the officers in the colony, but a good suit of broadcloth, not even darned at the elbows. I reckoned he was the best-dressed man in Sydney Town.
I tried not to stare at him as I put down the platter. Mrs Johnson had told me it was rude to stare. All sorts of things were rude that I'd never known about, like burping, or licking your fingers after eating plum cake, or using words like â well, words you're not supposed to write down . . .
âCaptain Melvill, this is another member of our household, Master Barney Bean. Barney, this is Captain Melvill of theBritannia.The captain asked me to say a special prayer of thanks at the service this morning for their safe deliverance across the oceans from England.'
âHow do you do, sir?'
Mrs Johnson had taught me that phrase. I glanced at her to see if I'd said it right. She smiled, and gave me a slight nod.
âVery well, thank you, young man.' The captain's voice was hoarse, as though he were more used to bellowing orders on deck than talking in a dining room.
I took the seat next to him. It felt wrong â me sitting next to a sea captain, who'd brought one of the ships of the Third Fleet of convicts to the colony, and safely too, not like the captains of the Second Fleet, who had starved most of their charges to death. Only twenty-one of the hundred and fifty convicts had died on Captain Melvill's ship, and that was because many had been old or ill when they had been put aboard in England.
I placed my napkin on my lap and held my elbows in, just as Mrs Johnson had shown me, and tried to look as if I were used to having dinner with gentlemen.
Mr Johnson bent his head to say grace. âDear Heavenly Father, bless these foods that you have provided for us. Make us truly grateful . . .'
A fly buzzed. I opened one eye and shooed it away from the roast roosters, and the big dishes of potatoes mashed with goat's milk, boiled carrots, boiled sprouts, boiled turnips and wild spinach, and bread rolls â real bread, not damper â from the oven in our new house. The only thing missing was butter, because goat's milk doesn't give it; there was cottage cheese to spread on the bread instead.
At last grace was over. Mr Johnson carved the meat, and Mrs Johnson served the vegetables. I waited for Mrs Johnson to take the first mouthful before I began to eat too. That's more good-manners stuff, to wait till the lady of the house takes the first bite, maybe so you can tell the food ain't poisoned.
Then we all tucked in.
Captain Melvill ate like the Johnsons and Elsie, with his knife and fork held properly. I was still working out how to use them the right wayandshovel food in fast enough. Mrs Johnson spooned chopped food into Milbah's mouth and sometimes Milbah swallowed it and sometimes she spat it on the floor or rubbed it in her hair. Luckily she didn't have much of that yet.
Captain Melvill smiled at me and Elsie. âYou're young to be convicts. What terrible crimes did you commit?'
I glared at him. One thing you didn't do in the colony was ask why anyone had been sent here. Not one convict in a hundred admitted they were guilty anyway. âI'm not a convict. Never was. I came out here with my ma. She died.'
âI'm sorry,' said Captain Melvill. He didn't say if he was sorry for thinking I was a convict brat, or becauseMa was dead. But he said it nicely, so I decided to forgive him, just like Mr Johnson said we should do to everyone, even our enemies.
I hadn't made any enemies yet to forgive.
Captain Melvill smiled at Mr Johnson. âThe boy and his sister are lucky to be in your household, sir.'
âElsie ain't my sister, sir.'
âWe don't know who Elsie is,' said Mr Johnson quietly. âShe is unable to tell us. No one in the colony admits to knowing anything about her.'
I hadn't known that Mr Johnson had been trying to find out about Elsie. But of course he'd want to see if she had parents, family. Elsie was a mystery. She hadn't even been wearing the clothes given to us on the convict ships when I found her, just after Ma died. She couldn't speak, couldn't eat hardly; just curled into a ball, looking terrified.
âThe girl is dumb?'
âElsie ain't stupid!' I cried.
Elsie looked up from her plate and gave me a brief smile.
Captain Melvill raised an eyebrow at me. âMy apologies again, Master Bean. I didn't mean that she was stupid, merely that she isn't able to speak.'
âSurgeon White says there is no reason why Elsie can't talk. She reads well and understands all we say,' put in Mrs Johnson from the other end of the table, trying to stop Milbah eating the napkin. âShe can write well, but she can't seem to remember where she came from either.'
I weren't so sure of that. When I first met Elsie, I had the feeling there were words I said she didn't understand, but she understood everything now. I suspected she knew where she came from too. But sure as eggs Elsie would never tell anyone anything she didn't want them to know. I looked at her again across the table. She gave me the special smile she kept just for me.
I always felt good after one of Elsie's smiles.
âWe are lucky in both our young friends,' said Mr Johnson. âBarney is worth six convict men. The best worker in the colony. And Elsie can make a pudding better than anyone in New South Wales. Saving my good wife and Sally, of course,' he added quickly.
âI see.' Captain Melvill looked at me thoughtfully. I squirmed. Before Birrung and Mr Johnson rescued us, anyone who looked at me thoughtfully was probably going to steal my rations or blanket or pannikin. But a man like Captain Melvill wouldn't do that. Wouldn'tneed to either. I glanced sideways at his polished boots, his trousers. Probably the only unpatched trousers in the colony.
âThis must be a long voyage for you, Captain,' said Mrs Johnson. âYour family must miss you.'
He swallowed his potato and laughed. âMy family is used to it, ma'am. A whaling voyage takes a ship about three years, till she brings home her treasure.'
âYours is a whaling ship?' Mr Johnson looked surprised.
âHa, you are not a sailor, sir. A sailor would have seen at once that theBritannia's deck is reinforced for whaling. Five of the ships in our fleet are whalers. We carried human cargo to cover the cost of getting here, that's all.'
Human cargo. That had been me and Ma. I thought of the journey here, in the stinking water that slopped around below deck. No light, except when we was allowed up or when the slop buckets were let down with food, then the same buckets used as chamberpots being hauled up and spilling half the time. Cargo. Though we had been luckier than the wretches who came after us in the Second Fleet. Even now when you saw a man like a skeleton stagger up the road, half blind from scurvy still, you'd know who had done it to him, and why.
âYou must find Sydney Town a disappointment after the great ports of the world, sir.' Mr Johnson helped Elsie to more rooster. âI wonder what would bring you so far from civilisation?'
âYou won't find the riches we chase near civilisation, sir.'
âRiches?' I asked. âHere at the end of the world?'
Captain Melvill grinned. âAye, riches, right on your doorstep.'
âSurely not, sir,' said Mr Johnson. âI know that Surgeon White hopes to sell the sap from the local trees as medicine. What else is of value here?'
Captain Melvill lowered his voice. âI heard a sailor's secret, back in England. The first ships to come to this colony in the Southern Ocean saw more whales than you'd find off the whole of the Greenland banks. And we saw them too: great pods of whales sailing as if they had never seen a ship â certainly not a whaler.'
The captain put down his knife and fork and gazed at us eagerly. âGovernor Phillip wants theBritanniato take convicts to Norfolk Island. I told him no. I told him what I can tell you too: what I would not say in Plymouth, nor Nantucket. That is the secret treasure of this colony of yours, sir. The whales of the sea.'
I'd seen a whale in the harbour last year. It had been a grand sight. âHow can whales make you rich, sir?'
âWe are the men who go out in small boats, boy, after the biggest masters of the sea. We harpoon the whales, and fight them till they give up their lives. And then we take their oil. A whale can give seven hundred pounds of oil and a goodly amount of whalebone too, for everything from umbrellas to, er, ladies' garments.' He looked apologetically at Mrs Johnson, but she was wiping Milbah's face.
I supposed he meant whalebone for ladies' petticoats. You wasn't supposed to speak of petticoats and, besides, no lady here wore the big ones you saw in London, except sometimes Mrs Macarthur . . .
Captain Melvill looked at me again. âHave you ever dreamed of getting rich, boy?'
I shook my head. I'd thought about having a farm. And sheep and cattle and a house of my own. âNot rich, sir,' I said. âBut I'd like a farm.'
âYou'll need money to get one.'
Not for the land, I wouldn't. In New South Wales all I'd need was the governor to say a bit of land was mine. When I was old enough, the governor might give me land and convicts to work it too, and rations from the government stores to feed the convicts while they builtmy house and cleared my fields. But I would need money to buy sheep and cattle and tools. And things for the house â I wanted Elsie to have everything new.
âEvery man who sails on a whaler shares in the profit, boy. The owner gets his share, but even the cabin boy gets his cut too.'
âYou must have seen many interesting sights, Captain, in all your travels.' Mrs Johnson didn't like to talk about riches. She and Mr Johnson said that true treasures are what you do to help people here on earth, then afterwards in Heaven.
âAye, I have.'
I looked at him eagerly. I'd heard the sailors who brought us here talk about naked ladies with flowers in their hair, or getting tattoos of fish so they wouldn't drown if the ship sank. And stories about being becalmed when the winds died in mid-ocean and drawing lots to see who would be eaten next . . .
âDid you ever eat a cabin boy?' I asked.
âBarney!' said Mr Johnson. âLeave the table! Now!'
Captain Melvill laughed. âLet him stay. No, boy, I've never eaten anyone. I stock my ships well. A sailor needs his strength to battle whales. A man who is underfed or has scurvy can't carve up a prince of the sea. Whalingcrews eat better than other sailors, including those on His Majesty's ships.'
âI imagine there's good eating on a whale,' said Sally, standing up and nodding to me and Elsie to help her collect the dishes. Sally used to turn up her nose at anything that wasn't salt pork or beef, but after more than three years in the colony she could make an o'possum pudding or kangaroo stew that you'd swear came from a cow.
Captain Melvill shrugged. âIt's tradition to have a steak or two, fresh from the neck . . .'
Mrs Johnson looked at me pointedly. So when Sally took in the stewed rhubarb and custard, I sat at the kitchen table to eat mine. Elsie sat with me. You wouldn't think Elsie was good company, not being able to talk. But she did quiet better than most people did chatter when they had nothing to say. She'd smile or raise an eyebrow or wrinkle her nose when I spoke . . .
But now I was quiet, trying to hear more tales of the sea from the dining room. Maybe Captain Melvill had seen a mermaid or the ladies who danced in grass skirts. But the adults just seemed to be talking about churches now: ones they'd known in England; the one Mr Johnson longed to build here; and a big one Captain Melvill had seen in some foreign port . . .
I looked up to find Elsie staring at me, her expression hard to read. âWhat's wrong?'
Elsie nodded towards the dining room, then at me, then shook her head emphatically.
Most times I could work out what Elsie meant, but not now.
And then it was time to start the washing-up.
Captain Melvill hadn't left by the time the washing-up was finished and the kitchen wiped down and the dining room swept to Sally's satisfaction. I smelled pipe tobacco, out the back near the well.
I scooted out the back door. âSir!' I yelled.
âWhat is it, boy?'
I looked around. No snake. âThere was a snake near where you're sitting, just before dinner. Big brown one.'
âDid you chase it away?'
âNo, sir. You don't chase brown snakes. I just stood still so it couldn't see me. Snakes can only see you properly if you move. Then Sally shouted and startled it. But it could come back.'
âI think I'll risk it,' said Captain Melvill, puffing on his pipe. It was a big black one, and put out great puffs of blue smoke. Some of the convict men and older women puffed on pipes, but not as many as back in England. Tobacco grew here all right, but the stores master said the leaves didn't dry well enough to smoke it. âYou got good eyesight, boy?'
âYes, sir.' I had too. Lots of convicts here didn't see well at all, nor Ma either, which was why she had got that cut from an oyster shell that she'd died from.
âCan you count the ships in the harbour from here?'
âYes, sir.' I glanced back onto the bouncing blue below us. âEleven.'
âAnd do you see any difference between the ships, boy?'
I squinted down at the harbour. âTheBritanniaand four of the others are whiter, sir,' I said at last. TheBritannialooked almost like a skeleton of a ship it was so pale, but I didn't want to say that to its captain.
âAye. That's from the scrubbing. Whale oil is slippery, so the ship must be scrubbed, and the ash from the whale hide itself is the best soapstone of all. A few years of that and the wood is bleached white as you see it here. So you can see well enough to read her name, eh? Do you see aught else about her?'
I grinned at him. âNot unless I climb the tree to get a better view, sir.' Most of the trees in the colony had been cut down for their timber, but Mrs Johnson had made sure one big beauty had been left near our back door, so she could teach her classes there in the shade in summer.
Captain Melvill looked at the tree, and then at me. It had a trunk that went up thirty feet or more before it spread out its branches. âYou'd need to grow a bit, lad, before you could reach those branches. Or fetch a ladder.'
I'd been hoping he'd think that. I found the first foothold in the trunk, then gripped it with my knees and arms, the way Birrung had taught me, and inched my way up. There were handholds if you knew where to find them. Captain Melvill was sure to be impressed.
I grabbed hold of the first branch and hoisted myself up onto it. âSee, sir?' I called down. âEasy.'
He laughed. âI've seen monkeys that can't climb that well. What can you see now you're up there?'
âA platform thing on deck, sir.' I squinted again. âIt almost looks like bricks. And two things like big iron mouths.'
âAh, you do have good eyesight. Bricks it is: five feet of brick and mortar supported by great timbers underneath. You have to boil a whale down to get its oil. What would happen if you lit a fire like that on an ordinary craft?'
âThe ship would burn, sir,' I said promptly, then thought about the Indian women's fires in their canoes. But those were small fires, on green wet grass.
âSo our ship has a platform that doesn't burn. That's the tryworks. And those openings that you called mouths are mouths indeed: mouths for the whale skin. Those mouths are our furnaces and whale skin is what we burn. No ship can carry enough wood to boil down a whale. We carry a little to get the blaze started, but after that the whale itself provides the fuel for the process.'
He gazed out at his ship just like Mr Johnson looked at Mrs Johnson sometimes: a look of love that hurt your heart a bit. âI'll tell you what you can't see, lad. Timbers with whale teeth instead of wooden pins to hold them fast. A captain's chair up on that quarterdeck carvedfrom one great whale's jawbone â and its roof is made from whalebone too. Even the boat's tillers are made from whalebone. And down in the cabins there'll be harpoonists shaving before they come ashore. Do you know what they will be shaving with?'
âHarpoons and lances. Longer than a man and sharper than any knife in this colony. And each of them dearer to the man who wields it than his family. Those lances strike into the heart of a whale, but they hold the heart of the man who throws them too. There is no battle like that between man and the sea and the whale, lad. None.' He beckoned. âCome on down now.'
I shinned down the tree quicker than going up. Captain Melvill made room for me on the seat. He puffed on his pipe for a bit, then turned to me again. âYou should see us boiling down a whale, boy. It's something no landsman could even dream about. Two great fires like the flames of hell, the smoke a black mist about the ship. And with every puff of smoke you know there's another barrel of oil being filled to make us rich.'
âAre you rich, sir?'
I thought I might get a cuff on the ear for that. But he just laughed. âI will be when this voyage is through.There are more whales in the Southern Ocean than we've ever seen up north. And no one knows they are even there, except a few of us who've made the voyage here or talked to someone who has. Those are the world's greatest whaling grounds, just there for the harvest. Every man who sails on theBritanniais going to go home rich.'
âEvery single one, sir?'
He nodded. âThe ship owner takes his third, and I get a goodly portion too, and the harpooners. But there's wealth enough for us all, once we sail back to England with our hold full of barrels of oil. Whale oil, the best and cleanest fuel there is; rich man's oil, so his lamps don't smoke. And of course the whalebone â there's money in that too, though not near as much as in the oil.'
He looked out at the harbour again. âBut it's not just the money, boy,' he said softly. âThere's no life like it. You know who gets to breathe the winds first? Not the King of England. Us, out at sea. Men pitting themselves against the great beasts of the ocean and the great waves too.'
I could almost see it. The great whale rearing up, about to chew up the ship, men with swords and spears pursuing it, till the monster lay still, defeated.
âWell, boy? Are you coming with us?'
He laughed again. âWhy not? I'm offering you the best chance of your life to get rich. Probably your only chance. You sail for three years with us and you can stock that farm of yours. Build a big house.'
Be a gentleman, I thought. Me, Barney Bean, a gentleman. Mr and Mrs Johnson had taught me my manners and to speak properly and to read. All I needed now was money and I could be a gentleman.
âI'm thinking that Governor Phillip will give grand land grants to those who've been whaling,' he said softly. âMy business is going to make this colony wealthy.'
âWealthy? Sydney Town?' I looked at the huddled huts below us. Most were collapsing already, the cabbage-tree roofs rotting and the bark walls too. The colony wasn't starving, but we hadn't been far off it for a while. Most convicts still lived on gruel made from their rations. A colony of rags and pannikins the bloke next to you would steal soon as look at you.
âAye, rich. Whaling ships need food.' He waved at the vegetable garden behind me, the goats on their tethers beyond the orchard. âIn a few years your sheep and cows and goats will multiply. And our whaling ships will buy your meat, and at good prices too. And your corn, andtimber. Down there?' He gestured at the straggle of huts along the harbour. âWithin ten years there'll be quays and piers and merchants and ship chandlers supplying everything a whaling ship needs. But just for now,' he grinned, âthe southern whaling grounds are secret. It will just be theBritanniaand the four other ships that'll be harvesting their whales this year and the next. What do you say, boy? Are you sailing with us? Going to feel the green waves galloping like horses? Challenge the winds and the sea and creatures that make every building in this colony look puny? Will you make your fortune too?'
I tossed in bed that night, for all it was the best bed I'd ever slept in. Me, Barney Bean, sleeping in a clean bed with sheets and a patchwork quilt!
Except I couldn't sleep. At last I lit the wick of the slush lamp. It stank of mutton fat, not like the expensive oil Captain Melvill and his sailors would bring back from whaling, that people said had no smell or smoke at all. I tiptoed down the stairs and out onto the hill above the house. I sat on the big wooden bench Mr Johnsonhad made, with his own hands, just like he wasn't a gentleman.
It was cold enough that the snake would be asleep. Maybe it had caught a rat and would lie digesting it for weeks. Birrung said the best time to catch a snake was when it was sleeping in winter or lying satisfied, full of rat.
The moon rode high above me, like it was a sailing ship too, making its way across the stars. I could see the darker blobs of the two headlands that guarded our harbour. They were green and pretty in daytime, but now they looked like prison bars keeping us here in New South Wales.
Funny, I'd felt free ever since I'd been in the colony. But I was no more free than any convict working on the road gang. I might be legally allowed to leave, but how could I? There weren't no roads to take, no carriages to ride in. Birrung and the Indians knew how to live in the bush around us, but I didn't, just the things she'd taught me. The only way to be truly free was to sail out between those headlands into the ocean. And the only way Barney Bean was going to do that was on a whaling ship.
Go back to England? Not me.
But to see the world . . .
I'd been nine months at sea, but nearly all I'd seen was black ooze and water below. We were never allowed on deck when the ship was in port, in case we tried to escape. But those days when we were allowed up on deck at sea! You never knew what colour the ocean would be, nor the sky neither. If I went with Captain Melvill, I'd be able to see how the sea changed colour and the sky too. Watch land appear on the horizon all small, and grow closer and closer, just like the few times I'd glimpsed it coming here.
The only animals I'd known back in England were rats, and the cats that caught them sometimes, and the ratter's dog that would eat your ankle for breakfast and spit out the bones. I felt a thrill shiver my spine every time I saw a new kind of animal here.
And Birrung wasn't coming back, or not to stay. I had to stop gazing down the track, hoping I'd see her, dark as a morning shadow. Had to stop gazing out at the canoes on the harbour and the women fishing, wondering if one of them was her.
Another slush lamp flickered in the kitchen then out the door. Elsie always knew when I was bothered. She settled herself on the seat beside me. Her little white face looked up at me, inquiringly.
âI want to go whaling,' I said. I hadn't realised I'd made my mind up till then. But I had, right back when I'd first heard Captain Melvill talk about the hunt. What was I doing digging potatoes here when I could be chasing whales and making my fortune? And out at sea, said a whisper in my mind, I wouldn't keep watching the track, hoping Birrung might come down it, yet knowing in my heart she wouldn't.
Elsie made a little noise beside me.
âElsie! What are you crying for?'
She turned her head away.
Suddenly I understood. âI ain't leaving for good, you goose!'
She looked back at me, her dark eyes wide.
âI'll come back with gold coins in my pocket. Don't you see? You can get rich whaling! Rich enough to stock a farm. Soon as I'm old enough I'll ask Governor Phillip to give me a land grant, and convicts and tools to work it. Don't need money to build a house, or for seeds for the garden. But sheep and cows cost money.' I grinned at her. âAnd saucepans for your kitchen too.'
I felt her sag a little beside me. I stared at her in the darkness. âIt's you and me together, Elsie. Always hasbeen. But we need money if we're to get a proper place of our own, not just a hut of mud and sticks.'
And I'll get to see the world too, I thought. In a cabin of my own, not crammed in wooden bunks down in the hold. I could stand on deck as long as I wanted and see the sky and strange ports like Cape Town and those islands where the girls danced with no clothes on. I didn't tell Elsie that.
âI'd always come back here,' I said.
Elsie's hand crept into mine. I squeezed it. We sat there, watching the moon sail across the starry ocean of the sky.
âMay I go, sir?'
Mr Johnson looked at me seriously over the table where he was writing his sermon. It was piled with books and more books, mostly faded and stained now after more than three years of lending them to convicts with dirty fingers in leaky huts. âYou are free to go where you wish, Barney. But life at sea isn't just the grand adventure Captain Melvill described.'
âI know all about the sea, sir!'
Mr Johnson shook his head. âYou've made one voyage. And it was a lucky one. Only forty-eight people in the whole fleet died. Captain Phillip was the best leader our expedition could have had. Fresh food whenever it could be had, clean ships. Do you know that a quarter of the crew die on most voyages, Barney?'
âCaptain Melvill is a good 'un. He ain't been wrecked yet!'
âMost sailors don't die in a shipwreck,' said Mr Johnson gently. âThey die from scurvy or being washed overboard, from fever from bad food and water, or from falling from the rigging. The conditions on theBritanniaare better than elsewhere, and Captain Melvill is said to feed his crew well. But whaling is even more dangerous than most sailing enterprises. Those brave men in tiny boats Captain Melvill talked about â how many of them survive the voyage?'
He seemed to expect an answer. âI don't know, sir.'
âYou're a good worker, Barney, and strong for your age. But have you wondered why Captain Melvill is so eager for a boy to join the crew?'
âBecause whaling ships lose so many men on every voyage they have to take on more crew at each port.'
And just about every man here is a convict or soldier who isn't allowed to leave the colony to crew a whaling ship, I thought. Which left me . . . âYou're saying I shouldn't go, sir?'
Mr Johnson sighed. âNo, lad. I just want you to know what you're taking on. Captain Melvill spoke the truth â a man can get good money whaling, better than he'd probably ever get on land. And if there are as many whales in these oceans as he thinks, then he might even be right about it being a chance to get rich. Barney, we need to think about your future. Mrs Johnson and Milbah and I will go home one day, back to England. As soon as I see the church built and a good man to replace me as chaplain, we will go home.'
I stared at him. âAin't this your home now?'
âNo, Barney. We have friends back in England, family, other work to do. This has been a time of service for us, to lead the convicts, the cast-off and condemned, back to the Light. But when it is over . . .' he looked me in the eyes â. . . Mrs Johnson and I are not wealthy, Barney. We don't have enough money to pay for your and Elsie's passages to England. Don't worry,' he said quickly, âwe won't leave for a few years yet. Elsie will be a fine strong girl by then, and an accomplishedcook. Any officer would be glad to employ her, even the governor.'
âAnd me, sir?' I said in a small voice.
âI will use all my influence to get a good land grant for you, and convicts to work it. But that is all, Barney.'
âYes, sir.' I didn't bother telling him that Elsie wasn't going to be no officer's servant. But if I was to make sure that didn't happen, I needed money.
And whale hunting was the only way I was going to get it.
I had a nightmare the night before I left. Maybe more a memory than a nightmare. Me and Ma on those thin planks on the ship bringing us to New South Wales, two to each bunk and so narrow we had to huddle together â at least it was warm. But it was the dark that got to you â month after month of it, allowed up on deck only when it was calm, which wasn't for weeks sometimes. The stink of the slop bucket. Dark upon dark and no one knew what was at the end ofit, just this bay called Botany at the end of the world that no one had even seen for nearly twenty years since Captain Cook and Mr Banks had been there, and Cook was dead so he couldn't tell no one what it was really like . . .
In my dream I was back there, the black water in the hold sloshing and slapping beneath our bunk. But it wasn't just the ship around me: the whole craft was being eaten by a whale, like in the Bible story that Mrs Johnson read us at Sunday school, the whale that swallowed Jonah and was swallowing us too . . .
The whole world was shivering and shaking, and shaking me.
Except it was a hand that was shaking me. I opened my eyes. Elsie looked down at me, holding a slush lamp. I tried to grin at her. âThanks,' I whispered.
She always seemed to know when I was having nightmares. I don't think I usually cried out â IhopedI didn't â because no one else ever seemed to hear me. Elsie and me had both had nightmares, back in those months when we'd been hiding together.
I supposed Sally woke Elsie from her nightmares now. Sally had a tongue like a carving knife, but I'd seen her hug Elsie when she thought no one waslooking, and she gave her a drink of warm goat's milk every night to fatten her up too.
I stared at Elsie in the slush light. I wanted to say that I missed being the one to chase her nightmares away. Wanted to say that when I came back rich, she wouldn't have to be a servant when the Johnsons returned to England. Wanted to say that even if we were shipwrecked, or captured by pirates, or becalmed in the ocean, I'd still come back to her, that I'd look after her, always, like she looked after me.
But all I could say was, âBetter go back to bed afore Sally finds you gone. And thanks again, Elsie.'
Elsie gave me one of her smiles. Then she was gone, a white ghost in her long nightdress.
And I tried to go back to sleep.
Off to the Hunt!
âNothing in that bag needs darning, does it?' asked Sally suspiciously.
I shook my head. âNo.' My kit held a change of clothing, a blanket washed yesterday by Sally, six handkerchiefs with my initials embroidered on them by Elsie, a Bible from Mr and Mrs Johnson, and a fruitcake.
âGood. 'Cause I don't want no sailor thinking I don't keep everyone in this house all darned and proper. Don't you be losing my good cake tin neither.'
She looked like she was trying to think of something else to be cross about. Suddenly she grabbed my shoulder. I was expecting a cuff on the ear, but instead she hugged me tight against her apron. It was a bit like being hugged by a big sack of flour. But nice. âYou look after yourself, boy. You hear me?'
âYes, Sally,' I said.
âYou'll probably need longer trousers by the time you get back. More work for me again.' She gave me a little shake and pushed me towards the kitchen door. âOff with you.'
Elsie and Mr and Mrs Johnson were waiting for me in the sitting room. Milbah toddled up to me and hugged my knees. Milbah hugged everyone's knees. Knees were all she could reach.
Mrs Johnson kissed my cheek. âYou take care, dear child. You've got your Bible?'
âYes, Mrs Johnson.'
âAnd your fruitcake?'
âYes, Mrs Johnson.'
âMake sure you read a chapter a night and have a slice of cake.' She smiled at me. âOne for the soul and one for the body. We don't want you getting scurvy.'
I picked up Milbah and gave her a kiss and got a sticky one back. She'd been eating stewed pumpkin. And then I followed Mr Johnson and Elsie out the front door.
And suddenly, there in the muddy track trying to be a proper street, I didn't want to go. I knew who I was in Sydney Town: Barney Bean who lived with the Johnsons. Everyone in the colony knew who I was. But out beyond the Heads I'd be smaller in the ocean than a tadpole in a pond. Smaller by far.
We walked down the track to the harbour. People stood on the shore, gawking at the rowing boats ferrying sailors and kegs of food and water out to the ships. There ain't much to see at Sydney Cove, and this was almost as good as a flogging or hanging.
One of the sailors glanced at my sea bag. He wore tattered black pants, a patched shirt and a rag of a handkerchief about his neck, as well as a hundred smallpox craters on his face and neck. âWhich ship, matey?'
âTheBritannia,' I said.
He grabbed my bag and tossed it into a boat pulled up on the muddy sand. It already had a wooden keg on board and a crate of something and a cage with a bright red and green bird in it, same as the ones that flew overus every day. The sailor saw me looking at it. âCaptain likes a bright bird in his cabin.'
I felt a cold wave wash over me. That bright bird, in the darkness of a ship, imprisoned like we had been. But it wouldn't be dark in the captain's cabin, I told myself. If men could live on a ship, so could a bird.
I looked back at Mr Johnson and Elsie. Mr Johnson shook my hand. âMay the Lord watch over you, and keep you safe, Barney. Ships are guided by the hand of God, not just by their captains. Remember Jonah in the whale's belly, and keep your faith.'
âYes, sir.' Jonah again. I didn't think I'd like being in a whale's belly, even if I had faith I'd get out safe. I suspected there were bits of that story the Bible left out, like whale guts and the whale's rotting dinner sloshing about.
âWe'll be praying for you,' said Mr Johnson.
âThank you, sir,' I said.
I glanced at Elsie. I wanted to hug her, like we'd hugged each other back in the old days, to keep warm at night as well as for comfort. But it was different now. We were nearly two years older and she was in a proper dress and everyone was looking. I leaned over and kissed her cheek, like Mrs Johnson had done to me. It felt cold from the breeze. Her hair smelled of mutton fat and lyesoap and the pancakes she and Sally had made for my breakfast and a scent that was just her own.
She just stood there. Didn't try to hug me or kiss me back. But as I turned to go, I thought I heard a whisper. âI love you, Barney.'
I whirled around. But Elsie stood there like nothing had happened, and so did Mr Johnson. Surely he'd have noticed if Elsie had finally spoken?
So I forced a smile at them and clambered into the boat. Two sailors pushed it down the sand and into the water, then leaped in over the stern and reached for the oars.
My back was to the beach. I turned again and waved. The two figures waved back, one tall, one small.
Suddenly I felt proud of the colony I was leaving. We'd come across the world, even if most hadn't chosen to. And if the huts were falling down, there were good houses too, like ours and the governor's, and good gardens, and a life in sunlight and freedom, not skulking and starving in the London fog.
Slip slop, slip slop.I looked at theBritannia,rocking in the waves, getting closer and closer. When we were nearly there, I looked back at the shore again. The tall figure had gone. But the small one was still there, her skirt and shawl flapping in the wind. Waving, waving.
I climbed the ladder up the side of the ship, my bag slung over my back, then I threw it over the gunwale and climbed over myself, nearly treading on a small man, barefoot in a frayed shirt and trousers of old sailcloth, a thousand wrinkles about his eyes, busy with a scrubbing brush. âHey, watch it, matey!' He peered at me with red-rimmed eyes. âWho do you be?'
âBarney Bean, sir. Captain Melvill said â'
He stood and cut me off with a cuff to the ear. âDon'tspeak until you're spoken to. Stow that below and get your carcass up here. There's work to be doing.'
âBut where's my cabin?'
He gave a bark of laughter. âCabin? Hoi, Peg-Leg Tom!' he yelled to a man stumping by on his wooden leg, carrying a bucket. âThis baby bean thinks he's getting a cabin. And a wench to do your laundry?' He gave me another cuff. My ear rang. He gestured to the hatch. âGet below with you, then get back up here.'
I moved out of his reach, over to the hatch. In all my time with Mr Johnson I'd never been struck nor whipped, nor with Ma in the colony either.
âYou! Bean Boy!' Peg-Leg Tom stumped over to me. âWhat you got in your kit?'
âSpare clothes, sir.'
âA fruitcake, sir.'
âHand it over.'
I stood my ground. âThat cake is mine, sir.'
He peered at me, his eyes as red-rimmed as the other sailor's. His skin looked tougher than kangaroo leather, and as dark. âAnd now it ain't. One thing you get straight, boy. You're less use on this ship than the ship's cat, because she catches rats and so far all you've done is useup space.' He held out his hands for my cake. Two of the fingers were nothing but red scarred stumps.
I looked at his face like wrinkled leather, at his hands, then back at the shore. It wasn't too late to go back there.
Peg-Leg Tom chuckled. âThinking of jumping ship, boy?'
My gaze flew to his face, startled.
âWell, think again. You signed your articles, didn't you? The papers to be taken on as crew? If you jump ship, you're a criminal. Seven years' hard labour.' He cackled like one of the bright birds in the Johnsons' garden. âI'll warrant they'll be very hard ones too.'
Was he right? I had signed papers saying I'd work for three years. I'd been so proud that I was one of the few in the colony not a convict, and that I could write my own name too. No one had said anything about being a criminal if I didn't serve all the years. Had I trapped myself with my own signature?
I could try to swim to shore. I'd copied the way Birrung swam, and it worked. But even if I made it to the beach, there was nowhere in the colony they wouldn't find me.
I handed over the cake tin and trod slowly over to the hatch. And suddenly as the deck rocked beneath my feet it all came back to me, the near nine months on a shiplike this, locked in the darkness. The terror, even when the sea was calm, that someone would steal our share of the food that came down in buckets from above.
I could smell us. No, notus, the ones from the First Fleet â the new convicts who'd been onthisship.
I was ship's crew now. Three years, I thought. A quarter of my life. Three whole years of this.
What had I done?
I don't like to remember that first day. I've never breathed a word of it, not till now. Never spoke about any of it.
There was a space, below the deck, with hammocks. Only four of them because, even though there were ten to sleep in them, when four of us used them the others would be at work or on watch. The captain had his own cabin of course, and the harpooners and the officers shared cabins too, and the sailmaker, bosun, blacksmithand the cooper. The harpooners were almost as grand as the captain on the ship.
The air was sour down below the deck. I'd forgotten that smell. It wasn't as dark as it had been on the voyage here, but it was lightless enough to feel the horror come crawling back: day after day of blackness, the ship creaking just like this one did, the sounds of feet tramping above.
But you're not trapped down here, I told myself. You can climb that ladder any time you like. So I stowed my kitbag with the others against the inner wall, where it looked like the rest, and headed up onto the deck.
I spent the first day with the scrubbing brush, then helped fill the scuttlebutts with fresh water, a chain of us lifting buckets from the ship's boats then passing them across the deck. After that I peeled potatoes for Peg-Leg Tom, who did the cooking: bowls of stew for us and proper food for those who ate in the captain's cabin.
Captain Melvill passed me a few times on deck, but never even said hello. I learned fast on the ship: you never stepped on the quarterdeck unless the captain ordered it. You never spoke to anyone more senior than you, and for me that meant everyone. You worked, you ate and you slept. I wasn't even grand enough to take the captain or the harpooners their meals.
I was sleeping when we cast off and sailed through the Heads. No one even bothered to let me know.
I woke when someone kicked me awake. The rocking of the ship and creak of sails told me we had cast anchor, and were out among the waves, away from the shelter of the harbour.
Back at Mr Johnson's I'd have washed my face and done my hair and pulled on my trousers. Here we slept in all our clothes, and there was no washing water in our quarters. The air stank of men and salt and ancient sweat. The dim light filtered down from above. I rolled out of the hammock and clambered up the ladder to the deck, and stared around.
The land was a green and blue smudge to the right of us. On the other side was nothing but blue sea, then blue sky. I ran along the deck to use the seat perched above the heaving dark sea that was our privy before anyone could order me to do something.
I could cry in private there, thinking of what I'd lost. Mr Johnson had warned me, but I don't think even he had known it would be so bad. How could he? A gentleman who'd never been on a whaling ship?
But I couldn't cry long. A face that was mostly whiskers and rotten teeth yelled at me. âYou! Wastingtime showing the sharks your buttocks! Captain wants you! Up to the quarterdeck. Now!'
I wiped myself with the rope that dangled into the sea, threw the end of it back down into the churning water, then ran to just below the quarterdeck. Captain Melvill stared down at me. He wasn't wearing his good suit now, but old trousers made of sailcloth and bare feet, like me. The only thing officer-like about him was his coat, which had once been good, but was now frayed and faded to a grey blue.
He looked at me as if I was a rat the ship's cat had failed to catch, then nodded at the foremast. I understood him to mean that I should climb it. I looked up, and up, and up . . .
About two-thirds of the way up a sailor clung to a length of wood fastened across the mast. That mast was higher than any tree I'd climbed. No tree swayed like that mast either.
âYour turn up there, boy. You'll take two hours' watch, each day and night.' He raised his voice: âAnd the first man who sees a whale gets a silver dollar.'
Ragged cheers came from all sides.
A bell sounded. As the wind whooshed the sound about the ship, the man up the mast above me began toclimb down. The bell had been a signal, I realised. I'd heard bells on the voyage to New South Wales too, like the bells that sounded in the colony to tell the convicts to start or finish work.
I waited till the sailor who had been up the foremast reached the deck, jumping the last four feet. His pants were frayed, and his eyes were as red-rimmed as everyone else's, the irises a faded blue, like the weather had washed out most of the colour.
âNothin' to be seen,' he said, to everyone else, not me. He grinned at me, showing three long yellow teeth and black gums. âUp wit' you then, little chicken. Will we hear you cry for mother? Cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck?'
I glanced around at the grinning faces. They think I can't climb the mast, I realised. They think they're going to have the fun of teasing me, seeing me cry.
I glanced up at Captain Melvill. He looked amused. He, at least, knew what I could do.
I grabbed the mast with my hands, and then my knees. Then I scooted up there as though I were a caterpillar finding my way across a cabbage leaf.
I didn't stop till I was at the cross-yard. For a moment I was terrified, swaying with the wind and sea. But then I got my legs hooked around the yard. There was a leatherbelt there too, with two buckles that I fastened around me. I wouldn't fall now, I hoped, no matter how much the ship lurched below.
I looked down. The faces still peered up at me. I thought they'd be sorry not to see me burst into tears, or fall. But instead a few clapped. Even Peg-Leg Tom stamped his peg on the deck in approval.
I looked out at the ocean, the waves curling and threading their way to the horizon, then at the land, its black cliffs with fringes of bright sand at the bays. The sky, so clear and blue. A few gulls wheeled and cried above me.
A laugh bubbled out of me. Only minutes earlier I'd been almost crying. But up here I was king of the ocean, just as Captain Melvill had promised. No one would cuff my ear up here. I could watch and think and watch some more. I might even see a whale . . . or at least a puff of vapour that said that a whale had come to the surface to breathe.
A whole silver dollar. I wasn't sure how much a silver dollar would buy â I'd never handled money in my life â didn't even know if we had coins in the colony. Food and tools came from the government storehouse, or sometimes you might swap a cabbage for a fish. Buta silver dollar sounded like a lot. The men had cheered when they'd heard Captain Melvill's promise.
I looked at the blue sea more carefully. The day was growing hotter. Too hot â we'd have a wind from the south by the afternoon, a thunderstorm maybe. I hoped I wasn't still up there then, with lightning crashing about me.
I knew what a whale looked like close up, half a mile away in the harbour. But what would one look like at a distance? The one I'd seen had been a bit like a giant boat, sailing on top of the water. But what if whales swam deep down when they were out at sea? How did I even know what I was looking for? A whale might pass right nearby and I wouldn't even know . . .
And then I saw them. Couldn't miss them, even if they were so close to the horizon it looked like they might swim up into the sky. A giant black head and then what looked like a fountain shot into the sky, and then another, and another . . .
âWhales!' I screamed.
I didn't think anyone would have heard me, not from right up there. But they must have been listening. At once the foot of the mast was surrounded by men.
âWhere?' yelled one of them.
I held up five fingers, then shrugged, to show I didn't know if there were more than that.
The sailors rushed to the gunwales, shielding their eyes. I could tell from the shaking of their heads they couldn't see anything. One of them ran to the quarterdeck.
Captain Melvill listened, then looked up at me. Even from here I could see the grin on his face. The others might not believe I'd seen whales so far away, but he did.
Suddenly the deck looked like ants were scuttling all over it. Men ran to the ropes. Timbers creaked, sails billowed and cracked. The ship changed course, angling itself so the wind took us where we wanted to go.
And I saw it all, like I was an eagle, high above. And not having anyone trip over me and cuff my ear either, as I had no idea what to do. So I sat there. Now and then Captain Melvill sent a sailor to yell up at me. âAre they still there, boy?'
I nodded and pointed, my eyes fixed on the black humps growing clearer and closer.
Suddenly there was a yell below me. âThere she blows! There! There!' A sailor on the deck pointed towards the whales.
âWhere away?' yelled Captain Melvill.
âAbout three miles off lee beam.'
The commotion below me changed. The ship's course shifted again. Sailors climbed the masts to furl the sails. Our ship seemed to hang between the sea and the sky, letting the waves toss it at will.
The sailors lowered two boats over the side. Almost before they hit the water some of the men jumped over the side, not using the ladder, just leaping like they were grasshoppers on the hillside.
I peered down as the boats pulled away, the sailors straining at the oars. âPull, you living hearts! Pull! A thousand pounds is waiting for us! Pull!'
I wondered if I should climb down from the foremast. But no one had told me to, and I still didn't know what to do on deck, so I just kept watching. The boats sped even faster now, but not fast enough for the men who stood at each prow. âCome on, ye rapscallions! Are you all asleep? Quit snoring! Pull! Pull!'
Up and down the boats went, climbing the waves then swinging down them, surging through the smaller ones.
And the whales had seen them! The black heads parted, going in all directions. The sailors up on the masts unfurled the sails. TheBritanniabegan to moveagain. The boats' course changed too, heading for the nearest.
Around me the positions of the sails changed yet again. TheBritanniabegan to chase both whales and boats now, her sails full and taut, her timbers creaking, Captain Melvill cheering from the quarterdeck, and me clinging like an o'possum up above and in front of him.
The boats were closer to one of the whales now. They looked tiny compared to its black bulk. The great beasts of the ocean, I thought, remembering Captain Melvill's words. Suddenly I could feel it too â the thrill of being part of this great chase.
Those small open boats were going to capture that monster there and bring it back to the ship, so small compared to the whale's vastness. Us, against the kings of the ocean. And we would win!
The harpooner in the boat nearest the whale stood, his harpoon in one hand. He didn't throw it though: instead he reached into his pocket, then threw something almost too small to see.
A rock! I saw it bounce off the whale's hide.
That must have been the sign the harpooner wanted. If a stone could hit the whale, so could his harpoon. He raised it high, a rope dangling from the end, and threw!
âHurrah!' I yelled as the spear with the rope attached was hurled towards the whale.
It missed. The man began to haul it back.
âStand and give it to him!' I heard the words borne faintly on the wind.
The other harpooner stood. He raised his own harpoon. It flew, swifter than a seagull, and more deadly.
Had it hit its target? Suddenly whale and boat alike were swallowed in a foaming, boiling white. The whale had rolled or dived. For a long moment I could see neither boat nor men. Then there they were again, the boat near swamped, half the men bailing out the water, the others still pulling at the oars.
Another throw! I gasped. The whale had been hit! By both boats! The ropes stretched between the monster and the boats.
But the whale still strained to get away. The rowers pulled at their oars, closer, closer. The harpoonists stood back. Two men with giant lances took their places. They speared the whale, hard and deep. Blood spurted. The black whale turned red, and the sea about it too.
But still the men struggled with their lances, forcing them deeper, and deeper still, wriggling them, pushing them, to reach the whale's heart. The blood became agreat fountain. It changed colour, not bright red now, but dark, almost purple. But still that whale lunged for freedom, pulling on the ropes, while the rowers struggled to keep up. TheBritanniafollowed them.
We were almost at the whale now. I could see its eyes, massive as a giant in Mr Johnson's storybooks, but looking tiny in its bulk.
But it was not a storybook giant. This was real. A great eye gazed at me as if to say, âWhy are you doing this?'
Because we want money, I thought. Riches. But Mr Johnson had said that the love of money was the root of all evil. We hunt the kings of the sea for money. And because they are kings, they know what we are doing, and fight us for their lives.
I had killed roosters in the past couple of years, and eaten them too, and felt nothing but the blessing of a good dinner. But this . . .
I had been on my tiptoes in my excitement. Now I sat back down, leaning on the mast, as if it could comfort me, or the whale below. I wanted to shut my eyes. But if I was going to be part of this whale's death, I could at least face its killing. I stared at its eyes again. For the first time I knew another creature felt pain. Not just pain but agony, and the surety of death at the hands of men.
The whale twisted, but the harpoons from each boat held.
The oarsmen backed their oars.
âWet the lines! Wet them, ye laggards!' Sailors dashed seawater onto the ropes that stretched between the small boats and the monster. They were pulled tight now.
I think I prayed as men and whale struggled below me. I think what I did then was praying, although I used no words, nor did I even know what I prayed for.
The whale would not give in. A red tide poured across its back. The sea around the boats was red too. But still the whale surged forwards. Now there was no need to row, for the whale dragged the boats with it, four men holding the ropes, the others bailing as waves from the ocean and the great beast's wake filled the little craft.
Our ship followed. The wind howled and licked at us, seeming to grow as the battle below me grew too. Again and again the whale tried to dive, as the boats bucked and heaved above it. The water grew darker with its blood.
Another harpoon struck, another!
The whale slowed. It rolled again, surging back and forth, and turned.
I saw its anguish.
I looked into the eyes of the whale again, and I saw death and majesty. I remembered how that other whale had played in our blue harbour, its beauty, like the beauty of the bush before the convicts had cut it down, to build their feeble stinking huts. I saw no glorious battle here, just pain and yelling men . . .
It was as if the harpoons had ripped inside me as well. For in those eyes I saw no mindless beast. For a moment I was the whale too. I saw the glory of the endless route across the oceans, felt the currents against my hide, heard strange songs deep in the water. And that whale knew all I had suffered too. A ship like this had caught us both. But one of us had the chance to live, to stay in the daylight and be free.
Please, let it escape, I prayed. Let it swim away. For it was still so big, despite the lance holes, and the blood; the boats were so small. Surely it could heave away from those small ropes . . .
The spout hole opened and closed, sending forth dark clotted gushes. And I knew that the men had won, even before another great purple gush fired up forwards and down, onto whale and sea and boats and men.
The water quietened, except for the rolling waves. The whale was dead.
Hauling in the Whale
It took the rest of the day to drag the whale to theBritannia,even though it was so close. The bell clanged and I came down from the mast. No one climbed up after me; there seemed to be no need for a watch now. Down in the churning water the men in each boat strained and hauled on the oars, while the boat captains screamed encouragement: âRow, me hearties! Put your backs into it! Many sons of sea curs! Row, ye mongrels, row!'
Captain Melvill stayed up on his quarterdeck, shouting orders across to the boats and to sailors on the ship. Men hauled chains, dragging them across the deck then down below, pushing them out of the portholes so they hung down into the sea.
No one ordered me to help with the hauling. No one even cuffed me. It was as if I wasn't there. No one had time to teach me what was needed now.
The wind muttered and growled about us. The storm hit, a flash of water, rain as hard as a bucketful thrown against us. The rain was over in five minutes, but the wind stayed, filling the air and making the sea leap and froth.
I gazed out at the two tiny boats, and at the massive prize they hauled. For long minutes the boats would vanish in the waves. Then they would appear again, atop a wave, the men's heads crowned with froth. Seconds later they were gone again.
The wind carried rags of orders: âPull, me valiant hearts! You want Davy Jones to eat us all? Row, you dog-faced sons of monkeys.Row!'
Shadows grew into darkness, and still the boats had not reached the ship. Lamps were lit all along the deck, guiding the boats to us. I leaned over the gunwale,watching them lurch closer, slowly, so slowly. No matter how they pulled at the oars, the wind and waves would always be more powerful than them, and they had the massive bulk of the whale to shift as well.
But the waves had not swallowed them yet, nor did anyone on board seem to think they would. Behind me, men lashed barrels to the mast to stop them rolling overboard with the waves that washed the deck. The carpenter and his young assistant were fixing something on the great brick platform. They were all busy, except for me, and the whale, who was dead.
I cried a little then. I cried for the whale and for myself. I think I cried for all upon that ship too, and in the boats, who saw only money, and the challenge of the chase, but were blind to the beauty they had captured.
Finally the boats drew close to the ship. A few cheers erupted from around the deck, swallowed by the wind.
Captain Melvill dropped lanterns over the bulwarks and the sailors below caught them. By their light and that from those on the ship, I could see the whale more clearly, the giant head, the tiny eyes, but only compared to its size. The carcass swayed and wandered with the waves, so unlike the steady course I had seen from my masthead.
âGood capture!' called Captain Melvill. âLook sharp. The storm is rising!'
âAye, Captain.' Sailors grabbed the dangling chains. As I watched, their scrambling figures wrapped the chains around the vast head, tying it to the stern of the ship, then putting more chains around the tail till it was tethered to the bows, the whole great corpse bobbing next to us.
âYou! Boy! Go aloft again!'
It was Captain Melvill. âAnd well sighted,' he added.
âThank you, sir. Sir . . .' I hesitated to speak to him now. âWhat should I look for?'
To my relief he didn't cuff me for impertinence. âWatch that the chains stay tight about the carcass. Apart from that, use your common sense. Call if you see the lights on another ship, or white spray that might be rocks or islands. This coast has been charted, but not this far from land. If aught changes, you yell down. Understood?'
And so I clambered up again, and buckled myself to the mast. What had been a paradise that morning was fearsome now. Each time the ship lurched the mast swayed down with it. The wind bit at me with teeth of ice. Another squall of rain passed, soaking me. The windwhipped higher. Spray lashed me, even so high. But the vast dead whale stayed secure at our side.
My toes and fingers had lost all feeling. All I could do was huddle up there, and hope the buckles held and that the night might finally end.
I gazed up at the sky, but there were no stars to tell me how much night had passed, just blackness even darker than the sea. If one night creeps like a snail, I thought, how long will three years take?
At last another bell sounded. In the swaying lamplight I could see a sailor beckoning below. I fumbled at the buckles. My arms and legs were so stiff they felt like broomsticks that I had to push to move.
I grabbed the mast, glad to find my fingers worked, that I could even feel the mast a little. I grasped hard, with my knees, as Birrung had taught me, hoping they could do the work that my fingers couldn't.
Halfway down the ship swayed again, awkward with the vast whale at her side. I grabbed the mast tighter, finding strength I didn't know I had, and slid faster, so fast the heat chafed my legs. I stood on the deck, still clutching the mast, my breath heaving.
To my surprise the sailor who'd beckoned me down grinned at me this time. âYou wear oilskins next time yougo aloft, matey, or you'll be losing your toes to frostbite. There's plenty below.'
âThank you, sir.'
âCall me Bob. You know why?'
I shook my head, shivering.
He bent and whispered above the wind. â'Cause it's my name.' He made it sound like a great joke.
I managed a smile. He wasn't much older than me, sixteen perhaps. But already the wind and sun had leathered his skin. He clambered up the mast almost as fast as I had.
I made my way carefully across the deck. It was slippery with spray now, and tilting this way and that, and my feet were so cold I could hardly feel the wood under them.
Someone had left a pile of blankets on the empty hammock. They were still warm when I crawled into them, so I reckoned Call-Me-Bob had been sleeping there before me. That warmth was good.
I hadn't eaten all day, I realised. My stomach hurt from hunger. My hands and feet stung now the feeling was back in them. But I slept, from exhaustion, and knew nothing till someone shook me awake.
Call-Me-Bob grinned, holding up a lamp. âYou goin' to sleep all day?'
I blinked. It was still dark down there, but I could see dim light in the hatch above me, which meant that outside it was beginning to grow light.
âBetter haul yourself up or you'll get no breakfast.'
Breakfast! That got me up like a cat off a bull ants' nest. I clambered onto the deck, then stared.
The brick platform was now a fire, with the ship's carpenter feeding it chips and blocks of wood, left over from repairs to the masts I supposed, and firewood brought on board from the colony. And there by the fire, Peg-Leg Tom held out a great steel harpoon with vast steaks dangling from it. The deck was full of the smell of smoke and charring meat.
I stepped forwards cautiously. I was so hungry my tummy felt like it was caving in, hungrier than I'd been since Ma died and Elsie and I had to share my rations. But I knew what those steaks were. Whale.
The whale was dead. It wouldn't help it to refuse to eat now.
Peg-Leg Tom saw me staring. He frowned. âAway out of it, boy!' he yelled above the wind. âYou think these are for you? When you can wield a harpoon or wrestle an oar, then you might get a steak of whale. Your breakfast's down in the galley.'
I nodded and ran for it, down the hatch again. No fire in the galley, but plenty of the cold stew we'd had on my first night on the ship, and a pile of twice-cooked biscuit, hard as a rock so I had to gnaw away at it like a mouse. All better than whale steaks, and at least I still had my teeth. I'd seen the other men soak their biscuits in the stew to soften before they could swallow them.
No one seemed to notice how much I ate. They didn't even notice me at all, busy gulping their food too, then heading off to jobs I knew nothing of. I filled myself up well. I had a feeling I mightn't get another chance to eat for a while. Then I ventured back up.
Again the deck looked like a mob of ants rushing back and forth, but here each ant knew its job. A cluster of sailors at the masthead hauled along a giant bundle of machinery with massive red rusted chains and a hook that looked big enough to hang a ship from. Others rolled more barrels up the ladder from the hatch and lashed them to the mast or gunwales, while the cooper checked each one to see if it needed a plank replacing and whether the bungs were put in tight.
Captain Melvill gazed at it all from the quarterdeck, now and then barking an order I didn't understand.
âSet the grumblebumble! Splice the fimblebee! To work, you sluggards! At it now!'
I understood that last bit. I made my way to the sailors by the mast, but the one called Two-Tooth Harry waved me back. Suddenly they all stood aside in a line, and I realised that they had a chain in their hands. At last, something I understood how to do. I ran to hold it too.
It was strange, holding that big chain, the deck heaving and rolling under us. For the first time since the gale began to blow I was held steady by the chain and the men, though the deck swayed under my feet.
And then I saw what we were doing. The chain was attached to a series of wheels and somehow our pulling lifted up the mass of machinery the men had been working on. It looked like a giant harness, and had the enormous hook dangling from it.
Slowly, slowly, swaying all the time so I was afraid it might swing back and hit us, the harness was lowered onto planks suspended just above the vastness of the dead whale. The first and second mate let go, while the rest of us kept hold. When I looked again, the two mateshad grabbed great spade-like tools. The blades looked axe-sharp, and were attached to poles a good twenty feet long at the other end.
They ran to the gunwale, their balance unaffected by the heaving of the deck, and leaped over it, almost too fast to see, their sword-like tools still in their hands.
âYe can let go of the chain now!' shouted Call-Me-Bob over the noise of wind and waves and cracking sails. I ran to the ship's side and looked over. Half the crew was there too, so many that the ship listed over and the deck half lurched towards the whale.
There stood the two mates on the platform, stabbing their tools like daggers into the carcass, while the harness hovered and swung above them, and the great hook too. First a small hole, and then bigger, and bigger yet, then slashes across its body. At last one of the mates waved to the crew above.
Two of the crew ran to the chain again. They grabbed a long iron handle and cranked it. The harness lowered with a jolt and the big hook with it. I was afraid it would knock the two men off the platform and into the water, but instead it dropped neatly onto the whale's great back, almost at their feet.
They grabbed the hook and began to push. And then I saw what they were doing. That vast hook plunged deep into the hole they had dug.
The second mate signalled again. The whole crew except Captain Melvill and the mates on the platform heaved at the windlass, drawing the chain tight between the ship and the whale.
I cried out as the ship shuddered and rolled towards the giant corpse. It was bigger than we were, and heavier! Would it sink us? But even as I thought this, I realised that these men had caught whales just as big a hundred, maybe even a thousand times before.
Further and further we toppled. I could see the sea churning almost at my feet. I held fast to the chain to stop sliding into the waves below.
Whump!The ship rolled back faster than she had gone over.
âHurrah!' The cheer came from all around. The whaling hook now held an enormous strip of blubber about six feet wide and twenty feet long, peeled from the whale's body like Mr Johnson peeled a tangerine.
We hauled again. Up it came, slithering over the gunwale, across the deck. Two men grabbed it. One of them wielded a huge sword-like knife. He slashed at theblubber so it fell in giant slices, then pushed its bloody vastness down the hatch, below deck.
âWhere are they taking it?' I yelled to Call-Me-Bob.
âDown to the blubber room to cut the big blankets into smaller bits. You'll see.' We heaved the chain again till yet another enormous strip oozed aboard. Then another and another.
We hauled up more vast blankets of blubber, and still more. Call-Me-Bob nudged me then, and pointed at the sea.
I had seen them too. Shark fins!
I ran to the gunwale. The sea about the vast red corpse was churned by sharks and waves.
As I watched, a great shark leaped, grabbed some of the whale flesh and fell back down.
The men on the giant whale corpse took no notice. I supposed they were as safe as we were from the sharks, though they had no solid side to stop them falling off if they slipped. I saw though that they had cut footholds in the whale flesh and were using their blubber knives too, to anchor themselves.
The blubber hook was lowered again so the two mates below could fix it to another portion of the skin. The blubber on deck was as thick as Mr Johnson's biggestBible, a bit like a vast cut of white beef, except for the black skin.
I touched it cautiously. It still felt warm, despite the freezing wind, and firmer than beef.
Call-Me-Bob came over to me and prodded it with his foot. He grinned. âGrand, ain't it?'
I nodded cautiously. I thought it was sad, not grand, but I was sure I was the only one on the ship to think so.
âThem's called blanket pieces. There's a hundred barrels of oil in that whale.'
We headed back to the chain to haul again . . . and again . . . and again . . .
The whale was so big I supposed it would take days to strip its skin. But it was only hours, maybe, before Captain Melvill shouted the order to roll back the chain.
I let myself collapse onto the deck, exhausted, then scrambled up again as I began to slide across the deck.
Plop!A bloody quilt landed at my feet. I stepped back.
More, and more. I gazed at the hatch as a giant fork appeared briefly, hoisting yet another of the slices of blubber back onto the deck. They were much smaller now: easily lifted by one man. Even as I watched,another crewman picked them up, piling them next to what looked a bit like a wooden washing line.