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Page 475


Already has it been related how the great leviathan is afar
off descried from the mast-head; how he is chased over the
watery moors, and slaughtered in the valleys of the deep; how
he is then towed alongside and beheaded; and how (on the
principle which entitled the headsman of old to the garments
in which the beheaded was killed) his great padded surtout
becomes the property of his executioner; how, in due time, he
is condemned to the pots, and, like Shadrach, Meshach, and
Abednego, his spermaceti, oil, and bone pass unscathed through
the fire;—but now it remains to conclude the last chapter of
this part of the description by rehearsing—singing, if I may—
the romantic proceeding of decanting off his oil into the casks
and striking them down into the hold, where once again leviathan
returns to his native profundities, sliding along beneath
the surface as before; but, alas! never more to rise and blow.

While still warm, the oil, like hot punch, is received into the
six-barrel casks; and while, perhaps, the ship is pitching and
rolling this way and that in the midnight sea, the enormous
casks are slewed round and headed over, end for end, and sometimes
perilously scoot across the slippery deck, like so many
land slides, till at last man-handled and stayed in their course;
and all round the hoops, rap, rap, go as many hammers as can
play upon them, for now, ex officio, every sailor is a cooper.

At length, when the last pint is casked, and all is cool, then
the great hatchways are unsealed, the bowels of the ship are
thrown open, and down go the casks to their final rest in the
sea. This done, the hatches are replaced, and hermetically
closed, like a closet walled up.


Page 476

In the sperm fishery, this is perhaps one of the most remarkable
incidents in all the business of whaling. One day the
planks stream with freshets of blood and oil; on the sacred
quarter-deck enormous masses of the whale's head are profanely
piled; great rusty casks lie about, as in a brewery yard; the smoke
from the try-works has besooted all the bulwarks; the mariners
go about suffused with unctuousness; the entire ship seems
great leviathan himself; while on all hands the din is deafening.

But a day or two after, you look about you, and prick your
ears in this self-same ship; and were it not for the tell-tale boats
and try-works, you would all but swear you trod some silent
merchant vessel, with a most scrupulously neat commander.
The unmanufactured sperm oil possesses a singularly cleansing
virtue. This is the reason why the decks never look so white
as just after what they call an affair of oil. Besides, from the
ashes of the burned scraps of the whale, a potent ley is readily
made; and whenever any adhesiveness from the back of the
whale remains clinging to the side, that ley quickly extreminates
it. Hands go diligently along the bulwarks, and with buckets
of water and rags restore them to their full tidiness. The soot
is brushed from the lower rigging. All the numerous implements
which have been in use are likewise faithfully cleansed
and put away. The great hatch is scrubbed and placed upon
the try-works, completely hiding the pots; every cask is out of
sight; all tackles are coiled in unseen nooks; and when by the
combined and simultaneous industry of almost the entire ship's
company, the whole of this conscientious duty is at last concluded,
then the crew themselves proceed to their own ablutions;
shift themselves from top to toe; and finally issue to the
immaculate deck, fresh and all aglow, as bridegrooms newleaped
from out the daintiest Holland.

Now, with elated step, they pace the planks in twos and
threes, and humorously discourse of parlors, sofas, carpets, and
fine cambrics; propose to mat the deck; think of having hangings


Page 477
to the top; object not to taking tea by moonlight on the
piazza of the forecastle. To hint to such musked mariners of
oil, and bone, and blubber, were little short of audacity. They
know not the thing you distantly allude to. Away, and bring
us napkins!

But mark: aloft there, at the three mast heads, stand three
men intent on spying out more whales, which, if caught, infallibly
will again soil the old oaken furniture, and drop at least one
small grease-spot somewhere. Yes; and many is the time,
when, after the severest uninterrupted labors, which know no
night; continuing straight through for ninety-six hours; when
from the boat, where they have swelled their wrists with all day
rowing on the Line,—they only step to the deck to carry vast chains,
and heave the heavy windlass, and cut and slash, yea, and in
their very sweatings to be smoked and burned anew by the combined
fires of the equatorial sun and the equatorial try-works;
when, on the heel of all this, they have finally bestirred themselves
to cleanse the ship, and make a spotless dairy room of it; many
is the time the poor fellows, just buttoning the necks of their
clean frocks, are startled by the cry of “There she blows!” and
away they fly to fight another whale, and go through the whole
weary thing again. Oh! my friends, but this is man-killing!
Yet this is life. For hardly have we mortals by long toilings
extracted from this world's vast bulk its small but valuable
sperm; and then, with weary patience, cleansed ourselves from
its defilements, and learned to live here in clean tabernacles of
the soul; hardly is this done, when—There she blows!—the
ghost is spouted up, and away we sail to fight some other
world, and go through young life's old routine again.

Oh! the metempsychosis! Oh! Pythagoras, that in bright
Greece, two thousand years ago, did die, so good, so wise, so
mild; I sailed with thee along the Peruvian coast last voyage
—and, foolish as I am, taught thee, a green simple boy, how to
splice a rope!