Dawn from the Foretop! Dawn from the Barrel!
A scurry of feet with a roar overhead;
The master-watch wildly pointing to Northward,
Where the herd in front of The Eagle was spread!
Steel-planked and sheathed like a battleship’s nose,
She battered her path through the drifting floes;
Past slob and growler we drove, and rammed her
Into the heart of the patch and jammed her.
There were hundreds of thousands of seals, I’d swear,
In the stretch of that field—’white harps’ to spare
For a dozen such fleets as had left that spring
To share in the general harvesting.
The first of the line, we had struck the main herd;
The day was ours, and our pulses stirred
In that brisk, live hour before the sun,
At the thought of the load and the sweepstake won.
We stood on the deck as the morning outrolled
On the fields its tissue of orange and gold,
And lit up the ice to the north in the sharp,
Clear air; each mother-seal and its ‘harp’
Lay side by side; and as far as the range
Of the patch ran out we saw that strange,
And unimaginable thing
That sealers talk of every spring—
The ‘bobbing-holes’ within the floes
That neither wind nor frost could close;
Through every hole a seal could dive,
And search, to keep her brood alive,
A hundred miles it well might be,
For food beneath that frozen sea.
Round sunken reef and cape she would rove,
And though the wind and current drove
The ice-fields many leagues that day,
We knew she would turn and find her way
Back to the hole, without the help
Of compass or log, to suckle her whelp—
Back to that hole in the distant floes,
And smash her way up with her teeth and nose.
But we flung those thoughts aside when the shout
Of command from the master-watch rang out.
Assigned to our places in watches of four—
Over the rails in a wild carouse,
Two from the port and starboard bows,
Two from the broadsides—off we tore,
In the breathless rush for the day’s attack,
With the speed of hounds on a caribou’s track.
With the rise of the sun we started to kill,
A seal for each blow from the iron bill
Of our gaffs. From the nose to the tail we ripped them,
And laid their quivering carcasses flat
On the ice; then with our knives we stripped them
For the sake of the pelt and its lining of fat.
With three fathoms of rope we laced them fast,
With their skins to the ice to be easy to drag,
With our shoulders galled we drew them, and cast
Them in thousands around the watch’s flag.
Then, with our bodies begrimed with the reek
Of grease and sweat from the toil of the day,
We made for The Eagle, two miles away,
At the signal that flew from her mizzen peak.
And through the night, as inch by inch
She reached the pans with the ‘harps’ piled high,
We hoisted them up as the hours filed by
To the sleepy growl of the donkey-winch.
Over the bulwarks again we were gone,
With the first faint streaks of a misty dawn;
Fast as our arms could swing we slew them,
Ripped them, ’sculped’ them, roped and drew them
To the pans where the seals in pyramids rose
Around the flags on the central floes,
Till we reckoned we had nine thousand dead
By the time the afternoon had fled;
And that an added thousand or more
Would beat the count of the day before.
So back again to the patch we went
To haul, before the day was spent,
Another load of four ‘harps’ a man,
To make the last the record pan.
And not one of us saw, as we gaffed, and skinned,
And took them in tow, that the north-east wind
Had veered off-shore; that the air was colder;
That the signs of recall were there to the south,
The flag of The Eagle, and the long, thin smoulder
That drifted away from her funnel’s mouth.
Not one of us thought of the speed of the storm
That hounded our tracks in the day’s last chase
(For the slaughter was swift, and the blood was warm),
Till we felt the first sting of the snow in our face.
We looked south-east, where, an hour ago,
Like a smudge on the sky-line, someone had seen
The Eagle, and thought he had heard her blow
A note like a warning from her sirene.
We gathered in knots, each man within call
Of his mate, and slipping our ropes, we sped,
Plunging our way through a thickening wall
Of snow that the gale was driving ahead.
We ran with the wind on our shoulder; we knew
That the night had left us this only clue
Of the track before us, though with each wail
That grew to the pang of a shriek from the gale,
Some of us swore that The Eagle screamed
Right off to the east; to others it seemed
On the southern quarter and near, while the rest
Cried out with every report that rose
From the strain and the rend of the wind on the floes
That The Eagle was firing her guns to the west.
And some of them turned to the west, though to go
Was madness—we knew it and roared, but the notes
Of our warning were lost as a fierce gust of snow
Eddied, and strangled the words in our throats.
Then we felt in our hearts that the night had swallowed
All signals, the whistle, the flare, and the smoke
To the south; and like sheep in a storm we followed
Each other; like sheep we huddled and broke.
Here one would fall as hunger took hold
Of his step; here one would sleep as the cold
Crept into his blood, and another would kneel
Athwart the body of some dead seal,
And with knife and nails would tear it apart,
To flesh his teeth in its frozen heart.
And another dreamed that the storm was past,
And raved of his bunk and brandy and food,
And The Eagle near, though in that blast
The mother was fully as blind as her brood.
Then we saw, what we feared from the first—dark places
Here and there to the left of us, wide, yawning spaces
Of water; the fissures and cracks had increased
Till the outer pans were afloat, and we knew,
As they drifted along in the night to the east,
By the cries we heard, that some of our crew
Were borne to the sea on those pans and were lost.
And we turned with the wind in our faces again,
And took the snow with its lancing pain,
Till our eye-balls cracked with the salt and the frost;
Till only iron and fire that night
Survived on the ice as we stumbled on;
As we fell and rose and plunged—till the light
In the south and east disclosed the dawn,
And the sea heaving with floes—and then,
The Eagle in wild pursuit of her men.
And the rest is as a story told,
Or a dream that belonged to a dim, mad past,
Of a March night and a north wind’s cold,
Of a voyage home with a flag half-mast;
Of twenty thousand seals that were killed
To help to lower the price of bread;
Of the muffled beat … of a drum … that filled
A nave … at our count of sixty dead.