The Last Of The Narwhale


AY, ay, I'll tell you, shipmates,
If you care to hear the tale,
How myself and the royal yard alone
Were left of the old Narwhale.
'A stouter ship was never launched
Of all the Clyde-built whalers;
And forty years of a life at sea
Haven't matched her crowd of sailors.
Picked men they were, all young and strong,
And used to the wildest seas,
From Donegal and the Scottish coast,
And the rugged Hebrides.
Such men as women cling to, mates,
Like ivy round their lives:
And the day we sailed, the quays were lined
With weeping mothers and wives.
They cried and prayed, and we gave 'em a cheer,
In the thoughtless way of men;
God help them, shipmates—thirty years
They've waited and prayed since then.
'We sailed to the North, and I mind it well,
The pity we felt, and pride
When we sighted the cliffs of Labrador
From the sea where Hudson died.
We talked of ships that never came back,
And when the great floes passed,
Like ghosts in the night, each moonlit peak
Like a great war frigate's mast,
'Twas said that a ship was frozen up
In the iceberg's awful breast,
The clear ice holding the sailor's face
As he lay in his mortal rest.
And I've thought since then, when the ships came home
That sailed for the Franklin band,
A mistake was made in the reckoning
That looked for the crews on land.
'They're floating still,' I've said to myself,
'And Sir John has found the goal;
The Erebus and the Terror, mates,
Are icebergs up at the Pole!'

'We sailed due North, to Baffin's Bay,
And cruised through weeks of light;
'Twas always day, and we slept by the bell,
And longed for the dear old night,
And the blessed darkness left behind,
Like a curtain round the bed;
But a month dragged on like an afternoon
With the wheeling sun o'erhead.
We found the whales were farther still,
The farther north we sailed;
Along the Greenland glacier coast,
The boldest might have quailed,
Such shapes did keep us company;
No sail in all that sea,
But thick as ships in Mersey's tide
The bergs moved awfully
Within the current's northward stream;
But, ere the long day' s close,
We found the whales and filled the ship
Amid the friendly floes.

'Then came a rest: the day was blown
Like a cloud before the night;
In the South the sun went redly down —
In the North rose another light,
Neither sun nor moon, but a shooting dawn,
That silvered our lonely way;
It seemed we sailed in a belt of gloom,
Upon either side, a day.
The north wind smote the sea to death;
The pack-ice closed us round —
The Narwhale stood in the level fields
As fast as a ship aground.
A weary time it was to wait,
And to wish for spring to come,
With the pleasant breeze and the blessed sun,
To open the way toward home.

'Spring came at last, the ice-fields groaned
Like living things in pain;
They moaned and swayed, then rent amain,
And the Narwhale sailed again.
With joy the dripping sails were loosed
And round the vessel swung;
To cheer the crew, full south she drew,
The shattered floes among.
We had no books in those old days
To carry the friendly faces;
But I think the wives and lasses then
Were held in better places.
The face of sweetheart and wife to-day
Is locked in the sailor's chest:
But aloft on the yard, with the thought of home,
The face in the heart was best.
Well, well—God knows, mates, when and where
To take the things he gave;
We steered for home—but the chart was his,
And the port ahead—the grave!

'We cleared the floes: through an open sea
The Narwhale south'ard sailed,
Till a day came round when the white fog rose,
And the wind astern had failed.
In front of the Greenland glacier line,
And close to its base were we;
Through the misty pall we could see the wall
That beetled above the sea.
A fear like the fog crept over our hearts
As we heard the hollow roar
Of the deep sea thrashing the cliffs of ice
For leagues along the shore.

'The years have come and the years have gone,
But it never wears away—
The sense I have of the sights and sounds
That marked that woeful day.
Flung here and there at the ocean's will,
As it flung the broken floe—
What strength had we 'gainst the tiger sea
That sports with a sailor's woe?
The lifeless berg and the lifeful ship
Were the same to the sullen wave,
As it swept them far from ridge to ridge,
Till at last the Narwhale drave
With a crashing rail on the glacier wall—
As sheer as the vessel's mast—
A crashing rail and a shivered yard;
But the worst, we thought, was past.
The brave lads sprang to the fending work,
And the skipper's voice rang hard:
'Aloft there, one with a ready knife—
Cut loose that royal yard!'
I sprang to the rigging, young I was,
And proud to be first to dare:
The yard swung free, and I turned to gaze
Toward the open sea, o'er the field of haze,
And my heart grew cold, as if frozen through,
At the moving shape that met my view—
O Christ! what a sight was there!

'Above the fog, as I hugged the yard,
I saw that an iceberg lay—
A berg like a mountain, closing fast—
Not a cable's length away!
I could not see through the sheet of mist
That covered all below,
But I heard the cheery voices still,
And I screamed to let them know.
The cry went down, and the skipper hailed,
But before the word could come
It died in his throat—and I knew they saw
The shape of the closing doom!

'No sound but that—but the hail that died
Came up through the mist to me;
Thank God, it covered the ship like a veil,
And I was not forced to see—
But I heard it, mates: O, I heard the rush,
And the timbers rend and rive,
As the yard I clung to swayed and fell:— I lay on the ice, alive!
Alive! O God of mercy! ship and crew and sea were gone!
The hummocked ice and the broken yard,
And a kneeling man—alone!

'A kneeling man on a frozen hill,
The sounds of life in the air—
All death and ice—and a minute before
The sea and the ship were there!
I could not think they were dead and gone,
And I listened for sound or word:
But the deep sea roar on the desolate shore
Was the only sound I heard.
O mates, I had no heart to thank
The Lord for the life He gave;
I spread my arms on the ice and cried
Aloud on my shipmates' grave.
The brave strong lads, with their strength all vain,
I called them name by name;
And it seemed to me from the dying hearts
A message upward came—
Ay, mates, a message, up through the ice
From every sailor's breast:
'Go tell our mothers and wives at home
To pray for us here at rest.'

'Yes, that's what it means; 'tis a little word;
But, mates, the strongest ship
That ever was built is a baby's toy
When it copes with an Arctic Nip.'

by John Boyle O'Reilly

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