"Wine and water!" said one of the sailors.
"Yes," replied Captain Hull, "but water that we cannot drink, and wine that we cannot swallow. Come, boys, let us not speak any more, and heave closer!"
The whale-boat, steered by the boatswain, glided noiselessly on the surface of those half-greased waters, as if it were floating on a bed of oil.
The jubarte did not budge, and did not seem to have yet perceived the boat, which described a circle around it.
Captain Hull, in making the circuit, necessarily went farther than the "Pilgrim," which gradually grew smaller in the distance. This rapidity with which objects diminish at sea has always an odd effect. It seems as if we look at them shortened through the large end of a telescope. This optical illusion evidently takes place because there are no points of comparison on these large spaces. It was thus with the "Pilgrim," which decreased to the eye and seemed already much more distant than she really was.
Half an hour after leaving her, Captain Hull and his companions found themselves exactly to the leeward of the whale, so that the latter occupied an intermediate point between the ship and the boat.
So the moment had come to approach, while making as little noise as possible. It was not impossible for them to get beside the animal and harpoon it at good range, before its attention would be attracted.
"Row more slowly, boys," said Captain Hull, in a low voice.
"It seems to me," replied Howik, "that the gudgeon suspects something. It breathes less violently than it did just now!"
"Silence! silence!" repeated Captain Hull.
Five minutes later the whale-boat was at a cable's length from the jubarte. A cable's length, a measure peculiar to the sea, comprises a length of one hundred and twenty fathoms, that is to say, two hundred meters.
The boatswain, standing aft, steered in such a manner as to approach the left side of the mammal, but avoiding, with the greatest care, passing within reach of the formidable tail, a single blow of which would be enough to crush the boat.
At the prow Captain Hull, his legs a little apart to maintain his equilibrium, held the weapon with which he was going to give the first blow. They could count on his skill to fix that harpoon in the thick mass which emerged from the waters.
Near the captain, in a pail, was coiled the first of the five lines, firmly fastened to the harpoon, and to which they would successively join the other four if the whale plunged to great depths.
"Are we ready, boys?" murmured Captain Hull.
"Yes," replied Howik, grasping his oar firmly in his large hands.
The boatswain obeyed the order, and the whale-boat came within less than ten feet of the animal.
The latter no longer moved, and seemed asleep.
Whales thus surprised while asleep offer an easier prize, and it often happens that the first blow which is given wounds them mortally.
"This immovableness is quite astonishing!" thought Captain Hull. "The rascal ought not to be asleep, and nevertheless----there is something there!"
The boatswain thought the same, and he tried to see the opposite side of the animal.
But it was not the moment to reflect, but to attack.
Captain Hull, holding his harpoon by the middle of the handle, balanced it several times, to make sure of good aim, while he examined the jubarte's side. Then he threw it with all the strength of his arm.
"Back, back!" cried he at once.
And the sailors, pulling together, made the boat recoil rapidly, with the intention of prudently putting it in safety from the blows of the cetacean's tail.
But at that moment a cry from the boatswain made them understand why the whale was so extraordinarily motionless for so long a time on the surface of the sea.
"A young whale!" said he.
In fact, the jubarte, after having been struck by the harpoon, was almost entirely overturned on the side, thus discovering a young whale, which she was in process of suckling.
This circumstance, as Captain Hull well knew, would render the capture of the jubarte much more difficult.