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Dangerous Work

Diary of an Arctic Adventure

by Arthur Conan Doyle, Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower

Hardcover, 368 pages, Univ of Chicago Pr, List Price: $35 |


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From Ship To Sherlock: Doyle's 'Arctic' Diary

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Dangerous Books

Sunday April 4th

I fell into the Arctic Ocean three times today, but luckily someone was always near to pull me out. The danger in falling in is that with a heavy swell on as there is now, you may be cut in two pretty well by two pieces of ice coming together and ripping you. I got several drags but was laid up in the evening as all my clothes were in the engine room drying. By the way as an instance of abstraction of mind after skinning a seal today I walked away with the two hind flippers in my hand, leaving my mittens on the ice. Some of our hands work very well, while others, mostly Shetlanders with many honourable exceptions, shirk their work detestably. It shows what a man is made of, this work, as we are often far from the ship away from the Captain's eye with a couple of miles drag, and a man can skulk if he will. Colin the mate is a great power in the land, energetic & hard working. I heard him tell a man today he would club him if he didn't work harder. I saw the beggars often walk pat a fine fat seal to kill a poor little "Toby" or newly pupped one in order to have less weight to drag. The Captain sits at the masthead all day, looking out with his glass, for where they lie thickest.

April 12th Monday

Buried poor old Andrew this morning. Union Jack was hoisted half mast high. He was tied up in canvas sack with a bag of old iron tied to his feet, and the Church of England burial service was read over him. Then the stretcher on which he was lying was tilted over and the old man went down feet foremost with hardly a splash. There was a bubble or two and a gurgle and that was the end of old Andrew. He knows the great secret now. I should think he would be flattened out of all semblance to humanity before he reached the bottom, or rather he would never reach the bottom but hang suspended half way down like Mahomet's coffin, when the weight of the iron was neutralized. The Captain & I agree that on these occasions three cheers should be given as the coffin disappears, not in levity, but as a genial hearty fare-thee-well wherever you are.

Saturday June 26th

Nothing had been seen all day and I had gone down to the cabin about 10 o'clock when I heard a sort of bustle on deck. Then I heard the Captain's voice from the masthead "Lower away the two waist boats!" I rushed into the mates' berth and gave the alarm, Colin was dressed but the second mate rushed on deck in his shirt with his trousers in his hand. When I got my head above the hatchway the very first thing I saw was the whale shooting its head out of the water and gamboling about at the other side of a large 'sconce' piece of ice. It was a beautiful night, with hardly a ripple on the deep green water. In jumped the crews into their boats, and the officers of the watch looked that their guns were primed and ready, then they pushed off and the two long whale boats went crawling away on their wooden legs one to one side of the bit of ice, the other to the other. Carner had hardly got up to the ice when the whale came up again about forty yards in front of the boat, throwing almost its whole body out of the water, and making the foam fly. There was a chorus of "Now, Adam — Now's your chance!" from the line of eager watchers on the vessel's side. But Adam Carner, a grizzled and weatherbeaten harpooner knows better. The whale's small eye is turned towards him and the boat lies as motionless as the ice behind it. But now it has shifted, its tail is towards them — Pull, boys, pull! Out shoots the boat from the ice — will the fish dive before he can get up to it? That is the question in every mind. He is nearing it, and it still lies motionless — nearer yet and nearer. Now he is standing up to his gun and has dropped his oar — "Three strokes, boys"! he says as he turns his quid in his cheek, and then there is a bang and a foaming of waters and a shouting, and then up goes the little red flag in Carner's boat and the whale line runs out merrily.

Wednesday August 4th

Was called up about 11 PM by the Captain to see a marvellous sight. Never hope to see anything like it again. The sea was simply alive with great hunchback whales, rather a rare variety, you could have thrown a biscuit onto 200 of them, and as far as you could see there was nothing but spoutings and great tails in the air. Some were blowing under the bowsprit, sending the water on to the forecastle, and exciting our newfoundland tremendously. They are 60-80 feet long, and have extraordinary heads with a hanging pouch like a toad's from sheer underjaw. They yield about 3 tons of very inferior oil, and are hard to capture so that they are not worth pursuing. We lowered away a boat and fired an old loose harpoon into one which went away with a great splash. They differ from finner whales in having white underfins and tail. Some of them gave a peculiar whistle when they blew, which you could hear a couple of miles off.

Sunday August 10th

Up at 8 AM to see the land bearing WSW on the Starboard bow. Half a gale blowing and the old Hope steaming away into a head sea like Billy. The green grass on shore looks very cool and refreshing to me after nearly 6 months never seeing it, but the houses look revolting. I hate the vulgar hum of men and would like to be back at the floes again.

Passed the skerry light, and came down to Lerwick but did not get into the harbour as we are in a hurry to catch the tide at Peterhead, so there goes all my letters, papers and everything else. A girl was seen at the lighthouse waving a handkerchief and all hands were called to look at her. The first woman we have seen for half a year.

From Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure by Arthur Conan Doyle, edited by Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower. Copyright 2012 by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. Excerpted with permission of the University of Chicago Press.