FOR SOME WHILE the voyage of the Abraham Lincoln was marked by no incident. But one circumstance arose that displayed Ned Land’s marvelous skills and showed just how much confidence we could place in him.
Off the Falkland Islands on June 30, the frigate came in contact with a fleet of American whalers, and we learned that they hadn’t seen the narwhale. But one of them, the captain of the Monroe, knew that Ned Land had shipped aboard the Abraham Lincoln and asked his help in hunting a baleen whale that was in sight. Anxious to see Ned Land at work, Commander Farragut authorized him to make his way aboard the Monroe. And the Canadian had such good luck that with a right–and–left shot, he harpooned not one whale but two, striking the first straight to the heart and catching the other after a few minutes’ chase!
Assuredly, if the monster ever had to deal with Ned Land’s harpoon, I wouldn’t bet on the monster.
The frigate sailed along the east coast of South America with prodigious speed. By July 3 we were at the entrance to the Strait of Magellan, abreast of Cabo de las Virgenes. But Commander Farragut was unwilling to attempt this tortuous passageway and maneuvered instead to double Cape Horn.
The crew sided with him unanimously. Indeed, were we likely to encounter the narwhale in such a cramped strait? Many of our sailors swore that the monster couldn’t negotiate this passageway simply because “he’s too big for it!”
Near three o’clock in the afternoon on July 6, fifteen miles south of shore, the Abraham Lincoln doubled that solitary islet at the tip of the South American continent, that stray rock Dutch seamen had named Cape Horn after their hometown of Hoorn. Our course was set for the northwest, and the next day our frigate’s propeller finally churned the waters of the Pacific.
“Open your eyes! Open your eyes!” repeated the sailors of the Abraham Lincoln. And they opened amazingly wide. Eyes and spyglasses (a bit dazzled, it is true, by the vista of $2,000.00) didn’t remain at rest for an instant. Day and night we observed the surface of the ocean, and those with nyctalopic eyes, whose ability to see in the dark increased their chances by fifty percent, had an excellent shot at winning the prize.
As for me, I was hardly drawn by the lure of money and yet was far from the least attentive on board. Snatching only a few minutes for meals and a few hours for sleep, come rain or come shine, I no longer left the ship’s deck. Sometimes bending over the forecastle railings, sometimes leaning against the sternrail, I eagerly scoured that cotton–colored wake that whitened the ocean as far as the eye could see! And how many times I shared the excitement of general staff and crew when some unpredictable whale lifted its blackish back above the waves. In an instant the frigate’s deck would become densely populated. The cowls over the companionways would vomit a torrent of sailors and officers. With panting chests and anxious eyes, we each would observe the cetacean’s movements. I stared; I stared until I nearly went blind from a worn–out retina, while Conseil, as stoic as ever, kept repeating to me in a calm tone:
“If master’s eyes would kindly stop bulging, master will see farther!”
But what a waste of energy! The Abraham Lincoln would change course and race after the animal sighted, only to find an ordinary baleen whale or a common sperm whale that soon disappeared amid a chorus of curses!
However, the weather held good. Our voyage was proceeding under the most favorable conditions. By then it was the bad season in these southernmost regions, because July in this zone corresponds to our January in Europe; but the sea remained smooth and easily visible over a vast perimeter.
Ned Land still kept up the most tenacious skepticism; beyond his spells on watch, he pretended that he never even looked at the surface of the waves, at least while no whales were in sight. And yet the marvelous power of his vision could have performed yeoman service. But this stubborn Canadian spent eight hours out of every twelve reading or sleeping in his cabin. A hundred times I chided him for his unconcern.
“Bah!” he replied. “Nothing’s out there, Professor Aronnax, and if there is some animal, what chance would we have of spotting it? Can’t you see we’re just wandering around at random? People say they’ve sighted this slippery beast again in the Pacific high seas—I’m truly willing to believe it, but two months have already gone by since then, and judging by your narwhale’s personality, it hates growing moldy from hanging out too long in the same waterways! It’s blessed with a terrific gift for getting around. Now, professor, you know even better than I that nature doesn’t violate good sense, and she wouldn’t give some naturally slow animal the ability to move swiftly if it hadn’t a need to use that talent. So if the beast does exist, it’s already long gone!”
I had no reply to this. Obviously we were just groping blindly. But how else could we go about it? All the same, our chances were automatically pretty limited. Yet everyone still felt confident of success, and not a sailor on board would have bet against the narwhale appearing, and soon.
On July 20 we cut the Tropic of Capricorn at longitude 105°, and by the 27th of the same month, we had cleared the equator on the 110th meridian. These bearings determined, the frigate took a more decisive westward heading and tackled the seas of the central Pacific. Commander Farragut felt, and with good reason, that it was best to stay in deep waters and keep his distance from continents or islands, whose neighborhoods the animal always seemed to avoid—”No doubt,” our bosun said, “because there isn’t enough water for him!” So the frigate kept well out when passing the Tuamotu, Marquesas, and Hawaiian Islands, then cut the Tropic of Cancer at longitude 132° and headed for the seas of China.
We were finally in the area of the monster’s latest antics! And in all honesty, shipboard conditions became life–threatening. Hearts were pounding hideously, gearing up for futures full of incurable aneurysms. The entire crew suffered from a nervous excitement that it’s beyond me to describe. Nobody ate, nobody slept. Twenty times a day some error in perception, or the optical illusions of some sailor perched in the crosstrees, would cause intolerable anguish, and this emotion, repeated twenty times over, kept us in a state of irritability so intense that a reaction was bound to follow.
And this reaction wasn’t long in coming. For three months, during which each day seemed like a century, the Abraham Lincoln plowed all the northerly seas of the Pacific, racing after whales sighted, abruptly veering off course, swerving sharply from one tack to another, stopping suddenly, putting on steam and reversing engines in quick succession, at the risk of stripping its gears, and it didn’t leave a single point unexplored from the beaches of Japan to the coasts of America. And we found nothing! Nothing except an immenseness of deserted waves! Nothing remotely resembling a gigantic narwhale, or an underwater islet, or a derelict shipwreck, or a runaway reef, or anything the least bit unearthly!
So the reaction set in. At first, discouragement took hold of people’s minds, opening the door to disbelief. A new feeling appeared on board, made up of three–tenths shame and seven–tenths fury. The crew called themselves “out–and–out fools” for being hoodwinked by a fairy tale, then grew steadily more furious! The mountains of arguments amassed over a year collapsed all at once, and each man now wanted only to catch up on his eating and sleeping, to make up for the time he had so stupidly sacrificed.
With typical human fickleness, they jumped from one extreme to the other. Inevitably, the most enthusiastic supporters of the undertaking became its most energetic opponents. This reaction mounted upward from the bowels of the ship, from the quarters of the bunker hands to the messroom of the general staff; and for certain, if it hadn’t been for Commander Farragut’s characteristic stubbornness, the frigate would ultimately have put back to that cape in the south.
But this futile search couldn’t drag on much longer. The Abraham Lincoln had done everything it could to succeed and had no reason to blame itself. Never had the crew of an American naval craft shown more patience and zeal; they weren’t responsible for this failure; there was nothing to do but go home.
A request to this effect was presented to the commander. The commander stood his ground. His sailors couldn’t hide their discontent, and their work suffered because of it. I’m unwilling to say that there was mutiny on board, but after a reasonable period of intransigence, Commander Farragut, like Christopher Columbus before him, asked for a grace period of just three days more. After this three–day delay, if the monster hadn’t appeared, our helmsman would give three turns of the wheel, and the Abraham Lincoln would chart a course toward European seas.
This promise was given on November 2. It had the immediate effect of reviving the crew’s failing spirits. The ocean was observed with renewed care. Each man wanted one last look with which to sum up his experience. Spyglasses functioned with feverish energy. A supreme challenge had been issued to the giant narwhale, and the latter had no acceptable excuse for ignoring this Summons to Appear!
Two days passed. The Abraham Lincoln stayed at half steam. On the offchance that the animal might be found in these waterways, a thousand methods were used to spark its interest or rouse it from its apathy. Enormous sides of bacon were trailed in our wake, to the great satisfaction, I must say, of assorted sharks. While the Abraham Lincoln heaved to, its longboats radiated in every direction around it and didn’t leave a single point of the sea unexplored. But the evening of November 4 arrived with this underwater mystery still unsolved.
At noon the next day, November 5, the agreed–upon delay expired. After a position fix, true to his promise, Commander Farragut would have to set his course for the southeast and leave the northerly regions of the Pacific decisively behind.
By then the frigate lay in latitude 31° 15′ north and longitude 136° 42′ east. The shores of Japan were less than 200 miles to our leeward. Night was coming on. Eight o’clock had just struck. Huge clouds covered the moon’s disk, then in its first quarter. The sea undulated placidly beneath the frigate’s stempost.
Just then I was in the bow, leaning over the starboard rail. Conseil, stationed beside me, stared straight ahead. Roosting in the shrouds, the crew examined the horizon, which shrank and darkened little by little. Officers were probing the increasing gloom with their night glasses. Sometimes the murky ocean sparkled beneath moonbeams that darted between the fringes of two clouds. Then all traces of light vanished into the darkness.
Observing Conseil, I discovered that, just barely, the gallant lad had fallen under the general influence. At least so I thought. Perhaps his nerves were twitching with curiosity for the first time in history.
“Come on, Conseil!” I told him. “Here’s your last chance to pocket that $2,000.00!”
“If master will permit my saying so,” Conseil replied, “I never expected to win that prize, and the Union government could have promised $100,000.00 and been none the poorer.”
“You’re right, Conseil, it turned out to be a foolish business after all, and we jumped into it too hastily. What a waste of time, what a futile expense of emotion! Six months ago we could have been back in France—”
“In master’s little apartment,” Conseil answered. “In master’s museum! And by now I would have classified master’s fossils. And master’s babirusa would be ensconced in its cage at the zoo in the Botanical Gardens, and it would have attracted every curiosity seeker in town!”
“Quite so, Conseil, and what’s more, I imagine that people will soon be poking fun at us!”
“To be sure,” Conseil replied serenely, “I do think they’ll have fun at master’s expense. And must it be said . . . ?”
“It must be said, Conseil.”
“Well then, it will serve master right!”
“When one has the honor of being an expert as master is, one mustn’t lay himself open to—”
Conseil didn’t have time to complete the compliment. In the midst of the general silence, a voice became audible. It was Ned Land’s voice, and it shouted:
“Ahoy! There’s the thing in question, abreast of us to leeward!”
AT THIS SHOUT the entire crew rushed toward the harpooner—commander, officers, mates,
sailors, cabin boys, down to engineers leaving their machinery and stokers neglecting their furnaces. The order was given to stop, and the frigate merely coasted.
By then the darkness was profound, and as good as the Canadian’s eyes were, I still wondered how he could see—and what he had seen. My heart was pounding fit to burst.
But Ned Land was not mistaken, and we all spotted the object his hand was indicating.
Two cable lengths off the Abraham Lincoln’s starboard quarter, the sea seemed to be lit up from underneath. This was no mere phosphorescent phenomenon, that much was unmistakable. Submerged some fathoms below the surface of the water, the monster gave off that very intense but inexplicable glow that several captains had mentioned in their reports. This magnificent radiance had to come from some force with a great illuminating capacity. The edge of its light swept over the sea in an immense, highly elongated oval, condensing at the center into a blazing core whose unbearable glow diminished by° outward.
“It’s only a cluster of phosphorescent particles!” exclaimed one of the officers.
“No, sir,” I answered with conviction. “Not even angel–wing clams or salps have ever given off such a powerful light. That glow is basically electric in nature. Besides . . . look, look! It’s shifting! It’s moving back and forth! It’s darting at us!”
A universal shout went up from the frigate.
“Quiet!” Commander Farragut said. “Helm hard to leeward! Reverse engines!”
Sailors rushed to the helm, engineers to their machinery. Under reverse steam immediately, the Abraham Lincoln beat to port, sweeping in a semicircle.
“Right your helm! Engines forward!” Commander Farragut called.
These orders were executed, and the frigate swiftly retreated from this core of light.
My mistake. It wanted to retreat, but the unearthly animal came at us with a speed double our own.
We gasped. More stunned than afraid, we stood mute and motionless. The animal caught up with us, played with us. It made a full circle around the frigate—then doing fourteen knots—and wrapped us in sheets of electricity that were like luminous dust. Then it retreated two or three miles, leaving a phosphorescent trail comparable to those swirls of steam that shoot behind the locomotive of an express train. Suddenly, all the way from the dark horizon where it had gone to gather momentum, the monster abruptly dashed toward the Abraham Lincoln with frightening speed, stopped sharply twenty feet from our side plates, and died out—not by diving under the water, since its glow did not recede gradually—but all at once, as if the source of this brilliant emanation had suddenly dried up. Then it reappeared on the other side of the ship, either by circling around us or by gliding under our hull. At any instant a collision could have occurred that would have been fatal to us.
Meanwhile I was astonished at the frigate’s maneuvers. It was fleeing, not fighting. Built to pursue, it was being pursued, and I commented on this to Commander Farragut. His face, ordinarily so emotionless, was stamped with indescribable astonishment.
“Professor Aronnax,” he answered me, “I don’t know what kind of fearsome creature I’m up against, and I don’t want my frigate running foolish risks in all this darkness. Besides, how should we attack this unknown creature, how should we defend ourselves against it? Let’s wait for daylight, and then we’ll play a different role.”
“You’ve no further doubts, commander, as to the nature of this animal?”
“No, sir, it’s apparently a gigantic narwhale, and an electric one to boot.”
“Maybe,” I added, “it’s no more approachable than an electric eel or an electric ray!”
“Right,” the commander replied. “And if it has their power to electrocute, it’s surely the most dreadful animal ever conceived by our Creator. That’s why I’ll keep on my guard, sir.”
The whole crew stayed on their feet all night long. No one even thought of sleeping. Unable to compete with the monster’s speed, the Abraham Lincoln slowed down and stayed at half steam. For its part, the narwhale mimicked the frigate, simply rode with the waves, and seemed determined not to forsake the field of battle.
However, near midnight it disappeared, or to use a more appropriate expression, “it went out,” like a huge glowworm. Had it fled from us? We were duty bound to fear so rather than hope so. But at 12:53 in the morning, a deafening hiss became audible, resembling the sound made by a waterspout expelled with tremendous intensity.
By then Commander Farragut, Ned Land, and I were on the afterdeck, peering eagerly into the profound gloom.
“Ned Land,” the commander asked, “you’ve often heard whales bellowing?”
“Often, sir, but never a whale like this, whose sighting earned me $2,000.00.”
“Correct, the prize is rightfully yours. But tell me, isn’t that the noise cetaceans make when they spurt water from their blowholes?”
“The very noise, sir, but this one’s way louder. So there can be no mistake. There’s definitely a whale lurking in our waters. With your permission, sir,” the harpooner added, “tomorrow at daybreak we’ll have words with it.”
“If it’s in a mood to listen to you, Mr. Land,” I replied in a tone far from convinced.
“Let me get within four harpoon lengths of it,” the Canadian shot back, “and it had better listen!”
“But to get near it,” the commander went on, “I’d have to put a whaleboat at your disposal?”
“That would be gambling with the lives of my men.”
“And with my own!” the harpooner replied simply.
Near two o’clock in the morning, the core of light reappeared, no less intense, five miles to windward of the Abraham Lincoln. Despite the distance, despite the noise of wind and sea, we could distinctly hear the fearsome thrashings of the animal’s tail, and even its panting breath. Seemingly, the moment this enormous narwhale came up to breathe at the surface of the ocean, air was sucked into its lungs like steam into the huge cylinders of a 2,000–horsepower engine.
“Hmm!” I said to myself. “A cetacean as powerful as a whole cavalry regiment—now that’s a whale of a whale!”
We stayed on the alert until daylight, getting ready for action. Whaling gear was set up along the railings. Our chief officer loaded the blunderbusses, which can launch harpoons as far as a mile, and long duck guns with exploding bullets that can mortally wound even the most powerful animals. Ned Land was content to sharpen his harpoon, a dreadful weapon in his hands.
At six o’clock day began to break, and with the dawn’s early light, the narwhale’s electric glow disappeared. At seven o’clock the day was well along, but a very dense morning mist shrank the horizon, and our best spyglasses were unable to pierce it. The outcome: disappointment and anger.
I hoisted myself up to the crosstrees of the mizzen sail. Some officers were already perched on the mastheads.
At eight o’clock the mist rolled ponderously over the waves, and its huge curls were lifting little by little. The horizon grew wider and clearer all at once.
Suddenly, just as on the previous evening, Ned Land’s voice was audible.
“There’s the thing in question, astern to port!” the harpooner shouted.
Every eye looked toward the point indicated.
There, a mile and a half from the frigate, a long blackish body emerged a meter above the waves. Quivering violently, its tail was creating a considerable eddy. Never had caudal equipment thrashed the sea with such power. An immense wake of glowing whiteness marked the animal’s track, sweeping in a long curve.
Our frigate drew nearer to the cetacean. I examined it with a completely open mind. Those reports from the Shannon and the Helvetia had slightly exaggerated its dimensions, and I put its length at only 250 feet. Its girth was more difficult to judge, but all in all, the animal seemed to be wonderfully proportioned in all three dimensions.
While I was observing this phenomenal creature, two jets of steam and water sprang from its blowholes and rose to an altitude of forty meters, which settled for me its mode of breathing. From this I finally concluded that it belonged to the branch Vertebrata, class Mammalia, subclass Monodelphia, group Pisciforma, order Cetacea, family . . . but here I couldn’t make up my mind. The order Cetacea consists of three families, baleen whales, sperm whales, dolphins, and it’s in this last group that narwhales are placed. Each of these families is divided into several genera, each genus into species, each species into varieties. So I was still missing variety, species, genus, and family, but no doubt I would complete my classifying with the aid of Heaven and Commander Farragut.
The crew were waiting impatiently for orders from their leader. The latter, after carefully observing the animal, called for his engineer. The engineer raced over.
“Sir,” the commander said, “are you up to pressure?”
“Aye, sir,” the engineer replied.
“Fine. Stoke your furnaces and clap on full steam!”
Three cheers greeted this order. The hour of battle had sounded. A few moments later, the frigate’s two funnels vomited torrents of black smoke, and its deck quaked from the trembling of its boilers.
Driven forward by its powerful propeller, the Abraham Lincoln headed straight for the animal. Unconcerned, the latter let us come within half a cable length; then, not bothering to dive, it got up a little speed, retreated, and was content to keep its distance.
This chase dragged on for about three–quarters of an hour without the frigate gaining two fathoms on the cetacean. At this rate, it was obvious that we would never catch up with it.
Infuriated, Commander Farragut kept twisting the thick tuft of hair that flourished below his chin.
“Ned Land!” he called.
The Canadian reported at once.
“Well, Mr. Land,” the commander asked, “do you still advise putting my longboats to sea?”
“No, sir,” Ned Land replied, “because that beast won’t be caught against its will.”
“Then what should we do?”
“Stoke up more steam, sir, if you can. As for me, with your permission I’ll go perch on the bobstays under the bowsprit, and if we can get within a harpoon length, I’ll harpoon the brute.”
“Go to it, Ned,” Commander Farragut replied. “Engineer,” he called, “keep the pressure mounting!”
Ned Land made his way to his post. The furnaces were urged into greater activity; our propeller did forty–three revolutions per minute, and steam shot from the valves. Heaving the log, we verified that the Abraham Lincoln was going at the rate of 18.5 miles per hour.
But that damned animal also did a speed of 18.5.
For the next hour our frigate kept up this pace without gaining a fathom! This was humiliating for one of the fastest racers in the American navy. The crew were working up into a blind rage. Sailor after sailor heaved insults at the monster, which couldn’t be bothered with answering back. Commander Farragut was no longer content simply to twist his goatee; he chewed on it.
The engineer was summoned once again.
“You’re up to maximum pressure?” the commander asked him.
“Aye, sir,” the engineer replied.
“And your valves are charged to . . . ?”
“To six and a half atmospheres.”
“Charge them to ten atmospheres.”
A typical American order if I ever heard one. It would have sounded just fine during some Mississippi paddle–wheeler race, to “outstrip the competition!”
“Conseil,” I said to my gallant servant, now at my side, “you realize that we’ll probably blow ourselves skyhigh?”
“As master wishes!” Conseil replied.
All right, I admit it: I did wish to run this risk!
The valves were charged. More coal was swallowed by the furnaces. Ventilators shot torrents of air over the braziers. The Abraham Lincoln’s speed increased. Its masts trembled down to their blocks, and swirls of smoke could barely squeeze through the narrow funnels.
We heaved the log a second time.
“Well, helmsman?” Commander Farragut asked.
“19.3 miles per hour, sir.”
“Keep stoking the furnaces.”
The engineer did so. The pressure gauge marked ten atmospheres. But no doubt the cetacean itself had “warmed up,” because without the least trouble, it also did 19.3.
What a chase! No, I can’t describe the excitement that shook my very being. Ned Land stayed at his post, harpoon in hand. Several times the animal let us approach.
“We’re overhauling it!” the Canadian would shout.
Then, just as he was about to strike, the cetacean would steal off with a swiftness I could estimate at no less than thirty miles per hour. And even at our maximum speed, it took the liberty of thumbing its nose at the frigate by running a full circle around us! A howl of fury burst from every throat!
By noon we were no farther along than at eight o’clock in the morning.
Commander Farragut then decided to use more direct methods.
“Bah!” he said. “So that animal is faster than the Abraham Lincoln. All right, we’ll see if it can outrun our conical shells! Mate, man the gun in the bow!”
Our forecastle cannon was immediately loaded and leveled. The cannoneer fired a shot, but his shell passed some feet above the cetacean, which stayed half a mile off.
“Over to somebody with better aim!” the commander shouted. “And $500.00 to the man who can pierce that infernal beast!”
Calm of eye, cool of feature, an old gray–bearded gunner—I can see him to this day—approached the cannon, put it in position, and took aim for a good while. There was a mighty explosion, mingled with cheers from the crew.
The shell reached its target; it hit the animal, but not in the usual fashion—it bounced off that rounded surface and vanished into the sea two miles out.
“Oh drat!” said the old gunner in his anger. “That rascal must be covered with six–inch armor plate!”
“Curse the beast!” Commander Farragut shouted.
The hunt was on again, and Commander Farragut leaned over to me, saying:
“I’ll chase that animal till my frigate explodes!”
“Yes,” I replied, “and nobody would blame you!”
We could still hope that the animal would tire out and not be as insensitive to exhaustion as our steam engines. But no such luck. Hour after hour went by without it showing the least sign of weariness.
However, to the Abraham Lincoln’s credit, it must be said that we struggled on with tireless persistence. I estimate that we covered a distance of at least 500 kilometers during this ill–fated day of November 6. But night fell and wrapped the surging ocean in its shadows.
By then I thought our expedition had come to an end, that we would never see this fantastic animal again. I was mistaken.
At 10:50 in the evening, that electric light reappeared three miles to windward of the frigate, just as clear and intense as the night before.
The narwhale seemed motionless. Was it asleep perhaps, weary from its workday, just riding with the waves? This was our chance, and Commander Farragut was determined to take full advantage of it.
He gave his orders. The Abraham Lincoln stayed at half steam, advancing cautiously so as not to awaken its adversary. In midocean it’s not unusual to encounter whales so sound asleep they can successfully be attacked, and Ned Land had harpooned more than one in its slumber. The Canadian went to resume his post on the bobstays under the bowsprit.
The frigate approached without making a sound, stopped two cable lengths from the animal and coasted. Not a soul breathed on board. A profound silence reigned over the deck. We were not 100 feet from the blazing core of light, whose glow grew stronger and dazzled the eyes.
Just then, leaning over the forecastle railing, I saw Ned Land below me, one hand grasping the martingale, the other brandishing his dreadful harpoon. Barely twenty feet separated him from the motionless animal.
All at once his arm shot forward and the harpoon was launched. I heard the weapon collide resonantly, as if it had hit some hard substance.
The electric light suddenly went out, and two enormous waterspouts crashed onto the deck of the frigate, racing like a torrent from stem to stern, toppling crewmen, breaking spare masts and yardarms from their lashings.
A hideous collision occurred, and thrown over the rail with no time to catch hold of it, I was hurled into the sea.