Because it all seems so improbable—so horribly impossible to me
now, sitting here safe and sane in my own library—I hesitate to
record an episode which already appears to me less horrible than
grotesque. Yet, unless this story is written now, I know I shall
never have the courage to tell the truth about the matter—not from
fear of ridicule, but because I myself shall soon cease to credit
what I now know to be true. Yet scarcely a month has elapsed since
I heard the stealthy purring of what I believed to be the shoaling
undertow—scarcely a month ago, with my own eyes, I saw that which,
even now, I am beginning to believe never existed. As for the
harbor-master—and the blow I am now striking at the old order of
things—But of that I shall not speak now, or later; I shall try to
tell the story simply and truthfully, and let my friends testify as
to my probity and the publishers of this book corroborate them.
On the 29th of February I resigned my position under the
government and left Washington to accept an offer from Professor
Farrago—whose name he kindly permits me to use—and on the first day
of April I entered upon my new and congenial duties as general
superintendent of the water-fowl department connected with the
Zoological Gardens then in course of erection at Bronx Park, New
For a week I followed the routine, examining the new
foundations, studying the architect's plans, following the
surveyors through the Bronx thickets, suggesting arrangements for
water-courses and pools destined to be included in the enclosures
for swans, geese, pelicans, herons, and such of the waders and
swimmers as we might expect to acclimate in Bronx Park.
It was at that time the policy of the trustees and officers of
the Zoological Gardens neither to employ collectors nor to send out
expeditions in search of specimens. The society decided to depend
upon voluntary contributions, and I was always busy, part of the
day, in dictating answers to correspondents who wrote offering
their services as hunters of big game, collectors of all sorts of
fauna, trappers, snarers, and also to those who offered specimens
for sale, usually at exorbitant rates.
To the proprietors of five-legged kittens, mangy lynxes,
moth-eaten coyotes, and dancing bears I returned courteous but
uncompromising refusals—of course, first submitting all such
letters, together with my replies, to Professor Farrago.
One day towards the end of May, however, just as I was leaving
Bronx Park to return to town, Professor Lesard, of the reptilian
department, called out to me that Professor Farrago wanted to see
me a moment; so I put my pipe into my pocket again and retraced my
steps to the temporary, wooden building occupied by Professor
Farrago, general superintendent of the Zoological Gardens. The
professor, who was sitting at his desk before a pile of letters and
replies submitted for approval by me, pushed his glasses down and
looked over them at me with a whimsical smile that suggested
amusement, impatience, annoyance, and perhaps a faint trace of
"Now, here's a letter," he said, with a deliberate gesture
towards a sheet of paper impaled on a file—"a letter that I suppose
you remember." He disengaged the sheet of paper and handed it to
"Oh yes," I replied, with a shrug; "of course the man is
"Or what?" demanded Professor Farrago, tranquilly, wiping his
"—Or a liar," I replied.
After a silence he leaned back in his chair and bade me read the
letter to him again, and I did so with a contemptuous tolerance for
the writer, who must have been either a very innocent victim or a
very stupid swindler. I said as much to Professor Farrago, but, to
my surprise, he appeared to waver.
"I suppose," he said, with his near-sighted, embarrassed smile,
"that nine hundred and ninety-nine men in a thousand would throw
that letter aside and condemn the writer as a liar or a fool?"
"In my opinion," said I, "he's one or the other."
"He isn't—in mine," said the professor, placidly.
"What!" I exclaimed. "Here is a man living all alone on a strip
of rock and sand between the wilderness and the sea, who wants you
to send somebody to take charge of a bird that doesn't exist!"
"How do you know," asked Professor Farrago, "that the bird in
question does not exist?"
"It is generally accepted," I replied, sarcastically, "that the
great auk has been extinct for years. Therefore I may be pardoned
for doubting that our correspondent possesses a pair of them
"Oh, you young fellows," said the professor, smiling wearily,
"you embark on a theory for destinations that don't exist."
He leaned back in his chair, his amused eyes searching space for
the imagery that made him smile.
"Like swimming squirrels, you navigate with the help of Heaven
and a stiff breeze, but you never land where you hope to—do
Rather red in the face, I said: "Don't you believe the great auk
to be extinct?"
"Audubon saw the great auk."
"Who has seen a single specimen since?"
"Nobody—except our correspondent here," he replied,
I laughed, too, considering the interview at an end, but the
professor went on, coolly:
"Whatever it is that our correspondent has—and I am daring to
believe that it is the great auk itself—I want you to
secure it for the society."
When my astonishment subsided my first conscious sentiment was
one of pity. Clearly, Professor Farrago was on the verge of
dotage—ah, what a loss to the world!
I believe now that Professor Farrago perfectly interpreted my
thoughts, but he betrayed neither resentment nor impatience. I drew
a chair up beside his desk—there was nothing to do but to obey, and
this fool's errand was none of my conceiving.
Together we made out a list of articles necessary for me and
itemized the expenses I might incur, and I set a date for my
return, allowing no margin for a successful termination to the
"Never mind that," said the professor. "What I want you to do is
to get those birds here safely. Now, how many men will you
"None," I replied, bluntly; "it's a useless expense, unless
there is something to bring back. If there is I'll wire you, you
may be sure."
"Very well," said Professor Farrago, good-humoredly, "you shall
have all the assistance you may require. Can you leave
The old gentleman was certainly prompt. I nodded, half-sulkily,
aware of his amusement.
"So," I said, picking up my hat, "I am to start north to find a
place called Black Harbor, where there is a man named Halyard who
possesses, among other household utensils, two extinct great
We were both laughing by this time. I asked him why on earth he
credited the assertion of a man he had never before heard of.
"I suppose," he replied, with the same half-apologetic,
half-humorous smile, "it is instinct. I feel, somehow, that this
man Halyard has got an auk—perhaps two. I can't get away
from the idea that we are on the eve of acquiring the rarest of
living creatures. It's odd for a scientist to talk as I do;
doubtless you're shocked—admit it, now!"
But I was not shocked; on the contrary, I was conscious that the
same strange hope that Professor Farrago cherished was beginning,
in spite of me, to stir my pulses, too.
"If he has—" I began, then stopped.
The professor and I looked hard at each other in silence.
"Go on," he said, encouragingly.
But I had nothing more to say, for the prospect of beholding
with my own eyes a living specimen of the great auk produced a
series of conflicting emotions within me which rendered speech
As I took my leave Professor Farrago came to the door of the
temporary, wooden office and handed me the letter written by the
man Halyard. I folded it and put it into my pocket, as Halyard
might require it for my own identification.
"How much does he want for the pair?" I asked.
"Ten thousand dollars. Don't demur—if the birds are really—"
"I know," I said, hastily, not daring to hope too much.
"One thing more," said Professor Farrago, gravely; "you know, in
that last paragraph of his letter, Halyard speaks of something else
in the way of specimens—an undiscovered species of amphibious
biped—just read that paragraph again, will you?"
I drew the letter from my pocket and read as he directed:
"When you have seen the two living specimens of the great auk,
and have satisfied yourself that I tell the truth, you may be wise
enough to listen without prejudice to a statement I shall make
concerning the existence of the strangest creature ever fashioned.
I will merely say, at this time, that the creature referred to is
an amphibious biped and inhabits the ocean near this coast. More I
cannot say, for I personally have not seen the animal, but I have a
witness who has, and there are many who affirm that they have seen
the creature. You will naturally say that my statement amounts to
nothing; but when your representative arrives, if he be free from
prejudice, I expect his reports to you concerning this sea-biped
will confirm the solemn statements of a witness I know to
"Yours truly, BURTON HALYARD.
"Well," I said, after a moment's thought, "here goes for the
"Wild auk, you mean," said Professor Farrago, shaking hands with
me. "You will start to-night, won't you?"
"Yes, but Heaven knows how I'm ever going to land in this man
Halyard's door-yard. Good-bye!"
"About that sea-biped—" began Professor Farrago, shyly.
"Oh, don't!" I said; "I can swallow the auks, feathers and
claws, but if this fellow Halyard is hinting he's seen an
amphibious creature resembling a man—"
"—Or a woman," said the professor, cautiously.
I retired, disgusted, my faith shaken in the mental vigor of