Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (French: Vingt mille lieues sous les mers) is a classic science fiction novel by French writer Jules Verne, published in 1870. It is about the fictional Captain Nemo and his submarine, Nautilus, as seen by one of his passengers, Professor Pierre Aronnax
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First digital edition 2017 by Anna Ruggieri
"The deepest parts of the ocean are totally unknown to us," admits Professor Aronnax early in this novel. "What goes on in those distant depths? What creatures inhabit, or could inhabit, those regions twelve or fifteenmiles beneath the surface of the water? It's almost beyond conjecture."
Jules Verne (1828–1905) published the French equivalents of these words in 1869, and little has changed since. 126 years later, aTimecover story on deep–sea exploration made much thesame admission: "We know more about Mars than we know about the oceans." This reality begins to explain the dark power and otherworldly fascination ofTwenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas.
Born in the French river town of Nantes, Verne had a lifelong passion for the sea. First as a Paris stockbroker, later as a celebrated author and yachtsman, he went on frequent voyages—to Britain, America, the Mediterranean. But the specific stimulus for this novel was an 1865 fan letter from a fellow writer, Madame George Sand. She praised Verne's two early novelsFive Weeks in a Balloon(1863) andJourney to the Center of the Earth(1864), then added: "Soon I hope you'll take us into the ocean depths, your characters traveling in diving equipment perfected by your science and your imagination." Thus inspired, Verne created one of literature's great rebels, a freedom fighter who plunged beneath the waves to wage a unique form of guerilla warfare.
Initially, Verne's narrative was influenced by the 1863 uprising of Polandagainst Tsarist Russia. The Poles were quashed with a violence that appalled not only Verne but all Europe. As originally conceived, Verne's Captain Nemo was a Polish nobleman whose entire family had been slaughtered by Russian troops. Nemo builds a fabulous futuristic submarine, theNautilus, then conducts an underwater campaign of vengeance against his imperialist oppressor.
But in the 1860s France had to treat the Tsar as an ally, and Verne's publisher, Pierre Hetzel, pronounced the book unprintable. Verne reworked its political content, devising new nationalities for Nemo and his great enemy—information revealed only in a later novel,The Mysterious Island(1875); in the present work Nemo's background remains a dark secret. In all, the novel had a difficult gestation. Verne and Hetzel were in constant conflict and the book went through multiple drafts, struggles reflected in its several working titles over the period 1865–69: early on, it was variously calledVoyage Under the Waters,Twenty–five ThousandLeagues Under the Waters,Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Waters, andA Thousand Leagues Under the Oceans.
Verne is often dubbed, in Isaac Asimov's phrase, "the world's first science–fiction writer." And it's true, many of his sixty–odd books do anticipate future events and technologies:From the Earth to the Moon(1865) andHector Servadac(1877) deal in space travel, whileJourney to the Center of the Earthfeatures travel to the earth's core. But with Verne the operative word is "travel," and some of his best–known titles don't really qualify as sci–fi:Around the World in Eighty Days(1872) andMichael Strogoff(1876) are closer to "travelogs"—adventure yarns in far–away places.
These observations partly apply here. The subtitle of the present book isAn Underwater Tour of the World, so in good travelog style, theNautilus'sexploits supply an episodic story line. Shark attacks, giant squid, cannibals, hurricanes, whale hunts, and other rip–roaring adventures erupt almost at random. Yet this loose structure gives the novel an air of documentary realism. What's more, Verne adds backbone to the action by developing three recurring motifs: the deepening mysteryof Nemo's past life and future intentions, the mounting tension between Nemo and hot–tempered harpooner Ned Land, and Ned's ongoing schemes to escape from theNautilus. These unifying threads tighten the narrative and accelerate its momentum.
Other subtleties occur inside each episode, the textures sparkling with wit, information, and insight. Verne regards the sea from many angles: in the domain of marine biology, he gives us thumbnail sketches of fish, seashells, coral, sometimes in great catalogs that swirl past like musical cascades; in the realm of geology, he studies volcanoes literally inside and out; in the world of commerce, he celebrates the high–energy entrepreneurs who lay the Atlantic Cable or dig the Suez Canal. And Verne's marine engineeringproves especially authoritative. His specifications for an open–sea submarine and a self–contained diving suit were decades before their time, yet modern technology bears them out triumphantly.
True, today's scientists know a few things he didn't: the South Pole isn't at the water's edge but far inland; sharks don't flip over before attacking; giant squid sport ten tentacles not eight; sperm whales don't prey on their whalebone cousins. This notwithstanding, Verne furnishes the most evocative portrayal of the ocean depths before the arrival of Jacques Cousteau and technicolor film.
Lastly the book has stature as a novel of character. Even the supporting cast is shrewdly drawn: Professor Aronnax, the career scientist caught in an ethical conflict; Conseil, the compulsive classifier who supplies humorous tag lines for Verne's fast facts; the harpooner Ned Land, a creature of constant appetites, man as heroic animal.
But much of the novel's brooding power comes from Captain Nemo. Inventor, musician, Renaissancegenius, he's a trail–blazing creation, the prototype not only for countless renegade scientists in popular fiction, but even for such varied figures as Sherlock Holmes or Wolf Larsen. However, Verne gives his hero's brilliance and benevolence a dark underside—the man's obsessive hate for his old enemy. This compulsion leads Nemo into ugly contradictions: he's a fighter for freedom, yet all who board his ship are imprisoned there for good; he works to save lives, both human and animal, yet he himself createsa holocaust; he detests imperialism, yet he lays personal claim to the South Pole. And in this last action he falls into the classic sin of Pride. He's swiftly punished. TheNautilusnearly perishes in the Antarctic and Nemo sinks into a growing depression.
Like Shakespeare'sKing Learhe courts death and madness in a great storm, then commits mass murder, collapses in catatonic paralysis, and suicidally runs his ship into the ocean's most dangerous whirlpool. Hate swallows him whole.
For many, then, thisbook has been a source of fascination, surely one of the most influential novels ever written, an inspiration for such scientists and discoverers as engineer Simon Lake, oceanographer William Beebe, polar traveler Sir Ernest Shackleton. Likewise Dr. RobertD. Ballard, finder of the sunken Titanic, confesses that this was his favorite book as a teenager, and Cousteau himself, most renowned of marine explorers, called it his shipboard bible.
The present translation is a faithful yet communicative rendering ofthe original French texts published in Paris by J. Hetzel et Cie.—the hardcover first edition issued in the autumn of 1871, collated with the softcover editions of the First and Second Parts issued separately in the autumn of 1869 and the summer of 1870.Although prior English versions have often been heavily abridged, this new translation is complete to the smallest substantive detail.
Because, as thatTimecover story suggests, we still haven't caught up with Verne. Even in our era of satellite dishes and video games, the seas keep their secrets. We've seen progress in sonar, torpedoes, and other belligerent machinery, but sailors and scientists—to say nothing of tourists—have yet to voyage in a submarine with the luxury and efficiency of the Nautilus.
University of Houston
THE YEAR 1866 was marked by a bizarre development, an unexplained and downright inexplicable phenomenon that surely no one has forgotten. Without getting into those rumors that upset civilians in the seaports and deranged the public mind even far inland, it must be said that professional seamen were especially alarmed. Traders, shipowners, captains of vessels, skippers, and master mariners from Europe and America, naval officersfrom every country, and at their heels the various national governments on these two continents, were all extremely disturbed by the business.
In essence, over a period of time several ships had encountered "an enormous thing" at sea, a long spindle–shaped object, sometimes giving off a phosphorescent glow, infinitely bigger and faster thanany whale.
The relevant data on this apparition, as recorded in various logbooks, agreed pretty closely as to the structure of the object or creature in question, its unprecedented speed of movement, its startling locomotive power, and the unique vitalitywith which it seemed to be gifted. If it was acetacean, it exceeded in bulk any whale previously classified by science. No naturalist, neither Cuvier nor Lacépède, neither Professor Dumeril nor Professor de Quatrefages, would have accepted the existence of such a monster sight unseen—specifically, unseen by their own scientific eyes.
Striking an average of observations taken at different times—rejecting those timid estimates that gave the object a length of 200 feet, and ignoring those exaggerated views that saw it as a mile wide and three long—you could still assert that this phenomenal creature greatly exceeded the dimensions of anything then known to ichthyologists, if it existed at all.
Now then, it did exist, this was an undeniable fact; and since thehuman mind dotes on objects of wonder, you can understand the worldwide excitement caused by this unearthly apparition. As for relegating it to the realm of fiction, that charge had to be dropped.
In essence, on July 20, 1866, the steamerGovernor Higginson, from the Calcutta & Burnach Steam Navigation Co., encountered this moving mass five miles off the eastern shores of Australia.
Captain Baker at first thought he was in the presence of an unknown reef; he was even about to fix its exact position when twowaterspouts shot out of this inexplicable object and sprang hissing into the air some 150 feet. So, unless this reef was subject to the intermittent eruptions of a geyser, theGovernor Higginsonhad fair and honest dealings with some aquatic mammal, untilthen unknown, that could spurt from its blowholes waterspouts mixed with air and steam.
Similar events were likewise observed in Pacific seas, on July 23 of the same year, by theChristopher Columbusfrom the West India & Pacific Steam Navigation Co. Consequently, this extraordinarycetaceancould transfer itself from one locality to another with startling swiftness, since within an interval of just three days, theGovernor Higginsonand theChristopher Columbushad observed it at two positions on the charts separated by a distance of more than 700 nautical leagues.
Fifteen days later and 2,000 leagues farther, theHelvetiafrom the Compagnie Nationale and theShannonfrom the Royal Mail line, running on opposite tacks in that part of the Atlantic lying between the United States and Europe, respectively signaled each other thatthe monster had been sighted in latitude 42° 15' north and longitude 60° 35' west of the meridian of Greenwich. From their simultaneous observations, they were able to estimate the mammal's minimum length at more than 350 English feet;*this was because both theShannonand theHelvetiawere of smaller dimensions, although each measured 100 meters stem to stern. Now then, the biggest whales, those rorqual whales that frequent the waterways of the Aleutian Islands, have never exceeded a length of 56 meters—if they reach even that.
*Author's Note: About 106 meters. An English foot is only 30.4 centimeters.
One after another, reports arrived that would profoundly affect public opinion: newobservations taken by the transatlantic linerPereire, the Inman line'sEtnarunning afoul of the monster, an official report drawn up by officers on the French frigateNormandy, dead–earnest reckonings obtained by the general staff of Commodore Fitz–James aboard theLord Clyde. In lighthearted countries, people joked about this phenomenon, but such serious, practical countries as England, America, and Germany were deeply concerned.
In every big city the monster was the latest rage; they sang about it in the coffee houses, they ridiculed it in the newspapers, they dramatized it in the theaters. The tabloids found it a fine opportunity for hatching all sorts of hoaxes. In those newspapers short of copy, you saw the reappearance of every gigantic imaginary creature, from "Moby Dick," that dreadful white whale from the High Arctic regions, to the stupendous kraken whose tentacles could entwine a 500–ton craft and drag it into the ocean depths. They even reprinted reports from ancient times: the views of Aristotle and Pliny accepting the existence of such monsters, then the Norwegian stories of Bishop Pontoppidan, the narratives of Paul Egede, and finally the reports of Captain Harrington—whose good faith is above suspicion—in which he claims he saw, while aboardtheCastilianin 1857, one of those enormous serpents that, until then, had frequented only the seas of France's old extremist newspaper,The Constitutionalist.
An interminable debate then broke out between believers and skeptics in the scholarly societies and scientific journals. The "monster question" inflamed all minds. During this memorable campaign, journalists making a profession of science battled with those making a profession of wit, spilling waves of ink and some of them even two or three drops of blood, since they went from sea serpents to the most offensive personal remarks.
For six months the war seesawed. With inexhaustible zest, the popular press took potshots at feature articles from the Geographic Institute of Brazil, the Royal Academy of Science in Berlin, the British Association, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., at discussions in The Indian Archipelago, inCosmospublished by Father Moigno, in Petermann'sMittheilungen,*and at scientific chronicles in the great French and foreign newspapers. When the monster's detractors cited a saying by the botanist Linnaeus that "nature doesn't make leaps," witty writers in the popular periodicals parodied it, maintaining in essence that "nature doesn't make lunatics," and ordering their contemporaries never to give the lie to nature by believing in krakens, sea serpents, "MobyDicks," and other all–out efforts from drunken seamen. Finally, in a much–feared satirical journal, an article by its most popular columnist finished off the monster for good, spurning it in the style of Hippolytus repulsing the amorous advancesof his stepmother Phædra, and giving the creature its quietus amid a universal burst of laughter. Wit had defeated science.
*German: "Bulletin." Ed.
During the first months of the year 1867, the question seemed to be buried, and it didn't seem due for resurrection, when new facts were brought to the public's attention. But now it was no longer an issue of a scientific problem to be solved, but a quite real and serious danger to be avoided. The question took an entirely new turn. The monster again became anislet, rock, or reef, but a runaway reef, unfixed and elusive.
On March 5, 1867, theMoravianfrom the Montreal Ocean Co., lying during the night in latitude 27° 30' and longitude 72° 15', ran its starboard quarter afoul of a rock marked on no charts of these waterways. Under the combined efforts of wind and 400–horsepower steam, it was traveling at a speed of thirteen knots. Without the high quality of its hull, theMoravianwould surely have split open from this collision and gone down together with those237 passengers it was bringing back from Canada.
This accident happened around five o'clock in the morning, just as day was beginning to break. The officers on watch rushed to the craft's stern. They examined the ocean with the most scrupulous care. Theysaw nothing except a strong eddy breaking three cable lengths out, as if those sheets of water had been violently churned. The site's exact bearings were taken, and theMoraviancontinued on course apparently undamaged. Had it run afoul of an underwater rock or the wreckage of some enormous derelict ship? They were unable to say. But when they examined its undersides in the service yard, they discovered that part of its keel had been smashed.
This occurrence, extremely serious in itself, might perhaps havebeen forgotten like so many others, if three weeks later it hadn't been reenacted under identical conditions. Only, thanks to the nationality of the ship victimized by this new ramming, and thanks to the reputation of the company to which this ship belonged, the event caused an immense uproar.
No one is unaware of the name of that famous English shipowner, Cunard. In 1840 this shrewd industrialist founded a postal service between Liverpool and Halifax, featuring three wooden ships with 400–horsepower paddlewheels and a burden of 1,162 metric tons. Eight years later, the company's assets were increased by four 650–horsepower ships at 1,820 metric tons, and in two more years, by two other vessels of still greater power and tonnage. In 1853 the Cunard Co., whose mail–carrying charter had just been renewed, successively added to its assets theArabia, thePersia, theChina, theScotia, theJava, and theRussia, all ships of top speed and, after theGreat Eastern, the biggest ever to plow the seas. So in 1867 this company owned twelve ships, eight with paddle wheels and four with propellers.
If I give these highly condensed details, it is so everyone can fully understand the importance of this maritime transportation company, known the world over for its shrewd management. No transoceanic navigational undertaking has been conducted with more ability, no business dealings have been crowned with greater success. In twenty–six years Cunard ships have made 2,000 Atlantic crossings without so much as a voyage canceled,a delay recorded, a man, a craft, or even a letter lost. Accordingly, despite strong competition from France, passengers still choose the Cunard line in preference to all others, as can be seen in a recent survey of official documents. Given this, no one will be astonished at the uproar provoked by this accident involving one of its finest steamers.
On April 13, 1867, with a smooth sea and a moderate breeze, theScotialay in longitude 15° 12' and latitude 45° 37'. It was traveling at a speed of 13.43 knotsunder the thrust of its 1,000–horsepower engines. Its paddle wheels were churning the sea with perfect steadiness. It was then drawing 6.7 meters of water and displacing 6,624 cubic meters.
At 4:17 in the afternoon, during a high tea for passengers gathered in the main lounge, a collision occurred, scarcely noticeable on the whole, affecting theScotia'shull in that quarter a little astern of its port paddle wheel.
TheScotiahadn't run afoul of something, it had been fouled, and by a cutting or perforating instrument rather than a blunt one. This encounter seemed so minor that nobody on board would have been disturbed by it, had it not been for the shouts of crewmen in the hold, who climbed on deck yelling:
"We're sinking! We're sinking!"
At first the passengers were quite frightened, but Captain Anderson hastened to reassure them. In fact, there could be no immediate danger. Divided into seven compartments by watertight bulkheads, theScotiacould brave any leak with impunity.
Captain Anderson immediatelymade his way into the hold. He discovered that the fifth compartment had been invaded by the sea, and the speed of this invasion proved that the leak was considerable. Fortunately this compartment didn't contain the boilers, because their furnaces would have been abruptly extinguished.
Captain Anderson called an immediate halt, and one of his sailors dived down to assess the damage. Within moments they had located a hole two meters in width on the steamer's underside. Such a leak could not be patched, and with its paddle wheels half swamped, theScotiahad no choice but to continue its voyage. By then it lay 300 miles from Cape Clear, and after three days of delay that filled Liverpool with acute anxiety, it entered the company docks.
The engineers then proceeded to inspect theScotia, which had been put in dry dock. They couldn't believe their eyes. Two and a half meters below its waterline, there gaped a symmetrical gash in the shape of an isosceles triangle. This breach in the sheet iron was so perfectly formed, no punch could have donea cleaner job of it. Consequently, it must havebeen produced by a perforating tool of uncommon toughness—plus, after being launched with prodigious power and then piercing four centimeters of sheet iron, this tool had needed to withdraw itself by a backward motion truly inexplicable.
This was the last straw, and it resulted in arousing public passions all over again. Indeed, from this moment on, any maritime casualty without an established cause was charged to the monster's account. This outrageous animalhad to shoulder responsibility for all derelict vessels, whose numbers are unfortunately considerable, since out of those 3,000 ships whose losses are recorded annually at the marine insurance bureau, the figure for steam or sailing ships supposedly lostwith all hands, in the absence of any news, amounts to at least 200!
Now then, justly or unjustly, it was the "monster" who stood accused of their disappearance; and since, thanks to it, travel between the various continents had become more and more dangerous, the public spoke up and demanded straight out that, at all cost, the seas be purged of this fearsomecetacean.
DURING THE PERIODin which these developments were occurring, Ihad returned from a scientific undertaking organized to explore theNebraska badlands in the United States. In my capacity as AssistantProfessor at the Paris Museum of Natural History, I had beenattached to this expedition by the French government. Afterspending six months in Nebraska, I arrived inNew York laden withvaluable collections near the end of March. My departure for Francewas set for early May. In the meantime, then, I was busyclassifying my mineralogical, botanical, and zoological treasureswhen that incident took place with theScotia.
I was perfectly abreast of this question, which was the big newsof the day, and how could I not have been? I had read and rereadevery American and European newspaper without being any fartheralong. This mystery puzzled me. Finding it impossible to form anyviews, I drifted from one extreme to the other. Something was outthere, that much was certain, and any doubting Thomas was invitedto place his finger on theScotia'swound.
When I arrived in New York, the question was at the boilingpoint. The hypothesis of a drifting islet or an elusive reef, putforward by people not quite in their right minds, was completelyeliminated. And indeed, unless this reef had an engine in itsbelly, how could it move about with such prodigious speed?
Also discredited was the idea of a floating hull or some otherenormous wreckage, and again because of this speed of movement.
So only two possible solutions to the question were left,creating two very distinct groups of supporters: on one side, thosefavoring a monster ofcolossal strength; on the other, thosefavoring an "underwater boat" of tremendous motor power.
Now then, although the latter hypothesis was completelyadmissible, it couldn't stand up to inquiries conducted in both theNew World and the Old. That a private individual had such amechanism at his disposal was less than probable. Where and whenhad he built it, and how could he have built it in secret?
Only some government could own such an engine of destruction,and in these disaster–filled times, when men tax theiringenuity to build increasingly powerful aggressive weapons, it waspossible that, unknown to the rest of the world, some nation couldhave been testing such a fearsome machine. The Chassepot rifle ledto the torpedo, and the torpedo has led to this underwaterbattering ram, which in turn will lead to the world putting itsfoot down. At least I hope it will.
But this hypothesis of a war machine collapsed in the face offormal denials from the various governments. Since the publicinterest was at stake and transoceanic travel was suffering, thesincerity of these governments could not be doubted. Besides, howcould the assembly of this underwater boat have escaped publicnotice? Keeping a secret under such circumstances would bedifficult enough foran individual, and certainly impossible for anation whose every move is under constant surveillance by rivalpowers.
So, after inquiries conducted in England, France, Russia,Prussia, Spain, Italy, America, and even Turkey, the hypothesis ofan underwaterMonitorwas ultimately rejected.
And so the monster surfaced again, despite the endlesswitticisms heaped on it by the popular press, and the humanimagination soon got caught up in the most ridiculousichthyological fantasies.
After I arrived in New York, several people did me the honor ofconsulting me on the phenomenon in question. In France I hadpublished a two–volume work, in quarto, entitledThe Mysteriesof the Great Ocean Depths. Well received in scholarly circles, thisbook had established me asa specialist in this pretty obscure fieldof natural history. My views were in demand. As long as I coulddeny the reality of the business, I confined myself to a flat "nocomment." But soon, pinned to the wall, I had to explain myselfstraight out. And inthis vein, "the honorable Pierre Aronnax,Professor at the Paris Museum," was summoned byThe New YorkHeraldto formulate his views no matter what.
I complied. Since I could no longer hold my tongue, I let itwag. I discussed the question in its every aspect, both politicaland scientific, and this is an excerpt from the well–paddedarticle I published in the issue of April 30.
"Therefore," I wrote, "after examining these differenthypotheses one by one, we are forced, every other suppositionhaving beenrefuted, to accept the existence of an extremelypowerful marine animal.
"The deepest parts of the ocean are totally unknown to us. Nosoundings have been able to reach them. What goes on in thosedistant depths? What creatures inhabit, or could inhabit, thoseregions twelve or fifteen miles beneath the surface of the water?What is the constitution of these animals? It's almost beyondconjecture.
"However, the solution to this problem submitted to me can takethe form of a choice between two alternatives.
"Either we know every variety of creature populating our planet,or we do not.
"If we do not know every one of them, if nature still keepsichthyological secrets from us, nothing is more admissible than toaccept the existence of fish orcetaceans of new species or even newgenera, animals with a basically 'cast–iron' constitutionthat inhabit strata beyond the reach of our soundings, and whichsome development or other, an urge or a whim if you prefer, canbring to the upper level of the ocean for long intervals.
"If, on the other hand, we do know every living species, we mustlook for the animal in question among those marine creaturesalready cataloged, and in this event I would be inclined to acceptthe existence of a giant narwhale.
"The common narwhale, or sea unicorn, often reaches a length ofsixty feet. Increase its dimensions fivefold or even tenfold, thengive thiscetaceana strength in proportion to its size whileenlarging its offensive weapons, and you have the animal we'relooking for. It would have the proportions determined by theofficers of theShannon, the instrument needed to perforatetheScotia, and the power to pierce a steamer's hull.
"In essence, the narwhale is armed with a sort of ivory sword,or lance, as certain naturalists haveexpressed it. It's aking–sized tooth as hard as steel. Some of these teeth havebeen found buried in the bodies of baleen whales, which thenarwhale attacks with invariable success. Others have beenwrenched, not without difficulty, from the undersides ofvesselsthat narwhales have pierced clean through, as a gimlet pierces awine barrel. The museum at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris ownsone of these tusks with a length of 2.25 meters and a width at itsbase of forty–eight centimeters!
"All right then!Imagine this weapon to be ten times stronger andthe animal ten times more powerful, launch it at a speed of twentymiles per hour, multiply its mass times its velocity, and you getjust the collision we need to cause the specified catastrophe.
"So, untilinformation becomes more abundant, I plump for a seaunicorn of colossal dimensions, no longer armed with a mere lancebut with an actual spur, like ironclad frigates or those warshipscalled 'rams,' whose mass and motor power it would possesssimultaneously.
"This inexplicable phenomenon is thus explainedaway—unless it's something else entirely, which, despiteeverything that has been sighted, studied, explored andexperienced, is still possible!"
These last words were cowardly of me; but as far as I could, Iwanted to protect my professorial dignity and not lay myself opento laughter from the Americans, who when they do laugh, laughraucously. I had left myself a loophole. Yet deep down, I hadaccepted the existence of "the monster."
My article was hotlydebated, causing a fine old uproar. Itrallied a number of supporters. Moreover, the solution it proposedallowed for free play of the imagination. The human mind enjoysimpressive visions of unearthly creatures. Now then, the sea isprecisely their bestmedium, the only setting suitable for thebreeding and growing of such giants—next to which such landanimals as elephants or rhinoceroses are mere dwarves. The liquidmasses support the largest known species of mammals and perhapsconceal mollusks of incomparable size or crustaceans too frightfulto contemplate, such as 100–meter lobsters or crabs weighing200 metric tons! Why not? Formerly, in prehistoric days, landanimals (quadrupeds, apes, reptiles, birds) were built on agigantic scale. Our Creator cast them using a colossal mold thattime has gradually made smaller. With its untold depths, couldn'tthe sea keep alive such huge specimens of life from another age,this sea that never changes while the land masses undergo almostcontinuous alteration? Couldn't the heart of the ocean hide thelast–remaining varieties of these titanic species, for whomyears are centuries and centuries millennia?
But I mustn't let these fantasies run away with me! Enough ofthese fairy tales that time has changed for me into harshrealities. I repeat: opinion had crystallized as to the nature ofthis phenomenon, and the public accepted without argument theexistence of a prodigious creature that had nothing in common withthe fabled sea serpent.
Yet if some saw it purely asa scientific problem to be solved,more practical people, especially in America and England, weredetermined to purge the ocean of this daunting monster, to insurethe safety of transoceanic travel. The industrial and commercialnewspapers dealt with the question chiefly from this viewpoint. TheShipping & Mercantile Gazette, the Lloyd's List, France'sPacketboat and Maritime & Colonial Review, all the rags devotedto insurance companies—who threatened to raise their premiumrates—were unanimous on this point.
Public opinion being pronounced, the States of the Union werethe first in the field. In New York preparations were under way foran expedition designed to chase this narwhale. A high–speedfrigate, theAbraham Lincoln, was fitted out for putting to sea assoon as possible. The naval arsenals were unlocked for CommanderFarragut, who pressed energetically forward with the arming of hisfrigate.
But, as it always happens, just when a decision had been made tochase the monster, the monster put in no further appearances. Fortwo months nobody heard a word about it. Not a single shipencountered it. Apparently the unicorn had gotten wise to theseplots beingwoven around it. People were constantly babbling aboutthe creature, even via the Atlantic Cable! Accordingly, the wagsclaimed that this slippery rascal had waylaid some passing telegramand was making the most of it.
So the frigate was equipped for a far–off voyage and armedwith fearsome fishing gear, but nobody knew where to steer it. Andimpatiencegrew until, on June 2, word came that theTampico, asteamer on the San Francisco line sailing from California toShanghai, had sighted the animal again, three weeks before in thenortherly seas of the Pacific.
This news caused intense excitement. Not evena 24–hourbreather was granted to Commander Farragut. His provisions wereloaded on board. His coal bunkers were overflowing. Not a crewmanwas missing from his post. To cast off, he needed only to fire andstoke his furnaces! Half a day's delay would have beenunforgivable! But Commander Farragut wanted nothing more than to goforth.
I received a letter three hours before theAbraham Lincolnleftits Brooklyn pier;*the letter read as follows:
Pierre AronnaxProfessor at the Paris MuseumFifth Avenue HotelNewYork
If you would like to join the expedition on theAbraham Lincoln,the government of the Union will be pleased to regard you asFrance's representative in this undertaking. Commander Farragut hasa cabin at your disposal.
Very cordially yours,
J. B. HOBSON,Secretary of the Navy.
*Author's Note: A pier is a type of wharf expressly set asidefor an individual vessel.
THREE SECONDSbefore the arrival of J. B. Hobson's letter, I nomore dreamed of chasing the unicorn than of trying for theNorthwest Passage. Three seconds after reading this letter from thehonorable Secretary of the Navy, I understood at last that my truevocation, my sole purpose in life, was to hunt down this disturbingmonster and rid the world of it.
Even so, I had just returned from an arduous journey, exhaustedand badly needing a rest. I wanted nothing more than to see mycountry again, my friends, my modest quarters by the BotanicalGardens, my dearly beloved collections! But now nothing could holdme back. I forgot everything else, and without another thought ofexhaustion, friends, or collections, I accepted the Americangovernment's offer.
"Besides," I mused, "all roads lead home to Europe, and ourunicorn may be gracious enough to take me toward the coast ofFrance! That fine animal may even let itself be captured inEuropean seas—as a personal favor to me—and I'll bringback to the Museum of Natural Historyat least half a meter of itsivory lance!"
But in the meantime I would have to look for this narwhale inthe northern Pacific Ocean; which meant returning to France by wayof the Antipodes.
"Conseil!" I called in an impatient voice.
Conseil was my manservant. A devoted lad who went with me on allmy journeys; a gallant Flemish boy whom I genuinely liked and whoreturned the compliment; a born stoic, punctilious on principle,habitually hardworking, rarely startled by life's surprises, veryskillful with his hands, efficient in his every duty, and despitehis having a name that means "counsel," never givingadvice—not even the unsolicited kind!
From rubbing shoulders with scientists in our little universe bythe Botanical Gardens, the boy had come to know athing or two. InConseil I had a seasoned specialist in biological classification,an enthusiast who could run with acrobatic agility up and down thewhole ladder of branches, groups, classes, subclasses, orders,families, genera, subgenera, species, and varieties. But there hisscience came to a halt. Classifying was everything to him, so heknew nothing else. Well versed in the theory of classification, hewas poorly versed in its practical application, and I doubt that hecould tell a sperm whale from abaleen whale! And yet, what a fine,gallant lad!
For the past ten years, Conseil had gone with me whereverscience beckoned. Not once did he comment on the length or thehardships of a journey. Never did he object to buckling up hissuitcase for any country whatever, China or the Congo, no matterhow far off it was. Hewent here, there, and everywhere in perfectcontentment. Moreover, he enjoyed excellent health that defied allailments, owned solid muscles, but hadn't a nerve in him, not asign of nerves—the mental type, I mean.
The lad was thirty years old, and his age to that of hisemployer was as fifteen is to twenty. Please forgive me for thisunderhanded way of admitting I had turned forty.
But Conseil had one flaw. He was a fanatic on formality, andheonly addressed me in the third person—to the point where itgot tiresome.
"Conseil!" I repeated, while feverishly beginning mypreparations for departure.
To be sure, I had confidence in this devoted lad. Ordinarily, Inever asked whether or not it suited him to go with me on myjourneys; but this time an expedition was at issue that could dragon indefinitely, a hazardous undertaking whose purpose was to huntan animal that could sink a frigate as easily as a walnut shell!There was good reason to stopand think, even for the world's mostemotionless man. What would Conseil say?
"Conseil!" I called a third time.
"Did master summon me?" he said, entering.
"Yes, my boy. Get my things ready, get yours ready. We'redeparting in two hours."
"As master wishes," Conseil replied serenely.
"We haven't a moment to lose. Pack as much into my trunk as youcan, my traveling kit, my suits, shirts, and socks, don't bothercounting, just squeeze it all in—and hurry!"
"What about master's collections?" Conseil ventured toobserve.
"We'll deal with them later."
"What! Thearchaeotherium,hyracotherium,oreodonts,cheiropotamus,and master's other fossil skeletons?"
"The hotel will keep them for us."
"What about master's livebabirusa?"
"They'll feed it during our absence. Anyhow, we'll leaveinstructions to ship the whole menagerie to France."
"Then we aren't returning to Paris?" Conseil asked.
"Yes, we are . . . certainly . . . ," I replied evasively, "butafter we make a detour."
"Whatever detour master wishes."
"Oh, it's nothing really! A route slightly less direct, that'sall. We're leaving on theAbraham Lincoln."
"As master thinks best," Conseil replied placidly.
"You see, my friend, it's an issue of the monster, the notoriousnarwhale. We're going torid the seas of it! The author of atwo–volume work, in quarto, on The Mysteries of the GreatOcean Depths has no excuse for not setting sail with CommanderFarragut. It's a glorious mission but also a dangerous one! Wedon't know where it will take us! These beasts can be quiteunpredictable! But we're going just the same! We have a commanderwho's game for anything!"
"What master does, I'll do," Conseil replied.
"But think it over, because I don't want to hide anything fromyou. This is one of those voyages from which people don't alwayscome back!"
"As master wishes."
A quarter of an hour later, our trunks were ready. Conseil didthem in a flash, and I was sure the lad hadn't missed a thing,because he classified shirts and suits as expertly as birdsandmammals.
The hotel elevator dropped us off in the main vestibule on themezzanine. I went down a short stair leading to the ground floor. Isettled my bill at that huge counter that was always under siege bya considerable crowd. I left instructions for shipping mycontainers of stuffed animals and dried plants to Paris, France. Iopened a line of credit sufficient to cover thebabirusaand, Conseilat my heels, I jumped into a carriage.
For a fare of twenty francs, the vehicle went down Broadway toUnion Square, took Fourth Ave. to its junction with Bowery St.,turned into Katrin St. and halted at Pier 34. There the Katrinferry transferred men, horses, and carriage to Brooklyn, that greatNew York annex located on the left bank of the East River, and inafew minutes we arrived at the wharf next to which theAbrahamLincolnwas vomiting torrents of black smoke from its twofunnels.
Our baggage was immediately carried to the deck of the frigate.I rushed aboard. I asked for Commander Farragut. One of thesailorsled me to the afterdeck, where I stood in the presence of asmart–looking officer who extended his hand to me.
"Professor Pierre Aronnax?" he said to me.
"The same," I replied. "Commander Farragut?"
"In person. Welcome aboard, professor. Your cabinis waiting foryou."
I bowed, and letting the commander attend to getting under way,I was taken to the cabin that had been set aside for me.
TheAbraham Lincolnhad been perfectly chosen and fitted out forits new assignment. It was a high–speed frigatefurnished withsuperheating equipment that allowed the tension of its steam tobuild to seven atmospheres. Under this pressure theAbrahamLincolnreached an average speed of 18.3 miles per hour, aconsiderable speed but still not enough to cope with ourgiganticcetacean.
The frigate's interior accommodations complemented its nauticalvirtues. I was well satisfied with my cabin, which was located inthe stern and opened into the officers' mess.
"We'll be quite comfortable here," I told Conseil.
"With all due respect to master," Conseil replied, "ascomfortable as a hermit crab inside the shell of a whelk."
I left Conseil to the proper stowing of our luggage and climbedon deck to watch the preparations for getting under way.
Just then Commander Farragut wasgiving orders to cast off thelast moorings holding theAbraham Lincolnto its Brooklyn pier. Andso if I'd been delayed by a quarter of an hour or even less, thefrigate would have gone without me, and I would have missed out onthis unearthly, extraordinary, and inconceivable expedition, whosetrue story might well meet with some skepticism.
But Commander Farragut didn't want to waste a single day, oreven a single hour, in making for those seas where the animal hadjust been sighted. He summoned his engineer.
"Are we up to pressure?" he asked the man.
"Aye, sir," the engineer replied.
"Go ahead, then!" Commander Farragut called.
At this order, which was relayed to the engine by means of acompressed–air device, the mechanics activated thestart–up wheel.Steam rushed whistling into the gaping valves.Long horizontal pistons groaned and pushed the tie rods of thedrive shaft. The blades of the propeller churned the waves withincreasing speed, and theAbraham Lincolnmoved out majestically amida spectator–laden escort of some 100 ferries andtenders.*
*Author's Note: Tenders are small steamboats that assist the bigliners.
The wharves of Brooklyn, and every part of New York borderingthe East River, were crowded with curiosity seekers. Departing from500,000 throats, three cheers burst forth in succession. Thousandsof handkerchiefs were waving above these tightly packedmasses,hailing theAbraham Lincolnuntil it reached the waters of theHudson River, at the tip of the long peninsula that forms NewYorkCity.
The frigate then went along the New Jersey coast—thewonderful right bank of this river, all loaded down with countryhomes—and passed by the forts to salutes from their biggestcannons. TheAbraham Lincolnreplied by three times lowering andhoisting the American flag, whose thirty–nine stars gleamedfrom the gaff of the mizzen sail; then, changing speed to take thebuoy–marked channel that curved into the inner bay formed bythe spit of Sandy Hook, it hugged this sand–covered strip ofland where thousands of spectators acclaimed us one more time.
The escort of boats and tenders still followed the frigate andonly left us when we came abreast of the lightship, whose twosignal lights mark the entrance of the narrows to Upper New YorkBay.
Three o'clock then sounded. The harbor pilot went down into hisdinghy and rejoined a little schooner waiting for him to leeward.The furnaces were stoked; the propeller churned the waves moreswiftly; the frigate skirted the flat, yellow coast of Long Island;and ateight o'clock in the evening, after the lights of Fire Islandhad vanished into the northwest, we ran at full steam onto the darkwaters of the Atlantic.
COMMANDER FARRAGUTwas a good seaman, worthy of the frigate hecommanded. His shipand he were one. He was its very soul. Onthecetaceanquestion no doubts arose in his mind, and he didn'tallow the animal's existence to be disputed aboard his vessel. Hebelieved in it as certain pious women believe in the leviathan fromthe Book of Job—out of faith, not reason. The monsterexisted, and he had vowed to rid the seas of it. The man was a sortof Knight of Rhodes, a latter–day Sir Dieudonné of Gozo,on his way to fight an encounter with the dragon devastating theisland. Either Commander Farragut would slay the narwhale, or thenarwhale would slay Commander Farragut. No middle of the road forthese two.
The ship's officers shared the views of their leader. They couldbe heard chatting, discussing, arguing, calculating the differentchancesof an encounter, and observing the vast expanse of theocean. Voluntary watches from the crosstrees of the topgallant sailwere self–imposed by more than one who would have cursed suchtoil under any other circumstances. As often as the sun swept overitsdaily arc, the masts were populated with sailors whose feetitched and couldn't hold still on the planking of the deck below!And theAbraham Lincoln'sstempost hadn't even cut the suspectedwaters of the Pacific.
As for the crew, they only wanted to encounter the unicorn,harpoon it, haul it on board, and carve it up. They surveyed thesea with scrupulous care. Besides, Commander Farragut had mentionedthat a certain sum of $2,000.00 was waiting for the man who firstsighted the animal, be he cabin boy orsailor, mate or officer. I'lllet the reader decide whether eyes got proper exercise aboardtheAbraham Lincoln.
As for me, I didn't lag behind the others and I yielded to noone my share in these daily observations. Our frigate would havehad fivescore good reasons for renaming itself theArgus, after thatmythological beast with 100 eyes! The lone rebel among us wasConseil, who seemed utterly uninterested in the question excitingus and was out of step with the general enthusiasm on board.
As I said, Commander Farragut had carefully equipped his shipwith all the gear needed to fish for a giganticcetacean. No whalingvessel could have been better armed. We had every known mechanism,from the hand–hurled harpoon, to the blunderbuss firingbarbed arrows, to the duck gun with exploding bullets. On theforecastle was mounted the latest model breech–loadingcannon, very heavy of barrel and narrow of bore, a weapon thatwould figure in the Universal Exhibition of 1867. Made in America,this valuable instrumentcould fire a four–kilogram conicalprojectile an average distance of sixteen kilometers without theleast bother.
So theAbraham Lincolnwasn't lacking in means of destruction. Butit had better still. It had Ned Land, the King of Harpooners.
Gifted withuncommon manual ability, Ned Land was a Canadian whohad no equal in his dangerous trade. Dexterity, coolness, bravery,and cunning were virtues he possessed to a high degree, and it tooka truly crafty baleen whale or an exceptionally astute sperm whaleto elude the thrusts of his harpoon.
Ned Land was about forty years old. A man of greatheight—over six English feet—he was powerfully built,serious in manner, not very sociable, sometimes headstrong, andquite ill–tempered when crossed. His looks caught theattention, and above all the strength of his gaze, which gave aunique emphasis to his facial appearance.
Commander Farragut, to my thinking, had made a wise move inhiring on this man. With his eye and his throwing arm, he was worththe whole crew allby himself. I can do no better than to comparehim with a powerful telescope that could double as a cannon alwaysready to fire.
To say Canadian is to say French, and as unsociable as Ned Landwas, I must admit he took a definite liking to me. No doubt itwasmy nationality that attracted him. It was an opportunity for him tospeak, and for me to hear, that old Rabelaisian dialect still usedin some Canadian provinces. The harpooner's family originated inQuebec, and they were already a line of bold fishermen back in thedays when this town still belonged to France.
Little by little Ned developed a taste for chatting, and I lovedhearing the tales of his adventures in the polar seas. He describedhis fishing trips and his battles with great natural lyricism.Histales took on the form of an epic poem, and I felt I was hearingsome Canadian Homer reciting hisIliadof the High Arcticregions.
I'm writing of this bold companion as I currently know him.Because we've become old friends, united in thatpermanentcomradeship born and cemented during only the mostfrightful crises! Ah, my gallant Ned! I ask only to live 100 yearsmore, the longer to remember you!
And now, what were Ned Land's views on this question of a marinemonster? I must admit that he flatly didn't believe in the unicorn,and alone on board, he didn't share the general conviction. Heavoided even dealing with the subject, for which one day I feltcompelled to take him to task.
During the magnificent evening of June 25—in other words,three weeksafter our departure—the frigate lay abreast ofCabo Blanco, thirty miles to leeward of the coast of Patagonia. Wehad crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, and the Strait of Magellanopened less than 700 miles to the south. Before eight days wereout, theAbraham Lincolnwould plow the waves of the Pacific.
Seated on the afterdeck, Ned Land and I chatted about one thingand another, staring at that mysterious sea whose depths to thisday are beyond the reach of human eyes. Quite naturally, I led ourconversation around to the giant unicorn, and I weighed ourexpedition's various chances for success or failure. Then, seeingthat Ned just let me talk without saying much himself, I pressedhim more closely.
"Ned," I asked him, "how can you still doubt the reality ofthiscetaceanwe're after? Do you have any particular reasons forbeing so skeptical?"
The harpooner stared at me awhile before replying, slapped hisbroad forehead in one of his standard gestures, closed his eyes asif to collect himself, and finally said:
"Just maybe, Professor Aronnax."
"But Ned, you're a professional whaler, a man familiar with allthe great marine mammals—your mind should easily accept thishypothesis of an enormouscetacean, and you ought to be the last oneto doubt it under these circumstances!"
"That's just where you're mistaken, professor," Ned replied."The common man may still believe in fabulous comets crossing outerspace, or in prehistoric monsters living at the earth's core, butastronomers and geologists don't swallow suchfairy tales. It's thesame with whalers. I've chased plenty ofcetaceans, I've harpooned agood number, I've killed several. But no matter how powerful andwell armed they were, neither their tails or their tusks couldpuncture the sheet–iron plates of a steamer."
"Even so, Ned, people mention vessels that narwhale tusks haverun clean through."
"Wooden ships maybe," the Canadian replied. "But I've never seenthe like. So till I have proof to the contrary, I'll deny thatbaleen whales, sperm whales, or unicorns can do any suchthing."
"Listen to me, Ned—"
"No, no, professor. I'll go along with anything you want exceptthat. Some gigantic devilfish maybe . . . ?"
"Even less likely, Ned. The devilfish is merely a mollusk, andeven this name hints at its semiliquid flesh, because it's Latinmeaning, 'soft one.' The devilfish doesn't belong to the vertebratebranch, and even if it were 500 feet long, it would still beutterly harmless to ships like theScotiaor theAbraham Lincoln.Consequently, the feats of krakens or other monsters of that ilkmust be relegated to the realm of fiction."
"So, Mr. Naturalist," Ned Land continued in a bantering tone,"you'll just keep on believing in the existence of someenormouscetacean. . . ?"
"Yes, Ned, I repeat it with a conviction backed by factuallogic. I believe in the existence of a mammal with a powerfulconstitution, belonging to the vertebrate branch like baleenwhales, sperm whales, or dolphins, and armed with a tusk made ofhorn that has tremendous penetrating power."
"Humph!" the harpooner put in, shaking his head with theattitude of a man who doesn't want to be convinced.
"Note well, my fine Canadian," I went on, "if such an animalexists, if it lives deep in the ocean, if it frequents the liquidstrata located miles beneath the surface of the water, it needs tohave a constitution so solid, it defies all comparison."
"And why this powerful constitution?" Ned asked.
"Because it takes incalculable strength just to live in thosedeep strata and withstand their pressure."
"Oh really?" Ned said, tipping me a wink.
"Oh really, and I can prove it to you with a few simplefigures."
"Bosh!" Ned replied. "You can make figures do anything youwant!"
"In business, Ned, but not in mathematics. Listen to me. Let'saccept that the pressure of one atmosphere is represented by thepressure of a column of water thirty–two feet high. Inreality, such a column of water wouldn't be quite so high becausehere we're dealing with salt water, which is denser than freshwater. Well then, when you dive under thewaves, Ned, for everythirty–two feet of water above you, your body is toleratingthe pressure of one more atmosphere, in other words, one morekilogram per each square centimeter on your body's surface. So itfollows that at 320 feetdown, this pressure is equal to tenatmospheres, to 100 atmospheres at 3,200 feet, and to 1,000atmospheres at 32,000 feet, that is, at about two and a halfvertical leagues down. Which is tantamount to saying that if youcould reach such a depth in the ocean, each square centimeter onyour body's surface would be experiencing 1,000 kilograms ofpressure. Now, my gallant Ned, do you know how many squarecentimeters you have on your bodily surface?"
"I haven't the foggiest notion, Professor Aronnax."
"As many as that?"
"Yes, and since the atmosphere's pressure actually weighsslightly more than one kilogram per square centimeter, your 17,000square centimeters are tolerating 17,568 kilograms at this verymoment."
"Without my noticing it?"
"Without your noticing it. And if you aren't crushed by so muchpressure, it's because the air penetrates the interior of your bodywith equal pressure. When the inside and outside pressures are inperfect balance, they neutralize each other and allow youtotolerate them without discomfort. But in the water it's anotherstory."
"Yes, I see," Ned replied, growing more interested. "Because thewater surrounds me but doesn't penetrate me."
"Precisely, Ned. So at thirty–two feet beneath the surfaceof the sea, you'll undergo a pressure of 17,568 kilograms; at 320feet, or ten times greater pressure, it's 175,680 kilograms; at3,200 feet, or 100 times greater pressure, it's 1,756,800kilograms; finally, at 32,000 feet, or 1,000 times greaterpressure, it's 17,568,000 kilograms; in other words, you'd besquashed as flat as if you'd just been yanked from between theplates of a hydraulic press!"
"Fire and brimstone!" Ned put in.
"All right then, my fine harpooner, if vertebrates severalhundred meters long and proportionate in bulk live at such depths,their surface areas make up millions of square centimeters, and thepressure they undergo must be assessed in billions of kilograms.Calculate, then, how much resistance of bone structure and strengthof constitution they'd need in order to withstand suchpressures!"
"They'd need to be manufactured," Ned Land replied, "fromsheet–iron plates eight inches thick, like ironcladfrigates."
"Right, Ned, and then picture the damage such a mass couldinflict if it were launchedwith the speed of an express trainagainst a ship's hull."
"Yes . . . indeed . . . maybe," the Canadian replied, staggeredby these figures but still not willing to give in.
"Well, have I convinced you?"
"You've convinced me of one thing, Mr. Naturalist. That deep inthe sea, such animals would need to be just as strong as yousay—if they exist."
"But if they don't exist, my stubborn harpooner, how do youexplain the accident that happened to theScotia?"
"It's maybe . . . ," Ned said, hesitating.
"Because . . . it just couldn't be true!" the Canadian replied,unconsciously echoing a famous catchphrase of the scientistArago.
But this reply proved nothing, other than how bullheaded theharpooner could be. That day I pressed him no further.TheScotia'saccident was undeniable. Its hole was real enough thatit had to be plugged up, and I don't think a hole's existence canbe more emphatically proven. Now then, this hole didn't makeitself, and since it hadn't resulted from underwater rocks orunderwater machines, it must have been caused by the perforatingtool of some animal.
Now, for all the reasons put forward to this point, I believedthat this animal was a member of the branchVertebrata,classMammalia, groupPisciforma, and finally, orderCetacea. As forthe family in which it would be placed (baleen whale, sperm whale,or dolphin), the genus to which it belonged, and the species inwhich it would find its proper home, these questions had to be leftfor later. To answer them called for dissectingthis unknownmonster; to dissect it called for catching it; to catch it calledfor harpooning it—which was Ned Land's business; to harpoonit called for sighting it—which was the crew's business; andto sight it called for encountering it—which was a chancybusiness.
FOR SOME WHILEthe voyage of theAbraham Lincolnwas marked by noincident. But one circumstance arose that displayed Ned Land'smarvelous skills and showed just how much confidence we could placein him.
Off the FalklandIslands on June 30, the frigate came in contactwith a fleet of American whalers, and we learned that they hadn'tseen the narwhale. But one of them, the captain of theMonroe, knewthat Ned Land had shipped aboard theAbraham Lincolnand asked hishelp in hunting a baleen whale that was in sight. Anxious to seeNed Land at work, Commander Farragut authorized him to make his wayaboard theMonroe. And the Canadian had such good luck that with aright–and–left shot, he harpooned not one whale buttwo, striking the first straight to the heart and catching theother after a few minutes' chase!
Assuredly, if the monster ever had to deal with Ned Land'sharpoon, I wouldn't bet on the monster.
The frigate sailed along the east coast of South America withprodigious speed. By July 3 we were at the entrance to the Straitof Magellan, abreast of Cabo de las Virgenes. But CommanderFarragut was unwilling to attempt this tortuous passageway andmaneuvered instead to double Cape Horn.
The crew sided with himunanimously. Indeed, were we likely toencounter the narwhale in such a cramped strait? Many of oursailors swore that the monster couldn't negotiate this passagewaysimply because "he's too big for it!"
Near three o'clock in the afternoon on July 6, fifteen milessouth of shore, theAbraham Lincolndoubled that solitary islet atthe tip of the South American continent, that stray rock Dutchseamen had named Cape Horn after their hometown of Hoorn. Ourcourse was set for the northwest, and the next day ourfrigate'spropeller finally churned the waters of the Pacific.
"Open your eyes! Open your eyes!" repeated the sailors oftheAbraham Lincoln. And they opened amazingly wide. Eyes andspyglasses (a bit dazzled, it is true, by the vista of $2,000.00)didn'tremain at rest for an instant. Day and night we observed thesurface of the ocean, and those with nyctalopic eyes, whose abilityto see in the dark increased their chances by fifty percent, had anexcellent shot at winning the prize.
As for me, I was hardly drawn by the lure of money and yet wasfar from the least attentive on board. Snatching only a few minutesfor meals and a few hours for sleep, come rain or come shine, I nolonger left the ship's deck. Sometimes bending over the forecastlerailings, sometimes leaning against the sternrail, I eagerlyscoured that cotton–colored wake that whitened the ocean asfar as the eye could see! And how many times I shared theexcitement of general staff and crew when some unpredictable whalelifted its blackish back above the waves. In an instant thefrigate's deck would become densely populated. The cowls over thecompanionways would vomit a torrent of sailors and officers.Withpanting chests and anxious eyes, we each would observethecetacean'smovements. I stared; I stared until I nearly wentblind from a worn–out retina, while Conseil, as stoic asever, kept repeating to me in a calm tone:
"If master's eyes would kindly stop bulging, master will seefarther!"
But what a waste of energy! TheAbraham Lincolnwould changecourse and race after the animal sighted, only to find an ordinarybaleen whale or a common sperm whale that soon disappeared amid achorus of curses!
However, the weather held good. Our voyage was proceeding underthe most favorable conditions. By then it was the bad season inthese southernmost regions, because July in this zone correspondsto our January in Europe; but the sea remained smooth and easilyvisible over a vast perimeter.
Ned Land still kept up the most tenacious skepticism; beyond hisspells on watch, he pretended that he never even looked at thesurface of the waves, at least while no whales were in sight. Andyet the marvelous power of his vision could have performed yeomanservice. But this stubborn Canadian spent eight hours outof everytwelve reading or sleeping in his cabin. A hundred times I chidedhim for his unconcern.
"Bah!" he replied. "Nothing's out there, Professor Aronnax, andif there is some animal, what chance would we have of spotting it?Can't you see we're just wandering around at random? People saythey've sighted this slippery beast again in the Pacific highseas—I'm truly willing to believe it, but two months havealready gone by since then, and judging by your narwhale'spersonality, it hates growing moldy fromhanging out too long in thesame waterways! It's blessed with a terrific gift for gettingaround. Now, professor, you know even better than I that naturedoesn't violate good sense, and she wouldn't give some naturallyslow animal the ability to move swiftly if it hadn't a need to usethat talent. So if the beast does exist, it's already longgone!"
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 wereautomatically pretty limited.Yet everyone still felt confident ofsuccess, and not a sailor on board would have bet against thenarwhale appearing, and soon.
On July 20 we cut the Tropic of Capricorn at longitude105°, and by the 27th of the same month, we had cleared theequator onthe 110thmeridian. These bearings determined, the frigatetook a more decisive westward heading and tackled the seas of thecentral Pacific. Commander Farragut felt, and with good reason,that it was best to stay in deep waters and keep his distancefromcontinents or islands, whose neighborhoods the animal alwaysseemed to avoid—"No doubt," our bosun said, "because thereisn't enough water for him!" So the frigate kept well out whenpassing the Tuamotu, Marquesas, and Hawaiian Islands, then cut theTropicof Cancer at longitude 132° and headed for the seas ofChina.
We were finally in the area of the monster's latest antics! Andin all honesty, shipboard conditions became life–threatening.Hearts were pounding hideously, gearing up for futures full ofincurable aneurysms. The entire crew suffered from a nervousexcitement that it's beyond me to describe. Nobody ate, nobodyslept. Twenty times a day some error in perception, or the opticalillusions of some sailor perched in the crosstrees, would causeintolerable anguish, and this emotion, repeated twenty times over,kept us in a state of irritability so intense that a reaction wasbound to follow.
And this reaction wasn't long in coming. For three months,during which each day seemed like a century, theAbrahamLincolnplowed all the northerly seas of the Pacific, racing afterwhales sighted, abruptly veering off course, swerving sharply fromone tack to another, stopping suddenly, putting on steam andreversing engines in quick succession, at the risk of stripping itsgears, and it didn't leave a single point unexplored from thebeaches of Japan to the coasts of America. And we found nothing!Nothing except an immenseness of deserted waves! Nothing remotelyresembling a gigantic narwhale, or an underwater islet, or aderelict shipwreck, or a runaway reef, or anything the least bitunearthly!
So the reaction set in. At first, discouragement took hold ofpeople's minds, opening the door to disbelief. A new feelingappeared on board, made up of three–tenths shame andseven–tenths fury. The crew called themselves"out–and–out fools" for being hoodwinked by a fairytale, then grew steadily more furious! The mountains of argumentsamassed over a year collapsed all at once, and each man now wantedonly to catch up onhis eating and sleeping, to make up for the timehe had so stupidly sacrificed.
With typical human fickleness, they jumped from one extreme tothe other. Inevitably, the most enthusiastic supporters of theundertaking became its most energetic opponents.This reactionmounted upward from the bowels of the ship, from the quarters ofthe bunker hands to the messroom of the general staff; and forcertain, if it hadn't been for Commander Farragut's characteristicstubbornness, the frigate would ultimately haveput back to thatcape in the south.
But this futile search couldn't drag on much longer. TheAbrahamLincolnhad done everything it could to succeed and had no reason toblame itself. Never had the crew of an American naval craft shownmore 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. Thecommander stood his ground. His sailors couldn't hide theirdiscontent, and their work suffered because of it.I'm unwilling tosay that there was mutiny on board, but after a reasonable periodof intransigence, Commander Farragut, like Christopher Columbusbefore him, asked for a grace period of just three days more. Afterthis three–day delay, if the monster hadn't appeared, ourhelmsman would give three turns of the wheel, and theAbrahamLincolnwould chart a course toward European seas.
This promise was given on November 2. It had the immediateeffect of reviving the crew's failing spirits. The oceanwasobserved with renewed care. Each man wanted one last lookwithwhich to sum up his experience. Spyglasses functioned with feverishenergy. A supreme challenge had been issued to the giant narwhale,and the latter had no acceptable excuse for ignoring thisSummons toAppear!
Two days passed. TheAbraham Lincolnstayed at half steam. On theoffchance that the animal might be found in these waterways, athousand methods were used to spark its interest or rouse it fromits apathy. Enormous sides of bacon were trailed in our wake, tothe great satisfaction, I must say, of assorted sharks. WhiletheAbraham Lincolnheaved to, its longboats radiated in everydirection around it and didn't leave a single point of the seaunexplored. But the evening of November 4 arrived with thisunderwater mystery still unsolved.
At noon the next day, November 5, the agreed–upon delayexpired. After a position fix, true to his promise, CommanderFarragut would have to set his course for the southeast and leavethe northerly regionsof the Pacific decisively behind.
By then the frigate lay in latitude 31° 15' north andlongitude 136° 42' east. The shores of Japan were less than200 miles to our leeward. Night was coming on. Eight o'clock hadjust struck. Huge clouds covered the moon'sdisk, then in its firstquarter. The sea undulated placidly beneath the frigate'sstempost.
Just then I was in the bow, leaning over the starboard rail.Conseil, stationed beside me, stared straight ahead. Roosting inthe shrouds, the crew examined the horizon, which shrank anddarkened little by little. Officers were probing the increasinggloom with their night glasses. Sometimes the murky ocean sparkledbeneath 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 gallantlad had fallen under the general influence. At least so I thought.Perhaps his nerves were twitching with curiosity for the first timein history.
"Come on, Conseil!" I told him. "Here's your last chance topocket that $2,000.00!"
"If master will permit my saying so," Conseil replied, "I neverexpected to win that prize, and the Union government could havepromised $100,000.00 and been none the poorer."
"You're right, Conseil, it turned out to be a foolish businessafter 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 beenback in France—"
"In master's little apartment," Conseil answered. "In master'smuseum! And by now I would have classified master's fossils. Andmaster'sbabirusawould be ensconced in its cage at the zoo in theBotanical Gardens, and it would have attracted every curiosityseeker in town!"
"Quite so, Conseil, and what's more, I imaginethat people willsoon be poking fun at us!"
"To be sure," Conseil replied serenely, "I do think they'll havefun at master's expense. And must it be said . . . ?"
"It must be said, Conseil."
"Well then, it will serve master right!"
"When onehas the honor of being an expert as master is, onemustn't lay himself open to—"
Conseil didn't have time to complete the compliment. In themidst of the general silence, a voice became audible. It was NedLand's voice, and it shouted:
"Ahoy! There's the thing in question, abreast of us toleeward!"
AT THIS SHOUTthe entire crew rushed toward theharpooner—commander, officers, mates,
sailors, cabin boys, down to engineers leaving their machineryand 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'seyes were, I still wondered how he could see—and what he hadseen. My heart was pounding fit to burst.
But Ned Land was not mistaken, and we all spotted the object hishand was indicating.
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