Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas: First Part

Chapter 6

At Full Steam

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 degrees 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?”

“Certainly, sir.”

“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.

Ned Land stayed at his post.

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.

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Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/23 17:44:38 $