This unexpected fall so stunned me that I have no clear recollection of my sensations at the time. I was at first drawn down to a depth of about twenty feet. I am a good swimmer (though without pretending to rival Byron or Edgar Poe, who were masters of the art), and in that plunge I did not lose my presence of mind. Two vigorous strokes brought me to the surface of the water. My first care was to look for the frigate. Had the crew seen me disappear? Had the Abraham Lincoln veered round? Would the captain put out a boat? Might I hope to be saved?
The darkness was intense. I caught a glimpse of a black mass disappearing in the east, its beacon lights dying out in the distance. It was the frigate! I was lost.
“Help, help!” I shouted, swimming towards the Abraham Lincoln in desperation.
My clothes encumbered me; they seemed glued to my body, and paralysed my movements.
I was sinking! I was suffocating!
This was my last cry. My mouth filled with water; I struggled against being drawn down the abyss. Suddenly my clothes were seized by a strong hand, and I felt myself quickly drawn up to the surface of the sea; and I heard, yes, I heard these words pronounced in my ear:
“If master would be so good as to lean on my shoulder, master would swim with much greater ease.”
I seized with one hand my faithful Conseil’s arm.
“Is it you?” said I, “you?”
“Myself,” answered Conseil; “and waiting master’s orders.”
“That shock threw you as well as me into the sea?”
“No; but, being in my master’s service, I followed him.”
The worthy fellow thought that was but natural.
“And the frigate?” I asked.
“The frigate?” replied Conseil, turning on his back; “I think that master had better not count too much on her.”
“You think so?”
“I say that, at the time I threw myself into the sea, I heard the men at the wheel say, ‘The screw and the rudder are broken.’”
“Yes, broken by the monster’s teeth. It is the only injury the Abraham Lincoln has sustained. But it is a bad look-out for us—she no longer answers her helm.”
“Then we are lost!”
“Perhaps so,” calmly answered Conseil. “However, we have still several hours before us, and one can do a good deal in some hours.”
Conseil’s imperturbable coolness set me up again. I swam more vigorously; but, cramped by my clothes, which stuck to me like a leaden weight, I felt great difficulty in bearing up. Conseil saw this.
“Will master let me make a slit?” said he; and, slipping an open knife under my clothes, he ripped them up from top to bottom very rapidly. Then he cleverly slipped them off me, while I swam for both of us.
Then I did the same for Conseil, and we continued to swim near to each other.
Nevertheless, our situation was no less terrible. Perhaps our disappearance had not been noticed; and, if it had been, the frigate could not tack, being without its helm. Conseil argued on this supposition, and laid his plans accordingly. This quiet boy was perfectly self-possessed. We then decided that, as our only chance of safety was being picked up by the Abraham Lincoln’s boats, we ought to manage so as to wait for them as long as possible. I resolved then to husband our strength, so that both should not be exhausted at the same time; and this is how we managed: while one of us lay on our back, quite still, with arms crossed, and legs stretched out, the other would swim and push the other on in front. This towing business did not last more than ten minutes each; and relieving each other thus, we could swim on for some hours, perhaps till day-break. Poor chance! but hope is so firmly rooted in the heart of man! Moreover, there were two of us. Indeed I declare (though it may seem improbable) if I sought to destroy all hope—if I wished to despair, I could not.
The collision of the frigate with the cetacean had occurred about eleven o’clock in the evening before. I reckoned then we should have eight hours to swim before sunrise, an operation quite practicable if we relieved each other. The sea, very calm, was in our favour. Sometimes I tried to pierce the intense darkness that was only dispelled by the phosphorescence caused by our movements. I watched the luminous waves that broke over my hand, whose mirror-like surface was spotted with silvery rings. One might have said that we were in a bath of quicksilver.
Near one o’clock in the morning, I was seized with dreadful fatigue. My limbs stiffened under the strain of violent cramp. Conseil was obliged to keep me up, and our preservation devolved on him alone. I heard the poor boy pant; his breathing became short and hurried. I found that he could not keep up much longer.
“Leave me! leave me!” I said to him.
“Leave my master? Never!” replied he. “I would drown first.”
Just then the moon appeared through the fringes of a thick cloud that the wind was driving to the east. The surface of the sea glittered with its rays. This kindly light reanimated us. My head got better again. I looked at all points of the horizon. I saw the frigate! She was five miles from us, and looked like a dark mass, hardly discernible. But no boats!
I would have cried out. But what good would it have been at such a distance! My swollen lips could utter no sounds. Conseil could articulate some words, and I heard him repeat at intervals, “Help! help!”
Our movements were suspended for an instant; we listened. It might be only a singing in the ear, but it seemed to me as if a cry answered the cry from Conseil.
“Did you hear?” I murmured.
And Conseil gave one more despairing cry.
This time there was no mistake! A human voice responded to ours! Was it the voice of another unfortunate creature, abandoned in the middle of the ocean, some other victim of the shock sustained by the vessel? Or rather was it a boat from the frigate, that was hailing us in the darkness?
Conseil made a last effort, and, leaning on my shoulder, while I struck out in a desperate effort, he raised himself half out of the water, then fell back exhausted.
“What did you see?”
“I saw——” murmured he; “I saw—but do not talk—reserve all your strength!”
What had he seen? Then, I know not why, the thought of the monster came into my head for the first time! But that voice! The time is past for Jonahs to take refuge in whales’ bellies! However, Conseil was towing me again. He raised his head sometimes, looked before us, and uttered a cry of recognition, which was responded to by a voice that came nearer and nearer. I scarcely heard it. My strength was exhausted; my fingers stiffened; my hand afforded me support no longer; my mouth, convulsively opening, filled with salt water. Cold crept over me. I raised my head for the last time, then I sank.
At this moment a hard body struck me. I clung to it: then I felt that I was being drawn up, that I was brought to the surface of the water, that my chest collapsed—I fainted.
It is certain that I soon came to, thanks to the vigorous rubbings that I received. I half opened my eyes.
“Conseil!” I murmured.
“Does master call me?” asked Conseil.
Just then, by the waning light of the moon which was sinking down to the horizon, I saw a face which was not Conseil’s and which I immediately recognised.
“Ned!” I cried.
“The same, sir, who is seeking his prize!” replied the Canadian.
“Were you thrown into the sea by the shock to the frigate?”
“Yes, Professor; but more fortunate than you, I was able to find a footing almost directly upon a floating island.”
“Or, more correctly speaking, on our gigantic narwhal.”
“Explain yourself, Ned!”
“Only I soon found out why my harpoon had not entered its skin and was blunted.”
“Why, Ned, why?”
“Because, Professor, that beast is made of sheet iron.”
The Canadian’s last words produced a sudden revolution in my brain. I wriggled myself quickly to the top of the being, or object, half out of the water, which served us for a refuge. I kicked it. It was evidently a hard, impenetrable body, and not the soft substance that forms the bodies of the great marine mammalia. But this hard body might be a bony covering, like that of the antediluvian animals; and I should be free to class this monster among amphibious reptiles, such as tortoises or alligators.
Well, no! the blackish back that supported me was smooth, polished, without scales. The blow produced a metallic sound; and, incredible though it may be, it seemed, I might say, as if it was made of riveted plates.
There was no doubt about it! This monster, this natural phenomenon that had puzzled the learned world, and over thrown and misled the imagination of seamen of both hemispheres, it must be owned was a still more astonishing phenomenon, inasmuch as it was a simply human construction.
We had no time to lose, however. We were lying upon the back of a sort of submarine boat, which appeared (as far as I could judge) like a huge fish of steel. Ned Land’s mind was made up on this point. Conseil and I could only agree with him.
Just then a bubbling began at the back of this strange thing (which was evidently propelled by a screw), and it began to move. We had only just time to seize hold of the upper part, which rose about seven feet out of the water, and happily its speed was not great.
“As long as it sails horizontally,” muttered Ned Land, “I do not mind; but, if it takes a fancy to dive, I would not give two straws for my life.”
The Canadian might have said still less. It became really necessary to communicate with the beings, whatever they were, shut up inside the machine. I searched all over the outside for an aperture, a panel, or a manhole, to use a technical expression; but the lines of the iron rivets, solidly driven into the joints of the iron plates, were clear and uniform. Besides, the moon disappeared then, and left us in total darkness.
At last this long night passed. My indistinct remembrance prevents my describing all the impressions it made. I can only recall one circumstance. During some lulls of the wind and sea, I fancied I heard several times vague sounds, a sort of fugitive harmony produced by words of command. What was, then, the mystery of this submarine craft, of which the whole world vainly sought an explanation? What kind of beings existed in this strange boat? What mechanical agent caused its prodigious speed?
Daybreak appeared. The morning mists surrounded us, but they soon cleared off. I was about to examine the hull, which formed on deck a kind of horizontal platform, when I felt it gradually sinking.
“Oh! confound it!” cried Ned Land, kicking the resounding plate. “Open, you inhospitable rascals!”
Happily the sinking movement ceased. Suddenly a noise, like iron works violently pushed aside, came from the interior of the boat. One iron plate was moved, a man appeared, uttered an odd cry, and disappeared immediately.
Some moments after, eight strong men, with masked faces, appeared noiselessly, and drew us down into their formidable machine.