6: At Full Steam
At this cry the whole ship’s crew hurried towards the harpooner– commander, officers, masters, sailors, cabin boys; even the engineers left their engines, and the stokers their furnaces.
The order to stop her had been given, and the frigate now simply went on by her own momentum. The darkness was then profound, and, however good the Canadian’s eyes were, I asked myself how he had managed to see, and what he had been able to see. My heart beat as if it would break. But Ned Land was not mistaken, and we all perceived the object he pointed to. At two cables’ length from the Abraham Lincoln, on the starboard quarter, the sea seemed to be illuminated all over. It was not a mere phosphoric phenomenon. The monster emerged some fathoms from the water, and then threw out that very intense but mysterious light mentioned in the report of several captains. This magnificent irradiation must have been produced by an agent of great shining power. The luminous part traced on the sea an immense oval, much elongated, the centre of which condensed a burning heat, whose overpowering brilliancy died out by successive gradations.
“It is only a massing of phosphoric particles,” cried one of the officers.
“No, sir, certainly not,” I replied. “That brightness is of an essentially electrical nature. Besides, see, see! it moves; it is moving forwards, backwards; it is darting towards us!”
A general cry arose from the frigate.
“Silence!” said the captain. “Up with the helm, reverse the engines.”
The steam was shut off, and the Abraham Lincoln, beating to port, described a semicircle.
“Right the helm, go ahead,” cried the captain.
These orders were executed, and the frigate moved rapidly from the burning light.
I was mistaken. She tried to sheer off, but the supernatural animal approached with a velocity double her own.
We gasped for breath. Stupefaction more than fear made us dumb and motionless. The animal gained on us, sporting with the waves. It made the round of the frigate, which was then making fourteen knots, and enveloped it with its electric rings like luminous dust.
Then it moved away two or three miles, leaving a phosphorescent track, like those volumes of steam that the express trains leave behind. All at once from the dark line of the horizon whither it retired to gain its momentum, the monster rushed suddenly towards the Abraham Lincoln with alarming rapidity, stopped suddenly about twenty feet from the hull, and died out–not diving under the water, for its brilliancy did not abate–but suddenly, and as if the source of this brilliant emanation was exhausted. Then it reappeared on the other side of the vessel, as if it had turned and slid under the hull. Any moment a collision might have occurred which would have been fatal to us. However, I was astonished at the manoeuvres of the frigate. She fled and did not attack.
On the captain’s face, generally so impassive, was an expression of unaccountable astonishment.
“Mr. Aronnax,” he said, “I do not know with what formidable being I have to deal, and I will not imprudently risk my frigate in the midst of this darkness. Besides, how attack this unknown thing, how defend one’s self from it? Wait for daylight, and the scene will change.”
“You have no further doubt, captain, of the nature of the animal?”
“No, sir; it is evidently a gigantic narwhal, and an electric one.”
“Perhaps,” added I, “one can only approach it with a torpedo.”
“Undoubtedly,” replied the captain, “if it possesses such dreadful power, it is the most terrible animal that ever was created. That is why, sir, I must be on my guard.”
The crew were on their feet all night. No one thought of sleep. The Abraham Lincoln, not being able to struggle with such velocity, had moderated its pace, and sailed at half speed. For its part, the narwhal, imitating the frigate, let the waves rock it at will, and seemed decided not to leave the scene of the struggle. Towards midnight, however, it disappeared, or, to use a more appropriate term, it “died out” like a large glow-worm. Had it fled? One could only fear, not hope it. But at seven minutes to one o’clock in the morning a deafening whistling was heard, like that produced by a body of water rushing with great violence.
The captain, Ned Land, and I were then on the poop, eagerly peering through the profound darkness.
“Ned Land,” asked the commander, “you have often heard the roaring of whales?”
“Often, sir; but never such whales the sight of which brought me in two thousand dollars. If I can only approach within four harpoons’ length of it!”
“But to approach it,” said the commander, “I ought to put a whaler at your disposal?”
“That will be trifling with the lives of my men.”
“And mine too,” simply said the harpooner.
Towards two o’clock in the morning, the burning light reappeared, not less intense, about five miles to windward of the Abraham Lincoln. Notwithstanding the distance, and the noise of the wind and sea, one heard distinctly the loud strokes of the animal’s tail, and even its panting breath. It seemed that, at the moment that the enormous narwhal had come to take breath at the surface of the water, the air was engulfed in its lungs, like the steam in the vast cylinders of a machine of two thousand horse-power.
“Hum!” thought I, “a whale with the strength of a cavalry regiment would be a pretty whale!”
We were on the qui vive till daylight, and prepared for the combat. The fishing implements were laid along the hammock nettings. The second lieutenant loaded the blunder busses, which could throw harpoons to the distance of a mile, and long duck-guns, with explosive bullets, which inflicted mortal wounds even to the most terrible animals. Ned Land contented himself with sharpening his harpoon–a terrible weapon in his hands.
At six o’clock day began to break; and, with the first glimmer of light, the electric light of the narwhal disappeared. At seven o’clock the day was sufficiently advanced, but a very thick sea fog obscured our view, and the best spy glasses could not pierce it. That caused disappointment and anger.
I climbed the mizzen-mast. Some officers were already perched on the mast-heads. At eight o’clock the fog lay heavily on the waves, and its thick scrolls rose little by little. The horizon grew wider and clearer at the same time. Suddenly, just as on the day before, Ned Land’s voice was heard:
“The thing itself on the port quarter!” cried the harpooner.
Every eye was turned towards the point indicated. There, a mile and a half from the frigate, a long blackish body emerged a yard above the waves. Its tail, violently agitated, produced a considerable eddy. Never did a tail beat the sea with such violence. An immense track, of dazzling whiteness, marked the passage of the animal, and described a long curve.
The frigate approached the cetacean. I examined it thoroughly.
The reports of the Shannon and of the Helvetia had rather exaggerated its size, and I estimated its length at only two hundred and fifty feet. As to its dimensions, I could only conjecture them to be admirably proportioned. While I watched this phenomenon, two jets of steam and water were ejected from its vents, and rose to the height of 120 feet; thus I ascertained its way of breathing. I concluded definitely that it belonged to the vertebrate branch, class mammalia.
The crew waited impatiently for their chief’s orders. The latter, after having observed the animal attentively, called the engineer. The engineer ran to him.
“Sir,” said the commander, “you have steam up?”
“Yes, sir,” answered the engineer.
“Well, make up your fires and put on all steam.”
Three hurrahs greeted this order. The time for the struggle had arrived. Some moments after, the two funnels of the frigate vomited torrents of black smoke, and the bridge quaked under the trembling of the boilers.
The Abraham Lincoln, propelled by her wonderful screw, went straight at the animal. The latter allowed it to come within half a cable’s length; then, as if disdaining to dive, it took a little turn, and stopped a short distance off.
This pursuit lasted nearly three-quarters of an hour, without the frigate gaining two yards on the cetacean. It was quite evident that at that rate we should never come up with it.
“Well, Mr. Land,” asked the captain, “do you advise me to put the boats out to sea?”
“No, sir,” replied Ned Land; “because we shall not take that beast easily.”
“What shall we do then?”
“Put on more steam if you can, sir. With your leave, I mean to post myself under the bowsprit, and, if we get within harpooning distance, I shall throw my harpoon.”
“Go, Ned,” said the captain. “Engineer, put on more pressure.”
Ned Land went to his post. The fires were increased, the screw revolved forty-three times a minute, and the steam poured out of the valves. We heaved the log, and calculated that the Abraham Lincoln was going at the rate of 18 1/2 miles an hour.
But the accursed animal swam at the same speed.
For a whole hour the frigate kept up this pace, without gaining six feet. It was humiliating for one of the swiftest sailers in the American navy. A stubborn anger seized the crew; the sailors abused the monster, who, as before, disdained to answer them; the captain no longer contented himself with twisting his beard–he gnawed it.
The engineer was called again.
“You have turned full steam on?”
“Yes, sir,” replied the engineer.
The speed of the Abraham Lincoln increased. Its masts trembled down to their stepping holes, and the clouds of smoke could hardly find way out of the narrow funnels.
They heaved the log a second time.
“Well?” asked the captain of the man at the wheel.
“Nineteen miles and three-tenths, sir.”
“Clap on more steam.”
The engineer obeyed. The manometer showed ten degrees. But the cetacean grew warm itself, no doubt; for without straining itself, it made 19 3/10 miles.
What a pursuit! No, I cannot describe the emotion that vibrated through me. Ned Land kept his post, harpoon in hand. Several times the animal let us gain upon it.–“We shall catch it! we shall catch it!” cried the Canadian. But just as he was going to strike, the cetacean stole away with a rapidity that could not be estimated at less than thirty miles an hour, and even during our maximum of speed, it bullied the frigate, going round and round it. A cry of fury broke from everyone!
At noon we were no further advanced than at eight o’clock in the morning.
The captain then decided to take more direct means.
“Ah!” said he, “that animal goes quicker than the Abraham Lincoln. Very well! we will see whether it will escape these conical bullets. Send your men to the forecastle, sir.”
The forecastle gun was immediately loaded and slewed round. But the shot passed some feet above the cetacean, which was half a mile off.
“Another, more to the right,” cried the commander, “and five dollars to whoever will hit that infernal beast.”
An old gunner with a grey beard–that I can see now–with steady eye and grave face, went up to the gun and took a long aim. A loud report was heard, with which were mingled the cheers of the crew.
The bullet did its work; it hit the animal, and, sliding off the rounded surface, was lost in two miles depth of sea.
The chase began again, and the captain, leaning towards me, said:
“I will pursue that beast till my frigate bursts up.”
“Yes,” answered I; “and you will be quite right to do it.”
I wished the beast would exhaust itself, and not be insensible to fatigue like a steam engine. But it was of no use. Hours passed, without its showing any signs of exhaustion.
However, it must be said in praise of the Abraham Lincoln that she struggled on indefatigably. I cannot reckon the distance she made under three hundred miles during this unlucky day, November the 6th. But night came on, and overshadowed the rough ocean.
Now I thought our expedition was at an end, and that we should never again see the extraordinary animal. I was mistaken. At ten minutes to eleven in the evening, the electric light reappeared three miles to windward of the frigate, as pure, as intense as during the preceding night.
The narwhal seemed motionless; perhaps, tired with its day’s work, it slept, letting itself float with the undulation of the waves. Now was a chance of which the captain resolved to take advantage.
He gave his orders. The Abraham Lincoln kept up half steam, and advanced cautiously so as not to awake its adversary. It is no rare thing to meet in the middle of the ocean whales so sound asleep that they can be successfully attacked, and Ned Land had harpooned more than one during its sleep. The Canadian went to take his place again under the bowsprit.
The frigate approached noiselessly, stopped at two cables’ lengths from the animal, and following its track. No one breathed; a deep silence reigned on the bridge. We were not a hundred feet from the burning focus, the light of which increased and dazzled our eyes.
At this moment, leaning on the forecastle bulwark, I saw below me Ned Land grappling the martingale in one hand, brandishing his terrible harpoon in the other, scarcely twenty feet from the motionless animal. Suddenly his arm straightened, and the harpoon was thrown; I heard the sonorous stroke of the weapon, which seemed to have struck a hard body. The electric light went out suddenly, and two enormous waterspouts broke over the bridge of the frigate, rushing like a torrent from stem to stern, overthrowing men, and breaking the lashings of the spars. A fearful shock followed, and, thrown over the rail without having time to stop myself, I fell into the sea.