Three seconds before the arrival of J. B. Hobson’s letter, I no more dreamed of chasing the unicorn than of trying for the Northwest Passage. Three seconds after reading this letter from the honorable Secretary of the Navy, I understood at last that my true vocation, my sole purpose in life, was to hunt down this disturbing monster and rid the world of it.
Even so, I had just returned from an arduous journey, exhausted and badly needing a rest. I wanted nothing more than to see my country again, my friends, my modest quarters by the Botanical Gardens, my dearly beloved collections! But now nothing could hold me back. I forgot everything else, and without another thought of exhaustion, friends, or collections, I accepted the American government’s offer.
“Besides,” I mused, “all roads lead home to Europe, and our unicorn may be gracious enough to take me toward the coast of France! That fine animal may even let itself be captured in European seas—as a personal favor to me—and I’ll bring back to the Museum of Natural History at least half a meter of its ivory lance!”
But in the meantime I would have to look for this narwhale in the northern Pacific Ocean; which meant returning to France by way of the Antipodes.
“Conseil!” I called in an impatient voice.
Conseil was my manservant. A devoted lad who went with me on all my journeys; a gallant Flemish boy whom I genuinely liked and who returned the compliment; a born stoic, punctilious on principle, habitually hardworking, rarely startled by life’s surprises, very skillful with his hands, efficient in his every duty, and despite his having a name that means “counsel,” never giving advice—not even the unsolicited kind!
From rubbing shoulders with scientists in our little universe by the Botanical Gardens, the boy had come to know a thing or two. In Conseil I had a seasoned specialist in biological classification, an enthusiast who could run with acrobatic agility up and down the whole ladder of branches, groups, classes, subclasses, orders, families, genera, subgenera, species, and varieties. But there his science came to a halt. Classifying was everything to him, so he knew nothing else. Well versed in the theory of classification, he was poorly versed in its practical application, and I doubt that he could tell a sperm whale from a baleen whale! And yet, what a fine, gallant lad!
For the past ten years, Conseil had gone with me wherever science beckoned. Not once did he comment on the length or the hardships of a journey. Never did he object to buckling up his suitcase for any country whatever, China or the Congo, no matter how far off it was. He went here, there, and everywhere in perfect contentment. Moreover, he enjoyed excellent health that defied all ailments, owned solid muscles, but hadn’t a nerve in him, not a sign of nerves—the mental type, I mean.
The lad was thirty years old, and his age to that of his employer was as fifteen is to twenty. Please forgive me for this underhanded way of admitting I had turned forty.
But Conseil had one flaw. He was a fanatic on formality, and he only addressed me in the third person—to the point where it got tiresome.
“Conseil!” I repeated, while feverishly beginning my preparations for departure.
To be sure, I had confidence in this devoted lad. Ordinarily, I never asked whether or not it suited him to go with me on my journeys; but this time an expedition was at issue that could drag on indefinitely, a hazardous undertaking whose purpose was to hunt an animal that could sink a frigate as easily as a walnut shell! There was good reason to stop and think, even for the world’s most emotionless 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’re departing in two hours.”
“As master wishes,” Conseil replied serenely.
“We haven’t a moment to lose. Pack as much into my trunk as you can, my traveling kit, my suits, shirts, and socks, don’t bother counting, just squeeze it all in—and hurry!”
“What about master’s collections?” Conseil ventured to observe.
“We’ll deal with them later.”
“What! The archaeotherium, hyracotherium, oreodonts, cheiropotamus, and master’s other fossil skeletons?”
“The hotel will keep them for us.”
“What about master’s live babirusa?”
“They’ll feed it during our absence. Anyhow, we’ll leave instructions to ship the whole menagerie to France.”
“Then we aren’t returning to Paris?” Conseil asked.
“Yes, we are … certainly …” I replied evasively, “but after we make a detour.”
“Whatever detour master wishes.”
“Oh, it’s nothing really! A route slightly less direct, that’s all. We’re leaving on the Abraham Lincoln.”
“As master thinks best,” Conseil replied placidly.
“You see, my friend, it’s an issue of the monster, the notorious narwhale. We’re going to rid the seas of it! The author of a two-volume work, in quarto, on the Mysteries of the Great Ocean Depths has no excuse for not setting sail with Commander Farragut. It’s a glorious mission but also a dangerous one! We don’t know where it will take us! These beasts can be quite unpredictable! But we’re going just the same! We have a commander who’s game for anything!”
“What master does, I’ll do,” Conseil replied.
“But think it over, because I don’t want to hide anything from you. This is one of those voyages from which people don’t always come back!”
“As master wishes.”
A quarter of an hour later, our trunks were ready. Conseil did them in a flash, and I was sure the lad hadn’t missed a thing, because he classified shirts and suits as expertly as birds and mammals.
The hotel elevator dropped us off in the main vestibule on the mezzanine. I went down a short stair leading to the ground floor. I settled my bill at that huge counter that was always under siege by a considerable crowd. I left instructions for shipping my containers of stuffed animals and dried plants to Paris, France. I opened a line of credit sufficient to cover the babirusa and, Conseil at my heels, I jumped into a carriage.
For a fare of twenty francs, the vehicle went down Broadway to Union Square, took Fourth Ave. to its junction with Bowery St., turned into Katrin St. and halted at Pier 34. There the Katrin ferry transferred men, horses, and carriage to Brooklyn, that great New York annex located on the left bank of the East River, and in a few minutes we arrived at the wharf next to which the Abraham Lincoln was vomiting torrents of black smoke from its two funnels.
Our baggage was immediately carried to the deck of the frigate. I rushed aboard. I asked for Commander Farragut. One of the sailors led me to the afterdeck, where I stood in the presence of a smart-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 cabin is waiting for you.”
I bowed, and letting the commander attend to getting under way, I was taken to the cabin that had been set aside for me.
The Abraham Lincoln had been perfectly chosen and fitted out for its new assignment. It was a high-speed frigate furnished with superheating equipment that allowed the tension of its steam to build to seven atmospheres. Under this pressure the Abraham Lincoln reached an average speed of 18.3 miles per hour, a considerable speed but still not enough to cope with our gigantic cetacean.
The frigate’s interior accommodations complemented its nautical virtues. I was well satisfied with my cabin, which was located in the stern and opened into the officers’ mess.
“We’ll be quite comfortable here,” I told Conseil.
“With all due respect to master,” Conseil replied, “as comfortable as a hermit crab inside the shell of a whelk.”
I left Conseil to the proper stowing of our luggage and climbed on deck to watch the preparations for getting under way.
Just then Commander Farragut was giving orders to cast off the last moorings holding the Abraham Lincoln to its Brooklyn pier. And so if I’d been delayed by a quarter of an hour or even less, the frigate would have gone without me, and I would have missed out on this unearthly, extraordinary, and inconceivable expedition, whose true story might well meet with some skepticism.
But Commander Farragut didn’t want to waste a single day, or even a single hour, in making for those seas where the animal had just 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 a compressed-air device, the mechanics activated the startup wheel. Steam rushed whistling into the gaping valves. Long horizontal pistons groaned and pushed the tie rods of the drive shaft. The blades of the propeller churned the waves with increasing speed, and the Abraham Lincoln moved out majestically amid a spectator-laden escort of some 100 ferries and tenders.4
The wharves of Brooklyn, and every part of New York bordering the East River, were crowded with curiosity seekers. Departing from 500,000 throats, three cheers burst forth in succession. Thousands of handkerchiefs were waving above these tightly packed masses, hailing the Abraham Lincoln until it reached the waters of the Hudson River, at the tip of the long peninsula that forms New York City.
The frigate then went along the New Jersey coast—the wonderful right bank of this river, all loaded down with country homes—and passed by the forts to salutes from their biggest cannons. The Abraham Lincoln replied by three times lowering and hoisting the American flag, whose thirty-nine stars gleamed from the gaff of the mizzen sail; then, changing speed to take the buoy-marked channel that curved into the inner bay formed by the spit of Sandy Hook, it hugged this sand-covered strip of land where thousands of spectators acclaimed us one more time.
The escort of boats and tenders still followed the frigate and only left us when we came abreast of the lightship, whose two signal lights mark the entrance of the narrows to Upper New York Bay.
Three o’clock then sounded. The harbor pilot went down into his dinghy and rejoined a little schooner waiting for him to leeward. The furnaces were stoked; the propeller churned the waves more swiftly; the frigate skirted the flat, yellow coast of Long Island; and at eight o’clock in the evening, after the lights of Fire Island had vanished into the northwest, we ran at full steam onto the dark waters of the Atlantic.