As Master Wishes
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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
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 start-up 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.*
*Author's Note: Tenders are small steamboats that assist
the big liners.
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.
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