3

As Monsieur Pleases

Three seconds before J. B. Hobson's letter arrived, I no more dreamed of hunting the unicorn than of seeking the Northwest Passage. Three seconds after reading the letter from the honourable Secretary to the Navy, I realized that my real vocation, the unique aim of my life, was to hunt this disturbing monster and rid the world of it.

However, I was returning from a difficult journey, tired and longing for rest. I pined only to see my country again, my friends, my small lodgings at the Jardin des Plantes, my dear and precious collections! But nothing could hold me back. I forgot everything, tiredness, friends, collections; and I accepted the American government's offer without further reflection.

‘In any case,’ I thought, ‘all roads lead to Europe, and the unicorn will surely be so kind as to lure me towards the French coasts! This good animal will allow itself to be captured in European waters as a special favour to me; and I wish to bring back no less than half a metre of ivory halberd for the Museum of Natural History.’

But meanwhile I needed to search for this narwhal in the north Pacific Ocean; which amounted to heading for France via the antipodes.

‘Conseil!’1

I cried impatiently.

Conseil was my domestic servant. A devoted young man who accompanied me on all my journeyings; a good Fleming whom I liked a great deal and who reciprocated it; a creature who was phlegmatic by nature, ordered by principle, and eager by habit: astonished by few of life's surprises, very good with his hands, suited for any service, and, despite his name, never giving counsel - even unasked.

By coming up against the scholars of our little milieu at the Jardin des Plantes, Conseil had come to know a thing or two. I had in him a specialist, very well up on natural history classification, with an acrobat's dexterity at working his way through the whole hierarchy of phyla, divisions, classes, sub-classes, orders, families, genera, sub-genera, species, and varieties.2

But his scientific knowledge ended there. Well versed in the theory of classification but little in its practice, he wouldn't, I think, have distinguished a sperm whale from an ordinary whale! And yet what a good and honest fellow!

Until now, and over the past ten years, Conseil had followed everywhere science had taken me. Never a reflection from him on the length or fatigue of a journey. No objection to packing his suitcase for any country whatsoever, China or the Congo, however far away. He travelled anywhere, without expecting anything else. Moreover his fine health thumbed its nose at every illness; and he had powerful muscles but no nerves, not even the appearance of them - mentally speaking I mean.

This fellow was thirty years old, and his age was to his master's as fifteen is to twenty. May I be excused for saying in this way that I was forty.

Conseil had but one fault. A rabid formalist, he only ever spoke to me in the third person - to the point of becoming annoying.

‘Conseil!’ I repeated, while at the same time beginning my preparations for departure with a feverish hand.

Certainly, I felt sure of this fellow of such devotion. Normally, I never asked whether or not it suited him to accompany me in my travels; but this time it was an expedition which could last indefinitely, a hazardous enterprise in pursuit of an animal capable of sinking a frigate as easily as a nutshell. There was food for thought in that, even for the most impassive man in the world. So what would Conseil say?

‘Conseil!’ I cried for the third time.

Conseil appeared.

‘Did monsieur call?’

‘Yes, my good fellow. Please get me and yourself ready. We're leaving in two hours' time.’

‘As monsieur pleases,’ Conseil replied calmly.

‘Not a moment to lose. Squeeze into my trunk all my travel utensils, coats, shirts, and socks, without skimping and as much as you can, and hurry!’

‘And monsieur's collections?’ enquired Conseil.

‘We'll deal with them later.’

‘What! The Archaeotheria, Hyracotheria, Oreodons, Chaeropotami, and monsieur's other carcasses?’3

‘The hotel will look after them.’

‘And monsieur's live babirusa?’4

‘They'll feed it while we're away. In any case, I'll give instructions for our menagerie to be sent to us in France.’

‘So we're not returning to Paris?’ Conseil enquired.

‘But of course . . . most definitely . . .’ I replied evasively, ‘but following a detour.’

‘Whichever detour monsieur wishes.’

‘Oh it hardly makes any difference! Not quite so direct a route, that's all. We're sailing on the Abraham Lincoln.’

‘As monsieur requires,’ replied Conseil calmly.

‘You know, my friend, it's the monster . . . the famous narwhal . . . We're going to rid the seas of it! . . . The author of the two-volume in-quarto The Mysteries of the Ocean Deeps cannot refuse to embark with Captain Farragut. A mission full of glory, but also . . . dangerous. We don't know where we'll end up. Those creatures can be awfully flighty. But we're going all the same! We have a captain who's got guts!’

‘Wherever monsieur goes, so will I.’

‘Please do think it over. I don't want to hide anything from you. It's one of those journeys you don't always come back from!’

‘As monsieur pleases.’

A quarter of an hour later, our trunks were ready. Conseil had packed them standing on his head, as it were. I could be sure that nothing was missing, for this fellow classified shirts and coats as skilfully as he did birds or mammals.

The hotel lift5 dropped us at the mezzanine lounge. I descended the few steps leading to the ground floor. I settled my bill at the huge desk always besieged by a large crowd. I left instructions for my packages of stuffed animals and dried plants to be forwarded to Paris (France). Having opened a well-provisioned account for the babirusa, and with Conseil following, I jumped into a cab.

This vehicle, costing twenty francs a trip, went down Broadway as far as Union Square, followed Fourth Avenue as far as its junction with The Bowery, turned into Katrin Street and stopped at Pier No. 34. There the Katrin Ferry took us, men, horses, and cab, to Brooklyn, New York's great extension situated on the left bank of the East River. A few minutes later we were standing on a quayside where the Abraham Lincoln was spewing out torrents of black smoke through its twin funnels.

Our bags were immediately transported on to the frigate's deck. I rushed on board and asked for Captain Farragut. One of the sailors took me to the poop deck, where I found myself in the presence of an officer of pleasant appearance, who stretched out his hand.

‘Dr Pierre Aronnax?’

‘Himself. Captain Farragut?’

‘In person. Welcome aboard, Dr Aronnax. Your cabin is ready.’

I bowed and, leaving the captain to his task of getting under way, I had myself shown to the designated cabin.

The Abraham Lincoln had been perfectly chosen and fitted out for its new task. It was a high-speed frigate, equipped with superheating apparatus enabling its steam pressure to be raised to 7 atmospheres. At this pressure, the Abraham Lincoln typically reached 18.3 knots, a considerable speed but still insufficient to compete with the gigantic cetacean.

The accommodation of the frigate reflected its nautical nature. I was very satisfied with my cabin, situated at the stern and opening into the officers' wardroom.

‘We'll be comfortable here,’ I said to Conseil.

‘With due respect, monsieur, as comfortable as a hermit-crab in a whelk's shell.’

I left Conseil to stow our trunks properly, and went back up on deck to watch the preparations for weighing anchor.

At that moment Captain Farragut was directing the casting off of the last ropes securing the Abraham Lincoln to the Brooklyn pier. A quarter of an hour's delay, less even, and the frigate would have left without me; and I would have missed out on that extraordinary, supernatural, implausible expedition, whose recounting may indeed find a few disbelievers.

Captain Farragut did not want to waste a day, nor even an hour, before heading for the seas where the animal had just been reported. He sent for his engineer.

‘Are we under pressure?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Go ahead!’ cried Captain Farragut.

On this order, transmitted to the machine-room by means of compressed air, the engineers activated the starting-up wheel. The steam hissed as it rushed through the half-open slide valves.6

The long horizontal pistons groaned and pushed the crank arms of the drive shaft. The blades of the propeller beat the waves with increasing speed and the Abraham Lincoln advanced majestically in the midst of a hundred ferry-boats and tenders7 filled with a retinue of spectators.

The wharves of Brooklyn and the rest of New York lining the East River were covered with bystanders. Three successive hoorays resounded from 500,000 chests. Thousands of handkerchiefs continued waving above the compact mass acclaiming the Abraham Lincoln, until it arrived at the waters of the Hudson, encountered at the tip of the elongated peninsula that forms New York City.

Then the frigate followed the admirable right bank of the river, the New Jersey side crowded with villas, and passed between the forts,8 which saluted it with their largest cannons. The Abraham Lincoln responded by lowering and raising the American flag three times, with the 39 stars9 resplendent on the tip of the mizzenmast. Then, slowing down to take the buoys marking the channel which curves round the bay enclosed by Sandy Hook, it skirted past its sandy tongue, where thousands more spectators greeted it with applause.

The escort of boats and tenders continued to follow the frigate, only leaving it when abeam of the lightship with two beacons that marks the entrance to New York Harbour.

Three o'clock was striking. The pilot climbed down into his boat and boarded the small schooner waiting for him to leeward. The boilers were stoked up, the propeller beat the waves faster, and the frigate skirted the low yellow coast of Long Island. At eight o'clock, having left the lights of Fire Island to the north-west, it was heading at full steam over the dark waters of the Atlantic.

  1. Conseil: this surname is taken from Jacques-François Conseil, a friend of Verne's who tested a 3-tonne ellipsoid submarine in 1858 at Le Tréport. Similar in many ways to Verne's vessel, it had a hatch, a small chamber for viewing the exterior, valves that opened automatically on the surface for aeration, a propeller, and four horizontal fins for diving. Conseil published a brochure about it entitled Bateau de sauvetage, dit ‘Pilote’ (1863).

  2. the whole hierarchy of phyla, divisions, classes, sub-classes, orders, families, genera, sub-genera, species, and varieties: the narrator is using Linnaeus's hierarchy; for example, Dog is: animal kingdom; phylum Chordata; class Mammalia; order Carnivora; family Canidae; genus Canis; and species familiaris.

  3. the Archaeotheria . . . Chaeropotami: extinct mammals. Archaeotheria: (Verne: ‘les archiotherium’) huge extinct warthog-like animals (N. America). Hyracotheria: or Eohippi: genus of very small extinct horse, found in Wyoming and Utah. Oreodons: genus intermediate between hog, deer, and camel that lived near the Rockies. Chaeropotami: genus close to Hyracotherium.

  4. ‘monsieur's live babirusa’: why is Aronnax travelling across the US with an animal found only in Indonesia?

  5. The hotel lift: the lift in the Fifth Avenue Hotel, installed in 1859, was famous for its innovative engineering, being raised and lowered by a vertical screw.

  6. the half-open slide valves: Miller (1976) states that Verne read John Griffiths, Marine and Naval Architecture (1844), and Nat Bowditch, The American Practical Navigator [. . .] (3rd edn 1809); but this is improbable since these volumes were not translated and Verne could not read English.

  7. tenders: Small steam-driven boats that serve the great steamships. [JV]

  8. the frigate followed the admirable right bank of the river, the New Jersey side crowded with villas, and passed between the forts: the last part of the Hudson leading to Forts Wadsworth and Hamilton is New York State on both sides.

  9. with its 39 stars: WJM and FPW point out that the American flag had 37 stars in 1867, and reached 39 only in 1889.