A Whale of Unknown Species
ALTHOUGH I WAS startled by this unexpected descent, I at least have a very clear recollection of my sensations during it.
At first I was dragged about twenty feet under. I'm a good swimmer, without claiming to equal such other authors as Byron and Edgar Allan Poe, who were master divers, and I didn't lose my head on the way down. With two vigorous kicks of the heel, I came back to the surface of the sea.
My first concern was to look for the frigate. Had the crew seen me go overboard? Was the Abraham Lincoln tacking about? Would Commander Farragut put a longboat to sea? Could I hope to be rescued?
The gloom was profound. I glimpsed a black mass disappearing eastward, where its running lights were fading out in the distance. It was the frigate. I felt I was done for.
"Help! Help!" I shouted, swimming desperately toward the Abraham Lincoln.
My clothes were weighing me down. The water glued them to my body, they were paralyzing my movements. I was sinking! I was suffocating . . . !
This was the last shout I gave. My mouth was filling with water. I struggled against being dragged into the depths. . . .
Suddenly my clothes were seized by energetic hands, I felt myself pulled abruptly back to the surface of the sea, and yes, I heard these words pronounced in my ear:
"If master would oblige me by leaning on my shoulder, master will swim with much greater ease."
With one hand I seized the arm of my loyal Conseil.
"You!" I said. "You!"
"Myself," Conseil replied, "and at master's command."
"That collision threw you overboard along with me?"
"Not at all. But being in master's employ, I followed master."
The fine lad thought this only natural!
"What about the frigate?" I asked.
"The frigate?" Conseil replied, rolling over on his back. "I think master had best not depend on it to any great extent!"
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that just as I jumped overboard, I heard the men at the helm shout, 'Our propeller and rudder are smashed!' "
"Yes, smashed by the monster's tusk! I believe it's the sole injury the Abraham Lincoln has sustained. But most inconveniently for us, the ship can no longer steer."
"Then we're done for!"
"Perhaps," Conseil replied serenely. "However, we still have a few hours before us, and in a few hours one can do a great many things!"
Conseil's unflappable composure cheered me up. I swam more vigorously, but hampered by clothes that were as restricting as a cloak made of lead, I was managing with only the greatest difficulty. Conseil noticed as much.
"Master will allow me to make an incision," he said.
And he slipped an open clasp knife under my clothes, slitting them from top to bottom with one swift stroke. Then he briskly undressed me while I swam for us both.
I then did Conseil the same favor, and we continued to "navigate" side by side.
But our circumstances were no less dreadful. Perhaps they hadn't seen us go overboard; and even if they had, the frigate-- being undone by its rudder--couldn't return to leeward after us. So we could count only on its longboats.
Conseil had coolly reasoned out this hypothesis and laid his plans accordingly. An amazing character, this boy; in midocean, this stoic lad seemed right at home!
So, having concluded that our sole chance for salvation lay in being picked up by the Abraham Lincoln's longboats, we had to take steps to wait for them as long as possible. Consequently, I decided to divide our energies so we wouldn't both be worn out at the same time, and this was the arrangement: while one of us lay on his back, staying motionless with arms crossed and legs outstretched, the other would swim and propel his partner forward. This towing role was to last no longer than ten minutes, and by relieving each other in this way, we could stay afloat for hours, perhaps even until daybreak.
Slim chance, but hope springs eternal in the human breast! Besides, there were two of us.