The order was given to stop, and the frigate merely coasted.
By then the darkness was profound, and as good as the Canadian's eyes were, I still wondered how he could see--and what he had seen. My heart was pounding fit to burst.
But Ned Land was not mistaken, and we all spotted the object his hand was indicating.
Two cable lengths off the Abraham Lincoln's starboard quarter, the sea seemed to be lit up from underneath. This was no mere phosphorescent phenomenon, that much was unmistakable. Submerged some fathoms below the surface of the water, the monster gave off that very intense but inexplicable glow that several captains had mentioned in their reports. This magnificent radiance had to come from some force with a great illuminating capacity. The edge of its light swept over the sea in an immense, highly elongated oval, condensing at the center into a blazing core whose unbearable glow diminished by degrees outward.
"It's only a cluster of phosphorescent particles!" exclaimed one of the officers.
"No, sir," I answered with conviction. "Not even angel-wing clams or salps have ever given off such a powerful light. That glow is basically electric in nature. Besides . . . look, look! It's shifting! It's moving back and forth! It's darting at us!"
A universal shout went up from the frigate.
"Quiet!" Commander Farragut said. "Helm hard to leeward! Reverse engines!"
Sailors rushed to the helm, engineers to their machinery. Under reverse steam immediately, the Abraham Lincoln beat to port, sweeping in a semicircle.
"Right your helm! Engines forward!" Commander Farragut called.
These orders were executed, and the frigate swiftly retreated from this core of light.
My mistake. It wanted to retreat, but the unearthly animal came at us with a speed double our own.
We gasped. More stunned than afraid, we stood mute and motionless. The animal caught up with us, played with us. It made a full circle around the frigate--then doing fourteen knots--and wrapped us in sheets of electricity that were like luminous dust. Then it retreated two or three miles, leaving a phosphorescent trail comparable to those swirls of steam that shoot behind the locomotive of an express train. Suddenly, all the way from the dark horizon where it had gone to gather momentum, the monster abruptly dashed toward the Abraham Lincoln with frightening speed, stopped sharply twenty feet from our side plates, and died out-- not by diving under the water, since its glow did not recede gradually-- but all at once, as if the source of this brilliant emanation had suddenly dried up. Then it reappeared on the other side of the ship, either by circling around us or by gliding under our hull. At any instant a collision could have occurred that would have been fatal to us.
Meanwhile I was astonished at the frigate's maneuvers. It was fleeing, not fighting. Built to pursue, it was being pursued, and I commented on this to Commander Farragut. His face, ordinarily so emotionless, was stamped with indescribable astonishment.
"Professor Aronnax," he answered me, "I don't know what kind of fearsome creature I'm up against, and I don't want my frigate running foolish risks in all this darkness. Besides, how should we attack this unknown creature, how should we defend ourselves against it? Let's wait for daylight, and then we'll play a different role."
"You've no further doubts, commander, as to the nature of this animal?"
"No, sir, it's apparently a gigantic narwhale, and an electric one to boot."
"Maybe," I added, "it's no more approachable than an electric eel or an electric ray!"
"Right," the commander replied. "And if it has their power to electrocute, it's surely the most dreadful animal ever conceived by our Creator. That's why I'll keep on my guard, sir."
The whole crew stayed on their feet all night long. No one even thought of sleeping. Unable to compete with the monster's speed, the Abraham Lincoln slowed down and stayed at half steam. For its part, the narwhale mimicked the frigate, simply rode with the waves, and seemed determined not to forsake the field of battle.