CHAPTER 5: At Random!
And they opened amazingly wide. Eyes and spyglasses (a bit dazzled,
it is true, by the vista of $2,000.00) didn't remain at rest for
an instant. Day and night we observed the surface of the ocean,
and those with nyctalopic eyes, whose ability to see in the dark
increased their chances by fifty percent, had an excellent shot
at winning the prize.
As for me, I was hardly drawn by the lure of money and yet was far from
the least attentive on board. Snatching only a few minutes for meals
and a few hours for sleep, come rain or come shine, I no longer left
the ship's deck. Sometimes bending over the forecastle railings,
sometimes leaning against the sternrail, I eagerly scoured that
cotton-colored wake that whitened the ocean as far as the eye could see!
And how many times I shared the excitement of general staff and crew
when some unpredictable whale lifted its blackish back above the waves.
In an instant the frigate's deck would become densely populated.
The cowls over the companionways would vomit a torrent of sailors
and officers. With panting chests and anxious eyes, we each would
observe the cetacean's movements. I stared; I stared until I nearly
went blind from a worn-out retina, while Conseil, as stoic as ever,
kept repeating to me in a calm tone:
"If master's eyes would kindly stop bulging, master will see farther!"
But what a waste of energy! The Abraham Lincoln would change
course and race after the animal sighted, only to find an ordinary
baleen whale or a common sperm whale that soon disappeared amid
a chorus of curses!
However, the weather held good. Our voyage was proceeding under
the most favorable conditions. By then it was the bad season
in these southernmost regions, because July in this zone corresponds
to our January in Europe; but the sea remained smooth and easily
visible over a vast perimeter.
Ned Land still kept up the most tenacious skepticism; beyond his
spells on watch, he pretended that he never even looked at
the surface of the waves, at least while no whales were in sight.
And yet the marvelous power of his vision could have performed
yeoman service. But this stubborn Canadian spent eight
hours out of every twelve reading or sleeping in his cabin.
A hundred times I chided him for his unconcern.