Because it all seems so improbable—so horribly impossible
to me now, sitting here safe and sane in my own library—I hesitate to record
an episode which already appears to me less horrible than grotesque.
Yet, unless this story is written now, I know I shall never have the courage
to tell the truth about the matter—not from fear of ridicule, but because
I myself shall soon cease to credit what I now know to be true. Yet
scarcely a month has elapsed since I heard the stealthy purring of what
I believed to be the shoaling undertow— scarcely a month ago, with my own
eyes, I saw that which, even now, I am beginning to believe never existed.
As for the harbor-master—and the blow I am now striking at the old order
of things—But of that I shall not speak now, or later; I shall try to tell
the story simply and truthfully, and let my friends testify as to my probity
and the publishers of this book corroborate them.
On the 29th of February I resigned my position under the
government and left Washington to accept an offer from Professor Farrago—whose
name he kindly permits me to use—and on the first day of April I entered
upon my new and congenial duties as general superintendent of the water-fowl
department connected with the Zoological Gardens then in course of erection
at Bronx Park, New York.
For a week I followed the routine, examining the new foundations,
studying the architect’s plans, following the surveyors through the Bronx
thickets, suggesting arrangements for water-courses and pools destined
to be included in the enclosures for swans, geese, pelicans, herons, and
such of the waders and swimmers as we might expect to acclimate in Bronx
It was at that time the policy of the trustees and officers
of the Zoological Gardens neither to employ collectors nor to send out
expeditions in search of specimens. The society decided to depend
upon voluntary contributions, and I was always busy, part of the day, in
dictating answers to correspondents who wrote offering their services as
hunters of big game, collectors of all sorts of fauna, trappers, snarers,
and also to those who offered specimens for sale, usually at exorbitant
To the proprietors of five-legged kittens, mangy lynxes,
moth-eaten coyotes, and dancing bears I returned courteous but uncompromising
refusals—of course, first submitting all such letters, together with my
replies, to Professor Farrago.
One day towards the end of May, however, just as I was
leaving Bronx Park to return to town, Professor Lesard, of the reptilian
department, called out to me that Professor Farrago wanted to see me a
moment; so I put my pipe into my pocket again and retraced my steps to
the temporary, wooden building occupied by Professor Farrago, general superintendent
of the Zoological Gardens. The professor, who was sitting at his
desk before a pile of letters and replies submitted for approval by me,
pushed his glasses down and looked over them at me with a whimsical smile
that suggested amusement, impatience, annoyance, and perhaps a faint trace
“Now, here’s a letter,” he said, with a deliberate gesture
towards a sheet of paper impaled on a file— “a letter that I suppose you
remember.” He disengaged the sheet of paper and handed it to me.
“Oh yes,” I replied, with a shrug; “of course the man
“Or what?” demanded Professor Farrago, tranquilly, wiping
“—Or a liar,” I replied.
After a silence he leaned back in his chair and bade me
read the letter to him again, and I did so with a contemptuous tolerance
for the writer, who must have been either a very innocent victim or a very
stupid swindler. I said as much to Professor Farrago, but, to my surprise,
he appeared to waver.
“I suppose,” he said, with his near-sighted, embarrassed
smile, “that nine hundred and ninety-nine men in a thousand would throw
that letter aside and condemn the writer as a liar or a fool?”
“In my opinion,” said I, “he’s one or the other.”
“He isn’t—in mine,” said the professor, placidly.
“What!” I exclaimed. “Here is a man living all alone on
a strip of rock and sand between the wilderness and the sea, who wants
you to send somebody to take charge of a bird that doesn’t exist!”
“How do you know,” asked Professor Farrago, “that the
bird in question does not exist?”
“It is generally accepted,” I replied, sarcastically,
“that the great auk has been extinct for years. Therefore I may be
pardoned for doubting that our correspondent possesses a pair of them alive.”
“Oh, you young fellows,” said the professor, smiling wearily,
“you embark on a theory for destinations that don’t exist.”
He leaned back in his chair, his amused eyes searching
space for the imagery that made him smile.
“Like swimming squirrels, you navigate with the help of
Heaven and a stiff breeze, but you never land where you hope to—do you?”
Rather red in the face, I said: “Don’t you believe the
great auk to be extinct?”
“Audubon saw the great auk.”
“Who has seen a single specimen since?”
“Nobody—except our correspondent here,” he replied, laughing.
I laughed, too, considering the interview at an end, but
the professor went on, coolly:
“Whatever it is that our correspondent has—and I am daring
to believe that it is the great auk itself—I want you to secure it for
When my astonishment subsided my first conscious sentiment
was one of pity. Clearly, Professor Farrago was on the verge of dotage—ah,
what a loss to the world!
I believe now that Professor Farrago perfectly interpreted
my thoughts, but he betrayed neither resentment nor impatience I drew a
chair up beside his desk— there was nothing to do but to obey, and this
fool’s errand was none of my conceiving.
Together we made out a list of articles necessary for
me and itemized the expenses I might incur, and I set a date for my return,
allowing no margin for a successful termination to the expedition.
“Never mind that,” said the professor. “What I want you
to do is to get those birds here safely. Now, how many men will you take?”
“None,” I replied, bluntly; “it’s a useless expense, unless
there is something to bring back. If there is I’ll wire you, you may be
“Very well,” said Professor Farrago, good-humoredly, “you
shall have all the assistance you may require. Can you leave to-night?”
The old gentleman was certainly prompt. I nodded, half-sulkily,
aware of his amusement.
“So,” I said, picking up my hat, “I am to start north
to find a place called Black Harbor, where there is a man named Halyard
who possesses, among other household utensils, two extinct great auks—”
We were both laughing by this time. I asked him why on
earth he credited the assertion of a man he had never before heard of.
“I suppose,” he replied, with the same half-apologetic,
“it is instinct. I feel, somehow, that this man Halyard
has got an auk—perhaps two. I can’t get away from the idea that we
are on the eve of acquiring the rarest of living creatures. It’s
odd for a scientist to talk as I do; doubtless you’re shocked—admit it,
But I was not shocked; on the contrary, I was conscious
that the same strange hope that Professor Farrago cherished was beginning,
in spite of me, to stir my pulses, too.
“If he has—” I began, then stopped.
The professor and I looked hard at each other in silence.
“Go on,” he said, encouragingly.
But I had nothing more to say, for the prospect of beholding
with my own eyes a living specimen of the great auk produced a series of
conflicting emotions within me which rendered speech profanely superfluous.
As I took my leave Professor Farrago came to the door
of the temporary, wooden office and handed me the letter written by the
man Halyard. I folded it and put it into my pocket, as Halyard might require
it for my own identification.
“How much does he want for the pair?” I asked.
“Ten thousand dollars. Don’t demur—if the birds are really—”
“I know,” I said, hastily, not daring to hope too much.
“One thing more,” said Professor Farrago, gravely; “you
know, in that last paragraph of his letter, Halyard speaks of something
else in the way of specimens—an undiscovered species of amphibious biped—just
read that paragraph again, will you?”
I drew the letter from my pocket and read as he directed:
“When you have seen the two living specimens
of the great auk, and have satisfied yourself that I tell the truth, you
may be wise enough to listen without prejudice to a statement I shall make
concerning the existence of the strangest creature ever fashioned.
I will merely say, at this time, that the creature referred to is an amphibious
biped and inhabits the ocean near this coast. More I cannot say,
for I personally have not seen the animal, but I have a witness who has,
and there are many who affirm that they have seen the creature.
You will naturally say that my statement amounts to nothing;
but when your representative arrives, if he be free from prejudice, I expect
his reports to you concerning this sea-biped will confirm the solemn statements
of a witness I know to be unimpeachable.
“Yours truly, Burton Halyard.
“Well,” I said, after a moment’s thought, “here goes
for the wild-goose chase.”
“Wild auk, you mean,” said Professor Farrago, shaking
hands with me. “You will start to-night, won’t you?”
“Yes, but Heaven knows how I’m ever going to land in this
man Halyard’s door-yard. Good-bye!”
“About that sea-biped—” began Professor Farrago, shyly.
“Oh, don’t!” I said; “I can swallow the auks, feathers
and claws, but if this fellow Halyard is hinting he’s seen an amphibious
creature resembling a man—”
“—Or a woman,” said the professor, cautiously.
I retired, disgusted, my faith shaken in the mental vigor
of Professor Farrago.
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