In Search of The Unknown

Robert W. Chambers


It took me a week to perfect my arrangements for transporting the great auks, by water, to Port-of-Waves, where a lumber schooner was to be sent from Petite Sainte Isole, chartered by me for a voyage to New York.

I had constructed a cage made of osiers, in which my auks were to squat until they arrived at Bronx Park. My telegrams to Professor Farrago were brief.  One merely said “Victory!” Another explained that I wanted no assistance; and a third read: “Schooner chartered. Arrive New York July 1st. Send furniture-van
to foot of Bluff Street.”

My week as a guest of Mr. Halyard proved interesting. I wrangled with that invalid to his heart’s content, I worked all day on my osier cage, I hunted the thimble in the moonlight with the pretty nurse. We sometimes found it.

As for the thing they called the harbor-master, I saw it a dozen times, but always either at night or so far away and so close to the sea that of course no trace of it remained when I reached the spot, rifle in hand.

I had quite made up my mind that the so-called harbor-master was a demented darky—wandered from, Heaven knows where—perhaps shipwrecked and gone mad from his sufferings. Still, it was far from pleasant to know that the creature was strongly attracted by the pretty nurse.

She, however, persisted in regarding the harbor-master as a sea-creature; she earnestly affirmed that it had gills, like a fish’s gills, that it had a soft, fleshy hole for a mouth, and its eyes were luminous and lidless and fixed.

“Besides,” she said, with a shudder, “it’s all slate color, like a porpoise, and it looks as wet as a sheet of india-rubber in a dissecting-room.”

The day before I was to set sail with my auks in a cat-boat bound for Port-of-Waves, Halyard trundled up to me in his chair and announced his intention of going with me.

“Going where?” I asked.

“To Port-of-Waves and then to New York,” he replied, tranquilly.

I was doubtful, and my lack of cordiality hurt his feelings.

“Oh, of course, if you need the sea-voyage—” I began.

“I don’t; I need you,” he said, savagely; “I need the stimulus of our daily quarrel. I never disagreed so pleasantly with anybody in my life; it agrees with me; I am a hundred per cent. better than I was last week.”

I was inclined to resent this, but something in the deep-lined face of the invalid softened me. Besides, I had taken a hearty liking to the old pig.

“I don’t want any mawkish sentiment about it,” he said, observing me closely;

“I won’t permit anybody to feel sorry for me—do you understand?”

“I’ll trouble you to use a different tone in addressing me,” I replied, hotly; “I’ll feel sorry for you if I choose to!” And our usual quarrel proceeded, to his deep satisfaction.

By six o’clock next evening I had Halyard’s luggage stowed away in the cat-boat, and the pretty nurse’s effects corded down, with the newly hatched auk-chicks in a hat-box on top. She and I placed the osier cage aboard, securing it firmly, and then, throwing tablecloths over the auks’ heads, we led those simple and dignified birds down the path and across the plank at the little wooden pier. Together we locked up the house, while Halyard stormed at us both and wheeled himself furiously up and down the beach below. At the last moment she forgot her thimble. But we found it, I forget where.

“Come on!” shouted Halyard, waving his shawls furiously; “what the devil are you about up there?”

He received our explanation with a sniff, and we trundled him aboard without further ceremony.

“Don’t run me across the plank like a steamer trunk!” he shouted, as I shot him dexterously into the cock-pit. But the wind was dying away, and I had no time to dispute with him then.

The sun was setting above the pine-clad ridge as our sail flapped and partly filled, and I cast off, and began a long tack, east by south, to avoid the spouting rocks on our starboard bow.

The sea-birds rose in clouds as we swung across the shoal, the black surf-ducks scuttered out to sea, the gulls tossed their sun-tipped wings in the ocean, riding the rollers like bits of froth.

Already we were sailing slowly out across that great hole in the ocean, five miles deep, the most profound sounding ever taken in the Atlantic. The presence of great heights or great depths, seen or unseen, always impresses the human mind—perhaps oppresses it. We were very silent; the sunlight stain on cliff and beach deepened to crimson, then faded into sombre purple bloom that lingered long after the rose-tint died out in the zenith.

Our progress was slow; at times, although the sail filled with the rising land breeze, we scarcely seemed to move at all.

“Of course,” said the pretty nurse, “we couldn’t be aground in the deepest hole in the Atlantic.”

“Scarcely,” said Halyard, sarcastically, “unless we’re grounded on a whale.”

“What’s that soft thumping?” I asked. “Have we run afoul of a barrel or log?”

It was almost too dark to see, but I leaned over the rail and swept the water with my hand.

Instantly something smooth glided under it, like the back of a great fish, and I jerked my hand back to the tiller. At the same moment the whole surface of the water seemed to begin to purr, with a sound like the breaking of froth in a champagne-glass.

“What’s the matter with you?” asked Halyard, sharply.

“A fish came up under my hand,” I said; “a porpoise or something—”

With a low cry, the pretty nurse clasped my arm in both her hands.

“Listen!” she whispered. “It’s purring around the boat.”

“What the devil’s purring?” shouted Halyard. “I won’t have anything purring around me!”

At that moment, to my amazement, I saw that the boat had stopped entirely, although the sail was full and the small pennant fluttered from the mast-head.
Something, too, was tugging at the rudder, twisting and jerking it until the tiller strained and creaked in my hand. All at once it snapped; the tiller swung useless and the boat whirled around, heeling in the stiffening wind, and drove shoreward.

It was then that I, ducking to escape the boom, caught a glimpse of something ahead—something that a sudden wave seemed to toss on deck and leave there, wet and flapping—a man with round, fixed, fishy eyes, and soft, slaty skin.

But the horror of the thing were the two gills that swelled and relaxed spasmodically, emitting a rasping, purring sound—two gasping, blood-red gills, all fluted and scolloped and distended.

Frozen with amazement and repugnance, I stared at the creature; I felt the hair stirring on my head and the icy sweat on my forehead.

“It’s the harbor-master!” screamed Halyard.

The harbor-master had gathered himself into a wet lump, squatting motionless in the bows under the mast; his lidless eyes were phosphorescent, like the eyes of living codfish. After a while I felt that either fright or disgust was going to strangle me where I sat, but it was only the arms of the pretty nurse clasped around me in a frenzy of terror.

There was not a fire-arm aboard that we could get at. Halyard’s hand crept backward where a steel-shod boat-hook lay, and I also made a clutch at it. The next moment I had it in my hand, and staggered forward, but the boat was already tumbling shoreward among the breakers, and the next I knew the harbor-master ran at me like a colossal rat, just as the boat rolled over and over through the surf, spilling freight and passengers among the sea-weed-covered rocks.

When I came to myself I was thrashing about knee-deep in a rocky pool, blinded by the water and half suffocated, while under my feet, like a stranded porpoise, the harbor-master made the water boil in his efforts to upset me. But his limbs seemed soft and boneless; he had no nails, no teeth, and he bounced and thumped and flapped and splashed like a fish, while I rained blows on him with the boat-hook that sounded like blows on a football. And all the while his gills were blowing out and frothing, and purring, and his lidless eyes looked into mine, until, nauseated and trembling, I dragged myself back to the beach, where already the pretty nurse alternately wrung her hands and her petticoats in ornamental despair.

Beyond the cove, Halyard was bobbing up and down, afloat in his invalid’s chair, trying to steer shoreward. He was the maddest man I ever saw.

“Have you killed that rubber-headed thing yet?” he roared.

“I can’t kill it,” I shouted, breathlessly. “I might as well try to kill a football!”

“Can’t you punch a hole in it?” he bawled. “If I can only get at him—”

His words were drowned in a thunderous splashing, a roar of great, broad flippers beating the sea, and I saw the gigantic forms of my two great auks, followed by their chicks, blundering past in a shower of spray, driving headlong out into the ocean.

“Oh, Lord!” I said. “I can’t stand that,” and, for the first time in my life, I fainted peacefully—and appropriately—at the feet of the pretty nurse.

It is within the range of possibility that this story may be doubted. It doesn’t matter; nothing can add to the despair of a man who has lost two great auks. 

As for Halyard, nothing affects him—except his involuntary sea-bath, and that did him so much good that he writes me from the South that he’s going on a walking-tour through Switzerland—if I’ll join him. I might have joined him if he had not married the pretty nurse. I wonder whether—But, of course, this is no place for speculation.

In regard to the harbor-master, you may believe it or not, as you choose. But if you hear of any great auks being found, kindly throw a table-cloth over their heads and notify the authorities at the new Zoological Gardens in Bronx Park, New York. The reward is ten thousand dollars.

Go to Chapter Six......