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Un capitaine de quinze ans. English, Page 2

Jules Verne



  On the 2nd of February, 1873, the "Pilgrim," a tight little craft of400 tons burden, lay in lat. 43 deg. 57', S. and long. 165 deg. 19', W. She wasa schooner, the property of James W. Weldon, a wealthy Californianship-owner who had fitted her out at San Francisco, expressly for thewhale-fisheries in the southern seas.

  James Weldon was accustomed every season to send his whalers both tothe Arctic regions beyond Behring Straits, and to the Antarctic Oceanbelow Tasmania and Cape Horn; and the "Pilgrim," although one of thesmallest, was one of the best-going vessels of its class; hersailing-powers were splendid, and her rigging was so adroitly adaptedthat with a very small crew she might venture without risk within sightof the impenetrable ice-fields of the southern hemisphere: underskilful guidance she could dauntlessly thread her way amongst thedrifting ice-bergs that, lessened though they were by perpetual shocksand undermined by warm currents, made their way northwards as far asthe parallel of New Zealand or the Cape of Good Hope, to a latitudecorresponding to which in the northern hemisphere they are never seen,having already melted away in the depths of the Atlantic and PacificOceans.

  For several years the command of the "Pilgrim" had been entrusted toCaptain Hull, an experienced seaman, and one of the most dexterousharpooners in Weldon's service. The crew consisted of five sailors andan apprentice. This number, of course, was quite insufficient for theprocess of whale-fishing, which requires a large contingent both formanning the whale-boats and for cutting up the whales after they arecaptured; but Weldon, following the example of other owners, found itmore economical to embark at San Francisco only just enough men to workthe ship to New Zealand, where, from the promiscuous gathering ofseamen of well-nigh every nationality, and of needy emigrants, thecaptain had no difficulty in engaging as many whalemen as he wanted forthe season. This method of hiring men who could be at once dischargedwhen their services were no longer required had proved altogether to bethe most profitable and convenient.

  The "Pilgrim" had now just completed her annual voyage to the Antarcticcircle. It was not, however, with her proper quota of oil-barrels fullto the brim, nor yet with an ample cargo of cut and uncut whalebone,that she was thus far on her way back. The time, indeed, for a goodhaul was past; the repeated and vigourous attacks upon the cetaceanshad made them very scarce; the whale known as "the Right whale," the"Nord-kapper" of the northern fisheries, the "Sulpher-boltone" of thesouthern, was hardly ever to be seen; and latterly the whalers had hadno alternative but to direct their efforts against the Finback orJubarte, a gigantic mammal, encounter with which is always attendedwith considerable danger.

  So scanty this year had been the supply of whales that Captain Hull hadresolved next year to push his way into far more southern latitudes;even, if necessary, to advance to the regions known as Clarie andAdelie Lands, of which the discovery, though claimed by the Americannavigator Wilkes, belongs by right to the illustrious Frenchman Dumontd'Urville, the commander of the "Astrolabe" and the "Zelee."

  The season had been exceptionally unfortunate for the "Pilgrim." At thebeginning of January, almost in the height of the southern summer, longbefore the ordinary time for the whalers' return, Captain Hull had beenobliged to abandon his fishing-quarters. His hired contingent, all menof more than doubtful character, had given signs of suchinsubordination as threatened to end in mutiny; and he had become awarethat he must part company with them on the earliest possibleopportunity. Accordingly, without delay, the bow of the "Pilgrim" wasdirected to the northwest, towards New Zealand, which was sighted onthe 15th of January, and on reaching Waitemata, the port of Auckland,in the Hauraki Gulf, on the east coast of North Island, the whole ofthe gang was peremptorily discharged.

  The ship's crew were more than dissatisfied. They were angry. Neverbefore had they returned with so meagre a haul. They ought to have hadat least two hundred barrels more. The captain himself experienced allthe mortification of an ardent sportsman who for the first time in hislife brings home a half-empty bag; and there was a general spirit ofanimosity against the rascals whose rebellion had so entirely marredthe success of the expedition.

  Captain Hull did everything in his power to repair the disappointment;he made every effort to engage a fresh gang; but it was too late; everyavailable seaman had long since been carried off to the fisheries.Finding therefore that all hope of making good the deficiency in hiscargo must be resigned, he was on the point of leaving Auckland, alonewith his crew, when he was met by a request with which he felt himselfbound to comply.

  It had chanced that James Weldon, on one of those journeys which werenecessitated by the nature of his business, had brought with him hiswife, his son Jack, a child of five years of age, and a relation of thefamily who was generally known by the name of Cousin Benedict. Weldonhad of course intended that his family should accompany him on hisreturn home to San Francisco; but little Jack was taken so seriouslyill, that his father, whose affairs demanded his immediate return, wasobliged to leave him behind at Auckland with his wife and CousinBenedict.

  Three months had passed away, little Jack was convalescent, and Mrs.Weldon, weary of her long separation from her husband, was anxious toget home as soon as possible. Her readiest way of reaching SanFrancisco was to cross to Australia, and thence to take a passage inone of the vessels of the "Golden Age" Company, which run betweenMelbourne and the Isthmus of Panama: on arriving in Panama she wouldhave to wait the departure of the next American steamer of the linewhich maintains a regular communication between the Isthmus andCalifornia. This route, however, involved many stoppages and changes,such as are always disagreeable and inconvenient for women andchildren, and Mrs. Weldon was hesitating whether she should encounterthe journey, when she heard that her husband's vessel, the "Pilgrim,"had arrived at Auckland. Hastening to Captain Hull, she begged him totake her with her little boy, Cousin Benedict, and Nan, an old negresswho had been her attendant from her childhood, on board the "Pilgrim,"and to convey them to San Francisco direct.

  "Was it not over hazardous," asked the captain, "to venture upon avoyage of between 5000 and 6000 miles in so small a sailing-vessel?"

  But Mrs. Weldon urged her request, and Captain Hull, confident in thesea-going qualities of his craft, and anticipating at this seasonnothing but fair weather on either side of the equator, gave hisconsent.

  In order to provide as far as possible for the comfort of the ladyduring a voyage that must occupy from forty to fifty days, the captainplaced his own cabin at her entire disposal.

  Everything promised well for a prosperous voyage. The only hindrancethat could be foreseen arose from the circumstance that the "Pilgrim"would have to put in at Valparaiso for the purpose of unlading; butthat business once accomplished, she would continue her way along theAmerican coast with the assistance of the land breezes, whichordinarily make the proximity of those shores such agreeable quartersfor sailing.

  Mrs. Weldon herself had accompanied her husband in so many voyages,that she was quite inured to all the makeshifts of a seafaring life,and was conscious of no misgiving in embarking upon a vessel of suchsmall tonnage. She was a brave, high-spirited woman of about thirtyyears of age, in the enjoyment of excellent health, and for her the seahad no terrors. Aware that Captain Hull was an experienced man, in whomher husband had the utmost confidence, and knowing that his ship was asubstantial craft, registered as one of the best of the Americanwhalers, so far from entertaining any mistrust as to her safety, sheonly rejoiced in the opportuneness of the chance which seemed to offerher a direct and unbroken route to her destination.

  Cousin Benedict, as a matter of course, was to accompany her. He wasabout fifty; but in spite of his mature age it would have beenconsidered the height of imprudence to allow him to travel anywherealone. Spare, lanky, with a bony frame, with an enormous cranium, and aprofusion of hair, he was one of those amiable, inoffensive _savants_who, having once taken to gold spectacles, appear to have arrived at asettled standard of age, and, however l
ong they live afterwards, seemnever to be older than they have ever been.

  Claiming a sort of kindredship with all the world, he was universallyknown, far beyond the pale of his own connexions, by the name of"Cousin Benedict." In the ordinary concerns of life nothing would everhave rendered him capable of shifting for himself; of his meals hewould never think until they were placed before him; he had theappearance of being utterly insensible to heat or cold; he vegetatedrather than lived, and might not inaptly be compared to a tree which,though healthy enough at its core, produces scant foliage and no fruit.His long arms and legs were in the way of himself and everybody else;yet no one could possibly treat him with unkindness. As M. Prudhommewould say, "if only he had been endowed with capability," he would haverendered a service to any one in the world; but helplessness was hisdominant characteristic; helplessness was ingrained into his verynature; yet this very helplessness made him an object of kindconsideration rather than of contempt, and Mrs. Weldon looked upon himas a kind of elder brother to her little Jack.

  It must not be supposed, however, that Cousin Benedict was either idleor unoccupied. On the contrary, his whole time was devoted to oneabsorbing passion for natural history. Not that he had any large claimto be regarded properly as a natural historian; he had made noexcursions over the whole four districts of zoology, botany,mineralogy, and geology, into which the realms of natural history arecommonly divided; indeed, he had no pretensions at all to be either abotanist, a mineralogist, or a geologist; his studies only sufficed tomake him a zoologist, and that in a very limited sense. No Cuvier washe; he did not aspire to decompose animal life by analysis, and torecompose it by synthesis; his enthusiasm had not made him at alldeeply versed in vertebrata, mollusca, or radiata; in fact, thevertebrata--animals, birds, reptiles, fishes--had had no place in hisresearches; the mollusca--from the cephalopoda to the bryozia--had hadno attractions for him; nor had he consumed the midnight oil ininvestigating the radiata, the echmodermata, acalephae, polypi, entozoa,or infusoria.

  No; Cousin Benedict's interest began and ended with the articulata; andit must be owned at once that his studies were very far from embracingall the range of the six classes into which "articulata" aresubdivided; viz, the insecta, the mynapoda, the arachnida, thecrustacea, the cinhopoda, and the anelides; and he was utterly unablein scientific language to distinguish a worm from a leech, an earwigfrom a sea-acorn, a spider from a scorpion, a shrimp from afrog-hopper, or a galley-worm from a centipede.

  To confess the plain truth, Cousin Benedict was an amateurentomologist, and nothing more.

  Entomology, it may be asserted, is a wide science; it embraces thewhole division of the articulata; but our friend was an entomologistonly in the limited sense of the popular acceptation of the word; thatis to say, he was an observer and collector of insects, meaning by"insects" those articulata which have bodies consisting of a number ofconcentric movable rings, forming three distinct segments, each with apair of legs, and which are scientifically designated as hexapods.

  Cousin Benedict]

  To this extent was Cousin Benedict an entomologist; and when it isremembered that the class of insecta of which he had grown up to be theenthusiastic student comprises no less than ten[1] orders, and that ofthese ten the coleoptera and diptera alone include 30,000 and 60,000species respectively, it must be confessed that he had an ample fieldfor his most persevering exertions.

  [Footnote 1: These ten orders are (1) the orthoptera, _e.g._grasshoppers and crickets; (2) the neuroptera, _e.g._ dragon-flies; (3)the hymenoptera, _e.g._ bees, wasps, and ants; (4) the lepidoptera,_e.g._ butterflies and moths; (5) the hemiptera, _e.g._ cicadas andfleas; (6) the coleoptera, _e.g._ cockchafers and glow-worms; (7) thediptera, _e.g._ gnats and flies; (8) the rhipiptera, _e.g._ thestylops; (9) the parasites, _e.g._ the acarus; and (10) the thysanura,_e.g._ the lepisma and podura.]

  Every available hour did he spend in the pursuit of his favouritescience: hexapods ruled his thoughts by day and his dreams by night.The number of pins that he carried thick on the collar and sleeves ofhis coat, down the front of his waistcoat, and on the crown of his hat,defied computation; they were kept in readiness for the capture ofspecimens that might come in his way, and on his return from a ramblein the country he might be seen literally encased with a covering ofinsects, transfixed adroitly by scientific rule.

  This ruling passion of his had been the inducement that had urged himto accompany Mr. and Mrs. Weldon to New Zealand. It had appeared to himthat it was likely to be a promising district, and now having beensuccessful in adding some rare specimens to his collection, he wasanxious to get back again to San Francisco, and to assign them theirproper places in his extensive cabinet.

  Besides, it never occurred to Mrs. Weldon to start without him. Toleave him to shift for himself would be sheer cruelty. As a matter ofcourse whenever Mrs. Weldon went on board the "Pilgrim," CousinBenedict would go too.

  Not that in any emergency assistance of any kind could be expected fromhim; on the contrary, in the case of difficulty he would be anadditional burden; but there was every reason to expect a fair passageand no cause of misgiving of any kind, so the propriety of leaving theamiable entomologist behind was never suggested.

  Anxious that she should be no impediment in the way of the duedeparture of the "Pilgrim" from Waitemata, Mrs. Weldon made herpreparations with the utmost haste, discharged the servants which shehad temporarily engaged at Auckland, and accompanied by little Jack andthe old negress, and followed mechanically by Cousin Benedict, embarkedon the 22nd of January on board the schooner.

  The amateur, however, kept his eye very scrupulously upon his ownspecial box. Amongst his collection of insects were some veryremarkable examples of new staphylins, a species of carnivorouscoleoptera with eyes placed above their head; it was a kind supposed tobe peculiar to New Caledonia. Another rarity which had been broughtunder his notice was a venomous spider, known among the Maoris as a"katipo;" its bite was asserted to be very often fatal. As a spider,however, belongs to the order of the arachnida, and is not properly an"insect," Benedict declined to take any interest in it. Enough for himthat he had secured a novelty in his own section of research; the"Staphylin Neo-Zelandus" was not only the gem of his collection, butits pecuniary value baffled ordinary estimate; he insured his box at afabulous sum, deeming it to be worth far more than all the cargo of oiland whalebone in the "Pilgrim's" hold.

  Captain Hull advanced to meet Mrs. Weldon and her party as they steppedon deck.

  "It must be understood, Mrs. Weldon," he said, courteously raising hishat, "that you take this passage entirely on your own responsibility."

  "Certainly, Captain Hull," she answered; "but why do you ask?"

  "Simply because I have received no orders from Mr. Weldon," replied thecaptain.

  Captain Hull advanced to meet Mrs. Weldon and her party.]

  "But my wish exonerates you," said Mrs. Weldon.

  "Besides," added Captain Hull, "I am unable to provide you with theaccommodation and the comfort that you would have upon a passengersteamer."

  "You know well enough, captain," remonstrated the lady "that my husbandwould not hesitate for a moment to trust his wife and child on boardthe 'Pilgrim.'"

  "Trust, madam! No! no more than I should myself. I repeat that the'Pilgrim' cannot afford you the comfort to which you are accustomed."

  Mrs. Weldon smiled.

  "Oh, I am not one of your grumbling travellers. I shall have nocomplaints to make either of small cramped cabins, or of rough andmeagre food."

  She took her son by the hand, and passing on, begged that they mightstart forthwith.

  Orders accordingly were given; sails were trimmed; and after taking theshortest course across the gulf, the "Pilgrim" turned her head towardsAmerica.

  Three days later strong easterly breezes compelled the schooner to tackto larboard in order to get to windward. The consequence was that bythe 2nd of February the captain found himself in such a latitude thathe might almost be sus
pected of intending to round Cape Horn ratherthan of having a design to coast the western shores of the NewContinent.

  Still, the sea did not become rough. There was a slight delay, but, onthe whole, navigation was perfectly easy.