Vingt mille lieues sous.., p.12

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English, page 12


Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English

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  "May God be with us!" I replied.

  "And now, professor," the captain added, "I'll leave you to yourintellectual pursuits. I've set our course east-northeast at a depthof fifty meters. Here are some large-scale charts on which you'llbe able to follow that course. The lounge is at your disposal,and with your permission, I'll take my leave."

  Captain Nemo bowed. I was left to myself, lost in my thoughts.They all centered on the Nautilus's commander. Would I ever learnthe nationality of this eccentric man who had boasted of having none?His sworn hate for humanity, a hate that perhaps was benton some dreadful revenge--what had provoked it? Was he one ofthose unappreciated scholars, one of those geniuses "embitteredby the world," as Conseil expressed it, a latter-day Galileo,or maybe one of those men of science, like America's Commander Maury,whose careers were ruined by political revolutions? I couldn't say yet.As for me, whom fate had just brought aboard his vessel,whose life he had held in the balance: he had received me coollybut hospitably. Only, he never took the hand I extended to him.He never extended his own.

  For an entire hour I was deep in these musings, trying to probe thismystery that fascinated me so. Then my eyes focused on a huge worldmap displayed on the table, and I put my finger on the very spotwhere our just-determined longitude and latitude intersected.

  Like the continents, the sea has its rivers. These are exclusivecurrents that can be identified by their temperature and color,the most remarkable being the one called the Gulf Stream.Science has defined the global paths of five chief currents:one in the north Atlantic, a second in the south Atlantic,a third in the north Pacific, a fourth in the south Pacific,and a fifth in the southern Indian Ocean. Also it's likelythat a sixth current used to exist in the northern Indian Ocean,when the Caspian and Aral Seas joined up with certain large Asianlakes to form a single uniform expanse of water.

  Now then, at the spot indicated on the world map, one of these seagoingrivers was rolling by, the Kuroshio of the Japanese, the Black Current:heated by perpendicular rays from the tropical sun, it leaves the Bayof Bengal, crosses the Strait of Malacca, goes up the shores of Asia,and curves into the north Pacific as far as the Aleutian Islands,carrying along trunks of camphor trees and other local items, the pureindigo of its warm waters sharply contrasting with the ocean's waves.It was this current the Nautilus was about to cross.I watched it on the map with my eyes, I saw it lose itself in theimmenseness of the Pacific, and I felt myself swept along with it,when Ned Land and Conseil appeared in the lounge doorway.

  My two gallant companions stood petrified at the sight of thewonders on display.

  "Where are we?" the Canadian exclaimed. "In the Quebec Museum?"

  "Begging master's pardon," Conseil answered, "but this seems morelike the Sommerard artifacts exhibition!"

  "My friends," I replied, signaling them to enter, "you're in neitherCanada nor France, but securely aboard the Nautilus, fifty metersbelow sea level."

  "If master says so, then so be it," Conseil answered."But in all honesty, this lounge is enough to astonish even someoneFlemish like myself."

  "Indulge your astonishment, my friend, and have a look, because there'splenty of work here for a classifier of your talents."

  Conseil needed no encouraging. Bending over the glass cases,the gallant lad was already muttering choice words from thenaturalist's vocabulary: class Gastropoda, family Buccinoidea,genus cowry, species Cypraea madagascariensis, etc.

  Meanwhile Ned Land, less dedicated to conchology, questioned meabout my interview with Captain Nemo. Had I discovered who he was,where he came from, where he was heading, how deep he was taking us?In short, a thousand questions I had no time to answer.

  I told him everything I knew--or, rather, everything I didn't know--and I asked him what he had seen or heard on his part.

  "Haven't seen or heard a thing!" the Canadian replied."I haven't even spotted the crew of this boat. By any chance,could they be electric too?"


  "Oh ye gods, I'm half tempted to believe it! But back to you,Professor Aronnax," Ned Land said, still hanging on to his ideas."Can't you tell me how many men are on board? Ten, twenty,fifty, a hundred?"

  "I'm unable to answer you, Mr. Land. And trust me on this:for the time being, get rid of these notions of taking overthe Nautilus or escaping from it. This boat is a masterpieceof modern technology, and I'd be sorry to have missed it!Many people would welcome the circumstances that have been handed us,just to walk in the midst of these wonders. So keep calm,and let's see what's happening around us."

  "See!" the harpooner exclaimed. "There's nothing to see,nothing we'll ever see from this sheet-iron prison! We're simplyrunning around blindfolded--"

  Ned Land was just pronouncing these last words when we weresuddenly plunged into darkness, utter darkness. The ceiling lightswent out so quickly, my eyes literally ached, just as if we hadexperienced the opposite sensation of going from the deepest gloomto the brightest sunlight.

  We stood stock-still, not knowing what surprise was waiting for us,whether pleasant or unpleasant. But a sliding sound became audible.You could tell that some panels were shifting over the Nautilus's sides.

  "It's the beginning of the end!" Ned Land said.

  ". . . order Hydromedusa," Conseil muttered.

  Suddenly, through two oblong openings, daylight appeared on bothsides of the lounge. The liquid masses came into view, brightly litby the ship's electric outpourings. We were separated from the seaby two panes of glass. Initially I shuddered at the thoughtthat these fragile partitions could break; but strong copper bandssecured them, giving them nearly infinite resistance.

  The sea was clearly visible for a one-mile radius aroundthe Nautilus. What a sight! What pen could describe it?Who could portray the effects of this light through these translucentsheets of water, the subtlety of its progressive shadings intothe ocean's upper and lower strata?

  The transparency of salt water has long been recognized.Its clarity is believed to exceed that of spring water.The mineral and organic substances it holds in suspension actuallyincrease its translucency. In certain parts of the Caribbean Sea,you can see the sandy bottom with startling distinctness as deepas 145 meters down, and the penetrating power of the sun'srays seems to give out only at a depth of 300 meters.But in this fluid setting traveled by the Nautilus, our electricglow was being generated in the very heart of the waves.It was no longer illuminated water, it was liquid light.

  If we accept the hypotheses of the microbiologist Ehrenberg--who believes that these underwater depths are lit up byphosphorescent organisms--nature has certainly saved one of hermost prodigious sights for residents of the sea, and I couldjudge for myself from the thousandfold play of the light.On both sides I had windows opening over these unexplored depths.The darkness in the lounge enhanced the brightness outside, and westared as if this clear glass were the window of an immense aquarium.

  The Nautilus seemed to be standing still. This was due to the lackof landmarks. But streaks of water, parted by the ship's spur,sometimes threaded before our eyes with extraordinary speed.

  In wonderment, we leaned on our elbows before these show windows,and our stunned silence remained unbroken until Conseil said:

  "You wanted to see something, Ned my friend; well, now you havesomething to see!"

  "How unusual!" the Canadian put in, setting aside his tantrumsand getaway schemes while submitting to this irresistible allure."A man would go an even greater distance just to stare at such a sight!"

  "Ah!" I exclaimed. "I see our captain's way of life!He's found himself a separate world that saves its most astonishingwonders just for him!"

  "But where are the fish?" the Canadian ventured to observe."I don't see any fish!"

  "Why would you care, Ned my friend?" Conseil replied."Since you have no knowledge of them."

  "Me? A fisherman!" Ned Land exclaimed.

  And on this subject a dispute arose between the two friends, since bothw
ere knowledgeable about fish, but from totally different standpoints.

  Everyone knows that fish make up the fourth and last class inthe vertebrate branch. They have been quite aptly defined as:"cold-blooded vertebrates with a double circulatory system,breathing through gills, and designed to live in water."They consist of two distinct series: the series of bony fish,in other words, those whose spines have vertebrae made of bone;and cartilaginous fish, in other words, those whose spines havevertebrae made of cartilage.

  Possibly the Canadian was familiar with this distinction, but Conseilknew far more about it; and since he and Ned were now fast friends,he just had to show off. So he told the harpooner:

  "Ned my friend, you're a slayer of fish, a highly skilled fisherman.You've caught a large number of these fascinating animals.But I'll bet you don't know how they're classified."

  "Sure I do," the harpooner replied in all seriousness."They're classified into fish we eat and fish we don't eat!"

  "Spoken like a true glutton," Conseil replied. "But tell me,are you familiar with the differences between bony fishand cartilaginous fish?"

  "Just maybe, Conseil."

  "And how about the subdivisions of these two large classes?"

  "I haven't the foggiest notion," the Canadian replied.

  "All right, listen and learn, Ned my friend! Bony fish are subdividedinto six orders. Primo, the acanthopterygians, whose upper jaw is fullyformed and free-moving, and whose gills take the shape of a comb.This order consists of fifteen families, in other words,three-quarters of all known fish. Example: the common perch."

  "Pretty fair eating," Ned Land replied.

  "Secundo," Conseil went on, "the abdominals, whose pelvic fins hangunder the abdomen to the rear of the pectorals but aren't attached tothe shoulder bone, an order that's divided into five families and makesup the great majority of freshwater fish. Examples: carp, pike."

  "Ugh!" the Canadian put in with distinct scorn. "You can keepthe freshwater fish!"

  "Tertio," Conseil said, "the subbrachians, whose pelvic fins areattached under the pectorals and hang directly from the shoulder bone.This order contains four families. Examples: flatfish suchas sole, turbot, dab, plaice, brill, etc."

  "Excellent, really excellent!" the harpooner exclaimed, interested infish only from an edible viewpoint.

  "Quarto," Conseil went on, unabashed, "the apods, with long bodiesthat lack pelvic fins and are covered by a heavy, often glutinous skin,an order consisting of only one family. Examples: common eelsand electric eels."

  "So-so, just so-so!" Ned Land replied.

  "Quinto," Conseil said, "the lophobranchians, which have fully formed,free-moving jaws but whose gills consist of little tufts arrangedin pairs along their gill arches. This order includes onlyone family. Examples: seahorses and dragonfish."

  "Bad, very bad!" the harpooner replied.

  "Sexto and last," Conseil said, "the plectognaths, whose maxillarybone is firmly attached to the side of the intermaxillary that formsthe jaw, and whose palate arch is locked to the skull by suturesthat render the jaw immovable, an order lacking true pelvic finsand which consists of two families. Examples: puffers and moonfish."

  "They're an insult to a frying pan!" the Canadian exclaimed.

  "Are you grasping all this, Ned my friend?" asked the scholarly Conseil.

  "Not a lick of it, Conseil my friend," the harpooner replied."But keep going, because you fill me with fascination."

  "As for cartilaginous fish," Conseil went on unflappably,"they consist of only three orders."

  "Good news," Ned put in.

  "Primo, the cyclostomes, whose jaws are fused into a flexiblering and whose gill openings are simply a large number of holes,an order consisting of only one family. Example: the lamprey."

  "An acquired taste," Ned Land replied.

  "Secundo, the selacians, with gills resembling those of the cyclostomesbut whose lower jaw is free-moving. This order, which is the mostimportant in the class, consists of two families. Examples: the rayand the shark."

  "What!" Ned Land exclaimed. "Rays and man-eaters in the same order?Well, Conseil my friend, on behalf of the rays, I wouldn't adviseyou to put them in the same fish tank!"

  "Tertio," Conseil replied, "The sturionians, whose gill opening isthe usual single slit adorned with a gill cover, an order consistingof four genera. Example: the sturgeon."

  "Ah, Conseil my friend, you saved the best for last, in myopinion anyhow! And that's all of 'em?"

  "Yes, my gallant Ned," Conseil replied. "And note well, even when onehas grasped all this, one still knows next to nothing, because thesefamilies are subdivided into genera, subgenera, species, varieties--"

  "All right, Conseil my friend," the harpooner said, leaning towardthe glass panel, "here come a couple of your varieties now!"

  "Yes! Fish!" Conseil exclaimed. "One would think he was in frontof an aquarium!"

  "No," I replied, "because an aquarium is nothing more than a cage,and these fish are as free as birds in the air!"

  "Well, Conseil my friend, identify them! Start naming them!"Ned Land exclaimed.

  "Me?" Conseil replied. "I'm unable to! That's my employer's bailiwick!"

  And in truth, although the fine lad was a classifying maniac, he wasno naturalist, and I doubt that he could tell a bonito from a tuna.In short, he was the exact opposite of the Canadian, who knew nothingabout classification but could instantly put a name to any fish.

  "A triggerfish," I said.

  "It's a Chinese triggerfish," Ned Land replied.

  "Genus Balistes, family Scleroderma, order Plectognatha,"Conseil muttered.

  Assuredly, Ned and Conseil in combination added up toone outstanding naturalist.

  The Canadian was not mistaken. Cavorting around the Nautiluswas a school of triggerfish with flat bodies, grainy skins,armed with stings on their dorsal fins, and with four pricklyrows of quills quivering on both sides of their tails.Nothing could have been more wonderful than the skin covering them:white underneath, gray above, with spots of gold sparkling inthe dark eddies of the waves. Around them, rays were undulatinglike sheets flapping in the wind, and among these I spotted,much to my glee, a Chinese ray, yellowish on its topside, a daintypink on its belly, and armed with three stings behind its eyes;a rare species whose very existence was still doubted in Lac?p?de's day,since that pioneering classifier of fish had seen one only in aportfolio of Japanese drawings.

  For two hours a whole aquatic army escorted the Nautilus. In the midstof their leaping and cavorting, while they competed with each otherin beauty, radiance, and speed, I could distinguish some green wrasse,bewhiskered mullet marked with pairs of black lines, white gobies fromthe genus Eleotris with curved caudal fins and violet spots on the back,wonderful Japanese mackerel from the genus Scomber with blue bodiesand silver heads, glittering azure goldfish whose name by itselfgives their full description, several varieties of porgy or gilthead(some banded gilthead with fins variously blue and yellow,some with horizontal heraldic bars and enhanced by a black striparound their caudal area, some with color zones and elegantly corsetedin their six waistbands), trumpetfish with flutelike beaks that lookedlike genuine seafaring woodcocks and were sometimes a meter long,Japanese salamanders, serpentine moray eels from the genus Echidnathat were six feet long with sharp little eyes and a huge mouthbristling with teeth; etc.

  Our wonderment stayed at an all-time fever pitch.Our exclamations were endless. Ned identified the fish,Conseil classified them, and as for me, I was in ecstasy overthe verve of their movements and the beauty of their forms.Never before had I been given the chance to glimpse these animalsalive and at large in their native element.

  Given such a complete collection from the seas of Japan and China, Iwon't mention every variety that passed before our dazzled eyes.More numerous than birds in the air, these fish raced right up to us,no doubt attracted by the brilliant glow of our electric beacon.

  Suddenly daylight appea
red in the lounge. The sheet-iron panelsslid shut. The magical vision disappeared. But for a goodwhile I kept dreaming away, until the moment my eyes focused onthe instruments hanging on the wall. The compass still showed ourheading as east-northeast, the pressure gauge indicated a pressureof five atmospheres (corresponding to a depth of fifty meters),and the electric log gave our speed as fifteen miles per hour.

  I waited for Captain Nemo. But he didn't appear. The clock markedthe hour of five.

  Ned Land and Conseil returned to their cabin. As for me,I repaired to my stateroom. There I found dinner ready for me.It consisted of turtle soup made from the daintiest hawksbill,a red mullet with white, slightly flaky flesh, whose liver,when separately prepared, makes delicious eating, plus loin ofimperial angelfish, whose flavor struck me as even better than salmon.

  I spent the evening in reading, writing, and thinking.Then drowsiness overtook me, I stretched out on my eelgrass mattress,and I fell into a deep slumber, while the Nautilus glided throughthe swiftly flowing Black Current.



  An Invitation in Writing

  THE NEXT DAY, November 9, I woke up only after a long,twelve-hour slumber. Conseil, a creature of habit, came toask "how master's night went," and to offer his services.He had left his Canadian friend sleeping like a man who had neverdone anything else.


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