Vingt mille lieues sous.., p.14

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English, page 14

 

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English
 



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  "Captain Nemo," I said, "this is an ideal, easy-to-use weapon.I ask only to put it to the test. But how will we reach the bottomof the sea?"

  "Right now, professor, the Nautilus is aground in ten meters of water,and we've only to depart."

  "But how will we set out?"

  "You'll see."

  Captain Nemo inserted his cranium into its spherical headgear.Conseil and I did the same, but not without hearing the Canadiantoss us a sarcastic "happy hunting." On top, the suit ended in acollar of threaded copper onto which the metal helmet was screwed.Three holes, protected by heavy glass, allowed us to see in anydirection with simply a turn of the head inside the sphere.Placed on our backs, the Rouquayrol device went into operation as soonas it was in position, and for my part, I could breathe with ease.

  The Ruhmkorff lamp hanging from my belt, my rifle in hand,I was ready to go forth. But in all honesty, while imprisonedin these heavy clothes and nailed to the deck by my lead soles,it was impossible for me to take a single step.

  But this circumstance had been foreseen, because I feltmyself propelled into a little room adjoining the wardrobe.Towed in the same way, my companions went with me. I heard a doorwith watertight seals close after us, and we were surroundedby profound darkness.

  After some minutes a sharp hissing reached my ears.I felt a distinct sensation of cold rising from my feet to my chest.Apparently a stopcock inside the boat was letting in waterfrom outside, which overran us and soon filled up the room.Contrived in the Nautilus's side, a second door then opened.We were lit by a subdued light. An instant later our feet weretreading the bottom of the sea.

  And now, how can I convey the impressions left on me by this strollunder the waters. Words are powerless to describe such wonders!When even the painter's brush can't depict the effects unique tothe liquid element, how can the writer's pen hope to reproduce them?

  Captain Nemo walked in front, and his companion followed us a few stepsto the rear. Conseil and I stayed next to each other, as if daydreamingthat through our metal carapaces, a little polite conversationmight still be possible! Already I no longer felt the bulkinessof my clothes, footwear, and air tank, nor the weight of the heavysphere inside which my head was rattling like an almond in its shell.Once immersed in water, all these objects lost a part of theirweight equal to the weight of the liquid they displaced, and thanksto this law of physics discovered by Archimedes, I did just fine.I was no longer an inert mass, and I had, comparatively speaking,great freedom of movement.

  Lighting up the seafloor even thirty feet beneath the surfaceof the ocean, the sun astonished me with its power. The solar rayseasily crossed this aqueous mass and dispersed its dark colors.I could easily distinguish objects 100 meters away. Farther on,the bottom was tinted with fine shades of ultramarine; then, off inthe distance, it turned blue and faded in the midst of a hazy darkness.Truly, this water surrounding me was just a kind of air,denser than the atmosphere on land but almost as transparent.Above me I could see the calm surface of the ocean.

  We were walking on sand that was fine-grained and smooth,not wrinkled like beach sand, which preserves the impressionsleft by the waves. This dazzling carpet was a real mirror,throwing back the sun's rays with startling intensity. The outcome:an immense vista of reflections that penetrated every liquid molecule.Will anyone believe me if I assert that at this thirty-foot depth,I could see as if it was broad daylight?

  For a quarter of an hour, I trod this blazing sand, which wasstrewn with tiny crumbs of seashell. Looming like a long reef,the Nautilus's hull disappeared little by little, but when night fellin the midst of the waters, the ship's beacon would surely facilitateour return on board, since its rays carried with perfect distinctness.This effect is difficult to understand for anyone who has neverseen light beams so sharply defined on shore. There the dust thatsaturates the air gives such rays the appearance of a luminous fog;but above water as well as underwater, shafts of electric lightare transmitted with incomparable clarity.

  Meanwhile we went ever onward, and these vast plains of sandseemed endless. My hands parted liquid curtains that closed againbehind me, and my footprints faded swiftly under the water's pressure.

  Soon, scarcely blurred by their distance from us, the forms of someobjects took shape before my eyes. I recognized the lower slopesof some magnificent rocks carpeted by the finest zoophyte specimens,and right off, I was struck by an effect unique to this medium.

  By then it was ten o'clock in the morning. The sun's rays hitthe surface of the waves at a fairly oblique angle, decomposing byrefraction as though passing through a prism; and when this light camein contact with flowers, rocks, buds, seashells, and polyps, the edgesof these objects were shaded with all seven hues of the solar spectrum.This riot of rainbow tints was a wonder, a feast for the eyes:a genuine kaleidoscope of red, green, yellow, orange, violet, indigo,and blue; in short, the whole palette of a color-happy painter!If only I had been able to share with Conseil the intense sensationsrising in my brain, competing with him in exclamations of wonderment!If only I had known, like Captain Nemo and his companion,how to exchange thoughts by means of prearranged signals!So, for lack of anything better, I talked to myself: I declaimedinside this copper box that topped my head, spending more airon empty words than was perhaps advisable.

  Conseil, like me, had stopped before this splendid sight.Obviously, in the presence of these zoophyte and mollusk specimens,the fine lad was classifying his head off. Polyps and echinodermsabounded on the seafloor: various isis coral, cornularian coralliving in isolation, tufts of virginal genus Oculina formerlyknown by the name "white coral," prickly fungus coral in the shapeof mushrooms, sea anemone holding on by their muscular disks,providing a literal flowerbed adorned by jellyfish from the genusPorpita wearing collars of azure tentacles, and starfish that spangledthe sand, including veinlike feather stars from the genus Asterophytonthat were like fine lace embroidered by the hands of water nymphs,their festoons swaying to the faint undulations caused by our walking.It filled me with real chagrin to crush underfoot the gleamingmollusk samples that littered the seafloor by the thousands:concentric comb shells, hammer shells, coquina (seashells that actuallyhop around), top-shell snails, red helmet shells, angel-wing conchs,sea hares, and so many other exhibits from this inexhaustible ocean.But we had to keep walking, and we went forward while overhead therescudded schools of Portuguese men-of-war that let their ultramarinetentacles drift in their wakes, medusas whose milky white or daintypink parasols were festooned with azure tassels and shaded us fromthe sun's rays, plus jellyfish of the species Pelagia panopyra that,in the dark, would have strewn our path with phosphorescent glimmers!

  All these wonders I glimpsed in the space of a quarter of a mile,barely pausing, following Captain Nemo whose gestures kept beckoningme onward. Soon the nature of the seafloor changed. The plains of sandwere followed by a bed of that viscous slime Americans call "ooze,"which is composed exclusively of seashells rich in limestone or silica.Then we crossed a prairie of algae, open-sea plants that the watershadn't yet torn loose, whose vegetation grew in wild profusion.Soft to the foot, these densely textured lawns would haverivaled the most luxuriant carpets woven by the hand of man.But while this greenery was sprawling under our steps, it didn'tneglect us overhead. The surface of the water was crisscrossedby a floating arbor of marine plants belonging to that superabundantalgae family that numbers more than 2,000 known species.I saw long ribbons of fucus drifting above me, some globular,others tubular: Laurencia, Cladostephus with the slenderest foliage,Rhodymenia palmata resembling the fan shapes of cactus.I observed that green-colored plants kept closer to the surfaceof the sea, while reds occupied a medium depth, which leftblacks and browns in charge of designing gardens and flowerbedsin the ocean's lower strata.

  These algae are a genuine prodigy of creation, one of the wondersof world flora. This family produces both the biggest and smallestvegetables in the world. Because, just as 40,000 near-invisiblebuds have been coun
ted in one five-square-millimeter space, so alsohave fucus plants been gathered that were over 500 meters long!

  We had been gone from the Nautilus for about an hour and a half.It was almost noon. I spotted this fact in the perpendicularityof the sun's rays, which were no longer refracted. The magicof these solar colors disappeared little by little, with emeraldand sapphire shades vanishing from our surroundings altogether.We walked with steady steps that rang on the seafloor withastonishing intensity. The tiniest sounds were transmittedwith a speed to which the ear is unaccustomed on shore.In fact, water is a better conductor of sound than air, and underthe waves noises carry four times as fast.

  Just then the seafloor began to slope sharply downward.The light took on a uniform hue. We reached a depth of 100 meters,by which point we were undergoing a pressure of ten atmospheres.But my diving clothes were built along such lines that I neversuffered from this pressure. I felt only a certain tightness inthe joints of my fingers, and even this discomfort soon disappeared.As for the exhaustion bound to accompany a two-hour strollin such unfamiliar trappings--it was nil. Helped by the water,my movements were executed with startling ease.

  Arriving at this 300-foot depth, I still detected the sun's rays,but just barely. Their intense brilliance had been followedby a reddish twilight, a midpoint between day and night.But we could see well enough to find our way, and it still wasn'tnecessary to activate the Ruhmkorff device.

  Just then Captain Nemo stopped. He waited until I joined him,then he pointed a finger at some dark masses outlined in the shadowsa short distance away.

  "It's the forest of Crespo Island," I thought; and I was not mistaken.

  CHAPTER 17

  An Underwater Forest

  WE HAD FINALLY arrived on the outskirts of this forest,surely one of the finest in Captain Nemo's immense domains.He regarded it as his own and had laid the same claim to it that,in the first days of the world, the first men had to their forestson land. Besides, who else could dispute his ownership of thisunderwater property? What other, bolder pioneer would come,ax in hand, to clear away its dark underbrush?

  This forest was made up of big treelike plants, and when weentered beneath their huge arches, my eyes were instantly struckby the unique arrangement of their branches--an arrangement that Ihad never before encountered.

  None of the weeds carpeting the seafloor, none of the branches bristlingfrom the shrubbery, crept, or leaned, or stretched on a horizontal plane.They all rose right up toward the surface of the ocean.Every filament or ribbon, no matter how thin, stood ramrod straight.Fucus plants and creepers were growing in stiff perpendicular lines,governed by the density of the element that generated them.After I parted them with my hands, these otherwise motionlessplants would shoot right back to their original positions.It was the regime of verticality.

  I soon grew accustomed to this bizarre arrangement, likewise tothe comparative darkness surrounding us. The seafloor in this forestwas strewn with sharp chunks of stone that were hard to avoid.Here the range of underwater flora seemed pretty comprehensive to me,as well as more abundant than it might have been in the arcticor tropical zones, where such exhibits are less common.But for a few minutes I kept accidentally confusing the two kingdoms,mistaking zoophytes for water plants, animals for vegetables.And who hasn't made the same blunder? Flora and fauna are so closelyassociated in the underwater world!

  I observed that all these exhibits from the vegetable kingdomwere attached to the seafloor by only the most makeshift methods.They had no roots and didn't care which solid objectssecured them, sand, shells, husks, or pebbles; they didn'task their hosts for sustenance, just a point of purchase.These plants are entirely self-propagating, and the principle oftheir existence lies in the water that sustains and nourishes them.In place of leaves, most of them sprouted blades of unpredictable shape,which were confined to a narrow gamut of colors consisting onlyof pink, crimson, green, olive, tan, and brown. There I saw again,but not yet pressed and dried like the Nautilus's specimens,some peacock's tails spread open like fans to stir up a cooling breeze,scarlet rosetangle, sea tangle stretching out their young andedible shoots, twisting strings of kelp from the genus Nereocystisthat bloomed to a height of fifteen meters, bouquets of mermaid's cupswhose stems grew wider at the top, and a number of other open-sea plants,all without flowers. "It's an odd anomaly in this bizarre element!"as one witty naturalist puts it. "The animal kingdom blossoms,and the vegetable kingdom doesn't!"

  These various types of shrubbery were as big as trees in thetemperate zones; in the damp shade between them, there were clusteredactual bushes of moving flowers, hedges of zoophytes in which theregrew stony coral striped with twisting furrows, yellowish sea anemonefrom the genus Caryophylia with translucent tentacles, plus anemonewith grassy tufts from the genus Zoantharia; and to complete the illusion,minnows flitted from branch to branch like a swarm of hummingbirds,while there rose underfoot, like a covey of snipe, yellow fishfrom the genus Lepisocanthus with bristling jaws and sharp scales,flying gurnards, and pinecone fish.

  Near one o'clock, Captain Nemo gave the signal to halt.Speaking for myself, I was glad to oblige, and we stretched outbeneath an arbor of winged kelp, whose long thin tendrils stoodup like arrows.

  This short break was a delight. It lacked only the charmof conversation. But it was impossible to speak, impossible to reply.I simply nudged my big copper headpiece against Conseil's headpiece.I saw a happy gleam in the gallant lad's eyes, and to communicatehis pleasure, he jiggled around inside his carapace in theworld's silliest way.

  After four hours of strolling, I was quite astonished notto feel any intense hunger. What kept my stomach in such agood mood I'm unable to say. But, in exchange, I experiencedthat irresistible desire for sleep that comes over every diver.Accordingly, my eyes soon closed behind their heavy glass windowsand I fell into an uncontrollable doze, which until then I had beenable to fight off only through the movements of our walking.Captain Nemo and his muscular companion were already stretchedout in this clear crystal, setting us a fine naptime example.

  How long I was sunk in this torpor I cannot estimate; but when I awoke,it seemed as if the sun were settling toward the horizon.Captain Nemo was already up, and I had started to stretch my limbs,when an unexpected apparition brought me sharply to my feet.

  A few paces away, a monstrous, meter-high sea spider wasstaring at me with beady eyes, poised to spring at me.Although my diving suit was heavy enough to protect me from thisanimal's bites, I couldn't keep back a shudder of horror.Just then Conseil woke up, together with the Nautilus's sailor.Captain Nemo alerted his companion to this hideous crustacean,which a swing of the rifle butt quickly brought down, and I watchedthe monster's horrible legs writhing in dreadful convulsions.

  This encounter reminded me that other, more daunting animals mustbe lurking in these dark reaches, and my diving suit might not beadequate protection against their attacks. Such thoughts hadn'tpreviously crossed my mind, and I was determined to keep on my guard.Meanwhile I had assumed this rest period would be the turning pointin our stroll, but I was mistaken; and instead of heading backto the Nautilus, Captain Nemo continued his daring excursion.

  The seafloor kept sinking, and its significantly steeper slope tookus to greater depths. It must have been nearly three o'clock when wereached a narrow valley gouged between high, vertical walls andlocated 150 meters down. Thanks to the perfection of our equipment,we had thus gone ninety meters below the limit that nature had,until then, set on man's underwater excursions.

  I say 150 meters, although I had no instruments for estimatingthis distance. But I knew that the sun's rays, even inthe clearest seas, could reach no deeper. So at preciselythis point the darkness became profound. Not a single objectwas visible past ten paces. Consequently, I had begun to gropemy way when suddenly I saw the glow of an intense white light.Captain Nemo had just activated his electric device.His companion did likewise. Conseil and I followed suit.By turning a switch, I establishe
d contact between the inductioncoil and the glass spiral, and the sea, lit up by our four lanterns,was illuminated for a radius of twenty-five meters.

  Captain Nemo continued to plummet into the dark depths of this forest,whose shrubbery grew ever more sparse. I observed that vegetablelife was disappearing more quickly than animal life. The open-seaplants had already left behind the increasingly arid seafloor,where a prodigious number of animals were still swarming:zoophytes, articulates, mollusks, and fish.

  While we were walking, I thought the lights of our Ruhmkorff deviceswould automatically attract some inhabitants of these dark strata.But if they did approach us, at least they kept at a distance regrettablefrom the hunter's standpoint. Several times I saw Captain Nemo stopand take aim with his rifle; then, after sighting down its barrelfor a few seconds, he would straighten up and resume his walk.

  Finally, at around four o'clock, this marvelous excursion came to an end.A wall of superb rocks stood before us, imposing in its sheer mass:a pile of gigantic stone blocks, an enormous granite cliffside pittedwith dark caves but not offering a single gradient we could climb up.This was the underpinning of Crespo Island. This was land.

 

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