Vingt mille lieues sous.., p.15

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English, page 15

 

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English
 



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  The captain stopped suddenly. A gesture from him brought us to a halt,and however much I wanted to clear this wall, I had to stop.Here ended the domains of Captain Nemo. He had no desire to passbeyond them. Farther on lay a part of the globe he would nolonger tread underfoot.

  Our return journey began. Captain Nemo resumed the leadin our little band, always heading forward without hesitation.I noted that we didn't follow the same path in returning tothe Nautilus. This new route, very steep and hence very arduous,quickly took us close to the surface of the sea. But thisreturn to the upper strata wasn't so sudden that decompressiontook place too quickly, which could have led to serious organicdisorders and given us those internal injuries so fatal to divers.With great promptness, the light reappeared and grew stronger;and the refraction of the sun, already low on the horizon, again ringedthe edges of various objects with the entire color spectrum.

  At a depth of ten meters, we walked amid a swarm of small fish fromevery species, more numerous than birds in the air, more agile too;but no aquatic game worthy of a gunshot had yet been offeredto our eyes.

  Just then I saw the captain's weapon spring to his shoulderand track a moving object through the bushes. A shot went off,I heard a faint hissing, and an animal dropped a few paces away,literally struck by lightning.

  It was a magnificent sea otter from the genus Enhydra, the onlyexclusively marine quadruped. One and a half meters long, this otterhad to be worth a good high price. Its coat, chestnut brown above andsilver below, would have made one of those wonderful fur pieces so muchin demand in the Russian and Chinese markets; the fineness and lusterof its pelt guaranteed that it would go for at least 2,000 francs.I was full of wonderment at this unusual mammal, with its circularhead adorned by short ears, its round eyes, its white whiskerslike those on a cat, its webbed and clawed feet, its bushy tail.Hunted and trapped by fishermen, this valuable carnivore has becomeextremely rare, and it takes refuge chiefly in the northernmostparts of the Pacific, where in all likelihood its species will soonbe facing extinction.

  Captain Nemo's companion picked up the animal, loaded it on his shoulder,and we took to the trail again.

  For an hour plains of sand unrolled before our steps.Often the seafloor rose to within two meters of the surface of the water.I could then see our images clearly mirrored on the undersideof the waves, but reflected upside down: above us there appearedan identical band that duplicated our every movement and gesture;in short, a perfect likeness of the quartet near which it walked,but with heads down and feet in the air.

  Another unusual effect. Heavy clouds passed above us, forming andfading swiftly. But after thinking it over, I realized that theseso-called clouds were caused simply by the changing densities ofthe long ground swells, and I even spotted the foaming "white caps"that their breaking crests were proliferating over the surfaceof the water. Lastly, I couldn't help seeing the actual shadowsof large birds passing over our heads, swiftly skimming the surfaceof the sea.

  On this occasion I witnessed one of the finest gunshots ever tothrill the marrow of a hunter. A large bird with a wide wingspan,quite clearly visible, approached and hovered over us. When it was just afew meters above the waves, Captain Nemo's companion took aim and fired.The animal dropped, electrocuted, and its descent brought it withinreach of our adroit hunter, who promptly took possession of it.It was an albatross of the finest species, a wonderful specimenof these open-sea fowl.

  This incident did not interrupt our walk. For two hours we weresometimes led over plains of sand, sometimes over prairies of seaweedthat were quite arduous to cross. In all honesty, I was dead tiredby the time I spotted a hazy glow half a mile away, cutting throughthe darkness of the waters. It was the Nautilus's beacon.Within twenty minutes we would be on board, and there I couldbreathe easy again--because my tank's current air supply seemedto be quite low in oxygen. But I was reckoning without an encounterthat slightly delayed our arrival.

  I was lagging behind some twenty paces when I saw Captain Nemo suddenlycome back toward me. With his powerful hands he sent me bucklingto the ground, while his companion did the same to Conseil. At first Ididn't know what to make of this sudden assault, but I was reassuredto observe the captain lying motionless beside me.

  I was stretched out on the seafloor directly beneath some bushes of algae,when I raised my head and spied two enormous masses hurtling by,throwing off phosphorescent glimmers.

  My blood turned cold in my veins! I saw that we were under threat froma fearsome pair of sharks. They were blue sharks, dreadful man-eaterswith enormous tails, dull, glassy stares, and phosphorescent matteroozing from holes around their snouts. They were like monstrousfireflies that could thoroughly pulverize a man in their iron jaws!I don't know if Conseil was busy with their classification,but as for me, I looked at their silver bellies, their fearsomemouths bristling with teeth, from a viewpoint less than scientific--more as a victim than as a professor of natural history.

  Luckily these voracious animals have poor eyesight. They wentby without noticing us, grazing us with their brownish fins;and miraculously, we escaped a danger greater than encounteringa tiger deep in the jungle.

  Half an hour later, guided by its electric trail, we reachedthe Nautilus. The outside door had been left open, and Captain Nemoclosed it after we reentered the first cell. Then he pressed a button.I heard pumps operating within the ship, I felt the water loweringaround me, and in a few moments the cell was completely empty.The inside door opened, and we passed into the wardrobe.

  There our diving suits were removed, not without difficulty;and utterly exhausted, faint from lack of food and rest, I repairedto my stateroom, full of wonder at this startling excursion onthe bottom of the sea.

  CHAPTER 18

  Four Thousand Leagues Under the Pacific

  BY THE NEXT MORNING, November 18, I was fully recovered from myexhaustion of the day before, and I climbed onto the platform justas the Nautilus's chief officer was pronouncing his daily phrase.It then occurred to me that these words either referred to the stateof the sea, or that they meant: "There's nothing in sight."

  And in truth, the ocean was deserted. Not a sail on the horizon.The tips of Crespo Island had disappeared during the night.The sea, absorbing every color of the prism except its blue rays,reflected the latter in every direction and sported a wonderfulindigo tint. The undulating waves regularly took on the appearanceof watered silk with wide stripes.

  I was marveling at this magnificent ocean view whenCaptain Nemo appeared. He didn't seem to notice my presence and begana series of astronomical observations. Then, his operations finished,he went and leaned his elbows on the beacon housing, his eyesstraying over the surface of the ocean.

  Meanwhile some twenty of the Nautilus's sailors--all energetic,well-built fellows--climbed onto the platform. They had cometo pull up the nets left in our wake during the night.These seamen obviously belonged to different nationalities, althoughindications of European physical traits could be seen in them all.If I'm not mistaken, I recognized some Irishmen, some Frenchmen,a few Slavs, and a native of either Greece or Crete. Even so,these men were frugal of speech and used among themselvesonly that bizarre dialect whose origin I couldn't even guess.So I had to give up any notions of questioning them.

  The nets were hauled on board. They were a breed of trawl resemblingthose used off the Normandy coast, huge pouches held half openby a floating pole and a chain laced through the lower meshes.Trailing in this way from these iron glove makers, the resultingreceptacles scoured the ocean floor and collected every marine exhibitin their path. That day they gathered up some unusual specimensfrom these fish-filled waterways: anglerfish whose comical movementsqualify them for the epithet "clowns," black Commerson anglers equippedwith their antennas, undulating triggerfish encircled by littlered bands, bloated puffers whose venom is extremely insidious,some olive-hued lampreys, snipefish covered with silver scales,cutlass fish whose electrocuting power equals that of the electric ee
land the electric ray, scaly featherbacks with brown crosswise bands,greenish codfish, several varieties of goby, etc.; finally, some fishof larger proportions: a one-meter jack with a prominent head,several fine bonito from the genus Scomber decked out in the colorsblue and silver, and three magnificent tuna whose high speedscouldn't save them from our trawl.

  I estimate that this cast of the net brought in more than 1,000pounds of fish. It was a fine catch but not surprising.In essence, these nets stayed in our wake for several hours,incarcerating an entire aquatic world in prisons made of thread.So we were never lacking in provisions of the highest quality,which the Nautilus's speed and the allure of its electric lightcould continually replenish.

  These various exhibits from the sea were immediately lowereddown the hatch in the direction of the storage lockers, some to beeaten fresh, others to be preserved.

  After its fishing was finished and its air supply renewed,I thought the Nautilus would resume its underwater excursion,and I was getting ready to return to my stateroom, when Captain Nemoturned to me and said without further preamble:

  "Look at this ocean, professor! Doesn't it have the actualgift of life? Doesn't it experience both anger and affection?Last evening it went to sleep just as we did, and there it is,waking up after a peaceful night!"

  No hellos or good mornings for this gent! You would have thoughtthis eccentric individual was simply continuing a conversationwe'd already started!

  "See!" he went on. "It's waking up under the sun's caresses!It's going to relive its daily existence! What a fascinatingfield of study lies in watching the play of its organism.It owns a pulse and arteries, it has spasms, and I side with thescholarly Commander Maury, who discovered that it has a circulationas real as the circulation of blood in animals."

  I'm sure that Captain Nemo expected no replies from me, and itseemed pointless to pitch in with "Ah yes," "Exactly," or "Howright you are!" Rather, he was simply talking to himself,with long pauses between sentences. He was meditating out loud.

  "Yes," he said, "the ocean owns a genuine circulation,and to start it going, the Creator of All Things has onlyto increase its heat, salt, and microscopic animal life.In essence, heat creates the different densities that leadto currents and countercurrents. Evaporation, which is nilin the High Arctic regions and very active in equatorial zones,brings about a constant interchange of tropical and polar waters.What's more, I've detected those falling and rising currents that makeup the ocean's true breathing. I've seen a molecule of salt waterheat up at the surface, sink into the depths, reach maximum densityat -2 degrees centigrade, then cool off, grow lighter, and rise again.At the poles you'll see the consequences of this phenomenon,and through this law of farseeing nature, you'll understand whywater can freeze only at the surface!"

  As the captain was finishing his sentence, I said to myself:"The pole! Is this brazen individual claiming he'll take us evento that location?"

  Meanwhile the captain fell silent and stared at the element he hadstudied so thoroughly and unceasingly. Then, going on:

  "Salts," he said, "fill the sea in considerable quantities, professor,and if you removed all its dissolved saline content, you'd createa mass measuring 4,500,000 cubic leagues, which if it were spreadall over the globe, would form a layer more than ten meters high.And don't think that the presence of these salts is due merelyto some whim of nature. No. They make ocean water less open toevaporation and prevent winds from carrying off excessive amountsof steam, which, when condensing, would submerge the temperate zones.Salts play a leading role, the role of stabilizer for the generalecology of the globe!"

  Captain Nemo stopped, straightened up, took a few steps alongthe platform, and returned to me:

  "As for those billions of tiny animals," he went on, "those infusoriathat live by the millions in one droplet of water, 800,000 of whichare needed to weigh one milligram, their role is no less important.They absorb the marine salts, they assimilate the solid elementsin the water, and since they create coral and madrepores,they're the true builders of limestone continents! And so,after they've finished depriving our water drop of its mineral nutrients,the droplet gets lighter, rises to the surface, there absorbs moresalts left behind through evaporation, gets heavier, sinks again,and brings those tiny animals new elements to absorb. The outcome:a double current, rising and falling, constant movement, constant life!More intense than on land, more abundant, more infinite, such lifeblooms in every part of this ocean, an element fatal to man,they say, but vital to myriads of animals--and to me!"

  When Captain Nemo spoke in this way, he was transfigured,and he filled me with extraordinary excitement.

  "There," he added, "out there lies true existence! And I can imaginethe founding of nautical towns, clusters of underwater households that,like the Nautilus, would return to the surface of the sea to breatheeach morning, free towns if ever there were, independent cities!Then again, who knows whether some tyrant . . ."

  Captain Nemo finished his sentence with a vehement gesture.Then, addressing me directly, as if to drive away an ugly thought:

  "Professor Aronnax," he asked me, "do you know the depth ofthe ocean floor?"

  "At least, captain, I know what the major soundings tell us."

  "Could you quote them to me, so I can double-check them asthe need arises?"

  "Here," I replied, "are a few of them that stick in my memory.If I'm not mistaken, an average depth of 8,200 meters was found inthe north Atlantic, and 2,500 meters in the Mediterranean. The mostremarkable soundings were taken in the south Atlantic near the 35thparallel, and they gave 12,000 meters, 14,091 meters, and 15,149 meters.All in all, it's estimated that if the sea bottom were made level,its average depth would be about seven kilometers."

  "Well, professor," Captain Nemo replied, "we'll show you betterthan that, I hope. As for the average depth of this part ofthe Pacific, I'll inform you that it's a mere 4,000 meters."

  This said, Captain Nemo headed to the hatch and disappeared downthe ladder. I followed him and went back to the main lounge.The propeller was instantly set in motion, and the log gave our speedas twenty miles per hour.

  Over the ensuing days and weeks, Captain Nemo was very frugalwith his visits. I saw him only at rare intervals. His chiefofficer regularly fixed the positions I found reported on the chart,and in such a way that I could exactly plot the Nautilus's course.

  Conseil and Land spent the long hours with me. Conseil had toldhis friend about the wonders of our undersea stroll, and the Canadianwas sorry he hadn't gone along. But I hoped an opportunity wouldarise for a visit to the forests of Oceania.

  Almost every day the panels in the lounge were open for some hours,and our eyes never tired of probing the mysteries of the underwater world.

  The Nautilus's general heading was southeast, and it stayed at a depthbetween 100 and 150 meters. However, from lord-knows-what whim,one day it did a diagonal dive by means of its slanting fins,reaching strata located 2,000 meters underwater. The thermometerindicated a temperature of 4.25 degrees centigrade, which at thisdepth seemed to be a temperature common to all latitudes.

  On November 26, at three o'clock in the morning, the Nautiluscleared the Tropic of Cancer at longitude 172 degrees. On the 27thit passed in sight of the Hawaiian Islands, where the famousCaptain Cook met his death on February 14, 1779. By then wehad fared 4,860 leagues from our starting point. When I arrivedon the platform that morning, I saw the Island of Hawaii two milesto leeward, the largest of the seven islands making up this group.I could clearly distinguish the tilled soil on its outskirts,the various mountain chains running parallel with its coastline,and its volcanoes, crowned by Mauna Kea, whose elevation is 5,000meters above sea level. Among other specimens from these waterways,our nets brought up some peacock-tailed flabellarian coral,polyps flattened into stylish shapes and unique to this partof the ocean.

  The Nautilus kept to its southeasterly heading. On December 1it cut the equator at longitude 142 degrees, and on the 4thof t
he same month, after a quick crossing marked by no incident,we raised the Marquesas Islands. Three miles off, in latitude 8degrees 57' south and longitude 139 degrees 32' west, I spottedMartin Point on Nuku Hiva, chief member of this island groupthat belongs to France. I could make out only its wooded mountainson the horizon, because Captain Nemo hated to hug shore.There our nets brought up some fine fish samples: dolphinfish withazure fins, gold tails, and flesh that's unrivaled in the entire world,wrasse from the genus Hologymnosus that were nearly denudedof scales but exquisite in flavor, knifejaws with bony beaks,yellowish albacore that were as tasty as bonito, all fish worthclassifying in the ship's pantry.

  After leaving these delightful islands to the protection of the Frenchflag, the Nautilus covered about 2,000 miles from December 4 to the 11th.Its navigating was marked by an encounter with an immense schoolof squid, unusual mollusks that are near neighbors of the cuttlefish.French fishermen give them the name "cuckoldfish," and theybelong to the class Cephalopoda, family Dibranchiata,consisting of themselves together with cuttlefish and argonauts.The naturalists of antiquity made a special study of them,and these animals furnished many ribald figures of speech for soapboxorators in the Greek marketplace, as well as excellent dishesfor the tables of rich citizens, if we're to believe Athenaeus,a Greek physician predating Galen.

  It was during the night of December 9-10 that the Nautilus encounteredthis army of distinctly nocturnal mollusks. They numbered inthe millions. They were migrating from the temperate zones towardzones still warmer, following the itineraries of herring and sardines.We stared at them through our thick glass windows: they swam backwardwith tremendous speed, moving by means of their locomotive tubes,chasing fish and mollusks, eating the little ones, eaten by the big ones,and tossing in indescribable confusion the ten feet that naturehas rooted in their heads like a hairpiece of pneumatic snakes.Despite its speed, the Nautilus navigated for several hoursin the midst of this school of animals, and its nets brought upan incalculable number, among which I recognized all nine speciesthat Professor Orbigny has classified as native to the Pacific Ocean.

 

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