Vingt mille lieues sous.., p.17

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English, page 17


Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English

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  So Captain Dumont d'Urville had put to sea in command of a vesselnamed after the Astrolabe, and just two months after Dillon hadleft Vanikoro, Dumont d'Urville dropped anchor before Hobart. There heheard about Dillon's findings, and he further learned that acertain James Hobbs, chief officer on the Union out of Calcutta,had put to shore on an island located in latitude 8 degrees 18'south and longitude 156 degrees 30' east, and had noted the nativesof those waterways making use of iron bars and red fabrics.

  Pretty perplexed, Dumont d'Urville didn't know if he should givecredence to these reports, which had been carried in some ofthe less reliable newspapers; nevertheless, he decided to starton Dillon's trail.

  On February 10, 1828, the new Astrolabe hove before Tikopia Island,took on a guide and interpreter in the person of a deserter who hadsettled there, plied a course toward Vanikoro, raised it on February 12,sailed along its reefs until the 14th, and only on the 20th droppedanchor inside its barrier in the harbor of Vana.

  On the 23rd, several officers circled the island and brought back somerubble of little importance. The natives, adopting a system of denialand evasion, refused to guide them to the site of the casualty.This rather shady conduct aroused the suspicion that the nativeshad mistreated the castaways; and in truth, the natives seemed afraidthat Dumont d'Urville had come to avenge the Count de La P?rouseand his unfortunate companions.

  But on the 26th, appeased with gifts and seeing that they didn'tneed to fear any reprisals, the natives led the chief officer,Mr. Jacquinot, to the site of the shipwreck.

  At this location, in three or four fathoms of water between the Paeuand Vana reefs, there lay some anchors, cannons, and ingotsof iron and lead, all caked with limestone concretions. A launchand whaleboat from the new Astrolabe were steered to this locality,and after going to exhausting lengths, their crews managed to dredgeup an anchor weighing 1,800 pounds, a cast-iron eight-pounder cannon,a lead ingot, and two copper swivel guns.

  Questioning the natives, Captain Dumont d'Urville also learned thatafter La P?rouse's two ships had miscarried on the island's reefs,the count had built a smaller craft, only to go off and miscarrya second time. Where? Nobody knew.

  The commander of the new Astrolabe then had a monument erected under atuft of mangrove, in memory of the famous navigator and his companions.It was a simple quadrangular pyramid, set on a coral base,with no ironwork to tempt the natives' avarice.

  Then Dumont d'Urville tried to depart; but his crews were run down fromthe fevers raging on these unsanitary shores, and quite ill himself,he was unable to weigh anchor until March 17.

  Meanwhile, fearing that Dumont d'Urville wasn't abreast ofDillon's activities, the French government sent a sloop of warto Vanikoro, the Bayonnaise under Commander Legoarant de Tromelin,who had been stationed on the American west coast. Dropping anchorbefore Vanikoro a few months after the new Astrolabe's departure,the Bayonnaise didn't find any additional evidence but verifiedthat the savages hadn't disturbed the memorial honoring the Countde La P?rouse.

  This is the substance of the account I gave Captain Nemo.

  "So," he said to me, "the castaways built a third ship on Vanikoro Island,and to this day, nobody knows where it went and perished?"

  "Nobody knows."

  Captain Nemo didn't reply but signaled me to follow him to themain lounge. The Nautilus sank a few meters beneath the waves,and the panels opened.

  I rushed to the window and saw crusts of coral: fungus coral,siphonula coral, alcyon coral, sea anemone from the genus Caryophylia,plus myriads of charming fish including greenfish, damselfish,sweepers, snappers, and squirrelfish; underneath this coral coveringI detected some rubble the old dredges hadn't been able to tear free--iron stirrups, anchors, cannons, shells, tackle from a capstan,a stempost, all objects hailing from the wrecked ships and nowcarpeted in moving flowers.

  And as I stared at this desolate wreckage, Captain Nemo told mein a solemn voice:

  "Commander La P?rouse set out on December 7, 1785, with his ships,the Compass and the Astrolabe. He dropped anchor first at Botany Bay,visited the Tonga Islands and New Caledonia, headed towardthe Santa Cruz Islands, and put in at Nomuka, one of the islandsin the Ha'apai group. Then his ships arrived at the unknown reefsof Vanikoro. Traveling in the lead, the Compass ran afoul of breakerson the southerly coast. The Astrolabe went to its rescue and alsoran aground. The first ship was destroyed almost immediately.The second, stranded to leeward, held up for some days.The natives gave the castaways a fair enough welcome.The latter took up residence on the island and built a smallercraft with rubble from the two large ones. A few seamen stayedvoluntarily in Vanikoro. The others, weak and ailing, set sailwith the Count de La P?rouse. They headed to the Solomon Islands,and they perished with all hands on the westerly coast of the chiefisland in that group, between Cape Deception and Cape Satisfaction!"

  "And how do you know all this?" I exclaimed.

  "Here's what I found at the very site of that final shipwreck!"

  Captain Nemo showed me a tin box, stamped with the coat of armsof France and all corroded by salt water. He opened it and I sawa bundle of papers, yellowed but still legible.

  They were the actual military orders given by France's Ministerof the Navy to Commander La P?rouse, with notes along the marginin the handwriting of King Louis XVI!

  "Ah, what a splendid death for a seaman!" Captain Nemo then said."A coral grave is a tranquil grave, and may Heaven grant that mycompanions and I rest in no other!"


  The Torres Strait

  DURING THE NIGHT of December 27-28, the Nautilus leftthe waterways of Vanikoro behind with extraordinary speed.Its heading was southwesterly, and in three days it had cleared the 750leagues that separated La P?rouse's islands from the southeasterntip of Papua.

  On January 1, 1868, bright and early, Conseil joined me on the platform.

  "Will master," the gallant lad said to me, "allow me to wish hima happy new year?"

  "Good heavens, Conseil, it's just like old times in my officeat the Botanical Gardens in Paris! I accept your kind wishesand I thank you for them. Only, I'd like to know what you meanby a 'happy year' under the circumstances in which we're placed.Is it a year that will bring our imprisonment to an end, or a yearthat will see this strange voyage continue?"

  "Ye gods," Conseil replied, "I hardly know what to tell master.We're certainly seeing some unusual things, and for two monthswe've had no time for boredom. The latest wonder is alwaysthe most astonishing, and if this progression keeps up, I can'timagine what its climax will be. In my opinion, we'll never againhave such an opportunity."

  "Never, Conseil."

  "Besides, Mr. Nemo really lives up to his Latin name, since he couldn'tbe less in the way if he didn't exist."

  "True enough, Conseil."

  "Therefore, with all due respect to master, I think a 'happy year'would be a year that lets us see everything--"

  "Everything, Conseil? No year could be that long. But what doesNed Land think about all this?"

  "Ned Land's thoughts are exactly the opposite of mine,"Conseil replied. "He has a practical mind and a demanding stomach.He's tired of staring at fish and eating them day in and day out.This shortage of wine, bread, and meat isn't suitable for an upstandingAnglo-Saxon, a man accustomed to beefsteak and unfazed by regulardoses of brandy or gin!"

  "For my part, Conseil, that doesn't bother me in the least,and I've adjusted very nicely to the diet on board."

  "So have I," Conseil replied. "Accordingly, I think as much aboutstaying as Mr. Land about making his escape. Thus, if this new yearisn't a happy one for me, it will be for him, and vice versa.No matter what happens, one of us will be pleased. So, in conclusion,I wish master to have whatever his heart desires."

  "Thank you, Conseil. Only I must ask you to postpone the question of newyear's gifts, and temporarily accept a hearty handshake in their place.That's all I have on me."

  "Master has never been more generous
," Conseil replied.

  And with that, the gallant lad went away.

  By January 2 we had fared 11,340 miles, hence 5,250 leagues,from our starting point in the seas of Japan. Before the Nautilus'sspur there stretched the dangerous waterways of the Coral Sea,off the northeast coast of Australia. Our boat cruised along a fewmiles away from that daunting shoal where Captain Cook's shipswellnigh miscarried on June 10, 1770. The craft that Cook was aboardcharged into some coral rock, and if his vessel didn't go down,it was thanks to the circumstance that a piece of coral broke offin the collision and plugged the very hole it had made in the hull.

  I would have been deeply interested in visiting this long,360-league reef, against which the ever-surging sea brokewith the fearsome intensity of thunderclaps. But just thenthe Nautilus's slanting fins took us to great depths, and I couldsee nothing of those high coral walls. I had to rest contentwith the various specimens of fish brought up by our nets.Among others I noted some long-finned albacore, a species in thegenus Scomber, as big as tuna, bluish on the flanks, and streakedwith crosswise stripes that disappear when the animal dies.These fish followed us in schools and supplied our table with verydainty flesh. We also caught a large number of yellow-green gilthead,half a decimeter long and tasting like dorado, plus someflying gurnards, authentic underwater swallows that, on dark nights,alternately streak air and water with their phosphorescent glimmers.Among mollusks and zoophytes, I found in our trawl's meshesvarious species of alcyonarian coral, sea urchins, hammer shells,spurred-star shells, wentletrap snails, horn shells, glass snails.The local flora was represented by fine floating algae:sea tangle, and kelp from the genus Macrocystis, saturated withthe mucilage their pores perspire, from which I selected a wonderfulNemastoma geliniaroidea, classifying it with the natural curiositiesin the museum.

  On January 4, two days after crossing the Coral Sea, we raised the coastof Papua. On this occasion Captain Nemo told me that he intendedto reach the Indian Ocean via the Torres Strait. This was the extentof his remarks. Ned saw with pleasure that this course would bring us,once again, closer to European seas.

  The Torres Strait is regarded as no less dangerous for itsbristling reefs than for the savage inhabitants of its coasts.It separates Queensland from the huge island of Papua,also called New Guinea.

  Papua is 400 leagues long by 130 leagues wide, with a surface area of40,000 geographic leagues. It's located between latitude 0 degrees 19'and 10 degrees 2' south, and between longitude 128 degrees 23'and 146 degrees 15'. At noon, while the chief officer was takingthe sun's altitude, I spotted the summits of the Arfak Mountains,rising in terraces and ending in sharp peaks.

  Discovered in 1511 by the Portuguese Francisco Serrano, these shoreswere successively visited by Don Jorge de Meneses in 1526, by Juande Grijalva in 1527, by the Spanish general Alvaro de Saavedrain 1528, by Inigo Ortiz in 1545, by the Dutchman Schouten in 1616,by Nicolas Sruick in 1753, by Tasman, Dampier, Fumel, Carteret,Edwards, Bougainville, Cook, McClure, and Thomas Forrest,by Rear Admiral d'Entrecasteaux in 1792, by Louis-Isidore Duperreyin 1823, and by Captain Dumont d'Urville in 1827. "It's the heartlandof the blacks who occupy all Malaysia," Mr. de Rienzi has said;and I hadn't the foggiest inkling that sailors' luck was aboutto bring me face to face with these daunting Andaman aborigines.

  So the Nautilus hove before the entrance to the world'smost dangerous strait, a passageway that even the boldestnavigators hesitated to clear: the strait that Luis Vaez deTorres faced on returning from the South Seas in Melanesia,the strait in which sloops of war under Captain Dumont d'Urvilleran aground in 1840 and nearly miscarried with all hands.And even the Nautilus, rising superior to every danger in the sea,was about to become intimate with its coral reefs.

  The Torres Strait is about thirty-four leagues wide, but it's obstructedby an incalculable number of islands, islets, breakers, and rocksthat make it nearly impossible to navigate. Consequently, Captain Nemotook every desired precaution in crossing it. Floating flushwith the water, the Nautilus moved ahead at a moderate pace.Like a cetacean's tail, its propeller churned the waves slowly.

  Taking advantage of this situation, my two companions and I found seatson the ever-deserted platform. In front of us stood the pilothouse,and unless I'm extremely mistaken, Captain Nemo must have been inside,steering his Nautilus himself.

  Under my eyes I had the excellent charts of the Torres Straitthat had been surveyed and drawn up by the hydrographic engineerVincendon Dumoulin and Sublieutenant (now Admiral) Coupvent-Desbois, whowere part of Dumont d'Urville's general staff during his finalvoyage to circumnavigate the globe. These, along with the effortsof Captain King, are the best charts for untangling the snarl of thisnarrow passageway, and I consulted them with scrupulous care.

  Around the Nautilus the sea was boiling furiously. A stream of waves,bearing from southeast to northwest at a speed of two and a halfmiles per hour, broke over heads of coral emerging here and there.

  "That's one rough sea!" Ned Land told me.

  "Abominable indeed," I replied, "and hardly suitable for a craftlike the Nautilus."

  "That damned captain," the Canadian went on, "must really be sureof his course, because if these clumps of coral so much as brush us,they'll rip our hull into a thousand pieces!"

  The situation was indeed dangerous, but as if by magic, the Nautilusseemed to glide right down the middle of these rampaging reefs.It didn't follow the exact course of the Zealous and the new Astrolabe,which had proved so ill-fated for Captain Dumont d'Urville. It wentmore to the north, hugged the Murray Islands, and returned to thesouthwest near Cumberland Passage. I thought it was about to chargewholeheartedly into this opening, but it went up to the northwest,through a large number of little-known islands and islets,and steered toward Tound Island and the Bad Channel.

  I was already wondering if Captain Nemo, rash to the pointof sheer insanity, wanted his ship to tackle the narrowswhere Dumont d'Urville's two sloops of war had gone aground,when he changed direction a second time and cut straight to the west,heading toward Gueboroa Island.

  By then it was three o'clock in the afternoon. The current was slackingoff, it was almost full tide. The Nautilus drew near this island,which I can see to this day with its remarkable fringe of screw pines.We hugged it from less than two miles out.

  A sudden jolt threw me down. The Nautilus had just struck a reef,and it remained motionless, listing slightly to port.

  When I stood up, I saw Captain Nemo and his chief officer onthe platform. They were examining the ship's circumstances,exchanging a few words in their incomprehensible dialect.

  Here is what those circumstances entailed. Two miles to starboard layGueboroa Island, its coastline curving north to west like an immense arm.To the south and east, heads of coral were already on display,left uncovered by the ebbing waters. We had run aground at full tideand in one of those seas whose tides are moderate, an inconvenientstate of affairs for floating the Nautilus off. However, the shiphadn't suffered in any way, so solidly joined was its hull.But although it could neither sink nor split open, it was in seriousdanger of being permanently attached to these reefs, and that wouldhave been the finish of Captain Nemo's submersible.

  I was mulling this over when the captain approached, cool and calm,forever in control of himself, looking neither alarmed nor annoyed.

  "An accident?" I said to him.

  "No, an incident," he answered me.

  "But an incident," I replied, "that may oblige you to becomea resident again of these shores you avoid!"

  Captain Nemo gave me an odd look and gestured no. Which toldme pretty clearly that nothing would ever force him to set footon a land mass again. Then he said:

  "No, Professor Aronnax, the Nautilus isn't consigned to perdition.It will still carry you through the midst of the ocean's wonders.Our voyage is just beginning, and I've no desire to deprive myselfso soon of the pleasure of your company."

  "Even so, Captain Nemo," I went on, ignoring his ironic turn of ph
rase,"the Nautilus has run aground at a moment when the sea is full.Now then, the tides aren't strong in the Pacific, and if you can'tunballast the Nautilus, which seems impossible to me, I don't seehow it will float off."

  "You're right, professor, the Pacific tides aren't strong,"Captain Nemo replied. "But in the Torres Strait, one still findsa meter-and-a-half difference in level between high and low seas.Today is January 4, and in five days the moon will be full.Now then, I'll be quite astonished if that good-natured satellitedoesn't sufficiently raise these masses of water and do me a favorfor which I'll be forever grateful."

  This said, Captain Nemo went below again to the Nautilus's interior,followed by his chief officer. As for our craft, it no longer stirred,staying as motionless as if these coral polyps had already walledit in with their indestructible cement.

  "Well, sir?" Ned Land said to me, coming up afterthe captain's departure.

  "Well, Ned my friend, we'll serenely wait for the tide on the 9th,because it seems the moon will have the good nature to float us away!"

  "As simple as that?"

  "As simple as that."

  "So our captain isn't going to drop his anchors, put his engineson the chains, and do anything to haul us off?"

  "Since the tide will be sufficient," Conseil replied simply.

  The Canadian stared at Conseil, then he shrugged his shoulders.The seaman in him was talking now.

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