Vingt mille lieues sous.., p.19

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English, page 19

 

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English
 



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  Near eleven o'clock in the morning, we cleared the lowerslopes of the mountains that form the island's center,and we still hadn't bagged a thing. Hunger spurred us on.The hunters had counted on consuming the proceeds of their hunting,and they had miscalculated. Luckily, and much to his surprise,Conseil pulled off a right-and-left shot and insured our breakfast.He brought down a white pigeon and a ringdove, which were briskly plucked,hung from a spit, and roasted over a blazing fire of deadwood.While these fascinating animals were cooking, Ned prepared some breadfrom the artocarpus. Then the pigeon and ringdove were devouredto the bones and declared excellent. Nutmeg, on which these birdshabitually gorge themselves, sweetens their flesh and makesit delicious eating.

  "They taste like chicken stuffed with truffles," Conseil said.

  "All right, Ned," I asked the Canadian, "now what do you need?"

  "Game with four paws, Professor Aronnax," Ned Land replied."All these pigeons are only appetizers, snacks. So till I've baggedan animal with cutlets, I won't be happy!"

  "Nor I, Ned, until I've caught a bird of paradise."

  "Then let's keep hunting," Conseil replied, "but while heading backto the sea. We've arrived at the foothills of these mountains,and I think we'll do better if we return to the forest regions."

  It was good advice and we took it. After an hour's walk we reacheda genuine sago palm forest. A few harmless snakes fled underfoot.Birds of paradise stole off at our approach, and I was in realdespair of catching one when Conseil, walking in the lead,stooped suddenly, gave a triumphant shout, and came back to me,carrying a magnificent bird of paradise.

  "Oh bravo, Conseil!" I exclaimed.

  "Master is too kind," Conseil replied.

  "Not at all, my boy. That was a stroke of genius, catching oneof these live birds with your bare hands!"

  "If master will examine it closely, he'll see that I deserveno great praise."

  "And why not, Conseil?"

  "Because this bird is as drunk as a lord."

  "Drunk?"

  "Yes, master, drunk from the nutmegs it was devouring under that nutmegtree where I caught it. See, Ned my friend, see the monstrousresults of intemperance!"

  "Damnation!" the Canadian shot back. "Considering the amount of ginI've had these past two months, you've got nothing to complain about!"

  Meanwhile I was examining this unusual bird. Conseil was not mistaken.Tipsy from that potent juice, our bird of paradise had been reducedto helplessness. It was unable to fly. It was barely able to walk.But this didn't alarm me, and I just let it sleep off its nutmeg.

  This bird belonged to the finest of the eight species creditedto Papua and its neighboring islands. It was a "great emerald,"one of the rarest birds of paradise. It measured three decimeters long.Its head was comparatively small, and its eyes, placed near the opening ofits beak, were also small. But it offered a wonderful mixture of hues:a yellow beak, brown feet and claws, hazel wings with purple tips,pale yellow head and scruff of the neck, emerald throat, the bellyand chest maroon to brown. Two strands, made of a horn substancecovered with down, rose over its tail, which was lengthened by long,very light feathers of wonderful fineness, and they completedthe costume of this marvelous bird that the islanders have poeticallynamed "the sun bird."

  How I wished I could take this superb bird of paradise back to Paris,to make a gift of it to the zoo at the Botanical Gardens,which doesn't own a single live specimen.

  "So it must be a rarity or something?" the Canadian asked,in the tone of a hunter who, from the viewpoint of his art,gives the game a pretty low rating.

  "A great rarity, my gallant comrade, and above all very hard tocapture alive. And even after they're dead, there's still a majormarket for these birds. So the natives have figured out how to createfake ones, like people create fake pearls or diamonds."

  "What!" Conseil exclaimed. "They make counterfeit birds of paradise?"

  "Yes, Conseil."

  "And is master familiar with how the islanders go about it?"

  "Perfectly familiar. During the easterly monsoon season,birds of paradise lose the magnificent feathers around their tailsthat naturalists call 'below-the-wing' feathers. These feathersare gathered by the fowl forgers and skillfully fitted onto some poorpreviously mutilated parakeet. Then they paint over the suture,varnish the bird, and ship the fruits of their unique laborsto museums and collectors in Europe."

  "Good enough!" Ned Land put in. "If it isn't the right bird,it's still the right feathers, and so long as the merchandise isn'tmeant to be eaten, I see no great harm!"

  But if my desires were fulfilled by the capture of this bird of paradise,those of our Canadian huntsman remained unsatisfied. Luckily, near twoo'clock Ned Land brought down a magnificent wild pig of the typethe natives call "bari-outang." This animal came in the nick of timefor us to bag some real quadruped meat, and it was warmly welcomed.Ned Land proved himself quite gloriously with his gunshot.Hit by an electric bullet, the pig dropped dead on the spot.

  The Canadian properly skinned and cleaned it, after removing halfa dozen cutlets destined to serve as the grilled meat course of ourevening meal. Then the hunt was on again, and once more wouldbe marked by the exploits of Ned and Conseil.

  In essence, beating the bushes, the two friends flushed a herdof kangaroos that fled by bounding away on their elastic paws.But these animals didn't flee so swiftly that our electric capsulescouldn't catch up with them.

  "Oh, professor!" shouted Ned Land, whose hunting fever had goneto his brain. "What excellent game, especially in a stew!What a supply for the Nautilus! Two, three, five down!And just think how we'll devour all this meat ourselves,while those numbskulls on board won't get a shred!"

  In his uncontrollable glee, I think the Canadian might haveslaughtered the whole horde, if he hadn't been so busy talking!But he was content with a dozen of these fascinating marsupials,which make up the first order of aplacental mammals, as Conseiljust had to tell us.

  These animals were small in stature. They were a species of those"rabbit kangaroos" that usually dwell in the hollows of treesand are tremendously fast; but although of moderate dimensions,they at least furnish a meat that's highly prized.

  We were thoroughly satisfied with the results of our hunting.A gleeful Ned proposed that we return the next day to this magic island,which he planned to depopulate of its every edible quadruped.But he was reckoning without events.

  By six o'clock in the evening, we were back on the beach.The skiff was aground in its usual place. The Nautilus, looking likea long reef, emerged from the waves two miles offshore.

  Without further ado, Ned Land got down to the important businessof dinner. He came wonderfully to terms with its entire cooking.Grilling over the coals, those cutlets from the "bari-outang" soongave off a succulent aroma that perfumed the air.

  But I catch myself following in the Canadian's footsteps.Look at me--in ecstasy over freshly grilled pork!Please grant me a pardon as I've already granted one to Mr. Land,and on the same grounds!

  In short, dinner was excellent. Two ringdoves rounded out thisextraordinary menu. Sago pasta, bread from the artocarpus, mangoes,half a dozen pineapples, and the fermented liquor from certaincoconuts heightened our glee. I suspect that my two fine companionsweren't quite as clearheaded as one could wish.

  "What if we don't return to the Nautilus this evening?" Conseil said.

  "What if we never return to it?" Ned Land added.

  Just then a stone whizzed toward us, landed at our feet, and cutshort the harpooner's proposition.

  CHAPTER 22

  The Lightning Bolts of Captain Nemo

  WITHOUT STANDING UP, we stared in the direction of the forest, my handstopping halfway to my mouth, Ned Land's completing its assignment.

  "Stones don't fall from the sky," Conseil said, "or else theydeserve to be called meteorites."

  A second well-polished stone removed a tasty ringdove leg fromConseil's hand, giving still greater relevan
ce to his observation.

  We all three stood up, rifles to our shoulders, ready toanswer any attack.

  "Apes maybe?" Ned Land exclaimed.

  "Nearly," Conseil replied. "Savages."

  "Head for the skiff!" I said, moving toward the sea.

  Indeed, it was essential to beat a retreat because some twenty natives,armed with bows and slings, appeared barely a hundred paces off,on the outskirts of a thicket that masked the horizon to our right.

  The skiff was aground ten fathoms away from us.

  The savages approached without running, but they favored us with ashow of the greatest hostility. It was raining stones and arrows.

  Ned Land was unwilling to leave his provisions behind, and despitethe impending danger, he clutched his pig on one side, his kangarooson the other, and scampered off with respectable speed.

  In two minutes we were on the strand. Loading provisions and weaponsinto the skiff, pushing it to sea, and positioning its two oarswere the work of an instant. We hadn't gone two cable lengthswhen a hundred savages, howling and gesticulating, entered the waterup to their waists. I looked to see if their appearance mightdraw some of the Nautilus's men onto the platform. But no.Lying well out, that enormous machine still seemed completely deserted.

  Twenty minutes later we boarded ship. The hatches were open.After mooring the skiff, we reentered the Nautilus's interior.

  I went below to the lounge, from which some chords were wafting.Captain Nemo was there, leaning over the organ, deep in a musical trance.

  "Captain!" I said to him.

  He didn't hear me.

  "Captain!" I went on, touching him with my hand.

  He trembled, and turning around:

  "Ah, it's you, professor!" he said to me. "Well, did you havea happy hunt? Was your herb gathering a success?"

  "Yes, captain," I replied, "but unfortunately we've brought backa horde of bipeds whose proximity worries me."

  "What sort of bipeds?"

  "Savages."

  "Savages!" Captain Nemo replied in an ironic tone. "You setfoot on one of the shores of this globe, professor, and you'resurprised to find savages there? Where aren't there savages?And besides, are they any worse than men elsewhere, these peopleyou call savages?"

  "But captain--"

  "Speaking for myself, sir, I've encountered them everywhere."

  "Well then," I replied, "if you don't want to welcome them aboardthe Nautilus, you'd better take some precautions!"

  "Easy, professor, no cause for alarm."

  "But there are a large number of these natives."

  "What's your count?"

  "At least a hundred."

  "Professor Aronnax," replied Captain Nemo, whose fingers tooktheir places again on the organ keys, "if every islander in Papuawere to gather on that beach, the Nautilus would still have nothingto fear from their attacks!"

  The captain's fingers then ran over the instrument's keyboard,and I noticed that he touched only its black keys, which gavehis melodies a basically Scottish color. Soon he had forgotten mypresence and was lost in a reverie that I no longer tried to dispel.

  I climbed onto the platform. Night had already fallen, because inthis low latitude the sun sets quickly, without any twilight.I could see Gueboroa Island only dimly. But numerous fires had beenkindled on the beach, attesting that the natives had no thoughtsof leaving it.

  For several hours I was left to myself, sometimes musing on the islanders--but no longer fearing them because the captain's unflappable confidencehad won me over--and sometimes forgetting them to marvel at the splendorsof this tropical night. My memories took wing toward France, in the wakeof those zodiacal stars due to twinkle over it in a few hours.The moon shone in the midst of the constellations at their zenith.I then remembered that this loyal, good-natured satellitewould return to this same place the day after tomorrow,to raise the tide and tear the Nautilus from its coral bed.Near midnight, seeing that all was quiet over the darkened wavesas well as under the waterside trees, I repaired to my cabin and fellinto a peaceful sleep.

  The night passed without mishap. No doubt the Papuans had beenfrightened off by the mere sight of this monster aground inthe bay, because our hatches stayed open, offering easy accessto the Nautilus's interior.

  At six o'clock in the morning, January 8, I climbed onto the platform.The morning shadows were lifting. The island was soon on viewthrough the dissolving mists, first its beaches, then its summits.

  The islanders were still there, in greater numbers than on the day before,perhaps 500 or 600 of them. Taking advantage of the low tide,some of them had moved forward over the heads of coral to withintwo cable lengths of the Nautilus. I could easily distinguish them.They obviously were true Papuans, men of fine stock, athletic in build,forehead high and broad, nose large but not flat, teeth white.Their woolly, red-tinted hair was in sharp contrast to their bodies, whichwere black and glistening like those of Nubians. Beneath their pierced,distended earlobes there dangled strings of beads made from bone.Generally these savages were naked. I noted some women among them,dressed from hip to knee in grass skirts held up by belts madeof vegetation. Some of the chieftains adorned their necks withcrescents and with necklaces made from beads of red and white glass.Armed with bows, arrows, and shields, nearly all of them carriedfrom their shoulders a sort of net, which held those polished stonestheir slings hurl with such dexterity.

  One of these chieftains came fairly close to the Nautilus,examining it with care. He must have been a "mado" of high rank,because he paraded in a mat of banana leaves that had ragged edgesand was accented with bright colors.

  I could easily have picked off this islander, he stood at such closerange; but I thought it best to wait for an actual show of hostility.Between Europeans and savages, it's acceptable for Europeans to shootback but not to attack first.

  During this whole time of low tide, the islanders lurked nearthe Nautilus, but they weren't boisterous. I often heard them repeatthe word "assai," and from their gestures I understood they wereinviting me to go ashore, an invitation I felt obliged to decline.

  So the skiff didn't leave shipside that day, much to thedispleasure of Mr. Land who couldn't complete his provisions.The adroit Canadian spent his time preparing the meat and flourproducts he had brought from Gueboroa Island. As for the savages,they went back to shore near eleven o'clock in the morning, when the headsof coral began to disappear under the waves of the rising tide.But I saw their numbers swell considerably on the beach.It was likely that they had come from neighboring islandsor from the mainland of Papua proper. However, I didn't see onelocal dugout canoe.

  Having nothing better to do, I decided to dredge these beautiful,clear waters, which exhibited a profusion of shells, zoophytes,and open-sea plants. Besides, it was the last day the Nautiluswould spend in these waterways, if, tomorrow, it still floated offto the open sea as Captain Nemo had promised.

  So I summoned Conseil, who brought me a small, light dragnet similarto those used in oyster fishing.

  "What about these savages?" Conseil asked me. "With all duerespect to master, they don't strike me as very wicked!"

  "They're cannibals even so, my boy."

  "A person can be both a cannibal and a decent man," Conseil replied,"just as a person can be both gluttonous and honorable.The one doesn't exclude the other."

  "Fine, Conseil! And I agree that there are honorable cannibals whodecently devour their prisoners. However, I'm opposed to being devoured,even in all decency, so I'll keep on my guard, especially sincethe Nautilus's commander seems to be taking no precautions.And now let's get to work!"

  For two hours our fishing proceeded energetically but withoutbringing up any rarities. Our dragnet was filled with Midas abalone,harp shells, obelisk snails, and especially the finest hammer shellsI had seen to that day. We also gathered in a few sea cucumbers,some pearl oysters, and a dozen small turtles that we saved forthe ship's pantry.

  But just when I lea
st expected it, I laid my hands on a wonder, a naturaldeformity I'd have to call it, something very seldom encountered.Conseil had just made a cast of the dragnet, and his gear hadcome back up loaded with a variety of fairly ordinary seashells,when suddenly he saw me plunge my arms swiftly into the net, pull outa shelled animal, and give a conchological yell, in other words,the most piercing yell a human throat can produce.

  "Eh? What happened to master?" Conseil asked, very startled."Did master get bitten?"

  "No, my boy, but I'd gladly have sacrificed a finger for such a find!"

  "What find?"

  "This shell," I said, displaying the subject of my triumph.

  "But that's simply an olive shell of the 'tent olive' species,genus Oliva, order Pectinibranchia, class Gastropoda, branch Mollusca--"

  "Yes, yes, Conseil! But instead of coiling from right to left,this olive shell rolls from left to right!"

  "It can't be!" Conseil exclaimed.

  "Yes, my boy, it's a left-handed shell!"

  "A left-handed shell!" Conseil repeated, his heart pounding.

  "Look at its spiral!"

  "Oh, master can trust me on this," Conseil said, taking the valuableshell in trembling hands, "but never have I felt such excitement!"

 

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