Vingt mille lieues sous.., p.25

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English, page 25


Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English

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  "Here, no," Ned Land said. "But elsewhere. . . ."

  "Oh! Elsewhere!" Conseil put in, shaking his head.

  "In fact," I said, "Mr. Land is right. And if we ever brought backto Europe or America a pearl worth millions, it would make the storyof our adventures more authentic--and much more rewarding."

  "That's how I see it," the Canadian said.

  "But," said Conseil, who perpetually returned to the didactic sideof things, "is this pearl fishing ever dangerous?"

  "No," I replied quickly, "especially if one takes certain precautions."

  "What risks would you run in a job like that?" Ned Land said."Swallowing a few gulps of salt water?"

  "Whatever you say, Ned." Then, trying to imitate Captain Nemo'scarefree tone, I asked, "By the way, gallant Ned, are youafraid of sharks?"

  "Me?" the Canadian replied. "I'm a professional harpooner!It's my job to make a mockery of them!"

  "It isn't an issue," I said, "of fishing for them with a swivel hook,hoisting them onto the deck of a ship, chopping off the tailwith a sweep of the ax, opening the belly, ripping out the heart,and tossing it into the sea."

  "So it's an issue of . . . ?"

  "Yes, precisely."

  "In the water?"

  "In the water."

  "Ye gods, just give me a good harpoon! You see, sir, these sharksare badly designed. They have to roll their bellies over to snapyou up, and in the meantime . . ."

  Ned Land had a way of pronouncing the word "snap" that sent chillsdown the spine.

  "Well, how about you, Conseil? What are your feelingsabout these man-eaters?"

  "Me?" Conseil said. "I'm afraid I must be frank with master."

  Good for you, I thought.

  "If master faces these sharks," Conseil said, "I think his loyalmanservant should face them with him!"


  A Pearl Worth Ten Million

  NIGHT FELL. I went to bed. I slept pretty poorly. Man-eaters playeda major role in my dreams. And I found it more or less appropriatethat the French word for shark, requin, has its linguistic rootsin the word requiem.

  The next day at four o'clock in the morning, I was awakened bythe steward whom Captain Nemo had placed expressly at my service.I got up quickly, dressed, and went into the lounge.

  Captain Nemo was waiting for me.

  "Professor Aronnax," he said to me, "are you ready to start?"

  "I'm ready."

  "Kindly follow me."

  "What about my companions, captain?"

  "They've been alerted and are waiting for us."

  "Aren't we going to put on our diving suits?" I asked.

  "Not yet. I haven't let the Nautilus pull too near the coast,and we're fairly well out from the Mannar oysterbank.But I have the skiff ready, and it will take us to the exact spotwhere we'll disembark, which will save us a pretty long trek.It's carrying our diving equipment, and we'll suit up just before webegin our underwater exploring."

  Captain Nemo took me to the central companionway whose steps ledto the platform. Ned and Conseil were there, enraptured withthe "pleasure trip" getting under way. Oars in position,five of the Nautilus's sailors were waiting for us aboard the skiff,which was moored alongside. The night was still dark.Layers of clouds cloaked the sky and left only a few stars in view.My eyes flew to the side where land lay, but I saw only a blurred linecovering three-quarters of the horizon from southwest to northwest.Going up Ceylon's west coast during the night, the Nautilus laywest of the bay, or rather that gulf formed by the mainlandand Mannar Island. Under these dark waters there stretchedthe bank of shellfish, an inexhaustible field of pearls more thantwenty miles long.

  Captain Nemo, Conseil, Ned Land, and I found seats in the sternof the skiff. The longboat's coxswain took the tiller; his fourcompanions leaned into their oars; the moorings were cast offand we pulled clear.

  The skiff headed southward. The oarsmen took their time.I watched their strokes vigorously catch the water, and theyalways waited ten seconds before rowing again, following thepractice used in most navies. While the longboat coasted,drops of liquid flicked from the oars and hit the dark troughsof the waves, pitter-pattering like splashes of molten lead.Coming from well out, a mild swell made the skiff roll gently,and a few cresting billows lapped at its bow.

  We were silent. What was Captain Nemo thinking? Perhaps thatthis approaching shore was too close for comfort, contrary tothe Canadian's views in which it still seemed too far away.As for Conseil, he had come along out of simple curiosity.

  Near 5:30 the first glimmers of light on the horizon definedthe upper lines of the coast with greater distinctness.Fairly flat to the east, it swelled a little toward the south.Five miles still separated it from us, and its beach merged withthe misty waters. Between us and the shore, the sea was deserted.Not a boat, not a diver. Profound solitude reigned over thisgathering place of pearl fishermen. As Captain Nemo had commented,we were arriving in these waterways a month too soon.

  At six o'clock the day broke suddenly, with that speed uniqueto tropical regions, which experience no real dawn or dusk.The sun's rays pierced the cloud curtain gathered on the easterly horizon,and the radiant orb rose swiftly.

  I could clearly see the shore, which featured a few sparse treeshere and there.

  The skiff advanced toward Mannar Island, which curved to the south.Captain Nemo stood up from his thwart and studied the sea.

  At his signal the anchor was lowered, but its chain barely ranbecause the bottom lay no more than a meter down, and this localitywas one of the shallowest spots near the bank of shellfish.Instantly the skiff wheeled around under the ebb tide's outbound thrust.

  "Here we are, Professor Aronnax," Captain Nemo then said."You observe this confined bay? A month from now in this very place,the numerous fishing boats of the harvesters will gather,and these are the waters their divers will ransack so daringly.This bay is felicitously laid out for their type of fishing.It's sheltered from the strongest winds, and the sea is neververy turbulent here, highly favorable conditions for diving work.Now let's put on our underwater suits, and we'll begin our stroll."

  I didn't reply, and while staring at these suspicious waves, I beganto put on my heavy aquatic clothes, helped by the longboat's sailors.Captain Nemo and my two companions suited up as well.None of the Nautilus's men were to go with us on this new excursion.

  Soon we were imprisoned up to the neck in india-rubber clothing,and straps fastened the air devices onto our backs.As for the Ruhmkorff device, it didn't seem to be in the picture.Before inserting my head into its copper capsule, I commentedon this to the captain.

  "Our lighting equipment would be useless to us," the captain answered me."We won't be going very deep, and the sun's rays will be sufficientto light our way. Besides, it's unwise to carry electric lanternsunder these waves. Their brightness might unexpectedly attractcertain dangerous occupants of these waterways."

  As Captain Nemo pronounced these words, I turned to Conseil andNed Land. But my two friends had already encased their craniumsin their metal headgear, and they could neither hear nor reply.

  I had one question left to address to Captain Nemo.

  "What about our weapons?" I asked him. "Our rifles?"

  "Rifles! What for? Don't your mountaineers attack bears dagger in hand?And isn't steel surer than lead? Here's a sturdy blade.Slip it under your belt and let's be off."

  I stared at my companions. They were armed in the same fashion,and Ned Land was also brandishing an enormous harpoon he had stowedin the skiff before leaving the Nautilus.

  Then, following the captain's example, I let myself be crowned with myheavy copper sphere, and our air tanks immediately went into action.

  An instant later, the longboat's sailors helped us overboard one afterthe other, and we set foot on level sand in a meter and a half of water.Captain Nemo gave us a hand signal. We followed him down a gentleslope and disappeared under the waves.

  There t
he obsessive fears in my brain left me. I became surprisinglycalm again. The ease with which I could move increased my confidence,and the many strange sights captivated my imagination.

  The sun was already sending sufficient light under these waves.The tiniest objects remained visible. After ten minutes of walking,we were in five meters of water, and the terrain had become almost flat.

  Like a covey of snipe over a marsh, there rose underfoot schoolsof unusual fish from the genus Monopterus, whose members have no finbut their tail. I recognized the Javanese eel, a genuine eight-decimeterserpent with a bluish gray belly, which, without the gold linesover its flanks, could easily be confused with the conger eel.From the butterfish genus, whose oval bodies are very flat,I observed several adorned in brilliant colors and sporting a dorsalfin like a sickle, edible fish that, when dried and marinated, make anexcellent dish known by the name "karawade"; then some sea poachers,fish belonging to the genus Aspidophoroides, whose bodies are coveredwith scaly armor divided into eight lengthwise sections.

  Meanwhile, as the sun got progressively higher, it lit up the waterymass more and more. The seafloor changed little by little.Its fine-grained sand was followed by a genuine causewayof smooth crags covered by a carpet of mollusks and zoophytes.Among other specimens in these two branches, I noted some windowpaneoysters with thin valves of unequal size, a type of ostracod uniqueto the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, then orange-hued lucina withcircular shells, awl-shaped auger shells, some of those Persianmurex snails that supply the Nautilus with such wonderful dye,spiky periwinkles fifteen centimeters long that rose under the waveslike hands ready to grab you, turban snails with shells made of hornand bristling all over with spines, lamp shells, edible duck clamsthat feed the Hindu marketplace, subtly luminous jellyfish of the speciesPelagia panopyra, and finally some wonderful Oculina flabelliforma,magnificent sea fans that fashion one of the most luxuriant treeforms in this ocean.

  In the midst of this moving vegetation, under arbors of water plants,there raced legions of clumsy articulates, in particular some fangedfrog crabs whose carapaces form a slightly rounded triangle,robber crabs exclusive to these waterways, and horribleparthenope crabs whose appearance was repulsive to the eye.One animal no less hideous, which I encountered several times,was the enormous crab that Mr. Darwin observed, to which naturehas given the instinct and requisite strength to eat coconuts;it scrambles up trees on the beach and sends the coconuts tumbling;they fracture in their fall and are opened by its powerful pincers.Here, under these clear waves, this crab raced around withmatchless agility, while green turtles from the species frequentingthe Malabar coast moved sluggishly among the crumbling rocks.

  Near seven o'clock we finally surveyed the bank of shellfish,where pearl oysters reproduce by the millions. These valuablemollusks stick to rocks, where they're strongly attachedby a mass of brown filaments that forbids their moving about.In this respect oysters are inferior even to mussels, to whom naturehas not denied all talent for locomotion.

  The shellfish Meleagrina, that womb for pearls whose valves arenearly equal in size, has the shape of a round shell with thickwalls and a very rough exterior. Some of these shells were furrowedwith flaky, greenish bands that radiated down from the top.These were the young oysters. The others had rugged black surfaces,measured up to fifteen centimeters in width, and were ten ormore years old.

  Captain Nemo pointed to this prodigious heap of shellfish, and Isaw that these mines were genuinely inexhaustible, since nature'screative powers are greater than man's destructive instincts.True to those instincts, Ned Land greedily stuffed the finestof these mollusks into a net he carried at his side.

  But we couldn't stop. We had to follow the captain,who headed down trails seemingly known only to himself.The seafloor rose noticeably, and when I lifted my arms,sometimes they would pass above the surface of the sea.Then the level of the oysterbank would lower unpredictably.Often we went around tall, pointed rocks rising like pyramids.In their dark crevices huge crustaceans, aiming their long legslike heavy artillery, watched us with unblinking eyes, while underfootthere crept millipedes, bloodworms, aricia worms, and annelid worms,whose antennas and tubular tentacles were incredibly long.

  Just then a huge cave opened up in our path, hollowed from apicturesque pile of rocks whose smooth heights were completelyhung with underwater flora. At first this cave looked pitch-blackto me. Inside, the sun's rays seemed to diminish by degrees.Their hazy transparency was nothing more than drowned light.

  Captain Nemo went in. We followed him. My eyes soon grew accustomedto this comparative gloom. I distinguished the unpredictably contouredspringings of a vault, supported by natural pillars firmly based ona granite foundation, like the weighty columns of Tuscan architecture.Why had our incomprehensible guide taken us into the depths of thisunderwater crypt? I would soon find out.

  After going down a fairly steep slope, our feet trod the floorof a sort of circular pit. There Captain Nemo stopped, and his handindicated an object that I hadn't yet noticed.

  It was an oyster of extraordinary dimensions, a titanic giant clam,a holy-water font that could have held a whole lake, a basinmore than two meters wide, hence even bigger than the one adorningthe Nautilus's lounge.

  I approached this phenomenal mollusk. Its mass of filaments attachedit to a table of granite, and there it grew by itself in the midstof the cave's calm waters. I estimated the weight of this giant clamat 300 kilograms. Hence such an oyster held fifteen kilos of meat,and you'd need the stomach of King Gargantua to eat a couple dozen.

  Captain Nemo was obviously familiar with this bivalve's existence.This wasn't the first time he'd paid it a visit, and I thoughthis sole reason for leading us to this locality was to showus a natural curiosity. I was mistaken. Captain Nemo had anexplicit personal interest in checking on the current conditionof this giant clam.

  The mollusk's two valves were partly open. The captain approachedand stuck his dagger vertically between the shells to discourageany ideas about closing; then with his hands he raised the fringed,membrane-filled tunic that made up the animal's mantle.

  There, between its leaflike folds, I saw a loose pearl as big asa coconut. Its globular shape, perfect clarity, and wonderful orientmade it a jewel of incalculable value. Carried away by curiosity,I stretched out my hand to take it, weigh it, fondle it!But the captain stopped me, signaled no, removed his dagger in oneswift motion, and let the two valves snap shut.

  I then understood Captain Nemo's intent. By leaving the pearl buriedbeneath the giant clam's mantle, he allowed it to grow imperceptibly.With each passing year the mollusk's secretions added newconcentric layers. The captain alone was familiar with the cavewhere this wonderful fruit of nature was "ripening"; he alonereared it, so to speak, in order to transfer it one day to hisdearly beloved museum. Perhaps, following the examples of oysterfarmers in China and India, he had even predetermined the creationof this pearl by sticking under the mollusk's folds some pieceof glass or metal that was gradually covered with mother-of-pearl.In any case, comparing this pearl to others I already knew about,and to those shimmering in the captain's collection, I estimatedthat it was worth at least 10,000,000 francs. It was a superbnatural curiosity rather than a luxurious piece of jewelry,because I don't know of any female ear that could handle it.

  Our visit to this opulent giant clam came to an end.Captain Nemo left the cave, and we climbed back up the bankof shellfish in the midst of these clear waters not yet disturbedby divers at work.

  We walked by ourselves, genuine loiterers stopping or strayingas our fancies dictated. For my part, I was no longer worriedabout those dangers my imagination had so ridiculously exaggerated.The shallows drew noticeably closer to the surface of the sea,and soon, walking in only a meter of water, my head passed well abovethe level of the ocean. Conseil rejoined me, and gluing his hugecopper capsule to mine, his eyes gave me a friendly greeting.But this lofty plateau measured only a few fathoms, and soon wereentered Our Element.
I think I've now earned the right todub it that.

  Ten minutes later, Captain Nemo stopped suddenly. I thought he'dcalled a halt so that we could turn and start back. No. With a gesturehe ordered us to crouch beside him at the foot of a wide crevice.His hand motioned toward a spot within the liquid mass,and I looked carefully.

  Five meters away a shadow appeared and dropped to the seafloor.The alarming idea of sharks crossed my mind. But I was mistaken,and once again we didn't have to deal with monsters of the deep.

  It was a man, a living man, a black Indian fisherman, a poor devilwho no doubt had come to gather what he could before harvest time.I saw the bottom of his dinghy, moored a few feet above his head.He would dive and go back up in quick succession. A stone cutin the shape of a sugar loaf, which he gripped between his feetwhile a rope connected it to his boat, served to lower him morequickly to the ocean floor. This was the extent of his equipment.Arriving on the seafloor at a depth of about five meters, he fellto his knees and stuffed his sack with shellfish gathered at random.Then he went back up, emptied his sack, pulled up his stone, and startedall over again, the whole process lasting only thirty seconds.

  This diver didn't see us. A shadow cast by our crag hid us fromhis view. And besides, how could this poor Indian ever have guessedthat human beings, creatures like himself, were near him underthe waters, eavesdropping on his movements, not missing a singledetail of his fishing!

  So he went up and down several times. He gathered only aboutten shellfish per dive, because he had to tear them fromthe banks where each clung with its tough mass of filaments.And how many of these oysters for which he risked his life wouldhave no pearl in them!

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