Vingt mille lieues sous.., p.26

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English, page 26

 

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English
 



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  I observed him with great care. His movements were systematicallyexecuted, and for half an hour no danger seemed to threaten him.So I had gotten used to the sight of this fascinating fishingwhen all at once, just as the Indian was kneeling on the seafloor,I saw him make a frightened gesture, stand, and gather himselfto spring back to the surface of the waves.

  I understood his fear. A gigantic shadow appeared above the poor diver.It was a shark of huge size, moving in diagonally, eyes ablaze,jaws wide open!

  I was speechless with horror, unable to make a single movement.

  With one vigorous stroke of its fins, the voracious animal shottoward the Indian, who jumped aside and avoided the shark's bitebut not the thrashing of its tail, because that tail struck himacross the chest and stretched him out on the seafloor.

  This scene lasted barely a few seconds. The shark returned,rolled over on its back, and was getting ready to cut the Indian in half,when Captain Nemo, who was stationed beside me, suddenly stood up.Then he strode right toward the monster, dagger in hand, ready tofight it at close quarters.

  Just as it was about to snap up the poor fisherman, the man-eatersaw its new adversary, repositioned itself on its belly, and headedswiftly toward him.

  I can see Captain Nemo's bearing to this day. Bracing himself,he waited for the fearsome man-eater with wonderful composure,and when the latter rushed at him, the captain leaped asidewith prodigious quickness, avoided a collision, and sank hisdagger into its belly. But that wasn't the end of the story.A dreadful battle was joined.

  The shark bellowed, so to speak. Blood was pouring into the wavesfrom its wounds. The sea was dyed red, and through this opaqueliquid I could see nothing else.

  Nothing else until the moment when, through a rift in the clouds,I saw the daring captain clinging to one of the animal's fins,fighting the monster at close quarters, belaboring hisenemy's belly with stabs of the dagger yet unable to deliverthe deciding thrust, in other words, a direct hit to the heart.In its struggles the man-eater churned the watery mass so furiously,its eddies threatened to knock me over.

  I wanted to run to the captain's rescue. But I was transfixedwith horror, unable to move.

  I stared, wild-eyed. I saw the fight enter a new phase.The captain fell to the seafloor, toppled by the enormous massweighing him down. Then the shark's jaws opened astoundingly wide,like a pair of industrial shears, and that would have beenthe finish of Captain Nemo had not Ned Land, quick as thought,rushed forward with his harpoon and driven its dreadful pointinto the shark's underside.

  The waves were saturated with masses of blood. The watersshook with the movements of the man-eater, which thrashed aboutwith indescribable fury. Ned Land hadn't missed his target.This was the monster's death rattle. Pierced to the heart,it was struggling with dreadful spasms whose aftershocks knockedConseil off his feet.

  Meanwhile Ned Land pulled the captain clear. Uninjured, the latterstood up, went right to the Indian, quickly cut the rope bindingthe man to his stone, took the fellow in his arms, and with a vigorouskick of the heel, rose to the surface of the sea.

  The three of us followed him, and a few moments later, miraculously safe,we reached the fisherman's longboat.

  Captain Nemo's first concern was to revive this unfortunate man.I wasn't sure he would succeed. I hoped so, since the poor devilhadn't been under very long. But that stroke from the shark's tailcould have been his deathblow.

  Fortunately, after vigorous massaging by Conseil and the captain,I saw the nearly drowned man regain consciousness little by little.He opened his eyes. How startled he must have felt, how frightened even,at seeing four huge, copper craniums leaning over him!

  And above all, what must he have thought when Captain Nemo pulleda bag of pearls from a pocket in his diving suit and placed itin the fisherman's hands? This magnificent benefaction fromthe Man of the Waters to the poor Indian from Ceylon was acceptedby the latter with trembling hands. His bewildered eyes indicatedthat he didn't know to what superhuman creatures he owed both hislife and his fortune.

  At the captain's signal we returned to the bank of shellfish,and retracing our steps, we walked for half an hour until we encounteredthe anchor connecting the seafloor with the Nautilus's skiff.

  Back on board, the sailors helped divest us of our heavy copper carapaces.

  Captain Nemo's first words were spoken to the Canadian.

  "Thank you, Mr. Land," he told him.

  "Tit for tat, captain," Ned Land replied. "I owed it to you."

  The ghost of a smile glided across the captain's lips, and that was all.

  "To the Nautilus," he said.

  The longboat flew over the waves. A few minutes later we encounteredthe shark's corpse again, floating.

  From the black markings on the tips of its fins, I recognizedthe dreadful Squalus melanopterus from the seas of the East Indies,a variety in the species of sharks proper. It was more than twenty-fivefeet long; its enormous mouth occupied a third of its body.It was an adult, as could be seen from the six rows of teeth formingan isosceles triangle in its upper jaw.

  Conseil looked at it with purely scientific fascination,and I'm sure he placed it, not without good reason, in the classof cartilaginous fish, order Chondropterygia with fixed gills,family Selacia, genus Squalus.

  While I was contemplating this inert mass, suddenly a dozen of thesevoracious melanoptera appeared around our longboat; but, paying noattention to us, they pounced on the corpse and quarreled over everyscrap of it.

  By 8:30 we were back on board the Nautilus.

  There I fell to thinking about the incidents that marked our excursionover the Mannar oysterbank. Two impressions inevitably stood out.One concerned Captain Nemo's matchless bravery, the other his devotionto a human being, a representative of that race from which he hadfled beneath the seas. In spite of everything, this strange manhadn't yet succeeded in completely stifling his heart.

  When I shared these impressions with him, he answered me in a tonetouched with emotion:

  "That Indian, professor, lives in the land of the oppressed,and I am to this day, and will be until my last breath, a nativeof that same land!"

  CHAPTER 4

  The Red Sea

  DURING THE DAY of January 29, the island of Ceylon disappearedbelow the horizon, and at a speed of twenty miles per hour,the Nautilus glided into the labyrinthine channels that separatethe Maldive and Laccadive Islands. It likewise hugged Kiltan Island,a shore of madreporic origin discovered by Vasco da Gama in 1499 andone of nineteen chief islands in the island group of the Laccadives,located between latitude 10 degrees and 14 degrees 30' north, and betweenlongitude 50 degrees 72' and 69 degrees east.

  By then we had fared 16,220 miles, or 7,500 leagues, from our startingpoint in the seas of Japan.

  The next day, January 30, when the Nautilus rose to the surfaceof the ocean, there was no more land in sight. Setting its courseto the north-northwest, the ship headed toward the Gulf of Oman,carved out between Arabia and the Indian peninsula and providingaccess to the Persian Gulf.

  This was obviously a blind alley with no possible outlet.So where was Captain Nemo taking us? I was unable to say.Which didn't satisfy the Canadian, who that day asked me wherewe were going.

  "We're going, Mr. Ned, where the captain's fancy takes us."

  "His fancy," the Canadian replied, "won't take us very far.The Persian Gulf has no outlet, and if we enter those waters,it won't be long before we return in our tracks."

  "All right, we'll return, Mr. Land, and after the Persian Gulf,if the Nautilus wants to visit the Red Sea, the Strait of Bab elMandeb is still there to let us in!"

  "I don't have to tell you, sir," Ned Land replied, "that the Red Seais just as landlocked as the gulf, since the Isthmus of Suez hasn'tbeen cut all the way through yet; and even if it was, a boatas secretive as ours wouldn't risk a canal intersected with locks.So the Red Sea won't be our way back to Europe either."

  "But I didn't say we'd return to
Europe."

  "What do you figure, then?"

  "I figure that after visiting these unusual waterways of Arabiaand Egypt, the Nautilus will go back down to the Indian Ocean,perhaps through Mozambique Channel, perhaps off the Mascarene Islands,and then make for the Cape of Good Hope."

  "And once we're at the Cape of Good Hope?" the Canadian askedwith typical persistence.

  "Well then, we'll enter that Atlantic Ocean with which wearen't yet familiar. What's wrong, Ned my friend?Are you tired of this voyage under the seas? Are you boredwith the constantly changing sight of these underwater wonders?Speaking for myself, I'll be extremely distressed to see the endof a voyage so few men will ever have a chance to make."

  "But don't you realize, Professor Aronnax," the Canadian replied,"that soon we'll have been imprisoned for three whole monthsaboard this Nautilus?"

  "No, Ned, I didn't realize it, I don't want to realize it, and Idon't keep track of every day and every hour."

  "But when will it be over?"

  "In its appointed time. Meanwhile there's nothing we can do about it,and our discussions are futile. My gallant Ned, if you come and tell me,'A chance to escape is available to us,' then I'll discuss it with you.But that isn't the case, and in all honesty, I don't think Captain Nemoever ventures into European seas."

  This short dialogue reveals that in my mania for the Nautilus, I wasturning into the spitting image of its commander.

  As for Ned Land, he ended our talk in his best speechifying style:"That's all fine and dandy. But in my humble opinion, a lifein jail is a life without joy."

  For four days until February 3, the Nautilus inspected the Gulf of Omanat various speeds and depths. It seemed to be traveling at random,as if hesitating over which course to follow, but it never crossedthe Tropic of Cancer.

  After leaving this gulf we raised Muscat for an instant,the most important town in the country of Oman. I marveled at itsstrange appearance in the midst of the black rocks surrounding it,against which the white of its houses and forts stood out sharply.I spotted the rounded domes of its mosques, the elegant tipsof its minarets, and its fresh, leafy terraces. But it was onlya fleeting vision, and the Nautilus soon sank beneath the darkwaves of these waterways.

  Then our ship went along at a distance of six miles from the Arabiccoasts of Mahra and Hadhramaut, their undulating lines of mountainsrelieved by a few ancient ruins. On February 5 we finally putinto the Gulf of Aden, a genuine funnel stuck into the neck of Babel Mandeb and bottling these Indian waters in the Red Sea.

  On February 6 the Nautilus cruised in sight of the city of Aden,perched on a promontory connected to the continent by a narrow isthmus,a sort of inaccessible Gibraltar whose fortifications the Englishrebuilt after capturing it in 1839. I glimpsed the octagonalminarets of this town, which used to be one of the wealthiest,busiest commercial centers along this coast, as the Arab historianIdrisi tells it.

  I was convinced that when Captain Nemo reached this point,he would back out again; but I was mistaken, and much to my surprise,he did nothing of the sort.

  The next day, February 7, we entered the Strait of Bab el Mandeb,whose name means "Gate of Tears" in the Arabic language.Twenty miles wide, it's only fifty-two kilometers long,and with the Nautilus launched at full speed, clearing it wasthe work of barely an hour. But I didn't see a thing, not evenPerim Island where the British government built fortificationsto strengthen Aden's position. There were many English and Frenchsteamers plowing this narrow passageway, liners going from Suezto Bombay, Calcutta, Melbourne, R?union Island, and Mauritius; far toomuch traffic for the Nautilus to make an appearance on the surface.So it wisely stayed in midwater.

  Finally, at noon, we were plowing the waves of the Red Sea.

  The Red Sea: that great lake so famous in biblical traditions,seldom replenished by rains, fed by no important rivers,continually drained by a high rate of evaporation, its water leveldropping a meter and a half every year! If it were fully landlockedlike a lake, this odd gulf might dry up completely; on this scoreit's inferior to its neighbors, the Caspian Sea and the Dead Sea,whose levels lower only to the point where their evaporation exactlyequals the amounts of water they take to their hearts.

  This Red Sea is 2,600 kilometers long with an average width of 240.In the days of the

  Ptolemies and the Roman emperors, it was a great commercialartery for the world, and when its isthmus has been cut through,it will completely regain that bygone importance that the Suezrailways have already brought back in part.

  I would not even attempt to understand the whim that inducedCaptain Nemo to take us into this gulf. But I wholeheartedlyapproved of the Nautilus's entering it. It adopted a medium pace,sometimes staying on the surface, sometimes diving to avoid some ship,and so I could observe both the inside and topside of thishighly unusual sea.

  On February 8, as early as the first hours of daylight,Mocha appeared before us: a town now in ruins, whose wallswould collapse at the mere sound of a cannon, and which sheltersa few leafy date trees here and there. This once-important cityused to contain six public marketplaces plus twenty-six mosques,and its walls, protected by fourteen forts, fashioned a three-kilometergirdle around it.

  Then the Nautilus drew near the beaches of Africa, where the sea isconsiderably deeper. There, through the open panels and in a midwaterof crystal clarity, our ship enabled us to study wonderful bushesof shining coral and huge chunks of rock wrapped in splendid greenfurs of algae and fucus. What an indescribable sight, and whata variety of settings and scenery where these reefs and volcanicislands leveled off by the Libyan coast! But soon the Nautilus huggedthe eastern shore where these tree forms appeared in all their glory.This was off the coast of Tihama, and there such zoophyte displaysnot only flourished below sea level but they also fashionedpicturesque networks that unreeled as high as ten fathoms above it;the latter were more whimsical but less colorful than the former,which kept their bloom thanks to the moist vitality of the waters.

  How many delightful hours I spent in this way at the lounge window!How many new specimens of underwater flora and fauna Imarveled at beneath the light of our electric beacon!Mushroom-shaped fungus coral, some slate-colored sea anemone includingthe species Thalassianthus aster among others, organ-pipe coralarranged like flutes and just begging for a puff from the god Pan,shells unique to this sea that dwell in madreporic cavitiesand whose bases are twisted into squat spirals, and finallya thousand samples of a polypary I hadn't observed until then:the common sponge.

  First division in the polyp group, the class Spongiaria has beencreated by scientists precisely for this unusual exhibit whoseusefulness is beyond dispute. The sponge is definitely not a plant,as some naturalists still believe, but an animal of the lowest order,a polypary inferior even to coral. Its animal nature isn't in doubt,and we can't accept even the views of the ancients, who regardedit as halfway between plant and animal. But I must say thatnaturalists are not in agreement on the structural mode of sponges.For some it's a polypary, and for others, such as Professor Milne-Edwards,it's a single, solitary individual.

  The class Spongiaria contains about 300 species that are encounteredin a large number of seas and even in certain streams, where they'vebeen given the name freshwater sponges. But their waters of choice arethe Red Sea and the Mediterranean near the Greek Islands or the coastof Syria. These waters witness the reproduction and growth of soft,delicate bath sponges whose prices run as high as 150 francs apiece:the yellow sponge from Syria, the horn sponge from Barbary, etc.But since I had no hope of studying these zoophytes in the seaportsof the Levant, from which we were separated by the insuperable Isthmusof Suez, I had to be content with observing them in the watersof the Red Sea.

  So I called Conseil to my side, while at an average depth of eightto nine meters, the Nautilus slowly skimmed every beautiful rockon the easterly coast.

  There sponges grew in every shape, globular, stalklike,leaflike, fingerlike. With reasonable accuracy, they lived up to
their nicknames of basket sponges, chalice sponges, distaff sponges,elkhorn sponges, lion's paws, peacock's tails, and Neptune's gloves--designations bestowed on them by fishermen, more poetically inclinedthan scientists. A gelatinous, semifluid substance coated the fibroustissue of these sponges, and from this tissue there escaped a steadytrickle of water that, after carrying sustenance to each cell,was being expelled by a contracting movement. This jellylike substancedisappears when the polyp dies, emitting ammonia as it rots.Finally nothing remains but the fibers, either gelatinous or madeof horn, that constitute your household sponge, which takes ona russet hue and is used for various tasks depending on its degreeof elasticity, permeability, or resistance to saturation.

  These polyparies were sticking to rocks, shells of mollusks, and eventhe stalks of water plants. They adorned the smallest crevices,some sprawling, others standing or hanging like coral outgrowths.I told Conseil that sponges are fished up in two ways, either by dragnetor by hand. The latter method calls for the services of a diver,but it's preferable because it spares the polypary's tissue,leaving it with a much higher market value.

  Other zoophytes swarming near the sponges consisted chiefly of a veryelegant species of jellyfish; mollusks were represented by varietiesof squid that, according to Professor Orbigny, are unique to the Red Sea;and reptiles by virgata turtles belonging to the genus Chelonia,which furnished our table with a dainty but wholesome dish.

  As for fish, they were numerous and often remarkable. Here arethe ones that the Nautilus's nets most frequently hauled on board:rays, including spotted rays that were oval in shape and brickred in color, their bodies strewn with erratic blue speckles andidentifiable by their jagged double stings, silver-backed skates,common stingrays with stippled tails, butterfly rays that lookedlike huge two-meter cloaks flapping at middepth, toothless guitarfishthat were a type of cartilaginous fish closer to the shark,trunkfish known as dromedaries that were one and a half feet longand had humps ending in backward-curving stings, serpentine morayeels with silver tails and bluish backs plus brown pectorals trimmedin gray piping, a species of butterfish called the fiatola deckedout in thin gold stripes and the three colors of the French flag,Montague blennies four decimeters long, superb jacks handsomelyembellished by seven black crosswise streaks with blue and yellowfins plus gold and silver scales, snooks, standard mullet withyellow heads, parrotfish, wrasse, triggerfish, gobies, etc., plusa thousand other fish common to the oceans we had already crossed.

 
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