Vingt mille lieues sous.., p.27

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English, page 27


Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English

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  On February 9 the Nautilus cruised in the widest part of the Red Sea,measuring 190 miles straight across from Suakin on the west coastto Qunfidha on the east coast.

  At noon that day after our position fix, Captain Nemo climbed ontothe platform, where I happened to be. I vowed not to let him gobelow again without at least sounding him out on his future plans.As soon as he saw me, he came over, graciously offered me a cigar,and said to me:

  "Well, professor, are you pleased with this Red Sea? Have you seenenough of its hidden wonders, its fish and zoophytes, its gardensof sponges and forests of coral? Have you glimpsed the towns builton its shores?"

  "Yes, Captain Nemo," I replied, "and the Nautilus is wonderfullysuited to this whole survey. Ah, it's a clever boat!"

  "Yes, sir, clever, daring, and invulnerable! It fears neitherthe Red Sea's dreadful storms nor its currents and reefs."

  "Indeed," I said, "this sea is mentioned as one of the worst,and in the days of the ancients, if I'm not mistaken, it hadan abominable reputation."

  "Thoroughly abominable, Professor Aronnax. The Greek and Latinhistorians can find nothing to say in its favor, and the Greekgeographer Strabo adds that it's especially rough duringthe rainy season and the period of summer prevailing winds.The Arab Idrisi, referring to it by the name Gulf of Colzoum,relates that ships perished in large numbers on its sandbanksand that no one risked navigating it by night. This, he claims,is a sea subject to fearful hurricanes, strewn with inhospitable islands,and 'with nothing good to offer,' either on its surface or inits depths. As a matter of fact, the same views can also be foundin Arrian, Agatharchides, and Artemidorus."

  "One can easily see," I answered, "that those historians didn'tnavigate aboard the Nautilus."

  "Indeed," the captain replied with a smile, "and in this respect,the moderns aren't much farther along than the ancients.It took many centuries to discover the mechanical power of steam!Who knows whether we'll see a second Nautilus within the next 100 years!Progress is slow, Professor Aronnax."

  "It's true," I replied. "Your ship is a century ahead of its time,perhaps several centuries. It would be most unfortunate if sucha secret were to die with its inventor!"

  Captain Nemo did not reply. After some minutes of silence:

  "We were discussing," he said, "the views of ancient historianson the dangers of navigating this Red Sea?"

  "True," I replied. "But weren't their fears exaggerated?"

  "Yes and no, Professor Aronnax," answered Captain Nemo,who seemed to know "his Red Sea" by heart. "To a modern ship,well rigged, solidly constructed, and in control of its coursethanks to obedient steam, some conditions are no longer hazardousthat offered all sorts of dangers to the vessels of the ancients.Picture those early navigators venturing forth in sailboatsbuilt from planks lashed together with palm-tree ropes,caulked with powdered resin, and coated with dogfish grease.They didn't even have instruments for taking their bearings,they went by guesswork in the midst of currents they barely knew.Under such conditions, shipwrecks had to be numerous.But nowadays steamers providing service between Suez and the South Seashave nothing to fear from the fury of this gulf, despite the contrarywinds of its monsoons. Their captains and passengers no longerprepare for departure with sacrifices to placate the gods,and after returning, they don't traipse in wreaths and gold ribbonsto say thanks at the local temple."

  "Agreed," I said. "And steam seems to have killed off all gratitudein seamen's hearts. But since you seem to have made a special studyof this sea, captain, can you tell me how it got its name?"

  "Many explanations exist on the subject, Professor Aronnax. Would youlike to hear the views of one chronicler in the 14th century?"


  "This fanciful fellow claims the sea was given its name afterthe crossing of the Israelites, when the Pharaoh perished in thosewaves that came together again at Moses' command:

  To mark that miraculous sequel, the sea turned a red without equal.

  Thus no other course would do but to name it for its hue."

  "An artistic explanation, Captain Nemo," I replied, "but I'm unableto rest content with it. So I'll ask you for your own personal views."

  "Here they come. To my thinking, Professor Aronnax, this 'Red Sea'designation must be regarded as a translation of the Hebrew word'Edrom,' and if the ancients gave it that name, it was because ofthe unique color of its waters."

  "Until now, however, I've seen only clear waves, without any unique hue."

  "Surely, but as we move ahead to the far end of this gulf,you'll note its odd appearance. I recall seeing the bay of El Turcompletely red, like a lake of blood."

  "And you attribute this color to the presence of microscopic algae?"

  "Yes. It's a purplish, mucilaginous substance produced by those tinybuds known by the name trichodesmia, 40,000 of which are neededto occupy the space of one square millimeter. Perhaps you'llencounter them when we reach El Tur."

  "Hence, Captain Nemo, this isn't the first time you've gone throughthe Red Sea aboard the Nautilus?"

  "No, sir."

  "Then, since you've already mentioned the crossing of the Israelitesand the catastrophe that befell the Egyptians, I would ask if you've everdiscovered any traces under the waters of that great historic event?"

  "No, professor, and for an excellent reason."

  "What's that?"

  "It's because that same locality where Moses crossed with all his peopleis now so clogged with sand, camels can barely get their legs wet.You can understand that my Nautilus wouldn't have enoughwater for itself."

  "And that locality is . . . ?" I asked.

  "That locality lies a little above Suez in a sound that used to forma deep estuary when the Red Sea stretched as far as the Bitter Lakes.Now, whether or not their crossing was literally miraculous,the Israelites did cross there in returning to the Promised Land,and the Pharaoh's army did perish at precisely that locality.So I think that excavating those sands would bring to light a greatmany weapons and tools of Egyptian origin."

  "Obviously," I replied. "And for the sake of archaeology, let's hopethat sooner or later such excavations do take place, once new townsare settled on the isthmus after the Suez Canal has been cut through--a canal, by the way, of little use to a ship such as the Nautilus!"

  "Surely, but of great use to the world at large," Captain Nemo said."The ancients well understood the usefulness to commerce of connectingthe Red Sea with the Mediterranean, but they never dreamed of cuttinga canal between the two, and instead they picked the Nile as their link.If we can trust tradition, it was probably Egypt's King Sesostriswho started digging the canal needed to join the Nile withthe Red Sea. What's certain is that in 615 B.C. King Necho IIwas hard at work on a canal that was fed by Nile water and ranthrough the Egyptian plains opposite Arabia. This canal couldbe traveled in four days, and it was so wide, two triple-tieredgalleys could pass through it abreast. Its construction wascontinued by Darius the Great, son of Hystaspes, and probablycompleted by King Ptolemy II. Strabo saw it used for shipping;but the weakness of its slope between its starting point, near Bubastis,and the Red Sea left it navigable only a few months out of the year.This canal served commerce until the century of Rome's Antonine emperors;it was then abandoned and covered with sand, subsequently reinstatedby Arabia's Caliph Omar I, and finally filled in for good in 761or 762 A.D. by Caliph Al-Mansur, in an effort to prevent suppliesfrom reaching Mohammed ibn Abdullah, who had rebelled against him.During his Egyptian campaign, your General Napoleon Bonapartediscovered traces of this old canal in the Suez desert, and whenthe tide caught him by surprise, he wellnigh perished just a fewhours before rejoining his regiment at Hadjaroth, the very placewhere Moses had pitched camp 3,300 years before him."

  "Well, captain, what the ancients hesitated to undertake, Mr. deLesseps is now finishing up; his joining of these two seas willshorten the route from Cadiz to the East Indies by 9,000 kilometers,and he'll soon change Africa into an immense island."
br />   "Yes, Professor Aronnax, and you have every right to be proud of yourfellow countryman. Such a man brings a nation more honor than thegreatest commanders! Like so many others, he began with difficultiesand setbacks, but he triumphed because he has the volunteer spirit.And it's sad to think that this deed, which should have been aninternational deed, which would have insured that any administrationwent down in history, will succeed only through the efforts of one man.So all hail to Mr. de Lesseps!"

  "Yes, all hail to that great French citizen," I replied,quite startled by how emphatically Captain Nemo had just spoken.

  "Unfortunately," he went on, "I can't take you through that Suez Canal,but the day after tomorrow, you'll be able to see the long jettiesof Port Said when we're in the Mediterranean."

  "In the Mediterranean!" I exclaimed.

  "Yes, professor. Does that amaze you?"

  "What amazes me is thinking we'll be there the day after tomorrow."

  "Oh really?"

  "Yes, captain, although since I've been aboard your vessel,I should have formed the habit of not being amazed by anything!"

  "But what is it that startles you?"

  "The thought of how hideously fast the Nautilus will need to go,if it's to double the Cape of Good Hope, circle around Africa,and lie in the open Mediterranean by the day after tomorrow."

  "And who says it will circle Africa, professor? What's this talkabout doubling the Cape of Good Hope?"

  "But unless the Nautilus navigates on dry land and crossesover the isthmus--"

  "Or under it, Professor Aronnax."

  "Under it?"

  "Surely," Captain Nemo replied serenely. "Under that tongue of land,nature long ago made what man today is making on its surface."

  "What! There's a passageway?"

  "Yes, an underground passageway that I've named the Arabian Tunnel.It starts below Suez and leads to the Bay of Pelusium."

  "But isn't that isthmus only composed of quicksand?"

  "To a certain depth. But at merely fifty meters, one encountersa firm foundation of rock."

  "And it's by luck that you discovered this passageway?"I asked, more and more startled.

  "Luck plus logic, professor, and logic even more than luck."

  "Captain, I hear you, but I can't believe my ears."

  "Oh, sir! The old saying still holds good: Aures habent et nonaudient!* Not only does this passageway exist, but I've takenadvantage of it on several occasions. Without it, I wouldn'thave ventured today into such a blind alley as the Red Sea."

  *Latin: "They have ears but hear not." Ed.

  "Is it indiscreet to ask how you discovered this tunnel?"

  "Sir," the captain answered me, "there can be no secrets between menwho will never leave each other."

  I ignored this innuendo and waited for Captain Nemo's explanation.

  "Professor," he told me, "the simple logic of the naturalist ledme to discover this passageway, and I alone am familiar with it.I'd noted that in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean there exista number of absolutely identical species of fish: eels, butterfish,greenfish, bass, jewelfish, flying fish. Certain of this fact,I wondered if there weren't a connection between the two seas.If there were, its underground current had to go from the Red Seato the Mediterranean simply because of their difference in level.So I caught a large number of fish in the vicinity of Suez. I slippedcopper rings around their tails and tossed them back into the sea.A few months later off the coast of Syria, I recaptured a fewspecimens of my fish, adorned with their telltale rings.So this proved to me that some connection existed between the two seas.I searched for it with my Nautilus, I discovered it, I ventured into it;and soon, professor, you also will have cleared my Arabic tunnel!"


  Arabian Tunnel

  THE SAME DAY, I reported to Conseil and Ned Land that part ofthe foregoing conversation directly concerning them. When I toldthem we would be lying in Mediterranean waters within two days,Conseil clapped his hands, but the Canadian shrugged his shoulders.

  "An underwater tunnel!" he exclaimed. "A connection between two seas!Who ever heard of such malarkey!"

  "Ned my friend," Conseil replied, "had you ever heard ofthe Nautilus? No, yet here it is! So don't shrug your shouldersso blithely, and don't discount something with the feeble excusethat you've never heard of it."

  "We'll soon see!" Ned Land shot back, shaking his head."After all, I'd like nothing better than to believe in your captain'slittle passageway, and may Heaven grant it really does take usto the Mediterranean."

  The same evening, at latitude 21 degrees 30' north, the Nautilus wasafloat on the surface of the sea and drawing nearer to the Arab coast.I spotted Jidda, an important financial center for Egypt, Syria, Turkey,and the East Indies. I could distinguish with reasonable claritythe overall effect of its buildings, the ships made fast alongits wharves, and those bigger vessels whose draft of waterrequired them to drop anchor at the port's offshore mooring.The sun, fairly low on the horizon, struck full force on the housesin this town, accenting their whiteness. Outside the city limits,some wood or reed huts indicated the quarter where the bedouins lived.

  Soon Jidda faded into the shadows of evening, and the Nautilus wentback beneath the mildly phosphorescent waters.

  The next day, February 10, several ships appeared, running on ouropposite tack. The Nautilus resumed its underwater navigating;but at the moment of our noon sights, the sea was deserted and the shiprose again to its waterline.

  With Ned and Conseil, I went to sit on the platform. The coastto the east looked like a slightly blurred mass in a damp fog.

  Leaning against the sides of the skiff, we were chatting of onething and another, when Ned Land stretched his hand toward a pointin the water, saying to me:

  "See anything out there, professor?"

  "No, Ned," I replied, "but you know I don't have your eyes."

  "Take a good look," Ned went on. "There, ahead to starboard,almost level with the beacon! Don't you see a mass that seemsto be moving around?"

  "Right," I said after observing carefully, "I can make out somethinglike a long, blackish object on the surface of the water."

  "A second Nautilus?" Conseil said.

  "No," the Canadian replied, "unless I'm badly mistaken,that's some marine animal."

  "Are there whales in the Red Sea?" Conseil asked.

  "Yes, my boy," I replied, "they're sometimes found here."

  "That's no whale," continued Ned Land, whose eyes never strayedfrom the object they had sighted. "We're old chums, whales and I,and I couldn't mistake their little ways."

  "Let's wait and see," Conseil said. "The Nautilus is headingthat direction, and we'll soon know what we're in for."

  In fact, that blackish object was soon only a mile away from us.It looked like a huge reef stranded in midocean. What was it?I still couldn't make up my mind.

  "Oh, it's moving off! It's diving!" Ned Land exclaimed."Damnation! What can that animal be? It doesn't have a forkedtail like baleen whales or sperm whales, and its fins looklike sawed-off limbs."

  "But in that case--" I put in.

  "Good lord," the Canadian went on, "it's rolled over on its back,and it's raising its breasts in the air!"

  "It's a siren!" Conseil exclaimed. "With all due respect to master,it's an actual mermaid!"

  That word "siren" put me back on track, and I realized that the animalbelonged to the order Sirenia: marine creatures that legendshave turned into mermaids, half woman, half fish.

  "No," I told Conseil, "that's no mermaid, it's an unusual creatureof which only a few specimens are left in the Red Sea. That's a dugong."

  "Order Sirenia, group Pisciforma, subclass Monodelphia, class Mammalia,branch Vertebrata," Conseil replied.

  And when Conseil has spoken, there's nothing else to be said.

  Meanwhile Ned Land kept staring. His eyes were gleaming with desireat the sight of that animal. His hands were ready to hurl a harpoon.You woul
d have thought he was waiting for the right moment to jumpoverboard and attack the creature in its own element.

  "Oh, sir," he told me in a voice trembling with excitement,"I've never killed anything like that!"

  His whole being was concentrated in this last word.

  Just then Captain Nemo appeared on the platform. He spotted the dugong.He understood the Canadian's frame of mind and addressed him directly:

  "If you held a harpoon, Mr. Land, wouldn't your hands be itchingto put it to work?"

  "Positively, sir."


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