Vingt mille lieues sous.., p.28

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English, page 28

 

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English
 



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  "And just for one day, would it displease you to return to yourfisherman's trade and add this cetacean to the list of those you'vealready hunted down?"

  "It wouldn't displease me one bit."

  "All right, you can try your luck!"

  "Thank you, sir," Ned Land replied, his eyes ablaze.

  "Only," the captain went on, "I urge you to aim carefully at this animal,in your own personal interest."

  "Is the dugong dangerous to attack?" I asked, despite the Canadian'sshrug of the shoulders.

  "Yes, sometimes," the captain replied. "These animals have beenknown to turn on their assailants and capsize their longboats.But with Mr. Land that danger isn't to be feared. His eye is sharp,his arm is sure. If I recommend that he aim carefully at this dugong,it's because the animal is justly regarded as fine game, and I knowMr. Land doesn't despise a choice morsel."

  "Aha!" the Canadian put in. "This beast offers the added luxuryof being good to eat?"

  "Yes, Mr. Land. Its flesh is actual red meat, highly prized,and set aside throughout Malaysia for the tables of aristocrats.Accordingly, this excellent animal has been hunted so bloodthirstily that,like its manatee relatives, it has become more and more scarce."

  "In that case, captain," Conseil said in all seriousness,"on the offchance that this creature might be the last of its line,wouldn't it be advisable to spare its life, in the interests of science?"

  "Maybe," the Canadian answered, "it would be better to hunt it down,in the interests of mealtime."

  "Then proceed, Mr. Land," Captain Nemo replied.

  Just then, as mute and emotionless as ever, seven crewmen climbedonto the platform. One carried a harpoon and line similarto those used in whale fishing. Its deck paneling opened,the skiff was wrenched from its socket and launched to sea.Six rowers sat on the thwarts, and the coxswain took the tiller.Ned, Conseil, and I found seats in the stern.

  "Aren't you coming, captain?" I asked.

  "No, sir, but I wish you happy hunting."

  The skiff pulled clear, and carried off by its six oars, it headedswiftly toward the dugong, which by then was floating two milesfrom the Nautilus.

  Arriving within a few cable lengths of the cetacean, our longboatslowed down, and the sculls dipped noiselessly into the tranquil waters.Harpoon in hand, Ned Land went to take his stand in the skiff's bow.Harpoons used for hunting whales are usually attached to a very longrope that pays out quickly when the wounded animal drags it with him.But this rope measured no more than about ten fathoms, and its endhad simply been fastened to a small barrel that, while floating,would indicate the dugong's movements beneath the waters.

  I stood up and could clearly observe the Canadian's adversary.This dugong--which also boasts the name halicore--closely resembleda manatee. Its oblong body ended in a very long caudal fin andits lateral fins in actual fingers. It differs from the manateein that its upper jaw is armed with two long, pointed teeth that formdiverging tusks on either side.

  This dugong that Ned Land was preparing to attack was ofcolossal dimensions, easily exceeding seven meters in length.It didn't stir and seemed to be sleeping on the surface of the waves,a circumstance that should have made it easier to capture.

  The skiff approached cautiously to within three fathoms of the animal.The oars hung suspended above their rowlocks. I was crouching.His body leaning slightly back, Ned Land brandished his harpoonwith expert hands.

  Suddenly a hissing sound was audible, and the dugong disappeared.Although the harpoon had been forcefully hurled, it apparentlyhad hit only water.

  "Damnation!" exclaimed the furious Canadian. "I missed it!"

  "No," I said, "the animal's wounded, there's its blood; but yourweapon didn't stick in its body."

  "My harpoon! Get my harpoon!" Ned Land exclaimed.

  The sailors went back to their sculling, and the coxswain steeredthe longboat toward the floating barrel. We fished up the harpoon,and the skiff started off in pursuit of the animal.

  The latter returned from time to time to breathe at the surfaceof the sea. Its wound hadn't weakened it because it went withtremendous speed. Driven by energetic arms, the longboat flewon its trail. Several times we got within a few fathoms of it,and the Canadian hovered in readiness to strike; but then the dugongwould steal away with a sudden dive, and it proved impossibleto overtake the beast.

  I'll let you assess the degree of anger consuming our impatientNed Land. He hurled at the hapless animal the most potent swearwordsin the English language. For my part, I was simply distressedto see this dugong outwit our every scheme.

  We chased it unflaggingly for a full hour, and I'd begun to think it wouldprove too difficult to capture, when the animal got the untimely ideaof taking revenge on us, a notion it would soon have cause to regret.It wheeled on the skiff, to assault us in its turn.

  This maneuver did not escape the Canadian.

  "Watch out!" he said.

  The coxswain pronounced a few words in his bizarre language,and no doubt he alerted his men to keep on their guard.

  Arriving within twenty feet of the skiff, the dugong stopped,sharply sniffing the air with its huge nostrils, pierced not atthe tip of its muzzle but on its topside. Then it gathered itselfand sprang at us.

  The skiff couldn't avoid the collision. Half overturned,it shipped a ton or two of water that we had to bail out.But thanks to our skillful coxswain, we were fouled on the bias ratherthan broadside, so we didn't capsize. Clinging to the stempost,Ned Land thrust his harpoon again and again into the gigantic animal,which imbedded its teeth in our gunwale and lifted the longboatout of the water as a lion would lift a deer. We were thrown ontop of each other, and I have no idea how the venture would haveended had not the Canadian, still thirsting for the beast's blood,finally pierced it to the heart.

  I heard its teeth grind on sheet iron, and the dugong disappeared,taking our harpoon along with it. But the barrel soon popped upon the surface, and a few moments later the animal's body appearedand rolled over on its back. Our skiff rejoined it, took it in tow,and headed to the Nautilus.

  It took pulleys of great strength to hoist this dugong onto the platform.The beast weighed 5,000 kilograms. It was carved up in sight ofthe Canadian, who remained to watch every detail of the operation.At dinner the same day, my steward served me some slices of this flesh,skillfully dressed by the ship's cook. I found it excellent,even better than veal if not beef.

  The next morning, February 11, the Nautilus's pantry wasenriched by more dainty game. A covey of terns alighted onthe Nautilus. They were a species of Sterna nilotica unique to Egypt:beak black, head gray and stippled, eyes surrounded by white dots,back, wings, and tail grayish, belly and throat white, feet red.Also caught were a couple dozen Nile duck, superior-tasting wildfowlwhose neck and crown of the head are white speckled with black.

  By then the Nautilus had reduced speed. It moved ahead at a saunter,so to speak. I observed that the Red Sea's water was becoming lesssalty the closer we got to Suez.

  Near five o'clock in the afternoon, we sighted Cape Ras Mohammedto the north. This cape forms the tip of Arabia Petraea, which liesbetween the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba.

  The Nautilus entered the Strait of Jubal, which leads to the Gulfof Suez. I could clearly make out a high mountain crowning Ras Mohammedbetween the two gulfs. It was Mt. Horeb, that biblical Mt. Sinai onwhose summit Moses met God face to face, that summit the mind'seye always pictures as wreathed in lightning.

  At six o'clock, sometimes afloat and sometimes submerged, the Nautiluspassed well out from El Tur, which sat at the far end of a bay whosewaters seemed to be dyed red, as Captain Nemo had already mentioned.Then night fell in the midst of a heavy silence occasionally brokenby the calls of pelicans and nocturnal birds, by the sound of surfchafing against rocks, or by the distant moan of a steamer churningthe waves of the gulf with noisy blades.

  From eight to nine o'clock, the Nautilus stayed a few metersbeneath the waters. Accor
ding to my calculations, we hadto be quite close to Suez. Through the panels in the lounge,I spotted rocky bottoms brightly lit by our electric rays.It seemed to me that the strait was getting narrower and narrower.

  At 9:15 when our boat returned to the surface, I climbed ontothe platform. I was quite impatient to clear Captain Nemo's tunnel,couldn't sit still, and wanted to breathe the fresh night air.

  Soon, in the shadows, I spotted a pale signal light glimmeringa mile away, half discolored by mist.

  "A floating lighthouse," said someone next to me.

  I turned and discovered the captain.

  "That's the floating signal light of Suez," he went on."It won't be long before we reach the entrance to the tunnel."

  "It can't be very easy to enter it."

  "No, sir. Accordingly, I'm in the habit of staying in the pilothouseand directing maneuvers myself. And now if you'll kindly go below,Professor Aronnax, the Nautilus is about to sink beneath the waves,and it will only return to the surface after we've clearedthe Arabian Tunnel."

  I followed Captain Nemo. The hatch closed, the ballast tanks filledwith water, and the submersible sank some ten meters down.

  Just as I was about to repair to my stateroom, the captain stopped me.

  "Professor," he said to me, "would you like to go with meto the wheelhouse?"

  "I was afraid to ask," I replied.

  "Come along, then. This way, you'll learn the full story about thiscombination underwater and underground navigating."

  Captain Nemo led me to the central companionway. In midstairhe opened a door, went along the upper gangways, and arrived atthe wheelhouse, which, as you know, stands at one end of the platform.

  It was a cabin measuring six feet square and closely resemblingthose occupied by the helmsmen of steamboats on the Mississippior Hudson rivers. In the center stood an upright wheelgeared to rudder cables running to the Nautilus's stern.Set in the cabin's walls were four deadlights, windows of biconvexglass that enabled the man at the helm to see in every direction.

  The cabin was dark; but my eyes soon grew accustomed to its darknessand I saw the pilot, a muscular man whose hands rested on the pegsof the wheel. Outside, the sea was brightly lit by the beaconshining behind the cabin at the other end of the platform.

  "Now," Captain Nemo said, "let's look for our passageway."

  Electric wires linked the pilothouse with the engine room,and from this cabin the captain could simultaneously signal headingand speed to his Nautilus. He pressed a metal button and at oncethe propeller slowed down significantly.

  I stared in silence at the high, sheer wall we were skirting just then,the firm base of the sandy mountains on the coast. For an hour wewent along it in this fashion, staying only a few meters away.Captain Nemo never took his eyes off the two concentric circlesof the compass hanging in the cabin. At a mere gesture from him,the helmsman would instantly change the Nautilus's heading.

  Standing by the port deadlight, I spotted magnificent coral substructures,zoophytes, algae, and crustaceans with enormous quivering clawsthat stretched forth from crevices in the rock.

  At 10:15 Captain Nemo himself took the helm. Dark and deep, a widegallery opened ahead of us. The Nautilus was brazenly swallowed up.Strange rumblings were audible along our sides. It was the waterof the Red Sea, hurled toward the Mediterranean by the tunnel's slope.Our engines tried to offer resistance by churning the waveswith propeller in reverse, but the Nautilus went with the torrent,as swift as an arrow.

  Along the narrow walls of this passageway, I saw only brilliant streaks,hard lines, fiery furrows, all scrawled by our speeding electric light.With my hand I tried to curb the pounding of my heart.

  At 10:35 Captain Nemo left the steering wheel and turned to me:

  "The Mediterranean," he told me.

  In less than twenty minutes, swept along by the torrent, the Nautilushad just cleared the Isthmus of Suez.

  CHAPTER 6

  The Greek Islands

  AT SUNRISE the next morning, February 12, the Nautilus roseto the surface of the waves.

  I rushed onto the platform. The hazy silhouette of Pelusium wasoutlined three miles to the south. A torrent had carried us fromone sea to the other. But although that tunnel was easy to descend,going back up must have been impossible.

  Near seven o'clock Ned and Conseil joined me. Those two inseparablecompanions had slept serenely, utterly unaware of the Nautilus's feat.

  "Well, Mr. Naturalist," the Canadian asked in a gently mocking tone,"and how about that Mediterranean?"

  "We're floating on its surface, Ned my friend."

  "What!" Conseil put in. "Last night . . . ?"

  "Yes, last night, in a matter of minutes, we clearedthat insuperable isthmus."

  "I don't believe a word of it," the Canadian replied.

  "And you're in the wrong, Mr. Land," I went on. "That flat coastlinecurving southward is the coast of Egypt."

  "Tell it to the marines, sir," answered the stubborn Canadian.

  "But if master says so," Conseil told him, "then so be it."

  "What's more, Ned," I said, "Captain Nemo himself did the honorsin his tunnel, and I stood beside him in the pilothouse whilehe steered the Nautilus through that narrow passageway."

  "You hear, Ned?" Conseil said.

  "And you, Ned, who have such good eyes," I added, "you can spotthe jetties of Port Said stretching out to sea."

  The Canadian looked carefully.

  "Correct," he said. "You're right, professor, and your captain'sa superman. We're in the Mediterranean. Fine. So now let's havea chat about our little doings, if you please, but in such a waythat nobody overhears."

  I could easily see what the Canadian was driving at. In any event,I thought it best to let him have his chat, and we all three wentto sit next to the beacon, where we were less exposed to the dampspray from the billows.

  "Now, Ned, we're all ears," I said. "What have you to tell us?"

  "What I've got to tell you is very simple," the Canadian replied."We're in Europe, and before Captain Nemo's whims take us deep intothe polar seas or back to Oceania, I say we should leave this Nautilus."

  I confess that such discussions with the Canadian always baffled me.I didn't want to restrict my companions' freedom in any way,and yet I had no desire to leave Captain Nemo. Thanks to himand his submersible, I was finishing my undersea research bythe day, and I was rewriting my book on the great ocean depthsin the midst of its very element. Would I ever again have suchan opportunity to observe the ocean's wonders? Absolutely not!So I couldn't entertain this idea of leaving the Nautilus beforecompleting our course of inquiry.

  "Ned my friend," I said, "answer me honestly. Are you boredwith this ship? Are you sorry that fate has cast you intoCaptain Nemo's hands?"

  The Canadian paused for a short while before replying.Then, crossing his arms:

  "Honestly," he said, "I'm not sorry about this voyage under the seas.I'll be glad to have done it, but in order to have done it,it has to finish. That's my feeling."

  "It will finish, Ned."

  "Where and when?"

  "Where? I don't know. When? I can't say. Or, rather, I supposeit will be over when these seas have nothing more to teach us.Everything that begins in this world must inevitably come to an end."

  "I think as master does," Conseil replied, "and it's extremelypossible that after crossing every sea on the globe, Captain Nemowill bid the three of us a fond farewell."

  "Bid us a fond farewell?" the Canadian exclaimed. "You mean beatus to a fare-thee-well!"

  "Let's not exaggerate, Mr. Land," I went on. "We have nothingto fear from the captain, but neither do I share Conseil's views.We're privy to the Nautilus's secrets, and I don't expect thatits commander, just to set us free, will meekly stand by while wespread those secrets all over the world."

  "But in that case what do you expect?" the Canadian asked.

  "That we'll encounter advantageous conditions for esc
aping justas readily in six months as now."

  "Great Scott!" Ned Land put in. "And where, if you please,will we be in six months, Mr. Naturalist?"

  "Perhaps here, perhaps in China. You know how quickly theNautilus moves. It crosses oceans like swallows cross the air orexpress trains continents. It doesn't fear heavily traveled seas.Who can say it won't hug the coasts of France, England, or America,where an escape attempt could be carried out just as effectively as here."

  "Professor Aronnax," the Canadian replied, "your argumentsare rotten to the core. You talk way off in the future:'We'll be here, we'll be there!' Me, I'm talking about right now:we are here, and we must take advantage of it!"

  I was hard pressed by Ned Land's common sense, and I felt myselflosing ground. I no longer knew what arguments to put forwardon my behalf.

  "Sir," Ned went on, "let's suppose that by some impossibility,Captain Nemo offered your freedom to you this very day.Would you accept?"

  "I don't know," I replied.

  "And suppose he adds that this offer he's making you today won'tever be repeated, then would you accept?"

  I did not reply.

  "And what thinks our friend Conseil?" Ned Land asked.

  "Your friend Conseil," the fine lad replied serenely, "has nothing to sayfor himself. He's a completely disinterested party on this question.Like his master, like his comrade Ned, he's a bachelor.Neither wife, parents, nor children are waiting for him back home.He's in master's employ, he thinks like master, he speaks like master,and much to his regret, he can't be counted on to form a majority.Only two persons face each other here: master on one side,Ned Land on the other. That said, your friend Conseil is listening,and he's ready to keep score."

 
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