Vingt mille lieues sous.., p.34

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English, page 34

 

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English
 



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  But when we had ascended to an elevation of about 250 feet,we were stopped by insurmountable obstacles. The converging insidewalls changed into overhangs, and our climb into a circular stroll.At this topmost level the vegetable kingdom began to challengethe mineral kingdom. Shrubs, and even a few trees, emerged from crevicesin the walls. I recognized some spurges that let their caustic,purgative sap trickle out. There were heliotropes, very remissat living up to their sun-worshipping reputations since no sunlightever reached them; their clusters of flowers drooped sadly,their colors and scents were faded. Here and there chrysanthemumssprouted timidly at the feet of aloes with long, sad, sickly leaves.But between these lava flows I spotted little violets that still gaveoff a subtle fragrance, and I confess that I inhaled it with delight.The soul of a flower is its scent, and those splendid water plants,flowers of the sea, have no souls!

  We had arrived at the foot of a sturdy clump of dragon trees,which were splitting the rocks with exertions of their muscular roots,when Ned Land exclaimed:

  "Oh, sir, a hive!"

  "A hive?" I answered, with a gesture of utter disbelief.

  "Yes, a hive," the Canadian repeated, "with bees buzzing around!"

  I went closer and was forced to recognize the obvious. At the mouthof a hole cut in the trunk of a dragon tree, there swarmed thousandsof these ingenious insects so common to all the Canary Islands,where their output is especially prized.

  Naturally enough, the Canadian wanted to lay in a supply of honey,and it would have been ill-mannered of me to say no. He mixed sulfurwith some dry leaves, set them on fire with a spark from his tinderbox,and proceeded to smoke the bees out. Little by little the buzzing dieddown and the disemboweled hive yielded several pounds of sweet honey.Ned Land stuffed his haversack with it.

  "When I've mixed this honey with our breadfruit batter," he told us,"I'll be ready to serve you a delectable piece of cake."

  "But of course," Conseil put in, "it will be gingerbread!"

  "I'm all for gingerbread," I said, "but let's resumethis fascinating stroll."

  At certain turns in the trail we were going along, the lakeappeared in its full expanse. The ship's beacon lit up that wholeplacid surface, which experienced neither ripples nor undulations.The Nautilus lay perfectly still. On its platform and on the embankment,crewmen were bustling around, black shadows that stood out clearlyin the midst of the luminous air.

  Just then we went around the highest ridge of these rockyfoothills that supported the vault. Then I saw that bees weren'tthe animal kingdom's only representatives inside this volcano.Here and in the shadows, birds of prey soared and whirled,flying away from nests perched on tips of rock. There weresparrow hawks with white bellies, and screeching kestrels.With all the speed their stiltlike legs could muster, fine fat bustardsscampered over the slopes. I'll let the reader decide whetherthe Canadian's appetite was aroused by the sight of this tasty game,and whether he regretted having no rifle in his hands. He triedto make stones do the work of bullets, and after several fruitlessattempts, he managed to wound one of these magnificent bustards.To say he risked his life twenty times in order to capture thisbird is simply the unadulterated truth; but he fared so well,the animal went into his sack to join the honeycombs.

  By then we were forced to go back down to the beach because the ridgehad become impossible. Above us, the yawning crater looked likethe wide mouth of a well. From where we stood, the sky was pretty easyto see, and I watched clouds race by, disheveled by the west wind,letting tatters of mist trail over the mountain's summit.Proof positive that those clouds kept at a moderate altitude,because this volcano didn't rise more than 1,800 feet above the levelof the ocean.

  Half an hour after the Canadian's latest exploits, we were backon the inner beach. There the local flora was represented by a widecarpet of samphire, a small umbelliferous plant that keeps quite nicely,which also boasts the names glasswort, saxifrage, and sea fennel.Conseil picked a couple bunches. As for the local fauna,it included thousands of crustaceans of every type:lobsters, hermit crabs, prawns, mysid shrimps, daddy longlegs,rock crabs, and a prodigious number of seashells, such as cowries,murex snails, and limpets.

  In this locality there gaped the mouth of a magnificent cave.My companions and I took great pleasure in stretching out on itsfine-grained sand. Fire had polished the sparkling enamel of itsinner walls, sprinkled all over with mica-rich dust. Ned Land tappedthese walls and tried to probe their thickness. I couldn't help smiling.Our conversation then turned to his everlasting escape plans,and without going too far, I felt I could offer him this hope:Captain Nemo had gone down south only to replenish his sodium supplies.So I hoped he would now hug the coasts of Europe and America,which would allow the Canadian to try again with a greaterchance of success.

  We were stretched out in this delightful cave for an hour.Our conversation, lively at the outset, then languished.A definite drowsiness overcame us. Since I saw no good reasonto resist the call of sleep, I fell into a heavy doze.I dreamed--one doesn't choose his dreams--that my life had beenreduced to the vegetating existence of a simple mollusk.It seemed to me that this cave made up my double-valved shell. . . .

  Suddenly Conseil's voice startled me awake.

  "Get up! Get up!" shouted the fine lad.

  "What is it?" I asked, in a sitting position.

  "The water's coming up to us!"

  I got back on my feet. Like a torrent the sea was rushinginto our retreat, and since we definitely were not mollusks,we had to clear out.

  In a few seconds we were safe on top of the cave.

  "What happened?" Conseil asked. "Some new phenomenon?"

  "Not quite, my friends!" I replied. "It was the tide,merely the tide, which wellnigh caught us by surprise just as itdid Sir Walter Scott's hero! The ocean outside is rising,and by a perfectly natural law of balance, the level of thislake is also rising. We've gotten off with a mild dunking.Let's go change clothes on the Nautilus."

  Three-quarters of an hour later, we had completed our circular strolland were back on board. Just then the crewmen finished loadingthe sodium supplies, and the Nautilus could have departed immediately.

  But Captain Nemo gave no orders. Would he wait for nightfalland exit through his underwater passageway in secrecy? Perhaps.

  Be that as it may, by the next day the Nautilus had left its homeport and was navigating well out from any shore, a few metersbeneath the waves of the Atlantic.

  CHAPTER 11

  The Sargasso Sea

  THE NAUTILUS didn't change direction. For the time being, then,we had to set aside any hope of returning to European seas.Captain Nemo kept his prow pointing south. Where was he taking us?I was afraid to guess.

  That day the Nautilus crossed an odd part of the Atlantic Ocean. No oneis unaware of the existence of that great warm-water current knownby name as the Gulf Stream. After emerging from channels off Florida,it heads toward Spitzbergen. But before entering the Gulf of Mexiconear latitude 44 degrees north, this current divides into two arms;its chief arm makes for the shores of Ireland and Norwaywhile the second flexes southward at the level of the Azores;then it hits the coast of Africa, sweeps in a long oval, and returnsto the Caribbean Sea.

  Now then, this second arm--more accurately, a collar--forms a ringof warm water around a section of cool, tranquil, motionless oceancalled the Sargasso Sea. This is an actual lake in the open Atlantic,and the great current's waters take at least three years to circle it.

  Properly speaking, the Sargasso Sea covers every submerged partof Atlantis. Certain authors have even held that the many weedsstrewn over this sea were torn loose from the prairies of thatancient continent. But it's more likely that these grasses, algae,and fucus plants were carried off from the beaches of Europe and America,then taken as far as this zone by the Gulf Stream. This is oneof the reasons why Christopher Columbus assumed the existenceof a New World. When the ships of that bold investigator arrivedin the Sargasso Sea, they had g
reat difficulty navigating in the midstof these weeds, which, much to their crews' dismay, slowed them downto a halt; and they wasted three long weeks crossing this sector.

  Such was the region our Nautilus was visiting just then:a genuine prairie, a tightly woven carpet of algae, gulfweed,and bladder wrack so dense and compact a craft's stempost couldn'ttear through it without difficulty. Accordingly, not wantingto entangle his propeller in this weed-choked mass, Captain Nemostayed at a depth some meters below the surface of the waves.

  The name Sargasso comes from the Spanish word "sargazo,"meaning gulfweed. This gulfweed, the swimming gulfweed orberry carrier, is the chief substance making up this immense shoal.And here's why these water plants collect in this placid Atlantic basin,according to the expert on the subject, Commander Maury, author ofThe Physical Geography of the Sea.

  The explanation he gives seems to entail a set of conditions thateverybody knows: "Now," Maury says, "if bits of cork or chaff,or any floating substance, be put into a basin, and a circular motionbe given to the water, all the light substances will be found crowdingtogether near the center of the pool, where there is the least motion.Just such a basin is the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf Stream,and the Sargasso Sea is the center of the whirl."

  I share Maury's view, and I was able to study the phenomenon in thisexclusive setting where ships rarely go. Above us, huddled amongthe brown weeds, there floated objects originating from all over:tree trunks ripped from the Rocky Mountains or the Andes and sentfloating down the Amazon or the Mississippi, numerous piecesof wreckage, remnants of keels or undersides, bulwarks stavedin and so weighed down with seashells and barnacles, they couldn'trise to the surface of the ocean. And the passing years will somedaybear out Maury's other view that by collecting in this way overthe centuries, these substances will be turned to stone by the actionof the waters and will then form inexhaustible coalfields.Valuable reserves prepared by farseeing nature for that time when manwill have exhausted his mines on the continents.

  In the midst of this hopelessly tangled fabric of weeds and fucus plants,I noted some delightful pink-colored, star-shaped alcyon coral,sea anemone trailing the long tresses of their tentacles,some green, red, and blue jellyfish, and especially those bigrhizostome jellyfish that Cuvier described, whose bluish parasolsare trimmed with violet festoons.

  We spent the whole day of February 22 in the Sargasso Sea, where fishthat dote on marine plants and crustaceans find plenty to eat.The next day the ocean resumed its usual appearance.

  From this moment on, for nineteen days from February 23 to March 12,the Nautilus stayed in the middle of the Atlantic, hustling usalong at a constant speed of 100 leagues every twenty-four hours.It was obvious that Captain Nemo wanted to carry out his underwaterprogram, and I had no doubt that he intended, after doubling Cape Horn,to return to the Pacific South Seas.

  So Ned Land had good reason to worry. In these wide seas emptyof islands, it was no longer feasible to jump ship. Nor did wehave any way to counter Captain Nemo's whims. We had no choicebut to acquiesce; but if we couldn't attain our end through forceor cunning, I liked to think we might achieve it through persuasion.Once this voyage was over, might not Captain Nemo consent to setus free in return for our promise never to reveal his existence?Our word of honor, which we sincerely would have kept.However, this delicate question would have to be negotiated withthe captain. But how would he receive our demands for freedom?At the very outset and in no uncertain terms, hadn't he declaredthat the secret of his life required that we be permanently imprisonedon board the Nautilus? Wouldn't he see my four-month silenceas a tacit acceptance of this situation? Would my returning to thissubject arouse suspicions that could jeopardize our escape plans,if we had promising circumstances for trying again later on?I weighed all these considerations, turned them over in my mind,submitted them to Conseil, but he was as baffled as I was.In short, although I'm not easily discouraged, I realized that mychances of ever seeing my fellow men again were shrinking by the day,especially at a time when Captain Nemo was recklessly racing towardthe south Atlantic!

  During those nineteen days just mentioned, no unique incidentsdistinguished our voyage. I saw little of the captain.He was at work. In the library I often found books he had left open,especially books on natural history. He had thumbed through my workon the great ocean depths, and the margins were covered with his notes,which sometimes contradicted my theories and formulations.But the captain remained content with this method of refining my work,and he rarely discussed it with me. Sometimes I heard melancholysounds reverberating from the organ, which he played very expressively,but only at night in the midst of the most secretive darkness,while the Nautilus slumbered in the wilderness of the ocean.

  During this part of our voyage, we navigated on the surface of the wavesfor entire days. The sea was nearly deserted. A few sailing ships,laden for the East Indies, were heading toward the Cape ofGood Hope. One day we were chased by the longboats of a whaling vessel,which undoubtedly viewed us as some enormous baleen whale of great value.But Captain Nemo didn't want these gallant gentlemen wasting theirtime and energy, so he ended the hunt by diving beneath the waters.This incident seemed to fascinate Ned Land intensely.I'm sure the Canadian was sorry that these fishermen couldn'tharpoon our sheet-iron cetacean and mortally wound it.

  During this period the fish Conseil and I observed differed littlefrom those we had already studied in other latitudes. Chief amongthem were specimens of that dreadful cartilaginous genus that'sdivided into three subgenera numbering at least thirty-two species:striped sharks five meters long, the head squat and wider thanthe body, the caudal fin curved, the back with seven big, black,parallel lines running lengthwise; then perlon sharks, ash gray,pierced with seven gill openings, furnished with a single dorsalfin placed almost exactly in the middle of the body.

  Some big dogfish also passed by, a voracious species of shark if thereever was one. With some justice, fishermen's yarns aren't to be trusted,but here's what a few of them relate. Inside the corpse of oneof these animals there were found a buffalo head and a whole calf;in another, two tuna and a sailor in uniform; in yet another,a soldier with his saber; in another, finally, a horse with its rider.In candor, none of these sounds like divinely inspired truth.But the fact remains that not a single dogfish let itself get caughtin the Nautilus's nets, so I can't vouch for their voracity.

  Schools of elegant, playful dolphin swam alongside for entire days.They went in groups of five or six, hunting in packs like wolvesover the countryside; moreover, they're just as voracious as dogfish,if I can believe a certain Copenhagen professor who says that from onedolphin's stomach, he removed thirteen porpoises and fifteen seals.True, it was a killer whale, belonging to the biggest known species,whose length sometimes exceeds twenty-four feet. The familyDelphinia numbers ten genera, and the dolphins I saw were akinto the genus Delphinorhynchus, remarkable for an extremely narrowmuzzle four times as long as the cranium. Measuring three meters,their bodies were black on top, underneath a pinkish white strewnwith small, very scattered spots.

  From these seas I'll also mention some unusual specimens of croakers,fish from the order Acanthopterygia, family Scienidea. Some authors--more artistic than scientific--claim that these fish aremelodious singers, that their voices in unison put on concertsunmatched by human choristers. I don't say nay, but to my regretthese croakers didn't serenade us as we passed.

  Finally, to conclude, Conseil classified a large numberof flying fish. Nothing could have made a more unusual sightthan the marvelous timing with which dolphins hunt these fish.Whatever the range of its flight, however evasive its trajectory(even up and over the Nautilus), the hapless flying fish always founda dolphin to welcome it with open mouth. These were either flyinggurnards or kitelike sea robins, whose lips glowed in the dark,at night scrawling fiery streaks in the air before plunging intothe murky waters like so many shooting stars.

  Our navigating continued under these conditions until March 1
3.That day the Nautilus was put to work in some depth-soundingexperiments that fascinated me deeply.

  By then we had fared nearly 13,000 leagues from our starting pointin the Pacific high seas. Our position fix placed us in latitude45 degrees 37' south and longitude 37 degrees 53' west. These werethe same waterways where Captain Denham, aboard the Herald,payed out 14,000 meters of sounding line without finding bottom.It was here too that Lieutenant Parker, aboard the Americanfrigate Congress, was unable to reach the underwater soilat 15,149 meters.

  Captain Nemo decided to take his Nautilus down to the lowestdepths in order to double-check these different soundings.I got ready to record the results of this experiment.The panels in the lounge opened, and maneuvers began for reachingthose strata so prodigiously far removed.

  It was apparently considered out of the question to dive by fillingthe ballast tanks. Perhaps they wouldn't sufficiently increasethe Nautilus's specific gravity. Moreover, in order to come back up,it would be necessary to expel the excess water, and our pumpsmight not have been strong enough to overcome the outside pressure.

  Captain Nemo decided to make for the ocean floor by submerging onan appropriately gradual diagonal with the help of his side fins,which were set at a 45 degrees angle to the Nautilus's waterline.Then the propeller was brought to its maximum speed, and its fourblades churned the waves with indescribable violence.

  Under this powerful thrust the Nautilus's hull quivered like aresonating chord, and the ship sank steadily under the waters.Stationed in the lounge, the captain and I watched the needleswerving swiftly over the pressure gauge. Soon we had gone belowthe livable zone where most fish reside. Some of these animalscan thrive only at the surface of seas or rivers, but a minoritycan dwell at fairly great depths. Among the latter I observeda species of dogfish called the cow shark that's equipped with sixrespiratory slits, the telescope fish with its enormous eyes,the armored gurnard with gray thoracic fins plus black pectoralfins and a breastplate protected by pale red slabs of bone,then finally the grenadier, living at a depth of 1,200 meters,by that point tolerating a pressure of 120 atmospheres.

 
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