Vingt mille lieues sous.., p.38

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English, page 38


Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English

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  "Whenever you're ready, sir," he called to me.

  I got out, Conseil at my heels, leaving the two men in the skiff.

  Over an extensive area, the soil consisted of that igneous gravelcalled "tuff," reddish in color as if made from crushed bricks.The ground was covered with slag, lava flows, and pumice stones.Its volcanic origin was unmistakable. In certain localities thin smokeholes gave off a sulfurous odor, showing that the inner fires still kepttheir wide-ranging power. Nevertheless, when I scaled a high escarpment,I could see no volcanoes within a radius of several miles.In these Antarctic districts, as is well known, Sir James Clark Rosshad found the craters of Mt. Erebus and Mt. Terror in fully activecondition on the 167th meridian at latitude 77 degrees 32'.

  The vegetation on this desolate continent struck me as quite limited.A few lichens of the species Usnea melanoxanthra sprawled overthe black rocks. The whole meager flora of this region consistedof certain microscopic buds, rudimentary diatoms made up of a typeof cell positioned between two quartz-rich shells, plus long purpleand crimson fucus plants, buoyed by small air bladders and washedup on the coast by the surf.

  The beach was strewn with mollusks: small mussels, limpets, smoothheart-shaped cockles, and especially some sea butterflies with oblong,membrane-filled bodies whose heads are formed from two rounded lobes.I also saw myriads of those northernmost sea butterflies threecentimeters long, which a baleen whale can swallow by the thousandsin one gulp. The open waters at the shoreline were alive withthese delightful pteropods, true butterflies of the sea.

  Among other zoophytes present in these shallows, there werea few coral tree forms that, according to Sir James Clark Ross,live in these Antarctic seas at depths as great as 1,000 meters;then small alcyon coral belonging to the species Procellaria pelagica,also a large number of starfish unique to these climes, plus somefeather stars spangling the sand.

  But it was in the air that life was superabundant.There various species of birds flew and fluttered by the thousands,deafening us with their calls. Crowding the rocks, other fowl watchedwithout fear as we passed and pressed familiarly against our feet.These were auks, as agile and supple in water, where they are sometimesmistaken for fast bonito, as they are clumsy and heavy on land.They uttered outlandish calls and participated in numerous publicassemblies that featured much noise but little action.

  Among other fowl I noted some sheathbills from the wading-bird family,the size of pigeons, white in color, the beak short and conical, the eyesframed by red circles. Conseil laid in a supply of them, because whenthey're properly cooked, these winged creatures make a pleasant dish.In the air there passed sooty albatross with four-meter wingspans,birds aptly dubbed "vultures of the ocean," also gigantic petrelsincluding several with arching wings, enthusiastic eaters of sealthat are known as quebrantahuesos,* and cape pigeons, a sortof small duck, the tops of their bodies black and white--in short,a whole series of petrels, some whitish with wings trimmed in brown,others blue and exclusive to these Antarctic seas, the former "so oily,"I told Conseil, "that inhabitants of the Faroe Islands simply fitthe bird with a wick, then light it up."

  *Spanish: "ospreys." Ed.

  "With that minor addition," Conseil replied, "these fowl would makeperfect lamps! After this, we should insist that nature equip themwith wicks in advance!"

  Half a mile farther on, the ground was completely riddled withpenguin nests, egg-laying burrows from which numerous birds emerged.Later Captain Nemo had hundreds of them hunted because theirblack flesh is highly edible. They brayed like donkeys.The size of a goose with slate-colored bodies, white undersides,and lemon-colored neck bands, these animals let themselves be stonedto death without making any effort to get away.

  Meanwhile the mists didn't clear, and by eleven o'clock the sunstill hadn't made an appearance. Its absence disturbed me.Without it, no sights were possible. Then how could we tell whetherwe had reached the pole?

  When I rejoined Captain Nemo, I found him leaning silently againsta piece of rock and staring at the sky. He seemed impatient, baffled.But what could we do? This daring and powerful man couldn't controlthe sun as he did the sea.

  Noon arrived without the orb of day appearing for a single instant.You couldn't even find its hiding place behind the curtain of mist.And soon this mist began to condense into snow.

  "Until tomorrow," the captain said simply; and we went backto the Nautilus, amid flurries in the air.

  During our absence the nets had been spread, and I observed withfascination the fish just hauled on board. The Antarctic seasserve as a refuge for an extremely large number of migratory fishthat flee from storms in the subpolar zones, in truth only to slidedown the gullets of porpoises and seals. I noted some one-decimetersouthern bullhead, a species of whitish cartilaginous fish overrunwith bluish gray stripes and armed with stings, then some Antarcticrabbitfish three feet long, the body very slender, the skin a smoothsilver white, the head rounded, the topside furnished with three fins,the snout ending in a trunk that curved back toward the mouth.I sampled its flesh but found it tasteless, despite Conseil's views,which were largely approving.

  The blizzard lasted until the next day. It was impossible to stayon the platform. From the lounge, where I was writing up the incidentsof this excursion to the polar continent, I could hear the callsof petrel and albatross cavorting in the midst of the turmoil.The Nautilus didn't stay idle, and cruising along the coast,it advanced some ten miles farther south amid the half light leftby the sun as it skimmed the edge of the horizon.

  The next day, March 20, it stopped snowing. The cold was a littlemore brisk. The thermometer marked -2 degrees centigrade.The mist had cleared, and on that day I hoped our noon sightscould be accomplished.

  Since Captain Nemo hadn't yet appeared, only Conseil and Iwere taken ashore by the skiff. The soil's nature was stillthe same: volcanic. Traces of lava, slag, and basaltic rockwere everywhere, but I couldn't find the crater that had vomitedthem up. There as yonder, myriads of birds enlivened this partof the polar continent. But they had to share their dominion withhuge herds of marine mammals that looked at us with gentle eyes.These were seals of various species, some stretched out on the ground,others lying on drifting ice floes, several leaving or reenteringthe sea. Having never dealt with man, they didn't run off atour approach, and I counted enough of them thereabouts to provisiona couple hundred ships.

  "Ye gods," Conseil said, "it's fortunate that Ned Land didn'tcome with us!"

  "Why so, Conseil?"

  "Because that madcap hunter would kill every animal here."

  "Every animal may be overstating it, but in truth I doubt we could keepour Canadian friend from harpooning some of these magnificent cetaceans.Which would be an affront to Captain Nemo, since he hates to slayharmless beasts needlessly."

  "He's right."

  "Certainly, Conseil. But tell me, haven't you finished classifyingthese superb specimens of marine fauna?"

  "Master is well aware," Conseil replied, "that I'm not seasoned inpractical application. When master has told me these animals' names . . ."

  "They're seals and walruses."

  "Two genera," our scholarly Conseil hastened to say, "that belongto the family Pinnipedia, order Carnivora, group Unguiculata,subclass Monodelphia, class Mammalia, branch Vertebrata."

  "Very nice, Conseil," I replied, "but these two genera of sealsand walruses are each divided into species, and if I'm not mistaken,we now have a chance to actually look at them. Let's."

  It was eight o'clock in the morning. We had four hoursto ourselves before the sun could be productively observed.I guided our steps toward a huge bay that made a crescent-shapedincision in the granite cliffs along the beach.

  There, all about us, I swear that the shores and ice floeswere crowded with marine mammals as far as the eye could see,and I involuntarily looked around for old Proteus, that mythologicalshepherd who guarded King Neptune's immense flocks. To be specific,these were seals. They formed distinct mal
e-and-female groups,the father watching over his family, the mother suckling herlittle ones, the stronger youngsters emancipated a few paces away.When these mammals wanted to relocate, they moved in little jumps madeby contracting their bodies, clumsily helped by their imperfectlydeveloped flippers, which, as with their manatee relatives,form actual forearms. In the water, their ideal element, I must saythese animals swim wonderfully thanks to their flexible backbones,narrow pelvises, close-cropped hair, and webbed feet.Resting on shore, they assumed extremely graceful positions.Consequently, their gentle features, their sensitive expressionsequal to those of the loveliest women, their soft, limpid eyes,their charming poses, led the ancients to glorify them by metamorphosingthe males into sea gods and the females into mermaids.

  I drew Conseil's attention to the considerable growthof the cerebral lobes found in these intelligent cetaceans.No mammal except man has more abundant cerebral matter.Accordingly, seals are quite capable of being educated;they make good pets, and together with certain other naturalists,I think these animals can be properly trained to perform yeomanservice as hunting dogs for fishermen.

  Most of these seals were sleeping on the rocks or the sand.Among those properly termed seals--which have no external ears,unlike sea lions whose ears protrude--I observed several varietiesof the species stenorhynchus, three meters long, with white hair,bulldog heads, and armed with ten teeth in each jaw: four incisorsin both the upper and lower, plus two big canines shaped like thefleur-de-lis. Among them slithered some sea elephants, a type of sealwith a short, flexible trunk; these are the giants of the species,with a circumference of twenty feet and a length of ten meters.They didn't move as we approached.

  "Are these animals dangerous?" Conseil asked me.

  "Only if they're attacked," I replied. "But when these giant sealsdefend their little ones, their fury is dreadful, and it isn't rarefor them to smash a fisherman's longboat to bits."

  "They're within their rights," Conseil answered.

  "I don't say nay."

  Two miles farther on, we were stopped by a promontory that screenedthe bay from southerly winds. It dropped straight down to the sea,and surf foamed against it. From beyond this ridge there camefearsome bellows, such as a herd of cattle might produce.

  "Gracious," Conseil put in, "a choir of bulls?"

  "No," I said, "a choir of walruses."

  "Are they fighting with each other?"

  "Either fighting or playing."

  "With all due respect to master, this we must see."

  "Then see it we must, Conseil."

  And there we were, climbing these blackish rocks amid sudden landslidesand over stones slippery with ice. More than once I took a tumbleat the expense of my backside. Conseil, more cautious or more stable,barely faltered and would help me up, saying:

  "If master's legs would kindly adopt a wider stance, master willkeep his balance."

  Arriving at the topmost ridge of this promontory, I could see vastwhite plains covered with walruses. These animals were playingamong themselves. They were howling not in anger but in glee.

  Walruses resemble seals in the shape of their bodies and the arrangementof their limbs. But their lower jaws lack canines and incisors, and asfor their upper canines, they consist of two tusks eighty centimeterslong with a circumference of thirty-three centimeters at the socket.Made of solid ivory, without striations, harder than elephant tusks,and less prone to yellowing, these teeth are in great demand.Accordingly, walruses are the victims of a mindless hunting thatsoon will destroy them all, since their hunters indiscriminatelyslaughter pregnant females and youngsters, and over 4,000 individualsare destroyed annually.

  Passing near these unusual animals, I could examine them at myleisure since they didn't stir. Their hides were rough and heavy,a tan color leaning toward a reddish brown; their coats wereshort and less than abundant. Some were four meters long.More tranquil and less fearful than their northern relatives,they posted no sentinels on guard duty at the approachesto their campsite.

  After examining this community of walruses, I decided to return inmy tracks. It was eleven o'clock, and if Captain Nemo found conditionsfavorable for taking his sights, I wanted to be present at the operation.But I held no hopes that the sun would make an appearance that day.It was hidden from our eyes by clouds squeezed together on the horizon.Apparently the jealous orb didn't want to reveal this inaccessiblespot on the globe to any human being.

  Yet I decided to return to the Nautilus. We went along a steep,narrow path that ran over the cliff's summit. By 11:30 we had arrivedat our landing place. The beached skiff had brought the captain ashore.I spotted him standing on a chunk of basalt. His instrumentswere beside him. His eyes were focused on the northern horizon,along which the sun was sweeping in its extended arc.

  I found a place near him and waited without speaking. Noon arrived,and just as on the day before, the sun didn't put in an appearance.

  It was sheer bad luck. Our noon sights were still lacking.If we couldn't obtain them tomorrow, we would finally have to giveup any hope of fixing our position.

  In essence, it was precisely March 20. Tomorrow, the 21st,was the day of the equinox; the sun would disappear below the horizonfor six months not counting refraction, and after its disappearancethe long polar night would begin. Following the September equinox,the sun had emerged above the northerly horizon, rising in longspirals until December 21. At that time, the summer solsticeof these southernmost districts, the sun had started back down,and tomorrow it would cast its last rays.

  I shared my thoughts and fears with Captain Nemo.

  "You're right, Professor Aronnax," he told me. "If I can't take the sun'saltitude tomorrow, I won't be able to try again for another six months.But precisely because sailors' luck has led me into these season March 21, it will be easy to get our bearings if the noondaysun does appear before our eyes."

  "Why easy, captain?"

  "Because when the orb of day sweeps in such long spirals,it's difficult to measure its exact altitude above the horizon,and our instruments are open to committing serious errors."

  "Then what can you do?"

  "I use only my chronometer," Captain Nemo answered me."At noon tomorrow, March 21, if, after accounting for refraction,the sun's disk is cut exactly in half by the northern horizon,that will mean I'm at the South Pole."

  "Right," I said. "Nevertheless, it isn't mathematically exact proof,because the equinox needn't fall precisely at noon."

  "No doubt, sir, but the error will be under 100 meters, and that'sclose enough for us. Until tomorrow then."

  Captain Nemo went back on board. Conseil and I stayed behinduntil five o'clock, surveying the beach, observing and studying.The only unusual object I picked up was an auk's egg of remarkable size,for which a collector would have paid more than 1,000 francs.Its cream-colored tint, plus the streaks and markings thatdecorated it like so many hieroglyphics, made it a rare trinket.I placed it in Conseil's hands, and holding it like preciousporcelain from China, that cautious, sure-footed lad got it backto the Nautilus in one piece.

  There I put this rare egg inside one of the glass cases in the museum.I ate supper, feasting with appetite on an excellent piece of sealliver whose flavor reminded me of pork. Then I went to bed;but not without praying, like a good Hindu, for the favors ofthe radiant orb.

  The next day, March 21, bright and early at five o'clock in the morning,I climbed onto the platform. I found Captain Nemo there.

  "The weather is clearing a bit," he told me. "I have high hopes.After breakfast we'll make our way ashore and choose an observation post."

  This issue settled, I went to find Ned Land. I wanted to take himwith me. The obstinate Canadian refused, and I could clearly seethat his tight-lipped mood and his bad temper were growing by the day.Under the circumstances I ultimately wasn't sorry that he refused.In truth, there were too many seals ashore, and it would never doto expose this impulsive fisherman to such temptations.

nbsp; Breakfast over, I made my way ashore. The Nautilus had gone a fewmore miles during the night. It lay well out, a good league fromthe coast, which was crowned by a sharp peak 400 to 500 meters high.In addition to me, the skiff carried Captain Nemo, two crewmen,and the instruments--in other words, a chronometer, a spyglass,and a barometer.

  During our crossing I saw numerous baleen whales belonging to thethree species unique to these southernmost seas: the bowhead whale(or "right whale," according to the English), which has no dorsal fin;the humpback whale from the genus Balaenoptera (in other words,"winged whales"), beasts with wrinkled bellies and huge whitishfins that, genus name regardless, do not yet form wings;and the finback whale, yellowish brown, the swiftest of all cetaceans.This powerful animal is audible from far away when it sends uptowering spouts of air and steam that resemble swirls of smoke.Herds of these different mammals were playing about in thetranquil waters, and I could easily see that this Antarctic polarbasin now served as a refuge for those cetaceans too relentlesslypursued by hunters.

  I also noted long, whitish strings of salps, a type of molluskfound in clusters, and some jellyfish of large size that swayedin the eddies of the billows.

  By nine o'clock we had pulled up to shore. The sky was growing brighter.Clouds were fleeing to the south. Mists were rising fromthe cold surface of the water. Captain Nemo headed towardthe peak, which he no doubt planned to make his observatory.It was an arduous climb over sharp lava and pumice stones in the midstof air often reeking with sulfurous fumes from the smoke holes.For a man out of practice at treading land, the captain scaledthe steepest slopes with a supple agility I couldn't equal,and which would have been envied by hunters of Pyrenees mountain goats.

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