Vingt mille lieues sous.., p.4

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English, page 4

 

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English
 



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  "Even so, Ned, people mention vessels that narwhale tusks haverun clean through."

  "Wooden ships maybe," the Canadian replied. "But I've never seenthe like. So till I have proof to the contrary, I'll deny thatbaleen whales, sperm whales, or unicorns can do any such thing."

  "Listen to me, Ned--"

  "No, no, professor. I'll go along with anything you want except that.Some gigantic devilfish maybe . . . ?"

  "Even less likely, Ned. The devilfish is merely a mollusk, and even thisname hints at its semiliquid flesh, because it's Latin meaning soft one.The devilfish doesn't belong to the vertebrate branch, and even if itwere 500 feet long, it would still be utterly harmless to shipslike the Scotia or the Abraham Lincoln. Consequently, the featsof krakens or other monsters of that ilk must be relegated tothe realm of fiction."

  "So, Mr. Naturalist," Ned Land continued in a bantering tone,"you'll just keep on believing in the existence of someenormous cetacean . . . ?"

  "Yes, Ned, I repeat it with a conviction backed by factual logic.I believe in the existence of a mammal with a powerful constitution,belonging to the vertebrate branch like baleen whales, sperm whales,or dolphins, and armed with a tusk made of horn that hastremendous penetrating power."

  "Humph!" the harpooner put in, shaking his head with the attitudeof a man who doesn't want to be convinced.

  "Note well, my fine Canadian," I went on, "if such an animal exists,if it lives deep in the ocean, if it frequents the liquid stratalocated miles beneath the surface of the water, it needs to havea constitution so solid, it defies all comparison."

  "And why this powerful constitution?" Ned asked.

  "Because it takes incalculable strength just to live in those deepstrata and withstand their pressure."

  "Oh really?" Ned said, tipping me a wink.

  "Oh really, and I can prove it to you with a few simple figures."

  "Bosh!" Ned replied. "You can make figures do anything you want!"

  "In business, Ned, but not in mathematics. Listen to me.Let's accept that the pressure of one atmosphere is representedby the pressure of a column of water thirty-two feet high.In reality, such a column of water wouldn't be quite so high becausehere we're dealing with salt water, which is denser than fresh water.Well then, when you dive under the waves, Ned, for every thirty-twofeet of water above you, your body is tolerating the pressureof one more atmosphere, in other words, one more kilogram pereach square centimeter on your body's surface. So it followsthat at 320 feet down, this pressure is equal to ten atmospheres,to 100 atmospheres at 3,200 feet, and to 1,000 atmospheres at32,000 feet, that is, at about two and a half vertical leagues down.Which is tantamount to saying that if you could reach such a depthin the ocean, each square centimeter on your body's surface wouldbe experiencing 1,000 kilograms of pressure. Now, my gallant Ned,do you know how many square centimeters you have on your bodily surface?"

  "I haven't the foggiest notion, Professor Aronnax."

  "About 17,000."

  "As many as that?"

  "Yes, and since the atmosphere's pressure actually weighs slightlymore than one kilogram per square centimeter, your 17,000 squarecentimeters are tolerating 17,568 kilograms at this very moment."

  "Without my noticing it?"

  "Without your noticing it. And if you aren't crushed by so much pressure,it's because the air penetrates the interior of your body withequal pressure. When the inside and outside pressures are inperfect balance, they neutralize each other and allow you to toleratethem without discomfort. But in the water it's another story."

  "Yes, I see," Ned replied, growing more interested."Because the water surrounds me but doesn't penetrate me."

  "Precisely, Ned. So at thirty-two feet beneath the surface of the sea,you'll undergo a pressure of 17,568 kilograms; at 320 feet, or ten timesgreater pressure, it's 175,680 kilograms; at 3,200 feet, or 100 timesgreater pressure, it's 1,756,800 kilograms; finally, at 32,000 feet,or 1,000 times greater pressure, it's 17,568,000 kilograms;in other words, you'd be squashed as flat as if you'd just beenyanked from between the plates of a hydraulic press!"

  "Fire and brimstone!" Ned put in.

  "All right then, my fine harpooner, if vertebrates several hundredmeters long and proportionate in bulk live at such depths,their surface areas make up millions of square centimeters,and the pressure they undergo must be assessed in billions of kilograms.Calculate, then, how much resistance of bone structure and strengthof constitution they'd need in order to withstand such pressures!"

  "They'd need to be manufactured," Ned Land replied, "from sheet-ironplates eight inches thick, like ironclad frigates."

  "Right, Ned, and then picture the damage such a mass could inflictif it were launched with the speed of an express train againsta ship's hull."

  "Yes . . . indeed . . . maybe," the Canadian replied, staggered bythese figures but still not willing to give in.

  "Well, have I convinced you?"

  "You've convinced me of one thing, Mr. Naturalist. That deepin the sea, such animals would need to be just as strong as you say--if they exist."

  "But if they don't exist, my stubborn harpooner, how do you explainthe accident that happened to the Scotia?"

  "It's maybe . . . ," Ned said, hesitating.

  "Go on!"

  "Because . . . it just couldn't be true!" the Canadian replied,unconsciously echoing a famous catchphrase of the scientist Arago.

  But this reply proved nothing, other than how bullheaded the harpoonercould be. That day I pressed him no further. The Scotia's accidentwas undeniable. Its hole was real enough that it had to be plugged up,and I don't think a hole's existence can be more emphatically proven.Now then, this hole didn't make itself, and since it hadn't resultedfrom underwater rocks or underwater machines, it must have beencaused by the perforating tool of some animal.

  Now, for all the reasons put forward to this point, I believed thatthis animal was a member of the branch Vertebrata, class Mammalia,group Pisciforma, and finally, order Cetacea. As for the familyin which it would be placed (baleen whale, sperm whale, or dolphin),the genus to which it belonged, and the species in which it wouldfind its proper home, these questions had to be left for later.To answer them called for dissecting this unknown monster; to dissectit called for catching it; to catch it called for harpooning it--which was Ned Land's business; to harpoon it called for sighting it--which was the crew's business; and to sight it called for encountering it--which was a chancy business.

  CHAPTER 5

  At Random!

  FOR SOME WHILE the voyage of the Abraham Lincoln was marked byno incident. But one circumstance arose that displayed Ned Land'smarvelous skills and showed just how much confidence we couldplace in him.

  Off the Falkland Islands on June 30, the frigate came in contactwith a fleet of American whalers, and we learned that they hadn'tseen the narwhale. But one of them, the captain of the Monroe,knew that Ned Land had shipped aboard the Abraham Lincolnand asked his help in hunting a baleen whale that was in sight.Anxious to see Ned Land at work, Commander Farragut authorized himto make his way aboard the Monroe. And the Canadian had such good luckthat with a right-and-left shot, he harpooned not one whale but two,striking the first straight to the heart and catching the otherafter a few minutes' chase!

  Assuredly, if the monster ever had to deal with Ned Land's harpoon,I wouldn't bet on the monster.

  The frigate sailed along the east coast of South America withprodigious speed. By July 3 we were at the entrance to the Straitof Magellan, abreast of Cabo de las Virgenes. But Commander Farragutwas unwilling to attempt this tortuous passageway and maneuveredinstead to double Cape Horn.

  The crew sided with him unanimously. Indeed, were welikely to encounter the narwhale in such a cramped strait?Many of our sailors swore that the monster couldn't negotiate thispassageway simply because "he's too big for it!"

  Near three o'clock in the afternoon on July 6, fifteen miles southof shore, the Abraham Lincoln doubled that
solitary islet at the tipof the South American continent, that stray rock Dutch seamen hadnamed Cape Horn after their hometown of Hoorn. Our course was setfor the northwest, and the next day our frigate's propeller finallychurned the waters of the Pacific.

  "Open your eyes! Open your eyes!" repeated the sailors ofthe Abraham Lincoln.

  And they opened amazingly wide. Eyes and spyglasses (a bit dazzled,it is true, by the vista of $2,000.00) didn't remain at rest foran instant. Day and night we observed the surface of the ocean,and those with nyctalopic eyes, whose ability to see in the darkincreased their chances by fifty percent, had an excellent shotat winning the prize.

  As for me, I was hardly drawn by the lure of money and yet was far fromthe least attentive on board. Snatching only a few minutes for mealsand a few hours for sleep, come rain or come shine, I no longer leftthe ship's deck. Sometimes bending over the forecastle railings,sometimes leaning against the sternrail, I eagerly scoured thatcotton-colored wake that whitened the ocean as far as the eye could see!And how many times I shared the excitement of general staff and crewwhen some unpredictable whale lifted its blackish back above the waves.In an instant the frigate's deck would become densely populated.The cowls over the companionways would vomit a torrent of sailorsand officers. With panting chests and anxious eyes, we each wouldobserve the cetacean's movements. I stared; I stared until I nearlywent blind from a worn-out retina, while Conseil, as stoic as ever,kept repeating to me in a calm tone:

  "If master's eyes would kindly stop bulging, master will see farther!"

  But what a waste of energy! The Abraham Lincoln would changecourse and race after the animal sighted, only to find an ordinarybaleen whale or a common sperm whale that soon disappeared amida chorus of curses!

  However, the weather held good. Our voyage was proceeding underthe most favorable conditions. By then it was the bad seasonin these southernmost regions, because July in this zone correspondsto our January in Europe; but the sea remained smooth and easilyvisible over a vast perimeter.

  Ned Land still kept up the most tenacious skepticism; beyond hisspells on watch, he pretended that he never even looked atthe surface of the waves, at least while no whales were in sight.And yet the marvelous power of his vision could have performedyeoman service. But this stubborn Canadian spent eighthours out of every twelve reading or sleeping in his cabin.A hundred times I chided him for his unconcern.

  "Bah!" he replied. "Nothing's out there, Professor Aronnax,and if there is some animal, what chance would we have of spotting it?Can't you see we're just wandering around at random? People saythey've sighted this slippery beast again in the Pacific high seas--I'm truly willing to believe it, but two months have already goneby since then, and judging by your narwhale's personality, it hatesgrowing moldy from hanging out too long in the same waterways!It's blessed with a terrific gift for getting around.Now, professor, you know even better than I that nature doesn'tviolate good sense, and she wouldn't give some naturally slow animalthe ability to move swiftly if it hadn't a need to use that talent.So if the beast does exist, it's already long gone!"

  I had no reply to this. Obviously we were just groping blindly.But how else could we go about it? All the same, our chances wereautomatically pretty limited. Yet everyone still felt confidentof success, and not a sailor on board would have bet againstthe narwhale appearing, and soon.

  On July 20 we cut the Tropic of Capricorn at longitude 105degrees, and by the 27th of the same month, we had clearedthe equator on the 110th meridian. These bearings determined,the frigate took a more decisive westward heading and tackledthe seas of the central Pacific. Commander Farragut felt,and with good reason, that it was best to stay in deep waters andkeep his distance from continents or islands, whose neighborhoodsthe animal always seemed to avoid--"No doubt," our bosun said,"because there isn't enough water for him!" So the frigate keptwell out when passing the Tuamotu, Marquesas, and Hawaiian Islands,then cut the Tropic of Cancer at longitude 132 degrees and headedfor the seas of China.

  We were finally in the area of the monster's latest antics!And in all honesty, shipboard conditions became life-threatening.Hearts were pounding hideously, gearing up for futures fullof incurable aneurysms. The entire crew suffered from a nervousexcitement that it's beyond me to describe. Nobody ate, nobody slept.Twenty times a day some error in perception, or the opticalillusions of some sailor perched in the crosstrees, would causeintolerable anguish, and this emotion, repeated twenty times over,kept us in a state of irritability so intense that a reaction wasbound to follow.

  And this reaction wasn't long in coming. For three months,during which each day seemed like a century, the Abraham Lincoln plowedall the northerly seas of the Pacific, racing after whales sighted,abruptly veering off course, swerving sharply from one tack to another,stopping suddenly, putting on steam and reversing engines in quicksuccession, at the risk of stripping its gears, and it didn't leavea single point unexplored from the beaches of Japan to the coastsof America. And we found nothing! Nothing except an immensenessof deserted waves! Nothing remotely resembling a gigantic narwhale,or an underwater islet, or a derelict shipwreck, or a runaway reef,or anything the least bit unearthly!

  So the reaction set in. At first, discouragement took hold ofpeople's minds, opening the door to disbelief. A new feeling appearedon board, made up of three-tenths shame and seven-tenths fury.The crew called themselves "out-and-out fools" for beinghoodwinked by a fairy tale, then grew steadily more furious!The mountains of arguments amassed over a year collapsed all at once,and each man now wanted only to catch up on his eating and sleeping,to make up for the time he had so stupidly sacrificed.

  With typical human fickleness, they jumped from one extremeto the other. Inevitably, the most enthusiastic supportersof the undertaking became its most energetic opponents.This reaction mounted upward from the bowels of the ship, from thequarters of the bunker hands to the messroom of the general staff;and for certain, if it hadn't been for Commander Farragut'scharacteristic stubbornness, the frigate would ultimately have putback to that cape in the south.

  But this futile search couldn't drag on much longer.The Abraham Lincoln had done everything it could to succeed andhad no reason to blame itself. Never had the crew of an Americannaval craft shown more patience and zeal; they weren't responsiblefor this failure; there was nothing to do but go home.

  A request to this effect was presented to the commander.The commander stood his ground. His sailors couldn't hidetheir discontent, and their work suffered because of it.I'm unwilling to say that there was mutiny on board, but aftera reasonable period of intransigence, Commander Farragut,like Christopher Columbus before him, asked for a grace periodof just three days more. After this three-day delay, if the monsterhadn't appeared, our helmsman would give three turns of the wheel,and the Abraham Lincoln would chart a course toward European seas.

  This promise was given on November 2. It had the immediate effectof reviving the crew's failing spirits. The ocean was observedwith renewed care. Each man wanted one last look with which to sumup his experience. Spyglasses functioned with feverish energy.A supreme challenge had been issued to the giant narwhale, and the latterhad no acceptable excuse for ignoring this Summons to Appear!

  Two days passed. The Abraham Lincoln stayed at half steam.On the offchance that the animal might be found in these waterways,a thousand methods were used to spark its interest or rouse itfrom its apathy. Enormous sides of bacon were trailed in our wake,to the great satisfaction, I must say, of assorted sharks.While the Abraham Lincoln heaved to, its longboats radiatedin every direction around it and didn't leave a single pointof the sea unexplored. But the evening of November 4 arrivedwith this underwater mystery still unsolved.

  At noon the next day, November 5, the agreed-upon delay expired.After a position fix, true to his promise, Commander Farragut wouldhave to set his course for the southeast and leave the northerlyregions of the Pacific decisively behind.

  By then the
frigate lay in latitude 31 degrees 15' north and longitude136 degrees 42' east. The shores of Japan were less than 200 milesto our leeward. Night was coming on. Eight o'clock had just struck.Huge clouds covered the moon's disk, then in its first quarter.The sea undulated placidly beneath the frigate's stempost.

  Just then I was in the bow, leaning over the starboard rail.Conseil, stationed beside me, stared straight ahead.Roosting in the shrouds, the crew examined the horizon, which shrankand darkened little by little. Officers were probing the increasinggloom with their night glasses. Sometimes the murky ocean sparkledbeneath moonbeams that darted between the fringes of two clouds.Then all traces of light vanished into the darkness.

  Observing Conseil, I discovered that, just barely, the gallant ladhad fallen under the general influence. At least so I thought.Perhaps his nerves were twitching with curiosity for the firsttime in history.

  "Come on, Conseil!" I told him. "Here's your last chance topocket that $2,000.00!"

  "If master will permit my saying so," Conseil replied, "I neverexpected to win that prize, and the Union government could havepromised $100,000.00 and been none the poorer."

  "You're right, Conseil, it turned out to be a foolish businessafter all, and we jumped into it too hastily. What a waste of time,what a futile expense of emotion! Six months ago we could have beenback in France--"

  "In master's little apartment," Conseil answered. "In master's museum!And by now I would have classified master's fossils.And master's babirusa would be ensconced in its cage at the zooin the Botanical Gardens, and it would have attracted every curiosityseeker in town!"

 

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