Vingt mille lieues sous.., p.42

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English, page 42

 

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English
 



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  For once in his life, the poor lad didn't address me "inthe third person."

  The Canadian and I sat him up; we massaged his contracted arms,and when he regained his five senses, that eternal classifiermumbled in a broken voice:

  "Class of cartilaginous fish, order Chondropterygia with fixed gills,suborder Selacia, family Rajiiforma, genus electric ray."

  "Yes, my friend," I answered, "it was an electric ray that put youin this deplorable state."

  "Oh, master can trust me on this," Conseil shot back."I'll be revenged on that animal!"

  "How?"

  "I'll eat it."

  Which he did that same evening, but strictly as retaliation.Because, frankly, it tasted like leather.

  Poor Conseil had assaulted an electric ray of the most dangerous species,the cumana. Living in a conducting medium such as water, this bizarreanimal can electrocute other fish from several meters away,so great is the power of its electric organ, an organ whose two chiefsurfaces measure at least twenty-seven square feet.

  During the course of the next day, April 12, the Nautilus drew near thecoast of Dutch Guiana, by the mouth of the Maroni River. There severalgroups of sea cows were living in family units. These were manatees,which belong to the order Sirenia, like the dugong and Steller's sea cow.Harmless and unaggressive, these fine animals were six to sevenmeters long and must have weighed at least 4,000 kilograms each.I told Ned Land and Conseil that farseeing nature had given thesemammals a major role to play. In essence, manatees, like seals,are designed to graze the underwater prairies, destroying the clustersof weeds that obstruct the mouths of tropical rivers.

  "And do you know," I added, "what happened since man hasalmost completely wiped out these beneficial races?Rotting weeds have poisoned the air, and this poisoned air causesthe yellow fever that devastates these wonderful countries.This toxic vegetation has increased beneath the seas of the Torrid Zone,so the disease spreads unchecked from the mouth of the Rio de laPlata to Florida!"

  And if Professor Toussenel is correct, this plague is nothingcompared to the scourge that will strike our descendantsonce the seas are depopulated of whales and seals. By then,crowded with jellyfish, squid, and other devilfish, the oceanswill have become huge centers of infection, because their waveswill no longer possess "these huge stomachs that God has entrustedwith scouring the surface of the sea."

  Meanwhile, without scorning these theories, the Nautilus's crew capturedhalf a dozen manatees. In essence, it was an issue of stockingthe larder with excellent red meat, even better than beef or veal.Their hunting was not a fascinating sport. The manatees letthemselves be struck down without offering any resistance.Several thousand kilos of meat were hauled below, to be dried and stored.

  The same day an odd fishing practice further increasedthe Nautilus's stores, so full of game were these seas.Our trawl brought up in its meshes a number of fish whose heads weretopped by little oval slabs with fleshy edges. These were suckerfishfrom the third family of the subbrachian Malacopterygia. These flatdisks on their heads consist of crosswise plates of movable cartilage,between which the animals can create a vacuum, enabling them to stickto objects like suction cups.

  The remoras I had observed in the Mediterranean were related tothis species. But the creature at issue here was an Echeneis osteochara,unique to this sea. Right after catching them, our seamen droppedthem in buckets of water.

  Its fishing finished, the Nautilus drew nearer to the coast.In this locality a number of sea turtles were sleeping on the surfaceof the waves. It would have been difficult to capture thesevaluable reptiles, because they wake up at the slightest sound,and their solid carapaces are harpoon-proof. But our suckerfish wouldeffect their capture with extraordinary certainty and precision.In truth, this animal is a living fishhook, promising wealthand happiness to the greenest fisherman in the business.

  The Nautilus's men attached to each fish's tail a ring that was bigenough not to hamper its movements, and to this ring a long ropewhose other end was moored on board.

  Thrown into the sea, the suckerfish immediately began to play their roles,going and fastening themselves onto the breastplates of the turtles.Their tenacity was so great, they would rip apart rather than let go.They were hauled in, still sticking to the turtles that cameaboard with them.

  In this way we caught several loggerheads, reptiles a meterwide and weighing 200 kilos. They're extremely valuablebecause of their carapaces, which are covered with big slabsof horn, thin, brown, transparent, with white and yellow markings.Besides, they were excellent from an edible viewpoint, with anexquisite flavor comparable to the green turtle.

  This fishing ended our stay in the waterways of the Amazon,and that evening the Nautilus took to the high seas once more.

  CHAPTER 18

  The Devilfish

  FOR SOME DAYS the Nautilus kept veering away from the American coast.It obviously didn't want to frequent the waves of the Gulf of Mexicoor the Caribbean Sea. Yet there was no shortage of water underits keel, since the average depth of these seas is 1,800 meters;but these waterways, strewn with islands and plowed by steamers,probably didn't agree with Captain Nemo.

  On April 16 we raised Martinique and Guadalupe from a distance ofabout thirty miles. For one instant I could see their lofty peaks.

  The Canadian was quite disheartened, having counted on puttinghis plans into execution in the gulf, either by reaching shoreor by pulling alongside one of the many boats plying a coastal tradefrom one island to another. An escape attempt would have beenquite feasible, assuming Ned Land managed to seize the skiff withoutthe captain's knowledge. But in midocean it was unthinkable.

  The Canadian, Conseil, and I had a pretty long conversation onthis subject. For six months we had been prisoners aboard the Nautilus.We had fared 17,000 leagues, and as Ned Land put it, there was noend in sight. So he made me a proposition I hadn't anticipated.We were to ask Captain Nemo this question straight out:did the captain mean to keep us on board his vessel permanently?

  This measure was distasteful to me. To my mind it would lead nowhere.We could hope for nothing from the Nautilus's commanderbut could depend only on ourselves. Besides, for some timenow the man had been gloomier, more withdrawn, less sociable.He seemed to be avoiding me. I encountered him only at rare intervals.He used to take pleasure in explaining the underwater wonders to me;now he left me to my research and no longer entered the lounge.

  What changes had come over him? From what cause? I had no reasonto blame myself. Was our presence on board perhaps a burden to him?Even so, I cherished no hopes that the man would set us free.

  So I begged Ned to let me think about it before taking action. If thismeasure proved fruitless, it could arouse the captain's suspicions, makeour circumstances even more arduous, and jeopardize the Canadian's plans.I might add that I could hardly use our state of health as an argument.Except for that grueling ordeal under the Ice Bank at the South Pole,we had never felt better, neither Ned, Conseil, nor I. Thenutritious food, life-giving air, regular routine, and uniformtemperature kept illness at bay; and for a man who didn't miss hispast existence on land, for a Captain Nemo who was at home here,who went where he wished, who took paths mysterious to others if nothimself in attaining his ends, I could understand such a life.But we ourselves hadn't severed all ties with humanity. For my part,I didn't want my new and unusual research to be buried with my bones.I had now earned the right to pen the definitive book on the sea,and sooner or later I wanted that book to see the light of day.

  There once more, through the panels opening into these Caribbeanwaters ten meters below the surface of the waves, I foundso many fascinating exhibits to describe in my daily notes!Among other zoophytes there were Portuguese men-of-war known by the namePhysalia pelagica, like big, oblong bladders with a pearly sheen,spreading their membranes to the wind, letting their blue tentaclesdrift like silken threads; to the eye delightful jellyfish,to the touch actual nettles that ooze a corrosive liquid.Among the art
iculates there were annelid worms one and a halfmeters long, furnished with a pink proboscis, equipped with 1,700organs of locomotion, snaking through the waters, and as they went,throwing off every gleam in the solar spectrum. From the fishbranch there were manta rays, enormous cartilaginous fish tenfeet long and weighing 600 pounds, their pectoral fin triangular,their midback slightly arched, their eyes attached to the edgesof the face at the front of the head; they floated like wreckage froma ship, sometimes fastening onto our windows like opaque shutters.There were American triggerfish for which nature has ground only blackand white pigments, feather-shaped gobies that were long and plumpwith yellow fins and jutting jaws, sixteen-decimeter mackerelwith short, sharp teeth, covered with small scales, and relatedto the albacore species. Next came swarms of red mullet corsetedin gold stripes from head to tail, their shining fins all aquiver,genuine masterpieces of jewelry, formerly sacred to the goddess Diana,much in demand by rich Romans, and about which the old saying goes:"He who catches them doesn't eat them!" Finally, adorned withemerald ribbons and dressed in velvet and silk, golden angelfishpassed before our eyes like courtiers in the paintings of Veronese;spurred gilthead stole by with their swift thoracic fins; thread herringfifteen inches long were wrapped in their phosphorescent glimmers;gray mullet thrashed the sea with their big fleshy tails;red salmon seemed to mow the waves with their slicing pectorals;and silver moonfish, worthy of their name, rose on the horizonof the waters like the whitish reflections of many moons.

  How many other marvelous new specimens I still could have observed if,little by little, the Nautilus hadn't settled to the lower strata!Its slanting fins drew it to depths of 2,000 and 3,500 meters.There animal life was represented by nothing more than sea lilies,starfish, delightful crinoids with bell-shaped heads like littlechalices on straight stems, top-shell snails, blood-red tooth shells,and fissurella snails, a large species of coastal mollusk.

  By April 20 we had risen to an average level of 1,500 meters.The nearest land was the island group of the Bahamas, scatteredlike a batch of cobblestones over the surface of the water.There high underwater cliffs reared up, straight walls made of craggychunks arranged like big stone foundations, among which theregaped black caves so deep our electric rays couldn't light themto the far ends.

  These rocks were hung with huge weeds, immense sea tangle, gigantic fucus--a genuine trellis of water plants fit for a world of giants.

  In discussing these colossal plants, Conseil, Ned, and I were naturallyled into mentioning the sea's gigantic animals. The former wereobviously meant to feed the latter. However, through the windowsof our almost motionless Nautilus, I could see nothing among these longfilaments other than the chief articulates of the division Brachyura:long-legged spider crabs, violet crabs, and sponge crabs uniqueto the waters of the Caribbean.

  It was about eleven o'clock when Ned Land drew my attention to afearsome commotion out in this huge seaweed.

  "Well," I said, "these are real devilfish caverns, and I wouldn'tbe surprised to see some of those monsters hereabouts."

  "What!" Conseil put in. "Squid, ordinary squid fromthe class Cephalopoda?"

  "No," I said, "devilfish of large dimensions. But friend Landis no doubt mistaken, because I don't see a thing."

  "That's regrettable," Conseil answered. "I'd like to come faceto face with one of those devilfish I've heard so much about,which can drag ships down into the depths. Those beasts goby the name of krake--"

  "Fake is more like it," the Canadian replied sarcastically.

  "Krakens!" Conseil shot back, finishing his word without wincingat his companion's witticism.

  "Nobody will ever make me believe," Ned Land said, "thatsuch animals exist."

  "Why not?" Conseil replied. "We sincerely believedin master's narwhale."

  "We were wrong, Conseil."

  "No doubt, but there are others with no doubts who believeto this day!"

  "Probably, Conseil. But as for me, I'm bound and determined notto accept the existence of any such monster till I've dissected itwith my own two hands."

  "Yet," Conseil asked me, "doesn't master believe in gigantic devilfish?"

  "Yikes! Who in Hades ever believed in them?" the Canadian exclaimed.

  "Many people, Ned my friend," I said.

  "No fishermen. Scientists maybe!"

  "Pardon me, Ned. Fishermen and scientists!"

  "Why, I to whom you speak," Conseil said with the world'sstraightest face, "I recall perfectly seeing a large boat draggedunder the waves by the arms of a cephalopod."

  "You saw that?" the Canadian asked.

  "Yes, Ned."

  "With your own two eyes?"

  "With my own two eyes."

  "Where, may I ask?"

  "In Saint-Malo," Conseil returned unflappably.

  "In the harbor?" Ned Land said sarcastically.

  "No, in a church," Conseil replied.

  "In a church!" the Canadian exclaimed.

  "Yes, Ned my friend. It had a picture that portrayed thedevilfish in question."

  "Oh good!" Ned Land exclaimed with a burst of laughter."Mr. Conseil put one over on me!"

  "Actually he's right," I said. "I've heard about that picture.But the subject it portrays is taken from a legend, and you knowhow to rate legends in matters of natural history! Besides, when it'san issue of monsters, the human imagination always tends to run wild.People not only claimed these devilfish could drag ships under,but a certain Olaus Magnus tells of a cephalopod a mile long that lookedmore like an island than an animal. There's also the story of howthe Bishop of Trondheim set up an altar one day on an immense rock.After he finished saying mass, this rock started moving and wentback into the sea. The rock was a devilfish."

  "And that's everything we know?" the Canadian asked.

  "No," I replied, "another bishop, Pontoppidan of Bergen,also tells of a devilfish so large a whole cavalry regiment couldmaneuver on it."

  "They sure did go on, those oldtime bishops!" Ned Land said.

  "Finally, the naturalists of antiquity mention some monsterswith mouths as big as a gulf, which were too huge to get throughthe Strait of Gibraltar."

  "Good work, men!" the Canadian put in.

  "But in all these stories, is there any truth?" Conseil asked.

  "None at all, my friends, at least in those that go beyond the boundsof credibility and fly off into fable or legend. Yet for the imaginingsof these storytellers there had to be, if not a cause, at leastan excuse. It can't be denied that some species of squid and otherdevilfish are quite large, though still smaller than cetaceans.Aristotle put the dimensions of one squid at five cubits, or 3.1 meters.Our fishermen frequently see specimens over 1.8 meters long.The museums in Trieste and Montpellier have preserved some devilfishcarcasses measuring two meters. Besides, according to the calculationsof naturalists, one of these animals only six feet long wouldhave tentacles as long as twenty-seven. Which is enough to makea fearsome monster."

  "Does anybody fish for 'em nowadays?" the Canadian asked.

  "If they don't fish for them, sailors at least sight them.A friend of mine, Captain Paul Bos of Le Havre, has often swornto me that he encountered one of these monsters of colossal sizein the seas of the East Indies. But the most astonishing event,which proves that these gigantic animals undeniably exist,took place a few years ago in 1861."

  "What event was that?" Ned Land asked.

  "Just this. In 1861, to the northeast of Tenerife and fairlynear the latitude where we are right now, the crew of the gunboatAlecto spotted a monstrous squid swimming in their waters.Commander Bouguer approached the animal and attacked it with blowsfrom harpoons and blasts from rifles, but without much successbecause bullets and harpoons crossed its soft flesh as if itwere semiliquid jelly. After several fruitless attempts,the crew managed to slip a noose around the mollusk's body.This noose slid as far as the caudal fins and came to a halt.Then they tried to haul the monster on board, but its weightwas so considerable that when the
y tugged on the rope, the animalparted company with its tail; and deprived of this adornment,it disappeared beneath the waters."

  "Finally, an actual event," Ned Land said.

  "An indisputable event, my gallant Ned. Accordingly, people haveproposed naming this devilfish Bouguer's Squid."

  "And how long was it?" the Canadian asked.

  "Didn't it measure about six meters?" said Conseil, who was stationedat the window and examining anew the crevices in the cliff.

  "Precisely," I replied.

  "Wasn't its head," Conseil went on, "crowned by eight tentaclesthat quivered in the water like a nest of snakes?"

  "Precisely."

  "Weren't its eyes prominently placed and considerably enlarged?"

  "Yes, Conseil."

  "And wasn't its mouth a real parrot's beak but of fearsome size?"

  "Correct, Conseil."

  "Well, with all due respect to master," Conseil replied serenely,"if this isn't Bouguer's Squid, it's at least one of his close relatives!"

  I stared at Conseil. Ned Land rushed to the window.

  "What an awful animal!" he exclaimed.

  I stared in my turn and couldn't keep back a movement of revulsion.Before my eyes there quivered a horrible monster worthy of a placeamong the most farfetched teratological legends.

  It was a squid of colossal dimensions, fully eight meters long.It was traveling backward with tremendous speed in the same directionas the Nautilus. It gazed with enormous, staring eyes that were tintedsea green. Its eight arms (or more accurately, feet) were rootedin its head, which has earned these animals the name cephalopod;its arms stretched a distance twice the length of its body andwere writhing like the serpentine hair of the Furies. You couldplainly see its 250 suckers, arranged over the inner sidesof its tentacles and shaped like semispheric capsules.Sometimes these suckers fastened onto the lounge window by creatingvacuums against it. The monster's mouth--a beak made of hornand shaped like that of a parrot--opened and closed vertically.Its tongue, also of horn substance and armed with several rowsof sharp teeth, would flicker out from between these genuine shears.What a freak of nature! A bird's beak on a mollusk!Its body was spindle-shaped and swollen in the middle,a fleshy mass that must have weighed 20,000 to 25,000 kilograms.Its unstable color would change with tremendous speed as the animalgrew irritated, passing successively from bluish gray to reddish brown.

 
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