Part 4 out of 10
My blood turned cold in my veins! I saw that we were under threat from
a fearsome pair of sharks. They were blue sharks, dreadful man-eaters
with enormous tails, dull, glassy stares, and phosphorescent matter
oozing from holes around their snouts. They were like monstrous
fireflies that could thoroughly pulverize a man in their iron jaws!
I don't know if Conseil was busy with their classification,
but as for me, I looked at their silver bellies, their fearsome
mouths bristling with teeth, from a viewpoint less than scientific--
more as a victim than as a professor of natural history.
Luckily these voracious animals have poor eyesight. They went
by without noticing us, grazing us with their brownish fins;
and miraculously, we escaped a danger greater than encountering
a tiger deep in the jungle.
Half an hour later, guided by its electric trail, we reached
the Nautilus. The outside door had been left open, and Captain Nemo
closed it after we reentered the first cell. Then he pressed a button.
I heard pumps operating within the ship, I felt the water lowering
around me, and in a few moments the cell was completely empty.
The inside door opened, and we passed into the wardrobe.
There our diving suits were removed, not without difficulty;
and utterly exhausted, faint from lack of food and rest, I repaired
to my stateroom, full of wonder at this startling excursion on
the bottom of the sea.
Four Thousand Leagues Under the Pacific
BY THE NEXT MORNING, November 18, I was fully recovered from my
exhaustion of the day before, and I climbed onto the platform just
as the Nautilus's chief officer was pronouncing his daily phrase.
It then occurred to me that these words either referred to the state
of the sea, or that they meant: "There's nothing in sight."
And in truth, the ocean was deserted. Not a sail on the horizon.
The tips of Crespo Island had disappeared during the night.
The sea, absorbing every color of the prism except its blue rays,
reflected the latter in every direction and sported a wonderful
indigo tint. The undulating waves regularly took on the appearance
of watered silk with wide stripes.
I was marveling at this magnificent ocean view when
Captain Nemo appeared. He didn't seem to notice my presence and began
a series of astronomical observations. Then, his operations finished,
he went and leaned his elbows on the beacon housing, his eyes
straying over the surface of the ocean.
Meanwhile some twenty of the Nautilus's sailors--all energetic,
well-built fellows--climbed onto the platform. They had come
to pull up the nets left in our wake during the night.
These seamen obviously belonged to different nationalities, although
indications of European physical traits could be seen in them all.
If I'm not mistaken, I recognized some Irishmen, some Frenchmen,
a few Slavs, and a native of either Greece or Crete. Even so,
these men were frugal of speech and used among themselves
only that bizarre dialect whose origin I couldn't even guess.
So I had to give up any notions of questioning them.
The nets were hauled on board. They were a breed of trawl resembling
those used off the Normandy coast, huge pouches held half open
by a floating pole and a chain laced through the lower meshes.
Trailing in this way from these iron glove makers, the resulting
receptacles scoured the ocean floor and collected every marine exhibit
in their path. That day they gathered up some unusual specimens
from these fish-filled waterways: anglerfish whose comical movements
qualify them for the epithet "clowns," black Commerson anglers equipped
with their antennas, undulating triggerfish encircled by little
red bands, bloated puffers whose venom is extremely insidious,
some olive-hued lampreys, snipefish covered with silver scales,
cutlass fish whose electrocuting power equals that of the electric eel
and the electric ray, scaly featherbacks with brown crosswise bands,
greenish codfish, several varieties of goby, etc.; finally, some fish
of larger proportions: a one-meter jack with a prominent head,
several fine bonito from the genus Scomber decked out in the colors
blue and silver, and three magnificent tuna whose high speeds
couldn't save them from our trawl.
I estimate that this cast of the net brought in more than 1,000
pounds of fish. It was a fine catch but not surprising.
In essence, these nets stayed in our wake for several hours,
incarcerating an entire aquatic world in prisons made of thread.
So we were never lacking in provisions of the highest quality,
which the Nautilus's speed and the allure of its electric light
could continually replenish.
These various exhibits from the sea were immediately lowered
down the hatch in the direction of the storage lockers, some to be
eaten fresh, others to be preserved.
After its fishing was finished and its air supply renewed,
I thought the Nautilus would resume its underwater excursion,
and I was getting ready to return to my stateroom, when Captain Nemo
turned to me and said without further preamble:
"Look at this ocean, professor! Doesn't it have the actual
gift of life? Doesn't it experience both anger and affection?
Last evening it went to sleep just as we did, and there it is,
waking up after a peaceful night!"
No hellos or good mornings for this gent! You would have thought
this eccentric individual was simply continuing a conversation
we'd already started!
"See!" he went on. "It's waking up under the sun's caresses!
It's going to relive its daily existence! What a fascinating
field of study lies in watching the play of its organism.
It owns a pulse and arteries, it has spasms, and I side with the
scholarly Commander Maury, who discovered that it has a circulation
as real as the circulation of blood in animals."
I'm sure that Captain Nemo expected no replies from me, and it
seemed pointless to pitch in with "Ah yes," "Exactly," or "How
right you are!" Rather, he was simply talking to himself,
with long pauses between sentences. He was meditating out loud.
"Yes," he said, "the ocean owns a genuine circulation,
and to start it going, the Creator of All Things has only
to increase its heat, salt, and microscopic animal life.
In essence, heat creates the different densities that lead
to currents and countercurrents. Evaporation, which is nil
in the High Arctic regions and very active in equatorial zones,
brings about a constant interchange of tropical and polar waters.
What's more, I've detected those falling and rising currents that make
up the ocean's true breathing. I've seen a molecule of salt water
heat up at the surface, sink into the depths, reach maximum density
at -2 degrees centigrade, then cool off, grow lighter, and rise again.
At the poles you'll see the consequences of this phenomenon,
and through this law of farseeing nature, you'll understand why
water can freeze only at the surface!"
As the captain was finishing his sentence, I said to myself:
"The pole! Is this brazen individual claiming he'll take us even
to that location?"
Meanwhile the captain fell silent and stared at the element he had
studied so thoroughly and unceasingly. Then, going on:
"Salts," he said, "fill the sea in considerable quantities, professor,
and if you removed all its dissolved saline content, you'd create
a mass measuring 4,500,000 cubic leagues, which if it were spread
all over the globe, would form a layer more than ten meters high.
And don't think that the presence of these salts is due merely
to some whim of nature. No. They make ocean water less open to
evaporation and prevent winds from carrying off excessive amounts
of steam, which, when condensing, would submerge the temperate zones.
Salts play a leading role, the role of stabilizer for the general
ecology of the globe!"
Captain Nemo stopped, straightened up, took a few steps along
the platform, and returned to me:
"As for those billions of tiny animals," he went on, "those infusoria
that live by the millions in one droplet of water, 800,000 of which
are needed to weigh one milligram, their role is no less important.
They absorb the marine salts, they assimilate the solid elements
in the water, and since they create coral and madrepores,
they're the true builders of limestone continents! And so,
after they've finished depriving our water drop of its mineral nutrients,
the droplet gets lighter, rises to the surface, there absorbs more
salts left behind through evaporation, gets heavier, sinks again,
and brings those tiny animals new elements to absorb. The outcome:
a double current, rising and falling, constant movement, constant life!
More intense than on land, more abundant, more infinite, such life
blooms in every part of this ocean, an element fatal to man,
they say, but vital to myriads of animals--and to me!"
When Captain Nemo spoke in this way, he was transfigured,
and he filled me with extraordinary excitement.
"There," he added, "out there lies true existence! And I can imagine
the founding of nautical towns, clusters of underwater households that,
like the Nautilus, would return to the surface of the sea to breathe
each morning, free towns if ever there were, independent cities!
Then again, who knows whether some tyrant . . ."
Captain Nemo finished his sentence with a vehement gesture.
Then, addressing me directly, as if to drive away an ugly thought:
"Professor Aronnax," he asked me, "do you know the depth of
the ocean floor?"
"At least, captain, I know what the major soundings tell us."
"Could you quote them to me, so I can double-check them as
the need arises?"
"Here," I replied, "are a few of them that stick in my memory.
If I'm not mistaken, an average depth of 8,200 meters was found in
the north Atlantic, and 2,500 meters in the Mediterranean. The most
remarkable soundings were taken in the south Atlantic near the 35th
parallel, and they gave 12,000 meters, 14,091 meters, and 15,149 meters.
All in all, it's estimated that if the sea bottom were made level,
its average depth would be about seven kilometers."
"Well, professor," Captain Nemo replied, "we'll show you better
than that, I hope. As for the average depth of this part of
the Pacific, I'll inform you that it's a mere 4,000 meters."
This said, Captain Nemo headed to the hatch and disappeared down
the ladder. I followed him and went back to the main lounge.
The propeller was instantly set in motion, and the log gave our speed
as twenty miles per hour.
Over the ensuing days and weeks, Captain Nemo was very frugal
with his visits. I saw him only at rare intervals. His chief
officer regularly fixed the positions I found reported on the chart,
and in such a way that I could exactly plot the Nautilus's course.
Conseil and Land spent the long hours with me. Conseil had told
his friend about the wonders of our undersea stroll, and the Canadian
was sorry he hadn't gone along. But I hoped an opportunity would
arise for a visit to the forests of Oceania.
Almost every day the panels in the lounge were open for some hours,
and our eyes never tired of probing the mysteries of the underwater world.
The Nautilus's general heading was southeast, and it stayed at a depth
between 100 and 150 meters. However, from lord-knows-what whim,
one day it did a diagonal dive by means of its slanting fins,
reaching strata located 2,000 meters underwater. The thermometer
indicated a temperature of 4.25 degrees centigrade, which at this
depth seemed to be a temperature common to all latitudes.
On November 26, at three o'clock in the morning, the Nautilus
cleared the Tropic of Cancer at longitude 172 degrees. On the 27th
it passed in sight of the Hawaiian Islands, where the famous
Captain Cook met his death on February 14, 1779. By then we
had fared 4,860 leagues from our starting point. When I arrived
on the platform that morning, I saw the Island of Hawaii two miles
to leeward, the largest of the seven islands making up this group.
I could clearly distinguish the tilled soil on its outskirts,
the various mountain chains running parallel with its coastline,
and its volcanoes, crowned by Mauna Kea, whose elevation is 5,000
meters above sea level. Among other specimens from these waterways,
our nets brought up some peacock-tailed flabellarian coral,
polyps flattened into stylish shapes and unique to this part
of the ocean.
The Nautilus kept to its southeasterly heading. On December 1
it cut the equator at longitude 142 degrees, and on the 4th
of the same month, after a quick crossing marked by no incident,
we raised the Marquesas Islands. Three miles off, in latitude 8
degrees 57' south and longitude 139 degrees 32' west, I spotted
Martin Point on Nuku Hiva, chief member of this island group
that belongs to France. I could make out only its wooded mountains
on the horizon, because Captain Nemo hated to hug shore.
There our nets brought up some fine fish samples: dolphinfish with
azure fins, gold tails, and flesh that's unrivaled in the entire world,
wrasse from the genus Hologymnosus that were nearly denuded
of scales but exquisite in flavor, knifejaws with bony beaks,
yellowish albacore that were as tasty as bonito, all fish worth
classifying in the ship's pantry.
After leaving these delightful islands to the protection of the French
flag, the Nautilus covered about 2,000 miles from December 4 to the 11th.
Its navigating was marked by an encounter with an immense school
of squid, unusual mollusks that are near neighbors of the cuttlefish.
French fishermen give them the name "cuckoldfish," and they
belong to the class Cephalopoda, family Dibranchiata,
consisting of themselves together with cuttlefish and argonauts.
The naturalists of antiquity made a special study of them,
and these animals furnished many ribald figures of speech for soapbox
orators in the Greek marketplace, as well as excellent dishes
for the tables of rich citizens, if we're to believe Athenaeus,
a Greek physician predating Galen.
It was during the night of December 9-10 that the Nautilus encountered
this army of distinctly nocturnal mollusks. They numbered in
the millions. They were migrating from the temperate zones toward
zones still warmer, following the itineraries of herring and sardines.
We stared at them through our thick glass windows: they swam backward
with tremendous speed, moving by means of their locomotive tubes,
chasing fish and mollusks, eating the little ones, eaten by the big ones,
and tossing in indescribable confusion the ten feet that nature
has rooted in their heads like a hairpiece of pneumatic snakes.
Despite its speed, the Nautilus navigated for several hours
in the midst of this school of animals, and its nets brought up
an incalculable number, among which I recognized all nine species
that Professor Orbigny has classified as native to the Pacific Ocean.
During this crossing, the sea continually lavished us
with the most marvelous sights. Its variety was infinite.
It changed its setting and decor for the mere pleasure of our eyes,
and we were called upon not simply to contemplate the works of our
Creator in the midst of the liquid element, but also to probe
the ocean's most daunting mysteries.
During the day of December 11, I was busy reading in the main lounge.
Ned Land and Conseil were observing the luminous waters
through the gaping panels. The Nautilus was motionless.
Its ballast tanks full, it was sitting at a depth of 1,000 meters
in a comparatively unpopulated region of the ocean where only larger
fish put in occasional appearances.
Just then I was studying a delightful book by Jean Macé, The Servants
of the Stomach, and savoring its ingenious teachings, when Conseil
interrupted my reading.
"Would master kindly come here for an instant?" he said to me
in an odd voice.
"What is it, Conseil?"
"It's something that master should see."
I stood up, went, leaned on my elbows before the window, and I saw it.
In the broad electric daylight, an enormous black mass, quite motionless,
hung suspended in the midst of the waters. I observed it carefully,
trying to find out the nature of this gigantic cetacean.
Then a sudden thought crossed my mind.
"A ship!" I exclaimed.
"Yes," the Canadian replied, "a disabled craft that's
sinking straight down!"
Ned Land was not mistaken. We were in the presence of a ship whose
severed shrouds still hung from their clasps. Its hull looked in
good condition, and it must have gone under only a few hours before.
The stumps of three masts, chopped off two feet above the deck,
indicated a flooding ship that had been forced to sacrifice its masting.
But it had heeled sideways, filling completely, and it was listing
to port even yet. A sorry sight, this carcass lost under the waves,
but sorrier still was the sight on its deck, where, lashed with ropes
to prevent their being washed overboard, some human corpses still lay!
I counted four of them--four men, one still standing at the helm--
then a woman, halfway out of a skylight on the afterdeck,
holding a child in her arms. This woman was young.
Under the brilliant lighting of the Nautilus's rays, I could
make out her features, which the water hadn't yet decomposed.
With a supreme effort, she had lifted her child above her head,
and the poor little creature's arms were still twined around its
mother's neck! The postures of the four seamen seemed ghastly to me,
twisted from convulsive movements, as if making a last effort
to break loose from the ropes that bound them to their ship.
And the helmsman, standing alone, calmer, his face smooth and serious,
his grizzled hair plastered to his brow, his hands clutching the wheel,
seemed even yet to be guiding his wrecked three-master through
the ocean depths!
What a scene! We stood dumbstruck, hearts pounding, before this
shipwreck caught in the act, as if it had been photographed in its
final moments, so to speak! And already I could see enormous sharks
moving in, eyes ablaze, drawn by the lure of human flesh!
Meanwhile, turning, the Nautilus made a circle around the sinking ship,
and for an instant I could read the board on its stern:
THIS DREADFUL SIGHT was the first of a whole series of maritime
catastrophes that the Nautilus would encounter on its run.
When it plied more heavily traveled seas, we often saw wrecked hulls
rotting in midwater, and farther down, cannons, shells, anchors, chains,
and a thousand other iron objects rusting away.
Meanwhile, continuously swept along by the Nautilus, where we lived
in near isolation, we raised the Tuamotu Islands on December 11,
that old "dangerous group" associated with the French global
navigator Commander Bougainville; it stretches from Ducie Island
to Lazareff Island over an area of 500 leagues from the east-southeast
to the west-northwest, between latitude 13 degrees 30'
and 23 degrees 50' south, and between longitude 125 degrees 30'
and 151 degrees 30' west. This island group covers a surface area
of 370 square leagues, and it's made up of some sixty subgroups,
among which we noted the Gambier group, which is a French protectorate.
These islands are coral formations. Thanks to the work of polyps, a slow
but steady upheaval will someday connect these islands to each other.
Later on, this new island will be fused to its neighboring island groups,
and a fifth continent will stretch from New Zealand and New Caledonia
as far as the Marquesas Islands.
The day I expounded this theory to Captain Nemo, he answered me coldly:
"The earth doesn't need new continents, but new men!"
Sailors' luck led the Nautilus straight to Reao Island, one of the most
unusual in this group, which was discovered in 1822 by Captain Bell
aboard the Minerva. So I was able to study the madreporic process
that has created the islands in this ocean.
Madrepores, which one must guard against confusing with precious coral,
clothe their tissue in a limestone crust, and their variations in
structure have led my famous mentor Professor Milne-Edwards to classify
them into five divisions. The tiny microscopic animals that secrete
this polypary live by the billions in the depths of their cells.
Their limestone deposits build up into rocks, reefs, islets, islands.
In some places, they form atolls, a circular ring surrounding
a lagoon or small inner lake that gaps place in contact with
the sea. Elsewhere, they take the shape of barrier reefs,
such as those that exist along the coasts of New Caledonia
and several of the Tuamotu Islands. In still other localities,
such as Réunion Island and the island of Mauritius, they build
fringing reefs, high, straight walls next to which the ocean's
depth is considerable.
While cruising along only a few cable lengths from the underpinning
of Reao Island, I marveled at the gigantic piece of work accomplished
by these microscopic laborers. These walls were the express
achievements of madrepores known by the names fire coral,
finger coral, star coral, and stony coral. These polyps grow
exclusively in the agitated strata at the surface of the sea,
and so it's in the upper reaches that they begin these substructures,
which sink little by little together with the secreted rubble
binding them. This, at least, is the theory of Mr. Charles Darwin,
who thus explains the formation of atolls--a theory superior,
in my view, to the one that says these madreporic edifices sit
on the summits of mountains or volcanoes submerged a few feet
below sea level.
I could observe these strange walls quite closely: our sounding lines
indicated that they dropped perpendicularly for more than 300 meters,
and our electric beams made the bright limestone positively sparkle.
In reply to a question Conseil asked me about the growth rate
of these colossal barriers, I thoroughly amazed him by saying
that scientists put it at an eighth of an inch per biennium.
"Therefore," he said to me, "to build these walls, it took . . . ?"
"192,000 years, my gallant Conseil, which significantly extends
the biblical Days of Creation. What's more, the formation of coal--
in other words, the petrification of forests swallowed by floods--
and the cooling of basaltic rocks likewise call for a much longer
period of time. I might add that those 'days' in the Bible
must represent whole epochs and not literally the lapse of time
between two sunrises, because according to the Bible itself,
the sun doesn't date from the first day of Creation."
When the Nautilus returned to the surface of the ocean, I could take
in Reao Island over its whole flat, wooded expanse. Obviously its
madreporic rocks had been made fertile by tornadoes and thunderstorms.
One day, carried off by a hurricane from neighboring shores,
some seed fell onto these limestone beds, mixing with decomposed
particles of fish and marine plants to form vegetable humus.
Propelled by the waves, a coconut arrived on this new coast.
Its germ took root. Its tree grew tall, catching steam off the water.
A brook was born. Little by little, vegetation spread.
Tiny animals--worms, insects--rode ashore on tree trunks snatched
from islands to windward. Turtles came to lay their eggs.
Birds nested in the young trees. In this way animal life developed,
and drawn by the greenery and fertile soil, man appeared.
And that's how these islands were formed, the immense achievement
of microscopic animals.
Near evening Reao Island melted into the distance, and the Nautilus
noticeably changed course. After touching the Tropic of Capricorn
at longitude 135 degrees, it headed west-northwest, going back up
the whole intertropical zone. Although the summer sun lavished
its rays on us, we never suffered from the heat, because thirty
or forty meters underwater, the temperature didn't go over 10
degrees to 12 degrees centigrade.
By December 15 we had left the alluring Society Islands in the west,
likewise elegant Tahiti, queen of the Pacific. In the morning
I spotted this island's lofty summits a few miles to leeward.
Its waters supplied excellent fish for the tables on board:
mackerel, bonito, albacore, and a few varieties of that sea serpent
named the moray eel.
The Nautilus had cleared 8,100 miles. We logged 9,720 miles
when we passed between the Tonga Islands, where crews from
the Argo, Port-au-Prince, and Duke of Portland had perished,
and the island group of Samoa, scene of the slaying of Captain
de Langle, friend of that long-lost navigator, the Count de
La Pérouse. Then we raised the Fiji Islands, where savages
slaughtered sailors from the Union, as well as Captain Bureau,
commander of the Darling Josephine out of Nantes, France.
Extending over an expanse of 100 leagues north to south, and over 90
leagues east to west, this island group lies between latitude 2
degrees and 6 degrees south, and between longitude 174 degrees and 179
degrees west. It consists of a number of islands, islets, and reefs,
among which we noted the islands of Viti Levu, Vanua Levu, and Kadavu.
It was the Dutch navigator Tasman who discovered this group in 1643,
the same year the Italian physicist Torricelli invented the barometer
and King Louis XIV ascended the French throne. I'll let the reader
decide which of these deeds was more beneficial to humanity.
Coming later, Captain Cook in 1774, Rear Admiral d'Entrecasteaux in 1793,
and finally Captain Dumont d'Urville in 1827, untangled the whole
chaotic geography of this island group. The Nautilus drew near
Wailea Bay, an unlucky place for England's Captain Dillon, who was
the first to shed light on the longstanding mystery surrounding
the disappearance of ships under the Count de La Pérouse.
This bay, repeatedly dredged, furnished a huge supply of
excellent oysters. As the Roman playwright Seneca recommended,
we opened them right at our table, then stuffed ourselves.
These mollusks belonged to the species known by name as Ostrea lamellosa,
whose members are quite common off Corsica. This Wailea oysterbank
must have been extensive, and for certain, if they hadn't been
controlled by numerous natural checks, these clusters of shellfish
would have ended up jam-packing the bay, since as many as 2,000,000
eggs have been counted in a single individual.
And if Mr. Ned Land did not repent of his gluttony at our oyster fest,
it's because oysters are the only dish that never causes indigestion.
In fact, it takes no less than sixteen dozen of these headless
mollusks to supply the 315 grams that satisfy one man's minimum
daily requirement for nitrogen.
On December 25 the Nautilus navigated amid the island group
of the New Hebrides, which the Portuguese seafarer Queirós
discovered in 1606, which Commander Bougainville explored in 1768,
and to which Captain Cook gave its current name in 1773.
This group is chiefly made up of nine large islands and forms a
120-league strip from the north-northwest to the south-southeast, lying
between latitude 2 degrees and 15 degrees south, and between longitude
164 degrees and 168 degrees. At the moment of our noon sights,
we passed fairly close to the island of Aurou, which looked to me
like a mass of green woods crowned by a peak of great height.
That day it was yuletide, and it struck me that Ned Land badly
missed celebrating "Christmas," that genuine family holiday where
Protestants are such zealots.
I hadn't seen Captain Nemo for over a week, when, on the morning
of the 27th, he entered the main lounge, as usual acting as if he'd
been gone for just five minutes. I was busy tracing the Nautilus's
course on the world map. The captain approached, placed a finger
over a position on the chart, and pronounced just one word:
This name was magic! It was the name of those islets
where vessels under the Count de La Pérouse had miscarried.
I straightened suddenly.
"The Nautilus is bringing us to Vanikoro?" I asked.
"Yes, professor," the captain replied.
"And I'll be able to visit those famous islands where the Compass
and the Astrolabe came to grief?"
"If you like, professor."
"When will we reach Vanikoro?"
"We already have, professor."
Followed by Captain Nemo, I climbed onto the platform, and from there
my eyes eagerly scanned the horizon.
In the northeast there emerged two volcanic islands of unequal size,
surrounded by a coral reef whose circuit measured forty miles.
We were facing the island of Vanikoro proper, to which
Captain Dumont d'Urville had given the name "Island of the Search";
we lay right in front of the little harbor of Vana, located in latitude
16 degrees 4' south and longitude 164 degrees 32' east. Its shores
seemed covered with greenery from its beaches to its summits inland,
crowned by Mt. Kapogo, which is 476 fathoms high.
After clearing the outer belt of rocks via a narrow passageway,
the Nautilus lay inside the breakers where the sea had a depth of thirty
to forty fathoms. Under the green shade of some tropical evergreens,
I spotted a few savages who looked extremely startled at our approach.
In this long, blackish object advancing flush with the water,
didn't they see some fearsome cetacean that they were obliged
to view with distrust?
Just then Captain Nemo asked me what I knew about the shipwreck
of the Count de La Pérouse.
"What everybody knows, captain," I answered him.
"And could you kindly tell me what everybody knows?" he asked me
in a gently ironic tone.
I related to him what the final deeds of Captain Dumont d'Urville
had brought to light, deeds described here in this heavily condensed
summary of the whole matter.
In 1785 the Count de La Pérouse and his subordinate, Captain de Langle,
were sent by King Louis XVI of France on a voyage to circumnavigate
the globe. They boarded two sloops of war, the Compass and the Astrolabe,
which were never seen again.
In 1791, justly concerned about the fate of these two sloops
of war, the French government fitted out two large cargo boats,
the Search and the Hope, which left Brest on September 28 under
orders from Rear Admiral Bruni d'Entrecasteaux. Two months later,
testimony from a certain Commander Bowen, aboard the Albemarle,
alleged that rubble from shipwrecked vessels had been seen
on the coast of New Georgia. But d'Entrecasteaux was unaware
of this news--which seemed a bit dubious anyhow--and headed toward
the Admiralty Islands, which had been named in a report by one
Captain Hunter as the site of the Count de La Pérouse's shipwreck.
They looked in vain. The Hope and the Search passed right
by Vanikoro without stopping there; and overall, this voyage
was plagued by misfortune, ultimately costing the lives of
Rear Admiral d'Entrecasteaux, two of his subordinate officers,
and several seamen from his crew.
It was an old hand at the Pacific, the English adventurer
Captain Peter Dillon, who was the first to pick up the trail left
by castaways from the wrecked vessels. On May 15, 1824, his ship,
the St. Patrick, passed by Tikopia Island, one of the New Hebrides.
There a native boatman pulled alongside in a dugout canoe and sold
Dillon a silver sword hilt bearing the imprint of characters engraved
with a cutting tool known as a burin. Furthermore, this native
boatman claimed that during a stay in Vanikoro six years earlier,
he had seen two Europeans belonging to ships that had run aground
on the island's reefs many years before.
Dillon guessed that the ships at issue were those under the Count de
La Pérouse, ships whose disappearance had shaken the entire world.
He tried to reach Vanikoro, where, according to the native boatman,
a good deal of rubble from the shipwreck could still be found,
but winds and currents prevented his doing so.
Dillon returned to Calcutta. There he was able to interest
the Asiatic Society and the East India Company in his discovery.
A ship named after the Search was placed at his disposal,
and he departed on January 23, 1827, accompanied by a French deputy.
This new Search, after putting in at several stops over the Pacific,
dropped anchor before Vanikoro on July 7, 1827, in the same harbor
of Vana where the Nautilus was currently floating.
There Dillon collected many relics of the shipwreck:
iron utensils, anchors, eyelets from pulleys, swivel guns,
an eighteen-pound shell, the remains of some astronomical instruments,
a piece of sternrail, and a bronze bell bearing the inscription
"Made by Bazin," the foundry mark at Brest Arsenal around 1785.
There could no longer be any doubt.
Finishing his investigations, Dillon stayed at the site of
the casualty until the month of October. Then he left Vanikoro,
headed toward New Zealand, dropped anchor at Calcutta on April 7,
1828, and returned to France, where he received a very cordial
welcome from King Charles X.
But just then the renowned French explorer Captain Dumont d'Urville,
unaware of Dillon's activities, had already set sail to search
elsewhere for the site of the shipwreck. In essence, a whaling
vessel had reported that some medals and a Cross of St. Louis
had been found in the hands of savages in the Louisiade Islands
and New Caledonia.
So Captain Dumont d'Urville had put to sea in command of a vessel
named after the Astrolabe, and just two months after Dillon had
left Vanikoro, Dumont d'Urville dropped anchor before Hobart. There he
heard about Dillon's findings, and he further learned that a
certain James Hobbs, chief officer on the Union out of Calcutta,
had put to shore on an island located in latitude 8 degrees 18'
south and longitude 156 degrees 30' east, and had noted the natives
of those waterways making use of iron bars and red fabrics.
Pretty perplexed, Dumont d'Urville didn't know if he should give
credence to these reports, which had been carried in some of
the less reliable newspapers; nevertheless, he decided to start
on Dillon's trail.
On February 10, 1828, the new Astrolabe hove before Tikopia Island,
took on a guide and interpreter in the person of a deserter who had
settled there, plied a course toward Vanikoro, raised it on February 12,
sailed along its reefs until the 14th, and only on the 20th dropped
anchor inside its barrier in the harbor of Vana.
On the 23rd, several officers circled the island and brought back some
rubble of little importance. The natives, adopting a system of denial
and evasion, refused to guide them to the site of the casualty.
This rather shady conduct aroused the suspicion that the natives
had mistreated the castaways; and in truth, the natives seemed afraid
that Dumont d'Urville had come to avenge the Count de La Pérouse
and his unfortunate companions.
But on the 26th, appeased with gifts and seeing that they didn't
need to fear any reprisals, the natives led the chief officer,
Mr. Jacquinot, to the site of the shipwreck.
At this location, in three or four fathoms of water between the Paeu
and Vana reefs, there lay some anchors, cannons, and ingots
of iron and lead, all caked with limestone concretions. A launch
and whaleboat from the new Astrolabe were steered to this locality,
and after going to exhausting lengths, their crews managed to dredge
up an anchor weighing 1,800 pounds, a cast-iron eight-pounder cannon,
a lead ingot, and two copper swivel guns.
Questioning the natives, Captain Dumont d'Urville also learned that
after La Pérouse's two ships had miscarried on the island's reefs,
the count had built a smaller craft, only to go off and miscarry
a second time. Where? Nobody knew.
The commander of the new Astrolabe then had a monument erected under a
tuft of mangrove, in memory of the famous navigator and his companions.
It was a simple quadrangular pyramid, set on a coral base,
with no ironwork to tempt the natives' avarice.
Then Dumont d'Urville tried to depart; but his crews were run down from
the fevers raging on these unsanitary shores, and quite ill himself,
he was unable to weigh anchor until March 17.
Meanwhile, fearing that Dumont d'Urville wasn't abreast of
Dillon's activities, the French government sent a sloop of war
to Vanikoro, the Bayonnaise under Commander Legoarant de Tromelin,
who had been stationed on the American west coast. Dropping anchor
before Vanikoro a few months after the new Astrolabe's departure,
the Bayonnaise didn't find any additional evidence but verified
that the savages hadn't disturbed the memorial honoring the Count
de La Pérouse.
This is the substance of the account I gave Captain Nemo.
"So," he said to me, "the castaways built a third ship on Vanikoro Island,
and to this day, nobody knows where it went and perished?"
Captain Nemo didn't reply but signaled me to follow him to the
main lounge. The Nautilus sank a few meters beneath the waves,
and the panels opened.
I rushed to the window and saw crusts of coral: fungus coral,
siphonula coral, alcyon coral, sea anemone from the genus Caryophylia,
plus myriads of charming fish including greenfish, damselfish,
sweepers, snappers, and squirrelfish; underneath this coral covering
I detected some rubble the old dredges hadn't been able to tear free--
iron stirrups, anchors, cannons, shells, tackle from a capstan,
a stempost, all objects hailing from the wrecked ships and now
carpeted in moving flowers.
And as I stared at this desolate wreckage, Captain Nemo told me
in a solemn voice:
"Commander La Pérouse set out on December 7, 1785, with his ships,
the Compass and the Astrolabe. He dropped anchor first at Botany Bay,
visited the Tonga Islands and New Caledonia, headed toward
the Santa Cruz Islands, and put in at Nomuka, one of the islands
in the Ha'apai group. Then his ships arrived at the unknown reefs
of Vanikoro. Traveling in the lead, the Compass ran afoul of breakers
on the southerly coast. The Astrolabe went to its rescue and also
ran aground. The first ship was destroyed almost immediately.
The second, stranded to leeward, held up for some days.
The natives gave the castaways a fair enough welcome.
The latter took up residence on the island and built a smaller
craft with rubble from the two large ones. A few seamen stayed
voluntarily in Vanikoro. The others, weak and ailing, set sail
with the Count de La Pérouse. They headed to the Solomon Islands,
and they perished with all hands on the westerly coast of the chief
island in that group, between Cape Deception and Cape Satisfaction!"
"And how do you know all this?" I exclaimed.
"Here's what I found at the very site of that final shipwreck!"
Captain Nemo showed me a tin box, stamped with the coat of arms
of France and all corroded by salt water. He opened it and I saw
a bundle of papers, yellowed but still legible.
They were the actual military orders given by France's Minister
of the Navy to Commander La Pérouse, with notes along the margin
in the handwriting of King Louis XVI!
"Ah, what a splendid death for a seaman!" Captain Nemo then said.
"A coral grave is a tranquil grave, and may Heaven grant that my
companions and I rest in no other!"
The Torres Strait
DURING THE NIGHT of December 27-28, the Nautilus left
the waterways of Vanikoro behind with extraordinary speed.
Its heading was southwesterly, and in three days it had cleared the 750
leagues that separated La Pérouse's islands from the southeastern
tip of Papua.
On January 1, 1868, bright and early, Conseil joined me on the platform.
"Will master," the gallant lad said to me, "allow me to wish him
a happy new year?"
"Good heavens, Conseil, it's just like old times in my office
at the Botanical Gardens in Paris! I accept your kind wishes
and I thank you for them. Only, I'd like to know what you mean
by a 'happy year' under the circumstances in which we're placed.
Is it a year that will bring our imprisonment to an end, or a year
that will see this strange voyage continue?"
"Ye gods," Conseil replied, "I hardly know what to tell master.
We're certainly seeing some unusual things, and for two months
we've had no time for boredom. The latest wonder is always
the most astonishing, and if this progression keeps up, I can't
imagine what its climax will be. In my opinion, we'll never again
have such an opportunity."
"Besides, Mr. Nemo really lives up to his Latin name, since he couldn't
be less in the way if he didn't exist."
"True enough, Conseil."
"Therefore, with all due respect to master, I think a 'happy year'
would be a year that lets us see everything--"
"Everything, Conseil? No year could be that long. But what does
Ned Land think about all this?"
"Ned Land's thoughts are exactly the opposite of mine,"
Conseil replied. "He has a practical mind and a demanding stomach.
He's tired of staring at fish and eating them day in and day out.
This shortage of wine, bread, and meat isn't suitable for an upstanding
Anglo-Saxon, a man accustomed to beefsteak and unfazed by regular
doses of brandy or gin!"
"For my part, Conseil, that doesn't bother me in the least,
and I've adjusted very nicely to the diet on board."
"So have I," Conseil replied. "Accordingly, I think as much about
staying as Mr. Land about making his escape. Thus, if this new year
isn't a happy one for me, it will be for him, and vice versa.
No matter what happens, one of us will be pleased. So, in conclusion,
I wish master to have whatever his heart desires."
"Thank you, Conseil. Only I must ask you to postpone the question of new
year's gifts, and temporarily accept a hearty handshake in their place.
That's all I have on me."
"Master has never been more generous," Conseil replied.
And with that, the gallant lad went away.
By January 2 we had fared 11,340 miles, hence 5,250 leagues,
from our starting point in the seas of Japan. Before the Nautilus's
spur there stretched the dangerous waterways of the Coral Sea,
off the northeast coast of Australia. Our boat cruised along a few
miles away from that daunting shoal where Captain Cook's ships
wellnigh miscarried on June 10, 1770. The craft that Cook was aboard
charged into some coral rock, and if his vessel didn't go down,
it was thanks to the circumstance that a piece of coral broke off
in the collision and plugged the very hole it had made in the hull.
I would have been deeply interested in visiting this long,
360-league reef, against which the ever-surging sea broke
with the fearsome intensity of thunderclaps. But just then
the Nautilus's slanting fins took us to great depths, and I could
see nothing of those high coral walls. I had to rest content
with the various specimens of fish brought up by our nets.
Among others I noted some long-finned albacore, a species in the
genus Scomber, as big as tuna, bluish on the flanks, and streaked
with crosswise stripes that disappear when the animal dies.
These fish followed us in schools and supplied our table with very
dainty flesh. We also caught a large number of yellow-green gilthead,
half a decimeter long and tasting like dorado, plus some
flying gurnards, authentic underwater swallows that, on dark nights,
alternately streak air and water with their phosphorescent glimmers.
Among mollusks and zoophytes, I found in our trawl's meshes
various species of alcyonarian coral, sea urchins, hammer shells,
spurred-star shells, wentletrap snails, horn shells, glass snails.
The local flora was represented by fine floating algae:
sea tangle, and kelp from the genus Macrocystis, saturated with
the mucilage their pores perspire, from which I selected a wonderful
Nemastoma geliniaroidea, classifying it with the natural curiosities
in the museum.
On January 4, two days after crossing the Coral Sea, we raised the coast
of Papua. On this occasion Captain Nemo told me that he intended
to reach the Indian Ocean via the Torres Strait. This was the extent
of his remarks. Ned saw with pleasure that this course would bring us,
once again, closer to European seas.
The Torres Strait is regarded as no less dangerous for its
bristling reefs than for the savage inhabitants of its coasts.
It separates Queensland from the huge island of Papua,
also called New Guinea.
Papua is 400 leagues long by 130 leagues wide, with a surface area of
40,000 geographic leagues. It's located between latitude 0 degrees 19'
and 10 degrees 2' south, and between longitude 128 degrees 23'
and 146 degrees 15'. At noon, while the chief officer was taking
the sun's altitude, I spotted the summits of the Arfak Mountains,
rising in terraces and ending in sharp peaks.
Discovered in 1511 by the Portuguese Francisco Serrano, these shores
were successively visited by Don Jorge de Meneses in 1526, by Juan
de Grijalva in 1527, by the Spanish general Alvaro de Saavedra
in 1528, by Inigo Ortiz in 1545, by the Dutchman Schouten in 1616,
by Nicolas Sruick in 1753, by Tasman, Dampier, Fumel, Carteret,
Edwards, Bougainville, Cook, McClure, and Thomas Forrest,
by Rear Admiral d'Entrecasteaux in 1792, by Louis-Isidore Duperrey
in 1823, and by Captain Dumont d'Urville in 1827. "It's the heartland
of the blacks who occupy all Malaysia," Mr. de Rienzi has said;
and I hadn't the foggiest inkling that sailors' luck was about
to bring me face to face with these daunting Andaman aborigines.
So the Nautilus hove before the entrance to the world's
most dangerous strait, a passageway that even the boldest
navigators hesitated to clear: the strait that Luis Vaez de
Torres faced on returning from the South Seas in Melanesia,
the strait in which sloops of war under Captain Dumont d'Urville
ran aground in 1840 and nearly miscarried with all hands.
And even the Nautilus, rising superior to every danger in the sea,
was about to become intimate with its coral reefs.
The Torres Strait is about thirty-four leagues wide, but it's obstructed
by an incalculable number of islands, islets, breakers, and rocks
that make it nearly impossible to navigate. Consequently, Captain Nemo
took every desired precaution in crossing it. Floating flush
with the water, the Nautilus moved ahead at a moderate pace.
Like a cetacean's tail, its propeller churned the waves slowly.
Taking advantage of this situation, my two companions and I found seats
on the ever-deserted platform. In front of us stood the pilothouse,
and unless I'm extremely mistaken, Captain Nemo must have been inside,
steering his Nautilus himself.
Under my eyes I had the excellent charts of the Torres Strait
that had been surveyed and drawn up by the hydrographic engineer
Vincendon Dumoulin and Sublieutenant (now Admiral) Coupvent-Desbois, who
were part of Dumont d'Urville's general staff during his final
voyage to circumnavigate the globe. These, along with the efforts
of Captain King, are the best charts for untangling the snarl of this
narrow passageway, and I consulted them with scrupulous care.
Around the Nautilus the sea was boiling furiously. A stream of waves,
bearing from southeast to northwest at a speed of two and a half
miles per hour, broke over heads of coral emerging here and there.
"That's one rough sea!" Ned Land told me.
"Abominable indeed," I replied, "and hardly suitable for a craft
like the Nautilus."
"That damned captain," the Canadian went on, "must really be sure
of his course, because if these clumps of coral so much as brush us,
they'll rip our hull into a thousand pieces!"
The situation was indeed dangerous, but as if by magic, the Nautilus
seemed to glide right down the middle of these rampaging reefs.
It didn't follow the exact course of the Zealous and the new Astrolabe,
which had proved so ill-fated for Captain Dumont d'Urville. It went
more to the north, hugged the Murray Islands, and returned to the
southwest near Cumberland Passage. I thought it was about to charge
wholeheartedly into this opening, but it went up to the northwest,
through a large number of little-known islands and islets,
and steered toward Tound Island and the Bad Channel.
I was already wondering if Captain Nemo, rash to the point
of sheer insanity, wanted his ship to tackle the narrows
where Dumont d'Urville's two sloops of war had gone aground,
when he changed direction a second time and cut straight to the west,
heading toward Gueboroa Island.
By then it was three o'clock in the afternoon. The current was slacking
off, it was almost full tide. The Nautilus drew near this island,
which I can see to this day with its remarkable fringe of screw pines.
We hugged it from less than two miles out.
A sudden jolt threw me down. The Nautilus had just struck a reef,
and it remained motionless, listing slightly to port.
When I stood up, I saw Captain Nemo and his chief officer on
the platform. They were examining the ship's circumstances,
exchanging a few words in their incomprehensible dialect.
Here is what those circumstances entailed. Two miles to starboard lay
Gueboroa Island, its coastline curving north to west like an immense arm.
To the south and east, heads of coral were already on display,
left uncovered by the ebbing waters. We had run aground at full tide
and in one of those seas whose tides are moderate, an inconvenient
state of affairs for floating the Nautilus off. However, the ship
hadn't suffered in any way, so solidly joined was its hull.
But although it could neither sink nor split open, it was in serious
danger of being permanently attached to these reefs, and that would
have been the finish of Captain Nemo's submersible.
I was mulling this over when the captain approached, cool and calm,
forever in control of himself, looking neither alarmed nor annoyed.
"An accident?" I said to him.
"No, an incident," he answered me.
"But an incident," I replied, "that may oblige you to become
a resident again of these shores you avoid!"
Captain Nemo gave me an odd look and gestured no. Which told
me pretty clearly that nothing would ever force him to set foot
on a land mass again. Then he said:
"No, Professor Aronnax, the Nautilus isn't consigned to perdition.
It will still carry you through the midst of the ocean's wonders.
Our voyage is just beginning, and I've no desire to deprive myself
so soon of the pleasure of your company."
"Even so, Captain Nemo," I went on, ignoring his ironic turn of phrase,
"the Nautilus has run aground at a moment when the sea is full.
Now then, the tides aren't strong in the Pacific, and if you can't
unballast the Nautilus, which seems impossible to me, I don't see
how it will float off."
"You're right, professor, the Pacific tides aren't strong,"
Captain Nemo replied. "But in the Torres Strait, one still finds
a meter-and-a-half difference in level between high and low seas.
Today is January 4, and in five days the moon will be full.
Now then, I'll be quite astonished if that good-natured satellite
doesn't sufficiently raise these masses of water and do me a favor
for which I'll be forever grateful."
This said, Captain Nemo went below again to the Nautilus's interior,
followed by his chief officer. As for our craft, it no longer stirred,
staying as motionless as if these coral polyps had already walled
it in with their indestructible cement.
"Well, sir?" Ned Land said to me, coming up after
the captain's departure.
"Well, Ned my friend, we'll serenely wait for the tide on the 9th,
because it seems the moon will have the good nature to float us away!"
"As simple as that?"
"As simple as that."
"So our captain isn't going to drop his anchors, put his engines
on the chains, and do anything to haul us off?"
"Since the tide will be sufficient," Conseil replied simply.
The Canadian stared at Conseil, then he shrugged his shoulders.
The seaman in him was talking now.
"Sir," he answered, "you can trust me when I say this hunk
of iron will never navigate again, on the seas or under them.
It's only fit to be sold for its weight. So I think it's time
we gave Captain Nemo the slip."
"Ned my friend," I replied, "unlike you, I haven't given up on
our valiant Nautilus, and in four days we'll know where we stand
on these Pacific tides. Besides, an escape attempt might be
timely if we were in sight of the coasts of England or Provence,
but in the waterways of Papua it's another story. And we'll always
have that as a last resort if the Nautilus doesn't right itself,
which I'd regard as a real calamity."
"But couldn't we at least get the lay of the land?" Ned went on.
"Here's an island. On this island there are trees.
Under those trees land animals loaded with cutlets and roast beef,
which I'd be happy to sink my teeth into."
"In this instance our friend Ned is right," Conseil said, "and I side
with his views. Couldn't master persuade his friend Captain Nemo
to send the three of us ashore, if only so our feet don't lose
the knack of treading on the solid parts of our planet?"
"I can ask him," I replied, "but he'll refuse."
"Let master take the risk," Conseil said, "and we'll know where we
stand on the captain's affability."
Much to my surprise, Captain Nemo gave me the permission I asked for,
and he did so with grace and alacrity, not even exacting my promise
to return on board. But fleeing across the New Guinea territories would
be extremely dangerous, and I wouldn't have advised Ned Land to try it.
Better to be prisoners aboard the Nautilus than to fall into the hands
of Papuan natives.
The skiff was put at our disposal for the next morning.
I hardly needed to ask whether Captain Nemo would be coming along.
I likewise assumed that no crewmen would be assigned to us,
that Ned Land would be in sole charge of piloting the longboat.
Besides, the shore lay no more than two miles off, and it would
be child's play for the Canadian to guide that nimble skiff through
those rows of reefs so ill-fated for big ships.
The next day, January 5, after its deck paneling was opened,
the skiff was wrenched from its socket and launched to sea from
the top of the platform. Two men were sufficient for this operation.
The oars were inside the longboat and we had only to take our seats.
At eight o'clock, armed with rifles and axes, we pulled clear
of the Nautilus. The sea was fairly calm. A mild breeze blew
from shore. In place by the oars, Conseil and I rowed vigorously,
and Ned steered us into the narrow lanes between the breakers.
The skiff handled easily and sped swiftly.
Ned Land couldn't conceal his glee. He was a prisoner escaping
from prison and never dreaming he would need to reenter it.
"Meat!" he kept repeating. "Now we'll eat red meat! Actual game!
A real mess call, by thunder! I'm not saying fish aren't good for you,
but we mustn't overdo 'em, and a slice of fresh venison grilled
over live coals will be a nice change from our standard fare."
"You glutton," Conseil replied, "you're making my mouth water!"
"It remains to be seen," I said, "whether these forests do contain game,
and if the types of game aren't of such size that they can
hunt the hunter."
"Fine, Professor Aronnax!" replied the Canadian, whose teeth seemed
to be as honed as the edge of an ax. "But if there's no other
quadruped on this island, I'll eat tiger--tiger sirloin."
"Our friend Ned grows disturbing," Conseil replied.
"Whatever it is," Ned Land went on, "any animal having four feet
without feathers, or two feet with feathers, will be greeted by my
very own one-gun salute."
"Oh good!" I replied. "The reckless Mr. Land is at it again!"
"Don't worry, Professor Aronnax, just keep rowing!" the Canadian replied.
"I only need twenty-five minutes to serve you one of my
own special creations."
By 8:30 the Nautilus's skiff had just run gently aground on
a sandy strand, after successfully clearing the ring of coral
that surrounds Gueboroa Island.
Some Days Ashore
STEPPING ASHORE had an exhilarating effect on me. Ned Land
tested the soil with his foot, as if he were laying claim to it.
Yet it had been only two months since we had become, as Captain Nemo
expressed it, "passengers on the Nautilus," in other words,
the literal prisoners of its commander.
In a few minutes we were a gunshot away from the coast. The soil was
almost entirely madreporic, but certain dry stream beds were strewn
with granite rubble, proving that this island was of primordial origin.
The entire horizon was hidden behind a curtain of wonderful forests.
Enormous trees, sometimes as high as 200 feet, were linked to each
other by garlands of tropical creepers, genuine natural hammocks
that swayed in a mild breeze. There were mimosas, banyan trees,
beefwood, teakwood, hibiscus, screw pines, palm trees, all mingling
in wild profusion; and beneath the shade of their green canopies,
at the feet of their gigantic trunks, there grew orchids,
leguminous plants, and ferns.
Meanwhile, ignoring all these fine specimens of Papuan flora,
the Canadian passed up the decorative in favor of the functional.
He spotted a coconut palm, beat down some of its fruit, broke them open,
and we drank their milk and ate their meat with a pleasure that was
a protest against our standard fare on the Nautilus.
"Excellent!" Ned Land said.
"Exquisite!" Conseil replied.
"And I don't think," the Canadian said, "that your Nemo would object
to us stashing a cargo of coconuts aboard his vessel?"
"I imagine not," I replied, "but he won't want to sample them."
"Too bad for him!" Conseil said.
"And plenty good for us!" Ned Land shot back. "There'll be
more left over!"
"A word of caution, Mr. Land," I told the harpooner, who was about
to ravage another coconut palm. "Coconuts are admirable things,
but before we stuff the skiff with them, it would be wise to find
out whether this island offers other substances just as useful.
Some fresh vegetables would be well received in the Nautilus's pantry."
"Master is right," Conseil replied, "and I propose that we set aside
three places in our longboat: one for fruit, another for vegetables,
and a third for venison, of which I still haven't glimpsed
the tiniest specimen."
"Don't give up so easily, Conseil," the Canadian replied.
"So let's continue our excursion," I went on, "but keep a sharp lookout.
This island seems uninhabited, but it still might harbor certain
individuals who aren't so finicky about the sort of game they eat!"
"Hee hee!" Ned put in, with a meaningful movement of his jaws.
"Ned! Oh horrors!" Conseil exclaimed.
"Ye gods," the Canadian shot back, "I'm starting to appreciate
the charms of cannibalism!"
"Ned, Ned! Don't say that!" Conseil answered. "You a cannibal?
Why, I'll no longer be safe next to you, I who share your cabin!
Does this mean I'll wake up half devoured one fine day?"
"I'm awfully fond of you, Conseil my friend, but not enough to eat
you when there's better food around."
"Then I daren't delay," Conseil replied. "The hunt is on!
We absolutely must bag some game to placate this man-eater, or one
of these mornings master won't find enough pieces of his manservant
to serve him."
While exchanging this chitchat, we entered beneath the dark canopies
of the forest, and for two hours we explored it in every direction.
We couldn't have been luckier in our search for edible vegetation,
and some of the most useful produce in the tropical zones supplied
us with a valuable foodstuff missing on board.
I mean the breadfruit tree, which is quite abundant on Gueboroa Island,
and there I chiefly noted the seedless variety that in Malaysia
is called "rima."
This tree is distinguished from other trees by a straight trunk forty
feet high. To the naturalist's eye, its gracefully rounded crown,
formed of big multilobed leaves, was enough to denote the artocarpus
that has been so successfully transplanted to the Mascarene Islands east of
Madagascar. From its mass of greenery, huge globular fruit stood out,
a decimeter wide and furnished on the outside with creases that
assumed a hexangular pattern. It's a handy plant that nature gives
to regions lacking in wheat; without needing to be cultivated,
it bears fruit eight months out of the year.
Ned Land was on familiar terms with this fruit. He had already eaten
it on his many voyages and knew how to cook its edible substance.
So the very sight of it aroused his appetite, and he couldn't
"Sir," he told me, "I'll die if I don't sample a little breadfruit pasta!"
"Sample some, Ned my friend, sample all you like. We're here
to conduct experiments, let's conduct them."
"It won't take a minute," the Canadian replied.
Equipped with a magnifying glass, he lit a fire of deadwood
that was soon crackling merrily. Meanwhile Conseil and I selected
the finest artocarpus fruit. Some still weren't ripe enough,
and their thick skins covered white, slightly fibrous pulps.
But a great many others were yellowish and gelatinous, just begging
to be picked.
This fruit contained no pits. Conseil brought a dozen of them
to Ned Land, who cut them into thick slices and placed them over
a fire of live coals, all the while repeating:
"You'll see, sir, how tasty this bread is!"
"Especially since we've gone without baked goods for so long,"
"It's more than just bread," the Canadian added. "It's a dainty pastry.
You've never eaten any, sir?"
"All right, get ready for something downright delectable!
If you don't come back for seconds, I'm no longer the King of Harpooners!"
After a few minutes, the parts of the fruit exposed to the fire were
completely toasted. On the inside there appeared some white pasta,
a sort of soft bread center whose flavor reminded me of artichoke.
This bread was excellent, I must admit, and I ate it with great pleasure.
"Unfortunately," I said, "this pasta won't stay fresh, so it seems
pointless to make a supply for on board."
"By thunder, sir!" Ned Land exclaimed. "There you go,
talking like a naturalist, but meantime I'll be acting like a baker!
Conseil, harvest some of this fruit to take with us when we go back."
"And how will you prepare it?" I asked the Canadian.
"I'll make a fermented batter from its pulp that'll keep
indefinitely without spoiling. When I want some, I'll just cook
it in the galley on board--it'll have a slightly tart flavor,
but you'll find it excellent."
"So, Mr. Ned, I see that this bread is all we need--"
"Not quite, professor," the Canadian replied. "We need some fruit
to go with it, or at least some vegetables."
"Then let's look for fruit and vegetables."
When our breadfruit harvesting was done, we took to the trail
to complete this "dry-land dinner."
We didn't search in vain, and near noontime we had an ample supply
of bananas. This delicious produce from the Torrid Zones ripens
all year round, and Malaysians, who give them the name "pisang,"
eat them without bothering to cook them. In addition to bananas,
we gathered some enormous jackfruit with a very tangy flavor,
some tasty mangoes, and some pineapples of unbelievable size.
But this foraging took up a good deal of our time, which, even so,
we had no cause to regret.
Conseil kept Ned under observation. The harpooner walked in the lead,
and during his stroll through this forest, he gathered with sure hands
some excellent fruit that should have completed his provisions.
"So," Conseil asked, "you have everything you need, Ned my friend?"
"Humph!" the Canadian put in.
"What! You're complaining?"
"All this vegetation doesn't make a meal," Ned replied.
"Just side dishes, dessert. But where's the soup course?
Where's the roast?"
"Right," I said. "Ned promised us cutlets, which seems highly
questionable to me."
"Sir," the Canadian replied, "our hunting not only isn't over,
it hasn't even started. Patience! We're sure to end up bumping
into some animal with either feathers or fur, if not in this locality,
then in another."
"And if not today, then tomorrow, because we mustn't wander too far off,"
Conseil added. "That's why I propose that we return to the skiff."
"What! Already!" Ned exclaimed.
"We ought to be back before nightfall," I said.
"But what hour is it, then?" the Canadian asked.
"Two o'clock at least," Conseil replied.
"How time flies on solid ground!" exclaimed Mr. Ned Land with a
sigh of regret.
"Off we go!" Conseil replied.
So we returned through the forest, and we completed our harvest
by making a clean sweep of some palm cabbages that had to be picked
from the crowns of their trees, some small beans that I recognized
as the "abrou" of the Malaysians, and some high-quality yams.
We were overloaded when we arrived at the skiff. However, Ned Land
still found these provisions inadequate. But fortune smiled on him.
Just as we were boarding, he spotted several trees twenty-five
to thirty feet high, belonging to the palm species.
As valuable as the artocarpus, these trees are justly ranked among
the most useful produce in Malaysia.
They were sago palms, vegetation that grows without being cultivated;
like mulberry trees, they reproduce by means of shoots and seeds.
Ned Land knew how to handle these trees. Taking his ax and wielding
it with great vigor, he soon stretched out on the ground two or
three sago palms, whose maturity was revealed by the white dust
sprinkled over their palm fronds.
I watched him more as a naturalist than as a man in hunger.
He began by removing from each trunk an inch-thick strip of bark that
covered a network of long, hopelessly tangled fibers that were puttied
with a sort of gummy flour. This flour was the starch-like sago,
an edible substance chiefly consumed by the Melanesian peoples.
For the time being, Ned Land was content to chop these trunks into pieces,
as if he were making firewood; later he would extract the flour
by sifting it through cloth to separate it from its fibrous ligaments,
let it dry out in the sun, and leave it to harden inside molds.
Finally, at five o'clock in the afternoon, laden with all our treasures,
we left the island beach and half an hour later pulled alongside
the Nautilus. Nobody appeared on our arrival. The enormous
sheet-iron cylinder seemed deserted. Our provisions loaded on board,
I went below to my stateroom. There I found my supper ready.
I ate and then fell asleep.
The next day, January 6: nothing new on board. Not a sound inside,
not a sign of life. The skiff stayed alongside in the same place
we had left it. We decided to return to Gueboroa Island. Ned Land
hoped for better luck in his hunting than on the day before,
and he wanted to visit a different part of the forest.
By sunrise we were off. Carried by an inbound current, the longboat
reached the island in a matter of moments.
We disembarked, and thinking it best to abide by the Canadian's instincts,
we followed Ned Land, whose long legs threatened to outpace us.
Ned Land went westward up the coast; then, fording some stream beds,
he reached open plains that were bordered by wonderful forests.
Some kingfishers lurked along the watercourses, but they didn't
let us approach. Their cautious behavior proved to me that these
winged creatures knew where they stood on bipeds of our species,
and I concluded that if this island wasn't inhabited, at least
human beings paid it frequent visits.
After crossing a pretty lush prairie, we arrived on the outskirts
of a small wood, enlivened by the singing and soaring of a large
number of birds.
"Still, they're merely birds," Conseil said.
"But some are edible," the harpooner replied.
"Wrong, Ned my friend," Conseil answered, "because I see only
ordinary parrots here."
"Conseil my friend," Ned replied in all seriousness, "parrots are
like pheasant to people with nothing else on their plates."
"And I might add," I said, "that when these birds are properly cooked,
they're at least worth a stab of the fork."
Indeed, under the dense foliage of this wood, a whole host of parrots
fluttered from branch to branch, needing only the proper upbringing
to speak human dialects. At present they were cackling in chorus
with parakeets of every color, with solemn cockatoos that seemed to be
pondering some philosophical problem, while bright red lories passed
by like pieces of bunting borne on the breeze, in the midst of kalao
parrots raucously on the wing, Papuan lories painted the subtlest
shades of azure, and a whole variety of delightful winged creatures,
none terribly edible.
However, one bird unique to these shores, which never passes
beyond the boundaries of the Aru and Papuan Islands, was missing
from this collection. But I was given a chance to marvel at
it soon enough.
After crossing through a moderately dense thicket, we again found
some plains obstructed by bushes. There I saw some magnificent birds
soaring aloft, the arrangement of their long feathers causing them to head
into the wind. Their undulating flight, the grace of their aerial curves,
and the play of their colors allured and delighted the eye.
I had no trouble identifying them.
"Birds of paradise!" I exclaimed.
"Order Passeriforma, division Clystomora," Conseil replied.
"Partridge family?" Ned Land asked.
"I doubt it, Mr. Land. Nevertheless, I'm counting on your dexterity
to catch me one of these delightful representatives of tropical nature!"
"I'll give it a try, professor, though I'm handier with a harpoon
than a rifle."
Malaysians, who do a booming business in these birds with the Chinese,
have various methods for catching them that we couldn't use.
Sometimes they set snares on the tops of the tall trees that
the bird of paradise prefers to inhabit. At other times they
capture it with a tenacious glue that paralyzes its movements.
They will even go so far as to poison the springs where these fowl
habitually drink. But in our case, all we could do was fire
at them on the wing, which left us little chance of getting one.
And in truth, we used up a good part of our ammunition in vain.
Near eleven o'clock in the morning, we cleared the lower
slopes of the mountains that form the island's center,
and we still hadn't bagged a thing. Hunger spurred us on.
The hunters had counted on consuming the proceeds of their hunting,
and they had miscalculated. Luckily, and much to his surprise,
Conseil pulled off a right-and-left shot and insured our breakfast.
He brought down a white pigeon and a ringdove, which were briskly plucked,
hung from a spit, and roasted over a blazing fire of deadwood.
While these fascinating animals were cooking, Ned prepared some bread
from the artocarpus. Then the pigeon and ringdove were devoured
to the bones and declared excellent. Nutmeg, on which these birds
habitually gorge themselves, sweetens their flesh and makes
it delicious eating.
"They taste like chicken stuffed with truffles," Conseil said.
"All right, Ned," I asked the Canadian, "now what do you need?"
"Game with four paws, Professor Aronnax," Ned Land replied.
"All these pigeons are only appetizers, snacks. So till I've bagged
an animal with cutlets, I won't be happy!"
"Nor I, Ned, until I've caught a bird of paradise."
"Then let's keep hunting," Conseil replied, "but while heading back
to the sea. We've arrived at the foothills of these mountains,
and I think we'll do better if we return to the forest regions."
It was good advice and we took it. After an hour's walk we reached
a genuine sago palm forest. A few harmless snakes fled underfoot.
Birds of paradise stole off at our approach, and I was in real
despair of catching one when Conseil, walking in the lead,
stooped suddenly, gave a triumphant shout, and came back to me,
carrying a magnificent bird of paradise.
"Oh bravo, Conseil!" I exclaimed.
"Master is too kind," Conseil replied.
"Not at all, my boy. That was a stroke of genius, catching one
of these live birds with your bare hands!"
"If master will examine it closely, he'll see that I deserve
no great praise."
"And why not, Conseil?"
"Because this bird is as drunk as a lord."
"Yes, master, drunk from the nutmegs it was devouring under that nutmeg
tree where I caught it. See, Ned my friend, see the monstrous
results of intemperance!"
"Damnation!" the Canadian shot back. "Considering the amount of gin
I've had these past two months, you've got nothing to complain about!"
Meanwhile I was examining this unusual bird. Conseil was not mistaken.
Tipsy from that potent juice, our bird of paradise had been reduced
to helplessness. It was unable to fly. It was barely able to walk.
But this didn't alarm me, and I just let it sleep off its nutmeg.
This bird belonged to the finest of the eight species credited
to Papua and its neighboring islands. It was a "great emerald,"
one of the rarest birds of paradise. It measured three decimeters long.
Its head was comparatively small, and its eyes, placed near the opening of
its beak, were also small. But it offered a wonderful mixture of hues:
a yellow beak, brown feet and claws, hazel wings with purple tips,
pale yellow head and scruff of the neck, emerald throat, the belly
and chest maroon to brown. Two strands, made of a horn substance
covered with down, rose over its tail, which was lengthened by long,
very light feathers of wonderful fineness, and they completed
the costume of this marvelous bird that the islanders have poetically
named "the sun bird."
How I wished I could take this superb bird of paradise back to Paris,
to make a gift of it to the zoo at the Botanical Gardens,
which doesn't own a single live specimen.
"So it must be a rarity or something?" the Canadian asked,
in the tone of a hunter who, from the viewpoint of his art,
gives the game a pretty low rating.
"A great rarity, my gallant comrade, and above all very hard to
capture alive. And even after they're dead, there's still a major
market for these birds. So the natives have figured out how to create
fake ones, like people create fake pearls or diamonds."
"What!" Conseil exclaimed. "They make counterfeit birds of paradise?"
"And is master familiar with how the islanders go about it?"
"Perfectly familiar. During the easterly monsoon season,
birds of paradise lose the magnificent feathers around their tails
that naturalists call 'below-the-wing' feathers. These feathers
are gathered by the fowl forgers and skillfully fitted onto some poor
previously mutilated parakeet. Then they paint over the suture,
varnish the bird, and ship the fruits of their unique labors
to museums and collectors in Europe."
"Good enough!" Ned Land put in. "If it isn't the right bird,
it's still the right feathers, and so long as the merchandise isn't
meant to be eaten, I see no great harm!"
But if my desires were fulfilled by the capture of this bird of paradise,
those of our Canadian huntsman remained unsatisfied. Luckily, near two
o'clock Ned Land brought down a magnificent wild pig of the type
the natives call "bari-outang." This animal came in the nick of time
for us to bag some real quadruped meat, and it was warmly welcomed.
Ned Land proved himself quite gloriously with his gunshot.
Hit by an electric bullet, the pig dropped dead on the spot.
The Canadian properly skinned and cleaned it, after removing half
a dozen cutlets destined to serve as the grilled meat course of our
evening meal. Then the hunt was on again, and once more would
be marked by the exploits of Ned and Conseil.
In essence, beating the bushes, the two friends flushed a herd
of kangaroos that fled by bounding away on their elastic paws.
But these animals didn't flee so swiftly that our electric capsules
couldn't catch up with them.
"Oh, professor!" shouted Ned Land, whose hunting fever had gone
to his brain. "What excellent game, especially in a stew!
What a supply for the Nautilus! Two, three, five down!
And just think how we'll devour all this meat ourselves,
while those numbskulls on board won't get a shred!"
In his uncontrollable glee, I think the Canadian might have
slaughtered the whole horde, if he hadn't been so busy talking!
But he was content with a dozen of these fascinating marsupials,
which make up the first order of aplacental mammals, as Conseil
just had to tell us.
These animals were small in stature. They were a species of those
"rabbit kangaroos" that usually dwell in the hollows of trees
and are tremendously fast; but although of moderate dimensions,
they at least furnish a meat that's highly prized.
We were thoroughly satisfied with the results of our hunting.
A gleeful Ned proposed that we return the next day to this magic island,
which he planned to depopulate of its every edible quadruped.
But he was reckoning without events.
By six o'clock in the evening, we were back on the beach.
The skiff was aground in its usual place. The Nautilus, looking like
a long reef, emerged from the waves two miles offshore.
Without further ado, Ned Land got down to the important business
of dinner. He came wonderfully to terms with its entire cooking.
Grilling over the coals, those cutlets from the "bari-outang" soon
gave off a succulent aroma that perfumed the air.
But I catch myself following in the Canadian's footsteps.
Look at me--in ecstasy over freshly grilled pork!
Please grant me a pardon as I've already granted one to Mr. Land,
and on the same grounds!
In short, dinner was excellent. Two ringdoves rounded out this
extraordinary menu. Sago pasta, bread from the artocarpus, mangoes,
half a dozen pineapples, and the fermented liquor from certain
coconuts heightened our glee. I suspect that my two fine companions
weren't quite as clearheaded as one could wish.
"What if we don't return to the Nautilus this evening?" Conseil said.
"What if we never return to it?" Ned Land added.
Just then a stone whizzed toward us, landed at our feet, and cut
short the harpooner's proposition.
The Lightning Bolts of Captain Nemo
WITHOUT STANDING UP, we stared in the direction of the forest, my hand
stopping halfway to my mouth, Ned Land's completing its assignment.
"Stones don't fall from the sky," Conseil said, "or else they
deserve to be called meteorites."
A second well-polished stone removed a tasty ringdove leg from
Conseil's hand, giving still greater relevance to his observation.
We all three stood up, rifles to our shoulders, ready to
answer any attack.
"Apes maybe?" Ned Land exclaimed.
"Nearly," Conseil replied. "Savages."
"Head for the skiff!" I said, moving toward the sea.
Indeed, it was essential to beat a retreat because some twenty natives,
armed with bows and slings, appeared barely a hundred paces off,
on the outskirts of a thicket that masked the horizon to our right.
The skiff was aground ten fathoms away from us.
The savages approached without running, but they favored us with a
show of the greatest hostility. It was raining stones and arrows.
Ned Land was unwilling to leave his provisions behind, and despite
the impending danger, he clutched his pig on one side, his kangaroos
on the other, and scampered off with respectable speed.
In two minutes we were on the strand. Loading provisions and weapons
into the skiff, pushing it to sea, and positioning its two oars
were the work of an instant. We hadn't gone two cable lengths
when a hundred savages, howling and gesticulating, entered the water
up to their waists. I looked to see if their appearance might
draw some of the Nautilus's men onto the platform. But no.
Lying well out, that enormous machine still seemed completely deserted.
Twenty minutes later we boarded ship. The hatches were open.
After mooring the skiff, we reentered the Nautilus's interior.
I went below to the lounge, from which some chords were wafting.
Captain Nemo was there, leaning over the organ, deep in a musical trance.
"Captain!" I said to him.
He didn't hear me.
"Captain!" I went on, touching him with my hand.
He trembled, and turning around:
"Ah, it's you, professor!" he said to me. "Well, did you have
a happy hunt? Was your herb gathering a success?"
"Yes, captain," I replied, "but unfortunately we've brought back
a horde of bipeds whose proximity worries me."
"What sort of bipeds?"
"Savages!" Captain Nemo replied in an ironic tone. "You set
foot on one of the shores of this globe, professor, and you're
surprised to find savages there? Where aren't there savages?
And besides, are they any worse than men elsewhere, these people
you call savages?"
"Speaking for myself, sir, I've encountered them everywhere."
"Well then," I replied, "if you don't want to welcome them aboard
the Nautilus, you'd better take some precautions!"
"Easy, professor, no cause for alarm."
"But there are a large number of these natives."
"What's your count?"
"At least a hundred."
"Professor Aronnax," replied Captain Nemo, whose fingers took
their places again on the organ keys, "if every islander in Papua
were to gather on that beach, the Nautilus would still have nothing
to fear from their attacks!"
The captain's fingers then ran over the instrument's keyboard,
and I noticed that he touched only its black keys, which gave
his melodies a basically Scottish color. Soon he had forgotten my
presence and was lost in a reverie that I no longer tried to dispel.
I climbed onto the platform. Night had already fallen, because in
this low latitude the sun sets quickly, without any twilight.
I could see Gueboroa Island only dimly. But numerous fires had been
kindled on the beach, attesting that the natives had no thoughts
of leaving it.
For several hours I was left to myself, sometimes musing on the islanders--
but no longer fearing them because the captain's unflappable confidence
had won me over--and sometimes forgetting them to marvel at the splendors
of this tropical night. My memories took wing toward France, in the wake
of those zodiacal stars due to twinkle over it in a few hours.
The moon shone in the midst of the constellations at their zenith.
I then remembered that this loyal, good-natured satellite
would return to this same place the day after tomorrow,
to raise the tide and tear the Nautilus from its coral bed.
Near midnight, seeing that all was quiet over the darkened waves
as well as under the waterside trees, I repaired to my cabin and fell
into a peaceful sleep.
The night passed without mishap. No doubt the Papuans had been
frightened off by the mere sight of this monster aground in
the bay, because our hatches stayed open, offering easy access
to the Nautilus's interior.
At six o'clock in the morning, January 8, I climbed onto the platform.
The morning shadows were lifting. The island was soon on view
through the dissolving mists, first its beaches, then its summits.
The islanders were still there, in greater numbers than on the day before,
perhaps 500 or 600 of them. Taking advantage of the low tide,
some of them had moved forward over the heads of coral to within
two cable lengths of the Nautilus. I could easily distinguish them.
They obviously were true Papuans, men of fine stock, athletic in build,
forehead high and broad, nose large but not flat, teeth white.
Their woolly, red-tinted hair was in sharp contrast to their bodies, which
were black and glistening like those of Nubians. Beneath their pierced,
distended earlobes there dangled strings of beads made from bone.
Generally these savages were naked. I noted some women among them,
dressed from hip to knee in grass skirts held up by belts made
of vegetation. Some of the chieftains adorned their necks with
crescents and with necklaces made from beads of red and white glass.
Armed with bows, arrows, and shields, nearly all of them carried
from their shoulders a sort of net, which held those polished stones
their slings hurl with such dexterity.
One of these chieftains came fairly close to the Nautilus,
examining it with care. He must have been a "mado" of high rank,
because he paraded in a mat of banana leaves that had ragged edges
and was accented with bright colors.
I could easily have picked off this islander, he stood at such close
range; but I thought it best to wait for an actual show of hostility.
Between Europeans and savages, it's acceptable for Europeans to shoot
back but not to attack first.
During this whole time of low tide, the islanders lurked near
the Nautilus, but they weren't boisterous. I often heard them repeat
the word "assai," and from their gestures I understood they were
inviting me to go ashore, an invitation I felt obliged to decline.
So the skiff didn't leave shipside that day, much to the
displeasure of Mr. Land who couldn't complete his provisions.
The adroit Canadian spent his time preparing the meat and flour
products he had brought from Gueboroa Island. As for the savages,
they went back to shore near eleven o'clock in the morning, when the heads
of coral began to disappear under the waves of the rising tide.
But I saw their numbers swell considerably on the beach.
It was likely that they had come from neighboring islands
or from the mainland of Papua proper. However, I didn't see one
local dugout canoe.
Having nothing better to do, I decided to dredge these beautiful,
clear waters, which exhibited a profusion of shells, zoophytes,
and open-sea plants. Besides, it was the last day the Nautilus
would spend in these waterways, if, tomorrow, it still floated off
to the open sea as Captain Nemo had promised.
So I summoned Conseil, who brought me a small, light dragnet similar
to those used in oyster fishing.
"What about these savages?" Conseil asked me. "With all due
respect to master, they don't strike me as very wicked!"
"They're cannibals even so, my boy."
"A person can be both a cannibal and a decent man," Conseil replied,
"just as a person can be both gluttonous and honorable.
The one doesn't exclude the other."
"Fine, Conseil! And I agree that there are honorable cannibals who
decently devour their prisoners. However, I'm opposed to being devoured,
even in all decency, so I'll keep on my guard, especially since
the Nautilus's commander seems to be taking no precautions.
And now let's get to work!"
For two hours our fishing proceeded energetically but without
bringing up any rarities. Our dragnet was filled with Midas abalone,
harp shells, obelisk snails, and especially the finest hammer shells
I had seen to that day. We also gathered in a few sea cucumbers,
some pearl oysters, and a dozen small turtles that we saved for
the ship's pantry.
But just when I least expected it, I laid my hands on a wonder, a natural
deformity I'd have to call it, something very seldom encountered.
Conseil had just made a cast of the dragnet, and his gear had
come back up loaded with a variety of fairly ordinary seashells,
when suddenly he saw me plunge my arms swiftly into the net, pull out
a shelled animal, and give a conchological yell, in other words,
the most piercing yell a human throat can produce.
"Eh? What happened to master?" Conseil asked, very startled.
"Did master get bitten?"
"No, my boy, but I'd gladly have sacrificed a finger for such a find!"
"This shell," I said, displaying the subject of my triumph.
"But that's simply an olive shell of the 'tent olive' species,
genus Oliva, order Pectinibranchia, class Gastropoda, branch Mollusca--"
"Yes, yes, Conseil! But instead of coiling from right to left,
this olive shell rolls from left to right!"
"It can't be!" Conseil exclaimed.
"Yes, my boy, it's a left-handed shell!"
"A left-handed shell!" Conseil repeated, his heart pounding.
"Look at its spiral!"
"Oh, master can trust me on this," Conseil said, taking the valuable
shell in trembling hands, "but never have I felt such excitement!"
And there was good reason to be excited! In fact, as naturalists
have ventured to observe, "dextrality" is a well-known law of nature.
In their rotational and orbital movements, stars and their satellites go
from right to left. Man uses his right hand more often than his left,
and consequently his various instruments and equipment (staircases, locks,
watch springs, etc.) are designed to be used in a right-to-left manner.
Now then, nature has generally obeyed this law in coiling her shells.
They're right-handed with only rare exceptions, and when by chance
a shell's spiral is left-handed, collectors will pay its weight
in gold for it.
So Conseil and I were deep in the contemplation of our treasure,
and I was solemnly promising myself to enrich the Paris Museum
with it, when an ill-timed stone, hurled by one of the islanders,
whizzed over and shattered the valuable object in Conseil's hands.
I gave a yell of despair! Conseil pounced on his rifle and aimed
at a savage swinging a sling just ten meters away from him.
I tried to stop him, but his shot went off and shattered a bracelet
of amulets dangling from the islander's arm.
"Conseil!" I shouted. "Conseil!"
"Eh? What? Didn't master see that this man-eater initiated the attack?"
"A shell isn't worth a human life!" I told him.
"Oh, the rascal!" Conseil exclaimed. "I'd rather he cracked
Conseil was in dead earnest, but I didn't subscribe to his views.
However, the situation had changed in only a short time and we
hadn't noticed. Now some twenty dugout canoes were surrounding
the Nautilus. Hollowed from tree trunks, these dugouts were long,
narrow, and well designed for speed, keeping their balance by means
of two bamboo poles that floated on the surface of the water.
They were maneuvered by skillful, half-naked paddlers, and I viewed
their advance with definite alarm.
It was obvious these Papuans had already entered into relations with
Europeans and knew their ships. But this long, iron cylinder lying
in the bay, with no masts or funnels--what were they to make of it?
Nothing good, because at first they kept it at a respectful distance.
However, seeing that it stayed motionless, they regained confidence
little by little and tried to become more familiar with it.
Now then, it was precisely this familiarity that we needed to prevent.