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 control himself.
“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,” Conseil said.
“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 actocarpus, 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.
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 my shoulder!”
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. Since our weapons made no sound when they went off, they would have only a moderate effect on these islanders, who reputedly respect nothing but noisy mechanisms. Without thunderclaps, lightning bolts would be much less frightening, although the danger lies in the flash, not the noise.
Just then the dugout canoes drew nearer to the Nautilus, and a cloud of arrows burst over us.
“Fire and brimstone, it’s hailing!” Conseil said. “And poisoned hail perhaps!”
“We’ve got to alert Captain Nemo,” I said, reentering the hatch.
I went below to the lounge. I found no one there. I ventured a knock at the door opening into the captain’s stateroom.
The word “Enter!” answered me. I did so and found Captain Nemo busy with calculations in which there was no shortage of X and other algebraic signs.
“Am I disturbing you?” I said out of politeness.
“Correct, Professor Aronnax,” the captain answered me. “But I imagine you have pressing reasons for looking me up?”
“Very pressing. Native dugout canoes are surrounding us, and in a few minutes we’re sure to be assaulted by several hundred savages.”
“Ah!” Captain Nemo put in serenely. “They’ve come in their dugouts?”
“Well, sir, closing the hatches should do the trick.”
“Precisely, and that’s what I came to tell you—”
“Nothing easier,” Captain Nemo said.
And he pressed an electric button, transmitting an order to the crew’s quarters.
“There, sir, all under control!” he told me after a few moments. “The skiff is in place and the hatches are closed. I don’t imagine you’re worried that these gentlemen will stave in walls that shells from your frigate couldn’t breach?”
“No, Captain, but one danger still remains.”
“What’s that, sir?”
“Tomorrow at about this time, we’ll need to reopen the hatches to renew the Nautilus’s air.”
“No argument, sir, since our craft breathes in the manner favored by cetaceans.”
“But if these Papuans are occupying the platform at that moment, I don’t see how you can prevent them from entering.”
“Then, sir, you assume they’ll board the ship?”
“I’m certain of it.”
“Well, sir, let them come aboard. I see no reason to prevent them. Deep down they’re just poor devils, these Papuans, and I don’t want my visit to Gueboroa Island to cost the life of a single one of these unfortunate people!”
On this note I was about to withdraw; but Captain Nemo detained me and invited me to take a seat next to him. He questioned me with interest on our excursions ashore and on our hunting, but seemed not to understand the Canadian’s passionate craving for red meat. Then our conversation skimmed various subjects, and without being more forthcoming, Captain Nemo proved more affable.
Among other things, we came to talk of the Nautilus’s circumstances, aground in the same strait where Captain Dumont d’Urville had nearly miscarried. Then, pertinent to this:
“He was one of your great seamen,” the captain told me, “one of your shrewdest navigators, that d’Urville! He was the Frenchman’s Captain Cook. A man wise but unlucky! Braving the ice banks of the South Pole, the coral of Oceania, the cannibals of the Pacific, only to perish wretchedly in a train wreck! If that energetic man was able to think about his life in its last seconds, imagine what his final thoughts must have been!”
As he spoke, Captain Nemo seemed deeply moved, an emotion I felt was to his credit.
Then, chart in hand, we returned to the deeds of the French navigator: his voyages to circumnavigate the globe, his double attempt at the South Pole, which led to his discovery of the Adélie Coast and the Louis–Philippe Peninsula, finally his hydrographic surveys of the chief islands in Oceania.
“What your d’Urville did on the surface of the sea,” Captain Nemo told me, “I’ve done in the ocean’s interior, but more easily, more completely than he. Constantly tossed about by hurricanes, the Zealous and the new Astrolabe couldn’t compare with the Nautilus, a quiet work room truly at rest in the midst of the waters!”
“Even so, Captain,” I said, “there is one major similarity between Dumont d’Urville’s sloops of war and the Nautilus.”
“What’s that, sir?”
“Like them, the Nautilus has run aground!”
“The Nautilus is not aground, sir,” Captain Nemo replied icily. “The Nautilus was built to rest on the ocean floor, and I don’t need to undertake the arduous labors, the maneuvers d’Urville had to attempt in order to float off his sloops of war. The Zealous and the new Astrolabe wellnigh perished, but my Nautilus is in no danger. Tomorrow, on the day stated and at the hour stated, the tide will peacefully lift it off, and it will resume its navigating through the seas.”
“Captain,” I said, “I don’t doubt—”
“Tomorrow,” Captain Nemo added, standing up, “tomorrow at 2:40 in the afternoon, the Nautilus will float off and exit the Torres Strait undamaged.”
Pronouncing these words in an extremely sharp tone, Captain Nemo gave me a curt bow. This was my dismissal, and I reentered my stateroom.
There I found Conseil, who wanted to know the upshot of my interview with the captain.
“My boy,” I replied, “when I expressed the belief that these Papuan natives were a threat to his Nautilus, the captain answered me with great irony. So I’ve just one thing to say to you: have faith in him and sleep in peace.”
“Master has no need for my services?”
“No, my friend. What’s Ned Land up to?”
“Begging master’s indulgence,” Conseil replied, “but our friend Ned is concocting a kangaroo pie that will be the eighth wonder!”
I was left to myself; I went to bed but slept pretty poorly. I kept hearing noises from the savages, who were stamping on the platform and letting out deafening yells. The night passed in this way, without the crew ever emerging from their usual inertia. They were no more disturbed by the presence of these man–eaters than soldiers in an armored fortress are troubled by ants running over the armor plate.
I got up at six o’clock in the morning. The hatches weren’t open. So the air inside hadn’t been renewed; but the air tanks were kept full for any eventuality and would function appropriately to shoot a few cubic meters of oxygen into the Nautilus’s thin atmosphere.
I worked in my stateroom until noon without seeing Captain Nemo even for an instant. Nobody on board seemed to be making any preparations for departure.
I still waited for a while, then I made my way to the main lounge. Its timepiece marked 2:30. In ten minutes the tide would reach its maximum elevation, and if Captain Nemo hadn’t made a rash promise, the Nautilus would immediately break free. If not, many months might pass before it could leave its coral bed.
But some preliminary vibrations could soon be felt over the boat’s hull. I heard its plating grind against the limestone roughness of that coral base.
At 2:35 Captain Nemo appeared in the lounge.
“We’re about to depart,” he said.
“Ah!” I put in.
“I’ve given orders to open the hatches.”
“What about the Papuans?”
“What about them?” Captain Nemo replied, with a light shrug of his shoulders.
“Won’t they come inside the Nautilus?”
“How will they manage that?”
“By jumping down the hatches you’re about to open.”
“Professor Aronnax,” Captain Nemo replied serenely, “the Nautilus’s hatches aren’t to be entered in that fashion even when they’re open.”
I gaped at the captain.
“You don’t understand?” he said to me.
“Not in the least.”
“Well, come along and you’ll see!”
I headed to the central companionway. There, very puzzled, Ned Land and Conseil watched the crewmen opening the hatches, while a frightful clamor and furious shouts resounded outside.
The hatch lids fell back onto the outer plating. Twenty horrible faces appeared. But when the first islander laid hands on the companionway railing, he was flung backward by some invisible power, lord knows what! He ran off, howling in terror and wildly prancing around.
Ten of his companions followed him. All ten met the same fate.
Conseil was in ecstasy. Carried away by his violent instincts, Ned Land leaped up the companionway. But as soon as his hands seized the railing, he was thrown backward in his turn.
“Damnation!” he exclaimed. “I’ve been struck by a lightning bolt!”
These words explained everything to me. It wasn’t just a railing that led to the platform, it was a metal cable fully charged with the ship’s electricity. Anyone who touched it got a fearsome shock—and such a shock would have been fatal if Captain Nemo had thrown the full current from his equipment into this conducting cable! It could honestly be said that he had stretched between himself and his assailants a network of electricity no one could clear with impunity.
Meanwhile, crazed with terror, the unhinged Papuans beat a retreat. As for us, half laughing, we massaged and comforted poor Ned Land, who was swearing like one possessed.
But just then, lifted off by the tide’s final undulations, the Nautilus left its coral bed at exactly that fortieth minute pinpointed by the captain. Its propeller churned the waves with lazy majesty. Gathering speed little by little, the ship navigated on the surface of the ocean, and safe and sound, it left behind the dangerous narrows of the Torres Strait.