NOW WE BEGIN the second part of this voyage under the seas. The first ended in that moving scene at the coral cemetery, which left a profound impression on my mind. And so Captain Nemo would live out his life entirely in the heart of this immense sea, and even his grave lay ready in its impenetrable depths. There the last sleep of the Nautilus’s occupants, friends bound together in death as in life, would be disturbed by no monster of the deep! “No man either!” the captain had added.
Always that same fierce, implacable defiance of human society!
As for me, I was no longer content with the hypotheses that satisfied Conseil. That fine lad persisted in seeing the Nautilus’s commander as merely one of those unappreciated scientists who repay humanity’s indifference with contempt. For Conseil, the captain was still a misunderstood genius who, tired of the world’s deceptions, had been driven to take refuge in this inaccessible environment where he was free to follow his instincts. But to my mind, this hypothesis explained only one side of Captain Nemo.
In fact, the mystery of that last afternoon when we were locked in prison and put to sleep, the captain’s violent precaution of snatching from my grasp a spyglass poised to scour the horizon, and the fatal wound given that man during some unexplained collision suffered by the Nautilus, all led me down a plain trail. No! Captain Nemo wasn’t content simply to avoid humanity! His fearsome submersible served not only his quest for freedom, but also, perhaps, it was used in Lord–knows–what schemes of dreadful revenge.
Right now, nothing is clear to me, I still glimpse only glimmers in the dark, and I must limit my pen, as it were, to taking dictation from events.
But nothing binds us to Captain Nemo. He believes that escaping from the Nautilus is impossible. We are not even constrained by our word of honor. No promises fetter us. We’re simply captives, prisoners masquerading under the name “guests” for the sake of everyday courtesy. Even so, Ned Land hasn’t given up all hope of recovering his freedom. He’s sure to take advantage of the first chance that comes his way. No doubt I will do likewise. And yet I will feel some regret at making off with the Nautilus’s secrets, so generously unveiled for us by Captain Nemo! Because, ultimately, should we detest or admire this man? Is he the persecutor or the persecuted? And in all honesty, before I leave him forever, I want to finish this underwater tour of the world, whose first stages have been so magnificent. I want to observe the full series of these wonders gathered under the seas of our globe. I want to see what no man has seen yet, even if I must pay for this insatiable curiosity with my life! What are my discoveries to date? Nothing, relatively speaking—since so far we’ve covered only 6,000 leagues across the Pacific!
Nevertheless, I’m well aware that the Nautilus is drawing near to populated shores, and if some chance for salvation becomes available to us, it would be sheer cruelty to sacrifice my companions to my passion for the unknown. I must go with them, perhaps even guide them. But will this opportunity ever arise? The human being, robbed of his free will, craves such an opportunity; but the scientist, forever inquisitive, dreads it.
That day, January 21, 1868, the chief officer went at noon to take the sun’s altitude. I climbed onto the platform, lit a cigar, and watched him at work. It seemed obvious to me that this man didn’t understand French, because I made several remarks in a loud voice that were bound to provoke him to some involuntary show of interest had he understood them; but he remained mute and emotionless.
While he took his sights with his sextant, one of the Nautilus’s sailors—that muscular man who had gone with us to Crespo Island during our first underwater excursion—came up to clean the glass panes of the beacon. I then examined the fittings of this mechanism, whose power was increased a hundredfold by biconvex lenses that were designed like those in a lighthouse and kept its rays productively focused. This electric lamp was so constructed as to yield its maximum illuminating power. In essence, its light was generated in a vacuum, insuring both its steadiness and intensity. Such a vacuum also reduced wear on the graphite points between which the luminous arc expanded. This was an important savings for Captain Nemo, who couldn’t easily renew them. But under these conditions, wear and tear were almost nonexistent.
When the Nautilus was ready to resume its underwater travels, I went below again to the lounge. The hatches closed once more, and our course was set due west.
We then plowed the waves of the Indian Ocean, vast liquid plains with an area of 550,000,000 hectares, whose waters are so transparent it makes you dizzy to lean over their surface. There the Nautilus generally drifted at a depth between 100 and 200 meters. It behaved in this way for some days. To anyone without my grand passion for the sea, these hours would surely have seemed long and monotonous; but my daily strolls on the platform where I was revived by the life–giving ocean air, the sights in the rich waters beyond the lounge windows, the books to be read in the library, and the composition of my memoirs, took up all my time and left me without a moment of weariness or boredom.
All in all, we enjoyed a highly satisfactory state of health. The diet on board agreed with us perfectly, and for my part, I could easily have gone without those changes of pace that Ned Land, in a spirit of protest, kept taxing his ingenuity to supply us. What’s more, in this constant temperature we didn’t even have to worry about catching colds. Besides, the ship had a good stock of the madrepore Dendrophylia, known in Provence by the name sea fennel, and a poultice made from the dissolved flesh of its polyps will furnish an excellent cough medicine.
For some days we saw a large number of aquatic birds with webbed feet, known as gulls or sea mews. Some were skillfully slain, and when cooked in a certain fashion, they make a very acceptable platter of water game. Among the great wind riders—carried over long distances from every shore and resting on the waves from their exhausting flights—I spotted some magnificent albatross, birds belonging to the Longipennes (long–winged) family, whose discordant calls sound like the braying of an ass. The Totipalmes (fully webbed) family was represented by swift frigate birds, nimbly catching fish at the surface, and by numerous tropic birds of the genus Phaeton, among others the red–tailed tropic bird, the size of a pigeon, its white plumage shaded with pink tints that contrasted with its dark–hued wings.
The Nautilus’s nets hauled up several types of sea turtle from the hawksbill genus with arching backs whose scales are highly prized. Diving easily, these reptiles can remain a good while underwater by closing the fleshy valves located at the external openings of their nasal passages. When they were captured, some hawksbills were still asleep inside their carapaces, a refuge from other marine animals. The flesh of these turtles was nothing memorable, but their eggs made an excellent feast.
As for fish, they always filled us with wonderment when, staring through the open panels, we could unveil the secrets of their aquatic lives. I noted several species I hadn’t previously been able to observe.
I’ll mention chiefly some trunkfish unique to the Red Sea, the sea of the East Indies, and that part of the ocean washing the coasts of equinoctial America. Like turtles, armadillos, sea urchins, and crustaceans, these fish are protected by armor plate that’s neither chalky nor stony but actual bone. Sometimes this armor takes the shape of a solid triangle, sometimes that of a solid quadrangle. Among the triangular type, I noticed some half a decimeter long, with brown tails, yellow fins, and wholesome, exquisitely tasty flesh; I even recommend that they be acclimatized to fresh water, a change, incidentally, that a number of saltwater fish can make with ease. I’ll also mention some quadrangular trunkfish topped by four large protuberances along the back; trunkfish sprinkled with white spots on the underside of the body, which make good house pets like certain birds; boxfish armed with stings formed by extensions of their bony crusts, and whose odd grunting has earned them the nickname “sea pigs”; then some trunkfish known as dromedaries, with tough, leathery flesh and big conical humps.
From the daily notes kept by Mr. Conseil, I also retrieve certain fish from the genus Tetradon unique to these seas: southern puffers with red backs and white chests distinguished by three lengthwise rows of filaments, and jugfish, seven inches long, decked out in the brightest colors. Then, as specimens of other genera, blowfish resembling a dark brown egg, furrowed with white bands, and lacking tails; globefish, genuine porcupines of the sea, armed with stings and able to inflate themselves until they look like a pin cushion bristling with needles; seahorses common to every ocean; flying dragonfish with long snouts and highly distended pectoral fins shaped like wings, which enable them, if not to fly, at least to spring into the air; spatula–shaped paddlefish whose tails are covered with many scaly rings; snipefish with long jaws, excellent animals twenty–five centimeters long and gleaming with the most cheerful colors; bluish gray dragonets with wrinkled heads; myriads of leaping blennies with black stripes and long pectoral fins, gliding over the surface of the water with prodigious speed; delicious sailfish that can hoist their fins in a favorable current like so many unfurled sails; splendid nurseryfish on which nature has lavished yellow, azure, silver, and gold; yellow mackerel with wings made of filaments; bullheads forever spattered with mud, which make distinct hissing sounds; sea robins whose livers are thought to be poisonous; ladyfish that can flutter their eyelids; finally, archerfish with long, tubular snouts, real oceangoing flycatchers, armed with a rifle unforeseen by either Remington or Chassepot: it slays insects by shooting them with a simple drop of water.
From the eighty–ninth fish genus in Lacépède’s system of classification, belonging to his second subclass of bony fish (characterized by gill covers and a bronchial membrane), I noted some scorpionfish whose heads are adorned with stings and which have only one dorsal fin; these animals are covered with small scales, or have none at all, depending on the subgenus to which they belong. The second subgenus gave us some Didactylus specimens three to four decimeters long, streaked with yellow, their heads having a phantasmagoric appearance. As for the first subgenus, it furnished several specimens of that bizarre fish aptly nicknamed “toadfish,” whose big head is sometimes gouged with deep cavities, sometimes swollen with protuberances; bristling with stings and strewn with nodules, it sports hideously irregular horns; its body and tail are adorned with callosities; its stings can inflict dangerous injuries; it’s repulsive and horrible.
From January 21 to the 23rd, the Nautilus traveled at the rate of 250 leagues in twenty–four hours, hence 540 miles at twenty–two miles per hour. If, during our trip, we were able to identify these different varieties of fish, it’s because they were attracted by our electric light and tried to follow alongside; but most of them were outdistanced by our speed and soon fell behind; temporarily, however, a few managed to keep pace in the Nautilus’s waters.
On the morning of the 24th, in latitude 12° 5′ south and longitude 94° 33′, we raised Keeling Island, a madreporic upheaving planted with magnificent coconut trees, which had been visited by Mr. Darwin and Captain Fitzroy. The Nautilus cruised along a short distance off the shore of this desert island. Our dragnets brought up many specimens of polyps and echinoderms plus some unusual shells from the branch Mollusca. Captain Nemo’s treasures were enhanced by some valuable exhibits from the delphinula snail species, to which I joined some pointed star coral, a sort of parasitic polypary that often attaches itself to seashells.
Soon Keeling Island disappeared below the horizon, and our course was set to the northwest, toward the tip of the Indian peninsula.
“Civilization!” Ned Land told me that day. “Much better than those Papuan Islands where we ran into more savages than venison! On this Indian shore, professor, there are roads and railways, English, French, and Hindu villages. We wouldn’t go five miles without bumping into a fellow countryman. Come on now, isn’t it time for our sudden departure from Captain Nemo?”
“No, no, Ned,” I replied in a very firm tone. “Let’s ride it out, as you seafaring fellows say. The Nautilus is approaching populated areas. It’s going back toward Europe, let it take us there. After we arrive in home waters, we can do as we see fit. Besides, I don’t imagine Captain Nemo will let us go hunting on the coasts of Malabar or Coromandel as he did in the forests of New Guinea.”
“Well, sir, can’t we manage without his permission?”
I didn’t answer the Canadian. I wanted no arguments. Deep down, I was determined to fully exploit the good fortune that had put me on board the Nautilus.
After leaving Keeling Island, our pace got generally slower. It also got more unpredictable, often taking us to great depths. Several times we used our slanting fins, which internal levers could set at an oblique angle to our waterline. Thus we went as deep as two or three kilometers down but without ever verifying the lowest depths of this sea near India, which soundings of 13,000 meters have been unable to reach. As for the temperature in these lower strata, the thermometer always and invariably indicated 4° centigrade. I merely observed that in the upper layers, the water was always colder over shallows than in the open sea.
On January 25, the ocean being completely deserted, the Nautilus spent the day on the surface, churning the waves with its powerful propeller and making them spurt to great heights. Under these conditions, who wouldn’t have mistaken it for a gigantic cetacean? I spent three–quarters of the day on the platform. I stared at the sea. Nothing on the horizon, except near four o’clock in the afternoon a long steamer to the west, running on our opposite tack. Its masting was visible for an instant, but it couldn’t have seen the Nautilus because we were lying too low in the water. I imagine that steamboat belonged to the Peninsular & Oriental line, which provides service from the island of Ceylon to Sidney, also calling at King George Sound and Melbourne.
At five o’clock in the afternoon, just before that brief twilight that links day with night in tropical zones, Conseil and I marveled at an unusual sight.
It was a delightful animal whose discovery, according to the ancients, is a sign of good luck. Aristotle, Athenaeus, Pliny, and Oppian studied its habits and lavished on its behalf all the scientific poetry of Greece and Italy. They called it “nautilus” and “pompilius.” But modern science has not endorsed these designations, and this mollusk is now known by the name argonaut.
Anyone consulting Conseil would soon learn from the gallant lad that the branch Mollusca is divided into five classes; that the first class features the Cephalopoda (whose members are sometimes naked, sometimes covered with a shell), which consists of two families, the Dibranchiata and the Tetrabranchiata, which are distinguished by their number of gills; that the family Dibranchiata includes three genera, the argonaut, the squid, and the cuttlefish, and that the family Tetrabranchiata contains only one genus, the nautilus. After this catalog, if some recalcitrant listener confuses the argonaut, which is acetabuliferous (in other words, a bearer of suction tubes), with the nautilus, which is tentaculiferous (a bearer of tentacles), it will be simply unforgivable.
Now, it was a school of argonauts then voyaging on the surface of the ocean. We could count several hundred of them. They belonged to that species of argonaut covered with protuberances and exclusive to the seas near India.
These graceful mollusks were swimming backward by means of their locomotive tubes, sucking water into these tubes and then expelling it. Six of their eight tentacles were long, thin, and floated on the water, while the other two were rounded into palms and spread to the wind like light sails. I could see perfectly their undulating, spiral–shaped shells, which Cuvier aptly compared to an elegant cockleboat. It’s an actual boat indeed. It transports the animal that secretes it without the animal sticking to it.
“The argonaut is free to leave its shell,” I told Conseil, “but it never does.”
“Not unlike Captain Nemo,” Conseil replied sagely. “Which is why he should have christened his ship the Argonaut.”
For about an hour the Nautilus cruised in the midst of this school of mollusks. Then, lord knows why, they were gripped with a sudden fear. As if at a signal, every sail was abruptly lowered; arms folded, bodies contracted, shells turned over by changing their center of gravity, and the whole flotilla disappeared under the waves. It was instantaneous, and no squadron of ships ever maneuvered with greater togetherness.
Just then night fell suddenly, and the waves barely surged in the breeze, spreading placidly around the Nautilus’s side plates.
The next day, January 26, we cut the equator on the 82nd meridian and we reentered the northern hemisphere.
During that day a fearsome school of sharks provided us with an escort. Dreadful animals that teem in these seas and make them extremely dangerous. There were Port Jackson sharks with a brown back, a whitish belly, and eleven rows of teeth, bigeye sharks with necks marked by a large black spot encircled in white and resembling an eye, and Isabella sharks whose rounded snouts were strewn with dark speckles. Often these powerful animals rushed at the lounge window with a violence less than comforting. By this point Ned Land had lost all self–control. He wanted to rise to the surface of the waves and harpoon the monsters, especially certain smooth–hound sharks whose mouths were paved with teeth arranged like a mosaic, and some big five–meter tiger sharks that insisted on personally provoking him. But the Nautilus soon picked up speed and easily left astern the fastest of these man–eaters.
On January 27, at the entrance to the huge Bay of Bengal, we repeatedly encountered a gruesome sight: human corpses floating on the surface of the waves! Carried by the Ganges to the high seas, these were deceased Indian villagers who hadn’t been fully devoured by vultures, the only morticians in these parts. But there was no shortage of sharks to assist them with their undertaking chores.
Near seven o’clock in the evening, the Nautilus lay half submerged, navigating in the midst of milky white waves. As far as the eye could see, the ocean seemed lactified. Was it an effect of the moon’s rays? No, because the new moon was barely two days old and was still lost below the horizon in the sun’s rays. The entire sky, although lit up by stellar radiation, seemed pitch–black in comparison with the whiteness of these waters.
Conseil couldn’t believe his eyes, and he questioned me about the causes of this odd phenomenon. Luckily I was in a position to answer him.
“That’s called a milk sea,” I told him, “a vast expanse of white waves often seen along the coasts of Amboina and in these waterways.”
“But,” Conseil asked, “could master tell me the cause of this effect, because I presume this water hasn’t really changed into milk!”
“No, my boy, and this whiteness that amazes you is merely due to the presence of myriads of tiny creatures called infusoria, a sort of diminutive glowworm that’s colorless and gelatinous in appearance, as thick as a strand of hair, and no longer than one–fifth of a millimeter. Some of these tiny creatures stick together over an area of several leagues.”
“Several leagues!” Conseil exclaimed.
“Yes, my boy, and don’t even try to compute the number of these infusoria. You won’t pull it off, because if I’m not mistaken, certain navigators have cruised through milk seas for more than forty miles.”
I’m not sure that Conseil heeded my recommendation, because he seemed to be deep in thought, no doubt trying to calculate how many one–fifths of a millimeter are found in forty square miles. As for me, I continued to observe this phenomenon. For several hours the Nautilus’s spur sliced through these whitish waves, and I watched it glide noiselessly over this soapy water, as if it were cruising through those foaming eddies that a bay’s currents and countercurrents sometimes leave between each other.
Near midnight the sea suddenly resumed its usual hue, but behind us all the way to the horizon, the skies kept mirroring the whiteness of those waves and for a good while seemed imbued with the hazy glow of an aurora borealis.
ON JANUARY 28, in latitude 9° 4′ north, when the Nautilus returned at noon to the surface of the sea, it lay in sight of land some eight miles to the west. Right off, I observed a cluster of mountains about 2,000 feet high, whose shapes were very whimsically sculpted. After our position fix, I reentered the lounge, and when our bearings were reported on the chart, I saw that we were off the island of Ceylon, that pearl dangling from the lower lobe of the Indian peninsula.
I went looking in the library for a book about this island, one of the most fertile in the world. Sure enough, I found a volume entitled Ceylon and the Singhalese by H. C. Sirr, Esq. Reentering the lounge, I first noted the bearings of Ceylon, on which antiquity lavished so many different names. It was located between latitude 5° 55′ and 9° 49′ north, and between longitude 79° 42′ and 82° 4′ east of the meridian of Greenwich; its length is 275 miles; its maximum width, 150 miles; its circumference, 900 miles; its surface area, 24,448 square miles, in other words, a little smaller than that of Ireland.
Just then Captain Nemo and his chief officer appeared.
The captain glanced at the chart. Then, turning to me:
“The island of Ceylon,” he said, “is famous for its pearl fisheries. Would you be interested, Professor Aronnax, in visiting one of those fisheries?”
“Fine. It’s easily done. Only, when we see the fisheries, we’ll see no fishermen. The annual harvest hasn’t yet begun. No matter. I’ll give orders to make for the Gulf of Mannar, and we’ll arrive there late tonight.”
The captain said a few words to his chief officer who went out immediately. Soon the Nautilus reentered its liquid element, and the pressure gauge indicated that it was staying at a depth of thirty feet.
With the chart under my eyes, I looked for the Gulf of Mannar. I found it by the 9th parallel off the northwestern shores of Ceylon. It was formed by the long curve of little Mannar Island. To reach it we had to go all the way up Ceylon’s west coast.
“Professor,” Captain Nemo then told me, “there are pearl fisheries in the Bay of Bengal, the seas of the East Indies, the seas of China and Japan, plus those seas south of the United States, the Gulf of Panama and the Gulf of California; but it’s off Ceylon that such fishing reaps its richest rewards. No doubt we’ll be arriving a little early. Fishermen gather in the Gulf of Mannar only during the month of March, and for thirty days some 300 boats concentrate on the lucrative harvest of these treasures from the sea. Each boat is manned by ten oarsmen and ten fishermen. The latter divide into two groups, dive in rotation, and descend to a depth of twelve meters with the help of a heavy stone clutched between their feet and attached by a rope to their boat.”
“You mean,” I said, “that such primitive methods are still all that they use?”
“All,” Captain Nemo answered me, “although these fisheries belong to the most industrialized people in the world, the English, to whom the Treaty of Amiens granted them in 1802.”
“Yet it strikes me that diving suits like yours could perform yeoman service in such work.”
“Yes, since those poor fishermen can’t stay long underwater. On his voyage to Ceylon, the Englishman Percival made much of a Kaffir who stayed under five minutes without coming up to the surface, but I find that hard to believe. I know that some divers can last up to fifty–seven seconds, and highly skillful ones to eighty–seven; but such men are rare, and when the poor fellows climb back on board, the water coming out of their noses and ears is tinted with blood. I believe the average time underwater that these fishermen can tolerate is thirty seconds, during which they hastily stuff their little nets with all the pearl oysters they can tear loose. But these fishermen generally don’t live to advanced age: their vision weakens, ulcers break out on their eyes, sores form on their bodies, and some are even stricken with apoplexy on the ocean floor.”
“Yes,” I said, “it’s a sad occupation, and one that exists only to gratify the whims of fashion. But tell me, Captain, how many oysters can a boat fish up in a workday?”
“About 40,000 to 50,000. It’s even said that in 1814, when the English government went fishing on its own behalf, its divers worked just twenty days and brought up 76,000,000 oysters.”
“At least,” I asked, “the fishermen are well paid, aren’t they?”
“Hardly, professor. In Panama they make just $1.00 per week. In most places they earn only a penny for each oyster that has a pearl, and they bring up so many that have none!”
“Only one penny to those poor people who make their employers rich! That’s atrocious!”
“On that note, professor,” Captain Nemo told me, “you and your companions will visit the Mannar oysterbank, and if by chance some eager fisherman arrives early, well, we can watch him at work.”
“That suits me, captain.”
“By the way, Professor Aronnax, you aren’t afraid of sharks, are you?”
“Sharks?” I exclaimed.
This struck me as a pretty needless question, to say the least.
“Well?” Captain Nemo went on.
“I admit, Captain, I’m not yet on very familiar terms with that genus of fish.”
“We’re used to them, the rest of us,” Captain Nemo answered. “And in time you will be too. Anyhow, we’ll be armed, and on our way we might hunt a man–eater or two. It’s a fascinating sport. So, professor, I’ll see you tomorrow, bright and early.”
This said in a carefree tone, Captain Nemo left the lounge.
If you’re invited to hunt bears in the Swiss mountains, you might say: “Oh good, I get to go bear hunting tomorrow!” If you’re invited to hunt lions on the Atlas plains or tigers in the jungles of India, you might say: “Ha! Now’s my chance to hunt lions and tigers!” But if you’re invited to hunt sharks in their native element, you might want to think it over before accepting.
As for me, I passed a hand over my brow, where beads of cold sweat were busy forming.
“Let’s think this over,” I said to myself, “and let’s take our time. Hunting otters in underwater forests, as we did in the forests of Crespo Island, is an acceptable activity. But to roam the bottom of the sea when you’re almost certain to meet man–eaters in the neighborhood, that’s another story! I know that in certain countries, particularly in the Andaman Islands, they don’t hesitate to attack sharks, dagger in one hand and noose in the other; but I also know that many who face those fearsome animals don’t come back alive. But in this instance, I don’t think a little hesitation on my part would be out of place.”
And there I was, fantasizing about sharks, envisioning huge jaws armed with multiple rows of teeth and capable of cutting a man in half. I could already feel a definite pain around my pelvic girdle. And how I resented the offhand manner in which the captain had extended his deplorable invitation! You would have thought it was an issue of going into the woods on some harmless fox hunt!
“Thank heavens!” I said to myself. “Conseil will never want to come along, and that’ll be my excuse for not going with the captain.”
As for Ned Land, I admit I felt less confident of his wisdom. Danger, however great, held a perennial attraction for his aggressive nature.
I went back to reading Sirr’s book, but I leafed through it mechanically. Between the lines I kept seeing fearsome, wide–open jaws.
Just then Conseil and the Canadian entered with a calm, even gleeful air. Little did they know what was waiting for them.
“Ye gods, sir!” Ned Land told me. “Your Captain Nemo—the devil take him—has just made us a very pleasant proposition!”
“Oh!” I said “You know about—”
“With all due respect to master,” Conseil replied, “the Nautilus’s commander has invited us, together with master, for a visit tomorrow to Ceylon’s magnificent pearl fisheries. He did so in the most cordial terms and conducted himself like a true gentleman.”
“He didn’t tell you anything else?”
“Nothing, sir,” the Canadian replied. “He said you’d already discussed this little stroll.”
“Indeed,” I said. “But didn’t he give you any details on—”
“Not a one, Mr. Naturalist. You will be going with us, right?”
“Me? Why yes, certainly, of course! I can see that you like the idea, Mr. Land.”
“Yes! It will be a really unusual experience!”
“And possibly dangerous!” I added in an insinuating tone.
“Dangerous?” Ned Land replied. “A simple trip to an oysterbank?”
Assuredly, Captain Nemo hadn’t seen fit to plant the idea of sharks in the minds of my companions. For my part, I stared at them with anxious eyes, as if they were already missing a limb or two. Should I alert them? Yes, surely, but I hardly knew how to go about it.
“Would master,” Conseil said to me, “give us some background on pearl fishing?”
“On the fishing itself?” I asked. “Or on the occupational hazards that—”
“On the fishing,” the Canadian replied. “Before we tackle the terrain, it helps to be familiar with it.”
“All right, sit down, my friends, and I’ll teach you everything I myself have just been taught by the Englishman H. C. Sirr!”
Ned and Conseil took seats on a couch, and right off the Canadian said to me:
“Sir, just what is a pearl exactly?”
“My gallant Ned,” I replied, “for poets a pearl is a tear from the sea; for Orientals it’s a drop of solidified dew; for the ladies it’s a jewel they can wear on their fingers, necks, and ears that’s oblong in shape, glassy in luster, and formed from mother–of–pearl; for chemists it’s a mixture of calcium phosphate and calcium carbonate with a little gelatin protein; and finally, for naturalists it’s a simple festering secretion from the organ that produces mother–of–pearl in certain bivalves.”
“Branch Mollusca,” Conseil said, “class Acephala, order Testacea.”
“Correct, my scholarly Conseil. Now then, those Testacea capable of producing pearls include rainbow abalone, turbo snails, giant clams, and saltwater scallops—briefly, all those that secrete mother–of–pearl, in other words, that blue, azure, violet, or white substance lining the insides of their valves.”
“Are mussels included too?” the Canadian asked.
“Yes! The mussels of certain streams in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Saxony, Bohemia, and France.”
“Good!” the Canadian replied. “From now on we’ll pay closer attention to ’em.”
“But,” I went on, “for secreting pearls, the ideal mollusk is the pearl oyster Meleagrina margaritifera, that valuable shellfish. Pearls result simply from mother–of–pearl solidifying into a globular shape. Either they stick to the oyster’s shell, or they become embedded in the creature’s folds. On the valves a pearl sticks fast; on the flesh it lies loose. But its nucleus is always some small, hard object, say a sterile egg or a grain of sand, around which the mother–of–pearl is deposited in thin, concentric layers over several years in succession.”
“Can one find several pearls in the same oyster?” Conseil asked.
“Yes, my boy. There are some shellfish that turn into real jewel coffers. They even mention one oyster, about which I remain dubious, that supposedly contained at least 150 sharks.”
“150 sharks!” Ned Land yelped.
“Did I say sharks?” I exclaimed hastily. “I meant 150 pearls. Sharks wouldn’t make sense.”
“Indeed,” Conseil said. “But will master now tell us how one goes about extracting these pearls?”
“One proceeds in several ways, and often when pearls stick to the valves, fishermen even pull them loose with pliers. But usually the shellfish are spread out on mats made from the esparto grass that covers the beaches. Thus they die in the open air, and by the end of ten days they’ve rotted sufficiently. Next they’re immersed in huge tanks of salt water, then they’re opened up and washed. At this point the sorters begin their twofold task. First they remove the layers of mother–of–pearl, which are known in the industry by the names legitimate silver, bastard white, or bastard black, and these are shipped out in cases weighing 125 to 150 kilograms. Then they remove the oyster’s meaty tissue, boil it, and finally strain it, in order to extract even the smallest pearls.”
“Do the prices of these pearls differ depending on their size?” Conseil asked.
“Not only on their size,” I replied, “but also according to their shape, their water—in other words, their color—and their orient—in other words, that dappled, shimmering glow that makes them so delightful to the eye. The finest pearls are called virgin pearls, or paragons; they form in isolation within the mollusk’s tissue. They’re white, often opaque but sometimes of opalescent transparency, and usually spherical or pear–shaped. The spherical ones are made into bracelets; the pear–shaped ones into earrings, and since they’re the most valuable, they’re priced individually. The other pearls that stick to the oyster’s shell are more erratically shaped and are priced by weight. Finally, classed in the lowest order, the smallest pearls are known by the name seed pearls; they’re priced by the measuring cup and are used mainly in the creation of embroidery for church vestments.”
“But it must be a long, hard job, sorting out these pearls by size,” the Canadian said.
“No, my friend. That task is performed with eleven strainers, or sieves, that are pierced with different numbers of holes. Those pearls staying in the strainers with twenty to eighty holes are in the first order. Those not slipping through the sieves pierced with 100 to 800 holes are in the second order. Finally, those pearls for which one uses strainers pierced with 900 to 1,000 holes make up the seed pearls.”
“How ingenious,” Conseil said, “to reduce dividing and classifying pearls to a mechanical operation. And could master tell us the profits brought in by harvesting these banks of pearl oysters?”
“According to Sirr’s book,” I replied, “these Ceylon fisheries are farmed annually for a total profit of 3,000,000 man–eaters.”
“Francs!” Conseil rebuked.
“Yes, francs! ₣3,000,000!” I went on. “But I don’t think these fisheries bring in the returns they once did. Similarly, the Central American fisheries used to make an annual profit of ₣4,000,000 during the reign of King Charles V, but now they bring in only two–thirds of that amount. All in all, it’s estimated that ₣9,000,000 is the current yearly return for the whole pearl–harvesting industry.”
“But,” Conseil asked, “haven’t certain famous pearls been quoted at extremely high prices?”
“Yes, my boy. They say Julius Caesar gave Servilia a pearl worth ₣120,000 in our currency.”
“I’ve even heard stories,” the Canadian said, “about some lady in ancient times who drank pearls in vinegar.”
“Cleopatra,” Conseil shot back.
“It must have tasted pretty bad,” Ned Land added.
“Abominable, Ned my friend,” Conseil replied. “But when a little glass of vinegar is worth ₣1,500,000, its taste is a small price to pay.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t marry the gal,” the Canadian said, throwing up his hands with an air of discouragement.
“Ned Land married to Cleopatra?” Conseil exclaimed.
“But I was all set to tie the knot, Conseil,” the Canadian replied in all seriousness, “and it wasn’t my fault the whole business fell through. I even bought a pearl necklace for my fiancée, Kate Tender, but she married somebody else instead. Well, that necklace cost me only $1.50, but you can absolutely trust me on this, professor, its pearls were so big, they wouldn’t have gone through that strainer with twenty holes.”
“My gallant Ned,” I replied, laughing, “those were artificial pearls, ordinary glass beads whose insides were coated with Essence of Orient.”
“Wow!” the Canadian replied. “That Essence of Orient must sell for quite a large sum.”
“As little as zero! It comes from the scales of a European carp, it’s nothing more than a silver substance that collects in the water and is preserved in ammonia. It’s worthless.”
“Maybe that’s why Kate Tender married somebody else,” replied Mr. Land philosophically.
“But,” I said, “getting back to pearls of great value, I don’t think any sovereign ever possessed one superior to the pearl owned by Captain Nemo.”
“This one?” Conseil said, pointing to a magnificent jewel in its glass case.
“Exactly. And I’m certainly not far off when I estimate its value at 2,000,000 . . . uh . . .”
“Francs!” Conseil said quickly.
“Yes,” I said, “₣2,000,000, and no doubt all it cost our captain was the effort to pick it up.”
“Ha!” Ned Land exclaimed. “During our stroll tomorrow, who says we won’t run into one just like it?”
“Bah!” Conseil put in.
“And why not?”
“What good would a pearl worth millions do us here on the Nautilus?”
“Here, no,” Ned Land said. “But elsewhere. . . .”
“Oh! Elsewhere!” Conseil put in, shaking his head.
“In fact,” I said, “Mr. Land is right. And if we ever brought back to Europe or America a pearl worth millions, it would make the story of our adventures more authentic—and much more rewarding.”
“That’s how I see it,” the Canadian said.
“But,” said Conseil, who perpetually returned to the didactic side of things, “is this pearl fishing ever dangerous?”
“No,” I replied quickly, “especially if one takes certain precautions.”
“What risks would you run in a job like that?” Ned Land said. “Swallowing a few gulps of salt water?”
“Whatever you say, Ned.” Then, trying to imitate Captain Nemo’s carefree tone, I asked, “By the way, gallant Ned, are you afraid of sharks?”
“Me?” the Canadian replied. “I’m a professional harpooner! It’s my job to make a mockery of them!”
“It isn’t an issue,” I said, “of fishing for them with a swivel hook, hoisting them onto the deck of a ship, chopping off the tail with a sweep of the ax, opening the belly, ripping out the heart, and tossing it into the sea.”
“So it’s an issue of . . . ?”
“In the water?”
“In the water.”
“Ye gods, just give me a good harpoon! You see, sir, these sharks are badly designed. They have to roll their bellies over to snap you up, and in the meantime . . .”
Ned Land had a way of pronouncing the word “snap” that sent chills down the spine.
“Well, how about you, Conseil? What are your feelings about these man–eaters?”
“Me?” Conseil said. “I’m afraid I must be frank with master.”
Good for you, I thought.
“If master faces these sharks,” Conseil said, “I think his loyal manservant should face them with him!”