THE NEXT DAY, March 22, at six o’clock in the morning, preparations for departure began. The last gleams of twilight were melting into night. The cold was brisk. The constellations were glittering with startling intensity. The wonderful Southern Cross, polar star of the Antarctic regions, twinkled at its zenith.
The thermometer marked –12° centigrade, and a fresh breeze left a sharp nip in the air. Ice floes were increasing over the open water. The sea was starting to congeal everywhere. Numerous blackish patches were spreading over its surface, announcing the imminent formation of fresh ice. Obviously this southernmost basin froze over during its six–month winter and became utterly inaccessible. What happened to the whales during this period? No doubt they went beneath the Ice Bank to find more feasible seas. As for seals and walruses, they were accustomed to living in the harshest climates and stayed on in these icy waterways. These animals know by instinct how to gouge holes in the ice fields and keep them continually open; they go to these holes to breathe. Once the birds have migrated northward to escape the cold, these marine mammals remain as sole lords of the polar continent.
Meanwhile the ballast tanks filled with water and the Nautilus sank slowly. At a depth of 1,000 feet, it stopped. Its propeller churned the waves and it headed due north at a speed of fifteen miles per hour. Near the afternoon it was already cruising under the immense frozen carapace of the Ice Bank.
As a precaution, the panels in the lounge stayed closed, because the Nautilus’s hull could run afoul of some submerged block of ice. So I spent the day putting my notes into final form. My mind was completely wrapped up in my memories of the pole. We had reached that inaccessible spot without facing exhaustion or danger, as if our seagoing passenger carriage had glided there on railroad tracks. And now we had actually started our return journey. Did it still have comparable surprises in store for me? I felt sure it did, so inexhaustible is this series of underwater wonders! As it was, in the five and a half months since fate had brought us on board, we had cleared 14,000 leagues, and over this track longer than the earth’s equator, so many fascinating or frightening incidents had beguiled our voyage: that hunting trip in the Crespo forests, our running aground in the Torres Strait, the coral cemetery, the pearl fisheries of Ceylon, the Arabic tunnel, the fires of Santorini, those millions in the Bay of Vigo, Atlantis, the South Pole! During the night all these memories crossed over from one dream to the next, not giving my brain a moment’s rest.
At three o’clock in the morning, I was awakened by a violent collision. I sat up in bed, listening in the darkness, and then was suddenly hurled into the middle of my stateroom. Apparently the Nautilus had gone aground, then heeled over sharply.
Leaning against the walls, I dragged myself down the gangways to the lounge, whose ceiling lights were on. The furniture had been knocked over. Fortunately the glass cases were solidly secured at the base and had stood fast. Since we were no longer vertical, the starboard pictures were glued to the tapestries, while those to port had their lower edges hanging a foot away from the wall. So the Nautilus was lying on its starboard side, completely stationary to boot.
In its interior I heard the sound of footsteps and muffled voices. But Captain Nemo didn’t appear. Just as I was about to leave the lounge, Ned Land and Conseil entered.
“What happened?” I instantly said to them.
“I came to ask Master that,” Conseil replied.
“Damnation!” the Canadian exclaimed. “I know full well what happened! The Nautilus has gone aground, and judging from the way it’s listing, I don’t think it’ll pull through like that first time in the Torres Strait.”
“But,” I asked, “are we at least back on the surface of the sea?”
“We have no idea,” Conseil replied.
“It’s easy to find out,” I answered.
I consulted the pressure gauge. Much to my surprise, it indicated a depth of 360 meters.
“What’s the meaning of this?” I exclaimed.
“We must confer with Captain Nemo,” Conseil said.
“But where do we find him?” Ned Land asked.
“Follow me,” I told my two companions.
We left the lounge. Nobody in the library. Nobody by the central companionway or the crew’s quarters. I assumed that Captain Nemo was stationed in the pilothouse. Best to wait. The three of us returned to the lounge.
I’ll skip over the Canadian’s complaints. He had good grounds for an outburst. I didn’t answer him back, letting him blow off all the steam he wanted.
We had been left to ourselves for twenty minutes, trying to detect the tiniest noises inside the Nautilus, when Captain Nemo entered. He didn’t seem to see us. His facial features, usually so emotionless, revealed a certain uneasiness. He studied the compass and pressure gauge in silence, then went and put his finger on the world map at a spot in the sector depicting the southernmost seas.
I hesitated to interrupt him. But some moments later, when he turned to me, I threw back at him a phrase he had used in the Torres Strait:
“An incident, Captain?”
“No, sir,” he replied, “this time an accident.”
“Is there any immediate danger?”
“The Nautilus has run aground?”
“And this accident came about . . . ?”
“Through nature’s unpredictability not man’s incapacity. No errors were committed in our maneuvers. Nevertheless, we can’t prevent a loss of balance from taking its toll. One may defy human laws, but no one can withstand the laws of nature.”
Captain Nemo had picked an odd time to philosophize. All in all, this reply told me nothing.
“May I learn, sir,” I asked him, “what caused this accident?”
“An enormous block of ice, an entire mountain, has toppled over,” he answered me. “When an iceberg is eroded at the base by warmer waters or by repeated collisions, its center of gravity rises. Then it somersaults, it turns completely upside down. That’s what happened here. When it overturned, one of these blocks hit the Nautilus as it was cruising under the waters. Sliding under our hull, this block then raised us with irresistible power, lifting us into less congested strata where we now lie on our side.”
“But can’t we float the Nautilus clear by emptying its ballast tanks, to regain our balance?”
“That, sir, is being done right now. You can hear the pumps working. Look at the needle on the pressure gauge. It indicates that the Nautilus is rising, but this block of ice is rising with us, and until some obstacle halts its upward movement, our position won’t change.”
Indeed, the Nautilus kept the same heel to starboard. No doubt it would straighten up once the block came to a halt. But before that happened, who knew if we might not hit the underbelly of the Ice Bank and be hideously squeezed between two frozen surfaces?
I mused on all the consequences of this situation. Captain Nemo didn’t stop studying the pressure gauge. Since the toppling of this iceberg, the Nautilus had risen about 150 feet, but it still stayed at the same angle to the perpendicular.
Suddenly a slight movement could be felt over the hull. Obviously the Nautilus was straightening a bit. Objects hanging in the lounge were visibly returning to their normal positions. The walls were approaching the vertical. Nobody said a word. Hearts pounding, we could see and feel the ship righting itself. The floor was becoming horizontal beneath our feet. Ten minutes went by.
“Finally, we’re upright!” I exclaimed.
“Yes,” Captain Nemo said, heading to the lounge door.
“But will we float off?” I asked him.
“Certainly,” he replied, “since the ballast tanks aren’t yet empty, and when they are, the Nautilus must rise to the surface of the sea.”
The captain went out, and soon I saw that at his orders, the Nautilus had halted its upward movement. In fact, it soon would have hit the underbelly of the Ice Bank, but it had stopped in time and was floating in midwater.
“That was a close call!” Conseil then said.
“Yes. We could have been crushed between these masses of ice, or at least imprisoned between them. And then, with no way to renew our air supply. . . . Yes, that was a close call!”
“If it’s over with!” Ned Land muttered.
I was unwilling to get into a pointless argument with the Canadian and didn’t reply. Moreover, the panels opened just then, and the outside light burst through the uncovered windows.
We were fully afloat, as I have said; but on both sides of the Nautilus, about ten meters away, there rose dazzling walls of ice. There also were walls above and below. Above, because the Ice Bank’s underbelly spread over us like an immense ceiling. Below, because the somersaulting block, shifting little by little, had found points of purchase on both side walls and had gotten jammed between them. The Nautilus was imprisoned in a genuine tunnel of ice about twenty meters wide and filled with quiet water. So the ship could easily exit by going either ahead or astern, sinking a few hundred meters deeper, and then taking an open passageway beneath the Ice Bank.
The ceiling lights were off, yet the lounge was still brightly lit. This was due to the reflecting power of the walls of ice, which threw the beams of our beacon right back at us. Words cannot describe the effects produced by our galvanic rays on these huge, whimsically sculpted blocks, whose every angle, ridge, and facet gave off a different glow depending on the nature of the veins running inside the ice. It was a dazzling mine of gems, in particular sapphires and emeralds, whose jets of blue and green crisscrossed. Here and there, opaline hues of infinite subtlety raced among sparks of light that were like so many fiery diamonds, their brilliance more than any eye could stand. The power of our beacon was increased a hundredfold, like a lamp shining through the biconvex lenses of a world–class lighthouse.
“How beautiful!” Conseil exclaimed.
“Yes,” I said, “it’s a wonderful sight! Isn’t it, Ned?”
“Oh damnation, yes!” Ned Land shot back. “It’s superb! I’m furious that I have to admit it. Nobody has ever seen the like. But this sight could cost us dearly. And in all honesty, I think we’re looking at things God never intended for human eyes.”
Ned was right. It was too beautiful. All at once a yell from Conseil made me turn around.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Master must close his eyes! Master mustn’t look!”
With that, Conseil clapped his hands over his eyes.
“But what’s wrong, my boy?”
“I’ve been dazzled, struck blind!”
Involuntarily my eyes flew to the window, but I couldn’t stand the fire devouring it.
I realized what had happened. The Nautilus had just started off at great speed. All the tranquil glimmers of the ice walls had then changed into blazing streaks. The sparkles from these myriads of diamonds were merging with each other. Swept along by its propeller, the Nautilus was traveling through a sheath of flashing light.
Then the panels in the lounge closed. We kept our hands over our eyes, which were utterly saturated with those concentric gleams that swirl before the retina when sunlight strikes it too intensely. It took some time to calm our troubled vision.
Finally we lowered our hands.
“Ye gods, I never would have believed it,” Conseil said.
“And I still don’t believe it!” the Canadian shot back.
“When we return to shore, jaded from all these natural wonders,” Conseil added, “think how we’ll look down on those pitiful land masses, those puny works of man! No, the civilized world won’t be good enough for us!”
Such words from the lips of this emotionless Flemish boy showed that our enthusiasm was near the boiling point. But the Canadian didn’t fail to throw his dram of cold water over us.
“The civilized world!” he said, shaking his head. “Don’t worry, Conseil my friend, we’re never going back to that world!”
By this point it was five o’clock in the morning. Just then there was a collision in the Nautilus’s bow. I realized that its spur had just bumped a block of ice. It must have been a faulty maneuver because this underwater tunnel was obstructed by such blocks and didn’t make for easy navigating. So I had assumed that Captain Nemo, in adjusting his course, would go around each obstacle or would hug the walls and follow the windings of the tunnel. In either case our forward motion wouldn’t receive an absolute check. Nevertheless, contrary to my expectations, the Nautilus definitely began to move backward.
“We’re going astern?” Conseil said.
“Yes,” I replied. “Apparently the tunnel has no way out at this end.”
“And so . . . ?”
“So,” I said, “our maneuvers are quite simple. We’ll return in our tracks and go out the southern opening. That’s all.”
As I spoke, I tried to sound more confident than I really felt. Meanwhile the Nautilus accelerated its backward movement, and running with propeller in reverse, it swept us along at great speed.
“This’ll mean a delay,” Ned said.
“What are a few hours more or less, so long as we get out.”
“Yes,” Ned Land repeated, “so long as we get out!”
I strolled for a little while from the lounge into the library. My companions kept their seats and didn’t move. Soon I threw myself down on a couch and picked up a book, which my eyes skimmed mechanically.
A quarter of an hour later, Conseil approached me, saying:
“Is it deeply fascinating, this volume Master is reading?”
“Tremendously fascinating,” I replied.
“I believe it. Master is reading his own book!”
“My own book?”
Indeed, my hands were holding my own work on the great ocean depths. I hadn’t even suspected. I closed the book and resumed my strolling. Ned and Conseil stood up to leave.
“Stay here, my friends,” I said, stopping them. “Let’s stay together until we’re out of this blind alley.”
“As Master wishes,” Conseil replied.
The hours passed. I often studied the instruments hanging on the lounge wall. The pressure gauge indicated that the Nautilus stayed at a constant depth of 300 meters, the compass that it kept heading south, the log that it was traveling at a speed of twenty miles per hour, an excessive speed in such a cramped area. But Captain Nemo knew that by this point there was no such thing as too fast, since minutes were now worth centuries.
At 8:25 a second collision took place. This time astern. I grew pale. My companions came over. I clutched Conseil’s hand. Our eyes questioned each other, and more directly than if our thoughts had been translated into words.
Just then the captain entered the lounge. I went to him.
“Our path is barred to the south?” I asked him.
“Yes, sir. When it overturned, that iceberg closed off every exit.”
“We’re boxed in?”
CONSEQUENTLY, above, below, and around the Nautilus, there were impenetrable frozen walls. We were the Ice Bank’s prisoners! The Canadian banged a table with his fearsome fist. Conseil kept still. I stared at the captain. His face had resumed its usual emotionlessness. He crossed his arms. He pondered. The Nautilus did not stir.
The captain then broke into speech:
“Gentlemen,” he said in a calm voice, “there are two ways of dying under the conditions in which we’re placed.”
This inexplicable individual acted like a mathematics professor working out a problem for his pupils.
“The first way,” he went on, “is death by crushing. The second is death by asphyxiation. I don’t mention the possibility of death by starvation because the Nautilus’s provisions will certainly last longer than we will. Therefore, let’s concentrate on our chances of being crushed or asphyxiated.”
“As for asphyxiation, Captain,” I replied, “that isn’t a cause for alarm, because the air tanks are full.”
“True,” Captain Nemo went on, “but they’ll supply air for only two days. Now then, we’ve been buried beneath the waters for thirty–six hours, and the Nautilus’s heavy atmosphere already needs renewing. In another forty–eight hours, our reserve air will be used up.”
“Well then, Captain, let’s free ourselves within forty–eight hours!”
“We’ll try to at least, by cutting through one of these walls surrounding us.”
“Which one?” I asked.
“Borings will tell us that. I’m going to ground the Nautilus on the lower shelf, then my men will put on their diving suits and attack the thinnest of these ice walls.”
“Can the panels in the lounge be left open?”
“Without ill effect. We’re no longer in motion.”
Captain Nemo went out. Hissing sounds soon told me that water was being admitted into the ballast tanks. The Nautilus slowly settled and rested on the icy bottom at a depth of 350 meters, the depth at which the lower shelf of ice lay submerged.
“My friends,” I said, “we’re in a serious predicament, but I’m counting on your courage and energy.”
“Sir,” the Canadian replied, “this is no time to bore you with my complaints. I’m ready to do anything I can for the common good.”
“Excellent, Ned,” I said, extending my hand to the Canadian.
“I might add,” he went on, “that I’m as handy with a pick as a harpoon. If I can be helpful to the captain, he can use me any way he wants.”
“He won’t turn down your assistance. Come along, Ned.”
I led the Canadian to the room where the Nautilus’s men were putting on their diving suits. I informed the captain of Ned’s proposition, which was promptly accepted. The Canadian got into his underwater costume and was ready as soon as his fellow workers. Each of them carried on his back a Rouquayrol device that the air tanks had supplied with a generous allowance of fresh oxygen. A considerable but necessary drain on the Nautilus’s reserves. As for the Ruhmkorff lamps, they were unnecessary in the midst of these brilliant waters saturated with our electric rays.
After Ned was dressed, I reentered the lounge, whose windows had been uncovered; stationed next to Conseil, I examined the strata surrounding and supporting the Nautilus.
Some moments later, we saw a dozen crewmen set foot on the shelf of ice, among them Ned Land, easily recognized by his tall figure. Captain Nemo was with them.
Before digging into the ice, the captain had to obtain borings, to insure working in the best direction. Long bores were driven into the side walls; but after fifteen meters, the instruments were still impeded by the thickness of those walls. It was futile to attack the ceiling since that surface was the Ice Bank itself, more than 400 meters high. Captain Nemo then bored into the lower surface. There we were separated from the sea by a ten–meter barrier. That’s how thick the iceberg was. From this point on, it was an issue of cutting out a piece equal in surface area to the Nautilus’s waterline. This meant detaching about 6,500 cubic meters, to dig a hole through which the ship could descend below this tract of ice.
Work began immediately and was carried on with tireless tenacity. Instead of digging all around the Nautilus, which would have entailed even greater difficulties, Captain Nemo had an immense trench outlined on the ice, eight meters from our port quarter. Then his men simultaneously staked it off at several points around its circumference. Soon their picks were vigorously attacking this compact matter, and huge chunks were loosened from its mass. These chunks weighed less than the water, and by an unusual effect of specific gravity, each chunk took wing, as it were, to the roof of the tunnel, which thickened above by as much as it diminished below. But this hardly mattered so long as the lower surface kept growing thinner.
After two hours of energetic work, Ned Land reentered, exhausted. He and his companions were replaced by new workmen, including Conseil and me. The Nautilus’s chief officer supervised us.
The water struck me as unusually cold, but I warmed up promptly while wielding my pick. My movements were quite free, although they were executed under a pressure of thirty atmospheres.
After two hours of work, reentering to snatch some food and rest, I found a noticeable difference between the clean elastic fluid supplied me by the Rouquayrol device and the Nautilus’s atmosphere, which was already charged with carbon dioxide. The air hadn’t been renewed in forty–eight hours, and its life–giving qualities were considerably weakened. Meanwhile, after twelve hours had gone by, we had removed from the outlined surface area a slice of ice only one meter thick, hence about 600 cubic meters. Assuming the same work would be accomplished every twelve hours, it would still take five nights and four days to see the undertaking through to completion.
“Five nights and four days!” I told my companions. “And we have oxygen in the air tanks for only two days.”
“Without taking into account,” Ned answered, “that once we’re out of this damned prison, we’ll still be cooped up beneath the Ice Bank, without any possible contact with the open air!”
An apt remark. For who could predict the minimum time we would need to free ourselves? Before the Nautilus could return to the surface of the waves, couldn’t we all die of asphyxiation? Were this ship and everyone on board doomed to perish in this tomb of ice? It was a dreadful state of affairs. But we faced it head–on, each one of us determined to do his duty to the end.
During the night, in line with my forecasts, a new one–meter slice was removed from this immense socket. But in the morning, wearing my diving suit, I was crossing through the liquid mass in a temperature of –6° to –7° centigrade, when I noted that little by little the side walls were closing in on each other. The liquid strata farthest from the trench, not warmed by the movements of workmen and tools, were showing a tendency to solidify. In the face of this imminent new danger, what would happen to our chances for salvation, and how could we prevent this liquid medium from solidifying, then cracking the Nautilus’s hull like glass?
I didn’t tell my two companions about this new danger. There was no point in dampening the energy they were putting into our arduous rescue work. But when I returned on board, I mentioned this serious complication to Captain Nemo.
“I know,” he told me in that calm tone the most dreadful outlook couldn’t change. “It’s one more danger, but I don’t know any way of warding it off. Our sole chance for salvation is to work faster than the water solidifies. We’ve got to get there first, that’s all.”
Get there first! By then I should have been used to this type of talk!
For several hours that day, I wielded my pick doggedly. The work kept me going. Besides, working meant leaving the Nautilus, which meant breathing the clean oxygen drawn from the air tanks and supplied by our equipment, which meant leaving the thin, foul air behind.
Near evening one more meter had been dug from the trench. When I returned on board, I was wellnigh asphyxiated by the carbon dioxide saturating the air. Oh, if only we had the chemical methods that would enable us to drive out this noxious gas! There was no lack of oxygen. All this water contained a considerable amount, and after it was decomposed by our powerful batteries, this life–giving elastic fluid could have been restored to us. I had thought it all out, but to no avail because the carbon dioxide produced by our breathing permeated every part of the ship. To absorb it, we would need to fill containers with potassium hydroxide and shake them continually. But this substance was missing on board and nothing else could replace it.
That evening Captain Nemo was forced to open the spigots of his air tanks and shoot a few spouts of fresh oxygen through the Nautilus’s interior. Without this precaution we wouldn’t have awakened the following morning.
The next day, March 26, I returned to my miner’s trade, working to remove the fifth meter. The Ice Bank’s side walls and underbelly had visibly thickened. Obviously they would come together before the Nautilus could break free. For an instant I was gripped by despair. My pick nearly slipped from my hands. What was the point of this digging if I was to die smothered and crushed by this water turning to stone, a torture undreamed of by even the wildest savages! I felt like I was lying in the jaws of a fearsome monster, jaws irresistibly closing.
Supervising our work, working himself, Captain Nemo passed near me just then. I touched him with my hand and pointed to the walls of our prison. The starboard wall had moved forward to a point less than four meters from the Nautilus’s hull.
The captain understood and gave me a signal to follow him. We returned on board. My diving suit removed, I went with him to the lounge.
“Professor Aronnax,” he told me, “this calls for heroic measures, or we’ll be sealed up in this solidified water as if it were cement.”
“Yes!” I said. “But what can we do?”
“Oh,” he exclaimed, “if only my Nautilus were strong enough to stand that much pressure without being crushed!”
“Well?” I asked, not catching the captain’s meaning.
“Don’t you understand,” he went on, “that the congealing of this water could come to our rescue? Don’t you see that by solidifying, it could burst these tracts of ice imprisoning us, just as its freezing can burst the hardest stones? Aren’t you aware that this force could be the instrument of our salvation rather than our destruction?”
“Yes, Captain, maybe so. But whatever resistance to crushing the Nautilus may have, it still couldn’t stand such dreadful pressures, and it would be squashed as flat as a piece of sheet iron.”
“I know it, sir. So we can’t rely on nature to rescue us, only our own efforts. We must counteract this solidification. We must hold it in check. Not only are the side walls closing in, but there aren’t ten feet of water ahead or astern of the Nautilus. All around us, this freeze is gaining fast.”
“How long,” I asked, “will the oxygen in the air tanks enable us to breathe on board?”
The captain looked me straight in the eye.
“After tomorrow,” he said, “the air tanks will be empty!”
I broke out in a cold sweat. But why should I have been startled by this reply? On March 22 the Nautilus had dived under the open waters at the pole. It was now the 26th. We had lived off the ship’s stores for five days! And all remaining breathable air had to be saved for the workmen. Even today as I write these lines, my sensations are so intense that an involuntary terror sweeps over me, and my lungs still seem short of air!
Meanwhile, motionless and silent, Captain Nemo stood lost in thought. An idea visibly crossed his mind. But he seemed to brush it aside. He told himself no. At last these words escaped his lips:
“Boiling water!” he muttered.
“Boiling water?” I exclaimed.
“Yes, sir. We’re shut up in a relatively confined area. If the Nautilus’s pumps continually injected streams of boiling water into this space, wouldn’t that raise its temperature and delay its freezing?”
“It’s worth trying!” I said resolutely.
“So let’s try it, Professor.”
By then the thermometer gave –7° centigrade outside. Captain Nemo led me to the galley where a huge distilling mechanism was at work, supplying drinking water via evaporation. The mechanism was loaded with water, and the full electric heat of our batteries was thrown into coils awash in liquid. In a few minutes the water reached 100° centigrade. It was sent to the pumps while new water replaced it in the process. The heat generated by our batteries was so intense that after simply going through the mechanism, water drawn cold from the sea arrived boiling hot at the body of the pump.
The steaming water was injected into the icy water outside, and after three hours had passed, the thermometer gave the exterior temperature as –6° centigrade. That was one degree gained. Two hours later the thermometer gave only –4°.
After I monitored the operation’s progress, double–checking it with many inspections, I told the captain, “It’s working.”
“I think so,” he answered me. “We’ve escaped being crushed. Now we have only asphyxiation to fear.”
During the night the water temperature rose to –1° centigrade. The injections couldn’t get it to go a single degree higher. But since salt water freezes only at –2°, I was finally assured that there was no danger of it solidifying.
By the next day, March 27, six meters of ice had been torn from the socket. Only four meters were left to be removed. That still meant forty–eight hours of work. The air couldn’t be renewed in the Nautilus’s interior. Accordingly, that day it kept getting worse.
An unbearable heaviness weighed me down. Near three o’clock in the afternoon, this agonizing sensation affected me to an intense degree. Yawns dislocated my jaws. My lungs were gasping in their quest for that enkindling elastic fluid required for breathing, now growing scarcer and scarcer. My mind was in a daze. I lay outstretched, strength gone, nearly unconscious. My gallant Conseil felt the same symptoms, suffered the same sufferings, yet never left my side. He held my hand, he kept encouraging me, and I even heard him mutter:
“Oh, if only I didn’t have to breathe, to leave more air for Master!”
It brought tears to my eyes to hear him say these words.
Since conditions inside were universally unbearable, how eagerly, how happily, we put on our diving suits to take our turns working! Picks rang out on that bed of ice. Arms grew weary, hands were rubbed raw, but who cared about exhaustion, what difference were wounds? Life–sustaining air reached our lungs! We could breathe! We could breathe!
And yet nobody prolonged his underwater work beyond the time allotted him. His shift over, each man surrendered to a gasping companion the air tank that would revive him. Captain Nemo set the example and was foremost in submitting to this strict discipline. When his time was up, he yielded his equipment to another and reentered the foul air on board, always calm, unflinching, and uncomplaining.
That day the usual work was accomplished with even greater energy. Over the whole surface area, only two meters were left to be removed. Only two meters separated us from the open sea. But the ship’s air tanks were nearly empty. The little air that remained had to be saved for the workmen. Not an atom for the Nautilus!
When I returned on board, I felt half suffocated. What a night! I’m unable to depict it. Such sufferings are indescribable. The next day I was short–winded. Headaches and staggering fits of dizziness made me reel like a drunk. My companions were experiencing the same symptoms. Some crewmen were at their last gasp.
That day, the sixth of our imprisonment, Captain Nemo concluded that picks and mattocks were too slow to deal with the ice layer still separating us from open water—and he decided to crush this layer. The man had kept his energy and composure. He had subdued physical pain with moral strength. He could still think, plan, and act.
At his orders the craft was eased off, in other words, it was raised from its icy bed by a change in its specific gravity. When it was afloat, the crew towed it, leading it right above the immense trench outlined to match the ship’s waterline. Next the ballast tanks filled with water, the boat sank, and was fitted into its socket.
Just then the whole crew returned on board, and the double outside door was closed. By this point the Nautilus was resting on a bed of ice only one meter thick and drilled by bores in a thousand places.
The stopcocks of the ballast tanks were then opened wide, and 100 cubic meters of water rushed in, increasing the Nautilus’s weight by 100,000 kilograms.
We waited, we listened, we forgot our sufferings, we hoped once more. We had staked our salvation on this one last gamble.
Despite the buzzing in my head, I soon could hear vibrations under the Nautilus’s hull. We tilted. The ice cracked with an odd ripping sound, like paper tearing, and the Nautilus began settling downward.
“We’re going through!” Conseil muttered in my ear.
I couldn’t answer him. I clutched his hand. I squeezed it in an involuntary convulsion.
All at once, carried away by its frightful excess load, the Nautilus sank into the waters like a cannonball, in other words, dropping as if in a vacuum!
Our full electric power was then put on the pumps, which instantly began to expel water from the ballast tanks. After a few minutes we had checked our fall. The pressure gauge soon indicated an ascending movement. Brought to full speed, the propeller made the sheet–iron hull tremble down to its rivets, and we sped northward.
But how long would it take to navigate under the Ice Bank to the open sea? Another day? I would be dead first!
Half lying on a couch in the library, I was suffocating. My face was purple, my lips blue, my faculties in abeyance. I could no longer see or hear. I had lost all sense of time. My muscles had no power to contract.
I’m unable to estimate the hours that passed in this way. But I was aware that my death throes had begun. I realized that I was about to die . . .
Suddenly I regained consciousness. A few whiffs of air had entered my lungs. Had we risen to the surface of the waves? Had we cleared the Ice Bank?
No! Ned and Conseil, my two gallant friends, were sacrificing themselves to save me. A few atoms of air were still left in the depths of one Rouquayrol device. Instead of breathing it themselves, they had saved it for me, and while they were suffocating, they poured life into me drop by drop! I tried to push the device away. They held my hands, and for a few moments I could breathe luxuriously.
My eyes flew toward the clock. It was eleven in the morning. It had to be March 28. The Nautilus was traveling at the frightful speed of forty miles per hour. It was writhing in the waters.
Where was Captain Nemo? Had he perished? Had his companions died with him?
Just then the pressure gauge indicated we were no more than twenty feet from the surface. Separating us from the open air was a mere tract of ice. Could we break through it?
Perhaps! In any event the Nautilus was going to try. In fact, I could feel it assuming an oblique position, lowering its stern and raising its spur. The admission of additional water was enough to shift its balance. Then, driven by its powerful propeller, it attacked this ice field from below like a fearsome battering ram. It split the barrier little by little, backing up, then putting on full speed against the punctured tract of ice; and finally, carried away by its supreme momentum, it lunged through and onto this frozen surface, crushing the ice beneath its weight.
The hatches were opened—or torn off, if you prefer—and waves of clean air were admitted into every part of the Nautilus.