A New Proposition from Captain Nemo
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!”
A Pearl Worth Ten Million
NIGHT FELL. I went to bed. I slept pretty poorly. Man–eaters played a major role in my dreams. And I found it more or less appropriate that the French word for shark, requin, has its linguistic roots in the word requiem.
The next day at four o’clock in the morning, I was awakened by the steward whom Captain Nemo had placed expressly at my service. I got up quickly, dressed, and went into the lounge.
Captain Nemo was waiting for me.
“Professor Aronnax,” he said to me, “are you ready to start?”
“Kindly follow me.”
“What about my companions, Captain?”
“They’ve been alerted and are waiting for us.”
“Aren’t we going to put on our diving suits?” I asked.
“Not yet. I haven’t let the Nautilus pull too near the coast, and we’re fairly well out from the Mannar oysterbank. But I have the skiff ready, and it will take us to the exact spot where we’ll disembark, which will save us a pretty long trek. It’s carrying our diving equipment, and we’ll suit up just before we begin our underwater exploring.”
Captain Nemo took me to the central companionway whose steps led to the platform. Ned and Conseil were there, enraptured with the “pleasure trip” getting under way. Oars in position, five of the Nautilus’s sailors were waiting for us aboard the skiff, which was moored alongside. The night was still dark. Layers of clouds cloaked the sky and left only a few stars in view. My eyes flew to the side where land lay, but I saw only a blurred line covering three–quarters of the horizon from southwest to northwest. Going up Ceylon’s west coast during the night, the Nautilus lay west of the bay, or rather that gulf formed by the mainland and Mannar Island. Under these dark waters there stretched the bank of shellfish, an inexhaustible field of pearls more than twenty miles long.
Captain Nemo, Conseil, Ned Land, and I found seats in the stern of the skiff. The longboat’s coxswain took the tiller; his four companions leaned into their oars; the moorings were cast off and we pulled clear.
The skiff headed southward. The oarsmen took their time. I watched their strokes vigorously catch the water, and they always waited ten seconds before rowing again, following the practice used in most navies. While the longboat coasted, drops of liquid flicked from the oars and hit the dark troughs of the waves, pitter–pattering like splashes of molten lead. Coming from well out, a mild swell made the skiff roll gently, and a few cresting billows lapped at its bow.
We were silent. What was Captain Nemo thinking? Perhaps that this approaching shore was too close for comfort, contrary to the Canadian’s views in which it still seemed too far away. As for Conseil, he had come along out of simple curiosity.
Near 5:30 the first glimmers of light on the horizon defined the upper lines of the coast with greater distinctness. Fairly flat to the east, it swelled a little toward the south. Five miles still separated it from us, and its beach merged with the misty waters. Between us and the shore, the sea was deserted. Not a boat, not a diver. Profound solitude reigned over this gathering place of pearl fishermen. As Captain Nemo had commented, we were arriving in these waterways a month too soon.
At six o’clock the day broke suddenly, with that speed unique to tropical regions, which experience no real dawn or dusk. The sun’s rays pierced the cloud curtain gathered on the easterly horizon, and the radiant orb rose swiftly.
I could clearly see the shore, which featured a few sparse trees here and there.
The skiff advanced toward Mannar Island, which curved to the south. Captain Nemo stood up from his thwart and studied the sea.
At his signal the anchor was lowered, but its chain barely ran because the bottom lay no more than a meter down, and this locality was one of the shallowest spots near the bank of shellfish. Instantly the skiff wheeled around under the ebb tide’s outbound thrust.
“Here we are, Professor Aronnax,” Captain Nemo then said. “You observe this confined bay? A month from now in this very place, the numerous fishing boats of the harvesters will gather, and these are the waters their divers will ransack so daringly. This bay is felicitously laid out for their type of fishing. It’s sheltered from the strongest winds, and the sea is never very turbulent here, highly favorable conditions for diving work. Now let’s put on our underwater suits, and we’ll begin our stroll.”
I didn’t reply, and while staring at these suspicious waves, I began to put on my heavy aquatic clothes, helped by the longboat’s sailors. Captain Nemo and my two companions suited up as well. None of the Nautilus’s men were to go with us on this new excursion.
Soon we were imprisoned up to the neck in india–rubber clothing, and straps fastened the air devices onto our backs. As for the Ruhmkorff device, it didn’t seem to be in the picture. Before inserting my head into its copper capsule, I commented on this to the captain.
“Our lighting equipment would be useless to us,” the captain answered me. “We won’t be going very deep, and the sun’s rays will be sufficient to light our way. Besides, it’s unwise to carry electric lanterns under these waves. Their brightness might unexpectedly attract certain dangerous occupants of these waterways.”
As Captain Nemo pronounced these words, I turned to Conseil and Ned Land. But my two friends had already encased their craniums in their metal headgear, and they could neither hear nor reply.
I had one question left to address to Captain Nemo.
“What about our weapons?” I asked him. “Our rifles?”
“Rifles! What for? Don’t your mountaineers attack bears dagger in hand? And isn’t steel surer than lead? Here’s a sturdy blade. Slip it under your belt and let’s be off.”
I stared at my companions. They were armed in the same fashion, and Ned Land was also brandishing an enormous harpoon he had stowed in the skiff before leaving the Nautilus.
Then, following the captain’s example, I let myself be crowned with my heavy copper sphere, and our air tanks immediately went into action.
An instant later, the longboat’s sailors helped us overboard one after the other, and we set foot on level sand in a meter and a half of water. Captain Nemo gave us a hand signal. We followed him down a gentle slope and disappeared under the waves.
There the obsessive fears in my brain left me. I became surprisingly calm again. The ease with which I could move increased my confidence, and the many strange sights captivated my imagination.
The sun was already sending sufficient light under these waves. The tiniest objects remained visible. After ten minutes of walking, we were in five meters of water, and the terrain had become almost flat.
Like a covey of snipe over a marsh, there rose underfoot schools of unusual fish from the genus Monopterus, whose members have no fin but their tail. I recognized the Javanese eel, a genuine eight–decimeter serpent with a bluish gray belly, which, without the gold lines over its flanks, could easily be confused with the conger eel. From the butterfish genus, whose oval bodies are very flat, I observed several adorned in brilliant colors and sporting a dorsal fin like a sickle, edible fish that, when dried and marinated, make an excellent dish known by the name “karawade”; then some sea poachers, fish belonging to the genus Aspidophoroides, whose bodies are covered with scaly armor divided into eight lengthwise sections.
Meanwhile, as the sun got progressively higher, it lit up the watery mass more and more. The seafloor changed little by little. Its fine–grained sand was followed by a genuine causeway of smooth crags covered by a carpet of mollusks and zoophytes. Among other specimens in these two branches, I noted some windowpane oysters with thin valves of unequal size, a type of ostracod unique to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, then orange–hued lucina with circular shells, awl–shaped auger shells, some of those Persian murex snails that supply the Nautilus with such wonderful dye, spiky periwinkles fifteen centimeters long that rose under the waves like hands ready to grab you, turban snails with shells made of horn and bristling all over with spines, lamp shells, edible duck clams that feed the Hindu marketplace, subtly luminous jellyfish of the species Pelagia panopyra, and finally some wonderful Oculina flabelliforma, magnificent sea fans that fashion one of the most luxuriant tree forms in this ocean.
In the midst of this moving vegetation, under arbors of water plants, there raced legions of clumsy articulates, in particular some fanged frog crabs whose carapaces form a slightly rounded triangle, robber crabs exclusive to these waterways, and horrible parthenope crabs whose appearance was repulsive to the eye. One animal no less hideous, which I encountered several times, was the enormous crab that Mr. Darwin observed, to which nature has given the instinct and requisite strength to eat coconuts; it scrambles up trees on the beach and sends the coconuts tumbling; they fracture in their fall and are opened by its powerful pincers. Here, under these clear waves, this crab raced around with matchless agility, while green turtles from the species frequenting the Malabar coast moved sluggishly among the crumbling rocks.
Near seven o’clock we finally surveyed the bank of shellfish, where pearl oysters reproduce by the millions. These valuable mollusks stick to rocks, where they’re strongly attached by a mass of brown filaments that forbids their moving about. In this respect oysters are inferior even to mussels, to whom nature has not denied all talent for locomotion.
The shellfish Meleagrina, that womb for pearls whose valves are nearly equal in size, has the shape of a round shell with thick walls and a very rough exterior. Some of these shells were furrowed with flaky, greenish bands that radiated down from the top. These were the young oysters. The others had rugged black surfaces, measured up to fifteen centimeters in width, and were ten or more years old.
Captain Nemo pointed to this prodigious heap of shellfish, and I saw that these mines were genuinely inexhaustible, since nature’s creative powers are greater than man’s destructive instincts. True to those instincts, Ned Land greedily stuffed the finest of these mollusks into a net he carried at his side.
But we couldn’t stop. We had to follow the captain, who headed down trails seemingly known only to himself. The seafloor rose noticeably, and when I lifted my arms, sometimes they would pass above the surface of the sea. Then the level of the oysterbank would lower unpredictably. Often we went around tall, pointed rocks rising like pyramids. In their dark crevices huge crustaceans, aiming their long legs like heavy artillery, watched us with unblinking eyes, while underfoot there crept millipedes, bloodworms, aricia worms, and annelid worms, whose antennas and tubular tentacles were incredibly long.
Just then a huge cave opened up in our path, hollowed from a picturesque pile of rocks whose smooth heights were completely hung with underwater flora. At first this cave looked pitch–black to me. Inside, the sun’s rays seemed to diminish by degrees. Their hazy transparency was nothing more than drowned light.
Captain Nemo went in. We followed him. My eyes soon grew accustomed to this comparative gloom. I distinguished the unpredictably contoured springings of a vault, supported by natural pillars firmly based on a granite foundation, like the weighty columns of Tuscan architecture. Why had our incomprehensible guide taken us into the depths of this underwater crypt? I would soon find out.
After going down a fairly steep slope, our feet trod the floor of a sort of circular pit. There Captain Nemo stopped, and his hand indicated an object that I hadn’t yet noticed.
It was an oyster of extraordinary dimensions, a titanic giant clam, a holy–water font that could have held a whole lake, a basin more than two meters wide, hence even bigger than the one adorning the Nautilus’s lounge.
I approached this phenomenal mollusk. Its mass of filaments attached it to a table of granite, and there it grew by itself in the midst of the cave’s calm waters. I estimated the weight of this giant clam at 300 kilograms. Hence such an oyster held fifteen kilos of meat, and you’d need the stomach of King Gargantua to eat a couple dozen.
Captain Nemo was obviously familiar with this bivalve’s existence. This wasn’t the first time he’d paid it a visit, and I thought his sole reason for leading us to this locality was to show us a natural curiosity. I was mistaken. Captain Nemo had an explicit personal interest in checking on the current condition of this giant clam.
The mollusk’s two valves were partly open. The captain approached and stuck his dagger vertically between the shells to discourage any ideas about closing; then with his hands he raised the fringed, membrane–filled tunic that made up the animal’s mantle.
There, between its leaflike folds, I saw a loose pearl as big as a coconut. Its globular shape, perfect clarity, and wonderful orient made it a jewel of incalculable value. Carried away by curiosity, I stretched out my hand to take it, weigh it, fondle it! But the captain stopped me, signaled no, removed his dagger in one swift motion, and let the two valves snap shut.
I then understood Captain Nemo’s intent. By leaving the pearl buried beneath the giant clam’s mantle, he allowed it to grow imperceptibly. With each passing year the mollusk’s secretions added new concentric layers. The captain alone was familiar with the cave where this wonderful fruit of nature was “ripening”; he alone reared it, so to speak, in order to transfer it one day to his dearly beloved museum. Perhaps, following the examples of oyster farmers in China and India, he had even predetermined the creation of this pearl by sticking under the mollusk’s folds some piece of glass or metal that was gradually covered with mother–of–pearl. In any case, comparing this pearl to others I already knew about, and to those shimmering in the captain’s collection, I estimated that it was worth at least ₣10,000,000. It was a superb natural curiosity rather than a luxurious piece of jewelry, because I don’t know of any female ear that could handle it.
Our visit to this opulent giant clam came to an end. Captain Nemo left the cave, and we climbed back up the bank of shellfish in the midst of these clear waters not yet disturbed by divers at work.
We walked by ourselves, genuine loiterers stopping or straying as our fancies dictated. For my part, I was no longer worried about those dangers my imagination had so ridiculously exaggerated. The shallows drew noticeably closer to the surface of the sea, and soon, walking in only a meter of water, my head passed well above the level of the ocean. Conseil rejoined me, and gluing his huge copper capsule to mine, his eyes gave me a friendly greeting. But this lofty plateau measured only a few fathoms, and soon we reentered Our Element. I think I’ve now earned the right to dub it that.
Ten minutes later, Captain Nemo stopped suddenly. I thought he’d called a halt so that we could turn and start back. No. With a gesture he ordered us to crouch beside him at the foot of a wide crevice. His hand motioned toward a spot within the liquid mass, and I looked carefully.
Five meters away a shadow appeared and dropped to the seafloor. The alarming idea of sharks crossed my mind. But I was mistaken, and once again we didn’t have to deal with monsters of the deep.
It was a man, a living man, a black Indian fisherman, a poor devil who no doubt had come to gather what he could before harvest time. I saw the bottom of his dinghy, moored a few feet above his head. He would dive and go back up in quick succession. A stone cut in the shape of a sugar loaf, which he gripped between his feet while a rope connected it to his boat, served to lower him more quickly to the ocean floor. This was the extent of his equipment. Arriving on the seafloor at a depth of about five meters, he fell to his knees and stuffed his sack with shellfish gathered at random. Then he went back up, emptied his sack, pulled up his stone, and started all over again, the whole process lasting only thirty seconds.
This diver didn’t see us. A shadow cast by our crag hid us from his view. And besides, how could this poor Indian ever have guessed that human beings, creatures like himself, were near him under the waters, eavesdropping on his movements, not missing a single detail of his fishing!
So he went up and down several times. He gathered only about ten shellfish per dive, because he had to tear them from the banks where each clung with its tough mass of filaments. And how many of these oysters for which he risked his life would have no pearl in them!
I observed him with great care. His movements were systematically executed, and for half an hour no danger seemed to threaten him. So I had gotten used to the sight of this fascinating fishing when all at once, just as the Indian was kneeling on the seafloor, I saw him make a frightened gesture, stand, and gather himself to spring back to the surface of the waves.
I understood his fear. A gigantic shadow appeared above the poor diver. It was a shark of huge size, moving in diagonally, eyes ablaze, jaws wide open!
I was speechless with horror, unable to make a single movement.
With one vigorous stroke of its fins, the voracious animal shot toward the Indian, who jumped aside and avoided the shark’s bite but not the thrashing of its tail, because that tail struck him across the chest and stretched him out on the seafloor.
This scene lasted barely a few seconds. The shark returned, rolled over on its back, and was getting ready to cut the Indian in half, when Captain Nemo, who was stationed beside me, suddenly stood up. Then he strode right toward the monster, dagger in hand, ready to fight it at close quarters.
Just as it was about to snap up the poor fisherman, the man–eater saw its new adversary, repositioned itself on its belly, and headed swiftly toward him.
I can see Captain Nemo’s bearing to this day. Bracing himself, he waited for the fearsome man–eater with wonderful composure, and when the latter rushed at him, the captain leaped aside with prodigious quickness, avoided a collision, and sank his dagger into its belly. But that wasn’t the end of the story. A dreadful battle was joined.
The shark bellowed, so to speak. Blood was pouring into the waves from its wounds. The sea was dyed red, and through this opaque liquid I could see nothing else.
Nothing else until the moment when, through a rift in the clouds, I saw the daring captain clinging to one of the animal’s fins, fighting the monster at close quarters, belaboring his enemy’s belly with stabs of the dagger yet unable to deliver the deciding thrust, in other words, a direct hit to the heart. In its struggles the man–eater churned the watery mass so furiously, its eddies threatened to knock me over.
I wanted to run to the captain’s rescue. But I was transfixed with horror, unable to move.
I stared, wild–eyed. I saw the fight enter a new phase. The captain fell to the seafloor, toppled by the enormous mass weighing him down. Then the shark’s jaws opened astoundingly wide, like a pair of industrial shears, and that would have been the finish of Captain Nemo had not Ned Land, quick as thought, rushed forward with his harpoon and driven its dreadful point into the shark’s underside.
The waves were saturated with masses of blood. The waters shook with the movements of the man–eater, which thrashed about with indescribable fury. Ned Land hadn’t missed his target. This was the monster’s death rattle. Pierced to the heart, it was struggling with dreadful spasms whose aftershocks knocked Conseil off his feet.
Meanwhile Ned Land pulled the captain clear. Uninjured, the latter stood up, went right to the Indian, quickly cut the rope binding the man to his stone, took the fellow in his arms, and with a vigorous kick of the heel, rose to the surface of the sea.
The three of us followed him, and a few moments later, miraculously safe, we reached the fisherman’s longboat.
Captain Nemo’s first concern was to revive this unfortunate man. I wasn’t sure he would succeed. I hoped so, since the poor devil hadn’t been under very long. But that stroke from the shark’s tail could have been his deathblow.
Fortunately, after vigorous massaging by Conseil and the captain, I saw the nearly drowned man regain consciousness little by little. He opened his eyes. How startled he must have felt, how frightened even, at seeing four huge, copper craniums leaning over him!
And above all, what must he have thought when Captain Nemo pulled a bag of pearls from a pocket in his diving suit and placed it in the fisherman’s hands? This magnificent benefaction from the Man of the Waters to the poor Indian from Ceylon was accepted by the latter with trembling hands. His bewildered eyes indicated that he didn’t know to what superhuman creatures he owed both his life and his fortune.
At the captain’s signal we returned to the bank of shellfish, and retracing our steps, we walked for half an hour until we encountered the anchor connecting the seafloor with the Nautilus’s skiff.
Back on board, the sailors helped divest us of our heavy copper carapaces.
Captain Nemo’s first words were spoken to the Canadian.
“Thank you, Mr. Land,” he told him.
“Tit for tat, Captain,” Ned Land replied. “I owed it to you.”
The ghost of a smile glided across the captain’s lips, and that was all.
“To the Nautilus,” he said.
The longboat flew over the waves. A few minutes later we encountered the shark’s corpse again, floating.
From the black markings on the tips of its fins, I recognized the dreadful Squalus melanopterus from the seas of the East Indies, a variety in the species of sharks proper. It was more than twenty–five feet long; its enormous mouth occupied a third of its body. It was an adult, as could be seen from the six rows of teeth forming an isosceles triangle in its upper jaw.
Conseil looked at it with purely scientific fascination, and I’m sure he placed it, not without good reason, in the class of cartilaginous fish, order Chondropterygia with fixed gills, family Selacia, genus Squalus.
While I was contemplating this inert mass, suddenly a dozen of these voracious melanoptera appeared around our longboat; but, paying no attention to us, they pounced on the corpse and quarreled over every scrap of it.
By 8:30 we were back on board the Nautilus.
There I fell to thinking about the incidents that marked our excursion over the Mannar oysterbank. Two impressions inevitably stood out. One concerned Captain Nemo’s matchless bravery, the other his devotion to a human being, a representative of that race from which he had fled beneath the seas. In spite of everything, this strange man hadn’t yet succeeded in completely stifling his heart.
When I shared these impressions with him, he answered me in a tone touched with emotion:
“That Indian, professor, lives in the land of the oppressed, and I am to this day, and will be until my last breath, a native of that same land!”