Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas: First Part

Chapter 20

The Torres Strait

During the night of December 27-28, the Nautilus left the waterways of Vanikoro behind with extraordinary speed. Its heading was southwesterly, and in three days it had cleared the 750 leagues that separated La Pérouse’s islands from the southeastern tip of Papua.

On January 1, 1868, bright and early, Conseil joined me on the platform.

“Will master,” the gallant lad said to me, “allow me to wish him a happy new year?”

“Good heavens, Conseil, it’s just like old times in my office at the Botanical Gardens in Paris! I accept your kind wishes and I thank you for them. Only, I’d like to know what you mean by a ‘happy year’ under the circumstances in which we’re placed. Is it a year that will bring our imprisonment to an end, or a year that will see this strange voyage continue?”

“Ye gods,” Conseil replied, “I hardly know what to tell master. We’re certainly seeing some unusual things, and for two months we’ve had no time for boredom. The latest wonder is always the most astonishing, and if this progression keeps up, I can’t imagine what its climax will be. In my opinion, we’ll never again have such an opportunity.”

“Never, Conseil.”

“Besides, Mr. Nemo really lives up to his Latin name, since he couldn’t be less in the way if he didn’t exist.”

“True enough, Conseil.”

“Therefore, with all due respect to master, I think a ‘happy year’ would be a year that lets us see everything—”

“Everything, Conseil? No year could be that long. But what does Ned Land think about all this?”

“Ned Land’s thoughts are exactly the opposite of mine,” Conseil replied. “He has a practical mind and a demanding stomach. He’s tired of staring at fish and eating them day in and day out. This shortage of wine, bread, and meat isn’t suitable for an upstanding Anglo-Saxon, a man accustomed to beefsteak and unfazed by regular doses of brandy or gin!”

“For my part, Conseil, that doesn’t bother me in the least, and I’ve adjusted very nicely to the diet on board.”

“So have I,” Conseil replied. “Accordingly, I think as much about staying as Mr. Land about making his escape. Thus, if this new year isn’t a happy one for me, it will be for him, and vice versa. No matter what happens, one of us will be pleased. So, in conclusion, I wish master to have whatever his heart desires.”

“Thank you, Conseil. Only I must ask you to postpone the question of new year’s gifts, and temporarily accept a hearty handshake in their place. That’s all I have on me.”

“Master has never been more generous,” Conseil replied.

And with that, the gallant lad went away.

By January 2 we had fared 11,340 miles, hence 5,250 leagues, from our starting point in the seas of Japan. Before the Nautilus’s spur there stretched the dangerous waterways of the Coral Sea, off the northeast coast of Australia. Our boat cruised along a few miles away from that daunting shoal where Captain Cook’s ships wellnigh miscarried on June 10, 1770. The craft that Cook was aboard charged into some coral rock, and if his vessel didn’t go down, it was thanks to the circumstance that a piece of coral broke off in the collision and plugged the very hole it had made in the hull.

I would have been deeply interested in visiting this long, 360-league reef, against which the ever-surging sea broke with the fearsome intensity of thunderclaps. But just then the Nautilus’s slanting fins took us to great depths, and I could see nothing of those high coral walls. I had to rest content with the various specimens of fish brought up by our nets. Among others I noted some long-finned albacore, a species in the genus Scomber, as big as tuna, bluish on the flanks, and streaked with crosswise stripes that disappear when the animal dies. These fish followed us in schools and supplied our table with very dainty flesh. We also caught a large number of yellow-green gilthead, half a decimeter long and tasting like dorado, plus some flying gurnards, authentic underwater swallows that, on dark nights, alternately streak air and water with their phosphorescent glimmers. Among mollusks and zoophytes, I found in our trawl’s meshes various species of alcyonarian coral, sea urchins, hammer shells, spurred-star shells, wentletrap snails, horn shells, glass snails. The local flora was represented by fine floating algae: sea tangle, and kelp from the genus Macrocystis, saturated with the mucilage their pores perspire, from which I selected a wonderful Nemastoma geliniaroidea, classifying it with the natural curiosities in the museum.

On January 4, two days after crossing the Coral Sea, we raised the coast of Papua. On this occasion Captain Nemo told me that he intended to reach the Indian Ocean via the Torres Strait. This was the extent of his remarks. Ned saw with pleasure that this course would bring us, once again, closer to European seas.

The Torres Strait is regarded as no less dangerous for its bristling reefs than for the savage inhabitants of its coasts. It separates Queensland from the huge island of Papua, also called New Guinea.

Papua is 400 leagues long by 130 leagues wide, with a surface area of 40,000 geographic leagues. It’s located between latitude 0° 19′ and 10° 2′ south, and between longitude 128° 23′ and 146° 15′. At noon, while the chief officer was taking the sun’s altitude, I spotted the summits of the Arfak Mountains, rising in terraces and ending in sharp peaks.

Discovered in 1511 by the Portuguese Francisco Serrano, these shores were successively visited by Don Jorge de Meneses in 1526, by Juan de Grijalva in 1527, by the Spanish general Alvaro de Saavedra in 1528, by Inigo Ortiz in 1545, by the Dutchman Schouten in 1616, by Nicolas Sruick in 1753, by Tasman, Dampier, Fumel, Carteret, Edwards, Bougainville, Cook, McClure, and Thomas Forrest, by Rear Admiral d’Entrecasteaux in 1792, by Louis-Isidore Duperrey in 1823, and by Captain Dumont d’Urville in 1827. “It’s the heartland of the blacks who occupy all Malaysia,” Mr. de Rienzi has said; and I hadn’t the foggiest inkling that sailors’ luck was about to bring me face to face with these daunting Andaman aborigines.

So the Nautilus hove before the entrance to the world’s most dangerous strait, a passageway that even the boldest navigators hesitated to clear: the strait that Luis Vaez de Torres faced on returning from the South Seas in Melanesia, the strait in which sloops of war under Captain Dumont d’Urville ran aground in 1840 and nearly miscarried with all hands. And even the Nautilus, rising superior to every danger in the sea, was about to become intimate with its coral reefs.

The Torres Strait is about thirty-four leagues wide, but it’s obstructed by an incalculable number of islands, islets, breakers, and rocks that make it nearly impossible to navigate. Consequently, Captain Nemo took every desired precaution in crossing it. Floating flush with the water, the Nautilus moved ahead at a moderate pace. Like a cetacean’s tail, its propeller churned the waves slowly.

Taking advantage of this situation, my two companions and I found seats on the ever-deserted platform. In front of us stood the pilothouse, and unless I’m extremely mistaken, Captain Nemo must have been inside, steering his Nautilus himself.

Under my eyes I had the excellent charts of the Torres Strait that had been surveyed and drawn up by the hydrographic engineer Vincendon Dumoulin and Sublieutenant (now Admiral) Coupvent-Desbois, who were part of Dumont d’Urville’s general staff during his final voyage to circumnavigate the globe. These, along with the efforts of Captain King, are the best charts for untangling the snarl of this narrow passageway, and I consulted them with scrupulous care.

Around the Nautilus the sea was boiling furiously. A stream of waves, bearing from southeast to northwest at a speed of two and a half miles per hour, broke over heads of coral emerging here and there.

“That’s one rough sea!” Ned Land told me.

“Abominable indeed,” I replied, “and hardly suitable for a craft like the Nautilus.”

“That damned captain,” the Canadian went on, “must really be sure of his course, because if these clumps of coral so much as brush us, they’ll rip our hull into a thousand pieces!”

The situation was indeed dangerous, but as if by magic, the Nautilus seemed to glide right down the middle of these rampaging reefs. It didn’t follow the exact course of the Zealous and the new Astrolabe, which had proved so ill-fated for Captain Dumont d’Urville. It went more to the north, hugged the Murray Islands, and returned to the southwest near Cumberland Passage. I thought it was about to charge wholeheartedly into this opening, but it went up to the northwest, through a large number of little-known islands and islets, and steered toward Tound Island and the Bad Channel.

I was already wondering if Captain Nemo, rash to the point of sheer insanity, wanted his ship to tackle the narrows where Dumont d’Urville’s two sloops of war had gone aground, when he changed direction a second time and cut straight to the west, heading toward Gueboroa Island.

By then it was three o’clock in the afternoon. The current was slacking off, it was almost full tide. The Nautilus drew near this island, which I can see to this day with its remarkable fringe of screw pines. We hugged it from less than two miles out.

A sudden jolt threw me down. The Nautilus had just struck a reef, and it remained motionless, listing slightly to port.

When I stood up, I saw Captain Nemo and his chief officer on the platform. They were examining the ship’s circumstances, exchanging a few words in their incomprehensible dialect.

Here is what those circumstances entailed. Two miles to starboard lay Gueboroa Island, its coastline curving north to west like an immense arm. To the south and east, heads of coral were already on display, left uncovered by the ebbing waters. We had run aground at full tide and in one of those seas whose tides are moderate, an inconvenient state of affairs for floating the Nautilus off. However, the ship hadn’t suffered in any way, so solidly joined was its hull. But although it could neither sink nor split open, it was in serious danger of being permanently attached to these reefs, and that would have been the finish of Captain Nemo’s submersible.

I was mulling this over when the captain approached, cool and calm, forever in control of himself, looking neither alarmed nor annoyed.

“An accident?” I said to him.

“No, an incident,” he answered me.

“But an incident,” I replied, “that may oblige you to become a resident again of these shores you avoid!”

Captain Nemo gave me an odd look and gestured no. Which told me pretty clearly that nothing would ever force him to set foot on a land mass again. Then he said:

“No, Professor Aronnax, the Nautilus isn’t consigned to perdition. It will still carry you through the midst of the ocean’s wonders. Our voyage is just beginning, and I’ve no desire to deprive myself so soon of the pleasure of your company.”

“Even so, Captain Nemo,” I went on, ignoring his ironic turn of phrase, “the Nautilus has run aground at a moment when the sea is full. Now then, the tides aren’t strong in the Pacific, and if you can’t unballast the Nautilus, which seems impossible to me, I don’t see how it will float off.”

“You’re right, professor, the Pacific tides aren’t strong,” Captain Nemo replied. “But in the Torres Strait, one still finds a meter-and-a-half difference in level between high and low seas. Today is January 4, and in five days the moon will be full. Now then, I’ll be quite astonished if that good-natured satellite doesn’t sufficiently raise these masses of water and do me a favor for which I’ll be forever grateful.”

This said, Captain Nemo went below again to the Nautilus’s interior, followed by his chief officer. As for our craft, it no longer stirred, staying as motionless as if these coral polyps had already walled it in with their indestructible cement.

“Well, sir?” Ned Land said to me, coming up after the captain’s departure.

“Well, Ned my friend, we’ll serenely wait for the tide on the 9th, because it seems the moon will have the good nature to float us away!”

“As simple as that?”

“As simple as that.”

“So our captain isn’t going to drop his anchors, put his engines on the chains, and do anything to haul us off?”

“Since the tide will be sufficient,” Conseil replied simply.

The Canadian stared at Conseil, then he shrugged his shoulders. The seaman in him was talking now.

“Sir,” he answered, “you can trust me when I say this hunk of iron will never navigate again, on the seas or under them. It’s only fit to be sold for its weight. So I think it’s time we gave Captain Nemo the slip.”

“Ned my friend,” I replied, “unlike you, I haven’t given up on our valiant Nautilus, and in four days we’ll know where we stand on these Pacific tides. Besides, an escape attempt might be timely if we were in sight of the coasts of England or Provence, but in the waterways of Papua it’s another story. And we’ll always have that as a last resort if the Nautilus doesn’t right itself, which I’d regard as a real calamity.”

“But couldn’t we at least get the lay of the land?” Ned went on. “Here’s an island. On this island there are trees. Under those trees land animals loaded with cutlets and roast beef, which I’d be happy to sink my teeth into.”

“In this instance our friend Ned is right,” Conseil said, “and I side with his views. Couldn’t master persuade his friend Captain Nemo to send the three of us ashore, if only so our feet don’t lose the knack of treading on the solid parts of our planet?”

“I can ask him,” I replied, “but he’ll refuse.”

“Let master take the risk,” Conseil said, “and we’ll know where we stand on the captain’s affability.”

Much to my surprise, Captain Nemo gave me the permission I asked for, and he did so with grace and alacrity, not even exacting my promise to return on board. But fleeing across the New Guinea territories would be extremely dangerous, and I wouldn’t have advised Ned Land to try it. Better to be prisoners aboard the Nautilus than to fall into the hands of Papuan natives.

The skiff was put at our disposal for the next morning. I hardly needed to ask whether Captain Nemo would be coming along. I likewise assumed that no crewmen would be assigned to us, that Ned Land would be in sole charge of piloting the longboat. Besides, the shore lay no more than two miles off, and it would be child’s play for the Canadian to guide that nimble skiff through those rows of reefs so ill-fated for big ships.

The next day, January 5, after its deck paneling was opened, the skiff was wrenched from its socket and launched to sea from the top of the platform. Two men were sufficient for this operation. The oars were inside the longboat and we had only to take our seats.

At eight o’clock, armed with rifles and axes, we pulled clear of the Nautilus. The sea was fairly calm. A mild breeze blew from shore. In place by the oars, Conseil and I rowed vigorously, and Ned steered us into the narrow lanes between the breakers. The skiff handled easily and sped swiftly.

Ned Land couldn’t conceal his glee. He was a prisoner escaping from prison and never dreaming he would need to reenter it.

“Meat!” he kept repeating. “Now we’ll eat red meat! Actual game! A real mess call, by thunder! I’m not saying fish aren’t good for you, but we mustn’t overdo ’em, and a slice of fresh venison grilled over live coals will be a nice change from our standard fare.”

“You glutton,” Conseil replied, “you’re making my mouth water!”

“It remains to be seen,” I said, “whether these forests do contain game, and if the types of game aren’t of such size that they can hunt the hunter.”

“Fine, Professor Aronnax!” replied the Canadian, whose teeth seemed to be as honed as the edge of an ax. “But if there’s no other quadruped on this island, I’ll eat tiger—tiger sirloin.”

“Our friend Ned grows disturbing,” Conseil replied.

“Whatever it is,” Ned Land went on, “any animal having four feet without feathers, or two feet with feathers, will be greeted by my very own one-gun salute.”

“Oh good!” I replied. “The reckless Mr. Land is at it again!”

“Don’t worry, Professor Aronnax, just keep rowing!” the Canadian replied. “I only need twenty-five minutes to serve you one of my own special creations.”

By 8:30 the Nautilus’s skiff had just run gently aground on a sandy strand, after successfully clearing the ring of coral that surrounds Gueboroa Island.

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Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/23 17:44:39 $