Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas: First Part

Chapter 21

Some Days Ashore

Stepping ashore had an exhilarating effect on me. Ned Land tested the soil with his foot, as if he were laying claim to it. Yet it had been only two months since we had become, as Captain Nemo expressed it, “passengers on the Nautilus,” in other words, the literal prisoners of its commander.

In a few minutes we were a gunshot away from the coast. The soil was almost entirely madreporic, but certain dry stream beds were strewn with granite rubble, proving that this island was of primordial origin. The entire horizon was hidden behind a curtain of wonderful forests. Enormous trees, sometimes as high as 200 feet, were linked to each other by garlands of tropical creepers, genuine natural hammocks that swayed in a mild breeze. There were mimosas, banyan trees, beefwood, teakwood, hibiscus, screw pines, palm trees, all mingling in wild profusion; and beneath the shade of their green canopies, at the feet of their gigantic trunks, there grew orchids, leguminous plants, and ferns.

Meanwhile, ignoring all these fine specimens of Papuan flora, the Canadian passed up the decorative in favor of the functional. He spotted a coconut palm, beat down some of its fruit, broke them open, and we drank their milk and ate their meat with a pleasure that was a protest against our standard fare on the Nautilus.

“Excellent!” Ned Land said.

“Exquisite!” Conseil replied.

“And I don’t think,” the Canadian said, “that your Nemo would object to us stashing a cargo of coconuts aboard his vessel?”

“I imagine not,” I replied, “but he won’t want to sample them.”

“Too bad for him!” Conseil said.

“And plenty good for us!” Ned Land shot back. “There’ll be more left over!”

“A word of caution, Mr. Land,” I told the harpooner, who was about to ravage another coconut palm. “Coconuts are admirable things, but before we stuff the skiff with them, it would be wise to find out whether this island offers other substances just as useful. Some fresh vegetables would be well received in the Nautilus’s pantry.”

“Master is right,” Conseil replied, “and I propose that we set aside three places in our longboat: one for fruit, another for vegetables, and a third for venison, of which I still haven’t glimpsed the tiniest specimen.”

“Don’t give up so easily, Conseil,” the Canadian replied.

“So let’s continue our excursion,” I went on, “but keep a sharp lookout. This island seems uninhabited, but it still might harbor certain individuals who aren’t so finicky about the sort of game they eat!”

“Hee hee!” Ned put in, with a meaningful movement of his jaws.

“Ned! Oh horrors!” Conseil exclaimed.

“Ye gods,” the Canadian shot back, “I’m starting to appreciate the charms of cannibalism!”

“Ned, Ned! Don’t say that!” Conseil answered. “You a cannibal? Why, I’ll no longer be safe next to you, I who share your cabin! Does this mean I’ll wake up half devoured one fine day?”

“I’m awfully fond of you, Conseil my friend, but not enough to eat you when there’s better food around.”

“Then I daren’t delay,” Conseil replied. “The hunt is on! We absolutely must bag some game to placate this man-eater, or one of these mornings master won’t find enough pieces of his manservant to serve him.”

While exchanging this chitchat, we entered beneath the dark canopies of the forest, and for two hours we explored it in every direction.

We couldn’t have been luckier in our search for edible vegetation, and some of the most useful produce in the tropical zones supplied us with a valuable foodstuff missing on board.

I mean the breadfruit tree, which is quite abundant on Gueboroa Island, and there I chiefly noted the seedless variety that in Malaysia is called “rima.”

This tree is distinguished from other trees by a straight trunk forty feet high. To the naturalist’s eye, its gracefully rounded crown, formed of big multilobed leaves, was enough to denote the artocarpus that has been so successfully transplanted to the Mascarene Islands east of Madagascar. From its mass of greenery, huge globular fruit stood out, a decimeter wide and furnished on the outside with creases that assumed a hexangular pattern. It’s a handy plant that nature gives to regions lacking in wheat; without needing to be cultivated, it bears fruit eight months out of the year.

Ned Land was on familiar terms with this fruit. He had already eaten it on his many voyages and knew how to cook its edible substance. So the very sight of it aroused his appetite, and he couldn’t control himself.

“Sir,” he told me, “I’ll die if I don’t sample a little breadfruit pasta!”

“Sample some, Ned my friend, sample all you like. We’re here to conduct experiments, let’s conduct them.”

“It won’t take a minute,” the Canadian replied.

Equipped with a magnifying glass, he lit a fire of deadwood that was soon crackling merrily. Meanwhile Conseil and I selected the finest artocarpus fruit. Some still weren’t ripe enough, and their thick skins covered white, slightly fibrous pulps. But a great many others were yellowish and gelatinous, just begging to be picked.

This fruit contained no pits. Conseil brought a dozen of them to Ned Land, who cut them into thick slices and placed them over a fire of live coals, all the while repeating:

“You’ll see, sir, how tasty this bread is!”

“Especially since we’ve gone without baked goods for so long,” Conseil said.

“It’s more than just bread,” the Canadian added. “It’s a dainty pastry. You’ve never eaten any, sir?”

“No, Ned.”

“All right, get ready for something downright delectable! If you don’t come back for seconds, I’m no longer the King of Harpooners!”

After a few minutes, the parts of the fruit exposed to the fire were completely toasted. On the inside there appeared some white pasta, a sort of soft bread center whose flavor reminded me of artichoke.

This bread was excellent, I must admit, and I ate it with great pleasure.

“Unfortunately,” I said, “this pasta won’t stay fresh, so it seems pointless to make a supply for on board.”

“By thunder, sir!” Ned Land exclaimed. “There you go, talking like a naturalist, but meantime I’ll be acting like a baker! Conseil, harvest some of this fruit to take with us when we go back.”

“And how will you prepare it?” I asked the Canadian.

“I’ll make a fermented batter from its pulp that’ll keep indefinitely without spoiling. When I want some, I’ll just cook it in the galley on board—it’ll have a slightly tart flavor, but you’ll find it excellent.”

“So, Mr. Ned, I see that this bread is all we need—”

“Not quite, professor,” the Canadian replied. “We need some fruit to go with it, or at least some vegetables.”

“Then let’s look for fruit and vegetables.”

When our breadfruit harvesting was done, we took to the trail to complete this “dry-land dinner.”

We didn’t search in vain, and near noontime we had an ample supply of bananas. This delicious produce from the Torrid Zones ripens all year round, and Malaysians, who give them the name “pisang,” eat them without bothering to cook them. In addition to bananas, we gathered some enormous jackfruit with a very tangy flavor, some tasty mangoes, and some pineapples of unbelievable size. But this foraging took up a good deal of our time, which, even so, we had no cause to regret.

Conseil kept Ned under observation. The harpooner walked in the lead, and during his stroll through this forest, he gathered with sure hands some excellent fruit that should have completed his provisions.

“So,” Conseil asked, “you have everything you need, Ned my friend?”

“Humph!” the Canadian put in.

“What! You’re complaining?”

“All this vegetation doesn’t make a meal,” Ned replied. “Just side dishes, dessert. But where’s the soup course? Where’s the roast?”

“Right,” I said. “Ned promised us cutlets, which seems highly questionable to me.”

“Sir,” the Canadian replied, “our hunting not only isn’t over, it hasn’t even started. Patience! We’re sure to end up bumping into some animal with either feathers or fur, if not in this locality, then in another.”

“And if not today, then tomorrow, because we mustn’t wander too far off,” Conseil added. “That’s why I propose that we return to the skiff.”

“What! Already!” Ned exclaimed.

“We ought to be back before nightfall,” I said.

“But what hour is it, then?” the Canadian asked.

“Two o’clock at least,” Conseil replied.

“How time flies on solid ground!” exclaimed Mr. Ned Land with a sigh of regret.

“Off we go!” Conseil replied.

So we returned through the forest, and we completed our harvest by making a clean sweep of some palm cabbages that had to be picked from the crowns of their trees, some small beans that I recognized as the “abrou” of the Malaysians, and some high-quality yams.

We were overloaded when we arrived at the skiff. However, Ned Land still found these provisions inadequate. But fortune smiled on him. Just as we were boarding, he spotted several trees twenty-five to thirty feet high, belonging to the palm species. As valuable as the artocarpus, these trees are justly ranked among the most useful produce in Malaysia.

They were sago palms, vegetation that grows without being cultivated; like mulberry trees, they reproduce by means of shoots and seeds.

Ned Land knew how to handle these trees. Taking his ax and wielding it with great vigor, he soon stretched out on the ground two or three sago palms, whose maturity was revealed by the white dust sprinkled over their palm fronds.

I watched him more as a naturalist than as a man in hunger. He began by removing from each trunk an inch-thick strip of bark that covered a network of long, hopelessly tangled fibers that were puttied with a sort of gummy flour. This flour was the starch-like sago, an edible substance chiefly consumed by the Melanesian peoples.

For the time being, Ned Land was content to chop these trunks into pieces, as if he were making firewood; later he would extract the flour by sifting it through cloth to separate it from its fibrous ligaments, let it dry out in the sun, and leave it to harden inside molds.

Finally, at five o’clock in the afternoon, laden with all our treasures, we left the island beach and half an hour later pulled alongside the Nautilus. Nobody appeared on our arrival. The enormous sheet-iron cylinder seemed deserted. Our provisions loaded on board, I went below to my stateroom. There I found my supper ready. I ate and then fell asleep.

The next day, January 6: nothing new on board. Not a sound inside, not a sign of life. The skiff stayed alongside in the same place we had left it. We decided to return to Gueboroa Island. Ned Land hoped for better luck in his hunting than on the day before, and he wanted to visit a different part of the forest.

By sunrise we were off. Carried by an inbound current, the longboat reached the island in a matter of moments.

We disembarked, and thinking it best to abide by the Canadian’s instincts, we followed Ned Land, whose long legs threatened to outpace us.

Ned Land went westward up the coast; then, fording some stream beds, he reached open plains that were bordered by wonderful forests. Some kingfishers lurked along the watercourses, but they didn’t let us approach. Their cautious behavior proved to me that these winged creatures knew where they stood on bipeds of our species, and I concluded that if this island wasn’t inhabited, at least human beings paid it frequent visits.

After crossing a pretty lush prairie, we arrived on the outskirts of a small wood, enlivened by the singing and soaring of a large number of birds.

“Still, they’re merely birds,” Conseil said.

“But some are edible,” the harpooner replied.

“Wrong, Ned my friend,” Conseil answered, “because I see only ordinary parrots here.”

“Conseil my friend,” Ned replied in all seriousness, “parrots are like pheasant to people with nothing else on their plates.”

“And I might add,” I said, “that when these birds are properly cooked, they’re at least worth a stab of the fork.”

Indeed, under the dense foliage of this wood, a whole host of parrots fluttered from branch to branch, needing only the proper upbringing to speak human dialects. At present they were cackling in chorus with parakeets of every color, with solemn cockatoos that seemed to be pondering some philosophical problem, while bright red lories passed by like pieces of bunting borne on the breeze, in the midst of kalao parrots raucously on the wing, Papuan lories painted the subtlest shades of azure, and a whole variety of delightful winged creatures, none terribly edible.

However, one bird unique to these shores, which never passes beyond the boundaries of the Aru and Papuan Islands, was missing from this collection. But I was given a chance to marvel at it soon enough.

After crossing through a moderately dense thicket, we again found some plains obstructed by bushes. There I saw some magnificent birds soaring aloft, the arrangement of their long feathers causing them to head into the wind. Their undulating flight, the grace of their aerial curves, and the play of their colors allured and delighted the eye. I had no trouble identifying them.

“Birds of paradise!” I exclaimed.

“Order Passeriforma, division Clystomora,” Conseil replied.

“Partridge family?” Ned Land asked.

“I doubt it, Mr. Land. Nevertheless, I’m counting on your dexterity to catch me one of these delightful representatives of tropical nature!”

“I’ll give it a try, professor, though I’m handier with a harpoon than a rifle.”

Malaysians, who do a booming business in these birds with the Chinese, have various methods for catching them that we couldn’t use. Sometimes they set snares on the tops of the tall trees that the bird of paradise prefers to inhabit. At other times they capture it with a tenacious glue that paralyzes its movements. They will even go so far as to poison the springs where these fowl habitually drink. But in our case, all we could do was fire at them on the wing, which left us little chance of getting one. And in truth, we used up a good part of our ammunition in vain.

Near eleven o’clock in the morning, we cleared the lower slopes of the mountains that form the island’s center, and we still hadn’t bagged a thing. Hunger spurred us on. The hunters had counted on consuming the proceeds of their hunting, and they had miscalculated. Luckily, and much to his surprise, Conseil pulled off a right-and-left shot and insured our breakfast. He brought down a white pigeon and a ringdove, which were briskly plucked, hung from a spit, and roasted over a blazing fire of deadwood. While these fascinating animals were cooking, Ned prepared some bread from the artocarpus. Then the pigeon and ringdove were devoured to the bones and declared excellent. Nutmeg, on which these birds habitually gorge themselves, sweetens their flesh and makes it delicious eating.

“They taste like chicken stuffed with truffles,” Conseil said.

“All right, Ned,” I asked the Canadian, “now what do you need?”

“Game with four paws, Professor Aronnax,” Ned Land replied. “All these pigeons are only appetizers, snacks. So till I’ve bagged an animal with cutlets, I won’t be happy!”

“Nor I, Ned, until I’ve caught a bird of paradise.”

“Then let’s keep hunting,” Conseil replied, “but while heading back to the sea. We’ve arrived at the foothills of these mountains, and I think we’ll do better if we return to the forest regions.”

It was good advice and we took it. After an hour’s walk we reached a genuine sago palm forest. A few harmless snakes fled underfoot. Birds of paradise stole off at our approach, and I was in real despair of catching one when Conseil, walking in the lead, stooped suddenly, gave a triumphant shout, and came back to me, carrying a magnificent bird of paradise.

“Oh bravo, Conseil!” I exclaimed.

“Master is too kind,” Conseil replied.

“Not at all, my boy. That was a stroke of genius, catching one of these live birds with your bare hands!”

“If master will examine it closely, he’ll see that I deserve no great praise.”

“And why not, Conseil?”

“Because this bird is as drunk as a lord.”


“Yes, master, drunk from the nutmegs it was devouring under that nutmeg tree where I caught it. See, Ned my friend, see the monstrous results of intemperance!”

“Damnation!” the Canadian shot back. “Considering the amount of gin I’ve had these past two months, you’ve got nothing to complain about!”

Meanwhile I was examining this unusual bird. Conseil was not mistaken. Tipsy from that potent juice, our bird of paradise had been reduced to helplessness. It was unable to fly. It was barely able to walk. But this didn’t alarm me, and I just let it sleep off its nutmeg.

This bird belonged to the finest of the eight species credited to Papua and its neighboring islands. It was a “great emerald,” one of the rarest birds of paradise. It measured three decimeters long. Its head was comparatively small, and its eyes, placed near the opening of its beak, were also small. But it offered a wonderful mixture of hues: a yellow beak, brown feet and claws, hazel wings with purple tips, pale yellow head and scruff of the neck, emerald throat, the belly and chest maroon to brown. Two strands, made of a horn substance covered with down, rose over its tail, which was lengthened by long, very light feathers of wonderful fineness, and they completed the costume of this marvelous bird that the islanders have poetically named the sun bird.

How I wished I could take this superb bird of paradise back to Paris, to make a gift of it to the zoo at the Botanical Gardens, which doesn’t own a single live specimen.

“So it must be a rarity or something?” the Canadian asked, in the tone of a hunter who, from the viewpoint of his art, gives the game a pretty low rating.

“A great rarity, my gallant comrade, and above all very hard to capture alive. And even after they’re dead, there’s still a major market for these birds. So the natives have figured out how to create fake ones, like people create fake pearls or diamonds.”

“What!” Conseil exclaimed. “They make counterfeit birds of paradise?”

“Yes, Conseil.”

“And is master familiar with how the islanders go about it?”

“Perfectly familiar. During the easterly monsoon season, birds of paradise lose the magnificent feathers around their tails that naturalists call ‘below-the-wing’ feathers. These feathers are gathered by the fowl forgers and skillfully fitted onto some poor previously mutilated parakeet. Then they paint over the suture, varnish the bird, and ship the fruits of their unique labors to museums and collectors in Europe.”

“Good enough!” Ned Land put in. “If it isn’t the right bird, it’s still the right feathers, and so long as the merchandise isn’t meant to be eaten, I see no great harm!”

But if my desires were fulfilled by the capture of this bird of paradise, those of our Canadian huntsman remained unsatisfied. Luckily, near two o’clock Ned Land brought down a magnificent wild pig of the type the natives call “bari-outang.” This animal came in the nick of time for us to bag some real quadruped meat, and it was warmly welcomed. Ned Land proved himself quite gloriously with his gunshot. Hit by an electric bullet, the pig dropped dead on the spot.

The Canadian properly skinned and cleaned it, after removing half a dozen cutlets destined to serve as the grilled meat course of our evening meal. Then the hunt was on again, and once more would be marked by the exploits of Ned and Conseil.

In essence, beating the bushes, the two friends flushed a herd of kangaroos that fled by bounding away on their elastic paws. But these animals didn’t flee so swiftly that our electric capsules couldn’t catch up with them.

“Oh, professor!” shouted Ned Land, whose hunting fever had gone to his brain. “What excellent game, especially in a stew! What a supply for the Nautilus! Two, three, five down! And just think how we’ll devour all this meat ourselves, while those numbskulls on board won’t get a shred!”

In his uncontrollable glee, I think the Canadian might have slaughtered the whole horde, if he hadn’t been so busy talking! But he was content with a dozen of these fascinating marsupials, which make up the first order of aplacental mammals, as Conseil just had to tell us.

These animals were small in stature. They were a species of those “rabbit kangaroos” that usually dwell in the hollows of trees and are tremendously fast; but although of moderate dimensions, they at least furnish a meat that’s highly prized.

We were thoroughly satisfied with the results of our hunting. A gleeful Ned proposed that we return the next day to this magic island, which he planned to depopulate of its every edible quadruped. But he was reckoning without events.

By six o’clock in the evening, we were back on the beach. The skiff was aground in its usual place. The Nautilus, looking like a long reef, emerged from the waves two miles offshore.

Without further ado, Ned Land got down to the important business of dinner. He came wonderfully to terms with its entire cooking. Grilling over the coals, those cutlets from the “bari-outang” soon gave off a succulent aroma that perfumed the air.

But I catch myself following in the Canadian’s footsteps. Look at me—in ecstasy over freshly grilled pork! Please grant me a pardon as I’ve already granted one to Mr. Land, and on the same grounds!

In short, dinner was excellent. Two ringdoves rounded out this extraordinary menu. Sago pasta, bread from the artocarpus, mangoes, half a dozen pineapples, and the fermented liquor from certain coconuts heightened our glee. I suspect that my two fine companions weren’t quite as clearheaded as one could wish.

“What if we don’t return to the Nautilus this evening?” Conseil said.

“What if we never return to it?” Ned Land added.

Just then a stone whizzed toward us, landed at our feet, and cut short the harpooner’s proposition.

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