Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas: Second Part

Chapter 16

Shortage of Air

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.

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