On the 28th of February, when at noon the Nautilus came to the surface of the sea, in 9° 4′ N. lat., there was land in sight about eight miles to westward. The first thing I noticed was a range of mountains about two thousand feet high, the shapes of which were most capricious. On taking the bearings, I knew that we were nearing the island of Ceylon, the pearl which hangs from the lobe of the Indian Peninsula.
Captain Nemo and his second appeared at this moment. The Captain glanced at the map. Then turning to me, said:
“The Island of Ceylon, noted for its pearl-fisheries. Would you like to visit one of them, M. Aronnax?”
“Well, the thing is easy. Though, if we see the fisheries, we shall not see the fishermen. The annual exportation has not yet begun. Never mind, I will give orders to make for the Gulf of Manaar, where we shall arrive in the night.”
The Captain said something to his second, who immediately went out. Soon the Nautilus returned to her native element, and the manometer showed that she was about thirty feet deep.
“Well, sir,” said Captain Nemo, “you and your companions shall visit the Bank of Manaar, and if by chance some fisherman should be there, we shall see him at work.”
“By the bye, M. Aronnax you are not afraid of sharks?”
“Sharks!” exclaimed I.
This question seemed a very hard one.
“Well?” continued Captain Nemo.
“I admit, Captain, that I am not yet very familiar with that kind of fish.”
“We are accustomed to them,” replied Captain Nemo, “and in time you will be too. However, we shall be armed, and on the road we may be able to hunt some of the tribe. It is interesting. So, till to-morrow, sir, and early.”
This said in a careless tone, Captain Nemo left the saloon. Now, if you were invited to hunt the bear in the mountains of Switzerland, what would you say?
“Very well! to-morrow we will go and hunt the bear.” If you were asked to hunt the lion in the plains of Atlas, or the tiger in the Indian jungles, what would you say?
“Ha! ha! it seems we are going to hunt the tiger or the lion!” But when you are invited to hunt the shark in its natural element, you would perhaps reflect before accepting the invitation. As for myself, I passed my hand over my forehead, on which stood large drops of cold perspiration. “Let us reflect,” said I, “and take our time. Hunting otters in submarine forests, as we did in the Island of Crespo, will pass; but going up and down at the bottom of the sea, where one is almost certain to meet sharks, is quite another thing! I know well that in certain countries, particularly in the Andaman Islands, the negroes never hesitate to attack them with a dagger in one hand and a running noose in the other; but I also know that few who affront those creatures ever return alive. However, I am not a negro, and if I were I think a little hesitation in this case would not be ill-timed.”
At this moment Conseil and the Canadian entered, quite composed, and even joyous. They knew not what awaited them.
“Faith, sir,” said Ned Land, “your Captain Nemo—the devil take him!—has just made us a very pleasant offer.”
“Ah!” said I, “you know?”
“If agreeable to you, sir,” interrupted Conseil, “the commander of the Nautilus has invited us to visit the magnificent Ceylon fisheries to-morrow, in your company; he did it kindly, and behaved like a real gentleman.”
“He said nothing more?”
“Nothing more, sir, except that he had already spoken to you of this little walk.”
“Sir,” said Conseil, “would you give us some details of the pearl fishery?”
“As to the fishing itself,” I asked, “or the incidents, which?”
“On the fishing,” replied the Canadian; “before entering upon the ground, it is as well to know something about it.”
“Very well; sit down, my friends, and I will teach you.”
Ned and Conseil seated themselves on an ottoman, and the first thing the Canadian asked was:
“Sir, what is a pearl?”
“My worthy Ned,” I answered, “to the poet, a pearl is a tear of the sea; to the Orientals, it is a drop of dew solidified; to the ladies, it is a jewel of an oblong shape, of a brilliancy of mother-of-pearl substance, which they wear on their fingers, their necks, or their ears; for the chemist it is a mixture of phosphate and carbonate of lime, with a little gelatine; and lastly, for naturalists, it is simply a morbid secretion of the organ that produces the mother-of-pearl amongst certain bivalves.”
“Branch of molluscs,” said Conseil.
“Precisely so, my learned Conseil; and, amongst these testacea the earshell, the tridacnæ, the turbots, in a word, all those which secrete mother-of-pearl, that is, the blue, bluish, violet, or white substance which lines the interior of their shells, are capable of producing pearls.”
“Mussels too?” asked the Canadian.
“Yes, mussels of certain waters in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Saxony, Bohemia, and France.”
“Good! For the future I shall pay attention,” replied the Canadian.
“But,” I continued, “the particular mollusc which secretes the pearl is the pearl-oyster, the Meleagrina margaritifera, that precious pintadine. The pearl is nothing but a nacreous formation, deposited in a globular form, either adhering to the oyster-shell or buried in the folds of the creature. On the shell it is fast: in the flesh it is loose; but always has for a kernel a small, hard substance, may be a barren egg, may be a grain of sand, around which the pearly matter deposits itself year after year successively, and by thin concentric layers.”
“Are many pearls found in the same oyster?” asked Conseil.
“Yes, my boy. Some are a perfect casket. One oyster has been mentioned, though I allow myself to doubt it, as having contained no less than a hundred and fifty sharks.”
“A hundred and fifty sharks!” exclaimed Ned Land.
“Did I say sharks?” said I hurriedly. “I meant to say a hundred and fifty pearls. Sharks would not be sense.”
“Certainly not,” said Conseil; “but will you tell us now by what means they extract these pearls?”
“They proceed in various ways. When they adhere to the shell, the fishermen often pull them off with pincers; but the most common way is to lay the oysters on mats of the seaweed which covers the banks. Thus they die in the open air; and at the end of ten days they are in a forward state of decomposition. They are then plunged into large reservoirs of sea-water; then they are opened and washed.”
“The price of these pearls varies according to their size?” asked Conseil.
“Not only according to their size,” I answered, “but also according to their shape, their water (that is, their colour), and their lustre: that is, that bright and diapered sparkle which makes them so charming to the eye. The most beautiful are called virgin pearls, or paragons. They are formed alone in the tissue of the mollusc, are white, often opaque, and sometimes have the transparency of an opal; they are generally round or oval. The round are made into bracelets, the oval into pendants, and, being more precious, are sold singly. Those adhering to the shell of the oyster are more irregular in shape, and are sold by weight. Lastly, in a lower order are classed those small pearls known under the name of seed-pearls; they are sold by measure, and are especially used in embroidery for church ornaments.”
“But,” said Conseil, “is this pearl-fishery dangerous?”
“No,” I answered, quickly; “particularly if certain precautions are taken.”
“What does one risk in such a calling?” said Ned Land, “the swallowing of some mouthfuls of sea-water?”
“As you say, Ned. By the bye,” said I, trying to take Captain Nemo’s careless tone, “are you afraid of sharks, brave Ned?”
“I!” replied the Canadian; “a harpooner by profession? It is my trade to make light of them.”
“But,” said I, “it is not a question of fishing for them with an iron-swivel, hoisting them into the vessel, cutting off their tails with a blow of a chopper, ripping them up, and throwing their heart into the sea!”
“Then, it is a question of——”
“In the water?”
“In the water.”
“Faith, with a good harpoon! You know, sir, these sharks are ill-fashioned beasts. They turn on their bellies to seize you, and in that time——”
Ned Land had a way of saying “seize” which made my blood run cold.
“Well, and you, Conseil, what do you think of sharks?”
“Me!” said Conseil. “I will be frank, sir.”
“So much the better,” thought I.
“If you, sir, mean to face the sharks, I do not see why your faithful servant should not face them with you.”