The Underwater Coalfields
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THE NEXT DAY, February 20, I overslept. I was so exhausted
from the night before, I didn't get up until eleven o'clock. I
dressed quickly. I hurried to find out the Nautilus's heading.
The instruments indicated that it was running southward at a speed
of twenty miles per hour and a depth of 100 meters.
Conseil entered. I described our nocturnal excursion to him,
and since the panels were open, he could still catch a glimpse
of this submerged continent.
In fact, the Nautilus was skimming only ten meters over the soil of
these Atlantis plains. The ship scudded along like an air balloon borne
by the wind over some prairie on land; but it would be more accurate
to say that we sat in the lounge as if we were riding in a coach
on an express train. As for the foregrounds passing before our eyes,
they were fantastically carved rocks, forests of trees that had
crossed over from the vegetable kingdom into the mineral kingdom,
their motionless silhouettes sprawling beneath the waves.
There also were stony masses buried beneath carpets of axidia
and sea anemone, bristling with long, vertical water plants,
then strangely contoured blocks of lava that testified to all the fury
of those plutonic developments.
While this bizarre scenery was glittering under our electric beams,
I told Conseil the story of the Atlanteans, who had inspired
the old French scientist Jean Bailly to write so many entertaining--
albeit utterly fictitious--pages.* I told the lad about the wars
of these heroic people. I discussed the question of Atlantis
with the fervor of a man who no longer had any doubts. But Conseil
was so distracted he barely heard me, and his lack of interest
in any commentary on this historical topic was soon explained.
*Bailly believed that Atlantis was located at the North Pole! Ed.
In essence, numerous fish had caught his eye, and when fish pass by,
Conseil vanishes into his world of classifying and leaves real
life behind. In which case I could only tag along and resume
our ichthyological research.
Even so, these Atlantic fish were not noticeably different from those we
had observed earlier. There were rays of gigantic size, five meters
long and with muscles so powerful they could leap above the waves,
sharks of various species including a fifteen-foot glaucous shark
with sharp triangular teeth and so transparent it was almost invisible
amid the waters, brown lantern sharks, prism-shaped humantin sharks
armored with protuberant hides, sturgeons resembling their relatives
in the Mediterranean, trumpet-snouted pipefish a foot and a half long,
yellowish brown with small gray fins and no teeth or tongue,
unreeling like slim, supple snakes.
Among bony fish, Conseil noticed some blackish marlin three
meters long with a sharp sword jutting from the upper jaw,
bright-colored weevers known in Aristotle's day as sea dragons
and whose dorsal stingers make them quite dangerous to pick up,
then dolphinfish with brown backs striped in blue and edged in gold,
handsome dorados, moonlike opahs that look like azure disks but which
the sun's rays turn into spots of silver, finally eight-meter swordfish
from the genus Xiphias, swimming in schools, sporting yellowish
sickle-shaped fins and six-foot broadswords, stalwart animals,
plant eaters rather than fish eaters, obeying the tiniest signals
from their females like henpecked husbands.
But while observing these different specimens of marine fauna,
I didn't stop examining the long plains of Atlantis. Sometimes an
unpredictable irregularity in the seafloor would force the Nautilus
to slow down, and then it would glide into the narrow channels
between the hills with a cetacean's dexterity. If the labyrinth
became hopelessly tangled, the submersible would rise above it
like an airship, and after clearing the obstacle, it would resume
its speedy course just a few meters above the ocean floor.
It was an enjoyable and impressive way of navigating that did indeed
recall the maneuvers of an airship ride, with the major difference
that the Nautilus faithfully obeyed the hands of its helmsman.
The terrain consisted mostly of thick slime mixed with petrified branches,
but it changed little by little near four o'clock in the afternoon;
it grew rockier and seemed to be strewn with pudding stones and a basaltic
gravel called "tuff," together with bits of lava and sulfurous obsidian.
I expected these long plains to change into mountain regions,
and in fact, as the Nautilus was executing certain turns,
I noticed that the southerly horizon was blocked by a high wall
that seemed to close off every exit. Its summit obviously
poked above the level of the ocean. It had to be a continent
or at least an island, either one of the Canaries or one of the
Cape Verde Islands. Our bearings hadn't been marked on the chart--
perhaps deliberately--and I had no idea what our position was.
In any case this wall seemed to signal the end of Atlantis, of which,
all in all, we had crossed only a small part.
Nightfall didn't interrupt my observations. I was left to myself.
Conseil had repaired to his cabin. The Nautilus slowed down,
hovering above the muddled masses on the seafloor, sometimes grazing
them as if wanting to come to rest, sometimes rising unpredictably
to the surface of the waves. Then I glimpsed a few bright
constellations through the crystal waters, specifically five or six
of those zodiacal stars trailing from the tail end of Orion.
I would have stayed longer at my window, marveling at these beauties
of sea and sky, but the panels closed. Just then the Nautilus had
arrived at the perpendicular face of that high wall. How the ship
would maneuver I hadn't a guess. I repaired to my stateroom.
The Nautilus did not stir. I fell asleep with the firm intention
of waking up in just a few hours.
But it was eight o'clock the next day when I returned to the lounge.
I stared at the pressure gauge. It told me that the Nautilus was
afloat on the surface of the ocean. Furthermore, I heard the sound
of footsteps on the platform. Yet there were no rolling movements
to indicate the presence of waves undulating above me.
I climbed as far as the hatch. It was open. But instead of
the broad daylight I was expecting, I found that I was surrounded
by total darkness. Where were we? Had I been mistaken?
Was it still night? No! Not one star was twinkling, and nighttime
is never so utterly black.
I wasn't sure what to think, when a voice said to me:
"Is that you, professor?"
"Ah, Captain Nemo!" I replied. "Where are we?"
"Underground!" I exclaimed. "And the Nautilus is still floating?"
"It always floats."
"But I don't understand!"
"Wait a little while. Our beacon is about to go on, and if you
want some light on the subject, you'll be satisfied."
I set foot on the platform and waited. The darkness was so profound
I couldn't see even Captain Nemo. However, looking at the zenith
directly overhead, I thought I caught sight of a feeble glimmer,
a sort of twilight filtering through a circular hole.
Just then the beacon suddenly went on, and its intense brightness
made that hazy light vanish.
This stream of electricity dazzled my eyes, and after momentarily
shutting them, I looked around. The Nautilus was stationary.
It was floating next to an embankment shaped like a wharf.
As for the water now buoying the ship, it was a lake completely encircled
by an inner wall about two miles in diameter, hence six miles around.
Its level--as indicated by the pressure gauge--would be the same
as the outside level, because some connection had to exist
between this lake and the sea. Slanting inward over their base,
these high walls converged to form a vault shaped like an immense
upside-down funnel that measured 500 or 600 meters in height.
At its summit there gaped the circular opening through which I
had detected that faint glimmer, obviously daylight.
Before more carefully examining the interior features of this
enormous cavern, and before deciding if it was the work of nature
or humankind, I went over to Captain Nemo.
"Where are we?" I said.
"In the very heart of an extinct volcano," the captain answered me,
"a volcano whose interior was invaded by the sea after some convulsion
in the earth. While you were sleeping, professor, the Nautilus
entered this lagoon through a natural channel that opens ten meters
below the surface of the ocean. This is our home port, secure,
convenient, secret, and sheltered against winds from any direction!
Along the coasts of your continents or islands, show me any
offshore mooring that can equal this safe refuge for withstanding
the fury of hurricanes."
"Indeed," I replied, "here you're in perfect safety,
Captain Nemo. Who could reach you in the heart of a volcano?
But don't I see an opening at its summit?"
"Yes, its crater, a crater formerly filled with lava, steam, and flames,
but which now lets in this life-giving air we're breathing."
"But which volcanic mountain is this?" I asked.
"It's one of the many islets with which this sea is strewn.
For ships a mere reef, for us an immense cavern. I discovered it
by chance, and chance served me well."
"But couldn't someone enter through the mouth of its crater?"
"No more than I could exit through it. You can climb about 100 feet
up the inner base of this mountain, but then the walls overhang,
they lean too far in to be scaled."
"I can see, captain, that nature is your obedient servant,
any time or any place. You're safe on this lake, and nobody else
can visit its waters. But what's the purpose of this refuge?
The Nautilus doesn't need a harbor."
"No, professor, but it needs electricity to run, batteries to
generate its electricity, sodium to feed its batteries, coal to
make its sodium, and coalfields from which to dig its coal.
Now then, right at this spot the sea covers entire forests that
sank underwater in prehistoric times; today, turned to stone,
transformed into carbon fuel, they offer me inexhaustible coal mines."
"So, captain, your men practice the trade of miners here?"
"Precisely. These mines extend under the waves like the coalfields
at Newcastle. Here, dressed in diving suits, pick and mattock in hand,
my men go out and dig this carbon fuel for which I don't need a single
mine on land. When I burn this combustible to produce sodium,
the smoke escaping from the mountain's crater gives it the appearance
of a still-active volcano."
"And will we see your companions at work?"
"No, at least not this time, because I'm eager to continue our
underwater tour of the world. Accordingly, I'll rest content
with drawing on my reserve stock of sodium. We'll stay here long
enough to load it on board, in other words, a single workday,
then we'll resume our voyage. So, Professor Aronnax, if you'd
like to explore this cavern and circle its lagoon, seize the day."
I thanked the captain and went to look for my two companions,
who hadn't yet left their cabin. I invited them to follow me,
not telling them where we were.
They climbed onto the platform. Conseil, whom nothing could startle,
saw it as a perfectly natural thing to fall asleep under the waves
and wake up under a mountain. But Ned Land had no idea in his head
other than to see if this cavern offered some way out.
After breakfast near ten o'clock, we went down onto the embankment.
"So here we are, back on shore," Conseil said.
"I'd hardly call this shore," the Canadian replied. "And besides,
we aren't on it but under it."
A sandy beach unfolded before us, measuring 500 feet at its widest point
between the waters of the lake and the foot of the mountain's walls.
Via this strand you could easily circle the lake. But the base
of these high walls consisted of broken soil over which there lay
picturesque piles of volcanic blocks and enormous pumice stones.
All these crumbling masses were covered with an enamel polished by
the action of underground fires, and they glistened under the stream
of electric light from our beacon. Stirred up by our footsteps,
the mica-rich dust on this beach flew into the air like a
cloud of sparks.
The ground rose appreciably as it moved away from the sand flats
by the waves, and we soon arrived at some long, winding gradients,
genuinely steep paths that allowed us to climb little by little;
but we had to tread cautiously in the midst of pudding stones that weren't
cemented together, and our feet kept skidding on glassy trachyte,
made of feldspar and quartz crystals.
The volcanic nature of this enormous pit was apparent all around us.
I ventured to comment on it to my companions.
"Can you picture," I asked them, "what this funnel must have
been like when it was filled with boiling lava, and the level
of that incandescent liquid rose right to the mountain's mouth,
like cast iron up the insides of a furnace?"
"I can picture it perfectly," Conseil replied. "But will master
tell me why this huge smelter suspended operations, and how it
is that an oven was replaced by the tranquil waters of a lake?"
"In all likelihood, Conseil, because some convulsion created an opening
below the surface of the ocean, the opening that serves as a passageway
for the Nautilus. Then the waters of the Atlantic rushed inside
the mountain. There ensued a dreadful struggle between the elements
of fire and water, a struggle ending in King Neptune's favor.
But many centuries have passed since then, and this submerged
volcano has changed into a peaceful cavern."
"That's fine," Ned Land answered. "I accept the explanation,
but in our personal interests, I'm sorry this opening the professor
mentions wasn't made above sea level."
"But Ned my friend," Conseil answered, "if it weren't an underwater
passageway, the Nautilus couldn't enter it!"
"And I might add, Mr. Land," I said, "that the waters wouldn't have
rushed under the mountain, and the volcano would still be a volcano.
So you have nothing to be sorry about."
Our climb continued. The gradients got steeper and narrower.
Sometimes they were cut across by deep pits that had to be cleared.
Masses of overhanging rock had to be gotten around. You slid on
your knees, you crept on your belly. But helped by the Canadian's
strength and Conseil's dexterity, we overcame every obstacle.
At an elevation of about thirty meters, the nature of the terrain
changed without becoming any easier. Pudding stones and trachyte
gave way to black basaltic rock: here, lying in slabs all swollen
with blisters; there, shaped like actual prisms and arranged into a
series of columns that supported the springings of this immense vault,
a wonderful sample of natural architecture. Then, among this
basaltic rock, there snaked long, hardened lava flows inlaid with veins
of bituminous coal and in places covered by wide carpets of sulfur.
The sunshine coming through the crater had grown stronger,
shedding a hazy light over all the volcanic waste forever buried
in the heart of this extinct mountain.
But when we had ascended to an elevation of about 250 feet,
we were stopped by insurmountable obstacles. The converging inside
walls changed into overhangs, and our climb into a circular stroll.
At this topmost level the vegetable kingdom began to challenge
the mineral kingdom. Shrubs, and even a few trees, emerged from crevices
in the walls. I recognized some spurges that let their caustic,
purgative sap trickle out. There were heliotropes, very remiss
at living up to their sun-worshipping reputations since no sunlight
ever reached them; their clusters of flowers drooped sadly,
their colors and scents were faded. Here and there chrysanthemums
sprouted timidly at the feet of aloes with long, sad, sickly leaves.
But between these lava flows I spotted little violets that still gave
off a subtle fragrance, and I confess that I inhaled it with delight.
The soul of a flower is its scent, and those splendid water plants,
flowers of the sea, have no souls!
We had arrived at the foot of a sturdy clump of dragon trees,
which were splitting the rocks with exertions of their muscular roots,
when Ned Land exclaimed:
"Oh, sir, a hive!"
"A hive?" I answered, with a gesture of utter disbelief.
"Yes, a hive," the Canadian repeated, "with bees buzzing around!"
I went closer and was forced to recognize the obvious. At the mouth
of a hole cut in the trunk of a dragon tree, there swarmed thousands
of these ingenious insects so common to all the Canary Islands,
where their output is especially prized.
Naturally enough, the Canadian wanted to lay in a supply of honey,
and it would have been ill-mannered of me to say no. He mixed sulfur
with some dry leaves, set them on fire with a spark from his tinderbox,
and proceeded to smoke the bees out. Little by little the buzzing died
down and the disemboweled hive yielded several pounds of sweet honey.
Ned Land stuffed his haversack with it.
"When I've mixed this honey with our breadfruit batter," he told us,
"I'll be ready to serve you a delectable piece of cake."
"But of course," Conseil put in, "it will be gingerbread!"
"I'm all for gingerbread," I said, "but let's resume
this fascinating stroll."
At certain turns in the trail we were going along, the lake
appeared in its full expanse. The ship's beacon lit up that whole
placid surface, which experienced neither ripples nor undulations.
The Nautilus lay perfectly still. On its platform and on the embankment,
crewmen were bustling around, black shadows that stood out clearly
in the midst of the luminous air.
Just then we went around the highest ridge of these rocky
foothills that supported the vault. Then I saw that bees weren't
the animal kingdom's only representatives inside this volcano.
Here and in the shadows, birds of prey soared and whirled,
flying away from nests perched on tips of rock. There were
sparrow hawks with white bellies, and screeching kestrels.
With all the speed their stiltlike legs could muster, fine fat bustards
scampered over the slopes. I'll let the reader decide whether
the Canadian's appetite was aroused by the sight of this tasty game,
and whether he regretted having no rifle in his hands. He tried
to make stones do the work of bullets, and after several fruitless
attempts, he managed to wound one of these magnificent bustards.
To say he risked his life twenty times in order to capture this
bird is simply the unadulterated truth; but he fared so well,
the animal went into his sack to join the honeycombs.
By then we were forced to go back down to the beach because the ridge
had become impossible. Above us, the yawning crater looked like
the wide mouth of a well. From where we stood, the sky was pretty easy
to see, and I watched clouds race by, disheveled by the west wind,
letting tatters of mist trail over the mountain's summit.
Proof positive that those clouds kept at a moderate altitude,
because this volcano didn't rise more than 1,800 feet above the level
of the ocean.
Half an hour after the Canadian's latest exploits, we were back
on the inner beach. There the local flora was represented by a wide
carpet of samphire, a small umbelliferous plant that keeps quite nicely,
which also boasts the names glasswort, saxifrage, and sea fennel.
Conseil picked a couple bunches. As for the local fauna,
it included thousands of crustaceans of every type:
lobsters, hermit crabs, prawns, mysid shrimps, daddy longlegs,
rock crabs, and a prodigious number of seashells, such as cowries,
murex snails, and limpets.
In this locality there gaped the mouth of a magnificent cave.
My companions and I took great pleasure in stretching out on its
fine-grained sand. Fire had polished the sparkling enamel of its
inner walls, sprinkled all over with mica-rich dust. Ned Land tapped
these walls and tried to probe their thickness. I couldn't help smiling.
Our conversation then turned to his everlasting escape plans,
and without going too far, I felt I could offer him this hope:
Captain Nemo had gone down south only to replenish his sodium supplies.
So I hoped he would now hug the coasts of Europe and America,
which would allow the Canadian to try again with a greater
chance of success.
We were stretched out in this delightful cave for an hour.
Our conversation, lively at the outset, then languished.
A definite drowsiness overcame us. Since I saw no good reason
to resist the call of sleep, I fell into a heavy doze.
I dreamed--one doesn't choose his dreams--that my life had been
reduced to the vegetating existence of a simple mollusk.
It seemed to me that this cave made up my double-valved shell. . . .
Suddenly Conseil's voice startled me awake.
"Get up! Get up!" shouted the fine lad.
"What is it?" I asked, in a sitting position.
"The water's coming up to us!"
I got back on my feet. Like a torrent the sea was rushing
into our retreat, and since we definitely were not mollusks,
we had to clear out.
In a few seconds we were safe on top of the cave.
"What happened?" Conseil asked. "Some new phenomenon?"
"Not quite, my friends!" I replied. "It was the tide,
merely the tide, which wellnigh caught us by surprise just as it
did Sir Walter Scott's hero! The ocean outside is rising,
and by a perfectly natural law of balance, the level of this
lake is also rising. We've gotten off with a mild dunking.
Let's go change clothes on the Nautilus."
Three-quarters of an hour later, we had completed our circular stroll
and were back on board. Just then the crewmen finished loading
the sodium supplies, and the Nautilus could have departed immediately.
But Captain Nemo gave no orders. Would he wait for nightfall
and exit through his underwater passageway in secrecy? Perhaps.
Be that as it may, by the next day the Nautilus had left its home
port and was navigating well out from any shore, a few meters
beneath the waves of the Atlantic.
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