A Pearl Worth Ten Million

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NIGHT FELL.  I went to bed.  I slept pretty poorly.  Man-eaters played

a major role in my dreams.  And I found it more or less appropriate

that the French word for shark, requin, has its linguistic roots

in the word requiem.

The next day at four o'clock in the morning, I was awakened by

the steward whom Captain Nemo had placed expressly at my service.

I got up quickly, dressed, and went into the lounge.

Captain Nemo was waiting for me.

"Professor Aronnax," he said to me, "are you ready to start?"

"I'm ready."

"Kindly follow me."

"What about my companions, captain?"

"They've been alerted and are waiting for us."

"Aren't we going to put on our diving suits?"  I asked.

"Not yet.  I haven't let the Nautilus pull too near the coast,

and we're fairly well out from the Mannar oysterbank.

But I have the skiff ready, and it will take us to the exact spot

where we'll disembark, which will save us a pretty long trek.

It's carrying our diving equipment, and we'll suit up just before we

begin our underwater exploring."

Captain Nemo took me to the central companionway whose steps led

to the platform.  Ned and Conseil were there, enraptured with

the "pleasure trip" getting under way.  Oars in position,

five of the Nautilus's sailors were waiting for us aboard the skiff,

which was moored alongside.  The night was still dark.

Layers of clouds cloaked the sky and left only a few stars in view.

My eyes flew to the side where land lay, but I saw only a blurred line

covering three-quarters of the horizon from southwest to northwest.

Going up Ceylon's west coast during the night, the Nautilus lay

west of the bay, or rather that gulf formed by the mainland

and Mannar Island.  Under these dark waters there stretched

the bank of shellfish, an inexhaustible field of pearls more than

twenty miles long.

Captain Nemo, Conseil, Ned Land, and I found seats in the stern

of the skiff.  The longboat's coxswain took the tiller; his four

companions leaned into their oars; the moorings were cast off

and we pulled clear.

The skiff headed southward.  The oarsmen took their time.

I watched their strokes vigorously catch the water, and they

always waited ten seconds before rowing again, following the

practice used in most navies.  While the longboat coasted,

drops of liquid flicked from the oars and hit the dark troughs

of the waves, pitter-pattering like splashes of molten lead.

Coming from well out, a mild swell made the skiff roll gently,

and a few cresting billows lapped at its bow.

We were silent.  What was Captain Nemo thinking?  Perhaps that

this approaching shore was too close for comfort, contrary to

the Canadian's views in which it still seemed too far away.

As for Conseil, he had come along out of simple curiosity.

Near 5:30 the first glimmers of light on the horizon defined

the upper lines of the coast with greater distinctness.

Fairly flat to the east, it swelled a little toward the south.

Five miles still separated it from us, and its beach merged with

the misty waters.  Between us and the shore, the sea was deserted.

Not a boat, not a diver.  Profound solitude reigned over this

gathering place of pearl fishermen.  As Captain Nemo had commented,

we were arriving in these waterways a month too soon.

At six o'clock the day broke suddenly, with that speed unique

to tropical regions, which experience no real dawn or dusk.

The sun's rays pierced the cloud curtain gathered on the easterly horizon,

and the radiant orb rose swiftly.

I could clearly see the shore, which featured a few sparse trees

here and there.

The skiff advanced toward Mannar Island, which curved to the south.

Captain Nemo stood up from his thwart and studied the sea.

At his signal the anchor was lowered, but its chain barely ran

because the bottom lay no more than a meter down, and this locality

was one of the shallowest spots near the bank of shellfish.

Instantly the skiff wheeled around under the ebb tide's outbound thrust.

"Here we are, Professor Aronnax," Captain Nemo then said.

"You observe this confined bay?  A month from now in this very place,

the numerous fishing boats of the harvesters will gather,

and these are the waters their divers will ransack so daringly.

This bay is felicitously laid out for their type of fishing.

It's sheltered from the strongest winds, and the sea is never

very turbulent here, highly favorable conditions for diving work.

Now let's put on our underwater suits, and we'll begin our stroll."

I didn't reply, and while staring at these suspicious waves, I began

to put on my heavy aquatic clothes, helped by the longboat's sailors.

Captain Nemo and my two companions suited up as well.

None of the Nautilus's men were to go with us on this new excursion.

Soon we were imprisoned up to the neck in india-rubber clothing,

and straps fastened the air devices onto our backs.

As for the Ruhmkorff device, it didn't seem to be in the picture.

Before inserting my head into its copper capsule, I commented

on this to the captain.

"Our lighting equipment would be useless to us," the captain answered me.

"We won't be going very deep, and the sun's rays will be sufficient

to light our way.  Besides, it's unwise to carry electric lanterns

under these waves.  Their brightness might unexpectedly attract

certain dangerous occupants of these waterways."

As Captain Nemo pronounced these words, I turned to Conseil and

Ned Land.  But my two friends had already encased their craniums

in their metal headgear, and they could neither hear nor reply.

I had one question left to address to Captain Nemo.

"What about our weapons?"  I asked him.  "Our rifles?"

"Rifles!  What for?  Don't your mountaineers attack bears dagger in hand?

And isn't steel surer than lead?  Here's a sturdy blade.

Slip it under your belt and let's be off."

I stared at my companions.  They were armed in the same fashion,

and Ned Land was also brandishing an enormous harpoon he had stowed

in the skiff before leaving the Nautilus.

Then, following the captain's example, I let myself be crowned with my

heavy copper sphere, and our air tanks immediately went into action.

An instant later, the longboat's sailors helped us overboard one after

the other, and we set foot on level sand in a meter and a half of water.

Captain Nemo gave us a hand signal.  We followed him down a gentle

slope and disappeared under the waves.

There the obsessive fears in my brain left me.  I became surprisingly

calm again.  The ease with which I could move increased my confidence,

and the many strange sights captivated my imagination.

The sun was already sending sufficient light under these waves.

The tiniest objects remained visible.  After ten minutes of walking,

we were in five meters of water, and the terrain had become almost flat.

Like a covey of snipe over a marsh, there rose underfoot schools

of unusual fish from the genus Monopterus, whose members have no fin

but their tail.  I recognized the Javanese eel, a genuine eight-decimeter

serpent with a bluish gray belly, which, without the gold lines

over its flanks, could easily be confused with the conger eel.

From the butterfish genus, whose oval bodies are very flat,

I observed several adorned in brilliant colors and sporting a dorsal

fin like a sickle, edible fish that, when dried and marinated, make an

excellent dish known by the name "karawade"; then some sea poachers,

fish belonging to the genus Aspidophoroides, whose bodies are covered

with scaly armor divided into eight lengthwise sections.

Meanwhile, as the sun got progressively higher, it lit up the watery

mass more and more.  The seafloor changed little by little.

Its fine-grained sand was followed by a genuine causeway

of smooth crags covered by a carpet of mollusks and zoophytes.

Among other specimens in these two branches, I noted some windowpane

oysters with thin valves of unequal size, a type of ostracod unique

to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, then orange-hued lucina with

circular shells, awl-shaped auger shells, some of those Persian

murex snails that supply the Nautilus with such wonderful dye,

spiky periwinkles fifteen centimeters long that rose under the waves

like hands ready to grab you, turban snails with shells made of horn

and bristling all over with spines, lamp shells, edible duck clams

that feed the Hindu marketplace, subtly luminous jellyfish of the species

Pelagia panopyra, and finally some wonderful Oculina flabelliforma,

magnificent sea fans that fashion one of the most luxuriant tree

forms in this ocean.

In the midst of this moving vegetation, under arbors of water plants,

there raced legions of clumsy articulates, in particular some fanged

frog crabs whose carapaces form a slightly rounded triangle,

robber crabs exclusive to these waterways, and horrible

parthenope crabs whose appearance was repulsive to the eye.

One animal no less hideous, which I encountered several times,

was the enormous crab that Mr. Darwin observed, to which nature

has given the instinct and requisite strength to eat coconuts;

it scrambles up trees on the beach and sends the coconuts tumbling;

they fracture in their fall and are opened by its powerful pincers.

Here, under these clear waves, this crab raced around with

matchless agility, while green turtles from the species frequenting

the Malabar coast moved sluggishly among the crumbling rocks.

Near seven o'clock we finally surveyed the bank of shellfish,

where pearl oysters reproduce by the millions.  These valuable

mollusks stick to rocks, where they're strongly attached

by a mass of brown filaments that forbids their moving about.

In this respect oysters are inferior even to mussels, to whom nature

has not denied all talent for locomotion.

The shellfish Meleagrina, that womb for pearls whose valves are

nearly equal in size, has the shape of a round shell with thick

walls and a very rough exterior.  Some of these shells were furrowed

with flaky, greenish bands that radiated down from the top.

These were the young oysters.  The others had rugged black surfaces,

measured up to fifteen centimeters in width, and were ten or

more years old.

Captain Nemo pointed to this prodigious heap of shellfish, and I

saw that these mines were genuinely inexhaustible, since nature's

creative powers are greater than man's destructive instincts.

True to those instincts, Ned Land greedily stuffed the finest

of these mollusks into a net he carried at his side.

But we couldn't stop.  We had to follow the captain,

who headed down trails seemingly known only to himself.

The seafloor rose noticeably, and when I lifted my arms,

sometimes they would pass above the surface of the sea.

Then the level of the oysterbank would lower unpredictably.

Often we went around tall, pointed rocks rising like pyramids.

In their dark crevices huge crustaceans, aiming their long legs

like heavy artillery, watched us with unblinking eyes, while underfoot

there crept millipedes, bloodworms, aricia worms, and annelid worms,

whose antennas and tubular tentacles were incredibly long.

Just then a huge cave opened up in our path, hollowed from a

picturesque pile of rocks whose smooth heights were completely

hung with underwater flora.  At first this cave looked pitch-black

to me.  Inside, the sun's rays seemed to diminish by degrees.

Their hazy transparency was nothing more than drowned light.

Captain Nemo went in.  We followed him.  My eyes soon grew accustomed

to this comparative gloom.  I distinguished the unpredictably contoured

springings of a vault, supported by natural pillars firmly based on

a granite foundation, like the weighty columns of Tuscan architecture.

Why had our incomprehensible guide taken us into the depths of this

underwater crypt?  I would soon find out.

After going down a fairly steep slope, our feet trod the floor

of a sort of circular pit.  There Captain Nemo stopped, and his hand

indicated an object that I hadn't yet noticed.

It was an oyster of extraordinary dimensions, a titanic giant clam,

a holy-water font that could have held a whole lake, a basin

more than two meters wide, hence even bigger than the one adorning

the Nautilus's lounge.

I approached this phenomenal mollusk.  Its mass of filaments attached

it to a table of granite, and there it grew by itself in the midst

of the cave's calm waters.  I estimated the weight of this giant clam

at 300 kilograms.  Hence such an oyster held fifteen kilos of meat,

and you'd need the stomach of King Gargantua to eat a couple dozen.

Captain Nemo was obviously familiar with this bivalve's existence.

This wasn't the first time he'd paid it a visit, and I thought

his sole reason for leading us to this locality was to show

us a natural curiosity.  I was mistaken.  Captain Nemo had an

explicit personal interest in checking on the current condition

of this giant clam.

The mollusk's two valves were partly open.  The captain approached

and stuck his dagger vertically between the shells to discourage

any ideas about closing; then with his hands he raised the fringed,

membrane-filled tunic that made up the animal's mantle.

There, between its leaflike folds, I saw a loose pearl as big as

a coconut.  Its globular shape, perfect clarity, and wonderful orient

made it a jewel of incalculable value.  Carried away by curiosity,

I stretched out my hand to take it, weigh it, fondle it!

But the captain stopped me, signaled no, removed his dagger in one

swift motion, and let the two valves snap shut.

I then understood Captain Nemo's intent.  By leaving the pearl buried

beneath the giant clam's mantle, he allowed it to grow imperceptibly.

With each passing year the mollusk's secretions added new

concentric layers.  The captain alone was familiar with the cave

where this wonderful fruit of nature was "ripening"; he alone

reared it, so to speak, in order to transfer it one day to his

dearly beloved museum.  Perhaps, following the examples of oyster

farmers in China and India, he had even predetermined the creation

of this pearl by sticking under the mollusk's folds some piece

of glass or metal that was gradually covered with mother-of-pearl.

In any case, comparing this pearl to others I already knew about,

and to those shimmering in the captain's collection, I estimated

that it was worth at least 10,000,000 francs.  It was a superb

natural curiosity rather than a luxurious piece of jewelry,

because I don't know of any female ear that could handle it.

Our visit to this opulent giant clam came to an end.

Captain Nemo left the cave, and we climbed back up the bank

of shellfish in the midst of these clear waters not yet disturbed

by divers at work.

We walked by ourselves, genuine loiterers stopping or straying

as our fancies dictated.  For my part, I was no longer worried

about those dangers my imagination had so ridiculously exaggerated.

The shallows drew noticeably closer to the surface of the sea,

and soon, walking in only a meter of water, my head passed well above

the level of the ocean.  Conseil rejoined me, and gluing his huge

copper capsule to mine, his eyes gave me a friendly greeting.

But this lofty plateau measured only a few fathoms, and soon we

reentered Our Element.  I think I've now earned the right to

dub it that.

Ten minutes later, Captain Nemo stopped suddenly.  I thought he'd

called a halt so that we could turn and start back.  No. With a gesture

he ordered us to crouch beside him at the foot of a wide crevice.

His hand motioned toward a spot within the liquid mass,

and I looked carefully.

Five meters away a shadow appeared and dropped to the seafloor.

The alarming idea of sharks crossed my mind.  But I was mistaken,

and once again we didn't have to deal with monsters of the deep.

It was a man, a living man, a black Indian fisherman, a poor devil

who no doubt had come to gather what he could before harvest time.

I saw the bottom of his dinghy, moored a few feet above his head.

He would dive and go back up in quick succession.  A stone cut

in the shape of a sugar loaf, which he gripped between his feet

while a rope connected it to his boat, served to lower him more

quickly to the ocean floor.  This was the extent of his equipment.

Arriving on the seafloor at a depth of about five meters, he fell

to his knees and stuffed his sack with shellfish gathered at random.

Then he went back up, emptied his sack, pulled up his stone, and started

all over again, the whole process lasting only thirty seconds.

This diver didn't see us.  A shadow cast by our crag hid us from

his view.  And besides, how could this poor Indian ever have guessed

that human beings, creatures like himself, were near him under

the waters, eavesdropping on his movements, not missing a single

detail of his fishing!

So he went up and down several times.  He gathered only about

ten shellfish per dive, because he had to tear them from

the banks where each clung with its tough mass of filaments.

And how many of these oysters for which he risked his life would

have no pearl in them!

I observed him with great care.  His movements were systematically

executed, and for half an hour no danger seemed to threaten him.

So I had gotten used to the sight of this fascinating fishing

when all at once, just as the Indian was kneeling on the seafloor,

I saw him make a frightened gesture, stand, and gather himself

to spring back to the surface of the waves.

I understood his fear.  A gigantic shadow appeared above the poor diver.

It was a shark of huge size, moving in diagonally, eyes ablaze,

jaws wide open!

I was speechless with horror, unable to make a single movement.

With one vigorous stroke of its fins, the voracious animal shot

toward the Indian, who jumped aside and avoided the shark's bite

but not the thrashing of its tail, because that tail struck him

across the chest and stretched him out on the seafloor.

This scene lasted barely a few seconds.  The shark returned,

rolled over on its back, and was getting ready to cut the Indian in half,

when Captain Nemo, who was stationed beside me, suddenly stood up.

Then he strode right toward the monster, dagger in hand, ready to

fight it at close quarters.

Just as it was about to snap up the poor fisherman, the man-eater

saw its new adversary, repositioned itself on its belly, and headed

swiftly toward him.

I can see Captain Nemo's bearing to this day.  Bracing himself,

he waited for the fearsome man-eater with wonderful composure,

and when the latter rushed at him, the captain leaped aside

with prodigious quickness, avoided a collision, and sank his

dagger into its belly.  But that wasn't the end of the story.

A dreadful battle was joined.

The shark bellowed, so to speak.  Blood was pouring into the waves

from its wounds.  The sea was dyed red, and through this opaque

liquid I could see nothing else.

Nothing else until the moment when, through a rift in the clouds,

I saw the daring captain clinging to one of the animal's fins,

fighting the monster at close quarters, belaboring his

enemy's belly with stabs of the dagger yet unable to deliver

the deciding thrust, in other words, a direct hit to the heart.

In its struggles the man-eater churned the watery mass so furiously,

its eddies threatened to knock me over.

I wanted to run to the captain's rescue.  But I was transfixed

with horror, unable to move.

I stared, wild-eyed. I saw the fight enter a new phase.

The captain fell to the seafloor, toppled by the enormous mass

weighing him down.  Then the shark's jaws opened astoundingly wide,

like a pair of industrial shears, and that would have been

the finish of Captain Nemo had not Ned Land, quick as thought,

rushed forward with his harpoon and driven its dreadful point

into the shark's underside.

The waves were saturated with masses of blood.  The waters

shook with the movements of the man-eater, which thrashed about

with indescribable fury.  Ned Land hadn't missed his target.

This was the monster's death rattle.  Pierced to the heart,

it was struggling with dreadful spasms whose aftershocks knocked

Conseil off his feet.

Meanwhile Ned Land pulled the captain clear.  Uninjured, the latter

stood up, went right to the Indian, quickly cut the rope binding

the man to his stone, took the fellow in his arms, and with a vigorous

kick of the heel, rose to the surface of the sea.

The three of us followed him, and a few moments later, miraculously safe,

we reached the fisherman's longboat.

Captain Nemo's first concern was to revive this unfortunate man.

I wasn't sure he would succeed.  I hoped so, since the poor devil

hadn't been under very long.  But that stroke from the shark's tail

could have been his deathblow.

Fortunately, after vigorous massaging by Conseil and the captain,

I saw the nearly drowned man regain consciousness little by little.

He opened his eyes.  How startled he must have felt, how frightened even,

at seeing four huge, copper craniums leaning over him!

And above all, what must he have thought when Captain Nemo pulled

a bag of pearls from a pocket in his diving suit and placed it

in the fisherman's hands?  This magnificent benefaction from

the Man of the Waters to the poor Indian from Ceylon was accepted

by the latter with trembling hands.  His bewildered eyes indicated

that he didn't know to what superhuman creatures he owed both his

life and his fortune.

At the captain's signal we returned to the bank of shellfish,

and retracing our steps, we walked for half an hour until we encountered

the anchor connecting the seafloor with the Nautilus's skiff.

Back on board, the sailors helped divest us of our heavy copper carapaces.

Captain Nemo's first words were spoken to the Canadian.

"Thank you, Mr. Land," he told him.

"Tit for tat, captain," Ned Land replied.  "I owed it to you."

The ghost of a smile glided across the captain's lips, and that was all.

"To the Nautilus," he said.

The longboat flew over the waves.  A few minutes later we encountered

the shark's corpse again, floating.

From the black markings on the tips of its fins, I recognized

the dreadful Squalus melanopterus from the seas of the East Indies,

a variety in the species of sharks proper.  It was more than twenty-five

feet long; its enormous mouth occupied a third of its body.

It was an adult, as could be seen from the six rows of teeth forming

an isosceles triangle in its upper jaw.

Conseil looked at it with purely scientific fascination,

and I'm sure he placed it, not without good reason, in the class

of cartilaginous fish, order Chondropterygia with fixed gills,

family Selacia, genus Squalus.

While I was contemplating this inert mass, suddenly a dozen of these

voracious melanoptera appeared around our longboat; but, paying no

attention to us, they pounced on the corpse and quarreled over every

scrap of it.

By 8:30 we were back on board the Nautilus.

There I fell to thinking about the incidents that marked our excursion

over the Mannar oysterbank.  Two impressions inevitably stood out.

One concerned Captain Nemo's matchless bravery, the other his devotion

to a human being, a representative of that race from which he had

fled beneath the seas.  In spite of everything, this strange man

hadn't yet succeeded in completely stifling his heart.

When I shared these impressions with him, he answered me in a tone

touched with emotion:

"That Indian, professor, lives in the land of the oppressed,

and I am to this day, and will be until my last breath, a native

of that same land!"

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