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I was already wondering if Captain Nemo, rash to the point of sheer insanity, wanted his ship to tackle the narrows where Dumont d'Urville's two sloops of war had gone aground, when he changed direction a second time and cut straight to the west, heading toward Gueboroa Island.
By then it was three o'clock in the afternoon. The current was slacking off, it was almost full tide. The Nautilus drew near this island, which I can see to this day with its remarkable fringe of screw pines. We hugged it from less than two miles out.
A sudden jolt threw me down. The Nautilus had just struck a reef, and it remained motionless, listing slightly to port.
When I stood up, I saw Captain Nemo and his chief officer on the platform. They were examining the ship's circ.u.mstances, exchanging a few words in their incomprehensible dialect.
Here is what those circ.u.mstances entailed. Two miles to starboard lay Gueboroa Island, its coastline curving north to west like an immense arm. To the south and east, heads of coral were already on display, left uncovered by the ebbing waters. We had run aground at full tide and in one of those seas whose tides are moderate, an inconvenient state of affairs for floating the Nautilus off. However, the ship hadn't suffered in any way, so solidly joined was its hull. But although it could neither sink nor split open, it was in serious danger of being permanently attached to these reefs, and that would have been the finish of Captain Nemo's submersible.
I was mulling this over when the captain approached, cool and calm, forever in control of himself, looking neither alarmed nor annoyed.
"An accident?" I said to him.
"No, an incident," he answered me.
"But an incident," I replied, "that may oblige you to become a resident again of these sh.o.r.es you avoid!"
Captain Nemo gave me an odd look and gestured no. Which told me pretty clearly that nothing would ever force him to set foot on a land ma.s.s again. Then he said: "No, Professor Aronnax, the Nautilus isn't consigned to perdition. It will still carry you through the midst of the ocean's wonders. Our voyage is just beginning, and I've no desire to deprive myself so soon of the pleasure of your company."
"Even so, Captain Nemo," I went on, ignoring his ironic turn of phrase, "the Nautilus has run aground at a moment when the sea is full. Now then, the tides aren't strong in the Pacific, and if you can't unballast the Nautilus, which seems impossible to me, I don't see how it will float off."
"You're right, professor, the Pacific tides aren't strong," Captain Nemo replied. "But in the Torres Strait, one still finds a meter-and-a-half difference in level between high and low seas. Today is January 4, and in five days the moon will be full. Now then, I'll be quite astonished if that good-natured satellite doesn't sufficiently raise these ma.s.ses of water and do me a favor for which I'll be forever grateful."
This said, Captain Nemo went below again to the Nautilus's interior, followed by his chief officer. As for our craft, it no longer stirred, staying as motionless as if these coral polyps had already walled it in with their indestructible cement.
"Well, sir?" Ned Land said to me, coming up after the captain's departure.
"Well, Ned my friend, we'll serenely wait for the tide on the 9th, because it seems the moon will have the good nature to float us away!"
"As simple as that?"
"As simple as that."
"So our captain isn't going to drop his anchors, put his engines on the chains, and do anything to haul us off?"
"Since the tide will be sufficient," Conseil replied simply.
The Canadian stared at Conseil, then he shrugged his shoulders. The seaman in him was talking now.
"Sir," he answered, "you can trust me when I say this hunk of iron will never navigate again, on the seas or under them. It's only fit to be sold for its weight. So I think it's time we gave Captain Nemo the slip."
"Ned my friend," I replied, "unlike you, I haven't given up on our valiant Nautilus, and in four days we'll know where we stand on these Pacific tides. Besides, an escape attempt might be timely if we were in sight of the coasts of England or Provence, but in the waterways of Papua it's another story. And we'll always have that as a last resort if the Nautilus doesn't right itself, which I'd regard as a real calamity."
"But couldn't we at least get the lay of the land?" Ned went on. "Here's an island. On this island there are trees. Under those trees land animals loaded with cutlets and roast beef, which I'd be happy to sink my teeth into."
"In this instance our friend Ned is right," Conseil said, "and I side with his views. Couldn't master persuade his friend Captain Nemo to send the three of us ash.o.r.e, if only so our feet don't lose the knack of treading on the solid parts of our planet?"
"I can ask him," I replied, "but he'll refuse."
"Let master take the risk," Conseil said, "and we'll know where we stand on the captain's affability."
Much to my surprise, Captain Nemo gave me the permission I asked for, and he did so with grace and alacrity, not even exacting my promise to return on board. But fleeing across the New Guinea territories would be extremely dangerous, and I wouldn't have advised Ned Land to try it. Better to be prisoners aboard the Nautilus than to fall into the hands of Papuan natives.
The skiff was put at our disposal for the next morning. I hardly needed to ask whether Captain Nemo would be coming along. I likewise a.s.sumed that no crewmen would be a.s.signed to us, that Ned Land would be in sole charge of piloting the longboat. Besides, the sh.o.r.e lay no more than two miles off, and it would be child's play for the Canadian to guide that nimble skiff through those rows of reefs so ill-fated for big ships.
The next day, January 5, after its deck paneling was opened, the skiff was wrenched from its socket and launched to sea from the top of the platform. Two men were sufficient for this operation. The oars were inside the longboat and we had only to take our seats.
At eight o'clock, armed with rifles and axes, we pulled clear of the Nautilus. The sea was fairly calm. A mild breeze blew from sh.o.r.e. In place by the oars, Conseil and I rowed vigorously, and Ned steered us into the narrow lanes between the breakers. The skiff handled easily and sped swiftly.
Ned Land couldn't conceal his glee. He was a prisoner escaping from prison and never dreaming he would need to reenter it.
"Meat!" he kept repeating. "Now we'll eat red meat! Actual game! A real mess call, by thunder! I'm not saying fish aren't good for you, but we mustn't overdo 'em, and a slice of fresh venison grilled over live coals will be a nice change from our standard fare."
"You glutton," Conseil replied, "you're making my mouth water!"
"It remains to be seen," I said, "whether these forests do contain game, and if the types of game aren't of such size that they can hunt the hunter."
"Fine, Professor Aronnax!" replied the Canadian, whose teeth seemed to be as honed as the edge of an ax. "But if there's no other quadruped on this island, I'll eat tiger--tiger sirloin."
"Our friend Ned grows disturbing," Conseil replied.
"Whatever it is," Ned Land went on, "any animal having four feet without feathers, or two feet with feathers, will be greeted by my very own one-gun salute."
"Oh good!" I replied. "The reckless Mr. Land is at it again!"
"Don't worry, Professor Aronnax, just keep rowing!" the Canadian replied. "I only need twenty-five minutes to serve you one of my own special creations."
By 8:30 the Nautilus's skiff had just run gently aground on a sandy strand, after successfully clearing the ring of coral that surrounds Gueboroa Island.
Some Days Ash.o.r.e.
STEPPING ASh.o.r.e 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, "pa.s.sengers 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 pa.s.sed 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 G.o.ds," 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 ma.s.s of greenery, huge globular fruit stood out, a decimeter wide and furnished on the outside with creases that a.s.sumed 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 appet.i.te, 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 gla.s.s, 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?"
"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 b.u.mping 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.