20,000 Leagues Under the Seas (Walter)/Chapter 26
A New Proposition from Captain Nemo
ON JANUARY 28, in latitude 9° 4' north, when the Nautilus returned at noon to the surface of the sea, it lay in sight of land some eight miles to the west. Right off, I observed a cluster of mountains about 2,000 feet high, whose shapes were very whimsically sculpted. After our position fix, I reentered the lounge, and when our bearings were reported on the chart, I saw that we were off the island of Ceylon, that pearl dangling from the lower lobe of the Indian peninsula.
I went looking in the library for a book about this island, one of the most fertile in the world. Sure enough, I found a volume entitled Ceylon and the Singhalese by H. C. Sirr, Esq. Reentering the lounge, I first noted the bearings of Ceylon, on which antiquity lavished so many different names. It was located between latitude 5° 55' and 9° 49' north, and between longitude 79° 42' and 82° 4' east of the meridian of Greenwich; its length is 275 miles; its maximum width, 150 miles; its circumference, 900 miles; its surface area, 24,448 square miles, in other words, a little smaller than that of Ireland.
Just then Captain Nemo and his chief officer appeared.
The captain glanced at the chart. Then, turning to me:
"The island of Ceylon," he said, "is famous for its pearl fisheries. Would you be interested, Professor Aronnax, in visiting one of those fisheries?"
"Fine. It's easily done. Only, when we see the fisheries, we'll see no fishermen. The annual harvest hasn't yet begun. No matter. I'll give orders to make for the Gulf of Mannar, and we'll arrive there late tonight."
The captain said a few words to his chief officer who went out immediately. Soon the Nautilus reentered its liquid element, and the pressure gauge indicated that it was staying at a depth of thirty feet.
With the chart under my eyes, I looked for the Gulf of Mannar. I found it by the 9th parallel off the northwestern shores of Ceylon. It was formed by the long curve of little Mannar Island. To reach it we had to go all the way up Ceylon's west coast.
"Professor," Captain Nemo then told me, "there are pearl fisheries in the Bay of Bengal, the seas of the East Indies, the seas of China and Japan, plus those seas south of the United States, the Gulf of Panama and the Gulf of California; but it's off Ceylon that such fishing reaps its richest rewards. No doubt we'll be arriving a little early. Fishermen gather in the Gulf of Mannar only during the month of March, and for thirty days some 300 boats concentrate on the lucrative harvest of these treasures from the sea. Each boat is manned by ten oarsmen and ten fishermen. The latter divide into two groups, dive in rotation, and descend to a depth of twelve meters with the help of a heavy stone clutched between their feet and attached by a rope to their boat."
"You mean," I said, "that such primitive methods are still all that they use?"
"All," Captain Nemo answered me, "although these fisheries belong to the most industrialized people in the world, the English, to whom the Treaty of Amiens granted them in 1802."
"Yet it strikes me that diving suits like yours could perform yeoman service in such work."
"Yes, since those poor fishermen can't stay long underwater. On his voyage to Ceylon, the Englishman Percival made much of a Kaffir who stayed under five minutes without coming up to the surface, but I find that hard to believe. I know that some divers can last up to fifty–seven seconds, and highly skillful ones to eighty–seven; but such men are rare, and when the poor fellows climb back on board, the water coming out of their noses and ears is tinted with blood. I believe the average time underwater that these fishermen can tolerate is thirty seconds, during which they hastily stuff their little nets with all the pearl oysters they can tear loose. But these fishermen generally don't live to advanced age: their vision weakens, ulcers break out on their eyes, sores form on their bodies, and some are even stricken with apoplexy on the ocean floor."
"Yes," I said, "it's a sad occupation, and one that exists only to gratify the whims of fashion. But tell me, Captain, how many oysters can a boat fish up in a workday?"
"About 40,000 to 50,000. It's even said that in 1814, when the English government went fishing on its own behalf, its divers worked just twenty days and brought up 76,000,000 oysters."
"At least," I asked, "the fishermen are well paid, aren't they?"
"Hardly, professor. In Panama they make just $1.00 per week. In most places they earn only a penny for each oyster that has a pearl, and they bring up so many that have none!"
"Only one penny to those poor people who make their employers rich! That's atrocious!"
"On that note, professor," Captain Nemo told me, "you and your companions will visit the Mannar oysterbank, and if by chance some eager fisherman arrives early, well, we can watch him at work."
"That suits me, captain."
"By the way, Professor Aronnax, you aren't afraid of sharks, are you?"
"Sharks?" I exclaimed.
This struck me as a pretty needless question, to say the least.
"Well?" Captain Nemo went on.
"I admit, Captain, I'm not yet on very familiar terms with that genus of fish."
"We're used to them, the rest of us," Captain Nemo answered. "And in time you will be too. Anyhow, we'll be armed, and on our way we might hunt a man–eater or two. It's a fascinating sport. So, professor, I'll see you tomorrow, bright and early."
This said in a carefree tone, Captain Nemo left the lounge.
If you're invited to hunt bears in the Swiss mountains, you might say: "Oh good, I get to go bear hunting tomorrow!" If you're invited to hunt lions on the Atlas plains or tigers in the jungles of India, you might say: "Ha! Now's my chance to hunt lions and tigers!" But if you're invited to hunt sharks in their native element, you might want to think it over before accepting.
As for me, I passed a hand over my brow, where beads of cold sweat were busy forming.
"Let's think this over," I said to myself, "and let's take our time. Hunting otters in underwater forests, as we did in the forests of Crespo Island, is an acceptable activity. But to roam the bottom of the sea when you're almost certain to meet man–eaters in the neighborhood, that's another story! I know that in certain countries, particularly the Andaman Islands, Negroes don't hesitate to attack sharks, dagger in one hand and noose in the other; but I also know that many who face those fearsome animals don't come back alive. Besides, I'm not a Negro, and even if I were a Negro, in this instance I don't think a little hesitation on my part would be out of place."
And there I was, fantasizing about sharks, envisioning huge jaws armed with multiple rows of teeth and capable of cutting a man in half. I could already feel a definite pain around my pelvic girdle. And how I resented the offhand manner in which the captain had extended his deplorable invitation! You would have thought it was an issue of going into the woods on some harmless fox hunt!
"Thank heavens!" I said to myself. "Conseil will never want to come along, and that'll be my excuse for not going with the captain."
As for Ned Land, I admit I felt less confident of his wisdom. Danger, however great, held a perennial attraction for his aggressive nature.
I went back to reading Sirr's book, but I leafed through it mechanically. Between the lines I kept seeing fearsome, wide–open jaws.
Just then Conseil and the Canadian entered with a calm, even gleeful air. Little did they know what was waiting for them.
"Ye gods, sir!" Ned Land told me. "Your Captain Nemo—the devil take him—has just made us a very pleasant proposition!"
"Oh!" I said "You know about—"
"With all due respect to master," Conseil replied, "the Nautilus's commander has invited us, together with master, for a visit tomorrow to Ceylon's magnificent pearl fisheries. He did so in the most cordial terms and conducted himself like a true gentleman."
"He didn't tell you anything else?"
"Nothing, sir," the Canadian replied. "He said you'd already discussed this little stroll."
"Indeed," I said. "But didn't he give you any details on—"
"Not a one, Mr. Naturalist. You will be going with us, right?"
"Me? Why yes, certainly, of course! I can see that you like the idea, Mr. Land."
"Yes! It will be a really unusual experience!"
"And possibly dangerous!" I added in an insinuating tone.
"Dangerous?" Ned Land replied. "A simple trip to an oysterbank?"
Assuredly, Captain Nemo hadn't seen fit to plant the idea of sharks in the minds of my companions. For my part, I stared at them with anxious eyes, as if they were already missing a limb or two. Should I alert them? Yes, surely, but I hardly knew how to go about it.
"Would master," Conseil said to me, "give us some background on pearl fishing?"
"On the fishing itself?" I asked. "Or on the occupational hazards that—"
"On the fishing," the Canadian replied. "Before we tackle the terrain, it helps to be familiar with it."
"All right, sit down, my friends, and I'll teach you everything I myself have just been taught by the Englishman H. C. Sirr!"
Ned and Conseil took seats on a couch, and right off the Canadian said to me:
"Sir, just what is a pearl exactly?"
"My gallant Ned," I replied, "for poets a pearl is a tear from the sea; for Orientals it's a drop of solidified dew; for the ladies it's a jewel they can wear on their fingers, necks, and ears that's oblong in shape, glassy in luster, and formed from mother–of–pearl; for chemists it's a mixture of calcium phosphate and calcium carbonate with a little gelatin protein; and finally, for naturalists it's a simple festering secretion from the organ that produces mother–of–pearl in certain bivalves."
"Branch Mollusca," Conseil said, "class Acephala, order Testacea."
"Correct, my scholarly Conseil. Now then, those Testacea capable of producing pearls include rainbow abalone, turbo snails, giant clams, and saltwater scallops—briefly, all those that secrete mother–of–pearl, in other words, that blue, azure, violet, or white substance lining the insides of their valves."
"Are mussels included too?" the Canadian asked.
"Yes! The mussels of certain streams in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Saxony, Bohemia, and France."
"Good!" the Canadian replied. "From now on we'll pay closer attention to 'em."
"But," I went on, "for secreting pearls, the ideal mollusk is the pearl oyster Meleagrina margaritifera, that valuable shellfish. Pearls result simply from mother–of–pearl solidifying into a globular shape. Either they stick to the oyster's shell, or they become embedded in the creature's folds. On the valves a pearl sticks fast; on the flesh it lies loose. But its nucleus is always some small, hard object, say a sterile egg or a grain of sand, around which the mother–of–pearl is deposited in thin, concentric layers over several years in succession."
"Can one find several pearls in the same oyster?" Conseil asked.
"Yes, my boy. There are some shellfish that turn into real jewel coffers. They even mention one oyster, about which I remain dubious, that supposedly contained at least 150 sharks."
"150 sharks!" Ned Land yelped.
"Did I say sharks?" I exclaimed hastily. "I meant 150 pearls. Sharks wouldn't make sense."
"Indeed," Conseil said. "But will master now tell us how one goes about extracting these pearls?"
"One proceeds in several ways, and often when pearls stick to the valves, fishermen even pull them loose with pliers. But usually the shellfish are spread out on mats made from the esparto grass that covers the beaches. Thus they die in the open air, and by the end of ten days they've rotted sufficiently. Next they're immersed in huge tanks of salt water, then they're opened up and washed. At this point the sorters begin their twofold task. First they remove the layers of mother–of–pearl, which are known in the industry by the names legitimate silver, bastard white, or bastard black, and these are shipped out in cases weighing 125 to 150 kilograms. Then they remove the oyster's meaty tissue, boil it, and finally strain it, in order to extract even the smallest pearls."
"Do the prices of these pearls differ depending on their size?" Conseil asked.
"Not only on their size," I replied, "but also according to their shape, their water—in other words, their color—and their orient—in other words, that dappled, shimmering glow that makes them so delightful to the eye. The finest pearls are called virgin pearls, or paragons; they form in isolation within the mollusk's tissue. They're white, often opaque but sometimes of opalescent transparency, and usually spherical or pear–shaped. The spherical ones are made into bracelets; the pear–shaped ones into earrings, and since they're the most valuable, they're priced individually. The other pearls that stick to the oyster's shell are more erratically shaped and are priced by weight. Finally, classed in the lowest order, the smallest pearls are known by the name seed pearls; they're priced by the measuring cup and are used mainly in the creation of embroidery for church vestments."
"But it must be a long, hard job, sorting out these pearls by size," the Canadian said.
"No, my friend. That task is performed with eleven strainers, or sieves, that are pierced with different numbers of holes. Those pearls staying in the strainers with twenty to eighty holes are in the first order. Those not slipping through the sieves pierced with 100 to 800 holes are in the second order. Finally, those pearls for which one uses strainers pierced with 900 to 1,000 holes make up the seed pearls."
"How ingenious," Conseil said, "to reduce dividing and classifying pearls to a mechanical operation. And could master tell us the profits brought in by harvesting these banks of pearl oysters?"
"According to Sirr's book," I replied, "these Ceylon fisheries are farmed annually for a total profit of 3,000,000 man–eaters."
"Francs!" Conseil rebuked.
"Yes, francs! ₣3,000,000!" I went on. "But I don't think these fisheries bring in the returns they once did. Similarly, the Central American fisheries used to make an annual profit of ₣4,000,000 during the reign of King Charles V, but now they bring in only two–thirds of that amount. All in all, it's estimated that ₣9,000,000 is the current yearly return for the whole pearl–harvesting industry."
"But," Conseil asked, "haven't certain famous pearls been quoted at extremely high prices?"
"Yes, my boy. They say Julius Caesar gave Servilia a pearl worth ₣120,000 in our currency."
"I've even heard stories," the Canadian said, "about some lady in ancient times who drank pearls in vinegar."
"Cleopatra," Conseil shot back.
"It must have tasted pretty bad," Ned Land added.
"Abominable, Ned my friend," Conseil replied. "But when a little glass of vinegar is worth ₣1,500,000, its taste is a small price to pay."
"I'm sorry I didn't marry the gal," the Canadian said, throwing up his hands with an air of discouragement.
"Ned Land married to Cleopatra?" Conseil exclaimed.
"But I was all set to tie the knot, Conseil," the Canadian replied in all seriousness, "and it wasn't my fault the whole business fell through. I even bought a pearl necklace for my fiancée, Kate Tender, but she married somebody else instead. Well, that necklace cost me only $1.50, but you can absolutely trust me on this, professor, its pearls were so big, they wouldn't have gone through that strainer with twenty holes."
"My gallant Ned," I replied, laughing, "those were artificial pearls, ordinary glass beads whose insides were coated with Essence of Orient."
"Wow!" the Canadian replied. "That Essence of Orient must sell for quite a large sum."
"As little as zero! It comes from the scales of a European carp, it's nothing more than a silver substance that collects in the water and is preserved in ammonia. It's worthless."
"Maybe that's why Kate Tender married somebody else," replied Mr. Land philosophically.
"But," I said, "getting back to pearls of great value, I don't think any sovereign ever possessed one superior to the pearl owned by Captain Nemo."
"This one?" Conseil said, pointing to a magnificent jewel in its glass case.
"Exactly. And I'm certainly not far off when I estimate its value at 2,000,000 . . . uh . . ."
"Francs!" Conseil said quickly.
"Yes," I said, "₣2,000,000, and no doubt all it cost our captain was the effort to pick it up."
"Ha!" Ned Land exclaimed. "During our stroll tomorrow, who says we won't run into one just like it?"
"Bah!" Conseil put in.
"And why not?"
"What good would a pearl worth millions do us here on the Nautilus?"
"Here, no," Ned Land said. "But elsewhere. . . ."
"Oh! Elsewhere!" Conseil put in, shaking his head.
"In fact," I said, "Mr. Land is right. And if we ever brought back to Europe or America a pearl worth millions, it would make the story of our adventures more authentic—and much more rewarding."
"That's how I see it," the Canadian said.
"But," said Conseil, who perpetually returned to the didactic side of things, "is this pearl fishing ever dangerous?"
"No," I replied quickly, "especially if one takes certain precautions."
"What risks would you run in a job like that?" Ned Land said. "Swallowing a few gulps of salt water?"
"Whatever you say, Ned." Then, trying to imitate Captain Nemo's carefree tone, I asked, "By the way, gallant Ned, are you afraid of sharks?"
"Me?" the Canadian replied. "I'm a professional harpooner! It's my job to make a mockery of them!"
"It isn't an issue," I said, "of fishing for them with a swivel hook, hoisting them onto the deck of a ship, chopping off the tail with a sweep of the ax, opening the belly, ripping out the heart, and tossing it into the sea."
"So it's an issue of . . . ?"
"In the water?"
"In the water."
"Ye gods, just give me a good harpoon! You see, sir, these sharks are badly designed. They have to roll their bellies over to snap you up, and in the meantime . . ."
Ned Land had a way of pronouncing the word "snap" that sent chills down the spine.
"Well, how about you, Conseil? What are your feelings about these man–eaters?"
"Me?" Conseil said. "I'm afraid I must be frank with master."
Good for you, I thought.
"If master faces these sharks," Conseil said, "I think his loyal manservant should face them with him!"