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CHAPTER 5 Arabian Tunnel
THE SAME DAY, I reported to Conseil and Ned Land that part of the foregoing conversation directly concerning them. When I told them we would be lying in Mediterranean waters within two days, Conseil clapped his hands, but the Canadian shrugged his shoulders.
"An underwater tunnel!" he exclaimed. "A connection between two seas! Who ever heard of such malarkey!"
"Ned my friend," Conseil replied, "had you ever heard of the Nautilus? No, yet here it is! So don't shrug your shoulders so blithely, and don't discount something with the feeble excuse that you've never heard of it."
"We'll soon see!" Ned Land shot back, shaking his head. "After all, I'd like nothing better than to believe in your captain's little passageway, and may Heaven grant it really does take us to the Mediterranean."
The same evening, at latitude 21 degrees 30' north, the Nautilus was afloat on the surface of the sea and drawing nearer to the Arab coast. I spotted Jidda, an important financial center for Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and the East Indies. I could distinguish with reasonable clarity the overall effect of its buildings, the ships made fast along its wharves, and those bigger vessels whose draft of water required them to drop anchor at the port's offshore mooring. The sun, fairly low on the horizon, struck full force on the houses in this town, accenting their whiteness. Outside the city limits, some wood or reed huts indicated the quarter where the bedouins lived.
Soon Jidda faded into the shadows of evening, and the Nautilus went back beneath the mildly phosphorescent waters.
The next day, February 10, several ships appeared, running on our opposite tack. The Nautilus resumed its underwater navigating; but at the moment of our noon sights, the sea was deserted and the ship rose again to its waterline.
With Ned and Conseil, I went to sit on the platform. The coast to the east looked like a slightly blurred mass in a damp fog.
Leaning against the sides of the skiff, we were chatting of one thing and another, when Ned Land stretched his hand toward a point in the water, saying to me:
"See anything out there, professor?"
"No, Ned," I replied, "but you know I don't have your eyes."
"Take a good look," Ned went on. "There, ahead to starboard, almost level with the beacon! Don't you see a mass that seems to be moving around?"
"Right," I said after observing carefully, "I can make out something like a long, blackish object on the surface of the water."
"A second Nautilus?" Conseil said.
"No," the Canadian replied, "unless I'm badly mistaken, that's some marine animal."
"Are there whales in the Red Sea?" Conseil asked.
"Yes, my boy," I replied, "they're sometimes found here."
"That's no whale," continued Ned Land, whose eyes never strayed from the object they had sighted. "We're old chums, whales and I, and I couldn't mistake their little ways."
"Let's wait and see," Conseil said. "The Nautilus is heading that direction, and we'll soon know what we're in for."
In fact, that blackish object was soon only a mile away from us. It looked like a huge reef stranded in midocean. What was it? I still couldn't make up my mind.
"Oh, it's moving off! It's diving!" Ned Land exclaimed. "Damnation! What can that animal be? It doesn't have a forked tail like baleen whales or sperm whales, and its fins look like sawed-off limbs."
"But in that case - " I put in.
"Good lord," the Canadian went on, "it's rolled over on its back, and it's raising its breasts in the air!"
"It's a siren!" Conseil exclaimed. "With all due respect to master, it's an actual mermaid!"
That word "siren" put me back on track, and I realized that the animal belonged to the order Sirenia: marine creatures that legends have turned into mermaids, half woman, half fish.
"No," I told Conseil, "that's no mermaid, it's an unusual creature of which only a few specimens are left in the Red Sea. That's a dugong."
"Order Sirenia, group Pisciforma, subclass Monodelphia, class Mammalia, branch Vertebrata," Conseil replied.
And when Conseil has spoken, there's nothing else to be said.
Meanwhile Ned Land kept staring. His eyes were gleaming with desire at the sight of that animal. His hands were ready to hurl a harpoon. You would have thought he was waiting for the right moment to jump overboard and attack the creature in its own element.
"Oh, sir," he told me in a voice trembling with excitement, "I've never killed anything like that!"
His whole being was concentrated in this last word.
Just then Captain Nemo appeared on the platform. He spotted the dugong. He understood the Canadian's frame of mind and addressed him directly:
"If you held a harpoon, Mr. Land, wouldn't your hands be itching to put it to work?"
"And just for one day, would it displease you to return to your fisherman's trade and add this cetacean to the list of those you've already hunted down?"
"It wouldn't displease me one bit."
"All right, you can try your luck!"
"Thank you, sir," Ned Land replied, his eyes ablaze.
"Only," the captain went on, "I urge you to aim carefully at this animal, in your own personal interest."
"Is the dugong dangerous to attack?" I asked, despite the Canadian's shrug of the shoulders.
"Yes, sometimes," the captain replied. "These animals have been known to turn on their assailants and capsize their longboats. But with Mr. Land that danger isn't to be feared. His eye is sharp, his arm is sure. If I recommend that he aim carefully at this dugong, it's because the animal is justly regarded as fine game, and I know Mr. Land doesn't despise a choice morsel."
"Aha!" the Canadian put in. "This beast offers the added luxury of being good to eat?"
"Yes, Mr. Land. Its flesh is actual red meat, highly prized, and set aside throughout Malaysia for the tables of aristocrats. Accordingly, this excellent animal has been hunted so bloodthirstily that, like its manatee relatives, it has become more and more scarce."
"In that case, captain," Conseil said in all seriousness, "on the offchance that this creature might be the last of its line, wouldn't it be advisable to spare its life, in the interests of science?"
"Maybe," the Canadian answered, "it would be better to hunt it down, in the interests of mealtime."
"Then proceed, Mr. Land," Captain Nemo replied.
Just then, as mute and emotionless as ever, seven crewmen climbed onto the platform. One carried a harpoon and line similar to those used in whale fishing. Its deck paneling opened, the skiff was wrenched from its socket and launched to sea. Six rowers sat on the thwarts, and the coxswain took the tiller. Ned, Conseil, and I found seats in the stern.
"Aren't you coming, captain?" I asked.
"No, sir, but I wish you happy hunting."
The skiff pulled clear, and carried off by its six oars, it headed swiftly toward the dugong, which by then was floating two miles from the Nautilus.
Arriving within a few cable lengths of the cetacean, our longboat slowed down, and the sculls dipped noiselessly into the tranquil waters. Harpoon in hand, Ned Land went to take his stand in the skiff's bow. Harpoons used for hunting whales are usually attached to a very long rope that pays out quickly when the wounded animal drags it with him. But this rope measured no more than about ten fathoms, and its end had simply been fastened to a small barrel that, while floating, would indicate the dugong's movements beneath the waters.
I stood up and could clearly observe the Canadian's adversary. This dugong - which also boasts the name halicore - closely resembled a manatee. Its oblong body ended in a very long caudal fin and its lateral fins in actual fingers. It differs from the manatee in that its upper jaw is armed with two long, pointed teeth that form diverging tusks on either side.
This dugong that Ned Land was preparing to attack was of colossal dimensions, easily exceeding seven meters in length. It didn't stir and seemed to be sleeping on the surface of the waves, a circumstance that should have made it easier to capture.
The skiff approached cautiously to within three fathoms of the animal. The oars hung suspended above their rowlocks. I was crouching. His body leaning slightly back, Ned Land brandished his harpoon with expert hands.
Suddenly a hissing sound was audible, and the dugong disappeared. Although the harpoon had been forcefully hurled, it apparently had hit only water.
"Damnation!" exclaimed the furious Canadian. "I missed it!"
"No," I said, "the animal's wounded, there's its blood; but your weapon didn't stick in its body."
"My harpoon! Get my harpoon!" Ned Land exclaimed.
The sailors went back to their sculling, and the coxswain steered the longboat toward the floating barrel. We fished up the harpoon, and the skiff started off in pursuit of the animal.
The latter returned from time to time to breathe at the surface of the sea. Its wound hadn't weakened it because it went with tremendous speed. Driven by energetic arms, the longboat flew on its trail. Several times we got within a few fathoms of it, and the Canadian hovered in readiness to strike; but then the dugong would steal away with a sudden dive, and it proved impossible to overtake the beast.
I'll let you assess the degree of anger consuming our impatient Ned Land. He hurled at the hapless animal the most potent swearwords in the English language. For my part, I was simply distressed to see this dugong outwit our every scheme.
We chased it unflaggingly for a full hour, and I'd begun to think it would prove too difficult to capture, when the animal got the untimely idea of taking revenge on us, a notion it would soon have cause to regret. It wheeled on the skiff, to assault us in its turn.
This maneuver did not escape the Canadian.
"Watch out!" he said.
The coxswain pronounced a few words in his bizarre language, and no doubt he alerted his men to keep on their guard.
Arriving within twenty feet of the skiff, the dugong stopped, sharply sniffing the air with its huge nostrils, pierced not at the tip of its muzzle but on its topside. Then it gathered itself and sprang at us.
The skiff couldn't avoid the collision. Half overturned, it shipped a ton or two of water that we had to bail out. But thanks to our skillful coxswain, we were fouled on the bias rather than broadside, so we didn't capsize. Clinging to the stempost, Ned Land thrust his harpoon again and again into the gigantic animal, which imbedded its teeth in our gunwale and lifted the longboat out of the water as a lion would lift a deer. We were thrown on top of each other, and I have no idea how the venture would have ended had not the Canadian, still thirsting for the beast's blood, finally pierced it to the heart.
I heard its teeth grind on sheet iron, and the dugong disappeared, taking our harpoon along with it. But the barrel soon popped up on the surface, and a few moments later the animal's body appeared and rolled over on its back. Our skiff rejoined it, took it in tow, and headed to the Nautilus.
It took pulleys of great strength to hoist this dugong onto the platform. The beast weighed 5,000 kilograms. It was carved up in sight of the Canadian, who remained to watch every detail of the operation. At dinner the same day, my steward served me some slices of this flesh, skillfully dressed by the ship's cook. I found it excellent, even better than veal if not beef.
The next morning, February 11, the Nautilus's pantry was enriched by more dainty game. A covey of terns alighted on the Nautilus. They were a species of Sterna nilotica unique to Egypt: beak black, head gray and stippled, eyes surrounded by white dots, back, wings, and tail grayish, belly and throat white, feet red. Also caught were a couple dozen Nile duck, superior-tasting wildfowl whose neck and crown of the head are white speckled with black.
By then the Nautilus had reduced speed. It moved ahead at a saunter, so to speak. I observed that the Red Sea's water was becoming less salty the closer we got to Suez.
Near five o'clock in the afternoon, we sighted Cape Ras Mohammed to the north. This cape forms the tip of Arabia Petraea, which lies between the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba.
The Nautilus entered the Strait of Jubal, which leads to the Gulf of Suez. I could clearly make out a high mountain crowning Ras Mohammed between the two gulfs. It was Mt. Horeb, that biblical Mt. Sinai on whose summit Moses met God face to face, that summit the mind's eye always pictures as wreathed in lightning.
At six o'clock, sometimes afloat and sometimes submerged, the Nautilus passed well out from El Tur, which sat at the far end of a bay whose waters seemed to be dyed red, as Captain Nemo had already mentioned. Then night fell in the midst of a heavy silence occasionally broken by the calls of pelicans and nocturnal birds, by the sound of surf chafing against rocks, or by the distant moan of a steamer churning the waves of the gulf with noisy blades.
From eight to nine o'clock, the Nautilus stayed a few meters beneath the waters. According to my calculations, we had to be quite close to Suez. Through the panels in the lounge, I spotted rocky bottoms brightly lit by our electric rays. It seemed to me that the strait was getting narrower and narrower.
At 9:15 when our boat returned to the surface, I climbed onto the platform. I was quite impatient to clear Captain Nemo's tunnel, couldn't sit still, and wanted to breathe the fresh night air.
Soon, in the shadows, I spotted a pale signal light glimmering a mile away, half discolored by mist.
"A floating lighthouse," said someone next to me.
I turned and discovered the captain.
"That's the floating signal light of Suez," he went on. "It won't be long before we reach the entrance to the tunnel."
"It can't be very easy to enter it."
"No, sir. Accordingly, I'm in the habit of staying in the pilothouse and directing maneuvers myself. And now if you'll kindly go below, Professor Aronnax, the Nautilus is about to sink beneath the waves, and it will only return to the surface after we've cleared the Arabian Tunnel."
I followed Captain Nemo. The hatch closed, the ballast tanks filled with water, and the submersible sank some ten meters down.
Just as I was about to repair to my stateroom, the captain stopped me.
"Professor," he said to me, "would you like to go with me to the wheelhouse?"
"I was afraid to ask," I replied.
"Come along, then. This way, you'll learn the full story about this combination underwater and underground navigating."
Captain Nemo led me to the central companionway. In midstair he opened a door, went along the upper gangways, and arrived at the wheelhouse, which, as you know, stands at one end of the platform.
It was a cabin measuring six feet square and closely resembling those occupied by the helmsmen of steamboats on the Mississippi or Hudson rivers. In the center stood an upright wheel geared to rudder cables running to the Nautilus's stern. Set in the cabin's walls were four deadlights, windows of biconvex glass that enabled the man at the helm to see in every direction.
The cabin was dark; but my eyes soon grew accustomed to its darkness and I saw the pilot, a muscular man whose hands rested on the pegs of the wheel. Outside, the sea was brightly lit by the beacon shining behind the cabin at the other end of the platform.
"Now," Captain Nemo said, "let's look for our passageway."
Electric wires linked the pilothouse with the engine room, and from this cabin the captain could simultaneously signal heading and speed to his Nautilus. He pressed a metal button and at once the propeller slowed down significantly.
I stared in silence at the high, sheer wall we were skirting just then, the firm base of the sandy mountains on the coast. For an hour we went along it in this fashion, staying only a few meters away. Captain Nemo never took his eyes off the two concentric circles of the compass hanging in the cabin. At a mere gesture from him, the helmsman would instantly change the Nautilus's heading.
Standing by the port deadlight, I spotted magnificent coral substructures, zoophytes, algae, and crustaceans with enormous quivering claws that stretched forth from crevices in the rock.
At 10:15 Captain Nemo himself took the helm. Dark and deep, a wide gallery opened ahead of us. The Nautilus was brazenly swallowed up. Strange rumblings were audible along our sides. It was the water of the Red Sea, hurled toward the Mediterranean by the tunnel's slope. Our engines tried to offer resistance by churning the waves with propeller in reverse, but the Nautilus went with the torrent, as swift as an arrow.
Along the narrow walls of this passageway, I saw only brilliant streaks, hard lines, fiery furrows, all scrawled by our speeding electric light. With my hand I tried to curb the pounding of my heart.
At 10:35 Captain Nemo left the steering wheel and turned to me:
"The Mediterranean," he told me.
In less than twenty minutes, swept along by the torrent, the Nautilus had just cleared the Isthmus of Suez.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER 6 The Greek Islands