THE NEXT DAY, March 22, at six o'clock in the morning, preparations fo_eparture began. The last gleams of twilight were melting into night. The col_as brisk. The constellations were glittering with startling intensity. Th_onderful Southern Cross, polar star of the Antarctic regions, twinkled at it_enith.
The thermometer marked –12° centigrade, and a fresh breeze left a sharp nip i_he air. Ice floes were increasing over the open water. The sea was startin_o congeal everywhere. Numerous blackish patches were spreading over it_urface, announcing the imminent formation of fresh ice. Obviously thi_outhernmost basin froze over during its six–month winter and became utterl_naccessible. What happened to the whales during this period? No doubt the_ent beneath the Ice Bank to find more feasible seas. As for seals an_alruses, they were accustomed to living in the harshest climates and staye_n in these icy waterways. These animals know by instinct how to gouge hole_n the ice fields and keep them continually open; they go to these holes t_reathe. Once the birds have migrated northward to escape the cold, thes_arine mammals remain as sole lords of the polar continent.
Meanwhile the ballast tanks filled with water and the Nautilus sank slowly. A_ depth of 1,000 feet, it stopped. Its propeller churned the waves and i_eaded due north at a speed of fifteen miles per hour. Near the afternoon i_as already cruising under the immense frozen carapace of the Ice Bank.
As a precaution, the panels in the lounge stayed closed, because th_autilus's hull could run afoul of some submerged block of ice. So I spent th_ay putting my notes into final form. My mind was completely wrapped up in m_emories of the pole. We had reached that inaccessible spot without facin_xhaustion or danger, as if our seagoing passenger carriage had glided ther_n railroad tracks. And now we had actually started our return journey. Did i_till have comparable surprises in store for me? I felt sure it did, s_nexhaustible is this series of underwater wonders! As it was, in the five an_ half months since fate had brought us on board, we had cleared 14,00_eagues, and over this track longer than the earth's equator, so man_ascinating or frightening incidents had beguiled our voyage: that huntin_rip in the Crespo forests, our running aground in the Torres Strait, th_oral cemetery, the pearl fisheries of Ceylon, the Arabic tunnel, the fires o_antorini, those millions in the Bay of Vigo, Atlantis, the South Pole! Durin_he night all these memories crossed over from one dream to the next, no_iving my brain a moment's rest.
At three o'clock in the morning, I was awakened by a violent collision. I sa_p in bed, listening in the darkness, and then was suddenly hurled into th_iddle of my stateroom. Apparently the Nautilus had gone aground, then heele_ver sharply.
Leaning against the walls, I dragged myself down the gangways to the lounge, whose ceiling lights were on. The furniture had been knocked over. Fortunatel_he glass cases were solidly secured at the base and had stood fast. Since w_ere no longer vertical, the starboard pictures were glued to the tapestries, while those to port had their lower edges hanging a foot away from the wall.
So the Nautilus was lying on its starboard side, completely stationary t_oot.
In its interior I heard the sound of footsteps and muffled voices. But Captai_emo didn't appear. Just as I was about to leave the lounge, Ned Land an_onseil entered.
"What happened?" I instantly said to them.
"I came to ask Master that," Conseil replied.
"Damnation!" the Canadian exclaimed. "I know full well what happened! Th_autilus has gone aground, and judging from the way it's listing, I don'_hink it'll pull through like that first time in the Torres Strait."
"But," I asked, "are we at least back on the surface of the sea?"
"We have no idea," Conseil replied.
"It's easy to find out," I answered.
I consulted the pressure gauge. Much to my surprise, it indicated a depth o_60 meters.
"What's the meaning of this?" I exclaimed.
"We must confer with Captain Nemo," Conseil said.
"But where do we find him?" Ned Land asked.
"Follow me," I told my two companions.
We left the lounge. Nobody in the library. Nobody by the central companionwa_r the crew's quarters. I assumed that Captain Nemo was stationed in th_ilothouse. Best to wait. The three of us returned to the lounge.
I'll skip over the Canadian's complaints. He had good grounds for an outburst.
I didn't answer him back, letting him blow off all the steam he wanted.
We had been left to ourselves for twenty minutes, trying to detect the tinies_oises inside the Nautilus, when Captain Nemo entered. He didn't seem to se_s. His facial features, usually so emotionless, revealed a certai_neasiness. He studied the compass and pressure gauge in silence, then wen_nd put his finger on the world map at a spot in the sector depicting th_outhernmost seas.
I hesitated to interrupt him. But some moments later, when he turned to me, _hrew back at him a phrase he had used in the Torres Strait:
"An incident, Captain?"
"No, sir," he replied, "this time an accident."
"Is there any immediate danger?"
"The Nautilus has run aground?"
"And this accident came about … ?"
"Through nature's unpredictability not man's incapacity. No errors wer_ommitted in our maneuvers. Nevertheless, we can't prevent a loss of balanc_rom taking its toll. One may defy human laws, but no one can withstand th_aws of nature."
Captain Nemo had picked an odd time to philosophize. All in all, this repl_old me nothing.
"May I learn, sir," I asked him, "what caused this accident?"
"An enormous block of ice, an entire mountain, has toppled over," he answere_e. "When an iceberg is eroded at the base by warmer waters or by repeate_ollisions, its center of gravity rises. Then it somersaults, it turn_ompletely upside down. That's what happened here. When it overturned, one o_hese blocks hit the Nautilus as it was cruising under the waters. Slidin_nder our hull, this block then raised us with irresistible power, lifting u_nto less congested strata where we now lie on our side."
"But can't we float the Nautilus clear by emptying its ballast tanks, t_egain our balance?"
"That, sir, is being done right now. You can hear the pumps working. Look a_he needle on the pressure gauge. It indicates that the Nautilus is rising, but this block of ice is rising with us, and until some obstacle halts it_pward movement, our position won't change."
Indeed, the Nautilus kept the same heel to starboard. No doubt it woul_traighten up once the block came to a halt. But before that happened, wh_new if we might not hit the underbelly of the Ice Bank and be hideousl_queezed between two frozen surfaces?
I mused on all the consequences of this situation. Captain Nemo didn't sto_tudying the pressure gauge. Since the toppling of this iceberg, the Nautilu_ad risen about 150 feet, but it still stayed at the same angle to th_erpendicular.
Suddenly a slight movement could be felt over the hull. Obviously the Nautilu_as straightening a bit. Objects hanging in the lounge were visibly returnin_o their normal positions. The walls were approaching the vertical. Nobod_aid a word. Hearts pounding, we could see and feel the ship righting itself.
The floor was becoming horizontal beneath our feet. Ten minutes went by.
"Finally, we're upright!" I exclaimed.
"Yes," Captain Nemo said, heading to the lounge door.
"But will we float off?" I asked him.
"Certainly," he replied, "since the ballast tanks aren't yet empty, and whe_hey are, the Nautilus must rise to the surface of the sea."
The captain went out, and soon I saw that at his orders, the Nautilus ha_alted its upward movement. In fact, it soon would have hit the underbelly o_he Ice Bank, but it had stopped in time and was floating in midwater.
"That was a close call!" Conseil then said.
"Yes. We could have been crushed between these masses of ice, or at leas_mprisoned between them. And then, with no way to renew our air supply… . Yes, that was a close call!"
"If it's over with!" Ned Land muttered.
I was unwilling to get into a pointless argument with the Canadian and didn'_eply. Moreover, the panels opened just then, and the outside light burs_hrough the uncovered windows.
We were fully afloat, as I have said; but on both sides of the Nautilus, abou_en meters away, there rose dazzling walls of ice. There also were walls abov_nd below. Above, because the Ice Bank's underbelly spread over us like a_mmense ceiling. Below, because the somersaulting block, shifting little b_ittle, had found points of purchase on both side walls and had gotten jamme_etween them. The Nautilus was imprisoned in a genuine tunnel of ice abou_wenty meters wide and filled with quiet water. So the ship could easily exi_y going either ahead or astern, sinking a few hundred meters deeper, and the_aking an open passageway beneath the Ice Bank.
The ceiling lights were off, yet the lounge was still brightly lit. This wa_ue to the reflecting power of the walls of ice, which threw the beams of ou_eacon right back at us. Words cannot describe the effects produced by ou_alvanic rays on these huge, whimsically sculpted blocks, whose every angle, ridge, and facet gave off a different glow depending on the nature of th_eins running inside the ice. It was a dazzling mine of gems, in particula_apphires and emeralds, whose jets of blue and green crisscrossed. Here an_here, opaline hues of infinite subtlety raced among sparks of light that wer_ike so many fiery diamonds, their brilliance more than any eye could stand.
The power of our beacon was increased a hundredfold, like a lamp shinin_hrough the biconvex lenses of a world–class lighthouse.
"How beautiful!" Conseil exclaimed.
"Yes," I said, "it's a wonderful sight! Isn't it, Ned?"
"Oh damnation, yes!" Ned Land shot back. "It's superb! I'm furious that I hav_o admit it. Nobody has ever seen the like. But this sight could cost u_early. And in all honesty, I think we're looking at things God never intende_or human eyes."
Ned was right. It was too beautiful. All at once a yell from Conseil made m_urn around.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Master must close his eyes! Master mustn't look!"
With that, Conseil clapped his hands over his eyes.
"But what's wrong, my boy?"
"I've been dazzled, struck blind!"
Involuntarily my eyes flew to the window, but I couldn't stand the fir_evouring it.
I realized what had happened. The Nautilus had just started off at grea_peed. All the tranquil glimmers of the ice walls had then changed int_lazing streaks. The sparkles from these myriads of diamonds were merging wit_ach other. Swept along by its propeller, the Nautilus was traveling through _heath of flashing light.
Then the panels in the lounge closed. We kept our hands over our eyes, whic_ere utterly saturated with those concentric gleams that swirl before th_etina when sunlight strikes it too intensely. It took some time to calm ou_roubled vision.
Finally we lowered our hands.
"Ye gods, I never would have believed it," Conseil said.
"And I still don't believe it!" the Canadian shot back.
"When we return to shore, jaded from all these natural wonders," Consei_dded, "think how we'll look down on those pitiful land masses, those pun_orks of man! No, the civilized world won't be good enough for us!"
Such words from the lips of this emotionless Flemish boy showed that ou_nthusiasm was near the boiling point. But the Canadian didn't fail to thro_is dram of cold water over us.
"The civilized world!" he said, shaking his head. "Don't worry, Conseil m_riend, we're never going back to that world!"
By this point it was five o'clock in the morning. Just then there was _ollision in the Nautilus's bow. I realized that its spur had just bumped _lock of ice. It must have been a faulty maneuver because this underwate_unnel was obstructed by such blocks and didn't make for easy navigating. So _ad assumed that Captain Nemo, in adjusting his course, would go around eac_bstacle or would hug the walls and follow the windings of the tunnel. I_ither case our forward motion wouldn't receive an absolute check.
Nevertheless, contrary to my expectations, the Nautilus definitely began t_ove backward.
"We're going astern?" Conseil said.
"Yes," I replied. "Apparently the tunnel has no way out at this end."
"And so … ?"
"So," I said, "our maneuvers are quite simple. We'll return in our tracks an_o out the southern opening. That's all."
As I spoke, I tried to sound more confident than I really felt. Meanwhile th_autilus accelerated its backward movement, and running with propeller i_everse, it swept us along at great speed.
"This'll mean a delay," Ned said.
"What are a few hours more or less, so long as we get out."
"Yes," Ned Land repeated, "so long as we get out!"
I strolled for a little while from the lounge into the library. My companion_ept their seats and didn't move. Soon I threw myself down on a couch an_icked up a book, which my eyes skimmed mechanically.
A quarter of an hour later, Conseil approached me, saying:
"Is it deeply fascinating, this volume Master is reading?"
"Tremendously fascinating," I replied.
"I believe it. Master is reading his own book!"
"My own book?"
Indeed, my hands were holding my own work on the great ocean depths. I hadn'_ven suspected. I closed the book and resumed my strolling. Ned and Consei_tood up to leave.
"Stay here, my friends," I said, stopping them. "Let's stay together unti_e're out of this blind alley."
"As Master wishes," Conseil replied.
The hours passed. I often studied the instruments hanging on the lounge wall.
The pressure gauge indicated that the Nautilus stayed at a constant depth o_00 meters, the compass that it kept heading south, the log that it wa_raveling at a speed of twenty miles per hour, an excessive speed in such _ramped area. But Captain Nemo knew that by this point there was no such thin_s too fast, since minutes were now worth centuries.
At 8:25 a second collision took place. This time astern. I grew pale. M_ompanions came over. I clutched Conseil's hand. Our eyes questioned eac_ther, and more directly than if our thoughts had been translated into words.
Just then the captain entered the lounge. I went to him.
"Our path is barred to the south?" I asked him.
"Yes, sir. When it overturned, that iceberg closed off every exit."