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Chapter 15 Accident or Incident?

  • 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."
  • "Serious?"
  • "Perhaps."
  • "Is there any immediate danger?"
  • "No."
  • "The Nautilus has run aground?"
  • "Yes."
  • "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."
  • "We're boxed in?"
  • "Yes."