Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas – Day 134 of 165

“Right,” I said. “Nevertheless, it isn’t mathematically exact proof, because the equinox needn’t fall precisely at noon.”

“No doubt, sir, but the error will be under 100 meters, and that’s close enough for us. Until tomorrow then.”

Captain Nemo went back on board. Conseil and I stayed behind until five o’clock, surveying the beach, observing and studying. The only unusual object I picked up was an auk’s egg of remarkable size, for which a collector would have paid more than ₣1,000. Its cream–colored tint, plus the streaks and markings that decorated it like so many hieroglyphics, made it a rare trinket. I placed it in Conseil’s hands, and holding it like precious porcelain from China, that cautious, sure–footed lad got it back to the Nautilus in one piece.

There I put this rare egg inside one of the glass cases in the museum. I ate supper, feasting with appetite on an excellent piece of seal liver whose flavor reminded me of pork. Then I went to bed; but not without praying, like a good Hindu, for the favors of the radiant orb.

The next day, March 21, bright and early at five o’clock in the morning, I climbed onto the platform. I found Captain Nemo there.

“The weather is clearing a bit,” he told me. “I have high hopes. After breakfast we’ll make our way ashore and choose an observation post.”

This issue settled, I went to find Ned Land. I wanted to take him with me. The obstinate Canadian refused, and I could clearly see that his tight–lipped mood and his bad temper were growing by the day. Under the circumstances I ultimately wasn’t sorry that he refused. In truth, there were too many seals ashore, and it would never do to expose this impulsive fisherman to such temptations.

Breakfast over, I made my way ashore. The Nautilus had gone a few more miles during the night. It lay well out, a good league from the coast, which was crowned by a sharp peak 400 to 500 meters high. In addition to me, the skiff carried Captain Nemo, two crewmen, and the instruments—in other words, a chronometer, a spyglass, and a barometer.

During our crossing I saw numerous baleen whales belonging to the three species unique to these southernmost seas: the bowhead whale (or “right whale,” according to the English), which has no dorsal fin; the humpback whale from the genus Balaenoptera (in other words, “winged whales”), beasts with wrinkled bellies and huge whitish fins that, genus name regardless, do not yet form wings; and the finback whale, yellowish brown, the swiftest of all cetaceans. This powerful animal is audible from far away when it sends up towering spouts of air and steam that resemble swirls of smoke. Herds of these different mammals were playing about in the tranquil waters, and I could easily see that this Antarctic polar basin now served as a refuge for those cetaceans too relentlessly pursued by hunters.

I also noted long, whitish strings of salps, a type of mollusk found in clusters, and some jellyfish of large size that swayed in the eddies of the billows.

By nine o’clock we had pulled up to shore. The sky was growing brighter. Clouds were fleeing to the south. Mists were rising from the cold surface of the water. Captain Nemo headed toward the peak, which he no doubt planned to make his observatory. It was an arduous climb over sharp lava and pumice stones in the midst of air often reeking with sulfurous fumes from the smoke holes. For a man out of practice at treading land, the captain scaled the steepest slopes with a supple agility I couldn’t equal, and which would have been envied by hunters of Pyrenees mountain goats.

It took us two hours to reach the summit of this half–crystal, half–basalt peak. From there our eyes scanned a vast sea, which scrawled its boundary line firmly against the background of the northern sky. At our feet: dazzling tracts of white. Over our heads: a pale azure, clear of mists. North of us: the sun’s disk, like a ball of fire already cut into by the edge of the horizon. From the heart of the waters: jets of liquid rising like hundreds of magnificent bouquets. Far off, like a sleeping cetacean: the Nautilus. Behind us to the south and east: an immense shore, a chaotic heap of rocks and ice whose limits we couldn’t see.

Arriving at the summit of this peak, Captain Nemo carefully determined its elevation by means of his barometer, since he had to take this factor into account in his noon sights.

At 11:45 the sun, by then seen only by refraction, looked like a golden disk, dispersing its last rays over this deserted continent and down to these seas not yet plowed by the ships of man.

Captain Nemo had brought a spyglass with a reticular eyepiece, which corrected the sun’s refraction by means of a mirror, and he used it to observe the orb sinking little by little along a very extended diagonal that reached below the horizon. I held the chronometer. My heart was pounding mightily. If the lower half of the sun’s disk disappeared just as the chronometer said noon, we were right at the pole.

“Noon!” I called.

“The South Pole!” Captain Nemo replied in a solemn voice, handing me the spyglass, which showed the orb of day cut into two exactly equal parts by the horizon.

I stared at the last rays wreathing this peak, while shadows were gradually climbing its gradients.

Just then, resting his hand on my shoulder, Captain Nemo said to me:

“In 1600, sir, the Dutchman Gheritk was swept by storms and currents, reaching latitude 64° south and discovering the South Shetland Islands. On January 17, 1773, the famous Captain Cook went along the 38th meridian, arriving at latitude 67° 30′; and on January 30, 1774, along the 109th meridian, he reached latitude 71° 15′. In 1819 the Russian Bellinghausen lay on the 69th parallel, and in 1821 on the 66th at longitude 111° west. In 1820 the Englishman Bransfield stopped at 65°. That same year the American Morrel, whose reports are dubious, went along the 42nd meridian, finding open sea at latitude 70° 14′. In 1825 the Englishman Powell was unable to get beyond 62°. That same year a humble seal fisherman, the Englishman Weddell, went as far as latitude 72° 14′ on the 35th meridian, and as far as 74° 15′ on the 36th. In 1829 the Englishman Forster, commander of the Chanticleer, laid claim to the Antarctic continent in latitude 63° 26′ and longitude 66° 26′. On February 1, 1831, the Englishman Biscoe discovered Enderby Land at latitude 68° 50′, Adelaide Land at latitude 67° on February 5, 1832, and Graham Land at latitude 64° 45′ on February 21. In 1838 the Frenchman Dumont d’Urville stopped at the Ice Bank in latitude 62° 57′, sighting the Louis–Philippe Peninsula; on January 21 two years later, at a new southerly position of 66° 30′, he named the Adélie Coast and eight days later, the Clarie Coast at 64° 40′. In 1838 the American Wilkes advanced as far as the 69th parallel on the 100th meridian. In 1839 the Englishman Balleny discovered the Sabrina Coast at the edge of the polar circle. Lastly, on January 12, 1842, with his ships, the Erebus and the Terror, the Englishman Sir James Clark Ross found Victoria Land in latitude 70° 56′ and longitude 171° 7′ east; on the 23rd of that same month, he reached the 74th parallel, a position denoting the Farthest South attained until then; on the 27th he lay at 76° 8′; on the 28th at 77° 32′; on February 2 at 78° 4′; and late in 1842 he returned to 71° but couldn’t get beyond it. Well now! In 1868, on this 21st day of March, I myself, Captain Nemo, have reached the South Pole at 90°, and I hereby claim this entire part of the globe, equal to one–sixth of the known continents.”

“In the name of which sovereign, Captain?”

“In my own name, sir!”

So saying, Captain Nemo unfurled a black flag bearing a gold “N” on its quartered bunting. Then, turning toward the orb of day, whose last rays were licking at the sea’s horizon:

“Farewell, O sun!” he called. “Disappear, O radiant orb! Retire beneath this open sea, and let six months of night spread their shadows over my new domains!”

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