Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas – Day 140 of 165

Get there first! By then I should have been used to this type of talk!

For several hours that day, I wielded my pick doggedly. The work kept me going. Besides, working meant leaving the Nautilus, which meant breathing the clean oxygen drawn from the air tanks and supplied by our equipment, which meant leaving the thin, foul air behind.

Near evening one more meter had been dug from the trench. When I returned on board, I was wellnigh asphyxiated by the carbon dioxide saturating the air. Oh, if only we had the chemical methods that would enable us to drive out this noxious gas! There was no lack of oxygen. All this water contained a considerable amount, and after it was decomposed by our powerful batteries, this life–giving elastic fluid could have been restored to us. I had thought it all out, but to no avail because the carbon dioxide produced by our breathing permeated every part of the ship. To absorb it, we would need to fill containers with potassium hydroxide and shake them continually. But this substance was missing on board and nothing else could replace it.

That evening Captain Nemo was forced to open the spigots of his air tanks and shoot a few spouts of fresh oxygen through the Nautilus’s interior. Without this precaution we wouldn’t have awakened the following morning.

The next day, March 26, I returned to my miner’s trade, working to remove the fifth meter. The Ice Bank’s side walls and underbelly had visibly thickened. Obviously they would come together before the Nautilus could break free. For an instant I was gripped by despair. My pick nearly slipped from my hands. What was the point of this digging if I was to die smothered and crushed by this water turning to stone, a torture undreamed of by even the wildest savages! I felt like I was lying in the jaws of a fearsome monster, jaws irresistibly closing.

Supervising our work, working himself, Captain Nemo passed near me just then. I touched him with my hand and pointed to the walls of our prison. The starboard wall had moved forward to a point less than four meters from the Nautilus’s hull.

The captain understood and gave me a signal to follow him. We returned on board. My diving suit removed, I went with him to the lounge.

“Professor Aronnax,” he told me, “this calls for heroic measures, or we’ll be sealed up in this solidified water as if it were cement.”

“Yes!” I said. “But what can we do?”

“Oh,” he exclaimed, “if only my Nautilus were strong enough to stand that much pressure without being crushed!”

“Well?” I asked, not catching the captain’s meaning.

“Don’t you understand,” he went on, “that the congealing of this water could come to our rescue? Don’t you see that by solidifying, it could burst these tracts of ice imprisoning us, just as its freezing can burst the hardest stones? Aren’t you aware that this force could be the instrument of our salvation rather than our destruction?”

“Yes, Captain, maybe so. But whatever resistance to crushing the Nautilus may have, it still couldn’t stand such dreadful pressures, and it would be squashed as flat as a piece of sheet iron.”

“I know it, sir. So we can’t rely on nature to rescue us, only our own efforts. We must counteract this solidification. We must hold it in check. Not only are the side walls closing in, but there aren’t ten feet of water ahead or astern of the Nautilus. All around us, this freeze is gaining fast.”

“How long,” I asked, “will the oxygen in the air tanks enable us to breathe on board?”

The captain looked me straight in the eye.

“After tomorrow,” he said, “the air tanks will be empty!”

I broke out in a cold sweat. But why should I have been startled by this reply? On March 22 the Nautilus had dived under the open waters at the pole. It was now the 26th. We had lived off the ship’s stores for five days! And all remaining breathable air had to be saved for the workmen. Even today as I write these lines, my sensations are so intense that an involuntary terror sweeps over me, and my lungs still seem short of air!

Meanwhile, motionless and silent, Captain Nemo stood lost in thought. An idea visibly crossed his mind. But he seemed to brush it aside. He told himself no. At last these words escaped his lips:

“Boiling water!” he muttered.

“Boiling water?” I exclaimed.

“Yes, sir. We’re shut up in a relatively confined area. If the Nautilus’s pumps continually injected streams of boiling water into this space, wouldn’t that raise its temperature and delay its freezing?”

“It’s worth trying!” I said resolutely.

“So let’s try it, Professor.”

By then the thermometer gave –7° centigrade outside. Captain Nemo led me to the galley where a huge distilling mechanism was at work, supplying drinking water via evaporation. The mechanism was loaded with water, and the full electric heat of our batteries was thrown into coils awash in liquid. In a few minutes the water reached 100° centigrade. It was sent to the pumps while new water replaced it in the process. The heat generated by our batteries was so intense that after simply going through the mechanism, water drawn cold from the sea arrived boiling hot at the body of the pump.

The steaming water was injected into the icy water outside, and after three hours had passed, the thermometer gave the exterior temperature as –6° centigrade. That was one degree gained. Two hours later the thermometer gave only –4°.

After I monitored the operation’s progress, double–checking it with many inspections, I told the captain, “It’s working.”

“I think so,” he answered me. “We’ve escaped being crushed. Now we have only asphyxiation to fear.”

During the night the water temperature rose to –1° centigrade. The injections couldn’t get it to go a single degree higher. But since salt water freezes only at –2°, I was finally assured that there was no danger of it solidifying.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. (To tell the truth I don't even really care if you give me your email or not.)