Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas – Day 67 of 165

The night passed without mishap. No doubt the Papuans had been frightened off by the mere sight of this monster aground in the bay, because our hatches stayed open, offering easy access to the Nautilus’s interior.

At six o’clock in the morning, January 8, I climbed onto the platform. The morning shadows were lifting. The island was soon on view through the dissolving mists, first its beaches, then its summits.

The islanders were still there, in greater numbers than on the day before, perhaps 500 or 600 of them. Taking advantage of the low tide, some of them had moved forward over the heads of coral to within two cable lengths of the Nautilus. I could easily distinguish them. They obviously were true Papuans, men of fine stock, athletic in build, forehead high and broad, nose large but not flat, teeth white. Their woolly, red–tinted hair was in sharp contrast to their bodies, which were black and glistening like those of Nubians. Beneath their pierced, distended earlobes there dangled strings of beads made from bone. Generally these savages were naked. I noted some women among them, dressed from hip to knee in grass skirts held up by belts made of vegetation. Some of the chieftains adorned their necks with crescents and with necklaces made from beads of red and white glass. Armed with bows, arrows, and shields, nearly all of them carried from their shoulders a sort of net, which held those polished stones their slings hurl with such dexterity.

One of these chieftains came fairly close to the Nautilus, examining it with care. He must have been a “mado” of high rank, because he paraded in a mat of banana leaves that had ragged edges and was accented with bright colors.

I could easily have picked off this islander, he stood at such close range; but I thought it best to wait for an actual show of hostility. Between Europeans and savages, it’s acceptable for Europeans to shoot back but not to attack first.

During this whole time of low tide, the islanders lurked near the Nautilus, but they weren’t boisterous. I often heard them repeat the word “assai,” and from their gestures I understood they were inviting me to go ashore, an invitation I felt obliged to decline.

So the skiff didn’t leave shipside that day, much to the displeasure of Mr. Land who couldn’t complete his provisions. The adroit Canadian spent his time preparing the meat and flour products he had brought from Gueboroa Island. As for the savages, they went back to shore near eleven o’clock in the morning, when the heads of coral began to disappear under the waves of the rising tide. But I saw their numbers swell considerably on the beach. It was likely that they had come from neighboring islands or from the mainland of Papua proper. However, I didn’t see one local dugout canoe.

Having nothing better to do, I decided to dredge these beautiful, clear waters, which exhibited a profusion of shells, zoophytes, and open–sea plants. Besides, it was the last day the Nautilus would spend in these waterways, if, tomorrow, it still floated off to the open sea as Captain Nemo had promised.

So I summoned Conseil, who brought me a small, light dragnet similar to those used in oyster fishing.

“What about these savages?” Conseil asked me. “With all due respect to master, they don’t strike me as very wicked!”

“They’re cannibals even so, my boy.”

“A person can be both a cannibal and a decent man,” Conseil replied, “just as a person can be both gluttonous and honorable. The one doesn’t exclude the other.”

“Fine, Conseil! And I agree that there are honorable cannibals who decently devour their prisoners. However, I’m opposed to being devoured, even in all decency, so I’ll keep on my guard, especially since the Nautilus’s commander seems to be taking no precautions. And now let’s get to work!”

For two hours our fishing proceeded energetically but without bringing up any rarities. Our dragnet was filled with Midas abalone, harp shells, obelisk snails, and especially the finest hammer shells I had seen to that day. We also gathered in a few sea cucumbers, some pearl oysters, and a dozen small turtles that we saved for the ship’s pantry.

But just when I least expected it, I laid my hands on a wonder, a natural deformity I’d have to call it, something very seldom encountered. Conseil had just made a cast of the dragnet, and his gear had come back up loaded with a variety of fairly ordinary seashells, when suddenly he saw me plunge my arms swiftly into the net, pull out a shelled animal, and give a conchological yell, in other words, the most piercing yell a human throat can produce.

“Eh? What happened to master?” Conseil asked, very startled. “Did master get bitten?”

“No, my boy, but I’d gladly have sacrificed a finger for such a find!”

“What find?”

“This shell,” I said, displaying the subject of my triumph.

“But that’s simply an olive shell of the ‘tent olive’ species, genus Oliva, order Pectinibranchia, class Gastropoda, branch Mollusca—”

“Yes, yes, Conseil! But instead of coiling from right to left, this olive shell rolls from left to right!”

“It can’t be!” Conseil exclaimed.

“Yes, my boy, it’s a left–handed shell!”

“A left–handed shell!” Conseil repeated, his heart pounding.

“Look at its spiral!”

“Oh, master can trust me on this,” Conseil said, taking the valuable shell in trembling hands, “but never have I felt such excitement!”

And there was good reason to be excited! In fact, as naturalists have ventured to observe, “dextrality” is a well–known law of nature. In their rotational and orbital movements, stars and their satellites go from right to left. Man uses his right hand more often than his left, and consequently his various instruments and equipment (staircases, locks, watch springs, etc.) are designed to be used in a right–to–left manner. Now then, nature has generally obeyed this law in coiling her shells. They’re right–handed with only rare exceptions, and when by chance a shell’s spiral is left–handed, collectors will pay its weight in gold for it.

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.)