Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas – Day 82 of 165

“That suits me, captain.”

“By the way, Professor Aronnax, you aren’t afraid of sharks, are you?”

“Sharks?” I exclaimed.

This struck me as a pretty needless question, to say the least.

“Well?” Captain Nemo went on.

“I admit, Captain, I’m not yet on very familiar terms with that genus of fish.”

“We’re used to them, the rest of us,” Captain Nemo answered. “And in time you will be too. Anyhow, we’ll be armed, and on our way we might hunt a man–eater or two. It’s a fascinating sport. So, professor, I’ll see you tomorrow, bright and early.”

This said in a carefree tone, Captain Nemo left the lounge.

If you’re invited to hunt bears in the Swiss mountains, you might say: “Oh good, I get to go bear hunting tomorrow!” If you’re invited to hunt lions on the Atlas plains or tigers in the jungles of India, you might say: “Ha! Now’s my chance to hunt lions and tigers!” But if you’re invited to hunt sharks in their native element, you might want to think it over before accepting.

As for me, I passed a hand over my brow, where beads of cold sweat were busy forming.

“Let’s think this over,” I said to myself, “and let’s take our time. Hunting otters in underwater forests, as we did in the forests of Crespo Island, is an acceptable activity. But to roam the bottom of the sea when you’re almost certain to meet man–eaters in the neighborhood, that’s another story! I know that in certain countries, particularly the Andaman Islands, Negroes don’t hesitate to attack sharks, dagger in one hand and noose in the other; but I also know that many who face those fearsome animals don’t come back alive. Besides, I’m not a Negro, and even if I were a Negro, in this instance I don’t think a little hesitation on my part would be out of place.”

And there I was, fantasizing about sharks, envisioning huge jaws armed with multiple rows of teeth and capable of cutting a man in half. I could already feel a definite pain around my pelvic girdle. And how I resented the offhand manner in which the captain had extended his deplorable invitation! You would have thought it was an issue of going into the woods on some harmless fox hunt!

“Thank heavens!” I said to myself. “Conseil will never want to come along, and that’ll be my excuse for not going with the captain.”

As for Ned Land, I admit I felt less confident of his wisdom. Danger, however great, held a perennial attraction for his aggressive nature.

I went back to reading Sirr’s book, but I leafed through it mechanically. Between the lines I kept seeing fearsome, wide–open jaws.

Just then Conseil and the Canadian entered with a calm, even gleeful air. Little did they know what was waiting for them.

“Ye gods, sir!” Ned Land told me. “Your Captain Nemo—the devil take him—has just made us a very pleasant proposition!”

“Oh!” I said “You know about—”

“With all due respect to master,” Conseil replied, “the Nautilus’s commander has invited us, together with master, for a visit tomorrow to Ceylon’s magnificent pearl fisheries. He did so in the most cordial terms and conducted himself like a true gentleman.”

“He didn’t tell you anything else?”

“Nothing, sir,” the Canadian replied. “He said you’d already discussed this little stroll.”

“Indeed,” I said. “But didn’t he give you any details on—”

“Not a one, Mr. Naturalist. You will be going with us, right?”

“Me? Why yes, certainly, of course! I can see that you like the idea, Mr. Land.”

“Yes! It will be a really unusual experience!”

“And possibly dangerous!” I added in an insinuating tone.

“Dangerous?” Ned Land replied. “A simple trip to an oysterbank?”

Assuredly, Captain Nemo hadn’t seen fit to plant the idea of sharks in the minds of my companions. For my part, I stared at them with anxious eyes, as if they were already missing a limb or two. Should I alert them? Yes, surely, but I hardly knew how to go about it.

“Would master,” Conseil said to me, “give us some background on pearl fishing?”

“On the fishing itself?” I asked. “Or on the occupational hazards that—”

“On the fishing,” the Canadian replied. “Before we tackle the terrain, it helps to be familiar with it.”

“All right, sit down, my friends, and I’ll teach you everything I myself have just been taught by the Englishman H. C. Sirr!”

Ned and Conseil took seats on a couch, and right off the Canadian said to me:

“Sir, just what is a pearl exactly?”

“My gallant Ned,” I replied, “for poets a pearl is a tear from the sea; for Orientals it’s a drop of solidified dew; for the ladies it’s a jewel they can wear on their fingers, necks, and ears that’s oblong in shape, glassy in luster, and formed from mother–of–pearl; for chemists it’s a mixture of calcium phosphate and calcium carbonate with a little gelatin protein; and finally, for naturalists it’s a simple festering secretion from the organ that produces mother–of–pearl in certain bivalves.”

“Branch Mollusca,” Conseil said, “class Acephala, order Testacea.”

“Correct, my scholarly Conseil. Now then, those Testacea capable of producing pearls include rainbow abalone, turbo snails, giant clams, and saltwater scallops—briefly, all those that secrete mother–of–pearl, in other words, that blue, azure, violet, or white substance lining the insides of their valves.”

“Are mussels included too?” the Canadian asked.

“Yes! The mussels of certain streams in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Saxony, Bohemia, and France.”

“Good!” the Canadian replied. “From now on we’ll pay closer attention to ’em.”

“But,” I went on, “for secreting pearls, the ideal mollusk is the pearl oyster Meleagrina margaritifera, that valuable shellfish. Pearls result simply from mother–of–pearl solidifying into a globular shape. Either they stick to the oyster’s shell, or they become embedded in the creature’s folds. On the valves a pearl sticks fast; on the flesh it lies loose. But its nucleus is always some small, hard object, say a sterile egg or a grain of sand, around which the mother–of–pearl is deposited in thin, concentric layers over several years in succession.”

“Can one find several pearls in the same oyster?” Conseil asked.

“Yes, my boy. There are some shellfish that turn into real jewel coffers. They even mention one oyster, about which I remain dubious, that supposedly contained at least 150 sharks.”

“150 sharks!” Ned Land yelped.

“Did I say sharks?” I exclaimed hastily. “I meant 150 pearls. Sharks wouldn’t make sense.”

“Indeed,” Conseil said. “But will master now tell us how one goes about extracting these pearls?”

“One proceeds in several ways, and often when pearls stick to the valves, fishermen even pull them loose with pliers. But usually the shellfish are spread out on mats made from the esparto grass that covers the beaches. Thus they die in the open air, and by the end of ten days they’ve rotted sufficiently. Next they’re immersed in huge tanks of salt water, then they’re opened up and washed. At this point the sorters begin their twofold task. First they remove the layers of mother–of–pearl, which are known in the industry by the names legitimate silver, bastard white, or bastard black, and these are shipped out in cases weighing 125 to 150 kilograms. Then they remove the oyster’s meaty tissue, boil it, and finally strain it, in order to extract even the smallest pearls.”

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