Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas – Day 83 of 165

“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.”

“Do the prices of these pearls differ depending on their size?” Conseil asked.

“Not only on their size,” I replied, “but also according to their shape, their water—in other words, their color—and their orient—in other words, that dappled, shimmering glow that makes them so delightful to the eye. The finest pearls are called virgin pearls, or paragons; they form in isolation within the mollusk’s tissue. They’re white, often opaque but sometimes of opalescent transparency, and usually spherical or pear–shaped. The spherical ones are made into bracelets; the pear–shaped ones into earrings, and since they’re the most valuable, they’re priced individually. The other pearls that stick to the oyster’s shell are more erratically shaped and are priced by weight. Finally, classed in the lowest order, the smallest pearls are known by the name seed pearls; they’re priced by the measuring cup and are used mainly in the creation of embroidery for church vestments.”

“But it must be a long, hard job, sorting out these pearls by size,” the Canadian said.

“No, my friend. That task is performed with eleven strainers, or sieves, that are pierced with different numbers of holes. Those pearls staying in the strainers with twenty to eighty holes are in the first order. Those not slipping through the sieves pierced with 100 to 800 holes are in the second order. Finally, those pearls for which one uses strainers pierced with 900 to 1,000 holes make up the seed pearls.”

“How ingenious,” Conseil said, “to reduce dividing and classifying pearls to a mechanical operation. And could master tell us the profits brought in by harvesting these banks of pearl oysters?”

“According to Sirr’s book,” I replied, “these Ceylon fisheries are farmed annually for a total profit of 3,000,000 man–eaters.”

“Francs!” Conseil rebuked.

“Yes, francs! ₣3,000,000!” I went on. “But I don’t think these fisheries bring in the returns they once did. Similarly, the Central American fisheries used to make an annual profit of ₣4,000,000 during the reign of King Charles V, but now they bring in only two–thirds of that amount. All in all, it’s estimated that ₣9,000,000 is the current yearly return for the whole pearl–harvesting industry.”

“But,” Conseil asked, “haven’t certain famous pearls been quoted at extremely high prices?”

“Yes, my boy. They say Julius Caesar gave Servilia a pearl worth ₣120,000 in our currency.”

“I’ve even heard stories,” the Canadian said, “about some lady in ancient times who drank pearls in vinegar.”

“Cleopatra,” Conseil shot back.

“It must have tasted pretty bad,” Ned Land added.

“Abominable, Ned my friend,” Conseil replied. “But when a little glass of vinegar is worth ₣1,500,000, its taste is a small price to pay.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t marry the gal,” the Canadian said, throwing up his hands with an air of discouragement.

“Ned Land married to Cleopatra?” Conseil exclaimed.

“But I was all set to tie the knot, Conseil,” the Canadian replied in all seriousness, “and it wasn’t my fault the whole business fell through. I even bought a pearl necklace for my fiancée, Kate Tender, but she married somebody else instead. Well, that necklace cost me only $1.50, but you can absolutely trust me on this, professor, its pearls were so big, they wouldn’t have gone through that strainer with twenty holes.”

“My gallant Ned,” I replied, laughing, “those were artificial pearls, ordinary glass beads whose insides were coated with Essence of Orient.”

“Wow!” the Canadian replied. “That Essence of Orient must sell for quite a large sum.”

“As little as zero! It comes from the scales of a European carp, it’s nothing more than a silver substance that collects in the water and is preserved in ammonia. It’s worthless.”

“Maybe that’s why Kate Tender married somebody else,” replied Mr. Land philosophically.

“But,” I said, “getting back to pearls of great value, I don’t think any sovereign ever possessed one superior to the pearl owned by Captain Nemo.”

“This one?” Conseil said, pointing to a magnificent jewel in its glass case.

“Exactly. And I’m certainly not far off when I estimate its value at 2,000,000 . . . uh . . .”

“Francs!” Conseil said quickly.

“Yes,” I said, “₣2,000,000, and no doubt all it cost our captain was the effort to pick it up.”

“Ha!” Ned Land exclaimed. “During our stroll tomorrow, who says we won’t run into one just like it?”

“Bah!” Conseil put in.

“And why not?”

“What good would a pearl worth millions do us here on the Nautilus?”

“Here, no,” Ned Land said. “But elsewhere….”

“Oh! Elsewhere!” Conseil put in, shaking his head.

“In fact,” I said, “Mr. Land is right. And if we ever brought back to Europe or America a pearl worth millions, it would make the story of our adventures more authentic—and much more rewarding.”

“That’s how I see it,” the Canadian said.

“But,” said Conseil, who perpetually returned to the didactic side of things, “is this pearl fishing ever dangerous?”

“No,” I replied quickly, “especially if one takes certain precautions.”

“What risks would you run in a job like that?” Ned Land said. “Swallowing a few gulps of salt water?”

“Whatever you say, Ned.” Then, trying to imitate Captain Nemo’s carefree tone, I asked, “By the way, gallant Ned, are you afraid of sharks?”

“Me?” the Canadian replied. “I’m a professional harpooner! It’s my job to make a mockery of them!”

“It isn’t an issue,” I said, “of fishing for them with a swivel hook, hoisting them onto the deck of a ship, chopping off the tail with a sweep of the ax, opening the belly, ripping out the heart, and tossing it into the sea.”

“So it’s an issue of . . . ?”

“Yes, precisely.”

“In the water?”

“In the water.”

“Ye gods, just give me a good harpoon! You see, sir, these sharks are badly designed. They have to roll their bellies over to snap you up, and in the meantime . . .”

Ned Land had a way of pronouncing the word “snap” that sent chills down the spine.

“Well, how about you, Conseil? What are your feelings about these man–eaters?”

“Me?” Conseil said. “I’m afraid I must be frank with master.”

Good for you, I thought.

“If master faces these sharks,” Conseil said, “I think his loyal manservant should face them with him!”

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