That day it was yuletide, and it struck me that Ned Land badly missed celebrating "Christmas," that genuine family holiday where Protestants are such zealots.
I hadn't seen Captain Nemo for over a week, when, on the morning of the 27th, he entered the main lounge, as usual acting as if he'd been gone for just five minutes. I was busy tracing the Nautilus's course on the world map. The captain approached, placed a finger over a position on the chart, and pronounced just one word:
This name was magic! It was the name of those islets where vessels under the Count de La Pérouse had miscarried. I straightened suddenly.
"The Nautilus is bringing us to Vanikoro?" I asked.
"Yes, professor," the captain replied.
"And I'll be able to visit those famous islands where the Compass and the Astrolabe came to grief?"
"If you like, professor."
"When will we reach Vanikoro?"
"We already have, professor."
Followed by Captain Nemo, I climbed onto the platform, and from there my eyes eagerly scanned the horizon.
In the northeast there emerged two volcanic islands of unequal size, surrounded by a coral reef whose circuit measured forty miles. We were facing the island of Vanikoro proper, to which Captain Dumont d'Urville had given the name "Island of the Search"; we lay right in front of the little harbor of Vana, located in latitude 16 degrees 4' south and longitude 164 degrees 32' east. Its shores seemed covered with greenery from its beaches to its summits inland, crowned by Mt. Kapogo, which is 476 fathoms high.
After clearing the outer belt of rocks via a narrow passageway, the Nautilus lay inside the breakers where the sea had a depth of thirty to forty fathoms. Under the green shade of some tropical evergreens, I spotted a few savages who looked extremely startled at our approach. In this long, blackish object advancing flush with the water, didn't they see some fearsome cetacean that they were obliged to view with distrust?
Just then Captain Nemo asked me what I knew about the shipwreck of the Count de La Pérouse.
"What everybody knows, captain," I answered him.
"And could you kindly tell me what everybody knows?" he asked me in a gently ironic tone.
I related to him what the final deeds of Captain Dumont d'Urville had brought to light, deeds described here in this heavily condensed summary of the whole matter.
In 1785 the Count de La Pérouse and his subordinate, Captain de Langle, were sent by King Louis XVI of France on a voyage to circumnavigate the globe. They boarded two sloops of war, the Compass and the Astrolabe, which were never seen again.
In 1791, justly concerned about the fate of these two sloops of war, the French government fitted out two large cargo boats, the Search and the Hope, which left Brest on September 28 under orders from Rear Admiral Bruni d'Entrecasteaux. Two months later, testimony from a certain Commander Bowen, aboard the Albemarle, alleged that rubble from shipwrecked vessels had been seen on the coast of New Georgia. But d'Entrecasteaux was unaware of this news--which seemed a bit dubious anyhow--and headed toward the Admiralty Islands, which had been named in a report by one Captain Hunter as the site of the Count de La Pérouse's shipwreck.
They looked in vain. The Hope and the Search passed right by Vanikoro without stopping there; and overall, this voyage was plagued by misfortune, ultimately costing the lives of Rear Admiral d'Entrecasteaux, two of his subordinate officers, and several seamen from his crew.
It was an old hand at the Pacific, the English adventurer Captain Peter Dillon, who was the first to pick up the trail left by castaways from the wrecked vessels. On May 15, 1824, his ship, the St. Patrick, passed by Tikopia Island, one of the New Hebrides. There a native boatman pulled alongside in a dugout canoe and sold Dillon a silver sword hilt bearing the imprint of characters engraved with a cutting tool known as a burin. Furthermore, this native boatman claimed that during a stay in Vanikoro six years earlier, he had seen two Europeans belonging to ships that had run aground on the island's reefs many years before.