Vingt mille lieues sous.., p.45

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English, page 45


Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English

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  The first cable was put down during the years 1857-1858;but after transmitting about 400 telegrams, it went dead.In 1863 engineers built a new cable that measured 3,400 kilometers,weighed 4,500 metric tons, and was shipped aboard the Great Eastern.This attempt also failed.

  Now then, on May 25 while submerged to a depth of 3,836 meters,the Nautilus lay in precisely the locality where this secondcable suffered the rupture that ruined the undertaking.It happened 638 miles from the coast of Ireland. At around twoo'clock in the afternoon, all contact with Europe broke off.The electricians on board decided to cut the cable before fishing it up,and by eleven o'clock that evening they had retrieved the damaged part.They repaired the joint and its splice; then the cable was resubmerged.But a few days later it snapped again and couldn't be recoveredfrom the ocean depths.

  These Americans refused to give up. The daring Cyrus Field,who had risked his whole fortune to promote this undertaking,called for a new bond issue. It sold out immediately. Another cablewas put down under better conditions. Its sheaves of conducting wirewere insulated within a gutta-percha covering, which was protectedby a padding of textile material enclosed in a metal sheath.The Great Eastern put back to sea on July 13, 1866.

  The operation proceeded apace. Yet there was one hitch.As they gradually unrolled this third cable, the electricians observedon several occasions that someone had recently driven nails into it,trying to damage its core. Captain Anderson, his officers,and the engineers put their heads together, then posted a warning that ifthe culprit were detected, he would be thrown overboard without a trial.After that, these villainous attempts were not repeated.

  By July 23 the Great Eastern was lying no farther than 800kilometers from Newfoundland when it received telegraphed news fromIreland of an armistice signed between Prussia and Austria afterthe Battle of Sadova. Through the mists on the 27th, it sightedthe port of Heart's Content. The undertaking had ended happily,and in its first dispatch, young America addressed old Europe withthese wise words so rarely understood: "Glory to God in the highest,and peace on earth to men of good will."

  I didn't expect to find this electric cable in mint condition,as it looked on leaving its place of manufacture. The long snakewas covered with seashell rubble and bristling with foraminifera;a crust of caked gravel protected it from any mollusks that mightbore into it. It rested serenely, sheltered from the sea's motions,under a pressure favorable to the transmission of that electricspark that goes from America to Europe in 32/100 of a second.This cable will no doubt last indefinitely because, as observers note,its gutta-percha casing is improved by a stay in salt water.

  Besides, on this well-chosen plateau, the cable never lies atdepths that could cause a break. The Nautilus followed it to itslowest reaches, located 4,431 meters down, and even there it restedwithout any stress or strain. Then we returned to the localitywhere the 1863 accident had taken place.

  There the ocean floor formed a valley 120 kilometers wide,into which you could fit Mt. Blanc without its summit poking abovethe surface of the waves. This valley is closed off to the eastby a sheer wall 2,000 meters high. We arrived there on May 28,and the Nautilus lay no farther than 150 kilometers from Ireland.

  Would Captain Nemo head up north and beach us on the British Isles?No. Much to my surprise, he went back down south and returnedto European seas. As we swung around the Emerald Isle, I spottedCape Clear for an instant, plus the lighthouse on Fastnet Rockthat guides all those thousands of ships setting out fromGlasgow or Liverpool.

  An important question then popped into my head. Would the Nautilusdare to tackle the English Channel? Ned Land (who promptlyreappeared after we hugged shore) never stopped questioning me.What could I answer him? Captain Nemo remained invisible.After giving the Canadian a glimpse of American shores, was he aboutto show me the coast of France?

  But the Nautilus kept gravitating southward. On May 30, in sightof Land's End, it passed between the lowermost tip of Englandand the Scilly Islands, which it left behind to starboard.

  If it was going to enter the English Channel, it clearly neededto head east. It did not.

  All day long on May 31, the Nautilus swept around the seain a series of circles that had me deeply puzzled. It seemedto be searching for a locality that it had some trouble finding.At noon Captain Nemo himself came to take our bearings.He didn't address a word to me. He looked gloomier than ever.What was filling him with such sadness? Was it our proximity tothese European shores? Was he reliving his memories of that countryhe had left behind? If so, what did he feel? Remorse or regret?For a good while these thoughts occupied my mind, and I had a hunchthat fate would soon give away the captain's secrets.

  The next day, June 1, the Nautilus kept to the same tack.It was obviously trying to locate some precise spot in the ocean.Just as on the day before, Captain Nemo came to take the altitudeof the sun. The sea was smooth, the skies clear. Eight milesto the east, a big steamship was visible on the horizon line.No flag was flapping from the gaff of its fore-and-aft sail,and I couldn't tell its nationality.

  A few minutes before the sun passed its zenith, Captain Nemoraised his sextant and took his sights with the utmost precision.The absolute calm of the waves facilitated this operation.The Nautilus lay motionless, neither rolling nor pitching.

  I was on the platform just then. After determining our position,the captain pronounced only these words:

  "It's right here!"

  He went down the hatch. Had he seen that vessel change courseand seemingly head toward us? I'm unable to say.

  I returned to the lounge. The hatch closed, and I heard water hissingin the ballast tanks. The Nautilus began to sink on a vertical line,because its propeller was in check and no longer furnishedany forward motion.

  Some minutes later it stopped at a depth of 833 meters and cameto rest on the seafloor.

  The ceiling lights in the lounge then went out, the panels opened,and through the windows I saw, for a half-mile radius, the seabrightly lit by the beacon's rays.

  I looked to port and saw nothing but the immenseness ofthese tranquil waters.

  To starboard, a prominent bulge on the sea bottom caught my attention.You would have thought it was some ruin enshrouded in a crustof whitened seashells, as if under a mantle of snow.Carefully examining this mass, I could identify the swollen outlinesof a ship shorn of its masts, which must have sunk bow first.This casualty certainly dated from some far-off time.To be so caked with the limestone of these waters, this wreckagemust have spent many a year on the ocean floor.

  What ship was this? Why had the Nautilus come to visit its grave?Was it something other than a maritime accident that had draggedthis craft under the waters?

  I wasn't sure what to think, but next to me I heard Captain Nemo'svoice slowly say:

  "Originally this ship was christened the Marseillais. It carriedseventy-four cannons and was launched in 1762. On August 13,1778, commanded by La Poype-Vertrieux, it fought valiantlyagainst the Preston. On July 4, 1779, as a member of the squadronunder Admiral d'Estaing, it assisted in the capture of the islandof Grenada. On September 5, 1781, under the Count de Grasse,it took part in the Battle of Chesapeake Bay. In 1794 the new Republicof France changed the name of this ship. On April 16 of that same year,it joined the squadron at Brest under Rear Admiral Villaret de Joyeuse,who was entrusted with escorting a convoy of wheat coming fromAmerica under the command of Admiral Van Stabel. In this secondyear of the French Revolutionary Calendar, on the 11th and 12thdays in the Month of Pasture, this squadron fought an encounterwith English vessels. Sir, today is June 1, 1868, or the 13thday in the Month of Pasture. Seventy-four years ago to the day,at this very spot in latitude 47 degrees 24' and longitude 17 degrees28', this ship sank after a heroic battle; its three masts gone,water in its hold, a third of its crew out of action, it preferredto go to the bottom with its 356 seamen rather than surrender;and with its flag nailed up on the afterdeck, it disappeared beneaththe waves to shouts of 'Long
live the Republic!'"

  "This is the Avenger!" I exclaimed.

  "Yes, sir! The Avenger! A splendid name!" Captain Nemo murmured,crossing his arms.


  A Mass Execution

  THE WAY HE SAID THIS, the unexpectedness of this scene, first thebiography of this patriotic ship, then the excitement with which thiseccentric individual pronounced these last words--the name Avengerwhose significance could not escape me--all this, taken together,had a profound impact on my mind. My eyes never left the captain.Hands outstretched toward the sea, he contemplated the proudwreck with blazing eyes. Perhaps I would never learn who he was,where he came from or where he was heading, but more and more Icould see a distinction between the man and the scientist.It was no ordinary misanthropy that kept Captain Nemo and his companionssequestered inside the Nautilus's plating, but a hate so monstrousor so sublime that the passing years could never weaken it.

  Did this hate also hunger for vengeance? Time would soon tell.

  Meanwhile the Nautilus rose slowly to the surface of the sea, and Iwatched the Avenger's murky shape disappearing little by little.Soon a gentle rolling told me that we were afloat in the open air.

  Just then a hollow explosion was audible. I looked at the captain.The captain did not stir.

  "Captain?" I said.

  He didn't reply.

  I left him and climbed onto the platform. Conseil and the Canadianwere already there.

  "What caused that explosion?" I asked.

  "A cannon going off," Ned Land replied.

  I stared in the direction of the ship I had spotted. It was headingtoward the Nautilus, and you could tell it had put on steam.Six miles separated it from us.

  "What sort of craft is it, Ned?"

  "From its rigging and its low masts," the Canadian replied,"I bet it's a warship. Here's hoping it pulls up and sinks thisdamned Nautilus!"

  "Ned my friend," Conseil replied, "what harm could it dothe Nautilus? Will it attack us under the waves? Will it cannonadeus at the bottom of the sea?"

  "Tell me, Ned," I asked, "can you make out the nationalityof that craft?"

  Creasing his brow, lowering his lids, and puckering the cornersof his eyes, the Canadian focused the full power of his gaze onthe ship for a short while.

  "No, sir," he replied. "I can't make out what nation it's from.It's flying no flag. But I'll swear it's a warship, because there'sa long pennant streaming from the peak of its mainmast."

  For a quarter of an hour, we continued to watch the craft bearingdown on us. But it was inconceivable to me that it had discoveredthe Nautilus at such a distance, still less that it knew what thisunderwater machine really was.

  Soon the Canadian announced that the craft was a big battleship,a double-decker ironclad complete with ram. Dark, dense smokeburst from its two funnels. Its furled sails merged with the linesof its yardarms. The gaff of its fore-and-aft sail flew no flag.Its distance still kept us from distinguishing the colors of its pennant,which was fluttering like a thin ribbon.

  It was coming on fast. If Captain Nemo let it approach, a chancefor salvation might be available to us.

  "Sir," Ned Land told me, "if that boat gets within a mile of us,I'm jumping overboard, and I suggest you follow suit."

  I didn't reply to the Canadian's proposition but kept watchingthe ship, which was looming larger on the horizon. Whether itwas English, French, American, or Russian, it would surely welcomeus aboard if we could just get to it.

  "Master may recall," Conseil then said, "that we have some experiencewith swimming. He can rely on me to tow him to that vessel,if he's agreeable to going with our friend Ned."

  Before I could reply, white smoke streamed from the battleship's bow.Then, a few seconds later, the waters splashed astern of the Nautilus,disturbed by the fall of a heavy object. Soon after, an explosionstruck my ears.

  "What's this? They're firing at us!" I exclaimed.

  "Good lads!" the Canadian muttered.

  "That means they don't see us as castaways clinging to some wreckage!"

  "With all due respect to master--gracious!" Conseil put in,shaking off the water that had sprayed over him from another shell."With all due respect to master, they've discovered the narwhaleand they're cannonading the same."

  "But it must be clear to them," I exclaimed, "that they're dealingwith human beings."

  "Maybe that's why!" Ned Land replied, staring hard at me.

  The full truth dawned on me. Undoubtedly people now knewwhere they stood on the existence of this so-called monster.Undoubtedly the latter's encounter with the Abraham Lincoln,when the Canadian hit it with his harpoon, had led Commander Farragutto recognize the narwhale as actually an underwater boat,more dangerous than any unearthly cetacean!

  Yes, this had to be the case, and undoubtedly they were now chasingthis dreadful engine of destruction on every sea!

  Dreadful indeed, if, as we could assume, Captain Nemohad been using the Nautilus in works of vengeance!That night in the middle of the Indian Ocean, when he imprisonedus in the cell, hadn't he attacked some ship? That man now buriedin the coral cemetery, wasn't he the victim of some collisioncaused by the Nautilus? Yes, I repeat: this had to be the case.One part of Captain Nemo's secret life had been unveiled.And now, even though his identity was still unknown, at leastthe nations allied against him knew they were no longer huntingsome fairy-tale monster, but a man who had sworn an implacablehate toward them!

  This whole fearsome sequence of events appeared in my mind's eye.Instead of encountering friends on this approaching ship, we wouldfind only pitiless enemies.

  Meanwhile shells fell around us in increasing numbers.Some, meeting the liquid surface, would ricochet and vanish into the seaat considerable distances. But none of them reached the Nautilus.

  By then the ironclad was no more than three miles off. Despite itsviolent cannonade, Captain Nemo hadn't appeared on the platform.And yet if one of those conical shells had scored a routine hiton the Nautilus's hull, it could have been fatal to him.

  The Canadian then told me:

  "Sir, we've got to do everything we can to get out of this jam!Let's signal them! Damnation! Maybe they'll realizewe're decent people!"

  Ned Land pulled out his handkerchief to wave it in the air.But he had barely unfolded it when he was felled by an iron fist,and despite his great strength, he tumbled to the deck.

  "Scum!" the captain shouted. "Do you want to be nailed to the Nautilus'sspur before it charges that ship?"

  Dreadful to hear, Captain Nemo was even more dreadful to see.His face was pale from some spasm of his heart, which must have stoppedbeating for an instant. His pupils were hideously contracted.His voice was no longer speaking, it was bellowing. Bending fromthe waist, he shook the Canadian by the shoulders.

  Then, dropping Ned and turning to the battleship, whose shellswere showering around him:

  "O ship of an accursed nation, you know who I am!" he shoutedin his powerful voice. "And I don't need your colors torecognize you! Look! I'll show you mine!"

  And in the bow of the platform, Captain Nemo unfurled a black flag,like the one he had left planted at the South Pole.

  Just then a shell hit the Nautilus's hull obliquely, failed to breach it,ricocheted near the captain, and vanished into the sea.

  Captain Nemo shrugged his shoulders. Then, addressing me:

  "Go below!" he told me in a curt tone. "You and your companions,go below!"

  "Sir," I exclaimed, "are you going to attack this ship?"

  "Sir, I'm going to sink it."

  "You wouldn't!"

  "I will," Captain Nemo replied icily. "You're ill-advised to passjudgment on me, sir. Fate has shown you what you weren't meantto see. The attack has come. Our reply will be dreadful.Get back inside!"

  "From what country is that ship?"

  "You don't know? Fine, so much the better! At least its nationalitywill remain a secret to you. Go below!"

>   The Canadian, Conseil, and I could only obey. Some fifteenof the Nautilus's seamen surrounded their captain and stared witha feeling of implacable hate at the ship bearing down on them.You could feel the same spirit of vengeance enkindling their every soul.

  I went below just as another projectile scraped the Nautilus's hull,and I heard the captain exclaim:

  "Shoot, you demented vessel! Shower your futile shells! You won't escapethe Nautilus's spur! But this isn't the place where you'll perish!I don't want your wreckage mingling with that of the Avenger!"

  I repaired to my stateroom. The captain and his chief officerstayed on the platform. The propeller was set in motion.The Nautilus swiftly retreated, putting us outside the rangeof the vessel's shells. But the chase continued, and Captain Nemowas content to keep his distance.

  Near four o'clock in the afternoon, unable to control the impatienceand uneasiness devouring me, I went back to the central companionway.The hatch was open. I ventured onto the platform. The captain wasstill strolling there, his steps agitated. He stared at the ship,which stayed to his leeward five or six miles off. He was circling itlike a wild beast, drawing it eastward, letting it chase after him.Yet he didn't attack. Was he, perhaps, still undecided?

  I tried to intervene one last time. But I had barely queriedCaptain Nemo when the latter silenced me:

  "I'm the law, I'm the tribunal! I'm the oppressed, and thereare my oppressors! Thanks to them, I've witnessed the destructionof everything I loved, cherished, and venerated--homeland, wife,children, father, and mother! There lies everything I hate!Not another word out of you!"

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