The Lightning Bolts of Captain Nemo
WITHOUT STANDING UP, we stared in the direction of the forest, my hand stopping halfway to my mouth, Ned Land's completing its assignment.
"Stones don't fall from the sky," Conseil said, "or else they deserve to be called meteorites."
A second well–polished stone removed a tasty ringdove leg from Conseil's hand, giving still greater relevance to his observation.
We all three stood up, rifles to our shoulders, ready to answer any attack.
"Apes maybe?" Ned Land exclaimed.
"Nearly," Conseil replied. "Savages."
"Head for the skiff!" I said, moving toward the sea.
Indeed, it was essential to beat a retreat because some twenty natives, armed with bows and slings, appeared barely a hundred paces off, on the outskirts of a thicket that masked the horizon to our right.
The skiff was aground ten fathoms away from us.
The savages approached without running, but they favored us with a show of the greatest hostility. It was raining stones and arrows.
Ned Land was unwilling to leave his provisions behind, and despite the impending danger, he clutched his pig on one side, his kangaroos on the other, and scampered off with respectable speed.
In two minutes we were on the strand. Loading provisions and weapons into the skiff, pushing it to sea, and positioning its two oars were the work of an instant. We hadn't gone two cable lengths when a hundred savages, howling and gesticulating, entered the water up to their waists. I looked to see if their appearance might draw some of the Nautilus's men onto the platform. But no. Lying well out, that enormous machine still seemed completely deserted.
Twenty minutes later we boarded ship. The hatches were open. After mooring the skiff, we reentered the Nautilus's interior.
I went below to the lounge, from which some chords were wafting. Captain Nemo was there, leaning over the organ, deep in a musical trance.
"Captain!" I said to him.
He didn't hear me.
"Captain!" I went on, touching him with my hand.
He trembled, and turning around:
"Ah, it's you, professor!" he said to me. "Well, did you have a happy hunt? Was your herb gathering a success?"
"Yes, captain," I replied, "but unfortunately we've brought back a horde of bipeds whose proximity worries me."
"What sort of bipeds?"
"Savages!" Captain Nemo replied in an ironic tone. "You set foot on one of the shores of this globe, professor, and you're surprised to find savages there? Where aren't there savages? And besides, are they any worse than men elsewhere, these people you call savages?"
"Speaking for myself, sir, I've encountered them everywhere."
"Well then," I replied, "if you don't want to welcome them aboard the Nautilus, you'd better take some precautions!"
"Easy, professor, no cause for alarm."
"But there are a large number of these natives."
"What's your count?"
"At least a hundred."
"Professor Aronnax," replied Captain Nemo, whose fingers took their places again on the organ keys, "if every islander in Papua were to gather on that beach, the Nautilus would still have nothing to fear from their attacks!"
The captain's fingers then ran over the instrument's keyboard, and I noticed that he touched only its black keys, which gave his melodies a basically Scottish color. Soon he had forgotten my presence and was lost in a reverie that I no longer tried to dispel.
I climbed onto the platform. Night had already fallen, because in this low latitude the sun sets quickly, without any twilight. I could see Gueboroa Island only dimly. But numerous fires had been kindled on the beach, attesting that the natives had no thoughts of leaving it.
For several hours I was left to myself, sometimes musing on the islanders—but no longer fearing them because the captain's unflappable confidence had won me over—and sometimes forgetting them to marvel at the splendors of this tropical night. My memories took wing toward France, in the wake of those zodiacal stars due to twinkle over it in a few hours. The moon shone in the midst of the constellations at their zenith. I then remembered that this loyal, good–natured satellite would return to this same place the day after tomorrow, to raise the tide and tear the Nautilus from its coral bed. Near midnight, seeing that all was quiet over the darkened waves as well as under the waterside trees, I repaired to my cabin and fell into a peaceful sleep.
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!"
"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.
So Conseil and I were deep in the contemplation of our treasure, and I was solemnly promising myself to enrich the Paris Museum with it, when an ill–timed stone, hurled by one of the islanders, whizzed over and shattered the valuable object in Conseil's hands.
I gave a yell of despair! Conseil pounced on his rifle and aimed at a savage swinging a sling just ten meters away from him. I tried to stop him, but his shot went off and shattered a bracelet of amulets dangling from the islander's arm.
"Conseil!" I shouted. "Conseil!"
"Eh? What? Didn't master see that this man–eater initiated the attack?"
"A shell isn't worth a human life!" I told him.
"Oh, the rascal!" Conseil exclaimed. "I'd rather he cracked my shoulder!"
Conseil was in dead earnest, but I didn't subscribe to his views. However, the situation had changed in only a short time and we hadn't noticed. Now some twenty dugout canoes were surrounding the Nautilus. Hollowed from tree trunks, these dugouts were long, narrow, and well designed for speed, keeping their balance by means of two bamboo poles that floated on the surface of the water. They were maneuvered by skillful, half–naked paddlers, and I viewed their advance with definite alarm.
It was obvious these Papuans had already entered into relations with Europeans and knew their ships. But this long, iron cylinder lying in the bay, with no masts or funnels—what were they to make of it? Nothing good, because at first they kept it at a respectful distance. However, seeing that it stayed motionless, they regained confidence little by little and tried to become more familiar with it. Now then, it was precisely this familiarity that we needed to prevent. Since our weapons made no sound when they went off, they would have only a moderate effect on these islanders, who reputedly respect nothing but noisy mechanisms. Without thunderclaps, lightning bolts would be much less frightening, although the danger lies in the flash, not the noise.
Just then the dugout canoes drew nearer to the Nautilus, and a cloud of arrows burst over us.
"Fire and brimstone, it's hailing!" Conseil said. "And poisoned hail perhaps!"
"We've got to alert Captain Nemo," I said, reentering the hatch.
I went below to the lounge. I found no one there. I ventured a knock at the door opening into the captain's stateroom.
The word "Enter!" answered me. I did so and found Captain Nemo busy with calculations in which there was no shortage of X and other algebraic signs.
"Am I disturbing you?" I said out of politeness.
"Correct, Professor Aronnax," the captain answered me. "But I imagine you have pressing reasons for looking me up?"
"Very pressing. Native dugout canoes are surrounding us, and in a few minutes we're sure to be assaulted by several hundred savages."
"Ah!" Captain Nemo put in serenely. "They've come in their dugouts?"
"Well, sir, closing the hatches should do the trick."
"Precisely, and that's what I came to tell you—"
"Nothing easier," Captain Nemo said.
And he pressed an electric button, transmitting an order to the crew's quarters.
"There, sir, all under control!" he told me after a few moments. "The skiff is in place and the hatches are closed. I don't imagine you're worried that these gentlemen will stave in walls that shells from your frigate couldn't breach?"
"No, Captain, but one danger still remains."
"What's that, sir?"
"Tomorrow at about this time, we'll need to reopen the hatches to renew the Nautilus's air."
"No argument, sir, since our craft breathes in the manner favored by cetaceans."
"But if these Papuans are occupying the platform at that moment, I don't see how you can prevent them from entering."
"Then, sir, you assume they'll board the ship?"
"I'm certain of it."
"Well, sir, let them come aboard. I see no reason to prevent them. Deep down they're just poor devils, these Papuans, and I don't want my visit to Gueboroa Island to cost the life of a single one of these unfortunate people!"
On this note I was about to withdraw; but Captain Nemo detained me and invited me to take a seat next to him. He questioned me with interest on our excursions ashore and on our hunting, but seemed not to understand the Canadian's passionate craving for red meat. Then our conversation skimmed various subjects, and without being more forthcoming, Captain Nemo proved more affable.
Among other things, we came to talk of the Nautilus's circumstances, aground in the same strait where Captain Dumont d'Urville had nearly miscarried. Then, pertinent to this:
"He was one of your great seamen," the captain told me, "one of your shrewdest navigators, that d'Urville! He was the Frenchman's Captain Cook. A man wise but unlucky! Braving the ice banks of the South Pole, the coral of Oceania, the cannibals of the Pacific, only to perish wretchedly in a train wreck! If that energetic man was able to think about his life in its last seconds, imagine what his final thoughts must have been!"
As he spoke, Captain Nemo seemed deeply moved, an emotion I felt was to his credit.
Then, chart in hand, we returned to the deeds of the French navigator: his voyages to circumnavigate the globe, his double attempt at the South Pole, which led to his discovery of the Adélie Coast and the Louis–Philippe Peninsula, finally his hydrographic surveys of the chief islands in Oceania.
"What your d'Urville did on the surface of the sea," Captain Nemo told me, "I've done in the ocean's interior, but more easily, more completely than he. Constantly tossed about by hurricanes, the Zealous and the new Astrolabe couldn't compare with the Nautilus, a quiet work room truly at rest in the midst of the waters!"
"Even so, Captain," I said, "there is one major similarity between Dumont d'Urville's sloops of war and the Nautilus."
"What's that, sir?"
"Like them, the Nautilus has run aground!"
"The Nautilus is not aground, sir," Captain Nemo replied icily. "The Nautilus was built to rest on the ocean floor, and I don't need to undertake the arduous labors, the maneuvers d'Urville had to attempt in order to float off his sloops of war. The Zealous and the new Astrolabe wellnigh perished, but my Nautilus is in no danger. Tomorrow, on the day stated and at the hour stated, the tide will peacefully lift it off, and it will resume its navigating through the seas."
"Captain," I said, "I don't doubt—"
"Tomorrow," Captain Nemo added, standing up, "tomorrow at 2:40 in the afternoon, the Nautilus will float off and exit the Torres Strait undamaged."
Pronouncing these words in an extremely sharp tone, Captain Nemo gave me a curt bow. This was my dismissal, and I reentered my stateroom.
There I found Conseil, who wanted to know the upshot of my interview with the captain.
"My boy," I replied, "when I expressed the belief that these Papuan natives were a threat to his Nautilus, the captain answered me with great irony. So I've just one thing to say to you: have faith in him and sleep in peace."
"Master has no need for my services?"
"No, my friend. What's Ned Land up to?"
"Begging master's indulgence," Conseil replied, "but our friend Ned is concocting a kangaroo pie that will be the eighth wonder!"
I was left to myself; I went to bed but slept pretty poorly. I kept hearing noises from the savages, who were stamping on the platform and letting out deafening yells. The night passed in this way, without the crew ever emerging from their usual inertia. They were no more disturbed by the presence of these man–eaters than soldiers in an armored fortress are troubled by ants running over the armor plate.
I got up at six o'clock in the morning. The hatches weren't open. So the air inside hadn't been renewed; but the air tanks were kept full for any eventuality and would function appropriately to shoot a few cubic meters of oxygen into the Nautilus's thin atmosphere.
I worked in my stateroom until noon without seeing Captain Nemo even for an instant. Nobody on board seemed to be making any preparations for departure.
I still waited for a while, then I made my way to the main lounge. Its timepiece marked 2:30. In ten minutes the tide would reach its maximum elevation, and if Captain Nemo hadn't made a rash promise, the Nautilus would immediately break free. If not, many months might pass before it could leave its coral bed.
But some preliminary vibrations could soon be felt over the boat's hull. I heard its plating grind against the limestone roughness of that coral base.
At 2:35 Captain Nemo appeared in the lounge.
"We're about to depart," he said.
"Ah!" I put in.
"I've given orders to open the hatches."
"What about the Papuans?"
"What about them?" Captain Nemo replied, with a light shrug of his shoulders.
"Won't they come inside the Nautilus?"
"How will they manage that?"
"By jumping down the hatches you're about to open."
"Professor Aronnax," Captain Nemo replied serenely, "the Nautilus's hatches aren't to be entered in that fashion even when they're open."
I gaped at the captain.
"You don't understand?" he said to me.
"Not in the least."
"Well, come along and you'll see!"
I headed to the central companionway. There, very puzzled, Ned Land and Conseil watched the crewmen opening the hatches, while a frightful clamor and furious shouts resounded outside.
The hatch lids fell back onto the outer plating. Twenty horrible faces appeared. But when the first islander laid hands on the companionway railing, he was flung backward by some invisible power, lord knows what! He ran off, howling in terror and wildly prancing around.
Ten of his companions followed him. All ten met the same fate.
Conseil was in ecstasy. Carried away by his violent instincts, Ned Land leaped up the companionway. But as soon as his hands seized the railing, he was thrown backward in his turn.
"Damnation!" he exclaimed. "I've been struck by a lightning bolt!"
These words explained everything to me. It wasn't just a railing that led to the platform, it was a metal cable fully charged with the ship's electricity. Anyone who touched it got a fearsome shock—and such a shock would have been fatal if Captain Nemo had thrown the full current from his equipment into this conducting cable! It could honestly be said that he had stretched between himself and his assailants a network of electricity no one could clear with impunity.
Meanwhile, crazed with terror, the unhinged Papuans beat a retreat. As for us, half laughing, we massaged and comforted poor Ned Land, who was swearing like one possessed.
But just then, lifted off by the tide's final undulations, the Nautilus left its coral bed at exactly that fortieth minute pinpointed by the captain. Its propeller churned the waves with lazy majesty. Gathering speed little by little, the ship navigated on the surface of the ocean, and safe and sound, it left behind the dangerous narrows of the Torres Strait.