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CHAPTER 15 An Invitation in Writing
THE NEXT DAY, November 9, I woke up only after a long, twelve-hour slumber. Conseil, a creature of habit, came to ask "how master's night went," and to offer his services. He had left his Canadian friend sleeping like a man who had never done anything else.
I let the gallant lad babble as he pleased, without giving him much in the way of a reply. I was concerned about Captain Nemo's absence during our session the previous afternoon, and I hoped to see him again today.
Soon I had put on my clothes, which were woven from strands of seashell tissue. More than once their composition provoked comments from Conseil. I informed him that they were made from the smooth, silken filaments with which the fan mussel, a type of seashell quite abundant along Mediterranean beaches, attaches itself to rocks. In olden times, fine fabrics, stockings, and gloves were made from such filaments, because they were both very soft and very warm. So the Nautilus's crew could dress themselves at little cost, without needing a thing from cotton growers, sheep, or silkworms on shore.
As soon as I was dressed, I made my way to the main lounge. It was deserted.
I dove into studying the conchological treasures amassed inside the glass cases. I also investigated the huge plant albums that were filled with the rarest marine herbs, which, although they were pressed and dried, still kept their wonderful colors. Among these valuable water plants, I noted various seaweed: some Cladostephus verticillatus, peacock's tails, fig-leafed caulerpa, grain-bearing beauty bushes, delicate rosetangle tinted scarlet, sea colander arranged into fan shapes, mermaid's cups that looked like the caps of squat mushrooms and for years had been classified among the zoophytes; in short, a complete series of algae.
The entire day passed without my being honored by a visit from Captain Nemo. The panels in the lounge didn't open. Perhaps they didn't want us to get tired of these beautiful things.
The Nautilus kept to an east-northeasterly heading, a speed of twelve miles per hour, and a depth between fifty and sixty meters.
Next day, November 10: the same neglect, the same solitude. I didn't see a soul from the crew. Ned and Conseil spent the better part of the day with me. They were astonished at the captain's inexplicable absence. Was this eccentric man ill? Did he want to change his plans concerning us?
But after all, as Conseil noted, we enjoyed complete freedom, we were daintily and abundantly fed. Our host had kept to the terms of his agreement. We couldn't complain, and moreover the very uniqueness of our situation had such generous rewards in store for us, we had no grounds for criticism.
That day I started my diary of these adventures, which has enabled me to narrate them with the most scrupulous accuracy; and one odd detail: I wrote it on paper manufactured from marine eelgrass.
Early in the morning on November 11, fresh air poured through the Nautilus's interior, informing me that we had returned to the surface of the ocean to renew our oxygen supply. I headed for the central companionway and climbed onto the platform.
It was six o'clock. I found the weather overcast, the sea gray but calm. Hardly a billow. I hoped to encounter Captain Nemo there - would he come? I saw only the helmsman imprisoned in his glass-windowed pilothouse. Seated on the ledge furnished by the hull of the skiff, I inhaled the sea's salty aroma with great pleasure.
Little by little, the mists were dispersed under the action of the sun's rays. The radiant orb cleared the eastern horizon. Under its gaze, the sea caught on fire like a trail of gunpowder. Scattered on high, the clouds were colored in bright, wonderfully shaded hues, and numerous "ladyfingers" warned of daylong winds.*
*Author's Note: "Ladyfingers" are small, thin, white clouds with ragged edges.
But what were mere winds to this Nautilus, which no storms could intimidate!
So I was marveling at this delightful sunrise, so life-giving and cheerful, when I heard someone climbing onto the platform.
I was prepared to greet Captain Nemo, but it was his chief officer who appeared - whom I had already met during our first visit with the captain. He advanced over the platform, not seeming to notice my presence. A powerful spyglass to his eye, he scrutinized every point of the horizon with the utmost care. Then, his examination over, he approached the hatch and pronounced a phrase whose exact wording follows below. I remember it because, every morning, it was repeated under the same circumstances. It ran like this:
"Nautron respoc lorni virch."
What it meant I was unable to say.
These words pronounced, the chief officer went below again. I thought the Nautilus was about to resume its underwater navigating. So I went down the hatch and back through the gangways to my stateroom.
Five days passed in this way with no change in our situation. Every morning I climbed onto the platform. The same phrase was pronounced by the same individual. Captain Nemo did not appear.
I was pursuing the policy that we had seen the last of him, when on November 16, while reentering my stateroom with Ned and Conseil, I found a note addressed to me on the table.
I opened it impatiently. It was written in a script that was clear and neat but a bit "Old English" in style, its characters reminding me of German calligraphy.
The note was worded as follows:
Aboard the Nautilus
November 16, 1867
Captain Nemo invites Professor Aronnax on a hunting trip that will take place tomorrow morning in his Crespo Island forests. He hopes nothing will prevent the professor from attending, and he looks forward with pleasure to the professor's companions joining him.
Commander of the Nautilus.
"A hunting trip!" Ned exclaimed.
"And in his forests on Crespo Island!" Conseil added.
"But does this mean the old boy goes ashore?" Ned Land went on.
"That seems to be the gist of it," I said, rereading the letter.
"Well, we've got to accept!" the Canadian answered. "Once we're on solid ground, we'll figure out a course of action. Besides, it wouldn't pain me to eat a couple slices of fresh venison!"
Without trying to reconcile the contradictions between Captain Nemo's professed horror of continents or islands and his invitation to go hunting in a forest, I was content to reply:
"First let's look into this Crespo Island."
I consulted the world map; and in latitude 32 degrees 40' north and longitude 167 degrees 50' west, I found an islet that had been discovered in 1801 by Captain Crespo, which old Spanish charts called Rocca de la Plata, in other words, "Silver Rock." So we were about 1,800 miles from our starting point, and by a slight change of heading, the Nautilus was bringing us back toward the southeast.
I showed my companions this small, stray rock in the middle of the north Pacific.
"If Captain Nemo does sometimes go ashore," I told them, "at least he only picks desert islands!"
Ned Land shook his head without replying; then he and Conseil left me. After supper was served me by the mute and emotionless steward, I fell asleep; but not without some anxieties.
When I woke up the next day, November 17, I sensed that the Nautilus was completely motionless. I dressed hurriedly and entered the main lounge.
Captain Nemo was there waiting for me. He stood up, bowed, and asked if it suited me to come along.
Since he made no allusion to his absence the past eight days, I also refrained from mentioning it, and I simply answered that my companions and I were ready to go with him.
"Only, sir," I added, "I'll take the liberty of addressing a question to you."
"Address away, Professor Aronnax, and if I'm able to answer, I will."
"Well then, captain, how is it that you've severed all ties with the shore, yet you own forests on Crespo Island?"
"Professor," the captain answered me, "these forests of mine don't bask in the heat and light of the sun. They aren't frequented by lions, tigers, panthers, or other quadrupeds. They're known only to me. They grow only for me. These forests aren't on land, they're actual underwater forests."
"Underwater forests!" I exclaimed.
"And you're offering to take me to them?"
"Without getting your feet wet."
"Rifles in hand?"
"Rifles in hand."
I stared at the Nautilus's commander with an air anything but flattering to the man.
"Assuredly," I said to myself, "he's contracted some mental illness. He's had a fit that's lasted eight days and isn't over even yet. What a shame! I liked him better eccentric than insane!"
These thoughts were clearly readable on my face; but Captain Nemo remained content with inviting me to follow him, and I did so like a man resigned to the worst.
We arrived at the dining room, where we found breakfast served.
"Professor Aronnax," the captain told me, "I beg you to share my breakfast without formality. We can chat while we eat. Because, although I promised you a stroll in my forests, I made no pledge to arrange for your encountering a restaurant there. Accordingly, eat your breakfast like a man who'll probably eat dinner only when it's extremely late."
I did justice to this meal. It was made up of various fish and some slices of sea cucumber, that praiseworthy zoophyte, all garnished with such highly appetizing seaweed as the Porphyra laciniata and the Laurencia primafetida. Our beverage consisted of clear water to which, following the captain's example, I added some drops of a fermented liquor extracted by the Kamchatka process from the seaweed known by name as Rhodymenia palmata.
At first Captain Nemo ate without pronouncing a single word. Then he told me:
"Professor, when I proposed that you go hunting in my Crespo forests, you thought I was contradicting myself. When I informed you that it was an issue of underwater forests, you thought I'd gone insane. Professor, you must never make snap judgments about your fellow man."
"But, captain, believe me - "
"Kindly listen to me, and you'll see if you have grounds for accusing me of insanity or self-contradiction."
"I'm all attention."
"Professor, you know as well as I do that a man can live underwater so long as he carries with him his own supply of breathable air. For underwater work projects, the workman wears a waterproof suit with his head imprisoned in a metal capsule, while he receives air from above by means of force pumps and flow regulators."
"That's the standard equipment for a diving suit," I said.
"Correct, but under such conditions the man has no freedom. He's attached to a pump that sends him air through an india-rubber hose; it's an actual chain that fetters him to the shore, and if we were to be bound in this way to the Nautilus, we couldn't go far either."
"Then how do you break free?" I asked.
"We use the Rouquayrol-Denayrouze device, invented by two of your fellow countrymen but refined by me for my own special uses, thereby enabling you to risk these new physiological conditions without suffering any organic disorders. It consists of a tank built from heavy sheet iron in which I store air under a pressure of fifty atmospheres. This tank is fastened to the back by means of straps, like a soldier's knapsack. Its top part forms a box where the air is regulated by a bellows mechanism and can be released only at its proper tension. In the Rouquayrol device that has been in general use, two india-rubber hoses leave this box and feed to a kind of tent that imprisons the operator's nose and mouth; one hose is for the entrance of air to be inhaled, the other for the exit of air to be exhaled, and the tongue closes off the former or the latter depending on the breather's needs. But in my case, since I face considerable pressures at the bottom of the sea, I needed to enclose my head in a copper sphere, like those found on standard diving suits, and the two hoses for inhalation and exhalation now feed to that sphere."
"That's perfect, Captain Nemo, but the air you carry must be quickly depleted; and once it contains no more than 15% oxygen, it becomes unfit for breathing."
"Surely, but as I told you, Professor Aronnax, the Nautilus's pumps enable me to store air under considerable pressure, and given this circumstance, the tank on my diving equipment can supply breathable air for nine or ten hours."
"I've no more objections to raise," I replied. "I'll only ask you, captain: how can you light your way at the bottom of the ocean?"
"With the Ruhmkorff device, Professor Aronnax. If the first is carried on the back, the second is fastened to the belt. It consists of a Bunsen battery that I activate not with potassium dichromate but with sodium. An induction coil gathers the electricity generated and directs it to a specially designed lantern. In this lantern one finds a glass spiral that contains only a residue of carbon dioxide gas. When the device is operating, this gas becomes luminous and gives off a continuous whitish light. Thus provided for, I breathe and I see."
"Captain Nemo, to my every objection you give such crushing answers, I'm afraid to entertain a single doubt. However, though I have no choice but to accept both the Rouquayrol and Ruhmkorff devices, I'd like to register some reservations about the rifle with which you'll equip me."
"But it isn't a rifle that uses gunpowder," the captain replied.
"Then it's an air gun?"
"Surely. How can I make gunpowder on my ship when I have no saltpeter, sulfur, or charcoal?"
"Even so," I replied, "to fire underwater in a medium that's 855 times denser than air, you'd have to overcome considerable resistance."
"That doesn't necessarily follow. There are certain Fulton-style guns perfected by the Englishmen Philippe-Coles and Burley, the Frenchman Furcy, and the Italian Landi; they're equipped with a special system of airtight fastenings and can fire in underwater conditions. But I repeat: having no gunpowder, I've replaced it with air at high pressure, which is abundantly supplied me by the Nautilus's pumps."
"But this air must be swiftly depleted."
"Well, in a pinch can't my Rouquayrol tank supply me with more? All I have to do is draw it from an ad hoc spigot.* Besides, Professor Aronnax, you'll see for yourself that during these underwater hunting trips, we make no great expenditure of either air or bullets."
*Latin: a spigot "just for that purpose." Ed.
"But it seems to me that in this semidarkness, amid this liquid that's so dense in comparison to the atmosphere, a gunshot couldn't carry far and would prove fatal only with difficulty!"
"On the contrary, sir, with this rifle every shot is fatal; and as soon as the animal is hit, no matter how lightly, it falls as if struck by lightning."
"Because this rifle doesn't shoot ordinary bullets but little glass capsules invented by the Austrian chemist Leniebroek, and I have a considerable supply of them. These glass capsules are covered with a strip of steel and weighted with a lead base; they're genuine little Leyden jars charged with high-voltage electricity. They go off at the slightest impact, and the animal, no matter how strong, drops dead. I might add that these capsules are no bigger than number 4 shot, and the chamber of any ordinary rifle could hold ten of them."
"I'll quit debating," I replied, getting up from the table. "And all that's left is for me to shoulder my rifle. So where you go, I'll go."
Captain Nemo led me to the Nautilus's stern, and passing by Ned and Conseil's cabin, I summoned my two companions, who instantly followed us.
Then we arrived at a cell located within easy access of the engine room; in this cell we were to get dressed for our stroll.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER 16 Strolling the Plains