Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas: First Part

Chapter 9

The Tantrums of Ned Land

I have no idea how long this slumber lasted; but it must have been a good while, since we were completely over our exhaustion. I was the first one to wake up. My companions weren’t yet stirring and still lay in their corners like inanimate objects.

I had barely gotten up from my passably hard mattress when I felt my mind clear, my brain go on the alert. So I began a careful reexamination of our cell.

Nothing had changed in its interior arrangements. The prison was still a prison and its prisoners still prisoners. But, taking advantage of our slumber, the steward had cleared the table. Consequently, nothing indicated any forthcoming improvement in our situation, and I seriously wondered if we were doomed to spend the rest of our lives in this cage.

This prospect seemed increasingly painful to me because, even though my brain was clear of its obsessions from the night before, I was feeling an odd short-windedness in my chest. It was becoming hard for me to breathe. The heavy air was no longer sufficient for the full play of my lungs. Although our cell was large, we obviously had used up most of the oxygen it contained. In essence, over an hour’s time a single human being consumes all the oxygen found in 100 liters of air, at which point that air has become charged with a nearly equal amount of carbon dioxide and is no longer fit for breathing.

So it was now urgent to renew the air in our prison, and no doubt the air in this whole underwater boat as well.

Here a question popped into my head. How did the commander of this aquatic residence go about it? Did he obtain air using chemical methods, releasing the oxygen contained in potassium chlorate by heating it, meanwhile absorbing the carbon dioxide with potassium hydroxide? If so, he would have to keep up some kind of relationship with the shore, to come by the materials needed for such an operation. Did he simply limit himself to storing the air in high-pressure tanks and then dispense it according to his crew’s needs? Perhaps. Or, proceeding in a more convenient, more economical, and consequently more probable fashion, was he satisfied with merely returning to breathe at the surface of the water like a cetacean, renewing his oxygen supply every twenty-four hours? In any event, whatever his method was, it seemed prudent to me that he use this method without delay.

In fact, I had already resorted to speeding up my inhalations in order to extract from the cell what little oxygen it contained, when suddenly I was refreshed by a current of clean air, scented with a salty aroma. It had to be a sea breeze, life-giving and charged with iodine! I opened my mouth wide, and my lungs glutted themselves on the fresh particles. At the same time, I felt a swaying, a rolling of moderate magnitude but definitely noticeable. This boat, this sheet-iron monster, had obviously just risen to the surface of the ocean, there to breathe in good whale fashion. So the ship’s mode of ventilation was finally established.

When I had absorbed a chestful of this clean air, I looked for the conduit—the “air carrier,” if you prefer—that allowed this beneficial influx to reach us, and I soon found it. Above the door opened an air vent that let in a fresh current of oxygen, renewing the thin air in our cell.

I had gotten to this point in my observations when Ned and Conseil woke up almost simultaneously, under the influence of this reviving air purification. They rubbed their eyes, stretched their arms, and sprang to their feet.

“Did master sleep well?” Conseil asked me with his perennial good manners.

“Extremely well, my gallant lad,” I replied. “And how about you, Mr. Ned Land?”

“Like a log, professor. But I must be imagining things, because it seems like I’m breathing a sea breeze!”

A seaman couldn’t be wrong on this topic, and I told the Canadian what had gone on while he slept.

“Good!” he said. “That explains perfectly all that bellowing we heard, when our so-called narwhale lay in sight of the Abraham Lincoln.”

“Perfectly, Mr. Land. It was catching its breath!”

“Only I’ve no idea what time it is, Professor Aronnax, unless maybe it’s dinnertime?”

“Dinnertime, my fine harpooner? I’d say at least breakfast time, because we’ve certainly woken up to a new day.”

“Which indicates,” Conseil replied, “that we’ve spent twenty-four hours in slumber.”

“That’s my assessment,” I replied.

“I won’t argue with you,” Ned Land answered. “But dinner or breakfast, that steward will be plenty welcome whether he brings the one or the other.”

“The one and the other,” Conseil said.

“Well put,” the Canadian replied. “We deserve two meals, and speaking for myself, I’ll do justice to them both.”

“All right, Ned, let’s wait and see!” I replied. “It’s clear that these strangers don’t intend to let us die of hunger, otherwise last evening’s dinner wouldn’t make any sense.”

“Unless they’re fattening us up!” Ned shot back.

“I object,” I replied. “We have not fallen into the hands of cannibals.”

“Just because they don’t make a habit of it,” the Canadian replied in all seriousness, “doesn’t mean they don’t indulge from time to time. Who knows? Maybe these people have gone without fresh meat for a long while, and in that case three healthy, well-built specimens like the professor, his manservant, and me—”

“Get rid of those ideas, Mr. Land,” I answered the harpooner. “And above all, don’t let them lead you to flare up against our hosts, which would only make our situation worse.”

“Anyhow,” the harpooner said, “I’m as hungry as all Hades, and dinner or breakfast, not one puny meal has arrived!”

“Mr. Land,” I answered, “we have to adapt to the schedule on board, and I imagine our stomachs are running ahead of the chief cook’s dinner bell.”

“Well then, we’ll adjust our stomachs to the chef’s timetable!” Conseil replied serenely.

“There you go again, Conseil my friend!” the impatient Canadian shot back. “You never allow yourself any displays of bile or attacks of nerves! You’re everlastingly calm! You’d say your after-meal grace even if you didn’t get any food for your before-meal blessing—and you’d starve to death rather than complain!”

“What good would it do?” Conseil asked.

“Complaining doesn’t have to do good, it just feels good! And if these pirates—I say pirates out of consideration for the professor’s feelings, since he doesn’t want us to call them cannibals—if these pirates think they’re going to smother me in this cage without hearing what cusswords spice up my outbursts, they’ve got another think coming! Look here, Professor Aronnax, speak frankly. How long do you figure they’ll keep us in this iron box?”

“To tell the truth, friend Land, I know little more about it than you do.”

“But in a nutshell, what do you suppose is going on?”

“My supposition is that sheer chance has made us privy to an important secret. Now then, if the crew of this underwater boat have a personal interest in keeping that secret, and if their personal interest is more important than the lives of three men, I believe that our very existence is in jeopardy. If such is not the case, then at the first available opportunity, this monster that has swallowed us will return us to the world inhabited by our own kind.”

“Unless they recruit us to serve on the crew,” Conseil said, “and keep us here—”

“Till the moment,” Ned Land answered, “when some frigate that’s faster or smarter than the Abraham Lincoln captures this den of buccaneers, then hangs all of us by the neck from the tip of a mainmast yardarm!”

“Well thought out, Mr. Land,” I replied. “But as yet, I don’t believe we’ve been tendered any enlistment offers. Consequently, it’s pointless to argue about what tactics we should pursue in such a case. I repeat: let’s wait, let’s be guided by events, and let’s do nothing, since right now there’s nothing we can do.”

“On the contrary, professor,” the harpooner replied, not wanting to give in. “There is something we can do.”

“Oh? And what, Mr. Land?”

“Break out of here!”

“Breaking out of a prison on shore is difficult enough, but with an underwater prison, it strikes me as completely unworkable.”

“Come now, Ned my friend,” Conseil asked, “how would you answer master’s objection? I refuse to believe that an American is at the end of his tether.”

Visibly baffled, the harpooner said nothing. Under the conditions in which fate had left us, it was absolutely impossible to escape. But a Canadian’s wit is half French, and Mr. Ned Land made this clear in his reply.

“So, Professor Aronnax,” he went on after thinking for a few moments, “you haven’t figured out what people do when they can’t escape from their prison?”

“No, my friend.”

“Easy. They fix things so they stay there.”

“Of course!” Conseil put in. “Since we’re deep in the ocean, being inside this boat is vastly preferable to being above it or below it!”

“But we fix things by kicking out all the jailers, guards, and wardens,” Ned Land added.

“What’s this, Ned?” I asked. “You’d seriously consider taking over this craft?”

“Very seriously,” the Canadian replied.

“It’s impossible.”

“And why is that, sir? Some promising opportunity might come up, and I don’t see what could stop us from taking advantage of it. If there are only about twenty men on board this machine, I don’t think they can stave off two Frenchmen and a Canadian!”

It seemed wiser to accept the harpooner’s proposition than to debate it. Accordingly, I was content to reply:

“Let such circumstances come, Mr. Land, and we’ll see. But until then, I beg you to control your impatience. We need to act shrewdly, and your flare-ups won’t give rise to any promising opportunities. So swear to me that you’ll accept our situation without throwing a tantrum over it.”

“I give you my word, professor,” Ned Land replied in an unenthusiastic tone. “No vehement phrases will leave my mouth, no vicious gestures will give my feelings away, not even when they don’t feed us on time.”

“I have your word, Ned,” I answered the Canadian.

Then our conversation petered out, and each of us withdrew into his own thoughts. For my part, despite the harpooner’s confident talk, I admit that I entertained no illusions. I had no faith in those promising opportunities that Ned Land mentioned. To operate with such efficiency, this underwater boat had to have a sizeable crew, so if it came to a physical contest, we would be facing an overwhelming opponent. Besides, before we could do anything, we had to be free, and that we definitely were not. I didn’t see any way out of this sheet-iron, hermetically sealed cell. And if the strange commander of this boat did have a secret to keep—which seemed rather likely—he would never give us freedom of movement aboard his vessel. Now then, would he resort to violence in order to be rid of us, or would he drop us off one day on some remote coast? There lay the unknown. All these hypotheses seemed extremely plausible to me, and to hope for freedom through use of force, you had to be a harpooner.

I realized, moreover, that Ned Land’s brooding was getting him madder by the minute. Little by little, I heard those aforesaid cusswords welling up in the depths of his gullet, and I saw his movements turn threatening again. He stood up, pacing in circles like a wild beast in a cage, striking the walls with his foot and fist. Meanwhile the hours passed, our hunger nagged unmercifully, and this time the steward did not appear. Which amounted to forgetting our castaway status for much too long, if they really had good intentions toward us.

Tortured by the growling of his well-built stomach, Ned Land was getting more and more riled, and despite his word of honor, I was in real dread of an explosion when he stood in the presence of one of the men on board.

For two more hours Ned Land’s rage increased. The Canadian shouted and pleaded, but to no avail. The sheet-iron walls were deaf. I didn’t hear a single sound inside this dead-seeming boat. The vessel hadn’t stirred, because I obviously would have felt its hull vibrating under the influence of the propeller. It had undoubtedly sunk into the watery deep and no longer belonged to the outside world. All this dismal silence was terrifying.

As for our neglect, our isolation in the depths of this cell, I was afraid to guess at how long it might last. Little by little, hopes I had entertained after our interview with the ship’s commander were fading away. The gentleness of the man’s gaze, the generosity expressed in his facial features, the nobility of his bearing, all vanished from my memory. I saw this mystifying individual anew for what he inevitably must be: cruel and merciless. I viewed him as outside humanity, beyond all feelings of compassion, the implacable foe of his fellow man, toward whom he must have sworn an undying hate!

But even so, was the man going to let us die of starvation, locked up in this cramped prison, exposed to those horrible temptations to which people are driven by extreme hunger? This grim possibility took on a dreadful intensity in my mind, and fired by my imagination, I felt an unreasoning terror run through me. Conseil stayed calm. Ned Land bellowed.

Just then a noise was audible outside. Footsteps rang on the metal tiling. The locks were turned, the door opened, the steward appeared.

Before I could make a single movement to prevent him, the Canadian rushed at the poor man, threw him down, held him by the throat. The steward was choking in the grip of those powerful hands.

Conseil was already trying to loosen the harpooner’s hands from his half-suffocated victim, and I had gone to join in the rescue, when I was abruptly nailed to the spot by these words pronounced in French:

“Calm down, Mr. Land! And you, professor, kindly listen to me!”

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Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/23 17:44:38 $