Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas: Second Part

Chapter 8

The Bay of Vigo

The Atlantic! A vast expanse of water whose surface area is 25,000,000 square miles, with a length of 9,000 miles and an average width of 2,700. A major sea nearly unknown to the ancients, except perhaps the Carthaginians, those Dutchmen of antiquity who went along the west coasts of Europe and Africa on their commercial junkets! An ocean whose parallel winding shores form an immense perimeter fed by the world’s greatest rivers: the St. Lawrence, Mississippi, Amazon, Plata, Orinoco, Niger, Senegal, Elbe, Loire, and Rhine, which bring it waters from the most civilized countries as well as the most undeveloped areas! A magnificent plain of waves plowed continuously by ships of every nation, shaded by every flag in the world, and ending in those two dreadful headlands so feared by navigators, Cape Horn and the Cape of Tempests!

The Nautilus broke these waters with the edge of its spur after doing nearly 10,000 leagues in three and a half months, a track longer than a great circle of the earth. Where were we heading now, and what did the future have in store for us?

Emerging from the Strait of Gibraltar, the Nautilus took to the high seas. It returned to the surface of the waves, so our daily strolls on the platform were restored to us.

I climbed onto it instantly, Ned Land and Conseil along with me. Twelve miles away, Cape St. Vincent was hazily visible, the southwestern tip of the Hispanic peninsula. The wind was blowing a pretty strong gust from the south. The sea was swelling and surging. Its waves made the Nautilus roll and jerk violently. It was nearly impossible to stand up on the platform, which was continuously buffeted by this enormously heavy sea. After inhaling a few breaths of air, we went below once more.

I repaired to my stateroom. Conseil returned to his cabin; but the Canadian, looking rather worried, followed me. Our quick trip through the Mediterranean hadn’t allowed him to put his plans into execution, and he could barely conceal his disappointment.

After the door to my stateroom was closed, he sat and stared at me silently.

“Ned my friend,” I told him, “I know how you feel, but you mustn’t blame yourself. Given the way the Nautilus was navigating, it would have been sheer insanity to think of escaping!”

Ned Land didn’t reply. His pursed lips and frowning brow indicated that he was in the grip of his monomania.

“Look here,” I went on, “as yet there’s no cause for despair. We’re going up the coast of Portugal. France and England aren’t far off, and there we’ll easily find refuge. Oh, I grant you, if the Nautilus had emerged from the Strait of Gibraltar and made for that cape in the south, if it were taking us toward those regions that have no continents, then I’d share your alarm. But we now know that Captain Nemo doesn’t avoid the seas of civilization, and in a few days I think we can safely take action.”

Ned Land stared at me still more intently and finally unpursed his lips:

“We’ll do it this evening,” he said.

I straightened suddenly. I admit that I was less than ready for this announcement. I wanted to reply to the Canadian, but words failed me.

“We agreed to wait for the right circumstances,” Ned Land went on. “Now we’ve got those circumstances. This evening we’ll be just a few miles off the coast of Spain. It’ll be cloudy tonight. The wind’s blowing toward shore. You gave me your promise, Professor Aronnax, and I’m counting on you.”

Since I didn’t say anything, the Canadian stood up and approached me:

“We’ll do it this evening at nine o’clock,” he said. “I’ve alerted Conseil. By that time Captain Nemo will be locked in his room and probably in bed. Neither the mechanics or the crewmen will be able to see us. Conseil and I will go to the central companionway. As for you, Professor Aronnax, you’ll stay in the library two steps away and wait for my signal. The oars, mast, and sail are in the skiff. I’ve even managed to stow some provisions inside. I’ve gotten hold of a monkey wrench to unscrew the nuts bolting the skiff to the Nautilus’s hull. So everything’s ready. I’ll see you this evening.”

“The sea is rough,” I said.

“Admitted,” the Canadian replied, “but we’ve got to risk it. Freedom is worth paying for. Besides, the longboat’s solidly built, and a few miles with the wind behind us is no big deal. By tomorrow, who knows if this ship won’t be 100 leagues out to sea? If circumstances are in our favor, between ten and eleven this evening we’ll be landing on some piece of solid ground, or we’ll be dead. So we’re in God’s hands, and I’ll see you this evening!”

This said, the Canadian withdrew, leaving me close to dumbfounded. I had imagined that if it came to this, I would have time to think about it, to talk it over. My stubborn companion hadn’t granted me this courtesy. But after all, what would I have said to him? Ned Land was right a hundred times over. These were near-ideal circumstances, and he was taking full advantage of them. In my selfish personal interests, could I go back on my word and be responsible for ruining the future lives of my companions? Tomorrow, might not Captain Nemo take us far away from any shore?

Just then a fairly loud hissing told me that the ballast tanks were filling, and the Nautilus sank beneath the waves of the Atlantic.

I stayed in my stateroom. I wanted to avoid the captain, to hide from his eyes the agitation overwhelming me. What an agonizing day I spent, torn between my desire to regain my free will and my regret at abandoning this marvelous Nautilus, leaving my underwater research incomplete! How could I relinquish this ocean—“my own Atlantic,” as I liked to call it—without observing its lower strata, without wresting from it the kinds of secrets that had been revealed to me by the seas of the East Indies and the Pacific! I was putting down my novel half read, I was waking up as my dream neared its climax! How painfully the hours passed, as I sometimes envisioned myself safe on shore with my companions, or, despite my better judgment, as I sometimes wished that some unforeseen circumstances would prevent Ned Land from carrying out his plans.

Twice I went to the lounge. I wanted to consult the compass. I wanted to see if the Nautilus’s heading was actually taking us closer to the coast or spiriting us farther away. But no. The Nautilus was still in Portuguese waters. Heading north, it was cruising along the ocean’s beaches.

So I had to resign myself to my fate and get ready to escape. My baggage wasn’t heavy. My notes, nothing more.

As for Captain Nemo, I wondered what he would make of our escaping, what concern or perhaps what distress it might cause him, and what he would do in the twofold event of our attempt either failing or being found out! Certainly I had no complaints to register with him, on the contrary. Never was hospitality more wholehearted than his. Yet in leaving him I couldn’t be accused of ingratitude. No solemn promises bound us to him. In order to keep us captive, he had counted only on the force of circumstances and not on our word of honor. But his avowed intention to imprison us forever on his ship justified our every effort.

I hadn’t seen the captain since our visit to the island of Santorini. Would fate bring me into his presence before our departure? I both desired and dreaded it. I listened for footsteps in the stateroom adjoining mine. Not a sound reached my ear. His stateroom had to be deserted.

Then I began to wonder if this eccentric individual was even on board. Since that night when the skiff had left the Nautilus on some mysterious mission, my ideas about him had subtly changed. In spite of everything, I thought that Captain Nemo must have kept up some type of relationship with the shore. Did he himself never leave the Nautilus? Whole weeks had often gone by without my encountering him. What was he doing all the while? During all those times I’d thought he was convalescing in the grip of some misanthropic fit, was he instead far away from the ship, involved in some secret activity whose nature still eluded me?

All these ideas and a thousand others assaulted me at the same time. In these strange circumstances the scope for conjecture was unlimited. I felt an unbearable queasiness. This day of waiting seemed endless. The hours struck too slowly to keep up with my impatience.

As usual, dinner was served me in my stateroom. Full of anxiety, I ate little. I left the table at seven o’clock. 120 minutes—I was keeping track of them—still separated me from the moment I was to rejoin Ned Land. My agitation increased. My pulse was throbbing violently. I couldn’t stand still. I walked up and down, hoping to calm my troubled mind with movement. The possibility of perishing in our reckless undertaking was the least of my worries; my heart was pounding at the thought that our plans might be discovered before we had left the Nautilus, at the thought of being hauled in front of Captain Nemo and finding him angered, or worse, saddened by my deserting him.

I wanted to see the lounge one last time. I went down the gangways and arrived at the museum where I had spent so many pleasant and productive hours. I stared at all its wealth, all its treasures, like a man on the eve of his eternal exile, a man departing to return no more. For so many days now, these natural wonders and artistic masterworks had been central to my life, and I was about to leave them behind forever. I wanted to plunge my eyes through the lounge window and into these Atlantic waters; but the panels were hermetically sealed, and a mantle of sheet iron separated me from this ocean with which I was still unfamiliar.

Crossing through the lounge, I arrived at the door, contrived in one of the canted corners, that opened into the captain’s stateroom. Much to my astonishment, this door was ajar. I instinctively recoiled. If Captain Nemo was in his stateroom, he might see me. But, not hearing any sounds, I approached. The stateroom was deserted. I pushed the door open. I took a few steps inside. Still the same austere, monastic appearance.

Just then my eye was caught by some etchings hanging on the wall, which I hadn’t noticed during my first visit. They were portraits of great men of history who had spent their lives in perpetual devotion to a great human ideal: Thaddeus Kosciusko, the hero whose dying words had been Finis Poloniae;1 Markos Botzaris, for modern Greece the reincarnation of Sparta’s King Leonidas; Daniel O’Connell, Ireland’s defender; George Washington, founder of the American Union; Daniele Manin, the Italian patriot; Abraham Lincoln, dead from the bullet of a believer in slavery; and finally, that martyr for the redemption of the black race, John Brown, hanging from his gallows as Victor Hugo’s pencil has so terrifyingly depicted.

What was the bond between these heroic souls and the soul of Captain Nemo? From this collection of portraits could I finally unravel the mystery of his existence? Was he a fighter for oppressed peoples, a liberator of enslaved races? Had he figured in the recent political or social upheavals of this century? Was he a hero of that dreadful civil war in America, a war lamentable yet forever glorious . . . ?

Suddenly the clock struck eight. The first stroke of its hammer on the chime snapped me out of my musings. I shuddered as if some invisible eye had plunged into my innermost thoughts, and I rushed outside the stateroom.

There my eyes fell on the compass. Our heading was still northerly. The log indicated a moderate speed, the pressure gauge a depth of about sixty feet. So circumstances were in favor of the Canadian’s plans.

I stayed in my stateroom. I dressed warmly: fishing boots, otter cap, coat of fan-mussel fabric lined with sealskin. I was ready. I was waiting. Only the propeller’s vibrations disturbed the deep silence reigning on board. I cocked an ear and listened. Would a sudden outburst of voices tell me that Ned Land’s escape plans had just been detected? A ghastly uneasiness stole through me. I tried in vain to recover my composure.

A few minutes before nine o’clock, I glued my ear to the captain’s door. Not a sound. I left my stateroom and returned to the lounge, which was deserted and plunged in near darkness.

I opened the door leading to the library. The same inadequate light, the same solitude. I went to man my post near the door opening into the well of the central companionway. I waited for Ned Land’s signal.

At this point the propeller’s vibrations slowed down appreciably, then they died out altogether. Why was the Nautilus stopping? Whether this layover would help or hinder Ned Land’s schemes I couldn’t have said.

The silence was further disturbed only by the pounding of my heart.

Suddenly I felt a mild jolt. I realized the Nautilus had come to rest on the ocean floor. My alarm increased. The Canadian’s signal hadn’t reached me. I longed to rejoin Ned Land and urge him to postpone his attempt. I sensed that we were no longer navigating under normal conditions.

Just then the door to the main lounge opened and Captain Nemo appeared. He saw me, and without further preamble:

“Ah, professor,” he said in an affable tone, “I’ve been looking for you. Do you know your Spanish history?”

Even if he knew it by heart, a man in my disturbed, befuddled condition couldn’t have quoted a syllable of his own country’s history.

“Well?” Captain Nemo went on. “Did you hear my question? Do you know the history of Spain?”

“Very little of it,” I replied.

“The most learned men,” the captain said, “still have much to learn. Have a seat,” he added, “and I’ll tell you about an unusual episode in this body of history.”

The captain stretched out on a couch, and I mechanically took a seat near him, but half in the shadows.

“Professor,” he said, “listen carefully. This piece of history concerns you in one definite respect, because it will answer a question you’ve no doubt been unable to resolve.”

“I’m listening, captain,” I said, not knowing what my partner in this dialogue was driving at, and wondering if this incident related to our escape plans.

“Professor,” Captain Nemo went on, “if you’re amenable, we’ll go back in time to 1702. You’re aware of the fact that in those days your King Louis XIV thought an imperial gesture would suffice to humble the Pyrenees in the dust, so he inflicted his grandson, the Duke of Anjou, on the Spaniards. Reigning more or less poorly under the name King Philip V, this aristocrat had to deal with mighty opponents abroad.

“In essence, the year before, the royal houses of Holland, Austria, and England had signed a treaty of alliance at The Hague, aiming to wrest the Spanish crown from King Philip V and to place it on the head of an archduke whom they prematurely dubbed King Charles III.

“Spain had to withstand these allies. But the country had practically no army or navy. Yet it wasn’t short of money, provided that its galleons, laden with gold and silver from America, could enter its ports. Now then, late in 1702 Spain was expecting a rich convoy, which France ventured to escort with a fleet of twenty-three vessels under the command of Admiral de Chateau-Renault, because by that time the allied navies were roving the Atlantic.

“This convoy was supposed to put into Cadiz, but after learning that the English fleet lay across those waterways, the admiral decided to make for a French port.

“The Spanish commanders in the convoy objected to this decision. They wanted to be taken to a Spanish port, if not to Cadiz, then to the Bay of Vigo, located on Spain’s northwest coast and not blockaded.

“Admiral de Chateau-Renault was so indecisive as to obey this directive, and the galleons entered the Bay of Vigo.

“Unfortunately this bay forms an open, offshore mooring that’s impossible to defend. So it was essential to hurry and empty the galleons before the allied fleets arrived, and there would have been ample time for this unloading, if a wretched question of trade agreements hadn’t suddenly come up.

“Are you clear on the chain of events?” Captain Nemo asked me.

“Perfectly clear,” I said, not yet knowing why I was being given this history lesson.

“Then I’ll continue. Here’s what came to pass. The tradesmen of Cadiz had negotiated a charter whereby they were to receive all merchandise coming from the West Indies. Now then, unloading the ingots from those galleons at the port of Vigo would have been a violation of their rights. So they lodged a complaint in Madrid, and they obtained an order from the indecisive King Philip V: without unloading, the convoy would stay in custody at the offshore mooring of Vigo until the enemy fleets had retreated.

“Now then, just as this decision was being handed down, English vessels arrived in the Bay of Vigo on October 22, 1702. Despite his inferior forces, Admiral de Chateau-Renault fought courageously. But when he saw that the convoy’s wealth was about to fall into enemy hands, he burned and scuttled the galleons, which went to the bottom with their immense treasures.”

Captain Nemo stopped. I admit it: I still couldn’t see how this piece of history concerned me.

“Well?” I asked him.

“Well, Professor Aronnax,” Captain Nemo answered me, “we’re actually in that Bay of Vigo, and all that’s left is for you to probe the mysteries of the place.”

The captain stood up and invited me to follow him. I’d had time to collect myself. I did so. The lounge was dark, but the sea’s waves sparkled through the transparent windows. I stared.

Around the Nautilus for a half-mile radius, the waters seemed saturated with electric light. The sandy bottom was clear and bright. Dressed in diving suits, crewmen were busy clearing away half-rotted barrels and disemboweled trunks in the midst of the dingy hulks of ships. Out of these trunks and kegs spilled ingots of gold and silver, cascades of jewels, pieces of eight. The sand was heaped with them. Then, laden with these valuable spoils, the men returned to the Nautilus, dropped off their burdens inside, and went to resume this inexhaustible fishing for silver and gold.

I understood. This was the setting of that battle on October 22, 1702. Here, in this very place, those galleons carrying treasure to the Spanish government had gone to the bottom. Here, whenever he needed, Captain Nemo came to withdraw these millions to ballast his Nautilus. It was for him, for him alone, that America had yielded up its precious metals. He was the direct, sole heir to these treasures wrested from the Incas and those peoples conquered by Hernando Cortez!

“Did you know, professor,” he asked me with a smile, “that the sea contained such wealth?”

“I know it’s estimated,” I replied, “that there are 2,000,000 metric tons of silver held in suspension in seawater.”

“Surely, but in extracting that silver, your expenses would outweigh your profits. Here, by contrast, I have only to pick up what other men have lost, and not only in this Bay of Vigo but at a thousand other sites where ships have gone down, whose positions are marked on my underwater chart. Do you understand now that I’m rich to the tune of billions?”

“I understand, captain. Nevertheless, allow me to inform you that by harvesting this very Bay of Vigo, you’re simply forestalling the efforts of a rival organization.”

“What organization?”

“A company chartered by the Spanish government to search for these sunken galleons. The company’s investors were lured by the bait of enormous gains, because this scuttled treasure is estimated to be worth 500,000,000 francs.”

“It was 500,000,000 francs,” Captain Nemo replied, “but no more!”

“Right,” I said. “Hence a timely warning to those investors would be an act of charity. Yet who knows if it would be well received? Usually what gamblers regret the most isn’t the loss of their money so much as the loss of their insane hopes. But ultimately I feel less sorry for them than for the thousands of unfortunate people who would have benefited from a fair distribution of this wealth, whereas now it will be of no help to them!”

No sooner had I voiced this regret than I felt it must have wounded Captain Nemo.

“No help!” he replied with growing animation. “Sir, what makes you assume this wealth goes to waste when I’m the one amassing it? Do you think I toil to gather this treasure out of selfishness? Who says I don’t put it to good use? Do you think I’m unaware of the suffering beings and oppressed races living on this earth, poor people to comfort, victims to avenge? Don’t you understand . . . ?”

Captain Nemo stopped on these last words, perhaps sorry that he had said too much. But I had guessed. Whatever motives had driven him to seek independence under the seas, he remained a human being before all else! His heart still throbbed for suffering humanity, and his immense philanthropy went out both to downtrodden races and to individuals!

And now I knew where Captain Nemo had delivered those millions, when the Nautilus navigated the waters where Crete was in rebellion against the Ottoman Empire!

  1. Latin: “Save Poland’s borders.” FPW.
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Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/23 17:44:39 $