The way of describing this unlooked-for scene, the history of the patriot ship, told at first so coldly, and the emotion with which this strange man pronounced the last words, the name of the Avenger, the significance of which could not escape me, all impressed itself deeply on my mind. My eyes did not leave the captain; who, with his hand stretched out to sea, was watching with a glowing eye the glorious wreck. Perhaps I was never to know who he was, whence he came, or where he was going, but I saw the man move, and apart from the savant. It was no common misanthropy which had shut Captain Nemo and his companions within the Nautilus, but a hatred, either monstrous or sublime, which time could never weaken. Did this hatred still seek for vengeance? The future would soon teach me that. But the Nautilus was rising slowly to the surface of the sea, and the form of the Avenger disappeared by degrees from my sight. Soon a slight rolling told me that we were in the open air. At that moment a dull boom was heard. I looked at the captain. He did not move.
"Captain?" said I.
He did not answer. I left him and mounted the platform. Conseil and the Canadian were already there.
"Where did that sound come from?" I asked.
"It was a gunshot," replied Ned Land.
I looked in the direction of the vessel I had already seen. It was nearing the Nautilus, and we could see that it was putting on steam. It was within six miles of us.
"What is that ship, Ned?"
"By its rigging, and the height of its lower masts," said the Canadian, "I bet she is a ship of war. May it reach us; and, if necessary, sink this cursed Nautilus."
"Friend Ned," replied Conseil, "what harm can it do to the Nautilus? Can it attack it beneath the waves? Can it cannonade us at the bottom of the sea?"
"Tell me, Ned," said I, "can you recognize what country she belongs to?"
The Canadian knitted his eyebrows, dropped his eyelids, and screwed up the corners of his eyes, and for a few moments fixed a piercing look upon the vessel.
"No, Sir," he replied; "I cannot tell what nation she belongs to, for she shows no colors. But I can declare she is a man-of-war, for a long pennant flutters from her mainmast."
For a quarter of an hour we watched the ship which was steaming toward us. I could not however believe that she could see the Nautilus from that distance; and still less, that she could know what this submarine engine was. Soon the Canadian informed me that she was a large armored two-decker ram. A thick black smoke was pouring from her two funnels. Her closely furled sails were stopped to her yards. She hoisted no flag at her mizzenpeak. The distance prevented us from distinguishing the colors of her pennant, which floated like a thin ribbon. She advanced rapidly. If Captain Nemo allowed her to approach, there was a chance of salvation for us.
"Sir," said Ned Land, "if that vessel passes within a mile of us, I shall throw myself into the sea, and I should advise you to do the same."
I did not reply to the Canadian's suggestion, but continued watching the ship. Whether English, French, American, or Russian, she would be sure to take us in if we could only reach her. Presently a white smoke burst from the fore part of the vessel; some seconds after the water, agitated by the fall of a heavy body, splashed the stern of the Nautilus, and shortly afterwards a loud explosion struck my ear.
"What! they are firing at us!" I exclaimed.
"So please you, Sir," said Ned, "they have recognized the unicorn, and they are firing at us."
"But," I exclaimed, "surely they can see that there are men in the case?"
"It is, perhaps, because of that," replied Ned Land, looking at me.
A whole flood of light burst upon my mind. Doubtless they knew now how to believe the stories of the pretended monster. No doubt, on board the Abraham Lincoln, when the Canadian struck it with the harpoon, Commander Farragut had recognized in the supposed narwhal a submarine vessel, more dangerous than a supernatural cetacean. Yes, it must have been so; and on every sea they were now seeking this engine of destruction. Terrible indeed! if, as we supposed, Captain Nemo employed the Nautilus in works of vengeance. On the night when we were imprisoned in that cell, in the midst of the Indian Ocean, had he not attacked some vessel? The man buried in the coral cemetery, had he not been a victim to the shock caused by the Nautilus? Yes, I repeat it, it must be so. One part of the mysterious existence of Captain Nemo had been unveiled; and, if his identity had not been recognized, at least, the nations united against him were no longer hunting a chimerical creature, but a man who had vowed a deadly hatred against them. All the formidable past rose before me. Instead of meeting friends on board the approaching ship, we could only expect pitiless enemies. But the shot rattled about us. Some of them struck the sea and ricocheted, losing themselves in the distance. But none touched the Nautilus. The vessel was not more than three miles from us. In spite of the serious cannonade, Captain Nemo did not appear on the platform; but, if one of the conical projectiles had struck the shell of the Nautilus, it would have been fatal. The Canadian then said, "Sir, we must do all we can to get out of this dilemma. Let us signal them. They will then, perhaps, understand that we are honest folks."
Ned Land took his handkerchief to wave in the air; but he had scarcely displayed it when he was struck down by an iron hand, and fell, in spite of his great strength, upon the deck.
"Fool!" exclaimed the captain, "do you wish to be pierced by the spur of the Nautilus before it is hurled at this vessel?"
Captain Nemo was terrible to hear; he was still more terrible to see. His face was deadly pale, with a spasm at his heart. For an instant it must have ceased to beat. His pupils were fearfully contracted. He did not speak, he roared, as, with his body thrown forward he wrung the Canadian's shoulders. Then, leaving him, and turning to the ship of war, whose shot was still raining around him, he exclaimed, with a powerful voice, "Ah, ship of an accursed nation, you know who I am! I do not want your colors to know you by! Look! and I will show you mine!"
And on the fore part of the platform Captain Nemo unfurled a black flag, similar to the one he had placed at the South Pole. At that moment a shot struck the shell of the Nautilus obliquely, without piercing it; and, rebounding near the captain, was lost in the sea. He shrugged his shoulders; and addressing me, said shortly, "Go down, you and your companions, go down!"
"Sir," I exclaimed, "are you going to attack this vessel?"
"Sir, I am going to sink it."
"You will not do that?"
"I shall do it," he replied coldly. "And I advise you not to judge me, Sir. Fate has shown you what you ought not to have seen. The attack has begun; go down."
"What is this vessel?"
"You do not know? Very well! so much the better! Its nationality to you, at least, will be a secret. Go down!"
We could but obey. About fifteen of the sailors surrounded the captain, looking with implacable hatred at the vessel nearing them. One could feel that the same desire of vengeance animated every soul. I went down at the moment another projectile struck the Nautilus, and I heard the captain exclaim:
"Strike, mad vessel! Shower your useless shot! And then, you will not escape the spur of the Nautilus. But it is not here that you shall perish! I would not have your ruins mingle with those of the Avenger!"
I reached my room. The captain and his second had remained on the platform. The screw was set in motion