Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas – Day 28 of 165

“Perhaps it would be the right of a savage,” I replied. “But not that of a civilized man.”

“Professor,” the commander replied swiftly, “I’m not what you term a civilized man! I’ve severed all ties with society, for reasons that I alone have the right to appreciate. Therefore I obey none of its regulations, and I insist that you never invoke them in front of me!”

This was plain speaking. A flash of anger and scorn lit up the stranger’s eyes, and I glimpsed a fearsome past in this man’s life. Not only had he placed himself beyond human laws, he had rendered himself independent, out of all reach, free in the strictest sense of the word! For who would dare chase him to the depths of the sea when he thwarted all attacks on the surface? What ship could withstand a collision with his underwater Monitor? What armor plate, no matter how heavy, could bear the thrusts of his spur? No man among men could call him to account for his actions. God, if he believed in Him, his conscience if he had one—these were the only judges to whom he was answerable.

These thoughts swiftly crossed my mind while this strange individual fell silent, like someone completely self–absorbed. I regarded him with a mixture of fear and fascination, in the same way, no doubt, that Œdipus regarded the Sphinx.

After a fairly long silence, the commander went on with our conversation.

“So I had difficulty deciding,” he said. “But I concluded that my personal interests could be reconciled with that natural compassion to which every human being has a right. Since fate has brought you here, you’ll stay aboard my vessel. You’ll be free here, and in exchange for that freedom, moreover totally related to it, I’ll lay on you just one condition. Your word that you’ll submit to it will be sufficient.”

“Go on, sir,” I replied. “I assume this condition is one an honest man can accept?”

“Yes, sir. Just this. It’s possible that certain unforeseen events may force me to confine you to your cabins for some hours, or even for some days as the case may be. Since I prefer never to use violence, I expect from you in such a case, even more than in any other, your unquestioning obedience. By acting in this way, I shield you from complicity, I absolve you of all responsibility, since I myself make it impossible for you to see what you aren’t meant to see. Do you accept this condition?”

So things happened on board that were quite odd to say the least, things never to be seen by people not placing themselves beyond society’s laws! Among all the surprises the future had in store for me, this would not be the mildest.

“We accept,” I replied. “Only, I’ll ask your permission, sir, to address a question to you, just one.”

“Go ahead, sir.”

“You said we’d be free aboard your vessel?”

“Completely.”

“Then I would ask what you mean by this freedom.”

“Why, the freedom to come, go, see, and even closely observe everything happening here—except under certain rare circumstances—in short, the freedom we ourselves enjoy, my companions and I.”

It was obvious that we did not understand each other.

“Pardon me, sir,” I went on, “but that’s merely the freedom that every prisoner has, the freedom to pace his cell! That’s not enough for us.”

“Nevertheless, it will have to do!”

“What! We must give up seeing our homeland, friends, and relatives ever again?”

“Yes, sir. But giving up that intolerable earthly yoke that some men call freedom is perhaps less painful than you think!”

“By thunder!” Ned Land shouted. “I’ll never promise I won’t try getting out of here!”

“I didn’t ask for such a promise, Mr. Land,” the commander replied coldly.

“Sir,” I replied, flaring up in spite of myself, “you’re taking unfair advantage of us! This is sheer cruelty!”

“No, sir, it’s an act of mercy! You’re my prisoners of war! I’ve cared for you when, with a single word, I could plunge you back into the ocean depths! You attacked me! You’ve just stumbled on a secret no living man must probe, the secret of my entire existence! Do you think I’ll send you back to a world that must know nothing more of me? Never! By keeping you on board, it isn’t you whom I care for, it’s me!”

These words indicated that the commander pursued a policy impervious to arguments.

“Then, sir,” I went on, “you give us, quite simply, a choice between life and death?”

“Quite simply.”

“My friends,” I said, “to a question couched in these terms, our answer can be taken for granted. But no solemn promises bind us to the commander of this vessel.”

“None, sir,” the stranger replied.

Then, in a gentler voice, he went on:

“Now, allow me to finish what I have to tell you. I’ve heard of you, Professor Aronnax. You, if not your companions, won’t perhaps complain too much about the stroke of fate that has brought us together. Among the books that make up my favorite reading, you’ll find the work you’ve published on the great ocean depths. I’ve pored over it. You’ve taken your studies as far as terrestrial science can go. But you don’t know everything because you haven’t seen everything. Let me tell you, professor, you won’t regret the time you spend aboard my vessel. You’re going to voyage through a land of wonders. Stunned amazement will probably be your habitual state of mind. It will be a long while before you tire of the sights constantly before your eyes. I’m going to make another underwater tour of the world—perhaps my last, who knows?—and I’ll review everything I’ve studied in the depths of these seas that I’ve crossed so often, and you can be my fellow student. Starting this very day, you’ll enter a new element, you’ll see what no human being has ever seen before—since my men and I no longer count—and thanks to me, you’re going to learn the ultimate secrets of our planet.”

I can’t deny it; the commander’s words had a tremendous effect on me. He had caught me on my weak side, and I momentarily forgot that not even this sublime experience was worth the loss of my freedom. Besides, I counted on the future to resolve this important question. So I was content to reply:

“Sir, even though you’ve cut yourself off from humanity, I can see that you haven’t disowned all human feeling. We’re castaways whom you’ve charitably taken aboard, we’ll never forget that. Speaking for myself, I don’t rule out that the interests of science could override even the need for freedom, which promises me that, in exchange, our encounter will provide great rewards.”

I thought the commander would offer me his hand, to seal our agreement. He did nothing of the sort. I regretted that.

“One last question,” I said, just as this inexplicable being seemed ready to withdraw.

“Ask it, professor.”

“By what name am I to call you?”

“Sir,” the commander replied, “to you, I’m simply Captain Nemo; to me, you and your companions are simply passengers on the Nautilus.”

Comments

  1. TurtleReader Identiconcomment_author_IP, $comment->comment_author); }else{echo $gravatar_link;}}*/ ?>

    TurtleReader wrote:

    Å’dipus regarded the Sphinx

    This is Oedipus (of Oedipus complex fame) who met a Sphinx that killed anyone who did not know the answer to the riddle:

    Which creature in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?

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