Soon the Canadian announced that the craft was a big battleship, a double-decker ironclad complete with ram. Dark, dense smoke burst from its two funnels. Its furled sails merged with the lines of its yardarms. The gaff of its fore-and-aft sail flew no flag. Its distance still kept us from distinguishing the colors of its pennant, which was fluttering like a thin ribbon.
It was coming on fast. If Captain Nemo let it approach, a chance for salvation might be available to us.
“Sir,” Ned Land told me, “if that boat gets within a mile of us, I’m jumping overboard, and I suggest you follow suit.”
I didn’t reply to the Canadian’s proposition but kept watching the ship, which was looming larger on the horizon. Whether it was English, French, American, or Russian, it would surely welcome us aboard if we could just get to it.
“Master may recall,” Conseil then said, “that we have some experience with swimming. He can rely on me to tow him to that vessel, if he’s agreeable to going with our friend Ned.”
Before I could reply, white smoke streamed from the battleship’s bow. Then, a few seconds later, the waters splashed astern of the Nautilus, disturbed by the fall of a heavy object. Soon after, an explosion struck my ears.
“What’s this? They’re firing at us!” I exclaimed.
“Good lads!” the Canadian muttered.
“That means they don’t see us as castaways clinging to some wreckage!”
“With all due respect to master—gracious!” Conseil put in, shaking off the water that had sprayed over him from another shell. “With all due respect to master, they’ve discovered the narwhale and they’re cannonading the same.”
“But it must be clear to them,” I exclaimed, “that they’re dealing with human beings.”
“Maybe that’s why!” Ned Land replied, staring hard at me.
The full truth dawned on me. Undoubtedly people now knew where they stood on the existence of this so-called monster. Undoubtedly the latter’s encounter with the Abraham Lincoln, when the Canadian hit it with his harpoon, had led Commander Farragut to recognize the narwhale as actually an underwater boat, more dangerous than any unearthly cetacean!
Yes, this had to be the case, and undoubtedly they were now chasing this dreadful engine of destruction on every sea!
Dreadful indeed, if, as we could assume, Captain Nemo had been using the Nautilus in works of vengeance! That night in the middle of the Indian Ocean, when he imprisoned us in the cell, hadn’t he attacked some ship? That man now buried in the coral cemetery, wasn’t he the victim of some collision caused by the Nautilus? Yes, I repeat: this had to be the case. One part of Captain Nemo’s secret life had been unveiled. And now, even though his identity was still unknown, at least the nations allied against him knew they were no longer hunting some fairy-tale monster, but a man who had sworn an implacable hate toward them!
This whole fearsome sequence of events appeared in my mind’s eye. Instead of encountering friends on this approaching ship, we would find only pitiless enemies.
Meanwhile shells fell around us in increasing numbers. Some, meeting the liquid surface, would ricochet and vanish into the sea at considerable distances. But none of them reached the Nautilus.
By then the ironclad was no more than three miles off. Despite its violent cannonade, Captain Nemo hadn’t appeared on the platform. And yet if one of those conical shells had scored a routine hit on the Nautilus’s hull, it could have been fatal to him.
The Canadian then told me:
“Sir, we’ve got to do everything we can to get out of this jam! Let’s signal them! Damnation! Maybe they’ll realize we’re decent people!”
Ned Land pulled out his handkerchief to wave it in the air. But he had barely unfolded it when he was felled by an iron fist, and despite his great strength, he tumbled to the deck.
“Scum!” the captain shouted. “Do you want to be nailed to the Nautilus’s spur before it charges that ship?”
Dreadful to hear, Captain Nemo was even more dreadful to see. His face was pale from some spasm of his heart, which must have stopped beating for an instant. His pupils were hideously contracted. His voice was no longer speaking, it was bellowing. Bending from the waist, he shook the Canadian by the shoulders.
Then, dropping Ned and turning to the battleship, whose shells were showering around him:
“O ship of an accursed nation, you know who I am!” he shouted in his powerful voice. “And I don’t need your colors to recognize you! Look! I’ll show you mine!”
And in the bow of the platform, Captain Nemo unfurled a black flag, like the one he had left planted at the South Pole.
Just then a shell hit the Nautilus’s hull obliquely, failed to breach it, ricocheted near the captain, and vanished into the sea.
Captain Nemo shrugged his shoulders. Then, addressing me:
“Go below!” he told me in a curt tone. “You and your companions, go below!”
“Sir,” I exclaimed, “are you going to attack this ship?”
“Sir, I’m going to sink it.”
“I will,” Captain Nemo replied icily. “You’re ill-advised to pass judgment on me, sir. Fate has shown you what you weren’t meant to see. The attack has come. Our reply will be dreadful. Get back inside!”
“From what country is that ship?”
“You don’t know? Fine, so much the better! At least its nationality will remain a secret to you. Go below!”
The Canadian, Conseil, and I could only obey. Some fifteen of the Nautilus’s seamen surrounded their captain and stared with a feeling of implacable hate at the ship bearing down on them. You could feel the same spirit of vengeance enkindling their every soul.
I went below just as another projectile scraped the Nautilus’s hull, and I heard the captain exclaim:
“Shoot, you demented vessel! Shower your futile shells! You won’t escape the Nautilus’s spur! But this isn’t the place where you’ll perish! I don’t want your wreckage mingling with that of the Avenger!”
I repaired to my stateroom. The captain and his chief officer stayed on the platform. The propeller was set in motion. The Nautilus swiftly retreated, putting us outside the range of the vessel’s shells. But the chase continued, and Captain Nemo was content to keep his distance.
Near four o’clock in the afternoon, unable to control the impatience and uneasiness devouring me, I went back to the central companionway. The hatch was open. I ventured onto the platform. The captain was still strolling there, his steps agitated. He stared at the ship, which stayed to his leeward five or six miles off. He was circling it like a wild beast, drawing it eastward, letting it chase after him. Yet he didn’t attack. Was he, perhaps, still undecided?
I tried to intervene one last time. But I had barely queried Captain Nemo when the latter silenced me:
“I’m the law, I’m the tribunal! I’m the oppressed, and there are my oppressors! Thanks to them, I’ve witnessed the destruction of everything I loved, cherished, and venerated—homeland, wife, children, father, and mother! There lies everything I hate! Not another word out of you!”
I took a last look at the battleship, which was putting on steam. Then I rejoined Ned and Conseil.