CHAPTER 10: The Man of the Waters
IT WAS THE ship's commander who had just spoken.
At these words Ned Land stood up quickly. Nearly strangled,
the steward staggered out at a signal from his superior;
but such was the commander's authority aboard his vessel,
not one gesture gave away the resentment that this man must have
felt toward the Canadian. In silence we waited for the outcome
of this scene; Conseil, in spite of himself, seemed almost fascinated,
I was stunned.
Arms crossed, leaning against a corner of the table, the commander
studied us with great care. Was he reluctant to speak further?
Did he regret those words he had just pronounced in French? You would
have thought so.
After a few moments of silence, which none of us would have
dreamed of interrupting:
"Gentlemen," he said in a calm, penetrating voice,
"I speak French, English, German, and Latin with equal fluency.
Hence I could have answered you as early as our initial interview,
but first I wanted to make your acquaintance and then think things over.
Your four versions of the same narrative, perfectly consistent by
and large, established your personal identities for me. I now know
that sheer chance has placed in my presence Professor Pierre Aronnax,
specialist in natural history at the Paris Museum and entrusted with
a scientific mission abroad, his manservant Conseil, and Ned Land,
a harpooner of Canadian origin aboard the Abraham Lincoln,
a frigate in the national navy of the United States of America."
I bowed in agreement. The commander hadn't put a question to me.
So no answer was called for. This man expressed himself with perfect
ease and without a trace of an accent. His phrasing was clear,
his words well chosen, his facility in elocution remarkable.
And yet, to me, he didn't have "the feel" of a fellow countryman.
He went on with the conversation as follows:
"No doubt, sir, you've felt that I waited rather too long before
paying you this second visit. After discovering your identities,
I wanted to weigh carefully what policy to pursue toward you.
I had great difficulty deciding. Some extremely inconvenient
circumstances have brought you into the presence of a man who
has cut himself off from humanity. Your coming has disrupted
my whole existence."