Breakfast With Nemo
"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."
[Editor's note: In Latin, nemo means "no one." The mysterious Captain Nemo has chosen to cut off all ties to human society above the waves and abandon his former identity. The Nautilus is named after a beautiful, spiral-shelled mollusk that controls its ascent and descent by the amount of gas it retains in its shell. Before Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues, 19th-century inventor Robert Fulton used this name for his rudimentary experimental submarine.]
Captain Nemo called out. A steward appeared. The captain gave him his orders in that strange language I couldn't even identify [a language Nemo used the first time Aronnax saw him]. Then, turning to the Canadian and Conseil [Aronnax's companions]:
"A meal is waiting for you in your cabin," he told them. "Kindly follow this man."
"That's an offer I can't refuse!" the harpooner replied.
After being confined for over thirty hours, he and Conseil were finally out of this cell.
"And now, Professor Aronnax, our own breakfast is ready. Allow me to lead the way."
"Yours to command, Captain."
I followed Captain Nemo, and as soon as I passed through the doorway, I went down a kind of electrically lit passageway that resembled a gangway on a ship. After a stretch of some ten meters, a second door opened before me.
I then entered a dining room, decorated and furnished in austere good taste. Inlaid with ebony trim, tall oaken sideboards stood at both ends of this room, and sparkling on their shelves were staggered rows of earthenware, porcelain, and glass of incalculable value. There silver-plated dinnerware gleamed under rays pouring from light fixtures in the ceiling, whose glare was softened and tempered by delicately painted designs.
In the center of this room stood a table, richly spread. Captain Nemo indicated the place I was to occupy.
"Be seated," he told me, "and eat like the famished man you must be."
Our breakfast consisted of several dishes whose contents were all supplied by the sea, and some foods whose nature and derivation were unknown to me. They were good, I admit, but with a peculiar flavor to which I would soon grow accustomed. These various food items seemed to be rich in phosphorous, and I thought that they, too, must have been of marine origin.
Captain Nemo stared at me. I had asked him nothing, but he read my thoughts, and on his own he answered the questions I was itching to address him.
"Most of these dishes are new to you," he told me. "But you can consume them without fear. They're healthy and nourishing. I renounced terrestrial foods long ago, and I'm none the worse for it. My crew are strong and full of energy, and they eat what I eat."
"So," I said, "all these foods are products of the sea?"
"Yes, professor, the sea supplies all my needs. Sometimes I cast my nets in our wake, and I pull them up ready to burst. Sometimes I go hunting right in the midst of this element that has long seemed so far out of man's reach, and I corner the game that dwells in my underwater forests. Like the flocks of old Proteus, King Neptune's shepherd, my herds graze without fear on the ocean's immense prairies. There I own vast properties that I harvest myself, and which are forever sown by the hand of the Creator of All Things."
I stared at Captain Nemo in definite astonishment, and I answered him:
"Sir, I understand perfectly how your nets can furnish excellent fish for your table; I understand less how you can chase aquatic game in your underwater forests; but how a piece of red meat, no matter how small, can figure in your menu, that I don't understand at all."
"Nor I, sir," Captain Nemo answered me. "I never touch the flesh of land animals."
"Nevertheless, this . . . ," I went on, pointing to a dish where some slices of loin were still left.
"What you believe to be red meat, professor, is nothing other than loin of sea turtle. Similarly, here are some dolphin livers you might mistake for stewed pork. My chef is a skillful food processor who excels at pickling and preserving these various exhibits from the ocean. Feel free to sample all of these foods. Here are some preserves of sea cucumber that a Malaysian would declare to be unrivaled in the entire world, here's cream from milk furnished by the udders of cetaceans, and sugar from the huge fucus plants in the North Sea; and finally, allow me to offer you some marmalade of sea anemone, equal to that from the tastiest fruits."
So I sampled away, more as a curiosity seeker than an epicure, while Captain Nemo delighted me with his incredible anecdotes.
"But this sea, Professor Aronnax," he told me, "this prodigious, inexhaustible wet nurse of a sea not only feeds me, she dresses me as well. That fabric covering you was woven from the masses of filaments that anchor certain seashells; as the ancients were wont to do, it was dyed with purple ink from the murex snail and shaded with violet tints that I extract from a marine slug, the Mediterranean sea hare. The perfumes you'll find on the washstand in your cabin were produced from the oozings of marine plants. Your mattress was made from the ocean's softest eelgrass. Your quill pen will be whalebone, your ink a juice secreted by cuttlefish or squid. Everything comes to me from the sea, just as someday everything will return to it!"
"You love the sea, Captain."
"Yes, I love it! The sea is the be all and end all! It covers seven-tenths of the planet earth. Its breath is clean and healthy. It's an immense wilderness where a man is never lonely, because he feels life astir on every side. The sea is simply the vehicle for a prodigious, unearthly mode of existence; it's simply movement and love; it's living infinity, as one of your poets put it. And in essence, professor, nature is here made manifest by all three of her kingdoms, mineral, vegetable, and animal. The last of these is amply represented by the four zoophyte groups, three classes of articulates, five classes of mollusks, and three vertebrate classes: mammals, reptiles, and those countless legions of fish, an infinite order of animals totaling more than 13,000 species, of which only one-tenth belong to fresh water. The sea is a vast pool of nature. Our globe began with the sea, so to speak, and who can say we won't end with it! Here lies supreme tranquility. The sea doesn't belong to tyrants. On its surface they can still exercise their iniquitous claims, battle each other, devour each other, haul every earthly horror. But thirty feet below sea level, their dominion ceases, their influence fades, their power vanishes! Ah, sir, live! Live in the heart of the seas! Here alone lies independence! Here I recognize no superiors! Here I'm free!"
Captain Nemo suddenly fell silent in the midst of this enthusiastic outpouring. Had he let himself get carried away, past the bounds of his habitual reserve? Had he said too much? For a few moments he strolled up and down, all aquiver. Then his nerves grew calmer, his facial features recovered their usual icy composure, and turning to me:
"Now, professor," he said, "if you'd like to inspect the Nautilus, I'm yours to command."
Unlike fantasy writer H.G. Wells, Jules Verne sought to ground his stories in the science and technology of his day. Wells himself notes, "his work dealt almost always with actual possibilities of invention and discovery, and he made some remarkable forecasts."
Nemo and his passengers view the sea's wonders through a thick pane of crystal glass. Acrylic, the material of choice for submarine windows today, was not developed until the late 1920s.
After their breakfast, Nemo shares a blueprint of his 230-foot-long sub: "Here, Professor Aronnax, are the different dimensions of this boat now transporting you. It's a very long cylinder with conical ends. It noticeably takes the shape of a cigar, a shape already adopted in London for several projects of the same kind." Experimental submarines indeed pre-dated Verne's novel, although none had approached the capabilities of the Nautilus.
Among other instruments, Nemo shows Aronnax a pressure gauge like those used today to measure a sub's depth. To power the Nautilus, Nemo uses electricity stored in sodium batteries made from seawater.
Nemo draws on technology both ancient and futuristic. Here, standing behind the pilothouse of the sub, he uses a sextant for navigation. The Nautilus has to surface periodically for air, which is stored under pressure for later use.
© | Created October 2006
Support provided by
For new content
visit the redesigned