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 Oedipus 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?"
"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?"
"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.