Hollowed from tree trunks, these dugouts were long, narrow, and well designed for speed, keeping their balance by means of two bamboo poles that floated on the surface of the water. They were maneuvered by skillful, half-naked paddlers, and I viewed their advance with definite alarm.
It was obvious these Papuans had already entered into relations with Europeans and knew their ships. But this long, iron cylinder lying in the bay, with no masts or funnels--what were they to make of it? Nothing good, because at first they kept it at a respectful distance. However, seeing that it stayed motionless, they regained confidence little by little and tried to become more familiar with it. Now then, it was precisely this familiarity that we needed to prevent. Since our weapons made no sound when they went off, they would have only a moderate effect on these islanders, who reputedly respect nothing but noisy mechanisms. Without thunderclaps, lightning bolts would be much less frightening, although the danger lies in the flash, not the noise.
Just then the dugout canoes drew nearer to the Nautilus, and a cloud of arrows burst over us.
"Fire and brimstone, it's hailing!" Conseil said. "And poisoned hail perhaps!"
"We've got to alert Captain Nemo," I said, reentering the hatch.
I went below to the lounge. I found no one there. I ventured a knock at the door opening into the captain's stateroom.
The word "Enter!" answered me. I did so and found Captain Nemo busy with calculations in which there was no shortage of X and other algebraic signs.
"Am I disturbing you?" I said out of politeness.
"Correct, Professor Aronnax," the captain answered me. "But I imagine you have pressing reasons for looking me up?"
"Very pressing. Native dugout canoes are surrounding us, and in a few minutes we're sure to be assaulted by several hundred savages."
"Ah!" Captain Nemo put in serenely. "They've come in their dugouts?"
"Well, sir, closing the hatches should do the trick."
"Precisely, and that's what I came to tell you--"
"Nothing easier," Captain Nemo said.
And he pressed an electric button, transmitting an order to the crew's quarters.
"There, sir, all under control!" he told me after a few moments. "The skiff is in place and the hatches are closed. I don't imagine you're worried that these gentlemen will stave in walls that shells from your frigate couldn't breach?"
"No, captain, but one danger still remains."
"What's that, sir?"
"Tomorrow at about this time, we'll need to reopen the hatches to renew the Nautilus's air."
"No argument, sir, since our craft breathes in the manner favored by cetaceans."
"But if these Papuans are occupying the platform at that moment, I don't see how you can prevent them from entering."
"Then, sir, you assume they'll board the ship?"
"I'm certain of it."
"Well, sir, let them come aboard. I see no reason to prevent them. Deep down they're just poor devils, these Papuans, and I don't want my visit to Gueboroa Island to cost the life of a single one of these unfortunate people!"
On this note I was about to withdraw; but Captain Nemo detained me and invited me to take a seat next to him. He questioned me with interest on our excursions ashore and on our hunting, but seemed not to understand the Canadian's passionate craving for red meat. Then our conversation skimmed various subjects, and without being more forthcoming, Captain Nemo proved more affable.
Among other things, we came to talk of the Nautilus's circumstances, aground in the same strait where Captain Dumont d'Urville had nearly miscarried. Then, pertinent to this:
"He was one of your great seamen," the captain told me, "one of your shrewdest navigators, that d'Urville! He was the Frenchman's Captain Cook. A man wise but unlucky! Braving the ice banks of the South Pole, the coral of Oceania, the cannibals of the Pacific, only to perish wretchedly in a train wreck! If that energetic man was able to think about his life in its last seconds, imagine what his final thoughts must have been!"
As he spoke, Captain Nemo seemed deeply moved, an emotion I felt was to his credit.