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We'll Haul for Better Weather

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“I’m not just going to go sit around while the professor works his way through Nemo’s entire library,” Ned grumbled from where he slouched against the wall of our shared cabin. “There have got to be better things to do on this forsaken ship.”

I set aside the notes I had been ordering for the professor—annotations on newfound inaccuracies to be corrected in a second edition of his book. “Well, we can’t go up on the platform. We’re over 20 meters underwater. And if you don’t want to go to the library, I would imagine that you’re also not interested in the viewing windows.”

Ned scowled. “I’m sick of just looking at all those fish and not being able to do anything about them. Action, that’s what I need.”

“Surely you’ve had dull moments on ships before when the weather wasn’t in your favor or the fishing was bad. What did you do then?”

“Played cards with the crew, mostly. But Nemo’s got his hidden away somewhere, and we couldn’t understand what they were saying anyway. They don’t seem an inviting crowd.”

“Say, where do you think that the crew are?” I asked, realizing for the first time that I barely even had a grasp of how many men were aboard the Nautilus. “The captain has his own quarters next to Professor Aronnax’s, and they’re never in the library or the dining room or the saloon. I barely see them in the hallway. Where do they live?”

“They must have their own quarters somewhere,” Ned said dismissively.

“There’s our project then,” I said, rising. “It’s a mystery enough to fill the afternoon.”

Ned grumbled but followed me out into the hall. We started towards the library, but as we approached, we could hear the low tones of conversation. The first voice was Professor Aronnax’s—after a moment, Captain Nemo spoke. Ned placed a hand on my arm and pulled me back in the other direction and I had to agree that I was not interested in explaining to the captain why we were creeping about the Nautilus as though we were spying. I thought for a moment of making some excuse so that the professor could accompany us, but I decided against it. He was probably more interested in his current conversation than in fraternizing with the crew.

We found the crew’s quarters in the end; we went up and down the main staircase a handful of times before Ned paused halfway and gestured me to be silent. There, through a door whose seam was so well hidden that neither of us had noticed it, came the strains of music.

It was curious to hear a melody aboard the Nautilus that did not originate from Captain Nemo’s organ. I had come to associate that deep, proud tone with the ship herself—so much so that I had to spend a long moment convincing myself that I was indeed hearing a fiddle. Ned, meanwhile, did not pause, but felt along the edge of the door until it sprang open.

The fiddle music came to an abrupt halt as we found ourselves standing in the midst of a group that must have been comprised of most of the Nautilus’s crew, with a few exceptions. The captain’s second in command was notably absent, perhaps at the helm. The faces before us must have represented every continent and a fair distribution of the world’s nations. The fiddler was a pale, red-haired man, his instrument now held loosely at his side, and the man to his right might have been Turkish, and so on around the circle until you’d been around the world. Every man was dressed in the same soft sea-spun clothing with which we had been provided upon our arrival. And every one of them, from where they sat on chairs and on the floor of the small room we had discovered, was staring at us with various proportions of surprise and anger evident in their expressions.

“Pardon me,” I began automatically, but Ned cut in before I could continue.

“All right, I know one of you gentlemen must speak French. Let’s hear it. Isn’t there a deck of cards anywhere on this ship?”

No one responded, but some cast glances at one lanky brown-haired man as though waiting for his cue. He spoke a few quiet words in the mysterious language Captain Nemo used to communicate with the crew.

“Aha!” Ned cried. “You’re translating! You understand me.”

“You should not be here,” the man said after a moment in deliberate, German-accented French. “The captain would prefer that you keep to your quarters.”

I overcame my shock at being addressed in a language I understood after so long enough to reply. “We’ve been on board the Nautilus for months now, and we are not men of science like the captain and the professor. We’re not here to spy, or to intrude. We simply—” I looked somewhat helplessly at Ned. It had not occurred to me what our goal was once we had actually found the crew.

Ned switched to German and spoke to the man for what must have been most of a minute, but I only had the vocabulary to catch words here and there, most of them conjunctions. To my relief, he did not seem to be raging at the other man, but rather narrating or explaining something. I guessed that it was the series of events which had found us aboard the Nautilus. He mentioned Professor Aronnax a handful of times and I understood die erforschungla recherche.

When he had finished, the francophone crewmember again translated for his compatriots. One or two seemed interested, a few more suspicious—several of them merely shrugged. I failed to follow what seemed to be a brief argument among them. “Very well,” our new friend said at last. “You may pass the time here for the moment. But in the future, you will wait to be invited.”

Now that we had been accepted, I was not sure, after all, whether I wished to remain among these strange and possibly volatile men, but Ned nodded graciously and sat down on the floor. I followed suit. The fiddler watched us for a moment with a look that I knew I had seen on Ned’s face before when he had spotted an especially hearty fish within harpoon’s reach. But then he lifted his instrument and began a tune, and we had the singular experience of hearing the crew sing.

The song was in English, of which I knew even less than the German language, and the fiddler had an accent which I did not recognize. The gathered men listened as he sang what must have been the first verse—all I could catch was something like laisser, which was repeated several times throughout the song[1]—and then joined in for the chorus. It was clear by the difference between their diction and the fiddler’s that they knew no more of the language than I did and were simply repeating sounds and syllables, but the harmonies were marvelous. They were similar to the deep, echoing sounds of sailors singing to keep time at their various shipboard tasks, but this song was too lilting and quick to be for that purpose. This song was for dancing.

Although that was the first time Ned and I heard the crew sing, it was not the last. Occasionally at first and then with increasing frequency we were invited to join the crew when the captain was busy elsewhere on the Nautilus. I even began to pick up enough of the sounds to follow along, although the meanings of the lyrics in English, German, and half a dozen other languages continued to escape me. We never learned any of their names or histories, for we knew better than to ask. The professor’s useless efforts to learn more of Captain Nemo’s past had demonstrated the futility of that line of conversation. In fact, there was little conversation of any kind—the translations would have taken three times as long as whatever you wanted to say. Instead, we sat together and sang meaningless sounds, sometimes smiling and laughing when we stumbled over the lyrics, sometimes keeping our voices low when the captain was in a temper.

I suggested inviting the professor, once. Ned convinced me that he would have no interest in joining us.


 

The cacophonous striking of our picks against the ice sent vibrations through our feet and up our weary legs. This was my third shift out trying to excavate the Nautilus from her icy prison, which meant that twelve hours should have elapsed since the ship came to rest within the berg—but the professor and I had begun working opposite cycles to Captain Nemo and Ned Land, and now I found myself swinging alongside the harpooner, so along the way someone’s oxygen-deprived brain must have made an error during the changing of the shifts. It was impossible to tell the hour in the constant brilliant light from the Nautilus’s electric beam.

I too was feeling the strain of moving back and forth from the depleted atmosphere of the ship and the purer air of the diving reserves. Although I do not consider myself a weak man, with the combined effects of the cold water, strenuous activity, and inconsistent supply of air, my arms had gone quite numb nearly an hour before. Ned seemed to be faring somewhat better, although he kept sliding towards me with the motion of the water we disturbed and catching his pick on mine. I wished that we could have spoken to better coordinate our motions—but then, perhaps that would have been a frivolous waste of air.

It appeared that the professor was wishing for the same powers of communication. When I looked over to my other side, I could clearly see his worried face through the glass panel of his diving helmet. He leaned on his pick and looked at the wall of ice which had slowly encroached into our little frozen cavern. Though we had not discussed it in our few hours of time on the ship, preferring instead to catch what few moments of sleep we could, I knew that we had both seen how close the ice was coming to encasing the Nautilus. Perhaps we would not have to worry about asphyxiation, after all. I wondered for a moment whether it would be easier to drown in the flooded ship once the hull had been cracked like a mollusk dropped onto a stone by a sea bird or to drown choking on our own breath in our bright, silent rooms, but I pushed the thought from my mind. There was no use dwelling on death while we still had a chance of evading it if we retained our focus.

I had no sooner reached this conclusion and resumed my digging than Captain Nemo hefted his pick onto his shoulder and began a slow circle around the site to inspect our work. He pointed one of his crew towards a natural fissure; they swung their pick straight at it and released a block of ice nearly one meter in diameter with a single blow, then nodded their thanks to the captain. When he had passed behind myself and Ned, the professor apprehended him by placing a hand on his arm and gesturing towards the threatening wall of ice.

The captain nodded and held up his free hand in a gesture which directed the professor to follow him back to the Nautilus. I watched my master pick his way back to the ship behind the captain’s taller figure. I turned to Ned, almost forgetting that we could not communicate, and saw that he had also been watching the exchange. Ned shook his head, made a dismissive gesture in the direction of Captain Nemo, pointed with some urgency to the ice forming on the other side of the Nautilus, shrugged, and resumed his work.

I laughed, alone in the silence of my helmet, and did the same. I thought that I understood the Canadian’s disdain for the captain better than Professor Aronnax did. To Ned, being a man of the sea meant danger, adventure, challenge—the thrill of harpooning a difficult target at the risk of one’s own life. The Nautilus brought adventure, yes, but it brought adventure viewed from behind thick glass and analyzed with the help of endless books. Of course the professor found it so appealing, and of course Ned was driven out of his mind by Captain Nemo’s cool, academic authority.

My musings were interrupted by Ned’s pick catching on mine yet again. I tugged myself free and made a sharp gesture to try and express that he should move further down the crevasse. Suddenly, another gloved hand appeared in my field of view, and I followed the arm it to its source: our friend the fiddler, waving to attract my attention. He pointed at his own face and I saw that he was mouthing something.

“I can’t understand you,” I said aloud.

He repeated whatever he was mouthing—the words seemed slow, deliberate—and swung his pick to imitate digging. The third time he repeated the pantomime, I caught his meaning. He was singing! One of the songs which I had half-learned over the previous weeks was indeed one of the repetitive chanties used to keep time during rhythmic tasks. I smiled and nodded, and he pointed to Ned, swung his pick theatrically again, and resumed digging. Through the panels of his helmet I could see that he was singing.

I picked up the tune, informed by the swinging of his pick out of the corner of my vision and perhaps less inhibited than I would have been if any of us could actually have heard each other. Ned had reached understanding faster than I and he alternated his strokes with mine.

The repeating lines easy enough to remember, and I knew that there was a verse about King Louis, but my memory for the English words failed after that[2]. I hummed for a while, simply keeping time with the same meter which now kept every man working at a steady pace, but as the exhaustion in my arms grew near unbearable I began simply filling in nonsense words in French to fill the lines:

Nous n’avons pas dormi maintenant, et moi je suis très fatigué[3]

(Way haul away, we’ll haul away Joe)

Vraiment je me demande si le capitaine n'est pas français

(Way haul away, we’ll haul away Joe)

It was difficult to keep time without the benefit of hearing the rest of the men singing, but this simply urged me to consolidate my focus on the motion of my pick and the words on my tongue. Sooner than I expected, Captain Nemo reappeared to signal that it was time for the shifts to change. When I handed off my breathing apparatus back on the ship, it was to a man I knew, though we had never spoken. I nodded to him as he took his first breaths of pure, enriched air and a tightness began to bind my chest from the depleted atmosphere within the Nautilus. He nodded back.

I looked beyond into the next room, where Captain Nemo and Professor Aronnax were huddled together, muttering about boiling water.

 

[1] Conseil mishears “lassies” as “laisser,” the French verb “to let” (as in “laissez faire”). The song is “The Jolly Roving Tar” with lyrics as sung by the Irish Rovers.

[2] The song is “Haul Away Joe” as sung by Pierce Campbell.

[3] These are, as Conseil says, nonsense lyrics garbled to fit the meter of the song. “We have not slept right now, and I am very tired / Honestly I wonder if the captain is not French”