Vengeance is mine, saith the Captain
with Scott E. Tarbet, author of “Nautilus Redux”
Today, I walked for miles, treasure hunting. I was rewarded when I reached the house of a Mr. Ned Land, whose riches are in his own life story: for his life intersects with the with the lives of both Captain Nemo and Professor Arronax. I have waited long weeks to talk to Mr. Land, but every journalist wants to talk to him. They want to talk about the Nautilus and Nemo. I thought about that but . . . . No, that would have been too obvious.
I came to see Ned Land, to ask him about Captain Ahab.
Mr. Land does not like reporters, so I was careful to approach him as a friend, not as a cutthroat who would kill for a story. I prepared my questions carefully, but it was a daunting task. Sitting across from me in his own tea room, serving me crackers and cheese, was the closest living connection to the Nautilus. This was one of the men who traveled the world under the seas, in the first known submarine. I could spend weeks just completing a single interview, but for today, I focused on only two of the giant characters in his past.
It happened that Mr. Land saw the last days of a one-legged sea captain that stalked a great white giant. Yes, Ned Land met Captain Ahab himself, years after the sinking of the Pequod, and yes he was still haunted by the monstrous Moby Dick! Not many people know the story of their final days – I mean, the real story, not the one that is so often retold. Mr. Land knows. He met both the man and the monster, just as they locked together in the titanic clash that changed him forever.
Here is the transcript of my interview with him.
Question: I don’t mean to harass you about Captain Nemo. I know what you think of journalists who do that. All I want to ask is this: What did you think of him when the two of you met?
Ned Land: Professor Aronnax has laid out how we met—like him and Conseil I was thrown overboard when the USS Abraham Lincoln struck the Nautilus. I fell directly onto the back of the great iron beast, but the Professor and Conseil paddled around in the water like a couple of spaniels for hours before they fetched up against the side and I pulled them aboard.
As to meeting the man himself, I don’t mind telling you at first I thought of nothing else but how to kill Nemo and escape. It’s pretty plain he saw that in my eyes, and recognized in me a fellow man of the sea. I figure that’s why he kept the three of us away from the more important workings of the ship: he didn’t want me to understand them and start to think there was any way I could take over. He was a prudent man, and as a prudent man he had to beware of piracy. And he was right: that’s exactly what I would have done if he’d given me half a chance.
Question: Piracy? Do you mean to say that you have committed acts of piracy?
Now, I’m no sea lawyer, but I don’t think if you pirate a pirate, you’re a pirate. Nemo placed himself outside the law. If I had gotten half a chance in those early days, I’d have taken that ship away from him. But he made very sure I had no chance. If I hadn’t been there, he probably would have given the Professor and Conseil the run of the ship. But he was on his guard because he knew I was a man of the sea.
Question: What was your experience at sea before the Nautilus?
Ned Land: I don’t like to brag, but they say it’s not bragging if you have actually done it, right? When I met the Nautilus I had been at sea for more than two decades, mostly in the whaling fleet. I was the top harpooner in the world. That’s why Captain Farragut, when he set out on his mission to find what they all thought at the time was a giant narwhal, asked for me. I wasn’t in the U.S. Navy, of course, being a civilian. And Canadian, don’t forget. So they paid me a pretty penny—nearly twice what I’d have gotten on a regular whaling voyage. Of course there was no percentage of the rendered catch, but they never intended to bring that narwhal back to port.
Question: Since you were around both before and after the invention of the submersible, I imagine that you have seen them change the world. Can you give me your perspective on that?
Ned Land: The Nautilus has given shipwrights the world over all sorts of ideas. All sorts of bad ideas, if you ask me. Waging war from beneath the sea is downright uncivilized—sneaking up on innocent civilian shipping, sinking and killing at will. Captain Nemo, when it comes right down to it, just wanted to be left alone. After I knew him for a while I came to know that the horrors in his past justified his retreat from the “civilized” world.
But the Great Powers are all scheming how to get their own submersible boats, and bigger than the others. It has set off a race to arms—an arms race, if you like. There’s no telling how far it will go. I imagine, years from now, they will figure out how to fire rockets from them. Big ones, that will flatten cities.
Question: I am claustrophobic myself, so I admire your determination to stay aboard the Nautilus. Except for the incident with the white whale, what was the worst thing that happened to you on board?
Ned Land: The worst was the isolation, the not knowing what was going to happen to us. Don’t forget that Nemo held us in the dark for days before he ever came and talked to us. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, because while he had us locked up he was deciding whether to let us live. I’m afraid if I had been in his shoes I’d have tossed us overboard and had done with it. So hindsight tells me to be glad he was thoughtful for those days, and didn’t kill us.
Question: What did you know of Captain Ahab before you met him on your fishing expedition?
Oh, I knew all about him! Ahab was famous as all get out in the whaling fleet, of course. Everybody had read Mr. Melville’s book about him. Every ship in the fleet had a copy. I knew the man was mad as a hatter. He turned the pursuit of a dumb beast into his personal crusade against Nature. And God. Or however you want to describe it. And it cost his entire crew—except himself and Ishmael—their lives. Ahab should have known, as I have learned in my many years at sea, that Nature is far bigger, holds far more terrifying wonders, than the mind of man can grasp. A man can stand on the bowsprit, as Ahab did on the Nautilus in the rest of the tale your Mr. Tarbet wrote down, and rage against God and His handiwork. But obliteration is the inevitable final outcome.
Question: What do you think that Ahab had to endure to survive on the island all of those years?
Ned Land: I think he was a crafty devil from the start. His encampment was downright modern, compared with the native villages on those same islands.
Ned Land: No, I think the biggest thing he had to endure was the sight of that pod of sperm whales that breeds right around Obelisk Island. Especially when Moby Dick was the bull of that pod, poor Ahab had to endure the sight of him, year after year, just off shore, so close he could almost touch him—so close he could almost get a harpoon into him. It would have driven a sane man mad, never mind what it had to have done to a man already mad.
Question: You said Ahab was a “crafty devil.” Can you describe some of the “crafty” things he did to modernize his encampment?
You can start with his lookout rig. His use of pulley systems was a sure sign of a modern man of the sea, and the sign of a quick mind to boot. How that one-legged man managed to get that pulley system up in that tree in the first place is a wonderment.
And his “cabin” was outfitted in a similar way. He had created a rainwater catch system that routed a flow of water through his quarters any time he felt like it. And he had made pulley-run louvers on the windows to direct the cool breezes in and drive the insects right on through. It was a marvel.
Those are just a few of the things that he did in that encampment that I would have liked to have asked him about, if we had more time en route and things hadn’t gone sour for him so quickly after we got him aboard.
Question: Did Ahab remind you of Nemo sometimes?
Ned Land: You bet! Both men were brilliant and single minded. Both were complete masters of their vessels and their crews. Both had objectives that they were willing to give their lives to fulfill.
Question: When he came on board the Nautilus, Captain Ahab wore an officer’s uniform. You say that he put it on, and was immediately at home. I wonder, did his personality change at all in those first few hours aboard the Nautilus?
Ned Land: It was like he was back in his own element. Don’t forget, he spend most of his first fifty years at sea, and had been marooned on land ever since. He went from being a ragged old castaway to an old man you might see in an old seamen’s home anywhere around the world. With this difference: the light of madness that was in him never went out. I believe he somehow always knew it was his destiny to confront Moby Dick. He couldn’t leave this mortal frame without it.
Question: Did you ever detect any signs of remorse in Ahab? I mean, he survived, while the rest of his crew went down with the Pequod.
Ned Land: Remorse? Ahab? No. None. Ever. Rage? Yes, plenty. I don’t think it ever entered Ahab’s head to feel personal responsibility for what happened to the crew of the Pequod, any more than a mayor would feel guilty if a tsunami swept away his city. I don’t believe he ever regarded the whale as anything less—or more—than an overpoweringly malignant manifestation of the heartless inevitability of nature.
Question: What went through your mind, from start to finish, when you saw the white whale close to you for the first time?
Ned Land: I’m not laughing because the question is funny. I’m laughing because I’m imagining my own face when I saw that monster. All those years I had taken the stories about Moby Dick with a huge grain of salt, being a seaman myself, and knowing how stretched the facts get in whaling stories. But here was the reality, bigger than anyone had ever rightly been able to put into words.
You being a lady and all, I won’t say the words that not only went through my mind when I saw the leviathan, but that actually came out of my mouth. I didn’t write them down, and the Professor didn’t either, in his book. And that’s probably a good thing. Because, in a profession where most men are adept at the use of salty language, I’ve been at it a long time, and have built up quite a store. I’m told some of my expressions are downright colorful.
My first sight of him, when he exploded from beneath his young competitors, hurling one into the air and breaking the back of another, was volcanic, meteoric. So unexpected, such a thunderous intrusion into a marvelous scene of nature in action, that for a few seconds I was struck entirely dumb.
But after those first few seconds, those first few salty words just had to be said. Here was a true force of nature, the very leviathan from the Biblical deep. Here was a whale twice the tonnage of any I had ever seen.
The next thought: as many whales as I have confronted, as many shafts as I have embedded into their great flanks, it never crossed my mind to want to go up against that monster. He was just too far above any capability of slaughter and capture than I could imagine. Even today, years later, I cannot imagine what I, a mere mortal, could possibly do to contend with something that monumental.
Here was Nature. Here was the Universe. Here, unless we were lucky beyond measure, was our doom. The beast could have carried the Nautilus and all her crew straight to the bottom, as he had with the Pequod. And the world would never have known. All that went through my mind in a flash. And I wake up sweating still, thinking of it.
Question: All right, I promised I wouldn’t dwell on Captain Nemo, but one last question about him: I know you were with him in the days that followed the whale incident, and even in the time he talked to Ahab’s widow. What was the professor’s real opinion about Ahab, and his last battle?
Ned Land: The Professor was a good, kind, Christian gentleman, for all his education and worldly airs. I think he had great pity for Ahab’s madness. It’s a terrible thing, the Professor remarked more than once, to be so absorbed by one thing outside yourself, be that thing a man, a woman, a beast, art, Nature, or even God Himself, that your reason is washed away. But it’s grand, too. And no one who has experienced that ecstasy can ever be the same.
Scott E. Tarbet writes what fires his imagination: the broad umbrella of speculative fiction. He is especially intrigued by how human beings react to and interact with science, technology, and other magics. Educator, chef, professional opera singer, and Steampunk craftsman, with a long list of short stories and other works to his credit, he makes his home in the splendor of the Utah mountains with his wife and best friend, Jewels.
Tarbet’s short stories with The X include “Tombstone” in Shades and Shadows: a Paranormal Anthology (2013), “Ganesh” in Terra Mechanica, “Year of No Foals” inThe Toll of Another Bell: A Fantasy Anthology (2015), and “Nautilus Redux” inMechanized Masterpieces 2. His full-length novel, A Midsummer Night’s Steampunk(2013), receives excellent reviews. Tarbet’s next endeavor, Dragon Moon, a speculative fiction thriller, will be published by The X in 2015.