"But how were you able to build this wonderful Nautilus in secret?"
"Each part of it, Professor Aronnax, came from a different spot on the globe and reached me at a cover address. Its keel was forged by Creusot in
its propeller shaft by Pen & Co. in London, the sheet-iron plates for its hull by Laird's in
Liverpool, its propeller by Scott's in Glasgow.”
Jules Verne - 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea
The following letter is taken from the Hobson memorial collection, and is reprinted in this abridged form with the kind permission of the
York Historical Society.
Here as requested are my most recent findings relating to the redoubtable Captain Nemo, as he seems now to be known. I am saddened to report that as we had suspected, Nemo is constructing a formidable weapon of some sort. One can only presume that his sole aim is to spread chaos throughout the further reaches of the Empire.
Myself and Wilson followed Nemo to Scotland, where, after an extended stay in Glasgow – a most filthy metropolis – he travelled west, following the course of the mighty Clyde down to the towns of Greenock and Port Glasgow. The
is a dampened warren of shipyards, and Nemo seemed to have business at each and
every one of them. It was late upon the 23rd before he finally took
lodgings at Greenock. Wilson and I retired to
a nearby hostelry and thereafter took it in shifts throughout the night to
watch for any sign of his leaving – there was none.
The following day,
Wilson resolved to make
enquiries around the dockyards and coffee houses, while I myself once more
On this day – 24th May – the Captain travelled down to Gourock – a small coastal resort. I must confess after the gloom of preceding weeks, I found this trip a not unpleasant diversion. The town is littered with tearooms and bric-a-brac shops where one may purchase picture postcards of “Sunny Gourock” or tobacco tins varnished with similar questionable legends. A croquet lawn was sliding slowly into disrepair near the seafront, but I spied a number of bowling greens up upon the hill. What business you ask, could a man such as Nemo possibly have amidst such Imperial pursuits?
I watched him meet a gentleman in one of the smaller tearooms; at the moment of their meeting Nemo gave the man a small parcel which was most gratefully received. Throughout their conversation, Nemo did not eat and drank only boiled water while the other gentleman consumed almost an entire sweet trolley. I struggled to hear them over the constant chatter of what seemed to be an annual woman’s guild outing for tea.
I heard Nemo cursing the East India Company – which trades and employs locally – and some more of the anti-imperial ranting we have come to expect from him. I also heard the other man mention something about land in
Ireland. One phrase however, stood
out “Watt’s discoveries”. Previous intelligence has suggested that Watt’s
engine experiments at Wheal Crane were at least partially infiltrated by a
Frenchman lately of Nemo’s acquaintance. This was all some years ago of course,
but at the time there was certainly some feeling within the growing scientific
community that Watt was withholding certain of his discoveries for reasons
unknown. Could Nemo have uncovered Watt’s secrets?
Nemo thanked the gentleman, took possession of a small envelope and left without once glancing in my direction. The gentleman then took his leave and was most enthusiastically waved off by the ladies present. From their conversation upon his departure I would take him to be a local dignatory of questionable repute. Common company then for a man such as Nemo.
What is unusual about this particular arrangement is that the work is being undertaken in seclusion using certain materials and minerals which the men – not short on experience – have never before seen. Only those workers engaged in the commission are allowed on site and they are not permitted to discuss it with their peers. No one, save Mr Reid himself is aware of the customer. Most are of the opinion that they are working on a secret weapon to be used against the Kaiser. I am not sure where this fanciful rumour originates, but it was certainly not well received by some nearby German workers also enjoying refreshments.
Wilson was forced to buy everyone a drink in
order to calm the waters a little.
However, no amount of drink nor bribery could convince these men to describe the object in question. By its very lack of definition it seemed to me all the more worrying. I resolved therefore that Wilson and I should make a visit to the yard at a less reasonable hour.
conversations in Greenock which truly stretch
credulity. He found his way into the company of a number of seamen recently
returned from a whaling expedition. As is natural on such occasions, the
conversation turned to tall tales and fish stories. Wilson having travelled so extensively and
being such a consummate liar can easily hold his own in such situations. The Captain told a rather typical story of
buried treasure. What was most interesting about this tale however, was that it
concerned a pirate born here in the town of Greenock. You may be aware of the hubbub at
the turn of the last century at the trial of one William Kidd, a privateer who
protested that he had been raiding French ships on the orders of the crown. Naturally
the man was hanged for his crimes. The inevitable romance of such notoriety led
to any number of claims and counter claims regarding the location of Kidd’s
ill-gotten gains. A dozen treasure maps emerged for every island in the South
Seas and after the inevitable failure of some high profile expeditions, Kidd’s
gold was consigned to legend; precisely the sort of tale exchanged by ships
This particular Captain’s claims were predictably extraordinary. It seems that the first mate on his last voyage had previously served with a crew who had recovered most of Kidd’s treasure. They doubtless would have recovered the entire booty were it not for a portion of the map being missing. The mate was convinced that the remainder of the loot was on the same island, but refused to return it for fear of a recent spate of “supernatural goings on”. The skies above the island glowed green, lightning flashed from the ground up towards the clouds, ships instruments would lose north and mens hair would literally stand on end. Apparently the waters around the island were also populated with glowing sea serpents. Canny Captains and superstitious sea-dogs alike stayed well clear of this mysterious island.
A typical convenience then, buried treasure hidden on an island no one will explore. What interested Wilson most, was the Captain’s claim that Kidd’s treasure map had been passed by the man himself to a friend in New York and thence to Ireland, before finally turning up in the town of Greenock. Here, apparently, it still resides.
All this would have sounded like so much stuff and nonsense were it not for one crucial detail;
Wilson had been able to locate a local family
claiming ancestry from Kidd. Half of this family had recently emigrated to Ireland, the rest remaining in Greenock.
Wilson spoke to
the head of this family later in the day. Peterson worked in one of the Greenock yards. As soon as Wilson began to question him about Kidd, he
became most angry and distressed. It seems that an heirloom relating to the blaggard
Kidd had recently been stolen from Peterson’s house along with a number of
other small items of personal worth. Wilson
singularly failed to convince Peterson he was not involved in the theft and
thus was unable to ascertain what exactly had been stolen.
I thought of the little envelope I had seen given to Nemo. Was this a missing fragment of the map? Was Nemo financing his experiments with pirate gold? Or, was I witness to nothing more unusual than the bribing of a local official?
As evening fell, we made our way towards Port Glasgow.
had chartered a small boat to meet us by the dockside for our return journey.
We weaved our way through the clutter of yards towards a large workshed at the
centre of the East Yard. Wilson and I were both armed, feeling sure that the
workshop would be guarded. And yet the entire yard was deserted. Still, we saw
no reason to draw attention to ourselves and so we carefully crept into the
shed. And there, bold as brass, was the man himself.
“Good evening gentlemen” said Nemo “I’ve been wondering how long it would be before you formally introduced yourselves to me.”
I made some feeble protest about not knowing what he was talking about, but the Captain dismissed me out of hand.
“Nonsense,” he said “you’ve been following me for weeks. I was almost inclined to ask you to join me for tea this morning.”
His arrogance was indirect enough to be misconstrued as charm, and though he smiled Wilson and I were under no illusions, our lives were in most severe peril.
“I suppose you’d like to know what’s under this tarpaulin,” he gestured.
I saw little point in pretending any further, I simply hoped he would as ever feel the need to explain himself and his grandiose schemes. I was not disappointed.
He drew back the tarpaulin in typically melodramatic fashion. Beneath, was a vast gleaming propellor. I have never in my life seen a craft so large as to require such propulsion.
“Magnificent is it not!” beamed Nemo “Truly the most remarkable ever built!”
Naturally, I asked him what it was for.
“Why a boat of course,” he smiled “Whatever else could it be for? A marvellous airship?
The cooling mechanism of an enormous cannon perhaps? No, the truth is far more straightforward. And far more spectacular.”
At this point, two of Nemo’s nefarious thugs emerged from the shadows behind us.
“Now gentlemen. You’ve seen quite enough for one evening I think.”
I protested and found myself instantly on the receiving end of a cudgel.
Wilson lunged towards Nemo, a shot rang out
and I recall no more.
I awoke in one of the dockside taverns having been roused with a most severe whisky. I had been found in the yards bleeding profusely from a wound at the back of my head. After a short spell in hospital, I returned to the yard in Port Glasgow to try and uncover the truth of what had happened. Needless to say, Nemo’s Propellor had gone, three gentlemen having transported it to an unregistered steamer the day previously. I took the commissioning and payment records for the piece and have enclosed them with this letter for your further investigation. I would be surprised if they lead us any closer to Nemo, indeed the yard owner Mr Reid felt sure the commissioner was a Mr Ratcliffe. It was some days later before
Wilson’s body washed up
In all honesty, I do not know whether he wished us to see and hear all that we supposed we had discovered, whether every story, every movement was engineered by Nemo simply to confuse and obfuscate. Or, amidst all the subterfuge was there sown some grain of truth? His work is done. I am confused. But I fear we will not have long to wait before the Captain makes his move.
I have decided to stay for a short time in the little resort of Gourock before venturing back down to the ministry. If required, I may be contacted at the above address if any further clarification of my story is required. I trust too that
Wilson’s widow will be most generously
rewarded for the bravery of her husband.
A slightly different version of this story appears in our book Downriver. This story and some of the connected tales in Downriver form the backdrop for a childrens book I am currently writing, set in present day Greenock.