Part 2 out of 13
from behind the capes; some were doubling Portland Bill, the others St.
Alban's Head. From afar ships were running in. It was a race for refuge.
Southwards the darkness thickened, and clouds, full of night, bordered
on the sea. The weight of the tempest hanging overhead made a dreary
lull on the waves. It certainly was no time to sail. Yet the hooker had
She had made the south of the cape. She was already out of the gulf, and
in the open sea. Suddenly there came a gust of wind. The _Matutina_,
which was still clearly in sight, made all sail, as if resolved to
profit by the hurricane. It was the nor'-wester, a wind sullen and
angry. Its weight was felt instantly. The hooker, caught broadside on,
staggered, but recovering held her course to sea. This indicated a
flight rather than a voyage, less fear of sea than of land, and greater
heed of pursuit from man than from wind.
The hooker, passing through every degree of diminution, sank into the
horizon. The little star which she carried into shadow paled. More and
more the hooker became amalgamated with the night, then disappeared.
This time for good and all.
At least the child seemed to understand it so: he ceased to look at the
sea. His eyes turned back upon the plains, the wastes, the hills,
towards the space where it might not be impossible to meet something
Into this unknown he set out.
What kind of band was it which had left the child behind in its flight?
Were those fugitives Comprachicos?
We have already seen the account of the measures taken by William III.
and passed by Parliament against the malefactors, male and female,
called Comprachicos, otherwise Comprapequenos, otherwise Cheylas.
There are laws which disperse. The law acting against the Comprachicos
determined, not only the Comprachicos, but vagabonds of all sorts, on a
It was the devil take the hindmost. The greater number of the
Comprachicos returned to Spain--many of them, as we have said, being
The law for the protection of children had at first this strange result:
it caused many children to be abandoned.
The immediate effect of the penal statute was to produce a crowd of
children, found or rather lost. Nothing is easier to understand. Every
wandering gang containing a child was liable to suspicion. The mere fact
of the child's presence was in itself a denunciation.
"They are very likely Comprachicos." Such was the first idea of the
sheriff, of the bailiff, of the constable. Hence arrest and inquiry.
People simply unfortunate, reduced to wander and to beg, were seized
with a terror of being taken for Comprachicos although they were nothing
of the kind. But the weak have grave misgivings of possible errors in
justice. Besides, these vagabond families are very easily scared. The
accusation against the Comprachicos was that they traded in other
people's children. But the promiscuousness caused by poverty and
indigence is such that at times it might have been difficult for a
father and mother to prove a child their own.
How came you by this child? how were they to prove that they held it
from God? The child became a peril--they got rid of it. To fly
unencumbered was easier; the parents resolved to lose it--now in a wood,
now on a strand, now down a well.
Children were found drowned in cisterns.
Let us add that, in imitation of England, all Europe henceforth hunted
down the Comprachicos. The impulse of pursuit was given. There is
nothing like belling the cat. From this time forward the desire to seize
them made rivalry and emulation among the police of all countries, and
the alguazil was not less keenly watchful than the constable.
One could still read, twenty-three years ago, on a stone of the gate of
Otero, an untranslatable inscription--the words of the code outraging
propriety. In it, however, the shade of difference which existed between
the buyers and the stealers of children is very strongly marked. Here is
part of the inscription in somewhat rough Castillan, _Aqui quedan las
orejas de los Comprachicos, y las bolsas de los robaninos, mientras que
se van ellos al trabajo de mar_. You see the confiscation of ears, etc.,
did not prevent the owners going to the galleys. Whence followed a
general rout among all vagabonds. They started frightened; they arrived
trembling. On every shore in Europe their furtive advent was watched.
Impossible for such a band to embark with a child, since to disembark
with one was dangerous.
To lose the child was much simpler of accomplishment.
And this child, of whom we have caught a glimpse in the shadow of the
solitudes of Portland, by whom had he been cast away?
To all appearance by Comprachicos.
THE TREE OF HUMAN INVENTION.
It might be about seven o'clock in the evening. The wind was now
diminishing--a sign, however, of a violent recurrence impending. The
child was on the table-land at the extreme south point of Portland.
Portland is a peninsula; but the child did not know what a peninsula
is, and was ignorant even of the name of Portland. He knew but one
thing, which is, that one can walk until one drops down. An idea is a
guide; he had no idea. They had brought him there and left him there.
_They_ and _there_--these two enigmas represented his doom. _They_ were
humankind. _There_ was the universe. For him in all creation there was
absolutely no other basis to rest on but the little piece of ground
where he placed his heel, ground hard and cold to his naked feet. In the
great twilight world, open on all sides, what was there for the child?
He walked towards this Nothing. Around him was the vastness of human
He crossed the first plateau diagonally, then a second, then a third. At
the extremity of each plateau the child came upon a break in the ground.
The slope was sometimes steep, but always short; the high, bare plains
of Portland resemble great flagstones overlapping each other. The south
side seems to enter under the protruding slab, the north side rises over
the next one; these made ascents, which the child stepped over nimbly.
From time to time he stopped, and seemed to hold counsel with himself.
The night was becoming very dark. His radius of sight was contracting.
He now only saw a few steps before him.
All of a sudden he stopped, listened for an instant, and with an almost
imperceptible nod of satisfaction turned quickly and directed his steps
towards an eminence of moderate height, which he dimly perceived on his
right, at the point of the plain nearest the cliff. There was on the
eminence a shape which in the mist looked like a tree. The child had
just heard a noise in this direction, which was the noise neither of the
wind nor of the sea, nor was it the cry of animals. He thought that some
one was there, and in a few strides he was at the foot of the hillock.
In truth, some one was there.
That which had been indistinct on the top of the eminence was now
visible. It was something like a great arm thrust straight out of the
ground; at the upper extremity of the arm a sort of forefinger,
supported from beneath, by the thumb, pointed out horizontally; the
arm, the thumb, and the forefinger drew a square against the sky. At the
point of juncture of this peculiar finger and this peculiar thumb there
was a line, from which hung something black and shapeless. The line
moving in the wind sounded like a chain. This was the noise the child
had heard. Seen closely the line was that which the noise indicated, a
chain--a single chain cable.
By that mysterious law of amalgamation which throughout nature causes
appearances to exaggerate realities, the place, the hour, the mist, the
mournful sea, the cloudy turmoils on the distant horizon, added to the
effect of this figure, and made it seem enormous.
The mass linked to the chain presented the appearance of a scabbard. It
was swaddled like a child and long like a man. There was a round thing
at its summit, about which the end of the chain was rolled. The scabbard
was riven asunder at the lower end, and shreds of flesh hung out between
A feeble breeze stirred the chain, and that which hung to it swayed
gently. The passive mass obeyed the vague motions of space. It was an
object to inspire indescribable dread. Horror, which disproportions
everything, blurred its dimensions while retaining its shape. It was a
condensation of darkness, which had a defined form. Night was above and
within the spectre; it was a prey of ghastly exaggeration. Twilight and
moonrise, stars setting behind the cliff, floating things in space, the
clouds, winds from all quarters, had ended by penetrating into the
composition of this visible nothing. The species of log hanging in the
wind partook of the impersonality diffused far over sea and sky, and the
darkness completed this phase of the _thing_ which had once been a man.
It was that which is no longer.
To be naught but a remainder! Such a thing is beyond the power of
language to express. To exist no more, yet to persist; to be in the
abyss, yet out of it; to reappear above death as if indissoluble--there
is a certain amount of impossibility mixed with such reality. Thence
comes the inexpressible. This being--was it a being? This black witness
was a remainder, and an awful remainder--a remainder of what? Of nature
first, and then of society. Naught, and yet total.
The lawless inclemency of the weather held it at its will; the deep
oblivion of solitude environed it; it was given up to unknown chances;
it was without defence against the darkness, which did with it what it
willed. It was for ever the patient; it submitted; the hurricane (that
ghastly conflict of winds) was upon it.
The spectre was given over to pillage. It underwent the horrible outrage
of rotting in the open air; it was an outlaw of the tomb. There was no
peace for it even in annihilation: in the summer it fell away into dust,
in the winter into mud. Death should be veiled, the grave should have
its reserve. Here was neither veil nor reserve, but cynically avowed
putrefaction. It is effrontery in death to display its work; it offends
all the calmness of shadow when it does its task outside its laboratory,
This dead thing had been stripped. To strip one already
stripped--relentless act! His marrow was no longer in his bones; his
entrails were no longer in his body; his voice no longer in his throat.
A corpse is a pocket which death turns inside out and empties. If he
ever had a Me, where was the Me? There still, perchance, and this was
fearful to think of. Something wandering about something in chains--can
one imagine a more mournful lineament in the darkness?
Realities exist here below which serve as issues to the unknown, which
seem to facilitate the egress of speculation, and at which hypothesis
snatches. Conjecture has its _compelle intrare_. In passing by certain
places and before certain objects one cannot help stopping--a prey to
dreams into the realms of which the mind enters. In the invisible there
are dark portals ajar. No one could have met this dead man without
In the vastness of dispersion he was wearing silently away. He had had
blood which had been drunk, skin which had been eaten, flesh which had
been stolen. Nothing had passed him by without taking somewhat from
him. December had borrowed cold of him; midnight, horror; the iron,
rust; the plague, miasma; the flowers, perfume. His slow disintegration
was a toll paid to all--a toll of the corpse to the storm, to the rain,
to the dew, to the reptiles, to the birds. All the dark hands of night
had rifled the dead.
He was, indeed, an inexpressibly strange tenant, a tenant of the
darkness. He was on a plain and on a hill, and _he was not_. He was
palpable, yet vanished. He was a shadow accruing to the night. After the
disappearance of day into the vast of silent obscurity, he became in
lugubrious accord with all around him. By his mere presence he increased
the gloom of the tempest and the calm of stars. The unutterable which is
in the desert was condensed in him. Waif of an unknown fate, he
commingled with all the wild secrets of the night. There was in his
mystery a vague reverberation of all enigmas.
About him life seemed sinking to its lowest depths. Certainty and
confidence appeared to diminish in his environs. The shiver of the
brushwood and the grass, a desolate melancholy, an anxiety in which a
conscience seemed to lurk, appropriated with tragic force the whole
landscape to that black figure suspended by the chain. The presence of a
spectre in the horizon is an aggravation of solitude.
He was a Sign. Having unappeasable winds around him, he was implacable.
Perpetual shuddering made him terrible. Fearful to say, he seemed to be
a centre in space, with something immense leaning on him. Who can tell?
Perhaps that equity, half seen and set at defiance, which transcends
human justice. There was in his unburied continuance the vengeance of
men and his own vengeance. He was a testimony in the twilight and the
waste. He was in himself a disquieting substance, since we tremble
before the substance which is the ruined habitation of the soul. For
dead matter to trouble us, it must once have been tenanted by spirit. He
denounced the law of earth to the law of Heaven. Placed there by man, he
there awaited God. Above him floated, blended with all the vague
distortions of the cloud and the wave, boundless dreams of shadow.
Who could tell what sinister mysteries lurked behind this phantom? The
illimitable, circumscribed by naught, nor tree, nor roof, nor passer-by,
was around the dead man. When the unchangeable broods over us--when
Heaven, the abyss, the life, grave, and eternity appear patent--then it
is we feel that all is inaccessible, all is forbidden, all is sealed.
When infinity opens to us, terrible indeed is the closing of the gate
STRUGGLE BETWEEN DEATH AND LIFE.
The child was before this thing, dumb, wondering, and with eyes fixed.
To a man it would have been a gibbet; to the child it was an apparition.
Where a man would have seen a corpse the child saw a spectre.
Besides, he did not understand.
The attractions of the obscure are manifold. There was one on the summit
of that hill. The child took a step, then another; he ascended, wishing
all the while to descend; and approached, wishing all the while to
Bold, yet trembling, he went close up to survey the spectre.
When he got close under the gibbet, he looked up and examined it.
The spectre was tarred; here and there it shone. The child distinguished
the face. It was coated over with pitch; and this mask, which appeared
viscous and sticky, varied its aspect with the night shadows. The child
saw the mouth, which was a hole; the nose, which was a hole; the eyes,
which were holes. The body was wrapped, and apparently corded up, in
coarse canvas, soaked in naphtha. The canvas was mouldy and torn. A knee
protruded through it. A rent disclosed the ribs--partly corpse, partly
skeleton. The face was the colour of earth; slugs, wandering over it,
had traced across it vague ribbons of silver. The canvas, glued to the
bones, showed in reliefs like the robe of a statue. The skull, cracked
and fractured, gaped like a rotten fruit. The teeth were still human,
for they retained a laugh. The remains of a cry seemed to murmur in the
open mouth. There were a few hairs of beard on the cheek. The inclined
head had an air of attention.
Some repairs had recently been done; the face had been tarred afresh, as
well as the ribs and the knee which protruded from the canvas. The feet
hung out below.
Just underneath, in the grass, were two shoes, which snow and rain had
rendered shapeless. These shoes had fallen from the dead man.
The barefooted child looked at the shoes.
The wind, which had become more and more restless, was now and then
interrupted by those pauses which foretell the approach of a storm. For
the last few minutes it had altogether ceased to blow. The corpse no
longer stirred; the chain was as motionless as a plumb line.
Like all newcomers into life, and taking into account the peculiar
influences of his fate, the child no doubt felt within him that
awakening of ideas characteristic of early years, which endeavours to
open the brain, and which resembles the pecking of the young bird in the
egg. But all that there was in his little consciousness just then was
resolved into stupor. Excess of sensation has the effect of too much
oil, and ends by putting out thought. A man would have put himself
questions; the child put himself none--he only looked.
The tar gave the face a wet appearance; drops of pitch, congealed in
what had once been the eyes, produced the effect of tears. However,
thanks to the pitch, the ravage of death, if not annulled, was visibly
slackened and reduced to the least possible decay. That which was before
the child was a thing of which care was taken: the man was evidently
precious. They had not cared to keep him alive, but they cared to keep
The gibbet was old, worm-eaten, although strong, and had been in use
It was an immemorial custom in England to tar smugglers. They were
hanged on the seaboard, coated over with pitch and left swinging.
Examples must be made in public, and tarred examples last longest. The
tar was mercy: by renewing it they were spared making too many fresh
examples. They placed gibbets from point to point along the coast, as
nowadays they do beacons. The hanged man did duty as a lantern. After
his fashion, he guided his comrades, the smugglers. The smugglers from
far out at sea perceived the gibbets. There is one, first warning;
another, second warning. It did not stop smuggling; but public order is
made up of such things. The fashion lasted in England up to the
beginning of this century. In 1822 three men were still to be seen
hanging in front of Dover Castle. But, for that matter, the preserving
process was employed not only with smugglers. England turned robbers,
incendiaries, and murderers to the same account. Jack Painter, who set
fire to the government storehouses at Portsmouth, was hanged and tarred
in 1776. L'Abbe Coyer, who describes him as Jean le Peintre, saw him
again in 1777. Jack Painter was hanging above the ruin he had made, and
was re-tarred from time to time. His corpse lasted--I had almost said
lived--nearly fourteen years. It was still doing good service in 1788;
in 1790, however, they were obliged to replace it by another. The
Egyptians used to value the mummy of the king; a plebeian mummy can
also, it appears, be of service.
The wind, having great power on the hill, had swept it of all its snow.
Herbage reappeared on it, interspersed here and there with a few
thistles; the hill was covered by that close short grass which grows by
the sea, and causes the tops of cliffs to resemble green cloth. Under
the gibbet, on the very spot over which hung the feet of the executed
criminal, was a long and thick tuft, uncommon on such poor soil.
Corpses, crumbling there for centuries past, accounted for the beauty of
the grass. Earth feeds on man.
A dreary fascination held the child; he remained there open-mouthed. He
only dropped his head a moment when a nettle, which felt like an insect,
stung his leg; then he looked up again--he looked above him at the face
which looked down on him. It appeared to regard him the more steadfastly
because it had no eyes. It was a comprehensive glance, having an
indescribable fixedness in which there were both light and darkness, and
which emanated from the skull and teeth, as well as the empty arches of
the brow. The whole head of a dead man seems to have vision, and this is
awful. No eyeball, yet we feel that we are looked at. A horror of worms.
Little by little the child himself was becoming an object of terror. He
no longer moved. Torpor was coming over him. He did not perceive that he
was losing consciousness--he was becoming benumbed and lifeless. Winter
was silently delivering him over to night. There is something of the
traitor in winter. The child was all but a statue. The coldness of stone
was penetrating his bones; darkness, that reptile, was crawling over
him. The drowsiness resulting from snow creeps over a man like a dim
tide. The child was being slowly invaded by a stagnation resembling that
of the corpse. He was falling asleep.
On the hand of sleep is the finger of death. The child felt himself
seized by that hand. He was on the point of falling under the gibbet. He
no longer knew whether he was standing upright.
The end always impending, no transition between to be and not to be, the
return into the crucible, the slip possible every minute--such is the
precipice which is Creation.
Another instant, the child and the dead, life in sketch and life in
ruin, would be confounded in the same obliteration.
The spectre appeared to understand, and not to wish it. Of a sudden it
stirred. One would have said it was warning the child. It was the wind
beginning to blow again. Nothing stranger than this dead man in
The corpse at the end of the chain, pushed by the invisible gust, took
an oblique attitude; rose to the left, then fell back, reascended to the
right, and fell and rose with slow and mournful precision. A weird game
of see-saw. It seemed as though one saw in the darkness the pendulum of
the clock of Eternity.
This continued for some time. The child felt himself waking up at the
sight of the dead; through his increasing numbness he experienced a
distinct sense of fear.
The chain at every oscillation made a grinding sound, with hideous
regularity. It appeared to take breath, and then to resume. This
grinding was like the cry of a grasshopper.
An approaching squall is heralded by sudden gusts of wind. All at once
the breeze increased into a gale. The corpse emphasized its dismal
oscillations. It no longer swung, it tossed; the chain, which had been
grinding, now shrieked. It appeared that its shriek was heard. If it was
an appeal, it was obeyed. From the depths of the horizon came the sound
of a rushing noise.
It was the noise of wings.
An incident occurred, a stormy incident, peculiar to graveyards and
solitudes. It was the arrival of a flight of ravens. Black flying specks
pricked the clouds, pierced through the mist, increased in size, came
near, amalgamated, thickened, hastening towards the hill, uttering
cries. It was like the approach of a Legion. The winged vermin of the
darkness alighted on the gibbet; the child, scared, drew back.
Swarms obey words of command: the birds crowded on the gibbet; not one
was on the corpse. They were talking among themselves. The croaking was
frightful. The howl, the whistle and the roar, are signs of life; the
croak is a satisfied acceptance of putrefaction. In it you can fancy you
hear the tomb breaking silence. The croak is night-like in itself.
The child was frozen even more by terror than by cold.
Then the ravens held silence. One of them perched on the skeleton. This
was a signal: they all precipitated themselves upon it. There was a
cloud of wings, then all their feathers closed up, and the hanged man
disappeared under a swarm of black blisters struggling in the obscurity.
Just then the corpse moved. Was it the corpse? Was it the wind? It made
a frightful bound. The hurricane, which was increasing, came to its
aid. The phantom fell into convulsions.
The squall, already blowing with full lungs, laid hold of it, and moved
it about in all directions.
It became horrible; it began to struggle. An awful puppet, with a gibbet
chain for a string. Some humorist of night must have seized the string
and been playing with the mummy. It turned and leapt as if it would fain
dislocate itself; the birds, frightened, flew off. It was like an
explosion of all those unclean creatures. Then they returned, and a
The dead man seemed possessed with hideous vitality. The winds raised
him as though they meant to carry him away. He seemed struggling and
making efforts to escape, but his iron collar held him back. The birds
adapted themselves to all his movements, retreating, then striking
again, scared but desperate. On one side a strange flight was attempted,
on the other the pursuit of a chained man. The corpse, impelled by every
spasm of the wind, had shocks, starts, fits of rage: it went, it came,
it rose, it fell, driving back the scattered swarm. The dead man was a
club, the swarms were dust. The fierce, assailing flock would not leave
their hold, and grew stubborn; the man, as if maddened by the cluster of
beaks, redoubled his blind chastisement of space. It was like the blows
of a stone held in a sling. At times the corpse was covered by talons
and wings; then it was free. There were disappearances of the horde,
then sudden furious returns--a frightful torment continuing after life
was past. The birds seemed frenzied. The air-holes of hell must surely
give passage to such swarms. Thrusting of claws, thrusting of beaks,
croakings, rendings of shreds no longer flesh, creakings of the gibbet,
shudderings of the skeleton, jingling of the chain, the voices of the
storm and tumult--what conflict more fearful? A hobgoblin warring with
devils! A combat with a spectre!
At times the storm redoubling its violence, the hanged man revolved on
his own pivot, turning every way at once towards the swarm, as if he
wished to run after the birds; his teeth seemed to try and bite them.
The wind was for him, the chain against him. It was as if black deities
were mixing themselves up in the fray. The hurricane was in the battle.
As the dead man turned himself about, the flock of birds wound round him
spirally. It was a whirl in a whirlwind. A great roar was heard from
below. It was the sea.
The child saw this nightmare. Suddenly he trembled in all his limbs; a
shiver thrilled his frame; he staggered, tottered, nearly fell,
recovered himself, pressed both hands to his forehead, as if he felt his
forehead a support; then, haggard, his hair streaming in the wind,
descending the hill with long strides, his eyes closed, himself almost a
phantom, he took flight, leaving behind that torment in the night.
THE NORTH POINT OF PORTLAND.
He ran until he was breathless, at random, desperate, over the plain
into the snow, into space. His flight warmed him. He needed it. Without
the run and the fright he had died.
When his breath failed him he stopped, but he dared not look back. He
fancied that the birds would pursue him, that the dead man had undone
his chain and was perhaps hurrying behind him, and no doubt the gibbet
itself was descending the hill, running after the dead man; he feared to
see these things if he turned his head.
When he had somewhat recovered his breath he resumed his flight.
To account for facts does not belong to childhood. He received
impressions which were magnified by terror, but he did not link them
together in his mind, nor form any conclusion on them. He was going on,
no matter how or where; he ran in agony and difficulty as one in a
dream. During the three hours or so since he had been deserted, his
onward progress, still vague, had changed its purpose. At first it was a
search; now it was a flight. He no longer felt hunger nor cold--he felt
fear. One instinct had given place to another. To escape was now his
whole thought--to escape from what? From everything. On all sides life
seemed to enclose him like a horrible wall. If he could have fled from
all things, he would have done so. But children know nothing of that
breaking from prison which is called suicide. He was running. He ran on
for an indefinite time; but fear dies with lack of breath.
All at once, as if seized by a sudden accession of energy and
intelligence, he stopped. One would have said he was ashamed of running
away. He drew himself up, stamped his foot, and, with head erect, looked
round. There was no longer hill, nor gibbet, nor flights of crows. The
fog had resumed possession of the horizon. The child pursued his way: he
now no longer ran but walked. To say that meeting with a corpse had made
a man of him would be to limit the manifold and confused impression
which possessed him. There was in his impression much more and much
less. The gibbet, a mighty trouble in the rudiment of comprehension,
nascent in his mind, still seemed to him an apparition; but a trouble
overcome is strength gained, and he felt himself stronger. Had he been
of an age to probe self, he would have detected within him a thousand
other germs of meditation; but the reflection of children is shapeless,
and the utmost they feel is the bitter aftertaste of that which, obscure
to them, the man later on calls indignation. Let us add that a child has
the faculty of quickly accepting the conclusion of a sensation; the
distant fading boundaries which amplify painful subjects escape him. A
child is protected by the limit of feebleness against emotions which are
too complex. He sees the fact, and little else beside. The difficulty of
being satisfied by half-ideas does not exist for him. It is not until
later that experience comes, with its brief, to conduct the lawsuit of
life. _Then_ he confronts groups of facts which have crossed his path;
the understanding, cultivated and enlarged, draws comparisons; the
memories of youth reappear under the passions, like the traces of a
palimpsest under the erasure; these memories form the bases of logic,
and that which was a vision in the child's brain becomes a syllogism in
the man's. Experience is, however, various, and turns to good or evil
according to natural disposition. With the good it ripens, with the bad
The child had run quite a quarter of a league, and walked another
quarter, when suddenly he felt the craving of hunger. A thought which
altogether eclipsed the hideous apparition on the hill occurred to him
forcibly--that he must eat. Happily there is in man a brute which serves
to lead him back to reality.
But what to eat, where to eat, how to eat?
He felt his pockets mechanically, well knowing that they were empty.
Then he quickened his steps, without knowing whither he was going. He
hastened towards a possible shelter. This faith in an inn is one of the
convictions enrooted by God in man. To believe in a shelter is to
believe in God.
However, in that plain of snow there was nothing like a roof. The child
went on, and the waste continued bare as far as eye could see. There had
never been a human habitation on the tableland. It was at the foot of
the cliff, in holes in the rocks, that, lacking wood to build themselves
huts, had dwelt long ago the aboriginal inhabitants, who had slings for
arms, dried cow-dung for firing, for a god the idol Heil standing in a
glade at Dorchester, and for trade the fishing of that false gray coral
which the Gauls called _plin_, and the Greeks _isidis plocamos_.
The child found his way as best he could. Destiny is made up of
cross-roads. An option of path is dangerous. This little being had an
early choice of doubtful chances.
He continued to advance, but although the muscles of his thighs seemed
to be of steel, he began to tire. There were no tracks in the plain; or
if there were any, the snow had obliterated them. Instinctively he
inclined eastwards. Sharp stones had wounded his heels. Had it been
daylight pink stains made by his blood might have been seen in the
footprints he left in the snow.
He recognized nothing. He was crossing the plain of Portland from south
to north, and it is probable that the band with which he had come, to
avoid meeting any one, had crossed it from east to west; they had most
likely sailed in some fisherman's or smuggler's boat, from a point on
the coast of Uggescombe, such as St. Catherine's Cape or Swancry, to
Portland to find the hooker which awaited them; and they must have
landed in one of the creeks of Weston, and re-embarked in one of those
of Easton. That direction was intersected by the one the child was now
following. It was impossible for him to recognize the road.
On the plain of Portland there are, here and there, raised strips of
land, abruptly ended by the shore and cut perpendicular to the sea. The
wandering child reached one of these culminating points and stopped on
it, hoping that a larger space might reveal further indications. He
tried to see around him. Before him, in place of a horizon, was a vast
livid opacity. He looked at this attentively, and under the fixedness of
his glance it became less indistinct. At the base of a distant fold of
land towards the east, in the depths of that opaque lividity (a moving
and wan sort of precipice, which resembled a cliff of the night), crept
and floated some vague black rents, some dim shreds of vapour. The pale
opacity was fog, the black shreds were smoke. Where there is smoke there
are men. The child turned his steps in that direction.
He saw some distance off a descent, and at the foot of the descent,
among shapeless conformations of rock, blurred by the mist, what seemed
to be either a sandbank or a tongue of land, joining probably to the
plains of the horizon the tableland he had just crossed. It was evident
he must pass that way.
He had, in fact, arrived at the Isthmus of Portland, a diluvian alluvium
which is called Chess Hill.
He began to descend the side of the plateau.
The descent was difficult and rough. It was (with less of ruggedness,
however) the reverse of the ascent he had made on leaving the creek.
Every ascent is balanced by a decline. After having clambered up he
He leapt from one rock to another at the risk of a sprain, at the risk
of falling into the vague depths below. To save himself when he slipped
on the rock or on the ice, he caught hold of handfuls of weeds and
furze, thick with thorns, and their points ran into his fingers. At
times he came on an easier declivity, taking breath as he descended;
then came on the precipice again, and each step necessitated an
expedient. In descending precipices, every movement solves a problem.
One must be skilful under pain of death. These problems the child solved
with an instinct which would have made him the admiration of apes and
mountebanks. The descent was steep and long. Nevertheless he was coming
to the end of it.
Little by little it was drawing nearer the moment when he should land on
the Isthmus, of which from time to time he caught a glimpse. At
intervals, while he bounded or dropped from rock to rock, he pricked up
his ears, his head erect, like a listening deer. He was hearkening to a
diffused and faint uproar, far away to the left, like the deep note of a
clarion. It was a commotion of winds, preceding that fearful north blast
which is heard rushing from the pole, like an inroad of trumpets. At the
same time the child felt now and then on his brow, on his eyes, on his
cheeks, something which was like the palms of cold hands being placed on
his face. These were large frozen flakes, sown at first softly in space,
then eddying, and heralding a snowstorm. The child was covered with
them. The snowstorm, which for the last hour had been on the sea, was
beginning to gain the land. It was slowly invading the plains. It was
entering obliquely, by the north-west, the tableland of Portland.
BOOK THE SECOND.
_THE HOOKER AT SEA_.
The snowstorm is one of the mysteries of the ocean. It is the most
obscure of things meteorological--obscure in every sense of the word. It
is a mixture of fog and storm; and even in our days we cannot well
account for the phenomenon. Hence many disasters.
We try to explain all things by the action of wind and wave; yet in the
air there is a force which is not the wind, and in the waters a force
which is not the wave. That force, both in the air and in the water, is
effluvium. Air and water are two nearly identical liquid masses,
entering into the composition of each other by condensation and
dilatation, so that to breathe is to drink. Effluvium alone is fluid.
The wind and the wave are only impulses; effluvium is a current. The
wind is visible in clouds, the wave is visible in foam; effluvium is
invisible. From time to time, however, it says, "I am here." Its "I am
here" is a clap of thunder.
The snowstorm offers a problem analogous to the dry fog. If the solution
of the _callina_ of the Spaniards and the _quobar_ of the Ethiopians be
possible, assuredly that solution will be achieved by attentive
observation of magnetic effluvium.
Without effluvium a crowd of circumstances would remain enigmatic.
Strictly speaking, the changes in the velocity of the wind, varying
from 3 feet per second to 220 feet, would supply a reason for the
variations of the waves rising from 3 inches in a calm sea to 36 feet in
a raging one. Strictly speaking, the horizontal direction of the winds,
even in a squall, enables us to understand how it is that a wave 30 feet
high can be 1,500 feet long. But why are the waves of the Pacific four
times higher near America than near Asia; that is to say, higher in the
East than in the West? Why is the contrary true of the Atlantic? Why,
under the Equator, are they highest in the middle of the sea? Wherefore
these deviations in the swell of the ocean? This is what magnetic
effluvium, combined with terrestrial rotation and sidereal attraction,
can alone explain.
Is not this mysterious complication needed to explain an oscillation of
the wind veering, for instance, by the west from south-east to
north-east, then suddenly returning in the same great curve from
north-east to south-east, so as to make in thirty-six hours a prodigious
circuit of 560 degrees? Such was the preface to the snowstorm of March
The storm-waves of Australia reach a height of 80 feet; this fact is
connected with the vicinity of the Pole. Storms in those latitudes
result less from disorder of the winds than from submarine electrical
discharges. In the year 1866 the transatlantic cable was disturbed at
regular intervals in its working for two hours in the twenty-four--from
noon to two o'clock--by a sort of intermittent fever. Certain
compositions and decompositions of forces produce phenomena, and impose
themselves on the calculations of the seaman under pain of shipwreck.
The day that navigation, now a routine, shall become a mathematic; the
day we shall, for instance, seek to know why it is that in our regions
hot winds come sometimes from the north, and cold winds from the south;
the day we shall understand that diminutions of temperature are
proportionate to oceanic depths; the day we realize that the globe is a
vast loadstone polarized in immensity, with two axes--an axis of
rotation and an axis of effluvium--intersecting each other at the centre
of the earth, and that the magnetic poles turn round the geographical
poles; when those who risk life will choose to risk it scientifically;
when men shall navigate assured from studied uncertainty; when the
captain shall be a meteorologist; when the pilot shall be a chemist;
then will many catastrophes be avoided. The sea is magnetic as much as
aquatic: an ocean of unknown forces floats in the ocean of the waves,
or, one might say, on the surface. Only to behold in the sea a mass of
water is not to see it at all: the sea is an ebb and flow of fluid, as
much as a flux and reflux of liquid. It is, perhaps, complicated by
attractions even more than by hurricanes; molecular adhesion, manifested
among other phenomena by capillary attraction, although microscopic,
takes in ocean its place in the grandeur of immensity; and the wave of
effluvium sometimes aids, sometimes counteracts, the wave of the air and
the wave of the waters. He who is ignorant of electric law is ignorant
of hydraulic law; for the one intermixes with the other. It is true
there is no study more difficult nor more obscure; it verges on
empiricism, just as astronomy verges on astrology; and yet without this
study there is no navigation. Having said this much we will pass on.
One of the most dangerous components of the sea is the snowstorm. The
snowstorm is above all things magnetic. The pole produces it as it
produces the aurora borealis. It is in the fog of the one as in the
light of the other; and in the flake of snow as in the streak of flame
effluvium is visible.
Storms are the nervous attacks and delirious frenzies of the sea. The
sea has its ailments. Tempests may be compared to maladies. Some are
mortal, others not; some may be escaped, others not. The snowstorm is
supposed to be generally mortal. Jarabija, one of the pilots of
Magellan, termed it "a cloud issuing from the devil's sore side."
The old Spanish navigators called this kind of squall _la nevada_, when
it came with snow; _la helada_, when it came with hail. According to
them, bats fell from the sky, with the snow.
Snowstorms are characteristic of polar latitudes; nevertheless, at times
they glide--one might almost say tumble--into our climates; so much
ruin is mingled with the chances of the air.
The _Matutina_, as we have seen, plunged resolutely into the great
hazard of the night, a hazard increased by the impending storm. She had
encountered its menace with a sort of tragic audacity; nevertheless, it
must be remembered that she had received due warning.
OUR FIRST ROUGH SKETCHES FILLED IN.
While the hooker was in the gulf of Portland, there was but little sea
on; the ocean, if gloomy, was almost still, and the sky was yet clear.
The wind took little effect on the vessel; the hooker hugged the cliff
as closely as possible; it served as a screen to her.
There were ten on board the little Biscayan felucca--three men in crew,
and seven passengers, of whom two were women. In the light of the open
sea (which broadens twilight into day) all the figures on board were
clearly visible. Besides they were not hiding now--they were all at
ease; each one reassumed his freedom of manner, spoke in his own note,
showed his face; departure was to them a deliverance.
The motley nature of the group shone out. The women were of no age. A
wandering life produces premature old age, and indigence is made up of
wrinkles. One of them was a Basque of the Dry-ports. The other, with the
large rosary, was an Irishwoman. They wore that air of indifference
common to the wretched. They had squatted down close to each other when
they got on board, on chests at the foot of the mast. They talked to
each other. Irish and Basque are, as we have said, kindred languages.
The Basque woman's hair was scented with onions and basil. The skipper
of the hooker was a Basque of Guipuzcoa. One sailor was a Basque of the
northern slope of the Pyrenees, the other was of the southern
slope--that is to say, they were of the same nation, although the first
was French and the latter Spanish. The Basques recognize no official
country. _Mi madre se llama Montana_, my mother is called the mountain,
as Zalareus, the muleteer, used to say. Of the five men who were with
the two women, one was a Frenchman of Languedoc, one a Frenchman of
Provence, one a Genoese; one, an old man, he who wore the sombrero
without a hole for a pipe, appeared to be a German. The fifth, the
chief, was a Basque of the Landes from Biscarrosse. It was he who, just
as the child was going on board the hooker, had, with a kick of his
heel, cast the plank into the sea. This man, robust, agile, sudden in
movement, covered, as may be remembered, with trimmings, slashings, and
glistening tinsel, could not keep in his place; he stooped down, rose
up, and continually passed to and fro from one end of the vessel to the
other, as if debating uneasily on what had been done and what was going
This chief of the band, the captain and the two men of the crew, all
four Basques, spoke sometimes Basque, sometimes Spanish, sometimes
French--these three languages being common on both slopes of the
Pyrenees. But generally speaking, excepting the women, all talked
something like French, which was the foundation of their slang. The
French language about this period began to be chosen by the peoples as
something intermediate between the excess of consonants in the north and
the excess of vowels in the south. In Europe, French was the language of
commerce, and also of felony. It will be remembered that Gibby, a London
thief, understood Cartouche.
The hooker, a fine sailer, was making quick way; still, ten persons,
besides their baggage, were a heavy cargo for one of such light draught.
The fact of the vessel's aiding the escape of a band did not necessarily
imply that the crew were accomplices. It was sufficient that the captain
of the vessel was a Vascongado, and that the chief of the band was
another. Among that race mutual assistance is a duty which admits of no
exception. A Basque, as we have said, is neither Spanish nor French; he
is Basque, and always and everywhere he must succour a Basque. Such is
All the time the hooker was in the gulf, the sky, although threatening,
did not frown enough to cause the fugitives any uneasiness. They were
flying, they were escaping, they were brutally gay. One laughed, another
sang; the laugh was dry but free, the song was low but careless.
The Languedocian cried, "_Caoucagno!_" "_Cocagne_" expresses the highest
pitch of satisfaction in Narbonne. He was a longshore sailor, a native
of the waterside village of Gruissan, on the southern side of the
Clappe, a bargeman rather than a mariner, but accustomed to work the
reaches of the inlet of Bages, and to draw the drag-net full of fish
over the salt sands of St. Lucie. He was of the race who wear a red cap,
make complicated signs of the cross after the Spanish fashion, drink
wine out of goat-skins, eat scraped ham, kneel down to blaspheme, and
implore their patron saint with threats--"Great saint, grant me what I
ask, or I'll throw a stone at thy head, _ou te feg un pic_." He might
be, at need, a useful addition to the crew.
The Provencal in the caboose was blowing up a turf fire under an
iron pot, and making broth. The broth was a kind of puchero, in which
fish took the place of meat, and into which the Provencal threw
chick peas, little bits of bacon cut in squares, and pods of red
pimento--concessions made by the eaters of _bouillabaisse_ to the
eaters of _olla podrida_. One of the bags of provisions was beside him
unpacked. He had lighted over his head an iron lantern, glazed with
talc, which swung on a hook from the ceiling. By its side, on another
hook, swung the weather-cock halcyon. There was a popular belief in
those days that a dead halcyon, hung by the beak, always turned its
breast to the quarter whence the wind was blowing. While he made the
broth, the Provencal put the neck of a gourd into his mouth, and now and
then swallowed a draught of aguardiente. It was one of those gourds
covered with wicker, broad and flat, with handles, which used to be hung
to the side by a strap, and which were then called hip-gourds. Between
each gulp he mumbled one of those country songs of which the subject is
nothing at all: a hollow road, a hedge; you see in the meadow, through a
gap in the bushes, the shadow of a horse and cart, elongated in the
sunset, and from time to time, above the hedge, the end of a fork loaded
with hay appears and disappears--you want no more to make a song.
A departure, according to the bent of one's mind, is a relief or a
depression. All seemed lighter in spirits excepting the old man of the
band, the man with the hat that had no pipe.
This old man, who looked more German than anything else, although he had
one of those unfathomable faces in which nationality is lost, was bald,
and so grave that his baldness might have been a tonsure. Every time he
passed before the Virgin on the prow, he raised his felt hat, so that
you could see the swollen and senile veins of his skull. A sort of full
gown, torn and threadbare, of brown Dorchester serge, but half hid his
closely fitting coat, tight, compact, and hooked up to the neck like a
cassock. His hands inclined to cross each other, and had the mechanical
junction of habitual prayer. He had what might be called a wan
countenance; for the countenance is above all things a reflection, and
it is an error to believe that idea is colourless. That countenance was
evidently the surface of a strange inner state, the result of a
composition of contradictions, some tending to drift away in good,
others in evil, and to an observer it was the revelation of one who was
less and more than human--capable of falling below the scale of the
tiger, or of rising above that of man. Such chaotic souls exist. There
was something inscrutable in that face. Its secret reached the abstract.
You felt that the man had known the foretaste of evil which is the
calculation, and the after-taste which is the zero. In his
impassibility, which was perhaps only on the surface, were imprinted two
petrifactions--the petrifaction of the heart proper to the hangman, and
the petrifaction of the mind proper to the mandarin. One might have said
(for the monstrous has its mode of being complete) that all things were
possible to him, even emotion. In every savant there is something of the
corpse, and this man was a savant. Only to see him you caught science
imprinted in the gestures of his body and in the folds of his dress. His
was a fossil face, the serious cast of which was counteracted by that
wrinkled mobility of the polyglot which verges on grimace. But a severe
man withal; nothing of the hypocrite, nothing of the cynic. A tragic
dreamer. He was one of those whom crime leaves pensive; he had the brow
of an incendiary tempered by the eyes of an archbishop. His sparse gray
locks turned to white over his temples. The Christian was evident in
him, complicated with the fatalism of the Turk. Chalkstones deformed his
fingers, dissected by leanness. The stiffness of his tall frame was
grotesque. He had his sea-legs, he walked slowly about the deck, not
looking at any one, with an air decided and sinister. His eyeballs were
vaguely filled with the fixed light of a soul studious of the darkness
and afflicted by reapparitions of conscience.
From time to time the chief of the band, abrupt and alert, and making
sudden turns about the vessel, came to him and whispered in his ear. The
old man answered by a nod. It might have been the lightning consulting
TROUBLED MEN ON THE TROUBLED SEA.
Two men on board the craft were absorbed in thought--the old man, and
the skipper of the hooker, who must not be mistaken for the chief of the
band. The captain was occupied by the sea, the old man by the sky. The
former did not lift his eyes from the waters; the latter kept watch on
the firmament. The skipper's anxiety was the state of the sea; the old
man seemed to suspect the heavens. He scanned the stars through every
break in the clouds.
It was the time when day still lingers, but some few stars begin faintly
to pierce the twilight. The horizon was singular. The mist upon it
varied. Haze predominated on land, clouds at sea.
The skipper, noting the rising billows, hauled all taut before he got
outside Portland Bay. He would not delay so doing until he should pass
the headland. He examined the rigging closely, and satisfied himself
that the lower shrouds were well set up, and supported firmly the
futtock-shrouds--precautions of a man who means to carry on with a press
of sail, at all risks.
The hooker was not trimmed, being two feet by the head. This was her
The captain passed every minute from the binnacle to the standard
compass, taking the bearings of objects on shore. The _Matutina_ had at
first a soldier's wind which was not unfavourable, though she could not
lie within five points of her course. The captain took the helm as often
as possible, trusting no one but himself to prevent her from dropping to
leeward, the effect of the rudder being influenced by the steerage-way.
The difference between the true and apparent course being relative to
the way on the vessel, the hooker seemed to lie closer to the wind than
she did in reality. The breeze was not a-beam, nor was the hooker
close-hauled; but one cannot ascertain the true course made, except when
the wind is abaft. When you perceive long streaks of clouds meeting in a
point on the horizon, you may be sure that the wind is in that quarter;
but this evening the wind was variable; the needle fluctuated; the
captain distrusted the erratic movements of the vessel. He steered
carefully but resolutely, luffed her up, watched her coming to,
prevented her from yawing, and from running into the wind's eye: noted
the leeway, the little jerks of the helm: was observant of every roll
and pitch of the vessel, of the difference in her speed, and of the
variable gusts of wind. For fear of accidents, he was constantly on the
lookout for squalls from off the land he was hugging, and above all he
was cautious to keep her full; the direction of the breeze indicated by
the compass being uncertain from the small size of the instrument. The
captain's eyes, frequently lowered, remarked every change in the waves.
Once nevertheless he raised them towards the sky, and tried to make out
the three stars of Orion's belt. These stars are called the three magi,
and an old proverb of the ancient Spanish pilots declares that, "He who
sees the three magi is not far from the Saviour."
This glance of the captain's tallied with an aside growled out, at the
other end of the vessel, by the old man, "We don't even see the
pointers, nor the star Antares, red as he is. Not one is distinct."
No care troubled the other fugitives.
Still, when the first hilarity they felt in their escape had passed
away, they could not help remembering that they were at sea in the month
of January, and that the wind was frozen. It was impossible to establish
themselves in the cabin. It was much too narrow and too much encumbered
by bales and baggage. The baggage belonged to the passengers, the bales
to the crew, for the hooker was no pleasure boat, and was engaged in
smuggling. The passengers were obliged to settle themselves on deck, a
condition to which these wanderers easily resigned themselves. Open-air
habits make it simple for vagabonds to arrange themselves for the night.
The open air (_la belle etoile_) is their friend, and the cold helps
them to sleep--sometimes to die.
This night, as we have seen, there was no _belle etoile_.
The Languedocian and the Genoese, while waiting for supper, rolled
themselves up near the women, at the foot of the mast, in some tarpaulin
which the sailors had thrown them.
The old man remained at the bow motionless, and apparently insensible to
The captain of the hooker, from the helm where he was standing, uttered
a sort of guttural call somewhat like the cry of the American bird
called the exclaimer; at his call the chief of the brand drew near, and
the captain addressed him thus,--
"Etcheco Jauena." These two words, which mean "tiller of the mountain,"
form with the old Cantabri a solemn preface to any subject which should
Then the captain pointed the old man out to the chief, and the dialogue
continued in Spanish; it was not, indeed, a very correct dialect, being
that of the mountains. Here are the questions and answers.
"Etcheco jauena, que es este hombre?"
"Que lenguas habla?"
"Que cosas sabe?"
"Ningun, y todos."
"Como le llamas?"
"Como dices que le llamas?"
"En vuestre tropa que esta?"
"Esta lo que esta."
"Pues que esta?"
The chief and the captain parted, each reverting to his own meditation,
and a little while afterwards the _Matutina_ left the gulf.
Now came the great rolling of the open sea. The ocean in the spaces
between the foam was slimy in appearance. The waves, seen through the
twilight in indistinct outline, somewhat resembled plashes of gall. Here
and there a wave floating flat showed cracks and stars, like a pane of
glass broken by stones; in the centre of these stars, in a revolving
orifice, trembled a phosphorescence, like that feline reflection, of
vanished light which shines in the eyeballs of owls.
Proudly, like a bold swimmer, the _Matutina_ crossed the dangerous
Shambles shoal. This bank, a hidden obstruction at the entrance of
Portland roads, is not a barrier; it is an amphitheatre--a circus of
sand under the sea, its benches cut out by the circling of the waves--an
arena, round and symmetrical, as high as a Jungfrau, only drowned--a
coliseum of the ocean, seen by the diver in the vision-like transparency
which engulfs him,--such is the Shambles shoal. There hydras fight,
leviathans meet. There, says the legend, at the bottom of the gigantic
shaft, are the wrecks of ships, seized and sunk by the huge spider
Kraken, also called the fish-mountain. Such things lie in the fearful
shadow of the sea.
These spectral realities, unknown to man, are manifested at the surface
by a slight shiver.
In this nineteenth century, the Shambles bank is in ruins; the
breakwater recently constructed has overthrown and mutilated, by the
force of its surf, that high submarine architecture, just as the jetty,
built at the Croisic in 1760, changed, by a quarter of an hour, the
course of the tides. And yet the tide is eternal. But eternity obeys man
more than man imagines.
A CLOUD DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS ENTERS ON THE SCENE.
The old man whom the chief of the band had named first the Madman, then
the Sage, now never left the forecastle. Since they crossed the Shambles
shoal, his attention had been divided between the heavens and the
waters. He looked down, he looked upwards, and above all watched the
The skipper gave the helm to a sailor, stepped over the after hatchway,
crossed the gangway, and went on to the forecastle. He approached the
old man, but not in front. He stood a little behind, with elbows resting
on his hips, with outstretched hands, the head on one side, with open
eyes and arched eyebrows, and a smile in the corners of his mouth--an
attitude of curiosity hesitating between mockery and respect.
The old man, either that it was his habit to talk to himself, or that
hearing some one behind incited him to speech, began to soliloquize
while he looked into space.
"The meridian, from which the right ascension is calculated, is marked
in this century by four stars--the Polar, Cassiopeia's Chair,
Andromeda's Head, and the star Algenib, which is in Pegasus. But there
is not one visible."
These words followed each other mechanically, confused, and scarcely
articulated, as if he did not care to pronounce them. They floated out
of his mouth and dispersed. Soliloquy is the smoke exhaled by the inmost
fires of the soul.
The skipper broke in, "My lord!"
The old man, perhaps rather deaf as well as very thoughtful, went on,--
"Too few stars, and too much wind. The breeze continually changes its
direction and blows inshore; thence it rises perpendicularly. This
results from the land being warmer than the water. Its atmosphere is
lighter. The cold and dense wind of the sea rushes in to replace it.
From this cause, in the upper regions the wind blows towards the land
from every quarter. It would be advisable to make long tacks between the
true and apparent parallel. When the latitude by observation differs
from the latitude by dead reckoning by not more than three minutes in
thirty miles, or by four minutes in sixty miles, you are in the true
The skipper bowed, but the old man saw him not. The latter, who wore
what resembled an Oxford or Gottingen university gown, did not relax his
haughty and rigid attitude. He observed the waters as a critic of waves
and of men. He studied the billows, but almost as if he was about to
demand his turn to speak amidst their turmoil, and teach them something.
There was in him both pedagogue and soothsayer. He seemed an oracle of
He continued his soliloquy, which was perhaps intended to be heard.
"We might strive if we had a wheel instead of a helm. With a speed of
twelve miles an hour, a force of twenty pounds exerted on the wheel
produces three hundred thousand pounds' effect on the course. And more
too. For in some cases, with a double block and runner, they can get two
The skipper bowed a second time, and said, "My lord!"
The old man's eye rested on him; he had turned his head without moving
"Call me Doctor."
"Master Doctor, I am the skipper."
"Just so," said the doctor.
The doctor, as henceforward we shall call him, appeared willing to
"Skipper, have you an English sextant?"
"Without an English sextant you cannot take an altitude at all."
"The Basques," replied the captain, "took altitudes before there were
"Be careful you are not taken aback."
"I keep her away when necessary."
"Have you tried how many knots she is running?"
"By the log."
"Did you take the trouble to look at the triangle?"
"Did the sand run through the glass in exactly thirty seconds?"
"Are you sure that the sand has not worn the hole between the globes?"
"Have you proved the sand-glass by the oscillations of a bullet?"
"Suspended by a rope yarn drawn out from the top of a coil of soaked
"Have you waxed the yarn lest it should stretch?"
"Have you tested the log?"
"I tested the sand-glass by the bullet, and checked the log by a round
"Of what size was the shot?"
"One foot in diameter."
"It is an old round shot of our war hooker, La Casse de Par-Grand."
"Which was in the Armada?"
"And which carried six hundred soldiers, fifty sailors, and twenty-five
"Shipwreck knows it."
"How did you compute the resistance of the water to the shot?"
"By means of a German scale."
"Have you taken into account the resistance of the rope supporting the
shot to the waves?"
"What was the result?"
"The resistance of the water was 170 pounds."
"That's to say she is running four French leagues an hour."
"And three Dutch leagues."
"But that is the difference merely of the vessel's way and the rate at
which the sea is running?"
"Whither are you steering?"
"For a creek I know, between Loyola and St. Sebastian."
"Make the latitude of the harbour's mouth as soon as possible."
"Yes, as near as I can."
"Beware of gusts and currents. The first cause the second."
"No abuse. The sea understands. Insult nothing. Rest satisfied with
"I have watched, and I do watch. Just now the tide is running against
the wind; by-and-by, when it turns, we shall be all right."
"Have you a chart?"
"No; not for this channel."
"Then you sail by rule of thumb?"
"Not at all. I have a compass."
"The compass is one eye, the chart the other."
"A man with one eye can see."
"How do you compute the difference between the true and apparent
"I've got my standard compass, and I make a guess."
"To guess is all very well. To know for certain is better."
"When there is a fog and the needle revolves treacherously, you can
never tell on which side you should look out for squalls, and the end of
it is that you know neither the true nor apparent day's work. An ass
with his chart is better off than a wizard with his oracle."
"There is no fog in the breeze yet, and I see no cause for alarm."
"Ships are like flies in the spider's web of the sea."
"Just now both winds and waves are tolerably favourable."
"Black specks quivering on the billows--such are men on the ocean."
"I dare say there will be nothing wrong to-night."
"You may get into such a mess that you will find it hard to get out of
"All goes well at present."
The doctor's eyes were fixed on the north-east. The skipper continued,--
"Let us once reach the Gulf of Gascony, and I answer for our safety. Ah!
I should say I am at home there. I know it well, my Gulf of Gascony. It
is a little basin, often very boisterous; but there, I know every
sounding in it and the nature of the bottom--mud opposite San Cipriano,
shells opposite Cizarque, sand off Cape Penas, little pebbles off
Boncaut de Mimizan, and I know the colour of every pebble."
The skipper broke off; the doctor was no longer listening.
The doctor gazed at the north-east. Over that icy face passed an
extraordinary expression. All the agony of terror possible to a mask of
stone was depicted there. From his mouth escaped this word, "Good!"
His eyeballs, which had all at once become quite round like an owl's,
were dilated with stupor on discovering a speck on the horizon. He
"It is well. As for me, I am resigned."
The skipper looked at him. The doctor went on talking to himself, or to
some one in the deep,--
"I say, Yes."
Then he was silent, opened his eyes wider and wider with renewed
attention on that which he was watching, and said,--
"It is coming from afar, but not the less surely will it come."
The arc of the horizon which occupied the visual rays and thoughts of
the doctor, being opposite to the west, was illuminated by the
transcendent reflection of twilight, as if it were day. This arc,
limited in extent, and surrounded by streaks of grayish vapour, was
uniformly blue, but of a leaden rather than cerulean blue. The doctor,
having completely returned to the contemplation of the sea, pointed to
this atmospheric arc, and said,--
"Skipper, do you see?"
"A blue spot? Yes."
"What is it?"
"A niche in heaven."
"For those who go to heaven; for those who go elsewhere it is another
affair." And he emphasized these enigmatical words with an appalling
expression which was unseen in the darkness.
A silence ensued. The skipper, remembering the two names given by the
chief to this man, asked himself the question,--
"Is he a madman, or is he a sage?"
The stiff and bony finger of the doctor remained immovably pointing,
like a sign-post, to the misty blue spot in the sky.
The skipper looked at this spot.
"In truth," he growled out, "it is not sky but clouds."
"A blue cloud is worse than a black cloud," said the doctor; "and," he
added, "it's a snow-cloud."
"La nube de la nieve," said the skipper, as if trying to understand the
word better by translating it.
"Do you know what a snow-cloud is?" asked the doctor.
"You'll know by-and-by."
The skipper again turned his attention to the horizon.
Continuing to observe the cloud, he muttered between his teeth,--
"One month of squalls, another of wet; January with its gales, February
with its rains--that's all the winter we Asturians get. Our rain even is
warm. We've no snow but on the mountains. Ay, ay; look out for the
avalanche. The avalanche is no respecter of persons. The avalanche is a
"And the waterspout is a monster," said the doctor, adding, after a
pause, "Here it comes." He continued, "Several winds are getting up
together--a strong wind from the west, and a gentle wind from the east."
"That last is a deceitful one," said the skipper.
* * * * *
The blue cloud was growing larger.
"If the snow," said the doctor, "is appalling when it slips down the
mountain, think what it is when it falls from the Pole!"
His eye was glassy. The cloud seemed to spread over his face and
simultaneously over the horizon. He continued, in musing tones,--
"Every minute the fatal hour draws nearer. The will of Heaven is about
to be manifested."
The skipper asked himself again this question,--"Is he a madman?"
"Skipper," began the doctor, without taking his eyes off the cloud,
"have you often crossed the Channel?"
"This is the first time."
The doctor, who was absorbed by the blue cloud, and who, as a sponge can
take up but a definite quantity of water, had but a definite measure of
anxiety, displayed no more emotion at this answer of the skipper than
was expressed by a slight shrug of his shoulders.
"How is that?"
"Master Doctor, my usual cruise is to Ireland. I sail from Fontarabia to
Black Harbour or to the Achill Islands. I go sometimes to Braich-y-Pwll,
a point on the Welsh coast. But I always steer outside the Scilly
Islands. I do not know this sea at all."
"That's serious. Woe to him who is inexperienced on the ocean! One ought
to be familiar with the Channel--the Channel is the Sphinx. Look out for
"We are in twenty-five fathoms here."
"We ought to get into fifty-five fathoms to the west, and avoid even
twenty fathoms to the east."
"We'll sound as we get on."
"The Channel is not an ordinary sea. The water rises fifty feet with the
spring tides, and twenty-five with neap tides. Here we are in slack
water. I thought you looked scared."
"We'll sound to-night."
"To sound you must heave to, and that you cannot do."
"On account of the wind."
"The squall is close on us."
"We'll sound, Master Doctor."
"You could not even bring to."
"Trust in God."
"Take care what you say. Pronounce not lightly the awful name."
"I will sound, I tell you."
"Be sensible; you will have a gale of wind presently."
"I say that I will try for soundings."
"The resistance of the water will prevent the lead from sinking, and the
line will break. Ah! so this is your first time in these waters?"
"The first time."
"Very well; in that case listen, skipper."
The tone of the word "listen" was so commanding that the skipper made an
"Master Doctor, I am all attention."
"Port your helm, and haul up on the starboard tack."
"What do you mean?"
"Steer your course to the west."
"Steer your course to the west."
"As you will. What I tell you is for the others' sake. As for myself, I
"But, Master Doctor, steer west?"
"The wind will be dead ahead."
"She'll pitch like the devil."
"Moderate your language. Yes, skipper."
"The vessel would be in irons."
"That means very likely the mast will go."
"Do you wish me to steer west?"
"In that case settle your reckoning with the sea."
"The wind ought to change."
"It will not change all night."
"Because it is a wind twelve hundred leagues in length."
"Make headway against such a wind! Impossible."
"To the west, I tell you."
"I'll try, but in spite of everything she will fall off."
"That's the danger."
"The wind sets us to the east."
"Don't go to the east."
"Skipper, do you know what is for us the word of death?"
"Death is the east."
"I'll steer west."
This time the doctor, having turned right round, looked the skipper full
in the face, and with his eyes resting on him, as though to implant the
idea in his head, pronounced slowly, syllable by syllable, these
"If to-night out at sea we hear the sound of a bell, the ship is lost."
The skipper pondered in amaze.
"What do you mean?"
The doctor did not answer. His countenance, expressive for a moment, was
now reserved. His eyes became vacuous. He did not appear to hear the
skipper's wondering question. He was now attending to his own monologue.
His lips let fall, as if mechanically, in a low murmuring tone, these
"The time has come for sullied souls to purify themselves."
The skipper made that expressive grimace which raises the chin towards
"He is more madman than sage," he growled, and moved off.
Nevertheless he steered west.
But the wind and the sea were rising.
The mist was deformed by all sorts of inequalities, bulging out at once
on every point of the horizon, as if invisible mouths were busy puffing
out the bags of wind. The formation of the clouds was becoming ominous.
In the west, as in the east, the sky's depths were now invaded by the
blue cloud: it advanced in the teeth of the wind. These contradictions
are part of the wind's vagaries.
The sea, which a moment before wore scales, now wore a skin--such is the
nature of that dragon. It was no longer a crocodile: it was a boa. The
skin, lead-coloured and dirty, looked thick, and was crossed by heavy
wrinkles. Here and there, on its surface, bubbles of surge, like
pustules, gathered and then burst. The foam was like a leprosy. It was
at this moment that the hooker, still seen from afar by the child,
lighted her signal.
A quarter of an hour elapsed.
The skipper looked for the doctor: he was no longer on deck. Directly
the skipper had left him, the doctor had stooped his somewhat ungainly
form under the hood, and had entered the cabin; there he had sat down
near the stove, on a block. He had taken a shagreen ink-bottle and a
cordwain pocket-book from his pocket; he had extracted from his
pocket-book a parchment folded four times, old, stained, and yellow; he
had opened the sheet, taken a pen out of his ink-case, placed the
pocket-book flat on his knee, and the parchment on the pocket-book; and
by the rays of the lantern, which was lighting the cook, he set to
writing on the back of the parchment. The roll of the waves
inconvenienced him. He wrote thus for some time.
As he wrote, the doctor remarked the gourd of aguardiente, which the
Provencal tasted every time he added a grain of pimento to the puchero,
as if he were consulting it in reference to the seasoning. The doctor
noticed the gourd, not because it was a bottle of brandy, but because of
a name which was plaited in the wickerwork with red rushes on a
background of white. There was light enough in the cabin to permit of
his reading the name.
The doctor paused, and spelled it in a low voice,--
Then he addressed the cook.
"I had not observed that gourd before; did it belong to Hardquanonne?"
"Yes," the cook answered; "to our poor comrade, Hardquanonne."
The doctor went on,--
"To Hardquanonne, the Fleming of Flanders?"
"Who is in prison?"
"In the dungeon at Chatham?"
"It is his gourd," replied the cook; "and he was my friend. I keep it in
remembrance of him. When shall we see him again? It is the bottle he
used to wear slung over his hip."
The doctor took up his pen again, and continued laboriously tracing
somewhat straggling lines on the parchment. He was evidently anxious
that his handwriting should be very legible; and at length,
notwithstanding the tremulousness of the vessel and the tremulousness of
age, he finished what he wanted to write.
It was time, for suddenly a sea struck the craft, a mighty rush of
waters besieged the hooker, and they felt her break into that fearful
dance in which ships lead off with the tempest.
The doctor arose and approached the stove, meeting the ship's motion
with his knees dexterously bent, dried as best he could, at the stove
where the pot was boiling, the lines he had written, refolded the
parchment in the pocket-book, and replaced the pocket-book and the
inkhorn in his pocket.
The stove was not the least ingenious piece of interior economy in the
hooker. It was judiciously isolated. Meanwhile the pot heaved--the
Provencal was watching it.
"Fish broth," said he.
"For the fishes," replied the doctor. Then he went on deck again.
THEY THINK THAT HELP IS AT HAND.
Through his growing preoccupation the doctor in some sort reviewed the
situation; and any one near to him might have heard these words drop
from his lips,--
"Too much rolling, and not enough pitching."
Then recalled to himself by the dark workings of his mind, he sank again
into thought, as a miner into his shaft. His meditation in nowise
interfered with his watch on the sea. The contemplation of the sea is in
itself a reverie.
The dark punishment of the waters, eternally tortured, was commencing. A
lamentation arose from the whole main. Preparations, confused and
melancholy, were forming in space. The doctor observed all before him,
and lost no detail. There was, however, no sign of scrutiny in his face.
One does not scrutinize hell.
A vast commotion, yet half latent, but visible through the turmoils in
space, increased and irritated, more and more, the winds, the vapours,
the waves. Nothing is so logical and nothing appears so absurd as the
ocean. Self-dispersion is the essence of its sovereignty, and is one of
the elements of its redundance. The sea is ever for and against. It
knots that it may unravel itself; one of its slopes attacks, the other
relieves. No apparition is so wonderful as the waves. Who can paint the
alternating hollows and promontories, the valleys, the melting bosoms,
the sketches? How render the thickets of foam, blendings of mountains
and dreams? The indescribable is everywhere there--in the rending, in
the frowning, in the anxiety, in the perpetual contradiction, in the
chiaroscuro, in the pendants of the cloud, in the keys of the ever-open
vault, in the disaggregation without rupture, in the funereal tumult
caused by all that madness!
The wind had just set due north. Its violence was so favourable and so
useful in driving them away from England that the captain of the
_Matutina_ had made up his mind to set all sail. The hooker slipped
through the foam as at a gallop, the wind right aft, bounding from wave
to wave in a gay frenzy. The fugitives were delighted, and laughed; they
clapped their hands, applauded the surf, the sea, the wind, the sails,
the swift progress, the flight, all unmindful of the future. The doctor
appeared not to see them, and dreamt on.
Every vestige of day had faded away. This was the moment when the child,
watching from the distant cliff, lost sight of the hooker. Up to then
his glance had remained fixed, and, as it were, leaning on the vessel.
What part had that look in fate? When the hooker was lost to sight in
the distance, and when the child could no longer see aught, the child
went north and the ship went south.
All were plunged in darkness.
On their part it was with wild jubilee and delight that those on board
the hooker saw the hostile land recede and lessen behind them. By
degrees the dark ring of ocean rose higher, dwarfing in twilight
Portland, Purbeck, Tineham, Kimmeridge, the Matravers, the long streaks
of dim cliffs, and the coast dotted with lighthouses.
England disappeared. The fugitives had now nothing round them but the
All at once night grew awful.
There was no longer extent nor space; the sky became blackness, and
closed in round the vessel. The snow began to fall slowly; a few flakes
appeared. They might have been ghosts. Nothing else was visible in the
course of the wind. They felt as if yielded up. A snare lurked in every
It is in this cavernous darkness that in our climate the Polar
waterspout makes its appearance.
A great muddy cloud, like to the belly of a hydra, hung over ocean, and
in places its lividity adhered to the waves. Some of these adherences
resembled pouches with holes, pumping the sea, disgorging vapour, and
refilling themselves with water. Here and there these suctions drew up
cones of foam on the sea.
The boreal storm hurled itself on the hooker. The hooker rushed to meet
it. The squall and the vessel met as though to insult each other.
In the first mad shock not a sail was clewed up, not a jib lowered, not
a reef taken in, so much is flight a delirium. The mast creaked and bent
back as if in fear.
Cyclones, in our northern hemisphere, circle from left to right, in the
same direction as the hands of a watch, with a velocity which is
sometimes as much as sixty miles an hour. Although she was entirely at
the mercy of that whirling power, the hooker behaved as if she were out
in moderate weather, without any further precaution than keeping her
head on to the rollers, with the wind broad on the bow so as to avoid
being pooped or caught broadside on. This semi-prudence would have
availed her nothing in case of the wind's shifting and taking her aback.
A deep rumbling was brewing up in the distance. The roar of the abyss,
nothing can be compared to it. It is the great brutish howl of the
universe. What we call matter, that unsearchable organism, that
amalgamation of incommensurable energies, in which can occasionally be
detected an almost imperceptible degree of intention which makes us
shudder, that blind, benighted cosmos, that enigmatical Pan, has a cry,
a strange cry, prolonged, obstinate, and continuous, which is less than
speech and more than thunder. That cry is the hurricane. Other voices,
songs, melodies, clamours, tones, proceed from nests, from broods, from
pairings, from nuptials, from homes. This one, a trumpet, comes out of
the Naught, which is All. Other voices express the soul of the universe;
this one expresses the monster. It is the howl of the formless. It is
the inarticulate finding utterance in the indefinite. A thing it is full
of pathos and terror. Those clamours converse above and beyond man. They
rise, fall, undulate, determine waves of sound, form all sorts of wild
surprises for the mind, now burst close to the ear with the importunity
of a peal of trumpets, now assail us with the rumbling hoarseness of
distance. Giddy uproar which resembles a language, and which, in fact,
is a language. It is the effort which the world makes to speak. It is
the lisping of the wonderful. In this wail is manifested vaguely all
that the vast dark palpitation endures, suffers, accepts, rejects. For
the most part it talks nonsense; it is like an access of chronic
sickness, and rather an epilepsy diffused than a force employed; we
fancy that we are witnessing the descent of supreme evil into the
infinite. At moments we seem to discern a reclamation of the elements,
some vain effort of chaos to reassert itself over creation. At times it
is a complaint. The void bewails and justifies itself. It is as the
pleading of the world's cause. We can fancy that the universe is engaged
in a lawsuit; we listen--we try to grasp the reasons given, the
redoubtable for and against. Such a moaning of the shadows has the
tenacity of a syllogism. Here is a vast trouble for thought. Here is the
_raison d'etre_ of mythologies and polytheisms. To the terror of those
great murmurs are added superhuman outlines melting away as they
appear--Eumenides which are almost distinct, throats of Furies shaped in
the clouds, Plutonian chimeras almost defined. No horrors equal those
sobs, those laughs, those tricks of tumult, those inscrutable questions
and answers, those appeals to unknown aid. Man knows not what to become
in the presence of that awful incantation. He bows under the enigma of
those Draconian intonations. What latent meaning have they? What do they
signify? What do they threaten? What do they implore? It would seem as
though all bonds were loosened. Vociferations from precipice to
precipice, from air to water, from the wind to the wave, from the rain
to the rock, from the zenith to the nadir, from the stars to the
foam--the abyss unmuzzled--such is that tumult, complicated by some
mysterious strife with evil consciences.
The loquacity of night is not less lugubrious than its silence. One
feels in it the anger of the unknown.
Night is a presence. Presence of what?
For that matter we must distinguish between night and the shadows. In
the night there is the absolute; in the darkness the multiple. Grammar,
logic as it is, admits of no singular for the shadows. The night is one,
the shadows are many.
This mist of nocturnal mystery is the scattered, the fugitive, the
crumbling, the fatal; one feels earth no longer, one feels the other
In the shadow, infinite and indefinite, lives something or some one; but
that which lives there forms part of our death. After our earthly
passage, when that shadow shall be light for us, the life which is
beyond our life shall seize us. Meanwhile it appears to touch and try
us. Obscurity is a pressure. Night is, as it were, a hand placed on our
soul. At certain hideous and solemn hours we feel that which is beyond
the wall of the tomb encroaching on us.
Never does this proximity of the unknown seem more imminent than in
storms at sea. The horrible combines with the fantastic. The possible
interrupter of human actions, the old Cloud compeller, has it in his
power to mould, in whatsoever shape he chooses, the inconsistent
element, the limitless incoherence, the force diffused and undecided of
aim. That mystery the tempest every instant accepts and executes some
unknown changes of will, apparent or real.
Poets have, in all ages, called this the caprice of the waves. But there
is no such thing as caprice. The disconcerting enigmas which in nature
we call caprice, and in human life chance, are splinters of a law
revealed to us in glimpses.
NIX ET NOX.
The characteristic of the snowstorm is its blackness. Nature's habitual
aspect during a storm, the earth or sea black and the sky pale, is
reversed; the sky is black, the ocean white, foam below, darkness
above; a horizon walled in with smoke; a zenith roofed with crape. The
tempest resembles a cathedral hung with mourning, but no light in that
cathedral: no phantom lights on the crests of the waves, no spark, no
phosphorescence, naught but a huge shadow. The polar cyclone differs
from the tropical cyclone, inasmuch as the one sets fire to every light,
and the other extinguishes them all. The world is suddenly converted
into the arched vault of a cave. Out of the night falls a dust of pale
spots, which hesitate between sky and sea. These spots, which are flakes
of snow, slip, wander, and flow. It is like the tears of a winding-sheet
putting themselves into lifelike motion. A mad wind mingles with this
dissemination. Blackness crumbling into whiteness, the furious into the
obscure, all the tumult of which the sepulchre is capable, a whirlwind
under a catafalque--such is the snowstorm. Underneath trembles the
ocean, forming and re-forming over portentous unknown depths.
In the polar wind, which is electrical, the flakes turn suddenly into
hailstones, and the air becomes filled with projectiles; the water
crackles, shot with grape.
No thunderstrokes: the lightning of boreal storms is silent. What is
sometimes said of the cat, "it swears," may be applied to this
lightning. It is a menace proceeding from a mouth half open and
strangely inexorable. The snowstorm is a storm blind and dumb; when it
has passed, the ships also are often blind and the sailors dumb.
To escape from such an abyss is difficult.
It would be wrong, however, to believe shipwreck to be absolutely
inevitable. The Danish fishermen of Disco and the Balesin; the seekers
of black whales; Hearn steering towards Behring Strait, to discover the
mouth of Coppermine River; Hudson, Mackenzie, Vancouver, Ross, Dumont
D'Urville, all underwent at the Pole itself the wildest hurricanes, and
escaped out of them.
It was into this description of tempest that the hooker had entered,
triumphant and in full sail--frenzy against frenzy. When Montgomery,
escaping from Rouen, threw his galley, with all the force of its oars,
against the chain barring the Seine at La Bouille, he showed similar
The _Matutina_ sailed on fast; she bent so much under her sails that at
moments she made a fearful angle with the sea of fifteen degrees; but
her good bellied keel adhered to the water as if glued to it. The keel
resisted the grasp of the hurricane. The lantern at the prow cast its
The cloud, full of winds, dragging its tumour over the deep, cramped and
eat more and more into the sea round the hooker. Not a gull, not a
sea-mew, nothing but snow. The expanse of the field of waves was
becoming contracted and terrible; only three or four gigantic ones were
Now and then a tremendous flash of lightning of a red copper colour
broke out behind the obscure superposition of the horizon and the
zenith; that sudden release of vermilion flame revealed the horror of
the clouds; that abrupt conflagration of the depths, to which for an
instant the first tiers of clouds and the distant boundaries of the
celestial chaos seemed to adhere, placed the abyss in perspective. On
this ground of fire the snow-flakes showed black--they might have been
compared to dark butterflies flying about in a furnace--then all was
The first explosion over, the squall, still pursuing the hooker, began
to roar in thorough bass. This phase of grumbling is a perilous
diminution of uproar. Nothing is so terrifying as this monologue of the
storm. This gloomy recitative appears to serve as a moment of rest to
the mysterious combating forces, and indicates a species of patrol kept
in the unknown.
The hooker held wildly on her course. Her two mainsails especially were
doing fearful work. The sky and sea were as of ink with jets of foam
running higher than the mast. Every instant masses of water swept the
deck like a deluge, and at each roll of the vessel the hawse-holes, now
to starboard, now to larboard, became as so many open mouths vomiting
back the foam into the sea. The women had taken refuge in the cabin, but