Part 3 out of 13
the men remained on deck; the blinding snow eddied round, the spitting
surge mingled with it. All was fury.
At that moment the chief of the band, standing abaft on the stern
frames, holding on with one hand to the shrouds, and with the other
taking off the kerchief he wore round his head and waving it in the
light of the lantern, gay and arrogant, with pride in his face, and his
hair in wild disorder, intoxicated by all the darkness, cried out,--
"We are free!"
"Free, free, free," echoed the fugitives, and the band, seizing hold of
the rigging, rose up on deck.
"Hurrah!" shouted the chief.
And the band shouted in the storm,--
Just as this clamour was dying away in the tempest, a loud solemn voice
rose from the other end of the vessel, saying,--
All turned their heads. The darkness was thick, and the doctor was
leaning against the mast so that he seemed part of it, and they could
not see him.
The voice spoke again,--
All were silent.
Then did they distinctly hear through the darkness the toll of a bell.
THE CHARGE CONFIDED TO A RAGING SEA.
The skipper, at the helm, burst out laughing,--
"A bell! that's good. We are on the larboard tack. What does the bell
prove? Why, that we have land to starboard."
The firm and measured voice of the doctor replied,--
"You have not land to starboard."
"But we have," shouted the skipper.
"But that bell tolls from the land."
"That bell," said the doctor, "tolls from the sea."
A shudder passed over these daring men. The haggard faces of the two
women appeared above the companion like two hobgoblins conjured up. The
doctor took a step forward, separating his tall form from the mast. From
the depth of the night's darkness came the toll of the bell.
The doctor resumed,--
"There is in the midst of the sea, halfway between Portland and the
Channel Islands, a buoy, placed there as a caution; that buoy is moored
by chains to the shoal, and floats on the top of the water. On the buoy
is fixed an iron trestle, and across the trestle a bell is hung. In bad
weather heavy seas toss the buoy, and the bell rings. That is the bell
The doctor paused to allow an extra violent gust of wind to pass over,
waited until the sound of the bell reasserted itself, and then went
"To hear that bell in a storm, when the nor'-wester is blowing, is to be
lost. Wherefore? For this reason: if you hear the bell, it is because
the wind brings it to you. But the wind is nor'-westerly, and the
breakers of Aurigny lie east. You hear the bell only because you are
between the buoy and the breakers. It is on those breakers the wind is
driving you. You are on the wrong side of the buoy. If you were on the
right side, you would be out at sea on a safe course, and you would not
hear the bell. The wind would not convey the sound to you. You would
pass close to the buoy without knowing it. We are out of our course.
That bell is shipwreck sounding the tocsin. Now, look out!"
As the doctor spoke, the bell, soothed by a lull of the storm, rang
slowly stroke by stroke, and its intermitting toll seemed to testify to
the truth of the old man's words. It was as the knell of the abyss.
All listened breathless, now to the voice, now to the bell.
THE COLOSSAL SAVAGE, THE STORM.
In the meantime the skipper had caught up his speaking-trumpet.
"Strike every sail, my lads; let go the sheets, man the down-hauls,
lower ties and brails. Let us steer to the west, let us regain the high
sea; head for the buoy, steer for the bell--there's an offing down
there. We've yet a chance."
"Try," said the doctor.
Let us remark here, by the way, that this ringing buoy, a kind of bell
tower on the deep, was removed in 1802. There are yet alive very old
mariners who remember hearing it. It forewarned, but rather too late.
The orders of the skipper were obeyed. The Languedocian made a third
sailor. All bore a hand. Not satisfied with brailing up, they furled the
sails, lashed the earrings, secured the clew-lines, bunt-lines, and
leech-lines, and clapped preventer-shrouds on the block straps, which
thus might serve as back-stays. They fished the mast. They battened down
the ports and bulls'-eyes, which is a method of walling up a ship. These
evolutions, though executed in a lubberly fashion, were, nevertheless,
thoroughly effective. The hooker was stripped to bare poles. But in
proportion as the vessel, stowing every stitch of canvas, became more
helpless, the havoc of both winds and waves increased. The seas ran
mountains high. The hurricane, like an executioner hastening to his
victim, began to dismember the craft. There came, in the twinkling of an
eye, a dreadful crash: the top-sails were blown from the bolt-ropes, the
chess-trees were hewn asunder, the deck was swept clear, the shrouds
were carried away, the mast went by the board, all the lumber of the
wreck was flying in shivers. The main shrouds gave out although they
were turned in, and stoppered to four fathoms.
The magnetic currents common to snowstorms hastened the destruction of
the rigging. It broke as much from the effect of effluvium as the
violence of the wind. Most of the chain gear, fouled in the blocks,
ceased to work. Forward the bows, aft the quarters, quivered under the
terrific shocks. One wave washed overboard the compass and its binnacle.
A second carried away the boat, which, like a box slung under a
carriage, had been, in accordance with the quaint Asturian custom,
lashed to the bowsprit. A third breaker wrenched off the spritsail yard.
A fourth swept away the figurehead and signal light. The rudder only was
To replace the ship's bow lantern they set fire to, and suspended at the
stem, a large block of wood covered with oakum and tar.
The mast, broken in two, all bristling with quivering splinters, ropes,
blocks, and yards, cumbered the deck. In falling it had stove in a plank
of the starboard gunwale. The skipper, still firm at the helm,
"While we can steer we have yet a chance. The lower planks hold good.
Axes, axes! Overboard with the mast! Clear the decks!"
Both crew and passengers worked with the excitement of despair. A few
strokes of the hatchets, and it was done. They pushed the mast over the
side. The deck was cleared.
"Now," continued the skipper, "take a rope's end and lash me to the
helm." To the tiller they bound him.
While they were fastening him he laughed, and shouted,--
"Blow, old hurdy-gurdy, bellow. I've seen your equal off Cape
And when secured he clutched the helm with that strange hilarity which
"All goes well, my lads. Long live our Lady of Buglose! Let us steer
An enormous wave came down abeam, and fell on the vessel's quarter.
There is always in storms a tiger-like wave, a billow fierce and
decisive, which, attaining a certain height, creeps horizontally over
the surface of the waters for a time, then rises, roars, rages, and
falling on the distressed vessel tears it limb from limb.
A cloud of foam covered the entire poop of the _Matutina_.
There was heard above the confusion of darkness and waters a crash.
When the spray cleared off, when the stern again rose in view, the
skipper and the helm had disappeared. Both had been swept away.
The helm and the man they had but just secured to it had passed with the
wave into the hissing turmoil of the hurricane.
The chief of the band, gazing intently into the darkness, shouted,--
"_Te burlas de nosotros?_"
To this defiant exclamation there followed another cry,--
"Let go the anchor. Save the skipper."
They rushed to the capstan and let go the anchor.
Hookers carry but one. In this case the anchor reached the bottom, but
only to be lost. The bottom was of the hardest rock. The billows were
raging with resistless force. The cable snapped like a thread.
The anchor lay at the bottom of the sea. At the cutwater there remained
but the cable end protruding from the hawse-hole.
From this moment the hooker became a wreck. The _Matutina_ was
irrevocably disabled. The vessel, just before in full sail, and almost
formidable in her speed, was now helpless. All her evolutions were
uncertain and executed at random. She yielded passively and like a log
to the capricious fury of the waves. That in a few minutes there should
be in place of an eagle a useless cripple, such a transformation is to
be witnessed only at sea.
The howling of the wind became more and more frightful. A hurricane has
terrible lungs; it makes unceasingly mournful additions to darkness,
which cannot be intensified. The bell on the sea rang despairingly, as
if tolled by a weird hand.
The _Matutina_ drifted like a cork at the mercy of the waves. She sailed
no longer--she merely floated. Every moment she seemed about to turn
over on her back, like a dead fish. The good condition and perfectly
water-tight state of the hull alone saved her from this disaster. Below
the water-line not a plank had started. There was not a cranny, chink,
nor crack; and she had not made a single drop of water in the hold. This
was lucky, as the pump, being out of order, was useless.
The hooker pitched and roared frightfully in the seething billows. The
vessel had throes as of sickness, and seemed to be trying to belch forth
the unhappy crew.
Helpless they clung to the standing rigging, to the transoms, to the
shank painters, to the gaskets, to the broken planks, the protruding
nails of which tore their hands, to the warped riders, and to all the
rugged projections of the stumps of the masts. From time to time they
listened. The toll of the bell came over the waters fainter and fainter;
one would have thought that it also was in distress. Its ringing was no
more than an intermittent rattle. Then this rattle died away. Where were
they? At what distance from the buoy? The sound of the bell had
frightened them; its silence terrified them. The north-wester drove them
forward in perhaps a fatal course. They felt themselves wafted on by
maddened and ever-recurring gusts of wind. The wreck sped forward in the
darkness. There is nothing more fearful than being hurried forward
blindfold. They felt the abyss before them, over them, under them. It
was no longer a run, it was a rush.
Suddenly, through the appalling density of the snowstorm, there loomed a
"A lighthouse!" cried the crew.
It was indeed the Caskets light.
A lighthouse of the nineteenth century is a high cylinder of masonry,
surmounted by scientifically constructed machinery for throwing light.
The Caskets lighthouse in particular is a triple white tower, bearing
three light-rooms. These three chambers revolve on clockwork wheels,
with such precision that the man on watch who sees them from sea can
invariably take ten steps during their irradiation, and twenty-five
during their eclipse. Everything is based on the focal plan, and on the
rotation of the octagon drum, formed of eight wide simple lenses in
range, having above and below it two series of dioptric rings; an
algebraic gear, secured from the effects of the beating of winds and
waves by glass a millimetre thick, yet sometimes broken by the
sea-eagles, which dash themselves like great moths against these
gigantic lanterns. The building which encloses and sustains this
mechanism, and in which it is set, is also mathematically constructed.
Everything about it is plain, exact, bare, precise, correct. A
lighthouse is a mathematical figure.
In the seventeenth century a lighthouse was a sort of plume of the land
on the seashore. The architecture of a lighthouse tower was magnificent
and extravagant. It was covered with balconies, balusters, lodges,
alcoves, weathercocks. Nothing but masks, statues, foliage, volutes,
reliefs, figures large and small, medallions with inscriptions. _Pax in
bello_, said the Eddystone lighthouse. We may as well observe, by the
way, that this declaration of peace did not always disarm the ocean.
Winstanley repeated it on a lighthouse which he constructed at his own
expense, on a wild spot near Plymouth. The tower being finished, he shut
himself up in it to have it tried by the tempest. The storm came, and
carried off the lighthouse and Winstanley in it. Such excessive
adornment gave too great a hold to the hurricane, as generals too
brilliantly equipped in battle draw the enemy's fire. Besides whimsical
designs in stone, they were loaded with whimsical designs in iron,
copper, and wood. The ironwork was in relief, the woodwork stood out. On
the sides of the lighthouse there jutted out, clinging to the walls
among the arabesques, engines of every description, useful and useless,
windlasses, tackles, pulleys, counterpoises, ladders, cranes, grapnels.
On the pinnacle around the light delicately-wrought ironwork held great
iron chandeliers, in which were placed pieces of rope steeped in resin;
wicks which burned doggedly, and which no wind extinguished; and from
top to bottom the tower was covered by a complication of sea-standards,
banderoles, banners, flags, pennons, colours which rose from stage to
stage, from story to story, a medley of all hues, all shapes, all
heraldic devices, all signals, all confusion, up to the light chamber,
making, in the storm, a gay riot of tatters about the blaze. That
insolent light on the brink of the abyss showed like a defiance, and
inspired shipwrecked men with a spirit of daring. But the Caskets light
was not after this fashion.
It was, at that period, merely an old barbarous lighthouse, such as
Henry I. had built it after the loss of the _White Ship_--a flaming pile
of wood under an iron trellis, a brazier behind a railing, a head of
hair flaming in the wind.
The only improvement made in this lighthouse since the twelfth century
was a pair of forge-bellows worked by an indented pendulum and a stone
weight, which had been added to the light chamber in 1610.
The fate of the sea-birds who chanced to fly against these old
lighthouses was more tragic than those of our days. The birds dashed
against them, attracted by the light, and fell into the brazier, where
they could be seen struggling like black spirits in a hell, and at times
they would fall back again between the railings upon the rock, red hot,
smoking, lame, blind, like half-burnt flies out of a lamp.
To a full-rigged ship in good trim, answering readily to the pilot's
handling, the Caskets light is useful; it cries, "Look out;" it warns
her of the shoal. To a disabled ship it is simply terrible. The hull,
paralyzed and inert, without resistance, without defence against the
impulse of the storm or the mad heaving of the waves, a fish without
fins, a bird without wings, can but go where the wind wills. The
lighthouse shows the end--points out the spot where it is doomed to
disappear--throws light upon the burial. It is the torch of the
To light up the inexorable chasm, to warn against the inevitable, what
more tragic mockery!
FACE TO FACE WITH THE ROCK.
The wretched people in distress on board the _Matutina_ understood at
once the mysterious derision which mocked their shipwreck. The
appearance of the lighthouse raised their spirits at first, then
overwhelmed them. Nothing could be done, nothing attempted. What has
been said of kings, we may say of the waves--we are their people, we are
their prey. All that they rave must be borne. The nor'-wester was
driving the hooker on the Caskets. They were nearing them; no evasion
was possible. They drifted rapidly towards the reef; they felt that they
were getting into shallow waters; the lead, if they could have thrown it
to any purpose, would not have shown more than three or four fathoms.
The shipwrecked people heard the dull sound of the waves being sucked
within the submarine caves of the steep rock. They made out, under the
lighthouse, like a dark cutting between two plates of granite, the
narrow passage of the ugly wild-looking little harbour, supposed to be
full of the skeletons of men and carcasses of ships. It looked like the
mouth of a cavern, rather than the entrance of a port. They could hear
the crackling of the pile on high within the iron grating. A ghastly
purple illuminated the storm; the collision of the rain and hail
disturbed the mist. The black cloud and the red flame fought, serpent
against serpent; live ashes, reft by the wind, flew from the fire, and
the sudden assaults of the sparks seemed to drive the snowflakes before
them. The breakers, blurred at first in outline, now stood out in bold
relief, a medley of rocks with peaks, crests, and vertebrae. The angles
were formed by strongly marked red lines, and the inclined planes in
blood-like streams of light. As they neared it, the outline of the reefs
increased and rose--sinister.
One of the women, the Irishwoman, told her beads wildly.
In place of the skipper, who was the pilot, remained the chief, who was
the captain. The Basques all know the mountain and the sea. They are
bold on the precipice, and inventive in catastrophes.
They neared the cliff. They were about to strike. Suddenly they were so
close to the great north rock of the Caskets that it shut out the
lighthouse from them. They saw nothing but the rock and the red light
behind it. The huge rock looming in the mist was like a gigantic black
woman with a hood of fire.
That ill-famed rock is called the Biblet. It faces the north
side the reef, which on the south is faced by another ridge,
L'Etacq-aux-giulmets. The chief looked at the Biblet, and shouted,--
"A man with a will to take a rope to the rock! Who can swim?"
No one on board knew how to swim, not even the sailors--an ignorance not
uncommon among seafaring people.
A beam nearly free of its lashings was swinging loose. The chief clasped
it with both hands, crying, "Help me."
They unlashed the beam. They had now at their disposal the very thing
they wanted. From the defensive, they assumed the offensive.
It was a longish beam of heart of oak, sound and strong, useful either
as a support or as an engine of attack--a lever for a burden, a ram
against a tower.
"Ready!" shouted the chief.
All six, getting foothold on the stump of the mast, threw their weight
on the spar projecting over the side, straight as a lance towards a
projection of the cliff.
It was a dangerous manoeuvre. To strike at a mountain is audacity
indeed. The six men might well have been thrown into the water by the
There is variety in struggles with storms. After the hurricane, the
shoal; after the wind, the rock. First the intangible, then the
immovable, to be encountered.
Some minutes passed, such minutes as whiten men's hair.
The rock and the vessel were about to come in collision. The rock, like
a culprit, awaited the blow.
A resistless wave rushed in; it ended the respite. It caught the vessel
underneath, raised it, and swayed it for an instant as the sling swings
"Steady!" cried the chief; "it is only a rock, and we are men."
The beam was couched, the six men were one with it, its sharp bolts tore
their arm-pits, but they did not feel them.
The wave dashed the hooker against the rock.
Then came the shock.
It came under the shapeless cloud of foam which always hides such
When this cloud fell back into the sea, when the waves rolled back from
the rock, the six men were tossing about the deck, but the _Matutina_
was floating alongside the rock--clear of it. The beam had stood and
turned the vessel; the sea was running so fast that in a few seconds she
had left the Caskets behind.
Such things sometimes occur. It was a straight stroke of the bowsprit
that saved Wood of Largo at the mouth of the Tay. In the wild
neighbourhood of Cape Winterton, and under the command of Captain
Hamilton, it was the appliance of such a lever against the dangerous
rock, Branodu-um, that saved the _Royal Mary_ from shipwreck, although
she was but a Scotch built frigate. The force of the waves can be so
abruptly discomposed that changes of direction can be easily managed, or
at least are possible even in the most violent collisions. There is a
brute in the tempest. The hurricane is a bull, and can be turned.
The whole secret of avoiding shipwreck is to try and pass from the
secant to the tangent.
Such was the service rendered by the beam to the vessel. It had done the
work of an oar, had taken the place of a rudder. But the manoeuvre once
performed could not be repeated. The beam was overboard; the shock of
the collision had wrenched it out of the men's hands, and it was lost in
the waves. To loosen another beam would have been to dislocate the hull.
The hurricane carried off the _Matutina_. Presently the Caskets showed
as a harmless encumbrance on the horizon. Nothing looks more out of
countenance than a reef of rocks under such circumstances. There are in
nature, in its obscure aspects, in which the visible blends with the
invisible, certain motionless, surly profiles, which seem to express
that a prey has escaped.
Thus glowered the Caskest while the _Matutina_ fled.
The lighthouse paled in distance, faded, and disappeared.
There was something mournful in its extinction. Layers of mist sank down
upon the now uncertain light. Its rays died in the waste of waters; the
flame floated, struggled, sank, and lost its form. It might have been a
drowning creature. The brasier dwindled to the snuff of a candle; then
nothing; more but a weak, uncertain flutter. Around it spread a circle
of extravasated glimmer; it was like the quenching of: light in the pit
The bell which had threatened was dumb. The lighthouse which had
threatened had melted away. And yet it was more awful now that they had
ceased to threaten. One was a voice, the other a torch. There was
something human about them.
They were gone, and nought remained but the abyss.
FACE TO FACE WITH NIGHT.
Again was the hooker running with the shadow into immeasurable darkness.
The _Matutina_, escaped from the Caskets, sank and rose from billow to
billow. A respite, but in chaos.
Spun round by the wind, tossed by all the thousand motions of the wave,
she reflected every mad oscillation of the sea. She scarcely pitched at
all--a terrible symptom of a ship's distress. Wrecks merely roll.
Pitching is a convulsion of the strife. The helm alone can turn a vessel
to the wind.
In storms, and more especially in the meteors of snow, sea and night
end by melting into amalgamation, resolving into nothing but a smoke.
Mists, whirlwinds, gales, motion in all directions, no basis, no
shelter, no stop. Constant recommencement, one gulf succeeding another.
No horizon visible; intense blackness for background. Through all these
the hooker drifted.
To have got free of the Caskets, to have eluded the rock, was a victory
for the shipwrecked men; but it was a victory which left them in stupor.
They had raised no cheer: at sea such an imprudence is not repeated
twice. To throw down a challenge where they could not cast the lead,
would have been too serious a jest.
The repulse of the rock was an impossibility achieved. They were
petrified by it. By degrees, however, they began to hope again. Such are
the insubmergable mirages of the soul! There is no distress so complete
but that even in the most critical moments the inexplicable sunrise of
hope is seen in its depths. These poor wretches were ready to
acknowledge to themselves that they were saved. It was on their lips.
But suddenly something terrible appeared to them in the darkness.
On the port bow arose, standing stark, cut out on the background of
mist, a tall, opaque mass, vertical, right-angled, a tower of the abyss.
They watched it open-mouthed.
The storm was driving them towards it.
They knew not what it was. It was the Ortach rock.
The reef reappeared. After the Caskets comes Ortach. The storm is no
artist; brutal and all-powerful, it never varies its appliances. The
darkness is inexhaustible. Its snares and perfidies never come to an
end. As for man, he soon comes to the bottom of his resources. Man
expends his strength, the abyss never.
The shipwrecked men turned towards the chief, their hope. He could only
shrug his shoulders. Dismal contempt of helplessness.
A pavement in the midst of the ocean--such is the Ortach rock. The
Ortach, all of a piece, rises up in a straight line to eighty feet above
the angry beating of the waves. Waves and ships break against it. An
immovable cube, it plunges its rectilinear planes apeak into the
numberless serpentine curves of the sea.
At night it stands an enormous block resting on the folds of a huge
black sheet. In time of storm it awaits the stroke of the axe, which is
But there is never a thunder-clap during the snowstorm. True, the ship
has the bandage round her eyes; darkness is knotted about her; she is
like one prepared to be led to the scaffold. As for the thunderbolt,
which makes quick ending, it is not to be hoped for.
The _Matutina_, nothing better than a log upon the waters, drifted
towards this rock as she had drifted towards the other. The poor
wretches on board, who had for a moment believed themselves saved,
relapsed into their agony. The destruction they had left behind faced
them again. The reef reappeared from the bottom of the sea. Nothing had
The Caskets are a figuring iron with a thousand compartments. The
Ortach is a wall. To be wrecked on the Caskets is to be cut into
ribbons; to strike on the Ortach is to be crushed into powder.
Nevertheless, there was one chance.
On a straight frontage such as that of the Ortach neither the wave nor
the cannon ball can ricochet. The operation is simple: first the flux,
then the reflux; a wave advances, a billow returns.
In such cases the question of life and death is balanced thus: if the
wave carries the vessel on the rock, she breaks on it and is lost; if
the billow retires before the ship has touched, she is carried back, she
It was a moment of great anxiety; those on board saw through the gloom
the great decisive wave bearing down on them. How far was it going to
drag them? If the wave broke upon the ship, they were carried on the
rock and dashed to pieces. If it passed under the ship....
The wave _did_ pass under.
They breathed again.
But what of the recoil? What would the surf do with them? The surf
carried them back. A few minutes later the _Matutina_ was free of the
breakers. The Ortach faded from their view, as the Caskets had done. It
was their second victory. For the second time the hooker had verged on
destruction, and had drawn back in time.
Meanwhile a thickening mist had descended on the drifting wretches. They
were ignorant of their whereabouts, they could scarcely see a cable's
length around. Despite a furious storm of hail which forced them to bend
down their heads, the women had obstinately refused to go below again.
No one, however hopeless, but wishes, if shipwreck be inevitable, to
meet it in the open air. When so near death, a ceiling above one's head
seems like the first outline of a coffin.
They were now in a short and chopping sea. A turgid sea indicates its
constraint. Even in a fog the entrance into a strait may be known by the
boiling-like appearance of the waves. And thus it was, for they were
unconsciously coasting Aurigny. Between the west of Ortach and the
Caskets and the east of Aurigny the sea is hemmed in and cramped, and
the uneasy position determines locally the condition of storms. The sea
suffers like others, and when it suffers it is irritable. That channel
is a thing to fear.
The _Matutina_ was in it.
Imagine under the sea a tortoise shell as big as Hyde Park or the Champs
Elysees, of which every striature is a shallow, and every embossment a
reef. Such is the western approach of Aurigny. The sea covers and
conceals this ship-wrecking apparatus. On this conglomeration of
submarine breakers the cloven waves leap and foam--in calm weather, a
chopping sea; in storms, a chaos.
The shipwrecked men observed this new complication without endeavouring
to explain it to themselves. Suddenly they understood it. A pale vista
broadened in the zenith; a wan tinge overspread the sea; the livid light
revealed on the port side a long shoal stretching eastward, towards
which the power of the rushing wind was driving the vessel. The shoal
What was that shoal? They shuddered. They would have shuddered even more
had a voice answered them--Aurigny.
No isle so well defended against man's approach as Aurigny. Below and
above water it is protected by a savage guard, of which Ortach is the
outpost. To the west, Burhou, Sauteriaux, Anfroque, Niangle, Fond du
Croc, Les Jumelles, La Grosse, La Clanque, Les Eguillons, Le Vrac, La
Fosse-Maliere; to the east, Sauquet, Hommeau Floreau, La Brinebetais, La
Queslingue, Croquelihou, La Fourche, Le Saut, Noire Pute, Coupie, Orbue.
These are hydra-monsters of the species reef.
One of these reefs is called Le But, the goal, as if to imply that every
voyage ends there.
This obstruction of rocks, simplified by night and sea, appeared to the
shipwrecked men in the shape of a single dark band, a sort of black blot
on the horizon.
Shipwreck is the ideal of helplessness; to be near land, and unable to
reach it; to float, yet not to be able to do so in any desired
direction; to rest the foot on what seems firm and is fragile; to be
full of life, when o'ershadowed by death; to be the prisoner of space;
to be walled in between sky and ocean; to have the infinite overhead
like a dungeon; to be encompassed by the eluding elements of wind and
waves; and to be seized, bound, paralyzed--such a load of misfortune
stupefies and crushes us. We imagine that in it we catch a glimpse of
the sneer of the opponent who is beyond our reach. That which holds you
fast is that which releases the birds and sets the fishes free. It
appears nothing, and is everything. We are dependent on the air which is
ruffled by our mouths; we are dependent on the water which we catch in
the hollow of our hands. Draw a glassful from the storm, and it is but a
cup of bitterness--a mouthful is nausea, a waveful is extermination. The
grain of sand in the desert, the foam-flake on the sea, are fearful
symptoms. Omnipotence takes no care to hide its atom, it changes
weakness into strength, fills naught with all; and it is with the
infinitely little that the infinitely great crushes you. It is with its
drops the ocean dissolves you. You feel you are a plaything.
A plaything--ghastly epithet!
The _Matutina_ was a little above Aurigny, which was not an unfavourable
position; but she was drifting towards its northern point, which was
fatal. As a bent bow discharges its arrow, the nor'-wester was shooting
the vessel towards the northern cape. Off that point, a little beyond
the harbour of Corbelets, is that which the seamen of the Norman
archipelago call a "_singe_."
The "_singe_," or race, is a furious kind of current. A wreath of
funnels in the shallows produces in the waves a wreath of whirlpools.
You escape one to fall into another. A ship caught hold of by the race,
winds round and round until some sharp rock cleaves her hull; then the
shattered vessel stops, her stern rises from the waves, the stem
completes the revolution in the abyss, the stern sinks in, and all is
sucked down. A circle of foam broadens and floats, and nothing more is
seen on the surface of the waves but a few bubbles here and there rising
from the smothered breathings below.
The three most dangerous races in the whole Channel are one close to the
well-known Girdler Sands, one at Jersey between the Pignonnet and the
Point of Noirmont, and the race of Aurigny.
Had a local pilot been on board the _Matutina_, he could have warned
them of their fresh peril. In place of a pilot, they had their instinct.
In situations of extreme danger men are endowed with second sight. High
contortions of foam were flying along the coast in the frenzied raid of
the wind. It was the spitting of the race. Many a bark has been swamped
in that snare. Without knowing what awaited them, they approached the
spot with horror.
How to double that cape? There were no means of doing it.
Just as they had seen, first the Caskets, then Ortach, rise before them,
they now saw the point of Aurigny, all of steep rock. It was like a
number of giants, rising up one after another--a series of frightful
Charybdis and Scylla are but two; the Caskets, Ortach, and Aurigny are
The phenomenon of the horizon being invaded by the rocks was thus
repeated with the grand monotony of the abyss. The battles of the ocean
have the same sublime tautology as the combats of Homer.
Each wave, as they neared it, added twenty cubits to the cape, awfully
magnified by the mist; the fast decreasing distance seemed more
inevitable--they were touching the skirts of the race! The first fold
which seized them would drag them in--another wave surmounted, and all
would be over.
Suddenly the hooker was driven back, as by the blow of a Titan's fist.
The wave reared up under the vessel and fell back, throwing the waif
back in its mane of foam. The _Matutina_, thus impelled, drifted away
She was again on the open sea.
Whence had come the succour? From the wind. The breath of the storm had
changed its direction.
The wave had played with them; now it was the wind's turn. They had
saved themselves from the Caskets. Off Ortach it was the wave which had
been their friend. Now it was the wind. The wind had suddenly veered
from north to south. The sou'-wester had succeeded the nor'-wester.
The current is the wind in the waters; the wind is the current in the
air. These two forces had just counteracted each other, and it had been
the wind's will to snatch its prey from the current.
The sudden fantasies of ocean are uncertain. They are, perhaps, an
embodiment of the perpetual, when at their mercy man must neither hope
nor despair. They do and they undo. The ocean amuses itself. Every shade
of wild, untamed ferocity is phased in the vastness of that cunning sea,
which Jean Bart used to call the "great brute." To its claws and their
gashings succeed soft intervals of velvet paws. Sometimes the storm
hurries on a wreck, at others it works out the problem with care; it
might almost be said that it caresses it. The sea can afford to take its
time, as men in their agonies find out.
We must own that occasionally these lulls of the torture announce
deliverance. Such cases are rare. However this may be, men in extreme
peril are quick to believe in rescue; the slightest pause in the storm's
threats is sufficient; they tell themselves that they are out of danger.
After believing themselves buried, they declare their resurrection; they
feverishly embrace what they do not yet possess; it is clear that the
bad luck has turned; they declare themselves satisfied; they are saved;
they cry quits with God. They should not be in so great a hurry to give
receipts to the Unknown.
The sou'-wester set in with a whirlwind. Shipwrecked men have never any
but rough helpers. The _Matutina_ was dragged rapidly out to sea by the
remnant of her rigging--like a dead woman trailed by the hair. It was
like the enfranchisement granted by Tiberius, at the price of violation.
The wind treated with brutality those whom it saved; it rendered service
with fury; it was help without pity.
The wreck was breaking up under the severity of its deliverers.
Hailstones, big and hard enough to charge a blunderbuss, smote the
vessel; at every rotation of the waves these hailstones rolled about the
deck like marbles. The hooker, whose deck was almost flush with the
water, was being beaten out of shape by the rolling masses of water and
its sheets of spray. On board it each man was for himself.
They clung on as best they could. As each sea swept over them, it was
with a sense of surprise they saw that all were still there. Several had
their faces torn by splinters.
Happily despair has stout hands. In terror a child's hand has the grasp
of a giant. Agony makes a vice of a woman's fingers. A girl in her
fright can almost bury her rose-coloured fingers in a piece of iron.
With hooked fingers they hung on somehow, as the waves dashed on and
passed off them; but every wave brought them the fear of being swept
Suddenly they were relieved.
THE PROBLEM SUDDENLY WORKS IN SILENCE.
The hurricane had just stopped short. There was no longer in the air
sou'-wester or nor'-wester. The fierce clarions of space were mute. The
whole of the waterspout had poured from the sky without any warning of
diminution, as if it had slided perpendicularly into a gulf beneath.
None knew what had become of it; flakes replaced the hailstones, the
snow began to fall slowly. No more swell: the sea flattened down.
Such sudden cessations are peculiar to snowstorms. The electric
effluvium exhausted, all becomes still, even the wave, which in ordinary
storms often remains agitated for a long time. In snowstorms it is not
so. No prolonged anger in the deep. Like a tired-out worker it becomes
drowsy directly, thus almost giving the lie to the laws of statics, but
not astonishing old seamen, who know that the sea is full of unforeseen
The same phenomenon takes place, although very rarely, in ordinary
storms. Thus, in our time, on the occasion of the memorable hurricane of
July 27th, 1867, at Jersey the wind, after fourteen hours' fury,
suddenly relapsed into a dead calm.
In a few minutes the hooker was floating in sleeping waters.
At the same time (for the last phase of these storms resembles the
first) they could distinguish nothing; all that had been made visible in
the convulsions of the meteoric cloud was again dark. Pale outlines
were fused in vague mist, and the gloom of infinite space closed about
the vessel. The wall of night--that circular occlusion, that interior of
a cylinder the diameter of which was lessening minute by
minute--enveloped the _Matutina_, and, with the sinister deliberation of
an encroaching iceberg, was drawing in dangerously. In the zenith
nothing--a lid of fog closing down. It was as if the hooker were at the
bottom of the well of the abyss.
In that well the sea was a puddle of liquid lead. No stir in the
waters--ominous immobility! The ocean is never less tamed than when it
is still as a pool.
All was silence, stillness, blindness.
Perchance the silence of inanimate objects is taciturnity.
The last ripples glided along the hull. The deck was horizontal, with an
insensible slope to the sides. Some broken planks were shifting about
irresolutely. The block on which they had lighted the tow steeped in
tar, in place of the signal light which had been swept away, swung no
longer at the prow, and no longer let fall burning drops into the sea.
What little breeze remained in the clouds was noiseless. The snow fell
thickly, softly, with scarce a slant. No foam of breakers could be
heard. The peace of shadows was over all.
This repose succeeding all the past exasperations and paroxysms was, for
the poor creatures so long tossed about, an unspeakable comfort. It was
as though the punishment of the rack had ceased. They caught a glimpse
about them and above them of something which seemed like a consent, that
they should be saved. They regained confidence. All that had been fury
was now tranquillity. It appeared to them a pledge of peace. Their
wretched hearts dilated. They were able to let go the end of rope or
beam to which they had clung, to rise, hold themselves up, stand, walk,
move about. They felt inexpressibly calmed. There are in the depths of
darkness such phases of paradise, preparations for other things. It was
clear that they were delivered out of the storm, out of the foam, out of
the wind, out of the uproar. Henceforth all the chances were in their
favour. In three or four hours it would be sunrise. They would be seen
by some passing ship; they would be rescued. The worst was over; they
were re-entering life. The important feat was to have been able to keep
afloat until the cessation of the tempest. They said to themselves, "It
is all over this time."
Suddenly they found that all was indeed over.
One of the sailors, the northern Basque, Galdeazun by name, went down
into the hold to look for a rope, then came above again and said,--
"The hold is full."
"Of what?" asked the chief.
"Of water," answered the sailor.
The chief cried out,--
"What does that mean?"
"It means," replied Galdeazun, "that in half an hour we shall founder."
THE LAST RESOURCE.
There was a hole in the keel. A leak had been sprung. When it happened
no one could have said. Was it when they touched the Caskets? Was it off
Ortach? Was it when they were whirled about the shallows west of
Aurigny? It was most probable that they had touched some rock there.
They had struck against some hidden buttress which they had not felt in
the midst of the convulsive fury of the wind which was tossing them. In
tetanus who would feel a prick?
The other sailor, the southern Basque, whose name was Ave Maria, went
down into the hold, too, came on deck again, and said,--
"There are two varas of water in the hold."
About six feet.
Ave Maria added, "In less than forty minutes we shall sink."
Where was the leak? They couldn't find it. It was hidden by the water
which was filling up the hold. The vessel had a hole in her hull
somewhere under the water-line, quite forward in the keel. Impossible to
find it--impossible to check it. They had a wound which they could not
stanch. The water, however, was not rising very fast.
The chief called out,
"We must work the pump."
Galdeazun replied, "We have no pump left."
"Then," said the chief, "we must make for land."
"Where is the land?"
"I don't know."
"But it must be somewhere."
"Let some one steer for it."
"We have no pilot."
"Stand to the tiller yourself."
"We have lost the tiller."
"Let's rig one out of the first beam we can lay hands on. Nails--a
"The carpenter's box is overboard, we have no tools."
"We'll steer all the same, no matter where."
"The rudder is lost."
"Where is the boat? We'll get in and row."
"The boat is lost."
"We'll row the wreck."
"We have lost the oars."
"We have lost the sails and the mast."
"We'll rig one up with a pole and a tarpaulin for sail Let's get clear
of this and trust in the wind."
"There is no wind."
The wind, indeed, had left them, the storm had fled; and its departure,
which they had believed to mean safety, meant, in fact, destruction. Had
the sou'-wester continued it might have driven them wildly on some
shore--might have beaten the leak in speed--might, perhaps, have carried
them to some propitious sandbank, and cast them on it before the hooker
foundered. The swiftness of the storm, bearing them away, might have
enabled them to reach land; but no more wind, no more hope. They were
going to die because the hurricane was over.
The end was near!
Wind, hail, the hurricane, the whirlwind--these are wild combatants that
may be overcome; the storm can be taken in the weak point of its armour;
there are resources against the violence which continually lays itself
open, is off its guard, and often hits wide. But nothing is to be done
against a calm; it offers nothing to the grasp of which you can lay
The winds are a charge of Cossacks: stand your ground and they disperse.
Calms are the pincers of the executioner.
The water, deliberate and sure, irrepressible and heavy, rose in the
hold, and as it rose the vessel sank--it was happening slowly.
Those on board the wreck of the _Matutina_ felt that most hopeless of
catastrophes--an inert catastrophe undermining them. The still and
sinister certainty of their fate petrified them. No stir in the air, no
movement on the sea. The motionless is the inexorable. Absorption was
sucking them down silently. Through the depths of the dumb
waters--without anger, without passion, not willing, not knowing, not
caring--the fatal centre of the globe was attracting them downwards.
Horror in repose amalgamating them with itself. It was no longer the
wide open mouth of the sea, the double jaw of the wind and the wave,
vicious in its threat, the grin of the waterspout, the foaming appetite
of the breakers--it was as if the wretched beings had under them the
black yawn of the infinite.
They felt themselves sinking into Death's peaceful depths. The height
between the vessel and the water was lessening--that was all. They could
calculate her disappearance to the moment. It was the exact reverse of
submersion by the rising tide. The water was not rising towards them;
they were sinking towards it. They were digging their own grave. Their
own weight was their sexton.
They were being executed, not by the law of man, but by the law of
The snow was falling, and as the wreck was now motionless, this white
lint made a cloth over the deck and covered the vessel as with a
The hold was becoming fuller and deeper--no means of getting at the
leak. They struck a light and fixed three or four torches in holes as
best they could. Galdeazun brought some old leathern buckets, and they
tried to bale the hold out, standing in a row to pass them from hand to
hand; but the buckets were past use, the leather of some was unstitched,
there were holes in the bottoms of the others, and the buckets emptied
themselves on the way. The difference in quantity between the water
which was making its way in and that which they returned to the sea was
ludicrous--for a ton that entered a glassful was baled out; they did not
improve their condition. It was like the expenditure of a miser, trying
to exhaust a million, halfpenny by halfpenny.
The chief said, "Let us lighten the wreck."
During the storm they had lashed together the few chests which were on
deck. These remained tied to the stump of the mast. They undid the
lashings and rolled the chests overboard through a breach in the
gunwale. One of these trunks belonged to the Basque woman, who could not
repress a sigh.
"Oh, my new cloak lined with scarlet! Oh, my poor stockings of
birchen-bark lace! Oh, my silver ear-rings to wear at mass on May Day!"
The deck cleared, there remained the cabin to be seen to. It was greatly
encumbered; in it were, as may be remembered, the luggage belonging to
the passengers, and the bales belonging to the sailors. They took the
luggage, and threw it over the gunwale. They carried up the bales and
cast them into the sea.
Thus they emptied the cabin. The lantern, the cap, the barrels, the
sacks, the bales, and the water-butts, the pot of soup, all went over
into the waves.
They unscrewed the nuts of the iron stove, long since extinguished:
they pulled it out, hoisted it on deck, dragged it to the side, and
threw it out of the vessel.
They cast overboard everything they could pull out of the deck--chains,
shrouds, and torn rigging.
From time to time the chief took a torch, and throwing its light on the
figures painted on the prow to show the draught of water, looked to see
how deep the wreck had settled down.
THE HIGHEST RESOURCE.
The wreck being lightened, was sinking more slowly, but none the less
The hopelessness of their situation was without resource--without
mitigation; they had exhausted their last expedient.
"Is there anything else we can throw overboard?"
The doctor, whom every one had forgotten, rose from the companion, and
"What?" asked the chief.
The doctor answered, "Our Crime."
They shuddered, and all cried out,--
The doctor standing up, pale, raised his hand to heaven, saying,--
They wavered--to waver is the preface to kneeling down.
The doctor went on,--
"Let us throw our crimes into the sea, they weigh us down; it is they
that are sinking the ship. Let us think no more of safety--let us think
of salvation. Our last crime, above all, the crime which we committed,
or rather completed, just now--O wretched beings who are listening to
me--it is that which is overwhelming us. For those who leave intended
murder behind them, it is an impious insolence to tempt the abyss. He
who sins against a child, sins against God. True, we were obliged to put
to sea, but it was certain perdition. The storm, warned by the shadow of
our crime, came on. It is well. Regret nothing, however. There, not far
off in the darkness, are the sands of Vauville and Cape la Hogue. It is
France. There was but one possible shelter for us, which was Spain.
France is no less dangerous to us than England. Our deliverance from the
sea would have led but to the gibbet. Hanged or drowned--we had no
alternative. God has chosen for us; let us give Him thanks. He has
vouchsafed us the grave which cleanses. Brethren, the inevitable hand is
in it. Remember that it was we who just now did our best to send on high
that child, and that at this very moment, now as I speak, there is
perhaps, above our heads, a soul accusing us before a Judge whose eye is
on us. Let us make the best use of this last respite; let us make an
effort, if we still may, to repair, as far as we are able, the evil that
we have wrought. If the child survives us, let us come to his aid; if he
is dead, let us seek his forgiveness. Let us cast our crime from us. Let
us ease our consciences of its weight. Let us strive that our souls be
not swallowed up before God, for that is the awful shipwreck. Bodies go
to the fishes, souls to the devils. Have pity on yourselves. Kneel down,
I tell you. Repentance is the bark which never sinks. You have lost your
compass! You are wrong! You still have prayer."
The wolves became lambs--such transformations occur in last agonies;
tigers lick the crucifix; when the dark portal opens ajar, belief is
difficult, unbelief impossible. However imperfect may be the different
sketches of religion essayed by man, even when his belief is shapeless,
even when the outline of the dogma is not in harmony with the lineaments
of the eternity he foresees, there comes in his last hour a trembling of
the soul. There is something which will begin when life is over; this
thought impresses the last pang.
A man's dying agony is the expiration of a term. In that fatal second he
feels weighing on him a diffused responsibility. That which has been
complicates that which is to be. The past returns and enters into the
future. What is known becomes as much an abyss as the unknown. And the
two chasms, the one which is full by his faults, the other of his
anticipations, mingle their reverberations. It is this confusion of the
two gulfs which terrifies the dying man.
They had spent their last grain of hope on the direction of life; hence
they turned in the other. Their only remaining chance was in its dark
shadow. They understood it. It came on them as a lugubrious flash,
followed by the relapse of horror. That which is intelligible to the
dying man is as what is perceived in the lightning. Everything, then
nothing; you see, then all is blindness. After death the eye will
reopen, and that which was a flash will become a sun.
They cried out to the doctor,--
"Thou, thou, there is no one but thee. We will obey thee, what must we
The doctor answered,--
"The question is how to pass over the unknown precipice and reach the
other bank of life, which is beyond the tomb. Being the one who knows
the most, my danger is greater than yours. You do well to leave the
choice of the bridge to him whose burden is the heaviest."
"Knowledge is a weight added to conscience."
"How much time have we still?"
Galdeazun looked at the water-mark, and answered,--
"A little more than a quarter of an hour."
"Good," said the doctor.
The low hood of the companion on which he leant his elbows made a sort
of table; the doctor took from his pocket his inkhorn and pen, and his
pocket-book out of which he drew a parchment, the same one on the back
of which he had written, a few hours before, some twenty cramped and
"A light," he said.
The snow, falling like the spray of a cataract, had extinguished the
torches one after another; there was but one left. Ave Maria took it out
of the place where it had been stuck, and holding it in his hand, came
and stood by the doctor's side.
The doctor replaced his pocket-book in his pocket, put down the pen and
inkhorn on the hood of the companion, unfolded the parchment, and
Then in the midst of the sea, on the failing bridge (a sort of
shuddering flooring of the tomb), the doctor began a solemn reading, to
which all the shadows seemed to listen. The doomed men bowed their heads
around him. The flaming of the torch intensified their pallor. What the
doctor read was written in English. Now and then, when one of those
woebegone looks seemed to ask an explanation, the doctor would stop, to
repeat--whether in French, or Spanish, Basque, or Italian--the passage
he had just read. Stifled sobs and hollow beatings of the breast were
heard. The wreck was sinking more and more.
The reading over, the doctor placed the parchment flat on the companion,
seized his pen, and on a clear margin which he had carefully left at the
bottom of what he had written, he signed himself, GERNARDUS GEESTEMUNDE:
Then, turning towards the others, he said,--
"Come, and sign."
The Basque woman approached, took the pen, and signed herself, ASUNCION.
She handed the pen to the Irish woman, who, not knowing how to write,
made a cross.
The doctor, by the side of this cross, wrote, BARBARA FERMOY, _of Tyrrif
Island, in the Hebrides_.
Then he handed the pen to the chief of the band.
The chief signed, GAIZDORRA: _Captal_.
The Genoese signed himself under the chief's name. GIANGIRATE.
The Languedocian signed, JACQUES QUARTOURZE: _alias, the Narbonnais_.
The Provencal signed, LUC-PIERRE CAPGAROUPE, _of the Galleys of Mahon_.
Under these signatures the doctor added a note:--
"Of the crew of three men, the skipper having been washed overboard by a
sea, but two remain, and they have signed."
The two sailors affixed their names underneath the note. The northern
Basque signed himself, GALDEAZUN.
The southern Basque signed, AVE MARIA: _Robber_.
Then the doctor said,--
"Here," said the Provencal.
"Have you Hardquanonne's flask?"
"Give it me."
Capgaroupe drank off the last mouthful of brandy, and handed the flask
to the doctor.
The water was rising in the hold; the wreck was sinking deeper and
deeper into the sea. The sloping edges of the ship were covered by a
thin gnawing wave, which was rising. All were crowded on the centre of
The doctor dried the ink on the signatures by the heat of the torch, and
folding the parchment into a narrower compass than the diameter of the
neck, put it into the flask. He called for the cork.
"I don't know where it is," said Capgaroupe.
"Here is a piece of rope," said Jacques Quartourze.
The doctor corked the flask with a bit of rope, and asked for some tar.
Galdeazun went forward, extinguished the signal light with a piece of
tow, took the vessel in which it was contained from the stern, and
brought it, half full of burning tar, to the doctor.
The flask holding the parchment which they had all signed was corked and
"It is done," said the doctor.
And from out all their mouths, vaguely stammered in every language, came
the dismal utterances of the catacombs.
It was as though the sombre voices of Babel were scattered through the
shadows as Heaven uttered its awful refusal to hear them.
The doctor turned away from his companions in crime and distress, and
took a few steps towards the gunwale. Reaching the side, he looked into
space, and said, in a deep voice,--
"Bist du bei mir?"
Perchance he was addressing some phantom.
The wreck was sinking.
Behind the doctor all the others were in a dream. Prayer mastered them
by main force. They did not bow, they were bent. There was something
involuntary in their condition; they wavered as a sail flaps when the
breeze fails. And the haggard group took by degrees, with clasping of
hands and prostration of foreheads, attitudes various, yet of
humiliation. Some strange reflection of the deep seemed to soften their
The doctor returned towards them. Whatever had been his past, the old
man was great in the presence of the catastrophe.
The deep reserve of nature which enveloped him preoccupied without
disconcerting him. He was not one to be taken unawares. Over him was the
calm of a silent horror: on his countenance the majesty of God's will
This old and thoughtful outlaw unconsciously assumed the air of a
"Attend to me."
He contemplated for a moment the waste of water, and added,--
"Now we are going to die."
Then he took the torch from the hands of Ave Maria, and waved it.
A spark broke from it and flew into the night.
Then the doctor cast the torch into the sea.
The torch was extinguished: all light disappeared. Nothing left but the
huge, unfathomable shadow. It was like the filling up of the grave.
In the darkness the doctor was heard saying,--
"Let us pray."
All knelt down.
It was no longer on the snow, but in the water, that they knelt.
They had but a few minutes more.
The doctor alone remained standing.
The flakes of snow falling on him had sprinkled him with white tears,
and made him visible on the background of darkness. He might have been
the speaking statue of the shadow.
The doctor made the sign of the cross and raised his voice, while
beneath his feet he felt that almost imperceptible oscillation which
prefaces the moment in which a wreck is about to founder. He said,--
"Pater noster qui es in coelis."
The Provencal repeated in French,--
"Notre Pere qui etes aux cieux."
The Irishwoman repeated in Gaelic, understood by the Basque woman,--
"Ar nathair ata ar neamh."
The doctor continued,--
"Sanctificetur nomen tuum."
"Que votre nom soit sanctifie," said the Provencal.
"Naomhthar hainm," said the Irishwoman.
"Adveniat regnum tuum," continued the doctor.
"Que votre regne arrive," said the Provencal.
"Tigeadh do rioghachd," said the Irishwoman.
As they knelt, the waters had risen to their shoulders. The doctor went
"Fiat voluntas tua."
"Que votre volonte soit faite," stammered the Provencal.
And the Irishwoman and Basque woman cried,--
"Deuntar do thoil ar an Hhalamb."
"Sicut in coelo, sicut in terra," said the doctor.
No voice answered him.
He looked down. All their heads were under water. They had let
themselves be drowned on their knees.
The doctor took in his right hand the flask which he had placed on the
companion, and raised it above his head.
The wreck was going down. As he sank, the doctor murmured the rest of
For an instant his shoulders were above water, then his head, then
nothing remained but his arm holding up the flask, as if he were showing
it to the Infinite.
His arm disappeared; there was no greater fold on the deep sea than
there would have been on a tun of oil. The snow continued falling.
One thing floated, and was carried by the waves into the darkness. It
was the tarred flask, kept afloat by its osier cover.
BOOK THE THIRD.
_THE CHILD IN THE SHADOW_.
The storm was no less severe on land than on sea. The same wild
enfranchisement of the elements had taken place around the abandoned
child. The weak and innocent become their sport in the expenditure of
the unreasoning rage of their blind forces. Shadows discern not, and
things inanimate have not the clemency they are supposed to possess.
On the land there was but little wind. There was an inexplicable
dumbness in the cold. There was no hail. The thickness of the falling
snow was fearful.
Hailstones strike, harass, bruise, stun, crush. Snowflakes do worse:
soft and inexorable, the snowflake does its work in silence; touch it,
and it melts. It is pure, even as the hypocrite is candid. It is by
white particles slowly heaped upon each other that the flake becomes an
avalanche and the knave a criminal.
The child continued to advance into the mist. The fog presents but a
soft obstacle; hence its danger. It yields, and yet persists. Mist, like
snow, is full of treachery. The child, strange wrestler at war with all
these risks, had succeeded in reaching the bottom of the descent, and
had gained Chesil. Without knowing it he was on an isthmus, with the
ocean on each side; so that he could not lose his way in the fog, in the
snow, or in the darkness, without falling into the deep waters of the
gulf on the right hand, or into the raging billows of the high sea on
the left. He was travelling on, in ignorance, between these two abysses.
The Isthmus of Portland was at this period singularly sharp and rugged.
Nothing remains at this date of its past configuration. Since the idea
of manufacturing Portland stone into Roman cement was first seized, the
whole rock has been subjected to an alteration which has completely
changed its original appearance. Calcareous lias, slate, and trap are
still to be found there, rising from layers of conglomerate, like teeth
from a gum; but the pickaxe has broken up and levelled those bristling,
rugged peaks which were once the fearful perches of the ossifrage. The
summits exist no longer where the labbes and the skua gulls used to
flock together, soaring, like the envious, to sully high places. In vain
might you seek the tall monolith called Godolphin, an old British word,
signifying "white eagle." In summer you may still gather on those
surfaces, pierced and perforated like a sponge, rosemary, pennyroyal,
wild hyssop, and sea-fennel which when infused makes a good cordial, and
that herb full of knots, which grows in the sand and from which they
make matting; but you no longer find gray amber, or black tin, or that
triple species of slate--one sort green, one blue, and the third the
colour of sage-leaves. The foxes, the badgers, the otters, and the
martens have taken themselves off; on the cliffs of Portland, as well as
at the extremity of Cornwall, where there were at one time chamois, none
remain. They still fish in some inlets for plaice and pilchards; but the
scared salmon no longer ascend the Wey, between Michaelmas and
Christmas, to spawn. No more are seen there, as during the reign of
Elizabeth, those old unknown birds as large as hawks, who could cut an
apple in two, but ate only the pips. You never meet those crows with
yellow beaks, called Cornish choughs in English, _pyrrocorax_ in Latin,
who, in their mischief, would drop burning twigs on thatched roofs. Nor
that magic bird, the fulmar, a wanderer from the Scottish archipelago,
dropping from his bill an oil which the islanders used to burn in their
lamps. Nor do you ever find in the evening, in the plash of the ebbing
tide, that ancient, legendary neitse, with the feet of a hog and the
bleat of a calf. The tide no longer throws up the whiskered seal, with
its curled ears and sharp jaws, dragging itself along on its nailless
paws. On that Portland--nowadays so changed as scarcely to be
recognized--the absence of forests precluded nightingales; but now the
falcon, the swan, and the wild goose have fled. The sheep of Portland,
nowadays, are fat and have fine wool; the few scattered ewes, which
nibbled the salt grass there two centuries ago, were small and tough and
coarse in the fleece, as became Celtic flocks brought there by
garlic-eating shepherds, who lived to a hundred, and who, at the
distance of half a mile, could pierce a cuirass with their yard-long
arrows. Uncultivated land makes coarse wool. The Chesil of to-day
resembles in no particular the Chesil of the past, so much has it been
disturbed by man and by those furious winds which gnaw the very stones.
At present this tongue of land bears a railway, terminating in a pretty
square of houses, called Chesilton, and there is a Portland station.
Railway carriages roll where seals used to crawl.
The Isthmus of Portland two hundred years ago was a back of sand, with a
vertebral spine of rock.
The child's danger changed its form. What he had had to fear in the
descent was falling to the bottom of the precipice; in the isthmus, it
was falling into the holes. After dealing with the precipice, he must
deal with the pitfalls. Everything on the sea-shore is a trap--the rock
is slippery, the strand is quicksand. Resting-places are but snares. It
is walking on ice which may suddenly crack and yawn with a fissure,
through which you disappear. The ocean has false stages below, like a
The long backbone of granite, from which fall away both slopes of the
isthmus, is awkward of access. It is difficult to find there what, in
scene-shifters' language, are termed _practicables_. Man has no
hospitality to hope for from the ocean; from the rock no more than from
the wave. The sea is provident for the bird and the fish alone.
Isthmuses are especially naked and rugged; the wave, which wears and
mines them on either side, reduces them to the simplest form. Everywhere
there were sharp relief ridges, cuttings, frightful fragments of torn
stone, yawning with many points, like the jaws of a shark; breaknecks of
wet moss, rapid slopes of rock ending in the sea. Whosoever undertakes
to pass over an isthmus meets at every step misshapen blocks, as large
as houses, in the forms of shin-bones, shoulder-blades, and
thigh-bones, the hideous anatomy of dismembered rocks. It is not
without reason that these _striae_ of the sea-shore are called
The wayfarer must get out as he best can from the confusion of these
ruins. It is like journeying over the bones of an enormous skeleton.
Put a child to this labour of Hercules.
Broad daylight might have aided him. It was night. A guide was
necessary. He was alone. All the vigour of manhood would not have been
too much. He had but the feeble strength of a child. In default of a
guide, a footpath might have aided him; there was none.
By instinct he avoided the sharp ridge of the rocks, and kept to the
strand as much as possible. It was there that he met with the pitfalls.
They were multiplied before him under three forms: the pitfall of water,
the pitfall of snow, and the pitfall of sand. This last is the most
dangerous of all, because the most illusory. To know the peril we face
is alarming; to be ignorant of it is terrible. The child was fighting
against unknown dangers. He was groping his way through something which
might, perhaps, be the grave.
He did not hesitate. He went round the rocks, avoided the crevices,
guessed at the pitfalls, obeyed the twistings and turnings caused by
such obstacles, yet he went on. Though unable to advance in a straight
line, he walked with a firm step. When necessary, he drew back with
energy. He knew how to tear himself in time from the horrid bird-lime of
the quicksands. He shook the snow from about him. He entered the water
more than once up to the knees. Directly that he left it, his wet knees
were frozen by the intense cold of the night. He walked rapidly in his
stiffened garments; yet he took care to keep his sailor's coat dry and
warm on his chest. He was still tormented by hunger.
The chances of the abyss are illimitable. Everything is possible in it,
even salvation. The issue may be found, though it be invisible. How the
child, wrapped in a smothering winding-sheet of snow, lost on a narrow
elevation between two jaws of an abyss, managed to cross the isthmus is
what he could not himself have explained. He had slipped, climbed,
rolled, searched, walked, persevered, that is all. Such is the secret of
all triumphs. At the end of somewhat less than half an hour he felt
that the ground was rising. He had reached the other shore. Leaving
Chesil, he had gained terra firma.
The bridge which now unites Sandford Castle with Smallmouth Sands did
not then exist. It is probable that in his intelligent groping he had
reascended as far as Wyke Regis, where there was then a tongue of sand,
a natural road crossing East Fleet.
He was saved from the isthmus; but he found himself again face to face
with the tempest, with the cold, with the night.
Before him once more lay the plain, shapeless in the density of
impenetrable shadow. He examined the ground, seeking a footpath.
Suddenly he bent down. He had discovered, in the snow, something which
seemed to him a track.
It was indeed a track--the print of a foot. The print was cut out
clearly in the whiteness of the snow, which rendered it distinctly
visible. He examined it. It was a naked foot; too small for that of a
man, too large for that of a child.
It was probably the foot of a woman. Beyond that mark was another, then
another, then another. The footprints followed each other at the
distance of a step, and struck across the plain to the right. They were
still fresh, and slightly covered with little snow. A woman had just
passed that way.
This woman was walking in the direction in which the child had seen the
smoke. With his eyes fixed on the footprints, he set himself to follow
THE EFFECT OF SNOW.
He journeyed some time along this course. Unfortunately the footprints
were becoming less and less distinct. Dense and fearful was the falling
of the snow. It was the time when the hooker was so distressed by the
snow-storm at sea.
The child, in distress like the vessel, but after another fashion, had,
in the inextricable intersection of shadows which rose up before him, no
resource but the footsteps in the snow, and he held to it as the thread
of a labyrinth.
Suddenly, whether the snow had filled them up or for some other reason,
the footsteps ceased. All became even, level, smooth, without a stain,
without a detail. There was now nothing but a white cloth drawn over the
earth and a black one over the sky. It seemed as if the foot-passenger
had flown away. The child, in despair, bent down and searched; but in
As he arose he had a sensation of hearing some indistinct sound, but he
could not be sure of it. It resembled a voice, a breath, a shadow. It
was more human than animal; more sepulchral than living. It was a sound,
but the sound of a dream.
He looked, but saw nothing.
Solitude, wide, naked and livid, was before him. He listened. That which
he had thought he heard had faded away. Perhaps it had been but fancy.
He still listened. All was silent.
There was illusion in the mist.
He went on his way again. He walked forward at random, with nothing
henceforth to guide him.
As he moved away the noise began again. This time he could doubt it no
longer. It was a groan, almost a sob.
He turned. He searched the darkness of space with his eyes. He saw
nothing. The sound arose once more. If limbo could cry out, it would cry
in such a tone.
Nothing so penetrating, so piercing, so feeble as the voice--for it was
a voice. It arose from a soul. There was palpitation in the murmur.
Nevertheless, it seemed uttered almost unconsciously. It was an appeal
of suffering, not knowing that it suffered or that it appealed.
The cry--perhaps a first breath, perhaps a last sigh--was equally
distant from the rattle which closes life and the wail with which it
commences. It breathed, it was stifled, it wept, a gloomy supplication
from the depths of night. The child fixed his attention everywhere, far,
near, on high, below. There was no one. There was nothing. He listened.
The voice arose again. He perceived it distinctly. The sound somewhat
resembled the bleating of a lamb.
Then he was frightened, and thought of flight.
The groan again. This was the fourth time. It was strangely miserable
and plaintive. One felt that after that last effort, more mechanical
than voluntary, the cry would probably be extinguished. It was an
expiring exclamation, instinctively appealing to the amount of aid held
in suspense in space. It was some muttering of agony, addressed to a
The child approached in the direction from whence the sound came.
Still he saw nothing.
He advanced again, watchfully.
The complaint continued. Inarticulate and confused as it was, it had
become clear--almost vibrating. The child was near the voice; but where
He was close to a complaint. The trembling of a cry passed by his side
into space. A human moan floated away into the darkness. This was what
he had met. Such at least was his impression, dim as the dense mist in
which he was lost.
Whilst he hesitated between an instinct which urged him to fly and an
instinct which commanded him to remain, he perceived in the snow at his
feet, a few steps before him, a sort of undulation of the dimensions of
a human body--a little eminence, low, long, and narrow, like the mould
over a grave--a sepulchre in a white churchyard.
At the same time the voice cried out. It was from beneath the undulation
that it proceeded. The child bent down, crouching before the undulation,
and with both his hands began to clear it away.
Beneath the snow which he removed a form grew under his hands; and
suddenly in the hollow he had made there appeared a pale face.
The cry had not proceeded from that face. Its eyes were shut, and the
mouth open but full of snow.
It remained motionless; it stirred not under the hands of the child. The
child, whose fingers were numbed with frost, shuddered when he touched
its coldness. It was that of a woman. Her dishevelled hair was mingled
with the snow. The woman was dead.
Again the child set himself to sweep away the snow. The neck of the dead
woman appeared; then her shoulders, clothed in rags. Suddenly he felt
something move feebly under his touch. It was something small that was
buried, and which stirred. The child swiftly cleared away the snow,
discovering a wretched little body--thin, wan with cold, still alive,
lying naked on the dead woman's naked breast.
It was a little girl.
It had been swaddled up, but in rags so scanty that in its struggles it
had freed itself from its tatters. Under it its attenuated limbs, and
above it its breath, had somewhat melted the snow. A nurse would have
said that it was five or six months old, but perhaps it might be a year,
for growth, in poverty, suffers heart-breaking reductions which
sometimes even produce rachitis. When its face was exposed to the air it
gave a cry, the continuation of its sobs of distress. For the mother not
to have heard that sob, proved her irrevocably dead.
The child took the infant in his arms. The stiffened body of the mother
was a fearful sight; a spectral light proceeded from her face. The
mouth, apart and without breath, seemed to form in the indistinct
language of shadows her answer to the questions put to the dead by the
invisible. The ghastly reflection of the icy plains was on that
countenance. There was the youthful forehead under the brown hair, the
almost indignant knitting of the eyebrows, the pinched nostrils, the
closed eyelids, the lashes glued together by the rime, and from the
corners of the eyes to the corners of the mouth a deep channel of tears.
The snow lighted up the corpse. Winter and the tomb are not adverse. The
corpse is the icicle of man. The nakedness of her breasts was pathetic.
They had fulfilled their purpose. On them was a sublime blight of the
life infused into one being by another from whom life has fled, and
maternal majesty was there instead of virginal purity. At the point of
one of the nipples was a white pearl. It was a drop of milk frozen.
Let us explain at once. On the plains over which the deserted boy was
passing in his turn a beggar woman, nursing her infant and searching for
a refuge, had lost her way a few hours before. Benumbed with cold she
had sunk under the tempest, and could not rise again. The falling snow
had covered her. So long as she was able she had clasped her little girl
to her bosom, and thus died.
The infant had tried to suck the marble breast. Blind trust, inspired by
nature, for it seems that it is possible for a woman to suckle her child
even after her last sigh.
But the lips of the infant had been unable to find the breast, where the
drop of milk, stolen by death, had frozen, whilst under the snow the
child, more accustomed to the cradle than the tomb, had wailed.
The deserted child had heard the cry of the dying child.
He disinterred it.
He took it in his arms.
When she felt herself in his arms she ceased crying. The faces of the
two children touched each other, and the purple lips of the infant
sought the cheek of the boy, as it had been a breast. The little girl
had nearly reached the moment when the congealed blood stops the action
of the heart. Her mother had touched her with the chill of her own
death--a corpse communicates death; its numbness is infectious. Her
feet, hands, arms, knees, seemed paralyzed by cold. The boy felt the
terrible chill. He had on him a garment dry and warm--his pilot jacket.
He placed the infant on the breast of the corpse, took off his jacket,
wrapped the infant in it, took it up again in his arms, and now, almost
naked, under the blast of the north wind which covered him with eddies
of snow-flakes, carrying the infant, he pursued his journey.
The little one having succeeded in finding the boy's cheek, again
applied her lips to it, and, soothed by the warmth, she slept. First
kiss of those two souls in the darkness.
The mother lay there, her back to the snow, her face to the night; but
perhaps at the moment when the little boy stripped himself to clothe the
little girl, the mother saw him from the depths of infinity.
A BURDEN MAKES A ROUGH ROAD ROUGHER.
It was little more than four hours since the hooker had sailed from the
creek of Portland, leaving the boy on the shore. During the long hours
since he had been deserted, and had been journeying onwards, he had met
but three persons of that human society into which he was, perchance,
about to enter--a man, the man on the hill; a woman, the woman in the
snow; and the little girl whom he was carrying in his arms.
He was exhausted by fatigue and hunger, yet advanced more resolutely
than ever, with less strength and an added burden. He was now almost
naked. The few rags which remained to him, hardened by the frost, were
sharp as glass, and cut his skin. He became colder, but the infant was
warmer. That which he lost was not thrown away, but was gained by her.
He found out that the poor infant enjoyed the comfort which was to her
the renewal of life. He continued to advance.
From time to time, still holding her securely, he bent down, and taking
a handful of snow he rubbed his feet with it, to prevent their being
frost-bitten. At other times, his throat feeling as if it were on fire,
he put a little snow in his mouth and sucked it; this for a moment
assuaged his thirst, but changed it into fever--a relief which was an
The storm had become shapeless from its violence. Deluges of snow are
possible. This was one. The paroxysm scourged the shore at the same time
that it uptore the depths of ocean. This was, perhaps, the moment when
the distracted hooker was going to pieces in the battle of the breakers.
He travelled under this north wind, still towards the east, over wide
surfaces of snow. He knew not how the hours had passed. For a long time
he had ceased to see the smoke. Such indications are soon effaced in the
night; besides, it was past the hour when fires are put out. Or he had,
perhaps, made a mistake, and it was possible that neither town nor
village existed in the direction in which he was travelling. Doubting,
he yet persevered.
Two or three times the little infant cried. Then he adopted in his gait
a rocking movement, and the child was soothed and silenced. She ended by
falling into a sound sleep. Shivering himself, he felt her warm. He
frequently tightened the folds of the jacket round the babe's neck, so
that the frost should not get in through any opening, and that no melted
snow should drop between the garment and the child.
The plain was unequal. In the declivities into which it sloped the snow,
driven by the wind into the dips of the ground, was so deep, in
comparison with a child so small, that it almost engulfed him, and he
had to struggle through it half buried. He walked on, working away the
snow with his knees.
Having cleared the ravine, he reached the high lands swept by the winds,
where the snow lay thin. Then he found the surface a sheet of ice. The
little girl's lukewarm breath, playing on his face, warmed it for a
moment, then lingered, and froze in his hair, stiffening it into
He felt the approach of another danger. He could not afford to fall. He
knew that if he did so he should never rise again. He was overcome by
fatigue, and the weight of the darkness would, as with the dead woman,
have held him to the ground, and the ice glued him alive to the earth.
He had tripped upon the slopes of precipices, and had recovered himself;
he had stumbled into holes, and had got out again. Thenceforward the
slightest fall would be death; a false step opened for him a tomb. He
must not slip. He had not strength to rise even to his knees. Now
everything was slippery; everywhere there was rime and frozen snow. The
little creature whom he carried made his progress fearfully difficult.
She was not only a burden, which his weariness and exhaustion made
excessive, but was also an embarrassment. She occupied both his arms,
and to him who walks over ice both arms are a natural and necessary
He was obliged to do without this balance.
He did without it and advanced, bending under his burden, not knowing
what would become of him.
This little infant was the drop causing the cup of distress to overflow.
He advanced, reeling at every step, as if on a spring board, and
accomplishing, without spectators, miracles of equilibrium. Let us
repeat that he was, perhaps, followed on this path of pain by eyes
unsleeping in the distances of the shadows--the eyes of the mother and
the eyes of God. He staggered, slipped, recovered himself, took care of
the infant, and, gathering the jacket about her, he covered up her head;
staggered again, advanced, slipped, then drew himself up. The cowardly
wind drove against him. Apparently, he made much more way than was
necessary. He was, to all appearance, on the plains where Bincleaves
Farm was afterwards established, between what are now called Spring
Gardens and the Parsonage House. Homesteads and cottages occupy the
place of waste lands. Sometimes less than a century separates a steppe
from a city.
Suddenly, a lull having occurred in the icy blast which was blinding
him, he perceived, at a short distance in front of him, a cluster of
gables and of chimneys shown in relief by the snow. The reverse of a
silhouette--a city painted in white on a black horizon, something like
what we call nowadays a negative proof. Roofs--dwellings--shelter! He
had arrived somewhere at last. He felt the ineffable encouragement of
hope. The watch of a ship which has wandered from her course feels some
such emotion when he cries, "Land ho!"
He hurried his steps.
At length, then, he was near mankind. He would soon be amidst living
creatures. There was no longer anything to fear. There glowed within him
that sudden warmth--security; that out of which he was emerging was
over; thenceforward there would no longer be night, nor winter, nor
tempest. It seemed to him that he had left all evil chances behind him.
The infant was no longer a burden. He almost ran.
His eyes were fixed on the roofs. There was life there. He never took
his eyes off them. A dead man might gaze thus on what might appear
through the half-opened lid of his sepulchre. There were the chimneys of
which he had seen the smoke.
No smoke arose from them now. He was not long before he reached the
houses. He came to the outskirts of a town--an open street. At that
period bars to streets were falling into disuse.
The street began by two houses. In those two houses neither candle nor
lamp was to be seen; nor in the whole street; nor in the whole town, so
far as eye could reach. The house to the right was a roof rather than a
house; nothing could be more mean. The walls were of mud, the roof was
of straw, and there was more thatch than wall. A large nettle, springing
from the bottom of the wall, reached the roof. The hovel had but one
door, which was like that of a dog-kennel; and a window, which was but a
hole. All was shut up. At the side an inhabited pig-sty told that the
house was also inhabited.
The house on the left was large, high, built entirely of stone, with a
slated roof. It was also closed. It was the rich man's home, opposite to
that of the pauper.
The boy did not hesitate. He approached the great mansion. The double
folding-door of massive oak, studded with large nails, was of the kind
that leads one to expect that behind it there is a stout armoury of
bolts and locks. An iron knocker was attached to it. He raised the
knocker with some difficulty, for his benumbed hands were stumps rather
than hands. He knocked once.
He struck again, and two knocks.
No movement was heard in the house.
He knocked a third time.
There was no sound. He saw that they were all asleep, and did not care
to get up.
Then he turned to the hovel. He picked up a pebble from the snow, and
knocked against the low door.
There was no answer.
He raised himself on tiptoe, and knocked with his pebble against the
pane too softly to break the glass, but loud enough to be heard.
No voice was heard; no step moved; no candle was lighted.
He saw that there, as well, they did not care to awake.
The house of stone and the thatched hovel were equally deaf to the
The boy decided on pushing on further, and penetrating the strait of
houses which stretched away in front of him, so dark that it seemed more
like a gulf between two cliffs than the entrance to a town.
ANOTHER FORM OF DESERT.
It was Weymouth which he had just entered. Weymouth then was not the
respectable and fine Weymouth of to-day.
Ancient Weymouth did not present, like the present one, an
irreproachable rectangular quay, with an inn and a statue in honour of
George III. This resulted from the fact that George III. had not yet