Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
First Part-Sieur Clubin
Book V. The Revolver.
IX. Useful Information for Persons Who Expect or Fear the Arrival of Letters from Beyond Sea.
ON that evening Sieur Clubin returned late.
One of the causes of his delay was, that before going to his inn, he had paid a visit to the Dinan gate of the town, a place where there were several wine-shops. In one of these wine-shops, where he was not known, he had bought a bottle of brandy, which he placed in the pocket of his overcoat, as if he desired to conceal it. Then, as the Durande was to start on the following morning, he had taken a turn abroad to satisfy himself that everything was in order.
When Sieur Clubin returned to the Jean Auberge, there was no one left in the lower room except the old sea-captain, M. Gertrais-Gaboureau, who was drinking a jug of ale and smoking his pipe
M. Gertrais-Gaboureau saluted Sieur Clubin between a whiff and a draught of ale.
"How d'ye do, Captain Clubin?"
"Good evening, Captain Gertrais."
"Well, the Tamaulipas is gone."
"Ah! " said Clubin, "I did not observe."
Captain Gertrais-Gaboureau expectorated, and said,-
"Zuela has decamped."
"When was that?"
"Where is he gone,"
"To the devil."
"No doubt; but where is that?"
"I knew nothing of it," said Clubin.
"I am going to bed."
He lighted his candle, walked towards the door, and returned.
"Have you ever been at Arequipa, Captain?"
"Yes; some years ago."
"Where do they touch on that voyage?"
"A little everywhere; but the Tamaulipas will touch nowhere."
M. Gertrais-Gaboureau emptied his pipe upon the corner of a plate, and continued,-
"You know the tugger called the Trojan Horse, and that fine three-master, the Trentemouzin, which are gone to Cardiff? I was against their sailing on account of the weather. They have returned in a fine state. The tugger was laden with turpentine; she sprang a leak, and in working the pumps they pumped up with the water all her cargo. As to the three-master, she has suffered most above water. Her cutwater, her headrail, the stock of her larboard anchor are broken. Her standing jibboom is gone clean by the cap. As for the jibshrouds and bobstays, go and see what they look like. The mizzenmast is not injured, but has had a severe shock. All the iron of the bowsprit has given way; and it is an extraordinary fact that, though the bowsprit itself is not scratched, it is completely stripped. The larboard-bow of the vessel is stove in a good three feet square. This is what comes of not taking advice."
Clubin had placed the candle on the table, and had begun to readjust a row of pins which he kept in the collar of his overcoat. He continued,-
"Didn't you say, Captain, that the Tamaulipas would not touch anywhere?"
"Yes; she goes direct to Chili."
"In that case, she can send no news of herself on the voyage."
"I beg your pardon, Captain Clubin. In the first place, she can send any letters by vessels she may meet sailing for Europe."
"That is true."
"Then there is the ocean letter-box."
"What do you mean by the ocean letter-box?"
"Don't you know what that is. Captain Clubin?"
"When you pass the straits of Magellan--"
"Snow all round you; always bad weather; ugly down-easters, and bad seas."
"When you have doubled Cape Monmouth--"
"Well, what next?"
"Then you double Cape Valentine."
"Why, then you double Cape Isidore."
"You double Point Anne."
"Good. But what is it you call the ocean letter-box?"
"We are coming to that. Mountains on the right, mountains on the left. Penguins and stormy petrels all about. A terrible place. Ah! by Jove, what a howling and what cracks you get there! The hurricane wants no help. That's the place for holding on to the sheer-rails; for reefing topsails. That's where you take in the mainsail, and fly the jibsail; or take in the jibsai1 and try the stormjib. Gusts upon gusts! And then, sometimes four, five, or six days of scudding under bare poles. Often only a rag of canvas left. What a dance! Squalls enough to make a three-master skip like a flea. I saw once a cabin-boy hanging on to the jibboom of an English brig. The True Blue knocked, jibboom and all, to ten thousand nothings. Fellows are swept into the air there like butterflies. I saw the second mate of the Revenue, a pretty schooner, knocked from under the forecross-tree, and killed dead. I have had my sheer-rails smashed and come out with all my sails in ribbons. Frigates of fifty guns make water like wicker baskets. And the damnable coast! Nothing can be imagined more dangerous. Rocks all jagged-edged. You come, by-and-by, to Port Famine. There it's worse and worse. The worst seas I ever saw in my life. The devil's own latitudes. All of a sudden you spy the words, painted in red, ‘Post Office.' "
"What do you mean, Captain Gertrais?"
"I mean, Captain Clubin, that immediately after doubling Point Anne you see, on a rock, a hundred feet high, a great post with a barrel suspended to the top. This barrel is the letter-box. The English sailors must needs go and write up there ‘Post Office.' What had they to do with it? It is the ocean post office. It isn't the property of that worthy gentleman, the King of England. The box is common to all. It belongs to every flag. Post Office: there's a crack-jaw word for you. It produces an effect on me as if the devil had suddenly offered me a cup of tea. I will tell you now how the postal arrangements are carried out. Every vessel which passes sends to the post a boat with dispatches. A vessel coming from the Atlantic, for instance, sends there its letters for Europe; and a ship coming from the Pacific, its letters for New Zealand or California. The officer in command of the boat puts his packet into the barrel, and takes away any packet he finds there. You take charge of these letters, and the ship which comes after you takes charge of yours. As ships are always going to and fro, the continent whence you come is that to which I am going. I carry your letters; you carry mine. The barrel is made fast to the post with a chain. And it rains, snows, and hails! A pretty sea. The imps of Satan fly about on every side. The Tamaulipas will pass there. The barrel has a good lid with a hinge, but no padlock. You see, a fellow can write to his friends this way. The letters come safely."
"It is very curious," muttered Clubin thoughtfully.
Captain Gertrais-Gaboureau returned to his bottle of ale
"If that vagabond Zuela should write" (continued Clubin aside), "the scoundrel puts his scrawl into the barrel at Magellan. and in four months I have his letter."
"Well, Captain Clubin, do you start to-morrow?"
Clubin, absorbed in a sort of somnambulism, did not notice the question; and Captain Gertrais repeated it. Clubin woke up.
"Of course, Captain Gertrais. It is my day. I must start to-morrow morning."
"If it was my case, I shouldn't Captain Clubin. The hair of the dog's coat feels damp. For two nights past the sea-birds have been flying wildly round the lanthorn of the lighthouse. A bad sign. I have a storm-glass, too, which gives me a warning. The moon is at her second quarter; it is the maximum of humidity. I noticed to-day some pimpernels with their leaves shut, and a field of clover with its stalks all stiff. The worms come out of the ground to-day; the flies sting; the bees keep close to their hives; the sparrows chatter together. You can hear the sound of bells from far off. I heard to-night the Angelus at St. Lunaire. And then the sun set angry. There will be a good fog to-morrow, mark my words. I don't advise you to put to sea. I dread the fog a good deal more than a hurricane. It's a nasty neighbour that."