Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
First Part-Sieur Clubin
Book VI. The Drunken Steersman and the Sober Captain.
V. Clubin Reaches the Crowning-Point of Glory.
A CRASH was heard. The ripping of a vessel's side upon a sunken reef in open sea is the most dismal sound of which man can dream. The Durande's course was stopped short.
Several passengers were knocked down with the shock, and rolled, upon the deck.
The Guernsey man raised his hands to heaven.
"We are on the Hanways. I predicted it."
A long cry went up from the ship.
"We are lost."
The voice of Clubin, dry and short, was heard above all.
"No one is lost! Silence!"
The black form of Imbrancam, naked down to the waist, issued from the hatchway of the engine-room.
The negro said with self-possession,-
"The water is gaining, Captain. The fires will soon be out."
The moment was terrible.
The shock was like that of a suicide. If the disaster had been wilfully sought, it could not have been more terrible. The Durande had rushed upon her fate as if she had attacked the rock itself. A point had pierced her sides like a wedge. More than six feet square of planking had gone; the stem was broken, the prow smashed, and the gaping hull drank in the sea with a horrible gulping noise. It was an entrance for wreck and ruin. The rebound was so violent that it had shattered the rudder pendants; the rudder itself hung unhinged and flapping. The rock had driven in her keel. Round about the vessel nothing was visible except a thick, compact fog, now become sombre. Night was gathering fast.
The Durande plunged forward. It was like the effort of a horse pierced through the entrails by the horns of a bull. All was over with her.
Tangrouille was sobered. Nobody is drunk in the moment of a shipwreck. He came down to the quarter-deck, went up again, and said,-
"Captain, the water is gaining rapidly in the hold. In ten minutes it will be up to the scupper-holes."
The passengers ran about bewildered, wringing their hands, leaning over the bulwarks, looking down in the engine-room, and making every other sort of useless movement in their terror. The tourist had fainted.
Clubin made a sign with his hand, and they were silent. He questioned Imbrancam,-
"How long will the engines work yet?"
"Five or six minutes, sir."
Then he interrogated the Guernsey passenger,-
"I was at the helm. You saw the rock. On which bank of the Hanways are we?"
"On the Mauve. Just now, in the opening in the fog, I saw it clearly."
"If we're on the Mauve," remarked Clubin, "we have the Great Hanway on the port side, and the Little Hanway on the starboard bow; we are a mile from the shore."
The crew and passengers listened, fixing their eyes anxiously and attentively on the Captain.
Lightening the ship would have been of no avail, and indeed would have been hardly possible. In order to throw the cargo overboard, they would have had to open the ports and increase the chance of the water entering. To cast anchor would have been equally useless: they were stuck fast. Besides, with such a bottom for the anchor to drag, the chain would probably have fouled. The engines not being injured, and being workable while the fires were not extinguished-that is to say, for a few minutes longer-they could have made an effort, by help of steam and her paddles, to turn her astern off the rocks; but if they had succeeded, they must have settled down immediately. The rock, indeed, in some degree stopped the breach and prevented the entrance of the water. It was at least an obstacle; while the hole once freed it would have been impossible to stop the leak or to work the pumps. To snatch a poniard from a wound in the heart is instant death to the victim. To free the vessel from the rock would have been simply to founder.
The cattle, on whom the water was gaining in the hold, were lowing piteously.
Clubin issued orders,-
"Launch the long boat."
Imbrancam and Tangrouille rushed to execute the order. The boat was eased from her fastenings. The rest of the crew looked on stupefied.
"All hands to assist," cried Clubin.
This time all obeyed.
Clubin, self-possessed, continued to issue his orders in that old sea dialect, which French sailors of the present day would scarcely understand.
"Haul in a rope-Get a cable if the capstan does not work-Stop heaving-Keep the blocks clear-Lower away there-Bring her down stern and bows-Now then, all together, lads-Take care she don't lower stern first- There's too much strain on there-Hold the laniard of the stock tackle-Stand by there!"
The long boat was launched.
At that instant the Durande's paddles stopped, and the smoke ceased-the fires were drowned.
The passengers slipped down the ladder, and dropped hurriedly into the long boat. Imbrancam lifted the fainting tourist, carried him into the boat, and then boarded the vessel again.
The crew made a rush after the passengers-the cabin boy was knocked down, and the others were trampling upon him.
Imbrancam barred their passage.
"Not a man before the lad," he said.
He kept off the sailors with his two black arms, picked up the boy, and handed him down to the Guernsey man, who was standing upright in the boat.
The boy saved, Imbrancam made way for the others, and said,-
Meanwhile Clubin had entered his cabin, and had made up a parcel containing the ship's papers and instruments. He took the compass from the binnacle, handed the papers and instruments to Imbrancam, and the compass to Tangrouille, and said to them,-
"Get aboard the boat."
They obeyed. The crew had taken their places before them.
"Now," cried Clubin, "push off."
A cry arose from the long boat.
"What about yourself, Captain?"
"I will remain here."
Shipwrecked people have little time to deliberate, and not much for indulging in tender feeling. Those who were in the long boat and in comparative safety, however, felt an emotion which was not altogether selfish. All the voices shouted together,-
"Come with us, Captain."
"No; I remain here."
The Guernsey man, who had some experience of the sea, replied,-
"Listen to me, Captain. You are wrecked on the Hanways. Swimming, you would have only a mile to cross to Pleinmont. In a boat you can only land at Rocquaine, which is two miles. There are breakers, and there is the fog. Our boat will not get to Rocquaine in less than two hours. It will be a dark night. The sea is rising-the wind getting fresh. A squall is at hand. We are now ready to return and bring you off; but if bad weather comes on, that will be out of our power. You are lost if you stay there. Come with us."
The Parisian chimed in,-
"The long boat is full-too full, it is true-and one more will certainly be one too many; but we are thirteen-a bad number for the boat-and it is better to overload her with a man than to take an ominous number. Come, Captain."
"It was all my fault-not yours, Captain. "It isn't fair for you to be left behind."
"I have decided to remain here," said Clubin. "The vessel must inevitably go to pieces in the tempest to-night. I won't leave her. When the ship is lost, the Captain is already dead. People shall not say I didn't do my duty to the end. Tangrouille, I forgive you!"
Then, folding his arms, he cried,-
"Obey orders! Let go the rope, and push off."
The long boat swayed to and fro. Imbrancam had seized the tiller. All the hands which were not rowing were raised towards the Captain; every mouth cried.
"Cheers for Captain Clubin."
"An admirable fellow!" said the American,
"Sir," replied the Guernsey man, "he is one of the worthiest seamen afloat."
Tangrouille shed tears.
"If I had had the courage," he said, "I would have stayed with him. "
The long-boat pushed away, and was lost in the fog.
Nothing more was visible.
The beat of the oars grew fainter, and died away.
Clubin remained alone.