Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
First Part-Sieur Clubin
Book VII. The Danger of Opening a Book at Random.
I. The Pearl at the Foot of a Precipice.
A FEW moments after his short colloquy with Sieur Landoys, Gilliatt was at St. Sampson.
He was troubled, even anxious. What could it be that had happened?
There was a murmur in St. Sampson like that of a startled hive. Everybody was at his door. The women were talking loud. There were people who seemed relating some occurrence and who were gesticulating. A group had gathered around them. The words could be heard, "What a misfortune!" Some faces wore a smile.
Gilliatt interrogated no one It was not in his nature to ask questions. He was, moreover, too much moved to speak to strangers. He had no confidence in rumours. He preferred to go direct to the Bravees.
His anxiety was so great that he was not even deterred from entering the house.
The door of the great lower room opening upon the Quay moreover, stood quite open. There was a swarm of men and women on the threshold. Everybody was going in, and Gilliatt went with the rest.
Entering he found Sieur Landoys standing near the doorposts.
"You have heard, no doubt, of this event?"
"I did not like to call it out to you on the road. It makes me like a bird of evil omen."
"What has happened?"
"The Durande is lost."
There was a crowd in the great room.
The various groups spoke low, like people in a sick-chamber.
The assemblage, which consisted of neighbours, the first comers, curious to learn the news, huddled together near the door with a sort of timidity, leaving clear the bottom of the room, where appeared Deruchette sitting and in tears. Mess Lethierry stood beside her.
His back was against the wall at the end of the room. His sailor's cap came down over his eyebrows. A lock of gray hair hung upon his cheek. He said nothing. His arms were motionless, he seemed scarcely to breathe. He had the look of something lifeless placed against the wall.
It was easy to see in his aspect a man whose life had been crushed within him. The Durande being gone, Lethierry had no longer any object in his existence. He had had a being on the sea; that being had suddenly foundered. What could he do now? Rise every morning: go to sleep every night. Never more to await the coming of the Durande; to see her get under way, or steer again into the port. What was a remainder of existence without object? To drink, to eat, and then? He had crowned the labours of his life by a masterpiece: won by his devotion a new step in civilisation. The step was lost: the masterpiece destroyed. To live a few vacant years longer! where would be the good? Henceforth nothing was left for him to do. At his age men do not begin life anew. Besides, he was ruined. Poor old man!
Deruchette, sitting near him on a chair and weeping, held one of Mess Lethierry's hands in hers. Her hands were joined: his hand was clenched fast. It was the sign of the shade of difference in their two sorrows. In joined hands there is still some token of hope, in the clenched fist none.
Mess Lethierry gave up his arm to her, and let her do with it what she pleased. He was passive. Struck down by a thunderbolt, he had scarcely a spark of life left within him.
There is a degree of overwhelmment which abstracts the mind entirely from its fellowship with man. The forms which come and go within your room become confused and indistinct. They pass by, even touch you, but never really come near you. You are far away; inaccessible to them, as they to you. The intensities of joy and despair differ in this. In despair, we take cognisance of the world only as something dim and afar off: we are insensible to the things before our eyes, we lose the feeling of our own existence. It is in vain, at such times, that we are flesh and blood; our consciousness of life is none the more real: we are become, even to ourselves, nothing but a dream.
Mess Lethierry's gaze indicated that he had reached this state of absorption.
The various groups were whispering together. They exchanged information as far as they had gathered it. This was the substance of their news
The Durande had been wrecked the day before in the fog on the Douvres, about an hour before sunset. With the exception of the captain, who refused to leave his vessel, the crew and passengers had all escaped in the long boat. A squall from the south-west springing up as the fog had cleared, had almost wrecked them a second time, and had carried them out to sea beyond Guernsey. In the night they had had the good fortune to meet with the Cashmere, which had taken them aboard and landed them at St. Peter's Port. The disaster was entirely the fault of the steersman Tangrouille, who was in prison. Clubin had behaved nobly.
The pilots, who had mustered in great force, pronounced the words "The Douvres" with a peculiar emphasis "A dreary half-way house, that," said one.
A compass and a bundle of registers and memorandum-books lay on the table; they were doubtless the compass of the Durande and the ship's papers, handed by Clubin to Imbrancam and Tangrouille at the moment of the departure of the long boat. They were the evidences of the magnificent self-abnegation of that man who had busied himself with saving these documents even in the presence of death itself-a little incident full of moral grandeur; an instance of sublime self-forgetfulness never to be forgotten.
They were unanimous in their admiration of Clubin; unanimous also in believing him to be saved after all. The Shealtiel cutter had arrived some hours after the Cashmere. It was this vessel which had brought the last items of intelligence. She had passed four-and-twenty hours in the same waters as the Durande She had lain-to in the fog, and tacked about during the squall. The captain of the Shealtiel was present among the company.
This captain had just finished his narrative to Lethierry as Gilliatt entered. The narrative was a true one. Towards the morning, the storm having abated, and the wind becoming manageable, the captain of the Shealtiel had heard the lowing of oxen in the open sea. This rural sound in the midst of the waves had naturally startled him. He steered in in that direction, and perceived the Durande among the Douvres. The sea had sufficiently subsided for him to approach. He hailed the wreck; the bellowing of the cattle was the sole reply. The captain of the Shealtiel was confident that there was no one aboard the Durande. The wreck still held together well, and notwithstanding the violence of the squall, Clubin could have passed the night there. He was not the man to leave go his hold very easily. He was not there, however; and therefore he must have been rescued. It was certain that several sloops and loggers, from Granville and St. Malo, must, after laying-to in the fog on the previous evening, have passed pretty near the rocks. It was evident that one of these had taken Clubin aboard. It was to be remembered that the long boat of the Durande was full when it left the unlucky vessel; that it was certain to encounter great risks; that another man aboard would have overloaded her, and perhaps caused her to founder; and that these circumstances had no doubt weighted with Clubin in coming to his determination to remain on the wreck. His duty, however, once fulfilled, and a vessel at hand, Clubin assuredly would not have scrupled to avail himself of its aid. A hero is not necessarily an idiot. The idea of a suicide was absurd in connection with a man of Clubin's irreproachable character. The culprit, too, was Tangrouille, not Clubin. All this was conclusive. The captain of the Shealtiel was evidently right, and everybody expected to see Clubin reappear very shortly. There was a project abroad to carry him through the town in triumph.
Two things appeared certain from the narrative of the captain: Clubin was saved, the Durande lost.
As regarded the Durande, there was nothing for it but to accept the fact; the catastrophe was irremediable. The captain of the Shealtiel had witnessed the last moments of the wreck. The sharp rock on which the vessel had been, as it were, nailed, had held her fast during the night, and resisted the shock of the tempest as if reluctant to part with its prey; but in the morning, at the moment when the captain of the Shealtiel had convinced himself that there was no one aboard to be saved and was about to wear off again, one of those seas which are like the last angry blows of a tempest had struck her. The wave lifted her violently from her place, and with the swiftness and directness of an arrow from a bow had thrown her against the two Douvres Rocks. "An infernal crash was heard," said the captain. The vessel, lifted by the wave to a certain height, had plunged between the two rocks up to her midship frame. She had stuck fast again, but more firmly than on the submarine rocks. She must have remained there suspended, and exposed to every wind and sea.
The Durande, according to the statements of the crew of the Shealtiel, was already three parts broken up. She would evidently have foundered during the night, if the rocks had not kept her up. The captain of the Shealtiel had watched her a long time with his spyglass. He gave, with naval precision, the details of her disaster. The starboard quarter beaten in, the masts maimed, the sails blown from the bolt-ropes, the shrouds torn away, the cabin sky-lights smashed by the falling of one of the booms, the dome of the cuddy-house beaten in, the chocks of the long boat struck away, the round-house overturned, the hinges of the rudder broken, the trusses wrenched away, the quarter-cloths demolished, the bits gone, the cross-beam destroyed, the shear-rails knocked off, the stern-post broken. As to the parts of the cargo made fast before the foremast, all destroyed, made a clean sweep of, gone to ten thousand shivers, with top ropes, iron pulleys, and chains. The Durande had broken her back; the sea now must break her up piecemeal. In a few days there would be nothing of her remaining.
It appeared that the engine was scarcely injured by all these ravages-a remarkable fact, and one which proved its excellence. The captain of the Shealtiel thought he could affirm that the crank had received no serious injury. The vessel's masts had given way, but the funnel had resisted everything. Only the iron guards of the captain's gangway were twisted; the paddle boxes had suffered, the frames were bruised, but the paddles had, not a float missing. The machinery was intact. Such was the conviction of the captain of the Shealtiel. Imbrancam, the engineer, who was among the crowd, had the same conviction. The negro, more intelligent than many of his white companions, was proud of his engines. He lifted up his arms, opening the ten fingers of his black hands, and said to Lethierry, as he sat there silent, "Master, the machinery is alive still!"
The safety of Clubin seeming certain, and the hull of the Durande being already sacrificed, the engines became the topic of conversation among the crowd. They took an interest in it as in a living thing. They felt a delight in praising its good qualities. "That's what I call a well-built machine," said a French sailor. "Something like a good one," cried a Guernsey fisherman. "She must have some good stuff in her," said the captain of the Shealtiel, "to come out of that affair with only a few scratches."
By degrees the machinery of the Durande became the absorbing object of their thoughts. Opinions were warm for and against. It had its enemies and its friends. More than one who possessed a good old sailing cutter, and who hoped to get a share of the business of the Durande, was not sorry to find that the Douvres rock had disposed of the new invention. The whispering became louder. The discussion grew noisy, though the hubbub was evidently a little restrained; and now and then there was a simultaneous lowering of voices out of respect to Lethierry's death-like silence.
The result of the colloquy, so obstinately maintained on all sides, was as follows:-
The engines were the vital part of the vessel. To rescue the Durande was impossible; but the machinery might still be saved. These engines were unique. To construct others similar, the money was wanting; but to find the artifices would have been still more difficult. It was remembered that the constructor of the machinery was dead. It had cost forty thousand francs. No one would risk again such a sum upon such a chance: particularly as it was now discovered that steamboats could be lost like other vessels. The accident of the Durande destroyed the prestige of all her previous success. Still, it was deplorable to think that at that very moment this valuable mechanism was still entire and in good condition, and that in five or six days it would probably go to pieces, like the vessel herself. As long as this existed, it might almost be said that there was no ship-wreck. The loss of the engines was alone irreparable. To save the machinery would be almost to repair the disaster.
Save the machinery! It was easy to talk of it; but who would undertake to do it? Was it possible, even? To scheme and to execute are two different things; as different as to dream and to do. Now if ever a dream had appeared wild and impracticable, it was that of saving the engines then embedded between the Douvres. The idea of sending a ship and a crew to work upon those rocks was absurd. It could not be thought of, It was the season of heavy seas. In the first gale the chains of the anchors would be worn away and snapped upon the submarine peaks, and the vessel must be shattered on the rocks. That would be to send a second shipwreck to the relief of the first. On the miserable narrow height where the legend of the place described the shipwrecked sailor as having perished of hunger, there was scarcely room for one person. To save the engines, therefore, it would be necessary for a man to go to the Douvres, to be alone in that sea, alone in that desert, alone at five leagues from the coast, alone in that region of terrors, alone for entire weeks, alone in the presence of dangers foreseen and unforeseen-without supplies in the face of hunger and nakedness, without succour in the time of distress, without token of human life around him save the bleached bones of the miserable being who had perished there in his misery, without companionship save that of death. And besides, how was it possible to extricate the machinery? It would require not only a sailor, but an engineer; and for what trials must he not prepare. The man who would attempt such a task must be more than a hero; he must be a madman: for in certain enterprises, in which superhuman power appears necessary, there is a sort of madness which is more potent than courage. And after all, would it not be a folly to immolate oneself for a mass of rusted iron? No: it was certain that nobody would undertake to go to the Douvres on such an errand. The engine must be abandoned like the rest. The engineer for such a task would assuredly not be forthcoming. Where, indeed, should they look for such a man?
All this, or similar observations, formed the substance of the confused conversations of the crowd.
The captain of the Shealtiel, who had been a pilot, summed up the views of all by exclaiming aloud,-
"No; it is all over. The man does not exist who could go there and rescue the machinery of the Durande."
"If I don't go," said Imbrancam, "it is because nobody could do it."
The captain of the Shealtiel shook his left hand in the air with that sudden movement which expresses a conviction that a thing is impossible.
"If he existed-" continued the captain.
Deruchette turned her head impulsively, and interrupted.
"I would marry him," she said, innocently.
There was a pause.
A man made his way out of the crowd, and standing before her, pale and anxious, said,-
"You would marry him, Miss Deruchette?"
It was Gilliatt.
All eyes were turned towards him. Mess Lethierry had just before stood upright, and gazed about him. His eyes glittered with a strange light.
He took off his sailor's cap, and threw it on the ground then looked solemnly before him, and without seeing any of the persons present, said,-
"Deruchette should be his. I pledge myself to it in God's name."