Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
Book I. Malicious Gilliatt.
VII. A Chamber for the Voyager.
HALF an hour afterwards Gilliatt, having returned to the wreck, climbed to the deck, went below, and descended into the hold, completing the summary survey of his first visit.
By the help of the capstan he had raised to the deck of the Durande the package which he had made of the lading of the sloop. The capstan had worked well. Bars for turning it were not wanting. Gilliatt had only to take his choice among the heap of wreck.
He found among the fragments a chisel, dropped, no doubt, from the carpenter's box, and which he added to his little stock of tools.
Besides this-for in poverty of appliances so complete everything counts for a little-he had his jack-knife in his pocket.
Gilliatt worked the whole day long on the wreck, clearing away, propping, arranging.
At nightfall he observed the following facts.
The entire wreck shook in the wind. The carcass trembled at every step he took. There was nothing stable or strong except the portion of the hull jammed between the rocks which contained the engine. There the beams were powerfully supported by the granite walls.
Fixing his home in the Durande would be imprudent. It would increase the weight; but far from adding to her burden, it was important to lighten it. To burden the wreck in any way was indeed the very contrary of what he wanted.
The mass of ruin required, in fact, the most careful management. It was like a sick man at the approach of dissolution. The wind would do sufficient to help it to its end.
It was, moreover, unfortunate enough to be compelled to work there. The amount of disturbance which the wreck would have to withstand would necessarily distress it, perhaps beyond its strength.
Besides, if any accident should happen in the night while Gilliatt was sleeping, he must necessarily perish with the vessel. No assistance was possible; all would be over. In order to help the shattered vessel, it was absolutely necessary to remain outside it. How to be outside and yet near it, this was the problem.
The difficulty became more complicated as he considered it.
Where could he find a shelter under such conditions?
There remained nothing but the two Douvres. They seemed hopeless enough.
From below, it was possible to distinguish upon the upper plateau of the Great Douvre a sort of protuberance.
High rocks with flattened summits, like the Great Douvre and "The Man," are a sort of decapitated peaks. They abound among the mountains and in the ocean. Certain rocks, particularly those which are met with in the open sea, bear marks like half-felled trees. They have the appearance of having received blows from a hatchet They have been subjected, in fact, to the blows of the gale, that indefatigable pioneer of the sea.
There are other still more profound causes of marine convulsions. Hence the innumerable bruises upon these primeval masses of granite Some of these sea giants have their heads struck off.
Sometimes these heads, from some inexplicable cause, do not fall, but remain shattered on the summit of the mutilated trunk. This singularity is by no means rare. The Devil's Rock, at Guernsey, and the Table, in the Valley of Anweiler, illustrate some of the most surprising features of this strange geological enigma.
Some such phenomena had probably fashioned the summit of the Great Douvre.
If the protuberance which could be observed on the plateau were not a natural irregularity in the stone. it must necessarily be some remaining fragment of the shattered summit.
Perhaps the fragment might contain some excavation-some hole into which a man could creep for cover. Gilliatt asked for no more.
But how could he reach the plateau? How could he scale that perpendicular wall, hard and polished as a pebble, half covered with the growth of glutinous confervŠ and having the slippery look of a soapy surface?
The ridge of the plateau was at least thirty feet above the deck of the Durande.
Gilliatt took out of his box of tools the knotted cord, hooked it to his belt by the grapnel, and set to work to scale the Little Douvre. The ascent became more difficult as he climbed. He had forgotten to take off his shoes, a fact which increased the difficulty. With great labour and straining, however, he reached the point. Safely arrived there, he raised himself and stood erect. There was scarcely room for his two feet. To make it his lodging would be difficult. A Stylite might have contented himself there; Gilliatt, more luxurious in his requirements, wanted something more commodious.
The Little Douvre, leaning towards the great one, looked from a distance as if it was saluting it, and the space between the Douvres, which was some score of feet below, was only eight or ten at the highest points.
From the spot to which he had climbed, Gilliatt saw more distinctly, the rocky excrescence which partly covered the plateau of the Great Douvre.
This plateau rose three fathoms at least above his head.
A precipice separated him from it. The curved escarpment of the Little Douvre sloped out of sight beneath him.
He detached the knotted rope from his belt, took a rapid glance at the dimensions of the rock, and slung the grapnel up to the plateau.
The grapnel scratched the rock, and slipped. The knotted rope with the hooks at its end fell down beneath his feet, swinging against the side of the Little Douvre.
He renewed the attempt; slung the rope further, aiming at the granite protuberance, in which he could perceive crevices and scratches.
The cast was, this time, so neat and skilful, that the hooks caught.
He pulled from below. A portion of the rock broke away, and the knotted rope with its heavy iron came down once more, striking the escarpment beneath his. feet
He slung the grapnel a third time.
It did not fall.
He put a strain upon the rope; it resisted. The grapnel was firmly anchored.
The hooks had caught in some fracture of the plateau which he could not see.
It was necessary to trust his his life to that unknown support.
He did not hesitate.
The matter was urgent. He was compelled to take the shortest route.
Moreover, to descend again to the deck of the Durande, in order to devise some other step, was impossible. A slip was probable, and a fall almost certain. It was easier to climb than to descend.
Gilliatt's movements were decisive, as are those of all good sailors. He never wasted force. He always proportioned his efforts to the work in hand. Hence the prodigies of strength which he executed with ordinary muscles. His biceps were no more powerful than that of ordinary men, but his heart was firmer. He added, in fact, to strength which is physical, energy which belongs to the moral faculties.
The feat to be accomplished was appalling.
It was to cross the space between the two Douvres, hanging only by this slender line.
Oftentimes in the path of duty and devotedness the figure of death rises before men to present these terrible questions:
Wilt thou do this? asks the shadow.
Gilliatt tested the cord again; the grappling-iron held firm.
Wrapping his left hand in his handkerchief, he grasped the knotted cord with his right hand, which he covered with his left; then stretching out one foot, and striking out sharply with the other against the rock, in order that the impetus might prevent the rope twisting, he precipitated himself from the height of the Little Douvre on to the escarpment of the great one.
The shock was severe.
There was a rebound.
His clenched fists struck the rocks in their turn; the handkerchief had loosened, and they were scratched; they had indeed narrowly escaped being crushed.
Gilliatt remained hanging there a moment dizzy.
He was sufficiently master of himself not to let go his hold of the cord.
A few moments passed in jerks and oscillations before he could catch the cord with his feet; but he succeeded at last.
Recovering himself, and holding the cord at last between his naked feet as with two hands, he gazed into the depth below.
He had no anxiety about the length of the cord, which had many a time served him for great heights. The cord, in fact, trailed upon the deck of the Durande.
Assured of being able to descend again, he began to climb hand over hand, and still clinging with his feet.
In a few moments he had gained the summit.
Never before had any creature without wings found a footing there. The plateau was covered in parts with the dung of birds. It was an irregular trapezium, a mass struck off from the colossal granitic prism of the Great Douvre. This block was hollowed in the centre like a basin-a work of the rain.
Gilliatt, in fact, had guessed correctly.
At the southern angle of the block he found a mass of superimposed rocks, probably fragments of the fallen summit. These rocks, looking like a heap of giant paving-stones, would have left room for a wild beast, if one could have found its way there, to secrete himself between them. They supported themselves confusedly one against the other, leaving interstices like a heap of ruins. They formed neither grottoes nor caves, but the pile was full of holes like a sponge. One of these holes was large enough to admit a man.
This recess had a flooring of moss and a few tufts of grass. Gilliatt could fit himself in it as in a kind of sheath. The recess at its entrance was about two feet high. It contracted towards the bottom. Stone coffins sometimes have this form. The mass of rocks behind lying towards the south-west, the recess was sheltered from the showers, but was open to the cold north wind.
Gilliatt was satisfied with the place.
The two chief problems were solved; the sloop had a harbour, and he had found a shelter.
The chief merit of his cave was its accessibility from the wreck.
The grappling-iron of the knotted cord having fallen between two blocks, had become firmly hooked, but Gilliatt rendered it more difficult to give way by rolling a huge stone upon it.
He was free to operate at leisure upon the Durande.
Henceforth he was at home.
The Great Douvre was his dwelling; the Durande was his workshop.
Nothing was more simple for him than going to and fro, ascending and descending.
He dropped down easily by the knotted cord on to the deck.
The day's work was a good one, the enterprise had begun well; he was satisfied, and began to feel hungry.
He untied his basket of provisions, opened his knife, cut a slice of smoked beef, took a bite out of his brown loaf, drank a draught from his can of fresh water, and supped admirably.
To do well and eat well are two satisfactions. A full stomach resembles an easy conscience.
This supper was ended, and there was still before him; a little more daylight. He took advantage of it to begin the lightening of the wreck-an urgent necessity.
He had passed part of the day in gathering up the fragments. He put on one side, in the strong compartment which contained the machine, all that might become of use to him, such as wood, iron, cordage, and canvas. What was useless he cast into the sea.
The cargo of the sloop hoisted on to the deck by the capstan, compact as he had made it, was an encumbrance, Gilliatt surveyed the species of niche, at a height within his reach, in the side of the Little Douvre. These natural closets, not shut in, it is true, are often seen in the rocks. It struck him that it was possible to trust some stores to this depot, and he accordingly placed in the back of the recess his two boxes containing his tools and his clothing, and his two bags holding the rye-meal and the biscuit. In the front-a little too near the edge perhaps, but he had no other place-he rested his basket of provisions.
He had taken care to remove from the box of clothing his sheepskin, his loose coat with a hood, and his water-proof overalls.
To lessen the hold of the wind upon the knotted cord, he made the lower extremity fast to one of the riders of the Durande.
The Durande being much driven in, this rider was bent a good deal, and it held the end of the cord as firmly as a tight hand.
There was still the difficulty of the upper end of the cord. To control the lower part was well, but at the summit of the escarpment, at the spot where the knotted cord met the ridge of the plateau, there was reason to fear that it would be fretted and worn away by the sharp angle of the rock
Gilliatt searched in the heap of rubbish in reserve, and took from it some rags of sailcloth, and from a bunch of old cables he pulled out some strands of rope-yarn with which he filled his pockets.
A sailor would have guessed that he intended to bind with these pieces of sail-cloth and ends of yarn the part of the knotted rope upon the edge of the rock, so as to preserve it from all friction-an operation which is called "keckling."
Having provided himself with these things, he drew on his overalls over his legs, put on his waterproof coat over his jacket, drew its hood over his red cap, hung the sheep-skin round his neck by the two legs, and clothed in this complete panoply, he grasped the cord, now firmly fixed to the side of the Great Douvre, and mounted to the assault of that sombre citadel in the sea.
In spite of his scratched hands, Gilliatt easily regained the summit.
The last pale tints of sunset were fading in the sky. It was night upon the sea below. A little light still lingered upon the height of the Douvre.
Gilliatt took advantage of this remains of daylight to bind the knotted rope. He wound it round again and again at the part which passed over the edge of the rock, with a bandage of several thicknesses of canvas strongly tied at every turn. The whole resembled in some degree the padding which actresses place upon their knees, to prepare them for the agonies and supplications of the fifth act.
This binding completely accomplished, Gilliatt rose from his stooping position.
For some moments, while he had been busied in his task, he had had a confused sense of a singular fluttering in the air.
It resembled, in the silence of the evening, the noise which an immense bat might make with the beating of its wings.
Gilliatt raised his eyes.
A great black circle was revolving over his head in the pale twilight sky.
Such circles are seen in pictures round the heads of saints. These, however, are golden on a dark ground, while the circle around Gilliatt was dark upon a pale ground. The effect was strange. It spread round the Great Douvre like the aureole of night.
The circle drew nearer, then retired; grew narrower, and then spread wide again.
It was an immense flight of gulls, seamews, and cormorants; a vast multitude of affrighted sea birds.
The Great Douvre was probably their lodging, and they were coming to rest for the night. Gilliatt had taken a chamber in their home. It was evident that their unexpected fellow-lodger disturbed them.
A man there was an object they had never beheld before.
Their wild flutter continued for some time.
They seemed to be waiting for the stranger to leave the place.
Gilliatt followed them dreamily with his eyes.
The flying multitude seemed at last to give up their design. The circle suddenly took a spiral form, and the cloud of sea birds came down upon "The Man" rock at the extremity of the group, where they seemed to be conferring and deliberating.
Gilliatt, after settling down in his alcove of granite, and covering a stone for a pillow for his head, could hear the birds for a long time chattering one after the other, or croaking, as if in turns.
Then they were silent, and all were sleeping-the birds upon their rock, Gilliatt upon his.