Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
Book II. The Labour.
IV. Sub Re.
THE aspect of the man who accomplished all these labours became terrible.
Gilliatt in his multifarious tasks expended all his strength at once, and regained it with difficulty.
Privations on the one hand, lassitude on the other, had much reduced him. His hair and beard had grown long. He had but one shirt which was not in rags. He went about naked-footed, the wind having carried away one of his shoes and the sea the other. Fractures of the rude and dangerous stone anvil which he used had left small wounds upon his hands and arms, the marks of labour. These wounds, or rather scratches, were superficial; but the keen air and the salt sea irritated them continually.
He was generally hungry, thirsty, and cold.
His store of fresh water was gone; his rye-meal was used or eaten. He had nothing left but a little biscuit.
This he broke with his teeth, having no water in which to steep it.
By little and little, and day by day, his powers decreased.
The terrible rocks were consuming his existence.
How to obtain food was a problem; how to get drink was a problem; how to find rest was a problem.
He ate when he was fortunate enough to find a crayfish or a crab; he drank when he chanced to see a sea-bird descend upon a point of rock; for on climbing up to the spot he generally found there a hollow with a little fresh water He drank from it after the bird; sometimes with the bird; for the gulls and seamews had become accustomed to him, and no longer flew away at his approach. Even in his greatest need of food he did not attempt to molest them. He had, as will be remembered, a superstition about birds. The birds on their part-now that his hair was rough and wild and his beard long-had no fear of him. The change in his face gave them confidence; he had lost resemblance to men, and taken the form of the wild beast.
The birds and Gilliatt, in fact, had become good friends. Companions in poverty, they helped each other. As long as he had had any meal, he had crumbled for them some little bits of the cakes he made. In his deeper distress they showed him in their turn the places where he might find the little pools of water.
He ate the shellfish raw. Shellfish help in a certain degree to quench the thirst. The crabs he cooked. Having no kettle, he roasted them between two stones made red-hot in his fire, after the manner of the savages of the Feroe Islands.
Meanwhile signs of the equinoctial season had begun to appear. There came rain-an angry rain. No showers or steady torrents, but fine, sharp, icy, penetrating points which pierced to his skin through his clothing, and to his bones through his skin. It was a rain which yielded little water for drinking, but which drenched him none the less.
Chary of assistance, prodigal of misery-such was the character of these rains. During one week Gilliatt suffered from them all day and all night.
At night, in his rocky recess, nothing but the over-powering fatigue of his daily work enabled him to get sleep. The great sea-gnats stung him, and he awakened covered with blisters.
He had a kind of low fever, which sustained him; this fever is a succour which destroys. By instinct he chewed the mosses, or sucked the leaves of wild cochlearia, scanty tufts of which grew in the dry crevices of the rocks. Of his suffering, however, he took little heed. He had no time to spare from his work to the consideration of his own privations. The rescue of the machinery of the Durande was progressing well. That sufficed for him.
Every now and then, for the necessities of his work. he jumped into the water, swam to some point, and gained a footing again. He simply plunged into the sea and left it, as a man passes from one room in his dwelling to another.
His clothing was never dry. It was saturated with rain water, which had no time to evaporate, and with sea water, which never dries. He lived perpetually wet.
Living in wet clothing is a habit which may be acquired. The poor groups of Irish people-old men, mothers, girls almost naked, and infants-who pass the winter in the open air, under the snow and rain, huddled together, sometimes at the corners of houses in the streets of London, live and die in this condition.
To be soaked with wet, and yet to be thirsty: Gilliat grew familiar with this strange torture. There were times when he was glad to suck the sleeve of his loose coat.
The fire which he made scarcely warmed him. A fire in open air yields little comfort. It burns on one side, and freezes on the other.
Gilliatt often shivered even while sweating over his forge.
Everywhere about him rose resistance amidst a terrible silence. He felt himself the enemy of an unseen combination. There is a dismal non possumus in nature. The inertia of matter is like a sullen threat. A mysterious persecution environed him. He suffered from heats and shiverings. The fire ate into his flesh; the water froze him; feverish thirst tormented him; the wind tore his clothing; hunger undermined the organs of the body. The oppression of all these things was constantly exhausting him. Obstacles silent, immense, seemed to converge from all points, with the blind irresponsibility of fate, yet full of a savage unanimity He felt them pressing inexorably upon him. No means were there of escaping from them. His sufferings produced the impression of some living persecutor. He had a constant sense of something working against him, of a hostile form ever present, ever labouring to circumvent and to subdue him. He could have fled from the struggle, but since he remained he had no choice but to war with this impenetrable hostility. He asked himself what it was. It took hold of him, grasped him tightly, overpowered him, deprived him of breath. The invisible persecutor was destroying him by slow degrees. Every day the oppression became greater, as if a mysterious screw had received another turn.
His situation in this dreadful spot resembled a duel, in which a suspicion of some treachery haunts the mind of one of the combatants.
Now it seemed a coalition of obscure forces which surrounded him. He felt that there was somewhere a determination to be rid of his presence. It is thus that the glacier chases the loitering ice-block.
Almost without seeming to touch him this latent coalition had reduced him to rags; had left him bleeding distressed, and as it were hors de combat, even before the battle. He laboured, indeed, not the less-without pause or rest; but as the work advanced, the workman himself lost ground. It might have been fancied that Nature, dreading his bold spirit, adopted the plan of slowly undermining his bodily power. Gilliatt kept his ground and left the rest to the future. The sea had begun by consuming him; what would come next?
The double Douvres-that dragon made of granite, and lying in ambush in mid-ocean-had sheltered him. It had allowed him to enter, and to do his will; but its hospitality resembled the welcome of devouring jaws.
The desert, the boundless surface, the unfathomable space around him and above, so full of negatives to man's will; the mute, inexorable determination of phenomena following their appointed course; the grand general law of things, implacable and passive; the ebbs and flows the rocks themselves, dark Pleiades whose points were each a star amid vortices, a centre of an irradiation of currents; the strange, indefinable conspiracy to stifle with indifference the temerity of a living being; the wintry winds, the clouds, and the beleaguering waves enveloped him, closed round him slowly, and in a measure shut him in, and separated him from companionship, like a dungeon built up by degrees round a living man. All against him, nothing for him, he felt himself isolated abandoned, enfeebled, sapped, forgotten. His storehouse empty, his tools broken or defective, he was tormented with hunger and thirst by day, with cold by night. His sufferings had left him with wounds and tatters, rags covering sores, torn hands, bleeding feet, wasted limbs, pallied cheeks, and eyes bright with a strange light; but this was the steady flame of his determination.
All his efforts seemed to tend to the impossible. His success was trifling and slow. He was compelled to expend much labour for very little results. This it was that gave to his struggle its noble and pathetic character.
That it should have required so many preparations, so much toil, so many cautious experiments, such nights of hardship and such days of danger, merely to set up four beams over a shipwrecked vessel, to divide and isolate the portion that could be saved, and to adjust to that wreck within a wreck four tackle-blocks with their cables was only the result of his solitary labour.
That solitary position Gilliatt had more than accepted; he had deliberately chosen it. Dreading a competitor, because a competitor might have proved a rival, he had sought for no assistance. The overwhelming enterprise, the risk, the danger, the toil multiplied by itself, the possible destruction of the salvor in his work, famine, fever, nakedness, distress-he had chosen all these for himself! Such was his selfishness. He was like a man placed in some terrible chamber which is being slowly exhausted of air. His vitality was leaving him by little and little. He scarcely perceived it.
Exhaustion of the bodily strength does not necessarily exhaust the will. Faith is only a secondary power; the will is the first. The mountains which faith is proverbially said to move are nothing beside that which the will can accomplish. All that Gilliatt lost in vigour he gained in tenacity. The destruction of the physical man under the oppressive influence of that wild surrounding sea and rock and sky seemed only to reinvigorate his moral nature.
Gilliatt felt no fatigue; or, rather, would not yield to any. The refusal of the mind to recognise the failings of the body is in itself an immense power.
He saw nothing, except the steps in the progress of his labours.
His object-now seeming so near attainment-wrapped him in perpetual illusions.
He endured all this suffering without any other thought than is comprised in the word "Forward." His work flew to his head; the strength of the will is intoxicating. Its intoxication is called heroism.
He had become a kind of Job, having the ocean for the scene of his sufferings. But he was a Job wrestling with difficulty, a Job combating and making head against afflictions: a Job conquering; a combination of Job and Prometheus, if such names are not too great to be applied to a poor sailor and fisher of crabs and crayfish.