Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
Book II. The Labour.
XI. Murmurs in the Air.
A FEEBLE, indistinct sound seemed to reach his ear from somewhere in the far distance.
At certain hours the great deeps give forth a murmuring noise.
He listened a second time. The distant noise recommenced. Gilliatt shook his head like one who recognises at last something familiar to him.
A few minutes later he was at the other extremity of the alley between the rocks, at the entrance facing the east, which had remained open until then, and by heavy blows of his hammer was driving large nails into the sides of the gullet near "The Man" rock, as he had done at the gullet of the Douvres.
The crevices of these rocks were prepared and well furnished with timber, almost all of which was heart of oak. The rock on the side being much broken up, there were abundant cracks, and he was able to fix even more nails there than in the base of the two Douvres.
Suddenly, and as if some great breath had passed over it, the luminous appearance on the waters vanished. The twilight becoming paler every moment, assumed its functions.
The nails being driven, Gilliatt dragged beams and cords and then chains to the spot; and without taking his eyes off his work, or permitting his mind to be diverted for a moment, he began to construct across the gorge of "The Man," with beams fixed horizontally and made fast by cables, one of those open barriers which science has now adopted under the name of breakwaters.
Those who have witnessed, for example, at La Rocquaine in Guernsey, or at Bourg-d'Eau in France, the effect produced by a few posts fixed in the rock, will understand the power of these simple preparations. This sort of break-water is a combination of what is called in France epi with what is known in England as "a dam." The breakwater is the chevaux-de-frise of fortifications against tempests. Man can only struggle against the sea by taking advantage of this principle of dividing its forces.
Meanwhile the sun had risen and was shining brightly. The sky was clear, the sea calm.
Gilliatt pressed on his work. He, too, was calm; but there was anxiety in his haste. He passed with long strides from rock to rock, and returned dragging wildly sometimes a rider, sometimes a binding strake. The utility of all this preparation of timbers now became manifest. It was evident that he was about to confront a danger which he had foreseen.
A strong iron bar served him as a lever for moving the beams.
The work was executed so fast that it was rather a rapid growth than a construction. He who has never seen a military pontooner at his work can scarcely form an idea of this rapidity.
The eastern gullet was still narrower than the western. There were but five or six feet of interval between the rocks. The smallness of this opening was an assistance. The space to be fortified and closed up being very little, the apparatus would be stronger, and might be more simple. Horizontal beams, therefore, sufficed, the upright ones being useless.
The first cross pieces of the breakwater being fixed, Gilliatt mounted upon them and listened once more. The murmurs had become significant.
He continued his construction. He supported it with the two catheads of the Durande, bound to the frame of beams by cords passed through the three pulley-sheaves. He made the whole fast by chains.
The construction was little more than a colossal hurdle, having beams for rods and chains in the place of wattles. It seemed woven together, quite as much as built.
He multiplied the fastenings, and added nails where they were necessary.
Having obtained a great quantity of bar iron from the wreck, he had been able to make a large number of these heavy nails.
While still at work, he broke some biscuit with his teeth. He was thirsty, but he could not drink, having no more fresh water. He had emptied the can at his meal of the evening before.
He added afterwards four or five more pieces of timber; then climbed again upon the barrier and listened. The noises from the horizon had ceased; all was still.
The sea was smooth and quiet; deserving all those complimentary phrases which worthy citizens bestow upon it when satisfied with a trip-"a mirror," "a pond," "like oil," and so forth. The deep blue of the sky responded to the deep green tint of the ocean. The sapphire and the emerald hues vied with each other. Each were perfect. Not a cloud on high, not a line of foam below. In the midst of all this splendour, the April sun rose magnificently. It was impossible to imagine a lovelier day.
On the verge of the horizon a flight of birds of passage formed a long dark line against the sky. They were flying fast, as if alarmed.
Gilliatt set to work again to raise the breakwater.
He raised it as high as he could; as high, indeed, as the curving of the rocks would permit.
Towards noon the sun appeared to him to give more than its usual warmth. Noon is the critical time of the day. Standing upon the powerful frame which he had built up, he paused again to survey the wide expanse.
The sea was more than tranquil. It was a dull dead calm. No sail was visible. The sky was everywhere clear; but from blue it had become white. The whiteness was singular. To the west, and upon the horizon, was a little spot of a sickly hue. The spot remained in the same place; but by degrees grew larger. Near the breakers the waves shuddered, but very gently.
Gilliatt had done well to build his breakwater.
A tempest was approaching.
The elements had determined to give battle.