Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
Book IV. Pitfalls in the Way.
VI. De Profundis ad Altum.
GILLIATT had to his hand among his reserve of rigging for the sloop a pretty large tarpaulin, furnished with long lanyards at the four corners.
He took this tarpaulin, made fast the two corners by the lanyards to the two rigs of the chains of the funnel on the same side as the leak, and threw it over the gunwale. The tarpaulin hung like a sheet between the Little Douvre and the bark, and sunk in the water. The pressure of the water endeavouring to enter into the hold kept it close to the hull upon the gap. The heavier the pressure the closer the sail adhered. It was stuck by the water itself right upon the fracture. The wound of the bark was stanched.
The tarred canvas formed an effectual barrier between the interior of the hold and the waves without. Not a drop of water entered. The leak was masked, but was not stopped. It was a respite only.
Gilliatt took the scoop and began to bail the sloop. It was time that she were lightened. The labour warmed him a little, but his weariness was extreme. He was forced to acknowledge to himself that he could not complete the work of stanching the hold. He had scarcely eaten anything, and he had the humiliation of feeling himself exhausted.
He measured the progress of his work by the sinking of the level of water below his knees. The fall was slow.
Moreover, the leakage was only Interrupted; the evil was moderated, not repaired. The tarpaulin pushed into the gap began to bulge inside, looking as if a fist were under the canvas, endeavouring to force it through. The canvas, strong and pitchy, resisted; but the swelling and the tension increased, it was not certain that it would not give way, and at any moment the swelling might become a rent. The irruption of water must then recommence.
In such a case, as the crews of vessels in distress know well, there is no other remedy than stuffing. The sailors take rags of every kind which they can find at hand-everything, in fact, which in their language is called "service;" and with this they push the bulging sail-cloth as far as they can into the leak.
Of this "service" Gilliatt had none. All the rags and tow which he had stored up had been used in his operations or carried away by the storm.
If necessary, he might possibly have been able to find some remains by searching among the rocks. The sloop was sufficiently lightened for him to leave it with safety for a quarter of an hour; but how could he make this search without a light? The darkness was complete. There was no longer any moon; nothing but the starry sky. He had no dry tow with which to make a match, no tallow to make a candle, no fire to light one, no lantern to shelter it from the wind. In the sloop and among the rocks all was confused and indistinct. He could hear the water lapping against the wounded hull, but he could not even see the crack. It was with his hands that he had ascertained the bulging of the tarpaulin. In that darkness it was impossible to make any useful search for rags of canvas or pieces of tow scattered among the breakers. Who could glean these waifs and strays without being able to see his path? Gilliatt looked sorrowfully at the sky; all those stars, he thought, and yet no light!
The water in the bark having diminished, the pressure from without increased. The bulging of the canvas became larger, and was still increasing, like a frightful abscess ready to burst. The situation, which had been improved for a short time, began to be threatening.
Some means of stopping it effectually was absolutely necessary. He had nothing left but his clothes, which he had stretched to dry upon the projecting rocks of the Little Douvre.
He hastened to fetch them, and placed them upon the gunwale of the sloop.
Then he took his tarpaulin overcoat, and kneeling in the water, thrust it into the crevice, and pushing the swelling of the sail outward, emptied it of water. To the tarpaulin coat he added the sheepskin, then his Guernsey shirt, and then his jacket. The hole received them all. He had nothing left but his sailor's trousers, which he took off and pushed in with the other articles. This enlarged and strengthened the stuffing.
The stopper was made, and it appeared to be sufficient.
These clothes passed partly through the gap, the sail-cloth outside enveloping them. The sea making an effort to enter, pressed against the obstacle, spread it over the gap, and blocked it. It was a sort of exterior compression.
Inside, the centre only of the bulging having been driven out, there remained all around the gap and the stuffing just thrust through a sort of circular pad formed by the tarpaulin, which was rendered still firmer by the irregularities of the fracture with which it had become entangled.
The leak was stanched, but nothing could be more precarious. Those sharp splinters of the gap which fixed the tarpaulin might pierce it and make holes, by which the water would enter; while he would not even perceive it in the darkness There was little probability of the stoppage lasting until daylight. Gilliatt's anxiety changed its form; but he felt it increasing at the same time that he found his strength leaving him.
He had again set to work to bail out the hold, but his arms, in spite of all his efforts, could scarcely lift a scoopful of water. He was naked and shivering. He felt as if the end were now at hand.
One possible chance flashed across his mind. There might be a sail in sight. A fishing-boat which should by any accident be in the neighbourhood of the Douvres might come to his assistance. The moment had arrived when a helpmate was absolutely necessary. With a man and a lantern all might yet be saved. If there were two persons, one might easily bail the vessel. Since the leak was temporarily stanched, as soon as she could be relieved of this burden she would rise and regain her ordinary water-line. The leak would then be above the surface of the water, the repairs would be practicable, and he would be able immediately to replace the stuff by a piece of planking, and thus substitute for the temporary stoppage a complete repair. If not, it would be necessary to wait till daylight-to wait the whole night long; a delay which might prove ruinous. If by chance some ship's lantern should be in sight, Gilliatt would be able to signal it from the height of the Great Douvre. The weather was calm, there was no wind or rolling sea; there was a possibility of the figure of a man being observed moving against the background of the starry sky. A captain of a ship, or even the master of a fishing-boat, would not be at night in the waters of the Douvres without directing his glass upon the rock, by way of precaution.
Gilliatt hoped that some one might perceive him.
He climbed upon the wreck, grasped the knotted rope, and mounted upon the Great Douvre.
Not a sail was visible around the horizon; not a boat's lantern. The wide expanse, as far as eye could reach, was a desert. No assistance was possible, and no resistance possible.
Gilliatt felt himself without resources-a feeling which he had not felt until then.
A dark fatality was now his master. With all his labour, all his success, all his courage, he and his bark, and its precious burden, were about to become the sport of the waves. He had no other means of continuing the struggle; he became listless. How could he prevent the tide from returning, the water from rising, the night from continuing? The temporary stoppage which he had made was his sole reliance. He had exhausted and stripped himself in constructing and completing it, he could neither fortify nor add to it. The stop-gap was such that it must remain as it was; and every further effort was useless. The apparatus, hastily constructed was at the mercy of the waves. How would this inert obstacle work? It was this obstacle now, not Gilliatt, which had to sustain the combat; that handful of rags, not that intelligence. The swell of a wave would suffice to reopen the fracture. More or less of pressure-the whole question was comprised in that formula.
All depended upon a brute struggle between two mechanical quantities. Henceforth he could neither aid his auxiliary nor stop his enemy. He was no longer any other than a mere spectator of this struggle, which was one for him of life or death. He who had ruled over it a supreme intelligence, was at the last moment compelled to resign all to a mere blind resistance.
No trial, no terror that he had yet undergone, could bear comparison with this.
From the time when he had taken up his abode upon the Douvres he had found himself environed, and as it were possessed by solitude. This solitude more than surrounded, it enveloped him. A thousand menaces at once had met him face to face. The wind was always there, ready to become furious; the sea, ready to roar. There was no stopping that terrible mouth the wind, no imprisoning that dread monster the sea. And yet he had striven; he, a solitary man, had combated hand to hand with the ocean, had wrestled even with the tempest.
Many other anxieties, many other necessities had he made head against. There was no form of distress with which he had not become familiar. He had been compelled to execute great works without tools, to move vast burdens without aid, without science to resolve problems, without provisions to find food, without bed or roof to cover it to find shelter and sleep.
Upon that solitary rock he had been subjected by turns to all the varied and cruel tortures of nature; oftentimes a gentle mother, not less often a pitiless destroyer.
He had conquered his isolation, conquered hunger, conquered thirst, conquered cold, conquered fever, conquered labour, conquered sleep. He had encountered a mighty coalition of obstacles formed to bar his progress. After his privations there were the elements; after the sea the tempest, after the tempest the devil-fish, after the monster the spectre.
A dismal irony was then the end of all. Upon this rock, whence he had thought to arise triumphant, the spectre of Clubin had only arisen to mock him with a hideous smile.
The grin of the spectre was well founded. Gilliatt saw himself ruined; saw himself no less than Clubin in the grasp of death.
Winter, famine, fatigue, the dismemberment of the wreck, the removal of the machinery, the equinoctial gale, the thunder, the monster, were all as nothing compared with this small fracture in a vessel's planks. Against the cold one could procure-and he had procured-fire; against hunger the shellfish of the rocks; against thirst, the ram; against the difficulties of his great task, industry and energy; against the sea and the storm, the breakwater; against the devil-fish, the knife; but against the terrible leak he had no weapon.
The hurricane had bequeathed him this sinister fare-well. The last struggle, the traitorous thrust, the treacherous side-blow of the vanquished foe. In its flight the tempest had turned and shot this arrow in the rear. It the final and deadly stab of his antagonist.
It was possible to combat with the tempest, but how could he struggle with that insidious enemy who now attacked him?
If the stoppage gave way, if the leak reopened, nothing could prevent the sloop foundering. It would be the bursting of the ligature of the artery; and once under the water with its heavy burden, no power could raise it. The noble struggle, with two months' Titanic labour, ended then in annihilation. To recommence would be impossible. He had neither forge nor materials. At daylight, in all probability, he was about to see all his work sink slowly and irrecoverably into the gulf. Terrible, to feel that sombre power beneath. The sea snatched his prize from his hands.
With his bark engulfed, no fate awaited him but to perish of hunger and cold, like the poor shipwrecked sailor on "The Man" rock.
During two long months the intelligences which hover invisibly over the world had been the spectators of these things: on one hand the wide expanse, the waves, the winds the lightnings, the meteors; on the other a man. On one hand the sea, on the other a human mind; on the one hand the infinite, on the other an atom.
The battle had been fierce, and behold the abortive issue of those prodigies of valour.
Thus did this heroism without parallel end in powerlessness; thus ended in despair that formidable struggle-that struggle of a nothing against all, that Iliad against one.
Gilliatt gazed wildly into space.
He had no clothing. He stood naked in the midst of that immensity.
Then overwhelmed by the sense of that unknown infinity, like one bewildered by a strange persecution, confronting the shadows of night, in the presence of that impenetrable darkness, in the midst of the murmur of the waves, the swell, the foam, the breeze, under the clouds, under that vast diffusion of force, under that mysterious firmament of wings, of stars, of gulfs, having around him and beneath him the ocean, above him the constellations, under the great unfathomable deep, he sank, gave up the struggle lay down upon the rock, his face towards the stars, humbled, and uplifting his joined hands towards the terrible depths, he cried aloud, "Have mercy."
Weighed down to earth by that immensity, he prayed.
He was there alone, in the darkness upon the rock, in the midst of that sea, stricken down with exhaustion like one smitten by lightning, naked like the gladiator in the circus, save that for circus he had the vast horizon, instead of wild beasts the shadows of darkness, instead of the faces of the crowd the eyes of the Unknown, instead of the Vestals the stars, instead of Cæsar the All-powerful.
His whole being seemed to dissolve in cold, fatigue, powerlessness, prayer, and darkness, and his eyes closed.