Ninety-three/1.2.7

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Ninety-three by Victor Hugo
A Voyage is a Lottery.

CHAPTER VII.

A VOYAGE IS A LOTTERY.

But what was to become of the corvette?

The clouds which all night long had mingled with the waves, at last shut down over the water till the horizon had entirely disappeared, and the sea was, as it were, wrapped in a mantle. Nothing but fog. Always a perilous situation, even for a ship in seaworthy condition.

In addition to the fog there was a heavy swell.

The time had been profitably employed; the corvette had been lightened by throwing overboard everything that could be cleared away of the wreck made by the carronade—the disabled guns, the broken gun carriages, timbers twisted off or unnailed, pieces of broken wood and iron; the port-holes had been opened, and the corpses and human remains wrapped in tarpaulins, slid on planks into the sea.

The sea was beginning to be too rough for safety. Not that a tempest was exactly impending; on the contrary, the hurricane howling behind the horizon seemed to be decreasing in force, and the squall moving to the north; but the waves were still very high, indicating shallow water, and crippled as the vessel was, she had little power of resistance to the shocks of the great waves, and they might be death to her.

Gacquoil was at the helm, thoughtful.

Sea captains are wont to put the best face on the matter, in misfortune.

La Vieuville who was naturally gay in times of disaster, addressed Gacquoil,—

"Well, pilot," he said, "the hurricane missed us. Its attempt to sneeze came to naught. We shall get out of it. We shall have wind, that is all." Gacquoil replied seriously,—

"A heavy wind makes a heavy sea."

Neither gay nor sad, such is the sailor. His reply had a meaning of alarm in it. For a leaking ship to be in a heavy sea is to fill rapidly. Gacquoil had emphasized this prophecy with a slight frown. Perhaps la Vieuville had spoken these almost jovial and trifling words a little too soon after the disaster of the gun and the gunner. There are things which bode ill luck when at sea. The ocean is secret; one, never knows what she will do. It is necessary to be on the watch.

La Vieuville felt the need of becoming serious.

"Where are we, pilot?" he asked.

The pilot replied,—

"We are in the hands of God."

A pilot is a master; it is always best to let him have his own way, and often to have his own say.

Besides, this sort of man speaks but little. La Vieuville walked away.

La Vieuville had asked the pilot a question, the horizon gave the answer.

The sea suddenly burst into sight.

The fog which hung over the waves lifted, all the dark upheaving of the billows was spread out in a mysterious twilight as far as one's eyes could reach, and this is what was seen,—

The sky seemed to have a lid of clouds over it; but the clouds no longer touched the sea; in the east appeared a whiteness, which was the dawn of day; in the west, another fading whiteness, which was the setting of the moon. These two bright places opposite each other, made two narrow bands of pale light along the horizon, between the dark sea and the cloudy sky.

Against these two bright strips were outlined black figures, straight and motionless.

To the west, three high rocks, standing like Celtic cromlechs, stood out against the moonlit sky.

To the east, against the pale morning sky, rose eight sail ranged in order, and at regular distances, in a threatening line.

The three rocks were a reef; the eight sail, a squadron.

Behind the corvette was the Minquiers, a rock of ill repute; before her, the French fleet. In the west, destruction; in the east carnage; she was between a shipwreck and a battle.

For facing the reef, the corvette had a broken hull, disjointed rigging, shattered masts; for facing battle, she had a battery of which twenty-one guns out of thirty were disabled, and the best of her gunners were dead.

The dawn was very faint, and there was still a little night before them. This darkness might even last for some time, being caused principally by high, heavy, dense clouds, having the appearance of a solid arch.

The wind which had at last carried away the low fog was driving the vessel on the Minquiers.

In her excessively weak and disabled condition, she scarcely obeyed the helm, she rolled rather than sailed, and buffeted by the waves gave herself up to their mercy.

The tragic reef of the Minquiers was more rugged then than at the present time. Several of the towers of this citadel of destruction have been worn away by the incessant undermining of the sea; the shape of the reefs is constantly changing; waves are not called lames[1] without reason; each tide is a saw-tooth. At this time, to touch on the Minquiers, was to perish.

As for the cruisers, they were the squadron from Cancale, afterwards made famous under the command of that Captain Duchesne whom Léquinio called "Father Duchêne."

The situation was critical. The corvette had unconsciously, while the cannon was loose, deviated from her course and sailed more towards Granville than towards Saint-Malo. Even if she had been manageable and able to carry sail, the Minquiers would have barred her return to Jersey, and the cruisers barred her from reaching France.

However, there was no tempest, but as the pilot had said, there was a heavy sea. The sea tumbling beneath a rough wind, and over the rocky bottom, was wild.

The sea never tells at once what it means to do. There is everything in this abyss, even chicanery. One might almost say that the sea had designs; it advances and retreats, it proposes and retracts, it prepares a squall and then gives up its plan, it promises destruction and does not keep its word, it threatens the North, and strikes the South. All night the corvette "Claymore" had been in the fog, and feared a storm; the sea had just broken its promise, and in a cruel fashion; it had given warning of a tempest and brought out a reef. It was still shipwreck in another form.

To destruction on the rocks was added extermination in battle. One enemy supplemented the other.

La Vieuville cried out with a bold laugh,—

"Shipwreck on one hand, battle on the other. Both sides have thrown double fives."

  1. Lame in French means sword-blade as well as billow.