DOES HE ESCAPE?
A few moments later, one of those little boats called a "gig," especially designed for the captain's use, left the ship. In this boat there were two men, the old passenger in the stern, and the sailor who had volunteered to go, in the bow. The night was still very dark. The sailor, conforming to the captain's design, rowed vigorously in the direction of the Minquiers. No other way of escape was possible. Some provisions had been thrown in the bottom of the boat, a bag of biscuit, a smoked beefs tongue, and a cask of water.
"As soon as the boat touched the water, la Vieuville, scoffer even in the face of destruction, leaned over the stern of the corvette and sneered out this farewell to the boat: "She is a good one for escape, and a fine one for drowning."
"Sir," said the pilot, "jest no more."
The boat quickly rowed off, and was almost immediately a good distance away from the corvette. Wind and waves seconded the oarsman, and the little craft was rapidly making her escape, rocking in the twilight, and concealed in the great furrows of the waves.
A strange, gloomy suspense hung over the sea.
Suddenly, in this vast, tumultuous ocean silence, rose a voice, which, increased by the speaking-trumpet, as by the brazen mask of ancient tragedy, seemed almost superhuman.
It was Captain Boisberthelot who was speaking,—
"Mariners of the king," he cried, "nail the white flag to the main-mast. We are going to see our last sunrise."
And a cannon shot left the corvette.
"Long live the king!" shouted the crew.
Then from the edge of the horizon was heard another cry, immense, distant, confused, but yet distinct,—
"Long live the Republic!"
And a noise like that of three hundred thunderbolts burst over the depths of the ocean.
The battle was beginning.
The sea was covered with fire and smoke.
Clouds of spray made by the shots falling into the water burst from the waves on every side.
The "Claymore" began to shower flame on the eight ships. At the same time, the whole squadron, grouped in a crescent around the "Claymore," opened fire from all its batteries. The horizon was all ablaze. It was like a volcano rising out of the sea. The wind twisted round and round the vast crimson of battle, in the midst of which the ships appeared and disappeared like spectres. In the foreground, the corvette stood out against this red background like a black skeleton.
From the top of the main-mast the white banner with its design of fleur-de-lis could be made out.
The two men in the boat were silent.
The triangular-shaped shoals of the Minquiers, a kind of submarine Trinacrium, are larger than the whole island of Jersey; the sea covers them; their culminating point is a plateau, rising above the highest tides, and separated from this toward the northeast are six mighty rocks ranged in a straight line, giving the effect of a great wall crumbling away here and there. The sound between the plateau and the six rocks is only navigable to craft drawing very little water.
Beyond this sound is the open sea.
The sailor who had taken charge of the boat, entered the sound. In this way he put the Minquiers between the battle and the boat. He pulled skilfully through the narrow channel, avoiding the reef to port as well as to starboard; the rocks now concealed the battle. The glare on the horizon, and the furious din of the cannonading began to decrease as the distance became greater; but from the continuance of the reports it was evident that the corvette was still holding her own, and that she intended to exhaust her hundred and seventy-one broadsides to the very last. Soon the boat entered safe water, beyond the reef, beyond the battle, beyond the reach of bullets.
Gradually, the appearance of the sea became less gloomy, shimmering patches abruptly drowned in darkness increased in size, the foam burst into jets of light, pale gleams floated over the tops of the waves. Day dawned.
The boat was out of the reach of the enemy; but the most difficult task was yet to be accomplished. The boat was saved from the cannon shots, but not from shipwreck. It was in a high sea, a mere shell, without deck, without sail, without compass, with nothing to rely on but oars, in the face of the ocean and the storm, an atom at the mercy of monsters.
Then in this boundlessness, in this solitude, lifting a face made pallid by the dawn, the man in the bow of the boat fixed his gaze on the man in the stern and said to him,—
"I am the brother of the one you ordered shot."