THE TWO SCALES OF THE BALANCE.
The man had conquered, but the cannon might be said to have conquered as well. Immediate shipwreck had been avoided, but the corvette was not saved. The damage to the vessel seemed beyond repair. There were five breaches in her sides, one, very large, in the bow; twenty of the thirty carronades lay useless in their frames. The one which had just been captured and chained again was disabled; the screw of the cascabel was sprung, and consequently levelling the gun made impossible. The battery was reduced to nine pieces. The ship was leaking. It was necessary to repair the damages at once, and to work the pumps.
The gun deck, now that one could look over it, was frightful to behold. The inside of an infuriated elephant's cage would not be more completely demolished.
However great might be the necessity of escaping observation, the necessity of immediate safety was still more imperative to the corvette. They had been obliged to light up the deck with lanterns hung here and there on the sides.
However, all the while this tragic play was going on, the crew were absorbed by a question of life and death, and they were wholly ignorant of what was taking place outside the vessel. The fog had grown thicker; the weather had changed; the wind had worked its pleasure with the ship; they were out of their course, with Jersey and Guernsey close at hand, farther to the south than they ought to have been, and in the midst of a heavy sea. Great billows kissed the gaping wounds of the vessel—kisses full of danger. The rocking of the sea threatened destruction. The breeze had become a gale. A squall, a tempest, perhaps, was brewing. It was impossible to see four waves ahead.
While the crew were hastily repairing the damages to the gun-deck, stopping the leaks, and putting in place the guns which had been uninjured in the disaster, the old passenger had gone on deck again.
He stood with his back against the main-mast.
He had not noticed a proceeding which had taken place on the vessel. The Chevalier de la Vieuville had drawn up the marines in line on both sides of the main-mast, and at the sound of the boatswain's whistle the sailors formed in line, standing on the yards.
The Count de Boisberthelot approached the passenger.
Behind the captain walked a man, haggard, out of breath, his dress disordered, but still with a look of satisfaction on his face.
It was the gunner who had just shown himself so skilful in subduing monsters, and who had gained the mastery over the cannon.
The count gave the military salute to the old man in peasant's dress, and said to him,—
"General, there is the man."
The gunner remained standing, with downcast eyes, in military attitude.
The Count de Boisberthelot continued,—
"General, in consideration of what this man has done, do you not think there is something due him from his commander?"
"I think so," said the old man.
"Please give your orders," replied Boisberthelot.
"It is for you to give them, you are the captain."
"But you are the general," replied Boisberthelot.
The old man looked at the gunner.
"Come forward," he said. The gunner approached.
The old man turned towards the Count de Boisberthelot, took off the cross of Saint-Louis from the captain's coat and fastened it on the gunner's jacket.
"Hurrah!" cried the sailors.
The mariners presented arms.
And the old passenger pointing to the dazzled gunner, added,—
"Now, have this man shot."
Dismay succeeded the cheering.
Then in the midst of the death-like stillness, the old man raised his voice and said,—
"Carelessness has compromised this vessel. At this very hour, it is perhaps lost. To be at sea is to be in front of the enemy. A ship making a voyage is an array waging war. The tempest is concealed, but it is at hand. The whole sea is an ambuscade. Death is the penalty of any misdemeanor committed in the face of the enemy. No fault is reparable. Courage should be rewarded, and negligence punished."
These words fell one after another, slowly, solemnly, in a sort of inexorable metre, like the blows of an axe upon an oak.
And the man, looking at the soldiers, added,—
"Let it be done."
The man on whose jacket hung the sinning cross of Saint-Louis, bowed his head.
At a signal from Count de Boisberthelot, two sailors went below and came back bringing the hammock-shroud; the chaplain, who since they sailed had been at prayer in the officers' quarters, accompanied the two sailors; a sergeant detached twelve marines from the line and arranged them in two files, six by six; the gunner, without uttering a word, placed himself between the two files. The chaplain, crucifix in hand, advanced and stood beside him. "March," said the sergeant.—The platoon marched with slow steps to the bow of the vessel. The two sailors carrying the shroud, followed. A gloomy silence fell over the vessel. A hurricane howled in the distance.
A few moments later, a light flashed, a report sounded through the darkness, then all was still, and the sound of a body falling into the sea was heard.
The old passenger, still leaning against the mainmast, had crossed his arms, and was buried in thought.
Boisberthelot pointed to him with the forefinger of his left hand, and said to la Vieuville in a low voice,—
"La Vendée has a head."