The corvette was now nothing but a wreck.
In the pale, scattered light, in the blackness of the clouds, in the confused shifting of the horizon, in the mysterious wrinkling of the waves, there was a sepulchral solemnity. Except the hostile whistling of the wind, everything was silent. The catastrophe was rising majestically from the depths. It seemed more like an apparition than an attack. Nothing moved on the rocks, nothing stirred on the ships. It was a strange, colossal silence. Were they dealing with reality? It was like a dream passing over the sea. In legends there are such visions: the corvette was, in a certain sense, between a demon reef and a phantom fleet.
The Count de Boisberthelot gave orders in an undertone to La Vieuville, who went down to the gun-deck; then the captain seized his spyglass and came and stood at the stern near the pilot.
Gacquoil was bending all his efforts to keep the vessel out of the trough of the sea; for, if it were struck on the side by the wind and the waves, it would inevitably capsize.
"Pilot," said the captain, "where are we?"
"Off the Minquiers."
"On which side?"
"Can we bring the broadside to bear on them?"
"One can always die," said the pilot.
The captain directed his glance toward the west and examined the Minquiers; then he turned it toward the east and scrutinized the sails in sight.
The pilot continued, as if talking to himself,—
"It is the Minquiers. It serves as a resting-place for the laughing sea-mew and the great black-mantled gull, on their way from Holland."
In the meantime, the captain had counted the ships.
There really were eight vessels correctly disposed and raising their warlike profiles above the water. In the centre stood the lofty hull of a three-decker.
The captain questioned the pilot,—
"Do you know these ships?"
"Certainly!" replied Gacquoil.
"What are they?"
"It is the squadron."
"Of the devil."
There was silence. The captain continued,—
"Are all the cruisers there?"
In fact, the second of April, Valazé had announced to the Convention that ten frigates and six ships of the line were cruising in the channel. The captain recollected this.
"In all," he said, "the squadron has sixteen vessels. "There are only eight here."
"The rest," said Gacquoil, "are spying along the coast farther down."
The captain, still looking through the glass, murmured: "A three-decker, two first-class frigates, and five of the second class."
"But I too made them out," grumbled Gacquoil.
"Good vessels," said the captain. "I have had some command of them myself."
"For my part," said Gacquoil, "I have seen them close to. I don't mistake one for another. I have their description in my head."
The captain handed his spyglass to the pilot.
"Pilot, can you make out the three-decker distinctly?"
"Yes, commander, it is the 'Cöte d'Or.'"
"They have re-named her," said the captain. "She used to be the 'Etats de Bourgogne.' A new ship. Hundred and twenty-eight guns."
He took a note-book and pencil out of his pocket, and wrote in the former the number one hundred and twenty-eight.
He went on to say: "Pilot, what is the first sail to port?"
"It is the 'Experimenté.'"
"First-class frigate; fifty-two guns. She was fitted out at Brest two months ago."
The captain put the number fifty-two down in his note-book.
"Pilot," he continued, "what is the second sail to port?"
"First-class frigate; forty eighteen-pounders. She has been in India. She has a fine naval record."
And he wrote down forty under the number fifty-two; then, raising his head, he said,—
"Now to starboard."
"Commander, these are all second-class frigates. There are five of them."
"What is the first, starting from the three-decker?"
"Thirty-two eighteen-pounders. And the second?"
"Same strength. Next?"
"Queer name to go to sea with. Next?"
"Five frigates of thirty-two guns each."
The captain wrote one hundred and sixty under the first numbers.
"Pilot," he said, "you recognize them well."
"You," replied Gacquoil, "know them well, captain. To recognize is one thing, to know is better."
The captain was looking intently at his note-book, and was adding up the numbers to himself.
"Hundred and twenty-eight, fifty-two, forty, hundred and sixty."
Just at this moment, la Vieuville came up on deck.
"Chevalier," the captain cried out to him, "we are in the face of three hundred and eighty cannon."
"So be it," said la Vieuville.
"You have just been inspecting, la Vieuville; just how many guns have we fit for use?"
"So be it," said Boisberthelot in his turn.
He took the spyglass from the pilot's hands and studied the horizon.
The eight still, black ships seemed motionless, but they were growing larger.
They were approaching imperceptibly.
La Vieuville gave the military salute.
"Commander," he said, "here is my report. I distrusted this corvette 'Claymore.' It is always annoying to embark suddenly on a vessel which does not know you, or that does not love you. English ship—traitor to the French—that slut of a carronade proved it. I have made the inspection. Anchors good. They are not of half-finished iron, but of forged bars soldered with the trip-hammer. The flukes are solid. Cables excellent, easy to pay out, of the regular length, hundred and twenty fathoms. Ammunition in abundance. Six gunners dead. A hundred and seventy-one rounds apiece."
"Because there are only nine guns left," murmured the captain.
Boisberthelot pointed his spyglass towards the horizon. The squadron was still slowly approaching.
There is one advantage about the carronades, three men are enough to work them, but they have one inconvenience, they do not carry as far nor aim as accurately as cannon. So it was necessary to let the squadron come within range of the carronades.
The captain gave his orders in an undertone. Silence reigned on the vessel. No signal to make ready for battle was given, but the order was executed all the same. The corvette was as unfit to fight against men as it was to battle with the waves. Every possible expedient was employed with this remnant of a war vessel. All the hawsers and spare cables were collected together at the gangway, near the tiller ropes, to use for strengthening the masts in case of necessity. The cockpit was prepared for the wounded. According to the naval custom of that day, the deck was barricaded, which was a safeguard against bullets but not against cannon balls. The ball-gauges were brought, although it was a little late to test their calibres; but so many accidents had not been foreseen. Each sailor received a cartridge-box, and placed a pair of pistols and a dirk in his belt. The hammocks were stowed away, the artillery pointed, the musketry prepared, the axes and grappling-irons put in their places, the stores of cartridges and bullets made ready, and the powder-magazine opened. Each man took his post. All this without a word spoken, and as if in a death chamber. It was swift and melancholy.
Then the corvette showed her broadside. She had six anchors, like a frigate. They cast all six of them; the cock-bill at the bow, the hedge anchor at the stern, the flood anchor toward the open sea, the ebb anchor toward the rocks, the bower anchor to starboard, and the sheet anchor to port.
The nine carronades remaining in good condition were put into form, all nine of them on one side,—the side toward the enemy.
The squadron had no less silently completed their preparations. The eight vessels now formed a semicircle, of which the "Minquiers" made the chord. The "Claymore," enclosed in this semicircle, and pinioned by its own anchor besides, was backed by the reef; that is to say, by shipwreck.
It was like a pack of hounds around a wild boar, making no sound, but showing their teeth.
It seemed as if one side were waiting for the other.
The gunners of the "Claymore" were stationed by their guns.
Boisberthelot said to la Vieuville,—
"I think it would be well to open fire,"
"A flirt's notion," said la Vieuville.