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Wooden And Iron Walls
The birth of the British Navy may be said to have ta...
The Corvette _claymore_
The corvette, instead of sailing south, in the direction of St.
Catherine, headed to the north, then, veering towards the west, had
boldly entered that arm of the sea between Sark and Jersey called the
Passage of the Deroute. There was then no lighthouse at any point on
either coast. It had been a clear sunset; the night was darker than
summer nights usually are; it was moonlight, but large clouds, rather
of the equinox than of the solstice overspread the sky, and, judging by
appearances, the moon would not be visible until she reached the
horizon at the moment of setting. A few clouds hung low near the
surface of the sea and covered it with vapor.
All this darkness was favorable. Gacquoil, the pilot, intended to
leave Jersey on the left, Guernsey on the right, and by boldly sailing
between Hanois and Dover, to reach some bay on the coast near St. Malo,
a longer but safer route than the one through Minqulers; for the French
coaster had standing orders to keep an unusually sharp lookout between
St. Helier and Granville.
If the wind were favorable, and nothing happened, by dint of setting
all sail Gacquoil hoped to reach the coast of France at daybreak.
All went well. The corvette had just passed Gros Nez. Towards nine
o'clock the weather looked sullen, as the sailors express it, both wind
and sea rising; but the wind was favorable, and the sea was rough, yet
not heavy, the waves now and then dashing over the bow of the corvette.
"The peasant" whom Lord Balcarras had called general, and whom the
Prince de La Tour d'Auvergne had addressed as cousin, was a good
sailor, and paced the deck of the corvette with calm dignity. He did
not seem to notice that she rocked considerably. From time to time he
took out of his waistcoat pocket a cake of chocolate, and breaking off
a piece, munched it. Though his hair was gray, his teeth were sound.
He spoke to no one, except that from time to time he made a few concise
remarks in an undertone to the captain, who listened to him
deferentially, apparently regarding his passenger as the commander,
rather than himself. Unobserved in the fog, and skilfully piloted, the
_Claymore_ coasted along the steep shore to the north of Jersey,
hugging the land to avoid the formidable reef of Pierres-de-Leeq, which
lies in the middle of the strait between Jersey and Sark. Gacquoil, at
the helm, sighting in turn Greve de Leeq, Gros Nez, and Plermont,
making the corvette glide in among those chains of reefs, felt his way
along to a certain extent but with the self-confidence of one familiar
with the ways of the sea.
The corvette had no light forward, fearing to betray its passage
through these guarded waters. They congratulated themselves on the
fog. The Grande Etape was reached; the mist was so dense that the
lofty outlines of the Pinnacle were scarcely visible. They heard it
strike ten from the belfry of Saint-Ouen,--a sign that the wind was
still aft. All was going well; the sea grew rougher, because they were
drawing near La Corbiere.
A little after ten, the Count Boisberthelot and the Chevalier de la
Vieuville escorted the man in the peasant garb to the door of his
cabin, which was the captain's own room. As he was about to enter, he
remarked, lowering his voice:--
"You understand the importance of keeping the secret, gentlemen.
Silence up to the moment of explosion. You are the only ones here who
know my name."
"We will carry it to the grave," replied Boisberthelot.
"And for my part, I would not reveal it were I face to face with
death," remarked the old man.
And he entered his stateroom.
The commander and the first officer returned on deck, and began to pace
up and down side by side, talking as they walked. The theme was
evidently their passenger; and this was the substance of the
conversation which the wind wafted through the darkness. Boisberthelot
grumbled half audibly to La Vieuville,--
"It remains to be seen whether or no he is a leader."
La Vieuville replied,--
"Meanwhile he is a prince."
"A nobleman in France, but a prince in Brittany."
"Like the Tremouilles and the Rohans."
"With whom he is connected."
"In France and in the carriages of the king he is a marquis,--as I am a
count, and you a chevalier."
"The carriages are far away!" exclaimed Vieuville. "We are living in
the time of the tumbril."
A silence ensued.
Boisberthelot went on,--
"For lack of a French prince we take one from Brittany."
"For lack of thrushes--No: since an eagle is not to be found, we take a
"I should prefer a vulture," remarked Boisberthelot.
La Vieuville replied,--
"Yes, indeed, with a beak and talons."
"We shall see."
"Yes," replied Vieuville, "it is time there was a leader. I agree with
Tinteniac,--a leader and gunpowder! See here, commander, I know nearly
all the possible and impossible leaders,--those of yesterday, those of
to-day, and those of to-morrow. Not one of them has the head required
for war. In this cursed Vendee a general is needed who would be a
lawyer as well as a leader. He must harass the enemy, dispute every
bush, ditch, and stone; he must force unlucky quarrels upon him, and
take advantage of everything; vigilant and pitiless, he must watch
incessantly, slaughter freely, and make examples. Now, in this army of
peasants there are heroes, but no captains. D'Elbee is a nonentity,
Lescure an invalid; Bonchamps is merciful,--he is kind, and that
implies folly; La Rochejaquelein is a superb sub-lieutenant; Silz is an
officer good for the open field, but not suited for a war that needs a
man of expedients; Cathelineau is a simple teamster; Stofflet is a
crafty game-keeper; Berard is inefficient; Boulainvillers is absurd;
Charette is horrible. I make no mention of Gaston the barber.
Mordemonbleu! what is the use of opposing revolution, and what is the
difference between ourselves and the republicans, if we set barbers
over the heads of noblemen! The fact is, that this beastly revolution
has contaminated all of us."
"It is the itch of France."
"It is the itch of the Tiers etat," rejoined Boisberthelot. "England
alone can help us."
"And she will, captain, undoubtedly."
"Meanwhile it is an ugly state of affairs."
"Yes,--rustics everywhere. A monarchy that has Stofflet, the
game-keeper of M. de Maulevrier, for a commander has no reason to envy
a republic whose minister is Pache, the son of the Duke de Castries'
porter. What men this Vendean war brings face to face.--on one side
Santerre the brewer; on the other Gaston the hairdresser!"
"My dear La Vieuville, I feel some respect for this Gaston. He behaved
well in his command of Guemenee. He had three hundred Blues neatly
shot after making them dig their own graves."
"Well enough done; but I could have done quite as well as he."
"Pardieu, to be sure; and I too."
"The great feats of war," said Vieuville, "require noble blood in those
who perform them. These are matters for knights, and not for
"But yet there are estimable men in this 'Third Estate,'" rejoined
Vieuville. "Take that watchmaker, Joly, for instance. He was formerly
a sergeant in a Flanders regiment; he becomes a Vendean chief and
commander of a coast band. He has a son, a republican; and while the
father serves in the ranks of the Whites, the son serves in those of
the Blues. An encounter, a battle: the father captures the son and
blows out his brains."
"He did well," said La Vieuville.
"A royalist Brutus," answered Boisberthelot. "Nevertheless, it is
unendurable to be under the command of a Coquereau, a Jean-Jean, a
Moulin, a Focart, a Bouju, a Chouppes!"
"My dear chevalier, the opposite party is quite as indignant. We are
crowded with plebeians; they have an excess of nobles. Do you think
the sansculottes like to be commanded by the Count de Canclaux, the
Viscount de Miranda, the Viscount de Beauharnais, the Count de Valence,
the Marquis de Custine, and the Duke de Biron?"
"What a combination!"
"And the Duke de Chartres!"
"Son of Egalite. By the way, when will he be king?"
"He aspires to the throne, and his very crimes serve to promote his
"And his vices will injure his cause," said Boisberthelot.
Then, after another pause, he continued,--
"Nevertheless, he was anxious to be reconciled. He came to see the
king. I was at Versailles when some one spit on his back."
"From the top of the grand staircase?"
"I am glad of it."
"We called him Bourbon le Bourbeaux."
"He is bald-headed; he has pimples; he is a regicide. Poh!"
And La Vieuville added:--
"I was with him at Ouessant."
"On the _Saint Esprit_?"
"Had he obeyed Admiral d'Orvillier's signal to keep to the windward, he
would have prevented the English from passing."
"Was he really hidden in the bottom of the hold?"
"No; but we must say so all the same."
And La Vieuville burst out laughing.
"Fools are plentiful. Look here, I have known this Boulainvilliers of
whom you were speaking; I knew him well. At first the peasants were
armed with pikes; would you believe it, he took it into his head to
form them into pike-men. He wanted to drill them in crossing pikes and
repelling a charge. He dreamed of transforming these barbarians into
regular soldiers. He undertook to teach them how to round in the
corners of their squares, and to mass battalions with hollow squares.
He jabbered the antiquated military dialect to them; he called the
chief of a squad a _cap d'escade_,--which was what corporals under
Louis XIV, were called. He persisted in forming a regiment of all
those poachers. He had regular companies whose sergeants ranged
themselves in a circle every evening, and, receiving the sign and
countersign from the colonel's sergeant, repeated it in a whisper to
the lieutenant's sergeant, who repeated it to his next neighbor, who in
his turn transmitted it to the next man, and so on from ear to ear
until it reached the last man. He cashiered an officer for not
standing bareheaded to receive the watchword from the sergeant. You
may imagine how he succeeded. This simpleton could not understand that
peasants have to be led peasant fashion, and that it is impossible to
transform rustics into soldiers. Yes, I have known Boulainvilliers."
They walked along a few steps, each one engrossed in his own thoughts.
Then the conversation was resumed:--
"By the way, has the report of Dampierre's death been confirmed?"
"At the camp of Pamars; he was hit by a cannonball."
"Count Dampierre,--another of our men, who took sides with them."
"May he prosper wherever he may be!" said Vieuville.
"And the ladies,--where are they?"
"Ah, this republic!" exclaimed La Vieuville. "What havoc from so
slight a cause! To think that this revolution was the result of a
deficit of only a few millions!"
"Insignificant beginnings are not always to be trusted."
"Everything goes wrong," replied La Vieuville.
"Yes; La Rouarie is dead. Du Dresnay is an idiot. What wretched
leaders are all those bishops,--this Coucy, bishop of La Rochelle;
Beaupoll Saint-Aulaire, bishop of Poitiers; Mercy, bishop of Luzon, a
lover of Madame de l'Eschasserie----"
"Whose name is Servanteau, you know, commander. Eschasserie is the
name of an estate."
"And that false bishop of Agra, who is a cure of I know not what!"
"Of Dol. His name is Guillot de Folleville. But then he is brave, and
knows how to fight."
"Priests when one needs soldiers! bishops who are no bishops at all!
generals who are no generals!"
La Vieuville interrupted Boisberthelot.
"Have you the _Moniteur_ in your stateroom, commander?"
"What are they giving now in Paris?"
"'Adele and Pauline' and 'La Caverne.'"
"I should like to see that."
"You may. We shall be in Paris in a month."
Boisberthelot thought a moment, and then added:
"At the latest,--so Mr. Windham told Lord Hood."
"Then, commander, I take it affairs are not going so very badly?"
"All would go well, provided that the Breton war were well managed."
De Vieuville shook his head.
"Commander," he said, "are we to land the marines?"
"Certainly, if the coast is friendly, but not otherwise. In some cases
war must force the gates; in others it can slip through them. Civil
war must always keep a false key in its pocket. We will do all we can;
but one must have a chief."
And Boisberthelot added thoughtfully,--
"What do you think of the Chevalier de Dieuzie, La Vieuville?"
"Do you mean the younger?"
"For a commander?"
"He is only good for a pitched battle in the open field. It is only
the peasant who knows the underbrush."
"In that case, you may as well resign yourself to Generals Stofflet and
La Vieuville mediated for a moment; then he said,--
"What we need is a prince,--a French prince, a prince of the blood, a
"How can that be? He who says 'prince'----"
"Says 'coward.' I know it, commander. But we need him for the
impression he would produce upon the herd."
"My dear chevalier, the princes don't care to come."
"We will do without them."
Boisberthelot pressed his hand mechanically against his forehead, as if
striving to evoke an idea. He resumed,--
"Then let us try this general."
"He is a great nobleman."
"Do you think he will do?"
"If he is one of the right sort," said La Vieuville.
"You mean relentless?" said Boisberthelot.
The count and the chevalier looked at each other.
"Monsieur Boisberthelot, you have defined the meaning of the word.
Relentless,--yes, that's what we need. This is a war that shows no
mercy. The blood-thirsty are in the ascendant. The regicides have
beheaded Louis XVI; we will quarter the regicides. Yes, the general we
need is General Relentless. In Anjou and Upper Poitou the leaders play
the magnanimous; they trifle with generosity, and they are always
defeated. In the Marais and the country of Retz, where the leaders are
ferocious, everything goes bravely forward. It is because Charette is
fierce that he stands his ground against Parrein,--hyena pitted against
Boisberthelot had no time to answer. Vieuville's words were suddenly
cut short by a desperate cry, and at the same instant they heard a
noise unlike all other sounds. This cry and the unusual sounds came
from the interior of the vessel.
The captain and the lieutenant rushed to the gun-deck, but were unable
to enter. All the gunners came running up, beside themselves with
A frightful thing had just happened.
One of the carronades of the battery, a twenty-four pound cannon, had
This is perhaps the most dreadful thing that can take place at sea.
Nothing more terrible can happen to a man-of-war under full sail.
A cannon that breaks loose from its fastenings is suddenly transformed
into a supernatural beast. It is a monster developed from a machine.
This mass runs along on its wheels as easily as a billiard ball; it
rolls with the rolling, pitches with the pitching, comes and goes,
stops, seems to meditate, begins anew, darts like an arrow from one end
of the ship to the other, whirls around, turns aside, evades, rears,
hits out, crushes, kills, exterminates. It is a ram battering a wall
at its own pleasure. Moreover, the battering-ram is iron, the wall is
wood. It is matter set free; one might say that this eternal slave is
wreaking its vengeance; it would seem as though the evil in what we
call inanimate objects had found vent and suddenly burst forth; it has
the air of having lost its patience, and of taking a mysterious, dull
revenge; nothing is so inexorable as the rage of the inanimate. The
mad mass leaps like a panther; it has the weight of an elephant, the
agility of a mouse, the obstinacy of the axe; it takes one by surprise,
like the surge of the sea; it flashes like lightning; it is deaf as the
tomb; it weighs ten thousand pounds, and it bounds like a child's ball;
it whirls as it advances, and the circles it describes are intersected
by right angles. And what help is there? How can it be overcome? A
calm succeeds the tempest, a cyclone passes over, a wind dies away, we
replace the broken mass, we check the leak, we extinguish the fire; but
what is to be done with this enormous bronze beast? How can it be
subdued? You can reason with a mastiff, take a bull by surprise,
fascinate a snake, frighten a tiger, mollify a lion; but there is no
resource with the monster known as a loosened gun. You cannot kill
it,--it is already dead; and yet it lives. It breathes a sinister life
bestowed on it by the Infinite. The plank beneath sways it to and fro;
it is moved by the ship; the sea lifts the ship, and the wind keeps the
sea in motion. This destroyer is a toy. Its terrible vitality is fed
by the ship, the waves, and the wind, each lending its aid. What is to
be done with this complication? How fetter this monstrous mechanism of
shipwreck? How foresee its coming and goings, its recoils, its halts,
its shocks? Any one of those blows may stave in the side of the
vessel. How can one guard against these terrible gyrations? One has
to do with a projectile that reflects, that has ideas, and changes its
direction at any moment. How can one arrest an object in its course,
whose onslaught must be avoided? The dreadful cannon rushes about,
advances, recedes, strikes to right and to left, flies here and there,
baffles their attempts at capture, sweeps away obstacles, crushing men
The extreme danger of the situation comes from the unsteadiness of the
deck. How is one to cope with the caprices of an inclined plane? The
ship had within its depths, so to speak, imprisoned lightning
struggling for escape; something like the rumbling of thunder during an
earthquake. In an instant the crew was on its feet. It was the chief
gunner's fault, who had neglected to fasten the screw-nut of the
breeching chain, and had not thoroughly chocked the four trucks of the
carronade, which allowed play to the frame and the bottom of the
gun-carriage, thereby disarranging the two platforms and parting the
breeching. The lashings were broken, so that the gun was no longer
firm on its carriage. The stationary breeching which prevents the
recoil was not in use at that time. As a wave struck the ship's side
the cannon, insufficiently secured, had receded, and having broken its
chain, began to wander threateningly over the deck. In order to get an
idea of this strange sliding, fancy a drop of water sliding down a pane
When the fastening broke, the gunners were in the battery, singly and
in groups, clearing the ship for action. The carronade, thrown forward
by the pitching, dashed into a group of men, killing four of them at
the first blow; then, hurled back by the rolling, it cut in two an
unfortunate fifth man, and struck and dismounted one of the guns of the
larboard battery. Hence the cry of distress which had been heard. All
the men rushed to the ladder. The gun-deck was empty in the twinkling
of an eye.
The monstrous gun was left to itself. It was its own mistress, and
mistress of the ship. It could do with it whatsoever it wished. This
crew, accustomed to laugh in battle, now trembled. It would be
impossible to describe their terror.
Captain Boisberthelot and Lieutenant la Vieuville, brave men though
they were, paused at the top of the ladder, silent, pale, and
undecided, looking down on the deck. Some one pushed them aside with
his elbow, and descended. It was their passenger, the peasant, the man
about whom they were talking a moment ago.
Having reached the bottom of the ladder he halted.
* * * * * *
The cannon was rolling to and fro on the deck. It might have been
called the living chariot of the Apocalypse. A dim wavering of lights
and shadows was added to this spectacle by the marine lantern, swinging
under the deck. The outlines of the cannon were indistinguishable, by
reason of the rapidity of its motion; sometimes it looked black when
the light shone upon it, then again it would cast pale, glimmering
reflections in the darkness.
It was still pursuing its work of destruction. It had already
shattered four other pieces, and made two breaches in the ship's side,
fortunately above the waterline, but which would leak in case of rough
weather. It rushed frantically against the timbers; the stout riders
resisted,--curved timbers have great strength; but one could hear them
crack under this tremendous assault brought to bear simultaneously on
every side, with a certain omnipresence truly appalling.
A bullet shaken in a bottle could not produce sharper or more rapid
sounds. The four wheels were passing and repassing over the dead
bodies, cutting and tearing them to pieces, and the five corpses had
become five trunks rolling hither and thither; the heads seemed to cry
out; streams of blood flowed over the deck, following the motion of the
ship. The ceiling, damaged in several places, had begun to give way.
The whole ship was filled with a dreadful tumult.
The captain, who had rapidly recovered his self-possession, had given
orders to throw down the hatchway all that could abate the rage and
check the mad onslaught of this infuriated gun; mattresses, hammocks,
spare sails, coils of rope, the bags of the crew, and bales of false
assignats, with which the corvette was laden,--that infamous stratagem
of English origin being considered a fair trick in war.
But what availed these rags? No one dared to go down to arrange them,
and in a few moments they were reduced to lint.
There was just sea enough to render this accident as complete as
possible. A tempest would have been welcome. It might have upset the
cannon, and which its four wheels once in the air, it could easily have
been mastered. Meanwhile the havoc increased. There were even
incisions and fractures in the masts, that stood like pillars grounded
firmly in the keel, and piercing the several decks of the vessel. The
mizzen-mast was split, and even the main-mast was damaged by the
convulsive blows of the cannon. The destruction of the battery still
went on. Ten out of the thirty pieces were useless. The fractures in
the side increased, and the corvette began to leak.
The old passenger, who had descended to the gun-deck, looked like one
carved in stone as he stood motionless at the foot of the stairs and
glanced sternly over the devastation. It would have been impossible to
move a step upon the deck.
Each bound of the liberated carronade seemed to threaten the
destruction of the ship. But a few moments longer, and shipwreck would
They must either overcome this calamity or perish; some decisive action
must be taken. But what?
What a combatant was this carronade!
Here was this mad creature to be arrested, this flash of lightning to
be seized, this thunderbolt to be crushed. Boisberthelot said to
"Do you believe in God, chevalier?"
"Yes and no, sometimes I do!" replied La Vieuville.
"In a tempest?"
"Yes, and in moments like these."
"Truly God alone can save us," said Boisberthelot.
All were silent, leaving the carronade to its horrible uproar.
The waves beating the ship from without answered the blows of the
cannon within, very much like a couple of hammers striking In turn.
Suddenly in the midst of this inaccessible circus, where the escaped
cannon was tossing from side to side, a man appeared, grasping an iron
bar. It was the author of the catastrophe, the chief gunner, whose
criminal negligence had caused the accident,--the captain of the gun.
Having brought about the evil, his intention was to repair it. Holding
a handspike in one hand, and in the other a tiller rope with the
slip-noose in it, he had jumped through the hatchway to the deck below.
Then began a terrible struggle; a titanic spectacle; a combat between
cannon and cannoneer; a contest between mind and matter; a duel between
man and the inanimate. The man stood in one corner in an attitude of
expectancy, leaning on the rider and holding in his hands the bar and
the rope; calm, livid, and tragic, he stood firmly on his legs, that
were like two pillars of steel.
He was waiting for the cannon to approach him.
The gunner knew his piece, and he felt as though it must know him.
They had lived together a long time. How often had he put his hand in
its mouth. It was his domestic monster. He began to talk to it as he
would to a dog. "Come," said he. Possibly he loved it.
He seemed to wish for its coming, and yet its approach meant sure
destruction for him. How to avoid being crushed was the question. All
looked on in terror.
Not a breath was drawn freely, except perhaps by the old man, who
remained on the gun-deck gazing sternly on the two combatants.
He himself was in danger of being crushed by the piece; still he did
Beneath them the blind sea had command of the battle. When, in the act
of accepting this awful hand-to-hand struggle, the gunner approached to
challenge the cannon, it happened that the surging sea held the gun
motionless for an instant, as though stupefied. "Come on!" said the
man. It seemed to listen.
Suddenly it leaped towards him. The man dodged. Then the struggle
began,--a contest unheard of; the fragile wrestling with the
invulnerable; the human warrior attacking the brazen beast; blind force
on the one side, soul on the other.
All this was in the shadow. It was like an indistinct vision of a
A soul!--strangely enough it seemed as if a soul existed within the
cannon, but one consumed with hate and rage. The blind thing seemed to
have eyes. It appeared as though the monster were watching the man.
There was, or at least one might have supposed it, cunning in this
mass. It also chose its opportunity. It was as though a gigantic
insect of iron was endowed with the will of a demon. Now and then this
colossal grass-hopper would strike the low ceiling of the gun-deck,
then falling back on its four wheels, like a tiger on all fours, rush
upon the man. He--supple, agile, adroit--writhed like a serpent before
these lightning movements. He avoided encounters; but the blows from
which he escaped fell with destructive force upon the vessel. A piece
of broken chain remained attached to the carronade. This bit of chain
had twisted in some incomprehensible way around the breech button.
One end of the chain was fastened to the gun-carriage; the other end
thrashed wildly around, aggravating the danger with every bound of the
cannon. The screw held it as in a clenched hand, and this chain,
multiplying the strokes of the battering-ram by those of the thong,
made a terrible whirlwind around the gun,--a lash of iron in a fist of
brass. This chain complicated the combat.
Despite all this, the man fought. He even attacked the cannon at
times, crawling along by the side of the ship and clutching his
handspike and the rope; the cannon seemed to understand his movements,
and fled as though suspecting a trap. The man, nothing daunted,
pursued his chase.
Such a struggle must necessarily be brief. Suddenly the cannon seemed
to say to itself: Now, then, there must be an end to this. And it
stopped. A crisis was felt to be at hand. The cannon, as if in
suspense, seemed to meditate, or--for to all intents and purposes it
was a living creature--it really did meditate, some furious design.
All at once it rushed on the gunner, who sprang aside with a laugh,
crying out, "Try it again!" as the cannon passed him. The gun in its
fury smashed one of the larboard carronades; then, by the invisible
sling in which it seemed to be held, it was thrown to the starboard,
towards the man, who escaped. Three carronades were crushed by its
onslaught; then, as though blind and besides itself it turned from the
man, and rolled from stern to stem, splintering the latter, and causing
a breach in the walls of the prow. The gunner took refuge at the foot
of the ladder, a short distance from the old man, who stood watching.
He held his handspike in readiness. The cannon seemed aware of it, and
without taking the trouble to turn, it rushed backward on the man, as
swift as the blow of an axe. The gunner, if driven up against the side
of the ship, would be lost.
One cry arose from the crew.
The old passenger--who until this moment had stood motionless--sprang
forward more swiftly than all those mad swirls. He had seized a bale
of the false assignats, and at the risk of being crushed succeeded in
throwing it between the wheels of the carronade. This decisive and
perilous manoeuvre could not have been executed with more precision and
adroitness by an adept in all the exercises given in the work of
Durosel's "Manual of Naval Gunnery."
The bale had the effect of a plug. A pebble may block a log; a branch
sometimes changes the course of an avalanche. The carronade stumbled,
and the gunner, availing himself of the perilous opportunity, thrust
his iron bar between the spokes of the back wheels. Pitching forward,
the cannon stopped; and the man, using his bar for a lever, rocked it
backward and forward. The heavy mass upset, with the resonant sound of
a bell that crashes in its fall. The man, reeking with perspiration,
threw himself upon it, and passed the slip-noose of the tiller-rope
around the neck of the defeated monster.
The combat was ended. The man had conquered. The ant had overcome the
mastodon; the pygmy had imprisoned the thunderbolt.
The soldiers and sailors applauded.
The crew rushed forward with chains and cables, and in an instant the
cannon was secured.
Saluting the passenger, the gunner exclaimed,--
"Sir, you have saved my life!"
The old man had resumed his impassible attitude, and made no reply.
* * * * * *
The man had conquered; but it might be affirmed that the cannon also
had gained a victory. Immediate shipwreck was averted; but the
corvette was still in danger. The injuries the ship had sustained
seemed irreparable. There were five breaches in the sides, one of
them--a very large one--in the bow, and twenty carronades out of thirty
lay shattered in their frames. The recaptured gun, which had been
secured by a chain, was itself disabled. The screw of the
breech-button being wrenched, it would consequently be impossible to
level the cannon. The battery was reduced to nine guns; there was a
leakage in the hold. All these damages must be repaired without loss
of time, and the pumps set in operation. Now that the gun-deck had
become visible, it was frightful to look upon. The interior of a mad
elephant's cage could not have been more thoroughly devastated.
However important it might be for the corvette to avoid observation,
the care for its immediate safety was still more imperative. They were
obliged to light the deck with lanterns placed at intervals along the
In the meantime, while this tragic entertainment had lasted, the crew,
entirely absorbed by a question of life and death, had not noticed what
was going on outside of the ship. The fog had thickened, the weather
had changed, the wind had driven the vessel at will; they were out of
their course, in full sight of Jersey and Guernsey, much farther to the
south than they ought to have been, and confronting a tumultuous sea.
The big waves kissed the wounded sides of the corvette with kisses that
savored of danger. The heaving of the sea grew threatening; the wind
had risen to a gale; a squall, perhaps a tempest, was brewing. One
could not see four oars' length before one.
While the crew made haste with their temporary repairs on the gun-deck,
stopping the leaks and setting up the cannons that had escaped
uninjured, the old passenger returned to the deck.
He stood leaning against the main-mast.
He had taken no notice of what was going on in the ship. The Chevalier
de la Vieuville had drawn up the marines on either side of the
main-mast, and at a signal-whistle of the boatswain the sailors, who
had been busy in the rigging, stood up on the yards. Count
Boisberthelot approached the passenger. The captain was followed by a
man, who, haggard and panting, with his dress in disorder, still wore
on his countenance an expression of content.
It was the gunner who had so opportunely displayed his power as a tamer
of monsters, and gained the victory over the cannon.
The count made a military salute to the old man in the peasant garb,
and said to him:--
"Here is the man, general."
The gunner, with downcast eyes, stood erect in a military attitude.
"General," resumed Count Boisberthelot, "considering what this man has
done, do you not think that his superiors have a duty to perform?"
"I think so," replied the old man.
"Be so good as to give your orders," resumed Boisberthelot.
"It is for you to give them; you are the captain."
"But you are the general," answered Boisberthelot.
The old man looked at the gunner.
"Step forward," he said.
The gunner advanced a step.
Turning to Count Boisberthelot, the old man removed the cross of Saint
Louis from the captain's breast, and fastened it on the jacket of the
gunner. The sailors cheered, and the marines presented arms.
Then pointing to the bewildered gunner he added:
"Now let the man be shot!"
Stupor took the place of applause.
Then, amid a tomb-like silence, the old man, raising his voice, said:--
"The ship has been endangered by an act of carelessness, and may even
yet be lost. It is all the same whether one be at sea or face to face
with the enemy. A ship at sea is like an army in battle. The tempest,
though unseen, is ever present; the sea is an ambush. Death is the fit
penalty for every fault committed when facing the enemy. There is no
fault that can be retrieved. Courage must be rewarded and negligence
These words fell one after the other slowly and gravely, with a certain
implacable rhythm, like the strokes of the axe upon an oak-tree.
Looking at the soldiers, the old man added,--
"Do your duty!"
The man on whose breast shone the cross of Saint Louis bowed his head,
and at a sign of Count Boisberthelot two sailors went down to the
gun-deck, and presently returned bringing the hammock-shroud, the two
sailors were accompanied by the ship's chaplain, who since the
departure had been engaged in saying prayers in the officers' quarters.
A sergeant detached from the ranks twelve soldiers, whom he arranged in
two rows, six men in a row. The gunner placed himself between the two
lines. The chaplain, holding a crucifix, advanced and took his place
beside the man. "March!" came from the lips of the sergeant; and the
platoon slowly moved towards the bow, followed by two sailors carrying
A gloomy silence fell on the corvette. In the distance a hurricane was
blowing. A few moments later, a report echoed through the gloom; one
flash, and all was still. Then came the splash of a body falling into
the water. The old passenger, still leaning against the mainmast, his
hands crossed on his breast, seemed lost in thought. Boisberthelot,
pointing towards him with the forefinger of his left hand, remarked in
an undertone to La Vieuville,--
"The Vendee has found a leader."
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