Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 12
TROUBLED MEN ON THE TROUBLED SEA.
TWO men on board the craft were absorbed in thought,—the old man, and the captain of the hooker, who must not be mistaken for the chief of the band. The captain was occupied by the sea; the old man by the sky. The former did not lift his eyes from the waters; the latter kept close watch of the firmament. The captain's anxiety was the state of the sea; the old man seemed to distrust the heavens. He scanned the stars through every break in the clouds.
It was the hour when day still lingers, but when a few stars begin to pierce the twilight. The horizon was singular, the mist upon it varied. A haze predominated on land, clouds at sea. The captain, noting the rising billows, had everything made taught before he got outside Portland Bay. He would not delay so doing until he should pass the headland. He examined the rigging closely, and satisfied himself that the lower shrouds were well set up, and that they supported firmly the futtock-shrouds,—precautions of a man who means to carry a press of sail at all hazards. The hooker was not trimmed, being two foot by the head; this was her weak point. The captain passed every minute from the binnacle to the standard compass, taking the bearings of objects on shore. The "Matutina" had at first a wind which was not unfavourable, though she could not lie within five points of her course. The captain took the helm as often as possible, trusting no one but himself to prevent her from dropping to leeward, the effect of the rudder being influenced by the steerage-way.
The difference between the true and apparent course being considerable, the hooker seemed to lie closer to the wind than she really did. The breeze was not a-beam, nor was the hooker close-hauled; but one cannot ascertain the true course made, except when the wind is abaft. When one perceives long streaks of clouds meeting in a point on the horizon, one may be sure that the wind is in that quarter. But this evening the wind was variable; the needle fluctuated. The captain distrusted the erratic movements of the vessel. He steered carefully but resolutely, luffed her up, watched her coming-to, prevented her from yawing and from running into the winds' eye; noted the leeway, the little jerks of the helm; was observant of every roll and pitch of the vessel, of the difference in her speed, and of the variable gusts of wind. For fear of accidents, he was constantly on the lookout for squalls from off the land he was hugging; and above all he was cautious to keep her sails full,—the indications of the compass being uncertain from the small size of the instrument. The captain's eyes, frequently lowered, remarked every change in the waves. Once, however, he raised them towards the sky, and tried to make out the three stars of Orion's belt. These stars are called the three magi, and an old proverb of the ancient Spanish pilots declares that, "He who sees the three magi is not far from the Saviour."
This glance of the captain tallied with an aside growled out, at the other end of the vessel, by the old man: "We don't even see the pointers, nor the star Antares, red as he is. Not one of them is visible."
No fears troubled the other fugitives. Still, when the first hilarity they felt at their escape had passed away, they could not help remembering that they were at sea in the month of January, and that the wind was freezing cold. It was impossible to establish themselves in the cabin; it was much too narrow and too encumbered with bales and baggage. The baggage belonged to the passengers, the bales to the crew; for the hooker was no pleasure-boat, and was engaged in smuggling. The passengers were obliged to remain on deck, a state of things to which these wanderers easily resigned themselves. Open-air habits make it easy for vagabonds to settle themselves for the night. The open air (la belle étoile) is their friend, and the cold helps them to sleep,—sometimes to die. But to-night, as we have seen, there was no belle étoile.
The Languedocian and the Genoese, while waiting for supper, rolled themselves up near the women, at the foot of the mast, in some tarpaulins which the sailors had thrown them. The old man remained at the bow motionless, and apparently insensible to the cold. The captain of the hooker, from the helm where he was standing, uttered a sort of guttural call somewhat like the cry of the American bird called the Exclaimer. At his call the chief of the band drew near, and the captain addressed him thus:—
"Etcheco jaüna." These two words, which mean "tiller of the mountain," form with these old Cantabri a solemn preface to any subject which should command attention. Then, the captain having pointed the old man out to the chief, the dialogue continued in Spanish; though it was not a very correct dialect, being that of the mountains. Here are the questions and answers:
"Etcheco jaüna, que es este hombre?"
"Que lenguas habla?"
"Que cosas sabe?" "Todas."
"Ningun, y todos."
"Como le llamas?"
"Como dices que le llamas?"
"En vuestre tropa que esta?"
"Esta lo que esta."
"Pues que esta?"
The chief and the captain parted, each to continue his own meditation, and a little while afterwards the "Matutina" left the gulf.
Now came the great rolling of the open sea. The ocean in the spaces between the foam was slimy in appearance. The waves seen through the twilight in indistinct outline somewhat resembled splashes of gall. Here and there a level space between the waves showed cracks and stars, like a pane of glass broken by stones; and in the centre of these stars, as in a revolving orifice, trembled a phosphorescent gleam, like that feline reflection of vanished light which shines in the eyeballs of owls.
Proudly, like a strong, bold swimmer, the "Matutina" crossed the dangerous Shambles shoal. This bank, a hidden obstruction at the entrance of Portland roads, is not a barrier but an amphitheatre, its benches cut out by the circling of the waves. An arena, round and symmetrical, as high as a Jungfrau, only submerged; an oceanic coliseum, seen by the diver in the vision-like transparency which ingulfs him,—such is the Shambles shoal. There hydras fight, leviathans meet. There, says the legend, at the bottom of the gigantic shaft, are the wrecks of ships, seized and sunk by the huge Kraken, also known as the devil-fish. These spectral realities, unknown to man, are indicated at the surface only by a slight ripple.
In this nineteenth century the Shambles bank is in ruins; the breakwater recently constructed has overthrown and mutilated, by the force of its surf, that high submarine structure, just as the jetty built at the Croisic in 1760 changed, by a quarter of an hour, the courses of the tides. And yet the tide is eternal. But eternity is more subservient to man than man imagines.
- "Tiller of the mountain, who is that man?"
"What tongue does he speak?"
"What things does he know?"
"What is his country?"
"None and all."
"Who is his God?"
"What do you call him?"
"What do you say you call him?"
"The wise man."
"In your band, what is he?"
"He is what he is."
"Then what is he?"