Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 13
A CLOUD DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS ENTERS ON THE SCENE.
THE old man whom the chief of the band had called first the Madman, then the Sage, now never left the forecastle. Since they crossed the Shambles shoal, his attention had been divided between the heavens and the waters. He looked down, he looked upwards, and above all watched the northeast. The captain gave the helm to a sailor, stepped over the aft hatchway, crossed the gangway, and went on to the forecastle. He approached the old man, but not from the front; he passed a little behind him, with elbows resting on his hips, with outstretched hands, his head on one side, with open eyes and arched eyebrows, and a smile in the corners of his mouth,—an attitude of curiosity hesitating between mockery and respect. The old man, either because it was his habit to talk to himself, or because hearing some one behind him incited him to speech, began to soliloquize while he looked into space:—
"The Meridian from which the right ascension is calculated is marked in this century by four stars,—the Polar, Cassiopeia's Chair, Andromeda's Head, and the star Algenib, which is in Pegasus. But not one of them is visible."
These words followed one another mechanically, and were scarcely articulated, as if he did not care to pronounce them. They floated out of his mouth and dispersed. Soliloquy is the smoke exhaled by the inmost fires of the soul.
The captain broke in: "Señor!"
The old man, perhaps rather deaf as well as very thoughtful, went on: "Too few stars, and too much wind. The breeze continually changes its direction and blows inshore; thence it rises perpendicularly. This results from the land being warmer than the water. Its atmosphere is lighter. The cold, dense wind of the sea rushes in to replace it. From this cause, in the upper regions the wind blows towards the land from every quarter. It would be advisable to make long tacks between the real and apparent parallel. When the latitude by observation differs from the latitude by dead reckoning, by not more than three minutes in thirty miles or by four minutes in sixty miles, you are in the true course."
The captain bowed, but the old man saw him not. The latter, who wore what resembled an Oxford or Göttingen university gown, did not relax his haughty and rigid attitude. He observed the waters as a critic of waves and of men. He studied the billows, but almost as if he was about to demand his turn to speak amidst their turmoil, and teach them something. There was in him both pedagogue and soothsayer. He seemed an oracle of the deep. He continued his soliloquy, which was perhaps intended to be heard:—
"We might try, if we had a wheel instead of a helm. With a speed of twelve miles an hour, a force of twenty pounds exerted on the wheel produces three hundred thousand pounds' effect on the course. And more, too; for in some cases, with a double block and runner, they can get two more revolutions."
The captain bowed a second time, and said, "Señor!"
The old man's eye rested on him; he had turned his head without moving his body. "Call me Doctor."
"Master Doctor, I am the captain."
"Just so," said the doctor. The doctor, as henceforward we shall call him, appeared willing to converse: "Captain, have you an English sextant?"
"Without an English sextant you cannot take an altitude at all."
"The Basques," replied the captain, "took altitudes before there were any English."
"Be careful you are not taken aback."
"I keep her away when necessary."
"Have you tried how many knots she is running?"
"By the log."
"Did you take the trouble to look at the triangle?"
"Did the sand run through the glass in exactly thirty seconds?"
"Are you sure that the sand has not worn the hole between the globes?"
"Have you proved the sand-glass by the oscillations of a bullet?"
"Suspended by a rope-yarn drawn out from the top of a coil of soaked hemp? Undoubtedly."
"Have you waxed the yarn lest it should stretch?"
"Have you tested the log?"
"I tested the sand-glass by the bullet, and checked the log by a round shot."
"Of what size was the shot?"
"One foot in diameter."
"It is an old round shot of our war-hooker, 'La Casse de Par-Grand.'"
"Which was in the Armada?"
"And which carried six hundred soldiers, fifty sailors, and twenty-five guns?"
"Shipwreck knows it."
"How did you compute the resistance of the water to the shot?"
"By means of a German scale."
"Have you taken into account the resistance of the rope supporting the shot to the waves?"
"What was the result?"
"The resistance of the water was one hundred and seventy pounds."
"That's to say, she is running four French leagues an hour."
"And three Dutch leagues."
"But that is the difference merely of the vessel's way and the rate at which the sea is running?"
"Whither are you steering?"
"For a creek I know, between Loyola and St. Sebastian."
"Make the latitude of the harbour's mouth as soon as possible."
"Yes, as near as I can."
"Beware of gusts and currents. The first cause the second."
"Yes: the traitors!"
"No abuse! The sea understands. Insult nothing; be satisfied with watching."
"I have watched, and I am still watching. Just now the tide is running against the wind; by-and-by, when it turns, we shall be all right."
"Have you a chart?"
"No; not for this channel."
"Then you sail by rule of thumb?"
"Not at all. I have a compass."
"The compass is one eye, the chart the other."
"A man with one eye can see."
"How do you compute the difference between the true and apparent course?"
"I've got my standard compass, and I make a guess."
"To guess is all very well. To know for a certainty is better."
"When there is a fog and the needle revolves treacherously, you can never tell on which side you should look out for squalls; and the end of it is that you know neither the real nor apparent day's work. An ass with his chart is better off than a wizard with his oracle."
"There is no fog yet, and I see no cause for alarm."
"Ships are like flies in the spider's web of the sea."
"Just now both winds and waves are tolerably favourable."
"Black specks quivering on the billows,—such are men on the ocean."
"I dare say there will be nothing wrong to-night."
"You may get into a mess that you will find it hard to get out of."
"Yes; but all goes well at present."
The doctor's eyes were fixed on the northeast. The captain continued:—
"Let us once reach the Gulf of Gascony, and I can answer for our safety. Ah, I am at home there! I know it well, my Gulf of Gascony! It is a little basin, often very boisterous; but there I know every sounding and the nature of the bottom,—mud opposite San Cipriano, shells opposite Cizarque, sand off Cape Peñas, little pebbles off Boncaut de Mimizan; and I know the colour of every pebble."
The captain broke off; the doctor was no longer listening. He was gazing at the northeast. Over that icy face passed an extraordinary expression. All the agony of terror possible to a mask of stone was depicted there. From his mouth escaped the word, "Ha!"
His eyes were dilated with horror as he perceived a speck on the horizon. Then he added, under his breath, "It is well. As for me, I do not object."
The captain looked at him.
The doctor went on talking to himself, or to some one in the deep: "Yes, I say." Then he was silent, and fixed his eyes with renewed attention on that which he was watching, and said: "It is coming from afar off, but it will come none the less surely."
The arc of the horizon which engrossed the visual orbs and thoughts of the doctor, being opposite to the west, was illuminated by the transcendent reflection of twilight, as if it were day. This arc, limited in extent, and surrounded by streaks of greyish vapour, was uniformly blue, but of a leaden rather than cerulean blue. The doctor pointed to this atmospheric arc, and said:
"Captain, do you see?"
"A blue spot? Yes."
"What is it?"
"An opening in the heavens."
"For those who go to heaven; for those who go elsewhere it is another affair,"—and the doctor emphasized these enigmatical words with an appalling expression which was unseen in the darkness.
A silence ensued. The captain, remembering the two names given by the chief to this man, asked himself the question: "Is he a madman, or is he a sage?"
The stiff and bony finger of the doctor continued to point, like a sign-post, to the dark spot in the sky.
The captain looked at this spot. "In truth," he growled out, "it is not sky, but clouds."
"A blue cloud is worse than a black cloud, "said the doctor; "and it's a snow-cloud," he added.
"La nube de la nieve," said the captain, as if trying to understand the word better by translating it.
"Do you know what a snow-cloud is?" asked the doctor.
"You'll know by-and-by."
The captain again turned his attention to the horizon. Continuing to observe the cloud, he muttered between his teeth:—
"One month of squalls, another of wet; January with its gales, February with its rains,—that's all the winter we Asturians get. Our rain even is warm. We've no snow but on the mountains. Ay, ay, look out for the avalanche. The avalanche is no respecter of persons; the avalanche is a brute."
"And the water-spout is a monster," said the doctor, adding, after a pause, "here it comes." He continued: "Several winds are getting together,—a strong wind from the west, and a gentle wind from the east."
"That last is a deceitful one," said the captain.
The blue cloud was growing larger. "If the snow," said the doctor, "is appalling when it slips down the mountain, think what it is when it falls from the Pole!" His eye was glassy. The cloud seemed to spread over his face and almost simultaneously over the horizon. He continued, in musing tones: "Every minute the fatal hour draws nearer. The will of Heaven is about to be manifested."
The captain again asked himself this question, "Is he a madman?"
"Captain," began the doctor, without taking his eyes off the cloud," have you often crossed the Channel?"
"This is the first time."
"How is that?"
"Master Doctor, my usual cruise is to Ireland. I sail from Fontarabia to Black Harbour, or to the Achill Islands. I go sometimes to Braich-y-Pwll, a point on the Welsh coast. But I always steer outside the Scilly Islands. I do not know this sea at all."
"That's unfortunate. Woe to him who is inexperienced on the ocean! One ought to be familiar with the Channel: the Channel is the Sphinx. Look out for shoals."
"We are in twenty-five fathoms of water here."
"We ought to get into fifty-five fathoms to the west, and avoid even twenty fathoms to the east."
"We'll sound as we get on."
"The Channel is not an ordinary sea. The water rises fifty feet with the spring tides, and twenty-five with neap tides. Here we are in slack water. I thought you looked scared."
"We'll sound to-night."
"To sound you must heave-to, and that you cannot do."
"On account of the wind."
"The squall is close upon us."
"We'll sound. Master Doctor."
"You could not even bring-to."
"Trust in God."
"Take care what you say. Do not utter that dread name lightly."
"I will sound, I tell you."
"Be sensible; you will have a gale of wind presently."
"I say that I will try for soundings."
"The resistance of the water will prevent the lead from sinking, and the line will break. Ah, so this is your first experience in these waters?"
"Very well; in that case listen, Captain."
The tone of the word "listen" was so commanding that the captain made an obeisance: "Master Doctor, I am all attention."
"Port your helm, and haul up on the starboard tack!"
"What do you mean?"
"Direct your course westward."
"Direct your course westward."
"As you will. What I tell you is for the sake of the others. As for myself, I am indifferent."
"But, Master Doctor, steer west?"
"The wind will be dead against us."
"She'll pitch like the devil."
"Moderate your language. Yes, Captain."
"The vessel would be in irons."
"That means very likely the mast will go."
"And yet you wish me to steer westward?"
"In that case settle your reckoning with the sea."
"The wind ought to change."
"It will not change to-night."
"Because it is a wind twelve hundred leagues in length."
"Make headway against such a wind? Impossible!"
"Steer westward, I tell you."
"I'll try; but in spite of everything she will fall off. "
"That's the danger."
"The wind is driving us towards the east."
"Don't go to the east."
"Captain, do you know what is sure death for us?"
"Death is the east."
"I'll steer west."
This time the doctor, having turned right round, looked the captain full in the face, and with his eyes resting on him, as though to implant the idea in his head, pronounced slowly, syllable by syllable, these words: "If to-night out at sea we hear the sound of a bell, the ship is lost."
The captain pondered in amaze: "What do you mean?"
The doctor did not answer. His countenance so expressive a moment before was now reserved. His eyes became vacuous; he did not seem to hear the captain's wondering question. He was now engrossed by his own thoughts. His lips let fall, as if mechanically, in a low murmuring tone, these words: "The time has come for sullied souls to purify themselves."
The captain elevated his chin scornfully. "He is more madman than sage," he growled, as he moved off. Nevertheless he steered westward.
But both the wind and the sea were increasing.