Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 18
THE CHARGE CONFIDED TO A RAGING SEA.
THE captain, at the helm, burst out laughing: "A bell, that's good! We are on the larboard tack. What does the bell prove? Why, that we have land to starboard."
The firm and measured voice of the doctor replied: "You have not land to starboard."
"But we have!" shouted the captain.
"But that bell tolls from the land."
"That bell," said the doctor, "tolls from the sea."
A shudder passed over these daring men; the haggard faces of the two women appeared above the companion-way like two hobgoblins conjured up; the doctor took a step forward, separating his tall form from the mast. From the gloomy depths of night again resounded the dreary tolling of the bell.
The doctor resumed: "Half-way between Portland and the Channel Islands there is in the midst of the sea a buoy, placed there as a warning. The buoy is moored by chains to a rock, and floats on the top of the water. To the buoy is affixed an iron trestle, and across the trestle is hung a bell. In bad weather heavy seas toss the buoy, and the bell rings. That is the bell you hear."
The doctor, after pausing to allow an unusually violent gust of wind to subside, continued: "To hear that bell in a storm, when a nor'-wester is blowing, is to be lost. Wherefore? For this reason: you hear the bell because the wind brings the sound to you. The wind is blowing from the northwest, and the rocks of Alderney lie to the east of us. You hear the bell only because you are between the buoy and the breakers. It is upon those rocks that the wind is driving you. You are on the wrong side of the buoy. If you were on the right side, you would be out at sea on a safe course, and you would not hear the bell; the wind would not convey the sound to you,—you might pass close to the buoy without knowing it. We are out of our course. That bell is shipwreck sounding the tocsin. Listen!"
As the doctor spoke, the bell, soothed by a lull of the storm, rang out slowly, stroke by stroke; and its dismal voice seemed to testify to the truth of the old man's words. It was perhaps their death-knell. All listened breathlessly,—now to the voice, now to the bell.