Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 19



IN the mean time the captain had caught up his speaking-trumpet: "Cargate todo, hombres! Let go the sheets, man the down-hauls, lower ties and brails! Let us steer to the west, let us regain the high sea! Head for the buoy, steer for the bell; there 's an offing down there. We've yet a chance."

"Try," said the doctor.

Let us remark here, by the way, that this buoy, a kind of bell-tower on the deep, was removed in 1802. There are yet alive very aged mariners who remember hearing it. It forewarned, but rather too late.

The orders of the captain were obeyed. The Languedocian made a third sailor. All bore a hand. Not satisfied with brailing up, they furled the sails; secured the clew-lines, bunt-lines, and leech-lines; clapped preventor-shrouds on the block-straps, which thus might serve as back-stays. They braced the mast; they battened down the ports and bulls' eyes, which is a method of walling up a ship. These evolutions, though executed in a lubberly fashion were nevertheless thoroughly effective. The hooker was stripped to bare poles. But in proportion as the vessel, stowing every stitch of canvas, became more helpless, the havoc of both winds and waves increased. The billows ran mountains high.

The hurricane, like an executioner hastening to his victim, began to dismember the craft. There came, in the twinkling of an eye, a dreadful crash; the top-sails were blown from the bolt-ropes, the chess-trees were hewn asunder, the deck was swept clear, the shrouds were carried away, the mast went by the board; all the lumber of the wreck was flying in shivers. The main shrouds also succumbed, although they were turned in and strongly stoppered. The magnetic currents common to snow-storms hastened the destruction of the rigging; it broke as much from the effects of these as from the violence of the wind. Most of the chain gear, fouled in the blocks, ceased to work. The bows and stern quivered under the terrific shocks. One wave washed overboard the compass and its binnacle; a second carried away the boat, which like a box slung under a carriage had been, in accordance with the quaint Asturian custom, lashed to the bowsprit; a third breaker wrenched off the sprit-sail yard; a fourth swept away the figure-head and signal-light. The rudder only was left. To replace the ship's bow-lantern they set fire to, and suspended at the stem, a large block of wood covered with oakum and tar. The broken mast, all bristling with splinters, ropes, blocks, and yards, cumbered the deck; in falling, it had stove in a plank of the starboard gunwale. The captain, still firm at the helm, shouted: "While we can steer, we have a chance! The lower planks hold good. Axes, axes! Overboard with the mast! Clear the decks!"

Both crew and passengers worked with the excitement of despair. A few strokes of the hatchets, and it was done. They pushed the mast over the side; the deck was cleared.

"Now," continued the captain, "take a rope's end and lash me to the helm."

They bound him to the tiller. While they were fastening him he laughed, and shouted,—

"Bellow, old hurdy-gurdy! bellow! I've seen your equal off Cape Machichaco!"

And when secured, he clutched the helm with that strange hilarity which danger awakens, crying out,—

"All goes well, my lads! Long live our Lady of Buglose! Let us steer west."

An enormous wave came down abeam, and dashed against the vessel's side. There is always in storms a tiger-like wave, a billow fierce and decisive, which after attaining a certain height creeps horizontally over the surface of the waters for a time, then rises, roars, rages, and falling on the distressed vessel tears it limb from limb. A cloud of foam covered the entire deck of the "Matutina." A loud noise was heard above the confusion of darkness and waters. When the spray cleared off, and the stern again rose to view, the captain and the helm had disappeared. Both had been swept away. The helm and the man they had but just secured to it had passed with the wave into the hissing turmoil of the hurricane.

The chief of the band, gazing intently into the darkness, shouted: "Te burlas de nosotros?"

To this defiant exclamation there followed another cry: "Let go the anchor! Save the captain!"

They rushed to the capstan and let go the anchor. Hookers carry but one. In this case the anchor reached the bottom, but only to be lost; the bottom was of the hardest rock. The billows were raging with resistless force. The cable snapped like a thread; the anchor lay at the bottom of the sea. At the cutwater there remained only the cable end protruding from the hawse-hole. From this moment the hooker became a wreck. The "Matutina" was irrevocably disabled. The vessel, just before in full sail and almost formidable in her speed, was now helpless; all her evolutions were uncertain and executed at random; she yielded passively and like a log to the capricious fury of the waves.

The howling of the wind became more and more frightful. The bell on the sea rang despairingly, as if tolled by a weird hand. The "Matutina" drifted like a cork at the mercy of the waves. She sailed no longer,—she merely floated; every moment she seemed about to turn over on her back, like a dead fish. The good condition and perfectly water-tight state of the hull alone saved her from this disaster. Below the waterline not a plank had started; there was not a cranny, chink, nor crack; and she had not a single drop of water in the hold. This was lucky, as the pump, being out of order, was useless. The hooker pitched and rolled frightfully in the seething billows. The vessel had throes as of sickness, and seemed to be trying to belch forth the unhappy crew. Helpless they clung to the rigging, to the transoms, to the shank painters, to the gaskets, to the broken planks (the protruding nails of which tore their hands), to the warped riders, and to all the rugged projections on the stumps of the masts. From time to time they listened: the tolling of the bell came over the waters fainter and fainter,—one might have supposed that too was in distress. Finally the sound died away altogether.

Where were they,—at what distance from the buoy? The sound of the bell had frightened them; its silence terrified them. The northwester drove them forward in perhaps a fatal course. They felt themselves wafted on by maddened and ever-recurring gusts of wind. The wreck sped forward in the darkness. There is nothing more fearful than being hurried forward blindfold. They felt the abyss before them, over them, under them. It was no longer a run, it was a rush. Suddenly, through the appalling density of the snow-storm, there loomed a red light.

"A lighthouse!" cried the crew.