Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 26
THE LAST RESOURCE.
THERE was a hole in the keel. A leak had been sprung. When it happened no one could tell. Was it when they touched the Caskets? Was it off Ortach? Was it when they were whirled about on the shoal west of Alderney? It was most probable that they had struck against some hidden rock, the shock of which they had not felt in the midst of the convulsive fury of the wind which was tossing them about. When one has tetanus who would feel a pin-prick?
The other sailor, the southern Basque, whose name was Ave Maria, also went down into the hold, and returning to the deck said: "There are six feet of water in the hold;" and added, "In less than forty minutes we shall sink."
Where was the leak? They could not find it. It was hidden by the water which was filling the hold. The vessel had a hole in her hull somewhere below the water-line, quite forward in the keel. Impossible to find it, impossible to check it. They had a wound which they could not stanch. The water, however, was not rising very fast.
The chief called out: "We must work the pump!"
Galdeazun replied: "We have no pump left."
"Then," said the chief, "we must make for land."
"Where is the land?"
"I don't know."
"But it must be somewhere."
"Let some one steer for it."
"We have no pilot."
"Take the tiller yourself."
"We have lost the tiller."
"Let's rig one out of the first beam we can lay hands on. Nails—a hammer—quick—some tools."
"The carpenter's box went overboard; we have no tools."
"We'll steer all the same; no matter where."
"The rudder is lost."
"Where is the boat? We'll get in that and row."
"The boat is gone too."
"We'll row the wreck."
"We have lost all our oars."
"We'll have to depend upon our sails then."
"We have lost our sails, and the mast as well."
"We'll rig one up with a pole and a tarpaulin. Let's get out of this, and trust to the wind."
"There is no wind."
The wind, indeed, had deserted them, the storm had fled, and its departure, which they had believed to mean safety, meant in fact destruction. Had the sou'-wester continued, it might have driven them wildly on some shore, might have beaten the leak in speed, might perhaps have carried them to some propitious sandbank, and cast them on it before the hooker foundered. The fury of the storm, bearing them onward, might have enabled them to reach land; but no wind now meant no hope. They were going to die because the hurricane was over. The end was near!
Wind, hail, the hurricane, the whirlwind,—these are wild combatants that may be overcome; the storm can be taken in the weak point of its armour; there are resources against the violence which is often off its guard, and often hits wide of the mark. But nothing can be done against a calm: there is nothing tangible which you can lay hold upon. The winds are like Cossacks: stand your ground and they will disperse. Calms remind one of an executioner's pincers.
The water crept up higher and higher in the hold; and as it rose, the vessel sank,—slowly but surely. Those on board the wreck of the "Matutina" felt that most hopeless of catastrophes,—an inert catastrophe undermining them. The grim certainty of their fate petrified them. No stir in the air, no movement on the sea. The motionless is the inexorable. Absorption was sucking them down silently. Through the depths of the silent waters—without anger, without passion, not willing, not knowing, not caring—the fatal centre of the globe was drawing them downwards. It was no longer the wide-open mouth of the sea, the fierce jaws of the wind and the wave, that threatened them; it was as if the wretched beings had under them the black gulf of the infinite. They felt themselves slowly sinking into oblivion. The distance between the deck and the water was lessening,—that was all. They could calculate her disappearance to the moment. It was the exact reverse of submersion by the rising tide. The water was not rising towards them, they were sinking into it. They were digging their own grave. Their own weight was their sexton. Their fate was sealed, not by the laws of man, but by the laws of Nature.
The snow continued to fall, and as the wreck was now perfectly motionless, it was covered as with a winding-sheet. The hold was becoming fuller and deeper. There was no way of getting at the leak. They struck a light and fixed three or four torches in holes as best they could. Galdeazun brought some old leathern buckets, and they tried to bale the hold out, standing in a row to pass the buckets from hand to hand; but the buckets were past use; the leather of some was unstitched, there were holes in the bottoms of others, and the buckets emptied themselves on the way. The difference in quantity between the water which was making its way in and that which they returned to the sea was ludicrous; for a hogshead that entered, a glassful was baled out; so they did not improve their condition. It was like a miser trying to spend a million, half-penny by half-penny.
The chief said, "Let us lighten the wreck."
During the storm they had lashed together the few chests which were on deck. These remained tied to the stump of the mast. They undid the lashings, and rolled the chests overboard through a breach in the gunwale. One of these trunks belonged to the Basque woman, who could not repress a groan as she saw it going, exclaiming.—
"Oh, my new cloak lined with scarlet! Oh, my poor open-work stockings! Oh, my silver earrings to wear at Mass on May-day!"
The deck cleared, the cabin had next to be seen to. It was greatly encumbered, as the reader may remember, by the luggage belonging to the passengers, and by the bales belonging to the sailors. They took the luggage, and threw it over the gunwale. They carried up the bales, and cast them into the sea. The lantern, the barrels, the sacks of provisions, the bales, and the water-butts, even the pot of soup,—all went over into the waves. They unscrewed the nuts of the iron stove, in which the fire had long since gone out, hoisted it on deck, dragged it to the side of the vessel, and threw it overboard. They cast overboard everything they could pull out of the deck,—chains, shrouds, and torn rigging.
From time to time the chief took a torch, and throwing its light on the figures painted on the prow looked to see how much the wreck had settled down.