Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 27
"Let us throw our crimes into the sea."
Photo-Etching.—From Drawing by G. Rochegrosse.
THE HIGHEST RESOURCE.
THE wreck being lightened was sinking more slowly, but none the less surely. The hopelessness of their situation was without mitigation; they had exhausted their last resource.
"Is there anything else we can throw overboard?" asked one.
The doctor, whom every one had forgotten, rose from the companion-way and answered: "Yes."
"What?" asked the chief.
"Our crime," replied the doctor.
They shuddered, and all cried out: "Amen."
The doctor standing up, pale as death, raised his hand to heaven, saying: "Kneel down."
They all prepared to kneel.
The doctor went on. "Let us throw our crimes into the sea, they weigh us down; it is they that are sinking the ship. Let us cease to think of safety; let us think only of salvation. Our last crime,—the crime which we committed, or rather completed, just now,—O wretched beings who are listening to me, it is that which is overwhelming us! For those who leave intended murder behind them, it is the height of audacity to tempt the mighty deep. He who sins against a child, sins against God. True, we were obliged to put to sea, but it was certain perdition. The storm, warned by the shadow of our crime, came upon us. It is well. Regret nothing, however. There, not far off in the darkness, are the sands of Vauville and Cape La Hogue on the coast of France. There was but one possible shelter for us,—that was Spain. France was no less dangerous to us than England. Our deliverance from the sea would have led only to the gibbet. We had no alternative but to be hanged or drowned. God has chosen for us; let us give him thanks. He has vouchsafed us the grave which cleanses. Brethren, the hand of God is in it. Remember that we just now did our best to send that child on high, and that at this very moment, as I speak, there is, perhaps, in the world above a soul accusing us before a Judge whose eye is upon us. Let us make the best use of this last respite; let us make an effort, if time be granted us, to repair, as far as possible, the evil that we have done. If the child survives us, let us do what we can to aid him; if he is dead, let us seek his forgiveness. Let us cast our sins from us. Let us ease our consciences of this load. Let us pray that our souls be not cast out from the presence of Almighty God, for that is the worst of shipwrecks. Bodies go to the fishes, souls to the Evil One. Have pity on yourselves. Kneel down, I tell you. Repentance is the only bark which never sinks. You have lost your compass; you have gone sadly astray; but you can still pray."
The wolves had become lambs: such transformations often occur at the hour of death. Even tigers lick the crucifix. When the dark portals of the grave yawn, to believe is difficult, not to believe is impossible. However unsatisfactory the different religious creeds of mankind may be, no matter how little they correspond with his conception of the life hereafter, the boldest soul quails when the moment of final dissolution comes. There must be something that begins when this life ends. This thought impresses itself upon the mind of the dying.
Death is the end of each man's term of probation. In that fatal hour he realizes the burden of responsibility that rests upon every human soul. That which has been decides what is to be. The past returns, and enters into the future. The known becomes as terrifying as the unknown; it is the confusion of the two which so terrifies the dying man.
These poor wretches had abandoned all hope so far as this life was concerned, so they turned their thoughts to the other. Their only remaining chance was in its dark shadow, and they understood this fact perfectly. "Speak, speak!" they cried out to the doctor; "there is no one else to tell us. We will obey thee. What must we do I Speak!"
The doctor answered: "The question is how to pass over the unknown precipice and reach the shores of the unknown world beyond the tomb. Being the wisest among you, my danger is greater than yours. You do well to leave the choice of the bridge to him whose burden is the heaviest. For knowledge only increases one's responsibility. How much time have we left?"
Galdeazun looked at the water-mark, and answered: "A little more than a quarter of an hour."
"Good," said the doctor.
The low roof of the companion-way on which he was leaning served as a sort of table. The doctor took from his pocket his inkhorn and pen, and drew from his pocket-book a piece of parchment, the same on which he had written, a few hours before, some twenty cramped and crooked lines. "A light," he said.
The snow, falling like the spray of a cataract, had extinguished the torches one after another; there was but one left. Ave Maria took it out of the place where it had been stuck, and holding it in his hand, came and stood by the doctor's side.
The doctor replaced his pocket-book in his pocket, set the pen and inkhorn on the top of the companion-way, unfolded the parchment, and said: "Listen."
Then in the midst of the sea, on the sinking deck (a sort of quaking flooring of the tomb), the doctor began a solemn reading, to which all the shadows seemed to listen. The doomed men bowed their heads around him. The flickering light of the torch intensified their pallor. What the doctor read was written in English. Now and then, when one of those woe-begone looks seemed to ask an explanation, the doctor would stop, and repeat, either in French, Spanish, Basque, or Italian, the passage he had just read Stifled sobs and hollow beatings of the breast were heard. The wreck was sinking more and more.
The reading over, the doctor placed the parchment flat on the companion-way, seized his pen, and on a clear margin which he had carefully left at the bottom of what he had written, he signed himself: "Gerhadus Geestemunde: Doctor."
Then turning towards the others, he said: "Come, and sign."
The Basque woman approached, took the pen, and signed herself, "Asuncion." She handed the pen to the Irish woman, who, not knowing how to write, made a cross. The doctor, by the side of this cross, wrote, "Barbara Fermoy, of Tyrrif Island, in the Hebrides." Then he handed the pen to the chief of the band. The chief signed, "Gaizdorra: Captal." The Genoese signed himself under the chief's name, "Giangirate," The Languedocian signed, "Jacques Quartourze: alias the Narbonnais." The Provençal signed, "Luc-Pierre Capgaroupe, of the Galleys of Mahon."
Under these signatures the doctor added a note: "Of the crew of three men, the captain having been washed overboard by a sea, but two remain, and they have signed."
The two sailors affixed their names underneath the note. The northern Basque signed himself, "Galdeazun." The southern Basque signed, "Ave Maria: Thief."
Then the doctor said: "Capgaroupe."
"Here," said the Provençal.
"Have you Hardquanonne's flask?"
"Give it me."
Capgaroupe drank off the last mouthful of brandy, and handed the flask to the doctor.
The water was rising in the hold; the wreck was sinking deeper into the sea. The sloping edges of the ship were covered by a thin wave, which was rising. All were crowded on the centre of the deck.
The doctor dried the ink on the signatures by the flame of the torch, and folding the parchment into a narrower compass than the diameter of the neck, put it into the flask, and called for the cork.
"I don't know where it is," said Capgaroupe.
"Here is a piece of rope," said Jacques Quartourze.
The doctor corked the flask with a bit of rope, and asked for some tar. Galdeazun went forward, extinguished the signal-light, took the vessel which had held it from the stern, and brought it, half full of burning pitch, to the doctor. The flask containing the parchment which they had all signed was carefully corked and tarred over.
"It is done," said the doctor.
And from every mouth, faltered in every language, came as if from the tomb such dismal utterances as:
It was as though the gloomy voices of Babel were resounding through the shadows as Heaven uttered its awful refusal to hear them.
The doctor turned away from his companions in crime and distress, and took a few steps towards the gunwale. Reaching the side, he looked into space, and said, in a deep voice: "Bist du bei mir?" Perchance he was addressing some phantom.
The wreck was sinking. All the others stood as in a dream. Prayer mastered them by main force. They not only knelt, they cowered. There was something involuntary in their contrition; they wavered as a sail flaps when the breeze fails. And the haggard group took by degrees, with clasping of hands and prostration of foreheads, various attitudes expressive of profound humiliation. Some strange reflection of the deep seemed to soften their villainous features.
The doctor returned towards them. Whatever his past may have been, the old man was truly great in the presence of the catastrophe. He was not a man to be taken unawares. Brooding over him was the calm of a silent horror; on his countenance was the majesty of God's will comprehended. This old and thoughtful outlaw unconsciously assumed the air of a pontiff.
"Listen to me," he said solemnly. He contemplated the waste of water for a moment, and added: "We are about to die!"
Then he took the torch from the hands of Ave Maria, and waved it. A spark broke from it and flew into the night. Then the doctor cast the torch into the sea. It was extinguished: every glimmer of light had disappeared. Nothing remained but the dense, unfathomable gloom. It was like the very grave itself.
In the darkness, the doctor was heard saying: "Let us pray."
All knelt down. It was no longer on the snow, but in the water, that they knelt. They had but a few minutes more to live. The doctor alone remained standing. The flakes of snow falling on him had sprinkled him as if with white tears, and made him plainly visible against the background of darkness. He made the sign of the cross and raised his voice, while beneath his feet he felt that almost imperceptible oscillation which precedes the moment in which a wreck is about to founder. He said:—
"Pater noster qui es in cœlis."
"Notre Père qui êtes aux cieux," the Provençal repeated in French.
"Ar nathair ata ar neamh," repeated the Irish woman in Gaelic, understood by the Basque woman.
"Sanctificetur nomen tuum," continued the doctor.
"Que votre nom soit sanctifié," said the Provençal.
"Naomhthar hainm," said the Irish woman.
"Adveniat regnum tuum," continued the doctor.
"Que votre règne arrive," said the Provençal.
"Tigeadh do rioghachd," said the Irish woman.
As they knelt, the water had risen to their shoulders.
"Fiat voluntas tua," the doctor went on.
"Que votre volonté soit faite," stammered the Provençal.
"Deuntar do thoil ar an Hhalàmb," cried the Irish woman and Basque woman.
"Sicut in cœlo, sicut in terra," said the doctor.
No voice answered him. He looked down. Every head was under water. They had allowed themselves to be drowned on their knees.
The doctor took in his right hand the flask which he had placed on the companion-way and raised it high above his head. The wreck was going down. As he sank, the doctor murmured the rest of the prayer. For an instant his shoulders were above water; then his head; then nothing remained but his arm holding up the flask, as if he were showing it to the Infinite. Then his arm disappeared ; there was no more of a ripple on the sea than there would have been on a cask of oil. The snow continued to fall.
One thing floated, and was carried by the waves into the darkness. It was the tarred flask, kept afloat by its osier cover.