Chapter III. Troubled Men on the Troubled Sea
Two men on board the craft were absorbed in thought—the old man, and the skipper of the hooker, who must not be mistaken for the chief of the band. The captain was occupied by the sea, the old man by the sky. The former did not lift his eyes from the waters; the latter kept watch on the firmament. The skipper’s anxiety was the state of the sea; the old man seemed to suspect the heavens. He scanned the stars through every break in the clouds.
It was the time when day still lingers, but some few stars begin faintly to pierce the twilight. The horizon was singular. The mist upon it varied. Haze predominated on land, clouds at sea.
The skipper, noting the rising billows, hauled all taut before he got outside Portland Bay. He would not delay so doing until he should pass the headland. He examined the rigging closely, and satisfied himself that the lower shrouds were well set up, and supported firmly the futtock-shrouds—precautions of a man who means to carry on with a press of sail, at all risks.
The hooker was not trimmed, being two feet by the head. This was her weak point.
The captain passed every minute from the binnacle to the standard compass, taking the bearings of objects on shore. The Matutina had at first a soldier’s wind which was not unfavourable, though she could not lie within five points of her course. The captain took the helm as often as possible, trusting no one but himself to prevent her from dropping to leeward, the effect of the rudder being influenced by the steerage-way.
The difference between the true and apparent course being relative to the way on the vessel, the hooker seemed to lie closer to the wind than she did in reality. The breeze was not a-beam, nor was the hooker close-hauled; but one cannot ascertain the true course made, except when the wind is abaft. When you perceive long streaks of clouds meeting in a point on the horizon, you may be sure that the wind is in that quarter; but this evening the wind was variable; the needle fluctuated; the captain distrusted the erratic movements of the vessel. He steered carefully but resolutely, luffed her up, watched her coming to, prevented her from yawing, and from running into the wind’s eye: noted the leeway, the little jerks of the helm: was observant of every roll and pitch of the vessel, of the difference in her speed, and of the variable gusts of wind. For fear of accidents, he was constantly on the lookout for squalls from off the land he was hugging, and above all he was cautious to keep her full; the direction of the breeze indicated by the compass being uncertain from the small size of the instrument. The captain’s eyes, frequently lowered, remarked every change in the waves.
Once nevertheless he raised them towards the sky, and tried to make out the three stars of Orion’s belt. These stars are called the three magi, and an old proverb of the ancient Spanish pilots declares that, “He who sees the three magi is not far from the Saviour.”
This glance of the captain’s tallied with an aside growled out, at the other end of the vessel, by the old man, “We don’t even see the pointers, nor the star Antares, red as he is. Not one is distinct.”
No care troubled the other fugitives.
Still, when the first hilarity they felt in their escape had passed away, they could not help remembering that they were at sea in the month of January, and that the wind was frozen. It was impossible to establish themselves in the cabin. It was much too narrow and too much encumbered by bales and baggage. The baggage belonged to the passengers, the bales to the crew, for the hooker was no pleasure boat, and was engaged in smuggling. The passengers were obliged to settle themselves on deck, a condition to which these wanderers easily resigned themselves. Open-air habits make it simple for vagabonds to arrange themselves for the night. The open air (la belle étoile) is their friend, and the cold helps them to sleep—sometimes to die.
This night, as we have seen, there was no belle étoile.
The Languedocian and the Genoese, while waiting for supper, rolled themselves up near the women, at the foot of the mast, in some tarpaulin which the sailors had thrown them.
The old man remained at the bow motionless, and apparently insensible to the cold.
The captain of the hooker, from the helm where he was standing, uttered a sort of guttural call somewhat like the cry of the American bird called the exclaimer; at his call the chief of the brand drew near, and the captain addressed him thus,—
“Etcheco Jaüna.” These two words, which mean “tiller of the mountain,” form with the old Cantabri a solemn preface to any subject which should command attention.
Then the captain pointed the old man out to the chief, and the dialogue continued in Spanish; it was not, indeed, a very correct dialect, being that of the mountains. Here are the questions and answers.
“Etcheco jaüna, que es este hombre?”
“Que lenguas habla?”
“Que cosas sabe?”
“Ningun, y todos.”
“Como le llamas?”
“Como dices que le llamas?”
“En vuestre tropa que esta?”
“Esta lo que esta.”
“Pues que esta?”
The chief and the captain parted, each reverting to his own meditation, and a little while afterwards the Matutina left the gulf.
Now came the great rolling of the open sea. The ocean in the spaces between the foam was slimy in appearance. The waves, seen through the twilight in indistinct outline, somewhat resembled plashes of gall. Here and there a wave floating flat showed cracks and stars, like a pane of glass broken by stones; in the centre of these stars, in a revolving orifice, trembled a phosphorescence, like that feline reflection, of vanished light which shines in the eyeballs of owls.
Proudly, like a bold swimmer, the Matutina crossed the dangerous Shambles shoal. This bank, a hidden obstruction at the entrance of Portland roads, is not a barrier; it is an amphitheatre—a circus of sand under the sea, its benches cut out by the circling of the waves—an arena, round and symmetrical, as high as a Jungfrau, only drowned—a coliseum of the ocean, seen by the diver in the vision-like transparency which engulfs him,—such is the Shambles shoal. There hydras fight, leviathans meet. There, says the legend, at the bottom of the gigantic shaft, are the wrecks of ships, seized and sunk by the huge spider Kraken, also called the fish-mountain. Such things lie in the fearful shadow of the sea.
These spectral realities, unknown to man, are manifested at the surface by a slight shiver.
In this nineteenth century, the Shambles bank is in ruins; the breakwater recently constructed has overthrown and mutilated, by the force of its surf, that high submarine architecture, just as the jetty, built at the Croisic in 1760, changed, by a quarter of an hour, the course of the tides. And yet the tide is eternal. But eternity obeys man more than man imagines.