Saturday, 24/02/2024 - 10:01

Chapter IV. A Cloud Different from the Others enters on the Scene

16:33 | 05/10/2019

The old man whom the chief of the band had named first the Madman, then the Sage, now never left the forecastle. Since they crossed the Shambles shoal, his attention had been divided between the heavens and the waters. He looked down, he looked upwards, and above all watched the north-east.

The skipper gave the helm to a sailor, stepped over the after hatchway, crossed the gangway, and went on to the forecastle. He approached the old man, but not in front. He stood a little behind, with elbows resting on his hips, with outstretched hands, the head on one side, with open eyes and arched eyebrows, and a smile in the corners of his mouth – an attitude of curiosity hesitating between mockery and respect.

The old man, either that it was his habit to talk to himself, or that hearing some one behind incited him to speech, began to soliloquize while he looked into space.

“The meridian, from which the right ascension is calculated, is marked in this century by four stars – the Polar, Cassiopeia’s Chair, Andromeda’s Head, and the star Algenib, which is in Pegasus. But there is not one visible.”

These words followed each other mechanically, confused, and scarcely articulated, as if he did not care to pronounce them. They floated out of his mouth and dispersed. Soliloquy is the smoke exhaled by the inmost fires of the soul.

The skipper broke in, “My lord!”

The old man, perhaps rather deaf as well as very thoughtful, went on, –

“Too few stars, and too much wind. The breeze continually changes its direction and blows inshore; thence it rises perpendicularly. This results from the land being warmer than the water. Its atmosphere is lighter. The cold and dense wind of the sea rushes in to replace it. From this cause, in the upper regions the wind blows towards the land from every quarter. It would be advisable to make long tacks between the true and apparent parallel. When the latitude by observation differs from the latitude by dead reckoning by not more than three minutes in thirty miles, or by four minutes in sixty miles, you are in the true course.”

The skipper bowed, but the old man saw him not. The latter, who wore what resembled an Oxford or Gottingen university gown, did not relax his haughty and rigid attitude. He observed the waters as a critic of waves and of men. He studied the billows, but almost as if he was about to demand his turn to speak amidst their turmoil, and teach them something. There was in him both pedagogue and soothsayer. He seemed an oracle of the deep.

He continued his soliloquy, which was perhaps intended to be heard.

“We might strive if we had a wheel instead of a helm. With a speed of twelve miles an hour, a force of twenty pounds exerted on the wheel produces three hundred thousand pounds’ effect on the course. And more too. For in some cases, with a double block and runner, they can get two more revolutions.”

The skipper bowed a second time, and said, “My lord!”

The old man’s eye rested on him; he had turned his head without moving his body.

“Call me Doctor.”

“Master Doctor, I am the skipper.”

“Just so,” said the doctor.

The doctor, as henceforward we shall call him, appeared willing to converse.

“Skipper, have you an English sextant?”


“Without an English sextant you cannot take an altitude at all.”

“The Basques,” replied the captain, “took altitudes before there were any English.”

“Be careful you are not taken aback.”

“I keep her away when necessary.”

“Have you tried how many knots she is running?”



“Just now.”


“By the log.”

“Did you take the trouble to look at the triangle?”


“Did the sand run through the glass in exactly thirty seconds?”


“Are you sure that the sand has not worn the hole between the globes?”


“Have you proved the sand-glass by the oscillations of a bullet?”

“Suspended by a rope yarn drawn out from the top of a coil of soaked hemp? Undoubtedly.”

“Have you waxed the yarn lest it should stretch?”


“Have you tested the log?”

“I tested the sand-glass by the bullet, and checked the log by a round shot.”

“Of what size was the shot?”

“One foot in diameter.”

“Heavy enough?”

“It is an old round shot of our war hooker, La Casse de Par-Grand.”

“Which was in the Armada?”


“And which carried six hundred soldiers, fifty sailors, and twenty-five guns?”

“Shipwreck knows it.”

“How did you compute the resistance of the water to the shot?”

“By means of a German scale.”

“Have you taken into account the resistance of the rope supporting the shot to the waves?”


“What was the result?”

“The resistance of the water was 170 pounds.”

“That’s to say she is running four French leagues an hour.”

“And three Dutch leagues.”

“But that is the difference merely of the vessel’s way and the rate at which the sea is running?”


“Whither are you steering?”

“For a creek I know, between Loyola and St. Sebastian.”

“Make the latitude of the harbour’s mouth as soon as possible.”

“Yes, as near as I can.”

“Beware of gusts and currents. The first cause the second.”


“No abuse. The sea understands. Insult nothing. Rest satisfied with watching.”

“I have watched, and I do watch. Just now the tide is running against the wind; by-and-by, when it turns, we shall be all right.”

“Have you a chart?”

“No; not for this channel.”

“Then you sail by rule of thumb?”

“Not at all. I have a compass.”

“The compass is one eye, the chart the other.”

“A man with one eye can see.”

“How do you compute the difference between the true and apparent course?”

“I’ve got my standard compass, and I make a guess.”

“To guess is all very well. To know for certain is better.”

“Christopher guessed.”

“When there is a fog and the needle revolves treacherously, you can never tell on which side you should look out for squalls, and the end of it is that you know neither the true nor apparent day’s work. An ass with his chart is better off than a wizard with his oracle.”

“There is no fog in the breeze yet, and I see no cause for alarm.”

“Ships are like flies in the spider’s web of the sea.”

“Just now both winds and waves are tolerably favourable.”

“Black specks quivering on the billows – such are men on the ocean.”

“I dare say there will be nothing wrong to-night.”

“You may get into such a mess that you will find it hard to get out of it.”

“All goes well at present.”

The doctor’s eyes were fixed on the north-east. The skipper continued, –

“Let us once reach the Gulf of Gascony, and I answer for our safety. Ah! I should say I am at home there. I know it well, my Gulf of Gascony. It is a little basin, often very boisterous; but there, I know every sounding in it and the nature of the bottom – mud opposite San Cipriano, shells opposite Cizarque, sand off Cape Peñas, little pebbles off Boncaut de Mimizan, and I know the colour of every pebble.”

The skipper broke off; the doctor was no longer listening.

The doctor gazed at the north-east. Over that icy face passed an extraordinary expression. All the agony of terror possible to a mask of stone was depicted there. From his mouth escaped this word, “Good!”

His eyeballs, which had all at once become quite round like an owl’s, were dilated with stupor on discovering a speck on the horizon. He added, –

“It is well. As for me, I am resigned.”

The skipper looked at him. The doctor went on talking to himself, or to some one in the deep, –

“I say, Yes.”

Then he was silent, opened his eyes wider and wider with renewed attention on that which he was watching, and said, –

“It is coming from afar, but not the less surely will it come.”

The arc of the horizon which occupied the visual rays and thoughts of the doctor, being opposite to the west, was illuminated by the transcendent reflection of twilight, as if it were day. This arc, limited in extent, and surrounded by streaks of grayish vapour, was uniformly blue, but of a leaden rather than cerulean blue. The doctor, having completely returned to the contemplation of the sea, pointed to this atmospheric arc, and said, –

“Skipper, do you see?”




“Out there.”

“A blue spot? Yes.”

“What is it?”

“A niche in heaven.”

“For those who go to heaven; for those who go elsewhere it is another affair.” And he emphasized these enigmatical words with an appalling expression which was unseen in the darkness.

A silence ensued. The skipper, remembering the two names given by the chief to this man, asked himself the question, –

“Is he a madman, or is he a sage?”

The stiff and bony finger of the doctor remained immovably pointing, like a sign-post, to the misty blue spot in the sky.

The skipper looked at this spot.

“In truth,” he growled out, “it is not sky but clouds.”

“A blue cloud is worse than a black cloud,” said the doctor; “and,” he added, “it’s a snow-cloud.”

“La nube de la nieve,” said the skipper, as if trying to understand the word better by translating it.

“Do you know what a snow-cloud is?” asked the doctor.


“You’ll know by-and-by.”

The skipper again turned his attention to the horizon.

Continuing to observe the cloud, he muttered between his teeth, –

“One month of squalls, another of wet; January with its gales, February with its rains – that’s all the winter we Asturians get. Our rain even is warm. We’ve no snow but on the mountains. Ay, ay; look out for the avalanche. The avalanche is no respecter of persons. The avalanche is a brute.”

“And the waterspout is a monster,” said the doctor, adding, after a pause, “Here it comes.” He continued, “Several winds are getting up together – a strong wind from the west, and a gentle wind from the east.”

“That last is a deceitful one,” said the skipper.

The blue cloud was growing larger.

“If the snow,” said the doctor, “is appalling when it slips down the mountain, think what it is when it falls from the Pole!”

His eye was glassy. The cloud seemed to spread over his face and simultaneously over the horizon. He continued, in musing tones, –

“Every minute the fatal hour draws nearer. The will of Heaven is about to be manifested.”

The skipper asked himself again this question, – “Is he a madman?”

“Skipper,” began the doctor, without taking his eyes off the cloud, “have you often crossed the Channel?”

“This is the first time.”

The doctor, who was absorbed by the blue cloud, and who, as a sponge can take up but a definite quantity of water, had but a definite measure of anxiety, displayed no more emotion at this answer of the skipper than was expressed by a slight shrug of his shoulders.

“How is that?”

“Master Doctor, my usual cruise is to Ireland. I sail from Fontarabia to Black Harbour or to the Achill Islands. I go sometimes to Braich-y-Pwll, a point on the Welsh coast. But I always steer outside the Scilly Islands. I do not know this sea at all.”

“That’s serious. Woe to him who is inexperienced on the ocean! One ought to be familiar with the Channel – the Channel is the Sphinx. Look out for shoals.”

“We are in twenty-five fathoms here.”

“We ought to get into fifty-five fathoms to the west, and avoid even twenty fathoms to the east.”

“We’ll sound as we get on.”

“The Channel is not an ordinary sea. The water rises fifty feet with the spring tides, and twenty-five with neap tides. Here we are in slack water. I thought you looked scared.”

“We’ll sound to-night.”

“To sound you must heave to, and that you cannot do.”

“Why not?”

“On account of the wind.”

“We’ll try.”

“The squall is close on us.”

“We’ll sound, Master Doctor.”

“You could not even bring to.”

“Trust in God.”

“Take care what you say. Pronounce not lightly the awful name.”

“I will sound, I tell you.”

“Be sensible; you will have a gale of wind presently.”

“I say that I will try for soundings.”

“The resistance of the water will prevent the lead from sinking, and the line will break. Ah! so this is your first time in these waters?”

“The first time.”

“Very well; in that case listen, skipper.”

The tone of the word “listen” was so commanding that the skipper made an obeisance.

“Master Doctor, I am all attention.”

“Port your helm, and haul up on the starboard tack.”

“What do you mean?”

“Steer your course to the west.”


“Steer your course to the west.”


“As you will. What I tell you is for the others’ sake. As for myself, I am indifferent.”

“But, Master Doctor, steer west?”

“Yes, skipper.”

“The wind will be dead ahead.”

“Yes, skipper.”

“She’ll pitch like the devil.”

“Moderate your language. Yes, skipper.”

“The vessel would be in irons.”

“Yes, skipper.”

“That means very likely the mast will go.”


“Do you wish me to steer west?”


“I cannot.”

“In that case settle your reckoning with the sea.”

“The wind ought to change.”

“It will not change all night.”

“Why not?”

“Because it is a wind twelve hundred leagues in length.”

“Make headway against such a wind! Impossible.”

“To the west, I tell you.”

“I’ll try, but in spite of everything she will fall off.”

“That’s the danger.”

“The wind sets us to the east.”

“Don’t go to the east.”

“Why not?”

“Skipper, do you know what is for us the word of death?”


“Death is the east.”

“I’ll steer west.”

This time the doctor, having turned right round, looked the skipper full in the face, and with his eyes resting on him, as though to implant the idea in his head, pronounced slowly, syllable by syllable, these words, –

“If to-night out at sea we hear the sound of a bell, the ship is lost.”

The skipper pondered in amaze.

“What do you mean?”

The doctor did not answer. His countenance, expressive for a moment, was now reserved. His eyes became vacuous. He did not appear to hear the skipper’s wondering question. He was now attending to his own monologue. His lips let fall, as if mechanically, in a low murmuring tone, these words, –

“The time has come for sullied souls to purify themselves.”

The skipper made that expressive grimace which raises the chin towards the nose.

“He is more madman than sage,” he growled, and moved off.

Nevertheless he steered west.

But the wind and the sea were rising.



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