Chapter IX. The Charge Confided to a Raging Sea
The skipper, at the helm, burst out laughing, –
“A bell! that’s good. We are on the larboard tack. What does the bell prove? Why, that we have land to starboard.”
The firm and measured voice of the doctor replied, –
“You have not land to starboard.”
“But we have,” shouted the skipper.
“But that bell tolls from the land.”
“That bell,” said the doctor, “tolls from the sea.”
A shudder passed over these daring men. The haggard faces of the two women appeared above the companion like two hobgoblins conjured up. The doctor took a step forward, separating his tall form from the mast. From the depth of the night’s darkness came the toll of the bell.
The doctor resumed, –
“There is in the midst of the sea, halfway between Portland and the Channel Islands, a buoy, placed there as a caution; that buoy is moored by chains to the shoal, and floats on the top of the water. On the buoy is fixed an iron trestle, and across the trestle a bell is hung. In bad weather heavy seas toss the buoy, and the bell rings. That is the bell you hear.”
The doctor paused to allow an extra violent gust of wind to pass over, waited until the sound of the bell reasserted itself, and then went on, –
“To hear that bell in a storm, when the nor’-wester is blowing, is to be lost. Wherefore? For this reason: if you hear the bell, it is because the wind brings it to you. But the wind is nor’-westerly, and the breakers of Aurigny lie east. You hear the bell only because you are between the buoy and the breakers. It is on those breakers the wind is driving you. You are on the wrong side of the buoy. If you were on the right side, you would be out at sea on a safe course, and you would not hear the bell. The wind would not convey the sound to you. You would pass close to the buoy without knowing it. We are out of our course. That bell is shipwreck sounding the tocsin. Now, look out!”
As the doctor spoke, the bell, soothed by a lull of the storm, rang slowly stroke by stroke, and its intermitting toll seemed to testify to the truth of the old man’s words. It was as the knell of the abyss.
All listened breathless, now to the voice, now to the bell.