Chapter VI. The two ends of the scale
The man had conquered; but it might be affirmed that the cannon also had gained a victory. Immediate shipwreck was averted; but the corvette was still in danger. The injuries the ship had sustained seemed irreparable. There were five breaches in the sides, one of them – a very large one – in the bow, and twenty carronades out of thirty lay shattered in their frames. The recaptured gun, which had been secured by a chain, was itself disabled. The screw of the breech-button being wrenched, it would consequently be impossible to level the cannon. The battery was reduced to nine guns; there was a leakage in the hold. All these damages must be repaired without loss of time, and the pumps set in operation. Now that the gun-deck had become visible, it was frightful to look upon. The interior of a mad elephant’s cage could not have been more thoroughly devastated. However important it might be for the corvette to avoid observation, the care for its immediate safety was still more imperative. They were obliged to light the deck with lanterns placed at intervals along the sides.
In the mean time, while this tragic entertainment had lasted, the crew, entirely absorbed by a question of life and death, had not noticed what was going on outside of the ship. The fog had thickened, the weather had changed, the wind had driven the vessel at will; they were out of their course, in full sight of Jersey and Guernsey, much farther to the south than they ought to have been, and confronting a tumultuous sea. The big waves kissed the wounded sides of the corvette with kisses that savored of danger. The heaving of the sea grew threatening; the wind had risen to a gale; a squall, perhaps a tempest, was brewing. One could not see four oars’ length before one.
While the crew made haste with their temporary repairs on the gun-deck, stopping the leaks and setting up the cannons that had escaped uninjured, the old passenger returned to the deck.
He stood leaning against the main-mast.
He had taken no notice of what was going on in the ship. The Chevalier de la Vieuville had drawn up the marines on either side of the main-mast, and at a signal-whistle of the boatswain the sailors, who had been busy in the rigging, stood up on the yards. Count Boisberthelot approached the passenger. The captain was followed by a man, who, haggard and panting, with his dress in disorder, still wore on his countenance an expression of content.
It was the gunner who had so opportunely displayed his power as a tamer of monsters, and gained the victory over the cannon.
The count made a military salute to the old man in the peasant garb, and said to him: –
“Here is the man, general.”
The gunner, with downcast eyes, stood erect in a military attitude.
“General,” resumed Count Boisberthelot, “considering what this man has done, do you not think that his superiors have a duty to perform?”
“I think so,” replied the old man.
“Be so good as to give your orders,” resumed Boisberthelot.
“It is for you to give them; you are the captain.”
“But you are the general,” answered Boisberthelot.
The old man looked at the gunner.
“Step forward,” he said.
The gunner advanced a step.
Turning to Count Boisberthelot, the old man removed the cross of Saint Louis from the captain’s breast, and fastened it on the jacket of the gunner. The sailors cheered, and the marines presented arms.
Then pointing to the bewildered gunner he added:
“Now let the man be shot!”
Stupor took the place of applause.
Then, amid a tomb-like silence, the old man, raising his voice, said: –
“The ship has been endangered by an act of carelessness, and may even yet be lost. It is all the same whether one be at sea or face to face with the enemy. A ship at sea is like an army in battle. The tempest, though unseen, is ever present; the sea is an ambush. Death is the fit penalty for every fault committed when facing the enemy. There is no fault that can be retrieved. Courage must be rewarded and negligence punished.”
These words fell one after the other slowly and gravely, with a certain implacable rhythm, like the strokes of the axe upon an oak-tree. Looking at the soldiers, the old man added, –
“Do your duty!”
The man on whose breast shone the cross of Saint Louis bowed his head, and at a sign of Count Boisberthelot two sailors went down to the gun-deck, and presently returned bringing the hammock-shroud; the two sailors were accompanied by the ship’s chaplain, who since the departure had been engaged in saying prayers in the officers’ quarters. A sergeant detached from the ranks twelve soldiers, whom he arranged in two rows, six men in a row. The gunner placed himself between the two lines. The chaplain, holding a crucifix, advanced and took his place beside the man. “March!” came from the lips of the sergeant; and the platoon slowly moved towards the bow, followed by two sailors canning the shroud.
A gloomy silence fell on the corvette. In the distance a hurricane was blowing. A few moments later, a report echoed through the gloom; one flash, and all was still. Then came the splash of a body falling into the water. The old passenger, still leaning against the main-mast, his hands crossed on his breast, seemed lost in thought. Boisberthelot, pointing towards him with the forefinger of his left hand, remarked in an undertone to La Vieuville, –
“The Vendée has found a leader.”