Sunday, 25/02/2024 - 20:28
22:13 | 17/10/2019

The corvette was little better than a wreck.

A sepulchral solemnity pervaded the dim twilight, the darkness of the clouds, the confused changes of the horizon, and the mysterious sullenness of the waves. There was no sound except the hostile blasts of the wind. The catastrophe rose majestic from the abyss. It looked more like an apparition than an attack. No stir on the rocks, no stir on the ships. The silence was overpowering beyond description. Were they dealing with reality? It was like a dream passing over the sea. There are legends that tell of such visions. The corvette lay, so to speak, between a demon reef and a phantom fleet.

Count Boisberthelot in a low voice gave orders to La Vieuville, who went down to the gun-deck, while the captain, seizing his telescope, stationed himself behind the pilot. Gacquoil’s sole effort was to keep up the corvette to the wind; for if struck on her side by the sea and the wind, she would inevitably capsize.

“Pilot, where are we?” said the captain.

“On the Minquiers.”

“On which side?”

“On the worst one.”

“What kind of bottom?”

“Small rocks.”

“Can we turn broadside on?”

“We can always die.”

The captain turned his spy-glass towards the west and examined the Minquiers; then turning it to the east he watched the sails that were in sight.

The pilot went on, as though speaking to himself:

“Yonder is the Minquiers. That is where the laughing sea-mew and the great black-hooded gull stop to rest when they migrate from Holland.”

Meanwhile the captain had counted the sails.

There were, indeed, eight ships drawn up in line, their warlike profiles rising above the water. In the centre was seen the stately outline of a three-decker.

The captain questioned the pilot.

“Do you know those ships?”

“Of course I do.”

“What are they?”

“That’s the squadron.”

“Of the French?”

“Of the Devil.”

A silence ensued; and again the captain resumed his questions.

“Are all the cruisers there?”

“No, not all.”

In fact, on the 2d of April, Valazé had reported to the Convention that ten frigates and six ships of the line were cruising in the Channel. The captain remembered this.

“You are right,” he said; “the squadron numbers sixteen ships, and only eight are here.”

“The others are straggling along the coast down below, on the lookout,” said Gacquoil.

Still gazing through his spy-glass the captain murmured, –

“One three-decker, two first-class and five second-class frigates.”

“I too have seen them close at hand,” muttered Gacquoil. “I know them too well to mistake one for the other.”

The captain passed his glass to the pilot.

“Pilot, can you make out distinctly the largest ship?”

“Yes, commander. It is the ‘Côte-d’Or.'”

“They have given it a new name. It used to be the ‘États de Bourgogne,’ – a new ship of a hundred and twenty-eight cannon.”

He took a memorandum-book and pencil from his pocket, and wrote down the number “128.”

“Pilot, what is the first ship on the port?”

“The ‘Expérimentée.'”

“A frigate of the first class; fifty-two guns. She was fitting out at Brest two months ago.”

The captain put down on his note-book the number “52.”

“What is the second ship to port, pilot?”

“The ‘Dryade.'”

“A frigate of the first class; forty eighteen-pounders. She has been in India, and has a glorious military record.”

And below the “52” he wrote the number “40.” Then, raising his head, he said, –

“Now, on the starboard?”

“They are all second-class frigates, commander; there are five of them.”

“Which is the first one from the ship?”

“The ‘Résolue.'”

“Thirty-two eighteen-pounders. The second?”

“The ‘Richmond.'”

“Same. Next?”

“The ‘Athée.'”

“A queer name to sail under. Next?”

“The ‘Calypso.'”

“Next?”

“The ‘Preneuse.'”

“Five frigates, each of thirty-two guns.”

The captain wrote “160” under the first numbers.

“You are sure you recognize them, pilot?” he asked.

“You also know them well, commander. It is something to recognize them; but it is better to know them.”

The captain, with his eyes on the note-book, was adding up the column to himself.

“One hundred and twenty-eight, fifty-two, forty, one hundred and sixty.”

Just then La Vieuville came up on deck.

“Chevalier,” exclaimed the captain, “we are facing three hundred and eighty cannon.”

“So be it,” replied La Vieuville.

“You have just been making an inspection, La Vieuville: how many guns have we fit for service?”

“Nine.”

“So be it,” responded Boisberthelot in his turn; and taking the telescope from the pilot, he scanned the horizon.

The eight black and silent ships, though they appeared immovable, continued to increase in size.

They were gradually drawing nearer.

La Vieuville saluted the captain.

“Commander,” he said, “here is my report. I mistrusted this corvette ‘Claymore.’ It is never pleasant to be suddenly ordered on board a ship that neither knows nor loves you. An English ship is a traitor to the French. That slut of a carronade proved this. I have made the inspection. The anchors are good; they are not made of inferior iron, but hammered out of solid bars; the flukes are solid; the cables are excellent, easy to pay out, and have the requisite length of one hundred and twenty fathoms. Plenty of ammunition; six gunners dead; each gun has one hundred and seventy-one rounds.”

“Because there are only nine cannon left,” grumbled the captain.

Boisberthelot levelled his glass to the horizon. The squadron continued its slow approach. Carronades have one advantage: three men are sufficient to man them. But they also have a disadvantage: they do not carry as far, and shoot with less precision than cannon. It was therefore necessary to let the squadron approach within the range of the carronades.

The captain gave his orders in a low voice. Silence reigned on the ship. No signal to clear the decks for action had been given, but still it had been done. The corvette was as helpless to cope with men as with the sea. They did their best with this remnant of a war-ship. Near the tiller-ropes on the gangway were piled spare hawsers and cables, to strengthen the mast in case of need. The quarters for the wounded were put in order. According to the naval practice of those days, they barricaded the deck, – which is a protection against balls, but not against bullets. The ball-gauges were brought, although it was rather late to ascertain the caliber; but they had not anticipated so many incidents. Cartridge-boxes were distributed among the sailors, and each one secured a pair of pistols and a dirk in his belt. Hammocks were stowed away, guns were pointed, and muskets, axes, and grapplings prepared. The cartridge and bullet stores were put in readiness; the powder-magazine was opened; every man stood at his post. Not a word was spoken while these preparations went on amid haste and gloom; and it seemed like the room of a dying person.

Then the corvette was turned broadside on. She carried six anchors, like a frigate, and all of them were cast, – the spare anchor forward, the kedger aft, the sea-anchor towards the open, the ebb-anchor towards the breakers, the bower-anchor to starboard, and the sheet-anchor to port. The nine uninjured carronades were placed as a battery on the side towards the enemy.

The squadron, equally silent, had also finished its evolutions. The eight ships now stood in a semicircle, of which Minquiers formed the chord. The “Claymore” enclosed within this semicircle, and held furthermore by its own anchors, was backed by the reef, – signifying shipwreck. It was like a pack of hounds surrounding a wild boar, not giving tongue, but showing its teeth.

It seemed as if each side were waiting for something.

The gunners of the “Claymore” stood to their guns.

Boisberthelot said to La Vieuville, –

“I should like to be the first to open fire.”

“A coquette’s fancy,” replied La Vieuville.

 

 

 



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