Chapter X. Does he escape?
A few minutes later, one of those small boats called a gig, which are always devoted to the use of the captain, pushed off from the ship. There were two men in this boat, – the passenger in the stern, and the volunteer sailor in the bow. The night was still very dark. The sailor, according to the captain’s instructions, rowed energetically towards the Minquiers. For that matter, it was the only direction in which he could row. Some provisions had been placed in the bottom of the boat, – a bag of biscuits, a smoked tongue, and a barrel of water.
Just as they were lowering the gig, La Vieuville, a very scoffer in the presence of destruction, leaning over the stern-post of the corvette, cried out in his cool sneering voice a parting word: –
“Very good for escaping, and still better for drowning.”
“Sir, let us joke no more,” said the pilot.
They pushed off rapidly, and soon left the corvette far behind. Both wind and tide were in the oars-man’s favor, and the small skiff flew rapidly along, wavering to and fro in the twilight, and hidden by the high crests of the waves.
A gloomy sense of expectation brooded over the sea.
Suddenly amid this illimitable, tumultuous silence a voice was heard; exaggerated by the speaking-trumpet, as by the brazen mask of ancient tragedy, it seemed almost superhuman.
It was Captain Boisberthelot speaking.
“Royal marines,” he exclaimed, “nail the white flag to the mizzen-mast! We are about to look upon our last sunrise!”
And the corvette fired a shot.
“Long live the King!” shouted the crew.
Then from the verge of the horizon was heard another shout, stupendous, remote, confused, and yet distinct, –
“Long live the Republic!”
And a din like unto the roar of three hundred thunderbolts exploded in the depths of the sea.
The conflict began. The sea was covered with fire and smoke.
Jets of spray thrown up by the balls as they struck the water rose from the sea on all sides.
The “Claymore” was pouring forth flame on the eight vessels; the squadron, ranged in a semicircle around her, opened fire from all its batteries. The horizon was in a blaze. A volcano seemed to have sprung from the sea. The wind swept to and fro this stupendous crimson drapery of battle through which the vessels appeared and disappeared like phantoms. Against the red sky in the foreground were sketched the outlines of the corvette.
The fleur-de-lis flag could be seen floating from the main-mast.
The two men in the boat were silent. The triangular shoal of the Minquiers, a kind of submarine Trinacrium, is larger than the isle of Jersey. The sea covers it. Its culminating point is a plateau that is never submerged, even at the highest tide, and from which rise, towards the northeast, six mighty rocks standing in a line, producing the effect of a massive wall which has crumbled here and there. The strait between the plateau and the six reefs is accessible only to vessels drawing very little water. Beyond this strait is the open sea.
The sailor who had volunteered to manage the boat headed for the strait. Thus he had put Minquiers between the boat and the battle. He navigated skilfully in the narrow channel, avoiding rocks to starboard and port. The cliff now hid the battle from their view. The flaming horizon and the furious din of the cannonade were growing less distinct, by reason of the increased distance; but judging from the continued explosions one could guess that the corvette still held its own, and that it meant to use its hundred and ninety-one rounds to the very last. The boat soon found itself in smooth waters beyond the cliffs and the battle, and out of the reach of missiles. Gradually the surface of the sea lost something of its gloom; the rays of light that had been swallowed up in the shadows began to widen; the curling foam leaped forth in jets of light, and the broken waves sent back their pale reflections. Daylight appeared.
The boat was beyond reach of the enemy, but the principal difficulty still remained to be overcome. It was safe from grape-shot, but the danger of shipwreck was not yet past. It was on the open sea, a mere shell, with neither deck, sail, mast, nor compass, entirely dependent on its oars, face to face with the ocean and the hurricane, – a pygmy at the mercy of giants.
Then amid this infinite solitude, his face whitened by the morning light, the man in the bow of the boat raised his head and gazed steadily at the man in the stern as he said, –
“I am the brother of him whom you ordered to be shot.”