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A Fight With A Cannon


La vieuville was suddenly cut short by a cry of despair, and a the same
time a noise was heard wholly unlike any other sound. The cry and sounds
came from within the vessel.

The captain and lieutenant rushed toward the gun-deck but could not get
down. All the gunners were pouring up in dismay.

Something terrible had just happened.

One of the carronades of the battery, a twenty-four pounder, had broken
loose.

This is the most dangerous accident that can possibly take place on
shipboard. Nothing more terrible can happen to a sloop of was in open sea
and under full sail.

A cannon that breaks its moorings suddenly becomes some strange,
supernatural beast. It is a machine transformed into a monster. That short
mass on wheels moves like a billiard-ball, rolls with the rolling of the
ship, plunges with the pitching goes, comes, stops, seems to meditate,
starts on its course again, shoots like an arrow from one end of the
vessel to the other, whirls around, slips away, dodges, rears, bangs,
crashes, kills, exterminates. It is a battering ram capriciously
assaulting a wall. Add to this the fact that the ram is of metal, the wall
of wood.

It is matter set free; one might say, this eternal slave was avenging
itself; it seems as if the total depravity concealed in what we call
inanimate things has escaped, and burst forth all of a sudden; it appears
to lose patience, and to take a strange mysterious revenge; nothing more
relentless than this wrath of the inanimate. This enraged lump leaps like
a panther, it has the clumsiness of an elephant, the nimbleness of a
mouse, the obstinacy of an ox, the uncertainty of the billows, the zigzag
of the lightning, the deafness of the grave. It weighs ten thousand
pounds, and it rebounds like a child's ball. It spins and then abruptly
darts off at right angles.

And what is to be done? How put an end to it? A tempest ceases, a cyclone
passes over, a wind dies down, a broken mast can be replaced, a leak can
be stopped, a fire extinguished, but what will become of this enormous
brute of bronze. How can it be captured? You can reason with a bulldog,
astonish a bull, fascinate a boa, frighten a tiger, tame a lion; but you
have no resource against this monster, a loose cannon. You can not kill
it, it is dead; and at the same time it lives. It lives with a sinister
life which comes to it from the infinite. The deck beneath it gives it
full swing. It is moved by the ship, which is moved by the sea, which is
moved by the wind. This destroyer is a toy. The ship, the waves, the
winds, all play with it, hence its frightful animation. What is to be done
with this apparatus? How fetter this stupendous engine of destruction? How
anticipate its comings and goings, its returns, its stops, its shocks? Any
one of its blows on the side of the ship may stave it in. How foretell its
frightful meanderings? It is dealing with a projectile, which alters its
mind, which seems to have ideas, and changes its direction every instant.
How check the course of what must be avoided? The horrible cannon
struggles, advances, backs, strikes right, strikes left, retreats, passes
by, disconcerts expectation, grinds up obstacles, crushes men like flies.
All the terror of the situation is in the fluctuations of the flooring.
How fight an inclined plane subject to caprices? The ship has, so to
speak, in its belly, an imprisoned thunderstorm, striving to escape;
something like a thunderbolt rumbling above an earthquake.

In an instant the whole crew was on foot. It was the fault of the gun
captain, who had neglected to fasten the screw-nut of the mooring-chain,
and had insecurely clogged the four wheels of the gun carriage; this gave
play to the sole and the framework, separated the two platforms, and the
breeching. The tackle had given way, so that the cannon was no longer firm
on its carriage. The stationary breeching, which prevents recoil, was not
in use at this time. A heavy sea struck the port, the carronade,
insecurely fastened, had recoiled and broken its chain, and began its
terrible course over the deck.

To form an idea of this strange sliding, let one imagine a drop of water
running over a glass.

At the moment when the fastenings gave way, the gunners were in the
battery, some in groups, others scattered about, busied with the customary
work among sailors getting ready for a signal for action. The carronade,
hurled forward by the pitching of the vessel, made a gap in this crowd of
men and crushed four at the first blow; then sliding back and shot out
again as the ship rolled, it cut in two a fifth unfortunate, and knocked a
piece of the battery against the larboard side with such force as to
unship it. This caused the cry of distress just heard. All the men rushed
to the companion-way. The gun-deck was vacated in a twinkling.

The enormous gun was left alone. It was given up to itself. It was its
own master and master of the ship. It could do what it pleased. This whole
crew, accustomed to laugh in time of battle, now trembled. To describe the
terror is impossible.

Captain Boisberthelot and Lieutenant la Vieuville, although both dauntless
men, stopped at the head of the companion-way and, dumb, pale, and
hesitating, looked down on the deck below. Some one elbowed past and went
down.

It was their passenger, the peasant, the man of whom they had just been
speaking a moment before.

Reaching the foot of the companion-way, he stopped.

The cannon was rushing back and forth on the deck. One might have supposed
it to be the living chariot of the Apocalypse. The marine lantern swinging
overhead added a dizzy shifting of light and shade to the picture. The
form of the cannon disappeared in the violence of its course, and it
looked now black in the light, now mysteriously white in the darkness.

It went on in its destructive work. It had already shattered four other
guns and made two gaps in the side of the ship, fortunately above the
water-line, but where the water would come in, in case of heavy weather.
It rushed frantically against the framework; the strong timbers withstood
the shock; the curved shape of the wood gave them great power of
resistance; but they creaked beneath the blows of this huge club, beating
on all sides at once, with a strange sort of ubiquity. The percussions of
a grain of shot shaken in a bottle are not swifter or more senseless. The
four wheels passed back and forth over the dead men, cutting them, carving
them, slashing them, till the five corpses were a score of stumps rolling
across the deck; the heads of the dead men seemed to cry out; streams of
blood curled over the deck with the rolling of the vessel; the planks,
damaged in several places, began to gape open. The whole ship was filled
with the horrid noise and confusion.

The captain promptly recovered his presence of mind and ordered everything
that could check and impede the cannon's mad course to be thrown through
the hatchway down on the gun-deck--mattresses, hammocks, spare sails,
rolls of cordage, bags belonging to the crew, and bales of counterfeit
assignats, of which the corvette carried a large quantity--a
characteristic piece of English villainy regarded as legitimate warfare.

But what could these rags do? As nobody dared to go below to dispose of
them properly, they were reduced to lint in a few minutes.

There was just sea enough to make the accident as bad as possible. A
tempest would have been desirable, for it might have upset the cannon, and
with its four wheels once in the air there would be some hope of getting
it under control. Meanwhile, the havoc increased.

There were splits and fractures in the masts, which are set into the
framework of the keel and rise above the decks of ships like great, round
pillars. The convulsive blows of the cannon had cracked the mizzenmast,
and had cut into the mainmast.

The battery was being ruined. Ten pieces out of thirty were disabled; the
breaches in the side of the vessel were increasing, and the corvette was
beginning to leak.

The old passenger having gone down to the gun-deck, stood like a man of
stone at the foot of the steps. He cast a stern glance over this scene of
devastation. He did not move. It seemed impossible to take a step forward.
Every movement of the loose carronade threatened the ship's destruction. A
few moments more and shipwreck would be inevitable.

They must perish or put a speedy end to the disaster; some course must be
decided on; but what? What an opponent was this carronade! Something must
be done to stop this terrible madness--to capture this lightning--to
overthrow this thunderbolt.

Boisberthelot said to La Vieuville:

"Do you believe in God, chevalier?"

La Vieuville replied:

"Yes--no. Sometimes."

"During a tempest?"

"Yes, and in moments like this."

"God alone can save us from this," said Boisberthelot.

Everybody was silent, letting the carronade continue its horrible din.

Outside, the waves beating against the ship responded with their blows to
the shocks of the cannon. It was like two hammers alternating.

Suddenly, in the midst of this inaccessible ring, where the escaped cannon
was leaping, a man was seen to appear, with an iron bar in his hand. He
was the author of the catastrophe, the captain of the gun, guilty of
criminal carelessness, and the cause of the accident, the master of the
carronade. Having done the mischief, he was anxious to repair it. He had
seized the iron bar in one hand, a tiller-rope with a slip-noose in the
other, and jumped, down the hatchway to the gun-deck.

Then began an awful sight; a Titanic scene; the contest between gun and
gunner; the battle of matter and intelligence; the duel between man and
the inanimate.

The man stationed himself in a corner, and, with bar and rope in his two
hands, he leaned against one of the riders, braced himself on his legs,
which seemed two steel posts; and livid, calm, tragic, as if rooted to the
deck, he waited.

He waited for the cannon to pass by him.

The gunner knew his gun, and it seemed to him as if the gun ought to know
him. He had lived long with it. How many times he had thrust his hand into
its mouth! It was his own familiar monster. He began to speak to it as if
it were his dog.

"Come!" he said. Perhaps he loved it.

He seemed to wish it to come to him.

But to come to him was to come upon him. And then he would be lost. How
could he avoid being crushed? That was the question. All looked on in
terror.

Not a breast breathed freely, unless perhaps that of the old man, who was
alone in the battery with the two contestants, a stern witness.

He might be crushed himself by the cannon. He did not stir.

Beneath them the sea blindly directed the contest.

At the moment when the gunner, accepting this frightful hand-to-hand
conflict, challenged the cannon, some chance rocking of the sea caused the
carronade to remain for an instant motionless and as if stupefied. "Come,
now!" said the man.

It seemed to listen.

Suddenly it leaped toward him. The man dodged the blow.

The battle began. Battle unprecedented. Frailty struggling against the
invulnerable. The gladiator of flesh attacking the beast of brass. On one
side, brute force; on the other, a human soul.

All this was taking place in semi-darkness. It was like the shadowy vision
of a miracle.

A soul--strange to say, one would have thought the cannon also had a soul;
but a soul full of hatred and rage. This sightless thing seemed to have
eyes. The monster appeared to lie in wait for the man. One would have at
least believed that there was craft in this mass. It also chose its time.
It was a strange, gigantic insect of metal, having or seeming to have the
will of a demon. For a moment this colossal locust would beat against the
low ceiling overhead, then it would come down on its four wheels like a
tiger on its four paws, and begin to run at the man. He, supple, nimble,
expert, writhed away like an adder from all these lightning movements. He
avoided a collision, but the blows which he parried fell against the,
vessel, and continued their work of destruction.

An end of broken chain was left hanging to the carronade. This chain had
in some strange way become twisted about the screw of the cascabel. One
end of the chain was fastened to the gun-carriage. The other, left loose,
whirled desperately about the cannon, making all its blows more dangerous.

The screw held it in a firm grip, adding a thong to a battering-ram,
making a terrible whirlwind around the cannon, an iron lash in a brazen
hand. This chain complicated the contest.

However, the man went on fighting. Occasionally, it was the man who
attacked the cannon; he would creep along the side of the vessel, bar and
rope in hand; and the cannon, as if it understood, and as though
suspecting some snare, would flee away. The man, bent on victory, pursued
it.

Such things can not long continue. The cannon seemed to say to itself, all
of a sudden, "Come, now! Make an end of it!" and it stopped. One felt that
the crisis was at hand. The cannon, as if in suspense, seemed to have, or
really had--for to all it was a living being--a ferocious malice prepense.
It made a sudden, quick dash at the gunner. The gunner sprang out of the
way, let it pass by, and cried out to it with a laugh, "Try it again!" The
cannon, as if enraged, smashed a carronade on the port side; then, again
seized by the invisible sling which controlled it, it was hurled to the
starboard side at the man, who made his escape. Three carronades gave way
under the blows of the cannon; then, as if blind and not knowing what more
to do, it turned its back on the man, rolled from stern to bow, injured
the stern and made a breach in the planking of the prow. The man took
refuge at the foot of the steps, not far from the old man who was looking
on. The gunner held his iron bar in rest. The cannon seemed to notice it,
and without taking the trouble to turn around, slid back on the man, swift
as the blow of an axe. The man, driven against the side of the ship, was
lost. The whole crew cried out with horror.

But the old passenger, till this moment motionless, darted forth more
quickly than any of this wildly swift rapidity. He seized a package of
counterfeit assignats, and, at the risk of being crushed, succeeded in
throwing it between the wheels of the carronade. This decisive and
perilous movement could not have been made with more exactness and
precision by a man trained in all the exercises described in Durosel's
"Manual of Gun Practice at Sea."

The package had the effect of a clog. A pebble may stop a log, the branch
of a tree turn aside an avalanche. The carronade stumbled. The gunner,
taking advantage of this critical opportunity, plunged his iron bar
between the spokes of one of the hind wheels. The cannon stopped. It
leaned forward. The man, using the bar as a lever, held it in equilibrium.
The heavy mass was overthrown, with the crash of a falling bell, and the
man, rushing with all his might, dripping with perspiration, passed the
slipnoose around the bronze neck of the subdued monster.

It was ended. The man had conquered. The ant had control over the
mastodon; the pygmy had taken the thunderbolt prisoner.

The mariners and sailors clapped their hands.

The whole crew rushed forward with cables and chains, and in an instant
the cannon was secured.

The gunner saluted the passenger.

"Sir," he said, "you have saved my life."

The old man had resumed his impassive attitude, and made no reply.

The man had conquered, but the cannon might be said to have conquered as
well. Immediate shipwreck had been avoided, but the corvette was not
saved. The damage to the vessel seemed beyond repair. There were five
breaches in her sides, one, very large, in the bow; twenty of the thirty
carronades lay useless in their frames. The one which had just been
captured and chained again was disabled; the screw of the cascabel was
sprung, and consequently leveling the gun made impossible. The battery was
reduced to nine pieces. The ship was leaking. It was necessary to repair
the damages at once, and to work the pumps.

The gun-deck, now that one could look over it, was frightful to behold.
The inside of an infuriated elephant's cage would not be more completely
demolished.

However great might be the necessity of escaping observation, the
necessity of immediate safety was still more imperative to the corvette.
They had been obliged to light up the deck with lanterns hung here and
there on the sides.

However, all the while this tragic play was going on, the crew were
absorbed by a question of life and death, and they were wholly ignorant of
what was taking place outside the vessel. The fog had grown thicker; the
weather had changed; the wind had worked its pleasure with the ship; they
were out of their course, with Jersey and Guernsey close at hand, further
to the south than they ought to have been, and in the midst of a heavy
sea. Great billows kissed the gaping wounds of the vessel--kisses full of
danger. The rocking of the sea threatened destruction. The breeze had
become a gale. A squall, a tempest, perhaps, was brewing. It was
impossible to see four waves ahead.

While the crew were hastily repairing the damages to the gun-deck,
stopping the leaks, and putting in place the guns which had been uninjured
in the disaster, the old passenger had gone on deck again.

He stood with his back against the mainmast.

He had not noticed a proceeding which had taken place on the vessel. The
Chevalier de la Vieuville had drawn up the marines in line on both sides
of the mainmast, and at the sound of the boatswain's whistle the sailors
formed in line, standing on the yards.

The Count de Boisberthelot approached the passenger.

Behind the captain walked a man, haggard, out of breath, his dress
disordered, but still with a look of satisfaction on his face.

It was the gunner who had just shown himself so skilful in subduing
monsters, and who had gained the mastery over the cannon.

The count gave the military salute to the old man in peasant's dress, and
said to him:

"General, there is the man."

The gunner remained standing, with downcast eyes, in military attitude.

The Count de Boisberthelot continued:

"General, in consideration of what this man has done, do you not think
there is something due him from his commander?"

"I think so," said the old man.

"Please give your orders," replied Boisberthelot.

"It is for you to give them, you are the captain."

"But you are the general," replied Boisberthelot.

The old man looked at the gunner.

"Come forward," he said.

The gunner approached.

The old man turned toward the Count de Boisberthelot, took off the cross
of Saint-Louis from the captain's coat and fastened it on the gunner's
jacket.

"Hurrah!" cried the sailors.

The mariners presented arms.

And the old passenger, pointing to the dazzled gunner, added:

"Now, have this man shot."

Dismay succeeded the cheering.

Then in the midst of the death-like stillness, the old man raised his
voice and said:

"Carelessness has compromised this vessel. At this very hour it is perhaps
lost. To be at sea is to be in front of the enemy. A ship making a voyage
is an army waging war. The tempest is concealed, but it is at hand. The
whole sea is an ambuscade. Death is the penalty of any misdemeanor
committed in the face of the enemy. No fault is reparable. Courage should
be rewarded, and negligence punished."

These words fell one after another, slowly, solemnly, in a sort of
inexorable metre, like the blows of an axe upon an oak.

And the man, looking at the soldiers, added:

"Let it be done."

The man on whose jacket hung the shining cross of Saint-Louis bowed his
head.

At a signal from Count de Boisberthelot, two sailors went below and came
back bringing the hammock-shroud; the chaplain, who since they sailed had
been at prayer in the officers' quarters, accompanied the two sailors; a
sergeant detached twelve marines from the line and arranged them in two
files, six by six; the gunner, without uttering a word, placed himself
between the two files. The chaplain, crucifix in hand, advanced and stood
beside him. "March," said the sergeant. The platoon marched with slow
steps to the bow of the vessel. The two sailors, carrying the shroud,
followed. A gloomy silence fell over the vessel. A hurricane howled in the
distance.

A few moments later, a light flashed, a report sounded through the
darkness, then all was still, and the sound of a body falling into the sea
was heard.

The old passenger, still leaning against the mainmast, had crossed his
arms, and was buried in thought.

Boisberthelot pointed to him with the forefinger of his left hand, and
said to La Vieuville in a low voice:

"La Vendée has a head."


THE END.

Victor Hugo