Chateaubriand's memoirs, VIII, 7

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book VIII - Chapter 7
Return to Europe - Shipwreck

London, April to September 1822.

Returning from the wilderness to Philadelphia, as I have already said, and having written on the road, in haste, what I have just related, like La Fontaine’s old man, I failed to find the bills of exchange waiting for me that I had expected; that was the start of the financial difficulties in which I have been submerged throughout my life. Fortune and I took a dislike to each other at first sight. According to Herodotus, certain Indian ants gathered heaps of gold: while Athenaeus claims the sun gave Hercules a golden vessel to carry him to the island of Erytheia, home of the Hesperides: ant though I am, I have not the honour to belong to the great Indian family, and sailor though I am, I have never crossed the sea in other than a wooden barque. It was a boat of this kind that carried me from America back to Europe. The captain allowed me to take passage on credit. On the 10th of December 1791, I embarked, along with several of my countrymen, who, for diverse reasons, were returning as I was to France. The ship’s destination was Le Havre.

A westerly gale caught us at the mouth of the Delaware, and drove us across the Atlantic in seventeen days. Often running under bare poles, we were scarcely able to heave-to. The sun never showed itself. The ship, steered by dead-reckoning, flew before the waves. I crossed an ocean in shadow; to me it had never looked so sad. I myself, even sadder, was returning disappointed from my first foray into life: ‘One cannot build a palace on the sea,’ says the Persian poet Farid ud-Din. I felt a vague heaviness of heart, as at the approach of a great misfortune. Gazing out over the waves, I asked them to prophesy my fate, or wrote, more troubled by their motion than disturbed by their threat.

Far from dropping, the gale increased in strength the nearer we came to Europe, but with a steady pressure; the uniformity of its rage produced a kind of furious calm in the livid sky and leaden sea. The captain unable to measure the sun’s altitude, was uneasy; he climbed into the shrouds, and swept the horizon with a telescope. A look-out was sent to the bowsprit, another to the top of the mainmast. The sea turned choppy, and the waves changed colour, signs that we were approaching land, but what land?

I spent two nights walking the deck, the waves slapping in the darkness, the wind moaning in the rigging, and the sea leaping as it swept to and fro over the deck; all around us was a riot of waters. Wearied by the buffeting, on the third night I went below early. The weather was foul; my hammock rocked and creaked at the impact of the waves, that breaking over the vessel, shook its very fabric. I soon heard crewmen running from one end of the deck to the other, and coils of rope being hurled down: I experienced the motion one feels when a ship begins to tack. The hatch over the betweens-deck ladder was opened, and a terrified voice called for the captain: that voice, in the midst of night and tempest sounded dreadful. I strained my hearing; I thought the sailors were discussing the cast of the coast. I leapt from my hammock; a wave broke into the stern castle, flooding the captain’s cabin, overturning tables, beds, chests and firearms, and rolling them about pell-mell; I gained the deck, half-drowned.

As my head emerged from the hatchway, I was struck by a sublime sight. The ship had tried to put about; but unable to accomplish it, had been embayed by the wind. By the light of the half-moon, which sailed out of the clouds only to plunge into them again, we could see, through the yellow fog, a coast bristling with rocks, on either side of the ship. The sea was swollen with mountainous waves, throughout the channel which had swallowed us; now they would blossom in spume and spray; now they would present an oily, vitreous surface, mottled with black, coppery, or greenish stains, according to the colour of the depths over which they roared. For two or three minutes, the moans of the abyss and those of the wind would be confused; a moment after, we could distinguish the swirling currents, the hissing of the reefs, the noise of the distant surge. From the ship’s hold came sounds that made the hearts of the bravest sailors beat faster. The prow of the vessel cut the dense mass of water with a dreadful roar, and torrents of seething water flowed past the rudder, as at the opening of a sluice. In the midst of this uproar, nothing was as alarming as a dull murmur, like that from a vase filling with water.

Lit by a lantern, and held down by weights, sailing-books, charts and log-books were spread out on a chicken-coop. A squall had extinguished the binnacle lamp. Everyone disagreed about the land. We had entered the Channel, without being aware of it; the ship, staggering under every wave, was drifting between Guernsey and Alderney. Shipwreck seemed inevitable, and the passengers grasped hold of whatever valuables they had in order to save them.

There were French sailors among the crew; one of them, in the absence of a chaplain, intoned that hymn to Our Lady of Saving Goodness, the first thing I learnt as a child; I sang it again in sight of the Brittany coast, almost under my mother’s eyes. The American Protestant sailors joined enthusiastically in the hymn sung by their French Catholic messmates: danger teaches men their weakness and unites them in prayer. Passengers and sailors were all on deck, clinging to the rigging, the planking, the capstan, or the anchor flukes, to avoid being swept away by the sea, or hurled overboard by the rolling of the ship. The captain shouted for; ‘An axe! An axe!’ to cut away the masts; and the rudder, its tiller abandoned, swung from side to side, with a harsh creaking sound.

There was one thing left to try: the lead now registered only four fathoms above a sand bank that crossed the channel; it was possible the flood might carry us over the bank and into deep water: but who had the courage to take the helm and take charge of our common safety? One false turn of the tiller, and we were done for.

One of those men thrown up by the course of events, one of those spontaneous children of peril, appeared: a sailor from New York took the place abandoned by the steersman. I seem to see him still, in shirt and canvas trousers, bare-footed, hair drenched and tangled, grasping the tiller in his strong hands, while he looked back over the stern for the wave which would save or sink us. Here came that wave, the width of the channel, tall and rolling along without breaking, as if one sea were invading another’s domain: great, white birds flew steadily before it like birds of death. The ship touched and held fast, there was complete silence; every face blanched. The swell arrived: at the moment it reached us, the sailor put down the helm; the vessel, about to fall on her side, lifted us over. The lead was heaved: it registered twenty-seven fathoms. A cheer rose to the heavens and we joined in the shout of: ‘Long live, the King!’ God did not hear that prayer for Louis XVI; it benefited us alone.

Clear of the two islands, we were still not out of danger; we could get no higher than the coast at Granville. At last the ebbing tide carried us out and we doubled the cape of La Hague. I experienced no fear during this near shipwreck and felt no joy on being saved. It is better to depart life while young than be evicted by time. Next day, we entered Le Havre. The whole population had turned out to greet us. Our top-masts were shattered, our longboats lost, the quarter-deck razed, and we shipped water with every pitch of the vessel. I climbed down onto the jetty. On the 2nd January 1792, I again trod my native soil which would soon slide from beneath my feet. I brought no Eskimos from the Polar Regions with me, only two savages of an unknown race: Chactas and Atala