A Fight With a Cannon
by Victor Hugo
La Vieuville was suddenly cut short by a cry of
despair, and at 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
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 war 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 thunder-storm, striving to
escape; something like a thunderbolt rumbling above an
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,
altho 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
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 corvet 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
The battery was being ruined. Ten pieces out of
thirty were disabled; the breaches in the side of the vessel were
increasing, and the corvet 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
Boisberthelot said to La Vieuville:
"Do you believe in God, chevalier?"
La Vieuville replied:
"During a tempest?"
"Yes, and in moments like this."
"God alone can save us from this," said
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
slipnoose in the other, and jumped down the hatchway to the
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
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
It seemed to listen.
Suddenly it leaped toward him. The man dodged the
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
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
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
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 Practise 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 mastedon; the pygmy had taken the thunderbolt
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 corvet 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 corvet. 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
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 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
"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
"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 meter, like the blows of an ax
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."