Mare Nostrum (Our Sea)
Vicente Blasco Ibanez
Part 9 out of 9
The _Mare Nostrum_ made another trip from Marseilles to Salonica.
Before sailing, Ferragut hunted vainly through the Paris periodicals
for fresh news of Freya. For some days past, the attention of the
public had been so distracted by various other events that for the time
being the spy was forgotten.
On arriving at Salonica, he made discreet inquiries among his military
and marine friends in the harbor cafes. Hardly any one had ever heard
the name of Freya Talberg. Those who had read it in the newspapers
merely replied with indifference.
"I know who she is: she is a spy who was an actress,--a woman with a
certain _chic_. I think that they've shot her.... I don't know
certainly, but they ought to have shot her."
They had more important things to think about. A spy!... On all sides
they were discovering the intrigues of German espionage. They had to
shoot a great many.... And immediately they forgot this affair in order
to speak of the difficulties of the war that were threatening them and
When Ferragut returned to Marseilles two months afterwards, he was
still ignorant as to whether his former mistress was yet among the
The first evening that he met his old comrade, the captain, in the cafe
of the _Cannebiere_, he skillfully guided the conversation around until
he could bring out naturally the question in the back of his mind:
"What was the fate of that Freya Talberg that there was so much talk
about in the newspapers before I went to Salonica?..."
The Marseillaise had to make an effort to recall her.
"Ah, yes!... The _boche_ spy," he said after a long pause. "They shot
her some weeks ago. The papers said little of her death,--just a few
lines. Such people don't deserve any more...."
Ferragut's friend had two sons in the army; a nephew had died in the
trenches, another, a mate aboard a transport, had just perished in a
torpedo attack. The old man was passing many nights without sleeping
thinking of his sons battling at the front. And this uneasiness gave a
hard and ferocious tone to his patriotic enthusiasm.
"It's a good thing she is dead.... She was a woman, and shooting a
woman is a painful thing. It is always repugnant to be obliged to treat
them like men.... But according to what they tell me, this individual
with her spy-information brought about the torpedoing of sixteen
vessels.... Ah, the wicked beast!..."
And he said no more, changing the subject. Every one evinced the same
revulsion on recalling the spy.
Ferragut eventually shared the same sentiments, his brain having
divested itself of the contradictory duality which had attended all the
critical moments of his existence. Remembering only her crimes, he
hated Freya. As a man of the sea, he recalled his nameless
fellow-sailors killed by torpedoes. This woman had indirectly prepared
the ground for many assassinations.... And at the same time he recalled
another image of her as the mistress who knew so well how to keep him
spellbound by her artifices in the old palace of Naples, making that
voluptuous prison her best souvenir.
"Let's think no more about her," he said to himself energetically. "She
has died.... She does not exist."
But not even after her death did she leave him in peace. Remembrance of
her soon came surging back, binding her to him with a tragic interest.
The very evening that he was talking with his friend in the cafe of the
_Cannebiere_, he went to the post office to get the mail which had been
forwarded to him at Marseilles. They gave him a great package of
letters and newspapers. By the handwriting on the envelopes, and the
postmarks on the postals, he tried to make out who was writing to
him:--one letter only from his wife, evidently but a single sheet,
judging from its slender flexibility, three very bulky ones from
Toni,--a species of diary in which he continued relating his purchases,
his crops, his hope of seeing the captain,--all this mixed in with
abundant news about the war, and the wretched condition of the people.
There were, besides, various sheets from the banking establishments at
Barcelona, rendering Ferragut an account of the investment of his
At the foot of the staircase he completed his examination of the
outside of his correspondence. It was just what was always awaiting him
on his return from his voyages.
He was about to put the package in his pocket and continue on his way
when his attention was attracted by a voluminous envelope in an unknown
handwriting, registered in Paris....
Curiosity made him open it immediately and he found in his hand a
regular sheaf of loose leaves, a long account that far exceeded the
limits of a letter. He looked at the engraved letter-head and then at
the signature. The writer was a lawyer in Paris, and Ferragut suspected
by the luxurious paper and address that he must be a celebrated
_maitre_. He even recalled having run across his name somewhere in the
Then and there he began reading the first page, anxious to know why
this distinguished personage had written to him. But he had scarcely
run his eyes over some of the sheets before he stopped his reading. He
had come across the name of Freya Talberg. This lawyer had been her
defender before the Council of War.
Ferragut hastened to put the letter in a safe place, and curb his
impatience. He felt that necessity for silent isolation and absolute
solitude which a reader, anxious to delve into a new book, experiences.
This bundle of papers doubtless contained for him the most interesting
Returning to his ship, the road seemed to him far longer than at other
times. He longed to lock himself in his stateroom, away from all
curiosity as though he were about to perform some mysterious rite.
Freya was not in existence. She had disappeared from the world in the
infamous manner in which criminals disappear,--doubly condemned since
even her memory was hateful to the people; and Ferragut within a few
moments was going to resurrect her like a ghost, in the floating house
that she had visited on two occasions. He now might know the last hours
of her existence wrapped in disreputable mystery; he could violate the
will of her judges who had condemned her to lose her life and after
death to perish from every one's memory. With eager avidity he seated
himself before his cabin table, arranging the contents of the envelope
in order;--more than twelve sheets, written on both sides, and several
newspaper clippings. In these clippings he saw portraits of Freya, a
hard and blurred likeness which he could recognize only by her name
underneath. He also beheld the portrait of her defender,--an old lawyer
of fastidious aspect with white locks carefully combed, and sharp eyes.
From the very first lines, Ferragut suspected that the _maitre_ could
neither write nor speak except in the most approved literary form. His
letter was a moderated and correct account in which all emotion,
however keen it might have been, was discreetly controlled so as not to
disorganize the sweep of a majestic style.
He began by explaining that his professional duty had made him decide
to defend this spy. She was in need of a lawyer; she was a foreigner;
public opinion, influenced by the exaggerated accounts given by the
newspapers of her beauty and her jewels, was ferociously inimical,
demanding her immediate punishment. Nobody had wished to take charge of
her defense. And for this very reason he had accepted it without fear
Ferragut believed that this sacrifice might be attributed to the
impulse of a gallant old beau, attracted to Freya because of her
beauty. Besides, this criminal process represented a typical Parisian
incident and might give a certain romantic notoriety to the one
intervening in its developments.
A few paragraphs further on the sailor became convinced that the
_maitre_ had fallen in love with his client. This woman even in her
dying moments shed around her most amazing powers of seduction. The
professional success anticipated by the lawyer disappeared on his first
questioning. Defense of Freya would be impossible. When he questioned
her regarding the events of her former life, she either wept for every
answer, or else remained silent, immovable, with as unconcerned a
glance as though the fate of some other woman were at stake.
The military judges did not need her confessions: they knew, detail for
detail, all her existence during the war and in the last years of
peace. Never had the police agents abroad worked with such rapidity and
success. Mysterious and omnipotent good fortune had crowned every
investigation. They knew all of Freya's doings. They had even received
from a secret agent exact data regarding her personality, the number by
which she was represented in the director's office at Berlin, the
salary that she was paid, as well as her reports during the past month.
Documents written by her personally, of an irrefutable culpability, had
poured in without any one's knowing from what point they were sent or
Every time that the judge had placed before Freya's eyes one of these
proofs, she looked at her lawyer in desperation.
"It is _they_!" she moaned. "They who desire my death!"
Her defender was of the same opinion. The police had learned of her
presence in France by a letter that her superiors in Barcelona had
sent, stupidly disguised, written with regard to a code whose mystery
had been discovered some time before by the French counter-spies. To
the _maitre_ it was only too evident that some mysterious power had
wished to rid itself of this woman, dispatching her to an enemy's
country, intending to send her to death.
Ulysses suspected in the defender a state of mind similar to his
own,--the same duality that had tormented him in all his relations with
"I, sir," wrote the lawyer, "have suffered much. One of my sons, an
officer, died in the battle of the Aisne. Others very close to me,
nephews and pupils, died in Verdun and with the expeditionary army of
As a Frenchman, he had felt an irresistible aversion upon becoming
convinced that Freya was a spy who had done great harm to his
country.... Then as a man, he had commiserated her inconsequence, her
contradictory and frivolous character, amounting almost to a crime, and
her egoism as a beautiful woman and lover of luxury that had made her
willing to suffer moral vileness in exchange for creature comfort.
Her story had attracted the lawyer with the palpitating interest of a
novel of adventure. Commiseration had finally developed the vehemence
of a love affair. Besides, the knowledge that the exploiters of this
woman were the ones that had denounced her, had aroused his knightly
enthusiasm in the defense of her indefensible cause.
Appearance before the Council of War had proved painful and dramatic.
Freya, who until then, had seemed brutalized by the regime of the
prison, roused herself upon being confronted by a dozen grave and
Her first moves were those of every handsome and coquettish female. She
knew perfectly well her physical influence. These soldiers transformed
into judges were recalling those other flirts that she had seen at the
teas and grand balls at the hotels.... What Frenchman can resist
She had smiled, she had replied to the first questions with graceful
modesty, fixing her wickedly guileless eyes upon the officials seated
behind the presidential table, and on those other men in blue uniform,
charged with accusing her or reading the documents of her prosecution.
But something cold and hostile existed in the atmosphere and paralyzed
her smiles, leaving her words without echo and making ineffectual the
splendors of her eyes. All foreheads were bowed under the weight of
severe thought: all the men in that instant appeared thirty years
older. They simply would not see such a one as she was, however much
effort she might make. They had left their admiration and their desires
on the other side of the door.
Freya perceived that she had ceased to be a woman and was no more than
one accused. Another of her sex, an irresistible rival, was now
engrossing everything, binding these men with a profound and austere
love. Instinct made her regard fixedly the white matron of grave
countenance whose vigorous bust appeared over the head of the
president. She was Patriotism, Justice, the Republic, contemplating
with her vague and hollow eyes this female of flesh and blood who was
beginning to tremble upon realizing her situation.
"I do not want to die!" cried Freya, suddenly abandoning her seductions
and becoming a poor, wretched creature crazed by fear. "I am innocent."
She lied with the absurd and barefaced illogicalness of one finding
herself in danger of death. It was necessary to re-read her first
declarations, which she was now denying, of presenting afresh the
material proofs whose existence she did not wish to admit, of making
her entire past file by supported by that irrefutable data of anonymous
"It is _they_ who have done it all!... They have mis-represented me!...
Since they have brought about my ruin, I am going to tell what I know."
In his account the lawyer passed lightly over what had occurred in the
Council of War. Professional secrecy and patriotic interest prevented
greater explicitness. The session had lasted from morning till night,
Freya revealing to her judges all that she knew.... Then her defender
had spoken for five hours, trying to establish a species of interchange
in the application of the penalty. The guilt of this woman was
undeniable and the wickedness that she had carried through was very
great, but they should spare her life in exchange for her important
confessions.... Besides, the inconsequence of her character should be
taken into consideration ... also, that vengeance of which the enemy
had made her the victim....
With Freya he had waited, until well on into the night, the decision of
the tribunal. The defendant appeared animated by hope. She had become a
woman again: she was talking placidly with him and smiling at the
gendarmes and eulogizing the army.... "Frenchmen, gentlemen, were
incapable of killing a woman...."
The _maitre_ was not surprised at the sad and furrowed brows of the
officers as they came out from their deliberations. They appeared
discontented with their recent vote, and yet at the same time showed
the serenity of a tranquil countenance. They were soldiers who had just
fulfilled their full duty, suppressing every purely masculine instinct.
The one deputed to read the sentence swelled his voice with a
fictitious energy.... "_Death!_..." After a long enumeration of crimes
Freya was condemned to be shot:--she had given information to the enemy
that represented the loss of thousands of men and boats, torpedoed
because of her reports, on which had perished defenseless families.
The spy nodded her head upon listening to her own acts, for the first
time appreciating their enormity and recognizing the justice of their
tremendous punishment. But at the same time she was relying upon a
good-natured reprieve in exchange for all which she had revealed, upon
a gallant clemency ... because she was she.
As the fatal word sounded, she uttered a cry, became ashy pale, and
leaned upon the lawyer for support.
"I do not want to die!... I ought not to die!... I am innocent."
She continued shrieking her innocence, without giving any other proof
of it than the desperate instinct of self-preservation. With the
credulity of one who wishes to save herself, she accepted all the
problematical consolations of her defender. There remained the last
recourse of appealing to the mercy of the President of the Republic:
perhaps he might pardon her.... And she signed this appeal with sudden
The lawyer managed to delay the fulfillment of the sentence for two
months, visiting many of his colleagues who were political personages.
The desire of saving the life of his client was tormenting him as an
obsession. He had devoted all his activity and his personal influence
to this affair.
"In love!... In love, as you were!" said, with scornful accent, the
voice of Ferragut's prudent counselor.
The periodicals were protesting against this delay in the execution of
the sentence. The name of Freya Talberg was beginning to be heard in
conversation as an argument against the weakness of the government. The
women were the most implacable.
One day, in the Palace of Justice, the _maitre_ Became convinced of
this general animosity that was pushing the defendant toward the day of
execution. The woman who had charge of the gowns, a verbose old wife,
on a familiar footing with the illustrious lawyers, had rudely made
known their opinions.
"I wonder when they're going to execute that spy!... If she were a poor
woman with children and needed to earn their bread, they would have
shot her long ago.... But she is an elegant _cocotte_ and with jewels.
Perhaps she has bewitched some of the cabinet ministers. We are going
to see her on the street now almost any day.... And my son who died at
The prisoner, as though divining this public indignation, began to
consider her death very near losing, little by little, that love of
existence which had made her burst forth into lies and delirious
protests. In vain the _maitre_ held out hopes of pardon.
"It is useless: I must die.... I ought to be shot.... I have done so
much mischief.... It horrifies even me to remember all the crimes named
in that sentence.... And there are still others that they don't
know!... Solitude has made me see myself just as I am. What shame!... I
ought to perish; I have ruined everything.... What is there left for me
to do in the world?..."
"And it was then, my dear sir," continued the attorney, in his letter,
"that she spoke to me of you, of the way in which you had known each
other, of the harm which she had done you unconsciously."
Convinced of the uselessness of his efforts to save her life, the
_maitre_ had solicited one last favor of the tribunal. Freya was very
desirous that he should accompany her at the moment of her execution,
as this would maintain her serenity. Those in the government had
promised their colleague in the forum, to send opportune notice that he
might be present at the fulfillment of the sentence.
It was at three o'clock in the morning and while he was in the deepest
sleep that some messengers, sent by the prefecture of police, awakened
him. The execution was to take place at daybreak: this was a decision
reached at the last moment in order that the reporters might learn too
late of the event.
An automobile took him with the messengers to the prison of St. Lazare,
across silent and shadowy Paris. Only a few hooded street lamps were
cutting with their sickly light the darkness of the streets. In the
prison they were joined by other functionaries and many chiefs and
officers who represented military justice. The condemned woman was
still sleeping in her cell, ignorant of what was about to occur.
Those charged with awakening her, gloomy and timid, were marching in
line through the corridors of the jail, bumping into one another in
their nervous precipitation.
The door was opened. Under the regulation light Freya was on her bed,
with closed eyes. Upon opening them and finding herself surrounded by
men, her face was convulsed with terror.
"Courage, Freya!" said the prison warden. "The appeal for pardon has
"Courage, my daughter," added the priest of the establishment, starting
the beginning of a discourse.
Her terror, due to the rude surprise of awakening with the brain still
paralyzed, lasted but a few seconds. Upon collecting her thoughts,
serenity returned to her face.
"I must die?" she asked. "The hour has already come?... Very well,
then: let them shoot me. Here I am."
Some of the men turned their heads, and so averted their glance.... She
had to get out of the bed in the presence of the two watchmen. This
precaution was so that she might not attempt to take her life. She even
asked the lawyer to remain in the cell as though in this way she wished
to lessen the annoyance of dressing herself before strangers.
Upon reaching this passage in his letter, Ferragut realized the pity
and admiration of the _maitre_ who had seen her preparing the last
toilet of her life.
"Adorable creature! So beautiful!... She was born for love and luxury,
yet was going to die, torn by bullets like a rude soldier...."
The precautions adopted by her coquetry appeared to him admirable. She
wanted to die as she had lived, placing on her person the best that she
possessed. Therefore, suspecting the nearness of her execution, she had
a few days before reclaimed the jewels and the gown that she was
wearing when arrest prevented her returning to Brest.
Her defender described her "with a dress of pearl gray silk, bronze
stockings and low shoes, a great-coat of furs, and a large hat with
plumes. Besides, the necklace of pearls was on her bosom, emeralds in
her ears and all her diamonds on her fingers."
A sad smile curled her lips upon trying to look at herself in the
window panes, still black with the darkness of night, which served her
as a mirror.
"I die in my uniform like a soldier," she said to her lawyer.
Then in the ante-chamber of the prison, under the crude artificial
light, this plumed woman, covered with jewels, her clothing exhaling a
subtle perfume, memory of happier days, turned without any
embarrassment toward the men clad in black and in blue uniforms.
Two religious sisters who accompanied her appeared more moved than she.
They were trying to exhort her and at the same time were struggling to
keep back the tears.... The priest was no less touched. He had attended
other criminals, but they were men.... To assist to a decent death a
beautiful perfumed woman scintillating with precious stones, as though
she were going to ride in an automobile to a fashionable tea!...
The week before she had been in doubt as to whether to receive a
Calvinist pastor or a Catholic priest. In her cosmopolitan life of
uncertain nationality she had never taken the time to decide about any
religion for herself. Finally she had selected the latter on account of
its being more simple intellectually, more liberal and approachable....
Several times when the priest was trying to console her, she
interrupted him as though she were the one charged with inspiring
"To die is not so terrible as it appears when seen afar off!... I feel
ashamed when I think of the fears that I have passed through, of the
tears that I have shed.... It turns out to be much more simple than I
had believed.... We all have to die!"
They read to her the sentence refusing the appeal for pardon. Then they
offered her a pen that she might sign it.
A colonel told her that there were still a few moments at her
disposition in which to write to her family, her friends, or to make
her last will....
"To whom shall I write?" said Freya. "I haven't a single friend in the
"Then it was," continued the lawyer, "that she took the pen as if a
recollection had occurred to her, and traced some few lines.... Then
she tore up the paper and came toward me. She was thinking of you,
Captain: her last letter was for you and she left it unfinished,
fearing that it might never reach your hands. Besides, she wasn't equal
to writing; her pulse was nervous: she preferred to talk.... She asked
me to send you a long, very long letter, telling about her last
moments, and I had to swear to her that I would carry out her request."
From that time on the _maitre_ had seen things badly. Emotion was
perturbing his sensibilities, but there yet lived in his mind Freya's
last words on coming out of the jail.
"I am not a German," she said repeatedly to the men in uniform. "I am
For her the least important thing was to die. She was only worried for
fear they might believe her of that odious nationality.
The attorney found himself in an automobile with many men whom he
scarcely knew. Other vehicles were before and behind theirs. In one of
them was Freya with the nuns and the priest.
A faint streak was whitening the sky, marking the points of the roofs.
Below, in the deep blackness of the streets, the renewed life of
daybreak was slowly beginning. The first laborers going to their work
with their hands in their pockets, and the market women returning from
market pushing their carts, turned their heads, following with interest
this procession of swift vehicles almost all of them with men in the
box seat beside the conductor. To the working-folk, this was perhaps a
morning wedding.... Perhaps these were gay people coming from a
nocturnal fiesta.... Several times the cortege slackened its speed,
blocked by a row of heavy carts with mountains of garden-stuff.
The _maitre_, in spite of his emotions, recognized the road that the
automobile was following. In the _place de la Nation_ he caught
glimpses of the sculptured group, _le Triomphe de la Republique_,
piercing the dripping mistiness of dawn; then the grating of the
enclosure; then the long _cours de Vincennes_ and its historic
They went still further on until they reached the field of execution.
Upon getting down from the automobile, he saw an extensive plain
covered with grass on which were drawn up two companies of soldiers.
Other vehicles had arrived before them. Freya detached herself from the
group of persons descending from the automobile, leaving behind the
nuns and the officers who were escorting her.
The light of daybreak, blue and cold as the reflection of steel, threw
into relief the two masses of armed men who formed a narrow passageway.
At the end of this impromptu lane there was a post planted in the
ground and beyond that, a dark van drawn by two horses, and various men
clad in black.
The woman's approach was signalized by a voice of command, and
immediately sounded the drums and trumpets at the head of the two
formations. There was a rattle of guns; the soldiers were presenting
arms. The martial instruments delivered the triumphal salute due to the
presence of the head of a state, a general, a flag-raising.... It was
an homage to Justice, majestic and severe,--a hymn to Patriotism,
implacable in defense.
Recalling the white woman with deep bosom and hollow eyes that she had
seen over the head of the President of the Council, the spy for a
moment recognized that all this was in her honor; but afterwards, she
wished to believe that the triumphal reception was for herself.... She
was marching between guns, accompanied by bugle-call and drum-beat,
like a queen.
To her defender, she appeared taller than ever. She seemed to have
grown a palm higher because of her intense, emotional uplift. Her
theatrical soul was moved just as when she used to present herself on
the boards to receive applause. All these men had arisen in the middle
of the night and were there on her account: the horns and the drums
were sounding in order to greet her. Discipline was keeping their
countenances grave and cold but she had the certain consciousness that
they were finding her beautiful, and that back of many immovable eyes,
desire was asserting itself.
If there remained a shred of fear of losing her life, it disappeared
under the caress of this false glory.... To die contemplated by so many
valiant men who were rendering her the greatest of honors! She felt the
necessity of being adorable, of falling into an artistic pose as though
she were on a stage.
She was passing between the two masses of men, head erect, stepping
firmly with the high-spirited tread of a goddess-huntress, sometimes
casting a glance on some of the hundreds of eyes fixed upon her. The
illusion of her triumph made her advance as upright and serene as
though passing the troops in review.
"Good heavens!... What poise!" exclaimed a young officer behind the
lawyer, admiring Freya's serenity.
Upon approaching the post, some one read a brief document, a summary of
the sentence,--three lines to apprise her that justice was about to be
The only thing about this rapid notification that annoyed her was the
fear that the trumpets and drums would cease. But they continued
sounding and their martial music was as comforting to her ears as a
very intoxicating wine slipping through her lips.
A platoon of corporals and soldiers (twelve rifles) detached themselves
from the double military mass. A sub-officer with a blond beard, small,
delicate, was commanding it with an unsheathed sword. Freya
contemplated him a moment, finding him interesting, while the young man
avoided her glance.
With the gesture of a tragedy queen, she repelled the white
handkerchief that they were offering her to bandage her eyes. She did
not need it. The nuns took leave of her forever. As soon as she was
alone, two gendarmes commenced to tie her with the back supported
against the post.
"They say," her defender continued writing, "that one of her hands
waved to me for the last time just before it was fastened down by the
rope.... I saw nothing. I could not see!... It was too much for me!..."
The rest of the execution he knew only by hearsay. The trumpets and
drums continued sounding. Freya, bound and intensely pale, smiled as
though she were drunk. The early morning breeze waved the plumes of her
When the twelve fusileers advanced placing themselves in a horizontal
line eight yards distant, all of them aiming toward her heart, she
appeared to wake up. She shrieked, her eyes abnormally dilated by the
horror of the reality that so soon was to take place. Her cheeks were
covered with tears. She tugged at the ligatures with the vigor of an
"Pardon!... Pardon! I do not want to die!"
The sub-lieutenant raised his sword, and lowered it again rapidly.... A
Freya collapsed, her body slipping the entire length of the post until
it fell forward on the ground. The bullets had cut the cords that bound
As though it had acquired sudden life, her hat leaped from her head,
flying off to fall about four yards further on. A corporal with a
revolver in his right hand came forward from the shooting picket:--"the
death-blow." He checked his step before the puddle of blood that was
forming around the victim, pressing his lips together and averting his
eyes. He then bent over her, raising with the end of the barrel the
ringlets which had fallen over one of her ears. She was still
breathing.... A shot in the temple. Her body contracted with a final
shudder, then remained immovable with the rigidity of a corpse.
Voices were heard. The firing-squad re-formed in line, and to the
rhythm of their instruments went filing past the body of the dead. From
the funeral wagon two black-robed men drew out a bier of white wood.
Turning their backs upon their work, the double military mass marched
toward the encampment. The ends of Justice had been served. Trumpets
and drums were lost on the horizon but their sounds were still
magnified by the fresh echoes of the coming morn. The corpse was
despoiled of its jewels and then deposited in that poor coffin which
looked so like a packing-box. The two nuns took with timidity the gems
which the dead woman had given them for their works of charity. Then
the lid was fastened down, shutting away forever the one who a few
moments before was a woman of sumptuous charm upon whom men could not
look unmoved. The four planks now guarded merely bloody rags, mutilated
flesh, broken bones.
The vehicle went to the cemetery of Vincennes, to the corner in which
the executed were buried.... Not a flower, not an inscription, not a
cross. The lawyer himself could not be sure of finding her burial place
if at any time it was necessary to seek it.... Such was the last scene
in the career of this luxurious and pleasure-loving creature!... Thus
had that body gone to dissolution in an unknown hole in the ground like
any abandoned beast of burden!...
"She was good," said her defender, "and yet at the same time, she was a
criminal. Her education was to blame. Poor woman!... They had brought
her up to live in riches, and riches had always fled before her."
Then in his last lines the old _maitre_ said with melancholy, "She died
thinking of you and a little of me.... We have been the last men of her
This reading left Ulysses in a mournful state of stupefaction. Freya
was no longer living!... He was no longer running the danger of seeing
her appear on his ship at whatever port he might touch!...
The duality of his sentiments again surged up with violent
"It was a good thing!" said the sailor, "how many men have died through
her fault!... Her execution was inevitable. The sea must be cleared of
And at the same time the remembrance of the delights of Naples, of that
long imprisonment in a harem pervaded with unlimited sensuousness was
reborn in his mind. He saw her in all the majesty of her marvelous
body, just as when she was dancing or leaping from side to side of the
old salon. And now this form, molded by nature in a moment of
enthusiasm, was no longer in existence.... It was nothing but a mass of
liquid flesh and pestilent pulp!...
He recalled her kiss, that kiss that had so electrified him, making him
sink down and down through an ocean of ecstasy, like a castaway,
content with his fate.... And he would never know her more!... And her
mouth, with its perfume of cinnamon and incense, of Asiatic forests
haunted with sensuousness and intrigue, was now ...! Ah, misery!
Suddenly he saw the profile of the dead woman with one eye turned
toward him, graciously and malignly, just as the "eye of the morning"
must have looked at its mistress while uncoiling her mysterious dances
in her Asiatic dwelling.
Ulysses concentrated his attention on the Phantasm's pallid brow
touched by the silky caress of her curls. There he had placed his best
kisses, kisses of tenderness and gratitude.... But the smooth skin that
had appeared made of petals of the camellia was growing dark before his
eyes. It became a dark green and was oozing with blood.... Thus he had
seen her that other time.... And he recalled with remorse his blow in
Barcelona.... Then it opened, forming a deep hole, angular in shape
like a star. Now it was the mark of the gunshot wound, the _coup de
grace_ that brought the death-agony of the executed girl to its end.
Poor Freya, implacable warrior, unnerved by the battle of the sexes!...
She had passed her existence hating men yet needing them in order to
live,--doing them all the harm possible and receiving it from them in
sad reciprocity until finally she had perished at their hands.
It could not end in any other way. A masculine hand had opened the
orifice through which was escaping the last bubble of her existence....
And the horrified captain, poring over her sad profile with its
purpling temple, thought that he never would be able to blot that
ghastly vision from his memory. The phantasm would diminish, becoming
invisible in order to deceive him, but would surely come forth again in
all his hours of pensive solitude; it was going to embitter his nights
on watch, to follow him through the years like remorse.
Fortunately the exactions of real life kept repelling these sad
"It was a good thing she was shot!" affirmed authoritatively within him
the energetic official accustomed to command men. "What would you have
done in forming a part of the tribunal that condemned her?... Just what
the others did. Think of those who have died through her deviltry!...
Remember what Toni said!"
A letter from his former mate, received in the same mail with the one
from Freya's defender, spoke of the abominations that submarine
aggression was committing in the Mediterranean.
News of some of the crimes was beginning to be received from
shipwrecked sailors who had succeeded in reaching the coast after long
hours of struggle, or when picked up by other boats. The most of the
victims, however, would remain forever unknown in the mystery of the
waves. Torpedoed boats had gone to the bottom with their crews and
passengers, "without leaving any trace," and only months afterwards a
part of the tragedy had become evident when the surge flung up on the
coast numberless bodies impossible of identification, without even a
recognizable human face.
Almost every week Toni contemplated some of these funereal gifts of the
sea. At daybreak the fishermen used to find corpses tossed on the beach
where the water swept the sand, resting there a few moments on the
moist ground, only to be snatched back again by another and stronger
wave. Finally their backs had become imbedded on land, holding them
motionless--while, from their clothing and their flesh, swarms of
little fishes came forth fleeing back to the sea in search of new
pastures. The revenue guards had discovered among the rocks mutilated
bodies in tragic positions, with glassy eyes protruding from their
Many of them were recognized as soldiers by the tatters that revealed
an old uniform, or the metal identification tags on their wrists. The
shore folks were always talking of a transport that had been torpedoed
coming from Algiers.... And mixed with the men, they were constantly
finding bodies of women so disfigured that it was almost impossible to
judge of their age: mothers who had their arms arched as though putting
forth their utmost efforts to guard the babe that had disappeared. Many
whose virginal modesty had been violated by the sea, showed naked limbs
swollen and greenish, with deep bites from flesh-eating fishes. The
tide had even tossed ashore the headless body of a child a few years
It was more horrible, according to Toni, to contemplate this spectacle
from land than when in a boat. Those on ships are not able to see the
ultimate consequences of the torpedoings as vividly as do those who
live on the shore, receiving as a gift of the waves this continual
consignment of victims.
The pilot had ended his letter with his usual supplications:--"Why do
you persist in following the sea?... You want a vengeance that is
impossible. You are one man, and your enemies are millions.... You are
going to die if you persist in disregarding them. You already know that
they have been hunting you for a long time. And you will not always
succeed in eluding their clutches. Remember what the people say, 'He
who courts danger--!' Give up the sea; return to your wife or come to
us. Such a rich life as you might lead ashore!..."
For a few hours Ferragut was of Toni's opinion. His reckless
undertaking was bound to come to a bad end. His enemies knew him, were
lying in wait for him, and were many arrayed against one who was living
alone on his ship with a crew of men of a different nationality. Aside
from the few who had always loved him, nobody would lament his death.
He did not belong to any of the nations at war; he was a species of
privateer bound not to begin an attack. He was even less,--an officer
carrying supplies under the protection of a neutral flag. This flag was
not deceiving anybody. His enemies knew the ship, seeking for it with
more determination than if he were with the Allied fleets. Even in his
own country, there were many people in sympathy with the German Empire
who would celebrate joyously the disappearance of the _Mare Nostrum_
and its captain.
Freya's death had depressed his spirits more than he had imagined
possible. He had gloomy presentiments; perhaps his next journey might
be his last.
"You are going to die!" cried an anguished voice in his brain. "You'll
die very soon if you do not retire from the sea."
And to Ferragut the queerest thing about the warning was that this
counselor had the voice of the one who had always egged him on to
foolish adventures,--the one that had hurled him into danger for the
mere pleasure of discounting it, the one that had made him follow Freya
even after knowing her vile profession.
On the other hand the voice of prudence, always cautious and temperate,
was now showing an heroic tranquillity, speaking like a man of peace
who considers his obligations superior to his life.
"Be calm, Ferragut; you have sold your person with your boat, and they
have given you millions for it. You must carry through what you have
promised even though it may send you out of existence.... The _Mare
Nostrum_ cannot sail without a Spanish captain. If you abandon it, you
will have to find another captain. You will run away through fear and
put in your place a man who has to face death in order to maintain his
family. Glorious achievement, that! ... while you would be on land,
rich and safe!... And what are you going to do on land, you coward?"
His egoism hardly knew how to reply to such a question. He recalled
with antipathy his bourgeois existence over there in Barcelona, before
buying the steamer. He was a man of action and could live only when
occupied in risky enterprises.
He would be bored to death on land and at the same time would be
considered belittled, degraded, like one who comes down to an inferior
grade in a country of hierarchies. The captain of a romantic,
adventurous life would be converted into a real estate proprietor,
knowing no other struggles than those which he might sustain with his
tenants. Perhaps, in order to avoid a commonplace existence, he might
invest his capital in navigation, the only business that he knew well.
He might become a ship-owner acquiring new vessels and, little by
little, because of the necessity of keeping a sharp watch over them,
would eventually renew his voyages.... Well, then, why should he
abandon the _Mare Nostrum?_
Upon asking himself anxiously what his life had so far amounted to, he
underwent a profound moral revolution.
All his former existence appeared to him like a desert. He had lived
without knowing why nor wherefore, challenging countless dangers and
adventures for the mere pleasure of coming out victorious. Neither did
he know with certainty what he had wanted until then. If it was money,
it had flowed into his hands in the last months with overwhelming
abundance.... He had it to-spare and it had not made him happy. As to
professional glory, he could not desire anything greater than he
already had. His name was celebrated all over the Spanish
Mediterranean. Even the rudest and most ungovernable of sailors would
admit his exceptional ability.
"Love remained!..." But Ferragut made a wry face when thinking of that.
He had known it and did not wish to meet it again. The gentle love of a
good companion, capable of surrounding the latter part of his existence
with congenial comfort, he had just lost forever. The other,
impassioned, fantastic, voluptuous, giving to life the crude interest
of conflicts and contrasts, had left him with no desire of recommencing
Paternity, stronger and more enduring than love, might have filled the
rest of his days had his son not died.... There only remained
vengeance, the savage task of returning evil to those who had done him
so much evil. But he was so powerless to struggle against all of
them!... This final act appeared to be turning out so small and selfish
in comparison with that other patriotic enthusiasm which was now
dragging to sacrifice such great masses of men!...
While he was thinking it all over, a phrase which he had somewhere
heard--formed perhaps from the residuum of old readings--began to chant
in his brain: "A life without ideals is not worth the trouble of
Ferragut mutely assented. It was true: in order to live, an ideal is
necessary. But where could he find it?...
Suddenly, in his mind's eye, he saw Toni,--just as when he used to try
to express his confused thoughts. With all his credulity and
simplicity, his captain now considered his humble mate his superior. In
his own way Toni had his ideal: he was concerned with something besides
his own selfishness. He wished for other men what he considered good
for himself, and he defended his convictions with the mystical
enthusiasm of all those historic personages who have tried to impose a
belief;--with the faith of the warriors of the Cross and those of the
Prophet, with the tenacity of the Inquisition and of the Jacobins.
He, a man of reason, had only known how to ridicule the generous and
disinterested enthusiasms of other men, detecting at once their weak
points and lack of adaptation to the reality of the moment.... What
right had he to laugh at his mate who was a believer, dreaming, with
the pure-mindedness of a child, of a free and happy humanity?... Aside
from his stupid jeers, what could he oppose to that faith?...
Life began to appear to him under a new light, as something serious and
mysterious that was exacting a bridge toll, a tribute of courage from
all the beings who pass over it, leaving the cradle behind them and
having the grave as a final resting-place.
It did not matter at all that their ideals might appear false. Where is
the truth, the only and genuine truth?... Who is there that can
demonstrate that he exists, and is not an illusion?...
The necessary thing was to believe in something, to have hope. The
multitudes had never been touched by impulses of argument and
criticism. They had only gone forward when some one had caused hopes
and hallucinations to be born in their souls. Philosophers might vainly
seek the truth by the light of logic, but the rest of mankind would
always prefer the chimerical ideals that become transformed into
powerful motives of action.
All religions were becoming beautifully less upon being subjected to
cold examination. Yet, nevertheless, they were producing saints and
martyrs, true super-men of morality. All revolutions had proved
imperfect and ineffectual when submitted to scientific revision. Yet,
nothwithstanding, they had brought forth the greatest individual
heroes, the most astonishing collective movements of history.
"To believe!... To dream!" a mysterious voice kept chanting in his
brain. "To have an ideal!..."
He did not fancy living, like the mummies of the great Pharaohs, in a
luxurious tomb, anointed with perfume and surrounded with everything
necessary for nourishment and sleep. To be born, to grow up, to
reproduce oneself was not enough to form a history:--all the animals do
the same. Man ought to add something more which he alone
possesses,--the faculty of framing a future.... To dream! To the
heritage of idealism left by our forebears should be added a new ideal,
or the power of bringing it about.
Ferragut realized that in normal times, he would have gone to his death
just as he had lived, continuing a monotonous and uniform existence.
Now the violent changes around him were resuscitating the dormant
personalities which we all carry within us as souvenirs of our
ancestors, revolving around a central and keen personality the only one
that has existed until then.
The world was in a state of war. The men of Middle Europe were clashing
with the other half on the battlefields. Both sides had a mystic ideal,
affirming it with violence and slaughter just as the multitudes have
always done when moved by religious or revolutionary certainty accepted
as the only truth....
But the sailor recognized a profound difference in the two masses
struggling at the present day. One was placing its ideal in the past,
wishing to rejuvenate the sovereignty of Force, the divinity of war,
and adapt it to actual life. The other throng was preparing for the
future, dreaming of a world of free democracy, of nations at peace,
tolerant and without jealousy.
Upon adjusting himself to this new atmosphere, Ferragut began to feel
within him ideas and aspirations that were, perhaps, an ancestral
legacy. He fancied he could hear his uncle, the _Triton_, describing
the impact of the men of the North upon the men of the South when
trying to make themselves masters of the blue mantle of Amphitrite. He
was a Mediterranean, but just because the country in which he had been
born happened to be uninterested in the fate of the world, he was not
going to remain indifferent.
He ought to continue just where he was. Whatever Toni had told him of
Latinism and Mediterranean civilization, he now accepted as great
truths. Perhaps they might not be exact when examined in the light of
pure reason, but they were worth as much as the assurances of the
He was going to continue his life of navigation with new enthusiasm. He
had faith, the ideals, the illusions that heroes are made of. While the
war lasted he would assist in his own way, acting as an auxiliary to
those who were fighting, transporting all that was necessary to the
struggle. He began to look with greater respect upon the sailors
obedient to his orders, simple folk who had given their blood without
fine phrases and without arguments.
When peace should come he would not, therefore, retire from the sea.
There would still be much to be done. Then would begin the commercial
war, the sharp rivalry to conquer the markets of the younger nations of
America. Audacious and enormous plans were outlining themselves in his
brain. In this war he might perhaps become a leader. He dreamed of the
creation of a fleet of steamers that might reach even to the coast of
the Pacific; he wished to contribute his means to the victorious
re-birth of the race which had discovered the greater part of the
His new faith made him more friendly with the ship's cook, feeling the
attraction of his invincible illusions. From time to time he would
amuse himself consulting the old fellow as to the future fate of the
steamer; he wished to know if the submarines were causing him any fear.
"There's nothing to worry about," affirmed Caragol. "We have good
protectors. Whoever presents himself before us is lost."
And he showed his captain the religious engravings and postal cards
which he had tacked on the walls of the galley.
One morning Ferragut received his sailing orders. For the moment they
were going to Gibraltar, to pick up the cargo of a steamer that had not
been able to continue its voyage. From the strait they might turn their
course to Salonica once more.
The captain of the _Mare Nostrum_ had never undertaken a journey with
so much joy. He believed that he was going to leave on land forever the
recollection of that executed woman whose corpse he was seeing so many
nights in his dreams. From all the past, the only thing that he wished
to transplant to his new existence was the image of his son. Henceforth
he was going to live, concentrating all his enthusiasm and ideals on
the mission which he had imposed on himself.
He took the boat directly from Marseilles to the Cape of San Antonio
far from the coast, keeping to the mid-Mediterranean, without passing
the Gulf of Lyons. One twilight evening the crew saw some bluish
mountains in the hazy distance,--the island of Mallorca. During the
night the lighthouses of Ibiza and Formentera slipped past the dark
horizon. When the sun arose a vertical spot of rose color like a tongue
of flame, appeared above the sea line. It was the high mountain of
Mongo, the Ferrarian promontory of the ancients. At the foot of its
abrupt steeps was the village of Ulysses' grandparents, the house in
which he had passed the best part of his childhood. Thus it must have
looked in the distance to the Greeks of Massalia, exploring the desert
Mediterranean in ships which were leaping the foam like wooden horses.
All the rest of the day, the _Mare Nostrum_ sailed very close to the
shore. The captain knew this sea as though it were a lake on his own
property. He took the steamer through shallow depths, seeing the reefs
so near to the surface that it appeared almost a miracle that the boat
did not crash upon them. Sometimes the space between the keel and the
sunken rocks was hardly two yards wide. Then the gilded water would
take on a dark tone and the steamer would continue its advance over the
Along the shore, the autumn sun was reddening the yellowing mountains,
now dry and fragrant, covered with pasturage of strong odor which could
be smelt at great distances. In all the windings of the coast,--little
coves, beds of dry torrents or gorges between two peaks--were visible
white groups of hamlets.
Ferragut contemplated carefully the native land of his grandparents.
Toni must be there now: perhaps from the door of his dwelling he was
seeing them pass by; perhaps he was recognizing the ship with surprise
A French official, motionless near Ulysses on the bridge, was admiring
the beauty of the day and the sea. Not a single cloud was in the sky.
All was blue above and below, with no variation except where the bands
of foam were combing themselves on the jutting points of the coast, and
the restless gold of the sunlight was forming a broad roadway over the
waters. A flock of dolphins frisked around the boat like a cortege of
"If the sea were always like this!" exclaimed the captain, "what
delight to be a sailor!"
The crew could see the people on land running together and forming
groups, attracted by the novelty of a steamer that was passing within
reach of their voice. On each of the jutting points of the shore was a
low and ruddy tower,--last vestige of the thousand-year war of the
Mediterranean. Accustomed to the rugged shores of the ocean and its
eternal surf, the Breton sailors were marveling at this easy
navigation, almost touching the coast whose inhabitants looked like a
swarm of bees. Had the boat been directed by another captain, so close
a journey would have resulted most disastrously: but Ferragut was
laughing, throwing out gloomy hints to the officers who were on the
bridge, merely to accentuate his professional confidence. He pointed
out the rocks hidden in the deeps. Here an Italian liner that was going
to Buenos Ayres had been lost.... A little further on, a swift
four-masted sailboat had run aground, losing its cargo.... He could
tell by the fraction of an inch the amount of water permissible between
the treacherous rocks and the keel of his boat.
He usually sought the roughest waters by preference, but they were in
the danger-zone of the Mediterranean where the German submarines were
lying in wait for the French and English convoys navigating in the
shelter of the Spanish coast. The obstacles of the submerged coast were
for him now the best defense against invisible attacks.
Behind him, the Ferrarian promontory was growing more and more shadowy,
becoming a mere blur on the horizon. By nightfall the _Mare Nostrum_
was in front of Cape Palos and he had to sail in the outer waters in
order to double it, leaving Cartagena in the distance. From there, he
turned his course to the southwest, to the cape where the Mediterranean
was beginning to grow narrow, forming the funnel of the strait. Soon
they would pass before Almeria and Malaga, reaching Gibraltar the
"Here is where the enemy is oftentimes waiting," said Ferragut to one
of the officers. "If we have no bad luck before night, we shall have
safely concluded our voyage."
The boat had withdrawn from the shore route, and it was no longer
possible to distinguish the lower coast. Only from the prow could be
seen the jutting hump of the cape, rising up like an island.
Caragol appeared with a tray on which were smoking two cups of coffee.
He would not yield to any cabinboy the honor of serving the captain
when on the bridge.
"Well, what do you think of the trip?" asked Ferragut gayly, before
drinking. "Shall we arrive in good condition?..."
The cook made as scornful a gesture as though the Germans could see
"Nothing will befall us; I am sure of that.... We have One who is
watching over us, and ..."
He was suddenly interrupted in his affirmations. The tray leaped from
his hands and he went staggering about like a drunken man, even banging
his abdomen against the balustrade of the bridge. "_Cristo del
The cup that Ferragut was carrying to his mouth fell with a crash, and
the French officer, seated on a bench, was almost thrown on his knees.
The helmsman had to clutch the wheel with a jerk of surprise and
The entire ship trembled from keel to masthead, from quarter-deck to
forecastle, with a deadly shuddering as though invisible claws had just
checked it at full speed.
The captain tried to account for this accident. "We must be aground,"
he said to himself, "a reef that I did not know, a shoal not marked on
But a second had not passed before something else was added to the
first shock, refuting Ferragut's suppositions. The blue and luminous
air was rent with the thud of a thunderclap. Near the prow, appeared a
column of smoke, of expanding gases of yellowish and fulminating steam
and, coming up through its center in the form of a fan, a spout of
black objects, broken wood, bits of metallic plates and flaming ropes
turning to ashes.
Ulysses was no longer in doubt. They must have just been struck by a
torpedo. His anxious look scanned the waters.
"There!... There!" he said, pointing with his hand.
His keen seaman's eyes had just discovered the light outline of a
periscope that nobody else was able to see.
He ran down from the bridge or rather he slid down the midship ladder,
running toward the stern.
The three gunners were near the cannon, calm and phlegmatic, putting a
hand to their eyes, in order to see better the almost invisible speck
which the captain was pointing out.
None of them noticed the slant that the deck was slowly beginning to
take. They thrust the first projectile into the breech of the cannon
while the gunner made an effort to distinguish that small black cane
hardly perceptible among the tossing waves.
Another shock as rude as the first one! Everything groaned with a dying
shudder. The plates were trembling and falling apart, losing the
cohesion that had made of them one single piece. The screws and rivets
sprang out, moved by the general shaking-up. A second crater had opened
in the middle of the ship, this time bearing in its fan-shaped
explosion the limbs of human beings.
The captain saw that further resistance was useless. His feet warned
him of the cataclysm that was developing beneath them--the liquid
water-spout invading with a foamy bellowing the space between keel and
deck, destroying the metal screens, knocking down the bulk-heads,
upsetting every object, dragging them forth with all the violence of an
inundation, with the ramming force of a breaking dyke. The hold was
rapidly becoming converted into a watery and leaden coffin fast going
to the bottom.
The aft gun hurled its first shot. To Ferragut its report seemed mere
irony. No one knew as he did the ship's desperate condition.
"To the life boats!" he shouted. "Every one to the boats!"
The steamer was tipping up in an alarming way as the men calmly obeyed
his orders without losing their self-control.
A desperate vibration was jarring the deck. It was the engines that
were sending out death-rattles at the same time that a torrent of steam
as thick as ink was pouring from the smokestack. The firemen were
coming up to the light with eyes swollen with the terror stamping their
blackened faces. The inundation had begun to invade their dominions,
breaking their steel compartments.
"To the boats!... Lower the life boats!"
The captain repeated his shouts of command, anxious to see the crew
embark, without thinking for one moment of his own safety.
It never even occurred to him that his fate might be different from
that of his ship. Besides, hidden in the sea, was the enemy who would
soon break the surface to survey its handiwork.... Perhaps they might
hunt for Captain Ferragut among the boatloads of survivors, wishing to
bear him off as their triumphant booty.... No, he would far rather give
up his life!...
The seamen had unfastened the life boats and were beginning to lower
them, when something brutal suddenly occurred with the annihilating
rapidity of a cataclysm of Nature.
There sounded a great explosion as though the world had gone to pieces,
and Ferragut felt the floor vanishing from beneath his feet. He looked
around him. The prow no longer existed; it had disappeared under the
water, and a bellowing wave was rolling over the deck crushing
everything beneath its roller of foam. On the other hand, the poop was
climbing higher and higher, becoming almost vertical. It was soon a
cliff, a mountain steep, on whose peak the white flagstaff was sticking
up like a weather-vane.
In order not to fall he had to grasp a rope, a bit of wood, any fixed
object. But the effort was useless. He felt himself dragged down,
overturned, lashed about in a moaning and whirling darkness. A deadly
chill paralyzed his limbs. His closed eyes saw a red heaven, a sky of
blood with black stars. His ear drums were buzzing with a roaring
_glu-glu_, while his body was turning somersaults through the darkness.
His confused brain imagined that an infinitely deep hole had opened in
the depths of the sea, that all the waters of the ocean were passing
through it, forming a gigantic vortex, and that he was swirling in the
center of this revolving tempest.
"I am going to die!... I am already dead!" said his thoughts.
And in spite of the fact that he was resigned to death, he moved his
legs desperately, wishing to bring himself up to the yielding,
treacherous surface. Instead of continuing to descend, he noticed that
he was going up, and in a little while he was able to open his eyes and
to breathe, judging from the atmospheric contact that he had reached
He was not sure of the length of time he had passed in the
abyss,--surely not more than a few minutes, since his breathing
capacity as a swimmer could not exceed that limit.... He, therefore,
experienced great astonishment upon discovering the tremendous changes
which had taken place in so short a parenthesis.
He thought it was already night. Perhaps in the upper strata of the
atmosphere were still shining the last rays of the sun, but at the
water's level, there was no more than a twilight gray, like the dim
glimmer of a cellar.
The almost even surface seen a few minutes before from the height of
the bridge was now moved by broad swells that plunged him in momentary
darkness. Each one of these appeared a hillock interposed before his
eyes, leaving free only a few yards of space. When he was raised upon
their crests he could take in with rapid vision the solitary sea that
lacked the gallant mass of the ship, astir with dark objects. These
objects were slipping inertly by or moving along, waving pairs of black
antennae. Perhaps they were imploring help, but the wet desert was
absorbing the most furious cries, converting them into distant
Of the _Mare Nostrum_ there was no longer visible either the mouth of
the smokestack nor the point of a mast; the abyss had swallowed it
all.... Ferragut began to doubt if his ship had ever really existed.
He swam toward a plank that came floating near, resting his arms upon
it. He used to be able to remain entire hours in the sea, when naked
and within sight of the coast, with the assurance of returning to
_terra firma_ whenever he might wish.... But now he had to keep himself
up, completely dressed; his shoes were tugging at him with a constantly
increasing force as though made of iron ... and water on all sides! Not
a boat on the horizon that could come to his aid!... The wireless
operator, surprised by the swiftness of the catastrophe, had not been
able to send out the S.O.S.
He also had to defend himself from the debris of the shipwreck. After
having grasped the raft as his last means of salvation, he had to avoid
the floating casks, rolling toward him on the swelling billows, which
might send him to the bottom with one of their blows.
Suddenly there loomed up between two waves a species of blind monster
that was agitating the waters furiously with the strokes of its
swimming. Upon coming close to it, he saw that it was a man; as it
drifted away, he recognized Uncle Caragol.
He was swimming like a drunken man with a super-human force which made
half of his body come out of the water at each stroke. He was looking
before him as though he could see, as if he had a fixed destination,
without hesitating a moment, yet going further out to sea when he
imagined that he was heading toward the coast.
"_Padre San Vicente!_" he moaned. "_Cristo del Grao!_..."
In vain the captain shouted. The cook could not hear him, and continued
swimming on with all the force of his faith, repeating his pious
invocations between his noisy snortings.
A cask climbed the crest of a wave, rolling down on the opposite side.
The head of the blind swimmer came in its way.... A thudding crash.
Padre San Vicente!_... And Caragol disappeared with bleeding head and
a mouth full of salt.
Ferragut did not wish to imitate that kind of swimming. The land was
very far off for a man's arms; it would be impossible to reach it. Not
a single one of the ship's boats had remained afloat.... His only hope,
a remote and whimsical one, was that some vessel might discover the
shipwrecked men and save them.
In a little while this hope was almost realized. From the crest of a
wave he could see a black bark, long and low, without smokestack or
mast, that was nosing slowly among the debris. He recognized a
submarine. The dark silhouettes of several men were so plainly visible
that he believed he heard them shouting.----
"Ferragut!... Where is Captain Ferragut?..."
"Ah, no!... Better to die!"
And he clung to his raft, hanging his head as though drowning. Then as
night closed down upon him he heard still other shouts, but these were
cries of help, cries of anguish, cries of death. The rescuers were
searching for him only, leaving the others to their fate.
He lost all notion of time. An agonizing cold was paralyzing his entire
frame. His stiffened and swollen hands were loosening from the raft and
grasping it again only by a supreme effort of his will.
The other shipwrecked men had taken the precaution to put on their life
preservers when the ship began to sink. Thanks to this apparatus, their
death agony was going to be prolonged a few hours more. Perhaps if they
could hold out until daybreak, they might be discovered by some boat!
Suddenly he remembered the _Triton_.... His uncle also had died in the
sea; all the most vigorous members of the family had finally perished
in its bosom. For centuries and centuries it had been the tomb of the
Ferraguts; with good reason they had called it "_mare nostrum_."
He fancied that the currents might possibly have dragged his uncle's
dead body from the other promontory to the place over which he was
floating. Perhaps he might be now beneath his feet.... An irresistible
force was pulling at them; his paralyzed hands loosened their hold on
In his thoughts he was shrieking to his relative with the timorous
plaint of the little fellow taking his first swimming lesson. But his
agonized hands again encountered the cold and weak support of the raft
instead of that island of hard muscles crowned with a hairy and smiling
He continued his tenacious floating, struggling against the drowsiness
that was urging him to relax from his drifting support and let himself
go to the bottom, to sleep ... to sleep forever! His shoes and clothing
were continuing to pull and tug with even greater force. They became an
undulating shroud, growing heavier and heavier, surging and dragging
down and down to the uttermost depths. His desperation made him raise
his eyes and look at the stars.... So high!... Only to be able to grasp
one of them, as his hands were now clutching the wood!...
At the same time he made instinctively a movement of repulsion. His
head had sunk in the water without his being conscious of it. A bitter
liquid was beginning to filter through his mouth....
He made a mighty effort to keep himself in a vertical position, looking
again at the sky, still black as ink, and all the stars as red as drops
Suddenly he felt a certain consciousness that he was not alone, and he
closed his eyes.... Yes, somebody was near him. It was a woman!...
It was a woman white as the clouds, white as the sail, white as the
foam. Her sea-green tresses were adorned with pearls and phosphorescent
corals; her proud smile was that of a goddess, in keeping with the
majesty of her diadem.
She stretched her pearly arms around him, pressing him close against
her life-giving and eternally virginal bosom. A dense and greenish
atmosphere was giving her whiteness a reflection like that of the light
of the caves of the sea....
Her pale mouth then pressed against the sailor's, making him feel as
though all the light of this white apparition had liquefied and was
passing into his body by means of her impelling kiss.
He could no longer see, he could no longer speak.
His eyes had closed, never to open again; a bitter river of salt was
flowing down his throat.
Nevertheless he continued looking at her,--more luminous, pressed
closer and closer,--with a sad expression of love in his glassy
eyes.... And thus he went down and down the infinite levels of the
abyss, inert, and without volition, while a voice within him was
crying, as though just recognizing her:
Back to Full Books