At Sea by Guy de Maupassant
The following paragraphs recently appeared in the papers:
"Boulogne-Sur-Mer, January 22.—Our correspondent writes:
"A fearful accident has thrown our sea-faring population, which has
suffered so much in the last two years, into the greatest consternation.
The fishing smack commanded by Captain Javel, on entering the harbor was
wrecked on the rocks of the harbor breakwater.
"In spite of the efforts of the life boat and the shooting of life lines
from the shore four sailors and the cabin boy were lost.
"The rough weather continues. Fresh disasters are anticipated."
Who is this Captain Javel? Is he the brother of the one-armed man?
If the poor man tossed about in the waves and dead, perhaps, beneath his
wrecked boat, is the one I am thinking of, he took part, just eighteen
years ago, in another tragedy, terrible and simple as are all these
fearful tragedies of the sea.
Javel, senior, was then master of a trawling smack.
The trawling smack is the ideal fishing boat. So solidly built that it
fears no weather, with a round bottom, tossed about unceasingly on the
waves like a cork, always on top, always thrashed by the harsh salt winds
of the English Channel, it ploughs the sea unweariedly with bellying
sail, dragging along at its side a huge trawling net, which scours the
depths of the ocean, and detaches and gathers in all the animals asleep
in the rocks, the flat fish glued to the sand, the heavy crabs with their
curved claws, and the lobsters with their pointed mustaches.
When the breeze is fresh and the sea choppy, the boat starts in to trawl.
The net is fastened all along a big log of wood clamped with iron and is
let down by two ropes on pulleys at either end of the boat. And the boat,
driven by the wind and the tide, draws along this apparatus which
ransacks and plunders the depths of the sea.
Javel had on board his younger brother, four sailors and a cabin boy. He
had set sail from Boulogne on a beautiful day to go trawling.
But presently a wind sprang up, and a hurricane obliged the smack to run
to shore. She gained the English coast, but the high sea broke against
the rocks and dashed on the beach, making it impossible to go into port,
filling all the harbor entrances with foam and noise and danger.
The smack started off again, riding on the waves, tossed, shaken,
dripping, buffeted by masses of water, but game in spite of everything;
accustomed to this boisterous weather, which sometimes kept it roving
between the two neighboring countries without its being able to make port
At length the hurricane calmed down just as they were in the open, and
although the sea was still high the captain gave orders to cast the net.
So it was lifted overboard, and two men in the bows and two in the stern
began to unwind the ropes that held it. It suddenly touched bottom, but a
big wave made the boat heel, and Javel, junior, who was in the bows
directing the lowering of the net, staggered, and his arm was caught in
the rope which the shock had slipped from the pulley for an instant. He
made a desperate effort to raise the rope with the other hand, but the
net was down and the taut rope did not give.
The man cried out in agony. They all ran to his aid. His brother left the
rudder. They all seized the rope, trying to free the arm it was bruising.
But in vain. "We must cut it," said a sailor, and he took from his pocket
a big knife, which, with two strokes, could save young Javel's arm.
But if the rope were cut the trawling net would be lost, and this net was
worth money, a great deal of money, fifteen hundred francs. And it
belonged to Javel, senior, who was tenacious of his property.
"No, do not cut, wait, I will luff," he cried, in great distress. And he
ran to the helm and turned the rudder. But the boat scarcely obeyed it,
being impeded by the net which kept it from going forward, and prevented
also by the force of the tide and the wind.
Javel, junior, had sunk on his knees, his teeth clenched, his eyes
haggard. He did not utter a word. His brother came back to him, in dread
of the sailor's knife.
"Wait, wait," he said. "We will let down the anchor."
They cast anchor, and then began to turn the capstan to loosen the
moorings of the net. They loosened them at length and disengaged the
imprisoned arm, in its bloody woolen sleeve.
Young Javel seemed like an idiot. They took off his jersey and saw a
horrible sight, a mass of flesh from which the blood spurted as if from a
pump. Then the young man looked at his arm and murmured: "Foutu" (done
Then, as the blood was making a pool on the deck of the boat, one of the
sailors cried: "He will bleed to death, we must bind the vein."
So they took a cord, a thick, brown, tarry cord, and twisting it around
the arm above the wound, tightened it with all their might. The blood
ceased to spurt by slow degrees, and, presently, stopped altogether.
Young Javel rose, his arm hanging at his side. He took hold of it with
the other hand, raised it, turned it over, shook it. It was all mashed,
the bones broken, the muscles alone holding it together. He looked at it
sadly, reflectively. Then he sat down on a folded sail and his comrades
advised him to keep wetting the arm constantly to prevent it from
They placed a pail of water beside him, and every few minutes he dipped a
glass into it and bathed the frightful wound, letting the clear water
trickle on to it.
"You would be better in the cabin," said his brother. He went down, but
came up again in an hour, not caring to be alone. And, besides, he
preferred the fresh air. He sat down again on his sail and began to bathe
They made a good haul. The broad fish with their white bellies lay beside
him, quivering in the throes of death; he looked at them as he continued
to bathe his crushed flesh.
As they were about to return to Boulogne the wind sprang up anew, and the
little boat resumed its mad course, bounding and tumbling about, shaking
up the poor wounded man.
Night came on. The sea ran high until dawn. As the sun rose the English
coast was again visible, but, as the weather had abated a little, they
turned back towards the French coast, tacking as they went.
Towards evening Javel, junior, called his comrades and showed them some
black spots, all the horrible tokens of mortification in the portion of
the arm below the broken bones.
The sailors examined it, giving their opinion.
"That might be the 'Black,'" thought one.
"He should put salt water on it," said another.
They brought some salt water and poured it on the wound. The injured man
became livid, ground his teeth and writhed a little, but did not exclaim.
Then, as soon as the smarting had abated, he said to his brother:
"Give me your knife."
The brother handed it to him.
"Hold my arm up, quite straight, and pull it."
They did as he asked them.
Then he began to cut off his arm. He cut gently, carefully, severing al
the tendons with this blade that was sharp as a razor. And, presently,
there was only a stump left. He gave a deep sigh and said:
"It had to be done. It was done for."
He seemed relieved and breathed loud. He then began again to pour water
on the stump of arm that remained.
The sea was still rough and they could not make the shore.
When the day broke, Javel, junior, took the severed portion of his arm
and examined it for a long time. Gangrene had set in. His comrades also
examined it and handed it from one to the other, feeling it, turning it
over, and sniffing at it.
"You must throw that into the sea at once," said his brother.
But Javel, junior, got angry.
"Oh, no! Oh, no! I don't want to. It belongs to me, does it not, as it is
And he took and placed it between his feet.
"It will putrefy, just the same," said the older brother. Then an idea
came to the injured man. In order to preserve the fish when the boat was
long at sea, they packed it in salt, in barrels. He asked:
"Why can I not put it in pickle?"
"Why, that's a fact," exclaimed the others.
Then they emptied one of the barrels, which was full from the haul of the
last few days; and right at the bottom of the barrel they laid the
detached arm. They covered it with salt, and then put back the fish one
One of the sailors said by way of joke:
"I hope we do not sell it at auction."
And everyone laughed, except the two Javels.
The wind was still boisterous. They tacked within sight of Boulogne until
the following morning at ten o'clock. Young Javel continued to bathe his
wound. From time to time he rose and walked from one end to the other of
His brother, who was at the tiller, followed him with glances, and shook
At last they ran into harbor.
The doctor examined the wound and pronounced it to be in good condition.
He dressed it properly and ordered the patient to rest. But Javel would
not go to bed until he got back his severed arm, and he returned at once
to the dock to look for the barrel which he had marked with a cross.
It was emptied before him and he seized the arm, which was well preserved
in the pickle, had shrunk and was freshened. He wrapped it up in a towel
he had brought for the purpose and took it home.
His wife and children looked for a long time at this fragment of their
father, feeling the fingers, and removing the grains of salt that were
under the nails. Then they sent for a carpenter to make a little coffin.
The next day the entire crew of the trawling smack followed the funeral
of the detached arm. The two brothers, side by side, led the procession;
the parish beadle carried the corpse under his arm.
Javel, junior, gave up the sea. He obtained a small position on the dock,
and when he subsequently talked about his accident, he would say
confidentially to his auditors:
"If my brother had been willing to cut away the net, I should still have
my arm, that is sure. But he was thinking only of his property."