Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 21
FACE TO FACE WITH THE ROCK.
THE wretched people on board the "Matutina" soon understood the derisive character of this warning. The sight of the lighthouse raised their spirits at first, then overwhelmed them with despair. Nothing could be done, nothing attempted. What has been said of kings, we may say of the waves,—we are their people, we are their prey. All their raving must be borne.
The nor'-wester was driving the hooker on the Caskets. They were nearing them; escape was impossible. They were drifting rapidly towards the reef; they felt that they were getting into shallow waters; the lead, if they could have thrown it to any purpose, would not have shown more than three or four fathoms. They heard the dull sound of the waves being sucked within the submarine caves of the steep rock. They made out, near the lighthouse, a deep cut between two granite walls,—the narrow passage leading into the ugly, wild-looking little harbour, supposed to be full of the skeletons of men and carcasses of ships. It looked like the mouth of a cave, rather than the entrance of a port. They could hear the crackling of the flames high up within the iron grating. A ghastly purple illuminated the storm; the collision of the rain and hail disturbed the mist. The black cloud and the red flame fought, serpent against serpent; live ashes, reft by the wind, flew from the fire, and the sudden assaults of the sparks seemed to drive the snow-flakes before them. The ledge, blurred at first in outline, now stood out in bold relief,—a medley of rocks with peaks, crests, and vertebræ. As they neared it, the appearance of the reef became more and more forbidding. One of the women, the Irishwoman, told her beads wildly.
The chief was now acting as captain; for the Basques are equally at home on the mountain and the sea; they are bold on the precipice, and inventive in catastrophes. They were nearing the cliff. They were about to strike. Suddenly they came so close to the great rock north of the Caskets that it shut out the lighthouse from their view. They saw nothing but the rock and a red glare behind it. The huge rock looming in the mist was like a gigantic black woman with a hood of fire. This ill-famed rock is called the Biblet. It faces the north side of the reef, which on the south is faced by another ridge, L'Etacq-aux-giulmets. The chief looked at the Biblet and shouted,—
"A man with a will to take a rope to the rock! Who can swim?"
No answer. No one on board knew how to swim, not even the sailors,—an ignorance not uncommon among seafaring people. A beam nearly freed from its lashings was swinging loose. The chief seized it with both hands, crying,—
They unlashed the beam. They had now at their disposal the very thing they wanted. Abandoning the defensive they assumed the offensive. It was a long beam of solid oak, sound and strong, useful either as a support or as a weapon, as a lever for a burden or a battering ram against a tower.
"Ready!" shouted the chief.
All six getting foothold on the stump of the mast, threw their weight on the spar projecting over the side, and aimed straight as a lance towards a projection of the cliff. It was a dangerous manœuvre. To strike at a mountain is audacious indeed; the six men might have been thrown into the water by the shock. There is variety in struggles with storms. After the hurricane, the shoal; after the wind, the rock: first the intangible, then the immovable, to be encountered. Several minutes passed, such minutes as whiten men's hair. The rock and the vessel were about to come in collision; the rock awaited the blow like a culprit. A relentless wave rushed in; it ended the respite. It caught the vessel underneath, raised it, and swayed it for an instant as the sling swings its projectile.
"Steady!" cried the chief, "it is only a rock, and we are men!"
The beam was couched; the six men were one with it; its sharp bolts tore their arm-pits, but they did not feel them. The wave dashed the hooker against the rock. Then came the shock. It came under the cloud of foam which always hides such catastrophes. When the spray fell back into the sea, when the waves rolled back from the rock, the six men were rolling about the deck, but the "Matutina" was floating alongside the rock, clear of it. The beam had stood fast and turned the vessel aside. The sea was running so fast that in a few seconds the hooker had left the Caskets behind.
Such things sometimes occur. It was a straight stroke of the bowsprit that saved Wood of Largo at the mouth of the Tay. In the wild neighbourhood of Cape Winterton, and under the command of Captain Hamilton, it was the appliance of such a lever against the dangerous rock Branodu-um that saved the "Royal Mary" from shipwreck, although she was but a Scotch-built frigate. The force of the waves can be so abruptly decomposed that changes in direction can be easily effected, or at least are possible even in the most violent collisions. The whole secret of avoiding shipwreck, is to try and pass from the secant to the tangent. Such was the service the beam rendered to the hooker; it had done the work of an oar, had taken the place of a rudder. But the manœuvre once performed could not be repeated. The beam was overboard; the shock of the collision had wrenched it out of the men's hands, and it was lost in the waves. To loosen another beam would have been to dismember the hull.
The hurricane swept the "Matutina" on. The light paled in the distance, faded, and disappeared. There was something mournful in its extinction. Layers of mist gradually sank down upon the now uncertain light; its rays died in the waste of waters; the flame floated, struggled, sank, and lost its form. It might have been a drowning creature. The brazier dwindled to the snuff of a candle; then naught remained save a faint uncertain glimmer. It was like the quenching of light in the pit of night.
The bell which had threatened was dumb; the lighthouse which had threatened had melted away. And yet it was more awful now that they had ceased to threaten. One was a voice, the other a torch. There was something human about them. They were gone, and naught remained but the mighty deep.