Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 23
DANGER was imminent again. After the Caskets comes Ortach. The storm is no artist; brutal and all-powerful, it never varies its appliances. The darkness is inexhaustible; its snares and perfidies never come to an end. As for man, he soon comes to the end of his resources. Man exhausts his strength, the abyss never. The shipwrecked men turned towards the chief, their hope. He could only shrug his shoulders. Dismal contempt of helplessness.
The Ortach, a single huge rock, rises in a straight line eighty feet above the angry beating of the waves. Waves and ships break against it. An immovable cube, it plunges its rectilinear planes into the numberless serpentine curves of the sea. At night it looks like an enormous block resting on the folds of a huge black sheet. In time of storm it awaits the stroke of the axe,—that is, the thunderbolt. But there is never a thunderbolt during a snow-storm. True, the ship has a bandage over her eyes; she is like one prepared for the scaffold. As for the lightning-bolt which puts one quickly out of one's misery, that is not to be hoped for.
The "Matutina," little better now than a log upon the waters, drifted towards this rock, as she had drifted towards the other. The poor wretches on board, who had for a moment believed themselves saved, relapsed into misery. The destruction they thought they had left behind them confronted them again. The reef reappeared from the bottom of the sea. Nothing had been gained.
The Caskets are a goffering iron with a thousand subdivisions; the Ortach is a solid wall. To be wrecked on the Caskets is to be cut into ribbons; to strike on the Ortach is to be crushed into powder. Nevertheless there was one chance. On a straight frontage like that of the Ortach, neither the wave nor the cannon-ball can ricochet. The operation is simple,—first the flux, then the reflux; a wave advances, a billow returns. In such cases the question of life and death is balanced thus: if the wave carries the vessel on the rock, she breaks on it and is lost; if the billow retires before the ship has touched, she is carried back,—she is saved.
It was a moment of intense anxiety. Those on board saw through the gloom the great decisive wave bearing down on them. How far was it going to drag them? If the wave broke upon the ship, they would be carried on the rock and dashed to pieces. If it passed under the ship—The wave did pass under. They breathed again.
But what of the recoil? What would the surf do with them? The surf carried them back. A few minutes later the "Matutina" was out of the breakers. The Ortach faded from their view, as the Caskets had done. It was their second victory. For the second time the hooker had verged on destruction, and had drawn back in time.