Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
Book II. The Labour.
IX. A Slip Between Cup and Lip
ALL was not ended.
To reopen the gorge thus closed by the portion of the Durande's bulwarks, and at once to push out with the sloop beyond the rocks, nothing could appear more clear and simple. On the ocean every minute is urgent. There was little wind; scarcely a wrinkle on the open sea. The afternoon was beautiful, and promised a fine night. The sea, indeed, was calm, but the ebb had begun. The moment was favourable for starting. There would be the ebb-tide for leaving the Douvres, and the flood would carry him into Guernsey. It would be possible to be at St. Sampson's at daybreak.
But an unexpected obstacle presented itself. There was a flaw in his arrangements which had baffled all his foresight.
The machinery was freed, but the chimney was not.
The tide, by raising the sloop to the wreck suspended in the air, had diminished the dangers of the descent, and abridged the labour. But this diminution of the interval had left the top of the funnel entangled in the kind of gaping frame formed by the open hull of the Durande. The funnel was held fast there as between four walls.
The services rendered by the sea had been accompanied by that unfortunate drawback. It seemed as if the waves, constrained to obey, had avenged themselves by a malicious trick.
It is true that what the flood-tide had done the ebb would undo.
The funnel, which was rather more than three fathoms in height, was buried more than eight feet in the wreck. The water-level would fall about twelve feet. Thus the funnel descending with the falling tide would have four feet of room to spare, and would clear itself easily.
But how much time would elapse before that release would be completed? Six hours.
In six hours it would be near midnight. What means would there be of attempting to start at such an hour? What channel could he find among all those breakers, so full of dangers even by day? How was he to risk his vessel in the depth of black night in that inextricable labyrinth, that ambuscade of shoals?
There was no help for it. He must wait for the morrow. These six hours lost, entailed a loss of twelve hours at least.
He could not even advance the labour by opening the mouth of the gorge. His breakwater was necessary against the next tide.
He was compelled to rest. Folding his arms was almost the only thing which he had not yet done since his arrival on the rocks.
This forced inaction irritated, almost vexed him with himself, as if it had been his fault. He thought, "What would Deruchette say of me if she saw me thus doing nothing?"
And yet this interval for regaining his strength was not unnecessary.
The sloop was now at his command; he determined to pass the night in it.
He mounted once more to fetch his sheepskin upon the Great Douvre; descended again, supped off a few limpets and chataignes de mer, drank, being very thirsty, a few draughts of water from his can, which was nearly empty, enveloped himself in the skin, the wool of which felt comforting, lay down like a watch-dog beside the engine, drew his red cap over his eyes and slept.
His sleep was profound. It was such sleep as men enjoy who have completed a great labour.