close-reefed main-topsail; yet, though we were dead before the outfly, its first blow rent the fragment of sail as if it were formed of smoke, and in an instant it disappeared, flashing over the bows like a scattering of torn paper, leaving nothing but the bolt-ropes behind. The bursting of the topsail was like the explosion of a large cannon. In a breath the brig was smothered with froth torn up in huge clouds, and hurled over and ahead of her in vast quivering bodies that filled the wind with a dismal twilight of their own, in which nothing was visible but their terrific speeding. Through these slinging, soft, and singing masses of spume drove the rain in horizontal steel-like lines, which gleamed in the lightning stroke as though indeed they were barbed weapons of bright metal, darted by armies of invisible spirits raving out their war cries as they chased us.
The storm made a loud thunder in the sky, and this tremendous utterance dominated without subduing the many screaming, hissing, shrieking, and hooting noises raised in the rigging and about the decks, and the wild, seething, weltering sound of the sea, maddened by the gale and struggling in its enormous passion under the first choking and iron grip of the hurricane's hand.
I had used the ocean for above ten years, but never had I encountered anything suddener or fiercer in the form of weather than this. Though the wind blew from the tropics it was as cruel in bitterness as frost. Yet there was neither snow nor hail, only rain that seemed to pass like a knife through the head if you showed your face to it for a second. It was necessary to bring the brig to the wind before the sea rose. The helm was put down, and without a rag of canvas on her she came round; but when she brought the hurricane fair abeam, I thought it was all over with us. She lay down to it until her bulwarks were under water, and the sheer-poles in the rigging above the rail hidden.
In this posture she hung so long that Captain Rosy, the master, bawled to me to tell the carpenter to stand by to cut away the topmast rigging. But the Laughing Mary, as the brig was called, was a buoyant ship and lightly sparred, and presently bringing the sea on the bow, through our seizing a small tarpaulin in the weather main shrouds, she erected her masts afresh, like some sentient creature pricking its ears for the affray, and with that showed herself game and made indifferently good weather of it.
But though the first rage of the storm was terrible enough, its fierceness did not come to its height till about one o'clock in the middle watch. Long before then the sea had grown mountainous, and the dance of our eggshell of a brig upon it was sickening and affrighting. The heads of the Andean peaks of black water looked tall enough to brush the lowering soot of the heavens with the blue and yellow phosphoric fires which sparkled ghastly amid the bursting froth. Bodies of foam flew like the flashings of pale sheet-lightning through our rigging and over us, and a dreadful roaring of mighty surges in mad career, and battling as they ran, rose out of the sea to deepen yet the thunderous bellowing of the hurricane on high.
No man could show himself on deck and preserve his life. Between the rails it was waist high, and this water, converted by the motions of the brig into a wild torrent, had its volume perpetually maintained by ton-loads of sea falling in dull and pounding crashes over the bows on to the forecastle. There was nothing to be done but secure the helm and await the issue below, for, if we were to be drowned, it would make a more easy foundering to go down dry and warm in the cabin, than to perish half-frozen and already nearly strangled by the bitter cold and flooded tempest on deck.
There was Captain Rosy; there was myself, by name Paul Rodney, mate of the brig; and there were the remaining seven of a crew, including the carpenter. We sat in the cabin, one of us from time to time clawing his way up the ladder to peer through the companion, and we looked at one another with the melancholy of malefactors waiting to be called from their cells for the last jaunt to Tyburn.
"May God have mercy upon us!" cries the carpenter. "There must be an earthquake inside this storm. Something more than wind is going to the making of these seas. Hear that, now! naught less than a forty-foot chuck-up could ha' ended in that souse, mates."
"A man can die but once," says Captain Rosy, "and he'll not perish the quicker for looking at his end with a stout heart;" and with that he put his hand into the locker on which he had been sitting and pulled out a jar of whisky, which, after putting his lips to it and keeping them glued there whilst you could have counted twenty, he handed to me, and so it went round, coming back to him empty.
I often have the sight of that cabin in my mind's eye; and it was not long afterwards that it would visit me as such a vision of comfort, I would with a grateful heart have accepted it with tenfold darker conditions of danger, had it been possible to exchange my situation for it. A lantern hung from a beam, and swung violently to the rolling and pitching of the brig. The alternations of its light put twenty different meanings, one after another, into the settled dismal and rueful expressions in the faces of my companions. We were clad in warm clothes, and the steam rose from the damp in our coats and trousers like vapour from wet straw. The drink mottled some of our faces, but the spirituous tincture only imparted a quality of irony to the melancholy of our visages, as if our mournfulness were not wholly sincere, when, God knows, our hearts were taken up with counting the minutes when we should find ourselves bursting for want of breath under water.
Thus it continued till daybreak, all which time we strove to encourage one another as best we could, sometimes with words, sometimes with putting the bottle about. It was impossible for any of us at any moment to show more than our noses above the companion; and even at that you needed the utmost caution, for the decks being full of water, it was necessary to await the lurch of the vessel before moving the slide or cover to the companion, else you stood to drown the cabin.
Being exceedingly anxious, for the brig lay unwatched, I looked forth on one occasion longer than the others chose to venture, and beheld the most extravagant scene of raging commotion it could enter the brain of man to imagine. The night was as black as the bottom of a well; but the prodigious swelling and flinging of white waters hove a faintness upon the air that was in its way a dim light, by which it was just possible to distinguish the reeling masts to the height of the tops, and to observe the figure of the brig springing black and trembling out of the head of a surge that had broken over and smothered her as in a cauldron, and to note the shapes of the nearer liquid acclivities as they bore down upon our weather bow, catching the brig fair under the bluff, and so sloping her that she seemed to stand end on, and so heeling her that the sea would wash to the height of the main hatch. Indeed, had she been loaded, and therefore deep, she could not have lived an hour in that hollow and frightful ocean; but having nothing in her but ballast she was like a bladder, and swung up the surges and blew away to leeward like an empty cask.
When the dawn broke something of its midnight fury went out of the gale. The carpenter made shift to sound the well, and to our great satisfaction found but little water, only as much as we had a right to suppose she would take in above. But it was impossible to stand at the pumps, so we returned to the cabin and brewed some cold punch and did what we could to keep our spirits hearty. By noon the wind had weakened yet, but the sea still ran very heavily, and the sky was uncommonly thick with piles of dusky, yellowish, hurrying clouds; and though we could fairly reckon upon our position, the atmosphere was so nipping it was difficult to persuade ourselves that Cape Horn was not close