We could now work the pumps, and a short spell freed the brig. We got up a new main-topsail and bent it, and, setting the reefed foresail, put the vessel before the wind, and away she ran, chased by the swollen seas. Thus we continued till by dead reckoning we calculated that we were about thirty leagues south of the parallel of the Horn, and in longitude eighty-seven degrees west. We then boarded our larboard tacks and brought the brig as close to the wind as it was proper to lay her for a progress that should not be wholly leeway; but four hours after we had handled the braces the gale, that had not veered two points since it first came on to blow, stormed up again into its first fury; and the morning of the 1st of July, anno 1801, found the Laughing Mary passionately labouring in the midst of an enraged Cape Horn sea, her jibboom and fore top-gallant mast gone, her ballast shifted, so that her posture even in a calm would have exhibited her with her starboard channels under, and her decks swept by enormous surges, which, fetching her larboard bilge dreadful blows, thundered in mighty green masses over her.
The loss of the spars I have named was no great matter, nor were we to be intimidated by such weather as was to be expected off Cape Horn. For what sailor entering this icy and tempestuous tract of waters but knows that here he must expect to find Nature in her most violent moods, crueller and more unreckonable than a mad woman, who one moment looks with a silent sinister sullenness upon you, and the next is shrieking with devilish laughter as she makes as if to spring upon you?
But there was an inveteracy in the gale which had driven us down to this part that bore heavily upon our spirits. It was impossible to trim the ballast. We dared not veer so as to bring the ship on the other tack. And the slope of the decks, added to the fierce wild motions of the fabric, made our situation as unendurable as that of one who should be confined in a cask and sent rolling downhill. It was impossible to light a fire, and we could not therefore dress our food or obtain a warm drink. The cold was beyond language severe. The rigging was glazed with ice, and great pendants of the silvery brilliance of crystal hung from the yards, bowsprit, and catheads, whilst the sails were frozen to the hardness of granite, and lay like sheets of iron rolled up in gaskets of steel. We had no means of drying our clothes, nor were we able so to move as by exercise we might keep ourselves warm. Never once did the sun shine to give us the encouragement of his glorious beam. Hour after hour found us amid the same distracting scene: the tall olive-coloured seas hurling out their rage in foam as they roared towards us in ranges of dissolving cliffs; the wind screaming and whistling through our grey and frozen rigging; the water washing in floods about our decks, with the ends of the running gear snaking about in the torrent, and the live stock lying drowned and stiff in their coops and pen near the caboose.
With helm lashed and yards pointed to the wind thus we lay, thus we drifted, steadily trending with the send of each giant surge further and deeper into the icy regions of the south-west, helpless, foreboding, disconsolate.
It was the night of the fourth day of the month. The crew were forward in the forecastle, and I knew not if any man was on deck saving myself. In truth, there was no place in which a watch could be kept, if it were not in the companion hatch. Such was the violence with which the seas broke over the brig that it was at the risk of his life a man crawled the distance betwixt the forecastle and the quarter-deck. It had been as thick as mud all day, and now upon this flying gloom of haze, sleet, and spray had descended the blackness of the night.
I stood in the companion as in a sentry-box, with my eyes just above the cover. Nothing was to be seen but sheets of ghostly white water sweeping up the blackness on the vessel's lee, or breaking and boiling to windward. It was sheer blind chaos to the sight, and you might have supposed that the brig was in the midst of some enormous vaporous turmoil, so illusive and indefinable were the shadows of the storm-tormented night—one block of blackness melting into another, with sometimes an extraordinary faintness of light speeding along the dark sky like to the dim reflection of a lanthorn flinging its radiance from afar, which no doubt must have been the reflection of some particular bright and extensive bed of foam upon a sooty belly on high, hanging lower than the other clouds. I say, you might have thought yourself in the midst of some hellish conflict of vapour but for the substantial thunder of the surges upon the vessel and the shriek of the slung masses of water flying like cannon balls between the masts.
After a long and eager look round into the obscurity, semi-lucent with froth, I went below for a mouthful of spirits and a bite of supper, the hour being eight bells in the second dog watch as we say, that is, eight o'clock in the evening. The captain and carpenter were in the cabin. Upon the swing-tray over the table were a piece of corned beef, some biscuit, and a bottle of hollands.
"Nothing to be seen, I suppose, Rodney?" says the captain.
"Nothing," I answered. "She looks well up, and that's all that can be said."
"I've been hove to under bare poles more than once in my time," said the carpenter, "but never through so long a stretch. I doubt if you'll find many vessels to look up to it as this here Laughing Mary does."
"The loss of hamper forward will make her the more weatherly," says Captain Rosy. "But we're in an ugly part of the globe. When bad sailors die they're sent here, I reckon. The worst nautical sinner can't be hove to long off the Horn without coming out of it with a purged soul. He must start afresh to deserve further punishment."
"Well, here's a breeze that can't go on blowing much longer," cries the carpenter. "The place it comes from must give out soon, unless a new trade wind's got fixed into a whole gale for this here ocean."
"What southing do you allow our drift will be giving us, captain?" I asked, munching a piece of beef.
"All four mile an hour," he answered. "If this goes on I shall look to make some discoveries. The Antarctic circle won't be far off presently, and since you're a scholar, Rodney, I'll leave you to describe what's inside of it, though boil me if I don't have the naming of the tallest land; for, d'ye see, I've a mind to be known after I'm dead, and there's nothing like your signature on a mountain to be remembered by."
He grinned and put his hand out for the bottle, and after a pull passed it to the carpenter. I guessed by his jocosity that he had already been making somewhat free; for although I love a bold face put upon a difficulty, ours was a situation in which only a tipsy man could find food for merriment.
At this instant we were startled by a wild and fearful shout on deck. It sounded high above the sweeping and seething of the wind and the hissing of the lashed waters, and it penetrated the planks with a note that gave it an inexpressible character of anguish.
"A man washed overboard!" bawled the carpenter, springing to his feet.
"No!" cried I, for my younger and shrewder ear had caught a note in the cry that persuaded me it was not as the carpenter said; and in an instant the three of us jumped up the ladder and gained the deck.
The moment I was in the gale the same affrighted cry rang down along the wind from some man forward: "For God's sake tumble up before we are upon it!"
"What do you see?" I roared, sending my voice, trumpet-fashion, through my hands; for as to my own and the sight of Captain Rosy and the carpenter, why, it was like being struck blind to come on a sudden out of the lighted cabin into the black night.
Any reply that might have been