attempted was choked out by the dive of the brig's head into a sea, which furiously flooded her forecastle and came washing aft like milk in the darkness till it was up to our knees.
"See there!" suddenly roared the carpenter.
"Where, man, where?" bawled the captain.
But in this brief time my sight had grown used to the night, and I saw the object before the carpenter could answer. It lay on our lee beam, but how far off no man could have told in that black thickness. It stood against the darkness and hung out a dim complexion of light, or rather of pallidness, that was not light—not to be described by the pen. It was like a small hill of snow, and looked as snow does or the foam of the sea in darkness, and it came and went with our soaring and sinking.
"Ice!" I shouted to the captain.
"I see it!" he answered, in a voice that satisfied me the consternation he was under had settled the fumes of the spirits out of his head. "We must drive her clear at all risks."
There was no need to call the men. To the second cry that had been raised by one among them who had come out of the forecastle and seen the berg, they had tumbled up as sailors will when they jump for their lives; and now they came staggering, splashing, crawling aft to us, for the lamp in the cabin made a sheen in the companion hatch, and they could see us as we stood there.
"Men," cried Captain Rosy, "yonder's a gravestone for our carcases if we are not lively! Cast the helm adrift!" (we steered by a tiller). "Two hands stand by it. Forward, some of ye, and loose the stay-foresail, and show the head of it."
The fellows hung in the wind. I could not wonder. The bowsprit had been sprung when the jibboom was wrenched from the cap by the fall of the top-gallant-mast; it still had to bear the weight of the heavy spritsail yard, and the drag of the staysail might carry the spar overboard with the men upon it. Yet it was our best chance; the one sail most speedily released and hoisted, the one that would pay the brig's head off quickest, and the only fragment that promised to stand.
"Jump!" roared the captain, in a passion of hurry. "Great thunder! 'tis close aboard! You'll leave me no sea room for veering if you delay an instant."
"Follow me who will!" I cried out; "and others stand by ready to hoist away."
Thus speaking—for there seemed to my mind a surer promise of death in hesitation at this supreme moment than in twenty such risks as laying out on the bowsprit signified—I made for the lee of the weather bulwarks, and blindly hauled myself forward by such pins and gear as came to my hands. A man might spend his life on the ocean and never have to deal with such a passage as this. It was not the bitter cold only, though perhaps of its full fierceness the wildness of my feelings did not suffer me to be sensible; it was the pouring of volumes of water upon me from over the rail, often tumbling upon my head with such weight as nearly to beat the breath out of my body and sink me to the deck; it was the frenzy excited in me by the tremendous obligation of despatch and my retardment by the washing seas, the violent motions of the brig, the encumbrance of gear and deck furniture adrift and sweeping here and there, and the sense that the vessel might be grinding her bows against the iceberg before I should be able to reach the bowsprit. All this it was that filled me with a kind of madness, by the sheer force of which alone I was enabled to reach the forecastle, for had I gone to my duty coldly, without agitation of spirits, my heart must have failed me before I had measured half the length of the brig.
I got on to the bowsprit nearly stifled by the showering of the seas, holding an open knife between my teeth, half dazed by the prodigious motion of the light brig, which, at this extreme end of her, was to be felt to the full height of its extravagance. At every plunge I expected to be buried, and every moment I was prepared to be torn from my hold. It was a fearful time; the falling off of the brig into the trough—and never was I in a hollower and more swelling sea—her falling off, I say, in the act of veering might end us out of hand by the rolling of a surge over us big enough to crush the vessel down fathoms out of sight; and then there was that horrible heap of faint whiteness leaping out of the dense blackness of the sky, gathering a more visible sharpness of outline with every liquid heave that forked us high into the flying night with shrieking rigging and boiling decks.
Commending myself to God, for I was now to let go with my hands, I pulled the knife from my teeth, and feeling for the gaskets or lines which bound the sail to the spar, I cut and hacked as fast as I could ply my arms. In a flash the gale, whipping into a liberated fold of the canvas, blew the whole sail out; the bowsprit reeled and quivered under me; I danced off it with incredible despatch, shouting to the men to hoist away. The head of the staysail mounted in thunder, and the slatting of its folds and the thrashing of its sheet was like the rattling of heavy field-pieces whisked at full gallop over a stony road.
"High enough!" I bawled, guessing enough was shown, for I could not see. "Get a drag upon the sheet, lads, and then aft with you for your lives!"
Scarce had I let forth my breath in this cry when I heard the blast as of a gun, and knew by that the sail was gone; an instant after wash came a mountainous sea sheer over the weather bulwarks fair betwixt the fore and main rigging; but happily, standing near the fore shrouds, I was holding on with both hands to the topsail halliards whilst calling to the men, so that being under the rail, which broke the blow of the sea, and holding on too, no mischief befell me, only that for about twenty seconds I stood in a horrible fury and smother of frothing water, hearing nothing, seeing nothing, with every faculty in me so numbed and dulled by the wet, cold, and horror of our situation, that I knew not whether in that space of time I was in the least degree sensible of what had happened or what might befall.
The water leaving the deck, I rallied, though half-drowned, and staggered aft, and found the helm deserted, nor could I see any signs of my companions. I rushed to the tiller, and putting my whole weight and force to it, drove it up to windward and secured it by a turn of its own rope; for ice or no ice—and for the moment I was so blinded by the wet that I could not see the berg—my madness now was to get the brig before the sea and out of the trough, advised by every instinct in me that such another surge as that which had rolled over her must send her to the bottom in less time than it would take a man to cry "O God!"
A figure came out of the blackness on the lee side of the deck.
"Who is that?" said he. It was Captain Rosy.
"What, Rodney! alive?" cried he. "I think I have been struck insensible."
Two more figures came crawling aft. Then two more. They were the carpenter and three seamen.
I cried out, "Who was at the helm when that sea was shipped?"
A man answered, "Me, Thomas Jobling."
"Where's your mate?" I asked; and it seemed to me that I was the only man who had his senses full just then.
"He was washed forward along with me," he replied.
Now a fifth man joined us, but before I could question him as to the others, the captain, with a scream like an epileptic's cry, shrieked, "It's all over with us! We are upon it!"
I looked and perceived the iceberg to be within a musket-shot, whence it was clear that it had been closer to us when first sighted than the blackness of the night would suffer us to distinguish. In a time like this at sea events throng so fast they come in a heap, and even if the intelligence were not confounded by the uproar and peril, if indeed it were as placid as in any time of perfect security, it could not possibly take note of one-tenth that happens.
I confess that, for my part, I was very nearly paralyzed by the