THE FROZEN PIRATE.
BY W. CLARK RUSSELL
AUTHOR OF "THE WRECK OF THE GROSVENOR," "THE LADY MAUD," "A SAILOR'S SWEETHEART," ETC., ETC.
PH[OE]NIX PUBLISHING CO., NEW YORK.
I. The Storm
II. The Iceberg
III. I Lose My Companions
IV. I Quit the Wreck
V. I Sight a White Coast
VI. An Island of Ice
VII. I am Startled by a Discovery
VIII. The Frozen Schooner
IX. I Lose my Boat
X. Another Startling Discovery
XI. I Make Further Discoveries
XII. A Lonely Night
XIII. I Explore the Hold and Forecastle
XIV. An Extraordinary Occurrence
XV. The Pirate's Story
XVI. I Hear of a Great Treasure
XVII. The Treasure
XVIII. We Talk over our Situation
XIX. We Take a View of the Ice
XX. A Merry Evening
XXI. We Explore the Mines
XXII. A Change Comes Over the Frenchman
XXIII. The Ice Breaks Away
XXIV. The Frenchman Dies
XXV. The Schooner Frees Herself
XXVI. I am Troubled by Thoughts of the Treasure
XXVII. I Encounter a Whaler
XXVIII. I Strike a Bargain with the Yankee
XXIX. I Value the Lading
XXX. Our Progress to the Channel
XXXI. The End
THE FROZEN PIRATE.
The Laughing Mary was a light ship, as sailors term a vessel that stands high upon the water, having discharged her cargo at Callao, from which port we were proceeding in ballast to Cape Town, South Africa, there to call for orders. Our run to within a few parallels of the latitude of the Horn had been extremely pleasant; the proverbial mildness of the Pacific Ocean was in the mellow sweetness of the wind and in the gentle undulations of the silver-laced swell; but scarce had we passed the height of forty-nine degrees when the weather grew sullen and dark, a heavy bank of clouds of a livid hue rose in the north-east, and the wind came and went in small guns, the gusts venting themselves in dreary moans, insomuch that our oldest hands confessed they had never heard blasts more portentous.
The gale came on with some lightning and several claps of thunder and heavy rain. Though it was but two o'clock in the afternoon, the air was so dusky that the men had to feel for the ropes; and when the first of the tempest stormed down upon us the appearance of the sea was uncommonly terrible, being swept and mangled into boiling froth in the north-east quarter, whilst all about us and in the south-west it lay in a sort of swollen huddle of shadows, glooming into the darkness of the sky without offering the smallest glimpse of the horizon.
In a few minutes the hurricane struck us. We had bared the brig down to the 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 aboard.
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 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 nearness of the iceberg, and by the cry of the captain, and by the perception that there was nothing to be done. That which I best recollect is the appearance of the mass of ice lying solidly, like a little island, upon the seas which roared in creaming waters about it. Every blow of the black and arching surge was reverberated in a dull hollow tremble back to the ear through the hissing flight of the gale. The frozen body was not taller than our mastheads, yet it showed like a mountain hanging over us as the brig was flung swirling into the deep Pacific hollow, leaving us staring upwards out of the instant's stagnation of the trough with lips set breathlessly and with dying eyes. It put a kind of film of faint light outside the lines of its own shape, and this served to magnify it, and it showed spectrally in the darkness as though it reflected some visionary light that came neither from the sea nor the sky. These points I recollect; likewise the maddening and maddened motion of our vessel, sliding towards it down one midnight declivity to another.
All other features were swallowed up in the agony of the time. One monstrous swing the brig gave, like to some doomed creature's last delirious struggle; the bowsprit caught the ice and snapped with the noise of a great tree crackling in fire. I could hear the masts breaking overhead—the crash and blows of spars and yards torn down and striking the hull; above all the grating of the vessel, that was now head on to the sea and swept by the billows, broadside on, along the sharp and murderous projections. Two monster seas tumbled over the bows, floated me off my legs, and dashed me against the tiller, to which I clung. I heard no cries. I regained my feet, clinging with a death-grip to the tiller, and, seeing no one near me, tried to holloa, to know if any man were living, but could not make my voice sound.
The fearful grating noise ceased on a sudden, and the faintness of the berg loomed upon the starboard bow. We had been hurled clear of it and were to leeward; but what was our condition? I tried to shout again, but to no purpose; and was in the act of quitting the tiller to go forward when I was struck over the brows by something from aloft—a block, as I believe—and fell senseless upon the deck.
I LOSE MY COMPANIONS.
I lay for a long while insensible; and that I should have recovered my mind instead of dying in that swoon I must ever account as the greatest wonder of a life that has not been wanting in the marvellous. I had no sooner sat up than all that had happened and my present situation instantly came to me. My hair was stiff with ice; there was no more feeling in my hands than had they been of stone; my clothes weighed upon me like a suit of armour, so inflexibly hard were they frozen. Yet I got upon my legs, and found that I could stand and walk, and that life flowed warm in my veins, for all that I had been lying motionless for an hour or more, laved by water that would have become ice had it been still.
It was intensely dark; the binnacle lamp was extinguished, and the light in the cabin burned too dimly to throw the faintest colour upon the hatchway. One thing I quickly noticed, that the gale had broken and blew no more than a fresh breeze. The sea still ran very high, but though every surge continued to hurl its head of snow, and the heavens to resemble ink from contrast with the passage, as it seemed, close under them of these pallid bodies, there was less spite in its wash, less fury in its blow. The multitudinous roaring of the heaving blackness had sobered into a hard and sullen growling, a sound as of thunder among mountains heard in a valley.
The brig pitched and rolled heavily. Much of the buoyancy of her earlier dance was gone out of her. Nevertheless, I could not persuade myself that this sluggishness was altogether due to the water she had taken in. It was wonderful, however, that she should still be afloat. No man could have heard the rending and grating of her side against the ice without supposing that every plank in it was being torn out.
Finding that I had the use of my voice, I holloaed as loudly as I could, but no human note responded. Three or four times I shouted, giving some of the people their names, but in vain. Father of mercy! I thought, what has come to pass? Is it possible that all my companions have been washed overboard? Certainly, five men at least were living before we fouled the ice. And again I cried out, "Is there any one alive?" looking wildly along the black decks, and putting so much force into my voice with the consternation that the thought of my being alone raised in me, that I had like to have burst a blood-vessel.
My loneliness was more terrible to me than any other condition of my situation. It was dreadful to be standing, nearly dead with cold, in utter darkness, upon the flooded decks of a hull wallowing miserably amid the black hollows and eager foaming peaks of the labouring sea, convinced that she was slowly filling, and that at any moment she might go down with me; it was dreadful, I say, to be thus placed, and to feel that I was in the heart of the rudest, most desolate space of sea in the world, into which the commerce of the earth dispatched but few ships all the year round. But no feature of my lamentable situation so affrighted me, so worked upon the passions of my mind, as my loneliness. Oh, for one companion, even one only, to make me an echo for mine own speech! Nay, God Himself, the merciful Father of all, even He seemed not! The blackness lay like a pall upon the deep, and upon my soul. Misery and horror were within that shadow, and beyond it nothing that my spirit could look up to!
I stood for some moments as one stunned, and then my manhood—trained to some purpose by the usage of the sea—reasserted itself; and maybe I also got some slender comfort from observing that, dull and heavy as was the motion of the brig, there was yet the buoyancy of vitality in her manner of mounting the seas, and that, after all, her case might not be so desperate as was threatened by the way in which she had been torn and precipitated past the iceberg. At moments when she plunged the whiteness of the water creaming upon the surges on either hand threw out a phantom light of sufficient power to enable me to see that the forward part of the brig was littered with wreckage, which served to a certain extent as a breakwater by preventing the seas, which washed on to the forecastle, from cascading with their former violence aft; also that the whole length of the main and top masts lay upon the larboard rail and over the side, held in that position by the gear, attached to them. This was all that I could distinguish, and of this only the most elusive glimpse was to be had.
Feeling as though the very marrow in my bones were frozen, I crawled to the companion and, pulling open the door, descended. The lamp in the companion burnt faintly. There was a clock fixed to a beam over the table; my eyes directly sought it, and found the time twenty minutes after ten. This signified that I had ten or eleven hours of darkness before me!
I took down the lamp, trimmed it, and went to the lazarette hatch at the after end of the cabin. Here were kept the stores for the crew. I lifted the hatch and listened, and could hear the water in the hold gurgling and rushing with every lift of the brig's bows; and I could not question from the volume of water which the sound indicated that the vessel was steadily taking it in, but not rapidly. I swallowed half a pannikin of the hollands for the sake of the warmth and life of the draught, and entering my cabin, put on thick dry stockings, first, chafing my feet till I felt the blood in them; and I then, with a seaman's dispatch, shifted the rest of my apparel, and cannot express how greatly I was comforted by the change, though the jacket and trousers I put on were still damp with the soaking of previous days. To render myself as waterproof as possible—for it was the wet clothes against the skin that made the cold so cruel—I took from the captain's cabin a stout cloak and threw it over me, enveloping my head, which I had cased in a warm fur cap, with the hood of it; and thus equipped I lighted a small hand-lantern that was used on dark nights for heaving the log, that is, for showing how the sand runs in the glass, and carried it on deck.
The lantern made the scene a dead, grave-like black outside its little circle of illumination; nevertheless its rays suffered me to guess at the picture of ruin the decks offered. The main mast was snapped three or four feet above the deck, and the stump of it showed as jagged and barbed as a wild beast's teeth. But I now noticed that the weight of the hamper being on the larboard side, balanced the list the vessel took from her shifted ballast, and that she floated on a level keel with her bows fair at the sea, whence I concluded that a sort of sea-anchor had been formed ahead of her by the wreckage, and that it held her in that posture, otherwise she must certainly have fallen into the trough.
I moved with extreme caution, casting the lantern light before me, sometimes starting at a sound that resembled a groan, then stopping to steady myself during some particular wild leap of the hull; until, coming abreast of the main hatch, the rays of the lantern struck upon a man's body, which, on my bringing the flame to his face, proved to be Captain Rosy. There was a wound over his right brow; and as if that had not sufficed to slay him, the fall of the masts had in some wonderful manner whipped a rope several times round his body, binding his arms and encircling his throat so tightly, that no executioner could have gone more artistically to work to pinion and choke a man.
Under a mass of rigging in the larboard scuppers lay two bodies, as I could just faintly discern; it was impossible to put the lantern close enough to either one of them to distinguish his face, nor had I the strength even if I had possessed the weapons to extricate them, for they lay under a whole body of shrouds, complicated by a mass of other gear, against which leaned a portion of the caboose. I viewed them long enough to satisfy my mind that they were dead, and then with a heart of lead turned away.
I crossed to the starboard side, where the deck was comparatively clear, and found the body of a seaman named Abraham Wise near the fore-hatch. This man had probably been stunned and drowned by the sea that filled the deck after I loosed the staysail. These were all of our people that I could find; the others I supposed had been washed by the water or knocked by the falling spars overboard.
I returned to the quarter-deck, and sat down in the companion way for the shelter of it and to think. No language that I have command of could put before you the horror that possessed me as I sat meditating upon my situation and recalling the faces of the dead. The wind was rapidly falling, and with it the sea, but the motion of the brig continued very heavy, a large swell having been set running by the long, fierce gale that was gone; and there being no uproar of tempest in the sky to confound the senses, I could hear a hundred harsh and melancholy groaning and straining sounds rising from the hull, with now and again a mighty blow as from some spar or lump of ice alongside, weighty enough, you would have supposed, to stave the ship. But though the Laughing Mary was not a new vessel, she was one of the stoutest of her kind ever launched, built mainly of oak and put together by an honest artificer. Nevertheless her continuing to float in her miserably torn and mangled condition was so great a miracle, that, spite of my poor shipmates having perished and my own state being as hopeless as the sky was starless, I could not but consider that God's hand was very visible in this business.
I will not pretend to remember how I passed the hours till the dawn came. I recollect of frequently stepping below to lift the hatch of the lazarette, to judge by the sound of the quantity of water in the vessel. That she was filling I knew well, yet not leaking so rapidly but that, had our crew been preserved, we might easily have kept her free, and made shift to rig up jury masts and haul us as best we could out of these desolate parallels. There was, however, nothing to be done till the day broke. I had noticed the jolly-boat bottom up near the starboard gangway, and so far as I could make out by throwing the dull lantern light upon her she was sound; but I could not have launched her without seeing what I was doing, and even had I managed this, she stood to be swamped and I to be drowned. And, in sober truth, so horrible was the prospect of going adrift in her without preparing for the adventure with oars, sail, mast, provisions, and water—most of which, by the lamplight only, were not to be come at amid the hideous muddle of wreckage—that sooner than face it I was perfectly satisfied to take my chance of the hulk sinking with me in her before the sun rose.
I QUIT THE WRECK.
The east grew pale and grey at last. The sea rolled black as the night from it, with a rounded smooth-backed swell; the wind was spent; only a small air, still from the north-east, stirred. There were a few stars dying out in the dark west; the atmosphere was clear, and when the sun rose I knew he would turn the sable pall overhead into blueness.
The hull lay very deep. I had at one time, during the black hours, struck into a mournful calculation, and reckoned that the brig would float some two or three hours after sunrise; but when the glorious beam flashed out at last, and transformed the ashen hue of dawn into a cerulean brilliance and a deep of rolling sapphire, I started with sudden terror to observe how close the covering-board sat upon the water, and how the head of every swell ran past as high as the bulwark rail.
Yet for a few moments I stood contemplating the scene of ruin. It was visible now to its most trifling detail. The foremast was gone smooth off at the deck; it lay over the starboard bow; and the topmast floated ahead of the hull, held by the gear. Many feet of bulwarks were crushed level; the pumps had vanished; the caboose was gone! A completer nautical ruin I had never viewed.
One extraordinary stroke I quickly detected. The jolly-boat had lain stowed in the long-boat; it was thus we carried those boats, the little one lying snugly enough in the other. The sea that had flooded our decks had floated the jolly-boat out of the long-boat, and swept it bottom up to the gangway where it lay, as though God's mercy designed it should be preserved for my use; for, not long after it had been floated out, the brig struck the berg, the masts fell—and there lay the long-boat crushed into staves!
This signal and surprising intervention filled my heart with thankfulness, though my spirits sank again at the sight of my poor drowned shipmates. But, unless I had a mind to join them, it was necessary I should speedily bestir myself. So after a minute's reflection I whipped out my knife, and cutting a couple of blocks away from the raffle on deck, I rove a line through them, and so made a tackle, by the help of which I turned the jolly-boat over; I then with a handspike prised her nose to the gangway, secured a bunch of rope on either side her to act as fenders or buffers when she should be launched and lying alongside, ran her midway out by the tackle, and, attaching a line to a ring-bolt in her bow, shoved her over the side, and she fell with a splash, shipping scarce a hatful of water.
I found her mast and sail—the sail furled to the mast, as it was used to lie in her—close against the stump of the mainmast; but though I sought with all the diligence that hurry would permit for her rudder, I nowhere saw it, but I met with an oar that had belonged to the other boat, and this with the mast and sail I dropped into her, the swell lifting her up to my hand when the blue fold swung past.
My next business was to victual her. I ran to the cabin, but the lazarette was full of water, and none of the provisions in it to be come at. I thereupon ransacked the cabin, and found a whole Dutch cheese, a piece of raw pork, half a ham, eight or ten biscuits, some candles, a tinder-box, several lemons, a little bag of flower, and thirteen bottles of beer. These things I rolled up in a cloth and placed them in the boat, then took from the captain's locker four jars of spirits, two of which I emptied that I might fill them with fresh water. I also took with me from the captain's cabin a small boat compass.
The heavy, sluggish, sodden movement of the hull advised me to make haste. She was now barely lifting to the swell that came brimming in broad liquid blue brows to her stem. It seemed as though another ton of water would sink her; and if the swell fell over her bows and filled the decks, down she would go. I had a small parcel of guineas in my chest, and was about to fetch this money, when a sort of staggering sensation in the upward slide of the hull gave me a fright, and, watching my chance, I jumped into the boat and cast the line that held her adrift.
The sun was an hour above the horizon. The sea was a deep blue, heaving very slowly, though you felt the weight of the mighty ocean in every fold; and eastwards, the shoulders of the swell, catching the glorious reflection of the sun, hurled the splendour along, till all that quarter of the sea looked to be a mass of leaping dazzle. Upon the eastern sea-line lay a range of white clouds, compact as the chalk cliffs of Dover; threads, crescents, feather-shapes of vapour of the daintiest sort, shot with pearly lustre, floated overhead very high. It was in truth a fair and pleasant morning—of an icy coldness indeed, but the air being dry, its shrewdness was endurable. Yet was it a brightness to fill me with anguish by obliging me to reflect how it would have been with us had it dawned yesterday instead of to-day. My companions would have been alive, and yonder sinking ruined fabric a trim ship capable of bearing us stoutly into warm seas and to our homes at last.
I threw the oar over the stern of the boat to keep her near to the brig, not so much because I desired to see the last of her, as because of the shrinking of my soul within me from the thought of heading in my loneliness into those prodigious leagues of ocean which lay stretched under the sky. Whilst the hull floated she was something to hold on to, so to say, something for the eye amid the vastness of water to rest upon, something to take out of the insufferable feeling of solitude the poisonous sting of conviction.
But her end was at hand. I had risen to step the boat's mast, and was standing and grasping it whilst I directed a slow look round the horizon in God knows what vain hope of beholding a sail, when my eye coming to the brig, I observed that she was sinking. She went down very slowly; there was a horrible gurgling sound of water rushing into her, and her main deck blew up with a loud clap or blast of noise. I could follow the line of her bulwarks fluctuating and waving in the clear dark blue when she was some feet under. A number of whirlpools spun round over her, but the slowness of her foundering was solemnly marked by the gradual descent of the ruins of masts and yards which were attached to the hull by their rigging, and which she dragged down with her. On a sudden, when the last fragment of mast had disappeared, and when the hollows of the whirlpools were flattening to the level surface of the sea, up rose a body, with a sort of leap. It was the sailor that had lain drowned on the starboard side of the forward deck. Being frozen stiff he rose in the posture in which he had expired, that is, with his arms extended; so that, when he jumped to the surface, he came with his hands lifted up to heaven, and thus he stayed a minute, sustained by the eddies which also revolved him.
The shock occasioned by this melancholy object was so great, it came near to causing me to swoon. He sank when the water ceased to twist him, and I was unspeakingly thankful to see him vanish, for his posture had all the horror of a spectral appeal, and such was the state of my mind that imagination might quickly have worked the apparition, had it lingered, into an instrument for the unsettling of my reason.
I rose from the seat on to which I had sunk and loosed the sail, and hauling the sheet aft, put the oar over the stern, and brought the little craft's head to an easterly course. The draught of air was extremely weak, and scarce furnished impulse enough to the sail to raise a bubble alongside. The boat was about fifteen feet long; she would be but a small boat for summer pleasuring in English July lake-waters, yet here was I in her in the heart of a vast ocean, many leagues south and west of the stormiest, most inhospitable point of land in the world, with distances before me almost infinite for such a boat as this to measure ere I could heave a civilized coast or a habitable island into view!
At the start I had a mind to steer north-west and blow, as the wind would suffer, into the South Sea, where perchance I might meet a whaler or a Southseaman from New Holland; but my heart sank at the prospect of the leagues of water which rolled between me and the islands and the western American seaboard. Indeed I understood that my only hope of deliverance lay in being picked up; and that, though by heading east I should be clinging to the stormy parts, I was more likely to meet with a ship hereabouts than by sailing into the great desolation of the north-west. The burden of my loneliness weighed down upon me so crushingly that I cannot but consider my senses must have been somewhat dulled by suffering, for had they been active to their old accustomed height, I am persuaded my heart must have broken and that I should have died of grief.
Faintly as the wind blew, it speedily wafted me out of sight of the floating relics of the wreck, and then all was bare, bald, swelling sea and empearled sky, darkening in lagoons of azure down to the soft mountainous masses of white vapour lying like the coast of a continent on the larboard horizon. But one living thing there was besides myself: a grey-breasted albatross, of a princely width of pinion. I had not observed it till the hull went down, and then, lifting my eyes with involuntary sympathy in the direction pointed to by the upraised arms of the sailor, I observed the great royal bird hanging like a shape of marble directly over the frothing eddies. It was as though the spirit of the deep had taken form in the substance of the noblest of all the fowls of its dominions, and, poised on tremorless wings, was surveying with the cold curiosity of an intelligence empty of human emotion the destruction of one of those fabrics whose unequal contests and repeated triumphs had provoked its haughty surprise. The bird quitted the spot of the wreck after a while and followed me. Its eyes had the sparkling blood-red gleam of rubies. It was as silent as a phantom, and with arched neck and motionless plumes seemed to watch me with an earnestness that presently grew insufferable. So far from finding any comfort of companionship in the creature, methought if it did not speedily break from the motionless posture in which it rested on its seat of air, and remove its piercing gaze, it would end in crazing me. I felt a sudden rage, and, jumping up, shouted and shook my fist at it. This frightened the thing. It uttered a strange salt cry—the very note of a gust of wind splitting upon a rope—flapped its wings, and after a turn or two sailed away into the north.
I watched it till its figure melted into the blue atmosphere, and then sank trembling into the sternsheets of the boat.
I SIGHT A WHITE COAST.
Four days did I pass in that little open boat.
The first day was fine, till sunset; it then blew fresh from the north-west, and I was obliged to keep the boat before the wind. The next day was dark and turbulent, with heavy falls of snow and a high swell from the north, and the wind a small gale. On the third day the sun shone, and it was a fair day, but horribly cold, and I saw two icebergs like clouds upon the far western sea-line. There followed a cruel night of clouded skies, sleet, and snow, and a very troubled sea; and then broke the fourth day, as softly brilliant as an English May day, but cold—great God, how cold!
Thus might I epitomize this passage; and I do so to spare you the weariness of a relation of uneventful suffering.
In those four days I mainly ran before the wind, and in this way drove many leagues south, though whenever a chance offered I hauled my sheet for the east. I know not, I am sure, how the boat lived. I might pretend it was due to my clever management—I do not say I had no share in my own preservation, but to God belongs all the praise.
In the blackness of the first night the sea boiled all about me. The boat leapt into hollows in which the sail slapped the mast. One look behind me at the high dark curl of the oncoming surge had so affrighted me that I never durst turn my head again lest the sight should deprive me of the nerve to hold the oar with which I steered. I sat as squarely as the task of steering would suffer, trusting that if a sea should tumble over the stern my back would serve as a breakwater, and save the boat from being swamped. The whole sail was on her, and I could not help myself; for it would have been certain death to quit the steering oar for an instant. It was this that saved me, perhaps; for the boat blew along with such prodigious speed, running to the height of a sea as though she meant to dart from that eminence into the air, that the slope of each following surge swung like a pendulum under her, and though her sail was becalmed in the trough, her momentum was so great that she was speeding up the acclivity and catching the whole weight of the wind afresh before there was time for her to lose way.
I was nearly dead with cold and misery when the morning came, but the sparkling sun and the blue sky cheered me, and as wind and sea fell with the soaring of the orb, I was enabled to flatten aft the sheet and let the boat steer herself whilst I beat my arms about for warmth and broke my fast. When I look back I wonder that I should have taken any pains to live. That it is possible for the human mind at any period of its existence to be absolutely hopeless I do not believe; but I can very honestly say that when I gazed round upon the enormous sea I was in, and considered the size of my boat, the quantity of my provisions, and my distance (even if I was heading that way) from the nearest point of land, I was not sensible of the faintest stirring of hope, and viewed myself as a dead man.
No bird came near me. Once I spied the back of a great black fish about a quarter of a mile off. The wetness of it caught the sunshine and reflected it like a mirror of polished steel, and the flash was so brilliant it might have passed for a bed of white fire floating on the blue heavings. But nothing more that was living did I meet, and such was the vastness of the sea over which my little keel glided, in the midst of which I sat abandoned by the angels, that for utter loneliness I might have been the very last of the human race.
When the third night came down with sullen blasts sweeping into a steady storming of wind, that swung a strong melancholy howl through the gloom, it found me so weak with cold, watching, and anxiety, and the want of space wherein to rid my limbs of the painful cramp which weighted them with an insupportable leaden sensation, that I had barely power to control the boat with the oar. I pined for sleep; one hour of slumber would, I felt, give me new life, but I durst not close my eyes. The boat was sweeping through the dark and seething seas, and her course had to be that of an arrow, or she would capsize and be smothered in a breath.
Maybe I fell something delirious, for I had many strange and frightful fancies. Indeed I doubt not it was the spirit of madness—that is certainly tonical when small—which furnished strength enough to my arm to steer with. It was like the action of a powerful cordial in my blood, and the very horrors it fed my brain with were an animation to my physical qualities. The gale became a voice; it cried out my name, and every shout of it past my ear had the sound of the word 'Despair!' I witnessed the forms of huge phantoms flying over the boat; I watched the beating of their giant wings of shadow and heard the thunder of their laughter as they fled ahead, leaving scores of like monstrous shapes to follow. There was a faint lightning of phosphor in the creaming heads of the ebon surges, and my sick imagination twisted that pallid complexion into the dim reflection of the lamps of illuminated pavilions at the bottom of the sea; mystic palaces of green marble, radiant cities in the measureless kingdoms of the ocean gods. I had a fancy of roofs of pearl below, turrets of milk-white coral, pavements of rainbow lustre like to the shootings and dartings of the hues of shells inclined and trembled to the sun. I thought I could behold the movements of shapes as indeterminable as the forms which swarm in dreams, human brows crowned with gold, the cold round emerald eyes of fish, the creamy breasts of women, large outlines slowly floating upwards, making a deeper blackness upon the blackness like the dye of the electric storm upon the velvet bosom of midnight. Often would I shrink from side to side, starting from a fancied apparition leaping into terrible being out of some hurling block of liquid obscurity.
Once a light shone upon the masthead. At any other time I should have known this to be a St. Elmo's fire, a corposant, the ignis fatuus of the deep, and hailed it with a seaman's faith in its promise of gentle weather. But to my distempered fancy it was a lanthorn hung up by a spirit hand; I traced the dusky curve of an arm and observed the busy twitching of visionary fingers by the rays of the ghostly light; the outline of a large face of a bland and sorrowful expression, pallid as any foam-flake whirling past, came into the sphere of those graveyard rays. I shrieked and shut my eyes, and when I looked again the light was gone.
Long before daybreak I was exhausted. Mercifully, the wind was scant; the stars shone very gloriously; on high sparkled the Cross of the southern world. A benign influence seemed to steal into me out of its silver shining; the craze fell from me, and I wept.
Shortly afterwards, worn out by three days and nights of suffering, I fell into a deep sleep, and when I awoke my eyes opened right upon the blinding sun.
This was the morning of the fourth day. I was without a watch. By the height of the sun I reckoned the hour to be ten. I threw a languid glance at the compass and found the boat's head pointing north-west; she fell off and came to, being without governance, and was scarcely sailing therefore. The wind was west, a very light breeze, just enough to put a bright twinkling into the long, smooth folds of the wide and weighty swell that was rolling up from the north-east. I tried to stand, but was so benumbed that many minutes passed before I had the use of my legs. Brightly as the sun shone there was no more warmth in his light than you find in a moon-beam on a frosty night, and the bite in the air was like the pang of ice itself pressed against the cheek. My right hand suffered most; I had fallen asleep clasping the loom of the steering oar, and when I awoke my fingers still gripped it, so that, on withdrawing them, they remained curved like talons, and I believed I had lost their use, and even reckoned they would snap off and so set up a mortification, till by much diligent rubbing I grew sensible of a small glow which, increasing, ended in rendering the joints supple.
I stood up to take a view of the horizon, and the first sight that met my eye forced a cry from me. Extending the whole length of the south-west seaboard lay what I took to be a line of white coast melting at either extremity into the blue airy distance. Even at the low elevation of the boat my eye seemed to measure thirty miles of it. It was not white as chalk is; there was something of a crystalline complexion upon the face of its solidity. It was too far off to enable me to remark its outline; yet on straining my sight—the atmosphere being very exquisitely clear—I thought I could distinguish the projections of peaks, of rounded slopes, and aerial angularities in places which, in the refractive lens of the air, looked, with their hue of glassy azure, like the loom of high land behind the coastal line.
The notion that it was ice came into my head after the first prospect of it; and then I returned to my earlier belief that it was land. Methought if it were ice, it must be the borderland of the Antarctic circle, the limits of the unfrozen ocean, for it was incredible that so mighty a body could signify less than the capes and terraces of a continent of ice glazing the circumference of the pole for leagues and leagues; but then I also knew that, though first the brig and then my boat had been for days steadily blown south, I was still to the north of the South Shetland parallels, and many degrees therefore removed from the polar barrier. Hence I concluded that what I saw was land, and that the peculiar crystal shining of it was caused by the snow that covered it.
But what land? Some large island that had been missed by the explorers and left uncharted? I put a picture of the map of this part of the world before my mind's eye, and fell to an earnest consideration of it, but could recollect of no land hereabouts, unless indeed we had been wildly wrong in our reckoning aboard the brig, and I in the boat had been driven four or five times the distance I had calculated—things not to be entertained.
Yet even as a mere break in the frightful and enduring continuity of the sea-line—even as something that was not sea nor sky nor the cold silent and mocking illusion of clouds—it took a character of blessedness in my eyes; my gaze hung upon it joyously, and my heart swelled with a new impulse of life in my breast. It would be strange, I thought, if on approaching it something to promise me deliverance from this dreadful situation did not offer itself—some whaler or trader at anchor, signs of habitation and of the presence of men, nay, even a single hut to serve as a refuge from the pitiless cold, the stormy waters, the black, lonely, delirious watches of the night, till help should heave into view with the white canvas of a ship.
I put the boat's head before the wind, and steered with one hand whilst I got some breakfast with the other. I thanked God for the brightness of the day and for the sight of that strange white line of land, that went in glimmering blobs of faintness to the trembling horizon where the southern end of it died out. The swell rose full and brimming ahead, rolling in sapphire hills out of the north-east, as I have said, whence I inferred that that extremity of the land did not extend very much further than I could see it, otherwise there could not have been so much weight of water as I found in the heaving.
The breeze blew lightly and was the weaker for my running before it; but the little line of froth that slipped past either side the boat gave me to know that the speed would not be less than four miles in the hour; and as I reckoned the land to be but a few leagues distant, I calculated upon being ashore some little while before sundown.
In this way two hours passed. By this time the features of the coast were tolerably distinct. Yet I was puzzled. There was a peculiar sheen all about the irregular sky-line; a kind of pearly whitening, as it were, of the heavens beyond, like to the effect produced by the rising of a very delicate soft mist melting from a mountain's brow into the air. This dismayed me. Still I cried to myself, 'It must be land! All that whiteness is snow, and the luminous tinge above it is the reflection of the glaring sunshine thrown upwards from the dazzle. It cannot be ice! 'tis too mighty a barrier. Surely no single iceberg ever reached to the prodigious proportions of that coast. And it cannot be an assemblage of bergs, for there is no break—it is leagues of solid conformation. Oh yes, it is land, sure enough! some island whose tops and seaboard are covered with snow. But what of that? It may be populated all the same. Are the northern kingdoms of Europe bare of life because of the winter rigours?' And then thought to myself, if that island have natives, I would rather encounter them as the savages of an ice-bound country than as the inhabitants of a land of sunshine and spices and radiant vegetation; for it is the denizens of the most gloriously fair ocean seats in the world who are man-eaters; not the Patagonian, giant though he be, nor the blubber-fed anatomies of the ice-climes.
Thus I sought to reassure and comfort myself. Meanwhile my boat sailed quietly along, running up and down the smooth and foamless hills of water very buoyantly, and the sun slided into the north-west sky and darted a reddening beam upon the coast towards which I steered.
AN ISLAND OF ICE.
I had to approach the coast within two miles before I could satisfy my mind of its nature, and then all doubt left me.
It was ice! a mighty crescent of it—as was now in a measure gatherable, floating upon the dark blue waters like the new moon upon the field of the sky.
For a great while I had struggled with my misgivings, so tyrannically will hope lord it even over conviction itself, until it was impossible for me to any longer mistake. And then, when I knew it to be ice, I asked myself what other thing I expected it should prove, seeing that this ocean had been plentifully navigated since Cook's time and no land discovered where I was; and I called myself a fool and cursed the hope that had cheated me, and, in short, gave way to a violent outburst of passion, and was indeed so wild with grief and rage that, had my ecstasy been but a very little greater, I must have jumped overboard, so great was my loathing of life then, and the horror the sight of the ice filled me with.
Indeed, you cannot conceive how shocking to me was the appearance of that great gleaming length of white desolation. On the deck of a stout ship sailing safely past it I should have found the scene magnificent, I doubt not; for the sun, being low with westering, shone redly, and the range of ice stood in a kind of gold atmosphere which gave an extraordinary richness to the shadowings of its rocks and peaks, and a particular fullness of mellow whiteness to its lustrous parts, softening the dazzle into an airy tenderness of brightness, so that the whole mass shone out with the blandness visible in a glorious star. But its main beauty lay in those features by which I knew it to be ice—I mean in a vast surprising variety of forms, such as steeples, towers, columns, pyramids, ruins as it might be of temples, grotesque shapes as of mighty statues, left unfinished by the hands of Titans, domes as of cathedrals, castellated heights, fragments of ramparts, and the like. These features lay in groups, as if veritably the line of coast were dotted with gatherings of royal mansions and remains of imperial magnificence, all of white marble, yet with a glassy tincture as though the material owned something of a Parian quality.
I had to come within two miles, as I have said, before these elegancies broke upon me, so deceptively did their delicacy of outlines mingle with the dark blue softness beyond. In places the coast ran up to a height of two or three hundred feet, in others it sloped down to twenty feet. For some miles it was like the face of a cliff, a sheer abrupt, with scarce a scar upon its front, staring with a wild bald look over the frosty beautiful blue of that afternoon sea. Here and there it projected a forefoot, some white and massive rock, upon which the swell of the ocean burst in thunder, and flew to almost the height of the cliff in a very great and glorious fury of foam. In other parts, where I suspected a sort of beach, there was the silver tremble of surf; but in the main, the heave coming out of the north-east, the folds swept the base of the ice without froth.
I say again, beheld in the red sunshine, that line of ice, resembling a coast of marble defining the liquid junction of the swelling folds of sapphire below and the moist violet of the eastern sky beyond and over it, crowned at points with delicate imitations of princely habitations, would have offered a noble and magnificent spectacle to a mind at ease; but to my eyes its enchantments were killed by the horror I felt. It was a lonely, hideous waste, rendered the more shocking by the consideration that the whole vast range was formed of blocks of frozen water which warmth would dissolve; that it was a country as solid as rock and as unsubstantial as a cloud, to be shunned by the mariner as though it was Death's own pavilion, the estate and mansion of the grisly spectre, and creating round about it as supreme a desolation and loneliness of ocean as that which reigned in its own white stillness.
Though I held the boat's head for it I was at a loss—in so much confusion of mind that I knew not what to do. I did not doubt by the character of the swell that its limits in the north-east extended only to the sensible horizon; in other words, that its extremity there would not be above five miles distant, though to what latitude its southern arm did curve was not to be conjectured.
Should I steer north and seek to go clear of it? Somehow, the presence of this similitude of land made the sea appear as enormous as space itself. Whilst it was all clear horizon the immensity of the deep was in a measure limited to the vision by its cincture. But this ice-line gave the eye something to measure with, and when I looked at those leagues of frozen shore my spirits sank into deepest dejection at the thought of the vastness of the waters in whose heart I floated in my little boat.
However, I resolved at last to land if landing was possible. I could stretch my limbs, recruit myself by exercise, and might even make shift to obtain a night's rest. I stood in desperate need of sleep, but there was no repose to be had in the boat. I durst not lie down in her; if nature overcame me and I fell asleep in a sitting posture, I might wake to find the boat capsized and myself drowning. This consideration resolved me, and by this time being within half a mile of the coast, I ran my eye carefully along it to observe a safe nook for my boat to enter and myself to land in.
Though for a great distance, as I have said, the front of the cliff, and where it was highest too, was a sheer fall, coming like the side of a house to the water, that part of the island towards which my boat's head was pointed sloped down and continued in a low shore, with hummocks of ice upon it at irregular intervals, to where it died out in the north-east. I now saw that this part had a broken appearance as if it had been violently rent from a mainland of ice; also, to my approach, many ledges projecting into the sea stole into view. There were ravines and gorges, and almost on a line with the boat's head was an assemblage of those delicate glass-like counterfeits of spires, towers, and the like, of which I have spoken, standing just beyond a brow whose declivity fell very easily to the water.
To make you see the picture as I have it in my mind would be beyond my art; it is not in the pen—not in the brush either, I should think—to convey even a tolerable portraiture of the ruggedness, the fairy grouping, the shelves, hollows, crags, terraces, precipices, and beach of this kingdom of ice, where its frontal line broke away from the smooth face of the tall reaches, and ran with a ploughed, scarred, and serrated countenance northwards.
Very happily I had insensibly steered for perhaps the safest spot that I could have lighted on; this was formed of a large projection of rock, standing aslant, so that the swell rolled past it without breaking. The rock made a sort of cove, towards which I sailed in full confidence that the water there would be smooth. Nor was I deceived, for I saw that the rock acted as a breakwater, whose stilling influence was felt a good way beyond it. I thereupon steered for the starboard of this rock, and when I was within it found the heave of the sea dwindled to a scarce perceptible undulation, whereupon I lowered my sail, and, standing to the oar, sculled the boat to a low lump of ice, on to which I stepped.
My first business was to secure the boat; this I did by inserting the mast into a deep, thin crevice in the ice and making the painter fast to it as to a pole. The sun was now very low, and would soon be gone. The cold was extreme, yet I did not suffer from it as in the boat. There is a quality in snow which it would be ridiculous to speak of as warmth; yet, as you may observe after a heavy fall ashore on top of a black frost, it seems to have a power of blunting the sharp edge of the cold, and the snow on this shore of ice being very abundant, though frozen as hard as the ice itself, appeared to mitigate the intolerable rigour I had languished under upon the water, in the brig and afterwards. This might also be owing to the dryness of the cold.
Having secured the boat I beat my hands heartily upon my breast, and fell to pacing a little level of ice whilst I considered what I should do. The coast—I cannot but speak of this frozen territory as land—went in a gentle slope behind me to the height of about thirty feet; the ground was greatly broken with rocks and boulders and sharp points, whence I suspected many fissures in which the snow might not be so hard but that I might sink deep enough to be smothered. I saw no cave nor hollow that I could make a bedroom of, and the improved circulation of my blood giving me spirits enough to resolve quickly, I made up my mind to use my boat as a bed.
So I went to work. I took the oar and jammed it into such another crevice as the mast stood in, and to it I secured the boat by another line. This moored her very safely. There was as good promise of a fair quiet night as I might count upon in these treacherous latitudes; the haven in which the boat lay was sheltered and the water almost still, and this I reckoned would hold whilst the breeze hung northerly and the swell rolled from the north-east. I spread the sail over the seats, which served as beams for the support of this little ceiling of canvas, and enough of it remained to supply me with a pillow and to cover my legs. I fell to this work whilst there was light, and when I had prepared my habitation, I took a bottle of ale and a handful of victuals ashore and made my supper, walking briskly whilst I ate and drank.
I caught myself sometimes looking yearningly towards the brow of the slope, as though from that eminence I should gain an extensive prospect of the sea and perhaps behold a ship; but I wanted the courage to climb, chiefly because I was afraid of tumbling into a hole and miserably perishing, and likewise because I shrank from the idea of being overtaken up there by the darkness. There was a kind of companionship in the boat, the support of which I should lose if I left her.
The going of the sun was attended by so much glory that the whole weight of my situation and the pressure of my solitude did not come upon me until his light was gone. The swell ran athwart his mirroring in lines of molten gold; the sky was a sheet of scarlet fire where he was, paling zenithwards into an ardent orange. The splendour tipped the frozen coast with points of ruby flame which sparkled and throbbed like sentinel beacons along the white and silent range. The low thunder of far-off hills of water bursting against the projections rolled sulkily down upon the weak wind. Just beyond the edge of the slope, about a third of a mile to the north of my little haven, stood an assemblage of exquisitely airy outlines—configurations such as I have described; their crystalline nature stole out to the lustrous colouring of the glowing west, and they had the appearance of tinted glass of several dyes of red, the delicate fibres being deep of hue, the stouter ones pale; and never did the highest moon of human invention reach to anything more glorious and dainty, more sweetly simulative of the arts of a fairy-like imagination than yonder cluster of icy fabrics, fashioned, as it entered my head to conceive, as pavilions by the hands of the spirits of the frozen world, and gilt and painted by the beams of the setting sun.
But all this wild and unreal beauty melted away to the oncoming of the dusk; and when the sun was gone and the twilight had put a new quality of bleakness into the air, when the sea rolled in a welter of dark shadows, one sombre fold shouldering another—a very swarming of restless giant phantoms—when the shining of the stars low down in the unfathomable obscurity of the north and south quarters gave to the ocean in those directions a frightful immensity of surface, making you feel as though you viewed the scene from the centre of the firmament, and were gazing down the spangled slopes of infinity—oh, then it was that the full spirit of the solitude of this pale and silent seat of ice took possession of me. I found a meaning I had not before caught in the complaining murmur of the night breeze blowing in small gusts along the rocky shore, and in the deep organ-like tremulous hum of the swell thundering miles distant on the northward-pointing cliffs. This was a note I had missed whilst the sun shone. Perhaps my senses were sharpened by the darkness. It mingled with the booming of the bursts of water on this side the range, and gave me to know that the northward extremity of the island did not extend so far as I had supposed from my view of it in the boat. Yet I could also suppose that the beat of the swell formed a mighty cannonading capable of making itself heard afar, and the ice, being resonant, with many smooth if not polished tracts upon it, readily transmitted the sound, yes, though the cause of it lay as far off as the horizon.
I will not say that my loneliness frightened me, but it subdued my heart with a weight as if it were something sensible, and filled me with a sort of consternation that was full of awe. The moon was up, but the rocks hid the side of the sea she rode over, and her face was not to be viewed from where I was until she had marched two-thirds of her path to the meridian. The coast ran away on either hand in cold motionless blocks of pallor, which further on fell (by deception of the sheen of the stars) into a kind of twisting and snaking glimmer, and you followed it into an extraordinarily elusive faintness that was neither light nor colour in the liquid gloom, long after the sight had outrun the visibility of the range. At intervals I was startled by sounds, sometimes sullen, like a muffled subterranean explosion, sometimes sharp, like a quick splintering of an iron-hard substance. These noises, I presently gathered, were made by the ice stretching and cracking in fifty different directions. The mass was so vast and substantial you could not but think of it as a country with its foot resting upon the bed of the sea. 'Twas a folly of my nerves no doubt, yet it added to my consternation to reflect that this solid territory, reverberating the repelled blows of the ocean swell, was as much afloat as my boat, and so much less actual than my boat that, could it be towed a few degrees further north, it would melt into pouring waters and vanish as utterly with its little cities of columns, steeples, and minarets as a wreath of steam upon the air.
This gave a spirit-like character to it in my dismayed inquiring eyes which was greatly increased by the vagueness it took from the dusk. It was such a scene, methought, as the souls of seamen drowned in these seas might flock to and haunt. The white and icy spell upon it wrought in familiar things. The stars looking down upon me over the edge of the cliffs were like the eyes of shapes (easy to fashion out of the darkness) kneeling up there and peering at the human intruder who was pacing his narrow floor of ice for warmth. The deceit of the shadows proportioned the blanched ruggedness of the cliff's face on the north side into heads and bodies of monsters. I beheld a giant, from his waist up, leaning his cheek upon his arm; a great cross with a burlesque figure, as of a friar, kneeling near it; a mighty helmet with a white plume curled; the shadowy conformation of a huge couchant beast, with a hundred other such unsubstantial prodigies. Had the moon shone in the west I dare say I should have witnessed a score more such things, for the snow was like white paper, on which the clear black shadows of the ice-rocks could not but have cast the likeness of many startling phantasies.
I sought to calm my mind by considering my position, and to divert my thoughts from the star-wrought apparitions of the broken slopes I asked myself what should be my plans, what my chance for delivering myself from this unparalleled situation. At this distance of time I cannot precisely tell how long the provisions I had brought from the foundered brig were calculated to last me, but I am sure I had not a week's supply. This, then, made it plain that my business was not to linger here, but to push into the ocean afresh as speedily as possible, for to my mind nothing in life was clearer than that my only chance lay in my falling in with a ship. Yet how did my heart sink when I reflected upon the mighty breast of sea in which I was forlornly to seek for succour! My eyes went to the squab black outline of the boat, and the littleness of her sent a shudder through me. It is true she had nobly carried me through some fierce weather, yet at the expense of many leagues of southing, of a deeper penetration into the solitary wilds of the polar waters.
However, I was sensible that I was depressed, melancholy, and under a continued consternation, something of which the morning sun might dissipate, so that I should be able to take a heartier view of my woful plight. So after a good look seawards and at the heavens to satisfy myself on the subject of the weather, and after a careful inspection of the moorings of the boat, I entered her, feeling very sure that, if a sea set in from the west or south and tumbled her, the motion would quickly arouse me; and getting under the roof of sail, with my legs along the bottom and my back against the stem, which I had bolstered with the slack of the canvas, I commended myself to God, folded my arms, and went to sleep.
I AM STARTLED BY A DISCOVERY.
In this uneasy posture, despite the intense cold, I continued to sleep soundly during the greater part of the night. I was awakened by a horrid dream of some giant shape stalking down the slope of ice to seize and devour me, and sat up trembling with horror that was not a little increased by my inability to recollect myself, and by my therefore conceiving the canvas that covered me to be the groping of the ogre's hand over my face.
I pushed the sail away and stood up, but had instantly to sit again, my legs being terribly cramped. A drink of spirits helped me; my blood presently flowed with briskness.
The moon was in the west; she hung large, red, and distorted, and shed no light save her reflection that waved in the sea under her like several lengths of undulating red-hot wire. My haven was still very tranquil—the boat lay calm; but there was a deeper tone in the booming sound of the distant surf, and a more menacing note in the echoing of the blows of the swell along this side of the coast, whence I concluded that, despite the fairness of the weather, the heave of the deep had, whilst I slept, gathered a greater weight, which might signify stormy winds not very many leagues away.
The pale stare of the heights of ice at that red and shapeless disc was shocking. "Oh," I cried aloud, as I had once cried before, "but for one, even but for one, companion to speak to!"
I had no mind to lie down again. The cold indeed was cruelly sharp, and the smoke sped from my mouth with every breath as though I held a tobacco pipe betwixt my teeth. I got upon the ice and stepped about it quickly, darting searching glances into the gloom to left and right of the setting moon; but all lay bare, bleak, and black. I pulled off my stout gloves with the hope of getting my fingers to tingle by handling the snow; but it was frozen so hard I could not scrape up with my nails as much as a half-dozen of flakes would make. What I got I dissolved in my mouth and found it brackish; however, I suspected it would be sweeter and perhaps not so stonily frozen higher up, where there was less chance of the salt spray mingling with it, and I resolved when the light came to fill my empty beer-bottles as with salt or pounded sugar for use hereafter—that is, if it should prove sweet; as to melting it, I had indeed a tinder-box and the means of obtaining fire, but no fuel.
It seemed as if the night had only just descended, so tardy was the dawn. Outside the slanting wall of ice that made my haven the swell swept past in a gurgling, bubbling, drowning sound, dismal and ghastly, as though in truth some such ogre as the monster I had dreamt of lay suffocating there. I welcomed the cold colouring of the east as if it had been a ship, and watched the stars dying and the frozen shore darkening to the dim and sifting dawn behind it, against which the outline of the cliffs ran in a broken streak of ink. The rising of the sun gave me fresh life. The ice flashed out of its slatish hue into a radiant white, the ocean changed into a rich blue that seemed as violet under the paler azure of the heavens; but I could now see that the swell was heavier than I had suspected from the echo of its remote roaring in the north. It ran steadily out of the north-east. This was miserable to see, for the line of its running was directly my course, and if I committed myself to it in that little boat, the impulse of the long and swinging folds could not but set me steadily southwards, unless a breeze sprang up in that quarter to blow me towards the sun. There was a small current of air stirring, a mere trickle of wind from the north-west.