Chapter XVI. The Problem Suddenly Works in Silence
The hurricane had just stopped short. There was no longer in the air sou’-wester or nor’-wester. The fierce clarions of space were mute. The whole of the waterspout had poured from the sky without any warning of diminution, as if it had slided perpendicularly into a gulf beneath. None knew what had become of it; flakes replaced the hailstones, the snow began to fall slowly. No more swell: the sea flattened down.
Such sudden cessations are peculiar to snowstorms. The electric effluvium exhausted, all becomes still, even the wave, which in ordinary storms often remains agitated for a long time. In snowstorms it is not so. No prolonged anger in the deep. Like a tired-out worker it becomes drowsy directly, thus almost giving the lie to the laws of statics, but not astonishing old seamen, who know that the sea is full of unforeseen surprises.
The same phenomenon takes place, although very rarely, in ordinary storms. Thus, in our time, on the occasion of the memorable hurricane of July 27th, 1867, at Jersey the wind, after fourteen hours’ fury, suddenly relapsed into a dead calm.
In a few minutes the hooker was floating in sleeping waters.
At the same time (for the last phase of these storms resembles the first) they could distinguish nothing; all that had been made visible in the convulsions of the meteoric cloud was again dark. Pale outlines were fused in vague mist, and the gloom of infinite space closed about the vessel. The wall of night – that circular occlusion, that interior of a cylinder the diameter of which was lessening minute by minute – enveloped the Matutina, and, with the sinister deliberation of an encroaching iceberg, was drawing in dangerously. In the zenith nothing – a lid of fog closing down. It was as if the hooker were at the bottom of the well of the abyss.
In that well the sea was a puddle of liquid lead. No stir in the waters – ominous immobility! The ocean is never less tamed than when it is still as a pool.
All was silence, stillness, blindness.
Perchance the silence of inanimate objects is taciturnity.
The last ripples glided along the hull. The deck was horizontal, with an insensible slope to the sides. Some broken planks were shifting about irresolutely. The block on which they had lighted the tow steeped in tar, in place of the signal light which had been swept away, swung no longer at the prow, and no longer let fall burning drops into the sea. What little breeze remained in the clouds was noiseless. The snow fell thickly, softly, with scarce a slant. No foam of breakers could be heard. The peace of shadows was over all.
This repose succeeding all the past exasperations and paroxysms was, for the poor creatures so long tossed about, an unspeakable comfort. It was as though the punishment of the rack had ceased. They caught a glimpse about them and above them of something which seemed like a consent, that they should be saved. They regained confidence. All that had been fury was now tranquillity. It appeared to them a pledge of peace. Their wretched hearts dilated. They were able to let go the end of rope or beam to which they had clung, to rise, hold themselves up, stand, walk, move about. They felt inexpressibly calmed. There are in the depths of darkness such phases of paradise, preparations for other things. It was clear that they were delivered out of the storm, out of the foam, out of the wind, out of the uproar. Henceforth all the chances were in their favour. In three or four hours it would be sunrise. They would be seen by some passing ship; they would be rescued. The worst was over; they were re-entering life. The important feat was to have been able to keep afloat until the cessation of the tempest. They said to themselves, “It is all over this time.”
Suddenly they found that all was indeed over.
One of the sailors, the northern Basque, Galdeazun by name, went down into the hold to look for a rope, then came above again and said, –
“The hold is full.”
“Of what?” asked the chief.
“Of water,” answered the sailor.
The chief cried out, –
“What does that mean?”
“It means,” replied Galdeazun, “that in half an hour we shall founder.”