For the Term of His Natural Life/Book IV/Chapter XVIII
Chapter XVIII: The Cyclone
Blunt, recognising the meteoric heralds of danger, had begun to regret his obstinacy. He saw that a hurricane was approaching.
Along the south coast of the Australian continent, though the usual westerly winds and gales of the highest latitudes prevail during the greater portion of the year, hurricanes are not infrequent. Gales commence at N.W. with a low barometer, increasing at W and SW, and gradually veering to the south. True cyclones occur at New Zealand. The log of the Adelaide for 29th February, 1870, describes one which travelled at the rate of ten miles an hour, and had all the veerings, calm centre, etc., of a true tropical hurricane. Now a cyclone occurring off the west coast of New Zealand would travel from the New Hebrides, where such storms are hideously frequent, and envelop Norfolk Island, passing directly across the track of vessels coming from South America to Sydney. It was one of these rotatory storms, an escaped tempest of the tropics, which threatened the Lady Franklin.
The ominous calm which had brooded over the island during the day had given place to a smart breeze from the north-east, and though the schooner had been sheltered at her anchorage under the lee of the island (the "harbour" looked nearly due south), when once fairly out to sea, Blunt saw it would be impossible to put back in the teeth of the gale. Haply, however, the full fury of the storm would not overtake them till they had gained sea-room.
Rufus Dawes, exhausted with the excitement through which he had passed, had slept for two or three hours, when he was awakened by the motion of the vessel going on the other tack. He rose to his feet, and found himself in complete darkness. Overhead was the noise of trampling feet, and he could distinguish the hoarse tones of Blunt bellowing orders. Astonished at the absence of the moonlight which had so lately silvered the sea, he flung open the cabin window and looked out. As we have said, the cabin allotted to North was one of the two stern cabins, and from it the convict had a full view of the approaching storm.
The sight was one of wild grandeur. The huge, black cloud which hung in the horizon had changed its shape. Instead of a curtain it was an arch. Beneath this vast and magnificent portal shone a dull phosphoric light. Across this livid space pale flashes of sheet-lightning passed noiselessly. Behind it was a dull and threatening murmur, made up of the grumbling of thunder, the falling of rain, and the roar of contending wind and water. The lights of the prison-island had disappeared, so rapid had been the progress of the schooner under the steady breeze, and the ocean stretched around, black and desolate. Gazing upon this gloomy expanse, Rufus Dawes observed a strange phenomenon—lightning appeared to burst upwards from the sullen bosom of the sea. At intervals, the darkly-rolling waves flashed fire, and streaks of flame shot upwards. The wind increased in violence, and the arch of light was fringed with rain. A dull, red glow hung around, like the reflection of a conflagration. Suddenly, a tremendous peal of thunder, accompanied by a terrific downfall of rain, rattled along the sky. The arch of light disappeared, as though some invisible hand had shut the slide of a giant lantern. A great wall of water rushed roaring over the level plain of the sea, and with an indescribable medley of sounds, in which tones of horror, triumph, and torture were blended, the cyclone swooped upon them.
Rufus Dawes comprehended that the elements had come to save or destroy him. In that awful instant the natural powers of the man rose equal to the occasion. In a few hours his fate would be decided, and it was necessary that he should take all precaution. One of two events seemed inevitable; he would either be drowned where he lay, or, should the vessel weather the storm, he would be forced upon the deck, and the desperate imposture he had attempted be discovered. For the moment despair overwhelmed him, and he contemplated the raging sea as though he would cast himself into it, and thus end his troubles. The tones of a woman's voice recalled him to himself. Cautiously unlocking the cabin door, he peered out. The cuddy was lighted by a swinging lamp which revealed Sylvia questioning one of the women concerning the storm. As Rufus Dawes looked, he saw her glance, with an air half of hope, half of fear, towards the door behind which he lurked, and he understood that she expected to see the chaplain. Locking the door, he proceeded hastily to dress himself in North's clothes. He would wait until his aid was absolutely required, and then rush out. In the darkness, Sylvia would mistake him for the priest. He could convey her to the boat—if recourse to the boats should be rendered necessary—and then take the hazard of his fortune. While she was in danger, his place was near by.
From the deck of the vessel the scene was appalling. The clouds had closed in. The arch of light had disappeared, and all was a dull, windy blackness. Gigantic seas seemed to mount in the horizon and sweep towards and upon them. It was as though the ship lay in the vortex of a whirlpool, so high on either side of her were piled the rough pyramidical masses of sea. Mighty gusts arose—claps of wind which seemed like strokes of thunder. A sail loosened from its tackling was torn away and blown out to sea, disappearing like a shred of white paper to leeward. The mercury in the barometer marked 29:50. Blunt, who had been at the rum bottle, swore great oaths that no soul on board would see another sun; and when Partridge rebuked him for blasphemy at such a moment, wept spirituous tears.
The howling of the wind was benumbing; the very fury of sound enfeebled while it terrified. The sailors, horror-stricken, crawled about the deck, clinging to anything they thought most secure. It was impossible to raise the head to look to windward. The eyelids were driven together, and the face stung by the swift and biting spray. Men breathed this atmosphere of salt and wind, and became sickened. Partridge felt that orders were useless—the man at his elbow could not have heard them. The vessel lay almost on her beam ends, with her helm up, stripped even of the sails which had been furled upon the yards. Mortal hands could do nothing for her.
By five o'clock in the morning the gale had reached its height. The heavens showered out rain and lightnings—rain which the wind blew away before it reached the ocean, lightnings which the ravenous and mountainous waves swallowed before they could pierce the gloom. The ship lay over on her side, held there by the madly rushing wind, which seemed to flatten down the sea, cutting off the top of the waves, and breaking them into fine white spray which covered the ocean like a thick cloud, as high as the topmast heads. Each gust seemed unsurpassable in intensity, but was succeeded, after a pause, that was not a lull but a gasp, by one of more frantic violence. The barometer stood at 27·82. The ship was a mere labouring, crazy wreck, that might sink at any moment. At half-past three o'clock the barometer had fallen to 27·62. Save when lighted by occasional flashes of sheet-lightning, which showed to the cowed wretches their awe-stricken faces, this tragedy of the elements was performed in a darkness which was almost palpable.
Suddenly the mercury rose to 29·90, and, with one awful shriek, the wind dropped to a calm. The Lady Franklin had reached the centre of the cyclone. Partridge, glancing to where the great body of drunken Blunt rolled helplessly lashed to the wheel, felt a strange selfish joy thrill him. If the ship survived the drunken captain would be dismissed, and he, Partridge, the gallant, would reign in his stead. The schooner, no longer steadied by the wind, was at the mercy of every sea. Volumes of water poured over her. Presently she heeled over, for, with a triumphant scream, the wind leapt on to her from a fresh quarter. Following its usual course, the storm returned upon its track. The hurricane was about to repeat itself from the north-west.
The sea, pouring down through the burst hatchway, tore the door of the cuddy from its hinges. Sylvia found herself surrounded by a wildly-surging torrent which threatened to overwhelm her. She shrieked aloud for aid, but her voice was inaudible even to herself. Clinging to the mast which penetrated the little cuddy, she fixed her eyes upon the door behind which she imagined North was, and whispered a last prayer for succour. The door opened, and from out the cabin came a figure clad in black. She looked up, and the light of the expiring lamp showed her a face that was not that of the man she hoped to see. Then a pair of dark eyes beaming ineffable love and pity were bent upon her, and a pair of dripping arms held her above the brine as she had once been held in the misty mysterious days that were gone.
In the terror of that moment the cloud which had so long oppressed her brain passed from it. The action of the strange man before her completed and explained the action of the convict chained to the Port Arthur coal-wagons, of the convict kneeling in the Norfolk Island torture-chamber. She remembered the terrible experience of Macquarie Harbour. She recalled the evening of the boat-building, when, swung into the air by stalwart arms, she had promised the rescuing prisoner to plead for him with her kindred. Regaining her memory thus, all the agony and shame of the man's long life of misery became at once apparent to her. She understood how her husband had deceived her, and with what base injustice and falsehood he had bought her young love. No question as to how this doubly-condemned prisoner had escaped from the hideous isle of punishment she had quitted occurred to her. She asked not—even in her thoughts—how it had been given to him to supplant the chaplain in his place on board the vessel. She only considered, in her sudden awakening, the story of his wrongs, remembered only his marvellous fortitude and love, knew only, in this last instant of her pure, ill-fated life, that as he had saved her once from starvation and death, so had he come again to save her from sin and from despair. Whoever has known a deadly peril will remember how swiftly thought then travelled back through scenes clean forgotten, and will understand how Sylvia's retrospective vision merged the past into the actual before her, how the shock of recovered memory subsided in the grateful utterance of other days—"Good Mr. Dawes!"
The eyes of the man and woman met in one long, wild gaze. Sylvia stretched out her white hands and smiled, and Richard Devine understood in his turn the story of the young girl's joyless life, and knew how she had been sacrificed.
In the great crisis of our life, when, brought face to face with annihilation, we are suspended gasping over the great emptiness of death, we become conscious that the Self which we think we knew so well has strange and unthought-of capacities. To describe a tempest of the elements is not easy, but to describe a tempest of the soul is impossible. Amid the fury of such a tempest, a thousand memories, each bearing in its breast the corpse of some dead deed whose influence haunts us yet, are driven like feathers before the blast, as unsubstantial and as unregarded. The mists which shroud our self—knowledge become transparent, and we are smitten with sudden lightning-like comprehension of our own misused power over our fate.
This much we feel and know, but who can coldly describe the hurricane which thus o'erwhelms him? As well ask the drowned mariner to tell of the marvels of mid-sea when the great deeps swallowed him and the darkness of death encompassed him round about. These two human beings felt that they had done with life. Together thus, alone in the very midst and presence of death, the distinctions of the world they were about to leave disappeared. Then vision grew clear. They felt as beings whose bodies had already perished, and as they clasped hands their freed souls, recognizing each the loveliness of the other, rushed tremblingly together.
Borne before the returning whirlwind, an immense wave, which glimmered in the darkness, spouted up and towered above the wreck. The wretches who yet clung to the deck looked shuddering up into the bellying greenness, and knew that the end was come.
END OF BOOK THE FOURTH.