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Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 10







THE snow-storm is one of the greatest mysteries of the ocean. It is the most obscure of things meteorological; obscure in every sense of the word. It is a mixture of fog and storm; and even in our own day we cannot well account for the phenomenon. Hence many disasters.

We try to explain all things by the action of wind and wave; yet in the air there is a force which is not the wind, and in the waters a force which is not the wave. That force, both in the air and in the water, is effluvium. Air and water are two nearly identical liquid masses, entering into the composition of each other by condensation and dilatation, so that to breathe is to drink. Effluvium alone is fluid. The wind and the wave are only impulses; effluvium is a current. The wind is visible in clouds, the wave is visible in foam; effluvium is invisible. From time to time, however, it says, "I am here." Its "I am here" is a clap of thunder.

The snow-storm offers a problem analogous to the dry fog. If the solution of the callina of the Spaniards, and the quobar of the Ethiopians be possible, assuredly that solution will be achieved by attentive observation of magnetic effluvium.

But for effluvium a host of circumstances would remain unexplained. Strictly speaking, the changes in the velocity of the wind, varying from three feet per second to two hundred and twenty feet, would explain the variations of the waves rising from three inches in a calm sea to thirty-six feet in a raging one. Strictly speaking, the horizontal direction of the winds, even in a squall, enables us to understand how it is that a wave thirty feet high can be fifteen hundred feet long. But why are the waves of the Pacific four times higher near America than near Asia; that is to say, higher in the East than in the West? Why is the contrary true of the Atlantic? Why, at the Equator, are they highest in the middle of the sea? Wherefore these deviations in the swell of the ocean? This is something which magnetic effluvium, combined with terrestrial rotation and sidereal attraction, can alone explain.

Is not this mysterious complication needed to explain an oscillation of the wind veering, for instance, by the west from southeast to northeast, then suddenly returning in the same great curve from northeast to southeast, so as to make in thirty-six hours a prodigious circuit of five hundred and sixty degrees? Such was the preface to the snow-storm of March 17, 1867.

The storm-waves of Australia reach a height of eighty feet; this fact is connected with close proximity of the Pole. Storms in those latitudes result less from disorder of the winds than from submarine electrical disturbances. In the year 1866 the transatlantic cable was disturbed at regular intervals in its workings for two hours in the twenty-four,—from noon to two o'clock,—by a sort of intermittent fever. Certain compositions and decompositions of forces produce certain phenomena which force themselves on the calculations of the seaman under penalty of shipwreck. The day that navigation, now a routine, shall become a branch of mathematics; the day we shall, for instance, seek to know why it is that hot winds sometimes come from the north, and cold winds from the south; the day when we shall understand that diminutions of temperature are proportionate to oceanic depths; the day when we shall realize that the globe is a vast load-stone polarized in immensity, with two axes (an axis of rotation, and an axis of effluvium, intersecting each other at the centre of the earth), and that the magnetic poles turn the geographical poles; when those who risk life will choose to risk it scientifically; when the captain shall be a meteorologist, and the pilot a chemist,—then will many catastrophes be avoided. The sea is as magnetic as it is aquatic; a host of unknown forces float in its liquid waves. To behold in the sea only a mass of water is not to behold it at all. The sea is an ebb and flow of fluid, complicated by magnetic and capillary attractions even more than by hurricanes. Molecular adhesion manifested among other phenomena by capillary attraction, although microscopic, takes in the ocean its place in the grandeur of immensity; and the wave of effluvium sometimes aids, sometimes counteracts, the wave of the air and the wave of the waters. He who is ignorant of electric law is ignorant of hydraulic law; for the one intermixes with the other. It is true there is no study more difficult nor more obscure; it verges on empiricism, just as astronomy verges on astrology; and yet without this study there is no such thing as real navigation. Having said this much, we will pass on.

One of the most dangerous components of the sea is the snow-storm. The snow-storm is above all things magnetic; the pole produces it as it produces the aurora borealis. Storms are the nervous attacks and delirious frenzies of the sea. The sea has its ailments. Tempests may be compared to maladies. Some are fatal, others are not; some may be escaped, others cannot. A snow-storm is considered extremely dangerous on the sea. Jarabija, one of the pilots of Magellan, termed it "a cloud issuing from the devil's sore side."[1] Surcouf said: "Il y a du trousse-galant dans cette tempête-là." The old Spanish navigators called this kind of squall, la nevada when it came with snow; la helada, when it came with hail. According to them, bats fell from the sky with the snow. Snow-storms are characteristic of polar latitudes; nevertheless, at times they glide, one might almost say tumble, into our climates.

The "Matutina," as we have seen, plunged resolutely into the perils of the night,—perils greatly increased by the impending storm. She braved them with a sort of tragic audacity, for it must be remembered that she had received due warning.


  1. Una nube salida del malo lado del diablo.