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Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 16



IT was with wild rejoicing and delight that those on board the hooker saw the hostile land recede and lessen behind them. By degrees the dark ring of ocean rose higher, dwarfing in the twilight Portland, Purbeck, Tineham, Kimmeridge, the Matravers, the long lines of dim cliffs, and the coast dotted with lighthouses. England disappeared. The fugitives had now nothing around them but the sea.

All at once the darkness became frightful. There was no longer space; the sky became as black as ink, and closed in round the vessel. The snow began to fall slowly, only a few flakes at first. They might have been ghosts. Nothing else was visible. A snare lurked in every possibility.

It is in this cavernous darkness that in our climate the Polar water-spout makes its appearance. A great muddy cloud, resembling the belly of a hydra, hung over the ocean, its livid base adhering to the waves in some places. Some of these adherences resembled pouches with holes, pumping up the sea, disgorging vapour, and refilling themselves with water. Here and there these suctions raised cones of foam on the sea.

The boreal storm hurled itself on the hooker; the hooker rushed to meet it. The squall and the vessel met as though to insult each other. In the first mad shock not a sail was reefed, not a jib lowered; the mast creaked and bent back as if in fear. Cyclones in our northern hemisphere circle from left to right, in the same direction as the hands of a watch, with a velocity which is sometimes as much as sixty miles an hour. Although she was entirely at the mercy of the storm, the hooker behaved as if she were out in moderate weather, without any further precaution than keeping her head to the billows, with the wind broad on the bow so as to avoid being caught broadside on. This prudential measure would have availed her nothing in case of the wind's shifting and taking her aback.

A deep rumbling sound was audible in the distance. The roar of ocean,—what can be compared to it? It is the great brutish howl of the universe. What we call matter,—that unsearchable organism, that amalgamation of incommensurable energies, in which can occasionally be detected an almost imperceptible degree of intention which makes us shudder; that blind, benighted cosmos; that enigmatical Pan,—has a cry, a strange cry, prolonged, obstinate, and continuous, which is between speech and thunder. That cry is the hurricane. Other and different voices, songs, melodies, clamours, tones, proceed from nests, from broods, from pairings, from nuptials, from homes. This trumpet-blast comes out of the Naught, which is All. Other voices express the soul of the universe; this expresses its brute power. It is the howl of the formless; it is the inarticulate uttered by the indefinite; it is a thing full of pathos and of terror. Those clamours resound above and beyond man. They rise, fall, undulate; form waves of sound; constitute all sorts of wild surprises for the mind; now burst close to the ear with the importunity of a peal of trumpets, now assail us with the rumbling hoarseness of distance,—giddy uproar which resembles a language, and which in fact is a language. It is the effort which the world makes to speak; it is the lisping of the wonderful. In this wail is manifested vaguely all that the vast, dark palpitation endures, suffers, accepts, rejects. For the most part it talks nonsense; it is like an attack of chronic sickness. We fancy that we are witnessing the descent of supreme evil into the infinite. At moments we seem to discern a reclamation of the elements, some vain effort of chaos to re-assert itself over creation. At times it is a despairing moan; the void bewails and justifies itself. It is the pleading of the world's cause: we can fancy that the universe is engaged in a law-suit; we listen, we try to grasp the reasons given, the redoubtable for and against. Such a moaning among the shadows has the tenacity of a syllogism. Here is a vast field for thought; here is the raison d'être of mythologies and polytheisms. To the terror of these wild murmurs are added superhuman outlines melting away as they appear,—Eumenides which are almost distinct, throats of furies shaped in the clouds, Plutonian chimeras almost defined. No horrors can equal those sobs, those laughs, those tricks of tumult, those inscrutable questions and answers, those appeals to unknown aid. Man is utterly bewildered in the presence of that awful incantation; he bows under the enigma of those Draconian intonations. What latent meaning have they; what do they signify; what do they threaten; what do they implore? It would seem as though all bonds were loosened. Vociferations from precipice to precipice, from air to water, from wind to wave, from rain to rock, from zenith to nadir, from stars to foam; the abyss unmuzzled,—such is this tumult, complicated by some mysterious contest with evil consciences.

The loquacity of night is not less lugubrious than its silence. One feels in it the wrath of the unknown. Night is a presence. The presence of what? For that matter we must distinguish between night and the shadowy. In the night there is the absolute; in the shadowy, the multiple. The night is one, the shadowy is made up of many. In this infinite and indefinite shadowy lives something or some one; but that which lives there forms part of our death. After our earthly career, when the shadowy will be clear to us, the life which is beyond will seize us; meanwhile it appears to touch and try us. Obscurity is a pressure. Night is, as it were, a hand placed on our soul; at certain hideous and solemn hours we feel that which is beyond the wall of the tomb encroaching on us.

Never does this proximity of the unknown seem more imminent than in storms at sea. The horrible combines with the fantastic. The possible interrupter of human actions, the old Cloud-compeller, has it in his power to mould, in whatsoever shape he chooses, the changing elements, the wild incoherence, and aimless force. That mystery the tempest is ever accepting and executing some unknown change of real or apparent will. Poets in all ages have called the waves capricious; but there is no such thing as caprice. The disconcerting enigmas in Nature which we call caprice, and in human life chance, are the results of unseen and incomprehensible laws.