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CHAPTER VIII.


NIX ET NOX.


THE chief characteristic of the snow-storm is its blackness. Nature's habitual aspect during a storm, the earth or sea black and the sky pale, is reversed: the sky is black, the ocean white; foam below, darkness above,—an horizon walled in with smoke; a zenith roofed with crape. The tempest resembles a cathedral hung with mourning; but there is no light in that cathedral,—no phantom lights on the crests of the waves, no spark, no phosphorescence, naught but a dense shadow. The polar cyclone differs from the tropical cyclone, inasmuch as the one sets fire to every light, and the other extinguishes them all. The world is suddenly converted into a vaulted cave. Out of the night falls a dust of pale spots, which hesitate between sky and sea. These spots, which are flakes of snow, slip, wander, and float. It is like the tears of a winding-sheet putting themselves into life-like motion. A mad wind mingles with this dissemination. Blackness crumbling into whiteness, the furious into the obscure, all the tumult of which the sepulchre is capable, a whirlwind under a catafalque,—such is the snow-storm. Underneath trembles the ocean, forming and reforming over portentous depths. In the polar wind, which is electrical, the flakes turn suddenly into hailstones, and the air becomes filled with projectiles; the water crackles, shot with grape. There are no thunder-claps; the evening of boreal storms is silent. What is sometimes said of the cat, "It swears," may be applied to this lightning. It is a menace proceeding from a mouth half open, and strangely inexorable. The snow-storm is a storm blind and dumb; when it has passed, the ships also are often blind and the sailors dumb.

To escape from such danger is difficult. It would be wrong, however, to consider shipwreck inevitable. The Danish fishermen of Disco and the Balesin; the seekers of black whales; Hearn, steering towards Behring Strait to discover the mouth of Coppermine River; Hudson, Mackenzie, Vancouver, Ross, Dumont d'Urville,—all underwent almost at the pole itself the wildest hurricanes, and escaped out of them.

It was into this description of tempest that the hooker had entered, triumphant and under full sail. Frenzy against frenzy. When Montgomery, escaping from Rouen, drove his galley, with all the force of its oars, against the chain barring the Seine at La Bouille, he showed similar effrontery. The "Matutina" sailed on fast; she keeled over so much under her sails that at times she was at an angle of fifteen degrees with the sea; but her well-rounded keel adhered to the water as if glued to it. The keel resisted the grasp of the hurricane; the lantern at the prow still cast its light ahead. The clouds settled down more and more upon the sea around the hooker. Not a gull, not a sea-mew, was to be seen,—nothing but snow. The expanse of waves was becoming contracted and terrible; only three or four gigantic billows were visible. Now and then a tremendous flash of copper-coloured lightning broke out from behind the heavy masses of clouds on the horizon and in the zenith. This sudden burst of vermilion-flame showed the immense size and blackness of the clouds; while the brief illumination of ocean to which the first layer of clouds and the distant boundaries of celestial chaos seemed to adhere plainly revealed the horrors of their immediate surroundings. Against this fiery background, the snow-flakes looked so black that they reminded one of dark butterflies darting about in a furnace; then, everything was once more veiled in gloom. The first explosion over, the squall, still in mad pursuit of the hooker, began a savage, continuous roar. Nothing could be more appalling than this sort of monologue of the tempest. The gloomy recitative seems intended to serve as a momentary rest for the contending forces,—a sort of truce maintained in the mighty deep.

The hooker held wildly on her course. Her two mainsails especially were doing wonderful work. The sky and sea were like ink compared with the jets of foam running higher than the mast. Every instant masses of water swept the deck like a deluge, and at each roll of the vessel the hawse-holes—now to starboard, now to larboard—became so many open mouths vomiting back foam into the sea. The women had taken refuge in the cabin, but the men remained on deck; the blinding snow eddied round, the surge mingling with it.

At that moment the chief of the band, standing abaft and holding with one hand to the shrouds, and with the other taking off the kerchief he wore round his head and waving it in the light of the lantern, gay and arrogant, with pride in his face, and his hair in wild disorder, cried out,—

"We are free!"

"Free, free, free!" echoed the fugitives, and the band, seizing hold of the rigging, rose up on deck.

"Hurrah!" shouted the chief.

And the band shouted in the storm, "Hurrah!"

Just as this clamour was dying away in the tempest a loud, solemn voice rose from the other end of the vessel, saying, "Silence!"

All turned their heads. The darkness was thick, and the doctor was leaning against the mast, so that he seemed part of it, and they could not see him.

The voice spoke again: "Listen!"

All were silent. They distinctly heard through the darkness the tolling of a bell.