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CHAPTER XVI.


THE PROBLEM SUDDENLY WORKS IN SILENCE.


THE hurricane ended as abruptly as it began. In a minute or two there was no longer sou'-wester or nor'-wester in the air. The fierce clarions of space were mute. The whole of the water-spout had poured from the sky without any sign of diminution, as if it had slided perpendicularly into a gulf beneath. Snow-flakes took the place of hailstones; the snow began to fall slowly. There was no more swell; the sea quieted down.

Such sudden cessations are peculiar to snow-storms. The electric influence exhausted, everything becomes still,—even the sea, which in ordinary storms often remains agitated for a long time. In snow-storms it is not so. There is then no prolonged disturbance in the deep. Like a weary 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 own time, on the occasion of the memorable hurricane of July 27, 1867, at Jersey the wind, after fourteen hours' fury, suddenly relapsed into a dead calm.

In a few minutes the hooker was floating on sleeping waters. At the same time (for the last phase of these storms resembles the first) the crew 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 in around the vessel. Walls of inky blackness surrounded the "Matutina," and with the grim deliberation of an encroaching iceberg were slowly but surely closing in around her. In the zenith nothing was visible; a lid of fog seemed to be closing down upon the vessel. It was as if the hooker were at the bottom of an unfathomable abyss. The sea was like a puddle of molten lead. No movement was perceptible in the waters,—ominous immobility! The ocean is never less tame than when it is still as a pool. All was silence, stillness, darkness. Perchance the silence of inanimate objects is taciturnity. The deck was horizontal, with an insensible slope to the sides. A few broken planks were sliding about. The block on which they had lighted the tow steeped in tar, in place of the signal-light which had been washed away, no longer swung 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, and almost perpendicularly. No sound of breakers could be heard. The quiet of midnight was over all.

This profound peace succeeding such terrific tempests and frenzied efforts was, for these poor creatures so long tossed about, an unspeakable comfort; it was as though the punishment of the rack had ceased. It seemed an assurance that they would be saved. They regained confidence. All that had been fury was now tranquillity. It appeared to them a pledge of peace. Their wretched hearts swelled with hope. They were able to let go the end of rope or beam to which they had clung, to rise, straighten themselves up, stand erect, and move about. They felt inexpressibly relieved. There are in the depths of darkness such phases of paradise, preparations for other things. It was evident that they were delivered from the storm, from the foam, from the wind, from 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 now."

Suddenly they found that all was indeed over. One of the sailors, the northern Basque, Galdeazun by name, going down into the hold to look for a rope, came hurriedly up again and exclaimed,—

"The hold is full!"

"Of what?" asked the chief.

"Of water," answered the sailor.

"What does that mean?" cried the chief.

"It means," replied Galdeazun, "that in half an hour we shall be at the bottom of the sea."