Through the Vortex of a Cyclone

Through the Vortex of a Cyclone  (1907) 
by William Hope Hodgson

Extracted from Cornhill magazine, 1907 Nov, pp. 643–663.


(The Cyclone.—'The most fearful enemy which the mariner's perilous calling obliges him to encounter.')

It was in the middle of November that the four-masted barque 'Golconda' came down from Crockett and anchored off Telegraph Hill, San Francisco. She was loaded with grain, and was homeward bound round Cape Horn. Five days later she was towed out through the Golden Gates, and cast loose off the Heads, and so set sail upon the voyage that was to come so near to being her last.

For a fortnight we had baffling winds; but after that time got a good slant that carried us down to within a couple of degrees of the Line. Here it left us, and over a week passed before we had managed to tack and drift our way into the Southern Hemisphere. About five degrees South of the Line we met with a fair wind that helped us Southward another ten or twelve degrees, and there, early one morning, it dropped us, ending with a short, but violent, thunder storm, in which, so frequent were the lightning flashes, that I managed to secure a picture of one, whilst in the act of snap-shotting the sea and clouds upon our port side.

During the day, the wind, as I have remarked, left us entirely, and we lay becalmed under a blazing, hot sun. We hauled up the lower sails to prevent them from chafing as the vessel rolled lazily on the scarce perceptible swells, and busied ourselves, as is customary on such occasions, with much swabbing and cleaning of paint-work. As the day proceeded, so did the heat seem to increase; the atmosphere lost its clear look, and a low haze seemed to lie about the ship at a great distance. At times, the air seemed to have about it a queer, unbreathable quality; so that one caught oneself breathing with a sense of distress. And so, hour by hour, the day moved steadily onward, the sense of oppression growing ever more acute.

Then—it was, I should think, about four-thirty in the afternoon—I became conscious of the fact that a strange, unnatural, dull, brick-red glare was in the sky. Very subtle it was, and I could not say that it came from any particular place; but rather it seemed to shine im the atmosphere. As I stood looking at it, the Mate came up beside me. After about half a minute, he gave out a sudden exclamation:

'Hark!' he said, 'did you hear that?'

'No, Mr. Jackson,' I replied. 'What was it like?'

'Listen!' was all his reply, and I obeyed, and so for perhaps a couple of minutes we stood there in silence.

'There!—— There it is again!' he exclaimed, suddenly, and in the same instant I heard it, a sound like low, strange growling far away in the North-East. For about fifteen seconds it lasted, and then died away in a low, hollow, moaning noise, that sounded indescribably dree. After that, for a space longer we stood listening, and so, at last, it came again, a far, faint, wild-beast growling away over the North-Eastern horizon. As it died away with that strange hollow note, the Mate touched my arm:

'Go and call the Old Man,' he said, meaning the Captain, 'and while you're down, have a look at the barometer.' In both of these matters I obeyed him, and in a few moments the Captain was on deck, standing beside the Mate—listening.

'How's the glass?'' asked the Mate, as I came up.

'Steady,' I answered, and at that he nodded his head, and resumed his listening. Yet, though we stood silent, maybe for the better part of half an hour, there came no further repetition of that weird, far-off growling, and so, as the glass was steady, no serious notice was taken of the matter.

That evening we experienced a sunset of quite indescribable gorgeousness, which had, to me, an unnatural glow about it, especially in the way in which it lit up the surface of the sea, which was, at this time, stirred by a slight evening breeze. Evidently, the Captain was of the opinion that it foreboded something in the way of ill weather; for he gave orders for the watch on deck to shorten sail, which was done. By the time the men had got down from aloft, the sun had set, and the evening was fading into dusk; yet, despite that, all the sky to the North-East was full of the most vivid red and orange; this being, it will be remembered, the direction from which we had heard earlier that sullen growling. It was about this time, I remember, that I heard the Mate remark to the Captain that we were in for bad weather, and that it was his belief a cyclone was coming down upon us; but this the Captain, who was quite a young fellow, pooh-poohed, telling him that he pinned his faith to the barometer, which was perfectly steady. Yet I could see that the Mate was by no means so sure, but forbore to press further his opinion against his superior's.

Presently, as the night came down upon the world, the orange tints went out of the sky, and only a sombre, threatening red was left, with a strangely bright rift of white light running horizontally across it, about twenty degrees above the North-Eastern horizon. This lasted for nigh on to half an hour, and so did it impress the crew with a sense of something impending, that many of them crouched, staring over the port rail, until long after it had faded into the general greyness. That night, I recollect, it was my watch from midnight until four in the morning. When the boy came down to wake me, he told me that it had been lightning during the past watch. Even as he spoke, a bright, bluish glare lit up the porthole; but there was no succeeding thunder. I sprang hastily from my bunk and dressed; then, seizing my camera, ran out on deck. I opened the shutter, and the next instant—flash! a great stream of electricity sprang out of the zenith.

Directly afterwards the Mate called to me from the break of the poop to know whether I had managed to secure that one. I replied Yes, I thought I had, and at that he told me to come up on to the poop beside him and have a further try from there; for he, the Captain, and the Second Mate were much interested in my photographic hobby, and did all in their power to aid me in the securing of successful snaps.

That the Mate was uneasy, I very soon perceived; for presently, a little while after he had relieved the Second Mate, he ceased his pacing of the poop-deck and came and leant over the rail alongside of me.

'I wish to goodness the Old Man would have her shortened right down to lower topsails,' he said, a moment later, in a low voice. 'There's some rotten, dirty weather knocking around. I can smell it!' And he raised his head and sniffed at the air.

'Why not shorten her down on your own?' I asked him.

'Can't!' he replied. 'The Old Man's left orders not to touch anything, but to call him if any change occurs. He goes too d—n much by the barometer to suit me, and won't budge a rope's end because it's steady.'

All this time the lightning had been playing at frequent intervals across the sky; but now there came several gigantic flashes, seeming extraordinarily near to the vessel, pouring down out of a great rift in the clouds veritable torrents of electric fluid. I switched open the shutter of my camera, and pointed the lens upward; the following instant I secured a magnificent photograph of a great flash which, bursting down from the same rift, divided to the East and West in a sort of vast electric arch. For perhaps a minute we waited, thinking that such a flash must be followed by thunder, but none came. Instead, from the darkness to the North-East, there sounded a faint, far-drawn-out wailing noise that seemed to echo queerly across the quiet sea. And after that—silence. The Mate stood upright and faced round at me.

'Do you know,' he said, 'only once before in my life have I heard anything like that, and that was before the cyclone in which the “Lancing” and the “Eurasian” were lost in the Indian Ocean.'

'Do you think then there's really any danger of a cyclone now?' I asked him, with something of a little thrill of excitement.

'I think——' he began to reply, and then stopped and swore suddenly. 'Look!' he said, in a loud voice .... 'Look! “Stalk” lightning, as I'm a living man!' And he pointed to the North-East. 'Photograph that while you've got the chance; you'll never have another as long as you live!'

I looked in the direction which he indicated, and there, sure enough, were great, pale, flickering streaks and tongues of flame rising apparently out of the sea. They remained steady for some ten or fifteen seconds, and in that time I was able to take a snap of them. This photograph, as I discovered when I came to develop the negative, has not, I regret to say, taken regard of a strange, indefinable dull-red glare that lit up the horizon at the same time; but, as it is, it remains to me a treasured record of a form of electrical phenomenon but seldom seen, even by those whose good, or ill, fortune has allowed them to come face to face with a cyclonic storm. Before leaving this incident I would once more impress upon the reader that this strange lightning was not descending from the atmosphere, but rising from the sea.

It was after I had secured this last snap that the Mate declared it to be his conviction that a great cyclonic storm was coming down upon us from the North-East, and with that—for about the twentieth time that watch—he went below to consult the barometer. He came back in about ten minutes to say that it was still steady; but that he had called the Old Man and told him about the 'Stalk' lightning; yet the Captain, having heard from him that the glass remained steady, refused to be alarmed; but had promised to come up and take a look round. This, in a short while, he did; but, as Fate would have it, there was no further display of the 'Stalk' lightning, and, as the other kind had now become no more than an occasional dull glare behind the clouds to the North-East, he retired once more, leaving orders to be called if there were any change in either the glass or the weather.

With the daylight there came a change, a low, slow-moving scud driving down from the North-East, and drifting across the face of the newly risen sun, which was shining with a queer, unnatural glare. Indeed, so stormy and be-burred looked the sun, that I could have applied to it with truth that line:

And the red sun all bearded with the storm,

to describe its threatening aspect.

The glass also showed a change at last, rising a little for a short while and then dropping about a tenth, and at that the Mate hurried down to inform the Skipper, who was speedily up on deck. Yet he refused to shorten her down any further, remarking that such light airs as we had were fair, and he was not going to throw away a fine fair wind for any 'old woman's fancies.' Presently the wind began to freshen; but the orange-red burr about the sun remained, and also it seemed to me that the tint of the water had a 'bad weather' look about it. I mentioned this to the Mate, and he nodded agreement, but said nothing in so many words, for the Captain was standing near. By seven bells (3.30 a.m.) the wind had freshened so much that we were lying over to it with a big cant of the decks, and making a good twelve knots under nothing higher than the main t'gallant.

Presently, at eight bells, we were relieved by the other watch, and went below for a short sleep. At eight o'clock, when again I came on deck, I found that the sea had begun to rise somewhat, but that otherwise the weather was much as it had been when I left the decks, save that the sun was hidden by a heavy squall to windward which was coming down upon us. Some fifteen minutes later it struck the ship, making the foam fly and carrying away the main topsail sheet. Immediately upon this the heavy iron ring in the clew of the sail began to thrash and beat about, as the sail flapped in the wind, striking great blows against the steel yard; but the clewline was manned, and some of the men went aloft to repair the damage, after which the sail was once more sheeted home, and we continued to carry on. About this time the Mate sent me down into the saloon to take another look at the glass, and I found that it had fallen a further tenth. When I reported this to him he had the main t'gallant taken in, but hung on to the mainsail, waiting for eight bells, when the whole crowd would be on deck to give a hand. We had by this begun to ship water, and most of us were speedily very thoroughly soused; yet we got the sail off her, and she rode the easier for the relief.

A little before one o'clock in the afternoon I went out on deck to have a final 'squint' at the weather, before turning in for a short sleep, and found that the wind had freshened considerably, the seas striking the counter of the vessel at times, and flying to a considerable height in foam. At four o'clock, when once more I appeared on deck, I discovered the spray flying over us with a good deal of freedom, and the solid water coming aboard occasionally in odd tons. Yet, so far, there was, to a sailorman, nothing worthy of note in the severity of the weather. It was blowing merely a moderately heavy gale, before which, under our six topsails and foresail, we were making a good twelve knots an hour to the Southward. Indeed, it seemed to me at this time that the Captain was right in his belief that we were not in for any very dirty weather, and I said as much to the Mate, whereat he laughed somewhat bitterly.

'Don't you make any sort of mistake!' he said, and pointed to leeward, where continual flashes of lightning darted down from a dark bank of cloud. 'We're already within the borders of the cyclone. We are travelling, so I take it, about a knot slower an hour to the South than the bodily forward movement of the storm, so that you may reckon it's overtaking us at the rate of something like a mile an hour. Later on, I expect, it'll get a move on it, and then a torpedo boat wouldn't catch it! This bit of a breeze that we're having now'—and he gestured to windward with his elbow—'is only fluff—nothing more than the outer fringe of the advancing cyclone! Keep your eye lifting to the North-East, and keep your ears open. Wait until you hear the thing yelling at you as loud as a million mad tigers!'

He came to a pause, and knocked the ashes out of his pipe; then he slid the empty 'weapon' into the side pocket of his long oilskin coat. And all the time I could see that he was ruminating.

'Mark my words,' he said at last, and speaking with great deliberation. 'Within twelve hours it'll be upon us!'

He shook his head at me. Then he added:

'Within twelve hours, my boy, you and I and every other soul on this blessed packet may be down there in the cold!' And the brute pointed downward into the sea, and grinned cheerfully at me.

It was our watch that night from eight to twelve; but, except that the wind freshened a trifle hourly, nothing of note occurred during our watch. The wind was blowing just a good fresh gale, and giving us all we wanted to keep the ship doing her best under topsails and foresail. At midnight I went below for asleep. When I was called at four o'clock, I found a very different state of affairs. The day had broken, and showed the sea in a very confused state, with a tendency to run up into heaps, and there was a good deal less wind; but what struck me as most remarkable, and brought home with uncomfortable. force the Mate's warning of the previous day, was the colour of the sky, which seemed to be everywhere one great glare of gloomy, orange-coloured light, streaked here and there with red. So intense was this glare that the seas, as they rose clumsily into heaps, caught and reflected the light in an extraordinary manner, shining and glittering gloomily, like vast moving mounds of liquid flame: the whole presenting an effect of astounding and uncanny grandeur.

I made my way up on to the poop, carrying my camera. There I met the Mate.

'You'll not want that pretty little box of yours,' he remarked, and tapped my camera. 'I guess you'll find a coffin more useful.'

'Then it's coming?' I said.

'Look!' was all his reply, and he pointed into the North-East.

I saw in an instant what it was at which he pointed. It was a great black wall of cloud that seemed to cover about seven points of the horizon, extending almost from North to East, and reaching upward some fifteen degrees towards the zenith. The intense, solid blackness of this cloud was astonishing, and threatening to the beholder, seeming, indeed, to be more like a line of great black cliffs standing out of the sea, than a mass of thick vapour. I glanced aloft, and saw that the other watch were securing the mizzen upper topsail. At the same moment the Captain appeared on deck, and walked over to the Mate.

'Glass has dropped another tenth, Mr. Greyson,' he remarked, and glanced to windward. 'I think we'd better have the fore and main upper topsails off her.' Scarcely had he given the order before the Mate was down on the maindeck, shouting: 'Fore and main topsail hal'yards, lower away! Man clewlines and spillinglines!' So eager was he to have the sail off her. By the time that the upper topsails were furled I noted that the red glare had gone out of the greater part of the sky to windward, and a stiffish-looking squall was bearing down upon us. Away more to the North I saw that the black rampart of clouds had disappeared, and in place thereof it seemed to me that the clouds in that quarter were assuming a hard, tufted appearance, and changing their shapes with surprising rapidity. The sea also at this time was remarkable, acting uneasily, and hurling up queer little mounds of foam, which the passing squall caught and spread. All these points the Mate noted, for I heard him urging the Captain to take in the foresail and mizzen lower topsail. Yet this the Skipper seemed unwilling to do, but finally agreed to have the mizzen topsail off her. Whilst the men were up at this, the wind dropped abruptly in the tail of the squall, the vessel rolling heavily, and taking water and spray with every roll.

Now I want the reader to try to understand exactly how matters were at this particular and crucial moment. The wind had dropped entirely, and with the dropping of the wind a thousand different sounds broke harshly upon the ear, sounding almost unnatural in their distinctness, and impressing the ear with a sense of discomfort. With each roll of the ship there came a chorus of creaks and groans from the swaying masts and gear, and the sails slatted with a damp, disagreeable sound. Beyond the ship there was the constant harsh murmur of the sea, occasionally changing to a low roar, as one broke near us. One other sound there was that punctuated all these, and that was the loud, slapping blows of the seas as they hove themselves clumsily against the ship; and, for the rest, there was a strange sense of silence. Then, as sudden as the report of a heavy gun, a great bellowing came out of the North and East, and died away into a series of muttered growls. It was not thunder. It was the Voice of the approaching Cyclone.

In the same instant, the Mate nudged my shoulder and pointed, and I saw, with a great feeling of surprise, that a large waterspout had formed about two hundred yards astern, and was coming towards us. All about the base of it the sea was foaming in a strange manner, and the whole thing seemed to have a curious luminous quality.

It was in the first moments of astonishment, as I watched it, that I heard the Mate shout something to the Skipper about the foresail, and I realised suddenly that the thing was coming straight for the ship. I ran hastily to the taffrail, raised my camera, and snapped it, and then, as it seemed to tower right up above me, gigantic, I ran backwards in sudden fright. In the same instant there came a blinding flash of lightning, almost in my face, followed instantaneously by a tremendous roar of thunder, and I saw that the thing had burst within about fifty yards of the ship. The sea, immediately beneath where it had been, leapt up in a great hammock of solid water and foam, as though something as big as a house had been cast into the ocean. Then, rushing towards us, it struck the stern of the vessel, flying as high as our topsail yards in spray, and knocking me backwards on to the deck.

As I stood up and hurriedly wiped the water from my camera, I heard the Mate shout out to know if I were hurt, and then, in the same moment, and before I could reply, he cried out:

'It's coming! Look out, everybody! Hold on for your lives!'

Directly afterwards a shrill yelling noise seemed to fill the whole sky with a deafening, piercing sound. I glanced hastily over the port quarter. In that direction the whole surface of the ocean seemed to be torn up into the air in monstrous clouds of spray. The yelling sound passed into a vast scream, and the next instant the cyclone was upon us. Immediately the air was so full of flying spray that I could not see a yard before me, and the wind slapped me back against the teak companion, pinning me there for a few moments helpless. The ship heeled over to a terrible angle, so that for some seconds I thought we were going to capsize. Then, with a sudden lurch, she hove herself upright, and I became able to see about me a little, by switching the water from my face and shielding my eyes. Near to me the helmsman—a little Dago—was clinging to the wheel, looking like nothing so much as a drowned monkey, and palpably frightened to such an extent that he could hardly stand upright.

From him I looked round at so much of the vessel as I could see, and up at the spars, and so, presently, I discovered how it was that she had righted. The mizzen topmast was gone just below the heel of the t'gallantmast, and the fore topmast a little above the cap. The main topmast alone stood. It was the losing of these spars which had eased her, and allowed her to right so suddenly. Marvellously enough, the foresail—a small, new, No. 1 canvas stormsail—had stood the strain, and was now bellying out, with a high foot, the sheets evidently having surged under the wind pressure. What was more extraordinary was that the fore and main lower topsails were standing, and this despite the fact that the bare upper spars on both the fore and mizzen masts had been carried away.

And now, the first awful burst of the cyclone having passed with the righting of the vessel, the three sails stood, though tested to their utmost, and the ship, under the tremendous urging force of the storm, was tearing forward at a high speed through the seas, I glanced down now at myself and camera. Both were soaked; yet, as I discovered later, the latter would still take photographs. I struggled forward to the break of the poop, and glanced down on to the maindeck. The seas were breaking aboard every moment, and the spray flying over us continually in huge white clouds. And in my ears was the incessant, wild, roaring scream of the monster whirl-storm.

Then I saw the Mate. He was up against the lee-rail, chopping at something with a hatchet. At times the water left him visible to his knees; anon, he was completely submerged; but ever there was the whirl of his weapon amid the chaos of water, as he hacked and cut at the gear that held the mizzen t'gallant-mast crashing against the side. I saw him glance round once, and he beckoned with the hatchet to a couple of his watch who were fighting their way aft along the streaming decks. He did not attempt to shout; for no shout could have been heard in the incredible roaring of the wind. Indeed, so vastly loud was the noise made by this element that I had not even heard the topmasts carry away, though the sound of a large spar breaking will make as great a noise as the report of a big gun. The next instant, I had thrust my camera into one of the hencoops upon the poop, and turned to struggle aft to the companion way, for I knew it was no use going to the Mate's aid without axes.

Presently I was at the companion, and had the fastenings undone; then I opened the door, and sprang in on to the stairs. I slammed to the door, bolted it, and made my way below, and so, in a minute, had possessed myself of a couple of axes. With these I returned to the poop, fastening the companion doors carefully behind me, and so, in a little, was up to my neck in water on the maindeck, helping to clear away the wreckage. The second axe I had pushed into the hands of one of the men, and very soon we had the tangle cleared away. Then we scrambled away forrard along the decks, through the boiling swirls of foam and water that swept the vessel, as the seas thundered aboard, and so we came to the assistance of the Second Mate, who was desperately busied, along with some of his watch, in clearing away the broken foretopmast and yards that were held by their gear, thundering against the side of the ship.

Yet it must not be supposed that we were to manage this piece of work without coming to some harm; for, just as we made an end of it, an enormous sea swept aboard, and dashed one of the men against a spare topmast that was lashed along inside the bulwarks below the pin-rail. When we managed to pull the poor senseless fellow out from underneath the spar, where the sea had jammed him, we found that his left arm and collar-bone were broken. We took him forrard to the fo'cas'le, and there, with rough surgery, made him as comfortable as we could, after which we left him but half conscious in his bunk. After that, several wet, weary hours were spent in rigging rough preventer stays. Then the rest of us, men as well as officers, made our way aft to the poop, there to wait, desperately ready to cope with any emergency where our poor futile human strength might aid to our salvation. With great difficulty the carpenter had managed to sound the well, and, to our delight, found that we were not making any water; so that the blows of the broken spars had done us no vital harm.

By mid-day the following seas had risen to a truly formidable height, and two hands were working half naked at the wheel; for any carelessness in steering would most certainly have had serious consequences. In the course of the afternoon the Mate and I went down into the saloon to get something to eat, and here, out of the deafening roar of the wind, I managed to get a short chat with my senior officer. Talking about the waterspout which had so immediately preceded the first rush of the cyclone, I made mention of its luminous appearance, to which he replied that it was due probably to a vast electric action going on between the clouds and the sea. After that I asked him why the Captain did not heave to, and ride the storm out, instead of running before it, and risking being pooped, or broaching to. To this the Mate made reply that we were right in the line of translation—in other words, that we were directly in the track of the vortex, or centre, of the cyclone—and that the Skipper was doing his best to edge the ship to leeward, before the centre, with the awful pyramidal sea, should overtake us.

'If we can't manage to get out of the way,' he concluded grimly, 'you'll probably have a chance to photograph something that you'll never have time to develop!' I asked him how he knew that the ship was directly in the track of the vortex, and he replied that the facts that the wind was getting steadily worse, and not hauling, with the barometer constantly falling, were sure signs. And soon after that we returned to the deck.

As I have said, at mid-day the seas were truly formidable; but by 4 p.m. they were so much worse that it was impossible to pass fore or aft along the decks, the water breaking aboard as much as a hundred tons at a time, and sweeping all before it. All this time the roaring and howling of the cyclone was so incredibly loud that no word spoken, or shouted, out on deck, even though right into one's ear, could be heard; so that the utmost we could do to convey ideas to one another was to make signs. And so, because of this, and to get for a little out of the painful and exhausting pressure of the wind, each of the officers would in turn—sometimes singly and sometimes two at once—go down to the saloon for a short rest and smoke. It was in one of these brief 'smoke-ohs' that the Mate told me the vortex of the cyclone was within eighty miles of us, and coming down on us at something like twenty knots an hour, which, as this speed exceeded ours by perhaps twelve to fifteen miles an hour, made it probable that it would be upon us before midnight.

'Is there no chance of getting out of the way?' I asked. 'Couldn't we haul her up a trifle, and cut across the track a bit quicker than we are doing?'

'No,' replied the Mate, and shook his head thoughtfully. 'The seas would make a clean breach over us if we tried that. It's a case of “run till you're blind, and pray till you bust,”' he concluded, with a certain despondent brutalness.

I nodded assent, for I knew that it was true; and after that we were silent. A few minutes later we went up on deck. There we found that the wind had increased, and blown the foresail bodily away; yet, despite the greater weight of the wind, there had come a rift in the clouds, through which the sun was shining with a queer brightness. I glanced at the Mate, and smiled, for it seemed to me a good omen; but he shook his head, as one who should say: 'It is no good omen, but a sign of something worse coming.' That he was right in refusing to be assured I had speedy proof, for within ten minutes the sun had vanished, and the clouds seemed to be right down upon our mast-heads, great bellying webs of black vapour that seemed almost to mingle with the flying clouds of foam and spray. The wind appeared to gain strength minute by minute, rising into an abominable scream, so piercing at times as to seem to pain the ear-drums. In this wise an hour passed, the ship racing onward under her two topsails, seeming to have lost no speed with the losing of the foresail, though it is possible that she was more under water forrard than she had been. Then, about 5.30 p.m., I heard a louder roar in the air above us, so deep and tremendous that it seemed to daze and stun one; and, in the same instant, the two topsails were blown out of the bolt-ropes, and one of the hencoops was lifted bodily off the poop, and hurled into the air, descending with an inaudible crash on to the maindeck. Luckily, it was not the one into which I had thrust my camera.

With the losing of the topsails, we might be very truly described as running under bare poles, for now we had not a single stitch of sail set anywhere. Yet so furious was the increasing wind, so tremendous the weight of it, that the vessel, though urged forward only by the pressure of the element upon her naked spars and hull, managed to keep ahead of the monstrous following seas, which now were grown to truly awesome proportions. The next hour or two I remember only as a time that spread out monotonously. A time miserable and dazing, and dominated always by the deafening, roaring scream of the storm: a time of wetness and dismalness, in which I knew, more than saw, that the ship wallowed on and on through the interminable seas. And so, hour by hour, the wind increased as the vortex of the cyclone—the 'death-patch,' as it has been called—drew nearer and ever nearer.

Night came on early, or, if not night, a darkness that was fully its equivalent. And now I was able to see how tremendous was the electrical action that was going on all about us. There seemed to be no lightning flashes, but, instead, there came at times across the darkness queer luminous shudders of light. I am not acquainted with any word that better describes this extraordinary electrical phenomenon than 'shudders' of light—broad, dull shudders of light, that came in undefined belts across the black, thunderous canopy of clouds, which seemed so low that our main truck must have 'puddled' them with every roll of the ship. A further sign of atmospheric electricity was to be seen in the 'corpse-candles' which ornamented every yard-arm. Not only were they upon the yard-arms, but occasionally several at a time would glide up and down one or more of the fore and aft stays, at whiles swinging off to one side or the other, as the ship rolled, the sight having in it a distinct touch of weirdness.

It was an hour or so later, I believe a little after 9 p.m., that I witnessed the most striking manifestation of electrical action that I have ever seen, this being neither more nor less than a display of aurora borealis lightning. It occurred suddenly. First a ripple of 'Stalk' lightning showed away over the oncoming seas to the northward; then suddenly a red glare shone out in the sky, and, immediately afterwards, vast streamers of greenish flame appeared above the red glare. These lasted, perhaps, half a minute, expanding and contracting over the sky with a curious quivering motion. The whole formed a truly awe-inspiring spectacle. And then, slowly, the whole thing faded, and only the blackness of the night remained, slit in all directions by the phosphorescent crests of the seas as they thundered by.

I don't know whether I can convey any vivid impression of our case and chances at this time. It is so difficult, unless one has been through a similar experience, even to comprehend fully the incredible loudness of the wind. Imagine a noise as loud as the loudest thunder you have ever heard; then imagine this noise to last hour after hour, without intermission, and to have in it a hideously threatening hoarse note, and, blending with this, a constant yelling scream that rises at times to such a pitch that the very ear-drums seem to experience pain, and then, perhaps, you will be able to comprehend merely the amount of sound that has to be endured during the passage of one of these storms. And then, the force of the wind! Have you ever faced a wind so powerful that it splayed your lips apart, whether you would or not, laying your teeth bare to view? This is only a little thing; but it may help you to conceive something of the strength of a wind that will play such antics with one's mouth. The sensation it gives is extremely disagreeable—a sense of foolish impotence is how I can best describe it.

Another thing: I learned that, with my face to the wind, I could not breathe. This is a statement baldly put, but it should help me somewhat in my endeavour to bring home to you the force of the wind, as exemplified in the minor details of my experience. To give some idea of the wind's power, as shown in a larger way, one of the lifeboats on the after skids was up-ended against the mizzen-mast, and there crushed flat by the wind, as though a monstrous invisible hand had pinched it. Does this help you a little to gain an idea of wind-force never met with in a thousand ordinary lives?

Apart from the wind, it must be borne in mind that the gigantic seas pitch the ship about in a most abominable manner. Indeed, I have seen the stern of a ship hove up to such a height that I could see the seas ahead over the foretopsail yards, and when I explain that these will be something like seventy to eighty feet above the deck, you may be able to imagine what manner of sea is to be met with in a great cyclonic storm. Regarding this matter of the size and ferocity of the seas, I possess a photograph that was taken about ten o'clock at night. This was photographed by the aid of flashlight, an operation in which the Captain assisted me. We filled an old percussion pistol with flashlight powder; then, when I was ready, I opened the shutter of the camera, and pointed it over the stern into the darkness. The Captain fired the pistol, and, in the instantaneous great blaze of light that followed, I saw what manner of sea it was that pursued us. To say it was a mountain is to be futile. It was like a moving cliff.

As I snapped to the shutter of my camera, the question flashed into my brain: 'Are we going to live it out, after all?' And, suddenly, it came home to me that I was a little man, in a little ship, in the midst of a very great sea. And then fresh knowledge came to me; I knew, abruptly, that it would not be a very difficult thing to be afraid. The knowledge was new, and took me more in the stomach than the heart. Afraid! I had been in so many storms that I had forgotten they might be things to fear. Hitherto my sensation at the thought of bad weather had been chiefly a feeling of annoyed repugnance, due to many memories of dismal wet nights, in wetter clothes. But fear—no! And now this hateful sense of insecurity!

I turned from the taffrail, and hurried below to wipe the lens and cover of my camera; for the whole air was full of driving spray, that soaked everything, and hurt the face intolerably, being driven with such force by the storm.

Whilst I was drying my camera, the Mate came down for a minute's breathing-space.

'Still at it?' he said.

'Yes,' I replied; and I noticed, half consciously, that he made no effort to light his pipe, as he stood with his arm crooked over an empty brass candle-bracket.

'You'll never develop them,' he remarked.

'Of course I shall!' I replied, half crossly; but with a horrid little sense of chilliness at his words, which came so unaptly upon my mind, so lately perturbed by uncomfortable thoughts.

'You'll see,' he replied, with a sort of brutal terseness. 'We sha'n't be above water by midnight!'

'You can't tell,' I said. 'What's the use of meeting trouble? Vessels have lived through worse than this!'

'Have they?' he said, very quietly. 'Not many vessels have lived through worse than what's to come. I suppose you know we expect to meet the centre in less than an hour?'

'Well,' I replied, 'anyway, I shall go on taking photos. I guess if we come through all right, I shall have something to show people ashore.'

He laughed, a queer, little, bitter laugh.

'You may as well do that as anything else,' he said. 'We can't do anything to help ourselves. If we're not pooped before the centre reaches us, IT'll finish us in quick time!'

Then that cheerful officer of mine turned slowly, and made his way on deck, leaving me, as may be imagined, particularly exhilarated by his assurances. Presently I followed, and, having barred the companion-way behind me, struggled forward to the break of the poop, clutching blindly at any holdfast in the darkness. And so, for a space, we waited in the storm—the wind bellowing fiendishly, and our main decks one chaos of broken water, swirling to and fro in the darkness.

It was a little later that someone plucked me hard by the sleeve, and, turning, I made out with difficulty that it was the Captain trying to attract my attention. I caught his wrist, to show that I comprehended what he desired, and, at that, he dropped on his hands and knees, and crawled aft along the streaming poop-deck, I following, my camera held between my teeth by the handle. He reached the companion-way, and unbarred the starboard door; then crawled through, and [after him. I fastened the door, and made my way in his wake to the saloon. Here he turned to me. He was a curiously devil-may-care sort of man, and I found that he had brought me down to explain that the vortex would be upon us very soon, and that I should have the chance of a lifetime to get a snap of the much-talked-of pyramidal sea. And, in short, that he wished me to have everything prepared, and the pistol ready loaded with flashlight powder; for, as he remarked: 'If we get through, it'll be a rare curiosity to show some of those unbelieving devils ashore.' In a little we had everything ready, and then we made our way once more up on deck, the Captain placing the pistol in the pocket of his silk oilskin coat.

There, together, we waited under the after weather-cloth. The Second Mate I could not see, but occasionally I caught a vague sight of the First Mate, standing near the after binnacle, and obviously watching the steering. Apart from the puny halo that emanated from the binnacle, all else was blind darkness, save for the phosphorescent lights of the overhanging crests of the seas.

And above us and around us, filling all the sky with sound, was the incessant mad yowling of the cyclone, the noise so vast, and the volume and mass of the wind so enormous that I am impressed now, looking back upon the scene, with a sense of having been in a semi-stunned condition through those last minutes.

I am conscious now that a vague time passed. A time of noise and wetness, and lethargy. Then, abruptly, a tremendous flash of lightning burst through the clouds. It was followed almost directly by another, which seemed to rive the sky apart. Then, so quickly that the succeeding thunderclap was audible to our wind-deafened ears, the wind ceased, and, in the comparative, but hideously unnatural, silence, I caught the Captain's voice shouting:

'The Vortex—quick!'

Even as I pointed my camera over the rail, and opened the shutter, my brain was working with a preternatural avidity, drinking in a thousand uncanny sounds and echoes that seemed to come upon me from every quarter, brutally distinct against the background of the cyclone's receding howling. There were the harsh, bursting, frightening, intermittent noises of the seas, and, mingling with these, the shrill, hissing scream of the foam; the dismal sounds, that suggested dankness, of water swirling over our decks, and the faintly-heard creaking of the gear and shattered spars; and then—flash, in the same instant in which I had taken in these varied impressions, the Captain had fired the pistol, and I saw the Pyramidal Sea—a sight never to be forgotten, a sight rather for the dead than the living, a sea such as I could never have imagined, boiling and bursting upward in monstrous clots of water and foam as big as houses. I heard, without knowing I heard, the Captain's expression of amazement. Then a thunderous roar was in my ears. One of those vast, flying hills of water had struck the ship, and, for some moments, I had a sickening feeling that she was sinking beneath me. The water cleared, and I found myself clinging to the weather-cloth staunchion; the weather-cloth had gone. I wiped my eyes, and coughed dizzily for a little; then I glanced round for the Captain. I could see something dimly up against the rail, something that moved and stood upright. I called out to know if it were the Captain, and whether he were all right, to which he replied, heartily enough, but with a gasp, that he was 'All right so far.'

From him I glanced across to the wheel. There was no light in the binnacle, and, later, I found that it had been washed away, and with it one of the helmsmen. The other man, also, was gone; but we discovered him, nigh an hour later, jammed half through the rail that ran round the poop. To leeward, I heard the Mate singing out to know whether we were safe; to which both the Captain and I shouted a reply so as to assure him. It was then I became aware that my camera had been washed out of my hands. I found it eventually among a tangle of ropes and gear to leeward. Extraordinarily enough, the last photograph I had taken was practically unharmed.

Again and again the great hills of water struck the vessel, seeming to rise up on every side at once—towering, live pyramids of brine, hurling upward with a harsh, unceasing roaring. From her taffrail to her knight-heads the ship was swept fore and aft, so that no living thing could have existed a moment down upon the maindeck, which was practically submerged. Indeed, the whole vessel seemed at times to be lost beneath the chaos of water that thundered down and over her in clouds and cataracts of brine and foam, so that each moment seemed like to be our last. Occasionally I would hear the hoarse voice of the Captain or the Mate calling through the gloom to one another, or to the figures of the clinging men. And then again would come the thunder of water, as the seas burst over us. And all this in an almost impenetrable darkness, save when some unnatural glare of lightning sundered the clouds, and lit up the thirty-mile cauldron which had engulphed us. And anon, round about, seeming to come from every point of the horizon, sounded a vast, but distant, bellowing and screaming noise, which now appeared to be growing louder upon our port beam. It was the storm circling round about us.

Some time later there sounded an intense roar in the air above the ship, and then came a far-off shrieking, that grew rapidly into a mighty, whistling scream, and a minute afterwards a most tremendous gust of wind struck the ship on her port side, hurling her over on to her starboard broadside. For many minutes she lay there, her decks under water almost up to the hatches. Then she righted, sullenly and slowly, freeing herself from, maybe, half a thousand tons of water. Again there came a short period of windlessness, and then once more the yelling of an approaching gust. It struck us; but now the vessel had paid off before the wind, and she was not again forced over onto her side. From now onward we drove forward over vast seas, with the cyclone bellowing and wailing over us in one unbroken roar... . The vortex had passed, and, could we but last out a few more hours, then might we hope to win through.

With the return of the wind, the Mate and one of the men had taken the wheel; but, despite the most careful steering, we were pooped several times, for the seas were hideously broken and confused, we being in the wake of the vortex, and the wind not having had time as yet to smash the pyramidal sea into the more regular storm rollers, which, though huge in size, give a vessel a chance to rise to them. It was later that some of us, headed by the Mate, who had relinquished his place at the wheel to one of the men, ventured down on to the maindeck with axes and knives to clear away the wreckage of some of the spars which we had lost in the vortex. Many a grim risk we ran in that hour; but we cleared the wreck, and, after that, scrambled back, dripping, to the poop, where the steward, looking woefully white and scared, served out rum to us from a wooden deck-bucket.

Slowly, with an undreamt-of slowness, the remainder of the night passed, minute by minute, and at last the day broke in a weary dawn, the sky full of a stormy, sickly light. On every side tumbled an interminable chaos of seas. And the vessel herself!—A wreck she appeared. The mizzen-mast had gone some dozen feet above the deck; the main-topmast had gone, and so had the jigger-topmast. I struggled forrard to the break of the poop, and glanced along the decks. The boats had gone. All the iron scupper doors either were bent or had disappeared. On the starboard side, opposite to the stump of the mizzen-mast, was a great ragged gap in the steel bulwarks, where the mast had struck when it carried away. In several other places the t'gallant-rail was either smashed or dinged where it had been struck by falling spars, The side of the teak deckhouse had been stove, and the water was roaring in and out with each roll of the ship. The sheep-pen had vanished, and so, as I discovered later, had the pigsty. Further forrard my glance went, and I saw that the sea had breached the bulkhead across the after end of the fo'cas'le, and with each biggish sea that we shipped, a torrent of water drove in, and then floated out, sometimes bearing with it an odd board, or perhaps a man's boot, or some article of wearing apparel. In two places on the maindeck I saw men's sea-chests washing to and fro in the water that streamed over the deck. And suddenly there came into my mind a memory of the poor fellow who had broken his arm when we were cutting loose the wreck of the foretopmast.

Already the strength of the cyclone was spent, so far, at least, as we were concerned, and I was thinking of making a try for the fo'cas'le, when, close beside me, I heard the Mate's voice. I turned with a little start. He had evidently noticed the breach in the bulkhead, for he told me to watch a chance, and see if we could not get forrard. This we did, though not without a further thorough sousing, as we were still shipping water by the score of tons. Moreover, the risk was considerably greater than might be conceived, for the doorless scupper-ports offered uncomfortable facilities for going gurgling out into the ocean along with a ton or two of brine from the decks.

We reached the fo'cas'le, and pulled open the lee door. We stepped inside. It was like stepping into a dank, gloomy cavern. Water was dripping from every beam and staunchion. We struggled across the slippery deck to where we had left the sick man in his bunk. In the dim light we saw that man and bunk, everything, had vanished; only the bare steel sides of the vessel remained. Every bunk and fitting in the place had been swept away, and all of the men's sea-chests. Nothing remained, save, it might be, an odd soaked rag of clothing or a sodden bunk-board. The Mate and I looked at one another in silence. 'Poor devil!' he said. He repeated his expression of pity, staring hard at the place where had been the bunk; then, grave of face, he turned to go out on deck. As he did so, a heavier sea than usual broke aboard, rushed forrard along the decks, and swept in through the broken bulkhead and the lee doorway. It swirled round the sides, caught us, and threw us down in a heap; then swept out through the breach and the doorway, carrying the Mate with it. He managed to grasp the lintel of the doorway, else, I do believe, he would have gone out through one of the open scupper-traps—a doubly hard fate, after having come safely through the cyclone.

Outside of the fo'cas'le I saw that the ladders leading up to the head had both gone; but I managed to scramble up. Here I found that both anchors had been washed away, and the rails all round; only the bare staunchions remaining. Beyond the bows, the jibboom had gone, and all the gear was draggled inboard over the fo'cas'le head, or trailing in the sea. We made our way aft, and reported; then the roll was called, and we found that one else was missing, besides the two I have already mentioned, and the man we found jammed half through the poop-rails, who was now under the steward's care. From that time on the sea went down steadily, until, presently, it ceased to threaten us, and we proceeded to get the ship cleared up a bit; after which one watch turned in on the floor of the saloon, and the other was told to 'stand easy.'

Hour by hour through the day the sea went down, until it was difficult to believe that only a short twelve hours gone we had despaired for our lives. And so the evening came, calm and restful; the wind no more than a light summer's breeze, and the sea calming steadily. About seven bells that night a big steamer crossed our stern, and slowed down to ask us if we were in need of a tow; for, even by moonlight, it was easy to see our dismantled condition. This offer, however, Captain Avery refused; and, with many good wishes, the big vessel swung off into the moonlight, and so, presently, we were left alone.

When she had gone, the Captain, who had been walking the poop-deck along with the Mate, called across to me to know when I was going to develop those negatives.

'Never thought he'd need to,' interjected the Mate.

'Oh! you're an old croaker,' replied the Captain, laughing. 'Though I'll admit it was stiff.'

  1. Copyright, 1907, by William Hope Hodgson, in the United States of America.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.