Chapter XLIX: A Voyage in a Coffin Ship

“What the captain says has a great deal of truth in it,” he remarked, with a laugh. “You don’t realize a thing until you’ve had to experience it. The Black Eagle shall certainly have an overhauling next time, and we’ll see if we can’t give her captain an increase at the same time.”

Miggs gave a grunt which, might be taken as expressing thanks or as signifying doubt. Perhaps there was a mixture of both in his mind.

“I presume,” Girdlestone said, in a conciliatory voice, “that there would be no real danger as long as the weather was fine?”

“It won’t be fine long,” the captain answered gruffly. “The glass was well under thirty when I come up, and it is fallin’ fast. I’ve been about here before at this time o’ year in a calm, with a ground swell and a sinkin’ glass. No good ever came of it. Look there at the norrard. What d’ye make o’ that, Sandy?”

“In conjunction wi’ the descending glass, it has an ominous appairance,” the Scotchman answered, with much stress on the first syllable of the adjective.

The phenomenon which had attracted their professional attention did not appear to either of the Girdlestones to be a very important one. The haze on the horizon to the north was rather thicker than elsewhere, and a few thin streaky clouds straggled upwards across the clear cold heaven, like the feelers of some giant octopus which lay behind the fog bank. At the same time the sea changed in places from the appearance of quicksilver to that of grained glass.

“There’s the wind,” Miggs said confidently. “I’d furl the top-gallant sails and get her stay-sails down, Mr. McPherson.” Whenever he gave an order he was careful to give the mate his full title, though at other times he called him indiscriminately Sandy or Mac.

The mate gave the necessary commands, while Miggs dived down into the cabin. He came up again looking even graver than when he left the deck.

“The glass is nearly down to twenty-eight,” he said. “I never seed it as low since I’ve been at sea. Take in the mains’l, Mr. McPherson, and have the topsails reefed down!”

“Ay, ay, sir.”

There was no lack of noise now as the men hauled at the halliards with their shrill strange cries, which sounded like the piping of innumerable sea-birds. Half a dozen lay out on the yard above, tucking away the great sail and making all snug.

“Take a reef in the fores’l!” the mate roared, “and look alive about it!”

“Hurry up, ye swabs!” Miggs bellowed. “You’ll be blown away, every mother’s son of ye, if you don’t stir yourselves!”

Even the two landsmen could see now that the danger was no imaginary one, and that a storm was about to burst over them. The long black lines of vapour had lengthened and coalesced, until now the whole northern heaven was one great rolling black cloud, with an angry, ragged fringe which bespoke the violence of the wind that drove it. Here and there against the deep black background a small whitish or sulphur-coloured wreath stood clearly out, looking livid and dangerous. The whole great mass was sweeping onwards with prodigious and majestic rapidity, darkening the ocean beneath it, and emitting a dull, moaning, muttering sound, which was indescribably menacing and mournful.

“This may be the same gale as was on some days ago,” Miggs remarked. “They travel in circles very often, and come back to where they start from.”

“We are all snug aloft, but this ship won’t stand much knocking about, an’ that’s a fact,” observed the mate gloomily.

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