Chapter XLIX: A Voyage in a Coffin Ship

It was blowing now in short frequent puffs, which ruffled the surface of the water, and caused the Black Eagle to surge slowly forward over the rollers. A few drops of rain came pattering down upon the deck. The great bank of cloud was above the ship, still hurrying wildly across the heavens.

“Look out!” cried an old quartermaster. “Here she comes!”

As he spoke the storm burst with a shriek, as though all the demons of the air had been suddenly unchained and were rejoicing in their freedom. The force of the blast was so great that Girdlestone could almost have believed that he had been struck by some solid object. The barque heeled over until her lee rail touched the water, and lay so for a minute or more in a smother of foam. Her deck was at such an angle that it seemed as though she never could right herself. Gradually, however, she rose a little, staggered and trembled like a living thing, and then plunged away through the storm, as a piece of paper is whirled before the wind.

By evening the gale was at its height. The Black Eagle was running under maintopsail and foretopmast staysail. The sea had risen very quickly, as it will when wind comes upon a swell. As far as the eye could see from the summit of a wave there was a vista of dark towering ridges with their threatening crests of foam. When the barque sank in the hollow these gleaming summits rose as high as her mainyard, and the two fugitives, clinging to the weather-shrouds, looked up in terror and amazement at the masses of water which hung above them. Once or twice waves actually broke over the vessel, crashing and roaring down the deck, and washing hither and thither until gradually absorbed between the planks or drained away through the scupper-holes. On each of these occasions the poor rotten vessel would lurch and shiver in every plank, as if with a foreknowledge of her fate.

It was a dreary night for all on board. As long as there was light they could at least see what danger was to be faced, but now the barque was plunging and tossing through an inky obscurity. With a wild scooping motion she was hurled up on the summit of a great wave, and thence she shot down into the black gulf beyond with such force that when checked by meeting the next billow her whole fabric jarred from truck to keelson. There were two seamen at the wheel and two at the relieving tackles, yet it was all that they could do among the wild commotion to keep her steady.

No one thought of going below. It was better to see and know the worst than to be shut up in a coffin where one could not stretch out a hand to help one’s self. Once Captain Hamilton Miggs clawed his way along the rail to where the Girdlestones were standing.

“Look there!” he roared, pointing to windward.

It was difficult to turn one’s face straight to the wild rush of wind and spray and hail. Shading their eyes, they peered into the storm. Right in the heart of it, and apparently not more than a couple of hundred yards from the barque, was a lurid glare of ruddy light, rising and falling with the sea, but advancing rapidly through it. There was a bright central glowing spot, with smaller lights glimmering above and beside it. The effect of the single glare of light against the inky darkness of the sea and sky would have made a study for a Turner.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a steamer,” the captain shouted. It was only by great exertions that he could make himself audible above the shrieking of the wind and the dash of the waves.

“What do you think of it all?” Ezra asked.

“Very bad,” Miggs answered. “Couldn’t be worse;” and with that he clawed his way aft again, grasping every stanchion or shroud on his way, like a parroquet in a cage.

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