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Chapter 26

THE PITCH OF THE CAPE.


Ere the calm had yet left us, a sail had been discerned from the
fore-top-mast-head, at a great distance, probably three leagues
or more. At first it was a mere speck, altogether out of sight
from the deck. By the force of attraction, or something else equally
inscrutable, two ships in a calm, and equally affected by the
currents, will always approximate, more or less. Though there was
not a breath of wind, it was not a great while before the strange
sail was descried from our bulwarks; gradually, it drew still nearer.

What was she, and whence? There is no object which so excites
interest and conjecture, and, at the same time, baffles both, as
a sail, seen as a mere speck on these remote seas off Cape Horn.
A breeze! a breeze! for lo! the stranger is now perceptibly
nearing the frigate; the officer's spy-glass pronounces her a
full-rigged ship, with all sail set, and coming right down to us,
though in our own vicinity the calm still reigns.

She is bringing the wind with her. Hurrah! Ay, there it is! Behold
how mincingly it creeps over the sea, just ruffling and crisping it.

Our top-men were at once sent aloft to loose the sails, and
presently they faintly began to distend. As yet we hardly had
steerage-way. Toward sunset the stranger bore down before the
wind, a complete pyramid of canvas. Never before, I venture to
say, was Cape Horn so audaciously insulted. Stun'-sails alow and
aloft; royals, moon-sails, and everything else. She glided under
our stern, within hailing distance, and the signal-quarter-master
ran up our ensign to the gaff.

"Ship ahoy!" cried the Lieutenant of the Watch, through his trumpet.

"Halloa!" bawled an old fellow in a green jacket, clap-ping one hand
to his mouth, while he held on with the other to the mizzen-shrouds.

"What ship's that?"

"The Sultan, Indiaman, from New York, and bound to Callao and Canton,
sixty days out, all well. What frigate's that?"

"The United States ship Neversink, homeward bound." "Hurrah!
hurrah! hurrah!" yelled our enthusiastic countryman, transported
with patriotism.

By this time the Sultan had swept past, but the Lieutenant of the
Watch could not withhold a parting admonition.

"D'ye hear? You'd better take in some of your flying-kites there.
Look out for Cape Horn!"

But the friendly advice was lost in the now increasing wind. With
a suddenness by no means unusual in these latitudes, the light
breeze soon became a succession of sharp squalls, and our sail-
proud braggadacio of an India-man was observed to let everything
go by the run, his t'-gallant stun'-sails and flying-jib taking
quick leave of the spars; the flying-jib was swept into the air,
rolled together for a few minutes, and tossed about in the
squalls like a foot-ball. But the wind played no such pranks with
the more prudently managed canvas of the Neversink, though before
many hours it was stirring times with us.

About midnight, when the starboard watch, to which, I belonged,
was below, the boatswain's whistle was heard, followed by the
shrill cry of "_All hands take in sail_! jump, men, and save ship!"

Springing from our hammocks, we found the frigate leaning over to
it so steeply, that it was with difficulty we could climb the
ladders leading to the upper deck.

Here the scene was awful. The vessel seemed to be sailing on her
side. The main-deck guns had several days previous been run in
and housed, and the port-holes closed, but the lee carronades on
the quarter-deck and forecastle were plunging through the sea,
which undulated over them in milk-white billows of foam. With
every lurch to leeward the yard-arm-ends seemed to dip in the
sea, while forward the spray dashed over the bows in cataracts,
and drenched the men who were on the fore-yard. By this time the
deck was alive with the whole strength of the ship's company,
five hundred men, officers and all, mostly clinging to the
weather bulwarks. The occasional phosphorescence of the yeasting
sea cast a glare upon their uplifted faces, as a night fire in a
populous city lights up the panic-stricken crowd.

In a sudden gale, or when a large quantity of sail is suddenly to
be furled, it is the custom for the First Lieutenant to take the
trumpet from whoever happens then to be officer of the deck. But
Mad Jack had the trumpet that watch; nor did the First Lieutenant
now seek to wrest it from his hands. Every eye was upon him, as
if we had chosen him from among us all, to decide this battle
with the elements, by single combat with the spirit of the Cape;
for Mad Jack was the saving genius of the ship, and so proved
himself that night. I owe this right hand, that is this moment
flying over my sheet, and all my present being to Mad Jack. The
ship's bows were now butting, battering, ramming, and thundering
over and upon the head seas, and with a horrible wallowing sound
our whole hull was rolling in the trough of the foam. The gale
came athwart the deck, and every sail seemed bursting with its
wild breath.

All the quarter-masters, and several of the forecastle-men, were
swarming round the double-wheel on the quarter-deck. Some jumping
up and down, with their hands upon the spokes; for the whole helm
and galvanised keel were fiercely feverish, with the life
imparted to them by the tempest.

"Hard _up_ the helm!" shouted Captain Claret, bursting from his
cabin like a ghost in his night-dress.

"Damn you!" raged Mad Jack to the quarter-masters; "hard down--
hard _down_, I say, and be damned to you!"

Contrary orders! but Mad Jack's were obeyed. His object was to throw
the ship into the wind, so as the better to admit of close-reefing
the top-sails. But though the halyards were let go, it was impossible
to clew down the yards, owing to the enormous horizontal strain on
the canvas. It now blew a hurricane. The spray flew over the ship in
floods. The gigantic masts seemed about to snap under the world-wide
strain of the three entire top-sails.

"Clew down! clew down!" shouted Mad Jack, husky with excitement,
and in a frenzy, beating his trumpet against one of the shrouds.
But, owing to the slant of the ship, the thing could not be done.
It was obvious that before many minutes something must go--either
sails, rigging, or sticks; perhaps the hull itself, and all hands.

Presently a voice from the top exclaimed that there was a rent in
the main-top-sail. And instantly we heard a re-port like two or
three muskets discharged together; the vast sail was rent up and
clown like the Vail of the Temple. This saved the main-mast; for
the yard was now clewed down with comparative ease, and the top-
men laid out to stow the shattered canvas. Soon, the two
remaining top-sails were also clewed down and close reefed.

Above all the roar of the tempest and the shouts of the crew, was
heard the dismal tolling of the ship's bell--almost as large as
that of a village church--which the violent rolling of the ship
was occasioning. Imagination cannot conceive the horror of such a
sound in a night-tempest at sea.

"Stop that ghost!" roared Mad Jack; "away, one of you, and wrench
off the clapper!"

But no sooner was this ghost gagged, than a still more appalling
sound was heard, the rolling to and fro of the heavy shot, which,
on the gun-deck, had broken loose from the gun-racks, and converted
that part of the ship into an immense bowling-alley. Some hands were
sent down to secure them; but it was as much as their lives were
worth. Several were maimed; and the midshipmen who were ordered to
see the duty performed reported it impossible, until the storm abated.

The most terrific job of all was to furl the main-sail, which, at
the commencement of the squalls, had been clewed up, coaxed and
quieted as much as possible with the bunt-lines and slab-lines.
Mad Jack waited some time for a lull, ere he gave an order so
perilous to be executed. For to furl this enormous sail, in such
a gale, required at least fifty men on the yard; whose weight,
superadded to that of the ponderous stick itself, still further
jeopardised their lives. But there was no prospect of a cessation
of the gale, and the order was at last given.

At this time a hurricane of slanting sleet and hail was descending
upon us; the rigging was coated with a thin glare of ice, formed
within the hour.

"Aloft, main-yard-men! and all you main-top-men! and furl the
main-sail!" cried Mad Jack.

I dashed down my hat, slipped out of my quilted jacket in an
instant, kicked the shoes from my feet, and, with a crowd of
others, sprang for the rigging. Above the bulwarks (which in a
frigate are so high as to afford much protection to those on
deck) the gale was horrible. The sheer force of the wind
flattened us to the rigging as we ascended, and every hand seemed
congealing to the icy shrouds by which we held.

"Up--up, my brave hearties!" shouted Mad Jack; and up we got, some
way or other, all of us, and groped our way out on the yard-arms.

"Hold on, every mother's son!" cried an old quarter-gunner at my
side. He was bawling at the top of his compass; but in the gale,
he seemed to be whispering; and I only heard him from his being
right to windward of me.

But his hint was unnecessary; I dug my nails into the _jack-
stays_, and swore that nothing but death should part me and them
until I was able to turn round and look to windward. As yet, this
was impossible; I could scarcely hear the man to leeward at my
elbow; the wind seemed to snatch the words from his mouth and fly
away with them to the South Pole.

All this while the sail itself was flying about, sometimes
catching over our heads, and threatening to tear us from the yard
in spite of all our hugging. For about three quarters of an hour
we thus hung suspended right over the rampant billows, which
curled their very crests under the feet of some four or five of
us clinging to the lee-yard-arm, as if to float us from our place.

Presently, the word passed along the yard from wind-ward, that we
were ordered to come down and leave the sail to blow, since it
could not be furled. A midshipman, it seemed, had been sent up by
the officer of the deck to give the order, as no trumpet could be
heard where we were.

Those on the weather yard-arm managed to crawl upon the spar and
scramble down the rigging; but with us, upon the extreme leeward
side, this feat was out of the question; it was, literary, like
climbing a precipice to get to wind-ward in order to reach the
shrouds: besides, the entire yard was now encased in ice, and our
hands and feet were so numb that we dared not trust our lives to
them. Nevertheless, by assisting each other, we contrived to
throw ourselves prostrate along the yard, and embrace it with our
arms and legs. In this position, the stun'-sail-booms greatly
assisted in securing our hold. Strange as it may appear, I do not
suppose that, at this moment, the slightest sensation of fear was
felt by one man on that yard. We clung to it with might and main;
but this was instinct. The truth is, that, in circumstances like
these, the sense of fear is annihilated in the unutterable sights
that fill all the eye, and the sounds that fill all the ear. You
become identified with the tempest; your insignificance is lost
in the riot of the stormy universe around.

Below us, our noble frigate seemed thrice its real length--a vast
black wedge, opposing its widest end to the combined fury of the
sea and wind.

At length the first fury of the gale began to abate, and we at
once fell to pounding our hands, as a preliminary operation to
going to work; for a gang of men had now ascended to help secure
what was left of the sail; we somehow packed it away, at last,
and came down.

About noon the next day, the gale so moderated that we shook two
reefs out of the top-sails, set new courses, and stood due east,
with the wind astern.

Thus, all the fine weather we encountered after first weighing anchor
on the pleasant Spanish coast, was but the prelude to this one terrific
night; more especially, that treacherous calm immediately preceding it.
But how could we reach our long-promised homes without encountering Cape
Horn? by what possibility avoid it? And though some ships have weathered
it without these perils, yet by far the greater part must encounter
them. Lucky it is that it comes about midway in the homeward-bound
passage, so that the sailors have time to prepare for it, and time to
recover from it after it is astern.

But, sailor or landsman, there is some sort of a Cape Horn for all.
Boys! beware of it; prepare for it in time. Gray-beards! thank God it is
passed. And ye lucky livers, to whom, by some rare fatality, your Cape
Horns are placid as Lake Lemans, flatter not yourselves that good luck
is judgment and discretion; for all the yolk in your eggs, you might
have foundered and gone down, had the Spirit of the Cape said the word.

Herman Melville