Chapter 35




CHAPTER XXXV.

AN ELECTRIC STORM

_Friday, August 21_. - On the morrow the magnificent geyser hasdisappeared. The wind has risen, and has rapidly carried us away fromAxel Island. The roarings become lost in the distance.

The weather - if we may use that term - will change before long. Theatmosphere is charged with vapours, pervaded with the electricitygenerated by the evaporation of saline waters. The clouds are sinkinglower, and assume an olive hue. The electric light can scarcelypenetrate through the dense curtain which has dropped over thetheatre on which the battle of the elements is about to be waged.

I feel peculiar sensations, like many creatures on earth at theapproach of violent atmospheric changes. The heavily voluted cumulusclouds lower gloomily and threateningly; they wear that implacablelook which I have sometimes noticed at the outbreak of a great storm.The air is heavy; the sea is calm.

In the distance the clouds resemble great bales of cotton, piled upin picturesque disorder. By degrees they dilate, and gain in hugesize what they lose in number. Such is their ponderous weight thatthey cannot rise from the horizon; but, obeying an impulse fromhigher currents, their dense consistency slowly yields. The gloomupon them deepens; and they soon present to our view a ponderous massof almost level surface. From time to time a fleecy tuft of mist,with yet some gleaming light left upon it, drops down upon the densefloor of grey, and loses itself in the opaque and impenetrable mass.

The atmosphere is evidently charged and surcharged with electricity.My whole body is saturated; my hair bristles just as when you standupon an insulated stool under the action of an electrical machine. Itseems to me as if my companions, the moment they touched me, wouldreceive a severe shock like that from an electric eel.

At ten in the morning the symptoms of storm become aggravated. Thewind never lulls but to acquire increased strength; the vast bank ofheavy clouds is a huge reservoir of fearful windy gusts and rushingstorms.

I am loth to believe these atmospheric menaces, and yet I cannot helpmuttering:

"Here's some very bad weather coming on."

The Professor made no answer. His temper is awful, to judge from theworking of his features, as he sees this vast length of oceanunrolling before him to an indefinite extent. He can only spare timeto shrug his shoulders viciously.

"There's a heavy storm coming on," I cried, pointing towards thehorizon. "Those clouds seem as if they were going to crush the sea."

A deep silence falls on all around. The lately roaring winds arehushed into a dead calm; nature seems to breathe no more, and to besinking into the stillness of death. On the mast already I see thelight play of a lambent St. Elmo's fire; the outstretched sailcatches not a breath of wind, and hangs like a sheet of lead. Therudder stands motionless in a sluggish, waveless sea. But if we havenow ceased to advance why do we yet leave that sail loose, which atthe first shock of the tempest may capsize us in a moment?

"Let us reef the sail and cut the mast down!" I cried. "That will besafest."

"No, no! Never!" shouted my impetuous uncle. "Never! Let the windcatch us if it will! What I want is to get the least glimpse of rockor shore, even if our raft should be smashed into shivers!"

The words were hardly out of his mouth when a sudden change tookplace in the southern sky. The piled-up vapours condense into water;and the air, put into violent action to supply the vacuum left by thecondensation of the mists, rouses itself into a whirlwind. It rusheson from the farthest recesses of the vast cavern. The darknessdeepens; scarcely can I jot down a few hurried notes. The helm makesa bound. My uncle falls full length; I creep close to him. He haslaid a firm hold upon a rope, and appears to watch with grimsatisfaction this awful display of elemental strife.

Hans stirs not. His long hair blown by the pelting storm, and laidflat across his immovable countenance, makes him a strange figure;for the end of each lock of loose flowing hair is tipped with littleluminous radiations. This frightful mask of electric sparks suggeststo me, even in this dizzy excitement, a comparison with preadamiteman, the contemporary of the ichthyosaurus and the megatherium. [1]

[1] Rather of the mammoth and the mastodon. (Trans.)

The mast yet holds firm. The sail stretches tight like a bubble readyto burst. The raft flies at a rate that I cannot reckon, but not sofast as the foaming clouds of spray which it dashes from side to sidein its headlong speed.

"The sail! the sail!" I cry, motioning to lower it.

"No!" replies my uncle.

"_Nej!_" repeats Hans, leisurely shaking his head.

But now the rain forms a rushing cataract in front of that horizontoward which we are running with such maddening speed. But before ithas reached us the rain cloud parts asunder, the sea boils, and theelectric fires are brought into violent action by a mighty chemicalpower that descends from the higher regions. The most vivid flashesof lightning are mingled with the violent crash of continuousthunder. Ceaseless fiery arrows dart in and out amongst the flyingthunder-clouds; the vaporous mass soon glows with incandescent heat;hailstones rattle fiercely down, and as they dash upon our iron toolsthey too emit gleams and flashes of lurid light. The heaving wavesresemble fiery volcanic hills, each belching forth its own interiorflames, and every crest is plumed with dancing fire. My eyes failunder the dazzling light, my ears are stunned with the incessantcrash of thunder. I must be bound to the mast, which bows like a reedbefore the mighty strength of the storm.

(Here my notes become vague and indistinct. I have only been able tofind a few which I seem to have jotted down almost unconsciously. Buttheir very brevity and their obscurity reveal the intensity of theexcitement which dominated me, and describe the actual position evenbetter than my memory could do.)

Sunday, 23. - Where are we? Driven forward with a swiftness thatcannot be measured.

The night was fearful; no abatement of the storm. The din and uproarare incessant; our ears are bleeding; to exchange a word isimpossible.

The lightning flashes with intense brilliancy, and never seems tocease for a moment. Zigzag streams of bluish white fire dash downupon the sea and rebound, and then take an upward flight till theystrike the granite vault that overarches our heads. Suppose thatsolid roof should crumble down upon our heads! Other flashes withincessant play cross their vivid fires, while others again rollthemselves into balls of living fire which explode like bombshells,but the music of which scarcely-adds to the din of the battle strifethat almost deprives us of our senses of hearing and sight; the limitof intense loudness has been passed within which the human ear candistinguish one sound from another. If all the powder magazines inthe world were to explode at once, we should hear no more than we donow.

From the under surface of the clouds there are continual emissions oflurid light; electric matter is in continual evolution from theircomponent molecules; the gaseous elements of the air need to beslaked with moisture; for innumerable columns of water rush upwardsinto the air and fall back again in white foam.

Whither are we flying? My uncle lies full length across the raft.

The heat increases. I refer to the thermometer; it indicates . . .(the figure is obliterated).

_Monday, August 24._ - Will there be an end to it? Is the atmosphericcondition, having once reached this density, to become final?

We are prostrated and worn out with fatigue. But Hans is as usual.The raft bears on still to the south-east. We have made two hundredleagues since we left Axel Island.

At noon the violence of the storm redoubles. We are obliged to secureas fast as possible every article that belongs to our cargo. Each ofus is lashed to some part of the raft. The waves rise above our heads.

For three days we have never been able to make each other hear aword. Our mouths open, our lips move, but not a word can be heard. Wecannot even make ourselves heard by approaching our mouth close tothe ear.

My uncle has drawn nearer to me. He has uttered a few words. Theyseem to be 'We are lost'; but I am not sure.

At last I write down the words: "Let us lower the sail."

He nods his consent.

Scarcely has he lifted his head again before a ball of fire hasbounded over the waves and lighted on board our raft. Mast and sailflew up in an instant together, and I saw them carried up toprodigious height, resembling in appearance a pterodactyle, one ofthose strong birds of the infant world.

We lay there, our blood running cold with unspeakable terror. Thefireball, half of it white, half azure blue, and the size of aten-inch shell, moved slowly about the raft, but revolving on its ownaxis with astonishing velocity, as if whipped round by the force ofthe whirlwind. Here it comes, there it glides, now it is up theragged stump of the mast, thence it lightly leaps on the provisionbag, descends with a light bound, and just skims the powder magazine.Horrible! we shall be blown up; but no, the dazzling disk ofmysterious light nimbly leaps aside; it approaches Hans, who fixeshis blue eye upon it steadily; it threatens the head of my uncle, whofalls upon his knees with his head down to avoid it. And now my turncomes; pale and trembling under the blinding splendour and themelting heat, it drops at my feet, spinning silently round upon thedeck; I try to move my foot away, but cannot.

A suffocating smell of nitrogen fills the air, it enters the throat,it fills the lungs. We suffer stifling pains.

Why am I unable to move my foot? Is it riveted to the planks? Alas!the fall upon our fated raft of this electric globe has magnetisedevery iron article on board. The instruments, the tools, our guns,are clashing and clanking violently in their collisions with eachother; the nails of my boots cling tenaciously to a plate of iron letinto the timbers, and I cannot draw my foot away from the spot. Atlast by a violent effort I release myself at the instant when theball in its gyrations was about to seize upon it, and carry me off myfeet ....

Ah! what a flood of intense and dazzling light! the globe has burst,and we are deluged with tongues of fire!

Then all the light disappears. I could just see my uncle at fulllength on the raft, and Hans still at his helm and spitting fireunder the action of the electricity which has saturated him.

But where are we going to? Where?

* * * *

_Tuesday, August 25._ - I recover from a long swoon. The stormcontinues to roar and rage; the lightnings dash hither and thither,like broods of fiery serpents filling all the air. Are we still underthe sea? Yes, we are borne at incalculable speed. We have beencarried under England, under the channel, under France, perhaps underthe whole of Europe.

* * * *

A fresh noise is heard! Surely it is the sea breaking upon the rocks!But then . . . .



Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Email:
Sonnet-a-Day Newsletter
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.
Email: