The gale came on with some lightning and several claps of thunder and heavy rain. Though it was but two o'clock in the afternoon, the air was so dusky that the men had to feel for the ropes; and when the first of the tempest stormed down upon us the appearance of the sea was uncommonly terrible, being swept and mangled into boiling froth in the north-east quarter, whilst all about us and in the south-west it lay in a sort of swollen huddle of shadows, glooming into the darkness of the sky without offering the smallest glimpse of the horizon.
In a few minutes the hurricane struck us. We had bared the brig down to the close-reefed main-topsail; yet, though we were dead before the outfly, its first blow rent the fragment of sail as if it were formed of smoke, and in an instant it disappeared, flashing over the bows like a scattering of torn paper, leaving nothing but the bolt-ropes behind. The bursting of the topsail was like the explosion of a large cannon. In a breath the brig was smothered with froth torn up in huge clouds, and hurled over and ahead of her in vast quivering bodies that filled the wind with a dismal twilight of their own, in which nothing was visible but their terrific speeding. Through these slinging, soft, and singing masses of spume drove the rain in horizontal steel-like lines, which gleamed in the lightning stroke as though indeed they were barbed weapons of bright metal, darted by armies of invisible spirits raving out their war cries as they chased us.
The heavens were a dark, stooping, universal mass of vapourÑswollen, moist, of a complexion rendered malignant beyond belief by a sort of greenish colour that lay upon the face of it. It was tufted here and there into the true aspect of the electric tempest; in other parts, it was of a sulky, foggy thickness; and as it went down to the sea-line it wore, in numerous places, a plentiful dark shading that caused the clouds upon which this darkness rested to look as though their heavy burthen of thunder was weighing their overcharged breasts down to the very sip of the salt.
A small swell was rolling in betwixt the two horns of cliff which framed the wide bight of bay that I was overlooking. The water was very dark and ugly with its reflection of the greenish, sallowish atmosphere that tinged its noiseless, sliding volumes. Yet spite of the shrouding shadow of storm all about, the horizon lay a clear line, spanning the yawn of ocean and heaven betwixt the foreland points.
There was nothing to be seen seaward; the bay, too, was empty. I stood for a little while watching the cloud of foam made by the swell where it struck upon the low, black ledge of what we call in those parts Deadlow Rock, and upon the westernmost of the two fangs of reef, some little distance away from the Rock, and named by the sailors hereabouts the Twins; I say I stood watching this small play of white water and hearkening for another rumble of thunder; but all remained hushedÑnot a breath of airÑno glance of dumb lightning.
The whole stretch of scene, from the North Foreland down to the vanishing French headlands miles away yonder, was lovely at that momentÑfull of the great peace of an ocean falling asleep, of gently moving vessels, of the solemn gathering of shadows. The town of Deal was upon the starboard bow, a warm cluster of houses, with a windmill on the green hills turning drowsily, here and there a window glittering with a sudden beam of light, an inclined beach in the foreground with groups of boats high and dry upon it, and a line of foam at its base which sang upon the shingle so that you could hear it plainly amid intervals of silence on board the ship. The evening sun shining over the giant brow of the South Foreland struck the gray outline of the cliff deep in the still water, but the clear red blaze fell far and wide over the dry white downs of Sandwich and the outlying plains, and threw the distant country into such bold relief against the blue sky that, from the sea, it looked close at hand, and but a short walk from the shore.
There were three or four dozen vessels at anchor in the Downs waiting for a change of wind or anticipating a dead calm for some hours. A few others, like ourselves, were swimming stealthily over the slack tide, with every foot of their canvas piled upon them with the effort to reach safe anchorage before the wind wholly failed and the tide turned. A large ship, with her sails stowed and her masts and rigging showing with the fineness of ivory-tracing against the sky, was being towed up Channel, and the slapping of the water by the paddles of the tug, in fast capricious revolutions, was quite audible, though both ship and steamer were a long league distant. Here and there small boats were rowing away from the anchored ships for the shore. Now and again you could hear the faint distant choruses of seamen furling a big sail or paying out more cable, the clank, clank of which was as pretty as music. Down in the east the heavens were a deep blue, flecked along the water line with white sails, which glowed in the sunshine like beacons.