List Of Contents | Contents of Letters From High Latitudes, by Lord Dufferin
< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

nay, almost with delight.  Ever since we had commenced
sailing in a southerly direction, we had been obliged to
beat, but during the last four-and-twenty hours the wind
kept dodging us every time we tacked, as a nervous
pedestrian sets to you sometimes on a narrow trottoir.
This spell of ill-luck the Icelander heathenishly thought
would only be removed by a sacrifice to Rhin, the goddess
of the sea, in which light he trusted she would look upon
the goat's body when it came to be thrown overboard.

Whether the change which followed upon the consignment
of her remains to the deep really resulted from such an
influence, I am not prepared to say. The weather immediately
thereafter certainly DID change. First the wind dropped
altogether, but though the calm lasted several hours,
the sea strangely enough appeared to become all the
rougher, tossing and tumbling restlessly UP AND DOWN--(not
over and over as in a gale)--like a sick man on a fever
bed; the impulse to the waves seeming to proceed from
all four quarters of the world at once. Then, like jurymen
with a verdict of death upon their lips, the heavy,
ominous clouds slowly passed into the north-west.

A dead stillness followed--a breathless pause--until, at
some mysterious signal, the solemn voice of the storm
hurtled over the deep. Luckily we were quite ready for
it; the gale came from the right quarter, and the fiercer
it blew the better. For the next three days and three
nights it was a scurry over the sea such as I never had
before; nine or ten knots an hour was the very least we
ever went, and 240 miles was the average distance we made
every four-and-twenty hours.

Anything grander and more exciting than the sight of the
sea under these circumstances you cannot imagine. The
vessel herself remains very steady; when you are below
you scarcely know you are not in port. But on raising
your head above the companion the first sight which meets
your eye is an upright wall of black water, towering,
you hardly know how many feet, into the air over the
stern. Like a lion walking on its hind legs, it comes
straight at you, roaring and shaking its white mane with
fury-it overtakes the vessel--the upright shiny face
curves inwards--the white mane seems to hang above your
very head; but ere it topples over, the nimble little
ship has already slipped from underneath.  You hear the
disappointed jaws of the sea-monster snap angrily
together,--the schooner disdainfully kicks up her heel--and
raging and bubbling up on either side the quarter, the
unpausing wave sweeps on, and you see its round back far
ahead, gradually swelling upwards, as it gathers strength
and volume for a new effort.

We had now got considerably to the southward of North
Cape. We had already seen several ships, and you would
hardly imagine with what childish delight my people hailed
these symptoms of having again reached more "Christian
latitudes," as they called them.

I had always intended, ever since my conversation with
Mr. T. about the Malstrom, to have called in at Loffoden
Islands on our way south, and ascertain for myself the
real truth about this famous vortex. To have blotted such
a bugbear out of the map of Europe, if its existence
really was a myth, would at all events have rendered our
cruise not altogether fruitless. But, since leaving
Spitzbergen, we had never once seen the sun, and to
attempt to make so dangerous a coast in a gale of wind
and a thick mist, with no more certain knowledge of the
ship's position than our dead reckoning afforded, was
out of the question, so about one o'clock in the morning,
the weather giving no signs of improvement, the course
I had shaped in the direction of the island was altered,
and we stood away again to the southward.  This manoeuvre
was not unobserved by Wilson, but he mistook its meaning.
Having, I suppose, overheard us talking at dinner about
the Malstrom, he now concluded the supreme hour had
arrived. He did not exactly comprehend the terms we used,
but had gathered that the spot was one fraught with
danger. Concluding from the change made in the vessel's
course that we were proceeding towards the dreadful
locality, he gave himself up to despair, and lay tossing
in his hammock in sleepless anxiety. At last the load of
his forebodings was greater than he could bear, he gets
up, steals into the Doctor's cabin, wakes him up, and
standing over him--as the messenger of ill tidings once
stood over Priam--whispers, "SIR!" "What is it?" says
Fitz, thinking, perhaps, some one was ill. "Do you know
where we are going?" "Why, to Throndhjem," answered Fitz.
"We were going to Throndhjem," rejoins Wilson, "but we
ain't now--the vessel's course was altered two hours ago.
Oh, Sir! we are going to Whirlpool-to WHIRL-RL-POOO-L!
Sir!" in a quaver of consternation,--and so glides back
to bed like a phantom, leaving the Doctor utterly unable
to divine the occasion of his visit.

The whole of the next day the gale continued. We had now
sailed back into night; it became therefore a question
how far it would be advisable to carry on during the
ensuing hours of darkness, considering how uncertain we
were as to our real position. As I think I have already
described to you, the west coast of Norway is very
dangerous; a continuous sheet of sunken rocks lies out
along its entire edge for eight or ten miles to sea.
There are no lighthouses to warn the mariner off; and if
we were wrong in our reckoning, as we might very well
be, it was possible we might stumble on the land sooner
than we expected. I knew the proper course would be to
lie to quietly until we could take an observation; but
time was so valuable, and I was so fearful you would be
getting anxious. The night was pretty clear. High mountains,
such as we were expecting to make, would be seen, even
at night, several miles off.  According to our log we
were still 150 miles off the land, and, however inaccurate
our calculation might be, the error could not be of such
magnitude as that amounted to. To throw away so fair a
wind seemed such a pity, especially as it might be days
before the sun appeared; we had already been at sea about
a fortnight without a sight of him, and his appearance
at all during the summer is not an act DE RIGUEUR in this
part of the world; we might spend yet another fortnight
in lying to, and then after all have to poke our way
blindfold to the coast; at all events it would be soon
enough to lie to the next night. Such were the
considerations, which--after an anxious consultation with
Mr. Wyse in the cabin, and much fingering of the
charts,--determined me to carry on during the night.

Nevertheless, I confess I was very uneasy, Though I went
to bed and fell asleep--for at sea nothing prevents that
process--my slumbers were constantly agitated by the most
vivid dreams that I ever remember to have had.  Dreams
of an arrival in England, and your coming down to meet
us, and all the pleasure I had in recounting our adventures
to you; then suddenly your face seemed to fade away
beneath a veil of angry grey surge that broke over low,
sharp-pointed rocks; and the next moment there resounded
over the ship that cry which has been the preface to so
many a disaster--the ring of which, none who have ever
heard it are likely to forget--"Breakers ahead!"

In a moment I was on deck, dressed--for it is always best
to dress,--and there, sure enough, right ahead, about a
mile and a half off, through the mist, which had come on
very thick, I could distinguish the upward shooting fluff
of seas shattering against rocks. No land was to be seen,
but the line of breakers every instant became more evident;
at the pace we were going, in seven or eight minutes we
should be upon them. Now, thought I to myself, we shall
see whether a stout heart beats beneath the silk tartan!
The result covered that brilliant garment with glory and
salt water. To tack was impossible, we could only wear,--and
to wear in such a sea was no very pleasant operation.
But the little ship seemed to know what she was about,
as well as any of us: up went the helm, round came the
schooner into the trough of the sea,--high over her
quarter toppled an enormous sea, built up of I know not
how many tons of water, and hung over the deck,--by some
unaccountable wriggle, an instant ere it thundered down
she had twisted her stern on one side, and the waves
passed underneath.  In another minute her head was to
the sea, the mainsail was eased over, and all danger was

What was now to be done? That the land we had seen was
the coast of Norway I could not believe. Wrong as our
dead reckoning evidently was, it could not be so wrong
as that. Yet only one other supposition was possible,
viz., that we had not come so far south as we imagined,
and that we had stumbled upon Roost--a little rocky island
that lies about twenty miles to the southward of the
Loffoden Islands.  Whether this conjecture was correct
or not, did not much matter; to go straight away to sea,
and lie to until we could get an observation, was the
only thing to be done.  Away then we went, struggling
against a tremendous sea for a good nine hours, until we
judged ourselves to be seventy or eighty miles from where
we had sighted the breakers,--when we lay to, not in
the best of tempers. The next morning, not only was it
blowing as hard as ever, but all chance of getting a
sight that day seemed also out of the question.  I could
have eaten my head with impatience. However, as it is
best never to throw a chance away, about half-past eleven
o'clock, though the sky resembled an even sheet of lead,
I got my sextant ready, and told Mr. Wyse to do the same.

Now, out of tenderness for your feminine ignorance I must
state, that in order to take an observation, it is
necessary to get a sight of the sun at a particular moment
of the day: this moment is noon. When, therefore, twelve
o'clock came, and one could not so much as guess in what
quarter of the heavens he might be lying perdu, you may
suppose I almost despaired. Ten minutes passed. It was
evident we were doomed to remain, kicking our heels for

< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

Other sites: