AS soon as I had the Curlew swung round upon her course again I noticed something peculiar: we were not going as fast as we had been. Our favorable wind had almost entirely disappeared.
This, at first, we did not worry about, thinking that at any moment it might spring up again. But the whole day went by; then two days; then a week,—ten days, and the wind grew no stronger. The Curlew just dawdled along at the speed of a toddling babe.
I now saw that the Doctor was becoming uneasy. He kept getting out his sextant (an instrument which tells you what part of the ocean you are in) and making calculations. He was forever looking at his maps and measuring distances on them. The far edge of the sea, all around us, he examined with his telescope a hundred times a day.
“But Doctor,” I said when I found him one afternoon mumbling to himself about the misty appearance of the sky, “it wouldn’t matter so much, would it, if we did take a little longer over the trip? We’ve got plenty to eat on board now; and the Purple Bird-of-Paradise will know that we have been delayed by something that we couldn’t help.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” he said thoughtfully. “But I hate to keep her waiting. At this season of the year she generally goes to the Peruvian mountains—for her health. And besides, the good weather she prophesied is likely to end any day now and delay us still further. If we could only keep moving at even a fair speed, I wouldn’t mind. It’s this hanging around, almost dead still, that gets me restless—Ah, here comes a wind—Not very strong—but maybe it’ll grow.”
A gentle breeze from the Northeast came singing through the ropes; and we smiled up hopefully at the Curlew’s leaning masts.
“We’ve only got another hundred and fifty miles to make, to sight the coast of Brazil,” said the Doctor. “If that wind would just stay with us, steady, for a full day we’d see land.”
But suddenly the wind changed, swung to the East, then back to the Northeast—then to the North. It came in fitful gusts, as though it hadn’t made up its mind which way to blow; and I was kept busy at the wheel, swinging the Curlew this way and that to keep the right side of it.
Presently we heard Polynesia, who was in the rigging keeping a look-out for land or passing ships, screech down to us,
“Bad weather coming. That jumpy wind is an ugly sign. And look!—over there in the East—see that black line, low down? If that isn’t a storm I’m a land-lubber. The gales round here are fierce, when they do blow—tear your canvas out like paper. You take the wheel, Doctor: it’ll need a strong arm if it’s a real storm. I’ll go wake Bumpo and Chee-Chee. This looks bad to me. We’d best get all the sail down right away, till we see how strong she’s going to blow.”
Indeed the whole sky was now beginning to take on a very threatening look. The black line to the eastward grew blacker as it came nearer and nearer. A low, rumbly, whispering noise went moaning over the sea. The water which had been so blue and smiling turned to a ruffled ugly gray. And across the darkening sky, shreds of cloud swept like tattered witches flying from the storm.
I must confess I was frightened. You see I had only so far seen the sea in friendly moods: sometimes quiet and lazy; sometimes laughing, venturesome and reckless; sometimes brooding and poetic, when moonbeams turned her ripples into silver threads and dreaming snowy night-clouds piled up fairy-castles in the sky. But as yet I had not known, or even guessed at, the terrible strength of the Sea’s wild anger.
When that storm finally struck us we leaned right over flatly on our side, as though some invisible giant had slapped the poor Curlew on the cheek.
After that things happened so thick and so fast that what with the wind that stopped your breath, the driving, blinding water, the deafening noise and the rest, I haven’t a very clear idea of how our shipwreck came about.
I remember seeing the sails, which we were now trying to roll up upon the deck, torn out of our hands by the wind and go overboard like a penny balloon—very nearly carrying Chee-Chee with them. And I have a dim recollection of Polynesia screeching somewhere for one of us to go downstairs and close the port-holes.
In spite of our masts being bare of sail we were now scudding along to the southward at a great pace. But every once in a while huge gray-black waves would arise from under the ship’s side like nightmare monsters, swell and climb, then crash down upon us, pressing us into the sea; and the poor Curlew would come to a standstill, half under water, like a gasping, drowning pig.
While I was clambering along towards the wheel to see the Doctor, clinging like a leech with hands and legs to the rails lest I be blown overboard, one of these tremendous seas tore loose my hold, filled my throat with water and swept me like a cork the full length of the deck. My head struck a door with an awful bang. And then I fainted.