Wednesday, August 17, 2005

White Squall

St Paul's Rocks Picture source. A passage from Patrick O'Brian's HMS Surprise, the third novel in the Aubrey-Maturin series. It takes place during a long passage from England to India, circa 1800, with the ship resting at a lonely rock outcropping 950 km. off Brazil, known as St. Paul's. Two of the men decide to spend the afternoon exploring. After confessing of his estrangement from his wife, despairing of getting any more letters or packages from her, and admitting to the ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin, that he cannot bear any longer "this long, slow death," crewman Nicholls offers to build an impromptu shelter from the searing sun. Dr. Maturin passes on the offer, as he is an inveterate naturalist, obsessed with observing and capturing samples of the natural life on the desolate site. What happens next is quite unexpected.
'I should not have thought I had any drops of sweat left,' Maturin reflected, thumping on. Then he realized that drops were also falling on his back, huge drops of warm rain, quite unlike the dung countless birds had gratified him with. He stood up, looked around, and there barring the western sky was darkness, and on the sea beneath it a white line, approaching with inconceivable rapidity. No birds in the air, even on the crowded west side. And the middle distance was blurred by flying rain. The whole of the darkness was lit from within by red lightning, plain even in this glare. A moment later the sun was swallowed up and in the hot gloom water hurled down on him. Not drops, but jets, as warm as the air and driving flatways with enormous force; and between close packed jets a spray of shattered water, infinitely divided, so thick he could hardly draw in the air. He sheltered his mouth with his hands, breathed easier, let water gush through his fingers and drank it up, pint after pint. Although he was on the dome of the rock the deluge covered his ankles, and there were his boxes blowing, floating away. Staggering and crouching in the wind he recovered two and squatted over them; and all the time the rain raced through the air, filling his ears with a roar that almost drowned the prodigious thunder. Now the squall was right overhead; the turning wind knocked him down, and what he had thought the ultimate degree of cataclysm increased tenfold. He wedged the boxes between his knees and crouched on all fours. Time took on another aspect; it was marked only by the successive lightning strokes that hissed through the air, darting from the cloud above, striking the rock and leaping back into darkness. A few weak, stunned thoughts moved through his mind - 'What of the ship? Can any bird survive this? Is Nicholls safe?' It was over. The rain stopped instantly and the wind swept the air clear; a few minutes later the cloud passed from the lowering sun and it rode there, blazing from a perfect, even bluer sky. To westward the world was unchanged, just as it always had been apart from the white caps on the sea; to the east the squall still covered the place he had last seen the ship; and in the widening stretch between the rock and the darkness a current bore a stream of fledgling birds, hundreds of them. All along the stream he saw sharks, some large, some small, rising to the bodies. The whole rock was still streaming - the sound of running water everywhere - He splashed down the slope calling 'Nicholls, Nicholls!' Some of the birds - he had to avoid them as he stepped - were still crouching flat over their eggs or nestlings; some where preening themselves. In three places there were jagged rows of dead terns and gannets, charred though damp, and smelling of fire. He reached the spot where the shelter had been: no shelter, no fallen oars: and where they had hauled up there was no boat. He made his way clean round the rock, leaning on the wind and calling in the emptiness. And when for a second time he came to the eastern side and looked out to the sea the squall had vanished. There was no ship to be seen. Climbing to the top he caught sight of her, hull down and scudding before the wind under her foretopsail, her mizzen and maintopmast gone. He watched until even the flicker of of white disappeared. The sun dipped below the horizon when he turned and walked down. The boobies had already set to their fishing again, and the higher birds were still in the sun, flashing pink as they dived through the firey light.

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