The night, moonless and densely clouded, had settled around us with pitchy darkness. One could not see a hand held before the eyes. Rain came down in torrents. Repeatedly it drowned the riding light, until I abandoned the attempt of relighting it. Only the binnacle lamp was burning, throwing its faint rays on the cockpit coaming, on a hand that was groping for a sheet rope or a shining black oilskin coat.
And then the tempest broke loose. Crackling lightning bore down from out of the greenish-brown poisonous-looking clouds, that crowded low above the phosphorescent masthead. In ever quicker succession it swished down into the sea to right and left, some of the flashes in the immediate vicinity of the quivering boat, while the incessant roar of thunder, deafening the ear, shattering the nerves, sounded like hell let loose, like the infernal gunfire of a million gigantic demons at war.
The wind kept veering round from one direction to the other, blowing sometimes with hurricane force. I stood at the tiller tensely watching and running before the gale in order to save the rigging.
Then there would be a lull, intervals between the bursts of lightning—intervals of utter darkness.
I could see absolutely nothing. My only object was to keep the wind well aft and watch out that she did not jibe. Whatever I did, I must not jibe!
Gradually I could discern the greenish glow of those phosphorescent spar ends, until new flashes of lightning would make every detail distinctly visible in a ghastly bright light. I can still see that weird intensified picture of the deck asplash with the downpour, which came in hissing gushes, of the shiny black rigging and of the straining grey canvas, streaming with driving rain.
Then the horrible outburst would recontinue, fiercer, apparently, and more fiendish than ever. At times the whole sky would be a dense cobweb of lightning, flooding every crack and corner with an abominable brightness, and then again, in the blackness that followed, we would be rushing through wide streaks of dully glowing water which stood out sharply, without surroundings, without background, like a flood of luminous milk in an empty space. What it was, I cannot tell. Perhaps the phosphorescence caused by billions of microscopic beings, isolated by meeting currents—perhaps only one more amongst many weird electric phenomena, which added to the indescribable horror of this night. More than once I almost expected the whole universe to explode.
According to my calculations, we should be close to Cocos Island. What if we ran into a reef? That would bring the end, extinction. But what could I do? I had no will and no power but to obey the elements, rush onward, somewhere, anywhere…
To oppose them would be fatal.
How utterly futile, however, it is to attempt to describe what one cannot even understand. What are the words? What are the epithets? Empty, surely, and without force or meaning compared to the horrors of that night, a night which gave me a more vivid and terrifying picture of inferno than my imagination could ever have created. It was like a weird prelude to the Day of Judgement. And when, at last, morning broke, when the weather cleared up and the sun showed his face between retreating clouds, my relief was unbounded.
Never has that mighty life-giver been greeted with greater satisfaction.