The flash was now repeated and was succeeded by several others of increased intensity, but as yet no thunder rolled and there was not the slightest indication of an approaching storm. Not a single wave wrinkled the surface of the sea for miles and miles; the water seemed asleep, while down upon it the moon poured a flood of silvery radiance. The stars, too, were beaming brightly. Still, however, the intense lightning shot athwart the placid sky. It had become almost incessant.
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Monte-Cristo could not account for the bewildering phenomenon. He summoned the captain of the Alcyon and said to him:. I pray you, guard against it. Banish your fears and reassure yourself; the lightning is but a freak of nature. The captain, too, was disturbed, though he could give himself no satisfactory reason for his uneasiness. Ali, with the characteristic superstition of the Nubian race, had prostrated himself upon the deck, and was making signs the Moslems of his country use to drive away malignant spirits. The night, however, passed without accident, though the singular lightning continued for several hours.
Next morning the sun rose, encircled by a ruddy band, fringed on the outer rim with a faint yellow, while its beams had a sullen glare instead of their normal brilliancy. The lightning of the previous night was absent, but soon another and not less disquieting phenomenon manifested itself; as far as the eye could reach the sea seemed boiling, and, at intervals, a puff, as if of vapor, would filter through the waves, rising and disappearing in the heavens.
Meanwhile the wind had fallen, and amid an almost dead calm the sails of the Alcyon hung listlessly, with only an occasional flapping.
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The yacht moved forward, indeed, but so slowly that it scarcely appeared to move at all. There she cowered upon a divan, hiding her face in her hands and moaning piteously. As they were sitting thus, the Alcyon received a sudden and violent shock that shook the noble yacht from stem to stern. Instantly there was a [Pg 30] sound of hurrying feet on deck, and the captain could be heard shouting hoarsely to the sailors.
At that moment Ali darted down the companion-way and stood trembling before his master. There a scene met his eye as unexpected as it was appalling. The entire surface of the Mediterranean was aglow with phosphorescence, and the sun was veiled completely by a heavy cloud that seemed to cover the whole expanse of the sky. This cloud [Pg 31] was not black, but of a bloody hue, and the atmosphere was so densely charged with sulphur that it was almost impossible to breathe.
The sea was boiling more furiously than ever, and the puffs of vapor that had before only occasionally filtered through the waves now leaped up incessantly, each puff attended with a slight explosion; the vapor was grayish when it first arose from the water, but as it ascended it became red, mingling at length with the bloody cloud that each moment acquired greater density.
The wind blew fitfully, sometimes amounting to a gale and then utterly vanishing without the slightest warning. Soon the bloody cloud seemed to settle of its own weight upon the sea, growing so thick that the eye could not penetrate it, and a few feet from the yacht all was inky darkness.
Monte-Cristo hurried to the captain, who was endeavoring to quiet the superstitious fears of the sailors. Drawing him aside, he said, in a low tone:. This elemental disturbance is volcanic, and how it will end cannot be foretold. No doubt an earthquake is devastating the nearest land, or will do so before many hours have elapsed.
At any moment rocks or islands may arise from the sea, and obstruct our passage. All we can do is to hold ourselves in readiness for whatever calamity may happen, and make for Crete as rapidly as possible, with the hope of eventually getting beyond the volcanic zone. Do not enlighten the crew as to the cause of the [Pg 32] disturbance; did they know, or even suspect it, they could not be controlled, but would become either stupefied or reckless.
Try to convince them that we are simply in the midst of a severe electrical storm that will speedily exhaust its fury and subside. Now, to work, and remember that everything depends upon your courage and resolution. Giacomo rejoined the sailors, who were huddled together at the stern of the yacht like so many frightened sheep. He spoke to them, doing his utmost to reassure them, and ultimately succeeded so well that they resumed their neglected duties with some show of alacrity and even cheerfulness. Meanwhile, Monte-Cristo, with folded arms and an outward show of calmness, was pacing the deck as if nothing unusual were in progress, and his demeanor was not without its effect on the sailors, who looked upon him with a species of awe and admiration.
Thus the day passed. A night of painful suspense succeeded it, during which not a soul on board the Alcyon thought of sleeping.
Nothing, however, occurred, save that the intense lightning of the previous night was renewed. Toward eleven o'clock the breeze freshened to such an extent that the yacht sped along on her course with great fleetness. In the morning the sun arose amid a purple haze, and the Mediterranean presented a more [Pg 33] tumultuous and threatening aspect than it had the preceding day. The breeze was still blowing stiffly, and the lightning continued. Giacomo informed Monte-Cristo that unless a calm should suddenly come on they would certainly arrive at Crete by noon.
The sailors, he added, were in good spirits, and might be relied upon, though they were much fatigued by reason of their unceasing labor. At ten o'clock the man at the wheel hurriedly summoned the captain to his side, and, with a look of terror and bewilderment, directed his attention to the compass, the needle of which no longer pointed to the north, but was dancing a mad dance, not remaining stationary for a single instant. To complicate the situation still further, the sun was suddenly obscured, absolute darkness invading both sea and sky.
Only when the vivid lightning tore the dense clouds apart were those on board the Alcyon enabled to catch a glimpse of what was going on about them, and that glimpse was but momentary. Thunder peals were now added to the terrors of the time, while the yacht tossed and plunged on angry, threatening billows.
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Showers of sparks and glowing cinders, as if from some mighty conflagration, poured down into the water, striking its surface with an ominous hiss; they resembled meteors, and their brilliancy was augmented by the surrounding gloom. Rain also began to descend, not in drops, but in broad sheets and with the roar of a cataract; in a moment everybody on the Alcyon's deck was drenched to the skin. As the captain approached the man at the wheel, Monte-Cristo fixed his eyes upon the old Italian's countenance and saw it assume a deathly pallor as he noticed that the needle of the compass could no longer be depended on.
In an instant the Count was beside him and realized the extent of the new evil that had befallen them. As he spoke, a loud crash was heard, and the rudder, torn from its fastenings by the violence of the tempest, swept by them, vanishing amid the darkness. The man at the wheel gazed after it, uttering a cry of despair. A panic had seized upon the sailors as they witnessed the catastrophe that rendered the Alcyon helpless, but this immediately gave place to stupor, and the men stood silent and overwhelmed.
Bertuccio, from the time the dread storm had broken forth, had been gloomy and uncommunicative; he had held persistently aloof both from Monte-Cristo and the crew. In the general turmoil and confusion his bearing and behavior had passed unnoticed even by the vigilant eye of the Count. I feel it—I know it! On the other hand, the moment you are rid of me the storm will cease as if by magic, and you will be saved.
Shaking off Monte-Cristo's grasp, he leaped upon [Pg 36] the bulwarks and suddenly sprang far out amid the seething waves. The Count uttered a cry of horror that was echoed by the captain. As for the crew, so utterly stupefied were they that they did not seem to comprehend the suicidal act. For an instant Monte-Cristo and Giacomo saw the steward whirling about amid the tumultuous flood; then he was swept away, and vanished in the impenetrable darkness beyond. The force of the wind had meanwhile augmented until a perfect hurricane was raging about the Alcyon; the noise was deafening, and the sails swelled to such an extent that they threatened to snap asunder.
Suddenly they gave way, and the tattered shreds flew in all directions, like white-winged sea-fowl.
Simultaneously the mast toppled and went by the board. The yacht, now a helpless wreck, pitched and tossed, but still shot onward, impelled by the wild fury of the gale. Gigantic waves at intervals swept the deck, each torrent as it retreated carrying with it all it could tear away, and making huge gaps in the bulwarks, to which the sailors were clinging with all the energy of desperation. Monte-Cristo had grasped the stump of the mast, and the captain clung with all his strength to the remains of the wheel.
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