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Malbone: An Oldport Romance Thomas Wentworth Higginson

XXI. A Storm

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"Was there any landing which they could reach?" Harry asked.

There was none,--but the light-ship lay right in their track, and if they had good luck, they might get aboard of her.

"The boatman?" said Philip, anxiously,--"Mr. Lambert's boatman; is he a good sailor?"

"Don't know," was the reply. "Stranger here. Dutchman, Frenchman, Portegee, or some kind of a foreigner."

"Seems to understand himself in a boat," said another.

"Mr. Malbone knows him," said a third. "The same that dove with the young woman under the steamboat paddles."

"Good grit," said the first.

"That's so," was the answer. "But grit don't teach a man the channel."

All agreed to this axiom; but as there was so strong a probability that the voyagers had reached the light-ship, there seemed less cause for fear.

The next question was, whether it was possible to follow them. All agreed that it would be foolish for any boat to attempt it, till the wind had blown itself out, which might be within half an hour. After that, some predicted a calm, some a fog, some a renewal of the storm; there was the usual variety of opinions. At any rate, there might perhaps be an interval during which they could go out, if the gentlemen did not mind a wet jacket.

Within the half-hour came indeed an interval of calm, and a light shone behind the clouds from the west. It faded soon into a gray fog, with puffs of wind from the southwest again. When the young men went out with the boatmen, the water had grown more quiet, save where angry little gusts ruffled it. But these gusts made it necessary to carry a double reef, and they made but little progress against wind and tide.

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A dark-gray fog, broken by frequent wind-flaws, makes the ugliest of all days on the water. A still, pale fog is soothing; it lulls nature to a kind of repose. But a windy fog with occasional sunbeams and sudden films of metallic blue breaking the leaden water,--this carries an impression of something weird and treacherous in the universe, and suggests caution.

As the boat floated on, every sight and sound appeared strange. The music from the fort came sudden and startling through the vaporous eddies. A tall white schooner rose instantaneously near them, like a light-house. They could see the steam of the factory floating low, seeking some outlet between cloud and water. As they drifted past a wharf, the great black piles of coal hung high and gloomy; then a stray sunbeam brought out their peacock colors; then came the fog again, driving hurriedly by, as if impatient to go somewhere and enraged at the obstacle. It seemed to have a vast inorganic life of its own, a volition and a whim. It drew itself across the horizon like a curtain; then advanced in trampling armies up the bay; then marched in masses northward; then suddenly grew thin, and showed great spaces of sunlight; then drifted across the low islands, like long tufts of wool; then rolled itself away toward the horizon; then closed in again, pitiless and gray.

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Malbone: An Oldport Romance
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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