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Malbone: An Oldport Romance Thomas Wentworth Higginson

XXI. A Storm

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Suddenly something vast towered amid the mist above them. It was the French war-ship returned to her anchorage once more, and seeming in that dim atmosphere to be something spectral and strange that had taken form out of the elements. The muzzles of great guns rose tier above tier, along her side; great boats hung one above another, on successive pairs of davits, at her stern. So high was her hull, that the topmost boat and the topmost gun appeared to be suspended in middle air; and yet this was but the beginning of her altitude. Above these were the heavy masts, seen dimly through the mist; between these were spread eight dark lines of sailors' clothes, which, with the massive yards above, looked like part of some ponderous framework built to reach the sky. This prolongation of the whole dark mass toward the heavens had a portentous look to those who gazed from below; and when the denser fog sometimes furled itself away from the topgallant masts, hitherto invisible, and showed them rising loftier yet, and the tricolor at the mizzen-mast-head looking down as if from the zenith, then they all seemed to appertain to something of more than human workmanship; a hundred wild tales of phantom vessels came up to the imagination, and it was as if that one gigantic structure were expanding to fill all space from sky to sea.

They were swept past it; the fog closed in; it was necessary to land near the Fort, and proceed on foot. They walked across the rough peninsula, while the mist began to disperse again, and they were buoyant with expectation. As they toiled onward, the fog suddenly met them at the turn of a lane where it had awaited them, like an enemy. As they passed into those gray and impalpable arms, the whole world changed again.

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They walked toward the sound of the sea. As they approached it, the dull hue that lay upon it resembled that of the leaden sky. The two elements could hardly be distinguished except as the white outlines of the successive breakers were lifted through the fog. The lines of surf appeared constantly to multiply upon the beach, and yet, on counting them, there were never any more. Sometimes, in the distance, masses of foam rose up like a wall where the horizon ought to be; and, as the coming waves took form out of the unseen, it seemed as if no phantom were too vast or shapeless to come rolling in upon their dusky shoulders.

Presently a frail gleam of something like the ghost of dead sunshine made them look toward the west. Above the dim roofs of Castle Hill mansion-house, the sinking sun showed luridly through two rifts of cloud, and then the swift motion of the nearer vapor veiled both sun and cloud, and banished them into almost equal remoteness.

Leaving the beach on their right, and passing the high rocks of the Pirate's Cave, they presently descended to the water's edge once more. The cliffs rose to a distorted height in the dimness; sprays of withered grass nodded along the edge, like Ossian's spectres. Light seemed to be vanishing from the universe, leaving them alone with the sea. And when a solitary loon uttered his wild cry, and rising, sped away into the distance, it was as if life were following light into an equal annihilation. That sense of vague terror, with which the ocean sometimes controls the fancy, began to lay its grasp on them. They remembered that Emilia, in speaking once of her intense shrinking from death, had said that the sea was the only thing from which she would not fear to meet it.

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Malbone: An Oldport Romance
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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