I looked to where the Captain pointed but saw only a black cloud looming on the horizon. His mate took up the shout. Fortuna! Fortuna! The sailors scurried faster than I had yet seen that mob of Levantine lingerers bestir themselves, pulling on this and tying up that. I concluded that whatever fortune was in store would soon slip from our grasp. The commotion smoked out my companions from our cabin.
"Bigod what's up? Pirates?" growled Higgins.
"God forbid," peeped Winstanley.
We scanned the sullen swell for a Moorish galley or an Albanian brig. There was nothing to see, not even the dolphins and seagulls that had escorted us from Sicily, only the black cloud bearing down upon us. In front of us was blackness and lead. Behind us was brightness and foam. We were on the cusp between two worlds, light and dark, night and day, good and bad. Reason said prefer the first but there was delicious apprehension in the second.
First was lightning, forks of it, tridents of it, two at a time, cracking the sky not top to bottom but side to side, two fathoms above the surface of the sea; then thunder, great gavel blows bringing the world to order before the cataclysm; a canon blast of wind and a dreadful rolling thunder; no horizon but a great tide bearing down on us broadside. The wind began to blow immensely strong and gusty. The waves rose in towering heaps, taking on the lowering black of the clouds and the hollow roar of the thunder. We were assaulted by such torrents from the skies and waves from the sea that it was impossible to distinguish them.
"We are in God's hands" whimpered pious Winstanley.
"We are in God's arse" muttered impious Higgins.
Our Captain paced before the wheel, giving first one order and then another to his helmsman, undecided whether to face or flee our fate. He struck all sail but for a stay on the mizzen and this was soon taken away by the gale. Everything movable on deck was washed away and much that was fixed, including the binnacle and the taffrail and the helmsman, poor devil. The Captain ordered the wheel to be lashed. Our ship ran bare-poled, tossed hither and thither by cross seas; her seams began to open by her labouring; she wallowed like a log; water poured into her hold and our cabin, so it seemed we would drown equally well indoors or out. The Captain bellowed, the seamen bustled, and we were ordered below, accused of conspiring to help the storm by getting in the way of their manoeuvres. We persevered on deck, each praying in his own way for deliverance, Winstanley reasoning with the Lord who had walked upon the water and Higgins cursing the devil and I kneeling with my head in the scuppers to give Neptune his due.
After an hour of this watery hell we heard a new noise dead ahead, a beating, booming crashing din. Matapan, went the rumour round the men. This is the name of the great cape of the southern Greek mainland and I felt a surging relief that at last we were near dry land, until I saw the consternation on their faces. The Captain ordered the wheel unlashed. Somehow they rigged a handkerchief on the remaining mast to give us way and we steered to larboard. Half an hour later we heard the same sound again, dead ahead. We tacked away to starboard and soon heard the danger again to larboard. To starboard, to larboard, to starboard again until we heard the ominous din on both sides. There was nothing to do. Helpless, we clung to the rigging and waited for the Clashing Rocks to crush us.
"Like fish in a trap," bellowed Higgins and shook his fist to the sky.
"Amidst the rocks he heard a hollow roar
Cliffs and shaggy shores, a dreadful sight!
All rough with rocks, with foamy billows white," piped Winstanley.
As the cliffs closed in on either side the wind blew mightier and seas piled upon seas. I was so disoriented that sometimes I sensed we were flying under the sea, sometimes sailing through the storm clouds; terror was sublimated now into despair, now into elation. After an age of struggling in mind and body against the buffets of the storm I surrendered to the awful power around us. I was immediately wrapped in the sweetness of submission. In a cloak of calm I heard the din, I saw the rampaging waters, but I was in a different place, outside and above it all, at one with an ethereal being. My grip on the rigging weakened, my stance on the bucking deck relaxed.
A goddess rose out of the waves not a chain's length from the ship, rising from the foam, a lovely woman, bathed in her own light, naked as a statue, with only her silken tresses to preserve her modesty. With such grace she extended her hand to me and smiled. Her divine beauty illuminated my true self; she was my saviour; she restored me to life.
"By God I will have you. And a pint of champagne too," I shouted at the vision and was tossed back into the hurly-burly of the tempest.
How did I get into this watery pickle?