CHAPTER XVI  THE CYCLONE

    When they awoke next morning the day was dark. A solid roof of cloud, lead-coloured and without a ripple on it, lay over the sky, almost to the horizon. There was not a breath of wind, and the birds flew wildly about as if disturbed by some unseen enemy in the wood.

    As Dick lit the fire to prepare the breakfast, Emmeline walked up and down, holding her baby to her breast; she felt restless and uneasy.

    As the morning wore on the darkness increased; a breeze rose up, and the leaves of the breadfruit trees pattered together with the sound of rain falling upon glass. A storm was coming, but there was something different in its approach to the approach of the storms they had already known.

    As the breeze increased a sound filled the air, coming from far away beyond the horizon. It was like the sound of a great multitude of people, and yet so faint and vague was it that sudden bursts of the breeze through the leaves above would drown it utterly. Then it ceased, and nothing could be heard but the rocking of the branches and the tossing of the leaves under the increasing wind, which was now blowing sharply and fiercely and with a steady rush dead from the west, fretting the lagoon, and sending clouds and masses of foam right over the reef. The sky that had been so leaden and peaceful and like a solid roof was now all in a hurry, flowing eastward like a great turbulent river in spate.

    And now, again, one could hear the sound in the distance--the thunder of the captains of the storm and the shouting; but still so faint, so vague, so indeterminate and unearthly that it seemed like the sound in a dream.

    Emmeline sat amidst the ferns on the floor cowed and dumb, holding the baby to her breast. It was fast asleep. Dick stood at the doorway. He was disturbed in mind, but he did not show it.

    The whole beautiful island world had now taken on the colour of ashes and the colour of lead. Beauty had utterly vanished, all seemed sadness and distress.

    The cocoa-palms, under the wind that had lost its steady rush and was now blowing in hurricane blasts, flung themselves about in all the attitudes of distress; and whoever has seen a tropical storm will know what a cocoa-palm can express by its movements under the lash of the wind.

    Fortunately the house was so placed that it was protected by the whole depth of the grove between it and the lagoon; and fortunately, too, it was sheltered by the dense foliage of the breadfruit, for suddenly, with a crash of thunder as if the hammer of Thor had been flung from sky to earth, the clouds split and the rain came down in a great slanting wave. It roared on the foliage above, which, bending leaf on leaf, made a slanting roof from which it rushed in a steady sheet-like cascade.

    Dick had darted into the house, and was now sitting beside Emmeline, who was shivering and holding the child, which had awakened at the sound of the thunder.

    For an hour they sat, the rain ceasing and coming again, the thunder shaking earth and sea, and the wind passing overhead with a piercing, monotonous cry.

    Then all at once the wind dropped, the rain ceased, and a pale spectral light, like the light of dawn, fell before the doorway.

    "It's over!" cried Dick, making to get up.

    "Oh, listen!" said Emmeline, clinging to him, and holding the baby to his breast as if the touch of him would give it protection. She had divined that there was something approaching worse than a storm.

    Then, listening in the silence, away from the other side of the island, they heard a sound like the droning of a great top.

    It was the centre of the cyclone approaching.

    A cyclone is a circular storm: a storm in the form of a ring. This ring of hurricane travels across the ocean with inconceivable speed and fury, yet its centre is a haven of peace.

    As they listened the sound increased, sharpened, and became a tang that pierced the ear-drums: a sound that shook with hurry and speed, increasing, bringing with it the bursting and crashing of trees, and breaking at last overhead in a yell that stunned the brain like the blow of a bludgeon. In a second the house was torn away, and they were clinging to the roots of the breadfruit, deaf, blinded, half-lifeless.

    The terror and the prolonged shock of it reduced them from thinking beings to the level of frightened animals whose one instinct is preservation.

    How long the horror lasted they could not tell, when, like a madman who pauses for a moment in the midst of his struggles and stands stock-still, the wind ceased blowing, and there was peace. The centre of the cyclone was passing over the island.

    Looking up, one saw a marvellous sight. The air was full of birds, butterflies, insects--all hanging in the heart of the storm and travelling with it under its protection.

    Though the air was still as the air of a summer's day, from north, south, east, and west, from every point of the compass, came the yell of the hurricane. There was something shocking in this. In a storm one is so beaten about by the wind that one has no time to think: one is half stupefied. But in the dead centre of a cyclone one is in perfect peace. The trouble is all around, but it is not here. One has time to examine the thing like a tiger in a cage, listen to its voice and shudder at its ferocity.

    The girl, holding the baby to her breast, sat up gasping. The baby had come to no harm; it had cried at first when the thunder broke, but now it seemed impassive, almost dazed. Dick stepped from under the tree and looked at the prodigy in the air.

    The cyclone had gathered on its way sea-birds and birds from the land; there were gulls, electric white and black man-of-war birds, butterflies, and they all seemed imprisoned under a great drifting dome of glass. As they went, travelling like things without volition and in a dream, with a hum and a roar the south-west quadrant of the cyclone burst on the island, and the whole bitter business began over again.

    It lasted for hours, then towards midnight the wind fell; and when the sun rose next morning he came through a cloudless sky, without a trace of apology for the destruction caused by his children the winds. He showed trees uprooted and birds lying dead, three or four canes remaining of what had once been a house, the lagoon the colour of a pale sapphire, and a glass-green, foam-capped sea racing in thunder against the reef.


PREVIOUS  UP  NEXT