Tempest by Charles Dickens
In the evening I started, ... down the road I had traversed under so
“Don’t you think that,” I asked the coachman, in the first stage out
of London, “a very remarkable sky? I don’t remember to have seen one
“Nor I—not equal to it,” he replied. “That’s wind, sir. There’ll be
mischief done at sea, I expect, before long.”
It was a murky confusion—here and there blotted with a color like the
color of the smoke from damp fuel—of flying clouds tossed up into most
remarkable heaps, suggesting greater heights in the clouds than there
were depths below them to the bottom of the deepest hollows in the
earth, through which the wild moon seemed to plunge headlong, as if,
in a dread disturbance of the laws of nature, she had lost her way and
were frightened. There had been a wind all day: and it was rising
then, with an extraordinary great sound. In another hour it had much
increased, and the sky was more overcast, and it blew hard.
But, as the night advanced, the clouds closing in and densely
overspreading the whole sky, then very dark, it came on to blow,
harder and harder. It still increased, until our horses could scarcely
face the wind. Many times, in the dark part of the night (it was then
late in September, when the nights were not short), the leaders turned
about, or came to a dead stop; and we were often in serious
apprehension that the coach would be blown over. Sweeping gusts of
rain came up before this storm like showers of steel; and at those
times, when there was any shelter of trees or lee walls to be got, we
were fain to stop, in a sheer impossibility of continuing the
When the day broke, it blew harder and harder. I had been in Yarmouth
when the seamen said it blew great guns, but I had never known the
like of this, or anything approaching to it. We came to Ipswich—very
late, having had to fight every inch of ground since we were ten miles
out of London; and found a cluster of people in the market-place, who
had risen from their beds in the night, fearful of falling chimneys.
Some of these, congregating about the inn-yard while we changed
horses, told us of great sheets of lead having been ripped off a high
church-tower, and flung into a by-street, which they then blocked up.
Others had to tell of country people, coming in from neighboring
villages, who had seen great trees lying torn out of the earth, and
whole ricks scattered about the roads and fields. Still, there was no
abatement in the storm, but it blew harder.
As we struggled on, nearer and nearer to the sea, from which this
mighty wind was blowing dead on shore, its force became more and more
terrific. Long before we saw the sea, its spray was on our lips, and
showered salt rain upon us. The water was out, over miles and miles of
the flat country adjacent to Yarmouth; and every sheet and puddle
lashed its banks, and had its stress of little breakers setting
heavily towards us. When we came within sight of the sea, the waves on
the horizon, caught at intervals above the rolling abyss, were like
glimpses of another shore with towers and buildings. When at last we
got into the town, the people came out to the doors, all aslant, and
with streaming hair, making a wonder of the mail that had come through
such a night.
I put up at the old inn, and went down to look at the sea; staggering
along the street, which was strewn with sand and sea-weed, and with
flying blotches of sea-foam; afraid of falling slates and tiles; and
holding by people I met at angry corners. Coming near the beach, I
saw, not only the boatmen, but half the people of the town, lurking
behind buildings; some, now and then braving the fury of the storm to
look away to sea, and blown sheer out of their course in trying to get
Joining these groups, I found bewailing women whose husbands were away
in herring or oyster boats, which there was too much reason to think
might have foundered before they could run in anywhere for safety.
Grizzled old sailors were among the people, shaking their heads as
they looked from water to sky, and muttering to one another;
shipowners, excited and uneasy; children huddling together, and
peering into older faces; even stout mariners, disturbed and anxious,
levelling their glasses at the sea from behind places of shelter, as
if they were surveying an enemy.
The tremendous sea itself, when I could find sufficient pause to look
at it, in the agitation of the blinding wind, the flying stones and
sand, and the awful noise, confounded me. As the high watery walls
came rolling in, and, at their highest tumbled into surf, they looked
as if the least would ingulf the town. As the receding wave swept back
with a hoarse roar, it seemed to scoop out deep caves in the beach, as
if its purpose were to undermine the earth. When some white-headed
billows thundered on, and dashed themselves to pieces before they
reached the land, every fragment of the late whole seemed possessed by
the full might of its wrath, rushing to be gathered to the composition
of another monster. Undulating hills were changed to valleys,
undulating valleys (with a solitary storm-bird sometimes skimming
through them) were lifted up to hills; masses of water shivered and
shook the beach with a booming sound; every shape tumultuously rolled
on, as soon as made, to change its shape and place, and beat another
shape and place away; the ideal shore on the horizon, with its towers
and buildings, rose and fell; the clouds flew fast and thick; I seemed
to see a rending and upheaving of all nature.
Not finding Ham among the people whom this memorable wind—for it is
still remembered down there as the greatest ever known to blow upon
that coast—had brought together, I made my way to his house. It was
shut; and as no one answered to my knocking, I went by back ways and
by-lanes, to the yard where he worked. I learned, there, that he had
gone to Lowestoft, to meet some sudden exigency of ship-repairing in
which his skill was required; but that he would be back to-morrow
morning, in good time.
I went back to the inn; and when I had washed and dressed, tried to
sleep, but in vain, it was five o’clock in the afternoon. I had not
sat five minutes by the coffee-room fire, when the waiter coming to
stir it, as an excuse for talking, told me that two colliers had gone
down, with all hands, a few miles away; and that some other ships had
been seen laboring hard in the Roads, and trying in great distress, to
keep off shore. Mercy on them, and on all poor sailors, said he, if we
had another night like the last!
I was very much depressed in spirits; very solitary; and felt an
uneasiness in Ham’s not being there, disproportionate to the occasion.
I was seriously affected, without knowing how much, by late events;
and my long exposure to the fierce wind had confused me. There was
that jumble in my thoughts and recollections, that I had lost the
clear arrangement of time and distance. Thus, if I had gone out into
the town, I should not have been surprised, I think, to encounter some
one who I knew must be then in London. So to speak, there was in these
respects a curious inattention in my mind. Yet it was busy, too, with
all the remembrances the place naturally awakened; and they were
particularly distinct and vivid.
In this state, the waiter’s dismal intelligence about the ships
immediately connected itself, without any effort of my volition, with
my uneasiness about Ham. I was persuaded that I had an apprehension of
his returning from Lowestoft by sea, and being lost. This grew so
strong with me, that I resolved to go back to the yard before I took
my dinner, and ask the boat-builder if he thought his attempting to
return by sea at all likely? If he gave me the least reason to think
so, I would go over to Lowestoft and prevent it by bringing him with
I hastily ordered my dinner, and went back to the yard. I was none too
soon; for the boat-builder, with a lantern in his hand, was locking
the yard-gate. He quite laughed, when I asked him the question, and
said there was no fear; no man in his senses, or out of them, would
put off in such a gale of wind, least of all Ham Peggotty, who had
been born to seafaring.
So sensible of this, beforehand, that I had really felt ashamed of
doing what I was nevertheless impelled to do, I went back to the inn.
If such a wind could rise, I think it was rising. The howl and roar,
the rattling of the doors and windows, the rumbling in the chimneys,
the apparent rocking of the very house that sheltered me, and the
prodigious tumult of the sea, were more fearful than in the morning.
But there was now a great darkness besides; and that invested the
storm with new terrors, real and fanciful.
I could not eat, I could not sit still, I could not continue steadfast
to anything. Something within me, faintly answering to the storm
without, tossed up the depths of my memory, and made a tumult in them.
Yet, in all the hurry of my thoughts, wild running with the thundering
sea,—the storm and my uneasiness regarding Ham, were always in the
My dinner went away almost untasted, and I tried to refresh myself
with a glass or two of wine. In vain. I fell into a dull slumber
before the fire, without losing my consciousness, either of the uproar
out of doors, or of the place in which I was. Both became overshadowed
by a new and indefinable horror; and when I awoke—or rather when I
shook off the lethargy that bound me in my chair—my whole frame
thrilled with objectless and unintelligent fear.
I walked to and fro, tried to read an old gazetteer, listened to the
awful noises: looked at faces, scenes, and figures in the fire. At
length, the steady ticking of the undisturbed clock on the wall,
tormented me to that degree that I resolved to go to bed.
It was reassuring, on such a night, to be told that some of the
inn-servants had agreed together to sit up until morning. I went to
bed, exceedingly weary and heavy; but, on my lying down, all such
sensations vanished, as if by magic, and I was broad awake, with every
For hours I lay there, listening to the wind and water; imagining,
now, that I heard shrieks out at sea; now, that I distinctly heard the
firing of signal guns; and now, the fall of houses in the town. I got
up, several times, and looked out; but could see nothing, except the
reflection in the window-panes of the faint candle I had left burning,
and of my own haggard face looking in at me from the black void.
At length, my restlessness attained to such a pitch, that I hurried on
my clothes, and went down stairs. In the large kitchen, where I dimly
saw bacon and ropes of onions hanging from the beams, the watchers
were clustered together, in various attitudes, about a table,
purposely moved away from the great chimney, and brought near the
door. A pretty girl, who had her ears stopped with her apron, and her
eyes upon the door, screamed when I appeared, supposing me to be a
spirit; but the others had more presence of mind, and were glad of an
addition to their company. One man, referring to the topic they had
been discussing, asked me whether I thought the souls of the
collier-crews who had gone down, were out in the storm?
I remained there, I dare say, two hours. Once, I opened the yard-gate,
and looked into the empty street. The sand, the sea-weed, and the
flakes of foam, were driving by, and I was obliged to call for
assistance before I could shut the gate again, and make it fast
against the wind.
There was a dark gloom in my solitary chamber, when I at length
returned to it; but I was tired now, and, getting into bed again,
fell—off a tower and down a precipice—into the depths of sleep. I have
an impression that, for a long time, though I dreamed of being
elsewhere and in a variety of scenes, it was always blowing in my
dream. At length, I lost that feeble hold upon reality, and was
engaged with two dear friends, but who they were I don’t know, at the
siege of some town in a roar of cannonading.
The thunder of the cannon was so loud and incessant, that I could not
hear something I much desired to hear, until I made a great exertion
and awoke. It was broad day—eight or nine o’clock; the storm raging,
in lieu of the batteries; and some one knocking and calling at my
“What is the matter?” I cried.
“A wreck! Close by!”
I sprung out of bed, and asked what wreck?
“A schooner, from Spain or Portugal, laden with fruit and wine. Make
haste, sir, if you want to see her! It’s thought down on the beach,
she’ll go to pieces every moment.”
The excited voice went clamoring along the staircase; and I wrapped
myself in my clothes as quickly as I could, and ran into the street.
Numbers of people were there before me, all running in one direction,
to the beach. I ran the same way, outstripping a good many, and soon
came facing the wild sea.
The wind might by this time have lulled a little, though not more
sensibly than if the cannonading I had dreamed of, had been diminished
by the silencing of half-a-dozen guns out of hundreds. But, the sea,
having upon it the additional agitation of the whole night, was
infinitely more terrific than when I had seen it last. Every
appearance it had then presented, bore the expression of being
swelled; and the height to which the breakers rose, and, looking
over one another, bore one another down, and rolled in, in
interminable hosts, was most appalling.
In the difficulty of hearing anything but winds and waves, and in the
crowd, and the unspeakable confusion, and my first breathless efforts
to stand against the weather, I was so confused that I looked out to
sea for the wreck, and saw nothing but the foaming heads of the great
waves. A half-dressed boatman, standing next me, pointed with his bare
arm (a tattoo’d arrow on it, pointing in the same direction) to the
left. Then, O great Heaven, I saw it, close in upon us!
One mast was broken short off, six or eight feet from the deck, and
lay over the side, entangled in a maze of sail and rigging; and all
that ruin, as the ship rolled and beat—which she did without a
moment’s pause, and with a violence quite inconceivable—beat the side
as if it would stave it in. Some efforts were even then being made, to
cut this portion of the wreck away; for, as the ship, which was
broadside on, turned towards us in her rolling, I plainly descried her
people at work with axes, especially one active figure with long
curling hair, conspicuous among the rest. But, a great cry, which was
audible even above the wind and water, rose from the shore at this
moment; the sea, sweeping over the rolling wreck, made a clean breach,
and carried men, spars, casks, planks, bulwarks, heaps of such toys,
into the boiling surge.
The second mast was yet standing, with the rags of a rent sail, and a
wild confusion of broken cordage flapping to and fro. The ship had
struck once, the same boatman hoarsely said in my ear, and then lifted
in and struck again. I understood him to add that she was parting
amidships, and I could readily suppose so, for the rolling and beating
were too tremendous for any human work to suffer long. As he spoke,
there was another great cry of pity from the beach; four men arose
with the wreck out of the deep, clinging to the rigging of the
remaining mast; uppermost, the active figure with the curling hair.
There was a bell on board; and as the ship rolled and dashed, like a
desperate creature driven mad, now showing us the whole sweep of her
deck, as she turned on her beam-ends towards the shore, now nothing
but her keel, as she sprung wildly over and turned towards the sea,
the bell rang; and its sound, the knell of those unhappy men, was
borne towards us on the wind. Again we lost her, and again she rose.
Two men were gone. The agony on shore increased. Men groaned, and
clasped their hands; women shrieked, and turned away their faces. Some
ran wildly up and down along the beach, crying for help where no help
could be. I found myself one of these, frantically imploring a knot of
sailors whom I knew, not to let those two lost creatures perish before
They were making out to me, in an agitated way—I don’t know how, for
the little I could hear I was scarcely composed enough to
understand—that the life-boat had been bravely manned an hour ago, and
could do nothing; and that as no man would be so desperate as to
attempt to wade off with a rope, and establish a communication with
the shore, there was nothing left to try; when I noticed that some new
sensation moved the people on the beach, and saw them part, and Ham
came breaking through them to the front.
I ran to him—as well as I know, to repeat my appeal for help. But,
distracted though I was, by a sight so new to me and terrible, the
determination in his face, and his look, out to sea—exactly the same
look as I remembered in connection with the morning after Emily’s
flight—awoke me to a knowledge of his danger. I held him back with
both arms; and implored the men with whom I had been speaking, not to
listen to him, not to do murder, not to let him stir from off that
Another cry arose on shore; and looking to the wreck, we saw the cruel
sail, with blow on blow, beat off the lower of the two men, and fly up
in triumph round the active figure left alone upon the mast.
Against such a sight, and against such determination as that of the
calmly desperate man who was already accustomed to lead half the
people present, I might as hopefully have entreated the wind. “Mas’r
Davy,” he said, cheerily grasping me by both hands, “if my time is
come, ’tis come. If ’tan’t, I’ll bide it. Lord above bless you, and
bless all! Mates, make me ready! I’m a going off!”
I was swept away, but not unkindly, to some distance, where the people
around me made me stay; urging, as I confusedly perceived, that he was
bent on going, with help or without, and that I should endanger the
precautions for his safety by troubling those with whom they rested. I
don’t know what I answered, or what they rejoined; but, I saw hurry on
the beach, and men running with ropes from a capstan that was there,
and penetrating into a circle of figures that hid him from me. Then I
saw him standing alone, in a seaman’s frock and trousers: a rope in
his hand, or slung to his wrist: another round his body: and several
of the best men holding, at a little distance, to the latter, which he
laid out himself, slack upon the shore, at his feet.
The wreck, even to my unpractised eye, was breaking up. I saw that she
was parting in the middle, and that the life of the solitary man upon
the mast hung by a thread. Still, he clung to it. He had a singular
red cap on,—not like a sailor’s cap, but of a finer color; and as the
few yielding planks between him and destruction rolled and bulged, and
his anticipative death-knell rung, he was seen by all of us to wave
it. I saw him do it now, and thought I was going distracted, when his
action brought an old remembrance to my mind of a once dear friend.
Ham watched the sea, standing alone, with the silence of suspended
breath behind him, and the storm before, until there was a great
retiring wave, when, with a backward glance at those who held the rope
which was made fast round his body, he dashed in after it, and in a
moment was buffeting with the water; rising with the hills, falling
with the valleys, lost beneath the foam; then drawn again to land.
They hauled in hastily.
He was hurt. I saw blood on his face, from where I stood; but he took
no thought of that. He seemed hurriedly to give them some directions
for leaving him more free—or so I judged from the motion of his
arm—and was gone as before.
And now he made for the wreck, rising with the hills, falling with the
valleys, lost beneath the rugged foam, borne in towards the shore,
borne on towards the ship, striving hard and valiantly. The distance
was nothing, but the power of the sea and wind made the strife deadly.
At length he neared the wreck. He was so near, that with one more of
his vigorous strokes he would be clinging to it,—when, a high, green,
vast hillside of water, moving on shoreward, from beyond the ship, he
seemed to leap up into it with a mighty bound, and the ship was gone!
Some eddying fragments I saw in the sea, as if a mere cask had been
broken, in running to the spot where they were hauling in.
Consternation was in every face. They drew him to my very
feet—insensible—dead. He was carried to the nearest house; and, no one
preventing me now, I remained near him, busy, while every means of
restoration were tried; but he had been beaten to death by the great
wave, and his generous heart was stilled forever.