On Wednesday night the weather was very bad

22 Aug 2023

A Floating City and The Blockade Runners by Jules Verne, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. Chapter VIII


On Wednesday night the weather was very bad, my balance was strangely variable, and I was obliged to lean with my knees and elbows against the sideboard, to prevent myself from falling. Portmanteaus and bags came in and out of my cabin; an unusual hubbub reigned in the adjoining saloon, in which two or three hundred packages were making expeditions from one end to the other, knocking the tables and chairs with loud crashes; doors slammed, the boards creaked, the partitions made that groaning noise peculiar to pine wood; bottles and glasses jingled together in their racks, and a cataract of plates and dishes rolled about on the pantry floors. I heard the irregular roaring of the screw, and the wheels beating the water, sometimes entirely immersed, and at others striking the empty air; by all these signs I concluded that the wind had freshened, and the steam-ship was no longer indifferent to the billows.

At six o’clock next morning, after passing a sleepless night, I got up and dressed myself, as well as I could with one hand, while with the other I clutched at the sides of my cabin, for without support it was impossible to keep one’s feet, and I had quite a serious struggle to get on my overcoat. I left my cabin, and helping myself with hands and feet through the billows of luggage, I crossed the saloon, scrambling up the stairs on my knees, like a Roman peasant devoutly climbing the steps of the “Scala santa” of Pontius Pilate; and at last, reaching the deck, I hung on firmly to the nearest kevel.

No land in sight; we had doubled Cape Clear in the night, and around us was that vast circumference bounded by the line, where water and sky appear to meet. The slate-coloured sea broke in great foamless billows. The “Great Eastern” struck amidships, and, supported by no sail, rolled frightfully, her bare masts describing immense circles in the air. There was no heaving to speak of, but the rolling was dreadful, it was impossible to stand upright. The officer on watch, clinging to the bridge, looked as if he was in a swing.

From kevel to kevel, I managed to reach the paddles on the starboard side, the deck was damp and slippery from the spray and mist: I was just going to fasten myself to a stanchion of the bridge when a body rolled at my feet.


It was Dr. Pitferge, my quaint friend: he scrambled on to his knees, and looking at me, said,—

“That’s all right, the amplitude of the arc, described by the sides of the ‘Great Eastern,’ is forty degrees; that is, twenty degrees below the horizontal, and twenty above it.”

“Indeed!” cried I, laughing, not at the observation, but at the circumstances under which it was made.

“Yes!” replied the Doctor. “During the oscillation the speed of the sides is fifty-nine inches per second, a transatlantic boat half the size takes but the same time to recover her equilibrium.”

“Then,” replied I, “since that is the case, there is an excess of stability in the ‘Great Eastern.’”

“For her, yes, but not for her passengers,” answered Dean Pitferge gaily, “for you see they come back to the horizontal quicker than they care for.”

The Doctor, delighted with his repartee, raised himself, and holding each other up, we managed to reach a seat on the poop. Dean Pitferge had come off very well, with only a few bruises, and I congratulated him on his lucky escape, as he might have broken his neck.

“Oh, it is not over yet,” said he; “there is more trouble coming.”

“To us?”

“To the steamer, and consequently to me, to us, and to all the passengers.”

“If you are speaking seriously, why did you come on board?”

“To see what is going to happen, for I should not be at all ill-pleased to witness a shipwreck!” replied the Doctor, looking at me knowingly.

“Is this the first time you have been on board the ‘Great Eastern’?”

“No, I have already made several voyages in her, to satisfy my curiosity.”

“You must not complain, then.”

“I do not complain; I merely state facts, and patiently await the hour of the catastrophe.”

Was the Doctor making fun of me? I did not know what to think, his small twinkling eyes looked very roguish; but I thought I would try him further.

“Doctor,” I said, “I do not know on what facts your painful prognostics are founded, but allow me to remind you that the ‘Great Eastern’ has crossed the Atlantic twenty times, and most of her passages have been satisfactory.”

“That’s of no consequence; this ship is bewitched, to use a common expression, she cannot escape her fate; I know it, and therefore have no confidence in her. Remember what difficulties the engineers had to launch her; I believe even that Brunel, who built her, died from the ‘effects of the operation,’ as we doctors say.”

“Ah, Doctor,” said I, “are you inclined to be a materialist?”

“Why ask me that question?”

“Because I have noticed that many who do not believe in God believe in everything else, even in the evil eye.”

“Make fun if you like, sir,” replied the Doctor, “but allow me to continue my argument. The ‘Great Eastern’ has already ruined several companies. Built for the purpose of carrying emigrants to Australia, she has never once been there; intended to surpass the ocean steamers in speed, she even remains inferior to them.”

“From this,” said I, “it is to be concluded that—”

“Listen a minute,” interrupted the Doctor. “Already one of her captains has been drowned, and he one of the most skilful, for he knew how to prevent this rolling by keeping the ship a little ahead of the waves.”

“Ah, well!” said I, “the death of that able man is to be regretted.”

“Then,” continued Dean Pitferge, without noticing my incredulity, “strange stories are told about this ship; they say that a passenger who lost his way in the hold of the ship, like a pioneer in the forests of America, has never yet been found.”

“Ah!” exclaimed I ironically, “there’s a fact!”

“They say, also, that during the construction of the boilers an engineer was melted by mistake in the steam-box.”

“Bravo!” cried I; “the melted engineer! ‘È ben trovato.’ Do you believe it, Doctor?”

“I believe,” replied Pitferge, “I believe quite seriously that our voyage began badly, and that it will end in the same manner.”

“But the ‘Great Eastern’ is a solid structure,” I said, “and built so firmly that she is able to resist the most furious seas like a solid block.”

“Solid she is, undoubtedly,” resumed the doctor; “but let her fall into the hollow of the waves, and see if she will rise again. Maybe she is a giant, but a giant whose strength is not in proportion to her size; her engines are too feeble for her. Have you ever heard speak of her nineteenth passage from Liverpool to New York?”

“No, Doctor.”

“Well, I was on board. We left Liverpool on a Tuesday, the 10th of December; there were numerous passengers, and all full of confidence. Everything went well so long as we were protected by the Irish coast from the billows of the open sea; no rolling, no sea-sickness; the next day, even, the same stability; the passengers were delighted. On the 12th, however, the wind freshened towards morning; the ‘Great Eastern,’ heading the waves, rolled considerably; the passengers, men and women, disappeared into the cabins. At four o’clock the wind blew a hurricane; the furniture began to dance; a mirror in the saloon was broken by a blow from the head of your humble servant; all the crockery was smashed to atoms; there was a frightful uproar; eight shore-boats were torn from the davits in one swoop. At this moment our situation was serious; the paddle-wheel-engine had to be stopped; an enormous piece of lead, displaced by a lurch of the vessel, threatened to fall into its machinery; however, the screw continued to send us on. Soon the wheels began turning again, but very slowly; one of them had been damaged during the stoppage, and its spokes and paddles scraped the hull of the ship. The engine had to be stopped again, and we had to content ourselves with the screw. The night was fearful; the fury of the tempest was redoubled; the ‘Great Eastern’ had fallen into the trough of the sea and could not right herself; at break of day there was not a piece of ironwork remaining on the wheels. They hoisted a few sails in order to right the ship, but no sooner were they hoisted than they were carried away; confusion reigned everywhere; the cable-chains, torn from their beds, rolled from one side of the ship to the other; a cattle-pen was knocked in, and a cow fell into the ladies’ saloon through the hatchway; another misfortune was the breaking of the rudder-chock, so that steering was no longer possible. Frightful crashes were heard; an oil tank, weighing over three tons, had broken from its fixings, and, rolling across the tween-decks, struck the sides alternately like a battering-ram. Saturday passed in the midst of a general terror, the ship in the trough of the sea all the time. Not until Sunday did the wind begin to abate, an American engineer on board then succeeded in fastening the chains on the rudder; we turned little by little, and the ‘Great Eastern’ righted herself. A week after we left Liverpool we reached Queenstown. Now, who knows, sir, where we shall be in a week?”

About HackerNoon Book Series: We bring you the most important technical, scientific, and insightful public domain books.

This book is part of the public domain. Jules Verne (2022). A Floating City and The Blockade Runners. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 2022 https://www.gutenberg.org/files/67829/67829-h/67829-h.htm

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org, located at https://www.gutenberg.org/policy/license.html.