Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, by Ambrose Bierce

Following the Sea.

At the time of “the great earthquake of ’68,” I was at Arica, Peru. I have not a map by me, and am not certain that Arica is not in Chili, but it can’t make much difference; there was earthquake all along there. As nearly as I can remember it occured in August — about the middle of August, 1869 or ’70.

Sam Baxter was with me; I think we had gone from San Francisco to make a railway, or something. On the morning of the ’quake, Sam and I had gone down to the beach to bathe. We had shed our boots and begun to moult, when there was a slight tremor of the earth, as if the elephant who supports it were pushing upwards, or lying down and getting up again. Next, the surges, which were flattening themselves upon the sand and dragging away such small trifles as they could lay hold of, began racing out seaward, as if they had received a telegraphic dispatch that somebody was not expected to live. This was needless, for we did not expect to live.

When the sea had receded entirely out of sight, we started after it; for it will be remembered we had come to bathe; and bathing without some kind of water is not refreshing in a hot climate. I have heard that bathing in asses’ milk is invigorating, but at that time I had no dealings with other authors. I have had no dealings with them since.

For the first four or five miles the walking was very difficult, although the grade was tolerably steep. The ground was soft, there were tangled forests of sea-weed, old rotting ships, rusty anchors, human skeletons, and a multitude of things to impede the pedestrian. The floundering sharks bit our legs as we toiled past them, and we were constantly slipping down upon the flat fish strewn about like orange-peel on a sidewalk. Sam, too, had stuffed his shirt-front with such a weight of Spanish doubloons from the wreck of an old galleon, that I had to help him across all the worst places. It was very dispiriting.

Presently, away on the western horizon, I saw the sea coming back. It occurred to me then that I did not wish it to come back. A tidal wave is nearly always wet, and I was now a good way from home, with no means of making a fire.

The same was true of Sam, but he did not appear to think of it in that way. He stood quite still a moment with his eyes fixed on the advancing line of water; then turned to me, saying, very earnestly:

“Tell you what, William; I never wanted a ship so bad from the cradle to the grave! I would give m-o-r-e for a ship! — more than for all the railways and turnpikes you could scare up! I’d give more than a hundred, thousand, million dollars! I would — I’d give all I’m worth, and all my Erie shares, for — just — one — little — ship!”

To show how lightly he could part with his wealth, he lifted his shirt out of his trousers, unbosoming himself of his doubloons, which tumbled about his feet, a golden storm.

By this time the tidal wave was close upon us. Call that a wave! It was one solid green wall of water, higher than Niagara Falls, stretching as far as we could see to right and left, without a break in its towering front! It was by no means clear what we ought to do. The moving wall showed no projections by means of which the most daring climber could hope to reach the top. There was no ivy; there were no window-ledges. Stay! — there was the lightning-conductor! No, there wasn’t any lightning-conductor. Of course, not!

Looking despairingly upward, I made a tolerably good beginning at thinking of all the mean actions I had wrought in the flesh, when I saw projecting beyond the crest of the wave a ship’s bowsprit, with a man sitting on it, reading a newspaper! Thank fortune, we were saved!

Falling upon our knees with tearful gratitude, we got up again and ran — ran as fast as we could, I suspect; for now the whole fore-part of the ship bulged through the water directly above our heads, and might lose its balance any moment. If we had only brought along our umbrellas!

I shouted to the man on the bowsprit to drop us a line. He merely replied that his correspondence was already very onerous, and he hadn’t any pen and ink.

Then I told him I wanted to get aboard. He said I would find one on the beach, about three leagues to the south’ard, where the “Nancy Tucker” went ashore.

At these replies I was disheartened. It was not so much that the man withheld assistance, as that he made puns. Presently, however, he folded his newspaper, put it carefully away in his pocket, went and got a line, and let it down to us just as we were about to give up the race. Sam made a lunge at it, and got it — right into his side! For the fiend above had appended a shark-hook to the end of the line — which was his notion of humour. But this was no time for crimination and recrimination. I laid hold of Sam’s legs, the end of the rope was passed about the capstan, and as soon as the men on board had had a little grog, we were hauled up. I can assure you that it was no fine experience to go up in that way, close to the smooth vertical front of water, with the whales tumbling out all round and above us, and the sword-fishes nosing us pointedly with vulgar curiosity.

We had no sooner set foot on deck, and got Sam disengaged from the hook, than the purser stepped up with book and pencil.

“Tickets, gentlemen.”

We told him we hadn’t any tickets, and he ordered us to be set ashore in a boat. It was represented to him that this was quite impossible under the circumstances; but he replied that he had nothing to do with circumstances — did not know anything about circumstances. Nothing would move him till the captain, who was a really kind-hearted man, came on deck and knocked him overboard with a spare topmast. We were now stripped of our clothing, chafed all over with stiff brushes, rolled on our stomachs, wrapped in flannels, laid before a hot stove in the saloon, and strangled with scalding brandy. We had not been wet, nor had we swallowed any sea-water, but the surgeon said this was the proper treatment. I suspect, poor man, he did not often get the opportunity to resuscitate anybody; in fact, he admitted he had not had any such case as ours for years. It is uncertain what he might have done to us if the tender-hearted captain had not thrashed him into his cabin with a knotted hawser, and told us to go on deck.

By this time the ship was passing above the town of Arica, and the sailors were all for’d, sitting on the bulwarks, snapping peas and small shot at the terrified inhabitants flitting through the streets a hundred feet below. These harmless projectiles rattled very merrily upon the upturned boot-soles of the fleeting multitude; but not seeing any fun in this, we were about to go astern and fish a little, when the ship grounded on a hill-top. The captain hove out all the anchors he had about him; and when the water went swirling back to its legal level, taking the town along for company, there we were, in the midst of a charming agricultural country, but at some distance from any sea-port.

At sunrise next morning we were all on deck. Sam sauntered aft to the binnacle, cast his eye carelessly upon the compass, and uttered an ejaculation of astonishment.

“Tell you, captain,” he called out, “this has been a direr convulsion of nature than you have any idea. Everything’s been screwed right round. Needle points due south!”

“Why, you cussed lubber!” growled the skipper, moving up and taking a look, “it p’ints d’rectly to labbard, an’ there’s the sun, dead ahead!”

Sam turned and confronted him, with a steady gaze of ineffable contempt.

“Now, who said it wasn’t dead ahead? — tell me that. Shows how much you know about earthquakes. ’Course, I didn’t mean just this continent, nor just this earth: I tell you, the whole thing’s turned!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bierce/ambrose/cobwebs-from-an-empty-skull/chapter3.15.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31