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CHAPTER 3: TO THE WATER'S EDGE
It was not the new panic amidships that froze my marrow; it was not that the pinnace hung perpendicularly by the fore-tackle, and had shot out those who had swarmed aboard her before she was lowered, as a cart shoots a load of bricks. It was bad enough to see the whole boat-load struggling, floundering, sinking in the sea; for selfish eyes (and which of us is all unselfish at such a time?) there was a worse sight yet; for I saw all this across an impassable gulf of fire.
The quarter-deck had caught: it was in flames to port and starboard of the flaming hatch; only fore and aft of it was the deck sound to the lips of that hideous mouth, with the hundred tongues shooting out and up.
Could I jump it there? I sprang down and looked. It was only a few feet across; but to leap through that living fire was to leap into eternity. I drew back instantly, less because my heart failed me, I may truly say, than because my common sense did not.
Some were watching me, it seemed, across this hell. "The bulwarks!" they screamed. "Walk along the bulwarks!" I held up my hand in token that I heard and understood and meant to act. And as I did their bidding I noticed what indeed had long been apparent to idler eyes: the wind was not; we had lost our southeast trades; the doomed ship was rolling in a dead calm.
Rolling, rolling, rolling so that it seemed minutes before I dared to move an inch. Then I tried it on my hands and knees, but the scorched bulwarks burned me to the bone. And then I leapt up, desperate with the pain; and, with my tortured hands spread wide to balance me, I walked those few yards, between rising sea and falling fire, and falling sea and rising fire, as an acrobat walks a rope, and by God's grace without mishap.
There was no time to think twice about my feat, or, indeed, about anything else that befell upon a night when each moment was more pregnant than the last. And yet I did think that those who had encouraged me to attempt so perilous a trick might have welcomed me alive among them; they were looking at something else already; and this was what it was.
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