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so as to keep the crews in ignorance of the real distance they had advanced.
When about one hundred and fifty leagues west of Ferro, they fell in with a part of a mast of a large vessel, and the crews, tremblingly alive to every portent, looked with a rueful eye upon this fragment of a wreck, drifting ominously at the entrance of these unknown seas.
On the 13th of September, in the evening, Columbus, for the first time, noticed the variation of the needle, a phenomenon which had never before been remarked. He at first made no mention of it, lest his people should be alarmed; but it soon attracted the attention of the pilots, and filled them with consternation. It seemed as if the very laws of nature were changing as they advanced, and that they were entering another world, subject to unknown influences. They apprehended that the compass was about to lose its mysterious virtues, and, without this guide, what was to become of them in a vast and trackless ocean? Columbus tasked his science and ingenuity for reasons with which to allay their terrors. He told them that the direction of the needle was not to the polar star, but to some fixed and invisible point. The variation, therefore, was not caused by any fallacy in the compass, but by the movement of the north star itself, which, like the other heavenly bodies, had its changes and revolutions, and every day described a circle round the pole. The high opinion they entertained of Columbus as a profound astronomer gave weight to his theory, and their alarm subsided.
They had now arrived within the influence of the trade wind, which, following the sun, blows steadily from east to west between the tropics, and sweeps
over a few adjoining degrees of the ocean. With this propitious breeze directly aft, they were wafted gently but speedily over a tranquil sea, so that for many days they did not shift a sail. Columbus in his journal perpetually recurs to the bland and temperate serenity of the weather, and compares the pure and balmy mornings to those of April in Andalusia, observing, that the song of the nightingale was alone wanting to complete the illusion.
They now began to see large patches of herbs and weeds all drifting from the west. Some were such as grow about rocks or in rivers, and as green as if recently washed from the land. On one of the patches was a live crab. They saw also a white tropical bird, of a kind which never sleeps upon the sea; and tunny fish played about the ships. Columbus now supposed himself arrived in the weedy sea described by Aristotle, into which certain ships of Cadiz had been driven by an impetuous east wind.
As he advanced, there were various other signs that gave great animation to the crews; many birds were seen flying from the west; there was a cloudiness in the north, such as often hangs over land; and at sunset the imagination of the seamen, aided by their desires, would shape those clouds into distant islands. Every one was eager to be the first to behold and announce the wished-for shore; for the sovereigns had promised a pension of thirty crowns to whomsoever should first discover land. Columbus sounded occasionally with a line of two hundred fathoms, but found no bottom. Martin Alonzo Pinzon, as well as others of his officers, and many of the seamen, were often solicitous for Columbus to alter his course, and steer in the direction
of these favourable signs; but he persevered in steering to the westward, trusting that, by keeping in one steady direction, he should reach the coast of India, even if he should miss the intervening islands, and might then seek them on his return.
Notwithstanding the precaution which had been taken to keep the people ignorant of the distance they had sailed, they gradually became uneasy at the length of the voyage. The various indications of land which occasionally flattered their hopes, passed away one after another, and the same interminable expanse of sea and sky continued to extend before them. They had advanced much farther to the west than ever man had sailed before, and though already beyond the reach of succour, were still pressing onward and onward into that apparently boundless abyss. Even the favourable wind, which seemed as if providentially sent to waft them to the new world with such bland and gentle breezes, was conjured by their fears into a source of alarm. They feared that the wind in these seas might always prevail from the east, and if so, would never permit their return to Spain. A few light breezes from the west allayed for a time their last apprehension, and several small birds, such as keep about groves and orchards, came singing in the morning, and flew away at night. Their song was wonderfully cheering to the hearts of the poor mariners, who hailed it as the voice of land The birds they had hitherto seen had been large and strong of wing; but such small birds, they observed, were too feeble to fly far, and their singing showed that they were not exhausted by their flight.
On the following day there was a profound calm, and the sea, as far as the eye could reach, was covered with weeds, so as to have the appearance of a vast inundated meadow, a phenomenon attributed to the immense quantities of submarine plants which are detached by the currents from the bottom of the ocean. The seamen now feared that the sea was growing shallow; they dreaded lurking rocks, and sheals, and quicksands, and that their vessels might run aground, as it were, in the midst of the ocean, far out of the track of human aid, and with no shore where the crews could take refuge. Columbus proved the fallacy of this alarm, by sounding with a deep sea-line, and finding no bottom.
For three days there was a continuance of light summer airs, from the southward and westward, and the sea was as smooth as a mirror. The crews now became uneasy at the calmness of the weather. They observed that the contrary winds they experienced were transient and unsteady, and so light as not to ruffle the surface of the sea; the only winds of constancy and force were from the west, and even those had not power to disturb the torpid stillness of the ocean: there was a risk, therefore, either of perishing amidst stagnant and shoreless waters, or of being prevented, by contrary winds, from ever returning to their native country.
Columbus continued, with admirable patience, to reason with these absurd fancies, but in vain ; when fortunately there came on a heavy swell of the sea, unaccompanied by wind, a phenomenon that often occurs in the broad ocean, caused by the impulse of some past gale, or distant current of wind. It was,
nevertheless, regarded with astonishment by the mariners, and dispelled the imaginary terrors occasioned by the calm.
The situation of Columbus was daily becoming more and more critical. The impatience of the seamen rose to absolute mutiny. They gathered together in the retired parts of the ships, at first in little knots of two and three, which gradually increased and became formidable, joining in murmurs and menaces against the admiral. They exclaimed against him as an ambitious desperado, who, in a mad phantasy, had determined to do something extravagant, to render himself notorious. What obligation bound them to persist, or when were the terms of their agreement to be considered as fulfilled? They had already penetrated into seas untraversed by a sail, and where man had never before adventured. Were they to sail on until they should perish, or until all return with their frail ships should become impossible? Who would blame them, should they consult their safety and return? The admiral was a foreigner, without friends or influence. His scheme had been condemned by the learned as idle and visionary, and discountenanced by people of all ranks. There was, therefore, no party on his side, but rather a large number who would be gratified by his failure.
Such are some of the reasonings by which these men prepared themselves for open rebellion. Some even proposed, as an effectual mode of silencing all after-complaints of the admiral, that they should throw him into the sea, and give out that he had fallen overboard, while contemplating the stars and