Deeper and deeper drooped the dull grey gloom, like a curtain falling slowly and impenetrably over all things.
A vivid but broken flash of lightning, blazing in a flare of blue and amber, poured livid reflections, and illuminated with dreadful distinctness, if only for one ghastly moment, the stupendous cliffs of the Ichang Gorge, whose wall-like steepness suddenly became darkened as black as ink.
Thus, with a grand impressiveness, this great gully in the mountains assumed hugely gigantic proportions, stretching interminably from east to west, up to heaven and down to earth, silhouetted to the north against a small remaining patch of golden purple, whose weird glamour seemed awesomely to herald the coming of a new world into being, lasting but for a moment longer, until again the blue blaze quickly cut up the sky into a thousand shreds and tiny silver bars. And then, suddenly, with a vast down swoop, as if some colossal bird were taking the earth under her far-outstretching wings, dense darkness fell—impenetrable, sooty darkness, that in a moment shut out all light, all power of sight. Then from out the sombre heavens deep thunder boomed ominously as the reverberating roar of a pack of hunger-ridden lions, and the two men, aliens in an alien land, stood beneath the tattered matting awning with a peculiar fear and some foreboding. We were tied in fast to the darkened sides of the great Ichang Gorge—a magnificent sixteen-mile stretch, opening up the famous gorges on the fourth of the great rivers of the world, which had cleaved its course through a chain of hills, whose perpendicular cliffs form wonderful rock-bound banks, dispelling all thought of the monotony of the Lower Yangtze.
Upstream we had glided merrily upon a fresh breeze, which bore the warning of a storm. All on board was settling down into Yangtze fashion, and the barbaric human clamor of our trackers, which now mutteringly died away, was suddenly taken up, as above recorded, and all unexpectedly answered by a grander uproar—a deep threatening boom of far-off thunder. In circling tones and semitones of wrath it volleyed gradually through the dark ravines, and, startled by the sound, the two travelers, roused for the first time from their natural engrossment in the common doings of the wu-pan,[C] saw the reflection of the sun on the waters, now turned to a livid murkiness, deepening with a threatening ink-like aspect as the river rushed voluminously past our tiny floating haven. Strangely silenced were we by this weird terror, and watched and listened, chained to the deck by a thousand mingled fears and fascinations, which breathed upon our nerves like a chill wind. As we became accustomed then to the yellow darkness, we beheld about the landscape a spectral look, and the sepulchral sound of the moving thunder seemed the half-muffled clang of some great iron-tongued funeral bell. Then came the rain, introduced swiftly by the deafening clatter of another thunder crash that made one stagger like a ship in a wild sea, and we strained our eyes to gaze into a visionary chasm cleaved in twain by the furious lightning. Playing upon the face of the unruffled river, with a brilliancy at once awful and enchanting, this singular flitting and wavering of the heavenly electricity, as it flashed haphazardly around all things, threw about one an illumination quite indescribable.