Cæsar Cascabel/Part 2/Chapter III
THE reader now knows what the position of our shipwrecked party was on the date of the 27th of October. Could they have deluded themselves respecting their fate or preserved the faintest hope? Adrift through Behring Strait, their last chance had been to get into the southern current and be brought to the Asiatic coast; and it was the northern stream that was bearing them away to the open.
When shifting about in the Polar Sea, what would become of their berg, on the supposition that it would not dissolve, that it would resist all the shocks it would receive? Would it get aground on some Arctic land? Driven for a few hundred leagues by the east winds that were then predominant, would it not be cast on the shores of Spitzberg or Nova Zembla? In this case, even though at the price of untold fatigues, would the wanderers succeed in reaching the continent?
Mr. Sergius was weighing the consequences of this last hypothesis, and talked about it with Mr. Cascabel and John while scanning the fog-shrouded horizon.
“My friends,” he said, “we are evidently in a great peril, since this berg may break up at any moment; and on the other hand there is no possibility of our leaving it.”
“Is that the greatest danger we are threatened with?” asked Mr. Cascabel.
“For the time being, it is. But when the weather gets cold again, this danger will diminish and eventually disappear, even. Now, at this time of the year and in this latitude, the present rise in the temperature cannot possibly last beyond a few days.”
“You are right, Mr. Sergius.” said John. “But in the event of this ice-block keeping intact, where will it go?”
“In my opinion, it cannot go very far, and it will soon adhere to some icefield. Then, as soon as the sea is thoroughly frozen over, we shall try to get back to the continent and resume our old itinerary.”
“And what shall we do, now that our horses are gone?” exclaimed Mr. Cascabel. “Ah, my poor horses! my poor horses!—Mr. Sergius, those noble things! they were like two of our own selves! and it is all through my fault!”
Cascabel could not be consoled. His heart overflowed. He blamed himself for being the cause of this catastrophe. Horses crossing a sea on foot! Who had ever heard of such an idea?—And he thought more of the old steeds than of the inconvenience their loss would entail.
“Yes, in the conditions we are in, owing to this thaw, that is an irretrievable misfortune,” said Mr. Sergius. “That we men should put up with the privations and the fatigues resulting from this loss, goes for nothing. But what will Mrs. Cascabel do, what will Kayette and Napoleona do, who are but children yet, when we have abandoned the Fair Rambler—”
“Abandon it!” exclaimed Cascabel.
“We shall have to do so, father!”
“Verily,” exclaimed Mr. Cascabel, threatening himself with his own fist, “it was tempting Providence to undertake such a journey!—Following such a road to return to Europe!”
“Do not break down in such a way, my friend,” replied Mr. Sergius. “Let us face danger without flinching. It is the surest way to overcome it!”
“Come, father,” John added, “what is done cannot be undone, and we all agreed that it should be done. Do not blame yourself alone, then, for lack of caution, and recover your old pluck!”
But despite all these encouragements Mr. Cascabel felt crushed; his self-reliance, his innate philosophy, had received a severe blow.
Meanwhile Mr. Sergius used all the means at his disposal, his mariner's compass, certain landmarks he fancied he had fixed, and what not, so as to ascertain the direction of the current. Indeed it was at these observations that he spent the few hours during which daylight somewhat brightens up the horizon in this latitude. Nor was it an easy task when the landmarks were forever changing.
Beyond the strait the sea seemed to be free for a considerable distance. Evidently, with this anomalous temperature, the Arctic ice-field had never been completely formed. If it had appeared to be so for a few days, it is because the blocks of ice traveling north or south under the influence of the two currents had met together in this narrow portion of the sea between the two continents.
As the result of his manifold calculations, Mr. Sergius thought himself justified in stating that the course they were following was sensibly northwest. This was doubtless due to the fact that the Behring current, hugging the Siberian coast after having repelled the Kamtchatka current, was describing, as it got out of Behring Strait, a wide curve, subtended by the parallel of the polar circle.
At the same time, Mr. Sergius was able to ascertain that the wind, still very violent, blew straight from the southeast. Just for a moment it had veered to the south; that was due to the lay of the coasts on each side; now in the open sea, it had resumed its former direction.
As soon as this state of things had been discovered, Mr. Sergius returned to Cæser Cascabel and straightway told him that under the circumstances nothing more fortunate could have happened. This good item of news restored a little peace of mind to the head of the family.
“Yes,” he said, “it is a lucky thing we are going in the very direction we wanted to go!—But, what a round we shall have made! Gracious goodness, what a round!”
Thereupon our friends set about making the best possible arrangements, as if their stay on the drifting islet was to be of long duration. First of all, it was decided they should continue to dwell inside the Fair Rambler, less exposed as it now was to be thrown on its side, since they were traveling with the wind.
Cornelia, Kayette, and Napoleona could now return to their household work, and see to the cuisine, which had been absolutely neglected for the past twenty-four hours. The meal was soon prepared, they sat to table, and if this dinner was not seasoned with the gay conversation of former days, it at least revived the guests who had been so sorely tried since their departure from Diomede Island.
The day closed in these conditions. The squalls kept up with unabated violence. The air now swarmed with birds, petrels, ptarmigans, and others, so justly named the harbingers of storms.
The next day and the subsequent days, the 28th, 29th, 30th, and 31st of October, brought no change in the situation. The wind, keeping steadily in the east, did not modify the state of the atmosphere.
Mr. Sergius had carefully taken the shape and dimensions of the iceberg. It was a sort of irregular trapezium, from three hundred and fifty to four hundred feet long and about a hundred wide. This trapezium, a good half-fathom above the water at its borders, swelled up slightly toward its center. No fissure was visible on its surface, although dull, crackling sounds sometimes ran through its mass. It seemed, therefore, as if, until now at least, the billows and the blast had been powerless against it.
Not without great efforts, the Fair Rambler had been drawn to the center. There the ropes and poles belonging to the tent used for the performances held it down so tight that there was no chance of its being knocked over.
What was most alarming was the shocks they received every time they knocked against enormous icebergs, which moved about at unequal speed, according as they obeyed the impulse of the currents or turned round on their own axes in the middle of whirlpools. Some of them, measuring at times fifteen or twenty feet in height, came straight toward them as though going to board an enemy's ship.
They were perceived from a distance, they were seen drawing near—but how could their assault be possibly avoided? There were some that tipped over with a loud clash when the displacing of their center of gravity disturbed their equilibrium; but when collisions took place they were terrible indeed. The shock was often such that, but for timely precautions, everything would have been smashed inside the wagon. They were continually threatened with a possible and sudden dislocation. Hence as soon as the approach of a large block was announced, Mr. Sergius and his companions gathered around the Fair Rambler and clung to each other. John always tried to get near Kayette. Of all dangers, the most frightful for them would have been to be carried away separately on different broken pieces of the berg; and naturally they were safer on its central part, where it was thickest, than along its borders.
At night, Mr. Sergius and Cascabel, John and Clow, mounted guard in turns, and strained every nerve to watch over their wreck in the midst of that profound darkness, haunted by huge white figures that glided about like gigantic specters.
Although the air was still full of the mist that was swept about by the never-relenting gale, the moon, which was very low in the horizon, permeated it with its pale rays, and the icebergs could be perceived at a certain distance. On the first cry of whoever was on guard, everybody was on foot, and awaited the result of the meeting. Frequently the direction of the approaching enemy would change and it would float clear away; but sometimes a clash would occur, and the shock snapped the ropes and pulled up the stakes that held the Fair Rambler. It looked as though everything should come to pieces; surviving the collision was something to be thankful for.
Meanwhile, the temperature kept on contrary to all records. This sea, not frozen yet in the first week of November. These regions still navigable a few degrees above the polar circles! All this, surely, was extraordinary ill-luck! With all this, if some belated whaler had passed by within sight, they would have made signals to him, they would have attracted his attention by firing a few shots. After picking up the shipwrecked party, he might have brought them to some port on the American coast, to Victoria, San Francisco, San Diego, or on the Siberian coast, to Petropaulovski or Okhotsk. But no, not a sail! Nothing but floating icebergs! Nothing but the immense, solitary sea, bounded to the north by an impassable barrier of ice! Very fortunately, unless in the event of a most unlikely continuance of this anomalous condition of the temperature, there was no anxiety to be felt concerning the question of food, even though they kept adrift for several weeks. In view of a lengthy journey through Asiatic regions, where it would not be easy to procure victuals, they had made ample provisions of preserves, flour, rice, grease, etc. They had no longer, either, to trouble themselves about food for the horses, alas!
In truth, if Vermont and Gladiator had been spared until now, how would it be possible to provide for them?
On the 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th, and 6th of November, nothing new happened save that the wind showed a tendency to fall, and shifted somewhat to the north. Scarcely did daylight last for a couple of hours,—which added still to the horror of the situation.
In spite of Mr. Sergius's incessant observations, it became very difficult to judge of the course of the drift; and, unable as they were to dot it on the map, they no longer knew where they were. However, on the 7th, a landmark was discovered, recognized, and fixed with a certain amount of accuracy.
On that day, about eleven o'clock, just as the vague rays of dawn whitened the space, Mr, Sergius and John, accompanied by Kayette, had just gone to the fore part of the iceberg. There happened to be, in the showman's material, a pretty good telescope with which Clovy used to show country people the equator,—represented by a thread stretched across the object-glass,—and the inhabitants of the moon, personified by insects which he had previously introduced inside the tube. Having carefully cleaned this telescope, John had taken it with him, and endeavored with its help to discover some land away in the open.
For a few moments he had been examining the horizon very carefully, when Kayette, pointing toward the north, said:
“I fancy, Mr. Sergius, that I perceive something yonder!—Why, isn't it a mountain I see?”
“A mountain?” replied John. “No, it is probably nothing more than an iceberg!”
And he turned his telescope in the direction shown by the young girl.
“Kayette is right!” he said, almost immediately.
And he gave the instrument to Mr. Sergius, who pointed it, in his turn, in the same direction.
“Quite right,” said he, “it is even a pretty high mountain. Kayette was not mistaken.”
On further observation, it was found that there should be land to the northward, at a distance of some sixteen or eighteen miles.
That was a fact of the utmost importance.
“To be o'ertopped by so great an elevation, a piece of land must be of considerable extent,” remarked John.
“It must, John,” answered Mr. Sergius; “and when we go back to the Fair Rambler, we must try and find it out on the map. That will enable us to ascertain our own situation.”
“John, it seems to me as if there was smoke coming out of the mountain,” suggested Kayette.
“It would be a volcano then!” said Mr. Sergius.
“It is so, quite so,” added John, who was again peering through his glass. “The smoke can be seen distinctly.”
But daylight was already dying away, and even with the magnifying power of the instrument, they were soon unable to perceive the outline of the mountain.
One hour later, however, when it was almost quite dark, vivid flashes of light appeared in the direction which had been recorded by means of a line traced on the surface of the berg.
“Now let us go and consult the map,” said Mr. Sergius.
And all three returned to the encampment.
John looked in the atlas for the general map of the boreal regions beyond Behring Strait, and this is what was calculated.
As Mr. Sergius had already ascertained, on one hand, that the current, after flowing north, curved toward the northwest about one hundred and fifty miles outside the strait, and, on the other hand, that their ice-raft had been following that direction for several days, what they had to find out was whether there were lands ahead to the northwest.
And sure enough, at a distance of some twenty leagues from the continent, the map showed a large island to which geographers have given the name of Wrangell, and the outline of which, on its northern side, is but vaguely defined. It was very probable, indeed, that the iceberg would not come in contact with it, if the current continued to carry it through the wide arm of the sea which separates the island from the coast of Siberia.
Mr. Sergius felt no doubt on the identity of Wrangell Island. Between the two capes on its southern coast. Cape Hawan and Cape Thomas, it is surmounted by a live volcano, which is marked on the recent maps. This could be no other than the volcano that Kayette had discovered, and the glare of which had been distinctly perceived at the fall of day.
Now it was an easy matter to make out the course followed by the berg since it had come out of Behring Strait. After having turned round with the coast, it had doubled Cape Serdze-Kamen, Koliutchin Bay, Wankarem Promontory, Cape North, then it had entered Long Strait, which separates Wrangell Island from the coast of the Tchutki province.
To what regions would the iceberg be borne away when it had cleared Long Strait, it was impossible to foresee. What was of a nature to alarm Mr. Sergius the more was, that, to the northward, the map showed no other land; ice alone spread over that immense space, the center of which is the pole itself.
The only hope to which they could cling now was that the sea might get entirely frozen up under the action of a more intense cold,—an eventuality which could not be delayed much longer; one which should have come to pass several weeks since. Our rovers should then get stranded on to the ice-field, and by directing their steps toward the south, they might try to reach the Siberian continent. True, they would be under the necessity of abandoning the Fair Rambler for want of a team; and what would they do, if they had a long distance to cover?
Meanwhile the wind kept blowing violently from the east, though no longer in the hurricane fashion of the preceding days. Such are these horrible seas, huge waves would unfurl with a loud roar and come dashing against the crest of the floating block; then rebounding off, they would sweep right over its surface, and give it such shocks that it trembled to its very center, as though it would burst open.
Besides, those giant waves, hurled on as far as the wagon, threatened to wash away any one who was not inside it. Hence measures of precaution were taken, on the advice of Mr. Sergius.
As there had been an abundant fall of snow during the first week in November, it was easy to construct a kind of rampart, aft of the iceberg, to protect it against the waves, which, most frequently struck it from behind. Everybody set to work; and when the snow, duly trodden and beaten, had been heaped to a height and thickness of four or five feet, and had become quite hard, it presented an obstacle to the fury of the billows, the spray alone oversprinkling its summit. It was like a sort of barricade erected astern of a disabled vessel.
While this work was going on, Sander and Napoleona could not refrain from throwing an occasional snow-ball at each other, and aiming not a few at Clovy's back. And although the present was not exactly the time for play, Mr. Cascabel did not scold too severely, except on one occasion when a ball, missing its aim, fell full on Mr. Sergius's hat.
“Who is the good-for-nothing—?” He had not time to finish.
“It was I, father,” cried little Napoleona, quite confused.
“You good-for-nothing child!” exclaimed Cascabel. “You will excuse her, will you, Mr. Sergius?”
“Leave the child alone, friend Cascabel,” replied the latter. “Let her come and give me a kiss; and it will be all over.”
And it was done accordingly.
Not only was a bank erected on the back part of the iceberg, but soon the Fair Rambler itself was surrounded with a kind of rampart of ice, so as to protect it more efficiently still, whilst its wheels, being packed up with ice, right up to the axle, made the wagon absolutely steady. Inside this rampart, which went up to the height of the gallery, a narrow space had been left which permitted to circulate all around the vehicle. You might have fancied it was a ship wintering in the midst of icebergs, with its hull protected by a cuirass of snow against the cold and the squalls. If the block itself did not give way, our shipwrecked party had nothing more to apprehend from the billows, and, in these conditions, they might perhaps find it possible to wait until the Arctic winter had taken entire possession of these hyperborean regions.
But then, when that time had come, they would have to start off for the continent! They would have to leave the home on wheels that had conveyed them through the length and breadth of the New World, and in which they had found so comfortable and so safe a shelter! Abandoned among the bergs of the Polar Sea, the Fair Rambler would disappear at the breaking up of the ice when the warm weather came.
And when Cascabel thought over all that, he who was always so ready to look at things on their bright side, he raised his hands to heaven, he cursed his ill luck, and blamed himself for all these disasters, forgetting that they were due to the ruffians who had robbed him in the gorges of the Sierra Nevada, and who were entirely responsible for the present state of things.
In vain did good Cornelia endeavor to drive his gloomy thoughts away, at first by gentle words and afterwards by stinging reproaches. In vain did his children and Clovy himself claim their share in the consequences of the fatal resolutions that had been adopted. In vain did they assert over and over again that this route had been unanimously agreed upon by the family. In vain did Mr. Sergius and “little Kayette” try to console the inconsolable Cæser. He would heed nothing.
“You are no longer a man, then, aren't you?” said Cornelia to him one day, giving him a good shaking.
“Not so much as you are, wifey!” he replied, as he tried to recover his equilibrium, that had been slightly disturbed by his wife's muscular admonition.
In reality, Mrs. Cascabel was full of anxiety for the future. And still, she felt the necessity of reacting against the dejection of her husband, hitherto so unyielding to the blows of evil fortune.
And now the question of food was beginning to trouble Mr. Sergius. It was of the greatest importance that the provisions should last, not only till such time as they would set out on the ice-field, but right up to the day when they would reach Siberia. Needless to rely on their guns at a time of the year when sea-birds would be seen but seldom flying across the mist. Prudence, therefore, made it obligatory to cut down the rations in view of a journey that might last a long time.
It was under these conditions that the iceberg, irresistibly drawn along by the currents, reached the latitude of the Aion Islands, situated to the north of the Asiatic coast.