The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Hatteras/Chapter 2.X

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There is a gloomy monotony about life at the Pole. Man is wholly the sport of the changes of the weather, which alternates between intense cold and severe storms with savage relentlessness. The greater part of the time it is impossible to set foot out of doors; one is imprisoned in the hut of ice. Long months pass in this way, so that men lead the life of moles.

The next day the thermometer was several degrees lower, and the air was full of clouds of snow, which absorbed all the light of day. The doctor saw himself kept within doors, and he folded his arms; there was nothing to be done, except every hour to clear away the entrance-hall and to repolish the ice-walls which the heat within made damp; but the snow-house was very finely built, and the snow added to its resistance by augmenting the thickness of its walls.

The stores were equally secure. All the objects taken from the ship had been arranged in order in these “Docks of Merchandise,” as the doctor called them. Now, although these stores were at a distance of only sixty feet from the house, it was yet on some days almost impossible to get to them; hence a certain quantity of provisions had always to be kept in the kitchen for daily needs.

They had been wise in unloading the Porpoise. The ship was exposed to a gentle, but persistent pressure, which was gradually crushing it; it was evident that nothing could be done with its fragments; still the doctor kept hoping to be able to build a launch out of them to return to England in, but the time for building it had not yet come.

So for the most part the five men remained in complete idleness. Hatteras was pensive and always lying on the bed; Altamont was drinking or sleeping, and the doctor took good care not to rouse him from his slumbers, for he was always afraid of some distressing quarrel. These two men seldom spoke to one another.

So during meal-time the prudent Clawbonny always took care to guide the conversation and to direct it in such a way as not to offend the susceptibilities of either; but he had a great deal to do. He did his best to instruct, distract, and interest his companions; when he was not arranging his notes about the expedition, he read aloud some history, geography, or work on meteorology, which had reference to their condition; he presented things pleasantly and philosophically, deriving wholesome instruction from the slightest incidents; his inexhaustible memory never played him false; he applied his doctrines to the persons who were with him, reminding them of such or such a thing which happened under such or such circumstances; and he filled out his theories by the force of personal arguments.

This worthy man may be called the soul of this little world, a soul glowing with frankness and justice. His companions had perfect confidence in him; he even improved Captain Hatteras, who, besides, was very fond of him; he made his words, manners, and custom so agreeable, that the life of these five men within six degrees of the Pole seemed perfectly natural; when he was speaking, any one would have imagined he was in his office in Liverpool. And yet this situation was unlike that of castaways on the islands of the Pacific Ocean, those Robinsons whose touching history always aroused the envy of their readers. There, the natural richness offers a thousand different resources; a little imagination and effort suffice to secure material happiness; nature aids man; hunting and fishing supply all his wants; the trees grow to aid him, caverns shelter him, brooks slake his thirst, dense thickets hide him from the sun, and severe cold never comes upon him in the winter; a grain tossed into the earth brings forth a bounteous return a few months later. There, outside of society, everything is found to make man happy. And then these happy isles lie in the path of ships; the castaway can hope to be picked up, and he can wait in patience.

But here on the coast of New America how great is the difference! This comparison would continually occur to the doctor, but he never mentioned it to the others, and he struggled against the enforced idleness.

He yearned ardently for the spring, in order to resume his excursions; and yet he was anxious about it, for he foresaw difficulties between Hatteras and Altamont. If they pushed on to the Pole, there would necessarily be rivalry between the two men. Hence he had to prepare for the worst, and still, as far as he could, to try to pacify these rivals; but to reconcile an American and an Englishman, two men hostile to one another from their birth, one endowed with real insular prejudice, the other with the adventurous, irreverent spirit of his country, was no easy task. When the doctor thought of their eager rivalry, which in fact was one of nationalities, he could not help, not shrugging his shoulders, but lamenting human weakness. He would often talk to Johnson on this subject; he and the old sailor agreed in the matter; they were uncertain what view to take, and they foresaw complications in the future.

Still, the bad weather continued; they could not leave Fort Providence even for an hour. Night and day they had to remain in the snow-house. They all found it tedious, except the doctor, who found diversion for himself.

“Is n't there any way we can amuse ourselves?” said Altamont one evening. “This is n't really living, lying here like sluggish reptiles all winter.”

“It's a pity,” said the doctor, “that we are too few to organize any system of distractions.”

“Do you mean it would be easier for us to combat idleness if there were more of us?” asked the American.

“Yes; when whole crews have wintered in boreal regions, they have found out the way to avoid idleness.”

“To tell the truth,” said Altamont, “I should like to know how they did; they must have been very ingenious to get any fun out of these surroundings. They did n't ask one another riddles, I suppose?”

“No,” answered the doctor, “but they introduced into these lands two great means of amusement, the press and the theatre.”

“What! did they have a newspaper?” asked the American.

“Did they act plays?” asked Bell.

“Yes, and with much amusement. While he was wintering at Melville Island, Captain Parry offered his crews these two entertainments, and they enjoyed them very much.”

“Well,” said Johnson, “I should have liked to be there; it must have been funny enough.”

“Funny indeed; Lieutenant Beecher was manager of the theatre, and Captain Sabine editor of the Winter Chronicle, or Gazette of North Georgia.”

“Good names,” said Altamont.

“The paper appeared every Monday morning, from November 1, 1819, to March 20, 1820. It contained an account of everything that happened, the hunts, accidents, incidents, and of the weather; there were stories written for it; to be sure, it lacked the humor of Sterne, and the delightful articles of the Daily Telegraph; but they got amusement from it; its readers were not over-critical, and I fancy no journalists ever enjoyed their occupation more.”

“Well,” said Altamont, “I should like to hear some extracts from this paper, my dear Doctor; its articles must all have been frozen solid.”

“No, no,” answered the doctor; “at any rate, what would have seemed simple enough to the Liverpool Philosophical Society, or the London Literary Institution, was perfectly satisfactory to the crews beneath the snow. Do you want a sample?”

“What! Do you remember—”

“No, but you had Parry's Voyages on board the Porpoise, and I can read you his own account.”

“Do!” shouted the doctor's companions.

“There's nothing easier.”

The doctor got the book from the shelves, and soon found the passage.

“See here,” he said, “here are some extracts from the newspaper. It is a letter addressed to the editor:—

“‘It is with genuine satisfaction that your plan for the establishment of a newspaper has been received. I am convinced that under your charge it will furnish us with a great deal of amusement, and will serve to lighten materially the gloom of our hundred days of darkness.

“‘The interest which I, for my part, take in it has caused me to examine the effect of your announcement upon the members of our society, and I can assure you, to use the consecrated phrase of the London press, that it has produced a profound impression upon the public.

“‘The day after the appearance of your prospectus, there was on board an unusual and unprecedented demand for ink. The green cloth of our tables was suddenly covered with a deluge of quill-pens, to the great injury of one of our servants, who, in trying to remove them, got one under his nail.

“‘Finally, I know that Sergeant Martin has had no less than nine pocket-knives to sharpen.

“‘Our tables are groaning beneath the unaccustomed weight of inkstands, which had not seen the light for two months; and it is even whispered that the depths of the hold have been often opened to secure many reams of paper, which did not expect to issue so soon from their place of repose.

“‘I shall not forget to say to you that I have some suspicions that an effort will be made to slip into your box some articles, which, lacking complete originality, and not being wholly unpublished, may not suit your plan. I can affirm that no later than last evening an author was seen bending over his desk, holding in one hand an open volume of the Spectator, while with the other he was thawing his ink by the flame of the lamp. It is useless to recommend you to keep a lookout against such devices; we must not see reappearing in the Winter Chronicle what our ancestors used to read at breakfast more than a century ago.’”

“Well, well,” said Altamont, when the doctor had finished reading, “there is really good humor in that, and the writer must have been a bright fellow.”

“Bright is the word,” answered the doctor. “Stop a moment, here is an amusing advertisement:—

“‘Wanted. A middle-aged, respectable woman to help dress the ladies of the troupe of the Theatre Royal of North Georgia. Suitable salary given, tea and beer free. Address the Committee of the theatre.—N. B. A widow preferred.’”

“They were not disgusted, at any rate,” said Johnson.

“And did they get the widow?” asked Bell.

“Probably,” answered the doctor, “for here is an answer addressed to the committee:—

“‘Gentlemen: I am a widow, twenty-six years old, and I can produce warm testimonials as to my morals and talents. But before taking charge of the dresses of the actresses of your theatre, I am anxious to know if they intend to keep their trousers on, and whether I can have the aid of some strong sailors to lace their corsets properly. This being arranged, gentlemen, you may count upon your servant.

“‘A. B.

“‘P. S. Can you not substitute brandy for beer?’”

“Bravo!” shouted Altamont. “I suppose they had ladies'-maids to lace you by the capstan. Well, they were jolly fellows!”

“Like all who do what they set out to do,” remarked Hatteras.

Hatteras uttered these words, and then he relapsed into his usual silence. The doctor, unwilling to dwell on that subject, hastened to resume his reading.

“See here,” he said, “here is a picture of arctic sufferings; it may be varied infinitely; but a few of the observations are wise enough; for instance:—

“‘To go out in the morning to take the air, and on setting foot off the ship, to take a cold bath in the cook's trough.

“‘To go on a hunting-party, get near a fine reindeer, take aim, try to fire, and miss the shot on account of a damp cap.

“‘To start out with a piece of fresh bread in the pocket, and when one gets hungry to find it frozen hard enough to break one's teeth.

“‘To leave the table suddenly on hearing a wolf is in sight of the ship, and to come back and find one's dinner eaten by the cat.

“‘To return from a walk rapt in thought, and to be awakened suddenly by the embrace of a bear.´

“You see, my friends,” said the doctor, “we should not find it hard to imagine other polar troubles; but from the moment it becomes necessary to endure these miseries, it would be a pleasure to narrate them.”

“Upon my word,” said Altamont, “that's an amusing paper, and it's a pity we can't subscribe to it.”

“Suppose we should start one,” suggested Johnson.

“We five!” answered Clawbonny; “we should all be editors, and there would be no readers.”

“Nor audience either, if we should act a play,” said Altamont.

“Tell us, Doctor,” said Johnson, “something about Captain Parry's theatre; did they act new plays there?”

“Of course; at first they made use of two volumes which were put on board of the Hector, and they had plays every fortnight; but soon they had acted all; then they resorted to original authors, and Parry himself wrote a suitable play for the Christmas holidays; it was very successful, and was called ‘The Northwest Passage, or the End of the Voyage.’”

“A capital title,” answered Altamont; “but I confess, if I had to write on that subject, I should be puzzled about the end.”

“You are right,” said Bell; “who can say how it will end?”

“True,” answered the doctor; “but why bother about the end, since the beginning is so favorable? Let us trust in Providence, my friends; let us act our part well, and since the end depends on the Author of all things, let us have confidence in him; he will know what to do with us.”

“Let us sleep on it,” answered Johnson; “it is late, and since bedtime has come, let us turn in.”

“You are in a great hurry, my old friend,” said the doctor.

“Naturally enough, Doctor, I am so comfortable in bed! And then my dreams are pleasant. I dream of warm countries; or that, to tell the truth, half of my life is spent at the equator and half at the Pole!”

“The deuce,” said Altamont, “you have a happy temperament.”

“True,” answered the boatswain.

“Well, it would be cruel to detain Johnson any longer. His tropical sun is waiting for him. Let us go to bed.”