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

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At dawn the next day Hatteras gave the signal for departure. The dogs were harnessed to the sledge; since they were well fed and had thoroughly rested, after a comfortable winter there was no reason for their not being of great service during the summer. Hence they were not averse to being put into harness.

After all, these Greenland dogs are kind beasts. Their wildness was partly gone; they had lost their likeness to the wolf, and had become more like Duke, the finished model of the canine race,—in a word, they were becoming civilized. Duke could certainly claim a share in their education; he had given them lessons and an example in good manners. In his quality of Englishman, and so punctilious in the matter of cant, he was a long time in making the acquaintance of the other dogs, who had not been introduced to him, and in fact ho never used to speak to them; but after sharing the same dangers and privations, they gradually grew used to one another. Duke, who had a kind heart, made the first advances, and soon all the dogs were friends. The doctor used to pet the Greenland dogs, and Duke saw him do it without jealousy. The men were in equally good condition; if the dogs could draw well, the men could walk well.

They left at six o'clock in the morning; it, was a very pleasant day. After they had followed the line of the bay and passed Cape Washington, Hatteras gave the order to turn northward; by seven the travellers lost sight of the lighthouse and of Fort Providence in the south.

The journey promised well, much better than the expedition begun in the dead of winter in search of coal. Hatteras then left behind him, on board of the ship, mutiny and despair, without being certain of the object of his journey; he left a crew half dead with cold, he started with companions who were weakened by the miseries of an arctic winter; he, too, eager for the north, had to return to the south! Now, on the other hand, surrounded by vigorous, healthy friends, encouraged and aided in many ways, he was starting for the Pole, the object of his whole life! No man had ever been nearer acquiring this glory for himself and his country.

Was he thinking of all this, which was so naturally inspired by his present position? The doctor liked to think so, and could hardly doubt it when he he saw him so eager. Clawbonny rejoiced in what so pleased his friend; and since the reconciliation of the two captains, the two friends, he was the happiest of men; for hatred, envy, and rivalry were passions he had never felt. What would be the issue of this voyage he did not know; but, at any rate, it began well, and that was a good deal.

The western shore of New America stretched out in a series of bays beyond Cape Washington; the travellers, to avoid this long curve, after crossing the first spurs of Mount Bell, turned northward over the upper plateaus. This was a great saving of time; Hatteras was anxious, unless prevented by seas or mountains, to make a straight line of three hundred and fifty miles to the Pole from Fort Providence.

Their journey was easy; these lofty plains were covered with deep snow, over which the sledge passed easily, and the men in their snow-shoes walked easily and rapidly.

The thermometer stood at 37°. The weather was not absolutely settled; at one moment it was clear, the next cloudy: but neither cold nor showers could have stopped the eager party. They could be followed easily by the compass; the needle was more active as they receded from the magnetic pole; it is true that it turned to the opposite direction and pointed to the south, while they were walking northward; but this did not in any way embarrass them. Besides, the doctor devised a simple method of staking out the way and thereby avoiding perpetual reference to the compass; when once they had got their bearings by some object two or three miles to the north, they walked till they reached it, when they chose another, and so on. In this way they had a straight road.

In the first two days they made twenty miles in twelve hours; the rest of the time was devoted to meals and rest. The tent was ample protection against the cold when they were sleeping. The temperature gradually rose. The snow melted away in some places, according to the shape of the ground, while in others it lay in large patches. Proud pools appeared here and there, often almost as large as lakes. They would walk in up to their waists very often; but they only laughed at it, and the doctor more than any.

“Water has no right to wet us in this country,” he used to Bay; “it Ought to appear only as a solid, or a gas; as to its being liquid, it's absurd! Ice or vapor will do, but water won't!”

They did not forget their shooting, for thereby they got fresh meat. So Altamont and Bell, without going very far away, scoured the neighboring ravines; they brought back ptarmigan, geese, and a few gray rabbits. Gradually these animals became very shy and hard to approach. Without Duke they would often have found it hard to get any game. Hatteras advised them not to go off farther than a mile, for not a day nor an hour was to be lost, and he could not count on more than three months of good weather.

Besides, each one had to be at his post by the sledge whenever a hard spot, a narrow gorge, or steep inclines lay in the path; then each one helped pull or push. More than once everything had to be taken off; and this even did not fully protect against shocks and damage, which Bell repaired as well as he could.

The third day, Wednesday, June 26th, they came across a vast lake, still frozen by reason of its being sheltered from the sun; the ice was even strong enough to bear both men and sledge. It was a solid mirror which no arctic summers had melted, as was shown by the fact that its borders were surrounded by a dry snow, of which the lower layers evidently belonged to previous years.

From this moment the land grew lower, whence the doctor concluded that it did not extend very far to the north. Besides, it was very likely that New America was merely an island, and did not extend to the Pole. The ground grew more level; in the west a few low hills could be seen in the distance, covered with a bluish mist.

So far they had experienced no hardships; they had suffered from nothing except the reflection of the sun's rays upon the snow, which could easily give them snow-blindness. At any other time they would have travelled by night to avoid this inconvenience, but then there was no night. The snow was fortunately melting away, and it was much less brilliant when it was about turning into water.

June 28th the temperature arose to 45°; this was accompanied with heavy rain, which the travellers endured stoically, even with pleasure, for it hastened the disappearance of the snow. They bad to put on their deer-skin moccasins, and change the runners of the sledge. Their journey was delayed, but still they were advancing without any serious obstacles.

At times the doctor would pick up rounded or flat stones like pebbles worn smooth by the waves, and then he thought he was near the Polar Sea; but yet the plain stretched on out of sight.

There was no trace of man, no hut, no cairn nor Esquimaux snow-house; they were evidently the first to set foot in this new land. The Greenlander's never had gone so far, and yet this country offered plenty of game for the support of that half-starved people. Sometimes bears appeared in the distance, but they showed no signs of attacking; afar off were herds of musk-oxen and reindeer. The doctor would have liked to catch some of the latter to harness to the sledge; but they were timid, and not to be caught alive.

The 29th, Bell shot a fox, and Altamont was lucky enough to bring down a medium-sized musk-ox, after giving his companions a high idea of his bravery and skill; he was indeed a remarkable hunter, and so much admired by the doctor. The ox was cut out, and gave plenty of excellent meat. These lucky supplies were always well received; the least greedy could not restrain their joy at the sight of the meat. The doctor laughed at himself when he caught himself admiring these huge joints.

“Let us not be afraid to eat it,” he used to say; “a good dinner is a good thing in these expeditions.”

“Especially,” said Johnson, “when it depends on a better or worse shot.”

“You are right, Johnson,” replied the doctor; “one thinks less of one's food when one gets a regular supply from the kitchen.”

The 30th, the country became unexpectedly rugged, as if it had been upheaved by some volcanic commotion; the cones and peaks increased indefinitely in number, and were very high.

A southeast breeze began to blow with violence, and soon became a real hurricane. It rushed across the snow-covered rocks, among the ice-mountains, which, although on the firm land, took the form of hummocks and icebergs; their presence on these lofty plateaus could not be explained even by the doctor, who had an explanation for almost everything.

Warm, damp weather succeeded the tempest; it was a genuine thaw; on all sides resounded the cracking of the ice amid the roar of the avalanches.

The travellers carefully avoided the base of these hills; they even took care not to talk aloud, for the sound of the voice could shake the air and cause accident. They were witnesses of frequent and terrible avalanches which they could not have foreseen. In fact, the main peculiarity of polar avalanches is their terrible swiftness; therein they differ from those of Switzerland and Norway, where they form a ball, of small size at first, and then, by adding to themselves the snow and rocks in its passage, it falls with increasing swiftness, destroys forests and villages, but taking an appreciable time in its course. Now, it is otherwise in the countries where arctic cold rages; the fall of the block of ice is unexpected and startling; its fall is almost instantaneous, and any one who saw it from beneath would be certainly crushed by it; the cannon-ball is not swifter, nor lightning quicker; it starts, falls, and crashes down in a single moment with the dreadful roar of thunder, and with dull echoes.

So the amazed spectators see wonderful changes in the appearance of the country; the mountain becomes a plain under the action of a sudden thaw; when the rain has filtered into the fissures of the great blocks and freezes in a single night, it breaks everything by its irresistible expansion, which is more powerful in forming ice than in forming vapor: the phenomenon takes place with terrible swiftness.

No catastrophe, fortunately, threatened the sledge and its drivers; the proper precautions were taken, and every danger avoided. Besides, this rugged, icy country was not of great extent, and three days later, July 3d, the travellers were on smoother ground. But their eyes were surprised by a new phenomenon, which has for a long time claimed the attention of the scientific men of the two worlds. It was this: the party followed a line of hills not more than fifty feet high, which appeared to run on several miles, and their eastern side was covered with red snow.

The surprise and even the sort of alarm which the sight of this crimson curtain gave them may be easily imagined. The doctor hastened, if not to reassure, at least to instruct, his companions; he was familiar with this red snow and the chemical analysis made of it by Wollaston, Candolle, Bauer. He told them this red snow was not found in the arctic regions alone, but in Switzerland in the middle of the Alps; De Saussure collected a large quantity on the Breven in 1760; and since then Captains Ross, Sabine, and others had brought some back from their arctic journeys.

Altamont asked the doctor about the nature of this extraordinary substance. He was told that its color came simply from the presence of organic corpuscles. For a long time it was a question whether these corpuscles were animal or vegetable; but it was soon ascertained that they belonged to the family of mici mushrooms, of the genus Uredo, which Bauer proposed naming Uredo vivalis.[1]

Then the doctor, prying into the snow with his cane, showed his companions that the scarlet layer was only nine feet deep, and he bade them calculate how many of these mushrooms there might be on a space of many miles, when scientific men estimated forty-three thousand in a square centimetre.

This coloring probably ran back to a remote period, for the mushrooms were not decomposed by either evaporation or the melting of the snow, nor was their color altered.

The phenomenon, although explained, was no less strange. Red is a rare color in nature; the reflection of the sun's rays on this crimson surface produced strange effects; it gave the surrounding objects, men and animals, a brilliant appearance, as if they were lighted by an inward flame; and when the snow was melting, streams of blood seemed to be flowing beneath the travellers' feet.

The doctor, who had not been able to examine this substance when he saw it on crimson cliffs from Baffin's Bay, here examined it at his ease, and gathered several bottlefuls of it.

This red ground, the “Field of Blood,” as he called it, took three hours' walk to pass over, and then the country resumed its habitual appearance.

1^  Uredo nivalis (misspelt in Osgood).