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

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THE DESERT OF ICE Chapter XV. THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE.


The next day Bell, Altamont, and the doctor went to the Porpoise; they found no lack of wood; the old three-masted launch, though injured by being wrecked, could still supply abundant material for the new one. The carpenter set to work at once; they needed a seaworthy boat, which should yet be light enough to carry on a sledge.

Towards the end of May the weather grew warmer; the thermometer rose above the freezing-point; the spring came in earnest this time, and the men were able to lay aside their winter clothing.

Much rain fell, and soon the snow began to slide and melt away.

Hatteras could not hide his joy at seeing the first signs of thaw in the ice-fields. The open sea meant liberty for him.

Whether or not his predecessors had been wrong on this great question of an open polar sea, he hoped soon to know. All chance of success in his undertaking depended on this.

One evening, after a warm day in which the ice had given unmistakable signs of breaking up. he turned the conversation to the question of an open sea.

He took up the familiar arguments, and found the doctor, as ever, a warm advocate of his doctrine. Besides, his conclusions were evidently accurate.

“It is plain,” he said, “that if the ocean before Victoria Bay gets clear of ice, the southern part will also be clear as far as New Cornwall and Queen's Channel. Penny and Belcher saw it in that state, and they certainly saw clearly.”

“I agree with you, Hatteras,” answered the doctor, “and I have no reason for doubting the word of these sailors; a vain attempt has been made to explain their discovery as an effect of mirage; but they were so certain, it was impossible that they could have made such a mistake.”

“I always thought so,” said Altamont; “the polar basin extends to the east as well as to the west.”

“We can suppose so, at any rate,” answered Hatteras.

“We ought to suppose so,” continued the American, “for this open sea which Captains Penny and Belcher saw near the coast of Grinnell Land was seen by Morton, Kane's lieutenant, in the straits which are named after that bold explorer.”

“We are not in Kane's sea,” answered Hatteras, coldly, “and consequently we cannot verify the fact.”

“It is supposable, at least,” said Altamont.

“Certainly,” replied the doctor, who wished to avoid useless discussion. “What Altamont thinks ought to be the truth; unless there is a peculiar disposition of the surrounding land, the same effects appear at the same latitudes. Hence I believe the sea is open in the east as well as in the west.”

“At any rate, it makes very little difference to us,” said Hatteras.

“I don't agree with you, Hatteras,” resumed the American, who was beginning to be annoyed by the affected unconcern of the captain; “it may make considerable difference to us.”

“And when, if I may ask?”

“When we think of returning.”

“Returning!” cried Hatteras, “and who's thinking of that?”

“No one,” answered Altamont; “but we shall stop somewhere, I suppose.”

“And where?” asked Hatteras.

For the first time the question was fairly put to Altamont. The doctor would have given one of his arms to have put a stop to the discussion. Since Altamont made no answer, the captain repeated his question.

“And where?”

“Where we are going,” answered the American, quietly.

“And who knows where that is?” said the peace-loving doctor.

“I say, then,” Altamont went on, “that if we want to make use of the polar basin in returning, we can try to gain Kane's sea; it will lead us more directly to Baffin's Bay.”

“So that is your idea?” asked the captain, ironically.

“Yes, that is my idea, as it is that if these seas ever become practicable, they will be reached by the straightest way. O, that was a great discovery of Captain Kane's!”

“Indeed!” said Hatteras, biting his lips till they bled.

“Yes,” said the doctor, “that cannot be denied; every one should have the praise he deserves.”

“Without considering,” went on the obstinate American, “that no one had ever before gone so far to the north.”

“I like to think,” said Hatteras, “that now the English have got ahead of him.”

“And the Americans!” said Altamont.

“Americans!” repeated Hatteras.

“What am I, then?” asked Altamont, proudly.

“You are,” answered Hatteras, who could hardly control his voice,—“you are a man who presumes to accord equal glory to science and to chance! Your American captain went far to the north, but as chance alone—”

“Chance!” shouted Altamont; “do you dare to say that this great discovery is not due to Kane's energy and knowledge?”

“I say,” answered Hatteras, “that Kane's name is not fit to be pronounced in a country made famous by Parry, Franklin, Ross, Belcher, and Penny in these seas which opened the Northwest Passage to MacClure—”

“MacClure!” interrupted the American; “you mention that man, and yet you complain of the work of chance? Was n't it chance alone that favored him?”

“No,” answered Hatteras, warmly,—“no! It was his courage, his perseverance in spending four winters in the ice—”

“I should think so!” retorted the American; “he got caught in the ice and could n't get out, and he had to abandon the Investigator at last to go back to England.”

“My friends—” said the doctor.

“Besides,” Altamont went on, “let us consider the result. You speak of the Northwest Passage; well, it has yet to be discovered!”

Hatteras started at these words; no more vexatious question could have arisen between two rival nationalities. The doctor again tried to intervene.

“You are mistaken, Altamont,” he said.

“No, I persist in my opinions,” he said obstinately; “the Northwest Passage is yet to be found, to be sailed through, if you like that any better! MacClure never penetrated it, and to this day no ship that has sailed from Behring Strait has reached Baffin's Bay!”

That was true, speaking exactly. What answer could be made?

Nevertheless, Hatteras rose to his feet and said,—

“I shall not permit the good name of an English captain to be attacked any further in my presence.”

“You will not permit it?” answered the American, who also rose to his feet; “but these are the facts, and it is beyond your power to destroy them.”

“Sir!” said Hatteras, pale with anger.

“My friends,” said the doctor, “don't get excited! We are discussing a scientific subject.”

Clawbonny looked with horror at a scientific discussion into which the hate of an American and an Englishman could enter.

“I am going to give you the facts,” began Hatteras, threateningly.

“But I'm speaking now!” retorted the American.

Johnson and Bell became very uneasy.

“Gentlemen,” said the doctor, severely, “let me say a word! I insist upon it. I know the facts as well, better than you do, and I can speak of them impartially.”

“Yes, yes,” said Bell and Johnson, who were distressed at the turn the discussion had taken, and who formed a majority favorable to the doctor.

“Go on, Doctor,” said Johnson, “these gentlemen will listen, and you cannot fail to give us some information.”

“Go on, Doctor,” said the American.

Hatteras resumed his place with a sign of acquiescence, and folded his arms.

“I will tell the simple truth about the facts,” said the doctor, “and you must correct me if I omit or alter any detail.”

“We know you, Doctor,” said Bell, “and you can speak without fear of interruption.”

“Here is the chart of the Polar Seas,” resumed the doctor, who had brought it to the table; “it will be easy to trace MacClure's course, and you will be able to make up your minds for yourselves.”

Thereupon he unrolled one of the excellent maps published by order of the Admiralty, containing the latest discoveries in arctic regions; then he went on:

“You know, in 1848, two ships, the Herald, Captain Kellet, and the Plover, Commander Moore, were sent to Behring Strait in search of traces of Franklin; their search was vain; in 1850 they were joined by MacClure, who commanded the Investigator, a ship in which he had sailed, in 1849, under James Ross's orders. He was followed by Captain Collinson, his chief, who sailed in the Enterprise; but he arrived before him. At Behring Strait he declared he would wait no longer, and that he would go alone, on his own responsibility, and—you hear me, Altamont—that he would find either Franklin or the passage.”

Altamont showed neither approbation nor the contrary.

“August 5, 1850,” continued the doctor, “after a final communication with the Plover, MacClure sailed eastward by an almost unknown route; see how little land is marked upon the chart. August 30th he rounded Cape Bathurst; September 6th he discovered Baring Land, which he afterwards discovered to form part of Banks Land, then Prince Albert's Land. Then he resolved to enter the long straits between these two large islands, and he called it Prince of Wales Strait. You can follow his plan. He hoped to come out in Melville Sound, which we have just crossed, and with reason; but the ice at the end of the strait formed an impassable harrier. There MacClure wintered in 1850–51, and meanwhile he pushed on over the ice, to make sure that the strait connected with the sound.”

“Yes,” said Altamout, “but he did n't succeed.”

“One moment,” said the doctor. “While wintering there, MacClure's officers explored all the neighboring coasts: Creswell, Baring's Land; Haswell, Prince Albert's Land, to the south; and Wynniat, Cape Walker, to the north. In July, at the beginning of the thaw, MacClure tried a second time to carry the Investigator to Melville Sound; he got within twenty miles of it, twenty miles only, but the winds carried him with irresistible force to the south, before he could get through the obstacle. Then he determined to go back through Prince of Wales Strait, and go around Banks Land, to try at the west what he could not do in the east; he put about; the 18th he rounded Cape Kellet; the 19th, Cape Prince Alfred, two degrees higher; then, after a hard struggle with the icebergs, he was caught in Banks Strait, in the series of straits leading to Baffin's Bay.”

“But he could n't get through them,” said Altamont.

“Wait a moment, and be as patient as MacClure was. September 26th, he took his station for the winter in Mercy Bay, and stayed there till 1852. April came; MacClure had supplies for only eighteen months. Nevertheless, he was unwilling to return; he started, crossing Banks Strait by sledge, and reached Melville Island. Let us follow him. He hoped to find here Commander Austin's ships, which were sent to meet him by Baffin's Bay and Lancaster Sound; April 28th he arrived at Winter Harbor, at the place where Parry had wintered thirty-three years previously, but no trace of the ships; only he found in a cairn a paper, telling him that MacClintock, Austin's lieutenant, had been there the year before, and gone away. Any one else would have been in despair, but MacClure was not. He put in the cairn another paper, in which he announced his intention of returning to England by the Northwest Passage, which he had discovered by reaching Baffin's Bay and Lancaster Sound. If he is not heard from again, it will be because he will have been to the north or west of Melville Island; then he returned, not discouraged, to Mercy Bay for the third winter, 1852–53.”

“I have never doubted his courage,” said Altamont, “but his success.”

“Let us follow him again,” resumed the doctor. “In the month of March, being on two-thirds rations, at the end of a very severe winter, when no game was to be had, MacClure determined to send back half of his crew to England, either by Baffin's Bay, or by Mackenzie River and Hudson's Bay; the other half was to bring the Investigator back. He chose the weakest men, who could not stand a fourth winter; everything was ready, and their departure settled for April 15th, when on the 6th, MacClure, who was walking on the ice with his lieutenant, Creswell, saw a man running northward and gesticulating; it was Lieutenant Pim of the Herald, lieutenant of the same Captain Kellet whom two years before he had left at Behring Strait, as I said when I began. Kellet, having reached Winter Harbor, found the paper left there by MacClure; having heard in that way of his position in Mercy Bay, he sent Lieutenant Pim to meet the captain. He was followed by a detachment of the men of the Herald, among whom was a midshipman of a French ship, M. de Bray, who was a volunteer aid of Captain Kellet. You don't doubt this meeting?”

“Not at all,” answered Altamont.

“Well, see what followed, and whether the Northwest Passage was really made. If you join Parry's discoveries to those of MacClure, you will see the northern coast of America was rounded.”

“But not by a single ship,” said Altamont.

“No, but by a single man. Let us go on. MacClure went to see Captain Kellet at Melville Island; in twelve days he made the one hundred and seventy miles between Winter Harbor and the island; he agreed with the commander of the Herald to send him his sick, and returned: many others would have thought, had they been in MacClure's place, that they had done enough, but this bold young man determined to try his fortune again. Then, and please observe this. Lieutenant Creswell, with the sick and disabled men of the Investigator, left Mercy Bay, reached Winter Harbor, and from there, after a journey of four hundred and seventy miles on the ice, reached Beechey Island, June 2d, and a few days later, with twelve of his men, he took passage on board of the Phœnix.”

“In which I was at the time,” said Johnson, “with Captain Inglefield, and we returned to England.”

“And October 7, 1853,” continued the doctor, “Creswell arrived at London, after having crossed over the whole distance between Behring Strait and Cape Farewell.”

“Well,” said Hatteras, “to enter at one end and go out by the other, is n't that going through?”

“Yes,” answered Altamont, “but by going four hundred and seventy miles over the ice.”

“Well, what difference does that make?”

“The whole,” answered the American. “Did MacClure's ship make the passage?”

“No,” answered the doctor, “for after a fourth winter, MacClure was obliged to leave it in the ice.”

“Well, in a sea-voyage it's important to have the ship reach her destination. If the Northwest Passage ever becomes practicable, it must be for ships and not for sledges. The ship must accomplish the voyage, or if not the ship, the launch.”

“The launch!” shouted Hatteras, who detected the hidden meaning in the American's words.

“Altamont,” said the doctor, hurriedly, “you make a puerile distinction, and we all consider you wrong.”

“That is easy, gentlemen,” answered the American; “you are four to one. But that won't keep me from holding my own opinion.”

“Keep it,” said Hatteras, “and so closely that we need hear nothing about it.”

“And what right have you to speak to me in that way?” asked the American in a rage.

“My right as captain,” answered Hatteras.

“Am I under your commands?” retorted Altamont.

“Without doubt, and look out for yourself, if—”

The doctor, Johnson, and Bell intervened. It was time; the two enemies were gazing at one another. The doctor was very anxious. Still, after a few gentler words, Altamont went off to bed whistling Yankee Doodle, and, whether he slept or not, he did not speak. Hatteras went out and paced up and down for an hour, and then he turned in without saying a word.