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

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The next day the weather changed; there was a return of cold; the snow and rain gust raged for many days.

Bell had finished the launch; it was perfectly satisfactory for the purpose it was intended for; partly decked, and partly open, it could sail in heavy weather under mainsail and jib, while it was so light as not to be too heavy a load on the sledge for the dogs.

Then, too, a change of great importance was taking place in the state of the polar basin. The ice in the middle of the bay was beginning to give way; the tallest pieces, forever weakened by the collision of the rest, only needed a sufficiently heavy tempest to be torn away and to become icebergs. Still, Hatteras was unwilling to wait so long before starting. Since it was to be a land journey, he cared very little whether the sea was open or not. He determined to start June 25th; meanwhile all the preparations could be completed. Johnson and Bell put the sledge into perfect repair; the frame was strengthened and the runners renewed. The travellers intended to devote to their journey the few weeks of good weather which nature allows to these northern regions. Their sufferings would be less severe, the obstacles easier to overcome.

A few days before their departure, June 20th, the ice had so many free passages, that they were able to make a trial trip on board of the new launch as far as Cape Washington. The sea was not perfectly free, far from it; but its surface was not solid, and it would have been impossible to make a trip on foot over the ice-fields.

This half-day's sail showed the good sailing qualities of the launch.

During the return they beheld a curious incident. It was a monstrous bear chasing a seal. Fortunately the former was so busily occupied, that he did not see the launch, otherwise he would certainly have pursued it; he kept on watch near a crevasse in the ice-field, into which the seal had evidently plunged. He was awaiting his reappearance with all the patience of a hunter, or rather of a fisherman, for he was really fishing. He was silent, motionless, without any sign of life.

Suddenly the surface of the water was agitated; the seal had come up to breathe. The bear crouched low upon the ice, and rounded his two paws about the crevasse.

The next moment the seal appeared, with his head above water; but he had not time to withdraw it. The bear's paws, as if driven by a spring, were clashed together, strangling the animal with irresistible force and dragging it out of the water.

It was but a brief struggle; the seal struggled for a few seconds, and was then suffocated on the breast of his adversary, who, dragging him away easily, in spite of his size, and springing lightly from one piece of ice to another, reached bind and disappeared with his prey.

“A pleasant journey!” shouted Johnson; “that bear has got rather too many paws!”

The launch soon reached the little anchorage Bell had made for her in the ice.

Only four days were there before the time fixed for their departure.

Hatteras hurried on the last preparations; he was in a hurry to leave New America, a land which was not his, and which be had not named; he did not feel at home.

June 22d they began to carry to the sledge their camp-material, tent, and food. They carried only two hundred pounds of salt meat, three chests of preserved meat and vegetables, fifty pounds of pickles and lime-juice, five quarters of flour, packets of cresses and cochlearia from the doctor's garden; with the addition of two hundred pounds of powder, the instruments, arms, and personal baggage, the launch, Halkett-boat, and the weight of the sledge itself, the whole weighed fifteen hundred pounds,—a heavy load for four dogs, especially since, unlike the Esquimaux, who never travel more than four days in succession, they had none to replace them, and would have to work them every day. But the travellers determined to aid them when it was necessary, and they intended to proceed by easy stages; the distance from Victoria Bay to the Pole was three hundred and fifty-five miles at the outside, and going twelve miles a day they could make the journey in a month. Besides, when the land came to an end, the launch would enable them to finish the journey without fatigue for dogs or men.

The latter were well, and in excellent condition. The winter, although severe, ended favorably enough. Each one had followed the doctor's advice, and escaped from the diseases common in these severe climates. In fact, they had grown a trifle thinner, which gave a great deal of pleasure to Clawbonny; but their bodies were inured to the rigors of that life, and these men were able to face the severest attacks of cold and hunger without succumbing.

And then, too, they were going to the end of their journey, to the inaccessible Pole, after which their only thought would be of returning. The sympathy which bound together the five members of the expedition would aid their success in this bold trip, and no one doubted of their success.

As a precaution, the doctor had urged his companions to prepare themselves for some time beforehand, and to ``train with much care.

“My friends,” he used to say, “I don't ask you to imitate the English racers, who lose eighteen pounds after two days' training, and twenty-five after five days, but we ought to do something to get into the best possible condition for a long journey. Now the first principle of training is to get rid of the fat on both horse and jockey, and this is done by means of purging, sweating, and violent exercise. These gentlemen know they will lose so much by medicine, and they arrive at their results with incredible accuracy; such a one who before training could not run a mile without being winded, can run twenty-five easily after it. There was a certain Townsend who ran a hundred miles in twelve hours without stopping.”

“A good result,” answered Johnson; “and although we are not very fat, if we must get thinner yet—”

“There is no need of it, Johnson; but without exaggerating, it can't be denied that training produces good effects; it strengthens the bones, makes the muscles more elastic, improves the hearing and the sight; so let us not forget it.”

In short, whether in training or not, the travellers were ready June 23d; it was Sunday, and the day was devoted to absolute rest.

The time for departure drew near, and the inhabitants of Fort Providence could not see it approach without a certain emotion. It grieved them to leave this snow-hut which had served so well to protect them; Victoria Bay, this hospitable shore where they had spent the last days of the winter. Would they find these buildings standing when they returned? Would not the rays of the sun melt away its fragile walls?

In a word, they had passed pleasant hours there. The doctor, at the evening meal, called up to his companions' memory touching reminiscences, and he did not forget to thank Heaven for its evident protection.

At last the hour of sleeping came. Each one went to bed early, so as to be up betimes. Thus passed their last night at Fort Providence.