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

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July 4th a dense fog prevailed. They were only able with the greatest difficulty to keep a straight path; they had to consult the compass every moment. Fortunately there was no accident in the darkness, except that Bell lost his snow-shoes, which were broken against a projecting rock.

“Well, really,” said Johnson, “I thought, after seeing the Mersey and the Thames, that I knew all about fogs, but I see I was mistaken.”

“We ought,” answered Bell, “to light torches as is done at London and Liverpool. ”

“Why not?” asked the doctor; “that's a good idea; it would n't light up the road much, but we could see the guide, and follow him more easily.”

“But what shall we do for torches?”

“By lighting tow dipped in alcohol, and fastening to the end of walking-sticks.”

“Good!” said Johnson; “and we shall soon have it ready.”

A quarter of an hour later the little band was walking along with torches faintly lighting up the general gloom.

But if they went straighter, they did not go quicker, and the fog lasted till July 6th; the earth being cold then, a blast of north-wind carried away all the mist as if it had been rags. Soon the doctor took an observation, and ascertained that meanwhile they had not made eight miles a day.

The 6th, they made an effort to make up for lost time, and they set out early. Altamont and Bell were ahead, choosing the way and looking out for game. Duke was with them. The weather, with its surprising fickleness, had become very clear and dry; and although the guides were two miles from the sledge, the doctor did not miss one of their movements. He was consequently very much startled to see them stop suddenly, and remain in a position of surprise; they seemed to be gazing into the distance, as if scanning the horizon. Then they bent down to the ground and seemed to be examining it closely, and they arose in evident amazement. Bell seemed to wish to push on, but Altamont held him back.

“What can they be doing?” asked the doctor of Johnson.

“I know no more than you, Doctor; I don't understand their gestures.”

“They have found the track of some animals,” answered Hatteras.

“That's not it,” said the doctor.

“Why not?”

“Because Duke would bark.”

“Still, they've seen marks of some sort.”

“Let us go on,” said Hatteras; “we shall soon know.”

Johnson urged on the dogs, who quickened their pace.

In twenty minutes the five were together, and Hatteras, the doctor, and Johnson were as much surprised as Bell and Altamont.

There were in the snow indubitable traces of men, as fresh as if they had just been made.

“They are Esquimaux,” said Hatteras.

“Yes,” said the doctor, “there is no doubt of that!”

“You think so?” said Altamont.

“Without any doubt.”

“Well, and this mark?” continued Altamont, pointing to another print, which was often repeated.

“That one?”

“Do you think it was made by an Esquimaux?”

The doctor examined it carefully, and was stupefied. The print of a European shoe, with nails, sole, and heel, was clearly stamped in the snow. There could be no further doubt; a man, a stranger, had been there.

“Europeans here!” cried Hatteras.

“Evidently,” said Johnson.

“And still,” said the doctor, “it is so unlikely, that we ought to look twice before being sure.”

Thereupon he looked twice, three times, at the print, and he was obliged to acknowledge its extraordinary origin.

De Foe's hero was not more amazed when he saw the footprint on the sand of his island; but if he was afraid, Hatteras was simply angry. A European so near the Pole!

They pushed on to examine the footprints; for a quarter of a mile they were continually repeated, mingled with marks of moccasins; then they turned to the west.

When they had reached this point they consulted as to whether they should follow them any farther.

“No,” said Hatteras. “Let us go on—”

He was interrupted by an exclamation of the doctor, who had just picked up on the snow an object even more convincing, and of the origin of which there could be no doubt. It was the object-glass of a pocket telescope.

“Now,” he said, “we can't doubt that there is a stranger here—”

“Forward!” cried Hatteras.

He uttered this word so sharply that each one obeyed, and the sledge resumed its monotonous progress.

They all scanned the horizon attentively, except Hatteras, who was filled with wrath and did not care to see anything. Still, since they ran the risk of coming across a band of travellers, they had to take precautions; it was very disappointing to see any one ahead of them on the route. The doctor, although not as angry as Hatteras, was somewhat vexed, in spite of his usual philosophy. Altamont seemed equally annoyed; Johnson and Bell muttered threatening words between their teeth.

“Come,” said the doctor, “let us take heart against our bad fortune.”

“We must confess,” said Johnson, without being heard by Altamont, “that if we find the place taken, it would disgust us with journeying to the Pole.”

“And yet,” answered Bell, “there is no possibility of doubting—”

“No,” retorted the doctor; “I turn it all over in vain, and say it is improbable, impossible; I have to give it up. This shoe was not pressed into the snow without being at the end of a leg, and without the leg being attached to a human body. I could forgive Esquimaux, but a European!”

“The fact is,” answered Johnson, “that if we are going to find all the rooms taken in the hotel of the end of the world, it would be annoying.”

“Very annoying,” said Altamont.

“Well, we shall see,” said the doctor.

And they pushed on. The day ended without any new fact to indicate the presence of strangers in this part of New America, and they at last encamped for the evening.

A rather strong wind from the south had sprung up, and obliged them to seek a secure shelter for their tent in the bottom of a ravine. The sky was threatening; long clouds passed rapidly through the air; they passed near the ground, and so quickly that the eye could hardly follow them. At times some of the mist touched the ground, and the tent resisted with difficulty the violence of the hurricane.

“It's going to be a nasty night,” said Johnson, after supper.

“It won't be cold, but stormy,” answered the doctor; “let us take precautions, and make the tent firm with large stones.”

“You are right, Doctor; if the wind should carry away the canvas, Heaven alone knows where we should find it again.”

Hence they took every precaution against such a danger, and the wearied travellers lay down to sleep.

But they found it impossible. The tempest was loose, and hastened northward with incomparable violence; the clouds were whirling about like steam which has just escaped from a boiler; the last avalanches, under the force of the hurricane, fell into the ravines, and their dull echoes were distinctly heard; the air seemed to be struggling with the water, and fire alone was absent from this contest of the elements.

Amid the general tumult their ears distinguished separate sounds, not the crash of heavy falling bodies, but the distinct cracking of bodies breaking; a clear snap was frequently heard, like breaking steel, amid the roar of the tempest.

These last sounds were evidently avalanches torn off by the gusts, but the doctor could not explain the others.

In the few moments of anxious silence, when the hurricane seemed to be taking breath in order to blow with greater violence, the travellers exchanged their suppositions.

“There is a sound of crashing,” said the doctor, “as if icebergs and ice-fields were being blown against one another.”

“Yes,” answered Altamont; “one would say the whole crust of the globe was falling in. Say, did you hear that?”

“If we were near the sea,” the doctor went on, “I should think it was ice breaking.”

“In fact,” said Johnson, “there is no other explanation possible.”

“Can we have reached the coast?” asked Hatteras.

“It's not impossible,” answered the doctor. “Hold on,” he said, after a very distinct sound; “should n't you say that was the crashing of ice? We may be very near the ocean.”

“If it is,” continued Hatteras, “I should not be afraid to go across the ice fields.”

“0,” said the doctor, “they must be broken by such a tempest! We shall see to morrow. However that may be, if any men have to travel in such a night as this, I pity them.”

The hurricane raged ten hours without cessation, and no one of those in the tent had a moment's sleep; the night passed in profound uneasiness.

In fact, under such circumstances, every new incident, a tempest, an avalanche, might bring serious consequences. The doctor would gladly have gone out to reconnoitre, but how could he with such a wind raging?

Fortunately the hurricane grew less violent early the next day; they could leave the tent which had resisted so sturdily. The doctor, Hatteras, and Johnson went to a hill about three hundred feet high, which they ascended without difficulty.

Their eyes beheld an entirely altered country, composed of bare rocks, sharp ridges entirely clear of ice. It was summer succeeding winter, which had been driven away by the tempest; the snow had been blown away by the wind before it could melt, and the barren soil reappeared.

But Hatteras's glances were all turned towards the north, where the horizon appeared to be hidden by dark mist.

“That may be the effect of the ocean,” said the doctor.

“You are right,” said Hatteras; “the sea must be there.”

“That's what we call the blink of the water,” said Johnson.

“Exactly,” said the doctor.

“Well, let us start,” said Hatteras, “and push on to this new ocean.”

“That rejoices my heart,” said Clawbonny to the captain.

“Certainly,” was the enthusiastic answer. “Soon we shall have reached the Pole! and does n't the prospect delight you, too, Doctor?”

“It does. I am always happy, and especially about the happiness of others!”

The three Englishmen returned to the ravine; the sledge was made ready, and they left the camp and resumed their march. Each one dreaded finding new tracks, but all the rest of the way they saw no trace of any human being. Three hours later they reached the coast.

“The sea! the sea!” they all shouted.

“And the open sea!” cried the captain.

It was ten o'clock in the morning.

In fact, the hurricane had cleared up the polar basin; the shattered ice was floating away in every direction; the largest pieces, forming icebergs, had just weighed anchor and were sailing on the open sea. The wind had made a harsh attack upon the field. Fragments of ice covered the surrounding rocks. The little which was left of the ice-field seemed very soft; on the rocks were large pieces of sea-weed. The ocean stretched beyond the line of vision, with no island or new land peering above the horizon.

In the east and west were two capes gently sloping to the water; at their end the sea was breaking, and the wind was carrying a slight foam. The land of New America thus died away in the Polar Ocean, quietly and gently. It rounded into an open bay, with roadstead enclosed by the two promontories. In the middle a rock made a little natural harbor, sheltered against three points of the compass; it ran back into the land in the broad lied of a stream, through which ran down the melted snows of winter, now forming a perfect torrent.

Hatteras, after noticing the outline of the coast, resolved to make the preparations for departure that very day, to launch the boat, to put the unloaded sledge on board for future excursions. That took all day; then the tent was raised, and after a comfortable meal work began. Meanwhile the doctor took out his instruments to take an observation and determine the position of a part of the bay. Hatteras hurried on the work; he was anxious to start; he wanted to leave the land, and to be in advance in case any others should reach the sea.

At five o'clock in the evening Johnson and Bell had nothing to do but to fold their arms. The launch was rocking gently in her little harbor, with her mast set, her jib lowered, and her foresail in the brails; the provisions and most of the things on the sledge had been put on board; only the tent and a little of the camping material remained to be put on board the next day. The doctor found all these preparations complete on his return. When he saw the launch quietly sheltered from the wind, it occurred to him to give a name to the little harbor, and he proposed that of Altamont. This proposition was unanimously agreed to. So it was named Altamont Harbor.

According to the doctor's calculations, it lay in latitude 87°5', and longitude 118°35' E. of Greenwich; that is to say, less than three degrees from the Pole. The hand had gone more than two hundred miles from Victoria Bay to Altamont Harbor.