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

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THE DESERT OF ICE Chapter XXI. THE OPEN SEA.


The next morning Johnson and Bell set about carrying on board the camping material. At eight o'clock all the preparations for departure were complete. At the moment of starting the doctor's thoughts returned to the footprints they had seen.

Were these men trying to gain the North? Had they any means of crossing the Polar Sea? Should they meet them again?

For three days they had come across no trace of the travellers, and certainly, whoever they were, they could not have reached Altamont Harbor. That was a place which they were the first to set foot in.

But the doctor, who was harassed by his thoughts, wanted to take a last view of the country, and he ascended a little hill about a hundred feet high, whence he had a distant view to the south.

When he had reached the top, he put his glass to his eyes. Great was his surprise when he found he could not see anything, either at a distance on the plains, or within a few feet of him. This seemed very odd; he made another examination, and at last he looked at the glass,—the object-glass was missing.

“The object-glass!” he cried.

The sudden revelation may be imagined; he uttered a cry so loud as to be heard by his companions, and they were much astonished at seeing him running down the hill.

“Well, what's the matter now?” asked Johnson.

The doctor was out of breath, and unable to speak. At length he managed to bring out,—

“The footprints!—the expedition!—”

“Well, what?” said Hatteras; “are they here?”

“No, no!” resumed the doctor,—“the object-glass, mine!”

And he showed his own glass.

“0, ho!” cried the American, “so you lost—”

“Yes!”

“But then the footprints—”

“Our own!” cried the doctor. “We lost our way in the fog! We went around in a circle, and came across our own footprints!”

“But the print of the shoes?” asked Hatteras.

“Bell's, you know, who walked all day in the snow after breaking his snow shoes.”

“That's true,” said Bell.

Their mistake was so clear, that they all, except Hatteras, burst out laughing, and he was none the less pleased at the discovery.

“We were stupid enough,” said the doctor, when they had stopped laughing. “What good guesses we made! Strangers up here! Really, we ought to think before speaking, Well, since we are easy on this point, we can't do better than start.”

“Forward!” said Hatteras.

A quarter of an hour later each one had taken his place on board of the launch, which sailed out of Altamont Harbor under mainsail and jib.

This voyage began Wednesday, July 10th; they were then very near the Pole, exactly one hundred and seventy-five miles from it. However small the land might be at that point of the globe, the voyage would certainly be a short one.

The wind was light, but fair. The thermometer stood at 50°; it was really warm.

The launch had not been injured by the journey on the sledge; it was in perfect order, and sailed easily. Johnson was at the helm; the doctor, Bell, and Altamont were lying as best they might among the load, partly on deck, partly below.

Hatteras stood forward, with his eyes turned to the mysterious point, which attracted him with an irresistible power, as the magnetic pole attracts the needle. If there should be any land, he wanted to be the first to see it. This honor really belonged to him.

He noticed, besides, that the surface of the Polar Sea was covered with short waves, like those of land locked seas. This he considered a proof of the nearness of the opposite shore, and the doctor shared his opinion.

Hatteras's desire to find land at the North Pole is perfectly comprehensible. His disappointment would have been great if the uncertain sea covered the place where he wanted to find a piece of land, no matter how small! In fact, how could he give a special name to an uncertain portion of the sea? How plant the flag of his country among the waves? How take possession, in the name of her Gracious Majesty, of the liquid element?

So Hatteras, compass in hand, gazed steadily at the north.

There was nothing that he could see between him and the horizon, where the line of the blue water met the blue sky. A few floating icebergs seemed to be leaving the way free for these bold sailors.

The appearance of this region was singularly strange. Was this impression simply the result of the nervous excitement of the travellers? It is hard to say. Still, the doctor in his journal has described the singular appearance of the ocean; he spoke of it as Penny did, according to whom these countries present an appearance ``offering the most striking contrast of a sea filled with millions of living creatures.

The sea, with its various colors, appeared strangely transparent, and endowed with a wonderful dispersive quality, as if it had been made with carburet of sulphur. This clearness let them see down into immeasurable depths; it seemed as if the sea were lit up like a large aquarium; probably some electric phenomenon at the bottom of the sea lit it up. So the launch seemed hung in a bottomless abyss.

On the surface of the water the birds were flying in large flocks, like thick clouds big with a storm. Aquatic birds of all sorts were there, from the albatross which is common to the south, to the penguin of the arctic seas, but of enormous size. Their cries were deafening. In considering them the doctor found his knowledge of natural history too scanty; many of the names escaped him, and he found himself bowing his head when their wings beat the air.

Some of these large birds measured twenty feet from tip to tip; they covered the whole launch with their expanded wings; and there were legions of these birds, of which the names had never appeared in the London Index Ornithologus.

The doctor was dejected and stupefied at finding his science so faulty.

Then, when his glance fell from the wonders of the air to the calm surface of the ocean, he saw no less astonishing productions of the animal kingdom, among others, medusæ thirty feet broad; they served as food for the other fish, and they floated like islands amid the sea-weed. What a difference from the microscopic medusæ observed in the seas of Greenland by Scoresby, and of which that explorer estimated the number at twenty-three trillions eight hundred and ninety-eight billions of millions in a space of two square miles!

Then the eye glancing down into the transparent water, the sight was equally strange, so full was it of fishes; sometimes the animals were swimming about below, and the eye saw them gradually disappearing, and fading away like spectres; then they would leave the lower layers and rise to the surface. The monsters seemed in no way alarmed at the presence of the launch; they even passed near it, rubbing their fins against it; this, which would have alarmed whalers, did not disturb these men, and yet the sea-monsters were very large.

Young sea-calves played about them; the sword-fish, with its long, narrow, conical sword, with which it cleaves the ice, was chasing the more timid cetacea; numberless spouting whales wei-e clearly to be heard. The sword-caper, with its delicate tail and large caudal fins, swam with incomprehensible quickness, feeding on smaller animals, such as the cod, as swift as itself; while the white whale, which is more inactive, swallowed peacefully the tranquil, lazy mollusks.

Farther down were Greenland anamaks, long and dark; huge sperm-whales, swimming in the midst of ambergris, in which took place thomeric battles that reddened the ocean for many miles around; the great Labrador tegusik. Sharp-backed dolphins, the whole family of seals and walruses, sea-dogs, horses and bears, lions and elephants, seemed to be feeding on the rich pastures; and the doctor admired the numberless animals, as he would have done the Crustacea in the crystal basins of the zoological garden.

What beauty, variety, and power in nature! How strange and wonderful everything seemed in the polar regions!

The air acquired an unnatural purity; one would have said it was full of oxygen; the explorers breathed with delight this air, which filled them with fresher life; without taking account of the result, they were, so to speak, exposed to a real consuming tire, of which one can give no idea, not even a feeble one. Their emotions, their breathing and digestion, were endowed with superhuman energy; their ideas became more excited; they lived a whole day in an hour.

Through all these wonders the launch pushed on before a moderate breeze, occasionally feeling the air moved by the albatrosses' wings.

Towards evening, the coast of New America disappeared beneath the horizon. In the temperate zones, as well as at the equator, night falls; but here the sun simply described a circle parallel to the line of the horizon. The launch, bathed in its oblique rays, could not lose sight of it.

The animate beings of these regions seemed to know the approach of evening as truly as if the sun had set; birds, fish, cetacea, all disappeared. Whither? To the depths of the ocean? Who could say? But soon total silence succeeded to their cries, and the sound of their passage through the water; the sea grew calmer and calmer, and night retained its gentle peace even beneath the glowing sun.

Since leaving Altamont Harbor the launch had made one degree to the north; the next day nothing appeared on the horizon, neither projecting peaks nor those vague signs by which sailors detect their nearness to land.

The wind was good, but not strong, the sea not high; the birds and fish came as thick as the day before; the doctor, leaning over the gunwale, could see the cetacea rising slowly to the surface; a few icebergs and scattered pieces of ice alone broke the monotony of the ocean.

But the ice grew rarer, and was not enough to interfere with the boat. It is to be remembered that the launch was then ten degrees above the pole of cold; and as to the parallels of temperature, they might as well have been ten degrees to the other side. There was nothing surprising in the sea being open at this epoch, as it must have been at Disco Island in Baffin's Bay. So a sailing vessel would have plenty of sailing room in the summer months.

This observation had a great practical importance: in fact, if whalers can ever get to the polar basin, either by the seas of North America or those of the north of Asia, they are sure of getting full cargoes, for this part of the ocean seems to be the universal fishing-pond, the general reservoir of whales, seals, and all marine animals. At noon the line of the horizon was still unbroken; the doctor began to doubt of the existence of a continent in so high latitudes.

Still, as he reflected, he was compelled to believe in the existence of an arctic continent; in fact, at the creation of the world, after the cooling of the terrestrial crust, the waters formed by the condensation of the atmospheric vapor were compelled to obey the centrifugal force, to fly to the equator and leave the motionless extremities of the globe. Hence the necessary emersion of the countries near the Pole. The doctor considered this reasoning very just. And so it seemed to Hatteras.

Hence the captain still tried to pierce the mists of the horizon. His glass never left his eyes. In the color of the water, the shape of the waves, the direction of the wind, he tried to find traces of neighboring land. His head was bent forward, and even one who did not know his thoughts would have admired, so full was his attitude of energetic desire and anxious interrogation.