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

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The time flew by in this uncertainty. Nothing appeared on the sharply defined circle of the sea; nothing was to be seen save sky and sea,—not one of those floating land-plants which rejoiced the heart of Christopher Columbus as he was about to discover America. Hatteras was still gazing. At length, at about six o'clock in the evening, a shapeless vapor appeared at a little height above the level of the sea; it looked like a puff of smoke; the sky was perfectly cold, so this vapor was no cloud; it would keep appearing and disappearing, as if it were in commotion. Hatteras was the first to detect this phenomenon; he examined it with his glass for a whole hour.

Suddenly, some sure sign apparently occurred to him, for he stretched out his arms to the horizon and cried in a loud voice,—

“Land, ho!”

At these words each one sprang to his feet as if moved by electricity. A sort of smoke was clearly rising above the sea.

“I see it,” cried the doctor.

“Yes! certainly!—yes!” said Johnson.

“It's a cloud,” said Altamont.

“It's land!” answered Hatteras, as if perfectly convinced.

But, as often happens with objects that are indistinct in the distance, the point they had been looking at seemed to have disappeared. At length they found it again, and the doctor even fancied that he could see a swift light twenty or twenty-five miles tn the north.

“It's a volcano!” he cried.

“A volcano?” said Altamont.

“Without doubt.”

“At this high latitude?”

“And why not?” continued the doctor; “is n't Iceland a volcanic land, so to speak, made of volcanoes?”

“Yes, Iceland,” said the American, “but so near the Pole!”

“Well, did n't Commodore James Ross find in the Southern Continent two active volcanoes, Erebus and Terror by name, in longitude 170° and latitude 78°? Why then should n't there be volcanoes at the North Pole?”

“It may be so, after all,” answered Altamont.

“Ah,” cried the doctor, “I see it clearly! It is a volcano.”

“Well,” said Hatteras, “let us sail straight towards it.”

“The wind is changing,” said Johnson.

“Haul on the fore-sheet, and bring her nearer the wind.”

But this manœuvre only turned the launch away from the point they had been gazing at, and even with their closest examination they could not find it again. Still, they could not doubt that they were nearing land. They had seen, if they had not reached, the object of their voyage, and within twenty-four hours they would set foot on this unknown shore. Providence, after letting them get so near, would not drive them back at the last moment.

Still, no one manifested the joy which might have been expected under the circumstances; each one wondered in silence what this polar land might be. The animals seemed to shun it; at evening the birds, instead of seeking refuge there, flew with all speed to the south. Could not a single gull or ptarmigan find a resting-place there? Even the fish, the large cetacea, avoided that coast. Whence came this repugnance, which was shared by all the animals they saw, unless from terror?

The sailors experienced the same feeling; they gave way to the feelings inspired by the situation, and gradually each one felt his eyelids grow heavy. It was Hatteras's watch. He took the tiller; the doctor, Altamont, Johnson, and Bell fell asleep, stretched on the benches, and soon were dreaming soundly. Hatteras struggled against his sleepiness; he wished to lose not a moment; but the gentle motion of the launch rocked him, in spite of himself, into a gentle sleep.

The boat made hardly any headway; the wind did not keep her sails full. Far off in the west a few icebergs were reflecting the sun's rays, and glowing brightly in the midst of the ocean.

Hatteras began to dream. He recalled his whole life, with the incalculable speed of dreams; he went through the winter again, the scenes at Victoria Bay, Fort Providence, Doctor's House, the finding the American beneath the snow.

Here remoter incidents came up before him; he dreamed of the burning of the Forward, of his treacherous companions who had abandoned him. What had become of them? He thought of Shandon, Wall, and the brutal Penn. Where were they now? Had they succeeded in reaching Baffin's Bay across the ice?

Then he went further back, to his departure from England, to his previous voyages, his failures and misfortunes. Then he forgot his present situation, his success so near at hand, his hopes half realized. His dreams carried him from joy to agony.

So it went on for two hours; then his thoughts changed; he began to think of the Pole, and he saw himself at last setting foot on this English continent, and unfolding the flag of the United Kingdom.

While he was dozing in this way a huge, dark cloud was climbing across the sky, throwing a deep shadow over the sea.

It is difficult to imagine the great speed with which hurricanes arise in the arctic seas. The vapors which rise under the equator are condensed above the great glaciers of the North, and large masses of air are needed to take their place. This can explain the severity of arctic storms.

At the first shock of the wind the captain and his friends awoke from their sleep, ready to manage the launch.

The waves were high and steep. The launch tossed helplessly about, now plunged into deep abysses, now oscillated on the pointed crest of a wave, inclining often at an angle of more than forty-five degrees.

Hatteras took firm hold of the tiller, which was noisily sliding from one side to the other. Every now and then some strong wave would strike it and nearly throw him over. Johnson and Bell were busily occupied in bailing out the water which the launch would occasionally ship.

“This is a storm we hardly expected,” said Altamont, holding fast to his bench.

“We ought to expect anything here,” answered the doctor.

These remarks were made amid the roar of the tempest and the hissing of the waves, which the violence of the wind reduced to a fine spray.

It was nearly impossible for one to hear his neighbor. It was hard to keep the boat's head to the north; the clouds hid everything a few fathoms from the boat, and they had no mark to sail by.

This sudden tempest, just as they were about attaining their object, seemed full of warning; to their excited minds it came like an order to go no farther. Did Nature forbid approach to the Pole? Was this point of the globe surrounded by hurricanes and tempests which rendered access impossible?

But any one who had caught sight of those men could have seen that they did not flinch before wind or wave, and that they would push on to the end.

So they struggled on all day, braving death at every instant, and making no progress northward, but also losing no ground; they were wet through by the rain and waves; above the din of the storm they could hear the hoarse cries of the birds.

But at six o'clock in the evening, while the waves were rising, there came a sudden calm. The wind stopped as if by a miracle. The sea was smooth; as if it had not felt a puff of wind for twelve hours. The hurricane seemed to have respected this part of the Polar Ocean.

What was the reason? It was an extraordinary phenomenon, which Captain Sabine had witnessed in his voyages in Greenland seas.

The fog, without lifting, was very bright.

The launch drifted along in a zone of electric light, an immense St. Elmo fire, brilliant hut without heat. The mast, sail, and rigging stood out black against the phosphorescent air; the men seemed to have plunged into a bath of transparent rays, and their faces were all lit up.

The sudden calm of this portion of the ocean came, without doubt, from the ascending motion of the columns of air, while the tempest, which was a cyclone, turned rapidly about this peaceful centre.

But this atmosphere on fire suggested a thought to Hatteras.

“The volcano!” he cried.

“Is it possible?” asked Bell.

“No, no!” answered the doctor; “we should be smothered if the flames were to reach us.”

“Perhaps it is its reflection in the fog,” said Altamont.

“No. We should have to admit that we were near land, and in that case we should hear the eruption.”

“But then?” asked the captain.

“It is a phenomenon,” said the doctor, “which has been seldom observed hitherto. If we go on we cannot help leaving this luminous sphere and re-entering storm and darkness.”

“Whatever it is, push on!” said Hatteras.

“Forward!” cried his companions, who did not wish to delay even for breathing-time in this quiet spot.

The bright sail hung down the glistening mast; the oars dipped into the glowing waves, and appeared to drip with sparks.

Hatteras, compass in band, turned the boat's head to the north; gradually the mist lost its brightness and transparency; the wind could be heard roaring a short distance off; and soon the launch, lying over before a strong gust, re-entered the zone of storms.

Fortunately, the hurricane had shifted a point towards the south, and the launch was able to run before the wind, straight for the Pole, running the risk of foundering, but sailing very fast; a rock, reef, or piece of ice might at any moment rise before them, and crush them to atoms.

Still, no one of these men raised a single objection, nor suggested prudence. They were seized with the madness of danger. Thirst for the unknown took possession of them. They were going along, not blinded, but blindly, finding their speed only too slow for their impatience. Hatteras held the tiller firm amid the waves lashed into foam by the tempest.

Still the proximity of land became evident. Strange signs filled the air.

Suddenly the mist parted like a curtain torn by the wind, and for a moment, brief as a flash of lightning, a great burst of flame could be seen rising towards the sky.

“The volcano! the volcano!” was the cry which escaped from the lips of all; but the strange vision disappeared at once; the wind shifted to the southeast, took the launch on her quarter, and drove her from this unapproachable land.

“Malediction!” said Hatteras, shifting her sail; “we were not three miles from land!”

Hatteras could not resist the force of the tempest; but without yielding to it, he brought the boat about in the wind, which was blowing with fearful violence. Every now and then the launch leaned to one side, so that almost her whole keel was exposed; still she obeyed her rudder, and rose like a stumbling horse which his rider brings up by spur and reins.

Hatteras, with his hair flying and his hand on the tiller, seemed to be part of the boat, like horse and man at the time of the centaurs.

Suddenly a terrible sight presented itself to their eyes.

Within less than ten fathoms a floe was balancing on the waves; it fell and rose like the launch, threatening in its fall to crush it to atoms.

But to this danger of being plunged into the abyss was added another no less terrible; for this drifting floe was covered with white bears, crowded together and wild with terror.

“Bears! bears!” cried Bell, in terror.

And each one gazed with terror. The floe pitched fearfully, sometimes at such an angle that the bears were all rolled together. Then their roars were almost as loud as the tempest; a formidable din arose from the floating menagerie.

If the floe had upset, the bears would have swum to the boat and clambered aboard.

For a quarter of an hour, which was as long as a century, the launch and floe drifted along in consort, twenty fathoms from one another at one moment and nearly running together the next, and at times they were so near to one another, the bears need only have dropped to have got on board. The Greenland dogs trembled from terror; Duke remained motionless.

Hatteras and his companions were silent; it did not occur to them to put the helm down and sail away, and they went straight on. A vague feeling, of astonishment rather than terror, took possession of them; they admired this spectacle which completed the struggle of the elements.

Finally the floe drifted away, borne by the wind, which the launch was able to withstand, as she lay with her head to the wind, and it disappeared in the mist, its presence being known merely by the distant roaring of the bears.

At that moment the fury of the tempest redoubled; there was an endless unchaining of atmospheric waves; the boat, borne by the waves, was tossed about giddily; her sail flew away like a huge white bird; a whirlpool, a new Maelstrom, formed among the waves; the boat was carried so fast that it seemed to the men as if the rapidly revolving water were motionless. They were gradually sinking down. There was an irresistible power dragging them down and ingulfing them alive.

All five arose. They looked at one another with terror. They grew dizzy. They felt an undefinable dread of the abyss!

But suddenly the launch arose perpendicularly. Her prow was higher than the whirling waves; the speed with which she was moving hurled her beyond the centre of attraction, and escaping by the tangent of this circumference which was making more than a thousand turns a second, she was hurled away with the rapidity of a cannon-ball.

Altamont, the doctor, Johnson, and Bell were thrown down among the seats.

When they rose, Hatteras had disappeared.

It was two o'clock in the morning.