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

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After this solid conversation every one made himself as comfortable as possible in the cavern, and soon fell asleep.

Every one, that is, except Hatteras. Why did not this strange man sleep?

Was not the object of his life attained? Had he not accomplished the bold projects which lay so near his heart? Why did not calmness succeed the agitation in his ardent mind? Would not one suppose that, when he had accomplished this end, Hatteras would fall into a sort of dejection, and that his overstretched nerves would seek repose? After succeeding, it would seem natural that he should be seized with the feeling of sadness, which always follows satisfied desires.

But no. He was only more excited. It was not, however, the thought of returning which agitated him so. Did he wish to go farther? Was there no limit to his ambition, and did he find the world too small, because he had been around it?

However this may have been, he could not sleep. And yet this first night spent at the pole of the world was pleasant and quiet. The island was absolutely uninhabited. There was not a bird in its fire-impregnated atmosphere, not an animal on the soil of cinders, not a fish in its boiling waters. Only afar off the dull murmur of the mountain, from the summit of which arose puffs of hot smoke.

When Bell, Johnson, Altamont, and the doctor awoke, Hatteras was not to be seen near them. Being anxious, they left the cave, and saw the captain standing on a rock. His eyes were fixed on the top of the volcano. He held his instruments in his hands, having evidently born calculating the exact height of the mountain.

The doctor went up to him and spoke to him several times before he could rouse him from his revery. At last the captain seemed to understand him.

“Forward!” said the doctor, who was examining him attentively,—“forward! let us explore our island; we are all ready for our last excursion.”

“Our last,” said Hatteras, with the intonation of people who are dreaming aloud; “yes, the last, indeed. But also,” he continued with great animation, “the most wonderful!”

He spoke in this way, rubbing his hands over his brow as if to allay its throbbing.

At that moment, Altamont, Johnson, and Bell joined him; Hatteras appeared to awaken from his revery.

“My friends,” he said with emotion, “thanks for your courage, thanks for your perseverance, thanks for your superhuman efforts, which have allowed us to set foot on this land!”

“Captain!” said Johnson, “we have only obeyed; all the honor is due to you alone!”

“No, no!” resumed Hatteras with emotion; “to you as much to me! to Altamont as well as to all of us! as to the doctor himself—0, let my heart well over in your hands! It can no longer restrain its joy and gratitude!”

Hatteras clasped the hands of his companions. He walked to and fro, no longer master of himself.

“We have only done our duty as Englishmen,” said Bell.

“Our duty as friends,” continued the doctor.

“Yes,” said Hatteras, “but all have not performed this duty. Some have given way! Still, they must be pardoned, both who were treacherous, and those who were led away to it! Poor men! I forgive them. You understand me, Doctor?”

“Yes,” answered the doctor, who was very uneasy at Hatteras's excitement.

“So,” went on the captain, “I don't want them to lose the money they came so far to seek. No, I shall not alter my plan; they shall be rich,—if they ever see England again!”

Few could have withstood the tenderness with which Hatteras spoke these last words.

“But, Captain,” said Johnson, with an effort at pleasantry, “one would say you were making your will.”

“Perhaps I am,” answered Hatteras, seriously.

“Still you have before you a long and glorious life,” continued the old sailor.

“Who can say?” said Hatteras.

A long silence followed these words. The doctor did not dare to try to interpret the last remark. But Hatteras soon expressed his meaning, for in a hasty, hardly restrained voice, he went on:

“My friends, listen to me. We have done a good deal so far, and yet there is a good deal to do.”

His companions gazed at him in astonishment.

“Yes, we are on the land of the Pole, but we are not on the Pole itself!”

“How so?” asked Altamont.

“You don't mean it!” cried the doctor, anxiously.

“Yes!” resumed Hatteras, earnestly, “I said that an Englishman should set foot on the Pole; I said it, and an Englishman shall do it.”

“What!” ejaculated the doctor.

“We are now forty-five seconds from the unknown point,” Hatteras went on, with increasing animation; “where it is, I am going!”

“But that is the top of the volcano!” said the doctor.

“I'm going!”

“It's an inaccessible spot!”

“I'm going!”

“It's a fiery crater!”

“I'm going!”

The firmness with which Hatteras uttered these words cannot be given. His friends were stupefied; they gazed with horror at the volcano tipped with flame.

Then the doctor began; he urged and besought Hatteras to give up his design; he said everything he could imagine, from entreaty to well-meant threats; but he obtained no concession from the nervous captain, who was possessed with a sort of madness which may be called polar madness.

Only violent means could stop him, rushing to his ruin. But seeing that thereby they would produce serious results, the doctor wished to keep them for a last resource.

He hoped, too, that some physical impossibility, some unsurmountable difficulty, would compel him to give up his plan.

“Since it is so,” he said, “we shall follow you.”

“Yes,” answered the captain, “half-way up the mountain! No farther! Have n't you got to carry back to England the copy of the document which proves our discovery, in case—”

“Still—”

“It is settled,” said Hatteras, in a tone of command; “and since my entreaties as a friend are not enough, I order it as captain.”

The doctor was unwilling to urge him any further, and a few moments later the little band, equipped for a hard climb, and preceded by Duke, set out.

The sky was perfectly dear. The thermometer stood at 52°. The air had all the brilliancy which is so marked at this high latitude. It was eight o'clock in the morning.

Hatteras went ahead with his dog, the others followed close behind.

“I'm anxious,” said Johnson.

“No. no, there's nothing to fear,” answered the doctor; “we are here.”

It was a strange island, in appearance so new and singular! The volcano did not seem old, and geologists would have ascribed a recent date to its formation.

The rocks were heaped upon one another, and only kept in place by almost miraculous balancing. The mountain, in fact, was composed of nothing but stones that had fallen from above. There was no soil, no moss, no lichen, no trace of vegetation. The carbonic acid from the crater had not yet had time to unite with the hydrogen of the water; nor the ammonia of the clouds, to form under the action of the light, organized matter.

This island had arisen from successive volcanic eruptions, like many other mountains; what they have hurled forth has built them up. For instance, Etna has poured forth a volume of lava larger than itself; and the Monte Nuovo, near Naples, was formed by ashes in the short space of forty-eight hours.

The heap of rocks composing Queen's Island had evidently come from the bowels of the earth. Formerly the sea covered it all; it had been formed long since by the condensation of the vapor on the cooling globe; but in proportion as the volcanoes of the Old and New World disappeared, they were replaced by new craters.

In fact, the earth can be compared to a vast spheroidal boiler. Under the influence of the central fire an immense quantity of vapor is generated, which is exposed to a pressure of thousands of atmospheres, and which would blow up the globe, were it not for the safety-valves opening on the outside.

These safety-valves are the volcanoes; when one closes, another opens; and at the poles, where, doubtless in consequence of the flattening of the earth's surface, the crust is thinner, it is not strange that a volcano should be suddenly formed by the upheaval of the bottom of the waves.

The doctor noticed all this as he followed Hatteras; his foot sank into a volcanic tufa, and the deposits of ashes, volcanic stones, etc., like the syenite and granite of Iceland.

But he attributed a comparatively recent origin to the island, on account of the fact that no sedimentary soil had yet formed upon it.

Water, too, was lacking. If Queen's Island had existed for several years, there would have been springs upon it, as there are in the neighborhood of volcanoes. Now, not only was there no drop of water there, but the vapors which arose from the stream of lava seemed absolutely anhydrous.

This island, then, was of recent formation; and since it appeared in one day, it might disappear in another and sink beneath the ocean.

The ascent grew more difficult the higher they went; the sides of the mountain became nearly perpendicular, and they had to be very careful to avoid accident. Often columns of cinders were blown about them and threatened to choke them, or torrents of lava barred their path. On some such places these streams were hard on top, but the molten stream flowed beneath. Each one had to test it first to escape sinking into the glowing mass.

From time to time the crater vomited forth huge red-hot rocks amid burning gases; some of these bodies burst in the air like shells, and the fragments were hurled far off in all directions.

The innumerable dangers of this ascent may be readily perceived, as well as the foolhardiness of the attempt.

Still, Hatteras climbed with wonderful agility, and while spurning the use of his iron-tipped staff, he ascended the steepest slopes.

He soon reached a circular rock, which formed a sort of plateau about ten feet broad; a glowing stream surrounded it, which was divided at the corner by a higher rock, and left only a narrow passage through which Hatteras slipped boldly.

There he stopped, and his companions were able to join him. Then he seemed to estimate the distance yet remaining; horizontally there were only about six hundred feet of the crater remaining, that is to say, from the mathematical point of the Pole; but vertically they had fifteen hundred feet yet to climb.

The ascent had already taken three hours; Hatteras did not seem tired; his companions were exhausted.

The top of the volcano seemed inaccessible. The doctor wished at any risk to keep Hatteras from going higher. At first he tried gentle means, but the captain's excitement amounted to delirium; on the way he had exhibited all the signs of growing madness, and whoever has known him in the different scenes of his life cannot be surprised. In proportion as Hatteras rose above the ocean his excitement increased; he lived no longer with men; he thought he was growing larger with the mountain itself.

“Hatteras,” said the doctor, “this is far enough! we can't go any farther!”

“Stay where you are, then,” answered the captain in a strange voice; “I shall go higher!”

“No! that's useless! you are at the Pole here!”

“No, no, higher!”

“My friend, it's I who am speaking to you, Dr. Clawbonny! Don't you know me?”

“Higher! higher!” repeated the madman.

“Well, no, we sha' n't let—”

The doctor had not finished the sentence before Hatteras, by a violent effort, sprang over the stream of lava and was out of their reach.

They uttered a cry, thinking Hatteras was lost in the fiery abyss; but he had reached the other side, followed by Duke, who was unwilling to abandon him.

He disappeared behind a puff of smoke, and his voice was heard growing fainter and fainter in the distance.

“To the north!” he was shouting, “to the top of Mount Hatteras! Do you remember Mount Hatteras?”

They could not think of getting up to him; there were twenty chances to one against their being able to cross the stream he had leaped over with the skill and luck of madmen. Nor could they get around it. Altamont in vain tried to pass; he was nearly lost in trying to cross the stream of lava; his companions were obliged to hold him by force.

“Hatteras, Hatteras!” shouted the doctor.

But the captain did not answer; Duke's barking alone was heard upon the mountain.

Still, Hatteras could be seen at intervals through the column of smoke and the showers of cinders. Sometimes his arm or head would emerge from the whirlwind. Then he would disappear and be seen again higher up in the rocks. His height diminished with the fantastic swiftness of objects rising in the air. Half an hour later he seemed but a fraction of his usual size.

The air was filled with the dull noises of the volcano; the mountain was roaring like a boiler, its sides were quivering. Hatteras kept on, and Duke followed.

From time to time some enormous rock would give way beneath them and go crashing down to the sea.

But Hatteras did not look back. He had made use of his staff as a pole on which to fasten the English flag. His companions observed every one of his movements. His dimensions became gradually smaller, and Duke seemed no larger than a rat.

One moment the wind seemed to drive down upon them a great wave of flame. The doctor uttered a cry of anguish, but Hatteras reappeared, standing and brandishing the flag.

This sight lasted for more than an hour,—an hour of struggle with the trembling rocks, with the beds of ashes into which this madman would sink up to the waist. Now he would be climbing on his knees mid making use of every inequality in the mountain, and now he would hang by his bands at some sharp corner, swinging in the wind like a dry leaf.

At last he reached the top, the yawning mouth of the crater. The doctor then hoped that the wretched man, having attained his object, would perhaps return and have only those dangers before him.

He gave a last shout.

“Hatteras, Hatteras!”

The doctor's cry moved the American's heart so that he cried out,—

“I will save him!”

Then with one leap crossing the fiery torrent at the risk of falling in, he disappeared among the rocks.

Clawbonny did not have time to stop him.

Still, Hatteras, having reached the top, was climbing on top of a rock which overhung the abyss. The stones were raining about him. Duke was still following him. The poor beast seemed already dizzy at the sight beneath him. Hatteras whirling about his head the flag, which was lighted with the brilliant reflection, and the red bunting could be seen above the crater.

With one hand Hatteras was holding it; with the other he was pointing to the zenith, the celestial pole. Still he seemed to hesitate. He was seeking the mathematical point where all the meridians meet, and on which in his sublime obstinacy he wanted to set his foot.

Suddenly the rock gave way beneath him. He disappeared. A terrible cry from his companions rose even to the summit of the mountain. A second—a century—passed! Clawbonny considered his friend lost and buried forever in the depths of the volcano. But Altamont was there, and Duke too. The man and the dog had seized him just when he was disappearing in the abyss. Hatteras was saved, saved in spite of himself, and half an hour later the captain of the Forward lay unconscious in the arms of his despairing friends.

When he came to himself, the doctor gave him a questioning glance in mute agony. But his vague look, like that of a blind man, made no reply.

“Heavens!” said Johnson, “he is blind!”

“No,” answered Clawbonny,—“no! My poor friends, we have saved Hatteras's body! His mind is at the top of the volcano! He has lost his reason!”

“Mad?” cried Johnson and Altamont in deep distress.

“Mad!” answered the doctor.

And he wept bitterly.