The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Hatteras/Chapter IV

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The 5th of April, the day of departure, came. The fact that the doctor had joined the expedition gave some comfort to those on board. Wherever he could go they could follow. Still, most of the sailors were very uneasy, and Shandon, fearing that their number might be diminished by desertion, was very anxious to get to sea. The land once out of sight, the men would soon be resigned.

Dr. Clawbonny's cabin was situated on the poop, occupying the extreme after-part of the ship. The cabins of the captain and mate opened on the deck. That of the captain was kept tightly closed, after it had been provided with various instruments, furniture, clothing, books, and utensils, all of which had been set down in detail in a letter. As he had asked, the key was sent to the captain at Lübeck; so he alone had admission into the cabin.

This fact annoyed Shandon, and diminished his chances of having chief command. As for his own cabin, he had arranged it suitably for the presumed voyage, for he knew very well what was necessary for a polar expedition.

The second mate's cabin was on the lower deck, where the sailors were domiciled; the crew had very comfortable quarters; they would hardly have had such accommodations in any other ship. They were treated as if they were a valuable cargo; a huge stove stood in the middle of their sleeping-room.

Dr. Clawbonny was very enthusiastic about it; he took possession of his cabin on the 6th of February, the day after the ship was launched.

“The happiest animal in the world,” he used to say, “would be a snail who could make himself just such a shell as he wanted; I shall try to be an intelligent snail.”

And, in fact, for a shell which he was not going to leave for some time, his cabin presented a very comfortable appearance; the doctor took a scientific or childlike pleasure in arranging his scientific paraphernalia. His books, his specimens, his cases, his instruments, his physical apparatus, his thermometers, barometers, field-glasses, compasses, sextants, charts, drawings, phials, powder, and medicine-bottles, all were classified in a way which would have done honor to the British Museum. This space of six feet square contained incalculable wealth; the doctor needed only to stretch out his hand without rising, to become at once a physician, a mathematician, an astronomer, a geographer, a botanist, or a conchologist.

To tell the truth, he was proud of his arrangements, and very contented in his floating sanctum, which three of his thinnest friends would have completely filled. They used to crowd there in great numbers, so that even so good-natured a man as the doctor was occasionally put out; and, like Socrates, he came at last to say,—

“My house is small, but may Heaven grant that it never be filled with friends!”

To complete our account of the Forward, it is only necessary to add that a kennel for the huge Danish dog was built just beneath the window of the closed cabin; but he preferred to keep himself between decks and in the hold; it seemed impossible to tame him; no one ever conquered his shyness; he could be heard, at night especially, howling dismally in the ship's hold.

Was it because he missed his master? Had he an instinctive dread of the dangers of the voyage? Had he a presentiment of the coming perils? The sailors were sure that he had, and more than one said the same in jest, who in his heart regarded the dog as a sort of diabolic animal.

Pen, a very brutal man, one day, while trying to kick him, slipped, and fell on the corner of the capstan in such a way that he cut his head badly. It is easy to see how the sailors put all the blame upon the dog.

Clifton, who was the most superstitious man in the crew, made, one day, the strange observation that the dog, when on the poop, would always walk on the windward side; and afterwards, when the brig was at sea and under sail, this singular animal would shift his position to the other side after every tack, so as to be windward, as the captain of the Forward would have done.

Dr. Clawbonny, who by his gentleness and caresses would have almost tamed the heart of a tiger, tried in vain to make friends with the dog; he met with no success.

The dog, too, did not answer to any of the usual names of his kind. So the men used to call him “Captain,” for he seemed perfectly familiar with all the ways on shipboard. He had evidently been to sea before.

It is hence easy to understand the boatswain's answer to Clifton's friend, and how this idea found but few sceptics; more than would repeat it jestingly, who was fully prepared to see the dog, some fine day, take human shape, and with a loud voice assume command.

If Richard Shandon did not share such apprehensions, he was far from being undisturbed, and on the eve of departing, on the night of April 5th, he was talking on this subject with the doctor. Wall, and Johnson, in the mess-room.

These four persons were sipping their tenth grog, which was probably their last, too; for, in accordance with the letter from Aberdeen, all the crew, from the captain to the stoker, were tee-totalers, never touching beer, wine, nor spirits, except in case of sickness, and by the advice of the doctor.

For an hour past they had been talking about their departure. If the captain's instructions were to be completely carried out, Shandon would the next day receive a letter containing his last orders.

“If that letter,” said the mate, “doesn't tell me the captain's name, it must at least tell us whither we are bound. If not, in what direction shall we sail?”

“Upon my word,” answered the impatient doctor, “if I were in your place, Shandon, I should set sail even without getting a letter; one will come after us, you may be sure.”

“You have a great deal of faith. Doctor. But, if you please, to what part of the world would you sail?”

“Towards the North Pole, of course; there can be no doubt about that.”

“No doubt indeed!” said Wall. “Why not towards the South Pole?”

“The South Pole! Never!” cried the doctor. “Would the captain ever have thought of sending a brig across the whole Atlantic Ocean? Just think for a moment, my dear Wall.”

“The doctor has an answer for everything,” was his only reply.

“Granted it's northward,” resumed Shandon. “But tell me, Doctor, is it to Spitzbergen, Greenland, or Labrador that we have to sail, or to Hudson's Bay? If all these routes come to the same end at last,—the impassable ice,—there is still a great number of them, and I should find it very hard to choose between them. Have any definite answer to that. Doctor?”

“No,” answered the doctor, annoyed that he had nothing to say; “but if you get no letter, what shall you do?”

“I shall do nothing; I shall wait.”

“You won't set sail!” cried Clawbonny, twirling his glass in his despair.

“No, certainly not.”

“That's the best course,” said Johnson, mildly; while the doctor walked around the table, being unable to sit quiet any longer. “Yes, that's the best course; and still, too long a delay might have very disastrous consequences. In the first place, the season is a good one, and if it's north we are going, we ought to take advantage of the mild weather to get through Davis Straits; besides, the crew will get more and more impatient; the friends and companions of the men are urging them to leave the Forward, and they might succeed in playing us a very bad turn.”

“And then, too,” said James Wall, “if any panic should arise among the men, every one would desert us; and I don't know, Commander, how you could get together another crew.”

“But what is to be done?” cried Shandon.

“What you said,” answered the doctor: “wait; but wait till to-morrow before you despair. The captain's promises have all been fulfilled so far with such regularity that we may have the best hopes for the future; there's no reason to think that we shall not be told of our destination at the proper time. As for me, I don't doubt in the least that to-morrow we shall be sailing in the Irish Sea. So, my friends, I propose one last drink to a happy voyage; it begins in a mysterious way, but, with such sailors as you, there are a thousand chances of its ending well.”

And they all touched their glasses for the last time.

“Now, Commander,” resumed Johnson, “I have one piece of advice to give you, and that is, to make everything ready for sailing. Let the crew think you are certain of what you are about. To-morrow, whether a letter comes or not, set sail; don't start your fires; the wind promises to hold; nothing will be easier than to get off; take a pilot on board; at the ebb of the tide leave the docks; then anchor beyond Birkenhead Point; the crew will have no more communication with the land; and if this devilish letter does come at last, it can find us there as well as anywhere.”

“Well said, Johnson!” exclaimed the doctor, reaching out his band to the old sailor.

“That's what we shall do,” answered Shandon. Each one then withdrew to his cabin, and took what sleep he could get till morning.

The next day the first distribution of letters took place in the city, but there was none for Commander Richard Shandon.

Nevertheless he made his preparations for departure; the news spread immediately throughout the city, and, as we have seen, a great concourse of spectators thronged the piers of the New Prince's Docks.

A great many people came on board the brig,—some to bid a friend good by, or to urge him to leave the ship, or to gaze at this strange vessel; others to ascertain the object of the voyage; and there were many murmurs at the unusual silence of the commander.

For that he had his reasons.

Ten o'clock struck. Eleven, The tide was to turn at half past twelve. Shandon, from the upper deck, gazed with anxious eyes at the crowd, trying in vain to read on some one's face the secret of his fate. But in vain. The sailors of the Forward obeyed his orders in silence, keeping their eyes fixed upon him, ever awaiting some information which he did not give.

Johnson was finishing the preparations for setting sail. The day was overcast, and the sea, outside of the docks, rather high; a stiff southwest breeze was blowing, but they could easily leave the Mersey.

At twelve o'clock still nothing. Dr. Clawbonny walked up and down uneasily, looking about, gesticulating, and “impatient for the sea,” as he said. In spite of all he could do, he felt excited. Shandon bit his lips till the blood came.

At this moment Johnson came up to him and said,—

“Commander, if we are going to take this tide, we must lose no time; it will be a good hour before we can get off from the docks.”

Shandon cast one last glance about him, and looked at his watch. It was after the time of the midday distribution of letters.

“Cast off!” he said to his boatswain.

“All ashore who are going!” cried the latter, ordering the spectators to leave the deck of the Forward.

Thereupon the crowd, began to move toward the gangway and make its way on to the quay, while the crew began to cast off the last moorings.

At once the inevitable confusion of the crowd, which was pushed about without much ceremony by the sailors, was increased by the barking of the dog. He suddenly sprang from the forecastle right through the mass of visitors, barking sullenly.

All made way for him. He sprang on the poop-deck, and, incredible as it may seem, yet, as a thousand witnesses can testify, this dog-captain carried a letter in his mouth.

“A letter!” cried Shandon; “but is he on board?”

He was, without doubt, but he's not now,” answered Johnson, showing the deck cleared of the crowd.

“Here, Captain! Captain!” shouted the doctor, trying to take the letter from the dog, who kept springing away from him. He seemed to want to give the letter to Shandon himself.

“Here, Captain!” he said.

The dog went up to him; Shandon took the letter without difficulty, and then Captain barked sharply three times, amid the profound silence which prevailed on board the ship and along the quay.

Shandon held the letter in his hand, without opening it.

“Read it, read it!” cried the doctor. Shandon looked at it. The address, without date or place; ran simply,—“Commander Richard Shandon, on board the brig Forward.”

Shandon opened the letter and read:—

You will sail towards Cape Farewell. You will reach it April 20. If the captain does not appear on board, you will pass through Davis Strait and go up Baffin's Bay as far as Melville Sound.

Captain of the Forward.

Shandon folded carefully this brief letter, put it in his pocket, and gave the order to cast off. His voice, which arose alone above the roaring of the wind, sounded very solemn.

Soon the Forward had left the docks, and under the care of a pilot, whose boat followed at a distance, put out into the stream. The crowd hastened to the outer quay by the Victoria Docks to get a last look at the strange vessel. The two topsails, the foresail, and staysail were soon set, and under this canvas the Forward, which well deserved its name, after rounding Birkenhead Point, sailed away into the Irish Sea.