The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Hatteras/Chapter IX

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The Polar Circle was crossed at last; on the 30th of April, at midday, the Forward passed by Holsteinborg; picturesque mountains arose in the east. The sea appeared almost free of ice, or, more exactly, the ice could be avoided. The wind was from the southeast, and the brig, under foresail, staysail, and topsails, sailed up Baffin's Bay.

That day was exceptionally calm and the crew was able to get some rest; numerous birds were swimming and flying about the ship; among others, the doctor noticed some wild birds which were very like teal, with black neck, wings, and back, and a white breast; they were continually diving, and often remained more than forty seconds under water.

This day would not have been marked by any new incident, if the following extraordinary fact had not taken place.

At six o'clock in the morning, on returning to his cabin after his watch was over, Richard Shandon found on his table a letter, addressed as follows:—

To Commander Richard Shandon,
On board the Forward,
Baffin's Bay.

Shandon could not believe his eyes; but before reading it, he summoned the doctor, James Wall, and the boatswain, and showed them the letter.

“It's getting interesting,” said Johnson.

“It's delightful,” thought the doctor.

“Well,” cried Shandon, “at last we shall know his secret.” He tore open the envelope rapidly, and read the following:—

Commander: The captain of the Forward is satisfied with the coolness, skill, and courage which the crew, officers, and you, yourself, have shown of late; he begs of you to express his thanks to the crew.

Be good enough to sail due north towards Melville Bay, and thence try to penetrate into Smith's Sound.

K. Z.,
Captain of the Forward.

Monday, April 30, Off Cape Walsingham.

“And is that all?” cried the doctor.

“That's all,” answered Shandon.

The letter fell from his hands.

“Well,” said Wall, “this imaginary captain says nothing about coming on board. I don't believe he ever will.”

“But how did this letter get here?” asked Johnson.

Shandon was silent.

“Mr. Wall is right,” answered the doctor, who had picked up the letter, and who was turning it over with hands as well as in his mind. “The captain won't come on board, and for an excellent reason.”

“What is it?” asked Shandon, quickly.

“Because he's on board now,” answered the doctor, simply.

“Now!” exclaimed Shandon, “what do you mean?”

“How else can you explain the arrival of this letter?”

Johnson nodded approvingly.

“Impossible!” said Shandon, warmly. “I know all the men in the crew; can he have smuggled himself into their number since we left? It's impossible, I tell you. For more than two years I've seen every one of them more than a hundred times in Liverpool; so your conjecture, Doctor, is untenable.”

“Well, what do you admit, Shandon?”

“Everything, except that. I admit that the captain or some tool of his, for all I know, may have taken advantage of the darkness, the mist, or whatever you please, to slip on board; we are not far from shore; there are the kayaks of the Esquimaux which could get through the ice without our seeing them; so some one may have come on board the ship, left the letter,—the fog was thick enough to make this possible.”

“And to prevent them from seeing the brig,” answered the doctor; “if we did n't see the intruder slip aboard the Forward how could he see the Forward in the fog?”

“That's true,” said Johnson.

“So I return to my explanation,” said the doctor; “what do you think of it, Shandon?”

“Whatever you please,” answered Shandon, hotly, “except that the man is on board.”

“Perhaps,” added Wall, “there is some man in the crew who is acting under his instructions.”

“Perhaps,” said the doctor.

“But who can it be?” asked Shandon. “I've known all my men for a long time.”

“At any rate,” resumed Johnson, “if this captain presents himself, whether as man or devil, we shall receive him; but there's something else to be drawn from this letter.”

“What is that?” asked Shandon.

“It is that we must go not only into Melville Bay, but also into Smith's Sound.”

“You are right,” said the doctor.

“Smith's Sound,” repeated Shandon, mechanically.

“So it's very plain,” continued Johnson, “that the Forward is not intended to seek the Northwest Passage, since we leave to the left, the only way towards it, that is to say, Lancaster Sound. This would seem to promise a difficult journey in unknown seas.”

“Yes, Smith's Sound,” replied Shandon; “that's the route Kane, the American, took in 1853, and it was full of dangers. For a long time he was given up for lost. Well, if we must go, we'll go. But how far? To the Pole?”

“And why not?” cried the doctor.

The mention of such a foolhardy attempt made the boatswain shrug his shoulders.

“Well,” said James Wall, “to come back to the captain, if he exists. I don't see that there are any places on the coast of Greenland except Disco and Upernavik, where he can be waiting for us; in a few days that question will be settled.”

“But,” asked the doctor of Shandon, “are you not going to tell the crew about this letter?”

“With the commander's permission,” answered Johnson, “I should not do so.”

“And why not?” asked Shandon.

“Because everything mysterious and extraordinary tends to discourage the men; they are already very much troubled, as it is, about the nature of the journey. Now, if any supernatural circumstances should become known, it might be harmful, and perhaps at a critical moment we should not be able to count on them. What do you think, Commander?”

“And what do you think. Doctor?” asked Shandon.

“Boatswain Johnson seems to me to reason well,” answered the doctor.

“And you, James?”

“Having no better opinion I agree with these gentlemen.”

Shandon reflected for a few minutes; he reread the letter attentively.

“Gentlemen,” said he, “your opinion is certainly worthy of respect, but I cannot adopt it.”

“Why not, Shandon?” asked the doctor.

“Because the instructions in this letter are formal; it tells me to give the captain's thanks to the crew; now, hitherto I have strictly obeyed his orders, in whatever way they have been given to me, and I cannot—”

“Still—” interposed Johnson, who had a warrantable dread of the effect of such communications on the men's spirits.

“My dear Johnson,” said Shandon, “I understand your objection; your reasons are very good, but read that:—

“He begs of you to express his thanks to the crew.”

“Do as he bids,” replied Johnson, who was always a strict disciplinarian. “Shall I assemble the crew on deck?”

“Yes,” answered Shandon.

The news of a message from the captain was immediately whispered throughout the ship. The sailors took their station without delay, and the commander read aloud the mysterious letter.

It was received with dead silence; the crew separated under the influence of a thousand suppositions; Clifton had plenty of material for any superstitious vagaries; a great deal was ascribed by him to the dog-captain, and he never failed to salute him every time he met him.

“Did n't I tell you,” he used to say to the sailors, “that he knew how to write?”

No one made any answer, and even Bell, the carpenter, would have found it hard to reply.

Nevertheless, it was plain to every one, that if the captain was not on board, his shade or spirit was watching them; henceforth, the wisest kept their opinions to themselves.

At midday of May 1st, their observation showed them that they were in latitude 68° and longitude 56°32'. The temperature had risen, the thermometer standing at 25° above zero.

The doctor amused himself with watching the gambols of a she-bear and two cubs on some pack-ice near the shore. Accompanied by Wall and Simpson, he tried to chase them in a canoe; but she was in a very peaceful mood, and ran away with her young, so that the doctor had to give up his attempt.

During the night a favorable breeze carried them well to the north, and soon the lofty mountains of Disco were peering above the horizon; Godharn Bay, where the governor of the Danish settlements lived, was left on the right. Shandon did not consider it necessary to land, and he soon passed by the canoes of the Esquimaux, who had put out to meet him.

The island of Disco is also called Whale Island; it is from here that, on the 12th of July, 1845, Sir John Franklin wrote to the Admiralty for the last time, and it was also here that Captain MacClintock stopped on his way back, bringing too sure proofs of the loss of that expedition.

This coincidence was not unknown to the doctor; the place was one of sad memories, but soon the heights of Disco were lost to view.

There were many icebergs on its shores, which no thaws ever melt away; this gives the island a singular appearance from the sea.

The next day, at about three o'clock, Sanderson's Hope appeared in the northeast; land lay about fifteen miles to starboard; the mountains appeared of a dusky red hue. During the evening many fin-backs were seen playing in the ice, and occasionally blowing.

It was in the night of May 3d, that the doctor for the first time saw the sun touch the horizon without setting: since January 31st its orbit had been getting longer every day, and now there was unbroken daylight.

For those who were unaccustomed to it, this continuance of the day is a cause of perpetual surprise, and even of weariness; it is difficult to believe how necessary the darkness of the night is for the eyes; the doctor actually suffered from the continual brilliancy, which was increased by the reflection from the ice.

May 5th the Forward passed the sixty-second parallel. Two months later they would have met numerous whalers in these latitudes; but the straits were not yet free enough to allow easy ingress into Baffin's Bay.

The next day, the brig, after passing Woman's Island, came in sight of Upernavik, the northernmost station of Denmark in these lands.