The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Hatteras/Chapter VI

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Soon more numerous flocks of birds, petrels, puffins, and others which inhabit those barren shores, gave token of their approach to Greenland. The Forward was moving rapidly northward, leaving behind her a long line of dark smoke.

Tuesday, the 17th of April, the ice-master caught the first sight of the blink[1] of the ice. It was visible at least twenty miles off to the north-northwest. In spite of some tolerably thick clouds it lighted up brilliantly all the air near the horizon. No one of those on board who had ever seen this phenomenon before could fail to recognize it, and they felt assured from its whiteness that this blink was due to a vast field of ice lying about thirty miles farther than they could see, and that it came from the reflection of its luminous rays.

Towards evening the wind shifted to the south, and became favorable; Shandon was able to carry sail, and as a measure of economy they extinguished the furnace fires. The Forward under her topsails, jib, and foresail, sailed on towards Cape Farewell.

At three o'clock on the 18th they made out an ice-stream, which, like a narrow but brilliant band, divided the lines of the water and sky. It was evidently descending rather from the coast of Greenland than from Davis Strait, for the ice tended to keep on the western side of Baffin's Bay. An hour later, and the Forward was passing through the detached fragments of the ice-stream, and in the thickest part the pieces of ice, although closely welded together, were rising and falling with the waves.

At daybreak the next morning the watch saw a sail; it was the Valkyria, a Danish corvette, sailing towards the Forward, bound to Newfoundland. The current from the strait became perceptible, and Shandon had to set more sail to overcome it.

At that moment the commander, the doctor, James Wall, and Johnson were all together on the poop-deck, observing the force and direction of the current. The doctor asked if it were proved that this current was felt throughout Baffin's Bay.

“There's no doubt of it,” answered Shandon; “and sailing-vessels have hard work in making headway against it.”

“And it's so much the harder,” added James Wall, “because it's met on the eastern coast of America, as well as on the western coast of Greenland.”

“Well,” said the doctor, “that serves to confirm those who seek a Northwest Passage. The current moves at the rate of about five miles an hour, and it is hard to imagine that it rises at the bottom of a gulf.”

“That is very likely. Doctor,” answered Shandon, “because, while this current flows from north to south, there is a contrary current in Behring Strait, which flows from south to north, and which must be the cause of this one.”

“Hence,” said the doctor, “you must admit that America is completely separated from the polar regions, and that the water from the Pacific skirts its whole northern coast, until it reaches the Atlantic. Besides, the greater elevation of the water of the Pacific is another reason for its flowing towards the European seas.”

“But,” said Shandon, “there must be some facts which support this theory; and if there are,” he added with gentle irony, “our learned friend must be familiar with them.”

“Well,” answered the latter, complacently, “if it interests you at all I can tell you that whales, wounded in Davis Strait, have been found afterwards on the coast of Tartary, still carrying a European harpoon in their side.”

“And unless they doubled Cape Horn, or the Cape of Good Hope,” answered Shandon, “they must have gone around the northern coast of America. There can be no doubt of that, Doctor.”

“And if you were not convinced, my dear Shandon,” said the doctor, smiling, “I could produce still other evidence, such as the floating wood with which Davis Strait is filled, larch, aspen, and other southern kinds. Now we know that the Gulf Stream could not carry them into the strait; and if they come out from it they must have got in through Behring Strait.”

“I am perfectly convinced, Doctor, and I must say it would be hard to maintain the other side against you.”

“See there,” said Johnson, “there's something that will throw light on this discussion. It's a large piece of wood floating on the water; if the commander will give us leave, we can put a rope about it, hoist it on board, and ask it the name of its country.”

“That's the way!” said the doctor; “after the rule we have the example.”

Shandon gave the necessary orders; the brig was turned towards the piece of wood, and soon the crew were hoisting it aboard, although not without considerable trouble.

It was the trunk of a mahogany-tree, eaten to its centre by worms, which fact alone made it light enough to float.

“This is a real triumph,” exclaimed the doctor, enthusiastically, “for, since the Atlantic currents could not have brought it into Davis Strait, since it could not have reached the polar waters from the rivers of North America, as the tree grows under the equator, it is evident that it must have come direct from Behring Strait. And besides, see those sea-worms which have eaten it; they belong to warm latitudes.”

“It certainly gives the lie to those who deny the existence of a Northwest Passage.”

“It fairly kills them,” answered the doctor. “See here, I'll give you the route of this mahogany-tree: it was carried to the Pacific Ocean by some river of the Isthmus of Panama or of Guatemala; thence the current carried it along the coast of America as far as Behring Strait, and so it was forced into the polar waters; it is neither so old nor so completely water-logged that we cannot set its departure at some recent date; it escaped all the obstacles of the many straits coming into Baffin's Bay, and being quickly seized by the arctic current it came through Davis Strait to be hoisted on board the Forward for the great joy of Dr. Clawbonny, who asks the commander's permission to keep a piece as a memorial.”

“Of course,” answered Shandon; “but let me tell you in my turn that you will not be the only possessor of such a waif. The Danish governor of the island of Disco—”

“On the coast of Greenland,” continued the doctor, “has a mahogany table, made from a tree found in the same way; I know it, my dear Shandon. Very well; I don't grudge him his table, for if there were room enough on board, I could easily make a sleeping-room out of this.”

On the night of Wednesday the wind blew with extreme violence; drift-wood was frequently seen; the approach to the coast became more dangerous at a time when icebergs are numerous; hence the commander ordered sail to be shortened, and the Forward went on under merely her foresail and forestay-sail.

The thermometer fell below the freezing-point. Shandon distributed among the crew suitable clothing, woollen trousers and jackets, flannel shirts, and thick woollen stockings, such as are worn by Norwegian peasants. Every man received in addition a pair of water-proof boots.

As for Captain, he seemed contented with his fur; he appeared indifferent to the changes of temperature, as if he were thoroughly accustomed to such a life; and besides, a Danish dog was unlikely to be very tender. The men seldom laid eyes on him, for he generally kept himself concealed in the darkest parts of the vessel.

Towards evening, through a rift in the fog, the coast of Greenland longitude 37°2'7". Through his glass the doctor was able to distinguish mountains separated by huge glaciers; but the fog soon cut out this view, like the curtain of a theatre falling at the most interesting part of a play.

On the morning of the 20th of April, the Forward found itself in sight of an iceberg one hundred and fifty feet high, aground in this place from time immemorial; the thaws have had no effect upon it, and leave its strange shape unaltered. Snow saw it; in 1829 James Ross took an exact drawing of it; and in 1851 the French lieutenant, Bellot, on board of the Prince Albert, observed it. Naturally the doctor wanted to preserve a memorial of the famous mountain, and he made a very successful sketch of it.

It is not strange that such masses should run aground, and in consequence become immovably fixed to the spot; as for every foot above the surface of the water they have nearly two beneath, which would give to this one a total height of about four hundred feet.

At last with a temperature at noon as low as 12°, under a snowy, misty sky, they sighted Cape Farewell. The Forward arrived at the appointed day; the unknown captain, if he cared to assume his place in such gloomy weather, would have no need to complain.

“Then,” said the doctor to himself, “there is this famous cape, with its appropriate name! Many have passed it, as we do, who were destined never to see it again! Is it an eternal farewell to one's friends in Europe You have all passed it, Frobisher, Knight, Barlow, Vaughan, Scroggs, Barentz, Hudson, Blosseville, Franklin, Crozier, Bellot, destined never to return home; and for you this cape was well named Cape Farewell!”

It was towards the year 970 that voyagers, setting out from Iceland, discovered Greenland. Sebastian Cabot, in 1498, went as high as latitude 56°; Gaspard and Michel Cotréal, from 1500 to 1502, reached latitude 60°; and in 1576 Martin Frobisher reached the inlet which bears his name.

To John Davis belongs the honor of having discovered the strait, in 1585; and two years later in a third voyage this hardy sailor, this great whaler, reached the sixty-third parallel, twenty-seven degrees from the Pole.

Barentz in 1596, Weymouth in 1602, James Hall in, 1605 and 1607, Hudson, whose name was given to the large bay which runs so far back into the continent of America, James Poole in 1611, went more or less far into the straits, seeking the North-west Passage, the discovery of which would have greatly shortened the route between the two worlds.

Baffin, in 1616, found in the bay of that name Lancaster Sound; he was followed in 1619 by James Monk, and in 1719 by Knight, Barlow, Vaughan, and Scroggs, who were never heard of again.

In 1776, Lieutenant Pickersgill, sent to meet Captain Cook, who tried to make his way through Behring Strait, reached latitude 68°; the next year. Young, on the same errand, went as far as Woman's Island.

Then came James Boss, who in 1818 sailed all around the shores of Baffin's Bay, and corrected the errors on the charts of his predecessors.

Finally, in 1819 and 1820, the famous Parry made his way into Lancaster Sound. In spite of numberless difficulties he reached Melville Island, and won the prize of five thousand pounds offered by act of Parliament to the English sailors who should cross the meridian at a latitude higher than the seventy-seventh parallel.

In 1826, Beechey touched at Chamisso Island; James Ross wintered, from 1829 to 1833, in Prince Regent's Inlet, and, among other important services, discovered the magnetic pole.

During this time Franklin, by a land-journey, defined the northern coast of America, from Mackenzie River to Turnagain Point; Captain Back followed the same route from 1823 to 1835; and these explorations were completed in 1839 by Dease, Simpson, and Dr. Rae.

At last, Sir John Franklin, anxious to discover the Northwest Passage, left England in 1845, with the Erebus and the Terror; he entered Baffin's Bay, and since his leaving Disco Island there has been no news of his expedition.

His disappearance started numerous search-expeditions, which have effected the discovery of the passage, and given the world definite information about the rugged coasts of the polar lands. The boldest sailors of England, France, and the United States hastened to these terrible latitudes; and, thanks to their exertions, the tortuous, complicated map of these regions has at last been placed in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society of London.

The strange history of these lands crowded on the imagination of the doctor, as he stood leaning on the rail, and gazing on the long track of the brig. The names of those bold sailors thronged into his memory, and it seemed to him that beneath the frozen arches of the ice he could see the pale ghosts of those who never returned.

1^  A peculiar and brilliant color of the air above a large expanse of ice.