The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Hatteras/Chapter X

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Shandon, Dr. Clawbonny, Johnson, Foker, and Strong, the cook, got into one of the boats and made their way to shore.

The Governor, his wife and five children, all Esquimaux, received their visitors kindly. The doctor, who was the philologist of the party, knew enough Danish to establish friendly relations; moreover, Foker, the interpreter of the party as well as ice-master, knew a dozen or two words of the language of the Greenlanders; and with that number of words one can express a great deal, if he is not too ambitious.

The Governor was born on the island of Disco, and he has never left the place; he did the honors of his capital, which consisted of three wooden houses, for himself and the Lutheran minister, of a school, and shops which were supplied by what was cast upon the shore from wrecked ships. The rest of the town consisted of snow huts, into which the Esquimaux crawl through a single opening.

A great part of the population came out to meet the Forward and more than one of them went as far as the middle of the bay in his kayak, fifteen feet long and two broad at the widest part.

The doctor knew that the word Esquimaux meant”eater of raw fish“; but he knew too that this name is considered an insult in this country, so he forbore giving it to the inhabitants of Greenland.

And yet, from the oily sealskin clothes and boots, from their squat, fat figures, which make it hard to distinguish the men from the women, it was easy to declare the nature of their food; besides, like all fish-eating people, they were somewhat troubled by leprosy, but their general health was not impaired by it.

The Lutheran minister and his wife, with whom the doctor had promised himself an interesting talk, happened to be away on the shore of Proven, south of Upernavik; hence he was compelled to seek the company of the Governor. The chief magistrate did not appear to be very well informed: a little less, he would have been a fool; a little more, and he would have known how to read.

In spite of that, the doctor questioned him about the commerce, habits, and manners of the Esquimaux; and he learned, by means of gestures, that the seals were worth about forty pounds when delivered at Copenhagen; a bear-skin brought forty Danish dollars, the skin of a blue fox four, and of a white fox two or three dollars.

In order to make his knowledge complete, the doctor wanted to visit an Esquimaux hut; a man who seeks information is capable of enduring anything; fortunately the opening of these huts was too small, and the enthusiastic doctor could not get through. It was fortunate for him, for there is nothing more repulsive than the sight of that crowd of living and dead objects, of seal's bodies and Esquimaux-flesh, decayed fish and unclean clothing, which fill a Greenland hut; there is no window to renew that suffocating air; there is only a hole at the top of the cabin which lets the smoke out, but gives no relief to the stench.

Foker gave all these details to the doctor, but he none the less bewailed his portliness. He wanted to judge for himself these emanations sui generis.

“I am sure,” said he, “that one could get used to it in time.” In time shows clearly the doctor's character.

During these ethnographic studies on his part, Shandon was busying himself, according to his instructions, with procuring means of travel on the ice; he was obliged to pay four pounds for a sledge and six dogs, and the natives were reluctant to sell even at this price.

Shandon would have liked to engage Hans Christian, the skilful driver of the dogs, who accompanied Captain MacClintock, but Hans was then in Southern Greenland.

Then came up the great question of the day; was there at Upernavik a European awaiting the arrival of the Forward? Did the Governor know of any stranger, probably an Englishman, who had come into these latitudes? How recently had they seen any whalers or other ships?

To these questions the Governor answered that no stranger had landed on that part of the coast for more than ten months.

Shandon asked the names of the whalers which had last arrived; he recognized none. He was in despair.

“You must confess, Doctor, that it passes all comprehension,” he said to his companion. “Nothing at Cape Farewell! nothing at Disco! nothing at Upernavik!”

“Tell me in a few days from now, nothing at Melville Bay, my dear Shandon, and I will salute you as sole captain of the Forward.”

The boat returned to the brig towards evening, bringing back the visitors to the shore; Strong had bought several dozen eider-duck's eggs, which were twice as large as hen's eggs, and of a greenish color. It was not much, but it was very refreshing for a crew accustomed to little but salt meat.

The next day the wind was fair, but yet Shandon did not set sail; he wanted to wait another day, and, to satisfy his conscience, to give time for any member of the human race to rejoin the Forward; he even fired off, every hour, the ship's gun, which re-echoed among the icebergs; but he only succeeded in frightening the flocks of molly-mokes[1] and rotches.[1] During the night many rockets were set off; but in vain. He had to give the order to set sail.

The 8th of May, at six o'clock in the morning, the Forward, under her topsails, foresail, and main-top-gallant-sail, soon lost sight of the station of Upernavik, and hideous long poles on which were hanging along the shore the seals' entrails and deers' stomachs.

The wind was southeast, the thermometer stood at 32°. The sun pierced through the fog and the ice melted a little.

The reflection, however, injured the sight of many of the crew. Wolston, the armorer, Gripper, Clifton, and Bell were attacked by snow-blindness, which is very common in the spring, and which totally blinds many of the Esquimaux. The doctor advised all, the unharmed as well as the suffering, to cover their faces with a green veil, and he was the first to follow his own recommendation.

The dogs bought by Shandon at Upernavik were rather wild; but they soon got used to their new quarters, and Captain showed no dislike of his new companions; he seemed to know their ways. Clifton was not the last to remark that Captain seemed to be familiar with the dogs of Greenland. And they, always half starved on shore, only thought of making up for it when at sea.

The 9th of May the Forward passed within a few cable-lengths of the westernmost of the Baffin Islands. The doctor noticed many rocks between the islands and the mainland which were what are called crimson cliffs; they were covered with snow as red as carmine, which Dr. Kane says is of purely vegetable origin; Clawbonny wanted to examine this singular phenomenon, but the ice forbade their approaching them; although the temperature was rising, it was easy to see that the icebergs and ice-streams were accumulating toward the north of Baffin's Bay.

After leaving Upernavik the land presented a different appearance, and huge glaciers were sharply defined against the gray horizon. On the 10th the Forward left on its right Kingston Bay, near the seventy-fourth degree of latitude; Lancaster Sound opened into the sea many hundred miles to the west.

But then this vast expanse of water was hidden beneath enormous fields of ice, in which arose the hummocks, uniform as a homogeneous crystallization. Shandon had the furnace-fires lighted, and until the 11th of May the Forward advanced by a tortuous course, tracing with her smoke against the sky the path she was following through the water.

But new obstacles soon presented themselves; the passages were closing in consequence of the incessant crowding of the floating masses; every moment threatened to close up the clear water before the Forward, and if she were nipped, it would be hard to get her out. Every one knew it and was thinking about it.

Hence, on board of this ship without any definite aim, any known destination, which was blindly pushing on northward, some symptoms of hesitation began to appear; among these men accustomed to dangers, many, forgetting the advantages which were promised them, regretted having ventured so far. A certain demoralization became common, which was further increased by the fears of Clifton and the talk of two or three ringleaders, such as Pen, Gripper, Warren, and Wolston.

Exhausting fatigue was added to the moral disquiet of the crew, for, on the 12th of May, the brig was caught fast; the steam was of no avail. A path had to be cut through the ice. It was no easy task to manage the saws in the floes which were six or seven feet thick; when two parallel grooves had divided the ice for a hundred feet, it was necessary to break the part that lay between with axes and bars; next they had to fasten anchors in a hole made by a huge auger; then the crew would turn the capstan and haul the ship along by the force of their arms; the greatest difficulty consisted in driving the detached pieces beneath the floes, so as to give space for the vessel, and they had to be pushed under by means of long iron-headed poles.

Moreover, this continued toil with saws, capstan, and poles, all of which was persistent, compulsory, and dangerous, amid the dense fog or snow, while the air was so cold, and their eyes so exposed, their doubt so great, did much to weaken the crew of the Forward and to act on their imagination.

When sailors have to deal with a man who is energetic, bold, and determined, who knows what he wants, whither he is going, what aim he has in view, confidence animates them all in spite of themselves; they are firmly united to their leader, strong with his force and calm with his calmness. But on board of the brig they were aware of the commander's uncertainty, they knew that he hesitated before the unknown aim and destination. In spite of the energy of his character, his uncertainty was clearly to be seen by his uncertain orders, incomplete manœuvres, his sudden outbursts, and a thousand petty details which could not escape the sharp eyes of the crew.

And then, Shandon was not the captain of the ship, the master under God, which was enough to encourage the discussion of his orders; and from discussion to disobedience is but a short step.

The malcontents soon brought over to their number the first engineer, who, hitherto, had been a slave to his duty.

The 16th of May, six days after the Forward had reached the ice, Shandon had not made two miles to northward. They were threatened with being detained in the ice until the next season. Matters had a serious look.

Towards eight o'clock of the evening, Shandon and the doctor, accompanied by Garry, went out to reconnoitre the vast plains; they took care not to go too far from the ship, for it was hard to find any fixed points in this white solitude, which was ever changing in appearance. Refraction kept producing strange effects, much to the doctor's astonishment; at one place, where he thought he had but an easy jump before him, he had to leap some five or six feet; or else the contrary happened, and in either case the result was a tumble, which if not dangerous was at any rate painful, for the ice was as hard and slippery as glass.

Shandon and his two companions went out to seek a possible passage; three miles from the ship, they succeeded with some difficulty in ascending an iceberg about three hundred feet high. From that point nothing met their eyes but a confused mass, like the ruins of a vast city, with shattered monuments, overthrown towers, and prostrate palaces,—a real chaos. The sun was just peering above the jagged horizon, and sent forth long, oblique rays of light, but not of heat, as if something impassable for heat lay between it and this wild country.

The sea appeared perfectly covered as far as eye could reach.

“How shall we get through'?” asked the doctor.

“I don't know,” answered Shandon; “but we shall get through, if we have to blow our way through with powder. I certainly sha' n't stay in the ice till next spring.”

“But that happened to the Fox, and not far from here. Bah!” said the doctor; “we shall get through with a little philosophy. You will see that is worth all the machinery in the world.”

“I must say,” answered Shandon, “this year does not begin very well.”

“True, Shandon, and I notice also that Baffin's Bay seems to be returning to the state it was in before 1817.”

“Don't you think, Doctor, it has always been as it is now?”

“No, my dear Shandon, from time to time there have been great breakings of the ice which no one can explain; so, up to 1817 this sea was continually full, when an enormous sort of inundation took place, which cast the icebergs into the ocean, most of which reached the banks of Newfoundland. From that day Baffin's Bay was nearly free, and was visited by whalers.”

“So,” asked Shandon, “from that time voyages to the North became easier?”

“Incomparably; but for some years it has been noticed that the bay seems to be resuming its old ways and threatens to become closed, possibly for a long time, to sailors. An additional reason, by the way, for pushing on as far as possible. And yet it must be said, we look like people who are pushing on in unknown ways, with the doors forever closing behind us.”

“Would you advise me to go back?” asked Shandon, trying to read into the depths of the doctor's eyes.

“I! I have never retreated yet, and, even if we should never get back, I say go on. Still, I want to make it clear that if we act imprudently, we do it with our eyes open.”

“And you, Garry, what do you think about it?” asked Shandon of the sailor.

“I, Commander, should go straight on; I agree with Dr. Clawbonny; but do as you please; command, we shall obey.”

“They don't all talk as you do, Garry,” resumed Shandon; “they are not all ready to obey. And if they refuse to obey my orders?”

“I have given you my opinion, Commander,” answered Garry, coldly, “because you asked for it; but you are not obliged to follow it.”

Shandon did not answer; he scanned the horizon closely, and then descended with his companions to the ice-fields.

1^  Sea-birds common in these latitudes.