The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Hatteras/Chapter XXI

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The temperature remained at 57° during July 3d and 4th; this was the highest temperature observed. But on Thursday, the 5th, the wind shifted to the southeast, with violent snow-squalls. The thermometer fell twenty-three degrees in the preceding night. Hatteras, indifferent to the hostility of the crew, gave the order to set sail. For thirteen days, ever since passing Cape Dundas, the Forward had not gone a single degree farther north; hence the party represented by Clifton was dissatisfied; their wishes, it is true, coincided with those of the captain. namely, that they should make their way through Wellington Channel, and they were all glad to be off once more.

It was with difficulty that sail was set; but having in the course of the night run up the mainsail and topsails, Hatteras plunged boldly into the ice, which the current was driving towards the south. The crew became very tired of this tortuous navigation, which kept them very busy with the sails.

Wellington Channel is not very broad; it lies between North Devon on the east and Cornwallis Island on the west; for a long time this island was considered a peninsula. It was Sir John Franklin who circumnavigated it, in 1846, from the western side, going about its northern coast.

The exploration of Wellington Channel was made in 1851, by Captain Penny, in the whale-ships Lady Franklin and Sophia; one of his lieutenants, Stewart, who reached Cape Beechey, latitude 76°20', discovered the open sea. The open sea! It was for that Hatteras longed.

“What Stewart found, I shall find,” he said to the doctor; “and I shall be able to get to the Pole under sail.”

“But,” answered the doctor, “don't you fear lest the crew—”

“The crew!” said Hatteras, coldly.

Then in a lower tone he murmured,—

“Poor men!” much to the doctor's surprise.

It was the first sentiment of this sort which he had ever noticed in the captain.

“No,” he went on warmly, “they must follow me, and they shall.”

Still, if the Forward need not fear collision with the ice-streams, she made but little way northward, being much delayed by contrary winds. With some difficulty they got by Capes Spencer and Innis, and Tuesday, the 10th, latitude 75° was at last reached, much to Clifton's joy.

The Forward was now at the very spot where the American ships, the Rescue and the Advance, commanded by Captain Haven, ran such terrible dangers. Dr. Kane accompanied this expedition; towards the end of September, 1850, these ships were caught in the ice, and carried with irresistible force into Lancaster Sound.

Shandon told James Wall about it in the presence of some of the men.

“The Advance and the Rescue,” he said, “were so tossed about by ice, that they could keep no fires on board; and yet the thermometer stood at 18° below zero. During the whole winter the crews were kept imprisoned, ready to abandon their ships, and for three weeks they did not take off their clothes! It was a terrible situation; after drifting a thousand miles, they were driven to the middle of Baffin's Bay!”

One may easily judge of the effect of such a narration on a crew already discontented.

While this conversation was going on, Johnson was talking with the doctor about an event which had taken place here; the doctor, at his request, told him the exact moment when the brig reached latitude 75°30'.

“There it is! there it is!” said Johnson, “there is that unlucky land!”

And so speaking, tears came into the boatswain's eyes.

“You mean Lieutenant Bellot's death,” said the doctor.

“Yes, sir, of that brave, good man!”

“And it was here, you say, that it took place?”

“Just here, on this part of the coast of North Devon. It was very great ill-luck, and this would not have happened if Captain Pullen had come on board sooner.”

“What do you mean, Johnson?”

“Listen, Doctor, and you will see by how slight a thread life is held. You know that Lieutenant Bellot had already made an expedition in search of Franklin, in 1850?”

“Yes; in the Prince Albert.”

“Well, in 1853, having returned to France, he got permission to sail in the Phœnix, in which I was a sailor, under Captain Inglefield. We came with the Breadalbane to carry supplies to Beechey Island.”

“Those which we did not find!”

“Exactly, Doctor. We arrived at Beechey Island at the beginning of August; the 10th of that month. Captain Inglefield left the Phœnix to rejoin Captain Pullen, who had been away for a month from his ship, the North Star. He intended on his return to send the Admiralty despatches to Sir Edward Belcher, who was wintering in Wellington Channel. Now, shortly after our captain's departure, Captain Pullen reached his ship. If he had only come back before Captain Inglefield had left! Lieutenant Bellot, fearing that our captain's absence might be a long one, and knowing that the Admiralty despatches were important, offered to carry them himself. He left the two ships under Captain Pullen's charge, and left August 12, with a sledge and an india-rubber canoe. He took with him Harvey, quartermaster of the North Star, and three sailors. Madden, David Hook, and me. We thought that Sir Edward Belcher would be somewhere near Cape Beecher, at the northern part of the channel; hence we made for that part in our sledge, keeping on the east bank. The first day we encamped three miles from Cape Innis; the next day we stopped on the ice nearly three miles from Cape Bowden. During the night, which was as bright as day, land being only three miles distant, Lieutenant Bellot determined to go and camp there; he tried to reach it in the canoe; a violent southeast breeze drove him back twice; Harvey and Madden tried in their turn, and with success; they carried a rope, and with it they established communication with the shore; three objects were carried across by it; but at the fourth attempt, we felt the ice moving away from us; Mr. Bellot shouted to his companions to loosen the rope, and we (the lieutenant, David Hook, and I) were carried to a great distance from the shore. Then a strong south-easter was blowing, and snow was falling. But we were, not in any great danger, and he might have been saved, since the rest of us were saved.”

Johnson stopped for a moment, and gazed at the ill-fated shore, then he went on:—

“After losing sight of our companions, we tried at first to shelter ourselves under the cover of our sledge, but in vain; then with our knives we began to cut a house in the ice. Mr. Bellot sat down for half an hour, and talked with us about the danger of our situation; I told him I was not afraid. ‘With God's protection,’ he said, ‘not a hair of our heads shall be hurt.’ I then asked him what time it was. He answered, `About quarter past six.' It was quarter past six in the morning of Thursday, August 18th. Then Mr. Bellot bound on his books, and said he wanted to go and see how the ice was moving; he was gone only four minutes, when I went to seek him behind the floe which sheltered us; but I did not find him, and, returning to our retreat, I saw his stick on the opposite side of a crevasse about three fathoms wide, where the ice was all broken. I shouted, but there was no answer. At that time the wind was blowing very hard. I searched all around, but I could find no trace of the poor lieutenant.”

“And what do you suppose became of him?” asked the doctor, who was much moved by this account.

“I suppose that when he left the shelter, the wind drove him into the crevasse, and that, being thickly clad, he could not swim to the surface. Dr. Clawbonny, I never felt worse in my life! I could not believe it! That brave officer fell a victim to his sense of duty! For you know that it was in order to obey Captain Pullen's instructions that he was trying to reach the land before the ice began to break! He was a brave man, liked by every one, faithful, courageous! All England mourned him, and even the Esquimaux, when they heard of his death from Captain Inglefield, when he returned from Pound Bay, did nothing but weep and repeat, `Poor Bellot! Poor Bellot!' ”

“But you and your companions, Johnson,” asked the doctor, much moved by this touching account,—“how did you manage to get to shore?”

“0, it was very simple! We remained twenty-four hours on the ice without food or fire, but finally we reached a firmly fastened ice-field; we sprang upon it, and with an oar we got near a floe capable of supporting us, and being controlled like a boat. In that way we reached the shore, but alone, without our brave officer.”

At the end of this account the Forward had passed by this fatal shore, and Johnson soon lost sight of the scene of this terrible catastrophe. The next day they left Griffin's Bay on the starboard, and two days later, Capes Grinnell and Helpman; finally, July 14th, they doubled Osborne Point, and the 15th the brig anchored in Baring Bay at the end of the channel. The navigation had not been very difficult; Hatteras found a sea nearly as free as that by which Belcher profited to go and winter with the Pioneer and Assistance in latitude 77°. That was his first winter, 1852—53, for the next he spent in Baring Bay, where the Forward now lay at anchor.

It was in consequence of the most terrible dangers and trials that he was obliged to abandon the Assistance in the midst of the eternal ice.

Shandon gave a full account of this catastrophe to the demoralized sailors. Was Hatteras aware of the treachery of his first officer? It is impossible to say, but, at any rate, he said nothing about it.

At the end of Baring Bay is a narrow canal uniting Wellington Channel with Queen's Strait. There the ice had accumulated very closely. Hatteras made vain efforts to get through the passages to the north of Hamilton Island; the wind was unfavorable; hence it was necessary to go between Hamilton and Cornwallis Islands; five precious days were lost in vain attempts. The air grew colder, and, July 19th, fell as low as 26°; the next day was warmer, but this harbinger of the arctic winter warned Hatteras not to linger longer. The wind seemed to blow steadily from the west and delayed his progress. And yet he was in haste to reach the point whence Stewart saw an open sea. The 19th he resolved to enter the channel at any price; the wind blew dead against the brig, which, with her screw, could have made headway against the violent snow-squalls, but Hatteras had before all to be economical with the fuel; on the other hand, the channel was too broad to permit of the brig being towed. Hatteras, without taking into account the fatigue of his crew, made use of a device which whalers often employ under similar circumstances. He lowered the small boats to the surface of the water, not letting them free from their tackle; then they were made fast, fore and aft; oars were put out, to starboard on one side and to port on the other; the men sat on the thwarts and rowed vigorously, so as to propel the brig against the wind.

The Forward made slight headway; this method of working was very fatiguing; the men began to murmur. For four days they advanced in that way, until July 23d, when they reached Baring Island, in Queen's Channel.

The wind was still unfavorable. The crew could go no farther. The doctor found the strength of the crew much pulled down, and he thought he detected the first symptoms of scurvy; he used every precaution against this terrible disease, having abundant supplies of lime-juice and chalk-pastilles.

Hatteras soon saw there was nothing more to be got from his crew; kindness and persuasion were fruitless; he resolved to employ severity, and, if need be, to be pitiless; he distrusted especially Richard Shandon, and even James Wall, who, however, never dared to speak too loud. Hatteras had on his side the doctor, Johnson, Bell, and Simpson; these were all devoted to him body and soul. Among the uncertain were Foker, Bolton, Wolston, the gunner, Brunton, the first engineer, who might at any moment declare against him. As to the others. Pen, Gripper, Clifton, and Warren, they openly meditated mutiny; they wanted to bring their companions over and compel the Forward to return to England.

Hatteras soon saw that he could get no more work from his dispirited crew, who now were worn out with fatigue from their hard work. For twenty-four hours they remained in sight of Baring Island without getting a foot forward. Still the weather grew colder, and in these high latitudes even July felt the influence of the approaching winter. The 24th, the thermometer fell to 22°. The young ice formed during the night to a depth of about half an inch; if snow should fall on it, it would soon be strong enough to bear the weight of a man. The sea soon acquired the turbid tint which indicates the formation of the first crystals.

Hatteras read aright these alarming signs; if the passes should close, he would be obliged to winter here, far from the aim of his voyage, and without even having seen that open sea which he must have got very near, according to the accounts of his predecessors. Hence he resolved to get on at any price a few degrees farther north; seeing that he could neither try rowing with his crew exhausted, nor going under sail with the wind always unfavorable, he ordered the fires to be lighted.