The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Hatteras/Chapter XXVI

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The bears, it seemed, could not be caught; a few seals were killed on the 4th, 5th, and 6th of November, and the wind shifted and the weather grew much milder; but the snow-drifts began again with incomparable severity. It became impossible to leave the ship, and it was hard to subdue the dampness. At the end of the week the condensers contained several bushels of ice.

The weather changed again November 15th, and the thermometer, under the influence of certain atmospheric conditions, sank to -24°. That was the lowest temperature they had yet observed. This cold would have been endurable in calm weather; but the wind was blowing at that time, and it seemed as if the air was filled with sharp needles.

The doctor regretted his captivity, for the snow was hardened by the wind, so as to make good walking, and he might have gone very far from the ship.

Still, it should be said that the slightest exercise in. so low a temperature is very exhausting. A man can perform hardly more than a quarter of his usual work; iron utensils cannot be touched; if the hand seizes them, it feels as if it were burned, and shreds of skin cleave to the object which had been incautiously seized.

The crew, being confined to the ship, were obliged to walk on the covered deck for two hours a day, where they had leave to smoke, which was forbidden in the common-room.

There, when the fire got low, the ice used to cover the walls and the intervals between the planks; every nail and bolt and piece of metal was immediately covered with a film of ice.

The celerity of its formation astonished the doctor. The breath of the men condensed in the air, and, changing from a fluid to a solid form, it fell about them in the form of snow. A few feet from the stove it was very cold, and the men stood grouped around the fire.

Still, the doctor advised them to harden themselves, and to accustom themselves to the cold, which was not so severe as what yet awaited them; he advised them to expose their skin gradually to this intense temperature, and he himself set the example; but idleness or numbness nailed most of them to their place; they refused to stir, and preferred sleeping in that unhealthy heat.

Yet, according to the doctor, there was no danger in exposing one's self to great cold after leaving a heated room; these sudden changes only inconvenience those who are in a perspiration; the doctor quoted examples in support of his opinion, but his lessons were for the most part thrown away.

As for John Hatteras, he did not seem to mind the inclement cold. He walked to and fro silently, never faster or slower. Did not the cold affect his powerful frame? Did he possess to a very great degree the principle of natural heat which he wanted his men to possess? Was he so bound up in his meditations that he was indifferent to outside impressions? His men saw him with great astonishment braving a temperature of -24°; he would leave the ship for hours, and come back without appearing to suffer from the cold.

“He's a singular man,” said the doctor to Johnson; “he astonishes me! He carries a glowing furnace within him! He is one of the strongest natures I ever saw!”

“The fact is,” answered Johnson, “he goes and comes and circulates in the open air, without dressing any more thickly than in the month of June.”

“0, it does n't make much difference what one wears!” answered the doctor; “what is the use of dressing warmly if one can't produce heat within himself? It's like trying to heat ice by wrapping it up in wool! But Hatteras does n't need it; he's built that way, and I should not be surprised if his side was as warm as the neighborhood of a glowing coal.”

Johnson, who was charged with clearing away the water-hole every morning, noticed that the ice was ten feet thick.

Almost every night the doctor could observe the magnificent auroras; from four o'clock till eight of the evening, the sky in the north was slightly lighted up; then this took a regular shape, with a rim of light yellow, the ends of which seemed to touch the field of ice. Gradually the brilliancy arose in the heavens, following the magnetic meridian, and appeared striped with black bands; jets of luminosity shot with varying brightness here and there; when it reached the zenith it was often composed of several arcs bathed in waves of red, yellow, or green light. It was a dazzling sight. Soon the different curves met in a single point, and formed crowns of celestial richness. Finally the arcs all crowded together, the splendid aurora grew dim, the intense colors faded away into pale, vague, uncertain tints, and this wonderful phenomenon vanished gradually, insensibly, in the dark clouds of the south.

It is difficult to realize the wonderful, magical beauty of such a spectacle in high latitudes, less than eight degrees from the pole; the auroras which are seen in the temperate zone give no idea of it; it seems as if Providence wished to reserve the greatest wonders for these regions.

Numerous mock-moons appeared also while the moon was shining, and a great many would appear in the sky, adding to the general brilliancy; often, too, simple lunar halos surrounded the moon with a circle of splendid lustre.

November 26th the tide rose very high, and the water came through the hole with great violence; the thick crust of ice seemed pushed up by the force of the sea, and the frequent cracking of the ice proclaimed the conflict that was going on beneath; fortunately the ship remained firm in her bed, but her chains worked noisily; it was as a precaution against just such an event, that Hatteras had made the brig fast.

The following days were still colder; a dense fog hid the sky; the wind tossed the snow about; it was hard to determine whether it came from the clouds or from the ice-fields; everything was in confusion.

The crew kept busy with various interior occupations, the principal one being the preparation of the grease and oil from the seal; it was frozen into blocks of ice, which had to be cut with a hatchet; it was broken into small fragments, which were as hard as marble; ten barrels full were collected. As may be seen, every vessel became nearly useless, besides the risk of its breaking when the contents froze.

The 28th the thermometer fell to -32°; there was only ten days' coal on board, and every one awaited with horror the moment when it should come to an end.

Hatteras, for the sake of economy, had the fire in the stove in the after-room put out; and from that time Shandon, the doctor, and he were compelled to betake themselves to the common-room of the crew. Hatteras was hence brought into constant communication with his men, who gazed at him with surly, dejected glances. He heard their fault-finding, their reproaches, even their threats, without being able to punish them. However, he seemed deaf to every remark. He never went near the fire. He remained in a corner, with folded arms, without saying a word.

In spite of the doctor's recommendations, Pen and his friends refused to take the slightest exercise; they passed whole days crouching about the stove or under their bedclothes; hence their health began to suffer; they could not react against the rigor of the climate, and scurvy soon made its appearance on board.

The doctor had long since begun to distribute, every morning, lemon-juice and lime pastilles; but these precautions, which were generally so efficacious, did very little good to the sick; and the disease, following its usual course, soon showed its most horrible symptoms.

Terrible indeed it was to see those wretches with their nerves and muscles contracted with pain! Their legs were fearfully swollen, and were covered with large bluish-black patches; their bleeding gums, their swollen lips, permitted them to utter only inarticulate sounds; their blood was poisoned, deprived of fibrine, and no longer carried life to the extremities.

Clifton was the first to be attacked by this cruel malady; soon Gripper, Brunton, and Strong had to keep to their hammocks. Those whom the illness spared could not avoid the sight of the sufferings of their friends; the common-room was the only place where they could stay; so it was soon transformed into a hospital, for of the eighteen sailors of the Forward, thirteen were soon down with scurvy. It seemed as if Pen would escape the contagion; his strong constitution preserved him; Shandon felt the first symptoms, but it went no further with him, and plenty of exercise soon restored him to good health.

The doctor tended his patients with the greatest devotion, and his heart would bleed at the sight of the sufferings he could not assuage. Still, he inspired as much cheerfulness as he could in the lonely crew; his words, his consolations, his philosophical reflections, his fortunate inventions, broke the monotony of those long days of suffering; he would read aloud to them; his wonderful memory kept him supplied with amusing anecdotes, while the men who were well stood pressing closely around the stove; but the groans of the sick, their complaints, and their cries of despair would continually interrupt him, and, breaking off in the middle of a story, he would become the devoted and attentive physician.

Besides, his health remained good; he did not grow thin; his corpulence stood him in better stead than the thickest raiment, and he used to say he was as well clad as a seal or a whale, who, thanks to their thick layers of fat, easily support the rigors of the winter.

Hatteras did not suffer physically or morally. The sufferings of the crew did not seem to depress him. Perhaps he would not let his emotions appear on his face, while an acute observer would have detected the heart of a man beneath this mask of iron.

The doctor analyzed him, studied him, and could not classify this strange organization, this unnatural temperament.

The thermometer fell still lower; the deck was entirely deserted; the Esquimaux dogs alone walked up and down it, barking dismally.

There was always a man on guard near the stove, who superintended putting on the coal; it was important not to let it go out; when the fire got low the cold crept into the room, formed on the walls, and the moisture suddenly condensed and fell in the form of snow on the unfortunate occupants of the brig.

It was among these terrible sufferings that they reached December 8th; that morning the doctor went as usual to look at the thermometer. He found the mercury entirely frozen in the bulb.

“Forty-four degrees below zero!” he said with terror.

And on that day the last piece of coal on board was thrown into the stove.