The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Hatteras/Chapter XXVIII

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Hatteras did not wish to let his crew know about this new condition of affairs. He was right. If they had known that they were being driven towards the north with irresistible force, they would have given way to despair. The doctor knew this, and approved of the captain's silence.

Hatteras had kept to himself the impressions which this discovery had caused within him. It was his first moment of joy during these long months of struggle with the hostile elements. He was one hundred and fifty miles farther north; hardly eight degrees from the Pole! But he hid his joy so well that the doctor did not even suspect it; he asked himself why Hatteras's eye shone with so unusual a lustre; but that was all, and the natural reply to this question did not enter his head.

The Forward, as it approached the Pole, had drifted away from the coal which had been seen by Sir Edward Belcher; instead of a hundred miles, it would have to be sought two hundred and fifty miles farther south. Still, after a short discussion between Hatteras and Clawbonny, they determined to make the attempt.

If Belcher was right, and his accuracy could not be doubted, they would find everything just at he had left it. Since 1853, no new expedition had visited these remote continents. Few, if any, Esquimaux are found in this latitude. The disaster which had befallen at Beechey Island could not be repeated on the shores of North Cornwall. Everything seemed to favor an excursion across the ice.

They estimated that they would be gone forty days at the outside, and preparations were made by Johnson for that time of absence.

In the first place, he saw about the sledge; it was of the shape of those used in Greenland, thirty-five inches broad and twenty-four feet long. The Esquimaux sometimes make them fifty feet long. It was built of long planks, bent at each end, and kept in position by two strong cords. This shape adapted it to resist violent shocks. The sledge ran easily upon the ice; but before the snow had hardened, it was necessary to place two vertical frames near together, and being raised in this way, it could run on without cutting too much into the snow. Besides, by rubbing it with a mixture of sulphur and snow in the Esquimaux fashion, it ran very easily.

It was drawn by six dogs; they were strong in spite of their thinness, and did not appear to be injured by the severity of the winter; the harnesses of deerskin were in good condition; perfect reliance could be placed on the equipment, which the Greenlanders at Upernavik had sold in conscience. These six animals alone could draw a weight of two thousand pounds without inordinate fatigue.

They carried with them a tent, in case it should be impossible to build a snow-house; a large sheet of mackintosh to spread over the snow, so that it should not melt at contact with their bodies; and, last of all, many coverings of wool and buffalo-skin. In addition, they carried the Halkett-boat.

Their provisions consisted of five chests of pemmican, weighing four hundred and fifty pounds; a pound of pemmican was allotted for each man and dog; of the latter there were seven, including Duke; there were to be four men. They carried, besides, twelve gallons of spirits of wine, weighing nearly a hundred and fifty pounds; tea and biscuit, in proper amounts; a little portable kitchen, with a great many wicks; and much tow, ammunition, and four double-barrelled guns. The men of the party made use of Captain Parry's invention, and wore girdles of india-rubber in which the heat of the body and the motion in walking could keep tea, coffee, and water in a liquid state.

Johnson took special care of the preparation of snow-shoes, with their wooden frames and leathern straps; they served as skates; on thoroughly frozen spots deerskin moccasins could be worn with comfort; every man carried two pairs of each.

These preparations, which were so important because the omission of a single detail might have caused the ruin of the whole expedition, required four whole days. Every day at noon Hatteras took an observation of the ship's position; it was no longer drifting, and this had to be perfectly sure in order to secure their return.

Hatteras undertook to choose the four men who were to accompany him. It was not an easy decision to take; some it was not advisable to take, but then the question of leaving them on board had also to be considered. Still, the common safety demanded the success of this trip, and the captain deemed it right to choose sure and experienced men.

Hence Shandon was left out, but not much to his regret. James Wall was too ill to go. The sick grew no worse; their treatment consisted of repeated rubbing and strong doses of lemon-juice; this was easily seen to without th presence of the doctor being essential. Hence he enrolled himself among those who should go, and no voice was raised against it. Johnson would have gladly gone with the captain in his dangerous expedition; but Hatteras drew him to one side and said to him in an affectionate, almost weeping voice,—

“Johnson, you are the only man I can trust. You are the only officer with whom I can leave the ship. I must know that you are here to keep an eye on Shandon and the others. They are kept to the ship by the winter; but who can say what plans they are not capable of forming? You shall receive my formal instructions, which shall place the command in your hands. You shall take my place. We shall be absent four or five weeks at the most, and I shall be at ease having you here where I cannot be. You need wood, Johnson. I know it! But, as much as possible, spare my ship. Do you understand, Johnson?”

“I understand, Captain,” answered the old sailor, “and I will remain if you prefer it.”

“Thanks!” said Hatteras, pressing the boatswain's hand; and he added, “In case we don't come back, Johnson, wait till the next thaw, and try to push on to the Pole. If the rest refuse, don't think of us, but take the Forward back to England.”

“That is your wish, Captain?”

“It is,” answered Hatteras.

“Your orders shall be obeyed,” said Johnson, quietly.

The doctor regretted that his friend was not going to accompany him, but he was obliged to recognize the wisdom of Hatteras's plan.

His two other companions were Bell the carpenter, and Simpson. The first, who was sturdy, brave, and devoted, would be of great service in their camping in the snow; the other, although less resolute, nevertheless determined to take part in this expedition in which he might be of use as hunter and fisher.

So this detachment consisted of Hatteras, Clawbonny, Bell, Simpson, and the faithful Duke, making in all four men and seven dogs to be fed. A suitable amount of provisions was made ready.

During the early days of January the mean temperature was -33°. Hatteras waited impatiently for milder weather; he frequently consulted the barometer, but no confidence could be placed in this instrument, which in these high latitudes seems to lose some of its customary accuracy; in these regions there are many exceptions to the general laws of nature: for instance, a clear sky was not always accompanied by cold, nor did a fall of snow raise the temperature; the barometer was uncertain, as many explorers in these seas have noticed; it used to fall when the wind was from the north or east; when low it foretold fine weather; when high, rain or snow. Hence its indications could hardly be relied on.

Finally, January 5th an easterly breeze brought with it a rise in the thermometer of fifteen degrees, so that it stood at -18°. Hatteras resolved to start the next day; he could no longer endure seeing his ship torn to pieces before his eyes; the whole quarter-deck had been burned up.

So, January 6th, amid squalls of snow, the order to depart was given; the doctor gave his last words of advice to the sick; Bell and Simpson shook hands silently with their companions. Hatteras wanted to make a farewell speech to the men, but he saw nothing but angry faces around him. He fancied he saw an ironical smile playing about Shandon's lips. He held his peace. Perhaps he had a momentary pang at parting as he gazed at the Forward.

But it was too late for him to change his mind; the sledge, loaded and harnessed, was waiting on the ice; Bell was the first to move; the others followed. Johnson accompanied the travellers for a quarter of a mile; then Hatteras asked him to return, which he did after a long leave-taking. At that moment, Hatteras, turning for the last time towards the brig, saw the tops of her masts disappearing in the dark snow-clouds.