The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Hatteras/Chapter XXXI

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They resumed their journey; the mind of every one was filled with new and unexpected ideas, for to meet any one in these regions is about the most remarkable event that can happen. Hatteras frowned uneasily.

“The Porpoise!” he kept saying to himself; “what ship is that? And what is it doing so near the Pole?”

At the thought, he shuddered. The doctor and Bell only thought of the two results which might follow the discovery of this document, that they might be of service in saving some one, or, possibly, that they might be saved by them; But the difficulties, obstacles, and dangers soon returned, and they could only think of their perilous position.

Simpson's condition grew worse; the doctor could not be mistaken about the symptoms of a speedy death. He could do nothing; he was himself suffering from a painful ophthalmia, which might be accompanied by deafness if he did not take care. The twilight at that time gave light enough, and this light, reflected by the snow, was bad for the eyes; it was hard to protect them from the reflection, for glasses would be soon covered with a layer of ice which rendered them useless. Hence they had to guard carefully against accident by the way, and they had to run the risk of ophthalmia; still, the doctor and Bell covered their eyes and took turns in guiding the sledge. It ran far from smoothly on its worn runners; it became harder and harder to drag it; their path grew more difficult; the land was of volcanic origin, and all cut up with craters; the travellers had been compelled gradually to ascend fifteen hundred feet to reach the top of the mountains. The temperature was lower, the storms were more violent, and it was a sorry sight to see these poor men on these lonely peaks.

They were also made sick by the whiteness of everything; the uniform brilliancy tired them; it made them giddy; the earth seemed to wave beneath their feet with no fixed point on the immense white surface; they felt as one does on shipboard when the deck seems to be giving way beneath the foot; they could not get over the impression, and the persistence of the feeling wearied their heads. Their limbs grew torpid, their minds grew dull, and often they walked like men half asleep; then a slip or a sudden fall would rouse them for a few moments from their sluggishness.

January 25th they began to descend the steep slopes, which was even more fatiguing; a false step, which it was by no means easy to avoid, might hurl them down into deep ravines where they would certainly have perished. Towards evening a violent tempest raged about the snowy summit; it was impossible to withstand the force of the hurricane; they had to lie down on the ground, but so low was the temperature that they ran a risk of being frozen to death at once.

Bell, with Hatteras's aid, built with much difficulty a snowhouse, in which the poor men sought shelter; there they partook of a few fragments of pemmican and a little hot tea; only four gallons of alcohol were left; and they had to use this to allay their thirst, for snow cannot be absorbed if taken in its natural state; it has to be melted first. In the temperate zone, where the cold hardly ever sinks much below the freezing-point, it can do no harm; but. beyond the Polar Circle it is different; it reaches so low a temperature that the bare hand can no more touch it than it can iron at a white heat, and this, although it is a very poor conductor of heat; so great is the difference of temperature between it and the stomach that its absorption produces real suffocation. The Esquimaux prefer severe thirst to quenching it with this snow, which does not replace water, and only augments the thirst instead of appeasing it. The only way the travellers could make use of it was by melting it over the spirit-lamp.

At three in the morning, when the tempest was at its height, the doctor took his turn at the watch; he was lying in a corner of the hut when a groan of distress from Simpson attracted his attention; he arose to see to him, but in rising he hit his head sharply against the icy roof; without paying any attention to that, he bent over Simpson and began to rub his swollen, discolored legs; after doing this for a quarter of an hour he started to rise, and bumped his head again, although he was on his knees.

“That's odd,” he said to himself.

He raised his hand above his head; the roof was perceptibly sinking.

“Great God!” he cried; “wake up, my friends!”

At his shouts Hatteras and Bell arose quickly, striking their heads against the roof; they were in total darkness.

“We shall be crushed!” said the doctor; “let's get out!”

And all three, dragging Simpson after them, abandoned their dangerous quarters; and it was high time, for the blocks of ice, ill put together, fell with a loud crash.

The poor men found themselves then without shelter against the hurricane. Hatteras attempted to raise the tent, but it was impossible, so severe was the wind, and they had to shelter themselves beneath the canvas, which was soon covered with a thick layer of snow; but this snow prevented the radiation of their warmth and kept them from being frozen to death.

The storm lasted all night; Bell, when he was harnessing the half-starved dogs, noticed that three of them had begun to eat the leather straps; two were very sick and seemed unable to go on. Still, they set out as well as they could; they had sixty miles between them and the point they wished to reach.

On the 26th, Bell, who was ahead, shouted suddenly to his companions. They ran towards him, and he pointed with astonishment to a gun resting on a piece of ice.

“A gun!” cried the doctor.

Hatteras took it; it was in good condition, and loaded.

“The men of the Porpoise can't be far off.”

Hatteras, as he was examining the gun, noticed that it was of American make; his hands clinched nervously its barrel.

“Forward!” he said calmly.

They continued to descend the mountains. Simpson seemed deprived of all feeling; he had not even strength left to moan.

The tempest continued to rage; the sledge went on more and more slowly; they made but a few miles in twenty-four hours, and, in spite of the strictest economy, their supplies threatened to give out; but so long as enough was left to carry them back, Hatteras pushed on.

On the 27th they found, partly buried beneath the snow, a sextant and then a flask, which contained brandy, or rather a piece of ice, in the middle of which all the spirit of the liquor had collected in the form of snow; it was of no use.

Evidently, without meaning it, Hatteras was following in the wake of some great disaster; he went on by the only possible route, collecting the traces of some terrible shipwreck. The doctor kept a sharp lookout for other cairns, but in vain.

Sad thoughts beset him: in fact, if he should discover these wretches, of what service could he be to them? He and his companions were beginning to lack everything; their clothing was torn, their supplies were scanty. If the survivors were many, they would all starve to death. Hatteras seemed inclined to flee from them! Was he not justified, since the safety of the crew depended upon him? Ought he to endanger the safety of all by bringing strangers on board?

But then strangers were men, perhaps their countrymen! Slight as was their chance of safety, ought they to be deprived of it? The doctor wanted to get Bell's opinion; but Bell refused to answer. His own sufferings had hardened his heart. Clawbonny did not dare ask Hatteras: so he sought aid from Providence.

Towards the evening of that day, Simpson appeared to be failing fast; his cold, stiff limbs, his impeded breathing, which formed a mist about his head, his convulsive movements, announced that his last hour had come. His expression was terrible to behold; it was despairing, with a look of impotent rage at the captain. It contained a whole accusation, mute reproaches which were full of meaning, and perhaps deserved.

Hatteras did not go near the dying man. He avoided him, more silent, more shut into himself than ever!

The following night was a terrible one; the violence of the tempest was doubled; three times the tent was thrown over, and snow was blown over the suffering men, blinding them, and wounding them with the pieces torn from the neighboring masses. The dogs barked incessantly. Simpson was exposed to all the inclemency of the weather. Bell succeeded in again raising the canvas, which, if it did not protect them from the cold, at least kept off the snow. But a sudden squall blew it down for the fourth time and carried it away with a fierce blast.

“Ah, that is too much!” shouted Bell.

“Courage, courage!” answered the doctor, stooping down to escape being blown away.

Simpson was gasping for breath. Suddenly, with a last effort, he half rose, stretched his clinched fist at Hatteras, who was gazing steadily at him, uttered a heart-rending cry, and fell back dead in the midst of his unfinished threat.

“Dead!” said the doctor.

“Dead!” repeated Bell.

Hatteras, who was approaching the corpse, drew back before the violence of the wind.

He was the first of the crew who succumbed to the murderous climate, the first to offer up his life, after incalculable sufferings, to the captain's persistent obstinacy. This man had considered him an assassin, but Hatteras did not quail before the accusation. But a tear, falling from his eyes, froze on his pale cheek.

The doctor and Bell looked at him in terror. Supported by his long staff, he seemed like the genius of these regions, straight in the midst of the fierce blast, and terrible in his stern severity.

He remained standing, without stirring, till the first rays of the twilight appeared, bold and unconquerable, and seeming to defy the tempest which was roaring about him.