The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Hatteras/Chapter XXXII
Toward six o'clock in the morning the wind fell, and, shifting suddenly to the north, it cleared the clouds from the sky; the thermometer stood at -33°. The first rays of the twilight appeared on the horizon above which it would soon peer.
Hatteras approached his two dejected companions and said to them, sadly and gently,—
“My friends, we are more than sixty miles from the point mentioned by Sir Edward Belcher. We have only just enough food left to take us back to the ship. To go farther would only expose us to certain death, without our being of service to any one. We must return.”
“That is a wise decision, Hatteras,” answered the doctor; “I should have followed you anywhere, but we are all growing weaker every day; we can hardly set one foot before the other; I approve of returning.”
“Is that your opinion, Bell?” asked Hatteras.
“Yes, Captain,” answered the carpenter.
“Well,” continued Hatteras, “we will take two days for rest. That's not too much. The sledge needs a great many repairs. I think, too, we ought to build a snow-house in which we can repose.”
This being decided, the three men set to work energetically. Bell took the necessary precautions to insure the solidity of the building, and soon a satisfactory retreat arose at the bottom of the ravine where they had last halted.
It was doubtless after a hard struggle that Hatteras had decided to discontinue his journey. So much effort and fatigue thrown away! A useless trip, entailing the death of one of his men! To return without a scrap of coal: what would the crew say? What might it not do under the lead of Shandon? But Hatteras could not continue the struggle any longer.
He gave all his attention to their preparations for returning; the sledge was repaired; its load, too, had become much lighter, and only weighed two hundred pounds. They mended their worn-out, torn clothes, all soaked through and through by the snow; new moccasins and snow-shoes replaced those which were no longer serviceable. This kept them busy the whole of the 29th and the morning of the 30th; then they all sought what rest they could get, and prepared for what was before them.
During the thirty-six hours spent in or near the snow-house, the doctor had been noticing Duke, whose singular behavior did not seem to him to be natural; the dog kept going in circles which seemed to have a common centre; there was a sort of elevation in the soil, produced by accumulated layers of ice; Duke, as he ran around this place, kept barking gently and wagging his tail impatiently, looking at his master as if asking something.
The doctor, after reflecting a moment, ascribed this uneasiness to the presence of Simpson's corpse, which his companions had not yet had time to bury. Hence he resolved to proceed to this sad ceremony on that very day; the next morning they were to start. Bell and the doctor, picks in hand, went to the bottom of the ravine; the elevation which Duke had noticed offered a suitable place for the grave, which would have to be dug deep to escape the bears.
The doctor and Bell began by removing the soft snow, then they attacked the solid ice; at the third blow of his pick the doctor struck against some hard body; he picked up the pieces and found them the fragments of a glass bottle. Bell brought to light a stiffened bag, in which were a few crumbs of fresh biscuit.
“What's this?” said the doctor.
“What can it be?” asked Bell, stopping his work.
The doctor called to Hatteras, who came at once.
Duke barked violently, and with his paws tried to tear up the ice.
“Have we by any possibility come across a supply of provisions?” said the doctor.
“It looks like it,” answered Bell.
“Go on!” said Hatteras.
A few bits of food were found and a box quarter full of pemmican.
“If we have,” said Hatteras, “the bears have visited it before we did. See, these provisions have been touched already.”
“It is to be feared,” answered the doctor, “for—”
He did not finish his sentence; a cry from Bell interrupted him; he had turned over a tolerably large piece of ice and showed a stiff, frozen human leg in the ice.
“A corpse!” cried the doctor.
“It's a grave,” said Hatteras.
It was the body of a sailor about thirty years old, in a perfect state of preservation; he wore the usual dress of Arctic sailors; the doctor could not say how long he had been dead.
After this, Bell found another corpse, that of a man of fifty, exhibiting traces of the sufferings that had killed him.
“They were never buried,” cried the doctor; “these poor men were surprised by death as we find them.”
“You are right. Doctor,” said Bell.
“Go on, go on!” said Hatteras.
Bell hardly dared. Who could say how many corpses lay hidden here?
“They were the victims of just such an accident as we nearly perished by,” said the doctor; “their snow-house fell in. Let us see if one may not be breathing yet!”
The place was rapidly cleared away, and Bell brought up a third body, that of a man of forty; he looked less like a corpse than the others; the doctor bent over him and thought he saw some signs of life.
“He's alive!” he shouted.
Bell and he carried this body into the snow-house, while Hatteras stood in silence, gazing at the sunken dwelling.
The doctor stripped the body; it bore no signs of injury; with Bell's aid he rubbed it vigorously with tow dipped in alcohol, and he saw life gradually reviving within it; but the man was in a state of complete prostration, and unable to speak; his tongue clove to his palate as if it were frozen.
The doctor examined his patient's pockets; they were empty. No paper. He let Bell continue rubbing, and went out to Hatteras.
He found him in the ruined snow-house, clearing away the floor; soon he came out, bearing a half-burned piece of an envelope. A few words could be deciphered:—
.... w York.
“Altamont!” shouted the doctor, “of the Porpoise! of New York!”
“An American!” said Hatteras.
“I shall save him,” said the doctor; “I'll answer for it, and we shall find out the explanation of this puzzle.”
He returned to Altamont, while Hatteras remained pensive. The doctor succeeded in recalling the unfortunate man to life, but not to consciousness; he neither saw, heard, nor spoke, but at any rate he was alive!
The next morning Hatteras said to the doctor,—
“We must start.”
“All right, Hatteras! The sledge is not loaded; we shall carry this poor fellow back to the ship with us.”
“Very well,” said Hatteras. “But first let us bury these corpses.”
The two unknown sailors were placed beneath the ruins of the snow-house; Simpson's body took the place of Altamont's.
The three travellers uttered a short prayer over their companion, and at seven o'clock in the morning they set off again for the ship.
Two of the dogs were dead. Duke volunteered to drag the sledge, and he worked as resolutely as a Greenland dog.
For twenty days, from January 31st to February 19th, the return was very much like the first part of the journey. Save that it was in the month of February, the coldest of the whole year, and the ice was harder; the travellers suffered terribly from the cold, but not from the wind or snow-storm.
The sun reappeared for the first time January 31st; every day it rose higher above the horizon. Bell and the doctor were at the end of their strength, almost blind and quite lame; the carpenter could not walk without crutches. Altamont was alive, but continued insensible; sometimes his life was despaired of, but unremitting care kept him alive! And yet the doctor needed to take the greatest care of himself, for his health was beginning to suffer.
Hatteras thought of the Forward! In what condition was he going to find it? What had happened on board? Had Johnson been able to withstand Shandon and his allies? The cold had been terrible! Had they burned the ship? Had they spared her masts and keel?
While thinking of this, Hatteras walked on as if he had wished to get an early view of the Forward.
February 24th, in the morning, he stopped suddenly. Three hundred paces before him appeared a reddish glow, above which rose an immense column of black smoke, which was lost in the gray clouds of the sky.
“See that smoke!” he shouted.
His heart beat as if it would burst.
“See that smoke!” he said to his companions. “My ship is on fire!”
“But we are more than three miles from it,” said Bell. “It can't be the Forward!”
“Yes, but it is,” answered the doctor; “the mirage makes it seem nearer.”
“Let us run!” cried Hatteras.
They left the sledge in charge of Duke, and hastened after the captain. An hour later they came in sight of the ship. A terrible sight! The brig was burning in the midst of the ice, which was melting about her; the flames were lapping her hull, and the southerly breeze brought to Hatteras's ears unaccustomed sounds.
Five hundred feet from the ship stood a man raising his hands in despair; he stood there, powerless, facing the fire which was destroying the Forward.
The man was alone; it was Johnson.
Hatteras ran towards him.
“My ship! my ship!” he cried.
“You! Captain!” answered Johnson; “you! stop! not a step farther!”
“Well?” asked Hatteras with a terrible air.
“The wretches!” answered Johnson, “they've been gone forty-eight hours, after firing the ship!”
“Curse them!” groaned Hatteras.
Then a terrible explosion was heard; the earth trembled; the icebergs fell; a column of smoke rose to the clouds, and the Forward disappeared in an abyss of fire.
At that moment the doctor and Bell came up to Hatteras. He roused himself suddenly from his despair.
“My friends,” he said energetically, “the cowards have taken flight! The brave will succeed! Johnson, Bell, you are bold; Doctor, you are wise; as for me, I have faith! There is the North Pole! Come, to work!”
Hatteras's companions felt their hearts glow at these brave words.
And yet the situation was terrible for these four men and the dying man, abandoned without supplies, alone at the eighty-fourth degree of latitude, in the very heart of the polar regions.