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The World of Ice By R. M. Ballantyne Characters: 18421

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Miscellaneous reflections-The coast of Greenland-Upernavik-News of the "Pole Star"-Midnight-day-Scientific facts and fairy-like scenes-Tom Singleton's opinion of poor old women-In danger of a squeeze-Escape.

In pursuance of his original intention, Captain Guy now proceeded through Davis' Straits into Baffin's Bay, at the head of which he intended to search for the vessel of his friend Captain Ellice, and afterwards prosecute the whale-fishery. Off the coast of Greenland many whalers were seen actively engaged in warfare with the giants of the Polar Seas, and to several of these Captain Guy spoke, in the faint hope of gleaning some information as to the fate of the Pole Star, but without success. It was now apparent to the crew of the Dolphin that they were engaged as much on a searching as a whaling expedition; and the fact that the commander of the lost vessel was the father of "young Mr. Fred," as they styled our hero, induced them to take a deep interest in the success of their undertaking.

This interest was further increased by the graphic account that honest John Buzzby gave of the death of poor Mrs. Ellice, and the enthusiastic way in which he spoke of his old captain. Fred, too, had, by his frank, affable manner and somewhat reckless disposition, rendered himself a general favourite with the men, and had particularly recommended himself to Mivins the steward (who was possessed of an intensely romantic spirit), by stating once or twice very emphatically that he (Fred) meant to land on the coast of Baffin's Bay, should the captain fail to find his father, and continue the search on foot and alone. There was no doubt whatever that poor Fred was in earnest, and had made up his mind to die in the search rather than not find him. He little knew the terrible nature of the country in which for a time his lot was to be cast, and the hopelessness of such an undertaking as he meditated. With boyish inconsiderateness he thought not of how his object was to be accomplished; he cared not what impossibilities lay in the way; but, with manly determination, he made up his mind to quit the ship and search for his father through the length and breadth of the land. Let not the reader smile at what he may perhaps style a childish piece of enthusiasm. Many a youth at his age has dreamed of attempting as great if not greater impossibilities. All honour, we say, to the boy who dreams impossibilities, and greater honour to him who, like Fred, resolves to attempt them! James Watt stared at an iron tea-kettle till his eyes were dim, and meditated the monstrous impossibility of making that kettle work like a horse; and men might (perhaps did) smile at James Watt then, but do men smile at James Watt now?-now that thousands of iron kettles are dashing like dreadful comets over the length and breadth of the land, not to mention the sea, with long tails of men and women and children behind them!

"That's 'ow it is, sir," Mivins used to say, when spoken to by Fred on the subject; "I've never bin in cold countries myself, sir, but I've bin in 'ot, and I knows that with a stout pair o' legs and a will to work, a man can work 'is way hanywhere. Of course there's not much of a pop'lation in them parts, I've heerd; but there's Heskimos, and where one man can live so can another, and what one man can do so can another-that's bin my hexperience, and I'm not ashamed to hown it, I'm not, though I do say it as shouldn't, and I honour you, sir, for your filleral detarmination to find your father, sir, and-"

"Steward!" shouted the captain down the cabin skylight.

"Yes, sir!"

"Bring me the chart."

"Yes, sir," and Mivins disappeared like a Jack-in-the-box from the cabin just as Tom Singleton entered it.

"Here we are, Fred," he said, seizing a telescope that hung over the cabin door, "within sight of the Danish settlement of Upernavik; come on deck and see it."

Fred needed no second bidding. It was here that the captain had hinted there would, probably, be some information obtained regarding the Pole Star, and it was with feelings of no common interest that the two friends examined the low-roofed houses of this out-of-the-way settlement.

In an hour afterwards the captain and first mate with our young friends landed amid the clamorous greetings of the entire population, and proceeded to the residence of the governor, who received them with great kindness and hospitality; but the only information they could obtain was that, a year ago, Captain Ellice had been driven there in his brig by stress of weather, and after refitting and taking in a supply of provisions, had set sail for England.

Here the Dolphin laid in a supply of dried fish, and procured several dogs, besides an Esquimau interpreter and hunter, named Meetuck.

Leaving this little settlement, they stood out once more to sea, and threaded their way among the ice, with which they were now well acquainted in all its forms, from the mighty berg, or mountain of ice, to the wide field. They passed in succession one or two Esquimau settlements, the last of which, Yotlik, is the most northerly point of colonization. Beyond this all was terra incognita. Here inquiry was again made through the medium of the Esquimau interpreter who had been taken on board at Upernavik, and they learned that the brig in question had been last seen beset in the pack, and driving to the northward. Whether or not she had ever returned they could not tell.

A consultation was now held, and it was resolved to proceed north, as far as the ice would permit, towards Smith's Sound, and examine the coast carefully in that direction.

For several weeks past there had been gradually coming over the aspect of nature a change, to which we have not yet referred, and which filled Fred Ellice and his friend, the young surgeon, with surprise and admiration. This was the long-continued daylight, which now lasted the whole night round, and increased in intensity every day as they advanced north. They had, indeed, often heard and read of it before, but their minds had utterly failed to form a correct conception of the exquisite calmness and beauty of the midnight-day of the north.

Every one knows that, in consequence of the axis of the earth not being perpendicular to the plane of its orbit round the sun, the poles are alternately directed more or less towards that great luminary during one part of the year, and away from it during another part. So that far north the days during the one season grow longer and longer until at last there is one long day of many weeks' duration, in which the sun does not set at all; and during the other season there is one long night, in which the sun is never seen. It was approaching the height of the summer season when the Dolphin entered the Arctic Regions, and, although the sun descended below the horizon for a short time each night, there was scarcely any diminution of the light at all, and, as far as one's sensations were concerned, there was but one long continuous day, which grew brighter and brighter at midnight as they advanced.

"How thoroughly splendid this is!" remarked Tom Singleton to Fred one night, as they sat in their favourite outlook, the main-top, gazing down on the glassy sea, which was covered with snowy icebergs and floes, and bathed in the rays of the sun; "and how wonderful to think that the sun will only set for an hour or so, and then get up as splendid as ever!"

The evening was still as death. Not a sound broke upon the ear save the gentle cries of a few sea-birds that dipped ever and anon into the sea, as if to kiss it gently while asleep, and then circled slowly into the bright sky again. The sails of the ship, too, flapped very gently, and a spar creaked plaintively, as the vessel rose and fell on the gentle undulations that seemed to be the breathing of the ocean. But such sounds did not disturb the universal stillness of the hour; neither did the gambols of yonder group of seals and walruses that were at play round some fantastic blocks of ice; nor did the soft murmur of the swell that broke in surf at the foot of yonder iceberg, whose blue sides were seamed with a thousand watercourses, and whose jagged pinnacles rose up like needles of steel into the clear atmosphere.

There were many bergs in sight, of various shapes and sizes, at some distance from the ship, which caused much anxiety to the captain, although they were only a source of admiration to our young friends in the main-top.

"Tom," said Fred, breaking a long silence, "it may seem a strange idea to you, but, do you know, I cannot help fancying that heaven must be something like this."

"I'm not sure that that's such a strange idea, Fred, for it has two of the characteristics of heaven in it-peace and rest."

"True; that didn't strike me. Do you know, I wish that it were always calm like this, and that we had no wind at all."

Tom smiled. "Your voyage would be a long one if that were to happen. I daresay the Esquimaux would join with you in the wish, however, for their kayaks and oomiaks are better adapted for a calm than a stormy sea."

"Tom," said Fred, breaking another long silenc

e, "you're very tiresome and stupid to-night, why don't you talk to me?"

"Because this delightful dreamy evening inclines me to think and be silent."

"Ah, Tom! that's your chief fault. You are always inclined to think too much and to talk too little. Now I, on the contrary, am always-"

"Inclined to talk too much and think too little-eh, Fred?"

"Bah! don't try to be funny, man; you haven't it in you. Did you ever see such a miserable set of creatures as the old Esquimau women are at Upernavik?"

"Why, what put them, into your head?" inquired Tom laughing.

"Yonder iceberg! Look at it! There's the nose and chin exactly of the extraordinary hag you gave your silk pocket-handkerchief to at parting. Now, I never saw such a miserable old woman as that before, did you?"

Tom Singleton's whole demeanour changed, and his dark eyes brightened as the strongly-marked brows frowned over them, while he replied, "Yes, Fred, I have seen old women more miserable than that. I have seen women so old that their tottering limbs could scarcely support them, going about in the bitterest November winds, with clothing too scant to cover their wrinkled bodies, and so ragged and filthy that you would have shrunk from touching it-I have seen such groping about among heaps of filth that the very dogs looked at and turned away from as if in disgust."

Fred was inclined to laugh at his friend's sudden change of manner; but there was something in the young surgeon's character-perhaps its deep earnestness-that rendered it impossible, at least for his friends, to be jocular when he was disposed to be serious. Fred became grave as he spoke.

"Where have you seen such poor wretches, Tom?" he asked, with a look of interest.

"In the cities, the civilized cities of our own Christian land. If you have ever walked about the streets of some of these cities before the rest of the world was astir, at gray dawn, you must have seen them shivering along and scratching among the refuse cast out by the tenants of the neighbouring houses. O Fred, Fred! in my professional career, short though it has been, I have seen much of these poor old women, and many others whom the world never sees on the streets at all, experiencing a slow, lingering death by starvation, and fatigue, and cold. It is the foulest blot on our country that there is no sufficient provision for the aged poor."

"I have seen those old women too," replied Fred, "but I never thought very seriously about them before."

"That's it-that's just it; people don't think, otherwise this dreadful state of things would not continue. Just listen now, for a moment, to what I have to say. But don't imagine that I'm standing up for the poor in general. I don't feel-perhaps I'm wrong," continued Tom thoughtfully-"perhaps I'm wrong-I hope not-but it's a fact, I don't feel much for the young and the sturdy poor, and I make it a rule never to give a farthing to young beggars, not even to little children, for I know full well that they are sent out to beg by idle, good-for-nothing parents. I stand up only for the aged poor, because, be they good or wicked, they cannot help themselves. If a man fell down in the street, struck with some dire disease that shrunk his muscles, unstrung his nerves, made his heart tremble, and his skin shrivel up, would you look upon him and then pass him by without thinking?"

"No," cried Fred in an emphatic tone, "I would not! I would stop and help him."

"Then, let me ask you," resumed Tom earnestly, "is there any difference between the weakness of muscle and the faintness of heart which is produced by disease, and that which is produced by old age, except that the latter is incurable? Have not these women feelings like other women? Think you that there are not amongst them those who have 'known better times'? They think of sons and daughters dead and gone, perhaps, just as other old women in better circumstances do. But they must not indulge such depressing thoughts; they must reserve all the energy, the stamina they have, to drag round the city-barefoot, it may be, and in the cold-to beg for food, and scratch up what they can find among the cinder heaps. They groan over past comforts and past times, perhaps, and think of the days when their limbs were strong and their cheeks were smooth; for they were not always 'hags.' And remember that once they had friends who loved them and cared for them, although they are old, unknown, and desolate now."

Tom paused and pressed his hand upon his flushed forehead.

"You may think it strange," he continued, "that I speak to you in this way about poor old women, but I feel deeply for their forlorn condition. The young can help themselves, more or less, and they have strength to stand their sorrows, with hope, blessed hope, to keep them up; but poor old men and old women cannot help themselves, and cannot stand their sorrows, and, as far as this life is concerned, they have no hope, except to die soon and easy, and, if possible, in summer time, when the wind is not so very cold and bitter."

"But how can this be put right, Tom?" asked Fred in a tone of deep commiseration. "Our being sorry for it and anxious about it (and you've made me sorry, I assure you) can do very little good, you know."

"I don't know, Fred," replied Tom, sinking into his usual quiet tone. "If every city and town in Great Britain would start a society, whose first resolution should be that they would not leave one poor old man or woman unprovided for, that would do it. Or if the Government would take it in hand honestly, that would do it."

"Call all hands, Mr. Bolton," cried the captain in a sharp voice. "Get out the ice-poles, and lower away the boats."

"Hallo! what's wrong?" said Fred, starting up.

"Getting too near the bergs, I suspect," remarked Tom. "I say, Fred, before we go on deck, will you promise to do what I ask you?"

"Well-yes, I will."

"Will you promise, then, all through your life, especially if you ever come to be rich or influential, to think of and for old men and women who are poor?"

"I will," answered Fred; "but I don't know that I'll ever be rich, or influential, or able to help them much."

"Of course you don't. But when a thought about them strikes you, will you always think it out, and, if possible, act it out, as God shall enable you?"

"Yes, Tom, I promise to do that as well as I can."

"That's right; thank you, my boy," said the young surgeon, as they descended the shrouds and leaped on deck.

Here they found the captain walking up and down rapidly, with an anxious expression of face. After taking a turn or two he stopped short, and gazed out astern.

"Set the stun'-sails, Mr. Bolton. The breeze will be up in a little, I think. Let the men pull with a will."

The order was given, and soon the ship was under a cloud of canvas, advancing slowly as the boats towed her between two large icebergs, which had been gradually drawing near to each other the whole afternoon.

"Is there any danger, Buzzby?" inquired Fred, as the sturdy sailor stood looking at the larger berg, with an ice-pole in his hands.

"Danger? ay, that there is, lad, more nor's agreeable, d'ye see. Here we are without a breath o' wind to get us on, right between two bergs as could crack us like a walnut. We can't get to starboard of 'em for the current, nor to larboard of 'em for the pack, as ye see, so we must go between them, neck or nothing."

The danger was indeed imminent. The two bergs were within a hundred yards of each other, and the smaller of the two, being more easily moved by the current probably, was setting down on the larger at a rate that bade fair to decide the fate of the Dolphin in a few minutes. The men rowed lustily, but their utmost exertions could move the ship but slowly. Aid was coming, however, direct from the hand of Him who is a refuge in the time of danger. A breeze was creeping over the calm sea right astern, and it was to meet this that the studding-sails had been set a-low and aloft, so that the wide-spreading canvas, projecting far to the right and left, had, to an inexperienced eye, the appearance of being out of all proportion to the little hull by which it was supported.

With breathless anxiety those on board stood watching the two bergs and the approaching breeze.

At last it came. A few cat's-paws ruffled the surface of the sea, distending the sails for a moment, then leaving them flat and loose as before. This, however, was sufficient; another such puff, and the ship was almost out of danger; but before it came the projecting summit of the smaller berg was overhanging the deck. At this critical moment the wind began to blow steadily, and soon the Dolphin was in the open water beyond. Five minutes after she had passed, the moving mountains struck with a noise louder than thunder; the summits and large portions of the sides fell with a succession of crashes like the roaring of artillery, just above the spot where the ship had lain not a quarter of an hour before; and the vessel, for some time after, rocked violently to and fro in the surges that the plunge of the falling masses had raised.

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