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   Chapter 8 No.8

The World of Ice By R. M. Ballantyne Characters: 17243

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Fred and the doctor go on an excursion in which, among other strange things, they meet with red snow and a white bear, and Fred makes his first essay as a sportsman.

But where were Fred Ellice and Tom Singleton all this time? the reader will probably ask.

Long before the game at football was suggested they had obtained leave of absence from the captain, and, loaded with game-bag, a botanical box and geological hammer, and a musket, were off along the coast on a semi-scientific cruise. Young Singleton carried the botanical box and hammer, being an enthusiastic geologist and botanist, while Fred carried the game-bag and musket.

"You see, Tom," he said as they stumbled along over the loose ice towards the ice-belt that lined the cliffs-"you see, I'm a great dab at ornithology, especially when I've got a gun on my shoulder. When I haven't a gun, strange to say, I don't feel half so enthusiastic about birds!"

"That's a very peculiar style of regarding the science. Don't you think it would be worth while communicating your views on the subject to one of the scientific bodies when we get home again. They might elect you a member, Fred."

"Well, perhaps I shall," replied Fred gravely; "but I say, to be serious, I'm really going to screw up my energies as much as possible, and make coloured drawings of all the birds I can get hold of in the Arctic Regions. At least, I would like to try."

Fred finished his remark with a sigh, for just then the object for which he had gone out to those regions occurred to him; and although the natural buoyancy and hopefulness of his feelings enabled him generally to throw off anxiety in regard to his father's fate, and join in the laugh, and jest, and game as heartily as any one on board, there were times when his heart failed him, and he almost despaired of ever seeing his father again, and these feelings of despondency had been more frequent since the day on which he witnessed the sudden and utter destruction of the strange brig.

"Don't let your spirits down, Fred," said Tom, whose hopeful and earnest disposition often reanimated his friend's drooping spirits; "it will only unfit you for doing any good service. Besides, I think we have no cause yet to despair. We know that your father came up this inlet, or strait, or whatever it is, and he had a good stock of provisions with him, according to the account we got at Upernavik, and it is not more than a year since he was there. Many and many a whaler and discovery ship has wintered more than a year in these regions. And then, consider the immense amount of animal life all round us. They might have laid up provisions for many months long before winter set in."

"I know all that," replied Fred, with a shake of his head; "but think of yon brig that we saw go down in about ten minutes."

"Well, so I do think of it. No doubt the brig was lost very suddenly, but there was ample time, had there been any one on board, to have leaped upon the ice, and they might have got to land by jumping from one piece to another. Such things have happened before frequently. To say truth, at every point of land we turn, I feel a sort of expectation amounting almost to certainty that we shall find your father and his party travelling southward on their way to the Danish settlements."

"Perhaps you are right. God grant that it may be so!"

As he spoke, they reached the fixed ice which ran along the foot of the precipices for some distance like a road of hard white marble. Many large rocks lay scattered over it, some of them several tons in weight, and one or two balanced in a very remarkable way on the edge of the cliffs.

"There's a curious-looking gull I should like to shoot," exclaimed Fred, pointing to a bird that hovered over his head, and throwing forward the muzzle of his gun.

"Fire away, then," said his friend, stepping back a pace.

Fred, being unaccustomed to the use of fire-arms, took a wavering aim and fired.

"What a bother! I've missed it!"

"Try again," remarked Tom with a quiet smile, as the whole cliff vomited forth an innumerable host of birds, whose cries were perfectly deafening.

"It's my opinion," said Fred with a comical grin, "that if I shut my eyes and point upwards I can't help hitting something; but I particularly want yon fellow, because he's beautifully marked. Ah! I see him sitting on a rock yonder, so here goes once more."

Fred now proceeded towards the coveted bird in the fashion that is known by the name of stalking-that is, creeping as close up to your game as possible, so as to get a good shot; and it said much for his patience and his future success the careful manner in which, on this occasion, he wound himself in and out among the rocks and blocks of ice on the shore in the hope of obtaining that sea-gull. At last he succeeded in getting to within about fifteen yards of it, and then, resting his musket on a lump of ice, and taking an aim so long and steadily that his companion began to fancy he must have gone to sleep, he fired, and blew the gull to atoms! There was scarcely so much as a shred of it to be found.

Fred bore his disappointment and discomfiture manfully. He formed a resolution then and there to become a good shot, and although he did not succeed exactly in becoming so that day, he nevertheless managed to put several fine specimens of gulls and an auk into his bag. The last bird amused him much, being a creature with a dumpy little body and a beak of preposterously large size and comical aspect. There were also a great number of eider-ducks flying about, but they failed to procure a specimen.

Singleton was equally successful in his scientific researches. He found several beautifully green mosses, one species of which was studded with pale yellow flowers, and in one place, where a stream trickled down the steep sides of the cliffs, he discovered a flower-growth which was rich in variety of colouring. Amid several kinds of tufted grasses were seen growing a small purple flower and the white star of the chickweed; The sight of all this richness of vegetation growing in a little spot close beside the snow, and amid such cold Arctic scenery, would have delighted a much less enthusiastic spirit than that of our young surgeon. He went quite into raptures with it, and stuffed his botanical box with mosses and rocks until it could hold no more, and became a burden that cost him a few sighs before he got back to the ship.

The rocks were found to consist chiefly of red sandstone. There was also a good deal of green-stone and gneiss, and some of the spires of these that shot up to a considerable height were particularly striking and picturesque objects.

But the great sight of the day's excursion was that which unexpectedly greeted their eyes on rounding a cape towards which they had been walking for several hours. On passing this point they stopped with an exclamation of amazement. Before them lay a scene such as the Arctic Regions alone can produce.

In front lay a vast reach of the strait, which at this place opened up abruptly and stretched away northward, laden with floes, and fields, and hummocks, and bergs of every shade and size, to the horizon, where the appearance of the sky indicated open water. Ponds of various sizes and sheets of water whose dimensions entitled them to be styled lakes spangled the white surface of the floes; and around these were sporting innumerable flocks of wild-fowl, many of which, being pure white, glanced like snow-flakes in the sunshine. Far off to the west the ice came down with heavy uniformity to the water's edge. On the right there was an array of cliffs whose frowning grandeur filled them with awe. They varied from twelve to fifteen hundred feet in height, and some of the precipices descended sheer down seven or eight hundred feet into the sea, over which they cast a dark shadow.

Just at the feet of our young discoverers-for such we may truly call them-a deep bay or valley trended away to the right, a large portion of which was filled with the spur of a glacier, whose surface was covered with pink snow! One can imagine with what feelings the two youths gazed on this beautiful sight. It seemed as if that valley, instead of forming a portion of the sterile region beyond the Arctic Circle, were one of the sunniest regions of the south, for a warm glow rested on the bosom of the snow, as if the sun were shedding upon it his rosiest hues. A little farther to the north the red snow ceased, or only occurred here and there in patches; and beyond it there appeared another gorge in t

he cliffs, within which rose a tall column of rock, so straight and cylindrical that it seemed to be a production of art. The whole of the back country was one great rolling distance of glacier, and, wherever a crevice or gorge in the riven cliffs afforded an opportunity, this ocean of land-ice sent down spurs into the sea, the extremities of which were constantly shedding off huge bergs into the water.

"What a scene!" exclaimed Tom Singleton, when he found words to express his admiration. "I did not think that our world contained so grand a sight. It surpasses my wildest dreams of fairy-land."

"Fairy-land!" ejaculated Fred, with a slight look of contempt; "do you know since I came to this part of the world, I've come to the conclusion that fairy tales are all stuff, and very inferior stuff too! Why, this reality is a thousand million times grander than anything that was ever invented. But what surprises me most is the red snow. What can be the cause of it?"

"I don't know," replied Singleton, "it has long been a matter of dispute among learned men. But we must examine it for ourselves, so come along."

The remarkable colour of the snow referred to, although a matter of dispute at the period of the Dolphin's visit to the Arctic Seas, is generally admitted now to be the result of a curious and extremely minute vegetable growth, which spreads not only over its surface, but penetrates into it sometimes to a depth of several feet. The earlier navigators who discovered it, and first told the astonished world that the substance which they had been accustomed to associate with the idea of the purest and most radiant whiteness had been seen by them lying red upon the ground, attributed the phenomenon to innumerable multitudes of minute creatures belonging to the order Radiata; but the discovery of red snow among the central Alps of Europe, and in the Pyrenees, and on the mountains of Norway, where marine animalcula could not exist, effectually overturned this idea. The colouring matter has now been ascertained to result from plants belonging to the order called Algae, which have a remarkable degree of vitality, and possess the power, to an amazing extent, of growing and spreading with rapidity even over such an ungenial soil as the Arctic snow.

While Singleton was examining the red snow, and vainly endeavouring to ascertain the nature of the minute specks of matter by which it was coloured, Fred continued to gaze with a look of increasing earnestness towards the tall column, around which a bank of fog was spreading, and partially concealing it from view. At length he attracted the attention of his companion towards it.

"I say, I'm half inclined to believe that yon is no work of nature, but a monument set up to attract the attention of ships. Don't you think so?"

Singleton regarded the object in question for some time. "I don't think so, Fred; it is larger than you suppose, for the fog-bank deceives us. But let us go and see; it cannot be far off."

As they drew near to the tall rock, Fred's hopes began to fade, and soon were utterly quenched by the fog clearing away, and showing that the column was indeed of nature's own constructing. It was a single, solitary shaft of green limestone, which stood on the brink of a deep ravine, and was marked by the slaty limestone that once encased it. The length of the column was apparently about five hundred feet, and the pedestal of sandstone on which it stood was itself upwards of two hundred feet high.

This magnificent column seemed the flag-staff of a gigantic crystal fortress, which was suddenly revealed by the clearing away of the fog-bank to the north. It was the face of the great glacier of the interior, which here presented an unbroken perpendicular front-a sweep of solid glassy wall, which rose three hundred feet above the water-level, with an unknown depth below it. The sun glittered on the crags and peaks and battlements of this ice fortress, as if the mysterious inhabitants of the Far North had lit up their fires and planted their artillery to resist further invasion.

The effect upon the minds of the two youths, who were probably the first to gaze upon those wondrous visions of the Icy Regions, was tremendous. For a long time neither of them could utter a word, and it would be idle to attempt to transcribe the language in which, at length, their excited feelings sought to escape. It was not until their backs had been for some time turned on the scene, and the cape near the valley of red snow had completely shut it out from view, that they could condescend to converse again in their ordinary tones on ordinary subjects.

As they hastened back over the ice-belt at the foot of the cliffs, a loud boom rang out in the distance and rolled in solemn echoes along the shore.

"There goes a gun," exclaimed Tom Singleton, hastily pulling out his watch. "Hallo! do you know what time it is?"

"Pretty late, I suppose. It was afternoon, I know, when we started, and we must have been out a good while now. What time is it?"

"Just two o'clock in the morning!"

"What! do you mean to say it was yesterday when we started, and that we've been walking all night, and got into to-morrow morning without knowing it?"

"Even so, Fred. We have overshot our time, and the captain is signalling us to make haste. He said that he would not fire unless there seemed some prospect of the ice moving, so we had better run, unless we wish to be left behind; come along."

They had not proceeded more than half-a-mile when a Polar bear walked leisurely out from behind a lump of ice, where it had been regaling itself on a dead seal, and sauntered slowly out towards the icebergs seaward, not a hundred yards in advance of them.

"Hallo! look there! what a monster!" shouted Fred, as he cocked his musket and sprang forward. "What'll you do, Tom, you've no gun?"

"Never mind, I'll do what I can with the hammer. Only make sure you don't miss. Don't fire till you are quite close to him."

They were running after the bear at top speed while they thus conversed in hasty and broken sentences, when suddenly they came to a yawning crack in the ice, about thirty feet wide, and a mile long on either hand, with the rising tide boiling at the bottom of it. Bruin's pursuers came to an abrupt halt.

"Now, isn't that disgusting?"

Probably it was, and the expression of chagrin on Fred's countenance as he said so evidently showed that he meant it; but there is no doubt that this interruption to their hunt was extremely fortunate, for to attack a Polar bear with a musket charged only with small shot, and a geological hammer, would have been about as safe and successful an operation as trying to stop a locomotive with one's hand. Neither of them had yet had experience of the enormous strength of this white monarch of the Frozen Regions and his tenacity of life, although both were reckless enough to rush at him with any arms they chanced to have.

"Give him a long shot-quick!" cried Singleton.

Fred fired instantly; and the bear stopped, and looked round, as much as to say, "Did you speak, gentlemen?" Then, not receiving a reply, he walked away with dignified indifference, and disappeared among the ice-hummocks.

An hour afterwards the two wanderers were seated at a comfortable breakfast in the cabin of the Dolphin, relating their adventures to the captain and mates, and, although unwittingly, to Mivins, who generally managed so to place himself, while engaged in the mysterious operations of his little pantry, that most of the cabin talk reached his ear, and travelled thence through his mouth to the forecastle. The captain was fully aware of this fact, but he winked at it, for there was nothing but friendly feeling on board the ship, and no secrets. When, however, matters of serious import had to be discussed, the cabin door was closed, and Mivins turned to expend himself on Davie Summers, who, in the capacity of a listener, was absolutely necessary to the comfortable existence of the worthy steward.

Having exhausted their appetites and their information, Fred and Tom were told that, during their absence, a bear and two seals had been shot by Meetuck, the Esquimau interpreter, whom they had taken on board at Upernavik; and they were further informed that the ice was in motion to the westward, and that there was every probability of their being released by the falling tide. Having duly and silently weighed these facts for a few minutes, they simultaneously, and as if by a common impulse, yawned, and retired to bed.

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