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   Chapter 10 No.10

The World of Ice By R. M. Ballantyne Characters: 20693

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Beginning of winter-Meetuck effects a remarkable change in the men's appearance-Mossing, and working, and plans for a winter campaign.

In August the first frost came and formed "young ice" on the sea, but this lasted only for a brief hour or two, and was broken up by the tide and melted. By the 10th of September the young ice cemented the floes of last year's ice together, and soon rendered the ice round the ship immovable. Hummocks clustered round several rocky islets in the neighbourhood, and the rising and falling of the tide covered the sides of the rocks with bright crystals. All the feathered tribes took their departure for less rigorous climes, with the exception of a small white bird about the size of a sparrow, called the snow-bird, which is the last to leave the icy North. Then a tremendous storm arose, and the sea became choked up with icebergs and floes, which the frost soon locked together into a solid mass. Towards the close of the storm snow fell in great abundance, and when the mariners ventured again to put their heads up the opened hatchways, the decks were knee-deep, the drift to windward was almost level with the bulwarks, every yard was edged with white, every rope and cord had a light side and a dark, every point and truck had a white button on it, and every hole, corner, crack, and crevice was choked up.

The land and the sea were also clothed with this spotless garment, which is indeed a strikingly appropriate emblem of purity, and the only dark objects visible in the landscape were those precipices which were too steep for the snow to lie on, the towering form of the giant flagstaff, and the leaden clouds that rolled angrily across the sky. But these leaden clouds soon rolled off, leaving a blue wintry sky and a bright sun behind.

The storm blew itself out early in the morning, and at breakfast-time on that day, when the sun was just struggling with the last of the clouds, Captain Guy remarked to his friends who were seated round the cabin table, "Well, gentlemen, we must begin hard work to-day."

"Hard work, captain!" exclaimed Fred Ellice, pausing for a second or two in the hard work of chewing a piece of hard salt junk; "why, what do you call the work we've been engaged in for the last few weeks?"

"Play, my lad; that was only play-just to bring our hands in, before setting to work in earnest!--What do you think of the health of the men, doctor?"

"Never was better; but I fear the hospital will soon fill if you carry out your threat in regard to work."

"No fear," remarked the second mate; "the more work the better health is my experience. Busy men have no time to git seek."

"No doubt of it, sir," said the first mate, bolting a large mouthful of pork. "Nothing so good for 'em as work."

"There are two against you, doctor," said the captain.

"Then it's two to two," cried Fred, as he finished breakfast; "for I quite agree with Tom, and with that excellent proverb which says, 'All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.'"

The captain shook his head as he said, "Of all the nuisances I ever met with in a ship a semi-passenger is the worst. I think, Fred, I must get you bound apprentice and give you regular work to do, you good-for-nothing."

We need scarcely say that the captain jested, for Fred was possessed of a spirit that cannot rest, so to speak, unless at work. He was able to do almost anything after a fashion, and was never idle for a moment. Even when his hands chanced to be unemployed, his brows were knitted, busily planning what to do next.

"Well now, gentlemen," resumed the captain, "let us consider the order of business. The first thing that must be done now is to unstow the hold and deposit its contents on the small island astern of us, which we shall call Store Island, for brevity's sake. Get a tent pitched there, Mr. Bolton, and bank it up with snow. You can leave Grim to superintend the unloading.-Then, Mr. Saunders, do you go and set a gang of men to cut a canal through the young ice from the ship to the island. Fortunately the floes there are wide enough apart to let our quarter-boats float between them. The unshipping won't take long. Tell Buzzby to take a dozen men with him and collect moss; we'll need a large quantity for fuel, and if another storm like this comes it'll be hard work to get down to it. Send Meetuck to me when you go on deck; I shall talk to him as to our prospects of finding deer hereabouts, and arrange a hunt.-Doctor, you may either join the hunting-party, or post up the observations, etc., which have accumulated of late."

"Thank you, captain," said Singleton; "I'll accept the latter duty, the more willingly that I wish to have a careful examination of my botanical specimens."

"And what am I to do, captain?" inquired Fred.

"What you please, lad."

"Then I'll go and take care of Meetuck; he's apt to get into mischief when left-"

At this moment a tremendous shout of laughter, long continued, came from the deck, and a sound as if numbers of men dancing overhead was heard.

The party in the cabin seized their caps and sprang up the companion ladder, where they beheld a scene that accounted for the laughter, and induced them to join in it. At first sight it seemed as if thirty Polar bears had boarded the vessel, and were executing a dance of triumph before proceeding to make a meal of the crew; but on closer inspection it became apparent that the men had undergone a strange transformation, and were capering with delight at the ridiculous appearance they presented. They were clad from head to foot in Esquimau costume, and now bore as strong a resemblance to Polar bears as man could attain to.

Meetuck was the pattern and the chief instrument in effecting this change. At Upernavik Captain Guy had been induced to purchase a large number of fox-skins, deer-skins, seal-skins, and other furs, as a speculation, and had them tightly packed and stowed away in the hold, little imagining the purpose they were ultimately destined to serve. Meetuck had come on board in a mongrel sort of worn-out seal-skin dress; but the instant the cold weather set in he drew from a bundle which he had brought with him a dress made of the fur of the Arctic fox, some of the skins being white and the others blue. It consisted of a loose coat, somewhat in the form of a shirt, with a large hood to it, and a short elongation behind like the commencement of a tail. The boots were made of white bear-skin, which, at the end of the foot, were made to terminate with the claws of the animal; and they were so long that they came up the thigh under the coat, or "jumper," as the men called it, and thus served instead of trousers. He also wore fur mittens, with a bag for the fingers, and a separate little bag for the thumb. The hair on these garments was long and soft, and worn outside, so that when a man enveloped himself in them, and put up the hood, which well-nigh concealed the face, he became very much like a bear or some such creature standing on its hind legs.

Meetuck was a short, fat, burly little fellow by nature; but when he put on his winter dress he became such a round, soft, squat, hairy, and comical-looking creature, that no one could look at him without laughing, and the shout with which he was received on deck the first time he made his appearance in his new costume was loud and prolonged. But Meetuck was as good-humoured an Esquimau as ever speared a walrus or lanced a Polar bear. He joined in the laugh, and cut a caper or two to show that he entered into the spirit of the joke.

When the ship was set fast, and the thermometer fell pretty low, the men found that their ordinary dreadnoughts and pea-jackets, etc., were not a sufficient protection against the cold, and it occurred to the captain that his furs might now be turned to good account. Sailors are proverbially good needle-men of a rough kind. Meetuck showed them how to set about their work. Each man made his own garments, and in less than a week they were completed. It is true, the boots perplexed them a little, and the less ingenious among the men made very rare and curious-looking foot-gear for themselves; but they succeeded after a fashion, and at last the whole crew appeared on deck in their new habiliments, as we have already mentioned, capering among the snow like bears, to their own entire satisfaction and to the intense delight of Meetuck, who now came to regard the white men as brothers-so true is it that "the tailor makes the man!"

"'Ow 'orribly 'eavy it is, hain't it?" gasped Mivins, after dancing round the main-hatch till he was nearly exhausted.

"Heavy!" cried Buzzby, whose appearance was such that you would have hesitated to say whether his breadth or length was greater-"heavy, d'ye say? It must be your sperrits wot's heavy, then, for I feel as light as a feather myself."

"O morther! then may I niver sleep on a bed made o' sich feathers!" cried O'Riley, capering up to Green, the carpenter's mate, and throwing a mass of snow in his face. The frost rendered it impossible to form the snow into balls, but the men made up for this by throwing it about each other's eyes and ears in handfuls.

"What d'ye mean by insultin' my mate?-take that!" said Peter Grim, giving the Irishman a twirl that tumbled him on the deck.

"Oh, bad manners to ye!" spluttered O'Riley, as he rose and ran away; "why don't ye hit a man o' yer own size?"

"'Deed, then, it must be because there's not one o' my own size to hit," remarked the carpenter with a broad grin.

This was true. Grim's colossal proportions were increased so much by his hairy dress that he seemed to have spread out into the dimensions of two large men rolled into one. But O'Riley was not to be overturned with impunity. Skulking round behind the crew, who were laughing at Grim's joke, he came upon the giant in the rear, and seizing the short tail of his jumper, pulled him violently down on the deck.

"Ah, then, give it him, boys!" cried O'Riley, pushing the carpenter flat down, and obliterating his black beard and his whole visage in a mass of snow. Several of the wilder spirits among the men leaped on the prostrate Grim, and nearly smothered him before he could gather himself up for a struggle; then they fled in all directions while their vi

ctim regained his feet, and rushed wildly after them. At last he caught O'Riley, and grasping him by the two shoulders gave him a heave that was intended and "calc'lated," as Amos Parr afterwards remarked, "to pitch him over the foretop-sail-yard!" But an Irishman is not easily overcome. O'Riley suddenly straightened himself and held his arms up over his head, and the violent heave, which, according to Parr, was to have sent him to such an uncomfortable elevation, only pulled the jumper completely off his body, and left him free to laugh in the face of his big friend, and run away.

At this point the captain deemed it prudent to interfere.

"Come, come, my lads!" he cried, "enough o' this. That's not the morning work, is it? I'm glad to find that your new dresses," he added with a significant smile, "make you fond of rough work in the snow; there's plenty of it before us.-Come down below with me, Meetuck; I wish to talk with you."

As the captain descended to the cabin the men gave a final cheer, and in ten minutes they were working laboriously at their various duties.

Buzzby and his party were the first ready and off to cut moss. They drew a sledge after them towards the red-snow valley, which was not more than two miles distant from the ship. This "mossing," as it was termed, was by no means a pleasant duty. Before the winter became severe, the moss could be cut out from the beds of the snow streams with comparative ease; but now the mixed turf of willows, heaths, grasses, and moss was frozen solid, and had to be quarried with crowbars and carried to the ship like so much stone. However, it was prosecuted vigorously, and a sufficient quantity was soon procured to pack on the deck of the ship, and around its sides, so as to keep out the cold. At the same time, the operation of discharging the stores was carried on briskly; and Fred, in company with Meetuck, O'Riley, and Joseph West, started with the dog-sledge on a hunting-expedition.

In order to enable the reader better to understand the condition of the Dolphin and her crew, we will detail the several arrangements that were made at this time and during the succeeding fortnight. As a measure of precaution, the ship, by means of blasting, sawing, and warping, was with great labour got into deeper water, where one night's frost set her fast with a sheet of ice three inches thick round her. In a few weeks this ice became several feet thick; and the snow drifted up her hull so much that it seemed as if she were resting on the land, and had taken final leave of her native element. Strong hawsers were then secured to Store Island, in order to guard against the possibility of her being carried away by any sudden disruption of the ice. The disposition of the masts, yards, and sails was next determined on. The top-gallant-masts were struck, the lower yards got down to the housings. The top-sail-yards, gaff, and jib-boom, however, were left in their places. The topsails and courses were kept bent to the yards, the sheets being unrove and the clews tucked in. The rest of the binding-sails were stowed on deck to prevent their thawing during winter; and the spare spars were lashed over the ship's sides, to leave a clear space for taking exercise in bad weather.

The stores, in order to relieve the strain on the ship, were removed to Store Island, and snugly housed under the tent erected there, and then a thick bank of snow was heaped up round it. After this was accomplished, all the boats were hauled up beside the tent, and covered with snow, except the two quarter-boats, which were left hanging at the davits all winter. When the thermometer fell below zero, it was found that the vapours below, and the breath of the men, condensed on the beams of the lower deck and in the cabin near the hatchway. It was therefore resolved to convert some sheet-iron, which they fortunately possessed, into pipes, which, being conducted from the cooking-stove through the length of the ship, served in some degree to raise the temperature and ventilate the cabins. A regular daily allowance of coal was served out, and four steady men appointed to attend to the fire in regular watches, for the double purpose of seeing that none of the fuel should be wasted and of guarding against fire. They had likewise charge of the fire-pumps and buckets, and two tanks of water, all of which were kept in the hatchway in constant readiness in case of accidents. In addition to this, a fire-brigade was formed, with Joseph West, a steady, quiet, active young seaman, as its captain, and their stations in the event of fire were fixed beforehand; also, a hole was kept constantly open in the ice alongside to insure at all times a sufficient supply of water.

Strict regulations as to cleanliness and the daily airing of the hammocks were laid down, and adhered to throughout the winter. A regular allowance of provisions was appointed to each man, so that they should not run the risk of starving before the return of the wild-fowl in spring. But those provisions were all salt, and the captain trusted much to their hunting-expeditions for a supply of fresh food, without which there would be little hope of their continuing in a condition of good health. Coffee was served out at breakfast and cocoa at supper, besides being occasionally supplied at other times to men who had been engaged in exhausting work in extremely cold weather. Afterwards, when the dark season set in, and the crew were confined by the intense cold more than formerly within the ship, various schemes were set afoot for passing the time profitably and agreeably. Among others, a school was started by the captain for instructing such of the crew as chose to attend in reading, writing, and arithmetic, and in this hyperborean academy Fred Ellice acted as the writing master, and Tom Singleton as the accountant. The men were much amused at first at the idea of "goin' to school," and some of them looked rather shy at it; but O'Riley, after some consideration, came boldly forward and said, "Well, boys, bad luck to me if I don't think I'll be a scholard afther all. My old gran'mother used to tell me, whin I refused to go to the school that was kip be an owld man as tuck his fees out in murphies and potheen,-says she, 'Ah! ye spalpeen, ye'll niver be cliverer nor the pig, ye won't.' 'Ah, then, I hope not,' says I, 'for sure she's far the cliverest in the house, an' ye wouldn't have me to be cliverer than me own gran'mother, would ye?' says I. So I niver wint to school, and more be token, I can't sign me name, and if it was only to larn how to do that, I'll go and jine; indeed I will." So O'Riley joined, and before long every man in the ship was glad to join, in order to have something to do.

The doctor also, twice a-week, gave readings from Shakespeare, a copy of which he had fortunately brought with him. He also read extracts from the few other books they happened to have on board; and after a time, finding unexpectedly that he had a talent that way, he began to draw upon his memory and his imagination, and told long stories (which were facetiously called lectures) to the men, who listened to them with great delight. Then Fred started an illustrated newspaper once a-week, which was named the Arctic Sun, and which was in great favour during the whole course of its brief existence. It is true, only one copy was issued each morning of publication, because, besides supplying the greater proportion of the material himself, and executing the illustrations in a style that would have made Mr. Leech of the present day envious, he had to transcribe the various contributions he received from the men and others in a neat, legible hand. But this one copy was perused and re-perused, as no single copy of any paper extant-not excepting The Times or Punch-has ever yet been perused; and when it was returned to the editor, to be carefully placed in the archives of the Dolphin, it was emphatically the worse for wear. Besides all this, a theatre was set agoing, of which we shall have more to say hereafter.

In thus minutely recounting the various expedients which these banished men fell upon to pass the long dark hours of an Arctic winter, we may, perhaps, give the reader the impression that a great deal of thought and time were bestowed upon amusement, as if that were the chief end and object of their life in those regions. But we must remind him that though many more pages might be filled in recounting all the particulars, but a small portion of their time was, after all, taken up in this way; and it would have been well for them had they been able to find more to amuse them than they did, for the depressing influence of the long-continued darkness, and the want of a sufficiency of regular employment for so many months added to the rigorous nature of the climate in which they dwelt, well-nigh broke their spirits at last.

In order to secure warmth during winter, the deck of the ship was padded with moss about a foot deep, and down below the walls were lined with the same material. The floors were carefully plastered with common paste and covered with oakum a couple of inches deep, over which a carpet of canvas was spread. Every opening in the deck was fastened down and covered deeply over with moss, with the exception of one hatch, which was their only entrance, and this was kept constantly closed except when it was desirable to ventilate. Curtains were hung up in front of it to prevent draughts. A canvas awning was also spread over the deck from stem to stern, so that it was confidently hoped the Dolphin would prove a snug tenement even in the severest cold.

As has been said before, the snow-drift almost buried the hull of the ship, and as snow is a good non-conductor of heat, this further helped to keep up the temperature within. A staircase of snow was built up to the bulwarks on the larboard quarter, and on the starboard side an inclined plane of snow was sloped down to the ice to facilitate the launching of the sledges when they had to be pulled on deck.

Such were the chief arrangements and preparations that were made by our adventurers for spending the winter; but although we have described them at this point in our story, many of them were not completed until a much later period.

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