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   Chapter 12 No.12

The World of Ice By R. M. Ballantyne Characters: 19568

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


A dangerous sleep interrupted-A night in a snow-hut, and an unpleasant visitor-Snowed up.

"Now, then," cried Fred, as they drew up on a level portion of the ice-floe, where the snow on its surface was so hard that the runners of the sledge scarce made an impression on it, "let us to work, lads, and get the tarpaulins spread. We shall have to sleep to-night under star-spangled bed-curtains."

"Troth," said O'Riley, gazing round towards the land, where the distant cliffs loomed black and heavy in the fading light, and out upon the floes and hummocks, where the frost-smoke from pools of open water on the horizon circled round the pinnacles of the icebergs-"troth, it's a cowld place intirely to go to wan's bed in, but that fat-faced Exqueemaw seems to be settin' about it quite coolly; so here goes!"

"It would be difficult to set about it otherwise than coolly with the thermometer forty-five below zero," remarked Fred, beating his hands together, and stamping his feet, while the breath issued from his mouth like dense clouds of steam, and fringed the edges of his hood and the breast of his jumper with hoar-frost.

"It's quite purty, it is," remarked O'Riley, in reference to this wreath of hoar-frost, which covered the upper parts of each of them; "it's jist like the ermine that kings and queens wear, so I'm towld, and it's chaper a long way."

"I don't know that," said Joseph West. "It has cost us a rough voyage and a winter in the Arctic Regions, if it doesn't cost us more yet, to put that ermine fringe on our jumpers. I can make nothing of this knot; try what you can do with it, messmate, will you?"

"Sorra wan o' me'll try it," cried O'Riley, suddenly leaping up and swinging both arms violently against his shoulders; "I've got two hands, I have, but niver a finger on them-leastwise I feel none, though it is some small degrae o' comfort to see them."

"My toes are much in the same condition," said West, stamping vigorously until he brought back the circulation.

"Dance, then, wid me," cried the Irishman, suiting his action to the word. "I've a mortial fear o' bein' bit wid the frost-for it's no joke, let me tell you. Didn't I see a whole ship's crew wance that wos wrecked in the Gulf o' St. Lawrence about the beginnin' o' winter, and before they got to a part o' the coast where there was a house belongin' to the fur-traders, ivery man-jack o' them was frost-bit more or less, they wor. Wan lost a thumb, and another the jint of a finger or two, and most o' them had two or three toes off, an' there wos wan poor fellow who lost the front half o' wan fut an' the heel o' the other, an' two inches o' the bone was stickin' out. Sure it's truth I'm tellin' ye, for I seed it wid me own two eyes, I did."

The earnest tones in which the last words were spoken convinced his comrades that O'Riley was telling the truth, so having a decided objection to be placed in similar circumstances, they danced and beat each other until they were quite in a glow.

"Why, what are you at there, Meetuck?" exclaimed Fred, pausing.

"Igloe make," replied the Esquimau.

"Ig-what?" inquired O'Riley.

"Oh, I see!" shouted Fred, "he's going to make a snow-hut-igloes they call them here. Capital!--I never thought of that. Come along; let's help him!"

Meetuck was indeed about to erect one of those curious dwellings of snow in which, for the greater part of the year, his primitive countrymen dwell. He had no taste for star-spangled bed-curtains, when solid walls, whiter than the purest dimity, were to be had for nothing. His first operation in the erection of this hut was to mark out a circle of about seven feet diameter. From the inside of this circle the snow was cut by means of a long knife in the form of slabs nearly a foot thick, and from two to three feet long, having a slight convexity on the outside. These slabs were then so cut and arranged that, when they were piled upon each other round the margin of the circle, they formed a dome-shaped structure like a bee-hive, which was six feet high inside, and remarkably solid. The slabs were cemented together with loose snow, and every accidental chink or crevice filled up with the same material. The natives sometimes insert a block of clear ice in the roof for a window, but this was dispensed with on the present occasion-first, because there was no light to let in; and, secondly, because if there had been, they didn't want it.

The building of the hut occupied only an hour, for the hunters were cold and hungry, and in their case the old proverb might have been paraphrased, "No work, no supper." A hole, just large enough to permit a man to creep through on his hands and knees, formed the door of this bee-hive. Attached to this hole, and cemented to it, was a low tunnel of about four feet in length. When finished, both ends of the tunnel were closed up with slabs of hard snow, which served the purpose of double doors, and effectually kept out the cold.

While this tunnel was approaching completion, Fred retired to a short distance, and sat down to rest a few minutes on a block of ice.

A great change had come over the scene during the time they were at work on the snow-hut. The night had settled down, and now the whole sky was lit up with the vivid and beautiful coruscations of the aurora borealis-that magnificent meteor of the North which, in some measure, makes up to the inhabitants for the absence of the sun. It spread over the whole extent of the sky in the form of an irregular arch, and was intensely brilliant. But the brilliancy varied, as the green ethereal fire waved mysteriously to and fro, or shot up long streamers toward the zenith. These streamers, or "merry dancers," as they are sometimes termed, were at times peculiarly bright. Their colour was most frequently yellowish white, sometimes greenish, and once or twice of a lilac tinge. The strength of the light was something greater than that of the moon in her quarter, and the stars were dimmed when the aurora passed over them as if they had been covered with a delicate gauze veil.

But that which struck our hero as being most remarkable was the magnitude and dazzling brightness of the host of stars that covered the black firmament. It seemed as if they were magnified in glory, and twinkled so much that the sky seemed, as it were, to tremble with light. A feeling of deep solemnity filled Fred's heart as he gazed upwards; and as he thought upon the Creator of these mysterious worlds, and remembered that he came to this little planet of ours to work out the miracle of our redemption, the words that he had often read in the Bible, "Lord, what is man, that thou art mindful of him?" came forcibly to his remembrance, and he felt the appropriateness of that sentiment which the sweet singer of Israel has expressed in the words, "Praise ye him, sun and moon; praise him, all ye stars of light."

There was a deep, solemn stillness all around-a stillness widely different from that peaceful composure which characterizes a calm day in an inhabited land. It was the death-like stillness of that most peculiar and dreary desolation which results from the total absence of animal existence. The silence was so oppressive that it was with a feeling of relief he listened to the low, distant voices of the men as they paused ever and anon in their busy task to note and remark on the progress of their work. In the intense cold of an Arctic night the sound of voices can be heard at a much greater distance than usual, and although the men were far off, and hummocks of ice intervened between them and Fred, their tones broke distinctly, though gently, on his ear. Yet these sounds did not interrupt the unusual stillness. They served rather to impress him more forcibly with the vastness of that tremendous solitude in the midst of which he stood.

Gradually his thoughts turned homeward, and he thought of the dear ones who circled round his own fireside, and perchance talked of him-of the various companions he had left behind, and the scenes of life and beauty where he used to wander. But such memories led him irresistibly to the Far North again; for in all home-scenes the figure of his father started up, and he was back again in an instant, searching toilsomely among the floes and icebergs of the Polar Seas. It was the invariable ending of poor Fred's meditations, and, however successful he might be in entering for a time into the spirit of fun that characterized most of the doings of his shipmates, and in following the bent of his own joyous nature, in the hours of solitude and in the dark night, when no one saw him, his mind ever reverted to the one engrossing subject, like the oscillating needle to the Pole.

As he continued to gaze up long and earnestly into the starry sky, his thoughts began to wander over the past and the present at random, and a cold shudder warned him that it was time to return to the hut. But the wandering thoughts and fancies seemed to chain him to the spot, so that he could not tear himself away. Then a dreamy feeling of rest and comfort began to steal over his senses, and he thought how pleasant it would be to lie down and slumber; but he knew that would be dangerous, so he determined not to do it.

Suddenly he felt himself touched, and heard a voice whispering in his ear. Then it sounded loud. "Hallo, sir! Mr. Ellice! Wake up, sir! d'ye hear me?" and he felt himself shaken so violently that his teeth rattled together. Opening his eyes reluctantly, he found that he was stretched at full length on the snow, and Joseph West was shaking him by the shoulder as if he meant to dislocate his arm.

"Hallo, West! is that you? Let me alone, man, I want to sleep." Fred sank down again instantly

: that deadly sleep produced by cold, and from which those who indulge in it never awaken, was upon him.

"Sleep!" cried West frantically; "you'll die, sir, if you don't rouse up.-Hallo! Meetuck! O'Riley! help! here.'

"I tell you," murmured Fred faintly, "I want to sleep-only a moment or two-ah! I see; is the hut finished? Well, well, go, leave me. I'll follow-in-a-"

His voice died away again, just as Meetuck and O'Riley came running up. The instant the former saw how matters stood, he raised Fred in his powerful arms, set him on his feet, and shook him with such vigour that it seemed as if every bone in his body must be forced out of joint.

"What mane ye by that, ye blubber-bag?" cried the Irishman wrathfully, doubling his mittened fists and advancing in a threatening manner towards the Esquimau; but seeing that the savage paid not the least attention to him, and kept on shaking Fred violently with a good-humoured smile on his countenance, he wisely desisted from interfering.

In a few minutes Fred was able to stand and look about him with a stupid expression, and immediately the Esquimau dragged and pushed and shook him along towards the snow-hut, into which he was finally thrust, though with some trouble, in consequence of the lowness of the tunnel. Here, by means of rubbing and chafing, with a little more buffeting, he was restored to some degree of heat, on seeing which, Meetuck uttered a quiet grunt and immediately set about preparing supper.

"I do believe I've been asleep," said Fred, rising and stretching himself vigorously as the bright flame of a tin lamp shot forth and shed a yellow lustre on the white walls.

"Aslaap is it! be me conscience an' ye have jist. Oh, then, may I niver indulge in the same sort o' slumber!"

"Why so?" asked Fred in some surprise.

"You fell asleep on the ice, sir," answered West, while he busied himself in spreading the tarpaulin and blanket-bags on the floor of the hut, "and you were very near frozen to death."

"Frozen, musha! I'm not too sure that he's melted yit!" said O'Riley, taking him by the arm and looking at him dubiously.

Fred laughed. "Oh yes; I'm melted now! But let's have supper, else I shall faint for hunger. Did I sleep many hours?"

"You slept only five minutes," said West, in some surprise at the question. "You were only gone about ten minutes altogether."

This was indeed the case. The intense desire for sleep which is produced in Arctic countries when the frost seizes hold of the frame soon confuses the faculties of those who come under its influence. As long as Fred had continued to walk and work he felt quite warm; but the instant he sat down on the lump of ice to rest, the frost acted on him. Being much exhausted, too, by labour and long fasting, he was more susceptible than he would otherwise have been to the influence of cold, so that it chilled him at once, and produced that deadly lethargy from which, but for the timely aid of his companions, he would never have recovered.

The arrangements for supping and spending the night made rapid progress, and, under the influence of fire and animal heat-for the dogs were taken in beside them-the igloe became comfortably warm. Yet the snow-walls did not melt, or become moist, the intense cold without being sufficient to counteract and protect them from the heat within. The fair roof, however, soon became very dingy, and the odour of melted fat rather powerful. But Arctic travellers are proof against such trifles.

The tarpaulin was spread over the floor, and a tin lamp, into which several fat portions of the walrus were put, was suspended from a stick thrust into the wall. Bound this lamp the hunters circled, each seated on his blanket-bag, and each attended to the duty which devolved upon him. Meetuck held a tin kettle over the flame till the snow with which it was filled melted and became cold water, and then gradually heated until it boiled; and all the while he employed himself in masticating a lump of raw walrus-flesh, much to the amusement of Fred, and to the disgust, real or pretended, of O'Riley. But the Irishman, and Fred too, and every man on board the Dolphin, came at last to relish raw meat, and to long for it! The Esquimaux prefer it raw in these parts of the world (although some travellers assert that in more southern latitudes they prefer cooked meat); and with good reason, for it is much more nourishing than cooked flesh, and learned, scientific men who have wintered in the Arctic Regions have distinctly stated that in those cold countries they found raw meat to be better for them than cooked meat, and they assure us that they at last came to prefer it! We would not have our readers to begin forthwith to dispense with the art of cookery, and cast Soyer to the dogs; but we would have them henceforth refuse to accept that common opinion and vulgar error that Esquimaux eat their food raw because they are savages. They do it because nature teaches them that, under the circumstances, it is best.

The duty that devolved upon O'Riley was to roast small steaks of the walrus, in which operation he was assisted by West; while Fred undertook to get out the biscuit-bag and pewter plates, and to infuse the coffee when the water should boil. It was a strange feast in a strange place, but it proved to be a delightful one, for hunger requires not to be tempted, and is not fastidious.

"Oh, but it's good, isn't it?" remarked O'Riley, smacking his lips, as he swallowed a savoury morsel of the walrus and tossed the remnant, a sinewy bit, to Dumps, who sat gazing sulkily at the flame of the lamp, having gorged himself long before the bipeds began supper.

"Arrah! ye won't take it, won't ye?-Here, Poker!"

Poker sprang forward, wagging the stump of his tail, and turned his head to one side, as if to say, "Well, what's up? Any fun going?"

"Here, take that, old boy; Dumps is sulky."

Poker took it at once, and a single snap caused it to vanish. He, too, had finished supper, and evidently ate the morsel to please the Irishman.

"Hand me the coffee, Meetuck," said Fred.-"The biscuit lies beside you, West; don't give in so soon, man."

"Thank you, sir; I have about done."

"Meetuck, ye haythen, try a bit o' the roast; do now, av it was only to plaze me."

Meetuck shook his head quietly, and, cutting a fifteenth lump off the mass of raw walrus that lay beside him, proceeded leisurely to devour it.

"The dogs is nothin' to him," muttered O'Riley. "Isn't it a curious thing, now, to think that we're all at sea a-eatin', and drinkin', and slaapin'-or goin' to slaap-jist as if we wor on the land, and the great ocean away down below us there, wid whales, and seals, and walruses, and mermaids, for what I know, a-swimmin' about jist under whare we sit, and maybe lookin' through the ice at us this very minute. Isn't it quare?"

"It is odd," said Fred, laughing, "and not a very pleasant idea. However, as there is at least twelve feet of solid ice between us and the company you mention, we don't need to care much."

"Ov coorse not," replied O'Riley, nodding his head approvingly as he lighted his pipe; "that's my mind intirely-in all cases o' danger, when ye don't need to be afeard, you needn't much care. It's a good chart to steer by, that same."

This last remark seemed to afford so much food for thought to the company that nothing further was said by any one until Fred rose and proposed to turn in. West had already crawled into his blanket-bag, and was stretched out like a mummy on the floor, and the sound of Meetuck's jaws still continued as he winked sleepily over the walrus-meat, when a scraping was heard outside the hut.

"Sure, it's the foxes; I'll go and look," whispered O'Riley, laying down his pipe and creeping to the mouth of the tunnel.

He came back, however, faster than he went, with a look of consternation, for the first object that confronted him on looking out was the enormous head of a Polar bear. To glance round for their fire-arms was the first impulse, but these had unfortunately been left on the sledge outside. What was to be done? They had nothing but their clasp-knives in the igloe. In this extremity Meetuck cut a large hole in the back of the hut, intending to creep out and procure one of the muskets; but the instant the opening was made the bear's head filled it up. With a savage yell O'Riley seized the lamp and dashed the flaming fat in the creature's face. It was a reckless deed, for it left them all in the dark; but the bear seemed to think himself insulted, for he instantly retreated, and when Meetuck emerged and laid hold of a gun he had disappeared.

They found, on issuing into the open air, that a stiff breeze was blowing, which, from the threatening appearance of the sky, promised to become a gale; but as there was no apprehension to be entertained in regard to the stability of the floe, they returned to the hut, taking care to carry in their arms along with them. Having patched up the hole, closed the doors, rekindled the lamp, and crept into their respective bags, they went to sleep; for, however much they might dread the return of Bruin, sleep was a necessity of nature that would not be denied.

Meanwhile the gale freshened into a hurricane, and was accompanied with heavy snow, and when they attempted to move next morning, they found it impossible to face it for a single moment. There was no alternative, therefore, but to await the termination of the gale, which lasted two days, and kept them close prisoners all the time. It was very wearisome, doubtless, but they had to submit, and sought to console themselves and pass the time as pleasantly as possible by sleeping, and eating, and drinking coffee.

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