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   Chapter 16 No.16

The World of Ice By R. M. Ballantyne Characters: 25701

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

The Arctic Theatre enlarged upon-Great success of the first play-The Esquimaux submit, and become fast friends.

The 1st of December was a great day on board the Dolphin, for on that day it was announced to the crew that "The Arctic Theatre" would be opened, under the able management of Mr. F. Ellice, with the play of "Blunderbore; or, the Arctic Giant." The bill, of which two copies were issued gratis to the crew, announced that the celebrated Peter Grim, Esq., who had so long trodden the boards of the Dolphin, with unparalleled success, had kindly consented to appear in the character of Blunderbore for one winter only. The other parts were as follows:-Whackinta, a beautiful Esquimau widow, who had been captured by two Polar bears, both of which were deeply in love with her, by Frederick Ellice, Esq. First Bear, a big one, by Terrence O'Riley, Esq. Second Bear, a little one, by David Summers, Esq. Ben Bolt, a brave British seaman, who had been wrecked in Blunderbore's desolate dominions, all the crew having perished except himself, by John Buzzby, Esq. These constituted the various characters of the piece, the name of which had been kept a profound secret from the crew until the morning of the day on which it was acted.

Fred's duties, as manager and author, upon this occasion were by no means light, for his troop, being unaccustomed to study, found the utmost difficulty in committing the simplest sentences to memory. O'Riley turned out to be the sharpest among them, but having agreed to impersonate the First Bear, and having to act his part in dumb show-bears not being supposed capable of speech-his powers of memory had not to be exerted. Grim was also pretty good; but Davie Summers could not be got to remember even the general arrangements of the piece; and as for Buzzby, he no sooner mastered a line than he forgot the one before it, and almost gave it up in despair. But by dint of much study and many rehearsals in secret, under the superintendence of Fred, and Tom Singleton, who undertook to assist, they succeeded at last in going through it with only a few mistakes.

On the morning of the 1st December, while the most of the crew were away at Red-Snow Valley cutting moss, Fred collected his corps dramatique for a last rehearsal in the forecastle, where they were secure from interruption, the place being so cold that no one would willingly go into it except under the force of necessity. A dim lantern lit up the apartment faintly.

"We must do it without a mistake this time," said Fred Ellice, opening his book, and calling upon Grim to begin.

"'Tis cold," began Grim.

"Stop, you're wrong."

"Oh! so I am," cried Grim, slapping his thigh, "I'll begin again."

It may be remarked here, that although Blunderbore was supposed to be an Esquimau monarch, he was compelled to speak English, being unfortunately ignorant-if we may so speak-of his native tongue!

"Oh! 'tis a dismal thing," began Grim again, "to dwell in solitude and cold! 'Tis very cold [Grim shuddered here tremendously], and-and-(what's next?)"

"Hunger," said Fred.

"Hunger gnaws my vitals. My name is Blunderbore. 'Twere better had I been born a Blunderbuss, 'cause then I'd have gone off and dwelt in climes more shootable to my tender constitoosion. Ha! is that a bear I sees before me?"

"It's not sees," interrupted Fred.

At this moment a tremendous roar was heard, and O'Riley bounded from behind a top-sail, which represented an iceberg, dressed from head to foot in the skin of a white bear which had been killed a few days before.

"Stop, O'Riley," cried Fred; "you're too soon, man. I have to come on first as an Esquimau woman, and when Grim says to the woman he wishes he could see a bear, then you are to come."

"Och! whirra, but me brains is confuged intirely wid it all," said O'Riley, rising on his hind legs, and walking off with his tail, literally as well as figuratively, between his legs.

"Now, Buzzby, now; it's your time. When you hear the word 'misery,' come on and fight like a Trojan with the bears. The doctor will remind you."

Fred was remarkably patient and painstaking, and his pupils, though not apt scholars, were willing, so that the morning rehearsal was gone through with fewer mistakes than might have been expected; and when the crew came back to dinner about mid-day, which, however, was as dark as midnight, their parts were sufficiently well got up, and nothing remained to be done but to arrange the stage and scenery for the evening's entertainment-it having been resolved that the performance should commence after supper. The stage was at the after part of the cabin, and raised about a foot above the deck; and its management had been intrusted to the doctor, who, assisted by Peter Grim, transformed that portion of the ship into a scene so romantically beautiful that the first sight of it petrified the crew with surprise. But until the curtain should rise all arrangements were carefully concealed from every one except the dramatis person?. Even the captain and officers were forbidden to peep behind the sail that formed a curtain to the stage; and this secrecy, besides being necessary, was extremely useful, inasmuch as it excited the curiosity of the men, and afforded them food for converse and speculation for a week before the great day arrived.

The longed-for hour came at last. The cabin tables having been removed, and rows of seats placed in front of the stage, the men were admitted from the deck, to which they had been expelled an hour previous in order not to impede preliminary arrangements. There was great joking, of course, as they took their seats and criticised the fittings up. David Mizzle was of opinion that the foot-lights "wos oncommon grand," which was an unquestionable fact, for they consisted of six tin lamps filled with seal-oil, from the wicks of which rose a compound of yellow flame and smoke that had a singularly luminous effect. Amos Parr guessed that the curtain would be certain sure to get jammed at the first haul, and several of the others were convinced that O'Riley would stick his part in one way or another. However, an end was put to all remarks and expectation raised on tip-toe by the ringing of a small hand-bell, and immediately thereafter a violent pulling at the curtain which concealed the stage. But the curtain remained immovable (they always do on such occasions), and a loud whispering was heard behind the scenes.

"Clap on extra tackle and call all hands to hoist away," suggested one of the audience.

The laugh with which this advice was received was checked in the bud by the sudden rising of the curtain with such violence that the whole framework of the theatre shook again.

For a few seconds a dead silence reigned, for the men were stricken dumb with genuine amazement at the scene before them. The stage was covered with white sheets arranged in such a manner as to represent snow, and the more effectually to carry out the idea several huge blocks of real ice and a few patches of snow were introduced here and there, the cold in the after part of the cabin being too great to permit of their melting. A top-gallant-sail, on which were painted several blue cracks, and some strong white lights did duty for an iceberg, and filled up the whole back of the scene. In front of this, in the centre of the stage, on an extemporized hummock, sat Peter Grim, as the Giant Blunderbore. His colossal proportions were enhanced by the addition of an entire white bear-skin to his ordinary hairy dress, and which was thrown round his broad shoulders in the form of a tippet. A broad scarlet sash was tied round his waist, and a crown of brown paper painted in alternate diamonds of blue, red, and yellow sat upon his brow. Grim was in truth a magnificent-looking fellow, with his black beard and moustache; and the mock-heroic frown with which he gazed up (as one of the audience suggested) at the aurora borealis, while he grasped an enormous club in his right hand, became him well.

The first few seconds of dead silence with which this was received were succeeded by a long and loud burst of applause, the heartiness of which plainly showed that the scene far exceeded the expectations of the men.

"Bravo!" cried the captain, "excellent! nothing could be better."

"It beats natur', quite," said one.

"All to sticks," cried another.

"And wot a tree-mendous giant he makes. Three cheers for Peter Grim, lads!"

Three cheers were promptly given with right goodwill, but the giant did not move a muscle. He was far too deeply impressed with the importance of playing his part well to acknowledge the compliment. Having gazed long enough to enable the men to get rid of their first flow of enthusiasm, Blunderbore rose majestically, and coming forward to the foot-lights, looked straight over the heads of the men, and addressed himself to the opposite bulk-head.

"Oh! 'tis a dismal thing," he began, and continued to spout his part with flashing eyes and considerable energy, until he came to the word Blunderbuss, when, either from a mistaken notion as to when it was his time to go on, or nervous forgetfulness of the plan of the piece, the Little Bear sprang over the edge of the iceberg and alighted on the middle of the stage.

"Oh! bad luck to yees intirely," said the Big Bear from behind the scenes in an angry whisper, which was distinctly heard by the audience, "ye've gone and spoiled it all, ye have. Come off, will ye, and take yer turn at the right time, won't ye?"

In the midst of the shout of delight caused by this mistake, O'Riley, forgetting that he was a bear, rushed on the stage on his hind legs, seized the Little Bear by the fore leg, and dragged him off at the other side amid loud applause. Blunderbore, with admirable self-possession, resumed his part the instant there was a calm, and carried it successfully to a close.

Just as he ended, Fred waddled on, in the guise of an Esquimau woman; and so well was he got up that the crew looked round to see if Aninga (who, with her husband, had been allowed to witness the play) was in her place. Fred had intentionally taken Aninga as his model, and had been very successful in imitating the top-knot of hair. The baby, too, was hit off to perfection, having been made by Mivins, who proved himself a genius in such matters. Its head was a ball of rags covered with brown leather, and two white bone buttons with black spots in the centre did duty for its eyes.

The first thing Whackinta did on coming forward was to deposit the baby on the snow with its head downwards by mistake, whereat it began to scream vociferously. This scream was accomplished by Davie Summers creeping below the stage and putting his mouth to a hole in the flooring close to which the baby's head lay. Davie's falsetto was uncommonly like to a child's voice, and the effect was quite startling. Of course Whackinta tried to soothe it, and failing in this she whipped it, which caused it to yell with tenfold violence. Thereafter losing all patience, she covered its face and stuffed its mouth with a quantity of snow, and laying it down on its back, placed a large block of ice on its head. This, as might be expected, had the desired effect, and the baby was silenced-not, however, until Whackinta had twice called down the hole in a hoarse whisper, "That'll do, Davie; stop, man, stop!" Then, sitting down on the hummock which Blunderbore had just left-and from behind which he was now eagerly watching her-she began to weep.

Having given full vent to her feelings in a series of convulsive sobs, Whackinta addressed a lengthened harangue, in a melancholy tone of voice, to the audience, the gist of which was that she was an unfortunate widow; that two bears had fallen in love with her, and stolen her away from her happy home in Nova Zembla; and, although they allowed her to walk about as much as she chose, they watched her closely and prevented her escaping to her own country. Worst of all, they had told her that she must agree to become the wife of one or other of them, and if she did not make up her mind and give them an answer that very day, she was to be killed and eaten by both of them. In order the more strongly to impress the audience with her forlorn condition, Whackinta sang a tender and touching ditty, composed by herself expressly for the occasion, and sang it so well that it was encored twice.

To all this Blunderbore listened with apparent rapture, and at length ventured to advance and discover himself; but the instant Whackinta saw him she fell on her knees and trembled violently.

"Spare me, good king," she said; "do not slay me. I am a poor widow, and have been brought here by two bears against my will."

"Woman," said the giant, "my name is Blunderb

ore. I am, as you perceive by my crown, a king; and I am a lonely man. If I kill the two bears you speak of, will you marry me?"

"Oh, do not ask me, good Blunderbore! I cannot; it is impossible. I cannot love you-you are-forgive me for saying it-too big, and fierce, and ugly to love."

Blunderbore frowned angrily, and the audience applauded vociferously at this.

"You cannot love me! ha!" exclaimed the giant, glaring round with clenched teeth.

At this moment the Big Bear uttered an awful roar, Whackinta gave a piercing scream and fled, and Blunderbore hid himself hastily behind the hummock. The next moment the two bears bounded on the stage and began to gambol round it, tossing up their hind legs and roaring and leaping in a manner that drew forth repeated plaudits. At length the Little Bear discovered the baby, and, uttering a frantic roar of delight, took it in its fore paws and held it up. The Big Bear roared also, of course, and rushing forward caught the baby by the leg, and endeavoured to tear it away from the Little Bear, at which treatment the poor baby again commenced to cry passionately. In the struggle the baby's head came off, upon which the Little Bear put the head into its mouth and swallowed it. The Big Bear immediately did the same with the body; but its mouth was too small, and the body stuck fast and could not be finally disposed of until the Little Bear came to the rescue and pushed it forcibly down its throat. Having finished this delicate little morsel the two bears rose on their hind legs and danced a hornpipe together-Tom Singleton playing the tune for them on a flute behind the scenes. When this was done they danced off the stage, and immediately, as if in the distance, was heard the voice of a man singing. It came gradually nearer, and at last Buzzby, in the character of Ben Bolt, swaggered up to the foot-lights with his hands in his breeches pockets.

"I'm a jolly, jolly tar,

Wot has comed from afar,

An' it's all for to seek my fortin"-

sang Buzzby. "But I've not found it yit," he continued, breaking into prose, "and there don't seem much prospect o' findin' it here anyhow. Wot an 'orrible cold place it is, ugh!"

Buzzby was received with enthusiastic cheers, for he was dressed in the old familiar blue jacket, white ducks, pumps, and straw hat set jauntily on one side of his head-a costume which had not been seen for so many months by the crew of the Dolphin, that their hearts warmed to it as if it were an old friend.

Buzzby acted with great spirit, and was evidently a prime favourite. He could scarcely recollect a word of his part, but he remembered the general drift of it, and had ready wit enough to extemporize. Having explained that he was the only survivor of a shipwrecked crew, he proceeded to tell some of his adventures in foreign lands, and afterwards described part of his experiences in a song, to which the doctor played an accompaniment behind the scenes. The words were composed by himself, sung to the well-known Scotch air, "Corn Riggs," and ran as follows:-


My comrades, you must know

It was many years ago

I left my daddy's cottage in the greenwood O!

And I jined a man-o'-war

An' became a jolly tar,

An' fought for king and country on the high seas O!

Pull, boys, cheerily, our home is on the sea

Pull, boys, merrily and lightly O!

Pull, boys, cheerily, the wind is passing free

An' whirling up the foam an' water sky-high O!

There's been many a noble fight,

But Trafalgar was the sight

That beat the Greeks and Romans in their glory O!

For Britain's jolly sons

Worked the thunder-blazing guns,

And Nelson stood the bravest in the fore-front O!

Pull, boys, etc.

A roaring cannon shot

Came an' hit the very spot

Where my leg goes click-an'-jumble in the socket O!

And swept it overboard

With the precious little hoard

Of pipe an' tin an' baccy in the pocket O!

Pull, boys, etc.

They took me down below,

An' they laid me with a row

Of killed and wounded messmates on a table O!

Then up comes Dr. Keg,

An' says, Here's a livin' leg

I'll sew upon the stump if I am able O!

Pull, boys, etc.

This good and sturdy limb

Had belonged to fightin' Tim,

An' scarcely had they sewed it on the socket O!

When up the hatch I flew,

An' dashed among the crew,

An' sprang on board the Frenchman like a rocket O!

Pull, boys, etc.

'Twas this that gained the day,

For that leg it cleared the way-

And the battle raged like fury while it lasted O!

Then ceased the shot and shell

To fall upon the swell,

And the Union Jack went bravely to the mast-head O!'

Pull, boys, etc.

We need scarcely say that this song was enthusiastically encored, and that the chorus was done full justice to by the audience, who picked it up at once and sang it with lusty vehemence. At the last word Ben Bolt nodded familiarly, thrust his hands into his pockets, and swaggered off whistling "Yankee Doodle." It was a matter of uncertainty where he had swaggered off to, but it was conjectured that he had gone on his journey to anywhere that might turn up.

Meanwhile, Blunderbore had been bobbing his head up and down behind the hummock in amazement at what he heard and saw, and when Ben Bolt made his exit he came forward. This was the signal for the two bears to discover him and rush on with a terrific roar. Blunderbore instantly fetched them each a sounding whack on their skulls, leaped over both their backs, and bounded up the side of the iceberg, where he took refuge, and turned at bay on a little ice pinnacle constructed expressly for that purpose.

An awful fight now ensued between the giant and the two bears. The pinnacle on which Blunderbore stood was so low that the Big Bear, by standing up on its hind legs, could just scratch his toes, which caused the giant to jump about continually; but the sides of the iceberg were so smooth that the bears could not climb up it. This difficulty, indeed, constituted the great and amusing feature of the fight; for no sooner did the Little Bear creep up to the edge of the pinnacle, than the giant's tremendous club came violently down on its snout (which had been made of hard wood on purpose to resist the blows), and sent it sprawling back on the stage, where the Big Bear invariably chanced to be in the way, and always fell over it. Then they both rose, and, roaring fearfully, renewed the attack, while Blunderbore laid about him with the club ferociously. Fortune, however, did not on this occasion favour the brave. The Big Bear at last caught the giant by the heel and pulled him to the ground; the Little Bear instantly seized him by the throat; and, notwithstanding his awful yells and struggles, it would have gone ill with Blunderbore had not Ben Bolt opportunely arrived at that identical spot at that identical moment in the course of his travels.

Oh! it was a glorious thing to see the fear-nothing, dare-anything fashion in which, when he saw how matters stood, Ben Bolt threw down his stick and bundle, drew his cutlass, and attacked the two bears at once, single-handed, crying, "Come on," in a voice of thunder. And it was a satisfactory thing to behold the way in which he cut and slashed at their heads (the heads having been previously prepared for such treatment), and the agility he displayed in leaping over their backs and under their legs, and holding on by their tails, while they vainly endeavoured to catch him. The applause was frequent and prolonged, and the two Esquimau prisoners rolled about their burly figures and laughed till the tears ran down their fat cheeks. But when Ben Bolt suddenly caught the two bears by their tails, tied them together in a double knot, and fled behind a hummock, which the Big Bear passed on one side and the Little Bear on the other, and so, as a matter of course, stuck hard and fast, the laughter was excessive; and when the gallant British seaman again rushed forward, massacred the Big Bear with two terrific cuts, slew the Little Bear with one tremendous back-hander, and then sank down on one knee and pressed his hand to his brow as if he were exhausted, a cheer ran from stem to stern of the Dolphin, the like of which had not filled the hull of that good ship since she was launched upon her ocean home!

It was just at this moment that Whackinta chanced, curiously enough, to return to this spot in the course of her wanderings. She screamed in horror at the sight of the dead bears, which was quite proper and natural, and then she started at the sight of the exhausted Bolt, and smiled sweetly-which was also natural-as she hastened to assist and sympathize with him. Ben Bolt fell in love with her at once, and told her so off-hand, to the unutterable rage of Blunderbore, who recovered from his wounds at that moment, and seizing the sailor by the throat, vowed he would kill and quarter, and stew and boil, and roast and eat him in one minute if he didn't take care what he was about.

The audience felt some fears for Ben Bolt at this point, but their delight knew no bounds when, shading the giant off and springing backwards, he buttoned up his coat and roared, rather than said, that though he were all the Blunderbores and blunderbusses in the world rolled together and changed into one immortal blunder-cannon, he didn't care a pinch of bad snuff for him, and would knock all the teeth in his head down his throat. This valorous threat he followed up by shaking his fist close under the giant's nose and crying out, "Come on'"

But the giant did not come on. He fortunately recollected that he owed his life to the brave sailor; so he smiled, and saying he would be his friend through life, insisted on seizing him by the hand and shaking it violently. Thereafter he took Ben Bolt and Whackinta by their right hands, and leading them forward to the foot-lights, made them a long speech to the effect that he owed a debt of gratitude to the former for saving his life which he could never repay, and that he loved the latter too sincerely to stand in the way of her happiness. Then he joined their right hands, and they went down on one knee, and he placed his hands on their heads, and looked up at the audience with a benignant smile, and the curtain fell amid rapturous cheers.

In this play it seemed somewhat curious and unaccountable that Whackinta forgot to inquire for her demolished baby, and appeared to feel no anxiety whatever about it. It was also left a matter of uncertainty whether Ben Bolt and his Esquimau bride returned to live happily during the remainder of their lives in England, or took up their permanent abode with Blunderbore. But it is not our province to criticise; we merely chronicle events as they occurred.

The entertainments were to conclude with a hornpipe from Mivins; but just as that elastic individual had completed the first of a series of complicated evolutions, and was about to commence the second, a vociferous barking of the dogs was heard outside, accompanied by the sound of human voices. The benches were deserted in a moment, and the men rushed upon deck, catching up muskets and cutlasses, which always stood in readiness, as they went. The sounds proceeded from a party of about twenty Esquimaux who had been sent from the camp with the stolen property, and with a humble request that the offence might be forgiven, and their chief and his wife returned to them. They were all unarmed; and the sincerity of their repentance was further attested by the fact that they brought back, not only the hatchet and telescope, but a large assortment of minor articles that had not been missed.

Of course the apology was accepted; and, after speeches were delivered, and protestations of undying friendship made on both sides, the party were presented with a few trinkets and a plug of tobacco each, and sent back in a state of supreme happiness to their village, where for a week Awatok kept the men of his tribe, and Aninga the women, in a state of intense amazement by their minute descriptions of the remarkable doings of the white strangers.

The friendship thus begun between the Esquimaux and the Dolphin's crew was never once interrupted by any unpleasant collision during the months that they afterwards travelled and hunted in company. Strength of muscle and promptitude in action are qualities which all nations in a savage state understand and respect, and the sailors proved that they possessed these qualities in a higher degree than themselves during the hardships and dangers incident to Arctic life, while at the same time their seemingly endless resources and contrivances impressed the simple natives with the belief that white men could accomplish anything they chose to attempt.

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