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   Chapter 17 No.17

The World of Ice By R. M. Ballantyne Characters: 19365

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Expeditions on foot-Effects of darkness on dogs and men-The first death-Caught in a trap-The Esquimau camp.

"I don't know how it is, an' I can't tell wot it is, but so it is," remarked Buzzby to Grim, a week after the first night of the theatricals, "that that 'ere actin' has done us all a sight o' good. Here we are as merry as crickets every one, although we're short o' fresh meat, and symptoms o' scurvy are beginning to show on some of us."

"It's the mind havin' occupation, an' bein' prewented from broodin' over its misfortins," replied Grim, with the air of a philosopher.

Grim did not put this remark in turned commas, although he ought to have done so, seeing that it was quoted from a speech made by the captain to Singleton the day before.

"You see," continued Grim, "we've been actin' every night for a week past. Well, if we hadn't been actin', we should ha' been thinkin' an' sleepin'; too much of which, you see, ain't good for us, Buzzby, and would never pay."

Buzzby was not quite sure of this, but contented himself by saying, "Well, mayhap ye're right. I'm sorry it's to come to an end so soon; but there is no doubt that fresh meat is ondispensable. An' that reminds me, messmate, that I've not cleaned my musket for two days, an' it wouldn't do to go on a hunt with a foul piece, nohow. We start at ten o'clock, A.M., don't we?"

Grim admitted that they did-remarking that it might just as well be ten P.M. for all the difference the sun would make in it-and went below with Buzzby.

In the cabin active preparations were making for an extended hunting-expedition, which the empty state of the larder rendered absolutely necessary. For a week past the only fresh provisions they had procured were a white fox and a rabbit, notwithstanding the exertions of Meetuck, Fred, and the doctor, who with three separate parties had scoured the country for miles round the ship. Scurvy was now beginning to appear among them, and Captain Guy felt that although they had enough of salt provisions to last them the greater part of the winter, if used with economy, they could not possibly subsist on these alone. An extended expedition in search of seals and walruses was therefore projected.

It was determined that this should consist of two parties, the one to proceed north, the other to travel south in the tracks of the Esquimaux, who had left their temporary village in search of walruses, they also being reduced almost to a state of starvation.

The plan of the expedition was as follows:-

One party, consisting of ten men, under Bolton, the first mate, was to take the largest sledge, and the whole team of dogs, on which, with twelve days' provisions and their sleeping-bags, they were to proceed northward along the coast as far as possible; and, in the event of being unsuccessful, they were to turn homeward on the eighth day, and make the best of their way back on short allowance.

The other party, consisting of fifteen men, under Saunders, the second mate, was to set off to the southward on foot, dragging a smaller sledge behind them, and endeavour to find the Esquimaux, who, it was supposed, could not be far off, and would probably have fresh meat in their camp.

It was a clear, cold, and beautiful star-light day when the two parties started simultaneously on their separate journeys. The coruscations of the aurora were more than usually vivid, and the snow gave forth that sharp, dry, crunching sound, under the heels of the men as they moved about, that denotes intense frost.

"Mind that you hug the land, Mr. Bolton," said the captain at parting; "don't get farther out on the floes than you can help. To meet with a gale on the ice is no joke in these latitudes."

The first mate promised obedience; and the second mate having been also cautioned to hug the land, and not to use their small supply of spirits for any other purpose than that of lighting the lamp, except in cases of the most urgent need, they set off with three hearty cheers, which were returned by Captain Guy and those who remained with him in the ship. All the able and effective men were sent on these expeditions; those who remained behind were all more or less affected with scurvy, except the captain himself, whose energetic nature seemed invulnerable, and whose flow of spirits never failed. Indeed, it is probable that to this hearty and vigorous temperament, under God, he owed his immunity from disease; for, since provisions began to fail, he along with all his officers had fared precisely like the men-the few delicacies they possessed having been reserved for the sick.

Unfortunately, their stock of lime-juice was now getting low, and the crew had to be put on short allowance. As this acid is an excellent anti-scorbutic, or preventive of scurvy, as well as a cure, its rapid diminution was viewed with much concern by all on board. The long-continued absence of the sun, too, now began to tell more severely than ever on men and dogs. On the very day the expeditions took their departure one of the latter, which had been left behind on account of illness, was attacked with a strange disease, of which several of the team eventually died before the winter came to an end. It was seized with spasms, and, after a few wild paroxysms, lapsed into a lethargic state. In this condition the animal functions went on apparently as well as usual, the appetite continued not only good but voracious. The disease was clearly mental. It barked furiously at nothing, and walked in straight or curved lines perseveringly; or, at other times, it remained for hours in moody silence, and then started off howling as if pursued. In thirty-six hours after the first attack the poor animal died, and was buried in the snow on Store Island.

This was the first death that had occurred on board, and although it was only a dog, and not one of the favourites, its loss cast a gloom over the crew for several days. It was the first blow of the fell destroyer in the midst of their little community, which could ill spare the life even of one of the lower animals, and they felt as if the point of the wedge had now been entered, and might be driven farther home ere long.

The expressive delight of the poor dogs on being admitted to the light of the cabin showed how ardently they longed for the return of the sun. It was now the beginning of December, and the darkness was complete. Not the faintest vestige of twilight appeared even at noon. Midnight and noonday were alike. Except when the stars and aurora were bright, there was not light enough to distinguish a man's form at ten paces distant, and a blacker mass than the surrounding darkness alone indicated where the high cliffs encompassed the Bay of Mercy. When therefore any one came on deck, the first thing he felt on groping his way about was the cold noses of the dogs pushed against his hands, as they frisked and gambolled round him. They howled at the appearance of an accidental light, as if they hoped the sun, or at least the moon, were going to rise once more, and they rejoiced on being taken below, and leaped up in the men's faces for sympathy, and whined, and all but spoke with excess of satisfaction.

The effect of the monotony of long-continued darkness and the absence of novelty had much to do also with the indifferent health of many of the men. After the two expeditions were sent out, those who remained behind became much more low spirited, and the symptoms of scurvy increased. In these circumstances Captain Guy taxed his inventive genius to the utmost to keep up their spirits and engage their minds. He assumed an air of bustling activity, and attached a degree of importance to the regular performance of the light duties of the ship that they did not in reality possess apart from their influence as discipline. The cabin was swept and aired, the stove cleaned, the fittings dusted, the beds made, the tides, thermometers, and barometers registered; the logs posted up, clothes mended, food cooked, traps visited, etc., with the regularity of clockwork, and every possible plan adopted to occupy every waking hour, and to prevent the men from brooding over their position. When the labours of the day were over, plans were proposed for getting up a concert, or a new play, in order to surprise the absentees on their return. Stories were told over and over again, and enjoyed if good, or valued far beyond their worth if bad. When old stories failed, and old books were read, new stories were invented; and here the genius of some was drawn out, while the varied information of others became of great importance. Tom Singleton, in particular, entertained the men with songs and lively tunes on the flute, and told stories, as one of them remarked, "like a book." Joseph West, too, was an invaluable comrade in this respect. He had been a studious boy at school, and a lover of books of all kinds, especially books of travel and adventure. His memory was good, and his inventive powers excellent, so that he recalled wonderful and endless anecdotes from the unfathomable stores of his memory, strung them together into a sort of story, and told them in a soft, pleasant voice that captivated the ears of his audience; but poor West was in delicate health, and could not speak so long as his messmates would have wished. The rough life they led, and the frequent exposure to intense cold, had considerably weakened a frame which had never been robust, and an occasional cough, when he told a long story, sometimes warned him to desist. Games, too, were got up. "Hide and seek" was revived with all the enthusiasm of boyhood, and "fox-chase"

was got up with tremendous energy. In all this the captain was the most earnest and vigorous, and in doing good to others he unconsciously did the greatest possible amount of good to himself; for his forgetfulness of self, and the activity of his mind in catering for the wants and amusements of his men, had the effect of imparting a cheerfulness to his manner, and a healthy tone to his mind, that tended powerfully to sustain and invigorate his body. But despite all this, the men grew worse, and a few of them showed such alarming symptoms that the doctor began to fear there would soon be a breach in their numbers.

Meanwhile Saunders and his fifteen men trudged steadily to the southward, dragging their sledge behind them. The ice-floes, however, turned out to be very rugged and hummocky, and retarded them so much that they made but slow progress until they passed the Red-Snow Valley, and doubled the point beyond it. Here they left the floes, and took to the natural highway afforded by the ice-belt, along which they sped more rapidly, and arrived at the Esquimau village in the course of about five hours.

Here all was deserted and silent. Bits of seal and walrus hide and bones and tusks were scattered about in all directions, but no voices issued from the dome-shaped huts of snow.

"They're the likest things to bee-skeps I ever saw," remarked Saunders, as he and his party stood contemplating the little group of huts. "And they don't seem to care much for big doors."

Saunders referred here to the low tunnels, varying from three to twelve feet, that formed the entrance to each hut.

"Mayhap there's some o' them asleep inside," suggested Tom Green, the carpenter's mate; "suppose we go in and see."

"I daresay ye're no far wrong," replied the second mate, to whom the idea seemed to be a new one. "Go in, Davie Summers, ye're a wee chap, and can bend your back better than the most o' us."

Davie laughed as he went down on his hands and knees, and creeping in at the mouth of one of the tunnels, which barely permitted him to enter in that position, disappeared.

Several of the party at the same time paid similar visits to the other huts, but they all returned with the same remark-"empty." The interiors were begrimed with lamp-black and filth, and from their appearance seemed to have been deserted only a short time before.

Buzzby, who formed one of the party, rubbed his nose for some time in great perplexity, until he drew from Davie Summers the remark that his proboscis was red enough by nature and didn't need rubbing. "It's odd," he remarked; "they seems to ha' bin here for some time, and yit they've niver looked near the ship but once. Wot's become on 'em I don't know."

"Don't you?" said Davie in a tone of surprise; "now that is odd. One would have thought that a fellow who keeps his weather-eye so constantly open should know everything."

"Don't chaff, boy, but lend a hand to undo the sled-lashings. I see that Mr. Saunders is agoin' to anchor here for the night."

The second mate, who had been taking a hasty glance at the various huts of the village, selected two of the largest as a lodging for his men, and having divided them into two gangs, ordered them to turn in and sleep as hard as possible.

"S'pose we may sup first?" said Summers in a whining tone of mock humility.

"In coorse you may," answered Tom Green, giving the lad a push that upset him in the snow.

"Come here, Buzzby, I want to speak to 'ee," said Saunders, leading him aside. "It seems to me that the Esquimaux canna be very far off, and I observe their tracks are quite fresh in the snow leadin' to the southward, so I mean to have a night march after them; but as the men seem pretty weel tired I'll only take two o' the strongest. Who d'ye think might go?"

"I'll go myself, sir."

"Very good; and who else, think 'ee? Amos Parr seems freshest."

"I think Tom Green's the man wot can do it. I seed him capsize Davie Summers jist now in the snow; an' when a man can skylark, I always know he's got lots o' wind in 'im."

"Very good. Then go, Buzzby, and order him to get ready, and look sharp about it."

"Ay, ay, sir," cried Buzzby, as he turned to prepare Green for the march.

In pursuance of this plan, an hour afterwards Saunders and his two followers left the camp with their sleeping-bags and a day's provisions on their shoulders, having instructed the men to follow with the sledge at the end of five hours, which period was deemed sufficient time for rest and refreshment.

For two hours the trio plodded silently onward over the ice-belt by the light of a clear, starry sky. At the end of that time clouds began to gather to the westward, rendering the way less distinct, but still leaving sufficient light to render travelling tolerably easy. Then they came to a part of the coast where the ice-belt clung close to a line of perpendicular cliffs of about three miles in extent. The ice-belt here was about twenty feet broad. On the left the cliffs referred to rose sheer up several hundred feet; on the right the ice-belt descended only about three feet to the floes. Here our three adventurous travellers were unexpectedly caught in a trap. The tide rose so high that it raised the sea-ice to a level with the ice-belt, and, welling up between the two, completely overflowed the latter.

The travellers pushed on as quickly as possible, for the precipices on their left forbade all hope of escape in that direction, while the gap between the ice-belt and the floes, which was filled with a gurgling mixture of ice and water, equally hemmed them in on the right. Worse than all, the tide continued to rise, and when it reached half-way to their knees, they found it dangerous to advance for fear of stepping into rents and fissures which were no longer visible.

"What's to be done noo?" inquired Saunders, coming to a full stop, and turning to Buzzby with a look of blank despair.

"Dun'no'," replied Buzzby, with an equally blank look of despair; as he stood with his legs apart and his arms hanging down by his side-the very personification of imbecility. "If I wos a fly I'd know wot to do. I'd walk up the side o' that cliff till I got to a dry bit, and then I'd stick on. But, not bein' a fly, in coorse I can't."

Buzzby said this in a recklessly facetious tone, and Tom Green followed it up with a remark to the effect that "he'd be blowed if he ever wos in sich a fix in his life;" intimating his belief, at the same time, that his "toes wos freezin'."

"No fear o' that," said the second mate; "they'll no freeze as lang as they're in the water. We'll just have to stand here till the tide goes doon."

Saunders said this in a dogged tone, and immediately put his plan in force by crossing his arms and planting his feet firmly on the submerged ice and wide apart. Buzzby and Green, however, adopted the wiser plan of moving constantly about within a small circle, and after Saunders had argued for half-an-hour as to the advantages of his plan, he followed their example. The tide rose above their knees, but they had fortunately on boots made by the Esquimaux, which were perfectly waterproof; their feet, therefore, although very cold, were quite dry. In an hour and three-quarters the ice-belt was again uncovered, and the half-frozen travellers resumed their march with the utmost energy.

Two hours later and they came to a wide expanse of level ground at the foot of the high cliffs, where a group of Esquimau huts, similar to those they had left, was descried.

"They're all deserted too," remarked Buzzby.

But Buzzby was wrong, for at that moment a very small and particularly fat little boy in a fox-skin dress appeared at the mouth of one of the low tunnels that formed the entrance to the nearest hut. This boy looked exactly like a lady's muff with a hairy head above it and a pair of feet below. The instant he observed the strangers he threw up his arms, uttered a shrill cry of amazement, and disappeared in the tunnel. Next instant a legion of dogs rushed out of the huts barking furiously, and on their heels came the entire population, creeping on their hands and knees out of the tunnel mouths like dark hairy monsters issuing from their holes. They had spears and knives of ivory with them; but a glance showed the two parties that they were friends, and in a few moments Awatok and his comrades were chattering vociferously round the sailors, and endeavouring by word and sign to make themselves understood.

The Esquimaux received the three visitors and the rest of the sledge party, who came up a few hours later, with the utmost hospitality. But we have not space to tell of how they dragged them into their smoky huts of snow; and how they offered them raw seal-flesh to eat; and how, on the sailors expressing disgust, they laughed, and added moss mixed with oil to their lamps to enable them to cook their food; and how they managed by signs and otherwise to understand that the strangers had come in search of food, at which they (the Esquimaux) were not surprised; and how they assured their visitors (also by means of signs) that they would go a-hunting with them on the following day, whereat they (the sailors) were delighted, and shook hands all round. Neither have we space to tell of how the visitors were obliged to conform to custom, and sleep in the same huts with men, women, children, and dogs, and how they felt thankful to be able to sleep anywhere and anyhow without being frozen. All this, and a great deal more, we are compelled to skip over here, and leave it, unwillingly, to the vivid imagination of our reader.

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