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   Chapter 19 No.19

The World of Ice By R. M. Ballantyne Characters: 12269

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The northern party-A narrow escape, and a great discovery-Esquimaux again, and a joyful surprise.

It is interesting to meditate, sometimes, on the deviousness of the paths by which men are led in earthly affairs-even when the starting-point and the object of pursuit are the same. The two parties which left the Dolphin had for their object the procuring of fresh food. The one went south and the other north; but their field was the same-the surface of the frozen sea and the margin of the ice-girt shore. Yet how different their experiences and results were the sequel will show.

As we have already said, the northern party was in command of Bolton, the first mate, and consisted of ten men, among whom were our hero, Fred, Peter Grim, O'Riley, and Meetuck, with the whole team of dogs and the large sledge.

Being fine weather when they set out, they travelled rapidly, making twenty miles, as near as they could calculate, in the first six hours. The dogs pulled famously, and the men stepped out well at first, being cheered and invigorated mentally by the prospect of an adventurous excursion and fresh meat. At the end of the second day they buried part of their stock of provisions at the foot of a conspicuous cliff, intending to pick it up on their return; and thus lightened, they advanced more rapidly, keeping farther out on the floes, in hopes of falling in with walruses or seals.

Their hopes, however, were doomed to disappointment. They got only one seal, and that was a small one-scarcely sufficient to afford a couple of meals to the dogs.

They were "misfortunate entirely," as O'Riley remarked; and to add to their misfortunes, the floe-ice became so rugged that they could scarcely advance at all.

"Things grow worse and worse," remarked Grim, as the sledge, for the twentieth time that day, plunged into a crack in the ice, and had to be unloaded ere it could be got out. "The sledge won't stand much o' sich work, and if it breaks-good-bye to it, for it won't mend without wood, and there's none here."

"No fear of it," cried Bolton encouragingly; "it's made of material as tough as your own sinews, Grim, and won't give way easily, as the thumps it has withstood already prove.-Has it never struck you, Fred," he continued, turning to our hero who was plodding forward in silence-"has it never struck you that when things in this world get very bad, and we begin to feel inclined to give up, they somehow or other begin to get better?"

"Why, yes, I have noticed that; but I have a vague sort of feeling just now that things are not going to get better. I don't know whether it's this long-continued darkness, or the want of good food, but I feel more downcast than I ever was in my life before."

Bolton's remark had been intended to cheer, but Fred's answer proved that a discussion of the merits of the question was not likely to have a good effect on the men, whose spirits were evidently very much cast down, so he changed the subject.

Fortunately, at that time an incident occurred which effected the mate's purpose better than any efforts man could have made. It has frequently happened that when Arctic voyagers have, from sickness and long confinement during a monotonous winter, become so depressed in spirits that games and amusements of every kind bailed to rouse them from their lethargic despondency, sudden danger has given to their minds the needful impulse, and effected a salutary change, for a time at least, in their spirits. Such was the case at the present time. The men were so worn with hard travel and the want of fresh food, and depressed by disappointment and long-continued darkness, that they failed in their attempts to cheer each other, and at length relapsed into moody silence. Fred's thoughts turned constantly to his father, and he ceased to remark cheerfully, as was his wont, on passing objects. Even O'Riley's jests became few and far between, and at last ceased altogether. Bolton alone kept up his spirits, and sought to cheer his men, the feeling of responsibility being, probably, the secret of his superiority over them in this respect. But even Bolton's spirits began to sink at last.

While they were thus groping sadly along among the hummocks, a large fragment of ice was observed to break off from a berg just over their heads.

"Look out! follow me, quick!" shouted the first mate in a loud, sharp voice of alarm, at the same time darting in towards the side of the berg.

The startled men obeyed the order just in time, for they had barely reached the side of the berg when the enormous pinnacle fell, and was shattered into a thousand fragments on the spot they had just left. A rebounding emotion sent the blood in a crimson flood to Fred's forehead, and this was followed by a feeling of gratitude to the Almighty for the preservation of himself and the party. Leaving the dangerous vicinity of the bergs, they afterwards kept more in-shore.

"What can yonder mound be?" said Fred, pointing to an object that was faintly seen at a short distance off upon the bleak shore.

"An Esquimau hut, maybe," replied Grim.-"What think'ee, Meetuck?"

Meetuck shook his head and looked grave, but made no reply.

"Why don't you answer?" said Bolton. "But come along, we'll soon see."

Meetuck now made various ineffectual attempts to dissuade the party from examining the mound, which turned out to be composed of stones heaped upon each other; but as all the conversation of which he was capable failed to enlighten his companions as to what the pile was, they instantly set to work to open a passage into the interior, believing that it might contain fresh provisions, as the Esquimaux were in the habit of thus preserving their superabundant food from bears and wolves. In half-an-hour a hole, large enough for a man to creep through, was formed, and Fred entered, but started back with an exclamation of horror on finding himself in the presence of a human skeleton, which was seated on the ground in the centre of this strange tomb, with its head and arms resting on the knees.

"It must be an Esquimau grave," said Fre

d, as he retreated hastily; "that must be the reason why Meetuck tried to hinder us."

"I should like to see it," said Grim, stooping and thrusting his head and shoulders into the hole.

"What have you got there?" asked Bolton, as Grim drew back and held up something in his hand.

"Don't know exactly. It's like a bit o' cloth." On examination the article was found to be a shred of coarse cloth, of a blue or black colour; and being an unexpected substance to meet with in such a place, Bolton turned round with it to Meetuck in the hope of obtaining some information. But Meetuck was gone. While the sailors were breaking into the grave, Meetuck had stood aloof with a displeased expression of countenance, as if he were angry at the rude desecration of a countryman's tomb; but the moment his eye fell on the shred of cloth an expression of mingled surprise and curiosity crossed his countenance, and, without uttering a word, he slipped noiselessly into the hole, from which he almost immediately issued bearing several articles in his hand. These he held up to view, and with animated words and gesticulations explained that this was the grave of a white man, not of a native.

The articles he brought out were a pewter plate and a silver table-spoon.

"There's a name of some kind written here," said Bolton, as he carefully scrutinized the spoon. "Look here, Fred, your eyes are better than mine, see if you can make it out."

Fred took it with a trembling hand, for a strange feeling of dread had seized possession of his heart, and he could scarcely bring himself to look upon it. He summoned up courage, however; but at the first glance his hand fell down by his side, and a dimness came over his eyes, for the word "POLE STAR" was engraven on the handle. He would have fallen to the ground had not Bolton caught him.

"Don't give way, lad, the ship may be all right. Perhaps this is one o' the crew that died."

Fred did not answer, but recovering himself with a strong effort, he said, "Pull down the stones, men."

The men obeyed in silence, and the poor boy sat down on a rock to await the result in trembling anxiety. A few minutes sufficed to disentomb the skeleton, for the men sympathized with their young comrade, and worked with all their energies.

"Cheer up, Fred," said Bolton, coming and laying his hand on the youth's shoulder; "it's not your father. There is a bit of black hair sticking to the scalp."

With a fervent expression of thankfulness Fred rose and examined the skeleton, which had been placed in a sort of sack of skin, but was destitute of clothing. It was quite dry, and must have been there a long time. Nothing else was found, but from the appearance of the skull and the presence of the plate and spoon, there could be no doubt that it was that of one of the Pole Star's crew.

It was now resolved that they should proceed along the coast and examine every creek and bay for traces of the lost vessel.

"O Bolton! my heart misgives me," said Fred, as they drove along; "I fear that they have all perished."

"Niver a bit, sir," said O'Riley, in a sympathizing tone; "yon chap must have died and been buried here be the crew as they wint past."

"You forget that sailors don't bury men under mounds of stone, with pewter plates and spoons beside them."

O'Riley was silenced, for the remark was unanswerable.

"He may ha' bin left or lost on the shore, and been found by the Esquimaux," suggested Peter Grim.

"Is that not another tomb?" inquired one of the men, pointing towards an object which stood on the end of a point or cape towards which they were approaching.

Ere any one could reply, their ears were saluted by the well-known bark of a pack of Esquimau dogs. In another moment they dashed into the midst of a snow village, and were immediately surrounded by the excited natives. For some time no information could be gleaned from their interpreter, who was too excited to make use of his meagre amount of English. They observed, however, that the natives, although much excited, did not seem to be so much surprised at the appearance of white men amongst them as those were whom they had first met with near the ship. In a short time Meetuck, apparently, had expended all he had to say to his friends, and turned to make explanations to Bolton in a very excited tone; but little more could be made out than that what he said had some reference to white men. At length, in desperation, he pointed to a large hut, which seemed to be the principal one of the village, and dragging the mate towards it, made signs to him to enter.

Bolton hesitated an instant.

"He wants you to see the chief of the tribe, no doubt," said Fred; "you'd better go in at once."

A loud voice shouted something in the Esquimau language from within the hut. At the sound Fred's heart beat violently, and pushing past the mate he crept through the tunnelled entrance and stood within. There was little furniture in this rude dwelling. A dull flame flickered in a stone lamp which hung from the roof, and revealed the figure of a large Esquimau reclining on a couch of skins at the raised side of the hut.

The man looked up hastily as Fred entered, and uttered a few unintelligible words.

"Father!" cried Fred, gasping for breath, and springing forward.

Captain Ellice, for it was indeed he, started with apparent difficulty and pain into a sitting posture, and throwing back his hood revealed a face whose open, hearty, benignant expression shone through a coat of dark brown which long months of toil and exposure had imprinted on it. It was thin, however, and careworn, and wore an expression that seemed to be the result of long-continued suffering.

"Father!" he exclaimed in an earnest tone; "who calls me father?"

"Don't you know me, father?-don't you remember Fred?-look at-"

Fred checked himself, for the wild look of his father frightened him.

"Ah! these dreams," murmured the old man; "I wish they did not come so-"

Placing his hand on his forehead, he fell backwards in a state of insensibility into the arms of his son.

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