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   Chapter 21 No.21

The World of Ice By R. M. Ballantyne Characters: 12540

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


First gleam of light-Trip to welcome the sun-Bears and strange discoveries-O'Riley is reckless-First view of the sun.

The wisest of men has told us that "it is a pleasant thing for the eyes to behold the sun," but only those who spend a winter in the Arctic Regions can fully appreciate the import of that inspired saying.

It is absolutely essential to existence that the bright beams of the great luminary should fall on animal as well as plant. Most of the poor dogs died for want of this blessed light, and had it been much longer withheld, doubtless our navigators would have sunk also.

About the 20th of January a faint gleam of light on the horizon told of the coming day. It was hailed with rapture, and long before the bright sun himself appeared on the southern horizon the most of the men made daily excursions to the neighbouring hilltops to catch sight of as much as possible of his faint rays. Day by day those rays expanded, and at last a sort of dawn enlightened a distant portion of their earth, which, faint though it was at first, had much the appearance in their eyes of a bright day. But time wore on, and real day appeared. The red sun rose in all its glory, showed a rim of its glowing disk above the frozen sea, and then sank, leaving a long gladsome smile of twilight behind. This great event happened on the 19th of February, and would have occurred sooner, but for the high cliffs to the southward which intervened between the ship and the horizon.

On the day referred to, a large party was formed to go to the top of the cliffs at Red-Snow Valley to welcome back the sun.

"There's scarce a man left behind," remarked Captain Guy, as they started on this truly joyous expedition.

"Only Mizzle, sir," said Buzzby, slapping his hands together, for the cold was intense; "he said as how he'd stop and have dinner ready agin our return."

There was a general laugh from the men, who knew that the worthy cook had other reasons for not going-namely, his shortness of wind, and his inveterate dislike to ascend hills.

"Come, Fred," cried Captain Ellice, who had completely recovered from his accident, "I shall be quite jealous of your friend Singleton if you bestow so much of your company on him. Walk with me, sirrah, I command you, as I wish to have a chat."

"You are unjust to me," replied Fred, taking his father's arm, and falling with him a little to the rear of the party; "Tom complains that I have quite given him up of late."

"Och! isn't it a purty sight," remarked O'Riley to Mivins, "to see us all goin' out like good little childers to see the sun rise of a beautiful mornin' like this?"

"So it his," answered Mivins; "but I wish it wasn't quite so cold."

It was indeed cold-so cold that the men had to beat their hands together, and stamp their feet, and rush about like real children, in order to keep their bodies warm. This month of February was the coldest they had yet experienced. Several times the thermometer fell to the unexampled temperature of 75° below zero, or 107° below the freezing-point of water. When we remind our young readers that the thermometer in England seldom falls so low as zero, except in what we term weather of the utmost severity, they may imagine-or rather, they may try to imagine-what 75° below zero must have been.

It was not quite so cold as that upon this occasion, otherwise the men could not have shown face to it.

"Let's have leap-frog," shouted Davie; "we can jump along as well as walk along. Hooray! hup!"

The "hup" was rather an exclamation of necessity than of delight, inasmuch as that it was caused by Davie coming suddenly down flat on the ice in the act of vainly attempting to go leap-frog over Mivins's head.

"That's your sort," cried Amos Parr; "down with you, Buzzby."

Buzzby obeyed, and Amos, being heavy and past the agile time of life, leaped upon, instead of over, his back, and there stuck.

"Not so high, lads," cried Captain Guy. "Come, Mr. Saunders, give us a back."

"Faix he'd better go on his hands an' knees."

"That's it! over you go! hurrah, lads!"

In five minutes nearly the whole crew were panting from their violent exertions, and those who did not or could not join panted as much from laughter. The desired result, however, was speedily gained. They were all soon in a glow of heat, and bade defiance to the frost.

An hour's sharp climb brought the party almost to the brow of the hill, from which they hoped to see the sun rise for the first time for nearly five months. Just as they were about to pass over a ridge in the cliffs, Captain Guy, who had pushed on in advance with Tom Singleton, was observed to pause abruptly and make signals for the men to advance with caution. He evidently saw something unusual, for he crouched behind a rock and peeped over it. Hastening up as silently as possible, they discovered that a group of Polar bears were amusing themselves on the other side of the cliffs, within long gunshot. Unfortunately not one of the party had brought fire-arms. Intent only on catching a sight of the sun, they had hurried off unmindful of the possibility of their catching sight of anything else. They had not even a spear; and the few oak cudgels that some carried, however effectual they might have proved at Donnybrook, were utterly worthless there.

There were four large bears and a young one, and the gambols they performed were of the most startling as well as amusing kind. But that which interested and surprised the crew most was the fact that these bears were playing with barrels, and casks, and tent-poles, and sails. They were engaged in a regular frolic with these articles, tossing them up in the air, pawing them about, and leaping over them like kittens. In these movements they displayed their enormous strength several times. Their leaps, although performed with the utmost ease, were so great as to prove the iron nature of their muscles. They tossed the heavy casks, too, high into the air like tennis-balls, and in two instances, while the crew were watching them, dashed a cask in pieces with a slight blow of their paws. The tough canvas yielded before them like sheets of paper, and the havoc they committed was wonderful to behold.

"Most extraor

dinary!" exclaimed Captain Guy, after watching them for some time in silence. "I cannot imagine where these creatures can have got hold of such things. Were not the goods at Store Island all right this morning, Mr. Bolton?"

"Yes, sir, they were."

"Nothing missing from the ship?"

"No, sir, nothing."

"It's most unaccountable."

"Captain Guy," said O'Riley, addressing his commander with a solemn face, "haven't ye more nor wance towld me o' the queer thing in the deserts they calls the mirage?"

"I have," answered the captain, with a puzzled look.

"An' didn't ye say there was somethin' like it in the Polar Seas, that made ye see flags, an' ships, an' things o' that sort when there was no sich things there at all?"

"True, O'Riley, I did."

"Faix, then, it's my opinion that yon bears is a mirage, an' the sooner we git out o' their way the better."

A smothered laugh greeted this solution of the difficulty.

"I think I can give a better explanation-begging your pardon, O'Riley," said Captain Ellice, who had hitherto looked on with a sly smile. "More than a year ago, when I was driven past this place to the northward, I took advantage of a calm to land a supply of food, and a few stores and medicines, to be a stand-by in case my ship should be wrecked to the northward. Ever since the wreck actually took place I have looked forward to this cache of provisions as a point of refuge on my way south. As I have already told you, I have never been able to commence the southward journey; and now I don't require these things, which is lucky, for the bears seem to have appropriated them entirely."

"Had I known of them sooner, captain," said Captain Guy, "the bears should not have had a chance."

"That accounts for the supply of tobacco and sticking-plaster we found in the bear's stomach," remarked Fred, laughing.

"True, boy; yet it surprises me that they succeeded in breaking into my cache, for it was made of heavy masses of stone, many of which required two and three men to lift them, even with the aid of handspikes."

"What's wrong with O'Riley?" said Fred, pointing to that eccentric individual, who was gazing intently at the bears, muttering between his teeth, and clinching his cudgel nervously.

"Sure it's a cryin' shame," he soliloquized in an undertone, quite unconscious that he was observed, "that ye should escape, ye villains. Av I only had a musket now-but I han't. Arrah! av it was only a spear. Be the mortial! I think I could crack the skull o' the small wan! Faix, then, I'll try!"

At the last word, before any one was aware of his intentions, this son of Erin, whose blood was now up, sprang down the cliffs towards the bears, flourishing his stick, and shouting wildly as he went. The bears instantly paused in their game, but showed no disposition to retreat.

"Come back, you madman!" shouted the captain; but the captain shouted in vain.

"Stop! halt! come back!" chorused the crew.

But O'Riley was deaf. He had advanced to within a few yards of the bears, and was rushing forward to make a vigorous attack on the little one.

"He'll be killed!" exclaimed Fred in dismay.

"Follow me, men," shouted the captain, as he leaped the ridge: "make all the noise you can."

In a moment the surrounding cliffs were reverberating with the loud halloos and frantic yells of the men, as they burst suddenly over the ridge, and poured down upon the bears like a torrent of maniacs.

Bold though they were, they couldn't stand this. They turned tail and fled, followed by the disappointed howls of O'Riley, and also by his cudgel, which he hurled violently after them as he pulled up.

Having thus triumphantly put the enemy to flight, the party continued their ascent of the hill, and soon gained the summit.

"There it is!" shouted Fred, who, in company with Mivins, first crossed the ridge, and tossed his arms in the air.

The men cheered loudly as they hurried up and one by one emerged into a red glow of sunshine. It could not be termed warm, for it had no power in that frosty atmosphere, and only a small portion of the sun's disk was visible. But his light was on every crag and peak around; and as the men sat down in groups, and, as it were, bathed in the sunshine, winking at the bright gleam of light with half-closed eyes, they declared that it felt warm, and wouldn't hear anything to the contrary, although Saunders, true to his nature, endeavoured to prove to them that the infinitely small degree of heat imparted by such feeble rays could not by any possibility be felt except in imagination. But Saunders was outvoted. Indeed, under the circumstances, he had not a chance of proving his point; for the more warm the dispute became, the greater was the amount of animal heat that was created, to be placed, falsely, to the credit of the sun.

Patience, however, is a virtue which is sure to meet with a reward. The point which Saunders failed to prove by argument, was pretty well proved to every one (though not admitted) by the agency of John Frost. That remarkably bitter individual nestled round the men as they sat sunning themselves, and soon compelled them to leap up and apply to other sources for heat. They danced about vigorously, and again took to leap-frog. Then they tried their powers at the old familiar games of home. Hop-step-and-jump raised the animal thermometer considerably, and the standing leap, running leap, and high leap sent it up many degrees. But a general race brought them almost to a summer temperature, and at the same time, most unexpectedly, secured to them a hare! This little creature, of which very few had yet been procured, darted in an evil hour out from behind a rock right in front of the men, who, having begun the race for sport, now continued it energetically for profit. A dozen sticks were hurled at the luckless hare, and one of these felled it to the ground.

After this they returned home in triumph, keeping up all the way an animated dispute as to the amount of heat shed upon them by the sun, and upon that knotty question, "Who killed the hare?"

Neither point was settled when they reached the Dolphin, and, we may add, for the sake of the curious reader, neither point is settled yet.

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