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   Chapter 2 A COLOSSAL SOMERSAULT

Among the Esquimaux; or, Adventures under the Arctic Circle By Edward Sylvester Ellis Characters: 9967

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The voyage of the "Nautilus" was uneventful until she was far to the northward in Baffin Bay. It was long after leaving St. John that our friends saw their first iceberg. They should have seen them before, as Captain McAlpine explained, for, as you well know, those mountains of ice often cross the path of the Atlantic steamers, and more than once have endangered our great ocean greyhounds. No doubt numbers of them were drifting southward, gradually dissolving as they neared the equator, but it so happened that the "Nautilus" steered clear of them until many degrees to the north.

The captain, who was scanning the icy ocean with his glass, apprised the boys that the longed-for curiosity was in sight at last. As he spoke, he pointed with his hand to the north-west, but though they followed the direction with their eyes, they were disappointed.

"I see nothing," said Rob, "that looks like an iceberg."

"And how is it with you, Mr. Warburton?" asked the skipper, lowering his instrument, and turning toward the younger of the boys, who had approached, and now stood at his side.

"We can make out a small white cloud in the horizon, that's all," said Fred.

"It's the cloud I'm referring to, boys; now take a squint at that same thing through the glass."

Fred leveled the instrument and had hardly taken a glance, when he cried:

"Oh! it's an iceberg sure enough! Isn't it beautiful?"

While he was studying it, the captain added: "Turn the glass a little to the left."

"There's another!" added the delighted youth.

"I guess we've struck a school of 'em," remarked Rob, who was using his eyes as best he could; "I thought we'd bring up the average before reaching Greenland."

"It's a sight worth seeing," commented Fred, handing the glass to his friend, whose pleasure was fully as great as his own.

The instrument was passed back and forth, and, in the course of a half-hour, the vast masses of ice could be plainly discerned with the unaided eye.

"That proves they are coming toward us, or we are going toward them," said Rob.

"Both," replied Captain McAlpine; "we shall pass within a mile of the larger one."

"Suppose we run into it?"

The old sea-dog smiled grimly, as he replied:

"I tried it once, when whaling with the 'Mary Jane.' I don't mean to say I did it on purpose, but there was no moon that night, and when the iceberg, half as big as a whole town, loomed up in the darkness, we hadn't time to get out of its path. Well, I guess I've said enough," he remarked, abruptly.

"Why, you've broken off in the most interesting part of the story," said the deeply interested Fred.

"Well, that was the last of the 'Mary Jane.' The mate, Jack Cosgrove, and myself were all that escaped out of a crew of eleven. We managed to climb upon a small shelf of ice, just above the water, where we would have perished with cold had not an Esquimau fisherman, named Docak, seen us. We were nearer the mainland than we dared hope, and he came out in his kayak and took us off. He helped us to make our way to Ivignut, where the cryolite mines are, and thence we got back to England by way of Denmark. No," added Captain McAlpine, "a prudent navigator won't try to butt an iceberg out of his path; it don't pay."

"It must be dangerous in these waters, especially at night."

"There is danger everywhere and at all times in this life," was the truthful remark of the commander; "and you know that the most constant watchfulness on the part of the great steamers cannot always avert disaster, but I have little fear of anything from icebergs."

You need to be told little about those mountains of ice which sometimes form a procession, vast, towering, and awful, that stream down from the far North and sail in all their sublime grandeur steadily southward until they "go out of commission" forever in the tepid waters of the tropic regions.

It is a strange spectacle to see one of them moving resistlessly against the current, which is sometimes dashed from the corrugated front, as is seen at the bow of a steamboat, but the reason is simple. Nearly seven-eighths of an iceberg is under water, extending so far down that most of the bulk is often within the embrace of the counter current below. This, of course, carries it against the weaker flow, and causes many people to wonder how it can be thus.

While the little group stood forward talking of icebergs, they were gradually drawing near the couple that had first caught their attention. By this time a third had risen to sight, more to the westward, but it was much smaller than the other two, though more unique and beautiful. It looked for all the world like a grand cathedral, whose tapering spire towered fully two hundred feet in air. It was easy to imagine that some gigantic structure had been submerged by a flood, while the steeple still reared its head above the surrounding waters as though defying them to do their worst.

The other two bergs were mu

ch more enormous and of irregular contour. The imaginative spectator could fancy all kinds of resemblances, but the "cold fact" remained that they were simply mountains of ice, with no more symmetry of outline than a mass of rock blasted from a quarry.

"I have read," said Fred, "that in the iceberg factories of the north, as they are called, they are sometimes two or three years in forming, before they break loose and sweep off into the ocean."

"That is true," added Captain McAlpine; "an iceberg is simply a chunk off a frozen river, and a pretty good-sized one, it must be admitted. Where the cold is so intense, a river becomes frozen from the surface to the ground. Snow falls, there may be a little rain during the moderate season, then snow comes again, and all the time the water beneath is freezing more and more solid. Gravity and the pressure of the inconceivable weight beyond keeps forcing the bulk of ice and snow nearer the ocean, until it projects into the clear sea. By and by it breaks loose, and off it goes."

"But why does it take so long?"

"It is like the glaciers of the Alps. Being solid as a rock while the pressure is gradual as well as resistless, it may move only a few feet in a month or a year; but all the same the end must come."

The captain had grown fond of the boys, and the fact that the father of one of them was a director of the company which employed him naturally led him to seek to please them so far as he could do so consistent with his duty. He caused the course of the "Nautilus" to be shifted, so that they approached within a third of a mile of the nearest iceberg, which then was due east.

Sail had been slackened and the progress of the mass was so slow as to be almost imperceptible. This gave full time for its appalling grandeur to grow upon the senses of the youths, who stood minute after minute admiring the overwhelming spectacle, speechless and awed as is one who first pauses at the base of Niagara.

Naturally the officers and crew of the "Nautilus" gave the sight some attention, but it could not impress them as it did those who looked upon it for the first time.

The second iceberg was more to the northward, and the ship was heading directly toward it. It was probably two-thirds the size of the first, and, instead of possessing its rugged regularity of outline, had a curious, one-sided look.

"It seems to me," remarked Rob, who had been studying it for some moments, "that the centre of gravity in that fellow must be rather ticklish."

"It may be more stable than the big one," said Fred, "for you don't know what shape they have under water; a good deal must depend on that."

Jack Cosgrove, the sailor, who had joined the little party at the invitation of the captain, ventured to say:

"Sometimes them craft get top-heavy and take a flop; I shouldn't be s'prised if that one done the same."

"It must be a curious sight; I've often wondered how Jumbo, the great elephant, would have looked turning a somersault. An iceberg performing a handspring would be something of the same order, but a hundred thousand times more extensive. I would give a good deal if one of those bergs should take it into his head to fling a handspring, but I don't suppose-"

"Look!" broke in Fred, in sudden excitement.

To the unbounded amazement of captain, crew, and all the spectators, the very thing spoken of by Rob Carrol took place. The vast bulk of towering ice was seen to plunge downward with a motion, slow at first, but rapidly increasing until it dived beneath the waves like some enormous mass of matter cast off by a planet in its flight through space. As it disappeared, two-fold as much bulk came to view, there was a swirl of water, which was flung high in fountains, and the waves formed by the commotion, as they swept across the intervening space, caused the "Nautilus" to rock like a cradle.

The splash could have been heard miles away, and the iceberg seemed to shiver and shake itself, as though it were some flurried monster of the deep, before it could regain its full equilibrium. Then, as the spectators looked, behold! where was one of those mountains of ice they saw what seemed to be another, for its shape, contour, projections, and depressions were so different that no resemblance could be traced.

"She's all right now," remarked Jack Cosgrove, whose emotions were less stirred than those of any one else; "she's good for two or three thousand miles' voyage, onless she should happen to run aground in shoal water."

"What then would take place, Jack?" asked Fred.

"Wal, there would be the mischief to pay gener'ly. Things would go ripping, tearing, and smashing, and the way that berg would behave would be shameful. If anybody was within reach he'd get hurt."

Rob stepped up to the sailor as if a sudden thought had come to him. Laying his hand on his arm, he said, in an undertone:

"I wonder if the captain won't let us visit that iceberg?"

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