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   Chapter 3 AN ALARMING SITUATION

Among the Esquimaux; or, Adventures under the Arctic Circle By Edward Sylvester Ellis Characters: 9824

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The boldness of the proposition fairly took away the breath of the honest sailor. He stared at Rob as though doubting whether he had heard aright. He looked at the smiling youth from head to foot, and stared a full minute before he spoke.

"By the horned spoon, you're crazy, younker!"

"What is there so crazy about such an idea?" asked Fred, as eager to go on the excursion as his friend.

Jack removed his tarpaulin and scratched his head in perplexity. He voided a mouthful of tobacco spittle over the taffrail, heaved a prodigious sigh, and then muttered, as if to himself:

"It's crazy clean through, from top to bottom, sideways, cat-a-cornered, and every way; but if the captain says 'yes' I'll take you."

Rob stepped to where the skipper stood, some paces away, and said:

"Captain McAlpine, being as this is the first time Fred and I ever had a good look at an iceberg, we would be much obliged if you will allow Jack to row us out to it. We want to get a better view of it than we can from the deck of the ship. Jack is willing, and we will be much obliged for your permission."

Fred was listening breathlessly for the reply, which, like Rob, he expected would be a curt refusal. Great, therefore, was the surprise of the two when the good-natured commander said:

"The request doesn't strike me as very sensible, but, if your hearts are set on it, I don't see any objection. Yes, Jack has my permission to take you to that mass of ice, provided you don't stay too long."

"He's crazy, too!" was the whispered exclamation of the sailor, who, nevertheless, was pleased to gratify his young friends.

The preparations were quickly made. Fred had heard that polar bears are occasionally found on the icebergs which float southward from the Arctic regions, and he insisted that they ought to take their rifles and ammunition along. Rob laughed, but fortunately he followed his advice, and thus it happened that the couple were as well supplied in that respect as if starting out on a week's hunt in the interior of the country.

When Jack was urged to do the same he resolutely shook his head, and then turned about and accepted a weapon from the captain, who seemed in the mood for humoring every whim of the youths that afternoon.

"Take it along, Jack," he said; "there may be some tigers, leopards, boa-constrictors, and hyenas prowling about on the ice. They may be on skates, and there is nothing like being prepared for whatever comes. Good luck to you!"

Rob placed himself in the bow of the small boat, and Fred in the stern, while the sailor, sitting down near the middle, grasped the oars and rowed with that long, steady stroke which showed his mastery of the art. There was little wind stirring, and the waves were so slight that they were easily ridden. The sea was of a deep green color, and when the spray occasionally dashed over the lads it was as cold as ice itself. By this time the iceberg had drifted somewhat to the southward, but its progress was so slow as to suggest that the two currents which swept against it were nearly of the same strength. Had it been earlier in the day it would probably have remained visible to the "Nautilus" until sunset.

Meanwhile, a fourth mass rose to sight in the rim of the eastern horizon, so that there seemed some truth in Rob's suggestion that they had run into a school of them. They felt no interest, however, in any except the particular specimen before them.

How it grew upon them as they neared it! It seemed to spread right and left, and to tower upward toward the sky, until even the reckless Rob was hushed into awed silence and sat staring aloft, with feelings beyond expression. It was much the same with Fred, who, sitting at the stern, almost held his breath, while the overwhelming grandeur hushed the words trembling on his lip.

The mass of ice was hundreds of feet in width and length, while the highest portion must have been, at the least, three hundred feet above the surface of the sea. What, therefore, was the bulk below. Its colossal proportions were beyond imagination.

The part within their field of vision was too irregular and shapeless to admit of clear description. If the reader can picture a mass of rock and débris blown from the side of a mountain, multiplied a million times, he may form some idea of it.

The highest portion was on the opposite side. About half-way from the sea, facing the little party, was a plateau broad enough to allow a company of soldiers to camp upon it. To the left of this the ice showed considerable snow in its composition, while, in other places, it was as clear as crystal itself. In still other portions it was dark or almost steel blue, probably due to some peculiar refraction of light. There were no rippling streams of water along and over its side, for the weather was too cold for the thawing which would be plentiful when it str

uck a warmer latitude.

But there were caverns, projections, some sharp, but most of them blunt and misshapen, steps, long stretches of vertical wall as smooth as glass, up which the most agile climber could never make his way.

Courageous as Rob Carrol unquestionably was, a feeling akin to terror took possession of him when they were quite near the iceberg. He turned to suggest to Jack that they had come far enough, when he observed that the sailor had turned the bow of the boat to the right, though he was still rowing moderately.

He was the only one that was not impressed by the majesty of the scene. Squinting one eye up the side of the towering mass, he remarked:

"There's enough ice there to make a chap's etarnal fortune, if he could only hitch on and tow it into London or New York harbor; but being as we've sot out to take a view of it, why we'll sarcumnavigate the thing, as me cousin remarked when he run around the barn to dodge the dog that was nipping at his heels."

The voice of the sailor served to break the spell that had held the tongues of the boys mute until then, and they spoke more cheerily, but unconsciously modulated their voices, as a person will do when walking through some great gallery of paintings or the aisles of a vast cathedral.

They were so interested, however, in themselves and their novel experience that neither looked toward the "Nautilus," which was rapidly passing from sight, as they were rowed around the iceberg. Had they done so, they would have seen Captain McAlpine making eager signals to them to return, and, perhaps, had they listened, they might have heard his stentorian voice, though the moderate wind, blowing at right angles, was quite unfavorable for hearing.

Unfortunately not one of the three saw or heard the movement or words of the skipper, and the little boat glided around the eastern end of the mountainous mass and began slowly creeping along the further side.

"Hello!" called out Rob, "there's a good place to land, Jack; let's go ashore."

"Go ashore!" repeated the sailor, with a scornful laugh; "what kind of a going ashore do you call that?"

While there was nothing especially desirable in placing foot upon an iceberg, yet, boy-like, the two friends felt that it would be worth something to be able to say on their return home that they had actually stood upon one of them.

Inasmuch as the whole thing was a fool's errand in the eyes of Jack Cosgrove, he thought it was well to neglect nothing, so he shied the boat toward the gently sloping shelf, which came down to the water, and, with a couple of powerful sweeps of the oars, sent the bow far up the glassy surface, the stoppage being so gradual as to cause hardly a perceptible shock.

"Out with you, younkers, for the day will soon be gone," he called, waiting for the two to climb out before following them.

They lost no time in obeying, and he drew the boat so far up that he felt there was no fear of its being washed away during their absence. All took their guns, and, leaving it to the sailor to act as guide, they began picking their way up the incline, which continued for fully a dozen yards from the edge of the water.

"This is easy enough," remarked Rob; "if we only had our skates, we might-confound it!"

His feet shot up in the air, and down he came with a bump that shook off his hat, and would have sent him sliding to the boat had he not done some lively skirmishing to save himself. Fred laughed, as every boy does under similar circumstances, and he took particular heed to his own footsteps.

Jack had no purpose of venturing farther than to the top of the gentle incline, since there was no cause to do so; but, on reaching the point, he observed that it was easy to climb along a rougher portion to the right, and he led the way, the boys being more than willing to follow him.

They continued in this manner until they had gone a considerable distance, and, for the first time, the guide stopped and looked around. As he did so, he uttered an exclamation of amazement:

"Where have been my eyes?" he called out, as if unable to comprehend his oversight.

"What's the matter?" asked the boys, startled at his emotion, for which they saw no cause.

"There's one of the biggest storms ever heard of in these latitudes, bearing right down on us; it'll soon be night, and we shall be catched afore we reach the ship, lads! there isn't a minute to lose; it's all my fault."

He led the way at a reckless pace, the youths following as best they could, stumbling at times, but heeding it not as they scrambled to their feet and hurried after their friend, more frightened, if possible, than he.

He could out-travel them, and was at the bottom of the incline first. Before he reached it, he stopped short and uttered a despairing cry:

"No use, lads! the boat has been swept away!"

Such was the fact.

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