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   Chapter 5 AN ICY COUCH

Among the Esquimaux; or, Adventures under the Arctic Circle By Edward Sylvester Ellis Characters: 8564

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


By this time the sailor felt that he had forgotten himself in the agitation caused by the loss of the boat. Although he might see the dark future with clearer vision than his young friends, it was his duty to keep their sight veiled as long as he could. Time enough to face the terrors and their direful consequences when the possibility of avoiding them no longer existed.

It will be recalled that when the little party stepped out from the small boat upon the iceberg they did so on the side farthest from the "Nautilus," so that all view of the ship was shut off, and neither Captain McAlpine nor any of his crew could observe the action of Jack and the boys.

The skipper had warrant for supposing that such an experienced sailor as the one in charge of the lads would be quick to notice the threatening change in the weather, and would make all haste to return. Inasmuch as he had failed to do so, the party must be left to themselves for the time, while the commander gave his full attention to the care of the ship-a responsibility that required his utmost skill, with no slight chance of his failure.

The storm or squall, or whatever it might be termed, was one of those sudden changes, sometimes seen in the high latitudes, whose coming is so sudden that there is but the briefest warning ere it bursts in all its fury.

By the time our friends reached the spot where they expected to find their boat it was almost as dark as night. This darkness deepened so rapidly, after losing sight of the craft, that they were unable to see more than fifty feet in any direction. Fortunately, before leaving the "Nautilus," they had donned their heaviest clothing, so that they were quite well protected under the circumstances. Had they neglected this precaution they must have perished of the extreme cold that followed.

Accompanying the oppressive gloom was a marked falling of the temperature, and a fierceness of blast which, so long as they were exposed to it, cut them to the bone. The gale, instead of blowing in their faces, swept along the side of the iceberg. They had but to withdraw, therefore, only a short distance when they were able to take shelter behind some of the numerous projections, and save themselves from its full force.

All at once the air was full of millions of particles of snow, which eddied and whirled in such fantastic fashion that when they crouched down they were so blinded that they could not see each other's forms, although near enough to clasp hands.

This lasted but a few minutes, when it ceased as suddenly as it began. The air was clear, but the gloom was profound. They could see nothing of the raging ocean, nor of a tall spire-like mass of ice, which towered a hundred feet above their heads, within a few yards of them, and which had attracted their admiration on their first visit.

It was blowing great guns. The sound of the waves, as they broke against the solid abutment of ice, and were dashed into spray and spume, was like that of the breakers in a hurricane. Inconceivable as was the bulk of the berg, they plainly felt it yield to the resistless power of the ocean. It acquired a slow sea-saw motion, more alarming than the most violent disturbance they had ever known on the "Nautilus" in a storm. The movement was slight, but too distinct to be mistaken.

For some time the three huddled together, under the protection of the friendly projection, and no one spoke a word. They had laid down their guns, for there was no need of keeping them in their hands. The metal was so intensely cold that it could be noted through the protection of their thick mittens, and they needed every atom of vitality in their shivering bodies. They pressed closer together and found comfort in the mutual warmth thus secured.

The sky was blackness itself. There was no glimpse of moon or friendly star. They were adrift on an iceberg in darkness and gloom in the midst of a trackless ocean. Whither they were going, when the terrifying voyage should end, what was to be the issue, only One knew. They could but pray and trust and hope and await the end.

It is a curious feature of this curious human nature of ours that the most hopeless depression of spirits is frequently followed by a rebound, as the highest s

pirits are quickly succeeded by the deepest dejection. Our make-up is such that nature reacts, and neither state can continue long without change, unless the conditions are exceptional. Were it otherwise, many a strong mind would break down under its weight of trouble.

The three had remained crouching together silent and motionless for some minutes, no one venturing to express a hope or opinion, when Rob Carrol suddenly spoke, in the cheeriest tones.

"I'll tell you what we'll do, fellows."

"What's that?" asked Fred, quick to seize the relief of hearing each other's voices.

"Let's start a fire."

"A good idee," assented Jack Cosgrove, falling into the odd mood that had taken possession of his companions; "you gather the fuel and I'll kindle it. It happens I haven't such a thing as a match about me, but I'll find a way to start it."

"Rob and I have plenty, but, if we hadn't, we could rub some pieces of ice together till the friction started a flame."

"The Esquimaux have another plan," added Rob. "They will trim a piece of ice in the form of a convex lens and concentrate the sun's rays on the object they want to set on fire. Why not try that?"

"I am afraid there isn't enough sunlight to amount to anything," replied Fred, craning his head forward and peering through the gloom, as if searching for the orb of day.

"That isn't the only way of getting up steam," remarked Jack, who, just like his honest self, was striving to dispose of his body so as to give each of the boys the greatest possible amount of warmth; "I know a better one."

"Let's hear it."

"Race back and forth along the side of the berg till we start the blood circulating; nothing like that."

"Suppose we should slip, Jack?"

"Then you'd flop into the sea; it's a good thing to take a bath when your blood is heated too much."

"If there was only a footpath where we could do that, it would be a good plan," observed Rob, "but, as it is, we shall have to huddle together till morning, when I hope Captain McAlpine will send a boat after us."

The boys noticed that Jack made no reply to this. They expected an encouraging response, but he remained silent, as though he was considering difficulties, dangers, complications, and perils of which they could form no idea.

Meanwhile the gale raged with resistless fury. There was no more fall of snow, but the wind was like a hurricane. The most vivid idea of its awful power was gained when the friends, far removed from the water's edge, and at no small elevation above it, felt drops of spray flung in their faces.

The thunder of the surges, shattered into mist and foam against the adamantine side of the iceberg, was so overpowering that, had not the heads of the three been close, they would not have heard each other's voices. The see-sawing of the colossal mass was more perceptible than ever, and caused them to think, with unspeakable dread, of the possibility of the berg breaking apart, or overturning like the other, in the effort to preserve its equilibrium.

The gale whistled around and among the projections of the ice with a weird, uncanny sound, alike and yet different from that heard when it moans through the network of ropes and rigging of a great ship. The question was whether such a vast volume of wind, impinging against the thousands of square feet of ice, would not affect the course and speed of the mass. If the hurricane drove in the same direction as the controlling current, it ought to be of much help. If opposed, it might check it; if quartering, it might make a radical change in its course.

All these speculations were in vain, however, and, as has been said, there was nothing to be done, but to wait and trust in the only One who could help them, and who had been so merciful in the past that their faith in His goodness and protecting care could not be shaken.

"My lads," said Jack, when the silence which followed their brief conversation had lasted some minutes, "there's only one thing to do, and that's to make ourselves as comfortable as we can where we are."

"Isn't that what we are doing?" asked Rob.

"Of course it is, but I didn't know but what you was trying to conjure up some other plan. If so, give it up, say your prayers, and go to bed."

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